105. Hard Earned Lesson
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"Who else are struggling to collect points?" Maelys asked.

Four participants looked at her hesitantly. "But the rules said we cannot..."

Stealing, attacking or purposefully blocking another enrollee is prohibited. 

A participant cannot ask for outside help.

If one encounters danger they must quickly withdraw.

Do not be reckless. 

Do not show off on purpose.

Do not do other things that are not included in the enrollment test.

"Which rule exactly say we cannot help each other?" 

They were silent.

"Alright, why don't we work together. As you can see I'm already finished with mine but these particular monsters are not ordinary types. One person is not going to be enough to subdue one." She pulled out her card showing the glowing academy crest. Her meaning was clear there is no need for her to compete with them, and she will help them only if they work together. 

At this point when they have no other options, and their minds are muddled with agitation they could only listen to her suggestions. They saw Maelys fight for a while now and they can say her movements were impressive, the four sounded their agreement and begin to divide the enemies. During the scuffle, the flame breathed by those Fire Ignis easily scorch the grasslands surrounding them. The blaze, however, did not spread further failing to trap them because of the two Water Mages' support. Enhanced by Maelys' skill, the fire was easily put out with less effort. 

The Earth and Ice Mage trapped the Fire Ignis limbs in place while the Water Mage continue to bombard them with Poisoned Drizzle. Five minutes of non-stop releasing mana to attack was strenuous but after five minutes, the monsters finally showed signs of weakening. The fire breaths grew fainter and fainter, with a great reduction of its heat they are at last ready to deliver the finishing blow. 

However, at the last stretch, a stray fire attack hit one of the weakened Fire Ignis causing it to regain a bit of its strength. When the monster grew feral Maelys had been on the side facing the four mages for instructions, its tail violently swept to her direction.

The crowd of onlookers both hidden and on the field turned cold. The Fire Ignis may be weakened, but it is still an A-rank monster of great strength. Lady Maelys will die. Sterne who was leisurely sitting on the branch panicked she jumped down quickly, Odette and Lian Hua who just finished their requirement screamed while some people showed no sign of agitation whatsoever. While the air congealed with tension a lone shadow darted from the thicket, followed by another.

The Ignis whipped its tail and spew fire to its nearest enemy causing the smoke to rise along with the dust. The whole place was veiled then, a roar was heard. As the dust settles, the images in front became clearer and clearer. 

Sterne's chest was heaving up and down, blood poured out from the Ignis throat as the blade of her sword cleanly went through it. Another figure started to emerge beside her. With his white clothes stained red, the corner of his right arm still sizzling from the burn, Crown Prince held the stunned Maelys protectively in his arms.

"Finish it." Sterne snapped at the four mages. 

They hasten to do what was instructed and successfully subdue the two Fire Ignis, but instead of shouting in celebration they rushed to Maelys side. Sterne swept her eyes above the slope, slightly brushing over Regina and purposefully raised her chin. Very slowly, she arched the corners of her lips. If you want to be unruly, better plan it nicely.

Regina seeing her action trembled all over.

The mentors and seniors who just recovered from shock began to run down the slope. Maelys was suddenly alarmed, the Crown Prince was injured because of her! She didn't know he would rush to her at the critical moment, she didn't even know he entered the forest! Concerned, she patted his stiff shoulder to let her go. 

"You're hurt big-- Your Highness."

He shook his head. "It's only a scratch." 

Everyone, "..."

Prince Irvin was distressed, he came to observe but he did not expect an accident to happen so suddenly. Moreover, it was her… he set Maelys down intending to inquire about her condition when a gaggle of women pulled her away.    

Odette broke into a cry because she was truly frightened, "Huhuhu... Maelys you scared me!"

"Why on earth were you standing so close to these ugly things? They're not rabbits what were you thinking?" Lian Hua screeched pointing a finger to the dead monsters.

"Lady Maelys it was my fault, I shouldn't have slackened Earth Prison."

"No, no it was me milady. My Poison Drizzle stopped for a few seconds." 

"Are you alright? Are you hurt anywhere?"

Sterne standing on the side exchange shrugs with the Crown Prince. One is bloody while the other is burnt yet no one cared to ask. 

"E-Everyone, I'm alright. I suffered no injury." Maelys said stretching her limbs to show she is perfectly fine. "See?" 

She really did not suffer anything major aside from being scared stiff but all that is gone now. The attention she received was overwhelming it really warmed her heart. However, she did not want to let the focus be directed entirely to her especially when there is a test going on. 

"His Highness is injured, we need to take care of his wounds immediately," she said gripping her fingers.

A certain Crown Prince tried not to wince and squeeze out a smile. "This is just--"

"Hmm," an old man suddenly exclaimed on the side. "Where is this delicious smell coming from? Did someone cook steak? Oh right, Crown Prince's arm is burned nicely."

Everyone wore horrified faces, not because the Crown Prince is injured but because of the old man's comment.

One kid was observant and whispered. "Ah, it's the Grandmaster Mordred!"

"Hurry along now, get your arm treated." the grandmaster said stroking his beard. "Though it's a medal for saving a beautiful maiden, you still need that hand for a sword." he then turned to Maelys with a meaningful smile, "You, little lass accompany the valiant hero to the medical tents. He, after all, saved you. I presume you are done with your test?" 

Red-faced, Maelys nodded.

Dusk quickly approached, still half of the enrollees are struggling with their prey. The rest of those who are finished left the forest to return to the camps. Unexpectedly, the other Hallowed Ones remained to scour the length of Moonless Forest. Bernice, Taron, Regina and Laius already made it out and are now mingling with the rest of the enrollees. 

Among the foreign enrollees, a fevered topic began. 

"Ah~ Crown Prince of this kingdom is very handsome. So valiant and dashing when he saved that Lady this afternoon."

"I've seen that Lady too. She's beautiful, not only that she fights well!"

One girl disagreed. "Really? How can that be? Didn't the prince come and rescue her?"

"I saw it if you don't believe me I'm willing to swallow my fist to prove my point."

A newcomer butt in. "Hahahaha, milord no need to do that. I as well have seen her but alas, the one I admire is not the violet-eyed maiden but the Fair Black Knight."

At the mention of the Fair Black Knight, the group burst into 'ohhs'

"Yes, yes the Fair Black Knight! I finally caught a glimpse of her." 

"A glimpse? You're too weak my friend, I have been looking at her since this morning!"

"Hmph, you're all fools. I know her full name, her birthday and measurements!"

The evil Young Master who happens to pass by heard the last sentence and couldn't help but stop on his tracks. Measurements? 

"Do you think she's engaged?"

Engaged? Who dares to ask!? The Young Master raged internally. His Umbra tailing from the shadows shuddered when a glacial aura hit him.  

"Do you think she will join the Warrior Division?"

"I will sign up for the Warrior Division. I want to be with my goddess." 

"If I could carry and clean her boots, that would be worth it."

"You can have the boots. I'll take the mantle of my goddess!"   

The girl grimaced listening to these rude Junior Swordsmen and Knights. Once again she added a spicy comment. "It's better if she chooses Warrior Division, it will be a shame to the esteemed Mage Division to have someone who cannot use magic and I just know that even the Support Division won't have her."

Despite her thorny statement, no one paid her any mind. The girl frowned fiercely and looked at the ladies, the Hallowed Ones standing not far away. 

Sterne could barely tell something had happened this afternoon looking at how things at the moment. Her face flushed, it was unknown whether it was from the numerous praises or the heat from the bonfire. 

The four mages Maelys helped were still in a low mood, they apologized over and over again for the negligence. She watched them for quite a while when she was on top of the trees, surely their combination was good and the attacks were in sync. It was supposed to finish flawlessly if not for the temporary delay in magic casting.

"Are you alright?" Kyrios approached from behind. He saw his little sister's tight eyebrows and thought she was having a problem with the test.

She looked up to him. "We have been away from the Royal Capital for two weeks, I wonder how Father is doing in the court?"

"Oh, that. Don't worry about Father, he can handle things. Believe it or not, some people in the court might be choking by now."    

"Elder brother," she said while looking at the darkening sky. "Aside from me and Father there is no one else in this kingdom who has Nullification skill, it's even more impossible for them to have Dispersion like yours and big brother's Collapse. Aside from those three unique skills, I can't think of anything else that can cancel magic activation."

He looked at their worried little sprout and chuckled. "Magic cancellers can also temporarily stop magic casting. That type of weapon is very hard to obtain for ordinary people because they are restricted only to prisons and other important places."

That's it! Her face finally lit up. "Thank you elder brother."             

"Err, for what exactly?"

When she refused to tell him, he pulled her cheeks hard until it was deformed beyond red. For a while the two fought playfully with Kyrios refusing to let go of her soft cheeks, her hand in return kept giving him cat punches but he still did not relent.

"Are you worried about what happened?" he asked suddenly eyeing the group of people not far away. 

"Just a little."  

"Are you two done fighting?" Dio came chewing on something. "Dinner is about ready."

"What are you eating?" Sterne asked.

"Millenium egg." 

"A thousand-year spoiled egg? Spit that out before you get an upset stomach. You're on lookout duty tonight, it won't do us good if you keep going to the toilet." the eldest teased.

Dio ignored him and relished the taste left at the tip of his tongue. "Crown Prince is fine now, Maelys personally healed him and by the way, two of those four enrollees she saved are old Bismarck's grandchildren Io and Penelope."     

Sterne's mouth turned into a big O. 

The Herald's protection strikes again. She thought amazed. House Bismarck is a force to be reckoned with. That old duke holds power in the court! Maelys was probably the love child of the Goddess of Luck. How could someone turn a tragedy into fortune out of the blue? That's terrifying luck! 

Dio rumpled Sterne's hair. "Congratulations on passing the second part of the test. I'm really happy for you but," he suddenly whined. "You see... Big Brother is really hungry. Can we go and eat celebratory dinner now?" 

She laughed. "Is everyone inside already?"

"They're probably eating everything right now." he replied in horror.

***

 

Bernice waited in trepidation for the whole day. After dinner, Sir Taron was summoned to the Crown Prince's tent and only returned after an hour. 

"What did the Crown Prince say?"

Taron had no smile on his face when he entered the tent to relay the message. Since leaving Fuchs, he had been acting strangely nervous it put Bernice in an even sour mood. "Milady, His Highness would like to hear about what happened in Fuchs fief."

The meaning of those words is that the Crown Prince wants the two of them to explain what they did, how the place end up in that state only after two weeks of their arrival. Due to the pressure, Taron could barely hold himself together. Bernice, while putting on her fur coat had a bad feeling but she cannot show it on her face now, can she?

She forced a smile upon their arrival. Crown Prince is sitting on his chair casually when they came in, though he appears calm, his amber eyes had been on them the moment they were announced.

"Riot and looting." Prince Irvin only said two words without any fluctuation in his emotion.  

Bernice's heart shook. She knew very well the implication of their rash actions but this is not the time for excuses, first, she needed to placate him, "Y-Your Highness it was my fault for being narrow-minded and headstrong. I neglected to put priority towards the people's needs."

She lowered her eyes appearing humble and contrite. This cannot be entirely blamed on her, she is just a sixteen-year-old girl and aside from that she is new to the place. Even His Highness would not fault her for being negligent, right? The landlord is the one in charge of his land. Why does she have to suffer on his behalf? 

Prince Irvin puts too much importance to his subject, but he could at least make allowances to young ladies like her who had no idea how to run a… she stopped short. Her whole body shook. 

"Do you know the reason why you were required to help manage a fief as a requirement?" Prince Irvin asked again. The Hallowed Ones grew under the guidance of Heraldic Order and several officials. He expected them to mature and know their responsibilities by now. As future Queens, bearing a good image is not enough they must also learn to sympathize with the people and know their needs. 

He thought he doesn't have to state the obvious to remind them of their purpose to this kingdom. How can she claim to be a strong candidate when she doesn't even remember why she was chosen? 

Taron stood quiet beside Bernice. His hands into a tight fist. What's wrong with correcting those peasant's crooked behaviour? They dare riot and create unrest putting the whole fief in a bitter situation. If they worked harder naturally they will get more food, the tribute they give was reduced to half, of course, the landlord will raise the taxes. If they don't pay, they better pack up and leave. 

"Do you know what you did wrong?" Prince Irvin's eyes were cold. Taron unknowingly took a step back beginning to feel uneasy. "You punished a man for trying to feed his family and steal his food."  

Bernice gritted her teeth in secret and shot Taron a sharp glare.          

"Don't think too highly of yourselves." 

"Your…"

Prince Irvin no longer paid them any mind and waved his hand for them to leave. Bernice's chest is full of resentment, she was dismissed! That damn dirt poor of a territory became her ticket for the prince's contempt and the one who handed it to him is this person beside her. In order to show off, he took someone else's prey and put the man in the pillory to warn everyone. 

Upon returning to her tent, her hand flew to slap Taron's face until it was numb. "It was you!"

"Milady, I was wrong I did not anticipate this."

"Did not anticipate? Are you that stupid?"

If he had handled things correctly they wouldn't have this problem now. She lashed at him several more times but her anger did not ebb. Taron also felt unhappy in his heart, he only stayed by her side as her escort. She is the candidate, not him! Why does he have to suffer humiliation as well?

Bernice slapped him again. "Useless. Pathetic. Didn't you promise to help me? What have you done?"  

How will she face the Crown Prince from here on? She had thoroughly lost all her pride in front of him. Even if she won this damn competition for his spouse, she fears the relationship is already strained. 

Managing a fief… managing a kingdom. Nobody told her it would turn out this way!  

 

Before midnight came, the remaining participants who were left inside the forest returned. The cards were surrendered back to the mentors. Almost everyone made it, aside from five Hallowed One candidates who failed to complete their task. It was a shocking revelation. Five girls are now sobbing helplessly on the side crying not only for their failure but the lost opportunity to ascend higher and marry a prince. 

The remaining nine was suddenly cut down to four. But the most shocking news is yet to reach their ears. Several days ago at the Royal Capital, a storm came. 

Duke Al is aware of the ministers' dirty means. He never worried about the monopoly, he knew those Lord Ministers would never willingly hand over the authority without a hitch. A faint smile flitted briefly on his face. Of course, they won't. The only reason they did all of it is to remove him from the court. 

"Did the people I asked you to invite arrived?" Duke Vallis asked the man in grey clothes kneeling in front of him.

"Yes, milord. All of them are already in their respective positions for the ambush. The moment the signal comes, they will strike the convoy carrying Nachtwald's produce."

"Good. I would like to see how far he is going to last when all his plan comes to waste. I'm guessing it won't take him a week to keep up with his bravado. The bastard might as well surrender his position in the chamber when all these are finished. Did he think he can outwit us?"

Fueled by years of boiling resentment, Duke Vallis allowed himself to give in to wild laughter. Just thinking about Duke Nachtwald's defeated look was enough to send him in bliss. Finally, the time where he can tear out that cold confident mask with his own hands has come.

For years the monopoly of the market within Aurea is held by them. If not for this farce he would never willingly stamp the damn agreement. 

In order for the plan to succeed, he had made careful preparation by putting his hired professionals along the main highway and all smaller roads outside the Royal Capital to ensnare Nachtwald's convoy. Duke Vallis is well aware of the Obsidian's strength so for this mission he had to spend quite a sum to employ men from Howling Moon mercenaries of Nameless City. Unlike those cowards in other guilds, this bunch will not hesitate to raise their swords even against the famed black knights.   

When those wagons are seized, he will be more than glad to personally raze them all to charcoal. To ensure the plan is secure he went as far by collaborating with the most the city guards to not let any unknown products enter royal capital without a thorough inspection. No matter how sleek Duke Nachtwald is, he cannot escape this fate. 

Unless Nachtwald can create a miracle out of thin air, he will fall under the Land's Law.

A sinister glint flashed across his eyes. 

As minutes ticked to hours, his study remained silent. Half a day went but he did not receive any positive response from his personal guard. A sliver of agitation began gnawing on Duke Vallis. 

No, they are probably too busy occupied rerouting those wagons. It's a pity they will have to be destroyed. I heard Nachtwald territory's harvest is different from the rest. 

While thoughts played on his head, a huffing haggard footboy stumbled inside his study. 

"Milord, milord… bad news!"

Not to be bothered by this sorry looking plebeian, Duke Vallis eyed him sharply and continue to fiddle with the globe on his table.

"Please milord, hear me out. This is urgent… t-the thing you want me to observe. It did not happen."

Immediately, the duke jumped from his seat. "What the hell do you mean by that?"

"T-The markets… the markets are operating as usual."

"Impossible!" 

Did those fools from the chamber make their move so soon? Does this mean that Nachtwald gave up? Why was he not informed?

"I was there, I saw it with my own eyes. Wagons with Nachtwald's crest came and…"

Damn it all! He swiped everything on the table clean. Stacks of papers, porcelain knick-knacks and ink pots rolled down the floor into a messy pile. The footboy was scared witless after seeing his lord's countenance twisted into an ugly scowl.

How the hell did it happen? 

However, his headache did not end so soon as his personal guard appeared looking very distressed as if a hundred souls harassed him. Just by looking at the mess his lord made already made him want to shrink. 

"Speak." Duke Vallis spat.

"T-The mercenaries were apprehended by the... Royal Guards."

His heart fell to the pit of his stomach. Why did the royal guards suddenly got involved? He couldn't understand it yet a feeling of alarm slowly rose in his chest. 

No way… 

"What did you say?"

The guard spoke, his neck lowered and his face ashen. "There are indeed wagons and carriages that travelled from Nachwald towards here in Royal Capital and the mercenaries blocked them b-but… the cargo is…" 

Once again his anger erupted. "Stop stuttering you useless imbecile. Tell me! I don't care what they are as long as it belongs to Nachtwald you must seize and destroy it!"

"Milord, we made a huge mistake! Inside the convoys are bolts of fabrics, and wares." The guard shrunk lower wishing the floor would just swallow him to end his agony. "T-The mercenaries were about to do as told but the Royal Guards appeared… the Royal Guards said that those things are personal belongings of… H-Her Majesty, Queen Juno."

"What!?" Duke Vallis almost fell down the floor if he had not grabbed the corner of his table. The blood that was flowing warmly in his body turned cold inducing a bone-deep chill. 

How did it come to this? What about Nachtwald? His plans?

"No, no, there must be a mistake, why would--"

"It was the Vice Commander of Halcyon Knights who personally escorted the convoy."

With shaking hands and feet, Duke Vallis wobbled back to his seat trying to calm himself. He very much looks like a person with his soul about to fly out. 

"Did the royal guards capture the mercenaries? How much do they know about me?" His brain began to buzz, Duke Vallis slumped heavily on his seat gripping both his hands to keep them from shaking.

"Rest assured milord I did not directly negotiate with the leader of Howling Moon, all our transactions are dealt with by a middleman. Even if the royal guards torture them to death they will not spill anything."

"Good... good." Was all he said drawing in a painful breath. 

In a split second all his nerves are frayed by this last piece of news. Not in his whole life did he ever imagine himself offending a monarch this way nor did he wish to directly offend one! Although he is willful and arrogant, he is not stupid.     

But how did it come to this? It was only a few hours ago that he confidently sat here waiting for good news, not this piece of disaster! 

The duke leaned back in his seat and massaged his throbbing temples. He was finally relaxed when another guard came in. "What is it this time?"

"Milord, your brother… Commander Vallis was arrested." the guard informed with a grim face. 

Without further question, Duke Vallis rushed out of his mansion towards the Royal Castle. His agitation caused his mood to darken, as he passed the row of guards he snapped and even shoved them aside when he was stopped near the entrance.

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