Chapter 19:

Chapter 18. Lost Bonds

Zero to Hero

“Look at him! Hugging her so tightly! I wish it was me instead!”

“I can’t even kick him when he’s using her as a shield!”

With the pair chatting loudly next to my head, I released Emma from my clutches and greeted everyone.

“Take us with you!” The children pleaded as we finished a hearty breakfast, readying ourselves to depart.

Although the children hailed from the capital, many probably had few memories of their early years there, which was a blessing. In total, there were 22 kids between the ages of 5 and 8, all taken in three years ago after the dreadful raid.

“If we can arrange a couple of carriages to accommodate all of you, or else you'll have to accompany Emma back home,” I proposed to the excited children, who readily agreed.

Keeping pace with the kids alongside my horse and Yami, we encountered a group of merchants headed for the capital, bringing joy to the kids as they were allowed to ride alongside the cargo.

Traveling slowly due to the heavy loads and added children, we followed the merchants, making our way leisurely towards the capital. Taking about twice as long than the usual hour-long horse ride would have taken us.

As we approached the gates, I expressed my gratitude to the merchants, paying them generously. Meanwhile, the kids were abuzz with excitement, their eyes fixed on the towering city walls.

The security at the gates was noticeably tighter compared to previous years, with guards meticulously inspecting everyone. I also spotted several magic circles, a new addition to the area.

“I hope they won't make this as challenging as entering Ostrium was,” I remarked, hoping we don’t have a repeat of what happened back then.

“We'll be fine,” Emma replied confidently as we neared the gate.

However, just as we arrived, chaos ensued. Without warning, the guards lunged at me, causing confusion among those waiting behind us, including the two girls.

“Hey, Kev, Mel. You two have really grown up,” I greeted my twin brothers, now young men.

We caught up briefly and chatted with their fellow wall guards, and I slipped them a few gold nuggets as a bonus, granting my brothers the rest of the day off.

Like everyone else, the twins were thrilled to see me and happily led the excited children, who were visiting the capital for the first time since joining our family.

Using my ability to generate infinite gold, I effortlessly won the hearts of the kids, buying them anything they desired, much to Emma's annoyance for spoiling them.

“How do you have so much gold?” one of the little girls asked, hugging the doll I'd bought her.

“He's a cheater! He can conjure gold out of thin air!” Tina blurted out before I could explain.

While Tina was resentful of my ability to create infinite gold for our journey, the kids were utterly impressed and gleefully took advantage of it.

Following a lavish lunch, we made our way to the castle to reunite with my adoptive mother, youngest sister, and the reigning queen of our kingdom. Assisted by Emma and two guards, we navigated through the castle grounds effortlessly, entering from a side entrance.

As the kids and the girls from the countryside marveled at the castle, I found it underwhelming—its modest size, simple design, and common building materials paled in comparison to grander castles I'd visited.

Upon reaching the kitchen, I spotted a woman at the sink and hurried over to embrace her from behind. Initially startled, the woman who'd taken me in as a newborn and treated me as her son eventually hugged me tightly, tears streaming down her face after realizing who I was.

“Hey, Mom. I'm sorry I was such a terrible son,” I said gently, trying to comfort her.

After the sobbing finally stopped, the lady instead started comforting me as I explained the demons I am trying to overcome.

In the midst of our heartfelt conversation, Emma slipped away momentarily and returned with Erika, who was now working as a maid in the castle.

Similar reaction to everyone else I had met up so far, my youngest sister turned into a crying mess as I felt guilty for my inactions yet comfort from all the love I have received so far.

“I'll go have a word with Rena,” I informed the group, the afternoon passing swiftly.

Guided by Emma's instructions, I reached the most elaborate door in the small castle and knocked, eager to see my former lover.

“Come in,” a weary voice replied from within.

Pushing open the imposing wooden door, I found a fatigued young woman sitting behind an ornate desk, buried under mountains of paperwork, barely acknowledging my intrusion.

“Hey, Rena. Long time no see,” I greeted tentatively.

“Oh… it’s you. Guess you're back. What do you want?” Rena replied coldly, barely acknowledging my sudden appearance.

“Sorry,” I murmured, at a loss for words, especially to a woman who had lost her entire family—a loss I felt responsible for.

“Sorry about what? We had a fling when we were young. I hoped you could be something you were clearly not, and life moved on,” Rena answered without even bothering to look at me.

“Sorry that I wasn’t here for you. Wasn’t here when you needed me the most. Thank you for taking care of my family and providing them jobs and a means to survive,” I attempted to express my remorse.

“SORRY is not going to bring back my dead family! Sorry is not going to make things go back to how they were. I did nothing for you. Gwen is my best friend, Fernard reclaimed the kingdom for me, I’m simply returning the favor. Nothing to do with you. I have a kingdom to run, so get out of my face before I call in the guards,” Rena retorted sharply.

Her reaction, while expected, hit me harder than I had anticipated. To hear those words from someone I once loved left me speechless, unsure of how to proceed.

“Why are you still here? Get going before my husband sees your stupid face. Tell Erika to bring me my dinner here on your way out,” she dismissed me coldly, ending our interaction abruptly.

“I can’t believe one of your lover is a queen! Ughh… so much competition!” Candace grumbled as I returned to the kitchen.

“Ex-lover. She’s supposedly married,” I replied, trying to hide the sadness I felt.

“Good! One less rival I have to worry about. Why can’t Tina’s sister or Emma do the same? You left them for 5 whole years! Any normal woman would have ditched you long ago!” Candace continued, pointing out some harsh but valid truths I'd rather not confront.

“Sorry I didn’t tell you about her marriage. She had no choice. The kingdom was low on funds; it needed money for an army, and the only way she could gather that money was to marry this rich merchant from Ostrium,” Emma chimed in, revealing crucial details withheld until now.

The rest of the day passed in a blur after the conversation with Rena, leaving my mind numb and unable to process anything after learning about her situation.

“Are you alright, Ken? Sorry I didn’t tell you about Rena. I didn’t know how to break it to you or how you would take it,” Emma said as we laid together in our sleeping bag, though I couldn’t recall how I ended up here.

While I knew I was at fault for everything that had happened, hearing it and realizing someone I loved was suffering this much because of my actions left me paralyzed. I felt myself slipping back into a depressed state, wanting to retreat into solitary hiding.

“You know, Ken, we were only 10 years old when our older siblings disappeared, and you became the man of the household, providing for the family. You never complained, never showed discontent. You carried those burdens and continued living."

“When you never returned, we didn’t know what had happened. For all we knew, you could be dead somewhere. While for me or Lovetta, we would have waited for you until the day we died, not everyone else has that luxury."

“Rena, Clare, Cecilla, and even Alice, Seraphina, and Indra might not be able to wait for you forever. In Rena’s case, her entire family was murdered. While it wasn’t your fault, I’m sure you would agree that if you were here, things might have turned out differently.”

“What should I do, Emma? I know I messed up, but I can’t change it. I don’t know how I should act, how to make things right, or even how to move forward,” I asked, holding onto Emma tightly, hoping she could provide me some guidance.

“You move on with life, Ken. You messed up, and Rena had to marry someone else because you weren’t here. There’s nothing you can do now to change that."

“How do I stop feeling so guilty?”

“Don’t be silly. You have to live with the guilt and grow, Ken. Your selfishness caused the situation, so you have to live with it. You were always selfish to begin with. How did you think I felt when you kept getting more and more girls? At the time, you thought you could take care of us all, made big promises, and now you have to live with the consequences. Go help Candace like you promised, try to find and make amends with all the girls you wronged, and live with the outcome.”

Listening to Emma express such mature views, akin to the chieftain’s, while I had regressed into a spoiled child who wished for my problems to vanish, made me wonder what anyone saw in me. As Emma comforted me, insisting that I accept responsibility, I gradually drifted into sleep, hoping to sleep my guilt away.