Chapter 16 – The Dance
“What's all this commotion about?” Aien asked.
“I'll tell you later, focus on the matter at hand,” Lea answered without looking at him, her attention pinned to the table in front of her. On it lay a hollow tube, about an arm's size and made up entirely of iron. It seemed ordinary from the outside, but if you looked through it, you could see numerous carvings on its interior. Line after line that connected and spread from each other with no apparent muster for an uneducated eye to make out. Like a bunch of intertwining tree twigs, they ran down the inner surface, condensing at the bottom opening.
Aien ignored the hurrying people and flying utensils he could see outside and did as he was told. Wearing his glasses, he didn't let the construct out of his sight as Lea made the last tweaks. With a twisted needle, covered in a faint layer of wind, she resumed carving into the construct. Throughout the process, Aien memorized all of the pathways she created. It took an entire hour of uninterrupted concentration before Lea placed down the construct with an exasperated sigh.
“Try it out.” She said and handed Aien the result of hours of work. It felt as you'd expect tube-shaped iron to be – slightly heavy in his hands with a smooth surface. He pressed the button in the middle that you couldn't make out unless you knew where it was, and... nothing happened.
“Another bust...” Lea sighed, albeit slightly happy that it didn't explode this time. Not that it would endanger her much, but it did ruffle her appearance, something she'd paid more attention to lately.
Aien frowned as he held the tube in his hand. The idea behind the latest experiments was to create a construct that he could use by himself. One that was self-sufficient and wouldn't need any interaction from a magus. Under normal circumstances, no matter how independent the constructs in the city looked like, there was always some magus who had to initialize them. They could never be used by a regular person without a magus' aid. Therefore, they wanted to figure out a method for the construct to absorb the mana in its surroundings on its own, and guide it through the pathways to create the desired result. This tube was supposed to be a simple 'wind-blower' that didn't have a particular use. Despite that, they'd been unsuccessful so far.
It was an idea that the crown had also been very interested in. If the non-magus soldiers could use Magecraft constructs, it would increase their military might tremendously. However, after two years of research and barely any results, they went back to their roots, focusing on education, like they always did as they dropped promising prospects.
Lea was kind enough to spend some of her free time, supporting Aien developing such a construct. It was also beneficial that she covered their expenses. Without direct support from the academy, that Aien would never get, Magecraft turned out to be very expensive. This had been their third try at replicating previous experiments, and they had already spent enough money to buy a small house on the outskirts of the city. The iron itself wasn't expensive, but the tools used most definitely were. Even if they were protected by Lea's wind, they would have to be replaced eventually. Though they did resolve this issue slightly by focusing on minor gadgets that could barely be called a construct like this 'wind-blowing pipe' while they focused on refining the principle behind it.
The finished product could never compare to a First Step's construct that contained an essence crystal. It would lack a lot more things, but that didn't matter to Aien, who couldn't create an essence crystal, to begin with. While these crystals were necessary to build the constructs of each step, and making them unique to the owner as well as building the foundation of their Prime Construct, they could be disregarded for constructs of general and minor purposes.
“Don't be too sad. We'll figure something out eventually.” Lea gave her condolences. Realizing it didn't cheer Aien up, she switched her attention to the hurrying people outside. Her workshop was located in the same tower her office above was, somewhere around its mid-height, making the people look like slightly bigger ants.
“The Royal Family is paying us a visit soon, as well as... others,” She explained to him with a severe lack of enthusiasm.
“We will hold a banquet and a dance in the entrance hall. It's stuff like this that grows the chasm between magi and commoners...”
She said with a down-trodden expression as she looked at the decorations flying about. Chandeliers, decorated with jewelry that could feed a man for life, flew around in abundance, and the expensive carpets made out of silk from distant lands, depicted the family crest of noble houses.
“They are invited as well?” Aien asked as he pointed at the crests.
“Mere formalities, but yes... Not all choose to come, but some do send figureheads to uphold a good impression on the public.”
Aien hummed in response, pondering about something she couldn't decipher. As amiable as the man was, she felt that he closed himself off around anyone close to him. But that didn't lessen the pounding in her chest as he confronted her with a sudden question.
“So, a dance, huh? I take it the academy's Fairy Princess, already has a date?” Aien asked with a slight chuckle as he looked at her face that had turned a bright red.
“Who is-!? I-...I swear those brats spew out only nonsense when I'm not around!”
“In fact!” She tried to regain her calmness as she turned to Aien but avoiding his gaze by looking at his eyebrows instead. “I want you to come with me!”
“Me?” He asked, the surprise written on his face, but a trace of happiness glimmered in his eyes as well. “I don't think a teacher taking a student as a partner to the dance would be quite appropriate...”
'You keep taking me out for dinner, why worry about that now...' She muttered, not loud enough for Aien to hear her. She waved her arms around wildly, trying to hide the trembling nervousness, but it didn't help with her slightly quivering eyes. “Do you want to come, or not?”
“Of course!” Aien answered, his eyes glistening with sheer happiness that resembled a small puppy that had just gotten a treat. As a result, Lea returned a beaming smile of her own.
“Great! Then it's decided! I'll take you to the tailor later, don't worry about the money!”
This was deadly.
He had always been quite alluring with his attitude, but Lea certainly realized the meaning of 'clothes make the man' when she saw him standing in front of her office. The suit he wore made her regret having sent him to the finest tailor in the city.
“Ready to go?” Aien asked with a smile that made her heart skip far too many beats.
She didn't give him an answer that he apparently took as a cue that he had done something. Seemingly realizing his mistake, he flashed her another smile while not hiding the fact that he checked her out.
“You look beautiful, Lea.”
She wore a green dress accentuating her natural appearance. Somewhat unusual, though, was how frilly the dress appeared to be. She usually wore more reserved and gender-neutral clothing if she didn't have to wear the uniform of the academy.
“I.. ehh... Thanks... I was forced to wear this. I don't like it too much, it stands out.”
Aien only responded with a smile and held out his arm to lead her. With a hesitating gesture, she took him up on the offer, and the two went a long way downstairs to the hall where the dance was held. After arriving at the entrance, Aien took a good look at the festivities. An entire red carpet that hadn't been there before covered the whole hall that was the size of several houses standing next to each other. Instead of tables, giant plates flew around, carrying various kinds of foods and drinks. He recognized the ridiculous amount of appetizers that could feed the city for months. With a few more glances, Aien quickly noticed that the people in the hall were divided into various groups. Especially the group that stood beneath the most eye-catching banner was attracting a lot of curious stares.
“That's the Royal Entourage,” Lea said as she followed Aien's gaze. She gave him an overdue introduction to the man who ruled the country.
Kaemir Lorak, the emperor of Ethena. The crest of the Royal Family represented his Prime Construct that became famous during his ascension to the throne. A giant sword put within seven sheathes, surrounded by a tempest of wind and lightning. On the day of his coronation, his rule was disputed by two other magi who had claimed to be the rightful heir to the throne. It was common knowledge that any who had the might could challenge the emperor to the right of the throne as long as he was human. But once he released his Prime Construct and summoned the strength of a tempest, he shattered his competition to become the undisputed Ruler of Ethena.
Said emperor had yet to arrive, but his entourage was enough to be the topic of discussion in this hall. Each one was more outstanding than the other as they had made a name for themselves before becoming the emperor's followers.
Aien considered them to be out of his reach and quickly lost interest. Instead, he invited Lea to a dance, who shyly accepted. He didn't actually know how to dance, but with Lea splendidly taking the lead, he could pay some attention to his surroundings. He continuously held out an open ear and eye, trying to grasp the various conversations and people in the hall to gain some pointers on how to proceed.
Eventually, they stopped dancing and took their time enjoying the various foods and drinks they had to offer. At least Aien did since Lea refrained from indulging in such splurging of money.
“...Huh?” Lea suddenly let out a confused sound as she tightly held onto her Spacial Pouch. Regardless of the situation, she and most magi would always carry them around, despite their supposed security features.
“What is it?” Aien asked.
“It isn't there...” She frowned and thought about when she had misplaced her notes.
“I'm supposed to give a speech later. I wrote it down on a piece of paper... Well, on the back of my research papers, to be honest, so I wouldn't forget them.”
Aien didn't know how to respond to that, so he ignored that particular point.
“I'll go get the-” But she was interrupted by the sudden voice of a man that approached them.
“Leathe, it's nice to see you again!" His suit most definitely didn't lose out to Aien's, and his beard was carefully tended into a goatee. With his brown hair and features, he resembled a certain young man...
“Greetings, Marvis von Erestiv!” Lea put the previous matter quickly out of her mind as she gave the man a polite smile and curtsy.
“I apologize that I haven't come to see you earlier.”
“Don't worry about that. I see you have company. How about you introduce us?”
“This is Aien, one of our students. Aien, this is Marvis von Erestiv, the current head of the Noble House of Erestiv.”
Aien gave the man a firm handshake before studying him. He couldn't find a flaw in the man's appearance and conduct, just like anyone else who was participating in this dance. Neither of them hid the fact of seizing the other up until Lea resumed speaking.
“I'm sorry, Aien, but could you quickly go and grab my notes? They should be on the desk in my office. I'll have to accompany Mr. Erestiv for some time, it won't take long.”
“Sure, take your time."
“Thanks, see you later.”
Aien watched the two of them until he could no longer see them before averting his gaze. The unexpected appearance of Mr. Erestiv had helped him out as he strolled around the dance, with no intentions to pick up Lea's notes. They both had an excellent memory, but unlike Lea, he was far more confident in his own. He had seen her office before leaving and was sure that they weren't there. Even if they were, he would just make up an excuse. But he did trust her in that regard, more so than she would herself. There was no way she'd misplace anything remotely important. While it was an interesting occurrence, he had a more pressing matter to attend to since he was alone.
Annoying. That was all that he could think of. He had done one thing wrong, and the house undermined his position for years. Attending minor superficial events like this dance was something to be taken care of by those foreign magi, they accepted from this damned academy. Not for a direct family member like him.
“And then he got eaten! Can you imagine that, Jeren?"
Jeren gave a polite and calculated laugh that was barely enough to convince his counterpart that it had been an interesting story.
“I'm sorry, but I'll have to excuse myself to the restroom.” With that, Jeren hurriedly fled from the conversation. After staring himself in the mirror and remembering his blunder for the hundredth time, he cursed the Gods for his misfortune. He took a few calming breaths before looking around to see if anyone had seen his minor outburst. That would have been the last he needed.
“Jeren von Celesta, right?”
After he had walked out of the restroom, a young man approached him. Barely in his twenties, with a mature stature that you would rarely see from people his ages. But Jeren had seen many nobles grow up, and it was no surprise to him to see youths of this caliber. Instead, he focused more on the suit he wore. While it was visibly expensive, the crest of Ryeka was stitched onto its jacket, indicating his status as a student.
'Great, another one of those.'
“That's right, young man.” He gave the youth one of his polite smiles that was polished over decades of experiences.
“But I'm afraid I don't have much time. If you are interested in joining the Noble House of Celesta, I'd advise you to find me some other day. I'll be sure to take the time for you.”
“Oh, I'm not here for such a petty matter.” The youth said as he closed in on Jeren, who got somewhat uncomfortable. That gaze the youth gave him made him almost shiver. He felt like that with a single gaze alone, the youth knew everything about him. That even his deepest secrets would lay bare before him, no matter how irrational that seemed.
“I'm sorry, I really don't ha-”
“You don't like being here.” The youth interrupted him. They were in a desolate spot, where people only occasionally passed by. But seeing a youth trying to court favor with a Noble House wasn't anything uncommon, so no one paid them much attention.
“You were sent here as punishment, I suppose. A mighty magus and direct descendant from the House of Celesta sent for such a tiresome chore. It's written all over your face.”
“So, what!?” Jeren exclaimed, slightly losing his composure. Even if it weren't for this bothersome youth, this topic would always hit a nerve of his.
“I'd prefer it if you kept your voice down.” The youth said with a slight frown. Shooting the man a menacing gaze, he opened his suit to reveal what lay beneath.
Jeren gasped in shock, for a moment, unable to comprehend what was happening. Around the youth's waist, a thin vine twirled around his body hundreds of times. It looked like a regular green vine that could be found outside, but anyone that dared to call himself a magus would recognize the danger it presented. It struggled vehemently as it sensed delicious food all around it, but something kept it back, tightly bound to the youth's body.
“What do you want from me? Who are you?” Jeren asked with some apprehension. He held onto something within his rope, but he had no intention of putting up a fight. There was no doubt in his rational mind that the youth couldn't unleash the vine in this place filled with magi and sentries. However, it did make him wonder what the mysterious youth who could tame a Bloodlust Snake-Vine wanted from him.
“I'm Aien.” The youth said, closing his suit while replacing his menace with a kind and gentle smile.
“And I'm here to offer a deal that could benefit us both.”