"… And that is about the last of them!" Mercedes cheerfully checks off the last line on a long card with names scribbled on them, "From this list, that just about covers all the lost books over the last two years…! An excellent sleuthing. Well done, professor."

"That puts me at ease then," Cyrus chuckles, looking over the roster, "Tis a gladdening thought that such knowledge will still remain for those who come after."

"Ever the professor hm? And still ever the schoolboy, not to mention, given how you fawn after these tomes like a hapless lover," The librarian giggles a bit, "Tis a shame about Russell though."

"Yes… He had a small following of students who did appreciate his teaching… This is ultimately a loss to the academy faculty," Cyrus sighs, "I was aware of his debt before confronting him... But it still boggles the imagination that a scholar would ever do something like this."

"Well, scholars are people, and people come from all walks of life," Mercedes shrugs and begins to put away the organized records, "I will say, you are one of the most devoted scholars here that I know, Cyrus."

"Tis high praise, coming from you."

"Oh? Why's that?"

"Well, your father was an esteemed professor himself. His post-retirement emeritus status proves it, and it now hangs in the halls of the academy."

"That has nothing to do with how I see you, Cyrus," Mercedes says coolly, "I'm not comparing the two of you, for gods' sakes. You're an avid teacher who cares for his students' education and somehow always finds time to squirrel yourself away here with a book till the queerest hours of closing! I don't need to have a father for a scholar to see that."

"Ah, apologies," Cyrus idly looks on the remaining open record. His eyes fall upon a red name in the roster that is not checked off, "Hm, what's this? This isn't marked off? … Another book remains missing from his acquisitions? Perhaps the guards missed it in the raid of his study-"

"Ah, From the Far Reaches of Hell… No. That, I can tell you for sure, was not one taken by Russell during his aggressive borrowing," Mercedes sighs, "His spree goes back only about the last two years, whereas that one has been gone for about fifteen now if memory serves."

"Fifteen?!" Cyrus gasps, "That is appalling! Had no search been conducted? To think that for fifteen years the knowledge sealed in that book has been kept away from hungering students of the Academy...!"

"Well, that's not the immediate reactionary speech I expected," Mercedes gives a small giggle at Cyrus' lament, "But I do bring it up with the headmaster now and then. It's definitely not on his list of priorities, I can tell you that much."

"Not at all? Hm, most peculiar," Cyrus looks up and pulls back some still-wet strands from his face, "He doesn't strike me as that sort. In all the years I've known him, he is most meticulous about the books in our most secretive archives. He won't even let so much as a citation in a bibliography mention what he sees as valuable knowledge."

"Ahaha, you never did get along quite well with him," Mercedes giggles slightly, "Your tastes don't mesh at all. When he says up, you say down, and vice versa."

"Tis not a matter of taste, Mercedes. I have nothing against the man. But our philosophies are much too dissonant to ever coincide. He sees knowledge as a matter of power, politics. It is meant to be hoarded rather than shared, for the one who holds the key thus has all the power. You know my views of such gatekeeping," Cyrus sighs, "I am a scholar, first and foremost. My dedication is to knowledge, not to playing power."

"That certainly sounds more personal than you think," Mercedes folds her arms a little with a knowing smile. She had been to the intellectual galas where scholars regale one another with the fruits of their research and debated matters in their fields of expertise. Cyrus and Yvon commonly butted heads in those gatherings in a passive aggressive fashion. It was like seeing two catty schoolgirls exchange barbs. The imagery widens her smile.

"Whatever do you mean?" Cyrus looks to her and blinks obliviously, "I merely mean our outlooks on the topic differ."

"Right, right…" Mercedes chuckles softly, "But anyway, back to the book… I don't think we'll ever see it again. A shame really. Although, frankly, even if it were returned, it belongs in a special forbidden section of the archives that only headmasters can access. So, students would be barred from it either way."

"Hmm, pray tell what the contents of this tome were," Cyrus frowns slightly and assumes his thinking pose, a curious twinkle in his eyes.

"Well, according to the records, it was a compendium of ancient spells and magical rites," Mercedes says tentatively as she turns some pages on her roster to show that of a dark red and black tome, "It was the single oldest book in our archives, actually. According to the blurb here… it was the last tract of the sage Saloman, from the bygone house of Bernstein. The magic in it was considered forbidden, though not many could actually read the untranslated version."

"Incredible…" Cyrus looks over the tome's sketch with quiet reverence and inquisitiveness, "And to think Yvon of all people isn't concerned at all with its disappearance or possible robbery…!"

"Needless to say, it is quite a loss," Mercedes sighs and shrugs, "We have neither the resources nor permissions to spend on finding it, so it will likely be lost until when time shall tell."

"Another mystery…" Cyrus closes his eyes and scrunches his brow, formulating thoughts.

"Don't tell me you intend on doing anything reckless about it, Professor," Mercedes folds her arms, an unamused expression on her pretty features, "You have gotten into quite enough trouble as it was this morning!"

"Twas but a small scuffle, my dear Mercedes!" Cyrus chuckles, "And I am nearly dry!"

"I swear, professor…"

"Excuse me, Professor Albright," A voice calls from the doorway, "Are you there?"

"Hm? That's…" Mercedes calls out over the shelves, "We're over here, Lucia."

The headmaster assistant maneuvers over to the reception desk. Her face is neutral, and Cyrus had never ever seen her pull an expression otherwise. Like him, she wears the scholar's caplet and robe. She fixes a strand of her raven hair that is out of place and looks impassively at Cyrus. Her voice betrays the slightest emotion, which seems to be an annoyance. Otherwise, she sounded very flat.

"Ah, there you are."

"Oh, Lucia. Did you need something?"

"Yes, the headmaster requests that you come to his chambers immediately. There is a pressing matter in need of discussion," Lucia says tonelessly, "I'm afraid you haven't time to say otherwise."

"At this time? Whatever could he want?"

"Perhaps he wishes to commend you for your efforts in cracking this case," Mercedes suggests jokingly with a giggle.

"… Accolades are the last thing on my mind. But if he insists…," Cyrus shrugs slightly, "I shall resume our conversation with you later then, Mercedes."

The librarian nods. The two scholars leave in the silence of each other's company. Lucia had never been one for many words. In fact, one might say she is the opposite of Cyrus in that regard, as he is known for running his mouth on just about anything that pops up in his brain.

But this time, once they left the library, she says quickly, "So I hear you had subdued the ruffian among our ranks."

"Russell? I should hardly call him a ruffian," Cyrus is slightly taken by surprise by her engagement of conversation, "He was a desperate man."

"Desperation is for the fools who do not understand the value of knowledge. He was a travesty of a scholar," Lucia retorts coldly, "He took the books only to satiate his monetary conundrum, no? Tis a laughable act for anyone truly in scholarship."

"Well, the man has his vices, as do we all," Cyrus shrugs lightly, "I don't think judging him so harshly is warranted. He did have some favorable results with our students-"

"A good teacher does not a scholar make. He was popular because he was a lax grader and showed favorites. But popularity reflects nothing of one's salt in the duty as a keeper of knowledge."

Her words were concise and cutting, blunt without any intention of holding back.

"I think he knew how to teach, which is as important to a scholar as incessant learning," Cyrus says on the side. He had no expectation of finding common ground with her. Even scholars disagreed often on philosophies, and she was in the Yvon camp.

"… You don't speak as if I were the headmaster, Professor Albright," Lucia makes a small noise, like a softer scoff, "We share completely different philosophies, he and I."

"Oh?" Cyrus raises an eyebrow, "Pray tell then. I'm afraid I have misjudged you badly in that case."

She does not answer as they begin to climb the steps up to the main academy building. A few students chitter in the morning air. Some female students see the two scholars walking by and wave enthusiastically for Cyrus.

"H-hi- I mean, good morning, Professor Albright!"

Cyrus returns the formality with a wave and a small smile. He could not understand why the girl's face seemed to suddenly flush red. She runs off with her entourage, covering her face with her books.

"You are very popular with the female students, Professor," Lucia says just loud enough so he can hear. She sounds neither impressed nor amused.

"Am I? Hm, that has yet to cross my mind."

"Well, mayhap you need be more perceptive then. It could reflect badly, depending on how someone sees your interactions with students."

Her words puzzled him. Indeed, she was not so transparent as Yvon. All her cards were played close to the vest, and he only learned about her what she allowed.

They ascend into the academy building. It is still rather early, though some faculty are already hustling to their classrooms to prepare the lesson plan for the day. Cyrus and Lucia go up the central staircase and to the side, where a winding stairwell leads up to the headmaster's chambers. In the preceding hall, there is a series of commissioned portraits hanging opposite the windows, telling of the long and illustrious history of the academy leaders since its founding.

Cyrus cannot completely suppress his frown as they pass the late headmaster's portrait.

Headmaster Franklin…

When he first was accepted into the academy, Cyrus was an admirer of the man. Franklin was a scholar totally devoted to his craft of learning. He taught and shared avidly with contemporaries and the professors. At the time, Yvon was a professor, and Cyrus was a student. Franklin treated students like his own children. Perhaps it was from his habits that Cyrus developed his critical thinking and avid reading skills.

Cyrus became the youngest to ever take a professorship in the academy, at the age of 15. It was the last appointment Franklin made before he mysteriously died. The scholar could still recall how Franklin presented him with his prized caplet and robe, the mark of a recognized mentor in the academy.

The circumstances of Franklin's death were relatively simple. He was found in his study, collapsed near a tray of his late-night meal. There was no suspicion of foul play, as it was ruled accidental. Everyone was told the headmaster died choking on his food on one of his infamous late-night self-study sessions. The evidence corroborated this for the most part, and further investigation was concluded. There were no marks or proof otherwise to display a need for lingering suspicion.

Yet, Cyrus held onto his thoughts of intrigue. Franklin's death had struck him as odd for fifteen years now. After Franklin's death, Yvon ascended to the seat of headmaster without opposition. He had been a professor longer than many of the other fellows, and he boasted high scores on all his requisite tests. Cyrus, as a greenhorn, did not have the credentials to say anything, even with his status as the youngest professor ever. Everyone else was rather mellow and went along with the decision.

Some might say his suspicion is founded on his disagreement with Yvon. Cyrus knew that. It was why he spent most of the last years trying to be objective about the whole situation. He reviewed the evidence over and over again in his mind, trying to pick out any possible bias on his judgment. There was indeed something objectively off about the whole affair, other than the timing. Unfortunately, his concerns were well dismissed as circumstantial. Bringing up any feud between Franklin and Yvon only earned eye rolls from the other professors and they had chided him for his brash young ideas.

"Everything in academia is a conversation. We reach the truth and knowledge through the community, and that is why the communal nature of an academy is so wonderful!"

That was something Franklin had liked to say to inquisitive students. Such things changed soon enough under Yvon.

"Professor?"

Cyrus looks up and sees Lucia at the door, paces ahead of him. He had slowed to a complete halt before Franklin's smiling portrait.

"… Is everything alright," Lucia eyes the portrait herself before looking back at Cyrus.

"Ah, forgive my lapse of attention. You were saying?"

"…I was not saying anything. We have simply arrived at the headmaster's," Lucia sighs and knocks on the dark red doors, "Headmaster Yvon? I have brought the professor as asked."

A deep voice calls in response from within, "Enter."

Lucia opens the doors obediently and stands aside for Cyrus to enter first. He steps into the office. It seems like he was visiting this place more and more often as Yvon found more and more wrong with his conduct by the day.

The office is wide and spacious, with two levels of windows to provide ample lighting. The headmaster's chair and desk sit in the room center away from the door atop a worn and trodden, yet clean, red carpet, under a brass chandelier. The portrait of Yvon hangs on the wall, looking at his desk, flanked by two ornate flowerpots. Other small furnishings are present, like a pair of tables and benches for waiting. There are also large shelves with carefully selected tomes, as well as a case with all Yvon's academic accomplishments, from trophies to plaques. Overall, it is not a subtle hint at all that the room was like an altar to the man.

Yvon stands to the side of his desk, looking straight at Cyrus. He has a strange expression, like a cross between smug and stern. His dark red eyes betray nothing. A commendation seems rather unlikely now. On the side, Cyrus notes his hair and mustache look as oily as ever.

"Headmaster," Cyrus stands his ground before Yvon's scrutiny, "To what do I owe this summons?"

"My apologies for the short notice," Yvon says, not sorry at all, "But we must discuss a series of matters regarding your recent conduct in academia…"

Cyrus thinks a bit as Yvon pauses, lording over the moment. What trouble did he supposedly cause this time? The Russell issue was the most recent, but that was hardly his fault. And the guards could corroborate his story.

"That treatise on arcane studies you published last week. What in the name of the thirteenth were you thinking?" A shade of anger passes over the headmaster's expression.

"Hm? Surely my hypothesis was clear on the mechanics of Gateways an-"

"Don't play coy!" Yvon slams a hand down on his desk violently, snarling, "You were referencing ideas found in the literature in our special archives! Not only that, you even provided all its existence in your citations!"

Oh. Cyrus had forgotten about that. And to think he was just telling Mercedes about this pet peeve of Yvon's.

"Those books are not for any eyes but that of the Royal Academy! And even then, we cannot go giving knowledge as prized as this to the public on a whim in some silly paper!" Yvon's hand turns to a fist and he slams it down again, rattling even the overhead chandelier, "That is exclusively for us alone! What gives you the right to share ANYTHING?!"

"Sir, I am, first and foremost, a teacher, which is why such valuab-"

"ENOUGH, CYRUS!" Yvon growls, "Or would you rather I revoke all your privileges into those tomes altogether?!"

That makes Cyrus bite back his words a bit. To lose access to all those books would be a blow to his own expansions to teach. After all, how could a professor perform at their best with their own faculties hampered? Even if Yvon is overstepping his powers, there was little to stop him from doing so. He clasps his fists at his sides.

"…My sincerest apologies for my error, headmaster."

"A redaction is to be issued immediately in an intermittent edition of the publication, understood?" Yvon says, more composed seeing Cyrus' resignation, "I want a statement erasing the tome's mention and complete removal of the text in question. Even a full recall may be in order. And I do not want to hear of this happening again. Is that understood, Cyrus?"

"Yes, sir," Cyrus sighs inwardly.

What was the point of being a professor at this rate? He was merely a dog on a tight leash, told to teach what the academy allowed, and nothing else. There was no spirit for knowledge in that. It was all so forced. Fifteen years now he'd been teaching… And the urge to quit had never been stronger.

But he could not. He was a stubborn bookworm.

"Is there anything else I might be of assistance with?" Cyrus asks courteously.

"Yes, as a matter of fact… This is an even more serious matter, I'm afraid," Yvon pulls at one end of his mustache broodingly, "Her Highness is in your midday history class, correct?"

"Indeed, yes she is," Cyrus' brow furrows a bit, "Whatever is the matter?"

"A most troubling tidbit of news reached my ears yesterday near evening," Yvon walks up to Cyrus, arms folded, "An anonymous source claims you have abused your position to enter an illicit relationship … with Her Highness the Princess."

Cyrus pales, but with anger more so than fear. His eyes wide with surprise, he tries to keep himself calm. Be it as Yvon may be, he would not be so simple to follow a claim without evidence, of which Cyrus was sure there was none.

"…And you believe this account to be true?"

"Is this true?" Yvon looks at him dismissively.

"No! It is unfounded malarkey of the highest order!" Cyrus tries not to shout too loud in Yvon's face, "There is nothing to substantiate this slander!"

"Hm," Yvon smirks lightly and turns to go gaze out his window toward the academy square, "I'm sure you would never sully your prestige, professor… but tis no simple matter, I'm afraid."

"…You don't mean it's spread-"

"Precisely," Yvon says without looking at him, "Word regarding the royal family, however unfounded, is bound to find a home in curious minds. And then Her Highness would be forever sullied! You do understand that we must act, don't you?"

"… You could have found a less roundabout way to dismiss me, sir."

"Correct, I could have. But I cannot," Yvon turns halfway to look at him sideways, "Because it would be akin to the action of confessing."

"Oh? Then what course of action do you propose?"

"Well, that is what I was hoping we could discuss here," Yvon returns to his desk's side, "We need some way to keep the reputation of this academy intact. If you care for your own name, you should start thinking as well."

Cyrus scarcely whispers, "My… reputation…?"

What an absurd thought! He couldn't care less about that sort of appearance! But a warning look from Yvon tells the scholar it probably wasn't the time to say so.

A tense silence settles over the room. It contrasts with the growing clamor outside as student activity for the day begins to pick up speed.

"… Sir, if I may be so bold."

Both Yvon and Cyrus look with surprise at Lucia. She had been so quiet the whole time that Cyrus forgot she was there.

"What is it, Lucia."

"Why not have the professor go on sabbatical leave? He would be put on extended leave, while official records will state he is merely doing fieldwork abroad."

This was indeed a shrewd thought. Cyrus would never have fathomed leaving the academy like that. The idea seems to please Yvon.

"What say you, Cyrus? This way, your reputation and the academy's remain intact."

"… …"

"Hm? Is there a problem?"

Yvon could hazard a guess that Cyrus' gears were grinding. But about what he couldn't tell. Suddenly, Cyrus turns to him with a composed expression. Idyllic, almost.

"Not at all. On the contrary, this is perhaps the perfect opportunity…"

"Opportunity? What are you going on about?" Yvon frowns slightly. Cyrus wasn't squirming quite as he'd have liked.

"There is in fact a matter which has piqued my interest as of late. But I had been pondering on the conflicts with my schedule, which has now been cleared," Cyrus folds his arms now, a confident smile slowly forming on his face, "So I believe some fieldwork is indeed in order."

Yvon furrows his brow now. What was this buffoon going on about?

"… Is that so… Well, that is good for you then, professor," Yvon spits that out a bit, "Do tell, whatever is it you plan on investigating?"

"I should like to start by positing this query onto you, headmaster," Cyrus looks Yvon straight in the eyes, "Why have you not pursued any effort to find From the Far Reaches of Hell?"

The tome's name drops. Sudden silence. Cyrus sees Yvon's face suddenly twist a bit into one of ugly anger. But as soon as it came, the face goes away.

"…Ahem," Yvon clears his throat, "That book has been missing well over ten years now. To find it among the riddled networks of illicit trades is an act in futility which I cannot ask this academy to afford."

The headmaster sits down on his cushioned seat, "Is that the subject of your intrigue?"

"Yes, quite," Cyrus says tersely, "Now if you'll excuse me, I have to begin packing for my trip."

"Ah, please do be careful then, professor," Yvon calls out to him in a voice of false concern, "I heard about Russell. Expect these thieves to be as dangerous if not more. We will not be reimbursing anyone for your death after all."

Cyrus gives a hollow laugh, "Worry yourself not, headmaster. There is no one to reimburse on my behalf."

He leaves without much of another word. Once the door closes behind him, Yvon growls, resting his head on his arm.

"That gods-damned enigma he is, isn't he," Yvon strokes his mustache as a nasty smile forms on his face, "But the trusting fool… to openly question me…!"

"As candid as the last headmaster indeed. He lacks any relatives or social life really. It's why he can be so focused on his work here," The female scholar stares a bit longer at the closed doors, "As well as utterly clueless about what to say."

"Bah. He's as foolish as Franklin as well."

"… He knows of the tome and seems intent on finding it. If he pursues it, it will…" Lucia puts a pondering finger to her chin, "Ultimately lead back to you one way or another, headmaster."

"Hmf. See to it he doesn't leave the city alive," Yvon folds his hands and leans back on his chair, "As usual, make it appear like an accident."

"There is no one to reimburse on my behalf."

He'd meant it to be a sort of backhand to Yvon for all the trouble so far. But self-derision only goes so far as a weapon before one realizes they also stabbed themselves in the back.

As he walked out from that travesty of a meeting, Cyrus could feel his feet drag, passing under the eyes of all the headmasters of yore.

What a joke this academy has become, where a man cannot even share what he has learned among his peers! Even if they hadn't suggested a sabbatical, he might have come to the dreaded conclusion sooner or later and left of his own volition.

The thrill of teaching had all but waned under the censorship and careful watch of Yvon. How he had been so exhilarated at the thought of sharing and opening young minds as his own had been! It seems like all that remains is this stubborn will of his that keeps him from quitting. He couldn't allow Yvon's philosophy to triumph over the school.

But here he was, taking his leave. It is temporary, sure… But who knows for how long? Some professors on their fieldwork never returned, said to have changed identities entirely or been eaten by some rabid beast. It was somewhat a noble act, in his eyes, to be a martyr for the sake of knowledge.

It wasn't like he had much else to fight for after all.

Family? He never knew them very much. His father had left him and his mother when he was young. She raised him in, honestly as he believed, the best way she knew how all on her own. That included all the beatings and screaming and nights of being locked in the cellar for misbehaving. But he never held hatred towards her. Instead, he sought the haven away from home in the library. He threw himself into his studies and neglected her as she began to waste away from a chronic illness. He got into the Academy through an aptitude exam for laymen, which he passed with flying colors. Once there, he came home late every day, just to glance at her form on the bed. He hired a caretaker for her with the scholarship money he won. People saw him as a genius that came from nothing. He didn't even tell her when he became a professor at long last. And when she died …

When she…

How dreary the weather was that day. He could still see it. Every detail, down to the wet scent of the freshly overturned earth-

He never hated her, despite everything. She likely tried her best.

With that, he shrugs off those annoying thoughts. Just in time too, as he would otherwise never have noticed the light purple-haired student calling for him as he stormed out of the academy.

"Professor Albright!"

He looks up to see Therese running towards him. She is another student in Princess Mary's history class. She is also a distant relative to the crown, though her family is nowhere in line for the monarchy. Her performance in class is steady, and she had the avid want to learn, which was more than Cyrus could have asked for. He stops and turns to face her as she approaches. By now the student traffic had trickled down as most were in their appropriate rooms, leaving the two of them almost alone in the academy front gardens.

"Ah, Therese," Cyrus smiles softly and shifts some of his dried-but-loose bangs out of his face, "What is it? Your morning classes are starting."

"I-" Therese's mouth gapes as she pauses and then looks him over, "W-what happened to you, professor?"

"Oh, just some water magic. Err, did you need something?"

"Oh, uhm… I… I heard," Therese timidly looks him in the eye, "You were leaving the academy…"

Well, word does travel fast.

Cyrus nods somberly, "You heard correct."

Therese's expression becomes absolutely broken when he does not deny her allegation. Clutching her hands before her chest and bowing, she barely gets out an apology due to the constricting lump forming in her throat.

"I… I'm so sorry!"

Cyrus blinks at the sudden apology, "What?"

"I-I didn't mean for any… I thought they…!" Therese's breath hitches and her throat refuses to let her finish without bursting into tears, "When I told… I didn't think they would…!"

The puzzle snaps into place for Cyrus.

"… I see. So, you were the anonymous source."

Therese bites her lip and nods ashamedly. She trembles, awaiting his righteous fury. When it doesn't happen, she slowly lifts her head. Cyrus' face certainly seemed perplexed at least, but hardly angry or even sad. More like surprised.

"But… why?" Cyrus says almost in wonder, "Why would you spread such a rumor?"

"I… I was … jealous…" Therese admits in shame, tears running down her burning face. She attempts to wipe them away in vain, "It seemed like… your eyes were only ever, hic, on Mary… Always with her… answering her, hic, questions in cram session…"

She allows her confession to tumble out, "I just wanted you to look at me…!"

"… And the rumor, you thought, was the best way to go about it?"

Boy did she feel dumb now. All she can do is quietly sob now, unable to face him; her ruined plan laid bare. Surely, now would be when he severely reprimands her…

The anger she expects never comes. Instead, she feels a soft pat on her head.

"Fret not, my dear."

"H…Huh?" She looks up timidly to that face. The first thing she noticed was that he was smiling.

"This is some sort of uncanny kismet…" The professor chuckles and withdraws his hand, "I had been searching for an excuse to leave."

"Y-you were?" Therese's eyes widen with disbelief. Was he serious? Or was he just trying to make her feel better?

"Why, yes, indeed. There is an important matter I had been wanting to look into. But I was unsure of how to allot time for it," Cyrus puts a hand to his chin and nods, "Now, I have just the break I need to go forth."

"Professor…" Therese's heart remained in knots despite the professor not showing anger at her. She didn't want him to go…

"For a while now, I have been thinking about what lies outside this city's walls… What mysteries dot the land that we are not aware of in this academy!" Cyrus' eyes shine with the spark of curiosity, "Indeed, there is much to be learned outside. And I can now pursue it…"

He turns to Therese, "…In part thanks to you."

"… Can you ever forgive me…" Therese mutters quietly, eyes still red. She felt like she might start crying again at any moment. He was thanking her for something she never intended... and it was far from what she wanted.

"There is nothing to forgive. Why, I daresay I am at fault here as well. I never realized your feelings..."

Therese's eyes widen. Her feelings? Had he known?

"What..." She asks cautiously, trying not to let her hopeful imagination run wild, "What about my feelings, professor...?"

"I had been blind all along to your feelings of devotion to your studies!"

A virtual tumbleweed blows by.

"M... My studies..." Therese couldn't fathom if it was some cruel cosmic joke or if he was being funny about it.

"Yes, you are a student of knowledge, as is the princess. However, I have unfortunately been all too eager to answer to her majesty's inquisitive nature, thus neglecting the rest of you, my pupils! I should strive to be more egalitarian in this manner, so as to properly encourage all of you to come forth with your queries, leaving none behind!"

Someone coughs in the background after his grand speech.

"Therefore, you mustn't let this bring you down, Therese. I have partial responsibility for this situation. Hold your head tall, for you are still a learning student!"

Even if his sentiment was all wrong, his inspirational tone and natural charisma somehow manage to balance out in the end. Therese stares for a few moments before wiping her tears and giving a half-hearted chuckle.

"You... you really aren't as sharp as I'd thought..." She mutters under her breath with a smile.

"Hm? Did you say something?"

"... I … I wish you luck on your journey, professor," Therese says, now looking him in the eye with her teary face, "After all, this... this isn't goodbye forever, right? What... what was that excerpt from those analects again... 'For what greater sin hath there been but yielding to the abrupt and unjust end of our meeting'... B-by Harrows... right?"

By gods, she hoped she recited that correctly. She really wasn't the most stellar of students.

Cyrus gives her a smile, almost like that of a proud parent. It told her all she needed to know.

"That is correct. An excellent reference, Therese."

He turns now, drawing his cape about in a dramatic fashion of flair, "Now, if you will excuse me, I must go..."

"Wait, professor... Will we meet again?"

"... I don't see why not. If we are both still alive," Cyrus gives her a final smile and a wave before walking off to the faculty dorms, "...Then may we meet again."

She watched with uncertainty from his words as he left. Then it struck her at last. She was completely late for class.

"Haha, come now, eat up!"

Mattias laughs heartily as he takes a swig of cider. The buxom waitress chuckles and places down a platter of potato cakes with gravy before the party. Ophilia timidly thanks her and sips her tea. H'aanit stares a bit at the large slab of fried potato before looking uncomfortably around at the boisterous atmosphere in the popular café. Outside, Hägen and Linde stare into the establishment, looking left out. Unfortunately, this place did not allow pets of any sort. H'aanit resented that address.

The café clientele has a good number of students from the noon classes. Whilst the morning goers had their espresso and quick bites of danish, they could loiter longer until their classes began after. Some academy faculty mix among them, distinguished by their scholar robes. They talk in medium-volume voices, which create for still a bustling indoor ambience due to the proximity of tables. There is talk here and there about their classes, projects, essays, and the usual gripes about assignments and perceived teaching failures.

"Sorry, I, uh, didn't think it'd be this crowded so early," Mattias says sheepishly. They had arrived before crowds but were quickly surrounded by other patrons.

"Are you alright, H'aanit?" Ophilia looks with slight worry to the huntress, "We should finish quickly and go..."

"... Indeede," H'aanit takes a deep breath and stabs a fork into one of the oat roulades, "We haven stille a longe way to goen."

"Don't these students have their own cafeteria?" Ophilia looks to Mattias.

"I think they do have their own canteen, yes," Mattias munches on a strip of bacon, "But they are free to eat at many places in town. They get great discounts as students and staff, you know."

"I see…"

The cleric looks around now and then as she manages small bites of her breakfast. It all seems so luxurious and foreign. And she was the odd one out that did not belong. Perhaps it was the jitters from their eventful morning jog turning her stomach. The memory of the purpose of this trip resurfaces and she couldn't wait to get back on the road.

"Do you think we'll reach Rippletide soon…?" Ophilia looks to the merchant, "By foot?"

"Well, it's a bit of a road through the west coast. But luckily for us, I arranged for the rest of the trip by boat!" Mattias grins, "Remember, Atlasdam has a port in Middlesea. Rippletide does also. So, we can take a ship down south and avoid the land troubles."

"Oh, that sounds wonderful…" Ophilia had never been on a boat really, as far as she could remember.

"I hope you're more taken to a ship ride than one with horses?" Mattias looks to H'aanit. She folds her arms and sighs lightly.

"… Foren the sake of speede," She says tonelessly, "I haven ne'er on a ship been."

"Oh, that makes two of us!" Ophilia smiles, "This could be fun…"

At the entrance of the café enters a familiar face. H'aanit and Ophilia turn and see the professor they had rescued saunter in. It seems he had not the mind to even change out of his wet clothes from the skirmish with Russel. Without a hitch in stride, he walks over to a nearby table with other scholars, not even waiting to be seated. When he approaches them, he speaks loud enough for the nearby tables to hear.

"Hodgins! I must speak with you!" He leans over, hands spread on the table.

"Er-huh? Cyrus, what in the name of the gods are you doing here?" The older, dark-skinned scholar looks a bit surprised, to say the least, "Don't you have a class to teach at this hour?"

"Tis not of import at the moment," Cyrus dismisses that notion, "Do you remember Odette? She studied arcana with us for a few summers and conducted that case study with you for your capstone project?"

"Why of course I remember her, Odette Azelhart," Hodgins nods, "Is there a reason I can't finish my sandwich first…"

"Where did she go for her fieldwork again? Which station?" Cyrus presses on.

"… He is quite forceful hm," Mattias sips his cider with a dismissive glance at the scholar's commotion.

"M-mm…" Ophilia nods, "He also seems quite… oblivious…"

"He ist deafe to whatten he ought not do," H'aanit says offhandedly, munching on some milk bread.

"Well, I suppose tact is a lost art," Ophilia chuckles.

"I see!" Cyrus exclaims suddenly, "Alright, thank you very much Hodgins!"

The trio sees the scholar walk out as suddenly as he entered. The other scholars left at the table give some sighs of relief, now able to enjoy their meal in peace.

"Good gods, that Cyrus…"

"Now, now, he is such an excitable fanatic. Not enough zeal in our job, haha…"

"Quite. I think he's rather… refreshing, ha ha…"

They said those things. But Ophilia suddenly heard a different voice from their souls.

"He's such an uppity brat."

"He has got no respect for status."

"I'll be glad once Yvon has disposed of his green-nosed face, hehe."

The cleric nearly knocks over her tea in shock from the abrupt revelation. She hadn't even attempted to reach their mind, yet, somehow, she passively picked up on it? Fearful, she glances at the scholars' circle. They seem ignorant to her presence, bantering on. Had she not intruded after all? She tries to pick up on the inner dialogue again. But the thoughts are gone as fast as she came. While she felt their souls, she did not hear their thoughts anymore. But the words remain fresh in her mind, along with the nasty tone used.

Mattias sees the cleric purse her lips, "Everything alright, Fili?"

"Huh? Oh, yeah, yeah! I'm fine. This food is honestly so rich!"

"It is, ain't it? Green fields and verdant harvest here!" The merchant leans back in his seat, rubbing his stomach, "We made very good time here, so we needn't rush. The ship should depart in the next hour or so. And it ought to bring us to Rippletide by late nightfall."

"Ah, then it's good I hadn't unpacked much. There isn't a lot to put away now."

"Mm, you should feel free to browse a bit, but not too much. An hour flies fast when one's having a good time, hehe."

"Hm. Doest thou wanteth to continue perusing the burg?" H'aanit looks to Ophilia.

"Oh, yes, I would love to see if the castle is open now... this place is just so new!"

"Goode. Then we oughten go now afore the time slippeth away," The huntress stands and pushes in her chair, ready to leave. Ophilia chuckles. She had seen the huntress looking to her beasts outside the whole time.

People did stare at the two beasts outside the café, but they were much too timid to do anything. The party had luckily discussed with the café owner prior, as someone eventually fetched the guards to remove them. The small shebang left the huntress in a foul mood as they left the restaurant.

"Sorry about that, H'aanit," Ophilia lightly rubs the stoic huntress' shoulder, "It seems a lot of people outside the Woodlands aren't accustomed to beasts without a... uh, leash."

"A leash be'en for the 'pets' they spaketh of," H'aanit grumbles, "But one doth not shacklen their own partner in such a way."

"When in a place, do as the locals do," Mattias shrugs, "That's a pretty staple saying we merchants go by. Makes less trouble. Er, no offense, H'aanit."

"I am gladde then, that I aren no merchant."

"Hahaha..." Mattias just chuckles lightly, "So! Where do you guys fancy going first? Shops? Landmarks?"

"Well, the castle was closed earlier. You think they opened it now?" Ophilia looks down the main street.

"Sure! They open with the academy hours and classes are on by now so it should be fine."

"I willen searcheth for a weapons shoppe," H'aanit looks to the town's west area.

"Huh? Oh, we can come with you, H'aanit. We have time after all," Ophilia wasn't sure about leaving the huntress to wander the city by herself.

"If thou willst."

As they pass the square where the children play, Ophilia takes note of the waking vibrance in the city. Not only were students traipsing about the streets, but the merchants and businesses were all waking up. Some elderly women take out their laundry to air out and others meet up for the daily exchange. The air is beginning to warm with the rising sun.

The weapons shop is located at the edge of the merchant's guild cul-de-sac. It is one of the largest stores in the area and includes the armory and even a magic station inside, as advertised. Some older students seem to come here and walk out with staves and wands.

"Hmm... So theren be muche who aren Gateways here," H'aanit notes quietly.

"Well, scholars do tend to be Gates, yes. But students, no," Mattias shrugs, "Some magic items are able to be used even by non-Gates. They're imbued like soul stones. And even if you can't use them, they make a decent walking stick at least, hehe..."

Inside the shop, Ophilia looks around at the suits of armor, swords, axes, shields, and more. There was a smithy back in Flamesgrace, Ivan, who made all the weapons for the Knights Ardante and even the metal upholstery for the church. Here, however, it just felt different and grander somehow.

As H'aanit goes off to look for her needs, Mattias points at some staves on display and uses his selling tone, "Look at this beauty! A light staff, made with supple willow and with automatic magic core center. Comes with 3 charges."

Ophilia cringes slightly seeing the price tag, "800 leaves?!"

"Magic isn't cheap. If you want, I can get it for you though-"

"Mattias, perish the thought!" Ophilia sighs, gripping her plain, church-issued staff, "What I have is enough, really!"

"Ok, ok... But we need some souvenirs to remember this trip, no?" Mattias smiles, "Your first time here and out in the world after so long deserves some memory. Gods know, you'll be busy working in the convent for the rest of your life-"

She reaches and pinches his cheek, disrupting his sentence.

"OWOWOW!"

H'aanit briefly smiles when she glances at the merchant and cleric horsing around. Linde and Hägen poke and prod around, not particularly interested in anything of the sort. To be honest, nothing was catching her eye either. She was hoping to find hand axes or arrows to replenish her stock. It seems neither of those weapon types are popular here in Atlasdam. They have mostly staves for sale.

A fur coat catches her eye for a second. It is well made and could pass for a masterful piece of work of a hunter in the Woodlands. Then she sees the price of 14,400 leaves.

"Tis ridiculous," She mutters as she sniffs the article of clothing, "The pelte ofen this beast felled selleth for no more than 700...!"

"Ah, truly?" The familiar dense scholar pops up beside her, "Do tell. I am most interested in your deduction. Your attire hearkens to that of hunters. Are you familiar with all manners of beasts?"

H'aanit rolls her eyes slightly, not very surprised, "Tis a pelt of the cait. It be'en a rare hunt, but it doth not cost this much."

"Fascinating! It seems to indeed be from a cait, judging from the tabby-like stripes and texture," Cyrus nods affirmatively, "It is written here on the placard as well that it supposedly grants the wearer more lives like a cait due to it being qualified as armor."

"... We haven oft seen thee now in this burg," H'aanit grunts.

"Ah, have we? I do apologize if you found it uncomfortable, but I assure you it is a mere coincidence. I am here for supplies for my trip, which I assume is a similar case for you? Uh, your name was... H'aanit, was it?"

"Indeede," H'aanit keeps it brief as she just picks stuff up and looks at it without much interest, "I hath not knowen that thou venturest out of these here walls."

"Pardon? Do you mean us scholars?" Cyrus blinks, "Oh I assure you that we travel very much! It is becoming more dangerous nowadays on the road though, so fewer are opting to leave. It is quite a shame really, that we willingly are locking ourselves up."

This did not surprise the huntress. These bookish learned types, as known in the Woodlands, were often stereotyped to be fragile shut-ins. Nature with its powerful forces scared them. They could only do their precious studying within fortified walls. What came of it was merely impractical things like theorems and formulas that wouldn't save a hunter's life in a pinch. It all seems quite useless to one who has grown living off the land.

"Might I ask wherefore you are bound?" He looks at her curiously.

"Southerward to the lands along the coast," H'aanit doesn't specify.

"Ah, pray tell might you be boarding a boat in less than hour? There is one leaving for Rippletide," Cyrus nods to himself, "I will be aboard that ship as well."

"Hm," She expresses neither displeasure nor surprise.

"Also, I couldn't help but notice you were traveling with a cleric of the Flame!" Cyrus exclaims, "Those robes and staff are unmistakable, yes. Standard issue, I believe among their clerics. The lack of a hood differentiates them from the nuns and priestesses. And the top of the staff has the symbolic ornament of the-"

H'aanit leaves his rambling and walks away. As Linde and Hägen follow her quickly, the leopard gives the scholar's shin a smack with her whip-like tail, eliciting a small yelp from him. H'aanit smiles wryly on the side as some in the store look to the scholar hunched over, rubbing his leg.

"Ah, H'aanit. Did you find what you needed?" Ophilia looks to the huntress when they regroup.

"Nay," H'aanit shakes her head, "Twas a looke, but they haven not anything I neede."

"Well, that's too bad. But I guess it is to be expected. They cater to what the students' needs more than a hunter," Mattias scratches his head, "So, castle next, then?"

While the huntress and cleric nod, Hägen turns his head for a moment. It catches Linde and H'aanit's attentions.

"Hägen?" H'aanit kneels a bit and tries to follow the wolf's gaze, "What doth thou senseth?"

"Rrr..."

"Hmm?" Ophilia looks to the huntress as they go to leave the store, "H'aanit? Linde? We're leaving!"

H'aanit gives a glance around as she straightens. She didn't see anything suspicious. Likely Hägen smelled something. She was never one to distrust the keen instincts of beasts, and so she decides to err on the side of caution. She gestures with her head and the two beasts follow her out of the store, now alert and wary.

Moving along within the streams of students and civilians, a hooded figure with a long cloak steps off to the side into a small alley located between houses. Hoods are not out of place here, as they are a common feature of scholar and student robes. So, this figure does not draw any suspicion.

Once safely inside the nook, the figure is shortly joined by a taller person. This fellow is in dark, black clothes, with a hooded cowl drawn over his head. The newcomer moves without noise and seems entirely unnoticed by anyone but this other hood. The first hood speaks, with the voice of a woman.

"How much?"

The second figure responds with a deep male tone, "20 grand a head."

The woman extends a slender hand holding a hefty pouch from within her cloak. The man seizes it greedily and tosses it in his hand a little, feeling its weight and hearing the clink from within. He loosens the string a bit to peer inside and gives a slight grunt of affirmation seeing the contents.

"I can give you time to count if you want," The woman says coolly.

"What's the job," The man pockets the money without another word.

The woman extends her hand again, this time with a piece of paper. On it is a scratchy portrait of a young man with black hair in a ponytail. He seems the type that women would usually fawn over incessantly.

"His name is Cyrus Albright."

"Huh," The man takes the paper scrap and looks it over closely, "Any whereabouts or additional remarks?"

"He will be taking the earliest ship to Rippletide today it seems, if my sources are correct. It would be best if you could catch him before he even leaves the city. Otherwise, have him sleep in Middlesea."

"Huh, close shave then," The man didn't like these kinds of rushed jobs. But it would have to do.

"A little. It should not be too difficult to dispatch of him... But don't let your guard down. He is a shrewd professor of the Royal Academy."

"A professor? You mean he's a scholar?"

"Yes. He is nearly a full Gate."

"Well, then maybe 20 grand ain't cutting it-"

Before the job-taker can finish bumping up his price, his voice seizes. The hooded woman before him raises a hand with a dark nimbus of wicked magic aura. Her eyes peering out from under her hood are cold and merciless. She was not in any mood to play games.

"Are you going to do your job or not, Mr. Assassin?"

"... G-got it," The assassin gives up his plan for a raise, "I'll get it done."

"Good," The woman does not lower her hand, "I trust you will also keep this quiet? It would be most unsavory if you were to leak any of this."

"Of course, of course," The assassin hastily adds, "We Obsidians are very discreet."

"I should hope so, for your sake," The woman smiles rather wickedly, "And I also hope, again, for your sake, that you do not fail. Otherwise, the consequences... Well, you needn't come back."

The assassin swallows quietly. How this petite woman was scaring the bejeezus out of him, he could not fathom. Despite having done many a dirty job in the past, none of it had prepared him. Her aura and attitude are completely chilling.

"Well, you best be off then. There is barely half an hour left," The woman lowers her hand at last, "Good luck, Mr. Assassin."

"Right, right..." The assassin grumbles as he leaves the alleyway and blends back into the growing crowds of the day. He couldn't wait to be done with this line of work soon. It used to be fun and games, but now things were getting weird in the world. And more dangerous. Best to just keep your head low and save up for a ticket out of here, before something big happens. Not all the coffers of gold in the world would save you then.


Author's Notes:

1. "What in the name of the thirteenth" is basically "What in the name of the Devil"

2. Have you been paying attention to the days passing by in the story? Don't worry about it. Roughly now, Primrose's group is crossing into the Highlands. It doesn't matter too much since all plot will align anyway

3. Therese's quote is actually a rewritten line from the poem "Reluctance" by Robert Frost. The original line goes: "Ah, when to the heart of man Was it ever less than a treason to go with the drift of things to yield with a grace to reason and bow and accept at the end of a love or a season."

4. Yay, 20th chapter.