Ceres hadn't slept much during the course of the journey from the Felidae estates to the military camp.
Her anxiety over which course she should take had kept her awake late into the nights, mulling over her probabilities of success.
The problem was that she couldn't be sure of anything. She had no facts to reference her estimates to.
It was all a blind guess – but, there was hope.
And as long as success was hopeful, no matter how tiny the possibility, she wanted to give it a try.
Even as the carriage trundled on and Mars, Phobos and Deimos dosed in their seats, she looked out of the window, taking in the scenery.
Kicking off her shoes, she traced the marking with the toe of her other foot.
Over the four months since her revelation of the Duchess' falsehoods, the mark had grown darker and darker, specially after they had resumed their sexual relationship.
Her cheeks coloured slightly as those scenes reappeared in her mind, growing hot against the cool breeze that blew in from the carriage window.
Mars Felidae was quite the accomplished lover.
That, and the purity of the emotions he directed towards his wives had entrapped her heart. Having grown up within the web of intrigue that was the Vulpine clan and under the tutelage of the master of the web, such innocuous motives were truly dazzling for her.
She had grown up knowing people whose every word had layer upon layer of meaning and whose actions considered only their benefit.
Then, right after that, she had been married off to a man who wore his heart upon his sleeve.
She had fallen in love.
And why shouldn't she? Even after he knew that he had been manipulated into the marriage, he had tried to find it within himself to forgive her.
After their talk at Phobos' parent's home, he had declared that their union was only one of benefit. At that time, she had felt a pain in her chest. Living in an environment where there was little to no manipulation and mistrust had been like spring in the eternal winter that had been her life.
When she had heard his declaration, she had felt that she was being thrust back into that frozen hinterland.
But, soon enough it had become clear to her that his words had been insincere.
He still cared for her and wanted to forgive her from the depths of his heart. Their steadily darkening bond was proof.
If he didn't care for her, if he truly wanted to squeeze the maximum benefit out of her, he wouldn't have avoided her like he did. He would have tried to glean as much knowledge and benefit as he could from her.
Watching him trying to be aloof towards her had been like watching a child play an adult's game.
The only word she could ascribe to his attempts was adorable.
Even Phobos and Deimos had thawed in their attitude towards her over the months. And their manners were genuine, not a façade to put her off guard. She had checked.
That was why, if there was even a tiny possibility of success, she didn't want to relinquish it.
She didn't want to deceive them anymore.
The carriage ground to a halt and the three of them jerked awake.
Yawning, Phobos took out their documents and walked over to the command station of the sentry post they had been stopped at while Mars jumped down from the carriage and went to talk with the coachman.
This left Deimos alone with her.
"You shouldn't worry, ya. Master's parents are really nice. If what you said is actually true, I don't think they'll hold a grudge against you. Well, as long as Master says it's fine, none of us will disagree… but it's the principle of the thing."
Ceres smiled. "Thanks."
Deimos leaned towards her and whispered conspiratorially. "You've really gotten him wrapped around your fingers, ya. He seems to be more worried about the meeting than even you."
Ceres turned to look at Mars and found him looking at them frowning in contemplation. Catching her gaze, he nodded to her before turning away.
She felt a warmth in her heart.
It had been a long time since she had last felt it. Back at the orphanage, whenever the matrons and the children did something nice for her, she had felt the same warmth. Even before that, when her mother was alive, whenever she got her a new toy or made her favourite dish, she felt the same warmth.
The warmth of family.
A warmth which had been incinerated in the fires that had turned the orphanage to ash on that fateful day.
To retaliate against those who had taken the warmth away, to repay the trust of those who had given the warmth back, she had to gamble.
Phobos called for them and soon, guided by a cadet, they were being led into the heart of the military city of Firang. To Mars' parents.
Towards her destiny.
Watching Mars fidget in front of his parent's home as he tried to delay the inevitable was sweet. It brought a smile to her lips.
Other than being a bit dull, the man was the perfect husband. Handsome, loving and a bomb beneath the sheets.
She still held a grudge against the fool for not being able to figure out that she carried a geas even after she had so clearly written about it in her notes.
That had been an extremely touch and go situation. The geas was made in such a way that if she thought of violating the terms of the contract with an intent to carry it through, it would detonate.
Meaning that if she tried to reveal her origin in the Shogunate or the existence of the geas, it would detonate.
Even writing it on a piece of paper and then 'accidentally' forgetting it in a conspicuous place would trigger it as the geas was connected to her mindscape and able to judge her intent behind it.
She had to convince herself that she was writing the notes only to make up for Mars' deficient knowledge and it had still been a touch and go situation.
The crack in her mindscape had actually come in handy, disturbing the judgement of the geas enough that she had been able to get away with it.
In fact, the disturbance in the geas' judgement had persisted and it was the only reason her plan had any chance of succeeding today.
She didn't know whether to thank that dead ninja for forcing her into such a situation.
Finally, Mars got over his hesitation and went forward to knock on the door.
But before he could, the door was opened from the inside by his parents and he was berated by his mother, who invited them in.
Mars' mother; Epione Felidae, Tier 4 Alchemical Healer. Mars' father; Veer Felidae, Tier 5 wind mage.
The two key parts of her plan.
She took a deep breath to stabilize herself.
Her geas was special even among geases. It was crated by implanting a mind crystal fragment into her heart and linking it with her thoughts via her mindscape by a Tier 4 Tamer. What made it different was that it was a shadow mage from whom the mind crystal originated. Which made it extremely covert.
Shadow and light were directly opposing elements. When the light element mage was stronger, they could totally shut down any shadow mage with lower cultivation.
The opposite applied too. As the crystal was Tier 5, there was no way for Epione Felidae to detect it.
In fact, even most Tier 5 mages wouldn't be able to detect it unless they were at the peak or were light mages.
What she had planned was nearly suicidal. She planned to trigger the geas and hope that Veer Felidae would be able to suppress the explosion and Epione Felidae would be able to heal her afterwards.
Ordinarily, the geas would have triggered even before she could speak out and at the speed of the explosion, without any sort of warning, the two mages wouldn't be able to react fast enough to save her.
But it was precisely the persisting disturbance of the geas' function resulting from the healed crack in her mindscape that gave her the leeway for one word.
As soon as all of them entered the room, she stepped up to Mars' mother and without warning, grabbed her hand and placed it over her heart.
Under the surprised gazes of everyone in the room, she put out one word.
Hotaru Vulpine, Duchess of the south-eastern province of Regiis was reviewing some documents at her writing desk when a sharp sound of cracking glass resounded in the room.
Her eyes widening, she dropped her brush and reach within the folds of her winter jacket and drew out a shard of black crystal.
The crystal was quite strange. It was very difficult to focus one's attention on it. If anyone tried to look at it, they would feel like their vision was sliding away.
There, on one facet of the crystal was a deep fissure that hadn't been there a moment ago.
The room was deathly silent for a long time before the Duchess' whispered invective broke the silence.
End of Volume 6.
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