Deep in the night, Richard was in a dreamless slumber. Deep sleep allowed his fatigued body to recover slightly, and the powerful mana and energy potions concentrated the entire process.
The grey dwarves had a popular saying in ancient times— time was money. However, that referred to the time of ordinary people, or those in secondary planes. For people like Richard or Sharon who came from primary planes, the worth of their time could not be measured in mere gold.
Richard knew he had taken his first and most important step, something that gave him an exceptionally peaceful sleep. All the frustrations of his previous days had been vented by that armoured horse, and the boy rested without realising the extent of the shock his rune had on others and even the Deepblue itself…
Steven’s residence was bigger than Richard’s, the building three levels taller. In the eyes of outsiders this showed the value and affection Her Excellency had for the dragon warlock, and it was also a symbol of his identity as the child of a large noble family. However, only Steven himself knew the price of maintaining this illusion.
Richard’s accommodations were completely free. On the other hand, he had to pay the full rent for this larger and more opulent residence. Even someone like Steven, who had full support of the Solam Family, was burdened by the nearly 300,000 coins he had to pay for this place’s rent. On top of that, he paid twice the normal school fees. Although Duke Solam had paid off years of Steven’s education in one go, the costs of studying at the Deepblue weren’t that simple. Even without using special methods to calculate the monthly expenses, the huge rent on the residence alone was racking up a huge amount of interest.
The resources of a large family like the Solam Family couldn’t be used on one person. The only reason he’d convinced his family to send him to the Deepblue was that they wanted a runemaster of their own blood. This was a desire any ambitious family on the continent held, and Randolph had wasted his chance like a fool before he could even begin. As a dragon warlock with the potential to become a runemaster in the future, Steven managed to gain even more resources than Randolph and he’d begun to take part in matters related to his family in the past few years, showcasing his outstanding capabilities.
However, the family expected a return on its investments. With Randolph as a precedent they had limited patience, and Duke Solam would only use two or three years to consolidate his position as a legendary being before he began a large-scale expansion.
Steven also had to bear Minnie’s fees. With the marriage established, Marquess Niall had been impatient to stop paying his daughter’s fees. Things were getting tense on the frontlines of the battle, and with the war affecting his own lands it was a question whether he’d even be able to hold on until the end of the next year. Ultimately, this was because the Marquess’ men were too incompetent.
Of course Steven added his own uncle into the list of useless people. That man had been charged with leading the reinforcements the Solam Family had sent. Even with an absolute advantage in military strength, battling on familiar ground, their armies couldn’t hold up against Alice. Forget crushing or surrounding her smaller army, they had yet to truly defeat her even once.
This woman was extremely sharp when it came to the battlefield. Her tactics were erratic, and the moment she found the opponent’s weak point she would immediately strike like lightning, fierce and merciless. With less than a third the troops her opponent had, on a battlefield that was large and average in size, she’d sent the allied forces running everywhere, tired to the bone. She looted Niall’s fields, mines, forests, and towns, seizing all their resources. What she could not move she destroyed, leaving the Marquess’ heart bleeding and the man unable to fall asleep.
The one-sided nature of it all had caused the surrounding noble families to grow restless. Solam’s powerful intervention had cost him a corresponding amount, and with the war reaching a stalemate most of the benefits Solam had gotten from Niall had disappeared. If this continued further, he would be facing a loss.
Steven’s information said the family had already decided to make peace with Alice Archeron if they couldn’t take her out within a week. As for the compensation for this war, Niall would have to rack his brains.
Steven had kept his residence classy for the past half year, but now the sounds of utensils shattering rang out in the house. The elegant and intricate art pieces were smashed mercilessly into the walls or the ground, throwing fragments everywhere. Some shards even brushed past the youth’s own face, leaving a few shallow bloody lines on him. The tangible and intangible weight on his shoulders was leaving him almost suffocated, and while smashing things could help him vent a little, that was only temporary. Still, venting was exactly what he needed right now, or he’d definitely go crazy.
“It’s Archeron. It’s Archeron again! They’re a whole bunch of lunatics! Those devils should go to hell, why are they here to obstruct my way!” Steven yelled and cursed as if he was delirious, but that still wasn’t enough to calm the fury in his heart.
However, there was nothing left to smash in the bedroom. The only thing remaining standing was an antique gold vase with crystals embedded in it, the most valued treasure of an emperor in another plane. Even ignoring its artistic value, if the superior purple crystals were removed from it and sold, they would definitely be worth over a million gold coins. Steven definitely couldn’t bear the cost of such a treasure; this was actually a prized possession of the Duke’s that he’d borrowed so he could show off.
Steven’s anger did have a limit. He could smash up a number of items, but even if Richard were to kick his face in front of an audience, he wouldn’t dare even touch this one.
Minnie stood in the corner quietly, looking lonely yet beautiful. She was at an age where she was beginning to bloom, and her great figure and arrogant attitude only enhanced her youthfulness. However, her face and arms too had thin red lines on them, Steven’s anger had reached her as well. The flying shards did not discriminate.
Looking at Minnie, Steven felt his anger rise further. In his eye she was no beautiful girl or genius mage, instead a huge black hole for gold. Her fees were only a fifth of his, but it was definitely not a small amount. While her residence was not as large as Steven or Richard’s, it was not smaller than that of a regular grand mage. The house alone cost more than her school fees in rent. And all this didn’t even include the amount she spent in training!
It wasn’t all that difficult for the Solams to support Minnie. However, with Steven’s own expenses reaching such an astounding number, the addition of hers would leave anyone breathless. Even a tiny stone could cause people to feel suffocated in a ship that was about to sink.
Steven knew full well that the amount of money Duke Solam had invested in him left no room for failure. All legendary beings had long lifespans, so the duke would have no lack of heirs in his lifetime. Quite a few would be talented as well.
From youth Steven’s instructors had told him that he was no genius before he held true power. Countless geniuses were born each other, but only those with enough resources could actually develop themselves. Those without the talent could only possess an empty, glamorous title, and that too was only before they came of age. Once they grew up they would truly be nothing, lesser even than the ordinary people. The glamour they’d experienced in their youths would only serve as trauma for their future lives. Randolph was the most recent example of this.
Steven thirsted for success, and was just as fearful of failure. The path he had walked had turned into one that headed straight into the abyss of hell, and retreating just one step would leave him only a horrible death.
A mere dragon warlock was not deserving of such massive financial support. His social reputation also wasn’t worth that much. In terms of his abilities in managing matters of the family, this old family that had continued over a hundred generations had numerous managers. In actuality, in order to obtain the chance to study under Sharon and become a runemaster, not only had he used his family and Duke Solam’s personal resources, he had also put in a lot of manpower and material power from his mother’s side. Once the family chose to abandon him, he would be no better than those busy mages in the outer regions of the Deepblue, focused solely on earning money.
However, Richard loomed over this difficult path like the Augustine Mountains, ‘God’s Heavenly Moat.’
He’d acted of his own accord to marry Minnie, causing Duke Solam to have to pay even more. This couldn’t actually be blamed on him; he was only doing things based on the laws of nobility. He’d made the right decision in that moment, the one most useful to his development in the future. It wasn’t just his father’s family, even his mother’s and wife’s side were extremely important resource. Who would have thought that Marquess Niall would be so shameless and heartless as to toss his outstanding daughter to the Solam Family?
Steven practically pasted his face into Minnie’s as he yelled, “You! Tell me what use you serve to me now! I’m paying so much for your fees every month, so tell me, how can you help? Are you helping improve my runecrafting, or in gaining me favours from Master? TELL ME! THAT RICHARD HAS ALREADY LEFT ME FAR IN THE DUST, WHAT COULD I EVEN DO?”
Seeing her stay silent, Steven found it even more difficult to suppress his emotions as he snickered, “I almost forgot that you’re a woman. At the very least, you can come to my bed. Now strip, and scram to the bed!”
Minnie did not argue, nor did she retaliate. She silently took off her clothes, lay on the bed, and spread her legs. Her expression was calm as she did this, but she turned her face to the side when she lay down to hide the tears leaking from her eyes.
She squeezed her eyes shut, but the violent ravaging she’d expected didn’t come. Hearing nothing even after a moment, she couldn’t help but open her eyes again. She saw Steven stood at the bed, holding a bottle of an alcohol bottle in hand as he took the occasional large swig. His gaze passed her body, instead settling on Floe Bay that was outside the window. The night view of the bay wasn’t pitch black, the icicles always emitting strange glimmers with no sign of life. It seemed extremely desolate and cold.
He looked at Minnie and said coldly, “You’re a smart woman. Now isn’t the time for you to show your temper or be stubborn. If I’m not successful in becoming a runemaster, everything’s over. Status, fame, money, power— I will have nothing. You should be aware of this fact. Marquess Niall has long since forsaken you, and your fate is now tied with mine. You should feel lucky, because large noble families with long histories like ours still prize official marriages. I don’t have plans to invalidate the marriage yet. Right now, you need to do something about your future to prove your usefulness to me, the Solam Family, and that you’re worthy of the 500, 000 gold coins that you spend monthly. If you can’t do it, or don’t want to, then I won’t force you to do anything. Leave the Deepblue the next month. I believe nobody would be willing to spend 500, 000 gold coins on the daughter of a defeated Marquess who’s been used before. That’s for every month!” Steven was slightly drunk by the end of it all, and his last words were bellowed out.
Minnie stared up at the ceiling blankly, unmoving. Steven had spoken the truth just now. Without the Solam Family’s financial support, it wasn’t just her status that fell— she’d be put in a worse position than Erin! Many men would want to leave something on the body of a former lady, and her talent with magic would grow insignificant at that point.
Sharon had a saying, “There’s ample geniuses in the world, it’s gold that’s finite.”
To be fair, Steven was the one who’d invested his time into this wedding agreement. Minnie blinked in a moment, finally sitting up. Although her expression was still cold, the arrogance and ridicule in her eyes had died away. A smile of mockery rose about her lips, but this time, it was meant for herself. Her two feet touched the ground and, just like that, she stood by Steven’s side, gazing out of the window as he did, “I have nothing to be so proud of, but I can’t give up on everything I have now. I choose to stand with you. You can treat me as a woman, a companion, a friend, or even a subordinate, but I won’t be a toy.”
Steven did not reply, merely narrowing his gaze on the wintry scene outside with a dangerous look.
Minnie sighed and continued, “Don’t you think this situation is strange? Richard’s never learnt how to make complete runes, while you’re mentored by Saint Klaus and have top-notch materials to use. Even then it took you half a month with 41 failures to reach 20% completion, but Richard could make a full rune directly?”
Minnie’s words calmed Steven down, and he began to consider, “You mean there’s a possibility Richard didn’t make the rune? No, there’s no reason for Professor Fayr to lie, he has no need to be biased towards either the Solams or the Archerons. Richard should have made it himself, but you’re on the right track. His class schedule says he’ll only begin learning runecrafting next year at the earliest, so there must have been some decisive factor that allowed him to break through this obstacle that so many never do in an instant, soaring so high. We need to find that key factor; even if I can’t use it, I could get some inspiration.”
Minnie frowned, “That’s going to be difficult.”
“It is. Richard has practically no friends, and rarely has dealings with people not related to him. His greatest contact is with the grand mages who are his Professors, but those guys are basically emotionless beings. This is the Deepblue, I definitely can’t stalk him to see who he makes contact with. Even buying information about his whereabouts will cause too much of a fuss.” Steven could not help but furrow his brows, Randolph’s pitiful experiences fresh in his mid. Malice towards another of her apprentices would not gain him Sharon’s favour.
“Erin! We should just ask her. Who knows, we might just get an answer,” Minnie suggested. “After all, she’s the only woman to get so close to him.”
Steven shook his head, “Erin? What use is she? I thought she was someone Richard liked, why else would the enforcers ban her from getting in bed with him? The only reason I had her first time was because I wanted to make Richard angered or dispirited, hoping he used some fierce methods in retaliation. As you can see, though, there’s no effect at all. There’s no change to Richard’s studies and lifestyle, and there doesn’t even seem to be a change in his emotional state. Is that liking someone? So much time has passed already, and Richard must have lost his interest in her. Why would he tell such an important secret to such an unreliable woman? The situation now is different as well; if Richard finds out about me and Erin it might even have the opposite effect. After all, those old guys are obviously on his side! Don’t assume they’re all confused geezers!”
Minnie was not of the same opinion. “There’s no harm in trying. Besides, you don’t know how a woman thinks. Erin likes him a little, which is why she will definitely not tell Richard what happened between you, or at least not the details. However, she definitely knows that she and Richard have no future. After being used by you, she’s even more clear about that. Since there’s no hope, why not use past feelings to earn some money? That’s all as long as this amount exceeds what she expected. All women living at the district at the edges are all the same. If she really could hold on, you wouldn’t have been able to get her so easily.”
Steven hesitated for a moment, and then nodded. However, he then sighed and said with a hint of disappointment, “Even if I were to find out the secret, the gap it’s caused is hard to be compensated for. He might only be evaluated as excellent, but that doesn’t mean everything. At the very least the talent he’s shown isn’t much different from mine. On top of that…”
Steven laughed wryly and continued, “The resources he can use for his training far exceeds mine.” Minnie went quiet.
That was reality. Richard’s monthly income was no large secret, and anyone with enough power could easily learn about it. His total income wasn’t exactly ridiculous, but his expenses were far lower. Steven used most of his money to pay for rent and fees for two, as well as other social costs. Removing all that, he didn’t even have half as much to spend on courses, materials, and potions as Richard. Those were the true expenses that could affect one’s improvements in magic. That elementary strength rune had already used up practically all his savings.
Steven took another huge swig of alcohol, allowing the liquid to burn its way from his throat to his chest. He could already feel that his efforts since entering the Deepblue had gone awry. He used to believe he’d used the perfect schemes, both openly and in the shadows, using Erin to cause trauma and seizing every possible moment to isolate his opponent. Using all his resources, he would then show his talent and strength in becoming a runemaster. However, the result had dealt him a damning blow. Using progress that exceeded his own by two large grades, Richard had won a battle that hadn’t even been declared.
Steven could not help but begin to reflect on whether he had done too many useless things. Had he used the entirety of his energy and focus on runecrafting from the start, would the result have been different? Deepblue was not like the outside world. There was no need to butter up the public, no need for status. All that was required was Sharon’s Delight and absolute power.
Minnie gazed at the crestfallen face of the ambitious man next to her, suddenly feeling a chill on her naked body. Even her heart began to squeeze, and the humiliation she’d felt but moments ago gave way to freezing cold. Even if Steven gave up now he still had his bloodline and the connections from his mother’s side. What did she have?
Minnie hesitated for a long time, and then said, “There might be a last option, though it might not work.”
“What is it?” Steven’s eyes brightened as he asked, like a drowning person who’d suddenly found some flotsam.
“Get close to Master, and obtain her favour. I’ve been feeling lately like she’s grown increasingly unstable, so this is a very good opportunity. While she’s a legendary mage, she’s also a woman…”
Steven froze for a while, and soon understood what Minnie was implying. His eyes began to brighten up. Yes, the legendary mage was a woman. Why hadn’t he thought of that? As expected, women understood women the best.
“So you’re saying that I should try making Sharon mine?” Steven wondered, his expression slowly gaining life again to reveal the flawless smile of nobility once more. Although he lost completely in runecrafting, he had an absolute advantage over Richard in this area. It wasn’t such a rare thing among aristocrats, nothing to blush over. This was another type of battle, but its stakes were no less than any other.
Determination flashed in Steven’s eyes, “That is a method, but the rate of success is minute. I can’t place my hopes on that. There are a few more people I can use in the Deepblue. If it’s absolutely necessary, I’ll make that kid disappear.”