Count Lark had another dress prepared for Lith, specifically tailored for the occasion. It was very similar to the other day-dress he had received in the past, but black in colour and with a more elegant cut.
"It's amazing how similar party dresses are compared to Earth customs. All men wear almost the same dress, the only significant difference is the household crest embroidered on the chest pocket.
Instead, the women all wear different types of dresses, varying in colours, neckline and embroideries. Not to mentions the jewellery. Aside from family rings, men wear only monocles or pince-nez. They really resemble a flock of penguins."
Lith kept himself from the crowd as long as he could, there was nothing he could gain except awkward memories or curious looks.
Marchioness Distar revealed to be really important to Count Lark, to the point that he arranged their meeting privately in his quarters, while the party was taking place in the ballroom.
"Thank you so much for coming, dear Marchioness. You have no idea what it means for me having the possibility to share such a happy moment in your company."
"The pleasure is all mine, dear Lark, I wouldn't miss it for anything in the world." Her lips were smiling, but her eyes didn't.
Lith's instinct could tell that she was actually quite bored, and that she was there only because the Count must had persevered relentlessly to make her attend. He knew from experience how stubborn he could be.
Based on what the Count had told him, Marchioness Distar should be a woman in her late thirties, but even with the little make up she wore, it was hard to imagine her a day older than thirty.
She had a beautiful face with great proportions, eyes brimming with intelligence and curiosity. She wore her waist-long straight hair down, with no hairpin or barrette to adorn them.
She had dark brown hair, with shades of blue all over it. It was almost hypnotic to look when she shook her head.
Her evening dress was of a pale blue, with no neckline, covering even her shoulders. In contrast to all the other noble dames, the Marchioness wore evening gloves, and there were no gemstones embroidered in her attire.
She had clearly chosen a plain dress, hoping to either go unnoticed or leave early.
"This is the boy I talked you about so much." The Count laughed. "He is incredibly skilled, wise beyond his age and according to Lady Nerea, he is blessed by the light."
"Really?" The Marchioness didn't believe a word, but ruffled Lith's hair nonetheless.
Lith could feel that such gesture of intimacy was out of place, coming from such a grand dame. It also had no warmth at all. It felt more like a dog show judge checking the fur, rather than a caress.
"Sigh, as predicted, Trequill has once again wasted my time." The Marchioness thought. "It's just another of his childish delusions, finding a talented male mage in such scarcely populated land.
I would really love to tell him that the reason why women and magical beasts have coloured shades in their hair is the sign of the blessing from the six gods of magic. It would save so much of his efforts and my time.
Too bad that the Mage Association would make a huge fuss if I did. Those old fogeys and their reluctancy to reveal even such an open secret. Everyone in the King's Court knows it, be him/her a mage or not."
Lith could see she was disappointed, but had no idea why. Eager to go back home and do something actually meaningful, he bowed to her.
"My name is Lith of Lutia, your Ladyship. I'm glad and honoured to make your acquaintance. Please, accept this humble gift. Is not much, but I made it myself."
The Marchioness was pleasantly surprised.
"At least this country bumpkin acts humbly and knows the proper etiquette, instead of being all arrogant like he owns the place, unlike all his predecessors."
"Thank you, I'm much obliged." It's what she actually said even before opening the envelope.
It turned out to be a square shaped wood board, with sides about fifty-one centimetres (20 inches) long, with eight columns and rows of black and white alternating colours of wood.
After checking it with the Count, Lith couldn't be bothered much finding a proper gift, and went straight plagiarizing the game of chess.
The Marchioness interest was piqued, she had never saw anything like that before. The board was accompanied by the chess pieces and a booklet explaining all the rules.
Th differences from the common chess game were few but significant. First, the king and queen roles were swapped. Lith had to suck up to an important woman, making the king the game goal was plainly stupid.
Also, he renamed the bishops as mages and the pawns as commoners. Everything else was as it was supposed to be.
The Marchioness read the rules so fast that Lith thought she was simply skimming, instead she asked him a precise question.
"Why the commoners can become any chess piece if they reach the end of the board?" Although he had considered unlikely, Lith had prepared for this question, giving the answer the usual fortune cookie wisdom that the Count so much liked.
"Because when someone, even a commoner, completes his journey toward wisdom, life holds endless possibilities. After all, even the King's ancestors at some point have been simple commoners, before rising to power."
The Marchioness giggled softly.
"Well, it seems that at least the part about the wisdom is true." She thought.
"Fancy a game? Seems really interesting. You could show me the ropes. It would be a nice way to get to know each other better. You can understand a lot about a person based on how he plays, wins, but most importantly how he accepts loss."
Such outcome was completely out of his expectations. Lith was taken aback, he knew very little about chess, aside from the rules. He had never liked the game much, he found it to be too long and boring.
Why waste time with some pieces of wood, with so many VR games available on Earth? He had learned to play when he was very little, after reading a wonderful book about a chess player, but his experience had been far from pleasant.
He was too reckless and impatient, barely able to think one move ahead. Lith found no pleasure or emotion while playing chess, to him it was like a solitaire where you have to wait minutes to turn a single card.
Luckily, he was never alone. Solus had fallen in love with the game since she saw it in Lith's memories, viewing all the matches he had in the past and the ones he spectated.
"Solus take the wheel! Save me, please!"
"It would be a pleasure, your Ladyship."
After sitting at a table, the games began.
Even from her first game, the Marchioness proved to be incredibly intelligent, cunning and bold. She was able to think at least five moves in advance, always trying to figure out Lith's intentions and weak points.
Too bad for her, Lith barely knew what he was doing. He was the perfect straw man for hiding Solus real plans. He would just move the pieces as she instructed him to.
"You defeated her in barely thirty moves. Shouldn't you be a little more kind to her?"
The Marchioness clicked her tongue, asking for a rematch.
"To a smart woman like that? She would notice and get offended, naïve man."
"Maybe if you went easier on her earlier, she wouldn't notice now!"
"And where's the fun in that?"
Lith was flabbergasted.
"This is not a matter of fun! We're sucking up to her, remember?"
"Opps! My bad."
"Opps my pale a*s!"
Solus started to slow things down, but after just a few moves the Marchioness showed a displeasured face before toppling her queen.
"I clearly underestimated you and your game. I need more time to get acquainted with all the possibilities." She extended her hand, and Lith shook it.
She had a gentle but firm grip, Lith could feel no hostility from her.
"Mind if I show it around? I need opponents to get some practice."
"It's all yours. You can do anything you want with it."
After that, Lith left the two nobles discussing between them, all too happy to get away from that torture chamber.
After asking Jadon if he was finally allowed to leave (in a polite manner, off course) and getting a no as an answer, Lith was left pondering on what had just transpired.
"Hmm, maybe there is a silver lining in you crushingly defeating that woman."
"Yes. If we want to avoid being forced to enrol in a Magic Academy, we could just as well sabotage ourselves a little.
We already know that the Count has not the means to ensure our admittance. If we piss off the nobles a little, just enough for them to not back his recommendation, we'll avoid the whole thing without offending the Count."
"Good idea! Even if indirectly, you have already caused both the Ghishal and Trahan households to fall. Probably in the nobles' eyes you already have quite some demerits. You are already halfway there, you're quite good at being disliked."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence." Lith turned sour.
Solus inwardly cursed herself for the slip of the mind, and avoided apologizing. In that moment would only add fuel to the fire.
For the first time in years, Lith was actually hurt by those words, his anger silently rose.
When he heard someone belittling his endeavour of killing Gerda, he sized the opportunity to set his plan in motion.
It was a couple, likely father and son, commenting on the stuffed Byk exposed in a corner of the room.
"It's not that big." Said a chubby middle-aged man that barely managed to reach Gerda's navel with his head. "I'm sure you could have killed it too, Frenon."
"I don't know dad." Replied the ten years old kid that shared a striking resemblance with the man, only younger and thinner. "It seems big to me. And look at those fangs and claws. This Lith must be crazy to get near something like this."
"Bah!" Scoffed the man, making his double chin and his waxed brown curls tremble. "If you kill it with magic, there is no need to get close. It's just that simple. How can you be less bold than a commoner? I pampered you too much."
"I beg your pardon?" A stone-cold voice reached them from behind.
The two turned around, trembling visibly. They had recognized Jadon's voice, the future Count Lark and lord of their lands.
Even in his anger, Lith wasn't so reckless, he just ratted them out to his noble friends, leaving the dirty job to them.
"That was quite a rude remark, Baronet Hogum." Keyla's voice was fierce and loud, resounding through the whole room.
Lith was many times her benefactor, and hearing such a blatant lack of respect in her own house was simply too much to bear. Jadon thought the same, but his sister had butted in at the right moment, forcing him to step back momentarily.
"Ah! Ah! Ah! There's a misunderstanding." The Baronet title was the lowest, getting on the Lark's family black book was beyond bad.
"Are you implying we are both deaf or just stupid? Did you hear what I did too, dear brother?"
"I heard a nasty remark about one of our honoured guests, dear sister."
Before things could escalate further, the Marchioness chimed in.
"There, there. It's a party, let's try to be friends and not spoiling the mood."
Her appearance made all heads turn, the chatter instantly stopped.
"Besides, it's so simple to separate the wheat from the chaff. What about a little magic challenge?" The room roared in an applause.
Under the Marchioness lead, the crowd moved outside. The park was already perfectly lit up, since after dinner the party was supposed to move outside, to enjoy the fresh night breeze while drinking properly aged liquors.
She made the two boys stand twenty meters (22 yards) from each other, before explaining the rules.
"This will be a friendly match, so it ends on first blood. Only magic is allowed. I want no underhanded tricks, also seriously harming the opponents is prohibited. A mage without control is no different from a violent drunkard."
Strangely, the Marchioness said that while looking only at Lith, and that pissed him off even further.
"So, just because I'm a commoner, she treats me like a barbarian? So much for losing with grace! Such a hypocrite."
"I'll be the judge. If I say stop, you better stop." Fuel was added to the fire.
Both the youths nodded. Lith put his arms behind his back.
"You know, I really wouldn't be in your shoes. If you win, you prove nothing. You would have just beaten a lowly commoner, like everyone expects you to. But if you lose…" Lith paused dramatically, still waiting for the start signal.
"Wouldn't be terrible, losing in front of all these people, proving to be less talented and bold than a commoner?"
The young Baronet started gulping loudly, turning constantly toward the crowd, suddenly realizing the pressure of the challenge.
When the Marchioness voice rang out, he was so stiff that he had yet to move, when Lith opened his palm while yelling.
A powerful gust of wind made Baronet Hogum fall on the ground.
"Lith of Lutia wins!"
The crowd was surprised, a murmur started spreading like wildfire.
"Why did she stop the match so suddenly?" Everyone asked.
The Marchioness helped the boy to get up and brought him closer for them to observe. There was a shallow cut on his left cheek, going from his nose to the ear.
"Just with chore magic?" "From that distance?" "Impressive. That's how he has single-handedly killed a Byk."
Lith puffed his chest, his anger subsiding enough for him to avoid further mockery on the expenses of his defeated opponent.
A small girl quickly rushed to the Marchioness, making a perfect bow to her while whispering something, her face all smiles and pleasantries.
She was so petite to appear ageless to Lith. She could be eight years or thirteen years old, he couldn't tell. She was definitely flat as a board, with gold blonde hair with shades of red. Her dress had gemstones the size of an acorn embroidered into it.
"The brat must be loaded." Lith thought.
"Be careful. While the boy was just a yellow core, she has a green one." Solus warned him.
Lith inwardly scoffed.
"Lith, this is Minnea Tristarm, daughter of the Viscount Tristarm. Minnea, this is Lith from Lutia."
"Nice to meet you." The girl performed a barely noticeable curtsy.
"The pleasure is all mine." Lith returned the rudeness, by performing such a small bow that it could be easily confused with him checking if his shoelaces where properly knotted.
"Minnea was really impressed by your feat, and would like to challenge you to a different kind of competition."
"It would be an honour performing for her Grace. My father had tried for so long to get an audience with your Ladyship."
"Obnoxious brat!" Lith thought. "She has been watching the Marchioness the whole time, speaking like I'm not even here. You are in for a surprise."
They moved back into the ballroom, were the servants promptly prepared a small round table. A single candle was standing on its center.
"This is a magical competition that's really popular within the capital." The girl kept looking at the Marchioness, while she explained the game with a condescending tone.
"Real mages are not mindless brutes. Real power comes from the mind."
"Spare me the details and explain the rules." Lith tone was even more condescending.
"It's really simple." Minnea looked at him for the first time.
"Each of us picks a colour, the one that manages to keep the candle of the chosen colour for ten seconds is the winner. Is it clear?"
"I'll take the yellow."
"And I the red, like my hair. Is my favourite colour."
When the Marchioness gave the start signal, Minnea tried her best to turn the candle to red, while Lith was checking his nails length, yawning from time to time.
Soon the ten count was completed, and he tried to walk away.
"Wait! I demand a do over." The girl was bright red from the embarrassment.
"Why?" Everyone asked.
"Do you realize that keeping control of a flame is much easier than taking it over?"
Lith could easily see through her allegations.
"Are you insinuating that by exploiting the natural colour of the candle I took control of it before the challenge started, getting an unfair advantage?" He laughed.
"You can understand a lot about a person, based on how she plays, wins, but most importantly how she accepts loss." Lith quoted, looking straight in the Marchioness eyes.
"Let's have a do over, then. This time I'll pick cyan. Feel free to get a head start. I'll commence my attack only when the flame is completely red, so we'll be even. Agreed?"
Eager to restore her wounded pride, Minnea nodded while she was already turning the candle to a bright red.
"Can I?" When both the Marchioness and Minnea nodded, Lith started sending tendrils of mana toward the candle.
Slowly but inexorably, many cyan spots appeared inside the flame, taking it over in less than a minute.
"I yield." Minnea didn't wait for the ten count, the outcome was painfully clear to her.
"Do you want another do over?" Lith hissed bending forward, getting really close to her face, his eyes reduced to fiery slits brimming with mana.
"Lith, your mana is overflowing." Solus warned him.
"Let it burn."
Minnea shook her head, before running back to her father.
No one dared to challenge him anymore.
The rest of the evening was full of chattering and gossiping, but otherwise uneventful.
"This should be plenty enough to make any academy in the region reject our application."
End of book 1