Chapter 212: A Promise
Hugging Tess one more time, my bond headed up the Wall as we waved her off. The guards let her through the gate to the upper levels, and she walked out of sight.
‘Don’t think about other things and try to have some fun while you’re with her, Arthur,’ Sylvie sent.
“It’s surprisingly easy to get used to Sylvie in that form,” Tess said, turning to me.
I smirked. “Well, if it weren’t for those huge horns on the sides of her head, she’d just look like an unassuming little girl.”
“Those horns are pretty adorable though. But anyway”—Tess pointed in the direction of the merchant area and gave me a warm smile—“shall we head off as well?”
I smiled back. “Sure.”
It was an odd feeling as we walked through the crowds of people. My legs that had ached and felt so heavy without the aid of mana were light as I trotted alongside Tess. I watched as her head turned left and right and her expression changed from curiosity to amazement to delight as she took in the sight of the various booths and stands that merchants had set up along the street.
It was a rare feeling where, next to this girl that I had spent so many years of this life with, thoughts of my responsibilities as a lance and general in times of war weren’t priorities.
That was when it struck me.
This role that I had accepted for the sake of Dicathen had been slowly turning me back into the man I was back in my old world. There were some differences, of course. I had people I truly cared for, but in a sense, that made it worse. I felt like I had to be better—to make no mistakes—if I wanted to keep them alive as well.
“Has being apart from me for so long finally made you realize how pretty your childhood friend actually is?” Tess teased, snapping me out of my thoughts.
“Actually, yes,” I replied earnestly.
Not expecting that sort of reply, Tess blushed all the way to the tips of her ears.
“I-I see. Well, it’s good that you know now,” she said with a cough, her gaze avoiding me.
I surveyed the crowd around us, finding mostly adventurers garbed in chainmail or hard leather armor and the occasional off-duty soldier, still wearing the insignia of their rightful division. “Is it always this busy here?”
“Mhmm. Having so many mercenaries and adventurers here taking jobs and missions at the Wall brought about an influx of merchants and peddlers hoping to make money selling goods and services to them,” Tess explained quickly, grateful for the change in topic.
“This place really does have its own separate economy,” I uttered, admiring the bustling activities around us.
“Speaking of goods and services, there’s a place that I always wanted to try!” Tess pulled me by my arm and weaved through the tide of pedestrians until we arrived near the end of a line that wrapped around a single isolated cart.
Before I could even ask what could possibly warrant waiting in such a long line, a smoky scent crept up my nostrils. My stomach became almost as impatient as my watering mouth as the thick mixture of herbs and spices mingling alongside the savory aroma of grilled meat continued to bombard my senses.
“Doesn’t it smell fantastic?” Tess asked excitedly as she craned her neck to try and get a better view of the cart.
I nodded. “If it tastes as good as it smells, maybe I should make your grandfather hire him as a chef inside the Castle.”
“Tempting, but I’d feel bad for all the people here that look forward to eating here,” she replied.
That’s when I noticed the gazes of all the people around us. Some whispered to the friends they were waiting in line with while others saluted or bowed.
Thankfully a disturbance ahead in the line caught the attention of the people around us. It seemed like someone was trying to make their way to the back of the line.
“Out of the way! Move it!” a gruff voice boomed.
Finally, a man a head shorter than Tess appeared through the sea of people ahead of us. He was carrying a small paper bowl filled with a steaming stew of meat and vegetables in each of his hands.
Locking gazes with Tess and then me, the stout man held up the bowls toward us. “It’s not much, but here. Even a lance shouldn’t fight on an empty stomach.”
“Thank you,” I said, reaching down for the piping hot stew while Tess did the same. “But how did you know we were even back here?”
The stand owner jerked his thumb back to point at the line. “It didn’t take long for news to travel all the way up to the front of the line.”
I let out a chuckle. “Regardless, thank you for the treat.”
The portly old man clicked his heels and saluted, which brought up his shirt to reveal a bulging stomach. “No. Thank you.”
His actions had a chain effect, causing all the people in the line to salute. Tess stifled a giggle and joined them, shooting me a wink while saluting as well.
After returning my respects to the people waiting in line, Tess and I went on our way to our next undecided destination.
“Looks like coming with you does have its perks,” Tess said as she used a wooden pick to skewer one of the charred meat dripping with sauce. “That place is always so busy, even the captains here don’t get that kind of treatment.”
After taking a bite, her eyes closed and a smile pulled at her lips. “Mmm, so good!”
“You’re probably the only person who’d regard a lance as a ‘perk,’ Tess,” I said, taking a bite as well. Needless to say, the stew was delicious enough to make the extravagant dishes served in the Castle pale in comparison. Despite my restraints, the flood of flavors on my senses were strong enough that even Sylvie felt my delight.
‘I hope you’ve saved enough for me,’ she sent with a tingle of curiosity laced in her voice.
Sorry, I don’t think I can promise you that, I replied while taking another bite.
Despite the constant din of people around us, I felt more at peace now than I ever had these past few months.
I was grateful to Tess, who kept me engrossed in the present. She pulled me aside toward every stall that interested her without a second thought. She laughed and smiled at the smallest things, but I found myself constantly looking forward to her reactions.
In a way, her bright and sometimes childish personality seemed so admirable. She had the responsibility to look after an entire unit. She spent days, sometimes weeks, out in the Beast Glades in conditions far from desirable. Yet, she was able to produce such a radiant smile that it infected those around her.
Tess’ hand slowly approaching the stew that I was holding brought me back to reality. “If you’re not going to eat that…”
I snapped the dish out of her reach just as the skewer in her hand attempted to fish out one of the few remaining meat cubes I had been saving. “You wish.”
Tess let out a frown. “As expected of a lance.”
I rolled my eyes. “Yes, because it’s imperative for a lance to learn how to defend his or her own food from treacherous allies.”
Skewering a meat cube with the pick in my hand, I held it out for Tess. “Here.”
My childhood friend’s eyes visibly brightened as she got on her tippy toes to snatch the meat with her mouth. “Sho good!”
I blinked as I stared at the empty pick in my hand.
“What’s wrong?” she said. “You’re kind of red. Do you have a fever?”
“It’s nothing!” I said, quickly turning around. “My body hasn’t been in the best condition these days.”
We walked in silence for a while. Tess looked a bit guilty because of what I said, even though I just said it to cover up a lie. Hoping to lift her mood, I pointed at a confectionery where several colorful dough-like desserts were displayed. While the line wasn’t long, there were quite a few people holding or eating the dough nearby. “That seems like a popular stall. Do you want something from there?”
“Oh! That’s a pretty popular dessert stand,” she said. “I’m okay, but Caria loves these. I’ll go by myself; just wait here, okay?”
I smiled, watching her struggle with deciding which flavors to get while the old lady waited patiently on the other side of the stand.
Suspecting it would take a bit longer, I walked over to a smaller booth a few yards away.
“Interested, I see. You have a good eye, Sir,” the little boy attending the stand exclaimed. “What can I get for you?”
“I’m just looking around,” I answered, not taking my eyes off the display of trinkets and accessories laid out on top of the white cloth. “Actually, can I purchase this?”
“Of course! It’ll come out to be one sil—ouch!” the kid yelped, looking back. “What gives, Mom?”
“What do you think you’re doing?” an older woman huffing for breath chided. She looked at me apologetically. “I’m so sorry, General. My boy here is a bit ignorant of the world.”
“General? You?” the boy said, dumbfounded. “But you’re like the same age as my brother!”
That earned him another smack from his mother before she handed me the item I wanted to purchase. “Please take this as an apology for my son’s rude behavior. Again, I’m so sorry.”
I let out a laugh. “No problem at all, and please let me pay.”
She waved her hand in dismissal. “Oh no! Please, how can I possibly take money from a lance!”
“Since it’s a present, I’d feel more confident in giving it to the person if I actually earned it,” I admitted.
“Is it that pretty lady over there with the silver—ouch! Mom!” The boy rubbed the spot on his shoulder where he’d gotten hit.
Chuckling, I tossed the kid a coin and thanked the two of them before walking back toward Tess.
“Wait! This is a gold coin!” the mother called from behind.
Looking back over my shoulder, I held up the charm that I had just bought. “I just paid what I thought this was worth. It’s very well-made, ma’am.”
The lady stared at me for a second, stunned, before she bowed. “Th-Thank you.”
I walked over to the dessert stand just in time to see Tess devouring some sort of stretchy dough in one bite. She looked at me with a guilty expression before holding one out for me as well. “Do ooh wunt shom too?”
“What happened to just buying it for Caria?” I teased with a laugh.
As the sun quickly set, the streets began to empty. We made a quick stop by the inn, where Tess dropped off the desserts she had bought for Caria. Unfortunately, she—along with the rest of her teammates—were still asleep, so I didn’t get to greet them.
“When do you leave for your next mission?” I asked, almost afraid of the answer.
“Later tonight,” she replied with downcast eyes.
“There’s a place I want to show you before you go then. Is that alright?” I asked with a smile.
Tess let out a breath as she took in the sight around us. We had climbed to the spot on the cliff—the same place I had come to after fighting with my parents. With the sun inches away from the horizon, a warm light cast all over the Beast Glades.
“The view here is even better than from the Castle,” she said with another sigh.
“I agree.” I nodded. “Although I’ve only been here once before and found it by chance.”
There was a moment of silence as the two of us sat side by side, close enough where our shoulders just barely touched. Tess shifted her gaze away from the scenery below us and looked at me. “I wanted to say this earlier, but it’s been a while, Art.”
It must’ve been the way the red sun mixed together with her shiny gray hair or how she was tilting her head slightly so that the nape of her neck was exposed, because my heart felt like it was about to break out of my ribcage.
Unable to meet her eyes for any longer, I turned away. “Wh-Where will you be heading off to for your next mission?”
You’ve led a country in your previous life and even in this life, Arthur. You have no reason to be stuttering next to Tess. I continued berating myself until she answered.
“My unit along with a few other elves from the Trailblazer Division are going to head off toward Elenoir tonight,” she answered.
“Does it have something to do with attacks from the Alacryans?”
“Yeah. We’ve been getting reports from the troops stationed on watch throughout the forest that there have been some recent sightings of Alacryan stragglers. It didn’t sound too serious but they’ve been requesting backup for a while now and Captain Jesmiya finally relented,” she explained, resting her chin on her knees.
“It must’ve been a hard choice, especially with the beast horde approaching,” I said. “Although I’m sort of happy that you won’t be here for this battle.”
Tess cocked a brow. “While I may not be a match for a lance, I have recently broken through to the mid-silver stage.”
I never thought to check her mana levels so her words caught me by surprise. “Congratulations. Truly.”
Tess’ shimmering turquoise eyes studied me for a moment before she let out a sigh. “I wonder when the mighty General Arthur, who is, in fact, younger than me, will actually begin to treat me as someone who can take care of herself.”
“You can take care of yourself. I’m sorry if my words came off the wrong way, but I really believe that. Spending time with you today made me realize how much older you’ve gotten,” I quickly amended.
Tess regarded me with an unamused expression. “Am I supposed to take that as a compliment?”
“Uhh.” I scratched my chin. “What I meant was, you give off a different aura now. I’m not talking about mana, although your core has improved, but more like—”
“I’ve gotten more mature?” Tess finished with a smirk.
I let out a soft groan. “Yeah, that…”
Chuckling, my childhood friend replied, “Thank you,” before turning back to watch the sun set.
Memories of the last time I had talked to Tess came to my mind. It wasn’t that long ago but she seemed so different now—more mature, like she said.
That’s when I realized. The feelings of elation and joy as soon as I saw Tess today wasn’t because of Sylvie’s emotions flooding into mine… because I still felt it even now.
I reached into the inside pocket of my mantle where I kept the charm I had bought earlier with a realization in mind:
I liked Tess.
I probably always liked Tess.
If it wasn’t for the fact that I was born with memories of my previous life as an adult, I might’ve confessed to her long before.
But what would her feelings toward me be if she knew my secret? Would she react the same way as my parents? Would she feel disgusted like I had when I first realized I liked her?
Doubt weighed down on me, and suddenly, the tiny little charm in my hand felt like a lead anchor.
“Thank you for showing me this place,” Tess said as she looked afar. “I always considered the Beast Glades to be such a dangerous and bloody place. I didn’t realize how beautiful it looked.”
“It was actually the same for me as well,” I admitted, my hand still gripping the charm. “Although I love the view here, this place is tied to a bad memory, so I thought coming up here with you would make it better.”
“I see,” she uttered. “Has it? Made it better, I mean?”
“It has,” I said as I finally summoned the courage to pull the trinket out. It was a simple silver charm of two leaves laid over one another to make the shape of a heart. “I got this for you.”
“It’s so pretty!” she said, holding the charm in her hand. “Is this, perhaps, for the great tour service I gave you today?”
“No.” I let out a breath. “It’s because I like you.”
“Oh… wai-what?” Tess eyes widened, more out of disbelief than out of surprise. “Did I hear you wrong? I swear I thought you said—”
“I like you, Tess,” I finished with more conviction, pushing down the doubt still growing inside me.
Tess stood up. “What do you mean by ‘like’? I swear, Arthur, if you say you like me as a friend or as a sister, I’m going to…”
I got up as well and reached for the hand holding the pendant. “I like you as a girl. And what I mean is that I wish to start a relationship with you and that I hope that you feel the same way.”
Tess’ lips were trembling as she tried to contain her emotions. “You’re lying.”
She sniffled. “Yes, you are.”
“Do you want me to be?” I asked with a slight smile.
“I-I don’t know,” she said, her head down. “It’s just, I imagined things going differently.”
“That I’d have to get stronger and prettier and older to wow you and swoon you off your feet,” she said, hitting me in the arm.
I chuckled. “Can I still look forward to you swooning me off my feet?”
“It’s not funny!” she snapped, finally looking up so I could see her two tear-brimmed eyes glaring at me. She held up the leaf pendant up to my face. “Put this on for me.”
I took the pendant from her but rather than undoing the chain clasp, I clicked together the two ends of the leaves. With a ‘click,’ the heart shape that the two silver leaves had made became undone into two normal leaves.
Removing one of the leaves, I wrapped the silver chain around her neck. “Here. Let me keep the other one.”
Tess stared down as her fingers clasped the single silver leaf hanging down just above her chest. She then pulled out a long leather string that had been wrapped around her arm and took my silver leaf.
“Here, turn around,” she ordered as she weaved the leather string through the silver loop that made up the stem of the leaf pendant.
She put the new leather necklace around my neck and tied it so that the leaf dangled loosely over my chest as well. Before I could turn around. however, I felt Tess’ arms around my waist as she embraced me from behind.
“I like you too, idiot. But we’re at war. We both have responsibilities and people that need us,” she said in a solemn whisper.
“I know. And I have things I want to tell you as well, so how about we make a promise?”
“What sort of promise?”
“A promise to stay alive… so that we can have a beautiful relationship and a family that our entire country can come together to celebrate.”
Her arms trembled, but she answered firmly. “I promise.”
Tess pulled her arms away, but I didn’t turn around. I stared off at the Beast Glades, almost missing the cloud of dust approaching behind a large hill a few dozen miles away.
“Arthur?” Tess’ voice sounded from behind.
“It’s… too soon,” I muttered. Whatever peace and warmth I had finally managed to grasp, fell apart.
Tess saw it as well as she gasped.
The reports were wrong. They were coming. Less than a few hours away, from the pace they were approaching. The beast horde was coming.