"Step forward, Lith of Lutia."
Lith did as instructed, kneeling in front of the raised floor as the ceremony required. King Meron placed his right hand over Lith's head while holding the staff representing the Crown's authority over magic in the other .
"For your services in curing the plague, for saving many lives during Balkor's last attack, and for your contribution in defending the White Griffon, I hereby award you the Verhen name. It will be extended to your family and passed down by your children.
"It grants to you and to you alone the same status of a Baron. Your starting fief will be the region of Lutia, under Count Lark's supervision, should you ever decide to trade your merits for the lands and responsibilities that a noble title implies.
"Stand up, Mage Lith Verhen!"
Lith did as ordered. The members of the Royal family applauded him, immediately followed by a standing ovation from the guests. Lith was supposed to be happy. Another milestone in his master plan had fallen into place.
Yet he felt empty, meaningless. Just like the sound of his new name.
The following morning, the trio was in Phloria's room. The girls were making their final preparations for the tournament, while Lith had been using Accumulation non stop since the previous night.
Taking deep breaths was the only way he and Solus had found to keep his emotions in check. There was still a storm brewing inside of him and as it was for any storm, stopping it was impossible. Lith could only wait for it to pass.
"Do you still suffer from Death Vision?" Friya said as she came out of the training room. She and Phloria had just finished a light spar as warm up.
Lith nodded. Over time he had shared a few details about himself with her. In the space of a few seconds, Lith saw her die of poisoning, old age, and by decapitation.
"What about now?" She asked multiple times, coming closer and closer until at three meters distance Lith shook his head. Friya was alive and well now.
"What about her?" Friya pointed at Phloria, who was still in the training room.
"I knew it!" Friya snorted. "I bet that the safe zone range depends on how much you care for the person. I guess three meters after two years is still better than nothing."
Lith didn't agree with her theory, yet he found it interesting. Back when Death Vision started, he would see everyone die, even his family, no matter the distance. For a long time, the only exception had been Phloria, but only when she was very close to him.
Over time, though, he had learned to control it with his willpower. Also, Lith had developed a safe zone, were people would appear normal as long they were within its range. Lith and Solus thought it depended on him mastering whatever Death Vision was, while Friya had a more romantic concept of it.
"Who do you think will win if we both get into the finals?" Phloria tried to change the topic. If her sister was right, it would make breaking up even more awkward.
"Do you want the cold truth or the boyfriend truth?" His voice was slow so he wouldn' lose his breathing rhythm.
"Cold truth." The girls replied as one.
"It's a coin flip. Phloria, you have a better technique while Friya has more fighting spirit. Since you are both Mage Knights, you'll want close combat. At that distance, a single strike can seal the result." Neither of the girls liked the answer.
Friya because she was aware of her limits, Phloria because she hoped he would be more supportive.
'What if you had to bet?' Solus asked.
'In that case, with a sword at my throat, I'd bet on Friya. She has a lot of pent up stress and the tendency to become more aggressive because of it. Phloria has a lot on her mind, I doubt she can show her full strength right now. Especially against her own sister.'
Solus sighed. The only thing that she hated more than a murderous Lith was an emotionless one.
The tournament took place in the academy's colosseum. It was a huge arena, located on the ground floor of the White Griffon that was usually off limits outside special events. Duels and fights were a relic of the past, relegating the use of the colosseum to be exclusively ceremonial.
To everyone's surprise, the whole Royal family was attending the event. Headmaster Marth offered to the King the role of arbiter for the event, but Meron politely declined.
Spectating was one thing. Participating in the event would mean giving it special importance, hurting the pride of the other academies.
Both girls fought fiercely, showing that the point difference between them and the other rankers wasn't just a fluke. They literally wiped the floor with any opponent they faced in ten moves at worst.
Linjos's legacy, the daily evaluation, was showing its worth in all the academies that employed its system. It forced the students to give their all every day, rather than cram the month before the exams and just learn by rote.
As Lith predicted, when Friya and Phloria fought in the finals, Phloria was unable to consider it more than a spar, losing to Friya's ruthlessness. Being right didn't make him happy. He was actually sad for her. The result only proved Phloria was right too.
She was still too soft.
The Royals applauded both contenders, giving House Ernas double the honor any other household had ever achieved in the academies' history. Never before had two of the first three rankers belonged to the same family.
It pissed off everyone present that wasn't part of the academy's staff, the Ernas, or the Royal family. Commoners and nobles alike had hoped that since the top ranker wouldn't attend, they would still have a chance to shine.
"It was truly a magnificent competition, your Majesty." Sitting next to King Meron there was Archduke Taben, family head of one of the most ancient households of the Griffon Kingdom and the father of the girl ranked fourth.
"It's too bad the first ranker didn't attend, right Xebas?"
"Indeed. It would have made an excellent show." Marchioness Xebas belonged to an almost as important family and her son was ranked fifth.
"Marth, why don't you ask him for an exhibition match? You can't leave your guests of honor with the curiosity about what the brightest talent of the White Griffon can do."
The two nobles didn't give a damn about Lith, their aim was to embarrass house Ernas. Jirni and Orion not only had received plenty of awards for defeating Nalear, but now their daughters were stealing all the spotlight. It was more than what the other households could bear.
Not that they could bear much anyway. The higher they got, the touchier they became.
"It's an interesting idea." King Meron scratched his beard.