"Ohhh... finally," Altair let go of a moan while stretching out his arms, as the bell signaling the advent of freedom rang for the last time, concluding the curriculum of the summer preparatory camp.
"Basics of Etiquette" had been an utterly soul-crushing class, and although now he was able to correctly discern a dessert fork from a cocktail one, the potential usefulness of such a skill for a commoner from the fringes of the Levantian Kingdom still eluded him. During the past month, the teen attended a program designed for incoming freshmen from the less fortunate regions of the Kingdom to help them adapt to the life in the capital and to learn the necessary decorum and skills befitting of students from one of the seven Royal Academies. In order to facilitate this transition, they had been assigned chaperones from minor noble families who volunteered their offspring to spend their last month of summer before starting high school in exchange for extra credit that would help them bridge the gap with their better-established peers who had the advantage of a powerful family name opening every door, be it in the form of the best tutors, or of eager teachers trying to curry favor with a Duke or Marquess.
Some of these young Lords and Ladies took their mission a little too enthusiastically, believing it to be their natural duty to civilize these peasants as their betters, while others used every chance they got to unleash their frustration for having to rehearse and repeat basics that any child with proper upbringing had mastered by the time they left kindergarten.
Altair ignored the excited voices around him that were discussing plans for the week-long interlude before the upcoming Entrance ceremony as the students slowly headed towards the exit. He brushed his disheveled dark hair and tentatively looked at a group of three girls in knee-length summer dresses engaged in a discussion about the merits of a newly released limited-edition handbag, hoping to catch the attention of a certain green-eyed classmate standing in their midst. Soon, they would be making the switch towards the official Baignard uniforms which left a lot more to the imagination, to the chagrin of the male student body. As he approached them, limping slightly on his left side, he earned the cold glare of one of her friends, who with her arms crossed and frown stopped him dead in his tracks without having to mutter a word.
I guess I'll just have to text her later, he thought, swallowing the disappointment and returning to his seat. After all, there was nowhere for him to go or rush to and staying within the confines of the classroom for a bit longer was certainly a safer bet than risking bumping in the hallway into a disgruntled young master or two looking to prove their virility. As the space around him cleared, he pulled out of his backpack a fantasy light novel he'd been reading, featuring an underdog who after being granted mysterious magic powers by a twist of fate was able to trample his bullies, get the girl, and save the day.
If only it was that easy in real life..., he thought.
"Whatcha reading there, Alt?"
An out-of-breath voice returned him to reality. Only one person in the class called him by his childhood nickname.
Altair silently raised the book up, showing the cover to his roommate who was now leaning over his shoulder and standing way too close for Altair's liking of personal space. He was an overweight, gentle giant, whose parents had inadvertently doomed to a lifetime of ridicule by bestowing him the name of Sattan, which combined with the last name of Bastidore led a class clown from his middle school days to come up with the moniker "Satan Bastard", that had since stuck and followed him all the way to the capital thanks to social network harassment. The two boys had been assigned to the same apartment in the dorms, a fact that Altair attributed to them coming from the same region, despite not being previously acquainted.
"Oh, that is a good one! Milena is such an amazing waifu! I am saving up to order a figurine."
Altair cringed at his new friend's comment, thankful they were all alone by now. Despite having his own share of nerdy pursuits, proclaiming love for 2D girls in public was a step too far, and if overheard, it would be enough to put his last shreds of hope for a fresh high school start to rest.
"Here, look!" Sattan took out his cell phone and navigated to a doll website with Milena's rendition already added to the shopping cart. "I wonder what outfit I should chose though?"
"Ahem," Altair coughed. "So..., are you going anywhere over the break, Sat?" he asked, trying desperately to change the topic.
"Huh? Yeah, I am heading home to visit my parents," Sattan answered, beaming at the prospect. Alt suspected it had more to do with the oversized boy being eager to revisit his sizable figurine collection rather than with any pure joy from a family reunion but kept that thought to himself.
"For real? Isn't that like a three-day train ride?" he mused.
"Who said anything about taking a train? I am flying out tonight."
"Oh, right." Alt suddenly remembered that not every one of the so-called commoners was struggling financially as much as he was. The scholarship he had been awarded covered the tuition and housing – but taking care of everything else was on his plate, and he didn't want to burden his already indebted parents any further without there being a pressing need for it. In contrast, Sattan's father was an up-and-coming businessman in their homeland, exporting local delicacies to the core lands of the Kingdom, so a mere flight ticket was nothing to raise an eyebrow over. "Well, I hope you have a good time."
"I will. Is there anything you want me to bring you from Lucern?"
Altair shivered at the mention of their shared hometown. There were too many unexplained and missing memories associated with that place, and too many conflicting emotions which he had not yet processed and was reluctant to explore.
"Nah, I am good. Thanks though," he tried to play it cool.
"Alrighty. Hit me up on Steam if you wanna play a round," Sattan offered, referring to a new RTS game that he introduced his more reserved roommate too. "I am gonna go pack."
Alt nodded, returning to his book. Although he would have liked to visit his own parents as well, there was no one besides them waiting for him at home, and he could vividly imagine the cold welcome he would get from his former neighbors for coming back as a student from a Royal Academy of the Kingdom currently occupying their lands. Those who spent years calling him the son of Levantian collaborators behind his back would feel vindicated at the sight.
No, better to not stir that pot.
Besides, he expected that with most of the summer camp participants leaving campus, he would finally get some peace and quiet, and perhaps get to explore Darsenius, the Kingdom's capital city together with Ronel, the girl he had been eyeing earlier who had been one of the few people he met so far in this new world of nobility who treated him with a minimal degree of respect despite their difference in status.
A minute later, he heard a commotion start outside the classroom, shattering any hopes he had for tranquility. His heart sunk, instinctively anticipating another confrontation just like the ones he had been forced into on a nearly daily basis during these past few weeks. He heard something heavy crashing against a wall, followed by a whimper, confirming his suspicions of the worst.
"And where do you think you're going, Satan Bastard?" a mocking voice inquired. By now, Altair could recognize it from a thousand others. It belonged to Kamar Outono, the son of a recently titled Knight who in Altair's eyes was an insufferable asshole with an ego the size of the Royal Colosseum, who tried to cement his shaky first-generation noble descendant status by trampling on those beneath him.
Ignore it. It doesn't concern you, Altair tried to convince himself, and looked for headphones to put on in order to mute the distraction.
"I am going... home...," Alt could still make through the muffled response from his large friend.
"Oh, so you are going home to mommy?" another of the goons said. "Bet only your momma could love that ugly, fat face of yours."
"She is probably a fat cow too," another boy added, erupting in laughter.
"Please, don't speak like that about my m...," Sattan's protests were cut short by a kick, making him wail.
Argh! Dammit. Before he knew it, Altair was up on his feet, his pulse racing in anticipation.
He had been the target of Kamar's and his cohorts’ sadistic antics once too many times to be able to remain indifferent, specially knowing that unlike himself, his friend would not fight back, and would simply keep taking the punishment that with each blow tore irreversibly another small chunk of his good-hearted nature apart.
But what difference will it make? These bastards just keep on coming and coming...
He was confident that in a one-on-one fight he could stand his ground against Kamar, but if their past bouts were of any indication, then this was going to be anything but a fair fight. He would need to rely on the element of surprise and produce an overwhelming attack if he wanted to stop them without getting himself maimed in the process.
He grabbed a wooden chair, and after blasting the door open with a kick, he threw the furniture piece at a boy who had been shaking the kneeling Sattan back-and-forth by his chest.
The chair impacted straight on the boy's temple, with the aggressor collapsing to the ground, and rubbing his rapidly inflating wound in a fetal position as if his life depended on it. The three remaining boys exchanged glances of disbelief at the intruder's sudden appearance, but quickly recomposed themselves.
Shit, I thought there'd be less of them...
"My, my, look who we have here...," Kamar said, while shooting daggers from his eyes. "If it isn't our favorite cripple. Are you coming to the rescue of this little damsel?"
"These Voralbruck losers sure stick together like flies to shit," a towering boy cursed, spitting on the cowering Sattan. Alt clenched his fists at the sight, unsure of the best course of action with the numeric disadvantage he was facing.
"You're gonna pay for that... you will be paying for that for the next four years, you fucker," the fallen foe on the ground grumbled, the left side of his face covered in slowly dripping blood. He continued making threats while the tallest boy helped him get up.
"That is if we don't kill you here first once and for all," Kamar smugly added, starting to walk in Alt's direction. He took out a taser and made a dramatic pause, gauging Altair's reaction. "Do you recognize this little baby?"
What do I do now? Alt's thoughts raced a thousand miles an hour. Despite Kamar being almost a head taller than Alt, who with his frail body barely reached 5'6", the difference in their physiques wasn't what intimidated him. No, it was the erratic, glowing flow of electricity at the device's metal tips that was giving him shivers. He had been on the receiving end of that same taser once already, after supposedly looking at Kamar without enough due respect a week ago, which resulted in the beating of a lifetime, with him rendered powerless to resist or even to beg them to stop. Aristocratic students were allowed to carry weapons for self-defense, as long as they didn't use them to attack other nobles. Striking commoners without reason hardly constituted self-defense, but the administration had been turning a blind eye on such practice if the incidents didn't get too out of hand. Some in fact openly supported this status quo, believing it to be an essential tool to protect the hierarchy and to quench any disobedience from the lower classes.
Altair thought about making a run for it and call for help but doing so would just aggravate the attackers and make Sattan's situation even worse in the meanwhile. Besides, although his limber body was agile, since he could never make full use of his left leg because of a childhood injury there was a high likelihood that before even making it to the staircase he would already be pinned down.
"Alt, don't worry about me, just run...," his battered friend murmured, his eyes empty, a tear forming down his cheek. A low kick to the ribs from the towering boy sent him into a coughing fit.
"I don't recall giving you permission to open your foul mouth, you Satan Bastard."
At this moment, Kamar made a leap forward, aiming to connect the taser to Alt's chest for maximum impact. Alt felt his body turn heavy, with a paralyzing pressure takin over his chest and stomach. Don't show fear, he ordered himself as his trembling hands betrayed him. He would not give them the satisfaction of seeing him cower, but his hands refused to obey. At that time, he hated himself for his weakness almost as much as he despised his attackers. He bit his lip to get out of the trance-like state and bet everything on a foolish gamble. He had a near-full water bottle with him, which he uncapped and spilled at the quickly approaching hand.
"Fuuuuuuck!" Kamar cursed in pain, now with soaked clothes, as the device short-circuited and detonated in his hand, leaving it hanging limply, the long sleeve of his shirt ripped to pieces. "Fuck, fuck!" he cried repeatedly, trying to assess the damage in the middle of the adrenaline rush. "What are you waiting for, get him!" he screamed at his comrades.
I can't believe this really worked. But now they are really going to kill me.
The two remaining boys who hadn't gotten involved in the fight yet while taking their sweet time abusing Sattan didn't bother with any more taunts and charged towards Alt.
"Woargh!" with a mad battle cry, Altair abandoned all semblance of sanity and grabbed the massive porcelain vase decorating the Renaissance-style hallway. He was hoping to do as much damage as possible before he was taken out. Perhaps somebody with a conscience would notice and call security to halt this madness. With no regard to the consequences, he lifted the antique vessel, which was about the size of his torso above his head and threw it at his attackers’ legs with all his might.
"Damn, this fucker is batshit crazy," the towering boy cursed, his charge halted as the vase shattered into a million shards, obscuring the patterns of the carpet they had been standing on. His long-haired friend also hesitated, after seeing Altair's bloody hand, which was now holding a tight splinter like a knife, with the smaller boy lunging in anticipation like a cornered predator.