Chapter 2268 Breakdown
While contemplating the words of the strange woman, Jin dragged his feet to the Royal Palace only to encounter Izayoi and Asuka approaching from the opposite direction.
"Oh? Is that our fearless Leader I spy...?"
Though he noticed the distinct absence of Lily and the fact Jin was looking more than a little worse for wear, Izayoi continued on as usual. He could be serious when he had to, but, unless the situation was dire, he rarely adjusted his behavior as a courtesy to others.
A stark contrast to Izayoi, Asuka's brows furrowed slightly as she asked, "Jin, where's Lily? Don't tell me you left her all alone or let her run off without you..."
Drooping his shoulders, Jin's expression became more melancholic than usual as he answered, "She disappeared before I could chase after her..."
With an expression that showed she didn't buy Jin's excuse one bit, Asuka retorted, "Do you expect me to believe that? With Shundo, you should have no trouble catching up even if Lily had a massive head start. If you didn't see her, it meant she was probably hiding somewhere nearby. Did you even bother searching?"
Though he had reached a similar conclusion earlier, Lily's refusal to answer his telepathic messages led Jin to believe she didn't want to even speak with him, much less be found. Since he didn't want to make things worse, he didn't even try looking for her. Instead, he chose to give her some space so they could both cool down...
Seeing Jin avert his eyes with an ashamed look on his face, a sudden and intense desire to lecture her would-be Leader manifested in Asuka's heart. Before she could go off on him, however, Izayoi inclined his head towards the group of heavily armored guardsmen nearby before saying, "There is no sense in talking about this outside. Our first priority should be finding Lily and making sure she's okay. It's pretty late so there's a good chance she's already checked in. We should do the same and then ask around."
Following Izayoi's gaze, Asuka noticed around twenty guards and two rather large wyverns staring at them from a distance. She still intended to give Jin a piece of her mind, but, understanding the reasoning within Izayoi's words, she eventually nodded her head and said, "Very well. If the Leader of Salamandra really is childhood friends with Jin and Lily, there is a good chance the latter's inside. Even if she isn't, we should be able to get a search party together if we fail to reach her."
As he was just about to make a similar argument, the corners of Izayoi's smile curled upward as he remarked, "Wow, brains and beauty. Seems like I hit the jackpot..."
Rolling her eyes, Asuka lightly bumped Izayoi with her shoulder before adopting a far more serious expression as she practically glared at Jin, asking, "What do you think we should do, Jin? Since you came all this way, I suppose you had something similar in mind...?"
Though his intentions were slightly different, Jin didn't hesitate before nodding his head. In truth, he suspected that Vahn had something to do with the fact Lily wasn't responding to him. He would sometimes try to contact her whenever she went to him for one of her 'consultations'. Areas under the influence of time compression had a strange effect on Telepathy. It was possible to establish a connection but the messages, more often than not, wouldn't go through. Even if they did, it would generally come out sounding like an auditory hallucination or a sudden, indecipherable blip.
"I'm pretty sure Lily is inside. The only other possibility is that she returned home but I can't imagine her doing such a thing without telling at least one of us..."
Seeing through Jin's thoughts, Izayoi remarked, "Seems like you stumbled upon the correct answer. I heard a couple of people talking about how the Sage Dragon Emperor has come to the North in order to form a 'union' with the Leader of Salamandra. It hasn't been announced to the public but there was apparently a pretty high-profile party a few days ago."
Showing even more surprise than Jin, Asuka asked, "What? Is that true? I didn't hear a single person talking about it. And what do you mean by forming a union? Don't tell me..."
Before Izayoi could confirm Asuka's suspicions, Jin's expression became noticeably more serious as he promptly ignored them to approach the group of guards keeping an eye on them. He had never discussed it with Izayoi, Asuka, and Yo, but Sandora was actually the first girl he ever had a crush on. If not for the downfall of his former Community, the kidnapping and subsequent return of Lily, and the abrupt annulment of their Alliance, there was a good chance they would have become a couple.
("Vahn...why is it always you? Will you not rest until you've taken everything from me...?")
Ignoring the fact that Vahn was one of the reasons Lily had given him a chance in the first place, Jin made his way into the Royal Palace with Izayoi and Asuka following close behind. The layout hadn't changed much since he was a child, so, even without an escort to show him the way, he was able to navigate to the Chamber of Flames without the need for a detour.
Though they were briefly obstructed by the Royal Guards guarding the chamber, it didn't take long for the trio of No Names to be granted permission to enter. When they did, Jin's heart immediately sank. Not only was Lily standing next to Vahn, but, even from a distance, he could make out the ring glistening on Sandora's finger.
"Jin~! It's been so long~!"
Since the only people in the throne room were people she trusted, Sandora momentarily shed her Royal bearing as she ran towards Jin with an excited smile on her face. It had been years since their last encounter, and, as Vahn had mentioned, he had matured into a very handsome and intelligent-looking young man.
Surprised that Sandora would run over to him, Jin habitually opened his arms only to feel awkward when she suddenly slowed down and asked, "How have you been? I really wanted to come and visit but my father and brother wouldn't allow it."
Lowering his arms, Jin did his best to conceal his embarrassment behind a serious expression as he answered, "I've been well. Things were looking pretty grim for a time, but they got a lot better once Vahn showed up..."
Directing his gaze towards Vahn, Jin had mixed feelings about the current situation. A part of him, deep within, was incensed beyond compare. At the same time, however, his gratitude towards Vahn made it difficult to truly resent the man. Vahn had rescued the No Names from their plight, restored their territory to its former glory, empowered its members, provided them with functionally endless resources, and shielded them from harm. He was also Jin's personal mentor, and, in many ways, the only reason he had been able to become as powerful as he had...
Returning his attention to concerned-looking Sandora, Jin figured he may as well confirm things directly, asking, "I heard you and Vahn were getting married? If so...I suppose some congratulations are in order..."
Though she felt a pang of guilt hearing Jin mention her betrothal, Sandora managed a smile as she nodded her head and answered, "You've heard correctly. Shortly after the formation of the Aldrnari Empire, I penned a letter inquiring if Vahn would be willing to become my partner. I was worried he would refuse in the beginning but he ended up saying yes after confirming I wasn't being coerced. He's a lot more considerate than most people think."
Hearing Sandora mention that she was the one that approach Vahn, Jin found himself at a complete and utter loss for words. He had assumed that Vahn had come to the north seeking to form a union for the sake of expanding the Empire. Instead, it was the exact opposite...
Feeling a little unsteady, Jin had to channel magical energy through his mind and body to maintain the illusion of calm. Then, with a clearly forced smile on his face, he said, "I'm happy for you...I really am..."
Noticing the contrast between Jin's words and his expression, visible concern appeared in Sandora's as she asked, "Jin? Are you okay...?"
Chuckling in an unnatural manner, Jin's smile became noticeably distorted as he answered, "I'm fine. Vahn is a truly incredible person. I mean, he already has well over a hundred lovers, but I'm sure you'll be happy together. He is Vahn, after all."
Despite his best efforts to remain calm, everyone present could see Jin trembling as a layer of moisture gradually developed across his eyes.
Feeling responsible for Jin's current state, Sandora was about to step forward to give him a hug when Lily shouted, "Just stop already! Stop comparing yourself to Vahn and worrying about what other people think! Why are you so afraid to just be yourself!? You're an amazing person, Jin! Why can't you see that!?"
With tears rolling down her cheeks, Lily shouted in anguish for the first time since she was forcibly separated from her mother. She just couldn't understand what Jin was thinking. He was supposed to be a calm, caring, and rational person, but, ever since he returned from the Game Board, it was like he had become a completely different person. There was a possessive glimmer in his eye and he acted like everyone, even the people who helped him, were out to steal things from him.
Blaming herself for allowing Jin to enter the Game Board, Lily took a step forward with the intent to console him. The moment she did so, however, Jin's expression became desperate as he exclaimed, "You're telling me to stop!? I haven't even done anything! All I want is for things to slow down or go back to the way they were! You're the one that keeps pushing me to do things I'm not ready for! I'm trying to get strong enough to protect everyone but you keep dragging me off-"
Before Jin could finish, Sandora surprised him with a slap to the face. Her intention was to help him come to his senses, but, after a moment of stunned silence, a glimmer of indignant fury appeared in the depths of Jin's teal-green eyes. His right hand balled into a fist, but, before he could even think to throw it, Vahn appeared between him and Sandora.
"That's enough, kid...you're letting your anger cloud your judgment. Everyone here is either a friend or an ally. Calm down and let's talk thing through..."
Seeing Vahn appear before him, Jin began hyperventilating. He wanted nothing more than to beat the man's face, but, before he could muster the courage, Vahn left him feeling at a loss by suddenly pulling him into a firm, almost smothering hug.
"This isn't you, Jin. You are not the kind of wrathful person that would strike your own friends. Think about what you just tried to do..."
Though he was about to try and struggle free from Vahn's embrace, Jin stopped when he heard the former's calm yet penetrating voice. The notion that he was about to punch an eleven-year-old girl caused a shudder to run through his body. To make matters worse, the girl was supposed to be one of his best friends. Though he had ultimately chosen Lily, Sandora still occupied a very special place in his heart. Had he actually struck her, he never would have forgiven himself...
With tears pouring down his face, Jin's body began to tremble violently as he leaned into Vahn and asked, "What's wrong with me...?"
Shaking his head, Vahn tightened his hold on Jin's body, warmth exuding from his own as he softly replied, "Nothing at all...it's just as you said. You weren't ready..."
(A/N: This is the last chapter for this month. The $820 I'm making on ******* isn't enough to even keep me out of the red. Since the effective value of a chapter is around $28.50, I've already written as many chapters as I've been paid to write. For the past three years, I haven't even been making a living wage. Instead, I've worked for as little as a quarter of minimum wage and kept myself afloat using my personal savings. Since writing novels and providing content for my readers is supposed to be my job, I need to start treating it as such. My current goal is simply to earn as much money as a sixteen-year-old high school student might working at McDonald's. I am literally only asking for a minimum wage, so, if you would like to support me and have access to upwards of 100 chapters a month, please consider donating $5 through my *******. Though writing has gradually become my passion, I can't keep doing it if it's literally killing me. To put things in perspective, it would basically cost me $1750 to keep releasing chapters. In total, I've earned around $14,000 writing EPIC over the last three years. In that same amount of time, I have had to spend $35,000 just to keep myself alive. In other words, I have spent $21,000 of my own money in order to keep my promise. Now that I'm trying to make writing my career, I need to start getting paid for it. No one in their right mind works for free...)