Laius fiddled with the fountain pen on his hand. Not far from him sits the pink-haired beauty with her face in a book.
The austere colour of Royal Academy's military uniform appeared delicate when worn by her, she looks beautiful in it. From time to time she would raise her head and smiles back to other students who pass by this side of the garden.
A beauty protected by the shade of a tree under the mild midday sun, with such a scene anyone can easily be mesmerized but not Laius Ravencroft. His brows were pulled tightly as he looks at her longer. He placed the fountain pen on the stone table and sighed harshly.
"Lady Regina." Laius stood and walked to her side. "Your next class is coming soon, be sure to attend."
The lady looked up to him with surprise on her face, then a faint smile. "Sir Laius. Did you personally come to remind me?"
The soft tone held a huge contrast to the aloof icy image she was known for. Hearing the maiden speak in such a gentle way, people nearby couldn't help but admire. The said lady is not at all intimidating despite her being the number one candidate.
"I'm sorry, I did not notice the time." Lady Regina's cheeks blushed a little and she covered them with the book. "I should be going. Thank you."
Laius glance at the other ladies sitting beside her and tipped his head slightly. A series of gasps were heard next. He knew they were just here because they were urged by their parents to make connections with Lady Regina. He felt very dissatisfied but he kept it inside his heart and put on a genial face.
"Uhm, what about sir Ravencroft. Are you not going back to your class yet?" One lady standing near Regina asked.
"My lessons start after an hour more. For the meantime, I'll walk around the academy to familiarize myself."
The lady did not expect for the handsome youth to answer her. Having been caught off-guard, her cheeks turned pink. "I-It's a pity Sir Ravencroft is not in the same class as ours."
"Ladies, if you don't hurry. The teachers will reprimand you." He reminded, subtly shifting the topic.
Finally remembering why he came to their table, the ladies began to collect their things and headed towards the classrooms. Lady Regina gave him one last look before bidding goodbye politely. Looking at the ladies departing back, the smile he had a while ago disappeared, a flash of mockery appeared instead.
All throughout the charade, Laius managed not to click his tongue in annoyance. He expelled a harsh breath as though he was expelling something distasteful form within. He looked up at the sky and closed his eyes, counted ten to one to calm himself down.
"This is the second candidate I chose for this life. Don't tell me I chose wrong again?" He clenched his teeth they nearly broke into pieces. "Bernice was a total waste in my last life, look where that took me!?"
No matter how furious he muttered no one answered his words. With long heavy strides, he walked around the academy to cool himself down. He did not know why but after the enrollment he suddenly had a bad premonition that things are not going according to plan. During his last two incarnations, history remained consistent.
The kingdom needed the Hallowed One if they fail to find her Aurum is going to fall. Thus, being the only one who knows what danger awaits them in the future he strives hard to find that fateful maiden or else his own future of going back to Zircon Empire to reclaim the crown will never come true.
"Something's not right from the very beginning…"
After escaping death from the dungeons of Zircon Empire, Laius had an epiphany. A flashback of his previous lives. Enlightenment. Whichever. All he knew was that he had to escape death. He suffered two deaths before because he was reluctant to follow what was foretold.
He needs to change.
Seek protection in the kingdom that is supposed to be his maternal home. The Aurum Kingdom. During his past two reincarnations, he was a person of Aurum and the place where the story should begin. He was destined for greater things but he needed to follow a path in order to achieve it. From his past lives, he already knew that he will gain power by nurturing one of the queen candidates.
Bernice Vallis fit the bill. She was the one he nurtured in his second reincarnation. Guided her to acquire powerful allies such as Commander Quillon Aigner, Prince Arthur, and the Wisteria brothers. The moment she becomes queen, Laius will then gain honour. He will be appointed the commander of the Halcyon Knights and his name will be known far and wide. But that is just the surface of his good fortune.
His mother will then reveal to him that he is an illegitimate son of the emperor in Zircon Empire. Having found this truth, Laius will not make any move to compete for the crown. The current crown prince, Royce vi Zirconium will be taken off the heir list because of a dreadful curse. His father will send an envoy for him to come to the empire himself and thus, he will replace the former crown prince.
If only Bernice did not grow too greedy. She became Queen, ordered Laius to claim his birthright to create ties with the empire. He shouldn't have told her about the secret of his name and so he was ordered to advance a year earlier than what he experienced from his first incarnation, only to suffer a horrible death in the hands of Royce himself who is yet to be consumed by the curse.
This will be his third and last incarnation. This time he vowed to do it right.
He chose Regina Stolz. When he escaped the dungeon at nine and regained his memory he did not hesitate to flee to Aurum. With his stored knowledge from previous two reincarnations, he wormed his way into his mother's distant relatives. The Ravencrofts.
But there's a huge problem. The son of the second wife loathes him. Edel Ravencroft is opposed to adopting him to the family. So Laius planned to eliminate the pest.
Viscount Langdale, a crony of an unknown noble had a grudge against a certain girl. He only had a vague impression of the girl in his previous incarnations so he thought her insignificant. Only a fodder. He watched on the sidelines as his companion in the Magic Bureau fueled the viscount's obsession. The person even lent him the carefully cultivated hybrid crows.
Meanwhile, he manoeuvred for it so that Edel Ravencroft will be dragged along as well. Evidence of his lechery, corruption piled up one after another, he did not need to lift a finger, he could just sit and sip tea as he watches him implicate himself.
It was such a delight seeing him getting kicked out of the Mythril Order of Knights. He drank himself to oblivion to forget the humiliation he suffered. With a little help from him, he urged Edel to cook up his revenge by giving him the magic tool he needed.
The little girl, Sterne Nachtwald has a tragic fate. They have nothing to do with each other that is why he kept his hands off her. Her character from the last life was fleeting that no matter what she does it will not affect his set plans. But now, she turned out to be a bigger piece than Laius originally thought.
He should have been more vigilant. The past Nachwald family doesn't have their current glorious standing. Families who had grudges against them banned together to attack their territory and during the upheaval, one of the siblings died. Who would have thought that the mighty Obsidian would fall? The Duke of Nachtwald had long been crippled from his last subjugation mission, upon hearing the fall of his house and the death of his child he succumbed to depression and eventually died. The remaining children tried to exact revenge but failed, they were sent to Tartarus Water Prison.
Laius' identity did not change, but some people did. If only he had realized the difference sooner. Feeling a wave of agitation sweep over him again, Laius struggle to steady himself. He stopped near a pillar to take deep breaths.
How long has these changes have been occurring? He thoroughly neglected a lot of things since he focused all his energy towards the start of this school year. He should have known. Laius was completely distracted since Sterne Nachtwald's abduction caused the result he wanted:
Edel lost his life, the Ravencrofts lost face in the society because of him and so, to gain back their name Laius stepped in. He used whatever knowledge at his disposal gaining more favour inside the Magic Bureau. He did not only garner prestige but trust of this new family as well.
Regina is on her way to queenhood.
Yet this happened.
The allies he wanted to gather for her side has scattered like bees, attracted to a more fragrant flower. The curse that was supposed to plague Prince Royce manifested on Prince Arthur, the incense he gave her was only to charm him yet why did it become the Witch's Bane? And Quillon Aigner did not join Regina's retinue despite all their efforts. Was it because he made a wrong start in Zircon? Or is it because Sterne Nachtwald is alive, her father did not go insane, and her brothers are hailed as heroes?
Where did his plan go wrong?
If only that bitch of a woman who birthed him did not lose her mind and waited for the right time to seize the imperial crown he didn't have to suffer. But this is only the start, maybe he could still salvage the situation. He was given three chances to correct his path, he is favoured by the gods.
Regina only has to follow his advice.
He walked around the gardens until his feet lead him to a place near the library and found her there.
He tried to recall whatever information he had of Sterne Nachtwald but his mind just won't cooperate. In this life, he vowed to watch her more carefully before she becomes a liability. It is only the start of the school year, the Mythril is still under the command of the Wisteria family but it won't take long until the Stolz takes over it.
The Marquis of Wisteria is going to die anyway. Despite the changes in three brother's future, the authority will not be given to them. Duke Stolz had long put his people within their ranks. Someone as ambitious and cruel as him does things slowly and carefully, so is his daughter but he knew just how to manipulate them. Unlike Bernice, he will not let Regina order him around. He made sure she will follow his advice once she gets the crown. As for the disease?
Did he really have to care whether she is the fateful maiden or not? What he needed was a stepping stone to reach the crown of Zircon Empire. This world is the same as the last two worlds, sure there are changes but the original pattern will not be changed.
All his thoughts, however, are not known to Sterne who is currently enjoying the convenience of the academy's library. The dark thoughts swirling inside Laius' head were not even considered a threat to her. Her father is alive, strong as always, is in good health and currently dating her tutor. The fief is flourishing and secure, she can roll around the academy doing what she wants with her mind at ease.
Her main goal now is to completely change Maelys' fate. Odette had long expressed that she doesn't want to be queen nor she has any qualification to be one. In her heart, Maelys is the most suitable candidate although the other girl is still reluctant to accept it. Aside from their close friends, no one else knew that she plans to concede and give her support to Maelys until the right time comes.
The first week of school is sunny and the girls maintained their high spirits since the matriculation ceremony. Speaking of that day, it went very smoothly it's almost artificial.
While everyone else was gathered in the Great Hall, choosing their own seats Sterne, on the other hand, was fashionably late the gates nearly slammed close to her face if not for her incredible speed.
Royce, the very image of punctuality and discipline woke up early to stand outside the hall. Half an hour later he already looked very grim. He paced around a few times while glancing at every passerby.
"Waiting for someone?" Milcah Flumen asked.
Royce briefly glanced at her then nodded, "Sterne is still not here."
He remembered she is the senior who's going to give the welcome speech in the podium later, and she seems to be an acquaintance of Dio as well. He doesn't know what her relationship with Sterne is but he tried not to be rude.
"Oh my, that girl…" She chortled amused. "Probably slept too well she forgot about the ceremony today."
He knew very well why she was late. She went back to Steinburg last night to return the little pig she abducted.
Yes, that girl stole a pig!
When Milcah Flumen left, Maelys came next. "Still not here?"
"I told her to just keep that animal if she really likes it but she insisted to bring it back." He said bitterly. In fact, he really felt like roasting the little thing.
"Hecate's condition is quite bad that is why she decided to nurse it back to health for a few days." She was full of sympathy for Royce. She knew the two of them rode for Steinburg last night. Though Blitz can cross several towns in a blink of an eye, it doesn't mean they will not be affected by fatigue. She also had no idea why Sterne paid so much attention to the piglet. It wasn't as if there is something special about it… or is there? "By the way, our seats are in the back row again."
She laughed remembering the send-off ceremony during the march.
"How convenient." Royce snorted. Within Royal Academy, the Warrior and Support Division doesn't enjoy much prestige as the Mage Division that is why despite them gaining high scores in the enrollment, they were still thrown at the back. Evidently, the one giving the speech from the side of the juniors is someone from the Mage Division.
"Anyway, the ceremony is about to begin in ten more minutes. The gates must be closed now."
"I'll wait here, if she comes and doesn't know which seat to go it will be more problematic."
Maelys smiled and returned inside.
While he was standing in the entrance, a figure appeared from the steps, Royce straightened him himself and saw that the person wore her academy uniform neatly. Her hair tied by a pretty ribbon in a half updo braided on both sides. The bangs slightly hid her smooth forehead, almost touching her long eyelashes. Even from this distance, one can feel her strong gaze but can also see the softness of beauty. He felt his palms sweat as she approached closer and when she gave him a full smile his heartbeat began to accelerate.
The two of them said it at the same time. Sterne was sad, she was ready to launch a barrage of complaint about the gate nearly clipping her nose when she saw Royce's cold eyes. His lips pressed into a very unhappy frown spoiling that handsome face. "Is everyone inside already?"
She bit her cheek and nudge him with her shoulder. His frown turned fierce, like a maiden being taken advantage of by a rogue.
Sterne eyed his 'injured' part with a raised brow. "Are you mad? Look, technically I'm not late yet. The speech is just about to--"
The bell rang cutting her sharply.
"Aiy… let's go." Without further ado, she grabbed his hand and pulled him inside half running.
Royce sighed helplessly. But he was relieved inside. Upon arriving earlier he had heard bits and pieces of the gossip about the enrollment. The four of them did a remarkable job in Steinburg, that is to say, that along with it comes many admirers from every grade as well. Odette and Maelys had been subjected to various interviews since this morning, thankfully Sterne was late. He, on the other hand, made it obvious that he did not want to be asked so they reluctantly give in.
As the two of them entered the Great Hall they attracted quite an attention but since the welcoming seniors are already up on the stage they restrained themselves. The Support and Warrior Division were situated behind the Mage Division's row who took up most of the front seats. Odette and Maelys were on the right side while Royce and Sterne on the left divided by an aisle. Though far, they can still see and signal each other.
"I thought those two are going to choose the Mage Division." Sterne said with a hint of excitement in her voice.
"When it comes to proficiency in magic, Viktor and his team are much better than some teachers here." Royce said bluntly. "It's a good thing they chose that division, less complication."
"When it comes to proficiency in combat, you're already better than most teachers here. So why come to Warrior Division?"
"What about you?"
"I still have a long way to go. Another reason is that Sir Ahmose's old friend Commander Vlugel of Halcyon Knights will be the mentor of our Warrior Division. What about your reason?"
The burning eyes looking up to him made him guilty. It felt as though they were setting his face ablaze he could feel the heat creeping at his cheeks. Then, they suddenly crinkled into a mischievous smile.
"Don't tell me you came for Commander Vlugel as well. Makes sense."
"When did you learn to be so cheeky?" He murmured. The number of times she teases him is increasing which makes him a little panicked.
"You're imagining things." She answered blithely.
He took a deep breath and avoided her gaze. In truth, she is just being her usual self, if not for their friendship there is no way she would openly banter with him. In his presence, she doesn't have to pretend to comply with the rules of society.
As the two are engrossed talking, a few students who are too idle noticed them.
"What do you think is the relationship between those two?"
"Lady Nachtwald and Lord Royce, those two are often seen together. It seems the friendship between them is quite deep."
"Friends? Have you seen friends being intimate as them?"
"You're right… the atmosphere around those two…"
A moment of silence passed.
"It's not just Lord Royce, Sir Andrej is also close to Lady Nachtwald."
The ladies who overheard the conversation around them frowned.
The welcome speeches proceeded smoothly, Lady Milcah Flumen welcomed the new batch of juniors warmly under the clear blue sky and wafting scents of flowers in the air. Her ripened beauty captured many eyes of the youths and her elegant yet sunny demeanour earned admiration from students and teachers alike. Next Lady Regina Stolz represented the juniors with her graceful speech and calm deportment.
Sterne had little contact with this candidate but she could feel her eyes always following their group. Even now when she is standing up there in the podium, she would deliberately turn to look at them and give a faint smile. The scandal of the hidden village in Little Brook is yet to break out, for the meantime, she needs to make sure no harm comes to Maelys.
"Haaa… all these struggles is taking a toll on my feeble self."
Royce heard her drivel and itched to flick her forehead. "Stop daydreaming."
"I feel like a mother raising a child."
The Hallowed One's place beside the King is not as comfortable as everyone thinks, especially if there are leeches waiting to latch into her to gain power. So before her nurtured Queen sits, she better squash those pests away. It was a good thing she picked a good seedling who can handle herself. Sterne was so happy when she heard from her brothers that Maelys finally acquired Holy Aura. She was even more excited than the person with the skill herself! When they returned to Steinburg, despite having subjected to fright that night, everyone celebrated. Then they were summoned back to the capital.
"Ah, my beautiful baby is growing more and more outstanding by the day."
"Since when did you give birth to such a huge child?"
"That moment I saw her picking flowers. I just knew!"
Royce already vaguely guessed most of her goal, however, his focus had always been on her alone. Playing as the princess' knight in shining armour gives her a first-class ticket to the afterlife. Thinking about her facing the Orders just to pursue her goal, he felt angry.
"The child is more sensible than you."
She wiped a fake tear from the corner of her eye. "Isn't that a good thing? But soon she will be taken away by some--"
"Alright, enough." He wished he could stuff his ears.
They no longer talked.
After the ceremony, the students moved out to the corridors. Fortunately, they were showered by Royce's glacial aura so they passed the Great Hall without any difficulty. Those who wanted to approach were scared witless, some already flee to the farthest side in fear of being frozen to death. Princess Lian Hua simply doesn't care about Royce's mood. She said she wanted to talk to Sterne and the girls, so she did.
"Have you been to the dormitories yet?" the princess asked.
Odette nodded. "It's the grove villa on the west side."
"Why is it so far?"
"The farther the better, the west grove is a nice place to relax and is a lot cooler than the rest of the areas."
The princess felt indignant. The rest were living either in the rich and luxurious Orchid and Plum Villa of the north or the gorgeous Bamboo Garden in the east. Rare are those who live in the west because it hasn't been fully renovated yet and the forest grove simply offers tepid scenery.
She hesitated for two seconds then, bit her lip. "I'm transferring to the Forest Grove Villa as well."
"What about your place in Plum Villa? I heard it's very beautiful, filled with flowers and the architecture resembles your own style." Odette said.
"Hmph, not going. What use are those flowers anyway? I can't talk to them."
Odette no longer argued. The five of them walked around for a spell and crossed the garden leading to the residential part of the academy.
"Sterne!" Behind them runs Lady Milcah Flumen. Her skirts flying and her smile widening.
To that kind of enthusiasm, everyone was easily infected. Who could be so lucky to receive Lady Milcah's grace?
"Oh, you walk so fast." She heaved a breath, wiped her sweat and flashed them with a sweet smile. "Are you going to the dormitories?"
"Unn." Sterne replied.
People are starting to gather to watch. She was momentarily stunned at the lady's popularity but soon gathered her wits.
"The Forest Grove Villa may not be suitable for your accommodation, don't worry I am going to ask the teachers to change your dormitory later. Though it is being renovated, it may take some time."
Sterne shook her head lightly. "The renovation will be finished soon. Big brother sent some men a month ago, I reckon the whole place is about ready now."
Milcah's eyes widened overcome with a strange emotion. "Is that so? Big brother Dio really cares for you. I haven't even heard that he sent people to make arrangements!"
"He probably didn't want to disturb your work at the council."
"Nonsense, I did promise to look after you but look at him, he didn't put my words to heart. Well, if you find that place inconvenient you can always come to me."
"It's alright, we don't really mind."
Shortly after saying her piece she was once again dragged by a member of the student council. Lady Milcah could only pitifully bid them goodbye. Her face looked so despondent as she was being carted off, she dragged her feet unwilling to follow making the secretary's face sterner at some point she even glared at their group.
The five held a blank look. When they reached the west side of the dormitories, the people tidying up the front yard halted and greeted. What surprised Sterne more is when she saw Bisque managing the work.
"Lady Sterne has come." The tall and sturdy man greeted. From years ago, Bisque was stuck in Nachtwald because of his body's condition, but after he recovered his health he began training as an official envoy of their duchy handling several transactions as a representative of the duke in the Royal Capital. He also spent the past years in different territories strengthening Nachtwald's relationship with its allies. No more was the sickly and overweight youth she once knew.
"You've worked hard." She greeted back.
"Lord Dio asked me to personally handle the building and make sure no mishap will happen. After all, you will be staying here for two to three years." He said meaningfully.
She easily understood and nodded.
"I thought the west villa is old and uninhabitable." Odette wondered, her eyes roving around the clusters of flowers on both sides of the immaculate white pebbled pathway.
Royce scoffed, will those brothers ever allow their baby sister to live in such a dump? They accepted the Royal Academy's demand without question but that doesn't mean they continuously tolerate having her being treated unfairly.
The group headed inside the provincial style villa. The colour scheme is very bright, youthful and cosy, the furniture and fixtures are elegant, complementing the huge glass windows overlooking the forest grove. Even the curtains are delicately chosen to match the ambience, a perfect fit for ladies to stay. The five of them were speechless.
"Does milady like it?"
The girls nodded their heads in unison, very satisfied with the design. The garden outside was enough of a shock already but the changes inside completely awed them.
"Well, it did look terrible a month ago." Bisque said. "Good thing your brothers have keen visions."
On the second day, Sterne and the three girls brought in their luggage. Because the Forest Grove is far from other villas their move was more discreet than the rest of the new students. After putting everything in place, the four ladies finally get to enjoy their new abode.
The first week of classes went uneventfully until trouble came knocking, delivered by a few dissatisfied people.