"Alex," I approach him when I spot him. We usually walk across together, but I have urgent business to take care of right now. "Would you please inform Jason I will possibly run a little late for the session? I am hoping to return before the application portion ends, but that might not be possible."
"Sure, I can do that for ya," he responds. "Jason will probably want to know where ya went, though. Ya know the rules."
"If he presses," I say. "Inform him it regards the matter we discussed yesterday regarding the training group. He should understand."
"I will," Alex says, then leaves.
As soon as he departs, I begin walking down the street. My carriage is not here because it is used to picking me up after the sessions, on the occasions Jason does not send me home directly. As much as I would like to run, it would not be proper for me to do so, so I instead walk as hastily as I can manage.
I do consider ignoring protocol and proper actions and run, despite what Papa would say after, but instead do what I can within the allowance, my guards following as best they can.
As a result, I reach the apartment complex a little more than twenty minutes later. It is situated a fair distance from the Royal Knight University and Royal Mage University, but does house a lot of students. Jason refers to it as dorms.
The students have to pay to stay there, but they pay a flat fee at the beginning of the term and are able to stay in their assigned room for the full term as a result. Not necessarily wealthier students stay here – some students build up as much money as they can during the summer running odd jobs or working for a guild and pay the fee that way. Most even save up for both terms and pay for both terms up-front with their hard-earned funds.
Inside, I inquire at the front desk for a specific student, and as I am the prince, they ignore the rules and answer. He has yet to leave, which means I made it in time.
Hurrying, I make my way up to the third floor, wandering until I locate the room he stayed in and knock. A moment later, the door opens, and I find myself facing an exhausted and annoyed Eden, who quickly changes his expression when he sees me.
"Your Highness," he dips his head to me, speaking quietly. "I-sorry, sir, I was not expecting you."
"I heard you were leaving the university," I say.
"You do not need to concern yourself with a farmer like me," he looks down, his voice barely more than a whisper now.
"What I need do and what I need not do is not for you to decide," I state. "And I will concern myself with whomever I choose. Eden, you made it into the S-Class of the Royal Knight University in your first term. You are gifted."
"I barely made it in," he mumbles.
"Do you know how rare it is for a farmer to make it into the Royal Knight University?" I ask. "Much less in D-Class in their first term? You are talented, Eden, you skipped the extra training most go through in order to make it, yet made it. You should not feel as if you are untalented."
"But I am," he mumbles. "All of you are so much better than me, Your Highness, and I cannot even do much in the training groups. Only one would even consider me, and they… never mind."
"They get away with improper treatment by skirting the rules," I state, and he lowers his head further. "There is at least one training group I know you did not try for, Eden, and I know this because I have yet to see you at a single application session for it. Have you attempted any of the joint-university training groups?"
He does not respond, confirming that he has not.
"Eden," I say. "You are talented, and it would be a waste for you to give up now. You have a gift, and you came to the university to try to become even better with that gift. Why not come with me back to the university? We can go to the Royal Mage University and have you try out for the training group I am a part of. I have full confidence you will make it in. I know the requirements, and have seen your abilities."
"I have already canceled my contract with the apartment complex," he mumbles. "And they refunded me for next term's stay. They have already found a new tenant for this room. I was just finishing packing my things when you showed up, and was only waiting for the carriage to take me back home."
"Then take it with us," I tell him. "I can store it in my spatial storage for the trip, to make it easier. Do not leave yet, Eden. You have three weeks to change your mind about leaving the university before you would need to reapply at the end of term. You have a gift, and it would be a waste for you to give up on doing what you want because of people who are no more than common bullies and because you are comparing yourself to people who have trained for years. I promise, if you make it into this training group, then you do have a gift. Very few students are able to make it in because of the requirements."
"The requirements are magic-based," he says, making it clear he knows what it takes to enter Jason's group. "Not fighter-based."
"The two go together," I say. "Great magicians can be great warriors. Jason is both. That star iron sword he wears is not just a fancy item, it is a lethal weapon that he forged himself to use when necessary."
"That's star iron?" That is the loudest he has spoken since I arrived here, and the first time he has directly met my gaze since recognizing me.
"Yes," I answer. "That sword he wears is star iron, forged of some collected from a meteor that fell when we were younger. Eden, you are a part of the most gifted class of first-year warriors in all of Varil. Just because you are at the lowest end of the class does not mean you are not that gifted. It means you are one of the most gifted sixteens and seventeens in all of Varil."
"Sixteen," he tells me. "I turn seventeen in a couple of weeks."
"Point is," I say. "Do not compare yourself to the few of us who ranked above you. Compare yourself to the thousands you scored above. And when it comes to training groups, try Jason's. One last attempt? It truly would be a waste for someone with your talent to give up because of the treatment you were given by common bullies. I promise that while Jason's group is harsh, it is equally so for every member."
My comm plate vibrates, alerting me to an incoming message.
"Hold on one moment," I tell Eden as I pull it from under my tunic. "This is Jason now," I answer the call. "Yes, Jason?"
"A lot happened yesterday," he says. "So you will need to remind me what it is you were talking about. And just let me know when you're ready, I can open a gate here so that you can arrive faster."
"Regarding the student I told you I was going to ask to apply to your group," I say as Eden gives the comm plate a curious look.
"Oh, he wasn't one of the ones who just finished their applications?"
"No," I frown. "How many just applied?"
That is a sudden and unexpected increase in applicants. We rarely have even one these days.
"How many passed?"
"None," he answers. "Though one might make it if he trains for a week or two. I auditioned your sister guards before lessons, if you're wondering why there were no successes when you knew they were wanting to join as well. I take it you are talking with him now?"
Considering how close to the start of lesson he opened the gate for Alex and me to enter the Royal Knight University, I take it that means their professor was late.
"Yes," I answer. "Remember what I said regarding him?"
"I do," he answers. "For being late, you have to perform seventy pushups while performing magical control training."
"Seventy?" I ask. "I thought it was fifty?"
"You can do more pushups than Kayla," he says. "So you have to do more. I will leave you to your discussion, then."
"Thanks," I say, and the comm plate turns inert. I look at Eden once more, and he is looking at me oddly. "What is it?"
"You talked to him about me?" He asks.
"Yes," I return my comm plate to where I store it. "I told him yesterday that I would attempt to have you apply, though I did not give specifics. I told him about what you were dealing with, and that I wanted you to try his group. It is punishing, but it shows results, and Jason treats everyone the same – he will treat you no differently than he treats me when he is in instructor mode."
I can tell that he is still uncertain, that he still wishes to leave.
"Tell you what, Eden," I say. "If you try out for his training group and fail to enter, I will not try to convince you to change your mind any further, and I will even ensure your trip back to the farm is comfortable. If you succeed in making it in, I will help you find a place to stay the rest of the term."
He sighs, but agrees, so I offer my spatial storage once more. He refuses initially because royalty should never trouble themselves with such things, but he does need to remove his stuff, so my insistence wins his acceptance. I stick his bags into the storage, then pull out my comm plate and use it to contact Jason.
"Where are you at?" He asks. "I will open a gate as close to you as I can."
"I am at the student apartments," I tell him. "I am unsure how close to them you have been, however, as they are not in a direction you would have gone before."
"I have been to the entrances of them," of course he has, because he seriously meant it when he said 'any place of importance', and the apartments are apparently important to him. "I can open a gate to them."
"Do that in three minutes," I tell him.
"Okay," he says.
We end the call, then Eden and I walk downstairs as I realize that Jason must have visited the dorms while looking for a place to Alex to stay for if Alex wishes to leave his house. Not that Jason wants him to leave, though. When are they going to admit their feelings for each other and stop being awkward all the time?
Alex has already realized that Jason is not the jerk he believed he was, so it should not be all that long now.
"What is that item you were using?" Eden asks, then quietly apologizes for the inquiry.
"A comm plate," I answer. "Right now, we are classmates, Eden, and potentially training partners. Do not treat me in my position as prince, as it actually annoys me when I am not acting in that position at the time. The guards are simply there because they need to be, but if it were up to me, they would have stayed behind while I came to talk with you, because this is not me being a prince. It is me being a concerned classmate."
Eden looks at my guards, who have remained silent this entire time. They do take their jobs seriously, and their silence is a bit off-putting to most people.
"As for the item," I say. "A comm plate is a piece of magical technology invented by Sageson Magical Technologies and their mystery patent holder. It allows communication over vast distances. At the moment, there are only a few of them. The Sages each have one, as I do, my sister, Jason, and Papa. I believe that Niko, the Marran prince betrothed to my sister, might be receiving one soon. It will be some time before they become more widespread. Comm plates are paired to each other, so they can only communicate with one they are paired with, and they are not cheap. I believe each one costs around sixty thousand varru."
His eyes widen, and I remember as they do that Eden is a farmer's boy. He is still adjusting to being among those for whom money is rather easy to come by.
"Papa insisted on Lina and I being given them in case of an emergency," I inform Eden. "They are neither cheap nor easy to make, and it is doubtful Lina and I would have them had Papa not insisted. One day, however, they will be something even farmers can purchase. That is the plan, at least."
"Okay," he still looks uneasy.
That probably was not the right thing to say, was it?
Before I can try to relax him further, a gate opens up a few feet away. I gesture for him to enter, then one of my guards does, before me, then the other guard enters, and the gate disappears. We are in a training room rather than a lecture hall.
"Get to it," Jason tells me, then looks at my guards. "You two each need to do fifty. Since you were accepted into the group yesterday, you're both late as well."
"They were doing their job," I tell him.
"I know," he looks at Eden. "So you are Jacob's classmate. You will need to either manipulate one of the four base elements for two minutes without resting or sustain a three-foot barrier for two minutes while I strike it with a magical attack every five seconds. For the other requirements, your magical power needs to be at least middle orange – it is upper, so you pass that – and you will need to be able to perform one specialty spell."
"Why are we in a training room now?" And why does he still have a desk?
"Our group is growing a little large for the lecture hall to be comfortable," Jason answers. "So I arranged for a room transfer. Pushups, Jacob."
"Yes, sir!" I respond, then start the pushups, my guards doing the same, the three of us performing magical control training as we do.
I am not able to pay attention to Eden's application, but I do hear Jason pass him, which is a relief.
When we finish our pushups, my guards and I join the others for magical control training, and I notice Jason spending a little more time on my guards, Lina's guards, and Eden, which makes sense after some thought, as they are not used as performing as fine of control over exerting their magic as the rest of us.
At least Eden succeeded in joining. Hopefully this means he stays at university, rather than just for the lesson. It really would be a shame for him to give up on his hopes because of how the others treated him.
"You don't have a place to stay?" I ask after hearing Jacob ask Eden to give him a few minutes to talk with his papa, then he would help him look for a new place.
They actually mentioned it while I was teaching Niko's subjects, but stayed through the whole thing rather than leaving to do that. I'm not sure why, though, since Jacob offered to help him with something. That takes time.
"Yes," Jacob looks at me. "Eden had actually quit university this morning, had not shown up to lessons. That is why we were at the apartments rather than the other university. He already canceled his contract with the apartments, and they already found a new tenant from their wait listt. I told him that if he joined your group and returned to university, I would help him find a new place to stay."
"How about at my place?" I offer. "Mama Alyssa is staying there now because my papas and mamas don't trust me alone anymore-"
Jacob starts laughing at that comment.
"-but even with her there, we still have several empty bedrooms," I continue. "And Jacob, you know that it isn't something I can really help. Stuff just happens when I am around."
"The incident in Varilar?" He asks.
"I was there to find out if any of Alex's remaining gang were still around," I answer. "The fact that someone was breaking the law at the same time happened to be part of the issue that caused my visit, but was not the primary reason."
"The incident with the Holdirs?"
"They brought that to me."
"The incident with the dragons?"
"You asked me to do that."
"The first incident with Mar?"
"I asked him to take me there," Niko interjects. "And then he helped my people."
"Which caused the second incident," Jacob says. "And that one?"
"I also asked him for that," Niko says.
"The incident with Anotis?" Jacob asks. "Casper is especially grateful you cured his mama, by the way."
"I didn't do it alone," I say. "Mama Elena helped me. I really wouldn't have been able to do that alone."
"The point," Jacob says. "Is that you have been interacting with society for around two months now, and you have already been a part of several major political incidents."
"Speaking of incidents," I say. "I found out where the Tomb of the King of Rebirth is."
"It is in a place called the Matriv Forest Sanctuary."
"Which is guarded by a very powerful guardian," he gives me an amused look. "I have heard tales of what she has done to people who try to enter too deeply. It seems she hates humans."
"She is a god," I tell him in the ancient tongue, and he freezes up. "Don't worry, Jacob – she has realized the error of the old ways, and actually protects that sanctuary and the tomb. If she had issues with the Magi, we would not be around anymore. And she confirmed that Enaveka is the same Enaveka you punched. I can't say for sure, but he'll probably just punch you when you meet him again, but he is like her – has seen the error of the old ways. At least, according to her."
"I do not even want to go there," Jacob sighs in Varilan Common, still looking terrified.
"Jacob," Lina smiles as she looks at me. "Is leaving out the political thing he did."
"What political thing?" I ask.
"Something Papa explicitly forbid him from doing," she says. "And he did it. He sent a letter to the Dragon Clans asking if they had information about the King of Magic and were willing to educate him on him."
"They are still around?" I ask in surprise.
They were my old people, back when I was Nolan. I did not expect the Dragon Clans to be around anymore, since the need of protection from angels and demons no longer existed.
"Yes," Jacob nods. "It has not been long enough to receive a response, and they will likely ignore it. They prefer to be left alone, but I thought it might be useful for a history lesson."
"I see," I say, then turn my attention back to Eden. "So, would you like to stay at my place? I won't charge you rent."
Jacob snorts, and I see him about to open his mouth to make what is probably a comment he would normally make regarding Alex and me – possibly about me betraying Alex or hurting him or something.
"And if you have a lover or betrothed in the area," I say. "I would not mind you bringing them over from time to time."
Lina and Tasha suppress their snorts while covering their mouths, while Alex just snorts. They know I was cutting Jacob off before he could make a comment.
"I do not," Eden tells me. "Though I believe my papa and mama may be seeking to arrange a betrothal between myself and the daughter of a pig farmer. I would rather a proper lady, though, and she is rather rude."
"Define a 'proper lady'," Tasha requests.
"A proper lady," he blushes. "Much like you and her Highness here. Society ladies. I might be a farmboy, but I can dream, yeah? I know proper ladies are beyond my station, however, so all I can do is hope I find someone who is at least not rude like the one my papa is looking at."
I'm going to take a wild guess and say that Eden came to Varil City against his family's wishes, based on his tone every time he mentions his papa and mama.
"Not everyone needs to follow the plans of their papa and mama for marriage," Jacob tells him. "Even if most do to avoid angering them when in a situation they do not enjoy."
He picked up on that as well, and I can tell that Lina and Tasha did. Niko, even, despite his still-lacking social ability and his broken grasp of our language.
"If I leave my family," Eden shakes his head. "I won't have anyone or anything. They even rejected me coming to University. I had to sneak out just to avoid problems, and I had to save a lot of money over the years and keep it hidden just so I could afford the apartments."
He looks on the verge of breaking down, so I open a gate to my house.
"Let us head to my house," I say. "Somewhere a bit more private, to continue this discussion."
Eden nods, walking through the gate while giving it a nervous look. After Jacob, Lina, Tasha, Niko, the guards, and Alex have stepped through, I do, then close it.
"Cecilia," I say to the maid while ignoring Uncle Zach, who is sitting on the couch, speaking with Mama Alyssa. "Could you make tea for us? Something relaxing for Eden here."
"Three, two, one," I hear Jacob mutter to Eden, just in time for me to turn and throw myself at Uncle Zach, giving him a hug.
That sends my friends and cousins into fits of laughter.
"You haven't visited in awhile!" I tell Uncle Zach. "How have you been?"
"Busy!" He laughs as I release him and stand up properly. "Your Mama Alyssa informed me she would be staying here in Varil City for a time, so I made room in my schedule to pay her a visit, and timed it so that I could see my favorite nephew as well."
"Hello, Papa," Lina approaches and gives him a hug, then Jacob does the same.
"I'd stay and chat," I tell him. "But we were going to talk about some stuff, too. Eden, come here."
Eden approaches, looking at Uncle Zach with awe clear on his face. Awe, fear, respect, and nervousness.
"Eden, this is my Uncle Zach," I gesture to Uncle Zach, then to Mama Alyssa. "And this is my Mama Alyssa. Come on, let's go finish that conversation."
"H-hello, Your Majesty," Eden stutters, giving a bow.
"Hello, Eden," Uncle Zach says, then returns his attention to Mama Alyssa, and they resume their discussion on the palace's wards.
I lead everyone into the dining room, and we take seats.
"So," I tell Eden. "Your family is unsupportive of you becoming a knight?"
"Yes," he nods. "They want to control my life and use me for their own advancements. They already married off all of my siblings – I'm the youngest. Some of it was just for connections, others was to increase the farm or our labor."
"How many siblings do you have?" I ask.
"Seven," he answers. "I'm the youngest. I would rather not be married off for the family or politics or anything like that."
He frowns and gives my cousins a nervous look.
"Not that I don't think some people have the right to choose to marry for politics, or if they-"
"It is fine," Jacob interrupts Eden's sudden stuttering. "I have known Tasha since I was little, and we are in love. Our betrothal is not just political, like most noble families'."
"My betrothal is political," Lina says. "As I did not even meet Niko until he arrived here for university. Mar has several mines that could benefit the Varilan economy, and Mar needed military assistance with their war. However, Niko and I have been spending some time together since his arrival in Varil City, and I have grown to enjoy his company."
"Meanwhile," Jacob chuckles. "Niko fell in love the moment he saw her and became like a little puppy, wanting to follow her around and give her treats."
Niko's face flushes as he gives Jacob a friendly glare.
"I am doing better about the emotionally-starved state I was put into through my childhood," Niko tells Jacob in Marran. "You are well-aware that I did not know how to cope with my feelings."
"He gave her a giant box of chocolates and a vase flowers yesterday," Jacob tells me.
"Is that what you wanted those for?" I ask, and Niko averts his gaze.
Yup, that is what he asked me for help with a bouquet and if I could make some chocolates for. I had suspected that, but didn't want to make him feel embarrassed over it.
"Speaking of gifts," Tasha looks at Jacob. "I did not recognize the design of that comb you gave me this morning."
The talk of gifts is making not just the targets uncomfortable, but Eden as well.
"So are all of your family mean?" I ask Eden to change the topic.
"Yeah," he nods. "Had they found my savings, they would have stolen it for themselves. All of them would have. They only care about themselves and their influence. I hate it."
"Sometimes," I say. "I wonder what it would be like to have siblings. I grew up an only child, though I did have seven papas and mamas, so I suppose I lucked out on that. If you decide to stay here, I guarantee you will get to feel what it is like to having a loving family member. Though I suppose it would be a loving grandmama than a mama. And you could consider me and Alex your brothers."
Jason has a heart of gold. I did not think to invite Eden to stay at the Marran estate here in Varil City, yet Jason had probably already thought of offering a place to stay, and even said something that might reassure Eden and make him feel comfortable. I am not sure how comfortable he is with the idea of staying with a Sage, though. Even in Mar, we had heard of the Sages. They are famous across the continent.
"I'm sometimes envious," Jason says. "Of people with siblings. Niko had two of them."
"They did not love me," I tell Eden. "But at least they mostly ignored me rather than treat me badly. I was left to myself."
"Why?" He asks.
"I wanted to be a magician," I answer. "And magic is against the religion in Mar, though it seems the religion was worshiping false gods, according to Midlaris, who said they are ogre lords."
Eden looks confused by that.
"It is difficult to explain," I decide to tell him. "But it was okay. I was lonely, but I promise that if you stay here and become a part of this group, you will feel what it is like to have friends and people who care about you. It is a strange experience to me."
"Even I had a sort of family," Alex tells Eden. "And I was a street rat. Me and my crew, we was as close as could be, until they were killed. Only a few of 'em remain now. We's like brothers and sisters without a papa, though one of 'em is actually my brother."
"Really?" Jason asks. "Collin? Mikey?"
I suppose he left out Barry because the two of them had a street romance, so that would be weird.
"Jeddy," Alex answers. "The thirteen-year-old. I forgot to tell ya, Jason, but he liked the gift ya gave him for his coming-of-age ceremony."
It was a knife. He forged it one day while we were training at his other home.
"I'm glad," Jason smiles. "I hope it serves him well."
"He uses it to peel and cut fruit," Alex tells Jason, who laughs in response.
"So you and Jeddy are brothers by birth?" Jason asks. "Same mama and papa and everything?"
"Same mama," Alex shakes his head. "Our mama was a sex slave, though she died a few years ago. I've another brother through my papa, though."
"Older or younger?" Jason asks.
"Younger," Alex answers. "His birthday is in the spring."
"Your papa is a Richard from Varilar, yes?" Jason frowns. "If he's using a sex slave, then he's either part of a criminal organization or a noble who is doing some… improper things."
"The latter," Alex answers. "When I was born, he was an earl, though he became a baron a few years ago. He's in the same duchy, but now has his own property. He visited Varilar often until his promotion. So I am actually the illegitimate son of Baron Richard Amarxik. He was not a part of the mess you and Niko dealt with, though."
What mess is he talking about? None of the messes Jason and I have dealt with involved other people.
"In this situation," Jason tells me. "A mess is a situation usually involving negative or bad things. He's referring to the situation in Varilar."
"Oh," I say. He seems good at telling when I am confused by Varilan terminology. We would have just called that a 'situation' in Mar. Or scandal. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," Jason nods, then looks at Alex again. "Why don't you show Eden one of the spare rooms? Though I'm not sure where his things are, if he had to leave the dorms."
"I have them," Jacob responds. "I stored them in my spatial storage. I can help."
"Okay," Jason stands. "I have some stuff to do before I go to bed, Jacob, so if Uncle Zach leaves before I return, can you give him a goodnight for me?"
"I will," Jacob nods.
"What should I tell your Mama Alyssa, if she asks?" Alex asks.
"I'm taking Aurum out for some exercise," Jason answers. "I have been neglecting him since I began at university, and while I do exercise him at least a couple of times a week, I feel bad that he has to deal with my papas and mamas instead of me and that I have not been showing him as much attention as I used to."
Jason exits into the stables, and the others talk a little more, though I cannot follow all of it because they start talking in a quicker fashion, which makes it hard for me to understand. Once our teas are empty, Jacob and Alex show Eden to one of the rooms, Alex informing Sage Alyssa that Jason invited Eden to stay and explaining the situation.
"Speaking of Jason," she looks at us, frowning. "Where did he go?"
"He went to exercise Aurum," Jacob answers. "Said he feels guilty for not giving him as much attention as he used to."