“We have now heard of the circumstances that caused you to seek asylum. However, we have yet to hear of how you came into my sister’s ring. If you would please explain that, I will then be able to make my decision.”
“Calm down. I’m getting there.”
Ely lightly brushed off Dyros’ plea to expedite her explanation. She had spent the last several hours explaining the circumstances behind her presence in our forest. Due to the fact that much of her exploits have already been described in the volumes that precede this one, I shall, in the interest of brevity, omit all that she said up till this point.
I had my own questions about her account, of course. For one, how close was she, exactly, to this Rosalind woman? They seemed closer than ordinary friends – it certainly seemed like she held no small amount of affection for this person. To even put herself at risk for the sake of protecting that woman… that went beyond just simple friendship. What was this Rosalind to my dear sister?
I felt a vaguely uncomfortable feeling as she spoke about the lengths to which she had gone for Rosalind’s sake, and I briefly fantasised about murdering the woman – a ridiculous notion. I didn’t even know what she looked like. Elysium had provided no description of her appearance, so all I was imagining was myself killing a hazy silhouette of a woman with no face. I shook my head free of such pointless thoughts, making it a point to initiate an internal system check on a subprocessor thread. If I was giving in to such strange delusions, clearly there was something very wrong with my logic processes. I was a human soul within a mechanical body, but that did not exempt me from the various troubles and limitations that came with being a machine.
Ignoring my inner turmoil, Elysium went on with her story. Although the nature of my memory would allow me to reproduce here, word for word, the contents of her explanation, I shall instead summarise it, so as to prevent this volume from indulging in excessive quotation.
After escaping from the execution grounds, Ely had been escorted out of the Capital by her collaborator – a woman she called Ruth. The two of them moved across the country, laying low and moving under the cover of night, bypassing all large cities. They only stopped for supplies, and even then they only sought those supplies in remote villages, far from the main cities of the Empire. They slept in the open, never in an inn, constantly on the move. On occasion, they doubled back and took a different route, with the intention of misleading any pursuers. When possible, they stuck to forests and other, off-path routes. Slowly, they made their way outwards, toward the great Wall that ran the perimeter of the Empire. By the second month, the Empire had given up its pursuit. Their journey eventually took them to a forest just shy of the boundary of the wall, where Ruth revealed a tunnel that ran under the wall to the other side. She shared with Ely the patrolling schedules of the guards on that section of the wall, and then informed Ely that she was to go the rest of the way on her own.
The night before they parted ways, as they sat around an extinguished flame, Ruth had spoken to Ely about various things – among them was the fate of Serena Faircleave.
Apparently, after she had left Kirtvel so many years ago, she had travelled beyond the seas of this continent. Well, that was to be expected – she had nowhere else to go. The human-obssessed Mercynth Empire would have probably turned a catkin like her away, or otherwise would have killed her on the spot. In any case, somehow she managed to stow aboard a ship that had made land along one of the unclaimed segments of the shore. Aboard that ship, she had met a young man, with whom she had become smitten. She had followed him to the continent of Gemaris, where they had made a promise to get married after the man secured a stable job.
I wish I could say that they lived happily together thereafter, but unfortunately, that was where things fell apart.
According to Ely – and therefore, by extension, Ruth – it was all a lie. That youth told Serena to meet him in a secluded cottage in the woods, with the pretense of wanting to show her the cottage he intended for them to live in together. But the moment she entered it, she had been restrained by a group of men that had laid in wait, led by her intended fiance. They violated her and beat her until she was close to unconsciousness, then forced a slave collar on her, consigning her to a life of slavery.
She was sold and bought several times by different individuals, until one day, she managed to break the collar, braving the pain it induced through sheer force of will, and escaped her life of slavery. Following this, she joined the Adventurer’s Guild – at the time, an organisation at the peak of its power – and climbed the ranks until she became a Guildmaster, in charge of the Oparil branch.
“Due to various circumstances, after the failure of the Holy War, in which she had participated as a commander of the Guild’s contingent, Serena and another former Guildmaster – Kain Hyssop – settled down in Monspiere, within the Mercynth Empire. There, she and Hyssop raised Rosalind as their adoptive child, before finally succumbing to a disease a little over a decade ago, leaving Rosalind with only Ruth as her guardian. Before her death, Serena passed the ring to Ruth, informing Ruth about her background as a Faircleave and entreating her to use the ring in any way she saw fit, as long as it would lead to Rosalind’s happiness. Ruth judged that giving me the ring to allow me an audience with this Council would lead to Rosalind’s happiness, and that’s how it came to be in my possession.”
Ely ended her recount with a succinct summary that raised an absurd number of questions. I looked to Dyros – he had a stern look on his face. Narrowing his eyes, he spoke to Ely.
“…I’m afraid that I have several questions that require an answer before I can make my decision.”
Ely smiled, evidently amused. She must have known how ridiculous it was to end off her recount the way she did.
“Of course you do. I would too, if I were in your position. Ask away.”
“Let me begin with the most glaring omission. What are these ‘various circumstances’ of which you speak?”
Ely bowed her head apologetically.
“Unfortunately, I cannot say. Not because I have any intention of hiding the truth from you, but because I do not know it myself. Ruth refused to elaborate on it. That portion is as much a mystery to me as it is to you. All I know is that somehow, she found herself back in this continent, with an adoptive daughter in tow.”
Dyros frowned, unconvinced. Ely sighed.
“Look, think about it. I have nothing to gain from hiding this from you. Whatever happened to her in between the time she was Guildmaster and the time she moved here is already past, and clearly no harm came to her during that time, as evidenced by the fact that she was able to safely arrive. Does it therefore really matter what happened to her in the interim?”
“…Alright. I will overlook this omission. I concur that what brought my sister back to this land is of little consequence. Allow me to then ask my next question, though I doubt you will have an answer to this, either: despite being so close, why did my sister never return here, to Kirtvel? Why did she choose to hide herself and live among the humans?”
“You would be right in saying that I cannot give you an answer. After all, I am not Serena Faircleave, and she was the only one that could have given you a true answer. However, if you’ll allow me, I could share several theories that came up when I was speaking with Ruth.”
Dyros nodded his head.
“Well, for one, I don’t know the circumstances which led her to leave this city in the first place, but perhaps she felt that it would be shameful to return here after leaving? She was, as I understand, a rather proud woman.”
I nodded my head in agreement as I recalled the headstrong Serena, dignified and proud even as a kitten. Coming back here after leaving as suddenly as she had would have been a blow to her pride – she would probably have avoided doing so except as a last resort.
“Another theory is, naturally, that it would be difficult to come and go as she pleased from within the walls of the Empire. The tunnel I used is, to my knowledge, the only way to get through unnoticed, and it was hardly an easy journey. It’s possible that she didn’t want to leave her daughter for such long periods of time. And, well, my final theory ties in to my second – perhaps she just didn’t want to leave Rosalind alone.”
“I find it hard to imagine that sister of mine caring so deeply for a kitten that wasn’t hers – let alone a human child.”
“Perhaps she saw the child as her own. Again, this is a question I am unable to answer. From what Ruth told me, it seems that she owed Rosalind’s true parents a favour – perhaps that contributed to her care of Rosalind.”
“Very well. Although I shall forever wonder what kept her away from her home, I shall ask my next question. All your information about Serena seems to come from this Ruth woman. Who is she, and what is her relation to Serena?”
Ely’s lips curved upward in a grin.
“See, that’s a question I’ve been wondering about, myself. She claims to be a travelling merchant, but her skill in the martial arts far surpasses any other I have seen in this land. Using myself as a comparison, she is a warrior whose skill in battle equals mine – though I dare say that I am slightly better at handling a spear.”
I blinked. Someone who was as strong as Ely? Ely, the ‘Reaper of Xianying’ who slew an army of thirty thousand by herself? Shivers ran down my back as I imagined a battle between the two. What kind of terrifying scene would that create?
Ignoring the looks of disbelief on the faces of everyone in the Chamber, myself included, Ely continued.
“So, as to who Ruth is, I’m afraid that I can’t answer you, because I do not know myself. As to her relation to Serena, however, it seems that she is the individual that smuggled her and Hyssop into the Empire, along with Rosalind. I do not know anything about their relationship other than that. She claims to have dug the tunnel after arriving in the Empire, though, so I’m at a loss as to how she was able to get them in. Perhaps she flew in?”
Ely ended her testimony with a jest, but nobody laughed. The existence of someone like Ely – whose skills they had seen firsthand – was frightening enough, but to know that two of them existed, one who held unknown allegiances, was enough to arouse worry in everyone present. Furthermore, there was another, more pressing question to be answered, though based on Ely’s account to that point, the answer had likely already been deduced by Dyros and the more competent Elders. Dyros placed his fingers to his forehead and massaged it, before asking Ely one final question.
“I’m probably going to regret asking this, but: how did you know where to find Kirtvel?”
“Ruth told me. Or rather, she gave me hint – she refused to give me exact directions. She just told me that such a city existed inside a forest outside the walls of the Empire. This was actually the fourth forest I tried. I have to say, you people are very good at covering your tracks. I doubt anyone other than myself would have recognised the few signs of habitation.”
A grim look crossed Dyros’ face. I found myself biting my lip. How could Ruth have known? The location of Kirtvel was supposed to be an absolute secret for those other than its inhabitants. Had Serena told her of its location? Had that child betrayed us?
Ely seemed to understand our concerns and acted quickly to reassure us.
“Oh, Ruth said that she had found out about Kirtvel by herself – she told me to assure you that Serena had not told her or anyone else its location. Serena had divulged the secret of its existence, but refused to give its location to Ruth.”
Dyros’ face showed relief for a split second, but that was quickly replaced with fresh worry. If it wasn’t Serena’s guidance, how had Ruth found this place? Ely, seeing our worry, continued.
“Well, I’m not entirely sure how she found out, but she told me to reassure you that she hadn’t told anyone else how to find this place. Not that I would find that particularly reassuring, in your position.”
Her reassurance was a nice gesture, but it held a corollary – she had not yet told anyone else, but that meant that she also had the option to divulge it if she wished. That was… worrying, to say the least.
A cloud of anxiety fell upon the Elders. Dyros’ face remained stoic, but I could see his fists clenching so tightly that their knuckles turned white. Ely, smiling sheepishly, addressed him one final time.
“Do you have any further questions?”
Dyros took a deep breath to calm himself down. His fists unclenched. He shook his head.
“None. I will now announce my decision.”