Reinhart Pholidota walked into one of the training grounds of the Imperial Palace. Though Imperial Estate would be a better moniker with how much area it occupied. Not only did it house the current members of the royal family, it also contained the three most important administrative buildings of Regiis: The Hall of Meetings, the Hall of Justice and the Hall of Fame.
The Hall of Meetings was where all the central legislative assemblies took place; where old laws were amended, and new laws were promulgated to ensure the Empire kept abreast with the times. The Hall of Justice was subordinate to the judiciary; a supreme court where all disputes unable to be solved at the lower courts were finally arbitrated. The Hall of Fame, as its name suggested, was a place where the subjects of the Empire who had contributed greatly to its advancement – be they martyrs on the battlefield or magical researchers – were commemorated.
The training ground that Reinhart had entered doubled as a Trial ground – a place where Trials by Combat took place. It was a large rectangular field with no grass cover. Shallow pools of water dotted the field, glistening in the early morning sunlight and training posts and dummies were scattered about. High walls surrounded the field, and on the side from which he had entered, seating arrangements had been prepared for the witnesses for the Trials. One of the duties of the Emperor was to serve as a witness for every Trial for criminals at Tier 3 and above. Some Emperors of Regiis – the more battle-focused ones – had taken it one step further by personally serving as Hands for Tier 4 trials.
Reinhart took a seat at the very forefront of the stands and turned his gaze to the centre of the field where a girl was seated cross-legged in meditation. Her expansive pair of wings wrapped around her like a cape. Metallic feathers reflected the light of the sun like tiny mirrors, casting scattered highlights on the ground all around her. Sun-kissed reddish-gold curls framed her downturned face as she breathed evenly with her eyes closed. Her sleeveless martial attire stopped short of her navel, revealing her lightly muscled arms and the lines of her visible abs. Skin-tight leggings hugged her thighs, emphasizing their tight contours.
She held an unsheathed sword in her lap with one palm under its hilt and the other under its tip. If one looked closer, they would notice that the sword was vibrating lightly, releasing a low whine. The metallic feathers of her wings buzzed in tandem with it, amplifying the uncomfortable sound that made the listener feel as though they were being stabbed by a thousand swords.
A Tier 3 Hand of Justice, one proficient enough to be allowed her own nickname. At only twenty years of age, one of the youngest to have that honour. The First Princess of Regiis: Sword Maiden, Artemis Valkyria.
Gripping the hilt of her sword, she rose to her feet. Taking a step forward, her eyes snapped open as she twisted her hips and slashed diagonally upwards from left to right. Her sword caught the sun, painting an arc of light in the air as it passed through a training post in front of her. Without a backward glance, she turned around and sheathed her sword in one smooth motion.
With a downward beat of her wings, she took off into a glide that brought her towards the stands. Flaring her wings at the last moment, she shed her momentum, descending a few feet from Reinhart.
A mischievous glint flashed in her iron-grey eyes as she looked the boy up and down. “How was your nap, little Rai?” she teased with a grin.
Reinhart smiled back crabbedly. “Eldest sister, can we not talk about that?”
“But that’s what the entire Capital has been talking about.” Reaching forward, she pinched the seated boy’s cheek. “About how our little Rai sleeps like a baby.”
The Pholidota heir batted her hand away indignantly and massaged his smarting cheek. “I’m just one and a half years your junior. I’m not a kid anymore,” he complained. “Don’t pinch my cheeks… or call me little.”
“Heh.” She chuckled. “You’ll always be little Rai to me. Just accept it.” Leaning forward onto the railings in front of his seat, she looked him in the eye and asked more seriously, “Why did you do it? Was it you, or did the old sticks-in-the-mud push you into doing it?”
Reinhart sighed as he leaned back into his chair. “If father gets to know that I tell you everything, he’ll tan my hide. Your dad and mine are supposed to be political rivals, you know?”
Reaching forward, Artemis flicked his forehead with a finger. “Shut it, Rai. You know I don’t tell dad a thing you tell me. I just want to ensure that you aren’t being pushed into a pit.”
Rubbing his forehead, the boy gave her the stink eye. “Why must you be so violent? Every time I talk to you, I leave with a red face.” Seeing her raising her finger again threateningly, he hastily continued, “Anyway, it was a clan directive. They weren’t feeling very happy about your dad capitalizing on the opportunity to set up another hereditary nobility – especially when the noble in question turned out to be your long-lost uncle. You know that the position of the Emperor is mainly nominal in nature. They see this coronation of a new king as your father abusing his post to seek benefits for the Pavone family.” He hesitated a bit, then asked in a low voice. “Is this true? Is his majesty really doing this for his clan?”
Artemis sighed. “Yes. Uncle Corvus and father never really got along and if you are talking about merit, then the Felidae family far outstrips him. if anything, Mars Felidae should be the one appointed King. Especially if the reports of his prowess are true.”
Reinhart scoffed. “Hah. You really believe that? You know how low-key your Uncle Corvus is. Even when his cousin became Emperor, he didn’t contact him despite how many benefits that might bring. And from the reports, he was present both for the Dungeon exploration and the fight with the ant Queen. It’s more likely that he shifted his merits onto the Felidae boy to hide himself from the spotlight. Unfortunately, he was noticed by your father.” He paused. “Well, I admit that he does deserve some praise for that trick with the mind crystal where he amplified the spells of all the fire mages and helped keep the Calamity at bay. But… that isn’t deserving of a Commendation!” He clenched his teeth. “If he didn’t hide behind that abnormal wife of his, I’d have revealed his false face in front of everyone. That vixen’s Aspects and the circumstances of the duel were total counters for my skills.”
Stopping his tirade, he asked hesitantly, “Was his Majesty serious about marrying you to him?”
Straightening up, Artemis raised her hands above her head and stretched from side to side before bending backwards till her spine popped. “Haah… that’s better. Dad wants to draw the Felidae into our camp. He’s pretty serious about having me marry him… That’s pretty much the reason why your clan sent you to duel him. If he was exposed as a fraud publicly, this marriage would have no way to go through.”
“And you’re fine with that?!” exclaimed Reinhart, shooting to his feet. “But I…”
Artemis interrupted him by clapping a palm on his mouth. “Shh. Let’s not make things awkward, yeah?” she pleaded in a soft voice. “Rhea has been delaying her cultivation for you to avoid turning Feral. Don’t disappoint her regard, hmm?”
Noticing the stubborn cast of his eyes, she sighed again internally before taking her palm away and turning her back to him. “Anyway, I made Dad concede that I’d only marry him if he could beat me in a duel. We’ll see soon enough if he is all talk when I fight him.”
She started walking away, her words drifting to him with the wind. “I’m the Sword Maiden, Rai,” she said. “I’m married to my sword.”
With a hard beat of her glimmering metal wings, she shot up into the sky, raising a ring of dust on the ground. Soon, she was a shining dot in the distance.
Reclaiming his line of sight, Reinhart walked up to the training post in the centre of the training ground and prodded it with his finger. The top half of the post – an ironwood pillar wrapped in steel wire – suddenly slid sideways along the diagonal cut and clattered onto the ground. Leaning over the face of the cut, the boy could see the fuzzy reflection of his face grinning back at him.
He didn’t care if she didn’t mean it that way, but to him, Artemis’ final statement had sounded like a promise to wait for him… because the Sword Maiden hadn’t lost a duel in her life.
End of Volume.