Ushered in by the maidservant waiting for me at the foyer, I was taken to the dining hall via a secluded secret passageway. This procedure confused me quite a bit since I had entered through the main gate and anyone who bothered to keep watch on the Keep would have noticed my entrance.
My doubts were soon cleared when the maid led me into a secluded room which had a pinhole connected to one of the lavish oil paintings in the dining room. Soon, one eye of an artistic depiction of the First emperor was replaced by mine and I had a clear view of the room.
There I saw the Fire mage who had ranked seventh in the competition. He was chatting animatedly with the Duchess’ husband while she was reclining on a chair, auditing their conversation.
Sensing my gaze, she looked up and winked at me covertly, caressing one of her ears with her finger. Taking the hint, I laid my ear against the aperture and manipulated the wind to amplify the sounds.
A few minutes of eavesdropping made the situation clear. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one invited today. My brows furrowed as I took a hit to my self-respect. Although I had been apprehensive about the marriage, I had been under the impression that I was the only one being considered.
The main reason I had come here despite the inherent risk was because I felt flattered by how highly the Duchess esteemed me in picking me as the exclusive groom for her child. Apparently, that had been wishful thinking.
Stepping back from the pinhole, I was just about to ask the maid to guide me out when the oddity of my current situation struck me and I hastily closed my half-open mouth and grew pensive.
If I was but one of many candidates, then why was I allowed to spy on another of my competitors? Would it not make much more sense to just keep us separate, an eminently simple task as both the timing and location of the invitation was proposed by the Duchess.
Even though I racked my brains, I could not figure out her schemes. It wasn’t until the boy finally took his leave that I was called for. As I followed behind the maidservant, I knew that whatever the case, the worst possible way to react would be to storm out indignantly like I had been about to do.
Maybe the maidservant had even been tasked to record my reaction, a test of self-control to see whether her daughter was getting a level-headed man or an impetuous brat as her suitor.
The Duchess beamed at me when I strode into the dining room and saluted them respectfully. “Well done Master Mars, my vision wasn’t faulty after all. To keep your cool in the face of a blatant slight and to try to ravel the hidden intentions behind it, truly impressive.”
Embarrassed by such high praise, I spoke to deny, “Not at all, I have yet to understand why talks of marriage were conducted with the young man who just left and why, by the looks of it, the talks were successful. In terms of schemes, I am far inferior to you.”
Her husband walked up to me and gripped my arm at the wrist and shook it when I responded in kind. Patting my shoulder, he grinned as he spoke, “Well, that makes you even more suitable for our beloved daughter in our eyes. What parent would like a silver-tongued conman as their daughter’s suitor?”
He continued, “As for the boy who just left, we did agree to a marriage contract with him, but the bride is not our daughter but a member of the clan who recently awakened at the age of nineteen.”
Leading me to the table, he offered me a seat. The Duchess, who had gone to the bar at the end of the room, came back with three glasses of chilled lime juice. I thankfully accepted a glass, glad she had remembered that I was a tee-totaler and didn’t touch alcohol.
She picked up the thread of conversation from where her husband had left off. “We are quite selfish individuals. As the leaders of our clan, we should put the interests of the many over our personal benefit, but, unfortunately, we aren’t the paragons of leadership our clansmen seem to believe. For the sake of enhancing our daughter’s safety, we have put several innocent girls at risk.”
She waved to the door the young man had just left from. “You are not the only one marrying a Vulpine maiden in the coming days. We have nearly exhausted our clan’s reserves of unmarried women who have shown the possibility of awakening, sending them all over the province in a web of diplomatic marriages while inviting similar reciprocation from the other clans for our men. Your marriage, as just one of many, will be inconspicuous. Our daughter will be safer.”
I felt profound admiration at her political acumen. Not only had she managed to obscure her daughter’s true location, she had done it in a manner which would integrate her clan deeply into the aristocracy of the south-eastern province. If the Shogunate wanted her daughter, they would face the combined wrath of the province as lacking confirmation of her features, any of the maidens being married off could be her.
The thing about inter-bloodline marriages was that except for extremely rare cases, the child would possess the denser of the two bloodlines carried by their parents. Usually, due to Vita’s divine influence, that would be the mother’s bloodline. So, in a few years, most of the clans in the south-eastern province would have little foxkin running about their courtyards while a veritable zoo would be taking shape in the clan creche of the Vulpines.
The bond between the clans would be even tighter.
As for the exceptions, I happened to be one as a pure Hominum male and any of my children would resemble their mother. Even rarer were the hybrids, such as Mules, a combination of the horse and donkey bloodlines, and Ligers, the fruit of the union of a lion and a tiger. Sadly, they, while possessing various characteristics from both parents, were infertile and thus, hybridization was considered a birth deformity and more often than not, the unfortunate children ended up abandoned in orphanages.
The Duchess took a sip from her more alcoholic drink to wet her throat before continuing, “The only thing you need to be careful of is her second tail. As kitsune, our tails are closely linked to our power. While they amplify our magical abilities, they paint a very conspicuous target. If they ever get exposed, the game is as good as over. I hope that if you do choose to marry our daughter, you will be mindful of this at all times.”
She tilted her head back and drained her glass in one draught. Placing the empty glass down on the table with a sharp clink, she leaned forward as her eyes bored into mine. “So, the most important question. Have you decided? Have you set a firm resolve to claim our daughter as yours?”
I straightened my spine. After the meticulous preparations of the Duchess, any misgivings I still had were indistinguishable from cowardice. They had chosen me to be the partner of their treasured daughter out of the many excellent youths of the province. Who was I to decline their goodwill.
I bowed deeply to the both of them, “Please!”
The Duchess’ husband stepped up to me and raised me by my shoulders, drawing me into a hug. “Good.” His voice quivered with emotion. “Our daughter finally has another home to return to.”
“Are you certain?” asked the Duchess. “Once you see her, there is no going back.”
I nodded confidently. “I take my promises very seriously. I shall answer your trust, or die trying.”
She breathed out heavily. “Haah. Looks like the day finally came for our daughter to belong to others.”
Looking at me she smiled warmly and walked out of the room, beckoning for me to follow. As we walked down the labyrinthine corridors of the Keep, I noticed that the floor was sloping downwards. We were heading towards the basement.
As we walked, she informed me of her daughter’s situation. “Ceres has always been cooped up within the confines of the castle since her birth. For fear of assassins, we kept her isolated from her peers. So, she grew up with only us and books for company. Her words are scarce and her nature reticent. Never having interacted with her peers she is seriously lacking in social skills.”
She turned to me, “Your task will be a difficult one. Bringing her out of her shell and getting her adjusted to society will require the support of someone she can absolutely trust. That person will have to be you.”
When I nodded my assent, she smiled, “Worry not. Our baby is not just a bundle of problems.” She puffed up with pride, “You won’t find a child more intelligent than her in all of Regiis. She’s read every book in the library from cover to cover and remembers every word. She has a brilliant mind for strategy, never having lost a game of Kings and Soldiers against her father over the years. I’ll have you know, husband was one of the foremost strategy crafters for the Empire during his term of service.”
We reached the end of the corridor and an ornate wooden door stood in our path. The entrance to the library. With a hand on the handle of the door, the Duchess said, “And her Incense Flame is stronger than mine was at her age. It will be a perfect match for your Wind and Shadow mana. You can combine the three elements to tread down the path of an Illusionist… but you can figure that out on your own.”
She paused momentarily before continuing, “Ceres has already awakened. We have been subduing her whenever she turns Feral. If you choose to enter, you won’t be leaving till the both of you are wed. All required supplies are placed within the room. This is your last chance to back out.”
I was quite taken aback at the sudden information that I had to get married immediately. I had thought that today would just be a day for me to meet her. But once I thought it over, the reason for them springing it upon me so suddenly became clear. It would be an additional assurance of my sincerity if I was irrevocably bound to their daughter…
Ceres… That was her name. I stared fixedly at the mahogany door before nodding decidedly.
The door swung open and a delicate fragrance wafted out, twining around my body, drifting into my nostrils, giving me the misconception that I had arrived at a field of flowers rather than a hall full of towering shelves chock full of well-preserved parchment and leather-bound tomes.
My eyes were drawn to the clearing in the maze of bookshelves.
There, curled up on a couch, wrapped within her twin tails was a fairy descended to earth. Her flowing long hair, in stark contrast to her mother’s pristine white tresses, was a dark reddish-brown, tending to black. Her locks lay across her shoulders, tousled by long hours of reading, setting off her pale complexion from years of indoor living.
Yet, her lips were a bright shade of red, adding a dash of colour to finish a nature’s masterpiece. Her tails burnt with transparent heatless flames that released tendrils of smoke that wound around the entire library, and twined around her form making her look even more ethereal.
Startled from her book by the sound of the door opening, she looked up and her gaze met mine through her reading glasses.
Dark slanting eyes that added definition to her elusive features looked right through me as if I didn’t exist.
The Duchess and I were silent as she walked up to a cupboard and set out the contract supplies.
Ceres’ eyes followed me as I walked up to her with the implements.
Pricking my finger to draw blood, I dipped the specially created brush in the crimson liquid and knelt in front of the girl who would soon be my wife.
Her eyes finally focused on my face, widening in surprise and I realized, belatedly, that she was extremely near-sighted. It wasn’t that she was ignoring me, she just couldn’t see my face. My height and crimson hair being quite similar to her father, she might have mistaken me for him, explaining her dull reactions.
Her eyes fell upon my bloodied brush and then travelled back to my face before the light of understanding dawned upon her.
I saw her fingers clench and relax a few times on her book before she shot a glance at her mother before, finally, nodding at me to proceed.
Inhaling deeply to focus my mind, I took in the scent of her mana engendered in the smoke that originated from her Incense Flames. The mana in my mindscape grew restless as the smoky mana permeated through its walls, spreading over it, mingling with what was already there.
In that moment, I got a read on who she really was and her feelings at the moment.
Surprisingly, I felt no rejection or the resignation to marrying a stranger that I expected. She seemed calm and mildly curious. The smoky mana conveying a confusing mass of emotion that seemed to shift from one to another never really settling down long enough for me to get a read on it.
Unbidden a few words emerged in my mind…
Smoke within a Dream.
My hand was still, only my wrist moving, drawing the brush along in smooth arcs as the same words took shape upon the top of her foot in the lettering of the old language.
As the last stroke tailed off, the top of my right foot stung as the contract marking formed, consummating our bond.
Ceres haltingly reached out with her slender fingers and gently touched my hair.
Her voice was so soft that if not for the utter silence of the library, I would have missed it.
“So,” she said, “you’re real?”