Chapter 20: Celebration II (1/5)

Flowers and floats turned Triumph Square into a beautiful explosion of colors, but not a single female aristocrat looked interested in it. This was a performance meant only for the lowborns. What fun was there exchanging banal pleasantries with them? But if the Emperor was still enjoying the sights, then they had to pretend to be enjoying it as well.

Elric was the same. It was strange, actually. He used to be so happy taking part in the festivities back home. He’d laugh, sing, and dance with the other villagers. Elric thought he’d be excited to see what the Day of Triumph celebration would be like here in Karth, but now that the day was here, Elric could say he was just tired of it all. The noise, the people, the colors; everything. 

What was going on with him? Had he pretended to be a noble for so long that he was actually thinking like one? Was it possible to turn back the sands of time and revert to his past self and not some sort of dolled-up princess? Was it possible to be Elric again…?

He sunk deep into self-reflection and became lost to the flow of time. The sun had already set and the celebration was beginning to wrap up when Hughesin gently shook his shoulder to rouse him.

“I wonder what it is on your mind, lady Fantasia. Are you peckish, perhaps? The banquet you’ve been looking forward to all this time is coming up soon.”

“Wearing these garments is rather tiring,” Elric mumbled softly, “A looser change of clothes would be preferable than a bite.”

“Lady Fantasia,” A woman cut into the conversation first before Hughesin, “I fear Duke Hughesin will find it rather hard and embarrassing if you were to let loose.”

Her lips twisted into an evil smile.

Somiret shot his sister a furious glare while Hughesin sputtered at her statement. His glare was meant to shut her up, but the beautiful woman ignored it. In fact, she gave Hughesin a knowing wink right afterward. 

Elric wasn’t sure what to think about the relationship between Hughesin and this woman. She wasn’t an old flame of the duke, of that he could be certain. But being able to communicate through the eyes rather than an exchange of words indicated beyond that of an acquaintanceship. Even more surprising was actually how bold and confident this woman was toward Hughesin. How in the world was someone known as the Empire’s greatest pervert not be able to win the heart of a stunningly beautiful woman like her? Was his nickname just for show?

The duke seemed afraid of her, if anything. Elric couldn’t think of any reason why he would be, however. Maybe Hughesin actually fancied this woman or something? Maybe the duke mistook his romantic feelings as feelings of deep friendship, or maybe he was actually afraid of ruining whatever friendship he had with her by confessing? If that was the case then Elric was more than willing to play the role as matchmaker behind their backs. Hopefully he’d do such a good job at it that he’d no longer be considered Hughesin’s number one choice and would be given freedom.

Truth be told, Elric had actually some begrudging amount of respect for Hughesin and his mother in the span of the five days he resided in their home. Matchmaking Hughesin and this woman would be a way for him to pay them back in a sense and soothe the tiniest of guilt he felt about this entire thing. Reading the family journal endeared Elric a little to their plight. History reared its ugly head far too many times to Hughesin and his family, and Elric really did feel sympathy for them. But as much as he wanted to help the ducal house, marriage was without a doubt out of the question.

Those thoughts softened the grim smile on Elric’s face. Hughesin, on the other hand, was growing more and more apprehensive. The wink was a declaration of a game he no longer wished to play. This woman was actually trying to make a trophy out of the one he loved—how utterly preposterous. In what manner of way did she view Fantasia? As a prized prey to be claimed after a hunt? As a testament to her ability to give chase? 

The losses he was dealt at her hands before re-emerged in his mind, striking another blow to the duke’s confidence. She was always the victor whenever they competed and it always stupefied him whenever it happened. Only the fact that he didn’t actually have interest in any of the women they competed for gave him any consolation. But Fantasia wasn’t the same case. He deeply cared about her and the fact that this detestable woman was trying to win her away was absolutely infuriating to him.

The emotions that danced across Hughesin’s face in turn earned a hidden smile from Somiret. Sometimes he had to admire his sister’s strength. Already she was playing with Hughesin’s deep-seated fears, though Somiret knew the duke wasn’t the type to back down so easily. The only thing stopping the duke from doing anything that might sully his reputation was consideration of his own image in front of Fantasia. It was completely unlike Hughesin’s normal attitude, and Somiret firmly believed his sister was the only person in the Empire capable of putting Hughesin in such a state.

All in all, Somiret was quite pleased with the outcome and the preparations he made earlier. Yesternight, the emperor summoned him to discuss the matter and Somiret managed to extract a promise from the emperor to keep a leash on Hughesin by limiting the time he had together with Fantasia. If Hughesin had less time with Fantasia, then his own sister would inversely have more time and opportunities to lead Fantasia away from the duke’s clutches. 

On one hand, Somiret was worried whether or not the Emperor would become infatuated with Fantasia himself. He couldn’t discount that possibility based on their past history together, but nothing was certain. Even after all this time he knew the ruler, Somiret had yet to confidently claim he knew the man and what drove him as a person. On the other hand, Somiret wasn’t actually sure what Hecaris III would do or if he’d change in any way. The man had always been an enigma in their group, a wild card. The man had never really concerned himself with matters of the heart. Now that Hughesin was seemingly trying to reform himself and be an excellent suitor, Somiret didn’t want to see the Emperor dip his hand into the dirty waters and claim the jewel for himself.

Hughesin, Elric, Somiret, and Somiret’s sister were led away from the temple by the guards. Striding through Hero Square, Elric soon came face-to-face with the place where all his troubles in Karth started. The meal that took place here in the temple had changed his destiny irrevocably. Just thinking about it caused tremendous pain for Elric, though he managed to hide his grimace well before clearing his mind of the thought.

Fortunately for Elric, today’s banquet would not be taking place in the same hall as before, where all whispers became shouts. They were led into a different hall that had neither statues or art or architecture. The place was completely level with marble flooring and had nothing else. Not even a roof. He couldn’t comprehend the reasoning behind the construction of such a square and why they decided to omit any semblance of a roof. Aesthetically, though, the square did look quite nice with the sky being reflected on the ground. Even the outlines of the white clouds above were visible on the marble.

A tall white wall stood in the way of anyone wishing to go beyond and into the palace behind it. Preventing access to the centermost part of Waldsk was a single gate ten meters tall. 

Drawing closer to the walls, Elric noticed how they were made from something white like snow and sturdy like granite. The door was made of some kind of alloy and had gold and silver casted into it to form a beautifully complex pattern. The Imperial Emblem of the Karth Empire.

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