The weeks passed by quickly for the Snow Lions. The other nine units had started fighting for each other’s banners in earnest, but their conflicts meant little in the secluded gorge. The Snow Lions simply got into the habit of continuing their Light Infantry training, which meant running many more patrols and sitting through more lessons from their Instructors.
The other units did the same training, but they stopped after lunch; the Snow Lions continued well into the evening, with only Leon and several others keeping up with their extra classes. Since the extra classes weren’t necessary for graduation, almost all of the Snow Lions were perfectly comfortable skipping them, even after the Senior Instructor stopped forcing them to stay in the gorge and train.
But the gorge wasn’t that large, all things considered, so their training patrols were gradually moved out into the forest. This gave the Snow Lions an unparalleled understanding of the Academy’s geography, with even the dullest of the first-tier commoners in the unit confident in their abilities to navigate around the forest and mountains.
The other units expanded their training areas out into the forest as well, but they rarely ventured out more than a thousand feet from their towers. And, since they barely ever saw them, they had long since started to forget about the Snow Lions. As far as most of the trainees in the cycle were concerned, there were effectively only nine units in the Academy rather than ten. Of course, they weren’t exactly wrong, given that the Snow Lions weren’t participating in the inter-unit battles.
Two units that were quite enthusiastically taking part in said battles were the Steel Century and Crimson Tigresses. The Steel Century, led by the strategically gifted Marcus, had managed to seize two other banners, leaving them with a total of three. The first banner to be seized was taken in a night-time raid on one of the other units’ tower, while the second was taken in an ambush as the opposing unit was returning home after dinner.
As for the Crimson Tigresses, they had taken theirs in a significantly stealthier manner, infiltrating the enemy tower and stealing it in the night. Their tactics were quite similar to the Snow Lions, with them eliminating the first-tier trainees on the first floor in their sleep then taking the banner from the undefended shrine. Unlike the Snow Lions, however, Asiya fared much better at removing the banner from the shrine than Castor and took it without triggering the alarm.
In every training cycle, the other nine units would always be extremely hesitant to attack the Crimson Tigresses. That was the unit that all the ladies who joined the Knight Academy were sent to, after all, so the vaguely chivalric notions of the third-tier nobles would always leave the Crimson Tigresses safe from attack until they began their own attempts to steal banners. But that also gave them the initiative, letting them take their time and only move when they were ready. They could focus on their training and create a good plan, which meant that the ladies would invariably make the other units pay for not attacking them first.
Under Valeria and Asiya, the Crimson Tigresses truly lived up to their name, attacking four different units in the span of a week and causing far more casualties than they received—though they only managed to take the first banner they went after. They only had about half the numbers of the other units, and that was a hard difference to overcome no matter who was involved. That being said, after these attacks announced to the rest of the training battalion that the ladies were ready for battle, they repulsed three assaults on their own tower without ever being in danger of losing their two banners.
Tiberias’ Black Vipers participated in a couple battles as well but didn’t do much to distinguish themselves. This was, oddly enough, by Tiberias’ own design. He was saving himself for the ending competition, so he led the Black Vipers to attack only two other units. He didn’t even target their banners; he would simply retreat after a few token casualties were inflicted.
But that wasn’t to say Tiberias and the Black Vipers were sitting on their thumbs all day. They had actually filled much of their time with additional training, in the same vein as the Snow Lions and the Deathbringers—though not as intense. Tiberias and his fellow third-tier Black Vipers weren’t helping to train their lower-tiered trainees, only making them practice what they had learned during that day’s morning training.
All of this meant little to the Snow Lions, who continued to train hard in the secluded western mountains, gradually becoming something that—to their Instructors at least—started to resemble a proper company of Royal Legion soldiers.
Valeria continued sitting next to Leon during their enchantment classes. Gaius had stopped bothering her—and had even seemed to stop talking to most people—but that didn’t mean that she was going to change seats. She and Leon had gotten quite used to sitting next to each other, exchanging short greetings when the class started and they had managed to start relaxing in each other’s presence. They still refrained from actually conversing with each other for more than a few sentences, though.
When the class was over, they’d say goodbye or something to that effect and proceed to their next class. Valeria would occasionally catch Leon looking at her in weird ways and she could sense a faint aura of killing intent radiating from him whenever he saw her, but she couldn’t for the life of her figure out why. She considered just asking him if he had a problem with her, but the aura was faint and undirected enough for her to not be sure if it was for her, so she was always too embarrassed to clear the air. And since Leon was in no hurry to explain himself, the two would always sit in silence despite their respect for each other’s fighting abilities.
Their respect for each other was profound enough that both greatly desired to train together, but since neither could start a proper conversation with the other, that desire had to go unfulfilled. But then, one day a little over two months after the Snow Lions regained their banner, Valeria was approached with an offer that could potentially result in the two fighting again.
It was during the second afternoon class of the day. Most of the classes offered to the trainees were various arts or cultural classes, to give them some of the depth expected of a noble knight, but Valeria wasn’t particularly keen on any of them apart from a slight interest in enchanting. The other classes were all subjects like horseback riding or medicine that she was already proficient enough in, though, so she was forced to choose one that she didn’t find particularly engaging.
She wound up choosing music as her second class. She wasn’t very good and quite hated playing instruments like the piano, but absent-mindedly plucking at a harp while quietly meditating was a tolerable way to pass the time for her.
Marcus Aeneas had taken the same class, delighting in getting to learn about various instruments and throwing himself wholeheartedly into the musical arts. However, on that day, he put aside his lyre, flute, and drum, and approached Valeria with an offer concerning the Snow Lions. She had been meditating and didn’t appreciate the interruption, but she heard him out anyway.
And when he was done, she agreed to his proposition.
The day after Marcus made his offer to Valeria, she was absent from the enchanting class. Leon found it quite odd, but the trainees weren’t required to attend the classes for graduation, so absences weren’t uncommon if the trainee in question felt their time would be better used for training. Still, neither Leon nor Valeria had missed a single day the entire cycle, and Leon felt a little unsettled by the sight of her empty seat.
[Who cares where that girl is. If your suspicions are actually correct and she’s related to your enemy, the more distance you can put between yourself and her, the better,] muttered Xaphan after sensing Leon’s unease.
[If my suspicions are correct,] Leon whispered back, perfectly willing to give Valeria the benefit of the doubt.
[Mmm… Sounds to me like you’re thinking with the wrong head…]
[My thoughts are quite clear, demon. Valeria isn’t necessarily involved with that ‘Adrianos Isynos’…] Leon had repeated that to himself multiple times over the past few months, trying to quiet the suspicious voice in the back of his mind that prevented him from trying to get closer to Valeria. Leon wanted to challenge her to sparring sessions again, and it was that voice that kept him from speaking up.
Their back-and-forth ended there as the enchanting instructor arrived and the class began. Afterward, Leon made for the Snow Lion tower, as had become routine. As he leisurely jogged down the forest roads, though, he suddenly realized that he was being followed. This wasn’t too unusual, he had fought off spies sent by other units before, but he had a bad feeling that this time was different. His pursuer was staying off the road so Leon couldn’t see him and moved so silently that if the wind hadn’t carried the sound just so, Leon might’ve missed it.
Leon frowned but kept moving. There wouldn’t be much point in confronting the enemy right there in the middle of the road as Leon didn’t know their numbers or identities, though he guessed that it couldn’t be more than one or two.
The other returning trainees didn’t take such a slow pace and arrived at the tower before he did, so once he entered their sight, he motioned for them to head inside. This group of Snow Lions, half a dozen strong, had had to fend off enough spies to create a protocol for it, which essentially boiled down to heading inside to strategize in a place where they wouldn’t be overheard. If anyone did try to take the opportunity to attack while they’re inside, they could leave out of a window while the attacker was busy with the locked door.
When Leon made it to the door, he took one last look over his shoulder before making his way inside. He didn’t see anyone, but he could still feel their eyes on him from the forest. That he couldn’t locate this mysterious enemy in the terrain he was most comfortable in unnerved him.
“What’s going on?” asked one of the other Snow Lions.
“We’re being followed. Don’t know how many, but they’re out there.” Leon’s attitude caught the others off-guard. They were used to him being unmatched in the forest, but his uncertainty made them all extremely nervous.
“What… what should we do?” asked another of the second-tier trainees.
“Hmmm…” Leon muttered, having been mulling that very problem over since he first noticed the uninvited guest. “We don’t have enough people to fight off a coordinated attack from another unit… For now, we’ll head north instead of west and try to lose them in the forest. If we’re lucky, our pursuer will get bored and leave or I’ll locate them somehow. If we’re not lucky, then… we scatter. If everyone runs in a separate direction, at least one of us should escape. Our mystery pursuer will probably go after me, seeing as they should be third-tier as well if they’re hiding from me so well…”
“Define ‘not lucky’…” asked the first trainee who spoke up.
“If they attack us. Let me know if you see anyone, and if we’re attacked, then do as I said and bail.”
The other trainees frowned but accepted his plan. They were in a terrible position, but there wouldn’t be much they could do other than hope for the best if even Leon was so obviously expecting the worst. The six men trusted Leon, though. His defense of the tower when the Deathbringers attacked and his actions afterward had won over most of the second-tier nobles, helped greatly by Castor’s friendly attitude towards him. They weren’t Leon’s followers, but since Castor wasn’t there they accepted his authority without much reservation.
“Well, we’re not going to get anywhere if we just hide in here,” said Leon as he turned back to the entrance. He paused before opening the door to listen, but after not hearing anything he pushed it open and confidently led the others back outside.
The group nervously walked across the open area surrounding the tower to enter the forest, expecting arrows to rain down on them any second.
They made it to the tree line without coming under fire, though, and sped off into the forest, with Leon setting a pace brisk enough to make it nearly impossible for anyone to follow them silently. But follow them silently the spy must have because Leon couldn’t hear or see anything. In fact, after about five minutes of running through the quiet forest, the thought that Leon was mistaken had started to creep into the minds of the other Snow Lions.
And then an arrow sped through the trees, narrowly missing both Leon and one of the second-tier nobles.
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