Chapter 4: Chapter 4 - Familiar Face, Dimwitted Simpleton

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Fantasy Realm

Reads: 242

Plopping herself into the lecture hall’s front-row bench, Jemma breathed with relief.

“Made it before class started…!”

Having rushed here after tidying the dorm with Irene’s help, she felt overheated in her uniform. She recalled Aria being in an identical situation once when they shared a lesson. The Avalonian woman resolved it by undoing her top two buttons.

That woman sure knows how to flaunt her assets. Jemma enviously grumbled.

After dabbing sweat off her brow, tidying her hair and fixing her collar, Jemma glanced about. She counted three-dozen-plus students, all second-year trainees or junior Guardians. A few familiar faces, but none whom she’d make the effort of moving to sit with.

Unlike her other classes, this one had nothing to do with Shard Energy training – though more than half present were Shard Energy users like her. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, since the academic requirements for this course were exceptionally high and Shard Energy users were typically more studious.

Minutes passed. Jemma passed the time by reading the course’s textbook, titled ‘An Introduction to Senior Organizational Management’, while her classmates chatted with each other. Despite this being the course’s first lecture, Jemma Elizabeth Richards was the kind of person who’d finish reading the textbook beforehand if given the opportunity. In this case, she was reading it the second time.

When their instructor failed to show up fifteen minutes later, Jemma put the textbook down with a puzzled frown.

“Where is the lecturer…?”

A sudden thought occurred to her, and she glanced at her timetable kept in a plastic sleeve attached to her notebook’s back cover.

“Nope. This is the right hall…”

Jemma confirmed. Moreover even if she’d entered the wrong hall, it would be difficult trying to reason how thirty others made the same mistake.

Yearning for an explanation, the Atlantian brunette looked around once more. Like her, the other trainees appeared restless. Noticing a few squinting towards the front, she copied them.

At first glance, the ten-foot-wide and six-foot-tall blackboard appeared blank until she noticed bits of chalk writing at each corner. In clockwise order starting from the top left, it went:

3-FOUR’S; 1-45R; 4-183E; 2-00C.

Though intrigued initially, Jemma soon disregarded it after not being able to make heads or tails of it. She tried going back to reading, but her mind could no longer focus; annoyed at the lecturer’s tardiness and bothered by the cryptic notes written on the board.

So when the hall’s heavy door swung open with such speed its hinges groaned, it startled Jemma. Like everyone else, she whipped towards the door-

And witnessed Roland Ironheart standing there, panting from exertion with a leather satchel in one hand.


The blond-haired Avalonian gasped that single syllable before stopping short. After looking left, right, and left again, he entered the lecture hall; braving the dubious stares directed at him.

Roland moved towards the nearest bench and almost sat there when he noticed a familiar face staring at him from the very front. Said familiar face raised and relaxed her fine brows in one gesture, a non-verbal expression of surprise as well as a friendly greeting.

Relieved at the sight of a friendly face, Roland descended the sloped lecture hall and sat with Jemma.

“Hei. The instructor isn’t here yet?”

“Nope. Why were you so late?”

Between taking out stationary and taking in deep breaths, the Avalonian blond answered.

“Officer training class. There was no time between the two.”

“Oh. You didn’t ask the instructor to be excused early?”

Roland uttered a weak chuckle, but left her query unanswered.

Though initially nervous around the cool, confident, and comely Atlantian, Roland had since become good friends with Jemma since their experiences in Aszyria. As an added bonus, both could relate to the fact that they came from privileged backgrounds yet enjoy few of its perks.

After settling down, Roland scanned his surroundings the same way Jemma did minutes earlier. He noticed the chalk writing on the board.

3-FOUR’S; 1-45R; 4-183E; 2-00C.

“I don’t know why, but it’s bothering me.”

Jemma grumbled, switching her frowning gaze from one corner of the board to the next as if hoping to reveal its secret that way. As for the Avalonian blond, he stared.

“Huh… Hmm?”

“What? Did you figure something out?”

“I’m not sure.”

After delivering that uncertain statement, Roland opened his notebook to an empty page and started scribbling. Jemma leaned over to peek, but could not decipher any of his sentences.

“Roland… your handwriting’s atrocious…!”

Roland released an honest bout of laughter and stared at the four short lines whose eligibility was exclusive to himself.


Jemma pressed, curious. If there was one thing she acknowledged about Roland, it was his out-of-the-box manner of thinking.

“Mmm… Give me a minute.”

Roland replied while reaching for his textbook and flipping it to page forty-five.

“What does it say?”

Tilting her neck to get a better view, Jemma read the first line and realized it was a continuation of another sentence from the page before, and carried little meaning by itself. Before she could voice her doubts, Roland closed the book and flipped it to page zero, which displayed ‘Chapter 1’ in large bold fonts. A few seconds passed…


Roland exclaimed with a surprised undertone.

“What, did you-”

Jemma was cut off by the door opening a second time, followed by a bored voice announcing.

“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Apologies for being tardy.”

Everyone turned to witness a slouching man enter the hall and drag his feet towards the front. Compared to their other lecturers who wore smart-casual clothes, this man’s attire looked more suited for an outdoors person.

Upon reaching the front, Wynstal turned to face his perplexed audience.

“Well then, can anyone give me the answer?”

He asked out of the blue and was met with confused silence. Such was its intensity that a faint drone could be heard, betraying the presence of a rogue bumble-bee.

“Hmm? Nobody?”

Seconds passed without any reaction until someone raised a hand and spoke after given permission to.

“Excuse me, sir. I believe I speak for everyone, who are you?”

Their lecturer’s bored eyes widened by a friction.

“Oops, forgot to introduce myself… I am Wynstal Minstral.”

The hall’s atmosphere sharpened at the mention of his surname. Few within the organization were so uninformed as to be unaware of the fact the director had two sons, both high-ranked Guardians with unique responsibilities and outstanding achievements. For Wynstal in particular, he reformed the training regime for Guardian trainees.

In the past, a cohort of trainees would be split according to class (Shard Energy, infantry, and reconnaissance) and trained separately. Now cohorts were organized into small teams containing a mixture of the three classes.

As for Roland and Jemma, they obviously remembered the laid-back senior Guardian who accompanied them during the final trek of their expedition in Aszyria. Though judging by his unconcerned look when his gaze drifted past them, they figured he didn’t remember them.

“This course’s instructor has been temporarily reassigned, thus I have been assigned to take over until her return. Pleased to make your acquaintances.”

Introductions over, the director’s younger son returned to the subject at hand.

“Now, can anyone tell me the answer?”

He repeated, again receiving confused silence. His right lip corner lifted in disappointment.

“Did no one figure out the code written on the board?”

When no one answered, Wynstal shook his head.

“For a supposed bunch of smarties, you’re all rather dimwitted.”

The hall became flushed in an instant. Biting back her irritation, Jemma declared.

“Excuse me, Mr. Wynstal! I believe Roland has figured it out.”

Unbothered by being spoken to without permission, the senior Guardian’s gaze flickered towards the young man she pointed at with interest.

“Indeed? Why didn’t you speak earlier when called?”

Roland’s face warmed from the attention Jemma forced onto him. He threw the Atlantian a disgruntled glance, but she ignored him.

“Sorry sir, but I hadn’t managed to decipher the last word.”

“Ooh, you ran out of time?”

“No, sir. I arrived late.”

“I see. Being tardy is a terrible vice, train-”

A troubled look crossed Wynstal’s features as he recognized the irony of what he was about to say. Ignoring the judging stares directed at him, he coughed and continued.

“-anyway, do you have a valid reason for being late?”

“I had a lesson for commissioned officer training beforehand, sir. It ended the same time this lesson was scheduled to begin.”

Wynstal opened his mouth to reply, but no words came forth. A trainee in commissioned officer training? He regarded the trainee with renewed interest until recognition struck him.

“You’re… Ironheart?”

“Y-yes, sir.”

Roland straightened, uncomfortable being called by his surname. However, Wynstal went ‘ahh’ as if experiencing a great revelation.

“Right, I remember! The younger son of General Richard and leader of Team Amethyst.”

Despite recognizing those words were spoken with good intentions, Roland’s insides twisted nevertheless. For one, his relationship with his father the esteemed general was lukewarm at best. And, Team Amethyst had garnered a poor reputation due to going AWOL once.

“Well then, Mr. Ironheart, what did you manage to decipher?”

Wynstal beckoned, not bothered by the young man’s unsettlement.

After taking a moment to compose himself, Roland answered.

“Each code stands for a word, their order is determined by the number at the beginning. The third code simply means ‘four’. As for the others, the two numbers stand for the page number and the letter denotes the first word on the page starting with that letter. So the message reads-”

“Read Chapter Four’s Endnote.”

Wynstal concluded for Roland, smiling with satisfaction.

“Excellent deductive skills!”

Turning to the rest of the befuddled class, Wynstal continued.

“Well then, let’s begin the lesson by reading-

Wynstal stopped mid-sentence when Jemma’s hand shot up.


Clearing her throat, the Atlantian brunette stated.

“The answer is written in the fifth last paragraph of the final chapter, Mr. Wynstal. That is, there is no such thing as an ‘unbreakable encryption code’ because once it becomes familiar, it’s only a matter of time before it is leaked or decrypted.”

Wynstal observed her keenly.

“You’ve already read and memorized the textbook?”


“… How admirably studious… Ah, you are Ms. Elizabeth Richards, also of Team Amethyst. Correct?”

Jemma nodded.

“I’ll make sure to remember you, Ms. Richards.”

With that promise, Wynstal turned to face his audience and began teaching.


In the meantime…

Several miles southeast from the Guardian Headquarters, on the edge of a commercial district bordering low-value residential areas. It’s proper name: Sunset Avenue.

Unlike most other areas, much of the district remained shaded during the day due to buildings’ upper floors jutting into the road from above. In some places, two individuals from opposite-side buildings could bridge the gap merely by reaching out of their windows. And since many of the buildings were old – some over a hundred years – it gave the place an undesirable and uninspiring aura; unsuitable for fancy stores or high-end restaurants.

Perhaps because of its poor desirability, only certain types of businesses could be found here. None of which a proper, law-abiding citizen should be caught in. But as true with every city, there would always be those considered improper, non-law-abiding citizens. 

As a result, Sunset Avenue wasn’t void of pedestrians. One of whom being Norah.

Having been through this district several times before, Norah navigated the narrow roads without hesitation. She looked no different from any other poor city-girl struggling to get by; with her small and undernourished stature, unwashed skin and hair, and ragged clothes which looked in dire need of laundering. To complete her disguise, her clothes emitted a faint sour smell.

From what, you ask? I’ll leave you to guess.

In due time, Norah arrived at her destination. From the outside, it looked no different from other buildings; red-bricked, a few tinted windows, and a general state of disrepair. Its sole uniqueness was a rectangular metallic plate fixed above the entranceway. Welded onto it in cursive fonts were the words: Sunset’s Sweet Delights.

In simple terms, it was a hostess and cabaret club with a side of prostitution.

Without hesitation, Norah pushed open the tinted glass door despite seeing the ‘closed’ flip sign. In any case, the door should’ve been locked.

Norah entered a small reception area soothingly lit by soft yellow lamps. Opposite her was a doorway obscured by a black curtain, and beside it sat a huge bouncer with baby-pink flesh and thick arms hanging at his sides.

The huge man stared blankly at the young woman for a few seconds before moving his thick lips.


“No thanks.”

Without blinking, the bouncer continued.


Norah frowned. Shouldn’t he be demanding what she’s doing here, during out-of-business hours?


“Ok… You want girls?”

Norah then realized the man was a simpleton.

“I’m here for work.”

Now it was the huge man’s turn to frown, giving him a childlike appearance. It’s as if he had never heard of the word before.

“… Work?”

One of Norah’s eyebrows twitched. As she wondered what she should say to get through, she heard footsteps approaching from behind the curtain.

“Is someone there, Lennie?”

A mature woman’s voice inquired before its owner stepped through the curtain. Thin and tall, her lined face spoke of the hardships she’d endured, and her grey eyes belonged to one who’d lived on the wrong side of the law their whole lives. She appraised Norah with the steady gaze of a professional before demanding.

“We’re not open yet and young girls shouldn’t come here. What do you want?”

Though not hostile, the woman’s no-nonsense tone would make most girls and many men shrink. So when the girl before her didn’t, she continued before Norah could start.

“Oh, it’s you. Follow me, then. It’s ok Lennie, remain as you were”

After patting the man’s meaty shoulders once to pacify the confused dimwit, the woman stepped through the curtains. Norah followed. As she passed the big man, she noted his expression returning to its dull default as he stared blankly at the door.

The lightings were dimmer on the other side, but enough for Norah to see she had entered a decent-sized lounge with a bar in one corner, a performing stage on the opposite side, tables and chairs in the middle, and sets of sofas around the sides. Due to customers not arriving yet, no other staff was present. And surprisingly, the place didn’t stink.

Norah followed the woman through the lounge towards a ‘staff only’ door beside the bar. Behind the bar counter stood the only staff present, a small but well-built man with sharp and strong features, rinsing glasses under a sink. Dark face unmoving, his restless eyes flicked between the two.

“She’s with me.”

The woman declared before opening and stepping into an office with Norah in tow. After closing the door, she pointed at a chair before moving to sit in her own chair behind a small desk. Besides paper and loose stationary, there were bottles of medicine and small boxes of pills. Behind her stood a long clothes rack, on which hung numerous articles any decent woman should blush at the thought of being seen in.

“My name is Alicia. I am the proprietor of his fine establishment. My staff calls me ‘Mama’ or ‘Mama Alicia’, and since you’re now one of my staff I expect the same from you. Is that understood?”

Norah’s mouth twisted, causing the woman to raise her thin brows.

“If you don’t like it, you can get out and not come back. So, what will it be?”

Swallowing her contempt, Norah answered.

“I understand… Mama Alicia.”

Though not totally appeased, the proprietor nodded.

“Good. You’ve met my lovely doorman Lennie, and my charming master-of-drinks, George. I might introduce you to the girls later when they come in. Now then, what name do you go by?”

Mama Alicia’s distinct choice of ‘what name do you go by’ rather than ‘what is your name’ struck Norah, marking the woman as someone not to be trifled with. That, and her emphasis on the word ‘might’.


A faint smile of amusement appeared on the proprietor’s thin lips.

“Alright, Shireen. Who are you looking for? Murderer? Rapist?”

If it wasn’t obvious by now, Mama Alicia was aware of Norah’s disguise. Despite this being their first meeting, she had been informed beforehand of a ‘temporary employee’ by certain middlemen of hers and the detective bureau, thus arranging to have the front door open at this time.

“Members of a crime syndicate.”

Mama Alicia snorted at the girl’s vague response.

“Be more specific, girl! Most of my clients belong to one syndicate or another. If that’s what your bosses are looking for, they should have raided my establishment instead.”

Biting back her irritation, Norah elaborated.

“They kidnap children who are never seen again.”

Mama Alicia’s amused smirk remained, but her gaze turned serious.

“Ah… them. Very well. I’ve prepared your contract in advance, so go ahead and sign it.”

Fetching a sheet from the cluster on the desk, the woman laid it before Norah along with a pen. When the girl started reading it, she waved a bony hand.

“Don’t bother. It won’t count for anything once you finish this job and ‘Shireen’ disappears anyway.”

Seeing the merit in her logic, Norah complied by putting down her – also fake – signature. In the meantime the proprietor rose, turned to face the clothes rack, and started sifting through them.

“It’s been a few months since someone like you was sent, and about two years since I agreed to the last person sitting in your place.”

The proprietor retrieved several hangers, considered the articles hanging off them and the seated girl for a few moments, before tossing two at her. After returning the others, the woman resumed searching.

“Fortunately for you, or more specifically your superiors, the ones you’re after are at the bottom of my tolerate list. And lucky for you, my girls have told me about certain clients who fit your bill. For one, they always ask for the really young ones. Disgusting.”

Once she had handed Norah a dozen articles to choose from, Mama Alicia returned to her desk. Opening a top drawer, she lifted out and placed a small tray holding tiny bottles of perfume on the desk. In between lifting and sniffing each bottle to find a suitable scent, the proprietor continued.

“Besides George, a few of my senior girls will be aware of your real motives. Even so, I suggest you remain ‘Shireen’ to everyone except me, and only when I say it’s safe to do so. I won’t be responsible if your cover is blown. Understood?”

Norah hesitated before answering.

“What about the one at the door?”

“Lennie? He won’t be an issue. I’m sure he assumed you were a customer when you walked in, isn’t that right?”

“… Yes…”

Mama Alicia glanced up to smirk at the girl’s uncertainty.

“I know you’re thinking ‘Lennie can’t be trusted’, since he isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. But then again, being sharp isn’t a required skill for a bouncer. He may be meek despite his size, but he once crushed a guy’s fist just by grabbing it. Since then my girls have had few troublemakers, so why shouldn’t I keep him? Also, even if this city is the world’s ‘Big Apple’, not many places would still be kind enough to offer him a means of living.”

The proprietor’s last sentence held Norah’s attention. Indeed, despite having the best public service of every kind, Cambreford couldn’t afford to care for every possible vulnerable citizen. While the sick had health care, the orphaned and widowed had social protective services, and the poor had financial aid, the physically and mentally challenged depended wholly on the goodwill of those caring for them.

And it’s not as if Norah expected the city to. In Aszyria, men like Lennie would have been dead at a very young age from abandonment or neglect. In the slim chance he did survive to adulthood, it would’ve been at the whims of another controlling his fate; laboring under scorching sunshine or within cramp underground tunnels, fighting in gladiatorial matches to sate a bloodlusted crowd, and other brutal ways of life.

At last, Mama Alicia pushed a bottle towards her.

“Give it a whiff. Tell me if you’re fine with this.”

Norah did as she was bid. In addition to a common flowery scent, it had a mild citrus tang. She replied it was fine. The proprietor nodded with satisfaction and rose from her chair, beckoning Norah to do the same.

“Good. Since it’s your first day, you’ll serve customers their drinks. It’s simple; George prepares the drinks and you deliver them. Think you can do that?”


Author’s Endnotes:

Whether you’ve started from this volume, from the previous volume, or just jumped to this particular chapter for whatever reason, I thank you for reading Tales of Raetrethra. This chapter marks the first-third of the volume’s first story-arc. I hope it catches your interest to read on.

The code presented in this chapter is actually real, once you change ‘page’ for another word also starting with ‘p’. I’ll leave it at that.

Admitably, every scene in this arc lacks direct conflict or fast-paced action. My aim was to re-introduce the image of Cambreford, the Guardian Organization, and various important individuals. However, they also set into motion several conflicts which will be dealt with in the coming chapters.

Unfortunately, due to moving and starting my Ph.D. I have had little quality time for writing fiction. At one point I only wrote while on the bus to and from the lab. However, now that things are settling down, I should hopefully have more time. Hopefully.

If you enjoyed reading this tale so far, please ‘like’ and ‘shelve’ this volume. Also, do leave suggestions/criticisms in the comments section. That’s all for now, bye!

Submitted: June 18, 2018

© Copyright 2021 AJLKS. All rights reserved.


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