Leon stood just outside his front door, Elise at his side, just about his entire household with him, ready to welcome their guests into their home.

They were throwing a party. A small party, to be sure, but given their statuses, and the statuses of those who’d been invited, they had to pull out all the stops. Emilie was coming, as was Sid. Leon had sent Penelope an invitation despite their relatively rocky relationship, and, taking Emilie’s advice, had invited several others in high positions within Heaven’s Eye, including Damien Makedon, the Hand of the Director who’d escorted his group from the Bull Kingdom to Occulara.

However, for all those highly-ranked guests, none were as important in his mind as Narses the White, the current Chief of Security for all of Heaven’s Eye. The guild didn’t have a military of its own, but it did have considerable security forces that were about comparable to an army. And leading them all was Narses the White, as close to a general as Heaven’s Eye had.

From what Leon had known before and had been able to dig up since his initial meeting with Emilie to discuss their position and strategy, Narses the White was an old appointee—the first person who the current Director had appointed to his position, in fact. It seemed that the previous Chief of Security had been one of the Director’s rivals on his rise through the ranks, and once he’d assumed the title of Director, he’d forced that man into retirement, replacing him with one of his other supporters: Narses the White.

Under normal conditions, Leon might’ve immediately written Narses off as a man who he couldn’t sway, for he had been given his position by the current Director and had served ably and loyally for many years. However, after consulting with Elise, Valeria, Maia, and the rest of his retinue, Leon decided to proceed. Opinions on that course of action had been mixed, but Gaius and Marcus had both been of the mind that the appointment had been to try and secure Narses’ loyalty with an appeasing position, or possibly to fulfill a promise the Director had made him for his support. In other words, Marcus had said, Narses had been one of the people who’d ‘made’ the current Director, and as such couldn’t necessarily be assumed to be on his side. After all, if he made one Director, there was no reason to think he wouldn’t be of a mind to make another.

And so, Leon, Elise, and several others of their household stood outside the villa, welcoming their guests into their home and to their modest party. It wasn’t anything special—just some food and a chance to socialize—but it was an important opportunity for Leon to get in good with these people and sound out who might make a good ally against the Director, should push come to shove.

Emilie arrived with great splendor, though bringing only Jordan along, to Elise’s delight. Leon was happy, too, knowing that Elise wasn’t overfond of most of Emilie’s other husbands and concubines, but she loved her father, and her father adored her. Naturally, Emilie and Jordan had the longest and warmest greeting, only heading inside once a high-ranking Heaven’s Eye lawyer arrived, not wanting to create a line in front of the villa as more and more guests arrived.

But soon enough, Leon saw coming down the somewhat rural road, passing by the other villas in the distance, then passing by the fields on Leon’s property, a gilded chariot that shone like a fallen star in the darkness of the early evening. Pulling it were two majestic Saternan horses, one dark red and the other bright gold in color.

Proudly standing in the chariot were three men. One was the driver, the reins he held looking they were made of spun gold. The second man was fairly well-dressed, though not particularly impressively, and he radiated only a fourth-tier aura. The last man was far more eye-catching, being almost seven feet tall, with muscles so built he looked about one careless flex away from tearing right out of his tightly-fitted clothes. He was dressed primarily in white, with intricate black embroidery covering his vest and trousers in flowing organic patterns. He was fairly handsome, with rough, rugged looks, piercing blue eyes, and a strong jawline. His most striking feature, however, was his shoulder-length platinum-blond hair that streamed behind him as the chariot barreled on.

This was Narses the White. Leon had, in his capacity as a Hand of the Director, spoken to him before, but they’d never exchanged more than pleasantries. But he had a reputation that, after spending ten years in Heaven’s Eye and doing a bit of research following his meeting with Emilie, Leon was familiar with: he was fair in his dealings, prioritized the safety of Heaven’s Eye above all, and he was quick to anger, though he didn’t let it affect his judgment.

When Narses’ chariot pulled up into Leon’s courtyard, the eighth-tier Narses leaped out of the vehicle and landed before the stairs leading up to Leon’s front door. Several of Leon’s servants quickly ran forward to help valet the chariot, while Leon and Elise strode forward a little more leisurely, meeting Narses about halfway down the stairs.

“Leon Raime!” the giant man shouted as they neared, extending an arm.

“Narses!” Leon replied with equal, though perhaps not as honest enthusiasm. He extended his free arm and grasped Narses’ wrist, while Elise, grasping his other arm, politely nodded.

“Narses,” she said with considerably less volume, and considerably more formality.

Narses vigorously shook Leon’s arm, a wide smile on his face. He beamed first at Leon, then to Elise, joyous energy radiating from him almost more than his aura. “Lady Elise,” he responded. “It brings me such joy that you two would think to invite me to your party! I have to admit that I wasn’t expecting such a thing, but my delight knows no bounds!”

“The pleasure is ours,” Leon replied. “Please, come inside, get a drink, I’m sure there’s much we can talk about!”

“Ah! Indeed!” Narses finally released Leon’s arm, and Leon and Elise then escorted him inside. He was the last guest to arrive, so there wasn’t much need to remain outside.

Once inside, just as Leon had ordered, Narses was greeted with the most expensive bottle of wine that Leon had been able to procure in the past couple of days. Elise had had to pick it out for his knowledge of such things was abysmal at best, but he had faith that her choice was wise.

That faith was immediately vindicated when Narses exclaimed, “Oh! Is this for me! What generosity!” Narses’ smile grew even wider, and he gladly accepted the offered bottle.

“Just a token of respect,” Leon replied, trying not to lay it on too thickly. He wanted Narses to get drunk, but at the eighth-tier that was nearly impossible. At the very least, though, if he were to drink enough, then he should get a little tipsy, and maybe even get into a fighting mood. “Where I’m from, drinking with people is a sacred tradition, and many parties went through casks of drinks of all sorts. However, I was told that quantity should be tempered a bit with quality. What do you think?”

Narses held the bottle like it was a precious, but fragile, artifact. “A wonderful tradition!” he boomed. “Such a gift as this deserves reciprocation! I hope you won’t turn down an invitation to my own villa later!”

“Of course not,” Elise responded for them both.

“Well then, Narses,” Leon said, “if you wouldn’t mind, I’d love to have a chance to speak with you for a while.”

“And I would love a chance to speak with you, Leon Raime,” Narses responded with intensity, his demeanor shifting slightly to something more business-like. “The recent lawlessness in this city concerns me, but even before all of this unpleasantness, I was hoping to break words.”

“Then please, join me over here,” Leon said, escorting Narses into an inner courtyard where the rest of the party was taking place. As he did, Elise released his arm and separated from them to mingle with their other guests and to ensure that their household servants were doing their jobs. Leon saw the rest of his retinue doing their best to mingle with the retainers brought by other guests, though Maia had decided to spend her night in one of the private pools rather than in the party. Penelope also hadn’t shown up, though Leon wasn’t quite sure how to feel about that.

Leon led Narses over to a standing table in the courtyard filled with various finger foods and more drinks, chatting all the while. Narses was quite complimentary about the villa, and Leon wasn’t shy about bragging about the accomplishments that he’d made in its security, that Elise had made in its interior design, or that she and Helen had made in their fields, though he never got too detailed.

“I might ask for some advice when planning our new security protocols, then,” Narses said when they finally reached the table.

“New security protocols?” Leon asked.

“Yes. These problems that have cropped up in the past couple of weeks have convinced me to allocate more of our budget to upgrading the wards in our security stations. This assassination of that vampire woman you brought in is unacceptable! I’ve already disciplined those whose lax attentions and lack of adherence to protocol led to this embarrassment, and when I get my hands on those who were responsible for breaching our defenses like that, I will… well, do things that aren’t exactly appropriate talk for a party.”

Narses punctuated his statement with a wide smile, which Leon returned.

“That’s something I would support, I think,” Leon replied. “It frustrates me greatly that Kassia was murdered before we could get any more information out of her. This vampire threat isn’t something that can be taken lightly…”

“Indeed not!” Narses resolutely agreed.

Encouraged, Leon asked, “Have there been many problems with vampires in this city in your experience?”

“Ha! As if! Vampirism is outlawed in the Empires, and so it is in Occulara! And for good reason! Only werewolves are more vile, and that disgusting curse was eradicated from Imperial lands many centuries ago!”

“That seems strange to me, especially in a region where demonic contracts are allowed.”

“Ah, yes, I remember hearing something about you having a demonic contract, isn’t that right?”

“Yes, though he doesn’t demand blood sacrifices, thank the Ancestors. Even if he did, though, I’d refuse.”

“Always heartening to hear! But just because such powers are tolerated doesn’t mean that they’re encouraged! Generally speaking, those with known demonic contracts are watched to ensure they don’t succumb to the baser desires that demons are known for!”

“Am I being watched?” Leon stared at Narses with a wry smile, knowing that even if he didn’t have a contract with Xaphan, he would probably still be monitored, to some extent.

“I think you know the answer to that question,” Narses responded with a knowing smile of his own. Then he glanced around at the rest of the party, and his smile died.

For the most part, it was a low-key affair, with only a couple dozen guests, and all from distinguished enough backgrounds that getting wild wasn’t done often, if at all. However, that didn’t seem to be the vibe that Narses wanted, as he’d already sucked down half of the bottle of wine that Leon had given him at the entrance, while Leon had only taken tiny sips from his own cup.

“Interesting music,” the Chief of Security eventually said, his tone sounding genuinely appreciative.

Leon nodded politely and glanced at the musicians that Elise had arranged. She’d chosen a harp and singer duo for soft, gentle background music to set the initial tone they were going for, but they had drums and heavier strings ready for if the party needed a change in atmosphere.

To that end, Leon didn’t even need to push Narses to start letting loose—the man took another swig of his wine bottle and said, “Say, Leon, are you experienced in drinking games?”

“Can’t say that I am…”

“Wonderful! Come now, let’s get a little more experience under your belt!”

Narses threw his arm around Leon and steered him to the center of the courtyard where, with a wave of his hand, he conjured a large mixing bowl larger than most cooking pots in Leon’s kitchen. It appeared to be made of dark bronze; the outer surface was covered in many runes of varying sizes and decorative geometric patterns. Set into the bowl’s foot-tall stand was a large emerald that glowed with arcane light.

“I love this thing,” Narses whispered to Leon. “This krater will fill itself with any liquid that’s added to it. So, if I were to pour a little of this wine into the bowl…”

Narses then allowed a drop of wine from his bottle to drip into the krater, and the bowl shuddered as it hit the polished bottom. The runes covering the krater then illuminated with blue and white light, the glowing emerald flickered, and Leon watched as wine seemed to appear from nowhere and slowly started filling the krater.

“By the Ancestors…” Leon whispered. “I’ll admit, I’ve never seen anything like this.”

“Ha! That’s something to hear from an enchanter!”

Leon bashfully smiled and shrugged. “I’m a little specialized, I have to say. Mostly weapons, armor, and other such things to enhance my personal magic. I don’t think I would’ve ever thought of something like this simply because I’ve never really needed one…”

“If it weren’t so damned expensive, I’d say that everyone needs one!” Narses responded.

As they spoke, the krater had filled up about to about two-thirds capacity and stopped.

“It’s fun, but something that can only be used for parties,” Narses explained. “The emerald stores enough magic to do this about ten times, and can take quite a bit of time to recharge from the surrounding magic—even when a mage is trying to recharge it can be time-consuming. The thing itself cost me more than a hundred million silvers to commission.”

Leon’s eyes almost sprang out of their sockets. Quietly, he said, “I respect that commitment. People have spent greater fortunes on things with far less value, in my experience.”

Narses beamed at him, then grabbed an empty cup and filled it from the krater. Without hesitation, he tossed it back and drained it in a single draft.

He smacked his lips when he pulled the cup away, then bemoaned, “The quality isn’t nearly as good as the original stuff, but it’s still better than most of the swill that people have the nerve to sell!”

A few of Leon’s curious guests noticed what was happening, including Marcus and Alcander, and they wandered over, fascinated as they were by Narses’ mixing bowl. Acting as if he were the host, Narses then invited everyone to partake in the wine within, which Alcander, at least, did with enthusiasm, to Narses’ delight. Soon enough, most of Leon’s guests had taken at least a cupful, and the krater was mostly drained.

But that wouldn’t do, in Narses’ mind, and he managed to get a drinking game started. Leon felt like he might’ve been insulted had getting Narses drunk and in a bit of a fighting mood not been one of the goals of the party.

Still, he didn’t partake that much in the game, which consisted of elevating the krater and trying to toss wine dregs from a drained cup into it from several dozen feet away. Those who failed had to drink, while those who managed to get a few drops in and activate the duplication enchantment also had to drink. Then, the game would pause as the krater was drained by the game’s participants, and they began again.

Hours passed, and given the general strength of those that Leon had invited, it was only then that people started to get a little red in the cheeks.

“Don’t think… I don’t see what you’re doing, Leon!” Narses exclaimed, his words a little slurred as he walked over, looking a little unsteady on his feet.

Leon’s heart skipped a beat, but he simply turned to the tipsy Heaven’s Eye board member and said, “What do you mean?”

“You’re nnnot drinkiiiing!” he shouted. “You can’t shjust stay out of it! Come on! Toss some wine!”

“Yeah!” a much drunker Alcander called out. “Tossh shome wine!”

“You sshee! He gets it!” Narses responded, and he and Alcander laughed and clasped wrists, the two seemingly kicking off a good friendship from the moment the drinking game began.

Leon just smiled, tossed back his drink—only the second one he’d had since the party had begun—and then took careful aim. His guests—those who were sober enough to notice what was happening, anyway—paused to watched as he whipped his cup, sending those last few drops of wine hurtling out toward the krater.

And they fell a little short, landing on the outside of the bowl rather than falling into it.

“Damn!” Leon exclaimed, his frustration more genuine than he realized. Then, with a sigh, he turned back to Narses and said, “I’m not so good at these sorts of things, I’m afraid.”

“Aargh!” Narses responded as he shook his head. “Then we shjut… shust… just need to find the right game!”

Leon nodded and asked, “Do you know any that are a little more… physically intense? I’ve always been more of a fighter than a drinker…”

Leon let his aura expand a bit, making it clear that he was speaking of a contest of strength of fighting prowess.

“I do, I do!” Narses said. “Come on over here, let me ssshow you!”

Narses led Leon over to one of the tables, and with the eyes of the other guests on them, propped up his arm on the table.

“Sso, we grasp each other’s hands like this, and then we pussh. The one whose hand touches the table loses! And they drink!”

“I like this one,” Leon said as he stood opposite Narses and propped his elbow up on the table. “What do I have to do when I win?”

Narses grinned at him and clasped his hand. With his drunken slur, he explained, “If you win, you drink!”

Leon chuckled as Marcus, Alcander, and Alix appeared at his shoulder, whispering and shouting encouragements as the other guests started crowding around. Elise took a position next to him, as did Valeria, and Emilie, her cheeks a little red, stepped forward and placed her hands on Leon and Narses’ clasped hands.

“You boys ready?” she asked in a tone that Leon guessed was supposed to come out a little seductively, but was ruined by her inebriation.

Leon smiled and assumed a strong position, while Narses did likewise. He was a little drunk, but he was still an eighth-tier mage, and Leon wasn’t going to underestimate his strength.

“Begin!” Emilie shouted, and she pulled her hands back.

Leon and Narses immediately began to push at each other, and Leon gritted his teeth and dug deep. Taking this seriously was the right call, for as much wine as Narses had drank, he was still much more muscular than Leon was, and almost a foot taller, to boot.

Still, Leon wasn’t in this to lose. Emilie had told him that Narses respected strength, and Leon wanted Narses on his side. So he pushed as hard as he could, letting his body fill with the Thunderbird’s lightning. Narses likewise called upon his magic, and to Leon’s relief, it wasn’t earth. If it had been, he guessed he would’ve lost this contest, but instead, Narses’ eyes began to glow with light magic, an element not typically associated with huge strength enhancements.

They pushed for several long seconds, the other guests cheering louder and louder with every passing second, and Leon almost felt like his arm was going to shatter. But he was slowly pushing Narses down, until finally, the larger man’s knuckles touched the table.

“Aaah!” he shouted in defeat. But a moment later, as Leon’s retinue whooped and hollered at his victory, Narses added, “Well done, Leon. Well done. Now drink!”

Narses then pushed a full cup toward him, and with Alix and Alcander chanting for him to drink, Leon sighed and tossed the cup back.

The party then continued, with several of the other guests—most notably Alcander—wanting to play this new game, while Leon stepped back and watched.

Eventually, the party started winding down and guests began to make their leave, coming over to give Leon and Elise their farewells as they did. Narses was one of the last to leave, and even with the huge volume of wine he’d taken in, he was still more than capable of walking straight.

“I had fun,” he said as Leon escorted him to the exit.

“As did I, thank you for honoring me by coming,” Leon replied.

“How could I feruse! Eh, refuse. You’ve got a bit of a reputation, Leon…”

“Huh? Reputation?”

“Yeah… not a friendly sort. Keep to yourself. That sort of thing. People know to leave you alone.”

Leon could only awkwardly smile knowing that that was true.

“Anyway,” Narses continued, oblivious to Leon’s reaction, “let’s talk again. I think we’ll have much to share with each other…”

“I think we will,” Leon replied.

As Narses, his driver, and his assistant got back into their chariot and began driving away, Leon reflected on the night’s events. He hadn’t gotten the fight he’d been expecting, but he’d still beaten Narses in a contest of strength, plied him with good alcohol, and the man had left on good terms. It was about as perfect of a party as he could’ve hoped for.

Now, he just had to get a little closer to Narses and hopefully turn this from just one good night into a relationship that he could use against the Director. Fortunately, he’d quite genuinely had fun, even if he hadn’t participated much in the games, and he was greatly encouraged after hearing Narses’ stance on vampirism.

He was starting to think that this might actually work.

A note from warden1207

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