“I was born in the heart of the Shogunate. My mother was of humble birth, a serving girl who had earned the favour of a lord for one night. To support us, she had taken to gathering herbs up in the mountains to bolster her income. One day, she failed to return. The rains had made the earth soft and loosened its hold on the rocks. A landslide took her life.” Ceres began her tale.
“That was how I ended up at the orphanage where my bloodline first manifested itself. There was talk of celebrations, of grants from the nobility for the discovery of their kin. I went to sleep dreaming of castles and finery. I woke to fire and screams.” As she spoke, she tried to gain eye-contact with as much of the audience as she could, trying to convey her sincerity through her look.
“Masked men brought me to Regiis, leaving the ashes of the orphanage behind. They brought me to the Duchess so I could be trained into her pawn – a tool in her gambit for power. I am as much of a victim of her machinations as everyone else here. Please, believe me.” she entreated.
I studied the expressions of everyone present. Suspicion and disbelief were still incredibly prominent but I noticed some vacillation as Ceres drew them into her tale.
“Why didn’t you announce this before you came? Why deceive all of us if you had a clear conscience?” asked Marshall Canis.
Ceres pointed at the soldier who had attacked her. The man had yet to regain consciousness and was being taken care of by the water mage. “Did you not see how he reacted to the mere mention of the word ‘kitsune’? At the camp, tensions were running high. A lot of people were worried about their family back in Central and the Southern Districts. Couple that with the looming presence of the ants and it was a powder keg, ready to explode at a moment’s notice. Even when they only knew that I was a member of the Vulpine clan, several soldiers were baying for my blood. Only after I agreed to come on this extremely dangerous mission were they somewhat mollified. What do you think would have happened if my true bloodline was announced? Would they allow me to come and try to prove myself through meritorious service? Or would they act like that soldier there?”
Everyone turned to the soldier and began to ask themselves those very questions. By the softening of their expressions, I knew what answers they had obtained.
At this time, the soldier groaned and opened his eyes. He seemed to have heard her words in his stupor. “Y-you lie… Don’t believe her words… she, the Traitor, all jackals from the same lair.” He croaked out.
I stepped up to Ceres’ side and grabbed her hand. Turning to face him, I said, “Look here. Do you take us for fools? My mother is a Tier 4 light mage famed for healing. No lie can pass undetected under her scrutiny. If Ceres was truly a traitor, wouldn’t she have caught on?”
“Be that as it may, harbouring such crucial intelligence for private reasons is a great dereliction of duty for the General, especially in such times.” The female wind mage remarked.
I shrugged. “We will deal with the legal sanctions afterwards… for now, we want to render as much meritorious service as we can and foil Hotaru Vulpine’s plans. I believe our goals are consistent… so, even if you cannot bring yourself to trust us, we have grounds for cooperation.” Turning to the soldier who had attacked Ceres, I bowed deeply. “So, please… I beg of you. Lay aside your hatred and let’s work together to thwart the schemes of the Traitor. That, I feel is the best revenge you can take.”
Beside me, Ceres lowered her head too. I waited anxiously, feeling the sweat accumulating in our gripped palms. I didn’t know how to proceed if they refused to cooperate with us. The way we had handled things really hired hatred after all… Dropping such a bomb on someone when their only logical choice was to tolerate you made them feel really manipulated and people could do some really illogical things, especially when emotions came into play. I remembered how I had nearly lost Ceres because of my impulsiveness as I was feeling deeply hurt and betrayed upon learning of the secret facts behind our marriage.
I could feel the man breathing hard as he struggled with himself. I kept my eyes on the ground. I knew that his decision would be very important. He had the strongest reason to hate Ceres. If even he agreed to the cooperation… everyone would. Finally, after what seemed like a hundred years but couldn’t have been more than a hundred breaths, he rasped out. “Let’s go save the Lieutenant… we can’t waste any more time.”
I let out the breath I had been holding and straightened up. the man refused to look at us but I could see that he had made his decision. He would trust us one last time. I squeezed Ceres’ hand. We wouldn’t disappoint him.
Pushing her glasses up, Ceres stepped forward. Reaching into her clothes, she undid the sash that tied her second tail to her body and let it out for everyone to see. They swayed behind her as though they had minds of their own. Transparent flames lit up at their tips, warping the air around them. She said, “Take an incense each. I will light them with my flame. Let the smoke waft around you, they will erase all scents.”
Marshal Canis handed out the incense sticks from the pouch Ceres had given her and they walked up to her and had her light it. Ceres lit one for herself and one for me, then tucked the incense into her epaulette. Following her lead, the rest of us did the same.
All except Hei Lian. Shrugging off her coat and handing it to Steven, she transformed into her Feral form, a majestic jet-black wolf. She sniffed around in all directions before reverting back and donning her clothes over her Heavenly Silksnail garments and equipping the incense. “Unless the ants have a better sense of smell than a wolf, these things work.” She said. “We should pick up the pace if you want that Lieutenant of yours to make it.”
Marshal Canis nodded her agreement. “Troops. Move out.”
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