Sinking into the soft cushions of the couch back in the privacy of our apartment, I let out a tired sigh. It had been a long day, what with the resource distribution followed immediately by the award ceremony. Especially the conversation with the Duchess.
I looked back over my shoulder to where the girls were talking about something at the entrance. Trying to think up a way to bring up the topic in an appropriate manner was giving me a headache.
Deimos kicked off her shoes and ran to the washroom ignoring Phobos’ indignant cries. Phobos huffed irately, adjusting both her and Deimos’ shoes neatly before coming up to the couch and settling down beside me.
Placing her satchel beside her, she leaned against me. Urged by a sudden impulse, I wrapped my arm around her waist and dragged her into my lap.
After a surprised squeal, she gave me a smile, resting her ear against my chest while clutching my collar with a hand as she sat across my lap.
Hooking one of her slender legs through the handle of her satchel, she brought it within her reach and brought it into her lap. Opening it, she took out our rewards for our positions in the Tournament.
The first ten had been given medals carved out of crystals corresponding to their own elements. Deimos had obtained an Aeolian crystal while Phobos had been awarded an Umbral crystal. It was an extremely practical gift as even though the crystals couldn’t become a direct boost to their powers due to Vita’s divine power running through their veins, they could be exchanged for a substantial amount of resources suited to them with the clan.
The crystals could be used to seed two new mines of wind and shadow stones. The crystals just had to be placed in some area that was rich in the corresponding strain of mana and they would cause the mana flow in that area to centralize on them, further enriching the density of that particular elemental mana, causing ordinary stones to evolve into elemental stones by absorbing the mana.
I planned to obtain the materials required for Deimos’ Specialization in exchange for the two crystals.
When a mage advanced to Tier 2, they had the option to Specialize. There were two directions they could choose to go: power or control. As the terms suggested, a Wind mage Specialized in power would be able to create much stronger gusts for the same amount of mana expended while one that Specialized in control, would be able to thread a needle with their masterfully manipulated streams of wind.
Of course, there were Generalists that kept their abilities balanced which allowed for more versatility, letting them skip the prohibitively priced procedure required for Specialization. But, you would never see them become anything more than mediocre within their peers.
Actually, the choice to Specialize or not was heavily determined by the element one possessed. For example, in the case of shadow mages, Specialization in control meant that one could Shadow Walk extremely accurately, within millimetres of their desired goal, yet, the improved accuracy came at the cost of the distance they could travel for a given amount of mana.
If, on the other hand, a Shadow mage Specialized in power, they would be pass in and out of shadows much further from them, but, their movement would become erratic. As, both were really bad handicaps to have for assassins, most shadow mages were Generalists.
Fire mages on the other hand felt ashamed to call themselves true moving artilleries unless they had Specialized in power.
Deimos, obviously was going to Specialize in control to emphasize her speed even further. Like me, she too practised the Thunderclap Samsara Palms, but, her version was more focused on agility and hit-and-run tactics to harass the enemy into making a mistake so a finisher could be delivered.
I felt bad for Phobos for having to give up her reward, though she herself probably didn’t care. I looked down and saw that she had unwrapped my reward, a trophy made out of Mithril.
As the best mana conductor known to man and possessing extreme toughness, they were the first choice for spiritual weapons. The trophy had enough material for a pair of daggers, or to create the edge of a long-sword.
I set firm resolve to look up the best blacksmith in the capital and have him or her re-forge her fans with the metal before we returned to the Felidae Estates. Since she had already formed her contract, I could lock the weapon to her mana frequency with my contract magic, making it useless to anyone who stole it unless they forged it again.
This was another way in which Tamers could earn their living, ‘marrying’ weapons to their owners.
My thoughts drifted to the rest of the rewards handed out. The ones ranked between ten and twenty had been given a Mithril trophy similar to mine. Those ranked between twenty and thirty had obtained a trophy made of Orichalcum.
Opposite in properties to Mithril, Orichalcum was the best mana insulator known to man and combined with its extreme toughness, it made for the best defensive equipment. Although, the lack of mana permeability meant that it couldn’t be locked to the owner.
Ranks thirty to forty had been awarded Adamantium trophies. The material possessing the same toughness of Mithril or Orichalcum without the mana-based properties of the two.
Forty to fifty had Sky Iron trophies. Contrary to its name, the metal was anything but light, in fact, Bruno’s hammer-head had a Sky Iron core. The jet-black material which was obtained from meteorites was extremely dense and even a tiny piece could weigh kilograms.
Beyond the top fifty finalists, the top five-hundred had also received trophies made of platinum, gold, silver, copper and quartz based on their ranks.
Deimos walked into the living room from the washroom, wrapped in a towel while she dried her hair with another one. Despite the washroom being large enough to fit all three of us, we generally bathed separately, she was probably arguing with Phobos on who got to have the first turn.
She flopped down onto the settee opposite to us, which in her current state of undress ended up revealing large swathes of ‘scenery’. From her mischievous grin, that might have been entirely intentional.
When Phobos made to get off my lap, I sighed and pulled her back by my arm around her waist. I had been trying to procrastinate by letting my mind wander off on tangents but the time set by the Duchess neared and I couldn’t delay the conversation anymore.
Looking down into Phobos’ yellow eyes as she looked up at me curiously, I said, “Today, I received a proposal of marriage.”
Her eyes widened and she sat up in my lap and narrowed her eyes. Deimos who was lounging in the chair too, sat up straight as her ears pricked up attentively.
Phobos poked my chest with her slender finger and said, “So, Husband, you have finally decided to come clean. It’s that girl, Emily, right? Now are you going to tell us how you went from acquaintances to lovers within days?”
I protested indignantly, “No, no, no. It’s not her. I told you that she merely gave me the card for her cousin’s sake and for the sake of her clan. She had no intention of marrying me. And, even if she did, I wouldn’t hide anything from the both of you!”
Phobos suddenly pressed her palms against my cheeks and swooped down to steal my lips, robbing me of words. Her tongue pried open my lips and invaded my mouth, tangling with my tongue.
When she drew back, resting her forehead against mine and looking into my eyes, a thin line of saliva connected us both.
“I know,” she whispered in her husky voice, “I trust you with my life.”
Deimos wrapped her arms around my neck from behind me and rested her chin on top of my head. “Master, Phi-Phi was just teasing you, ya. Don’t get so hot and bothered.”
I relaxed. Having them doubt me, even for an instant wasn’t pleasant.
Deimos tilted her head and continued, “But, if it isn’t that pangolin, who is it?”
Phobos too looked at me curiously, so I told them of my conversation with the Duchess and her proposal of a marital alliance with her daughter.
“The Duchess’ daughter!?” exclaimed Deimos. “Is she as pretty as her mother? Does she have those same tails? I always wanted to touch them but asking the Duchess was scary… but if she is going marry Master… He-he.”
My eyes twitched. Why did my marriage seem equivalent to buying a plush toy when Deimos spoke of it?
Thankfully, Phobos was more serious. Releasing my cheeks and getting off my lap to take a seat on the couch beside me, she asked, “Husband, while her pedigree and the political significance are beyond question, have you met her already? Is her temper suitable to co-exist with us harmoniously? Most importantly, have you thought through what contracting her will entail in terms of your mana composition?”
Intertwining the fingers of one of my hands with Deimos’ I spoke, “Actually, I’m going to meet her at dusk. The Duchess has invited me over to dinner.”
Phobos’ eyes grew a little sharp, “Only you? We aren’t invited?”
I nodded apologetically, “The Duchess didn’t want her daughter to be seen by too many people in case I decide not to marry her. You know that she has unclear relations to the Shogunate and now that we are on the verge of war, some disadvantageous rumours about her are spreading.
“One of the agendas of the Shogunate is to gather all the Daemonic bloodlines to create a bloodline based aristocratic system. Their current Shogun even has the bloodline of Nurarihyon and he seeks to recreate the Night Parade of a Hundred Demons. Traditionally, the Kitsune, the nine-tailed foxes, are the brides of Nurarihyon.
“There have been several attempts to abduct her and smuggle her to the Shogunate. Some of the perpetrators have been foolhardy mercenaries who wished to curry favour with the Shogun. But, in the recent year, worryingly, attempts have been made by ninja from the Shogunate.”
Phobos’ eyes widened in shock. “Ninja! Aren’t they the personal espionage unit of the Shogun. If even they are going into action, isn’t marrying her going to put you in a lot of danger?”
Deimos’ arms tightened around my neck, “Master, forget it, ya. It’s not worth it. Let someone else shoulder the danger. If even the Duchess is at a loss, what can we do?”
I squeezed her hand, finding it clammy from her cold sweat. I spoke reassuringly, “I brought up these very same concerns with the Duchess. She assured me that no one except she and her husband have actually ever laid eyes upon their daughter. It is the same reason why she didn’t participate in the tournament. The only thing distinctive about her appearance is her two tails, otherwise, she is indistinguishable from other Bestia with the bloodline of foxes.”
Gently prying off Deimos’ hands, I stood up and made my way to the door. “Even if I were to marry her, she would marry me under the alias of another member of the Vulpine clan. As far as anyone will know, the Duchess’ daughter will still be cossetted away within their estate. This way, her safety actually increases.”
Wearing my shoes, I put my hand on the doorknob. Pausing, I said, “Anyway, it won’t hurt to attend the dinner and meet her, now, will it? After all, she is the Duchess and such an intimate alliance with her will be good for the clan no matter how clandestine the relation.”
Phobos and Deimos saw me off with worried looks. “Husband/Master, be careful.”
As I walked towards the Duchess’ keep, I smiled as I shook my head at their unnecessary worries.
Besides, what was the worst that could happen?