Rais had to read the letters written on the envelope and checked the entire thing thoroughly several times from a relatively safe distance for his face to be sure it was not some kind of pranks. He had found unpleasant surprises lurking inside his snack box several times before, usually put there by Gweny's delinquent friends who liked messing with Rais's belongings when he was busy talking with Gweny herself and not suspecting any shady things going on behind his back. The "surprise presents" varied, ranging from colorful rubber orbs that look awfully similar to fruit balls to even runes. Rais was particularly warry of the rune prank as rune were basically enchanted sheets of paper so they could be easily slipped inside the snack box, sometimes even disguised in the form of a love letter, and be remotely activated at the right moment. He had experienced water spell rune flooding the entire box and ruined his snack, ignite rune melting his crispy buttercubes into slimy puddles, sound rune screaming profanities at his face…
Rais would not be too surprised if this letter was a part of yet another prank but he was sure that the handwriting on it was his brother's. After some consideration, he decided that opening what appeared to be his brother's letter was worth the risk. When Rais took the letter out, he was relieved that there were no magical shenanigans thrown his way, even as he pulled the thing close to his face and waited for the worst to come. That meant the thing he was holding right now really was a letter from Cael. Questions regarding the letter started forming in his head but he thought they were best left after he had read the content, which said:
Hello mother and brother,
It has been two months now ever since I was transferred to Kalsak. I hope everything at home is as fine as the day I left.
Despite the city's best effort, I am still alive and well. In fact, my arrival here as the new steward has been greatly welcomed by most of the people. Naturally a city so rife with crimes and suffer constant attacks from beasts like Kalsak would not be an easy place to live in, even for me. In an effort to bring order and safety to Kalsak, I have created a special force known as The Sentinels, whose main objective is to keep the peace by combating the threats lurking around the city. The Sentinels is only in its early stage of operation so I am currently recruiting potential individuals, those with the will to brave the many dangers Kalsak can throw at them, all over the country to expand my forces and help secure peace in this troubled region.
I have written this letter to inform you, my brother, that you have a place here within the rank of my Sentinels. I know for so long you have wanted to follow our family military tradition, to honor the legacy of our forefathers. You would very soon be graduated from middle school and have to prepare for Specialization. Kleirag War Academy should be an obvious choice for you but I don't think it is necessarily the best choice. Given you are still very young and the condition in Kleirag is relatively peaceful, I doubt you will have much chance to gain any actual combat experience, nor could you apply your craft. The path to join the military will be a long and arduous one so for now why not settle as a Sentinel? Here in Kalsak, I can offer you better training than even the War Academy could and the environment is perfect for both gaining combat experience and helping people, saving lives. If you wish to continue our family tradition and follow the Code of Zetar, I would say there is no better place to start your career than in Kalsak.
Of course, if you feel Kalsak is too much for you then you can always refuse my offer. I know it is not easy to leave behind everything and come to this accursed place so I will respect whatever decision you choose to make. However, if you ever decide to come here, look no further than in the envelope. I have attached two skyship tickets to Kalsak, one for you and the other is there just in case you happen to lose your ticket, or if you want to bring along a friend with the same aspiration. You can see the tickets for more information.
And as for you, mother, I hope you would support Rais in making his decision and respect his choice as I do. I know father's sudden passing still weighs heavily in your heart but you should not let it cloud your judgement when it comes to Rais's future. He is becoming a man and should be allowed to decide which path he would like to take. I trust you can help him with this.
Finally, I wish you two good health and no matter what choice you make, I still love you, as a son and a brother. Please take care and keep on following your heart. Vals bless you all.
As Rais finished reading the letter, he felt a mixture of feelings swirling inside his head. On one hand he felt delighted at his brother's offer, as it was exactly what he has been longing for. Cael was also kind enough to even cover the transportation to Kalsak, seemingly understanding very well his choice in the matter. However, what bugged him was the date this letter was sent and how the letter was delivered to him. According to what was written, Cael has sent the letter two months after coming to Kalsak but only now, near the end of the third month, did Rais receive the letter. And it was delivered to him inside a snack box of all places. He searched the envelope once more and found two tickets inside, just as what Cael had written in his letter. And not just any ordinary tickets. They were first-class passes, which were available only for the wealthy noble families to buy. Rais did not pay too much attention to the first-class services described on the tickets, although he wouldn't mind experiencing them either. What interested him the most was the skyship's departure date, which was only two days from now. If he were to receive this letter any later, he certainly would have missed this flight to Kalsak. Rais believed he would need to demand a lot of explanation to make this whole mess clear. After detention was over, of course.
Once the proctor announced he was free to go, Rais hastily grabbed his belongings, said his farewell and then charged for the school gate. To him, the only important thing at that moment was going home and getting to the bottom of this mystery as fast as possible. He apparently forgot about Gweny, who was not present at school that day at all, ignored the insults and snowballs Sten's friends threw at him as he dashed toward the tram station, even ran pass the slum without visiting it on his way home as initially intended. He barged through the mansion's gate and immediately inquired one of the two kitchen maids who was passing by, carrying a stack of plates to the dining room in preparation for lunch.
'Ms. Etta, do you know where my mother is?'
The maid, Etta, peered at Rais from behind the plates she was carrying, her face seemed to be a little flushed.
'Well today is her day off, young master.' She replied, seemingly puzzled at the fact he was asking about such an obvious thing. 'The Lady is just having her charity care session now as usual.'
'Thank you, Ms. Etta. I need to go see her now.' Rais nodded and dashed away immediately.
'But, young master! The Lady is treating some patients now! Couldn't you wait until lunch to meet her?'
'This is urgent business!' Rais shouted an answer back to Etta as he continued running, oblivious to the maid's amused giggle and adoring look behind him.
As Rais entered Lady Nelle's clinic, he was greeted by yet another confused servant, as he had never seen Rais coming to this place during his mother's working hour.
'Greetings, young master.' The servant asked. 'What can I do for you?'
'Can you take me to my mother's office? I need to see her now.' Rais said, looking impatient.
'Well, I'm afraid the Lady is busy at the moment, young master.' The servant replied.
'But I really need to see her as soon as possible.' Rais pleaded.
'I'm sorry, young master, but the Lady does not want to be disturbed during her work time.'
'Then I will wait here.'
'But it would take an hour before the Lady is done with her work. Maybe it would be better if you wait until lunch time.'
Although Rais was feeling extremely agitated, he also realized he might be pushing it a little bit too hard. It was just as the servants had said, waiting to discuss this issue with his mother at lunch might be the better option after all.
'I will take my leave then.' Rais sighed and prepared to leave. 'I apologize for having troubled you.'
'It's fine, young master.' The servant smiled. 'I shall report your wish to the Lady. She will…'
'What's with this commotion I heard?'
Suddenly they heard the voice of Lady Nelle as she appeared from the corridor, with her patients in tow. Rais turned to face his mother and he immediately realized that trailing behind her were a few familiar faces: the siblings he met at the slum the day before, accompanied by a pair of ragged-looking man and a woman, who he believed were the children's parents. The kids also recognized Rais, as the elder brother gave him a smile while the little sister ran toward him and hugged his feet, chiming happily.
'Cookie man. Cookie man.'
Rais gave the girl a head pat and she squealed in delight before running back to her brother. Then she pulled at her brother's shirt with her little hands, making him walk forward toward Rais at her insistence. The girl laughed gleefully and sent a signal at Rais's way by patting her own head. Rais seemed to understand this cute gesture and obliged by giving the elder brother a head pat as well. While he might be the older one of the two and was not squealing at all, the brother's blissful expression clearly showed that he enjoyed having his head patted just as much as his sister did. After that, the two children returned to their parents, who were quite happy to see them with such precious smiles on their faces. They bowed to show Lady Nelle their appreciation for having healed their daughter's bruised arm and she bowed back at them. When a curious Rais asked for more details, the parents said those bruises were the result of her getting too excited when telling the story of a certain very nice young man who had given her and all the kids in the slum really tasty cookies, to the point of stumbling on the floor. Rais chuckled and told the little girl to be more careful, to which she happily nodded and smiled back. Lady Nelle and Rais waved good bye to the family as they were escorted on their way back to the slum by a servant.
With her patients finally gone, Lady Nelle turned to her son.
'So, what could possibly so urgent that make you barge in here during the middle of my work time, Rais?' She asked sternly.
'If something can make me feel so agitated it would be this.' Rais rummaged through his bag and pulled out the envelope containing his brother's letter. 'Do you happen to know what this is, mother?'
Lady Nelle's face turned pale and her eyes widened at the sight of the letter. She asked, looking extremely puzzled.
'How…When did you get that?'
'So you do know after all.' Rais frowned at his mother's reaction. 'I just found it this morning inside the snack box given to me by Mr. Eisher.'
'I see.' Lady Nelle took a deep breath before saying. 'We will discuss this in my room, privately. You can go there first and wait for me.'
Rais nodded and got ready to take his leave, still wearing a stern expression on his face. Lady Nelle then called a nearby maid and asked.
'Do we have any other patients at the moment?'
'So far no, My Lady. That family just now seems to be the last patients for this morning.'
Lady Nelle thought briefly before giving her order to the maid. 'Very well. Please go and announce that I have some urgent business to attend to and will close early today. Also while you are at it, tell Mr. Eisher to come to my room immediately.'
'It will be done, My Lady.'
The servant bowed and set out to complete his mission while Lady Nelle sighed and returned to her office, probably to do some final clean-up and prepare herself for the "explanation session" to come.
Rais walked to his mother's room, unsure of how he should feel about this turn of event, just like when he first read his brother's letter. From the way his mother acted, he had more or less pictured the general idea of the situation: Cael had sent them a letter roughly three months ago and Lady Nelle, after receiving it, hid it from him, while at the same time trying to make him became a healer like her. He felt a tinge of frustration at the prospect that his mother, who had always encouraged him to live his dream and follow the example set by his father and brother, suddenly decided to sabotage his best chance at making his ambition a reality. However, he knew there must be reason for his mother's action and he would certainly want to hear what she had to say. And this time everything would be made clear, no more beating around the bush, no more secrets.
As he was focusing too much on his inner thoughts, Rais paid little attention to the surroundings and simply navigated his way to his mother's room purely by instinct and memories. He walked around furniture without even looking at them, answered the household servants' greetings with absent-minded nods. He failed to notice Etta suddenly became clumsier when he hastily marched through the dining room while she was setting the table, dropping the spoons and forks that she was supposed to set down gently. Rais stopped abruptly at the sound of metallic cutlery falling on the table, which broke his state of focus. He looked up to see a flushed Etta smiling awkwardly at him as she picked up the dropped cutlery, occasionally turned her head to gently berate her fellow maid who was sniggering knowingly at her situation. Rais smiled back at Etta as he walked over to the dining table, helping her collect the spoons and forks and telling her to be more careful before continuing on his course, leaving an extremely flustered Etta and her giggling friend to go on with their work.
When Rais reached the entrance to his mother's room, he came across a large, fully-armored, sword-wielding man, who greeted him with the finger-pressing salute.
'Greetings, young master. How can I be of service?'
'Greetings, Mr. Pitter.' Rais saluted back. 'My mother and I will have some discussion here soon so could you please check the room, just to be sure.'
'Of course, young master. Please wait for my return.' Pitter bowed and then entered the room with his sword unsheathed and a glistening black orb in his other hand.
After waiting outside for a while, Rais spotted his mother and Mr. Eisher walking over to his location, with a nervous expression painted clearly on their faces. After coming face-to-face with Rais, Lady Nelle regained her serious demeanor and asked him.
'Sorry to keep you waiting? Where is Pitter?'
'It's fine, mother.' Rais answered. 'I told Pitter to check the room. He should be back any time now.'
And just as Rais finished his sentence, Pitter emerged from the closed door next to them with his sword sheathed. Noticing the presence of Lady Nelle and Mr. Eisher, the guard saluted and bowed to them.
'Welcome back, My Lady. Greetings to you Chief-butler.' Pitter said. 'I've just secured the room on the young master's request for your impending meeting. The perimeter is safe. There are no beast or assailant and the magic detector found no trace of magical device within the area. I have also set up the table for you, My Lady and young master.'
'Thank you, Pitter.' Lady Nelle nodded, then issued her order. 'As this discussion is private between us three, I would like you to activate the sound-proof rune on the door. Do not allow anyone to enter without my permission and communicate with us using sound rune only, unless there is a case of emergency. Do I make myself clear?'
'As you wish, My Lady.'
Pitter moved away from the front door and allowed Lady Nelle, Rais and Mr. Eisher to enter before tapping a piece of rune stuck on it, making the sheet glow with a blue light. As the door was closed behind them, the three people inside made their way toward a large table in the middle of the extremely spacious room. The place was filled with many paintings hanging on the wall and pots of exotic flowers lined up on numerous shelves, each vying for the viewers' attention in a spectacular display of colors. As Rais usually enjoyed the simple things in life, he sometimes found his mother's liking of fine art and glamorous plants to be a bit over the top, as anyone entering her room could very well be dazed by the myriad of colors bombarding their sense of sight. Both Rais and Mr. Eisher tried their best to keep their eyes on the ground but finally had to face their fear (literally) when Lady Nelle, being the host, sat down on the innermost chair, which left them, the guests, no choice but to sit on the chairs opposite to her and looking directly at her collections in their full glory. However, they had to ignore the stinging sensations in their eyes to focus on Lady Nelle as she began to speak.
'So, what would you wish to know then, Rais?'
'Everything,' Rais said, putting Cael's letter on the table. 'Starting with this and I will accept nothing but the full truth.'
Lady Nelle looked at the letter as if it were some kind of abomination.
'Right.' She sighed. 'We received it about three months ago. You were at school at the time so you did not know about it. And if everything were to go according to plan then you should never have known about it.' She glared pointedly at Mr. Eisher.
'Why did you want to keep it a secret from me then?' Rais asked.
'Well the answer is quite obvious, isn't it? I don't want you to go to The Cursed City. We all know how awful that place is, so why bother going there?'
'No. There is definitely more to it than just that.' Rais said, unconvinced. 'Mr. Eisher said you want me to be a healer like you. I think the reason you didn't want me to read that letter is because you don't want me to join my brother, right?'
'So he finally told you.' Lady Nelle crossed her arms, her expression turned even more serious. 'It's true that I told Mr. Eisher to let you know my wish prior to the day of your Specialization, as I believe it is the better path for you. But I certainly don't expect him to also let you know about the letter.'
She then turned her attention toward the old butler.
'Mr. Eisher. Rais told me you have delivered the letter sent by Cael to him this morning by hiding it in a snack box. Is that correct?' She said sternly, without a hint of inquisitiveness in her question. If anything, it sounded like an accusation.
'Indeed, I have done so, My Lady.' Mr. Eisher replied calmly, seemingly having mentally prepared for this very moment.
Rais listened to the two adults carefully, knowing whatever secret pact involving him between them would eventually come to light in this conversation.
'You promised me that you would keep this letter a secret, yes?' Lady Nelle's brows furrowed. 'Why did you betray my trust then?'
'It pained me greatly to tread upon my own honor, to break this oath I have made to your family, My Lady.' Mr. Eisher sighed. 'But I did what I had to, for the young master's sake.'
'And you think I haven't done my part for his sake?'
'Forgive me for having defied you, My Lady, but I presumed no such thing. I knew you always had the young master's best interest at heart, as you are his mother.'
'That is right Mr. Eisher. We have talked about this when Cael sent us his damnable letter three months ago. Rais cannot understand what this means for him, for all of us.'
'I think he could, if you had just given him the chance.'
'So you decided to give him that chance yourself instead? And you looked so sincere when you agreed not to reveal that letter to Rais. "For his sake," you said. What possessed you to break that promise with me now of all time?'
'Yesterday I had a conversation with the young master. And I imparted upon him your wish, My Lady.' Mr. Eisher said with a saddened tone. 'He was anxious ever since yesterday's "scolding session", wondering why you suddenly wanted him to be a healer when you have raised him to succeed his father and brother as warriors. He knows what you want and respects your wish but he still has his own hopes and dreams. I simply believe that the young master needs to know the truth and decide what is best for himself.'
'He is just a child, Mr. Eisher.' Lady Nelle raised her voice slightly. 'He is far too young for that kind of business.'
At this point Rais suddenly interjected, feeling he could no longer abide just sitting there, in a conversation that would decide his future. 'And yet, when Cael got accepted into Reishert War Academy at my age, you were there at the ceremony, feeling so proud that you shed tears of joy, mother.'
Lady Nelle and Mr. Eisher simultaneously turned toward Rais, who looked defiantly at his mother.
'So you want to take up Cael's offer then? To join his Sentinels-thing.' Lady Nelle asked.
'That would be my choice for this matter.' Rais replied firmly.
'But why would you want to go to Kalsak? It's the second-last place anyone would want to be in, even when it's the place your brother is currently living.'
'We all know your concern, as well as mine, has never been about Cael or Kalsak.' Rais shook his head. 'It's about me following our family's tradition or not. Even if I don't go to Kalsak, I could still enroll at Kleirag War Academy and you would still try to make me join the Healer Academy. I want to go because I agreed with Cael's point: The Cursed Land is the most suitable for honing and applying my craft, plus big brother could provide me with the best training and guidance.'
'You don't have to follow your father and brother. I can teach you everything about the art of healing and you could still help other people without putting your life on the line. There are some risks in my profession as well but they are nothing compare to what you could face if you tread the same path as them.'
'I have waited my whole life for this day, mother.' Rais said loudly. 'The day when I could choose my path, when I could follow father and Cael and make you proud. Big brother has offered me the chance to both fulfill my duty to this family and realize my dream and ambition. You cannot deny me that honor like this.'
'I really appreciate your wish, Rais, but believe me when I said what I've done is for your own good.' Lady Nelle said.
'By not allowing me to live the way I want? The way you have trained me to? You taught me to follow Zetar, to live by his Code, didn't you?'
'Indeed, and I'm afraid that might have been my mistake.'
'How is that ever a mistake?' Rais retorted. 'The Code is all about helping and protecting others, adhering to such a high calling is the greatest honor I could think of. You have followed it your whole life, even now, and raised me to do the same. If I can't face dangers and give it my all then how am I supposed to honor this family's tradition, to honor the Code?'
'And don't you see that's where I think my mistake lies?' Lady Nelle answered but her voice started to crack. 'I have taught you so well that you are willing to give it all, to throw away your life for the Code.'
'There are risks we must take to fulfill our duty, mother. If it's for the greater good then I will gladly take those risks.'
Lady Nelle looked at her son apprehensively, perhaps not sure what she should do in the face of his defiance. Finally, she stood up, closed her eyes and let out a sigh.
'Come with me Rais. I want to show you something.' She then turned to the old butler and said. 'You can return to your station, Mr. Eisher. Tell the kitchen maids they can use whatever was cooked for us for lunch. We will be going out now.'
'Shall I prepare you and young master a cart, My Lady?' Mr. Eisher asked. 'I could send some guards to come with you, too.'
'That won't be necessary. We are just going to stroll around for a bit so no need to worry.'
'As you wish, My Lady. I will excuse myself then.'
Mr. Eisher stood up and headed for the door, where he stopped for a moment to tap his finger on a glowing rune similar to the one hanging outside. With the rune ceased glowing, Mr. Eisher knocked on the door and it was answered by Pitter, who was standing guard outside. As Mr. Eisher informed Pitter of their mistress' wish, Lady Nelle gestured Rais to follow her and together they left the room. Rais wanted to know their destination but decided not to ask, as he believed even if he were to ask, his mother would just let him see the answer for himself anyway. She did say they would go out for a stroll so at least he could expect something like a walk in the city's park. But the one thing Rais knew for sure was that his mother would try her best to persuade him to follow her path, and even though he had made up his mind, he still wondered if he would have the heart to refuse her this time.