I stepped out of the teleportation gate and onto a platform, feeling weary and frustrated. I could’ve helped back there, but they wouldn’t let me. The soldiers that stayed behind to fight all echoed the same words—that I needed to go and my safety was priority.
What the hell was the point of training so damn hard if everyone treated me like some glass sculpture?
I let out a deep breath, hoping to expel the frustration out of my system, but all it did was remind my body how thirsty I was. Looking around at the crowd of soldiers, guards and nurses, I sought out looking for anyone holding a glass of water to quench my parched throat. Then I caught the sight of my teammates.
Stannard and Darvus were asleep against the wall while Caria was sitting up, speaking to someone, when she pointed at me.
The man she had been talking to maintained his crouching position as he turned his head.
My chest tightened as he stood up. His furrowed brows and sharp gaze that regarded his surroundings instantly relaxed as he locked eyes with me.
It was Art.
I couldn’t help but mindlessly stare as he walked towards me. The first time I had seen him in two years, he was covered in blood and grime, looking somewhat like a monster himself. However, the Art that was approaching me now was completely different. Dressed in a sharp white tunic lined luxuriously with gold and a long black mantle that seemed to shroud him in mystery, he exuded a sort of grand aura that belittled every royal family in Dicathen. His long hair was bound up, accentuating the sharp lines of his jaw while locks of auburn bangs fell messily over his forehead and past his azure eyes that crinkled from his breathtaking smile.
He was almost upon me when I snapped out of my daze. There were soldiers and guards nearby that I had to keep my composure around. It had barely been a day since the last time I’d seen Art and judging by his demeanor from the last time we had met in public, I’m sure he disliked emotional reunions.
Letting out a hoarse cough, I tried to stand taller, puffing myself up to muster as much poise and dignity that I could despite my unkempt appearance.
I stuck out my hand for him to shake, keeping my expression stoic. “Good to see you so soon, Arth—”
My gesture was ignored as a powerful hand wove underneath my arm, landing firmly on my back as he pulled me toward him. I stumbled forward by the sudden force and my face pressed against the thin tunic, bathing me in his warmth.
I’d been approached, pursued, and courted by almost every man brave enough to look past my lineage but the only thing I felt for them was either pity or annoyance. However, at this moment, my body felt as if it had been both frozen and melted at the same time as I remained motionless in his embrace.
Whether the entire room had fallen silent or my sense of hearing had just disappeared, I couldn’t tell, but my other senses had become overwhelmed. From inside the safe haven of his sturdy arms, a faint hint of oak and a crisp ocean breeze filled my nose as I felt the side of his face bury into my neck.
My limbs remained frozen but my empty stomach continued to flutter uncontrollably while Art’s arm squeezed just a fraction tighter.
“I’m glad you’re okay,” Art finally spoke. His warm breath blew against my neck, sending shivers down my spine.
My arms twitched, instinctively wanting to hug him back, but the piercing stares of everyone around us made me stop.
“O-Of course I’m okay,” I said, barely mustering up the strength to push him away despite how every fiber in my body wanted me to pull him closer. I could feel blood rushing up my neck to the very top of my head as I stared at Art, his face just inches away from my own.
I could see his eyes moving, tracing every feature of my face as he studied me. He let out deep breath, as if a large weight had been lifted, and looked at me with a gentle smile. “Come on. I’ll take you to your grandfather.”
It felt as though I was swimming in some sort of thick, viscous liquid in my head. The world blurred by with muffled conversations and shadows of people I couldn’t quite make out. My body seemed to move on its own, acting and responding on instinct as my mind kept recalling my arrival back inside the castle. Now that I was just remembering it, my mind started analyzing every action and inaction of the scene, trying to put meaning into every thing Art did at that moment—the firmness yet tenderness of his hug, the desperation and relief that poured out of him when his eyes locked onto me.
I replayed the scene over and over again in my head, nitpicking every little detail. However, the conclusion that I had reached every time was the same. I hated how composed he was every time we met. And, after all of this time, I hated how I still felt weak and helpless in front of him.
I wasn’t able to see much of Art after our initial meeting at the castle. I was swept away by a team of nurses as soon as my grandfather had released me from his embrace, and escorted to my room. After checking to make sure my teammates had been tended to, I plopped gingerly into my bed, finding comfort in the fact that my simply furnished room was exactly as I had left it.
As the nurses removed my armor and wiped me down with scented towels, I felt my body sinking deeper and deeper into the sheets until the world faded to darkness.
“—should tell her, Virion.” Art’s familiar voice pulled me out of my slumber. Rubbing my eyes, I squinted at the morning sun just barely peeking above the layer of clouds below us.
It took my brain a second to assess the situation before a frightening thought struck me. I immediately peeked underneath my covers, letting out a sigh of relief to find myself clothed.
“She’s going to find out eventually. You can’t hide something like this from her; it’s impossible.” Art’s muffled voice came from the other side of the door. He talked in a hushed tone but his words rang clearly in my ears.
“It’s fine if she finds out later, but she’s not ready for this. Now shush! What if she hears?” my grandfather whispered back.
“She’ll listen to you if you respect her enough to tell her. If she finds out from anyone else, what do you think she’s going to do?” Art argued back, his voice growing sharper.
“Damn you, boy. What if she decides to go? Then what?”
“We’ll figure it out after hearing her response. Virion, you and I both know what your granddaughter is capable of once she puts her mind to something.”
“I know,” my grandfather snapped back. “I just can’t… with Cynthia dying by the hands of those Vritra bastards right here in this castle. What if…”
I couldn’t hear the rest of their conversation as my heart began beating louder and louder. Master Cynthia is dead? That’s impossible, right?
Master Cynthia had always been leagues above anyone I knew in terms of magical abilities. Her expertise in mana manipulation was on par with—maybe even above—Grandpa’s. She had taught me everything from basic control to advanced execution of spells while sword fighting.
There is no way she would be killed so easily. I tried convincing myself, but my hands trembled as I held on tightly to my blanket.
I sat up on my bed, wiping away a stray tear that had managed to escape from my eye, and waited for the two of them to come in.
“Come in,” I answered immediately after they knocked on the door.
Art, dressed simply in a grey tunic and black pants with his hair tied up into a knot, came in first, followed by my grandfather who was wearing the same black robe he had been wearing yesterday.
Art took one glance at me and let out a sigh as he closed his eyes. “How much did you hear?”
“Everything,” I answered matter-of-factly.
My grandfather took a step forward, his face furrowed in concern. “Child—”
“Take me to her, please,” I cut him off, stepping out of bed to find something to wear over my nightdress.
I stayed silent as we descended down the flights of stone stairs, the only sound coming from our echoing footsteps as my grandfather led the way and Art trailed closely behind me.
My grandfather kept taking glances back, but didn’t say anything until we reached the bottommost floor where the dungeons and cells were.
“Why is Master Cynthia holed up in such a filthy and degrading place reserved for murderers and traitors?” I demanded.
“We don’t have a burial ground in this castle, Tessia. We’re keeping her here until circumstances permit us to safely give her a burial,” my grandfather answered patiently. “And the dungeon has been empty since the start of this war after we moved all of the prisoners to more remote dungeons on the ground.”
The dungeon floor differed vastly from the rest of the castle. Fungus grew between the stone blocks and mold lined the wooden hinges that the illuminating artifact rested on. The foul, musty smell blended with the near-toxic odor of decay and waste. The area seemed as if it was purposely designed to repulse the prisoners held here. What my grandfather said was true—only a hollow silence lingered rather than the screams and moans of prisoners.
At the farthest end of the floor, there was a single metal door with a soldier standing guard.
“Open the door,” my grandfather ordered.
The armored guard nodded, his expression hidden underneath his helmet, as he stepped to the side and turned the rusted handle without turning around. As the metal door screeched against the uneven ground, a flawless stone casket lay in the center of the empty cell with a small pile of flowers resting on top.
“Only a few people know of her death,” my grandfather explained, walking up and gently laying a hand on the top of the stone coffin.
“She deserves a public ceremony. All of her past students, the professors who taught at Xyrus… she doesn’t deserve to be here,” I muttered.
My grandfather nodded. “I know—”
“Then why?” I said harshly. “Why is my master rotting away in a corner of this foul dungeon? For everything she had done for this continent, she deserves a diamond coffin and a countrywide funeral! Sh-She deserves anything but… this.”
“Tessia…” Grandpa rested his hand gently on my back, hoping to quell my anger.
“How could you keep this from me, Grandpa? If I hadn’t heard you through the door, when would I have found out? After the war?” I scoffed, shrugging his hand away while my vision blurred from my tears. “Is there anything else you’re hiding from me? Despite everything I did to try and show you that I was mature, you still treat me like a child—”
“That’s because you are a child,” Art snapped.
“What?” I blurted, my face getting red from anger rather than embarrassment. “How can you—you should know better than anyone else how I’m feeling, but you call me a child? You of all people?”
My childhood friend wore a calloused expression as I huffed in frustration, regarding me with a stern eye that made me doubt yesterday’s memory of him affectionately hugging me.
“Maybe it’s because I know both you and Grandpa Virion so well that I’m saying this, Tess. What you’re doing right now—needlessly putting yourself in harm’s way just to prove a point—is no better than a child throwing a tantrum,” Art continued.
“Arthur,” my grandfather cut in. “Enough.”
“H-How dare you!” I seethed, tears rolling down my cheeks.
“If you took a minute to think this whole situation through, you’d realize why your grandfather had to keep this all a secret. What do you think would happen if he were to announce that someone was killed by our enemy in the supposed safest location in the continent?” Art said, his gaze unrelenting.
“Well I’m sorry that not everyone is as smart as you!” I retorted.
Art’s gaze softened. “You’re only seventeen, Tess—”
“And you’re only sixteen. Yet Grandpa, Master Aldir, and even Master Cynthia never looked at you as a kid even though you’re younger than me,” I argued.
“If they see me as an adult, that’s something they’ve come to realize on their own, not by me deliberately trying to prove it,” he answered.
“How is that even fair?” I choked back a sob. “You get to do what you want because you’re good enough but no matter how hard I try and what I do, I’ll always be some damsel in need of protection!”
“That’s not it, Tessia. Your grandfather and I—”
“What? You guys want me cooped up and isolated from anything potentially dangerous or potentially distressing so badly that you can’t even tell me that my own master was killed?” I cut in, my face numb with anger. “Or is it because—”
“Because if we told you, the first thing you’d have in mind is facing the Vritra that killed Cynthia, trying to get revenge, and getting yourself killed!” Arthur exploded.
This was the first time I had heard him raise his voice to this extent, stunning not just me and Grandpa, but the guard standing outside.
“You… you don’t know that,” I denied.
“Don’t I?” Arthur pressed. “Because I think I know for a fact that you acting this way isn’t because Virion didn’t tell you about Director Goodsky dying. You’re not mad at him, you’re mad at yourself for leaving your master to go prove to everyone how strong and helpful you’d be to the war.”
“Th-This isn’t about…” I couldn’t finish my sentence as I broke down, sobbing uncontrollably on my knees.
“Arthur! I think you’ve said enough,” my grandpa growled. “Guard. Escort him out.”
I didn’t look up to see Art leave. I didn’t know what kind of expression he had on his face, or if he was sorry. It was too much.
“Tessia. let’s take some time together to pay our respects to Cynthia. I’m sure that, more than having millions of people at a ceremony, she’d rather have the few she truly cherished mourning for her.” Grandpa kneeled beside me, gently stroking my trembling back. “After this, I’ll tell you everything.”
Mustering up a shaky nod, I let out a hoarse whisper. “Thank you.”
The both of us turned to face the smooth stone casket that my master resided in, waves of emotions continuing to toss and turn inside me.