"I hope everyone has enjoyed the food and tonight's festivities. Now though, I'd like to announce the name of the child we've chosen to become Linley's personal guard and my student."
'Don't say me, please don't say me!' Ace begged in his mind when he heard Hogg's pause for dramatic effect.
"After speaking to Hillman, who's been in charge of instructing the town's children in the initial stages of their warrior training, the child we've decided on is…"
'PLEASE DON'T SAY ME!' Ace shouted in his mind hoping that by thinking it louder, he'd be able to think it into existence.
Ace wanted to scream, but not wanting to make things any more awkward than they were about to become, he decided to suppress his impulse.
He slowly turned to face the Baruchs with what could only be described as an awkward smile. Not knowing what to say, he looked at Hogg and then at all the faces of the other jealous children eyeing him like he just stole their last piece of meat.
"How can I be worthy of such an honour? I suggest you choose from one of the other more qualified children." Ace answered in the humblest voice he could muster.
"Hahaha, talented and humble, I'm even more sure of my decision now. Which child here is more qualified to be my son's head guard than a six-and-a-half-year-old warrior of the first rank?" Hogg said as if to reassure him.
'Why are you telling people my business, you old oaf. And what's with that look as if you did me a favour?' Ace cursed mentally, wanting nothing more than to slap him around the face to lessen his belly full of frustration, but forgetting about the difference in strength; he knew that Hogg genuinely believed he was doing him a favour, and Ace was many things, but ungrateful wasn't one of them.
"I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to respectfully refuse. The truth is, in the future, I wish to go on an adventure and explore everything these lands have to offer." Ace said as respectfully as he could.
Hogg frowned when he heard Ace's response, as did Lina and the family's guards. Their eyes were trained on him, but Ace remained calm and composed.
If it were anyone else present, child or adult, who had to face the semi-unfriendly gazes of so many powerful warriors, they'd likely faint from the pressure. Still, Ace remained utterly unfazed as he calmly maintained eye contact.
"Lance, do your job as a guard of the Baruch Clan and convince the child it will be in the best interest of all parties if he accepts." Hillman, the guard captain, ordered coldly.
Lance looked deeply at Ace, whom he'd grown close to over the last six months. Then he thought of Milianna's smiling face when he promised to take care of her son. Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath, and when he opened them, he seemed to have become a different person.
"I'm sorry, captain, I can't do that," Lance replied as politely yet firmly as he could.
"Are you disobeying a direct order?" Hillman asked icily as he turned his gaze from Ace to Lance.
"If you're ordering me to force a child to do something against his will…
Then that's an order I cannot follow!" Lance said defiantly, looking at a man he once wholeheartedly respected.
'Now that's a man deserving of my mother's trust… Even if only barely!' Ace thought to himself as the corners of his mouth crept up whilst looking at the soon-to-be former Baruch family guard with newfound respect.
"If that's your choice, child, then I respect it. I just hope you don't come to regret it." Hogg said indifferently before things got out of hand.
"I may have many regrets, but this will never be one of them!" Ace said firmly, keeping eye contact with the town's strongest man.
Hogg took one more profound look at the child before him. For a moment, he felt like he was talking to a peer rather than a six-year-old child.
"We failed to convince our first choice, but hopefully, our second choice won't reject our family's goodwill," Hogg said calmly before looking at Killian.
"Killian, according to Guard Captain Hillman, your talent as a warrior is second only to my genius son Linley and that child Ace. How would you like to be my disciple and Linley's future personal guard? If you say yes, you can leave behind your old life as an orphan and immediately move into my family manor." Hogg explained warmly whilst not forgetting to throw shade at Ace when he could.
Killian turned to the first friend he'd ever made, unsure what to do or say in this position.
Even though he'd built up his confidence in these last few months hanging out with Ace, that innate sense of inferiority was still there.
"Kil, just follow your heart; if you choose to accept their offer, we will still be friends. But if you don't want to, just say so; I very much doubt 'nobles' such as the Baruch's will lower themselves to deal with two children simply for refusing them." Ace said, not forgetting to put emphasis on the word noble, knowing how much of a sore spot it had to be for them knowing the social standing they once held.
Hogg, Lina, and Linley all frowned hearing Ace's subtle insults but knew they couldn't engage in verbal sparring with a child of no status.
I don't want to." Killian mumbled.
As several warriors with sharpened senses were present, they managed to hear what the shy orphan had said, but Ace acted as if they wouldn't be able to hear from their positions.
"You need to speak louder, Kil. 'Lord' Hogg and his 'generous' family might not be able to hear from all the way back there."
"I'm sorry, but no, thank you. I want to stay with Ace!" Killian borderline shouted with his eyes tightly shut.
"Then let's go home." Ace smiled proudly at his shy friend.
He ignored the cold and angry glares he received from not only the Baruchs but also the other civilians.
"Didn't you promise to walk us home after the gathering?" Ace said as he noticed Lance was yet to move.
"I almost forgot; let's go before your mom starts worrying," Lance said, trying to suppress the confusion he was feeling due to his actions.
After the trio left, the gathering continued. The third person chosen to be Linley's guard was a young boy called Biliora. Luckily for the Baruchs, he instantly agreed, kneeling down and promising to be loyal to the Baruch Clan from now till the day he dies.
Biliora is nine years old, not much older than Linley himself. He came from one of the more prominent families of Wushan town, but most importantly, he was very talented in his own right. If it weren't for the sudden emergence of Ace and Killian, the child with talent as a warrior second only to Linley would be him. He became a warrior of the first rank shortly after his 8th birthday.
With that, the gathering began to wrap up, but everyone knew that things were unlikely to end just like that.
Later that night, after Linley got into his bed, the glowing, flickering image of a gentle older man appeared in the air above the young brown-haired genius.
"Linley, why are you still angry?" The gentle-looking old man asked warmly.
"That Ace. He showed my family such disrespect in public!" Linley said with righteous indignation.
"Wasn't it your family that was rude first?"
"But what? But your family are the town's rulers, so he has no right?" The older man asked, finishing Linley's sentence.
Linley didn't answer, but it was clear from his expression that that was precisely how he felt.
"Linley, how would you feel if someone asked you to forgo any dreams you may have and dedicate the rest of your life to protect someone you didn't even know well?"
"It's not the same thing," Linley argued back.
"Why not? Because you're a genius dual-element mage, and he'd be lucky to follow you?"
"Linley, whilst I admit you're very talented; you must remember that there are others more talented than you, but they still have no right to force you to give up on your dreams for their sake.
And more importantly, I don't know about his talents as a mage, but that boy Ace became a first-rank warrior in six months. His talent as a warrior is no worse than your talent as a mage."