"Is your cousin always this… exuberant about the festivities, or has it simply been too long since last he hosted?"
The chuckle that was his answer was drowned out by the sudden, loud scream as yet another streaming rocket was fired from the south tower, headed towards the heavens where it burst into a thousand glittering lights. The image this particular rocket burned into the sky was that of an iris. The colors were bright and vibrant, whatever the necessary chemicals making them shimmer just the slightest. The technology required to master such a was feat commendable, and Minister Corti had no doubt paid a pretty fee to acquire it. It was beautiful and stunning; there was no denying that.
It was also loud, and Belkin had long since grown tired of having to shout his own thoughts into his head. His attempts at conversation with Kas over the past marks had consisted mostly of fragmented sentences and misinterpreted words. Somehow, he doubted Kas had been trying to tell him the brass was outside the line—whatever that meant.
Quite frankly, he was sick of the whole damned affair. If his continuing presence was going to be required, he would rather they just assign him his first opponent and truly get it started. All this standing around to admire fire displays was a waste of time and energy. Energy he could better be expending on the actual event.
He could appreciate the auspices under which they were observing the festivities. This was a huge event, the highlight of the season no matter which region was playing host. People old and young, rich and poor traveled for miles to watch, some even to participate. It was not exactly unheard of for the celebration to last well into the next morning.
But he failed to see why Kas—and by default he—should be required to stand in observance over all of it. Belkin could respect the need to be present and visible throughout the opening ceremony, but it seemed to him that all obligations had been met long ago. Now it was just torture.
A lull of silence filtered into the air as the flower dissipated into wisps of smoke, sending the smell of sulfur drifting through the light breeze that occasionally blew up from the southeast. "Exuberant is putting it too mildly. Legiehn likes to make a scene." Kas waved his arms yet again at the raucous crowd, casting Belkin a sidelong glance. "He likes to be remembered. Well and well-above all others."
"Well, I'll certainly remember him, anyway."
The squeal of another rocket drowned out Kas laughter and whatever he might have said next. A gold ring, the laurel wreath of the victor. This was immediately followed by a silver crescent, the moon of the sovereign. The two met and seemed to interlock, the wreath looping around and hanging from the bottom corner of the crescent. It was the same image stamped into all the banners and flags waving about the courtyard and all throughout the castle. Belkin watched it shimmer and fade with faintest hope that the fire show at least was almost to an end. Perhaps then, their host would consent to give them their leave.
"Get used to it, Bel. There's nothing we like more than a good show. …"
"Now there's a truth plainly spoken." The voice made Belkin start and turn around, body tensed and ready to strike if necessary. Aside from the guards, he and Kas should have been the only two on that particular balcony, and the guards never spoke. Inwardly, Belkin cursed the damned rockets—and really, the whole blasted ceremony—for distracting him and completely thwarting is ability to remain alert.
"Ah, Leg," Kas stepped forward and around Belkin, approaching and greeting their visitor as one would a long unseen relative. Which Belkin supposed was fitting enough as Minister Corti was Kas's cousin. Though that did nothing to excuse his sneaking in without proper announcement. "I didn't hear you come in."
"So I see." Except he was not looking at his cousin, but at Belkin, who still stood ready to attack at the slightest implication, one eyebrow raised in that way that was more ironic than quizzical. Belkin just stared blankly back.
"Legiehn, I introduce Venice Belkin. He is here as representative of Tryvane."
Corti inclined his head and regarded Belkin coolly. "It has been quite some time since Tryvane has participated. Dare I assume this is somehow your doing, Cousin?" He smirked. "You always were a talented diplomat."
Kas placed a hand upon Belkin's shoulder, giving it the slightest of squeezes. "Belkin is also my Guardian."
"Then I suppose I need venture no further with my questions. Though I will attempt to beg the story from you later, anyway."
"Attempt all you like, but I promise you it is a rather trivial affair, all things considered." Belkin refrained from comment. He even managed not to roll his eyes. Well, not so much that Corti's attention would be drawn to the action, anyway.
A trivial affair. Perhaps if one considered near kidnapping and assassination an every day occurrence. But far be it from him to inject his own summation on the whole thing. It was not really a story he wanted the whole country knowing anyhow.
"Where your life is concerned, Cousin, I imagine it is rarely as idle and boring as you would lead us to believe, but if you wish it, I will drop it."
"For the moment."
"Yes. We've more important matters to deal with now."
Kas raised an eyebrow, amusement with his cousin transforming to interest in something else. "They are already gathered?"
Corti nodded. "Most of them." He paused. "Well, the ones who matter, anyway. Come, I've had… nourishment set up in the great hall."
"I thought imbibing was forbidden?" Belkin had little choice but to follow as Corti left the room with Kas only a few steps behind him. He was probably being foolish, having his guard up here, at such a time. Obviously neither Kas nor his cousin—nor even the guards—had any true concerns. But the politics of it all…
It just seemed like too perfect a chance and possibility for something to happen. So while the others loosened up and trusted the tradition, he would continue to stay alert. And try to learn the tradition. Maybe even learn to trust it.
"It's only sweet water," Corti glanced back at him and winked.
"Legiehn only does just enough to give the judges palpitations," Kas grinned at him, "He's never strictly broken any rules."
The Minister shrugged. "I just like to keep them on their toes. Make sure they remember the rules."
"Because they've always given us so much cause to believe they have forgotten them."
"That's precisely my point. My training makes them sharper and leaves us with no room to complain."
"Isn't that more harassment than training?"
Corti waved away Belkin's words. "Semantics. Either way, we're all left satisfied with their judgments. And that's really the point."
An explosion of noise, quiet murmurs, whispers, shouts, laughter, and all other sounds in between met them as they came out of the hallway leading from the bottom of the stairs and stepped into the great hall. The sounds suspended for the briefest second as their presences was observed and various salutes and other forms of respect given.
Belkin could not help his surprise, or the tiny twinge of affront that he felt. Normally when they entered a room, all activity stopped and all attention was focused directly and immediately upon Kas. It would seem those rules did not apply here.
"Here, titles are used mostly only to know whom you represent," Kas must have sensed his indignation and awe at their reception. "This is a level playing field. We may all stand for something different—country, prefecture, family—but we all fight for the same thing. This is nothing to do with who we are. Skill, agility, perseverance. Any man can be the last man standing." Kas quoted the words that sometimes accompanied the crescent/laurel image on the banners. He smiled at Belkin, brushed his cheek lightly with the tips of two fingers. "You'll get used to it."
"Ah… there he is." Corti broke into their conversation with a look that clearly said he would have liked to do so sooner and indicated a group of men in a corner of the room not too far from where they stood. "He is one we should definitely watch out for this season, Cousin."
"Who?" Kas turned away
"On the left. Dark hair and spectacles."
"Why? What do you know?" Kas sent his cousin a shrewd look. "You've sent your footmen out to play spy again, haven't you." It was not a question, really. More a blatant accusation.
"You say it like I've done something wrong." Which Corti obviously felt unmerited. "I read the rules three times; no where does it say it is forbidden to run reconnaissance."
"Semantics." Belkin really did have to roll his eyes then.
"You learn fast." Corti grinned at him. "At least half this room has done the same thing or similar. That's why we're all here now—to disseminate what we know and learn what others do." He gave Belkin another of his considering looks. "Though I find it interesting that none of my sources found anything about you. I would think all kinds of flags would have raised at that." He cast his eyes about the room, "By the looks of it, I would say no one heard anything of you, Guardian."
Kas waved off the question. "Bel's entrance was last minute. And your sources might be efficient, but not even they could find what I choose to hide."
"You put a seal on his papers."
"Yes, I did. News of Tryvane's participation will not be received lightly. I did not desire to stir up trouble before it was necessary. And now it has already started, what can anyone do?"
"Indeed. I hope you are prepared for all the attention you will garner, Guardian."
Belkin straightened, drawing himself to his full height. "I'm used to it." His eyes flicked briefly to Kas before meeting and matching the Minister's steady gaze. Corti nodded, seeming satisfied.
"So now we're done discussing my Guardian, share," Kas drew their attention back to the man in the corner. "What's special about him?"
"I understand his name is Lovvorn Dekort. He hails from the mountains, apparently. One of the eastern prefectures, I would hazard."
"He is sponsored?"
Watching the man they spoke of, Belkin could see why Corti had singled him out. He was significantly shorter than those around him, but his bearing spoke of far greater confidence. A man prepared for anything and capable of dealing with everything. There was an air of quiet calm about him, a tense frown creased his forehead as he studied the room, eyes training on each individual for long seconds before moving on.
"I cannot say for certain." Corti pouted, seeming very putout, "And the judges are not yet inclined to divulge that information. Perhaps you could try your diplomacy on them, Cousin. Convince them the host at least has some right to certain information."
Kas just shook his head, "I seem to recall you suffering a similar dilemma when last you hosted. Perhaps if you did not insist on participating yourself, the judges would be more forthcoming with the information you desire."
"I'm the host. They should be forthcoming with me no matter the circumstances."
"Yes, Leg. You're a powerful, all mighty being, and all should be afraid of defying your will."
Corti glared. "I hope you get eliminated in the first stage. Preferably by some farmer's son."
"Not likely." Kas grinned wickedly at his cousin. "Though I am looking forward to another thrilling display of your prowess, similar to what was witnessed last year."
"That match was rigged."
"And yet somehow, you still wound up losing."
"How quickly you wear out your welcome, Cousin."
"Pity for you that you cannot yet send me home." Corti was cut off from further comment when Kas held a hand up, attention suddenly caught by something at the opposite end of the room. "Lo, who is that? He looks… severe"
The man was quite tall, though not much more so than Belkin, himself. He was leaner, however, with long, wiry arms and legs. Though he was no less sturdy and balanced for all that. From where they stood, Belkin could see the graceful way even the tiniest moves were performed, the corded muscles that bunched and bulged with those same movements.
He was covered in tattoos. A dark trail of blues and greens of various shades twisted and spiraled from the tips of his fingers to his shoulders, where it disappeared beneath his dark blue tunic. Belkin could make out just the faintest hint of color peaking out from the collar and crawling up his neck. There was a string of gems—sapphire, emerald, diamond—lining the shell of one ear. He had the same quiet about him as Lovvorn Dekort, but there was nothing calm in it. He seemed to Belkin like a tightly a wound spring.
"You should be on your guard with him," Corti said after some seconds, putting voice to Belkin's own thoughts. "His name I do not know, but he is sponsored by Minister Llundein. Rosado is his trainer. Or so I have been given to understand."
Kas grimaced, though is eyes never left the man. "I do not pity those champions who must face him in the preliminary rounds. Rosado has never made promise to a clean fight. I cannot imagine anyone he trains behaving any differently."
"A pity, too. He looks like he would make a good opponent."
"I imagine he would be a challenge, regardless."
"mm… Speaking of a challenge," Corti scanned the room once more, "You might find Minister Dresmon's champion interesting. Ah, there he is. Perick Casnough…"
The next two hours followed with Legiehn Corti sharing what information he had amassed about certain champions or their trainers and sponsors. Some of it was useful, though most of it was nothing Belkin could not have figured out simply by watching the men.
Maybe it was simply a gift of his profession, but he knew Kas saw it, too. In fact, he thought that was why Kas did not bother with his own team of spies. Whatever information they would have provided, Kas could have learned on his own with but a few minutes of observation. This was his hobby and passion, and he read it well in others. Just as Belkin himself did.
The only thing Belkin actually learned in listening to Corti's discourse was that a great many of the Ministers were not quite so willing to represent their prefectures as he would have assumed. "Shameful." He scoffed, watching the room in disgust. "You would think knowing that the Regent himself was participating would inspire more of them to enter their names and fight for themselves."
"I would hazard that knowledge is precisely why so many have chosen to sponsor a champion rather than risk it on their own." Kas smirked. "They know their skill could never match up to his. They haven't a chance; better to find someone with real talent, than risk their pride when they're shown to be horridly outmatched." There was a gleam in his eyes Belkin could not recall seeing before, an energy in his bearing that had not been there even during the celebration.
Belkin realized, then, that this was the reason Corti had brought them down there. Not to disseminate information on the others. Not to tell Kas who to be wary of. It was to arouse Kas. To show him what he had to look forward to. To show the others what they had to go up against. He saw it now.
Regent Kasandor Saer-Rei Audric was the champion they all needed to be wary of.