Chapter 17

“My head hurts.” Zenith groaned when Paige woke her up a few hours later. “And why are we up so early anyways?”

“Because Zenith, we have to leave before the rest of the town wakes up. Hopefully Isabella can wake Tyler and Nick; it looks like they spent quite some time yesterday cleaning this place up.” In the dim morning light, she noticed that the place did look good, all things considered. The bar countertop was now upright, and the splintered wood was sanded back down to a smooth finish. Absently running her finger across the tables, she realized that even the tables were dusted. “Huh, and they did a decent job too.”

“They did Paige. I stopped watching halfway through when I realized some of them knew how to actually clean. The archer even sanded down the splintered wood for me.” Maggie’s head poked out of the kitchen, her hair strewn about messily. “It was fun watching Tyler get bossed around, but I suppose he doesn’t do much cleaning back in the capital to begin with.”

“Heh, nope. They have maids and butlers to clean up the mess they make. Too bad I missed it.”

“Nick knows how to clean?” Zenith said, shocked awake by that news.

“I do indeed know how to clean. My wife made sure of that.” Nick said grouchily as he walked down the stairs. Zenith flinched, looking away before he noticed her red face. “Tyler could learn a thing or two about cleaning up a mess though.”

“Paige is paying over forty gold, and the other teams will be here until they recover. I don’t understand why we had to clean last night.” Tyler said grouchily as well. Isabella had loudly woken them up, and the trap Nick set for intruders had gone off, which did not help. Even in a guild affiliated inn, Nick had opted to set his own simple net trap to stop people from entering their room. Isabella’s scream of surprise was louder than her initial wake up call. It was not the best way to wake up in the morning.

“When you are a guest, you should always aim to leave a place the same or better than we arrived,” Paige said wisely, closing her eyes and nodding to herself. Nick gave her a reproachful look. “Ranger’s Forestry Code; second line slightly modified.”

“Paige’s common sense, original first line,” She shot back, rolling her eyes. “Where is Isabella?”

“Getting herself out of a net trap.”

“Heh, good learning experience for her. And you too Zenith.” She said under her breath to Zenith, who gave her a glare in response.

“So we’re heading out then? Have you figured out how to get around the guards?” Tyler asked after yawning.

“The guards won’t be a problem. There was no report filed and the inn is spotless. They would have no reason to stop you.” Maggie called out from the kitchen. She came out with a few bags full of travel rations. While handing them out, she continued talking “Even if the local duchess was trying to exert her pressures on you or the Guild, both of you could effectively stop anything she tries. And don’t try to tell me otherwise. I know you can call in some favors, political or otherwise.” Isabella came down the stairs holding a thin net, staring at Tyler and Nick with an indignant look.

“True, it would be a hassle though.” Paige agreed with a shrug of her shoulders. “Here’s the gold for the damages from yesterday. The rest is in the back.” She pointed toward the kitchen. “You’ll know where to find it.”

“Thanks, Paige. You’re welcome back anytime you know.”

“Thanks for the offer, Maggie. I’ll take it up another time. Isabella, to the stables. We’ll eat on the road.”

“It’s not funny aunt! They left me there on the ground to die!” Isabella pouted to Paige as they were crossing a riverbed. They had quickly left the city and had decided to cut straight through the forest heading toward Castle Patel instead of following the established merchant route. They were not worried about fighting any bandits or outlaws, and Paige was half hoping that they would find a bandits hideout in these woods. “They said it was my fault that I didn’t check the room before entering. How was I supposed to know Mister Nick would booby trap the door? And then they had the gall to say it was my fault for not knocking!”

“Did you knock little Isabella?”

“…No, but none of the doors had locks on them anyways.”

“Well, now you know. Before entering a room, always check to see if it is trapped. And count yourself lucky too, since Nick was the one guarding the door last night. If Tyler was guarding it, you’d probably be nursing a bruise on your head instead of just a bruised ego.” Paige admonished Isabella lightly.

“Zenith, was it really my fault?” Isabella decided to ask someone else who would hopefully sympathize with her more than her aunt.

Zenith eyed her, knowing what the young girl was trying to accomplish. “It was. Most parties will always have at least one person guarding a room, even in an inn. A net trap is pretty lenient all things considering.”

“How would you have booby-trapped a door?” Isabella said questioningly.

“If I’m not watching out for danger, I would probably aim for knocking out an opponent with either a magic circle or a trap spell. If I think a town is dangerous though, I’d use a warding spell and a crossbow. In a guild affiliated inn like that though, unless you have a lot of enemies, it’s pretty safe.

Isabella relented, albeit grudgingly. “Fine. It was my fault. But how would you check a room for boobytraps?”

“Everyone has their own way of doing it. I use magic to sense for traps or to get a general layout of the room. Paige, Tyler, how do you check for traps?”

“Patience,” Tyler spoke up from behind, talking loudly so that they could hear his answer. “I open the door slightly, and if anything changes in the room I know it is trapped.”

Paige, on the other hand, had a far different answer. “Usually I don’t check. I’m confident that I’d be able to evade in time. Now, if I am trying to be sneaky, I’d use this.” She passed it over to Zenith and Isabella. It was a simple square piece of paper. “I slip this under the door and simply wait a few seconds.”

“What is it?” Isabella flipped it over, trying to figure out what the slip of paper could do. She noticed one side was shinier than the other and had what looked like faint writing on it.

“It’s heavy-duty magic paper and ink infused with steel shavings. At night you can see an outline of an active magic circle. If someone is awake, they’d recognize the danger of an unknown magic circle and would rush to destroy it.”

“What happens if they wait and see?”

“The circle activates and spews out a thin layer of smoke.” Paige shrugged her shoulders. “It’s expensive, but I find it’s the best way to check if someone is waiting inside a room.”

Zenith looked it over critically. “It’s well made too, although most would use silver instead of  steel shavings for something expendable like this.”

“But that still doesn’t answer how you would check a room for boobytraps.”

“I’d kick the door open and use my shield for cover. If it’s an empty room I would use my instincts to determine if something was off.”

Stopping by a large tree, Paige stopped everyone to wait for Nick to find them. “We can rest here for a bit. Hopefully, Nick found a bandit’s hideout, or maybe even a monster nest. That would be helpful for us.”

She sat on her bag and took out the paper’s that the young innkeeper had given to her last night. Idly flipping through the notes, she decided to pass the time talking with Zenith. “So I heard you didn’t get the chance to use your Crusader subclass skills yesterday. I’m kinda disappointed at that. I was hoping to hear your thoughts about it.”

“I didn’t want to blow my cover as just an apprentice. And hiding my class was harder than I thought it would be if I am being honest.” Zenith replied frankly. “I still ended up using something more advanced than what an apprentice would be able to do.”

“Yeah, but not by much. Jayden assumed you were close to a specialization instead, so it worked out in the end.”

“Jayden? Was that the Mage team leader for the ‘Bringers of Light’ party? When did you do that?”

“He was up a little before I was actually. He wanted to try and poach you for their team since you showed so much promise as just a wandering apprentice.”

Paige caught the look in Isabella’s eyes and answered before she could ask a question. “Most apprentices would already be practicing in their field, like Maggie as an Apprentice Innkeeper. But since you were dressed like Nick, and he was guarding you and Zenith, he assumed that Zenith would be for hire soon. It’s rare to see a battle class apprentice wandering without a mentor.”

“Even for Apprentice Warriors or Apprentice Mages?”

“I can answer this Paige,” Adopting her teacher tone of voice, she started lecturing Isabella in the basics. “There are two things required before you can advance to the next class. One, training. Someone has to train you after you receive the class. An Apprentice Mage without training is about as useful as a commoner because they can’t actually use their class for anything. Two, variety and experience. You cannot become better by focusing on just what you know. You have to branch out and learn, testing the limits of what you know and expanding your horizon.”

“That is why the Warrior Class is so powerful; because they can learn multiple types of combat.” Zenith crouched down, using a stick to draw a simple diagram on the ground in front of her.

“Think of class advancement as a line. Let’s say you start off at the beginning as an Apprentice Warrior. The middle of the line would be the class specialization. So, maybe you become a Sword Master, or maybe a Spearman. Once you become proficient enough at your specialization, you end up as a Warrior.”

Below her diagram, she drew another line, except this one, had another line parallel line in the middle. “But let’s say you learn many different weapon styles, but still stuck to one main path. So let’s say a Swordmaster also learned how to use a spear, just as good as a Spearman. In the end, both people would still become Warriors, but now one may have different class skills as a Warrior. It just takes more time; time some might not be willing to waste when they are young.”

“Then why is your class Wind Magi instead of a Mage?”

“Mages are a little different. Your final class depends on what element you have affinities toward. My class went Apprentice Mage, Wind Mage, Wind Magi. If someone had affinities toward all magic types, you could probably end up with a high class of just Mage, but more than likely your greatest affinity will govern your class type.” Zenith shrugged her shoulders.

“But what about…”

“Did you find anything Nick?” Paige suddenly called out, interrupting Isabella. Nick came out from the heavy forest brush and caught the food bag Paige had thrown toward him, pulling out some jerky to munch on.

“I noticed an odd clearing a few miles east of us, but I have my suspicions that it is a group of Treants. Not really worth our time to clear them out, especially this deep into the woods. Other than that, there’s nothing of interest within a few dozen miles of us. At this rate, we should arrive at the castle within two days.”

Stowing her notes back in her pack, Paige stood up and stretched. “Okay, let’s keep on moving then. We’ll make camp shortly before dusk.”

“Hey Zenith, what about being born with a high class? Does that change anything about the class? You know, from the line example you showed earlier.” Isabella ran and caught up to Zenith, walking side by side next to her.

“Hm? Rephrase your question please, what exactly do you want to know?”

“I mean, is there any advantage of being born with a high ranked class instead of earning it?”

“If you had a class at birth, you would have an apprentice class rank instead. As for advantages…you might already know a skill or two, and if you could afford a tutor you’d have more time to practice your spells and skills as a child. But everything usually equalizes by the time you are an adult.”

“So what about the Hero class or the Princess class; how does that affect a person’s path? Since you really don’t start out as an Apprentice Hero or an Apprentice Princess.”

“Hmm. Paige, can you help out with this question? You know more since you were intentionally trying to create Heroes.” Zenith spoke up, grabbing Paige’s attention. Paige dropped back and walked with them and listened to Zenith recount Isabella’s question.

“The Hero and Princess classes are special because the class themselves are more like a title than a class. Think of your mother for instance. Her title is Queen, but her actual class is Advanced Fencer. When she received the title of Queen, she gained the skill [Nation’s Blessing]. In your case, when you were born you received the skill [Royal Bearing]. The main difference is if a Queen is overthrown, they would lose their skills. But you will always have the skill [Royal Bearing] because of your class. Your skill might change if your class changes though. Most don’t know this, but you can advance your class Isabella; it’s just really hard to do.”

“Really Aunt? What can I become?” Isabella asked hopefully.

“If no one interferes, you could become whatever class you want to be. A true Princess Knight, a Princess Mage. Eventually, a Princess class changes to Empress or a Heroine. I became a Warrior before I ever advanced though, so I’ve never had the chance to test that theory before.”

“If no one interferes?” Zenith caught onto the key phrase. Nick and Tyler stopped ahead to listen to the conversation.

“The Imperial Family would rather a hero be born than allowing a Princess to go to battle since typically Heroes must be born. That’s where the tradition of taking Princesses to be Imperial Consorts actually started. Far better for the Empire to keep the Princesses safe and secure. Peh.” Paige vehemently spat out the last sentence, her nose wrinkling in disgust. “Actually awarding Princesses to Heroes like they are some kind of trophy to be collected.”

“Imperial Scions are all Heroes?” Zenith asked shocked.

“Yeah, or their descendants.” She looked over to Isabella. “Has anyone told you what will happen if you are taken away?”

“I asked Zenith last week,” Isabella said quietly, her face slightly downcast. Paige eyed Zenith, who quickly recounted what she told Isabella.

“Hmm. She’s accurate for the most part. A Hero has to do something pretty important or life-threatening before the Imperial Family will give one away since the amount of Heroes will always be greater than the number of Princesses.”

“Aunt, were you a Princess? You know a lot about what happens in the Imperial Family”

Paige slowed her steps down “I…was a Princess at one time. I was captured by the Imperial Family…But, I escaped and wandered the world for a while, before I ended up in Alcudia and the Western Borderlands.”

Noticing how everyone was raptly paying attention, Paige continued on, “I’m pretty sure they wrote me off as dead though. Most, if not all, of my companions, died in the escape and subsequent pursuit. Afterward, I became a Warrior and traveled to distant lands; followed the wind; and made new friends. Most of the equipment I stored in places came from people who helped me escape but didn’t survive. Had to do something with them, and I felt bad that they were going to waste.”

“Then why lay low?” Nick asked Paige.

“The Imperial Family keeps very strict records. Although only a few have access to the records, I didn’t want to take any chances.”

“So you were in my position before?” Isabella asked excitedly. ‘If Aunt Paige was able to escape, then I could probably too!’

Paige said with a small smile. “Not exactly the same position, Little Isabella. I wasn’t born a Princess. Didn’t you think it was strange that I knew that Heroes didn’t have to be born? That there were other ways to inherit the class?”

She smirked. “It’s a common belief that only the gods can bestow the Hero Class. But I’ve found that a person can also earn the class if they can pass some hero worthy trials, just as if they were born a Hero. So I deposited equipment in multiple places so that there would be a trial for people to undertake. It’s far less likely a Hero will appear, but the Heroes that emerge from surviving the trials tend to be stronger than the ones born into the Imperial Family. That is one of the reasons they are even letting the trials stay in the hands of the local nations. Otherwise, the trials grounds and dungeons would have been dug up or confiscated by now.”

“Wouldn’t anyone be able to become a Hero then? There’s really nothing stopping higher ranked classes from entering the trial grounds; nothing besides tradition anyways,” Tyler asked, perplexed. The Alcudian Royal Dungeon was used to train new recruits. Finishing it really was not something worthy of becoming a Hero.

“The Appealte Trial Grounds are used mainly to test Mage elemental affinities. Sure, sometimes you may find a weapon or an artifact, but I agree with Tyler,” Zenith added. Nick nodded as well, thinking of Leit’s many dungeons and trial grounds.

“I’m sure the equipment stored there are testing peoples abilities. Haven’t you ever wondered why only a few die there each year? And when was the last time you yourself had tried it? I’m almost certain that anyone at or above a high ranked class has a far higher chance of dying. The equipment stored there might not be heroic ranked equipment, but they are close to it.”

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