The Selection

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Chapter 71 - Inteiru Expota - Confrontation

“Aisha, where’s Aisha?!” Ada exclaims as she runs into the Casino. The remaining members of her team are with her, but not any of Hina’s team members.

I’m not sure how to deliver the bad news to her. We had some time to think, but don’t know if we should respect Aisha’s wishes and make something up or tell the truth. Marin and Ruby aren’t going to respond. And I’m sure Hina is going to leave it to me to make the decision. I have to say something before Ada tries to barge through the security.

“She’s not here,” I say.

Ada grabs my shoulders and yells, “Where is she?!”

Her desperation makes me inclined to tell the truth. If it were me, I’d want to know the truth no matter how harsh it is. I’m certain the truth rather than a lie would upset her and the others. It’s less of a hassle for me if I get it over with, and it’s not like I have a good relationship with any of them. There’s no reason for me to be considerate of their feelings. But, we are working together to find leads on the masked men. I can’t have them dwell on this for too long. The fact that Aisha isn’t here can only mean one thing. They aren’t stupid.

“She decided to go with Floyd.”

“Why…why would she do that?” Ada asks, and then her eyes widen. “Did she lose another wager?”

“Not exactly…” I hesitate.

“Then what? She wouldn’t leave us behind after we had an agreement.”

“She said she’s sorry. She was wrong to make wagers involving you and the others without discussing it first, so she’s taking responsibility herself.”

“No, that can’t be true,” Melody says.

“I agree; she knows us well. She wouldn’t have made the decision in the first place if we would be against it,” Doris says. “She would never feel guilty like that.”

“She couldn’t have forgotten that I agreed to help too,” Ada says. “What really happened?”

“Look. Aisha really didn’t want me to tell you because she knew you would disagree. Floyd retook a personal interest in her after she refused his offer of the new wager. He wanted to get to know her one on one.”

“That can’t be right. That bastard said he was in a hurry,” Ada says.

“That was just a trick to force a decision out of us faster. Aisha re-evaluated the situation and felt it was easier to settle the 20 gold bet herself before the offer expired. She’s gonna try to seduce him and get the information we want while they’re intimate. That’s the truth.”

Ada lets me go and looks down. She squeezes her fists, cracking them a few times.

Just like that, I shut everyone up, even though it’s a lie. It’s so easy to get away with it too, when I’m not dealing with the Xog. The trick is to stretch what they’re expecting by only a little.

Deniz walks forward and puts a hand on Ada’s shoulder. “Aisha’s a strong girl. She’ll be fine. It doesn’t look like we can do anything now.”

Hina walks by my side and then says, “He’s right, Ada. We need to move forward with our plan without her. Nothin’s changed.”

“I know…but Aisha. When will she be back?” Ada asks.

I shrug my shoulders and answer, “Not sure. Floyd didn’t say. We can always come back tomorrow and check on her if we have time.”

“Yeah…”

“So, did you guys find anything useful?” I ask while keeping my voice down. I glance behind me, and the Dwarf at the reception is staring right at me. Don’t want him to overhear what comes next.

Everyone understands and silently huddles around each other.

Deniz informs, “We found an unusual spot with higher security.”

“Unusual, how?” I ask.

“It’s off to the side, and it’s just a plain wall. There doesn’t seem to be anything else of importance there. We think it’s a secret entrance they use for hauling in large goods.”

“Like a shipment of Aerkins?” Hina asks.

“Could be.”

“That’s good to know but doesn’t really help us,” I say. It’s obvious there would be a way to smuggle Aerkins into the underground city without the risk of someone catching sight. It could be a good route for the masked men to get in, but we aren’t going to be able to get into that passage from here, and there’s no way we would find the entrance from the other side. “Anything else?”

“Some huge bazaar enclosed in its own space. Everyone wore masks. It was so weird, and we felt out of place there. We didn’t stay for too long,” Deniz says.

“Oh, you found the marketplace. The auction is in there. We learned a few things about the auction and a couple of other things. We’ll explain later. We should get moving,” I suggest. We’re already sticking out like a sore thumb. Best not raise everyone’s suspicion of us too much. I don’t want another run-in with the Vanguards. “Where’re the others?”

“They’re keeping watch of that unusual spot I mentioned to see if there’s any movement. We were about to meet you guys back here, but then Ada showed up.”

“Right. Lead the way,” I say.

We follow them to the spot in question. We arrive at the end of a path, a fork going left and right. Going left, we find Luke, Simon, and Dennis huddled around each other. Beyond them is a group of Dwarves stationed along the outermost wall farther ahead.

It does seem strange. I thought this could be a possible exit back to the city, but when the Vanguards led me out the first time, there was no one standing watch in the open. This time there are four of them. And there’s no door like there was at the other location either.

The outer edge of the underground city has a broader path than the roads leading inward. Likely because transportation is only meant for traveling along that edge.

If my memory serves me right, the Aerkin arena is straight ahead in this direction. That’s good design so that when Aerkins are transported, wagons don’t clutter the traffic of the innermost city.

We don’t regroup entirely as to not attract unwanted attention to ourselves. There’s hardly anyone else in this part of the city. They come over to us instead. We lead them back inside the fork to remove ourselves from the sight of those four Dwarves.

“Any changes?” Deniz asks.

“None,” Luke answers while looking around. “Where’s Aisha?”

“It’s complicated. This isn’t a good place to talk,” I say. “Let’s go back to the surface.”

“Right. So where to?” Luke asks.

“It’s right over…” I say while pointing in one direction and then the opposite way. I vaguely remember where we went, but only from the Aerkin arena. I’m not too sure from here.

“Darling, you silly. It’s over here,” Hina says and locks her arms with mine. She leads the way.

We eventually arrive at the large gate. No sign of any Dwarves, but I know one will come out from that door on the left.

“What’re we waiting for?” Luke asks.

“There’s a Dwarf that should be coming out of the door next to the gate,” I inform. “That’s what happened last time. Pearl, you too, right?”

“Yeah,” Hina responds.

Nearly a minute passes, and still nothing.

“We don’t have all day. Dennis, help me with the gate,” Luke says as he approaches the huge door. He grabs onto one side while Dennis grips onto the other one. “On three. One…two…pull!”

The door doesn’t budge, despite both of their full efforts. It didn’t seem like that Dwarf did anything special last time. Maybe there’s some sort of unlocking mechanism inside the room next to this gate. Luke’s side of the door opens very slowly.

“Use Enhancement magic,” Luke informs. “It makes it possible.”

Did those Vanguards use Enhancement magic too? It looked so effortless when they opened it. Dennis’s side starts to open also.

We see into the passage as the massive doors open slowly. The passage isn’t illuminated this time.

“Y’all get goin’. We’ll be right behind you,” Dennis says with a raspy voice.

“Wait,” I say. “Something’s not right. The path should be lit.”

“Ada light the way. Hurry,” Luke says.

“I’m with Darling on this one,” Hina says. “Simon, can you scout?”

“I’m on it. A couple rats should do, right?”

More rats… Is he messing with me?

Moments later, four gray rats appear that run forward into the passage. Ada illuminates the way with her Light magic. Doesn’t look like there’s anything different. But why’d the Vanguards wait instead of passing through? Was it just to turn on the lights?

Suddenly, the floor of the passage rockets upward. In no time, the ground squashes the rodents like pancakes against the ceiling. It makes a loud bang and creates a vibration. Whoa. That could’ve been us. I’m more concerned about what’s going to happen next. This seems like a scenario where the Vanguards could show up.

“What happened?!” Luke exclaims. He and Dennis were out of view to see the death trap.

The door next to the gate bursts open, and the guard yells, “Oh, shoite!”

The Dwarf makes immediate eye contact with me and says, “Ye agin. De high-risk rats.”

“Where’ve you—“

“Hoo many o’ ye buffoons got killed?” he asks and looks into the passage.

“None,” Simon answers. “Just a few of my Conjuration creations.”

“We dun have much time befer de Vanguards show up. Ay dint dink dare wou’ be anyone stupid enoof ter brute force dare way past de security.”

I knew it. “What—“

“If none o’ ya weor killed, dat be good.”

I sigh. He keeps interrupting me.

“Anyone wiff Water magic?”

“I have it,” Hina says.

“Good. Haur be wha’ be guin ter happen. Oi’m guin ter reset de trap, an’ ye will pass drough. Make sure ter clean up de mess befer ye leave.”

“Wait, why?” I ask. It’s strange why he’s the one frantic in this situation. “Why’re you helping us?”

“Lewk. ‘Tis better fer all o’ us dat Ay tell de Vanguards Ay accidentally pressed de panic button instead o’ fallin’ asleep. Juss go,” he says and starts to run, but then stops and turns around. “One more din’ juss in case ye dun knoo. Each exit has a maximum occupancy o’ four people. Dis rule ye dun break.”

He continues his way into the room. Not long after, the passage floor plummets back to ground level. Some of the splattered remains fall from the ceiling.

“That’s gross,” Hina mutters.

I lean over to her ear and whisper, “I don’t know if you understood him, but he wants you to clean up the entire mess before we leave.”

She nods and then walks into the passage, but not too far. A stream of water appears the air that shoots toward the mess on the ceiling.

I don’t want to meet the Vanguards again, but doesn’t this Dwarf has more to lose than us? We all have the pass, so we’re not breaking the rules. This guy, on the other hand, fell asleep. That’s why he’s trying to make us disappear, so they don’t know that.

The Dwarf comes back out and then says, “De trap be disabled fer nigh. Hurry. Make sure de Light magic goes befer ye leave tew.”

“What’s in it for us?” I ask.

“Wha’ dae ye mean? Vanguards. Ye dun want ter be caught wiff dem.”

“We’re not breaking any rules here. We all have the pass. It’s not our fault that you were asleep on the job.”

“Alroight, ye got me. Ay will owe ya a favor later. Hoo abart dat?”

“What kind of favor?” I ask.

“Anydin’ Ay ken do, Ay will do, if ye dun get me intae trouble. Go befer ’tis tew late.”

“Right. Let’s go,” I say. “Ada, remove your Light magic and place another one in the passage.”

“I know.”

We run into the passage. The stain on the ceiling is gone. The only thing that’s left is the clump of water Hina’s moving forward. She’s going to have to dump the mess somewhere.

Ada removes the previous Light magic and stations a new one within the passage. The doors close behind us. We need to hurry because who knows when he’ll need to enable the trap again. Hina’s already at the end of the passage. It doesn’t take long for us to catch up.

I recall last time I went up the ladder straight ahead. I’m assuming there are other exits to this left and right passageway. That’s convenient, with an even split between the twelve of us. I don’t want to find out what happens if we break the rule by having more than four people leave an exit.

Hina dumps her Water magic into the left passage. While we could discuss recent events here, it wouldn’t be good if anyone else passes through while we’re still here.

We go our separate ways with Hina, Ruby, Marin, and I going up the ladder since two of us are already familiar with this route. We’re going to meet up back at the Windmill Inn.

I warn Marin and Ruby not to call any Dwarves small, in the event that they’re forced into a conversation with one of them.

Sometime later, we’re the first group to arrive. Jetia is standing by the entrance with his back against the wall and his arms crossed. None of the goons or novices from Hina’s team are around. Don’t tell me, General Nero came looking for us?

“So, yer back,” Jetia says. “I did as you asked.”

“And?” I ask.

“Captain Albius stopped by. Had some news to give you.”

Captain Albius? That’s good for us. He already knows what we’re up to. “What’d he say?”

“The inspection is tomorrow before the representatives gather in the Grand Hall. He wants to meet you here personally tomorrow at dawn before it goes down.”

I frown, almost forgetting about that. How am I going to get out of this one? Captain Albius and General Nero both know that I’m the one the Xog are looking for. If they wanted to rat me out, they could’ve already. Captain Albius must have a plan if he wants to meet me.

“What’s wrong?” Jetia asks. “Conflicts with yer plans tomorrow?”

“No, not really.”

“So, yer scared of running into those monsters again?”

“Yeah,” I respond, finding that this is easier than telling the full truth. “But who wouldn’t be? Aren’t you?”

“Yer right. It’s reassuring to hear that even our great leader is scared of them.”

“You have anything else for us?” I ask.

“No, that’s it.”

“Alright then,” I say, walking past Jetia.

“Not going to ask me what I told Captain Albius where you were?” Jetia asks.

“Don’t need to. He already knows that we’re doing an investigation of our own. I told you, he’s on my side now,” I say and continue inside. I’m getting a bit hungry. This might be a good time to eat another meal before we retire for the night. We’ll all have to get up early. My issues with the Feloidians aside, everyone else needs to get rid of their passes to avoid general trouble with the Achilles Sundance Circuit and the Dwarves.

The four of us grab some chow while waiting for the others, who soon arrive. We discretely inform them of the stuff we learned at the Casino. Surprisingly, Ada’s quiet the entire time. I guess she’s really bummed out about Aisha. So, it makes it easy for us to gloss over the finer details. They don’t need to know the specifics like all the answers to Floyd’s questions. Especially not the fictional drama between Hina and I. That will only complicate things.

The others only found the possible secret within the wall, the location of the marketplace, and the mask shop. They explored the bulk of the underground city, so there’s probably not much else to find. Although, I wish they’d focused more on the outer edges. There must be other exits to the surface other than the one we went through.

I inform everyone of the inspection tomorrow too. The guys will have to find a way to remove the pass before it happens and then get it again after we escort the ministers to the Grand Hall. Someone with Healing magic can probably do it. A bit inconvenient, but it can’t be helped. It’s dark out now, so finding our way around the city might be more difficult. It’ll be easier to navigate the city in the morning.

The ministers come down for dinner. We only tell them that we didn’t find any leads on their ask. With them eavesdropping, we can’t discuss much of our actual investigation anymore. We’ve already hit all the big points and have a game plan for tomorrow, so we disperse for the night.

There’s just one more complication today. Ruby has given Hina the stare since we’ve gotten back. It hasn’t been discrete either, so other people must’ve noticed. I can only hope Luke passes it off as some jealousy. In reality, it’s almost the opposite. Ruby’s serious about making sure that there’s no more acting between us. And so, she follows us all the way to our room.

“Good night, Ruby,” I say as Hina and I stand from the inside of a room while Ruby’s in the hallway.

I begin to close the door when Ruby blocks me and interjects, “Wait.”

I knew it. She’s not going to just assume we’re going to do the deed. I don’t want to make a scene here. I think the rest of Hina’s team aren’t going to bed just yet, so it’s just us here. I step out and look into the hallway to verify there’s no one watching. I signal Ruby to step into the room and then close the door.

“What do you want?” I ask.

“I wanna make sure that Hina understands. No more actin’.”

“I got it. Now, can you leave?” Hina asks.

“No. Yer not gonna do it. Yer not serious ’bout it.”

I bite my lip. I really want to say something here, but my assurance won’t make her back down. She knows I’m doing this to help Hina, and I wouldn’t force it on her. Not to mention…the mere mention of that. I don’t know how she’ll react. I could say that I’m not attracted to her, but she’s not going to buy that. I can’t fake it either.

“I don’t know what more you want me to say. I’ll let him have sex with me this time, okay?”

“I wanna watch.”

“No,” Hina and I say simultaneously.

“Why not?”

“Look. It’s a very…private activity,” Hina says.

“If ya wanted it ta be private, ya wouldn’t need ta make so much noise when yer doin’ it. If ya want everyone ta know, it’s not private anymore. Yer not embarrassed ’bout it either.”

“That’s different. No one else sees what we’re doin’. I don’t want anyone to watch us do it. That’s weird. Kills the mood too,” Hina says.

“It’ll be like I’m not even there. I won’t make any noise. I just wanna make sure ya take care of Kai. I’ve already seen his body, ‘n’ we’re both girls. It’s not weird.”

She hasn’t exactly seen my body per se, but that’s not the point here. She’s not going to let up on this. She’s too stubborn. I need to say something despite that I know she’s probably not going to listen to me on this one. This isn’t the best time, but I’ll confront her about that matter now.

“Ruby, I know you’re looking out for me, but why does it have to be Hina? Why haven’t you offered…yourself? I know you want it.”

She frowns. The light almost seemingly disappears from her eyes as they drop to the floor. My heart sinks with it. I hate hurting her like this.

“’Cause I know ya don’t really want me right now… ‘N’ I don’t want somethin’ fake like that. It’ll make me sad…’n’ empty. I’d wish I could have more with ya, but I can’t…so… ‘N’ ya wanna help Hina with ‘er problem. Puttin’ yerself in these pretend acts will erupt certain feelin’s from ya, ‘cause yer a guy. I don’t wantcha ta feel the same as me. Havin’ this burnin’ feelin’ inside that I’ll never be able ta satiate.”

Is that why Ruby did it with that man at the inn? She was trying to get rid of that feeling, but it didn’t work out? Has she been doing those things since? I want to ask her about all these things, but the words won’t come out. Do I really want to know?

“Have you thought about hookin’ up with other guys?” Hina asks. “It might help, and it’s only fair, right? If Kai’s goin’ to do it with me.”

It feels like time is passing so slow. How’s she going to answer? I can’t help but think back to her responses to Floyd’s questions about having a million different partners. She wouldn’t really, right?

“Yeah, I thought ’bout it,” Ruby replies. “But, that’s only gonna leave me sad ‘n’ empty too. It’s no different than if Kai were ta do it ta me now. I know Kai would be mad at me too if I did that. I don’t wanna make ’im mad or upset ’cause of me.”

Ruby turns to me with her eyes sparkling again. She leans toward me and continues, “I would never do that ta ya, Kai. Never. Ya know that, right?”

I pause because I don’t really know. After all, I found her that one time at the inn with another man. I know what I saw. We’re already deep in this. Why am I still hesitating? I’m going to get to the bottom of this once and for all. I answer, “No, because I know you’re lying to me. You don’t know this, but I found you at the inn with another man that day I woke up after the attack.”

“That’s…” Ruby mutters, her eyes and lips quivering.

I knew it. She’s been playing me this entire time. Her answer to Floyd. Doesn’t that mean it’s been open season for her all this time? This. What she’s doing now to make sure that Hina and I have sex. That’s only supposed to make herself feel less guilty about what she’s doing. None of this is about me.

“I didn’t wanna talk ‘bout that…but I’m not lyin’! I…” Ruby says and then looks down. She pauses for several seconds before continuing, “Do ya know how I know I would feel sad ‘n’ empty if I did it with other guys or offered myself ta ya? It’s ’cause I did it once…with that man. I don’t wanna feel that way again. I haven’t done it since.”

That makes sense. Maybe I jumped to conclusions too soon. There’s still a chance that she’s lying to me, though. I need to make sure. I have to do that again. This will be the last time. I say, “Look at me, Ruby.”

She lifts her head up, and we make eye contact. I ask, “Do you swear, Ruby? If I find out that you’re lying to me, I’m leaving you.”

“I swear, Kai! I won’t lie ta ya,” Ruby responds without hesitation, her face completely steady.

I sigh and then say, “Okay, I believe you.”

Ruby smiles. That’s that. I never should’ve doubted her from the start. She did do it that one time, but I can’t blame her too much for that. It was hard for both of us after what happened. We both lost important people in our lives after that attack.

“So, can I watch? I promise ya won’t notice I’m there,” Ruby says.

And we’re back to this. Ugh. I don’t mind doing it with Hina since I have permission from Marin already, but Hina doesn’t want me to, and I respect that, but Ruby won’t let this go.

“I don’t want you to watch us because it doesn’t make me comfortable. Kai, you feel that way, too, right?” Hina asks.

“Yeah, Ruby. I’m with her on this one. Can’t you trust her? Trust me?”

“I trust ya, but not ‘er. She’s playin’ ’round, ‘n’ I know ya. Ya won’t do it if she doesn’t wantcha ta.”

“Fine, I give up,” Hina says. I knit my eyebrows. “You’re right. I wasn’t serious about lettin’ Kai have his way with me.”

What the hell’s she thinking? Does she mean to throw everything away and reveal to everyone that it’s a sham? She’d rather do that than commit the deed.

“I knew it,” Ruby says.

“But, all you want is to make sure that Kai isn’t sexually frustrated, right?” Hina asks.

“Yeah, so?”

“So…I’m sayin’ it doesn’t have to be durin’ the actin’. It could be before or afterward. No one has to know when.”

“What’s that matter?”

“I’m sayin’ I’ll…suck him off when we’re not actin’. I’ll show you the proof afterward, just this once. Is that good enough for you?”

I gulp. Suck me off? Is she serious? Even Marin hasn’t done that to me yet. I’m not sure this sits well with me. I’m supposed to be helping her. I don’t want her to feel trapped and forced into this situation. There’s nothing in it for her.

“Fine. If ya show me the proof, I won’t need ta watch. Hurry up then,” Ruby says turns around. “I won’t look.”

I guess she’s not leaving… It would be suspicious if someone discovers Ruby moving in and out of our room. It might be for the best. Hina takes off her equipment, so I do the same.

She grabs my hand and drags me into the bathroom, shutting the door behind us.

“Are you serious about this?” I ask. “You don’t have to do this, you know. We can still call off the whole thing. You could just jerk me off or something instead.”

“No, you know that Ruby won’t accept that answer. And I don’t want her to reveal the truth to everyone, and neither do I. My team thinks it’s real because they know my feelin’s for you are real. I fear that you’ll be blamed at the end of it all. I don’t want to do that to you after all you’ve sacrificed for me. It’s my fault for playin’ around too much and put us in this situation.”

“I get that, but why not just have ordinary sex? That way, we both can enjoy it. You know we have Marin’s permission,” I say in a whisper.

“I know, but I told you. I don’t want to ruin you and Marin. That time, you told me that you refused Marin. That’s why I didn’t want to continue when you said that. I knew that if we continued, I wouldn’t be able to say no to you anymore. We hadn’t done anythin’, but it still affected you and Marin. I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself if I permanently damaged your relationship with her,” Hina whispers.

I wouldn’t let that happen. I wish Hina would have a little more trust in me. In my heart is always Marin, no matter how much I like Hina as a friend. I would never betray her like that. I’m only doing this because Marin says it’s okay. I get Hina’s dilemma, though. At this point, I can only respect her decision.

“Besides, doin’ this for you isn’t all that bad. I don’t mind rewardin’ you a little,” she says.

Hina wraps her arms around my neck, pulling herself toward me, our lips eventually touching. A bit of an awkward position due to our height difference. I grab her bottom and shove her toward me. She climbs on me and wraps her legs around me, our heads aligning. We pucker our lips together, lightly at first, but steadily growing in intensity. It’s not long until we take turns wrestling our tongues in her mouth and mine with my boner pressed against her body. I can’t but thrust bottom half toward her while pushing her toward me in rhythm back and forth.

She moves her head away from me, panting. “I think that’s enough. Put me down.”

Done already? Just when it was getting good. I do as she says and put her down. She gets on her knees and then unfastens my belt. She takes it off, unzips my pants, and then gently pulls everything down, underwear included. My hard member springs out in front when my pants are lowered enough, practically pointing straight at Hina.

I gulp as she grabs my rod and wraps her mouth around it. I groan loudly, though I didn’t mean to. Pleasure shoots through my bottom half. It comes in short, intense bursts as her tongue wrestles with the tip of my member.

I wasn’t sure what to expect before she started, but this is quite nice. It’s different than what I usually feel with intercourse. My mind drifts off as I concentrate on every sensation. And all good things come to an end. Although, in this instance, an explosive one.

Hina stays quiet as I pull up my pants and fasten my belt. I guess she can’t talk right now with her mouth full. She opens the door and then walks to Ruby, who is standing at the same spot, still staring at the opposite wall. Hina taps on Ruby’s shoulder.

Ruby turns around and says nothing for several seconds. Then, she interjects, “Hmm… Swallow it.”

“Happy? Can you leave now?”

“Hmph!” Ruby interjects. She opens the door and leaves. Thankfully, she accepted this result. Part of me was skeptical whether or not she would believe that Hina gave me head. But then again, faking the slurping noises would have been hard.

Hina takes a glance in the hall before closing the door.

“Coast is clear?” I ask.

“Yeah…” she responds quietly. Her face is blushed.

“Sooo…how’d it taste?” I ask. I don’t know why, but it’s kind of hot that she did that.

“Like a salty, gooey mushroom. A bit of a stronger taste than what I’m used to,” Hina says and then sucks the inside of her mouth.

“Sounds nasty. Sorry you had to go through that.”

“It’s fine. I liked it.”

“You liked it?”

“Yeah. I like makin’ people feel good.”

I frown with a skew while knitting my eyebrows.

“Don’t get any strange ideas. That was a general statement. I liked doin’ it for you because I like you. Seein’ you happy makes me happy. You’re only the second guy I’ve done that to.”

“Second person? I feel honored. Thank you for that experience,” I say while bowing.

“Don’t be so weird about it. It’s not like Marin hasn’t done that with you, right?”

“Oh…um…”

She pauses for several seconds before asking, “Seriously? I’m the first?”

“Yeah.”

She plays with her hair, looks away, and says, “That makes me a little happy.”

She snaps back at me in a moment’s notice and continues, “But you can’t tell Marin that, ever.”

“Okay,” I reply and then gulp.

“You can’t tell her what I did for you, either.”

“How do you want me to manage that?” I ask. Marin was there too when Ruby said those things to Hina at the Casino. “She knows that we must’ve done something for Ruby to back off.”

“Make up somethin’. Take the opportunity to convince her to explore this new…experience with her. I think I’ve done too much. I don’t want you to associate me with receivin’ that sort of pleasure when Marin has never done it for you.”

“You’re thinking too hard. Don’t underestimate me. My feelings for Marin won’t change regardless of what we do.”

“I’m not sure about that.”

“Just because you sucked me off and made me feel good, doesn’t mean I’ll develop feelings for you and leave Marin. You’re just a friend.”

She smiles and says, “Hearin’ you say that makes it hurt more than I thought it would.”

It makes me think back to what Ruby said. How doing it with me or anyone else would make her feel sad and empty because it’s only physical. “I’m sorry, I—“

“It’s okay. I told you. I’m fine if it’s only physical between us. I agreed to this, so it’s not your fault.”

“For what it’s worth, you’re more than a friend, but I don’t have the same feelings for you as I do Marin. I know you like me, so I want to do something for you too. Ruby said she had that feeling she can’t satiate because she can’t have me. But isn’t it the same for you? If you’re fine with being only physical, wouldn’t it be better for us to bang to relieve you of that feeling?”

“I appreciate the thought, Kai. But it’s not just you I’m worried about. It’s about me too. I don’t have a lot of self-control. Even if you tell me that I can trust you, I can’t trust myself. I don’t want to lose control and crave your affection. I’ll delude myself into thinkin’ that there’s somethin’ more between us. I don’t mean to insult you or Marin, but… I don’t think the love you feel for her is genuine. I fear I’ll end up tryin’ to snatch you from her. Then I’ll lose her or you as a friend. Maybe both.”

“I’m not gonna comment on your accusation for my feelings for Marin. You won’t lose me as a friend no matter what happens, but I get it. I won’t push this matter anymore. But that thing you did in the bathroom. You’ll still do that, right? I mean, if Ruby finds out that it was only one time, who knows what she’ll do, right?”

Hina gulps and answers, “Yeah, of course. If it’s only that, I can do that for you, at least, to reward you for your efforts. And I don’t want to give Ruby any reason to attack me or put you under the bus.”

“Well… We’d better get started with our best act. The audience’s waiting,” I say.

She nods her head and undresses. I do the same, and the rest of the night is just as usual. Kissing and touching are still off-limits during our performance despite what we did in the bathroom, but I get a bit of a bonus at the end.

I wake up a little before dawn. I take a shower, brush my teeth, and then start putting on my clothes and equipment.

“Where are you goin’ this early in the mornin’?” Hina asks.

“I don’t wanna keep Captain Albius waiting if he shows up sooner than dawn,” I respond while continuing to dress.

“Oh, I remember. Jetia said that he wanted to see you, right?”

“Yeah.”

“What news do you think he’s bringin’ you? An early promotion?”

“I highly doubt it.” I have a pretty good idea of why he wants to see me, but I can’t tell Hina about that. She doesn’t know that Captain Albius and General Nero know about the scar on my chest, and I can’t explain it to her without mentioning what can’t be spoken.

“What makes you so sure?”

“We’ve only been caught breaking orders. Why would General Nero approve of something like that? It might have to do something with new orders. Originally he said we could investigate freely after escorting the ministers to the meeting, but that could be off the table now. I’ll have to see.”

“Hmm…okay. I’m goin’ back to sleep.”

“Before you do that, you wanna lock the door after I leave?”

“Oh, yeah. I should,” Hina says, sluggishly standing up from the bed. I try not to let my eyes linger on her bare body.

I unlock the door and then open it slowly, making sure that no one is walking by. Unlikely at this hour, but you never know. I head out and close the door behind me.

I sigh. I haven’t been able to do much Void magic practice these days. Because I’m spending all my time with Hina. Sometimes I wish I could tell her about my secret, so I have more time to practice it. She’d stop teasing about my Fire magic too. If Ada knows, why not Hina?

With Emdos missing, I don’t want to go against his wishes if I can help it. He told me that I should keep this a secret, so I’ve been trying to do that. I couldn’t help it with Ada. It was life or death. We don’t get along too well, but I saved her life. She’s not an ingrate. She wouldn’t dare to give away my secret.

He isn’t here yet, so I guess it’s still too early. I don’t mind the downtime with so much going on lately. Not that I’m complaining because it’s better than being stuck in a guard assignment. It’s always exceedingly chaotic or so stagnant and uneventful that the highlight of my day consists of breaking up a street brawl if I’m lucky. If only there was something in between. It would be nice.

I miss our adventuring days. There was monster fighting, and that was it. There weren’t other things to worry about. Now, the Xog want to capture me because of what the Dwarves made me do, and the Dwarves will kill me if I say anything about their underground operations. What’s next? I’ll have a misunderstanding with the Elves somehow and draw a target on my back for them too. Not to mention, General Nero’s fury that could rain down on me at any moment because I’m breaking orders and the inevitability of the masked men’s appearance. I sigh.

Why’d Emdos quit adventuring? He’s well-known in Drymo to the point that random guards know him, but what’s his history? I wish I learned more about him when he was still here. I don’t know anything meaningful. If he’s so well-known, wouldn’t the masked men have known about him? They took into account that our forces were up north in Neomeris and that a large group of S and A-ranked adventurers went to the Cursed Territory. He has a nickname, Glacius. He’s got to be pretty powerful, considering my experiences with Grim Reaper.

I don’t want to consider that he went to the Cursed Territory because then he’d be…gone forever. That masked man I met spoke Emdos’ name as if he knew about him. He laughed, but what does that mean? He killed him? No, I won’t believe that. What else? Emdos is one of them? That’s an even dumber thought. Emdos wouldn’t do that. He wouldn’t do that to me.

“Sergeant Kai, you’re early,” Captain Albius says as he walks toward me. “How has your investigation been goin’?”

“Morning, Captain Albius. It’s ongoing, but I think we have a lead,” I respond. Maybe he knows something about Emdos.

“I hear General Nero caught you breakin’ orders. He’s not too happy about it, but you should be safe. He’s put me in charge of makin’ sure you’re compliant now. He’s a busy man.”

I smile and say, “That’s a relief. By the way, do you know about Emdos or Glacius?”

“Hmm…that’s a familiar name. The last time I heard anything about him was when I attended the Academy.”

“The Academy? You, Captain Albius? How long ago was that?”

“Surprised? It was the Soldier track. It’s been…about two decades since I graduated.”

“How’d you know Emdos?”

“I didn’t really know him. I’ve never seen him myself, only rumors toward the end of my years there. I know he was an icon for the school, being one of the youngest teachers there. Last I heard, he was still teachin’ there, but it’s been a while.”

He was a teacher…? Somehow, that doesn’t make that much sense. Emdos said he was an adventurer with my parents. Was that before or after he became a teacher? But teaching doesn’t surprise me at all. He taught me how to manipulate my Mana, after all. Was he a student there too? Moria said I was one of the most talented students to have graduated, so that implies that there were others.

“What’s your connection to him?” Captain Albius asks.

“Oh, umm…” I mumble, unsure if I should tell him the truth. Captain Albius has been helping me with army affairs, but I’m not sure if it’s wise to spill my connection with Emdos. I don’t know if he had any enemies. The fewer people to know, the better, especially since he’s gone. “He was a friend of my parents. They disappeared on me without saying a word, so I wanted to see if Emdos knew anything about that.”

“I see. Your best shot’s to check out the Academy. I’m sure some of the tenured professors would know more about him than me.”

“Okay, I’ll do that, thanks.”

“Anytime. Now, we need to handle your present situation. As you know, the inspection will take place this morning.”

“Yeah…”

“Bazaleon, that ferocious beast you met, is lookin’ for a man with a diagonal scar across his chest. I take it that’s you?”

“Unfortunately.”

He laughs and then continues, “I don’t know what trouble you managed to get yourself in, but I’ve got you covered. I know a healer around these parts. He’ll be able to erase the scar, and you’ll be able to pass the inspection.”

It’s a relief that this isn’t about General Nero finding out we broke orders again, but this is still a problem. I knew it might come to this since we need Healing magic to remove the pass too. I can’t part with this scar. It serves as a reminder for my mistakes. It’s the last thing to remind me of Sitos and my reason to persevere. I ask, “Is there another way?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean…do I have to heal this scar? Is there another way I can pass the inspection?”

“It’s just a scar. It’s only there because you had a shitty healer when you were treated. If you want another one, I’ll give you a fresh one when we’re back at the Castle.”

“That’s not the same,” I say and press my hand into the center of my armor. I’m glad it turned out this way, even if it was just an incompetent healer. “This particular scar’s special to me. I don’t want to get rid of it.”

“You’re a strange one. Hope you’re lucky.”

“So, there’s another way?”

“Not really. If you want to gamble your life, that’s on you. The plan can still work without you healin’ the scar.”

“What do you plan to do?” I ask.

“I’ll find a scapegoat. We’ll skip the inspection entirely by offering him. If Bazaleon buys it, he’ll get off your back.”

“A scapegoat…someone completely innocent that’s going to get killed because of me?”

“Yeah, but don’t let it bother you too much. He’ll have a choice. His sacrifice in exchange for generous compensation for his family.”

“What if you don’t find someone?”

“These are hard times. There will be someone who’ll take the deal. I know a few in particular who’ve been strugglin’. I’ll meet them now.”

“Wait,” I interject before he turns away. “So, if you find someone, no one else has to be inspected either?”

“Well, I can’t guarantee that. You have another problem?”

“Kinda. So, some of us have something called a pass, including me. For the underground city with the Dwarves.”

“Hmm. I see. Don’t worry about it. I’ll have your gang be part of the last group for inspection. It’ll give me more time to find someone willin’ to be the sacrifice. Good luck,” he says, waves, and walks away.

Now, I’ll have to wait for everyone else to wake up. I have to standby here so that none of the guys leave to remove the pass. It’ll be more convenient if they don’t have to go through the trouble of getting one again. I’m not sure if this is the right thing to do, though. If Captain Albius doesn’t find someone, the other guys will be in hot waters with the pass revealed. Not to mention, I’m risking my own life for this scar. I’m really stupid, but I have complete trust in Captain Albius. He hasn’t let me down yet.

I wait inside for the others to get up. Eventually, they do, and one by one, I inform them of the latest update. After a few times, I ask one of them to take over since I want to get some grub. It’s unfortunate for Deniz and Irwin, though. I’m not going to bother heading over to the Icy Tavern to inform them. They might’ve already left too.

The hours pass, and it’s time to escort the ministers to the Grand Hall. Someone else arrives to guide us there through the crowded streets.

We arrive in a long plaza with a massive castle at the end of it. There are hundreds, no, thousands of people present in organized lines here. Representatives from every country are here, as evident by the flags in each group. None of the Xog are visible, so they must be further ahead. I recognize Xantho and Drosera’s emblems nearby.

The man guides us to join the rest of our kingdom at the end of the line. Men are asked to stand at the front except for the ministers. We’re instructed to be ready to take off our armor and clothes when it’s our turn to reveal our chests. With a line this long, there should be plenty of time for Captain Albius to find a scapegoat.

Wait a minute…how’s Captain Albius supposed to find someone if we’re all gathered here? There could be people assigned a different task than ours.

Suddenly, Pem’s right in front of me. My heart nearly stops as I notice her there. I was lost in thought, so I didn’t see her come into view. Luckily, she hasn’t noticed me as she skips further into the plaza. But if she’s here…

Bazaleon. My entire body freezes as I hold my breath. Calm down. Calm down. He hasn’t noticed me because there are so many of us here. I tell myself to calm down, but my heart won’t slow down. It’s only beating faster. I gulp as Bazaleon stops moving. He turns his head and looks directly at me.

Ahh… The yellow-belly,” he says.

“Master, what’re you doing? The line starts over there,” Pem says as she skips back toward Bazaleon.

No, no, no… Don’t turn this way. She’s going to recognize me! If she sees me, it doesn’t matter if Captain Albius finds a scapegoat. Because that solves the problem of the man with the diagonal scar. There’s still the other man they’re hunting. They don’t know it’s the same person.

“This Human…” Bazaleon says and points at me.

“Hmm?” Pem interjects and turns her head.

We make direct eye contact. I’m dead.

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