The dining room sank into silence once more, until the young lady broke it.
"So, you deliberately aggravated Dragon Clouds City and allowed everyone to witness your rudeness..." Saroma furrowed her brows tightly. "To prepare for this step?"
Ian blinked cheerily. The archduchess seemed to be pondering.
"The proposal, would it work?"
"I'm sticking to what I said before, in case you really marry someone." Ian glimpsed half-intentionally at Thales and patted his shoulder. "Then what about 'us'?"
Thales felt Saroma's gaze sweep past him every now and then. That look was like the helpless gaze that young girl once cast at him in a flurry in the library, the Hall of Heroes, Shield District, the prison cells, and before the five archdukes.
Though Thales felt a calming familiarity, but also felt a sense of unfamiliarity to that gaze, one that he could almost not bear.
'"However, Thales Jadestar. What exactly am I to you?"'
He could only continue maintaining his grave expression, and he offered no reply.
After the archduchess, Ian also cast his gaze at Thales.
One second. Two seconds. Three seconds. A century seemed to pass.
Saroma was still staring intently at Thales.
"What is up with you two?" Ian, who finally could not stand such an atmosphere, put on a bewildered expression, raised both hands, and shook them. "Or are you saying that… you want me to leave so you can talk?"
Thales endured the pressure coming from the other two people and finally relaxed his face. He pulled a simple smile and nodded delicately at the archduchess.
"You'd have to face this storm eventually," Thales said in a soft voice, "You're the archduchess; it has to be you, it has to be your own decision. Become someone you want to be."
Saroma paused momentarily. When she heard the prince's words, she lowered her head and sank into deep contemplation.
At the side, Ian frowned. His eye moved back and forth between the two people.
Saroma raised her head a few seconds later. She looked at Ian as if she made a decision. Her tone was resolute. "What do you need?"
In that instant, Thales let out a breath like a floodgate being released. Ian revealed a smile of satisfaction.
"We need an event where your vassals—I mean true, authoritative vassals with feudal land, military strength and ambition—will participate altogether."
Ian muttered to himself, "The faster the better, in case they have a chance to scheme. We also shouldn't give Black Sand Region the time to counter attack. We'll be there, cutting off your ropes and breaking your stocks and chains. You will do the same for us."
Saroma only muttered for a few seconds before rapidly saying, "There's still half a month until the day of the state affairs hearing." Her response was direct and concise. "But I will discuss it with Ciel. We should be able to delay it for a few days. Under normal circumstances, the counts will send administrators. However, I can send out letters inviting them to a discussion regarding the dispatchment of troops."
This was Thales' first time seeing such a swift and decisive side of Saroma. He was rather surprised.
"So..." Strange colors surfaced in Ian's eyes. He tilted his head slightly. "We've reached an agreement? My lady-No... Archduchess of Dragon Clouds City?"
Saroma stared at him and nodded slowly. "Of course, Viscount of the City of Faraway Prayers."
Thales smiled faintly as he felt a strange sensation surge into his heart… It was as if he had lost something.
"Very good." Ian schooled his facial expression and stood up slowly.
In that moment, Thales had a misconception: The temperament of the viscount was beginning to change gradually.
Ian was seen raising his right hand, stretched it over the table, then pressed his fingers tightly against each other with his palm straight.
"Ian Roknee..." At this moment, his expression was not particularly giggly, nor was it intentionally solemn. Only a pure indifference was left. "For our alliance."
Thales looked at him quietly.
'This Roknee with this unconcerned expression, maybe… this is the real him, the real Ian Roknee.'
The archduchess sucked in a deep breath. She, too, stood up with a rigid expression, and extended her palm towards Ian.
"Saroma Walton," said the young lady coldly. "For our goal."
But when her palm was about to touch Ian's, it paused abruptly and stopped in mid-air. Ian was startled for a moment.
Saroma was seen turning her head slowly as she looked at the other person left in the room—the foreign prince with his complicated expression. Ian responded as he smiled with sudden realization. He looked at Thales as well.
This time, it was Thales' turn to raise an eyebrow. "Me too?" he asked in amazement.
"You're the witness for this oath of allegiance, Thales. Don't underestimate yourself." Ian laughed softly. "Or do you want to become an outsider who has heard the whole plot but doesn't bother himself with it?"
Saroma looked impassively at the prince. Her gaze was complex, but it never left him for even a second.
Thales sighed and stood up in resignation.
"Thales Jadestar." Following his memory and the movements of the five archdukes' oath-swearing, Thales extended his right arm and subconsciously joined it with Saroma's palm.
He muttered vaguely before saying in a cold voice, "For… For our mutual enemies."
Ian looked at the two tightly intertwined palms and raised an eyebrow. Sighing, he shrugged and clutched the back of Thales' hand from the outside.
The three palms gripped tightly together and shook in the air with vigor for a moment. An oath of allegiance had been achieved.
"You have to participate as well, Thales. It cannot just be us and Dragon Clouds City in that sort of event. There must be an outsider of sufficient status as the witness, to give the parties ample pressure." Ian let go of his hand and gestured to the south. "But inviting Black Sand Region was a bad idea, apparently."
Thales frowned. "Do we still need anything else?"
"Not anymore. The faster, the shorter, the simpler..." Ian pursed his lips. He seemed somewhat nervous. "...Then the greater our chances of winning."
But a few seconds later, the solemn Ian revealed his true colors—he recovered with a smile.
"Of course, our Prince of Constellation could otherwise write a letter asking Constellation to send troops from Western Desert Hill. They'd go through the Great Desert and advance on the Alliance of Freedom from the south.
"And under our converging attacks from the east and south..." Ian laughed out loud and picked up another piece of cheese, alleviating the tense atmosphere. "Not even two months would be needed to end the war."
Thales rolled his eyes.
'Right, then, I, being in Eckstedt, would get in trouble. Take a guess, would Lampard issue the command in public or just hire an assassin?'
"I think, compared to Constellation," the prince said moodily, "you had better seek help from the orcs in the desert. It's more realistic."
Ian mumbled to himself and began gobbling down the cheese.
Instead, Saroma was the one whose expression turned grave. "What are our chances?"
Ian shook his head and said vaguely, "Depends on the extent to which we can perform." He did not look once at their side, his eyes fixated on the food in his hands. His cheeks undulated repeatedly because of the chewing, but the words he said startled them, "As I said, we're writing a legend that belongs to us. It was a pleasure speaking to you both, My Lady, Your Highness."
Ian swallowed the last mouthful of cheese. Without the slightest hesitation or courtesy, he turned around and walked out of the dining room, leaving behind a pondering Thales, and a baffled Saroma. The two stared at each other wordlessly in the dining room.
Saroma sat down. She kept silence while Thales quietly watched her.
A good while later, the young lady suddenly said, "A proposal, huh? Have you known since the start, or did you come to the realization afterwards?"
No one else needed to do anything, the atmosphere, in an instant, turned unbearable once more.
Thales let out a breath and said with difficulty, "That was just a tactic, Saroma—"
However, the archduchess interrupted him immediately.
"You believe him?" She looked out the door, her emotions were indistinguishable.
Thales looked at the young lady's side profile and squeezed out a smile.
"No... but I believe you."
Saroma's complexion changed somewhat. "Will we succeed?" she asked.
Thales did not reply. He walked towards the windowsill and looked out quietly, sweeping his eyes over the flecks of light outside Heroic Spirit Palace.
'It has been six years... Dragon Clouds City. What exactly is this city to me?'
The second prince closed his eyes, shutting Dragon Clouds City out from his field of vision. He sighed. "Promise me, Saroma. In the next day of the state affairs hearing, regardless of what happens, don't do anything stupid."
Stunned, Saroma paused. "What?"
"Don't worry about other people, don't worry about other things, don't bear the slightest hesitation or doubt. Just choose the road that's the most suitable for you, for the archduchess. That is all." Thales turned around. His complexion was like ice, for it seemed as though he was about to face the world's hardest test. "I will handle everything else."
Saroma looked at him. She wanted to speak but hesitated. Eventually, she closed her mouth and did not say anything.
Thales revealed a small smile. He nodded gently, turned around, and walked out of the dining hall, leaving the young lady behind him.
Thales walked into the corridor. Without turning his gaze, he walked past Ginghes the female officer's strict and solemn eyes, past the maidservants' gesticulative, whispered conversation, and past the ill-intended gazes of the guards.
It was exactly like six years ago, how he had walked past them numerous times before, until when he was preparing to leave the palace gates and was stopped.
"This afternoon, I noticed how they looked at you in the hall."
Thales frowned. Ian Roknee stood in a corner. He called out to him while he put on a fake smile to a guard who did not seem easy to befriend.
The heir of the City of Faraway Prayers turned around. He caught up to Thales with quick strides, leaving the knife-like gaze of the guard behind him. All smiles, he said, "I don't think she can protect you, especially among these Northlanders."
Thales sighed faintly.
'So you really did it intentionally; pushing me to the front of the stage again to receive scrutiny.'
They walked past a group of patrol guards in the corridor—they looked to be the archduchess' personal guards. The one leading them narrowed his eyes as he sized up the duo.
Ian shrugged faintly and said in a low voice, "You know, the City of Faraway Prayers is Eckstedt's furthest territory. It is far from the King's radar, and we border the Great Desert."
Thales raised his eyebrows. "So?"
"So, if you're in the City of Faraway Prayers, you won't have to worry about the king's threats. My father welcomes you, too." Ian blinked. "Furthermore, you can return to Constellation's Western Desert Hill just by crossing the desert from our place. You don't even have to cross through another archduke's territory."
Thales paused for a moment and, in his heart, shook his head helplessly.
'He's right. That is... if Dragon Clouds City and King Chapman would allow me to leave, and if you're really kind enough to let me leave; let a chess piece that can be used to blackmail Constellation leave.'
"If things are not right..." Ian raised his head, revealing his signature wild smile again. "Please remember that the weather in the City of Faraway Prayers is much better than it is here."
"I can't thank you enough," Thales said calmly, "I will always keep this in mind."
The two people walked side by side, towards the palace gate. They could already see Wya, Ralf and several protectors from the City of Faraway Prayers waiting by the gate.
"Ian... You said you wanted to write a legend of your own." Thales asked softly, "What did you mean by that?"
Ian lifted his head and rubbed his chin. It appeared as if his interest was incited by this question.
"What did I mean…?" He laughed mischievously.
"The Roknee Family hasn't come out with a king in over three hundred years. Moreover, Dragon Clouds City just relinquished their dominance over the throne."
Ian turned his head around again. His grinning appearance made him seem as if he was joking. "Or maybe it's time to balance out the distribution of power in Eckstedt. What do you say?"
Thales' eyes froze. He understood the other's implication as he recalled that long-haired and steadfast warrior. "Archduke Roknee is interested in contending for the kingship?"
Ian shook his head. "Heh." He looked down, flicked at the Knight's Canon crest on his shoulder and hid his gaze in an angle where Thales could not see. "Of course not."
Ian raised his head, his eyes exuded sparks that were difficult to understand. With a rhythmic intonation, Ian said softly through gritted teeth, "...At least not him."
Thales stopped walking.
About a dozen meters away from the palace gates, Wya bowed at him respectfully at a distance.
Ian stopped walking as well. Calm and unruffled, he looked back at Thales.
The prince let out a soft laugh. "You know that you're going to face Lampard, the king that's perhaps the hardest to deal with in all of Eckstedtian history?"
Ian also laughed. "Yes, my father has to remind me at every meal about how terrifying the man under the crown is."
They both stared at one another.
"But, since we want to write our own legends"—Ian's smile slowly disappeared—"then we cannot leave too much pen and ink for the supporting roles."
Thales raised the corners of his mouth and shook his head in resignation.
"Are you sure he's a supporting role?" The prince looked firmly at Ian. "Chapman Lampard."
Ian displayed an innocent expression and shrugged. "I don't know. But I know that if I want to be the lead..." The nineteen-year-old viscount heaved a sigh.
"...Then he has to be the supporting role."
The air seemed to have gone still for a moment.
With a complex expression, Thales looked at him and nodded. "Right."
Ian curled his lips. "The successful legends were all written like this, there are no exceptions."
Constellation's second prince and the heir of the City of Faraway Prayers looked at each other for a good few seconds. Both their expressions disappeared gradually.
"Now, I'm starting to believe." The second prince narrowed his eyes slowly.
Ian raised his brows, his tone bright. "Believe what?"
Thales let out a long breath of air, it was laced with a little sigh.
"Ian Roknee, without a doubt... You're indeed your father's son." 5 Best Chinese Romance Books of 2018 So Far