Chapter 222: Future’s First Step
A lot changed after Cecilia’s accident at school. Things weren’t as drastic as Nico had feared after our friend’s secret was exposed—at a glance, at least. Despite the crude oligarchy we were in, we still had basic rights.
The enforcers couldn’t just take Cecilia and keep her for whatever purposes they had in store, but they were able to basically force Cecilia to attend sessions at a nearby government facility for “tests” under the guise of helping her “control her abilities.”
Another problem was that Cecilia was an orphan like Nico and I were. With no legal guardian available after Headmaster Wilbeck passed away, more than once did a supposed wealthy or powerful individual extend their desire to adopt her.
I’d like to say that I was there to help my friend as she endured the stresses and hardships that came from being under the spotlight, but that would be a lie.
With Nico by her side, being the shoulder to lean on for Cecilia, it was quickly apparent that they had become more than just friends. While I thought my initial reaction to this would be discomfort at the fact that my two childhood friends were on the path to becoming lovers, I was actually happy for them. It was hard for me to show that, though, since I was hardly ever there with them.
Training with Lady Vera became even more intensive as I met and even exceeded her own expectations. She had the authority to allow me to skip most of my classes since her own training regimen was several times more intensive than the academy so my social life and youth was compromised. If I wasn’t training or sparring, I was learning etiquette and basic knowledge required for the exam to even qualify to be a king. As it turned out, you couldn’t only be a good fighter—you needed the intellect and charisma to appeal to your country’s citizens.
It was while under the full tutelage of Lady Vera and the team of tutors dedicated to making sure I had a fighting chance to become a king that I learned the role was more akin to a glorified mascot than it was a leader.
Still, I needed the power and voice that came with the position. I still hadn’t forgotten about the assassins that were responsible for Headmaster Wilbeck’s cruel death.
I also used that reason to justify my absence with Nico and Cecilia. Days and sometimes even weeks would go by without even being able to see their faces, and while I felt bad, I fooled myself into believing that becoming a king would solve everything. Whether the government was running shady tests on Cecilia to get a better grasp of her abnormal ki levels or the politicians trying to use her as a tool to further their gains, becoming a king would get rid of all of those problems.
I wasn’t sensible or emphatic like Nico was, nor did I have strong enough feelings for Cecilia to dedicate my time being there for her like my best friend. If anything, there was still a small part of me that blamed Cecilia for Headmaster Wilbeck’s death. The woman that was basically my mother was killed protecting her.
It wasn’t fair for me to blame her—I knew that. I swallowed those unjustified resentments long ago because Cecilia had taken her death hard as well, but it still left a small chasm in our relationship.
Perhaps that’s why I could never reciprocate the feelings Cecilia once had for me. Whatever the reason was, it didn’t matter. I barely had time to sleep since my current schedule was planned down to the minute of every day by Lady Vera.
She wasn’t completely heartless, though. She would still give me time to hang out with Nico and Cecilia every once in a while, and although many of the times Cecilia couldn’t come because of her own “training,” talking and joking around with Nico was one of the few joys in my life.
We were almost eighteen, and would soon legally become adults, when Nico brought up his plan with Cecilia while on one of our now-monthly hangouts.
“You’re going to run away?” I asked incredulously.
“No… well, I guess, in a way.” Nico let out a sigh. “You make my well-thought-out plan sound like some sort of prepubescent rebellion.”
“Because it sort of is,” I scoffed. “Do you think the government will even let you run away with Cecilia? As far as they’re concerned, she’s basically a national asset.”
“Trust me, I know. But after Cecilia and I no longer need a guardian, we can drop out of school and go to a different country. The new prototype of the ki limiter I made is already several times more stable than the previous one and that accounts for the growth in her ki levels.”
“How much has her ki level grown?” A part of me didn’t want to know the answer.
Nico leaned back against the seat. “According to her latest report, more than double.”
“What?!” I yelled, instantly drawing the attention of the other students in the cafeteria.
“Yup. Apparently, it’s not just her inherent ki level that’s monstrous but its growth as well. At this point, I just hope the team of researchers watching over her know what they’re doing—I’d expect any form of explosive growth can’t be perfectly stable.”
“Still, that’s ridiculous,” I said, lowering my voice. I couldn’t help but imagine myself having a ki level so high. A majority of my training with Lady Vera consisted of compensating for my levels of ki despite the endless resources she had spent on medicine and supplements.
With my combat abilities and Cecilia’s ki level, becoming a king would have actually been just a matter of time. I could see why the government wanted to control her so much.
“Training still rough?” Nico asked his routine question once again.
I nodded, barely able to raise a grilled piece of chicken breast to my mouth. “It’s getting a bit more bearable now, but yeah.”
Nico usually didn’t pry for details, but I guess he couldn’t hold it in any longer. He set down the fork and looked at me with his sharp eyes. “Why are you doing this to yourself?”
I continued to carefully chew my food, answering only with a raised brow.
“I barely see you nowadays. Hell, Cecilia isn’t as busy even with the government training sessions and politicians hounding her. When I do see you, you’re either bloody to the point that it&#8217;s seeping through your uniform or you’re so sore you can hardly stand. Is being the king that important that it’s worth throwing away your body and youth?”
“You know it’s not as simple as that,” I said with a threatening tone.
Nico rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I know. It’s apparently the dying wish of Headmaster Wilbeck for you to avenge her by wasting away your life.”
I slammed my utensils down on the table. “Are you done?”
There was a beat of silence between the two of us as we locked eyes. Nico relented, letting out a breath. “Look, I didn’t mean to come off like such a jerk. I just wanted to say that Headmaster Wilbeck wouldn’t have wanted this for you. She would’ve wanted you and Cecilia to live as normal students and be happy with normal lives and families.”
“You know I can’t let it go that easily. Not after her whole murder was covered up as an accident. Those assassins are part of a bigger organization, I just know it.”
“So you become a king and then snuff out the organization that killed Headmaster Wilbeck. Then what?” Nico pressed.
“Then I retire. Find a quiet place and ‘be happy with a normal life and family,’” I replied with a smirk.
My friend shook his head helplessly. “Let’s hope it’s that easy.”
I chuckled, wincing at the pain it brought to my sore chest. “What about you and Cecilia? Do you have a particular country in mind or are you just content with going wherever the wind blows like gypsies?”
“Engineers never ‘go wherever the wind blows,’” he scoffed. “I have pretty much the whole plan set. And it’s all legal… just, low-key.”
“Well have you told this masterplan to Cecilia?”
“Not entirely, but—oh, speak of the devil. Cecil! We’re over here!” Nico suddenly called out, practically bolting up from his seat. It irritated me how his voice went up a pitch every time he talked to Cecilia. It wasn’t over-the-top but still a bit cringy.
Nevertheless, I turned my head and waved to our friend with a smile. My greeting was casual and laid back, but my eyes scanned Cecilia with scrutiny. She had gotten taller, and her posture much more straight and confident despite the exhaustion shown on her face. It was easy to say that, objectively, she had gotten much prettier. Whether this was because her strict training was shaping her body into a more feminine figure or because of her inherent genes coming to fruition with age, she attracted the gazes of most of the male students around her.
She was dressed in a similar uniform to mine, indicating to the students and faculty that we had mentors and were exempt from showing up to class or school. It was a more extravagant version of the ones normal students wore, embellished with gold trims and buttons to match. I thought it always looked odd on me, but on Cecilia, it made her look like a noble straight out of a fairytale.
Cecilia smiled back at us before taking a seat across from me next to Nico.
“It’s been a while, Grey,” she said, smoothing out her blazer. She looked at me with weary eyes. “How is training going for you?”
“It’s been going well,” I replied awkwardly. “How are you?”
Cecilia had always been a quiet girl, but seeing her less and less made our interactions even more strained than usual.
Still, she was a gentle and selfless girl—selfless enough to say she was doing good when, despite her improved physique, her psyche seemed to be at the cusp of shattering.
“Here, Cecil. I saved some of your favorite foods before they were all gone.” Nico pushed the tray of untouched food toward her and I watched as she forced a smile and practically shoved the creamed seafood medley down her throat.
For someone so smart, Nico was pretty clueless.
I watched for a while as the two of them conversed; Nico did most of the talking. Cecilia mostly listened but responded genuinely to all of Nico’s questions while she finished off the platter of food.
Despite the change in dynamics between the three of us, things seemed normal for a while. We were three students sitting and chatting over a meal in the dining hall of our school. While my drive to become a king grew more and more while training, I still missed spending time like this.
It was only when Nico mentioned his plans about fleeing the country that things started going south. Cecilia’s expression hardened, to a point where she almost looked… afraid.
“N-Nico. I don’t think we should be talking about that here,” Cecilia said, looking around.
Nico cocked a brow. “Come on, Cecil. It’s not like we’re actually running away. We’re legally allowed to go to other countries, you know.”
“Still…” Cecilia’s voice trailed off as she continued to survey our surroundings.
I looked down at the watch strapped to my wrist and got up from my seat. “My time’s up. I better get back to Lady Vera’s estate before she doubles my regimen for the rest of the day.”
“We’ll walk you to the car.” Nico got up and Cecilia followed.
The three of us walked out of the dining hall and into the foyer still packed with students on their lunch break. Eyes were drawn towards Cecilia and me because of our uniforms but the three of us ignored the envious gazes around us and walked outside to the murky afternoon that seemed to reflect how I was feeling.
Nico was probably the only one out of the three of us that remained normal and somewhat ignorant. I never told him about getting captured and tortured, and I was sure Cecilia was withholding quite a bit of her experiences in the government training facility that didn’t allow any outsiders.
Still, the two of us probably needed someone like Nico in our group. Despite being an orphan like the rest of us and losing Headmaster Wilbeck, Nico was still Nico. Despite his sharp features and his cleverness that often led us both into trouble, he was bright and optimistic.
“I’ll see you both again soon… hopefully,” I said as I got into the black car waiting for me just outside the academy gates. I wasn’t lying—and I really did want to see them soon, but I just wasn’t confident.
After getting back to the estate, my training resumed. Lady Vera was waiting for me with her team of specialists hell-bent on making sure I was both physically and mentally sore.
All in all, it was a rather normal day. The little time I was able to spend with Nico and Cecilia was what I needed to get me through another few grueling weeks. It wasn’t until I sank into bed that I got a call from a number I didn’t recognize.
I answered the call. “Hello?”
“Yes, this is Etharia National Hospital. Am I speaking to Grey?” a pleasant female voice asked.
“Yes, this is Grey.”
“Hi, the reason for this call was because you were listed as Nico Sever’s emergency contact. He was taken into urgent care a few minutes ago and is being prepped for surgery. We’ll need you to come and—”
I hung up the phone and ran down the stairs as fast as my aching body would allow. Luckily, I just barely avoided running into one of the many butlers in the estate, and he arranged a ride to the hospital for me.
Everything was a blur until I reached the room where Nico was being held. I could barely recall filling out the proper forms and waiting for his surgery to finish. What I could out, though, was the pair of ki-disrupting handcuffs chaining his wrist to the hospital bed.
“G-Grey?” Nico’s groggy voice snapped me out of my daze.
I kneeled beside his bed, careful not to even touch the blanket on top of him in case I aggravated his broken ribs.
“Nico! Yeah, it’s Grey. I’m here,” I said, bringing my voice down to a whisper. “What happened, buddy?”
Nico’s glazed and half-closed eyes snapped open at my question. “Cecil! They took her! I just dropped her off and was on my way back when I remembered I forgot to give her the new prototype.”
“What?!” I blurted, accidentally shaking the bed.
My friend winced and took a moment to catch his breath before speaking again. “I saw them shove her into a car. She was unconscious.”
“Who took her, Nico?”
Nico, who tried to adjust himself, finally realized he was handcuffed to the bed. He bit into his lip as he cursed under his breath. Covering his eyes with his forearm, he let out a quivered breath. “It was a team of enforcers. It was our own government that took her.”