“Well, that was one hell of a day,” sighed Ceres as she sank into our living room couch bonelessly.
We were back at our apartment. Most of the meeting, according to Ceres, had been about the integration of the Northern and Western districts of the dissolved South-eastern Province into the neighbouring provinces, as well as the strategy and logistics for forming the battle-lines surrounding Shogunate-occupied-Regiis.
It was mid-afternoon now and we had already partaken of lunch at the Palace; a delicious spread of the best cuisine the Capital had to offer. I sank into the chair beside her and she leaned her body against my side. I wrapped an arm around her waist and she cuddled closer, resting her head on my shoulder and pressing her forehead against the side of my neck.
“You can say that again,” I agreed.
Right after the banquet, Princess Artemis had publicly challenged me to a duel for her hand in marriage. It was to be held next week. The venue was one of the Trial grounds within the Imperial Palace premises – more specifically, one of the underground arenas. It was to limit our mobility as we could both fly. We would also have an audience. Who exactly that would be was unclear, but at least all of the aristocratic families and most of the major associations (merchant, adventurer, academy) would send representatives to watch, in the Emperor’s words, ‘a duel between two of the most talented youths in the Empire.’
There was no one at the apartment when we returned. Phobos was still at the Library while Deimos had left a note on the living room table informing us that she had accepted Lara’s invite to visit the Salamandra household and check out their training grounds.
Deimos was really enamoured with the half-dragon lady, treating her like a friend, a sister and a mother all rolled into one, and Lara had responded right back. The both of them were thick as thieves.
I couldn’t help but feel sad at the realization that I would never be able to fill the gap in her heart left by the loss of her parents. To a certain extent, Deimos treated my parents like hers, but it wouldn’t ever be the same. A bit of the void would always remain. I was glad that she had found an older woman to interact with, especially one as open and guileless as Lara.
This line of thought reminded me of Artemis’ story. The princess was actually suffering from something akin to survivor’s guilt. She had been saved while others like her still suffered. Why should it be her and not them? What had she done to merit such providence? Those questions were what drove her to saddle herself with a grand mission to justify her privileged existence.
If she was the one who rescued her entire race from their plight, then her being chosen would mean something.
Really, a troubled young woman. I sighed. Then again, we all had our inner demons, didn’t we? Turning to the side, I planted a kiss down upon Ceres’ head and squeezed her tighter. Among my wives, she alone had already faced down and vanquished her demons; wagering, and nearly losing her life in the process.
She turned in my embrace and looked up at me, those liquid cinnamon eyes of hers aglow with affection. Wrapping her arms around my neck, she kissed me gently on my lips before rubbing her face into my chest.
“Husband,” she whined. “Must you marry that odd woman? She glares too much. I feel like I won’t like her.”
Hugging her tight, I placed my chin on top of her head and replied, the position causing each of my words to end with a click of my teeth, “That’s some inflated confidence you have in me. She is a Hand of Justice. She is supposed to be the cream of the crop among Tier 3s and you are automatically writing her off?”
Giggling, Ceres squirmed out of my embrace and rubbed the top of her head. “Heh. Stop it. It tickles when you do that.”
Her expression growing serious, she looked me in the eye and said, “Husband, you brought me back from the brink of death when a Tier 4 peak healer working together with a Tier 5 mage were at a loss. You barely had the capabilities of a Tier 2 then.”
“Husband,” she stated categorically, stressing every word, “in my eyes, you can do anything.”
You know the feeling you get when you look up on a clear, moonless night and see the galaxy arcing across the sky? Or the feeling of standing at the summit of a mountain, or a really high building and looking down at the world stretching out before you? A giddy rush of excitement coupled with an emptiness in the heart. A sense of achievement juxtaposed upon a reminder of your insignificance.
Ceres words made me feel that way. I was proud that she thought of me so highly and utterly terrified of letting her down.
With a gentle smile and without another word, she wrapped her arms around my neck again and returned to the previous posture with her face buried into the crook of my neck. I revelled in the silent companionship, in the faint fragrance of spice wafting off her, in the feel of her heart beating against mine, separated by little more than nothing.
Reluctantly, I broke the silence.
“Even if I can win, what makes you think that I would even want to? I’m perfectly happy with the number of wives I have. Honestly, I would hate to force the princess into something she so clearly doesn’t want. I could just throw the duel.”
Her warm breath tickling the skin of my neck and her short hair brushing against my chin, Ceres countered with a question of her own, “Could you throw the duel convincingly under the eyes of mages with as much experience at the top brass of Regiis? And if they caught on, wouldn’t it be a huge insult to the Princess that you detest the concept of marrying her enough to violate the honour code of the duel?”
She shook her head. “No, going easy isn’t an option. You need to fight with all your might. Show them what you can do, open their eyes and drum up prestige… And what better way to do that than winning, and marrying the Princess?”
“Wait! Hold your horses, girl. Didn’t you just hear me say that the Princess doesn’t want to marry me? If she loses, she’ll have to. She proposed the duel after all.”
“Hmph,” snorted Ceres dismissively. “How dare she not want you? The silly goose just doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Take me for example: I came with ulterior motives into the marriage. That’s objectively worse than her situation. And look at me now. It didn’t take even a year for you to make me willing to discard my life for you. You underestimate your charm, husband. She’ll get over it.”
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.