"Damn!" cursed Hotaru Vulpine as she slammed her fist down on the table, nearly cracking it with the force of her agitation. "The Felidae! Again!" she gritted out through clenched teeth.
She had expected things to go wrong with her plan – as they always did, even for the most meticulously laid ones – but she hadn't expected for the troubles to come from the same group of people. First it was the girl, Ceres, turning coat within weeks of marrying the red-headed Felidae heir. At that time, it hadn't seemed very relevant – not with the Geas binding her to the path that had been set for her.
Hotaru accepted her mistake now. It had been negligent of her to underestimate one of the members of her own noble lineage. The girl had somehow managed to break free of the Geas and done it much, much faster than she could have ever anticipated.
Thankfully, she had planned ahead for such a contingency even if the probability of occurrence of such an unlikely event was abysmally low. She'd had to pre-pone her plans and rush the takeover of the central and southern districts of the South-Eastern Province but it didn't hurt the essentials. She wasn't confident of keeping things secret long enough for her entire plan to play out anyway.
Getting Mars Felidae on the throne was a long shot and with the number of people who knew about her plans, or at least had an inkling of her treasonous intentions after she had started contacting the noble families she had tied marital bonds with, meant that it was only a matter of time till she was forced to set her contingency plan in motion. Ceres hadn't particularly upset her overall scheme.
Though it was annoying to lose her chess-piece and have it reverse to the opposition. And then there was the matter of her mother lying in wait in the heart of the Forbidden Zone. A pity that… she had meant to draw support from her mother's spirit to promote to Tier 5… Oh well.
Hotaru Vulpine shook her head. What had happened, had happened. There was no use crying over spilt milk and while she fully intended to deal with Ceres and the Felidae later, the girl and her new family hadn't seemed that important at the time.
Flopping onto her cushioned chair behind her desk, her six tails twitching in agitation, the Duchess rubbed her face with her hands. She sighed. How wrong she had been.
When the information had arrived about the Calamity being staved off by the cooperation between the Firang outpost army and the Heavenly Wolf Mercenaries (another miscalculation on her part), she had nearly executed the messenger on the spot for bringing false news.
If the news of a motley group of mages penetrating deep into the Forbidden Zone and dealing with the source of the Calamity wasn't absurd enough, then the rumours of Mars Felidae's magical prowess bordered on the incredible.
How old was he? Nineteen years. A mere four and a half cycles… and he could go toe to toe with Tier 4 mages on a good day? The Duchess had almost begun to suspect her life.
Yes, she had high hopes for him. Yes, she had wanted to support him to the throne… but it wasn't because the boy himself had any extraordinary quality but for his social station.
Apparently, he did… another miscalculation of hers. She was making a lot of those these days.
Fine. A precocious girl and a boy genius. She'd deal with them in time. Though they had created some obstacles for her, it wasn't anything serious.
The function of the Calamity – and Koschei – was to distract the main forces of the Regiis Empire so she could consolidate her hold on the Central and South Districts. If she managed to quell the unrest within a very short amount of time and the conditions were ripe, she wouldn't have minded gnawing a chunk out of the Eastern District as well.
Unlikely as the Regiis reinforcements would have arrived soon enough – what with the Empire's Demigods going into action to quell Koschei's rebellion. It wasn't a big loss.
But this time… this time the Felidae had truly put a spanner in the works. Once was a coincidence, twice was suspicious and thrice… thrice was the last straw. If she ignored the family even now, it would be gross negligence on her part.
How the hell was she to know that the Felidae matriarch would advance a Tier? Anyone… she could have accepted the promotion of any other mage at the peak of Tier 4 to Tier 5. She even had contingency plans for such occasions. But never in her wildest dreams had she even considered that the one to promote would be Epione Felidae.
The very fact that she couldn't promote had been the chip based on which Ceres was supposed to convince Mars, the sluggish Felidae heir, to participate in the Swayamvar. And now, she suddenly promoted to Tier 5 without any rhyme or reason?
The worst thing was that by the time she gained access to the information, the Lutrinae matriarch with the high-level mages she had bled off intentionally had already reached the Felidae residence.
She groaned into her hands in frustration. She could easily conceive what would happen now. As a Tier 4 peak mage, only a Tier 5 light mage – that too with high attainments in healing magic – could reliably tell if Marquess Lutrinae was lying or not. If Epione Felidae hadn't promoted, then all would be fine but now that she had…
The question could hardly be removed from her mind. What was the most fearful? A strong opponent? No! It was one who you couldn't fully understand. And the Duchess couldn't fully understand the Felidae.
Suddenly, the door to her office was shoved open and an agitated, dark-haired young man burst in. "I told you that you should have uprooted the weeds and left no trouble for the future but you were adamant on letting them go! Now look at what happened!"
Lifting her face from her hands, the Duchess narrowed her beautiful eyes. Cold fury burnt therein. Standing up, she rounded her desk in one lithe movement and in a beige blur, one of her tails lashed out at blistering speeds.
A sharp crack resounded through the room as the young man – barely more than a boy – spun in place from the force of the blow and collapsed onto the ground. Holding his inflamed cheek, he turned to her with disbelief in his eyes, a trickle of blood flowing down the corner of his mouth. "You…"
The Duchess didn't give him a chance to speak as her form blurred, turning into a large six tailed daemon fox that took up a large portion of the room. Another form split out of her like a smoky mirage, solidifying into another fox. The boy shivered, falling silent, as he felt a cold, wet snout touching the back of his neck.
The three beige foxes with white-tipped tails began to circle around the boy in slow, menacing steps and he could only get up into a crouch and turn his head from one to the other, trying to determine which was the real one.
The three foxes spoke in eerie unison. "Boy, don't forget yourself. I was the one who raised you up, I can thrust you down. Without me, you aren't anything. You sold your wife, your family out just for the sake of your own benefit. Once the truth gets out, what do you think will be your fate?"
Cold sweat beaded on the boy's forehead. He was the commoner who had been inducted into the Lutrinae clan. The Duchess had contacted him shortly after the Tournament with an offer…
After thinking it over, he had finally chosen to cut a deal with her. He would become one of her informers within the Lutrinae and in return, once she had taken over the Southern district, she would support him in the clan as one of the puppet leaders.
The original plan was to let the Lutrinae high level escape and use that fact to hit the morale of the remaining members of the clan, claiming that they had been abandoned. Using the opportunity, the informers would try to win over the remnants.
It had gone well thus far with him leveraging the sympathy he had garnered from claiming that his even his wife had left him behind to flee alone.
But now, with the news that the Lutrinae had successfully switched sides, it was only a matter of time till the gig was up. And once the matter was perforated, there wouldn't be a single place in the world he could take shelter.
In his anxiety, he had forgotten himself, barging into the Duchess' temporary residence in the Lutrinae estates but with that blow to his face and the pressure of her circling around him, regarding him like a deceased person, he finally sobered.
Dropping to his knees, he rubbed his forehead into the ground. "Mercy, Duchess. I was too impetuous. Please show me a way out."
There was a long silence that nearly caused him to collapse before she spoke. "Good."
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