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    The Cieran Empire.

    The country where I was reborn was but a smidge smaller than the Great Ming Empire.

    The continent took on the form of a massive butterfly, or a bird ready to take flight, with the Cieran Empire claiming dominion over its eastern wing.

    North of the empire lay an expansive mountain range, serving as a natural barrier delineating the Demonic Boundary. Here, both monsters and creatures alike roamed in search of food, often targeting civilian homes.

    To the west, there stretched an extensive desert akin to that of the Potala Palace, and it too was teeming with monsters.

    Between the desert and the empire stood five kingdoms, like a breakwater, ever vigilant for opportunities to assail the empire. At the juncture of the northern mountain range and the western desert lay several large oases, frequented by nomadic tribes from various clans.

    Similar to how the royal family of the Great Ming utilized their paramount power and authority to assert dominance, the Cieran Empire assumed the role of the continent’s ruler and master.

    Whereas in Murim, martial sects and clans would partition the vast expanse of land into separate territories of their own, behaving as though each piece belonged to them. The Anhui region was guarded by the Namgung Clan, while the Tang Clan guarded the Sichuan region.

    However, the territories of the Cieran Empire were bestowed by the emperor as rewards to his vassals. With politics intertwined with noble titles passed down through generations, there was no opportunity for martial clans to establish themselves.

    With all knights serving as vassals to noble families and the emperor, it wasn’t merely a case of politics and martial arts being unrelated; rather, it was a situation where the government exercised control over Murim.

    Therefore, in order for the numerous noble families of the empire to perceive each other’s existence and pledge loyalty to the imperial palace, noble youths were made to attend the Cieran Academy near the imperial palace. From the age of fifteen, when they could enter high society, to eighteen, when they were considered adults, they studied the subjects of their choice.

    Studying the six major branches of swordsmanship, magic, management, administration, general affairs, and imperial law, along with a wide range of liberal arts classes totaling nearly a hundred subjects, provided a considerable advantage. This allowed students to compete with their peers based on their grades.

    It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the empire’s greatest talents were all concentrated either in the imperial palace or at the academy.

    Early admission, early graduation, and graduation deferment were all possible, and it was mandatory for the successors of noble families to graduate from the academy, but descendants who weren’t heirs weren’t obliged to attend.

    However, given the uncertainty of the future, and because everyone wished to indulge in peer culture, most families chose to send their sons and daughters to the academy, provided they could afford it.

    Since the annual tuition fee for the academy was quite high, comparable to the yearly taxes of an average territory, families with limited resources often chose not to send their younger sons and daughters to the academy. Instead, they pushed them into high society early on, arranging marriages for them.

    The costly tuition fees were utilized to facilitate the scholarship system for commoners at the academy.

    For every noble student enrolled, three commoner students were admitted as well.

    When I first learned of the academy’s existence, I was filled with awe and amazement.

    This system, where educational institutions operated by the state were not only open to members of the imperial family but to outstanding citizens of the empire as well, was one I had never imagined before.

    Dissatisfied with the repetitive practice of swordsmanship I was already familiar with and the incessant sparring with familiar faces, I was delighted to obtain the qualification to confidently enroll in the academy.

    In the Cieran Empire, a year was divided into twelve months, and the enrollment ceremony was held on the first day of the second month of each year.

    The journey from the Ernhardt territory to the capital spanned seven days and nights. Thus, I made sure to celebrate the New Year with my family before immersing myself in busy preparations and finally arriving there.

    As I crossed the city walls into the capital, the scene that greeted me was truly magnificent. Unlike the two- to three-story buildings typical of the Ernhardt territory, here, countless structures stretched to heights of five to six stories.

    I was especially surprised by the walls of the imperial palace, which loomed high above the surrounding buildings. Additionally, there were two incredibly tall towers standing proudly at both ends of the capital—east and west—reaching into the sky as if to pierce it.

    When I asked Sir Ventus, the knight entrusted with seeing me off, about how such towering structures could exist, given that they weren’t even the stone pagodas of Buddhist temples, he explained that those were the mages’ tower, the so-called Magic Tower.

    “Magic… I’ve heard quite a bit about it, but it’s still hard to imagine. Just what is the link between using aura to create fire and water and such a tall tower?”

    “People often describe magic as the study of reaching the truth… Well, you’ll understand once you experience it yourself. It wasn’t until I came to the academy that I witnessed magic for the first time. I even heard there’s a door on the first floor of the tower that leads directly to the 30th floor.”

    “Ahh.”

    “Huh? Is that explanation all you need to understand?”

    Sir Ventus seemed to be confused, but I simply nodded.

    Thinking of it as a place that was full of things like the Jegal Clan’s illusory formations and talismans, I was able to fathom it.

    Because the people of the Jegal Clan were the only ones to erect wooden sticks atop the training grounds during the Dragon Phoenix Conference…

    If there’s an exceptional mage, I’d like to befriend them, I thought.

    Servants and knights were prohibited from accompanying us into the academy, so I disembarked at the entrance and handed over the luggage I needed for the dorms to the window right in front.

    Upon hearing that my belongings would be moved to the dorms during the entrance ceremony, I felt internally relieved, since it seemed that the academy had servants of their own.

    Combining both my past and current lives, it had been a good thirty-something years since I last took care of my own laundry.

    Glancing around, I noticed many girls and boys in similar circumstances bidding farewell to their companions with either anxious expressions or glowing faces.

    Sir Ventus and the other three or four knights who had escorted me all the way here caught the look in my eyes and chuckled, placing their palms against their fists.

    It was the knights’ mischievous farewell—a gesture I had instinctively performed a few times as a child, which they had imitated, believing it to be a child’s game.

    “Then, young master. We’ll visit you once summer vacation starts.”

    “You must become a sword master by the end of the semester.”

    “That is no easy feat. I’ll do my best. Be careful on your way back and don’t rush.”

    “Well, we did some sightseeing on our way here, so we might as well do some on the way back. Take care of yourself.”

    I felt my face grow warm under the glances of my peers, perhaps due to the unusual farewells. Standing straight, I gave a big wave and turned away.

    Even long after I passed through the academy gates, their presence lingered behind me, perhaps driven by their sense of duty as knights, or maybe by the strong bond that had formed between us. An embarrassed laugh kept escaping me.

    * * *

    As I passed through the school gates and strolled along the path trodden by everyone else, a figure clad in a persimmon-coloured uniform cautiously spoke to me.

    They held a file in hand and wore glasses that I had never seen before on this continent, giving me the sense that I had truly left the territory.

    “Uh… hello. You must be one of the new freshmen, Michael Ernhardt, correct… sir? My name is Hersey Milton, I’m a grade above you.”

    “Nice to meet you, Hersey sunbae. What seems to be the matter?”

    “Ah, I’m a working scholarship student this year, so I’ve been tasked with guiding the freshmen. I’ll lead you to the auditorium…”

    Judging by the fact that his words kept drifting, he seemed unsure whether to speak politely to me or drop the formalities, so I simply offered him a smile.

    Hersey Milton’s cheeks flushed red, seemingly embarrassed as well.

    Based on his appearance, he looked to be a young man four years my senior.

    “Please feel free to speak casually, sunbae.”

    “Ah, thank you! Many of the newly admitted freshmen dislike using informal speech. The rules forbid us from using formal language with our juniors, so I was a little worried. Sorry about that.”

    “Could you explain a bit more about this rule against speaking formally?”

    “Um, you see…”

    Hersey glanced at my reaction once more before taking a step forward and beginning to walk. It seemed he wanted me to follow and listen, so I obediently walked alongside him.

    He then continued, speaking in a slightly hurried tone and frequently glancing towards me.

    Judging by his heavy and irregular gait, he didn’t seem to be part of the swordsmanship division. With such thoughts in mind, I lent an ear to what he had to say.

    “As you already know, for every noble admitted to the Cieran Academy, there are three commoners. So, naturally, there’s a larger number of commoners. And since most of the commoners who got in through the academy’s entrance examination have stellar grades, there are often cases where… noble students’ grades are at risk.”

    “Mm.”

    “So, in order to prevent situations where noble students exert pressure on commoner students, the first rule is that peers must use formal speech with each other unless they’re close. The second rule is that seniors should use informal speech with juniors, and juniors should use formal speech with seniors… at least until graduation. There are no exceptions inside or outside the school, and you could get penalty points for breaking them.”

    “Ahh, I understand.”

    “But freshmen every year aren’t aware of that, so they tend to get upset when someone they don’t know speaks informally to them. Ah, of course, I think they have every right to be upset! It’s just common courtesy to speak politely to everyone you meet, regardless of their age or status. So… so that’s why I was worried. I’m sorry.”

    “There’s no reason for you to be sorry when you’re only telling me what is correct.”

    “T-thank you for saying that.”

    Hersey timidly laughed and glanced back at me.

    Seeing how his cheeks kept reddening, he seemed to have a lot of internal heat. It was rare to see someone with such a thin physique exude such clear yang energy, so I walked while observing the colour of his face.

    Perhaps to break the silence, Hersey suddenly spoke up.

    “I had heard about it, but… your hair colour is really pretty. I was surprised to see it was actually pink like flower petals.”

    “Mn.”

    “…Ah! I-I’m sorry if that sounded rude! I didn’t mean it like that—.”

    “I don’t really mind. I was just surprised since I never thought of it that way.”

    Even his ears and nape were now bright red, and the young man walked with stiff steps.

    He didn’t speak again until we reached the main hall, but thanks to him, the journey there wasn’t boring.

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