It was painful watching Bruno interact, or rather fail to interact with everyone else. I mean, why did he have that huge hammer of his clutched in his hand? Did he mean to threaten people into talking with him?
Looking around, I picked out another awkward figure among the mingling contestants. Lionel looked equally lost in a social situation, not surprising as he had spent all his life either in the gladiatorial pits or playing second fiddle to Messi.
Speaking of the pits, I saw him clutching his right shoulder with his left hand, the knuckles white from the applied pressure.
It suddenly dawned upon me that his reticence might have a cause other than social ineptitude. He might be having flashbacks to his days as a pit slave, what with the coliseum inspired stage.
I rebuked myself internally for forgetting to bring it up with Marquis Ursa when he had come around to solicit suggestions on the architecture of the stadium.
Feeling guilty, I immediately made my way to him when Phobos and Deimos had joined me after getting rid of the entanglement of the contestants who had tried to strike up a conversation.
Deimos, as the temporary leader in the rankings, garnered quite a bit of attention and Phobos had to rescue her from the crowd.
Lionel was startled out of his reverie by our approach, his muscles tense, a throwback to his time in the pits where being alert at all times was what often decided who would cross the thin line separating life from death.
Slowly extending my hand to him in a non-threatening manner, I held his shoulder firmly. I felt him finally relax, the tension in his muscles draining away.
Exhaling the last of the tension and stiffness, he spoke gratefully, “Thanks.”
The four of us weaved our way through the groups of people towards Bruno. From the corner of my eye, I watched Lionel.
At six feet tall, he outstripped me and after dealing with his mental block, he had relaxed greatly, his gait the confident prowl of a hunter. His years surviving in the pits had left wounds on him, both mental and physical, but they had scarred over, the new flesh and psyche much more tenacious than before.
He might be theoretically weaker than my first opponent in the qualifiers, but I wasn’t confident of besting him when it came down to a real battle. His battle-experience far outstripped mine.
The fact that he had been fortunate enough not to meet a Tier 2 opponent didn’t really mean that he was a soft target as most of the gambling houses were betting.
It just meant that his first opponent would lose badly due to underestimating him. Of this, I was confident.
Especially, after what had happened last night.
I turned my gaze to the stands. There sitting in the place reserved for the Felidae contingent, at their head sat a father and daughter pair.
The fifth elder and his daughter, Ororo Felidae, Lionel’s fiancée. No, after yesterday night, his wife.
Catching my gaze, the Fifth Elder gave me a nod of encouragement while the normally lethargic Ororo, waved to Lionel enthusiastically.
He waved back awkwardly and I smiled.
Lionel, the Fifth Elder and Ororo, all shared the bloodline of the beast known as the Puma. It had another name: Cougar. Women in their lineage matured late and were notorious for being attracted to younger men.
When the First Elder had brought the sixteen-year-old Lionel back from the pits of Sparta, Ororo had instantly taken a shine to her formerly enslaved clansman. He had been a bundle of nerves and insecurities, his imagination painting ever more fearful images of what his new masters wanted from him the more kindness that was showered on him. His body, trained within the jaws of death, responded to his paranoia, the only way it knew how… violence.
When everyone was at a loss on how to erase his mental scars, Ororo stood, snorted disdainfully, marched up to him and proceeded to beat him thoroughly into the ground.
She might have been spoilt rotten by her doting father and quite lax in her exercises but, she was already eighteen then and at the peak of the first Tier. She was lazy, not lacking in talent, and Lionel, for all his battle experience was still a mundane boy, yet to awaken his magic.
After that, he had followed behind her buttocks like a duckling behind his mother and at some point in time, they had fallen in love.
The blessing of the Earth was closely tied with one’s willpower and that was something the leisure-loving princess Ororo seriously lacked. Thus, even when the time came for Lionel to leave for the competition, she had yet to awaken at the age of twenty.
Yesterday night, the first thing the Fifth Elder had done after catching up to the capital hurriedly from the Felidae estates was pay me a visit, requesting me to join his daughter to Lionel in holy matrimony.
Apparently, the guilt at having provided no help to Lionel in the competition had caused Ororo to set a firm resolve to concentrate on her training and the spike in willpower coupled with her late-maturing genes finally kicking in had catapulted her into Tier 2 and she had subsequently turned Feral.
Thankfully, her father had been there to supervise her and had subdued her. They had already been hurrying along towards the capital when they met the messenger sent by Father to the clan about his advancement.
I wasn’t naïve enough to believe that my skills were why he had invited me to draw the contract for his favoured daughter. It was clearly an attempt to win my favour after it became clear which way the political winds blew. He was jumping ships.
I sighed at the memory. Really, clan politics sucked out my soul. I questioned myself once again whether I really wanted to be the Head.
Oh well, in this case I wasn’t complaining. Even though the results of the Calligraphy and Painting competition ranked me at thirty-three, just behind the most prominent news-painters and Tamers in the province, it wasn’t enough to get me a high-level commission for my services as a Tamer.
Thus, I was glad to accept the Fifth Elder’s favour if it meant I could create my first ever contract for someone other than myself.
Contracts had a lot of limitations on who could be the contractor and who the contracted. There was a lot of technical complexity involved in the process such as mana frequencies and mana resonance. But, to put it simply, the Tamer had to have a mana density very close to or higher than the ones he was joining in a contract.
While the rules were a bit relaxed when it came to any contract involving myself, it was extremely challenging to perform the ceremony for Lionel and Ororo who were at the peak of Tier 1 and initial Tier 2 respectively while I was at merely two-thirds of the mana density of Tier 1 peak.
But, I was proud to recall that the final result was the best piece of art I had ever created. The design meshing perfectly with Lionel’s slave brand on his right shoulder, inverting its very significance. Together the contract tattoo read ‘endure’ and ‘free’ in the old language, a perfect summary of his life and characterizing his element.
After his contract, he too had broken through Tier 2 and boosted by the contract and aided by his battle-experience, he was going to be the greatest wild-card in the competition today.
We finally made our way to Bruno’s side where he was awkwardly loitering at the edge of the gathering.
Seeing us approach, he straightened up, throwing his chest out in a subconscious display of bravado. My lips twitched as I tried to hide my amusement. But the amusement soon faded when I noticed the same vacant look in his eyes that I had seen in the mirror. It was the look of one who had lost his goal. With father’s advancement, all his efforts were futile. I suddenly felt bad for him.
There were negative reports about his surly behaviour after his battles at the arena during the qualifiers and coupled with his domineering attitude and inexperience in interacting with anyone other than his lackeys, everyone gave him a wide berth.
What with Lionel’s stoicism, Deimos’ crippling shyness and my dearth of interaction with my peers, the Felidae contingent was a merry band of misfits.
Only, Phobos seemed well adjusted and comfortable in a social atmosphere, although, most of that came from her not giving a whoop about what anyone thought about her.
I sighed. Well, at least we could decide a plan of action among ourselves. Thoughts about our purposes in life could come later.
“Ahem.” Clearing my throat to mitigate the stiff atmosphere, I spoke, “After Steven’s last moment disappearing act, there are five of us in the finals. Since, one of the Duchess’ representatives lost in the final day of the qualifiers, that places us just one seat behind them,” I waved my hand at where the primate clan team was gathered, “and on par with the Primate clan. The Ursa clan has four representatives while the Delphinidae have the least representatives at three.”
Phobos chimed in, while tying her hair back into a ponytail and tucking it in within the collar of her heavenly Silksnail tunic to keep it from getting in the way during a fight: “The Lutrinae clan have managed to field five of their participants in the finals. Their clique of five Earls has managed three each and in one case, four, for a total of sixteen participants. That, along with the Lutrinae contingent makes up twenty-one seats. The remaining six seats are filled with unaffiliated Earl representatives, in one case, the representative of a Baron and even one un-attached commoner.”
She pointed at a chestnut-haired boy who seemed to be profoundly out-of-sorts in polite company. Fumbling with words whenever any of the girls exchanged pleasantries with him or the boys came up to congratulate him upon his success.
Even though they had been disdainful of his bid to grab the press’ attention, the contestants didn’t snub him, for to make it here with limited resources, he was surely extremely talented or had experienced some fortuitous encounter.
By the end of the tournament, he would be invited to join one of the aristocratic families as a branch member and a marriage would possibly be bestowed upon him to tie him up to the clan.
Apart from Phobos and Deimos, I noticed two other girls only wearing their Heavenly Silksnail. A clear indication of their Tier 2 status. Due to Vita’s Divine power, crystals didn’t work on females; thus, any girl in Tier 2 was either extremely talented or like Phobos, had done something foolish to have awakened so young.
One of them was in the Duchess Vulpine’s contingent while the other was part of the Lutrinae team. The men they stood beside were most likely their husbands and in a situation similar to Lionel.
I saw the Lutrinae team walk up to and encircle the commoner and after a few moments of discussion, one of them went off to the edge of the stage to talk to the organizers while the Tier 2 girl walked up to us.
She directly addressed me when she reached us, “I believe you are the son of the erstwhile Marquis. I’ve been told that you are capable of performing the duties of a Tamer. Would you be interested in performing them right now?”
She turned sideways, giving me a clear sight of their team where the only other female in their team was talking to the commoner and he was looking pleasantly surprised.
My eyes widened as I comprehended the situation. The Lutrinae were really pulling out all the stops. They wanted to marry the commoner immediately to the girl, thereby adding him to their team. She had probably suppressed her realm using some technique and was momentarily ready for her breakthrough and therefore Feralization.
If she met some tough opponent in the qualifiers, she could advance and then beat him or her. If she didn’t, like what ended up happening, she could choose to marry any unaffiliated commoner that might have made it to the finals thereby bolstering their team.
The way the finals worked was that at the end, the factions would be ranked by the number of participants they had managed to field in there. The factions with the same number of participants would be further ranked by their cumulative ranks. The faction with the lowest sum of ranks was ranked ahead.
With this move, the Lutrinae had six participants, on par with the Vulpine team. Thus, they would have a shot at becoming the Ducal clan.
Their request placed me in an awkward position. My professional ethics demanded that I fulfil their commission, yet, I was closer to Duchess Vulpine than Countess Lutrinae. Helping them went against my personal relations.
Suddenly, Bruno who had been silent all along spoke up gruffly. “Why should we help our competitors? What’s in it for us?”
The girl narrowed her eyes at him. He stared back undaunted. A tiger flinching from an otter? What a joke!
Finally, she relented and turned to me with a fake smile. “Of course, we shall pay for your services. How does a card sound? I think that is what you need the most now.”
I considered it for a moment before nodding. Rather than being paid post-tournament with coin and resources, I’d much prefer a card, which could translate to more resources for our clan. Father’s promotion meant that we got to keep our title of a Marquis clan, but the resource distribution among the four Marquises was still decided by the tourney.
The Lutrinae didn’t care about that since by inducting the commoner into their team, they would automatically rise above our bracket.
So, they couldn’t be bothered if we won in our grouping. This way it was a win-win situation as I avoided offending the Duchess as it was a decision for the good of the team and not a personal one and also, I could avoid publicly shirking what, by Regiis law, was my duty while the Lutrinae got what they wanted.
In my mind, I raised a thumb to Bruno’s brash personality.