Chapter 167: The Confidence To…
“How many troops do you need?” King Blaine asked as we all looked down at the detailed map spread across the round table.
“Three—no—two divisions should suffice,” I answered.
“General Arthur. The western coast is where we need to be allocating most of our forces,” Rahdeas countered, placing his finger near Etistin and Telmore City. “Sending nearly twenty-thousand troops up north will make this area too vulnerable.”
“I have to agree with Elder Rahdeas,” King Alduin added. “There are several battles near the coast that have been going on for days. Withdrawing even a single division would tip the balance in their favor.”
Queen Priscilla, rolled the transmission scroll she’d been reading. “We are still evacuating civilians from both Telmore and Etistin. If forces on the coast are withdrawn, our troops will be pushed back and the battles will take place in the cities.”
“Commander, we can perhaps send some elven troops stationed near Asyphin City down toward the edge of the border, but two divisions seem feasible,” Queen Merial advised, brows knitted in concern.
Virion, seated in front of me, lifted his gaze to all the lances standing upright behind their respective artifact holders. “Generals? What do you think?”
“The brat—General Arthur’s vague suspicion based on loose evidence of what ‘he saw’ doesn’t justify sacrificing a city or two,” General Bairon near spat out.
“Bairon’s nasty tone aside, he makes a good point,” said Mica, the female dwarven lance that looked no older than my sister. “Moving that many troops a few hundred miles will take time, even with the help of teleportation gates.”
“General Aya? General Varay? General Olfred?” Virion asked. “Do you all agree?”
General Olfred, the oldest of the lances, nodded. “It is too much of a risk.”
“Sorry, General,” the elven lance whispered beside me before speaking up. “I also agree that it isn’t wise.”
We all looked to Varay, the only other lance that I wouldn’t be confident in defeating.
“If General Arthur’s claim is true, it’d be the right choice to send that many troops—if not more—up north,” the lance answered curtly.
It was surprising to have General Varay’s support, but it worked against me in this case. However, Virion took advantage of her words to bring along the idea that I really wanted to go with.
“General Varay is right in that, if what General Arthur claims is true, troops need to be sent. After all, there has only been one sighting of a retainer since the war started—if retainer and a scythe were leading this next attack, the damages would be catastrophic without appropriate measures.”
Everyone nodded in agreement.
“Therefore,” Virion paused, shifting his eyes from one lance to another, “I propose we send two lances along with General Arthur to investigate whether or not there really is going to be a major attack led by a retainer and a scythe up north.”
The rest of the council immediately glanced at one another, waiting for someone to come up with a reason against it.
“Commander.” King Blaine spoke up. “The lances are the center figures for the divisions out in battle right now. With them gone for too long, morale will decrease and if a retainer or scythe show up in battle—”
“King Glayder,” Virion interrupted, his sharp stare piercing through the human king. “Why do you think the lances have refrained from partaking in most of the battles so far?”
The red-haired king remained silent.
“It’s quite simple. It’s not worth it,” Virion continued. “Large-scale destructive spells cast by any of our lances would kill not just their army but our own as well. Even if we had everyone retreat, this is home ground. Land will be destroyed and uninhabitable. Even if the lances withheld their power and helped the soldiers out on the field with sword in hand, there will still be casualties and deaths on top of the risk of attracting the Alacryan’s retainers or scythes.
“Always keep in mind when fighting that our citizens have to live on this land. The goal is to win this war, but also to preserve as much of our cities as possible.” Virion’s authoritative gaze shifted from one king or queen to another, directing this lesson to everyone present in this room. “With that being said, if sending two lances is all it takes to avoid a large-scale battle with both scythes and retainers fighting on the other side, then I’d say it’s a small price to pay. Our troops can go a few days without their leaders holding their hands.”
Although expressions of reluctance were evident on the leaders’ faces, they slowly nodded in agreement.
Virion clasped his hands together with a smile. “Good, now which two lances will accompany Arthur on this investigation up north?”
A thin hand rose from across the table. “While Lord Aldir is the artifact holder for my two lances, since he is not here I think it’s safe to assume that I can volunteer to send them with Arthur.”
I resisted the urge to smile at the turn of events. Everything was going as I had planned.
Virion played it cool as well, appearing as though he was pondering Rahdeas’ decision.
“Indeed! Since Lord Aldir is not present, I think it’s only natural to have the dwarven lances under Elder Rahdeas’ command,” King Blaine seconded.
“The battles are occurring in Sapin so I agree that sending General Olfred and General Mica would be an ideal option,” Queen Merial added.
Virion slowly nodded, as if almost reluctant. “Very well, General Olfred and General Mica, temporarily under Elder Rahdeas’ command, shall head up north with General Arthur to investigate the possibility a retainer and scythe are planning an attack.”
Both the dwarven lances bowed respectfully as did I.
“This is a reconnaissance mission, but I leave the situation to your best judgement. Priority is to not alert enemies, especially if a retainer or scythe is present. If circumstances permit a realistic chance in averting a full-scale battle, you may engage. Remember, our priority is to keep the battle away from civilians,” Virion added. “Prepare to leave tomorrow, sunrise. Rest of the lances, dismissed.”
Walking through the dim hall outside of the meeting room, I let out a deep breath. I had always hated meetings like these, always tense and full of roundabout ways to say no or give a reason not to do something that’d hinder your own gains. While the Council appeared to be a unified front of leaders from all three races, deep-rooted ideals and selfishness toward their own kingdom were more apparent than anything else. King Glayder, who had been too afraid to act out since Aldir had threatened him after killing the Greysunders for their betrayal, had become more outspoken. Only with Virion there did the Council function even remotely well.
While Virion and I got the end result we had wanted, this was just the beginning. I scratched at my neck; Gideon’s concealing bandage made my skin itch profusely but I couldn’t take it off until I was alone. The trick to appear unharmed worked during the event a few hours ago, and I had somewhat enjoyed the rest of the evening but one thing weighed heavily on my mind. Claire had been at the party; she had seen me.
She had seen me, yet she didn’t want me to see her. I hadn’t seen her since Xyrus, and the last sight of her I remembered was her being impaled. I tried to think of reasons why she would avoid me, but the sound of footsteps behind me snapped me back to reality.
“Looks like we’ll be on a mission together!” a high voice sounded several paces behind.
“General Mica, General Olfred,” I greeted politely, turning to them.
“Just call me Mica,” the childish dwarf smiled while General Olfred simply nodded in acknowledgment.
“I’d prefer to keep formalities,” I gently refused. “You are my seniors as lances, after all.”
“At least the boy knows some manners despite his meager upbringing,” General Olfred said with a raised brow.
<i>Boy, we’re really going to get along. </i>
The only real impression I had of General Olfred was when I had first been taken to the floating castle after the incident at Xyrus Academy. He had saved me back then from Lucas’ brother, General Bairon. However, that was simply because he was following orders.
“Well, if you’ll excuse me. I should get some rest for the long journey tomorrow.” I dipped my head before turning back to the main staircase.
Walking up to the residential floors, I probed Sylvie’s mind to see whether she was awake. Seeing that my bond was deep in slumber, I took a small detour.
Reaching the room at the end of the hall, I knocked on the thick wooden door.
“Coming,” Tessia’ voice called out.
The door slid open without a single creak and on the other side was Tess. She was dressed in sleepwear but her hair still dripping with water.
“You’re la—Arthur?” Tess gasped. “What are you doing here?”
“Sorry,” I smiled. “Were you expecting someone?”
“Y-Yeah, Caria was supposed to come over. Arthur, what’s wrong?” she asked, noticing my blank gaze.
“Nothing. You just look different from when you were at the event.”
Tess wrapped a towel around her head as she scowled at me. “Wow! Thanks for pointing that out!”
Realizing my mistake, I quickly shook my head. “No, I meant that in a good way. You look more like the Tessia I spent three years with back then.”
“You need to work on your flattery skills,” she sighed. “Wait no, actually. Don’t work on them.”
I let out a chuckle. “Do you want to take a little walk with me?”
After putting on a thin robe over her sleepwear, she followed me down the hall toward the balcony where my sister had set up her target planks. Neither of us talked on the way there as we stood side by side. Unlike at the event, our arms weren’t linked but it somehow felt more intimate.
We reached the grassy terrace surrounded by trees but continued walking until we were at the very edge. Sitting against the thick trunk of a nearby tree, I stared out at the night sky. The clouds below us moved slowly, dimly lit by the large moon overhead.
“The stars are beautiful,” I admired. Coming from a world where brightly lit cities masked the stars, being able to see such a serene spectacle was a blessing I had come to appreciate.
“It’s quiet nights like these that I sometimes wonder if there really is a war happening down below us,” Tess said softly. “I sometimes come out here and imagine that the clouds below us are the ocean and I’m floating aimlessly on a boat. Childish, right?”
“I think you have the right to be a little childish at times,” I said. “You’re a head of an entire unit now. You’re responsible for the lives that you lead and that’ll never be an easy burden to carry, no matter how much experience you gain.”
“You say that as if you’ve been one,” she replied, bringing her knees close to her chest. “You’re technically a general but the lances don’t really lead the soldiers.”
“You’re right, and in that regard I have it much easier. The main duty of a lance is to single-handedly overpower an opposing enemy of their caliber.” I turned to my childhood friend. “Which brings me to why I wanted to see you.”
“Does it have something to do with what you talked about with Grandpa and Gideon?”
“Was it that obvious?”
“You’re not the type to do something as sentimental as this without reason. You either have to go away for a long time, do something dangerous again, or both,” she pointed out.
I let out a chuckle. “Am I that much of an open book?”
“You’re more like an open chapter,” Tess smiled. “There are some parts that are so obvious yet there are times when I feel like I don’t know you at all.”
She shook her head. “Well, for one thing, I want to know how you’re such an expert at everything you choose to do—what’s your secret?”
“Magic, fighting, artificing, giving speeches—hell, even espionage and military strategy,” she listed off. “I know complaining how it’s unfair won’t do anything. I’m just curious.”
I held back my tongue. The temptation to reveal everything about my past life to Tess had been growing each time I saw her, but now wasn’t the time. “I just read a lot of books when I was younger.”
“I don’t know what I expected.” Her gaze was full of doubt but she didn’t question me any further.
“Tess. I don’t know why you’re in such a hurry, but you’re doing fine,” I comforted.
“It’s just frustrating,” she smiled wearily.
“I try my best to catch up to you. My mana core is just a half-step behind yours, I’m a beast tamer just like you and I’ve studied under some of the best teachers in the continent as well as an asura—just like you. Yet, I feel like the closer I am to reaching you, the farther you slip away from my grasp.”
“Just promise me you’ll return back safely.” She gently ran her finger across my neck where my scar had settled. The bandage that I had applied to hide the unsightly mark began peeling off from Tess’ water spell. “I don’t care how many scars you come back with, as long as you’re in one piece and you’re breathing.”
I could feel my face beginning to burn at her words. I tried to think of something to distract ourselves when I thought back to our argument in front of Cynthia Goodsky’s grave. Both then and now, she had gotten worked up about the same thing. “Why is it so important for you to catch up to me, Tess?”
For a moment, the world around us was quiet as she stared off into the night sky. “Because only then will I have the confidence to tell you that I love you again.”
Before I could even process her words, Tess turned to face me once more. Her gaze softened as she gave me a smile so genuinely sweet, with a tinge of shyness that a sudden warmth rushed through me.