Turning his back to the torrential downpour, the Sun Wolf returned to his office, with Xie following close on his heels.
Walking up to his desk, he pulled out a stack of clean parchment and his writing implements. Taking a seat, he began grinding the inkstone against the slab with a small splash of water to produce ink as he asked, "Was she involved?"
Understanding who he was referring to, Xie quickly assured him, "No, my Lord. I was with the Young Lady the entire time. She didn't interact with anyone for the entire duration of the event, preferring to observe instead."
Something like relief flashed past on the Sun Wolf's face, "Then where is she now?"
Cold sweat seeped out from Xie's forehead, "L-lord, I-I do not know. I was occupied with processing the Young Master's death and collecting information. She gave me the slip then. It's not her first time, I-I'm sure she'll be back."
The Sun Wolf looked up from his desk sharply. When Xie's eyes met his, he felt a stabbing pain radiate from them, making him avert his eyes.
"I ask you to look after my son. He dies. I ask you to monitor my daughter and she flees from under your nose. Tell me, Xie. What use are your eyes?"
Suddenly, Xie found himself unable to speak, his tongue a numb mass of muscle in his mouth. A memory rose unbidden from the depths of his mind. That of his Lord ordering one of his incompetent subordinates to kill himself.
He remembered the awe and fear he felt when he watched the recalcitrant hardcase turn into a docile sheep, willingly plunging his claws into his own chest.
When he had extracted his hand, it had held his still beating heart.
The Sun Wolf was the leader of the pack and his word was law. For he was the Alpha.
Now that he was in the same position, all he felt was fear.
"Look at me!"
He didn't want to, he really didn't, but his body was no longer his to control.
He screamed wordlessly, still bound by the Sun Wolf's words as the fluid in his eyes boiled under the Alpha's incandescent gaze.
Xie collapsed to the ground, whimpering as he clutched his ruined eyes and rolled on the ground in agony.
For a long time, the only sounds in the room were his muted whines and the scratching of a quill against parchment.
Xie, after all, was a hardened veteran. After a quarter, he stood shakily, breathing raggedly. "I *gasp* won't disappoint you again, Lord."
The Sun Wolf shot him a glance as he signed the letter with a flourish.
Sealing the letter into an envelope with a blob of sealing wax and his personal seal, he stood and walked over to the blinded man.
"Go to a healer first, get your sight back. The fees will come from your pocket." He pressed the letter into his hand. "Then deliver this to the Duchess. I've set the date for the Mortem's Duel ten days from now, at dawn. I want her there to witness it. Since it is a private grudge, no use getting the clan involved."
"Lord, your honour is our life. We are willing to accompany you to war together."
The Sun Wolf waved him away. "No need. The other Marquises are sure to meddle if we become a threat to their military power so close to the war with the Shogunate. Besides, if I don't rip the arm he used to crush my son's head off personally, I'll never be able to rest easy."
Locating him by sound and smell, Xie turned to him and gave him a formal, albeit, shaky salute before walking out.
Just before he crossed the threshold, he was stopped by his Lord's call:
"Oh… although it truly won't be wise to have the Marquis' children assassinated before I kill him… I want the waiter who served my son alcohol and his entire family dead… painfully."
"Yes, my Lord." Xie saluted again before striding out.
He planned to perform his duty perfectly this time. The Lord's punishment had even given him some ideas for the upcoming task.
His face split into a crooked grin. With his hollow eye sockets, he looked particularly ghastly under the flickering light of the torches in the hallway.
By the end of the day, some people would rue the day they were born.
They didn't call him the Rusty Butcher for nothing.
The dawn sunlight filtered through the trees in the backyard of the Duchess' Keep. The dew and the remnant rainwater from the nightly shower breaking the rays up into vibrant rainbows that made the foliage shine with a multicolour brilliance.
Yet, this scene of natural beauty went unnoticed by the ten youths assembled there in various cliques and poses.
A sombre atmosphere covered them as they pondered over the events of the night before.
Unable to stand the depressing silence, Gerard clapped his hands loudly to draw the attention of the rest.
"What happened, happened, right? Anyway, nothing we can do about it now, can we? So, why don't you guys, like, focus on the upcoming tournament? I bet you don't even know the rules."
"Yeah… but how come you do?" asked Fifa who was leaning against a tree cross legged with Messi on her lap.
She was an amazon of a woman and at six feet tall, she outstripped most men in the clan. Her blonde hair and blue eyes and forehead covered with the distinctive markings of the Hot Leopard bloodline made her a very striking woman. Specially with her growth in certain areas being so explosive.
One would expect her to look odd hugging a full-grown man like a plush toy while sitting in such an uninhibited manner but with Messi's height, somehow the couple took on a weird sort of aesthetic.
"Well, cousin, not all of us were too busy to stay till the final speech from the Duchess explaining this time's format."
"Yeah. Where were you in the end, Stevie? We searched the entire hall for you at the end but you were gone. Don't tell me you managed to trick some girl into a late-night date?" interrupted Fiona a slender brunette with the bloodline of a Lynx, Gerard's fiancé.
Steven chuckled nervously, "How could that be? I just felt a little nauseous from all the head crunching going on… Ha-ha."
He stopped speaking when he noticed that everyone was looking at him weirdly.
"What?" he asked, bewildered.
Fiona pointed behind him and he turned around to see that Mars was comforting Deimos, whose face looked a little blue.
Suddenly, feeling extremely guilty, he tried to say something to alleviate the situation. "Yeah… look, it wasn't your fault… that guy had it coming, yeah?"
Deimos gave him a small nod and a grateful smile before burying her face into Mars' shoulder while Phobos rubbed her back.
He felt even more horrible about himself.
Gerard cleared his throat to regain their attention. "Ahem. Well, the rules. There are three main competitions. Firstly, we obviously have the martial competition."
Fiona butted in, "Then there's the healing competition for all of us who have the gift of light. While you meatheads beat each other up, we will be responsible for the recuperation of your injury and helping you restore mana and eliminate fatigue between consecutive matches. There'll be senior medical personnel grading us."
"Finally, there'll be the calligraphy and painting competition for the Hominum and the hobbyists… but that has no qualifiers and is open to all." said Gerard.
He continued, "As for the qualifiers, you all know that the Marquis clans and the Duchess' household has a ten-member quota and so, we didn't have to participate in the local tourney. So, along with the hundred local tournament qualifiers, each of the five factions have a hundred and ten participants."
Fifa shook her head, "Too little time. Trimming five fifty to a mere fifty in the ten days left till the finals? Too difficult if a conventional tournament format is used."
Gerard nodded in agreement, "That's why they are making the fifty members who entered through the quota defend one of fifty arenas each. The organizers have designated us as arena masters. The rest of the five hundred participants will be distributed into batches of ten and sent over to the arenas."
Bruno interjected, "I'm guessing we have to defend our arena's one opponent a day."
"Yes. Exactly. That's not all. We must solve our opponents in the shortest time possible. At the end of the qualifiers, they will rank the fifty on the basis of their times."
Mars asked, "Ranks? How do they help?"
Fiona took over, "Well, the ones ranked lower can challenge the higher ranked ones during the main tournament, but, you can only challenge twice. Each time you can challenge someone a maximum of ten ranks above you. So, someone at fifty can only reach thirty and so on."
"What if we were to lose?" asked Steven.
"Impossible." Bruno stated. "Not with their limited resources."
"Wrong. There are several Earl scions who have been trained with great emphasis in order to somehow create an upset and try to displace one of the Marquis clans. In some cases, even the elders have forgone their own resources to train the juniors." Mars pointed out. "You know how important this tournament is."
Bruno's expression darkened, "I don't need you telling me that."
All of a sudden, the atmosphere was at daggers drawn.
Messi broke the awkwardness by stating, "All of us have the duty to do the best so we can get a much better resource distribution for the next four years. We must repay the clan for investing so heavily in us. So, Bruno, man, don't take people lightly."
Bruno's expression grew pensive, then he nodded before settling back to listen to Gerard.
"So, as I was saying, if someone beats you, they become the new arena master and your previous time records are added to him while you still get to keep your records and they become your basis for ranking in the top five hundred. Though, now, they check how long you've lasted."
Phobos said, "The first matches begin tomorrow. I hope to see all of us in the finals."
Messi sneered, "I'll be there and cousin, you better get your head screwed on right. I don't want to hear excuses about why you messed up and weren't able to even qualify."
Deimos shot him a confused glance at the sudden, uncharacteristic encouragement before giving him a grateful smile.
Messi huffed and turned away while Fifa delightedly ruffled his hair for his attempt at a reconciliation.
"For Felidae!" yelled Gerard enthusiastically and all of them joined in the cheer, even the stoic Lionel who hadn't spoken a single word yet.
Off to one side, Steven watched as the most prominent members of his generation drew closer under the pressure of foreign aggression and felt isolated.
He dared not reach out, for shackles of deception bound him and bars of falsehood separated him from them.
Yesterday night, he had truly met a girl like Fiona guessed.
But the meeting was far from the romantic one envisioned by her.
He touched the slight clot of blood on his back where the knife had dug into him strongly enough to break skin.
She was a rose and like all roses her thorns were sharp. He knew. After all, it was him that her barbs were embedded deep into.
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