The interior of Sinyoung's headquarters was even more luxurious than the building's exterior. Adding to the fact that there was quite a throng of people coming in and out, Seol Jihu couldn't immediately tell whether he had set foot inside a top-class department store or a top corporation's lobby.
He stood there looking around and a while later, discovered the reception desk. When he walked closer, a young woman wearing a tidy uniform greeted him with a smile.
“How may I be of assistance?”
“I'd like to speak to someone working here.”
“Please provide me the name of the person you've made an appointment with.”
“Oh, no. I don't have an appointment. Can you call Miss Kim Hannah down here for me, please?”
After hearing his rather forthright demand, the reception lady's eyes went round.
“You mean, Manager Kim?”
“Yes, her. Tell her that it's Seol. She'll know right away.”
The reception lady didn't say anything, but simply blinked her eyes a couple of times. She looked at the youth's attire and tilted her head for a moment or two before her gaze shifted over to the ice-colored spear emitting chilling air behind him and nodded her head slightly.
“Please wait for a moment.”
He was worried about not being able to meet Kim Hannah without an appointment, but let off a huge sigh of relief inwardly when the reception lady took out a communication crystal.
“It's Park Ahrah from the reception desk. By any chance, is Manager Kim in her office today? Oh, actually, there is….”
The reception girl sneaked a glance at Seol Jihu, and then…..
“He said he's Mister Seol…. Pardon?”
….She was clearly startled by something as she quickly shifted her gaze over to the stairs in the distance. Seol Jihu followed after her gaze and looked over yonder, and not too long after that, spotted a woman kitted out in a smart business suit quickly walking down the stairs with a small bag in her hand. It was, of course, Kim Hannah.
'That was quick!'
Regardless, Seol Jihu waved his hand, feeling happy to see her.
“Hey, Kim Hannah!”
“Hey, you. Been a while.”
She smiled refreshingly and replied.
“What brings you here? Coming to see me all of a sudden like this.”
“Well, I wanted to see you.”
“You craz…. Well, should we get out of here to have a chat then? As you can see, it's a bit of a madhouse here.”
Kim Hannah spoke really quickly. She even grabbed Seol Jihu's arm and pulled at him before he had a chance to reply. As soon as her back was turned towards the reception desk, the smile on her face evaporated in an instant.
“Come with me.”
She whispered to him and yanked him by his arm. Seol Jihu could only open and shut his mouth like a goldfish and got helplessly dragged outside by her.
By the time Kim Hannah stopped walking like a possessed person, they were in a comparatively deserted side street.
She uncrossed her arms and planted her hands on her waist. She glared at the heavens above in total silence, before letting a long, long sigh escape from her mouth.
Meanwhile, Seol Jihu just stood there, staring. He wasn't sure, but it felt like he had done something naughty here for some reason.
Kim Hannah spun around to glare at him with narrowed eyes.
“Since you showed up in the capital and even dared to shove your head inside the jaw of a tiger, I guess you got yourself some sort of a safety net behind you.”
What with her facial muscles twitching like that, if he jokingly said “Nope” here, she might really cause him some bodily harm.
“Yeah, I think I'm pretty well covered.”
Kim Hannah's barely-contained self, looking as if she'd blow her top at any moment, seemed to ease up a little. Seol Jihu seized upon this opening and quickly followed up.
“I entered a team.”
“A team? Which one?”
Kim Hannah's eyes became small dots like a rabbit's. She wordlessly stared at him, before her lips parted slightly.
“Heh~eh. That's a surprise. I thought the requirements to join Carpe Diem were supposed to be pretty strict. So, how did you find yourself in a team famed for their close-mindedness?”
“You know about them?”
“Do I 'know' about them? C'mon, it's a team containing Edward Dylan, A High Ranker. He's a Level 5 Arch Shooter, for crying out loud. Both Chung Chohong and Richard Hugo are known as skillful fighters, too.”
This time, it was Seol Jihu's turn to be surprised.
“Chohong's surname was 'Chung'?”
“Yeah. She's from Area 7, the so-called Independent League. She’s from Hong Kong and is famous for walking on the path of a Warrior, even though she's supposed to be a Priest. People see her as a success story for someone with a dual class.”
Kim Hannah recited the info in her head before asking him again.
“Never mind that. So, you fearlessly showed up in Sinyoung all because of Carpe Diem, is it?”
“Well, there are others.”
“I built up some connections with the Haramark Royal Family. I also got to know the royal family's Magician, Master Ian.”
One of Kim Hannah's brows shot up.
“Are you talking about Ian Denzel, by any chance?”
“Wow, you really do know everything.”
Seol Jihu was genuinely impressed.
“You, you are only saying that because….”
Kim Hannah was about to finish the rest of that sentence with “…Because you don't want to get scolded by me, right?”, but she promptly shut her mouth up after the youth smiled brightly and swung the spear around while saying, “Look, look! Princess gave this to me.”
Even with a casual look, she could tell that the spear wasn’t a simple weapon. At the very least, it wasn't something a newbie Warrior should be walking around with.
“So, how about it?”
Seol Jihu straightened his back proudly. Kim Hannah stared at him with narrowed, probing eyes before slowly crossing her arms with a smirk on her lips.
“Hmph. Trying to show off. Oh, well. I'll say that you managed to get yourself a helmet, at least.”
“It's not 'only that', okay?”
Kim Hannah's voice suddenly became rather small. Even though there was no one around, she was being even more cautious.
“I mean, seriously, you just had to show up on the same day that the First Lady decided to come back…”
Seol Jihu asked.
“Are you talking about Miss Yun Seora?”
Kim Hannah quickly shook her head.
“We can count Lady Yun Seora as your ally in this case. If the First Lady takes a full-on interest in you and reaches out, then Youngest Lady Yun Seora is the only person currently in Sinyoung who can shield you from her. She has the necessary drive to do so, and that's after not taking into account her abilities, too.”
Seol Jihu had no idea what was going on here. But even then, he could sense something like a political machination was taking place behind the scenes.
It was at this point that Kim Hannah flinched somewhat and pulled out a communication crystal from her small bag. She then formed a deep frown.
“Look. They are calling me already.”
“Did I do something wrong?”
“Well, not exactly, but….”
Kim Hannah massaged her forehead as if she was suffering from a migraine. She then told him to stay here and wait for her and hurriedly walked away.
She didn't look like she'd be back in a jiffy, though. Seol Jihu fished out a packet of smokes and scanned his surroundings for a bit. He had no problem smoking anywhere back in Haramark, but well, having seen how neat and clean the streets of Scheherazade were, he thought that smoking publicly might not be an accepted practice in this city.
Seol Jihu continued to look for a suitable place and eventually settled on a small alleyway next to a building with a signboard that proclaimed it to be the 'Teahouse of the Winds and Fairies'. When he got there, he found a flowerbed in the alleyway filled with small but beautiful flowers.
'….Well, this sucks.'
He felt this quite often, but well, his current situation came across as a big unfair slap on his face. Seriously now, he helped Sinyoung out, not wronged them in any shape or form, so why were they so dead-set on swallowing him up like a greedy predator?
'Really now, I gotta get stronger soon and make them stop this bullshit….'
He figured that things would change the moment he reached the realms of High Rankers. For one, he'd consume his Divine Elixirs, use up all the accumulated points, and, most importantly, use the 'Divine Stigmata'.
Of course, all those things were far, far away….
Seol Jihu sucked on the cigarette before unhappily spitting the smoke out.
It was then, he was greeted by a warm, soothing voice.
“My apologies, but it is forbidden to smoke here.”
Seol Jihu's brows shot up, and he quickly looked to his sides. Where did that voice come from?!
“This is private property, but at the same time, the flowers in the garden are especially sensitive towards cigarette smoke, you see.”
A friendly voice that spoke as if to pacify a crying child continued to enter his ears. Seol Jihu hurriedly killed the cigarette.
“I, I'm sorry. I didn't know.”
He then spun around and saw the face of the woman who had emerged from the side exit of the building. At the same time…
“Oh, no, it's fine. There's no need for you to kill the cigarette, though. If you walk a little away from here, you can find a pla….?!”
…The woman suddenly stopped in the middle of her sentence roughly at the same time as well.
“Oh, my goodness.”
The woman covered her mouth up with her slender hand.
Out of the blue, he picked up on a familiar scent. When he looked into her gradually-widening, elegantly shaped and pure eyes….
Seol Jihu was overcome with a feeling that he was facing a calm yet infinitely wide ocean.
No, it wasn't her. The quiet and soothing aura was eerily similar, but when he took a closer look, it was also somewhat different. Should he say that this woman's aura felt a bit more mature?
From her long, smoothly-arching eyelashes; from her hair that cascaded down to her waist like a waterfall; from her scarlet lips that sported the inviting colour of a well-ripened fruit; from her slender shoulders and straight collar bones; and even from her skin glowing in the pale hues of a ripe apricot, as well as her white dress that perfectly suited her….
Most importantly, a wonderful fragrance wafted off from her direction. It was reminiscent of the warm rays of Spring that made one close their eyes and deeply savor the moment.
Just as his thought arrived at this point….
[Let us meet again, little prince.]
…He forgot to breathe then.
Unconsciously, he dropped the cigarette in his hand. The childhood memories that he had completely forgotten about rushed back in.
But why? Why did he suddenly remember the events of that day?
As the unknown stimulated his brain, Seol Jihu followed his instincts and activated his 'Nine Eyes'. Then, he freaked out again.
When he saw no visible spectrum of color coming off from her, he simply chalked that up to yet another case of her being colorless. However, even the special ability of the green color, the 'General Observation', failed to activate. No matter how hard he tried, this woman's Status Window didn't want to show up. This was the first time something like this happened.
It was then.
“If it's okay with you….”
The woman slowly lowered her hand from her face and pointed to the side entrance of the building.
“We do have a separate smoking area inside. Would you like to use that instead?”
A suggestion made with her elegant yet gentle-sounding voice made Seol Jihu nod his head almost out of pure instinct. But then….
“Hey, you! What do you think you're doi….??”
Kim Hannah ended her call and entered the alleyway to look for Seol Jihu, only for her eyes to grow as wide as bulbs on a lamp post.
“You, you are….”
The woman softly turned her head towards Kim Hannah, prompting the latter to hurriedly open her mouth.
For the first time ever, Seol Jihu witnessed Kim Hannah hurriedly lower her head like that.
“This kid only entered Paradise in March this year, so…. He still doesn't know anything….”
A certain light flickered in the woman's eyes.
“Is that so.”
She then formed a gentle, inviting smile.
“If you need a quiet place to talk, then you can come inside.”
Kim Hannah quickly asked back with a dazed face.
“B-But, what about the restraining order?”
“I'll always welcome you if you wish to visit me as a customer.”
The woman answered with a gentle smile, politely gathered her hands in front, and turned around. She then stepped into the side entrance without saying anything else. Her white dress was cut low and exposed almost all of her back, but rather than looking cheap or too risqué, she came across as refined and dignified from the way she walked and carried herself.
Seol Jihu stared at that back like a man bewitched, before regaining his senses the moment Kim Hannah spat out her breath.
“You…. Just what happened here?”
Now that was the question he wanted to ask her, instead. No, he had a crap ton of other things to ask her, too.
“Who is she?”
When he replied to her with a question of his own, Kim Hannah spat out a long, heavy sigh as if to say, “I thought as much.”
“Yup, there was no way you'd know each other.”
“Also, what was that about the restraining order, too?”
“You don't need to know.”
Kim Hannah cut the conversation short right there while licking her lower lip. Her face looked as if she couldn't figure out whether she was dreaming or not.
“Okay, for the time being, let's go inside.”
“You want to go in?”
“I mean, she invited us in, so we must go inside. You think such an opportunity comes around every day?”
She slapped her own cheeks and recovered her usual demeanor right away.
“And besides, we'll be able to talk without worry if it's in there.”
“….Is that somehow related to the restraining order you've been talking about?”
“Yup. What a surprising turn of events this is. I even get to enter this place all thanks to you.”
She said that while cautiously entering the side entrance. Seol Jihu also hurried after her.
The interior turned out to be unexpectedly empty. There should have been a number of tables and chairs here, but there were none.
“I see that you're almost finished with the preparation to leave, ma'am.”
Kim Hannah mouthed “Excuse us” with her trademark business smile and entered.
“Yes. The only thing remaining is choosing where to go.”
The woman grinned and lightly patted a long table attached to the counter. There were two chairs nearby; she must've brought them out just now.
Kim Hannah cautiously settled down on one of the chairs and opened her mouth.
“Although it is regrettable, it's also an honor for me. I'd never have guessed that I am going to drink the very last tea made by you, Lady Seo Yuhui….”
While taking a seat next to Kim Hannah, Seol Jihu swallowed his saliva. Seo Yuhui, Seo Yuhui…. Fearing that he might forget this name, he continued to repeat it in his head.
Seo Yuhui gently chuckled before speaking up.
“Which tea would you like to have?”
“Oh, I'm fine with anything, actually.”
“How about you?”
“Ah, well, I….”
Seol Jihu was thinking of initiating a conversation with this mystery woman through this opening, but Kim Hannah was one step faster; she reached out with her hand and covered his mouth.
“This kid doesn't mind whatever it is.”
Seol Jihu tried to pry her hand away but to no avail. Meanwhile, Seo Yuhui simply formed an enigmatic smile.
“He must be your lover.”
“Eeeehh?? No, of course not!!!”
Kim Hannah jumped up from her seat.
“Who would want to go out with this guy?! No, our relationship is simply one of a contractor and a contractee. Nothing more.”
She laughed out loud and quite strongly denied it.
“Oh, I see. It's just that, you two seemed very familiar with each other.”
Seo Yuhui tilted her head slightly as if she was somewhat confused. When her gaze met Seol Jihu's, she smiled brightly.
No matter how many times he saw it, her smile suited her fantastically. Not only that, but her voice reading out each of the syllables, her smooth and silky hand gestures, and the graceful air about her, easily caused his heart to flutter almost uncontrollably.
She wasn't exactly his ideal type, but…
If he were to describe the feeling he got when meeting Teresa Hussey for the first time as a type of 'strong attraction', then from Seo Yuhui, he felt a deep sense of familiarity.
An atmosphere that was kinda like, she'd gracefully accept whatever prank he'd pull, and shelter him from the storm, that sort of things.
'Wait. Aren't I putting all the carts in front of a horse here?'
Nothing had been confirmed so far. Seol Jihu could only form a wry smile after finally waking up from his deep dive into the sea of imagination.
“Please wait for a moment. I'll bring them out very soon.”
Seo Yuhui turned around and began wringing out tea water.
“You can take your time. There's no rush.”
Kim Hannah politely explained and then poked Seol Jihu on the side as the youth sat there rigidly and stared his front in a daze.
“Not 'm-mm', I want you to start telling me what happened.”
Seo Yuhui softly giggled as if she found Kim Hannah's impersonation rather funny.
“If I'm honest, I still can't figure it out. It hasn't been that long since you left the Neutral Zone, yet you're already a member of Carpe Diem, you got a damn spear as a gift from Princess Teresa Hussey, and became friends with Ian Denzel? What the hell?”
“Mm…. Well, it's a long story.”
“Start from the beginning. Don't you dare leave anything out, too. Don't worry, you can speak freely in this place.”
Seol Jihu nodded his head and slowly recounted his experiences so far. He started from when he arrived at Haramark, in full detail. He gradually grew excited after seeing Kim Hannah respond at the right time, meaning that she was concentrating fully on his story.
“So, I went over to the inn with them, thinking that being a porter would be better than nothing. But, like a lie, I found Carpe Diem waiting for us there. We discussed the scouting mission of the Forest of Denial, and…..”
“What did you just say?!”
Right at that point, Kim Hannah abruptly cut him off even before he could finish his sentence. She had been listening quietly until then, so Seol Jihu had been left flustered by her sudden burst of fury.
“Forest of Denial?!?!”
“Y-You…. THE Forest of Denial?? FOREST of DENIAL?!?!”
When Seol Jihu nodded his head, Kim Hannah's eyes opened super wide, before she…
….She loudly yelled at him.
“Are you out of your mind?! You actually entered the Forest of Denial?!”
Kim Hannah's expression crumpled unsightly. Her lips bobbed up and down non-stop, and even her neck trembled visibly. Her reaction easily exceeded his expectations.
“You, you…. You promised me not to go any further south than….”
She couldn't even finish what she wanted to say as if she was far too shocked for that.
“Do you have any idea what kind of a place that forest is?!”
Yup, here it was.
Her explosive nagging landed hot and heavy on Seol Jihu, causing him to squeeze his eyes shut for a moment there.
“That's the border region!! The damn border region! Not only that, it’s where the Federation and the Parasites meet!!”
“I know, but they don't invade through there because of the forest's effects.”
“Oh, really now?! So, you’re saying you did a smart thing, is that it?”
“….No, not necessarily….”
“Gimme a break. Christ on a pogo stick, somebody just shoot me, please! Don't you know how terrifying that place is?! Also, a group of Lioners including a leader and a female was found there, too…..?!”
Kim Hannah fired out many words like a machine gun, before abruptly stopping there, her brows visibly tightening.
“W-wait a minute. I remember now, the guy who compiled the report on the Forest of Denial was Ian Denzel…. No way.”
Kim Hannah muttered to herself before glaring at him with eyes that could almost definitely kill somebody.
“L-Listen. We encountered a Lioner horde, but you see, I….”
Her loud roar reverberated within the interior.
Seol Jihu went ‘Oops’ and quickly shifted his gaze over to Seo Yuhui. She was standing without moving in the slightest. Just a moment ago, she had been wringing out tea water with great care, but now, she wasn't moving an inch.
“You crazy fool! You deranged idiot! You really wanna kill yourself that badly?!”
“Hey, you dumbass! Those are creatures that not even High Rankers can….!”
Just before Kim Hannah completely blew her top, two teacups were placed on the table. It was Seo Yuhui.
“Please, calm yourself. Here, drink this.”
Kim Hannah grabbed the teacup and took an unhesitating gulp out of her sheer enraged state. She probably didn't find the tea hot because she was drinking it with seemingly no problem.
“Fuu-woo! Fuu-woo!! I, I'm sorry for the d-disturbance….!!”
Kim Hannah panted heavily like an angry bull. Meanwhile, Seo Yuhui was carrying an unreadable expression. There was even a hint of anger somewhere in there, too. The issue with that being, she wasn't looking at Kim Hannah, but she was glancing at him from the corner of her eyes.
Seo Yuhui lightly bit her lip.
“….Would you like a cup of iced water?”
“P-Please!! I'm feeling really, really… this…”
“Of course. Please wait for a moment.”
Seo Yuhui spoke as if she completely agreed with Kim Hannah and turned around. Meanwhile, the latter somehow managed to get a grip on her rage and spoke in a relatively calmer voice.
“Okay, so. You were able to get this and that all thanks to the meritorious deeds of surviving the Forest of Denial, is that it?”
“Well….. Not exactly.”
Seol Jihu avoided her glare.
“Y-you. You better look at me and tell me everything, you hear? Don't think you can hide anything from me because with Sinyoung's information network, I can find out pretty much everything you wanna hide, okay?”
“You still not saying anything??”
“….Only when you promise not to get angry.”
When he unwillingly replied, Kim Hannah formed eyes of an axe murderer ready to strike. She slapped the table, hard.
“You better speak up now, while I'm still being nice. Besides, I don't think I can get any angrier than I am now.”
“Well, I, uh……. When we were coming out of the Forest of Denial, there was a sudden communication from the royal family.”
“I don't care about that. Get to the point!”
Kim Hannah coughed once and gulped down the remaining half of the tea still left in the cup.
“….Well, the Parasites attacked the Arden Fortress, so our team met up with the army led by the Princess midway and joined them so we could head to the Arden Valley…..”
Kim Hannah grandly spewed out the tea water out of her mouth. Thanks to that, he was now showered with a mixture of liquids containing her spit, but that wasn't really important at the moment.
Kim Hannah was now staring at him with a dazed expression.
“….You also participated in that?”
“A Level 1 Warrior did what? No, no, no. Wait a minute.”
If there was one thing Seol Jihu hadn't been aware of, that would be the small fact that Kim Hannah had already heard of everything regarding the defense of the Arden Fortress.
To be more specific, all the related stories regarding the unexpected victory were some of the most hotly discussed topics among Earthlings for the past few days. Everyone expected the Haramark Royal Family to abandon the fortress, yet them achieving a resounding victory took almost all who heard the news by surprise. And they were facing off against Parasites too.
“A low-level Warrior volunteered as bait and successfully lured in the Parasite army, and at a certain ravine……”
Hoping that it wasn't so, Kim Hannah carefully remembered the contents of the report she read, but then….
“Aha, hahaha… I, uh, those chasing Cockroaches were pretty scary.”
Seol Jihu awkwardly laughed out.
“You crazy bastard…!!”
She swung her hand rather powerfully. SLAP!! Seol Jihu spat out a pained moan when her palm landed his back.
“You’re insane! Have you lost your mind?! Have you??!”
Slap! Slap!! Slap!!!
She slapped him on the back multiple times, but maybe that wasn't enough, because she then began panting out breathlessly as if no air was entering her lungs. She pounded on her chest and grabbed the back of her neck, which in turn, made Seol Jihu enter a flustered state.
He was about to ask for that promised cup of iced water, but then…
He spotted Seo Yuhui's unmoving back once more. As if she was also dazed out of her mind, her arms lay limp on her side and her head was leaning back, her eyes obviously staring at the ceiling above.
She then grasped the cup of water with enough force to almost shatter it and gulped the cold liquid down in one go. When she slammed the empty cup down, Seol Jihu felt a certain sense of power from her, which he hadn't sensed before.
She then even spat out a long sigh, too.
Guessing that she was angry at all the noise, Seol Jihu tried his best to calm Kim Hannah down before things could get worse.
A short while later…..
Kim Hannah hid her face with her hands and began to tearfully mutter to herself.
Seol Jihu sheepishly scratched his cheek and flinched somewhat when he realized that Seo Yuhui was staring straight at him.
'And why is she looking at me like that now….?'Previous Chapter Next Chapter