Ceres turned around to prop up her pillow against the headboard of the bed so she could lean against it but winced when a spike of pain shot through her head.
“Don’t move heedlessly! The medicine still needs some time to show its effect,” said Mars as he stood up and helped her prop up the pillows and get comfortable.
“Thanks.” she said in a small voice.
“Don’t mention it. Now, what was it that you wanted to say?”
Just as Ceres made to speak, the door to the room was pushed open and Phobos entered. Making her way to the bed, she took a seat by Mars’ side.
Phobos studied her with her piercing yellow eyes for a while before she said, “How are you feeling?”
“Fine. Just a headache and I’ve already taken the potion for that.”
Phobos nodded. “So, what was it that you wanted to talk to Husband about?”
Ceres studied the way the two of them sat together. Phobos subconsciously leaning against Mars’ shoulder while his hand circled around her waist and rested on her hip. It wasn’t anything overtly sensual but they just looked so comfortable in the others presence.
She couldn’t help but feel slightly envious of them. She smiled wryly internally. Really, it was human nature to be insatiably greedy. When she had known her mission, she hadn’t expected love in her marriage.
Rather, it was more a matter of convenience. She would serve him, cater to him as much as her abilities allowed and win his trust. Then, assist him onto the throne. Her mission would be complete. She would finally be free.
Yet, she hadn’t expected his unconditional trust of her. After the cold calculation she had been subjected to under the Duchess, it caught her off guard. It had worked like a slow poison corroding her resolve and she had let emotion cloud her judgement.
Now, she wanted his affection as well but she quickly set a firm resolve. What did it matter if she was loved if she wasn’t alive to experience it.
Ceres opened her mouth, “Husband…”
“Stop!” Phobos interrupted her. “Call him by his name.”
Ceres stiffened with her mouth half open. It seemed that she had really offended the girl with her deceit.
“Well then… Mars, why did you step up to participate in the Swayamvar? We played no part in that decision of yours. It was all your doing.”
Mars rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Well… why not? The Swayamvar is the most prestigious competition in the Empire and there are only advantages involved in participating. No drawbacks.”
He shrugged. “Whatever I do in the future, the Swayamvar will provide a certificate of my abilities based on my performance in it. Not only that, it will broaden my horizons by letting me travel far and wide, meeting new people and seeing new places.
“The various challenges will test various skillsets and provide a chance for me to grow imbibing the teachings of the mentors and proctors who will oversee the Trials. Not to mention the chance to mingle with the Empire’s future elite and form political and social connections.
“And, even if these advantages weren’t there, the glory and prestige associated with the event is enough to draw me to participate.”
Ceres nodded. “Then, did you never even consider winning? Marrying the Princess? Becoming the next Emperor?”
Mars frowned slightly at her question, not liking the direction it was leading to but he answered anyway. “First of all, I have self-knowledge. I am under no illusion that I am the best in the Empire. While I am proud of my achievements, I prefer to not let my pride transform into misguided hubris. But, considering your involvement in the matter… I suppose those chances aren’t illusory anymore. I refuse to believe the Duchess’ plans end here.”
When Ceres made to speak, he waved her words away.
“Be that as it may, I have very little interest to the throne. You do know of my situation, right? I am the heir to my clan and I can take over the seat after the Swayamvar is over. I can choose to join the army. My parents are there and I’m sure they’d be in a good position to pave my way if I so chose. But what truly interests me is emulating the Tamers of yore and travelling the land, subduing the Ferals that are bringing disaster to the people and reuniting them with their families.
“To put it bluntly, the position of the Emperor is more of a figurehead. He has no territory and his only powers are diplomatic and legislative in nature. He is the face of our nation and during national policy making, he is supposed to get together with the eight Dukes and preside over their meeting. In the case of a tie, the deciding vote is his to cast.
“Such a life holds little appeal to me. Let alone, the capital is a bigger political vortex than the one at home. Clan politics have sufficed, I have very little desire to experience something more vicious.”
Phobos, who had remained silent suddenly spoke up. “Girl, aren’t you going about this in the wrong way? Two hands are needed to clap. Whatever the process, you are married to Husband after all. Marriage with you was always supposed to be an arranged marriage. A marriage of convenience. There were advantages and disadvantages to marrying you but the Duchess has managed to mitigate most of the demerits, so, we were thinking of giving you another chance.
“With your deceit, you hurt Husband. You hurt me. In fact, Deimos wanted to send you back home but we wanted to have a talk when our emotions weren’t running so high. Right now, you are making a poor case for yourself. Not only do you not apologize for how you married him, you try to push him towards your own goal.”
Phobos’ eyes narrowed dangerously. “I don’t like being used.”
Ceres screamed with frustration internally. Her cracked mindscape was hindering her pondering. Every thought was like an awl through her mind. Why was it so difficult for them to just accept her words?
It wasn’t like she could just tell them that she had a Geas put on her and that she would die if she didn’t complete her mission of enthroning Mars. The Geas would kill her if she tried to tell others about it. She knew that unless all of them were of one mind and strongly worked towards victory, they wouldn’t win.
The help the Duchess could provide was very limited. After all, the competition involved national prestige. If it was so easy to influence, Regiis wouldn’t be the political juggernaut it was.
She knew that she couldn’t soften her stance now, even if it put her further into disfavour with them. If she accepted their conditions and apologized to them, promising to put Mars’ wishes in a higher priority than winning the Swayamvar… they wouldn’t strive to win.
She needed to convince them that winning the Swayamvar was their best choice. She needed to bring them onto the same page as her.
Thankfully, the Duchess hadn’t failed her, providing the right tool for the job.