The sun had set and the moon yet to rise. Glowing with a soft blue iridescence the waters of Patera lake reflected the stars in the cloudless skies.
If Dies had ever regretted the absence of stars in the day, then the sight of the pinpricks of light reflected on the glowing lake would make up for his regret.
Containing large deposits of fluvial crystals, the lake was one of the largest producers of water stones in the empire. The blue glow was due to the water mana in the surroundings concentrating in the region.
The magnificent sight drew tourists and businesses alike and after the trade tariffs they charged, the lake was the city’s second largest source of income.
A cloudless night like this one had drawn a large number of people to the lakefront, the sounds of conversation and the happy screams of children filling the night.
Strolling by the lakeside, with Ceres keeping pace silently by me, I was in no mood to appreciate the beauties of nature. My emotions roiled within me, making me clench and relax my fist as I tried ineffectually to calm myself enough to ask the right questions.
I didn’t want to raise my voice against her… Who was I kidding? I obviously did, but that wouldn’t resolve the problem, only provide an outlet for my pent-up emotions. Taking deep breaths, I fell into the rhythmic pattern Father had mentioned in his guide to reach the Void.
While it didn’t let me relinquish my emotions, it muted them enough that I could handle the following conversation rationally.
“Husband, did you know, I have been waiting for you for the longest time.” Ceres’ soft voice punctured the tense silence between us just as I made to speak, causing all my mental preparation to crumble.
“How should I know!?” I growled out, barely managing to keep my voice down as I came to an abrupt halt.
She stopped too, turning around to face me. Instead of surprise at my tone, Ceres’ expression was one of calm. Glinting off the lake, the starlight illuminated her expression with fuzzy ripples that added to her air of mystery. The reticent bookworm was gone, replaced by a strange woman who bore my mark.
Once again, a wave of sadness washed over me. I had been drugged and hypnotized into making a decision that would haunt me all my life. I felt violated. I was angry.
“Grandmother raised our clan to the status of Marquises. Mother is a Duchess. Then, logically, what should I aspire to in my life?” Her calm voice once again broke my turbulent wave of emotions, making it collapse ineffectually. Without waiting for my answer, she continued, “Royalty!”
She spoke rapidly and without pause, giving me no chance to interject. “If I were a boy, my path would be clear. I would take my place as one of your competitors in the Swayamvar. But, my gender means that my goal would be to become the Emperor’s consort. Your consort.
“Do you know? I grew up reading about your life in your clan… imagining our marriage, preparing for it.”
She paused briefly and I pounced upon the opening.
“Stop! Is this how you have been preparing? Preparing to drug me? Forcing the marriage for your selfish reasons!? How long did you prepare too deceive me? A lifetime!?” I was nearly shouting by the end of my outburst. Thankfully, I had the sense to block the sound with a combination of wind and shadow mana to avoid eavesdroppers.
Unflustered, she spoke, “Who asked your father to kill wolf boy? Do you think that everyone who married a Vulpine maiden decided to do so within the span of a day? No! The talks had begun from the very beginning of the qualifiers. Mother was supposed to propose our marriage to Marquis Felidae on the night of the banquet. She would have done it too if he hadn’t decided it would be a good idea to pop Young Master Lupin’s head.”
She breathed deeply, her eyes tinged red as she continued speaking rapidly, “Do you think I wanted to get married to you this way? I had imagined so many scenarios for our marriage. Doing it the way it played out wasn’t on my list.
“But what could we do? Until the outcome of the duel was clear, we couldn’t bring it up and then your Father promoted to Rank 5 and was due to leave. Do you think he would agree to the marriage when he would have to leave you to fend for yourself so soon?
“Then? Then there was no time. The Tourney happened and the very next day Mother contacted you. We had information about the Swayamvar being held this year, so, our marriage had to be before the Swayamvar was announced to make it final. You obviously couldn’t decide so soon. That’s why we had to use such a bad plan.”
I was taken aback at first by her vehemence before her words sank in. “Huh?” I felt incredulous. How could someone spout such selfish words so righteously. I was thoroughly enraged.
“Can you hear yourself? Every word out of your mouth takes your ambition as the priority. Sure, for you, with your lofty goals, the way things worked out is for the best. You get a shot at the throne. But did you ever think how I would feel after being drugged and hypnotized into a loveless marriage?”
She gawked. “Loveless!? What do you mean, loveless?” she pulled off her shoe and brought her foot forward. Pointing at the dark mark she said, “I love you. I always have. I know almost everything that happened to you since your childhood and I always looked forward to our marriage. How else would our mark be so dark?”
I sneered. “Me? More likely you love your ambition. You think you possess cordiality towards me, but from your words, it is but a delusion. I am a means to an end. For that you would even put my whole family in danger.”
I saw her stagger back at my words, hurt in her eyes. She made to speak but I cut her off. “Do you know that you shot yourself in the foot by marrying me? Did all your information tell you that I have no interest to the throne? And even if I did, I would be seriously handicapped since using your mana or having you cast your spells would bring down the ninja on us. How in the world did you expect us to win?”
She rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand before glaring at me with a reddened gaze. “Believe what you will! I know what I feel and that won’t change even if you come to hate me. As for my mana…” she reached into her cleavage and drew out a golden locket. It was the mind crystal pendant.
“See this? This is the solution to the problem. My mana is a variation of fire elemental mana, so, it shares the same roots with the mana of ordinary fire mages. The mind crystal is basically a spare mindscape filled with my mana. Put a tiny sliver of an Inflammation crystal in it and very soon, it will revert to ordinary fire mana. By casting spells using the locket, I can pass as an ordinary fire mage. As can you because you share the same mana with me.”
She sniffed, a lone tear sliding down her cheek. “What do you think I was doing cooped up in my room for all of these days? Twiddling my thumbs? I was practising to cast seamlessly using the locket.”
Even though my anger had yet to abate, her tears made me subconsciously soften my voice. I had never been good at dealing with crying women. “Well… be that as it may. How long were you planning to keep me in the dark? And what exactly did your Mother cast on me to make the effects last for almost a month?”
She smiled through her tears. “You’re really amazing, you know that?” Wiping her face with a hand, she continued, “We did nothing so drastic to you. It isn’t actually even possible. The drink and the incense along with Mother’s words planted a suggestion in your mind to not question the discrepancies in our marriage. If you yourself were averse to us, it wouldn’t even last till the next morning. But, you actually reinforced the suggestion subconsciously.
“Your desire to treat your wives well and extend your full trust to them caused you to plant a self-suggestion. So, whenever you noticed something questionable about our marital circumstances, your mind would gloss over it.
She looked up at me with glittering eyes. “You know? Every day you didn’t question me, I fell in love with your sincerity a bit more. Mother actually wanted me to tell you so she could apologize personally and resolve the matter as best as possible. I insisted on waiting you out.
“In the end, it took Aunt pointing it out for you to finally confront the facts.”
I felt quite awkward at being praised for my sincerity, or rather, my gullibility. I could feel some of my anger draining away under her gaze and due to the fact that some of it was my fault after all.
Her smile dimmed as she looked down at her foot. There, though the mark was still dark at its core, the edges of it had faded.
The sadness that flashed across her face was genuine as she sighed. “Having someone trust you so wholeheartedly is infatuating. Though, it seems now, I have lost that trust.”