Chapter 27 Dinner with Enemies
"They're the ones!" the shopkeeper said. "Came in and spent half a dozen gold crowns, without even haggling. At that age!"
One of the white-robed figures stepped forward, a tall woman in her middle years, with black hair and coarse features.
"I'll take a look at them," she said with an ominous glance at Arran and Jiang Fei.
As the woman approached them, Arran instinctively put his hand on his sword, although he understood the gesture to be futile. The woman noticed, and her lips twisted in a mocking smirk.
"You don't believe that will help, do you?"
Arran was about to speak, but at that moment, Jiang Fei cut in.
"So now Father has sent the Academy after me?" Her tone was harsh, almost as if she was trying to provoke the Academy mages.
The white-robed woman frowned in confusion. "Your father? We're not—"
"I will not marry a man three times my age!" Jiang Fei exclaimed angrily. "We might not be the most important branch of the Jiang clan, but I will not be sold like a piece of meat!"
The woman looked bewildered. "Marry…? Jiang clan…?"
"I think we may have a small misunderstanding on our hands." A handsome white-robed man stepped forward. His hair was long and black, and there was a strange agelessness to his smiling face.
Something about him reminded Arran of Master Zhao, although this man seemed to lack Master Zhao's brusque demeanor.
The man turned to the black-haired woman, then said, "Junior Chen, please allow me."
The woman immediately stepped back, nodding to the man in a gesture that seemed to lie somewhere between respect and fear.
"My name is Stormleaf," the man said. "We're looking for a group of rogue mages who were involved in the murder of several members of our Academy."
Jiang Fei gave him a shocked look. "Murder?! And you think we are responsible?"
Stormleaf shook his head with a friendly smile. "As I said, I think there's a misunderstanding. This gentleman informed us of a pair of suspicious youths."
He gestured toward the shopkeeper, who was starting to look uncomfortable.
"Naturally, we had to investigate," the man continued. "But I think we may have received some bad information. Still…"
Suddenly, he stepped forward, putting his hand against Arran's head. In an instant, Arran felt panic surge within his body as he understood the man would be looking for a Realm.
Now, he thought, he would finally find out if Master Zhao had been telling the truth about Shadow Essence being invisible to other mages. If it wasn't, or if Master Zhao's seals somehow failed…
After a few moments, the man removed his hand from Arran's head and moved to Jiang Fei. Arran was relieved, but he still felt some anxiety as he watched the man examine Jiang Fei.
Finally, Stormleaf stepped back.
"As I thought, not a trace of magic. Although…" He hesitated before continuing. "You're a daughter of the Jiang clan, but you haven't opened any Realms?"
Jiang Fei's face fell. "I never had the talent," she said with a sorrowful expression. "That is why my father wanted to marry me off… The clan has little use for someone without magic."
Stormleaf nodded in understanding.
"To make up for the intrusion, please allow me to invite you for dinner. Both you and your… companion?" He looked questioningly at Arran.
"Servant," Jiang Fei said. "He might not be strong, or particularly smart, but he is loyal." She gave Arran a smug glance.
"Loyal servants are hard to find," Stormleaf said in agreement. "Of course, your servant will be welcome to join us."
"Very well," Jiang Fei replied. "Just give us some moments to change into more appropriate attire. We are still wearing our travel clothes." She gestured at her robe with a look of distaste.
"Of course," the man said. "We will wait here until you are ready."
With a grateful smile at Stormleaf, Jiang Fei entered the inn, Arran following behind her.
When they approached their rooms, Arran spoke, "What the—"
Jiang Fei frantically raised her finger to her lips, then made a gesture that Arran understood to mean that the Academy mages outside could still hear them.
"Of the clothes I have prepared for you, put on the black outfit," she said loudly. "And do make sure to be on your best behavior tonight."
Arran glared at her, but he understood that right now, all he could do was play the role she had given him.
"Of course, mistress Jiang," he answered, trying his best to sound like what he thought a servant would sound like.
A short while later they stepped out of the inn, dressed in some of the clothes they had bought earlier that day.
Jiang Fei wore an exquisite crimson dress, and Arran a black silk outfit that Jiang Fei had picked out for him. He was annoyed to find that it was as uncomfortable as it was expensive.
"Master Stormleaf," Jiang Fei said with a respectful nod. "Where shall you take us tonight?"
"Allow me to surprise you," the man replied with a smooth smile that made Arran shudder in revulsion. There was something about the man that made him intensely uncomfortable.
With that they left, Stormleaf and Jiang Fei leading the way while Arran and the two Academy mages followed behind them.
They eventually arrived at a small restaurant that had more servants than customers, where Stormleaf shared a table with Jiang Fei. Arran, meanwhile, was sat at a table with the other two Academy mages, both of whom treated him as if he did not exist.
The meal lasted several hours, but although the food was amazing, Arran could only make himself eat a few bites. Several times, he felt a strong urge to flee, which he only barely managed to suppress.
Jiang Fei, on the other hand, seemed to be in her element, talking and laughing with Stormleaf as if she had known the man for years. Arran could not hear their conversation, but by the look of them, they seemed to be getting along quite well.
Finally, the meal ended, and Stormleaf accompanied Jiang Fei on their way back to the inn, with Arran once more following behind them.
"Miss Jiang," Stormleaf asked while they walked, "could you tell me where you are headed?"
"I am going to visit my uncle in Silvermere," she replied. "Even if Father will not listen to me, I am sure Uncle will intervene once he learns of this matter."
"Then why don't you travel with us?" Stormleaf said. "I don't intend to stay in this region, and Silvermere is only a few weeks' travel away."
"I am grateful for the offer," Jiang Fei said with a surprised look, "but I could not possibly trouble you like that."
"Miss Jiang," Stormleaf said, his expression suddenly serious, "a young lady like yourself should not travel alone, with just a servant to protect you. The roads are filled with bandits these days. That you even made it this far is a small miracle."
He shook his head, then added, "I could not possibly let you face such dangers without proper protection."
"In that case, I shall be happy to accept your kind offer," Jiang Fei replied. This time, there was a hint of panic in her smile, although Stormleaf did not seem to notice.
"It's settled then," the man said. "We shall be here to pick you up at dawn."
Arran felt like he was about to throw up.