Chapter 30 - A Hero’s Welcome (3)

“Sir Pat…SIR PAT…!” A faint but persistent voice assaulted my senses. “Um… Five more min-“

A gentle hand caressed my shoulder and THAT jolted me awake. I wasn’t used to such mellow wake-up calls - the alarm on my phone blaring out being the usual deal.

I opened a bleary eye and noticed Francisa, in yet another costume. Greenish, less ceremonial, and far too frilly for my tastes.

“Have you rested well? Do forgive me, but it is time for the luncheon, Sir Pat.” She spoke softly.

‘Damn, when did I fall asleep?’ I sat up. ‘Ah, she was bringing a friend along. Almost forgot with all that went down in the morning.’

“Yeah, I did. Must’ve been more tired than expected. No need to apologize.” I smiled at Francisa.

“I understand, Pat. All that waving around must’ve been exhausting indeed.” She smirked. ‘Was she always this sassy?’

I snorted and went to wash my face. She called for a maid, who immediately rolled in a trolley of delicious smelling food and started laying out plates on the table.

“Today might be your last day of leisure Pat,” Francisa called out as soon as I stepped back into the room. “After all, you will start training from tomorrow. Though it should be more of a lecture than an exercise in your case.”

“Right.” ‘Guess my stamina won’t be impressing anyone soon’ “When is your friend coming over?”

“Oh, he’s already in the palace. Right now he is greeting my lord father. Should be here presently.” She was absentmindedly caressing one of her frills watching the maid finish up her work.

‘I wonder how this new NPC will be like. Heh. I never thought I would say this but these characters are a bit too realistic. What was his name again?’

Just as the maid retreated into her corner, there was a knock on the door. ‘Speak of the devil!’

“Enter.” Francisa intoned. A tall man with a broad physique and a sunny smile pushed the door open. He carried himself with a lazy grace on heavy footsteps. Dark brown hair that ended in curls sat neatly on his head. And his light brown eyes danced with easy mirth. They lit up on seeing Francisa, who had walked ahead to meet him. They hugged each other lightly and then he stood beside her staring at the crimson patterns on my robe.

“Ahem. Sir Pat, this is my dear friend. Shield-Knight Hamilton.” Francisa introduced him, then turned to him with a respectful gesture in my direction. “And gracing us for lunch today with his presence is the Hero-Mage Sir Pat.”

“It is an honor, Sir Pat.” His eyes turned somber and then he gave a deep bow that, despite his bulky frame, was balletic.

I nodded. ‘Damn it this is awkward. Do I have to bow as well? Nah, I’ll only end up making a fool of myself.’ “It’s nice to meet you as well, Hamilton.” ‘I don’t think I’ll forget his name again, now that I heard it clearly.’


¤ ¤ ¤


Hamilton was the most chill NPC I had encountered so far.

Once we got over the initial meeting ice-breakers, we had a lovely lunch. The food was awesome as usual. Hamilton soon loosened himself, starting to lightly tease Francisa. I joined in as well later, adding a few jabs of my own, leaving her red in the face.

He was easy to talk to. He never once said any words that had me wishing for a dictionary like NPC clan head. Nor did he ramble on and on like Francisa tended to do oftentimes. A jape here, an anecdote there, the guy was overall quite convivial. Even Francisa was enjoying herself.

Soon though, the lunch was over. We said our goodbyes. Hamilton offered to show me around the Knight training ground when time allowed. “I shall escort Hamilton outside. Please take some time to yourself, Pat. I shall arrive in the early evening for our assembly with the Royal Mages.” Francisa said and strutted off, leaving the maid with the cleanup duty.

This was the same NPC who had been attending my room for the last couple of days. Average face, slightly tanned skin, dark hair tied in a loose bun. “Hey, need a hand?” I offered.

She seized up, jerking her face upward and looking at me with wide eyes. “N-No Sire, please. I-I got this.” She stuttered.

“Um… Okay then. I’m gonna get some rest-“ ‘No, have to meet with Arya and Carol.’ “Actually, I’m gonna head out for a bit. Thanks for cleaning up.” I beamed and headed off. I was in a good mood as well.

The good mood did not last long. The shade in the garden did little to ward against the heat rolling off in waves from the blazing afternoon sun. Even examining the light Rune on magic lamps got dull in a while. After thirty more minutes of waiting, the sweat had formed a full layer between my skin and the robe. I felt myself losing SP just sitting there. ‘Where the hell are they?’

I wish I had my phone with me. I would’ve called them ten times by now. Eventually, I gave up and trudged back to my room. Thankfully, it was somewhat cooler inside. ‘I’ll look for them later.’ My legs found their way towards the bed, and for the second time that day, sweet slumber stole me like a master thief.


¤ ¤ ¤


The sun had gone down considerably when I woke up next. I sat up on the bed, contemplating the lengthening shadows.

For a moment, I wondered what my folks were up to again. ‘Probably sleeping. And will keep sleeping while you waste time here.’ I had no “better half” to worry about, haven’t had since recently. ‘Man, don’t think about her again.’ I mentally chastised then consoled myself. ‘You have literal princesses jumping into your bed now!’. Then I chuckled, imagining what some of my friends from back home would’ve done in my situation. ‘Home, eh?’

I had assumed I’d find some way to exit soon after leaving the tutorial. Sure, it was just day 2 here, but it wouldn’t be as “soon” as I thought it to be. In fact, I was at a dead-end on that front.

The storyline offered so far was the generic “hero save world” crap. I had hoped to avoid it entirely if the path to exit was clear. Now? I wasn’t sure if I could escape even after saving the world, despite my assurances to others.

One thing was apparent - I lacked information. About magic and how it interacted with this world. ‘Yes, this ain’t a sprint no more. Think marathon.’ I gathered my resolve, taking a deep breath to calm my unsettled nerves. Getting sentimental won’t help anymore. That was easier said than done though, given I had lingered among strange people and stranger lands for a better part of a month. Against my wishes, that too. True, I liked to travel as much as the next guy, but this unexpected vacation had thrown me into disarray. Just as a weight threatened to squeeze my heart, a soft knock rang out in the suddenly stifling room, bringing me out of my stupor. “Sir Pat? Are you awake?”

I took a deep breath again, finally managing to shake off whatever melancholy had crept upon me. “Yep. Come on in!” I shouted, faking a smile.

“I see you’re awake this time.” Francisa’s eyes twinkled.

‘This girl!’ “Were you hoping for another chance to grope me?” I smirked back.

“G-Grope? I was merely hoping to awaken you. I scarcely t-touched your shoulder.” She panicked a little, a rush of red coloring her cheeks and ears.

“Sureee.” I drawled, lips stretched in a smug smile.

She caught on before I could tease further though, smirk replaced by a business smile. Back to serious mode. “Royal Archmage Kazif Arkanis will be meeting us in the mages’ tower.” She spoke. “He is the current captain of Royal Mages squadron and also in charge of Lohengramm Mage Tower.” ‘Do I notice a slight disdain in her tone?’ “He will arrange for your tutelage.”

“I see. He’s the one teaching me?” I questioned.

“No, he will only confirm your Status, then assign mentors and necessary resources for you.”

“Hmm. I should go wash my face again. When is the meeting?”

“The audience is in a while, but we shall present ourselves there soon and wait inside anyway.” She said with a thoughtful look on her face, which then turned back into her earlier smirk “And yes, you should wash your face. Your luck stat must be in excess; after all, you have acquired a wrinkle-immune robe to sleep in, a deed you seem quite fond of performing often.”

“Heh.” I had no retort to that but a light chuckle. And the robe was quite comfy. Being free of wrinkles was a secondary concern to me.

“Oh, by the way, Lady Arya and Lady Carol wish to speak with you tomorrow. You all shall have breakfast together. I was given to understand that you missed your concourse today due to a mismatch in luncheon timings.” ‘Well, that is one mystery solved.”

Wondering if luck attribute actually existed, I headed out with the princess in tow.


¤ ¤ ¤


The mage “tower” was a three-story high round structure made of similar compressed stone as the palace. More broad than high, we headed towards one of the four entrances - one in each cardinal direction, according to the princess. I was a bit disappointed with the distinctly non-magical and unimpressive architecture but then again, I should have expected it. These people are essentially third-generation refugees. The Sun was kissing the horizon behind the tower, turning it into a shadowy featureless giant to my eyes.

Soon we reached the eastern entrance. A large polished door adorned the otherwise plain stone wall. The door stood out due to the numerous designs tastefully etched across the surface. My Perception sphere had already picked up seven separate runes and three intertwined circles. At times like these, I dearly missed my phone. ‘Could’ve just taken a photo now and studied them all in detail later. I hope I get a chance to go over them at some point.’

Francisa extended her hand and touched her palm on the Circle that was etched at the center of the door. It was one of the more distinguishable patterns, the other circles on either side barely visible in the waning light. I would’ve entirely missed the Runes if not for my ability. They were snugly hidden in the decorative but useless patterns scratched all over the door. I sneakily selected the constructs and ran identify on all three Circles, giving me respectively Circles of Authentication, Intimation, and Alarm from left to right.

I watched in fascination as she scrunched her eyebrows a bit in concentration. The middling Circle - which I assumed to be a form of a magical doorbell - glowed a slight blue spreading a bit across the other Circles, upon which she withdrew her hand. The glow faded after a few seconds as we waited. By the time the sun was halfway down the horizon, the door smoothly swung inside to reveal a dimly lit room and a man in dark robes standing at the threshold.

Squinting my eyes slightly, I noticed that the robes were not dissimilar to my own. Except the color was deep purple instead of bright crimson and more importantly, instead of magic Circles, it had what appeared to be absolute hogwash. Not a single Rune lit up in my perception, despite the nouveau riche appearance and close imitation of Runes.

“F-Fredrick!?!” Francisa almost squealed. “Why are you here?”

“Hello to you too, dear Francisa. As for why I am here - well, I am one of the only two apprentices to His Eminence, The Royal Archmage. As such, I have leave to come and go from the tower as I deem necessary.” He then turned to me, inspecting me over from head to toe, not once but twice. Our eyes met, and he puffed a small breath. ‘What crawled up this NPC’s ass today?’

Turning to Francisa again, he continued. “The hero’s session is not till sundown. My master is not so idle as to accommodate those who have otiose time to spare.”

“Fredri-“

“But,” he cut her off, “since it is you asking, princess, I shall oblige.” So saying, he turned his back with a flourish and headed inside. Sending an apologetic glance towards me, Francisa gestured for me to follow her as she walked inside. Her gait was not the princess-y strut she often employed but an unwieldy slog, as if carrying a mountain on her delicate shoulders.

I shrugged and followed. This should be one of the last cut-scenes, I presumed. Once I get a “training” schedule, I would be free to experiment again. And finally, start looking for a way out.

Interlude - A Maid’s Resolve

“Elise. Such a beautiful name!” My Ma used to tell me. “A beautiful name for a beautiful girl.”

Hah. Fat lotta good it did me.

Beautiful girls with beautiful names don’t last long in the slums. At least, they don’t stay beautiful for long.

Yet, even horny fucks with grabby hands won’t touch you if you’re smeared in mud and shit, not when they have other options. I learned that quite early on. Had to, if I ever wanted to get outta there in one piece.

Surrounded by dirt and filth, my heart always sought better places. Safer places. Less smelly places. “Your prince will come, baby-girl.” My Ma used to console little me with dreams of a man coming to pick me up from my misery one fine day. Worse, I believed her.

As I grew up, I wished for anyone to come take me away. My ways of smearing myself to escape notice were not working anymore. I had taken after my Ma, turning shapely in the right ways.

One evening, when some drunk bastard decided he wanted the daughter along with the mother for company, I decided I had enough. Fuck princes, if I waited any longer I’d end up like my Ma - stumbling from one drunk fool at day to another violent ass come night.

That very night, I packed my bags. I was gone by the time dawn broke. “One day Ma, I’ll return,” I swore, “and I will come to pick you up from this shit-hole and take you to a better place.”

I did not say goodbye. It would’ve broken her weak heart. Besides, I was planning to return someday. She would understand.

I never saw my Ma again, God bless her poor soul.


¤ ¤ ¤


I was blossoming into a beautiful young woman by the time I passed fifteen summers. And I used it fully to my advantage.

A proper noble boy he was. About a year younger than me.

Oh, the promises he made. Eternal Love. Heart, Mind, and Soul. Forever and Always!

Hah.

Still, I played the maiden in love perfectly. Blushed at his proclamations. Demurred at his gifts. I had him wrapped around my little finger.

And so we hatched a plan to stay together “forever.”

I became a maid of his household and two days later, I lost my purity to him.

I was finally here. I had made it. Safe. Well-fed. Warm. Dare I say, happy? My Ma would’ve been overjoyed to see me here.

And then I caught his seed.


¤ ¤ ¤


Soon, I learned that some Nobles were no less cruel than the filthy slum dwellers I had escaped from. Just wrapped in fancy threads speaking fancy words.

They threw me out when I started to show. With rags on my back and a few coppers to my name.

The boy, bless his heart, still had lingering affection for me. So he set me up in a homely shack on the outskirts of a village inside their lands.

I carried through without too much difficulty, delivering a healthy babe. I named her Minerva, after my Ma. With Minerva’s father’s sneaky help, I had just enough to keep me and my girl warm and well-fed. The villagers were quite kind as well. I was content.

A few summers passed. The noble boy turned into a man, with a wife by his side. We spoke no more. It was fine though, I did odd jobs around the village, my skills as a noble’s maid were quite handy often. I was not lacking for anything.

It was Minny’s sixth summer when the signs started showing. A dizzy moment here, a stumbled foot there. I had hoped she would recover in time. The kindly neighbors provided some herbs and concoctions. Nothing helped. Once she passed out in the field playing with her mates not a month later, I decided to act.

I reached out to her father once again. Age may have turned the boy into a stoic young man, but his heart still thrummed with compassion. Against his dear wife’s wishes, he arranged for a healer. Not the magical mender - they were too costly for a bastard daughter - but an Alchemist who dabbled in healing potions.

The Alchemist, in turn, contrived a potion that would delay her symptoms. “I’ve done what I can, but she needs a proper Healer,” He warned. Where in the clear blue sky is a “proper Healer” gonna drop from in this backwater village? I was at my wit’s end. Why does the world persist in fucking me around? Had I not suffered enough?


¤ ¤ ¤


“Ma?” my sweet baby looked up with teary eyes.

“Hush babe. No crying. Mama’s gotta get back to work.” I held her steady in my arms.

“How long will you be gone this time?” She brushed off her tears with a dirty hand. For a moment, it reminded me of my own filthy hands smearing muck on my tattered tunic as a young girl. I chased the thought away.

“Not long Minny. Who knows, next time, I might just bring a Healer along and cure you in no time. You’ll see. In the meantime, you gonna be a good girl, yes? Do not trouble old Martha too much.”

“Yes, Mama.” Ah, such a good little girl. I knew she won’t trouble anyone. Never had.

I kissed her forehead and left. Minny’s father had been kind enough to open up doors for me into the Royal Palace. It had been a real struggle, but I had managed to secure a job in the end. If there was anywhere that I could find a Healer and earn enough coin to hire one, it was here. Minerva’s final chance. I wasn’t gonna let my baby girl down.


¤ ¤ ¤


‘Hey, need a hand?’ The words still echoed around my mind.

Had the hero really offered to clean up plates? ‘Nah. The fucker must’ve wanted a chance to grab my ass.’ I still had a shapely ass. These high-born blokes won’t touch a dirty plate even if their life depended on it.

But I knew the looks of men lusting after me. After all, I had gotten them all my life. Avoided them all my life. The hero did not hanker after me like that. His eyes were kind, not unlike Minerva’s father. Also, he had the princess waiting on him, did he not? No matter how beautiful I was in the slums, the nobles were on another level entirely - and the princess was the noblest among them. Even I got spent in her blue eyes sometimes when I dared to look into them.

‘Bah. Thinking of it won’t do me good. The sun was rolling down, and the fat bastard is waiting for me in his shitty tower.’

I made my way to the mage tower, carrying snacks as an excuse. The magic door was open and I headed straight up to the top. I sighted a few helpers running around. They glanced at me but no one stopped me.

“Ah, Elly. You’re a sight for sore eyes.” Lord fat ass was pacing around the lush carpet. ‘I hope you get sore eyes for the rest of your life piggy.’

“Um, thank you, Sire. S-Should I…?” I acted a shy maiden. He preferred it so.

Then he loosed his trousers and sat on his bed with a loud thump. “Yes, and do get that plate of bhuna pumpkin while you’re there.”

I got his plate. He slurped on the sauce like a damn pig in heat. Minerva would have loved that sauce. One day…

I got down on my knees and got to work like a golem from the bard’s story. Stone-faced soul-less automaton.

“He wants lessons! Can you believe it? I told him that there is no need to summon green-skinned outsiders - prophesy be damned, but Siegfried won’t pay heed.” He gushed as he licked the pumpkin sauce clean off the plate. Nobles got quite unnoble-like when they thought no one was looking. At least no one important.

“And then he asks me to tutor that pile of grime? ME? Archmage Arkanis? Even today, the beast-kin tremble upon hearing that name.” ‘Yes, yes. That would be the ninth time I hear of his glorious conquest this week. ‘

“Humph.” His words came out quickly as his breathing hitched. “I’ll show Siegfried. Even I- ah, that’s good. Um…” He holds my skull in a vise-like grip. Gods, I always hated this part.

After a few moments of short grunts, I got off my sore knees. The blubber pulls his britches up and walked over to his shiny cupboard. A few fancy hand-wavy gestures and muttered words later, he procured a finger-long vial of clear liquid.

“Now, I spoke with a Healer friend of mine. And he is willing to cure your daughter. But-“ He walked up to me, sickly sweet perfume wafting through my nostrils.

‘Oh this fat lard, always with something clever. What more does he want? Take off his fancy clothes and sick perfume and he would fit right into the slum’s gutter like a rat.’

“B-but? Sire?” I ask meekly.

“I have one more task for you.” His sick smile sends a shiver up my spine. “I hear you serve the Mage hero. Take in his food, clean his room, draw his bath, so on.” Darn, I see where this is going. “All you have to do is make sure the liquid in this vial comes into contact with his skin. A simple task really.” So saying he placed the vial in my palm, not forgetting to feel my arms while at it.

“What is this… Liquid?” Of course, I knew what it was. But it was too sudden. I needed more time to think through this. So I extended the conversation.

“Oh, you need not worry yourself over it, Elly. Just a gift for our dear hero.” He chuckled. How I hate when he says my name like that.

“B-but-“ Warming the flab’s bed is one thing. But cold-blooded murder?

“I must leave for now.” He cut me off. “Have to confer with that blasted hero and the mewling princess, no less. I swear,” ‘My time is up.’ “Do this task. One final task for me and your little daughter is as good as cured.”

‘My baby girl, or the kind hero?’ A life for a life. ‘Do I even have a choice?’