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“I-I’ll just get some cloth and water.” Hilda turned away from Kasta and left through the wooden door latched on a cemented gray wall.
After Kasta was brought to Hilda’s chamber on the second floor of the church, he was laid on the bed with the help of the paladins. After the paladins completed their task, they went back to meet the Maiden. Kasta now left alone in the chamber, moved his sight to the small arched window at about two meters away.
It’s still early. Then his eyelids fell as he confirmed the setting sun’s light.
Although Kasta was acting, genuine cuts and bruises covered his body. Painful it was, he needed to be convincing. After all, him being suspected is a case he must avoid.
In addition, he expected his wounds—at the very least—would be treated once he delivered the information about the priest and the ambush. But little did he expect that he would be given a reward of marriage. Especially to a priestess in training.
An offering huh.
Then soon, his breathing calmed.
Soon, Hilda returned with her hands latched on a tin pail’s handle. In small hurried paces, with her back reared due to the weight, she walked towards the bedside. Then careful not to spill the water, she placed the pail on the wooden floor.
Hilda sighed in relief. “Mister, um… Troy? Ah, the door!”
She raced to the door and closed it. Then after she returned to Kasta’s side, she said, “Are you awake?”
“Yes.” Kasta lifted his eyelids and turned his head to Hilda. “My clothes, right?”
“Y-yes.” Then she neared Kasta and reached her hand towards his waist. However, Kasta lifted his hand and waved it.
“It’s fine.” As Hilda backed a step away, he sat up and started removing his clothes. Afterward, he was left with only his underwear while laid down on the bed. “You can start.”
After a nod, Hilda pulled the cloth hanging on her shoulder and dipped it the pail. Then after wringing the cloth, she started cleaning Kasta’s body.
“From which village did you came from?” Kasta suddenly asked.
For a moment, Hilda froze. “I… came from a nameless hamlet.”
“I see.” After Hilda finished wiping Kasta’s right arm, she turned around and kneeled before the pail. Then while she was rinsing the cloth, Kasta spoke. “Were you forced to come here?”
As the droplets of water trickled, Hilda’s shoulders drooped. “No. I chose to be here.”
Quietly, while the ripples on the surface of the water calmed, Hilda’s childish face became apparent. Her eyes hinted sorrow, but the corner of her lips was slightly raised. Then like a torrent, she started recounting her story to Kasta.
During her stay in the church, she repressed her emotions and trained as a priestess. She wanted someone to hear her story. But her emotions conflicted with what she wanted. She did not want to speak unless she was asked. And so she remained silent during her training.
Before Hilda came to live in a hamlet, she lived in a town in Niveria. But after the result of the recent war, she, her little brother, and her mother were forced to move into Brent as refugees. Their father was a conscripted soldier that died in battle.
In response to the refugees coming from Niveria, Brent divided them and placed them under the care of different Lords. It was a bitter decision for Brent’s royals, but they needed to focus on the preparations for war. However, as a remedy, Maxwell turned to Laurel for support. Although his efforts bore fruit, the treaty had only been signed recently, and the supplies from Laurel had only started to arrive.
The refugees were welcomed by Sardon’s Lord. The Lord made a large part of the refugees to live in the town. The rest, however, were split and made to live in hamlets. Each hamlet was provided with Earth molded houses and four to five guards.
Among those who lived in the hamlets was Hilda’s family.
Although they were given resources, it was not enough. They lacked the facilities to procure food. The number of the guards was not enough to protect eight to ten families. Also, a healer or mage was not provided.
This lack of resources drove the hamlets into turmoil. It was then Hilda had the thought, The church. They’ll provide help if someone acts as an offering.
The idea wasn’t new to the believers of the church. The same was true for Hilda. In return for an offering—a human sent to the church to become its servant—the church would provide support depending on the number sent. And this time, for a hamlet, Hilda knew that she herself is enough.
Basically, for the good the people in the hamlet, despite her wanting to live with her family, she offered herself. But in truth, if her family wasn’t included in the hamlet, she wouldn’t have chosen to offer herself.
After Hilda finished telling her story, she sniffed and started chanting heal. Afterward, while she brushed her glowing fingers on Kasta’s wounds, her lips quivered. However, despite her releasing her pent-up emotions, she held back her tears.
“...” Kasta was quiet the entire time.
Kasta, a Rentian, was not a stranger to Hilda’s situation. For one, he had an older sister that was made as an offering back then. But his circumstances differed. Unlike Hilda who offered herself on her own, his sister was offered under their village’s tradition. The tradition was to send a child once every three years to retain the church’s support.
Originally, as a believer of the church, Kasta saw it as a norm, and sometimes an opportunity to get big in life. However, after he heard that his sister got pregnant with the priest’s child five years after she was offered, he started to doubt the church. The reason was his sister’s friend. He knew that her sister loved the man, and the man loved his sister. And despite the offering, the man frequented the church just for them to meet.
Kasta was in no way against the man. He himself approved of their relationship and hoped that they could live together as brothers. However, all their dreams were broken when the priest took a liking to his sister. In addition, as a believer of the church, women are to offer their lives to those who took their first. In this case, it was the priest.
At that moment, the man couldn’t take the result. He rushed to the church and tried to whisk her away. But rather than turn to a story where the man saved the girl he loved, it turned into a tragedy. The man died at the hands of the paladins. Then her sister, shattered by the sequence of events, committed suicide with the unborn child.
It was then that Kasta saw the church in a different light. And as he grew, he realized that they were all blindly following the church out of lack of knowledge.
Later on, he decided that he wanted to change his fellow’s views. Naturally, he lacked the authority and the resources. But when he heard that one of Laurel’s Royalty were openly advocating against the church, he gained hope.
Now, it was his fourth year serving as one of Amelia’s Guards after being accepted by Amelia and Maize.
“Hilda. Do you want to leave this place and take your family with you?”
At the center of Sardon was the Lord’s manor. There, in the solar, two hours and a half past sunset, was the Maiden along with four paladins and two clerics as guards.
“I believe you’ve heard of the situation?” While seated on a leather couch, the Maiden said with crossed legs. Around her neck was the necklace that controlled the slave collars.
“Of course,” Sardon’s Lord replied while seated on a similar couch opposite the Maiden. The Lord had a wavy black hair and black eyes. He wore a long-sleeved white shirt topped with a brown leather vest. And on his face, whose age was similar to the Maiden, was a gentle smile.
Around the couch were four lightly armored guards armed with swords. The Maiden had arrived to meet the Lord while the guards were preparing for battle.
“Then I believe you understand? Dear Alex.” Slightly, the Maiden tilted her head with a smile.
His smile unyielding, he nodded. “Mind it not Alessia; it’s an opportunity I won’t miss. To save the priest from the bandits is nothing but just.”
Alex and Alessia. A Lord and a Parish Maiden. These two had a history of their own, but only a select few had known. This information was something that even Kasta and the others had missed.
Alex then was still the first child of Sardon’s previous Lord, and Alessia was a humble priestess. It was nothing but a simple love at first sight. A simple encounter it may have been, it turned into something complicated. To put simply, Alex became the Lord, and Alessia became the Maiden.
Their authority had indeed increased, but the image they needed to maintain was different. Alex was the Lord, and due to this—because of the three-way struggle between nobility, royalty, and the church in Brent—both of them were forced to not be at each other’s side.
However, Alessia, though called a Maiden, was no longer a virgin. She lost it to Alex, the man she loved. But at the same time, it was a secret that must not be revealed. If chance took this secret into the priest’s ear, who knew what might’ve happened. After all, the parish priest’s authority was still greater than hers. But her own authority had safeguarded her from the priest’s lust.
That was when royalty, no, Maxwell came to play. He, like Amelia, was in no way oblivious to the situation in his own kingdom. And because he knew that the church would insist him to bring someone from the church’s side into the dialogue, Maxwell had picked the priest in Sardon.
In other words, Maxwell knew Alex and Alessia’s situation. He also assumed—knowing Amelia since childhood—Kasta would be sent to free the slaves held within the church’s chambers. Maxwell calls it an unwavering bond with Amelia. Or rather, an unconscious response between each other. Maxwell would always cover up for Amelia’s blunders, and though Amelia had only recently realized it, she had been covering up for Maxwell’s.
Back to the topic at hand, Alex, Alessia, and Maxwell needed to oust Sardon’s priest without hinting a clue to the factions that split Brent in the background.
In response to that, Alex took a part of the refugees and made them stay in Sardon while the rest was divided into hamlets. It was a move to corner the refugees into sending offerings to the church. The reason was to show that he had been successfully kept in check by the parish in Sardon. A move to ascertain Alessia’s position as a Maiden.
Alessia, on the other hand, played the role of the villain. Though merciless her image was, Alessia had always kept that image to retain her position. She needed the church, through a spy acting as a cleric, or maybe a paladin, to be informed of her competence.
However, there’s one thing she couldn’t hide even to the public. It was also something that bugged Kasta and the others.
Alessia disliked slaves.
It wasn’t a matter of personal hate to the slaves itself. It was because Alessia hated slavery. For one, she didn’t remain a blind believer after being educated. However, as a servant of the church, she could not openly tell her stand on slavery. Which is why she had been displaying the image of a maiden that despised slaves. She couldn’t fathom the reason for slavery, but to stay in Sardon with Alex, she had to act what the church wanted her to be.
It was where the disconnection occurred. Unlike Alessia, the priest loved to keep slaves. And if possible, he wanted a slave closest to a human. However, since human slaves are by far costly than Fallens, he was only able to acquire a few.
This is where Kasta and others were puzzled. The top of the parish loved to keep slaves, but the second in command hated them. It was also the reason as to why Kasta refused to take a slave as a reward. For all that Kasta knew, it was the signal for Alessia to know he was the person they were waiting for.
And hence comes Hilda.
Hilda being offered as a reward was every bit unnatural. It was something unheard-of. But the words, “If by chance the priest returns alive,” had relieved the clerics and the paladins present back in the chamber. For the clerics and the paladins knew. Her form of reward can immediately be revoked by the priest.
To put simply, Alessia made Hilda and Kasta meet. It was never been fate. It was all in order to push Kasta into thinking of taking Hilda away from the church.
“Now then, shall we proceed to retake the priest?” Asked Alessia with a charming smile.
“Needless to say.”
And so the curtains finally raised and the play began.
“Halt!” As the four of Amelia’s guards stood in surprise, another unexpected situation had bewildered them. “We came by the orders of his Highness Maxwell!”
The leader of the group of ‘bandits’ raised his arm with a gold medallion in his clutch. The medallion had the Holy Spears of Longinus engraved in it along with Maxwell’s name.
“Please put your weapons down! We came here to inform you of the situation at hand!”
Due to the four being far, they couldn’t confirm the engraving on the medallion. However, since they were completely outnumbered, they dropped their weapons to the ground and surrendered. And as soon as they did, the ‘bandit’ leader climbed down his horse and approached. It was then they confirmed that the medallion was genuine.
The leader then informed them of the plan and the actual situation in Sardon. Little by little, the script they needed to play was ingrained in them. Even so, despite the lack of time, their pride in collecting information was wounded. But because they didn’t have the time to mull over childish thoughts, they continued to play the script they were given.
Three hours past sunset. Kasta peered through the small window in Hilda’s chamber. There he saw the citizens of Sardon moving out to the street or peering through their windows. Various inaudible mutters were flung from the streets and alleys. All the while fixing their sights at the guards marching towards the east gate with torches in hand.
A few seconds after, he turned away and faced Hilda.
With her hands clasped and held over her stomach, Hilda nodded. “Please return safely.” In her eyes was a determined gleam.
Then quietly, Kasta passed by Hilda, grabbed the pail of red-stained water, and reached for the knob. “It’s a promise.” Then without waiting for a reply, he turned the knob and moved to the side.
Hilda moved to the hallway. Kasta followed behind and closed the door, his feet wrapped in a cloth. Then quietly, both walked down the hallway in light steps. Upon reaching the wooden stairs, Kasta placed the pail down. Promptly, Hilda fetched it. Then with a glance towards Kasta, Hilda began descending the stairs.
Meanwhile, Kasta began chanting.
While Hilda waddled down to the stair landing, Kasta leaned his ears near the railings. There he listened as Hilda continued to the first floor.
“G-good evening,” Hilda greeted a cleric downstairs.
“Oh, you just got down?”
“Yes.” Hilda nodded and placed the pail down.
“Ah, then, want me to carry that for you? You can get my meal in the meantime.”
Soon, the cleric vanished from the hallway with the pail. Conversely, Hilda took a glance on the stairs before heading to the kitchen.
When both left, Kasta descended the stairs and scanned the hallways. As he confirmed the surrounding presences, he nimbly ran through the hallway. Each time he reached a corner, he would stop, listen for footsteps, and peek.
This is too easy… He thought as he darted his eyes. He crouched, leaned near the shadows, then dashed with as light steps as possible.
What is this? This vigilance is too lax. They can’t be all in the mess hall, aren’t they?
As Kasta entered a large chamber, he paralleled himself on a pillar while waiting for a paladin to pass. Then as soon as the paladin turned its back, Kasta moved to a different pillar and waited a second time.
Six. Six including Hilda. Is that all? Kasta counted all the servants he sighted along the way.
Kasta moved from one pillar to another and finally reached his destination. There, while peeking from a pillar, was a cleric standing guard. To his waist was the keys to the door at his back.
After calming his heart, Kasta crouched and placed his fingers on the ground. Then lifting his rear to a start-dash posture, he canceled Hide and started chanting reinforcement. The moment he finished, he ran towards the cleric.
Before the cleric was able to shout, Kasta caught his neck in a chokehold. Unable to go against Kasta’s strength, the cleric eventually lost his consciousness. At that moment, Kasta grabbed the keys and opened the door. Then immediately, he dragged the cleric inside.
After he rested the cleric nearby, he turned around and said, “Lo and behold.”
It was the armory.
Beside the stairs leading towards the basement, Hilda approached the paladin with a bowl of soup.
“Everyone has eaten already, so here’s an excess.” Then she offered the bowl.
As he received the bowl and sipped it in parts, another paladin came.
“Can I have one too?” It was Kasta wearing a paladin’s armor.
Hilda nodded in response and escaped through the hallway.
On the other hand, “What?” the paladin with a bowl said. “Isn’t there su-”
Kasta smashed his fist onto the paladin’s neck before he was able to finish. Then after the paladin banged against the wall, Kasta choked the paladin with his hands. Soon, Kasta dragged the unconscious paladin into the basement. Meanwhile, Hilda returned and cleaned the spilled soup.
After Kasta left the unconscious paladin, he headed deeper into the basement. At the end of the hallway to the left, was a door. As he approached it, he shielded his nose from the stench of urine and feces. Then without further ado, he unlocked the door and entered.
Past the door were jail cells. Inside them were the slaves shackled and collared. One cell contained five Fallens, and another contained two humans. Silently, after he unlocked one cell, he entered while dangling the keys before the slaves.
“It’ll be over soon.”
Kasta explained the situation to the slaves while he started unlocking their shackles. Gradually, out of disbelief, the slaves realized the situation. Tears ran down their sunken cheeks. Their dry lips curved into a smile. Their hands and body trembled with joy. All the while repeatedly saying, “Thank you, thank you.”
Later on, the slaves gathered, but their necks were still collared. The key, the crystal that controlled the collars, was still in Alessia’s hand. However, they couldn’t care less. As long as they get as far as they could from the holder of the necklace, the effects of the slave collar would vanish.
Little did they know that Alessia had already disabled its effects. The necklace she held was nothing but a display.
In any case, Hilda went down to the basement after Kasta informed her. After they were arranged, Kasta went ahead. Hilda followed then the rest of the slaves. However, soon, an explosion occurred. It came from the main gate. A few seconds later, the remaining servants of the church rushed to the site of the explosion.
“Quick!” They didn’t overlook the chance. Immediately, as the servants gathered at the main gate, Kasta and the group proceeded to the back. After two hallways and an open corridor, they finally reached the church’s garden. There they ran unmindful of the sound of their footsteps. When they neared the church’s back entrance, a familiar voice called.
“Hilda?!” A blonde-haired woman with similar features to Hilda stood in a large carriage for merchants. She jumped down and rushed to Hilda and revealed a boy.
“Mama?! Kyle?!” Wide-eyed, Hilda unconsciously reduced her running pace. The boy was her little brother.
Then in response, bewildered by the situation, Kasta and the slaves stopped. But after Kasta’s comrades emerged from the same carriage as Hilda’s mother, they approached. All that his comrades told him was,
“We’ll explain along the way.”
Needless to say, Kasta and the group boarded the carriage and escaped through Sardon’s west gate.
Along the way, from the west of Sardon to the north, then finally to the east, Kasta’s comrades explained the script that Alex and Alessia played. But before that, they informed Kasta that they surrendered the priest and the coachman to Maxwell’s men.
The troops from Sardon, consisting of thirty guards, twelve paladins, six clerics, and the five slaves marched towards the rocky hills. However, the number of guards that marched the streets exceed that number. It was purposely done to grab the attention of the citizens towards the east gate.
Before they marched, Alex, side-by-side with Alessia, announced that they were retrieving the priest from the bandits. They publicly announced the situation so that they could grab the citizens' beliefs.
When the troops marched, they were supposed to search the rocky hills. The supposed result was to end up with nothing. After all, there were no bandits to catch. Now, since they failed to locate the priest, they needed to return to Sardon and arrange for a proper search party, but that’s when Maxwell’s men come into play.
From the city south of Sardon, they bear the news that the bandits were apprehended. At the same time, the priest was retrieved. However, the condition of the priest’s limbs was beyond complete recovery. Nonetheless, the priest was surrendered to Sardon.
Now, since the priest was returned alive, despite the five slaves doing nothing, they were freed as per Alessia’s condition. Needless to say, the slaves were brought into the care of Maxwell’s men.
The priest on the other hand must be replaced. He was already considered invalidated in his condition. And as planned, Alex and Alessia hoped to nominate a priest that they could control. But the results of the nomination for a parish priest would be announced after the church confirmed.
Returning to the carriage, after a day of traveling passed, they reached a coast. At a distance from the coast was caravel with its masts folded, and at the banks were several boats. Around the boats were several men in simple cotton clothing, waiting for passengers before rowing the oars.
Nearby, was a man with blonde hair and green irises gallantly standing on a patch of sand. It was Maxwell.
After Kasta and the others alighted the carriage, they were led to the boats and headed to the caravel in batches.
“It’s been quite a while.” A victorious smile was plastered on Maxwell’s face.
Kasta bowed. “I have heard of it. We are indebted to you, your Highness.”
Maxwell laughed in response. “You shouldn’t be too formal, Kasta. I’ll feel bad if someone I used to train with would treat me like this.”
“Please excuse my manners.”
For a while, Kasta and Maxwell proceeded with idle chatter, but since time was ticking, they had to end their conversation sooner.
“Kasta, please send my regards to Amelia.” Maxwell waved his hand as he turned around.
“Will do.” Then again, Kasta bowed as he gazed at Maxwell’s receding back. “I wonder how things will turn out for those two in the future.”
Then they all boarded the caravel headed towards the port city of Piraeus.
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