Chapter 165: Center of Attention
Despite spending a large portion of my life learning how to behave properly—what to say and how to say it in various situations—I was still unable to muster up the appropriate words to respond to Claire.
I could only see any sort of apology or consolation coming off as pitiful or insensitive; after all, how could I dare tell her ‘it’ll be okay’ after complaining about my lack of progress in the one part of her life she’d never be able to get back, let alone improve?
To my surprise, Claire breathed out a soft laugh.
“I’m sorry—it’s just your expression. If I didn’t know better, I would’ve thought you’d just swallowed a bug or something,” she explained, noticing my confusion. “Don’t worry. I’ve pretty much come to terms with it.”
“But still…” I muttered.
“It’s fine,” Claire dismissed, shaking her head. “I’ve already told my uncle this, but I plan on helping out where I can at the Bladeheart Sword Institution my family runs. I figured that training new soldiers could be my way of helping out in this war.”
I didn’t—couldn’t respond. She was the one who almost died and was now unable to practice magic, yet she was the one trying to lift the mood while I stood here, disheartened.
“Claire!” a clear voice suddenly boomed from behind.
The two of us gazed up to see the eldest son of the Glayder family and his sister at the top of the steps. Prince Curtis’s eyes were locked onto Claire, his sharp brows furrowed in concern and frustration. Princess Kathyln, wrapped in a shimmering white dress, though known for being expressionless, had red eyes lined with tears, her delicate pale hands clenched by her sides.
Before Claire could even say a word, the two of them rushed down and embraced their former leader.
“It’s nice seeing you both, too,” Claire puffed, struggling to breathe.
Prince Curtis released Claire, his expression still a mixture of worry and anger. “Do you know how worried all of us were? You being here means you’re okay, right?”
“What happened?” Kathyln added.
I took a seat and watched the three of them catch up. Claire told Curtis and Kathyln the same story she’d told me. Seeing their faces darken, I imagined that I must’ve looked very similar to them now.
Just like me, Curtis froze, unable to form a response after Claire revealed her inability to manipulate mana. However, to my surprise, Kathyln spoke up.
“You’re very strong,” she responded.
She lifted her watery gaze and locked eyes with her former leader. “I think that being able to overcome such a huge obstacle and move forward with a smile says much more about you than the color of a mana core ever will.”
Stunned at her powerful words. I shifted my gaze to see that Claire had stiffened from the princess’s response.
Tears began rolling down her cheeks. “Huh?”
Surprised at her state, Claire hurriedly wiped them away with her palms but the tears refused to stop. “Th-This is embarrassing. I can’t believe I’m crying now.”
My chest throbbed, watching her cry as Princess Kathyln embraced her once again. Curtis turned to me and dipped his head but otherwise, the two of them remained silent.
Claire’s sniffles soon turned to chuckles as she laughed at her own state. “Look at me. I was barely presentable before, and now I’m a teary, snotty mess!”
“Who are you trying to be presentable for?” I teased, eliciting a laugh out of the three of them. Like that, the ice had melted and I walked to them.
“Princess Tessia,” Curtis smiled as he nodded politely. “I apologize for not greeting you right away.”
“Princess Tessia,” Kathyln echoed, dipping her head.
“No problem.” I smiled back. “And we should be able to be a bit more comfortable with each other considering we were once schoolmates. Right, Curtis, Kathyln?”
“You’re right,” Curtis grinned. “And yes, it has been a while, Tessia.”
“It’s nice seeing you again,” Kathyln said with a smile so faint that I’d almost mistaken it for a twitch.
The three of us eventually settled around a patio table nearby. I wasn’t particularly close to them but all four of us had a mutual friend that helped us quickly bond: Arthur.
The three of them had much to say about my childhood friend and soon enough, we were sharing laughs about stories involving him.
“He always seems so put together and mature,” Claire chuckled. “And then I spot him doing weird things, like fighting over the meat on his plate with his bond at the cafeteria.”
“Tell me about it. I’ve known him for more than a decade and I still can’t always put my finger on what he’s thinking,” I sighed.
“What was Arthur like when he was younger?” Kathyln asked.
I had to think for a moment before answering. “I remember him being much colder. He kept his distance from everyone. Even during the times we laughed together and teased each other, there always seemed to be some restraint on his part. Of course, I had no clue back then, but looking back now, Arthur has come a long way as a decent person.”
“There’ve been moments when I was truly jealous of him though,” Curtis admitted, scratching his cheek in embarrassment.
“He’s certainly someone most guys would be jealous of when it comes to magic and fighting, but he’s rather lacking in other aspects,” I replied.
“And what aspects might that be?” Claire grinned deviously. “Is it perhaps knowing the female heart?”
“I didn’t have a specific aspect in mind!” I looked away, hoping the evening sky would mask my burning cheeks.
Claire turned her head to the quiet princess. “Your most fearsome rival in love can’t even admit to her feelings, Kathyln.”
“What? Rival in love?” Curtis exclaimed, turning to his sister as well. “Who? Arthur?”
The princess’s once pale face turned such a bright shade of red, I feared she might pass out. “N-No. I mean, it doesn’t matter. I think Arthur suits Princess Tessia much more.”
“That won’t do!” Claire continued to tease. “You can’t give up without a fight.”
Curtis jumped in, lecturing his sister about how she’s too young to date, while Kathyln denied all accusations made by Claire, taking quick peeks at me.
I smiled along, but I also took a long look at the princess sitting across from me. Large, dark eyes with long, thick lashes on a face so small you could cover it with one hand. Milky complexion and such a small, delicate body that even I wanted to protect. On top of the fact that she was an extremely gifted deviant conjurer, she had no flaws.
I wonder if Arthur prefers the cute, reserved type.
I snapped out of my daze at the sound of Curtis’s voice. “Ah, sorry. I was thinking of something else.”
“It’s okay. I was just curious where Arthur was. I haven’t seen him anywhere around here”
“I saw him this morning,” I answered. “He was still recovering so I didn’t think he’d make it to the event but it turns out he will.”
“Arthur got hurt?” Kathyln blurted, surprising her brother and Claire.
I nodded. “He’s okay now. Supposedly, it was a blunder on his part, but I feel like they’re not telling me everything.”
“Arthur isn’t the type to make a blunder during a fight,” Curtis noted. “I wonder what happened.”
Claire let out a deep breath. “You know… I really have come to terms with my injury, but if there’s one thing I regret, it’s being unable to fight by Arthur’s side during this war.”
“I’m curious as to what he’d be like too. If he’s anything like how he was during the incident at Xyrus, I know it’d be worth it,” Curtis said.
Memories of when the soldiers and I found Arthur atop the mountain of corpses still sent chills down my spine. It was a part of Arthur I wouldn’t mind not seeing ever again.
We continued our conversations until it had become apparent by the drastic increase in noise level that something was going on.
“I think it’s about time we went back to the main hall,” Claire suggested, getting up. The rest of us began following her up the steps when she suddenly came to a stop.
“What’s wrong?” I called out as she stood rigidly at the top of the stairs, but my concern had been answered by the time we reached her.
Donning an elegant set of armor composed only of a pauldron and greaves made of mithril was the Lance Zero, Varay Aurae. Traditions that dated back to when the receivers of these legendary artifacts operated in the shadows forced them to be regarded only by their aliases.
After these bestowees were made public as lances, these ‘code names’ were rarely used, but I always thought that they were kind of cool.
“Master.” Kathyln immediately bowed.
“General Varay,” I greeted.
“Good evening.” she nodded, switching her gaze from Kathyln to her brother and back to me. “I’m here to escort you three during the event. Of course, Miss Bladeheart is welcome to join.”
“Claire. Are you okay?” I asked, shaking her gently.
Taking a step back, she turned to me with a wry smile. “Y-Yeah, it’s just that since I can’t use mana anymore, General Varay’s aura—even suppressed—paralyzed me for a second. I’m fine now,” she hurriedly added, seeing the concerned expressions on all three of our faces.
We continued walking, but my thoughts shifted back to Claire and all of the things that she was now incapable of doing that we had all taken for granted.
“Even in a place like this, they stand out,” a voice murmured a few feet away, pulling me away from my thoughts.
“You really have to put them at a whole different standard,” another voice whispered, this time closer. “And here I thought the girls at Kalberk were pretty.”
“You’re into those prim and proper ladies?” his friend replied. “I’ve heard that the girls down at Blackbend are more ‘willing,’ if you know what I mean.”
His friend hid a snicker behind a gloved fist but immediately petrified when he realized my eyes were on him. I suppressed the urge to rebuke them; I probably would’ve done so in a volume that everyone could hear in the past, but this wasn’t anything new nor worth causing a scene over. Besides, my glare seemed enough to shut him up for now.
Needless to say, walking alongside General Varay with Curtis, Kathyln and the mysterious child of the Bladeheart family that had never been seen after the Xyrus incident until now, heads turned left and right. Looking around, I could see men of noble households nudging their companions, trying to be discreet the same way the girls tried to be discreet while they ogled Curtis.
I had to admit that, while he and Darvus wore very similar styles of clothing, the two couldn’t look more different. While Darvus—with his hair slicked back and attire ornamented with a bit too much gold—looked more like an overdressed thug than a noble, there was no doubt for anyone here that Curtis was royalty.
Walking through the hall filled with staring nobles, I was grateful to have General Varay by our side. Even the more bold nobles didn’t dare step in our direction with a lance beside us.
Claire leaned toward me. “How do you guys get used to getting this much attention? It’s absolutely nerve-wracking.”
I smiled and whispered back. “Just don’t trip over your own feet.”
“Great.” She looked down. “Now, I’m conscious of my own walking.”
Arriving near the front of the stage, I caught sight of my parents along with the rest of the Council seated against the wall when the entire hall suddenly darkened.
Gasps of surprise and mutters of confusion erupted. While I wasn’t able to enhance my vision like augmenters could, assimilating with the elderwood guardian had greatly improved my senses to the point where I could even see that the members of the Council were trading puzzled glances at one another.
The noise inside the hall slowly died down, as most had begun to assume that this was part of the event, until only the soft ruffling of clothes could be heard.
Footsteps echoed on top of the wooden stage, creating even more suspense amongst the guests until an illuminating artifact floating above the stage shined a pillar of light at the stage to reveal my grandfather.
“Thank you all for waiting!” his sharp voice rang with authority, evoking applause from the nobles, but I could only groan in embarrassment.
Everyone seemed to love the theatrics but I found them tacky. My grandfather, the person with highest authority in Dicathen during this war, had certainly dressed for the part. With a rich burgundy robe embellished with gold trimming and gleaming black jewels. Even his hair seemed to shimmer like pearls—most likely with the help of the lighting—as he stood straight with his hands folded behind him.
After the applause died down, my grandfather spoke. “First, let me apologize to everyone here. I know that little was said about the purpose of this event. This was done intentionally—not for security and certainly not for safety. No, this was done for the sake of surprising each and every person here today.”
Heads turned as nobles looked to one another in confusion, making sure that they had heard right.
“Yes, you all heard correctly,” he chuckled. “Some positive news in the form of a surprise is something we all need in these times of duress.”
Murmurs of agreement sounded from those around us.
“So… as I’ve kept you all waiting enough, allow me to present to you our first step toward victory in this war! We have come today to commend the one responsible for eradicating a central power of the enemy side—a retainer!” My grandfather stepped to the side as a whirring noise resounded from below. The stage split in half as gruesome figure clad in a tomb of ice was raised.
The nobles closest to the stage all took several steps back out of fear, some of the weaker ones even stumbling.
Falling into a stupor as I gazed at the Vritra, I felt someone tugging on my arm. Looking back, I saw Claire barely managing to stay standing as her face turned deadly white. “Claire?”
I hurriedly grabbed ahold of my friend, keeping her upright by her waist. “Do you want to go further back?”
“No.” She shook her head. “I need to be able to at least endure this much.”
It pained me to see someone I had once looked up to be so helpless, but I let her be and turned back toward the stage. For a being to be able to emanate such a noxious aura even after death, I could only imagine how strong it must’ve been.
When I first saw that the Vritra had been encased in ice, and to such a degree that I felt its chill from back here, my gaze unconsciously turned to General Varay, but she looked as stunned as everyone else in the room.
And her gaze wasn’t fixed on the disfigured monster.
I looked back to the stage to see another person coming from the back, hidden in the shadows behind the column of light shining down at the retainer encased in ice.
And while I should’ve come to expect something like this after all these years, I didn’t. Just like General Varay and everyone else in this hall, I was stunned as Arthur stepped into view for everyone to see.