Chapter 38:

Chapter 37. Infiltration

Zero to Hero

"How do I look?" I asked the girls as I emerged from my room wearing the royal guard armor that Carter had managed to get for me.

"I don't like it. You're too plain for such fancy armor," Tina remarked.

"Don't listen to the idiot! You look so handsome!" Candace chimed in, sparking an argument between the two.

"What do you think, Carla?" I inquired, but the horned elf girl simply stared at me blankly, offering no response.

Petting Yami, who was the only one paying me any attention, I realized my attempt to distract myself with the girls had failed miserably, leaving me to dwell on what lay ahead.

"Keep them in check, Yami. You're in charge while I'm gone," I instructed my wolf, who nodded in understanding.

"What do you mean the dog is in charge!" Tina protested as I headed out in my fancy armor.

With the sun already down and the elegant helm covering 80% of my face, my appearance was fully disguised. Arriving at the meetup spot, I was greeted by the man from the night before, who was in the company of a group of boisterous drunk castle guards.

Blending in easily, we headed for the castle, arousing no suspicion. As my guide took his place for his shift, I slipped into the castle grounds with the remaining guards, disappearing without anyone noticing.

Thinking it was too simple for someone to sneak into the castle grounds of the most powerful kingdom in the world, I quickly realized that, other than an idiot like myself, who else would be foolish enough to attempt such an infiltration?

Maybe the delusional racist elf wasn’t so delusional after all. As powerful as the kingdom and Zishell were, if he could infiltrate the castle grounds this easily, perhaps assassinating the king and taking over wasn't so far-fetched.

Lost in contemplation about the potential implications of a takeover, I found myself at the side wing of the castle where Clare had lived before. My heart pounded loudly as I cautiously made my way through the garden and peeked inside the open space, checking if anyone was around in the living room.

"What are you doing sneaking around? We didn’t request a guard. I’m sounding the alarm if you don’t have a good excuse," a voice called out from inside.

"Hey, Chloe. Thought you were Clare for a second there," I replied softly as I removed the helm and stepped into the bright spotlight cast by a light artifact.

"KEN!" Chloe shouted as she rushed toward me.

She hugged me tightly for a good minute or longer before settling me in her dining room and instructing the servants to prepare a meal after learning that I hadn’t eaten dinner yet.

"Is Clare around? I hope she and Cecilla are doing alright," I asked nervously, unsure if I was ready for her response.

"Neither is here right now. I don’t know if I’m the right person to tell you what has happened. Clare still lives in the city; I can ask her to come here for dinner so you two can discuss things," Chloe replied, her tone betraying a hint of sadness.

Thanking her for her understanding, I shifted the conversation to her well-being and how life had been for the young princess in the past five years.

"How’s life treating you since I last saw you?" I asked Chloe, who had blossomed into a beautiful young lady bearing a striking resemblance to Clare, while the familiar servants brought forth many of my favorite dishes.

"I’m in my third year at Yelwraek Academy now. School’s going decently. I'm not as talented as Clare or Cecilla, but being a princess comes with pressure to strive for excellence, especially when we have quite a few corrupted and even a blessed individual in my year."

"Sheesh, sounds harsh. Bagged yourself a handsome boyfriend at least?" I teased, attempting to divert my mind from worrying about Clare's absence and Cecilla's whereabouts.

"I wish... Since the kingdoms became more isolated, political marriages, even within the kingdom itself, have become more important. A few of my siblings were married off to lords and daughters of distant cities within Yelwraek, so the royal family has eyes everywhere. My father has already attempted to arrange my marriage twice…"

Chatting with the young princess, burdened with responsibilities only royalty like her could comprehend, I couldn’t help but wonder if a similar fate had befallen Clare and Cecilla.

"I guess most things just don’t change even when the entire world is different. Hopefully, you stand your ground or find someone from the academy who meets both your father’s criteria and yours as well."

"Enough about me. How are things with you? Reached corrupted level yet? Other than a few of the heroes, you were probably the only person who could have reached that level without receiving any of her power."

Chuckling at the girl’s confidence in me, I recounted my pitiful existence until recently, when I finally started to slowly move forward. The current me is barely stronger than I was five years ago.

"I’m disappointed to hear that… After what happened that day, I thought you would have dedicated your life to getting stronger and come to rescue my sister and Cecilla… To think you would just give up on life…"

Looking at the disappointed girl, I wondered if I was in way over my head when I actually believed I could one day stand on top of the world as just a random orphan boy who got lucky.

"Sorry, Chloe. Thinking back and after my fight with Zishell, I don’t think I ever had a chance to become who I wanted or what my lovers thought I could be. Even if I had trained, it’s not like I could match up against the top end of the blessed, much less against the heroes."

"There’s a difference in failing after giving your all and not trying at all! I can’t believe you’ve turned into someone so pitiful! Should I just give up and not pursue my happiness because I’m a princess and my fate is most likely sealed?" Chloe replied angrily, shutting down my excuses.

"Where is your mom?" I asked abruptly, attempting to change the subject so the girl would calm down.

"Staying with my sis. You’re right… Even if you trained your ass off, it wouldn’t have mattered; you wouldn’t have what it takes to save Clare. Now I don’t even have to feel sorry for you."

"No need to feel sorry for me. I deserve all your criticism. It’s actually refreshing to hear someone express their feelings instead of just telling me it’s not my fault," I replied with a smile.

Thankfully, while Chloe was critical and disappointed in my actions, she remained friendly, unlike my swift interaction with Rena, where I couldn’t even properly apologize.We chatted late into the night about the shenanigans I had come across over the past few months during my travels and her day-to-day happenings at the academy and at home.

"Alright, Chloe, I better be heading back now. Can you arrange for someone to pick me up tomorrow? I'd rather not owe Carter another favor if I can help it. And your people won’t report me to your father, right?"

"Of course not. They're all like family, and I trust them with my life. Let Franklin know the place, and he'll come pick you up tomorrow."

Thanking Chloe for setting things up with Clare, I headed to the kitchen to express my gratitude to the chef for the delicious meal and to the servants for their hospitality. Afterwards, I chatted with Franklin the butler for a bit and provided him with my address before finally returning to the mansion.

Upon my return, I was bombarded by Candace and Tina, pestering me with endless questions that I didn’t feel like answering.

"Stop it! I wasn’t able to meet either of my lovers. But I'm going back tomorrow night and will get to chat with Clare."

"You've been gone forever! If you didn’t even see them, what did you do all this time?" Candace questioned suspiciously.

"I was chatting with Chloe, Clare’s sister. Now stop asking me questions! I’m going to bed… I need to mentally prepare for tomorrow. After chatting with Chloe, I'm not sure I can handle the upcoming conversation."

Wishing the girls a good night and refusing Candace’s continued questioning, I retreated to my room with Yami to contemplate Chloe's words and dread my upcoming meeting with Clare.

The next day passed in a blur as I was barely paying attention to conversations, food, activities, or places we went. Before I knew it, I was back at the mansion, waiting anxiously for Franklin to show up.

"Why are you so afraid?" Carla's random comment snapped me out of my daze.

"Because I don’t know what I will learn or what I can do after I learn it. The unknown is scary… I can’t prepare or train for what I don’t know. But the feeling of being powerless and not able to do anything after learning the unknown is even scarier… Isn’t there something you're afraid of?" I asked, almost missing my self-imposed daily quota to talk with the elf girl.

"No… I'm not afraid of anything," the girl replied in her usual monotone tone, yet something felt slightly off.

"That’s obviously a lie. You've got to be afraid of something. Death? Or maybe your grandfather?" I probed deeper while the girl returned to her silent mood.

The knocking on the door cut our conversation short, and with Franklin’s appearance, I left the mansion and rode inside the familiar carriage back to the castle grounds.

Riding inside the carriage of a princess, we easily returned to the castle grounds without any trouble or suspicion, and I found myself once again in the garden of the princess that I was hours away from marrying before having her taken from my grasp.

As I walked toward the house, I could hear laughter from within. A quick peek inside was enough to have my heart skip a beat.

Sitting at the dining table facing the garden, her smile, her beautiful silky white hair, her sky-blue eyes, and everything about her. The girl that took my breath away the moment I first laid eyes on her looked as beautiful as ever.

With my movement, the shadows flickered as the girl turned her attention to the garden where I stood.

"Hey, Clare," I whispered, trying to keep my composure as the girl looked stunned at my appearance.