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A month passed after the exhibition put on for the Legate. It was hardly eventful, with all the other units falling back into the old routine. The other units continued their battles, but the Snow Lions remained in their tower not bothering anyone else. And no one came to bother them, either. The Crimson Tigresses had beaten them during the exhibition, but everyone was waiting for someone else to test them at their full strength.
Consequently, no one ended up attacking them.
This was all well and good for the Snow Lions, as this meant they could focus on their training, even if they were left a little bored. Although, because of this extra time to focus and their admirable drive to improve, three more first-tier trainees ascended to the second-tier.
There was also another lightning storm during this time. There had been a little rain, but nothing that compelled Leon to head out into the mountains again until he felt the familiar itch in the back of his skull one late afternoon. Fortunately, classes were over and he was only helping Castor and Alphonsus supervise the individual training of the other trainees, so he was able to head out into the forest with only a little bit of excuse-making with Castor.
Leon hardly went back into the capital during the couple of months that Heavy Infantry Training had been going on, but whenever he did it was exclusively to go to the Heaven’s Eye Tower to meet up with Elise. They wouldn’t do much, mostly just chat over lunch about what happened since the last time they had seen each other. Every time he saw her, Leon would always try to strike up a conversation to clear up their relationship, to figure exactly what they were to each other, but he could never quite get the words out. He’d always leave with his teeth clenched in frustration at his own inability to talk to the girl he liked, much to the amusement of Xaphan who gave him no small amount of grief over it.
But, the last time he had seen Elise, she had told him that she, Valeria, and Asiya had wanted to go see an upcoming gladiator competition. Managing to pick up on her hint, Leon had bought tickets for the four of them to see the show. They weren’t particularly expensive—he could easily afford them merely by relying on the weekly stipend that he rarely spent—but he was still a little conflicted over how to treat Valeria. They had barely spoken since he confirmed her connection with Adrianos Isynos.
When the time came for him to go and meet the ladies at the Heaven’s Eye Tower, the only conclusion he’d reached was to simply treat her the same as he had been—if only to not arouse her suspicion as to why he suddenly started shunning her after learning her full name.
When he arrived at the Heaven’s Eye Tower, he found that he was the last to arrive; Asiya and Valeria had evidently hurried over as soon as they were dismissed, whereas he took his time getting ready.
Asiya saw him first. She sprang out of their private booth and hurried over to him waving enthusiastically.
“You’re finally here!” she said happily.
Valeria’s greeting consisted of only a single nod, but it was obvious that she was happy to see him from the smile on her lips.
Elise, too, didn’t say anything, choosing to instead wrap her arms around Leon’s neck in a loose hug. And she refused to let go until he returned the hug, smiling at him impishly until he did so.
“Well, we should get going,” Elise said turned back to the other two ladies, “thanks to someone we might be late.”
Leon smiled awkwardly at his own slightly late arrival and the group left the Tower. Their destination was the arena in the northern part of the city. It was a monstrously large construct, easily seating over one hundred thousand people. The stands were held aloft by colossal marble arches, beneath which were hundreds of shops selling everything from cheap food and souvenirs to high-end clothing and expensive jewelry. People from every class of society would attend the games showcased in the arena, thus there were shops that catered to those with means as well as to those without.
“So where are we going?” Asiya asked, looking at Leon for direction as he had the tickets.
“Section two, seats twenty-one through twenty-four.”
“Oooh, section two? Those are nice seats! Thank you!” Asiya said happily. She would’ve been perfectly happy sitting with the crowds, but Leon had reserved seats in a part of the arena where they could watch the games from a private room.
“Yes, thank you…” whispered Valeria, looking a little awkward. “How much was mine? I’d like to reimburse you for it.”
Leon only waved her words off and said, “Don’t worry about it. Just something I can do for my friends, right?”
Valeria’s face remained as stoic as Leon’s, but a hint of red appeared in her cheeks and she said, “Thank you…” again.
Elise hardly said a word; she had gone with Leon to buy the tickets and had tried to insist on purchasing her own, but Leon had insisted just as firmly as she did that she didn’t have to. In fact, for him it had almost turned into a battle of wills with neither backing down, until after several moments of silence they both burst out laughing, though Leon’s was more of a smile and silent chuckle. In the end, Elise had happily accepted Leon’s offer to pay.
The tickets really weren’t that expensive for him, anyway, only about one thousand silver coins apiece. The last time he spent more than a handful of physical silver coins at one time had been when he bought his bow six months before, so he had amassed almost fifty thousand silver coins from his weekly stipend that were now sitting in his room that he didn’t really know what to do with. About the only thing he could think to do would be to carry them over to the Heaven’s Eye Tower and deposit them in his account, but even half of the coins were too much for him to carry all in one go, so his silver hoard had just sat in his room growing ever larger while he procrastinated taking care of it.
Their private room was very nice, shielding them from both the sun and prying eyes with stone walls and secluded access hallways, while giving them a commanding view of the arena. The armchairs prepared for them were large, well-cushioned, and very comfortable. To top things off, there was a young attendant waiting just outside of their room ready to fetch them anything they might want from the shops below.
“Wooow, I’ve never been in these box seats before, they’re even better than I thought!” admired Asiya as she kicked off her sandals and dug her toes into the thick carpet.
The group took their seats to watch the opening games which had already started, but while there were enough seats for all of them to have one of their own, Elise decided to sit with Leon, squeezing herself in beside him. The chairs were just large enough for the two of them to sit comfortably, if intimately, and Elise got even more intimate by giving Leon a radiant smile and leaning in closer to him.
“You don’t object to this, do you?” she asked, gazing into his bashful eyes.
“N-No…” he responded after taking a few breaths to calm his racing heart, causing both Elise and the watching Asiya to giggle. Valeria tried not to watch, but her eyes clearly flickered over every now and then, while a ghost of a frown could be seen on her lips.
The opening games were a series of chariot races between the four professional teams in the capital, the Whites, Reds, Blues, and Greens. Elise favored the Reds and ecstatically hugged Leon when they won the first race. The Reds essentially stopped participating afterward, though, leisurely riding around the outside of the track with the Whites just ahead of them. It seemed to Leon that the Reds and Whites had only shown up for the race in the most token way, almost as if they thought themselves above these races. These two teams left the rest of the day’s races to be decided between the Blues and Greens.
“What’s up with these teams?” Leon asked Elise. “Why aren’t they trying anymore?”
“The Reds and Whites are favored amongst the nobility. The Blues and Greens are the common teams. This event was organized by a merchant for the common people, so the noble teams don’t care about it after winning the first race,” she answered.
Leon frowned at their attitude, while Elise turned to Asiya and struck up a conversation about what she and Valeria had been doing during the past few weeks.
While the ladies were chatting, Leon found himself becoming fascinated with the races, despite the Reds and Whites barely participating. The Blue and Green charioteers didn’t conduct themselves with anything resembling sportsmanship, loudly insulting and swearing at their rivals. They would even try to ram into and destroy the other chariots if it seemed like they were going to be passed.
“I wonder if your whore mother fucked a turtle to make you!” shouted a Blue as he passed a Green. “That might explain both your lacking speed and your degrading color!”
“Well you’d certainly know about whores! I heard you’ve sold yourself so many times that you have to plug your asshole to keep from leaking!” the Green shouted back. He pulled on the reins of his horses, moving his chariot a little to the right. As the Blue started passing him, the Green turned back left hard, crashing into the back of the Blue’s chariot and knocked one of his wheels loose, tossing the Blue off his chariot and high into the air.
“VICTORY! VICTORY! VICTORY!” chanted the Green fans as the Green passed the finish line in first place. The Blue fans were none too happy to see their guy injured and his chariot destroyed, and there was some pushback against the celebrating Greens to the point of several small fights breaking out in the more densely packed sections of the arena.
“This place is certainly… lively…” Leon muttered as he saw several of the fighting Greens and Blues still struggle to continue their fight even as the arena’s security guards swarmed over them and dragged them away.
“It’s like this at every game,” Elise said, her conversation with Asiya pausing after hearing Leon speak. “The chariot teams are serious business here. Insulting another person’s favorite team is a sure way to start a fight.”
“I guess I won’t say anything about the Reds, then,” Leon said with a faint smile.
“You’d better not, hehe,” Elise said back with a sinister chuckle and an ominous look in her eyes.
When the races were over, the real games began. An announcer took to a small stage at one end of the arena, though his job wasn’t to comment on the fight; rather, he was merely there to introduce the gladiators and to extoll the virtues of the wealthy merchant who had sponsored the games.
The first few fights were never particularly important, so the ladies filled their time by calling the attendant and ordering some food and drinks, then began chatting amongst themselves again. They had all seen many of these games, so the inconsequential early fights didn’t interest them in the slightest.
Leon, however, was utterly fascinated. The first two gladiators were very lightly armored, with only a helmet and weapon apiece. They didn’t even have shirts, letting the entire arena drink in their perfectly built pecs and abs. One of them was shorter, leaner, and faster, while the other was an enormous hulk of a man. Neither was of the fifth-tier or higher, so they weren’t able to show off any elemental magic, but they made up for the lack of spectacle by expertly playing to the crowd. The hurled insults at each other, and many of the moves in the first half of their fight boiled down to knocking the other man down then raising their arms to call the roar of the watching masses.
After several minutes, Leon noticed something odd. At first, the crowd seemed to favor both men. However, the smaller gladiator had managed to endear himself to the crowd better than the other gladiator, with flashier moves and a sharper tongue. The people made more noise when it seemed like he was winning, and when it became clear that they wanted him to win, that’s when the fight turned in his favor. The bigger man seemed to slow down and allow the smaller man to knock him to the ground. He left more openings for the smaller gladiator to exploit and seemed, in Leon’s eyes at least, to throw the fight.
“These fights,” Leon asked, turning to Elise, “are they rigged?”
Elise smiled at him and helpfully explained, “There’s no need to pay attention to these first matches, whoever the crowd wants to win will win. All except maybe the last two or three fights are done solely to please the masses.”
Leon frowned. He’d heard a few things about gladiators from Artorias, but he’d never heard about that. Then again, he figured that his father probably wouldn’t really remember the opening fights as he’d have been too busy talking with his friends just as Elise, Asiya, and Valeria were doing.
So, Leon turned away from the arena profoundly disappointed. The ladies had moved on from talking about the Knight Academy to talking about a play they had seen the week before that Leon couldn’t be less interested in, so he ended up zoning out for a while.
But, two hours after they had arrived, the preliminary fights were over and it was time for the first of the two main events.
Leon only returned to reality after noticing that the ladies had stopped talking and were staring down into the arena with such expectant looks that Leon couldn’t help but stare as well.
“And now,” shouted the announcer, “here after more than thirty consecutive wins, we have the Golden Man returning from his latest victory in Teira! The Adonis of the Arena himself! Antonius Agrippa!”
With these words, the single most beautiful man Leon had ever seen entered the arena. He walked with so much grace that he almost seemed to glide across the arena’s sand. His hair and eyes were a brilliant shining gold, as was his spear and plate armor. Upon reaching the center of the arena, he slowly turned to survey the crowd, taking several heroic poses and enjoying every deafening cheer he received—and he received many, from every corner of the stands.
Antonius was so beautiful that even Leon felt himself slightly captivated and felt the urge to join everyone else and cheer for the Golden Man’s victory, despite knowing nothing about his opponent. It wasn’t until he felt Elise next to him inching forward in their chair to get a clearer look at Antonius with a dreamy look on her face that Leon snapped out of the trance. In that instant, any good feeling he had for the gladiator disappeared like light into a black hole. His sword arm instinctively twitched toward the blade at his hip, which Elise noticed as it was the arm she’d taken hold of and was unconsciously gripping even tighter after Antonius’ entrance.
“Oh my,” she said with a smile, “are you getting jealous, Leon?”
Her words drew the attention of Asiya and Valeria, who turned to look at Leon. Valeria was as stoic as usual, but Asiya burst into a fit of giggles.
Elise, meanwhile, pressed herself against Leon’s arm and whispered into his ear, “You don’t have to worry about that pretty boy. He has a nice face, but I prefer the man I’m with right now…”
Her words, whispered so close to his ear that he could feel her breath, caused Leon to freeze with one of the stupidest looks that his face had ever worn. It seemed like it was meant to be an embarrassed smile, but it was heavily distorted from Leon’s attempt to suppress it. This, of course, only made Asiya laugh harder which made Leon even more embarrassed.
“Um… right,” he said, then clearing his throat and trying to move on. After a moment, though, he snuck a glance at Elise and saw that she was still staring at him and smiling. Her smile grew wider when she noticed him looking, and when he hurriedly looked away she contentedly rested her head on his shoulder to watch the fight.
But, as she did, she noticed Valeria staring at them out of the corner of her eye. Her silver-haired friend’s face seemed just as impassive at it always was, but Elise detected something else there as well, a suspicious glint in Valeria’s eyes. The announcer was moving on, though, so she pushed it out of her mind until she could talk with Valeria alone.
“Facing our reigning champion is a man who many of you know! He fought and lost to Antonius five years ago and is now here for his revenge! Ladies and Gentlemen, I present one of our brightest rising stars, Themistocles Aurelianos!”
From the other side of the arena came a man who seemed like Antonius’ polar opposite. He was clad in spiky black armor and wielded a shield and short sword. The crowd’s reaction to him was far more mixed compared to the near-rapturous response given to Antonius, though still positive on the whole.
The two bantered back and forth for a while, but Leon didn’t hear a word of what was said. Instead, his mind was filled only with the sound of Elise’s voice telling him that she preferred him to Antonius. However, this had only inspired more doubt in Leon’s mind about whether it was true or not, since it seemed to him that she had only done that to make a show out of it for the benefit of Asiya and Valeria than for any real desire to reassure him of her affections.
Needless to say, he both looked forward to and dreaded the moment it came time for them to leave, as it would mean that he could be alone with her and finally ask her, with no uncertain terms, exactly what she thought of him.
Thank you to my Sixth-tier patrons:
I Dewa Bagus