113. What Lies Beneath
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Commander Vlugel ordered Sterne to return the scroll back to Laius. His hand shook in trepidation as he slowly extends his hands to receive it. The object he once brandished to threaten them now weighs heavily and he now holds it with a hint of fear.    

"Bold of you to assume that this piece of paper can enforce this division to follow your orders. The last time I remember, Magic Bureau's Grandmaster is about to retire from his position. It seems the Grand Commander wants to follow as well." Saying this, the commander walked towards the elevated dais, to his table facing the students. 

They are retiring? Why hadn't he heard of this? He stopped short, hit by a horrible realization exploded in his head. It's not that they are retiring, this person in front of him has enough power to make them give up their posts! 

No, he needed to amend the situation. They cannot just drive them out like this, at the very least students of this academy should maintain a harmonious relationship in the surface, once the outside found out they are quarrelling like children that will be bad for everyone's reputation. Warrior Division cannot go on missions with just the Support Division alone, they still need mages in the team. 

Andrej stood at the entrance with his back leaning on a pillar adapting a nonchalant stance then his languid voice drifted to their ears, "Since our new mentor is finally here we are ready for the new curriculum, the Regular and Advance Class will have more time to interact with each other. It so happens that the latest training menu laid out focus on strengthening the Warrior Division's technique in both strategy and combat. For the meantime, joint exercises with other divisions will be put on hold in the following months."       

It means that the Warrior Division will be in closed door training for long.  

Laius felt his whole body deflate. He was so sure of himself just a while ago, he confidently wanted to remind them of the significance of joint training to justify his reason for coming. He had been arrogant because he knew the Grandmaster and Grand Commander will be his fall back but now, in front of these people, he is nothing but just another ordinary student. While he suffered in silence, Regina had been scared to the point her uniform is soaking wet. 

"Commander, what about the training menu of our division? We still need the Warrior Division's cooperation with it." Laius said in a low hesitant voice while adjusting his facial feature not to show his fury. 

"I gave both Support and Mage Division one month to adjust. It's been more than a month." The commander gave them a brief impersonal smile. Laius receiving that kind of gesture shuddered. "Your five minutes starts now."

The two were stupefied. He was kicking them out! 

On the same day, they came was also the same day they hastily left as if their behinds were set on fire. The knights were shocked their mouths hang open for half a day. They looked at Andrej to search for answers then the commander but both were disinclined to talk whatsoever. Sterne only had a faint smile plastered on her face, as she calmly resumed flipping on the manual. 

Laius and Regina had no choice but to swallow the decision when all their advantages had been stripped away. The chance to subdue the Warrior Division has completely slipped their hands and the favour he wanted to give the Grandmaster completely vanished from his grasp.  Being confident of his knowledge from the last life, Laius had not prepared himself for the sudden twists making him reel with confusion.   

However, his suffering did not only end there. Grandmaster Xanthous called him back to the bureau for another big matter. One he had not prepared himself entirely. 

At the same time, Grand Commander Licht was suddenly summoned to the castle for unknown reasons.

 

As the new head of Warrior Division took over, the teachers became more diligent. For these old soldiers who retired from the field in order to pass on their inheritance to the new crops, there is nothing more honourable than having another talent added in their ranks. What's more, he prefered to be lowkey selecting the junior Regular Class which is by far the most difficult to cultivate. In the history of Warrior Division, the Regular Class only has few that managed to excel. It may be embarrassing and degrading to admit but this is the reality. There isn't enough word to gloss over it, the soldiers who came from this batch end up rotten tarnishing the good name of their academy.

The commander is fairly young and still has many years ahead of him but that doesn't diminish the imposing strength he has. Under his guiding hand, maybe even this weak seedlings may have a chance to grow in the future. Others could only cross their fingers and pray for a miracle to happen.

A couple of days went by in a flash and the Regular Class are still inside the teaching hall sitting primly with manuals on their hands. But unlike those past few days where they have all their minds concentrated solely in learning, all of them right now are sweating buckets with roaring questions floating on their heads.

Heavens, it can't be that the new curriculum is all about reading manuals?

Sterne scratched her cheek clearly reading the bitter faces of her classmates. As people who are used to moving around, being stuck on their desk with nothing but glaring letters for a long time, they will surely begin to show signs of agitation. In fact, Sterne as well however because of Sir Ahmose repeated reminder that endurance is one of the commander's requirements to judge his potential seedlings, she can only secretly grind her teeth. Everyone was eager to learn, come hell and or high water they will have this commander teach them! 

But who knew the commander himself would suddenly ask them why they kept reading those abhorrent books? 

Andrej choked on his anger. "Eh? I thought…"

"You thought what?" Commander Vlugel asked with pinched eyebrows. "Alright, enough pretending. You have five minutes to prepare." And just like that calamity has befallen them.     

There hasn't been such struggle until now. As young ladies and young masters of their respective families, clothed and fed only the finest of things, the new training regimen only spelt one thing: torture. It completely wiped them out in just a day. A full week of rest has gone with the wind.

The joy the Warrior Division felt was like a cloud. Fleeting. 

In the next few days, they realized that they finally entered the advance phase of learning. How advanced? Lessons in the morning, combat exercises in the afternoon and the evening are for studying to prepare for the lesson on the next day. Those who are new to this kind of system begin to howl and cry but will their tears solve anything? No, it only made the matter worse. Each complaint is answered with an additional rule to follow. 

From time to time when students of Royal Academy would stroll around the gardens, they would be able to see students from Warrior Division walking aimlessly with vacant soulless eyes and sunken cheeks.

"Walking corpse." 

"My goodness, it's only just a month why do these people look like they were not fed their entire lives?"  

"Shh, quiet. Leave them alone." 

Yes, leave us alone! The knights wanted to shrink into a ball and weep in the corner. 

Sterne was lying in the middle of the training field pretending to be dead while trying to regulate her mana in order to soothe the aches in her body. Who would have thought that the new mentor would be so harsh? 

Huh, ten years under Sir Ahmose. I'm not a weak pitiful girl… I'm not a weak pitiful girl… I'm not a-- ugh! Her train of thought was interrupted by a stab of pain in her pelvis. Peanuts, I'm going to tell Father. 

Andrej thought that Commander Vlugel will straight up teach them a new technique, but the days drift by like water and they are still stuck running across the hills and crawling on the ground. He was too naive! His expectation was betrayed but he had no way to vent so he could only sit in the corner looking like a puppy that had been kicked by its owner. 

To think I even intentionally asked for demotion! This is tyranny… 

It wasn't until the bell for five o'clock rang that they all reluctantly gave up the comforts of the cold soil and crawl back to the teaching hall. The commander held an indifferent face looking at his bunch of students looking worse than street beggars. Uniforms soiled, scrapes and gashes everywhere, hair in a riotous mess and most of all, the weary overall look. 

"What do you think?' He asked Sterne quietly nursing a small cut on her lower lip courtesy of Penelope when they sparred.

"They are starting to adapt to it."

Commander Vlugel nodded. Tomorrow is the weekend and these children will have a two-day break to breath but not enough to slack. It's just about right. 

"Dismissed."

It was only one word but they all looked like they have been pardoned from getting their heads chopped off. The Regular Class simultaneously collapsed on the floor like fallen trees. 

 

Emilia looked at her lady floundered on the couch like a five-year-old wailing her grievances. 

"Emi, Commander Vlugel is not like what Sir Ahmose said. Look, look at me I feel like I've broken every bone in my body."

"What do you expect from a full-fledged military man?"

"Father and my brothers are the same but they usually can't bear to see me suffer." 

Emilia thinks there is something wrong with this logic. Why compare those three hopeless cases to normal people? One is her father and two are her brothers, all of them loves her to death. Don't even mention a bone, even a tiny crack on the nail of her pinky finger they wouldn't tolerate. She sighed, her lady was such a fine obedient little girl a few years ago, maybe a bit mischievous on the side but she was never this dramatic. If it wasn't for those three's excessive pampering she wouldn't become so naughty and unruly like this.   

"Are you not allowed to use skills when training?"

She shook her head. If they so much as cheat and use magic, the commander will increase their program tenfolds. "At this rate, it's not impossible for me to grow a beard."

In these days, the Forest Grove endured Sterne's constant groaning and wailing whenever she comes home and asks for a massage. Lian Hua looked at her face rapidly losing its childish baby fat making it look sharper. Perhaps their division's training was really too harsh to subdue this usually energetic young lady. Feeling very worried, she added another chicken leg to her plate when they were having dinner that night.

After eating and washing up, Sterne felt all her accumulated exhaustion for the past week quickly catching up. She didn't want to pass out in the middle of the house but fatigue is really a cruel thing. Her sights darkened and she went to dreamland.

"Ah…" The ladies present in the room were astounded. She blacked out without prior warning but aside from that, what surprised them, even more, is the sudden appearance of a certain person.

"Her room?" Royce just entered the villa when the ladies finish their tea. He first saw Sterne stood, her face tired but when she spotted him she beamed a smile. That made him frown, in hurried strides he went next to her just in time to catch her after staggering.   

Emilia threw a helpless look towards her passed out lady. "Thank you, milord. I'll take it from here."

"No, I'll carry her." He said. A warm fragrant breath hit his neck causing all the fine hairs on his body stood.

"But--"

"She's heavy."

Everyone shot him an odd look. To prove his point, he shifted her posture carrying Sterne like a sack of potatoes over his shoulder. 

Sighing in her heart, Emilia reluctantly walked up the stairs guiding the expressionless Royce. Ascending the steps would naturally cause her body to bob, the soft baggage in his shoulders began to rub while letting out a very nice fragrant tantalizing his nose. The stiff face he adapted is dangerously about to break. He went straight to her room, flopped the lady on the soft bed and stood there for a couple of minutes, looking at the unmoving corpse. Without a word, he dashed out of the room and escaped the Forest Groove as though he was haunted by ghosts.

"Aiy, that looks like trouble." Emilia chuckled with her eyes glinting a knowing light.

***

Back in his own mansion, Royce paced around the fireplace a dozen times before finally relaxing but who knew Solis would suddenly start being nosy?

"You don't look right. What's wrong with you?"  

Royce's panicked expression did not escape his eyes. "Nothing."

"Nothing but you look like you discovered something horrifying but refuse to talk about it. You're a very picture of guilty."

"Shut up."

Solis did not mind his gruff tone. "You left not long ago and came back so suddenly looking like that. Did you fight with Lady Sterne again?" He wasn't really trying to pry out an answer, he was merely testing if the lad is aware of how he was so out of character right now. Sure enough, when he mentioned the young lady, this lad's eyes trembled.  

His Adam's Apple moved and the vein at the side of his neck throbbed conspicuously.    

"What's the matter? In love?"

A furious flush crept up his face then to his ears.

Sure enough… 

"I thought you two are going to discuss the matter of the Stolz' investigation. Things have progressed far enough, it's about time to move don't you think?" Solis changed the subject taking pity on him. "The moment Grandmaster loses his position, Holy Dipterus is going to retract their support on Stolz with that Heraldic Order will find surely follow. You can finally settle things with Laius."

"According to our investigation he never had any connection with the primordial city and his actions for the past years clearly had nothing to do with them. The only connection they have is Regina Stolz but even with that, I still could not understand why someone wanted to harm Sterne."

Mentioning her name, which he rarely does unfurl a tickling sensation in his chest.

At first, he was just curious about her but later as the two of them spent more time together, he realized there is more to her aside from the teasing smiles and quick wit. The duke and the brothers have tried countless means to find the person who wanted her gone, but even they are not fully certain why there is someone out there who would dare harm a twelve-year-old girl.

Going back to that year she started to change at nine, she had been placed in the palm of their hands. Any potential harm that may come her way had been thoroughly dealt with by her family. Even he himself with the Umbra Corps beside him found it difficult to investigate her at first if it wasn't for his sheer curiosity he wouldn't dare get close in order to understand his subject. Going back to the main issue, two years later when she was twelve, out of nowhere she became a target.

It wasn't the duke nor the Obsidian they wanted gone by that time. It was her. 

The words Regina spoke in the classroom echoed in his ears. The disgust in those eyes as she looked at the Sterne while calling her the descendant of the wastrel who sold himself to the devil. 

An evil spawn… she was actually called like that before. The Black Knight.

His Fair Black Knight.

Could it be because of that?

Recalling the sweet warm smile that can melt steel, how can someone have the heart to say that? That little lady is usually a bad combination of stubborn and carefree but she never looked down on anyone. Secretly in her own clumsy ways, she took painstaking effort to ensure this kingdom's safety. An unknown emotion roiled inside him, he was so lost in his own thoughts he did not realize he was thinking too far that it was slowly affecting him.

"Is there a secret cult in this kingdom that abhors the Black Knight?" 

Solis was surprised at his question but he answered anyway. "There was."

"Was?"

"Aster Tribe."

Upon hearing the name, his expression turned placid and his gaze colder. Solis knew that what was in his eyes was not anger, but wrath. 

***

Last night after closing her eyes, she had a faint impression of the few minutes before thoroughly sinking into unconsciousness. There was a smell of clean refreshing mint but it was gone so soon, and sometime late in the middle of the night when she groped for her blanket after feeling cold the scent came again. Also, she recalled a warm thing that snuggled closer to her side, having felt a comfortable heat she burrowed deep into it then…  

It was suddenly morning.

"Too bad it was gone..." She murmured absently as she crawled out from the depths of being buried under the sheets.

Emilia saw her move while she was preparing her tea and water. "It's not gone, I brought you a cup."

The tangy scent of bergamot charged her fully awake, it was very tempting she could not bear to bear to ignore it. But that wasn't the scent she was looking for.

"Everybody came for the weekend, it's lively down there milady."

She smiled, tossed her blankets and prepared for the morning. Good timing she's hungry. 

The living area is full of people, when she came down the stairs a soft little thing nudged her legs and latched itself to it.

"Stewne!" Marcus greeted with a toothy smile.

"Oh, if it isn't the Little Earl." She reached out to ruffle the mop of blue hair. "Eaten yet?"

"Not yet."

"Who came with you?" The small chubby cheeks looked up. She the countess would come but for the sake of making small conversation with the little bun, she would ask him questions. At the age of five, he really liked being treated like an adult. 

"Mother!" 

Sure enough, the countess and Maelys' aunt came for a visit and it wasn't just them Odette's mother also came. The ladies sat in the patio for breakfast talking avidly. Sterne carried Marcus in her arms, it so happened that Royce and Andrej came seeing her with a child.    

"Who's the little guy?" Andrej asked extending a paw to pinch his cheek.

"Oh, this is Maelys' brother, Marcus."  

Marcus seeing two unknown men coming close, shrunk into a ball. He buried his head into Sterne's neck with his butt sticking out facing them. Although they are Sterne's friend, he doesn't like seeing them getting close so much that his eyebrows curled unhappily. In fact, he doesn't like any men coming close to the ladies he knew aside from his big bear father.

When he said he was hungry, Sterne took a fruit plate and began feeding the spoiled little guy. They haven't seen each other for half a year but he still sticks close to her like glue. Maelys told her that he had been harping about her since she left Mare. 

For the whole morning, the madams only talked about their accommodations inside the academy, checking if they are having any difficulty adjusting and asked about how they fared at their enrollment tests. The ladies assured them everything is fine to put their minds at ease. 

By midday, before the madams leave, another guest came. 

Milcah Flumen was ushered into the garden when she saw the little boy sitting on Sterne's lap. Her eyes quickly brightened and greeted him. Marcus looked at the big sister wondering who she is and why she is smiling warmly at him. Even at their departure, she kept looking and even waved goodbye with a happy face.

"You like children?" Maelys asked noticing her fondness for her little brother.

She sighed, "It's the pain of being an only child. Even if I wanted to have one, my parents are simply unwilling. Anyway, I came to inform you about the developments in the north. The Royal Academy decided to organize an activity among divisions to help with rehabilitation. Even the seniors who were choosing their apprenticeship decided to turn their sights over there. I heard Steinburg finally opened its gates for the new recruits and the King is planning on giving back the margrave title to the current landlord. Honestly, I have no idea how you four did it but it gave favourable results."

"It's not just us, the soldiers and adventurers did their part as well." Sterne said.

"Yes, yes that too. Also, I want to tell you about the upcoming Interschool Summit that will be held a year from now."

'That will not be a problem." Dio came, after greeting everyone he found a nice corner to sit. "Royal Academy can invite its alumni to come and participate in the activities. It has been decades since we joined and our status within the other school has miserably fallen. Right now, aside from the rival three schools, there are minor private ones as well who wish to ascend their level and be known. With us taking initiative to appear again, it is inevitable to become prey for those hungry wolves."

Milcah nodded but she complained quickly after being swiped of her glory. "I clearly came first to inform them, why did you suddenly cut in? I thought you were still outside working?" 

"Ladies are always long-winded, I came to help you summarize."

"My foot, I don't need your help."

Dio shrugged, "I know you came to scrimp for a meal." 

"My information is free of charge." She snorted. "Lady Sterne, your brother is really pitiable. If not for his good looks I swear no women would dare come ten feet near him. He is born to annoy and destined to be alone."

He chuckled, "I dare not take that honour milady. I'm still average, and not as bad as a certain someone!" 

The two bickered for a little more giving their audience an ample understanding of how devastatingly harmonious their relationship is. In the end, Milcah was defeated and left huffily. 

"Ah, I finally drove her out." Dio said stretching his limbs on the wicker chair. Different from his relaxed posture, the lady sitting beside him has long turned into a waxed statue. When he turned his head, he saw her shyly turned her eyes away. 

"Audacious." Princess Lian Hua murmured, her whole body slightly trembling.

Dio felt a little wronged not understanding why the princess would be upset with him. Did she by chance believe that Milcah's nonsense?

Starting from there on, almost every day it became a habit that people would drop by their dormitory to either have tea, exchange pointers or freeload for a meal. The excruciating training days continue gradually increasing the Regular Class' strength. In one of those days, the news broke out that the Grand Commander of Chivalric Order was charged with corruption and treason. 

It was a huge blow to several noble houses who are in contact with him. Over the years he had gained quite a large sum from the bribes his backers sent promising that if he can retain his position for a few decades more they will surely let him live in power after his retirement but as soon as his demise came into public those houses disappeared quicker than a puff of smoke. What they did not know is that it was only a prelude to what bigger things to come. 

***

Weekend in a small villa on the outskirts of the capital. The exterior of the place looks average but once you take a peek inside, you will see the splendid wide pond and fountain in the middle of the garden. Odd thing is that despite the house appearing to be abandoned there was not a single dried leaf on the ground. 

In one of the rooms, under the red, sheer curtains on top of the bed lay a woman with pale green eyes. Spent from the nightly activity, she languidly turned her head to the side, towards the direction of the window where her young lover stood. "Come to bed Laius."

Laius Ravencroft, wearing only his trousers turned to the voluptuous woman beckoning him with a sultry look. "Your Grace, it's already past noon. I need to return to the academy to attend to your daughter else she might suspect something."

"Suspect what? That you're screwing her mother?" The woman laughed. "Surely you jest, I think you know more than that little fool that she never came from this womb. Stop pretending as though you are concerned."

"But you know as well that the situation between factions right now is complicated. The Grand Commander was summoned to the castle last night. I fear..."

"That has nothing to do with us." She said sharply. Her nails digging into the sheets. "Let them all fall for all I care. As long as you make that little brat Queen, I don't care if her father ends up in the dungeon. That will be sweet retribution for him after he fucked Lucretia and for the years I've endured raising Regina as my own. I'm sick of it so why can't I be happy?" Even once is enough.

Laius listened to the mournful woman and the sneer on his lips grew more vivid. He thought of Regina, what a pitiful child, born in riches but not showered with love. All these years, what she only wanted is for her family to cherish her that is why she strives so hard to perfect herself. Her father though pleased is still not thoroughly impressed and her mother would only occasionally talk to her. He came just in time to fill in the gap.

Too bad that the simplest wish turned out to be a lie.        

 

Oi... sorry for the delays. Work was brutal.

 

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