Steven was bored out of his mind.
It had been a fun party for the most part and he had especially enjoyed interacting with so many girls his age. The ones in the clan always seemed to give him a wide berth for some reason.
But, now, with Boss gone back to his room to train, Messi and Lionel off somewhere conveying the regards of the First Elder to some dignitary or the other who he had befriended in his long life, and Gerard more interested in the food than the company…
Yes, he was bored.
Talking was fine and all but the girls were like lotuses on a still pond, the more vigorously you swam towards them, the faster the waves from your approach pushed them away. One mention of making deeper contact, maybe an appointment to tour the local markets together, and they would become evasive in their wordplay.
Oh, he was an aristocrat too and had thus had polite speech drilled into his noggin since his childhood. But keeping up with the silver tongues of the female populace here was impossible.
A few minutes of conversation would leave him feeling grateful for having his proposal of a date rejected by them.
After all, nobody here wanted to commit to any intimacy before the results of the competition was out.
What if the handsome devil flashing his charming grin at you turned out to be a martial dunce who couldn’t figure out the right end of a sword.
As a warm-blooded male who wasn’t getting any action between the sheets while all his friends were set up with engagements, he thought that he was justified in expecting something more substantial than just words.
Well, except Boss, but he wasn’t sure if Boss didn’t enjoy the training more than he would intercourse.
Now, it had reached a point where the girls started moving away whenever they saw him approach. Just like back in the clan.
Was it his face? Shouldn’t be. He had checked in the mirror often enough and though he might be a little bit shy of the pretty-boy Messi or the regal Prince, he was pretty sure he was a looker.
The girls back home said his smile was creepy. The smile he had diligently practised in the mirror to be the epitome of roguish charm.
They had no taste.
So, there he was, isolated and left with no choice but to stuff his face and people watch.
The Regiis empire’s aristocrats were one big happy family. Years of intermarriage and an uncertainty of which lineage would birth the next Emperor were driving forces behind the amicability maintained between the various factions.
Why? The Great-Grandfather of the current clan Head of the Felidae clan had served as the Emperor once upon a time.
Even the smaller nobles like the Earls had a shot at supporting their scion as the Emperor. The lack of a glass ceiling and an unimpeded rise channel were the core tenets upon which the empire was constructed. They were what set it apart from the other nations that had been founded afterwards.
Theoretically, even a commoner could become the Emperor in his lifetime, just very unlikely in practise.
Speaking of other nations… Steven picked out another figure among the bustling crowd, who seemed isolated and incompatible with the atmosphere.
Using Shadow Stealth to dull his presence slightly, a reflex born of his experiences while peeping at the female baths, he gave the man a once over.
A bushy grey tail and furry wolf ears spoke of his bloodline relation to wolves. Wolves? There weren’t any prominent clans with lupine bloodlines in the south-eastern province. Where did he come from?
When he noticed the jade pendant at his waist, he realized who the man was. A cultivator from the neighbouring kingdom of Huaxia.
For there to be cultivators here meant that the situation at the border with the Tokugawa Shogunate was deteriorating fast.
After a millennium of self-contained and self-sufficient development, the war machine of the Shogunate had finally begun to rotate with the death of its previous ruler.
The new Shogun was a man who wanted to leave his name in history and had taken the Reign Title of ‘Heaven’s Chosen Son’, revealing the depths of his ambition.
He had issued a manifesto that they were the legitimate rulers of the Continent and as such they should occupy the position of the holy land where the first empire was birthed.
They were in the process of mobilizing troops to invade the Regiis empire.
Gerard’s father griped enough about the coming war that even he was well-informed enough to connect the dots between cultivator presence at the annual competition and the war.
Despite there being historical bad blood between the Shogunate and Huaxia due to the former having occupied the latter for nearly half a century before the internal rebellions had become too much to suppress, there were sure to be a few cultivators who fought alongside the Shogunate.
The Regiis empire was probably trying to balance the scales with cultivator mercenaries.
After all, there was no cultivator that couldn’t be bought with elemental stones. If they were refusing you, you just weren’t using enough.
Huaxia, was less of a nation than a loose agglomeration of Sects that governed the land under their control like feudal lords. The country’s internal policy could basically be summed up as a nation wide turf war where Sects squabbled among themselves for the tiniest bit of resources.
The strong ruled and the weak served. The destiny of a person was decided at birth by the density of his or her bloodlines and commoners were like cattle to be exploited at the whims of those in power.
The lower stratum of society produced while the upper class continually consumed resources in their endless quest for strength and martial prowess.
Eternal conflict was their way of life.
Steven weaved his way through the crowd and approached the man who was sitting at the bar in the corner and nursing his drink.
He nearly faltered at the strong smell of alcohol as he approached. The man had somehow bullied the servant into bringing him higher proof alcohol rather than the gentle wines that had been provided by the host.
Now he knew why the people weren’t approaching the man. Ensuring that no one was watching, he used Shadow Stealth on his face to lightly blur his features. Combined with the man’s state of inebriation, it should be enough to keep him from recognizing him afterwards.
Bracing himself against the odour, he approached him with a friendly smile plastered on his face.
“Hello, friend from afar, why do you drown your sorrows in drink this fine evening? Can it be that our host has been inconsiderate somewhere?”
The man shot him a sidelong glance before drawling out, “Your people are strange, your customs are strange and your wines are weaker than water. This Young Master only seeks familiarity in what he knows best… strong wines and buxom women… although, here, the latter seem to be too frail to touch, protected by endless customs and etiquettes.”
He sighed and returned to his drink. Steven took up the seat beside him and poured himself a glass of mild wine, more like grape juice than any alcoholic beverage.
“Young Master, you seem to imply that women in your homeland are different?”
“Different. Naturally, they are different. Women are meant to serve their man, supporting him and relieving his needs. I have no idea how your abomination of a society came to be… letting a woman lead a province. Insane… all of you are really insane.”
Steven wanted to criticize him that it was his society that was the abomination but he stiffly swallowed the interjection down.
He had to hastily cast a limited version of The Call of the Dark to dampen the sound and lock it within an area around them as the man continued, drinking faster, his face flushing red, growing louder and more animated as he spoke.
“Women back home know their place. Why take so much trouble to play word games with them. Their purpose is to serve us and bear our children. Reading, writing, the more you teach them, the more they expect. You people must be treating them like gods if they don’t attack you right after going Feral.”
He shook his head condescendingly, “Give them nothing and they will be content with their lot. Such a simple truth made so difficult to understand by all this gender equality nonsense.”
Steven’s eyes twitched. Their values were totally different. Though, he did wonder how the cultivators managed to keep their contract mark dark and still be profligate. Probably a combination of indoctrination of the women and a lopsided treatment between the wife and the concubines.
He always did have fantasies of having a harem like a Hominum but the cultivator’s version seemed a bit too dystopian for his tastes.
Taking a sip of his beverage to calm himself, he looked around the hall and his eyes fell on the Second Princess holding sway over her audience of nearly ten girls in the opposite side of the room.
The ice princess seemed to have turned social butterfly for the night as she browbeat her company into submission with a frosty expression. He didn’t know what the topic was but seeing her refer to her marking gave him the general idea.
Only the topic of the Prince could get her to say more than a few words.
Suddenly, he felt really jealous of the Prince for living his dream. While he was here speaking to an uncultured boor, he was locked in his room with the newly awakened First Princess doing everyone knows what while his other wife was defending his honour in the ballroom.
It was unfair. So, taking a look at the drunk cultivator, he decided to play a prank on the Second Princess.
Turning around to the man who was now staring blankly at the ceiling while taking occasional sips from his glass, he said, “Young Master’s perception is like a torch. Our customs indeed give too much leeway to women. But let us leave such gloomy topics… what kind of women do you prefer?”
The man’s apathetic eyes lit up. “Ha-ha. That is a topic to my tastes. You may call me Young Master Lupin. My preferences? Why, buxom women of course. Nothing beats the allure of a large chest. Those who claim to like their women with smaller assets might as well say that they like men.”
Good, now another push. Steven said, “What about girls a little to the younger side of the spectrum?”
Young Master Lupin frowned, “They cry and scream too much and then there’s the blood. Not my type… though a lot of people like that sort of thing.”
Steven’s eyes nearly bulged out of his socket. He had just asked to lead his line of thought. He didn’t expect that he had been talking to a paedophile. He started having second thoughts. Was it really alright to unleash this thing on the Second Princess?
Remembering the situation of the Prince with a flower in each hand, he forcefully depressed his disgust and continued, “No, no Young Master. You misunderstand. What I meant was… what if a girl had a younger face coupled with the stature of a seductress? Wouldn’t the innocence coupled with the immorality turn you on?”
“That… that would actually work. Huh. You my friend have great taste. Ha-ha.” Laughing heartily, he slapped Steven’s back repeatedly, nearly causing his fake smile to slip.
He suddenly turned morose. “But, friend, those women will always be reserved by the old fogies in ‘closed-door meditation’ who claim to want to reach immortality, but in truth, live out the last days of their life abandoning themselves to hedonism.”
Smirking inwardly, Steven rotated his chair so he was facing the direction where the Second Princess had settled down to have her meal.
He didn’t even have to say another word as the man grew enamoured at the very first glance, walking up to her swaying unsteadily, causing those in his way to recoil from the strong stench of high-proof alcohol.
Reapplying his Shadow Stealth and wiping his sweat from the strain of maintaining The Call of the Dark for so long while still at the first Tier, he made his way to a good vantage point to view the drama.
He grabbed a plate of fish strips as he passed the buffet table, settling down with his back against a pillar as he admired the view while snacking on the strips. He idly wondered what the Delphinidae, the Marquis family with the bloodlines of dolphins, thought of seafood.
Everything went just as expected at first with the Princess slapping the inebriated fool. Then things started going awry as he burst out with magic in the crowded hall.
Even on the opposite side of the hall, Steven shivered as he felt the air stagnate, influenced by the Clan Head’s anger.
When Young Master Lupin’s head was crushed like a melon, he dropped his plate as a deep chill ran up his spine.
Only one thought remained in his mind as he turned Shadow Stealth on to full power and made a beeline towards the exit.
If the Clan Head knew of his involvement, it would be his head next.
Out in the adjoining garden, he slowly adjusted his rapid breathing as the cool evening air blew on his forehead, evaporating the close beads of cold sweat that had seeped out.
It was fine. Nobody had noticed him talking to the Young Master. He had been careful to blur his face the entire time so even if they had noticed, they wouldn’t be able to identify him accurately.
He was safe. His head was safe.
He breathed out a sigh of relief and relaxed…
… only to stiffen as he felt the sharp point of a dagger press against his back.
A soft melodious voice spoke into his ear, making him shiver at the warm, moist breath and the lilting cadence.
“Should I thank you for getting my foolish little brother killed, I wonder?”
Steven wanted to cry.
‘Mama, Papa, it seems your son has dug himself into a pit too deep to escape.
It was quite a short life but he loved you very much.
And Papa, it’s your fault he’ll die a virgin.’