Chapter 28 ∞ Outskirts
Even though I was confident we would not run into any trouble we could not escape, I was still cautious. Erenol was biologically the oldest one here, but she was also the most immature—or maybe the oldest one was Maun, but I wasn’t really sure because I never asked. Either way, I was technically the youngest.
I was a little surprised by Maun’s disposition. While I could tell he was a little nervous, he remained calmer than I imagined he would be.
These two had gone through a lot, I imagine. This was probably nothing new for the both of them, though. Compared to them, I lived a fairly comfortable life.
I tugged my hood forward, making sure I was buried in the shadows as I stood up and began to leave. They followed after me carefully, and we inched out of the backdoor.
The waiter was kind enough to guide us out, seeing us off with a nervous smile.
“Please be careful,” he said.
“Will do. Thank you,” I told him. I turned to my two companions. “This street should lead us right into the plaza,” I said.
“Do we go back to the House?” Erenol asked.
“It’s a little far,” I told her. “A twenty-minute walk if we’re fast. We should be fine, but I think we ought to avoid the alleyways for now. There’s a chance we might get cornered—and I don’t really want that happening. We should take the main streets,” I said.
“Are you sure?” she asked. “But you hate the main streets. Don’t you like large crowds?”
“I don’t have the luxury to be picky right now, do I?” I pointed out.
We didn’t waste our breath and began moving, making sure to blend in with the thick crowd so that we wouldn’t easily be followed. Personally, I hated it but learned to tolerate it over time. I still had my fear of large groups, although I was capable of keeping it under control now after a lot of encouragement and psychological therapies in my past life. I had to opt for the psychologist, a.k.a the guidance counselor, who worked in my university even though they had huge waiting times. I had no choice. I didn’t have the money to hire a private one.
She wasn’t exactly bad at her job. It just wasn’t very convenient.
I kept my breathing under control as usual and ignored the flipping of my gut. I tried not to show my discomfort as I looked around. Even though Erenol and Maun were on either side of me, I couldn’t help but feel as though I would lose them easily.
Venerya was such a populated city. In the day, during these hours, the crowd was the worst. I was sweating under my hood even though it was quite cool. I was tempted to throw it back and get some air, but that would just be unnecessarily drawing attention to myself. I didn’t have the most usual of appearance in this place after all. That’d be like standing in the middle of the storm holding a kite, waiting to be struck by lightning. It wasn’t the ideal scenario, especially since we were currently being tailed by unknown people.
My hands snapped forward to grasp at the clothes of the person nearest to me, and I ended up snatching Maun’s sleeve so hard that he nearly took a tumble.
Seeing him so weak, almost flying with just a small tug, I mustered an apologetic smile. “Sorry,” I said.
He stared at me, as usual, with his wide and clueless eyes—perhaps wondering what he had done to be treated in such a manner. I shook my head.
“Don’t lose your way,” I instead told him, trying to find a reason to justify what I had just done. I was starting to realize just how good I was with making excuses. “The crowd is thick. You might get lost.”
He frowned at me but didn’t protest—probably because he couldn’t. He was probably thinking he had no intention of doing anything that would cause him to ‘lose his way.’
“Evy,” Erenol began, halting midway abruptly and raising the ire of those behind us as a result.
The pedestrian behind us clicked his tongue and rounded about us harshly. I pulled Eren to my side and followed the point of her gaze. I realized a couple of guards were standing ahead of us, eyeing each one of those who passed by.
“They might be looking for you,” I said.
“I know,” she whispered. “I don’t want to go back yet.”
“Let’s turn back and find another way,” I suggested.
We turned around to do as I had just suggested, but realized the men that had been eyeing us from Madame Dana’s Sweets were right behind. A small curse left my lips, and I hastily pounded my brain for an idea. Maun tugged my cloak a little. I turned my attention to him for a moment and found him nodding at a narrow alley up ahead towards where the guards were standing.
“Will that be cutting it too close?” Erenol asked.
“If they do happen to see us, we should probably just make a run for it,” I told her. “You all…well…”
I found a fat guy traipsing his way up the streets, so I did what my brain urged me to do that moment—we took shelter behind his giant form and made him into a cover. The other two seemed to get my idea and jumped into the plan. Just when he reached the part where the guards were, we leaped into the alley and squeezed our way through. It was wide enough to accommodate us one-by-one, but we still had to angle our shoulders so that we were walking sideways.
We popped into the next street, our coats marred with grime and mold growing off the walls. I clicked my tongue in distaste but dismissed the state of my clothes.
“Ah, I think Oblivion’s right by this way,” Erenol said, pointing to the other side of the road.
I looked around, confusion rising. It seemed as though I took a tailspin of some sort and lost all sense of direction. I think I knew this place, I just didn’t know what part of the city this was. If the other side was the main street, then we shouldn’t be far off from—agh, I don’t know.
While I was scratching my head trying to make sense of where we were, Erenol was confidently striding forward. “Come on, right this way.”
“Are you sure?” I asked, hesitantly following her lead.
“Yeah. I’ve been here before…I think. If I remember correctly, if we follow this street down until the third left turn, we can find our way back to Oblivion.”
“Or oblivion,” I muttered.
I really didn’t trust Erenol when it came to stuff like this, but I decided to pin my hope on that confidence of hers. Although she could be unreliable at times, she still did have to take odd paths to escape the palace and lose those after her. To put it simply, she knew these streets better than I did.
However, as we went further, I started losing my confidence in her confidence. It had been nearly ten, twenty, or thirty…even forty minutes since we began to following Erenol’s lead. As we walked, I realized we were actually leaving the city center and heading towards the outskirts. I could tell because the previously skyscraping and lavish buildings were shrinking. In fact, as I turned, I realized the cityscape was actually already quite far off.
I turned and looked for a sign. As we made a turn, I finally caught one.
“Evilon Street? This isn’t—Eren, where are we?” I gently nudged.
She stopped. She turned, facing both Maun and me. Her olive green eyes regarded us both for a moment before they turned glassy. Her face was suddenly flushed red, and she broke into a howl so loud that other people looked our way out of curiosity.
She broke down crying. Her tears began streaming down her face, and her shoulders trembled. “I’m sorry, Evy! I was really sure where to go and then I—and then I didn’t…” She sniffed. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
I reached up to my nape and massaged it, at a loss. “Eren…” I trailed off. “Why didn’t you tell us sooner?” I asked.
“Well…” she sobbed, “I didn’t want to admit it and disappoint you. I know I haven’t exactly been the best of help—” she hiccupped “—to you at all lately. I just wanted to be reliable for a change, but…but…ummhhuuwaaa!”
I smiled wryly. “It’s okay,” I said, looking around and taking a deep breath. “At least we don’t have those guys on our tail anymore. There are no guards here as well.” After pointing that out, they seemed to realize it too. “I don’t suppose they expect to see you this far out. Have you ever gone this far before?”
“N-no…” She shook her head. “I don’t remember if I did.”
“Let’s look around,” I told her.
“Shouldn’t we be heading back?” I heard her ask.
“Well we can’t if we don’t know the way,” I replied. “Better look for a map or something. They should be selling something in this place, right?”
“You’re right. Why don’t we try over there?” she suggested, pointing to a small, antiquated store on the corner of the street.
Following her suggestion, we entered the shop. We picked up a folded map on the corner of the room and dropped a few coins on the counter. After that, we exited the shop as I spread the map out and looked at the surroundings to know where we were currently in.
“It looks like we’re quite far off from the city center. This here is Oblivion,” I said, tapping on a point on the map. “It seems there are no private service vehicles around though that can take us back,” I muttered, looking at the open streets and the people going their ways by foot.
“There’s a terminal though, right here,” Erenol pointed out, guiding our eyes to a label on the map that said ‘public transport terminal.’
“Oh, then we can make our way there and get back to the center. That way, we don’t have to do it on foot—I’m not really comfortable doing that at this rate, especially with those people after us,” I said. “Why is there no one around these parts, even?” I muttered.
“These are the outskirts, see…” Eren replied. Her finger tapped on the blank, white spaces on the map. We were bordering those blank spaces at the moment. “We’re literally on the edge of the city.”
“How the heck did we stray so far off?” I asked.
Eren’s shoulders sagged. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to lead us so far away.”
“Stop blaming yourself and let’s just make our way back. I don’t want the mistresses getting worried,” I stated. “And you’re long due to return, too. If something happens to you, Captain Leiran would probably have my head.”
“He’ll have to go through your mother first,” Eren countered.
“True.” I shrugged.
We began walking down the street, keeping our heads down and our voices low as we went. We didn’t want to attract a lot of attention, after all.
“What are you planning on doing when we get back?” I questioned. “I mean…you can’t exactly run away now, can you? There are guards on the gates. You’ll be stopped before you can leave.”
“I know,” Erenol whispered. “But with my mother gone, nothing good awaits me when I return.”
“Then you don’t have to,” I told her.
She looked at me. “Then where will I go? I don’t think Oblivion can take me in. It’ll just be too much trouble for your mistresses. And it’s not like that’s really running away, either.”
“Take the phasing test,” I began. “If you qualify, you can request the War College to accept you! If you apply and you have enough talent, they can’t refuse you. If they try to contest, just say that you are merely performing your role as a member of the royal family—providing service! If you get conferred the title of a Dragoon, I don’t believe you can be touched as easily as before, and you’ll be distancing yourself from the affairs of the palace.”
“Evy…” She smiled wryly. “The War College is hardly any place for a girl,” she said.
“It’s been done before, hasn’t it? Since when has gender been an issue?”
“When has it been an issue? It has always been!” Erenol exclaimed, her temper flaring unexpectedly and her cheeks flushing with aggravation. “Why do you think men take so many women as their wives as though they’re just collecting trophies? Why don’t women ever succeed in the military? Why are women treated as commodities that can be traded off for political power? Why was my mother thrown to the side by a husband who came to bed once and never came back? Why are women in the harem so pitifully waging wars with one another for the attention and love of a person who won’t even look their way twice! Since when did love have to be a competition? Since when did happiness and peace have to be?” She burst into tears.
I flinched at her outburst but understood where she was coming from. My shock eased as I watched her cry. I found myself saying, “People may tell you what to do, but they don’t tell you how to do it. People may tell you who, what you are or what you should be, but they can’t tell you what you can or can’t be, will or won’t be. That’s the motto my mistresses live by. They showed me that in weakness there is strength. The House of Oblivion wields so much power because women are not as powerless and vulnerable as they are—they are more than their genders.”
She sniffed and cried.
“People tell you you are a woman,” I began, “then be a woman. Just not the kind they think you are. Take the phasing test, Eren, and apply for the War College. It won’t be easy, but if someone doesn’t carve a path for the future then who will?”
“I’ve never…” Eren sniffled. “I’ve never even touched a sword in my life. I haven’t learned one inch of martial arts.”
“That’s easy,” I said. “We can learn together.”
“Well, first of, before everything else…” I stepped back a bit, pulled a finger to my earpiece and pinged the person I knew would help with this situation best. “Sir Laksa?” I said to the communicator.
“Evyionne? Why did you call? Did something happen?”
“It’s like this…remember Eren?” I asked.
“Your friend, yes?”
“Yes, sir. She’s supposed to take the phasing test today,” I told him. “But I have a favor to ask if you can help us with it.”
“Do speak, dear one.”
“She can take the exam and apply for the War College, right?”
“This…” I heard Laksa trail off. “Yes. There is no rule that prohibits women from joining, but that would ruin her…eligibility for marriage. Women who enter the military scene is hardly deemed suitable to become wives. Your friend…this isn’t something she can sacrifice, can she?”
“That’s the point, Sir Laksa,” I told him.
“Ah…I see…I understand,” he said, then sighed. “What do you need?”
“What are the requirements for entering the War College?” I inquired.
“To be a Conduit,” he told me. “And to possess an aptitude for combat. She will have to bleed to prove herself, I’m afraid. Even your Mistress Veronika from before could not completely overcome the trials in here, and she would’ve made such an excellent Dragoon as well.”
My eyes shot wide at the revelation. I was tempted to dig some more into the matter but held myself back. I had picked up quite a few clues when we went out of the country for a while as she revealed a bit about her past. I just didn’t expect to hear that she actually attended the War College! I began to wonder just how the heck she ended up in the House of Oblivion. It must’ve been quite the turn of events.
It must be hard.
“She will take an examination to test her for her mental and physical aptitude. That test isn’t due in one year where we will be opening our doors to new students,” Laksa continued, snapping me out of my line of thoughts. “Please think this through carefully. This isn’t something you can whimsically just do. It’s a lifelong commitment.”
“Thank you, Sir Laksa. I’ll keep that in mind and explain it to her as well. Can you make arrangements for the phasing test she’s supposed to be taking? So that we can prepare aptly. She wasn’t even supposed to take it today, but a year from now.”
“I might have to pull a few strings, but it can be done.”
“Thank you. I owe you a lot. I’ll make sure to bring presents the next time we drop by. Goodbye!”
“Goodbye, Evyionne. I look forward to your visit.”
I looked at Eren. “We can take advice from someone,” I said. “Someone who went to the college before.”
“Captain Leiran is hardly of help. He will not agree to assist us on this,” Erenol contested.
“It’s not him,” I said. “It’s Mistress Veronika.”
“What?” She staggered back a little in shock. “One of your mistresses actually went to War College?”
“I don’t think she finished though. I don’t know the whole story. Thing is—once you attend the War College, it’ll deem you unfit for marriage. A general perception of society, I think? You’ll probably be flouting some etiquette from a code of nobility somewhere.”
She frowned. “That would mean they can’t sell me off as a bargaining tool,” she said.
Erenol gritted her teeth. “Then I’ll do it,” she declared.
“There’s the fighting spirit,” I said with a smile.
“What about you, Evy? Won’t you come with me?”
I looked at Erenol and doubts rose in my mind. My domain wasn’t exactly the type I could tell others I had. My course of action was always to act like the general populace— an everyday person that had no affinity for any of the domains at all. I wouldn’t be able to reveal that my Deliverer was the Dragon of the Moonless Night, Kaliya, after all. That would be suicide.
“I’m not a Conduit,” I told her. “I can’t come with you.”
She was saddened. “Are you already sure with those results? Have you already taken the phasing test?”
“We all know the phasing test is just formality and revelation,” I said. I shot a glance at Maun and caught him frowning. I knew he knew the truth about my abilities because I had saved him with it. And he knew they weren’t exactly commonplace either. “There’s no hope for me in that regard.”
“But some people grow up and realize they actually are Conduits. Won’t you try, Evy?”
I looked at her wide, pleading eyes.
“Please, please…come with me. I can’t do this alone,” she told me.
Just as I opened my mouth to answer, my eyes caught a movement from the corner. Those people who had been tailing us at the city center were rapidly closing in, and they were striding towards us in steps so large they could hop over the Nile River. Startled, I pulled everyone with me and made a break for it.
“We’ll talk about this later. Let’s go!”