Walking towards where the Lutrinae contingent was waiting, the Tier 2 girl tried to make some small talk. “You have valiant warriors in the Felidae clan. I was forced to display my Feral form in the qualifiers by one of yours. A red-haired Tier 1 fire mage. It was a tough fight.”
My eyes widened. So, she was the one who had eliminated Gerard. Before I could reply appropriately, Bruno broke into the conversation gruffly, “You must have been foolish enough to stand still while he shot at you. It’s a wonder you got this far.”
I saw her jaw clench and a vein beat upon her forehead. I resisted the urge to cover my face with my palm. Bruno was really crabby today.
We spent the rest of the short walk in silence before we arrived at where they were gathered.
The member who had gone to talk to the authorities had returned with a bag of supplies required for drawing the contract.
I took it from him swiftly familiarizing myself with the implements while splitting my attention to study my subjects for today.
Normally, I would spend a lot of time familiarizing myself with their personalities and personal details in order to customize the marking to fit both of them.
A contract was a mark that followed the relationship throughout its lifetime and as such, it was extremely important that it somehow represented the participants of the contract.
Given my limited time and information, I could throw all that out of the window. I would have to resort to a technique every self-respecting artist hated but used quite often: patchwork.
I trawled through the archives of my mind, recalling every recorded contract mark I had read about in my master’s extensive collection of books.
Picking out the ones related to water and wind, for those were their elements, and accounting for their circumstances, I swiftly composed the mark in my mind.
When I was done, I nodded at them and they got ready.
The girl was quite tall and slender with shoulder-length chestnut-brown hair with a black lock of hair hanging in front of her face. She blew the lock out of her face and closed her eyes, agitating her mana to wash out her mindscape walls.
The moisture in the air condensed around her circling her in converging spirals till her entire body was covered in a film of water.
The sudden break-through had attracted everyone’s attention and they were discussing this sudden development in hushed voices.
The Lutrinae members and the commoner were poised to act as they waited for her to turn Feral.
Soon, along with the veil of water, a soft white radiance covered her as her Barrier took shape and she slowly began to shrink, her features morphing into that of an otter’s.
No sooner had she finished her transformation, with a command from the head of the contingent, the Husband of the Tier 2 girl, all of them concentrated their attacks on the otter.
With a flash of blue mana, it was over as the Barrier broke with the sound of shattering glass.
I wasted no time in getting to work. Having inquired beforehand that they wanted the mark on the backs of their hands, I asked the commoner, David, to channel his mana into his hand.
Pricking the tip of his index finger with a sterilized needle, I collected the mana infused blood in a vial before getting to work on the girl’s hand.
By this time the girl had already morphed back into her Bestia form, her Heavenly Silksnail protecting her modesty.
I couldn’t help but admire their level of preparation once again.
Instructing David to pour his mana into me in a steady stream by placing his palms against my back, I began painting the mark on the back of her hand with the blood as the ink.
Concentrating my mind to the utmost, I focused on the frequency of vibration of David’s mana. It helped that he was a wind mage and I had wind mana in my mindscape.
Every individual has their own frequency of mana vibration based on their personality and nature.
The reason only Hominum are able to create contracts is that they do not personally possess mana and thus, they have the ability to alter the frequency of vibration of any external mana source.
The contract is basically a means to cause the mana of two individuals to resonate at the same frequency. The closer their relationship, the stronger their bond.
As I felt David’s mana flow through me and I attuned myself to its vibration, I got an insight into his personality.
He was surprisingly cold and calculative in nature in contrast to his naïve behaviour. I guess someone who had crawled up to this height with his background had their own forte.
Instead of the elation and pride I expected, I found caution against the Lutrinae. Putting the clues together I guessed that he had probably obtained some fortuitous encounter.
Tales of commoners rising to glory after stumbling across a ruin from the age before the apocalypse or an expert’s corpse wasn’t unheard of. Tales of them dying young when brought to noble attention weren’t infrequent either.
He was right to be cautious… but in this instance it was a bit superfluous as any benefit they might unearth out of him was meagre compared with the benefit the Lutrinae could glean from a term as the Ducal clan.
And they were marrying him to one of their young Tier 2 women. He wasn’t being shafted in any way. In fact, he was reaching the sky in a single bound.
The fact that Tamers could read their subject’s personalities and surface emotions during a contract was a closely guarded secret. I had been only informed of it by my master after he had repeatedly tested my loyalty.
Even my parents had been kept ignorant. My master had told me dark tales of the revelation of this information giving rise to the enslavement of Tamers for their potential for espionage.
In fact, the closest example I could think of was the Tamer information net set up in the Heavenly Wolf Mercenary territory to weed out budding Alpha’s from their territory.
Thankfully, those in the know found it in their best interests to limit the information to lower everyone’s guard against their spies.
Thus, the Lutrinae team effectively gave me the chance to spy on the psyche of two of their members.
Connecting David’s mana to the half-finished contract mark, I drew upon the girl’s mana. She had just awakened from her stupor after being knocked out by her team and was quite groggy.
From her mana, I sensed acceptance and a strong sense of duty. It appeared she was the ‘the clan has raised me so I shall dedicate my all to the clan’ type.
Using my mana as a medium to link their mana vibrations and cause them to resonate, I added the final radical to the word ‘contract’ in the old language.
The radical gave a spin to the generic word which made it have the dual meaning of link and transaction. For, in the end that was all this farce of a marriage was.
What? I had a thing against love less marriages. This was but a small token of my disaffection.
The mark settled into her skin and a corresponding one formed on David’s hand. It was a surprisingly dark shade of pink.
It seemed that the girl had been mentally conditioning herself to accept the marriage and David was calculative enough to weight a relationship in terms of the benefit it could bring him.
Well, it wasn’t like many famous couples had started off in a marriage of convenience.
Wishing the newly-weds the best, I along with the Felidae team took our leave.
Leaving the Lutrinae contingent, I fiddled with the card they had handed me. Reaching a spot relatively devoid of people, Phobos set up a sound isolation with her Call of the Dark as we set about deciding the optimum distribution of cards to ensure the best performance.
Tucking an errant strand of hair behind her ear, Phobos spoke up, “This system of cards and duels is basically a test of our resource management skills, just as getting the cards was a test of our social ones.”
I nodded, “The best distribution of cards among the contestants from the same faction so that the overall rank of the faction is the lowest isn’t as simple as it might appear. There is a lot of psychological gambling involved as to which contestants might be inclined to block you with their cards, making challenging them a waste of a card.”
Deimos said, “Well, we won’t know which member has how many cards, ya. So, we will have no idea which of them plan to just defend their position. Some might have three cards on them to just block all challenges.”
Lionel finally added his voice to the conversation. “I believe that Lady Deimos…”
“Just call me by name, ya.” Interrupted Deimos. Shooting a dubious look at Bruno, she said, “We’re all friends here.”
Lionel’s expression was a bit softer as he began again, “I believe La… Deimos, should get by with the two cards she has and accept at least one challenge. The cards she has should be sufficient to reject the challenge of the one ranked at eleven and her second challenger… even if she loses the third challenge, she will only be set back by fewer than ten ranks.”
He paused to turn to Phobos, “The same applies to you, as you are ranked ninth. Challenging someone is an inefficient use of cards for anyone ranked within the top ten as they won’t be able to use it to the full potential, thereby jumping ten ranks.”
Pointing at Bruno, me and himself, he said, “Challenging is better suited for us since we are ranked lower.”
I agreed, “Yeah. I think that we should give the extra card to Lionel since he is ranked at thirty-three and his marriage and advancement yesterday means that he will be able to trick others who judge him by outdated information into accepting his challenge.”
Deimos said worriedly, “But, you’ll get challenged a lot… shouldn’t you take the extra card to block the challenges, after all, you earned it.”
Bruno snorted derisively, “Hmph! Cowards all of you. The cards are for challenging others, not to hide behind, shivering in fear. Where is your pride as a Felidae?”
Phobos frowned as she rebuked him sharply, “I said that this is a test of our resource management skills. You seem to have forgotten that mana is one of the resources you have to manage. I dare you to tell me that you can fight one opponent after another without exhausting yourself.
“The reason we have the cards is to sacrifice them in the stead of our mana and so we can choose our battles. A maximum of three challenges allowed to a contestant and two cards means that to defend our seat we have to fight only once and that one fight will be at our top condition.”
I spoke placatingly, “Yeah. No need to get all riled up. Look, none of us are really tacticians here. Compared to the water mages, we are totally outclassed. Whatever we thought of, they did too. They probably have memorised the character profiles of everyone here and have already drawn up tables to predict the probabilities with which we will accept or reject challenges.
“I think we should just stick to one fundamental plan and just go with it instead of arrogantly thinking we can outsmart everyone else. Bruno, you are ranked at fourteen, so I think that the best you can do is to actually defend your position.”
He narrowed his eyes at the implied instruction but didn’t affirm or deny it. I shrugged. That was the best I would get out of him.
I turned to Lionel and handed him the extra card. “Well, big guy, it’s up to us to rise in rankings. I will try to get into the top twenty. I am ranked twenty-second so I can do it if I win once. You on the other hand have to try and win twice.”
He nodded. “The first time, I will be underestimated, so I have confidence in winning with minimal mana expenditure. The second time won’t be that easy since my details will be out, but, I will do my best.”
I punched his shoulder lightly. “We’re counting on you.”
All of us hid our cards and Phobos withdrew her Call of the Dark, the mana loss a small price to pay for the tactical superiority the technique provided.
The half-hour was nearly up and I noticed several of the teams still huddled up within their own privacy barriers. The Lutrinae team was quite conspicuous with their community Water Veil encasing them like a dome of water.
I even spotted some competitors nonchalantly trying to spy on the conversations of the various teams with their magical techniques. I could practically see a dog-eared wind mage’s ears twitching as he tried to look uninterested in the ongoing discussion of a team which was huddled near him.
“Excuse me, do you have some time to talk in private?”
I was surprised by the sudden female voice that addressed me and I turned around to see who it was. Golden brown short hair and a ring of golden scales around her neck reminded me of my first opponent in the qualifiers.
Taking a closer look at her face and comparing it to his, I concluded that she might be some relative of his.
Taking my leave from my curious team, I followed her to a secluded spot some distance away and waited for her to speak. Was she going to berate me for beating her brother or swear vengeance in the tournament?
Without even a word, she just grabbed my hand and put a card into it, closing my fingers over it forcefully. I was dumbfounded for a moment before I gathered my wits and spoke, “I am really happy about your feelings but…”
“Idiot!” she interrupted me with a blush. “Who wants to marry you! I am doing this for cousin Marcus. Since you beat him, if you perform well, he benefits indirectly. Also, I am ranked fifty. I only made it here because one of your members went missing and they had to call up one of the top five-hundred. Since there is no one below me to challenge me, I don’t need cards as much. That’s the only reason why I gave it to you. Idiot narcissist. Hmph!”
She turned on her heel and marched away leaving me standing there with the card still clutched in my hand.
Awkward! I chuckled self-depreciatingly and rubbed the back of my head with my hand before turning around to re-join my team. Yeah… maybe, I was getting too full of myself. I put the card into my pocket.
When I returned, Lionel and Bruno had already left for their seats and only Phobos and Deimos were left.
Deimos in an uncharacteristically bold move linked arms with me ignoring the glare of the public eye while Phobos too captured my other arm.
“Master, its fine you know… to tell us, ya.” Deimos said.
Phobos chimed in, “We always knew the day would come.”
I felt a deep sense of crisis. “W-what?”
Deimos’ hand darted into my pocket and brought out the card. She brought it to her nose and sniffed once. “It has her scent.”
I wanted to obloquy, ‘Are you a dog!?’
Phobos tightened her grip on my hand, “We always knew there would be four others joining us. So, Husband…” she turned her yellow eyes up to mine, “She seemed like a nice girl… when are you planning to introduce us?”
My eyes twitched. What was I supposed to say? She gave me a card because I beat up her cousin brother? Whatever way you looked at it, it looked like an excuse.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of the golden-haired pangolin-blood snickering behind her hand as she watched us.
It was deliberate, wasn’t it!?
It totally was!