“Mind if I cut in here?” Cassandra asked, Leon and Valeria stuck in her ravenous, ruby gaze.
Leon could almost feel Valeria’s antipathy. They had been having a wonderful time sparring, as they were wont to do, and he knew that his silver-haired lover didn’t appreciate being interrupted, let alone by a Princess she didn’t think too fondly of.
“I would, actually,” Leon replied. He assumed that Cassandra, in turn, would assume that she wasn’t going to be turned down. From the way her smugly interested expression froze on her face, then fell into one of confusion told him that he was right. “Valeria and I were in the middle of something private. It’s fine if you wish to train here, too, but I’d rather you didn’t insert yourself into something private.”
Cassandra stared at him in disbelief and didn’t immediately respond. So, to hammer his point home, he turned back to Valeria to resume their sparring. He found her giving the Princess a look of such smugness that he momentarily wondered who the spoiled one was. But then she turned back to him and gave him such a glowing look that he no longer cared.
Leon resumed sparring with Valeria while Cassandra watched from the sidelines. Unfortunately, with the Princess so blatantly watching and with their flow already disturbed, they couldn’t get back into the zone. The best part of these magicless sparring sessions was that their skills forced them to focus completely on the other, letting each other take up the entirety of their thoughts for a while. They simply couldn’t get into that mental state with Cassandra there, hovering over their shoulder, glowering in displeasure.
So, after about ten minutes, they silently agreed to stop. They both realized almost immediately that they weren’t returning to that state of absolute focus, but both had too much pride to call an end to their sparring so quickly after Cassandra’s arrival.
When they finally lowered their practice weapons, Valeria said, “This was fun. I’m looking forward to next time.”
“As am I, always,” Leon replied, pulling her into a loose embrace and sealing her lips with his. Valeria melted into his arms and fiercely returned the kiss, putting on something of a show for their Imperial spectator.
Leon wondered which would break first: Cassandra’s anger, or her dignity. To demand them to stop in their own yacht, when she was a guest, was beneath the dignity of an Imperial Princess. If she had any attendants with her, they surely would’ve spared her the trouble and shouted at Leon and Valeria themselves, but as it was, she was alone. But from the way she was glaring at them, he could tell that she was getting close to the point of exploding in anger anyway.
Reluctantly, he pulled back from Valeria, gave her a heated look, and then finally turned back to the frustrated and impatient Princess.
“Sorry about that,” he said without a shred of sincerity.
“How rude,” Cassandra replied a little testily, but it initially seemed like that was all she was going to say.
But then Valeria responded, “You didn’t have to watch us the entire time, looking like you wanted nothing more than to cut in. You have this entire room to train in, why did you spend this time creepily watching us?”
“I didn’t!” Cassandra shouted back, looking suddenly apoplectic; so much so that she shivered with anger and indignation, apparently unable to form coherent sentences.
“You did, and quite blatantly, too,” Valeria shot back, looking like she’d picked up all the smug that Cassandra had dropped.
Leon sensed an imminent fight, so he stepped in. “Your Highness, feel free to enjoy this training chamber. I think Val and I are done with it, for the moment.”
“No!” Cassandra shouted, to Leon’s surprise. It seemed to take her by surprise, too, because she looked shocked with herself, but only for a moment. She then straightened up and said much more gracefully, “Please, Leon Raime, stay a while. And you, ‘Val’. I enjoy having training companions.”
“Why not?” Valeria said as she crossed her arms over her chest and glared at the Princess. “I can always use more training. Besides, I would love to see how an Evergolden Princess keeps herself sharp…”
“I’m sure you do since it seems to have me sharper than you,” Cassandra shot back, her eighth-tier aura flaring slightly, and Leon saw Valeria momentarily wobble on her feet. Cassandra then began to stalk toward Valeria, a sadistic look on her face. “You have a lot of nerve, talking to a Princess like that. Maybe I should teach you some—”
Before she could finish her threat, Leon appeared in front of her, standing between her and Valeria, silver-blue lightning dancing across his body, killing intent radiating from him. Under his withering glare, Cassandra halted in her tracks, and then took a step backward as terror spread across her face.
But then she steeled herself and stood firm. She didn’t do anything more, but as her aura calmed, so too did Leon restrain himself.
“Just a word of warning, Your Highness,” Leon said as he turned from Cassandra to Valeria, making sure that his lover was all right after having been hit with the weight of the Princess’ aura, “if you try to harm any of my people, let alone a woman I love, then you will be my enemy.”
He let his statement hang as he went and stood in solidarity with Valeria, but he got from the Princess’ expression that she understood; she glared at him, as if enraged that he would dare to even implicitly threaten her, but she didn’t do anything hostile.
The three stood there in the training room staring at each other in awkward silence for a long moment, none of them giving an inch to the other side.
Cassandra broke first, averting her wrathful gaze for a moment, and saying, “I… apologize. We’re on your ship. I’m your guest. I shouldn’t be so rude.”
Leon didn’t respond, but Valeria beside him sighed and replied, “You’re a Princess. I should find it in me to be a little more polite. For my lack of propriety, I apologize to you.”
The two ladies stared at each other, significantly less tension now, and Leon tentatively let out a breath of relief.
“You know what always helps me to unwind?” he asked them, drawing their attention. “A little physical training. Nothing quite like swinging a blade, even if it isn’t sharp, to help work things out. Your Highness, I’m sure you have things you could show us that we’ve never seen before, just as we might have something to show you that you’ve never considered.”
Brightening up, Cassandra exclaimed, “Yes! I have to admit that watching the two of you spar, I was quite captivated. I’ve never seen a fighting style like yours, Leon! I would like to test myself against you!”
“Looking to lose again?” Leon asked.
“This won’t be like the hunt!”
Leon smirked. “You’ll have to restrict yourself. And if you don’t use even a single spark of magic power, then you and Valeria might be able to spar a bit.”
Cassandra took on a more thoughtful look and glanced at Valeria. Leon guessed his silver-haired lover was quite enthusiastic for the opportunity given the smile on her face, but the Princess needed another moment or two to think it over.
“I’d be willing,” Cassandra eventually stated. “But who’ll be first?”
Valeria immediately walked into the center of the room and brandished her training glaive, the milk-white blade gleaming with the only magic that she was going to use. With Leon, she could get away with no power at all, but with the Princess, it seemed she wasn’t going to go quite that far.
Cassandra smiled, then looked to the weapons adorning the wall and selected a training weapon that Leon noted was almost identical to Sunlight.
“This will do,” she said, pointedly looking at Leon. “I’m rather fond of swords. Extremely versatile weapons, and by far the most prestigious.”
Leon felt like he knew what she was getting at, and asked, “By the way, how’re you liking that new sword of yours?”
“It’s all right,” Cassandra replied, pausing just before she faced Valeria. “It has its flaws.”
“You seemed pretty keen on it the last time you told me of it,” Leon replied with a cheeky smile.
“Leon Raime,” Cassandra responded, her tone both sarcastic and accusatory, “are you fishing for compliments? So uncouth…”
Leon shrugged. “Honestly I was just wondering if you finally figured out who made it.”
Cassandra glared at him and growled, “You should’ve told me back then instead of letting me make a fool out of myself. You forged Sunlight!”
“I was tempted,” Leon admitted, “but I thought it felt a little like bragging. I didn’t want it to seem like I was trying to compete or show you up or anything like that. You liked my work, that was enough for me.”
Cassandra snorted, then turned back to face Valeria. “When I’m done with Valeria, you’d better not shy away from stepping up to face me.”
“Ha!” Valeria exclaimed. “This battle hasn’t even begun yet, don’t treat it as if it’s over already!”
“Indeed,” Leon added. “I’ll be watching, so remember that this is, aside from those stunning enchantments, a magicless duel.”
Cassandra straightened up for a moment and glared indignantly at Leon. “What am I, a child that needs to be reminded every five seconds? I am a Princess and I gave my word! I will be true to it!”
“Very well, then,” Leon said as he stepped back, giving Valeria and Cassandra as much room as they’d need.
Valeria immediately assumed a defensive style. From his own extensive experience sparring with her, Leon could tell that for all that Cassandra irritated her, Valeria was still cautious and took this fight incredibly seriously. She wasn’t going to lose right out of the gate.
Cassandra, on the other hand, assumed a far more aggressive stance, her blade extended to make the most of her reach given the advantage Valeria’s glaive had over her longsword.
For the next few seconds, neither woman moved much. They simply stared at each other as if waiting for the other to begin. Cassandra wound up moving first, but only by taking a few steps forward, and then beginning to circle Valeria.
Valeria spun with her, always keeping her glaive up and at the ready, making sure that Cassandra didn’t have a single opportunity to strike and end their spar before it had even begun. The Princess kept circling Valeria, the tension between the two rising ever higher, until finally, Valeria made her move. She took a cautious step forward and lightly swung her glaive, looking to Leon like she was trying to swipe at Cassandra’s wrist.
The Princess raised her arm, letting Valeria’s glaive pass right by, and followed through with an overhead strike at Valeria’s exposed arms. But Valeria stepped back and brought her glaive back into her defensive stance. However, at that point, the equilibrium had been shattered, and Cassandra pressed forward, raining more and more blows down upon Valeria, with Valeria blocking and deflecting every time.
After a dozen exchanges, it might’ve looked like Valeria was losing, but Leon could see that her defenses were strong and she was just biding her time, letting the Princess get in a little closer, commit more and more to every swing. A few tiny opportunities presented themselves that Leon felt he might’ve taken if given the chance, but Valeria let Cassandra press in more and more.
Only after more than twenty exchanges did she change tacks.
Cassandra swung wide and strong, and Valeria leaned back while retracting the head of her glaive. She then lashed out with the butt of the weapon, slamming the pommel into the back of Cassandra’s knee just as the Princess’ blade passed barely more than a finger length in front of her face.
To her credit, Cassandra barely reacted more than taking a quick step back. The Princess kept the pressure on, but her expression shifted into one of absolute focus, and she didn’t try to go for a move that would leave her that vulnerable again.
But Valeria wasn’t content with simply playing defense anymore. She blocked one of Cassandra’s blows, then stepped in and body-slammed the Princess, sending Cassandra reeling back. The Princess at least had the wherewithal to keep her balance and her weapon up, so Valeria wasn’t able to capitalize that well on her vulnerability, but Cassandra’s flow had been disrupted. Valeria followed as Cassandra took a few steps back to regain her footing, swinging her glaive down in a powerful strike.
Cassandra barely managed to deflect, and Leon began to see some genuine concern in the Princess’ ruby eyes, whereas Valeria started to show a little more glee as she pressed against the Princess.
Blow after blow was exchanged, with Valeria on offense now and Cassandra too busy defending to alter that state of affairs. If they were allowed to use magic, of course, then Cassandra would have had no problems slipping in and around Valeria’s glaive, but in a fight of pure skill, Leon felt like Cassandra was getting the worse of it.
Valeria pressed in harder and harder, and Cassandra was having a more and more difficult time making sure her sword was where it needed to be to block Valeria’s strikes. She had to take a step back, and then another, and then a third, and more until her back was almost up against the wall. With Valeria’s range with her polearm, Cassandra couldn’t maintain her maneuverability, and was growing increasingly desperate.
Finally, she made a decision that had Leon’s eyes widening in surprise: she abandoned all defense. Whether out of frustration, anger, or something of that sort, Cassandra lunged forward as Valeria pressed in, taking what would’ve been a lethal slash across her shoulder if their blades weren’t training weapons to rake her own blade across Valeria’s midsection. Had it been battle-ready steel, Valeria’s abdomen would’ve been split right open.
Both women reeled as the training weapons’ enchantments flared. Back in their days in the Bull Kingdom’s Knight Academy, these weapons would’ve stunned Leon and Valeria if they’d been hit like that. However, now that they were stronger and more powerful, they just stung badly enough that they couldn’t be ignored, but hardly so debilitating.
Valeria and Cassandra stumbled back from each other, each having inflicting a devastating blow on the other at just about the exact same time.
“Ahh, damn it,” Cassandra groaned as she reeled back into the wall, clutching her shoulder where Valeria’s glaive had struck.
Valeria didn’t vocalize her pain, but she gritted her teeth and slightly doubled over.
“That was quite the fight,” Leon said, speaking from the heart. It had barely lasted a minute, but in a fight like this, that was practically an eternity. One fight was hardly a good metric for gauging skills, but he guessed that both ladies weren’t that far apart in terms of pure fighting ability. Valeria might’ve had the edge, but she was older and, Leon guessed, more experienced in war.
“Well fought,” Valeria said, and, Leon noted, without too much sarcasm.
“And to you,” Cassandra replied, in much the same tone.
Without a word, the two walked back to their starting positions and assumed their stances once again. Leon just leaned back against the wall and watched, utterly fascinated.
Cassandra and Valeria fought for an hour with barely any breaks. Leon was encouraged to see that neither used even a spark of magic power, both seemingly dedicated to showing that she was the superior among them in pure technical skill.
Unfortunately, the result of all their sparring was inconclusive; neither decisively won a single spar, and neither were able to say with a straight face at the end that she was better.
When they separated one final time—Valeria limping slightly from Cassandra landing a slash on one of her calves, and Cassandra grimacing as she rubbed her ribs where Valeria had gotten in a solid hit—their competitiveness was still there, but Leon was grateful to see that much of their hostility wasn’t.
“I think I’m done for the day, but this isn’t over,” Cassandra promised.
“I’d be disappointed if it was,” Valeria replied.
They then put their training weapons back on the wall racks and finally turned back to Leon, who had silently watched every exchange, absorbing and analyzing everything he saw.
“Still here, huh?” Cassandra asked.
“I wasn’t about to miss this,” Leon replied. “You have quite the fighting style, Your Highness. Is it typical of your Empire?”
“Typical enough,” Cassandra said with a shrug.
“Who taught you, if you don’t mind me asking?”
Cassandra took a deep breath and a wistful look appeared in her eyes. “My grandmother. My mother was of the opinion that I should focus entirely on matters of magic, but my grandmother insisted I learn how to fight ‘for real’, as she said.”
“For ‘real’, huh? Does the Grand Druid not care much for magic?”
“She has the greatest respect for elemental magic. She just doesn’t think that any aspect of war should be ignored.”
Leon smiled and nodded. “Wise. I respect that position.”
“What do you think of it? My fighting style, I mean.”
“It’s strong, but leaves a few small holes here and there. I assume it was designed to be used in conjunction with heavy armor?”
“That makes sense,” Valeria chimed in. “There were a few holes in your defenses that I might’ve gone for were I using a faster weapon, but your speed with that blade was enough to make me hesitate.”
Cassandra smiled in pride. “Your defenses were quite robust, too, Valeria.”
Valeria accepted the compliment with a silent head nod, and Cassandra turned her attention back to Leon.
“What about you, Leon Raime? I’m not quite in the mood for more fighting today, so I won’t yet test myself against it, but from what I saw of your fighting style earlier, you fight similarly, don’t you?”
“I’m a lightning mage,” Leon explained. “Lightning isn’t the best element for defense. So, yeah, I also rely on my armor quite a bit and focus my blade skills on offense.”
“It looked powerful,” Cassandra said. “Would you indulge me with some sparring tomorrow?”
Competitiveness flared up within Leon at the thought. “Of course, Your Highness. I think I would love a chance to fight you…”