Chapter 22

The King's Move

Wednesday, November 7th, 2063

In Apartment 827 of the 1st year Dormitory Building, a first-year student just woke up.

 

Everything had already been prepared and his five female attendants greeted him in perfect unison when he came down. To him, it felt like music to his ears, knowing that people were here to attend to his every need.

 

In a world with artificial intelligence and high-end robotics, having attendants was a sign of extreme wealth and luxury. Outperforming these technologies as humans was clearly not an easy feat. This is why, over the years, the offer adapted itself and attendants became a high-profile and extremely well-paid job.

 

Although most would say that hiring five maids for an apartment was clearly over the top. However, he who was raised in such an environment saw no problem at all with this. He also had no intention to justify his decisions, especially to these people, who had no idea of the pressure that came along with his family name.

 

As a matter of fact, he thought that he was doing them a favor. To him, if these people could decide, they would make the choice not to know.

 

The first-year student thanked his maids for the soothing bath and copious breakfast. But most importantly, he specifically asked not to be disturbed while in the conference room. His mentor did not really like getting interrupted.

 

In front of the conference room door, he felt his heartbeat rapidly increasing.

 

It was the norm for future heads of important families to attend additional classes and mentoring. Topics like how to handle a business, to lead negotiation, to create a loyal army of followers, and even to manipulate opponents were often discussed in these kinds of meetings.

 

With the push of a button, the door slid into the wall, revealing a giant screen inside the conference room. As soon as he entered, he was immediately met with his mentor’s greetings.    

       Good morning, Hikaru.

Hikaru Tsukumo, the heir of the Tsukumo family, fell onto the sofa with a weird feeling. He was now used to hearing his nickname more than his first name.

 

Students who participated in the Elite Magic Academy trials before enrolling had witnessed something rare. After his performance there, they knew they had no chance of standing at the top anymore.

 

From that point onward, Hikaru Tsukumo was the “King”.

       Good morning, teacher.

      How did your homework go?

      The transfer student did not cave.

       A failure then. Let’s try to analyze the situation and see what you did wrong. What did your intelligence say about the boy?

Hikaru Tsukumo fell silent, accepting the upcoming events. His mentor wasted no time and directly pinpointed the reason of why he failed.

       Let me guess, you skipped intelligence gathering and went straight to threats or blackmail?

The King had promised himself to stay calm, even when faced with failures. However, the way his mentor explained the situation sounded too much like belittlement to him. He strongly punched the left arm of the sofa and stood up in a flash to defend his course of action.

      I was certain the pressure of his classmates would be enough!

      Calm down.

This was also another failure in the King’s eyes. He had long since been diagnosed with a hot temper and was constantly working on keeping his cool. Hikaru Tsukumo took place on the soda once again sighing and reminding himself that he was supposed to be better than this.

 

His mentor looked at him through the screen with some kind of exasperation.

 

After quickly thinking about it, the King’s mentor felt that he could this failure as experience and introducing his students to the dark side of empathy.  

       Listen to me very carefully. This is something to remember for the rest of your life.

It was not the first time the King heard such a statement.

 

Every time it came up, Hikaru Tsukumo tried his best to grasp the content of these lessons. He closed his eyes and used some breathing techniques to relax before opened them back again to nod. His mentor started the lecture once he felt his student was ready to hear it.

       Nowadays, empathy is mostly regarded as a weak quality in the business world. But the truth is different. The rare people who know this truth are standing at the top of their fields.

Hikaru Tsukumo was more focused than ever after hearing this last sentence. It also served as a perfect example to illustrate his mentor’s point.

      Understanding your foes and allies leads to better decision-making. Putting yourself in their place grants you multiple advantages. You can then see and anticipate their future actions. But most importantly, it can be used to gaze at people’s souls.

      What do you mean by souls?

      Everyone has levers you can push. But there is one lever in all of us, unique to ourselves, that if triggered, can make us do wonders. Let me illustrate.

He pointed his finger at the King.

       Right now, your button is fame and power. Your body language betrays how much you yearn for it. Mentioning how people who use empathy are at the top of the food chain sealed the deal. Do you understand?

Inside Hikaru Tsukumo’s brain, multiple pieces came together to form a perfect puzzle.

       I see… If you promise me fame and power, there isn’t something I would not do for you. Of course, it is if I am convinced you would deliver. But else, I am at the mercy of whatever you could ask of me.

A faint smile appeared on his mentor’s face, who knew his time had not been wasted.

      Learn to use empathy to decipher the souls of people around you, and you will know which levers to push to reach victory. But it is my duty to warn you.

      Warn me of what?

      This technique is rooted in patience, in allocating enough time to create an accurate profile. Active listening, being able to set your ego aside to talk, all of this which you do not yet master. You are going to need practice… for a long time.

Forty-five minutes later, the King walked down to the stairs.

 

A young woman had been waiting for him, staring at the East Sea. Whilst he attended the lecture, she had been occasionally peaking at the apartment.

 

Apartment 827 was the biggest living space of the first-year Dormitory Building. It was usually given to the most promising student, but politics often came to dispute that fact. A couple of phone calls from the Tsukumo family had been enough for them to secure this piece of real estate. It was now the property of Hikaru Tsukumo for the next three years.

 

The apartment was furnished from top to bottom with the fanciest pieces available. Following a modern style, the designer placed each piece very carefully. The natural light reflected perfectly on the multiple paintings. All rooms were not crowded, but could not be considered empty either.

 

Centered around a big hall, this apartment had six bedrooms. Symbol of his stature, the top floor was reserved for the King’s use only. His empty room had been converted into a sauna, which he mainly used to think about his many responsibilities.

 

The young woman caught the subtle scent of lavender before the King entered her line of sight.  

      Good morning, Hikaru.

      Likewise, Hideyo.

Hideyo Daigo had her own status inside the Elite Magic Academy, as the “Queen”. Most students knew that she was often acting on the King’s behalf. This is mainly why she was always welcome in Apartment 827 to share her report on recent matters.

 

Hikaru Tsukumo waved at his attendants, signaling that he wanted some alone with her. Once his maids left the hall, he took place in an armchair, resting his elbow on its arms. With his legs crossed, the armchair almost looked like a throne now.

 

The Queen was the kind of person who felt awkward leaving a long silence, so she quickly engaged the conversation.  

      How were your lessons?

      Enlightening. You can call off the bullying now. There is no use in it anymore.

She tightened the grip on her teacup.

 

The Queen knew orchestrating bullying was not morally good, but wasn’t strong enough to question his decisions.

 

She knew following orders was not a valid excuse, but she had made a choice and was ready for its consequences.  

      Then, what will you do?

      You’ll see…

The Queen was his childhood friend, who had remained loyal during all these years. She knew first-hand how unpredictable he could be. She knew about his temper, about how he quickly came with orders to follow. But right now, his attitude frightened the young woman. She was not able to figure out what was inside his head.

 

Hikaru Tsukumo noticed her uneasiness. Taking a sip of the tea he served himself, the King gently smiled at her and made her a promise.

       Everything is going to be okay. I know you’re under the same pressure as I am. Let’s work hard together to bring honor and glory to our families.

This was not the key to the Queen’s soul.

Separator

Since the reveal of the Winter Tournament’s official rosters, Mia’s social life had drastically changed. Students from all classes kept on trying to satisfy their curiosity. There were only two places in the Elite Magic Academy where she was safe from people asking her questions: the shooting range and her own room.

 

The young woman witnessed dozens of different attitudes. Among the topics often mentioned, the nasty rumors about the transfer student took first place. Still, Mia found hope in seeing others caring about her own well-being. Only a handful of students asked dangerous questions and she ended up dodging all of these.

 

If this experience had taught Mia something, it was that she greatly underestimated the aura of the transfer student. She now had even more respect for Tatsu Jin, who was going through this on a daily basis.

 

To give the academy something to chew on, Tatsu Jin gave his approval to spread one piece of information: that he would finally fight seriously during the tournament. This news spread like wildfire, and the excitement was building up. They would finally be able to see if the transfer student was worthy of his title.

 

This was enough to make the majority of students happy. However, Mia was not like Yumi, who knew how to aggressively make anyone back down. This made the bow wielder an easy target.

 

For the first time in her life, Mia found refuge in classes. During today’s Magic Theory class, Mia was actively listening to the teacher.

 

A Class-1A student saw Mia using her desktop GLASS to take notes and thought it served as a perfect opportunity. A couple of minutes later, a popup appeared on the young woman’s holographic screen.  

Hey, Mia. Heard you’re teaming up with that trash. Does he have dirt on you? I can help you; you know…

This situation took quite a toll on Mia’s mental health. She was tired of having to say no. She was tired of having to watch her words carefully for the traps of her classmates. During hard days, it even kept her from sleeping well, resulting in a lack of attention during classes and counter-performances during practices.

 

Unfortunately, some started to use even nastier tactics to push Mia into revealing what she was hiding. Four Class-1A students tried passive-aggressive behaviors, proposing bets with scoops on the line, and even glancing discreetly at her GLASS.

 

She tried her best to make them stop in a polite way, but it was not a successful strategy. In fact, it even escalated the issue further. Looking for cracks in Mia’s façade, these four students were impacting the entirety of Class-1A in their crusade.

 

Yumi did her best to help her friend, but it wasn’t enough to deal with everything. Close to the end of the morning class, the swordswoman intercepted an insistent gaze to Mia, which came from behind.  

Separator

Hikaru Tsukumo knew of Mia’s situation inside the Hirano family. In fact, he was made aware of most that happened in other prestigious families. He greatly disapproved of the way her family handled her talents. Even he would be reluctant to waste her talents in Magic.

 

In the class, he was looking at her from afar. He had no idea who had such an impact on Mia Hirano’s recent improvements. The rate at which Mia was evolving, as well as her raw talent and willingness to put in the effort, were more than enough to make the King want her in his personal army.

 

The Class-1A leader remembered his morning lesson. He tried to the best of his abilities to understand her and guess what could be the key to her soul. The King really wanted to push that lever as soon as possible.

 

Hikaru Tsukumo kept on thinking about it until the bell rang. 

Separator

Mia felt weird about being the center of the King’s attention. A few weeks ago, she almost did not exist in his eyes, but she could feel his gaze on her every move she made now.

 

The aggressive gazes coming from the Queen quickly triggered her feminine instincts. From that point, Mia stood as far away from the King as possible. The bow wielder had no idea why Hideyo Daigo looked at her that way. Instead, Mia focused on her training. Breathing exercises helped her shape Ether into Lightning Arrows.

 

Succeeding in releasing these spells, it was time for her to practice her secret spell. She put her bow on the ground and sat cross-legged. While this new spell had an easier imagination pattern, Ether needed to be spread evenly all around her body. If uneven, weaknesses would appear on the spell, making it counter-productive.

 

Yumi warned her that she should keep this Magic secret, at least for now. This is why Mia was only training on spreading her Ether evenly, without casting the spell. She was able to focus for a few minutes before a ruckus attracted her attention.

 

Hikaru Tsukumo had accepted a fight against one of his classmates, to the bewilderment of the whole Class-1A. This was rare, extremely rare. He also had agreed to a handicap: facing his opponent, a hand-to-hand combat specialist, without weapons of his own.

 

Mia had a feeling this was a demonstration for her. She did not appreciate the feeling but thought she could at least gather some information on his fighting style. Mia saw the fighters taking place on the main ring and the fight quickly begun.

 

Just by comparing their Support Magic, the difference in power was clear. The hand-to-hand specialist logically finished his casting first and rushed to deal the first blow.

 

But it was not enough. Hikaru Tsukumo was calm. He swiftly took a step back to dodge. The hook did not connect, leaving him enough time to get ready. For years, the King learned to use Ether under abnormal circumstances, like being on the back foot.

 

With his battle prowess, he had the respect of all Class-1A students. But at the same time, they were unaware of what it took to get to that level. They never knew that the pressure he felt every single day had fueled his desire to grow stronger.

 

The King was smiling, inhaling and exhaling at a slow pace. His feet moved a couple of centimeters to ensure a good grip on the ground and moved into his fighting stance again. There was no hesitation in his body language.

 

Multiple times throughout their exchange, the hand-to-hand specialist had trouble getting into any kind of rhythm. Most of his attempts got either blocked or dodged, instantly followed by a counter. Even his slightly superior technical skills could not make up enough of a difference.

 

One of his balayage landed, making it his only opportunity to deal damage.

 

Unfortunately, The King balanced his momentum and swiftly got back on his feet. Hikaru Tsukumo looked disappointed for a second, deciding enough was enough. Their hands and legs flew at each other. A flurry of blocks, deviations, and counters followed through, testing whose fighter had the better endurance.

 

The King could feel his opponent getting slower and sloppier. Soon, an opportunity presented itself in a leg blow that was way too predictable. Hikaru Tsukumo blocked it, spun around his opponent, and hit his stomach with the palm of his right hand. The hand-to-hand specialist flew over a couple of meters and fell on the ground, defeated.

 

The audience applauded his performance, and both he and his opponent bowed down as a sign of respect. Mia was a bit lost in thought after witnessing that, leaving enough time for Yumi to sneak up on her.    

      Who do you think is more powerful? Jin or him?

      I have… no idea…

Hikaru Tsukumo was close enough to hear Yumi’s question, so he took it upon himself to answer it himself. He walked over to them, looked at them in the eyes, and voiced his opinion.

       For now, he had shown nothing but cowardness. Power is something to be displayed, not hidden. Until he gives everything on the line against someone, he is not worthy of my respect, of our respect. So long as his stance does not change, he deserves no attention from anyone.

He also thought this was a perfect opportunity to gain some points and establish trust.

       These past couple of days, Miss Hirano had been in great discomfort because of some of you. Either stop now, or you’ll regret it. Understood?

No one dared to even whistle.

       Am I clear?

This time, he was met with a global nod.

       Then you’re all clear to go. This session is over.

Mia was frozen in place with a reddened face. While the young woman was angry about her class leader denigrating Tatsu Jin, she also appreciated how someone finally stood up for her.

 

Yumi woke Mia up by reminding her that Tatsu Jin was probably waiting for them around the Training Grounds. In twenty minutes, they showered, packed their bags, and reached the entrance.

 

Their team leader was focused on a book with his back standing against a tree.

 

Yumi, with her outgoing nature, announced the both of them. 

      Hallo Jin, it’s us. What are you up to?

      Reading a book. You should try it sometimes.

Tatsu Jin rose to his feet and greeted Mia with a simple nod.

       We should be on our way to the Dormitory Building. I feel like it’s going to rain.

During their walk, Tatsu Jin updated Mia about another one of his secret plans. The transfer student finally enchanted a compound bow with a Lightning Arrow Magic. He voiced how releasing an enchantment required some training and that she should begin now.

 

Tatsu Jin gave her a particular stone that would vibrate if surrounded by Ether. This would be a good enough way for her to practice. He had confidence in Mia, which is why he decided to let her do it at her own pace.

 

These were not baby steps anymore, as the young woman showed huge progress since their first meeting.

 

On the other hand, Yumi already had experience with enchanted weapons. She made the stone vibrate to prove her point. Mia was a bit disappointed to be the only one needing training again but still agreed and put the stone in her pocket in the end.

 

In the hall of their dormitory building, Tatsu Jin and Yumi politely greeted the lobby attendant as it was their first time seeing her today. Mia, on the other side, quickly went on to call for the main elevator.

 

Someone else was standing next to the elevator, but with no intention to go up. The King had been there, waiting for Mia. He was followed by many women, some of which Mia did not recognize. Of course, the one at his right was Hideyo Daigo.  

       Miss Hirano. May I get a moment of your time?

Mia tensed up, while the King slowly walk up to her.

 

Yumi and Tatsu Jin finally took knowledge of the situation. The swordswoman wanted to go help her teammate but the transfer student straightened his arm to block the way.

       Let’s see how she handles it. We’ll not always be there.

She did not like his approach at all and voiced her disapproval. Still, it was now too late for her to do something, and all she could do was witness the upcoming events.

 

Hikaru Tsukumo bent down. The Class-1A leader was showing respect.

       I have been monitoring your progress for some time. Your true potential has been unleashed, which is why you need a teacher.

The King went as far as to use the nicest smile he could and put his hands on Mia’s shoulder.

       I have experience and resources at my disposal. Seeing you at the transfer student’s side pains me, especially if he forced your hand. Become my teammate alongside Hideyo, and together, we’ll be unstoppable.

Mia remembered that Tatsu Jin was the first to put his trust in her. When no one noticed how hurt she was, the transfer student stepped up. She was thinking about how her loyalty lied with him now. With this in mind, she bowed down herself and voiced her decision.

       I sincerely appreciate the offer but no, thank you…

The King was not used to being turned down. He bit his tongue in anger and slowly, his real attitude started to leak out. His gaze became cold while he thought there was no way he just went through this entire charade just to fail.

 

Failing was not in his vocabulary, so he made another offer.

       Secrets about your family. Be on my team and they are yours.

Almost reaching her teammates, Mia stopped walking. This was probably the only offer that could make her reconsider. However, she knew what she had to do after looking at her teammates. She knew these two would help her find these secrets. Mia faced the King one last time.

       There’s simply no way I’m changing teammates. I’m sorry…

Mia turned her back on him, and alongside Yumi and Tatsu Jin, walked to the other elevator.

 

The King had enough. He stepped forward and shouted at Tatsu Jin.

       You! I don’t know what information you are holding against her, but you don’t deserve to team up with Miss Hirano. If you split this team now, I will make sure to not beat you up too badly during the tournament. Else, this will not end well for you.

The transfer student stood his ground and simply chuckled. Walking to the elevator with Yumi and Mia, he simply could not resist the opportunity. Tatsu Jin entered the elevator with his teammates, and before the door closed up, issued his challenge to the King.

       Let’s make a bet then. The one who wins the Winter Tournament keeps Mia.

Separator

For the entirety of the trip to Apartment 808, Yumi was not able to contain her anger. After making sure they were alone to not cause a scene, she violently slapped Tatsu Jin and yelled at him.

       You had no right! How dare you treating Mia like a gambling chip!

Mia instantly tried to calm her teammate, showing that she did not really mind the events that had transpired. In fact, the young woman managed to find an explanation for his behavior. From now on, the King would put all of his attention towards Tatsu Jin and the challenge instead of her.

       It’s okay, Yumi. It’s not as bad as you think.

Stretching his jaw, in pain after receiving Yumi’s blow, Tatsu Jin rose to his feet. With coldness in his eyes that reminded them of their first encounter, he explained why he issued this bet.

       The situation is a win-win for both of you. As high-profile magicians, you deserve to be taught by the best teachers available. The winner of the Winter Tournament would show his worthiness in nurturing you. I’ll still be there for you even if we lose. Either way, both of you rationally profit. I don’t understand why you’re angry.

Tears rolled down on Mia’s cheeks, as the model she had inside her head shattered.

       I think… I’m not going to talk to you for a while…

As they both wanted to get away from him, both Yumi and Mia hurried out of Apartment 808 without looking back.

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