The sonorous voice of the Legate resounded in the square as he read the Decree:
"A cycle ends and a new one comes to pass. The days of celebration and rejoicing have regrettably come to an end. It is time to return to our daily lives of toil and ardour.
"Yet, it is but a new beginning, a chance to make this cycle pass better than the one that preceded it and to prepare for the ones to come.
"Dukes and Duchesses of the Empire, it is Our pleasure as the reigning Emperor of Regiis, to usher you into your new positions of responsibility. Strive to make your Provinces prosper, to bring smiles to the faces of your people."
The Duchess bowed deeply in the direction of the unfurled Decree the Legate was reading from. "This one hears and obeys."
After she straightened, the Legate continued:
"Members of the nobility, you are the roots of the great tree that is the Regiis Empire. Grow healthy and strong, draw upon the bounty of the land and share it among your subjects. They are the leaves, innumerable, yet, each one indispensable."
Everyone else in the square saluted to the scroll and spoke in one voice, "We hear and we obey."
The Legate spoke, "In Our name, We declare our daughter Venus as the Heir to the Empire. We hope that as dictated by tradition, the foremost youths of Our domain step up to vie for her hand in marriage.
"For those with the courage to step up to the challenge, the six Elemental Trials lay in wait. Overcome them and earn an audience with Us and Our daughter. Win her heart and We shall bestow the title of Successor to the Throne.
"In Our name, we declare the Swayamvar for Princess Venus open! May the best man emerge victorious."
My eyes widened in surprise as my vision involuntarily turned to the Duchess. My action was mirrored by several of the young men among the top twenty rankings. From yesterday's conversation, I knew them to be the ones who had acquiesced to a marriage contract with the Vulpines.
Even though the Duchess herself displayed a shocked expression and even the members of the Vulpine clan weren't exempt from the sweeping range of marriage contracts, knowing what I did, I could infer that this was all part of her plan.
She had somehow known of the Swayamvar and thinned the competition for me by tying up eligible bachelors with the bonds of marriage.
Even though she was on my side, a chill ran up my spine. Her deception was too deep. Her plans convoluted and unfathomable.
I felt a deep diluteness. With a mother-in-law such as her, I could very well end up selling myself into servitude and happily help her count money, ignorant of my plight. A tinge of regret for embroiling myself in this political vortex arose within me.
Suddenly, the face of Ceres floated up in my mind. The memory of her reaching out to touch my hair in wonderment came to the fore. The smoky mana in my mindscape began to flow in hypnotic eddies. A sense of calm suffused me, snuffing out the budding misgivings.
My bond was with Ceres, not her mother. Even though the Duchess' mind games were scary, they were aimed away from and beneficial to me. I needn't be suspicious of her intentions.
If she bore me malice, she wouldn't have wed her daughter to me.
The Legate's voice jerked me out of my contemplative reverie. "All men capable of marriage and wishing to participate in the Swayamvar, step forward."
Straightening my back, I stepped forward. So did seven others.
The eyes of the Legate narrowed as his eyes swept over us until they stopped upon the figure of the boy who had slouching and grumbling before his arrival.
With a sweep of his hand, the shadows engulfed him and he was teleported back into the lines of those who weren't eligible.
Staggering from the sudden shift in vision, he stabilized himself with great difficulty as he looked at the Legate in shock.
Before he could open his mouth, the Legate forestalled him, "A mere two hours under the sun was enough to erode your patience and you dare to deem yourself fit to vie for the crown? I have no idea where your self-confidence comes from, nor do I care. You are disqualified."
The boy flushed red with shame, fidgeting in place, looking like he wanted the ground to swallow him up. Unable to stand the public gaze any longer, he dashed out of the square, pushing his way into the crowd. Soon, his form was swallowed up by the packed audience.
Snorting coldly, the Legate turned back to us. His gaze fell upon the boy beside me. He was someone I recognized. He was the fire mage I had seen yesterday night when I had visited the Duchess. My eyes widened as the implications what he was trying to do crashed home.
He was trying to annul his engagement because a better opportunity had presented itself. This was like publicly snubbing the Duchess and a great disrespect towards the maiden who was promised to him.
I saw him shiver as the Legate's eyes met his. I remembered the feeling of dropping into a bottomless abyss that I had experienced when I had met the Legate's eyes. I was sure it was a hundred times worse for him because the Legate was positively furious.
His own shadow seemed to darken until it looked like a tear in reality. Out of it emerged hundreds of hands composed of eldritch shadow, latching onto him and pulling him into the darkness.
The Legate grasped the void and his hand sank into a piece of shadow, drawing out the hapless boy by the throat along with it when he pulled it back.
"Do your bonds mean so little to you in the face of benefit. Or do you think my ears deaf or my eyes devoid of sight? Did you expect the fact that you are engaged to be married to be unknown to me? How dare you have designs on the Princess when you have so little regard for the sacred institution of marriage. By my position as the Imperial Legate, I sentence you to ten years of indentured labour at the central mines forbidden the touch of a woman till you learn to respect them better. So mote it be."
A surge of his mana caused the boy's eyes to roll up and he collapsed bonelessly to the ground when the Legate let go. The father of the boy shame-facedly ran out from the stands of nobility and bowed to the Legate in apology before carrying his prone form and with a burst of fire mana at his feet, leaping out of the square.
He didn't have the honour to continue staying here. I sighed inwardly. Being ambitious was fine but, one mistake and you could drag your family down alongside you.
Now, there were only six of us left standing.
The Legate swept us with his gaze and finding us satisfactory, he spoke again. "Every province is to send six young men up as representatives. Your number perfectly conforms to the requirements, avoiding any further elimination.
"You shall be given six months to prepare after which the first Trial will commence. Each Trial tests a different aspect necessary for a King. The evaluation you receive in each Trial will be used to determine your suitability for the Throne."
He took out six tokens of different colours and cupped them in his hands, using his mana to cover them in the darkest of shadows, he invited us forward.
"Come, let fate decide which Trial you shall face first."
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