“Are you sure you can handle this journey, my fiancé.” Saria asked, raising an eyebrow.
“I’ll be fine, my beautiful fiancée,” I responded back with a smile.
Saria gave me a fake smile before turning away in aggravation, kicking her horse and trotting over to her elvish honor guard. That guard included Bala, who occasionally shot me complicated looks as she sat on the other side of the party. The remaining week went by without any significant issues. Bala had done her job splendidly and ensured there were no other threats on my life. She acted as if her life depended on it because I had made sure that it did.
Our parties were now meeting up to begin the expedition. I had a group of five soldiers, which was all my honor party consisted of. Compared to the twenty that surrounded the princesses, one could see the difference in how they were honored. I preferred it this way, of course. The fewer soldiers traveling with me, the fewer men that would betray me. We were all on horses, including the elves. For some reason, I imagined elves as not being the type to travel by horse. Something about being one with nature. Was that racist of me to think such a thing?
“My lord, are you sure this is a good idea?” A fat slobbish man sitting nearby said for the third time that morning. “The elvish country is uncultured and savage. The castle will be much more comfortable for my prince’s errr… delicacies.”
I gritted my teeth to keep from ripping the man’s throat out. His voice was very familiar to me, as I had heard it before through a spy stone on my mother. He was the very man who blackmailed my mother and even tried to coerce her into sex. He was the man who was supposed to be protecting me, although I didn’t really know how much he had. I wanted to believe he had taken the money and done nothing for me my entire life. However, I had to admit I managed to survive 17 years, so perhaps this man had done something that would allow him to live.
I could quickly tell he liked his comforts though. He was a lazy man who wanted nothing more than to spend the rest of his miserable life living in the castle off the fruits of my family. If he could even swing a sword at all, I would be a bit surprised. Of course, I took him on this trip to learn his true nature. If he was someone who could be bought, I would buy him and no longer have him deal with my mother. If his loyalties could be bought by someone else, then he wouldn’t survive this trip.
The other four men, not a single one looking particularly gracefully for a soldier, were all his men. My protection came from Bala herself. I would have liked more protection than that, but I had to take what I could get. She had been teaching me sword for the last week, but her skills bordered on the supernatural, and I was still nowhere near her league. That lead me to think I should concentrate instead on magic. The only person I knew with any magical ability was the odd Baba, so I left her a message before leaving.
When I returned, I’d like to take up some magical training. Well, magic was racially inclined in this world. Devils learned shadow and illusion magic. Elves learned natural magic. Dwarves were earth and flame. Only humans were said to be able to learn any type of magic. However, in the human realm, devil magic was just as taboo as devils. It was technically legal, but I would definitely struggle to find anyone with the ability to teach me anything that devils could do.
“I’ll be fine, Captain Doar. Just make sure to keep your eyes open for any trouble along the way.”
“Ai… I’ll do my job.” The fat man snorted, no showing me any more than the minimum required amount of respect.
I nodded and then turned to Aeryn. “You’ve packed everything?”
“Yes, Master…” Aeryn sniffed, showing even less respect. “Although I agree with the captain. If you wish to find death, I can give you a hundred faster ways.”
The fat man who was listening let out a choking noise in surprise, shooting Aeryn an appraising look. Or was he looking at her lecherously? It was very difficult to tell. Either way, I didn’t like it.
“Oh, blimey… what the hell is that witch doing here?” He said, stopping me from speaking up.
I turned my eyes in the direction that Captain Doar was looking. There was a bit of a commotion as a person walked out to our party.
“Excuse me! Move it! Get out my way!” A high-pitched voice snapped at one person after another.
Baba was walking towards us, and she had a massive backpack on that was twice her own size. It was a wonder that the girl didn’t tip over on herself.
“Grand Magus?” It was Saria who intercepted her, getting off the horse to show her respect. “I have heard that you recently found a new face. May I ask why you have graced us with your presence on the onset of our travels?”
“Of course, I came because I was invited!”
The elf delegation began to mutter amongst themselves curiously. Saria’s eyes widened in surprise.
“Ah? Grand Magus coming with us to the elf nation? This is, of course… wonderful news.” Saria’s expression of happiness was actually genuine.
Even now, I understood very little about the Grand Magus. The only thing I knew for certain was that she was very famous across all of the realms. Every country would bend over backward if she but said the word. The human realm had been considered extremely blessed to have her take up residence in their capital city for so long. The reason involved my grandfather, and it was a secret even I didn’t know about.
To the elves, the magus leaving was a clear omen that the power of the human realm was falling. If the old magus was throwing her support to the elven nation, this could only mean great things for everyone involved. There wasn’t a single elf who didn’t look especially smug when considering the future of their nation. 1/3 of the human kingdom was practically in their hands, and now the Grand Magus as well.
Saria straightened her back proudly. “Grand Magus, may I be so kind as to ask who invited you? Did the letter my father sent with me perhaps offer you a chance to stay in Peri?”
“Little girl… if I wanted to visit your country, I wouldn’t need your father’s permission to do it!” the little girl sniffed. “Actually, I’m here upon Prince David’s request, naturally.”
The smug expression on all the elves dissipated into various layers of shock. As for Saria, she looked like she had just swallowed a toad. Various dignitaries who had previously ignored my presence were now shooting me curious looks. I managed to school my features though. I didn’t recall inviting the Baba anywhere, but I wasn’t about to let this chance go.
No one living in the kingdom could move the Grand Magus. That was how the saying went. So, for her to come on my request gave me a great deal of clout. Considering, most people considered me completely powerless in the capital, in an instant their opinions started to flip. While others were busy vying for sway with various noble’s houses or trying to get in good with my uncle, I had managed to set up an arrangement with the Grand Magus. Those kinds of rumors would be all over the castle by the end of the day.
It wasn’t particularly true, and it didn’t have to be true. Simply this act by the Grand Magus had done me more good towards obtaining the throne than anything else since I had been in this world. However, I wasn’t smiling about it. The Grand Magus was someone I didn’t have a read on, and I couldn’t guess as to what her true purposes were. We had only had a single encounter together where she helped me create the elixir than kept Bala in check. Then there was my letter inquiring about devil magic. Could she have seriously come because of that?
“Baba… I’m pleased to see you.” I said, dismounting to meet her as well.
“No, you’re not.” Baba chuckled. “You shouldn’t lie so much, you’re cuter when you tell the truth.”
“Then, I must admit, I’m confused to see you.” I sighed.
“You should be thanking me. These actions have all but shown my support for you. You’ll have a much easier time from now on vying for the throne. It’s okay. I only ask that you worship me as a goddess. You may kiss my feet and, hey what are you doing?”
“What this sticking out of your bag?” I asked, pulling out what appeared to be a small teddy bear.
“T-that’s mine!” She said, reaching for it.
“Eh? What’s that?” I held it up as she tried to reach up my body to grab it.
However, her height was way too short, and she couldn’t get the bear at all.
“Give it!” Baba cried, tears welling in her eyes. “Please… it’s mine!”
“What were you saying about a goddess and feet kissing?”
“A joke! It was a joke! Don’t you know jokes? You devil. You dare bully a cute little girl!”
“All I see is an old magus,” I growled but finally dropped the teddy bear back down.
She grabbed it from me and turned away, shooting me an extremely hateful look. At that point, I realized things were being oddly too quiet. I looked up to see that everywhere nearby was watching the scene. Other than Aeryn who had seen me interact with Baba before, everyone else had their mouths open and their eyes wide. In their eyes, it seemed like the relationship between me and Baba was far deeper than expected. It looked exactly like a big brother teasing his little sister. People were running off to send messages through their communication stones in an instant.
I could only fight the twitch I was starting to get. Baba was considerably more trouble than she was worth, in my opinion. Giving Baba enough time to put her stuffed animal away back in her pack, I grabbed her arm and lowered my head down to hers.
“Seriously, woman, why are you here?”
“Didn’t you request a teacher for magic?”
“You know devil magic?” I said in wonder.
Baba raised her chin and snorted. “I’m the Grand Magus, I know all magic.”
I shook my head. “That still doesn’t explain why you’ve chosen to come along on this journey.”
“Hmph!” Baba shook off my grip on her arm and turned away with her arms crossed. “A girl doesn’t have to give away all her secrets. Just trust that I’ve come because I thought you could use my help.”
“I’m certainly not in a situation where I can refuse help,” I answered wryly.
“That’s a good boy.” She reached up and patted my cheek.
I shook my head and snorted. It looked like whatever her purposes were, it didn’t matter. I needed her help right now, so I could only accept it. That meant, on this trip, the number of people I could trust rose to three. Well, sort of. Two of those people wanted me dead if they could. However, that had the advantage that I knew where I stood with them. When it came to Baba, I didn’t know anything.
“I supposed we should find you a pony?” I grimaced.
“Eh? Why? I’ll just sit in your lap?”
“Hah… that…” I put on an awkward expression.
“I’m just messing with you,” Baba put her hands on her hips and let out a laugh. “I’ve got a magical ride. I don’t need a horse.”
I frowned. See… exactly what I meant. I had no clue where she was coming from. Sighing, I got back on my horse and gestured for us to start moving. The elves had already started heading forward down the path from the castle and towards the surrounding keep. I didn’t think they were bold enough to just ditch us, but I also didn’t want to put that theory to the test.
“Baby! Baby!” Another voice shouted out just as the horses started moving.
I shot a surprised look to see my mother racing out as well. “My baby, I’m coming. I’m coming with you!”
Mother said breathily as she ran up to the group of us. Captain Doar turned his head to hide his surprised look. Several of the nobles that were watching us leave whispered to each other disdainfully.
“Mother… I’m going to the elf nation of Pira for diplomatic reasons, I don’t think…”
“It’s fine, my baby… I’ll come with you!”
“Mother… we talked about this…”
That wasn’t entirely true. I actually deliberately avoided talking about this. I had told my mother that we were leaving, but I never told her the exact time or date. I made it pretty clear I was leaving on my own, and I had hoped she would have dealt with it. Apparently, this was her dealing with it right now.
“Please… you promised… you wouldn’t abandon me…” Mother’s eyes started to grow watery.
My teeth clenched as I realized in a few moments I’d be dealing with a grown woman open wailing in the middle of the courtyard. Any respect I gained by handling the Grand Magus would be obliterated immediately by Mother’s tantrum.
“Very well…” I said with a lump in my throat, scooting forward in my saddle, “Get on.”
Mother’s sudden change in expression was enough to give anyone backlash. With her glowing radiant beauty, she gave me a smile and then jumped up onto the back of my horse gracefully. Her arms wrapped around me tightly, with no sense of propriety or restraint, and her big chest was pushed up against my back. My mood both improved and sunk at the same time.
Before anyone could say anything else, I kicked the horse into motion, and Mother let out a yelp and grabbed me even tighter, her hands landing somewhere inappropriate. This wasn’t necessary at all. Her first grip was more than sufficient, but only this woman would exploit every weakness for her own gain. If she didn’t look so happy riding behind me, I might have kicked off halfway out of town.
Our group caught up with the elf procession, and we followed closely behind as they made their way down a major roadway filled with various traffic. Glancing back, I could see the castle in its entirety. In looked somewhat classical in form, more utilitarian than fantastical. It was a castle that had waged and survived dozens of wars. If I did my part correctly, we may not have to face another. However, if I failed, this could be the last time I ever see this land at peace.
I also realized that this was my first time leaving it since I had been to this world. I was going out into an unknown world filled with fantasy. It was a slightly exhilarating experience. Mythical creatures were all real. I was even traveling with elves, a mage, and a homunculus. For the first time since I came to this world, I’d finally experience some true adventure. It was the perfect day for it. The sun was shining and the skin was blue.
In the distance, storm clouds were forming, and a dark shadow was growing. I found myself remembering an old proverb I had read once. An adventurer you set out to find isn’t an adventure at all. The only true adventure is the one that finds you.