Finishing yet another set of an exercise, Sterne was practically looking sorrier than a rag. Once she looks around, she would be able to see the souls of her classmates floating out of their battered bodies. Today they finished climbing on cliff walls and going back down with only a single rope on hand.
In these past three weeks, the cries of complaints almost died out unlike their first time experiencing this life and death exercise. The good news is that Commander Vlugel greatly praised their tenacity after seeing that none of his fifty students tucked tail and ran back home after so much abuse.
But after hearing that this was just the beginning and their mentor is merely building their stamina and mental fortitude, they almost burst into wails once again. The originally tuckered team surprisingly had much strength left to scream their grievances.
Penelope flew into a rage beating the ground with her fist. "If I have to run another hundred miles for the next days I would rather punch my own face."
"I suddenly miss reading the manuals." One knight murmured pitifully.
The students have faces of all kinds of unwilling, they were anguished until their eyes watered.
"Calm down everyone," Andrej said leaning on a tree to rest. "What's done is done. All these hardships have their own benefits."
With his calm attitude, the mood inside the training area calmed down a bit but then he snickered and stabbed them with, "From here on you can only assume that your training will be stricter than this. Prepare to shed both blood and tears."
Everyone was back being angry again to the point that they were chewing their teeth. The smug look on his face and the offhand way he said 'you' only added more to their pain. Then he couldn't resist himself from twisting the knife by tossing out provoking remarks. "Seeing you so pitiful like this, the commander might have mercy and return back to the castle."
Of course, no one wants that!
He listened to them groan and curse the commander while he sits on the side treating everything as a show. Anyway, that's just how he is.
"You can yell all you want but that won't solve anything."
"Shut up stupid Andrej!"
Andrej sighed exaggeratedly.
Seeing him pestering their exhausted classmates, not even a shred of pity gave Sterne a bit of chest pain. How is he so different from the gentle and warm Captain Thais? If the second brother is as soft as a fluffy rabbit, Andrej would be a sneaky cat who loves all kinds of mischief.
Spent from their yelling and crying, everyone got up from the ground to prepare to go back to the teaching hall. The commander saw his class walking in a turtle pace nursing grievances in their hearts but he did not have any intention to cajole nor gave an uplifting speech. In any case, what he needed are students who can overcome their fears and push themselves past the limits, these children surprisingly did it.
When they reached the academy, they coincidentally ran into a group of mages about to head out to train as well. Because of the tight schedule and gruelling training, the knights hardly paid attention to the ongoing activities inside the academy, it was not until they met these mages that they heard a shocking piece of news.
When Sterne saw Princess Lian Hua giving her an eyeful, she broke away from the rest to come with her. The princess seemed to be in a sour mood, the hand holding her wrist had a bit more grip causing her to wrinkle her brows.
"I originally did not want to tell you this but this is getting out of hand, today I talked to Maelys and Odette and they agreed."
"What's going on?"
The princess gave a very disgusted expression and exploded almost cursing. "The whole Mage Division is denouncing you for using the Black Knight's name. Did you know how it happened? We were having a lecture about the kingdom's history when suddenly our mentor started discussing inconsistencies in the books. The whole class began a heated debate why the Black Knight who was a pariah suddenly became a hero in history. I did not put so much attention to it but the discussion escalated many days now."
Sterne looked at her blankly.
"Also, a lot of things were said. I don't want to go into the disgusting details. What I'm most worried about is that they claimed that you instigated a conflict between Lady Bismarck and Lady Stolz."
The princess spits out the words in rapid succession whilst giving out a very strong revulsion.
"That Regina Stolz' I just knew she was the one who started this if not it's those people around her. Huh, she is the kind who wouldn't want to look scheming so she will ask other people to be her mouth instead. Looking so much as fragile in the surface but I tell you, I can see her insides are black. Totally black! Back in Fenghuang Empire, I have seen plenty of her kind to contaminate my eyes." the princess' chest rise and fall in anger. "The entire time she was leisurely sitting in the corner looking at everyone getting mad at you with a smug look." Her slim fingers reached into the air and curled as though imagining tearing a particular someone's face.
Sterne pinched her chin while pondering. "You came to warn me?"
Lian Hua nodded like a broken toy. "Why else would I be here? Just look at you foolishly going about not knowing how many knives are pointing at you right now. It just irks me to…"
"Thank you, this is enough." Sterne held her hand and gave a sweet smile.
Seeing her blush at the compliment, Sterne felt that her mood did not entirely darken at all.
"A-Anyway, be very careful."
The two girls separated, Sterne was left standing in the middle of the pathway biting her lip in deep contemplation. So Regina started attacking her? It may seem like it but her mind was thinking of an entirely different possibility. The real Regina is not that idle to waste her time to build an issue about her from scratch. Regina had her entire focus on becoming Queen and would rather throw dirt on other candidates. Besides, she saw her regret after cursing the Black Knight, she just said that at the heat of the moment and Penelope's double slap has very much sobered her mind.
Unfortunately, she can no longer take back what she said so might as well enjoy what little benefits she can get from it.
Sure they had conflict a few weeks ago but what if someone was just taking advantage of it to see how they will clash? Particularly that person.
She was tired today, after saluting to their mentor at the end of the class she headed back to Forest Grove, took a bath, then went to the gazebo to rest. Who would have thought that the entire gang would be there?
Maelys and Lian Hua came from inside carrying trays of tea and sweets, Odette was left to entertain Royce and Andrej. They were just talking about the gossips going around the academy when she came out.
"What's the problem with using the Black Knight's appellation? The margrave is Sterne's ancestor." Odette reasoned.
"It's not about the title per se, but the reputation along with it. Although the extremist factions who directly persecute the Black Knight no longer exist, people's attention are easy to sway with a little bit of reminder. They will always remember how he rebelled and gave up his soul to forcefully ascend his level to control the demons of Sleeping Forest."
"The old clans knew the reason why he did it! If he did not force himself Aurum will be just a pile of bones and ash to this day. When he became powerful, they deemed him dangerous and rallied to eliminate him. When the Hero King regained his wits back, the Black Knight's body has long turned cold and the Sword Saint already abandoned him. Fortunately, the little Hallowed One was still there to keep him clear-headed." Odette was so mad her voice began to crack. "They have wronged him enough. They are doing it again."
Lian Hua pushed a cup of tea to the outraged girl and said. "In every kingdom, the strong is always feared especially when that power is outside the scope of the sovereign and everyone doesn't know how to deal with it. It's a volatile matter than can either become strength or liability in just one wrong move. Additionally, people are naturally born selfish and paranoid if they cannot have it, they will grow restless and in order to discard that restlessness, might as well end the root cause of it."
"But our monarchs are known for their soft temperament and clear judgment…"
"And Madness." Lian Hua sustained.
Andrej's face turned awkward. "Yes, you're right. If the Hero King did not suffer the madness, the tragedy wouldn't have happened to the Balck Knight."
The princess gave a smirk and went to the side where her precious zither lays. A beautiful curve wooden instrument, lacquered with a gorgeous carving of lotus. In a short moment, slim jade-like fingers began to dance above the silk strings creating soothing mellifluous music. It was sweet for the ears and not entirely invasive while they went on with the conversation.
"How do you plan to deal with this?" Royce asked Sterne before she gets sucked in by the music.
"Leave it be. It's just a little entertainment for some petty people. As long as Warrior Division is steadily following the routine, I have no complaints." And as long as the fateful maiden is on the right track, she could care less about the rumour. "We're supposed to celebrate Lord Commander Wisteria's recovery and Purple Haven's successful expulsion of its corrupt leaders."
Everyone gave her a disappointed look.
"At least pretend to look sad so we can comfort you."
"You can give me food." She said.
Leave it to her to convert grievances, sorrow and pretty much everything into appetite. Her smiling so foolishly like this is just asking for a beating.
Andrej reached for a custard cake, "Father is still hell-bent on pretending to be sick in order to fool the people here in the capital." He paused remembering something. "That person who sent the antidote, it was your butler isn't it?"
So Sir Ahmose personally went, no wonder no mishap happened. Sterne did not deny it. Uncle Bern created that antidote in Datura sadly it will take a very long time to concoct and she neither has the time nor enough Compounding skill to do it because antidotes belong to the higher tier recipe. Before leaving Nachtwald, she left a list of things or more accurately a schedule to Sir Ahmose. The good thing is that the timing of the events went according to her list. The poisoning of Mythril's Lord Commander and the mutiny all happened while they were in Steinburg for the enrollment test. This was also the reason why Commander Vlugel was gone for an entire month and came back just in time for their division.
"Aren't you going back to the Advanced Class now that things have calmed down?" She asked Andrej.
"Spending a year in Regular Class won't hurt, in any case, we will only be deprived of high-level missions. The Advance Class is required to go out often but I need to be here in Aurea as much as possible. Besides, I don't want to deprive those old farts their gloating of messing with our family, not until elder brother cleans up the Magic Bureau entirely."
"What about the Captain Thais?"
He rolled his eyes. "Second brother Thais is holding the eastern barracks secure while observing the movement in the north. Elder brother Helios stationed himself in the west and at the same time playing with the bureau with the help of a friend. No need to worry about those two, rather I'm the pitiful one here."
Now it was everyone's turn to roll their eyes at him.
In the days that Sterne did not suffer bodily aches, she would suffer from a lot of criticism until her ears bled. The words regarding the Black Knight and her exploits were all dug up as if it would depress her if they hang it all out in the open.
"I feel like a toy being beaten repeatedly for candy."
Royce grimaced, "What kind of barbaric game is that?"
"You don't know? It's like this, you make a paper mache container in the shape of a donkey or any animal then fill it with goods and candies. Then you hang it on a tree and let the children beat it until the contents come out."
"What about you, will you give them candy later when they finished beating you?"
"Being beaten so badly then kindly give them candy? No way. I'm not applying for a saint in the monastery."
Royce was speechless. All the while she just laid back and watch the farce while munching on dried fruits and nuts.
"What are you doing here by the way? Your Advance Class is set for Leise Mountain for subjugation."
He answered without blinking. "I got demoted."
"???" Sterne stared at him horrified. Who would believe you!?
Almost pitifully he added, "My captain said I am not suited to be in their team and the other team wouldn't want to take me in either. Later I told our mentor but he suggested I form my own but I was too lazy to do it and end up with no one."
Because they were too scared of you!
Something is wrong with everybody's head. If Royce could hear her thoughts, he most probably would say the very same thing to her.
The good thing is that since Commander Vlugel took over, the Mage Division avoided directly bumping into them. Be it in the corridors, common areas and cafeteria a knight would seldom see any green robe people. However, the hostility towards Sterne spilt out from their division stirring the whole academy into a pot of gossip.
"We have long known Obsidian as black knights but her directly getting the title is a bit going overboard. That is still one of the great heroes after all."
Sister, I did not purposefully do it. I don't even remember who first started calling me with it.
"Who knows she might take down the same path as him."
"But I thought the Black Knight is a good person."
"Sheesh, what kind of person would exchange his soul to the devil? The moment one tasted the allure of Dark Magic they will no longer return to being human."
"So you think Lady Nachtwald has the potential to turn into…"
"Of course. Have you heard about the incident in Anfang? She shot a convict dead in the middle of the square. I say she is starting to change."
"Oh, and also, Lady Nachtwald has no magic. If she really went the other way then…" the lady did not finish her word and leave it to her companions' imaginations.
Oh well, since the ancestor's sacrifice has very much turned into a stain she would no longer wonder if one day people would turn to her with their pitchfork and torches. The issue has not reached its climax yet so she could barely call this problematic. Another thing is that she really wanted to catch the face of that person the moment she sees her not affected by slanders.
"Do you regret it?" Royce asked one time they were sitting outside to catch some fresh air.
That means she doesn't care.
"They're beating me too gently, I'm getting impatient."
He couldn't help but admire the sheer stubborn will of this young lady. Of course, aside from his unusual circumstances, this kind of mental strength can only be honed from early childhood while undergoing severe training. He couldn't help but wonder what kind of demon Sir Ahmose is.
Although he casually criticises her abnormal behaviour inside his mind, in his heart she will always be that carefree girl who loves to run around the fields giving out smiles like they don't cost a penny. Royce endured the growing annoyance inside him and just let the lady lead him on for now. Once this is over…
He pinched the bridge of his nose and kicked the nearby urn causing it to break. The gossiping ladies were startled and looked at him in panic.
Sterne noticed he was suddenly in a bad mood.
That night, before going to bed Maelys came to her room with her red eyes.
"You… you don't have to do this." She said in a hoarse voice while climbing into her bed. The next thing she knew, she was squished in between two huge mounds like a baby needing comfort. "I know you're tired."
Sterne, slightly bewildered just stared at her before realizing that she was being serious.
"I thought that once we enter, we would have a more relaxed time. I'm sorry, you have suffered enough injustice since entering the academy."
She giggled foolishly. "It was my decision."
"But you wouldn't be here if not for me."
Seeing the girl in front of her is about to cry she waved her hand. "Aiy, don't be like this. I never regretted it," Sterne patted her shoulder "Coming to Royal Academy to train is also my other reason aside from making sure you're doing well." How can I just leave my Queen alone with the wolves?
Maelys shook her head, "I know but I don't want to see you doing this for my sake. I haven't done something remarkable to deserve your kindness nor do you owe me anything." Her voice was shaky as if a tiny quiver would be able to break it. Since she met her that fateful day in the clearing her life has turned for the better. At first, she didn't know why someone like her would receive so much luck after falling down the quagmire. It turns out the so-called luck is not brought by chance but by this person in front of her. Now this person is beginning to suffer in her place, how can she keep her mind at ease? "You have done so much for me."
Maelys' face froze, then shyly turned her head away. "I'm serious."
"I'm serious as well. That person is going to feel bad if you're going to say it like that." She broke off from the hug before she could thoroughly suffocate. "To think the wife-- lady he is raising doesn't put him in high regard."
Sterne pretended to be deaf and continue, "See here, you never asked me anything, I'm doing this in my own will. As for my reason, let's just say this is something that involves everyone's future. For now, we can only endure while doing our best and hope we get to that goal."
Maelys had a lot of questions in her head. It's not about their unconditional support, she knew they were doing it selflessly. What she wanted to know is why do they put so much faith in her? What did she do to deserve all of it? But in the end, she chose to keep silent, she only needs to believe in Sterne and the Crown Prince. On the other hand, she placed a solemn promise in her heart that she would never betray their expectations.
The conversation ended in a way that Sterne managed to stop Maelys from breaking into a loud cry. She felt quite good.
The gossip persisted for a month. Her ears are more or less numb listening to it then it gradually faded as the weeks passed when the critics grew tired of throwing pointless accusation. After seeing the other party was too lazy to pay them any mind and just went on with her training, they all tasted what frustration is like. Aside from that, they failed to shake the Warrior Division despite attacking one of their students. Half a year and they are still irrevocably dedicated.
But Royce felt this is still far from over.
Three months after the beginning of the school year, Warrior Division, Regular Class is finally ready to accept requests. Fifty-one fresh blood were sent to different towns for their first mission. Sterne, the newly demoted Royce and five more classmates were sent to the town of Marcel to investigate the landowner.