Steven cringed internally as he felt the weight of the gazes on him. He felt exposed as he stood at the forefront of the Heavenly Wolf Mercenaries, alongside Hei Lian and her grandmother, facing the top brass of the Firang Contingent. He thought that they were judging him, taking his measure and finding him lacking.
He didn't dare meet the eyes of Veer Felidae. He had been terrifying enough when he had been a Tier 4 mage and the Head of the clan. Now that he had promoted to Tier 5 and become a General, his stoic visage sent chills down Steven's spine. It took all his willpower to stop his legs from shaking. The image of a head getting crushed kept flashing in his mind. It had been a constant source of nightmares these past few months and now that he stood within arm's reach of the man, his overactive imagination helpfully substituted Young Master Lupin's face with his own.
He felt quite proud of himself for keeping his bowels in check.
At least Deimos had forgiven him for his misdemeanour. The second princess had never done anything to him that warranted his incitement of the unfortunate wolf-boy to sexually harass her. Even if it hadn't ended up escalating into a full-blown conflict between clans, replete with a high stakes Mortem's Duel, he would still have been guilty about it.
She had been quite magnanimous about the whole incident after blowing up at him once and nearly choking him with his collar. She had even acted as their guide during their tour of the military precincts. Not that they had been shown anything too relevant. Regiis and the Heavenly Wolf Mercenaries had hundreds of years of conflict under their belts after all.
Remembering that incident soured Steven's mood. After Hei Lian stood up for him by scaring Deimos off with her Hellfire – something that made him very happy even though he knew that she was only asserting her dominance over him – she had spent the rest of the meeting making moon eyes at Mars, even as the Tamer grilled him for information. All it had taken was one glance from him.
He already had three wives. Three! Couldn't he keep his sights off the consorts of others? Steven agreed that the guy was a bit handsome… And, he couldn't have known that they were married…
Deimos had ensured that the both of them were well versed in the achievements of the red-head by waxing eloquent about his exploits throughout the tour. With the confirmation of the heavy-set female Major who had been accompanying them during the tour and the admiration and respect contained in the eyes of the soldiers of the Firang contingent when they saw him, Deimos' boasts probably weren't all that exaggerated.
Fine, he was also talented, but still…
Even if Mars was more handsome and talented than him, Steven was sure that when it came to the depth of his emotions towards Hei Lian, he wouldn't lose to anyone.
At first, he had obviously felt heartbroken at how the girl had practically raped and abducted him from his family. He had fallen in love with the gentle persona she had revealed to him after all. But, it hadn't taken long for him to fall head-over-heels for her actual personality either.
She had suffered greatly under her father and the experience had twisted her. Others might view her as domineering or arrogant, but Steven always thought that she was just trying to bluff her enemies into staying away, like the vivid creatures that scared their predators off by tricking them into thinking that they were venomous with their colouration.
He looked up to see Mars speaking with one of his wives, the bespectacled fox-girl. Once again, he was struck by a wave of depression. The prince never ceased to amaze, did he?
When he had first seen the girl, he had felt sorry for the guy. Knowing about the Duchess' deception and her plans for gaining allies by marrying off her clansmen, he had been sure that the girl was a traitor to the Empire. He had felt sympathy for the Tamer who would soon realise that his marriage was a cleverly crafted lie.
It hadn't taken long for that notion of his to be disillusioned.
Not only did Mars know of the Duchess' plans and the nature of his marriage, he had somehow managed to convince the girl to defect to his side with his charisma. She had volunteered up extremely important insider information about the Duchess, thereby, avoiding the fate of imprisonment.
Steven couldn't help but feel just a little bit sorry for the Duchess. For all her supposed brilliance, what had the woman been thinking when she had sent a girl into the arms of the womanizer? She had been setting herself up for failure.
Turning his head slightly to the side, he shot a glance at Hei Lian. In the noon sunshine, her pale skin glowed, adding to her charm. There was a sinking feeling in his gut when he noticed that her eyes were locked onto Mars, glittering with a strange light. Tearing his gaze away, he looked down at his shoes, trying to distract himself by taking stock of the scuff marks on the sturdy leather.
The one on the tip of the left boot was from the time he had tripped while travelling through the steep mountainous path which allowed them to re-enter the Heavenly Wolf Mercenary territory without getting noticed by the Regiis patrols.
The one on the instep of the right boot was from when he had kicked a stone into the face of the guard who had tried to block them from entering the cave where the Revered Ancestor of the Heavenly Wolf Mercenaries, Hei Lian's grandma, slumbered. That blow had distracted the mage enough for Hei Lian to knock him out.
After that, the two of them had entered the cave and woken the Feral Tier 5 up. It was a gamble. Thankfully, her will had been strong enough to resist Vita's Divine Will, even without the help of her departed husband, and they had lived. With her support, Hei Lian had been able to consolidate her position in her clan as the new Alpha, albeit one that had a lot more growing to do.
Damn! His thoughts kept drifting back to her.
Raising his head, he looked between Mars and Hei Lian. They did seem a perfectly matched pair. With his experience with women, maybe the Tamer would make her happier, helping her deal with her insecurities. As for him? Well, at least he wouldn't be the first man contracted by her to be put six-foot under.
The thought was like a steel band constricting his heart. His nails dug into his palms. All of a sudden, he felt that it was hard to breathe.
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