Chapter 36: Checkmate
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“Before we continue, I say it is imperative we eliminate the risks of the other camps.”

“Well, as of our last operations, we succeeded extremely inefficiently. We managed to capture members of the Marlon Camp, as well as Dalos. Those two have been the most aggressive, but far from the biggest threat so far.” Baron Marlough spoke. His voice, like always, bolted across the room with volume behind it.

Regalia quickly calmed the tone of the room down. “We of course, have the biggest problems out of the way. We may relax a little bit here. It will be several times harder for Tain’s camp to act or move.”

Tain was the most powerful of the various influential figures. Many of them sought to rise up and claim the throne for themselves. Their last trap in Baron Marlough’s estate proved to be not as helpful as intended. Only two of the biggest camps had appeared. While Marlough, with the biggest force, had prepared to crush and eliminate all camps including Tain’s, when only those two had appeared, they were completely overwhelmed. It was a bloodless surrender. 

However, since they had failed to completely subdue the young man, Tain, it was now too late. He would not fall for any other such ploys. 

It just so happened however, that they had successfully, in front of many people, placed the young Azer as king. Word traveled throughout the entire country faster than it did with the death of Duke Eris. It was now too late for Tain to make any move that was too bold. This was a game based on popularity. And of course, any underhanded actions may cause Tain to be viewed upon negatively and hurt his legitimacy. On the other hand, the king could not eliminate him so quickly either. For, he would be viewed extremely negatively early on in his career. Everything would become harder for him.

“Aye. It is as you say.” The Baroness spoke. “We have quite the bit of time to get things taken care of. It’s only when you rush things that you bump into room for error you know. Besides, our prince should be more than capable of fitting into his role sooner or later. Isn’t that right your highness?”

Her tone was that of someone playing a game. It wasn’t as if any of them viewed him as a true king. Of course, for appearance purposes, they would have to play their roles perfectly. Pitiable is the noble who does not know proper etiquette to their superior.

“Your highness?”

The room’s eyes were focused on the newly appointed royal. But his eyes were focused elsewhere. Whatever he was looking at, it was a distant world…. Too far from this one. So far was the world he saw, that just for a moment, he felt safe. Only for that moment. The reality came crashing down on him no matter where his mind ventured to. 

‘I’m gonna die…. We’re all gonna die…. He’s gonna come. This place. Everyone. Everyones gone. Death… Death… Why does this have to happen? Why do I have to die?? Why do we all have to die…? Why is he gonna come and kill us? This place? Everyone?’

“Forgive me… he hasn’t been feeling well as of recently.” Regalia spoke. “I’ve been getting worried that perhaps an ailment has taken him.”

‘Death…. We’ll all be done soon… what can I do? What can I do against that?’

“Fufufu... After all that acting earlier, it seems he’s succumbed to the pressure.” Marlough spoke. “Let’s not chastise the poor boy too much, or stress him out. He’s only a young’un.”

Ophelia’s observant eye saw something else however. “No… something is genuinely wrong with him. His eyes show me something different in them… have you had him examined yet?”

“No. I was hoping to avoid any such examinations. There can’t be too much gleamed into the young boy’s past.” Mainly, he meant the young child’s teeth. Should someone even observe them, they’d realize that the child was not of royalty.

Ophelia sighed. “Well, I guess it can’t be helped. I’d recommend giving him some rest then. Perhaps that would serve him better. He’s always welcome to remain in my estate. There, I can have him examined by very trustworthy allies of mine.”

“Hold on now. I hope this isn’t some ploy to tighten your grasps around our young king, Misses Ophelia.” The Baron shot her a glare.

“Oh come now, I hardly need to rely on such underhanded methods to do so. I already have you guys dancing in the palm of my hands.”

‘Death…. Why are you all talking so leisurely… hey.. Don’t you know? We’re all going to die.’

“Well, in any case, regarding our problems. I do have a suggestion. What if we have the other vacant seats filled? That should quench quite the thirst that those from the smaller parties have. It will get them closer to the throne, yes, but it will also quench their thirst for immediate action and vindication.” She smiled. Of course Jidan and Marlough had their doubts and would most-likely protest, but that’s not who the pitch was to.

Regalia slammed his fist into his open palm. “Of course! From there we can then monitor them, and possibly disassemble a lot of their influence.”

She blinked… she wasn’t expecting such a strong response back. “Though, I’d be careful of that one- Lord Tain, he’s not a man of naivete.”

“Is that the great Baroness Ophelia, showing reverence to another?”

Ophelia laughed. “Not at all. I’m just acknowledging him.”

‘Why are you guys all so...leisurely going about your day… what is it you guys don’t understand…’

The young prince was simply stuck in his spiral of thought.

After several hours, the meeting was finally finished. Azer rode with Ophelia in her unguarded carriage. She was perhaps the only one of the entire council that did not require a guard or anything to escort her. Perhaps this stemmed from the fact that she felt them completely unnecessary, or that she felt they tainted her presence.

“You know, young man…. When I was younger…” The prince’s completely blank expression clearly showed he wasn’t listening. 

“It is rude to not address those who are talking to you, you know?” She sighed. “Children these days are so disrespectful.”

“.....”

“When I was younger, I used to be in the Mage’s college. Long before the war had torn the country apart.”

She placed a hand on the King’s forehead. “And if there’s one thing I learned to understand, was the mind of others. You have something about your mind that is much much deeper. For instance…. How you so predicted the death of Duke Eris.”

For the first time his eyes drifted to the baroness. This was the first break from his contemplation that he had ever encountered in the past couple of days. “I tend to recognize talent when I see one.”

“What I suppose you need most right now, is a refresh.” Her finger started glowing in the middle of the young boy’s head.

“Sleep.” 

With that, his world turned to black. For the first time in 3 days, he had finally slept. His last thoughts attempted to hold on, but even they too were completely enshrouded by darkness. The embrace of it all, assured he had the best sleep he had ever had in months… no, years.

“I’ll be looking forward to hearing what has gotten you so encumbered.”

------------------------------

Azer finally woke up, not two days later. His first view was to see the completely crystal ceiling above his head. It reflected the clouds so perfectly, with a lens that made them seem bigger than normal. 

“You’re awake… your highness?”

To his right, above his grand bed, golden framed bed, was a young maid, knitting at his bedside. “Do not worry, we had expected the timing of her technique to take about this long. So we have some food laid out for you as well.” He looked over to his right, only to find this steaming bowl of stew sitting besides him on a folding tray.

“It’s the Regis special family broth. Only Baroness Ophelia and her family know of it. Go ahead, give it a try.”

Azer moved his hands as he slowly tried to get himself up. He was too weak. He hadn’t eaten in five days now after-all. It would appear the stress had taken a toll on him greater than he might have expected. 

His bones ached, his muscles cried out for help, and his head pounded aggressively. He had strained himself to his very limit.

“Oh… my… you poor poor boy. Here.” The old lady stood from her seat and knelt besides the man, taking the spoon into her hand and placing it against his mouth.

“Y-you don’t have to do all of this. Rea-”

“Really now? And you expect an old lady like me to be charged with Regicide? They’d hang me by my wrinkles if they find out I had allowed the king not to eat…. Even worse, they’d kill my dear Ophelia.”

“Oh what kind of king would subject his dear loyal subjects to such a disgusting future… I’d have to tell my grandchildren how I too had fallen vi-”

“Okay okay… I get it… I’ll eat it.” He hesitantly put the soup to his mouth. It tasted… completely unspecial. In fact, it was like all the other broth he had ever tasted. Even at the orphanage. However, given how revitalized it made him feel since he hadn’t eaten for days, he chowed it down like a ravenous beast.

The door burst open with Ophelia displaying herself in such a heroic and dramatic fashion. “Oh my, it looks like the Family recipe saves the day yet again. You’re only among the hundreds who have ever wolfed it down that fast.”

‘.... does it only get fed to those who haven’t eaten in days?’ 

 

“T-thank you… Ophelia.”

“Please, Just Ophelia is fine.”

That’s what I-

Azer slumped back into his chair. Of course, in her own abode, Ophelia would act much more full of herself and comfortable than at the meeting. Her aura during those meetings were ominous.

“Well, now that you’re awake, your highness. Let’s hear what you have to say hmm?”

He looked confused at her. As if to ask ‘what are you talking about?’ just by his facial expression alone.

“Why is it that you are so afraid? And does it have anything to do with Duke Eris?”

The smile on her face seemed completely out of place in retrospect of her tone. She slowly walked over to the bed and sank herself down at the very edge of it. “Well?”

“You wouldn’t believe me even if I told you…”

“Oh you would have to trust that I will… I was the first to find Duke Eris’ body.”

The bed was tall enough that her feet did not touch the ground. With her little lithe frame kicking back and fourth on the edge, it almost seemed as if she was recalling a happy memory.

“He didn’t die on his own, so I suppose you were technicially wrong about that aspect. But, alas, the Duke did up dying.”

Of course, he had already known that.

“There was cleary traces of a battle that had ensued and he eventually succumbed without any resistance.”

This was where things had began to frighten Azer again. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, that he died without so much as posing a challenge to the enemy. It was a one-sided slaughter.”

Azer could only think of two possibilities from then on. However, you see, Ophelia had been banking on confirming one fact from him.

“So you do have some sort of idea how that occurred don’t you?”

“W-why would you think that?”

“Your eyes just now told me everything I need to know. I’m not sure how you predicted these things, but it turned out to be correct at the very least. And it seems you know exactly who would be able to overwhelmingly kill the great general.”

“There are only a handful of people that can do that… and the adventurers guild does not dirty their hands in political affairs. If you’d please leave the room, Grelda.”

The old maid nodded and promptly left them to their own company.

“So, my fair king? What is it you have going in that confusing head of yours? From your physical responses recently, I’d wager they have something to do with each other.”

If there was one thing that she never lost at, it was bets. This lady was almost a mind reader with how well she can read the slightest hint of expression or emotion and guess what people were thinking. 

Azer couldn’t help but stare in awe at her skills. Unlike his ability which was a special skill, Ophelia’s prowess was done through sheer learning and calculative thinking. He thought hard about what to say… but ultimately, there was no way he could get around her. He eventually broke… he spoke of everything. From his ability, to the beings he saw, to the encounter with Aias. Lastly, he spoke of the impending doom that was to befall this place.

Ophelia listened entirely, the whole way, never once changing her smile or her relaxed demeanor. After hearing the whole story she nodded a couple of times then put a finger to her chin. “I get it now. So this ability of yours… would you mind playing me in a game of chess?”

Azer could have facepalmed himself if he had regained the strength to move. The entire story was just revealed to her, and all she could do was ask him to engage her in a game of chess? The nerve… 

“I don’t see how that wi-”

“I want to see how they are able to bypass your ability. There has to be rules to how they are doing so, you know? So… come play with me.”

There was something extremely unconventional about how this woman thought of things. Nonetheless, the young king sighed and complied. 

They found themselves in another room of her estate. Azer was still dressed in nothing but his nightgown, which didn’t seem to bother him, considering his upbringing. Ophelia on the other hand, wore her usual extravagant display. Clothing shimmering with reflective jewels covering every two inches. Unlike jewels embedded into clothing, it seemed this was the opposite. It seemed the layout of the jewels were the first to be made, and the clothing was made around them.

The room they entered was vast. A good 30 meters in each distance. The tile works itself looked like a chessboard. The entire room was completely empty aside from two small chairs in the dead center, and a small folding table with a chess board on it.

“Do you like it?”

What is there to like???’

“This is my chess room. Perhaps my favorite one in the palace.”

She proudly walked over to one of the two seats and motioned him to the other. “So, I’m going to be setting some ground rules first and foremost.”

 

“First, I expect you to play as if your life's on the line. You see… if you win, I do have a way you can beat the man you spoke of.”

Azer’s eyes widened. He couldn’t believe it. Though, if it was someone like her, perhaps there truly is a way that he was not thinking of.

“Second, if you don’t win… I will kill you right here and now.”

The eyes she held just now showed that this was no joke.

“[Conjure Familiar: Malguru]” Just as she said those words, the form of a giant moth revealed itself. It’s sounds were that of death. When its wings flapped, there was a noise that one could only describe as groaning that comes with pain and suffering. The jet black creature towered over 15 meters in size. A WRAITH!

Azer almost fell back out of his seat, as he tried to scoot away from the creature. Ophelia simply smiled and shook her finger. “Ah-ah. If you try to escape, I will kill you as well.”

Suddenly, his fight or flight mode was active for sure. This creature… was definitely an S-ranked Wraith. These are the kind of things adventurers should be dealing with. The tale of a malguru that was over 300 meters in size 30 years ago, still frightens the general population and children. 

“So… come now child. You get the first move.”

He hesitantly moved one pawn forward to start off with. This early on in the game, there was no way he could lose yet.

In a matter of minutes, the game was over. Azer found himself sitting there, with all pieces having been taken out. Yet, Ophelia had only lost five pieces. They were all pawns. This was an overwhelming defeat.

“But… my power wouldn’t talk to me…”

“You lose, your highness.” 

The giant buzzing creature flew towards him at an unfathomable speed. He gritted his teeth and closed his eyes, only for the creature to crash right into him, and compeltely phase through him.

When he realized nothing was happening, he blinked a couple of times, seeing the beautiful Ophelia cackling to herself. [Dispel Illusion] She waived her hands, and the creature had disappeared.

“T-that was an illusion?”

“Well of course. Now what would I be doing with a high level creature like that. I’m no fighter afterall. But anyways, I believe I’ve more or less found out everything there is to know about your power. I won’t be killing you after-all.”

It was all a lie. She was never going to kill him if he failed. After-all… how could she? This would decimate the whole country.

 

“The reason why you don’t know what to do against those witches…. Is because of one simple reason. It doesn’t matter.”

“What do you mean?”

“It means, if those witches decide on a course of action, nothing you do can change it. If they decide you’re going to live, then you can’t change that. If they decide you’re going to die, you also cannot change that.”

“How’d you get that?”

“The way your power works… it was completely useless to you just now, aye?”

Azer nodded. “Well think of it like this… your power works on two mechanisms. One is for survival and ensuring you escape danger. The other is for desire, and making sure you get a favorable outcome.”

“When it comes to survival, it cannot be influenced by your decision. It will do its very best to ensure you live.”

 

“When it comes to desires, it will do everything to make sure you get the most-favorable outcome.”

“But see… this is where there is a clash of interest. Desires are only based off of what you know, whereas survival is based off of information that even you don’t know. Hence, you can avoid areas without prior information of them.”

He was still lost by her explanation. “This chess game for instance...Your life was never in danger, so the power did not intervene. Your desires however, were to survive. In your head you believed you were going to die. But the terms and conditions of this game were impossible.”

“Huh?”

“If you were to start winning, I’d have simply burned the entire game to the ground, thus, no victory for you.”

“But that’s not how the game works at a-”

“Unfortunately not, but that is how life works.”

“Your brain could not feasibly tell you a way to win. Simply because regardless of your actions, I was going to go about the course of my life, doing that exact same last resort- burning the chessboard.”

“Then-... in the case of those two..”

“Your life is constantly in danger, and yet not in danger. If they decide to kill you at any moment, there is not a single action you can do to prevent that outcome.”

“So then… there’s really not a way to prevent what is going to happen… is there?”

“Well not quite. You simply have to skip playing by the rules. Just as I would have burned this chessboard. You simply need to think of an option that was not an option.”

“Anyways, your power is complex, but not quite as useful as you’d think.”

Ophelia got up and left the young king sitting there in the empty checkered room. 

Check mate.

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