Patera, like its name suggested, was located in a bowl-shaped depression. As our carriage stopped at the gates behind another, waiting to be inspected before being allowed entry, I could see the entire city laid out in front of me.
Dusk had cloaked the land and purples and blues mixed with the shadows in the sky, a precursor to the night. The lights of the city were slowly turning on starting from the walls.
A mixture of light stones and smokeless torches lit the walls, clothing it in a soft white glow. As if a chain had been initiated, lights came on in the buildings closest to the walls, then radiated inwards as more and more homes and establishments lit their night lamps.
Soon the city of Patera came alive with lights, resembling a bowl filled with shining gems. It was no wonder it had been given the epithet: treasure bowl of the south-east, both for its famed scenery and its significant location at a bottleneck of the trade channels into the east of the province.
At the very centre of the depression was an unlighted patch ringed by lights. The Patera lake, now at its minimum size under the influence of the summer weather, it would swell to nearly a fourth of the city's area during the monsoons.
Master had gone to the guard room with our documents and proofs of identity while Phobos was tending to the horses. I stretched my stiff body, working out the kinks in my spine from sitting so long in the carriage. With mild popping sounds, my joints unlimbered and I regained access to my full range of motion.
Leaning against a tree by the roadside, I watched Phobos at work comforting the tired horses.
The two chestnut beasts nuzzled against her as she rubbed their necks a smile on her lips. The girl really did like animals. After we were done with the Swayamvar, maybe I should look into a low maintenance pet for her.
The jade hares of Huaxia were an option worth considering.
Turning my attention away from her to the gates, I saw a company of uniformed men leaving on horseback.
Their red and gold livery marked them as the members of the internal police.
Long stretches of lonesome roads lent themselves to banditry well and in the initial stages of the Empire, Emperor Adam had a huge headache on how to still the rampant robbery and make the roads safe for trade.
His solution had been the internal police forces. They were composed entirely of Tier 2 mages. The sort with bloodline talent low enough that their chances of advancement were slim to none.
They formed companies of five men and rode from one city to the next on horseback, rested there and made the journey back. Their patrol times were staggered so predicting their appearance on the road was nigh impossible.
There was a saying: "Those with scarlet on their blades feared red on the horizon." Any bandit group capable of mustering enough strength to overcome a team of 'red shirts' was no longer on the scale of mere banditry. That would be a rebellion, bringing in a converging attack from all the Tier 3 city lords in the vicinity.
Noting the Felidae insignia on the carriage, the men paused a bit to salute in our general direction before riding off towards the city we had come from. Poor chaps, getting saddled with the night shift.
This wasn't the first team of red shirts we had seen. The Earls whose territories we passed through, though unable to reassign the police for our protection, chose to double their wages for the day as well as the number of their shifts.
It was a sign of goodwill towards the Felidae heir after their informers at the gates had brought our arrival to their notice.
Also, the inns we patronised all seemed to coincidentally choose that day to have great discounts on flimsy grounds after we politely declined their invitations to dinner.
Oh well, it did help my shrunken finances a bit. Any further strain on my budget would see me following Master's footsteps, selling my art for our expenses.
Until I reached the clan, I was broke. Absolutely stony.
With a flap of the carriage curtains, Deimos strode out, jumping down from the back. For a moment she too stood entranced by the sight of the glimmering city before joining Phobos by the horses.
Master's call for us from the guard station roused us. The merchant caravan in front of us had finally passed the inspection and it was now our turn.
Phobos guided the carriage to the gates as Deimos and I hopped on again. A brief check and we were through.
I took in the sights of the bustling city through the carriage windows as we trundled down the main road. The night bazaar rife with activity, the lively restaurants, the busy shopfronts, Patera was one lively mass of activity.
As we made our way to the interior, we passed by the caravan that had entered before us unloading their goods, barrels of wine, at a tavern. The portly caravan master growing red in the face trying to drive up the prices of his cargo to the skinny innkeeper with dead eyes who was mechanically wiping a glass with a cloth even as he emotionlessly shot the man's tall claims down.
This was but one of many instances that caught my eye, establishing my perception of the city as the trade capital of the eastern part of the province.
The noise and crowds began to tail off as we made our way further in to the city centre, the houses growing more ornate and larger. Then, abruptly, the style of architecture changed. Instead of growing larger and more lavish, the buildings we encountered were wooden constructs raised on stilts.
Even the road we moved on turned into temporary dirt roads rather than the stone-paved pathways of the inner city, or even the cobblestone highways which we had traversed to reach here.
It was as if we had entered a village in the midst of a city.
The reason for this was clearly on view as the stones on the roadside bore mossy traces of their half-yearly submergence.
When it rained, the Patera lake expanded and covered much of the inner city. In such a place where each inch of land was as valuable as gold, the residents decided to resort to living in houses on stilts. Thus, even if the water level rose during the monsoons, they would be fine, rather, it would seem as if their dwellings were floating on the water.
Over the years, it had become a novelty of the city and a status symbol to live in these floating homes. As one of the highest-ranking officials in the city, Uncle and Aunt obviously lived near the very centre of the city, close to the banks of the now shrunken lake.
Stopping the carriage before a large house, Phobos dropped the reins, running up the stairs to a woman silhouetted against the lights of the open door.
"Mama!" she cried delightedly as she leapt into her bosom. She caught her mid-leap in an unflustered manner, swung her around and set her down before hugging her tightly.
Grinning, I jumped down from the carriage along with Deimos.
Letting her go ahead, I turned back to help Ceres down, moving with her to greet my mother-in-law leaving Master in charge of the carriage and horses.
The houses made full use of the space beneath them by using curtains of rough fabric to cover the stilts when they weren't submerged, effectively giving them another floor. In this case, the lower part had been transformed into a temporary stable as they had been informed about our arrival in advance through the mail.
When Ceres and I joined them on the porch, Aunt turned to us with an appraising look in her eye.
"Don't just stand there. Come on in." she said as she ushered us into the house.
Turning her head, she called out to Master. "Leave the cart there and come in. Hubby will deal with it when he comes back."
Coming in after us, she walked up to me with long strides before giving me a tight hug. Holding me at arm's length, she rattled off, "Been a few months since I've seen you last and look at you, all thin and gangly. That woman hasn't been feeding you right. *Snort* All that medical knowledge in her head has driven out the concept of taste from her mind. Oh no. Everything is nutrients for her. No wonder you've not been eating well. More likely she had you cooking for her.
"Hmph. Now she's run off to the army, throwing you down. Worry not, boy. No member of my little girl's harem will leave my house underfed. I'll put a pound on you before you leave… or at least try my best."
She was basically a curvier, more mature version of Phobos. While Phobos had inherited her slim figure from Uncle, Aunt was more… big-boned. Along with her mile-a-minute mouth, it gave her a larger than life presence.
Turning to Ceres, her eyes shone. Ceres shrank back like a deer in the headlights but before she could move, Aunt shrank the distance between them and gave her a bear hug too. Rubbing her cheek against Ceres' she spoke, "Who's this? Another addition to my girl's harem?" Raising a thumb at Phobos, she mouthed: 'good job'.
"Mom!" whined Phobos, blushing with embarrassment as she tugged at her mom's arm to separate her from the stiff Ceres.
In the process, Aunt's palm fell on Ceres' back and suddenly she stiffened.
When she turned to me, her eyes were dark. I shuddered involuntarily. Aunt was a normally amiable woman. She was my mother's boudoir honey, having grown up together. Thus, she had been a constant presence in my life ever since my childhood. Specially after my engagement to Phobos had been set.
In all the time, I had only seen her make that kind of expression once.
When Uncle had left Phobos alone in the bath to attend to his work when she was seven and she had nearly drowned. Uncle hadn't walked straight for days.
She let go of Ceres and walked towards me in great strides. I subconsciously shrank back but she disappeared in a whirl of shadow before something grabbed my arm and I my vision turned dark.
When my eyesight cleared, a wave of disorientation hit me from being forcefully shadow-walked. Aunt's fingers dug painfully into my flesh as she steadied me with her grip on my arm.
"Are you daft, boy!?"
"Huh?" I replied unintelligently, my mind refusing to catch up to her sudden shift from joviality.
"Don't 'huh' me, young man! When I entrusted my daughter to you, I didn't do so in the hope that you would put her in the eye of the political vortex between Regiis and the Shogunate. What were you thinking, marrying the Duchess' daughter!?"
Gathering my wits, I realised that she must have touched Ceres' second tail. When we had disguised her, we hadn't kept physical intimacy in mind. Only someone as blasé as Aunt would randomly hug people.
Worthily was she the wife of our clan's best information agent. It hadn't taken her more than a moment to connect the dots. To reassure her, I hastily conveyed the Duchess' words and efforts to keep our marriage a secret.
"What!?" she exclaimed, looking at me like an alien creature. "You bought her bullshit? Didn't you even bother to think such an important decision through? Or consult my daughter!?"
She shook her head, disappointment thick in her voice. "I expected better from you, Mars Felidae."
Her words cut deep and I felt my heart sink. I felt wronged. "I married Ceres on short notice but… but I am giving it my all, aren't I? To keep them all happy. Isn't that enough?"
She looked at me, disappointment even thicker in her eyes. "Boy, emotion won't get you far against ninja." She sighed.
"Just answer me this: Whenever you or she uses magic, won't her unique smoke element be an announcement of her identity as the Duchess' daughter? Do you plan to limit yourself to never using her magic? Did you know her beforehand? Is it a marriage of love? No? Why pray did you marry her then!? Explain it to me because I can't, for the life of me, understand!"
Her voice rose in pitch and decibel till towards the end, she was nearly screaming. Shadows rippled around us as they locked the sound of our conversation in.
Her words, her questions were like the rays of the sun shining upon the morning fog. The smoky haze in my mind ablated under the burning hot rays, leaving me aware of the discrepancies in my recent behaviour.
Why hadn't I thought of the issue of Ceres' mana? As a newly acquired power, it would be logical to train in its usage, but whenever I had wanted to train in it, my mind seemed to shift away from it, avoiding it.
In fact, I had never seen Ceres train her magic either. No matter how much of a bookworm she was, in this world that respected strength, no one with even a bit of intelligence would leave their talents uncultivated.
She had gone an entire month without.
And before all of this… why had I agreed so readily to a marriage with Ceres? Why hadn't I taken even a night to ponder such a significant decision?
My face turned white as I staggered, my heart seeming to sink into the pit of my stomach.
I felt nauseous.
When I looked up, Aunt must have seen something from my face because her expression immediately changed to one of concern as touched my cheek.
Forcing me to face her she spoke forcefully, "Boy, tell me everything the Duchess said or did when you met for the marriage meeting."
So, I did, haltingly at first, then more rapidly as the hazy memories grew clear under the judgemental vision of introspection.
The drink she had prepared for me.
Her words as she led me to Ceres' chamber.
The incense smoke within the room.
And though I didn't tell Aunt, my hazy impression of Ceres' mind during our bonding. I had felt then that she was like smoke within a dream.
The smoke had cleared. I had awoken.
After I had finished, Aunt was silent for a long time. The warm mid-summer night breeze seemed chilly against my skin. I shuddered.
Finally, she squeezed out two words: "That bitch!"
Extra long chapter. With an extra topping of drama.
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