“P-Princess?” she exclaimed, even more surprised than I was.
I quickly sheathed my sword and released my friend. Emily Watsken had been the only girl my age besides Kathlyn that I had spent any considerable amount of time with. Her master, Gideon, came in and out of the castle when he wasn’t engrossed in new gadgets and inventions that he believed could help out in the war.
“I’m so sorry, Emily. You just came kind of out of nowhere and my body reacted on its own,” I apologized, helping her gather the tools and books she had been carrying before I flipped her so gracefully on the ground.
“No, I should be more careful, haha! I was carrying way too many things and my glasses slipped so I couldn’t really make out where I was going. Besides, that was kinda fun. You know, in an abrupt and slightly brain-rattling sort of way,” Emily assured, her voice a bit shaky. Noticing the dark-haired lance next to me, she stiffened before bowing. “Hello, General Varay.”
“Greetings, Miss Watsken,” Varay nodded as she remained upright with no intention to help.
Emily tied back her thick, curly hair that had exploded out of its ponytail state because of me. As I stacked the items on Emily’s arms, I couldn’t help but notice the worn out pieces of paper filled with scribbles that had fallen out of her tattered notebook.
“What are you and Professor Gideon working on nowadays, anyway? I haven’t seen you at the castle in a while,” I took on some of Emily’s load once the stack of books had started reaching her face.
“Ugh, don’t call him Professor. My nutjob of a master can hardly be considered sane, let alone an educator of the future generations,” Emily huffed, letting out a tired sigh.
“Well, he was still a professor at Xyrus for a point in time before all of this happened,” I pointed out as I walked alongside her.
“Yeah, so you know as well as I do how many students were taken to the infirmary because of all the explosions and fires he’s caused in that limited ‘point in time,’” Emily muttered as she used the stack of books she was holding to push her glasses back up.
“You’ve had it rough, haven’t you?” I chuckled, bumping her gently with my shoulder.
“I swear, I think I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to dig up my master from a pile of debris and useless junk after an explosion he’d caused. Anyways, I was getting these observation notes that a team of adventurers had written back to Master Gideon. Do you want to come along?”
“Can I?” I asked, turning my head to Varay for consent. Giving me a curt nod in response, I agreed to follow along.
“How have you been these days anyway, Princess?” Emily asked as we weaved our way through the main road.
“Drop it with the ‘Princess,’ Emily; you know I hate that,” I scolded. “And I’ve been terrible. You have no idea how suffocating it is inside the castle.”
“Oh sure. The halls are pretty narrow and the ceilings are much too low for a castle,” she agreed, clumsily sidestepping a passerby.
“Ha, ha. You think you’re so clever.” I rolled my eyes.
“Hey, I’m a delight!” she puffed proudly. “Besides, try being stuck with someone like Master for hours a day and see what that does to your sense of humor.”
“Oh, woe is you! You’re a real damsel in need of a better social outlet.” I stuck my tongue out at her. Emily did the same as we eventually broke out into a fit of giggles.
“I’m serious, though. You have no idea what it’s like being stuck in a castle with an asura and an overbearing grandfather that can make taking a breath of air seem like a dangerous activity.”
“Ew, sounds suffocating.” Emily’s face cringed.
“Tell me about it,” I sighed.
“But don’t be so rough with your grandfath—I mean, Commander Virion,” she amended, casting a quick glance back at Varay. “After how you were kidnapped and almost killed, I can only imagine how he and your parents must’ve felt…”
“I know. I try not to be, but when he has me caged up like a bird, I can’t help it. Training has been the only way for me to let out my stress, but with more and more sightings and attacks from the Alacryan forces coming out of the Beast Glades, no one has the time to train with me.”
Emily puffed out her cheeks, trying to think of a response. We eventually took a turn into a less crowded street, Varay sticking close behind us like a shadow in case anything were to happen.
“Oh yeah, any news about Arthur?” Emily asked.
“You mean besides the same old news that Master Aldir repeats like a neurotic mimic bird?” I shook my head.
“He is training. That is all you need to know,” Emily recited in a deep voice exactly the same way she had when I told her the last time.
“Yup!” I giggled.
There was another gap of silence in our conversation when Emily asked in a hushed whisper. “What about Elijah?”
A sharp pang ran through my chest at the mention of that name, not because I was sad, but because I could imagine how guilty Arthur must be feeling.
“No news. Honestly, I have no idea why Elijah was taken to Alacrya alive,” I confessed, clutching tightly onto the books.
It was my fault in a way that this happened to Elijah. I barely knew the guy aside from the fact that he was Arthur’s closest friend. From what others that witnessed the scene had described, it seemed like he’d tried to save me before he was taken.
It was obvious that Elijah had tried to save me for his best friend; for all we knew, he could’ve been tortured for information or taken hostage to lure Arthur or maybe just even killed. I knew some of these possibilities were a bit of a stretch, but it scared me to think that this happened to him because of me.
What’s worse was that, more than feeling sorry for Elijah, I felt like I was more scared that Arthur would hate me because of this—because of what happened to his best friend. I thought I was strong; ever since I had received the elderwood guardian will from Arthur, I felt invincible—even when I couldn’t fully control it. How foolishly naive I was. I should’ve listened to Arthur when he told me he’d come with me to school. I should’ve been more ready.
These were the thoughts that made my nights often sleepless, but they were also the thoughts that drove me to train harder. Train so I would be strong… train so that I wouldn’t be a liability to anyone.
“—ssia? Tessia?” Varay’s voice jolted me out of my thoughts.
“Yeah?” I looked up to be suddenly face-to-face with the lance.
“You okay?” Emily asked from my side, her voice laced with concern.
“Huh? Oh, yeah, of course I am. Why do you ask?” I muttered as Varay wordlessly placed a hand on my forehead.
“Not sick,” she said simply before giving me some space.
“You kind of seemed dazed,” she said as we approached a large, square building. “Anyways, we’re here.”
As we approached Professor Gideon’s and Emily’s workplace, I couldn’t help but marvel at the structure. It wasn’t impressive in the traditional sort of way but it really was a sight to see. The square structure was only one story high, but in order to go through the front entrance, you needed to go down a flight of stairs, indicating that there was at least one level underground.
With thick and imposing walls, it seemed more like a shelter civilians would go to in case of a disaster than a research facility.
“Come on. These books are getting heavier by the minute,” Emily called out from ahead.
The three of us went down the stairs and through a metal door similar to the one that guarded the teleportation gate inside the flying castle.
Emily set her things on the ground and placed both palms at different locations on the door. I couldn’t hear what she was mumbling, but soon, streams of light glowed brightly from where her hands had been placed and the single door unhinged with a loud click.
Going inside, my senses were overwhelmed. There was a frenzy of movement from workers and artificers as sounds of metals clanging against one another echoed along the building. The large building was one gigantic space, separated only by moveable partitions dividing different projects that were simultaneously going on. Throughout all of this, I couldn’t help but keep my nose pinched at the indescribably pungent smell.
“What is this stench?” I asked, my voice coming out nasally.
“What isn’t this stench!” Emily shook her head. “So many different minerals and materials are being either melted or refined that it’s hard to discern the smells apart.”
Even Varay cringed as we went further down the stairs.
“Damn it, Amil! How many times do I have to drill into that thick skull of yours that you can’t keep those two minerals in the same container! They’ll draw each other’s properties out, and I’ll be left with two useless hunks of rock!” a voice exploded all the way from the back corner of the building.
“Ah, there’s my lovely master’s voice,” Emily sighed as she motioned for us to follow.
As we made our way to the source of the harsh voice, we bumped into the man who I could only assume was Amil by his shaken expression and the fact that he was holding a box full of rocks.
“E-Excuse me,” he croaked, his voice cracking. “Oh, h-hello Emily. Tread carefully around Master Gideon; he’s a bit on edge today.”
The poor man gave us all a quick bow, barely even looking at us as he hurriedly ran off to fix his mistake.
Continuing our little tour of Emily’s workplace, an elderly gentleman that had been talking with a group of several men in the traditional brown robes that most artificers wore turned around as he heard us approaching. His eyes lit up as he made his way toward us after dismissing the group of men.
Judging by his wardrobe, I would’ve normally assumed he was just a butler, but something about the way he carried himself and the respect the men back there showed him told me it wasn’t that simple.
“Good afternoon, Princess, General, and Miss Emily. I’m glad you came back so quickly, Master Gideon is waiting for you.” The gentleman dipped his head in a little bow and led the way after taking the items that Emily and I had been carrying.
“Thanks, Himes. Is Master in one of his moods again?” Emily asked, following closely behind the butler.
“I’m afraid so, Miss Emily. I’m sure he’s only agitated waiting for these,” he answered, holding up the pile of leather-bound notebooks.
We made our way through the maze of partitions until we arrived at a particularly closed off space enclosed in the corner by rather high partitions. As soon as we entered through the tiny opening between the dividers, we were met by Professor Gideon, who practically pounced at the notebooks Himes was carrying. The genius artificer and inventor looked the same as he always had, with the same, lightning-struck hair, beady eyes, and brows that seemed permanently furrowed together. The wrinkles on his forehead did seem to be even deeper than before, just like how his dark circles somehow continued to grow darker.
“It’s nice to see you too, Master,” Emily mumbled. She turned to me and Varay, giving us a shrug.
At first, I wanted to explore the facility, but as Professor Gideon progressed through the stack of notebooks with breakneck speed—practically tearing apart the pages as he flipped through them—my curiosity drove me to stay and wait. It seemed like Emily and Varay both had the same thoughts I did, because they were both staring intently at Professor Gideon as well.
Suddenly, after going through about six notebooks, he stopped on a particular page.
“Shit!” Professor Gideon slammed his hands on his desk before scratching furiously at his unruly hair.
We stayed silent, not knowing how to respond. Even Emily stared wordlessly, waiting for her master to say something.
“General, can you make a trip with me?” Professor Gideon’s eyes stayed glued to the notebook as he asked this.
“I’m currently with the Princess,” she answered simply.
“Bring her along too. Emily, you come as well,” Gideon responded as he gathered the pile of notebooks and scattered pieces of paper on his desk.
“Wait, Master. Where are we going?”
“The eastern coast, on the northern border of the Beast Glades,” the inventor answered curtly.
“Commander Virion has prohibited Princess Tessia from venturing out. Having her come—”
“Then leave her here. I just need you or another general to come with me in case anything happens, which will be unlikely,” he cut her off as he continued gathering his things. “We just need to leave as soon as possible. Emily, bring me my usual inspection kit.”
Emily scurried out of her master’s makeshift office. Varay took out a communication artifact from her dimension ring when I quickly grasped her hand.
“Varay, I want to go,” I said, squeezing the lance’s hand.
Varay shook her head. “No, your grandfather would never allow it. It’s too dangerous.”
“But Aya is out on a mission, and Bairon is still busy training Curtis. Please—you heard Professor Gideon, he said nothing’s going to happen,” I insisted. “Besides, Professor Gideon seems to be in a hurry!”
“Damn right I am, now let’s go. There’s just something I need to confirm with my own eyes. We’ll be back before the day is over,” Professor Gideon reassured as he put on a coat.
I could see the lance hesitating so I drove in one last nail. “Varay, you’ve seen me train for the last two years. You know how strong I’ve become,” I said, my gaze relentless.
After a moment of deliberation, Varay let out a sigh. “Then you must obey my every command while we are on this trip. You fail to do that and this will be the last time I help you get out of the castle.”
I nodded furiously, eager to explore a part of the continent I had never gone to before, regardless of how short the trip would be. As soon as Emily arrived with a large black bag in tow, we set out.