Chapter 16

“Don’t move.” A gruff voice sounded out. Everyone in the inn stopped moving.

Jackson stopped and looked out the corner of his eye. He knew that the archer had him in his sights; the steel tipped arrowhead still nocked on the bowstring. Something caught his eye on the floor. Looking down, he noticed it was a sliver of steel; one that matched the size of the scar now on his plate armor.

“They are piercing arrows. It can punch through you and three other people.”

Jackson sobered slightly with the threat, his drunken mind struggling to churn out an answer. He recalled that a seasoned archer could sight a target, gauge distance, pull and release within a few seconds. For a target at range. This close to the target and he could just pull and release, the arrowhead wouldn’t drop that much in the space of a few meters. “There’s only one group of archers around here who have the arrows that can do that. Care to tell us who you are, Ranger.”

“Bodyguard Huntsman actually. What use is a bodyguard if they can’t stop a person in armor. Especially a hostile one.” He came up with a factual response and responded evenly. “Unfortunately for you, my little ward has gone off in that direction as well. This is your only warning.”

“You’d best figure how to apologize Jackson,” Jayden groaned as he turned toward Tyler. This man scared him more than the Archer with the bow, and for good reason too. He realized who Paige was sitting next to. “He was drunk sir. He really didn’t mean it like that.”

“Talking bad about the royal family can land you in jail, banishment or execution,” Tyler looked him square in the eye. “And you actually said it in front of the former Royal Captain and the Queen’s best friend.” He leveled his gaze onto the two parties; his eyes eerily similar to Paige’s just moments ago. “Your apologies better be good, and it better show your sincerity. Not even the Guild will overlook what was said.”

“Heh, all I see is a coward who isn’t fighting at the frontlines.” Jackson spat at Tyler, ignoring his threats outright. WIth the happening, it would take a while before the government would be able to respond to this minor slight.

Jayden discreetly told his team to back off and slowly edged away himself. They were friends, but Tyler was right about what he said. The Guild nor the Alcudian Royal Family would not let this insult stand.

“Aunt, are you okay?” Isabella asked quietly.

“Aunt?” Maggie looked at the young girl critically. “I thought it was weird that you’d be cooperating with a mismatched team like that. Heh, you are more mismatched than I am, and that’s saying something.” Paige said nothing, walking steadily away. Maggie slowed down and grabbed Isabella’s hand, stopping her from following too close to Paige.

“Let her have some time to herself,” Maggie said quietly. “She’ll vent her frustrations, and all will be well.”

Following behind a few steps, they stopped after walking through the kitchen and as Paige walked toward the back room but stopped short of it. Isabella watched as she tapped a spot on a wall three times, and a secret passage revealed itself. Paige walked in and the passage shut silently. “It’s a safe room” Maggie replied quietly. “The Royal family built it, just in case something happened, and the crown princess needed a safe place to go.”

“Mother built this for Alexandra?”

Maggie eyed Isabella quietly, putting the pieces together and coming up with her identity. “No, your great grandmother built it for her daughter,” Maggie explained quietly to the young girl. She stopped and looked Isabella in the eyes. Bowing slightly, she said quietly. “Maggie Green, Apprentice Innkeeper, at your service. I humbly welcome you to my abode, Third Princess Isabella. It is an honor to be of service to the throne.”

“The, the pleasure is mine,” Isabella responded shyly. She usually did not have to respond to such a forward greeting.

“Don’t say that. Everyone knows that the third princess died at childbirth.” Maggie warned her quietly. “Most people will not associate your name with the dead princess, but you have to be careful. You were obviously hidden for a reason.”

“Eh? You can tell all that from just my name?” Isabella said shocked.

“Even Paige says I’m pretty sharp at times.” She took a deep breath. “You’re traveling with Paige and Royal Vanguard Tyler Merk. Plus, everyone knows that the queen’s children call her aunt. That puts you on a very short list of people.”

“Next time someone asks you for your name and Paige or Tyler is not around, just say your name is Bella and deny everything else. Those two can handle the pressure, political or otherwise.”

Isabella was speechless at that logic.

Leaning on the opposite wall, Maggie eyed the now-closed passageway and decided to explain part of her mother’s legacy. A view from the outside in. “Do you know why your mother is so well loved by the country?”

“Not really. I don’t really get out much.” Isabella said quietly as she sat down next to Maggie..

“The story goes that somehow Paige convinced your grandmother that it was a good thing for a crown princess to go exploring and meet her subjects. I’ve heard from my grandparents said that there were times that the crown princess was out of the royal capital for months on end. Paige was never shy of announcing where they were headed either; so many of her adventures and exploits were well known. That’s also why many nobles send their daughters out to adventure now, to gain recognition and experience just like the queen did.”

Isabella spoke quietly as she looked up at Maggie. “Mother was allowed out if Paige defeated Tyler in mock combat. Then they would quickly flee out of the capital before anyone in the Royal Guard could trail them.”

“Aw, you ruined the story for me. Now it’s not as good anymore.” Maggie pouted. “That was one of the rumors. The others were more imaginative.”

“Really? Like what?”

She started to tick her fingers one by one. “There were rumors that Paige actually loved the Queen; a hypnotist; a Sorcerer; that she was an Imperial spy; Leit spy; foreign spy; a secret royal tutor; etc.” She moved closer to Isabella, whispering so quietly that Isabella had a hard time hearing “I was leaning toward the first one myself. After the queen got married and her party members formally joined her as king, prime minister, and royal mage; Paige spent noticeably less time in Alcudia. It was only after her children were born that Paige started to stay more often. At least, that’s what my parents said.”

“Do people really like Aunt Paige that much?”

“She may not be high on any watchlists, but if I had to choose one person to protect the country, she would be it. I’d bet most people would say the same. Most of the guild just says she’s lucky, but I think there’s more to her than just that.” Maggie said confidently.

Isabella kept quiet about her aunt’s true job class.

“Well, while you are here, you might as well learn how to open the passageway as well.” Maggie righted herself and beckoned for Isabella to come closer to the secret passage. “You tap these three spots and it’ll open. It’s been warded so that all skills and locator spells will be unable to penetrate it, or so Paige says. The key thing you need to remember is that you must identify yourself if you have not used it before. Only Paige, my family, or a child with the surname Freal can open it. Supposedly anyway. I’ve never tried the last two options myself since I know how much it costs to activate it.”

As she headed for the back room to grab a seat for the two of them, Maggie quietly sighed to herself. Listening closely, she could hear the sounds of fighting from behind of her. “Hopefully the others won’t destroy my inn too much. I really do like my bar.” she whispered to herself, confident that would happen. At least Paige wasn’t in the fight, then she’d have a whole lot more cleaning to do.

The bar had been destroyed. Well, in the sense that you couldn’t put your drink down on it anymore. Jackson and his team had made sure of that. The polished wood countertop was still intact in one piece but was now lying on the ground.

As soon as Jackson had said those fighting words, Jayden quickly stepped back with his hands up and Tyler tackled the man to the ground. Even though Jackson had his plate armor on, the fall had knocked the breath out of him. Tyler kneeled over him and started punching him straight in the face. His team rushed forward to help, but Nick had jumped in as well. Nick quickly cut his bowstring and rushed forward to help Tyler, brandishing his now unstrung longbow like a sword. The first person stepped forward and tightened his grieves, quickly trying to pass Nick. Everyone had the good sense to not fight with actual weapons, at least at this point of the bar fight.

Jackson and his team were still wearing their plate armor, so the first team member to step up did not think that the wooden bow would be able to hurt him. He rushed forward, clearly trying to take Nick to the ground so that the others behind him could help the team leader on the ground. The rush of adrenaline helped him sober up and he quickly threw a punch at Nick’s chest. Nick held his ground and then moved the bow in a sideways arc, twisting just his hands.

The bow hit the man’s wrist from the side, deflecting the punch away from Nick’s body. He took a small step forward and twisted; his bow sliding straight up the other man’s arm and hitting him on the side of the face. Completing his twist, he quickly shot his leg out and kicked the man in the knee, a clean snapping sound heard right after. The man fell unconscious from the pain as soon as his head hit the floor.

“They got Hugo, get them!” The other four people rushed to get Nick, hoping to use their greater numbers to take Tyler and Nick. Nick quickly backed up, grabbing Tyler on his way back toward Zenith.

One of the men grabbed a bottle from the shelf behind the broken bar and shattered it, hurling the bottle toward Nick’s back.

“Watch out!” Zenith screamed. She shoved the table away and grabbed a worn looking short staff that she had left leaning against the wall next to her, the markings on it slightly worn and faded from time. Zenith’s new and original staffs were safely tucked away in Paige’s spatial ring, but she had chosen to use her original Apprentice Mage combat training staff to match her current Apprentice class. Standing up, she pointed at the shattered bottle and quickly yelled “[[Air Shield]]”. A translucent spiral of air quickly formed behind Nick, stopping the shattered glass in midair. She quickly flicked her staff downward and the shattered remains embedded themselves into the floorboards. She tried to take a step forward, but her vision suddenly went out of focus and she stumbled. Nick let go of Tyler and grabbed Zenith before she could hit the floor.

“You okay?”

“Yeah, I just have some vertigo for some reason,” she mumbled, her face red. “Moved too fast.” Watching the other people trying to surround them in a corner, Zenith decided it wasn’t worth it to fight in close quarters.

‘Forget this.’ Zenith thought to herself. She mumbled under her breath “[[Air Pressure: High]]”. As the pressure in the room started to gather on the people in front of her, Zenith opened her adventurer kit and withdrew a slightly glowing bottle. Throwing it toward the drunken opponents, the bottle smashed open and a cloud of purple smoke was suddenly released.

Closing her eyes, she willed her mana and imagined a sphere surrounding the now smashed bottle. The smoke suddenly stopped expanding outward and upward as Zenith used her skill [Air Molding] to force the smoke into staying in place. “I’ll make the cloud stay there, just knock them unconscious as they leave.” Mage skills were powerful, but the drawback was the need to stand perfectly still and eyes shut to focus their mana. She rarely used her Mage skills, preferring to use spells instead so that she wouldn’t be vulnerable to an attack.

Tyler and Nick obliged, quickly knocking the other four people out when they stumbled out of the cloud, coughing up a storm before they knocked them out. Zenith counted the impacts on the floor and suddenly raised her hand toward the smoke and made a grabbing motion and moved her hand toward her chest. The smoke quickly compressed into a ball and flew toward Zenith, who suddenly opened her eyes and collected the ball into another glass bottle, which started glowing again as the ball diffused back into smoke.

Zenith gaze shifted to where the other Mages were standing. “Please don’t try anything. I’m still a bit tipsy.” She said quietly. Her staff still pointed in their general direction, she walked slowly back to her seat and sat her head down on the table, trying to make the room stop spinning. “They’ll be fine by the way. Just some knockout smoke in a bottle.” She pulled the bottle out and laid it on its side, spinning it absently. She closed her eyes when she saw the kitchen doors swinging open and was fast asleep soon after.

“My bar! Well, it’s better than I thought it’d be.” Maggie said, looking around. “I think it’ll be around twenty gold coins for that. Meh, gotta add in the food and drink for the other patrons as well. Let’s say thirty-five…nah forty will do.”

“Oh, come on! A plate of food is less than a silver coin. How did it come to an extra twenty gold coins?”

“Hassle and reputation costs. It’ll also cover buying everyone’s silence on this matter.”

While Maggie and Jayden argued back and forth about the reparation costs for the inn, Isabella quietly told Nick and Tyler that Paige would be fine in a bit. “She’s calming down in the back, she’ll be out in a bit. I think she was about to kill him if she stayed.” She looked to the men lying unconscious on the floor. “Do you think she would have?”

Tyler hesitated but eventually shook his head. “No, not with so many civilians nearby. Paige is well known for her bar fights. She would have calmed down after maiming a few people. Probably.”

Nick waited for a lull in the innkeeper’s discussion and walked up and asked pointedly. “What will be reported to the Guild?” Jayden stopped and waited for her answer.

She thought for a second, evaluating the mostly intact inn. “I don’t want to fill out an incident report. But it will depend on what Paige and Tyler decide as well.” She looked over to Tyler, trying to gauge his view on the matter. “We’re on a guild mission. I won’t petition for formal punishment, so long as their teams gives the royal family an appropriate response.”

“We were headed toward the frontlines. if we join the defenders at Castle Lidale, would that be a good enough show of faith to our commitment to the country?” Jayden asked hurriedly.

Tyler thought for a second before replying. “Yeah. I’ll try and convince Paige that this will be good enough.”

“It won’t be, but it’ll do for now,” Paige answered briskly. At some point, Paige had come and picked Zenith off the table. “I’ll take her upstairs. Tyler, since you said you would try and convince me, you, Nick and everyone else still conscious can help Mags clean up the inn.” Looking toward Jayden’s group, she amended her words slightly. “You can rest Ava. At least you had the good sense to not get involved, unlike like the rest of them.”

The red-headed mage nodded gratefully. “I’ll try and teach them some commonsense Paige, but it is hard being the only girl in the party.”

Motioning for Isabella to follow, Paige carried Zenith up the stairs, calling out to those behind of her. “Thanks Ava, just try your best. And make sure I don’t meet Jackson alone. Maggie, I’ll pay for any damage incurred in your inn tonight. It would be bad for my reputation if I didn’t. We’ll take separate rooms now as well since the inn is empty.”

“I’m surprised you’re still up, Paige.” A voice called out to her after the cleaning had been done. Paige walked back downstairs shortly after Nick and Tyler had gotten into their room. She had just sat down by the fireplace when she was rudely interrupted.

“Jayden. I really have nothing to talk with you about.” Paige said as she sighed to herself.

“Thought I’d find you here though. I just wanted to say sorry.” Jayden walked over to where Paige was sitting mostly in the dark, a single piece of wood burning in the fireplace illuminating the empty dining area. He sat down in a chair adjacent to Paige and warmed his hands by the dying fire. “Your Mage was pretty good on her feet. Quick thinking too.”

“Apprentice Mage.”

“If she’s just an Apprentice I’d be impressed. I’d say she’s close to an elemental specialization then, so she’ll probably be an Apprentice Wind Mage soon.” Jayden raised a single eyebrow. “The Archer too was really good. Although I’ve never heard of a Bodyguard Hunter class before.”

“You need to travel more then. Or interact with the higher members of society. To be fair, it’s not a well-known class.”

“Yeah, I suppose we do need to branch out more.”

They both sat in silence for a moment, as Paige prodded the firewood absentmindedly. Eventually, Jayden spoke up. “I am sorry about all that. Jackson was out of line. Ava gave me quite the scolding.” He chuckled to himself quietly. “Although, you probably knew my wife would scold me after not stopping Jackson.”

“Ava has more common sense than all of you combined. But you already knew that as well. What did you really want to talk about?”

“That young girl, does she have a party? An Apprentice Mage like her would be an asset to our team. Her skills aren’t anything to laugh at either. She had only used some basic skills yesterday, but her control was phenomenal.”

“Why? Wait, let me guess…Ava?”

“Yeah, she’s been wanting a child, but…” He hesitated to continue.

“You’d have to disband your party to take care of a baby.” Paige filled in. “You’ve been adventuring for over twenty years, of course it’d be hard to stop adventuring. Were you thinking that a younger team member would fill the void?”

“Yeah. We were planning on settling down after this next mission, but I was hoping that Ava would be satisfied with a younger team member to watch over instead.” Jayden spoke quietly.

Paige responded briskly. “The mage does have a party, sorry. What will the rest of your party do once you and Ava leave?”

“The plan is to merge with Jackson’s party and continue on adventuring.”

They watched the fire die down before Paige added another log onto the dying fire. “Any advice for the future?” Jayden asked, gauging Paige’s mood.

“Find a good wet nurse. I’d suggest settling down in Appealte or one of the larger villages. You and Ava could probably find a job either at the Guild or Mage Hall. Or you could be a mobile tutor in the countryside. Probably shouldn’t live anywhere smaller than a farming settlement though, otherwise it’ll be hard to make a living, even as Mages.”

“I mean about my party and retirement.”

“Oh. Just keep in contact and wish them luck. Settle down in a place with a guild branch if you want them to visit more often though.”

Jayden hesitated but eventually asked. “Do you miss being in a party with the queen?” Paige warily looked over at Jayden. He sighed and continued. “I’m gonna miss my team, Paige. We’ve been together for so long and done so much. It’s such a big change.”

Paige watched the fire die down and said quietly “You’ll still have your memories Jayden. Everything eventually changes, even if we do nothing. Make your choice and come to peace with it. At least Ava will be there with you, as well as any future children.”

“…Thanks Paige.”

“No problems, now how about leaving me to my thoughts?”

“You never did answer my question. Do you miss adventuring with your friends?” Jayden spoke while heading upstairs.

Paige whispered quietly to the now empty tavern after he left. “It was just an interlude to my travels.” Only Paige knew whether she was being truthful though.

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