Chapter 97 - Introspection

When Saturday morning came, the air in the Snow Lions’ camp seemed charged.  Everyone had woken up early from the excitement of finally heading back into the city for the first time in over a month and were desperately trying to make themselves busy so that time would seem to go faster.  Noticing this restlessness, Castor got everyone organized to do some extra training.  It wasn’t anything particularly strenuous—just some light sparring—but it helped get their minds off their upcoming day.

There was some slight tension when Leon led a group of a dozen trainees back to the tower to pick up the unit’s breakfast, as they weren’t sure if there would be any spies watching the tower or not.  Fortunately, Leon had been leading the food run-group on fairly long and winding paths every day to and from the tower for the past couple weeks, and every time was different so he wasn’t that concerned about an ambush.  But, he did suspect someone would be watching the tower, so he left the group behind about a quarter mile back into the forest and went to scout the tower out alone.

His caution wasn’t necessary, though, because the area around the tower was deserted.

‘Maybe the Deathbringers haven’t gotten their act together yet; it hasn’t even been twelve hours, after all.  Not enough time for the news to spread, either, so no other units would be watching…’

Regardless of their reasons, it was clear to Leon that it was safe to begin transporting the food back to camp, which he immediately began doing after signaling to the waiting group that it was safe to approach their tower.  Leon didn’t let his guard down for the entire time his group was there, though, and he resolved to be extra alert for the next week or two for the inevitable response from the Deathbringers.

Leon’s group returned to the camp in the gorge without any trouble, much to their relief.  About half an hour later, after everyone had finished their meal, Castor got up in front of them to explain the new rules he and Leon had decided on the previous night.  Both Leon and Alphonsus stood next to him, though the latter appeared remarkably sulky and even a little angry, despite his attempts to hide it.

While Castor was speaking, the Instructors arrived at the camp.  Castor paused for a moment, but the Senior Instructor simply said, “Keep going, don’t mind us for now.”  He wanted to hear their plan before launching into the standard safety briefing.

However, once Castor was finished, the Senior Instructor felt that there wasn’t much to add.  He merely spoke a few words about staying away from shady areas and the importance of returning to the Academy on time.  Then, he indicated to the other two Instructors to begin passing out the silver to the trainees.

While the Snow Lions were distracted with the enormous bags of silver coins the Instructors had brought, the Senior Instructor quietly approached Leon and said, “The Academy received a priority communication from the Heaven’s Eye Merchant Guild, addressed to you.”  He pulled out a small blue scroll from his pocket and handed it to Leon.

Leon raised his eye in momentary confusion before realizing that it was probably about the ingredients he commissioned them to find for Xaphan’s recovery.  He took a few steps away from the rest of the unit, then hurriedly broke the magical seal on the scroll and unfurled it.

The first thing he noticed was a pleasant fragrance wafting off the paper, which he recognized as the same perfume that Elise wore.  He knew immediately that she had written this message without even having to see the elegant handwriting or the signature at the bottom.

[Hey Xaphan,] Leon said, knowing the demon was busy concentrating on his recovery and wasn’t sparing any attention for what was going on outside his soul realm, [looks like Heaven’s Eye has made some progress on those ingredients you’re waiting on.]

[Hmm?  Oh, really?  It’s about damn time!]

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While the Snow Lions were busy preparing themselves for heading back into the city, the three third-tier nobles in charge of the Deathbringers were having quite the heated conversation in their common room at the top of their tower.

“This isn’t something that can go unanswered!  They’ve humiliated us!” shouted Actaeon, his face red from passionate argument.

“But we haven’t a clue as to where the Snow Lions are!  We can’t just storm their tower again, can we?” answered Linus, his friendship with both Castor and Alphonsus giving him a more moderate opinion.

“Then we find some Snow Lions and beat them until they reveal where they and the rest of those cowardly rats hole up!”

“You’re suggesting to attack them in the streets again?!  That was a terrible idea then and it’s even worse now!  How would it reflect upon us if it were to be found out that we had our subordinates attack our fellow trainees outside of the Academy?!  How would it look to our families if it gets back to them that we’re engaging in such underhanded and blatant attacks on our countrymen?!  If we gain a reputation for such dishonorable means, then we are no better than common thugs, terrorizing people in back alleys!”

“We’re encouraged to fight amongst ourselves!  This is just an extension of that prerogative!  We need to retrieve that banner or we have no honor to save!”

“I can only speak for myself, by my honor is more than a piece of fabric!  I won’t sully my hands with such an endeavor and I will stop any attempts to attack the Snow Lions off the Academy’s training grounds!  We may have lost both banners we held, but we are noble, our reputations are worth more than a thousand banners!”

Throughout this argument, Gaius had remained uncharacteristically quiet.  In fact, it appeared that he wasn’t even paying attention; his chin was resting in his hands and he was staring into the fireplace with such a tired look that no one would’ve ever guessed he’d been awake for less than an hour.

He certainly felt the expected amount of rage and indignation at the Snow Lions’ seizure of the banners, as well as the personal defeat he and the other two third-tier mages suffered in that final arrow barrage, but the knowledge that his older brother would be watching his response very closely was severely tempering his response.

He had to admit to himself that he’d gone a little wild after leaving Lentia, letting his pride swell out of his control once he was away from his father’s austere gaze and swift hand that punished any ‘behavior that was unbecoming of a noble’.  His year in the Knight Academy, the squireship to a high-ranking knight, his time in the Royal Legions, that was to be his time to fully enjoy the benefits of his nobility until he returned to House Tullius to serve his father and eldest brother.

But then, not even two weeks into his new unrestrained life, he met Leon.

His anger at the loss of the banners burned almost as hot as when he had woken up after the combat test, but it wasn’t immediate revenge in the name of merely satisfying his ego that he thought of now.  Instead, his thoughts were occupied with the idea raised by Tiberias after they had assaulted the Snow Lions’ tower and the chat he had with his brother a couple weeks before.

His raw emotional reaction was to find where the Snow Lions hid themselves and strangle them in their sleep, but his rational side won out.  He finally made his decision about what to do in the short-term: nothing.

“Actaeon, would you just… shut your mouth?” Gaius asked with a pleasant yet tired tone, though the way he glared at Actaeon made it clear it wasn’t a request.

“Wha-Why?” Actaeon demanded indignantly as he turned to face Gaius, but as soon as he made eye contact, he sheepishly continued with a “Su-Sure…”

“Good,” said Gaius.  He then took a deep breath and paused for a moment to search for the right words.

“… I… understand the desire to seek immediate vengeance.  I think that fact is not lost on anyone in this entire Academy; I haven’t exactly been subtle with my hatred of the barbarian.  And that attitude has gotten me here, having suffered several humiliations, recriminations from my family, and the loss of our banner.”  Gaius paused again, his eyes repeatedly flitting between Actaeon and Linus.  Both were equally silent, puzzled and concerned over what Gaius was now saying.

“We can certainly pursue pure vengeance today, seeking out and ambushing what few Snow Lions we can find in that enormous city.  We’ll get four, maybe five, and then they’ll respond by ambushing us.  We don’t know where they sleep, so we won’t be able to retaliate again, except by ambushing them in the streets of the capital another time.

“They’ll move in groups, sticking to more crowded areas, I’m sure.  Our people will be seen and our reputations will suffer, while theirs will only grow after enduring these assaults and successfully counter-attacking.”  Gaius paused for a third time, letting his eyes wander around the room for a moment.  Neither Actaeon nor Linus dared to break the silence.  They were both quite taken aback at Gaius’ seriousness and somber attitude.  Just half an hour beforehand, the two nobles had expected him to emerge from his room so wrathful as to be spitting fire and demanding the two of them join him in personally hunting down Leon to skewer him like a pig.

But now here he was, calmly analyzing the situation and considering their options, without a hint of rage in his face.

“Assaulting our rivals in the streets may be gratifying, it may bring us some momentary satisfaction, but that is not what we need right now.  We need a concrete plan, one that doesn’t degrade us, one that doesn’t make us look like a bunch of spoiled rich boys throwing a temper tantrum, a plan that won’t end with our trainees being ambushed on the road outside our tower.  We need a plan that retrieves both our banner and our honor, and most importantly, befits our nobility.”

As Gaius finished, his two noble comrades could only stare at him in shock.

“What the fuck is wrong with you two?” he demanded.

“… It’s nothing…” muttered Actaeon.

“We just weren’t expecting all of that…” said Linus.

“Mmm…” responded Gaius, choosing that it would be best for his ego not to dig into those answers.  “Whatever.  Go tell the second-tier trainees my decision: no one attacks the Snow Lions until I say we’re ready.”

“They’re not going to like that…” Actaeon said with a grim expression.

“It doesn’t matter what they like.  I’m the leader of this unit, so I make the decisions and they follow them.”

“That won’t change the fact that they’re out for blood after losing the banner, especially those first-tier trainees who were stunned in their sleep.  Apparently waking up after that brings a massive headache…”

Gaius glared at the two of them; he clearly didn’t want to hear these things that sounded like excuses.  Linus and Actaeon got to their feet and made for the stairs to relay Gaius’ decision.  They returned several minutes later after forcing every second-tier trainee in the unit to personally swear not to attack the Snow Lions for the time being.

Gaius used those few minutes to think, and when the other two third-tier mages sat down at his table, he let them in on his thoughts.

“So, it seemed to me that wherever the Snow Lions have been, they’ve used their time well.  Their teamwork was far better than ours, and they knew exactly what they were doing.  They moved with purpose, stealing our banner as fast and as quietly as possible, only sparing the time to stun those who were absolutely required.  I’d guess they practiced a few times in their own tower.

“We’re going to need a similar level of teamwork if we’re going to fight them on equal footing.  As it is, even if we knew where they were hiding, I’m not sure we could win in a straight up assault as we did last time, especially not without outside help like Tiberias…”

As proud and arrogant as Gaius was, he couldn’t deny Leon’s strength anymore—or the strength of his unit.

‘He may be a barbarian, but he is damned good at fighting.  I can’t underestimate or dismiss him anymore…’ he thought.

“So,” Gaius continued, “we’re going to double down on our training.  And not just for the three of us, we’re going to get the Deathbringers as ready for our next fight with the Snow Lions as they can possibly be.”

Linus and Actaeon slowly nodded in agreement, steeling themselves for the hard training that was to come.

Gaius, too, started to mentally ready himself, but that didn’t stop him from sparing a few brain cells thinking about how to strike at Leon outside of the Academy.  It wouldn’t be in the near future, but when he had better access to his family’s resources, he absolutely intended to send some strong mages after the barbarian that had caused him so much trouble.

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Chapter 98 - Acquiring Ingredients I

Chapter 96 - Safety Measures