The Selection

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Chapter 54 - Inteiru Expota - Acquaintance to Friend

This is no good. The villagers are tired already. Despite my attempts to motivate them, their postures are drooped and each swing is half-assed. It’s like there’s over a dozen of Kamas. There’s no point training them. They’re not motivated and bound to quit in the end. Why does General Nero want us to train these villagers? It’s not like they’re in any danger while enclosed in these walls.

General Nero said that we just had to give them some general tips and help them train. I’ve done that. Don’t have to be perfect. I’m sick of these errands that he’s sending us on for the past few weeks.

“Okay, stop! Take a short break. I’ll let you know when to start again,” I say. The lot of them drop their training swords and collapse on the ground. I wonder how Luke’s group is doing. I’m not sure if I got the bad half or they’re both bad.

As I walk over to where he’s stationed, two young children catch my attention.

“Take that, bandit!” A young boy swings one of the smaller wooden swords and hits another boy on the head.

“Ow!” he interjects and covers the top of his head with both of his hands. “Stop that!”

“No, you’re the bad guy!”

“I don’t like this game!” the boy exclaims and runs.

I ignore them. I’m only here to assist in training, not anything else. Someone else can reprimand that boy for his behavior.

“Hey,” Hina says.

“Oh, hey,” I respond.

“I saw that. I wasn’t sure before, but now I am. You’re ignorin’ everythin’ except the mission, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, what’s it matter to you? It’s not like I’m the only person here that can stop that kid from playing with weapons.”

“It’s not just this time. I’ve seen you ignore other incidents too during our joint missions. You’re actin’ strange.”

“Look, I just don’t wanna do anything unnecessary. I don’t wanna be held accountable for anything that goes wrong outside of my orders.”

“So if you witness someone about to be killed by someone else right in front of you right now, you would let it happen?”

I pause a moment before answering, “Of course not.”

“Are you sure? Somethin’ tells me you would’ve ignored it even if that kid was playin’ with a real blade.”

“You’re crazy. I wouldn’t let anyone die in front of me if I can help it.”

“What if someone’s already dyin’ by the time you would notice? You’d ignore it, right?”

I’m pretty sure I would help in that situation, but I don’t answer.

She continues, “Of course you’d ignore it. You’re afraid of failure and becomin’ the scapegoat.”

“Hold up… I’m not afraid of failure. I just don’t want someone reporting me that I’m not doing the job I was assigned to do.”

“It’s the army’s job to protect the people. To keep them safe. You don’t need a direct order to do that. I’d help no matter what because it’s the right thing to do. If that person was Marin or Ruby, you’d help without a second thought. The same thing if you were only ordered to protect the village, you’d never disregard Marin or Ruby’s safety.”

“Right.”

“I heard about what happened half a year ago from Marin. You killed someone you shouldn’t have durin’ a mission.”

“It was an accident and I was framed. What’d Marin tell you exactly?” I ask. Marin believed me, so it’s weird if she’s telling other people different things.

“Maybe I forgot the details, but I recall you were blacklisted afterward. Marin tells me you changed after that. Not takin’ on multiple requests anymore or involvin’ yourself in other people’s business as often. Does that have anythin’ to do with how you’re actin’ as of late?”

“Yeah, well. I can’t have Marin and Ruby take the heat for my mistakes anymore. I’ll avoid anything that could get us blacklisted. Back there with those kids playing around. If I had helped, word could’ve reached to General Nero somehow that I was slacking off. That I wasn’t training the villagers, instead playing around with kids. That could end in a situation where we’re blacklisted or given punishment.”

“You’re too paranoid. You were only blacklisted for a day or two for failin’ multiple requests at once because you had other achievements due to takin’ risks. Why’re you afraid of something goin’ wrong with scoldin’ children? If you’re only strictly followin’ orders takin’ risk-free decisions, it’ll be forever until you become a Lieutenant.”

“There’s no point in becoming a Lieutenant if Marin or Ruby have to suffer for it. I can’t imagine the scenario where we don’t have achievements to balance out the negatives,” I reply. I never want them to go through what I did that day. “I’ll become a Lieutenant eventually, small steps at a time.”

“You know, my platoon has been blacklisted too. My superior officer roasted me when I pissed off a group of villagers. We ended up blacklisted for a whole week for that minor incident. But your platoon got off easy for a caliber of that mistake.”

“Wow, really? What’d you do to piss them off?”

“Well, tha-that’s not important.”

Hmm. Now I’m curious.

“Anyway, my point is… You don’t need to strictly follow your orders and ignore everythin’ else. As long as you’re fulfillin’ your main duties, anythin’ you do outside of that could be bonus points, you know? If we’re goin’ to be workin’ together a lot, I don’t need another mindless guard around here.”

I chuckle. “Right, I know what you mean.”

Hina laughs.

“So how’s the training from your end? The villagers learn how to use magic?” I ask.

“No way, but with the help of a magical item, they pooled their Scrap Mana into a Magic Scroll.”

“That’s impressive. They managed to release Scrap Mana in just a few days?”

“Nah, it looks like they had the help of those magical items for several months. Remember those things on the side of the Academy? Those things.”

“Oh, yeah,” I answer. I think of something that I thought in the past, but not completely. I can’t quite put my tongue on it. It’s been years since I’ve seen one of those things, but even now, I don’t know how it works. “I know what you’re talking about…but do you know how those things work?”

“Of course, how can you not know?” I cock an eyebrow. “Magical items always contain a Mana Crystal and a Glim. Some of them have an Affinity Crystal too.”

“Okay, where’d the Glim come from? And how does it promote our Scrap Mana to come out?” Hina doesn’t answer. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

“So I don’t know. But it doesn’t matter. This is just a part of our life that we have to accept. These magical items are a result of hundreds of years of research and design.”

“Wow, the role-model perfect student back in the Academy just wants to accept that it’s just magic. You sound like a mindless guard.”

“Shut up. It’s not like I’m not curious. Why don’t you ask Moria? He’d probably know.”

“Probably. I wonder why he didn’t teach us everything back at the Academy. There are so many things that he didn’t mention to us. Like how everyone can use Enhancement magic.”

“You’re weird,” Hina says with a smile.

“Huh?”

“Here I was, tryin’ to stop you from bein’ a mindless guard, but instead you’re makin’ me question our society. There’re so many things I’ve chalked off as bein’ the way it is and simply accepted. We were too cocky after graduatin’ from the Academy.”

Nostalgia hits me. It feels like I’ve come to this conclusion before. I ignore it. “Yeah, but I’m glad. The Academy bored me quickly because I learned everything so fast. There’s so much more out there. It excites me. Though it sucks that I have to pay for it at seminars.”

“You’re missin’ the point. I think Moria wanted us to discover it for ourselves. He taught the basics and fundamentals of magic. The first magicians never had anyone to teach them, but here we are.”

“You’re right. That guy I accidentally killed… He learned magic without going to the Academy. He showed me impossible things like making cold fire and making soft rock.”

What? It’s possible to change the special property of Fire and Earth magic?

“I know, right? I said the same thing. But it’s true. He was able to do those things all on his own. I wanted him to teach me, but before I could, I… I’ve been trying to do things on my own since then, but can’t figure it out.”

“Do you think Moria lied to us about that? Purposely teachin’ us wrong things.”

“Lie? That you can’t change the special properties of Evocation magic? Why would he lie…?”

“I don’t know. It was just an idea since we already know he didn’t teach everythin’.”

“Yeah. I trust Moria. He must’ve had a good reason to if it was a lie.”

“I trust him too. I’ll have to try it for myself later. Changin’ the properties of water…”

“Changing the properties of water? What does that even mean?”

“I’m not sure. Making it thicker or heavier for one. I still can’t believe it’s possible.”

“Well, good luck with that, I still haven’t been able to make cold fire and it’s been half a year. Not to insult you or anything, but if I can’t do it, you can’t either.”

Hina frowns. “How rude. You don’t need to remind me. It’s true you’re very talented with Mana manipulation, but I could be more talented with figurin’ out things for myself. It’s all about creativity.”

I chuckle. She doesn’t know about my Void magic. I can figure out things on my own too. Like the one-sided portals and how I turn invisible. But it was Marin who found that invisibility thing… There was no way I could’ve figured that out on my own.

“What’s funny? Mr. I can only make a ball of fire,” Hina says with a smirk.

I frown and reply, “Shut up. I’ve never needed to make anything else, but I could if I wanted to. I don’t have high Affinity for Fire magic unlike, your Water magic. Miss cram all my Water Affinity into a wave of water. That’s really creative.”

“You’re just jealous of my great talent. I’ll have you know I have much more tricks up my sleeve since the tournament.”

“Oh, really? Prove it.”

“I’d be glad to. As soon as we get back to the Castle.”

“What’s wrong with here?”

“We’re in the middle of a village… Can’t exactly go all out here.”

“True…” I answer. We can’t leave the village either. Someone will definitely report us for slacking off. “How much longer you think the villagers need to use magic?”

“What about you? Do you think they’re combat ready?” Hina asks as she points her head toward the group of villagers I’m in charge of.

“Ugh. No, but we can’t be here every step of the way. I’ve already shown them how to train and strengthen their muscles before sparring. I can’t do anything else. General Nero can’t be expecting more than this. Magic’s different though, right? They have the keyword. That’s all they need.”

“Yeah, but they still need to learn how to control the flow of their Mana. I’ll also have to educate them on how to use magic if somethin’ happens. It’ll be a disaster if they don’t know how to use their newly acquired weapon. Friendly fire’s a risk.”

“General Nero didn’t tell you what all this training’s for either, did he? We don’t know if we’re helping them prepare for future monster attacks or bandits. All of this is weird to me. They’re surrounded by walls and are completely safe.”

“He didn’t,” Hina answers. She looks down and wraps her arms around her body. “But I might be able to find out from Captain Citrio if you really want to know.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ll tell you after we get somewhere warm with some food. I can’t stand this weather.”

“You didn’t buy any armor warmers?”

“Of course not. We have to save all the money we can for the seminars. Can we go?” Hina asks, shivering.

“Well, I don’t wanna keep you here. I probably spent too long talking to you anyway. I’d better get back to it.”

“Wait.”

“What?”

“I’ve already asked Simon to take over for me today for an earlier dinner break. Luke will do the same for you if you ask.”

“I don’t know I—“

“Like you said, you can’t do anything else. It’s just for appearances at this point. If you really hate talkin’ to me that much and rather stay out here, I’ll leave you alone.”

I take another look at the group of villagers I’m training. They still look exhausted despite the break they had. I sigh. Retiring a bit earlier today shouldn’t be a big deal. I’m a bit more hungry today too. There’s no meaning to starve ourselves for the sake of training the villagers. Hina’s right. I don’t really need to be here. I feel bad for leaving Marin out of this. No one can sub for her because she’s the only one here that knows how to use a bow.

“Alright. I’ll join you. Just gotta...” I cut myself short when I notice Luke walking toward us.

He waves and says, “Hey Kai, I know we decided on splitting them into two groups, but…”

I cock an eyebrow. His eyes linger away from me for several seconds. I look behind me. There’s only Hina in that direction, still shivering from the cold.

He continues, “But I can take over your half if you want to eat dinner earlier today.”

“You sure? I don’t mind hanging here for a bit longer if you want to grab dinner with Hina instead.”

“No, no, no… I just saw you with Hina and thought you might be a bit modest in leaving your job duties to me. I know you take it seriously.”

“Hmm, alright. Thanks,” I say and then turn around. He’s a weird one. At least there won’t be a line since everyone’s training right now. “I don’t know where you’ve been going to for food, but I like the food they serve at the inn I’m staying at.”

“Someone recommended me a place yesterday. They specialize in soup. They’ve got a lot of weird flavors like—“

“You had me at soup. Let’s go.”

With that, Hina leads the way. I follow her, eventually arriving at a small diner.

The place is empty as expected. We sit at a table for two across each other.

“Welcome to the Hodgepodge,” a woman says as she walks toward us from the backroom. “Oh… Sergeant Hina and Sergeant Kai? Isn’t it a bit early? ”

I’m surprised she knows us, but then again, everyone in the village must’ve been present when we introduced ourselves a few days ago. Hina answers, “Sergeant Kai and I took our break earlier today.”

“Well, what can I get you today?”

“I’ll have the melon soup and the special of the day,” Hina says.

I grimace. Melon soup? That sounds horrendous. Hina did say that there were weird flavors, but that’s a bit much. I ask, “Is there a menu?”

“There isn’t. I make delicious soups out of any ingredient. I can give you a list of ingredients I have on hand and—“

“Just give him today’s special and the assortment of soups you gave me yesterday,” Hina says.

“Alright, I’ll have that out momentarily,” the woman says and then walks away.

“I hope the special is something a little more appetizing than melon soup,” I say with a frown.

“It tastes better than it sounds. The melon soup was my favorite of the assortments she provided yesterday. Just try it. It’s all on the house too since we’re here to provide training.”

“Fine. Beats any food served in the Castle anyway. Is it just me or the food quality has worsened since the days we first enlisted?”

“Not just you. I’m not a picky eater, but the stuff they serve has gotten inedible. I use the cookin’ station whenever possible.”

“So you’ve been using extra money to use the cooking station and buying your own ingredients, but you won’t buy armor warmers?”

“Who said anythin’ about spendin’ money? It’s all about who you know.”

“What?”

“Well, unlike you, I’ve been meetin’ other platoons and talkin’. Seminars are a luxury most people can’t afford. So, I’ve been teachin’ people for free. They’re more than happy to let my platoon reap the benefits of amenities like the cookin’ station.”

“I see. So you’re wasting your time training mindless guards instead of training yourself.”

“I’m still trainin’. It doesn’t hurt to have more friends. Things aren’t the same as from the Academy. You have to adapt to the environment.”

“I don’t see the point of training people who won’t make it far. Besides, in the end, they quit and give up. Now you’ve wasted all that time trying.”

“Not everyone’s like that. Don’t give up just because of one bad experience.”

“Nah. I need all the time I have to do my personal training. It won’t matter how much I train someone else if their own motivation’s lacking.”

“That’s why it’s part of your job to inspire them. Train alongside them. Show them the effort you put in and the results of your trainin’.”

Training alongside them is impossible. Not that I can tell Hina why that is. There’s no way I can show my magic in open sight. I say, “Not really my style.”

Hina sighs. “Well, I won’t say any more then. I’m just worried as your friend that you’re not adaptin’.”

“Aren’t you just worried about your reputation? Because of these joint missions, we spend a lot of time together. Besides, like you said. It doesn’t hurt to have more friends. You probably just wanna call in a favor when you need me for something. That’s why you insisted on inviting me for dinner.”

“What…? That’s not at all true…” Hina says and looks down. Seems like I hit the mark. “I would’ve liked spendin’ time with you here despite the joint mission. You’re really only here because comin’ here with me is more preferable than trainin’ the villagers?”

“Yeah,” I reply.

Her eyes glisten as if they were tearing up. I didn’t think she was this sensitive considering her huge ego. Thinking back to the Academy days, she only bore hatred for me. We only became acquainted because of that incident during the tournament. She looks up and asks, “You don’t think of me as your friend?”

Maybe I was wrong about her. Still, thinking back, I don’t know what about our interactions signaled that we were friends. I haven’t done anything for her, but she saved me back during the attack and put me back on track when my mind was hazy afterward. I answer, “I thought we were more like acquaintances. It was only because of our shared experience of something happening during that last game in the tournament.”

“You’re right. Before that, I never would’ve thought there would be a world where we wouldn’t be enemies. But, I’m glad it happened even though our team ended up losin’ for it. I don’t know exactly when I considered you my friend, but I think it was since that incident because we shared somethin’ in common no one else would understand.”

“Just because of that?”

“Yeah. Is that wrong? A friend’s someone who’s on your side, right?”

Hmm. I never thought of it that way. Maybe I was thinking about it wrong this whole time. I was content with my first group of friends and never wanted more. I feel bad for Hina for being so cold when she was only being nice to me. “Well, I’m sorry for the misunderstanding.”

I smile and continue, “From now on, let’s be friends.”

I extend my hand out for a shake. She only stares at me blankly. I ask, “Can you shake my hand?”

“I don’t want to.”

“Excuse me?”

She looks away and responds, “Well, if I shake your hand…that means I acknowledge that we weren’t friends before when I thought of you as my friend this entire time.”

I sigh and then correct myself, “I’m sorry for not considering you as my friend before, but from now on, I’ll consider you as my friend.”

I shake my hand in place to signal that it’s her time to reciprocate. She only looks at it. I ask, “What’s wrong?”

She stares at me blankly for several more seconds before bursting into laughter. I frown and pull my arm back. She says, “I can’t believe you apologized twice. It’s too embarassin’ to shake your hand after that.”

“You little rascal…” I mutter. “You’re the one who made me apologize twice.”

“Your food is ready!” the cook exclaims. She walks over carrying two large trays. She lays one in front of each of us. I knit my eyebrows. “Well, enjoy.”

The woman walks away. I look down back at my food. There are six very small bowls of liquid with one big one; each with their own spoon. They’re all sorts of different colors which confuses me. Some of them are steaming hot while others seem cold. Hina scoops some of her orange soup into her mouth.

“This is so good. Try some,” she says while pointing toward the orange colored liquid in one of my six small bowls. The bright orange color reminds me of carrots. Gross.

I reluctantly spoon up some of this melon soup into my mouth. It’s sweet. I don’t know what ingredients are in this, but it’s good. It’s nothing like the ordinary soup I’ve had all this time.

“Good, right?” Hina asks with a smile.

“Yeah, I guess,” I say, conceding.

The thick brown-colored soup is really creamy and thick. It honestly reminds me of how that time I was punished. I close my eyes, wiping my thoughts of that day. I scoop it up into my mouth. A rich taste of mushrooms permeates my mouth. I never thought that soup this thick could be good.

This next small bowl has a dark-blue color to it. I sip a little into my mouth unsure how it would taste. Completely different than the last one. Another sweet one, but cold. Cold but it also burns the back of my throat. A sweet alcoholic soup is nonsense. Nothing like I’ve ever had, but it’s good.

The remaining soups aren’t to my liking. The milky one reminds me too much of that prank Emdos pulled on me on my first day of school. The one with pieces of bread inside had poor texture and made me want to gag. Then there’s the other version of the melon soup with pieces of melon inside but also meat. A really nasty combination of sweetness and saltiness.

The special of the day is more consistent with the soups I’m familiar with. It has thick noodles soaked in a rich fishy broth.

I finish my meal as does Hina. Now, with food out of the way, I ask, “So what were you saying before? You said you could find out what this training’s mission for, right?”

“Yeah…” Hina answers with little energy. “There’s somethin’ else I want to bring up first.”

Based on her tone, it feels like this is something serious. I say, “Go ahead.”

“Well… A few months ago, Captain Citrio…” Hina says and then takes a deep breath. “He-he…ki-kissed me.”

Kissed her? Seeing how she’s having a hard time telling me, I assume that she didn’t want it. To do something like that when it’s not mutual is not okay. I don’t know the circumstances around this either. I’m not sure how to respond.

She continues, “I shoved him away and told him that I’m not interested in him that way. He told me that I’m his type and would do anythin’ to have me.”

“Wait, how’d any of this happen? Where was this?”

“He’s my superior officer that I report to for my missions. He did it out of the blue one day I was turnin’ in my report for a request. We were alone.”

“What the hell, Hina. Did you tell anyone about this? General Nero or anyone else?”

“No… you’re the first.”

“Why not? This is serious.”

“Because he told me to not tell anyone or he would make my life miserable. It’s also his word against mine. I don’t have any proof. I don’t want any negative impact on our platoon.”

“Why’d you tell me?”

“I trust you.”

I’m happy that she considers me that trustworthy, but at the same time, I don’t think it’s a good decision. For all she knows, I could rat her out for bonus points on my end. I can’t exactly help her situation either. There’s also still that earlier point she brought up. “Why’d you say that you could find something out from Captain Citrio?”

“Because… he’s been makin’ suggestive remarks every chance he gets. He’s been lookin’ at me like a man looks at a woman. He scares me,” she says with her arms around her body, shaking. “But I could play along for a bit to find out what I need to know.”

“No, you don’t need to do that. It’s not that important to me to know why we were told to train these villagers,” I say. I don’t know why she would go through the trouble considering her fear. Her problem is that her superior’s making unwanted advances on her. Her boyfriend’s gone so maybe Captain Citrio thinks she doesn’t have a good reason to refuse him. But he doesn’t have to know that. I suggest, “Have you thought about having a fake relationship with someone to stop Captain Citrio from going after you? Like with Luke or something.”

“No, but I don’t want to make things awkward between me and my platoon or my friends. Besides, I would have to tell them what it’s for and they would find out about what Captain Citrio’s doin’. They’d want to leave the army if it isn’t resolved. I don’t want to ruin what we’ve built already.”

Her unwillingness to involve other people in this worries me. She was suffering like this for months, alone. What if Marin or Ruby comes into a similar situation in the future? Or has it already happened? It’s hard to think about what has happened or what could happen. I really hope no one tries to make a move on Ruby. She would go insane and blow up them up. It could end up where she’s executed or something. We’d have to run and it would just ruin everything. Or would she comply and submit to all their demands…?

I block those outcomes out of my mind. I have no idea how she’d act. It should be fine now, though. I’m the only person who reports our missions. There’s no reason for her or Marin to be singled out for now. Things could change when I’m promoted to Lieutenant, but I’ll cross that bridge later.

“Well, has he done anything else to you? Things aren’t getting worse, right?” I ask.

“No…it’s the same…but I’m scared. I’m scared even though we’re all the way out here near the border. I’m scared thinkin’ about what he might do in the future.”

I sigh. I don’t know what she wants from me. I wouldn’t be much of a good friend if I can’t help out somehow. I doubt General Nero would help much either. He’s probably the reason why the food’s getting worse. Regardless, I suggest, “We both could go to General Nero together to talk about what Captain Citrio has been doing. I’d testify that there’s no way that you would lie about this. Someone as righteous as you is impossible. Moria would say that about you too.”

“No, I couldn’t do that to you. You’d be takin’ a huge risk. I don’t really want to bring more people into this. I just want someone…to make me feel safe.”

“I’m sure Luke, Simon, and Dennis would make sure of that, but you would need to tell them first.”

“No, I want someone who’s there with me all the time…like at night…sleepin’ next to me.”

Oh, that’s what she meant… I don’t know what to suggest to her at this point. Her situation’s different than mine. She doesn’t want to make things awkward between her and her team. There’s really only one choice for her. I don’t know if she still has feelings for her deceased boyfriend. I don’t want to bring it up either because she might still be sensitive on that matter.

“You’re really dim,” Hina suddenly says. “Dimmer than that loud monkey at the Academy.”

“Huh?” I interject.

She looks away and blushes. “I’m askin’ you. I want you to be there next to me.”

Huh…?” I interject again. My mind is blank. She’s asking me to be her boyfriend? I don’t know what’s happening right now. I regain a sense of reality and ask, “Wh-what about your old boyfriend? You don’t have any feelings left for him?”

“I still think of him…but I have to move on eventually. Isn’t that what you’ve done with Luna?”

Is that what I’ve done with her? I mean... I still care for Ruby, but they’re not the same… Luna’s dead. Even though they’re really similar. That’s because some traces of her are still there. Regardless, the real issue here is that I’m with Marin now. Since we keep it a secret, I’m cornered here.

“Unless you still have feelings for her?” Hina asks, making eye contact with me.

“No, not exactly…”

“What is it then? You hate the idea of bein’ with me?”

Of course not. She’s actually pretty cute. If I didn’t have Marin, I might have obliged. But I have her. I shake my head.

“No, it’s not that… It’s umm… I have someone already,” I confess. Thinking back, I thought that Hina knew already. She found us outside of that inn.

“You…have someone?” Hina asks, clearly confused. After several seconds, her eyes widen. “Marin…?”

“Yeah,” I nod.

“I thought you guys had a fling and that was it…”

“Yeah, but…it became something else.”

“Does Ruby know?”

“No, and no one else knows about this. We keep it a secret.”

“I see…” Hina says with a tear dripping down her face. She forces a grin. “Well, I’m sorry for makin’ things awkward.”

“I hope this doesn’t change anythin’ between us,” Hina says and then stands up. She extends a hand out. “Friends?”

I stand up, I smile, shake her hand, and answer, “Yeah.”

“I hope you have a good night. I’m headin’ back to my inn.”

“You too. Thanks for showing me this place. The soups were good.”

She smiles one last time before leaving. I need to head back to the inn too, but I don’t want to make things more awkward by keeping us close together. I feel bad I can’t do anything more for Hina despite that she went through the trouble of telling me everything.

After waiting for a brief minute, I head out. It should be that time already; the end of the training for the day. But it looks like they’re still going at it. It’s still noisy at the edge of the village. Two hooded figures are standing in front of a window in a red house across from me. It feels like they’re looking at me. Several seconds later, they step out of view. I head back to the inn before it’s crowded.

A few people here, but that’s normal. Just normal adventurers or travelers passing by.

“Soup again, sir?” the old man asks behind the bar.

I sit down at the bar and answer, “Nah, I ate already.”

“How about a drink?”

“No, I shouldn’t. I’m still on duty.”

“What are you talking about? You have finished training for the day. It’s good to relax. Now, what can I get you? Beer, wine, liquor, or cocktail?”

I guess he’s right. “I don’t know. I’m not much of a drinker. I tried some beer before, but I don’t like the taste.”

“Don’t like the taste? Sounds to me you had a bad batch of beer. I’ll get you something better,” he says and grabs a stein from a cupboard. “This stuff is a bit more expensive, but it tastes great.”

“I don’t have that much money on me.”

He walks over to the corner of the room with the horizontal barrels and then stoops down. “It’s not a problem at all. The training supplies you brought to the village is way more expensive. You’re also taking the trouble of training us.”

Training supplies huh. There were at least a hundred Magic Scrolls along with other magical items. Then there are the weapons. Even if we take the magical items back, the Magic Scrolls are used and the weapons they’ll most likely keep. I can’t imagine how expensive it adds up to. Meanwhile, they couldn’t invest more money into the food they serve at the cafeteria?

The old man comes back and puts the stein on the counter in front of me. “Try this.”

The same white foam at the top of the beer like the first time I tried it. The color is much darker this time, though. I pick up the stout and then drink a few sips. The taste is stronger and a bit burnt. Surprisingly, has a good flavor.

“So how is it?” he asks.

I take another sip. I nod and reply, “Good.”

“Glad to hear you like it. Let me know if you want a refill.”

“Say, why does this village need training?” I ask.

“Hmm? You don’t know?”

I cock an eyebrow. “No?”

“That’s strange. We were told we would receive mandatory training for free. All men and women fit enough to hold a weapon are required to undergo training. I don’t know more than that. But the training will definitely help us deal with some troublemakers passing by or stay safe hunting outside these walls.”

“I see. It’s fine if you don’t know,” I say and then take more gulps of this beer. So the army is forcing them through training. The village didn’t request it. Sounds fishy. Is this the only village that’s receiving training or are there other ones too? I don’t know what Ruby is up to while we’re stuck here. She, Jetia, and a few from Hina’s platoon could be doing something similar.

Before I know it, all the beer in the stein is gone. Where’s everyone at? I thought training should’ve ended by now. I say, “Hey, refill.”

“Coming right up,” the old man says. He takes the stein and then comes back shortly with the foam practically spilling out of the brim.

I take more gulps. Feels like the taste improves with every sip. Wait a minute. If pretty much everyone in the village is required to undergo training, what were those two people doing back at their house already? Hmm. I guess they could be old. Couldn’t really get a good look at them with those hoods on.

I feel really relaxed for some reason. My body feels a bit heavier but my head lighter. My beer ran out again. “Refill!”

“Sure,” the old man says.

“Kai, did you wait long?” Marin asks and takes the seat beside me. I look around. People are already starting to flood in here.

“I’mna sure,” I respond.

Marin cocks an eyebrow and asks, “Kai, are you drunk?

“No, I’m not.”

“Here you go,” the old man says and sets the stein in front of me. I take it immediately and take several gulps. “What can I get for you today, miss?”

“Meatloaf and salad,” Marin answers.

“I’ll have it for you shortly.”

“Kai, you’re not eating anything today?” Marin asks.

I set the stein down and burp. “I already ate with Hina. Yeah. Went to this place called the…umm… Hodge…Hodgepodge.”

“Oh… I see… Just the two of you?”

“Yep… I became friends wither.”

“You weren’t friends already?”

“Oh… Hina said I was her friend but I was confused ’bout it so I became friends with her. Also… She wanted me by her side all the time. Like in bed ‘n’ stuff. Like be her boyfriend.”

“Oh, really?” Marin asks with little interest. I thought she’d be more shocked.

“You don’t sound surprised.”

“Well, I knew that she liked you already. She was asking me your favorite foods and stuff about you a while ago.”

“Ohhh…”

“How’d you answer her?

“Answer who?”

“Hina, she said she liked you, right?”

I grin. “Ohh, yeah.”

Marin frowns. Wait, no. Why am I smiling right now? I’m giving her the wrong idea. I clear out my thoughts and relax. Maybe I’m a little drunk right now. I clear my throat and continue, “I rejected her of course, even though she’s cute. Told her that I already had you.”

Marin’s silent for several seconds but she finally asks, “Oh, you told her about us?”

I smile and say, “Yeah. Don’t worry she’s good at keeping secrets.”

I stare at Marin. From her fingerless gloves, to her arms, her armor, her face, down to her legs. I take a deep breath. I want all of it. She turns her head toward me and gives me look. She wants me to do something. I know that look. I grab her hand and pull it toward my face. I take a big whiff starting from her hand, quickly moving up her arm.

She suddenly jerks her arm away from me and asks in a whisper, “Kai, what’re you doing…?

“Smelling you,” I respond and then take more gulps of this beer. “Delicious.”

“I think you’ve had enough.”

“I’ll never have enough of you…”

Marin blushes and looks around. She turns back to me. She whispers, “Kai, you can’t be acting like this. We’re trying to keep us a secret, remember? Not to mention, you’ve been paranoid about people thinking you’re slacking off, right? What about now? What’ll people think?”

“Bad… I think,” I say while nodding my head. I raise my stein to take more gulps, but Marin stops me.

“Give me that,” Marin says and rips my beer out of my hand. She chugs the last few gulps, sets down the stein, and then coughs. “That’s really strong beer. Tasty, though.”

“Right? Taking it all for yourself, greedy,” I say and grab her hand. “But you’re mine now.”

“What?” she interjects. I stand up and pull Marin toward me. To the bedroom, we go. “Kai, wait.”

My body feels really strange. It doesn’t feel like my body is moving exactly when I move it. But a bit delayed. Marin suddenly jerks her hand away. I lose my balance, falling. I don’t feel the impact of the fall as much as I thought I would.

Marin pulls me up. What the hell? She pushes me down and now she’s pulling me up. Which does she want? She tugs me along all the way up the stairs to our room. She closes the door behind us.

“God… That was so embarassing… Kai, just stay here while I eat, okay? I’ll be back soon.”

“No,” I say and lift her up. I walk over to the bed and toss her on top of it. She tries to get up but I push her down again.

“Kai, jeez… I won’t leave. At least let me clean up, okay?” Marin asks as she stands up from the bed. “Wait for me.”

Marin takes off her armor. My heart pounds rapidly as she takes off her last pieces of clothing one by one. She goes into the bathroom and closes the door. I gulp. I take off everything and drop it on the floor. I crawl into bed face up. I wish she’d hurry it up. A shower shouldn’t take longer than five or ten minutes. I can wait that long.

This bed is really comfortable, though. A lot more than the last few days I slept on it. It’s like heaven. I’ll close my eyes just for a little bit.

The bed creaks rhythmically. I open my eyes but it’s still blurry. Someone’s moving on top of me. I ask, “Marin?”

I groan. “Yes, Kai… Gimme everythin’. All of yer seeds.”

That’s not Marin. It sounds like her voice, but not her. I rub my eyes. My vision clears up. The room’s dark but it’s clear enough to see her body. The length of her hair, her shape, and curves. It’s all Marin, but her eyes… It’s bright red. Even though it’s dark in the room, her eyes are practically shining. I gulp and then ask, “What’re you talking about?”

“I want you ta make a baby with me and I’ll let you fuck Hina. You said she’s cute right?” she asks while panting. “You can fuck ’er and me at the same time. A threesome. Maybe Ruby wants ta join too. That’s fine. Wouldn’t you like that?”

“No… I only want Marin,” I say. “Who’re you? You’re not her.”

“That’s rude, Kai… I am Marin,” she says with a grin.

The next thing I know, it’s bright in the room. Argh…my head…

I sit up and rub my forehead. It’s throbbing with pain. Marin’s next to me asleep. What a strange dream, though. It was like when I first met Ruby. It gives me the chills just thinking about it. Especially that grin at the end. The way she said it gives me goosebumps. It echoes clearly in my head, “I am Marin.”

“Kai, you’re awake?” Marin asks, sitting up too. She’s naked. I remember waiting for Marin to finish her shower, but don’t remember anything else.

“Yeah… What happened last night?”

“Well, after I took my shower, you were asleep. You wouldn’t wake up no matter what I did. So I got dressed, ate dinner, came back up, undressed and then went to sleep.”

“Oh,” I interject. I think about the dream and the outrageous idea of having a three-way with Marin and Hina. Maybe the dream was a sign and Marin’s actually into that thing? It would also help Hina. “By the way, what do you think of letting Hina join us in bed?”

Marin stares at me blankly. She slowly knits her eyebrows and says nothing. I don’t remember if I told her the circumstances revolving around Hina so all of this might sound out of context. I quickly explain, “Look, um, well… Basically, yesterday Hina told me about how her superior was making unwanted advances on her against her will. Then she went on about how it scares her and that she wants someone to keep her safe and all that. Someone that sleeps next to her at night. It’s not like I want her over you or anything, but I want to help her in any way that I can.”

“Hmm… I see… So you want her to lay there and watch?”

“Umm… She’d probably join too… And publically we’d be a couple to protect her from Captain Citrio. But really my heart lies with you.”

“So you want to go public with her, but not us? Isn’t the whole purpose of our secrecy is to not let Ruby know? What’ll she do if she finds out about you and Hina? I don’t even know how she’ll act if she ever finds out about us…”

“She won’t ever find out. And if it’s Hina, I’d be able to make up something or be honest about it. How it’s all to protect Hina from Captain Citrio.”

“I’m okay with letting Hina join,” Marin answers. Seriously? An answer I didn’t expect. “But are you really willing to play around with her feelings?”

She continues, “I know you want to do this to help Hina deal with her superior making unwanted advances on her, but she also likes you. You’re giving her false hopes for a real connection. She might be okay with it for a while, but she’ll realize that she’ll never have you. That’ll make her really sad. It’s like if you’re only with me because you pity me or something and don’t actually love me.”

I sigh. “I guess you’re right. I could make it really clear to her what to expect from the beginning. I just wanna help her in any way I can.”

“I know you do. You can try asking, but I don’t think she’ll do it.”

“Hmm… You’re right. I’m better off not asking. Well, I’d better get ready,” I say and head into the bathroom. I take a shower, get dressed, put on my armor, and clip on my scabbards. Marin’s already dressed.

We head down and eat breakfast. When it’s close to the start of the training time, we go our separate ways. I happen to run into Luke.

“Morning,” I say.

“Morning, Kai,” he says.

“Thanks for covering for me yesterday. I’ll cover for you for lunch break or something today if you want.”

“Nah, I’m good.”

I recall a part of my conversation with Hina yesterday. Now’s a good chance to ask Luke what Hina did to get them blacklisted. “By the way… What’d Hina do exactly to get you guys blacklisted a while back? Something about pissing off villagers?”

“Oh…” he interjects and looks behind him. “Yeah, come here.”

He gestures me to follow him, so I do. We go to the side of the building nearby. He continues, “Hina’s still in there, so I don’t want her to know that I’m telling you this.”

“Right, go on.”

“Well, basically Hina took on a request to collect taxes from Beltan when they haven’t paid for months,” he explains.

I widen my eyes. That’s where Ragnar and Ariane…

He continues, “Well, we thought it was strange she would take on a request like that, and it became clear when we arrived. Apparently, she heard something from Marin about your involvement in two deaths. Marin also told her about the death threats that you constantly receive from the village as well. So she gave them an earful. Saying that you wouldn’t do anything like cold-blooded murder. That you had a reason that no one else would understand.”

I’m amazed Hina believed my side of the story despite whatever Marin told her and understood my situation. Is it because of our shared experience of what happened during the tournament? Something that no one else would understand other than us. So she was blacklisted for my sake…

“In the end, the villagers were so angry that they wouldn’t hand over the overdue tax money anymore. So, Hina threatened that she would drown their crops if they didn’t hand it over.”

“Did she do it?” I ask, even though I probably know the answer. Hina said it was a minor incident. Although I’m not sure how threatening a village counts as minor.

“Nah, she figured that they wouldn’t hand it over to us no matter what. We left after that. Captain Citrio was pretty pissed. He had to go to Beltan himself to diffuse the situation afterward. So, we got blacklisted for a week.”

“I see.” The blacklist was longer than us because ours was simply a misunderstanding that was cleared up. I still can’t be too lax about this mission. “How’s training progressing from your end?”

“Looks pretty good. They have potential,” he says.

Potential? I seriously doubt he means that. I saw nothing in my group of villagers.

“They just need more time. Looks like we’ll be out of here today, though. Hina and Simon’s handling the last batch of villagers who haven’t used a Magic Scroll yet.”

“Good. Let’s get this over with,” I say and walk toward my designated training area.

The villagers arrive shortly. I drill them through the same training exercises as before for several hours up until lunch break. Hina and Simon inform us that they’ve used up all of the Magic Scrolls, so we prepare to leave.

Our ride back to the capital is just as long as our journey to the village; at least six hours. The five of us report to General Nero immediately. Hina and I give him the rundown.

“Good work. Everyone leave the room for a moment while I speak to Sergeant Kai and Sergeant Hina,” General Nero says. “I have another task for you two.”

Marin, Luke, and Simon leave the room silently. He continues, “I’ve received a report about some suspicious individuals residing in Aramore. I want you two to investigate immediately.”

Fuck you. I frown and clench my fists. We just traveled practically half a day from that village and we have to go back immediately without a break.

“Yes, sir,” Hina says.

“You have something you want to say, Sergeant Kai?” General Nero asks.

I relax and reply, “I think we deserve a break. Can’t we leave in the morning instead of now?”

“Normally, that would be acceptable, but, this is urgent. We’re shorthanded right now and I need you two to go there. You’re also familiar with the villagers already.”

“Urgent? Wouldn’t it be better if we all went?” I ask.

“Yes…very urgent. The fewer people the better for this matter. We don’t want to attract too much attention. I have a different task for the other three.”

“What’s urgent about it? You told us the training mission was urgent as well, but we don’t know why. I think we’d have a better grasp of the situation if you told us.”

“It’s classified information. I can’t tell you. All you need to do is follow my orders. I assure you, we’re all working toward the same goal; the safety of our kingdom. Now, hurry along. The client will be waiting in the place called the Hodgepodge,” he says and hands us the signed request.

Hina and I look at each other briefly before answering, “Yes, sir.”

We leave the room, passing the others waiting outside. We say our goodbyes before walking back to the stables. We request two horses and a wagon. We begin our journey to Aramore once again.

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