The mood in the Snow Lions’ tower was absolutely jubilant. It had been only a day and a half since the FTX came to an end, long enough for the unit to rest and sleep in, then begin to party, for they had come out of the FTX with six banners! There wasn’t any official reward for victory in the FTX other than honor and glory, but they’d receive first consideration for any well-respected knights seeking squires. The chances of every trainee in the unit receiving an enviable squireship skyrocketed.
Contributing to the celebration in the first floor common room, Leon, Castor, and Alphonsus had moved a lot of their drinks downstairs. They hadn’t had the opportunity to head into the city yet—there were still a few days of paperwork followed by the ceremony that officially ended the training cycle before they got any time off—so everyone had to content themselves with what little was available.
Perhaps the most central person in the celebrations was Alphonsus, as he had to hide out in the mountains with little food for three days, staying on the move to keep the remaining banners in the grasp of the Snow Lions. None of the other men in the unit could help, as the allied units had occupied their camp, thus keeping them ‘dead’ and unable to render assistance. So it came as no surprise to anyone that he was not only the most eager when it came to celebrating, but all the other trainees were perfectly willing to party with him. His selfish behavior early in the training cycle had been forgotten in light of his securing the unit’s win.
“… and when our shield wall finally broke, it took three of those assholes to take me down!” bragged Charles while he gestured wildly to make his point.
“Ha! It only took three for you! They had to send a third-tier noble to stop my arrows!” Henry boasted.
“That noble wasn’t sent for only you, it was for the entire archer platform! And you didn’t even put up that notable of a fight against him, did you?!” asked Charles.
While those two started to fight about who was more valiant and courageous, Alain, Matthew, and Bohemond were talking about what to do in the capital once they had the chance. All of their wives and fiancés were in the city waiting for them, so they had planned on having a smaller party where everyone could meet everyone else’s significant others. Alain was especially excited, as his three fiancés had all given birth, but he hadn’t had a lot of time to spend with his kids.
And as for Leon, he just sat back and enjoyed the atmosphere. The other five, knowing his general demeanor, didn’t bother him.
“Well, it is disappointing that you didn’t win first place in the FTX, but I’d say that Father will have a hard time saying that you dishonored the family,” Nicomedes said to Gaius. The two brothers had met back up in Nicomedes’ office to discuss what was going to happen to Gaius next, namely his transfer to Prince Octavius’ service.
“If all that can be said is that I ‘didn’t bring dishonor to the family’, then I hardly did well enough to be proud, did I?” asked Gaius sullenly. He had fought as hard as he could, all to prove that he deserved to serve and learn from the Second Prince, but in the end, he couldn’t surmount the obstacle that was the Snow Lions.
“Well, if you need some cheering up, Father said that he’d be stopping in Calabria for a day or so on his way north. The impression he gave me in his letter was that he would broach the topic of formally requesting Valeria be married to you while he was there,” Nicomedes said in an attempt to cheer his brother up.
Instead, Gaius barely reacted. He only closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair.
After several long seconds of silence, Gaius finally said, “That… isn’t necessary.”
“What?” Nicomedes asked in confusion. “I thought you were crazy about that girl. I seem to remember you declaring—multiple times, even—that you would one day make her your wife. What changed?”
Gaius sighed, then said, “Those were the foolish dreams of a child. She doesn’t love me. Or even like me, I think. Best to set that dream aside until I can earn it. If I can earn it.”
Gaius’ frankness rendered his older brother speechless. He’d never seen Gaius so resigned or lacking in confidence.
“By the way, you can send this back to Father,” Gaius continued as he placed the bracer he’d been given on Nicomedes’ desk.
“You didn’t use it?” Nicomedes asked when he picked it up and examined it.
“Of course I didn’t. If I did use it, and won, then it would’ve been Father who’d given me the win. If I lost with it, then it would’ve only been my punishment for cheating.”
“Using outside equipment isn’t cheating,” Nicomedes replied.
“I would consider using the magic of someone not in the Academy to be cheating,” Gaius answered, staring Nicomedes in the eye. “You said it yourself, my squireship under the Second Prince will be nothing but a cover for taking me as a hostage. But, it’s still squiring for someone of royal blood; I only wanted to earn my place of honor. Instead, all I earned was a place as a hostage.”
Nicomedes had no idea how to comfort his brother, and in the silence that followed, he didn’t get the chance. Gaius rose to his feet, said his goodbyes, and left without waiting for his brother’s response.
As he sat there alone, Nicomedes thought hard about what he could do, if anything. It probably wouldn’t help Gaius much, but he had an initial idea, at least.
The FTX had been over for only two days, but already the Academy was swarmed with requests from hundreds of respected knights in the capital for squires. Most were for the trainees in the Snow Lions—the requests for Castor and Alphonsus alone were almost more than the other third-tier trainees combined. Leon didn’t receive as many, probably due to his last name being ‘Ursus’, but he still received a great many requests.
And Nicomedes immediately threw away all of the requests for Leon. Then, he turned his attention to a detailed map on his wall with every Legion fort and fortress clearly marked.
‘The Central Territories are too good for this barbarian who’s caused my brother so much grief,’ Nicomedes thought with a vicious smile. ‘I’ll send him to a place he can disappear in. Somewhere on the Eastern frontier perhaps? No, too much opportunity to face stone giants and gain merits in battle. Ah, I know! Yes, that’s the perfect place for a northern barbarian…’
“Straighten yourself up, Lu!” a young blonde noblewoman scolded. If Leon could see her, he would recognize her as Victoria, one of the squires who had accompanied Roland to the Northern Vales. The man she was scolding was Luke, Roland’s squire, who had also accompanied the Paladin north.
“My clothes are fine!” Luke said glancing down at his sharp green military uniform. There wasn’t a single golden ornament decorating his chest, giving him an attractive clean aesthetic.
“Fine?!” Victoria said scornfully. “You have dirt here and here! And your pants have wrinkles! No self-respecting knight has wrinkly pants!”
While Victoria pointed out the flaws in his uniform, Luke glanced over at hers, desperate to find some faults that he could point in her own dress uniform to distract her from his, but try as he might, he couldn’t find a single flaw. He wasn’t too surprised, as Victoria was the daughter of a Count in the Western Territories, so she knew exactly how to dress. In fact, her green uniform was much fancier than his, with golden trim and several medals and ribbons she had won during her time in Dame Sheira’s service—medals and ribbons that he, too, had won, but had simply chosen not to wear. Such things weren’t required, he figured, so he didn’t want to bother putting them on.
The two knights accompanying them watched in amusement as Victoria took on the duty of personally fixing Luke’s uniform, supervising him as he smoothened and brushed the dust off his pants.
“You two sure make a cute couple,” the lady knight said. As soon as she said this, both Victoria and Luke went bright red, shut their mouths, and slightly shifted away from each other, pointedly looking in opposite directions.
She was Sheira Evensen, the knight Victoria had served for the past two years. The other knight was none other than the sixth Paladin of the Bull Kingdom, Sir Roland. Both had come to knight their newly-turned third-tier squires in the Knight Academy’s graduation ceremony. Luke and Victoria had served both of them for the required minimum of two years and ascended to the third-tier, so the Academy’s graduation requirements had been met.
“You shouldn’t have teased them!” Roland said with a playful smile. “Now look at them, too embarrassed to speak!”
Both Roland and Dame Sheira burst out into laughter, further embarrassing their two squires.
“So,” Dame Sheira said, moving them along and giving the squires some time to collect themselves, “what’s the schedule like?”
“You don’t know?” Roland asked.
“I only glanced at the schedule they sent out,” Dame Sheira said with a shrug and an unapologetic smile.
Roland sighed, then said, “First comes the opening ceremonies. Honoring the Ancestors and the Sacred Bull and all that. Next comes the ceremony for the people who’ve just completed their training cycle and are about to go off to their own squireships. Then comes the knighting ceremony for graduating squires.”
“Is that it?” Dame Sheira asked, her eyes already indicating that she was bored with the ceremony.
“For us, yes. Or at least, I have no intention of staying after the knighting ceremonies are over,” Roland replied.
“Good,” Dame Sheira said with a smile, “because neither do I.”
The ceremony honoring the trainees who completed their training cycle was being held at the same place the enrollment test took place. An enormous stage had been assembled, with thousands of seats surrounding it, enough for all the families of the hundreds of trainees.
The trainees themselves had been gathered together into one of the three surrounding buildings to wait for the ceremony to begin. They had rehearsed it the day before, so they knew exactly what they had to do.
“It’s about time,” said Castor after checking the clock on the wall.
“We’ve still got ten minutes or so left, no need to be so impatient,” Alphonsus said as Castor started making his way to the door. As the victorious unit, the Snow Lions would be placed right in the center of the stage, with all the other units off to the sides. All the knights in attendance would get a good look at them, especially at the three young men who led the unit.
Consequently, Castor was quite nervous, constantly checking and rechecking his brand new uniform and running through the entire ceremony in his head.
Finally, the thirty Instructors arrived and wrangled together the units to prepare to march out to the field, with the Snow Lions leading the way.
Leon breathed deeply, to quiet his own nerves. He wasn’t that thrilled at being placed in the center of attention, barely more than ten steps to the left of the Legate himself, but he didn’t have much of a choice in the matter; as one of the leading members of the Snow Lions, his place was at the head of his unit.
After a few more minutes of waiting where they could hear the distant roar of the Legate speaking into a voice amplifying stone, the training battalion began its march.
“… and these are the most promising young officers that will be the future of our Royal Legions!” the Legate said as soon as the battalion entered view, to which the entire watching crowd erupted into cheers.
The trainees were almost overwhelmed at the sight of over ten thousand cheering and waving family members, and all of them scanned the multitude of faces for their own loved ones. Leon found himself scanning through the faces as well, if only to satisfy his own curiosity. He certainly wasn’t looking for anyone in particular, though he did have a slight hope that Elise was in the crowd. He hadn’t gotten a chance to talk to her since before the FTX, but he had made sure to tell her when the ceremony would be held.
But then, mere seconds after he started looking at the spectators, he saw something that almost made his blood freeze: sitting in the front row, in a place of honor, was the Paladin Roland.
Thank you to my Sixth-tier patrons:
I Dewa Bagus