Richard hated it when people blocked his way; it reminded him of Papin.
Even if Papin’s moronity was a feat in itself, he’d still managed to interrupt the first anniversary of his mother’s death. The blow it had dealt was far worse than anything Steven had ever done, even if Richard was just as eager to get rid of Steven because of the events with Erin.
Truth be told, Richard thought nothing of the assassination attempt. He knew fully well that he would need to get on the battlefield at some point, and when compared to the conquests of planes this mere assassination wouldn’t even be considered child’s play. The only thing he’d retained was Naya’s brutal interrogation of Blood Parrot. He still had no idea whether the Blade of Calamity had gleaned any information or he didn’t care and just wanted to prepare him for the blood he’d see in the future.
And yet, despite Richard not liking his path being blocked, it was blocked all the same. And the person ahead was the one he least wanted to see— Steven.
The dragon warlock still had on a graceful smile, reaching a hand out to Richard with flawless elegance in his posture, “Long time no see, Richard. Are you here for a catalogue of the auction as well?”
Richard looked at Steven’s face and then the proffered hand, having no plans to shake it as he spoke bluntly, “What do my actions have to do with you? The only way your smile will grow wider is if you never see me again.”
Steven’s smile immediately froze, astonishment and fury appearing on the faces of his attendants. Nobody would have thought that Richard would not give him any face. At the very least, such unreasonable words and actions were not fitting of someone who was a noble. Solam and Archeron were both now large noble families with power, even if Gaton was the only person with such power on the Archeron side.
This was one of the primary paths to the midsummer festival, so it was bustling with activity. Since it was so close to the festival already, there were more foreigners here. Perhaps it was because of a lack of wealth and status, but they hadn’t entered the Deepblue itself yet. They had still come to stroll around, however, perusing the market prices and broadening their horizons. From the borders to the lower floors of the main tower were stalls for travelers; even if these weren’t items from the Deepblue itself they couldn’t be lacking in quality given where they were sold.
A crowd began to gather as tensions almost erupted. However, this was in line with Steven’s plans; he wanted to provoke Richard and humiliate him in public, even if that would be of no assistance in winning the competition. Hence, Steven immediately curbed his fury and retracted his hand calmly, continuing to speak in a poised manner, “I finally understood why the Archerons could rise so quickly. Not just anyone can complete a path that other families spend thousands of years working on in just a few decades.”
The onlookers immediately chuckled quietly. The reputation of the Archerons had spread throughout the Sacred Alliance with their sudden rise, the news making its way to the other two empires as well.
Richard remained stoic in the face of the provocation, however, unagitated as he gazed straight into Steven’s eyes, “The Archerons are hypocritical to their true opponents by custom.”
Steven immediately turned pale, while his subordinates could no longer hold it in. A warrior took a step forward, hand on the hilt of the sword at his waist as he shouted in fury, “You dare humiliate the Solam Family? How gutsy!”
Richard didn’t even glance at the warrior and continued to look straight into Steven’s eyes, “I thought the previous events had made you a little smarter, but who knew you’d continue to be as foolish as before. Is the pressure so immense that you couldn’t sleep if you didn’t see my reaction?”
“Haha, I have no idea of what you’re talking about!” Steven burst into laughter, but he obviously looked unnatural.
Richard’s counter was like an attack from an assassin, unexpected but fatal. This was something that Steven, who was used to the method of refined ways of the upper-class who hid their intentions, found difficult to adapt to. Every word from Richard hit right where it hurt, and did not leave any leeway.
The bystanders quietened down, waiting to watch the show.
“If you don’t know who Blood Parrot is either, then watch your dog lest it run around and create a ruckus. I’m not the one who’ll be embarrassed.” Watching Steven’s face that had suddenly gone steely, Richard did not ease up, “Besides, I really have no idea where your courage and self-confidence comes from. It seems like Solam and Archeron just fought a war. I wonder what the results are?”
“That’s Alice Archeron, not Gaton!” Steven snickered.
“Indeed,” Richard nodded.
The watching crowd burst into collective laughter, and only then did Steven realise what he had said. If it had been Gaton, then the allied armies of Solam and Niall would long since have been destroyed. The fight wouldn’t have drawn out so long.
Of course, the other nobles of the Sacred Tree Empire wouldn’t have just watched as Gaton strolled up into the battle. A small bandit like Alice was just a gust of wind to them, but someone of that sort of power would be an invader. Politics was very complicated.
Ignoring that, however, the results had been quite simple. It was an ironclad fact that a second tier viscount of the Archeron Family had brutally destroyed an army made of Marquess Niall’s entire forces and soldiers from Duke Solam.
The laughter that nobody held back made Steven more keenly aware that this was not Solam’s territory, and not everyone would give Duke Solam face. At least, those who dared laugh were definitely not afraid of the Solam Family. What made this worse was that a fair number were laughing.
Steven barely suppressed the fury surging in his heart, and actually had no idea of what to say in that moment. He was well-acquainted with the rules of battles between true aristocrats, and he could grasp timings well. However, Richard completely disregarded the laws and said whatever he wished, each word condemning him and revealing the filthiest and darkest secrets casually. Was he not afraid of being laughed at?
That was what made him depressed. The Archerons had long since been labelled upstarts, and their reputations couldn’t get any worse. However, the Solam Family had had eight centuries worth of history, significant even if they couldn’t be considered ancient. Steven would not win in slinging insults; he didn’t want to lower his standards to the level of one of those lunatics. Besides, the most recent war had Solam on the losing end, and his title of being the most powerful weapon and threat in this war had become empty.
Everyone knew that it was best not to threaten the Archerons with war. They were a bunch of maniacs, and if they would respond to that threat. Marquess Niall was a prime example of that.
Going by the unspoken rules of the age of his family, Steven should have left with magnanimity and pride at this point. Nobles were different from commoners; they resolved conflicts through battles on the field and in court. Bravery and power— those were the domains of nobles, and any humiliation if he left now would only be superficial.
However, Steven was not even eighteen yet. He couldn’t hold it in, asking, “I heard you and that girl called Erin have something going on. That was a praiseworthy decision, she’s pretty good.”
Richard’s eyes flashed and then dimmed down, before he regained clarity and calmness in his gaze. He nodded with composure, “I agree with what you said, but what I’m worried about isn’t that. How are you preparing to clean up after yourself if you lose the competition?”
Steven’s eyelid twitched, and he then laughed calmly, “If? Sounds as if there’s really an ‘if’...”
Without waiting for Steven to finish speaking, Richard interrupted him, “There may be people more talented than me at runecrafting, but you definitely aren’t among them. Think carefully about what you’re going to do if you lose.”
Steven was left with nothing to say. This was a truth even he couldn’t deny— the only hopes he himself had for the competition was a large amount of resources, his family’s strength, and possible favouritism from Sharon. However, Richard’s words had made him think about the circumstances he had not dared even think about. What would happen the moment he lost? The Solam Family’s total investment in him was nearing twenty million gold coins, and even his mother and Marquess Niall combined couldn’t shoulder the burden if he lost.
Now, he was confronted with a nightmarish possibility. What if the Archerons were supporting Richard? What if Sharon was biased towards him instead? That evaluation of ‘’tender and delicious’ was a trauma weighing down on him, refusing to dissipate.
Besides, the battle of rune knights in Niall’s lands had shown that the Archeron runemasters far surpassed Saint Klaus, at least in battle might. Although Klaus called himself a saint, he wasn’t even near the ranks of a great runemaster yet. There was at least one in the Archeron Family.
This thought told Steven his chances of winning weren’t as high as he’d assumed. Although there were still a few months until the competition, and he had some time, this time used up so many resources that it created a downward spiral. The more he didn’t want to lose, the greater his investment… He suddenly felt like half a year was far too much time.
After seeing Steven’s expression, Richard chuckled and continued on the route he had planned out. The dragon warlock walked to the side and gave way; continuing to create a ruckus would only insult his own family. He’d seen some familiar faces amongst the onlookers, people he’d seen before on all sorts of reports that were true bigshots.
Richard’s words were like a barbaric punch that broke magnificent tinted glass, revealing the true cruelty of the world to him. Steven had been doing all he could to avoid this matter, there was no good thinking about unbearable consequences since that would only disturb him and hinder his progress, but now the darned kid had made him feel uneasy. It made him furious.
Richard halted his steps as he passed the warrior, looking up to examine his face. The warrior suddenly felt like the boy had turned into an unsheathed dagger, so sharp it made him uneasy. It was as if he’d gotten too close to a deadly beast. He subconsciously took a step back, and slightly unsheathed his blade.
Richard currently had mixed feelings. Given Eruption and Precision he had at least five methods of hurting the warrior greatly in such close quarters. This was actually an issue; it made him fear that he really would act if his violent bloodline erupted one day. He wasn’t skilled enough to do such a thing with ease, so the moment he acted he would find it difficult to save the situation.
However, Richard still had control himself, which was why he acted as if he had not seen the blade and continued gazing at the man, speaking calmly, “A dog is a dog. Even if my face is right here for you, you wouldn’t have the guts to hit it.”
The warrior immediately turned red, turning towards Steven. The warlock’s features twisted as well, his breathing turning coarse. Still he just shook his head with resolution, causing the warrior to push his blade back into its scabbard even as his face turned redder. He watched Richard leave, pace quick but even.
The bystanders broke out into discussion. While they weren’t loud, they completely disregarded Steven and his people. They hadn’t lowered their voices, so the content of the conversations would leave nobody from the Solam Family happy. However, the warrior had lost the courage to pull out his sword. Not considering whether there were tyrants of the continent here who could fight with Solam himself, there were still many who could kill him with one blow. He recognised the emblems of the Archeron Family and its allies nearby; the only reason they hadn’t acted yet was Sharon, not Solam.
Steven did not say a word, leaving with his entourage with a wave of his arm. He didn’t even bother getting a catalogue for the auction.
After they got to a quiet place with no people, the warrior finally could not help but ask, “Young Master, why didn’t you let me kill him? Just put all the blame on me when the time comes!”
Steven looked grim and did not answer, while the cleric snickered, “Immature! Did you think that if you were to act, you’d be able to take on all the responsibility? With how the Archeron Family works, they’ll declare war on Solam regardless of the reason, even if Young Master gives them your head.”
Steven sighed and looked at the warrior, “All those with the Archeron name are lunatics. Stop provoking him. This is the Deepblue, not our territory. You’ve been with me for so many years, and I don’t want you to get into trouble.”
The dragon warlock looked gloomy as he walked towards his residence. The warrior was the last to move, and he watched the traces of ridicule and gloom that flashed in the cleric’s eyes.