“Really?” Billie jogged her memories, trying to recall where she had been as of recent. As though reminded of something unsavoury, she frowned and began to stare at the ground in silence.
“Mm? What’s wrong? Is there anything I can help with?” Locke tried to catch her eye.
Billie shook her head softly. “No, but thank you for your concern.”
Admittedly, Locke was curious but he was still tactful enough to stop probing. He watched Joaquin and Angelina talking animatedly in the distance. Their merry laughter was a stark contrast to the silence that enveloped him and Billie.
Joaquin’s garden was designed to be partially open. The gentle breeze caressed the top of their heads while their nostrils were treated to the subtle fragrance of flowers. Billie basked in the garden’s beauty while she watched Locke through the corner of her eyes. Memories from early this year began flowing through her mind.
While Billie had come from a standard merchant family in Princeton, there were barely any high-ranking officials in her family. The one with the highest status had only been her grandfather, who was just an earl.
However, her family’s huge influence in trades and their multitude of businesses scattered across the city had allowed them to hold shares in other industries outside of Princeton. They may not be ridiculously wealthy but their coffers were comparable to half of a marquis’ treasury.
Despite that, money was the root of evil. Their affluence had garnered plenty of jealousy from rivals. Some of them were business competitors while some were opportunists looking to seize their wealth. Even with her clan’s connections to other influential families in the trade, they were still constantly on thin ice in Princeton. There were no perpetual enemies in the eye of eternal interests. Despite that, there was no guarantee of how much support her clan would still have if they should ever lose their power.
The end of last year was marked with the emperor stripping away a marquis’ title for taking the wrong side of the court. While this incident wasn’t major to the massive population of the empire, the marquis had been the biggest interest protector of Billie’s family. It was owed to his support that they were able to get the upper hand in terms of business competition.
While her family businesses were still selling like hot cakes in Princeton, most of their trade channels in the other provinces had already fallen through. Their current survival had depended heavily on their strong network circle. Billie’s future was her biggest woe. Her clan had begun introducing marriage matches earlier this year.
At this point, she’d spent a year out of the Imperial Academy. With the help of her family’s precious potion stash, she’d managed to squeeze into the middle ranks by a hairline last summer. Unfortunately, her status as a mid-rank Lehrling couldn’t help her out of the situation.
Her grandfather, who’d loved her the most, could not afford to spare her attention amid a family crisis. Billie later learnt that he had a part in the matchmaking. She’d met a few of her matches prior. Most of them were either from affluent and influential aristocratic families or merchant families with deep-rooted influence in Princeton’s business scene. Despite their flashy backgrounds, their competence left much to be desired. Some of them were downright spoiled that fed on their family’s coins while some were destined to be nothing for the rest of their lives.
Billie was an ambitious woman of many talents and she refused to settle for less, especially when it came to choosing partners. Her matches paled in comparison to Locke. He was astoundingly capable, having been able to climb from the bottom to where he was currently in life.
Admittedly, Billie had enjoyed a sheltered life filled with love from her elders. Her materialistic needs were simple and she’d always admitted those with genuine talent and potential. Kris, who’d harboured a crush on her when they were groupmates, was even better than her matches. After all, he was a stellar scholar that’d graduated from the Imperial Academy too.
Billie stole a glance at Locke, who was spacing out at the beautiful garden. His presence felt different. It seemed as though the planar way had given him an otherworldly toughness that Billie had never seen before. Honestly, Locke always had a brooding presence. He was only suppressing it throughout the years. The conquest of Botania had merely brought it to the surface again. Billie slipped into deep thought, captivated by his aura.
“Oi, stop staring at Locke. Mina and the others are here, let’s go meet them!” A pat on her shoulder brought her back to reality.
Billie studied Locke’s face, noticing the same shade of sheepishness. Her hot gaze had taken him by surprise; he’d never known that she was capable of such intensity. Her cheeks reddened. Billie couldn’t help but look at Angelina, who was standing beside Joaquin. The Faustian princess’ calm expression gave nothing away. The four of them left the garden to welcome Mina, Kris and Pabo.
Mina was still wearing the same yellow dress from the other day. Locke couldn’t help but notice that she wasn’t one to pay attention to appearance. If she could give it more thought, she would’ve been a pretty caster too. Kris and Pabo walked with their heads high. They looked taller and bigger than before, which was an obvious sign of a successful breakthrough.
Apart from those with unique constitution, most knights would see growth especially in the height and weight department after each advancement. Locke was at least half a head taller than Kris and Pabo now. Standing at 185 centimeters, he’d reached a height where he could peer down on most men in Princeton.
“Long time no see, Locke!”
“My, my! You’ve grown buff!”
Kris and Pabo made a beeline for Locke instead of Angelina. There were more common topics shared between knights, which made it easier for the three to get along. Through their conversation, Locke learnt that Kris had enlisted in the Princeton city guard after graduation. Since his father was a middle officer in the troupe, Kris was promoted as a commander within a year of enlistment. He had been leading the patrols around Princeton City every day and life has been great.
Pabo, on the other hand, embarked on an adventure of a lifetime. His family had roots in the military and even had their territory and estate. However, Pabo wasn’t looking to settle down so soon. He yearned to explore the world before coming home to heed his family’s arrangements. Pabo spent the year trekking across one-sixth of Aomar’s territory. Everything he’d experienced had made him look more grounded than before.
While the knights crowded together, the four women sat on the other end of the garden. Soon, the servants began serving finely-aged wine and desserts to their table. The small stream that was directed into the estate flowed serenely, letting the carefree atmosphere of the garden comfort their hearts.