The atmosphere in the reception hall was grim. As Deimos and I were ushered in, several sets of eyes fixated on us. From the Felidae side, Father, Mother and the First Elder were present as was Lionel in his capacity as the interim Heir. The big guy seemed to have grown more confident and self-assured in the short month we had been away. Authority seemed to have done him some good.
Now that I thought about it, we had only been away for less than a month but with all that had happened to us, it seemed more like several years. It had been one thing after another and as I had holed myself up in the technique library right after I had returned, I didn't have time to greet anyone.
Mother beckoned for Deimos to sit beside her on the couch facing the Lutrinae and I took my place on the empty spot by father's right side. Nodding to Lionel who was in the seat beside me and receiving his nod of acknowledgement, I proceeded to study our guests with both my sight and my mana senses.
As for asking for permission… A man's gotta take every advantage he can get, right? And what they didn't know wouldn't hurt them.
There were three of the otter-folk who had come visiting. The first was a woman with severe facial features and her grey-streaked brown hair tied up in a tight bun. Her lips were drawn in a thin line, giving her an expression of perpetual displeasure that was the trademark of strict disciplinarians everywhere. Marquess Lutrinae herself.
Her expression didn't give much away about her state of mind but her mana was a whole different story, frothing and roiling like water crashing down a waterfall. Something had her extremely agitated – and going by the current state of affairs, it wasn't difficult to guess what that could be.
Other than the Marquess, to my surprise, I found another face I was familiar with. The girl whose marriage I had presided over in the Tournament. Catching her eye, I sent her a friendly smile, only for her to avert her eyes and look down into her lap. Spying on her mana, I found it whirling around in her mindscape like a vortex as though trying to sink to its depths. If there was one feeling I had to ascribe to it, depressed would be my choice of word. It seemed that whatever the Lutrinae experienced during their escape hadn't left them unscathed.
The last member of the contingent was a broad-shouldered man with a handlebar moustache and a thin scar on his right eyebrow. Given his striking resemblance to the girl and how he seemed to subconsciously angle himself to shield her, I guessed that he might be her father or at least a close relative of hers. Uncle maybe?
His mana too was agitated, poised like an ocean wave ready to break on a shore. He seemed liable to snap at any moment. There was a story here and with my arrival, Marquess Lutrinae opened her mouth to tell the tale.
"I assume that it's quite evident why we are here," she said, her tone dry enough that for a moment I had the misconception that she was talking about the weather, not an event that had forced her to flee her homeland.
She continued, "It all happened too fast. One moment we were going about our daily lives, scrambling to digest our winnings from the Tournament and reshuffling command of the territories. The next, we were surrounded by turncoats and enemies from all sides. Worse, they knew all about us – our personnel distribution, strengths, adept techniques, everything – while we were kept in the dark." She sighed, finally letting a bit of the emotion I knew was hidden in her mind out, "We didn't stand a chance."
"Then… pardon me for my bluntness… how did you manage to escape? Your territory is in the central portion of the Southern District. Getting here must have been difficult," interjected the First Elder.
I saw the Lutrinae man's face reddening and his jaws clenching. Both his and the Marquess' mana went wild. For a moment I was confused by their overreaction before it hit me. They were suspect. There was no telling if they weren't part of Hotaru Vulpine's plot. Even if they weren't willing participants, their family might have been held hostage. By letting them 'escape' and joining us, the sly woman might be planting informers in our midst.
No! Not only that. Even if they were innocent, even the fact that they could be suspects meant that we had to be on guard against them. This was an open intrigue to tie up our attention. By intentionally letting a few high-ranking people escape – specially people like the Lutrinae who were known to be antagonistic to the Duchess, she managed to avoid having to deal with them herself while, at the same time putting her opposition, us, in an awkward situation. We couldn't, in good conscience, imprison or kill them but we couldn't trust them not to backstab us at some crucial moment either.
Reducing her own effort and burdening her enemies with their own allies.
I couldn't help but draw in a breath of cold air. Seriously sinister. Well, considering that my own mind had leapt to that conclusion so swiftly, did that make me sinister too? Nah, I'll chalk it up to Ceres constantly bringing up convoluted scenarios and forcing me to guess the intentions of the parties involved. Common sense she called it.
Taking a deep breath, the Marquess calmed herself and cut right to the heart of the matter. "I didn't expect your trust when I came here…" When the First Elder started to protest that that wasn't what he had implied, she cut him off with a slashing motion of her hand. "No need to spare my sensibilities, I know that after Vulpine's treachery, trust is a commodity in extremely short supply and asking you to believe us is asking for too much."
Meeting each of our gazes in turn, her greyish-blue eyes settling on Mother finally, she said, "I am willing to submit to an interrogation by light and prove the purity of my words."
The Lutrinae man sat up in his seat, outrage on her behalf clear on his face, "Madame!"
The Marquess stopped his protest up with a raised palm before rubbing her face with it and sinking back into her seat. She seemed utterly tired.
"What honour do we have to lose after fleeing like scared rats leaving half our family behind to the mercies of the enemy? I'm old and talentless, Rowan. I've been stuck at the peak of Tier 4 for over thirty years. All I could do for the clan was push aggressively for the seat of the Duchess, just so that the young, talented ones like you and your daughter would have more scope to grow. But I never expected… not even half-an-year to enjoy our victory."
Turning to Mother and Father, envy was clear in her voice, "Half my age and already at Tier 5… Felidae really has good fortune." Her gaze settled on me and her expression grew even more bitter. "Really… exasperating."
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