Actions

Work Header

My Friend, the Pope (in-training)

Chapter Text

I first met him at the selection for the next Sun Knight. In the beginning, I did not pay him any more attention than I paid the other candidates. We all wanted to become the Sun Knight. That was all I knew about him and the others. However, as both of us were orphans and largely avoided by the other candidates, we soon drifted together. He wasn't someone I normally would have been interested in, but his persistence made it so that I had to acknowledge his presence.

That, and he needed my help.

You would think that his blond hair and blue eyes would be cause for admiration, but it wasn't so among the Sun Knight candidates. Few of the candidates possessed the features of the Sun Knight of legends -- the closest was sandy blond hair and another possessed dark blue eyes, never the right combination -- yet there he was, the spitting image of the dazzling, legendary Sun Knight. All he had to do was smile to complete the picture.

His appearance alone had garnered the attention of all of the candidates. They watched him, hawk-like, waiting to see if he would live up to his appearance, or if he would fail. It was not admiration they regarded him with, but rather jealousy and bitterness over his natural advantage against the rest of us.

I noticed none of this. So focused was I on the various tests administered during the selection that I didn't notice until things came to a head, forcing me to see.

Five against one.

Never would I turn my back on such a situation, but neither had I ever considered that there would be bullies among us. I immediately jumped in front of him, blocking his bruised body from the other boys. Fury overcame me, and I swore that none of the boys before me would become the next Sun Knight. I managed to take them on and ward them off, but I would soon realize that they weren't going to give up so easily. I hadn't managed to solve a single thing and had only managed to paint the target darker.

When I turned to help him up, reaching out a hand, I saw that his wounds were more severe than I had thought, but he still tried to smile at me, wincing the moment he attempted to do so. His hands gripped mine tightly. I pulled him up, adamant about taking him to see the clerics, but he tugged me back.

I turned.

He introduced himself as Grisia. I told him my name, Roland.

Then, I watched, mesmerized, as he touched his fingers to his face, fingertips glowing, injuries disappearing. Dropping his hands, he looked up at me, bruises completely gone, and smiled widely, dazzlingly, without wincing at all.

That was the day we became friends even though I hadn't known that was what we were until much later. Grisia had to spell it out for me, as he often had to do with such matters. When he did, I couldn't stop myself from smiling and wondering if my smile was anything like the dazzling one he had shown me.

I doubted it.

At the dinner table that first night, Grisia brought his plate over to mine and sat down without asking, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for us to hang out together. That was exactly what we did from then onward. Grisia would always come to find me even though I was sure that I wasn't a very interesting person at all.

Grisia was not at all like anyone else I had ever known before. He was both brave and cowardly at the same time, a walking contradiction. He could stand up for me against the toughest of our rivals, never once considering abandoning me, yet he would flee in the face of a small dog, afraid of getting bitten. He would jump into a fight without a second thought if he saw someone in need, yet he was adamant about not fighting fights that he couldn't win, his actions and his words not matching up.

Was he brave, or was he cowardly? I couldn't figure it out.

What I did understand was that despite that we both wished to become the Sun Knight, we were as different as different could be. He was lively whereas I was not. He could smile and make it feel like the sun had managed to break through the clouds whereas I could not. He could worm into people's hearts whereas I had little idea about where to start.

He was every bit what a Sun Knight should be, but at the same time, he was not. Yet another contradiction. It was true that his smile was brilliant, but he would never be a very good holy knight ability-wise. Try as he might, he could not wield a sword nor ride a horse. This failure of his caused many a snicker among the candidates, all certain that there was very little chance that Grisia would ever be chosen as a holy knight, let alone the next Sun Knight.

I did not despair nor did I rejoice. I only felt saddened that we might not be able to stay together. I had to admit that we were meant to walk down different paths in our lives, but I also wanted to believe that our lives, although different, would still be intertwined, like threads of cloth woven together.

That was what made me open my mouth to tell Grisia my hopes for the future. I wished so hard for it to become true, for I did not want to part from my very first friend.

"Grisia, if you aren’t chosen as the Sun Knight, then being a cleric wouldn’t be too bad either! Then you’d be able to help heal my injuries in the future."

I spoke from the heart. I would never forget his smile and the ease at which he had healed his injuries. It was something I could not even hope to copy. It was a gift, a priceless talent, and it would be a pity not to use it.

My wish came true, even beyond my wildest hopes.

On the day that I was chosen as the next Sun Knight, Grisia was chosen as the next Pope, leaving the current Sun Knight grumbling about losing his back-up Sun Knight candidate.

Grisia and I were both shocked he had even been considered.

Chapter Text

Although my teacher said I would eventually grow accustomed to interrogations, I wasn't able to envision such a future when I first started out. Interrogations nearly always came with a visit to the bathroom, and there I would bend over, throat burning as I heaved.

It was after my first interrogation as the Judgment Knight-in-training that Sun Knight Neo brought over his successor, Roland, and it was through Roland that I later met him. I did not understand why Sun Knight had brought Roland to the Judge's Complex. Were they here to witness my failure or to condemn me for being cruel? I had seen Roland in passing before, but I had never truly spoken with him. I did not know what he was actually like.

With my teacher standing behind me and Roland's teacher standing behind him, we regarded each other awkwardly. Even after Roland's teacher gave him a nudge, he did not start speaking. I did not know what to say either. I tried not to shuffle my feet. My stomach was queasy, and I was in no state of mind to put on a facade.

I truly had much to learn. Even if I weren't so hampered, I would still be unable to completely adopt the demeanor of the Judgment Knight. Teacher had been in the same room as me during the interrogation, yet he appeared completely fine, expression unchanging. I, on the other hand, felt so upset that I might throw up. I tried to tell my stomach to calm down. It would not do for me to vomit on the future Sun Knight. Wouldn't that be the best impression to make?

Teacher placed a comforting hand on my shoulder, breaking me out of my depressing thoughts. I followed that hand up with my eyes. Teacher looked back at me, and although he didn't smile, I thought he might be trying to reassure me. The slight furrow between his brows was most likely concern for me.

How long would it take me before I could appear as unruffled and imposing as my teacher? I thought myself ready back when I naively drew my dagger against Teacher in want of revenge, but remembering my past folly only made me feel embarrassed now. I had been so naive then, thinking that justice could be so easily dealt by the mere act of drawing a blade. If justice could be dealt in such a way by a single person, that person could only be playing at being god, and there would be no need for the law.

Despite Teacher's attempt at reassuring me, it was not enough to keep my tears at bay with the Sun Knights standing before me, seemingly accusing me of cruelty. My eyes grew moist. I could not stop myself from remembering what I had done in the interrogation room and from recalling my naive self who had wanted to deal justice by pulling out a single dagger.

I quickly lowered my head in hopes that Teacher would not see the expression that had taken over my face.

Dealing justice was so much harder than what my naive self had thought. Shame burned through me for ever thinking differently, for belittling what Teacher had to do everyday.

I blinked my eyes hard, willing my eyes to stay dry, willing myself not to appear weak in front of not only Teacher, but also my future leader and the Sun Knight, but it was for naught. The future Sun Knight, Roland, had already seen my moment of weakness. He looked at me with a frown and finally spoke. "What has upset you?"

Even as Roland asked, his teacher, Sun Knight Neo, shook his head of dazzlingly blond hair and said, "Roland, must Teacher remind you once more to keep the God of Light in your heart at all times?"

The smile on Sun Knight's face was not a reassuring one. In fact, I felt the urge to hide behind my teacher. If not for my teacher's hand, which was still holding me in place, I would have done it.

In fact, Teacher, instead of holding me to reassure me, was probably trying to keep me from running away and hiding in the bathroom.

Roland frowned some more. "Teacher, surely the God of Light has nothing to do with what has upset Lesus."

Sun Knight flicked his eyes up, as if in prayer, and said, "The God of Light has to do with everything, be it having enough to eat or even going about your business in the bathroom!" Then, he poked Roland right in the middle of his forehead where his frown had made the area between his eyebrows wrinkle. "Keep frowning, Roland, and you will have wrinkles even before you hit twenty. Can't you smile? What happened to the smile I saw the other day? Teacher knows you are hiding a smile somewhere."

Roland touched his forehead. He hesitated and said, "I was only remembering something Grisia said then."

"Grisia, again? That child..." Sun Knight shook his head, grumbling under his breath, "That old geezer's student better not corrupt mine..." In a louder voice, he said, "Well, what are you waiting for? If you must, think of something Grisia said. I expect to see a smile on your face!"

At the time, I did not know who this Grisia was, only that he was likely to be a good friend of Roland's. I did not know he would become mine too. Roland obeyed his teacher's orders and started thinking hard. Not a moment later, a snort escaped from him. He quickly clamped his hand over his mouth.

I watched the scene before me with wide eyes, my queasiness forgotten. Sun Knight shook his head and flicked his eyes up again. I had been mistaken earlier. I thought he had been looking skyward for the God of Light's guidance but...

Was he actually rolling his eyes in exasperation?

My teacher squeezed my shoulder, and he leaned down to whisper to me.

"See, Lesus? You are not the only one who is still practicing how to appear in public. You are not alone."

Then, he let go of me and gave me a gentle nudge toward Roland.

"Practice together," he said.

However, when Roland turned toward me with a small smile on his face, one that was entirely out of place, and said, "Lesus, you did a good job with that criminal. He definitely deserved a severe punishment. Although you flogged the skin right off of him, it is not your fault," several things happened all at once.

First, Sun Knight smacked his own face. Very ungracefully.

Second, images of the flogging I dealt the criminal surfaced again, and I could no longer keep my queasiness down.

Third, Roland was now looking at me with alarm. My face must have turned green.

I covered my mouth and pushed past Roland, running madly towards the bathroom in the Judge's Complex.

Behind me, both Roland's teacher and mine sighed.

"Chasel," the Sun Knight lamented, "We really should have switched students. Roland would have made a fine Judgment Knight!"

It was with more and more growing unease that I ran off, praying that my teacher wouldn't take the Sun Knight seriously. I didn't want to be switched!

Chapter Text

During one of my joint hair dyeing sessions with Roland, I met his friend, the pope-in-training.

Well, "met" is probably not the right word to describe our first encounter, as it makes it sound like we came across each other and exchanged pleasantries or something along those lines, and that wasn't quite what happened.

At the time, Roland and I were in his room, mixing and applying our hair dyes. We had to make our own hair dyes, since we had already used up the bottles our teachers gave us to start us off. They'd refused to give us more, explaining that it was now our responsibility to acquire hair dye, whether we bought it or made our own.

Buying it would be quicker, but as holy knights-in-training who didn't receive much pay, we were pretty much dirt poor, and after my teacher's warning about thoroughly concealing my identity while buying the hair dye so as not to let the public find out the Storm Knight didn't naturally have blue hair, I just thought it easier to make my own hair dye instead. I doubted anyone believed that there really were people out there born with blue hair, but as the Storm Knight-in-training, it was my duty to maintain the image of the Storm Knight passed down through the ages. I definitely did not want to be the one destroying that image!

At first, I had been dismayed at the tasks given to us, both having to dye our hair and having to acquire the hair dye for doing so, but I was at least consoled by the fact that I would not be alone in this. Roland would be dyeing his hair just as much as I would be dyeing mine. At the time we received the news, I'd darted my eyes at him, sneaking a look at his serious face. He'd accepted his teacher's instructions without a single complaint. I'd quickly copied his expression and nodded at my teacher as solemnly as I could, trying to indicate that I too knew how important the task was.

I soon found out, however, that it was not that Roland thought hair dyeing to be a grave matter -- he was just a very serious person who took everything seriously, be it a task from his teacher or a pursuit of his own. Often, I would see Roland practicing at the training grounds after hours. From time to time, the Sun Knight would stand and watch, head shaking.

Maybe Roland was even taking it too far.

"This child is no fun..." I once heard the Sun Knight mutter. However, it must have been a figment of my imagination, for in the very next second, the Sun Knight sported a smile on his face as he drew his sword and joined Roland in his training. They were always a sight to see.

The point was, whether it was dyeing his hair or practicing his sword, Roland faced everything with the same seriousness. Since he had been ordered to dye his hair, as the Sun Knight must have dazzling blond hair just like how the Storm Knight must have bewitching blue hair, he would habitually dye his hair way before his roots started showing. Roland would come to me and gesture to his hair, indicating that it was that time again, the time to maintain our hair together. Whenever this happened, I would nod. Then, after completing my duties for the day, I would bring over a basin and all of my hair dyeing supplies to Roland's room, which was larger than mine.

This time was no different. First, we focused on preparing our own hair dyes, grinding the materials and mixing them. Then, we took turns dyeing the other person's hair. As I helped Roland apply his hair dye, I conversationally said, "You know, Roland, if you didn't cut your hair so much, it would grow slower and you wouldn't have to dye it so often, I think."

I figured that was how hair had to work. After all, people were always telling me that cutting my hair would make it grow better and faster, so the opposite had to be true too.

With my gloves on, I lifted part of Roland's hair -- it was indeed very short -- to get at the strands close to his scalp. Like always, I barely saw any brown peeking out. Roland was very diligent... But we probably needed to ease up a bit if we didn't want to ruin our hair before we even became the official Twelve Holy Knights. We still had many more years to go.

I would always remember what Roland said next. I had never pegged him as a hair expert, and he really wasn't one, so it was surprising hearing him talk about the intricacies of hair. Roland glanced at me through the mirror and said, "I don't think that's true. Grisia told me that cutting your hair makes it healthier because the split ends get trimmed, but it doesn't make your hair grow faster. Hair grows at a fixed rate."

Apparently, the topic had come up between them before when this Grisia person had first seen Roland's dyed hair, and Roland had pondered about the rate of his hair growth and how often he would need to dye his hair.

I immediately wondered who this Grisia was, this person who knew so much about hair and who was even talking with Roland about it. Not a lot of people even knew that Roland didn't naturally have golden hair. Getting Roland to dye his hair was one of the first things the Sun Knight had Roland do. The only reason I even knew Roland's hair color wasn't natural was because my teacher was the hair dyeing expert. He had been super smug when the Sun Knight had come to him for assistance, so smug that he had even let me out early from my character training class that day, saving himself a lot of frustration too. It can't be very fun trying to teach me how to flirt. You'd have a better time trying to teach a rock than trying to teach me, and that's saying something.

Roland's eyes darted toward my hair through the mirror. "Is that why you're growing your hair out? You're hoping it will grow slower the longer it gets?"

My hair was now past my shoulders. I hadn't had it cut ever since I had been chosen as the next Storm Knight. I planned on growing it even longer.

"Sort of," I mumbled, hoping he wouldn't dig further. If growing my hair out didn't make it...grow slower, that did defeat half the purpose, and even I thought my second reason to be silly. I swiped at his hair some more and shifted my eyes away from his reflection. I tried to keep myself busy, but it didn't work.

"What's the other reason?" Roland still asked.

I gave his hair a tug, small revenge for Roland's straightforwardness, but I couldn't blame him for wanting to know. I'd be curious too. Face warming, I murmured quietly, "I thought it would be a good confidence booster, considering how I'm not exactly the largest person around."

Roland was much taller than me, and so was Georgo and Chikus. It wasn't just height either. I was too slim. I felt tiny next to them. Nothing like a holy knight. I really needed my growth spurt. Like, yesterday.

"So, you're compensating with your hair?" Roland asked in reply, a small, amused smile tugging at his lips. It looked good on him -- it made him look kind. He'd confessed that he wasn't very good at smiling, but I thought he was going to do just fine. At least, much better than me and flirting. I just wished he wasn't so amused over my situation! I was already embarrassed enough!

"He must be doing the same..." Roland murmured and chuckled before looking back at me. I almost thought he was laughing at me until his words registered -- he was amused because of someone else.

I didn't know who exactly he thought was doing the same as me. I had a guess, but I wasn't sure. I was just glad he wasn't laughing at me. I swallowed. "I guess... I am. Sort of. I mean, you've seen how long the Judgment Knight's hair is, right? And well, he is one of the most impressive and confident people I know."

And by having long hair, I meant really, really, reaaaally long hair. Chasel Judgment's hair reached below his waist. Coupled with his black robes, he was always a swirl of flowing darkness. If I could even obtain half of his impressiveness, I would be all set.

Roland looked contemplative. "You're right. Even my teacher defers to him, and my teacher..."

He stopped halfway in his sentence, seemingly not knowing how to finish it. Knowing Roland, he was probably too respectful to badmouth his own teacher. Instead, he said, "It seems impractical to grow your hair out."

"Has your teacher said anything about long hair?" I wondered. Sun Knight's hair came to his shoulders, though it was far shorter than Judgment Knight's. It seemed likely that he would want his student to grow his hair out. Instead, Roland's hair was cropped fairly short. It only reached slightly past his ears.

Brows furrowed, Roland replied, "He did suggest that I grow my hair out, but then he changed his mind."

"Really? Why?" I asked, curious.

Roland opened his mouth, but I never did find out why. In the very next moment, the door burst open with a blast of holy light even more effective than the Blaze Knight's foot.

"Roland, you'll never guess what I learned today!" a cheerful voice exclaimed from the door. Immediately afterward, I heard a sharp intake of breath, and the voice scolded, "Roland Sun! Don't you love the God of Light anymore? Tsk tsk! Bringing a girl to your room!"

I stared at the small figure at the door. If I didn't know better, I would have thought the person to be Neo Sun's child, but the Sun Knight was only allowed to love the God of Light and never women, so surely he didn't have any children.

Still, blond hair and blue eyes... and hair around the same length too. However... such a hairstyle on Neo Sun made him look strong. On this teenager... it only made him look feminine. He really had no room to talk, considering I'd only just realized he wasn't a girl. Combined with his small stature, I'd say that he looked more like a girl than me!

"Grisia might be compensating too," Roland said to me, amused smile back on his face.

So this was Grisia, and this was the person Roland must have been chuckling about. I didn't think this person would look more like the Sun Knight than Roland did. If I were Roland, I would definitely diligently dye my hair too.

I looked at Grisia, who was possibly even shorter than me but whose hair was quite long, and replied, "I think you're right."

That was how I first met Grisia, the pope-in-training. Right after our quips -- he hadn't been very happy about them -- he showed us exactly what he had learned that day.

Let's just say... Appearances are very deceiving!

Chapter Text

If I were to answer the question of how I met him, I could only say that it was the mission that led our paths to cross.

By "the mission," I mean my first mission, which also happens to be the last my teacher would ever give me.

"Sorry, lad," my teacher had said in a gruff voice. "I owe it to the brat." With an apologetic look and barely any explanation at all, my teacher sent me off to the Sanctuary of Light to see the Pope.

Determined to prove to my teacher that I was a capable holy knight, I went without complaint. Eagerly, even. It was my very first mission, after all, and I wanted to impress. I didn't know that I was taking my last steps in the Holy Temple, and that I would be bidding goodbye to the place before I even came to consider it home. I hadn't even made any lasting friendships or memories.

One blond-haired, blue-eyed boy, however, was going to change all of that. Over the years, I regretted a great many things during my time undercover, but I never ever regretted making friends with him. Or well, I should say, I never ever regretted it... very much, making friends with this person who even played a trick on me the very first time we met.

(He would always claim that I was gullible. It was ironic that someone like me had been chosen as a spy, or perhaps that was exactly the reason I'd been chosen. I never really understood what Grisia meant by that.)

I remember standing outside the heavy door of the designated prayer room, taking in deep breaths to calm myself. I wondered if the Pope would be a wise, old man who would find my posture slacking. The very thought made me stand up straighter. I quickly knocked on the door, wanting to get it over with before I lost my nerves.

"Come in!" an excited voice exclaimed before I heard a cough, and the tone changed, becoming much more subdued. "Ahem, come in."

Confused, I pushed the door open.

A golden-haired child stood at the other side of the room, back facing me. Sunlight spilled in from the window above, bathing the figure in an ethereal glow.

My voice caught at the sight.

Was I in the presence of a heavenly being?

I gulped. I glanced around nervously, not finding anyone else about. "I'm here to see...the Pope?" I finally managed to say. I was not entirely sure what I was here for. I only knew it was a mission. "Is he around?"

The figure turned, face obscured by a veil. I could not tell if the person was a girl or a boy with their face concealed, and their billowy robes made it even harder to tell. Given their height, however, I guessed that they were probably around my age or younger, so their physical build probably wouldn't help too much either. There wasn't a huge difference between the builds of boys and girls at my age.

Once they saw me, they slowly walked forward out of the patch of sunlight, but even then, they still seemed to glow. I sucked in my breath when they started circling around me and looking me up and down. I hurriedly stood up even straighter, my back aching at the rigid stance. The head of blond hair tilted in thoughtfulness. I could see over their head. I tried to look forward instead of repaying the scrutiny.

"Hm, so you are the boy that Hell has sent me."

I blinked, eyes looking down at the other child before I could help it. The soft voice didn't help me in discerning their gender, but that was no longer at the center of my attention.

Hell? Why would a child be addressing my teacher so familiarly? I half wanted to berate them for being disrespectful, but the otherworldly impression they gave off stayed my tongue. Just who was this person who could address my teacher in such a way?

"Who are you?" I whispered instead, half afraid of the answer.

The child sighed and tsked. "The Pope, who else?"

I stared with large eyes. Surely, I was being tricked. There was no way that the Pope was a child who looked even younger than me... Right?

"This always happens..."

After sighing again, the child gathered holy light into balls and began tossing the balls above us like it was nothing. I looked up, entranced. The room became so bright with the floating lights that I could have easily believed I was outdoors.

"Now, do you believe me?" the child asked while continuing to toss a ball of holy light around, playing with it like it was, well, a normal ball children would play toss with.

I still didn't believe that I was in the presence of the Pope despite the impressive display, but then I recalled what my teacher had said just as he was sending me off. Hadn't he said, "I owe it to the 'brat'?" Was this what he had meant? Could it be that this was indeed the Pope? Who else would have such control over holy light?

"You're the Pope..." I whispered in realization.

The child nodded happily and sent all of the floating balls of holy light to the walls, further demonstrating their control on holy light. The holy light snuggled into the torch holders, taking the place of the torch lights. I'd never thought it possible that holy light could be molded like this and used to light up an entire room.

Throat dry, I quickly bowed, horrified over my lack of manners before my superior. "Good day, my teacher wanted me to see you."

"Yes, I was wondering where you were. Why has it taken you so long?"

I blinked and straightened my back. "I came right after my teacher told me to."

"You must have been dallying. I have been waiting much too long," came a stern reprimand.

My face fell. Had I already botched up my first mission? "I'm sorry-"

Before I could finish apologizing, the child before me doubled over in laughter, veil fluttering, partially revealing the face behind it and a cheeky grin. "Oh my God of Light! How can you be so gullible?"

"What...?"

The child lifted the veil, revealing startling blue eyes that were dancing with mirth. A hand reached up to wipe away some moisture that had gathered, no doubt from laughing so hard. With his face revealed and his voice no longer stilted, I ventured to guess that this was a "he."

"I can't believe you fell for it!" he exclaimed. "Who would believe a boy to be the Pope?"

"Wait, does this mean you're not the Pope?" I asked, confused. At least, he confirmed that he was indeed a boy. Then, I frowned, not liking that I had been tricked.

He grinned and held up his hands to pacify me. "Hey, I wasn't completely lying. Nice to meet you. I'm Grisia, the pope-in-training. I'll be the Pope before you know it!"

Oh. I didn't know if that made things any better.

Then, he looked at his raised hands, shrugged, and stuck one out for me to shake. I looked at it warily, not trusting that he wouldn't trick me again in some other way.

"I'm Elijah," I said slowly. I hesitantly took his hand. He grabbed it with his other hand too and shook it heartily. It was very hard extracting my hand.

"I didn't know the Pope took on any students," I said after I managed to retrieve my hand.

Grisia shrugged. "It's been years since there have been any candidates for the Pope. About time, I'd say. He's getting old."

Right after he spoke, another boy's voice asked in displeasure, "Who's getting old?"

Startled at the sudden voice, I quickly turned around. While Grisia and I had been talking, another person had entered the room. This boy, like Grisia in the beginning, had his face veiled. Another child. But instead of having shining, golden hair, his was a startling white that was incongruous on a child's head. Still, he didn't seem much older than us. At most, he was only a few years older, but enough for his voice change to have kicked in.

Was it required of all those in the Sanctuary of Light to have their face veiled?

Without missing a beat, Grisia said cheerfully, "I was just talking about the Sun Knight!"

The other boy nodded. "Yes, yes, Neo is definitely getting old... but..."

In one swift motion, the boy lifted his hand and sent a zap of lightning at Grisia. Grisia yelped and quickly dodged out of the way of more zaps. I suddenly found myself being used as a shield. I hurriedly looked back and forth between them, alarmed that I was stuck in the middle.

"Don't think I don't know that you've been gossiping about me!" the boy declared while stalking forward.

I hastily backed up.

"That doesn't mean you have to zap me!" Grisia whined and ducked further behind me.

The boy snorted. "You could have blocked that."

At those words, Grisia seemed to perk up. "There's a way to block it?"

"Yes, yes..."

"Teach me!"

I was all but forgotten as the boy demonstrated some kind of defensive spell to Grisia. He started explaining in detail the mechanics behind the spell, but Grisia's eyes just seemed to glaze over.

"Never mind all the mumbo jumbo!" Grisia said. "Is this how you do it?"

He waved his hand. I didn't know what he was doing, but apparently, he'd done it correctly. The other boy swore heavily. I darted my eyes around, hoping no one had heard him. Thankfully, the prayer room was still very empty. I didn't think the adults would like his language very much.

"Damn, if you weren't my student, I'd want to kill you!" He rubbed his forehead as if he had a headache.

Grisia frowned. "Why? Didn't I do it correctly?"

"On your very first try," the boy said. "Usually, it would take someone at least three weeks to learn it. Or longer. Not to mention countless attempts."

"You're just a very good teacher!" Grisia said, laying on the praise thickly.

The boy snorted. "You didn't even hear a word of my explanation."

"Uh..." Grisia looked sheepish. I hadn't known at the time how impressive it was that Grisia was able to learn what had been demonstrated to him in the blink of an eye. I was no expert on magic (but apparently, it was very impressive).

After the strange exchange, the boy finally seemed to notice my presence.

"So you're Hell's student? I see that you have already met Grisia," he said and walked forward, circling around me to examine me much like what Grisia had done earlier.

"That should be 'Hell Knight' to you," I said as I nibbled on my lower lip. Both Grisia and this boy were being very disrespectful toward my teacher.

Beside me, Grisia stiffened. When I looked over, I saw that he had a hand over his mouth and was trying very hard not to look in my direction. What was up with him?

"Oh?" the boy asked. "Don't you know who I am?"

"I don't know who you are, but I do know that you're definitely not the Pope," I said, pleased that I had their trick figured out, "because there is no way that the Pope is a young boy not much older than me."

With that, Grisia burst into laughter, laughing so much that he doubled over again.

I gave him a confused look.

The boy twitched. "Is that so? Well, why don't I show you?"

Even after an impressive display of holy magic, I shook my head. "Sorry, I'm not going to get tricked again! Grisia already tried that on me!"

The boy twitched some more. Grisia laughed even harder. I was alarmed when the boy tried zapping Grisia again, but this time, Grisia was able to block it. It seemed that the impromptu magic lesson had stuck. The boy snorted and grumbled under his breath about how this was Grisia's only saving grace. Why had he decided this was a good idea?

It took my teacher's interference before we finally got the matter straightened out, as I adamantly refused to believe the actual Pope that he was, well, the Pope, no matter what kinds of complicated holy magic he showed me. I thought I had things figured out.

(After all, Grisia had been able to perform impressive feats too.)

It hadn't been funny at the time, but years later, I would look back at the event fondly and think, "It was pretty funny..." At the time, I'd only thought it was the most embarrassing event of my life to have treated the Pope like a little kid who was playing house!

"You're really too gullible," Grisia would always say with a cheeky grin whenever I groaned about the embarrassing mistake I'd made.

I guess I was.

"But that makes for the perfect spy."

I didn't really agree.

Why were we friends again?

Chapter Text

At first, I only knew of him as a voice from beyond the door of my book cabinet, which was smooth on the inside, cool to the touch and quiet on my ears.

Most book cabinets are like that. I can curl up with the door shut, and no light would reach or disturb me.

No light meant no shadows.

No warmth. No nightmares.

In the absence of sound, I would be alone. Forgotten. Safe. All by myself in my small haven.

Only a sliver of light at the edge of the doors ever hinted at the outside world, at the brightness beyond. I was content to stay in the darkness, amidst the familiar smell of moths. Comforting. Harmless.

Out of sight, out of mind.

Even though I switched from the cabinets at home to the cabinets at the Holy Temple, nothing else changed. I continued to hide and keep to myself. At home, the more my sister worried, the more I wanted to escape. Here, my teacher mostly left me on my own, but I still hid. There was much too much light around the Holy Temple, much too many opportunities for me to accidentally spread my darkness. Only alone in the dark, hidden from the light and shadows, would I feel the safest.

Then came his voice from beyond the door.

He was someone who made me want to hide all the more, to cower from his overbearing personality, but like a moth attracted to flames, I couldn't keep away. I'd read about people like him in my storybooks before. He's someone you would call charismatic. Larger than life. Unreal. He often made me wish I had never chosen to step outside. Why couldn't I have been content with just that sliver of light? I had no need to open the door... but I just couldn't stay away.

My books never told me what to do about someone like him. I reached out. I don't know why I did it.

That day, I was huddled in a small cabinet in the library when multiple thuds sounded, and his young voice shouted out in alarm. He was looking for a specific spell book, but he sounded out of luck. Several books must have fallen to the floor in his search.

Who was he? I wondered to myself, lifting my head from my knees. Not a holy knight. At this time of day, most holy knights would be in training except for the Twelve Holy Knights who had a different schedule. He wasn't from my faction. I would know him even if he didn't know me. Could he be one of the other six? I'd only read about them and heard about them in passing. I'd yet to meet them all. Would any of them have need of a spell book? Maybe the young Ice Knight would?

I traced my finger against the crack between the doors, blocking out the light peeking in as I moved my finger down. From time to time, I would hear his mutterings to himself as he continued his search.

I knew of the book he was looking for. It was a beginner's spell book. He was in the wrong section. When I heard his feet plod away -- perhaps he'd gone to peruse another section of the library -- I climbed out of the cabinet, the image of the book burned in my mind. Without thinking, I practiced the Cloud Steps that my teacher was trying to teach me, drifting to the shelf I recalled, and pulled out the book. I ran my fingers across the cover and flipped open the book. The text inside detailed several spells and the steps it would take to cast them. I placed the book on the table for him to find.

Looking up at the other shelf, I saw that he had replaced the books that had fallen, but they were not in the right place. I pulled over a stool to reach up and reorganize the books, my hand lingering on the velvety spines.

I suppose one thing did change when I came to the Holy Temple. There were many books here, lovingly written with fine penmanship. I could run my hands across the ink all day and never get bored. Worlds upon worlds awaited my exploration, knowledge at my fingertips.

The best thing was, books don't lie. Books don't hurt you, and they can't get hurt either.

"Where in the world is that book..."

His voice startled me. I dropped my hand and stepped off of the stool. I climbed into the nearest empty cabinet.

"Ow! What the, who left this here... Huh? Where did this book come from?"

A clatter, and then a scrape along the floor, like a chair being pulled along. He didn't linger on wondering why the book was there for long. Pages were flipped, and an inhalation of breath followed. "Is this even real language? Nothing makes sense!"

More pages were flipped. I traced the bottom of the cabinet. This one was dusty. Then came, "Ugh, I give up!"

A second later, he already changed his mind. "No, no, I'll show him! I can definitely understand the theory too!"

I tilted my head. Was the book that difficult to understand? It had looked simple enough.

Even though there was no one else about, he seemed to enjoy speaking out loud and treating the book like a foe to be defeated.

He came back often after that. I pulled out more books for him whenever he came, making sure he didn't see a trace of me. It was very good practice for me, and my teacher seemed to be impressed with the result.

Some books were even my suggestions, including a book that had drawings about how magic worked. It would be easier to understand than one without them. Even I was able to understand it better than the other book despite my lack of training in elemental spells.

I still didn't know what he looked like nor who he was. All I knew was his voice, his exclamations, his frustrated groans. He was livelier than I could ever be. I would hug my knees to myself and listen to him each time. It was kind of like consuming a storybook, except this story was being told to me, with his words painting images of a brilliant world outside of mine.

He came for all sorts of spell books. I guessed that he must be an apprentice mage. He had a habit of muttering under his breath, so I'd figured out that his teacher was not pleased with his lack of knowledge of the basics and wanted him to study from the ground up. This was to be his punishment for something he had done, or else his teacher would not teach him further. I had not known we had mages among us.

Today was much the same, filled with his mutterings. I chanced leaving a larger crack in my door to listen to his ramblings. Sometimes, it was mutterings about a spell being incomprehensible. Sometimes, it was complaints about this and that.

Today, it seemed to be the latter.

"No time, he says! How can he have no time when all he does is practice his sword! I just wanted a pie! Is that really so much to ask for?"

I heard huffing, and the complaints continued as pages were flipped. He didn't sound like he was reading the book."I knew it. I knew that Roland's condition would worsen after getting trained by that demon of a man."

Roland? What condition?

It was the first time I'd actually heard a name mentioned. He often used descriptions instead, like "that girly, hair-obsessed fellow" and "mister dark bundle of negativity," conjuring vivid images in my mind.

I didn't need a description for Roland though. He was to be my Sun Knight, and while he could have been speaking of a different Roland, I was sure that I was not wrong, unless there was another Roland out there that greatly enjoyed swordplay.

While I pondered over how they knew each other, I heard him mutter about needing a different book. I knew of this book too, plans of getting the book already forming in my mind. When I heard his footsteps retreat, I emerged from my cabinet, drifting towards the bookshelf that held it.

I never knew that I was walking right into a trap.

I stood on my tiptoes to reach the book. Just as I lowered the book, a hand darted out to grab my wrist.

"Aha! I knew it!" he exclaimed.

Startled, I nearly dropped the book. I had been too distracted by my thoughts. The voice was all too familiar. I never thought he would catch me. Very few people could sneak up on me anymore. I'd made sure of it after being taken away from my sister.

I wanted to melt into the darkness, back into safety, but I was very firmly caught.

As I turned to face him, I found that he looked my age, just like what his voice had suggested. In all the time I spent wondering about him, I'd begun to imagine how he might look like. Perhaps he had curly hair, just as boisterous as his words? Dark eyes, just as stormy as his complaints? I'd gone through several imaginations, never quite able to settle down on any of them.

Although I had imagined a boy my age, I never imagined him with clear blue eyes and long golden hair, like what I might see if I were faced with the Sun Knight. I blinked in incomprehension, trying to meld his appearance with his voice and his personality.

He was too bright. Not at all like what his complaints suggested. I backed up, shrinking into myself.

"Have you been stalking me?" he asked, his free hand propped on his waist in a demanding manner.

"No," I replied. Stalking meant I'd have followed him. I never did. I'd never even seen him before now. In fact, he was the one who had intruded in my space.

He lifted an eyebrow. "You're the one who has been leaving me all those books, aren't you?" he asked curiously.

So he had noticed, after all. What had given me away? Was it too obvious, leaving all those books? Even so, I thought my Cloud Steps would for sure keep me out of sight, and I'd practiced on appearing inconspicuous.

It seemed that I still needed to train more. My teacher would never have been caught.

I nodded.

"Why?"

Why what? Hadn't he been looking for them?

"You were looking for them," I answered in incomprehension.

"Well, yeah, but that didn't mean you had to find them for me," he replied.

I tilted my head. But didn't he want to find them?

In response to my confusion, he looked me over thoughtfully. I looked back at him blankly. Then, he patted me on the shoulder.

When I didn't react, he patted me on the head. He had to reach up to do it.

I still didn't understand what he was doing.

He giggled, his laughter joyous. I wanted to hide all the more. "You're so obedient! What's your name?"

"Demos," I said, not used to not answering people's questions.

"Hi, Demos. I'm Grisia."

When I asked him about Roland's "condition," as it sounded very worrying, he gave me a look. I returned his gaze solemnly. His lips twitched, like he was about to laugh again, and he tugged on my hands.

"Oh gosh, Demos, we're going to have so much fun together!"

I tilted my head, not sure of what he meant by that. Instead of answering, I handed him the book I'd gotten for him. It made him smile brightly, his bright smile making me want to shrink into myself even more.

Somehow, I ended up reading the book to him. When he only wrinkled his brows in confusion, I recited some of the other passages I recalled reading from another book. His eyes lit up, and he patted my hand.

"Wow, that's easier to understand! I think I actually get it! You know so much! What do you know about Lightning magic?"

I rambled off what I knew. His eyes...gleamed? He also lamented that he should have sought me out right from the start when he noticed the stool. Listening to me was so much more interesting and faster than reading on his own. After I stopped talking, he flicked his hand, sparks of lightning curling around his fingers. He tossed that into the air, and like what I just rambled off to him about higher leveled spells, he tossed some more lightning together, creating a denser version of his first spell.

He snickered even as more lightning danced across his fingers. "I am so going to show him! You're the best, Demos!"

Maybe... I had made a friend?

I didn't know why I felt so unsettled at the thought. Maybe it was because I had stepped out of my cabinet, leaving behind the smell of moths to drift towards dangerous light, far out of my comfort zone.

That had to be it.

I didn't know then what I'd gotten myself into.

Chapter Text

I guess I met him because of how I always kicked down doors. Like, a lot of doors. There was this one time when my teacher whacked me on the head because of it (actually, that's nearly all the time), but this one particular time was just a bit different.

Instead of his smoking pipe, Teacher actually used his fist to knock on my head! It was totally child abuse!

I scowled and rubbed my innocent head. Teacher's face had turned almost as red as his hair, and he sputtered, "Chikus! You broke way too many doors again!"

But wasn't he the one who had told me to do it? I still remember what he'd kept drilling me about during our first few lessons! Break these doors, Chikus, with a good, hard kick! You're the Blaze Knight, and Blaze Knights need to be brash! Impulsive! All of that! Never use a doorknob when you can kick the door open instead!

I followed what he'd told me and found that it was... really... addicting!

I said just as much, that he was the one who'd told me to do it, and watched in amazement as Teacher's face turned even redder. Like, redder than his hair! I hadn't thought it possible.

"Y-You!" My teacher took several deep breaths while impatiently tapping his smoking pipe against his crossed arm. Finally, he said in a somewhat calmer voice, "Since you're the one who broke all the doors, you'll go and explain it to the Pope!"

He didn't manage to stop his voice from rising by the end. I winced, this time rubbing my ears.

I guess I'd found Teacher's limit! It wasn't like this time was any different than usual, but he picked me up by the collar and marched me over to the Sanctuary of Light. I struggled the entire way, trying to shrug Teacher's hand off. I shouted that I could walk just fine, but he wouldn't let go!

Only when we reached our destination did he finally let go. He pushed me through the door and stood solemnly behind me, his one good eye glaring holes into my back, leaving me nowhere to turn.

I stumbled forward, scowling as I rubbed my neck. After finding my balance, I raised my head and saw that I was in a study of some sort. There was a very boring desk and lots of books and papers about. I glanced around, not impressed.

The clink of a teacup being placed down brought my attention back.

That was how I first met him.

Not the Pope. I mean the scrawny kid behind him. Made sense. He was the Pope's student, so of course the Sanctuary of Light, especially the Pope's study, would be his base of operations. At the time, however, I had no clue who he was. He was just some short kid standing by the side of another short kid, that other kid being the Pope himself.

Anyway, it was hard to take the Pope seriously when he looked like a fifteen year old boy. He berated me about all the broken doors. I wasn't really listening until Teacher said in a gruff voice, "I won't be paying any repair fees for the rest of the month!"

"What!" I exclaimed, head snapping to the side. I stared up at Teacher in disbelief. "There's no way you can leave your student out to fend for himself, right? I would starve! And die of boredom! That's too cruel!"

I'd already spent all my pocket money! That would mean no more candy, and I wouldn't be able to kick down any more doors for the rest of the month!

I stared at Teacher pleadingly. He kept on glaring at me, but I knew I could wear him down. All I had to do was keep at it!

Come on, Teacher! I know you can't bear to see me without any doors to kick!

Finally, he sighed and said, "I... I won't be paying any repair fees for the doors you broke today!"

Immediately, I perked up and punched my fist in the air.

"Yes! This means I can continue to kick doors for the rest of the month!"

But wait... How many doors had I kicked today?

I held up my fingers, trying to count the doors I had kicked. It wasn't like I had broken all of them, so not all of them needed fixing... One... two... nine... ten... I don't have enough fingers...

"Fahr," the Pope admonished.

My teacher held his hands up. "I know, I know. Look, at least I brought him here, right?"

Through my fingers, I frowned at my teacher and the Pope. The latter didn't even look any older than me, yet my teacher had to answer to him!

The Pope waved his hand, as if dismissing my teacher. "Forget it! No matter how many times I say it, the result will be the same. At least you know that you can't shield him forever. Today's damage must be compensated. My student will deal with this in my stead. This is a good opportunity for him to learn more about the finances of the Holy Temple."

After that, the Pope gestured, and someone walked forward.

I blinked upon seeing this "someone." If the Pope hadn't introduced him, I might've thought him to be a girl. He was a fair bit shorter than me, his hair like a blinding mop of golden straw. He actually reminded me of someone... Who was it again... Oh! The Sun Knight.

Like, a mini, girl version of the Sun Knight! He even had blue eyes!

I stared in awe, and so marked our official meeting.

"Grisia," the Pope addressed the kid, "take note of all of the damages and calculate how much the repair fees will be. Have him pay, and if he doesn't have enough funds to take care of all of the damage, make sure you assign a suitable punishment until he does."

"What?!" I blurted. "You sure?"

I eyed this Grisia a second time, this time sizing him up. He gazed back at me, blue eyes watching me curiously. His robes were really loose on him, his hat ridiculously big.

He was seriously just a kid!

The Pope nodded, and his student held out a hand for me to shake. Grisia said, "I look forward to working with you from now on, future Blaze Knight!"

A smile followed.

I took his hand. He clasped it with his other hand as well and shook it up and down. He didn't seem half bad.

...But I was totally wrong!

It was from that point onward that the fate of my future salary rested completely in his hands. I was the first to fall before his money-grubbing ways, and I never got out of it.

After the Pope finished giving his instructions, my teacher left us (but not without a knock on my head with his smoking pipe, telling me to behave). Grisia and I went around the entire Church, both the Sanctuary of Light and the Holy Temple, to revisit all the doors I'd kicked down. Grisia would stand in front of them, examining the doors from all these different angles. If people were around, like the owner of the room, he'd even ask after any "inconveniences" the kicked doors brought about. Then, he'd jot down a bunch of numbers. I tried sneaking some glances at his notes, but I couldn't make heads or tails out of them from my distance.

When we got to Roland's door, which was only a little bit crooked and thankfully the last door, Grisia looked over at me and... tsked! He tsked at me! He was looking down on me!

It didn't matter that he was shorter! He was looking down on me!

"What?" I challenged and stuck my chin up.

"Kicking your future Sun Knight's door, tsk tsk!" Grisia shook his head, his huge hat bobbing and nearly falling off. He shoved it back on. "How disrespectful of you!"

Hey! With Roland being the only one with an individual room, it goes without saying that his door had to be kicked! He had to be hiding something behind that door of his! Otherwise, he'd have roommates just like the rest of us!

It was too bad that the scene behind his door had actually been really boring. All Roland had been doing was paperwork.

...Then again, why had he been doing paperwork?

I scratched my face.

Grisia jotted down some more stuff, mumbling the entire time he did so. "...Grave damage to the future Sun Knight's door. Hinge unusable. Replacement will be necessary. Wood is cracking in three different areas..."

He was still mumbling when he rapped his knuckles against Roland's door.

"Is this really necessary?" I complained. I'd already watched him speak to countless people! It wasn't like their doors were unusable! I mean, only like, one was completely in smithereens... and another was in four pieces... but the rest were still fine! Just a little dented! With itty bitty teeny tiny little cracks!

We waited, but no one came to open the door. See, this was why kicking doors open was much more efficient. We wouldn't have to wait for the people inside to walk at a tortoise's pace to answer the door! And if they weren't in their room, we would know right away!

I tapped my foot.

Eventually, the door opened, revealing Roland who was in the middle of toweling his hair. "...Grisia...and Chikus?" he said absentmindedly. Water dripped down his neck, soaking into his lopsided collar.

Grisia was about to speak when he caught sight of Roland. Blue eyes widened, and he hissed, "Roland, straighten your shirt! Finish toweling your hair before you open the door!"

"Oh, right," Roland said and closed the door.

I stared at the closed door.

Huh?

Beside me, Grisia had on a frown, and now he was tapping his foot instead of me.

When the door opened again, Roland stood at the doorway, his hair no longer dripping, though still very wet. He had also changed his clothes. I guess they looked a little neater.

"Grisia and Chikus." He greeted us solemnly with a nod. However, in the very next moment, a large smile broke out on his face, and he quickly turned away to cover his mouth.

Huh?

That was... unusual for Roland.

I snapped my head to the right, only to see Grisia looking innocently back at me. His hands were not as innocent though, as they were dangerously close to me.

"What?" I said.

"Nothing~" was all he gave as a reply. He stepped away from me and pulled out his pen and paper once more. "Roland! How is your door?"

Roland turned back to us. He still had a smile on his face as he considered the question. Had Grisia put that smile there?

"A little crooked," he replied.

See, it was just a little crooked!

Grisia nodded and jotted down some more stuff.

"Would you say it closes correctly?" Grisia asked.

Roland thought it over. "When I try to close it, there is a small gap at the bottom of the door."

"I see, I see," Grisia mumbled, his feather pen flying across his paper. "How does this gap affect you?"

This Grisia fellow was damn persistent with all these tiny little details! Who cares about a small gap at the bottom of a door?! What difference does it make? The door still closes!

"It takes a few seconds longer than before to close the door to make sure the door closes correctly," Roland answered.

I swiveled my head to stare at Roland. He was being way too detailed with his answers!

In such a way, with Grisia persistently asking about super tiny details, and Roland answering in equally great detail, they kept on rambling about Roland's perfectly good door, golden heads huddled together. They looked almost like siblings. After they finished speaking, Grisia turned to me and held up a scroll that was half unrolled, the part Grisia had been writing on. The rest of the scroll unrolled, the paper falling to the floor, revealing all of the rest of the stuff Grisia had jotted down.

Grisia looked up at me with a beaming smile. "Dear future Blaze Knight, here is a tally of the repair fees you need to pay. If you are unsure about any of the costs, I have written in great detail what they are for."

My eyes nearly fell out. I stared, slack-jawed, at the never-ending list.

"That can't be right!" I protested.

"Hm?" Grisia tilted his head to peer at the list. Then, he glanced up at me with confused blue eyes. "But we went around together, didn't we? You were there as I tallied everything up."

That was true, but... Why do I have to pay for someone's sleep getting disturbed? Or for someone taking longer to close the door? That was all nonsense! Besides... "There's no way I can pay all of that! Where would I get that kind of money?!" I shouted.

I didn't even have a single ducat to my name!

"Ah well." Grisia rolled up the scroll, his smile growing even wider. "It just means you'll need to be assigned a 'suitable punishment' until you can repay the debt."

What?!

Don't tell me I won't be allowed to kick any doors anymore?!

Grisia tucked the scroll away. He looked at me earnestly. There wasn't even much sunlight in this corridor, but for some reason, the sunlight from the window seemed to gleam off of his golden hair at that very moment. It was like I was being blinded by a golden field of straw underneath the blazing sun.

It really made my eyes hurt.

"Why don't I help you out?" he asked brightly. "All you have to do for me is a small favor~"

Not knowing what I was agreeing to, I exclaimed, "Really? You'll help me out? Does this mean I can keep on kicking doors?"

"Of course!" Grisia beamed.

In such a way, I signed my future off to him.

Chapter Text

When I was much, much younger, I dreamed of becoming a baker like my dad. Not just any baker, but the best baker in Leaf Bud City! I loved our bakery, our small shop of happiness, and the smiles our baked goods brought to everyone's faces. In fact, my papa's face always lit up each time I made something, even though the breads I made couldn't compare to his. He often hugged me and talked about the future, of how I would one day run the shop together with him, and how I would one day even succeed the shop. He couldn't think of anyone more qualified.

I'd really wanted to make him proud.

Yet, I went and became a holy knight.

Had I made the right choice? I often questioned myself, sometimes nearly convincing myself that I had committed a grave mistake, but if not for that unexpected choice, I would not have met all my holy knight companions. I would not have become Teacher's student.

And I would not have met my friend, the Pope-in-training.

The first time we came into contact with each other was right after a character development lesson I would never forget. We didn't actually meet in person, but I considered that the start of our friendship. I vividly remembered that it wasn't bread or pie I'd presented at the time, but rather cheesecake because of the circumstances I had been in.

(Blueberry cheesecake would soon became a specialty of mine.)

My teacher had exclaimed, "Lan, you're having classes with Lesus today!" Then, he ushered me to class where Lesus and his teacher waited.

Originally, character development lessons were held with just our own teachers, but I was completely hopeless at schooling my expressions into an emotionless mask, so my teacher was at his wit's end training me.

My teacher was quite an emotional person himself, always animated in my presence, but in public, a mask of disdain would drop over his face, transforming him into a completely different person. He didn't understand why I couldn't do the same.

He was so frustrated with me that he threatened to ban me from the kitchen if he ever heard anyone claim that I'm "caring, polite, or always smiling." It didn't take long. Soon after he spoke those words, he had to ban me from the kitchen, just like he'd said he would do.

But even banning me from the kitchen had been no use. It only made me miserable. I tried to blink back my tears, to be the emotionless student my teacher wanted, yet I couldn't do it. I didn't want to make people around me miserable with unpleasant expressions, but... wasn't I making my teacher miserable with my inability to be an indifferent Ice Knight?

Making friends or making my teacher proud... Why couldn't I do both?

It was like being faced with the choice of becoming a baker and a holy knight again. I had thought I could be a holy knight while honing my baking skills, but...

Was I wrong?

Was it time to give up on baking, on smiling?

Upon seeing my tears, my teacher had panicked, but he didn't change his mind about the ban. As a last resort, Teacher had turned to Judgment Knight to ask him to teach Lesus and me together. The day I gave my new friend sweets for the first time was one such lesson where I would be instructed by Judgment Knight instead of solely by my teacher.

Judgment Knight and my teacher were like two extremes, one cool and collected, the other easily excited and far from indifferent. The image they formed was a contrast of black and white, tranquil assurance painted against nervous agitation.

My teacher sat with his legs propped, feet tapping, but a glance from Judgment Knight made him sit more properly. Faced with the Judgment Knight, I too found myself sitting just a bit straighter, afraid to fidget in the slightest.

Besides me sat Lesus, whose face was nearly as cool and collected as his teacher's. It wasn't easy for him either, I knew that, which made it all the more amazing for him to be able to conduct himself in such a manner.

I snuck a glance at him, studying his expression and trying to imitate him. I forced my mouth to thin. Maybe I needed to furrow my brows more? Suddenly, dark eyes met mine. I hurriedly looked away, cheeks burning at being caught.

"Lan, no blushing!" Teacher reprimanded.

I lowered my head and covered my face with cool hands, wishing that ice magic could dispel the heat in my face. But while I had easily taken to ice magic under my teacher's tutelage, controlling my expressions, especially my blushing, was a whole different story.

"Eller," Judgment Knight chided. "That won't help."

I blinked and glanced up hesitantly. What did he mean?

Judgment Knight turned toward me and asked, "Ecilan, you find it difficult to present a cold demeanor, correct?"

I darted my eyes at my teacher, wondering how I should answer. Seeing that he didn't shake his head, I looked back at Judgment Knight and answered in a small voice. "...Yes."

"Why is that so?" Judgment Knight prodded further.

"I..." My hands were even colder than normal, yet sweaty. A thread of nervousness snaked through me, resulting in a tremble I couldn't control. I forced myself to drop my hands. Maybe sticking them in my pockets would help hide the trembling and make me feel less cold. "I... I don't want people to hate me."

Judgment Knight made a noncommittal noise before he went on to ask, "Do you hate Lesus?"

Lesus? Why would I hate Lesus?

I glanced over at Lesus again. Without needing an explanation from his teacher, Lesus asked me, "I'm always frowning, and I treat criminals harshly. Do you hate me for it?"

I shook my head.

No, not at all. Why would I hate Lesus? He was always so hard-working and objective. Even though his face was always locked in the frown expected of the Judgment Knight, he was always very thoughtful with his actions, such as helping me with sword practice. After all, the only blade a baker's son would have any experience with was a kitchen knife.

...Oh.

I didn't hate Lesus even though he never smiled.

"You... won't hate me even if I don't smile, Lesus?" I asked.

Lesus shook his head, the corners of his mouth lifting up just the tiniest bit.

My eyes widened, and I whispered, "You're smiling."

"Ah..." Lesus hurriedly covered his mouth with one hand, but his teacher gave him a pat on the shoulder to get him to relax. Lesus glanced up, the tension easing away from his shoulders.

All of a sudden, Judgment Knight didn't seem as scary to me anymore. He even said to us, "There's no need to hurry or to force yourself to be perfect."

But Teacher... Teacher had been so adamant. I nibbled my lips as I glanced toward Teacher.

He waved his hand dismissively in the air. "Yeah, yeah, like what Chasel said." When he saw my brows furrowing, he rubbed his nose, looking away as he added, "I was just worried. I don't want anyone else as my student."

Oh.

A smidgen of warmth blossomed. How I wished I could bottle this feeling so that I might have something to combat the cold days bereft of smiles before me. I didn't need smiles if I could have this.

Judgment Knight's presence was calming. He was just so composed that my nervousness melted away. We practiced breathing techniques and ways to maintain our composure no matter what situation we faced. My teacher had a blast trying to scare us. Despite how quickly my heart pounded, I forced myself to remain unperturbed.

"Not bad, Lan," Teacher praised, making my heart soar in happiness. But then he grumbled, "How is it that Chasel got you acting like a mini Ice Knight so easily? Was I really such a bad teacher?"

Alarmed, I hurriedly shook my head. Teacher wasn't a bad teacher at all!

"W-Wait here!" I told Teacher and hurried out of the room. It wasn't until I was a corridor away that I remembered I was supposed to stay calm... But I really didn't want my teacher to think I didn't appreciate him! Still, I forced myself to slow down and walk unhurriedly. I hoped Teacher wouldn't become too impatient with waiting.

When I returned, I carried my latest creation in my hand.

Teacher's eyes widened. "I thought I banned you from the kitchen?"

"Teacher, cheesecake can be made without using the kitchen," I explained, not wanting him to think I had gone against his words. However, after I finished speaking, a thread of doubt ensnared me. What if, when he prohibited me from using the kitchen, Teacher meant that I wasn't allowed to make anything? Had I gone against his words without realizing it?

Contrary to what I was afraid of, Teacher didn't get angry. He turned to Judgment Knight and crowed, "See how talented my Lan is? He doesn't even need to use the kitchen to make desserts!"

I looked at the cheesecake I held, forcing the smile down.

When Teacher banned me from the kitchen, it had nearly felt like the end of the world. I'd never been away from the kitchen for so long. I was always watching papa work his magic for as long as I could remember. With the kitchen off limits, I'd paced and paced until finally, I couldn't stand it anymore.

Even without a kitchen available, there were many desserts that could still be made.

Even without smiling, there were still many ways I could express myself.

I'd summoned the ice element, watching the crystals grow in my hand. Fortunately, I had the ice element at my command to aid my sweets making. This too would become one of our connections.

I gave my teacher a slice of cheesecake. He ate it happily, a wide grin spreading across his face. Judgment Knight and Lesus, on the other hand, took much smaller slices.

After taking a bite, Judgment Knight said, "I can see why Eller is always praising your skills."

I ducked my head.

I wasn't sure if Lesus liked desserts or not, but he chewed slowly with a thoughtful expression on his face. Was that good or bad? Then, Lesus unexpectedly asked, "Do you mind if I bring some to the Sanctuary of Light? I know someone there who really likes sweets, and this is really good."

The Sanctuary of Light? Is he talking about a cleric?

Judgment Knight nodded. "That's a good idea. The Pope wants to see Lesus and me after this. I'm sure he'll appreciate something sweet too."

I didn't mind at all.

That was how my desserts first found their way to the Sanctuary of Light. There, my future friend took a bite of cheesecake and said, "Delicious! But not sweet enough!"

When Lesus told me this, I immediately made another cheesecake. This time, I received a "Could be sweeter!"

What a strange person! But the challenge made my heart pound, and I loved the enthusiasm I received.

For the longest time, we never actually met face-to-face and only spoke through the cheesecakes I made. Although my teacher eventually let me use the kitchen again, I continued making cheesecakes. I wasn't going to rest until I figured out just what Lesus's friend preferred. Lesus would pass the cheesecakes on, and he would return with commentary. A cleric, huh? My imagination supplied a sweet girl who smiled just as sweetly as she nibbled on each slice. I'd never met anyone with such a sweet tooth! I kept adding more and more sugar, but it never seemed to be enough.

It took me many attempts until Lesus finally reported, "Grisia said the latest cheesecake was perfect."

Warmth blossomed inside of me.

I made another blueberry cheesecake.

This time, I would bring it to Grisia myself.

Chapter Text

If our circumstances had been any different, I probably wouldn't have been able to stand him. Most of the times, I still didn't. We were truly too similar to get along very well.

But I couldn't deny that there was something about him that I couldn't help but admire.

This was how we met.

During character development lessons, my teacher always prattled on and on about how the Earth Knight should behave. Never speak a single sentence without stuttering. Blush madly in the presence of all females, no matter if they looked uglier than dragons. Smile abashedly and duck your head during conversations. Appear friendly and honest, but most importantly, sincere! That's the easiest way to win people's trust!

Yeah, yeah, I get it already. If I smiled any more foolishly than I already did, I might as well call myself the Leaf Knight.

That day was no different from usual. I was gazing up at the ceiling as if it was the most interesting thing in the world, waiting for my teacher to finish nagging. On and on he went without a single pause or stutter. By now, he wasn't even looking my way, or else he'd probably nag some more about how I wasn't being respectful.

Then came two knocks that finally put an end to the endless lecture. They were positively divine knocks, and my mood lifted when the door opened to reveal a cleric from the Sanctuary of the God of Light. She was quite cute with her wavy hair and petite figure.

With how the story's going, you might think this was him, but nope, I haven't gotten to that part yet. It was just that she was kind of involved, just like many others, even though I didn't know about it right away. All I knew was that my teacher had arranged for her to come.

The one good thing about character development lessons was that my teacher often had me practice with female clerics. And during these times, my teacher would have to pretend to stutter, which meant he couldn't lecture me as much. A total win-win.

The lectures were downright boring, but actually putting what was required of me into action was fascinating.

Stutter, blush, and duck my head, huh? Easy!

And majorly addicting.

"H-Hello," I greeted her and stuck my eyes to the floor. After a slight pause, I glanced up. I'd be damned if I didn't appear hesitant after doing that!

The cleric smiled brightly and curtsied. "Pleased to meet you, young Earth Knight."

Young Earth Knight.

Heh, that's me now. Young Earth Knight. That really had a nice ring to it. Who knew I'd get chosen? Truth to be told, I had been surprised by my teacher's choice. I wasn't the least bit honest or shy, and I certainly had no problems speaking with girls. But somehow, my teacher thought I'd be a good fit. At least, I had an honest-looking face, he had told me. As long as I didn't smirk.

When I learned that I had to stutter all the time, I half wanted to call it quits. This wasn't just a one time thing. This was my entire life we were talking about here. Stuttering my entire life! I'd always look like a bumbling idiot, like someone without any confidence at all. Putting so much effort into looking like a fool wasn't worth it.

But when I actually put it into practice, I found it to be surprisingly easy. And even rewarding. Tricking people into trusting me -- I could get used to it.

"How are y-you?" I asked.

She murmured that she was doing well, thank you for asking. We easily got into a pleasant conversation. We talked about our lessons and even about some of our favorite foods.

"I wonder if I should learn how to make cheesecake..."

"C-Cheesecake?" I asked. "That s-sounds delicious. If y-you want, you should g-give it a try."

She nodded absentmindedly. "He's always carrying around cheesecake lately. He must enjoy it a lot, right?"

Bah, so she already has a guy she likes!

Disgruntled, I gathered a thick layer of holy element, wishing I could compress it into a small ball to relieve stress, but I didn't nearly have good enough control for that.

The cover story was that she was here to help me practice healing spells, but the real practice was for me to hone my skills at appearing "honest." It was actually getting hard not to lose my cool. For some reason, even gathering holy element reminded her of the cheesecake guy -- she brightened at the sight and rambled on about his amazing holy light capabilities.

Just who was this guy, seriously? It wasn't that I wanted to brag, but my holy light capabilities weren't half bad. I could already cast some damn good defensive spells. Could he beat that, huh?

We continued practicing, and I silently cheered whenever our hands touched. Hah, take that, cheesecake guy! Her hand was nice and soft, completely unlike hands rough with callouses from endless hours of training with a sword.

My teacher had probably never imagined this result, that I would be so enamored with the girls he had me practice with. It was true that I'd learned how to stutter very well, but what was even truer was that I discovered how pleasant girls were to be around.

The first girl my teacher had me practice with had smelled like wildflowers, and she was just as pretty as one. The second girl had a cute little giggle and a nervous habit of twisting her hair around her index finger. The third girl had a love of challenges, and she'd even challenged me to see how much holy light I could gather.

I liked all of them a whole lot more than the stinky boys of the 38th generation Twelve Holy Knights. Who would like to be around boys who had sweat dripping down their faces and dirt all over their clothes? Definitely not me. I especially did not enjoy it whenever I got paired up with Roland during swordsmanship lessons. He always won, and he never knew when to stop training. Not everyone likes to train so much, geez.

Girls were so much better. Cuter, too.

"Y-You're really nice. T-Thanks so much for practicing with m-me today," I said with a shy smile. I clasped her hand and gave it a squeeze to show my gratitude. Behind me, my teacher was glaring holes into my back.

She smiled back and said, "I had a good time! I think I'll go make some cheesecake now. Thanks for the advice!"

Damn that cheesecake guy!

Despite how much he irked me, guys didn't stay on my mind for long, so I easily forgot about him. But it was just my luck that I'd gotten on his radar. Some time later, I was happily chatting with a cleric and complimenting her on her healing spells when someone else seemed to have caught her attention.

The cleric looked past me and smiled widely at whoever was there.

It was then that I caught a whiff of vanilla mixed with cream cheese and graham crackers.

It was... the smell of cheesecake.

All of a sudden, it all came back to me, and I realized it had to be him, that dratted cheesecake guy with the "amazing holy light capabilities"! I could've been wrong, but my gut feeling told me it had to be him!

Whoever was behind me suddenly said, "The Earth Knight-in-training is an expert at defensive spells. You should get him to show you sometime."

Wait. Was he... complimenting me?

I finally turned, laying eyes on him for the first time in my life.

Like I had expected, the person behind me was holding cheesecake. However, I had not expected his features to look so fine that he could almost be mistaken for a girl. He had brilliant blond hair and stunning blue eyes framed by long eyelashes. Along with his smooth skin, he was the very definition of an effeminately beautiful boy.

If not for the presence of the cleric by our side, I would've scowled. What use was there for a guy to look so pretty?

When our gaze met, he smiled widely at me. "I've been wanting to make your acquaintance. I've heard so much about you! Want some cheesecake?"

He held the cheesecake out.

He had heard a lot about me? I bet it's the "whole continent knows" nonsense.

His question was directed at both me and the cleric. The latter nodded. "I'd love some."

I had wanted to get her to stay, so this was as good an excuse as any, and he knew it.

And so, we ended up sitting together at a table in the courtyard, eating cheesecake together. From his rather flimsy, robe-like clothes, I figured he wasn't a holy knight-in-training.

"Is this the first time you've met?" the cleric asked.

The cheesecake guy nodded and said to me, "I haven't introduced myself yet, have I? I'm Grisia, the pope-in-training."

Huh, so this was the next pope? Not what I was expecting.

"Georgo, the E-Earth Knight-in-training," I responded while keeping my image in mind.

Grisia nodded, golden hair almost blinding under the sun. So distracting. "I heard that it was thanks to you that I have this cheesecake!"

So that cleric from the other day had decided to make cheesecake after all.

"N-Nothing like that, I only g-gave her some encouragement."

Ugh, making small talk with a guy was no fun. I shoved a forkful of cheesecake into my mouth so I wouldn't have to talk with him anymore. It was quite creamy and a little on the sweet side. Bleh.

Suddenly, Grisia sighed and lowered his fork.

"What's wrong?" the cleric asked.

Startled, he waved his hand. "Oh nothing. The cheesecake tastes great, but..." He paused and tapped his finger against his cheek thoughtfully. "It's not quite sweet enough."

This wasn't sweet enough?!

He glanced at me. "Here, want some more?"

He then gave the rest of the cheesecake to me. Just because I had stuffed my mouth with cheesecake didn't mean I could eat an entire cheesecake all by myself, or that I would want to! Who could eat an entire cheesecake all by themselves?

Right after he gave me the cheesecake, he promptly pulled out yet another one. Where had he been hiding it?!

He took a bite of what looked to be blueberry cheesecake, and a wide smile immediately came over his face. He even closed his eyes to savor the taste. "Mm, perfect!"

The cleric giggled.

What a strange guy.

With Grisia occupied by his blueberry cheesecake, I was finally able to strike up a conversation with the cleric. This one giggled often and was easily amused by my words. I almost forgot Grisia was there until the cleric finished her slice of cheesecake. She thanked him for the cheesecake and got up to take her leave.

It was only then that I realized Grisia was still there. I hurriedly turned my head only to see blue eyes fixed on me, studying me intently.

"What?" I couldn't help snapping out, goose bumps rising all over my skin. Had he been staring at me this entire time? Realizing I'd sounded too blunt, I quickly added on, "U-Um, is there s-something on my face?"

He only smiled mysteriously and bade goodbye to the cleric. I touched my cheeks and chin, thinking there might be some cream there or something, but nothing. Once the cleric left, I stood up too, intending to leave -- there was, after all, no reason for me to stay any longer, and he was freaking me out -- but Grisia grabbed hold of my hand to stop me.

"...What?" I snapped out again.

His hands were really soft, just like the hands of all those girls I'd held. Ugh, what am I thinking? I jerked my hand out of his grasp, but he didn't take offense and merely motioned for me to sit back down. There was no reason for me to listen to him either, but then I noticed something really absurd.

I blurted, "You ate the entire blueberry cheesecake?!"

After I shouted, he furrowed his brows and pointed in front of him. "Um, no? I have a slice left."

He only had a slice left! He had practically eaten the entire cheesecake!

I stared at him in disbelief.

He probably thought, since I was so shocked I was rooted to the spot, that this was as good a chance as any to start talking.

"Georgo, Earth-Knight-in-training. You have lessons twice a week with your teacher and swordsmanship lessons three times a week. You personally think you currently rank fifth or so among the Twelve Holy Knights-in-training. You've gotten pretty good at casting Light Shield, and your teacher has started teaching you how to cast the Shield of Earth too. You seem to enjoy snacks and tea, but I think that's probably a ruse."

So this was what he had meant by "he had heard so much about me." While it wasn't "the whole continent knows" stuff, it wasn't much more personal than that.

Or so I had thought.

"Want me to go on?" Without even waiting for an answer, he continued, "You have a habit of rubbing the back of your neck when you're bored, you don't particularly like mornings, you--"

"Wait, stop!" I cut him off before he could blab further. I stared at him suspiciously. "Are you a stalker?"

He returned my gaze with one of amusement. "No more stuttering?"

"H-Have you been s-sta -- forget this! You already heard me speak normally before this!" I growled.

"It's really quite amazing, the difference in your demeanor," Grisia said, impressed. "If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I might not have believed it."

That's why he had been staring?

"What in the world do you want?"

His lips quirked up, like he had been waiting for me to ask this very question. "Just a small favor."

"Why me?"

He hummed. "As I've said, I've heard a lot about you. You really should be careful. Girls talk a lot, and they're very perceptive."

It could have been the girl who smelled just like wildflowers. Or the girl with the cute little giggle. Or the girl who loved challenges. Or the girl who wanted to make cheesecake. It could have been any... or all of them!

The realization hit me hard. I really hadn't been careful enough, had I? What exactly had I shared with them? Nothing incriminating... but I never thought it'd travel to someone else's ear.

"In any case, you sounded exactly like someone who I could use help from. You're really good at getting people to trust you. That public personality of yours will be very useful."

Well, flattery isn't going to get you anywhere. "Why would I want to help you?"

He blinked at me, as if it was completely obvious. "Let's not even talk about how you're not even stuttering in front of me right now, or how I know a ton about you. Helping me out would benefit you a lot."

He was totally blackmailing me. Hah, so this was my future Pope!

He gestured in front of him at the seat that the cleric had vacated, and then, with a smile, said, "You're welcome to join me again the next time I have cheesecake. Or," he paused, "you could say goodbye to spending time with any clerics at all."

"You--!"

"I'm just saying, it's my duty to look after my sisters, and I'm not sure I would want them to be around someone who isn't willing to help out with a tiny little favor."

He shrugged helplessly at me. I could only stare in disbelief.

As the pope-in-training, he really might be able to warn them all away from me.

With no other choice, I slowly sat back down. I nearly wanted to bark in laughter. This was my future pope. I had no words. With him around, surely no one would ever be able to take advantage of the Church of the God of Light.

Haha, this was too amusing!

Grisia grinned. "I'm glad you're seeing things my way now. First things first. You're friends with Roland, right?"

Well, that was an unexpected question. "Yeah."

The whole continent knows that the Sun Knight and the Earth Knight are the best of friends. I didn't particularly get along well with Roland, but he wasn't insufferable either. He was just too serious for me to follow his pace.

"Oh?" Grisia said in fake surprise. "Then, why is it that I never see you around him? If you were around more, you'd have seen me before."

"..."

Grisia shook his head at me. "You should work on that. No one is going to believe you're friends if you don't even hang around him."

"Fine, fine. Don't tell me that's the favor you want?"

Because that wasn't much of a favor at all. It was expected of me to be "friends" with Roland.

"It's related." He shrugged. "Have you noticed anything strange about Roland lately?"

"Not really."

Grisia frowned. "Well, you better start noticing now. There's something off about him, and I want you to find out what."

Chapter Text

I first got to know him through a mission, and boy did his healing spells amaze me then, among many other things about him that amazed me.

He was really good at that, leaving people speechless.

How could he not, when blinding light descended upon me and brought me back from the brink of death?

Okay, it hadn't been that desperate a situation, but you get the idea. I had been in a world of pain, and all of a sudden, the pain had disappeared without a trace. After that, I was still light-headed from blood loss, but I could finally breathe without obstruction.

Through barely opened eyes, I had seen him with a rare, rigid stance. At the time, I hadn't even known him well, but even I knew standing so still wasn't anything like him. Golden light glowed around us as he cast another heal to take care of the small cuts that littered my skin. The minor cuts were nothing compared to the gash that had spanned across my chest, but it was while those sealed up that I thought, ah, so this is my future Pope.

He was unbelievable and definitely nothing like me. While he was a strange one, I was sure his teacher had no bad words to say about his qualifications, unlike my teacher.

I couldn't do anything right. I couldn't even get down the basic image of the Metal Knight. I had wanted to excel at the mission to prove myself, but I couldn't even do that right. It wasn't even a difficult mission, just your usual bandit busting to impress upon the criminals hanging around the Kingdom of Forgotten Sound that the Church of the God of Light was no pushover. There weren't even very many bandits left in the vicinity, as the teachers had taken care of the major bandit groups several years back. However, it had been enough time that some foolhardy bandits were resurfacing.

It wasn't my first mission ever, but the number of actual missions I had gone on could still be counted on one hand. I had thought that this time, surely I could impress my teacher and make it so that he would stop sighing when he looked at me. It was with hopeful eyes that I held my teacher's gaze and told him, "Teacher, I won't disappoint you!"

Teacher had sighed yet again and shaken his head. "No, Laica. Instead of saying that, you should protest and complain about being sent on the mission!"

I never really understood why my teacher wanted me to complain about missions. They were my chance to prove myself.

Teacher didn't come with us on the mission. The leader was his vice-captain, who led a small squad that consisted of holy knights from the Metal Knight Platoon and the Ice Knight Platoon. I was the youngest there, barring the other Twelve Holy Knight trainee, the young Ice Knight, Ecilan.

He used to be a lot shorter than me and had this perpetual blush on his face, but not only had he shot up just this year and threatened to grow taller than me, he'd gotten his expressions down pat as well.

Ecilan's transformation had always given me hope. If he could change so thoroughly, then surely I could too.

When he spotted me, he gave me a small nod, expression blank. I gave a nod back. He didn't seem to want to make small talk, so I kept to myself as well, saving us both the trouble of figuring out what to say.

As we waited for everyone to gather, I patted my side, checking on my daggers. I had my main pair on me, as well as several spares I could use as throwing daggers to give me a long distance advantage. While the expense would add up, I could use any advantage I could get. I was definitely going to make the mission a success and impress my teacher.

When I finished taking stock of my weapons, a newcomer had joined us, and Ecilan's cheeks were rosy again. So he hadn't managed to completely lock that reaction away. The thought relaxed me just a bit.

However, Ecilan's blush gave me pause. I would never forget the look on his face that day, how he wished to look over yet wouldn't, his expression tightly controlled yet betrayed by his reddening complexion. This was the boy behind the Ice Knight's mask. Over the years, this side of him would become a rare sight, only to be seen by a select few.

I looked him up and down. It was only then that I noticed he was holding something in his hands—cheesecake. This would soon not be a rare sight, but at the time, I was utterly confused.

Why in the world would he bring cheesecake on a mission?

I would soon find out why, because wherever he was, desserts were never far away. Cheesecake and pie especially, even on the most dangerous of missions. He said something about how it kept him going.

"For me?" The newcomer exclaimed. "Ecilan, you're the best!"

At that, Ecilan ducked his head, and I stared.

In the years to come, not only were desserts never far from wherever he was, neither was Ecilan, who always delivered them personally.

The newcomer stepped closer and took the offered cheesecake. Side by side, he was nearly half a head shorter than Ecilan. He wore the robes of a cleric and had a veil that was pushed over his blond hair in favor of the cheesecake, which he was already happily munching on.

It hit me then that they must be friends.

When the newcomer noticed my attention, he had already finished a slice. Bright, blue eyes that could rival the Sun Knight's glanced my way. They flicked down for a brief moment, considering the cheesecake in his hands. After much deliberation, he grabbed another slice and held it up. He offered, "Cheesecake?"

I definitely hadn't been staring because I wanted cheesecake. Who ate cheesecake on the eve of a mission? Cheesecake wasn't anything that could be kept for a long time on the move. Dried rations were much more appropriate, and if not that, if it had to be sweets, then at least cookies or pies kept much better than cheesecake, of all things!

I was about to voice my confusion when Ecilan shook his head and pushed the cheesecake back to the blond, leaving me no room to say my piece.

"Yours," he said. His cheeks were still a bit pink, even though it wasn't as obvious as before.

My eyebrows shot past my bangs, and I gave the two of them another once over. Friends or not, just who was this boy that the supposedly reticent Ice Knight-in-training was giving him cheesecake and blushing in his presence? On top of that, Ecilan didn't want him to share.

Thwarted, the blond took the offered slice back and promptly stuffed his own mouth with a huge bite. "More for me then," he said. At least, that's what I made out from his muffled speech. He followed that up with a shrug. His next words were marginally clearer. "Can't go against the wishes of the cook."

So, Ecilan's the one who made the cheesecake?

That was when I figured out that Ecilan was a pretty damn good cook, and he'd been making a lot of cheesecakes. In fact, around that time, cheesecake had been on the menu more often than not. Lesus always nibbled on the smallest slices he could find, yet he never failed to sample them.

I hadn't known Ecilan was such a skilled pastry chef. The most I could do in terms of cooking was roast stuff over a fire and dice vegetables up with a knife. Maybe pluck some feathers out.

Although I hadn't wanted the cheesecake, it still hurt to have Ecilan exclude me so thoroughly. At the time, I hadn't known why he'd done so. I'd thought that perhaps it was because it was me.

I tried to brush it aside. It wasn't like we were friends, even though we were in the same faction. Besides, as the Metal Knight-in-training, every word of mine was supposed to drip with poison. My words should be chasing people away, so being friendless could only be considered a success. They weren't supposed to like me, after all.

I racked my brain for something the Metal Knight would say. That was how my first words to him ended up being, "I don't want any of your rich cheesecake anyway!"

"Rich?" The blond blinked and ate another mouthful of cheesecake thoughtfully. "It is very rich and creamy. Delicious! You're missing out."

I frowned. My words hadn't been poisonous enough. Or, he was too dense to understand my meaning. Holy knights like me, trainee or not, shouldn't eat stuff that was so fattening.

To the side, Ecilan wasn't exactly smiling or anything, but he had this look on his face. His expressions then could still be understood by the likes of me. He seemed... pleased... by my insult. I thought that maybe, he was secretly a masochist and liked to be scolded. Why else would he be pleased to be insulted?

If he had any thoughts about excluding me, he didn't voice them at all, and our awkward conversation ended there after the arrival of the rest of the holy knights. In the end, there were a total of five metal knights, five ice knights, two holy knight trainees (me and Ecilan), and a single cleric.

A single cleric. All by his lonesome. That blond. Ecilan's friend.

I immediately thought that was too few. Especially since he looked no older than us. He had to be a trainee, just like us. A single cleric for an away mission—no matter how simple this mission was supposed to be, even when we weren't going far from the city—that was a lot of responsibility.

My teacher would never trust me so much.

Either he was really good, or we were supposed to take care of ourselves with our own holy element. But we were all from the "cruel, cold-hearted" faction. Holy element and healing really weren't our forte. At most, I could heal small cuts or injuries. Anything more than that was beyond me.

Before we departed, we had a quick round of introductions. I finally learned who he was.

"I'm Grisia, the pope-in-training," the blond said quite simply, hands empty. His hands were indeed empty by then. I couldn't believe how quickly he'd finished the cheesecake. The entire thing! He fixed his veil back in place now that he was no longer eating.

The pope-in-training, huh? Maybe he really could be responsible for an entire squad of holy knights.

(He could. With room to spare.)

If he'd left it at that, I would've been impressed, but then he went on to say, "I'm a cleric, not a holy knight, so I'll be standing in the back. Don't forget to protect me! Good luck, everyone."

He went on to do exactly that. But what could I say? He was a cleric and shouldn't be on the frontlines. Still, it was annoying seeing someone so leisurely standing in the back, so obviously watching on like a spectator enjoying a good show.

Grisia, don't think I haven't noticed you shifting behind Ecilan! What is he? Your meat shield?

He did so love to use us as his meat shields.

Ecilan, on the other hand, wordlessly swung his sword against the bandits with breathtaking speed, much faster than he'd shown in practice.

The bandits had scattered the moment the ice knights bust into their hideout, only to be taken down by the metal knights hidden outside. However, upon seeing the three of us teenagers, the bandits thought us to be easy targets and were now converging upon us, forcing us back.

Now, that wasn't smart of them. While we were indeed trainees, we were no ordinary trainees. Ecilan and I were the next generation Twelve Holy Knights, and Grisia was even the next Pope.

Ecilan was a scary guy. He truly was. Once, he'd let slip that he had never used a sword before getting chosen. Can you believe that? Yet, he took to it like a fish to water, and soon he was having one-on-one spars with Lesus. Lesus had been pretty good with a sword from the start, and once we started sword training, he'd only improved even more. To be able to spar with him meant one had to be of considerable skill.

Even with three bandits closing in on Ecilan, he more than held his own, sword flashing out, knocking aside the bandits' weapons. He expertly kept Grisia behind him the entire time.

"Look out!" I shouted when a fourth sword chopped down at Ecilan. I hurriedly threw a dagger at the sword, wanting to knock it away, but a zap of lightning was faster than me, yellow sparks rushing at the man, shocking his entire arm and forcing him to drop his weapon.

I blinked and turned. Behind Ecilan, Grisia's hand was raised, and he didn't stop there. He followed the first zap with a stronger one, until the man fell twitching to the floor.

"Thanks," Ecilan said simply.

The moment Grisia zapped his first foe, all inhibitions seemed to vanish. He threw himself into battle with relish, no longer hiding behind Ecilan. His veil fluttered with his motions, allowing me to catch sight of a huge, smug grin before the veil hid his expressions away again.

He was a damn sight to see.

Apparently, he'd also tossed up some sort of protective shield at the same time he'd cast the lightning, for when the second enemy tried to rush us, he ran right smack into the protective shield. The man's nose would never be the same, but it was no loss for a face like his.

Liking the effect, Grisia gathered more holy light and molded it around the bandit, transforming the shield into a dome, effectively trapping the bandit. I'd never seen anyone use a protective shield in such a way.

Then, when the third bandit got over his shock and tried to attack, Grisia froze his feet. The ice crawled up his ankles and shins. No matter how much the man tugged and pulled, he couldn't break free. When he began yelling and swinging his arms, Grisia froze ice over his mouth and hands as well, leaving only his bulging eyes free to glare.

As for the final bandit, Ecilan knocked him unconscious while the other three were occupied. It all happened so abruptly that I was left with nothing to do.

With two bodies suddenly at our feet, one frozen bandit, and one trapped bandit, I couldn't help but be impressed. I blurted, "What happened to standing in the back? Are you a cleric or not?"

I was impressed, but if even a cleric could defeat more enemies than I could, how was I supposed to prove myself? I hadn't managed to do a damn thing to aid them.

Grisia shrugged and off-handedly zapped the bandit Ecilan had taken care of when the guy started twitching and climbing back up. He said, "I'm a cleric of the Church of the God of Light. Don't underestimate us!"

...Does this mean all clerics of the Church of the God of Light are as scary as you? Mixing lightning and ice, he'd effectively captured the bandits just like what the mission asked of us, and it was insane how the shield he cast was still up. I'd seen what the Earth Knight trainee Georgo had to do to keep his protective shields up. It was no walk in the park. The bandit was even pounding on the very solid shield to no avail. His cries of, "Let me out!" were getting annoying.

I tried to catch Ecilan's gaze to see what he made of this, but he merely blinked at me, as if he thought nothing of how his friend had so easily captured three adult bandits and kept the last one from getting back up.

The adults in the squad finally checked up on us after all the excitement had already ended, and they were a lot more banged up than we were. Grisia solved that with a wave of his hand, startling the holy knights when healing light closed all of their cuts and soothed their bruises.

"That's amazing," an ice knight said, lifting his arm to examine it. Of course, healing spells couldn't heal clothing, so his sleeve was still ripped and torn, but the skin underneath it was smooth and unblemished.

"Did you even use any incantations?" another holy knight asked.

Grisia just shrugged. "You must not have heard me."

My teacher's vice-captain came over then. "Great job, lads, on capturing the bandits. We'll be able to hand them over to the Judgment Knight Platoon for interrogation. Did the three of you capture them together?"

I started to shake my head—I hadn't caught any of them—when Grisia declared, "Ecilan and Laica caught them. They did such a great job!"

"What a liar!" I gasped, unable to believe it.

"You sure have a sharp tongue," Grisia said.

Huh? I was just speaking the truth. I hadn't done a thing. How could I claim any of the deed? He and Ecilan had been the ones who had fallen our foes!

Grisia shook his head and gestured at the bandit stuck in ice. "How can you deny that Ecilan, the Ice Knight-in-training, didn't capture that bandit?"

Said bandit stuck in ice glared furiously at Grisia.

I don't know why a cleric knows how to use ice magic, but you were the one who caught him! And that's not the part I'm protesting about.

"What's with the bandit over there?" someone else pointed out.

Yeah! What's with the bandit stuck behind your defensive shield? You can't explain that one away. Neither Ecilan nor I could've been the ones responsible for that.

"He must be addled, pretending to be captured so as to avoid actual capture," Grisia said without a care.

At that, the bandit glared and pounded on the shield some more. "You're the one who's addled! Let me out already!"

"You really are addled," Grisia commented and let the shield fall.

With the sudden disappearance of the shield, the bandit stumbled forward.

Ecilan abruptly stepped in and gave him a hard chop with the back of his sword, rendering him unconscious next to his buddies.

"See how skilled Ecilan is?" Grisia boasted, as if there had been no shield and it was all thanks to Ecilan that the bandits were taken care of. "That's exactly how he caught all of the others."

"..."

With how the bandits had been glaring at Grisia, his story was a difficult one to buy. Yet, it still seemed to be more believable than a cleric catching three adult bandits who were much more towering than him.

Even then, years before any of us succeeded our teachers, Grisia had already been a weaver of words, able to talk himself out of all sorts of situations. Most importantly, he could lie right to your face, and you would be inclined to believe him. That, and he was just so Grisia that even if you didn't believe him, you would pretend you did.

What followed after wasn't anything glorious, but it did lead to a defining moment in our friendship.

What had I been thinking? Grisia would be the first to tell me that I hadn't been thinking. See, it went like this. A lot of bandits had been caught, but their leader wasn't among them. Desperate for approval, I snuck away to capture the man myself. Grisia and Ecilan had more than done their share. No matter the story Grisia had spun, I hadn't contributed at all, and I needed to do something worthy.

If there was one thing I was proud of, it was how well I could track someone. I'd gone on plenty of hunting trips with my dad since I was young, and it turned out that tracking criminals wasn't all that different from tracking game. Good observational skills were good observational skills regardless of the quarry.

So, when I broke apart from the rest to sneak into the forest, I knew I could find the guy. No one even noticed my disappearance, either, or so I had thought.

It didn't take me long to find the head bandit; he hadn't gotten far yet. I pressed my back against a nearby tree and took out my two daggers, a grin coming across my face. I'd done it. I successfully tracked him down. I imagined delivering him to my teacher. He was going to be so proud!

Of course, that's when things fell apart. Although I hadn't won against any of the bandits earlier, I had held my own against them, so I had thought that the same would happen here. After all, he was just one man while I'd been up against a whole lot more just now. But I hadn't taken into account that this man was their leader, and as their leader, he was a much more formidable opponent than any of his henchmen.

That, and neither Ecilan nor Grisia were around to have my back.

Naive little me hadn't known just how much Grisia had been part of that battle. Only the flashy magic had been obvious enough for me. I'd thought he'd hung around in the back enjoying the cool breeze the entire time before that, but he'd actually been part of the fight all along even before he struck with lightning. He was why Ecilan's strikes had been so much quicker than the ones at practice.

I caught the guy unaware, but it wasn't enough. He easily overpowered me after I lost my advantage, but I wasn't going to go down without a fight. Even as he taunted me for playing dress up, for masquerading as a knight when I was but a snot-faced kid, I struck, and a scream resulted.

"Why you freakin' brat!" the bandit snarled and lunged at me, stumbling and slashing at my chest.

I fumbled for my last dagger and stabbed it right into him.

He grunted in pain and staggered back, but I had little to celebrate. The ground came up to meet me. It was only then that the pain registered. Sweet, warm agony blossomed across my chest.

No, no, no. Losing consciousness here could very well mean losing my life. The bandit was still there... yet the pain was so welcoming...

As darkness took me, my teacher's disappointed face flashed to mind.

I really was nothing but a disappointment.

"Don't you dare!" a voice growled, young but fierce, startling me awake.

The warm light that settled over me knitted my flesh back together. It tingled like a thousand needle pricks, but soon my skin was like it had never been broken. When the tingling warmth left me, I wanted it back. I struggled to open my eyes.

There he stood, glowing with holy light. He knelt down as he soothed away the rest of the damage, proving that he truly was so skilled that a single cleric was all we needed. No, more than we needed. He was no simple cleric. He was my future Pope.

Then, he slapped my face, stunning me.

"What were you thinking?" he said, cradling his hand and casting a healing spell over it.

"...What happened to the bandit?" I asked, rubbing my cheek, trying to sit back up. His hand seemed to have hurt more than my face. My mouth twitched upward.

Only then did I notice Ecilan behind Grisia. The bandit was unconscious next to his feet with several of my daggers sticking out of him. Ecilan had his sword out and was in the middle of sheathing it. He had finished the job I couldn't complete.

I lay back down, smile dropping from my face.

Of course.

Grisia shook his head at me. "You're an idiot."

Don't I already know?

He went on to say, "You're a holy knight, not a warrior! Holy knights specialize in ganging up on people, not in going off and being a lone wolf. Learn to rely on your companions more. You're lucky that Ecilan noticed that you snuck off."

I blinked, looking toward Ecilan, who came closer and held his hand out.

"I didn’t want your help," I said as I clasped my hand around his and let him pull me up.

Grisia patted us both on the arm. "There, there, look Ecilan, he's fine enough to mouth off at us."

Ecilan ducked his head and let his hand drop. I stared, not quite believing what I was seeing. Had he been worried about me? Ecilan then gave Grisia a glance.

"Yeah, yeah, I was worried too," Grisia said. After that, he whirled around and spoke words that I would always remember, "You! You gave us both a scare! You're going to be the Twelve Holy Knights, not the Eleven Holy Knights, got it? None of you are going to die on my watch. There better be six of you on each side of me, or my name isn't Grisia!"

They really had been worried for me. I hadn't thought they would care. We weren’t even that close, but maybe that was going to change. Grisia’s words gave me hope. The Twelve Holy Knights and our friend, the Pope, who would always have our back.

I found myself grinning. “Such a pipe dream! I like it.”

Later, when we reported to my teacher about how we caught the head bandit, Grisia merely said, "Oh, Laica caught him."

"What a liar!" I couldn't help but blurt out once again.

Grisia made a shushing motion at me, as if this were our shared secret, and went on to describe how I’d expertly ambushed the bandit. The daggers were obvious proof.

Ecilan patted me on the shoulder. He must be used to it already, and maybe I'd get used to it too. On our way out, Ecilan even gave me a cheesecake, much to my surprise, as I had thought it was for Grisia, and he even refused to let Grisia have it. Something about how Grisia wouldn’t like the taste of this one because it wouldn’t be sweet enough.

I grinned. Ecilan really didn't have anything against me. We watched Grisia stomp off, muttering about how he shouldn't have helped me—look at how we were ganging up on him now! Ecilan gave me another pat, telling me in his own way that things would be okay. Friends teased each other like this.

Grisia was such a liar. But he was my liar of a friend, my future Pope.

And he was a damn good one.

Chapter Text

When I was younger, I met a boy my age with a smile as warm as the sun. Although warm, his wasn't a gentle smile. Rather, it was a cheeky one, but I didn't really care what kind of smile it was. All that mattered was that he'd smiled at me.

It was an encounter that changed my life. I had been nameless and friendless; I came out of that encounter with a name and the knowledge that I could have friends.

I wasn't a cursed girl. I wasn't!

Back then, I had terrible control over the dark element. It would gather around me even when I didn't call on it, always enveloping me and dyeing me in murky darkness. I drowned in it all the time, and I didn't even know what it was. I only knew that it was scary. I thought it to be unnatural. I thought myself to be dirty. I thought I deserved to be called names.

I didn't know what to do. I couldn't see a way out. I didn't know if I was worth it.

He saved me that day, lightning dancing on his fingertips as he warned the bullies away. At first, the other boys didn't think anything of him, but then he grinned and electrified them all. They beat a hasty retreat after that, stumbling over each other in their attempts to run away.

I watched through tear-filled eyes with my breath caught in my throat. His back was so small; he probably wasn't any older or taller than me, but he had been so amazing. He turned and spoke to me, but all I could focus on was that bright smile of his. I didn't hear a word he said.

He held his hand out. I tore my gaze away from his smile to stare at his hand. He thought I was afraid of the lightning. He hastily held both hands up to show that he wasn't going to harm me. No sparks danced along his hands.

But that wasn't why I was hesitating.

"I'll get you dirty," I whispered and hid my hands behind my back. I had dirt beneath my fingernails. My sleeves were rags. My hair was in my face. Dark murkiness swirled around my body. "You'll fall into misfortune."

He, on the other hand, was dressed in pristine white, his hair a brilliant gold.

He was so bright.

So, so bright.

He wrinkled his face at my words. "Misfortune? That's silly. Those bullies know nothing. I'd like to see them try in front of Lesus. I'll make sure he drags them off to the Judge's Complex to make them repent!" He suddenly paused. "When he's older, I mean. If we went behind the Judgment Knight right now, we'd probably be the ones dragged there instead..."

I stared at him, not quite sure what he was rambling about. The only thing that actually registered was "Judgment Knight."

I squeaked out, "Judgment Knight?"

"You know, from the Church of the God of Light?" he said, as if I didn't know who the Judgment Knight was. I knew, of course. Everyone knew. He was the one who punished criminals. He was the one who dragged sinners off to repent. I shrank into myself.

"Are you going to have him drag me off?" I asked in a small voice.

He frowned. I immediately missed his smile. "Why would I do that?"

"Because I bring misfortune."

He waved his hand, dismissing my words. "As I've said before, that's silly. More importantly, let me see those injuries of yours. I can make the pain go away."

I didn't believe him, but a soft warm light emitted from his hands and covered my bruises. When the light dispersed, all the pain was gone.

I held a hand up and stared at it in wonder. I curled my fingers. It really didn't hurt at all, and it was like the bruises were never there. All the darkness was gone. How had he done it?

"Hehe, amazing, right?" he boasted and held his arms out. Soft, beautiful light danced on his palms, entirely unlike the prickly lightning that he had been playing with earlier. This was a healing light, soothing to the touch.

I could never do something like that, could I?

I scrunched up my face, willing light like his to come to my palms. But instead of a gentle healing light, black tendrils wove around my fingers.

"No..." I gasped. No, this wasn't it at all. I really was an unlucky girl, wasn't I? He'd only just chased off the darkness, and I just had to call it back. I could only call on unhappiness...

I don't want to be dragged off to prison!

I clasped my hands together, trying to make the black tendrils go away, to hide them.

Suddenly, a hand touched mine. I squeaked and glanced up in alarm. I blurted, "W-what if it dyes you black?"

"Don't worry, that's not going to happen," he said. Then, he looked at my hands, eyes wide in... fascination? Why would he be fascinated?

"Is there anything else you could do with that?" he asked, poking at the black tendrils. They curled around his fingers.

No! I snatched my hand away, clutching it to my chest. I couldn't let the darkness spread to him.

He paused but didn't make a comment about it. Instead, it was like the dark tendrils hadn't touched him and interrupted his train of thought. He gathered an orb of light much like what he had done earlier and asked, "Like, can you do this with it?"

Could I?

I breathed in and out. Calm down, I told myself. Stop panicking. Take control. Maybe I could actually control it?

Not at all sure what I was doing, I scrunched my face up, willing the dark tendrils to leave my hands and curl together into a compressed ball. The tendrils did exactly as I imagined, the last strand curving around the sphere and melting into it seamlessly.

I gasped and held my hand up to show him. "I did it!"

He grinned. "That's so cool! You must be a mage."

"A mage? I'm not a mage... I can't be a mage..."

How could I be a mage?

"Eh, why not?"

"Because I'm nobody," I replied and lowered my eyes, letting my hand drop. The dark tendrils fell apart, dripping off my hand like black ink.

He frowned. "Well, I'm Grisia, and I'm the pope-in-training. What's your name then?"

Pope-in-training? Doesn't that mean he's part of the Church? It sounds like a place that would never welcome me...

I squeaked out, "They call me Unlucky..."

I would always remember what happened next. It was how I came by my name.

"Unlucky isn't a proper name! You need a real name." He paused and then said, "What about Charlotte? It means a healthy girl." Before I could respond, he went on to say, "I'm calling you Charlotte. You're Charlotte now."

Charlotte...

I didn't even care that he hadn't given me any room for negotiation. I had a name now.

Charlotte.

Charlotte Charlotte Charlotte.

He didn't hesitate at all to grab my dirty hand that had just been covered in darkness. There was a popular dessert shop he wanted to visit, even though they didn't have a particular type of blueberry pastry he liked. What they did have was blueberry lollipops, and he wanted one.

As he pulled me along, I stared at his back in wonder and then at our connected hands. I could not help the smile that came over my face.

The lollipop was really delicious, even though it was much smaller than the one Grisia had bought for himself. He didn't have enough ducats for two of the gigantic lollipops, but I loved the one I got just the same. It was a gift from him, as I had no money of my own. He was really nice, I decided, especially since he only wanted a small favor in return. I kicked my legs against the side of the fountain we sat at, the taste of sweet blueberry on my tongue. It was a taste I would never forget.

Was this what having a friend felt like?

"Can you do it again?" Grisia asked.

I blinked. He waved his free hand. Oh, did he want me to gather those dark tendrils again? Would I be able to do it? Or would they end up taking over...

I bit my lips, with the lingering taste of blueberry on my tongue, and reached out my left hand. Then, I focused. Black wisps gathered and immediately formed a ball this time.

I-I did it!

I turned to him. He had a grin on his face. Then, he turned serious and stared at his hand. I glanced down too. Dark wisps trailed around it.

I gasped.

"Cool," he said as if it were nothing. "Looks like I can do it, too."

Blue eyes darting up, he once more grinned at me. "See? You're not an unlucky girl. This is magic."

Magic, I whispered. Magic.

Not unnatural.

The day grew late even though I wished it wouldn't. He surveyed the sky and abruptly leaped to his feet. "I have to go meet my teacher now. We're going to try finding my big sister again. But just wait until he sees this!" Black tendrils danced around his fingers. "Bet I'll be able to shock him even more this time."

"Even more? Do you like shocking your teacher...?" I asked hesitantly. Shocking an adult did not seem like something we should be doing. I had been chased away for less.

Grisia shrugged, and as he spoke, the dark tendrils began weaving together with sparks of lightning. When Grisia started gesturing to emphasize his point, the orb stayed floating right where it was. "He's this amazing mage. He knows so much. But he's so stingy about teaching me. So I figure I should shock it all out of him."

"Even more amazing than you?" I asked, watching the floating orb.

"But not for long," he said cheekily.

I hurriedly nodded, not doubting that at all.

"Bye, Charlotte. Huh, naming a friend is such a nice feeling." He paused, mouth turning downwards. "But too bad all of my other friends already have names. Oh! I know! I can give them nicknames."

I smiled shyly. "I think they'd like that."

Grisia beamed. "See you later, Charlotte. Wait for me here tomorrow, okay? We can experiment with more magic. If I'm late or I don't come, it might be because my teacher shut me in the library to make me learn magic theory again." He made a face at that. "But at least Demos is there."

I nodded.

He fixed some sort of veil over his face, and I was immediately disappointed to see his smile hidden away. But when he turned toward me, I thought I could see a trace of who he would grow up to be. His lightheartedness was still there, but he spoke as the future Pope. "Charlotte, if my teacher does shut me in the library, you could always come and visit instead. In fact, the Church of the God of Light welcomes you. We could always use another pair of hands, and there are many girls among the clerics, so you won't be alone there."

I won't be alone? Maybe, I would have... friends? I...

"But what about..." I stared down at my hands.

"I bet Demos can look up what the deal is with that for us," he said, gesturing at my hands. "He can find anything among those books. Besides, like I said, it's magic!"

I gulped. Magic or not, could someone like me be accepted there? A cleric heals, right? I can't... I can't do something like that. Yet...

I promised him, "I'll wait, and if you don't show up, I'll go find you."

I'll go find you.

Days passed.

I stared forlornly down at the ground. His teacher must have shut him in the library. It was... it was time to find him. They might not accept me like he did, but I had to try, even if I couldn't be a cleric. Maybe I could do something else and still be useful. I could be Charlotte and not some unlucky girl.

Just as I hardened my resolve, a pair of feet stopped before me. My heart thumped. Was Grisia back? I started to raise my head, but before I could finish doing so, the owner of the pair of feet knelt down on one knee, head lowered. His clothes were black.

He was not Grisia.

The stranger lifted his head. His smile wasn't warm like the sun, nor was it cheeky, but it was a smile all the same, one that was aimed at me. With reverent eyes, he said in a soft voice, "I have finally found you, my child."