The Selection

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Chapter 68 - Inteiru Expota - Casino

“How’s everyone, Pearl?” I ask, putting an arm around her.

“Still a little shaken up. Can’t blame them,” she answers and hugs me from the side, shaking. She asks in a whisper, “What’d the ministers want?”

Conveniently, she doesn’t have to fake something to close the distance between us. I whisper, “They wanna know why the Xog hate us. We help them in exchange for exclusive information from the Inteiru Expota and more.”

“Did you agree? After General Nero’s orders… We won’t have an excuse if he catches us again.”

“Of course. Technically, we don’t have to give them anything, but they’ll give us their side of the bargain. We only have to give them an impression of trying to find stuff. I didn’t mention our side project.”

“That doesn’t seem right after they saved us…”

“One of the dumbest ways to get caught would be to walk right into their hands…claws, rather. I know it’s not right, but self-preservation’s more important. And our main goal…which we have no leads on.”

“At least we—“

“What’re you lovebirds over there whispering about?” Jetia asks with a smirk.

“Nothing important,” I respond. “Just waiting for your slow asses to get dressed so that we can escort the ministers back to the Windmill Inn.”

“That’s funny coming from you, showing up whenever you feel like it. What’d General Nero want?”

“New orders. We’re to stay at the Windmill Inn and leave under no circumstance until the Inteiru Expota tomorrow.”

“Was that before or after those monsters showed up? Captain Albius surely contacted him before, right?.”

Stop talking and shut up. That’s what I want to tell him, but I can’t. He only speaks up to screw with me. To make me lose my credibility. Him, the goons, and the other people out of the loop know nothing of our main priority. For all they know, we left to find Captain Albius to update him that the ministers wanted to explore a bit.

Should I lie about finding Captain Albius and fabricate something he supposedly said? Either scenario is a loss because Jetia won’t stop poking around. He’s going to try to verify what I tell him and if something doesn’t match up, he’s going to confront me later and make my life difficult. The least he could do is at least keep it private. But he’s bringing this up in front of everyone. It forces me to act accordingly.

I should be straight with them. At least partially. It’s the safest because the ministers might ask about that too. “It was after. We didn’t find Captain Albius, so we tried to get back to the group, but couldn’t find you guys.”

“So, you were on a leisure date with yer girlfriend while we’re doing our jobs. And you dared to walk up to us and say to hurry our asses. Can you give us at least a few minutes of slack, especially after an encounter with those monsters?”

Don’t get angry. That’s what he’s trying to do, for me to lose my shit and blow up. He knows exactly how to do it. It’s frustrating because if he could put that effort into training, he might be stronger, but instead, here we are. I can’t wait too long to answer and risk someone else butting in like Hina. It’ll reflect badly on me as the leader. I don’t want to look bad in front of Hina’s platoon either. I’ll have to phrase my answer as if I’m talking to the goons.

“You’re right. I’m sorry for being insensitive. If it makes you feel any better, those guys scared me too. Take a few more minutes if you need to. As much as I wanna relax here a while longer, we were ordered to return to the inn. We’ll have the remaining part of the day to rest. Join us when you’re ready,” I say and then turn around. Hina and I return to the ministers, Marin, and Ruby.

“What’s the holdup?” one of the ministers asks.

“They’re resting for a few more minutes. They were a bit shaken up from the encounter with the Xog,” I inform.

“That’s understandable. They did good defending us. They’re good men.”

“Defending?” I ask.

“Yes. Those Xog were targeting everyone, and they happened upon us. When it was our turn to comply with their orders, Sergeant Hina’s and your men volunteered themselves instead.”

I guess I’ll have to give Jetia some credit. He and the goons were useful for once.

One of them turns to Marin and says, “That’s when we asked this young lady to contact the authorities. You saved us. What’s your name?”

“Corporal Marin, sir,” she replies.

“Thank you, Corporal Marin. You’re in our debt.”

“No problem,” she responds and looks away.

“And then you arrived.”

“Right…” I interject. That’s when Ruby wanted to blow them up. Marin must’ve told her not to do anything rash. Explains why she wanted to act after I arrived asking about monsters.

On the one hand, Ruby’s stubbornness is just like hers in the past. Not yielding to Bazaleon despite his ferocity to protect me. Otherwise, there’s something fundamentally different about her. She talks differently, but there’s something more than that. It reminds me of the time after the tournament, where she killed that bandit without a second thought. I shouldn’t have passed it off as nothing at the time and pryed further. It’s too late for that now.

She’s standing there next to Marin, smiling. Not knowing that what she wanted to do would’ve created a catastrophe. But, she’s not completely crazy contrary to what everyone thinks. She still listens to my orders and things that I say, so that leaves room for hope. Maybe I can fix her and bring Luna back. All that talk with Hina about good monsters and those that can make decisions.

What if the only thing that’s changed with her is how she makes her choices? She’s confused, that’s all. I could teach her what choices to make in a bunch of scenarios, rewiring her brain closer to how she used to be — reassembling her brain, basically. Putting the pieces back into their relative positions and then she might be able to fix herself. I’ll worry about how to do that after this mission.

The others rejoin us soon enough, and then we head back to the Windmill Inn.

The ministers retire in their rooms. I’m hoping they stay there for the rest of the night. We’re in the Human district, so this place should have food available unlike the Icy Tavern. I’m not sure how Aisha’s team are dealing with their situation. The two novices of their platoon could be tasked with feeding the ministers.

Now, the only other problem is somehow ditching the ones not involved in the mission. Since Hina filled in her entire team, it would only be giving Jetia and the goons in my platoon the slip. I mean, we don’t need all sixteen of us standing in the hallway outside the minister’s room.

Luke suggests that everyone goes down to get some grub. More specifically, the novices. I follow his lead and encourage Jetia and the goons to do the same, praising the good work that he did earlier much to his surprise. He gives me a suspicious look but joins everyone downstairs. There’s no reason for him to refuse considering that he probably hasn’t eaten anything since arriving.

We move a bit away from the rooms in which the ministers are staying. Wouldn’t want them to overhear us talking. Hina and I fill in everyone on what they missed out on, leaving out the part where Pem bared her chest. Would send the wrong message to a few people here. I also mention the last bit the ministers want us to uncover about the Xog.

Luke gives us a summary of their side of things. Two things stuck out to them. The first is that they felt like the Elves were staring down them at all times at the Elven district specifically. None of them were cooperative with any conversations with the ministers when confronted. With my experience with the Dwarves in mind, this behavior doesn’t set off any alarms in my head. It seems like there’s a general dislike toward Humans from all the races. I have doubts about how this coexistence thing is going to play out.

The second thing they heard was something of an auction here and there that starts tomorrow. It can’t be a coincidence with the Inteiru Expota beginning the same day. There were plenty of people talking about it but no one knew anything about it when the ministers asked the same people. They think it’s a black market type of auction. Given our experiences, we deduce that it’s going to take place in the underground city. Add that to our laundry list of things to do. We’re relying on Floyd to give us some answers.

“So, Kai and Hina should go ahead of us to meet Aisha’s team at the Icy Tavern while the rest of us get passes from the Dwarven district,” Luke says.

“Hold on,” I say. A part of me doesn’t want Marin or Ruby to get involved. The process is painful, and we don’t need so many people there. “Maybe a few of us should stay here. We don’t wanna leave our defenses here too lax. My men will get too suspicious. They aren’t gonna be on board with what we’re doing.”

“That sounds like a you problem. We told everyone in our platoon, and the novices were understanding. They won’t do anything to blow our cover.”

I sigh. I have no idea how I’ll ever convince Jetia to go along with our shenanigans. No, I do. Paying for more seminars for him and the goons. Thanks to the last promise I made to him, we’re completely broke. We won’t be able to fund ourselves any new lessons for a while after a new deal. I answer, “Fine. I’ll talk to them. It might be easier to convince them if we leave Marin and Ruby behind to leave this place with some form of defense.”

“No, I wanna come too!” Ruby exclaims with a pout. “Marin too, right?”

“Yeah…”

“We don’t need thirteen of us down there. That’s overkill,” I say.

“Fine, ya stay with us too.”

“No, I need to be down there. Floyd knows me.”

“He knows Hina too. Leave ’er ta do it.”

“And I need to be with her. It might be dangerous.”

“Aw, Darling! I’m glad you’re worried about me,” Hina says and then hugs me, bringing her head closer to the side of mine. She whispers, “Kai, shut up.”

Luke glares at me as she lets me go. The meaning of Hina’s words hits me. If I were worried about Hina’s safety, I would be suggesting to leave her behind. Not Ruby and Marin. I screwed up.

“They should come along with us,” Luke says before I can come up with an excuse. “We’re going to need all the help we can get for the auction tomorrow.”

That’s assuming the auction is really in the underground city. I can’t risk saying anything more, though. It would bring too much suspicion that I prioritize Ruby’s safety over Hina’s. I’ll leave it alone. I say, “Yeah, you’re right. I wasn’t thinking about that. Just be on your best behavior, Ruby.”

“I won’t let ya down.”

“Let me talk to Jetia, and we can leave,” I say and walk toward the stairs down.

“That won’t be necessary,” Jetia says and steps into view from the stairs. “I knew you were planning something, as usual. The answer’s no. I know how this all ends.”

“Come on, don’t be like that,” I reply, unsure of how much he heard from our discussion. “Let’s go for a walk.”

I don’t want the others to hear me bribing my own men to comply with my orders. He follows me quietly outside. A little bit off to the side as to not get in anyone’s way if they wanted to go inside the building.

“Alright. So what do you want?” I ask, having a good guess. “Pooling our funds into providing more magic training for you guys should be good, right?”

“You’ll need to do better than that,” he says with a smirk. “I know all about yer little relationship with Marin.”

Ugh. He brings that up now? I was wondering why he hasn’t already.

“I’ll make you do that for us even without agreeing to yer reckless plan. Or else I’ll spill the beans to everyone. What’ll everyone think of you when they find out yer two-timing Marin and Hina.”

If he really wants to screw me over, he would’ve told everyone already. Instead, he’s bringing it up now. What’s his game? It seems he doesn’t know the full truth about Hina and me. I ask, “So, what do you want?”

“I don’t want anything. Continue with yer plan, and I’ll rat you out to Captain Albius and General Nero. It’ll exclude us from the harsh punishment you’ll receive, and I’ll tell everyone about Marin. If you don’t fund our training, I’ll tell everyone too.”

Tch. He can’t be serious. I don’t know what he’s planning, but this has to be a bluff. What’s he trying to gain? If he truly didn’t want anything, he wouldn’t go through this trouble of threatening me. He’s always trying to do things for those useless goons. If he keeps pushing like this, he’ll end up with nothing. He’s annoying, but he’s never gone through with directly screwing me over. Just always trying to make me look bad.

I thought I would be rid of Jetia’s face forever after the Ragnar incident. I was sure that he would leave the platoon, especially because Kama and Vicki left. He could’ve easily been reassigned somewhere else or went back to The Reserve. Instead, he chose to stay with us.

Wait...it all makes sense with one assumption. His behavior. Jetia thinks he’s won with his smile and arms crossed, waiting for me to agree to his demands. Reflecting back, he usually cooperates when something involves everyone’s safety. I’ve always thought it was because of the other novices, but maybe I was wrong.

I should be more aware of these things, considering what happened with Sitos… I can’t believe it took me all this time to realize what Jetia’s intentions are. That’s why he didn’t say anything about Marin and me. He doesn’t want to hurt her. And the situation now. I suppose that staying cramped up in this inn is the safest, which could be his way of ensuring her safety. A part of me is glad that he’s looking out for her, but I don’t need him to do that. I’ve got that covered.

“Nah,” I interject. “I’m gonna continue with the plan regardless of what you do. If you screw us over in any way, I won’t fund those seminars for you guys.”

He lets out a brief laugh and then asks, “Didn’t you hear what I said? I’ll tell Captain Albius and—“

“Yeah, whatever. And I’ll tell Marin that you’re trying to put everything in jeopardy because you like her.”

His smile quickly disappears from his face, and he turns pale, his eyes widening. That confirms everything. I smirk, finally finding his weakness. He won’t screw with me again or his secret’s out. I should be careful, though. If I push him too far, I’ll lose my only leverage over him if he self destructs. I’ll give him an offer he can’t refuse.

“Look. I’ll continue to fund your guys’ magic education and stay quiet about your secret, but only if you help cover for us while we’re gone. Figure out what you’re gonna say to Captain Albius or General Nero if they come sniffing around.”

“Fine. I’ll help you, even though you have more to lose than me. This doesn’t make you any less of a hypocrite, either. You care about Marin’s and Ruby’s safety, but yer the one putting them in the most danger every time. It’s on you if anything happens to them.”

“I know that.”

“Do you, really?” he asks and then walks back inside.

Of course, I know. They’ve agreed to go along with my plans. When I think about it, they don’t really need my protection. Ruby’s Fire magic is powerful. And we, well. Marin went to the Academy with me. Ruby graduated from the Academy a year ahead of us too. We know how to protect ourselves.

I go back inside, too, regrouping with the others upstairs. I tell them that it’s all good with my platoon, so we can proceed with the plan.

We depart in two separate groups, as discussed before. Hina and I depart for the Icy Tavern.

They give us an understandably annoyed welcome back. We kept them waiting again, but not quite as long as the first time. Once again, we give them the latest update while waiting for the others for their passes.

Eventually, the others arrive, and then we lead the group to the underground city. We go through the dark steps down. Ada illuminates the way with Light magic.

Apparently, one other thing the others learned about the ‘pass’ is that you’re supposed to reveal it in front of the door. Explains our hostile welcome the first time around. Though, I don’t know how they see us through these solid walls. Another magic item, perhaps?

The doors open. The few Dwarves ahead verify that we have the passes before letting us through without much of a fuss.

Despite that we’re here for the Casino, we decide to split up into different groups.

Me, Hina, Marin, Ruby, Aisha, and Ada will be the ones to go to the Casino while the others will explore the surrounding area for any other information.

We ask around for the location of the Casino. The first two Dwarves we ask don’t want anything to do with us. A third Dwarf points us in the right direction.

We go inside what should be the Casino.

“Humans, welcome!” a receptionist exclaims behind the short counter the second we walk in. This is the first time I’ve seen a Dwarf so welcoming. It’s a little suspicious. Security is heavier here with six armed Dwarves scattered around this small room. They don’t look as friendly. “Wha’ dae ya have ter wager?”

I’m not sure what he means by that. Might be faster to get to the point. It seems unlikely that he’ll know about Floyd unless they require names from everyone that visits here. Since he’s one of the few Humans I’ve seen around, he might be recognizable. I inform, ’We’re here to see Floyd. Do you know him?”

“Oh, so ye be haur te see de boss. Wha’ business dae ya have wiff him?”

He’s the boss…? That’s a little weird. Surprising because I thought they wouldn’t like being under a Human’s authority of all people. “He told us to find him here.”

“Did he nigh? Wha’ be yer name?”

“Kai.”

He bends down out of our view and whispers something inaudible. Several seconds later, he stands up and says, “He shou’ be art haur soon.”

He must’ve used that long-distance communication tool. Nothing else would make sense. He might be nice enough to tell us what’s that about. I should ask. “How’d you talk to Floyd from there?”

“Oi’m afraid Ay canna tell ya dat.”

Whatever. At least he confirmed that it’s a communication device. He didn’t deny speaking into something. We can always ask Floyd for clarification. I’m sure he can answer all of our questions now that we know he’s somewhat of an important figure down here. Like he said, it’s rare to see Humans in this place. He’ll share what he knows. He informed us about the Achilles Sundance Circuit and a bit of Abjuration magic. Did he graduate from the Academy? I didn’t get any vibes that he was a fighter of any kind the first time we met.

Floyd walks out from the connecting room a few minutes later. He smiles and then says, “Kai, Hina, I’m glad you were able to sort out your issues. Come on in.”

We follow him inside. The other room is much more spacious and has various different tables scattered across. The populated tables have at least two people there with almost no empty ones.

“Business is booming right now,” Floyd says.

“What’s this place?” I ask. It’s hard to tell what these people are doing standing around.

“It’s a gambling hub,” Floyd responds. “One on one battles after each side agrees on the stakes. There’s at least one witness to ensure sportsmanship and fairness.”

That explains why the receptionist asked about what we had to wager. If you have no money, this place serves no purpose. I assume that they wouldn’t be allowed entry. This place reminds me of the scams in Drymo that are designed to profit the seller. But it’s not quite the same here. He said business is booming, but how does he benefit?

“We charge a service fee from both participants depending on the wager and game for hosting third party duels.”

Oh, I see. He always has an answer. It makes me hopeful that he knows what we’re looking for.

“We’ll be right in here,” he says and stands next to a distinctively different table. There isn’t another one like this nearby. It has some sort of wooden pole protruding upward at both ends of the table. “I know you have questions. That’s why you came, right?”

“Yeah. You know everything,” I say.

“I just know what you want to know.”

“That makes this easy then. First, I’m curious. How’d you communicate with the Dwarf at the entrance? Some sort of magic item?”

“I’m going to stop you there. I have to make one thing clear. I didn’t suggest you come here so that I could answer all of your questions for free.”

I frown. It’s never straight forward.

“Forget this place. We’ve got other places,” Ada says. No, we don’t. “This was a waste of time.”

“I highly doubt you’ll find the answers you’re looking for anywhere else. I could still answer your questions at no cost to you. You’ll only have to risk something of equal value.”

He wants us to play one of these games with him. Us, who have no clue what that entails versus him, a veteran. Maybe even the creator. Couldn’t hurt to find out what he wants. I ask, “Which is?”

“That depends on what you want to know. Think hard on what you want answered most. Go on.”

I turn to everyone and interject, “Well. Should we put it to a vote?”

If we had to pick one, we don’t need to know anything irrelevant, like how they communicate long-distance. Although, that would be helpful to have amongst ourselves.

“Let’s go over our options first,” Aisha suggests. “Is there anything more important than finding leads on the snake earring group?”

“No, but even he’s not gonna know anything about that,” I say.

“Actually, I do know a few things about them,” Floyd says. “You’re going to have to make a bet worth at least twenty gold coins for it.”

Numerous of us gasp. Ada says, “Twenty gold coins? You’re insane.”

“Yeah, we don’t have nearly that much anyway. Between all of us, we might have a few gold coins at best, and that’s being generous,” I inform.

“I’d say I’m running a bargain at that price. It’s risky for me to tell you the details,” Floyd says and then smiles. “The nice thing about the Casino is that you have more than money to wager. You’ve brought gems with you.”

Gems…? Oh.

Ada takes out her daggers and says, “How about, tell us what you know, and we don’t kill you.”

“Harm me, and you won’t get out of here alive. You know that, so why don’t we put the knives away?”

“Tch,” Ada interjects and sheathes her weapons.

“It’s a possibility and some not as obscene as you think. Depending on your magic potential, there would be clients willing to pay a fortune to create a baby. Otherwise, you’re left with perverts wanting to lay their hands on some young women, especially virgins. Some even enjoy men. Kai, if you’d like to indulge--”

“Enough,” I say. I have no problem betting Aisha or Ada, but they’re not going to agree to it no matter the price. There’s no way in hell I’m going to wager the other three. After that Porters incident, I’m not going to subject myself to that possibility either. It disturbs me thinking about it. “None of us are gonna agree to bet our bodies on the line. What’re the other options?”

Floyd shrugs and then says, “Well, if you had equipment of higher quality, that would be on the table. Otherwise, there’s an entire black market for organs and body parts.”

“No.”

“You could bet your life.”

“My life? So, you’re gonna kill me if I do that and lose?”

“No, that wouldn’t be worth anything to me. For you, I’d probably sell you as a labor slave. Perhaps harvest your organs and turn you into meat later. For the other five, it would mean being sold into sexual slavery. This would be set at a value of an excess of twenty gold coins. Unless you’ve got other questions you want to add to the list, you’re better off with the first option I mentioned where it would be as many times as you wish.”

“Move onto the next option,” I say.

“How about promised future services?”

I glare at him.

“There are non-sexual ones, mind you. The possibilities vary from what you’re open to. You could enter as a contestant in the coliseum.”

“What’s that?” I ask. That sounds intriguing. If it means dueling other people, I wouldn’t mind that. I’d do it without anyone forcing me.

“A place where you’d fight to the death with other contestants. Two fights minimum before a fighter can back out. You’d win rewards, but the biggest thing is that the audience makes bets on who the winners are with no limit on how much you can bet. You see where I’m going with this. I’d bet my money on you to win. Well, I’m not going to do that unless I’m confident in your abilities. I’d give you a twenty gold coins value if you’re interested.”

Twenty gold coins…? That’s exactly how much he’s asking for. Hmm…

“Don’t do it, Darling,” Hina says. “It’s too dangerous. It’s not worth it.”

She’s right. I don’t know who I would end up fighting against. Other people would know the risks going in, so probably only the confident ones would enter. I answer, “Nah.”

“Smart choice. You’d be better off betting your life. You wouldn’t last a round.”

He says that so convincingly. It makes me want to prove him wrong...but I shouldn’t.

“How about a promise to pay you gold coins in the future?” Aisha asks. “I may not look it, but I’m from a wealthy family in Drosera.”

“Interesting offer, but I’ll need my full payment by the end of the Inteiru Expota. I already know of your affiliation with the Drosera army. You wouldn’t be able to return to Syrina easily to pay your dues.”

“I’ll write a letter of introduction for you to my family in Drymo. We have an underground Aerkin arena under our mansion and sponsor most of the Achilles Sundance Circuit events.”

“That’s an interesting proposal. Are they here for the Inteiru Expota?”

“No, I--”

“Then I’m not interested. If they’re not here for the biggest Achilles Sundance Circuit events only once every three years, they’re not that influential in the scene. No offense, but the scene down there is archaic.”

“Psst,” Hina interjects and then turns around. She signals us to huddle close together. We do. She continues in a whisper, “One of us should do a body wager. More if needed.”

“Are you crazy?” I whisper.

“It’s not what you think. These are all services promised in the future. If we end up losin’, we won’t come back. No harm done, right?”

“That’s not a good idea,” Aisha whispers. “If it’s a comparable community to the Achilles Sundance Circuit, they’ll hunt you down.”

I’d poke fun at Hina for breaking her moral code here, but that’s not appropriate with Aisha and Ada present. I recall something from the Academy. I whisper, “Why don’t you, Ada, and the other girls on your team consider betting your bodies? You used them to persuade sponsors to pay you more during the tournament, didn’t you? What happened to your charm?”

Ada glares at me and grunts.

Aisha knits her eyebrows and then whispers, “No, that might be a viable option.”

“Are you serious, Aisha?” Ada whispers. “I’m not doing that.”

“Yes, but it’s something milder. What if it’s only looking? Or first base and second base? Don’t do anything you’re not comfortable with. It won’t be worth as much, but we have numbers to make up for it. Six of us counting Marin and Ruby.”

“No, no, no. Leave them out of this,” I whisper quickly. There’s no doubt that Ruby would agree to it, but there’s no way that Luna would in this situation. I’m trying to piece her back together, not scatter her.

“Okay, four of us.”

“Fine… I’ll do it if you convince Melody and Doris.”

I hold in a snort. Can’t imagine Ada going along with this. She’s too hostile and unladylike. There’s no way she’s going to exchange spit with old men and let them grope her. I can’t believe Aisha’s willing to go through that. It goes to show that they’re quite serious about completing their goals. I shouldn’t laugh.

“Are you sure you want to go through with this?” Hina whispers. “We could ask somethin’ that requires less money first. We don’t know what kind of game he’s goin’ to have us play yet.”

“That’s true. Shall we ask about the auction first?” Aisha whispers. “Objections?”

A moment of silence. Our only other option is to ask about the Xog, but that’s obviously going to be set at a higher value than the auction.

We break the huddle and face Floyd.

I ask, “Do you know anything about an auction starting tomorrow?”

“I do. A bet worth two gold coins will suffice for that.”

“Okay, give us a moment to see if we have that much between all of us,” I say.

“There’s no need for that,” Aisha says. “There are two of us here and two other girls who would be willing to strip and entertain at the very least. I’m willing to go as far as second base. How much would that put at value?”

“Aisha, aren’t you going to confirm with Melody and Doris first?” Ada asks.

“I know they’ll play along. It’s not a big deal, you know we’ve messed around with the guys before. It’s only you who hasn’t.”

“I don’t want to make things weird between us,” Ada says and blushes.

“My advice, don’t wager anything you aren’t willing to act on if it comes down to it,” Floyd warns. “Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“Very well. The exact value of what you’re offering depends on the length of service, how far you’re willing to go, how many clients you take on, and your bust. Remember that you’ll have to submit appropriate payment should you lose before you leave the city. How about we leave the juicy details for later? I’m sure you’d appreciate some privacy.”

“No, we’ll settle that now. I’m not comfortable letting you decide our value after the fact,” Aisha says.

“Sure. Right this way,” Floyd says and walks off.

Aisha and Ada follow him some distance away from us.

“Can you believe her?” Hina asks. “I can’t believe she’s serious about this. That’s not how someone raised in the Royal District should act, doin’ things like this on a whim. She should be more modest. Or else her parents will be troubled if people know how promiscuous she’s been. Then they wouldn’t be able to marry her off for political gain.”

“Didn’t you hear her earlier? It sounds like everyone except Ada has already slept with each other casually. It’s probably too late for her. Besides, if her parents wanted to marry her off, they wouldn’t have agreed to let her become an adventurer or join the army.”

Arranged marriage, huh. That’s what happened to Sitos. I didn’t know back then, but he was under a lot of family pressure I didn’t know about. I’ll never understand what he went through. I think Luna was his only reason to not get engaged, and then he finally resigned to the pressure after losing our duel. I continue, “Or maybe, Aisha’s doing this all to have an excuse to not be married off to a stranger.”

“Hookin’ up with people you know is one thing, but this is with total strangers with an exchange of goods involved. It’s prostitution and there’s a lot of bad stigma around it. She could be disowned if her family finds out.”

“She’s not exactly selling her body in the traditional sense, though. As she said, it’s only up to second base. If she was still a virgin, she’d still be one afterward.”

“That’s basically the same thing. People pay her to kiss and touch her. Could you still say a girl’s innocent if hundreds of different guys have seen her naked, made out with her, fiddled with her breasts like a toy, and heard her moans?” Hina asks and then blushes. “I don’t know if you know this, but it can be really stimulatin’ when we’re touched up there…”

I gulp, thinking back to all those times I squeezed her nubs a few weeks prior. I can’t let myself get too excited. I try to clear my mind.

“So...even without touchin’ down there, a woman can...you know.”

Well, I can’t argue back now. She’s proved her point. I say, “Okay, you got me there. But, you’re the one who suggested the whole body selling thing in the first place.”

“I didn’t mean for her to take it seriously. Only as--”

“A trick?” I ask. “You’re fine with being disingenuous here but not with the minister’s favor?”

“Have you heard the words comin’ from his mouth? He’s a criminal. He’s also the one who turned us in, remember?”

“He’s also the one who introduced you to Aerkins and the good monsters you’re obsessed about.”

“Whatever,” she interjects and turns her head away. “So, Marin, Ruby, how were your experiences with gettin’ the pass? Did it hurt?”

Tsk tsk. Changing the subject when she’s cornered as usual.

“It wasn’t too bad,” Marin responds.

“It didn’t hurt,” Ruby answers.

Oh, no. Hina smiles. I already know what she’s thinking.

“Oh, really?” Hina asks and wraps an arm around my neck. “Did you know this guy screamed when he got his pass? Bazaleon called him a yellow-belly too.”

She laughs, but Marin and Ruby don’t join. Heh, your plan backfired.

“If yer gonna be mean ta Kai, give ’im ta me instead,” Ruby says with a frown.

“I’m kiddin’, jeez. If you want me to be nice, wait until bedtime,” she says and then winks.

Ruby’s face contorts into that of anger while Marin looks uncomfortable. Ugh. Hina, why do you put me in these situations?

“Hey, Ruby, don’t take her seriously,” I say. This could be a good chance to condition her on how she should act. I’m not sure what’s appropriate in this case. What would she say? The situation has never come up, and we wouldn’t be here if she was still here...

“I know,” Ruby says before I can think of a follow-up. “Just annoys me a little when she keeps sayin’ that when all of us know it’s not true ‘n’ it’s not funny.”

“She’s just jealous, right Darling?” Hina asks and then kisses my cheek. I frown. She just keeps pushing and doesn’t know when to stop.

“She doesn’t let ya do anythin’, right? That’s not fair when yer the one helpin’ ’er.”

“Wait, you want me to do stuff with her?” I ask, unable to believe what I’m hearing. I thought Ruby would hate the idea of me touching any other girl but her.

“I want ta make sure yer needs are taken care of. I know yer a guy with those kinda thoughts. You’ve had ta put up with Hina teasin’ ya without any outlet. Ya don’t have any feelin’s fer ’er, so it’s ‘kay with me since we’re takin’ a break. I’m not gonna be selfish ’bout that. My heart will always lie with ya.”

Taking a break? Is that how she sees us? That’s not exactly accurate… We were never together. I was only ever with Luna, who’s now shattered into pieces and twisted into someone else who can only be called Ruby. She has a bit of a one-sided crush on me. Or maybe she’s speaking as one of the pieces that could be called Luna?

All of us are speechless. I look toward Marin for ideas, but she lightly shakes her head. Look at the mess you’ve created, Hina!

Ruby walks toward us and then leans her head closer to Hina’s side. Quietly, she says, “I don’t care if ya act, but ya better lay there ‘n’ take it, or yer gonna have problems with me.”

First, she almost kills Hina because she thought we were together, and now this. Well, I guess she only cared because she thought we had feelings for each other. She doesn’t care if there’s no love involved, only lust. She treated Hina like a piece of meat.

I can’t tell her to calm down or anything, either. I know she’s not going to listen to me this time. I mean, she still only has me in her mind. Talking back to her in this situation would only make her more aggressive in corrective action. If she can’t get me to shag Hina, she might take more desperate measures like reveal that the whole thing’s a sham. I can’t have that. I had the back and forth permissions between Hina and Marin for the same issue, though Hina decided against it in the end. I’m surprised Ruby hasn’t offered herself as a potential solution to this problem.

“They’re coming back,” Marin warns.

Ruby glares at Hina one last time before making a small sound and then returning to Marin’s side.

One possibility lingers in the back of my mind. That time I found...Ruby with that man at the inn. She’s fine with me having a physical relationship with someone else, but what about her? Has she been casually hooking up with someone? I don’t know if that’s why she hasn’t tried to hook up with me. I need to ask her and find out what’s going on, but at the same time, I don’t want to plant that thought in her head, or I’ll have bigger problems.

I can’t help but think back to Hina’s mention of my abnormal progression up the ranks. Ruby acted strange in the past, but that’s because she’s training hard for my sake and the food makes her feel bad. She’s been fine these last few weeks. I’ll have all of this cleared up when I confront her. She wouldn’t lie to me.

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