Her Highness stood outside of Al'ka's office and she was finding it hard to breathe. On impulse, she has run here after hearing Lone's strangely convincing words, but now she was starting to have doubts.
'Should I really do this?' 'Is this really okay?' 'What about the other trees?' 'Won't this be seen as favouritism since I rejected the other princes?' 'What if Al'ka doesn't see me like that?' 'Maybe I should just leave?' Such thoughts clouded the young Elf's mind.
It had been ten minutes since Her Highness had arrived at the door of Al'ka's office, and just as she was about to turn around and leave, a sound came from inside. "Your Highness, if you have business with me, please, come in."
Controlling her rapidly rising pulse, Her Highness somehow found the courage to open the door after hearing Al'ka's voice.
Unlike the last time she had visited him, the office was far cleaner and less cluttered with paperwork. Al'ka sat behind his desk in the centre of the room as he looked at a document and ran his fingers through his hair.
He signed his name at the bottom of the parchment before he moved it to a different pile of documents. Al'ka leaned back in his chair and gestured towards a comfortable looked seat that was a meter or so away from his desk.
Taking the hint, Her Highness closed the door behind her and sat down.
"I heard Lone came to the palace to talk to His Majesty. Weren't you keeping him company in the meantime?" Al'ka knew that the King wouldn't have finished his business in the court just yet, so Her Highness' visit had truly surprised him.
"Yes, I was, but somehow, he ended up convincing me to come and visit you," Her Highness said with a wry smile on her lips.
"He does have a fairly high mastery over the Persuasion skill, doesn't he?" Al'ka joked. "Well, I'm always happy to see Your Highness, and I was just about to take a break."
"You can afford to take breaks?" Her Highness was shocked. She knew how busy Al'ka had been since their return. He hadn't even had the time to act as her bodyguard, let alone enjoy any time off in the past four months, so she was naturally a little bit surprised.
Al'ka laughed dryly. "I've been hard at work, slaving over these documents almost nonstop. Finally, I've reached a point where I can calm down and take some personal time. I'd be very angry if I hadn't made this much progress since we came back, don't you agree?"
"Y-Yes. Your words do make sense, Al'ka." Her Highness blushed and she chided herself for not realising this simple information on her own. Her head truly was muddled after her conversation with Lone.
"Anyway." Al'ka cracked his neck and stood up before he equipped his sword belt and the cloak that contained Her Highness' royal crest - a telltale sign of him being her personal guard. "Shall we go for a walk?"
"A walk?" Her Highness was confused.
"Yes, a walk." Al'ka found the childish side of Her Highness to be very endearing. "I haven't stretched my legs properly in a while. It's fine if you don't wish to accompany me, but I thought it'd be nice, just the two of us. It'll be like before we left the tree."
"I-I'd love that!" Her Highness' sudden exclamation made Al'ka chuckled.
Really, how could he have not seen how she felt after spending so many years with her? If she was finally willing to pursue him, then he was more than happy to accept her feelings, at least to some extent.
'I wonder what Lone said to her to make her ignore her worries about the other trees? As always, you continue to be the most mysterious man I've ever met, Lone,' Al'ka said to himself as he escorted Her Highness out of his office.
Lone was still in the waiting room, and he summoned Kyuubi after the maids had left on his request.
He held the baby girl in his arms and looked at her warmly. Even though he was gently stroking her head, Kyuubi didn't stir from her steep at all.
"Are you sure you're a Foxkin and not a Slothkin, huh?" Lone laughed quietly to himself.
Of course, Slothkin did actually exist, and were, as you'd imagine, very slow and lazy. They were rare and low in numbers. From what Lone had read, they were treated as pets in quite a lot of Demihuman and Human countries.
Apparently, the Slothkin didn't mind this even if it meant being slaves to some of the less well-intentioned Humans. If it meant that they could live easily and comfortably, they cared very little if they were technically someone's property or not.
Kyuubi rolled around in Lone's arms and wrapped her soft and fluffy golden tail around his hand. "You're too cute, really... I still have to wonder though, why can you turn into a fox? It's so odd..."
An hour passed as Lone cuddled Kyuubi before he unsummoned her, returning her to The Summoning Room where she could sleep more peacefully. Sophie had made a point of filling that space up with all sorts of things to make it less dark and lonely, namely, a lot of toys, some magic-powered crystal lights, and lastly, lots of blankets and cushions.
With the sound of the door opening, King Ele'hunda stepped into Her Highness' study and greeted Lone. "I hear you have an urgent matter to discuss with me, Nine-tails?"
Lone stood up and nodded. "Yes, that's right."
"Tell me about it as we walk. There's something I wished to show you anyway, so this is good timing," the King said before he turned around and left the room.
"Oh?" Lone's curiosity had been piqued, so he followed Ele'hunda.
The two men were side by side, and Ele'hunda glanced at Lone briefly. "Congratulation on becoming an A-ranker, Nine-tails. Not only that, but you are even at the bottleneck to S-rank. Truly impressive. I do have to wonder how you gained so many levels in a single day though."
Hearing the suspicion in the King's tone, Lone smirked. "That is related to what I want to talk to you about."
"Oho? Go on." The two left the Royal Palace and were now heading to the military sector of the tree's crown which Lone had never visited before.
"I met the tree's core, Elestia, while I was in her dungeon today. She helped me through the A-rank bottleneck and gave me enough high-quality spirit essence to reach SS-rank if I needed to. That's why I'm currently at the very peak of A-rank," Lone calmly explained.
"'Elestia', is it?" Ele'hunda's voice sounded nostalgic and distant.
Lone raised an eyebrow. "You knew that she existed? You don't sound very surprised."
"Of course I knew. It is a fact that all council members and the royal family of each tree knows. We simply hide it from the outside world to prevent even more greedy hands from stretching towards us," Ele'hunda said in a voice that only Lone could hear.
"I see." Lone held his chin and nodded. "That explains why none of the world trees have an official name. I guess I should have thought about that."
"Regardless, Nine-tails, the fact that Elestia showed herself to you means that she somehow recovered enough strength to call out to you... I fear the reason that she expended her accumulated energy on simply talking to you and even going so far as the help you gain enlightenment." King Ele'hunda was clearly very anxious about Elestia's well-being.
"Ah, don't worry about her. I used some of my soul oracle abilities to fix the tree's spirit. It's stable now and in a much better condition that it was before she summoned me," Lone said in a proud voice.
Ele'hunda's face wore an expression of shock. "You can even heal the spirit of a world tree?"
"Mmm, it took a lot of MP, but yeah, it wasn't that hard," Lone said in a somewhat cocky manner.
"That is certainly reassuring, Nine-tails," Ele'hunda laughed. He was reminded of Lone's young age and his slightly immature nature once more before he said, "But did she mention to you why she thought it was necessary to talk to you?"
"Yes," Lone replied. "Ythmagobla's four generals will be attacking the world tree in two days. I'm pretty sure that Ythmagobla himself will join the assault once his generals have weakened the tree's forces enough."
King Ele'hunda's eyes shook. "This timing... It's too coincidental..."
"What do you mean?" Lone wasn't sure what the King meant. 'Does this have something to do with the Human soldiers I killed a few days ago with Soph? I just assumed that was a normal attack force trying to steal the tree's energy. Was I wrong?'
"This morning, one of our purple keeper teams found a scouting encampment sent by the Taslo Empire. All of the Humans were slaughtered, but regardless, we've found more signs of the empire launching an invasion on the world tree." King Ele'hunda's voice was very serious.
The two men entered a small building that looked inconspicuous, however, as they began descending a set of stairs, Lone was starting to get chills and he could swear that he was hearing screaming in the dark depths of whatever this place was.
Shaking his head and trying to ignore the disturbing noises, lone said, "I was the one that killed them. They had a group of beastkin imprisoned there. I offered them to surrender peacefully, but they refused, so I killed them all and freed the beastkin. If they were from the Taslo Empire, it makes sense. Their war with the Frontier Beastman Alliance just ended, didn't it?"
Naturally, Lone was up to date on most of the major events that were happening in Altros. The Elves had a surprisingly good information network despite being such a secluded people.
The Taslo Empire had been at war with the Frontier Beastman Alliance for a little over a millennium, and its sudden conclusion with the empire's victory had certainly shocked many people.
It wasn't unheard of for such a large-scale war to end almost overnight, but it was still rare enough to raise some suspicions, especially when the fighting had been going on for so long with neither side making much progress.
As a former history teacher, Lone found all of this to be quite fascinating. He kept it in mind as he listened to King Elehunda's reply.
"You never cease to amaze me. Why didn't you report their existence? Leaving the world tree is a punishable offence without permission, but considering your merits, that would have been overlooked and I would have gladly rewarded you personally." Of course, Lone was free to leave the tree for a set period of time now since he was an honorary elder, but he was still a normal keeper at the time of his encounter with the Talso Empire soldiers.
At the end of the long staircase that Lone and the King had been walking down for a short while, two guards dressed differently from any other Elven guards that Lone had seen before, bowed to the King.
Ele'hunda nodded to them in acknowledgement before he stepped through a large metal door. Such doors were very uncommon here in the world tree where most things were made of wood, so Lone had started to figure out where they were from the clues so far.
"Nine-tails," Ele'hunda said as he looked at Lone and gestured to the large room that was filled with small chambers surrounded by metal bars. "Welcome to Hal'ral, the prison of the eastern world tree."
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