Cassandra’s heart raced with fury, and she could barely hear herself think over the roar of blood rushing through her head. She couldn’t believe the meeting she’d just witnessed between Leon and her grandmother…

… Although, it was becoming more and more believable the longer that those revelations turned about in her head.

She and the Grand Druid still sat in the private room of the Golden Grove, Leon having left only a few minutes before. A screen of light had been projected out of the stone table, and the two women were able to watch Leon being escorted back to the feast with it. The Grand Druid seemed rather distracted, staring at the screen and Leon’s image on it with an intensity that Cassandra had never seen before, which was the only reason she was able to wait that long without letting her building outburst loose.

When it became too much to bear, she finally asked in the native language of the Evergolden people instead of the common tongue, “Grandmother… What in the Ashen Fields was that?”

The Grand Druid pried her eyes off the screen and to Cassandra, lighting up with pride the moment they locked upon her and serving to calm a little bit of Cassandra’s wrath.

Responding to Cassandra in common rather than their native language, the Grand Druid said, “My dear, I think you know exactly what that was. And if you don’t, then I’m sure all you need is a few more minutes. With me here, you’ll have all the time you need.”

Cassandra resisted the urge to facepalm. Switching back to common, she said, “Grandmother, I appreciate your faith in me, but I’d rather you just cut the shit and let me in on your plans. They clearly concern me, and I have to say, I don’t like being dangled before Leon like a piece of meat before a starving lion!”

“Oh? But I thought you were already thinking about courting him? You came back from the Scorched Fields with such a glowing impression of him, I thought that you’d jump at the chance to make him yours!”

“Not like that! By the Gods and Spirits, I’m not some cheap whore who’ll spread my legs for anyone with silver! I’m a Princess, and Leon Raime should be lucky to kiss the ground at my feet! If I were to ask anyone else to be my first husband, they’d fall over themselves in eagerness to accept! I won’t pursue Leon just because I want him, he has to come to me! He has to beg me to take him as my husband, I won’t have it any other way!”

The Grand Druid smiled at her almost pityingly, and while it angered Cassandra even further, she reined in her ire until after her grandmother could respond.

“We may not have the time for that,” the Grand Druid said as she glanced back at the screen. Leon had arrived back at the feast and was speaking with the women he’d arrived with, who were all listening quite intently. It was obvious enough even though they couldn’t hear him that he was filling them in on what happened while he was gone.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that the Lord Protector has sent word that he would like to visit Evergold in the next few weeks. I would normally welcome such a thing with open arms, but the timing is a little too coincidental…”

“You think he’s coming here for Leon?”

“Of course he is. The Ilian Empire’s cache of ancient Thunderbird relics is second only to those wasteful Sentinels! The gains they could make if they were to successfully recruit Leon Raime are unimaginable! We’d gain much from adding his blood to our line, but I can’t say that we’d gain more than the Ilians would if Leon were to choose them, instead.”

Cassandra’s tone lowered in pitch as her simmering anger boiled over for just a moment. “Is that why you told me to get to know him before the wyvern hunt?”

The Grand Druid turned back to her and nodded. “He has three wives. Or at least, he has two wives and two concubines, I’m honestly not sure what constitutes a marriage ceremony in those worthless Kingdoms up north. I thought that not only would he jump at the chance to get with my gorgeous, stunning, incredible-in-every-way granddaughter, but that your interest would finally be piqued enough by a man that you’d jump at the chance to have him, too!”

Cassandra groaned in frustration and pushed herself back from the table, though remained in her seat. “I don’t like being used like that, grandma!”

“I wasn’t using you! I was just putting you in a situation and seeing how it went! And it seemed to have gone quite well if how much you were gushing about Leon Raime when you got home was anything to go by…”

“I wasn’t gushing…”

“You were more complimentary to him than you were to anyone else I and your mother have sent your way…”

“That’s only because you told me to watch him.” Cassandra pointedly didn’t look at her grandmother, hoping to salvage some bits of her broken pride by turning her head away. “If it weren’t for that, I don’t think I would’ve given him a second look!”

“That’s exactly what I was afraid of, little one. Why don’t you do me a favor and bring out that new sword I had commissioned for you?”

Cassandra frowned, but dutifully retrieved Sunlight from her soul realm, summoning it out onto the table. Realization began to dawn on her the moment that the Grand Druid looked at it and smiled.

“Leon Raime forged that blade, you know…”

Cassandra squeezed her eyes shut to process that information, and when she opened them, she stared blankly at Sunlight and at her grandmother, not really focusing on either one.

“How long have you been manipulating us?” Cassandra demanded, then cringed slightly as she remembered parading the blade before Leon during the wyvern hunt, bragging about its capabilities and even threatening him with it. “Does he know that you were the one who commissioned the sword? Or does he think that was me?”

“You’d have to ask him,” the Grand Druid replied. “You’ll get plenty of opportunities to ask him about it, too, in the coming months…”


The Grand Druid’s eyes drifted back to the screen. “The last surviving member of the Thunderbird Clan, as far as anyone knows… He can’t have come to our Empire on a whim, especially not with how badly his situation in Heaven’s Eye deteriorated following that wyvern hunt… He’s here looking for something; something that has to have the ability to strengthen his position within that guild of silver-pinchers, or to increase his personal power, or for some other reason I can’t even imagine. The secrets of that Clan are deep, and it’s hard to guess what his aim is. Regardless, I feel safe in assuming that his aim is related to his Clan, and I want to know what exactly it is. So you’ll be joining his expedition.”

Cassandra scowled lightly, though in a quiet admittance that she didn’t dare to vocalize, she didn’t find the order all that unpleasant…

“Besides,” the Grand Druid continued as she glanced back at the screen, “to have someone like him wandering around our Empire unescorted would be foolishness of the highest order. If we don’t keep an eye on him, then he might unleash some terrible monster from archaic times upon us; or even worse, take some long-lost piece of Thunderbird magic that should’ve been ours! Cassandra, find out what he’s doing here, and if possible, ensure that if it can benefit the Empire, then it stays with the Empire!”

Cassandra was pulled out of her brief reverie by the sheer intensity that the Grand Druid built up to, and it surprised her. Rarely had she ever seen her grandmother display such passion for something, and on those rare occasions when she did, it was usually because something was threatening the Empire in some way. Although, if she thought about it, Cassandra supposed that a descendent of the Thunderbird Clan wandering around their Empire on ‘personal business’ was a little concerning. Normally—if there ever was such a thing as ‘normal’ when it came to situations like these—Cassandra guessed she would’ve just thrown Leon out of the Empire entirely, but that was hardly practical in this case, so keeping an eye on him was the best option.

“Very well,” the Princess said, her eyes watching every move Leon made as he took his wives’ hands and started making his way out of the Golden Grove. Her eyes narrowed slightly as she saw the fingers of the silver-haired one interlock with Leon’s, and a bitter smile spread across her face. With some effort, Cassandra pried her eyes away from the screen and added, “I’ll go with Leon, see what he’s up to, and if possible, see if I can convince him to stay in our Empire. Do I have the authority to negotiate on that front?”

“You do,” the Grand Druid confirmed. “Just about whatever he wants, I’m willing to give. Not ‘anything’, of course, but everything within reason, and most things without, I’d say are worth it for what his blood can bring us.”

“What should I do?” Cassandra asked. “Where should I begin?”

The Grand Druid hummed in thought and remained quiet for a moment. “Tensions between him and the Director have increased dramatically recently,” she said. “His retinue was attacked by vampires, and it seems the Director isn’t doing much about it. That in and of itself warrants some investigation, but for the moment, make him believe that you’re on his side. Sympathize with him, and dig into the resentment he has to feel for the Director. Make him see what he has to gain in our Empire, and make him realize that we won’t hang him out to dry for a bunch of degenerate leeches.”

Cassandra nodded, though a frown had again appeared on her face. If Leon’s blood was so important, then she couldn’t imagine why the Director was so willing to not protect him from any threats that might crop up, especially those of a vampiric or demonic nature.

“I’ll get started right away,” Cassandra said as she stood up.

The Grand Druid gave her a loving smile, her red eyes sparkling with joy and pride. “Keep me informed.”


“Well, it’s good to know that we have options,” Elise said as she calmly stripped herself of her jewelry. She was strong enough to use elemental magic, now, but not quite strong enough to have unfettered use of her soul realm quite yet, so she still had to undress by hand instead of simply willing herself into different clothes.

Maia and Valeria, however, had changed into something much more comfortable as soon as they returned to the guest house, with Valeria simply donning loose training clothes and Maia going without clothing entirely—Valeria was still a little awkward with her like that, but after more than ten years living together, they already knew what they looked like without clothes, so it was no longer that big of a deal.

“Options are good,” Leon agreed as he collapsed onto the huge bed in the guest house’s master suite, mentally exhausted from the evening. “It’s always nice to feel wanted, but everyone’s coming on just a little too strong. I think I’d be more comfortable approaching them on my own terms, you know? It all just seems so manipulative when they’re the ones putting in offers, going so far as to offer up the hands of their family members in marriage…”

“It’s a bit heavy handed, I agree,” Elise responded, “but marriage alliances are hardly uncommon among any people with a gentry class.”

[And it seems that the red-eyed one likes you, anyway,] Maia added, surprising Leon a little bit—she was laying back and staring at the ceiling with an almost blank look on her face, making her seem like she wasn’t paying attention at all to what was going on around her.

Leon sighed. “Given who we’re dealing with,” he said, “I don’t think we can take anything completely at face value. It does seem strange that it didn’t seem like she’d been informed of my bloodline before the hunt, but that could just be theater for my benefit.”

Her jewelry taken off, Elise then set aside some pajamas and began to change. Leon let his eyes drink in the sight, but Valeria tactfully averted her gaze.

“Are you considering their offer?” Elise asked, smiling and moving a little slower when she noticed his gaze, obviously reveling in his attention.

“No,” Leon honestly replied. “I was tempted to refuse out of hand, but decided not to commit to that course, just yet. Still, signing on with the Sacred Golden Empire is pretty far down my list of fallback plans.”

“How far is it?” Valeria wondered. “It sounds like they’re offering you everything but the Empire itself, up to and including an Imperial Princess. Maybe it’s just me, but an offer that came with such a strong and beautiful woman strikes me as being one that ought to be fairly high.”

Elise paused a moment as she pulled her pajama bottoms up. “Didn’t you just call Cassandra a bitch like three hours ago?”

Valeria shrugged. “She is kind of a bitch. But she’s strong and beautiful, that much can’t be denied.”

[And young,] Maia added. [To have reached her level at her age is… not unprecedented…] Maia gave Leon a pointed look. [… But it’s still extremely rare.]

“It’s not about power, though,” Leon protested. “If all I wanted in rebuilding the Thunderbird Clan was power, then I would’ve sought out the most powerful people around as soon as I could and offered them a place under me. But I don’t want to just recruit anyone, I’d rather know that my people are loyal to us, not just that they’re strong. I need that trust, and Cassandra doesn’t have it. Hells, even if this topic was never broached by her or her people, I still wouldn’t trust her. I just haven’t known her long enough for to have that much trust.”

“So, I shouldn’t hold my breath thinking that we’re about to move to Evergold?” Elise asked as she fell onto the bed beside Leon, now fully clad in her pajamas. Leon sat up a bit so that he could wrap his arm around her, then pulled her close.

“No,” he said.

“Oh well. At least we’re leaving on relatively good terms.”

Leon quietly agreed. “At least there’s that,” he muttered. Still, he was glad that they weren’t staying long in the city; only a couple days, to rest up and replenish their supplies. He was looking forward to seeing this research facility of his Clan, and if anything of value remained there.


Leon felt much better as his retinue prepared to leave Evergold than when he did leaving Ilion years ago. He felt like he was actually going to miss the beautiful forest-city. It was a heavily populated region; not quite as urbanized and dense as Ilion, but still with a population of millions. And yet, despite this vast collection of humanity, the city still felt like a forest, with similar sights and smells, and with so many trees around, Leon could rarely see more than a few streets at a time. Where Ilion and all of the Ilian urbanization along the Scamander River could feel stifling, here, he felt like he could relax.

The relative lack of art glorifying the downfall of his Clan certainly helped. Evergolden art tended to be more nature-focused, and only rarely did he see people represented.

So, it was with some reluctance that he led his people back to their yacht only two days after arriving in Evergold. They had a mission, and he couldn’t fully relax until it was over. On the way back, however, he was intending to stop for a little longer to properly experience the city and see if his impression carried through.

However, as his yacht was finishing up preparations, Anshu came to find him, telling him that the Evergolden authorities had asked them to wait a while.

Leon wasn’t sure what to make of that, but he didn’t have much time to consider the problem before another sleek yacht came cutting through the waves of the Heaven’s Eye harbor. Standing upon the prow was a blond figure in beautiful golden armor, with ruby-colored eyes that sparkled in the light of the morning sun.

Leon sighed, then walked over to the side of his yacht, meeting the Princess as her yacht came to a stop next to his.

“Leon Raime!” she called out, a glowing smile lighting up her face.

“Your Highness!” he responded. Without waiting for her to explain herself on her own accord, he asked, “Are you the one who asked us to wait?”

“In a way,” the Princess called back. “It was decided that to a man of your stature couldn’t just be made to wander our great Empire without an escort, and what better escort can there be than a Princess? None have as great an understanding of their lands as I do of mine!”

Leon bitterly smiled and nodded, then turned to Anshu and muttered, “Get the ship ready to go.”

Anshu nodded in acknowledgment and made for the bridge.

Turning back to the Princess, Leon said without much honesty, “Of course we’d be honored to have an Imperial escort!”

“Good!” Cassandra replied. Without waiting another moment, she leaped off her ship and landed right next to Leon on the deck of his ship. “Then how about we head inside and discuss your current expedition?”

Leon, seeing no other real option, acquiesced, but his good mood had just taken a beating, and he struggled not to let that show. That last thing he wanted was to have an Imperial Princess breathing down his neck as he plumbed the depths of an ancient and dangerous forest searching for the remnants of his Clan.

But it seemed he had little choice except to allow her to join them, for he could tell that even if he turned the Princess down, she wasn’t just going to leave him alone. He just had to get used to an Imperial presence on his journey, and it was better to have that presence where he could see it than where he couldn’t.

He stifled a groan, sensing a headache already starting to set in.

A note from warden1207

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