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22 Stand-off here and Stand-off there

 Ai felt her eyebrows twitched nervously as she looked down at their intertwining hands. It had been a while since they left Hozaka Weaponry and Shion had yet to let go of her hand.

At first, Ai had taken Shion's hands thinking it was merely a gentlemanly gesture but as they continued to walk, he didn't let go and continued to hold her hand...

"Young Master Hozaka, I will walk behind you, the streets are narrow..." Ai prompted slightly as she tried to pull her hand away.

But immediately, the large hands clutched her hand tighter. With something resembling a gentle smile, the young master turned and peered down at her.

"...don't let go, it's crowded here...", Shion spoke quietly.

Ai didn't say anything and nodded. It seemed that even though this young master is a man of few words, he seemed to be quite a caring person. With his thoughtfulness and noble character, and a calm temperament to boost, it was no wonder she has a very good impression of him. Yet his gentle actions triggered something in her mind...

One minute, she was happy. The other minute, she was not. She didn't know why but she felt a sense of foreboding. It was like something or rather someone was slipping away from her. Almost immediately, the image of a blonde young man with a gentle demeanour popped up. Kit...

Perhaps Shion's persistence and gentle action had reminded her of Kit but she wondered how he is now. He was knocked out cold by Hayama and had yet to wake up when she left...

At the busy seaport of Yunes Industry, a young man dressed in black blend himself into the shadows as he jumped up onto a large cargo ship. With an astounding sense of accuracy, his thin blade pointed at the neck of the ship captain and, in a cold voice he spoke: "...if you want your life intact, you will cooperate with me..."

In a matter of a few minutes, the largest cargo ship of Yunes Industry set out to sail without a schedule, surprising the workers at the port.

"Intruders! Intruders! Stop that ship and inform Young Master Yunes!", they yelled in panic. But it was too late, that cargo ship was the fastest and the best in the port of Yunes Industry, plus the vessels were filled gun powders imported from Westania. If they were to shoot fire arrows, the whole ship would explode and the port would catch on fire.

With a heavy heart, they could only watch in dismay as the cargo ship sailed away. In their minds, they lamented: ...Young Master Yunes is definitely gonna have their heads...

Shion stared silently at the young woman walking beside him. With the long flowing silver hair that framed her slender figure and the pale golden eyes that showed nothing but limpidness, she gave off the impression of a rare gemstone from the exotic lands. Yet her face held a trace of melancholy and coldness, making the onlookers feel pained yet unable to look away. In other words...very attractive...

Noticing the distant look in her eyes, Shion sighed inwardly. ...Looks like she is lost in thoughts again...

"...Miss Shizuka, what are you thinking about?...", Shion asked, gazing at the enchanting woman and gently stroking the hand he was holding.

Ai suddenly felt blank.

... Ahh, what was she thinking about? Her thought range was extremely vast, from what kind of weapons she should design to Kit's well-being and also what to eat for dinner, they were all jumbled up with no head and no tail.

"...Ahaa... I don't know...", Ai replied stupidly, not being able to make sense of her own self.

Shion's lips thinned but calmly looked away.

...Not willing to let me in huh?... It's fine, I have a lot of patience anyway...

Shion didn't reply and just grabbed her hands tighter. For now, he will just hold onto her and observe her. ...Last time he let go, she disappeared to god knows where. This time he won't let go...

Despite having a calm facade, Shion had a lot of things on his mind. When Ai disappeared the other day, he had gone mad with worries and personally sought out to find her even though he didn't like going out to the public. That whole night he was out and about with no news of her until the morning came and he found her... right in the arms of Jin Omaru.

Jin Omaru... That wretched name kept on appearing around her and Shion was starting to feel irked. When he saw Ai looking at Jin Omaru with such complicated expression at the annual ball, his mood had turned sour back then. With so much frustration and no outlet to vent, Shion had confronted Jin Omaru in rage and that was a first for him...

Plus what was so special about Jin Omaru anyway? Nothing but a mediocre general, Jin Omaru didn't seem that bright with only a passable appearance and his family name. Yet her attention was solely focused on him, stopping her from seeing anyone else around her...

Shion suddenly felt a suffocating tightness in his chest. It really looked like the lady couldn't see anyone but Jin Omaru. Wanting to appear in her line of sight, Shion moved, surprising himself as he stood in front of her awkwardly.

"Ehh?" Ai looked up, feeling kind of shocked that the young master stood in front of her out of nowhere.

"We are here..." Shion covered up his slip-up as he moved slightly away.

Ai Shizuka's very short attention was immediately stolen. Awaiting them was the bustling scene of a street fair that has rows of merchant stalls neatly lined up. From the household goods to collectables, this fair has everything that one could possibly want.

Seeing the familiar brown-haired staff who was busy taking down the orders, Ai immediately rushed over.

"Suji! How's it going?" she greeted jovially, wanting to know about her "babies".

"Oh, Mrs Hozaka! Ehh... I mean Miss Shizuka! Ahahaa! My mistake! It's doing great and selling well! We received more orders than the previous batches!", Suji replied laughing off at his "mistake".

Ai wanted to roll her eyes yet at the same time, wanted to laugh ...Yeah right, "mistake"... Ever since she started working at the Hozaka Trading, the boy had been constantly teasing her and Shion. And this time was also done deliberately...

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... As if that's even possible... Ai mused. Shion Hozaka is like an unattainable immortal high above heaven. The pristine and noble angel that heaven sent out to save humanity... Obviously, that kind of person will never end up with the likes of her.

But hearing that her "babies" were doing well, she didn't pay any more thoughts to Suji's teasing and happily nodded as she went off to inspect the batches of weapons displayed. Busy with her own excitement, Ai somehow missed the discreet thumbs-up that Shion gave to Suji.

After checking the weapon samples, Ai stood quietly to the side as she observed the crowd. The customer base was mostly young men but there were also ladies who seemed fascinated by the lightweight portable weapons.

"This is a sword?" a wealthy-looking tall woman with a flaming red hair asked, staring curiously at a retractable sword. By its appearance, the weapon only displayed a hilt in its retracted form. But once fully out, the blade was made up of extremely sharp jagged edge. In other words, it was an excellent weapon for surprise attacks.

Ai Shizuka's lips slightly tilted up. The fish is in the trap, now is time for the kill. She was about to go entice the lady with her other merciless weapons, suddenly a conversation behind her startled her.

"...Young master Omaru, thank you for bringing me here, my father is in need of weapons for Yamato magistrate but I am so silly and didn't know how to help... If I had not run into you, I wouldn't know what to do..."

"It's no trouble, Miss Yamato. We are also looking for new weapons for the defence forces. It's just on my way..."

Ai wanted to bang her head on the ground. Out of everyone in Shinto, these two pests also had to be here. It was like every time she went out, she had to run into them. Wanting to make a quick escape, she tried to sneak away but suddenly, a soft voice called out, catching the attention of the other two:"...Ai?"

Ai stood still, not moving a muscle as she tried to force a smile on her face. Stiffly turning around, she greeted: "...Ahhh! Akiyo..."

The young man's face lit up happily as he walked over closer: "It's really you, Ai... What are you doing here?..."

Before she could reply, Miko Yamato cut in: "Since Miss Shizuka is such a peerless beauty, perhaps she had come to pick up some cosmetics?"

Ai scratched her head, she was in a dilemma. If she told them her real purpose here, she would have to converse with them. But if she didn't, well... even if it wasn't the truth, she wouldn't have to chat with them.

"Yes." Ai Shizuka simply nodded, just single-mindedly affirming that she was the peerless beauty and had come to pick up cosmetics.

"...Pfft..." Akiyo laughed while Jin's face lit up with a slight smile.

"...that was... adorable..." Jin Omaru thought.

On the other hand, Miko's face darkened. This Ai Shizuka, she is really shameless with no sense of propriety. It was a code of conduct that when a noble lady received a compliment, she should act humbly and with dignity. But Ai Shizuka... She... She was too brazen, it showed what kind of upbringing she has!

Unable to take Ai's "arrogant" attitude any longer, Miko Yamato smiled cunningly. "Hmm... but you are in the weapon section where men frequent... perhaps Miss Shizuka's true intention is to... Well... how should I put it... to frolic with men, seeing how unescorted you are...", Miko laughed, her tone light yet one could sense the undefinable malice behind.

Before Ai could react, a voice boomed, "Who the hell said she is unescorted?"

"This prince is escorting her!" A pair of slender arms wrapped around her shoulders.

Ai closed her eyes, sighing deeply.

...Great, the troublemaker is here... What kind of drama is he gonna make...

Miko stood frozen as she stared at the heavenly man in front of her. With beautiful white hair and pale blue eyes, the man's features looked like they were crafted to divine perfection. Yet those blue eyes were glaring at her, evidently, with anger and disgust. Miko's mouth went dry.

...H-how...why is it always Ai Shizuka who gets their attention?... Miko's hatred for Ai doubled up.

The first one to react from this little drama was Akiyo: "...Prince Mizuko? I thought you had gone back? Your envoy was here this morning..."

"Oh?... you know this prince ah? Good boy, it seemed that I'm popular, who might you be?", Hayama asked haughtily, completely not caring about how arrogant he appeared to others.

Akiyo swallowed back down his pride. He knew that was the neighbouring crown prince but such kind of arrogance: "Second-in-charge General to Omaru Defence, Akiyo Omaru, at your service, Your Highness.", Akiyo greeted, bringing his hands together in a fisted salute. (Author: I don't know how to describe that action but it's a common type of salute in ancient times)

Hayama nodded dismissively before his cold eyes turned to look at the other two, "And you two are?", he asked coldly.

Seeing the look of pain and well...as usual, the look of betrayal on Jin's face, Ai suddenly felt uneasy. Sure, she shouldn't be feeling guilty over it but somehow it seemed... the feelings from her past life had been carried over.

Feeling suddenly awkward at being held, Ai tried to pull away from the arms on her shoulder. But those seemingly thin and weak arms were unexpectedly strong, rigidly clutching her neck without a sign of letting go.

"...What?..." Hayama asked, his expression uncharacteristically angry at her refusal.

Ai didn't say anything but stopped her actions. Hayama looked mad, that was unusual... though she only knew the man for a short while, she somehow naively thought he was just a playful character, completely forgetting that he was, in fact, a powerful crown prince.

"Jin Omaru. Regent General to Omaru Defence. At your service."

From the way, Jin spoke and the stance he was exhibiting with his sword tightly clutched in front, the introduction was more like a challenge, rather than a greeting.

Ai sighed tiredly, not wanting to deal with this drama any longer. Initially, she wanted to upsell her weapons the customers. But these... these people appeared, spoiling her plans. Now with her fish nowhere in sight, her mood had turned sour.

"...Ehh, heartless little thing...what got you upset again?..." Hayama asked lightly with a smile as he turned to stare at Ai, looking away boredly from Jin without any acknowledgement. He had felt the aura of extreme rage rising from her.

Before she could answer, a calm voice behind responded: "Miss Shizuka is here because she is my partner for these new weapons. She is the one who designed these revolutionary weapons single-handedly."

Ai turned her head around, feeling slightly relieved at the appearance of Shion. But his face looked rather... stiff. Yet it was a nice save anyway. Now with his declaration, the previous misunderstanding had cleared up and plus Shion is a businessman, he could upsell these weapons to the customers without her help.

Happy that her business ally had finally appeared, Ai wanted to walk over but she almost forgot the clingy arms wrapped around her. At her movement of turning around, the arms changed position and instead, they wrapped around her body tightly and a chin rested on her shoulder.

Ai felt confused but seeing how Hayama's gaze was now solely focused on Shion's direction, she somehow understood.

"Did you want to know who that is also, your highness?", Ai asked, glancing back and forth between two men.

"I know. I already knew who that is... he bore such a strong resemblance to a... person I knew", Hayama replied with a slight smile, his stare not wavering one bit.

"Long time no see, Cousin Hozaka."