A long moment passes with only music to fill the silence left behind by Leomi’s unconcerned words. With her allies having taken the forefront of the crowd, it becomes easier for me to notice the many circumspect gazes aimed at us.
Those with more brains than others have noticed that the amount of energy I’ve used is just short of that a Countess would regenerate in a single day, and that is after I burned all my energy in the morning.
Those who’ve shown anger towards me have likely assumed that my flow came from Lance, which isn’t exactly wrong, but there are plenty who could add up the changes in the system to my high access as proven by the fact many show fear.
The most fearful is one of the two youngsters who almost challenged me earlier as he has turned sickly pale. Perhaps the most disturbed are those near Arkur who planned to ask for Leomi’s hand because the one they relied on has apparently no intention to help them.
Servants, likely triggered by Lance’s declaration, make their way through the crowd with platters of food and wine-filled glasses. As they do, Leomi openly sends me a stream of energy to refill my reserve.
I store fifteen portions within a few tens of seconds, which surprises me because I suspect my health directly consumes one or two from my access but far less than it does the crowd even though many likely believe I’m storing the energy in my flesh.
A wave of dismay shakes the crowd and many eyes begin flicking from my face to hers. We sit at about at the same level despite the fact I am on the armrest but that’s because I’m still definitely growing up and she’s uselessly tall anyway… well not uselessly, it enhances her beauty, but still.
The ball begins in truth only now, a few minutes after Leomi’s declaration, because her allies start eating, drinking, and dancing. With the center of the room filling up with pairs, I catch sight of the rows of chairs set against the walls. Groups start forming in the corners.
“What’s Arkur’s problem?” I ask Leomi.
“He’s playing a game to obfuscate his intentions from everyone so as to learn more than he otherwise would. Other than that, I do not know as he’s deflected my inquiries.” She replies with a whisper. “Thank you by the way, you’ve helped me a lot, but please moderate yourself.
“No promises.” I reply with a teasing smile.
“No, please do.” Lance murmurs as she leans left behind my back to whisper in my ear while concealing her mouth. “You fucked me so hard I won’t be able to dance tonight.”
I blush and experience a thrill in my lower stomach. She squeezes my waist and lays back into the chair, stiffly. As I was about to flirt, I catch a man and a woman in servant outfits approach with their platters. They timidly hold them out to me, stunning me because I thought they came for her.
“You’re not hungry?” Leomi asks, using her arm to shake me back to the present.
I blink and reach out to pick up a small piece of buttered bread with a tiny fish on it. The servant smiles and almost leaves but the man stops her by striking her with his elbow. She startles and extends her platter to Lance while blushing in embarrassment.
“Thank you.” Lance tells her while tapping my calf.
I reach out to grab a second piece of bread and extends it out to her. She grins and bites half of it, leaving me hanging with half. We both refuse the wine, causing the man to look slightly disappointed.
“They came over to meet you.” Leomi says once they’re gone.
“Why?” I ask, a bit confused.
“You’re a low born that has defeated Noble after Noble, I’m pretty sure you’ve begun stealing pledges from me.” She says.
“Hmh.” I reply noncommittally. “Did Grace figure out what was in the message Huan Thrin sent?” I question.
“No, the seamstress never saw the letter, Thrin refuses to speak, and his butler vanished. The most Grace could gather is that the seamstress listened in on Mother and Yvonne. Their conversation involved my relationship with Liz but there wasn’t anything of clear importance and no secrets were mentioned.” Lance replies with a concerned frown. “Ah, here come more people attracted to your fame.” She notes in a cheerful tone. “It’s beginning to look like we threw this ball in your honor.”
I glance around and find a group of richly dressed bourgeois making their way around the dancers at the center of the room, I recognize them because I’ve seen some of them before and the master-smith who I bought my weapons from is among them.
Yet, before they can reach us, Arkur and his guard show up. Clack. The sword-master slams a padded chair down on the parquet in front of us with a flat expression. The Prince sits down and casually sets his right elbow on the back.
“The Izla’s failure in repelling the Rykz is, by all means, quite normal. Your companion’s words are delightful in their cruel realism but illogical from a societal point of view.” He speaks up with a lazy voice.
“They speak to the emotions in the people’s hearts.” Lance replies with a thin smile. “Nobles have long taken the habit to blame their failures on circumstances and subordinates when they should have reexamined the system itself. The Izla’s invasion itself is evidence that the world is growing ever smaller as the three species develop their forces. Nobility can no longer remain on the defensive when an increasing number of Queens and Hersirs threaten our borders.”
“Does the Izla’s invasion not show the contrary?” Arkur asks with a quizzical expression. “Nobility should instead strengthen the defenses of the Empire’s core territories against possible raids from the underground and coast.”
“The changes I’m instigating do not preclude us from doing so.” Leomi replies. “The war demonstrated that the cracks in society are caused by ambitious people who scheme against each other because they have little hope for advancement and no unified purpose to reach for. Granting these people the opportunity to gain honorary titles through contributing to their lands or going to war will strengthen us as a whole.”
“Trash remains trash, even on the front-line.” Arkur dismisses while rolling his eyes in a mocking manner. “It is best they remain home to ensure the Lisilese or Rykz cannot send killers with high access to sabotage our backbone.”
“As long as people remain, Nobles can arise.” Lance replies offhandedly.
Her mysterious response causes Arkur to pause and tap on his chin with his finger. Ah, even with the honorary titled gone for war, the population can raise more if under attack with Leomi’s new system.
“For armies lack flow but Kingdoms never do.” He proclaims with a laugh. “That is clever, I will admit. But, with this, you’ve given King Cenwalh more arguments to gather allies against you in Telnur and Mirus.” Arkur tells her matter-of-factly.
His words aren’t inherently threatening but they give me pause. I raise my hand and place my index on Leomi’s mouth to tell her to wait before answering because I have a lot to think about.
I first glance at the Caroline to see if he’ll take offense at a peasant overreaching so much, but his smile doesn’t waver in the least. I tap my fingers on Lance’s shoulder.
Leomi wished for me to leave her side and travel to Hetlan, after my seizure. While it’s possible she was too shaken by the event to rethink her previous plans, she would have retracted the proposal by now if my health issues changed things.
Not to mention that, after our talk with Celyz, she should desire naught more than to keep me at her side. It’s significant that she hasn’t, it means she expects to run into a lot of trouble with Nobility at the gathering but also as she travels to Kruzser through Mirus.
“So that’s why.” I note without saying any more because it isn’t necessary for her to understand my meaning.
“Yes, I hoped to talk about it later.” Leomi acknowledges a bit awkwardly. “It won’t be dangerous but…” She trails off.
“No, I get it.” I tell her, aware that I could never hold my temper if Nobles made trouble for her, especially since it would involve veiled insults.
“If only you had the will to become my consort.” Leomi says with a deep sigh, apparently believing I could mingle in Court intrigues without losing it if I wished to.
She’s unlikely to be wrong considering it sometimes seems like she knows me better than I do myself but I’ve set on a different path. I turn a glare to Arkur but it fails to wipe the cheeky smirk off his face.
“You must realize by now that E.Vil is fake.” I utter flatly, inferring that he’s spent enough time with Thrin, Hakarth, and Lance’s faction to have picked up on that fact.
“Evil has ever lurked on the borders of the Empire, I would hardly call the threat a deception.” The Caroline replies jokingly, his expression unchanged but his gaze grows more serious. I ignore his purposeful misunderstanding.
“Elizabeth Vil is resting but, make no mistake, she will awaken if you attempt to maneuver for Lance’s hand. Yet, you will be dust under my heel by the time Liz fits her bloody glove on.” I distinctively pronounce each word.
“Marvelous!” Arkur exclaims with a grin. “Then I shall maneuver for yours!”
The Prince extends his palm out to me with a frivolous gesture. My mind draws a blank while Lance’s slender fingers stiffen on my waist and knee. The sword-master flinches.
“I’m inviting you for a dance.” Arkur explains with both eyebrows raised expectantly.
My upper lip snarls up and I feel nails dig into my flesh. Is this a trick to get Leomi alone? Before I can figure things out, Lance suddenly gets up to stomp away towards Yvonne with a slanted and rigid gait.
“Well, this works too.” The Prince notes, suddenly turning serious. He waves his left hand over his shoulder at his sword-sworn, dismissing the man who immediately departs without a word.
“I don’t like you.” I tell him straight up, taking the opportunity to do so because he appears to no longer be hiding behind an act.
“Be honest, you hated me before you even knew my name and it never had to do with my personality.” Arkur dismisses. I hold my tongue because he isn’t wrong.
“What is it that you want?” I ask with a scowl.
“First, let me tell you something.” He replies, raising his index. “I have no interest in competing but it would be a loss to have Elizabeth Vil and Jessica Freepath fight over Leomi Lance’s hand since the three of you are very likely to help defend the Empire against the Hordes by spring’s end. As such, I might as well attempt to solve the issue since I am able.”
“You overestimate yourself, Arkur.” I utter coldly.
“Hm.” The Prince pauses to ponder seriously. “Perhaps.” He acknowledges. “But not so much considering I’m making the proposal to you rather than to a more ill-tempered Elizabeth Vil.” I’m not ill-tempered.
“…” I blink a few times. I’m not! You better take that back or I’ll… Act ill-tempered? Liz breaks a few imaginary swords with her knee in my mind and crosses her arms. I try not to smile at her denial.
“Tell me when you wake up so that I can make the proposal.” The Caroline speaks up with an amused tone. Liz throws him a glare and seizes the umbrella’s handle. “While the Hospitaliers are impressive, you’ve not joined them so I assume you have other ambitions. I can offer you a post in the Phalanxes after you spend a few years learning at the University. Or, a title in Telnur’s Court with lands to go along as well as the hand of a Noble in marriage if you so wish.”
“Not interested.” Liz replies for me because I, once again, draw a blank.
“No hesitation, huh.” Arkur notes while hanging back in his chair. He surprisingly doesn’t push or try to convince me.
“You’ve not made her this offer.” I comment because I can’t think of anything else and I can hardly take pride from the appreciation of a Noble.
“I’ve very little interest in getting involved in the conflict, and even less to see a faction obtain victory. It benefits Telnur more to have Caeviel reinforce the Kingdom while divided.” Arkur explains without bothering to hide the fact Telnur basically plans to string them along so that both Lance and Cenwalh fight for them.
He opens his mouth but his gaze turns and he swiftly closes it. Soon after, two different servants from earlier show up to offer me food and drinks again, baffling me. The Prince makes an amused expression. I would glare but it hasn’t worked so far so I decide to ignore him and eat something before sending the servants away with my thanks.
“You never intended to ask for her hand?” I ask, suspicious.
“Personally? No, why would I waste my effort on a woman who only has eyes for her own gender? Our alliance would be much sturdier if I didn’t marry her considering that fact so I brought suitable candidates of both sexes.” He replies unashamedly.
“Is that not…” I trail off and swallow my overly formal speech. “Isn’t that contradictory?” I ask but then make a grimace as I realize he actually managed to draw me in the conversation by treating me as an intelligent being.
“Not especially.” Arkur shakes his head. “There are many types of marriages, some are of convenience to have children or obtain political power so I opted to gather as many choices as possible.” He explains. “The effort turned out to be a waste of time because of you, however, so I gave up on it.”
“You don’t wish to get involved with the conflict in Caeviel but are trying to ally with her.” I note.
“Because there would be no benefit for Telnur.” He corrects. “It would have been very different had I been able to arrange a marriage and draw Izla Meria to Telnur.”
“I can guess that you found something very different here than you expected and scrapped your plans once you learned of the Council, as well as me.” I say.
“Indeed.” Arkur acknowledges.
“Then what do you want?” I ask him.
“As of now? I’m still interested in having Izla Meria join Telnur in some way but that will play out in the coming years and I am unlikely to involve myself in that matter.” He declares. “My offer to recruit you in the phalanxes is genuine, so was the offer to convince the Court to grant you a title, but overall I’ve determined that the most valuable commodity I could return with that would be of immediate benefit to the Kingdom lies inside your head.”
“… The plow.” I speak up.
“Exactly.” Arkur confirms. “While there isn’t anything stopping you from expanding your guild to every Kingdom, it will quickly be copied by others. Your guild can function on Izla Meria because you have powerful supporters.”
“You’re saying Nobility will play dirty and help their pet guilds, likely even directly confiscating the runic construct.” I translate.
“Now, I could wait for your plowing construct to spread and then obtain a copy of my own.” Arkur notes. “But that would take quite a while. I would prefer to begin production as quickly as possible because, if your runic plow works, then it could become vital to the Empire.”
“And Telnur would be the first of the Kingdoms to use it, giving you an advantage.” I comment.
“Exactly. There is also the fact that I do not wish to witness Izla Meria attempt to become a second greedy Mirus. It would end poorly as Telnur’s fleets are all that stop the Lisilese from raiding up north at the peak of summer.” Arkur tells me with a grimace.
“I take it this isn’t a threat.” I probe.
“Indeed, it is not.” The Prince says. “The revolts in Mirus did not happen in isolation. Mirus’ Nobility exploited the other Kingdoms as much as their own subjects through their iron grip on trade, causing some Nobles to divert some of the coin Mirus tries so hard to pry from them to fund a certain Sykus in order to air their grievances. That plan… backfired.”
Small world indeed, amusingly so if their revenge caused the bourgeois to be framed and turned into a galley-slave which ended up with an actual peasant rebellion on such a scale it got the Order’s attention.
I hide my excitement at the fact I may be able to strike a deal that’ll truly help Lance. I have a lot to repay her for after all, she took a lot of political risks for me and I’ve not returned half the favors she did for us from the time we infiltrated Meria.
“What’s your offer?” I ask curtly.
“A cut of the coin the Caroline house will make selling your runic plow in exchange for the runic construct as well as our support in establishing a branch of your guild in Telnur.” Arkur answers without hesitation. “I’ll negotiate the details of the contract directly with Councilwoman Cecil.” He adds, clearly having heard all about my dislike for math and management.
“That won’t be necessary.” I tell him. “I’m not interested. I’ve been considering giving the construct to the University once I arrive in Kruzser.” I lie. I do plan to divulge it but it’s a small move meant to lend credence to a larger one.
“…” Arkur blinks in surprise. “That’s quite alright, I merely wish to obtain a head-start for Telnur.”
“You mean for house Caroline to secure the monopoly of the construct before it spreads.” I correct. The Prince smiles.
“How about I add to the terms that I will help honorary Duchess Lance fend off King Cenwalh whence he tries to leverage the impostor?” He proposes. “Also, the Caroline will ensure the supply of Izla Meria’s expedition regardless of the tricks King Cenwalh tries to play.”
“These things benefit you as well.” I dismiss.
“What do you want, Dame Freepath?” Arkur asks with narrowed eyes, having no doubt picked up on the fact that I’m holding back for something specific in spite of my efforts to conceal it.
“It isn’t about what I want.” I reply with a mean smirk.
“Should I go negotiate directly with Lady Lance?” He asks.
“No.” I refuse because there is a good chance she’ll use this to advance her plans to reform Nobility and I want no part of that. “I don’t care for gold or titles so, if you truly want this, then you’ll grant me all the terms from before as well as support the Hospitaliers in Telnur by providing buildings and using your influence to facilitate their implantation.”
“That is a lot to ask.” He comments with a frown.
“In exchange I can promise I won’t be giving the plowing construct to any Noble house, including house Lance.” I tell him. “I’ll also hold back on giving it to the University.”
“Hmh.” Arkur exhales loudly. “The fact you care not for gold exposes quite clearly than you plan to exploit the loophole in your promises. You haven’t sworn not to give the construct to the public.”
“Indeed, but would Nobility pay attention to this at first?” I argue without letting his sharp wit destabilize me. “This buys you at least a year without competition.”
“It does.” Arkur acknowledges. “I shall prepare the contract but, with these demands, I will have to cut down the share of the coin you will receive.”
“That’s fine, I don’t trust you Nobles to be honest anyway. My guild is likely to receive just enough coin that it would be difficult to suspect foul play, which would be about the same regardless of the number on the contract.” I reply as I stand up.
Arkur Caroline scowls at my blunt response but then he grins and laughs without contradicting me. He either realized I’m right or hadn’t planned to do what I accused him of planning but will now make use of the idea. I don’t care either way as long as the plow spreads.
“You know, my sword-sworn is of lower origins than yours.” Arkur speaks up at my back, making me pause. “He’s an orphan from a tiny village south of Telnur. He picked up a sword and rose through skill alone to serve a Kingdom’s royal house.”
“Your point?” I ask without turning around.
“Telnur is unlike Caeviel, else I would never have offered you a title.” He replies.
I ignore him and split the crowd to make my way to the gardens so that I can tell Lance about the deal I made so she knows to talk to Cecil and figure out the specifics of the terms I agreed to with her.