Soft melody played in the background, and Estella hummed along with the tune as she twirled her wine glass in a gentle motion, sloshing the dark red liquid inside. Parties bore her most of the time, even back in the palace. But for this she would gladly make an exception.

After all, she would be leaving the Academy tomorrow and finally return home after three long years.

Emotions raged inside her. On one hand, she was glad that her studies were over. At last, she could follow her dream of serving in the Royal Army and helping her kingdom. But then that would mean leaving everything she had come to love…

They had talked about it during the weeks that followed after the final exams. Nox was adamant that he would be fine; as a Class B Knight, he could get more privileges next year and a lot of options after he graduated. He could follow her if he wanted, and he promised that he would.

And that was the problem. Estella knew that she would like receive a position and an assignment days after her return. She wouldn’t see Nox for months, maybe even until his graduation, and that was enough to make her stomach start twisting into knots.

Are you afraid that someone will try to seduce me while you’re gone? his teasing question came, clear and sharp through their Resonance.

Estella didn’t hide her displeasure. Yes.

Relax. I’m not that kind of guy. I’m only yours, now and forever.

As I am yours. She managed a smile at that. Where are you anyway? The dance will start soon.

Talking with the Headmaster. I’ll be with you soon.

Knowing the Headmaster, it would be a while before Nox finished talking with him. Estella spent the next few minutes drinking her wine and looking around, merely observing and listening. The celebration was held in the Great Hall, and all of the students and teachers mingled, conversations and laughter filling the area.

“Why are you alone?”

Estella looked up and smiled. “I can say the same for you. Nice suit, by the way.”

Aldros snorted and sat beside her on an empty chair. Dressed in grey and his hair oiled, he looked both intimidating and handsome at the same time. “Thought I’d join you for a moment. Our Squires seem to have forgotten that we exist.”

Estella laughed softly. She had seen Erian talking with a nice-looking girl earlier. “Let them have fun. We were much the same last year.”

“That’s true.” He glanced at her sideways. “Are you having fun?”

Humming in thought, it took Estella a few seconds before she answered, “I am. We are finally graduating, Al.”

“After three years.” He sighed. “You still planning to enlist?”

Estella hesitated briefly. “I’m considering.”

There was a pause. Aldros regarded her curiously. “It’s Nox, right?”

“Yes. It’s going to be a long year for the both of us.” She took a sip of her wine, then finally admitted, “I don’t know. I’ve always wanted to serve Faven, but now…”

“You’re not sure.” It wasn’t a statement. Aldros had known her for so long they were like brother and sister already; they could understand each other.

She nodded. “I… want to stay with him longer. One year isn’t just enough. And a year without him seems…” She shook her head and filled her lungs with air.

He was silent for a moment. “Why don’t you stay?” he said at last.

She glanced at him curiously. “What do you mean?”

“Well, it seems to me that you no longer have the heart for your dream.” He shrugged. “And I thought, why bother pursuing it further when your heart is elsewhere?”

He was right about that. Nox had stolen her heart the moment they had first dueled, and now Estella’s heart was with him; wherever he chose to go, she would follow. “How do I stay with him?”

“Well, that’s something you need to think about. Preferably with him.” He pointed ahead. “Speaking of the demon.”

There was no need for Aldros to indicate Nox’s approach. Estella could already sense him even as they talk.

What worries she had were immediately pushed to the back of her mind as soon as she saw him. Dressed in a black suit that matched the color of his eyes and contrasted with her silver dress, Estella’s heart skipped, as it always did tonight whenever her eyes laid on him. Calling Nox handsome would be an understatement, and she tried to keep her face neutral, hiding her embarrassment.

Aldros stood up just as Nox drew near. “I’ll best be off. The dance is starting soon. Nice suit, Sir Nox.”

Nox smiled and dipped his head. “And yours as well, Sir Aldros.”

Aldros chuckled, patting him on the shoulder before striding away. Nox watched him leave, then raised an eyebrow at Estella. “What was that about?”

She shook her head. “It’s nothing… I guess.”

“You guess? You look worried, Ella.” He touched her shoulder lightly. “Are you all right?”

She hesitated. “You can read my mind. Can’t you tell?”

“No,” Nox answered slowly with a hint of a smile. “Before, I can read it easily. But lately your mind is shielded enough from mine.” He held up a hand to forestall her apology. “It’s fine. You need that.”

Estella wasn’t sure if it was fine, but she nodded. “Sorry. I had a lot on my mind.”

Nox hummed in thought and offered his hand as the Headmaster announced the start of the dance. “Well, I know a way to clear your mind. May I have this dance, Princess?”

And Estella laughed as she placed her hand on top of his, her heart swelling with joy. She rose to her feet, and they strode to the dance floor to join the others.

They flowed in time with the music, a slow and somehow romantic melody. The steps were simple, but Estella wondered if Nox had practiced at all; he seemed natural and calm. “Is this your first time?” she asked as he twirled her once.

“Dancing with you, yes. But if you mean dancing itself, no. My village often held dancing parties. It’s different, but not too much that I can’t follow the steps in this one.”

“Someday, you’ll have to take me to your village.”

He smiled, and there was a tinged of sadness in his voice as he said, “Someday.”

“Someday,” she murmured and met his gaze, the eyes that was as dark as abyss and had drawn her to him. They were beautiful, and they were somehow frightening. Had it really been only nine month since she had first gazed upon them? Oh, the things she would give up just to see them every moment.

“Ella?” Nox asked in concern.

She ignored him, and kept staring at those dark depths—a pool which she would gladly drown herself in. And at last she knew what to do. She hid the idea from him, but she would offer something that she knew Nox wouldn’t forget until they meet again.

“Have I been a good master?” she asked softly.

Nox seemed taken aback by the question. “Of course you are.” He kissed the knuckles of the hand he held. “I couldn’t ask for a better teacher. Have I been a good Squire?”

“The best,” she whispered, her heart drumming at the thought of what she was about to say, what they were about to do soon when everyone else was already asleep. “Do you remember what I told you before?”

His brows furrowed, and she just opened her mind wide enough that he understood. “Oh, the gift.”

“Yes.” She twirled again, spinning round and round as the music reach its climax. “It is a tradition in the school for graduating Knights to leave a gift to their Squires.”

“Another painting?”

And then the dance was over, and the final steps sent Estella pressing her body deeply into Nox. As the audiences applauded the performance, she opened her mind fully even as she brushed her lips onto his. “Come to my room tonight.”

He blinked. There was no surprise, no shock. Estella could feel his own desires passing through the Resonance, but there was hesitation, even worry. “Are you sure?”

“I’m on protection if that’s what you are worried about,” she said with a small grin.

And he laughed, a clear sound that nearly made Estella’s heart leap out of her chest in joy. He smiled and cupped her cheeks gently, bringing their lips together once more.

As they drew apart, Nox smiled. “I will be more than happy to receiive your gift, my princess.”

Kenneth Villa Creator

Only one chapter left before book 1 ends!