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Leon stood opposite Cassandra, his training sword brandished, his golden eyes narrow with focus. Cassandra looked quite similar with her ruby eyes trained on him, her own sword in a guard position, her aura roiling with power.

They were the only ones in the training room this time, Valeria having decided not to interrupt their duel despite wanting a rematch with Cassandra after their inconclusive spar the day before. Unlike the duel with Valeria, though, both Cassandra and Leon decided that using magic power to enhance their physical abilities was fine since they were both of the same tier, but elemental magic was still out of the question. Fortunately, Leon had seen to the enchantments in the training room himself, ensuring that it would take quite a monumental amount of force for anything within to negatively affect the rest of the yacht.

Leon hadn’t interacted much with Cassandra earlier in the day, with the Princess largely left to her own devices while Leon supervised the training of his retinue, spent some time with his family, and put in some work on his next generation of Lightning Lance. When he’d shown up for his evening training, he’d found Cassandra waiting for him, and neither had said so much as a word as they readied themselves for their own spar.

After about ten seconds of staring at each other in silence, Leon made his move. He was a little nervous about the skill that Cassandra had displayed the day before, but he fought with an aggressive style, and he knew that the Princess did too, so if he wanted to win this, he’d have to make the first move.

Backed with his eighth-tier strength, Leon brought his sword down in an overhead cleave, which Cassandra nimbly deflected. Fortunately, Leon hadn’t committed entirely, so he was able to throw himself back and avoid the milk-white blade of Cassandra’s training sword.

Leon then followed up with another slash, which Cassandra blocked. She stabbed, and he deflected. He cut at her front leg, but she stepped back and barely avoided it. She slapped his sword away with hers, then stepped back in with a vicious swing at his head. He raised his blade and blocked, then pushed back against her, locking their blades together.

The two pushed and pulled, their swords tangled, and their spar turned into a grapple. Leon twisted and pushed, trying to knock Cassandra off-balance. Cassandra braced and responded in kind. Leon stepped in and tried to get a foot behind hers that she would trip over, but she gave enough ground to retain her balance, while a quick twist of her upper-body had Leon straining, and ultimately succeeding, to hold onto his own sword.

Leon eventually just threw himself into her, finally knocking her back and disentangling their swords. In an instant, he was back on her, trying to exploit the moment of vulnerability he’d created as she moved to regain her balance. She barely managed to fend him off, and then they were back where they were in the beginning.

This back-and-forth went on for several minutes, but Leon and Cassandra moved with great speed. Leon was a lightning mage and she was a light mage; both were extremely fast even without using elemental magic. They were both incredibly strong, too, and their every crossing of swords shook the training room and rang throughout the ship.

But they couldn’t keep fighting like that forever, and something had to give. That something turned out to be their weapons—barely five minutes into their spar, they both separated, their eyes wide, their minds strained, and their swords cracked and blunted. They’d exchanged blows more than a thousand times in those five minutes, and the force of their clash had ruined them.

Leon stared at Cassandra for a long moment, knowing she’d seen the same thing he had, but wondering just how she was going to take it. He slowly began to relax, and was relieved to see her do the same. With some certainty that their first spar was now over, he pried his eyes off of her and analyzed the damage done to his sword.

The enchantment was failing, the milk-white metal now a dull gray. The edges were always blunt, but the blade now featured numerous cracks and chips, some big enough to compromise the blade’s integrity.

“I think… we went a little too hard,” Leon said, displaying his ruined sword for Cassandra to see.

“I think you’re right,” Cassandra replied, looking a little awkward and apologetic as she showed Leon her weapon, similarly ruined. “I’ll arrange for some replacements, this is my fault.”

“Nonsense,” Leon responded with a wave of his hand. “These aren’t expensive, and this is kind of what they’re made for.”

“You’re too generous,” Cassandra replied as she laid her ruined blade on a thin table along the wall. Leon did the same. “So,” Cassandra said as they set aside their training weapons, “what now? That was a little disappointing and not at all satisfying, so… should we find someplace to stop and head out into the wild? Find some place that doesn’t have many people, where we can actually use our magic and see who’s the stronger?”

“No,” Leon replied with a look of distaste. “I’m certainly eager to see the result, but I’d rather not stop for something so trivial. No offense.”

Cassandra scowled at him, but nodded. “Yeah, I figured. That was only a suggestion.”

Leon sighed. “We’re heading into your Prota Forest, so don’t worry about it too much; I’d be willing to guess that we’re going to be using our magic plenty in the days to come.”

“That’s true. The Prota Forest is quite dangerous. You know, you still haven’t told me why you’re going there…”

“I did actually tell you: for recreation. I heard about these goat men and plant-based giants and wanted to see them for myself. Reminds me quite a bit of where I came from.”

“Oh? Do they have such creatures in the north?”

“There aren’t any goat men, but there are several tribes of stone giants living in the Border Mountains between the Bull and Talfar Kingdoms. In the Northern Vales north of the Bull Kingdom, there are deep forests filled with ice wraiths and tree sprites. There are enough people around in the north that most creatures that pose much risk have been hunted to extinction, but there are still a few around if you know where to look.”

“That sounds quite interesting, I might have to visit the north sometime. Maybe you ought to come with me and show me around.”

Leon chuckled as he leaned up against the wall opposite the windows and stared out at the forest-city that lined the banks of the Neilos River. “I’d consider it, assuming I ever found the time. I have to admit to some curiosity to seeing how the Bull Kingdom has been doing these past few years, and I’d certainly love to see the place I grew up again.”

“Your family were nobles, right? And royalty even before that?”

Leon nodded. “We were, though I never really saw much of it. For the most part, I lived in a place that even the northerners considered barbaric.”

“That’s… hard to believe,” Cassandra replied with a deep frown of thought. “I do believe you, but your Clan once ruled this plane. It’s hard to comprehend such a fall.”

“Now it’s just me,” Leon said. He had to carefully control his face to keep a sad smile from spreading across it, but he guessed that Cassandra got his emotional state anyway from his tone alone. She gave him an odd look that seemed both pitying and confused, but it was hard for him to say.

“You fight like them?” she asked.

“I do. My father told me that my fighting style has been passed down for a long, long time, and from what I’ve been able to see from Thunderbird Clan ruins that I’ve seen, that’s been true.”

“Have you been to many of these ruins then?”

Leon laughed. “No, but enough. And all that I’ve been to are essentially just ruins, now.”

“Are you sure about that?” Cassandra asked challengingly as she gave him a hungry look.

“Quite.”

“A shame. I’ve never seen appreciable ruins. Just some broken stones and architecture. I would’ve loved to see a ruin—any ruin, really—that’s still intact enough to make an adventure out of.”

“It does tickle the imagination, doesn’t it? The idea that there’s something incredibly old just waiting to be discovered, something our Ancestors once had at least some measure of control over, but which has since been lost to time.”

“There aren’t many places like that left in Aeterna. None, I think in the Empires.”

Leon stared out of the window for a long moment, contemplating her words. He’d seen Thunderbird Clan ruins in the north, one of which held a demon; in another, he’d found the ghost of an ancestral uncle; a third was protected by stone giants and held an enchantment array that helped boost him to the fifth-tier; and the fourth held a huge library that his House had maintained in the Bull Kingdom for millennia. After coming to the Ilian empire, he’d found many other ruins, most of them little more than ruined stone, but he had found two labor golems in one.

Aside from the ruins of his Clan, he’d also delved into long-forgotten ruins of the Serpentine Isles, built by people that predated his Clan’s dominance over the plane. He shivered as he remembered the Primal God forcing its way into his soul realm, and the long crawl he, Maia, and Gaius had to endure to get through that underground temple on the third island.

‘That golden colossus is still in my soul realm, isn’t it?’ he reminded himself, and a quick glance inward confirmed that it hadn’t moved from the place where he’d left it.

“There are still places left on this plane that haven’t been discovered,” he said aloud. “Places with hidden and forgotten powers. Places that are practically begging to be discovered.”

“You sound so confident in that, Leon Raime, is there something you’d like to tell me?” Cassandra shot him a knowing look, but Leon shrugged.

“Nothing specific, really. Just that if you really want to explore this plane, then there’s no shortage of places to discover. My wife told me of the Isle of Empty Promise following our bet, that place seems promising…”

“It also seems like a deathtrap. No one who’s ever gone there has lived.”

“Just my point. There are still places waiting to be discovered. Places that no one has ever managed to breach. If adventure is what you crave, then it’s there for you to find, you just have to put in a little bit of work.”

“Are you saying I don’t work hard enough?”

“I’m saying if all you’re looking at is your own Empire, then of course you’re not going to find anything worth exploring; it’s all already been explored! My Clan fell here eighty thousand years ago! That’s a mind-bending amount of time, so much time that there can’t be many places built by my Ancestors that remain undisturbed. However…”

“However…?”

Leon gave her a smug smile. “Time on this plane didn’t start with my Ancestors. How much do you know of those who came before the Thunderbird arrived on this plane?”

Cassandra frowned again. “Not much. Eighty thousand years is a long time, and what they built hasn’t lasted that long. Besides, I think your Clan destroyed much of what was here when they invaded.” She gave him an accusing look, and he smiled awkwardly.

“Not everything, though,” Leon replied. “There are still many places in the world that retain bits and pieces of their culture before my Clan arrived, little, tiny remnants of the people they used to be and the magics they once wielded. If it’s adventure and discovery that you seek, there’s no shortage of both to be found in Aeterna.”

Cassandra just stared at him, a strange look in her eyes. “I’m a Princess, adventure beyond the borders of my Empire isn’t available to me.”

Leon nodded, understanding what she meant. The more power she had, the more responsibilities she had to her people. She was a Princess and an eighth-tier mage, but he supposed she likely had enough duties to keep her squarely in the Sacred Golden Empire. Duties such as escorting dignitaries and people like him around, he noted.

Looking at it from this angle, he was almost glad that Cassandra was accompanying them to the Prota Forest. If she wanted adventure, he had a sneaking suspicion that that was what she was going to find with his people.

“So, anyway,” Leon said, changing the subject after a long and somewhat awkward pause, “I have some questions for you, unless you want to get back to sparring?”

Cassandra grinned. “We can always fight later; what questions do you have?”

Leon grinned back, but paused again, wondering just what he wanted to ask first.

“I… hope it’s not too personal,” he said, “but I was wondering what you thought of your grandmother offering you to me. I mean, I don’t want to offend, but as I said at the time, I’m really not looking for any more partners. But I couldn’t help but be a little curious as to what you thought about the matter.”

Cassandra stared at him, a playful look crossing her face. “What, are you asking me to say that you’re wonderful and everything a girl could want in a man and that I want nothing more than to offer you my virtue?”

Leon cringed slightly and shook his head. “I wasn’t asking for you to prop up my ego, I don’t need that kind of thing. I was more wondering about your side of the offer, if you were upset at all by your grandmother’s treatment of your future. Is this sort of arrangement common in your Empire?”

“Marriage alliances aren’t uncommon,” Cassandra said. “I always kind of thought that I would get to choose my partner, but for me, my Empire comes before my happiness. If my grandmother believes that marrying you would be to the Empire’s benefit, then I would go along with it without question.”

Leon nodded again. She hadn’t seemed all that into it at the time, but he supposed she did go along with it without question—at least, without question in front of him. He saw no reason to continue pressing for details, though.

“All right. If you don’t mind me changing topics again, how are you liking Sunlight so far?”

“Leon Raime!” Cassandra exclaimed, sounding mockingly scandalized. “You say that you need no propping up of your ego, yet you so transparently fish for compliments!”

Leon sighed and resigned himself to receiving a bit of mocking for every question he wanted to ask. Then, he shook his head again and clarified, “You have the smith himself in front of you. If there was anything you wanted fixed about your weapon, then this is the time to say so.”

“I’m very happy with Sunlight,” Cassandra replied, her tone turning more serious. “It’s honestly one of the finest weapons I’ve ever had the pleasure of wielding. I don’t even know what I would change if I had to, though. It fits in my hand perfectly, its power aligns with mine so well that I can hardly comprehend the idea that you didn’t tailor make it for me, and when I wield it, it feels like it’s an extension of my being!”

Leon’s happy grin widened more and more as Cassandra grew more and more excited, and he couldn’t see even an ounce of dishonesty in her demeanor.

“That’s great to hear,” Leon said. “I’ve been designing weapons for my retinue, and it would’ve eaten into my time a bit if I had to adjust Sunlight in any way.”

“That brings up a good question: why don’t your people have weapons like this?”

Leon frowned and shrugged. “Sunlight is made of extremely expensive materials, and it took months to forge. My people are already using fine weapons as it is, so I figured the new weapons could wait a little longer while we went on this little vacation.”

“I have a question, Leon…”

“Go for it.”

“Does this ‘little vacation’ have anything to do with the Director of Heaven’s Eye?”

Leon’s smile thinned and he glared at the Princess. “Why would it?”

“It’s just that it’s no secret that you and he are on bad terms right now, and over vampires, was it? You know that the Sacred Golden Empire would never side with vampires over you…”

“Trying to recruit me, are you?”

“I was made aware of your many skills before I was sent as your escort. I don’t think I would’ve believed them if I hadn’t seen you in action during our hunt in the Scorched Fields.”

“You flatter me.”

“Flattering enough to get you to say yes?”

Leon had to fight the urge to snort at the Princess’ shameless and seemingly joking attempt to recruit him. “I’m afraid not. I’m not looking to swear myself to any Empire.”

“What are you looking for, then?”

‘What are you looking for, Your Highness?”

A look of surprise crept across Cassandra’s face. “What do you mean?”

“There had to have been other escorts for this, right? I get that I might not be the usual run-of-the-mill Heaven’s Eye dignitary on account of my blood, but is this something that a Princess needs to concern herself with? I think setting aside this responsibility and going off in search of adventure would be a better use of your time, no?”

“If I didn’t know better, Leon Raime, I might think you were trying to get rid of me. Is what you’re looking for in that forest so valuable that you can’t stand the thought of it falling into the hands of my Empire?”

Leon chuckled and looked away. He was looking for a hidden legacy of his Clan. She was here to watch him and quite possibly take whatever it was that he found, while also trying to entice him to join her Empire. All of this was obvious, but for some reason, he didn’t feel like doing away with this illusion they’d constructed.

“I’m just here on vacation,” Leon insisted despite knowing that she knew it was a lie.

“And it is my solemn duty to ensure that your visit to my Empire goes well,” Cassandra replied with a knowing smile.

They stared at each other for long moment, then decided to return to sparring. Unfortunately, neither of them won decisively despite using their non-elemental magic. But still, Leon had fun. He was testing himself against a strong opponent, and without the headaches of responsibility to those under his command, the possibilities of death, and the dire consequences of failure, fighting like this was immensely enjoyable.

Barely a minute after they ended their sparring session, Leon was already looking forward to the next one.

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warden1207

Bio: An aspiring writer, currently writing 'The Storm King' on RR and my own personal website, wardenreading.com

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