They reached the Warp Gate leading outside the academy, where their chaperons were waiting for them. The girls would bring along their parents while Lith had asked to Marchioness Distar and Count Lark to be his escort.
Raaz and Elina were too busy with the newborn Aran, plus they were completely oblivious about the Court etiquette. Bringing them along would be like inviting disaster to dinner.
"Thank you so much, dear Lith." Count Lark didn't seem to have aged a day. His black suit was brand new and so was the silk string preventing him to lose his black rimmed monocle which kept jumping out of his eye socket from excitement.
"I never attended a Royal Graduation ceremony before. I'll never thank you enough for giving me this opportunity."
"Don't mention it, old friend." Lith replied. "If it wasn't for you, I would have never attended an academy. I'm glad to have you by my side today and to be able to call someone like you a friend.
"If you or your family ever need my help, you just have to ask."
Lark had to fight back the tears. Lith's words moved him deeply.
Lith turned around, needing but a glance to notice something was out of place. Marchioness Distar had the smug grin you would expect from someone accompanying the three highest rankers in all the Griffon Kingdom.
Jirni looked at the two youths with the usual eyes full of expectations, like she hoped Lith had already proposed to Phloria or was about to. The odd thing was that instead of the polite and detached attitude usually Orion gave Lith, he seemed to be as eager as Jirni if not more.
Lith shrugged it off as one of the many false flags his paranoia pointed out.
The Warp Gate lead them directly inside the royal palace, just a few rooms away from the Banquet Hall. The Battle Mages and Mage Knights in charge of security didn't care for Jirni's Royal Constable badge.
Only after checking thoroughly their IDs and communication amulets the guards let them though. While waiting for the background checks to be over, Lith looked around the room.
'Disgusting. Despite this place is just a waiting room it's so full of gold and artworks to be tacky, at least by my standards.' He thought.
'That's just because you are stingy.' Solus reproached him
'The room is furnished with proper taste. It resembles the royal palace of Versailles from your memories, not a rapper's house. Royals have the duty to not only be powerful, but also to appear as such.'
The path towards the Banquet Hall was filled with marvels. Solus noticed at least fifty different arrays and countless magical treasures hidden inside the walls.
'To think that Balkor could bypass all this and attempt on the Royals' lives five years in a row makes you understand how powerful he is.' Lith and Solus thought as one.
The double doors leading inside were wide open. Before they could enter, a valet checked their IDs again before announcing their arrival, speaking with a magically enhanced voice.
The room was more than forty meters (133 feet) long and over thirty meters (100 feet) wide, with a single red silk carpet with gold embroidered edges going from the three meters (10 feet) wide double doors up to the two steps that distanced the floor where nobles stood and the raised one for the royal family.
That way, even while sitting, they would be able to look down on everyone present, reaffirming their status and authority.
The whole room was lighted by crystal chandeliers, fueled by magic, leaving no space for shadows or need for maintenance.
On the walls, magically enchanted tapestries would recount over and over the great feats that the current King had accomplished to be deemed worthy of his power. Both the floor and the pillars of the room were realized from gold veined marble, the most precious and robust material available in the Griffon Kingdom.
The room was filled with nobles of all ages and relevance, who quickly swarmed the three youths like vultures after spotting a fresh corpse.
"How does it feel being blessed by the light?""Were you afraid while fighting the wyvern?""How did you survive a Valor on your own?""First Balkor, then Nalear. Did witnessing so much death change your attitude in life?"
Those were the questions he had to answer over and over again. He felt like a school shooting survivor forced to reply to the dumbest questions a reporter's mind could come up with to boost their audience.
The evening was long and boring enough to make Lith wish to never attend such an event again.
'I'd rather work the whole night as an Association's clerk.' He thought doing small talk with the students from other academies.
Only when the music started Lith managed to get away with the excuse of dancing. He hated dancing, yet he had long prepared for it with Phloria since the fourth year. To get what he wanted, Lith had to play by the rules. At least apparently.
Lith had researched Nalear's past. Despite being a talented Awakened one, despite having no bonds after abandoning her family, she had failed even to become an influential noble. The Griffon Kingdom, even with all of its faults, was too big to face it head on alone.
He danced with Phloria first and then with other noble dames, trying to establish their worth as connections. Solus would jot down their names, tittles, ad everything relevant they said. Which usually amounted to very little.
After a while, Lith took a couple of drinks and went together with Phloria on a balcony, to get some fresh air. She seemed to be more annoyed than he was, if not even sad. Lith's instinct raised another flag, this time too big to ignore.
"Cheer up. This nightmare will not last long. Worst case scenario we'll be back home in two more hours." He said.
"I'm sorry." Lith knew Phloria enough to know that whatever she was talking about, she meant it.
"Sorry about what?"
"I wanted to wait until the gala ended before telling you, but I don't want our last memory together to be us quarrelling." Her voice was sad. Only after taking a deep breath she looked Lith in the eyes.
"Okay, what the f*ck are you talking about?" He touched her arm while activating Invigoration. She was fit as a fiddle, just like the last time he checked. Her impurities were still so far from the core it was impossible for her to have Awakened and being turned by the Royals in some sort of secret weapon.
"The academy is over. In less than two days I'm going back home. After that, I'll start the army's mandatory booth camp for new recruits. It will last six months with no breaks nor leaves. Then I'll be dispatched where my talents are needed.
"I don't know how long will it take for me to join the Knight's Guard nor it would be fair on you pretending things are going to stay the same. I think it's best if we break up before I leave the academy."
Lith was speechless, feeling like a big chunk of his heart had just been ripped off from his chest.