Chapter 228: Anchor
I let out a groan, barely able to hear my own voice over the wind blasting around us. Propping myself back up on Sylvie’s spiked back, I scanned my surroundings.
I could see the flying castle nearing in the distance, filling me with a mixture of emotions. The strongest of them had to do with seeing Tessia. It was actually probably the only reason why I didn’t go straight to Etistin where the real battle would be happening soon.
The castle guards, noticing Sylvie, split apart to form a path while the landing dock opened soundlessly.
I had to hand it to the artificers of the olden days—the wise and powerful mages that were responsible for not only lifting an entire castle up in the sky but an entire city as well and connecting each major city with a teleportation portal. The constructs left an awe-inspiring feeling every time I saw them.
It begged the question of what really happened to them. But at the same time, finding out the answer to that wasn’t exactly top in my priorities list.
Let’s get this over with quickly. I need some scythes or retainers or any Alacryan soldier to kill, I conveyed, hopping off my bond.
Surprisingly, the landing dock, which was usually filled with activity and noise, was completely empty aside from the lone figure by the door. It was Virion.
It took me a moment to realize who it was because of how different he looked.
The powerful confidence that the old elf usually radiated alongside his lighthearted smirk was gone, replaced by a grim expression complimented by the layers of bags weighing down his eyes.
His silver hair was unbound and the robes he wore looked a tad too big on him. Still, seeing me and Sylvie, his face softened into what I assumed was a smile of relief.
Walking up to me in a graceful gait that couldn’t be diminished with just age, he immediately wrapped his arms around me.
I was stunned. My body flinched from the unexpected physical contact, and for a while my mind went blank.
“Welcome back. You did everything you could, Arthur… you did great,” he said softly, in a voice that seemed unfamiliar yet so familiar at the same time.
The frigid shell of apathy that I had kept myself encased in—away from the anger, grief, loss and other emotions that were trying to claw their way inside—had melted.
It could’ve been the warmth of his embrace, or the warmth of his words, but I found myself crying once more. Tears streamed down my cheeks, unabated and warm.
My shoulders trembled as I tried all I could to keep myself from breaking down once again, but Virion’s words continued to echo in my mind.
I did all I could. I did great.
Sylvie remained silent but I felt her soft touch conveying just as much emotion as Virion’s embrace.
Commander, lance, and asura… the three of us stood there alone in the large empty room, forgetting just for a moment who we were.
I held my fist just in front of the door, reluctant to knock.
I don’t think I can do this by myself right now. Are you sure you don’t want to see Tess with me? I asked my bond who was in another part of the castle.
‘She needs you right now. Just you,’ she replied coolly before intentionally blocking off our mental connection, leaving me stranded.
Virion had said the same thing after hours of trying to comfort his granddaughter. She had locked herself in her room, refusing to see everyone that wanted to help.
If her own parents and grandfather couldn’t get to her, how could I?
That was my excuse, anyway. I couldn’t call myself the most empathetic individual and my emotional mindset wasn’t any better than hers right now, it was just that having almost two lifetimes of experience kept me at least functioning.
But still, she needed my help, just like I had needed Sylvie and Virion’s.
I pushed down the darkness, all of the bad thoughts, and put them away for now. I’d deal with my own losses in my own time. For now, Tess needed me.
Holding my breath, I knocked on the door.
I knocked again. “Tess, it’s Arthur.”
She didn’t answer but I could hear her light steps approaching the door. After a moment, the wooden entrance to Tess’ room slid open and I locked eyes with the girl on the other side.
I had seen so much in those vivid turquoise eyes of hers… laughter, joy, anger, determination. But this was the first time to see such utter despair. It hurt me to see her like this, so much so that I wanted to turn away.
Instead I thought of when she had been there for me, comforting me when I was vulnerable. Clearing my throat, I stepped into her room and pulled her towards the shower.
“You don’t need help washing up, right?” I teased, hoping for some sort of response.
Without a word, she began stripping, throwing me off guard. Through sheer determination, I managed to turn away before I could see anything and I waited anxiously outside on the couch.
After what seemed like an hour, Tessia stepped out of the bathroom with a towel barely slung over her chest and her dark gray hair dripping pools of water behind her.
Getting up, I grabbed another towel and sat her down in front of the small vanity in the corner of her room. My chest ached at the fact that Tessia couldn’t even bring herself to look at her own reflection.
Virion had told me what had happened after reading the report from General Aya. I knew the choices she had made and the consequences that had resulted from them. She blamed herself much like I did but even I knew that consoling her wasn’t as simple as saying, ‘hey, I know how you feel.’
So, I didn’t say anything. I gently patted down her long hair with the spare towel I brought. After that, I created a warm soft breeze from all directions to completely dry her hair.
After her hair was sufficiently dried, I grabbed the brush from the wooden vanity. While combing her hair, all I could think about was how small her shoulders looked. They were shoulders that had so much burden and expectations placed on them. It was easy to forget that before this war, she had just been a student. Despite the similar physical age we shared, she didn’t have a past life to rely on for experience and mental fortitude.
“You’re really bad at this.” Tess’ voice was soft and hoarse, but it still made my heart skip a beat.
“I-It’s not like I have experience doing this sort of thing,” I rebutted, embarrassed.
I was about to put back the brush, but a glance back from Tess stopped me. “I didn’t tell you to stop.”
“Yes, Princess,” I replied. Normally, she’d be pouting from a response like that. Tess had always hated it since the first time we met whenever I referred to her as ‘princess,’ but not even the slightest hint of emotion could be seen on her face.
Still, it was just good to hear her voice.
For a while, I just absentmindedly talked while slowly brushing her hair. I told her stories of my childhood—silly stories of our misadventures back together in Elenoir when we were kids. While we had spent a lot of time training, and me assimilating with Sylvia’s beast will, that didn’t mean we didn’t relax and have fun.
The memories of simpler times made Tessia titter on occasion and correct my story.
“I was the one that had told you we shouldn’t go down that ravine, not you, wise guy,” she chortled.
“Really? I’m sure I was the smart and cautious one when we were little.”
She rolled her eyes. “Smart, I’ll admit, but I wouldn’t exactly say you were a cautious one. Ugh, I still remember finding the moss leeches on my body even hours after we made it back home.”
I stifled a laugh, remembering clearly how grossed out she had been at the harmless wriggling leeches that stuck to our skin. She didn’t even have the courage to slap them off, resorting in a spastic flail of limbs that made her look like she had been shocked by lightning.
“Why are you laughing?” she asked, narrowing her eyes.
I didn’t answer, instead doing my best impression of her get-these-leeches-off-me dance.
“I was eight!” she protested, hitting me in the arm.
“Finally, you show some spirit.” I smiled, rubbing my arm.
She glared at me, but when I raised my arms up in submission, she turned fully towards me and wrapped her arms around my waist.
Tess remained still, her face buried in my chest. Even as the towel around her fell, leaving her completely bare, she didn’t react.
Suddenly, I was all too conscious. I was conscious of her soft pale flesh, the intoxicating smell that emanated from her.
When she looked up, her captivating eyes met mine and despite the shade of pink rising up in her cheeks and ears, I could see the longing and need for affection.
She closed her eyes then and pursed her quivering lips and it took all I had to stay sane. I reminded myself of the days after I had become a king. The days of loneliness where I questioned my self-worth. The days where I indulged in physical intimacy to get a semblance of what being loved felt like—not as a political figure, but as a person.
I lowered my head, and for a second, I was tempted to meet her lips with mine. We had done so before, afterall.
But I knew that given the circumstances, it wasn’t the same.
I placed a gentle kiss on her forehead, feeling her flinch under my touch.
She pulled away. “Why? Am I not attractive enough? Is it because you still see me as a kid? I’m already eighteen. Or…is it that you blame me for what happened too?”
“Do you blame yourself?” I asked back.
Tess lowered her gaze and nodded. “I-I was selfish and I thought that—”
“Then you’re growing,” I cut her off, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. “We all make mistakes, but the hardest part is admitting them and moving forward so they don’t happen again.”
Her shoulders trembled as she sniffled. “So it’s not because I’m unattractive?”
It took a second to realize what she was talking about. Immediately my face burned as I took in her exposed figure. “No, it’s not because you’re unattractive. I just want to do it properly, when neither of us are doing this as a way to escape.”
Prying my unwilling eyes away from the sight in front of me, I turned away. “You should get dressed. There’s one more thing I wanted to do for you.”
The kitchen was empty when we arrived, but thankfully there were plenty of ingredients stored in the chilled containers to make a quick midnight snack for ourselves.
“You wanted to… eat with me?” Tess asked, looking around the kitchen.
Taking a wrapped slab of meat from the storage, I held it up. “I wanted to cook for you.”
I shrugged, gathering the rest of the ingredients and laying them out to prepare. “You’ve grown up with meals made for you by the chefs in the castle.”
Rather than use magic, I pulled out a kitchen knife and I began dicing and mincing the ingredients. “Back in Ashber, when I was a kid, my mom used to cook all of our meals. She poured her time and energy just to see a smile on my and… my dad’s faces while we ate.”
My hand trembled but I continued cutting. “Sitting at the dinner table…laughing and joking over good food. It was one of those things that I never truly appreciated—not until it was… too late.”
I hurriedly wiped away a tear. “Ah, s-some of the spices must’ve gotten into my eyes. Sorry about that. Almost forgot about the water.” I turned away from Tess and lowered the fire beneath the boiling pot of broth.
Through gritted teeth, I held back the sobs forming in my chest, but the tears wouldn’t stop. My hands shook and my breath came out in choked bursts.
Flashes of memory from my time as a child growing up in Ashber pierced at my head like hot iron stakes, but I held firm. I needed to comfort Tess.
“It’s okay. I’m okay, Art.” Her voice was gentle, and her soft caress was enough to drive me to my knees.
I fell to the cold hard floor, clutching my chest as heaving sobs tore out from my throat. I didn’t remember much throughout the rest of the night. Maybe I didn’t want to remember being bogged down by the unfamiliar and raw emotions clawing away at me.
What I did remember, was the warm touch of Tess’ hands keeping me anchored and sane.