“What do you think is the core tenet of Regiis?”
The sudden question from Isabella caught me off guard as I was led out of the Arena and through the meandering corridors of the Palace by the two Demigods.
“Well… the Ten Commandments?” I hedged after a pause.
They had whisked me away right after declaring my victory, leaving my wives – and bride to be – to attend the subsequent banquet in honour of the duel's victor on their own.
Isabella shook her head. “That’s too broad an answer. What would you say if I asked you to reply in one word?”
We had been walking in silence as I pondered over the circumstances of the Duel and worried about the aftermath. How I would get along with Artemis after this was occupying a large part of my mind before Isabella interrupted me with her question.
I thought about it deeply for a while before it hit me like a bolt out of the blue. “Marriage!” I blurted out.
She nodded appreciatively. “Exactly. The entire Empire was built around and established upon the institution of marriage. We extoll the virtues of love, fidelity, and marital harmony; instilling them in our children from a very tender age. A happy couple makes for stronger mages and that results in a prosperous Empire. To this effect, we put Marriage on a very high pedestal, glorify it and try to make the younger generation enthusiastic about it. But, think for just a moment, what if something cropped up that threatened to subvert this atmosphere?”
For a moment, I was confused about what she was getting at before I remembered the sight of the female students of the battle-mage division of the Academy holding up that banner reviling me and cheering Artemis on. Then it all became clear.
“So that’s why you ruled the Duel in my favour!”
Isabella nodded. “The First Princess has a lot of admirers, especially among the more militant sections of the female youth. They see her strength and then they notice her unmarried status. Impressionable as they are, they often correlate the two and that dampens their enthusiasm for marriage. But they aren’t the Princess. They don’t have a method to stave Vita’s whispers off. They have to marry and that makes them resentful.”
She sighed. “There has been a rise in the number of unhappy marriages in the mere two years since Artemis made her debut as a Hand of Justice. Apparently, an unmarried, powerful woman sends the wrong message.”
I couldn't bear take a look at her before hastily restraining my gaze. Unfortunately, I wasn’t fast enough and she noticed.
Averting her eyes embarrassed, she quibbled, “Well… in my case there were special circumstances… and I never met the right person…”
The Sunlight Soldier who had been silent up till now spoke up with a rasping chuckle. “The boy has a point you know? It’s beyond time you settled down and added a family to Regiis. When can we expect the good news?”
Raising her voice to drown him out, Isabella ignored his comment and continued addressing me. “Anyway! The thing is, Artemis needed to be wed and soon. The Emperor was already looking into pairing her off with someone, but she insisted upon Duelling them and only marrying someone who beat her. Obviously, none of her suitors had succeeded till you arrived… So, congratulations, you’re the lucky man.”
Astarael Salamandra just shook his head with an amused expression and turned back to the front.
We walked in silence for a bit before I couldn't contain my curiosity and asked, “Then why not publicize the method she uses? If it is replicable then no woman would have to worry about Vita’s influence upon her anymore and they could marry whenever they felt ready.”
Isabella looked at me like I was an idiot, opening her mouth to say something. But the Sunlight Soldier beat her to the punch. “Boy, always think several times before you speak, or you run the risk of looking like a vapid idiot. Now shut your mouth and think it through. If you don’t have an appropriate answer for us by the time we exit the Palace, I’ll be forced to reconsider taking you with us.”
My heart thumped and my cheeks burned with shame. I couldn't help but hunch my shoulders a bit. ‘It’s not like I asked you to take me wherever it is that you’re taking me!’ I wanted to shout, but I clamped down on the impulse.
I was just being petulant. They were Demigods. Military, civil, anyway you looked at it, they vastly outranked me and if they ordered me to jump, I better get hopping. Shaking my head to clear my mind, I thought the issue through, looking at it from different angles.
The steady rhythm of our boots on the stone counted down the time remaining till we reached the exit and my nervousness grew as my thoughts kept running in circles, unable to find the problem in exposing the method of preventing Feralization.
I admit, the reason I was so eager to have it public was because of my selfishness. I thought it would benefit Phobos’ mother in particular and war widows in general. There would be no urgent question of remarriage looming above the widows like a naked sword and those who didn’t want to remarry wouldn't have to resort to Sati. And even those who did would have time to properly mourn their husbands before moving on.
Demigods were people at the apex of magic in this world of ours. Only the most fortunate of people would have a chance to meet them and here I was walking within reach of two. Two Demigods who seemed to want to present me with an opportunity. As the time limit drew ever closer, I could feel the opportunity slipping out of my grasp like fine sand through a clenched fist.
Forcibly calming myself down, I took a deep breath and exhaled, feeding all my emotions to the Void.
My eyes grew cold, my posture straight, and my gait unflustered. Freed from the shackles of emotion, thoughts collided rapidly in the Void, sparking inspiration with every impact.
Opening my mouth, I spoke with confidence. “Revealing the technique to the public would undermine the importance of marriage. As of now, every woman has an impetus to marry: The positive connotations attached to it culturally as well as the negative impact of impending Feralization. A carrot and a stick if you will.
“This technique, if widely publicized and adopted, will, in essence, remove that stick. Women wouldn't be as motivated to marry – and what’s worse – even remain faithful. Not only will it weaken the Empire in the long run, it will create great social upheaval in the short term and that’s something we can hardly afford at the current juncture in time.”
“Also,” I concluded, “the entire statute of laws would have to be amended in order to accommodate the complications arising from this change.”
Right as I finished speaking, we exited out of the corridor into the imperial rose garden. The noon sun beat down upon us, dispersing the chill of winter and the heady scent of roses filled my nose.
Turing around, the Sunlight Soldier clapped one of his massive claws on my shoulder, nearly making me stumble. “Well done… couldn't have put it better myself. But you missed one point.”
My heart sank, shattering the Void, and disappointment flooded into me along with my returning emotions. I’d failed the test and would miss this once in a lifetime opportunity.
But the elder Salamandra’s next words put my apprehension to rest. “But that’s excusable since it involves the most classified secret of the entire Empire. It’s one of many secrets you’ll be learning once we reach our destination.” His voice grew deeper, the hissing rasp underlying it growing stronger. “Welcome, boy, to the Circle of Demigods.”