"Master Paul...Master Paul...it's time to wake up..."
Opening his eyes, Paul was nearly startled out of his skin when he saw Jean's face mere centimeters away from his own. Only the head of his bed was adjacent to a wall, so he nearly ended up falling off the other side till Jean promptly grabbed his ankle, stating, "Sorry, it was not my intention to startle you..."
Recovering from his initial shock, Paul gave his chest a comforting pat as he looked at the nearby clock and asked, "What are you doing here so early, Jean? Did something happen...?"
Releasing Paul's ankle, Jean shook her head, explaining, "Yesterday evening, you asked me to help with your training. I usually start a few hours before sunrise, but we can wait till later if you'd prefer to sleep in."
Recalling that he had, in fact, asked Jean to help him train, Paul fell into a contemplative silence. He knew Jean was a very 'earnest' woman, but waking him up at 2:30 AM when the sun wasn't supposed to rise until 7 AM was a bit extreme...
Shaking such thoughts from his mind, Paul reminded himself that true power wasn't something he could obtain without effort. If he wanted to keep up with people like Xiangling and Jean, he needed to train at least as hard as they did.
"Understood. Give me a few minutes to wash up and get ready."
Seemingly anticipating Paul's words, Jean hefted a steaming bucket of water off the floor, saying, "Allow me. I've prepared warm water and a fresh towel. Please remember your shirt, Master Paul."
Raising his hands, Paul's smile began to cramp as he said, "Thanks, but I can-"
"I'm afraid I must insist, Master Paul. It is the duty of a Maid to attend her Master. The other members of the Aristocracy might ridicule you if they learned that you, the First Son of a Great and Noble House, bathed yourself."
Recalling Zhongli making a similar argument when she first intruded in on him in the bath, Paul's teeth briefly rattled before he got his nerves under control and asked, "You're not going to let up, are you...?"
Returning a faint smile, Jean answered, "It's either this or we head to the bath. Master Paul's current form is still young, so I don't feel guilty about bathing you. Just mind your hands and eyes."
As if the matter was already decided, Jean leaned forward to help Paul unbutton his pajama top. He was tempted to smack her hands away but ultimately decided against it. After all, while he had frequently insisted on taking care of himself, it was a fact that other Nobles in his position had entire teams of Maids and Attendants to help them prepare for their day. When he had initially set out for the Academy, his mother had been justifiably concerned that Paul would be bullied once the other students discovered he was without so much as a single servant. Instead, thanks to Zhongli, Xiangling, and his Demon Eyes, Paul had earned a reputation as someone with a discerning eye...
"As Master Paul has undoubtedly learned, the most critical aspects of mastering swordsmanship are relaxation, balance, and footwork. Speed is also an integral component, but mastery of the other three allows you to brandish your blade swiftly and react to virtually any situation. In its penultimate form, proper swordsmanship resembles a dance...one that takes advantage of the opponent's flow or breaks it outright..."
While providing her explanation, Jean was executing a series of graceful sweeps using a thin, rapier-like wooden sword. She wasn't exaggerating when she said it resembled a dance. As someone with nearly two years of experience with ballroom dancing, Paul felt like he was getting drawn into her pace just observing her.
Concluding her performance with a graceful, three-hundred-and-sixty degree sweeping pirouette, Jean exhaled a tiny plume of condensation before adopting a neutral posture and jokingly appending, "This is much more difficult than I remember..."
As someone that had received her Vision at a very young age, Jean was accustomed to the feeling of her blade gliding through the air with little resistance. She was capable of executing the same movements without a vision, but her still-developing body lacked the strength necessary to wield her sword freely. Paul might not have noticed it, but Jean felt like her sword was the one leading her. The near-freezing air temperatures weren't helping any.
"Do you need to rest...?"
Adopting a faint smile, Jean swept her sword in a graceful arc towards the center of her body, her eyes peering at Paul from behind the thin, wooden blade as she said, "I'm still getting warmed up. There are four hours until sunrise, and I intend to use every second of them..."
Feeling the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end, Paul took a step back, his body turned sideways and sword held aloft in a manner known as a hanging guard stance. The only thing preventing him from entering the Intermediate Rank of the Water God Style was his small stature and lack of strength. He had all the Beginner forms down, so he was able to catch the tip of Jean's preliminary slice.
Though she had never encountered the Water God Style before, Jean's expression remained as calm and serene as a frozen lake. The moment she realized Paul was stepping forward to try and knock her off balance with his shoulder, she seamlessly slipped past him, their faces coming within 3cm of each other as she whispered, "Good reaction..."
Opening his mouth, Paul was left at a loss for words as Jean finished slipping past him, the tip of her sword running from his armpit to his thigh as she said, "But still sloppy. When you step in with your sword raised like that, all the vitals on the left side of your body are exposed. The stance compensates by having you turn away from your opponent, but it's useless if you let them slip past you..."
Adopting a neutral posture with the pommel of his sword located just above his groin and the tip angled toward Jean, a stance unironically referred to as the Dragon Horn Stance, Paul relaxed his body and said, "Again." in a resolute tone.
Though she raised her brows at Paul's rather unorthodox stance, Jean didn't underestimate it. She realized from their initial exchange that Paul was a lot stronger than her. She had the advantage of speed, skill, and flexibility, but his snap-parry had nearly knocked her sword clean out of her hands.
Raising her sword in the same manner as before, Jean silently observed Paul's stance. One of the significant weaknesses of the Water God Style was that it had few offensive techniques. It revolved around waiting for your opponent to strike before counterattacking with extreme swiftness or disruptive force. Jean immediately saw through this particular defect, a faint smile developing across her face as she stated, "The Water God Style does not suit you..."
Believing she was trying to bait him into lowering his guard, Paul didn't respond to Jean's words. Instead, his focus continued to increase as he focused on her knees, thighs, and hips. They were the first parts of the body to move when a person was preparing to strike. Women also had lower centers of gravity than men, so it was difficult for them to perform even small movements without swaying their hips.
Feeling a little unnerved by Paul's intense focus on her lower body, an awkward smile developed across Jean's face as she inquired, "Master Paul...you aren't using your Demon Eyes of X-Ray Vision, are you?"
Startled by Jean's words, Paul's eyes and mouth widened as he raised his head with the intention of defending himself. In that exact moment, Jean thrust forward with significantly greater speed than anything she had shown before, the tip of her sword tapping the underside of Paul's chin as she remarked, "The Water God Style's alleged weakness against feints and taunts is proving to be accurate..."
Brandishing her sword to the side, away from Paul's neck, Jean took a step back and added, "Training should be regarded in a similar light as actual combat. Rules are important, but they are ultimately pointless if adhering to them gets you killed. When we train, I want you to view me as an actual enemy. I will use any means to secure victory against you, so you should do the same. Understood?"
Without waiting for Paul's response, Jean sliced towards him with a reverse, sweeping motion. He managed to step out of her range and angle the tip of his sword toward her face, but Jean managed to slide forward, narrowly evading his blade by ducking underneath it. In the same motion, she thrust the tip of her sword just above his navel, her face an expressionless mask as she calmly stated, "And that makes three..."
When Jean first mentioned she was just getting warmed up, Paul had seriously underestimated the weight of that statement. As a five, nearly six-year-old kid, his stamina was spent after around twenty minutes of active sparring. He could perform routine training for hours on end, but as any fighter, boxer, or mixed martial artist could attest, actual combat was incomparably exhausting.
Though Paul had persevered for a full half-hour thanks to his Healing Magic, Jean immediately followed their sparring session by resuming her sword dance. Her body was completely covered in sweat, so much so that a visible cloud of steam was rising from her tiny frame, but she simply refused to stop. When Paul asked her how she could keep going, Jean took a moment to catch her breath before answering, "Because I must...shortcomings do not overcome themselves..."
After sparring against Paul, Jean had a much better understanding of her current capabilities. She wasn't particularly disappointed, but she was nowhere near satisfied with her immediate strength. Thus, taking advantage of the fact that people in Mushoku Tensei developed faster than people from her world, Jean intended to exceed her original self by the time Paul was preparing to graduate. After that, she was determined to reach the Ranks of Sword King and Sword Emperor by the ages of 15 and 20, respectively.
Fearing that Jean would continue for the remaining three hours without a break, all while he just sat on the sidelines, Paul begrudgingly pushed himself to his feet and began swinging his sword. His body cried out in protest, but he wouldn't be able to live with himself if he established the precedent of simply watching others improve.
Seeing Paul pick up his sword, an approving smile developed across Jean's face as she observed him out of the corner of her eye. He still had a long way to go in terms of disposition and mentality, but those were seldom the factors that allowed people to surpass themselves. Instead, it was sheer determination and hard work that allowed even the average to become extraordinary...
"This mission may be easier than I initially expected..."
Though every muscle and tendon in his body screamed out in pain, Paul had a deadpan expression on his face as Xiangling held up the edges of her dress and shifted her weight, barefoot on his back. She had noticed him lying limply on the sofa when she exited her room and, after a bit of back forth, proposed giving him a massage.
After being 'tormented' by Jean during training and subsequent bath, Paul didn't have the willpower to refuse Xianglin's request. Instead, he just rolled over onto his stomach, occasional grunts escaping his throat as her surprisingly warm feet, soles, and toes dug into various pressure points on his back. She had learned how to give massages to repay her father for all the pans and woks she ruined in her previous life, so, with Jean taking over her duties as Paul's training partner, Xiangling felt that giving him a foot massage and cooking a hearty meal was the least she could do...