“Art, can we talk?” As she resolved herself, the slight trembling in her voice disappeared.
“Sure. It seems that there’s a third party at work here trying to make us talk anyways.” I sat back, leaning on my arms, my face dripping with the fresh water.
“About the k-kiss—are you mad?” Tess’s face was bright red, revealing how nervous she felt compared to her terse expression.
“I’m not mad. I was surprised, but I’m not mad.” I would’ve be lying if I said I hadn’t noticed Tess showing feelings for me since all the way back when I lived with her in Elenoir.
There was brief silence where I could tell Tess was waiting for me to say something, except I didn’t know what to say at this moment.
If it was as simple as choosing between liking or disliking Tess, of course it leaned heavily toward the former, but this situation wasn’t as black and white as that. While I knew it wasn’t unnatural for children, especially of royalty, to get married at the age of thirteen or fourteen, there was another factor that came into play here: I could only see this girl in front of me as a child.
I held back the urge to let out a deep breath.
I began to question the use of being so experienced in fighting and politics when I didn’t even know where to start when it came to something as basic as love—or whatever this was.
“Arthur, what are you thinking about?” She leaned closer as her brows furrowed more deeply. The intensity in which she was staring at me made me uncomfortable but this issue wasn’t something I could keep pushing aside.
“Tess, we’ve known each other since we were four. The first time I saw you, you were getting kidnapped after you had a fight with your parents. The first thing you did when I saved you was cry your heart out. After we made our way back to your kingdom, I was fortunate enough to be able to stay in your castle, where your grandpa and eventually even your parents warmed up to me. Even now, your family and mine get along to the point of it being weird…” I took a deep breath before I tried to continue.
“I don’t understand what you’re trying to say.” Tess had an impatient look on her face.
“Tess, we’re still so young. I mean, I’m only twelve and you’ve barely turned thirteen as well! I know that it’s not weird for a girl your age to get married since you’re royalty, but I mean, I don’t have that background.” I realized I was stuttering a bit.
“Art. I know you well enough and right now, you’re just making excuses. You and I both know that what I meant wasn’t to get married right away. I-I just want things to progress. Even back in Elenoir, you just treated me like I was a kid! It’s been almost eight years since then, Art… I have a lot to learn but I don’t consider myself such a child anymore.” Her stern gaze turned soft as she desperately tried to reason with me.
“It’s because I’ve known you since we were both children that it’s harder for me to see you as anything more, at least right now, Tess. It hasn’t even been that long since we met after such long time as well.” I could feel my argument coming out more and more as petty excuses but I stood my ground.
Tess’s bangs covered her face as her head turned to the ground. She suddenly sprung to her feet, her face red and tense, as if on the verge of tears.
“So, you’re telling me that all this time, you haven’t once thought of me as anything more than a childhood friend?” she asked through pursed lips.
I averted my gaze, unable to keep staring at her.
I didn’t know how to respond. Of course there were times when I had to ask myself if I was supposed to reciprocate the feelings Tess had of me back then, but my conscience firmly stopped me. While I had spent twelve years in this body, acting—for the most part—my age, I still had memories of the near-forty years I had spent in my previous life. With memories of the children at the orphanage I had grown up in calling me ‘Uncle’ whenever I visited, I couldn’t help but picture Tess as one of those kids.
“I see,” she whispered, taking my silence as the answer. Tess whipped around and stomped off towards the door of the training facility.
As she opened the door, she said without turning around, “You know, Arthur. You’re so confident in so many things. Magic, fighting, using your brain. You’re so confident in everything you do because you’re good at them. But, you know what? There are things you’re not good at. You’re not good at confronting your feelings. You always put on a mask and pretend you’re happy or apathetic when you can’t handle a certain situation. I think in that sense, you’re a lot less mature than even the so-called ‘children’ you see in this academy. You’re just using your confidence in your strengths to mask the insecurities you have in things you know you’re not good at!”
As the door closed behind her, I was left with an eerie silence that not even the sound of the waterfall could cover.
‘Papa’s a dummy…’ Sylvie curled up a couple of meters away, turning away from me.
I sat in front of the pond, stunned by her last words. I had to admit that in some ways, maybe Tess was more mature than I was. Even in my past life, aside from being a great fighter, I wasn’t that impressive of a man. I had the charisma and character to appeal to the masses but when it came to interpersonal relationships, I considered myself mediocre on a good day. I grew up avoiding long lasting relationships, seeing them as nothing more than a burden that would eventually be used against me. In order to be the best, I had to have no weaknesses, and having a lover would’ve eventually led to my demise.
I’d come to realize this even more since coming into this world. Having family that I would happily die for reminded me of how truly weak I was. If someone were to kidnap any one of my family members, no matter how strong I personally was, I would be at their beck and call.
The thought of having a lover, someone I could call my other half, was a wonderful thing, but it was also something that truly scared me.
After clipping back the bracelet that sealed my fire and water elemental attributes, I made my way back to the surface and headed towards my next class. How was I supposed to face Tess in my Team Fighting Mechanics class? Even Sylvie was pouting on top of my head because I’d made Tess angry.
“Good to have you back, Art.” Claire ran to me, giving me a firm slap on the back.
“Are you feeling a bit better?” Curtis also caught up to us, Grawder following behind him.
“I’ll probably have to sit out for a few more classes, but I’m okay,” I replied, giving him a weak smile as we arrived at the field.
“Good to see you walking, Mr. Leywin!” Professor Glory beamed as she spotted the three of us arrive but when she was about to walk over to us, a rather malicious intent radiated from beside her.
Lucas had a harsh look on his face as he took big, confident strides towards us.
I matched my gaze to his, neither of us looking away as he approached me. Gripping my shirt up by the collar, he pulled me close to his face.
“I think we need a rematch.” His effeminate face was a sight to behold as he scowled, my nose only a few inches away from his.
Gripping his wrist, I replied, my face stone cold and eyes deadlocked to his. “This is a pretty rude way to ask for something.” I gripped hard enough to make his hand lose strength, but I didn’t stop there. I surged a blast of mana at the boy, making his knees give out.
Grimacing in pain, Lucas mumbled inaudibly and soon had orange flames conjured in his free palm, ready to fire at me.
“That’s enough!” Professor Glory roared as she shoved her sheathed sword between us.
“Arthur, go rest in the viewing platform. You’re not to take part in any activities in this class until you’re fully healed—Director Goodsky’s orders. As for you, Lucas, you need to calm down. Whether you want to settle your petty grudge with a fight or with a hug, do it after Arthur is fully healed. Now is not the time.” She let out a sigh as she nudged me towards the viewing platform. After walking for half a day, I didn’t need my sword to lean on but I couldn’t walk at a normal pace either.
Heading back, my eyes unconsciously searched for Tess but she was nowhere to be found. “Professor Glory, where’s Princess Tessia?”
“She stopped by not too long before you came saying she wasn’t feeling well. She said she would make up class somehow but she seemed off so Clive took her back to her dorm. Why? Do you know anything?” Professor Glory asked.
I lied, shaking my head.
“You can get up to the viewing platform without starting another fight, right? Just rest up for a couple more days.” She placed a gentle hand on my shoulder before running back off towards the rest of the class.
I watched the class split up into different teams and get in various formations for different circumstances. In scenarios like sieging, conjurers played a crucial role so augmenters got into a much more defensive position, focusing solely on protecting the long-range caster. In scenarios where guerilla fights were necessary, only one or two augmenters remained close to the conjurer as the rest went off on their own.
The class was only a week in so it was very basic but it was obvious that Professor Glory knew what she was doing. The class grasped the lessons well while even having fun. It was a nice sight to see but my mind strayed off to earlier today. I didn’t regret the things I said, but I had to question whether I had actually said it well.
My next class was the class I was actually looking forward to the most: Deviant Magic Theory. Unfortunately, our professor, Professor Drywell, placed utmost importance on covering the basics first, so even after a week had passed, she was barely covering the foundation of Deviant Magic.
“Whenever deviant magic is involved, there is a much bigger stress on the price of your magic. Why do you think that is? It’s because deviant magic, like its name, is deviant from the natural elemental mana pool that is evident in our world. The mana that surrounds us is made up of only fire, wind, earth and water mana. Deviant magic that comes from the higher form of these four elements have a much greater cost, as I would like to say, compared to the four original elements because there is no such thing as lightning, plant, gravity, metal, magma, sound, or ice mana surrounding us in the atmosphere. In order to produce these phenomena in our spells, the mage must be able to directly alter their parent element and manipulate it into its deviant form.” Professor Drywell chattered on. She was a very aged lady and although she had the image of a nice quiet grandmother, she never stopped talking.
“Professor! But gravity, lightning, metal, magma, sound, and ice all exist naturally in our world as well. Why doesn’t our world produce these types of mana then?” an older girl asked.
“Good question, young one! Honestly, no one knows for sure why that is! Many mana theorists believe that because a certain set of conditions must be met for those deviant elements to occur, mana directly correlated to them does not exist. Then there are always exceptions such as fire, where it certainly does not just spontaneously manifest without cause. Perhaps that is why most mages believe fire to be the highest form of normal magic, because it is so close to being deviant magic itself,” Professor Drywell explained as she paced around the lecture hall.
“Deviant magic that strays even further from the four main elemental mana in our world comes at even a greater cost. All of you know what emitters are. They are healers, essentially. The mana that they utilize does not fall under the category of water, earth, fire, or wind. Instead, I would dare say that there exists a holy element, or light element, to be more accurate. Emitters gain little benefit from absorbing mana from the atmosphere because there is no light elemental mana within our world. Instead, they work to condense and purify the mana that forms in their mana core so that even when less mana is used, there is still a substantial effect in their spells.” I could tell Professor Drywell was running out of steam because her voice was getting breathier.
After she finished the day’s lesson, we had a short Q&A session but no one really had any questions to ask out of fear that class would never finish. Eventually, Professor Drywell released us and I trudged on to my last class, Spell Formations I.
Most of the students in this class were conjurers but some of the smarter augmenters knew that they could gain benefits to their skills by taking this class. Our teacher, Professor Mayner, was a scholarly-looking man with a monocle and his hair parted down the middle. His mustache was well-trimmed and over his suit, he wore a white gown.
“Welcome, students. I was notified by Director Goodsky that a student named Arthur Leywin will begin joining us for class, am I correct?” He looked around, his monocle catching the glare from the light in the classroom.
“Yes, I’m Arthur Leywin, please guide me well.” I gave a small bow as he nodded in approval.
“Very well! You did not miss anything too important, Mr. Leywin. We were going over the different types of spell formations, from individual spell incantations to group spell formations. Care to tell us what you know about spell formations?” He adjusted his monocle as he approached me, his back straight.
“To my knowledge, spell formations are the conjoining and/or altering of basic spells and skills in order to produce a different phenomenon, whether that be to the user himself, or the specific point in space the spell was invoked,” I answered.
“A most solid answer indeed, Mr. Leywin. Very good.” He clapped his hands once before he went back to the front of the class where he began the lesson.
“I would first like you all to imagine a scenario. Imagine a world where everyone could read everyone’s mind. The fleeting thoughts that can make even the purest man seem perverse or the nicest woman seem cruel are all laid out in the open for others to read. I believe that that world would house the best mages ever known.” The class waited, confused, for the professor to make his point but he moved on.
“I’ll come back to this later, but for now: why do conjurers and even augmenters chant spells? It is not the words that invoke the spell or technique. Instead, the words influence the caster’s consciousness, filling his mind with the correct ‘suggestion’, if you will, that molds the mana into the desired spell.” The sound of everyone furiously scribbling in their notebooks filled the room.
Professor Mayner was a great speaker and he kept the class engaged with the material he was teaching.
“To give a rather humorous example; if I were to say to a girl that liked me, ‘I have always loved you,’ you can bet that there will be some sort of reaction from the girl I say this to. The ‘incantation,’ which was ‘I have always loved you,’ triggers the response, or the ‘spell,’ from her, whether that is blushing, crying, a smile, etc.” The class roared with laughter at the metaphor, but I couldn’t help but wince.
“All in all, if the caster can control his consciousness to mold the mana into his desired spell, then incantations can be greatly shortened or they might not even need them at all. The reason augmenters don’t need to focus so much on chanting is because the spells they use almost always directly involves them using their own body. Conjurers, on the other hand, have to cast much more precise and complicated spells, which require these incantations so that their spells don’t become totally different with a switch of a thought. That is why I said that if there was a world where everyone could read each other’s minds, that world would also have the greatest of magicians. Why? Because they would have absolute control over their thoughts.”
The class went on and while the professor was a great lecturer, I wasn’t able to focus as my mind kept shifting back to Tess and her piercing words as she left.
Hiding my insecurities with my confidence…
Was that what I was doing? Was I using the fact that I was a lot better at magic than everyone else as an excuse to avoid confronting what I was actually bad at?
Perhaps I was being a hypocrite. I was going on about how I couldn’t see Tess as anything more than a child but I was actually the one that needed to grow up, at least in a certain sense. Getting stronger in my strengths didn’t exactly fill in my weak points, it just made them that much more apparent in comparison.
Tess was young. She was also innocent, but that didn’t mean she was ignorant. Maybe I was the ignorant one.
“Class is over! Have a great night, students. I shall see you all tomorrow!”
Even as I was walking back to my dorm, my mind was all over the place, almost tripping over myself various times.
I changed directions to where the student council dorms were. Running as fast as my body would let me, I arrived at the building that was much fancier than my dorm hall.
I’m here. How do I meet Tess? It’s not like I can just shout out and call for her…
‘Papa, Mama is over there.’ Sylvie pointed east with her paw and without questioning, I ran in that direction.
“I’m telling you, I’m okay! Please, just let this go, Clive.” I heard Tess’s voice in the courtyard near the fountain.
“No! How dare that brat make you cry. I knew he would only cause trouble! His poor upbringing is definitely the cause. I can’t imagine why Director Goodsky even allowed that peasant in this prestigious academy, and as a disciplinary committee member, no less!” I could vaguely make out Clive’s thin frame as he held Tess by her wrist.
Clive noticed me approaching and his face contorted into a scowl. “What the hell do you think you’re doing here? You dare try and meet Princess Tessia after you’ve made her this unwell? If it were up to me, I’d kill you right now!”
Ignoring the thin, stern-looking vice president, I looked at Tess, who turned away. “Tess, can I have some of your time?”
“You’re ignoring me?!” Clive roared as he grabbed my shoulder.
As if a fly was constantly buzzing around my ear, I lost my patience. “Piss off,” I growled, bombarding him with mana the same way I had done with Lucas.
Releasing a bit too much, Clive was pushed back, stopping only after tumbling into a nearby tree.
“Y-You! Wh-What…” Too flustered, Clive was unable to produce anything more coherent as my gaze never left him.
“Stop. It’s not worth causing a scene over.” Tess got in between Clive and I and took my hand, leading me out of the courtyard.
As I tried to keep up with her quick steps, I nearly tripped, my injured body still unable to do anything more than walk.
“H-Hold on Tess, we’re going too fast. I’m still hurt.” I managed to say in between breaths.
“Oh, I’m so sorry.” Tess glanced back, her stern expression softening for just a second before hardening again.
We were in an alley between the director’s office and the student council’s dorm when we stopped. After Tess let go of my hand, she took a step back and waited for me to catch my breath.
“Well? What do you want?” Tess asked, her gaze fierce.
“Tess. There were a lot of truths in what you said to me earlier. To a certain extent, I think I did know how you felt about me but I was always afraid to face it. Magic and fighting are so much simpler. The more you train, the better you get, and the better outcome you see. Emotions like this don’t work that way, especially for me.” I looked at Tess but her expression didn’t change.
“Maybe you think I was making excuses when I said we were too young, but that’s really how I feel. Maybe you think you’re ready and maybe you are, but I know I’m not. I understand that we’re close in age but everyone matures at a different pace.” My mind worked furiously, trying to come up with the right words to say without telling Tess that I didn’t feel right going out with her when I had a mental age over thirty. “I care about you and I missed you when I came back home—I should’ve said this earlier and I’m sorry I didn’t, but I hope you don’t hate me for this.”
“You’re beating around the bush,” Tess responded, her expression softening.
“I can’t have a relationship with you right now,” I said firmly.
Tess raised a brow. “Right now?”
“Maybe when we’re older?” I said, making my statement sound more like a question.
My childhood friend clicked her tongue, crossing her arms. “You say that like I’m obviously going to wait for you. Anyway, I bet you’re just saying that to make time to find some other girl.”
My mind immediately pictured a thirteen-year-old me locking arms with a woman the same age as my mother and I immediately shook my head.
“I won’t be dating anyone anytime soon,” I reassured.
“How do you know? How am I supposed to trust that you’re not going to go and fall for someone else even if I do wait for you? I’m not sure you’ve noticed but I can be really selfish. If you say all of this now and then go out and frolic with some other girl…” Tess’s voice trailed off as she began to tremble. “I’d rather you just say you don’t see me as anything other than a friend then—”
For one second, I shut off my conscience and managed a light peck on her lips. I suppressed the inner voice that screamed in disapproval and backed away from Tess, my face burning, truly feeling like a twelve-year-old boy in this moment.
“I hope this will buy me some time because that’s about the limit of what I can do,” I said as I quickly wiped my mouth with my sleeve, unable to look Tess in the eye.
There was no sound so I took a peek up only to see Tess in a daze, her eyes glossed over as her middle and index fingers touched her lips.
“Tess?” I whispered.
My childhood friend blinked and quickly removed her fingers from her lips. “Fine. But you better watch out, though—I’m pretty popular! If you make me wait too long, someone else is going to take me!”
“Deal.” I smiled in relief from finally sorting things out with Tess when she suddenly went up on her toes and kissed me on the cheek.
I immediately retracted, surprised. “Tess, I thought I said—”
“Don’t worry, stupid. That was just a thank you for saving me in class last week.” She stuck out her tongue before turning around and running off into her dorm.
Sylvie, who had witnessed everything from atop my head, snickered.
Zip it, Sylv. Letting out a deep breath, I walked back to my dorm. I wondered if my childhood friend was willing to wait a few years… or even a decade, but I chose not to think about it any longer.
Tomorrow’s problems will be solved by tomorrow’s me.