“You may rise. Take your seats and we shall begin today’s proceedings.”
Straightening up from my bow at the Emperor’s words, I turned to the empty seat he was gesturing towards. It was the third seat from the throne on the right side of the table. Apparently, the complicated state of our province hadn’t affected the seating arrangements. At least, for now.
The first four seats approaching the throne on both sides of the table were reserved for the Dukes or their representatives. The rest of the seats were for the twelve Families, putting them one step below the Dukes in the pecking order – a reminder that Regiis was still primarily a meritocracy.
The erstwhile representative of the South-eastern province had been deposed and detained for obvious reasons while the fate of the northern and western districts was up in the air. The most likely outcome would be the fusion of the northern district with the Eastern province and the western district with the Southern province while the newly formed South-Eastern Kingdom took the place of the dissolved province.
As Ceres and I made our way towards the empty seat, a servant hurried forward with an ornate chair and set it behind and slightly to the side of it before hurrying back to his position and standing at attention, joining the others by the wall. I noticed a three-stage trolley on standby in one corner of the room with a maid beside it, ready to serve refreshments whenever the need arose.
Greeting my neighbours politely, I pulled the chair back and took my seat as Ceres made herself comfortable in hers. I could feel all eyes at the table scrutinizing us, taking our measure.
All the men and women here were extremely accomplished mages. Not to mention the Tier 4 Heads of the Families, even the representatives of the Dukes were Tier 3 mages at the very least. The combined weight of their gazes was profoundly uncomfortable. I felt like an animal at a zoo and all I could do was straighten my spine, throw out my chest and project a confidence I did not feel.
But there was one gaze that was particularly potent, causing my scalp to tingle as though a thousand needles were pricking it.
Turning to the throne, I looked beyond it to the winged woman eyeing me with the gaze of a raptor. Her steel feathers glinted under the light and her iron grey eyes contained swords. I couldn’t feel the fluctuations of mana around her (something I could accomplish even with my soul sense restrained), signifying that her affinity was towards the Earth.
My eyes lingered on her metallic wings for a moment before I turned away. A special affinity then. A version of earth just as the Kitsune’s smoke was a version of flame. She was only the third person I had met with a special affinity after the Duchess and Ceres. Princess Artemis Valkyria, Sword Maiden. Her blood-soaked reputation preceded her.
I couldn’t imagine what taking a human life would feel like, even if they were criminals sentenced to die. Yet, she did it for a living. I couldn’t help the chill that ran up my spine.
The Emperor opened his mouth, “Now that all members are in attendance, We declare this Council session open.” He paused. “But before We present the first article in today’s Agenda, We would like to take the opportunity to welcome the newest member in our midst. Mars Felidae is an exemplary mage, pushing the boundaries of magic and carving out a new path where his peers are left blindly following the footsteps of their elders.”
Actually, I followed Master’s advice to develop external casting. Not much different from my peers to be honest. Just luckier in that I survived the shattering of my mindscape.
“Blessed with a staunch sense of duty, he penetrated the heart of a Forbidden Zone to face the horrors within.”
Oh my. I’ll blush if he keeps this up. Rather than a sense of duty, though, I feel that it was my desire to clear Ceres’ name and build her a place by my side that motivated me.
“And despite his youth and inexperience, his exemplary courage saw him facing down an injured ant Queen, delaying it till reinforcements could arrive and deal with it. With this heroic act, he paved the way to an unprecedented victory over the Calamity – driving it back with the lowest recorded casualties in all of history.”
Yup. That one was all me.
“When Our daughter heard of his deeds and accomplishments, she couldn’t bear develop some curiosity towards him, begging Us to let her attend this session.” Turning to me, he said, “We have read the reports of your spouse’s contributions to the logistics team during the war against the Calamity. We believe her competent enough to speak in your stead. As a father, We selfishly hope that you will humour Our daughter’s request and take a stroll with her.”
All the cogs in my mind came to a jarring halt, leaving me staring blankly at him for a moment before they began to whirr again crazily. In Regiis, when a father asked you to take a stroll with his daughter, it basically meant that he was interested in marrying her off to you. It was a way of forcing a dithering man into either accepting or rejecting a relationship. By proposing it in front of an audience, the social pressure would force him to decide. The ‘stroll’ was the only cushion time he would get. Seeing that the Emperor had proposed this in front of the entire Council, the highest legislative body in the Empire, he was dead serious about this.
No, no, no… I don’t wanna marry crazy executioner lady!
No wonder she was glaring at me like she wanted to bore more holes in me than in a block of cottage cheese. If her father was pressuring her into the marriage, it was natural for her to resent me.
And that probe by the aristocrats… it made so much more sense now. Rather than a demonstration of authority towards my parents, what if they actually wanted me to duel and lose against that Reinhart guy. That’d discredit me enough that I wouldn’t be in any state to marry a Princess. They wanted to prevent the Emperor from tying us up onto his political chariot.
Come to think of it, while Aeryn was King Corvus, first of his name; he too was originally a Pavone. The chains of causality began to grow clear in my mind’s eye as the fog of mystery lifted from them.
So, what now? Do I agree to the stroll and push the boat along? Or do I refuse and shame the Emperor and the Princess in front of the entire Council?
Oh, who am I kidding? Like I ever had a choice. I turned to Ceres. She was frowning with narrowed eyes as she regarded the Princess. Noticing my gaze, she turned to me and nodded slightly. I sighed internally. I could only hope that the Princess and I could work something out between us that would let us dodge this bullet out of the blue.
Standing up, I bowed to the Emperor. “Your majesty, it would be my pleasure.”