After stowing our equipment, the two of us return to unwinding. While taking drinks of water, we chip away at the clock with idle conversation.
“That’s right! All of that exercise equipment was manufactured by the Sunshine Steel Group. They’re into all sorts of things like construction equipment and supplies. They even lead the market right now with training equipment. In fact, I’m more than sure most of the things used in this facility have something to do with them.”
“I hadn’t known about that. Admittedly I haven’t paid too much attention to their group outside of the usual news in the papers.”
“Your sword might have even been forged by them. They do mass scale smithing after all. I’ve heard that the kingdom itself commissions them for specialized weapons and armor. Including the bulk deals.” She takes another guzzle of water from the third serving she’s ordered up for herself before hopping to another topic. “Speaking of swords and all that kind of business; you’d surprised me there.”
“You mean with how I’d fought during our last bout?”
“Yeah. I didn’t expect that you’d wait for me to make the first move. When I’d imagined you no holds barred, I’d expected you’d have come at me like a wild cat with an empty stomach.”
“That’s probably what most people would think of when they wonder about sword fighting. True, there is a group who most naturally follows that style, but for me, when it comes to civilians and fellow knights, I’ve always trained to be a defensive fighter.”
“A defensive fighter?”
“I only want to do as much as would be necessary without harming anyone. Even if they’re criminals there’s no use in doing anything greater than acting as a shield and disarming them. It’d go against my code as a knight to harm another human being. That’s what I believe. So I mostly depend on the aggressor attacking first.”
“That’s right!” She adjusts her seat to face me while caught up in excitement. “During the tournament you’d used that guy’s own attack to beat him down in the final round! That was so cool! There’s no way I could forget that! So that’s your style of swordsmanship?”
“You could say that…” I rub my neck while embarrassed by her high compliments. “But there is a saying among the knighthood that someone’s natural elemental affinity has a lot to say about them. Mine would happen to be fire.”
“I don’t know a whole lot about elemental stuff since I was just a fruit vendor, but it really does seem cool and important. Wonder what mine would be.”
“I’d expect that yours would be wind. Judging from the time I’ve known you, you’re quite sharp and seem to enjoy a good conversation. Beyond that, your movements are more lithe and free. I mean, you just want to live to compete so you probably value freedom very much.”
“Hehehe. Seems like I’ve caught your fancy! How kind of you to remember me!” She giggles and takes a sip before continuing her thought. “I know it’s probably not the best, but I’d kind of not paid attention during my medical exams. So I should likely look over old papers or records again to figure it out for sure.
“I’d think you should do it as soon as possible. Just in case anything happens to you. After all, mending magic will only work as efficiently as one’s elemental affinity. But if you did happen to be wind, then I’d think you’d be safe. After all, fire is the most to tend to when injured.”
“So it looks like you’ll be down for the count if you get anything a little bit too ouch. So make sure you don’t get into too much trouble now. Too big a paper cut and we might not be able to save you!” She snickers. “The medical side is simple enough to understand, but I’ve never really gotten to hear much about the personality side of things. What do they say about fire?”
“Well, it’s an element that is heavily based on spirit and passion. Reflecting how fire burns hot and bright, people with fire affinity are usually pretty hotheaded themselves. Even though I do use fire the most since it comes naturally to me given my affinity, I wonder how true the personality archetype would be for me. In its usage, fire is effective against earth. Earth is effective against wind. Wind is effective against water. And then water is effective against fire. That’s the basics to elemental combat, but it really won’t factor into your fencing style since you’ll only be using it for tournaments.”
“What type is Juna?” Her curiosity continues to be piqued and she’s excited to learn more.
“Well, Juna is wind like you. I think it’d become even clearer the more time you spend with her just how fitting it is for her. She’s a wonderful conversation partner with so much wisdom and marvelous thought. It’s just a shame that you’ve all been missing time with her given everything that’s happened lately. When you have more opportunity to know her, I think you two will get along amazingly. She could even be a sparring partner and teacher for you as well. If ever you’d wanted to learn some magic, she’d be more than willing to tutor you there too.”
“I’m terrible at magic. Every time I’d tried to study, I’ve been unsuccessful. Yet everyone around me liked to say that I’d probably make for a great magician. No clue what they were on.” She snorts. “So I’m more into things that work the body. But I wouldn’t mind getting some simple utility types down.”
With a pensive expression, she slips into a more serious mind unexpectedly.
“When I’d first met Juna, I was so surprised to learn how hard working and studious of a student she is. I’d instantly found myself admiring and respecting her. Anyone with that amount of passion and drive, the kind of desire to be consumed by and to consume their dreams like that is something else. Same with you.”
“Juna is an absolutely amazing and unique person. There won’t ever be another person like her and I’ve always been privileged that of all the chances in the world, I’d gotten to be her partner.”
“You know, I kind of had cold feet about the entire maiden thing at the start. Didn’t really feel any of it and just kind of wanted to do my own thing. But after I’ve had enough time getting to know you two, I’ve warmed up to it after all. If I’ll be helping out such driven people who have a hunger for life, then there’s no reason for me to be lukewarm.”
She leaps up from her seat and begins to pace around while letting her eyes run about the room. She stretches her arms some more before spinning on heel to face me.
“There’s always room for anyone to grow. Myself included. Ever since I’d become a maiden I’d realized more and more just how vast and strange the world is. I wish I could just swallow it all up, but I suppose there’s only so much I can do. Even though that’s the truth, when I’d noticed the sheer amount of activities and practices I could improve upon, I became so motivated to live even more.”
“It’s hard to imagine you being anything but motivated. And with a physique like that too its a stretch of the imagination for you to be in even better shape than you already are.”
“Oh my, hero! Where are you looking?” She wraps her arms around her body in mock embarrassment.
“It’s hard not to notice when you’re bearing your midriff like that.”
“I’m just yanking your chain. I want people to see how amazing my abs are. It’s kind of my pride and joy.”
There’s laughter in the air for a moment before she returns to a more thoughtful frame of mind.
“Having all of your ambitions taken away from you sure does hurt. Sometimes it makes you feel like there’s nothing else to do but give up and call it quits. Especially when you’ve been doing your best but have only been discouraged from your efforts and the good you’ve done. It takes a tough person to pull through those kinds of circumstances.”
“I take it you’re speaking from personal experience.”
“More or less. When you work a dead end job and want so much more out of life, it can make you feel like you’re starving. So finally having a bit of the weight off was a nice change of pace. But still, maybe I feel a little down that it wasn’t exactly by my own efforts I’d found myself in a better place. It just so happened that I was some magical girl or something. But I’m making the best of it.”
She paces around for a spell but her legs eventually lead their way to before me.
“It’s been a fantastic morning and there’s still even more time to do.”
“It’s been just as great for me too. I feel like I’ve gotten to know you even better now.”
“You were the first person who’d ever trained with me like that. Back when I didn’t really have anyone for a partner since it was going between my job and then to training. I didn’t exactly have the time to make friends. That’s all changed though. Now I have all the other maidens and you as friends so it’s been a wonderful time in my life.”
She leans in close to me where I sit and connects deeply with me unabashed. Her earthen brown eyes are strong, resilient, prepared to stand their ground no matter where they may peer.
“I really can’t say thank you enough for doing all of this. As much as I think words are best, I think this is something that needs to be conveyed with something more. I know just what will do the trick as well.”
“I really don’t need anything in return. Just-”
I feel her palm press gently against my chest. It’s so quick that her lips are against my own. Headstrong, courageous and even as brash she is, she kisses me without a single qualm or care in her mind. Taken up by the moment, sudden and passionate, unannounced. She’s firm and attentive, trying her best as if it’s another practice she gives her all to master.
When she lets go, she smiles kindly with nothing but joy written on her lips.
“I’d might as well give you another first for my life. You’ve more than earned that much.”
It’s a wonder I can even breathe. It’s another silence while I watch her preparing to be on her way out. When she’s at the doorway, she peeks back at me and beckons me to follow. Her eyes transfer her thoughts to me flawlessly; “What are you doing just sitting around? Let’s get going already!”
So very like her. No rosy, chic setting. Anything but the ideal for a maiden: a gym filled with gadgets and gizmos for fitness. Just having cooled off from a heart pounding exercise all the while still beaded with sweat. Yet my heart races from something else than our hard training we’d shared in.
✩ ✩ ✩
She’d pushed herself so hard for all of our time in the facility yet as if it was a simple walk in the park, she immediately began running the moment we’d exited the building. Though she’s not as zealous as our approach, rather keeping it at a level that I can follow without too much strain.
“Nothing like a good run to close it all out. I could eat a horse. I’m going to go inside and find whatever I can stuff my face with.” She announces with gusto when we reach the manor.
True to her word, she leaps up the stairs and enters inside with a simple wave for parting. I follow lead and am immediately greeted by Jupa.
“Welcome back, master.” She bows gracefully. “I hope that you’ve enjoyed your time training with Mercy. You must be so fatigued and famished. I’ve finished preparations for a meal, so if you’d like to eat now, I could bring you a serving.”
“I could use a little bit of rest before tackling what’s to come for the day so I’ll do just that. Had you received a message from his majesty?”
“Yes! Of course! I’ll get it for you right away! All of the maidens had received notice from a royal scribe. We eagerly await his majesty’s visitation. Now if you wouldn’t mind, I’ll be on my way to-”
“Have you eaten yet?”
My question causes her to stop mid stride. She turns back with a perplexed look on her face.
“I haven’t yet. The soup I’ve prepared doesn’t exactly have many ingredients to eat so I’ve only been preparing it.”
“Then if you wouldn’t mind, would you join me for a meal? It’d be nice to have some company and I’d promised you that I’d make the time to spend with you. I’d like to get to know you better too.”
“Master… O-Of course! I’ll prepare a place for us and then we can be together for as long as you have to spend! I look forward to it so very much, darling!” She becomes positively luminescent with a strawberry stain and shakes her head fiercely, shattering her reserved, maidly persona. “My apologies! I’d just… gotten a little bit excited…
“No. It’s… okay. Don’t mind it too much.” And the harvest season takes root in myself as well as I flush brighter than a berry.
“Then I’ll be right on my way! Please excuse me!”
Her final words as she dashes out of the room. When I’ve wrestled my heart back under control, I unconsciously look up to the second story and find myself thinking about Juna. There’s an unmistakable gravity calling me towards her. Concerns for her well being. Hopes of meeting her. Desires to hear her voice and see her face. But I give resistance. After my meeting with Jupa, I decide, is when I’ll visit her.
Though there’s still a prickling in my heart while I follow after the manor’s new maid.