Leon woke early the next day. The sun had barely started to rise when his eyes opened, and he estimated he still had at least two hours before he needed to head downstairs.
It had been nearly two months since his father had been killed. He’d come a long way in that time and experienced a great many things, but he still found himself starting to miss the smell of his father cooking bacon from a boar they’d hunted. He missed spending all of his time hunting and training with Artorias. He even found himself missing his house, which was nothing more than a cheap shack compared to this majestic tower.
‘Ugh… What am I doing, getting so lost this early in the morning?’ Leon shook his head to clear his mind of the morning haze and refocus on the upcoming day. He still didn’t get up, though. Instead, he spent a few minutes practically rolling around on the bed with an enormous smile on his face. For a young man who had spent his entire life sleeping on the ground or on a cheap bed frame only covered by a few furs, this was heaven.
[You’re such a child.]
When Xaphan’s voice resounded through Leon’s mind, he froze. He was unable to bring himself to move again for at least five seconds, but by then his gleeful smile had vanished and been replaced with a mortified look. He couldn’t bring himself to respond to the demon, and Xaphan himself said nothing more.
Leon rather stiffly rose from the bed and walked to the bathroom, deciding to pretend that what just happened actually hadn’t. He hoped Xaphan would do the same.
He spent half an hour in the bathroom cleaning himself up and then got dressed in some of the training clothes the Academy had provided. The shorts were just plain black, but the shirt was dark green with a white lion’s head embroidered onto the back. The Academy had also provided some good shoes. Leon slipped his feet into them and took a few steps. His face lit up with joy for a moment, but he was still a little haunted by what happened earlier, so he quickly forced his expression back into one of stoic indifference.
He liked those shoes, though. He liked them a lot.
Leon took them off, though. He guessed that he still had at least another hour, and as a third-tier mage his internal clock was quite accurate, but it wasn’t perfect. Regardless, he still had plenty of time before the Senior Instructor arrived. He spent that time meditating, preparing himself to be around people all day. The past few weeks had helped him get a little more comfortable being around so many other people, but he still wasn’t very used to it and greatly needed this time.
Besides, a little extra relaxation wasn’t a bad thing.
That hour passed quickly, and Leon rose from his meditation. He did his best to keep as much magic as he could flowing through his body so he could train all day. Meditation wasn’t strictly necessary, but Leon greatly enjoyed it, finding it extremely relaxing. Training was always easier when relaxed, and not so easy when out and about.
When Leon felt ready, he approached his door and strapped a training sword around his waist, right next to his own sword. He did one last check to make sure he had his ID, then he reached for the door handle. He paused to take a deep breath, then left his room.
The other two third-tier nobles were busy chatting in the third-tier common room, but apart from a brief glance, they ignored Leon. Leon paid them just as much attention and made for the stairs.
Charles was awake and in the common room practicing a few of the basic swings Leon taught him with a practice sword. Henry and Alain were watching in fascination.
“He actually taught you that much? I thought you said it was only like one or two strikes! How did you get him to do it? Did you drug him or something?” Henry asked a flurry of incredulous questions.
Charles didn’t answer immediately. He didn’t want to admit that Leon basically taught him all he did out of pity.
“Do you think he might teach us?” asked Alain with some hesitation.
“Maybe… Want to ask him?” responded Henry, not pursuing his previous question, much to Charles’ relief.
“Wouldn’t hurt to try…” said Alain thoughtfully.
“Well, you two are in luck.” Charles nodded to the stairs, where Leon had appeared. He waved at Leon, and the young third-tier mage made his way over.
The first thing he said upon approach was, “Widen your stance, it’s too unstable as it is.”
“Right!” Charles widened his stance by another foot or so and kept swinging. His swings were slow, more about building muscle memory than anything else.
“Leon, could you show me some of those moves too?” asked Henry.
“Me too, please?” added Alain.
They looked at Leon with stars in their eyes. After all, having a third-tier mage give them some personal instruction was a lot more than they could ever dream of!
“… I… uh…” Leon was completely taken aback at their earnest request and passionate gazes. Alain was a little more reserved, but both he and Henry were very eager to get stronger. But, this very eagerness put Leon on the spot, and the young mage almost froze.
“Hey, guys, give him some space!” Charles stopped swinging his sword and reprimanded the other two. “Besides, we have less than fifteen minutes before the Senior Instructor will arrive, it’s not like Leon could show you much with only that much time.”
“Right…” said Henry a little dejectedly.
“I suppose…” said Alain as he too backed a few steps away from Leon.
Having been given a moment to think, Leon said, “We don’t have time now, but maybe later…”
“Really?” asked Henry. Alain also looked at Leon with great interest.
“Yeah… Maybe tonight, after dinner or something…” Leon didn’t know these guys very well, but he had a good impression of them. Besides, he may not be too fond of interacting with other people, but he knew that he ought to make an effort to get better. He figured helping them out a little with some sword techniques would be the best way to go about it.
“Thank you!” said Henry and Alain simultaneously.
The Snow Lion’s three instructors arrived several minutes later. By then, all the first-tier trainees had assembled, and the second-tier trainees came downstairs at the same time. They waited a few more minutes for the third-tier nobles to show up, during which time the Senior Instructor almost lost patience. When he arrived, he had been quite pleasantly surprised to see that Leon was already in the common room on the bottom floor, but his mood turned when he had to wait for the other two third-tier trainees.
He didn’t have to go and fetch them, though, as they strolled downstairs before the Senior Instructor lost his patience.
“Did you three decide who was in charge last night?” asked the Senior Instructor to the third-tier trainees. Leon was predictably silent, but the black-haired noble answered immediately.
“We did, Sir. Castor will be our centurion.” The black-haired noble nodded to Castor, the brown-haired noble, then took a position in the place of honor on his right.
The Senior Instructor’s eyes quickly scanned Castor up and down, and he frowned slightly. From what little he had seen of Leon, he felt the quiet Valeman would be a better fit, but he didn’t press the matter.
‘Better to not force them. Besides, not like the kid looks like he wants to be in charge…’ he thought. He wasn’t wrong, either. Leon wore his standard stoic look and hardly glanced at the other two third-tier trainees.
“Alright then. Castor, pick someone to carry the banner. Whenever we train, it goes where we go.”
“Right, Sir!” Castor turned around to examine the unit. The man who carried the unit was always placed in a position of prominence; he was the only soldier who marched ahead of the unit commander, so this was a serious decision to make. As it so happened, Castor had already made that decision, but he paused for a moment so it seemed like he was considering the issue right now.
“Aemilius! Grab our banner!”
Castor had chosen a second-tier trainee. Those who were familiar with him weren’t surprised, as this particular trainee was the son of a strong knight in service to Castor’s father. For Castor to pick him for this honor was almost expected by many of the other nobles.
Aemilius ran over to the banner and, after a few moments of fumbling, carefully extracted it from its small shrine in the middle of the common room. Then, he ran over to the front of the unit.
“You are responsible for the banner from here on out. Don’t fuck this up.” said the Senior Instructor. He then continued without even waiting for Aemilius to respond. “Alright, let’s get moving! We’re going to the training field!”
The Snow Lions ran out of their tower, with the Senior Instructor in front, followed by Aemilius with the banner, then the third-tier trainees, second-tier trainees, first-tier trainees, and the other two instructors all the way in the back. The unit arrived at the training field in fifteen minutes. They had run at an easier pace than yesterday, but some of the first-tier trainees still nearly fell out.
Near the tree line and where the dirt roads that lead into the training forest began, a large platform had been set up. Scattered around the platform were dozens of knights serving the Academy, as well as a number of servants handing out sandwiches to the trainees. After dinner the previous night, some of the trainees were a little disappointed that this was all they were getting for breakfast, but no one complained. Or, at least, no one complained within earshot of the instructors.
The Senior Instructor led them to the platform where he had Aemilius leave the banner. While the units may be in competition with each other and encouraged to steal the other banners, the training platforms were the one place they weren’t allowed to act. A banner on the platform wasn’t allowed to be touched until the training exercise was over.
After that, the Senior Instructor split the group up by magical tier, with the first-tier trainees split off to learn from some of the weaker Academy knights. They were to learn basic combat techniques similar to what Leon had taught Charles as most of them barely knew which end of their swords to hold.
The second-tier trainees were to be taught by some of the stronger Academy knights. It was assumed that they knew how to fight, but the Academy still needed to give them adequate instruction in their fighting style.
Castor, Leon, and the final third-tier noble who Leon learned was named Alphonsus from his chatting with Castor, followed the Senior Instructor away from the platform. Giving third-tier trainees instruction in basic combat was pointless; they already knew how to fight if they were that strong at such a young age. Consequently, the ‘Basic Combat’ courses were just an excuse for the third-tier trainees to spar against each other for a few weeks.
About a quarter mile away from the platform was a long cloth wall raised between several dozen wooden posts. The Senior Instructor led the three to the other side of this wall. The nobles knew they were brought here so the other trainees wouldn’t stare, but Leon wasn’t so well-informed. He didn’t ask any questions, though, and just went along with it in silence.
The Snow Lions were the first unit to arrive, and over the next fifteen minutes or so the other nine units trickled in. Like the Snow Lions, they split their units by tier so the Academy’s knights could instruct everyone as needed.
As the other third-tier trainees arrived on the other side of the cloth wall, Leon felt the stares of Gaius, Tiberias, and Alcander. He barely glanced back at them, preferring instead to lean against one of the wooden poles with his eyes closed in a state of silent meditation.
Once everyone had arrived, one of the Senior Instructors for one of the other units stepped forward, catching the attention of the third-tier trainees. Hearing them quiet down, Leon opened his eyes and started paying attention.
“Today, we’re going to have another set of duels! Just like the combat test, everyone must fight at least once!” This Senior Instructor paused for a moment. His eyes flit between Gaius and Leon before continuing, something which almost everyone else present saw. “We will not prevent anyone from challenging anyone else, but we will intervene if things get out of hand!”
Gaius fought the urge to smile twistedly at Leon, but he was ecstatic at this announcement. If he had the opportunity, he was absolutely going to beat Leon down! He was about to step forward and make his challenge, but the Senior Instructor wasn’t done speaking.
“We also encourage you to challenge someone you didn’t fight in the combat test! These sparring sessions aren’t just to bring you all closer together, but also to expose you to different combat styles! The more experience you have in the art of battle, the stronger a fighter you will be! But, don’t forget: no strikes on the head! Such attacks are still dangerous, even with these training weapons!” The Senior Instructor didn’t give mention to any more rules. The enchantments on these training weapons were very robust, so there was little need to restrict the trainees too much when sparring.
“Now, do we have any volunteers to fight first?”
Most of the nobles present wanted to fight. Some, like Alcander, were almost giddy with excitement. However, almost everyone turned to look at Gaius. They all knew exactly what he wanted, and they were looking forward to a good show.
Gaius smiled as elegantly as he could with all this attention and snuck a glance at Valeria. She was looking at him, but it was with cold and emotionless eyes. Gaius didn’t see her distant attitude, though. All he processed was that she was watching him.
‘She wants to see me fight! No, she wants to see me win! I’m going to break that barbarian in half, revenging myself in front of her! The rest of these hapless fools be damned, with her watching me, I can’t fail to regain my honor! I really should get around to sending my marriage request to Calabria…’
The nobles watched Gaius, waiting for him to step forward. But, he was so lost after noticing Valeria’s attention, he didn’t move a muscle. Instead, something none of them expected happened: Leon walked forward and stood before the group.
Gaius’ eyes widened, and his smile turned vicious as he took his first step forward. He thought that Leon stepping up was a direct challenge to him. However, Leon raised his hand and pointed directly at Valeria.
“I would like to challenge you,” he said, stunning the nobles speechless.
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