The Grand Druid’s entrance befitted her position; the trumpets sounded, the criers announced her, and from the rainbow trees behind the throne she emerged, followed by enough other people to double at least the crowd in the courtyard. The stream separating the throne from the courtyard again swirled into the air, allowing the Grand Druid and her entourage to pass without wetting their feet.
The Grand Druid herself struck an imposing figure. She was dressed in the typical Evergolden style, but in a manner much more extravagant than even the Empress. Instead of gold, she was clad in green silkgrass and was bedecked in jewelry, the two most notable pieces being a golden torc around her neck that fastened an enormous emerald against her throat, and a strange-looking crown that had the Evergolden floral themes that the Empress’ crown had, but featured golden reliefs of birds all along the thick central gold band. In the very center of the crown, right above the center of her eyes, sat a ruby aglow with magic, glittering like a star, and bigger than both her eyes put together.
Most striking about the Grand Druid, of course, was her aura, and Leon immediately went on guard. He doubted that anything violent would break out here, but if the red-eyed, gray-haired Grand Druid wanted to, he knew that she could probably end everyone in the courtyard with little effort, and there were at least a dozen eighth-tier mages present, including the woman who’d delivered the message to Leon at the Heaven’s Eye guest house. In her own procession came four more mages that he presumed were ninth-tier.
“Grandmother!” Cassandra excitedly called out as the Grand Druid joined everyone else in the courtyard, her voice ringing out loudly in the courtyard as everyone else had gone silent upon the Grand Druid’s arrival. “How did the ritual go?”
“It went well,” the Grand Druid replied, a loving smile spreading across her face as she pulled the Princess in for a loose embrace. “The spirits were pleased and sent us good omens.”
“Wonderful,” the Empress said as she joined the other two. She then gave the Grand Druid a quick hug of her own and whispered something into her ear. Leon wouldn’t have thought much of it, assuming it was simply some familial or official business that had nothing to do with him, but immediately after the Empress pulled away, the Grand Druid’s eyes flickered in his direction.
He almost felt her attention hitting him like a brick wall. Her ruby red eyes locked upon him and his legs almost turned to mush, his grip in Elise and Valeria’s hands slackened, and he felt an immense weight settle in around his shoulders.
And then it was gone as the Grand Druid looked away.
“Shit,” Leon murmured.
“Something wrong?” Valeria asked.
[That one wants something from Leon,] Maia astutely replied, and all of them knew that she was talking about the Grand Druid.
“Give it a minute or two, she needs to greet her own people, but she’ll come this way,” Elise then warned.
Her statement proved prophetic, for over the next ten minutes, Leon and his ladies quietly mingled, and the Grand Druid slowly made her way around the courtyard, speaking for a moment or two with powerful mages and the other important people at the feast. But clearly enough, she was slowly making her way in their direction, and Leon’s heart rate accelerated with every step she took in his direction.
Soon enough, as Elise quietly chatted with some fifth-tier bureaucrat about certain Heaven’s Eye policies, Valeria squeezed his hand and Leon knew exactly why.
[She’s here,] Maia whispered into his mind, and when Leon glanced over, he saw the Grand Druid only a few steps away, smiling at them with nothing but welcome in her expression, though her warmth didn’t extend to the two ninth-tier women at her shoulder, nor to the dozen others in her entourage who were staring with varying degrees of curiosity and hostility at Leon and his ladies.
Like using a bucket of water to extinguish a candle, the conversation that Elise had been carrying out with the Evergolden bureaucrats ceased, and the bureaucrats around them quietly slunk backward, extricating themselves from Leon’s presence.
“Leon Raime,” the Grand Druid declared as she stepped in front of Leon. “How wonderful to finally meet you.”
Leon did his best to smile with as much charm as he could muster, but inside, his mind was racing.
‘Finally meet me? Is she going to just say that she knows who I am? What does she want?’
Such questions only she could answer, so Leon, summoning all of the decorum he could, replied, “You honor me… Grand Druid? Your Druidness?”
Several of the Evergolden hangers-on glared at him, and one even looked about ready to lay into him for the style he used, but before anyone could, the Grand Druid broke out laughing.
“Ha! ‘Your Druidness’! I have to say I’ve never heard that one before! At least, not to my face!”
Leon’s cheeks burned in embarrassment, and he could almost feel Elise’s urge to facepalm beside him, but he kept his demeanor as stoic and neutral as he could make it.
“I apologize for any offense, I wasn’t briefed on how to address you properly,” Leon explained.
One of the ninth-tiers at the Grand Druid’s shoulders finally spat, “An oversight unworthy of someone in your position within Heaven’s Eye! You should be ashamed of yourself!”
Leon cringed internally, but looked at the woman who spoke, something within him stirring, anger and indignation that this glorified bodyguard was taking that tone with him!
But just as soon as the feeling rose up, he quashed it, and humbly replied, “I was unprepared to meet someone so high up the chain, and I should have been. It is what it is.”
“Oh I don’t mind,” the Grand Druid said, silencing her guard with a wave of her hand. “Heaven’s Eye has always been delightfully informal, and I don’t see why I ought to insist on formality anyway!” She then turned and looked at her entourage and said, “All of you can go enjoy the feast, I don’t need you following little old me around everywhere!”
Most of her entourage dutifully scattered, though a few, including her two ninth-tier guards, needed another word or two and a glare of warning before they stepped back.
“Now, that’s a little better, isn’t it?” the Grand Druid said as she turned back to Leon, and he had to admit, it was better, not having a dozen of the most powerful members of the Sacred Golden Empire’s government staring at him—at least, not quite so closely, for he noticed that a significant number of eyes were still turned in their direction.
“So,” Leon said as he disentangled his hands from Elise and Valeria and crossing his arms over his chest, “is there something I can help you with?”
He figured he already knew what she wanted, what Anastasios had also wanted: to recruit him, or to intimidate him.
The Grand Druid stared at him for a moment, then smiled widely and sweetly, her natural grace and beauty evident despite the lines on her face and gray in her hair. “There is something that I would like to talk to you about, as a matter of fact. Would you come with me for a few minutes?”
“My answer would depend on what you want to talk to me about,” Leon replied, not moving.
The Grand Druid’s smile thinned a little, but her eyebrows rose in amusement. “So reluctant, are we? I get that I may not be in my prime anymore, but it still hurts when I learn that people don’t want to spend any time with me!”
She made a great show of being hurt, and Leon could feel quite a few of those people who were watching them start to grow a little more hostile. He suppressed a grimace and said, “I didn’t refuse outright, I just want to know what you want to talk about.”
The Grand Druid’s expression took a more serious turn, and she stared searchingly at Leon for a long moment. She didn’t exert any pressure with her aura, but Leon still felt almost naked beneath her intense scrutiny. Fortunately, as far as he could tell, his mental defenses weren’t breached.
“I’d like to talk about you, Leon Raime,” she finally said. “If possible, I would speak with you alone. Your companions can wait here.” She gave Elise, Maia, and Valeria respectful nods, but then turned her insistent gaze back to Leon.
[She wants to talk about the Clan,] Nestor whispered from Leon’s soul realm.
A little surprised at his interjection, it took Leon a moment to reply. So, as he made his own show of thinking over her request, Leon responded to Nestor, [I think that’s obvious enough. I don’t particularly want to go with her, but I also want to hear her out. What’s your opinion of her so far?]
Nestor replied, [I would skin her alive for her insolence, but I felt that way before she even opened her thieving mouth!]
[Hm? What’s drawing your ire? Not that I think you need one, with your superiority complex…]
Ignoring Leon’s last comment, Nestor explained, [That crown she’s wearing… It used to be my sister’s. It’s been modified and embellished, but Penthesilea’s circlet is there, still barely visible.]
Leon cocked an eyebrow and couldn’t help but stare for a moment at the Grand Druid’s elaborate crown. Sure enough, as far as he could tell from this close up, the base golden band, with its bird reliefs, seemed to be older than the flowers added to it.
[That would certainly explain just how powerful it seems to be,] Leon muttered to his clansman, noting that the crown had been heavily enchanted.
[It’s not a weapon, so no need to fear it,] Nestor growled. [That being said, if you can get it back, I would be grateful.]
Leon had to resist the urge to snort. [And what use is your gratitude to me, dead man?]
He heard Nestor grunt indignantly and fall silent, and for a moment, he reveled in his minor victory over his long dead clansman. However, that attitude died as soon as he looked back down at the Grand Druid and saw her staring back, a wide, carnivorous smile on her face, and his heart skipped a beat as he realized that he’d been too obviously staring at her crown.
‘She knows what she’s wearing!’ he realized.
But he quickly mastered himself, as did she, and a moment later, both were looking at each other with polite, understated smiles.
He didn’t think the Grand Druid was going to get violent, and buoyed by the fact that he was still a part of Heaven’s Eye and that Anastasios hadn’t seen him threat enough to actively move against, Leon said to the Grand Druid, “There’s no harm in talking, is there? Lead the way.”
“Wonderful,” she replied, and she turned on a dime and started walking. Leon fell in beside her, and Elise, Maia, and Valeria remained behind.
[If you don’t come out soon, I’m going to tear this place apart until I find you,] Maia promised as he walked away, and he could see similar sentiments reflected in Elise and Valeria’s expressions.
He smiled reassuringly back at them, but his attention was soon pulled back when the Grand Druid’s two ninth-tier guards fell back in beside her as they walked, and, after a quick gesture from the Grand Druid, so did Cassandra.
“Leon,” she smugly said in greeting.
“Your Highness,” Leon replied, causing her to frown and go silent at his display of formality.
The Grand Druid led them down a stone path and through the trees cast in golden light. They walked for several long minutes, passing several smaller deserted courtyards and a few other small stone sitting areas, until they eventually arrived at what Leon assumed to be their destination.
They reached a beautiful private grove surrounding a clearing, with a large stone table in the center and about half a dozen small trees growing around it that had formed the shape of large, comfortable-looking armchairs.
“Please, have a seat,” the Grand Druid said to Leon as the two ninth-tier guards took up positions just outside of the ring of trees that surrounded the clearing. The Grand Druid herself took a seat in the furthest tree-chair from the stone path, and when she sat down, Leon felt a substantial amount of magic suddenly flow through the ring of trees around them, and the trees’ branches whipped around like arms, interlocking and forming magical connections. When they went still again, the clearing had been, as far as he could tell, effectively warded against any eavesdroppers.
It seemed this was to be a truly private conversation.
“Interesting…” Leon whispered, his eyes wide with wonder. He didn’t take a seat as the Grand Druid had invited him, but instead took a few steps toward the trees and examined them in as great of detail as he could. “How is it that you have such control over these trees? And how are they acting as conduits for enchantments? I don’t see any visible runes…”
The Grand Druid laughed as Cassandra took a seat to her right. “I’m not surprised that an enchanter of your skill is so fascinated by our work. If you want, we could teach you some of our arts…”
Leon turned back toward her, an eyebrow raised. “And the cost of such instruction?”
The Grand Druid smiled back at him, then gestured to the seat directly across from hers.
Taking the hint, Leon gave the trees one more appreciative glance, then sat down.
Without any preamble, the Grand Druid said, “Leon Raime, I want you to join my Empire.”
Leon almost reeled at her bluntness, but managed to hoarsely asked, “What?”
“Join us,” the Grand Druid suggested. “We have cake…” With a wave of her hand, a large, cream-covered pastry appeared before all three of them. Without further ado, the Grand Druid picked up a fork and started in on hers, but Cassandra and Leon just stared at her, and Leon wasn’t sure who was more confused: himself, or the Princess.
“Grandmother…” Cassandra murmured.
The Grand Druid paused a moment, sighed, and put her fork down. “I was just trying to lighten the mood a little, and nothing’s better for that than something sweet, don’t you think?”
“Maybe this doesn’t call for a lighter mood?” Cassandra replied.
The Grand Druid shrugged, then looked back at Leon. “Are you at least willing to hear my offer out?”
Leon stared back at her, painfully aware that Cassandra was now looking at him, too. He thought about the Director and his current issues with Heaven’s Eye, but he also wasn’t that willing to get involved with someone without knowing a lot more about their motivations. At the very least, though, he figured that this offer might put a little more pressure on the Director…
“I suppose I can at least hear it out,” Leon said with a shrug, and he leaned back in his tree-chair.
“We have the aforementioned enchantments that you seemed so interested in, and much more besides. But we can offer high position and great benefits, along with instruction and support in ascending through the magical tiers. We have ancient secrets of the Thunderbird Clan that we’re willing to share, and more, besides.”
Leon’s eyes narrowed at the mention of his Clan. If nothing else, he had to admire the Grand Druid’s audacity to try and bribe him with something that others considered his birthright.
After a moment of silence, Leon asked, “Is that it?”
“What more might you want?” the Grand Druid innocently asked. She glanced at Cassandra, then back to Leon. “I could arrange for the two of you to get married, if you’d like.”
Cassandra froze, then stiffly turned to her grandmother with a look of utter mortification, but she didn’t say anything.
Leon, however, just chuckled. “I’m already married, and I’m not looking for another.”
Contrary to what he thought might happen, after his statement, Cassandra shot him an almost indignant look.
“That’s… I suppose that’s your choice,” the Grand Druid said, sounding disappointed for the first time. “However, your Thunderbird blood will undoubtedly make things difficult for you in the future, won’t it? If you have the support of an Empire, however, especially an Empire with which you have marriage ties, then a lot of those problems will go away, won’t they?”
Leon stared at her in shock, though his shock had been somewhat lessened by her earlier bluntness. Cassandra, on the other hand, stared wildly at the two of them, her eyes flitting between them like she was watching them toss a ball between themselves.
With a light frown, Leon wondered if Cassandra did actually know about him, and if she didn’t, then he was even more surprised if this was how she was learning about it.
When he turned his attention back to the Grand Druid, he said with steel entering his tone, “Are you threatening me?”
“I was offering support,” the Grand Druid replied, her wolfish grin returning. “Let’s not play games, Leon Raime. You are vulnerable as you are. That the Empires haven’t moved against you has been out of respect for Heaven’s Eye, among others, and because you don’t seem interested in political power. But that could always change in the future. If you grow too strong, too uncontrollable, too unpredictable, then action will be taken against you. I can only promise that it won’t be from us, and only if you join hands with us…”
Leon chuckled to cover up his growing anxiety. “I’m not looking for another wife,” he repeated. “I’m not trying to offend you, Your Highness, I’m sure you’ll make everyone you take as a husband, concubine, or whatever very happy. I’m just happy with the family I have, and that’s that.”
“Being content and being happy aren’t the same things,” the Grand Druid pressed. “Your ambitions are high, aren’t they? And with high ambitions come high expectations. Having a large family will likely be hard for you, won’t it? Having another wife, and a well-connected one could prove extremely useful.”
“What would you be getting out of this?” Leon asked. “You would share the bounties that my blood might unlock? Or would you just expect me to have a few kids with the Princess and have that be that?”
“We can discuss the details later. What I want to know is if you’re willing to truly consider the possibility…”
Leon sighed, then looked at Cassandra, whose cheeks had reddened, though from anger, embarrassment, or some combination thereof, he couldn’t tell from her expression alone.
“I’ll think about it,” he eventually said. “I make no promises.”
“That’s all I ask,” the Grand Druid replied.