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After Marcus’ ambush, the Snow Lions changed their policies a little. They had made it through the event without suffering any casualties, but Castor thought that it would be better to be safe than sorry and stopped allowing those few second-tier mages who were still going to class to continue. They’d stay at camp in the gorge and train.
Leon was another story, though. Castor had absolute faith in his abilities in the forest, so he didn’t attempt to restrict Leon’s freedom. And, perhaps it was also because Castor realized that Leon probably wouldn’t listen to him anyway if he did try to stop him from going to his enchantment classes.
Regardless, no other unit would be able to repeat what Marcus had attempted, to catch a small group of Snow Lions out in the open far away from any reinforcements and try to force the location of the rest of the unit out of them. In fact, it was fortunate that Marcus had made his ambush attempt so needlessly complicated; if he and the other five third-tier mages had simply attacked the group in the forest rather than trying to lure Leon into an ambush, they probably would have succeeded in capturing most of them.
Leon was happy with the new policy, as it freed him from having to worry about the group on the way back to the camp. Plus, both Castor and Alphonsus started accompanying him to fetch the daily supplies from where the Academy staff left them in their tower, just in case anyone tried to ambush them in the mornings or evenings.
So, Leon went to class the very next day after the ambush. When he walked through the door of the enchantment classroom, Valeria was sitting at their table in the back and looked a little surprised at his appearance. She thought that, given the way the Snow Lions had behaved over the previous few months, Leon would be cautious and skip classes for a while.
Instead, Leon walked right over to his seat and sat down, a subtle smile tugging at the corners of his lips. The two sat in silence about a minute before Valeria’s curiosity got the best of her stoicism.
“So, how did you pull off that counter-attack?” she asked.
“That trail I left was deliberate. I doubled back and got reinforcements while you all were following it,” Leon responded. As he did, his struggling half-smile instantly grew wider as he was just as eager to talk with Valeria about the previous day’s events as she was.
“But how did you find us in that maze? Did you plan that as well?”
“Didn’t have to. I figured you four wouldn’t stop in the face of some mountains after chasing me so far, so I doubled back at the entrance to the maze.”
“But what about finding us? We didn’t see that much, yet I got the impression that the maze was quite extensive…”
“It very much is, but my unit was able to find a way to the top. Running along the top of the cliff made locating your party a piece of cake.”
“Hmm,” Valeria said, amusedly grinning at Leon. “Well, you no longer have to worry about me or Asiya. We won’t be participating in something like that again. Or at least, not until the FTX…”
“Oh? That certainly sounds ominous,” Leon said, returning her smile.
[Hey! Don’t forget that she might be an enemy!] shouted Xaphan.
Leon had been looking directly at Valeria—as had Valeria at him—but Xaphan’s comment made him avert his gaze.
[… I know that,] he responded quietly.
[Really? Because it seemed like you needed a reminder. I get that you’re only sixteen-]
[Right, because that makes such a difference. Just, think with the proper head. My continued existence relies on you not getting killed, so don’t do something stupid and get killed.]
[Hmm. Wise words, a true mantra to live by,] Leon said sarcastically.
[Don’t be so dismissive, boy. All it takes is one mistake and you’ll wind up six feet under. Best not to make mistakes.]
[Yeah, yeah, I get it.]
[Do you? Do you really?]
[Ancestors damnit, yes!]
“Is everything alright?” Valeria asked, seeing Leon look away and his smile fade.
“Things are fine,” Leon replied.
Despite Xaphan’s warnings, Leon ended up chatting with Valeria until the enchantment instructor arrived and began class. The demon was left a little exasperated, but Leon couldn’t help himself. He genuinely liked Valeria, from her fighting skill to her quiet and reserved nature that was so similar to his own. By the time the instructor gave them some free time to practice a few simple light enchantments that would act like brief candles, Leon had completely forgotten about Valeria’s last name and the implication it held if his suspicions about it proved true.
“Hey,” Valeria began as the class drew to a close, “I’d like to ask you something.”
“Go for it,” Leon said, turning his attention to her while he finished cleaning up his used spell paper.
“I…” she said, her cheeks slightly reddening from embarrassment. “Would it be alright if I called you a friend?”
Leon was completely taken aback. They had fought more than a dozen times, so they knew each other well enough from a certain perspective, but they had barely spoken more than a few sentences at a time otherwise.
“… Sure,” Leon hesitantly replied. Valeria’s face, normally so impassive that it could’ve been carved from marble, immediately lit up with a breathtaking smile. She even had to hold herself back from throwing her arms around Leon in a tight hug, as they were still in a relatively public place and she had her own dignity to maintain.
“Yes!” she whispered, allowing herself that one celebratory indulgence.
Leon, too, started grinning like an idiot once it sunk what he had just said. There weren’t many people he would consider friends, and he felt good saying that Valeria was one of them.
“So then, as friends, how about we spar again?” Valeria asked with shining eyes.
Leon had enjoyed their duels during Basic Combat immensely, so he immediately said, “Sure!”
[Come on, kid!] said Xaphan exasperatedly, but Leon ignored the demon.
“Then how about this weekend, Asiya and I were going to her family’s estate in the city where they have a private training arena. How about we meet up on the training field and head over there in the morning?”
For the briefest of moments, Valeria’s last name crept back into Leon’s mind, but her enthusiasm to spar with him again made her so uncharacteristically happy that Leon was incapable of saying no. The two made a few more plans about when and where to meet on Saturday morning, then went their separate ways, Valeria to her next class and Leon back to the Snow Lions’ camp.
After they had left, Gaius was still in his seat, silently suppressing his own frustration. Their entire last conversation had been loud enough that he could hear even when not paying attention.
“What’s wrong, Gaius?” asked one of his second-tier friends after the man had seen that Gaius was still in his seat even though class was over.
Gaius sighed before answering, calming himself down and ensuring a stable voice. “Nothing. Let’s go.”
‘I don’t like how close they’re getting, but in hindsight it’s hard to blame Valeria for not really liking me. If I were less of an arrogant asshole, maybe it would’ve been me who received that invitation…’
Ever since the Snow Lions had seized the Deathbringers’ banner, Gaius had been reflecting on his past behavior and what it meant to be noble. Before enrolling in the Knight Academy, he would’ve answered the question of nobility as being able to do whatever he wanted by right of lineage, that his noble blood made him better.
But, after eating loss and humiliation after loss and humiliation at the hands of a barbarian that he literally looked down on at one point, he found himself ruminating on many things. His conclusion up to that point had been that the best way to appear noble was to act with nobility. To earn respect through noble action rather than demand it. His lineage made that easy by placing him in the spotlight from birth, but he had squandered that advantage to the point that his reputation was about as far from respectable as a young sixteen-year-olds could be.
But, even after coming to that conclusion after months of thought, his muted anger and frustration at seeing Leon growing even closer to the lady he had a crush on showed him that he still had a long way to go before he could call himself noble without shame.
When Leon returned to the Snow Lions’ camp, he was greeted by Castor and a large group of Snow Lions ready to venture out and fight if anyone tried another ambush.
But there wasn’t another ambush; Leon made it back without incident. Castor and Leon spoke a few words of greeting and went back inside the caves for a meeting. They had to decide where to hold the next morning’s training, to continue their campaign to learn everything they could about the terrain of the Knight Academy.
Everyone else was split off for individual training. The first-tier trainees meditated and the second-tier trainees practiced their archery or sparred amongst each other. However, there was one man who wasn’t training: Alphonsus.
Alphonsus had barely filled his role as one of the men in charge of the Snow Lions since the training cycle began. It had gotten to the point that there wasn’t a single trainee that wasn’t already loyal to his family that took him even the slightest bit seriously. Most of the time, he was ignored except for the few unlucky individuals who were assigned to his squad for morning training.
When Leon came back to the camp and met up with Castor, Alphonsus was in his room wishing he could swap the stone slab he had to sleep on for a real bed. His back ached and the humid chill made his skin crawl. For the more than three months they had been there, Alphonsus had barely been able to sleep. Try as he might, finding any comfort in the caves was impossible for the young nobleman.
But Castor, his long-time friend, had repeatedly told him that there were no plans to return to the tower. After a while, Alphonsus had stopped asking and secluded himself where he didn’t have to pretend to be happy with the living arrangements. However, even this wasn’t enough for Alphonsus. At the same time as Leon and Castor were debating where next to train, Alphonsus walked out of his room into the adjacent cavern, which had been used as the third-tier trainee’s meeting room.
“Al!” said a surprised yet happy Castor, a smile appearing on his face due to his friend finally showing himself. “I didn’t expect to see you!”
Alphonsus took a seat on one of the three stone stools around their stone table, though he tried to touch as little of the slightly damp stone as he could.
“What’s up, my friend?” Castor asked.
“… I was thinking,” Alphonsus began, “we should return to our tower.”
Castor’s smile flickered, but he managed to keep it up. He decided to hold his tongue until Alphonsus finished. And Leon, of course, didn’t say a word either.
“I think it would not only boost morale to sleep in proper beds again, but we’d be able to participate in the inter-unit battles. Such participation is expected of us, but instead we hide out here in the mountains like rats. I want us to return to the tower, as a challenge to any who might wish to fight. I want us to be proper trainees of the Academy, rather than a unit that isolates itself from the troubles of its world.”
“You… make some fair points,” Castor said once he was sure that Alphonsus was finished. “Indeed, the inter-unit battles are a large part of the training we receive in the Academy, and I agree that we can’t truly be a part of them if we are this far removed.”
“Not like we can’t have this place as a secret refuge if need be,” added Leon, to Alphonsus’ shock and quiet appreciation.
“Then it’s agreed? We can return to the tower?” Alphonsus asked, hardly believing his brief venting of frustrations actually achieved his goal.
“Yes, I think it’s about time. I was actually considering it, myself,” said Castor.
“I’m fine with it. Would be nice to sleep in a good bed again,” Leon softly muttered just loud enough for the other two to hear.
“Then it’s unanimous! We’ll return to the tower!” Castor nearly shouted. Alphonsus couldn’t believe his ears, but his mouth curved into an enormous smile anyway.
“But first,” Castor continued, dampening Alphonsus’ joy a little, “we should have a conversation about how and exactly when we should move. Probably not tomorrow, but maybe Saturday or Sunday…”
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