The Selection

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Chapter 16 - Princess Irene - Contradiction

I arrive and open the door with my left hand to ‘The Simple Forge.’

“Oh, you’re finally back?” the blacksmith asks from the back of the store. I close the door behind me. My arm guards, leg guards, and swords are already on top of the table near the entrance. “I’ll be with you in a second.”

I walk toward my sword sheaths and then attempt to grab it with my right hand. When I curl my fingers, the pain in my hand intensifies. I draw my hand back and refrain from picking up anything while waiting for him to come back. Fifteen seconds later, he comes out holding an enclosed box. He hunches over and then drops it on the ground in a corner of the main room, creating a loud noise when it hits the floor. Metal clangs from inside the box. He straightens his posture before taking a quick sigh and then turns to me. He walks toward me and asks, “Kai, where were you? I almost thought you weren’t coming back considering that it’s been an hour since you left.”

“Well… I bumped into an old acquaintance, so we caught up a little,” I respond hesitantly as I shrug my arms. He knits his eyebrows.

“Your—my god, what happened to your hand? Did you meet with your worst enemy?” I smile and laugh lightly while looking at my right hand.

“Ah, this? I felt like punching a wall, so I did. Don’t worry about it,” I explain with an apathetic look on my face. He quirks his lips and shakes his head.

“If you say so, but damn…that looks painful.”

“Yeah… If you don’t mind just put those arm guards and leg guards on me, would you?”

“Coming right up.” He picks up the arm guards, and I straighten out my arms toward my sides. He equips my right arm first, then my left. Afterward, he picks up the leg guards and does the same to my legs. Finally, he unsheathes one of my swords and then holds it in his right hand in front of him. “This might be a little heavier than what you’re used to, but it’s the best I can offer you. It’s a decent sword.”

He smiles as he slashes the air in front of me. I smile and raise my eyebrows, confirming my previous suspicions of his origins. “Why did you quit being an adventurer?”

He suddenly becomes still. He stops smiling and remains expressionless for several seconds before he sheathes the sword again. He clips the sheaths onto my belt above my hips and answers, “That was a long time ago… Sorry, it’s something I don’t like remembering. I’m just a lowly blacksmith now.”

Despite that he shows no emotions, I sense loneliness in his voice, feeling empathy for him. I close my eyes as I say, “No… I understand… My comrades were killed too, in the past.”

“Is that so… But you’re stronger than me. I didn’t have the courage to continue when I witnessed the death of my comrades. I couldn’t take it anymore. So, I left and just became a blacksmith,” he says while looking at the ground.

I open my eyes and then turn toward the exit. “I wouldn’t say that. I’m not strong at all…”

“Lies. I saw it when I met you earlier today, and I still see it now. There’s a fire in your eyes. Something that drives you towards your goals…” he says as he walks toward the back of his store. “Best of luck to you, Kai. Don’t run from your past like I did.”

I leave his shop and then head back toward ‘Bolt’s Inn’ while thinking about the blacksmith’s words. I open the door to our room, apparently unlocked. I go in.

“You’re late,” Leila says the moment I enter the room. She stands against the wall right next to the door.

“Oh, am I?” I ask in a joking manner and then laugh.

She stares me down. “It better not have to do with that equipment you have on you… The last time I checked, you didn’t have any money on you.”

“It kind of does… I went to pick it up for free be-before I came back here…” I answer reluctantly, despite feeling that she would take it the wrong way.

“You mean to say, you stole it,” she accuses as she closes in her head closer to me. She gives me a suspicious frowning look on her face. I only smile in response.

I face my palms out in front of me and explain, “Nah, I really got it for free… You remember that man you gave ten gold coins to? He…”

I stop talking when Leila suddenly grabs my right arm. She cocks an eyebrow as she inspects my hand fro various angles, before placing her hand over my wounds. She casts Healing magic while staying completely silent. She’s focused. Several seconds pass before I quirk my lips and then ask, “You-you’re not going to ask what happened?”

She doesn’t change expressions when she replies, “I’m used to it by now. It was probably something stupid, like punching a wall. It doesn’t really matter. So, what was it about that man?”

I chuckle and smile before answering, “That man turned out to be a blacksmith… I bumped into him while gathering information and he offered to repair my armor and gave me everything else I currently have on me.”

I leave out the information that he was never serious about the ten gold coins. Leila releases my hand and then says, “All done. Let’s go over what we found out. You first.”

I give a summary of all relevant information I found in the last couple of hours.

“Hmm… I see. Is it just a coincidence? The report your friend mentioned a week ago and the time that we were assigned to assassinate Dae are nearly identical.”

“That’s what I thought too, but it is strange. I never heard any reports about Cascabel during my time in the army, and based on Marin’s reaction, this is the first time she’s come into something like this. It’s not like she will find anything here, anyway. Did you discover anything on your end?”

“Two things. First, I found the location of an underground information broker. I’ve heard his information is accurate and extensive.” I raise my eyebrows upon hearing that, thinking about how Marin and company would eventually head there. “Second, in regards toward our secondary objective… Apparently the only library is in the castle.”

“That’s convenient. We’ll eventually need to head to the castle anyway to drop off Irene. We still have some time before the speech. Let’s head to that broker now,” I suggest. I gesture my head toward Irene, who is still peacefully asleep and ask, “Should we bring her this time?”

Leila glances at Irene before answering, “No… The place we’re headed to isn’t a place Irene should see… We’ll come back for her later.”

“Alright, lead the way,” I say while gesturing my hand toward the hallway. Leila locks the door again before we head out. We walk side by side as she indicates which turns to make.

In about twenty minutes of casual walking, the number of people on the street gradually decreases as the general sanitation of the area decreases. The houses nearby are crudely built, and there are people dressed in dirty, ragged clothes. The air smells like a combination of sweat, grease, and filth. This place isn’t very social either; everyone seems to be in the dumps. There’s a woman and a child close by. The woman has dark circles under her eyes and general health probably just a little better than Utna, who I met earlier today. However, the child looks much healthier, but only physically; his eyes look dead, like the mother.

Subsequently, there’s another young boy nearby after another minute of walking. I contemplate on approaching him, but I refrain when a man comes out of the alleyway next to the boy. He walks away while clipping on his belt. With the shadow of another person in the alleyway, I avert my eyes from the familiar scenery. I turn my head toward Leila and ask, “Hey, how much farther?”

“It’s in that broken building over there,” she answers and points to a nearby structure without a door. Laughter and many pairs of footsteps echo in the building. Shortly after, a group of six kids runs out of the building. Smiling, they run into the distance. “What are you doing? Let’s go.”

Inside the building, we cross a couple of hallways, before turning towards a room without a door. There’s a well-dressed middle-aged man behind a counter inside the room. There are toys on display on tables scattered across the room. I cock an eyebrow as I inspect the entire room. A poorly stitched doll of a young girl catches my eye. The man asks, “Are you looking to buy that doll, sir?”

“No, he won’t,” Leila responds as she gives me a glare. I put down the doll and then move closer to her. “Do you sell flutes?”

I knit my eyebrows. The man smiles before he replies, “No, I don’t.”

“I’d like to buy this,” Leila says as she picks up a stuffed animal of a lion.

“That will be 15 gold coins.”

“Alright.”

“Wait, what?!” I exclaim, feeling that something can’t be right when I think back to the misunderstanding I had earlier with the two men. Subsequently, Leila puts down the stuffed animal, takes out 15 silver coins out of her backpack, and then drops them on the counter. The man takes it and then walks toward a back door.

“Right this way,” he says as he opens the door. We follow him into the room that appears to be a storage place. He walks over to a stack of boxes and then begins to stack them on an empty space two feet beside it. When he picks up the last box, a trap door is revealed. “Please put the boxes back when you’re done.”

He walks back toward the other room and then closes the door behind him. I sigh and shake my head. “Is all this really necessary?”

“Don’t ask questions,” Leila says as she opens the trap door, revealing a ladder that leads down. She goes down first, and I follow. We find ourselves in a dimly lit small room with no one in it.

“Hey, are you sure this is the right place?”

“It should be…” she mutters while looking around. I survey the room too, finding that this room is made out of stone instead of wood. There are several barrels, boxes, and bags scattered about, but the only thing I find peculiar is the small opening in the wall, probably large enough to fit a baby at best.

“What do you guys want to know?” an elderly voice resounds from the other side of the hole. It’s an old man with wrinkly skin. Leila and I briefly glance at each other and then nod our heads before turning back toward the hole.

“Tell us everything you know about Velyn,” I respond.

“Hmm… that’s going to take a long time… Can you be more specific?”

“Just tell us anything unusual you know that happened involving him in the past four years. We’re also curious about the missing girl incident.”

“The missing girl incident… The only thing I know about that is that Velyn investigated it three years ago. At some point, he stopped and concluded that it wouldn’t happen again for unknown reasons. Another strange thing that happened is that he fired all the generals except Dae, and he replaced the ones he fired with new ones. I’m sure everyone has long forgotten about this already.

“If there’s anything unusual… it would have to be the last month of last year; about six months ago. A source told me that he saw Velyn disguised in commoner clothes leaving Byzia. A month after that, he suddenly announced higher taxes in his usual public announcement. In addition, the prince and his advisors who usually appeared with him were not present.” I grab my chin and scrunch my eyebrows together, thinking about the information gathered so far.

Suddenly, it feels like a cold stare is watching from behind. I turn around to check, but there’s no one. Leila asks, “What’s wrong?”

“There’s someone watching us…” I claim with worry as I walk toward the barrels in front of me. My heartbeat is racing when I stop in front of them for several seconds. I shove the barrels aside. A rat scurries away to a nearby rat hole. Leila laughs from behind me.

“A rat…really?”

“Sorry…” I apologize and turn around, sighing afterward.

“You said Velyn claimed that the girls wouldn’t go missing anymore at some point… Did it turn out to be true?” Leila asks as I’m bringing my mind back to the task at hand.

“Surprisingly, yes. It may be why people are suspicious of him now as of recent events.”

“What do you know about General Dae?” Leila inquires.

“He’s a man with a strong sense of justice serving Velyn for the past 11 years. Dae was the only high ranking officer that even bothered to help us in the slums. He didn’t care about money as he donated most of it to help the people survive in these parts. The word is that he’s working with Osmir as of late, but I would never believe it.”

I raise my eyebrows upon hearing his last remark. Thinking back to our earlier deduction that they had to be working together, I ask, “Why is that hard to believe?”

“My sources have been keeping track of the movements of anyone related to the army or Velyn in the past six months, and they never mentioned anything about Dae leaving the capital, until about a week ago. One source said he left the castle carrying a pink dress in hand. There haven’t been any reports of him coming back since. As far as I know, Osmir never came to Byzia until two days ago when he raided the castle with his group.”

I knit my eyebrows together before asking, “Who is Osmir…? What do you know about him?”

“I’m afraid I don’t have any trustworthy information about him.”

“But you do have some information… Let us hear it regardless whether you have confirmed it or not,” I insist.

“Very well… Let’s see…” The man ponders for a moment before continuing, “Someone thinks they saw someone resembling Osmir together with Seirus and Aurora a long time ago before they were known to be the prince and prince’s fiancé. Someone has said that he’s a spy from another country. Someone has even said that he’s one of Velyn’s bastard children.” Leila looks at me with a smile and then moves her head closer to me.

“Kai, that should be enough,” she whispers into my ear.

“What, did you figure something out?” I whisper back into her ear.

“Not exactly… I’ll fill you in later. Let’s leave.”

“Wait, let me ask one more thing.” She cocks an eyebrow, but I ignore it and then turn back toward the hole in the wall. I stare into the man’s eyes and ask, “Have you heard of anything Cascabel related in Xantho as of late? Any names… hideout locations… possible plans?”

“No. I don’t know anything about that. You’re the second person today to ask that,” the man responds immediately. I decide to pursue it further.

I ask again, “Are you sure? We’re willing to offer 20 gold coins if you know anything.”

I figure Leila has caught on since she’s not throwing a fit. I gulp when the man doesn’t respond for several seconds. “Yes, I’m sure. I know nothing.”

I smile upon hearing his response. I turn around and say, “Is that so? Thank you…”

I raise my eyebrows and then turn back around again. “I have an offer to make you.”

“Oh, what is that?”

“Someone else will come later, probably today or tomorrow asking about Cascabel… We’ll give you a gold coin if you pass off some information to them.”

“You’re telling me to lie? If I actually accept that offer of yours… Wouldn’t that make the information I told you become unreliable?”

I frown and stay silent, realizing his dilemma. But after a few more seconds, I smile. “We’re both members of Cascabel. After we leave here, we’re going to head out of Byzia through the north gate. You can even get some of your men to follow us to confirm it. Use this information as you see fit.”

With that, I climb the ladder to the top. After Leila comes up, we close the trap door and then stack the boxes on top of it. With a worried expression on her face, Leila asks, “Are you sure that was a good idea?”

“It should be fine… We made sure not to reveal our names during out time down there. We’ll just leave as I said we would and go far enough to make sure we aren’t being followed. Then we loop around toward the south gate.”

“But what if they randomly see us in town?”

I pause for a second, thinking of a solution. “After we loop back into town, we’ll immediately go to a clothing shop and purchase hooded cloaks.”

“I see. That could work. Let’s go then.” And with that, we make our way towards the northern gates. “What do you think?”

I shake my head, knit my eyebrows, and then respond, “I’m not sure what to think… After what we just learned it’s possible that Dae wasn’t working with Osmir…but they could have had contact prior to the last six months… The only two things we can confirm is that Velyn secretly left the country to visit Irene and how Neso knew Irene’s attire before our arrival… I can’t make sense of anything else right now…”

I pause for a moment before asking, “How can we leave Irene without knowing anything?”

“Kai, what’s going on with you…? Aren’t you a little too attached to Irene?” She asks, blushing. “I know she reminds you of someone…”

I hesitate for a moment and then sigh. “Yeah… I told you a while back, right? About what happened three years ago… She reminds me of her…”

I close my eyes, replaying my last memory of her before it happened. After recalling what she looked like, I add, “No…she resembles her…”

“Resemble…? Are you sure you’re not delusional? If we want to strongly believe in something…even if the chances are extremely slim, you’ll trick yourself into believing it…” Leila cautions.

“Maybe I am… I realized earlier today that I still haven’t moved on from that point…”

I smile lightly, acknowledging that possibility.

“Kai, you very well know we can’t stay with Irene forever. I’ve been following your lead up to this point, so get it together. We’ll do our best to deliver Irene to safety, but don’t hesitate.”

“Yeah you’re right…” I agree while broadening my smile. “Sorry about that. So, what about you? How do you make sense of all this? It sounded like you came up with something.”

“Yeah, my thoughts are about the same as yours regarding the majority of what we found, but we can use the unreliable information about Osmir to our advantage when we go to the castle.”

I raise my eyebrows, understanding her ploy. I suggest, “While we’re doing that, we might as well use Irene too. She has an eye for people.”

Leila smiles. “Sure, you know best.”

And with that we continue toward the north gate, eventually leaving the city. We look behind us, making sure that no one is tailing us. Afterward, we go through the nearby forest, sooner or later reaching the southern gates again. Suddenly, I remember a promise I made to Irene yesterday. “You know, we should bring Irene around town… She’s been holed up in that inn for a while now.”

“Are you an idiot? She stands out too much.”

I don’t let up and think of something. “Okay, how about this? We’ll get another cloak for Irene. I’m assuming she hasn’t been to a city in her entire life, so let her explore a little. After this, she may as well be holed up in that castle forever.”

She knits her eyebrows and then says, “If you insist…”

We find our way to a clothing store, getting slightly lost along the way. Luckily, the first store we find has the hooded cloaks we want. Leila purchases three of them for only a silver coin. It’s actually cheaper than that, but Leila doesn’t take her change, and we leave. After putting on our cloaks, we head back toward our room in ‘Bolt’s Inn’.

Irene is sitting on the bed, facing the window. I announce, “Irene, we have good news… We know Velyn is innocent for certain.”

“Well, we already knew that!” Irene turns around and lashes at me with an angry expression on her face. I regret telling her that already. I scratch my head and follow up in a gentler voice, “You’re right… Well, we still have a little over an hour before Osmir’s speech… Let’s go shopping until then. We’ll cover you, so buy anything you want!”

Irene jumps up from the bed. Her sour mood transforms into her usual energetic self as she exclaims, “Really?!”

“Yeah, put this on and let’s go,” I reply with a smile, holding the cloak in front of me. She grabs it, happily puts it on and then runs into the hallway.

“Come on! Let’s go!” she exclaims, grinning as she jumps up and down. Leila is also smiling.

“Let’s go then,” I say with a smile.

“I’m right behind you.”

And with that, we leave the inn and then make our way toward the shopping area.

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