"What exactly is your goal? What is the endgame for the Duchess and the Vulpine clan? Why do they want one of their own in the Royal family badly enough to jump through so many hoops?"
Phobos watched Ceres chew over Mars' questions as she mentally framed her answers. She ran through the entire conversation with the fox-girl in her mind, suddenly realizing that instead of a talk between family, it had been more like a negotiation between two hostile parties seeking to form an alliance based on benefit.
Which, in essence, was the current state of affairs.
Until now, everything the Vulpines had done stemmed from the fact that as a battle-trained Tamer, Mars was in a unique position to assist them in fulfilling their objective of getting a shot at Royalty.
Marrying Ceres, until now, had been a losing proposition, what with the risks involved with the exposure her identity. The Duchess had employed several means to mitigate those risks and balance the scales. Political marriages for the maidens of Vulpine and the mind crystal locket were all parts of those efforts.
But that didn't account for the deceit utilized in the process of the marriage. That was a clear transgression against Mars. It even broke the law of the Empire against the coercion of marriages.
The problem was, there was no proof and the political fallout of exposing it would be enormous. A Marquis clan heir against a Duchess. The unrest caused would surely alarm the superiors and in such a delicate time with war looming, the conflict would surely be suppressed to private settlements.
Trying to remedy their relations and making the marriage work was a better option as it preserved the political connection with the Duchess and gave them the moral high ground.
In the future, the Duchess would have to be more receptive to any 'requests' they might make.
Yet, all said and done, marrying Ceres was still a bad decision at worst and neutral at best. Thus, any question about helping her achieve her goal was moot.
But the girl had yet another card up her sleeve and this time, it was an ace. If her words about Mars' Mother were true, then winning the Swayamvar just became their common goal instead of just hers. So, what could be seen as her selfish desires until now, transformed into opportune help.
The scales were suddenly tipped in her favour.
Having reorganized her mind, Ceres said, "First of all, I have always aspired to the position. You can consider it a personal ambition of mine. Just like some people aim for martial brilliance, aspire to write the most beautiful poem or the most evocative piece of prose, or paint something that will be admired by posterity; my goal is to be coronated as the Empress.
"But obviously, that isn't enough for Mother to throw the entire lot of the clan behind me. I don't know if you're aware of the current situation but the South-eastern province is running on a fiscal deficit. The reason being, the erstwhile profitable seaports in the southern parts of the province are now nearly defunct.
"The Shogunate has taken to disguising their naval forces as pirates and preying upon our mercantile fleet upon the waters of the Bay of Kings. After sustaining heavy losses, we have started assigning substantial naval guard upon the trade routes. But defence is forever tougher than offense. Not only do we lose a large portion of the profits due to the added costs of the permanent escort, the attacks of the pirates have caught us off guard several times, causing severe casualties in personnel and property.
"It might be peaceful on the surface, but the war with the Shogunate has already begun. It might not be a war with explicit blood and fire but it is a silent war. A war of gold."
"What does that have to do with our marriage though?" asked Mars.
"Everything. Why do you think the Delphinidae clan performed so miserably in the Tournament? As the erstwhile rulers of the southern region of the province, they were hit the hardest by the current turn of events. Most of the merchants who patronized their seaports have withdrawn as the waters have become too bloody.
"Then? Then without the revenue that came from them, how do you think they managed to pay for the naval upkeep? From their coffers of course… and from ours."
She shook her head. "While the Lutrinae were busy looking after their own petty profits and hoarding their resources, we along with the Delphinidae were paying for the upkeep of the naval battle lines. But the situation isn't tenable.
"We need money and when we proposed that we needed central granting in the previous meeting of the Parliament, the vote was split. The Emperor decided that the situation wasn't enough to merit the reassignment of revenue from one province to another and risk racking up internal discontent."
Mars finished her statement for her. "So, you need a new Emperor. One more amenable to your cause." She nodded.
He sighed and rubbed his forehead. "Really… I'm speechless. You people managed to raise my marriage to the level of national politics. I'm not sure whether I should feel flattered or depressed."
Finally, he chuckled. "Oh well, here's to a happy cooperation," he said as he stretched out his hand to Ceres.
Her face fell as she looked at his hand.
Phobos internally sighed. What had the girl expected after straight up telling them that their marriage was loaded with all sorts of political and personal agendas? Of course, Mars would treat her like a business partner rather than a wife.
She had to change her attitude and try a lot harder if she wanted the trust he had been willing to unconditionally lavish on her until now. But she could understand Ceres' disappointment. After experiencing that level of trust, the lack thereof would leave a massive gap in her life.
Ceres smiled stiffly and reached out to grasp his hand. She squeezed out the words, "Happy cooperation" with great difficulty as they shook hands.
"Well then, we won't disturb your rest any further. That potion has a mild soporific effect so you'll be wanting to sleep soon. Don't resist it, it'll be good for your headache. I'll have lunch sent up to your room, so take care." said Mars with a false smile before turning around and leaving.
Phobos sighed and got up too. "Concentrate on getting better." For a moment it seemed like Ceres wanted to say something but the only word out of her mouth was, "Thanks." Nodding, Phobos left after Mars.
When they were out of the room, she questioned him. "Are you going to let her off just like that?"
He shook his head. "What else can we do now? The situation is currently like a glass of seawater and we are like men without tongues. The major problems have been settled, like the sand at the bottom of the glass while the salt remains, invisible.
"The water might seem clear to our eyes but unless we taste it, we won't be able to say whether it is salty. Right now, if we keep on investigating the matter, we'll just stir it up all over again, bringing the sand up to the top. Our focus will just be stuck on the problems and not the solutions.
"But, you forget that we are scheduled to visit my parents before the Swayamvar commences. In front of a Tier 4 healer, if there are any falsehoods hidden in her words…" he shrugged, "We'll know."
Phobos watched his receding back with mixed feelings. She was happy for his growth, yet mourned the loss of his innocence.
Sorry for the late release... had some RL work.
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