The Selection

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Chapter 62 - Inteiru Expota - Arrival

After another long ride, we arrive back at Drymo. From the looks of it, it’s past dinner time but not quite the usual bedtime. I’ve slept a lot during the ride, so I’ll be awake all night.

Our transport comes to a stop outside the stables by the Castle. I couldn’t be any more glad to be finally done.

“Those of you not going to the Clinic can leave here,” one of Captain Albius’ men says from the front of the wagon.

That’s right. There’s still a bit more to go since we’re going to be taking the back entrance to the Clinic. Ada and I should be the only ones injured here, but I’m sure her platoon will be staying too. That means, only Jetia and the two goons will be leaving. They should be glad that our group was pretty competent. They didn’t have to risk their lives much at all thanks to Ruby and the archers. Not even a scratch on them.

“You going to be busy with Hina tonight?” Jetia asks with a smirk. This bastard. He knows that it’s all an act.

“Of course,” I answer, forcing a smile. I can’t really answer any other way. “If she’s in the mood.”

“Kai, you lady killer,” Laud says.

“I hope Ruby doesn’t get too jealous. I’d hate if she lashed out at you or Hina again,” Garen says.

“As our leader, I hope you stay responsible for yer actions and don’t get us caught in the crossfire,” Jetia says and hops off the wagon and walks away. The two goons follow. Jetia continues, “I’ll let Hina know how you fought valiantly during the battle.”

The wagon continues moving.

“So, how’d you manage to calm Ruby down during that day?” Aisha asks. I slowly turn my head toward her. “She seemed a bit upset about the whole thing, given your…history.”

“You were there?” I ask.

“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to. Most of us from the Academy were there…but we didn’t want to get involved.”

What do I tell her? I can’t tell her the facts because no one can know the truth about the relationship between Hina and me. Not even her platoon knows. Would anyone ever believe that Ruby would simply calm down? I gulp.

“You and Hina always struck me as an unlikely couple. Hina’s more of a hard worker with a sense of justice. You’re nothing like that. It’s all a lie, isn’t it? That’s the only way I see how you calmed Ruby down.”

Shit. Sweat slowly creeps out my skin, everywhere. I try not to have any sort of reaction toward her words while keeping my head locked in place. I can’t hesitate to answer any longer. I crack a smile and reply, “I see how a lot of people like you would make have that misunderstanding, but first of all, I work plenty of hard. I simply like people to think that I don’t try. Why do you think I took naps all the time? I was training when everyone was sleeping at night.”

What the hell am I saying? No one’s buying this. But with three pairs of eyes on me, I can’t stop now. I continue, “Hina caught me in the act one day, and we instantly connected. Sorry, I’m not as talented as you thought I was. As for Ruby, I told her that my blossoming with Hina wasn’t a sudden thing. It wasn’t manipulation or anything like what she thought. I also lied and told her that Hina didn’t mean anything to me and that I might pursue her instead in the future. What can I say? I’m a lady killer like Laud said.”

“I...see…” Aisha replies with little energy. Not sure if she bought it. There’s no winning scenario here. People are going to have a false negative view about me if she did. “Your secret’s safe with us. We’re not going to meddle in your business. You are quite the lady killer, though. You managed to destroy Ada’s stubbornness and change her too. I’d approve of you two.”

I force a laugh. It’s the sound of my reputation dying. “You can’t be serious. I only have eyes for Hina.”

“Of course. I’m joking.”

The thought of Ada and me together as a couple sickens me regardless. Ada wouldn’t be pleased to hear that either if she was awake. Now might be a good time to bring up what is coming next. Though, I don’t know if Ada wants to involve the two novices with the investigation. With one of them here, maybe I shouldn’t bring it up. I’ll let her handle it. Hopefully soon because the Inteiru Expota is right around the corner.

We eventually reach the back entrance of the Castle and then pass through the nearby entrance to the Clinic. Aisha’s team carries Ada off the wagon and follows a man who presumably directs them to an empty room. I follow another man to the second floor. I’ve never seen the Clinic this populated before. We were probably the last ones to arrive from our respective Rising Champions battle, but it makes sense because the travel time is the longest. It’s still surprising to see so many with injuries, considering that we only had a few at best.

I arrive in an empty room. Apparently, there’s a waiting time before a doctor will come to see me. Since I’ll probably be here a while, it’s time to relax. I take off my armor and boots before stretching my body across the bed with my back resting on the frame. This is bliss compared to a hard rickity wagon. I close my eyes, practically melting into the bed while filtering all the noise.

“Kai?” Ruby asks.

I open my eyes. Ruby and Marin are next to me. I say, “Oh, hey.”

Ruby looks toward my bloody arm and asks, “How’re ya feelin’?”

“I’m fine. It’s not that bad.”

She grabs my hands and kneels, resting her head on top of them. “I was really scared, ya know. That ya weren’t gonna come back.”

She’s overreacting as usual. I let out a chuckle and then say, “Seriously, this is nothing. I’ve endured worse. There’s nothing to worry about.”

“No!” she screams tearfully. Her fluids wet my hands. “I’m talkin’ ’bout when ya were in the forest without us.”

Oh, when I was split from everyone for a while. “But I wasn’t alone. I was with Ada.”

“Yeah…but… Captain Albius was actin’ like ya were already gone. He said ya were probably already dead from monsters.”

“Really?” I ask, looking toward Marin. She nods her head. Jetia did say something like that too. I guess he wasn’t lying.

“Yeah… So I’m really glad yer okay now,” Ruby says and then sniffs.

So, she was worried about me whole-heartedly… It’s because I’m still too weak. I need to get stronger for the sake of Ruby and Marin. I don’t want to see Ruby or Marin sad. Seeing her crying like this reminds me of her. “Look, I’m fine now, so you don’t have to cry anymore.”

“I’m sorry. I’ll try ta stop cryin’ if it’s botherin’ ya,” she says while wiping her face with her sleeve.

“Uh, no. It’s not bothering me. You don’t have to force yourself.”

“No, I’m fine now,” she says with a smile. Her gaze penetrates me. Some water rushes into the back of my eyes, but I hold them back and look away. I always doubt myself during times like these that I made the wrong choice back then to cast her out, but it’s all a trick. It’s only her shell. I have to remember that.

“Hey, Darling,” Hina says. She appears from the hallway. “Heard you were back.”

“Hey Hi-Pearl,” I respond, correcting myself as Luke comes in the room too. Why is he here? This just complicates things.

“Pearl?” Ruby asks and turns around.

“That would be me,” Hina answers as she walks closer. Marin steps aside to make room for her. Hina climbs onto the bed on the side with my good arm. She moves her head closer to mine.

Is she crazy? This is a little bit too bold with Ruby in the room. Even though I told her that it’s all a lie anyway. But a kiss is a kiss. Now that she’s set this in motion, I can only follow. I lean in a bit, and we exchange a quick kiss on the lips. Ruby frowns and stares at us. I have no idea what she’s thinking right now. I need her to behave, or a lot of things will go to shit.

Just like how Aisha has been doubtful of us, maybe Hina is feeling pressure from other sources too. I put my arm around her.

“How’re you feelin’?” Hina asks. “Heard you fought valiantly.”

Damn Jetia. Always trying to screw me over. “Yeah, well. It was a hard-fought battle for a lot of reasons. This is my only injury.”

I move my left arm in view for everyone to see. It might be safe to divulge who I met during the battle with the people in this room, and it seems like a good time.

“Hina, I’m sorry…” Ruby suddenly says. “Fer attackin’ ya in the cafeteria that one day.”

“Apology accepted. As long as we have the mutual understandin’ that Kai isn’t yours. He’s mine,” Hina declares.

My palms sweat. God, it never ends.

“I understand,” Ruby says with a grin. “I hope ya take good care of ’im.”

I need to change the subject before any more tension builds up. I say, “So, there’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you guys… I met one of the masked men during the Rising Champions battle. The hard-fought battle? Yeah, it was with him.”

“How’d that happen?” Hina asks with a concerned expression. Ruby and Marin look at me with worry too. But it’s good that Ruby is holding back, especially, to not get touchy with me again.

I fill everyone in on the important details minus my true magic capabilities and summarize the stuff we learned from Viessa for Ruby and Luke.

“So, we’re probably gonna meet with Ada’s team sometime tomorrow to discuss our plan,” I inform.

“What do you think, Luke? Are you in?” Hina asks.

“Of course,” Luke answers.

“Do you think you can fill in Simon and Dennis?” Hina asks.

“I can do that. I’ll go now before the night’s over,” he says and then leaves.

I sigh.

“Ya can let go of ’er now, Kai,” Ruby says with a pout.

Right, there’s no reason to pretend with everyone in this room knowing the truth. I take my arm off Hina. Ruby switches her glare to Hina.

“I need to stay here for safe measure, in case someone else walks in,” Hina replies and then smiles. “Are you gettin’ jealous?”

I nudge Hina in the side with my elbow. She’s messing with Ruby too much. Who knows how she’ll react?

“Hmph!” Ruby interjects and turns away. She’s taking this a lot better than I thought.

“Still, I can’t believe you survived a head-on fight with one of the masked men,” Hina says. “And he let you two live afterward. There must’ve been another way to implicate Xantho if he wanted to do that.”

“Was he that guy that went boom! On that girl that one day?” Ruby asks.

“Yeah,” I respond. “We’ll never know what they’re really thinking until we capture them and ask them ourselves. I think that’s the goal at the Inteiru Expota. If they’re really gonna show up. We’re gonna find a way to capture one of them and find out what they know.”

“How do you plan on findin’ them? Are you goin’ to look for that lake? We don’t have any other clues where they might be,” Hina says.

“I don’t know, but they have to be keeping tabs on everyone who’re meeting at the Inteiru Expota right? They’d have to be in the city somewhere. We’d split up and look for suspicious people. Tail them and see where they go.”

“That’s not very safe to do alone, and it would be too obvious as a group. Not to mention, they’re givin’ us all these clues that they’re goin’ to appear. You’d think they’d cover their tracks because they’re expectin’ us.”

“You don’t know how that masked man fought was, but I was there. Ada could relate too. He seemed to like games. He chose to play along and give us a chance. Maybe, they’re all like that. They’re giving us these clues on purpose to mess around and have some fun.”

“That seems far-fetched. Meticulously plannin’ out an attack while purposely leavin’ holes around for it to fall apart. I think that man you fought was actin’ alone. Not a part of the group’s interest. I mean, you met him before at the Underground area after the attack right? He stuck around when all their other members left. He’s the only one treadin’ on the edge.”

“He wasn’t the only there, I know it. It might not be a part of their group operation as you said, but I can’t believe there’s only one person wanting to satisfy their own motives. What do you guys think?” I ask, tilting my head in Ruby’s and Marin’s directions.

“I’m on yer side!”

“I don’t know since I wasn’t there…but I’ll trust your judgment, Kai.”

“See? Three against one,” I say.

Hina sighs. “Right… We need more than a single plan that’s bound to fall apart.”

“We’ll think of more plans tomorrow in detail with everyone present. Someone has to have a good idea. Worst case, we’ll think of something once we’re there. It’ll work out,” I say.

“That blind confidence of yours is somethin’,” she says. Captain Albius walks in. Hina lunges her entire body toward me and exclaims, “I’ve missed you so much!”

I don’t know anymore if Captain Albius believes our ruse but better safe than sorry. I put my arm around Hina again after her outburst. “I’ve missed you too.”

I direct my attention to Captain Albius and say, “Hey, Captain Albius.”

“Hey, Sergeant Kai, how’re you feelin’?” Captain Albius asks. “I see you’re very popular with the ladies.”

I laugh and reply, “Not too bad. Still waiting for the doctor to show up.”

“They’re prioritizin’ Ada since her injuries were worse. Someone should be comin’ for you soon. Anyway, I have some news I wanted to bring you. I just got back from talkin’ to General Nero.”

“What kind of news?” I ask.

“All good news. First, General Nero was impressed by your performance in the Rising Champions. Your coordination with Corporal Ada to ward off an attack by one of the masked men was great, but he especially respects you for movin’ past the bad blood between you and Corporal Ada. It’s certainly fascinatin’ to him when Corporal Ada, who despised you greatly, vouchin’ that you saved her life and creditin’ you with good.”

“That’s my Darling!”

Captain Albius smiles before continuing, “The information you brought regardin’ the attackers on our city was good too. If you complete your upcomin’ task, there’s no doubt he’ll promote you to Lieutenant by the end of it. You’ll be the youngest man to have achieved Lieutenant in our entire history. Congratulations.”

I gawk, taking a few seconds to let that absorb before answering, “Seriously? Wow… Thanks.”

“Which brings me to the last piece of good news, General Nero respects your relationship with Sergeant Hina, and he’s groupin’ you two together for the upcomin’ mission. To be more accurate, Sigma 4 and Sigma 8 will be completin’ that mission together. It starts in two days in the morning. You’ll escort a few ministers from Drymo to Syrina where the Inteiru Expota starts in four days. You’re responsible for their safety for the entire event, three days and travel to and from Syrina. Full details available tomorrow.”

“Well, that’s all I got for you. If you need something, let me know,” he says and then walks away.

There’s that piece that Jetia and Ruby told me. Did Captain Albius really intend on abandoning us? It’s all a misunderstanding, but I’ll clear it up.

“Wait,” I say. He stops and turns around. “I heard you were hesitating on accepting Xantho’s deal on taking out the Keor for the victory. You were going under the assumption that Ada and I were both already dead.”

“Yeah, ya were gonna leave ’im! Don’t lie ’bout it!”

He’s expressionless and doesn’t say anything. Was everything true? He’s caught red-handed, so he doesn’t have anything to say back. But then, he bursts out laughing. “Yeah, my actin’ skills are pretty awesome. It was a loyalty test. I never planned on abandonin’ you in there. Why would I ditch someone I had high hopes for? Of course, Corporal Ruby and Corporal Marin backed you up. There wasn’t anyone else, but that’s okay, you excelled everywhere else. Sigma 3 passed it with flyin’ colors.”

I laugh and then reply, “I knew it was something else. It didn’t feel right otherwise.”

Speaking of Sigma 3, did they get selected for the upcoming mission? If they didn’t, there’s not much of a point to meet up with them to plan tomorrow. But, the whole point of the investigation and plan was to put our reputations on the line to become a Lieutenant quicker. If I’m already guaranteed the role, the risk isn’t worth it anymore. I could call in another favor from Captain Albius to help us out to reduce it, but the result could be so bad that I don’t end up as Lieutenant.

“Well, then. I’ll be on my way,” Captain Albius says and then leaves.

“Jeez… I seriously can’t believe you’re bein’ promoted to Lieutenant already,” Hina says. “Somethin’ isn’t right.”

“Is it so hard to believe? I’ve been following my orders and have had good results recently. You could learn from us,” I say with a smug.

“That’s exactly the problem. How many people here do you think follows their orders? Practically everyone. What makes you so different? If a few good results were all that’s needed to advance, there’d be a lot more promotions. On top of that, you’ll have achieved it in what…eight months?”

“It’s ’cause Kai’s the best! Yer just jealous. Don’t wanna admit that he’s more successful than ya,” Ruby says.

“Je-jealous? Of course not. I wouldn’t be jealous over my boyfriend,” Hina says and squeezes my arm tightly. Ruby frowns and glares. Hina lets go of me and says, “I’m kiddin’, okay? It’s just that I’ve been talkin’ to actual Lieutenants. I know exactly how much work, success, and luck it takes to become one. It has taken them anywhere between two and ten years from our rank. One person, in particular, I talked to took over a decade.”

“What about that one Lieutenant who we saw on our first day…? The one with orange hair and similar hairstyle as you, pigtails,” I say. “She seemed pretty young.”

“I haven’t talked to Lieutenant Elinnore, so I don’t know, but other people talk about her. I’ve heard…rumors.”

“Rumors? Like what?” I ask.

Hina looks at Marin and then Ruby before responding, “Nevermind. It’s only rumors. I don’t know if it’s true.”

“Come on, now you’ve got me curious. What rumors?” I ask again.

Hina sighs. “That she slept her way up the ladder. The words slut and whore were used. And she isn’t the only one. All the women at Lieutenant rank or higher have rumors floatin’ around, so I think it’s all garbage.”

“I see, so why were you hesitating on telling us?”

“Didn’t want to scare Ruby or Marin on what might be comin’. There’s no precedent for someone as young as you becomin’ Lieutenant. In record time too. People will be jealous, and rumors will start, seein’ how two young women are right under your command.”

“People are dumb. Us ex-adventurers are just superior to these masses of mindless guards. And General Nero got into his position within a year or two of us enlisting, right? Maybe he’s more progressive and wants to change how things are done, so how promotions are decided changed too.”

“You’re right. I’m sure the ones who spread the rumors about Lieutenant Elinnore and the other women are men who were rejected by them. They’re bitter and jealous about it. You know, I think the real reason why you start seein’ more women in the higher ranks compared to the lower ranks is because we’re more dedicated than men.”

“Wait, is that true?” I ask. I know that the army comprises of mostly men. Most women I’ve seen are ones from the Academy or new recruits on the same day we joined. Then there are the non-combatants, but not a whole not of women otherwise. “You’re saying that out of all the women and men here, the percentage of women in the higher ranks is higher than men, right?”

“Oh…yeah. It’s because we’re willin’ to sacrifice things, unlike men. Right?” Hina asks and looks toward Ruby. She gives her a dirty look. Probably misunderstanding again. Either that or she doesn’t like any statements that put me in a bad light. Hina looks toward Marin, but she stays silent. She’s been quiet this whole time, but this is a bit of a tricky situation. We don’t want to give Ruby any clues on who’s actually with who here.

“Well,” I interject. “I don’t know about that one. Are you trying to imply that you work harder than me?”

“No, I’m talkin’ about sacrifice and men in general. For example, when we have children, we’re always the ones who put everythin’ aside to raise the child while men leave us to do their own thing.”

“That’s got nothing to do with anything in the army, but I’ll bite. I grew up without my real parents; I only had Emdos. Marin’s parents were both adventurers, and neither of them gave it up. Ada’s real parents both abandoned them. Drugo and Hiro were orphans, and then there’s…” I stop, not wanting to bring up her name. Ruby looks away. “Jetia. He sacrificed his Academy education to take of his mother and still sends her money.”

“That’s only a few cases. I’m talkin’ about the general population. Could you say the same for all the mindless guards around here?”

“Hmm. Probably not,” I reply. She got me at mindless guards. Not a lot of people around here have a backbone. “You’re probably right.”

“And just so we’re clear, my father ran off when I was young, leavin’ my mother alone. I experienced it first-hand.”

“Oh, so you’re dragging personal feelings into this, after all,” I say with a smile.

“That doesn’t change anythin’…anyway, it’s only a possibility I thought up. We’re gettin’ too sidetracked here. When’re we meetin’ tomorrow?”

“Oh, umm… I don’t know.”

Hina smiles and cocks an eyebrow. “Wait, you’re not havin’ second thoughts about this, are you? Because you’re gettin’ promoted?”

I sigh. “A little bit. I mean, when I’m Lieutenant, I’ll freely be able to investigate. If things don’t go well during this time, General Nero might change his mind about promoting me to Lieutenant, right?”

“What happened to that blind confidence of yours? ’It’ll work out,’ you said.”

“That was before I knew I would be promoted to Lieutenant anyway. You were skeptical before, but now you’re suddenly on-board with the plan? Do you want us to fail, so my promotion’s gone?”

“I didn’t say I didn’t want to go through with the investigation. I said I wasn’t completely on-board with the plan you proposed. This is what I was talkin’ about before. You don’t want to take one for the team and sacrifice your promotion.”

“Come on, that’s not fair. You wouldn’t either if you knew you’d get a promotion.”

“No, I’d do it. Think about it. When you’re conductin’ your own investigation, you’ll only have your platoon. You won’t have my platoon or Sigma 3 to support you. You want to mess around with them with only Ruby and Marin as your reliable backup? And you won’t know where to find them. This time around, we know they’re goin’ to show up at the Inteiru Expota, and as you said, they’ve laid out clues for us to follow.”

She makes a good point. I can’t forget about the reason why I’m striving to become a Lieutenant. “Okay, fine. I might still go through with the plan. I’m gonna have to call in another favor from Captain Albius to see if he can assist us in any way. With the mission, it doesn’t sound like we can leave the ministers alone at any time, but maybe there’s a way. Hopefully, Ada’s team was selected for the mission too.”

“How does meetin’ at lunch or after lunch sound?” Hina asks.

“That’s fine,” I respond. Though we could meet as early as the morning. Since we had plenty of rest over our ride back, we don’t need any rest. It probably wouldn’t be good to be meeting the entire time, though. I don’t want gossip about us to circulate to General Nero. He’d be able to piece one thing with another and figure out that we’re planning something. He’s the last person I want to find out about what we’re doing.

I’ll have up until lunch tomorrow to meet with Ada and call in the favor with Captain Albius.

A doctor arrives a few minutes later to treat my injuries. Unfortunately, I split up with Ruby and Marin to accompany Hina to her room when it’s time to leave. We put on another act in case anyone is listening to keep up our charade. With nothing else to do, I force myself to sleep, waking up every hour of the night until morning.

We temporarily separate as I return to my room in the morning to take a well-deserved shower. Later, we meet up to check the mail station. I filter out the trash I always get from Beltan, to find the details of the mission in detail Captain Albius spoke of yesterday. We go to the cafeteria for breakfast, where I find the chance to meet up with Ada.

She filled in her entire team on what’s going on, but the two novices are fine with being left out of the plan. That means that there would be thirteen of us, assuming that Hina and Luke convince the other two Academy folk to join. I let her know that we’d be meeting around lunchtime. Perfect, since that’s when Ruby has agreed to always show up for lunch. Otherwise, who knows what she’s doing right now.

And so, the day passes. It’s finally the morning we leave for Syrina. The three ministers we’re escorting have a fancy convoy while we’re in the back of a wagon again. Despite that we’re responsible for the safety of them during the ride, we’re traveling as a kingdom, so there’s not much danger. Half of us lead the convoy while the other half follow it, sandwiching them in the middle.

The ride is long and boring. I’ve been having a lot of that recently. It takes eight hours to reach the border up north. For some reason, our pace slows down dramatically for our travel in Neomeris. Something to do with safety precautions, but you’d think it would be more dangerous traveling slower, but I don’t make the decisions. The eight of us take turns staying awake to keep watch.

The transportations take several stops throughout the ride because of monster attacks at the front, but we don’t get any action back here.

Just like that, Syrina is in our sights the next morning. Since we’re on higher ground, it’s a sight to behold. The city is immensely massive. Since I’ve never been to any other city outside of Drymo, I don’t know what the standard is. Maybe Drymo is a small city. But I can’t imagine anything being as large as Syrina. But it makes sense, if all the races coexist here, there has to be enough room to accommodate for an extra headcount.

It doesn’t take much longer to reach the city. I thought I would see Elves, Dwarves, and Xog walking everywhere mixed with Humans, but there are only Humans right now. We were told we would be entering from the Human entrance, so there wouldn’t be many of the other races loitering around the edge of this part of the city.

The convoys in front of us split off from the group. We go our separate ways since each set of ministers goes to a different inn. If all the ministers to the same inn, the masked men could use large-scale magic to easily take them all out even if we’re there to protect them. They’d be less likely to employ this tactic if they were split up.

Captain Albius said that the best time to investigate would be today since the ministers would be staying at their inns the entire time and then the periods they’re at the grand meeting since we won’t be attending the actual event.

We reach our destination; The Windmill Inn. I stretch and say, “Finally.”

Darling, were you that sick of keepin’ me warm durin’ the ride?” Hina asks. Luke, Simon, and Dennis stare at us.

With them present the entire time, tensions were a bit high since Ruby was with us too. I might’ve preferred a more relaxing atmosphere and had our platoons sit separately from Sigma 8. But since the higher-ups thought they were doing good with pairing our platoons together, they wanted us to ride intermingled too. I made the mistake of acting relieved when I shouldn’t do that considering my relationship with Hina.

I laugh once and respond, “Of course not, Pearl. I just hate sitting still for so long. You know that.”

She laughs and then answers, “I know, Darling. Just teasin’.”

We both smile.

“We should bring the ministers inside before you two get too flirty,” Luke says.

“Right,” I say. The group in front meets us as we open the doors to the convoy. “Gentleman, we’ve arrived at The Windmill Inn, where you’ll be staying until the Inteiru Expota tomorrow.”

“Hell, no,” one of them says.

“Excuse me?” I ask.

“You heard me. We refuse to stay confined to an inn for an entire day. We want to explore the city and witness the current state of interracial relationships.”

“Our orders from General Nero is that you’ll be staying—“

Fuck General Nero,” another one of them says, “He’s been trying to sabotage our policy changes for over a year. He’s trying to shove us inside an inn, so we don’t have any time to prepare for the Inteiru Expota.”

Is this a test? I don’t know if General Nero or Captain Albius is watching from somewhere. A test of loyalty like from the Rising Champions battle. If that’s true, our plan to meet up later today with Ada’s group might not be possible either way. Captain Albius didn’t say anything about that, so that doesn’t sound right. “Sir, I need you to—“

“Of course, we’d be happy to accompany you around the city,” Hina interrupts. “Where would you like to go?”

“What’re you doing?” I ask in a whisper next to Hina’s ear. “What about our plans to meet up with Ada?”

She whispers back in my ear, “Improvise. A few of us can split off from the group for a bit to send the message to Ada.”

“You two go,” Luke whispers. “We got this.”

“Take us around the entire city. For starters, how about the Elven District?” one of the ministers says.

“Of course, our men and women will escort you there. If you don’t mind, Sergeant Kai and I will need to let Captain Albius know of the new agenda for today,” Hina informs.

“Wait, I wanna go too,” Ruby says.

“No, you stay here, Ruby. Make sure that you protect these men from any harm, got it?”

“’Kay…I got it.”

“Do what you must,” one of the ministers says.

“We’ll be meetin’ up with you in the Elven District later. Is there a place you know of that would be suitable?” Hina asks.

“This is our first time here, so we don’t know anything.”

“Okay, so—“

“Look, we know you’ve got orders to follow, but we won’t report you if you don’t want to come with us around the city,” one of the ministers interrupts. “There’s sixteen of you. That’s a bit overkill when nothing’s going to happen.”

“It’s for your safety, sir. A precaution in case someone attacks you,” I warn. My promotion is resting on the lives of these three men. “The masked men could strike again.”

“Is that what General Nero told you? The attack on Drymo was tragic, but that’s because our defenses were low due to a variety of reasons. It would be extremely difficult for that same group to attack this city when the military forces of every kingdom on Eiruta is present. There’s no way they would attack. And there’s no way we would be singled out by them,” one of the men says.

“And no one from the other races would dare strike us. It would cause an international outrage. Fourteen of you is enough for our escort. Why don’t you two lovebirds have some fun? Explore the city.”

Hina and I exchange glances. I’m a bit skeptical about leaving them to their own devices, but it’s only for today, and they made good points. The only real danger is if something big happened, and that’s unlikely. Or Ruby goes out of control at the wrong place, but I’ve made things clear to her yesterday not to kill anyone unless Marin says so.

“Very well, thank you,” Hina says and grabs my hand. Jetia narrows his eyes on me. He knows that we’re planning something. “Let’s go, Kai.”

I follow with not much else choice at this point. Hina made all the decisions already. I sigh. My fingers are crossed for nothing bad to happen. I think about that time I spent in the shit hole. General Nero can never find out that we’re breaking orders. That means that no one can see us split off alone.

“What’re you so worried about? Your palms are sweatin’.”

“It’s nothing. Just nervous that something would happen. Or someone will see us and word spreads to General Nero.”

“It’s not like anyone is spyin’ on us. There’s no way General Nero would ever know. He’s too busy with the Inteiru Expota.”

“Yeah, but you never know.”

“Wait, hold on a second,” Hina says and suddenly turns around. I have no choice but to follow since our hands are locked.

“Where’re you going?” I ask. She’s walking toward a young boy and girl skipping in the opposite direction.

“I gotta bust my nuts at home, I gotta bust my nuts at home,” the young boy says.

What the hell’s he saying? That’s not weird at all. The boy can’t be any older than seven years old.

Hey!” Hina yells and grabs the boy’s shoulder.

“Wha!” the boy exclaims and turns around. “Who’re you?”

“That doesn’t matter. You were sayin’ somethin’ really inappropriate for your age. Where are your parents?” Hina asks.

“Inappropriate? What’s inappropriate?” the boy asks. He looks at us innocently. It doesn’t seem like he’s aware of the lewdness of his words. “I gotta bust my nuts at home?”

“Yes, that. Stop sayin’ that. I don’t know how your mother raised you, but you shouldn’t be doin’ that at that age anyway! I’ll need to have a word with your parents.”

I sigh. Hina can’t let go of a random kid saying an inappropriate phrase. It reminds me of the time she reprimanded me for not telling some kids to stop playing with weapons back in Aramore. Her weird sense of justice can’t stop her from meddling.

“What does that mean? Do you know, miss?”

“Huh?” Hina interjects. I knit my eyebrows too. Then, I notice that the boy’s holding onto a piece of paper.

“Can I see that piece of paper?” I ask.

“Sure! But you have to give it back to me, okay? Mom’s gonna be mad otherwise.”

I’m not sure what he means by that, but I take the piece of paper, holding it in front of me so that Hina can read it too.

Urges

I gotta bust my nuts at home.

It-has-to-be-at-home syndrome.

Peeling an orange easy,

Cracking a nut crappy,

It’s just the wrong month and biome.

-Nacsu

What the hell? I read it several more times to make sure I didn’t miss anything.

Ohh..” Hina interjects. “This whole thing’s a joke. It’s not talkin’ about nuts. It’s talkin’ about the nuts with a shell. Since it’s the winter, you don’t normally find oranges to peel, so you’re left with nuts to crack open.”

“Oh, I interject and laugh a few times, but it’s not that funny.

“What’s funny?” the boy asks. He’s too young to understand. I give the piece of paper back to him.

“Don’t worry about it. Why’d you say your mom was gonna be mad?”

“She said that we have to go to the book store to bring back something to read. We didn’t want to bring back a long book, so we found this instead. Do you think mom will laugh too?”

“No, I—“

“Of course. She’s gonna love it,” I cut Hina off. We don’t have time to tag along with them to grab proper reading material.

“Thanks, mister!” the boy says and then smiles. He runs off with the girl.

“Come on, let’s go. Let it go and leave him to be scolded by his mother. Or she’ll get a kick out of it and laugh it off,” I say. “He didn’t mean what he said the first time, so it’s fine.”

“Fine…” Hina concedes.

Since we lost the coin toss yesterday, we continue along to meet Ada’s group outside the Icy Tavern, where they were instructed to bring their group of ministers.

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