“Is Darren here?” Essairyn leaned her body to the left to look around Aispin's frame and into the room. He straightened his figure while opening the door wider.
“He’s not back yet from dinner,” informed Aispin as he turned and gestured for Essairyn to come in. After a fraction of a second’s hesitation, Essairyn entered. She surveyed the room and noted that Darren must be living on the right side as the left had too many personal objects and furnishings. Darren didn’t have many items which he could use to personalize the place. And he carried his sword and Knight’s Emblem with him.
“So how was today? Rough, right?” joked Aispin with a sideways grin. He leaned against the post of his bed with his arms lazily crossed. A large broadsword sheathed in a decorated, multi-colored enamel and semi-precious stone-laid scabbard was propped up against the other bedpost. “The first day is always like that, especially if you have old man Hætherin.”
Essairyn chuckled halfheartedly as she neared the table in the center of the room. “Yeah… You know him?”
“Knight Hætherin? Hah, he’s a stickler for the rules but likes to push the trainees harder. He means well though. The kids in his classes always do better than average because of his harsh teaching methods. He’s known as one of the ‘Hell Knights’ by all the cadets. You’ll be able to find a lot of people willing to share a story or two about their experiences with that old man.” His bangs quivered as he lightly laughed. Aispin remembered back to his grueling first days as a young knight cadet. He had the pleasure of being often assigned to Hætherin’s classes.
“Anyway, you and the rest of the new trainees will be split based on your evaluation and first day results tomorrow morning. So you might not see Hætherin much again depending on what official rank you receive.”
Essairyn’s softly angled eyebrows arched up in curious surprise at this news. No one had told her about this, for she assumed that today’s group of new trainees were her classmates for the rest of the two week training period.
Seeing the girl’s questioning look, Aispin preemptively answered, “The Academy strictly judges according to merit, ability, and potential and places students in classes with people of the same rank. This classification helps students progress better because they’re contending with those of the same strength. This makes sense and works well, but…” The boy scratched his head uncomfortably. “It creates a pretty clear divide between the students. Those at the top are definitely more respected and privileged.”
Hearing this, Essairyn’s eyes darkened somewhat. Although she liked the idea of a meritocracy, she hoped that this ranking structure didn’t hinder those at the bottom from rising. Perhaps Aispin was good at picking up subtle changes in expressions because he immediately waved his hands, clarifying, “I didn’t mean it in a bad way though! You haven’t been to Neu’arth’s main campus, so you won’t know exactly what I mean. But high-ranked students are treated almost like idols or something, haha! Unless you’re already a knight, in which you already get free board and tuition, unaffiliated, high-achieving students get full scholarships for however long they wish to study at the Academy. It’s pretty nice, right?”
“True, but…” Essairyn trailed off. “It doesn’t help those who are low-ranked. What if they’re really passionate about school?”
Aispin nodded in acknowledgement before calmly countering, “If they’re that passionate about school, then they should join the Knights. Since the Knight Mage Academy is about applying both magical and physical combat, then joining the Knight’s Order is the best way to do that. They need to have that kind of dedication as a low rank in order to survive in this world anyway…” He sighed and smiled halfheartedly.
“Missions can be life-threatening after all. Otherwise, it would be better to live a quiet, normal life in Neu’arth. And if it’s just basic education without combat, then the sister school of KMA for non-magical or non-combative humans inside the walls are the way to go. Tuition is free there because you’re inside Neu’arth and give up any excess magic.”
Aispin made a good point. The system was put in place while considering the future well-being of those less able to defend themselves. Essairyn wouldn’t want to see lives lost because false hope and expectation was inspired in starry-eyed students. It reminded her of the high school graduation speech about having the strength to follow one’s dreams. What baloney. No one realized that if they hadn’t already grasped onto the first corner of the fabric of their dreams, then by that point they would never seize it in time at all. Those dreams and the life they hoped for would slip away with the passing of the hours breathing. Maybe the saying that it was never too late to chase one’s dream was true, but that didn’t mean it would be easy either. Every tick of the clock caused the dream to stray from the mind until it died in the heart.
Essairyn shook these bleak thoughts from her head. That reality didn’t existed anymore. Nothing held her back in this world but herself. She believed this. She would make it true. She looked directly into Aispin’s blue eyes and communicated her agreement.
“And what walls are you speaking of?” Essairyn’s interest pricked at the mention of them. She wondered if this was how the magical system of Neu’arth was implemented in order to keep out and defend against intruders. Perhaps it was similar to the system she had placed onto the Welforts’ fence.
“Oh, Neu’arth’s magical wall. You can’t see it unless it’s activated. Usually, you can only see the segment of the walls around the official entrances when people are registering as a visitor or new citizen. The wall lights up then.” Aispin gestured with his hands on the last remark, making Essairyn smile faintly at his animated explanation. He clearly liked Neu’arth and approved of its setup to ensure the safety and welfare of its people.
“Mmm, that’s great. Neu’arth sounds like a really cool place.” Essairyn’s smile grew, garnering a grin from Aispin who enthusiastically responded with a fist pump.
“Yes! And this way the country can expand easily without having to destroy or construct physical walls! I can’t wait until Neu’arth spreads to the rest of As’pyze!” Realizing that he got ahead of himself by fully exhibiting his emotions, Aispin coughed lightly and smiled sheepishly. “Anyway, Neu’arth is a great place to live, especially for non-magical humans. It saves people, you know? People who couldn’t…” He trailed off and discontinued his words. He wasn’t sure why he was about to open up to Essairyn about his past and current wish for the world. Not many knew about his past before becoming a knight, and none at all knew about the full details of how he survived until he arrived at Neu’arth. It was a difficult story to tell, but it was one that many people who struggled in As’pyze after the Great Elemental War shared. Nothing would change by his story being told. And he didn’t want anyone’s pity. As long as the fire burned within him, he would take it day by day to reach his ultimate goal. That’s all that mattered.
Essairyn also read the changes in Aispin and didn’t dig into it deeper. They had just met, so she didn’t expect him to fully disclose his life’s story. In two weeks, they would spend plenty of time together getting to know one another better. Even if they wouldn’t have much time to chat by then, simply being in dangerous situations would naturally bring people together. Trust and understanding was necessary to fight side by side.
Before Essairyn could say anything to restore the somewhat awkward mood and move onto another topic, Darren whipped the door open. They both spun their heads at the sudden, loud entrance and looked at the sandy-haired boy who peered back in flummox. What’s with this strange mood? He wondered as he gathered his composure and approached them. And why is Essairyn here? She was talking to Aispin? About what?
Although he was full of questions, he didn’t let it show on his face and proceeded nonchalantly as if he didn’t find the situation questionable. Besides, it was good that Essairyn was here. He wanted to get something straight with her.
They began strongly and then faltered when they realized that they both wanted to say something to one another. “—en.” They both ended upon the same sounding syllable.
“You go first—” They both started and then stopped.
Usually, Essairyn would let the other person speak, but since she had come to the room for a very specific reason, she was determined to speak first and rid of any misunderstandings between them.
“Darren,” she repeated quickly. “I just wanted to say that I’m sorry about this afternoon. I know you were just concerned about me in the mission, and I’m really grateful for that. But I really want to go and—”
Essairyn abruptly halted in her words at the sound of Darren’s even-tempered voice. With wide eyes, she stared at the boy who continued, “It’s okay. I understand. I can’t stop you from going. I guess I should be used to that by now.” He chuckled halfheartedly with a small smile. “So instead, I’m going with you.”
“…” Essairyn blinked.
“Wait, WHAT?! You’re not—! Why would you also go! You don’t need to risk your life too!” She stumbled upon her words while drawing closer to Darren.
“Exactly. You’re risking your life. So, I might as well be there in case anything happens and you get ahead of yourself.” He side-grinned with a forced confident expression.
Essairyn’s forehead creased in worry. “No, that’s a bad idea. You can’t—”
Aispin slapped a hand onto the girl’s shoulder and chimed, “Hey, that sounds like a good idea to me. You never know what two week’s training can do. Darren is fit, so I’m sure that he’’ll be fine. It’s better to have a trusted partner when fighting anyway.”
“Huh?” She frowned while her eyebrows lifted in astonishment. “That’s not what I mean. I trust him, but—”
“I’ll be fine, Essairyn. Trust me.” Darren staunchly peered into the girl’s eyes.
Essairyn’s mouth hung open and moved like a fish. She was rendered speechless. Since she was so set on joining the mission against his wishes, then what right did she have to go against his wishes to join as well?
Aispin chuckled at her helpless expression and thumped his other palm onto Darren’s shoulder as well. “See?” He turned his head toward Essairyn and smiled assuringly. “He’ll be fine. Don’t worry. I’ll be there along with everyone else, so no one will get hurt, all right?”
She sighed heavily in defeat. “All right, all right. I got it. I’ll make sure not to let anything happen to you.” Or I won’t forgive myself. “Just don’t slow me down, okay?” She winked teasingly at Darren who grunted to clear his throat.
“Yeah yeah. Just you watch, it’ll be me at your back.” He smirked playfully.
Essairyn giggled and bobbed her head once. “It’s a deal.” She stuck out her hand, and Darren took and shook it.
“It’s a deal.”