“Are you excited?” Alice asked, plopping her bag on the table.
Adrian glanced up at the blonde girl, then down at the large pack she placed on his desk. “Are you really bringing all that?” he asked.
“Of course!” the girl exclaimed, a smile spreading across her face. She brought her face over excitedly— maybe a little too close— chattering as she did. “Come on, Adrian. We’re going on our first field trip! They’re bringing us to Defenor Forest, and they’ll have us investigate the flora, observe the wild animals, and even hunt some Monsters!”
The boy leaned back on his chair, and shrugged. “It’s just Kobolds, Alice. They’re everywhere, and they’re not really that menacing. I wouldn’t even normally consider them to be Monsters. They’re just like… rats.”
“They’re like rats that can bite your head off and walk on two feet.” Alice folded her arms petulantly.
“Really big rats,” Adrian said, nodding.
Alice stared back at the boy blankly for a moment. Then she sighed. “Fine, maybe Kobolds aren’t too much of a problem for adults, and sure, they do keep the population of Kobolds in the forest down specifically for us students to train in— but we’re finally getting our chance to prove ourselves. Everything we’ve learned in the past six months can finally be put to use!”
“What kind of a reaction is that?” the girl asked. “Don’t you have any passion for what we’ve been studying?”
Adrian paused. He considered this, thinking about his time in Xander’s Academy so far and how it had been marked with mostly boredom, highlighted with some strokes of bullying and getting reprimanded by the teachers.
“No,” he said. Alice glared at him, and he just shrugged. “What do you want from me? History is boring, mathematics is boring, science is boring— classes are boring.”
The girl snorted. “And somehow, you’re among the top in the class for all those subjects.” She shook her head. “I don’t know how you do it. I can’t dedicate as much time into studying as you do if I don’t enjoy it.”
And that’s the difference between you and me, Adrian thought. He was not a noble. Sure, Alice was not one either. But she was born into a rich family— a family that ensured all her needs were tended to. A family that expected her to inherent their legacy and excel in everything she did.
Meanwhile, Adrian knew what it was like growing up with no particular ambitions, and simply living day after day. He thought he would have simply grown up in Villamcreek and eventually replaced his father as the village hunter. He thought, perhaps, he could grow up and marry Melas, living a peaceful life with her. That did not happen, of course.
So that was his drive. That was why he came to Xanderia. And that might have been the reason why he was able to push himself so hard day after day. If he were to use all the resources at his disposal, he might be able to find Melas again.
The classroom door swung open, and their martial and combat arts teacher came strutting in. “Enough chit chat,” he said, silencing the noisy classroom. “Back to your seats.”
Alice quickly grabbed her bag, but before she left, she hurriedly said, “I hope we’re in the same group. I’m not sure what I’d do if I’m alone with a bunch of nobles.”
“Don’t worry,” Adrian reassured her. “There’s no way they’ll miss the chance to pair up the only two commoners in our class.”
The girl raised an eyebrow at that, but did not respond. Adrian watched her quickly run back to her seat as the class slowly organized itself.
The teacher, a man named Lucas, stood behind the desk in front of the blackboard. He placed both hands into the wooden table, leaning his body weight into it as he addressed the class.
“Alright, I know you lot have been excited for our trip to the Defenor Forest,” he spoke with a gruff voice that seemed unbefitting of a noble. However, he was a Knight— or at least, he had been a Knight. Apparently he lost his title due to an incident with a Baron, forcing him to lend his skills to Xander’s Academy.
It was a typical noble drama. The Academy seemed to be full of it, but it was supposedly far less prevalent than in the real political world of the nobility. Adrian shuddered just imagining what that was like. The former-Knight continued.
“However, I have to warn you not to let that excitement get to your head. Obey my orders at all times, and remember that this is an exercise meant to get you used to real dangers and combat. This is nothing like the fancy dueling many of you have learned during our classes— you can’t expect a Monster to retreat when you stab it, nor can you expect it to charge when you lure it in. And this holds not just true for Monsters, but if you decide to join the military, you’ll face people who behave that way as well.”
Adrian frowned. The Holy Xan Empire’s last war was decades ago, during the Free War. Of course, there was the ‘conflict’ with the Dark Crusaders, but that was mostly, from what Adrian had learned, Inquisitors running across the continent of Vitae trying to pin down the organization. It was not a real war, and neither was it too high in the Holy Xan Empire’s priority list since it was a problem on the other side of the world.
Someone raised a hand, and Lucas turned to them. “Ms Onia, do you have a question?”
“Yes, Mr Lucas. May I speak please?” the pink haired girl asked politely.
The man nodded. “Go ahead.
She stood up, and did a slight curtsy. “Thank you, Sir,” she said, smiling sweetly. “I was under the impression that this field trip would not be dangerous because we would have an escort. From what I hear, this year, our class will be getting a… Holy Knight?” Her eyes were twinkling, as she spoke the last part.
Immediately, a hushed murmur broke out through the class, before quickly being silenced by the teacher. “That is correct. I will, of course, be accompanying you during this trip. However, I am only one man, and I can’t manage you all. We will be getting a guest from outside of the Academy today— well, I say that, but he’s an alumni from this school. And he will be helping me ensure that no one dies on this trip.”
Again, students turned to their neighbors and began whispering to one another, gossiping about who this mysterious guide could be. Adrian did not see the appeal to it— he had met a Saint and an Inquisitor. Holy Knights, while considered to be an elite force within the Church, were significantly more abundant than Inquisitors.
Lucas raised a hand, cutting off all the silent chatter. “However,” he said, emphasizing the word. “That does not mean there is no danger to this trip. Our jobs will be to keep you alive, not safe. That means if you get hurt— break a bone, injure your leg, or get cut across the face— we will not rush in to help you, unless it’s a life threatening situation. So do not mess around, and treat this trip seriously. Is that understood?”
“Yes Sir,” the class chorused, almost as if their teacher’s warnings went completely over their head.
The teacher sighed. “I’ll bring him in now.”
Adrian watched Lucas leave the room, and in that minute of reprieve, the class exploded into dozens of conversations.
“Who do you think it is? I hear he’s going to be someone important.”
“My father told me he’s from a Ducal house.”
“Could he be a Captain? Imagine meeting a Captain of the Holy Knights—”
“I hope he’s strong! Then I can ask him to show me some moves—”
“I just hope he’s handsome—”
Some of the comments were not like the others. Children, even if they were noble children, were always going to act like children. Under their prim and proper upbringing, there would be a layer of immaturity to them. Adrian saw that in himself back when he was in Villamcreek. He observed it in all the other children there too. In all but one.
The door opened once again, and in stepped their ‘guest of honor’— he was supposed to be a bodyguard, he might as well have been a guest of honor with the way the class was treating him even before he arrived. The man turned the corner, and everyone waited with bated breath.
At first, Adrian paid the man no mind. He came in fully armored, decorated with emblems and crests on the chest and shoulders of the plate. The class, of course, nearly exploded in excitement just from that. The man was quite clearly a high ranked individual, as evident from the way he was dressed.
And yet, the excitement did not stop there. The man slowly lifted his visor, and pulled of his helmet to introduce himself.
Adrian almost groaned as he watched all the girls in the class immediately ogle the man. Even Alice was staring at him, despite trying to do so in a not-so-obvious way.
The boys in the class were not too interested in that. Although they were shocked to see how young the man was. He had to have been in his mid to late 20’s at most. How did someone so young get to such a high rank! He had to have been incredibly skilled and gifted.
And Adrian? He thought he wouldn’t care, yet his eyes widened. Because the man had…
It was a rare pigment for Humans to have. It was not unusual to see an Elf with hair of that color, but the same was not true for Humans. And that man was a Human.
He introduced himself.
“I am Nero Ash Corinna. Captain of the 5th Battalion of Holy Knights, and second in line to be heir of the Corinna Dukedom. It’s a pleasure to meet you all.”
The class once again broke into an incomprehensible chatter, but Adrian could not hear any of it. The words still echoing in his head. Corinna. That was Aria’s family. Her noble house.
No, he corrected himself. It’s Melas’s noble house.
Xander’s Academy was already situated close to the outskirts of Xanderia. Defenor’s Forest was even further out from the Capital city of the Holy Xan Empire, 20 miles west of the Academy’s main campus.
Adrian sat, alongside the rest of his class, inside a bus, heading to said forest for their field trip. The boy had seen the vehicle a handful of times since he left Villamcreek— mostly in Xanderia— however he had never been on one prior to this day.
He had rode on horseback, taken a train through the Rem Republic, and even boarded a flying ship to come to Soli! This experience was nothing special to him. And it certainly was not giving him motion sickness.
At least, that was what he told himself as he clutched his stomach while groaning in his seat.
“You ok?” Alice asked with a worried look on her face.
“I’m fine,” he said. “Just… not used to— ugh.” The bus hit a bump on the road, and the boy nearly doubled over in agony. Alice placed a hand on his back, gently patting him.
“We’re almost there,” she said reassuringly. “Just handle it a little longer.”
Adrian was not sure if he could survive for ‘a little longer’. He felt like he was probably going to puke if they did not stop at that moment. The boy was just about to get up to ask if they could stop, when he saw Onia staring at him.
The noble girl was quite clearly taking amusement in his suffering. She had not bothered him since their duel, but that did not stop her from laughing at him behind his back. And Adrian could definitely hear her obnoxious snickering from where he was.
The boy lowered himself back to his seat, and straightened. I’m fine, he tried telling himself. You were on a flying ship, Adrian. This is nothing compared to that. He conveniently omitted the fact that he was given multiple nausea potions to help him get through the flight, and he still was air sick for most of those four weeks.
“Why am I the only one here getting sick?” Adrian muttered under his breath. He was complaining to himself, and did not expect an answer. However, Alice heard him and quickly responded.
“Well, I think it might be because we’re used to it,” she said. “I’ve taken carriages for travel ever since I was young, and even been on my father’s car a few times. This is not too different, I think. That’s why most of us are fine.”
Most was, of course, an under exaggeration. Other than the Half Elf boy in their class who seemed mildly uncomfortable, everyone else was completely unaffected. In fact, they were so unbothered by being on a bus, many of them were still crowding around the Holy Knight, Nero.
Ever since the man came to the class, all the way until now, he had been barraged with nonstop questions and adulation by pretty much everyone there. Adrian could tell Alice too wanted to approach him, but she was far too intimidated by all the other noble children crowding around him.
“Why don’t you just talk to him?” Adrian asked, to both change the subject and distract himself from his motion sickness.
“What?” Alice looked aghast. “I can’t! Our stations are too far apart. I’m just a measly commoner.”
“He doesn’t know that.”
“I…” the girl trailed off. Adrian stared her, cocking a brow. She shook her head. “But the others will stop me from speaking with him. They’ll tell him that I’m not a noble— I’m fine, Adrian. I am content with just sitting and watching from afar.”
Adrian frowned. That sounded exactly like him in the past. Back when he wouldn’t dare to even speak with Melas because of what his parents said about her mom. And he hated himself for it— because of that, he only ever got to know Melas for a few months before her mom was killed and she disappeared.
“You should at least try,” Adrian said, looking up to the ceiling. “If he’s really a good person, then he’ll still speak with you even if the others try and stop you.”
The boy turned to face Alice and met her gaze. “And if he doesn’t, then I guess he wasn’t someone worth talking to in the first place.”
She paused, and Adrian tried to smile. It was not a dashing smile, but a forced smile since he still very much felt like throwing up.
“Who isn’t worth talking to in the first place?”
Adrian spun around, blinking.
“Lord Corinna!” Alice gasped. “We were just talking about… I mean we weren’t talking about…”
The black haired man gave a charming smile— the one Adrian failed at doing. “There’s no need to be so formal,” he chuckled. “Please, I’m here as a representative of the Holy Knights, not as a member of my house.”
“Of course, Sir! I’m sorry for that, Sir!” Alice worked her tongue so fast Adrian could barely even understand her.
Nero just nodded. “May I sit with you?”
Adrian hesitated. “I don’t know if there’s enough space—” he started, and was promptly shut up by Alice.
The girl clamped a hand over his mouth, speaking over him. “Yes! It would be our pleasure!”
She dragged Adrian to the side, forcing him to scoot over and give the man a place to sit. It was not exactly cramped even with the three of them. Adrian thought the seats were designed to fit three grown adults in each half row, yet he tried to use the lack of space as an excuse. And that was because he did not want to talk to the man.
This was a man from Melas’s extended family. A family that disowned Aria, and publicly celebrated her death when it was finally announced to the world. Even just sitting next to Nero, Adrian could not help but feel a sense of revulsion building up inside of him.
Calm down, the boy told himself. You don’t even have to say anything. Just let Alice do all the talking, and maybe he’ll eventually leave.
Unfortunately, that did not happen. Now that they were seated next to Nero, Alice was suddenly deathly quiet. Adrian could see her face burning red as her eyes constantly darted between the man and the ground.
“Hm, that’s odd,” Nero said, with a hand on his chin.
“Uh, is something the matter Sir?” Alice quickly asked as Adrian stayed quiet.
“Oh it’s nothing, Miss…?”
“Alice,” she squeaked. “And this is my friend, Adrian.” She nudged the boy, clearly trying to get him to speak. He didn’t.
“Ah, Ms Alice and Mr Adrian.” The Holy Knight nodded, and turned to the boy. “I came here because I heard one of you had motion sickness. I wanted to offer you a potion for it, but it seems that I must have misheard.”
Adrian scowled. Onia. She was probably trying to ridicule him in front of Nero and it backfired, since he was with them now.
Then Adrian realized what Nero had said. He slowly lowered a hand to his stomach, but the numbness was gone. He felt better. His intense focus on the Holy Knight distracted him from the bumpy ride to the point he felt nothing.
“You’re too kind,” Alice said. “But you needn’t worry yourself with us. We’re just commoners, not worth the time of your esteemed presence.”
Are you trying to get him to leave or stay? Adrian retorted in his head. Although he wouldn’t mind if the man left because of that. He was using every ounce of his strength just to hold himself back from glaring at Nero.
Nero just shrugged. “Commoners, nobles, what’s the difference?”
This time, Adrian was taken aback. He felt like Alice in that he was unsure what to say.
“Sir! You can’t mean that!” Alice was horrified. And Adrian would have been too— the man might have just been testing them.
But he doubled down on his statement. “I mean it, Ms Alice. In my opinion, there’s no difference between me and you other than the family we were born to. That does not make me superior to you, nor does it make you inferior to me. You’ve proven it by entering Xander’s Academy, no?” Nero leaned back on his seat, before adding, “Plus, Saint Theron had to have taken an interest in your friend for a reason.”
He knows? Of course he did. Everyone of Adrian’s classmates knew that the boy was sponsored by Saint Theron himself. But they had a reason to know since they were in the same class. Why would a Holy Knight Captain and possible heir of a Ducal house bother to learn of such a minor detail? It was not something any random noble would go out of their way to learn.
However, he was not a random noble. He was of house Corinna. And everyone knew Saint Theron was the one who killed the Fiend— the disgraced daughter of said Ducal house. So there was only one reason he could be here.
And if the man’s piercing gaze were any indication, Adrian’s suspicions were correct. The boy shifted as Nero continued to scrutinize him. “…what?” he finally asked, breaking his silence.
The black haired man lifted an eyebrow. “I’m just curious as to what the Saint found so intriguing about you that he brought you all the way from the Rem Republic to Xanderia for,” Nero said. “I do admit, from what I hear you are indeed quite talented. Yet, there are countless other children in this world with untapped potential, but he’s never once brought them back. Instead, he chose you.”
“…does it really matter?” Adrian had to stop himself from snapping at the man. Nero was not being rude— in fact, most would’ve taken that as a compliment. But the boy could tell that Nero was probing him, and that made him uncomfortable.
Nero continued to inspect Adrian for another moment, before he sighed. Whatever it was he saw, it was clear he realized he could not get anything out of Adrian. Adrian nearly sagged in relief, when the man spoke.
“What was she like?”
Adrian froze. He felt his entire body stiffen. There was only one ‘she’ the man could be talking about, and although Adrian expected something like this, he did not anticipate that the man would be so direct about it.
“Let me rephrase,” Nero said, clearing his throat. “Was she like what they made her out to be? Was she really evil?”
The young boy slowly turned to face the Holy Knight. He ignored Alice’s confused looks, and he found himself staring into the deep blue eyes of the nobleman. There was genuine curiosity in them— a longing to know the truth.
Adrian could have played dumb. He could have given a fake answer. But something screamed in him to tell the truth— to go against the narrative written and believed by everyone else in the world except for himself and Melas. So even if this implicated him as some sort of heretic sympathizer, Adrian spoke what he believed was true.
“She was not.”
Nero paused. It took the man a moment to absorb Adrian’s response. Then he nodded. “I see,” he said, standing up. “Now if you’ll excuse me, it seems like we’ll be arriving soon. I have to speak with Lucas and plan with him to ensure you’re all safe. It was a pleasure speaking with you two fine young children.”
Adrian hesitated, but he eventually answered, “Likewise.”
Alice took a moment longer to gather her response. “Oh— uh, of course! We were honored that we got to speak with you!”
Nero chuckled, but he did not say anything else. He turned around and headed to the front of the bus as Adrian watched him approach the teacher. A second after the man was gone, Alice pulled Adrian into a hushed whisper.
“What was that?” she asked, voice masking no confusion. “What were you guys talking about?!”
Adrian shrugged. “Secret.”
“What? How do you have a secret with a Holy Knight? You’ve got to tell me—”
Perhaps one day, he would tell her the truth about the Fiend. For now, the boy said nothing.
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