The convoy had arrived at the first checkpoint after two weeks of travel. There was a need for resupply and many wanted to get a proper rest. The town that was set to host the convoy was called Oldridge, named for its close proximity to a small ridge in the distance. The innkeepers and governing figures had been told ahead of time and so there weren’t many problems for the travelers to secure rooms. Some of the more prominent figures had been invited to stay at the mansions of the towns noble families, while a few others had extended family they could stay with.
Avery was one such person who was hosted by one of her distant cousins. It had to be said, although the Thynne family had around four or five generations, they were quite numerous. Since the Valkyries didn’t die of old age, there were some who would have up to ten children. A few had more than that after marrying a second time, of course, the second marriage would occur once their husbands died of old age. In reality, most of the men married to Valkyries went “missing” before that time. As to why some would suddenly disappear? The only reason would have to be them acting against the Valkyries interest, much like Avery’s father.
Oldridge bustled with life as merchants, nobles, and energetic mercenaries all trying to catch the eyes of anyone who could lead them to a promising future. Though, the number who succeeded in becoming attached to those apart of the convoy were few.
The ones who had the hardest time trying to build a relationship were the mercenaries who were residents of Oldridge. To those mercenaries from the capital who had been hired as security for the convoy, anyone with the same profession was a competitor. Thus they treated many who approached coldly and even those that aimed to become friendly with other mercenaries were met with cold shoulders. To prevent incidents, there was an unspoken rule that the mercenaries from Oldridge and the mercenaries working with the convoy were to have separate gathering areas.
Ira sat by himself inside one such gathering area, a large bar that became more and more crowded as the sun began to set. Avery had gone to meet with her cousin and get everything in order, while also seeing if any of her cousin’s children were worth sending back to the main family. After the Red Moon and Golden Aurora, no one could be overlooked as they could potentially grow into talented individuals.
There were many eyes plastered on Ira, not just because they heard plenty of rumors about him, but also the fact that he ate more than what was humanly possible. Some people had made bets about how much he can eat. When the bar owner came out to politely ask Ira to cut down on his consumption, some people even cheered loudly and toasted toward Ira for winning them money. Though no one approached him, there was no telling how he would react and no one was willing to risk upsetting him. Considering the fact they still had another checkpoint in addition to traveling to the Free City, no one was in a real hurry to meet with him just yet as they had plenty of time to feel him out.
Ira, unaware of those thoughts, was focused on passing the time until Avery was finished. He took a sip of water and then lazily leaned into his chair before closing his eyes. After a while, the noise in the bar lowered as someone entered. Ira took a peek to see who it was but quickly lost interest. It was none other than Carter, leader of the Smallthorn guild, who caused the mercenaries to whisper. It went without saying that a large portion of the higher paying jobs went to his guild, while he was personally in charge of the Second Prince’s safety.
Carter ignored the gazes of respect and envy and greeted some of his guild members before moving to the bar to get a drink.
Ira ignored whatever was happening until he heard a set of footsteps heading in his direction.
“Carter.” Ira said as he opened his eyes.
“It’s been awhile, Ira. Care for a drink?” Carter said while holding two large mugs and a bottle of expensive looking wine.
Ira adjusted his posture before gesturing for Carter to sit.
“You know…” Carter started as he filled the mugs. “They’re curious about you.”
Ira took a sip before responding, “Isn’t that your thing? I really don’t care.”
“Personally? I can do without it, but to support the members of my guild I need to gain more recognition.” Carter spoke without taking offense at Ira’s words. In Carter’s eyes, if Ira wanted to insult him, he would say something more obvious instead of using petty verbal jabs and backhanded compliments.
“So if you died they’d really be out of luck, huh?” Ira asked.
Carter smiled wryly, “It’s true they would probably crumble without me, but without them, I would probably end up the same. What about you? What would happen to those around you if you were to die?”
Ira looked at Carter with a serious expression, causing the latter to realize it may have sounded like a threat, but Ira suddenly burst out laughing.
“One time was enough for me.” Ira said to himself before taking a big gulp from his mug.
“One time?” Carter searched his expression for answers, but Ira offered up nothing.
“...Curious? Well, we aren’t close enough to share secrets, Carter.” Ira gave a smile that looked cheerful, but Carter felt like there was something disturbing underneath.
Carter was puzzled and decided the best course was to change topics, but before he could, the bar went dead silent. Ira focused on his drink, while Carter turned to look.
After seeing who it was, Carter stood up and spoke, “Rhys, do you want to join us?”
Ira shifted his glance toward the doorway and saw Rhys dressed up in the same outfit he and Carter were wearing, except Rhys’ was obviously tailored for a woman. Though all attention gathered at the metal mask on her face, those who saw it couldn’t help but wonder what was underneath.
Rhys nodded before walking over to the table, Carter gave a friendly smile before gesturing for the bartender to bring another mug.
“It’s good that you’re here, Rhys.” Carter said as he sat down. “I was just about to tell Ira about the Colosseum in the Free City.”
The bartender placed a glass in front of Rhys before quickly leaving, no one noticed the slightly troubled look in Rhys’ eyes as she looked at the glass. Well, no one except for Ira.
Carter filled her glass up and then continued to speak, “Anyway, the Second Prince told me about a few things and I thought I’d share them with you both. Apparently, there are plans for each country, including ours, to participate in a private tournament.”
Rhys grabbed a pencil and a small notepad from her pocket and began writing. [I’ve already been told about it. Isn’t to show off their strength?]
“Yeah, they probably want to gain the high ground when it comes to any negotiations.” Carter agreed.
“So why does this concern us?” Ira asked with a skeptical expression.
“Well, it goes a bit deeper than the reputation of the country. In fact, it concerns the stability of the country as a whole…” Carter looked around before leaning in closer and whispering, “The Second Prince has already asked me to participate, if I were to win or to make a strong impression, he would naturally get the credit and his chances to ascend the throne would increase.”
[The First Prince also asked me to participate. I haven’t decided if I want to yet since I don’t want to be attached to any factions.]
“Same here.” Carter nodded in understanding.
“Is killing allowed?” Ira asked as he wasn’t concerned with factions and nobles since they couldn’t force him to do anything.
“I’m not sure. I’d think they would forbid it as to prevent losses.” Carter said.
“Boring.” Ira said as his interest faded. Ira wasn’t planning to join and murder a bunch of people. After all, if no one was strong enough there would be no point in him joining. If killing was allowed then Ira planned on spectating. If not, then it was basically a series of sparring matches that wouldn’t be exciting to watch, at least not for Ira.
“And why don’t you two just tell the Princes that you aren’t joining their factions?” Ira asked.
“If one of those Princes were to become King then they could make things very difficult for us in the future. It’s best to tread carefully when thinking that far.” Carter said as he downed his mug.
Ira found the concept hard to understand, and just chuckled to himself. In his opinion, magic and politics were very similar in the way that beating someone to death was easier and preferable to both.
Ira looked at Rhys’ untouched cup and smiled, “You aren’t thirsty?”
Rhys showed a complicated look as she wanted to drink some wine, but was too worried about showing her face.
Ira watched her expression shift a few times before he raised his hand near her. Rhys’ eyes showed a questioning look, but Ira didn’t say anything. The faint black mist that appeared when he nullified magic drifted over near Rhys’ face. Although it didn’t fill the room and could be seen through, it could hide Rhys’ facial features quite easily, even from Ira himself.
Rhys understood what Ira was doing and lifted her mask before emptying the entire mug. She put her mask back on and Ira stopped producing the black mist.
[Thank you.] Rhys wrote on her notepad, under her mask she had long since formed a smile. When appearing in public, it was hard for Rhys to enjoy a drink or a meal since those who recognized her signature mask wouldn’t take their eyes off her for a second.
“No problem.” Ira smiled before he suddenly shifted his attention toward the door. No one else in the Bar had reacted, but there was a stranger in a grey cloak standing near the door. Although they could tell it was a woman, they couldn’t see her face under the cloak and she didn’t fit the description of any other well-known mercenaries, so no other than Ira paid it any attention.
Carter and Rhys took notice and followed Ira’s gaze only to see a cloaked woman.
“I’ll see you guys later.” Ira abruptly stood and left with the cloaked woman.
Carter and Rhys shared a bewildered look, in fact, everyone in the bar was also confused about who the woman was.
Carter was the first to come to a realization, there was only one person who made sense and that was Avery.
“That was probably Avery Thynne.” Carter said to Rhys who was looking at the doorway with a complicated expression.
“I don’t know what you’re thinking, but it's probably nothing good. Here, while everyone is still distracted you can have another drink.” Carter said as he refilled her mug before turning his body to the side as to not look.
Rhys looked around before lifting her mask and hurriedly drinking. She placed it on the table with an audible sound which served as a signal for Carter to back around.
[Thank you for inviting me.] Rhys scribbled on a piece of paper before she left the bar.
In response to Rhys’ behavior, Carter could only shake his head and drink. He remembered what Eric Thynne had told him about when he spoke of Ira. It seemed that the Thynne’s were willing to allow Ira to take on another wife if he chose to, but he was adamant about having only one. Carter didn’t relay any of that to Rhys as he guessed she might get the wrong idea. Especially if she had any thoughts involving Ira.