Chapter 150: Rumination
“Just a cook?” I repeated. “Somehow, I have a hard time believing that.”
The head chef shrugged, untying her apron and tossing it over to Nyphia. “Titles are merely an embellishment stuck in front of your name to establish a hierarchy, so yes, I am Chef Astera. Nice to meet you.”
Taken aback by the sudden words of wisdom, I dipped my head in reply. “And I am Arthur. The pleasure is mine.”
“Well then, <em>Arthur</em>, let’s put a show on for the antsy soldiers here before they start throwing a fit.” Her lips curved into a confident smile as she held up the ladle in her hand.
“Of course. Will that be your weapon?”
“Don’t be silly. It’d be disrespectful to fight with a tool used to cook.” Letting out a hearty laugh, Madam Astera motioned one of the soldiers up in the front for his weapon—a short sword, much like the one I was borrowing. “Now, do go easy on an old lady like me.”
With that, she disappeared from view at a speed that no ‘simple cook’ could have moved. Madam Astera blinked into view in the air above me, already in position to swing down, her handsome face glowing with savage excitement.
With a quick sidestep, I brought up my sword as well. Sparks danced around us as the edge of my blade met hers. Before Madam Astera’s sword hit the ground, she kicked off the guard of my sword to gain distance.
With only a minimal amount of mana infused in my body and sword, my hand became numb from blocking her attack. “Just a simple cook?” I confirmed.
“Just a simple cook,” she answered with a wink before rushing to me once again.
Our swords became mere blurs in the space between us as both Madam Astera and I unleashed a flurry of attacks.
Her petite body moved with a coordinated agility that would even impress Kordri, the asura that had trained me. We both dodged each other’s strikes and swings with minimal movement. If it wasn’t for the sweat flooding down our faces and necks, it would’ve looked as if we were missing on purpose.
I raised my mana output to twenty percent but, just like me, she seemed to have been holding back as well because we were still at a stalemate.
Neither one of us had the luxury to speak as it took all of our focus to keep up with each other’s attacks, but our emotions showed through our expressions. This wasn’t a duel of magic; just a contest of pure mastery of the sword.
Madam Astera wore an ecstatic grin on her sweaty face as she continued her relentless assault and somewhere along the way, I realized that I had been smiling as well.
With each strike she delivered, I countered with another but she flawlessly dodged until her back was against the earthen cage. I decided not to raise my mana but instead, used the field to my advantage. Dipping below her waist, I brought my sword close in position to swing up.
She had nowhere to move but to her right—or rather, that’s what I thought.
Even when she was just barely an arm’s length away from me, she kicked off the wall and propelled herself directly at me. I quickly pivoted on my right foot, whirling just in time for her blade to whiz past my cheek. The tables had turned; now it was my back that was against the wall.
“I’m sure that there was a saying that said something along the lines of, ‘even a mouse will attack when it’s cornered’,” Madam Astera said with her sword raised closely in guard.
I smiled. “Well, it looks like I’m the cornered mouse now.”
“Hence my caution?” She smirked, tightening the grip on her raised sword. “Now, why don’t you stop holding back, Arthur?”
“In the midst of such an exciting duel, I think bringing any magic past basic augmentation would be disrespectful to the way of the sword,” I replied.
“Wise words from one so young,” she nodded in approval. “Then shall we kick things up a notch?” A surge of mana suddenly burst out of my opponent as she took a step back.
The soldiers in the front row winced from the sudden thick gust of energy while others had to lean forward to not topple backward in their seats.
With a smile, I increased my mana output to forty percent. A thick wave of mana burst out of me as well, but it took on a different form from Madam Astera’s. While her mana took the form of a sharp and chaotic gale, mine manifested into a refined wave-like pulse.
Madam Astera’s smile faded as she looked at me in awe. Shaking herself out of her daze, she molded her mana into a thick armor around her before lunging at me. The force of her initial step created a small crater beneath her feet, shaking the entire arena.
In the span of a single breath, her sword was already inches away from my throat but the force of her strike had already sent a spear of wind sailing past my neck, only to create a hole in the wall behind me.
I could see why someone like Nyphia was so scared of this ‘simple’ cook. After her initial strike failed, she leaped back and repositioned herself, tightening her stance like a coiled snake, ready to strike.
But this time, I was the one to strike. I dashed forward, creating no sound as I flashed beside her with my sword in mid-swing when she immediately ducked. With no time to prepare, her movement was sloppy, but the very fact that she was able to react to my attack showed how frightening her instincts were.
She lashed back with a sharp swing before leaping back again. This time, she didn’t wait for me to strike, rather lunged once more. I brought up my sword but realized midway that her stab was a feint as she dipped into a wide swing at my leg; she wanted me to jump up to dodge so she could catch me mid-air.
Instead, I brought my sword down to parry.
A high-pitched ring resounded from our two blades clashing. A deep tremor rose up my arm from the impact before my sword shattered.
For a moment, we stood there, both dazed at the turn of events until I let out. “It’s my loss, Chef Astera.”
“No, I can’t accept that. It was just that your sword’s quality—”
I shook my head. “I think it’s time for dinner anyway, right?” I walked over to the soldier I had borrowed the sword from. “I’m sorry about your sword. I’ll get you a new one.”
“Wha—oh, yeah, sure. No problem…” his voice trailed off as he stared at me blankly. It wasn’t until I noticed his awestruck expression that I realized how quiet the camp had become. I looked around to see everyone with the same expression as the soldier in front of me, the only sound the occasional crackle of wood coming from the fires.
“You heard the boy, move your asses or starve for the rest of the night!” Madam Astera roared. “We’re going all out tonight!”
With that, the silent crowd erupted into cheers as the large cooks began handing out plates stacked with steaming food.
The atmosphere quickly turned festive as Madam Astera brought out barrels of liquor. I spotted Vanesy trying to limit the amount of alcohol passed around but she later gave in, taking a glass for herself.
I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to drink when we were supposed to be on the lookout for any stray ships, but the chances of that happening were too meager to actually stop them from having at least one good night.
After a few drinks in everyone’s systems, soldiers became more outgoing. Some began singing while others accompanied, using a hollow log as a makeshift percussive instrument. The songs seemed more like melodic tales of adventurers with no real thought put into rhythm but it was enjoyable nonetheless—especially with a few drinks in me as well.
<em>‘Should a lance succumb to peer pressure and drink so much?’</em> Sylvie berated, choosing to stay inside my cloak for warmth.
<em>Who says it’s peer pressure?</em> I replied, taking another sip, relishing the warm numbness spreading from the alcohol and from the fire as well.
“Do you mind if I join you?” Madam Astera took a seat next to me by the dancing flame with a glass of liquor in her hand. “So who exactly is Arthur?”
“Not at all,” I replied, thankful since the curious soldiers lingering around me began dispersing as soon as the chef came. “And I thought you already knew.”
“I knew you weren’t just a normal boy,” she shrugged before gulping down the rest of the liquor in her glass.
I followed suit and took another sip as well. “Then can I ask who you are?”
“I told you, I’m just a—”
“Yeah, the ‘simple cook’ answer of yours isn’t going to cut it,” I interrupted.
She let out a hearty laugh that didn’t match her small frame. “Fine, I’ll answer. But you could’ve probably found out from some of the soldiers here—a lot of them were my students, after all.”
“So you were a teacher? At Xyrus?”
“Oh please, I’d rather swallow a gallon of fire sand than teach at that school,” she retorted.
“I happen to have been a student there,” I replied, pretending to appear offended.
“Then you’d know how stuck up most of the kids there are,” she replied with a smirk.
“Can’t argue with that,” I sighed as my chest sank at the recollection of some unwanted memories.
“After the war with the elves, I decided to retire by teaching at Lanceler Academy,” she said, looking idly at the fire through her empty glass. “You’ve heard of us, right?”
“Of course,” I answered, thinking back to the time I spent researching the once famous school located in Kalberk City, near the center of Sapin. “The legendary school for any would-be elite soldiers.”
“Except after the war, there was little demand for soldiers,” she breathed, fogging her glass. “More nobles wanted their children to attend Xyrus now that there is little tension between the races.”
“I see,” I muttered. “Still. This war against the Alacryans should’ve brought in quite a bit of new students at Lanceler. No offense, but what are you doing here as a chef?”
“That’s a story for another time,” she chuckled. “A time with more booze.”
I raised my glass. “I’ll take you up on that offer.”
“Now, onto your story. What’s a talent like you doing here, and why in the world did you decide to go to Xyrus with that level of skill with the sword?”
“Because I could manage by myself with the sword. It was magic that I needed help getting better at,” I replied.
Her eyes widened as she stared at me. “No kidding?”
I let out a chuckle when the clank of armored footsteps got my attention. “General—I mean, Sir.” The guard that was stationed outside of Professor Glory’s tent covered his mouth at his blunder, his eyes wide and fearful as he shifted glances between me and Madam Astera.
Despite the clamor around us, everyone within the vicinity seemed to have heard as they suddenly whipped their heads toward us.
The guard continued speaking, lowering his voice in a useless attempt to amend his mistake. “Captain Auddyr has arrived and Captain Glory is nowhere to be found.”
Letting out a sigh, I turned back to the head chef, her brows knit in confusion. “Well, there’s my story.”
“He just said, ‘General’”—Madam Astera turned to the guard—“You said ‘General,’ right?”
Unsure of how to answer, the guard looked to me for answers, but I just stood up, careful not to wake up my sleeping bond.
“Come on. Let’s go find your captain.” I turned back to the chef, holding my empty glass. “At a time with more booze.”
Her face relaxed as she managed a smile. “Aye.”
As we walked back toward the main tent, I surveyed the top of the large boulders, hoping to find my former professor. Knowing her, I doubted she’d be able to completely relax.
“Ah, there she is,” I said, squinting my eyes.
It took the guard a moment to spot her shadowed figure sitting atop the boulder making up the front wall of the encampment.
“Thank you.” The guard prepared to take off but I held him back.
“Let me. Tell Captain Auddyr that I’ll meet with him first thing tomorrow morning.”
“But the captain—”
“It’s fine,” I interjected, handing him my empty glass. “There’s nothing going on and I’ve had a bit too much alcohol to entertain a man I don’t know tonight.”
“Yes, General.” With a salute, the guard veered off toward the tent.
Taking a deep breath that formed a cloud of fog in front of me, I enveloped my body in a shroud of wind before getting ready to jump. The thin layer of frost underneath my feet scattered as I pushed off the ground.
<em>‘Where are we headed now?’</em> Sylvie asked, sounding noticeably sleepy even through mental transmission.
<em>Making sure my precious subordinate is okay,</em> I answered as I walked up behind Vanesy.
My former professor took a quick glance over her shoulder before turning her head back toward the grey moonlit ocean. “Want another drink?”
“Should the lookout be drinking?” I chuckled, taking a seat beside her as Sylvie popped out of my woolen cloak.
“You’re one to talk, General, with your cheeks the color of ripe tomatoes,” she scoffed, idly petting my bond that had curled up between us.
“Give me that.” Taking the flask from her hands, I took another gulp of the fiery liquid that tickled my throat.
Leaning back on her hands, my former professor looked up at the crescent moon. “Hey, do you think we’ll be able to win this war?”
“I’m not entirely sure, but I’ll do everything I can to make sure we do,” I promised.
“Somehow, despite the fact that you’re barely half my age, I find comfort in your words—like you’ll actually make sure of it.”
I thought back to the event three years ago that had always weighed on my mind. “I’ve let a lot of people down before. I want to make sure I don’t do it again.”
“Are you talking about what happened at Xyrus?” she asked, her brows furrowed in concern.
I merely nodded in reply as I stared off at the mesmerizing sight of the wide ocean before turning to my former professor. “What’s left of Xyrus Academy now?”
Vanesy looked at me, her face twisted into a grimace, but she stayed silent.
I continued. “Tessia doesn’t remember much and Curtis and Kathyln act like nothing happened—as if they don’t want to accept what’d happened. What exactly happened before I’d arrived?”
“Arthur. What’s done is done. Me telling you this will only make you—”
“I need to know, Vanesy. I should’ve asked a lot earlier but I made excuses not to.”
Letting out a deep breath, my former professor nodded. “In the disciplinary committee, Doradrea was the first to be sighted dead. Theodore was injured gravely and wasn’t able to make it, even with the help of the adventurers guild’s emitters. Claire Bladeheart disappeared since then and not even her uncle knows where she is and…”
My head pounded as she listed the names of people I knew that were now gone. Her voice sounded muffled yet the names she said rang clearly in my head. “And?”
“Kai Crestless was one of the radical members that the Vritra, Draneeve, had with him. Kai and the rest of the robed lackeys disappeared with Draneeve, along with Elijah,” she continued. “He’s the reason Curtis probably didn’t want to speak of that disaster.”
“I see,” I muttered, shifting my gaze back to the ocean.
For a long moment, neither of us spoke. The commotion going down below us and the faint crash of the night’s tide in the distance was all that filled the silence as I thought of my short time at Xyrus. Knowing now what had happened gave me a chance for true reflection. Oftentimes, I caught myself forgetting the old memories of my past life. More and more, my past self’s hold on me lessened, allowing me to become the person I wanted to be in this world. But at this moment, I found myself wishing to turn back to the old me—to the cold, rational me that had suppressed his emotions for the sake of having no vulnerability to be used against him.
It wasn’t like I hadn’t guessed what’d happened, but hearing what had happened made it suddenly very real. My chest twisted, as if the blood flowing through my heart had thickened into tar as it struggled to keep a stable beat.
A warm drop of liquid rolled down my frigid face as I felt the muscles of my chin tremble like an infant’s. Gnashing my teeth in hopes to suppress my unwanted emotions, I turned away from my subordinate. I couldn’t help but imagine how many people I knew would end up dead with me unable to do anything to stop it—even the people I had met today. How many of them would survive this war?
I turned to Vanesy to see her shoulders trembling as she clutched tightly at her flask. Quickly wiping a tear, I stood up.
<em>Sylvie. Do me a favor and keep watch for the night.</em>
<em>‘Sure,’</em> she responded with a soft, comforting tone I rarely heard. My bond turned to her original form, startling my former professor. With a powerful flap of her black wings, Sylvie shot up, barely visible as she blended in with the night sky.
“Come.” I held out my hand to Vanesy. “The night’s young, and it doesn’t seem like the soldiers have any intentions of stopping. As their captain, I figure it’s your duty to join instead of moping around up here.”