Chapter 199. Paradise and Earth (5)

When they arrived at the palace, Teresa who was eagerly waiting for their arrival skipped down the stairs with feathery steps.

“W.e.l.c.o.m.e!”

Teresa was just as bubbly and lively as ever, alleviating the mood of those around her. Seol Jihu was able to smile, thanks to her.

“It’s been a while, Princess.”

“Yes, it has!”

Letting out a short ‘hmph’, Teresa lightly nudged Seol Jihu’s side with her elbow.

“I heard you came back from Earth. I thought you’d come see me at least once, but never mind your face, I haven’t seen even a single strand of your hair! How could you do this to me?”

When Teresa gave a sidelong glance like a maiden who had been wronged, Seol Jihu smiled awkwardly.

“I was too focused on recovering. I would have fallen into despair if the temporary drop in my stats had turned permanent.”

Then, he let out a quiet sigh.

“Plus…”

When he couldn’t continue his words, Teresa looked dejected as well. As she was the one who was behind King Prihi’s visit, she knew about the situation very well.

“….”

With Seol Jihu’s complexion being so dark, she wasn’t sure what to say.

Her worry preceded everything else. Given that he lived through a huge war, he had every right to enjoy some time in peace and happiness. But he was being tormented by all sorts of schemes the moment he recovered.

Never mind being praised, this was his reward for risking his life to fight on the frontlines. Teresa didn’t know how to apologize.

“Thank you for your help.”

Teresa smiled bitterly. She had no way of knowing what Seol Jihu was feeling on the inside as he thanked her for her help.

“Don’t be. I only did what I should.”

To Haramark, Seol Jihu was a benefactor who saved them from destruction. Since he committed his life to protect them, it was only right that the Royal Family protected him as well. Even if it meant they had to make enemies with a certain place.

“Don’t worry about it too much. The Royal Family, and even Sicilia, the Triads, and other influential organizations, are working on this problem with haste. We plan to hire outsiders to enact tough countermeasures, so the matter should blow by without a problem.”

‘The Triads?’

Seol Jihu’s eyes widened, not knowing that even the Triads had stepped up. Teresa continued with confidence.

“Even though the Temple of Luxuria is the most influential organization after the Magician’s Guild, they aren’t able to touch the Royal Families easily. Now that things have turned out like this, take the opportunity and take a long break. You know, cool your head a bit.”

“Thank you! I’ll accept your hospitality, then.”

Seol Jihu readily accepted the Royal Family’s goodwill. Teresa leaned forward and asked.

“Have you eaten?”

Seol Jihu shook his head. He was signaling that he didn’t want to eat.

“How about a bath? Or…”

“No.”

Seol Jihu spoke calmly.

“If it’s okay, can you prepare a quiet room for me?”

Teresa’s smile shriveled. Seol Jihu felt a bit sorry, but he didn’t change his words. It wasn’t that he didn’t know Teresa’s intentions, but the shock from reading the records had yet to disappear.

He needed some time to organize his thoughts.

“Of course. Follow me, I’ll guide you.”

Teresa maintained her cheerful smile and tugged on Seol Jihu’s hand. She then cut through the palace corridor while linking her arms with Seol Jihu’s and chit-chatting away.

As the duo slowly went away, Prihi muttered a ‘hmm’ while crossing his arms.

“I thought she’d at least tell me that I did a good job.”

He glanced at Jan Sanctus, who was standing behind him, then smacked his lips.

“I thought the same thing with Olivia, but raising a daughter really is meaningless. You take note of this too.”

“But they’re a wonderful pair, are they not?”

The general’s monotonous reply made the king a bit flustered.

“This is the first time I’ve heard you say something like that. Did Teresa bribe you with something?”

“No, not at all.”

“This is a royal command. Speak the truth.”

“…She promised to support and push for military expansion of armored foot soldiers.”

Jan Sanctus stealthily averted his gaze. Seeing this, Prihi gave a bitter smile.

*

Seol Jihu barely regained peace after escaping to the palace. But just because the situation had mellowed, it didn’t mean that he was comfortable internally.

Teresa had told him not to worry about it, but he had suffered too much to accept that the assault would end. While things may have quietened down for the moment, but there was no guarantee that a similar thing wouldn’t happen again.

Moreover, his Golden Rule didn’t let him gloss over this matter.

He was angry, and he should be.

The question was how he could express this anger.

Due to the sheer scale of the incident, he knew it would be impossible to alleviate the situation by beating a couple of people up like he did in the Banquet.

As such, Seol Jihu spent his days quietly in the room Teresa assigned him. He left only when he would smoke a cigarette. And when Teresa eventually brought him an ashtray, he stayed cooped up in his room smoking constantly.

Teresa went in and out of his room, making sure that he wasn’t bothered by her, and Seol Jihu only expressed his gratitude each time and didn’t say much else.

“…He never tells me to stay for a while.”

Having just brought him a drink, Teresa pouted. Pretending to go back, she stood in front of the door and peeked inside.

Doesn’t his throat hurt? Seol Jihu had a cigarette in his mouth every time she came over. The way he slowly closed his eyes from time to time, he seemed to be thinking deeply about something.

Soon, when Seol Jihu opened his eyes, a blue glint glimmered in his pupils. He stared at the records as if he planned to devour it.

Teresa, who was sneaking a peek at Seol Jihu, gulped. She really wanted to talk to him…

‘Scary….’

But he was exuding a do-not-approach aura that made her turn back.

*

It wasn’t until dinner time that Teresa found a good reason to visit him again.

“A guest?”

“Yes, he says he really wants to meet you.”

Teresa spoke with a big grin.

“He’s waiting in the dining hall. It’s dinner time, so why don’t you go eat?”

“I—”

“He’s someone you know very well.”

Seol Jihu found Teresa difficult to say no to, especially after she put it this way. Although he never agreed to meet with this guest, he technically didn’t have a reason to refuse. Moreover, he knew Teresa wouldn’t have told him about this guest if it was better to not meet him.

Seol Jihu had mostly finished organizing his thoughts and came to a resolution. As such, he left his room without unnecessary remarks.

When he went to the dining hall, he saw a man standing in front of a painting hanging on the wall, with his hands clasped behind his lower back.

When Seol Jihu saw the grey scarf around his neck and his thick black coat, he immediately recognized the familiar figure.

“Mister Hao Win?”

The man turned around. Although his eyes couldn’t be seen because of the black sunglasses he was wearing, the cheerful smile on his face was without a doubt, that of Hao Win’s.

“It’s been a while, eh?”

Hao Win spoke somewhat playfully and approached Seol Jihu. Meeting halfway, the two men grabbed each other’s hand.

“You look like a million dollars. You’re giving off a completely different vibe than what you did in the Neutral Zone.”

“Mister Hao Win… I didn’t expect to see you here at all.”

“You must think this is the first time since the Banquet…”

Hao Win nimbly lowered his sunglasses and continued.

“But I’ve seen you a few times after that. I came to see you about four times while you were in the intensive care unit. You didn’t know, right?”

No, actually he did. Seol Jihu clearly remembered Hao Win coming to visit him when his consciousness was awake.

“I breathed a sigh of relief when I heard you woke up. I planned to find a good time to go see you, but when I did, you had already gone back to Earth.”

“I did go back in a bit of a hurry…”

Seol Jihu and Hao Win sat around the table and chatted about all sorts of things. Meanwhile, all kinds of delicacies were placed on the table.

“Please ring the bell if you need anything.”

Teresa, who had changed into a noblewoman’s dress, carefully placed a small bell on the table. Then, she walked back elegantly after a graceful bow.

Hao Win let out a muffled giggle.

“That princess… haha, she’s too much into role-playing.”

“Role-playing?”

Seeing Seol Jihu tilt his head, Hao Win clicked his tongue.

“I thought you were a sunflower, but it seems you have a taste for the arts. Well, that’s not such a bad thing.”

“?”

“No need to play dumb. You’re being treated like the royal son-in-law. My intuition is flawless when it comes to relationships. You should know about this, no?”

While Seol Jihu maintained a confused look, Hao Win whistled as he looked at the table.

“Anyways, this is a treatment that I didn’t expect in the slightest. It’s almost making me uncomfortable!”

“You already had dinner?”

“No, but the things I’m about to tell you might upset your stomach.”

Only after hearing this did Seol Jihu have some inkling of an idea of what Hao Win was here for. He replied with a dull smile.

“It’s fine. My stomach is pretty strong.”

“That’s great to hear. Then let’s eat first. I’ve been running around like a headless chicken since yesterday. I’m starving!”

With a playful comment, Hao Win picked up his knife and fork.

The dinner continued in a jovial atmosphere. With great food and a great companion, swallowing food was easy even without an appetite.

The duo’s conversation started from the Neutral Zone and continued to the war. Only when their meal was coming to an end did they finally get to the main point.

“You did well in holding yourself back at the pub.”

Hao Win took out a piece of paper after rinsing his mouth with wine.

It was an information news report.

—The True Nature of Seol Jihu, Haramark’s War Hero and Carpe Diem’s Leader.

Seol Jihu looked up after reading the title. Hao Win, who was patting his mouth with a napkin, curled the corner of his mouth up.

“That night, one of my family members was at the pub too.”

“….”

“He’s a clever one. He relayed the situation to me in real-time, and I instantly had a bad feeling. I contacted Sicilia to ask for cooperation, then scoured the streets thinking that an information broker should be nearby.”

Hao Win then pointed at the paper.

“That’s the result of our investigation. There was a whole box full of it. Give it a read.”

Seol Jihu’s eyes headed to the news report once again.

—The Royal Family and several influential organizations of Haramark are defending Seol Jihu, but it is true that criticisms are very one-sided.
Traditionally, truths of a case require both sides of the story. Perhaps, Earthlings and Paradisians alike, are looking at Seol Jihu through rose-colored glasses due to his title as Haramark’s War Hero.
This reporter found the Earthling who claims to have been threatened and beaten that day by Carpe Diem.
The bedridden man trembled in terror whenever he recalls the incident, but I barely managed to convince him under the condition that his identity would be kept secret.
To deliver a truthful account of the incident, below is the transcript of the interview:

Q) I heard you picked a fight with them first.
A) Yes, I admit this. But, there’s something I want to say. It isn’t as if I’m crazy or as if I didn’t know how many High Rankers Carpe Diem had. Would I have picked a fight for no reason?

Q) That sounds like there was a reason you provoked them.
A) That’s right. It’s true that I provoked them first, but there was a reason. When I first saw them, I sat at my table and just watched them. I didn’t have any ill feelings.

Q) I’m curious about this reason.
A) I participated in the war too, and I’m thankful that they fought in the frontlines to push the enemy back. But weren’t we comrades who both risked our lives to fight a common enemy? I acknowledge their achievements, but it was hard to bear listening to them belittle the people who fought alongside them.

Q) Belittle? Did you just say ‘belittle’?
A) They treated their fellow Earthlings like fools and said we should kowtow to them since they saved our lives. Is that not belittling? I participated in that war following my principles, but hearing them talk like they were the only ones who fought in this war made me feel aggrieved.

Q) People at the pub have testified that you went too far in insulting them.
A) I know that. I’m not saying that what I did or said was right. I know I made a mistake. But when I remembered my friends who died in this war, with whom I shared years of joys and sorrows… I suddenly snapped. That’s why I said it. I was drunk too. I’m self-reflecting for the foul language I used, but…

The man couldn’t continue any longer, and this writer paused the interview. While I was listening to the man’s story, my head automatically recalled Sung Shihyun.

In a way, Sung Shihyun and Seol Jihu are very similar. Not only in that they’re from the same Area, but also in the way they act. Everyone is sure of Sung Shihyun’s abilities, but his cruel personality and imperious arrogance are….


…Public matters are public and private matters are private. Of course, the truth of the matter hasn’t been revealed yet….

Seol Jihu crumpled the paper without reading any further.

“You can rip it up if you’d like.”

Chwak! Seol Jihu tore the paper in half immediately. After tearing and tearing again until the paper was reduced to tiny pieces, Seol Jihu gave a bland smile.

“So this is how they planned to sell the story.”

“It’s the power of words, my friend.”

Hao Win shrugged.

“As you know, your name value, which was already on the rise, has skyrocketed after this war. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that even the heavens and the universe would have heard of your name. Do you know how people evaluate you now?”

Seol Jihu shook his head. Although he had seen his new alias and had some idea, he had never paid much attention to it.

“A mysterious, almost magical Earthling who has been making incredible achievements from a low level. An Irregular from Area 1, whose achievements in the Neutral Zone and the Banquet are highly praised. These are the general evaluations.”

Hao Win then chuckled loudly.

“I don’t know who’s behind this, but they’re quite amusing! They tried to unveil your mysteriousness through a fight at a pub that would happen anytime in everyday life, and then they even tried to overlay Sung Shihyun’s infamy onto yours…. Haha, I’d really like to look at the person behind this piece of work!”

“….”

“Well, don’t worry about it too much. We managed to secure the news report before they went out and passed the information to the Assassins’ Guild before coming here. Sicilia also confirmed that those four haven’t participated in the war, so a news report talking about this should come out soon. When that happens, they won’t be able to touch you for a while.”

Hao Win, who was nodding his head, suddenly let out a deep sigh.

“Well, only for a while.”

“…Thank you.”

Seol Jihu expressed his gratitude, but he didn’t look so grateful. Now, even having to say thanks annoyed him.

Everyone else was doing their best for him, but he was stuck in the palace unable to do a thing.

He felt a different kind of helplessness than when he faced Undying Diligence.

‘Is this the power of an organization that goes beyond a team…?’

“No need to thank me. I had fun in the Neutral Zone thanks to you, and I’m not the type to turn a blind eye when my close friend is in trouble. Did you think I couldn’t do this little thing for you?”

With that, Hao Win sighed deeply and put on his coat.

“There’s also the help I received in the Banquet, so I wanted to repay my debts before I left. Think of this as a parting gift.”

Seol Jihu’s eyes widened.

“Parting gift…? You’re leaving?”

“Yep, it’s been decided not too long ago. The Triads will be leaving Haramark.”

Hao Win spoke as if it wasn’t a big deal, but Seol Jihu knew that it wasn’t an easy thing for an organization with influence over an area to move their base of operation.

This was an important scoop!

Seol Jihu blinked his eyes, not knowing what to say. At that moment, Hao Win opened his mouth.

“Anyways, I’m glad.”

“About what?”

“What I just told you about. I was worried you’d say, ‘Ei~ Do we need to go that far?’”

Was he talking about publishing the counter news report? Understanding as such, Seol Jihu asked to clear his confusion.

“…Is there a reason I would refuse?”

“Of course. Enduring an injustice makes you a person, but enduring a loss makes you a pushover.”

Hao Win put on his scarf and got up.

“Why don’t we go on a walk? To digest what we just ate and for a little smoke break.”

When Seol Jihu looked up vacantly—

“…Plus, there’s something I have to ask you before I leave.”

Hao Win’s voice suddenly got deeper.

Not something he has to say, but something he has to ask.

Though similar, there was a slight difference in nuance.

Seol Jihu got up as though he was entranced.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter