The Selection

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Chapter 55 - Inteiru Expota - Meeting

Neither of us says anything as we leave the city. I want to say something, but it feels hard to say anything considering how we ended our last interaction. I didn’t plan on asking her about that thing either, but I feel like I need to after finding out about what she did for us. At the same time, I don’t want to make things even more awkward between us if she’s not interested in that sort of thing. Especially since we have to complete this mission with just the two of us.

“So, I guess you can’t show me your new tricks yet,” I say to break the silence.

“I guess not. There’ll be a time for that, eventually. Look forward to it because it’ll blow you away,” she answers with a grin.

“You’re over-exaggerating,” I say, skeptical. “Now I’m gonna be disappointed if it isn’t anything amazing.”

“It is, so you won’t be.”

“Right… Anyway, how much of a coincidence is that the meet-up point’s at the Hodgepodge? That’s just weird. I mean, think about it. General Nero must’ve received a report about the suspicious individuals in Aramore when we were already here. Doesn’t that mean the client or whoever made the report was there the whole time? They could’ve just brought it up to us instead of sending a request all the way back to Drymo.”

“It is a bit weird, but it’s probably just a coincidence. We’ll find out when we get there.”

“Yeah, I guess…” I say. I still can’t bring myself to ask her about the threesome.

“You don’t have to stay up with me, you know,” Hina says. “I know how you like your naps. If you’re tired, go ahead.”

“Nah, I’m good,” I answer. I’d like to sleep, but… I wouldn’t be able to anyway with this on my mind. There’s no better time than now when we’re completely alone. Who knows when I’ll have that chance again when we arrive at Aramore.

“Don’t be modest. I know you’re tired. That’s why you asked about leavin’ in the mornin’, right?”

“Oh… That was… Well… I was actually worried about you, as your friend. Because that’s what friends are for.”

“You’re actin’ weird…but thanks for your concern. I’m fine, so go ahead. Only one of us needs to be up right now. I’ll count on you on our way back.”

It’s hard to say anything back to that. But if I fall asleep now, I’ll probably miss the best chance to ask her. It’s now or never. I gulp. “Actually… I… Umm…talked to Marin last night about your…problem.”

Hina looks at me with a contorted expression. “You what?

“I told her about Captain Citrio…and your concerns…” I continue. I feel like if I don’t get to the point, she’ll get the wrong idea. “I asked Marin for permission first and she’s fine with it.”

“Permission for what?”

“Well… Basically, you can join us at night and sleep next to me, if it makes you feel safer. We can also fake being lovers…to really get Captain Citrio off your back. But we really won’t be because…well… I have Marin.”

I finally say it all, but have no idea how she’s going to react to this. My heart’s pounding but only because of the awkwardness. It doesn’t matter to me if she accepts or declines. Just a friendly gesture, as her friend.

“Are you serious?” Hina asks.

I nod silently.

Hina gulps and responds, “I’ll have to think about it.”

With that, she faces forward again. That went smoother than I thought. A weight off my shoulders.

I fully stretch out my body with my back against the wagon. I should sleep. I close my eyes and relax.

Someone lightly taps on my cheek. “We’re here.”

I open my eyes and yawn. We’re in the village already, but not sure where. The Hodgepodge definitely isn’t around here. It’s hard to see clearly since it’s dark. I ask, “Where’re we?”

“Opposite side of town to the Hodgepodge,” she answers.

“What? Why’d you park us so far out?”

“Because we don’t want to attract too much attention.”

“That’s why we came alone though. He didn’t specify that we have to sneak around. Faster we get this done, the sooner we can leave. He says it’s urgent so let’s go,” I say and hop off the wagon.

Hina sighs. “I know you only follow orders to a T without carin’ about anythin’ else, but come on. Can’t you exercise a little more caution? It’s not like bein’ sneaky here goes against his orders.”

She’s right. I just didn’t want to be here, to begin with. I concede, “Fine…”

“Don’t worry. I’ll take responsibility if anythin’ goes wrong as a result of bein’ careful,” she says.

I force a smile. “Whatever, take the lead.”

I follow her lead through the village. It’s not as big as the city, so walking to the Hodgepodge from here won’t be too bad. The place is quiet, as expected, considering that it’s a few hours past midnight. Hina avoids the main path and instead goes through the space between houses. I understand why she wanted to park the wagon far away since it’s noisy, but to me, this is way more suspicious than simply taking the main route. If anyone sees us, they’ll only think that we’re up to no good compared to casually strolling down the path.

Eventually, we reach the Hodgepodge. Hina tries to open the front door, but it’s locked. She turns toward me, expecting a solution. But don’t look at me. She probably already knows what I’d be willing to do in this situation. I shrug.

“I’m goin’ to break the lock,” Hina whispers.

What? Absolutely not,” I answer back quietly.

She laughs softly. “I’m kiddin’.”

I frown and shake my head. If I don’t suggest something sensible to do, she might do something crazy without my consultation. I highly doubt only one of us would be punished if something does go wrong. “Try knocking.”

She nods and turns to the door. A thought suddenly crosses my mind. What if she bangs on the door and ends up waking up one or more villagers? I grab her arm before she has a chance to knock.

“I got this,” I say.

Hina grabs my arm this time. “Wait… You’re not thinkin’ of bangin’ on the door, are you?”

“Of course not… Why would I do that? I don’t want to inconvenience any villagers with the noise.”

“Okay, just checkin’. I mean, you were expectin’ us to go through the front with the transport practically tellin’ everyone in the area that we’re here, but it wouldn’t be our fault if those suspicious people catch wind of it and flee.“

That remark wasn’t really necessary, but it’s partially true. I don’t say anything back and finally, proceed to knock on the door. With enough force that it’s audible, but no one from the neighboring houses will notice. We wait a full minute in dead silence.

Damn it. If this was going to happen, we should’ve left in the morning… but General Nero wanted us to go immediately. Now, look what happened. Whoever requested this didn’t know when we would arrive. Of course, they wouldn’t be awake waiting for us right now. I sigh.

“Looks like we’re crashing here for a few more hours. Turns out our immediate trip here was a waste of time. Urgent mission, my ass,” I say. “Let’s just find the nearest inn and stay there until dawn.”

“Yeah…” Hina says with little energy. A bit unusual for her.

“What’s wrong?”

“No-nothing. Let’s go,” Hina says and turns away, walking back where we came from. I follow her but then a door creaks from behind me. I stop and look behind me. The door’s open at the red house across from the Hodgepodge. That’s where I saw the two hooded figures before. A young man walks out.

“We’re you meeting someone at the Hodgepodge?” he asks.

Hina and I look at each other for a moment. Hina answers, “Yes. You’re the one who made the report about a few suspicious figures?”

“Yes… Come inside and I’ll fill you in on the details,” the man says and gestures his arm inside the house. I was expecting some older folks to be living here considering that two people didn’t go to the training sessions. Maybe he was preoccupied…with someone. But since they were both standing up looking out the window, that doesn’t seem plausible anymore. Maybe he had guests over and they were waiting? I follow Hina toward the entrance.

Doesn’t look like there are any lights on inside. Almost complete darkness other than the light from the night sky. The man asks, “It’s only you two who came, right?”

“Yes, that’s right,” Hina answers as she walks inside. The man closes the door behind us. Now it’s really pitch black. “It’s a bit dark in here, can you turn on the lights?”

“Yes, of course. We’ll go into this room on the left.”

I use the outline of the barely visible wall and the sound of his footsteps to guide me. I have a bad feeling about this.

Hina screams as soon as she walks into the room. It only lasts a brief moment as her voice is cut off. Shit!

I immediately reach for my sword, but it’s too late. A blade is pointed at my neck and something else stopped my hand from drawing my weapon. A man says, “Don’t move.”

I gulp. I didn’t sense them at all. That means either two things. They’re good at hiding their killing intent or they mean no harm. Or both. We’re still alive, so that’s good news.

A lantern is lit on the other side of the room, revealing several hooded figures in the room. Four of them are split evenly between Hina and me while the last one holds the lantern.

What are you planning?” the woman asks. Her accent is a bit strange.

What the hell’s she talking about? Seeing how Hina has her mouth covered, she can’t say anything. I respond, “What’re you talking about?”

“Do not play dumb with me. You were here earlier to provide training that has since concluded. Why have you come back?”

I have a fairly good idea what’s going on here. The man wasn’t really the client…but that these people are the suspicious individuals the person who put in the request wanted to investigate. I have to be really careful about how to answer the question. She apparently knows about the training mission we were here for, so I can’t really lie in this situation. If I reveal that we’re here to investigate them, would they end up killing us? If we don’t report back to General Nero soon, obviously he would know something happened. That would be the last thing these people want.

“We’re here because of another request,” I confess. “Someone saw some suspicious individuals and we came to investigate.”

“Do not lie to me… That request was just an excuse for you to reach the border, am I correct?”

“No, border? Neomeris?” I ask, remembering that we’re fairly up north.

“Yes. You were planning on meeting your associates up there inside the pond to purchase some goods.”

“Inside a pond? Goods? I really have no idea what you’re talking about…”

“You do not?” the woman asks and takes off her hood. My eyes widen. She has long, curly, golden hair. She’s a beauty, but what really catches my eye are her long, pointy ears.

“You’re an Elf?” I read about them in books but never seen one for myself. They really are as beautiful as they say. It also explains why her accent is new to me.

“Yes… You do know what this means, do you not?” she asks with her eyes locked into mine. Her eyes shine green despite that it’s dimly lit in here. Her stare feels much more menacing now without her hood on.

“Not particularly…”

“Nevermind that. Let us discuss your business partners. Do you know how dangerous they are? Who knows if they will let you live after you finish your trade.”

I sigh. She doesn’t get it. I have no idea what the hell she’s talking about, but she’s acting like I’m actually following her crazy train of thought. “Look, I really think you have us confused for someone else.”

“Do I really? So you are not planning anything at the Inteiru Expota with your snake friends?”

Snake… Snake?! I immediately think of the masked man. My scar tingles. I could never forget the shape of that black snake symbol. I clench my fists and jaws. Does this woman know something about them?

“Do you know something about them?! The white masked men?”

The woman doesn’t answer. A few seconds later, she says, “Let them go. They are not our enemy.”

“Are you sure, my Lady?” the man next to me asks.

“Yes. I did not detect any lies from him and his anger is genuine.”

I’m not sure what I did, but they sheath their weapons and let me go. They release Hina too. I still really want to know what she knows about the masked men, but I relax. I don’t want them to turn hostile again.

“I apologize for the rough introduction, but I had to make sure that you are not our enemy and that you are someone that can be trusted. My name is Viessa,” the woman says. “And I am the one who put in the request that was assigned to you.”

I knit my eyebrows. Wait… That doesn’t make any sense. No matter how I look at it. Dark-hooded outfits in a house with no light. They’re fairly suspicious. Are they hiding from someone else or is she telling me that she put in a request to put an investigation on themselves?

“What do you mean, you put in that request?” Hina asks. “There’s no way you did. Otherwise, General Nero would’ve told us we were meetin’ an Elf.”

“Viessa asked me to put in the request,” the young man who led us here answers. “I owed her that much for saving my life.”

“Why would you do that in the first place?” I ask.

“You do not know anything, do you?” she asks. I cock an eyebrow. She sighs and then continues, “We are breaking international laws just by staying in this village. The Inteiru Expota is happening soon and any if word spreads, it could mean canceling the event and possibly spark a war. I needed to get contact with the army without bringing attention to myself.”

She mentions it again. I rest aside the matter of the masked men for now. I ask, “Inteiru Expota?”

“You do not even know that much? It is a grand gathering between all the representatives from all races that occurs once every three years. The next one is in about three weeks.”

Grand meeting? Three weeks… Suddenly, the training mission General Nero assigned to us makes more sense. He’s bolstering our defenses…but what’s the point in that? I gulp.

“What’s so important that you needed to break laws and risk sparkin’ a war?” Hina asks. “There’s no guarantee we’ll stay quiet about this.”

“You are right, but we have safety measures for that. The risk matters not. It is imperative that I speak with the king about extremely concerning matters.”

“Is it about the masked men that attacked Drymo seven months ago?” Hina asks.

“Masked men…the boy did mention that as well. What is this attack you are talking about?”

“How can you not know? It was a large scale attack. The damages were huge and over a thousand people died,” I inform.

What?

“You know something about them, don’t you? You mentioned something about a snake… The masks these people wore had a black snake symbol running across the left side of the mask.”

“No… I do not,” she says. An answer I didn’t want to hear. “I was talking about snake earrings. It is a bandit group that operates in Neomeris…but may be connected to this attack you speak of.”

“Do members of that bandit group wear the snake earrin’ around their left ear?” Hina asks.

“Yes. How did you know?”

Hina smiles and then turns to me. “We finally found a lead, Kai.”

“What’re you talking about?”

“The referees. Don’t you remember?”

Oh! Right. Those suspicious looking referees back in the tournament. I completely forgot about them. Hina found that one of the three executives of a bandit group in Neomeris resembled one of them… His name was…I don’t remember. Are they related to the masked men…?

“It seems you know of them.”

“Not really, but we were hopin’ to learn more about them.”

“Very well. We will exchange information on what we know but you must also put in good word for us to meet with the King.”

Hina answers, “We can’t do that, but we can report it to our super—“

“No. That will not work for us. It must go directly to the King.”

“Why’s that?” I ask.

“I cannot say.”

“What do you mean? Isn’t this about the bandits with the snake earrin’s? About how they might launch an attack on the Inteiru Expota?”

“Yes…but there is more to it. It is better for you not to know for your own safety. “

“What’s in it for you to help us?” Hina asks.

“I have told you. It is to seek a private audience with the King. But if you cannot do it, we will find other ways to make it happen.”

“We didn’t say we couldn’t do it. We can report it to our highest superior, General Nero. He has direct access to the King,” Hina informs. “I meant why you’re meddlin’ in Human affairs. As far as I heard, Elves aren’t exactly fond of Humans. I’m sure most Elves would love to see an attack happen at the Inteiru Expota to give them another reason to hate Humans.

Viessa smiles. “You are correct. There are many extremists who think that way. However, I wish to pursue friendly relations with Humans. I do not harbor ill will against your kind despite the many that do. I want nothing more than the Inteiru Expota to proceed smoothly. Helping the Humans deal with one of the troublesome outlaw groups that populate the kingdom would be a sign of good gesture in addition to guaranteeing that the Inteiru Expota occurs peacefully. It would also show many Elves that the bad reputation Humans have earned are attributed to evil criminals that do not follow the traditional law, especially if the Army themselves were to stop the menace.”

“That’s all?” Hina asks.

“Well, I wish for all the races to coexist in every sense of the word, eventually. So that means that we must also reconcile our relationship with the Dwarves… Ensuring that this meeting goes well is very important for my goal.”

“Do you know what they discuss at the meetin’?” Hina asks.

“I do not, but there was a steady progression toward co-existence in the last decade. Neomeris was first declared neutral territory for all the races nearly a decade ago. That means that other races could live there or do work. In the last Inteiru Expota, other races other than Humans could enroll into the Academy in Neomeris. It may be that in a month, staying in this village would not be breaking any laws.”

“I see… I hope that your dream comes true. I want to learn more about other races. I’m Hina, by the way.”

“I’m Kai,” I introduce. My fingers move around restlessly. My curiosity is getting the better of me.

“Are you goin’ to the Inteiru Expota as a representative?” Hina asks. Something about the air around Viessa and the way she speaks gives me that feeling too. Like she’s a minister or from a wealthy family.

“No, of course not. I am simply an Elf who wishes for a bright, warm future,” she says with a smile. She sounds convincing, but I still feel like she’s lying.

Well, if she was someone important, there’s no way she was able to make it this far without being discovered. Even though they did address her in a formal way. Probably just from a rich family. But then again, that doesn’t really explain these guards. They’re not ordinary at all. I can tell. The guards around Sitos’ home was at a much lower level, and they never really had anyone escort them. They were capable fighters though. This woman might not be. Pointless thinking about this. Now onto the real matter.

“Now we have that out of the way, tell us about this criminal group you’re talking about. The one with the snake earrings,” I say.

“Hold on a second,” Hina interrupts. “Why’re you makin’ a detour to Drosera about a criminal group that operates in Neomeris? Shouldn’t you be goin’ to the Neomeris government instead?”

Oh, right. I was so focused on finding out more about the criminal group that I didn’t think about that. Viessa doesn’t know about the attack on Drymo and she went to Drosera instead of Neomeris despite that. But why?

“That is…”

“What’s that other piece you haven’t told us?” Hina asks. Viessa looks down. “You don’t have to worry about our safety. Kai and I are pretty strong. We graduated from the top of our class at the Academy.”

“I see. I suppose I can let you in on the secret if you also promise that you will not do anything rash.” Hina and I nod our heads. “The thing is, they are disguising themselves with Drosera’s symbol.”

“So they’ve killed some of our own?” Hina asks.

“I do not know.”

This reminds me of the time we went to Beltan. Ragnar mentioned bandits killing and then taking the equipment of Drosera’s soldiers. While it didn’t occur to me at the time, that could be a serious problem. Especially now that I know about the Inteiru Expota. “Are you worried that these criminals are gonna do something and frame us?”

“To put it simply, yes. That is why I must speak to your king about this as soon as possible. Since they are impersonating Drosera, your country is affected the most. It is only right to inform you first. You should take care of your own matters for yourselves.”

Something about this still doesn’t feel right. This still doesn’t explain why she needs to meet with the king herself. She’s still hiding something. I don’t think she would go through all this trouble just to take some credit for discovering something about this bandit group. “Wouldn’t it be faster if we went there ourselves to tell General Nero, and then he can tell the king? Why do you need to go there yourself?”

“I’m wonderin’ the same thing.”

“Well, I am meeting him for other reasons as well. While I am not a representative for the Inteiru Expota, I know someone that is. I planned on informing the king about a few matters that would be good to know about. You two seem trustworthy, but you understand that I cannot share it with you.”

Seems like we won’t get any more than that. Back to the matter on hand. “So, what do you know about that criminal group?”

“I do not know much about them since I have only been here for a short duration, so my knowledge about them is limited. I knew that this group, in particular, has evaded authorities for a long time, so I wished to help with that. I do know a few things however, from word of mouth and discovery.”

“Like what?” I ask.

“They operate mainly in Neomeris, are involved in the black market, and have been around for around a decade.”

“Isn’t that when Neomeris was declared neutral territory?” Hina asks.

“Yes, unfortunately, it may not have been a coincidence. Despite that Neomeris was neutral territory, many people have been hesitant on visiting due to their activity. Humans, in general, more or less have been blamed as a result. They have been more active this year, and I fear that they may have something planned for the Inteiru Expota. The event was almost canceled seven months ago when Elf slaves were found inside one of the noble’s homes at Syrina, the capital of Neomeris. There was an international outrage. Both sides had large armies present and war could have broken out at any time. The stalemate lasted well over a month but ended without conflict.”

“And you think that the group with the snake earrings played a role in that? The attack on Drymo was around seven months ago too.”

“Yes, I think they planted those Elves there. I am interested in hearing more about this attack. The timing seems too convenient to be a coincidence.”

I bite my lip and look down. Chills spread throughout my body just thinking about that day. “There isn’t much to be said. I was taking a nap when suddenly, I heard loud bangs outside. It was already chaos. After that, I went looking for my friends when… I discovered it was too late. I met one of the masked men there responsible for my friends’ lives. I’m certain he’s the one who led the attack. Later, I found that the Academy took the worst hit. All the students had either died or were tortured. The school and dormitory were basically demolished.”

“I am sorry for your loss. The attack seems to have been very serious. It must have been planned meticulously. The attackers took advantage of the fact that a large chunk of the army went to Neomeris and the defenses were low.”

“There was another reason too,” Hina adds. “Many high-ranked adventurers were absent as well due to a high reward for an expedition to the Cursed Territory.”

I remember something. There’s one thing in common between what Viessa told us and the attack on Drymo. A scapegoat. “There’s one more important thing you need to hear about. There was a wealthy family who the army found to be conspiring with the masked men due to the amount of evidence they found in their household. I know for a fact they wouldn’t do anything of that sort. I talked to the head himself and it sounded like he knew something but wouldn’t say. His son was one of my closest friends who passed away. He was made out to be a complete criminal. When I know for a fact he was tricked and manipulated by the masked men.”

“It is highly likely that the masked men who attacked your city were working with the group who almost sparked a war between our kingdoms or are part of the same group. Hearing your story has convinced me. You mentioned before that you knew of the criminals who wore the snake earrings on the left ear. How did you come to learn that?”

Hina explains, “It was around two years ago when we were participatin’ in the tournament at the Academy. There was a group of referees we found to be really suspicious in the way they behaved and acted. We learned that they were substitutes for the original referees that were assigned for the job. I dug around lookin’ for information and found that no one had seen the original referees. I also discovered that one of the executives of a bandit group in Neomeris had brown slicked back hair and a golden nose ring which matched a description of one of the referees. This was when I learned that all their members had a snake earring coiled around their left ear which the referees did not have, but still suspicious.”

“That is very suspicious indeed.”

“His name’s Gudar unless he was usin’ a fake name. Does that sound familiar to you?” Hina asks.

“No, it does not. I do not know any of their names or what they are called. They are good at hiding and keeping a low profile. I thought that between all their illegal activities, a few of their lower-ranked members would make more mistakes and be caught, but it has not happened yet. It makes me think that their group is either small or well-trained. They have more than one hideout and they are all most likely very well hidden. I stumbled upon one of their members jumping into a small lake and not resurfacing. The entrance to one of their hideouts must be underwater.”

“A hideout underwater? That doesn’t seem possible. Have you told anyone about it yet?” I ask.

“It sounds far-fetched but there is no other explanation. It would explain why no one has discovered their hideout yet. I discovered it at the same time as them disguising themselves as Drosera soldiers and did not have time to go back to Syrina. I will inform them after I have spoken with your king.”

“Where’d you find that lake?” I ask.

“Did you not make a promise to me that you would not do anything rash? I am sure that you are a very capable fighter, but it would be wise if you stay away from them. I will not lead you to your deaths. That is all that I know about them, so now I will tell you what to relay to your leader. There is a small lake southeast of this village inside a small forest. That will be the meeting point. We will wait there for as long as two weeks. Time is of the essence, so the sooner the better. Do you understand?”

“Yeah, we got it. We’ll head out now and make sure to pass along your message,” I say.

Before I have a chance to leave the room, Viessa says, “One more thing. Nothing will come of revenge.”

Nothing? I don’t think so. I ignore her remark and leave the house. Hina follows. I sigh. “Well, it’s time to go all the way back to Drymo.”

Hina’s looking down. She doesn’t seem too thrilled about it. I continue, “Let’s take the shortest path back to the wagon instead of going around in circles. You can take your nap while I take the reins this time.”

“Actually…” Hina mutters. She stops behind me. Her eyes wander left and right. “I thought about what you said, and I’m fine with it.”

She walks closer to me with flushed cheeks and continues, “So…let’s do that here. I don’t want to sleep in the carriage.”

I’m caught off guard by her sudden proposal. I thought she would take at least a day to think about it. “What about the mission? It’s really important that we pass along Viessa’s message…”

“It shouldn’t be a problem if we delay it by a few hours. She said that she’d be waitin’ for two weeks.”

“But the sooner the better…”

“She’ll understand that we need rest. General Nero won’t know that we made immediate contact with the client.”

“Well, alright,” I concede. A few hours of sleep can’t hurt. It’ll be rude to refuse at this point considering that I’m the one who brought up the suggestion to her.

We head for the nearest inn. It takes a few minutes to receive some service considering the time of day, but we purchase one room for one night. Silence follows us up the stairs and into our room. Even though we both agreed on doing this, it doesn’t make it any less awkward.

Hina takes off her armor and says, “I’m goin’ to use the bathroom really quick.”

She goes into the bathroom and closes the door. I take off my armor and sheaths, dropping them to the ground. A little chilly without my armor on because of those armor warmers. I need to take a leak too, so I wait for Hina to finish.

The water rushing from the shower resounds. What does the word quick mean to her? I sigh. If she was going to take this long, I should’ve gone first.

Ten minutes pass, but she’s not done yet. Bah.

I leave the room. I contemplate on going into one of the other rooms, but I have no way of knowing if they are occupied. It would be a really awkward situation if I came upon a room someone simply forgot to lock. Don’t want to create a scene. It won’t be pleasant, but I go outside. No one’s really going to notice at this time of day. I go to the side of the building and relieve myself.

I go back inside into the room upstairs. Hina’s already in bed. I lock the door.

“Where’d you go?” Hina asks.

“Needed to take a leak,” I answer and walk over to the bed. How many clothes should I take off? Since we’re just sleeping together, probably just my pants. I take off my boots and pants before crawling into bed.

Hina immediately scoots closer to me. That’s when I realize, I made a huge mistake. Her hand squeezes my nether regions. One stream of her warm breath moisturizes my face.

Whoa!” I interject and sit up immediately. The blanket uncovers me and her. She’s completely naked. My lower half can’t help but feel excited.

“What’s wrong? Was I too aggressive?” she asks. “I thought you wanted me to initiate since you didn’t take off your clothes.”

“I-uh-this…” I mutter. “I…sorry. There’s been a misunderstanding.”

My eyes dart between her bare body to her face to the wall and back again. I continue, “Marin said it was fine to do this with us three together…but not if it was just you and me. I thought we were just strictly sleeping together today.”

“Oh…” Hina says with little energy. She frowns and lies back down. “Sorry for jumpin’ to conclusions…”

I feel really bad. I thought it was clear what my proposal to her included, but it wasn’t. I lie down again covering the blanket over the both of us.

“Hey, Kai.”

“Yeah?”

“Is it fine if we cuddle? I won’t do anythin’, I promise.”

“Okay,” I answer. That seems reasonable. As long as we’re not doing anything. I turn over to my side, facing her.

“Can you ditch the shirt too?”

I’m a bit hesitant because then it’ll be skin to skin contact. But it’s the least I could do for her. I got her expectations high over bad communication. Just to be sure, I say, “We’re not gonna have sex today, just so we’re clear.”

“I understand. I’ll respect it.” I take off my shirt and toss it on the ground. We wrap our arms around each other, pressing our bodies closer together. I try to main composure, keeping my bottom half in check, but it’s failing. “Thanks. Good night, Kai.”

“Yeah, good night,” I say and close my eyes. Too wide awake to fall asleep though. It takes all of my willpower just to keep myself from doing anything I shouldn’t be doing. My hands become restless. I slide them up and down her back without going into any danger zone.

“Sorry, you can’t sleep like this, can you? I want to stay like this for a bit longer. I don’t mind if your hand slips. Just kiddin’ though. I know you won’t,” she says and then giggles.

“You’re quite a handful,” I say and lie on my back with one arm still around her. This way, I can’t give in to the urge to touch her more than I would to a friend. I take my mind off things by thinking about what we learned from Viessa. “So it seems like General Nero knows more than what he’s letting on. I learned from a villager yesterday that the training were something the army forced on the villagers. General Nero did say that everything we’re doing’s for the safety of our kingdom… Does he already know that something will happen at the Inteiru Expota or is he just cautious?”

“He’s probably just cautious after what happened seven months ago.”

“I still can’t believe something that big was going on up there and we didn’t even know it. They must’ve been devastated to find out the city was attacked when they came home. Something could be happening now and we wouldn’t know.”

“I think Viessa would’ve told us if somethin’ like that was happenin’ now. “

“Yeah, you’re right… I wonder if the reason why Sitos’ family was so fast at being interrogated because of the similar things going on in Neomeris around the same time. We learned of the possible connection between one of those referees and the snake earring group a long time ago. We might’ve been able to stop the madness if we investigated deeper.”

“Don’t think about that, Kai. There’s nothin’ you or me could’ve done at that time. You heard Viessa. These men are dangerous. I think you and me both learned after the attack, we’re not as strong as we think we are.”

“Yeah, but it doesn’t make me feel any better about it. This stuff has also got me thinking. Be it these masked men or snake earrings. Without the masks or earrings to identify them, how would we know who they are? Those masked men could’ve been living among us this entire time. They could still be living there and we don’t know it.”

“I know, and it honestly scares me. I’m surprised no one has discovered anyone from the snake earrin’ group yet. Unlike the masked men, their faces are identifiable. It almost makes the snake earrin’s pointless because it gives them away.”

“It’s pretty dumb of them, but clearly, they aren’t dumb since they haven’t been caught yet. Maybe it’s just a way to stop friendly fire?”

“Not a very good way of doin’ it.”

“Nope.”

“Are you still goin’ to blindly follow all your orders after hearin’ what Viessa had to say today? I’m sure General Nero won’t let us in on what comes after this and we might not even be one of the escorts to the Inteiru Expota.”

“Escorts to the Inteiru Expota?”

“Yeah. There has to be one, right? Our kingdom’s representatives will be goin’ there. During that international conflict, the elites went there in case a war broke out. The stakes are high and there has to be some kind of escort in case things go wrong.”

It’s a hard decision. I told myself that no matter what, the safety of Marin and Ruby comes first. But, it’s also really important to find out as much as I can about the masked men and the snake earring group if I’m ever going to find that man responsible for everything.

Hina continues, “If you want to break orders and investigate about anythin’, count me in. I’ll find a way to convince my platoon to help or just those from the Academy. “

“We’ll see what happens when we report back to General Nero. I’ll let you know.”

“Okay.”

“By the way, did you decide if you wanted to put on an act and pretend that we’re in a relationship?”

“Oh… Yeah. Let’s do it.”

“How do you wanna go about that? And are you gonna fill your platoon or friends in on it?”

“I’ll definitely fill in my friends on it and...about the circumstances. I won’t fill in everyone. It’s better if we minimize the number of people who really know. What about you?”

“Well, Marin already knows. Ruby… I’ll explain to her when I get a chance to. I won’t tell anyone else.”

“I see. We’ll have to plan something convincin’, otherwise, things could end badly for both of us.”

“Is the only time you see Captain Citrio in his office?”

“No… I see him sometimes in the cafeteria, the trainin’ area, the halls, and even near my room. He’s a total creep,” Hina says, tightening her grip around me. I’ve got to figure something out as a good friend would do.

“So basically, he stalks you?” I ask.

“I think so.”

“That’s a good thing, I mean, that’ll be good to utilize. So we’ll have to do some acting when we know he’s watching. Either you or me will confess with a big crowd so that everyone will see or hear about it. And then we go to my room or yours. Captain Citrio’s bound to follow us and find out the truth for himself. And that’s when he’ll hear us through the door. Of course, we’re not actually doing it…but he won’t know. You’ll have a real excuse for refusing his advances and he’ll back off. How’s that sound?”

Hina smiles. “Sounds good. But do we have to act…? We aren’t doing anythin’ this time because you asked Marin specifically if it was okay to join you two in bed, but can you ask again? I know your heart lies with Marin, and I’m fine with that. It’ll just be physical between us.”

My bottom half’s excited again. She stares at me intensely. I can’t find the right words to say. It’s not that I’m against doing this with Hina, but it feels like I’m betraying Marin for desiring it. It’s dangerous grounds even if Marin consented. I don’t want my feelings for Marin to change because of this. Hina continues, “For this plan to work, we’ll have to spend a few nights together a week or it’ll be suspicious. I want to make sure your needs are bein’ met too. I’m sure Marin would understand.”

“But I also won’t hold it against you or Marin if either of you doesn’t want to do this anymore. Doin’ this means that your time together would become limited. You would end up spendin’ more time with me, even though you don’t like me. If we go with this plan, it’ll be harder for you guys to keep your secret. If anyone found out, everythin’ will be for naught or worse. Your reputations would be ruined. You really shouldn’t be goin’ this far for me. I appreciate you goin’ this far already. I…” Her words stop short.

“Don’t say that. You’ve done a lot for me too. I heard about the real reason why you got blacklisted for a week from Luke yesterday. You believed me despite knowing nothing. Not even Marin believed me right from the start and she was at the scene. If Marin’s okay with this, I wouldn’t mind spending more time with you. I don’t dislike you. If I’m completely honest, I’m worried that doing this will change my feelings for Marin. Because I might actually like you. You’re cute and—“

Hina suddenly kisses me. A short one, before leaning back. Maybe to see how I would react. I liked it. It’s fine if we only kiss, right?

I lean forward this time to kiss her back, lightly on the lips. One kiss leads to the next, each one with more intensity than the previous.

I lay her on facing up and approach her lips from above. Her arms wrap around me, pulling me in as I kiss deeper. My body practically touching hers. My hands are too restless to stay idle. I put both of my hands on opposite sides of her waist, slowly moving up. Her breasts are petite but her nipples make up for it. I squeeze both of them. She squeals a little through her nose and her body squirms around. I’m not sure if she likes it.

She pushes me away, so maybe not. Her face is flushed. I ask, “Sorry, was that too hard?”

“N-no… I just think that we’re goin’ too far. Sorry I kissed you out of the blue. We should wait until you ask how Marin feels about all this.”

“Right…no, you’re right,” I say while lying down across from her. I don’t know what came over me.

“Are you disappointed you didn’t get to use that on me?” she asks while shifting her gaze between the bulge in the middle of the sheets and me. I frown and stare at her with no words to say to that. She laughs. “Just kiddin’.”

“You little rascal,” I say and then sigh.

“Well, we should get some sleep. I’ll give you some space so you aren’t distracted by my cuteness,” she suggests as she scoots on the opposite side of the bed. She smiles and says, “Good night.”

“Good night, Hina.”

With that, she rests her head on the pillow and closes her eyes. Looking in the same direction will only distract me further. I turn around to face away from her. I close my eyes and spend several minutes trying to relax, eventually drifting into sleep.

Ugh. How long has it been? Hina squeezes her grip around me. When did she…?

“Hina?” I ask but no answer. Her arms are shaking.

She’s really scared, even in her sleep. We’ve got to execute this plan as soon as possible so she doesn’t have to feel this way all the time. I roll my body around to face Hina. I hug her.

Her smiles and giggles from yesterday seem fake after seeing this. Although she could also miss her old boyfriend. We’ve all lost something. I probably still tremble in my sleep sometimes. Marin is there to support me, though. Friends support each other, and that’s what I should do.

I grab her shoulder and shake her.

“Mmm… Kai?”

“Time to get up,” I say and get out of bed. I start to get dressed.

“How long’s it been?”

“Well, it’s not dawn yet, so a few hours at best. If you wanna sleep more, you can in our ride back.”

“No, I don’t think I need it. That was the best sleep I’ve gotten in a while, even if it was only for three hours.”

“Really? Well, suit yourself.”

We make our preparations to leave immediately. Since we have the opportunity to dine outside the Castle, we take some provisions with us. Luckily, most of the villagers are still asleep and we’re able to leave the village without much of a commotion.

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