"How I am what?" Lith yelled, having lost his cool for a second.
Now it was the Count's turn to become red up to his ears. Lith followed Keyla, resisting the urge to make her move faster. This whole situation was completely unexpected, and was weighing heavily on his mind.
Since Lith had heard of the painting, Solus hadn't stopped laughing, projecting famous statues like the David by Donatello or the Perseus by Antonio Canova into his head. She had replaced the facial features with Lith's and switched the Medusa's head with the Byk's, grinding on his nerves.
'I swear that if that moron of a Count had me drawn naked or something, I'll kill him faster and more cruelly than his psycho wife ever could.'
Luckily for the Count, that wasn't the case.
The painting was quite big, one meter (3'3") large and 1.5 meters (5') high, and represented the Byk, standing on its feet with glowing red eyes in a dark forest, occupying the center and the left corner.
Lith was drawn while facing the magical beast, offering only the left profile to the viewer. His small body occupied only the bottom right corner, engulfed in a magical aura. His left arm and hand were set ablaze, supposedly because of a fire spell he was casting.
The perspective and darkness-filled background made the Byk seem big and terrifying like a dragon, while Lith appeared as the only element of light, his face filled with courage and determination.
The enormous stuffed body of the Byk was placed a few meters to the right, half hidden in an alcove, to show the visitor the ending of the story depicted in the drawing.
'Well, it's not that bad.' Lith thought. 'It's not the tacky horror I had imagined, and I am not even idiotically beautified. That's my actual face. Solus, is it me, or do I look kind of handsome?'
'Well, I don't know.' She replied. 'It's definitely a version of you that doesn't glare and frown all the time. More importantly, he doesn't look like he is there because he has lost a bet, like you do when you watch yourself in the mirror.'
Lith sighed in relief. At least he wasn't portrayed in his birthday suit or in some kind of arrogant or overbearing pose. That would have been really embarrassing for him.
"What's the problem with the painting?" Lith asked, scratching his head in confusion.
"The problem is that my father showed it to every guest, servant, and passerby that was willing to listen to him. He recounted how you single-handedly defeated the malevolent beast in an epic battle of magic and wits." Jadon answered.
'That's quite an accurate recollection of the events, albeit entirely made up' Solus commented. 'The Count would make an excellent storyteller.'
Lith dismissed Jadon worries with a wave of his hand.
"You are overthinking it. No one actually witnessed the fight, the pelt is almost completely intact, and everyone knows about Count Lark's obsession with magic and sponsoring promising youths.
"They would be more likely to believe that either I lucked out or that the Count gave me some help, and is trying to distort me into being a hero. No offence, your Lordship."
"None taken." The Count replied. "So, do you like it?"
He was bouncing with impatience, waiting for Lith's reply.
"What's not to like?" He shrugged. "I'm not an art expert, but it seems well painted. Both me and the Byk are depicted realistically. The only question I have is how could the artist know my…"
Then Lith's eye noticed the painter signature in the bottom left corner. It was a squiggly line, but with a leap of imagination one could actually read the name 'Trequill Lark'.
Lith turned around abruptly just in time to get a glimpse of Count Lark jumping with joy, before regaining his composure.
Having cleared that issue, they silently returned to the Count's private quarters, before resuming their conversation.
Lith pretended to be casting a fake magic spell, while actually casting his Hush spell. It would create a spherical air vortex that would make eavesdropping by conventional means impossible, by distorting the sounds coming out of the room.
"That will prevent anyone from listening in. As I was saying, taking everything into account, no one would actually believe such a story. Of course the fact that everyone knows my face complicates things, but a covert operation is still feasible.
"The way I see it, we have two options. Option one: I pretend that I'm a half-baked magician who can't live up to what the Count said up until this point. This will give the enemies inside and outside the house the confidence to carry on with their plans, as if I am not even here.
"It should make it easier to capture whoever tried to poison you, but it also means that the assassin will be emboldened and attack more often. Considering that such a person could be a small fish, even eliminating them would do us no good. They would be easily replaceable.
"Option two: I play it big and loud, confirming all the rumors about me. That should put your wife on alert, forcing her to reconsider her plans and become more cautious.
"That would mean a temporary peace, but the next assassination attempts would be conducted by a skilled assassin who would strike only after careful preparation, giving them a high chance of success.
"At the same time, it wouldn't be easy to find another trusted mercenary on such short notice, if we manage to eliminate the first one. Both paths are filled with thorns and danger, so it's up to you to decide."
The room fell into silence, the three nobles were pondering how they wanted to bet their lives.
"Isn't there a third option?" Keyla asked.
"If you can find one, sure. I am open to suggestions." Lith shrugged.
"I say that our best option is discretion." The Count had made up his mind.
"We aren't trying to beat Koya at her own game, we just need to stall for time. If we managed to survive on our own until now, with Lith's help things should be much easier.
"Let's keep our real strength hidden as long as we can, so that when she finds out the truth, hopefully she won't have enough time to take the best countermeasures she could.
"I know her well, she is cold and calculative, but under pressure she is much better at taking orders rather than giving them. It's happened multiple times in the past and now is not any different.
"She could have pretended to accept my decision, to stay by my side despite our differences.
"That way, even the first poisoning attempt would have succeeded, since my suspicions arose mostly because I knew that she wouldn't stand idly by while losing the status and money that the title of Countess gives her.
"As always, Koya's bad temper got the best of her and she made one mistake after another. So, what's our next move?"
"Until everything is resolved, don't hire new servants, it's too risky." Lith said.
"Aside from that, there is not much we can do, we are still on the defence. The only thing that comes to my mind is to introduce me to your staff, one small group at a time.
"Those who are still loyal to you will look at me with curiosity and benevolence, while those who are on your wife's payroll may feel pressured and lose their cool. It's a long shot but it's better than nothing."
Lith's plan was actually more complex than that, but it wasn't something he could share.
Between his Life Vision and Solus' mana sense, he would take note of everyone whose physical strength exceeded their occupation's requirements or had at least a yellow mana core.
'Our best bet would be a male, middle aged with a strong body and mana core. It would make the perfect suspect.' Lith thought.
'Why a male?' Solus asked.
'Because men are physically superior, even in this world. A woman would be better suited to a honey trap, but we already know that the Count doesn't fiddle with the maids.
'Middle aged because it should be someone the Countess planted long ago, to let him gain the trust and authority necessary to freely move in the manor. Also, a strong mana core would be a great tell for a hitman.
'I doubt anyone with enough talent for magic would settle for a manual labour job without a really good reason. If something magic related happens, it would be the perfect diversion, since women would always be the prime suspects being naturally more talented.'
When the Count told Lith that he had fired half of the staff, Lith had deluded himself into believing that it would make things easier for him to control. But reality begged to differ.
The remaining personnel still amounted to over fifty units, and that was only after not taking into account gardeners and stable workers, since they did not have access to the main building.
'Fifty-four f*cking persons! It's more than the whole village population. It took me hours just to meet them all!'
None of them had shown signs of stress meeting him, making his official plan a complete failure. The silver lining was that he had actually found possible suspects. The problem, though, was that there were too many.
Lith had found among the staff sixteen people who stuck out for their physical or magical abilities. Yet he had no way of performing a background check outside directly asking them or their colleagues, but that would make his intentions too obvious.
He couldn't rely on the Count or his children for that. They barely knew their names and roles in the household.
Lith decided that for the time being, the best he could do was keep his own family in the dark. As long as he played his role as a weak magico, the safest place for them was the one furthest away from the eye of the storm.
He kept thinking and thinking, but he couldn't find a way out.
'Dammit! I'm really starting to believe that this time I am way out of my league. I'm no detective, just an out of practice chemist that now practices magical arts! This is not a problem that I can solve by killing or burning stuff.
'The situation resembles a frigging game of chess more and more, and I hate chess! I suck at chess when the fight is fair, let alone when all I have is my queen (me), the king (Count) and two pawns(heirs)!'
Solus giggle was the first good thing he had heard the whole day.
'Well, if the board is so unfavourable, have you thought about cheating?'
Suddenly Lith's stone ring turned to liquid, splashing on the floor before returning to the form of a marble. Eight little legs came out of the stone marble, making it resemble a spider that started to move in circles around Lith.
'Nice little trick, don't you think?'