Chapter 6 – An Old Man in the Park

“Ahh!  That Doctor Wallin really is a monster!” Antoine exclaimed as he massaged his sore right hand, “He made us write a whole essay in the period.  Where does he even get the time to mark all of those?”

Next to him Lily was also massaging her writing hand.  He cheeks were puffed and her eyes frowned slightly.  It was actually a arather comical look, like a little pouting puppy.  Just by looking at her face Antoine could feel his sour mood lightening up.

‘I guess there advantages to having her as a friend,’ he thought.

“Hey, Antoine, let’s go get something to eat,” Lily said, hopping out in front of him happily.

‘She does switch between moods quite quickly,’ he thought.

“You know I can’t afford that gold you eat for food,” he answered.

Lily puffed her cheeks once more.

“Don’t be such a pooper!  I’ve told you before that you don’t have to worry about the cost.  I’m inviting you to lunch, so of course I’ll pay.”

“No, absolutely not.  I might not be rich, but I’ll pay for my own food.  If I can’t afford it, I won’t eat it.  One I’ll earn enough to pay for that gold, only then will I eat it,” Antoine said, puffing out his chest as if declaring some noble ideal.

‘Well, that’s not really the reason.  I can’t bare all those venomous stares from the other students.  If looks could kill, I would be dead the moment I sat down at the same as you.’

Of course, looks would likely not be what actually killed him.  He was keenly aware of the massive status gap between himself and the people who ate in the hall where Lily would no doubt take him.  In the Royal Academy he wasn’t just at the bottom of the social ladder, he was the ground it stood on.  How would the students all along the ladder possibly tolerate a pebble like him eating with the top step of the ladder?  If he was truly to do something like that, it was most likely that his body would be found with several dozen knives sticking out of it a day later!

‘No thank you, I like living quite a bit.’

This was one thing that Lily couldn’t overpower him on.  His holy rule, as it were; he would not eat with her.  In the three years they had known each other, he had never budged on this even once, no matter what Lily tried.  She also knew this well, and though she frequently tried to get him to eat with her, she had long since given up doing any more than make the occasional invitation.

“Fine, you go and eat that sludge you call food.  If you change your mind, you know where to find me,” she said before dashing off.

“Ugh… She really is a handful.”

Antoine stretched once more before turning in the opposite direction Lily had left.  He walked past several buildings before coming to a small park.  Well, ‘small’ wasn’t really the correct way to describe it.  It was about a whole square kilometre.  It was about the same size as his hometown, and yet it only accounted for about one twentieth of the entire surface area of the Royal Academy, excluding residences.

The campus was so massive it had taken Antoine two whole months to familiarise himself with the various building he had to go to on a regular basis, and those were spread over just a third of the entire academy.  He still didn’t know the first thing about the other two thirds.

After about ten minutes of walking, the park stretched out in front of him.  The park was a beautiful, and perfectly maintained, but hardly anyone ever used it.  It was the perfect place for someone who stood out like a sore thumb, namely him, to find a respite from everyone and everything.

Antoine sighed, and entered the park.

He walked about two hundred metres into the park before he neared the spot he usually had his lunch at.  However, instead of the usually empty bench, he found someone sitting on it this time.  It was an old man.

Antoine approached the bench from behind.  He circled it at a distance of about ten metres until he could see the old man’s face.  Indeed, the face had decades written on it.  The old man was at least seventy years old, quite possibly more.  His skin was pullled down by gravity, leaving deep wrinkles on his face.  His hair was copletely white, even his eyebrows were white.  He had a slight stubble on his face.  His face was very friendly, though.  He had a slight sile on it that appeared as though it had been carved by a mason into a mountainside.  It seemed to be as old as the man himself.  Antoine felt that the smile must have weathered everything the man had lived through right alongside him.

“Hello there, young man,” the old man greeted suddenly.

Antoine jumped slightly.  Truthfully, he had begun to wonder if the man was a wax statue.  He hadn’t seen the man breathe since he had first laid eyes on him, so the sudden greeting caught him off guard and surprised him.

The old man smiled at his surprise and patted beside him on the bench.

“Don’t worry, unlike most old people, I don’t bite,” he said amusedly.

Antoine stared at him for a moment, baffled by his sense of humour.

‘MOST old people don’t bite, you know,’ he tsukkomi’d in his mind.

He sat down beside the old man, none-the less.

“It’s fine to eat, I don’t mind,” the old man said, unperturbed by the fact that antoine had yet to greet him or introduce himself as was appropriate for a junior to do.

The words snapped Antoine out of his stupor.

“I-I’m sorry.  I’m being very rude.  My name’s Antoine.”

“Hello, Antoine.  You can call me Mister Mika,” the old man answered.

“Mika?  It’s a rare name, Uncle.”

“So I’ve heard,” was the simple answer.

Antoine looked at him for a few more momens before he shrugged his shoulders and unpacked his lunch.

It was as Lily had said, a simple sealed bowl of cold soup.  It wasn’t very tasty, but it had all the nutrition he would need, and most important of all, it was cheap.  Antoine’s scholarship gave him a small allowance, but it wasn’t much compared to how the academy priced most of the things its stores and vendors sold.

Antoine kept an eye on the old man as he took a sip from his bowl, but the old man did nothing.  A few sips later the old man couldn’t hold himself back, and smiled.

“What’s so funny?” Antoine asked in an irritated, yet respectful manner.

One never knew who one could meet in the Royal Academy.  He had to be especially careful, since a solitary old man like the one sitting beside him, all alone, was likely to be some eccentric noble.  If he angered the old man, he might just end up the first Royal Academy student in its (admittedly short) history to be jailed and executed.

“Oh, nothing much, really.  I just find your way of eating refreshing,” the old man said.

‘Sure enough, he is an eccentric noble,’ Antoine thought.

“Refreshing?” he asked.

“Yes.  Most of the nobles are so concerned with etiquette and image that they completely forget about the simplest truth about eating and food.”

“And that is?”

“To feed your body.  If possible, food should also be enjoyed, but the most basic function of food is to serve as fuel for the body.  Similarly, the simplest function of eating is to put food into one’s body.  All those convoluted etiquettes regarding what knife and fork to use when, when to eat what, what dish should be eaten first, what dishes should be served together…  They all are completely superfluous in the end.  What does it really matter?  Besides making food that is tasty and enjoyable, one should primarily be concerned with making sure that one has everything one needs to keep oneself well-fed and healthy.  Everything else is just a luxury.”

Antoine stared at the old man blankly.  How on earth did he, a noble, understand the basic function of food?  Nobles only ever ate as enjoyment.  They had never suffered through hunger or hardship.  THey’d never had to live off the most basic of meals.  They could eat as much as they wanted, and if they got sick from not eating right, they could afford to have a healer come to their mansion and heal them.  What did they know about eating healthily and making to have a balanced diet?

The old man smiled again.

“I know what you’re thinking.  ‘What does an old noble like me know about hardship and hunger, how could I know about eating healthily, and appreciate the basic function of food and eating’, right?”

Antoine couldn’t help but nod.

“How about i tell you a story?” the old man asked, “You don’t have to worry about missing your class, I’ll explain everything to your lecturer, they’ll understand.”

Again, Antoine couldn’t help but nod.

“Ah, let’s see, this was many years ago.  What has it een, fifty-three, fifty-four years?” he began.

 

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