Chapter 170 - Inner Fire

After the short family dinner, Jordan and Emilie left to enact Elise’s sanctions against House Decimius, while Leon, Alix, and Elise spent the rest of the day in evening training.

Alix spent her time after the short conversation with Leon meditating, flooding her body with magic power in order to ascend to the second-tier.  Judging by her aura, Leon guessed she was only two or three months away from doing so.  After saying goodbye to her parents and coming to join them, Elise began similar training, but she was targeting her brain and organs, just as Leon had been doing until recently.

Leon, however, was working on ascending to the fifth-tier, which involved changing his mana type.  Since he made it to the fourth-tier, he’d been focusing on lightning, using the techniques described in his family’s instruction books.  This training session was a little different, though; at Xaphan’s urging, he temporarily switched to fire magic.  In fact, he was so excited from his talk with the demon that he wasn’t even sitting down to meditate, instead choosing to mindlessly work through a few basic sword exercises Artorias had taught him years ago.

[Now, summon your magic and gather it into your chest,] Xaphan instructed.  [This shouldn’t be too difficult—even for you—as it starts off almost identical to the basics for lightning magic.]

[I won’t be compressing it, though, will I?] Leon asked.

[You will, but only a little,] Xaphan said.  [Think about it like this: let your magic power gather into your chest, and have it act as if it were a fire that had enveloped your heart.]

Leon frowned, but he did as he was instructed, gathering his mana while he slowly swung his sword.  [What now?] he asked once he had done so.

[Hold it there as best you can for a moment, but then let it slowly leak out into the rest of your body.  Imagine the mass of power you start with to be like a bonfire, and the magic power you release to be heat, slowly spreading throughout your body,] Xaphan explained.  [You may need to compress it a little, but don’t go too far.  You’re striving for the glorious majesty of flame, not the empty and fleeting flash of lightning!]

With the power in his chest gathered, Leon concentrated on trying to keep it under control.  This was much harder than Xaphan had made it sound, as even though he was only a fourth-tier mage, the amount of magic power in his blood wasn’t so easily reined in.  He barely kept it contained for ten seconds before losing control.

[Damnit!] Leon shouted, feeling the magic power spread throughout his body in less than a second, far too fast for his purpose.

[Did you fail?] Xaphan asked.

[What do you think?] Leon responded as he prepared himself for another attempt.

[I think you failed, and quite spectacularly, too,] Xaphan said without bothering to hide the mockery in his voice.

Leon almost growled out loud before going back to concentrating on the task at hand.  He summoned up the magic power within his blood and gathered it in his chest.  If he were to try his family’s techniques and alter his mana for use with lightning magic, then he’d immediately start compressing the power as much as he could.  Now, however, he had to hold it there without any meaningful compression, which he was struggling to do.

Again, Leon lost control, but he lasted for twelve seconds rather than only ten.  He didn’t say anything, as he didn’t want to give Xaphan any ammunition to hurl at him, and he simply got to work silently gathering his power again.

Over the course of an hour, Leon failed more than one hundred times to use his magic power in the way Xaphan had described, but he had managed to increase the time he was able to hold his power in his chest up to thirty seconds.  When that hour was over, Leon paused his training.  He was still on his feet swinging his sword, but he wasn’t nearly so excited as he was when he began, so he sheathed his sword and sat down close to Alix and Elise.

[Meditation is all well and good, but I think it would be better to practice these techniques as you move,] Xaphan suggested.  [You will hardly find time to meditate on the battlefield, after all.]

[I have to figure out how to do this to begin with before I worry about that,] Leon responded.  [When I’ve got the techniques down, then I can start focusing on using them in more strenuous conditions.]

[… Fair enough,] the demon said.

Now that he was sitting down and not going through sword exercises, Leon was able to devote all of his attention to the task at hand.  He called up his magic power one more time and sucked all of it into his chest.  He was able to hold it for forty seconds before it all slipped from his grasp.

[There,] Leon said with pride, [I held it for a third again as long as I did when I was on my feet!]

[Congratulations,] Xaphan said with sarcasm dripping from every syllable, [do you want a medal?  How about a nice big juicy steak to celebrate?]

Leon scowled, then responded, [I’ll take the steak, but you can fuck off with your medal!]

[A failure is still a failure, young mage.  You failed to conjure your own fire, so the length of time you held the power in your chest doesn’t matter.  A proper fire mage can summon their fire in an instant, so holding your power there for forty seconds is no accomplishment.]

Reflecting back on all the times he’d seen his father using lightning, as well as the times he’d seen other mages use their power, Leon had to admit that Xaphan had a point.  That being said, he didn’t have any other metric for how well he was doing, so as he continued to train, he found himself continuing to latch onto how long he was able to keep his power contained in his chest.  When he, Elise, and Alix stopped training for the day, he was able to hold his magic power for fifty seconds before losing control, but his power still wasn’t behaving like the ‘inner fire’ that Xaphan had described.

Over the course of the next week, he alternated between training with his family’s lightning techniques, and with Xaphan’s fire technique.  He certainly made progress, as it was getting easier to manipulate his power the way he wanted to, but without knowing where the finish line was, he wasn’t able to determine how much progress he’d made at the end of that week.  This put something of a damper on his mood, but he was cheered up immensely when Elise returned from spending some time in the Heaven’s Eye Tower and told him some good news.

“The sanctions against House Decimius went into effect last week, and word has arrived in Aurelianorum.  They’ve lost easy access to a majority of their vaults, and their businesses will be seeing some steep rises in expenses and some steep drops in revenue.  Additionally, I think they’ll be receiving a letter from one of the Prince-Regents angrily demanding answers to a number of damning questions.”

It wasn’t as viscerally satisfying as taking his revenge personally, but Leon figured could wait on that front.  This economic attack would hopefully keep Tiberias’ family from taking any further actions against him until he was strong enough to deal with them without relying on Elise.

A smile broke out on Leon’s face, and he and Elise stared at each other for a moment in her training room.  Alix had gone out into the city again, so they had her entire wing of the estate to themselves.  Leon scrambled to his feet from where he’d been meditating and he and Elise all but ran back to her bedroom and began pulling at each other’s clothes.

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Leon and Elise’s excitement and elation spiked at the same time that Duke Euphemius Decimius’ was plummeting.  Far to the west, in the palace of Aurelianorum, the Duke had just returned from the primary Heaven’s Eye bank in the city.  He’d been told that his people weren’t able to access their accounts, and when he’d gone down to the bank to try and sort things out, he’d been given more than two thousand forms to fill out in order to access his vaults.

He was exhausted, frustrated, and furious.  There were dozens of scribes handling most of the paperwork, but he was still required to go through more than three hundred of the forms personally.  Making matter worse, the bank manager had told him that the same procedure would have to be followed every time he wanted access to his vaults.

‘Why would Heaven’s Eye do this?!  What could their motive possibly be?!  Is this because of Tiberias?  Is this the whore’s daughter’s way of rejecting my son?!’  The more Euphemius thought about it, the more he thought it made sense that this petty move was Elise trying to forcefully dissuade Tiberias from continuing to send her gifts and letters.

It never crossed his mind that this was related to Leon, as he was under the impression that Leon was dead—the head of his Shadow Guards had told him so, and he had seen no reason to doubt the man.  After all, he wasn’t personally acquainted with all of his pet killers, so two going missing wasn’t something he’d notice unless someone informed him.

Ultimately, the inability for Euphemius to access his vaults wasn’t something that greatly concerned him.  It was a serious inconvenience, but it was hardly ruinous.  Still, it was frustrating and aggravating for the Duke, and he spent the next few hours pondering how to deal with the situation, so he could regain access to his assets in the Heaven’s Eye banks as soon as possible.

While he was lost in thought, one of his servants timidly knocked on the door to his study.

“What is it?” Euphemius growled.

The servant, with as much dignity and politeness as he could, entered the room and said, “Your Grace, we have a very grave problem.”

“… And that problem would be…?” Euphemius asked, making it apparent with his tone that he didn’t appreciate the servant’s needless pause.

“Your Grace, the caravan dispatched to sell your wine and glassware has returned.  The merchants they spoke to in the forum have lowered their buying price by a significant degree—so significant that the caravan has returned to the warehouses and are waiting for word on what they ought to do…”

The servant respectfully held out a piece of paper for the Duke to examine, upon which was written the new terms the merchants had given him for his goods.

“What… is this?” Euphemius asked rhetorically.  He struggled mightily to keep his tone even and free of profanity so as to not mar his image in the eyes of the servant, but the terms offered made that a titanic task.  “They’ve cut the price almost in half!  What are they playing at?!”

Euphemius was livid, and the hand that held the piece of paper was shaking in anger.  Glass and wine were the two most expensive commodities produced in the Western Territories, and he’d gone to a great deal of trouble to get as many wineries and glassworks in his pocket as he could for that reason.

Forty years ago, he’d invested almost every silver coin his duchy brought in through taxes and tariffs in buying up huge swathes of private property in the hinterlands around the city of Aurelianorum.  He then rented that land at generous rates to businesses in his lands.  However, since the products of these businesses were all taxed on their sale, Euphemius was essentially double-dipping, charging his tenants rent and taxing what they produced.

The only two exceptions to this were glass and wine.  Instead of directly charging rent to the wineries and glassworks in his land, he instead took a portion of whatever they produced.  He just had to sit back and watch as glass and wine flowed into his warehouses at a staggering rate.  He could then stamp his House’s sigil upon the boxes of glass and barrels of wine, and their price would increase by anywhere from fifty to two hundred percent.

This policy had made him one of the richest nobles in the Bull Kingdom—though that wealth didn’t mean much if it was locked away in a Heaven’s Eye vault.  He still had a great many other assets, but if the vaults—and thus, his liquid assets—were inaccessible to him, then he might have to sell off some property to keep paying for his duchy’s expenses.

The sale of his glass and wine could prevent that, as it was a ludicrously lucrative deal for him, but the merchants had drastically lowered their offer!

Euphemius shot straight to his feet and made for the door, growling at his servant, “Come with me!  We’re going to have a chat with these merchants!”  He bit his tongue so he didn’t call them ‘common filth’.  He certainly believed that was what they were, but that also wasn’t the image he wanted to present.

Unfortunately for him, none of the merchants budged on the price.  He met with more than a dozen of the biggest merchants in the city, and every one of them barely offered Euphemius half of what his wine and glass were worth.  When he returned several hours later, he was almost sputtering with rage, and he had to retreat to his private study as fast as he could so the rest of his servants didn’t see him in that state.

Euphemius almost shouted for his secretary outside to summon the head of his Shadow Guards, to teach the merchants a lesson in defying him, but again, he had to hold his tongue.  The need to maintain a pleasant and trustworthy reputation was the only reason he wasn’t calling for the merchants to be beheaded.

He could almost see his wealth disappearing before his eyes.  After half an hour of pacing in his study to clear his head, Euphemius called in his team of accountants.

“How badly is this going to hit us?” he asked.

“Your Grace, this could very well be catastrophic,” his lead accountant replied.  “Without being to withdraw funds from the vaults and without the income from your luxury goods, it’s going to be extremely difficult to pay for your army.  It’s also going to lead to an increase in corruption among the lower ranks of the bureaucrats who work for you if we can’t pay them.”

Euphemius was silent for a long moment.  There was only one solution he could think of that could keep him from resorting to selling off his properties.

‘I need to expand my Silverleaf farms,’ he thought.

“That’s enough, you all may go,” he said to his accountants.  Once they had all dutifully left his study, he summoned another accountant, the head of his Shadow Guards, and a liaison with a confederacy of pirates and smugglers that stayed in his palace under the guise of an ambassador from a kingdom far to the south.

Upon their arrival, Euphemius ordered them to increase Silverleaf production.

“Your Grace, that may not be so easy,” his Shadow Guard said.  “Silverleaf is highly illegal, and the more we expand, the greater the chance that the Bull King will take notice…”

“Just do it,” Euphemius spat.

“Well, I’m certainly not going to complain,” the smuggler said with a smile.  “The more you grow, the more money we can all make.  Just give me a few days and I’ll have new buds brought in, so you don’t have to harvest prematurely.”

“That’s appreciated,” Euphemius said.

“We’re going to have to expand by at least thirty percent if we want to make up for this shortfall,” the accountant said.  “There aren’t many places left in the duchy where we can grow Silverleaf without detection…”

“That decision has been made!” Euphemius said intensely.  He was desperately trying to keep himself from screaming at the accountant, but he still got in the man’s face while glaring and emitting staggering killing intent—he didn’t care about these men seeing his rage, for they were people he had to intimidate rather than persuade and cajole.

Under the weight of his aura, his three guests excused themselves to see to the Silverleaf expansion, leaving Duke Euphemius alone to ponder how this had happened, how in the course of a single day he had been nearly ruined.

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Chapter 171 - Southern Cruise

Chapter 169 - Family Dinner