For three weeks, Leon and Charles walked along the Julian Road. They passed quite a few towns and cities, but they only stopped long enough to fill up on food. They slept outdoors and occasionally stopped by a river to wash up a little.
Every night, Charles would perform the breathing exercises that Leon taught him, and he could really feel the difference. Every day when he woke up, he felt like a new man, stronger, faster, more perceptive. He knew it was just a feeling of having more mana than he was used to, but he was ecstatic at the rapid progress he was making.
He was so happy, in fact, that he never once complained about sleeping outside or Leon’s increased walking speed when around other people. He simply kept pace with Leon, chatting his ear off the entire time. As they got closer to their destination and he got more familiar with Leon’s more subdued personality, he quieted down significantly.
Finally, they arrived in sight of the capital on the twenty-second day. There were a few hills on the northern side of the city, and when they arrived at the top, they could see almost all of the enormous city. It was less dense than Teira and sprawled out over miles and miles of land. Here, the nobles generally lived in the central district, so most of the buildings formed a ring around the huge estates, and right in the center of the city was the King’s Lake. Set slightly to the west of the center of the lake was the great island upon which was built the royal palace. The palace’s great towers and halls could be clearly seen even from where Leon and Charles were, almost a dozen miles away.
The two stood there, just to the side of the road, and stared in awe at the city. They could see the giant Heaven’s Eye Tower in the south, a colossal arena in the north, and no less than five monuments to the royal family towering over almost everything else.
Leon could also feel a great amount of magic in the air. With the exception of his home back in the Vales before the obelisk was destroyed, this city had more magic in the air than anywhere else he’d been. Each breath was sweet and refreshing, despite the smells of the Julian Road, crowded as it was with hundreds of people and horses.
“Look out there, isn’t that the Legion Headquarters?” Charles pointed southwest, at a gargantuan fortress, built on a lonely hill on the opposite side of the city. The hill was surprisingly not surrounded by walls, but there were extensive fields and even forests just beyond the hill, presumably the training grounds for the soldiers stationed in the city. “Wouldn’t the Knight Academy be found around there?”
“Maybe. For now, we should focus on finding some accommodations, then we can ask around about enrolling in the Academy.”
“Right. It will be nice to sleep in a proper bed and wash all this dirt off!”
The two finally stopped staring and resumed walking towards the city. The suburbs began at the foot of the hill and were predictably inhabited mostly by those of lesser means. As with the slums of Teira, the buildings were made of simpler materials and possessed little in the way of magical enhancements. However, this did make it much easier to find a cheap inn.
Leon and Charles found a place on about the same level as where they stayed at in Teira and eagerly took the opportunity to wash up and rest. As with the last inn, Charles was in a cheaper common room, while Leon paid extra for a more private room.
Charles, the lover of talking and socializing that he was, was already in the dining hall by the bar when Leon made his way down chatting up a pretty barmaid. Leon hesitated, not wanting to interrupt, or more accurately, not wanting to meet someone new, but Charles saw him and happily waved him over.
“Jeanne, this is Leon, my friend I’m traveling with. Leon, this is Jeanne.”
“Hiya! Good to meet ‘cha!” Jeanne was a very chipper girl and enthusiastically greeted Leon. For his part, Leon just nodded respectfully before grabbing a seat next to Charles.
“Oh, don’t mind him, he’s just not that good at talking to cute ladies,” said Charles, winking at Jeanne, who blushed and giggled. Charles turned to Leon and said, “So, we were talking just now about the Knight Academy…” Leon’s ears perked up, and he glanced over at the two.
“Yes, Charles told me you both were going to enroll. That’s very impressive.” Jeanne said with a bashful smile while throwing flirty looks Charles’ way. “You two can sign up at any time, but you can’t fully enroll until you take an entrance test, which only happens once a year.”
“When’s this test?” asked Leon.
“You’re in luck, it should be about two weeks from now.”
“How do you know this?”
“The Royal Government makes sure everyone in the city knows, and that commoners know they aren’t stopped from joining. Town criers don’t shut their traps about it, fliers are posted everywhere, sometimes guards are even sent to inns and bars when night falls to make an announcement about enrollment. Fat lot of good it does us, though, when they only take first-tier mages and up…”
Leon nodded in acknowledgment. He didn’t mind this wait, as he had been fairly lax in his training over the past month and could use the time to catch up. Charles was a little more nervous, though the cause for him was the test, not the wait. He had never even held a sword before, and only had the most cursory of instruction with a bow and spear. Combined with knowing his flimsy first-tier strength would make him one of the lowest of the low even if he did pass this entrance test, he was starting to sweat over this enrollment a little.
Charles laughed to cover his anxiety and turned back to Jeanne. “Alright! So, with our business basically done, how about you join us for a meal?”
Jeanne giggled, then said, “I can’t, I have to work! But how about we continue this when my shift ends?”
“My lady, nothing could make me happier.” Charles smiled at her, and she blushed and got back to filling drinks and carrying food to the other customers.
“So, what do you want to do about enrollment? I-I can wait a few days if you want to delay it a little…” Charles tried to sound nonchalant about it, but he couldn’t help stumbling over his words a little.
“No, let’s knock it out first thing tomorrow.” Leon’s response drained all the blood from Charles’ face, something which Leon noticed. “… We’ll get it done, and we can spend the time between now and the test training.” This statement caused Charles’ façade of calm to crumble.
“What do you mean ‘training’? I have nothing to train with, let alone any idea of how to train in the first place!”
“What’s your concern? You’ve seemed happy and confident for the past few weeks.”
“What isn’t concerning me?! I’m too weak, and I have no idea how to fight! Those nobles who enroll will tear me apart!” Charles was speaking very intensely, so much so that Leon felt he would be shouting were it not for Jeanne still being in the same room. It was clear that the rush he had gotten from learning the basic breathing exercise had worn off and arriving in the capital had started to drive the reality of his choice home. He was weak—at least compared to the nobles who had been training their entire lives—with a depressingly light coin pouch, few prospects, and hundreds of miles from home.
“Alright. Calm down, we can do something about this…” Charles didn’t seem encouraged, especially since Leon was still speaking with the same monotone seriousness as usual.
“Nothing can be done. The Ancestors, Old Gods, and the Sacred Bull itself could all descend from the heavens to help me, and I’d still fail. Why should this be any different from anything else I’ve done…” Leon rolled his eyes at that, raised his fist, and smashed Charles’ hand into the bar. “GAH! What the shit?!”
“Don’t act so pitiful, you’ll find no pity here. We’re going to the Knight Academy to sign up for the entrance test tomorrow, then you’re going to train with me.”
Charles rubbed his sore hand and looked a little aggrieved, but his self-pity vanished. “… And what does this training entail?”
“Muscle training and breathing exercises mostly. We don’t have enough time for much combat training, but I can show you a few things that will help you hold your own. Got it?” Charles nodded slowly. “Good. We’ll meet again at breakfast, so I’d recommend resting tonight…” In the corner of his eye, Leon saw Jeanne almost gliding between the tables, avoiding drunken hands that sought her butt with ease and grace. “… Or don’t, your choice. Just be ready.”
The rest of dinner was spent in relative silence. Leon finished his food quickly, then went back to his room to continue reading through his books. Charles ate much slower. He needed the time to think, and he was waiting for Jeanne to get off work.
The next morning, Leon came downstairs just in time to see Charles and Jeanne lightly kissing goodbye. The two looked a little tired, and Leon knew they didn’t get much sleep the night before. Charles saw Leon come down, and he said a few more words to the blushing Jeanne, gave her a wink, and went to join Leon for breakfast.
“You good?” Leon asked.
“Yeah, I’m doing better now. Nothing like some attention from a cute girl to get my spirits back up!”
“Right.” Leon was a little relieved that Charles had pulled himself together. He didn’t quite consider the other man a friend, as they hadn’t been acquainted for very long, but he had a gift for speech that Leon valued greatly. He had also gotten to know Charles well enough to relax a little around him, and without him, Leon would have to actually talk to other people to figure how and when to enroll in the Knight Academy!
[Leon.] Xaphan’s voice resounded throughout his mind, startling Leon a little.
[What is it?]
[When next you have the opportunity, let’s talk.] Xaphan placed a great deal of stock in appearances, and he didn’t trust Leon to not look weird in public when they spoke.
The conversation ended there. Leon wasn’t very chatty to begin with, and Xaphan needed to concentrate on recovering his power, so he didn’t talk very much either.
Leon and Charles finished breakfast quickly, then approached the inn manager. They paid for a few more days, then asked for directions to the Knight Academy. After receiving them, they set off.
It was only an hour-long walk to the Academy in the south-west. The roads were wide and very well-maintained, allowing for easy travel almost anywhere someone would need to go. Leon didn’t talk much, which was expected, but Charles was uncharacteristically quiet as well. But, for all his worry and misgivings, he kept walking.
They arrived outside of a three-story building that had much of the same architecture as other government buildings. The décor was simple, but of obvious quality, and an enormous sign made of black granite was hovering several feet over the door, which reach ‘The Knight Academy of the Bull Kingdom’ in glowing white letters. Next to the door was pinned a large piece of paper, which advertised the Academy’s open enrollment, and invited anyone willing to take the test to head inside.
Charles took a deep breath before stepping forward past the gate, but Leon needed no such preparation. He had a steely and determined look in his eye, and he didn’t hesitate to approach the grand front doors.
“Hey! Wait up!” Charles called out, as he hurried after Leon.
The guards at the door took one look at Leon, saw his incredibly stable third-tier aura, and straightened up while averting their eyes. They assumed someone with that strength at that age was undoubtedly a high noble, and they wanted no trouble from him. Leon barely glanced at them as he pushed the door open. Despite its size, the door swung open with ease, and Leon and Charles walked inside.
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