The Selection

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Chapter 14 - Princess Irene - Reunion

“I’m thinkin’ about moving back to Neso now that the raids won’t be happening anymore,” someone says among the crowds of people on the street. I continue slowly moving across in an attempt to pick up something useful from random conversations.

“You wouldn’t believe what I saw earlier today!”

“What? Tell us!”

“I saw Osmir…! He made eye contact with me!”

“Oh my god! What happened after that?!” Straight ahead is a group of girls blushing and screaming. I ignore them and focus on something else.

“If only Velyn was overthrown a month earlier… Then I might’ve been able to afford medical treatment for my mother…”

“Oh right, your mother has been quite ill for over a year now, right? It might’ve not mattered considering how severe her condition is.”

“I thought that too at first, but later I heard rumors about a healer that could cure anything, they call him Saint because of that. I figured that if I paid him a lot of money, he’d be able to help my mother.”

I knit my eyebrows together. Saint… It seems people in these parts know about him too…

I start to walk into a new area, but I’m stopped by a familiar name.

“…Drosera,” a man says. I widen my eyes and turn toward the direction of the voice. There’s an old man sitting on steps in front of a building with a young couple standing next to him.

“Old man, whadaya mean by that? What possibly can be worse than what happened to Xantho in the past six months? Do you have any idea how hard I had to work to barely get by every day?” the young man asks as he shrugs his arms and smiles. The old man snickers.

“So you worked hard? Good for you,” he says with a sharp tone and narrowed eyebrows. He frowns before saying, “At least you still have your family...”

The young couple stops smiling. The old man continues, “I lost everyone three years ago in that incident… My grandson, son, and daughter-in-law…everyone…”

I look down and close my eyes, recalling my own memories associated with the incident as I continue to listen silently to their conversation, selectively tuning out the rest of the background noise.

“Oh, that’s right, I remember now! Cascabel is the one responsible for that attack on Drymo, right? I nearly forgot because the casualty count wasn’t that high,” the young woman mentions.

“Whatever you heard was a lie. They falsely reported the damage caused by the attack to not cause a panic among the other kingdoms. Despite that, Cascabel is still widely infamous.”

“Oh… What were the actual damages, then?” the young woman asks.

“I do not know any exact numbers… I only remember going outside once all the explosions and fighting stopped which was several hours later… I was worried about my grandson, who was attending the Academy at the time, so I ran there as fast as my body would allow. On my way there, I could see corpses littered everywhere… Buildings were on fire, smoking, and everyone in a panic. By the time I got to the Academy, I was appalled. Apparently the damage was the worst in the Academy portion of the city. Later that day, I found my grandson laying cold on the ground in the large group of kids the rescue team took from a portion of the rubble…”

“That sounds awful… I’m really glad high taxes were the only thing I had to worry about now… Were your children found among the dead?” the young man asks.

“Actually, no, they were not. They were not really involved in the incident, but I felt that it would not have happened if they were there. You see, they are both A-class adventurers… The week before the attack, the top adventurers compromising of the S-class and A-class went on one of those stupid expeditions to the Cursed Territory…and they never came back. To think that I would be the last one to die in my family…”

I finally open my eyes, but I still only hear the events from that day playing in my head. I clearly remember the sounds that occurred, my losses, and the meeting with that man. I tightly clench both my fists and my jaws as I narrow my eyebrows and frown. Xedeus…! Everything is his fault…not just my suffering, but everyone else’s too…like this old man. The next chance I get, I’m gonna do it… I swear, on the graves of…

“…excuse me…? Hello?” I relax my facial expressions and turn toward the voice. The old man and the young couple have noticed my presence. At the same time, the bustling activity of the streets fills my ears again.

“Hi~?” I reply. Afterward, I regret my stupid-sounding response. I blush and look away.

“Can we help you…?” the young woman asks. “You were staring with quite an expression on your face…”

The young woman guards her breasts and hides behind the man. I raise my eyebrows and wave both of my hands in front of me. With a smile, I say, “Ah, no, it’s a misunderstanding. I was just thinking about—”

“Thinking about what, exactly?” the man asks and steps forward.

Still smiling, I answer, “I was thinking about…”

I don’t finish and then turn around while running in the direction I was headed to previously. After several minutes, I check behind. None of them followed me. I slouch over and then sigh. Ugh… Back to information gathering…

“You gotta believe me! I saw it!” someone exclaims. There’s a man with a desperate expression on his face talking to another man. I get closer to them feeling that this might be something important.

“So you’re tellin’ me…that you found some horribly disfigured corpse in the woods on your way here to Byzia? That somehow, this corpse had no traces of injury, but the body parts were re-arranged? Are you sure you didn’t confuse it for a monster?” the other man asks.

“Yeah! It was definitely Human… The head was connected in front of the torso and…and…I don’t want to remember anymore… It’s the work of a demon, I’m tellin’ you.” I laugh loudly, remembering our work of art yesterday. I cover my mouth with both hands in an attempt to manage my uncontrollable laughter, but some giggles still escape with my breath. The two men stare at me.

“You must think I’m lyin’ too, but I’m not!” I try to maintain my smile, despite feeling my lips wildly twitching.

“Nah,” I say and then laugh lightly. “I believe you.”

The other man laughs too and then exclaims, “I believe you too, really!”

“Clearly, you don’t really think that! I can take you…” the man’s voice dies out as I secretly leave. While chuckling to myself, I think back to yesterday.

We dragged Dae’s subordinate deep enough in the woods so that his screams would reach no one. Leila and I stared down at him, who was on the ground.

“Hey Leila, this is a perfect time to repeat that experiment with a live specimen this time,” I suggested with breaks of snickering.

“What a coincidence, I was thinking of the same thing…”

“Wh-wha-what are you go-going to-to do…?” Dae’s subordinate asks while lying on the ground. An evil smile stretched across my face as I grabbed my blade. I took it out and then slashed his armor in multiple places. He squeals, ”Eeeeeeee!"

A few seconds later, his armor shattered into pieces stripping his body of everything but his underwear. He knitted his eyebrows and alternated glances between himself and me. In prone, he tried to scurry away. I sighed, walked a few steps forward, and then stepped on his leg with my foot. He squealed again before screaming, ”Help! The ‘Phantom Swordsman’ is homo!”

My smile changed into a frown as I narrowed my eyebrows on him. “Let’s do this. Are you ready, Leila?”

“Oh, you don’t wanna have some fun with him first? I thought last time you said that you wanted—”

“Shut up,” I said bitterly, knowing that she knew the differing circumstances. I moved my leg to the top of his back. I raised my sword and then slammed it down on his right arm. His arm fell off, but before he had time to react to the pain, I took my leg off his back and then cut off his left leg above the knee.

"Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh!” he screamed and then bawled loudly. A small pain shoots through my eardrums. I didn’t want to tolerate his cries, so I flipped him on his back using my foot. I kneeled down and struck his vocal box with my open hand. His cries turned into quiet choking noises. At this point, Leila already started working her part. She grabbed the cut-off leg and then placed it where his right arm was. Dae’s subordinate constant squirming stopped Leila from getting the leg into the right position, so I stepped on his chest with my foot. She places her free hand around his right shoulder and the cut-off leg. A faint green light glowed around her hand.

Nearly 15 seconds passed by before Leila lets go of his cut-off leg, now connected to his right shoulder with no signs of fresh blood dripping down. The leg wasn’t a perfect fit for the shoulder; the skin wasn’t aligned with the size of the opening on the shoulder. She proceeded to do the same thing with the cut-off arm on his left leg. It took around 25 seconds this time. I figured it took longer because she had to close the wound of unused space.

“Phew… Working with a live subject is much harder… I don’t want to do this anymore… It’s a waste of my Mana,” Leila complained and stood up.

“Well, that’s understandable…but let’s try one more thing now that we see that this was a success,” I suggested as I stared down at Dae’s subordinate. His new ‘arm’ and ‘leg’ moved around weakly. I sheathed my swords before I said, “He’s probably gonna die after this… Basically, I’m gonna cut off his right breast and his head.”

“Oh, that’s an interesting idea! I’ll put a little more effort into this one!” Leila responded, thrilled. I took out my skinning knife, knelt down, and then grabbed his right breast with my other hand. I tried to make an even cut across, to make a fit for the head. I tossed the bloody chunk of flesh aside and stood up. I took out a sword and then made a swift cut at the top of his neck. Blood spouted from his neck. Leila immediately took the head and moved it to where his right breast was. Meanwhile, I moved over to his neck with my right palm pointed toward the top. I let out a weak spray of fire. A few seconds later, blood stopped leaking from his neck.

Leila had narrowed eyebrows, apparently deeply focused on attaching the head to the designated location. The green light that shined from her hands had a greater intensity compared to last time. Only ten seconds had passed before she declared, “Done!”

“Did it work?!” I asked with a grin. Leila sighed and then I stopped smiling.

“Well…it was to be expected… I wasn’t really sure how to connect all the veins, arteries, and nerves properly…” she explained with low energy. I raised my eyebrows when something bulged in his underwear.

“Wait! He’s alive!” I exclaimed while smiling and then pointed toward his groin.

Leila turned her head there, quirked an eyebrow, and then asked, ”Huh? Are you stupid or something?”

“What? He probably became aroused at his new body…” I said weakly while skeptically curling one side of my lips. Leila sighed and then grabbed his left arm.

“Here, check for yourself.”

I grabbed his arm and then used the finger on my other hand to check his pulse. I felt nothing. I knitted my eyebrows and said, “Oh, you’re right, he’s dead… What’s that about?”

“It just happens when you suddenly die. Don’t you know these things?”

“No, why would I? I would’ve never thought to look in this place after killing people,” I said with my eyebrows squeezed together. I raised my eyebrows before I asked, “Actually how did you find out? Don’t tell me you…you’re into necrophilia?!”

Leila blushes a little and instantly exclaimed, “N-no you idiot! How would I even… Look, this is common knowledge, okay?”

She yawned, stood up, and then stretched. “Okay, I’ll clean this up, and we’ll head back.”

“Wait! Just attach his right breast to the top of his neck and get rid of the blood. Monsters will eventually find their way here and eat him anyway. And if someone finds him, they’ll just be confused…” I suggested while trying to stop myself from showing a smile. I hoped someone would discover our work of art and laughed hard to myself inside.

“Sure, that sounds fine,” Leila replied. Subsequently, she cleaned the blood off herself and me before we headed back to the convoy.

I smile and chuckle a few more times thinking about the panicked man.

“Hey, you! Guy in the broken armor!” a familiar voice resounds from behind me.

Broken armor…? I knit my eyebrows and looked at the hole in my armor before turning around. The scam-artist from earlier waves his arm as he walks closer to me.

“Oh, it’s you…” I say with a frown. “What do you want?”

He laughs and then puts an arm on my shoulder. “Well, I wasn’t actually being serious, but your friend gave me the money anyway!”

I raise my eyebrows while grinning and laughing. “Oh, can I have the money back, then?!”

“Nope.” I stop laughing but hold my grin in place.

Hmm… There’s probably a dark alley somewhere around here…

He laughs again. I drop that thought and relax my facial expressions. “I’ll make it up to you. You see, I’m actually a blacksmith. My shop is not too far from here, and you can take whatever you want, and I’ll even repair that armor of yours. All for free, of course!”

I cock an eyebrow before asking, “I thought you just arrived from your village just now?”

“Nah, I never said I wasn’t from Byzia to begin with.”

“What were you doing coming from outside the city, then?”

“Just an attempt to advertise my wares. Anyway, follow me; I’ll lead you to my shop.”

I follow a few feet behind him.

“Are you sure it was them?” a man asks.

“Yeah, there’s no mistaking that symbol; an eagle with its wings spread out,” another man answers. I raise my eyebrows and stop walking.

“I didn’t see any large armies around the city, though, besides Osmir’s company.”

“There’s not that many of them. I only saw three people wearing the special armor and less than a dozen of other soldiers; it must be a recon group of some sort.”

I squeezed my eyebrows together and clasped my chin. It can’t be…

“Are you coming?” the blacksmith asks. He’s over twenty feet away now.

“Uh…yeah…coming!” I answer with a slight hesitation before completely dropping my thoughts. Afterward, I quicken my pace to catch up with the blacksmith. We arrive at his shop, ‘The Simple Forge,’ several minutes later. It’s deserted. I smile and ask, “You’re popular, aren’t you?”

“Can it. It’s because everyone wants magic-infused weapons and armor nowadays, and I specialize in ordinary goods,” he explains as he paces around me. He slides his hand across the front of my armor. “What is this made out of, anyway?”

“It’s Titanium. You’re a blacksmith, and you don’t know that?” I ask while curling one side of my lips upward. His entire face twitches afterward. I probably shouldn’t be too mean to him, or he might change his mind…

“Well, sorry. This poor blacksmith can’t afford anything even remotely expensive…” he apologizes. “I can at least repair your armor for you using the money your friend gave me for sure. Let me see one of those sheaths to get some measurements on your weapons.”

He holds out an open palm. I unclip one of my sheaths off my belt and then hand it to him. He views it at various angles and touches it all over. “Hmm… This is quite light-weight, what were your weapons made out of, Titanium?”

I smile, wondering for several seconds if I should be truthful for the sake of his sanity. “Mithril.”

"WHAT?!” he exclaims and drops his jaw. “You’re telling me you lost two Mithril swords?!”

“Well…basically.”

“Sounds like there is more to it, but I won’t pester you for those details. I can get you two swords made out of Cobalt after some adjust…hmm? There is an opening at the end of this sheath…”

He quirks an eyebrow as he inserts his finger into said opening while feeling it between his finger and thumb.

“Hmm… It feels smooth…” he says and then raises his eyebrows. “Could it be…this was done intentionally?”

I smile before answering, “Yeah, it’s a custom design. My blades were—”

“Longer than the sheath, right?”

“Wow~! As expected of a blacksmith!” I exclaim, attempting to compliment him, but it comes out wrong.

“It seems you finally understand!” he exclaims with a grin but frowns afterward. He looks at the floor and in a discouraged voice says, “Sorry to disappoint you, but I can’t give you a sword longer than the sheath… After some adjustments, I can thin out the Cobalt swords I have in the storage room so that it will fit the sheath, but anything else would take too long.”

“Don’t be so depressed,” I say as I put an arm on his shoulder. I smile and continue, “I’m really glad you’re gonna do all this for me for free, so just do what you can.”

“Thanks. I’ll work hard for my first customer in weeks!” he exclaims and then hands me my sheath back.” Can you take off your armor for me? I’ll have that repaired for you by tomorrow. In the meantime, you can choose from the selection I have here.”

I clip the sheath on my belt again, before taking both of my belts off and resting them on a nearby table. As I’m taking off my chest plate, I reply, “Nah, I can wait until tomorrow.”

I hand it to him, and he gently places it on the floor beside a wall. He offers, “How about some leg guards or arm guards? I noticed that you’re not wearing any…”

“Sure, I’ll take what you have.”

“Alright. Give me about half an hour to get your swords and guards ready. For the time being, just walk around the area and explore a bit. You’re new to the city after all.”

After his suggestion, I leave the shop and then stretch my limbs. I decide just to pick a random direction to go, but before I start walking, I notice two shady men heading towards an alley next to the blacksmith’s shop. Fearing that they might do something bad to the blacksmith, I secretly follow them.

They head into an intersecting alleyway in the alleyway. I close in without making a single sound at the edge of the wall. I take a small peak with my head around the corner. The two men have stopped just a few feet over. I retract my head and simply listen to avoid getting caught.

“So, what’d he say? Did ya find out anything?”

“He didn’t know anything…”

“Damn it! How are we goin’ to sell information to that girl if not even the underground broker knows anythin’?”

I knit my eyebrows together. Sell information? Could they be talking about Leila?

“Wait… Maybe we can just tell her that there’s an underground broker somewhere that has what she’s looking for…”

“Ho… That’s a fine idea… We can just tell ’er that there exists one as the pre-payment and give ’er the location after we enjoy her…”

“We? This sounds like only one of us can do it…”

I clench my fist and frown. “Well, I’m the one who found the location of the broker to begin with, so naturally I’ll be the one to do it.”

“What?! But I’m the one who told you about the girl!”

“But when ya found her, she already bought lotsa information, right? Just blame yerself for bein’ too late. Don’t feel too bad. Here, take this as compensation. Ya might find someone wit’ that gold coin,” someone states and then snickers.

“But I wanted that girl… She’s cute, young, and with a great body to boot… ”

I can’t stop myself anymore. I reveal myself and then shout, ”Hey!"

The two men turn toward me and then one of them asks, “Huh? Whadaya want, kid?”

He has an appearance similar to a bandit. His body is much more developed than the other man, who appears to be weak and frail. Still frowning, I point my eyebrows downward and claim, “You were insulting my friend!”

He cocks an eyebrow and asks, “What the hell are ya talkin’ about?”

“Don’t play dumb! You were talking about my friend! We arrived in this city a few hours ago, and we wanted information, and now you’re talking about how you were gonna enjoy her!” I exclaim as I stare at him. He puffs his chest out as he walks closer to me.

“I think ya got yer facts wrong… Get outta my face unless ya wanna lose a few teeth…”

"Huh?” I interject with knitted eyebrows. I interpret his words as a sign of aggression. I quickly punch him in the stomach, causing him to lower the upper portion of his body. He makes a gagging noise too, and before he can do anything else, I grab the back of his head with both of my hands. Afterward, I push down with all of my strength as I raise my right knee pointed towards his mouth. Something cracks when his face collides with my knee, probably a couple of his teeth. Subsequently, I throw him on the ground, stomach side up. I look down on him with an unpleased facial expression.

“Wa-waut! Woov gob it all wong!” he blabbers while waving his arms. Between every word, blood falls from his mouth onto the ground. Blood covered all of his teeth. “Ubs a misunbersanbing!”

Four of his front teeth are on the ground next to me covered in blood.

“Um, excuse me…” the frail man mutters while walking closer to me. “I think he’s trying to say that it’s a misunderstanding… This girl we’re talking about can’t be the same girl you’re talking about because I found her yesterday…”

I blankly stare at him for several seconds with a relaxed facial expression.

“Oh…” I mutter, gradually pursing my lips for a few seconds. I bow my head toward the man on the ground and then say, “Sorry about that.”

I turn around and head back to where I came from, ignoring the various angry-sounding noises the guy on the ground is making. Hmm… I should still have more time before the blacksmith finishes… Well, he probably won’t care if I’m a little late.

I head off in a random direction and eventually find myself in an area that looks like the residential area. A cold beer would be great right now…

While looking for the tavern, I raise my eyebrows as I spot something else of interest; an emaciated girl sitting on a chair on the porch of a tavern. Jackpot…

While smiling, I walk over to the house and then give a friendly wave from afar. She doesn’t change from her current position. Her head is slightly tilted down. I walk directly in front of her and then hold out my hand. “Hi there, my name’s—”

Suddenly, I’m interrupted by her screaming. She waves all her limbs around in a panic and then ends up falling off her chair. I frown skeptically, finding that everyone around me is looking toward my direction with all kinds of facial expressions. The door to the tavern opens, and a middle-aged man appears. He assumes a defensive stance in front of the girl. He demands in a furious tone, “Who are you?!”

I back slightly away while holding my hands up, gesturing that I mean no harm. With a smile, I explain, “It’s a misunderstanding… My name’s Kai, and I was just trying to introduce myself and shake her hand…”

He lets his guard down and then sighs. He helps his daughter back into her chair and says, “So Kai, what’s your business with my daughter? As you can see, her mental state is not very good right now…”

I come up with a lie that works in my favor on the spot. “I work for Osmir, actually. He ordered me to find out any useful information from the girls who were kidnapped.”

“I see… Give me a moment,” the man says as kneels down to the girl. He puts an arm around her before continuing, “Utna, this man here wants to ask you some questions. Can you answer them? It will help Osmir.”

Utna nods her head. “Okay, ask your questions, but try to keep it short.”

“Alright, I just have a few questions. First, did you see Velyn at all during your imprisonment?” The girl shakes her head. “Did you see who assaulted you? What can you tell me about him?”

Utna shivers with fearful eyes. “It’s okay, Utna, try to tell him what you can.”

A few seconds later, the girl looks up at me before responding.

“I was blindfolded…so I didn’t see anyone…but I know it was more than one person because…” she says in a very quiet voice. Her cheeks flush slightly red while her breathing is somewhat fast. “It felt… different sometimes when they…and umm…the texture and the size of their hands felt different too when they…touched me…”

I think about asking her about the day she was taken, but I figure that just people showed up at her village dressed like the army and forced her to come with them. I say in a volume matching hers, “I see… That’s all I needed to know. Thanks for cooperating, Utna.”

I hold out my hand again in front of her. She slowly moves her hand toward mine. It shakes and rears back several times before she finally takes hold of mine. I hold it firmly, giving it a solid handshake.

“Excuse me…” a woman says behind me. I turn around. She clasps her hands together and asks, “I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation, but is it true you work for Osmir?”

I gulp before responding, feeling slightly bad about lying. “Ye-yeah, why?”

“Please! Have you found anything of my daughter?! Her name is Lily!” she begs with tearful eyes. I knit my eyebrows together as I think of the name Lily. I can’t help but feel like I’ve heard the name somewhere. Nothing comes to mind, though.

“Was she among the kidnapped?”

“Yes! It was about four years ago!”

I quirk an eyebrow and then decide to take a risk. Confidently, I inform, “The women we found the other day were ones who were kidnapped in the last couple of months. We didn’t find anyone else.”

“But Velyn was the one responsible for this incident, right?! So he has to be the one responsible for the girls who began to go missing three to four years ago!”

I momentarily close my eyes, giving a few seconds of hesitation before responding, “Yes, he’s the one responsible for the kidnappings. However, we haven’t located him yet so we can’t determine where your daughter is.”

I gulp again, hoping that she doesn’t discover that I’m a fraud. I hesitate because what I’m about to ask doesn’t make any sense on a lot of levels.

“Your daughter was kidnapped from a village, right? Did you see who took her?”

“What?” she asks and knits her eyebrows. My face grows hotter by every passing moment. I relax when she answers, “No… She was one of the girls that went missing in the academy… She was in her fifth year…”

I raise my eyebrows. Several seconds later, I say, “I see… Don’t worry ma’am, we’ll do our best to locate your daughter.”

I smile, turn back towards Utna, and then wave. “I hope you feel better, Utna.”

I walk into the tavern. Inside, there are a couple of people sitting at different tables and no one at the bar. I figure that it won’t be busy so early in the day, so it is no surprise. I walk over and sit on a stool in front of the bar. Despite having no money, I request, “Bartender, get me the best stout y­ou have.”

“Coming right up.”

I rest my head against my left hand, with my elbow against the counter. I think about some of the information I discovered after leaving the blacksmith’s shop. Hmm… So now it’s certain that the rumor about Velyn looking for a concubine is false…but what bothers me is what that mother just told me… Her daughter, Lily, went missing in the academy…and probably no one knows what happened because now they’re blaming it on Velyn, whom they think is the cause of the recent kidnappings…

More people enter the building, probably three given what the footsteps sound like.

“What happened ta yer face, anyway?” a girl asks.

“Some asshole attacked me over a misunderstandin’…” a familiar voice responds.

I smile skeptically. Oh, it’s that guy again...

I don’t turn around, afraid that he would recognize me.

“Here you go,” the bartender says and places the stout in front of me. I grab the handle and start to sip my drink.

Delicious…

“Well, whatever. What’d ya hafta offer me?”

“Yeah, ‘bout that. I know of a location of an underground information broker of sorts… He has what yer lookin’ for,” he says with confidence.

“Oh, I know ’bout ’im, someone told me earlier today,” the girl responds and then laughs. Her laugh disturbs me a little, reminding me of someone else I know.

“Actually, there’re two information brokers… I bet the one you have been to is the one located in the slums, right? I’ll give ya the location of the other one after my payment…” The man still sounds confident, even though I know he’s lying based on what I heard earlier.

The girl laughs again before responding, “Okay, let’s go~!”

Again, a sense of familiarity wraps around my mind in her manner of speaking. I turn half of my body around while still resting my left arm on the counter. I hold and drink the stout with my other arm. The man stands in front of the girl, so I can’t see her clearly. I quickly turn back around before the man fully faces my direction. I notice the stairs to my right.

I gradually take bigger gulps of my stout, thinking about the missing academy girls from four years ago. Yes…this was the same as I remember when I first heard about it during my fifth year… I know it occurred in other kingdoms too… It would be hard to believe that Velyn was responsible for those too…

Gradually, the footsteps grow louder. I smile lewdly and flare my nostrils as I’m thinking about what the girl looks like. I turn my head toward the stairs while still gulping my stout. The girl has long, red hair with a slender body. She wears a small skimpy pink top, leaving all the area under her breasts exposed pairing with pink short shorts and small leather boots.

Nice, nice! What a lucky guy! Now I just wanna see what her face looks like… I take a gulp of my drink but keep it in my mouth. I stop smiling when I take note of her red gloves. Wait…those look just like…

The two finally make it to the stairs. As the girl turns her head, I raise my eyebrows. I choke and spit out the beer in my mouth. I set the stout down on the counter, continuing to cough. I knit my eyebrows together and narrow my eyes. My heart races progressively faster. Ruby…! Shit… if she’s here, then…

Footsteps approach me from behind. “Excuse me, can you get me the darkest beer you have?”

I know exactly who that voice belongs to. Sweat forms on my forehead as I lock my joints in place. I hope she doesn’t realize it’s me. About 30 seconds later, the bartender places the stout on the counter and then says, “Here you go, my best stout, the same one this man is having.”

“Hmm?” she makes a noise. I feel like she’s staring at me right now. Several seconds pass.

“Ah! It’s Kai!” she exclaims and then puts her hands on my left arm. “You’re Kai, aren’t you?!”

Since my identity is exposed, I turn towards her with a small smile on my face, quietly responding, “Marin…”

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