As summer passed, Zhcted’s capital Silesia was bustling full of energy and busyness. Because autumn was short in Zhcted, people had to prepare for the winter while they still had the chance. Some bought up somewhat larger batches of firewood and oil, others made additional purchases of hemp cloths and pelts. Naturally, beverages that would warm the body from within ─ such as wine, mead, and strong drinks ─ were quite popular.
“I just bought ten bottles of vodka for the coming winter.”
“That’s a splendid dedication towards your preparations, but I wonder whether you’ll be able to seriously set them aside until winter.”
In this season, the men told each other the amount of alcohol they had bought instead of normal greetings. Without any need for particular mention, there remained almost no alcohol unopened until winter.
Fish and mutton pickled in salt were hanging down from the eaves of the many street stalls with vegetables and fruits bottled up in vinegar lined up on the stalls’ racks. Next to them, troubadours were strumming their three-stringed zithers, and clowns were flashily hopping around, all of them hoping that they might be invited for the winter, if they were to catch someone’s attention in this place.
Most of the ships traveling along the Valta River, which streamed to Zhcted’s north from here, wrapped up their last trades of the year, and their crews booked extended stays in inns to pass the winter in the capital. After all, the river would freeze once winter came. There were also some crews hurrying to depart towards the ocean before the river turned into a bulwark of ice, but they were only few in numbers.
The people of the capital spent peaceful days within that fervent hustle and bustle. They had heard the rumors about wars still going on in the neighboring Brune and Muozinel, but except for a number of merchants and mercenaries, most of the residents here considered all of these events taking place in far, distant and unrelated lands. They believed that their peaceful lives would continue indefinitely.
None of them knew of the truly abnormal events taking place in the royal palace at this very moment.
Zhcted’s king, Viktor, was 62 years old. His skin had darkened and was mostly dry by now. His thin and seedy arms and legs were concealed by a luxurious robe. Many deep wrinkles were etched into his face, covered by gray hair and beard, speaking a tale of the many years he lived. As king, it might be fine to describe Viktor as a wise ruler. He never did anything that would make him stand out remarkably, but he was never especially cruel towards his subjects, he didn’t lose any of the wars against other nations, and two years ago, he grew Zhcted’s domain by obtaining the territory of Agnes.
Most of Agnes was deserted and desolate land consisting of sand and rock, but the important part was Zhcted having obtained access to the ocean in the south. It was King Viktor’s precious legacy for later generations.
“Recently, the times of rest have significantly increased for His Majesty.”
It was around the time when spring came to an end that such whispers could be heard all over the palace. King Viktor lowered the workload handled by him in person, and started to spend the time he gained through this measure in his own room, the courtyard, and the saloon used for various amusements.
The decreased share of work was handled by the Earl of Pardu, Eugene Shevarin. He was the man announced to become the next king after King Victor at the Sun Festival. No one had raised objections to the old king’s decision, accepting Eugene with obvious relief.
Eugene was 45 years old. He had a slender face with a long, gray beard growing down his chin. Because of his gentle look and his feeble-looking physique, one couldn’t feel much dependability from him. But, most of those serving in the palace knew of Eugene as a man with a strong conviction, and the backbone to openly speak with people, without minding their rank, should time and circumstances permit it to do so. King Viktor also trusted in his character and abilities, and in fact, Eugene easily took care of the work entrusted to him by King Viktor.
While becoming a steady inhabitant of the king’s office in Viktor’s stead and scanning through the documents piling up in heaps, he carefully listened to various reports, and attended any meeting, no matter how small it might be, if he felt it necessary.
Eugene was strict, but not severe. It happened rarely that he paid back failure with harsh punishments, and he made sure to give the other party a chance to restore their honor whenever feasible. Compared to King Viktor who gave others the impression that he was cool-headed, you could probably even say that Eugene was soft-hearted in many cases. However, Eugene didn’t change that attitude of his, and King Victor also let it be.
On one occasion, a chief retainer complained to King Victor that there were some political measures, which the king had rejected and disapproved of in the past, but were now proceeding after getting Eugene’s permission. After listening to that complaint, the old king replied following:
“I believe Eugene’s reign will be something he forms with his own hands, just like my reign had been something I formed with mine.”
It wasn’t Eugene’s time to rule as of yet. Ultimately Eugene was no more than the successor of the reigning king. However, at this time Victor made such statement for Eugene’s sake, making sure of the future when he would rule Zhcted.
Even today was the same with King Viktor being at the archive while leaving most of the matters to Eugene. No one besides him was in the huge archive that wasn’t any inferior to the one in Brune’s royal palace. His attendants were standing outside the archive.
King Viktor was vacantly gazing at the scrolls and books lining up in rows on the bookshelves while sitting on a cushioned chair. Until he had entered the archive, he felt like looking through some books, but now that he was here, it was too much trouble.
──Eugene is doing well in my stead.
A wry smile surfaced on his face. Viktor was well aware that becoming king hadn’t been Eugene’s true desire. Even while feeling sorry towards his retainer who was his junior by 17 years, the king frankly rejoiced that he hadn’t made a mistake in his judgment.
──If not for Eugene, I might have declared Ilda as the next king, but…
Ilda Kurtis was Victor’s nephew, the son of his younger brother. He’d turned 35 years old this year. He held the seventh rank in the kingship’s succession order, being above Eugene who was eighth. There were reasons why he had determined Eugene, and not Ilda, to be his successor.
First, for the sake of emphasizing Zhcted’s friendship with Brune. Previously Eugene had served as negotiator with Brune over a period of ten years, managing to peacefully tie several treaties with them. His firm attitude was also highly evaluated by Brune. Because Ilda was governing Bydgauche in Zhcted’s north, his connections with Brune were weak.
Second, he wanted Ilda to accumulate a lot more experience. Ilda was outstanding as a warrior and commander on the battlefield, but probably owed to that, he tended to lean towards a militaristic doctrine.
──The cooperation with Brune cannot be allowed to fail for the sake of stabilizing Agnes as territory of my country. I’d like Ilda to get well-acquainted with Brune as soon as possible, but…
As things currently stood, Victor could only entrust Ilda to rule over Bydgauche. He wanted Ilda to gain a view allowing him to keep all of the vast lands of Zhcted in sight.
Suddenly he felt as if someone was secretly standing behind a bookshelf, and thus strained his eyes. However, what he had identified as another person turned out to be an iron-colored candle stand. Lightly breathing out as he believed that he had seen wrongly, the elderly king allowed his body to sink into the chair again.
──Come to think of it, he liked books, didn’t he?
The figure of a man vividly manifested in the king’s mind. A man with an age of around 30 years, possessing blue eyes, just like Viktor, and light golden hair. He had a balanced physique, and a mysterious charm that would soothe the hearts of those seeing his smile. The man’s name was Ruslan. He was King Victor’s legitimate child, and the prince of this country. He had been knowledgeable of political and military affairs alike, strove to excel in military arts and scholarly education, and was well trusted by the chief retainers.
──It’s been eight years since then, huh…?
Such a deep sigh escaped Viktor’s lips that it caused his beard to tremble. On a day, eight years ago, Ruslan suddenly succumbed to a mental illness, and set fire to the royal villa at the edge of the royal palace’s compound. Many people testified that Ruslan had acted no different from usual until just before the arson. They all said, he had called out to the soldiers in a friendly manner and enjoyed lighthearted chats with the chief retainers.
Even now Viktor could clearly recall the shock he felt back then. Ruslan, as he was brought in front of him by the soldiers, seemed to not even recognize Viktor, his own father. Although he was looking at Viktor with his head tilted, Ruslan’s eyes were unfocused, not meeting his father’s gaze. With his hair a mess, he didn’t even attempt to fix his disheveled clothes. Drool dripped down from the edges of his mouth that mostly blurted out words that didn’t make any sense whatsoever.
If he hadn’t been in front of the soldiers and officials, Victor would have doubtlessly shouted at his son. Instead, Victor had his son moved to his bedroom, deciding to watch his state over a period of several days. He had hoped that it’d simply progress into the direction of his son having drunk too much alcohol. Of course, the responsibility for setting the royal villa on fire was a heavy one, but as long as his sanity returned, Viktor could have his son make up for that.
However, even after several days passed, there was no change in Ruslan’s state. On the contrary, reports that seemed to get increasingly worse reached Viktor. His son seemed to not know how to eat or excrete, he would tear clothes apart right away, if you took your eyes off him he’d start to scribble on the floor and walls, he’d slip out of his room and wreck the palace, he’d start to cry loudly whenever he was lightly scolded, and he’d talk in an intimate way to empty space…
Victor put his son under house arrest in a certain temple of the capital. Back then, he was fully convinced that he couldn’t allow his son, who had veered off the normal path and fully lost himself in darkness, to be seen by other people. For around three years after his son’s confinement, Viktor decreed the temple to regularly inform him of Ruslan’s state, and also ordered one medicine, which looked like it might work, after the other. Medicines like the nut of a soul tree said to be inhabited by spirits, silver wine brewed in the far away Yalpha, and the pelt of a mythical beast said to allow recovery from any illness if you put it on.
No one might have blamed Viktor for using the kingdom’s budget, but Viktor bought all of these, wasting his own fortune. He did so because he believed this to be an act to be done as father, and not as king.
Him having ceased doing so after three years was because he got tired out from only receiving reports that nothing seemed to show an effect, no matter what he ordered, and because doubts welled up within him whether all those medicines didn’t actually have the opposite effect. Moreover, the fact that he was giving all these shady medicines to his son in succession caused Victor to be anxious and ruined him. He stopped being able to endure his son being treated like a human guinea pig.
Afterwards, King Viktor had been living while trying to not think of Prince Ruslan as much as possible. He also felt that it’d be fine to limit the reports from the temple to once or twice a year. And yet, some part of him hoped for the good news that he wouldn’t need to disinherit Ruslan.
Viktor wondered how often he had seen the dream that his grand chamberlain would urgently rush into his bedroom, waking him up and telling him that Ruslan’s health had recovered. But, at long last, he abandoned even that dream last year. Being aware of his own weakening body, he designated Eugene as the next king. With Eugene having the king’s backing, the royal palace was in the process of slowly shifting towards a system revolving around Eugene in the center.
King Viktor sighed again. He had realized that he was chasing the traces of his son remaining all over the palace. This archive, the courtyard, and even the amusement saloon, in other words, all the places he would head to in his free time, were full of memories of his son.
──I’m still the king of this country. I should keep my dwelling in the past at moderate levels.
That’s what he believed, but at the same time, another voice started to whisper to Viktor.
──Isn’t it enough already? It might be a good idea to leave the rest to Eugene.
Viktor shook his head, troubled. He was unwilling to yield to just one voice. Not long after, the old king departed the archive, but his feet didn’t take him to the audience hall or his office, but unconsciously led him to the courtyard.
It was around the time when the sun was starting to set in the west that King Viktor made his way for his own office. Eugene and Grand Chamberlain Milon were in the rather small room. The one ushering in the old king after opening the door was Milon.
The chamberlain was 60 years old, and had been serving Viktor for a long time, just like Eugene. He was a man who had managed to reach his current position after having his plain work-style acknowledged. In his younger days Milon had a medium build, but nowadays his belly was sticking out quite conspicuously.
At a glance, King Victor saw that a considerable number of documents had been stacked up on the office’s desk. King Victor accepted the chair offered to him by Milon, deciding to help Eugene with his workload. In lieu, Eugene politely expressed his thanks with a smile on his lips.
The king, and the next king continued to read and process the documents one after the other while chatting with each other. Once again, Viktor felt satisfied with Eugene’s decisions.
“Eugene, I leave this country in your hands.”
King Viktor smiled broadly while having Milon prepare him something to drink. Eugene limited his reply to a silent bow, but gratitude, respect, and love towards his king were overflowing from his gentle expression. King Viktor picked up a new document, but then narrowed his eyes inquisitively.
The document was an application for an audience with King Victor by 『Illusory Princess of the Hollow Shadow』 Valentina Glinka Estes. It was apparently delivered at the palace just after noon today.
──She says there’s someone whom she’d like to let me meet, huh?
What wondered him first was the question why that black-haired Vanadis was at the capital during this season. She was a Vanadis who would nonchalantly turn down everything while giving some kind of excuse, even if she was summoned by the palace. Moreover, what bothered him was the additional sentence stating, “I’d like you to clear the audience hall of people as far as possible.”
Given that requests for audiences to be closed to the public came in regularly, it wasn’t anything unusual, but with Valentina being the other party, Viktor ended up thinking that she might be planning something troublesome.
After pondering for a while, King Viktor gave his approval, including the disclosure to the public. For one thing, Valentina had definitely produced results in her cooperation with Brune this spring. Considering that, he couldn’t treat her coldly. Furthermore, matters that seemed like they could become a nuisance should be taken care of as quickly as possible.
Then, at noon two days later, King Viktor met with Valentina in the audience hall which had been cleared from onlookers just as promised. The weather outside was sunny, and the hall was bright as the gentle sunlight of autumn poured in through the windows installed high up.
Valentina was 23 years old. Her bluish black hair was long enough to reach her hips. Roses of many colors were weaved into her pure white, silken garment wrapping her body. At her feet, as she was kneeling with her head bowed, laid a long-handled scythe possessing deep crimson and jet black blades.
Usually, it was absolutely forbidden to bring weapons into the audience hall. But, the Vanadis were considered an exception to that rule in Zhcted. After all, the draconic tools stood as symbols of the Vanadis. Next to her, someone who might be a man was kneeling in the same way. Might be a man because this person had their whole body clad by a robe with the hood low over their eyes, hiding their face. However, just going by their physique, one could think that they were a man in the prime of his life.
After waiting for Valentina to finish the conventional address, King Viktor told her, “Lift your faces.”
Only Valentina followed his words.
The old king openly asked her, “Is the person next to you the one you wanted me to meet? What’s their name?”
“Before telling you his name, I think I’d like you to see his face.” Valentina replied, and after getting Viktor’s permission, stood up.
Helping the man to get up as well, she pulled back the hood with careful movements, revealing the face of a man beneath.
King Viktor widened his eyes, and spontaneously rose half to his feet from the throne as he stared at the man. Light golden hair, and eyes as blue as his own. His cheeks having fallen in and him having lost weight in comparison to the person from Viktor’s memory made the king feel the flow of eight long years.
Valentina announced the man’s name with a smile, “His name is Ruslan.”
Having gotten up from his throne, Viktor silently stared at Ruslan for a time of around 30 breaths. Eventually, he breathed in and out several times as if gasping for air, and then asked Ruslan several things with a trembling voice. All of the questions were about incidents in the archive, events on the courtyard, and memories of the now deceased queen. Among them were also some things only Viktor and Ruslan knew, but the man, who should have turned 38 by now, answered all of them accurately with the brilliance of reason and nostalgia dwelling in his blue eyes. He had a cheerful attitude, and his voice was steady as well.
On the next day, King Viktor gathered all his chief retainers in the audience hall, announced the return of Prince Ruslan, and declared the prince to become his successor. The royal palace was plunged into shock and confusion as it greeted the season of autumn.
It was ten days after Prince Ruslan’s return to the royal palace that Ilda Kurtis, the nephew of King Viktor and current Duke Bydgauche, visited Silesia. As soon as he entered Eugene’s room in the palace, he started to shout at the room’s owner.
“Lord Eugene! Just what hell is this about!?”
“Lord Ilda, I can hear you loud and clearly without you yelling at me.” Eugene responded with a calm expression and tone.
His attitude only pissed off Ilda even further.
“Shouldn’t you be more angry at this than anyone else…!? As if…as if such foolishness would be okay! The title of next king isn’t anything handed out so lightly, is it!?” Ilda rattled on with his shoulders trembling and his fists tightly clenched.
He didn’t even try to sit down on the chair offered to him by Eugene. Because Ilda owned a tall, trained figure and a finely chiseled face tanned by long exposure to the sun, his whole appearance possessed quite the intensity, but Eugene actually felt comfortable around him. These two were brothers-in-law, as Ilda’s little sister was Eugene’s wife.
“But, if we consider the righteous path, His Highness Ruslan is the proper heir, isn’t he? His Majesty never disinherited His Highness. That makes His Highness the legitimate successor as His Majesty’s descendant. It stands to reason that he would return if his sick mind has been cured.”
“How can you say with certainty that this isn’t just a temporary lapse? His sickness has lasted for eight years now.”
“I think that’s disrespectful, Lord Ilda.”
Eugene answered no more than that. Or to be precise, he didn’t have any other reply he could give here. It was questionable just how many people in the current royal court harbored the same belief as Ilda. After all, Ruslan had been gone from this place for eight long years.
“Same can be said about His Majesty. Why, just why did he make such an important decision on a whim..!? Shouldn’t it have been possible to choose after watching the situation for a year or two?”
“Lord Eugene, you must be fully aware just how much His Majesty loves His Highness.”
Eugene, who had been serving close to King Viktor since his time as a prince, fully understood as much. Even in his eyes, Ruslan was bright and intelligent, making it only natural for King Viktor to fawn on him.
Ilda had been staring at Eugene with a face betraying that he couldn’t hold back his rage any longer, but he dropped his shoulders, sighed deeply, and sat down on the chair after bowing.
“I know. I apologize for having pressed you for answers in such a way. However, personally, I can’t agree with this. I plan to eventually tell my thoughts about this matter to His Majesty, whenever I find an opportunity.”
This was a frankness as it was very typical of Ilda. When Eugene nodded, his younger brother-in-law said, “By the way,” and asked him something that had been bothering him, “do you know the person who had brought His Highness Ruslan to the palace, Lord Eugene?”
“You also know her well. It was a Vanadis – Lady Valentina. She healed His Highness’s mind, which had been lost in deep darkness, and brought him to the palace. Given that she has only told His Majesty just how she managed to achieve this feat, I can’t tell you any further details, though…”
Ilda listened to Eugene with a frown scrunching up his face. When Eugene finished, he secretly hardened his resolve to personally get down to the bottom of this matter.
Eugene was renounced as next king, but in reality, he felt relieved about this. He was happy about the old king’s trust, but in the end, kingship was too much of a burden for him.
It’ll be fine if I can simply keep supporting Ruslan as one of many retainers, was Eugene’s take on this. However, the repose allowed to Eugene didn’t even last a dozen days.
One day, several days after he had talked with Ilda, Eugene was summoned by King Viktor. The old king met Eugene in his parlor. After bowing to the king, who offered him a chair with a carefree smile, Eugene sat down, and secretly examined the king’s face.
──Is it just my imagination? It looks like he has visibly aged all of a sudden in the last few days…
In addition to a decrease in his meals, the old king often stayed away from the throne. It seemed to Eugene as though King Viktor had rapidly declined, seemingly because his tension had relaxed.
“Eugene, there’s something important I must tell you.”
Surprise dyed Eugene’s face when the king addressed him by his name, and not his title of Earl Pardu. An important talk at this point in time can only revolve around how I can support Ruslan, I suppose.
However, the next words by King Viktor shocked Eugene.
“You know Valeri, don’t you? He’s Ruslan’s son. I want your daughter to become that boy’s wife.”
Eugene stared at King Viktor with a stupefied look. His tongue had become numb, and his voice didn’t want to come out due to the excessive shock he had suffered. Without losing his smile, the old king continued to speak of it as if he had come up with a wonderful proposal for Eugene.
“You have been a big help to me since my time as prince. I’d like you to continue helping Valeri and Ruslan with your wits, wisdom, and above all, your temperament, in the future. Eventually, when Ruslan has become the king, you will be the father-in-law of the prince.”
The flames of the imposing fireplace installed in the parlor burned brightly, sufficiently heating up the temperature in the room. And yet, Eugene experienced such a strong shiver that he felt nauseous. The sweat drenching his forehead was by no means owed to the room’s temperature.
Eugene’s wife was Viktor’s niece. If he were to become the father-in-law of the young prince on top of that, many people wouldn’t remain silent. Eugene wondered why the king would willingly sow the seeds of chaos at the royal court.
──What has happened to His Majesty…?
He had no doubt about King Victor saying this out of good will towards himself. He might have a guilty consciousness about having deprived Eugene of his title as next king for Ruslan’s sake. However, the King Viktor as Eugene knew him wouldn’t do something so inconsiderate.
“If I remember correctly, your daughter should turn 14 this year? Valeri is 10 years old. I doubt there will be any problems with an age difference of merely four years.”
“It is just as you say, Your Majesty.” With his mouth finally being able to move again, Eugene answered while making a strenuous effort to bring his breathing back in order. “However, Your Majesty, leaving aside the parties concerned, we must ask His Highness Ruslan about his opinion on this…”
“I will talk with Ruslan on my end. You certainly aren’t against this, are you?”
Even if it had reached the point that the king had previously left most of his official duties to Eugene, and now to Ruslan, Viktor was still the king of Zhcted. Being told of this in such a way, Eugene had no choice but to obey. After all, it’d be a great honor for him, if he accepted these terms.
The sound of the wind and waves were continuous companions, only interrupted at times by the cries of sea birds joining the cacophony as they sailed through the sky. Thin clouds were sketched onto the azure firmament which continued endlessly, and seemed to melt with the ocean in the far distance.
Lim stood on deck, gazing at the sea as it held the ship in its iron grip. She was wearing a white overcoat above her bluish military uniform because she had heard that it’d be cold when traveling the ocean. In reality, she didn’t feel like it was all that cold, but that might be because it was still daytime with the sun rays warming the air.
It was the second day since the ships had left the port of Dieppe. Going by their schedule, they should arrive at Lipna, situated in the principality of Legnicia, in another three days.
There existed reasons why Lim stood on deck by herself. For one, she was curious about the ocean, she witnessed for the first time in her life, on her very first ship ride. Yesterday, when they had boarded the ship, Lim was busy, ordering Zhcted’s soldiers around, inspecting their luggage, and confirming their future plans. When she had some time for herself at last, the sun had already set. This morning she had the leeway to finally gaze at the sea.
The other reason stemmed from her consideration towards Elen. Lim was well aware that Tigre and Elen didn’t have much of a chance to be by themselves during this journey. Thus she wanted to create such an opportunity for them.
──Still, even though this is such a big ship, it’s swaying quite a bit, isn’t it?
With this being her first ship voyage, Lim was surprised by the ship swaying left and right as it was hit by wind and waves. She made a full round across the deck while looking at the towering masts, the huge sails tied to them, and the many halyards, before suddenly spotting a person standing a dozen steps ahead of her, and thus stopping her feet.
Standing next to the ship’s side, Tigre gazed out onto the sea. It was odd for the youth to be by himself, but what bothered Lim above that was the pained look on his face.
“Lord Tigrevurmud, do you feel bad?”
Being spoken to, Tigre looked back at Lim as if having only noticed her just now.
“No, I just don’t have many nice memories when it comes to ships.” Tigre answered with a bitter smile while shaking his head.
For the youth, this was the third time he had boarded a ship. The first occurrence was his voyage from Zhcted to Asvarre, and the second when he returned to Zhcted. He had enjoyed his first voyage because of Olga and Matvey. Matvey had told them various kinds of stories, triggering feelings of admiration in Tigre and Olga. His second ship voyage was a disaster. Being attacked by Torbalan in the dead of night, they suffered many casualties. Although Tigre barely managed to retaliate against Torbalan with an arrow, he fell into the sea, lost his memories, and was washed ashore in Lebus.
Lim had also heard of the events of that time. She quietly walked across the deck, positioning herself next to Tigre.
“Please feel at ease. Eleonora-sama, Ludmila-sama, and Sofya-sama are with us. It’s impossible that we would lose, no matter what might show up.”
After looking at Lim’s face, slightly astonished, Tigre relaxed the tension on his face, and laughed.
“You’re right. Besides, you’re with me as well, Lim.”
“I can’t hold a candle to the Vanadis, but I’m still happy that you rely on me.” A smile formed on Lim’s lips. After this, she changed the topic. “What did you talk about with Olga-sama and Sir Matvey?”
“Let’s see. We spoke about Asvarre, and also about ship stories, I suppose. Come to think of it, Olga had been quite unsocial when I met her for the first time. Well, it might be inevitable since she had been wary of Matvey and me… Yep, she was kinda like you’ve been in the past.”
While turning around with his back leaning against the ship’s side, and pointing a finger at the mast and sail, Tigre spoke of that time, clad in aura of nostalgia. Lim also leaned her back against the ship’s side, and listened to the youth. Sometimes she secretly cast a sidelong glance at Tigre’s face, and smiled, obviously feeling relieved.
I wonder, since when have I started to consider this young man, who seems to have fun, to be adorable? In the past he saved my life, but I don’t think that this was the trigger. I feel like the accumulation of small, daily occurrences has continued to rear the affections in my heart, little-by-little.
Suddenly, a strong gale blew across the sea, causing the boat to partly roll. Probably because she had been absorbed with her own thoughts, Lim reacted belatedly. She lost her balance and her body crossed the ship’s side. Her matte blond hair and the overcoat were whirled up by the wind blowing from the sea, and her feet separated from the deck.
She believed that she would fall into the water.
But, in the next instant, a strong hand grabbed Lim’s body and pulled it back onto the ship. Her overcoat, which had come off due to the wind’s force, danced through the air, and dropped down at a distant place. Having fallen with her back on the deck, Lim raised her face while bearing the pain, just to encounter the youth’s face right in front of her. Nervousness and relief dyed his black eyes.
After repeatedly gasping, recovering her calm to some degree, Lim finally noticed Tigre’s and her postures. They youth was pushing her down, with his right hand tightly grabbing her butt, and his left her breast. Lim’s face dyed red, with her eyes looking awkwardly. Seeing her look, Tigre apparently realized what his hands were holding onto, and separated them in a hurry.
“No, I’m the one who was saved by you. Umm, thank you…”
Lim intended to reply with her usual tone, but she couldn’t help noticing how her own voice sounded shrill and nervous. She ended up averting her eyes, not looking at Tigre at all. What confused her the most was the missing feeling of discomfort.
“Can you stand, Lim? Should I fetch you some water?” Tigre asked while worried about the tongue-tied woman.
Lim only managed to squeeze out, “Please,” while still avoiding to look at him.
Alongside a, “Got it,” his footsteps continued to grow distant.
With clumsy hand movements, Lim tried to touch the place on her chest, where she had felt Tigre’s hand just now. After pressing her hand against it for a short moment, she fervently shook her head as if to wipe away the image that had surfaced in her mind. She hung her head, as she muttered, “How despicable,” with a sigh.
Still, when Tigre returned holding a porcelain cup filled with water, Lim had recovered her usual, unfriendly expression. She gave him her thanks with a dispassionate tone, accepting the cup.
“This is the northern sea, huh?” Damad stared at the deep blue sea, his arms folded, as he stood on the deck.
“Is it the first time for you to experience it, Muozinel?” Gaspar spoke up to him.
Only he and Tigre actually talked with Damad among those of the delegation. Damad threw a glance at Gaspar, but what he found in his black eyes wasn’t anything similar to hostility, but sheer curiosity.
“I know the southern seas quite well. What about you?”
“I’ve got no clue of any seas other than this one here? How’s the southern sea different?”
“The southern sea is sometimes stormy as well. But, I’ve never heard about it freezing over.”
However, them being deeply moved by ship and ocean in such a way only lasted until the morning of the second day. As they quickly didn’t know what to do with their time in the afternoon, they started to kill time in various ways. This much was unavoidable since passengers hadn’t much more to do than gazing at the sea, unlike the sailors.
First they began playing skittles atop the deck. It was a game where they competed against each other on how many of the nine pins, standing upright, they could topple over by throwing a ball. However, with the balls going amiss due to the occasional swaying of the ship, and upon the complaints of the sailors about tripping over said balls, that game was banned. Even gambling using dice was immediately suspended as it wasn’t much of a contest with everyone kicking up a fuss over the faintest vibration of the ship.
“Sir Head Delegate, do you have any idea?”
For that reason, Gaspar and Gerard visited Tigre in the morning of the third day, lining up in front of him. Incidentally Gerard was carrying a hemispherical 3-stringed zither.
“I believe it would be fine to have the men endure, seeing how it’s merely three more days, including today, but quarrels and brawls breaking out because of this would be a major pain.” Gerard commented sarcastically as he plucked a string, causing a jingling.
Tigre and Gaspar frowned as they understood from just this sound how much he sucked at it.
“Does it look like quarrels and brawls could occur?”
Upon Tigre’s question, Gaspar smiled bitterly, “It’d be fine if they had something to do, but currently they’re bored. Also, I can’t say this too loudly, but…”
Lowering his voice, Gaspar continued that there were some among the delegation’s men, looking at Elen and the other women, ranking them in regards to who was the most beautiful and who possessed the most sex appeal. Not to mention the three Vanadis, Lim and Titta were both beautiful women, too. Moreover, those five were the only women on their two ships. You might say that it was only natural for such talks to crop up.
“The Vanadis ladies and Lady Limalisha are people from Zhcted. I’m pretty sure Zhcted’s soldiers won’t be overly happy if they hear of this.”
Gaspar not referencing Titta might be his judgment that there was no need for him to expressly spell it out. And in fact, Tigre’s face had turned sullen as he listened to Gaspar’s explanation.
“It’s inevitable, no? They’re bored. And people with too much time on their hands get funny ideas.” Gerard said coldly, and played his zither again.
Tigre sighed. Then he let his eyes wander to the left and right with a serious expression, and quietly asked the two other men, “Elen and the other women haven’t found out, have they…?”
“Wouldn’t they be the first to storm in here to complain about it to you, Lord Tigrevurmud, if they had? Then again, someone like Sofya-sama might turn a blind eye on it and laugh it off.” Gerard replied with an unconcerned look.
Next Gaspar stated his reasoning, arms folded, “Ludmila-sama would unmistakably turn up at your place, Your Lordship. However, I think she would forgive them if you were to rub your forehead against the floor. Very likely it would be the same for Lady Limalisha.”
“Eleonora-sama might be kind enough to disregard it as well, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she punished a few of them to make an example. Wouldn’t we be able to have her leave it at the level of throwing the men into the ocean?”
Once Gerard commented in such a way again, Gaspar added with a gleeful expression, “Also, Tigre, allow me to tell you, not as your deputy delegate, but as your older brother. If you wish to punish those who looked at Titta with such eyes, I’ll handle all of it for you. You just have to embrace her closely and beam a smile on her face with your words.”
The two really grasp things quite well, Tigre admired them over such a weird aspect. However, their talks had completely digressed at this point.
“…So, you two don’t have any ideas how to keep the soldiers from getting such ideas?” Tigre asked after pulling himself together.
In response, both shook their heads simultaneously. Tigre folded his arms and pondered how things went on his own first ship voyage.
──Back then, I thought that I must look after Olga, and Matvey told me various stories as well…
“Hmm. Is there no minstrel on this ship?”
Gaspar tilted his head in confusion, and Gerard shook his. It was because of their lacking experience in ship voyage that neither of the three had thought of allowing minstrels to board the ships.
“Let’s hold a tournament then. We will split the soldiers into teams of ten people, and let’s see…have them compete on which team can tell the most interesting stories. There’s no problem with offering a monetary reward at the level of drinking money for the winners.”
“I see. It sounds like that could get us through the remaining few days.” Gerard approved.
Gaspar also nodded deeply. “Very well, let’s spread the news right away.”
This had quite the effect. Not just the members of the delegation, but even the soldiers of Zhcted participated, forming several circles on the deck and reciting all kinds of stories. Many of those stories were boring, recounts of things they had heard elsewhere, or similar, causing jeering to flitter about, but even those things were fun for them, showing just how bored they were.
In the end even Tigre, Gaspar, Gerard, Rurick, and Damad were begged to join by the delegation members and Zhcted’s soldiers, causing things to get exciting even after the sun had set. Especially Damad’s stories were fairly popular among the men. Although he didn’t know anything but common stories any Muozinel would know, they were fresh and new to the Brunians and Zhcteds, just like Tigre had admired the tale of Shahryar.
Even Damad didn’t feel bad about earning applause and favorable reactions, and thus recited one of the stories he knew after the other.
However, there was one story more popular than any of the others. It was a ghost story titled “The Man Shooting Eerie Arrows Following you to the End of the World” by Rurick. Although Tigre felt quite glum about it, as might be expected, he accepted his fate, and got through this with a strained smile.
By the way, the women around Elen couldn’t join these circles. They were denied participation by the men. Even Tigre didn’t try to invite Elen and the others.
“It can’t be helped, can it? I mean, it’s hard for men to recount vulgar stories with women being around, right?”
“The soldiers of Zhcted would probably wither away in front of a Vanadis.”
Elen and Mila said while revealing wry smiles, and decided to freely spend their time until the arrival in the port city of Lipna in their own ways.
Sofy possessed an abundance of knowledge on topics from various fields, and with five people they had just the right number to enjoy playing cards or darts, allowing them to stave off any boredom with ease.
On the evening of the third day, Lim called Mila and Sofy to her room. The unsocial adjutant and the two Vanadis faced each other with a table, affixed to the floor, between them.
“You said there’s something you want to talk about?” Sofy asked with a gentle smile.
Next to her, Mila was silently scrutinizing Lim’s expression. Although Lim was regarded as a close friend by them, she was in a position that summoning Vanadis to her would be normally far beyond her station, if not for something very important. However, the reason why she had called the two was a private matter.
Sternly instructing herself in her mind that she mustn’t falter, Lim spoke up, “It’s a request. I’d like you two to refrain from teasing Lord Tigrevurmud too much.”
“What do you mean?” Mila narrowed her eyes, confronting Lim with a chilly voice and gaze.
Lim’s body cramped up. Her blond hair, bound at the left side of her head as it spilled down, swayed faintly. Lim breathed in and out lightly, continuing her words while remaining as calm as possible, “I believe you might know that Lord Tigrevurmud is in a relationship with Eleonora-sama.”
“Yes, With Titta as well,” answered Sofy.
“If you consider Lord Tigrevurmud’s position as a fief’s lord, I think it’s only natural for him to also be in a relationship with Titta. I’m well aware that both were harboring strong feelings of love for each other. Can’t you please limit it to gently watching over those three?” Lim pleaded, bowing so deeply that her forehead almost hit the table’s surface.
Mila and Sofy looked at each other, then the blue-haired Vanadis asked with a sullen voice, “Were you asked to do this by Eleonora?”
Lim lifted her face, and shook her head, “No, I’m asking you out of my own volition.”
“I guessed as much. Elen is no one who would ask her to do something like this.” Sofy smiled wryly, placing a hand beneath her mouth.
Lim grimaced slightly, “What do you mean by that?”
“I don’t mind answering, but please answer me just one question first. Say, Lim, what would you do if you were insistingly asked by Tigre to become his concubine?” Sofy asked with mischief gleaming in her beryl eyes.
Lim felt dumbfounded at first, then her cheeks flushed red. Usually she was putting much effort into appearing calm and composed, but now she slurred her words.
“W-W-What a-are you s-s-saying?”
“I don’t believe I’ve asked you anything unusual, though.”
“There’s no way that Lord Tigrevurmud would say something like that!” Lim refuted with her voice raised.
Even as she was staring at the two Vanadis, two incidents vividly surfaced in a corner of her mind. One was her conversation in Nice’s royal palace. When Elen had asked her whether she had no one she considered as a potential partner for love, a certain youth had crossed her mind. The other was yesterday’s incident when Tigre had saved her on deck. Lim had been pushed down by him on the spur of the moment. Even though she had felt surprised and embarrassed, no anger welled up in her for some strange reason. On the contrary, she was nervous when looking at the youth’s face from a place much closer than usual.
Judging to be at a disadvantage here, Lim aborted the conversation. But, even after the two others left, Tigre’s figure and the word concubine didn’t want to vanish out of her mind.
Two days later, the ships arrived in Lipna, just as scheduled.
“How nostalgic.” Tigre squinted his eyes at the sight he could overlook from the wharf.
Sailors were hurriedly unloading freight from ships that had only landed, and in reverse, others were storing cargo onto anchored ships. Yet others were chatting lightheartedly in groups while eating grilled fish and shellfish. A place bustling with life and noise.
“You’ve been to this town in the past, haven’t you Tigre?” Elen asked while gazing at Lipna from next to the youth.
Tigre nodded, “I met Olga in this place. I told you previously about Matvey, didn’t I?”
『Moon Princess of the Roaring Demon』 Olga Tamm who wandered from place to place as she didn’t have any confidence in herself as Vanadis, and Matvey, a sailor with bountiful experience, who enjoyed the deep trust of the now deceased Sasha ─ Alexandra Alshavin. Tigre believed that he was able to safely finish his journey in Asvarre, precisely because these two had been with him.
Putting on a smile and curtly answering, “I see,” Elen stared at the townscape of Lipna while allowing for sentimentality to dye her red eyes. She had a single, cherished memory of this town. One year ago, Elen had nursed Sasha in this place. She somehow managed to share a final memory with Sasha during the little time that was left to her. Even now she could clearly recall Sasha’s fleeting smile.
Of course, Sasha’s grave wasn’t to be found here. She had been buried close to the governmental residence of Legnicia. A tombstone recording her achievements had been erected there.
They were reluctant to part, but two days after they had arrived in Lipna, Tigre’s party left the port town. The youth was the chief delegate of the envoy, and couldn’t extend their stay out of personal feelings as such. The mayor of Lipna, Dmitrii, was an acquaintance of Elen, and welcomed Tigre’s party warmly. Moreover, Tigre was able to reunite with Matvey.
“Long time no see, Matvey.”
“Ever since that winter, was it? It pleases me above all to see you sound and healthy.”
When returning from Lebus to Leitmeritz during last year’s winter, Tigre had met him again. Back then, both had talked all night long, rejoicing over each other’s safety. Matvey was now in a position of serving Dmitrii as assistant – “due to the course of events,” if you were to listen to Matvey on this. Dmitrii himself explained, “He was highly evaluated for having gone all the way to Asvarre.”
“It looks like both of us can’t have it our way, doesn’t it?” Matvey shrugged his shoulders with a laugh.
With Elen and Tigre in the lead, the delegation headed east along the main road. Dmitrii had sent messengers to the cities and towns ahead of them, telling them that this would avoid big confusions to occur whenever they visited those places.
On that occasion, Tigre and Elen questioned Dmitrii about the new Vanadis of Legnicia.
“I haven’t met her yet, but she’s called Figneria. I have heard that she’s capable as a ruler, and excels even as a warrior. I hear she’s being evaluated quite highly at the governmental palace.”
Ultimately Dmitrii stuck to stating what he had heard, avoiding making any personal comments. Given that Elen knew him to be such a man, she didn’t inquire any further. However, the name Figneria strangely stayed on her mind.
It was slightly before noon that Legnicia’s governmental residence came into sight in the distance. Its facade, piling up sand-colored marble with white marble mixed in, caused Tigre to feel a faint sorrow alongside nostalgia. Last year around this time he had visited this residence on his way to Asvarre, and met with Sasha. The time he had talked with her was short, but it remained in Tigre’s memory as a precious encounter.
Sasha wasn’t of this world anymore, and the current master of that palace was the Vanadis chosen by the draconic tool Bargren
“Figneria, was it? I wonder what kind of person she is.” Tigre casually chatted up Elen who rode a horse next to him.
But, not only didn’t Elen answer, but she didn’t even try looking in his direction. She was staring at the governmental palace with a frown unusual for her.
“Eleonora-sama?” Lim called out to her lord from behind.
Because of that, the silver-haired Vanadis finally snapped back to her senses. Noticing Tigre’s stare, she shook her head as if to pull herself together.
“Were you lost in thought.” Tigre asked carefully while also heeding in mind, Or maybe she remembered Sasha.
Elen shook her head once more, “Sorry for making you worry. It’s nothing important. It’s just that I remember having heard the name Figneria somewhere before.”
Lim’s face stiffened up a bit upon Elen’s words. Mila butted into the conversation, “I don’t think that it’s such a rare name, but it’s nothing you need to mull over, is it?”
“You’re going to meet her very soon, so it’s no use even if you worry about it, Elen.” Sofy said to cheer Elen up.
Both knew that Elen and Sasha had a relationship of calling each other bosom friends, and thus they believed that Elen might harbor complicated feelings about Legnicia’s new Vanadis they hadn’t met yet.
“You’re right. I probably worry too much.” Elen relaxed her expression at last.
Once she nonchalantly touched the longsword at her waist as if to erase her hesitation, a soft breeze gushed out of it, gently caressing her hair. Elen called two of her soldiers, and sent them to the palace to announce their arrival in advance.
Around half a koku later, the party arrived at the governmental palace.
An unexpected person welcomed Tigre’s party in the hall right after they entered the governmental residence.
“──Long time no see, Tigre.”
Eyes like black pearls, and light red hair barely reaching the shoulders. Her lovely face with its traces of childishness was almost expressionless, but it was obviously so because she was doing her best to conceal her happiness.
As soon as Tigre yelled out with a mix of surprise and joy, Olga Tamm lightly kicked off the floor, leaping straight for the youth. Tigre caught her small, delicate body in an embrace, and Olga gladly buried her face in his chest.
On top of her white garment with its loose hem Olga wore a reddish tunic adorned with a shawl looking like a fox pelt. A necklace connecting round beads of various colors lay on her chest while emitting a dull radiance. The red hat on her head had been embroidered in the same design as her tunic. Beads that were strung together were dangling at the edges of her hat. A somewhat small ax, her draconic tool Muma, was stuck in the belt tied around her waist.
“Yeah, the last time was at the Sun Festival, wasn’t it? Everything fine on your side?”
Upon Tigre stroking her head above the hat, Olga narrowed her eyes, seemingly feeling ticklish. At that point, she looked up to Tigre with a puzzled expression, as if having noticed something.
“Tigre, your scent changed somewhat?”
“Is that so? I can’t really tell myself, but well, many things happened.”
Tigre brought his nose close to his left arm, trying to sniff himself. It wasn’t as though he stank or anything. But then again, Olga also silently cocked her head to the side, apparently not understanding it herself either.
Afterwards Olga formally greeted Elen and the others. All of them returned the greetings, Elen and Mila with expressions lacking much of an interest, Lim with a totally frozen expression, and Sofy and Titta with broad smiles.
“By the way, why are you here, Olga?”
Olga’s governed territory, Brest, was situated in the west of Zhcted. Thus it was necessary for her to literally cross the whole country to reach this place.
Olga concisely replied to Tigre, “I came to meet the Vanadis of this place.”
“So the same as us, huh?” Elen nodded in understanding.
Considering Brest’s location, it might be only natural for Olga’s visit to be around now.
“She told me that she wanted me to wait for a bit since your group would soon arrive, so I waited.”
“Certainly, it might be less trouble if she entertains all of us at once, but…” Mila looked slightly dissatisfied.
Sofy giggled, “It makes sense. I think I’d do the same as long as I didn’t hear anything about the attending Vanadis being on bad terms with each other.”
In response to her words, Elen and Mila looked at each other in annoyance. They recalled what happened when they met for the first time. Tigre and Lim got ready to get in-between those two due to the dangerous air wafting between them. However, the strained atmosphere dispersed before anything else happened. Elen had expected that Mila might say something to her, but Mila pouted and averted her eyes without a word. Elen looked somewhat disappointed, but not planning to go as far as provoking the other Vanadis, she stared at Mila with a bewildered expression.
It was right then that a male attendant showed up from the corridor, informing them that the preparations for the reception were finished. Tigre’s group walked through the long corridor, guided by him.
“Is it fine for me to have the privilege of extending my greeting as well?” Titta asked Tigre timidly.
The youth nodded with a smile, “It’s alright. If anyone says something, I’ll deal with it.”
I don’t know what kind of temperament Figneria has, but if she’s open to a talk about the demons, it’ll be better for Titta to be present, Tigre assessed. Besides, in a situation like this, I’d like to keep her within sight, if possible.
Tigre asked towards the back of the attendant walking in front, “By the way, what kind of person is Lady Figneria?”
“She is a wonderful person.” He answered without looking back – in a tone making it clear that any further questions were unwanted.
Tigre’s group was led to a spacious parlor. A brickwork fireplace had been installed at a section of the wall, and a chandelier shining in dark gray was suspended from the ceiling. A huge carpet was laid out on the floor. A table and the appropriate number of chairs, all made out of walnut wood, had been set up in the center of the parlor. The chairs had armrests, and were decorated with beautiful ornaments.
A single woman stood close to the table. Her glossy, black hair was long enough to reach her waist, spilling down so as to hide her left eye. A black attire with an elaborate design of a falcon stitched onto it wrapped up her well-toned body. Two small swords were visible at the belt coiled around her waist.
For an instant Tigre wondered whether a shadow was standing there. But this wasn’t just owed to her completely black appearance. Another reason was her suppressing her own presence to such an extent.
That shadow swayed lightly, releasing a flat voice, “Welcome to Legnicia.”
Those words allowed Tigre to perceive her as a human, and not as shadow as he had initially assumed. He gazed at the woman with a dumbfounded expression.
──So this is Figneria? Doubtlessly she’s older than me – around 24 or 25, I’d say. But her aura is completely different from that of Sasha. If I had to give it a name, a bird of prey preferring to hunt alone.
Such was the impression Tigre harbored of the black-haired Vanadis standing silently in front of his eyes. Of course he was fully aware that it was a folly to judge another person by just their outward appearance and aura.
“Nice to meet you. I am Tigrevurmud Vorn.”
Just when Tigre bowed towards Figneria, Elen pushed her way through from behind. Her eyes widened in shock and her clenched right hand trembling slightly, she directly stared at Figneria.
“Fine…” A horse whisper escaped Elen’s lips.
The black-haired Vanadis addressed as Fine dispassionately responded without even the slightest twitch of her eyebrows, “I wonder how many years has it been since I was last called by that name. It’s been a while, Elen, and Lim as well, hasn’t it?”
Figneria pulled her eyes off Elen, turning them to Elen’s blond adjutant standing behind her. Just like Elen, Lim also stood stock still with shock dyeing her expression.
“Why, are you…”
Lim’s voice completely lacked its usual calm. She barely managed to squeeze out those few words. Figneria answered by silently touching the scabbards of the small swords hanging at her waist.
Returning her gaze to Tigre, she said, “I still haven’t introduced myself to you. I’m Figneria Alshavin.”
“You…” Elen’s voice was tinged with anger, a fierce gleam shining in her crimson eyes.
At once Tigre extended his hand from the side, restraining her right arm. Taken aback, Elen looked back at the youth.
Using the opportunity, Sofy stepped forward in a very natural manner. Lining up next to Elen, she lightly bowed at Figneria with a smile on her lips.
“I’m glad to meet you. I am called Sofya Obertas, the one chosen by Light Flower, and entrusted with the land of Polesia by His Majesty King Viktor. It is a great honor to be able to make your acquaintance.”
The voice of Sofy softened the atmosphere in the parlor. When Mila and Olga, and furthermore Titta had finished their greetings, even Elen and Lim had recovered their wits.
“──I’m Eleonora Viltaria, chosen by Silver Flash, and granted the territory of Leitmeritz by His Majesty the King.”
“My name is Limalisha. I’m serving Eleonora-sama as adjutant.”
The two suppressed their voices as much as possible for them, finishing their greetings. Figneria gave a short reply.
“You’ve grown up quite a bit, you two.”
“Why…did you become a Vanadis…?”, unintentionally spilled out of Elen’s mouth.
Why are you, one holding the family name Alshavin, of all people the lord of Legnicia with Luminous Flame Bargren in your hands? For Elen it was a shock as if the fields of her irreplaceable memories were cruelly ravaged to ashes by roaring flames.
“You as Vanadis should understand. These guys told me to become a Vanadis.” Figneria lightly tapped the two blades at her waist with a scornful laugh. “Rather than that, it’s our first meeting in several years. I’d really like to listen to how things went for you. ──Did you manage to fulfill Vissarion’s dream?”
It was a mockery so blatant that it was even obvious to all others besides Elen and Lim, making Mila, Sofy, Olga, and not to mention Tigre feel repulsion towards Figneria.
“You…!” Elen’s voice swelled as she brushed Tigre’s arm aside in rage, her eyes gleaming with bloodthirst. It was filled with so much wrath that it seemed as if it could cause the air in the room to explode.
“Don’t take Vissarion’s name into your filthy mouth!”
“──Elen.” Lim promptly grabbed Elen’s left arm.
Elen came to her senses from the unexpected pain and her name being called out. Lim had ended up putting too much strength into her hold because her emotions were all worked up as well.
After Mila and Sofy smoothened things up, Tigre’s group left the parlor while making sure to surround Elen who was still fuming terribly.
After exiting the governmental residence, Elen and the others headed over to the cemetery where Sasha had been laid to rest.
“Lim, I wonder, could you give us an explanation?” Sofy asked Lim, keeping her voice low.
Of course it was about Elen and Lim’s relationship with Figneria. Even though Titta restrained herself, Tigre, Mila, and Olga also looked at Lim with eyes demanding an answer.
──Something must have happened during their time as mercenaries.
Even Tigre, who knew only fragments of Elen’s past, couldn’t imagine it to be anything else. He was pretty sure that it must have been quite a bad incident, considering the unusual intensity of Elen and Lim’s anger. When he looked at Elen’s back as she walked several steps ahead of the rest, it teemed with an abnormal level of wrath. At such times it was better to not talk to her.
“It’s something from before Eleonora-sama became a Vanadis.” Lim indifferently explained while gazing at Elen’s back. “Eleonora-sama and I were mercenaries. I became one at the age of 13, but Eleonora-sama had joined the mercenary band 『Silver Gale』 long before me. Its leader’s name was Vissarion. For Eleonora-sama he was something similar to a foster father, but──”
At that point Lim made a short pause. She had to rally a fair amount of self-restraint to speak of the conclusion.
“He was killed by Figneria on a certain battlefield.”
“Did she use some underhanded means or something?” Mila asked calmly.
Lim shook her head, “If she had used such a method, neither Eleonora-sama nor I would have merely watched on at that place.”
A rage she couldn’t fully suppress oozed out of her voice. Mila brought the conversation to an end with a short thanks. No matter how anyone thought about it, it was a bad idea to trigger Lim any further by continuing this topic.
While they had been talking, the group arrived in front of Sasha’s grave. The gravestone itself was simple, engraved with Sasha’s name and a short sentence depicting her as a warrior and splendid ruler in her role as Vanadis. Someone had placed a bunch of flowers in front of her grave.
The anger tangible from Elen’s back vanished. Just for now she forgot all about Figneria as her heart was likely fully occupied by her memories of Sasha. Once she offered a silent prayer to the gods, the silver-haired Vanadis turned on her heels and left.
Tigre, Lim, Mila, Sofy, Olga, and Titta prayed to the gods, standing in front of the grave. While asking the gods to grant peace to Sasha’s soul, Lim remembered a certain encounter.
──Please, I’d like you to watch over Elen.
The bedridden Sasha had asked Lim. It was an event that took place two years ago. Back then Lim hadn’t anticipated that this would be her last conversation with Sasha.
──I promise I’ll give it my all, as incompetent I might be.
Lim offered the same words as back then to Sasha’s soul. It was a pledge, a responsibility of the living to be accomplished in stead of the dead.
Lim sensed that Elen would sooner or later fight against Figneria. It was unavoidable for her to realize. After all it wasn’t just Elen who desired that battle. She was sure that she would need to fight Figneria at such a time. She didn’t think that she would be able to win, but Lim couldn’t think of any other way to give Elen as much of a chance of victory as possible.
Figneria breathed out lightly in her office after the group around Elen had left the governmental residence. The presence of the silver-haired Vanadis had caused her to remember various of her past transgressions and deeds, triggering a feeling of irritation in her.
──I’m completely acting like a little lass. How stupid and childish of me.
She had thought that she would be able to deal with them a lot calmer. After all, Vissarion shouldn’t be more than one of many enemies she had cut down in the past. And yet, when she saw Elen and Lim straightforwardly glare at her with eyes full of genuine hatred, Figneria became unable to restrain an urge welling up within her chest.
──Do I wish to fight against Elen?
The black-haired Vanadis asked herself.
Most likely that’s the case. Otherwise I wouldn’t have gone along with such a childish provocation. But, why do I want to fight her?
I suppose it’s because Elen is Vissarion’s 『Daughter』. Their lacking blood relationship is no problem. What matters here is whether she has the will to inherit Vissarion’s dream. And going by the fact that Elen and Lim have stayed together, that’s obviously the case. In short, they have inherited Vissarion’s dream.
“Aren’t you happy?” Figneria muttered towards someone not of this world any longer. A faint smile formed on her lips. However, she immediately erased it, tightening her expression. “However, I don’t know how things will turn out.”
Figneria was certain that she would need to fight Elen, sooner or later.
‘It’s highly unlikely that she will remain obedient forever with me being so close by. But, I don’t have the slightest intention to allow her to kill me off just like that either. If it comes to a fight, I intend to crush Elen with all my power.
“Don’t give me so much trouble,” she mumbled while lightly tapping the two swords at her waist. The two blades quietly answered their mistress with a glow of their blades.
Ilda Kurtis stayed in the capital without returning to his territory Bydgauche, his distrust and irritation growing stronger by the day. Almost every day he frequented the royal palace from his nearby mansion. It wasn’t as though he had any business with anyone during his visits. He merely paced around the grounds, occasionally taking a rest in the gardens or courtyards. Whenever someone spoke up to him, he gave a cordial response.
While doing all that, he had kept his eyes open so as to not miss a single occurrence taking place in the palace. What he noticed at once was the change of the officials serving there. The personnel gathered by Eugene during this year all left the capital after receiving new orders. The orders themselves were all proper, consisting of them visiting several towns as inspectors, or examining the bridges and fortresses positioned at key points of Zhcted, but it still bothered Ilda.
When he looked deeper into it, he grasped that all the officials dispatched to various places within the country had been instructed to stay on-site even after finishing their duties, and to limit their activity to only sending regular reports.
“Doesn’t that simply mean that they’ve been driven out of the capital under the pretext of orders?”
Moreover, one new official after the other was assigned to the palace following Prince Ruslan’s selection. All of them were unknown or – even if they originated from some influential noble family – inconspicuous third or fourth sons, but as they carried out the tasks assigned to them without any problems, the governmental affairs kept going as usual.
“They are all commendable, but just when, where, and how did His Highness Ruslan find them?”
It was impossible that a man, who had been confined in a temple until just the other day, would have had the opportunity to go around looking for skilled personnel. Besides, there was one more issue worrying Ilda.
Ruslan fell ill eight years ago. Until then he was loved by many people for being a bright, openhearted prince. Among those idolizing Ruslan were many who deeply trusted the prince’s character and abilities. They had been recognized as potential supporters of Ruslan’s reign in the palace in the event Ruslan were to become king. And yet, not a single of them could be found among the new appointees.
Of course that wasn’t overly strange either. During those long eight years, they had given up all hope for Ruslan, and distanced themselves from him. It might be inevitable that Ruslan harbored reservations towards them.
──But, is that really the case here?
Ilda couldn’t rid himself of the doubts gnawing at him. He started to believe that the new officials might have been assigned to their posts not by Ruslan, but someone else. And at the time he was considering that option, Ilda’s eyes were drawn to the Vanadis always staying close to Ruslan.
『Illusory Princess of the Hollow Shadow』 Valentina Glinka Estes.
The one who had brought Ruslan to the royal palace was that very Vanadis, and it was said that she stuck to him like a shadow ever since Ruslan had started to spend his days in the palace again.
“Shouldn’t Lady Vanadis soon be returning to her own duchy – Osterode?”
Some people were murmuring that, but not only didn’t Ruslan show any signs to separate from her, he even allowed her to accompany him wherever he went. Despite that, no one could regard those two as having a romantic relationship.
“They look as if a young child is walking while being led around by its mother’s hand.”
Many people had such an impression. But, of course, they couldn’t voice it out. Valentina never went any further with Ruslan than needed either. When Ruslan took a rest, she moved to another room, and once the sun set, she retired from the royal palace, returning to her own mansion in close vicinity of the palace.
The people, doubting the relationship between Ruslan and her, investigated Valentina countless times, but they hadn’t found a single evidence that would prove anything.
In his exasperation, Ilda finally requested an audience with the king. Around one month had passed since Ruslan had been nominated as the next king.
King Viktor received Ilda in the parlor. Ilda felt a pang of sadness that it wasn’t the king’s office, but what bothered him much more was the unusually relaxed expression of the king as he had deeply entrusted his body to the sofa.
──Is His Majesty planning to leave everything to His Highness?
When he thought that he might be the only one wrestling with such internal conflicts, Ilda felt disgust and that it was too much to bear.
However, the odd one out here might be me. Welcoming the king of the next era, Ruslan, the royal palace has started to systematically move like a carriage driving across stone paving. I wonder, is it the proper attitude as a retainer to hold doubts and look full of distrust on something that ought to be an auspicious event?
──No, I must bring it up. If there’s no one else who speaks of it, it’s my duty to do so.
Ilda was the son of King Viktor’s younger brother. If he didn’t say anything, who would?
“Your Majesty, there is something I’d like to inquire about by all means.”
“Your Majesty, do you truly believe that His Highness Ruslan will be able to continue governing Zhcted?”
It was a blunt question, very typical of Ilda, despite him being aware that it was disrespectful. King Viktor didn’t condemn him for it, and instead tilted his head to the side, looking surprised.
“It’s been one month since Ruslan returned to the palace. There haven’t been any problems in particular, right?”
“I’m aware of that. But, isn’t it extremely unnatural?” Ilda tenaciously hung on, clenching his fists. “His Highness’ absence lasted eight years. Eight years, I tell you. Even I wouldn’t have said anything if he had stated that he chose this timing to return to the palace while catching up on various things after recovering over the previous year.”
Seeing how this triggered a weak reaction from the king, Ilda put even more power into his voice, “However, according to the stories, he visited the palace immediately after having recovered.”
“Ruslan is──” Suddenly the old king spoke up. Taken aback, Ilda waited for the continuation. However, the faint hope he had embraced was bitterly betrayed, “Ruslan is an excellent son. He has been endowed with a far larger capability to rule than me, ever since his childhood. I don’t think that a break of merely eight years matters here at all.”
“Merely, you’re saying…?” Ilda became speechless out of shock.
He judged that the king had finally lost his ability to make sound judgments. Without the slightest sign of paying heed to Ilda’s murmur, Viktor said, “Duke Bydgauche, please keep supporting Ruslan and Valeri in the future.”
Valeri was Ruslan’s son. He had only been two years old when the prince fell ill. It was said that King Viktor had locked up Valeri in a room of the palace, not allowing him to meet with anyone. Possibly the king had feared that Valeri might become like his father.
Ilda bowed deeply, and after taking a short breath, wrung out, “I shall dedicate all the military prowess and loyalty I have to offer.”
Right afterwards, Ilda took his leave as he didn’t know what else he could say to the old king.
──I guess I should get the soldiers ready so that they can be moved at any time when the need arises.
Ilda assessed while walking through a hallway of the palace with a haggard expression. But, shaking his head, he expelled that thought.
──Isn’t that as if I’m expecting His Highness Ruslan to commit some error?
Duke Bydgauche didn’t notice that there was a person gazing at him while standing in the garden, which the duke passed on the side without paying any attention to it.
It was several days later that Duke Bydgauche, Ilda Kurtis, lost his life. It was said that he missed his footing when going down a flight of stairs in the palace, falling down all the way to the bottom. Ruslan received the notification in his office.
“Ilda has… I see.”
The 38-years old prince sighed deeply with a sad look, and had the civil officials withdraw, promising to give them their instructions later. Then he turned around to the sole person remaining in the room, the black-haired Vanadis standing close to him.
“Tina, what should I do?”
“Let’s first send a messenger to Bydgauche.” Valentina answered, putting on a mournful expression.
Ruslan wondered whether her sadness was truly heartfelt.
“We will summon the oldest son of Lord Ilda to the palace, and have him inherit while using that opportunity to also hold the funeral ceremony. In the name of Your Highness. I think it’d be fine to assign Lord Eugene as his guardian. Lord Eugene is Lord Ilda’s younger brother-in-law, and he’s well-versed in the matters of the royal palace.”
“Okay, I got it. Let’s do it like that at once.”
Ruslan called the civil officials back, and instructed them, following Valentina’s suggestion. Seeing the face of Ruslan, who didn’t manage to erase his gloominess, the officials fully sympathized with Ruslan’s grief.
“Ilda was…,” muttered Ruslan all of a sudden, “Ilda was far stronger and superior in martial arts than me. Though, I guess that doesn’t matter any longer.”
The officials bowed deeply, and left in order to swiftly carry out their orders.
Eugene was at his mansion in the capital when the news of Ilda’s death reached him. Since a messenger of Ruslan had shown up around the time when the sun was about to set, he had thought that something might have happened, and then was told this surprising piece of information.
Standing stock still in the middle of the saloon where he had welcomed the messenger, Eugene only managed to whisper that before falling into silence.
Ilda had visited Eugene’s mansion every three days for close to a month now. Given their positions, both had only few people they could talk with about what was to come. Eugene and Ilda were supposed to support Ruslan while staying at his side in the near future. Drinking wine and enjoying a good meal with Ilda were one of the rare opportunities allowing Eugene to relax. At least Ilda never told him things close to flattery like, “It’s a true shame that you lost the throne.”
Ever since that day, Ilda had never again mentioned anything about what he had told Eugene back then. Hearing that Ilda had lost his life, Eugene felt more shaken than usual.
“It’s only reasonable to be surprised about this. After all it has happened all too suddenly. His Highness Ruslan is in deep mourning as well.” The messenger said with a tone that felt dispassionate.
Eugene pulled himself together and breathed out deeply. Either way, he knew he had to head over to the palace. He sent the messenger back, telling him to pass on that he would come to Ruslan right away.
While calling his servants, and having them prepare a change of clothes, Eugene abruptly recalled how Ilda had been suspicious of the palace.
If Ilda, the royal prince’s son and Duke Bydgauche, had openly opposed Ruslan, his clout might have turned into someone’s problem that couldn’t be ignored. Wary of that possibility, that person might have taken his life while making it look like an accident.
Shaking off this unresting speculation, Eugene quickly got ready, and left the mansion together with two of his servants. As he looked up, he could see gray clouds lurking in the eastern sky where the sun was about to vanish. It looks as if dark clouds are shrouding the path I’m about to walk, it appeared to him.