Chapter 16:

An Argument in Eros' Temple

The Songstress of Avalon

The journey to the Kingdom of Aleria was mostly uneventful.

Misane and Arisa did eventually switch seats, allowing the latter to enjoy the fresh air and an expansive view of Avalon’s countryside. Naturally, I kept a close eye on the driver the entire time, but it turned out he wasn’t on the prince’s payroll after all. As an apology for my suspicions, I gave him an extra silver coin. I kept the reason secret, of course.

Like Azienda, the capital of Amalfi and the place where our embassy was located, Erisso was also a place of bustling commercial activity albeit on a much smaller scale, except during the seasonal Grand Bazaar when it became a merchant's dream. It had developed around its robust marketplace, as evidenced by the large square in the centre of town.

It was in this square that the Grand Bazaar took place, and the alleyways and streets that made up the rest of the town merely spun off from it. Since the bazaar had already begun, the place was already teeming with people.

“Forget about the rickshaw,” I told Misane, who was trying to catch the attention of a nearby driver. “It’ll never move in this crowd. We’re better off walking.”

She let her hand drop to the side, and then she asked, “where to?”

“We’re staying at an inn near the square,” I informed them.

“Tell me you booked in advance,” Arisa maneuvered her body to avoid an underage peddler who was trying to hawk some baubles. “This place is like Shinjuku Station during rush hour…”

“Of course not,” I chuckled in reply. “We came here on a whim, and it’s not like they have smartphones or computers in this world.”

“It doesn’t look too good then,” Arisa let out a groan.

“Don’t worry,” Misane flitted in-between us, linking her arm with both of ours so that we wouldn’t be separated amongst the throng of people. “We know the innkeeper. He’ll let us stay, for sure.”

Eros’ Temple was situated in one of the alleyways deriving from the market square, a place known as the ‘hospitality district’. Inconspicuous and small, it was surrounded by inns that looked considerably more refined; appearances, of course, were deceiving.

As we entered Eros’ Temple, a man sneered at us.

“Don’t mind him,” I said to Arisa, who seemed to be affected by the stranger’s unwarranted contempt. “He’s looking down on us because he’s staying in a nicer part of town. Probably getting ripped off too.”

The front door led into a sparsely occupied bar. The middle-aged proprietor was cleaning cups behind the counter, engaged in a conversation with a patron sipping ale from a comically large tankard. Another man was having a meal in a booth tucked away in the corner.

Just by walking in, we had doubled the population of the room.

“Old man Orion, it’s me!” I greeted cheerfully.

The man behind the counter stared in my direction, scowling. My appearance, by virtue of its unexpectedness, must have displeased him; it was almost as though my business wasn’t welcome. However, when his myopic eyes registered my features, his sallow face wrinkled into a toothless grin.

“Oh! If it isn’t the hero himself! Come in! Come in, I say!” his booming voice rang out through the mostly empty bar. “Ah, is that Misane? And who’s this?”

“Her name’s Arisa. A friend of ours,” I made a quick introduction. “Arisa, this is Old Man Orion, the innkeeper here. He helped us out quite a bit during our adventuring days.”

“Did I!” Orion laughed shamelessly. “If it weren’t for me, this shop and the rest of the realm would be the demon lord’s territory! Wahahaha!”

“Aha… I’m Arisa, nice to meet you…” she spoke uncertainly.

“He’s a rowdy guy, but not a bad sort at all,” I could hear Misane whispering into her ear.

“Orion,” I began in a serious tone which caused the proprietor’s ears to perk up. “You wouldn’t happen to have two spare rooms?”

“Two spare rooms?” Orion placed three tankards on the counter and was pouring a generous serving of ale into each one. “Wahaha! Is that all? I thought you were going to tell me Trajan and Marissa finally got hitched! Of course, you’re welcome to stay here. Now, how about a drink?”

Up until I was summoned to this world, my only experience with alcohol had been sips given to me by distant relatives at family functions; at that time, the burning sensation in my throat took precedence over the taste. But even so, I was quite sure that even the cheapest convenience store Strong Two tasted better than whatever passed for ale in this world.

But how could I refuse Orion's offer?

We picked up our drinks, and for a second, the only thing that could be heard was the sound of five tankards clattering against each other – the patron Orion had been chatting to at the counter joined in at the last second. He seemed to be the type to look for any excuse to have a toast.

A groan could be heard from the corner of the room. The man who sat there, quietly having his meal, suddenly stood up and sauntered over to the counter. His gaze was fixed on Orion, as though he hadn't seen the rest of us at all.

“Did I hear that right, Orion? You’re going to let him stay here?” he growled.

“Aye, Ignacio,” Orion suddenly looked solemn. “I did say something like that.”

I inspected the man called Ignacio carefully and wondered whether I had met him before somewhere. If I hadn’t, then it was strange that he held such disdain for me. It was noteworthy that he had specifically referred to ‘him’, so whatever problem he had, it was with me and me alone. Arisa and Misane weren’t subject to his ire.

“I refuse to share a roof with this… with this fake!” he was looking at me now, and I could see the loathing reflected in his unfamiliar, bloodshot eyes. “You were just a damn contingency plan. Arturo was the real hero, the one from the prophecy. Someone like you… you should have just disappeared with the demon lord!”

If only you knew how hard I was trying to ‘disappear’.

I thought I had put the ‘Hero of Contingency’ talk to bed when I returned from the demon lord’s realm with King Balaam’s head, but there were still those who clung to the image of Arturo Artois as the ideal hero. And he truly did represent all the things a hero should be; for all his virtues though, he couldn’t beat the demon lord in the end.

I was the one who did, and saved the realm in the process. I had every intention of letting Ignacio know that when Misane suddenly entered the fray.

“Don’t say that name!”

Ignacio seemed taken aback, but only for a second. “Aren’t you Arturo’s younger sister?” his eyes glimmered with recognition. “If he could see right now…”

“Hey, that’s enough,” it was my turn to get angry.

Before I could say my piece, however, Orion had already appeared on the other side of the counter, his arm draped over Ignacio’s. He must have been gripping tightly, for Ignacio winced slightly.

“I was just leaving.”

Ignacio shrugged Orion’s arm off and shot him a look that suggested that he wouldn’t ever be back. He scowled at us, me in particular, and true to his word, stomped away with his hands in his pocket.

“What was that all about?” Arisa who had been silent during the entire exchange whispered into my ear.

“It’s a long story. I’ll tell you about it on the way back.”

“I’m really sorry about that, hero,” Orion, despite his mass, leapt over the counter back to the server’s side and refilled our drinks.

“Ignacio isn’t a bad person,” the patron who had been sitting at the counter chimed in. “But he really loved Arturo Artois. Believed in him, you know?” he took a sip of his drink.

“He didn’t say anything I hadn’t heard before,” I replied cheerfully. “I’m afraid I lost you a good customer.”

“Bah, forget about that. Wahahaha!” Orion laughed heartily. Now that the hostile element had been removed, the tension in the room dissipated and the atmosphere slowly reverted to normal.

“I should introduce myself,” the patron said. “My name’s Antonio. Naturally, I already know who you are, hero. But tell me, what brings you all the way to Erisso?”

“The Grand Bazaar, of course.”

“Well, I thought as much,” Antonio chuckled. “You know, I’m something of a merchant myself. What do you have your eyes on? Maybe I can help you get a good deal.”

“We’re looking for a Jewel of Lazarus,” Arisa told him.

Orion whistled.

“There certainly was a Jewel of Lazarus being sold at the bazaar…” Antonio’s face looked grave. “But unfortunately for you three, someone bought it immediately after the bazaar opened.”

“It was sold already? To who?!” I stood up, incredulous.

“To the guy who just stormed out of here a minute ago,” Antonio raised his thumb and pointed towards the door. “Isn’t fate a funny thing?”

Steward McOy