The Beginning After The End - Chapter 164
Chapter 164: Old Face
The figure standing in front of me, head tilted ever-so-slightly in scrutiny, wore a lavishly decorated dress of shimmering black. The silky fabric came up just above the base of the neck, with subtle frills adding a girlish touch. The sleeves covered the length of the arm with the same delicate frills at the ends, while the dress fell on the shorter side—coming up just short of my knees.
Locks of gunmetal hair flowed down on one side in perfectly organized twirls that contrasted starkly against the dark color of her attire.
After wearing armor and being covered in grime for that past months, I couldn’t believe that the person standing in front of the mirror was me.
“You look beautiful.” My mother shifted glances between me and my reflection with a warm smile on her face. Looking at her sitting properly in a chair beside me, however, I couldn’t help but lose confidence even in my new dress.
While I knew she was much younger than my father, my mother should still be past her prime. Yet her bright silver hair was still lush, her blue eyes still radiant, and her skin still youthfully supple. She and my father had already finished preparing for the event, and unlike my dark gown, my mother wore a beautiful dusty rose dress that flowed gently, emphasizing her slim waist and wide hips while still maintaining a reserved elegance.
I studied myself, turning left and right so I could see every angle while a team of maids nodded with reserved content. “I’m not so sure about this. The dress is a bit bleak, isn’t it? Maybe I should wear something a little brighter?”
“I think the black makes you look mature,” she answered. “What do you girls think?”
“I agree,” the head maid quickly replied. “This was made by a famous silk weaver in Kalberk City, who designed it specifically for you, Lady Tessia. The lacing and frills add a very cute touch while the overall shape and color of the dress gives off a very—excuse my language—sensual semblance.”
“Sensual?” I pondered, twisting left and right once more.
“Laylack, the designer, believes that the clothing itself shouldn’t be beautiful. Rather, the clothing should bring out and accentuate the beauty of the wearer,” a younger maid added. “I think this dress does a fine job of that. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think that your hair and eyes were actually glowing in contrast to the dress.”
“Oh please. You girls said the same thing to me when I first wore my armor! I can’t trust any of you,” I argued, unable to hide the smile from creeping up on my pouting face. A wave of laughter filled the room as the maids hurriedly completed the finishing touches.
Stepping out of my room, I spotted Stannard, Darvus, and Caria chatting with one another.
“Your Majesty,” the three stiffened at the sight of my mother before greeting her in unison.
“Mr. Berwick, Mr. Clarell, and Ms. Rede,” my mother responded with a soft smile before turning her head toward me. “Tessia, I’ll see you up there. I have matters to attend to with your father and the other Council members.”
As the event was being held in the uppermost floor of the castle, my mother was escorted toward the stairwell as we remained in the hallway with a couple of castle guards.
My three friends and team members silently waited for my mother and her maids to leave before turning back to me with cheeky grins.
“Lookin’ good there, Princess.” Darvus, dressed in a sleek black suit, nudged me with his elbow as we made our way to the stairs. His usually unruly mane was slicked back with oil while the structured frame of the suit did a nice job of toning down his burly frame.
“You’re being gross, Darvus,” Caria sighed as she turned to me. “But he’s not lying. You look gorgeous.”
It was obvious my petite friend had put in a lot of effort for the occasion, and it paid off. Complementing her cute appearance and curly bobbed hair was a fluttery green dress that came down to her mid-thigh, a length that’d be frowned upon by the older generation if she wasn’t wearing tights underneath.
“Thanks, but I didn’t realize how uncomfortable I’d be in this getup.”
“At least you look good in your getup,” Stannard complained from behind. “I look like some ornamental bird with this getup.”
The rest of us laughed as Standard fluttered his bright blue robe like they were wings. Rather than wearing a fitted suit like Darvus, Stannard chose to wear a more luxurious conjurer’s robe, which looked to be more decorative than functional.
“Anyway,” I turned back to Caria, who was walking beside me. “You look rather charming yourself. Are you trying to snag up one of the noble boys at the event?”
Caria’s face immediately reddened but she tried to look calm as she answered. “P-Please! Most of the younger nobles attending are probably their family heirs, which means one thing: they’re super pretentious! Seriously, hiding safely to protect their lineage while sipping on wine.”
“My oldest brother happens to be one those heirs you speak of,” Darvus replied. “And you happen to be absolutely spot on about him.”
“Then maybe help Stannard find a nice lady to settle down with after the war is over,” I added.
“Yes, please,” he nodded fervently. “I’d like that very much.”
“Hey! Why don’t you help me?” Darvus complained.
“Shush!” Caria reached over and smacked her childhood friend’s arm. “Why would the princess of Elenoir introduce people to such a crass lump of muscle?”
“Excuse me?” Darvus clutched his heart as if he’d been stabbed. “After I so kindly invited the two of you… this is the thanks I get?”
“Tessia would’ve invited us even if you hadn’t,” Stannard retorted.
“Regardless! I’m just going to use the opportunity to listen to the big announcement and eat some good food,” Caria said.
“I’m also curious as to what the announcement is going to be,” I said.
“Your grandfather didn’t even tell you? Must be big,” Darvus said with brows raised.
By the time we reached the stairwell, the traffic had reached a standstill due to the sheer volume of people trying to get up, but amidst our pointless banter and talk of recent missions, time moved rather quickly.
Unlike some of the past events held by the Council, this one was open to nobles outside of the castle as well, so the large spiraling stairway was packed with nobles, unaccustomed to being crammed in such tight quarters, loudly voicing their complaints. Some used the opportunity to casually brag to their peers about the large expanse of land and wealth their families had in a not-so-casual volume, hoping to impress potential suitors nearby. While I felt some glances come my way, few nobles had the audacity to try and approach me. Those that did were easily scared away by my guards.
It was apparent how uncomfortable Caria and Stannard were being in the middle of so many nobles. While Caria had had some exposure since her family had served Darvus’ family for generations, Stannard came from a more humble background.
“I’m tired already,” Stannard mumbled as he was pushed and pulled by the crowd.
“You think it’s bad here, imagine how packed it is in the lower floors closer to the teleportation gate,” Darvus consoled.
Caria agreed. “Yeah, I heard there are a lot of nobles coming from outside of the castle since this is the first time since the war began that the castle has been open to more than just the residents.”
Inching slowly toward the top floor, I couldn’t help but glance around every now and then, hoping to maybe spot Arthur. Chances were that he was either still resting or he’d come later on, but my eyes seemed to subconsciously search for a head of long auburn hair.
As if reading my mind, Caria asked, “By the way, where’s your handsome lover?”
“He’s not my lover!” I said a bit too loudly, turning heads around us. “And he got injured recently so I think he’s resting… probably.”
“Mister Lance got hurt?” Darvus gasped mockingly. “I guess he’s not as strong as they say he is.”
“Yet you got your ass handed to you,” Stannard chimed innocently.
“Shut up!” my burly friend retorted before glaring back at Caria. “And he’s not that handsome. With his long hair, I bet people mistake him for a girl.”
“Aww, is someone jealous?” Caria grinned. “I’ve heard that after Arthur’s little appearance at the dungeon, there were quite a few girls smitten by him.”
“Looks like our princess has to now fend off competition on top of Alacryans and mutant mana beasts,” Stannard chuckled.
“You guys know I can demote all of you now, right?” I threatened.
After half an hour of inching up the stairwell, we finally reached the top floor of the castle. Looking up, I—along with everyone else that had just come out of the stairwell—let out a gasp in amazement. Just like the terrace on the residential floor, the top of the castle was enveloped in a transparent dome-shaped barrier so that the entire venue appeared to be taking place outdoors.
The sun was just beginning to set so the entire castle was surrounded by an endless expanse of a serene magenta and burning orange. Orbs of light floated above us inside the dome-shaped barrier, casting gentle glows. With hundreds of nobles from elves to humans to dwarves, all dressed meticulously, and an orchestra playing a variety of flutes and stringed instruments to fill the gaps in conversations, stepping up to the top floor felt as if I’d been transported into a mesmerizing fairyland.
Darvus let out a long whistle in appreciation while Stannard’s gaze darted from one place to another in wonder.
“It’s beautiful,” Caria sighed.
“Ugh, I spotted my family,” Darvus groaned. “Caria, come on. Let’s greet them now and get it over with.”
As Caria was unwillingly pulled away by her childhood friend, I spotted Emily, dressed in a bright yellow dress that appeared to have some smudges and stains on it, pouring herself a drink near the empty stage. The apprentice artificer looked unbothered by the looks of disdain an disgust from the nobles nearby as she casually finished her drink in a single gulp.
“Emily!” Stannard shouted before I had the chance to call out to her.
“Ah! Little Stannard! Princess!” Emily greeted, waving her empty glass.
I broke down into a fit of laughter at the sight of her, with no regard or care for outward appearance, running awkwardly as she held up her dress.
Emily was breathing heavily by the time she reached us. “Finally, people I know!”
“I didn’t expect to see you here,” I said after greeting my friend with a hug.
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“Who do you think was responsible for setting up all of these lighting artifacts?” she rolled her eyes.
“You did all of this?” Stannard exclaimed.
“Well it certainly wasn’t my carefree and lazy master,” she mumbled sourly.
“Is that how you got those stains?” I giggled.
Emily looked down and gasped. “Oh no! I didn’t even notice these! Must’ve been when I was filling in more of the mana-conducting fluid.”
“Hey, Emily. Isn’t that your master over there?” Stannard pointed near the tables where, lo and behold, the master artificer Gideon was alternating between biting into a fowl leg and sipping on a glass of wine.
“Damn old coot,” Emily muttered before stomping after him. “Master Gideon!”
The old artificer choked on the fowl leg he had been consuming at Emily’s loud outcry while the two of us followed after her with our heads down in embarrassment.
“You old bat! After pushing aside all of the work saying you were ‘feeling unwell’, you show up here to drink and eat?” Emily huffed, snatching away the fowl leg Gideon was trying to take another bite of.
“Must you raise your voice so much, dear apprentice? I’m standing right in front of you,” Gideon grumbled, taking a sip from his glass before acknowledging our existence. “Princess Tessia, Stannard… glad to see you two are still alive. That’s always a good thing.”
“It’s been a while.” I greeted back while Stannard bowed respectfully.
Emily let out a defeated sigh as she handed back her master’s food. “You usually don’t care for these sorts of events. What brings you here besides the free food and liquor?”
“I was given a rather interesting task by your grandfather”—he looked at me—“so I’m just killing time until then. Plus, I get to see the one person that I dare say is smarter than me in this entire continent.”
“There’s someone smarter than you, Master Gideon?” Stannard asked, genuinely surprised.
Meanwhile, Emily leaned in, eyes glowing with curiosity. “What’s this task?”
“The princess’ lover boy, Arthur,” Gideon sighed in wonder. “Boy, what I’d give to be able to extract all of the secrets out of that boy’s head.”
“What. Is. The. Task.” Emily pinched her master’s arm.
“It’s. A. Secret.” Gideon mocked back, slapping her away before rubbing his arm.
The eccentric old artificer followed after a butler holding a plate of finger foods, while Emily chased after her master to try and get more information.
So you are going to be here. A faint smile escaped my lips.
“How is that possible?” Stannard muttered to himself. “There’s no way Arthur can be smarter than Master Gideon.”
“If I hadn’t known Arthur since we were both children, I probably wouldn’t believe Gideon either,” I consoled.
As I began following after Emily and her mentor, my gaze drifted toward a gathering crowd by the top of the stairwell where we had first come.
I recognized the head sticking out of the crowd. With his black hair still split down the middle and sharp eyes softened by his thick glasses, it was undeniably the guild hall manager of Xyrus.
“Tessia?” my blond-haired friend called out, snapping me out of my daze.
“Y-Yes? What is it?”
“I just asked you if you wanted to try and look for Darvus and Caria.” His pale blue eyes shifted between me and where I had been staring.
“You go on ahead,” I said, already walking toward the small crowd. “I’ll meet up with you guys later.”
Pushing aside the people gathered, I headed toward the familiar man when my eyes caught sight of the girl my age he and several guards were protecting from the crowd.
“Claire!” I blurted.
The former leader of the disciplinary committee, the one whose state and whereabouts had been kept hidden by the Bladeheart family, was standing in the center where the nobles had gathered.
“Princess Tessia,” Kaspian Bladeheart, Claire’s uncle, greeted.
“It’s been a while,” I acknowledged.
“Uncle, it’s a bit stifling here. Let me get some fresh air with Princess Tessia,” Claire said.
The usually expressionless guild hall manager’s brows furrowed in concern. “But—”
“It’ll be fine.” She gave her uncle a soft smile before pulling me through the crowd.
I remained silent as we made our way to the edge of the roof of the castle, where a small set of stairs led down to a deck overlooking the sky.
Neither of us talked while we leaned against the railing. The medley of noises surrounding the big event were muffled by the whistling of wind against the barrier surrounding us.
“You look great,” I finally said.
I wasn’t lying. Claire was an upperclassman that I, along with many other students, had looked up to at school—always bright and never afraid to take challenges head on. Seeing her today, dressed in an ivory dress with a thin shawl draped over her shoulders, I felt a gentle and calm air had replaced her normally lively and spirited aura. It wasn’t just that, though. I couldn’t quite place my finger on it, but something felt different about her.
“I appreciate it.” She let out a soft chuckle as she smiled faintly. “And I think you’ve probably heard enough how beautiful you look tonight.”
“Mostly by friends and family,” I chuckled back. “Their words are more obligatory than anything else.”
Claire smiled back in amusement but it was quiet between us once again as I swallowed down the questions I, along with so many of the nobles gathered around, wanted to ask.
“I heard that you’re leading a team out on the field,” she said.
“Yes. Although it’s been fairly recent.”
“I’m jealous,” she continued. “You must’ve gotten a lot stronger.”
“Oh no, I still have a lot to learn,” I replied. “I’ve yet to control my beast will completely and my long-range conjuring is a mess since I’ve been focused on getting better with my sword.”
“I see,” she nodded.
“I don’t think I’ve ever told you this, but the Bladeheart techniques played a big part in shaping my swordplay,” I continued. “Speaking of which…”
Noticing my hesitation, she shook her head. “I still practice with the sword every now and then but not nearly as much as before.”
“Are your injuries still…”
She shook her head. “My injuries from Xyrus are mostly healed.”
“That’s great!” I said a little too loudly. “Do you plan on taking part in the war then?”
“No,” she answered flatly.
“Oh.” I was surprised by Claire’s answer. She’d always had a strong sense of justice, which was a big part of why she was selected as the leader of the disciplinary committee. “Did your family not approve because of what happened at school?”
“It’s not that.” She gazed up at the stars surrounding us overhead.
“I don’t understand,” I pressed. “Just a few minutes ago, it seemed like you wanted to take part in the war. And if your family is okay with it and your injuries have gotten better—”
“—My physical injuries have gotten better,” she interrupted, leveling her gaze back at me.
She began removing the straps of her dress, catching me off guard. She turned around, so her back was to me, before lowering her dress to reveal the large scar on her lower back.
While she had other scars from past wounds, none of them compared to the large disfigurement just next to her spine. Lifting her dress, she turned back to me, her expression calloused. “But the one thing the emitters and medics couldn’t fix was my mana core.”
My hand came up to my mouth as I inadvertently let out a sharp gasp. I now realized what had been different about the former disciplinary committee leader. The thing that I couldn’t place my finger on. “Th-Then…”
She nodded, her face masked with an expression that told me she had accepted this long ago. “I can’t use magic anymore.”