Chapter 166: Meaning
Everyone in the hall held their breath, silently waiting for Arthur to speak as he came into view.
He stood wordlessly and surveyed the outdoor gallery from atop the stage. Every person present seemed to ingrain the image of Arthur in their minds the moment he had reached the spotlight.
I had seen my childhood friend just hours before, so I was even more stunned by how different he looked compared to when I was with him then. His long auburn hair was tied loosely in a knot behind his head, held together by an ornamental pin. Rather than the usual formal attire of humans, he wore a silky decorative robe like us elves. However, unlike our traditional garb, the loose sleeves of his robe just barely went past his elbows, revealing thin tight-fitting gloves that covered his entire arms. Completing his refined ensemble of clothing was a rich fur pelt, as white as snow, slung over one shoulder.
It hadn’t been too long since he had appeared in front of the world, adorned in an extravagant armor that dazzled everyone who had come to watch. Yet, seeing him up there within the column of light in his elegant attire, he didn’t just seem dazzling. He radiated an otherworldliness that I had only felt when I saw Master Aldir.
Distracted by his transformation, I only realized when Arthur turned his head, peering deeply at the Vritra retainer encased in ice, that the red burns that had scarred his neck were no longer visible.
He turned back to face us before talking, his voice coming out low and steady. “Displaying a corpse as some sort of trophy or keepsake for the masses to gawk at is something I deeply disapprove of, but the people attending this event tonight aren’t part of the masses. Each noble here has workers, civilians and inhabitants in your lands that wait impatiently for news regarding this war, and until now, vague assumptions and baseless theories were the only things you could give them.”
Arthur paused, but the crowd remained quiet, faithfully waiting for him to speak again. “Born from a humble background, I was able to climb to where I am now thanks to my family as well as the friends I met along the way. I am now a lance, the youngest one at that, but I’m not the strongest. The lances out there, some who are fighting battles as we speak, are echelons above me in power, yet even I was able to defeat a retainer, one of the so-called ‘highest powers’ of the Alacryan army.”
As Arthur paused once more and excited murmurs began sounding from the crowd, I realized that these halts in his speech were intentional. He was a year younger than me, and with his background, he had been neither taught nor prepared for things like speeches or social intricacies, yet he was able to utilize every breath, word, break and motion to perfectly take control of the crowd.
“As you can see. I’ve sustained no injuries from my battle with this supposedly-powerful force and am healthy enough to chatter on like this amongst a crowd of nobles,” he smiled, eliciting chuckles from everyone around me.
Placing one of his gloved hands on the tomb of ice, he shifted his gaze to where the Council was seated. “This symbol is not only my offering to the Council who has granted me with this role, but also a gift that I hope you all can take home and spread to your people—figuratively, of course.”
Cheers and laughs erupted after Arthur bowed, signalling the end of his speech. The illuminating artifacts turned back on as Arthur left the stage and my grandfather came back up.
“Please feel free to get a closer look at the Vritra, and I hope you enjoy the rest of the evening.” With that, a few guards replaced my grandfather on stage as the Council came up first.
While they tried to hide their astonishment, It was obvious by their expressions that it really was their first time seeing the corpse as well. I watched as my parents as well as Curtis and Kathyln’s parents studied the frozen tomb. Only the dwarven elder named Rahdeas kept his distance, his expression subtly strained.
“Princess Tessia, would you like me to take you to the corpse?” General Varay asked, a rare hint of anticipation in her sharp eyes.
Not wanting to disappoint the lance, Curtis, Kathyln, Claire and I followed her toward the stage where more and more nobles began surrounding the frozen Vritra.
Reaching the front of the premises where the soldiers stood guard, I examined the corpse inside. It was hard for me to look at the Vritra for too long though. Physical attribute-wise, it—she—looked human, but staring at the two hollowed cavities where her eyes should’ve been filled me with a fear that couldn’t be blocked by mana.
Seeing Varay stare intently at all angles of the Vritra with her hands moving along the ice tomb as Claire studied the corpse wearily, I suddenly remembered.
“Claire.” I gently tugged on her sleeve. “Wait right here! Let me go get Arthur!”
“What? Tessia, no—”
Ignoring Claire, I quickly made my way to the back of the stage behind the curtains.
“This area is off”—a female guard stationed behind the stage retreated a few steps—“Princess Tessia?”
I smiled, quickly making up an excuse. “My grandfather is expecting me to meet with him.”
The guard shifted her gaze over toward the narrow staircase beside her. “General Arthur and Commander Virion had ordered no one to go down these stairs, even the rest of the Council,” she replied hesitantly.
“I know. They told me not to tell the Council that I’m here as well,” I lied. “Now please, both of them are expecting me.”
She thought once more for a moment but stepped aside with a nod, motioning for me to go down.
I didn’t thank her—that would’ve been suspicious. I just nodded back and headed down the staircase that was wide enough for only one person at a time.
The staircase seemed to spiral down endlessly. If it wasn’t for the slight nuances in each of the illuminating artifacts’ designs, I would’ve thought that there was some sort of illusory magic at work.
I quieted my steps with wind magic as I went deeper down the stairs. I knew what I was doing was wrong—even if it was just Arthur and my grandfather—but I was too curious to find out what these important matters were and why they needed to even keep them a secret from the Council.
Once I got close enough to hear faint voices muttering behind closed doors, I withdrew my magic before walking down a few more steps. Both Grandpa and Arthur were freakishly sensitive to mana fluctuations, so if I wanted to eavesdrop, I had to rely on just my hearing. Thankfully, because of my enhanced senses after my beast will’s assimilation, I was able to make out what they were saying, and from the sound of it, the artificer Gideon was there as well.
“Don’t push yourself, brat,” my grandfather grunted.
“I’m fine. I didn’t need to use magic so it’s just physical fatigue more than anything else,” Arthur replied, his voice sounding weak compared to how it sounded up on stage. “This paste around my neck is rather stifling though.”
“Best not touch it or the substance will wear off more quickly,” Gideon muttered. “You wouldn’t want your scars showing during the party.”
Arthur let out what I could barely make out as a sigh. “Right, I still have to go back out there.”
“Of course you do. You’re the star of the event,” Grandpa replied. “Your speech was convincing enough, though, so it might not be necessary for you to stay until the end.”
“Good. Gideon, how did the recording go?” Arthur asked.
“It was a hassle trying to capture the images at the exact moments you specified since there’s still a bit of a delay between the moment I press the trigger and when the shot is taken—hold on, let me take note of that so I can fix it.”
“Focus, Gideon,” Arthur snapped, his voice impatient.
“I know you just had your legs forcefully torn into a mess and barely put back together but that’s no excuse for being grumpy with me,” Gideon grumbled. “Anyway, I was able to capture the images of Rahdeas’ face when Virion first announced the Vritra, then when Arthur first came into view, and when Arthur said he had sustained no injuries,” Gideon noted.
“Here, let me see that,” my grandfather said. “What’s Rahdeas looking at in this picture?”
“Not what, who,” Arthur answered. “He’s looking at General Varay, who was in the crowd. I suggested to Tessia’s father that we have the lance look after the royal children.”
“So Rahdeas thought that General Varay was the one who killed the Vritra?” Gideon asked.
“Wait. Is that why you froze the retainer’s corpse? To get him to think that it was Varay?” My grandfather cut in, his voice sounding surprised.
“I wanted him to think that the strongest lance was responsible for killing one of the strongest forces in the Alacryan army before it was revealed that I killed him,” Arthur explained.
“You always have a few tricks up your sleeves, don’t you?” my grandfather chuckled.
“Look at Rahdeas face when he first saw the Vritra come up encased in ice. He’s surprised and looks immediately over toward Varay,” the artificer pointed out. “Then look at the image of him after Arthur comes into view and then when he announced how he, the weakest of the lances, had kicked the retainer’s ass without sustaining an injury.”
“There are shock and anger,” my grandfather noted. “Most would be surprised and progressively grow happier to learn that the supposed weakest is stronger than one of the Alacryan powerhouses.”
“This still doesn’t prove that Rahdeas is actively helping the Alacryans, but this does give us a good idea on his stance is on all of this,” Arthur added. “We’ll know for sure in the next battle when…”
Arthur’s voice trailed off. I couldn’t hear any of them anymore.
<em>Lord Rahdeas is helping out the Alacryans?</em>
I needed to hear more. Just what was Arthur planning in this next battle?
I inched down a few more steps to get closer but I still couldn’t hear them.
Damn it. I knew it was risky, but I decided to take the chance and hope that Arthur’s weakened state would allow me to use just a tiny bit of magic when a sudden surge of mana erupted from down below. I covered my face with my arms on instinct.
“So we had a little mouse.” My stomach sank as I realized Arthur’s voice was just inches away from me.
“Surprise,” I said weakly.
<span style=”text-decoration: underline;”><strong>ARTHUR LEYWIN</strong></span>
I smirked back at my childhood friend as she mustered a smile. Virion, who followed behind me, let out a sigh as he realized it was his own granddaughter that had been eavesdropping.
“You know, boy’s don’t like girls who snoop around like this,” Gideon chuckled.
Tess’ gaze flickered to me before looking away. “I-I wasn’t snooping. I came back here to look for Arthur and the guard let me in rather easily.”
“Yes, I’m sure the guard did,” Virion replied before he cast a barrier around the four of us. “Now how much did you hear?”
“Enough,” she answered, her expression turning serious. “Is Lord Rahdeas really…”
“We’re not sure yet,” I cut in. “It’s too soon to assume or act on any of the information we’ve gathered so far.”
Her gaze fell, downcast. “I see.”
“Is there anything else we need to go over, Virion?” I looked back over my shoulder at the old elf.
“I think we’ve shaken up Rahdeas enough. Good work today, brat,” Virion responded with a nod.
I turned back to my friend. “Then would you like to accompany me for the rest of the event?”
She was taken aback at first but her lips curled up into a bright smile. “Sure!”
Going back up the stairs, we were greeted by lively music and laughter along with the frequent clink of glass.
“The mood sure turned festive,” I noted when Tessia causally linked her arm around mine.
“If I don’t do this, every nobleman within eyeshot will try to either ask me for a dance or a drink together,” she explained, looking the other way.
“<em>Every</em> nobleman, huh?” I stressed. “My meek childhood friend has sure turned confident.”
She tightened her grip around me, pinching my arm as she waved to nearby nobles that greeted her.
Unable to express my pain with so many eyes watching, I casually leaned toward her, prying her fingers off of my arm as I whispered, “Same old Tessia, resorting to violence, I see.”
“It’s because only violence seems to work on someone as slow as you, General, ” she replied with a feigned smile.
As we walked through the large open venue of the party, I was greeted left and right by nobles from cities far away and despite her childish antics, Tess was a big help throughout the night. She pointed out notable guests that I should greet and share a drink with and others who would be plenty satisfied with just a sincere greeting.
While I had experience in events like this in my former life, I knew very little of the politics involving the three kingdoms. Tess, on the other hand, knew exactly who was important and what sort of personalities they had. Subtly leading the conversation and keeping it brief while making sure not to offend them, Tess made my night much easier.
Perhaps the only downside to having her beside me was the occasional glare and pinching of skin whenever she caught me sending a smile back to nearby ladies that greeted me.
I guess courtesy should only be extended to the members of society outside of the potential dating range.
“Brother!” Ellie called out from the crowd.
Looking around, I caught sight of her excitedly waving her arm amidst a group of friends. Even from here I could see the glimmering bracelet embedded with the pink beast core of a phoenix wyrm I had gotten for both her and Mother. Waving back, I walked over to them when my sister unexpectedly wrapped her arms around my waist.
“Ellie?” I said, startled as Tess chuckled beside me.
“H-H-He really is your brother!” a pig-tailed girl in a puffy dress stammered as she tugged on Ellie’s sleeve.
“Girls, I’d like you all to meet my brother, and Princess Tessia,” she announced, puffing her chest as she linked her arms around my other arm.
“It’s an honor, General Arthur! Princess Tessia!” a curly-haired girl in a overly-embellished white dress greeted.
“You were so cool up there, General Arthur!” another girl exclaimed, inching closer to us. “Is it true that you got no injuries at all when you defeated the retainer?”
Looking at the sparkling gazes from the little girls, I suddenly felt embarrassed.
“Although he looks this pretty and fragile, he’s actually one of the strongest mages in all of Dicathen,” Tess answered for me.
“You’re so lucky to have him as your brother,” a small girl with bobbed hair and a cute frilly dress sighed. “My oldest brother wasn’t able to get into Xyrus so he’s going to some no name academy in Carn City while my father sent my second brother to fight in the war after causing trouble with another noble’s daughter.”
I watched silently as my sister resumed gossiping with her friends. It was relieving to see her laugh and smile as opposed to shedding tears over my injuries and our parents being far away.
Giving my sister another hug, Tess and I walked away from her group.
“It’s funny how my sister always finds the need to introduce me to everyone she knows,” I smiled. “Even on her seventh birthday party at the Helstea Manor, she told every one of her little friends.”
“She just wants to show off her older brother,” Tess giggled, lightly holding onto my arm. “Even girls her age love to gossip and brag about what they have, and for Ellie, her one and only brother is a great source of pride.”
“Well, I’m just glad she seems to be surrounded by girls.”
“I’m sure your sister is pretty popular with the boys,” Tessia teased.
I froze, glancing back at my sister and her friends, only to see a small group of noble boys approaching them.
Tess tugged on my arm. “Come now, don’t be overbearing.”
My eyes shifted toward the back of the venue, where a large brown bear was gnawing on a thick bone. Feeling my gaze, my sister’s bond stared at me with intelligent eyes. I jerked my head, pointing toward Ellie and her group.
Boo turned, and after noticing the group of boys, nodded once.
I nodded back.
He knew what had to be done.
“What are you doing?” Tess asked.
I turned back and continued walking just in time to hear a loud growl and the frightened screams of little boys behind me. “Nothing.”
After greeting a few more nobles, I slumped down on a chair. My legs were on the verge of shaking, but I was still pleased at how much they’d healed.
I looked up to see Tess searching for someone, stretching her neck as she tiptoed to see past the crowd.
“Wait here,” she blurted, immediately bolting off into the crowd. After some time, I spotted her walking back with General Varay beside her, a downcast look on her face.
“General,” I greeted, getting up from my seat.
“General,” she echoed tersely, her eyes examining me.
“I’m so sorry, Arthur,” Tess suddenly apologized. “General Varay said she left. She didn’t want to see you.”
“What are you talking about?” I replied. “Who didn’t want to see me?”
Tess let out a sigh. “Claire Bladeheart. She was here today.”