iIt was beyond a disaster; it was a catastrophe!
“What did you do?” Estella hissed as she hurried after Nox toward their dorm room. She clutched the bag of honey custard pies in her hand, but there was an urge to fling them at him, consequences be damned.
She was trying to resist that urge. And she was failing.
In front of her, she heard Nox sighed. “You can throw Astra at me for all I care, Master. It won’t change anything.”
Her rage erupted. There was the smell of burning paper and pies, but Estella didn’t care. “Of course it won’t, you idiot! You challenged the son of a governor in a duel! Do you even know what that means?”
They’ve reached the dorms. Estella leaned on the wall with one hand for support, her chest heaving. Only her rage kept her legs from buckling under her.
Standing in front of the door, Nox turned to face her. His face was a mask of worry, but that didn’t really suppressed her anger. “Master, I…” He sighed. “How strong is he?”
A mirthless laugh bubbled escaped Estella’s throat. “As you are now, you can’t defeat him. But that’s not the point, is it?” She scowled. “If you lose, you’ll get expelled!”
“I passed the first Assessment Exam. I still have—“
“No, you don’t get it.” Estella inhaled sharply, then released the air in a controlled breath. Breathe. It was going to be okay. She shook her head, meeting his gaze. “In this school, if a Squire challenges a Knight, and the son of a government official at that, the Squire will be expelled if they lost.”
He had the decency to be speechless at that, easing some of Estella’s rage. But even so, it wouldn’t help them get out of the mess they were in. “Now, do you understand?”
Slowly, Nox nodded. “Yes. I have to defeat him.”
Estella groaned. Since when did he become so naive? So sure of himself? She straightened and pushed past him with a growl, entering the lounge. As he followed her and closed the door, she whirled around.
“You can’t defeat him!” she snarled. “For the Goddess’s sake, Karsos is ranked five among the Wielders in this school! Not even Aldros could beat him, and we were trained together!”
Her head swam, and before Estella knew it, she had collapsed on the nearest sofa. She buried her face into her hands, the tears threatening to spill. She wanted to scream, or burn the whole place for all she cared.
It was over. Nox could never defeat Karsos, and at the end of their duel, he would be expelled. She would lose her Squire, and she would never be able to graduate with high grades, Knight Second Class or not.
Her dreams, her goals, all of them gone.
Warmth enveloped her hands. Estella looked up through tear-clouded eyes, seeing Nox kneeling in front of her. He grasped her hands, placing his own over them, a comforting warmth seeping through his skin.
“Do you trust me?” he asked softly.
Estella hesitated, then nodded. “I do.” She even trusted Nox with her life.
“And do you trust yourself?”
He smiled, and some of her fears melted at that. “Then please do not worry, Ella. You’ve trained me well for the past three months. The Intra-School Competition is still two months away. There’s plenty of time.”
“Two months will not be enough to match Karsos’s skills.” Estella wanted to hope; she wanted to believe. But she had experienced how Karsos fought. He was ruthless, fierce, and unyielding. Nox couldn’t—
“It’s enough. I’ll think of something,” he assured her, planting a kiss on the top of her hand.
Another argument bubbled in her throat. But seeing Nox’s smile, his confidence, and hearing his reassuring words—Estella could only sigh and nod in response.
“Then I will trust you, Nox,” she murmured. “Please, you have to win. For both of us.”
He smiled again. And his smile eased her worries.
The weeks passed so swiftly Estella was sure that Fate itself wanted the duel to happen soon. But not yet; they still had three more weeks left.
Nox’s training and preparations were grueling, even more so than before the Assessment Exam. The Intra-School Competition would test a Wielder’s skill in wielding their Animarta and their proficiency in magic. It was not for the weak, and the duels were brutal and unforgiving.
News of Nox’s challenge to Karsos had spread faster than a wildfire. By the third week, even the nearby villages and towns were gossiping about it. Estella often ignored the hushed conversations whenever she passed a group of gossiping students in the hallways.
She knew what they kept saying; Nox wouldn’t win. Nox could never win.
She didn’t pay them any attention and marched on with a blank expression. They had not seen Nox’s training, or his determination. They had not seen his resolve.
Most of all, they didn’t know about his growing power.
Estella could feel it whenever they sparred. The Resonance was stronger, clearer. It explained why Nox could hear her thoughts, and she made sure to hide her mind whenever they weren’t training. If they exploited it well, Nox could defeat Karsos.
She couldn’t use it yet, though. But Estella knew it was only a matter of time before she could hear his thoughts. And then they would be unstoppable in battle.
The door to Lady Lyris’s class stood ajar. Estella slipped inside, taking a seat at the front row. There was no one else except for her and Lady Lyris, so she spent the time compiling Karsos’s strengths and weaknesses on a notebook. She already told these to Nox, but a list that she could read whenever wouldn’t be bad, either.
Soon, the third-years filed inside. Aldros sat down next to her, placing a thick book on the table.
“How’s the training going?” he asked while Lady Lyris did a roll call.
“He’s improving a lot,” Estella said. “Erian?”
He grunted. “He is, though probably not as much as your Nox. But enough for me to take him to our field trip.”
Estella nearly jumped at that. She forgot about their annual field trip! “It’s next month, isn’t it?”
Aldros stared at her incredulously. “You’ve forgotten? Ella, it’s two weeks from now.”
Shit. Estella groaned, her forehead hitting the table with a dull thud. Field trips were part vacation, part expedition. Students would explore a location and, depending on the teachers’ discretions, must bring back an artifact or write a report of their discoveries. It was also a way to test a Knight and a Squire’s teamwork.
But that needed preparation. And Estella hadn’t really thought about it until now.
“Really, Ella,” Aldros sighed. “I thought you’ve learned from last year.”
“Don’t remind me about last year,” she snapped. “It’s not my fault that Dame Isirya wanted to go deeper into that cave. That idiot.”
Aldros shook his head. “She’s a general now, in case you’ve forgotten too. Badmouthing her is disrespectful.”
“I’m a princess, in case you’ve forgotten that. I can badmouth her whenever I like.”
The class soon began, but Estella’s mind was too preoccupied to properly listen to Lady Lyris’s lecture. By the end of it, she couldn’t remember much of what had been discussed, though she was quite certain it involved demons and Animartas.
That evening, Estella informed Nox about the field trip. It would be his first time, so she explained what to expect and listed all the things they needed to bring.
“Where would it take place?” he asked, flipping through the notebook he always had whenever they were discussing school matters.
“Coltar Ruins,” Estella answered, sitting beside him.
Nox furrowed his brows. “Isn’t that a little too far and unexplored for a field trip?”
“It may be a field trip, but it’s also an expedition, remember?” she pointed out. “We’re Wielders. One of our jobs is to map out unexplored locations, especially ruins.”
“Seems like a tall order for Knights-in-training,” he said with a grunt. Despite that, there didn’t seem to be any fear in his eyes, though Estella could detect the worry in them.
“We’ll be fine,” she assured him. Expeditions like this were often safe, and Lady Lyris would be accompanying them. Estella was confident that the field trip would go smoothly.
“Let’s hope you’re right, Ella.”
The worry never left her Squire’s eyes, however, even as they went to sleep.
Thank you for reading!