Sitting at my reserved position among the circle of competitors for the finals, I toyed around with my two cards. Made from the bark of a mana sensitive tree, it was designed to light up with a different coloured glow depending upon the elemental affinity of the mana poured into it.
Right now, they were a plain white, indistinguishable from an ordinary rectangle of piece-board. They were my keys to a higher final position in the tournament. They were the goals of all of my opponents.
Setting them down beside me, I looked up, running my gaze upon the rest of the gathering.
Marquis Ursa had personally gone into action to build the temporary venue for the competition. Bearing a great resemblance to the coliseums of Sparta, circular stands surrounded the fifty of us, rising higher with each row of seats to provide an unimpeded view to the audience.
Seated at the row nearest to us were news-painters from all over the province laden with parchments, easels and painting supplies. Their duty was to record today's proceedings in the form of art and then disseminate them in their respective areas by copying them over to the bulletin boards in their specific hometowns and villages.
The so-called press seats.
Contrasting with their first-row seats, the important personages were all seated in the very last row which had been elevated quite a bit above the final row reserved for the commoners. The high magical prowess of anyone who had managed to make it high enough socially to be seated there was enough to have one or two means to enhance their vision and hearing.
The location was immaterial to them, rather the prestige associated with the seats and the subtle nuances involved in who was to be seated beside whom, painted a clear picture of the social standings of the dignitaries present.
There in the middle of the web was the Duchess herself with the Marquises arrayed around her. At another node was a woman in a high-necked navy-blue skirt. Her chestnut hair was tied up in a high coif, exposing her slender nape and well-defined jawline.
Her prominent cheekbones and strong nose gave her an unorthodox beauty, further enhanced by the severe expression she constantly wore.
Disciplinarian versus the seductress; she was in sharp opposition to the Duchess. Countess Lutrinae, the head of the household of the clan with the bloodline of otters.
By her side, were the houses who had made a bid for power this year. Some would fail and fade. Some would win and rise.
Drawing my line of sight back to my level, I noticed several of my competitors posturing for the painters, clearly ecstatic at the chance to have their faces publicized all over the province. The few who had risen from the masses were especially enthusiastic in this respect.
I smiled. Unlike several of the nobles who were openly sneering at their behaviour, I found their enthusiasm endearing. Having lived my life under constant public scrutiny, I yearned for the quiet obscurity that they had grown up in while they, in turn, envied my fame.
Desire was what drove all living things. What we didn't have was invaluable in our minds, what we did, of little value.
I breathed out gently as I rested my chin on my hand. Now that my goal for participating in this tournament was all but ensured, what did I fight for?
The clamour of the packed audience suffused the atmosphere and cloudless blue skies stretched above our head, the sun a blazing white orb hanging directly above us as if to bear witness to the clash of youth against youth.
Dressed in full formal-wear that made me sweat even looking at it, Marquis Delphinidae strode onto the stage, his spectacles gleaming white under the sun.
Adjusting their position with a finger on the bridge, he cleared his voice, the discordant sound ringing throughout the arena, stilling the noise of the gathering.
"Welcome to the annual Martial Tournament. To start off, a hearty round of applause for the talented men and women who occupy the fifty seats in your midst. They worked extremely hard to reach this stage and deserve every accolade you can heap them with."
He paused to clap softly with his gloved hands and the audience followed suit, the thunderous rumble igniting my spirit and making my blood boil.
Why did I need a reason to perform my best? I was here. That was all that mattered.
Maybe the cushions of the seat occupied by the one in the first position were softer than mine? Turning my gaze to where Deimos sat upon the prime seat, fidgeting uncomfortably at all the attention, I shook my head.
Well, the second seat would do just as well.
Marquis Delphinidae raised his hand for silence and the crowd gave it to him. "Ladies and Gentlemen, fifty of the most talented warriors are present on this stage today. What we have gathered here to witness is which of them deserves to be seated ahead of the others."
Pointing at Deimos, he spoke, "For now, it is Deimos Felidae, for her splendid performance in the qualifiers in dispatching all her opponents in the least amount of cumulative time. By the end of this day, it can be anyone of them. But for that we need to establish some rules to judge them by."
Drawing out a card similar to the ones we held out of his pocket, he turned around in a circle, displaying it to all present. "This, Ladies and Gentlemen, is a card made from the bark of the Magewood tree. Pouring mana into it…" he inserted his mana into the card and it glowed a brilliant shade of blue, "causes it to take on the colour corresponding to one's mana affinity."
Flicking his wrist, making the card disappear via sleight of hand, he continued, "Two such cards are held by every competitor. Two cards, two opportunities. Two opportunities to challenge anyone within ten seats of their position. If they win, they swap seats with their defeated. If they lose, they stay put in their positions."
Spreading his hands out in an all-encompassing gesture, he smirked as he said, "Now, we are all intelligent people here. It must be evident that for those already in the first ten, one card should suffice, while for the one already at the top, the cards are superficial since there is no one to challenge."
His glasses glinted in the sun, "That is why the cards have another use. They are shields. By discarding one, you can choose to decline a battle with, say, someone with an elemental advantage over you. Even if you haven't studied up on your competition already, the glow of the card as they challenge you will be enough indication. Also, to prevent the case of someone being tired out by constant challenges, we have set a limit of three challenges allowed per person. Thus, to maintain your position, you theoretically only need to win once, while to advance, you might have to fight up to five times."
Turning to fix each of us with his gaze in turn, he said, "Finally, this tournament is not only about your proficiency in the feat of arms. Diplomacy and your social skills too will be tested. In fact, they will be tested right now, for you have the next half-hour to interact amongst yourselves. Your goal? To accumulate as many cards as possible."
He smiled as he invited all of us onto the floor of the stage. "So, all you ladies, it's time to put your charm to the test. Boys, see if you can't sweet-talk a girl or two into giving you their cards. It's an hour which has historically been shown to be the birthplace of most of the marriages of the highest echelons of nobility. So, keep it in mind that any card you receive might just come with a heart attached."
He walked backwards off the stage, leaving it open for us. "The stage is all yours."
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