Entering the Palace
Even though many were able to shine among the hundred plus contestants of the tournament, the ones who were summoned into the palace were only the top 32. However, not all of them would show up. For instance, an outsider like Legg had long left right after he was eliminated from the tournament. The ones that remained were potential talents for Hocke to recruit.
The bureau of military intelligence also spent quite a bit of effort to investigate their backgrounds. What was odd, however, was that Kurdak and Leguna's mysterious origins weren't scrutinized by the bureau. When Larwin got reports on the two, they only stated that they were two mercenaries who had come from Chino and didn't mention their relationship with Moonshadow and the Eye.
Among Leguna's circle of acquaintances, only he, Kurdak, Eibron and Gerd were given invitations to head to the palace. The four of them finished their preparations early in the morning and followed an attendant's lead to the palace.
"Whoa! Is that sculpture made of gold? Gosh, they're just leaving it out in the open as a decoration like that. Aren't they worried that somebody will come to steal it?" said Eirbon to Leguna in a hushed voice.
"It's too bad that we weren't allowed to bring our weapons with us. Otherwise, I'll cut a piece off it and nobody would know better," replied Leguna.
"Hmph, fool, that thing is only plated gold. If it were really wholly made of gold, I doubt the guards and palace staff would be able to keep their hands off it! You'd have no chance at all!" Kurdak wore an expression of a man with rich experience those youngsters could never come close to comprehending.
"No, that is really made entirely out of gold. But nobody will steal it. This is the imperial palace after all. Even if the guards or servants are insane, they wouldn't dare to do anything to it," said Gerd exasperatedly. He felt almost embarrassed to be going to the palace with those three bumpkins.
"Oh? How so?" asked Kurdak curiously without feeling annoyed at Gerd arguing back. Even if it was only plated gold, he felt an urge to take it back with him. A small chunk would be enough to cover a whole month's food expenses.
"Do you see that?" Gerd said as he pointed at a tall building not far away, "The palace guards have been monitoring us from the get go from up there. There might even be court magi up there. With them around, they'll find out even if you try to steal a leaf."
Kurdak was shocked into cold sweat to hear that. As a mercenary, he's always had rather acute senses. Ever since entering the palace, he had felt that he was being watched by someone. It was only after Gerd explained their situation that he knew what was going on.
"How do you know so much, Mister?" asked Eibron.
"Well, I've lived in Melindor for quite some time already, so finding out about this much is to be expected," Gerd casually answered, before he pulled the unwilling Eibron along with him." Alright, time to go. It's best if we talk less and do what they say."
Leguna and the rest were brought to a large hall where a few people were seated. He gave the room a sweep and found that they were also other contestants of the tournament, but he didn't see Annelotte among them.
They found a place to sit and started chatting with the other contestants.
Not long after, a guard came to notify them that Emperor Larwin would be coming soon. The contestants who had been letting loose stiffened immediately and donned a respectful look.
The moment they laid eyes on the emperor, almost every one of the contestants' eyes showed disappointment and surprise. Was that the ruler of the northerners? That fatty?
It was true that Larwin's appearance wasn't his strong point. He was huge and chubby and his golden-blonde hair had already begun to fall, causing his hairline to recede really far back. Even though his eyes were thick and brows were defined, his chubby face and thick lips ruined the harmony of the round face. Leguna looked at him and thought that if Larwin slimmed down further, he would probably look like a dashing middle-aged man.
Following Larwin from behind was Geoffrey; the first prince of the empire sported a much better figure than his father. He had inherited Larwin's vertical growth without his horizontal, making him quite the tall and good-looking blonde youth. He wore a slight smile on his face and seemed to be the kind of person girls would like to be around.
There was another small and thin man behind them who was anything but eye-catching. He was the kind of person that nobody would pay attention to. However, Leguna was quite shocked to feel a sense of familiarity from him. But before he could ponder on it, he saw the blue-haired person behind that slender man. She was none other than Annelotte.
"Annie..." Even though Leguna wanted to step forward, Kurdak and Gerd held out their hands to stop him.
"Pay attention to the setting. This is hardly a place where the two of you can catch up," reminded Kurdak softly while Gerd shook his head to Leguna.
Leguna looked at the two and could only choose to give up. That's right, she's the pride of the empire and the rising star of the court magi association. What am I? Just some random guy who lucked out and got into the top four. Talking to Annelotte before the emperor himself? What a joke!
Even though they were really close friends, he couldn't go up to talk to her because of the others present. Was that the inherent difference in status between him and the others?
Leguna watched as Geoffrey whispered to Annelotte left and right with his fists clenched hard. Before he realized it, he felt a burning sensation in his heart. Power and authority, huh? If that's what I need, I'm coming for it!
Larwin brought the few behind him and sat at the tallest seat in the hall. Geoffrey sat beside him, followed by the slender man. Annelotte on the other hand 'recovered' her status as a contestant and she walked to one side of the hall to stand. She happened to stand directly opposite of Leguna, but it wasn't known whether it was intentional.
The glacial girl gave the youth a glance before turning her gaze back to Larwin.
"Alright, there's no need to remain standing. Please take a seat," Larwin said in a gentle tone.
"I'm sure all of you are curious why an emperor like me boasts such a round and huge figure." Larwin didn't miss the opportunity to mock himself.
However, the contestants didn't laugh in response to it. The emperor looked at them and said, "Hey, it's fine. Don't be so tense. Even though I've seen your files already, I'm finding it rather hard to match your faces up with your names. Please introduce yourselves once more starting from the left."
"I'm Gerd Muller, lead instructor of the Blackiron Training Center in Melindor. I made it into the top 32 and am a 14th-stratum warrior," said Gerd after he stood up and saluted respectfully.
"Oh? I didn't think that there would be hidden talent in a training center. It's a little bit of a waste for someone of your abilities to work as an instructor," said Larwin with a smile.
The next one was Leguna. He knew that the reason Gerd was so proactive in his introduction was to give him an example to follow. He introduced himself like Gerd did. "I'm Ley, a mercenary from Lance. 14th-stratum assassin and made it into the top four."
"For you to have such amazing abilities given your young age, your potential for growth is not to be underestimated. I believe that apart from our champion, Annie, you should be our only other prodigal contestant," said Larwin as he gave Leguna a deep gaze.
It was only then when Leguna felt the prestige of a king radiating from the chubby man. Those eyes seemed to be able to see through his mind, giving Leguna quite a start. Leguna merely hummed a response and hurried to sit back down.
"I'm Kurdak, also a mercenary from Lance. I'm a 15th-stratum warrior and made it into the top 16," introduced he clearly. He knew that Larwin was giving them a chance to present themselves, so he tried to do so in the best light.
"Even though I didn't watch it, I heard about your match. Your spirit is worthy of respect and your match was surely entertaining to watch," Larwin praised, "I recall that you were only of the 13th stratum before the tournament, yet you're already at the 15th stratum. Did you manage a breakthrough?"
"That's correct," Kurdak said with a nod, "I managed to break through after recovering from my injuries and was lucky enough to enter the high order."
"Very good. Not only are you powerful, you also have great leadership skills. I would like you to know that the imperial army is very welcoming of talented folk like you." Larwin extended his invitation to Kurdak, but he didn't give him a chance to reply. "Next."
"Ei... Eibron..." He was the first one to lose his cool as he stammered, "12th-stratum ranger... top eight..."
"It seems that our little friend here is feeling a little nervous," Larwin said with a light laugh, "You were magnificent as well. I believe that you were the only one who wasn't at the 14th stratum in the top eight. That's rather rare."
"Thank you for the gracious words, Your Imperial Majesty!" yelled Eibron, causing Leguna, Kurdak and Gerd to facepalm internally.
Just like that, Larwin added a comment or two, praise, or even evaluations, following every contestant's introduction. What surprised everyone was even though Larwin's comments were curt and brief, they were incredibly accurate. That caused the rest of them to develop a sense of reverence in them. Larwin had sent a subtle message across: I know you well, every single one of you.
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