Iliana fidgeted within her chair with shame clear on her flushed face and not knowing where to hide. The fact that last night's events had failed to escape her parents' attention and were likely to spread within the mansion through rumors and gossips caused her to feel like she could no longer keep her back straight within house Kracht!
Konrad, however, was too focused on what he had just heard to spot her unease. To think that Wolfgang truly had the audacity to take a former Barbarian Chieftain as his consort without destroying her cultivation, within the capital of the Holy Flame Empire, was simply astounding.
Even those margraves and dukes would probably think twice before making such a move.
But Wolfgang dared.
This alone was testimony to how much he cherished Iliana's mother.
Still, there was something odd in the way Zamira told the events. Outwardly, it felt like she was past her tribe's subjugation, but within her eyes, Konrad found a glint that seemed to be saying otherwise. A glint that worried him.
"There is something I've meant to ask. How exactly did the previous lady take your arrival?"
It was well known that the day Wolfgang took Zamira as his consort was the day Elvira Leitner, Alex's mother left to join the Holy Flame Church as a priestess. But Konrad felt there was likely more to the story. And indeed, Zamira's next words confirmed his suspicions.
"She never cared. That woman had always been looking for an excuse to righteously enter the Holy Flame Church while at the same time turn her puppet bastard son against Wolfgang. You can say that no one was more pleased with Wolfgang's decision than her."
Zamira replied in an indifferent tone. But her words shocked Iliana who previously wasn't aware of those facts.
"The Semi-Saint Priest that took her under his wing wanted to use Alex to take control of house Kracht from the inside. They bet Wolfgang would never dare reveal Alex's true parentage to the outside world due to the great embarrassment that would bring to his name. After all, the higher the rank, the more sensitive one is to scandals. And to keep Alex's rage unspoiled, they hid the truth from him."
Konrad was taken aback, and his eyes shone with doubt.
"Can a Semi-Saint of the Holy Flame Church truly brave such a scandal for the uncertain possibility of taking over this ancient house?"
"This is nothing new. The Holy Flame Church has always been looking for ways to take control of the empire's assets and nobility. In fact, many powerful noble houses are in the shadows ruled by them. The methods they used over the years vary, but as long as they can obtain what they want, there is nothing they are not willing to do."
"And according to Wolfgang, since Olrich Von Jurgen became emperor, the church's infection of the empire has been rising at breakneck speed. If the trend is not stopped, another century will be all it takes for the precarious balance to collapse."
Those words caused Konrad's doubt to turn into incomprehension. And before he could voice it, Iliana spoke his mind.
"That being the case, why is dad so opposed to the Holy Consort's rising influence? I don't think him narrowminded enough that the thought of a woman taking over the empire would trigger such a reaction from him."
To this, Zamira replied with a helpless sigh.
"Truth be told, given a choice, your father truly wishes a person of Else's caliber could take the reins of the empire. But that cannot be allowed to happen."
"Anyone can do it; the church will not care. Anyone except house Metze. There is great conflict between the church and the Metze, for it appears the Metze possess a secret artifact that has been eyed by the church for thousands of years."
"In fact, for centuries, they have been fighting in the shadows, and at more than one occasion, Else was almost abducted by the Holy Flame Church. Was it not for the many hidden Saint Ancestors of house Metze, her current fate would at best be ghastly."
"Wolfgang even mentioned that ten years ago, while Else was visiting her relatives with the emperor's permission, the church brazenly dispatched its troops in an attempt to abduct her. Many died, and she was grievously wounded. It took a whole eight years before she reappeared within the palace."
"Thus, if the Metze are allowed to overthrow the Von Jurgen, the Holy Flame Church will immediately use it as an excuse to deploy the full might of its forces and drench this country's soil with its citizens' blood."
Those were shocking news. But within them, Konrad found a reassuring piece of information. If in the nearby future he was forced to clash with the church, at least there was a chance he could count on Else's support.
"But those are boring things you can learn about on your own. Why don't you take a look at my gift?"
She asked with her lips curled into a radiant smile that made her captivating figure look more enticing.
Iliana and Konrad's eyes fell upon the bronze box from which they could both feel that strange, eldritch power that seemed to belong neither to the spiritual nor to the demonic.
"What is it?"
Iliana asked, unsure of what that gift could be.
"It's a defensive artifact refined by the chieftains of my tribe for their sons-in-law as a wedding gift. I refined this one decades ago when I became chieftain."
She explained as Konrad pulled the box closer toward himself and opened its lid. Instantaneously, dazzling light gushed forth, revealing the palm-sized miniature skeleton of a lion-headed bird around which fire, water, and storm clouds swirled.
"What kind of creature is that supposed to represent?"
Iliana asked perplexed.
"It's an Anzu demonic beast. My tribe worshiped the demon god Anzu and took the demonic beasts bearing his name as its totem. We refine the bones of deceased Anzu beasts into totems to protect ourselves. This one can ward off any attack, martial or spiritual, beneath the Transcendent Rank."
Demonic beasts were the lowest echelon of the Infernal Realm. They were not "demons" in the proper sense, but creatures endowed with demonic blood and abilities often derived from a specific lineage. And unlike demons who could only be summoned from the Infernal Realm, demonic beasts had populated some areas of the Ancient Crystal World since the beginning of times.
And for the barbarians who worshiped the Demon Gods, those beasts were seen as totems and sometimes even used as companions and protectors.
But Zamira's words didn't reach Konrad. As soon as his eyes laid on the miniature skeleton, his pupils turned violet, and his purple flame mark was set ablaze.
Purple flames burst from his body, his violet eyes glittered with demonic light, fiendish glyphs swirled around him, and the miniature lion-headed bird skeleton flew right into his chest, bypassed his clothes and disappeared into his body.
The sudden eruption of demonic energy took both Iliana and Zamira aback. Iliana was horrified, not knowing why Konrad suddenly revealed his darkest secret while Zamira looked at him with a mixture of bewilderment and excitement.
"You are…a demon?"
But Konrad still couldn't hear her. He stared dazed into the box where his gaze had remained locked while within his body, the miniature skeleton merged with his bones, and its power spread through his flesh, blood, and mind.
Three new sources of energy then spread within him to refine his bones, flesh, blood, and spirit!