Chapter 106 - An End to Denial

Before Leon knew it, Saturday had come.  He woke up early and eagerly got ready to meet Valeria when the Snow Lions were dismissed.  Every so often, though, he would pause for a moment.  A few memories would repeatedly come back to him.  The first was Artorias’ death and burial, the second was Ajax telling him the name of the man who had led the assassins to his home—Adrianos Isynos—and the third was his learning of Valeria’s last name when checking the scores of the enrollment test.

He had many times tried to justify to himself why he wasn’t digging deeper into something that seemed far too coincidental, but he was finding that he had to repeat these justifications to himself more and more.  He couldn’t say with absolute certainty that her family was involved, and even if they were, no family worth their salt would ever entangle a sixteen or seventeen-year-old girl in their conspiracies.

But his inner conflict couldn’t be sustained.  Had he been alone, he might’ve been able to continue on for several more months, but there was another being keeping him constant company.  And the voice of this being had been growing louder in his mind for the previous few days.

[I know I can’t really stop you from going to see that girl,] said Xaphan, with blatant caution and apprehension in his tone, [but I will remind you not to show any signs of who you really are in front of her.  Repeat your made-up backstory in your mind a few dozen times if you have to, but don’t fuck this up.]

[You’re not going to let up on this, are you?] Leon asked, feeling a little tired from the demon’s constant commenting on this issue.  [You’ve been talking about this almost nonstop for the past few days.  I won’t slip up in front of her.  I’m Leon Ursus, a tribesman from the Northern Vales, not Leon of House Raime.]

[… I would feel a lot more comfortable if you would cancel this little date of yours.  For both our sakes, cancel.  You’re far too weak to combat someone who possesses the resources to eliminate a family of mages as strong as yours used to be.]

[That discomfort stems from something I told you, nothing more.  Valeria has shown me no ill will.  Had I never let you in on my suspicions, you’d probably be telling me to try and get closer to her like you do with Elise.]

[Well, call me paranoid then.  I just don’t want to die like a stray dog, alone in this gutter of a plane at the hands of those who by all rights ought to be far beneath me.]

[Don’t worry, demon.]  Leon took on a far more conciliatory tone, one with a little confidence to allay the fears of his partner.  [I’ve been thinking on this very issue for a while now.  I’ve been trying to convince myself that Valeria isn’t a threat to me, that she wasn’t involved in my father’s death in any way.  In all likelihood, that’s true.]

[But-]

[But her family may well be connected, or even directly responsible.  Today, I’m going to remove my doubts.]

[… Very well, Leon.  I’ll trust you, for now.]

With their conversation complete, Leon finished his morning rituals.  He was clean and wore fresh clothes, and after he, Castor, and Alphonsus made their way to the tower and back, his stomach was full of a hearty breakfast.

As soon as the Senior Instructor dismissed them, Leon started jogging through the mountains and forest to meet up with Valeria and Asiya.  Charles, Henry, Alain, and the others had all made plans, so they went their own way, though not without offering a few last invitations to Leon to join them.

Leon hadn’t told them who he was going to meet, which was why they were persistent in their attempts to get Leon to hang out with them.  Had he told them he was meeting with a pair of gorgeous women, they would’ve undoubtedly stopped—though not without a bit of jealous teasing.

Speaking of the women in question, they were already waiting for Leon where Valeria said they were going to be, at the training field where the road that led to their tower began.

“Hey there!  Good to see ya!” shouted Asiya in her usual chipper attitude, accompanied by an energetic wave.  Valeria didn’t greet Leon out loud, but she faintly smiled and nodded to him.

Leon silently responded with a wave and nod of his own, and they were off to the city.  However, Leon and Valeria hardly glanced at each other for several minutes after they had met up. 

“Ooooh this is going to be sooo much fun!  I’m happy you’re coming with us!” Asiya said happily, her bright and sunny expression doing a great deal to alleviate the awkwardness between her two companions.

“Uh… Thanks for inviting me.  I’m looking forward to some friendly training, myself,” Leon said, responding with as much politeness as he could muster.

“Drop that formality!  We’re all friends here, right?” Asiya said with a bubbly giggle.  

“Sure…” muttered Leon as his cheeks started to turn red.

“Good!  Now, since we’re friends, maybe you could answer a question of mine?” Asiya asked, her eyes narrowing mischievously.

“… Go for it.” Leon hesitantly said.

Asiya’s expression turned sly and her eyes darted to Valeria before continuing with her question.  “I think you know a friend of ours, Elise, the daughter of the Heaven’s Eye Tower Lord here in the capital.  I was wondering what your relationship is with her?”

Valeria instinctively turned to look at Leon, but she just as quickly looked away.  Her heart rate nearly doubled while Leon froze in the middle of the training field, desperately trying to restart his brain after the shock of such an unexpected question.

“I… We… Um…” was all he was able to get out for a few seconds.  After Asiya continued to stare at him he realized that there was no getting out of offering at least some kind of answer, so he took a deep breath both to steady his own elevated heart rate and to find his tongue.

When he was ready to speak, he looked Asiya dead in the eyes and said completely honestly, “I don’t really know what we are.  We haven’t met that many times, and neither have we really spoke to clarify.  However, I like her.  And I’m… reasonably certain that she likes me as well.”

[Only ‘reasonably’?] Xaphan asked rhetorically.

Asiya remained silent for a moment after Leon said his piece, the sly look not leaving her face. 

“I see, you and Elise like each other but aren’t actually going out yet…” she finally said.  “Well, that’s good to know!”

After all that was said, she changed the subject to the classes they were all taking.  She had chosen horseback riding and dancing as her electives.  The former was to fill in a void in her martial abilities, so she would be ready in the off-chance she was placed into a cavalry unit after the training cycle.  The latter was because she simply enjoyed dancing.

Leon and Valeria were largely silent while she talked, but after some frustration, she was able to get them to loosen up and talk a bit by bringing up how Leon managed to escape from Marcus’ ambush.

About half an hour after leaving the Knight Academy, they arrived at the estate of the Samarid family in the central districts of the capital.  Out of the myriad palaces in the capital, the one built by Asiya’s parents was by far the most eye-catching, if only due to its radically different architectural style and building materials.

Most of the Samar Kingdom was covered by a harsh sandy desert.  It lacked the stone quarries and vast forests of many of their neighbors, which meant they had to build with the only material they had in abundance: sand.  The common people lived in and occupied buildings of tan sandstone, but the rich and noble lived in sprawling palaces made of shimmering black glass, made by melting the sand into huge blocks.  The glass imported by Asiya’s parents was of the highest quality, with an uneven surface designed to appear like rippling liquid in the light.

Leon didn’t get that good of a look at the inside of the estate as the group immediately made for a separate building which Asiya told him was their dedicated training gym.  Within were a wide variety of weights and training weapons arranged around the walls, with a large open space in the center for sparing.  Additionally, Leon was able to sense that the magic density in the air increased by roughly half thanks to enchantments in the walls and floor.

“This is where you two will spar,” Asiya said.

Leon frowned a little at her phrasing.  “Are you not going to join us?” he asked.

“Oh!  No I won’t.  I prefer to watch…” she responded, giving him an odd smile.

Valeria wasted little time with words and immediately pulled her glaive off her back while walking to the center of the room.  After glancing once more at Asiya, Leon followed, a smile blooming on his face as he drew his training sword.  As he took a position about five steps from Valeria, Asiya took a seat a few steps from the edge of the sparring ring to eagerly watch.

Without warning, Valeria lunged forward, bringing her glaive down in a powerful overhead strike.  But, Leon nimbly dodged with a quick side-step and answered her with a horizontal slash at the side of her ribs.  Almost faster than he could see, the end of her glaive appeared just in time to block his longsword, the clang from the collision of the two weapons echoing throughout the gym.

Neither took a single moment for breath.  Valeria pulled the end of her glaive inward, slashing the blade of her weapon out at one of Leon’s legs.  Leon just barely managed to lift the leg in time to avoid falling on his ass and used it to take a step forward, increasing the pressure he was putting on Valeria’s glaive.  But, Valeria took a step back and spun on her back foot, deflecting Leon’s blade into the air and gaining some distance.

However Leon had no intention of letting her keep that distance, so he lunged forward, stabbing at one of her shoulders.  Valeria responded by stabbing towards him in kind, trusting that her longer weapon would reach him first.  Leon seemed to agree, as he changed the direction of his lunge as best he could to deflect her counter.

Their duel proceeded like this for about ten more minutes, with each constantly trading blows and neither achieving any sort of advantage for more than the space of a single attack.  Their duel ended in yet another draw, with each landing hits that paralyzed the other’s primary arms at the same time, bringing the fight to an inconclusive ending.

Still, Leon and Valeria both left the ring with big smiles on their faces.

“That was amazing!” admired Asiya, who had made sure that no movement either of them made during the fight escaped her notice.  “Where did you learn to fight like that, Leon?”

“My father taught me,” Leon answered.

“Ohhh, he must be an incredible warrior if he raised you to be so strong!”

“He… was.”

Leon’s short answer, averted gaze, and pointed use of ‘was’ told Asiya all she needed to know, and she tactfully changed the subject, raising the question of lunch and summoning a servant from a door Leon hadn’t noticed to take their orders.

As they moved to Asiya’s personal residence, a private building with only half a dozen rooms just off the main palace, Leon’s heart started beating faster as he tried to push himself to say what he needed.  He had promised Xaphan that he would remove his doubts, and he had no intention of going back on that promise.

“Sooo,” he began, “I hope neither of you laugh at me for this, but we’ve never been properly introduced…”

Asiya sharply gasped, then sarcastically said, “You’re right!  We have been remiss in our duties as nobles, oh honored guest!  Please don’t hold this slight upon your honor against us!  That would be ever so dreadful!”

This drove all three of them to chuckle a little as they entered Asiya’s residence.  It was lavishly decorated, with the black glass walls enchanted to only reflect light in certain colors creating beautiful wall art without the use of paint, and thick carpets that were woven with gold thread in geometric patterns.

“You joke, but I’m not entirely certain of either of your full names.  I just wanted to clear the air so I wouldn’t make a fool of myself later,” Leon responded as his eyes drank in the colorful spectacle that was Asiya’s living room.

“That makes sense, but wouldn’t it make more sense if you started things off by introducing yourself?” Valeria said quietly while Asiya led them into her dining room.

“I guess,” Leon said before straightening up before the two women and saying, “I am Leon Ursus of the Brown Bear Tribe in the Northern Vales.  It’s a pleasure to properly make your acquaintances.”  Fortunately, Artorias had found some time to teach him some of the noble manners Leon would’ve learned had Artorias and Serana’s villa never been attacked.

“Well, Leon Ursus, I am Asiya Samarid.”

“Samarid, huh?  As in the Samar Kingdom, right?” Leon asked.  His father had taught him that etiquette demanded the one requesting the introduction to ask a question or two about the person’s name before they moved on, and as Asiya was the host she went first.

“Close!  Samarid means ‘From Samar’, but it doesn’t refer to the entire Samar Kingdom.  Instead, it’s the capital city that it refers to, also named Samar.  That’s the city where my great-grandfather founded our noble House, so that was the name he decided on for us.”  Asiya’s face lit up in a smile as she spoke of her family’s history; it was clearly a point of pride not only for her but for her parents as well, judging by how expensive and time-consuming Leon guessed it had to be to import so much black glass for their estate.

“And I,” Valeria began once Asiya had finished her explanation, “am Valeria Isynos.”

Leon’s heart immediately sank.  Valeria had finally told him her name, and it was exactly the same as Adrianos Isynos, the only man of the assassination team whose name was known to Leon, and thus his only lead to find those who ordered his father’s death and could potentially be responsible for the downfall of his entire family.

“I-Isynos, is there a story behind that name?” Leon asked, his voice quivering a little from holding back his sudden surge of killing intent.  Fortunately, neither of the women seemed to notice as Valeria launched into her own explanation with a strange look of eagerness.

“Oh it’s nothing special, it just means ‘From Isynia’.  Just like Asiya, my family is foreign to the Bull Kingdom, and we proudly wear the name of the city that gave birth to us despite the distance that now separates us.”

“I see,” was all that Leon was able to say.

“This is great!” said Asiya, almost jumping out of her chair.  “Valeria and I first became friends thanks to both of us not being native to this land!  And now you’re here, another stranger in a strange land just like us!  We were destined to be friends!”

 Asiya’s eyes glittered as she stared at Leon with a smile so wide it almost split her face in half.  The prospect of gaining a new friend was just that exciting for her.

“Yeah, we were truly destined to meet,” Leon said with some embarrassment.

“But,” he continued, looking over to Valeria, “Isynos is a name familiar to me.  If I recall correctly, one of the men who accompanied the Paladin Roland to the Northern Vales about six months ago was also named Isynos.”

Valeria’s eyes instantly refocused on Leon, surprise evident on her face.  “You know him?”

“Not really,” Leon answered, stepping very carefully around his answer.  “All I know is that one of the knights called him by that name; we never actually spoke.  It was only by coincidence that I learned it.  The Paladin’s group helped my tribe eliminate some bandits, and during the fight, Isynos and I happened to end up fighting close by each other.  When he appeared to be injured during the battle, one of the Paladin’s knights called out to him.”

“I see,” Valeria said with a thoughtful look.  “You’re talking about Adrianos, one of the men who accompanied my family to this country.  He ended up leaving my father’s service, though, and joined up with the Royal Legions…”

“Ah, so he’s from the same place as you and thus has the same name… unless I’m mistaken?” Leon asked.

“His family served mine with enough distinction to earn official adoption,” Valeria answered.  “They’re not actually from Isynia.”

Leon fought to maintain an easy-going smile.  Valeria’s family was placed at the very top of his list of suspects as most of those on it—such as Roland, the Royal Family, and the rest of the nobility of the Great Plateau—he didn’t think were likely to have sent the assassins.

But this also came as less of a shock to him than he might’ve guessed only ten minutes before.  Deep down, he knew that Valeria’s family undoubtedly had something to do with those assassins ever since he saw her name posted after the enrollment test.  He wouldn’t have needed to delude himself with frequent justifications as to why it might not be the case if he didn’t already know.

Valeria herself might not be his enemy—at least for now, while she still thought of him as a mere Valeman—but her family certainly was.

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Chapter 107 - Return of the Snow Lions

Chapter 105 - An Unexpected Request