Partway northwest from Tervin’s Dukedom to Twin Peaks, our convoy halted. Our traveling pace was reduced by the mud that formed due to the heavy rain. We were forced to take refuge on tents we brought from the carriage following from behind.
“A bit to the left!” shouted a man in a light-armor, assisting in the construction of temporary shelters. “Just a bit more!” The man waved his hand backward, guiding the wooden pillar while another man in robes molded the earth underneath and beside the pillar. With a quick tap on the pillar that stood a head lower than his shoulder, “Stop!” the man shouted. “That’s good enough!”
Around the vicinity, others were similarly at work.
From and to the carriages, several men moved back and forth. From the trade carriages, driven into place by wooden stakes, they tugged on large rolled objects tied up by ropes. “Heave, ho!” With a simultaneous shout, they pulled them free. As it produced a skidding sound, the men caught the large object from underneath in groups of five to six. Leaving splash of steps, they then moved towards the molded structures from earth.
While rain prattled on the object, they unfolded it. Starting with the tangled ropes, they unfastened it and pulled it apart. It was a leather stitched into a large sheet. Accordingly, the men draped the sheet over and around the molded structure. Then, from four sides, they fastened the holes of the sheet to the hooks driven into the wooden pillars.
Once done, the men pulled on the ropes on the adjacent sides of the pillars. “Raise it!” A man ordered, and so it began. From the center of the sheet, a cylindrical object from underneath rose. It was another wooden pillar, but it was at half the diameter of the pillars surrounding it. Lifting the sheet up, it then formed a tent.
“Move it!” Unfinished, the mages began to manipulate earth underneath the four pillars and slowly raised it along with the center pole. “Stop! Harden it!” With another order, the mages began to compress the earth surrounding the pole and the pillars. “Start digging!” And so they did. They dug a small ditch around the tent while others pinned the ropes by driving the stakes tied to it.
Done with their work, they began to work on another. They gradually built a small village spanning within a few hours
From the side, another set of mages entered the tents. They then began to pour mana into the shards they held. Gradually, water was siphoned from the ground and formed a small stream in the air that fused together as it neared the tent’s entrance. It then led towards the ditch surrounding the tents. Once done, men entered carrying wooden pallets. Side by side, they used the pallets to create a makeshift bed that also functions as a flooring.
Within a small tent of a hexagonal build, a silver-haired girl and a man with a dull-crimson hair stood across a table. Lit by six lamps on each corner, they began to discuss in the dimly lit tent.
“Is that so?” I asked with a finger over my lips.
Within my sight were four pieces of wood placed on top of the map. One wooden piece referred to this temporary relay settlement. Another pointed to a village beside the forest to the west. Then one between the Twin Peaks and the forest further northwest. Lastly, a fishing village beside the Great Volgan Lake.
They’re there, I thought. Undoubtedly. Nothing else would explain the missing people from the villages surrounding the forest.
“How long were they gone?” I asked, taking a glance at Maize.
“Five days,” he answered while focused on the map between us.
“Five days huh,” I muttered while knitting my brows. “It’d be best to assume they’re dead.”
With a thud, my fist banged against the table, cluttering the wooden pieces, shards, and crystals. Quietly, I rasped my teeth as I glared at the forest on the map, intending to burn it down.
Then, with a sharp sigh, I said, “There’s nothing we can do about it; let’s move on.”
“Hrmm...” scratching his thin beard, Maize muttered. “Why don’t we use that girl as a bait?” he asked, lifting his eyes from the map to mine.
While returning his gaze, I said, “Then let her lead the path into their hideout? Would she do it blatantly without leading us to traps?” Then I shook my head. “It’s too risky. We might arrive at their hideout, but our losses won’t be pleasant.”
Intently, Maize stood his ground and responded. “True, but time ticks. The longer they remain, the more they become a plague to us.”
“I can’t deny that, but at the same time, we can’t risk having competent Guards falling into their trap. For now, evacuating the residents of the villages is our best option. We can then wear them down by cutting off their supplies by surrounding the forest.”
“It’s viable, however, your Highness, do we have that much time to wait them out?” he said. “Besides, as you assumed, it’s possible that they have the ability to teleport back to Libet. The Worst case, the ability to teleport troops from Libet to the forest using blood runes.”
After a moment of silence, I said, “… If we take too much time, we might be the one suffering in the end huh.”
But I doubt Libet will start a war between humans at this point in time. Not unless they aren't sane enough to look at their own situation.
“Yes,” he said with a nod.
“Siege weapons, can we fire them off to the forest? Or maybe lure Snapmaws from the lake into the forest.”
“It will take days to bring down and deliver the ballistas from the cities to the forest. And reducing the cities’ defenses might spark doubt on the confidentiality of this operation. For the lure, it’s uncertain if it’ll work as intended.”
“I think it’s fine to not keep this a secret. After all, we’ve shown to the refugees that the church was involved in the mass poisoning that happened. If we can attribute the missing citizens to the church, it’ll increase the doubt towards them. However...”
““They might escape before we’ve properly set-up the siege weapons.””
“Yes, it’d be a waste of manpower, and a shame on us if we failed to prove our claims,” I said, looking back to the map on the table. “So the best action is to be reckless?”
“Possibly,” he answered, returning his gaze back to the map. Then tracing his finger around a small portion of the forest, he said, “We can shoot arrows from a distance and push them back, besiege them with shields, then take them out one after the other by gradually closing the encirclement.”
“That’s if we properly find their hideout. As it stands, they’ve stationed assassins throughout the forest while using Hide, isn’t it?”
After all, using Hide through the shadows cast by a forest is good enough to trick a human.
“Anyway, I thi-”
“Your Highness,” Erina interrupted from the entrance of the tent. “His Highness, Prince Maxwell, wishes to speak with you.”
Shifting my sight from the map to Erina, then to Maize, I said, “We’ll continue later.”
“Agreed,” replied Maize as he folded the map and placed it in his pocket. On the other hand, I took the shards and crystals and placed them inside a pouch. I then hung it on a hook at the side of the table.
After Maize left creaks on the pallet floor towards the entrance, he and Erina turned around bowed before leaving. Soon after, Max entered the tent.
“Have I interrupted something?” he asked, removing his drenched boots near the entrance.
Towards the makeshift bed of wood I walked. Then with a turn, I sat down and said, “You’re worried about that after you did it?”
“You’re right,” he said with a snicker. From the entrance, he made his way towards the side of my bed. “Anyway,” he said as he produced a creak on the pallet, “I think it’d be best if you focus on the activities of the church west from here.”
“So you knew huh,” I said with a glance to my side.
Returning my gaze, he replied with a smile, “I can’t be incompetent if I want to become a great King, aren’t I?”
“True,” I muttered, shifting my sight towards my hands placed on my knees. “However, Max, Laurel won’t make a blunder. We’ll escort you back to the borders without fail. After all, that event should never be repeated.”
Placing his hand over mine, he said, “You’re overthinking. We’re in Laurel. It’s true that the church is currently here, but my Guards, and the soldiers lent by your Uncle is enough to stop them from afar.”
In response, I shook my head and said, “No, Max, you don’t understand.” Then I moved my sight towards him. “I don’t want what happened to me back then to be repeated. I may sound unconvincing, but you yourself know how I felt, no, how I feel right now.”
“You love me, right?” he said with a grin.
Puffing a sigh, “What am I to do to you?” I asked while a smile rose from my face. “Max, you’re dreaming. You’re not there yet. Maybe a kingdom, no, a continent away? Perhaps even farther?”
He laughed in response.
“I have to work hard and cross the oceans and seas one day huh. But I'm sure I'll cross it sooner or later.”
“Thanks,” I said abruptly.
“What? Can you repeat that?”
“I said go and drown yourself in the sea.”
“No, that’s too long for that.”
“Your ears need some cleaning. Want me to call Erina for you?”
“No thanks,” he said, waving his hand. “I had Lester clean it for me.”
“Oh.” I raised a mischievous smile. “You’re admitting that you’re leaning towards that side huh.”
“I’m sure you’re mistaken.”
“I sure hope so. It’ll be a huge issue especially for Brent.”
“It sure will.”
A few seconds after, we both laughed. It was like how we used to be before we exchanged that promise. Times when we used to laugh together that I can now appreciate more than I used to. Through the night, we spoke with each other, not as royals, but as who we are and what we’ve become.
“Oh! I remember that!” I said with excitement. “Those exploding shards gave me a scare at the first time!”
“You even panicked after it glowed. Then you threw it to your Guards and caused a panic! Ahahaha!”
“True,” I said, wiping my tears with my finger. “But you’re one to talk. You can’t even keep up with our training after a few days! You’re like a tattered rag lying on the dirt!”
“No, no, isn’t it already weird that you beat me in stamina back then? You’re too unbelievable!”
“Oh, you’re blaming me for your incompetence huh. What a sucker.”
We reminisced how we tackled the tasks we were given while we stayed in Academia for five years. We spoke of our experiences. The time we shared. And the knowledge we gained. It was fun. It was a blast. I never knew that I closed my senses despite me enjoying myself the whole time. I needed to reevaluate how my life played. How I grew to what I am today.
I’m still naive, I thought. But I guess this is fine...
Minutes turned into hours until we exhausted ourselves by recounting the time we were together. In the end, Max reached his hand towards mine and unfolded my fingers. Then gently, he closed it.
A few seconds of silence passed while he gently clamped on my left hand. “I’ll leave now,” he said as he stood and walked towards the entrance.
“Max,” I called as I stood. After he turned around, I said, “Don’t die on me.”
Snickering a smile, he replied, “I won’t. Not until I’m satisfied with my life living with you.”
“I wonder if it'll happen.”
“It doesn’t need to,” he said with his eyes burning with conviction. “I’ll make it happen with my own hands.” And so he left.
“That's not a reassuring line at all.”
A few seconds after he left, I lifted my left hand and unfolded my fingers. At the palm of my hand was a ring. A silver ring encrusted with a diamond. “It’ll cause problems if I wear this,” I said, beaming with a warm smile. “But that’s as Amelia. As Mia, I don’t think so.” Then I clasped the ring.