The Selection

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Chapter 15 - Princess Irene - Acceptance

“Wow... How long has it been since you left, two years?” Marin asks nostalgically, her eyes shining with interest.

“Yeah, I think it was a little more than that, though,” I reply with a smile, thinking back to the days I spent with her.

“It’s good to see you again… I’ve missed you…” she says quietly. I pick up on her tone that seems like it’s filled with sadness. She’s blushing. I zoom in on her slightly parted lips and then gulp. My heartbeat is racing, and my lips twitch uncontrollably. I find myself darting my eyes, checking her out from top to bottom. She wears a modest purple tank top pairing with black pants. My eyes pop back up to her chest, which has greatly matured since the last time I saw her.

I turn toward the bar. I don’t want to give too warm of a response worrying that she will become attached again, so I say in a voice devoid of emotion, “You too… You’ve grown a lot since then.”

I pick up my stout and then drink some more. In a cheery voice, she remarks, “Not as much as you, though!”

A slight shiver goes down my spine as I wonder what she’s referring to. I look between my legs and then find my enraged friend. My face gets hot and then I mutter, “Wh-what…? I’m sure you’ve grown more than me…”

“What’re you talking about? You’ve grown at least a few inches taller…and I’ve only grown a little…” she informs while gesturing her hands in front of her, indicating our height difference.

“Oh…that’s what you meant…” I mutter to myself. She cocks an eyebrow.

“What did you think I meant…?” I don’t answer and just take more sips of my drink. Her face turns red after a few seconds. Suddenly, she giggles. She looks at me and exclaims, “That part of you hasn’t changed at all, Kai!”

She smiles. I force a smile and then apologize, “Well, sorry for being a guy… By the way, should you really be going around without your equipment?”

“I didn’t think there would be any danger around town. Besides, Ruby can care take of anything if something happens!” she claims confidently. Afterward, we take more gulps of our beverages. While I’m drinking, the ceiling makes a small noise. I look above, finding the lantern that’s attached to the ceiling swinging around a little. I tilt my head down and then shake my head and sigh.

“Kai…” Marin says quietly, hesitating to continue. I know what she wants to relay based on her facial expression that I’ve seen before. “Have you thought about…visiting—”

“Stop it,” I cut her off in a stern tone. “Don’t talk about her anymore; she’s dead.”

She makes a small sound before she exclaims, “Oh, that’s right! How goes your search for Emdos? Did you find any new clues?”

I sense sincerity in her voice as if she really wants to know the answer to that question. I frown, feeling bad about lying to her more, but at the same time, I don’t want to disappoint her. Moans and grunts resound from above. The ceiling shakes violently. My mind focuses on the sound and tremors, feeling like they grow louder by the second.

“Yeah I think I found a lead, here in Byzia. Some blacksmith mentioned about seeing someone that matches his description a couple of months back. I’m still looking around for more clues before I leave, though,” I say with a firm tone, trying to divert my attention from the distracting noises upstairs.

“That’s good to hear…that you’re making progress on your goals…” she says with a gradual emerging smile. I smile too, feeling some warmth stirring inside me.

She sips her beer for several seconds before I ask, “So, what’s the Drosera army doing here in Xantho? You’re here with Ruby and Jetia, right?

Marin’s expression doesn’t change as she continues to take sips from her drink. Several seconds pass before she puts it down and faces me. She darts her eyes around, restlessly moves her fingers with her fingers clasped, and says “Well… I don’t know if I should tell you since you’re not a part of us anymore…”

With a serious facial expression, she stares into my eyes. “Don’t tell anyone I told you, okay?”

I momentarily pause before responding, knowing that I probably can’t keep that promise depending on what she tells me. While smiling I exclaim, “Marin, you can trust me!”

She briefly reciprocates a smile, but then her facial expression becomes solemn again.

“About a week ago, we received an anonymous report about possible Cascabel movements in Xantho.” I knit my eyebrows. “We arrived a few days ago and had been investigating it since.”

I gulp before asking, “Di-did you find out anything pertinent?”

She closes her eyes before she answers, “Yeah, we found something yesterday. We luckily stumbled upon a few soldiers who were frantically yelling in the middle of Byzia…”

I cock an eyebrow and ask, “What were they yelling about?”

“They said something about the ‘Phantom Swordsman’ and ‘The Witch’ being here plotting a heinous plan.” She opens her eyes and then gazes at me. It feels like they can see right through me. My heart beats like a drum as a shiver goes down my spine. I hold my breath, scared stiff of Marin discovering my identity.

“I know ‘The Witch’ is an Elf… Have you seen any suspicious Elves around here, Kai?” she simply asks, but it feels like an interrogation.

My eyes are a little shaky, so I avoid eye contact when I reply, “N-no… I might’ve seen a few different Elves within the past few months, but they’re probably long gone now. Besides, none of them really looked…menacing…”

I immediately think of my first meeting with Leila, sending more shivers down my spine.

“I guess you’re right… I can’t go suspecting every Elf around here…” she says concedingly as she looks away from me. A heavy weight on my shoulders is lifted as I sigh to myself, but another jolt hits me when she looks back at me without warning. In a suggestive tone, she asks, “Have you seen the ‘Phantom Swordsman’?”

I frown while knitting my eyebrows and then summon my inner calm. “Is he an Elf too? If he is, my answer is the same as before… ”

“Oh? How did you know he was male?” It feels like a knife stabbing through me as she catches my mistake. My entire face burns up, and I feel my heart beating out of my chest. Instinctively, I open my mouth and without thinking say, “I just figured that since he dual-wields two swords…”

“Hmm… He dual-wields two swords, huh…?” The smile that appears on her face petrifies me. I realize the stupidity in my response. I gulp and freeze up. She stares intently at me while her expression melts into a grim one. “Speaking of dual-wielding, don’t you use that too? You’re actually the ‘Phantom Swordsman’, aren’t you?”

I laugh. It sounds forced. “Wh-what are y-you ta-talking about…?”

She doesn’t let up her expression at all and simply frowns as she continues to stare at me. My head quivers left and right as I look down and away from her. It feels like time is passing extraordinarily slow, but only five seconds pass, when suddenly, she starts laughing. I quirk an eyebrow as the intense atmosphere dissolves.

“What’re you being so serious about? I was just kidding!” she exclaims with an innocent smile. Her volume decreases when she continues, “You’re so fun to tease…in a lot of ways…”

My heart is still racing, but my body stops shaking. A breeze cools my moist forehead. Did I read too much into it…?

Several seconds pass before she says, “Hey, Kai—”

A sudden loud crash resounds above us. The lantern on the ceiling is swinging more widely than before. The moaning and grunting have both stopped, but obnoxiously loud laughing fills my ears. I close my eyes as she asserts, “Kai, why don’t you come back to the army? We finally have a lead again, and we can find the people responsible for—”

“After you find them…then what? Will they be imprisoned or killed? It doesn’t matter… In the end; they will never come back…” I explain, projecting part of myself onto her in the process. In reality, I feel the same as her, but I don’t want to drag her toward the danger. She doesn’t know how brutal Cascabel really is. Afterward, she only makes a small noise while pouting.

During the silence, a man above us yells, “Wait! Please! I’m sorry! Don’t do it!”

Next, I pick up on Ruby manically laughing again, before a booming noise erupts from above us. The tremors reach the stool I’m sitting on. Agonizing screams follow, indicating that I should probably leave before Ruby comes back down.

“What the hell was that?!” the bartender exclaims. I quickly down the rest of my drink, slam the mug on the counter, and then get up, but Marin grabs my hand.

“Wait!” she exclaims. I turn toward her, finding that tears are welling up in her eyes. “Tell me the real reason you left… It’s because of me, isn’t it…? I know your excuse about Emdos is a lie…”

My heart beats twice in a single beat as I realize she knew all along. I close my eyes for a moment and then take a deep breath. In my most earnest tone of voice, I answer, “No, it’s not, Marin. In fact, I’m really grateful to you… You were there for me when everything was just so fucked up…”

Footsteps resound near the top of the staircase. I pause for about two seconds before continuing, “I can’t tell you the real reason; I’m sorry…”

Suddenly, Marin moves my hand closer to her; it rests snugly between her breasts. She proposes, “Then…spend tonight with me! We can tell each other secrets like we used to!”

Her face is flushed completely red. I blush too, and I get excited, but I hold myself back. At this point, footsteps resound like they’re going down the stairs. “Marin~!”

I ignore Ruby’s voice and forcefully pull my hand back. Tears are spilling from her eyes as I do, also delivering my barely audible response, “Sorry…”

Some tears are welling up in my eyes too, but I hold them back. As I turn my back toward her, I quietly say, “It was nice seeing you again… I’ll visit and tell you everything, eventually…”

There’s a slight pain and tightness in my chest as I walk forward. I stop right in front of the exit when Ruby asks, “Marin, what’s wrong? Are ya cryin’?”

“N-no… I’m just a little tired… How did your end go?”

She sniffles. I scrunch my eyebrows together when a tear runs down my cheek.

“He didn’t know anythin’ useful, that liar…so I killed ’im!” Ruby cheerfully and calmly states. “The room’s kinda damaged though…”

“What did you say?!” the bartender yells.

“It can’t be helped… It’s a good thing we brought a lot of gold with us… Sir, take this as compensation.”

Several coins roll onto the counter. “Oh! Yes, this will do. Thank you very much…”

“Thank ya, Marin! Were ya talkin’ ta someone?”

“Umm…yeah, I was… It was a local… I asked him about the usual…”

“Hmm… I’m goin’ ta join ya fer a bit. I’ll have what she has!”

I close my eyes as a wave of nostalgia hits me again. I think about the days I spent in the Drosera army, the good days and the bad. It wasn’t a complete lie, Marin… I’m still looking for Emdos, to this day… I still don’t know what you saw in me… We were just sad and broken… We weren’t meant to be…

I take a deep breath, exhale, and then wipe my tears on my arm. Afterward, I finally open my eyes and then walk out the door. Goodbye, Marin…my second love…

“I didn’t think I would have to see yer ugly face again, traitor,” Jetia says as he’s standing against the building. Neither Utna nor her father are around anymore.

I don’t wanna see your fucking face either… I scowl for a moment but then relax. Without emotion, I inform, “Well, I was just on my way out.”

I walk forward and don’t stop even when he exclaims, “Yer only good at running away, aren’t you?!”

I clench my fists and jaws. “Yer running from Marin just like how you ran from her!”

I stop just in front of the porch as he continues to yell with contempt.

“You were too scared to fight Cascabel, so you deserted! Look at you now; it’s pathetic! It won’t be long until she realizes that I’m a much better man…and you’ll know what I’ll do after that, right?”

A rage stirs in me as he snickers. Like a boiling pot of water with the lid on. I grind my teeth back and forth as I contort my face into a frown.

“I bet you just ran away with yer tail between yer legs when yer friends died one by—”

I turn around, point at him with my finger, and scream, “Shut the fuck up!”

A tightness that surrounds my throat and chest discomforts me. It feels like the steam in the boiling pot of water erupted and blasted through the lid.

“You don’t fucking know anything; you piece of shit,” I say as I step toward him, clenching my right fist so hard that the cracking of my knuckles resound.

“Whoa there… I’m going to have the right to defend myself if you go any farther…” he states as he pulls out his sword. Shortly after, two pairs of footsteps approach from inside the tavern.

“Jetia, what’s going on out there?” Marin asks. I click my tongue, back away, and then turn around. There are a bunch of people staring at me. I run away.

“That’s right Kai, run away…” Jetia says and then laughs. I turn my head back toward the tavern when I think I ran far enough. Marin and Ruby are talking to Jetia. Soon after, they head into the tavern together. But not before Jetia turns his head toward me and then smirks as he puts an arm around Marin.

Shit! I grimace as I throw a full-on straight with my right arm into the nearby stone wall. The actual cracking of my bones resound as pain radiates from my knuckles. Hot puffs of air escape me as I press my bloody knuckle harder into the wall. I spend the next fifteen minutes wondering if I made the right choices up to now. I sit against the wall and look down as I think. Maybe Jetia’s words had some truth to them… Even I’m surprised I got so worked up just now… I guess I never came to terms with leaving Marin when I left… Perhaps I need to come to terms with her too…

I finally get up and then make my way back toward ‘The Simple Forge.’

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