Leon and Charles met up at dinner. Their conversation was dominated by their plans to go south. Charles had wanted to head west, then take a barge down the Naga river all the way to the capital. Leon shot that idea down just by bringing up the price of such an endeavor, making Charles pat his own coin pouch in dejection. Leon suggested that they simply follow the Julian Road all the way there. It would take them several weeks on foot, but it would be much cheaper, especially since Leon had no intention of staying at any inns. Charles wasn’t too thrilled with that idea, but the weight of his coin pouch—or lack thereof—prevented him from voicing any concerns at the sleeping arrangements.
Next came the issue of food. Charles, realizing that Leon was far more adept at planning long traveling excursions, deferred to him. So, Leon figured that they would only need about a hundred silvers to buy travel rations for the both of them to last a week, more than enough time to reach the next city on the road. There, they would buy enough rations to reach the city after that, and they should be able to reach the capital from there without stopping for food again.
Water wouldn’t be a problem. Leon planned to buy a dozen sheets of spell paper along with the food, to write water runes upon. He wasn’t good enough at inscribing runes for this to allow them to bathe, but they would have plenty of water for their journey.
With their route planned and logistics figured out, the two went back to their rooms to pack. Leon moved all of his books and maps into his leather bag, while all his clothes and the two days of food he still had went into his pack. Charles didn’t arrive in Teira with much, and he had sold some of it during his more desperate times, which left him with little more a few hundred silvers and about five days of clothing, so he packed very quickly.
Both men went to sleep early and rose early as well. They got themselves cleaned up, then met for breakfast. They didn’t speak much and finished quickly. They then grabbed their things, returned their room keys to the innkeeper, and left.
There weren’t many places open that sold food, but Charles knew one that serviced travelers and was consequently open at dawn. Due to Charles not having much money, Leon bought all the food they’d need, while Charles used the abundant space in his own pack to carry most of it.
With all that taken care of, the two made their way to the main road and began their journey south.
They walked in relative silence. Leon was being his usual quiet self, but Charles was more than a little nervous, and now that he was leaving Teira, he was starting to hesitate a little. He kept walking, though.
The two left the slums, continuing all the way to the palace estate. Leon was eager to get past this place, as he could see that the guards around the posts had doubled since he had seen them last. They appeared very on edge and were glaring at anyone who lingered too long to stare. Leon and Charles hurried past, though Charles was a little too wrapped up making himself commit to his choice to notice Leon’s anxiety.
Fortunately, no one stopped them. The two men made it past the diamond-shaped estate, through the central district, and entered the southern district. This place was beautiful, with trees, flowers, and gardens, all awash with color. There weren’t many stores here, as this was where the nobles built their manors and palaces. And those manors and palaces certainly were things to behold, all painted marble, glittering silver, and shiny polished stone. The road was flanked with grand marble statues and many more triumphal arches, as well as very stressed looking guards.
Leon and Charles stayed buried in the throngs of people moving here and there. Leon was very uncomfortable being surrounded by so many people, but since they were traveling through noble estates now, there wasn’t much he could do about it. There were side roads, but hardly anyone used those, and he didn’t want to be seen by the guards. It was unlikely he would be identified, as he didn’t think the guard who saw him back in the palace ruins had gotten that good of a look, and he had changed his hair and clothes since then, but he wasn’t about to take chances.
Despite Leon’s anxiety and Charles’ hesitation, the rest of the day was unremarkable. By dusk, they had made it about thirty miles out of the city. It had taken a little while to leave the sprawling estates of the southern district, but Leon felt that they had made good time.
As the sun began to set, the two made camp. It wasn’t much to speak of, Leon simply made a small fire with what few sticks and weeds he could find and they slept with their heads resting on their packs. They did, of course, go about a thousand feet off the road, to make sure no one would try and steal their things, but there were hardly any trees this side of Teira. The land was too rocky, and where there was dirt, it was too thin to let much of anything but grass and weeds to grow.
So, the two settled in for the night behind an outcropping of rocks that would conceal them from the road.
“Hey, Charles.” They hadn’t spoken much all day, so Charles was a little surprised when Leon spoke up.
“There’s something I’d like to talk about…”
“I’ve heard the Knight Academy only accepts first-tier mages and up, aged sixteen to twenty.”
“That’s right. We both fit that criteria, so why bring it up now?”
“I’m a little concerned, because to my eyes, your foundation looks a little shaky. If you continue on and enroll in the Academy as you are now, you’ll likely have a tough time of it…”
Charles frowned, and looked a little hurt and offended at Leon’s words, but he knew Leon was right. He didn’t have anyone to train and instruct him as he grew up, so it was a minor miracle that he achieved the first-tier of magic at all. He was about to half-heartedly defend himself, but Leon continued, cutting him off just before he began to speak.
“If you want, I could show you a thing or two that could help.”
Charles was a little stunned, but he responded, “Yes, please, any pointers you could give me would be great!”
“Not pointers, specifically, more like a way of breathing.”
“Like a breathing exercise that the nobles practice? How do you know such techniques? Aren’t you from the Northern Vales?”
“Look, Charles, I may have grown up in the Vales, but I’m no Valeman. You should’ve realized that after my visit to that Heaven’s Eye Tower.”
“True, that was a little eyebrow-raising…”
“Anyways, I can tell that you’ve received little to no instruction with regards to magic, but you should know what makes a first-tier mage, right?”
“Yeah, lungs can absorb magic from the air.”
“That’s a fairly simple way to look at it. My father taught me that humans can’t use magic naturally, but their bodies will adapt given time. Entering the first-tier means that your lungs have adapted and magic can enter your blood. However, adaptation is not a yes or no thing. There are infinite degrees of adaptation, and the nobles have the time and money to figure out ways to maximize this process.”
Charles was fascinated. He didn’t make a single noise while Leon spoke, because all of this was new information to him. The majority of commoners wouldn’t know the specifics of magic use unless they lived close to a city or magical guild, and the mining town Charles grew up in was far too out of the way for him to pick up on these details.
“Your lungs have adapted well enough to allow magic to enter your blood, but it doesn’t appear to be that much.”
“How can you tell?”
“It’s a little hard to describe, but your aura seems a little thin. I’m a third-tier mage, which means I’m sensitive enough to the magic in the air to know that you’re exhaling far too much of it to be absorbing a lot. In fact, compared to most of the first-tier guards I saw back in Teira, I would estimate you’re absorbing about half as much as you should be. Trying to advance up the tiers of magic with such a weak foundation is like trying to build on sand. Not impossible, but prohibitively difficult.”
“And this breathing technique will help?”
“Yes, but you’ll have to work at it. I won’t force you to do anything, but I would recommend a few hours of meditation while performing these breathing exercises every night. This won’t cover all of that ground by the time we reach the capital, but I’m guessing that after a few months, you’ll make up that difference, and be able to concentrate on ascending to the second-tier much easier, possibly within the next year or two.”
Charles was a little stunned. As a commoner, he never thought he would reach the second-tier before he turned thirty, if ever, and the third-tier was unthinkable! If he was honest with himself, he was going along with Leon to enroll in the Knight Academy more as a way keep himself fed for a few more months while moving to the capital, where there ought to be more opportunities for him. He never expected that he would even be able to graduate! But, if what Leon was saying was true, then it just might be possible.
“Please, I welcome any insight you may have!”
“Alright then. What you need to do sounds fairly easy but maintaining it for hours can be a very hard thing to do, so do your best. First, I find it easier to sit up. My father said it doesn’t really matter how you relax, as long as you actually relax, but I find that laying down can lead to sleep far too easily. So, I sit up when I meditate.”
Charles immediately sat up, following Leon’s instructions.
“Alright, now breathe slowly. Inhale and exhale with purpose, don’t just let your body breathe naturally. After you inhale, hold it for just a second, then exhale. Inhale, hold, then exhale.”
Charles closed his eyes and breathed.
“Good. After a while, you should feel a warmth in your chest. This is your lungs absorbing the magic in the air. A little while later, that warmth will spread throughout your body, after the magic is fused with your blood. Over the next few weeks, you should slowly increase the amount of time that you hold your breath, and your lungs will grow more efficient at absorbing magic.”
“Is there anything more to it? Is it just that simple?”
“Yes. Well, it is for you.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“There are some techniques in manipulating mana that might help others, but for someone like you who is just reinforcing their own foundation, the breathing exercises will do just fine. Besides, anything I might show you could create some bad habits for when you’re learning your chosen element.”
“I see…” Charles didn’t quite understand, but he took Leon at his word that the breathing exercises will be all he needs. So, he sat and controlled his breathing. Leon watched Charles for a little while before drifting off to sleep.
When they woke up the next morning, Charles felt incredible. He was bursting with energy and felt like he could run all the way to the capital before lunch.
“You’ve absorbed more magic than your body is used to, so it’s no surprise you’re feeling good,” Leon remarked dryly
“Wow! This is amazing! If all the nobles have been doing that for years, no wonder they grow so fast!”
“And with some diligence, you’ll be just as strong as them.”
“Ha ha! Thank you, buddy!” Charles spoke directly from the heart. Leon wasn’t what anyone would call ‘friendly’, but in less than a week, he’d saved Charles from those thugs, helped him come to a decision about his future, and even given him such a powerful gift!
Leon was a little embarrassed at Charles’ abject gratitude and his face turned a little red. Charles almost looked like he was about to run over and give him a hug, but he abstained, much to Leon’s relief.
The two happily ate breakfast, despite it being nothing but a few chunks of dried meat, then set back off on their journey south.
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