“You lucky people with furry tails will never understand the pain of those of us with reptilian bloodlines in winter,” bemoaned Lara with an envious glance at Ceres’ tails as she sat in a seat opposite us with her tail in her lap. “Especially you! All you have to do is wrap those things around you and you can be toasty and fashionable at the same time. Me? I need to work myself into the ground to keep my tail warm. Woe betide me if I go around with my tail on fire like my brothers. Its cool and macho when they do it. It demonstrates their control over their element, they say. But if I try, then I’m not being feminine enough. Haah. You won’t believe how hard it is to stop myself from just pulling on a woollen sheath for my tail and wear this.”
She pointed at the black fishnet stocking she was wearing on her scarlet tail, bows tied with black silk ribbons lined the spine of the tail. It did look fashionable. It also looked cold.
She was wearing a black tailcoat over a white shirt. The back of the coat was bifurcated to avoid her tail and on her lower half, she wore a knee-length black skirt, stockings, and flat-bottomed shoes with heels. A white lace stole was thrown over her shoulders, covering her chest and neck.
Laravel Salamandra, in one word, was loquacious. Give her a topic and she could ramble on and on, chatting a mile a minute with animated gestures. If I didn’t know better, I would have labelled her a wind mage. Flighty, whimsical, and she never seemed to run out of breath.
We needed to get her back on track if we wanted to go anywhere today.
Raising her hand like a child in a classroom, “Can we get back on topic please?” pleaded Phobos.
Lara stopped mid-spiel. “Oh! I’m so sorry,” she apologized, rubbing the back of her head in embarrassment. “I got side-tracked again, didn’t I? Bad habit of mine.” She put her hands back in her lap and sat up straight. Putting on a serious face, “Please continue,” she invited.
Shaking her head wryly, “We have a bit of a problem. We forgot to bring any money with us,” said Phobos.
“That’s much more common than you would think,” said Lara, dismissing her worries with a smile. “In fact, it’s so common for people to arrive at the airport without cash that the central branch of the Imperial Bank of Regiis was set up here.”
Picking up the leather briefcase she had brought with her, she opened it and extracted a folded map of the Capital. Spreading it on the table between us, she circled a point with her finger. “This is the airport.” Then another point close to it. “This is the hotel we are in.” Finally, she pointed at a spot nearby. “And here we have the bank.”
Leaning back in her chair, she said, “We can make it our first stop. As the representative of a vassal of the Empire, you can withdraw funds up to the credit limit – which is the same as the annual tax paid by your territory. Your spending will be adjusted in next year’s tax invoice.” She smiled. “What else do you think happens when a representative sees a swanky new topology that they absolutely must have for their territory but are strapped for cash?”
All of us shared looks before I broke it to her. “We… none of us have accounts at the bank and I don’t have father’s account details either.”
Her face fell. “Oh… creating an account will take a whole day. I could guide you through the process and you’ll have to create an account sooner rather than later anyway. But…” She sighed. “It will be a real bore.”
That was disappointing but it seemed necessary. I was just about to agree when she supplemented: “Or… you can use this.”
She rummaged about in her purse and brought out a jet-black card. I knew that it was something extraordinary at first glance because according to my mana senses, there was absolutely nothing there – a void of mana in the world. It was like the material was pushing all the ambient mana away.
“What is it?” I asked curiously.
“It’s a VIP credit card issued by the Imperial Bank. See this?” She showed me one side of the card. There was a grid drawn on it with all the numbers from 0 to 9 printed with a silvery inlay. “This is a keypad where you can enter the account number of the recipient.” She flipped the card to the other side, revealing a similar keypad, this time with the inlay in gold. “And here you can enter the amount you want to pay. I don’t know exactly how this works but I’ve heard that there’s some mind crystal technology involved so you can use this card all over Regiis. There are only like… a dozen of these cards issued and there is a dedicated operator sitting at the central office in charge of the transactions made via these cards. At all times. So, no matter where or when, you can pay for any service you want as long as the seller has a bank account.” She grinned. “And the best thing is that there is no credit limit. Just pay me back later.”
“This card… is it your grandfather’s?” I asked surprised. For the Sunlight Soldier to hand over something like this to her… how important is she to him exactly? And for the Salamandra to send her to us as a liaison… they were being sincere enough.
“Yup! The old man really dotes upon me,” confirmed Lara with a bright smile. “But the problem is that he can get overprotective sometimes. Why? He nearly scared the ghost out of my husband before our marriage.” She chuckled. “He was nearly too scared to touch me afterwards.”
“You’re married?” asked Deimos.
“I am! I’ll take it as a compliment that you think that I’m young enough to not be.”
“Ah, no… I didn’t see a mark and I just thought you’d be the kind to… flaunt… it…” began Deimos before her voice trailed away at the end. “Oh.”
I winced. Damn it, girl. You don’t ask a woman why she’s hiding her mark… or even point it out. What a landmine.
Lara’s eyes widened as she hastily waved her hands. “No, no, no. Don’t misunderstand. We’re really happy in our relationship.” She lowered her head slightly and blushed. “I was a bit embarrassed is all. Hehe.”
Reaching up, she pulled down the stole she had covered her chest with, revealing some of her cleavage as her shirt was unbuttoned to the third. There, right on her sternum, was her mark. It was beautifully crafted with the words ‘sun’ and ‘shadow’ in the old language written in a circle. The radicals of the letters pointed outwards like the rays of the sun. It was a dark red.
“You’re pregnant.” I blurted out.
Although it was the darkest it could be, the mark seemed like the ink had run while creating it, making it fuzzy. I didn’t believe that someone like her couldn’t afford a skilled Tamer to craft her mark. The blurring was simply an indication that her mana signature had some sort of interference. Rather, there was another mana signature interfering with hers. The blurring was slight, so she wasn’t too far along in her pregnancy.
Lara nodded shyly.
Sitting forward in her seat, “Shouldn’t you be resting or something?” asked Deimos concerned.
Tuning to her, Lara beamed. “No, no. It hasn’t even been a month. I’d grow crazy if I had to sit at home for nearly a year.”
She glowed with happiness. Literally, with an orange glow seeping out of her pores as her mana reacted to her emotions. I guess that’s what it means to have a compound element of light and fire. Your emotions become hard to conceal. Especially when they are so intense.
I noticed how the attitudes of the girls changed drastically with the revelation of Lara’s impending motherhood. I sighed internally. Really, sending a pregnant woman to contact with two orphans, a girl whose mother could leave her at any moment, and their husband… especially when the woman was someone as inherently charismatic and likeable as Lara…
Maybe I was reading too much into this, but I had a feeling that it was a deliberate ploy by the Salamandra family. Well, though it was a bit manipulative, it also showed their sincerity as I could feel that her status wasn’t low. Haah, politics. I guess I could give them a chance to prove themselves our allies.
As I returned from my thoughts, I found that the topic had shifted to the paraphernalia of pregnancy. The curious girls were grilling the overwhelmed Lara for information. I felt kind of awkward… like I shouldn’t be here. I also had a weird feeling; like some important life decision was being made for me.
“… well, the best time to bear a child would be the peak of Tier 3. At that point, your mana is the densest and can positively influence the child. But, if you wait till Tier 4, things get really troublesome as your bloodline fuses with your mana and can negatively affect the child. Let alone, if you and your husband don’t belong to the same bloodline, after Tier 4, the both of you won’t even be able to conceive due to bloodline repel,” said Lara.
Quite interesting. I didn’t know that there were so many factors that needed to be considered.
Suddenly, inspiration flashed past in my mind. I tried to grasp it but it slipped away like water through the gaps of a clenched fist. Pursuing it doggedly, I finally caught it. From what I had learnt about bloodlines from Isabella, sacred beasts passed down their souls through their bloodlines to their descendants as a form of inheritance. It helped them understand their Aspects much faster… like they were remembering forgotten knowledge rather than studying anew. If they followed the same path as their ancestor, that is.
But there was a very small probability that enough of the bloodline and soul fragments would gather in a single individual that it gained semi-sentience. That was what had happened to mother. The bloodline would then actively try to influence their bearers.
If remaining at Tier 3 peak was the best for a child, then mother must have been delaying her cultivation. Which meant that she had been delaying fusion with her bloodline. And in the meantime, without mana cultivation to keep her occupied, she had been focusing on her Aspects – on her personal spell: Pestilence. A spell that went totally counter to the bloodline.
Could it be that the bloodline had removed her ability to give birth so that she would stop delaying her promotion and fuse with it, thereby increasing its influence on her?
Wait! Mother had become barren right after bearing me. What if… what if I hadn’t been born a Hominum but a Bestia instead? What if my bloodline had been extracted to strengthen mother’s, turning me into a Hominum and increasing its ability to affect mother.
This was all wild speculation but it made sense. I had been wondering why I had an affinity for light and water without contracts with wives of those elements. What if I had been born with the affinities, had them stripped of me and then regained them when I contacted soul cultivation?
No… even before that! If mother no longer had a bloodline blocking her ability to conceive… My eyes widened.
Looking up, I interrupted the conversation of the girls: “We need to get to a communication tower. Now!”