Fiddling with the token in my hand, I leaned back into the soft embrace of the sofa in the living room of our apartment. Recalling the Legate’s instruction, I pulsed my mana into it in a particular frequency causing the hidden patterns etched onto its surface to glow.
Handing this token over to any major military outpost at the end of the six-month preparatory time period would announce my status as one of the participants of the Swayamvar and they would deliver me to the location coded into the pattern on the token.
There, I would start my first trial: The Trial of Earth.
The token in my hand was the colour of light clay with the symbol for earth embossed into it. The material it was made out of felt extremely smooth to the touch and conducted mana quite well. Even with my alchemical experience and regular perusal of obscure tomes, I had not the foggiest clue as to what the material might be.
Another barrier to counterfeiting, I supposed.
Thinking of military outposts reminded me of Father. It would be a great opportunity to pay him a visit with the excuse of turning in my token. Given the outpost he was serving at was a bit out of the way, but nobody specified that it had to be the closest one to me.
I’m sure Mother would be thrilled to meet the newest addition to our family. Speaking of Ceres, it was but three hours past noon, she was scheduled to arrive at our apartment when the clock struck five.
Although Phobos and Deimos had been a little put out by my returning home one contract wealthier, they had soon come around when they heard of the circumstances of the matter. Phobos, while still concerned about being targeted by ninja, had decided to support me in my decision. Deimos, the compassionate girl she was, had immediately grown sympathetic with Ceres’ closeted childhood. Right now, the both of them were preparing the house to receive our new companion.
Phobos was in charge of the food while Deimos busied herself cleaning and arranging the bedroom. When I had offered to help, they had shot me down citing the need to keep the preparations a surprise even from me.
So, here I was idling, letting my thoughts wander on the days to come.
The Swayamvar had caught everyone off guard, except, that is, the Duchess, if my speculation about her plans was correct. The reason being; it was four years too early.
The methodology followed in order to select the Heir to the throne was quite crude. It wasn’t through some elaborate competition that tested every aspect of an individual, nor was it through popular vote.
Emperor Adam had apparently left behind a mysterious technique which could only be practised by a woman with the purest bloodline and extreme talent. Successfully learn the technique; congratulations, you are now the Heir to the throne.
Over the years many winners of the Swayamvar had become Emperor, yet, no matter how much they might have questioned the logic of this sort of arbitrary selection before their ascension to the throne, afterwards, no attempt had been made to alter it.
This gave rise to the conception among the public that the technique was some uniquely powerful method and as long as it existed along with a queen capable of harnessing it, nothing could shake the foundation of the Regiis Empire. Which, honestly speaking, went a long way in fulfilling the duty of the Emperor.
Which was to be a figurehead, a mascot for the Empire.
The eldest child of the Emperor, Princess Artemis, had failed to learn the technique. His second child, his only son, Prince Apollo was the wrong gender to be allowed to even try. Princess Venus was the last hope for a member of the Emperor’s bloodline to succeed. If even she failed, the opportunity would pass on to the branch families of royalty.
She had not only succeeded, she had blown everyone’s expectations out of the water by doing so four years earlier than scheduled at the age of fourteen. Right, she was yet a child. I had no idea how Duchess Vulpine had obtained her information, but everyone else had expected that even if the Princess succeeded, she would do so at the age of eighteen when her bloodline was concentrated by her Feralization.
That was the reason why so many of the noble clans had pulled out all the stops in this iteration of the competition, unhesitatingly devaluing their lands and going into debt to get their contestants up onto the stage of the finals, hoping for a promotion in their rank so that they could use the increased resources to train the next batch of talents in preparation for the following joint Martial Tournament.
They wanted a chance to have one of their clansmen ascend the throne. For that, they had been willing to gamble.
The Swayamvar was a four-year long process. Under ordinary circumstances, the Princess and her suitors would all be eighteen when the Swayamvar started and it would end with her marrying her chosen one during the next festival of the Grand Sabbath at the age of twenty-two.
Now, she would get married at eighteen. These four years for her would probably be filled with all sorts of lessons in order to train her up into the ideal queen. Well, not like that mattered much to me. I was in the game for the chance to travel the land and experience the unique challenges provided by the Swayamvar.
Every participant of the Swayamvar was allowed six retainers with only three allowed in the beginning for their first three Trials with three more allowed to join after the midway point had been passed.
This meant that nearly all of the crème of the crop of the Empire would be busy travelling the lands and gaining experience during the following cycle. Which was one of the major functions of the Swayamvar, training and excavating talent.
Many of the high ranking civil, political and military officers of this period had their roots in the previous Swayamvar. Their exemplary performance causing the higher ups to mark them out as candidates worthy of entrusting heavy responsibility.
Marrying the Princess? I had just married yesterday. I had yet to even consummate my relationship with my wife. Let alone, I had ranked twelfth only within the south-eastern province. To win the Princess’ heart, I would have to triumph over the heroes of all the rest of the provinces as well.
While I was self-confident, I liked to believe, I wasn’t narcissistic, or stupid. Setting my goals too high seemed to be the behaviour of an overconfident, narcissistic fool. So, despite whatever designs the Duchess might have, I was just going to treat this competition like a four-year long honeymoon.
The sound of a carriage being drawn up in the courtyard permeated through the entrance, breaking my train of thought. The neighing of horses and the clacking of their iron-studded hooves against the stone of the pavement alerted me to their halt in front of our home.
It seemed like Ceres had arrived.
Deimos came running out of the bedroom, hastily untying her apron and fixing her dishevelled hair just as Phobos hurried out of the kitchen. Phobos had some flour stuck on the tip of her nose, otherwise she was immaculate.
Prompted by a sudden impulse, I leant forward and licked it off her nose, causing her to cry out in surprise and step back blushing. She punched me crossly on my chest but there was no force to the blows. I knew I had made her a bit unhappy with my hasty actions but, looking at her now, it seemed that most of her disaffection had disappeared.
I think the surprise present of the mithril fans I had planned for her would be able to deal with the rest. I caught Phobos’ hand mid-punch and pulled her into my embrace while spreading my other arm for Deimos.
She grinned and jumped into the group hug before we separated just as there was a knock on the door.
The three of us exchanged glances before walking over to the entrance side by side. Opening the door, I saw the same maid who had guided me last night standing outside while behind her stood a gorgeous white and silver palanquin pulled by a beautiful white mare.
Saluting the three of us, the maid walked back to the palanquin and led Ceres out by the hand.
The sight of her took my breath away.
She was wearing a black kimono in plain silk with a milky white obi tied around the waist. Only one of her tails was visible outside, swaying as she tried to balance herself on unwieldy wooden clogs. Her hair was done up in a ceremonial bun and a chain of lilac flowers was pinned into it near her foxy ears.
For some reason, she wasn’t wearing her glasses and her kohl-lined eyes were wide open as she tried to compensate for her faulty vision, making her already striking eyes even more prominent.
The lilac paper umbrella she used to keep off the sun tinted the rays that fell upon her and combined with the smoke wreathing around her, she was a sight to behold.
Hearing Deimos’ suppressed squeal and catching the shine in Phobos’ yellow eyes, it seemed even my girls approved.
I smiled as I stepped forward to meet my bride. It seemed that tonight would be one to be remembered.