Aispin grinned at them both and then smacked Darren’s shoulder in a friendly gesture as he moved to leave the room. “Anyway, I hope you two enjoy the training. I’ll be heading off now.”
Before he exited through the open door, Essairyn quizzically remarked, “You’re going now? But it’s evening.”
“Ah, there are a few things I need to do still. I’ll be back after you guys probably finish dinner and head off to sleep,” he vaguely clarified with a departing wave.
Essairyn tipped her head to the side as she watched him rush off. “Well,” she began observantly, “he seems like a nice fellow, but I wonder why he left so quickly. Maybe he was in the middle of something and stopped in order to meet his new roommate and then he had to go back?”
Darren raised a sharp eyebrow at her conjecture. “I don’t think so…”
She glanced up at him briefly. “Hmm… I guess maybe not… I just thought it was strange.” Essairyn wasn’t sure if it was just because she was in the habit of being overly cautious after everything that had happened, but an unsettling feeling softly churned in her gut. She looked at her hand that had touched Aispin and faintly narrowed her eyes. Why am I so tense all of a sudden? Her thoughts were broken by Darren’s subtle sigh and shrug of the shoulders. He didn’t read into the situation heavily and nonchalantly walked around to survey the room. After the day’s events, he was ready to kick back and unwind.
“Oh, can I have the food?” Darren suddenly remembered that Essairyn was holding their dinners given by the Academy. Usually, the knight trainees would eat together, but they opted out of it today in order to settle down in their new lodgings. Essairyn comprehended his meaning and retrieved two containers of food and a set of eating utensils. She handed these along with a container to Darren and then headed back to her room to eat.
Inside, Akari was already half-asleep and curled up in the middle of the bed. Seeing the snoozing fox, Essairyn clicked her tongue in mock dissatisfaction. This girl, I already said I was taking this bed. But of course, she had to claim it behind my back instead of sleeping in the other one. She shook her wryly and gently sat on the edge of the bed with Akari. I guess it’s been a long, past few days. She quietly stretched out a hand and lightly began petting Akari. So soft… When you’re like this, you remind me of… Essairyn squeezed her eyes shut as she halted the thought of her beloved dog back on Earth. A light, strained chuckle escaped her mouth. She gulped down the ball of rising emotion and inclined her head back in order to stop any tears from falling.
“Haah..” Her breath heaved shakily, and she blinked away the emerging droplets along her lower waterline. She dropped her gaze upon the warm container of food in her lap. Slowly, she grasped and pried the lid open. A soft rush of steam billowed out onto her face. Without looking, she lifted her right hand and took another set of utensils out from her inventory. Then, she stabbed the chunk of seasoned meat and brought it up to her mouth. It’s… good. Tasting the succulent and flavorful beef, her eyes suddenly teared up again. She quickly forked more food into her mouth as salty drops fell soundlessly from her eyes. It’s really good…
Akari squirmed uncomfortably in her sleep, catching Essairyn’s attention. She softly laid a hand on the fox’s back, and Akari then settled down with a satisfied exhale. The corners of Essairyn’s mouth quirked up momentarily into a small smile. Tomorrow… tomorrow will be a good day. The girl solemnly finished the rest of her dinner and saved the empty containers and utensils in her magic cache. Even though she knew that laying down after eating wasn’t recommended, Essairyn didn’t care in this moment. She crept underneath the covers without disturbing Akari and closed her dry eyes.
The next morning, Essairyn was awoken by a fuzzy and scratchy sensation on her cheek. She furrowed her forehead in displeasure and somnolently cracked open her eyes. The white paws of Akari filled half of her vision. The fox had been prodding her awake.
“Geez, you finally woke up! Now get up, you’re late!” shouted Akari.
The proximity of her loud voice jolted Essairyn up in bed along with the contents of her words. “Shoot!” The girl leapt out of bed, raced to the door, and flung it open.
“HEY! Wait for me!” screeched Akari as she skittered across the wood floor after Essairyn who was already dashing madly through the corridors.
The two arrived, breathing heavily. Although, Akari was the only one actually exhausted from the morning sprint. Essairyn was merely panting in adrenaline at the news of being late.
“Where were you?” asked Darren as soon as they arrived. He was at the back of the group standing before the head trainer, the knight in command.
But before she could respond, the knight called her out. “You there who’s late!” He stressed the last word while pointing at the girl. “Run twenty laps around this block!”
Essairyn’s eyes popped out. “Wha—?” Twenty laps?! That’s so—!! She grimaced at the stern face of the knight.
“Some might excuse this kind of behavior, but I, Hætherin, shall not. As a knight, it is important to be on time and build good habits lest you become distracted or miss the opportune timing in battle!” The brawny gray-haired man scanned the group with narrowed eyes. “All of you, make sure not to be late from now on! We have no time to waste.” He flicked his sharp gaze toward Essairyn. “Why have you not started? Get going!”
She jolted at the dictatorial tone and darted off. What the heck?! What have I gotten myself into? Essairyn internally groused. Ugh, twenty laps… Hm. Wait. Actually, thinking about it now, it’s not that much for me? Compared to the distance running to Byar’non and the Academy, twenty loops around the Academy block was trifling. In a matter of minutes, she breezed through them all.
Returning the previous location, Essairyn swept the area looking for the group. She huffed as she realized that they left without leaving a note to where they were going.
“You’re back already? I should’ve guessed,” said Akari, manifesting herself from behind rows of blossoming plants which lined the front of the flower shop nearby. “That knight made them run to the hills outside of town apparently in order to hike it and train at the peak.”
“I see…” So that jerk ditched me after all! She huffed and decided to play a trick on the stringent knight. Or more precisely, she didn’t feel like following his rules considering she wasn’t even a cadet. Essairyn scooped up an eager Akari who had waited for her and ran in the direction told.
Soon enough, she spied the straggling members of the group running toward the outskirts of the city. Using the buildings as cover, she deftly maneuvered ahead of the whole group before flying toward the hills once she exited Byar’non. Rather than attracting attention by traveling through the air, she sat cross-legged on the magic circle and skirted directly above the grass. Essairyn couldn’t see the group, but that meant they couldn’t see her either.
She and Akari reached the so-called hills which looked more like small mountains due to their craggy, steep slopes. Together, they created what could be considered a miniature mountain range. Instead of flying up, Essairyn felt like hiking. While rocky, the hills boasted dense, luxurious forests. She was curious about what it was like compared to the Spirit-Demon Forest. She leisurely trekked, hopping over streams, bouncing up jutting rocks, strolling through the undergrowth. It was a quaint woodland in comparison to the colossal trees of the Spirit-Demon Forest. But by regular standards, it was still quite large.
About a third up, she discovered a rock ledge with an unobstructed view of the landscape below the hills. Essairyn stepped out and surveyed the grasslands for the knight’s group. She pinpointed Hætherin at the front of the group and the lagging dots in the distance and snickered. They wouldn’t be arriving here any time soon at the slackening pace the trainees were going at.
“Is it that funny to you?” chuckled Akari who was sitting beside her on the ground.
“Just a little.” Essairyn winked. “I kind of feel bad for them actually. From the Academy to here, it’s probably… ten? fifteen miles? That knight sure is harsh. Twenty laps around a city block were really nothing. Now I wonder if he was going easy on me because I’m a girl…” She noticed that she was the only girl in the group. It seemed that gender divisions still existed in this world, but it was a cultural or societal divide rather than physical or ability-wise. Magic didn’t discriminate based on gender, so a girl was just as likely to have a high amount of regular m’u as a boy. Thus, women theoretically could compete as equals to men in combat. It was a bit baffling to accept for those who were used to physiology serving a deeper, straightforward purpose. However, men being built typically larger and therefore stronger still held true for non-magical humans.
Akari snorted at the speculation. “That is one old-fashioned knight. It sounded like he came from my era.”
Essairyn perked up at the mention of Akari’s past. “Your era?” she curiously yet carefully inquired.
The fox glanced at her from the side of her honey-hazel eyes. “Yeah, the knights were righteously stiff back then. That’s probably how the virtuous image of knights was created.” Her words dripped with sarcasm, making Essairyn snigger. Akari smirked while adding, “But this one tops the cake. What a bore. Who makes knight trainees run a dozen some miles before hiking up a huge hill and then sparring? Tsk.” She shook her head disapprovingly. “He’s scaring the poor boys away. Oh well, they literally can’t run away from being a knight at this point after taking the Oath.”
“PFT.” Essairyn stopped herself from laughing at the blatant pun.
“Aw, come on, that was pretty good.” Akari smiled brightly with eyes that seemed to wink.
“Yeah, yeah.” The ebony-haired girl waved it off while turning back to the woods.