Handing over his horse to a new recruit to be fed and cared for, a tall handsome man with short brown hair and a scar on his left cheek strolled into the fortress that he called home.
Making his way toward the back, he spotted a jovial old man sauntering through the halls.
“Captain!” The man yelled out, running up to catch the old man. “Is he training out back?” He enquired.
“Ah, good to see you’re back. The job was successful I assume?” The old man asked, giving him a curious and inquisitive face before walking along again.
“It was. Is Kaidus out back?” He repeated.
Captain Zikale stopped and grinned. “He’s gone already.”
“Gah… So I was too late.” Dalzak replied regretfully.
He had been on a job for the past twenty-nine days and had just returned to headquarters. He wanted to see his nephew one last time before the boy left for home, but unfortunately, he was too late.
“You shouldn’t have taken so long. You just missed his departure by three days.” Captain Zikale replied, enjoying Dalzak’s misfortune.
“Kuh-…” –You bastard. Was what he wanted to say, but Dalzak sighed instead. He knew the captain understood that any quicker was practically impossible. He was not about to dignify the captain’s impossible words with a reply. “There’s always next time.” Dalzak replied, keeping his tone neutral.
It took them thirteen days to ride south to the mining town of Cabalut. One day to investigate about the beast in the mines, and another two to find and deal with them. The trip back was also another thirteen days. There was no way he could have made it in time to see the boy off.
“… Who went with him?” He asked to make sure the young boy was not traveling alone.
“Aatar, Talien, Jakus, and York, along with Vasara’s group.” The Captain replied without turning to look at him.
“Vasara’s group? Oh, right. It’s that time of the year again.” He quickly understood.
“If you’re worried, why not get back on the road and follow them?”
“No, I’m good. If York and Vasara are with them, they’ll be fine. Also, my butt and thighs need a few days of rest before I’m willing to get on a horse again.” Dalzak gave a tired smile.
“Join me for lunch then? You can tell me all about the job.” The old man asked, turning through the hallway and heading toward the mess hall.
“Sure. I could use a warm meal.” Dalzak’s tired smile widened into a grin. He wanted to get some rest after the exhausting trip, but a hot meal and full belly sounded even better now that he thought about it.
“What was it that was killing the miners?” The Captain asked, taking a quick glance at him before entering the canteen.
“A large cave hound. The bitch was feeding her litter of pups with miners.” Dalzak answered, following the captain.
“A cave hound huh? I’m surprised they had no idea what it was when they hired us.”
“The damned creature was smart. Even we didn’t know what we were up against until we baited the thing out into the open.”
Dalzak began his report. His familial regrets about missing the young boy’s departure by three days were already gone, having reverted back to a professional mercenary.
A young girl wearing a beautiful blue dress was running through the spacious hallway to her room. With a bright smile on her face, her years of training were evident in the way she moved: elegantly, silently, and swiftly.
Long auburn hair flowed behind her and underneath the beautiful aquamarine dress, a prominent mound denoted her developing bosoms. Her cute childish face was already transforming itself into a beautiful young lady’s: a straight sharp nose, enticing red lips, and beautiful bright brown eyes.
It was already the beginning of Rinol, and she will be turning sixteen in half a turn.
Her father had just approved her entry into the annual arms competition this year, which was to be held a handful of days after her birthday.
It was what she wanted for the past two years.
She had begged her father for the chance to test her skills against those who would not hold back against her due to her status. Having just learned of his approval from her mother, she was racing back to her room to change and start her daily training, having already finished her academic lessons.
With the incoming freeze of Rinol, a sizable area of farmland outside the city would be primed for the event. Security consisted of mages from all three branches of the Mystiks guild along with hundreds of knights and mercenaries from various mercenary guilds. The event spans a whole day from morning to sundown with hundreds of participants testing their mettle against each other, while thousands of spectators watched and cheered.
Not only was the competition an event to test one’s abilities, it was a great place for skillful mercenaries and commoners to catch the eyes of a wealthy patron—in the hopes of entering into martial service.
Four years ago, after getting engrossed with her training, she begged her brother to take her and was blown away by the atmosphere and sheer amount of people and activities going on.
Vendors sold delicious freshly cooked snacks, merchants sold merchandises obtained from all over the world, knights and sword masters displayed their skills to throngs of onlookers, and thousands of people intermingled without worrying too much about social status and such.
It was unlike her sheltered life of lessons and etiquette within the walls of the 11th ward.
The competition itself awed and inspired her to work even harder on her training.
Entering her room, she quickly untied the laces to her dress and discarded the beautiful piece onto her bed. Wearing only her underclothes, she moved to her dresser and pulled out a getup unlike her usual dresses. It was her training outfit, and something out of a man’s wardrobe. Black pants, a black lace shirt, and a sash.
Putting the training outfit on the floor, she cupped her developing breasts and sighed. They were beginning to impede her, and were garnering the sort of attention she wanted nothing of. She noticed on more than one occasion, the salacious eyes of the other boys when she is out in the courtyard training with the others. Thankfully because of her status, no one dared to approach her for anything beyond that of a practice match.
Besides the discomfort, there was no longer anyone around her age within the Ravon Manor who could stand up against her. Four years of arduous training and an innate talent for the sword, she could almost fight on par with her older brother Vion who was knighted earlier that year, and is someone who has been learning the sword for more than half his life.
Taking a long piece of cloth, she bound her bosoms to keep them from encumbering her. She promptly put on the new outfit and tied her hair into a tail before heading to the courtyard.
“Right on time, Naleen.” A man spoke, smiling as she entered the courtyard.
“Daaro. You free? Can you practice with me?” She asked, seeing the man was just standing there watching the others train.
Daaro, a spellblade who had studied directly under her grandfather for the past seven years was like an older brother to her. Although no longer learning from her grandfather, the man had stayed in her grandfather’s employ, using his free time to come to the Ravon manor and train with the house knights and students.
“Hmmm… sure. Heard Lord Huin has given permission for you to enter the arms competition this year. Might as well make sure you don’t shame the Ravon name.” Daaro made a mocking grin.
“I will do no such thing. Without you all participating, I’m going for the win.” She replied, full of confidence.
Many of the more skillful knights were not taking part in the competition due to being security for the event. It was the way the knights have always done it whenever the competition came around. Not being a knight, she was free to participate.
“Oh really?” Daaro chuckled to himself.
“What’s so funny? Don’t believe I can?” Naleen inquired.
“It’s not that I don’t believe you can, but you can surely try. There are plenty of strong fighters out there and Vion is entering too, so you might have a little trouble there.” Daaro grinned.
“Vion? What about his duties as a knight?”
“That is his duty. He’s been chosen to display the strength of a knight before the people. If he does well, it’ll go to show that even a newly appointed knight such as him has the abilities to go through such a fierce competition. If he wins, it’ll increase the people’s trust towards the knights.” Daaro replied.
“And if he doesn’t do well or wins?” she enquired curiously.
“Then it can be said that he’s a newly appointed knight.” Daaro smiled.
“Hmph. If that’s the case, I hope he loses on the first round. If he is up against me, I’ll do everything I can to take him down. Even if I can’t, people will see him struggle against a girl, and they’ll laugh at him.” Naleen grinned.
“That’s quite the ambitious plot you got going there, but unfortunately the audience will not care about his struggle, only his victory. As I recall, you’ve never won a single bout against Vion.” Daaro responded with a smug smile.
“I’ll make sure to beat him for the first time in the competition for everyone to see!” She snapped back without hesitation.
“Hehehe. Alright, how about we spar over there by the Azolus trees? I’ll try and help you to figure out Vion’s quirks. Maybe you’ll have a chance at taking him out.” Daaro grinned.
Nine-teen days later, a lavish dinner party thrown in celebration of her sixteenth birthday. Hundreds of guests attended, and every corner of the Ravon manor echoed with greetings and pleasant conversations. Food was being catered around to the guests, and a joyous atmosphere pervaded all throughout the manor.
“You’ve grown so beautiful! Oh, how I wish we had a son to accompany you for the duration of the evening!” An overly dressed woman in her fifties exclaimed upon seeing her. “Holtus! Look at how much little Naleen has grown!” The woman pulled a boisterous round man from his conversation with two other guests.
“My, how the years have passed. What a beauty you’ve become.” The man smiled upon seeing her.
“Thank you for both for attending, uncle and aunt Landersfell.” She gave a dazzling smile. “You both flatter me too much. You said the same things last year.”
She was courteously greeting the many notable lords and ladies who attended the celebration.
The Landersfell were longtime friends of the Ravon family and had known her ever since she was a babe.
“Nonsense. Like they say: it is a gentlemen’s obligation to praise a beautiful woman.” The jolly man replied with a smile.
“And pray tell, where might I find this ‘gentlemen’?” Her aunt questioned with a playful tone.
“Hehehe.” Naleen couldn’t help but laugh at the remark.
“Gah! This wife of mine. Be sure to treat your husband better when you’re married, Naleen. Don’t do what your aunt does.” The man smiled, playing along with his wife’s retort.
The older woman laughed along with her. “You probably have many other guests to greet. Scurry along now, we shan’t hold you.”
“It was great seeing the both of you again. Please excuse me.” She curtsied to the two, and continued greeting the other guests.
After greeting those she knew—over thirty different pairs of guests—she made her way to the manor courtyard where Sylvia and Jillian said they would be waiting.
She wore a beautiful black gown with red flares and a golden bodice. An intricate golden pattern flowed down her sides, converging behind her back where the dress was laced up. Along with her gentle flowing hair, she drew the attention of everyone as she entered the courtyard.
Spying Jillian and Sylvia gawking at her, she moved to her friends.
“You’re so pretty, Naleen.” Sylvia spoke admiringly as she approached them.
“No, you both are.” Naleen returned the compliment, the corner of her mouth edging into an embarrassed smile.
Sylvia wore a gorgeous silver dress with blue and black inlays. The younger girl was only twelve, and her feminine features have yet to reveal themselves, but she was growing to be a beautiful girl. Over the past couple years, Sylvia had grown out of her timid habit, speaking her mind, sometimes even standing up for herself against those who would attempt to ridicule her at these types of get-together.
Jillian on the other hand, transformed into a cool beauty edging upon the cusps of womanhood. Wearing a simple blue dress with a slanted skirt, the dress conformed to her body perfectly and exhibited her ample bust and waist. Long dark blue hair curled into a fashionable style, leaving a small portion to hang down to the side of her shoulder. Jillian was undoubtedly the bitterness of all the young ladies here tonight, having stolen the attention from most of the young men.
“Did you notice everyone was watching you?” Jillian asked with a smile.
“I don’t care about the gazes of inarticulate fosies who don’t even dare to talk to me.” Naleen replied without looking around.
“Can you blame them?” Jillian replied. “They know how strong you are. I’d bet none of them could hold themselves against you in a sword fight.”
“That doesn’t mean I’ll beat them up just for greeting me.” She retorted.
“What if you do?” Jillian cracked a smile. “Speaking of beating up people, are you entering the arms competition this year?”
“I am. I managed to get approval from my father a while ago,” Naleen grinned. “Are you two coming to watch the competition?”
“We’d love to, but you know our father. He deemed it too dangerous for us to be outside of Ferrent, especially for such an occasion with thousands of people wandering about.” Jillian responded.
“But he always attends. Why can’t you both just go with him?”
“The logic of adults, Naleen. Do what I say, not what I do.” Jillian replied. “Hmm… well… maybe this year we can use you as a bargaining chip along with a few juicy pieces of information I’ve been saving.” Jillian’s eyes widened, and a devious smile crept onto her face.
“Jill… you’re making that face again.” Sylvia spoke up, warning her sister.
The face Sylvia spoke of was Jillian’s scheming face, usually displayed when she’d come up with plans to manipulate events and conversations to her way. It usually always rears its ugly face whenever she is about to verbally crush anyone arrogant and stupid enough to argue against her.
“Hehe, sorry. I was too elated at the possibility of finally going outside of these dreary walls, and seeing the event for myself.”
“Told you, you should have joined me and Vion last year. It’s not like it was just the two of us. All the students were there too, and we always move in groups.” Naleen replied to her friend’s words.
“Maybe this year even if father doesn’t allow us, we’ll hide with you guys.”
“Jill, father would find out.” Sylvia admonished.
“It’ll be too late when he does. We’ll already be there with Naleen and them by that time,” Jillian replied. “You want to go watch the competition too, don’t you? Naleen is entering. Don’t you want to cheer her on?”
“Yea I do…” Sylvia replied, understanding that her sister was not about to give up on whatever she was planning.
“Well then, we’ll plan this more after you ask your father.” Naleen couldn’t help but grin. She was always surrounded by the male students and her brother whenever they went to watch the competition. To have her friends going too, she was excited at the prospect. “Ah, right. I heard your parents are looking for suitors for you, Jillian.” Naleen added, changing the discussion.
“Ugh… I don’t want to talk about it…” The older girl sighed, leaning back against the walls of the courtyard.
“Hehehe. Jill’s been making them run home one after another. Mother’s been having quite the laugh.” Sylvia giggled, answering for her sister.
“Hahahaha!” Naleen burst into laughter.
The guests in the courtyard turned to look at them curiously.
Sylvia stood in front of one of the five stages, watching the tournament unfold.
It was the morning of the arms competition, and a few of the matches have already concluded. Naleen’s name had just been called to enter the 4th stage, and she was standing in the audience with Jillian, shouting and cheering. They were surrounded by four Varath house guards while their mother and father were elsewhere, looking for someone.
Unlike what she and Jillian previously assumed, their father had allowed them to come along and watch the competition, bringing along many of the family guards.
“Naleen! Good luck!!” She yelled out as the older girl stepped onto the stage, making her way to the center. Beside her, Jillian also shouted words of encouragement.
Naleen’s opponent was a bristly and burly man who looked more thug than swordsman. The man was two heads taller than Naleen, and seemed to be shouting pejorative comments at the announcer.
The matches were fought with wooden swords, and went until someone forfeits, could no longer continue, or the judges stops the match. Fatal wounds were an automatic disqualification, but all the participants understood the risks of such an event.
Sylvia watched as Naleen’s match unfolded.
The fight was unlike the guard’s training that she’d glimpse every now and then at home.
Naleen was moving all around the stage, deftly avoiding and deflecting the strikes of the older man. They were only using wooden swords, but the sound of the impacts were even more dreadful than those of metal swords. Every time the wooden swords collided, she feared Naleen would lose her grip and get injured.
Yet, the match did not turn out how she and the majority of the audience had expected.
Instead it had ended with an exhausted man slowing down, and two quick strikes to the man’s chest from Naleen, dropping the man. It was a drawn-out fight, but her friend emerged a victor none the less.
The judge announced the victor, and others began moving onto the stage to prepare it for the next bout, removing the defeated man.
She quickly ran over to where Naleen was stepping off of the stage.
“Naleen!” Sylvia yelled out. “That was amazing! I didn’t know you were so strong!” she exclaimed, full of excitement.
“Thanks, but I can’t celebrate yet since it’s just the beginning.” Naleen gave her a smile.
“I would have never guessed you’d be able to fight someone like that,” Jillian added, following up behind her. “He looked so strong.”
“That man was tough, but he was weak. He lacked the proper skills and training, relying more on his brute strength and body rather than abilities.” Naleen nonchalantly explained. “I don’t think my next match will be coming for a while. You both want to get a snack and watch the other matches?”
“Yes!” Sylvia quickly replied, seeing how comfortable Naleen was in this type of environment.
It was her first time here at the arms competition, but it was Naleen’s fourth. Having her be the guide wasn’t such a bad idea.
They began making their way toward the food stands. Two knights from the Ravon house and the four guards of the Varath house followed behind them.
As they passed the second stage, “Stage two! Kaidus and Arbaile!” A voice resounded through the crowd, calling the next contestants.
Sylvia’s ears perked up at the name. She stopped walking and instantly turned to the direct of the stage.
““Sylvia?”” Naleen and Jillian both asked as she began to move toward stage two.
She saw as a young boy around her age entered the stage from the side.
The boy had long pitch-black hair down to his nose. Parted to the side, they revealed his piercing dark eyes and childishly handsome face. He wore common clothes: a leather jerkin over a black sleeved shirt, and plain brown pants as befit his status. In his hands, the boy held two wooden swords.
He walked calmly into the middle of the stage and bowed to an opponent that towered over him.
Sylvia’s heart fluttered at the realization of who it was.
She’d not seen him for the past three years. Although she still visited his house with her mother, she often wondered about him.
She recalled his composed visage as he calmly rejected her father in the carriage. Their conversation in the garden and his praises, along with his genial attitude that she’d grown accustomed to over the single year before his disappearance.
She never forgot any of it.
“Two swords… I wonder what kind of style that boy fights with…” Naleen stated from beside her.
“What is it Sylvia? Do you know him?” Her sister Jillian asked, unable to identify the young boy.
Without answering, Sylvia watched as the boy promptly dispatched his opponent in an instant.
The crowd went into an uproar with shouts and applauses, seeing the unconventional feat before them.
Sylvia grasped her hands to her chest.
It was really him. It could be no one else but him.