༺ Start of Winter (3) ༻
Merkarva had two exams: the interim and the end-of-the-year exam. People might say two exams a year was a very forgiving schedule but this was because the students of a guardian academy tended to do a lot of practical work outside.
Exam results didn’t matter much to the grade promotions as a guardian, so most of the students that cared about studying were those from the Magic Department that wanted to do things other than fighting.
“It’s finally going to be a holiday again.”
“Before that would be the final exam though. Maybe you guys should study.”
“Nah. Tests are there to judge your average ability, not your procrastination skills.”
Lark and Jaeger were the same as always. Well, considering how Jaeger was a Grade 3 Knight who was more than likely to reach Grade 2 by graduation, he probably didn’t care too much about test scores.
“Didn’t you get pretty much full marks in your interim exam apart from the prac test?” I asked.
“Ahk… d, don’t remind me about Miss Lunia…! Uhk!”
On the other hand, Lark was applying for the Tower of Mages. Rather than the prac tests that assessed one’s skills as a guardian, he was the type to focus more on written exams.
“What about you, Korin?”
“Me? Well… I guess I’m similar to Jaeger when it comes to tests.”
“Kuhahat! Right? I’m telling you, tests are supposed to assess what we know already. There’s no need to study for them!”
“You say that, but you both got stomped in your previous test didn’t you?”
“If you bring that up… I guess there’s nothing for me to say in return.”
I was overly reliant on my memories of the previous iteration when sitting the last exam and went horribly. It was only thanks to getting full marks plus some extra points during the prac test against Lunia Arden that I landed somewhere between average to high-performing students. 60 out of 400 or something like that.
The prac tests were definitely very important. I was wondering who the prac test instructor would be for this exam when Alicia spoke to me after packing her bag.
“Oh, hey. You look nice in that coat.”
“Uhihi, right? I made up my mind and went for it. It’s winter after all.”
Alicia was wearing her martial uniform with a coat on top, and honestly, it looked pretty sick.
“I’m going to get some desserts. Would you like to come with me? It’s a new place but it feels a bit weird to go there by myself.”
“Are you buying it?”
“Do you want me to?”
“Nah, don’t worry about it. I’ll pay.”
Although it was very sudden, there weren’t any things scheduled for today, so I decided that having a meal downtown wouldn’t be a bad option. While I was at it, I could also check how the hotel was faring in the auction.
“Korin-oppa. Can I come with you?”
That was when Hua Ran in her Ran mode expressed her will to enter the group with a smile on her face.
“The more the merrier.” It seemed that Alicia wasn’t against it and said that without raising any objections.
Jaeger and Lark, who had been chatting about holidays and final exams, suddenly started gazing at me with narrowed eyes. They were my friends but sometimes, I had a feeling that their eyes were a bit too cold.
“Huu… I know this is not that nice of a thing to do, but…”
“Yeah. This is getting a bit annoying.”
The two of them came to a mutual understanding without even saying anything and raised their hands up at the same time.
“We want to go as well.”
“We can pay for ourselves…!”
“I told you it’s on me already.”
After Hua Ran was Jaeger and Lark, but that wasn’t even the end.
“Korinnn~. Are you done with your lesson?”
Another celebrity hopped her way into the lecture room. Marie came immediately after her own lesson and approached us while waving her hand.
She appeared very regularly in our classes these days so the other freshmen students didn’t seem to think much of it.
“Senior Marie. We’re going to go downtown to a dessert store called… What was it called again?”
“Belzeana? Something like that! I only saw the flier this morning as well.”
“Yes. Anyway, we’re going there. Would you like to come with us?”
“Of course! Doggo likes cakes as well!”
There were six people now including Marie. Everything was good because there was nothing bad about having more people.
– I’m so jealous, man.
– Dude, let go. Shit, let go…!
– Hold your horses buddy. You know you’re just gonna get demolished anyway.
– Sometimes…! There are times when we, men, just have to go in even if we know we’ll lose!
My peers that were looking at our group… more like me, had deep frowns on their faces. Kuhum… I know, guys. I know.
Even though we were out for dessert, it was about to be winter very soon so we had to look for winter equipment as well because the road back home without coats and winter clothes was going to be hellish.
Naturally, our group went shopping together as well.
Hearing the word, ‘oppa’ that sounded delightful no matter how many times I heard it, I had to force my lips to stay down.
“What is it?”
“I have a question. Knights and mages use aura and mana to protect their bodies all the time, right?”
“So why do you need to use winter equipment? Like, I’m not feeling any cold.”
Hua Ran, who was wearing nun clothes of the New Faith, probably couldn’t expect much protection against the cold from her clothes either, because the sides of her clothes were open for air to seep in.
“It takes aura and mana to block the heat and the cold, and those get consumed as well. When it’s fully winter, the consumption rate would skyrocket.”
“Aha~ I see. There are a lot of different coats, right?”
“Generally we use the hides and furs of demonic beasts. The cheap and cost-efficient ones are the ones from hounds but I don’t really recommend them because they stink. I would recommend these ones here.”
“Wahh~. You’re so knowledgeable, oppa!”
She smiled and reacted to every single sentence of mine, and made it extremely fun to explain things to her.
Meanwhile, Marie stared at her with a strange look from the side.
Jaeger and Lark also added a few sentences.
“Oh right, Hua Ran. Have you bought a hat?”
“That’s a new night vision tool that the Tower of Mages put on the market. That’ll be a good buy.”
“Ah, okay. Mister Hinzpeter. Mister Buhgman.”
She looked a bit cold when talking to the two of them, but maybe that was just me.
– Nom nom.
When we went to the dessert store, Alicia finally sparked back to life while focusing on the dessert. She was probably the one who was living a life that was closest to peers of her age.
“T, this chocolate mousse is remarkable!”
“Have you never tried it in the east?”
“It’s in the countryside after all! There weren’t any dessert stores in our town so we had to make them in our kitchen!”
How countryside was it…? I had gone to the east a few times for several quests, but the Arden household itself wasn’t related to the main scenario so I wasn’t that familiar with them.
“Korin…! Have a try of—-”
“Oppa, try this. Looks like they put honey on a thin layer of flour and cooked it!”
“Ohh. Is that a crepe?”
“Looks like a rolled omelette, right?”
I scooped up a part of the cake recommended by Hua Ran. After eating it, I turned to the side and asked.
“Senior Marie. Were you about to say something?”
She replied while fidgeting with the strawberry cake in front of her. That was when Hua Ran stood up from her seat with a smile and reached out to Marie with me in the center.
“Unni. Can I try that strawberry cake?”
Then Hua Ran’s nape almost grazed my nose as she lowered her head past me. A nice fragrance of lilac seeped into my nose. It seemed that she was wearing perfume.
With a poke, Hua Ran picked up a tiny piece of the cake with her fork, that was as small as a grain of rice. Was there even meaning in eating just that much?
While Hua Ran was going back, she looked at me and gave a bright smile.
After some time, a beautiful array of desserts was carried to our table on a 3 tier trolley.
“Huh? Who ordered a freaking mint chocolate cake?”
“Ah, Senior Marie. Here you go.”
Marie picked up the mint chocolate cake from the tray before putting it in front of me.
“Korin. You like mint chocolate, right?”
Mint chocolate… was the best. It was a shame that there were some evil forces that defamed something this tasty and called it toothpaste-flavor.
There was a time when I had gone to an ice cream store with Marie and mentioned that I had been eating nothing but mint chocolate ice cream for over 20 years. It seemed that she still remembered that.
Everyone looked at me after Marie said that but she continued on by putting a mint chocolate flavored macaron in front of me. She knew me too well.
“Hmm… Korin-oppa likes mint chocolate, huh.”
“Yeah I do. What about you, Hua Ran? Do you want to try? It does depend a lot on your preference, but there are a lot of people that love it.”
“I do want to try.”
Despite saying that, Hua Ran stayed still while deeply staring into my eyes. Without even touching her fork, she stared at me with a wide smile on her face.
Was she… asking me to feed her?
It didn’t feel right to leave her be so I sliced a part of the mint chocolate cake as Hua Ran went, ‘Ah~’ while adorably opening her small lips. Right when I was about to move the fork, a mint chocolate macaron entered her mouth.
Hua Ran, who had been waiting for my mint chocolate cake with her eyes closed, immediately opened her eyes. The one who shoved macaron into her mouth was none other than Marie.
“This one’s also mint chocolate flavored.”
Tasting the mint chocolate macaron in her mouth, Hua Ran returned a smile.
“It’s very delicious, Sister Marie.”
“Right? Do you want more? Sister Hua Ran?”
“Haha. I’m okay.”
“What a shame. Did you not like it?”
“Of course not.”
They were both smiling… but their eyes weren’t.
Those cold smiles stayed on their faces for numerous seconds until I raised a teapot and filled up their empty cups.
Naturally, the two of them turned towards me.
“Kuhum. Looked like your cups were empty.”
“Thank you, Korin.”
“Thank you so much, oppa.”
I then realized that Jaeger and Lark were staring at me with a strange look in their eyes so I jokingly told them off for a change of mood.
“It’s common sense to fill these up whenever possible, guys. Don’t you know the etiquette of a gentleman?”
“Very smooth, I see.”
I was born and raised in a Confucian society, so setting up cutleries and filling cups with water was a part of my everyday life.
In any case, although we all came to the dessert store together, there were 6 of us so it was natural for everyone to chat about different topics with the people sitting next to them.
“Dude, look at my arm.”
Pulling back his sleeve, Jaeger bragged about his full biceps as Lark exclaimed in admiration after touching it.
“That’s quite impressive actually.”
“I am a knight after all. You should work out as well.”
“But I’m a mage.”
“Stamina is key to everything! Don’t you know?”
“And actually…” Lark added. “I do have a fair bit of muscles as well, okay?”
Lark pulled back the sleeves of his robe. Jaeger was about to sneer after seeing those measly muscles but that was when Hua Ran suddenly grabbed onto my wrist.
“Wow. Oppa, your arm’s so hard.”
Her soft palms traveled across my arm.
“Haha, I’m glad you found out. This is the type of muscle you get after training for 8 hours every day. Huaahp…!”
I flexed my arms, allowing Hua Ran to touch the bulky biceps and triceps.
“Wahh~ this is amazing! It’s as big and tough as a piece of rock!”
Unlike Hua, Ran had exceptional reactions and it felt great to show off to her.
“Kuhk… I do have to admit that stupid Ko does have better muscles.”
“…Maybe I should work out as well.”
The two of them accepted their defeat. Putting aside Jaeger, Lark really did need to do some exercise. He wasn’t even going to be able to climb the stairs of the Tower of Mages at this rate.
“Wow~. Your muscles feel like a piece of rock with steel implanted inside.”
As if deeply intrigued, Hua Ran stroked my arm all the way from my wrist. I was confident that I would immediately get shit on if we did arm wrestling right now, so it felt kind of odd to hear that from her.
Someone gave an empty cough from the side – it was Marie.
“H, Hua Ran? Umm… don’t you think you’re being too improper as a girl? And Korin seems troubled as well.”
Hearing that, Hua Ran seemed surprised. After carefully letting go of my arm, she asked with an extremely apologetic look on her face.
“Really? Was it annoying for me to touch you, oppa?”
“H, huhh? No? Not… really.”
“Thank goodness! I was worried that might have put you in a bad mood.”
She started stroking my arm again with a faint smile on her lips but for some reason, it felt like she was staring past my face…
“Umm, do you like muscles?”
“Yes. I ‘love’… them.”
…We’re talking about muscles right?
I could feel a piercing gaze staring at the back of my head.
We had ourselves the third dessert as well as a new type of black tea and yet the air around our table was still very heavy.
‘Why?’ one might ask. Why was it so heavy?
“You have a potato farm? Do you have potato cakes as well then?”
“We do. We put them in a pan and bake them in the oven.”
“Ah~. But that’s a bit different from actual cakes, no?”
“We call that a cake though! So it’s a cake!”
“I guess, if you say so~”
At this point, even I could tell that there was a war of nerves happening between Marie and Hua Ran, which had started from who knows when.
“K, kuhum… let me go to the bathroom real quick.”
“Oh yes. Me too…!”
“Ah, I have a stomachache…”
When I started it off, Jaeger and Lark nonchalantly stood up to follow me to the bathroom. I sent a gaze to Alicia but she hesitated between me and the new cake and ended up missing the golden opportunity.
After leaving the table, we stopped at the corridor of the building for a chat.
“Hah~. Did they fight or something?”
“I swear, you are the worst fucking person out there.”
“I agree. You freaking gold-digger.”
What is wrong with you guys now?
Alicia soon regretted not following the boys.
She, who had been too focused on the new cake, belatedly noticed that the air had shifted tremendously.
“Heeh~ I see. So your house is in the countryside with a lot of fresh air, huh? Very different from us.”
“Of course. A forest with great water and a nice view is much better than a place reeking of domestic animals, right?”
They were clearly chatting with a smile but their eyes weren’t smiling.
“Unlike Hua, you’re very cute aren’t you, Ran?”
“Really? Oppa often calls me cute as well.”
“Is that so? Ahaha~ I’m so jealous. He only tells me I’m pretty and beautiful.”
‘S, somebody. Please get me away from this place!’
She couldn’t even swallow the cake anymore so instead, she used her trembling pair of hands to drink some tea. Even after coming this far, Alicia still didn’t know why the two of them were on their toes, having a sharp war of nerves between them.
How many times have they stabbed each other with words? Without showing any of her discontentment on her face, Marie tilted the teapot over her cup.
The stream of tea froze in real-time in front of Alicia’s eyes. It appeared like a frozen waterfall.
“Oh my, Sister. It’s not going to taste nice if you drink it that cold.”
“What do you… uht?!”
Marie was surprised upon seeing that the tea had frozen in her grip.
‘Ah… no more cake nor tea.’
Alicia sweated profusely while tapping her empty plate. Their tongues and eyes were sharp like blades for some unknown reason.
“L, let me go to the bathroom as well…”
“Sit down, Alicia.”
After Alicia sat back down on her chair, Marie and Hua Ran looked at each other for a very long time. It was Hua Ran who broke the silence.
“Sister. You don’t like me, do you?”
Ah… so the real sword wasn’t even out yet, huh?
“Hnn. Of course not. I like all of Korin’s ‘friends’. Maybe you were misunderstanding something.”
“That’s great. I thought you hated me, Sister.”
In Alicia’s mind, both Hua Ran and Marie were like small and harmless animals. Hua Ran was an indifferent type whereas Marie was a 2nd-year Senior that was kind to everyone. They were like a lofty cat and an energetic dog respectively.
But now, it felt like a battle between a panther and a wolf.
“What do you think, Alicia?”
“Yes? Sorry? Me? I, is this about the desertification of the east?”
“B, because I don’t think it will turn into a full desert until the day of my death.”
“S, seriously! I’ve been to a place that was already turning into a desert but compared to that place, the east isn’t that warm!”
“Alicia. Please focus.”
“O, okay… Umm, how about we be nice without fighting…”
““We’re not fighting though?””
“…I think you are.”
“Yes…! Of course! Of course you’re not fighting!”
They were smiling while stabbing each other with invisible swords. What were they doing if not fighting?
Sweet words were leaving their mouths but there was a serpent waiting inside their bellies.
“Besides, why would I not like Hua Ran? It’s all thanks to you anyway.”
“…What do you mean?”
“Don’t you remember what happened at the hunting grounds? You pushed me back right? And I couldn’t do anything because I was limited to ‘elemental spells’ only.”
Hua Ran couldn’t catch on to what she was trying to say but regardless, Marie continued with a bright smile.
“It’s because of that that I awakened into a vampire you see. Thanks to that, Korin came to help me and our relationship developed this much thanks to that so… Yep! I would have to thank you for what you did!”
A crack appeared on Hua Ran’s smile.
“It’s thanks to you that ‘our’ Korin also came to my house and greeted my parents! Thank you!”
“You shouldn’t thank me for that. That’s far from having your marriage permitted right? I already have the permission from the family lord of our household to marry Korin ‘oppa’.”
Alicia had trouble breathing properly. What was wrong with the two of them? Why couldn’t they be nice to each other?
“Hmph. Well, I will go to the south again with Korin this winter. I have a few hot springs. Korin needs to have some rest at a good hot spring.”
“Really? I’m going to invite Korin-oppa out to Chapel Zeon. There, he can get blessed by the Saintess. A blessing from the Saintess is going to be a lot better than a stinky hot spring.”
“Umm, Mr. Korin said he would be coming to my house though…”
Their eyes turned with a frightening flick, as Marie and Hua Ran glared at Alicia with a blazing pair of eyes.
“Alicia. What did you say?”
“Uhh… M, Mr. Korin said he had something to do in the east… He said we would form a party… and watch the Solar Eclipse together… Did he not say anything to you?”
Facing the burning eyes of the two people who felt like they had been dogs barking up the wrong tree, Alicia wanted to faint if possible.
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