After another day of getting nowhere with his investigation, Luke decides to take his time with the run instead of trying to beat Selenia as usual. He keeps near the back of the mob, fighting the urge to sprint to the front. He is not surprised that the students in the back spend more time talking and complaining than working up a sweat. Luke barely pays them any attention, even though they try to scold him for show offing the last few days. It is easier for him to ignore them once he enters the forest. Something about Visindor feels wrong this morning and Luke silently wonders if he is the only one who notices. A quiet, mournful wind moves among the trees and Luke swears he hears someone crying for his help. Already being on thin ice with Selenia after his fight with Roland, Luke resists the urge to stay in the forest. He calmly jogs through the main gate of the academy, heading directly for the cafeteria.
Like every morning, Nimby has saved him a seat at breakfast and begins to chatter his ears off with academy gossip. They had agreed days ago that talk of Luke’s mission was not to be done in the cafeteria. The agreement was made after a female orc overheard Nimby vaguely mention a list of students. The panicky student had cornered and interrogated the halfling about this list of students out of fear that it involved mass suspensions. It took all of Nimby’s skills to get out of the towering blonde’s iron grip and keep her at bay while feeding her a lie about putting together an advanced carpentry class. Even today, the halfling can still feel her piercing gaze on his back whenever she is around.
“Are you listening, Luke?” Nimby asks with concern. “You haven’t said anything. It’s like you aren’t all there.”
Luke snaps out of his trance and realizes that he has yet to touch his food. He can barely remember getting back from the run, much less getting food. He remains silent, eventually going back to staring off into space while swallowing a few bites of food. Nimby is about to shake Luke by the wrist when Aedyn gently puts an ink-blotched hand on the halfling’s shoulder. A subtle shake of his head is all Aedyn needs to tell Nimby that they should leave Luke alone. Begrudgingly, the halfling turns his attention to Fritz and listens to the gnome ramble on about a new invention.
It isn’t long before the instructors begin leaving for class and the students start to disperse. Luke is dying to slip away into the forest for the day when he notices a shadow slip out a cafeteria window. At first, he thinks it is Nimby until he hears Fritz ask the halfling for an apple. With so many students already out of the cafeteria, Luke can’t even begin to narrow down who the shadow was.
Ignoring his strong desire to investigate the strange feeling that came over him in Visindor, Luke realizes that it would be foolish for him to leave the academy. Being too far from the academy would leave the heir defenseless, even if he still has no idea who he is protecting. The shadow could be the assassin leaving to prepare a trap since Selenia and her senior staff had not been seen all morning. He is about to ask the others to follow him, but abruptly decides to leave them behind. If this was really the assassin then Luke would need to use surprise to his advantage and a group of four would draw too much attention. The half-elf slips out the front door with a growing hope that his mission is about to end. If things went well then he could be back among the trees as early as nightfall. No more academy or classes or detention or any of the other horrors that Luke had endured since arriving.
Without making a sound, Luke creeps around the side of the cafeteria, carefully scanning the area. He starts walking toward the academy wall when he notices a thin line of matted grass leading from the corner of the cafeteria to a supply shed. A delicate sneeze comes from the shed as Luke crouches to investigate the tracks. He can hear a quick shuffling from inside the shed as he approaches the solid door. Taking a deep breath, Luke rushes in without warning. The clatter of a fallen shovel draws his attention while the door closes behind him. He can barely see anything in the darkness beyond the silhouettes of full shelves and large barrels.
As alert as Luke is, he doesn’t notice the broom handle until it jabs him in his side. With a low grunt, Luke drops to his knees and forces himself to roll out of the way of a wild swing to his head. The small and messy equipment shed leaves him little room for maneuvering, so he crashes into a rack of buckets. He gets his bearings in time to see the broom come at him again. Luke nimbly avoids the broom, grabbing it tightly and locking it in the crook of his arm. The attacker yanks at the broom, but Luke’s solid grip keeps it locked in place.
“Now, are you going to talk or are you going to continue fighting?” Luke asks through gritted teeth. He feels his opponent repeatedly tugs on the broom. “I suggest you talk since you no longer have a weapon. Not that a broom really counts as a weapon, but it does hurt a lot when you poke someone with the handle.” He gives a quick twist to the broom, sending it clattering to the floor.
“No fair!” exclaims a familiar female voice with a muttered curse. Luke reaches up to crack open a high window. The light hits Kira as she backs against a shelf of dirty gardening tools. The ebony-haired girl is on the verge of tears and Luke notices a large splinter sticking out of her hand. He walks over to gently take her hand before she can protest.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize who was attacking me and my instincts took over,” Luke apologizes in a soothing voice that he is surprised to hear from his own mouth. “Let me help you with that. If the tip gets stuck in your finger, it can get infected. We wouldn’t want that.”
He carefully pulls the splinter out, gently using his teeth to pry out a piece that broke off. Without thinking, Luke gives her finger a kiss and releases her hand. Kira blushes slightly, taking a step away from him. Embarrassment covers Luke’s face, which he tries to hide by turning toward the wall.
Kira sits down on a barrel and nervously smiles at Luke. “Thank you. I guess you are a nice person. Even if you did rip my shirt off in front of the entire martial arts class. At least you aren’t bragging about it like some of the other boys would. Honestly, you seem rather harmless to me. If you were of nobler blood then I would consider that kiss as some kind of pass at me. Tricky nobles are always doing that to me, but it is seems sweet and clumsy when you do it. You know, you aren’t that hard on the eyes. For a half-elf that is.”
“I’m really sorry about ripping your shirt. I didn’t mean for that to happen and I swear it will not happen again,” Luke explains when he turns to face her. “Just to let you know, I kept my back turned and I didn’t see anything. Not sure if that makes you feel better or not.”
“I will accept your apology,” Kira politely declares, running her fingers through her silky hair. “Still, whether you saw anything or not is not the point. A woman of my caliber should never be made to suffer such a shameful display. I am not some street-raised tomboy or a commoner like the other girls at this academy. I come from superior stock than them and should be treated as such. Besides, the only person facing me was Kellia and I was quick enough to cover my . . . you know.”
“New topic!” Luke announces in a panic. “What are you doing in this shed? I would expect a girl of your caliber to be hiding in a nicer place than this. After all, there is fertilizer in here.” He moves to sit on the ground next to her and she attempts to get to her feet. For no apparent reason, Kira falls down, landing on Luke’s lap.
“I’m so sorry. I’m such a klutz,” Kira claims, getting to her knees. “Gabriel only knows why my father insisted on sending me here. I hate fighting, but he says that I need to know how to be a better leader and how to defend myself from his enemies. You must know how it is. Callindors are always in danger because of their reputation. By the way, I owe you a reward for tending to my hand.”
Placing her hands on his knees, Kira leans over to give Luke a kiss on the forehead, inadvertently pressing herself against him. She freezes with her lips on his forehead, her body rigid and tense. Luke cannot tell if she is prolonging the kiss or if she suddenly realized that she is pressing against him. When his tries to look down, he immediately notices that her shirt is dangerously loose. Luke abruptly pushes Kira away and struggles to his feet. A curtain of long, black hair prevents him from seeing her reaction.
“W-Wait,” Luke stutters. He takes a deep breath and wipes sweat from his brow before nervously rambling. “I don’t know what you’re doing here, but I am not really interested. I mean, you are an attractive young lady and if we were in a different situation then I would probably be interested, but I really only wanted to know what you are doing here. You should really button up your shirt before something falls out. Not that I’m hoping that happens or even thinking about it happening. I mean, I still feel bad about the incident in class, so it doesn’t make any sense for me to see them since I obviously was trying to avoid seeing them before. Um . . . Uh . . . Why are you in the shed?”
“I guess you really didn’t look at them,” Kira says with a sparkle of disappointment in her green eyes. “I’m surprised about that. I thought all warriors enjoyed the sight of a woman since they spend so much time alone or among men. I guess with your looks, you don’t have to go for too long without a woman”
Luke gulps as he pleads, “Please tell me why you’re here, so I can be on my way.”
“It is to get away,” Kira bluntly answers.
“I don’t think I follow you.”
“Like I said before, my father wants me to learn leadership skills and how to defend myself,” Kira states in an impatient tone. “He hopes this experience will teach me how warriors think and act. That way I can work with them when I need help protecting our shipments. My father is getting old and I am his eldest, and favorite, child, so I will be given the family business when he passes away. Contrary to the gossip, it isn’t easy being the only daughter of Waylin Grasdon.”
Kira gets to her feet and levels a thoughtful stare at Luke. “I bet you get a lot of attention because of your last name. I have to deal with the same thing as you, but in different circles. That is why I hide in places like this. It gives me some time to be alone and escape those who expect things of me. Back home, I have a shack hidden about ten miles into the desert. It has a pure water spring there and I store some food there in case I get stuck in a sandstorm. Uh, why are you staring at me like that? Do I have something on my face? Did something actually fall out?”
“Nothing fell out and your face is pretty much perfect,” Luke answers before he can stop himself. He subtly pinches himself in the thigh and bites his lower lip in embarrassment. “I didn’t realize who you were until now. I thought you were the daughter of a king or a politician. Guess I’m not as perceptive as I thought.”
“I think we’re both missing some important stuff,” Kira whispers.
“What was that?”
“Nothing. Sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt you.”
“It’s so weird that the two of us would meet here. My father ships his merchandise through your father’s company,” Luke says with a charming smile. “That is when the shipments need to go overseas. You’ve probably seen some of my father’s work, but you never said anything to me. I’m just babbling like a fool now. It’s just that it is very unexpected for the daughter of a shipping company to be in this kind of place. Although I’m no longer sure if I mean the academy or a utility shed.”
“Well I am here. So are you,” Kira bravely replies, slipping between Luke and the door. “Maybe there’s a reason the two of us are here at this time. It might be an opportunity that will never happen again. I have always believed that one should never pass up any opportunity that presents itself. You never know when it is the work of Gabriel or dumb luck.”
“I think Gabriel has more important things to do,” Luke nervously interrupts, fiddling with his ponytail.
“I stand in a shed with the heir to the Callindor legacy and you stand here with the heir to the Grasdon Merchant House. It makes one wonder about the possibilities,” Kira diligently continues, ignoring Luke’s anxiety. “You ever kiss a girl on the lips, Luke? Of course you have. I’m willing to bet you were the center of female attention in your hometown. I mean, one just has to look at you to see the appeal. Your slender yet muscular body, your soft hair, your piercing eyes, and your warm smile. You’re very sweet too.”
“Wait a minute!” Luke shouts, trying to go around her and get to the door. The shed is too small to let him easily pass by, especially when Kira stretches her leg to block his way. She quivers and hops awkwardly as she struggles to keep her balance.
A mischievous smirk cross Kira’s face before she pitches forward, wrapping her arms around Luke. Their lips are about to touch when Luke quickly slips out from between her arms, leaving her flailing for balance. He clambers up a shelving unit, getting enough height to hop over her while she tumbles into an open barrel. As soon as he hits the ground, Luke launches himself out the door. He lands with a crash and skids a few feet across the grass. Kira walks out of the shed with her hair covered in grass seeds. She pouts and sticks her tongue out at Luke before heading toward the Bloodfae dormitory.
“Some hero you are!” she shouts from the middle of the courtyard. “Guess this means we’re even now!”
Luke remains face down in the grass. “When did girls get to be so much trouble? They were never this aggressive at home. At least Selenia wasn’t standing outside the shed.”
A callused hand suddenly grabs him by the skin of his neck, roughly yanking the half-elf to his feet. Luke is spun around before getting hit in the stomach by something wooden for the second time today. As he falls to his knees, Luke can only think about asking Thomas why so many people aim for the stomach. His thoughts are snapped back to what is happening when a strong hand grabs him by the chin, forcing him to look his attacker in the eye.
“I should ask what you were doing in there, but I think I already know the answers,” Kevin Masterson snarls. “You should be ashamed of yourself for taking advantage of that young girl.”
Kevin shifts his hand to grab Luke by the lower jaw and drags him to the wall of the academy. Nobody is around as Luke is slammed against the wall and Kevin pulls a wooden club from his belt loop. After, the original shock, Luke gets enough sense to prepare for another strike. Kevin comes in quickly with a diagonal strike to Luke’s head, but the younger warrior swiftly rolls underneath it. Being unarmed, Luke tackles Kevin to the ground and punches his wrist with all his strength. The club falls out of the older warrior’s hands as he begins to laugh.
“That wasn’t funny,” Luke declares, cautiously getting up. “You could have caved in my head with that shot. The hell are you doing?” He offers a hand to Kevin who takes it and gets to his feet.
“I’m just keeping you on your toes, boy. It was obvious that nothing happened in that shed since you came leaping out like a terrified monkey,” Kevin says with a wide, but still scary, grin. “So, I decided to pick on you a little. Keeps you humble and in line. That and everyone else seems to have had a shot at you around here. I figured it was my turn.”
“I’m starting to feel like the resident punching bag,” Luke admits, rubbing his throbbing stomach.
Kevin shrugs and awkwardly bends down to pick up his club, looping it to his belt again. “A small warning for you to remember is that many of the female students get kicks out of tormenting the male students. I believe Thomas already warned you about this, but I will remind you again. The girls know that all the boys are at the age where they can barely keep themselves in control, so they make teasing a game. Selenia used to stop the game until she realized that seduction can be a useful tool in the field. She never used it herself, but many women use their looks to their advantage. So, we leave the game alone until it goes too far and a rule is broken. Although, this is the first time Kira ever tried to seduce someone. The girl is usually too busy yelling and whining to put any real effort into anything.”
“Maybe she just wanted to be alone and I barged in on her by accident,” Luke politely suggests.
“It could also be that you two have been breaking the rules since your little shirt-ripping incident,” Kevin accuses him while cracking his knuckles. “Yup, I heard about that. A rather odd event considering what I just saw. You acted like a gentleman back then, but who knows what happened if you went to privately apologize to her later. I know how you kids get sometimes.”
Luke can feel a lump grow in his throat while Kevin quietly watches him. It is a long silence that is filled by Kevin occasionally spitting onto the grass and Luke nervously shifting his feet. The old warrior finally lets out a laugh and gives the half-elf a thundering slap on the back, knocking him to the ground.
“You are far too easy to mess with,” Kevin whispers, hoisting Luke back to his feet. “Let me be honest with you. It is very rare that something happens between two students that would be grounds for permanent dismissal. You’re safe for now, boy. Unless, you actually did something with that girl because then I’m going to have to bring you to Selenia. She isn’t someone you want to talk to about this.”
“I swear nothing happened. I barely know her. Can I please go to my next class?” Luke asks, rubbing his neck. Kevin steps out of his way and nods. The old man is still smiling after Luke disappears across the courtyard.
“His father and aunt would have seen me coming from a mile away. His grandfather would have had me on my back once I was in reach,” the seasoned veteran claims. “Part of me thinks he saw me coming, but he didn’t react quick enough to block me. It was almost like he is purposely holding himself back, but it’s hard to tell since we don’t know him too well. Still, we know the family and he isn’t too different from the rest of them. He’s just cockier and, in my opinion, unluckier. What do you think?”
All Kevin hears is a sigh and someone in a nearby tree jumping onto the wall and walking away. “Humph. You never did know how to be impressed with raw talent.”