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With half an hour left before the feast, Hadjar had to endure being dressed by seven maids at once. After that, he meditated. That’s what everyone called it. The Prince had hated using the word at first, but then he got used to it. ‘Meditation’ was an OK term. On Earth, it had sounded a bit strange and even silly, but here it was appropriate.
What else could you call what he was doing?
He was sitting in the lotus position, breathing steadily, clearing his mind and trying to absorb energy. Fortunately, he could now feel it much better than before. At first, he’d even doubted its existence. Now, after getting to the sixth step of the Bodily Nodes, with many points on his body open to it, Hadjar could actually feel the energy.
It was like the feeling preceding a thunderstorm. Or when the air is too electrified. Like someone nearby had turned on a huge magnet. It felt like someone sizing you up murderously for half an hour, something even the most skeptical people would notice eventually.
So, something did exist in this world. This something made Hadjar stronger, and at that moment, that was all he cared about.
Hadjar was fully aware that meditating was necessary. That’s why, while the rest of the children slept instead of really trying to absorb the energy, he did his best.Although… it was difficult.
It was as difficult as trying to capture wind in a pot or sunlight in a box. The only difference being that he was slowly succeeding, and his level of cultivation was already considered abnormally high for his age. But the Prince knew that, apart from his talent for swordsmanship, he didn’t possess any outstanding abilities.
This meant that had the nobles of the kingdom been raising their children better, they would’ve been able to achieve the same results.
“Hadjar, honey,” the door opened and Elizabeth appeared at the door.
She was wearing a dress embroidered with amber and gold, with a silk belt that emphasized her thin waist. Jade flower buds had been woven into her hair and her eyelashes shimmered with color. Her clear, green eyes glowed with love and warmth.
He had a beautiful mother, whom he probably loved more than anyone else in this world. He’d never had a mother before, nor a father or sister, for that matter. He loved them all.
The Prince ran up to the Queen like a little boy (which he was) and hugged her tightly, leaning his head against her belly.
“That’s enough,” Elizabeth laughed and smoothed his long hair.
He was wearing black and gold robes, as well as a wreath on his head. All of this was terribly inconvenient, but the Prince had already grown accustomed to such eccentricities, therefore, he wasn’t terribly put out.
Calmly ignoring the mocking glances, he walked down the corridor, holding hands with his mother and sister. Many people thought he behaved too ‘childishly’, in a manner unworthy of a genius swordsman, but Hadjar didn’t care. Nobody could forbid him from enjoying this moment.
Alas, it didn’t last long. The jasper doors opened and they entered a spacious hall full of pillars. It resembled the feast halls of Scandinavian peoples back on Earth.
It was a spacious room, with a ceiling so high it couldn’t be easily seen, and wide columns which were decorated with carved patterns and bas-reliefs. They depicted scenes of heroes fighting huge monsters and beasts, as well as scenes of great battles.
The hall was huge, even by local standards. At least five thousand people were now gathered at its long, wide tables. And at the head of it all were the ‘main chairs’—the golden thrones—where the Royal couple were supposed to sit. So far, only Haver IV was there. The King.
As was the tradition in this world, he wore his armor to all celebrations. Not a gilded one, not an armor decorated with expensive stones and silks, but the armor he really used in battle. It carried the smell of combat with it, was covered in many dents and scratches, and made from a special ore. It was said to be an old Mortal artifact that had been inherited by the family.
Wearing it, Hadjar’s father looked even more powerful and unapproachable than usual. He looked like a mountain in the face of an impending storm: utterly unaffected by it all.
Forgoing the crown, the King instead wore a leather strap with metal inserts. Haver never wore his crown because he believed that, first and foremost, he was a warrior who defended the country. Being King came after that.
Perhaps he was wrong, but the people only loved him more for it.
“Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth Sammen!” A majordomo announced the newcomers.
All of the five thousand people stood up and bowed simultaneously. They straightened their backs only after a couple of seconds had passed, and only after the Queen nodded in turn.
“Her Highness, Princess Elaine Durant!”
They didn’t bow this time, just lowered their heads. Elaine, embarrassed, hid behind her mother. This earned her a couple of kind smiles and even a few people applauding, which made her even more embarrassed. The royal couple believed in raising their children simply.
They had the best clothes, the best food, and, as much as the knowledge of the kingdom allowed, they were given the best potions. However, they didn’t have the nobles’ snobbery.
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“And now we welcome the man of the hour,” this time, the King made the announcement personally. “My son—Prince Hadjar Duran!”
A flurry of applause filled the hall, after they gave him a synchronous bow (which hadn’t been as low as they’d given the Queen, to be honest). Most of the guests welcomed the Prince honestly, although, for plenty of others, it was just a formality. News of his phenomenal success at such a young age, both as a warrior and as a sсholar, had spread throughout the country.
Residents of the outskirts predicted that he would be a king in the future, as Haver wouldn’t be able to sit on the throne forever. The people only had good things to say about Hadjar. Everyone knew that he cared about his servants and was always polite and courteous to them. They loved him much more than the haughty children of nobles.
Hadjar, smiling, reached the thrones and sat to his father’s left. The Queen and her daughter sat to Haver’s right. This was all according to the rules of etiquette.
“Let the feast begin!” The King declared.
Countless servants placed various dishes on the tables. The inhabitants of the Kingdom were also being treated to a feast in the squares of all the Kingdom’s cities, and were even being served the best vines. The birthdays of the Royals were celebrated by the whole country—they were almost public holidays. The people weren’t against plenty of free food and drink.
The fun began. People danced in the squares, and many traveling circuses performed a variety of acts.
Hadjar wasn’t paying any attention to the clowns performing for the enjoyment of the guests in the palace. Their tricks were of little interest to him. After all, he knew a lot about the worth of true adepts, so the circus didn’t impress him.
He just enjoyed his meal. The selection of food on offer was amazing: from simple reindeer to the meat of a fierce-boar, which had been at the stage of Awakening Power (which is almost the same as the Formation Stage in the human world).
“Slow down, dear,” the Queen whispered across the table. “It’s not the last time you’ll get to eat.”
“Okay, ma – ma,” Hadjar whispered back, his mouth full.
The Queen and the Princess looked at him as if he were an uncouth barbarian, and his father secretly encouraged him. A warrior had to eat a lot to grow strong. Haver couldn’t blame his son for wanting to be powerful.
The only thing that was spoiling the King’s mood was the absence of his older brother from the festival. The feast wasn’t fun without Primus. Or at least Haver thought so since he’d gotten used to the fact that they were always together. Their different opinions on how to run the country had recently alienated them from each other. But the King still believed they could set aside their differences.
They’d used to argue in the past, but it never stopped them from fighting side by side in thousands of different battles.
“Honey, people are watching,” Elizabeth whispered in his ear.
The King snapped out of it and immediately smiled happily while ruffling his son’s hair. No one should see the King looking troubled at a feast. You never knew what they might think about it and if it would make them uneasy.
Fortunately, Haver didn’t have to worry for long.
“The honorable Warlord, Primus Duran!”
The people stopped eating, stood up, and bowed faintly. Primus was feared and respected, but not that loved. He was too sharp and even dangerous to be loved.
“Brother, I’m glad to see you!” The King rose and spread his hands, beckoning his brother over to embrace him. “What kept you so long?”
Primus came over and the brothers slapped each other on the back. It looked as if mountains were fraternizing, or at least it seemed that way to Hadjar. These two mighty warriors were similar to bears, both scary and exciting to be around.
“I wanted to stop by the castle,” Primus moved to the foot of the thrones. “To pick up a gift for the young Prince.”
”Son, thank your uncle.”
“Thank you, uncle Primus.” The Prince bowed his head.
Any normal kid would’ve just grabbed the gift, but Hadjar wasn’t normal. He’d managed to live a life trapped in an unmoving body and had, therefore, learned to understand people. Though his gut had been dulled by years of living a quiet life, his self-preservation instincts were warning him that something wasn’t right.
“Bring the gift!” Primus waved his hand impatiently.
Four soldiers came through the door and their appearance shocked everyone there. The King, who’d been sitting on his throne, rose anxiously. The four soldiers from the Imperial army, clad in green armor, marched in. Their black cloaks brushed against the floor and their helmets covered their faces, but a single glance at them was enough to tell they were strong practitioners.
“Analyze,” Hadjar ordered.
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They were at the Formation Stage or even the Transformation Stage. They could’ve been elites in the army of the Kingdom, and yet they were ordinary privates in the Imperial army.
They carried a heavy chest in their hands, and when they reached the King, they set it noisily down on the table, without even bowing.
“What is the meaning of this, brother?” Haver asked quietly.
“A gift for the Prince!” Primus shouted, ignoring the King and opening the chest violently.
There was a sword in a sheath of light inside, on velvet bedding. Grabbing it by the hilt, the warlord pulled the blade out from its sheath, making everyone inhale sharply. The blade glowed with a barely noticeable, dull golden glow in the light of the torches and lamps
“A Spiritual artifact.” The people whispered in awe.
“Forged from Solar Metal…” The rest of the guests commented.
Hadjar made a barely perceptible step back.
‘What the hell?! Why would Primus give me such a gift!? That sword’s worth a whole palace!’ He thought.
“What does this mean, Warlord Primus?!” Haver shouted, resting his hand on the hilt of his own sword.
“It means treason,” a quiet voice spoke, and the room plunged into silence once again.
A thin, middle-aged man walked into the hall. He was dressed in simple black robes, and had an aura of such great power around him that it was difficult for Hadjar to breathe. He queried the neural network, but it couldn’t show him anything.
With a wave of his hand, he lit up the hall as if it were the middle of the day, and it became clear to Hadjar that he was seeing a Heaven Soldier for the first time in his life.
“The Governor?” Haver seemed to recognize him. “We’re happy to welcome an Imperial official to our celebration, but may I ask what you’re doing here?”
“I came to see the festival,” the adept grimaced, glancing at the people around him with his most disdainful look. “If that’s what you can even call it, Haver… Well, it’s not like I’d expected more from your village.”
The soldiers grabbed their swords, but the King waved his hand and they froze. Even if the entire army had been there, they would’ve hardly been able to touch the Heaven Soldier. Of course, it would’ve been impossible for them to execute him for merely insulting the King.
“Honestly, I hadn’t expected such stupidity from you, Haver. For centuries, your … backwoods have paid tribute to us. Sure, it was a pittance, but you paid it on time and without trying to cheat us. And so, you didn’t get into any trouble.”
“We’re still paying it.”
“Enough!” the adept barely raised his voice, and yet many of those who’d been standing next to him fell unconscious.
A wave of inconceivable power reached Hadjar and almost bent him in half.
Haver made a strange sign and it became easier to breathe. Out of the corner of his eye, the Prince noticed that a slightly shimmering sphere now covered the throne.
“You pretend you don’t know you’ve committed treason!” The adept raised his chin proudly. He was clearly mocking what was happening. “You’ve hidden the Solar Ore from us, Haver. And that’s a clear betrayal of the Emperor.”
The King looked at his brother with disbelief and pain etched on his face, but Primus only gave him a predatory smile in response.
“We are not the subjects of the Empire!”
“Don’t kid yourself, Haver,” the adept shrugged his words off like a bug. “The Empire simply wasn’t interested in you before because… you had nothing. We just maintained a border town at your expense. Your tribute was barely enough to cover the expenses.”
‘What?! Our entire Kingdom was only able to feed one city of the Empire!’ Hadjar had known that he’d been living in a well while an entire ocean raged around him, but he’d had no idea that the ocean was so vast.
“You know the penalty for treason, Haver.”
The King grabbed his sword, but the adept just waved his hand and the world froze. The sphere burst like a soap bubble and no one else was able to move; they could only manage to breathe with difficulty.
It was the power of a Heaven Soldier. He’d turned them into weak-willed slaves without any techniques or artifacts by just using his desire and will.
“Our King has betrayed us!” Primus roared, walking through the rows. “He’s weak and stupid! He doesn’t want to admit the simple fact that our Kingdom’s no more than a village on the outskirts of this world! He had the chance to change that, but he didn’t want to… We found a Solar Ore vein and it’s so large that the Emperor himself would’ve been interested in us!”
While the Warlord talked, the adept stood around and examined his nails idly. He had no interest in what was happening in the room. He thought they were uncouth hillbillies who were wallowing in manure.
“He’s a traitor to the Empire, and to his own crown! The only punishment the traitor deserves is death. And because I understand that you were deceived by his weakness, I’m offering you one last chance. Those who wish to serve me, your new King…”
Primus swung his sword, leaving a long, deep furrow in the stone floor.
“… take a step beyond that line.”
The adept remained motionless, but suddenly, all of the five thousand people were freed. Some of them crawled over the line like beaten dogs while crying in fear.
Some of the people glanced at the Royal family and, after bowing their heads, walked humbly toward the line.
Only a few hundred out of the five thousand people remained motionless.
There were both men and women among them, even children.
They remained faithful to their King, the man who’d devoted his whole life to them.
“The poor fools.” Primus sighed and suddenly began to emit the same force the adept had been emitting earlier.
Somehow, Hadjar’s uncle had reached the stage of the Heaven Soldier, and that could only mean one thing—they didn’t stand a chance.