The cafeteria was indeed still open. It only took a minute to get there, and by this time, there weren’t many people in the cafeteria anymore, having passed the hour where most of the people ate their lunch.
Looking upon the place she hasn’t been to often, but dreaded coming ever again, Carmen’s stomach churned.
Reinhart and Barsig led the way, stepping up to a window. The person manning the window looked at Barsig in surprise. “Vice captain, you’re late today!”
“Haha, yeah I know. Something came up,” he said. He swept his hand toward Carmen behind him. “Meet the lady that I talked about that night, the one that saved us. Miss Camilla.”
The cook’s eyes widened. “Ohhh, I’m honored. Will you be joining us today?”
Carmen returned a strained smile. Although she really didn’t want to, she nodded. “Just a little is fine.”
“Great! Today’s menu is the usual. I’ll be bringing three servings then,” the cook said, about to leave when Carmen held up her hand.
“Wait. I’ve already eaten, so just the bread is fine.”
“O—oh, okay. Understood.” With that, the cook disappeared to fetch the food, coming back balancing two trays. In a much smaller plate, there were two steaming-hot buns and a glass of water.
With their foods, the three of them retreated into an empty corner of the already empty cafeteria. Carmen winced as she looked at what Reinhart and Barsig carried.
The fare here was nothing fancy, and didn’t seem to have changed much since she last visited as a templar commander—quite fitting, perhaps excessively so, for a pseudo-military installment.
It consisted of old, stale buns that seemed to be made from whole grain, complete with all the texture and dryness that entailed—and it was hard as rock too. On the side was a patty made from some kind of strange-tasting mystery meat, seared on both sides. Finally, to top everything off and to wash everything down, the meal included watery gravy with bits and pieces of things floating in the liquid.
In a way, it was impressive how some things never changed despite the change in personnel. Was bad food a tradition here? The food at the other outposts seemed to be fine the last time she checked, so why not here?
Noticing her expression, Reinhart smiled awkwardly. “Sorry for the food.”
“No…it’s fine. Is this what you eat every day?”
“It’s not bad once you get used to it. An acquired taste, if you will.”
There was something wrong with people who got used to this and liked it. Carmen kept the comment to herself though.
They dug in. Carmen tore off a piece of the bread with her fingers, marveling at how much strength it took for her to do so. She mechanically chewed the piece before washing it all down with water. She had turned off her sense of taste, so all she felt while she ate was the rough, grainy texture of the bread rubbing against the inside of her mouth.
Even Reinhart had the presence of mind to not ask her how the food was.
In the time it took Carmen to eat her two breads, taking small manageable bites, the two men in front of her were wolving down their food. While they didn’t embarrass themselves, the food disappeared with startling swiftness.
Despite having more food than she did, they finished faster. Under their glances, Carmen sped up her eating until the last of the food disappeared into her stomach.
She’s going to have to throw everything up later anyway.
Even if she was a vampire, she was still a zombie, and undeads simply couldn’t eat. She didn’t know the exact mechanics behind how it worked, but food that entered her stomach is never digested. It simply sits in her stomach like a lump of rock and slowly disappears, or she throws it up.
When she finished the meat and drained her glass of water, which she could absorb to some extent, Reinhart slid his tray to the side, clearing the space between them.
“Miss Camilla. We’re grateful for what you’ve done. Is there anything that you would like, for example, rewards for your aid? If it is in our power, we’ll do our best. What you’ve done for us cannot be overstated.”
Beside him, Barsig nodded, his head bobbing.
On the other hand, Carmen shook her head to reject Reinhart’s order. While Barsig was in the wrong place at the wrong time, she was also the one that drew the skull lich that made the battle so difficult. If she hadn’t been there, Barsig’s team might have been fine.
Not that she was going to say anything, but the slight guilt she felt prevented her from asking for anything in remuneration.
Reinhart leaned forward. “Are you sure? Won’t you reconsider. Even if you don’t personally receive it, is there anyone who can benefit in your stead? We could contact them directly.”
“Someone who can benefit in my stead?” As long as she wasn’t the one benefitting, then she felt a bit better receiving rewards, so Carmen seriously considered the question.
Before, she would have said the Cloud Order, but that was exactly who she was dealing with right now. Perhaps her old friend Arvel in Moltrost?
Seeing that she didn’t answer, Reinhart pressed further. “We insist. Even if it doesn’t seem like it from our food, we are still part of a Templar Order.”
Hearing Reinhart being so persistent, Carmen suddenly realized what he was doing. So that’s it—Reinhart was fishing for information regarding her allegiances. The problem was, she wasn’t affiliated with anyone right now, so Reinhart was bound to be disappointed if he thought he was going to get any information with that offer.
She tapped her lip. “I don’t personally need anything, but if you insist… Do you know of Father Arvel from the Church in Moltrost? You may send everything his way.”
“Father Arvel? I do know of him, but…what is your relation to him?” Reinhart asked.
“Secret.” Carmen gave him a sly smile. It was quite fun playing the word game with Reinhart.
Seeing that he wasn’t going to get anything out of her that way, Reinhart shook his head and moved on. “It will be done. I’ll be sure to contact him.”
His eagle-eyes returned, looking as if his gaze could pierce through any falsehood. However, Carmen knew that’s just what his eyes looked like. “That concludes our discussion about your remuneration. Now, it has come to my attention that you’re a templar, right?”
“May I ask what you’re doing in the Cloud Order’s jurisdiction? I’m grateful for your timely assistance, but it’s an unspoken rule that Orders do not interfere with another Order’s matters unless requested or ordered by the Church.”
Barsig sat up straight as well, sensing the change in the atmosphere. He also wanted to know what Carmen had been doing in Amaranthine Point, so he looked expectantly at her.
“What if I told you that I was just in the mood for a fight and dropped by for one?” Carmen said. “If you want anything else more than that, then unfortunately I’ll have to repeat my words from before. Secret.”
Evidently, Reinhart didn’t believe her. She wouldn’t have believed such a flimsy lie either, but she had made the lie flimsy on purpose to make her intentions known.
Unwilling to give up, Reinhart struck to the heart of the matter, standing up, towering over her. “Miss Camilla! I need to know what Order you are from. You do not have to expose your secrets, but if we ask your superiors, they can decide what we are or are not allowed to know!”
Carmen merely remained seated, running her finger round and round the rim of the glass, making it hum.
“It is our right to know! While we are grateful, Amaranthine Point is in our jurisdiction. There cannot be potentially dangerous activities that are being done right under our noses without our knowledge!”
Even when Reinhart’s voice took a hard edge to it, Carmen wasn’t fazed. “Rest assured, there are no dangerous activities being done. If anything, since I have eliminated three knight-class, four counting the one I killed for you, didn’t I make things less dangerous?”
Reinhart hissed, blowing air out from between his teeth.
Carmen was well aware of how irritating she was being. However, the truth could not be revealed, and any lies she told might have unfortunate implications between the Cloud Order and whatever Order she used as a shield.
Thus, she could only repeat the same word over and over again. “Like I said, what I’m doing is a secret. What I can reveal is that it’s not on orders of anyone—it’s purely for my own gain. I came here to get stronger, and I’ve achieved my goal already.”
“Urgh. Fine.” Reinhart picked up his tray. Although she didn’t tell him everything he wanted to know, what she revealed at last at least allayed his worries for the most part.
With her irritatingly sweet smile still plastered on her face, Carmen watched him return his tray and come back with most of his glowering gone. Still, he looked annoyed. As he was about to sit back down, a bell that marked exactly midday when the sun was at its zenith rang.
Reinhart froze, and bowed to her. “Excuse me, I’m on a schedule. Barsig, if you would please show the lady around…”
Without waiting for either of their replies, he turned and walked away, disappearing out the doors of the cafeteria. Carmen leaned onto her palm with her elbow against the table, staring at the empty doorway.
“Ah…Miss Camilla, sorry for my captain’s rudeness,” Barsig finally said. It was his first time talking since they sat down. Carmen kind of pitied him for the mess of an atmosphere that his captain left him.
Still, with Reinhart gone, she could launch into what she was really here for. Compared to Reinhart, Barsig had almost as much say in the outpost and was much more amicable toward her.
“He’s as punctual as ever, isn’t he? What is that bell a signal for? A nap?”
Barsig nodded. “Everything is strict for him. Wait, how do you know that? His name is one thing, but his habits…?”
“Hmph. He hasn’t changed much. Back at the Order stronghold, he was quite punctual and inflexible when it came to time as well.”
Carmen got up and knelt on the bench, leaning across the table to draw close to Barsig’s ears while he still doubted his hearing. The less people who knew what she was about to say, the less trouble for her.
“That’s right,” she whispered. “I used to be part of the Cloud Order.”
Barsig drew back away from her, his mouth gaping. “No way. I don’t remember ever seeing someone like you.” He looked at her again. Even sitting, he was tall enough that he had to look down toward her. “I’d definitely remember a prodigy like you.”
That was his way of calling her small, then. Carmen’s mouth twitched. “You flatter me. Well, it's up to you whether you believe me or not, but I am older than I look, so I’m not as impressive as you think. As for why I left, or how I left, or who I am…all things I can't tell you.”
“Alright, let’s not go any further with that,” Carmen said. “Let’s talk about something else. Why did you attack that skull lich? Those three were after me and probably would have ignored you. If you hadn’t, no one would have died. You’re still too impulsive, Barsig.”
Barsig looked down at the table.
“Do you even know the reason why you did it? If you do, is it one you made up after the fact to justify it?” she asked. “You didn’t take into account what your limits were, did you?”
“Yes… I—I wasn’t thinking at the time. I just saw the three knight-class undeads and decided that I wanted to fight them…perhaps it was to prove my mettle,” Barsig said, covering his eyes with his hand. “I’m responsible for all those deaths.”
Carmen knew how he felt. She had made the same mistake, only on a much larger scale than Barsig ever will. Instead of just a few dozen deaths, she had led an army to their doom. A religious fervor had overtaken the army during those last few days, and she had gotten caught up in it as well, and she made a series of reckless decisions that she normally wouldn’t have.
She walked over and sat down on the bench next to Barsig. “Your impulsiveness is a fatal weakness for you. Now that you’re no longer just a soldier, you must work hard to reason your actions before you do anything.”
“I understand…” Barsig said, but Carmen continued.
“While instinct is important in battle, as a commander, you must stand above it. A battle is not won in a single moment. Location, relative strength, the time, morale—all things you have to take into an account. Victory is the summation of all the reasoning you made before…” Carmen stopped as she realized that she had begun lecturing. “Ahem, sorry, I’m sure you knew all that already.”
“No, I mean yes, I already learned all that, but I always forget.”
Carmen patted him on the shoulder. “I think you’ve made wonderful progress compared to how you were two years ago.”
“Ah, no, not really.” Barsig looked away at the compliment. “Miss Camilla. Two years ago…are you one of the templars that went with Commander Carmen on that campaign?”
“Why do you ask?”
“You seem familiar somehow, but I can’t seem to remember you,” he admitted. “In any case, I believe you that you were part of the Cloud Order. I don’t know why you decided to leave instead of coming back, but you must have your reasons. But as far as I’m concerned, as long as you haven’t betrayed us, once a Cloud Knight, always a Cloud Knight.”
Barsig thumped his muscular chest.
“I’m not saying this for no reason, you know. I’m about to be relieved of my command here in a few days, so I should at least pay back what I owe you before then. What do you need?” he asked.
“Need? What do you mean? I’m only here because you invited me,” Carmen said.
Barsig snorted. “True, but when you didn’t show up the second day, you normally wouldn’t come back to redeem that invitation after half a week. From one Cloud Knight to a former Cloud Knight, we can dispense with the courtesies.”
Carmen was speechless for a moment. To be honest, she didn’t think Barsig had it in him to read between the lines, but Barsig’s growth once again caught her off guard. “You’re right. But honestly it’s not really that important. I need to talk to someone.”
“Fleur, an acolyte that was transferred here recently.”