His Invitation
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The end of the year was here. Surviving another year was a big deal. A celebration was in order.

Should Alina be happy that she got to live this long? She should. Everyone deserved to be happy, Mage or not. It doesn’t matter. For Alina, happiness was simple. Give her a book, and she will be satisfied for a day.

Does it matter if she received her gift from herself? No one gave her anything important, so she did it on her own. Think of it as a consolation prize for not dying. Using her salary to buy books was not a waste of money.

The plaza was filled with various kind of people. But there was nothing to worry about. Alina dressed as plainly as she can, blending with the crowd to avoid attracting attention. She looked normal. Almost. It was too bad she forgot to spell the colour of her hairs.

“Don’t move. This is a robbery,” said a hooded figure holding a knife close to Alina’s throat. Talk about luck.

She shouldn’t have walked into a dark alley. It was a disaster waiting to happen. For the attacker, of course. Alina can protect herself.

“Drop your valuables, and I will spare your life.”

“But you told me not to move. I can’t do anything without moving.”

What a weirdo, Alina thought. Unknown to her, the robber was thinking the same thing about her. Her relaxed attitude and smiling face unnerved him. He pressed his knife further in an attempt to intimidate her and gave up after receiving no reaction.

“Why aren’t you afraid?”

What a strange question. What was up with people and their tendencies to ask the obvious?

“Why should I? You have no intention of harming me.”

Alina didn't sense any killing intent from the robber. Not at all. It made sense, though. He was a robber, not a murderer. A murder will not happen without intent and a chance. It was the same for most criminal acts. Even petty robbery.

Most robbers would hesitate at killing their victim. Unless if they’re moonlighting as a murderer. It was okay to kill a murderer and call it justified self-defence. It didn't change the number of murderers in the world, but it was better than staying idle and watching innocent people die because they were being killed.

Usually, this was the part where the hero rescued their damsel in distress. However, since the damsel was in no need of saving, the role of the hero was no longer required.

“See? Your plan isn’t working. I told you so.”

A wild Prince Raimond appeared, wearing an uncharacteristic smug grin on his face. The robber was displeased. He has no reasons to. Losing a bet tended to make people grumpy.

“Fine, you win. Take my money and shut up,” the robber lowered his hood, revealing an unfamiliar youthful face. Whoever that person is, Alina never met him before.

“I’m sorry for the inconvenience. My friend here seems to think you will fall in love with me if I saved you from him.”

The Prince was wearing simple clothes today, going incognito. He was wearing the amulet Alina crafted for this occasion. Causing the wearer looks different to those without skills in illusion. 

“Enjoy the end of the year festival together, you two. I’m going back to the Palace.”

“Leaving already? Tell my brother to take a break from studying. He won’t be getting any smarter.”

It was just the two of them now. The knife-wielding weirdo already left, spinning his weapon of choice in the palm of his hand. Wasn’t that dangerous? Someone could get hurt.

“Something about you feels different today. I wonder why. Are you feeling well?”

“I have been better. Thanks for asking.”

“I thought you were smiling earlier, must be my imagination.”

Emulating people was not easy. It required an adequate understanding of their behaviour. Every people Alina met today expressed the same emotion. Happiness. The opposite of sadness.

People smiled if they were happy. It was easy to remember which action represented which emotion. Just because Alina can’t felt emotions didn't l mean she can’t fake it. It was an essential skill for becoming another face in the crowd.

Psychology was fun. Alina felt one step closer to becoming a full-fledged psychopath now. Understanding people without peeking their minds wasn't as hard as she thought. The books didn’t lie. Everything became easier after learning the basic.

At this rate, she should be able to comprehend love and its effect on people soon. Undoing whatever it did to Prince Raimond. Love was not a valid excuse to marry a woman. The Prince’s reasoning was flawed. It wasn’t even sound in the first place.

Being close to the woman he loved lowered the Prince’s IQ indefinitely. The effect lasted until they were separated. It was not permanent yet. There was still hope. Alina should leave before he entered "lovey-dovey mode".

“It’s been a pleasure, Your Highness. I apologise. I must go.”

“Why don’t we watch the festival together?”

“I’m in a hurry. I have potions to brew.”

That wasn’t a lie. The Crown Prince did request her some potions to keep him awake and energised through the night. It was the only time when he was not busy studying to surpass his father as an Emperor someday. He had more important things to do than falling asleep.

Sleep was for the weak, he said. Weakness was a sin. As a result, he only slept for two hours every day. His fiancée didn't like that. She wanted him to get enough rest. Those two were adorable. They were made for each other.

The Princes have this sibling rivalry thing going on since the moment they were born. Prince Raimond refused to lose to his brother in romance. It got worse after he fell in love with Alina.

“Are you sure? You can take the day off. The festival is only held once a year.”

“No, thanks. I’m not a fan of watching a girl got burned alive.”

“It’s not a girl. It’s a doll. An effigy of the goddess.”

Heartland’s people were weird. The only thing weirder than its people was its tradition. Alina doesn’t know who started it. There are speculations, but nothing concrete. What did this goddess do to deserve this treatment? Perhaps the Restricted Sections of the Imperial Library has an answer.

“Don’t worry. It’s the goddess of death. Dying is her job,” added the Prince.

“Why don’t you ask anyone else?”

Watching a festival together counted as a date. Alina didn't want to get the Prince’s hope up, only to crush them later. She wasn’t a sadist who enjoyed the sound of hearts breaking. Bones were fine. They were easy to repair. Hearts weren’t.