EXPEDITION TO THE PALACE
Celeste Heavenly Palace was located at the heart of Do’r, bounded by a massive, marble-cast walls heaving over thirty meters in height, ceaselessly spitting out faintly coral energy into the sky, forming a dome-like covering over the entire compound. The Palace itself was comprised of countless smaller buildings connected together through over-arching bridges tampered together with steel and glass. The centerpiece was a grand, golden-white structure sporting over twenty spires and towers, as well as nearly a hundred house-sized crystals rotating around the building, shrouding it in faint sheen of Qi.
Well at the bottom, in front of the escalating staircase leading to the grand entrance, Lino sat calmly and drank while the remaining youngsters, save for Y’sha, were nervously prancing around. Even Ion and Ryt could hardly calm their nerves, to say nothing of Vyena and Talleah. This was one of the reasons Lino brought them along, as it was time they began shaping up their countenance. He had big hopes for them, which would be for naught if they froze every time they met someone remotely important.
Two guards standing at the bottom of the stairwell glanced at them occasionally and scoffed, as they were all dressed rather shabbily. Two had no doubt their request to meet up with Princess Freya would be rejected, and were silently looking forward to kicking out the clearly poor sods out.
It was roughly fifteen minutes later than the messenger returned, running down the stairs like a madman and quickly passing the guards, ignoring their questioning looks.
“Lord Divine Smith,” the messenger bowed in front of Lino. “Forgive our cold reception. Please, follow me. The Princess and the Prince await you eagerly.”
“Relax old man,” Lino chuckled, putting away the gourd and getting up, patting the man’s back. “The sweat doesn’t do much for your already passing looks. Come on, tell me about the Palace. Kids, follow us and shut up. If I hear you so much as breathe, I’ll kick you in the nuts. And if you’re a lady, I’ll kick you in the bum.”
“.......” Ion, Ryt, Vyena and Talleah quickly shot up to their feet and followed nervously while Y’sha merely rolled her eyes and casually strolled next to Lino.
“What’s up?” Lino asked.
“I also want to learn about the Palace.” she replied casually.
“See old man? Even kids are interested. Come on, share the grand stories.” the small entourage began climbing the stairwell underneath confused expression of the guards; after all, how come these shabbily-dressed nobodies had the respected Maester covered in sweat?
“O-of course, my Lord,” the old, slightly hunched man draped in simple-looking, twilight robes said. “The Palace itself wasn’t constructed from grounds up, but assembled from various Artifacts our Forefathers had come across. Nearly every room inside is made up with an Artifact as its centerpiece, which is why our studies of Cultivation Methods are so diverse and why most younglings from the countless Sects dream of coming here to study and improve themselves.”
“Our library sports the greatest collection of books save for perhaps the Towers,” the old man continued, calming down as he spoke further and catching his breath. “We have anything from old collections of Bard Tales and mythical epics to the more recent histories and theoretical publications. The Palace has an underground section that’s filled with specific Cultivation Rooms and Martial Centers where we hold annual tournaments for young people to show their progress -- there are two specific tournaments, one where Disciples of Holy Grounds participate and one where they don’t. The latter, usually, is empty, as everyone believes that the best way to prove themselves is to defeat someone from the revered Holy Grounds.”
“Do they?” Lino asked with faint interest.
“Occasionally,” the old man chuckled awkwardly as they reached halfway point of the climb. “Not often enough for it to truly light a fire under the world, yet still not so rarely as for the rest of the young to give up their dream.”
“What’s the age restriction?” Lino asked.
“Twenty.” the old man replied.
“So those two who’ve nearly tripped themselves over like twenty times are eligible?”
“As long as they pass the examination, certainly.”
“When’s this year’s tournament?” Lino asked further as Ryt and Ion suddenly felt something get stuck inside their throats.
“We always hold it two days before the New Year’s Eve, so there’s still a few months until it begins. Do you wish for me to prepare the necessary papers while you hold the discussion with the Princess and the Prince?”
“If you could.” Lino nodded, smiling lightly.
“Of course.” the old man said. “I am certain they will do well. However, I do have to inform you that there is a restriction on items -- they cannot carry around anything that’s higher than their own Level, and no Legendary items of any kind are allowed. We are, after all, testing young’s strength, not their pockets.”
“Oh, of course, don’t worry about it,” Lino grinned oddly as he glanced at Ion and Ryt who suddenly felt their souls freeze. “I’ll personally ensure they get just the right items for the competition.”
“Ah, we shall part ways here, then,” the old man said as they reached the top of the stairs where a massive, crystal-adorned archway awaited them. “Once you entered the main hall, head left. There should be someone there to escort you to the Prince’s meeting room. I shall head off and prepare the papers; here is my talisman. Once you are ready to leave, please let me know so I can meet up with you and finalize your Disciples’ entrance.”
“Thank you very much, Maester.” Lino accepted the talisman, smiling, and put it away. “Don’t work yourself too much; enjoy life.”
“Ha ha, thank you -- I will try.”
“M-m-master...” Ryt and Ion immediately approached Lino as the old Maester strutted off.
“What?” Lino glanced at them innocently as they entered the massive hall whose end Lino couldn’t even see; all around was just tiled floor, hanging chandeliers, and countless decorations, from statues to paintings.
“A-are you really... gonna put us into the competition?” Ion asked, somewhat nervously.
“Why not?” Lino asked back. “You two are always trying to show off to me. I just gave you a perfect opportunity. As long as you two fight the last battle, I’ll be super proud.”
“.......................” even Y’sha gaped for a moment as everyone but Lino came to a halt.
“What? You thought this was a learning experience?” Lino glanced back with a faint, somewhat evil, chuckle. “Hell no. You’re my Disciples. If you want to continue being that, you better show some results. Oh, and by the way, as far as the items are concerned, you’ll both get a Level 10 Iron Swords, and some random hems Hannah made ‘cause she thought it’d be fun to start tailoring.”
They didn’t walk for too long before Lino came across a young girl, barely fifteen from the looks of it, who hurriedly greeted them and led them down a rather confounding set of corridors that seemed to have been made as such on purpose. The short trip was spent in silence, as Lino thought briefly about Hannah’s and Lucky’s situation, while Vyena, Y’sha and Talleah occasionally gazed at Ryt and Ion with pitying eyes. The latter two walked with slumped shoulders, entirely dispirited, seemingly contemplating their whole lives.
“We are here, my Lord.” the young girl came to a halt in front of a somewhat small, iron-cast doors, stepping aside. “The Prince and the Princess are expecting you.”
“... tsk, tsk,” Lino clicked his tongue briefly. “Fifteen-year-old Titular. See this boys?” Lino glanced at Ryt and Ion. “This is your competition. So you better step up your game.”
“......” the two boys merely contemplated crying bloody tears as they followed Lino inside.
The meeting room was rather spacious, facing an open-end of the palace and overlooking a mountain range in the distance. Natural light flooded the compartmentalized room, forming a rather picturesque scenery. Light folded over various furniture perfectly, blending onto a line of hand-fashioned, clearly expensive, rugs. Even Lino felt a tinge of envy, picturing the damp, empty, cold room he slept in inside the smithy and comparing it to living like the actual royalty.
Glancing sideways, he spotted two figures sitting around a slightly lowered-table on top of cushioned benches draped in velvet silk. Freya still looked the same as he remembered her, casting a sheen of brilliance around her that even the blind could see. Opposite of her sat a man seemingly in his mid-thirties, wearing formal, white clothes with golden stripes at his shoulders. He had short, golden hair parted at the center, low brows, clear, green eyes and squared jaw. Not only was he rather handsome, Lino mused enviously, but he was also strong -- Level 18,449 to be more precise.
Despite that, however, Lino walked over casually and briskly while the rest followed rather awkwardly; even Y’sha was no longer as indifferent simply due to the massive pressure the two sitting exuded unconsciously on their surroundings. Lino intentionally didn’t shield them, as it was all a part of the learning experience.
“Your Highness,” Lino walked up to the Princess and bowed slightly before turning to the Prince. “Your Highness. I express my deepest gratitude for your quick reception and I apologize for coming over unannounced.”
“Though a surprise, it was a pleasant one, young smith,” the Prince got up and shook Lino’s hand with a rather starlit eyes. “As the matter of fact, I have been contemplating inviting you over myself. I was only waiting for some tangible results to come from our investigation; I’m afraid I’m still waiting.”
“No worries,” Lino replied with a smile. “I am only glad that most of us made it out safely out of that fire.” everyone, including Freya, gazed at Lino stunned as they couldn’t recognize the man.
“As am I.”
“After all,” he said, sitting down. “It wouldn’t do me much good if I lost nearly all of my clientele.” Ah, there he is... save for the Prince, the same thought echoed across the room. “I hope you don’t mind the kids,” Lino added, seemingly ignoring the somewhat awkward atmosphere he’d created. “I brought them along so they can experience some of the world.”
“Oh, of course not,” the Prince said, recovering quickly. “They are all rather talented, I must say.”
“Eh, they’re okay,” Lino shrugged casually, much to the dismay and pain of those still standing. Master!!! “Pale in comparison to your own.”
“Ah, Idya,” the Prince smiled proudly. “I found her myself when she was a child. The young pup bargained with me, actually; she would only follow me if I bought off the orphanage she lived in and ensured everyone was properly fed.”
“Ha ha ha, kids are indeed the dreamers of the world.”
“As they should be. Love, why are you so silent?” the Prince turned to Freya who seemed to be lost in thought.
“Ah, I’m sorry; I was just thinking it was such a loss, the smith’s items, that is.”
“Indeed, indeed,” the Prince nodded somberly. “I promise you, Lyonel, that we are doing our best to recover the stolen items. And, if we are unfortunately incapable, I will personally ensure you are reimbursed completely.”
“... they’re just items,” Lino smiled faintly. “I can always craft more of them. Which is why I’m here.”
“Hm?” the Prince glanced at him quizzically.
“Due to unforeseen circumstances, I had to delay opening up the shop until now,” Lino said. “Though I’m afraid that my reputation had waned since then, which would make my opening day rather... lukewarm. I was hoping the Prince could merely send out a few whispers... for a price, naturally -- I will personally craft you an item of your choice, with my own materials. If the whispers are loud enough,” he added with a strange smile. “Who knows, then? Perhaps you may even become the envy of the continent...”
“.....” both Freya’s and the Prince’s eyes shimmered wide open, as unlike those standing, they understood the implication -- and it shocked them to their very cores. After all, the smith who seemingly hadn’t even turned forty yet had just claimed he would craft a Continental item so calmly it hardly made any sense. Freya was far more shocked than the Prince, however, as she knew the ins and outs of Lino’s humble beginnings as a smith; she was already beyond shocked with his progress in Cultivation, yet to think even his smithing hadn’t fallen behind and, if anything, actually even surpassed his Cultivation... it was beyond difficult to reconcile.