Horse riding was the worst, yet slowly Aidan was getting used to it. He would have preferred Uber, of course, but, alas. This comfort was now just a pipe dream of a different world far far away.
He reached the imperial palace just in time to witness Emperor-in-Waiting riding out of the gate, looking all smug and royal in his tight-fitting tunic and black cloak. This guy somehow managed to look his best even in the simplest of outfits. Aidan suddenly felt a bit self-conscious. Maybe he should have also worn a cloak? However, he wasn't sure, if Adnan Minn even had one – from what Aidan had witnessed so far, this ascetic's wardrobe consisted only of several uniforms.
"Thank you for gracing me with your presence, General Minn," the blue-eyed fiend sneered.
"Please excuse my tardiness, Your Highness," said Aidan, slightly bowing his head. He decided to be on his best behavior and not annoy the Prince in any way, lest he wanted to fight again.
"Did you not receive my summon in time, General?" Aidan first heard a cold hostile voice and then saw the Regent come out from behind the Prince. He shuddered a little from the tone of his voice that didn't even try to hide the Regent's extreme dislike towards General Minn. The man also looked just as menacing as he did during the trial yesterday – his long blonde hair was in an immaculate order and his facial features were sharp and stern.
Instead of trying to find an excuse, Aidan just apologized again, bowing his head even lower, hoping that subservience would make the scary man back off.
"I hope, you'll take good care of my nephew during this trip," the Regent looked Aidan right in the eye. "If even a hair falls from his head, I will hold you personally responsible and, I promise you, there will be no one in the Empire who would give even an apple stump for your filthy life."
Aidan barely stopped himself from rolling his eyes. If the Regent was so distrustful of him, why would he drag him out for this ridiculous spiritual wellness trip? He could have chosen any other attendant. Aidan vindictively thought about suggesting the extremely trustworthy General Kear.
"I understand," he said out loud, maintaining the utmost respectful attitude.
As they were about to leave, two figures suddenly appeared at the gates. They quickly approached, and Aidan managed to recognize the weird white-haired skinny boy who stood behind the Prince yesterday. Next to him was a man Aidan hadn't expected to see so soon again – the dark and tall General Lox. He bowed his head and didn't look directly at anybody. Aidan felt so guilty he also couldn't bare looking at the man. If only he wasn't so useless and knew how to help him... Maybe he could at least try talking to the Prince on his behalf?
While Aidan was wallowing in his guilt and contemplating his options, the white-haired boy came up to the Prince and handed him a small package.
"It's not much but please be sure to use it," the boy said quietly.
The Prince smiled. In Aidan's memory it was the first time he had seen the young Emperor-in-Waiting actually smiling – not smirking, not leering but smiling like he meant it.
"Thank you. I'm sure, you did your best," the young monarch said, tucking the mysterious package away.
The boy blushed and looked up at the Prince with his big eyes.
"Just be careful, Kai, " he said, slightly stuttering. "If you don't come back, I..."
"I will come back, Niki. You don't need to worry about me," the Prince cut him off.
But at that moment Aidan was dancing an imaginary jig inside his head. He finally had the piece of information he was missing.
Kai! The blue-eyed fiend was called Kai!
By this small miracle Aidan was saved from awkwardly revealing that he forgot "his" monarch's name. This was truly a blessing.
"General Minn?" a voice pulled Aidan out of his happy thoughts – now the little white-haired guy was suddenly talking to him.
"Yes," Aidan said carefully, not quite sure how to react.
The boy lowered his gaze and then asked:
"How angry are you with me?"
Aidan obviously had no idea what to respond to that. Was he angry? Generally, yes. Was he angry with this skinny boy? Not at all.
He panicked for a bit and then finally gave a very careful response:
"No more than expected in such a situation."
Honestly, Aidan was even a little bit proud of his outstanding ability to hedge. He would attribute this skill to the many essays he wrote in school about the books he had never actually read.
However, it seemed that the boy was for some reason terrified by his answer. His pale face got even paler, and he looked at Aidan, as if he was the Antichrist.
"Please, don't hurt him," he said in a trembling voice.
"Nonsense, Niki, why would he hurt me? General Minn is as harmless as a butterfly on a marshmallow – he told me so himself," said the Emperor-in-Waiting with a chuckle.
"Don't you have to hurry?" the Regent coldly interrupted their exchange. "You know what will happen, if you arrive too late."
"Yes, Uncle," the Prince nodded. "Come on, General Minn, you can stop glaring at my friend."
Aidan didn't mean to glare – he was just trying to mask his confusion and surprise by trying to appear calm and collected. Apparently that had failed spectacularly and he had scared the poor boy even more instead.
The Prince spurred his horse and rode ahead. Aidan had no other choice but to follow.
Ah, living in feudal times was really hard! Aidan wasn't even sure, if the Regent paid him anything for his services or only relied on intimidation and threats. He used to have some problematic bosses in the past but neither of them ever summoned Aidan at dawn or promised to kill him, if he didn't do a good enough job. One thing this world really needed were labor unions.
Aidan hastened his horse to catch up with His Highness and at least ask him what was the purpose of this peculiar trip.
"The rope that the savages used on me substantially weakened my spiritual core – you probably noticed that yesterday. As you know, I need to replenish it as soon as possible," the Prince explained.
Aidan knew nothing. Moreover, he could barely understand what the guy was going on about but he decided to nod with confidence just in case.
"It would normally take me years of different practices to get back to where I was but... luckily, there is a shortcut," the future Emperor continued with a sly smirk. "It's kind of a family secret, a trick that the Atarians have been using for generations, since my first forefather usurped the throne."
"Mhm," Aidan nodded again.
"This is to say, we're going to a very special spot where a lot of people lost their lives in a battle some millennia ago – the one place within the Empire which has the potency to nourish spiritual powers. It's the single tiny piece of so called dirty savage magic that we have here. Unfortunately, it is only possible to perform the ritual at a certain day. If I miss it, I'll have to wait for a very long time, till the soul gates open again. And since I have to ascend in less than a year, that would be... troublesome."
Aidan could make some sense of what the Prince was saying. It was a bit esoteric but the principle was not so hard to understand. The Emperor-in-Waiting needed a power boost, and he was using a cheat to get it.
"You don't seem surprised," the Prince noted. "Have you been suspecting something like this all along?"
"Oh no, I am very surprised," Aidan said quickly but judging by the Prince's skeptical expression he wasn't very convincing.
"Do you know why my uncle doesn't mind that you out of all people know about this place?" the blue-eyed fiend asked, his voice somehow suggestive.
"I assume, that's not because he likes me very much, Your Highness," Aidan responded.
"Exactly, Adnan. He doesn't think, you'll live long enough to tell anybody or do anything with this information," the Prince said with a smug grin.
"Good to know," Aidan responded dryly. Could it be that the Regent was the key to fulfilling his death wish?
"Under these circumstances I think it would be smart, if you stuck with me. I can protect you against my uncle for the time being. And once I have the throne, he wont be a problem anymore," the Prince said, enunciating every word and looking directly at Aidan.
Like he needed his protection. Please. All Aidan actually needed was to be left out from a potentially annoying feud between the royal uncle and his nephew.
"Thank you for your kind offer, Your Highness," was all he said out loud.
The Prince's blue eyes suddenly turned cold. He gave Aidan a dark look and hastened his horse away from him.
Aidan didn't quite understand what this temper tantrum was all about but he didn't mind riding in silence. If only he was just a little bit tipsy, the time would go by quicker and he wouldn't have to constantly battle his annoying intrusive thoughts.
They rode till nightfall without stopping – apparently the Prince was serious about the spiritual deadline or whatever.
"We'll let the horses rest for a couple hours and then be on our way with the first rays of sun, General Minn," these were the first words the Prince had said to Aidan, since their last exchange early in the morning.
Aidan was exhausted, so he didn't argue and just followed the blonde monarch into the village at the hill of the mountain. Even though it was remote from the capital, the village was seemingly beaming with life. The lanterns were lighting up the streets, and people were out and about, despite such a late hour.
Nobody paid too much attention to the two weary travelers, as if they were long used to guests around here. This was unusual, yet Aidan was too tired to give it too much thought. Especially, since he noticed a happily drunk man holding a bottle of what seemed like rum.
Without thinking too much he ran up to the man and sniffed at the bottle, ignoring a completely stupefied look on the Prince's face and even the man's attempts to avoid him.
Even if, strictly speaking, it wasn't rum, it still smelled like hard liquor. Way harder than that weak ass wine he'd been drinking in this Bacchus-foresaken world so far.
"Where did you get that?" Aidan asked the confused man.
The man waived his hand towards a fancy building behind him. It had two floors and judging from the jolly sounds of music coming out of it, it was a happy place. Not contemplating even for a second, Aidan made his way towards it.
"Where are you going?" he heard a tense voice behind him. Of course, it was His annoying Highness.
"There," Aidan pointed at the building impatiently.
"That's a brothel," said the Prince with a slight chill in his voice.
"All the better, Your Highness," Aidan retorted. This kind of place would definitely rent out rooms, so not only would they be getting drinks but also lodgings without having to look for an inn – two birds, one stone!
"Has it been a while for you, General?" the Prince asked, curling his lip up.
Yes, it had indeed been a while, since Aidan had a decent drink but he understood the Prince's implication. He decided not to grace it with an answer and just made his way towards the entrance.
"It really doesn't bother you to go to such a place? Do you not care about your reputation at all?" the Prince almost spat out.
Aidan laughed to himself. He didn't give two shits about Adnan Minn's reputation – the guy was garbage anyway. And why would drinking in a brothel bother him? He wasn't fazed by sex workers – his mother was one after all.