Chapter 062: A Celestial Dragon

"Thank you," Jacob Condorando said to the driver as he stepped out of the family wagon in the front yard. It was early evening, and he had been out since noon for a day that had been rather relaxing and enjoyable, but he knew that wasn't going to last. He took a deep breath before opening the front door and heading inside. "I'm back!"
"There you are! Where have you been for so long?" Martin Condorando asked from the salon.
"I was just–" Jacob started as he entered, pausing to check himself in a mirror, "–taking Margaret home."
"We still have a lot to prepare before your eighteenth birthday banquet tomorrow," Martin stated as Jacob came into the salon as well. "Don't forget that–"
"–that the son of the Celestial Dragon that grandpa saved is coming. I know, you've told me a million times."
"We are privileged to have a guest of honour of such high status. Everything must be perfect!"

Even if the Condorando family was one of Josang's minor noble families, the firstborn son and heir of a noble coming of age was still considered quite an important event, and so the Condorando family mansion would be hosting guests in numbers that it had only seen thrice since Samuel Condorando first had it built—Martin Condorando's eighteenth birthday banquet, Martin Condorando and Florence Moro's wedding, and Samuel Condorando's funeral. For all three of them, one of the guests had been Saint Lishabe Gashar, the Celestial Dragon who had served as one of the catalysts for the Condorando family becoming nobles in the first place. But in her old age, she had stopped going to any large events, and so instead had ordered her son—who only Samuel and his wife Monique had met previously—to attend.

And so, for over a week, it had been all hands on deck in the Condorando household. Many things had been planned weeks and some even months beforehand, a number of temporary staff had been hired to ensure everything would go smoothly, and the house was currently in the process of being thoroughly cleaned for the third time in three weeks. Florence was coordinating most of what was happening at the mansion, while Martin had taken care of invites and getting everything they needed delivered. Jacob had been simultaneously less involved than he thought he should be given that it was his birthday, and more required to help out with things that he thought he should be given more say over. By now he had come to the realization that this banquet wasn't for him, but designed to make sure that the guests got as good an impression as possible from their family—especially the Celestial Dragon. Jacob was just the host of it. The most meaningful input he had been allowed to give was regarding some aspects of the food. Everything else was carefully constructed around him, but he was still the one expected to hold it all up.

Personally, he thought it all was a bit overblown, and would have preferred a smaller celebration with just the family and a handful of close family friends as guests, but had been informed that that was not an option given their status. Plus, now that he was becoming an adult, this was the kind of thing he had to get used to—or he would 'risk hurting the family's reputation', another thing that he personally didn't put much importance in. He worried about how that would apply to Cassandra, though—while she had managed to focus a bit more when it came to her studies as she got older, she was still rather anxious and unsure of herself when meeting with strangers, or being in large groups of people... and tomorrow's banquet would feature both. Most of what Jacob had tried to influence about it was mainly to try to ensure that she wouldn't be miserable all night, and knew that there were fewer expectations on her due to not being the firstborn of the family and also a girl, though that came with its own set of problems. But that would be a later question—he had done all he could for her for now.

"A perfect spectacle," Jacob mumbled to himself.
"What was that?"
"Nothing. So, what should I do?"
"Go check that we have enough wine. The last delivery finally came in while you were out, but if we still need more, we'll have to take the wagon and get more before dinner. And make sure your sister is ready too."
"Alright," Jacob replied as he walked off towards the kitchen. He didn't really know if he was actually looking forward to tomorrow, and not especially sure that it wouldn't be rather boring, but it would, if nothing else, at least be something different...


"Charles and Olivia Erickson, with daughter Margaret!"

The doorman announced the arrival of the latest guests. A brown-haired man in a tuxedo and top hat, arm in arm with a blonde woman in a blue gown, followed by a brown-haired teen with glasses in a pink gown. Jacob met them as they entered, as he had done with all the guests already there and would do with all the guests yet to arrive. It hadn't left him with too much time to socialize yet, but he didn't overly mind.

"Welcome to my banquet," Jacob said, shaking the hands of Charles and Olivia and kissing Margaret's. "I hope you'll enjoy the evening."
"Thank you, Jacob. I'm sure it will be enjoyable," Charles replied.
"Do I get the first dance?" Margaret asked with a smile and a curtsy.
"Naturally. For now, feel free to help yourself to a drink, and... if I could ask for a favour, maybe you could find Cassie and be with her for a little bit? I don't think she's really comfortable with all this, but I don't have much time to stay with her right now. Of all the guests that she's met before, you're the closest in age to her..."
"Sure. You'll come find me later, right?"
"Of course," Jacob replied before the doorman announced another arrival, meaning it was time for Jacob to do his greetings again. So it would continue for the better part of the next hour—Jacob would go talk to the guests for a few minutes, maybe get himself a drink, but soon be called back to the entrance to greet another arrival. And eventually, after having pretended to understand what one of his dad's business colleagues was talking about, he heard the doorman chime in with the biggest announcement of the night.

"The guest of honour has arrived!"

Many of the guests started gathering around the entrance for this event, as while they were nobles themselves, being in the presence of a Celestial Dragon was a rare privilege indeed. With his family behind him, Jacob prepared for the most important greeting of the night.

A large, ornate wagon pulled by two purebred horses came to a stop in the front yard of the mansion. The whole thing was painted in white, red, and gold, with a sculpted dragon on top of it. Four large men in suits and wearing sunglasses stepped out first, followed by the main event.

The Celestial Dragon was a man of twenty-nine years, with black hair in a standing curl atop his head, and stubble on his face. He was wearing the traditional outfit of the Celestial Dragons: a white robe with  an ornate collar and gold trimmings covering his entire body, and a look of disdain on his face. He looked around at the place he had never been to before and was clearly unimpressed as he made his way to the entrance, surrounded by his bodyguards.

"The World Noble, Saint Romas Gashar!" the doorman proudly announced when the Celestial Dragon and his guards entered the mansion.
"Welcome to my banquet," Jacob said amidst the oohs and aahs of the onlookers and extended his arm towards the new guest. "I hope you'll enjoy the evening."
"Hm," Romas grunted, looking at Jacob's hand with a sneer.
"It's called 'shaking hands'. Maybe you've heard of it?"
"Saint Romas does not touch people of a lower social standing," one of his bodyguards said.
"...excuse me?"
"I'm only here because mother made me."
"My grandfather saved your mother's life, you know."
"Of course he did. If he hadn't, he'd have been executed."
"Hey, you could at least show some-"
"Jacob!" Martin Condorando loudly whispered to interrupt his son.
"You have to show respect to our esteemed guest."
"You'd think he'd show some respect, he wouldn't even exist if it weren't for our family..."
"The Celestial Dragons are the highest noble families, we're nowhere near them... even having one here is a great honour..."
"If he's so high and mighty, I'd expect him to have gotten even more etiquette education than me, but he's just acting like a spoiled brat... even though he's older than me, too..."
"Even... even so, the World Nobles..."
"I understand how it is," Jacob mumbled and shook his head. "When nobody's allowed to talk back to you, you don't need to treat anybody with respect."
"Jacob, you can't..."
"I know. I won't. But just talking to him is making me angry."
"We... we can't keep him waiting, just let me..." Martin said and walked up to Romas and bowed. "Please excuse my son. It is his coming of age banquet, after all. It really is a great honour to have you here, Saint Romas. I'm Martin Condorando, and this is my wife Florence. Cassandra, why don't you introduce yourself to our guest too?"
"O-okay," Cassandra said and walked in front of her father. "He-he-hello, my name is Cassandra Condorando," she stammered while curtsying.
"Hm. You're pretty. You could become my wife."
"Don't talk to her that way!" Jacob exclaimed and stepped between Cassandra and Romas. In the blink of an eye, one of the bodyguards had placed himself in front of Jacob, and rather than continue the confrontation, Jacob simply shook his head and turned to his sister. "Don't listen to that guy. I'd never let him take you away. Why don't you go back to Margaret, I'll handle this..."
"Okay..." Cassandra said in a rather anxious tone before getting out of the situation, leaving Jacob facing Romas again.
"Look, you can't just-"
"Jacob!" Martin snapped before Jacob managed to get far in his argument. "Saint Romas, please enjoy the festivities. We are all glad to have you here. Please have a drink, and we will ensure that you will have a nice evening."
"Hrm," Romas replied and proceeded to the rest of the party with his bodyguards following him. Many of the other guests looked at him with admiration, but none of them dared speak to him at the moment.
"Jacob! You can't argue with him like that," Martin told his son.
"He was- the way he was talking about Cassie..."
"Yes, we should be thankful he's taking such a direct interest in our family!"
"A direct- you can't possibly seriously be considering letting him take Cassie!"
"Think about it! Our family, getting an even closer connection to the World Nobles..."
"Think about her! There's no way she'd be able to handle it. There's way too much of an age difference! And I really doubt he'd treat her well..."
"Cassie's staying with us!"
"Jacob!" Martin shouted to shut his son up, then sighed and started talking in a more hushed tone. "The truth is... our family isn't nearly influential enough to refuse a demand from a Celestial Dragon. We can... ask him to at least wait, but if he decides that Cassandra is to be his wife... we'd have to give our blessing, or..."
"Or what?"
"Or he could use his influence to make sure we'd be disgraced, we'd lose our family name, lose our money, lose our home..."
"I'd rather have that!"
"...and he'd still end up taking her away anyway, and if we tried refusing him then, as commoners, we'd be executed."
"Ugh, fine. I'll apologize and talk to him..." Jacob groaned and went off in search of the Celestial Dragon. He found him in the salon, holding a glass of champagne and looking up at a painting of an older man. "A fine picture, isn't it? It's my grandfather. The one who... saved your mother."
"I know."
"Listen, I wanted to... apologize for before," Jacob said while clenching his fist in his pocket. "I just... wanted to talk to you about my sister."
"Look, Cassie's a bit... she gets anxious and stressed out around people she doesn't know. She might..." Jacob squeezed his fist even harder, barely able to believe what he was forcing himself to say. "...damage your reputation."
"If she does it'll be your family's fault. You'll have to teach her to be a good wife to me."

It took everything Jacob had to not pull his fist out of his pocket and put it in Romas's face instead. He couldn't believe what he was hearing—this was the rudest, most condescending person he had ever had the displeasure of knowing, and they had been around each other for barely five minutes. Jacob had been aware of the tendency of some nobles to treat those of lesser status as lesser beings, but this was on another level entirely. This was supposed to be someone from the highest class of nobles in the world? Jacob was just a minor noble, and he had had eighteen years of etiquette drilled into his head. This guy could probably not even spell it, and on top of it all he wanted to take Cassie away. There was no way Jacob could accept that, but if this guy could wipe out their entire family on a whim... he had to play it cool. Getting angry wouldn't help anyone in the least at this point, and he didn't want to be known as the noble who punched a Celestial Dragon at his birthday banquet.

"If... if you are so set on this, then I will ask you, as one man to another, to please at least wait until she comes of age. And maybe you could... ask your mother's opinion about it too," Jacob suggested, having gotten the impression from his father and grandfather that she was a rather more reasonable person. "Surely you want her to know you've chosen a wife worthy of the family name."
"And... perhaps we could establish more of a business relationship first. It could... let you two get to know each other better," Jacob said, while actually hoping that this guy would never get within a hundred meters of Cassandra again after today. "So she'll... get a chance to... know what to expect too."
"Hm. Maybe."
"Well, please... keep enjoying the banquet, the dinner will be served in about an hour. I will... see you then," Jacob said and walked away, biting his lip to avoid saying what he really wanted. Ignoring the other guests, he headed into the kitchen, where his mother was overseeing the dinner preparations.
"Oh, Jacob! So... how did it go?"
"I need a drink," Jacob replied and grabbed a glass of white wine from a tray, downing half of it in one go. "Okay. I'm not gonna let that guy ruin my night. I'm not gonna try to throw him out or anything, but I am not sitting close enough to him at the dinner to talk to him. Or letting him anywhere near Cassie."
"But... you're the host, and he's the guest of honour!"
"If I'm the host, shouldn't I get to decide the seating?"
"But you need to be in the front, and he-"
"No. Listen. If I have to talk to that guy again tonight, I can't promise I'm not 'accidentally' going to spill my food on him. Give him the best seat for all I care. I'm going to sit with Cassie, she's already not doing well with all these people. And he's making it way worse."
Florence Condorando sighed. "Let me take a look," she said and picked up a notebook from the counter. "Can't be too far from either Martin or Romas... I guess we can move Cassandra from there... and if we put Martin instead..."
"Alright. We can do it like this, but no bigger changes, because we still need to have all the important people up front, and that does include Saint Romas. You'll still have Margaret to the table, and we can have Cassandra on your other side. Then Martin will be next to Margaret at the center of the table, and he'll have Mrs. Erickson. And then Saint Romas, and then me. Does that sound good?"
"Fine," Jacob replied, drank the other half of his wine, took a deep breath, got his head back into his role as the host, and headed back out to the party.

The remaining time until dinner was to be served passed without much incident. Jacob kept his distance from Romas and made sure that Cassandra (who retreated to the kitchen for most of the time) did the same. He played the role of host as best he could, chatting with the guests, spending some time establishing contacts with the people more around his age that he'd probably be seeing more of in the future as the next generation of nobles in Josang, and showing Margaret around the mansion a bit. Martin boasted to the guests about the family in general and Jacob in particular, eliciting a few eye-rolls from Jacob when he overheard. Shortly before the dinner, the guests were gathered to listen to Cassandra playing a piano piece, another thing that Jacob had protested against but gotten shot down, even when he suggested that he'd play instead. She was clearly uncomfortable with all the attention, but managed to get through the performance with only a few misplaced notes. Jacob calmed his sister down as the guests moved into the dining room and started being seated, and made sure she didn't have to pass Romas while they took their seats. Once everybody had found their chairs, Martin stood up and tapped his fork on his glass to get the attention of the room.

"Friends! It is so good to see that you could all make it here on this day of celebration. Today marks the day that my son, Jacob Martin Samuel Condorando the Third, becomes an adult, and the day that he truly will start stepping into the role as the successor of the Condorando family. He's been a fast learner, and I have no doubts that he will be continuing to do the family name justice, just as I followed in my father's footsteps," he spoke before raising his glass higher and turning to the Celestial Dragon to his left. "And today, we are especially honoured to be joined by the World Noble, Saint Romas Gashar! The son of the most venerated Saint Lishabe Gashar, who we thank for the Condorando family becoming nobility in the first place. I sincerely hope our families will have a continued good business relationship going forward–"
"That makes one of us," Jacob whispered to himself, making sure nobody else could hear him. At least he was glad that his father took care of the pre-dinner speech, because he was certain he didn't have it in him to praise that rude noble. He would be saying a few words between the main course and the dessert, and would at least take care to not offend anyone.
"–and perhaps an even closer relationship between us than that!" Martin continued, turning to look at Cassandra as Jacob groaned internally. "And to mark this occasion, in..." Martin looked at the grandfather clock behind him, "...two minutes, there will be an eighteen-shot cannon salute, after which the main course will be served. So once again, here's to my son and the future of the Condorando family name and business, Jacob! Cheers!"
"Cheers!" rang out from the guests as they raised their glasses in Jacob's direction, and he raised his while smiling and nodding. He noted that Saint Romas wasn't really acknowledging him, but at this point, that seemed in line with any expectations Jacob had.

Because of the announced salute, nobody thought anything of it when the first cannon shot rang out after they had taken their drinks, and the staff started walking towards the tables with the food. But before anyone could be served, right after the second cannon shot, a loud crashing sound was heard, and the entire mansion shook. By the time the third shot happened, it was clear to everybody what was going on—the cannon shots were hitting the mansion. It didn't take long for panic to spread, and chaos erupted as people started trying to get out. One of the tables got toppled over as it was every man for himself, and they all had the same goal—escape through the front door.

"What the..." Jacob couldn't believe what was going on, but knew that he had to try to help, and get a read on the situation. He quickly turned to Margaret. "Watch Cassie!" he exclaimed before running outside via a side door and heading to the front, counting on his father to deal with things on the inside.

There was certainly no shortage of chaos outside either, with everyone trying to escape in any way they could. Some wagons made it over the strip of land leading back to the mainland before another round of shots started a fire on it. The horses closest to it started panicking, with wagons colliding and falling over. And it wasn't long before Jacob spotted the next bit of trouble, and this one might get even worse than the cannon fire—several small boats had landed on the peninsula, and around two dozen people holding guns and swords were now storming the mansion, breaking windows to get in.

Jacob stared in disbelief for a few moments, before another cannon shot rang out and he was suddenly pulled backwards. He turned to face whoever had done it, ready to fight, but...
"Master Jacob!" the doorman holding him exclaimed as he got Jacob inside the mansion again. "It's far too dangerous for you to be out here!"
"I... we have to... we have to do something!"
"We have to get you out of here!"
"But..." Jacob said and looked around. "Where's... where's Saint Romas? His bodyguards would be a big help now!"
"They're no longer here. His guards made sure to get him out at the first sign of trouble... his wagon was the first to leave."
"...what? They just... left? Did they help anyone else? Brought anyone with them in that big wagon of his?"
"Not as far as I know," the doorman replied.
"I can't believe it. The one thing that would have made his presence here a good thing... but of course he doesn't care. He doesn't care about anyone else. It's all about him, because he's the big Celestial Dragon. That's what it's always been, hasn't it? Higher status just means you've trampled over more people to get where you are. If I ever see him again, I am going to strike him."
"...but I can't stand here!" Jacob exclaimed and started running inside as he started hearing gunshots. "I need to get back to Cassie!"

By now, the Condorando family mansion was in complete disarray. Furniture thrown all around, paintings and lights fallen off the walls and ceiling, and bodies on the floor that Jacob didn't stop to identify or confirm if they were alive. He only had one thing in mind, and...

"Jacob!" a familiar voice rang out.
"Cassie?" Jacob replied, looking around for his sister.
"Shut up!" came another gruff voice from the same direction... above. Jacob quickly found the source—at the top of the stairs to the second floor stood a pirate, holding Cassandra—and pointing a gun at her head...