The male servant who struggled to remain on his feet gave a quick, fearful nod, then lowered his eyes to the ground.
"You can leave. Have them bring in the…gifts."
Wolfgang took a second to register the situation then let go of the frightened man who deeply bowed before rushing out of the study.
"I'm quite curious as to what Else finds fitting to send us the day following Iliana's return. This cannot be simple. Let's go. We can discuss the competition afterward."
Konrad managed to stand back on his feet and follow the puzzled count toward the main hall where more than one Kracht noble stood with similar confusion. Needless to say, they were aware of the current situation.
Viscount Wulf, in particular, ran circles. His daughter was still within the hands of Else; thus, more than anyone else, he dreaded the possibility of further clashes between the two parties.
His evident concern didn't escape Wolfgang, who now eyed him with an apologetic gaze.
"Rest assured that as long as Daphne is within Else's hands, I won't go beyond a certain limit."
He guaranteed while clasping his brother's shoulder with his large hand.
"Thank you…elder brother."
Wulf nodded. At that time, the hall's door opened, revealing a procession of eleven palace ladies followed by the Kracht servants who pulled in several hefty coffers. Of the eleven palace ladies, nine were veiled, leaving only the two at their helm to show their face.
Konrad's gaze ignored those coffers and locked on two of the veiled palace ladies who stood at the back of the procession. The reason for that sudden show of attention was that within his mind, he could feel the presence of two harem rings, and their owners immediately appeared within his mind: Faidra, and Aliki!
"What's the meaning of this?"
He wondered. Naturally, all the gathered folks showed various degrees of puzzlement. Especially when the coffers' contents were revealed to be nothing more than luxury fabrics and jewelry, the Kracht household stared with wide eyes.
"Is this a joke?"
While those fabrics and jewels were worth a substantial wealth, they were nothing for an Uradel house like the Kracht's. Unless she was making fun of them, for Else to send such trinkets as "gifts" was incomprehensible.
However, to Wolfgang's words, the two leading ladies gave a profound bow before replying.
"My lord, please do not misunderstand. Those gifts are not for house Kracht, but ornaments for the actual gifts."
They then motioned toward the nine ladies at their back who one after the other removed their veils, revealing faces that caused the entire mention to turn deathly silent.
"How…how could this be? Daphne?"
Wulf broke the silence while staring at his daughter who stood among her attendants with a mischievous grin.
"Dad, I'm back!"
But as the Kracht focused on Daphne, Konrad's gaze moved between her and the two blue-eyed bombshell blondes behind her attendants.
Indeed, they were his two early conquests, the sisters Faidra and Aliki, and right now, their shimmering gaze also locked on him.
Their presence gave a different meaning to the "gift." This wasn't a gesture for the Kracht; it was a gesture for him, Konrad.
"The Holy Consort really treats me well, doesn't she?"
Meanwhile, the initial stupor had vanished, replaced by looks of shock, worry, and disbelief.
Wolfgang stared at Zamira who stared back at him while Iliana's eyes went back and forth between Daphne, her attendants, and the two maids at her back.
"What is the meaning of this?"
Wulf aside, not many could take this scene without some measure of apprehension. Unlike Iliana, Daphne was an imperial consort. From the moment she stepped into the palace with that title, she was destined to die within its walls, never to return to the outside world.
Only on rare occasions were high ranking consorts allowed to step outside of the imperial palace's walls to visit their relatives. Even then, tight escort would follow. In the last centuries, only Else had received the privilege.
However, if the palace ladies' words were taken at face value, this wasn't merely a visit. They were sending Daphne back to house Kracht for good!
To say nothing of the Holy Consort, even the Holy Empress and the Dowager couldn't order such a thing.
This was the Holy Emperor's jurisdiction!
The palace lady at the left then pulled out a golden parchment from which words of golden light shone.
"Count Wolfgang, receive the Holy Emperor's decree!"
Immediately, the entire house Kracht fell on its knees to receive the emperor's decree.
"Daphne of house Kracht is returned on this day unspoiled, but her status unchanged. Once a consort, always a consort. We allow her to spend the rest of her days within the warmth of her familial home, but never will she be able to marry, and we reserve ourselves the right to at any time, recalled her to the palace."
"Count Wolfgang, do you accept the decree?"
"Your vassal accepts!"
Whether to accept or not was merely a formality. When the consequence of refusing an imperial decree was family extermination, who dared not accept them?
The palace lady then folded the parchment, and alongside her "coworker," made way for Daphne to step toward her relatives.
Now, apprehension had vanished in the hearts of most people, but in Wolfgang's discomfort was rising, and filling his mouth with an acidic taste.
"She's saying three things. First, she is telling her that although the empress still controls the inner court, her influence on the emperor is rising and will soon replace the empress'. Second, she is giving us an opportunity to bury the hatchet and move on with our lives. Lastly, she's warning us that what she can give, she can take and that what she can take, she can return in a whim. We are hers to toy with as she sees fit.
However, Wolfgang could only say those words within his heart, and even as he rose from the ground, untold frustration shook his powerful body.
Was the emperor this much of a fool? Where was the talent that wrestled the throne from the hands of his elders with inferior forces? Did putting the crown on his head make him muddle-headed?
The two palace maids excused themselves and left with haste, leaving only Daphne, her six attendants as well Faidra and Aliki to stand in front of the Kracht household.
As soon as the palace ladies were out of sight, Daphne's eyes glittered with joy, and she strode toward Wulf who was taking trembling steps toward her.
Wulf stretched out his arms, ready to embrace her, but then, the unthinkable happened.
Daphne ran past him, and leaped into a surprised Konrad's chest, wrapping her arms on his back.
"*Sniff* *Sniff* Daddy Konrad, I missed you!"
The scene returned to a deathly silence, broken only by an incredulous Wulf who turned to see his daughter tightly hugging his future "nephew" and call him "daddy Konrad."
"What is the meaning of this? Daphne, are you confused? Your father is here!"
He snapped, but to his great dismay, Daphne didn't even turn toward him.
"Sorry, you've been demoted to little dad. Konrad is now my big daddy!"
Black lines spread on the many gathered foreheads like wildfire. Konrad's was no exception.