Feeling oddly nostalgic, Tigre stared at the townscape of Royal Capital Silesia.
“I sure hadn’t expected to come back here so soon.”
It was at the beginning of this year that he had received the report about Sachstein’s army having invaded Brune. The capital which had been brimming with the liveliness of spring back then, was now filled with signs of autumn. Without a doubt, Tigre’s next visit to this land would have taken place many years into the future, if nothing had happened.
Tigre’s party kept walking along the main road leading to the royal palace.
“As expected, they seem to be confused.” Elen commented next to Tigre while letting her eyes wander across the hustle and bustle.
“Is that so? I couldn’t really tell.”
“Makes sense. But, it’s only natural for us to comprehend as much, right?” Mila said.
Her face was tinged with tension as if she was wary of something. Once Tigre looked back, he saw that the usual smile had disappeared from Sofy’s face as well.
“Prince Ruslan, eh…?”
Tigre and the others had heard the story about Prince Ruslan recovering from his mental illness after having spent many years in a temple. You could only describe it as reasonable for the people to be bewildered while rejoicing over this auspicious event at the same time.
When Tigre’s party arrived at the palace, they reunited with someone unexpected.
“Long time no see… Umm, Tigre.”
The one haughtily standing close to the gate with her arms folded, which pushed up her bountiful chest, was Elizavetta Fomina, commonly known as 『Princess of the Thunder Swirl』. She wore a dress that heavily relied on purple colors. The jet-black whip hanging at her hip was her draconic tool, Valitsaif.
“Liza! You were at the capital?” Tigre called her by her pet name, his face shining in happiness.
Liza widened her eyes, and cast her bright red face down. Anyone looking at her would immediately understand that she was trying to hide her happiness and embarrassment. After leaving a pause of around two breaths, Liza looked back at Tigre, and then exchanged a handshake with him while her eyes with their different colors, which earned her the title 『Rainbow Eyes』, teemed with joy.
“Having heard that you’d come, I waited for you at the palace. It’s great that it only took two days.”
Afterwards, Liza reluctantly separated her hand from Tigre’s, and shook the hands of Elen and the others, too. Her expressions changed as quickly as the hands did: a complicated one for Elen, one with a certain amount of respect for Sofy, and one as if looking at a friend after having had a small argument for Mila.
When she pulled her hand out of Sofy’s, Liza nonchalantly looked at Tigre’s face. Next her eyes shifted to Elen, standing next to him. She sensed a vague feeling of discomfort. But, while unable to identify the reason for this feeling, Liza also shook Lim and Titta’s hands.
Just going by her position as Vanadis, there was no need for her to shake hands with them as the one standing above the two. However, Lim was Elen’s adjutant, and Titta served Tigre as his maid. This was all Liza needed to know.
While gently grasping Titta’s hand, the red-haired Vanadis casually asked, “There’s something I’d like to ask…did something happen between Tigre and Eleonora?”
She had asked, believing that this obedient, pure maid would be very likely the easiest target to draw out a reaction, but the effect of her question went far beyond her imaginations. With surprise and confusion dyeing her hazel eyes, Titta’s face paled, and she shook her head, obviously unsettled. This convinced Liza that something must have happened in fact.
──I wonder, what would be good to say at such occasion?
Liza gazed at Tigre and Elen, reflecting confusion and faint sullenness in her golden right and blue left eye. She was still pending on what to feel about Elen. They didn’t share a relationship allowing her to ask about the details either. However, she couldn’t suppress the childish feeling that it was sneaky for something having apparently happened between Elen and Tigre before she could make a move welling up within her.
“──Say, Urs.” Liza addressed Tigre in a casual manner.
The youth, and in addition, Mila reacted to that nickname, looking at the rainbow-eyed Vanadis. Liza giggled.
“Ah, excuse me. My bad.”
Even though she was well aware that her behavior was childish, Liza got a slight feeling of satisfaction out of it. Elen frowned, lightly glaring at Liza, but as might be expected, she didn’t do anything beyond that.
While walking together through the hallways of the royal palace, Liza informed Tigre’s party of the recent events in the capital and at court, but what caused the biggest surprise to the youth was Ilda Kurtis’ death. And on top of that, the fact of it being an accident.
“That…Lord Ilda has…?” Tigre failed to continue.
Just like him, Elen was also surprised. Liza, who told them about it, donned an expression filled with grief, owed to her close friendship with Ilda.
Tigre once again recalled the duke who had boldly approached him at the Sun Festival without dwelling on his past defeat. The youth considered it regretful that he wouldn’t be able to meet him anymore, and whispered a prayer to the gods for him.
The audience with King Victor didn’t come true.
“I’m terribly sorry, but the condition of His Majesty’s health has not been all that good most recently…” An elderly man called Grand Chamberlain Milon told Tigre, obviously disclosing a secret.
He had invited only Tigre from among the envoys to a guest room, and explained the circumstances there.
“I understand. I shall offer my prayers to the gods for His Majesty’s quick recovery.” Because of his bad condition, Tigre couldn’t be unreasonable. He altered his approach and asked, “Sir Milon, would you be so kind as to take charge of our gifts then?”
“No, His Highness Ruslan will handle this.”
Tigre tilted his face to the side as if he might have misheard.
“Pardon me, if I’m misunderstanding something, but I have heard that His Highness Ruslan recuperated from his illness just recently, so…”
“That is correct. But please do not worry. His Highness has been running the governmental affairs without any issues while supported by many people. Could I have you wait for a few days? I shall personally convey your message to His Highness.”
Going by Milon’s expression and tone, it’d be hard to believe that he’s joking. Fairly excellent officials must be working under Ruslan, Tigre assessed, and thus replied, “I leave it in your hands.”
Just then someone knocked on the door, calling for Milon from the other side. Milon bowed in apology for making Tigre wait, and walked towards the door. No sooner than exchanging a few words with the other party, he returned to Tigre with a smile betraying his surprise.
“I have great news for you, Your Lordship. It looks like you will be able to meet His Highness in person soon.”
Accompanied by his deputy delegates Gaspar and Gerard, Tigre stepped into the audience hall. Military officers and civil officials formed lines on the left and right side, and a single man sat on the throne in front of them. He possessed light blond hair and blue eyes, looking to be somewhere in the middle of his thirties. Moreover, next to the man stood Valentina Glinka Estes.
“You’re Earl Vorn, huh? I’ve also heard of your various achievements on the battlefield.” The man’s voice was cheerful, clear, and carried well within the audience hall.
His expression was lively, and there was a sparkle to his eyes. Tigre proceeded up to a predetermined distance from the throne, and went down on his knees.
“My name is Tigrevurmud Vorn. It is a great honor for me to make your acquaintance, Your Highness Ruslan.”
“That is definitely a long name for a Brunian. Doesn’t it cause you trouble in your daily life?”
Being asked something completely unexpected, Tigre reflexively lifted his head, staring at Ruslan. The prince slightly leaned himself forward as he sat on the throne, waiting for the youth’s reply with a smile curling his lips.
“It is the name of my ancestor… I have those close to me address me as Tigre.”
“That’s much easier to remember. Would you allow me to use that name on unofficial occasions as well?”
“It would be my pleasure…” Tigre barely managed to squeeze out.
Next to Ruslan, Valentina stifled a laugh by covering her mouth. For Tigre it took already all effort to not allow his manners to slip.
“Please allow me first to thank you once more for having willingly dispatched your soldiers to our country for the battle against Sachstein. I’d like you to pass on to His Majesty King Viktor that we only managed to repel the enemy forces because of the strenuous efforts of Leitmeritz and Osterode’s military forces.”
Once Tigre had said everything else he was tasked to, he had the soldiers of the delegation, who had stood on standby outside the audience hall, carry in the gifts. Ornaments such as rings and bracelets, handiwork and armors adorned with jewels, fabrics splurging on their use of multi-colored silk threads, pearls and rubies stuffed into chests, pelts, golden cups, and many other items brightened up a corner of the hall with their sparkling, causing the array of officers and officials to sigh in admiration.
“Our country’s ruler, Her Highness Regin, wishes for our countries to flourish prosperously while walking hand in hand into the future.”
“You’re right. I’m pretty sure that His Majesty will reply to this wish in a way that should give you a peace of mind, but currently he’s resting. We shall prepare rooms for you and your retinue in the guest house located at the palace’s outer perimeter until His Majesty has recovered.”
Tigre bowed his head once more.
He’s a magnificent prince with clear articulation and proper mannerism. It doesn’t look like he had been ill for eight years at all. But I wonder what Lord Eugene is thinking about this.
Tigre had spoken to Eugene for a bit during the Sun Festival. He was a gentle person who had offered prayers for Tigre’s parents, and someone Tigre wanted to meet by all means, if he was in the capital right now.
Tigre’s group left the audience hall, and when they had walked for a few steps, Gaspar stretched himself widely, whispering so that no one else would be able to hear, “Man, finally we managed to get those gifts off our hands.”
“I was quite worried whenever I thought about the possibility of the handiworks getting damaged during the trip. I’d like to be spared from ever experiencing something like this again.” For a change, Gerard agreed with Gaspar on this.
Though, Tigre shared their opinion as well.
On that day Tigre obediently slept at the guest house, just like the others. Exhaustion had accumulated on his long journey, and the tension only vanished after he had safely finished the audience, even with the other party just being Ruslan.
At dawn, Tigre enjoyed a relaxed breakfast, before deciding to head to the palace with Gaspar, Gerard, and also, Damad. It might seem a bit pushy, but Tigre wanted to get the details about the king’s condition, and if they could meet with either Ruslan or Grand Chamberlain Milon, they might be able to get a favorable statement about the friendship between Brune and Zhcted, and that was something Tigre wanted Damad to witness.
However, just as their little group was about to leave the guest house, Elen came to visit Tigre. The Vanadis was only accompanied by Lim, their faces pale with shock and nervousness. Before Tigre could even ask what had happened, Elen blurted out something unbelievable.
“His Majesty the King has passed away.”
Not only Tigre, but even Gaspar and the other two froze on the spot. After silence dominated the area for around three breaths, the youth finally managed to squeeze out some words.
“Just moments ago a messenger from the palace arrived at my place. One should show up here soon as well, I think.”
“King Viktor dead…” Tigre muttered in shock.
He was surprised when he had heard about the death of Ilda Kurtis yesterday, but the shock he suffered this time went way beyond that. Not knowing what he should make of this, Tigre asked Elen and Lim, “What’s going to happen from now on?”
“I don’t know, but…if things follow what I’ve heard, Prince Ruslan will likely become the next king.” Elen replied, her arms folded.
A crown prince inheriting the throne upon his father’s death was a common formality in kingdoms.
“I’ll go to the palace now. After all, I have to learn of the detailed account. Come with me.”
Tigre nodded. He was Regin’s representative, and as such, he might need to receive a handwritten letter from Ruslan, return to his country, and hand it over to Regin, depending on the circumstances.
The party, now grown to six people, left the guest house, trying to head to the palace at a calm pace, but in the end they all fell into a quick march.
──He was 62 years old this year, wasn’t he? When I had the honor to meet him during the Sun Festival, he looked healthy, even if he was rather thin…
Tigre recalled the face of the elderly king who had talked about various topics with him.
Considering his age, it wouldn’t be strange for him to suddenly die. Or maybe the first symptoms showed during the time from spring to summer.
However, for Tigre’s group it still happened all too suddenly.
──There’s also the death of Lord Ilda. Misfortunes really never come single…
The sky above the towering palace, as visible from where the six were, was covered by deep and thick, gray clouds.
——————- End of Part 1 ——————-
The death of Zhcted’s king Viktor proved to be true. They were told that he had caught a cold after his body had grown weak most recently, developed a high fever, and passed away in his sleep.
A dozen days flew past as the palace was busy with the preparations for the funeral service.
King Victor was given a state funeral with Prince Ruslan serving as chief mourner. All the Vanadis attended, and even Figneria, the sole Vanadis who hadn’t been in the capital at the time, rushed over after receiving the notification. Tigre dispatched an urgent messenger to Brune, and the youth himself attended the funeral as Regin’s representative.
Several days after the funeral, in the afternoon, Tigre’s party gathered in Sofy’s mansion in the capital. Unlike Elen and Mila who had few occasions to visit Silesia, Sofy owned a mansion here as she had often been dispatched as emissary to other countries. According to Sofy, five servants and maids, whom she had brought along from Polesia, usually managed this mansion.
The ones who visited as guests were six people in total: Tigre, Elen, Lim, Mila, Liza, and Olga. Seven if you added Sofy, the mansion’s owner, who had shown her guests into the living room, where they all sat around a big, round table. The maids carried in porcelain cups for everyone, and a big plate loaded with pastry. Next they poured the black tea, which Mila had brought with her as present, into everyone’s cups.
Today Tigre’s group had assembled here for the sake of information exchange. After King Viktor’s funeral, the youth’s party had split into groups, running around in an effort to gather as much information as possible. Even they, who wouldn’t get agitated easily as they had survived many very precarious situations, couldn’t conceal their uneasiness over the current situation of the capital.
As the host, Sofy looked at her guests, and spoke up first, “Does any of you wish to speak first, or should we go in order, starting with me?”
“Okay, I suppose I’ll make the start then. It’s about the recent situation in the palace. A bad atmosphere is dominating the place,” Elen said with a sullen face while chewing on a honey pastry.
Elen and Lim had borrowed a room at a suitable inn, and spent their days going back and forth between the inn and the palace.
For one thing, both were worried about Eugene, who had been their etiquette instructor. Eugene had fallen into a state of deep depression. In addition to having successively lost friends who were close to him in public and private with Ilda and Viktor, the marriage of his daughter to Prince Ruslan’s son Valeri had been mostly finalized. He said that Ruslan had happily given his consent after hearing of the situation.
“Lord Eugene has…well, it can’t be helped in his current position…but he has become unable to go against His Highness Ruslan’s words. Moreover, because he’s well aware of it himself, he has started to hate himself, and is becoming gloomier by the day.”
Wrath and and a feeling of being appalled crept into Elen’s red eyes. No matter how much Lim and her encouraged or soothed Eugene, they couldn’t cheer him up at all. Both of them were tormented by feelings of powerlessness and vexation, with faint traces of fatigue dyeing their faces.
“I guess he’ll be suspected of treachery if he shows even the faintest trace of opposition against His Highness… It must be very hard on him.” Mila’s voice and face were filled with sympathy as she placed her lips at her cup’s rim.
If Ruslan died right now, his son Valeri would become the next king. Because the ten-years-old Valeri would be too young for the throne, it’d probably become necessary for someone to take over the governmental affairs in his stead, and Eugene, Valeri’s soon-to-be stepfather, had plenty of experience in running the administration.
“In addition, there’s too many visitors tiring Lord Eugene out – old acquaintances who try to rekindle their relationship with him after distancing themselves when they learned that he wouldn’t become the next king, and new people who attempt to butter up to him. And since he can’t return to Pardu either…” Lim explained in exchange for Elen.
He was completely convinced that King Viktor had only brought him trouble at the very end, and moreover, the king passed away at the worst possible time.
“Furthermore,” Elen had suppressed her anger as much as she could, speaking with a bitter look, “Figneria has apparently taken a room in some inn as well since she’s been frequenting the palace, too.”
“I think I understand her feelings, considering the current situation of the capital.” Tigre gave his impression.
He would have likely done the same in Figneria’s place. After all it’d be extremely likely for the Vanadis, who held political and military authority, to get dragged in, if a troublesome, political strife should occur in the capital. You could only call it reasonable for her to remain in the capital, trying to get a reading on the state of affairs. However, ultimately Tigre said this for the sake of pacifying Elen. She also realized that, flashed a smile at him, and tossed the rest of the honey pastry into her mouth.
“Next I shall give you my report.” Liza said with plain unhappiness showing in her conspicuous rainbow eyes.
Just like Elen and Lim, she had also spent her days going back and forth between the palace and her inn, but the red-haired Vanadis had mostly talked with Ilda’s friends and acquaintances.
“Lord Ilda’s bereaved family and friends seem to make disturbing moves. I tried to look into it by talking with several of them, but it looks like some of them believe that Lord Ilda had been murdered.”
“Murder, eh…? Do they have any grounding for such an accusation?” Mila asked.
Liza shrugged her shoulders, “One is their belief that it would be impossible for someone as excellent at martial arts as Lord Ilda to die from falling down the stairs. They also argue that no one had actually witnessed it happening.”
Having explained up to this point, Liza expressed her heartfelt gratitude to Elen, who had been nodding as if to show her full consent of what Liza said.
“Leaving aside the first point, there’s actually another one. I hear that Lord Ilda harbored discontent over His Highness Ruslan having been appointed as successor of the crown. There’s a lot of evidence backing this. I didn’t know much about His Highness, but the more I listen to the stories about him, the more I agree with Lord Ilda.”
What caused Liza to have doubts was the process of Ruslan’s return to the palace. It was said that Ruslan had already recovered his sanity by the time when he met with King Viktor in the audience hall around two months ago, after being brought along by Valentina.
“What kind of method did His Highness use to recover from his mental illness that had been likely plaguing him during those last eight years…? Now that King Viktor died, it means only His Highness and Valentina know the answer to this.”
“Hmm, considering we’re talking about that Valentina here, it’d be way too sloppy in execution.” Elen rebuked with a fed-up expression while stressing the that.
All of the girls present here recognized the black-haired, scythe-wielding Vanadis as an excellent schemer. And in reality, Valentina had crushed General Krüger through strategy during the battle between Brune and Sachstein.
At that moment, Olga, who had been silently stuffing her cheeks with sweets, snorted as if to request permission to speak. After wetting her lips with black tea and cleaning her hands with one of the provided handkerchiefs, she said, “It might have been unexpected.”
“What do you mean, Olga?” Tigre asked with his head tilted in confusion.
In response, Olga explained while looking up to him, “Prince Ruslan being appointed as successor to the crown on the next day. They might have planned to carry out things over a long period of time.”
“Certainly, that sounds very reasonable.”
The first one to give her approval was Sofy, blinking in surprise. Putting aside her personal opinion about Valentina, Sofy evaluated her abilities highly. It would be odd as to why she would have made such a blunder, but Sofy still could agree with the idea that King Viktor’s love towards his son might have exceeded Valentina’s expectations.
“That’s the part everyone is considering strange. No matter how excellent Prince Ruslan might have been in the past, would you appoint him as inheritor of the crown without ascertaining his abilities after he was gone from the palace for eight years?”
Everyone present shook their heads. There was no way they could have nodded here. Sofy revealed a bitter, plaintive smile at that.
“I think King Victor did that out of his own volition. And that was a miscalculation for Valentina. Things might have changed though, hadn’t King Viktor passed away so quickly.” Liza wrapped up her explanation.
Next Sofy began to talk. She had also visited the palace every day, but the Brilliant Princess of the Light Flower had been interviewing those who weren’t close to Eugene or Ilda.
“Summarizing it, the current court is completely lost.”
Because Ilda died, King Viktor died, and Eugene lost most of his former glory, there was no one left capable of stopping Ruslan and Valentina. Those two were continuously bringing in new personnel from outside the palace. For those who have served at court for a long time, nothing could be more aggravating, but they didn’t have the courage to simply come out and oppose Ruslan. On the other hand, they were also reluctant about building a relationship of friendship and trust with Ruslan since they were aware of the incident eight years ago. This contradiction led to their place on court slowly eroding while they were puzzled on how to deal with this situation.
“At this rate the royal palace will completely turn into the playfield of His Highness and Valentina. Leaving aside His Highness, I’d definitely like to avoid a situation where Valentina can wield her authority as she pleases.”
If things kept heading in this direction, Valentina might become able to order Elen and the other Vanadis around in the name of Ruslan. Considering the close friendship between Ruslan and Valentina, this possibility couldn’t be brushed off as a pipe dream anymore.
“Moreover, it looks like His Highness Ruslan plans to hold his coronation ceremony at the same time as the Sun Festival at the beginning of the year. It seems he believes that the time of mourning will be over once winter passes.”
Lastly, Tigre, Mila and Olga took over the conversation. Their group hadn’t gone to the palace, but instead walked around the castle town. Sometimes they would pretend to be travelers, other times act like low-ranking nobles, going around and listening to the people talk.
“I’ve been feeling a certain anxiety caused by King Viktor’s death, but since there’s a prince that seems to be dependable, most people are feeling relieved for the time being.” Mila commented after taking a sip of her black tea.
King Victor had been ruling Zhcted for close to thirty years. Although several days already passed since the funeral, the shock was still deeply embedded in the hearts of the people. All the more so if it came to the capital’s residents who would directly look up to the royal palace everyday.
Olga, who had been asked to give her report next, poured jam into her black tea while answering with a serious expression, “Many people feel relieved. It resembles an atmosphere of having been able to shelter all the sheep before a storm hits.”
Noticing Sofy looking at him questioningly, Tigre shrugged his shoulders.
“I agree with Mila and Olga. I think the people feel relieved that there’s at least a successor.”
King Viktor did what he had to do as ruler back when he appointed Eugene as his successor. Assuming he revoked that because of his love towards his son, it’d make for a sad story.
──Even so, I guess the matter with the demons will be postponed for a while.
The Vanadis were the rulers of their respective principalities, and retainers of Zhcted, foremost. Even if the Vanadis might have the mission of fighting against the demons, it was still impossible for them to give that task their undivided attention. Much less in this situation. Probably they only had the choice between staying in the capital to obtain information as fast as possible, or immediately returning to their territory to mobilize their troops.
──We defeated Drekavac, so it’d be great if they stay low for a while.
“──By the way, Tigre, what are you going to do?”
Tigre was pulled out of his thoughts by Sofy’s question. The eyes of the Vanadis and Lim focused on the youth. When he stared back at them with a bewildered look, Mila threw him a lifeline.
“It’s because you’re a Brunian. Wouldn’t you also have the option to immediately return to your country?”
Tigre had safely concluded his task as chief delegate of the envoy. He also attended King Viktor’s funeral. In short, he had done everything he came here to do. All that was left for him was to extend his farewells to Ruslan, and set out on his journey back home.
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However, the youth shook his head with a gentle smile curling on his lips, “It might be fine to send the soldiers of the envoy’s entourage back home, but I think I should stay in the capital for a bit longer.”
“For what reason?” Lim confronted him.
Clearly guessing her intention, Tigre answered with a laugh, “The envoy’s objective is a friendship with Zhcted. Now that Ruslan is going to become the ruler, it’s my duty to find out what kind of person our friend is going to be, right? This also includes grasping this country’s state of affairs, I’d say.”
“That makes sense. Even if I’m only speaking for Leitmeritz, I think it’d be a big help if we could have the hero of a friendly nation stay with us during this critical time.”
Listening to the two, smiles formed on the faces of the Vanadis. With this, the official procedures for Tigre’s stay in Zhcted were done.
Around the time when Tigre and the others were discussing their future moves at Sofy’s mansion, Valentina was absorbed in her own thoughts while idling in one of the palace’s gardens. Since Ruslan was currently resting, she didn’t have to be at his side.
──Up to here everything has gone as planned.
Things were advancing along her expectations, but she had been faced with two miscalculations.
First, King Viktor had recognized Ruslan as his successor too readily. Valentina thought that it’d likely take more time to show that Ruslan would have no problems with being entrusted to handle the governmental affairs, and expected that they’d need to increase the number of supporters first, but it all went so smoothly that Valentina had to actually adjust her own schedule.
Second, King Viktor’s death. She had anticipated that the old king wouldn’t last long anymore when she had an audience with him after her return from Brune, but she hadn’t expected him to pass away this quickly.
But then again, there was likely no one who could have foreseen these two things. Moreover, Valentina had already finished fine-tuning her plan.
Ruslan would become king, and sooner or later the crown and throne would be passed on from his hands to hers. Different from Brune, Zhcted had past precedents of queens ruling the land. If someone were to mention her royal lineage, Valentina was still a distant relative, but this would be irrelevant either way. Queen Valentina of Zhcted. That future was gradually coming closer. However, she still had enemies that needed to be purged, and thus she had to take the appropriate measures.
——————- End of Part 2 ——————-
When Valentina came back to her office, she got a visit from Figneria.
Offering her a chair, Valentina asked with a smile, “Have you considered the matter I proposed to you the other day?”
Valentina had requested Figneria to support Ruslan. The current palace was in a state where not all noble lords stood behind Ruslan. Seeing how King Victor had appointed Ruslan as the next king on an official occasion, and with Eugene having acknowledged this appointment, no other competitors for the throne existed in reality, and it should be fine for Ruslan and Valentina to simply wait for the mourning period to end while preparing for the coronation ceremony.
However, not only did some of the nobles still support Eugene, a number of them also kept their distance from Ruslan and Valentina, staying deeply wary of them. Ilda’s family and friends even harbored open animosity. The opposition against Ruslan, which Valentina had wanted to extinguish before it gained momentum, kept smoldering under the surface, far from vanishing.
In this situation, a clear call of support for Ruslan by those with substantial power would be the quickest way to stifle any resistance. Also, it’d be advisable to not have those people as opponents down the line of Ruslan’s reign.
For example, Sofya Obertas was clearly vigilant of Valentina. Of course, if asked, she would likely support Ruslan. However, in the meantime she’d definitely watch Valentina’s moves. Valentina also couldn’t be careless about Elen and Mila, who were close to Sofy.
For this very reason, she had approached Figneria instead. Figneria’s reply was simple and concise.
“I have a condition.”
“Please enlighten me.”
“I want land.”
Valentina blinked in surprise as if Figneria’s blunt demand had been unexpected. She hadn’t considered her a woman who would give such a low-brow response. However, Figneria’s next words alleviated some of Valentina’s doubts.
“I’d like to expand Legnica southwards.”
South. In other words, she wants to close the distance to Leitmeritz.
Valentina cracked a smile, answering, “I got it. I can’t promise anything, but I will try to bring it up with His Highness.”
Two days after the meeting at Sofy’s mansion, Liza was invited by Valentina. While keeping her guard up, Liza followed the call and visited the palace.
Valentina greeted Liza in one of the parlors, “There’s something I’d like to request from you.”
Valentina’s request was exactly the same she had extended towards Figneria several days ago. To be precise, she was asking Liza to openly announce her support of Ruslan.
“Even without going out of my way to do something like that, I plan to loyally serve His Highness.”
Upon Liza’s reply, Valentina explained that the open declaration bore importance, speaking as if she was divulging a secret.
Liza laughed cheerfully, asking Valentina, “I wonder what kind of compensation I should demand in response?”
“I can’t give you any land, just so you know.”
Valentina’s comment was likely derived from her talk with Figneria. Legnica was situated south of Liza’s principality, Lebus, and east laid Valentina’s Osterode. She couldn’t consider land as an option like she had done in Figneria’s case.
“For the time being, let’s have you owe me one,” answered Liza.
The red-haired Vandis was thinking that Valentina had likely denied territory as an option for the sake of protecting her own. If Valentina was planning to fight Sofy, for example, she should form friendly relations with Liza and Olga, whose territories were close to Osterode, in advance, even if just as a precautionary measure.
Moreover, Valentina revealed that Figneria was participating in this as well.
“I think the three of us can restrain any arbitrary actions of the other Vanadis by supporting His Highness Ruslan.” Valentina said with a smile, overcast by a shadow.
Sofy had been slowly walking through the palace’s hallways. Her face missed its usual smile, and a premonition of the coming storm clouded her beryl-colored eyes. It was an afternoon, a few days since the meeting at her mansion. The sky was dark, blanketed by a carpet of gray clouds, and looking as if rain might fall at any moment.
Today Sofy visited the palace to meet and talk with three civil officials she was acquainted with. However, despite having made a prior appointment, she was turned down because of urgent matters when she arrived at the palace. Moreover, by all three of them.
As might be expected, even Sofy felt disappointed by this. It reminded her of Ilda who had died in an “accident.” She had planned to ask around her other acquaintances, depending on the situation, but now that it had come to this, danger to her life would only increase the longer she stayed in the palace.
I should leave this place as soon as possible. However, since it’d be bad if it becomes too obvious that I’m flustered, I’ve got to do it calmly and systematically.
While trudging on, Sofy pondered about Valentina’s objectives once more.
Valentina is definitely no fool. With her help, Zhcted might continue to flourish in peace just like it has done so far, even with Ruslan as its king. In Zhcted’s history there are several precedents of Vanadis staying next to the king, and helping in their reign. Considering it from this angle, the actions of the Illusory Princess of the Hollow Shadow aren’t odd by no means.
However, Sofy couldn’t discard her doubt whether Valentina Glinka Estes would really be satisfied with just being the king’s counselor.
──But, there’s no evidence supporting this pet theory of mine whatsoever.
As far as Sofy knew, Valentina had never openly defied the king, even if she might have occasionally shown a slow response to the king’s orders. The thinking to prioritize one’s own principality was prevalent among all Vanadis.
Leaving the hallway, Sofy’s feet took her into a garden. She felt like she wouldn’t be able to endure the choking tension welling up within her, if she didn’t take a rest. This garden had no benches or other resting places, nor did it possess any flower beds. Various flowers were wildly blooming all over the place while partly surrounded by a small open space blanketed with a layer of trimmed grass.
The sky was overcast, and the layers of her gray mantle were fluttering in the wind. Probably because of that, even the autumn flowers coloring the garden somehow seemed to lack vividness.
──Although we might have talked about preempting Valentina’s aim, a suitable flagbearer is needed if we’re going to oppose His Highness Ruslan and Valentina…
However, as far as Sofy was concerned, she didn’t know of anyone fitting such a role. Ilda, who would have had the potential to stage an opposition, had left this world, and Eugene silently supported Ruslan. The other candidates of the crown succession line lacked ability and authority.
Sofy let her thoughts drift while absentmindedly gazing at the flowers which were an expression of chaotic beauty.
──Otherwise, we might as well… I wonder, should we use the move of bringing in a ruler from a completely unrelated place?
At that point, the blond Vanadis interrupted her deliberations. Lifting both her hands high into the air, she shortly yelled, “──Light Flower!”
Cutting through space in response to its owner’s call, her draconic tool manifested alongside a golden radiance. The instant she grasped the staff, the area above her head darkened. At the same time, a strong impact pierced her hands, transmitted through her draconic tool. A jarring, metallic sound reverberated.
“Aww, I almost had you.” A joyful voice reached Sofy from above.
Its owner emitted a gentle breeze as they took a large jump backwards, landing at a spot around ten steps away from Sofy. Clad in a pure-white dress adorned with huge roses, the attacker grasped a sinister scythe of red and black colors in her slender arms. Black hair flowed down all the way to her hips.
Valentina stood there with a smile you’d point at a close friend.
“That’s a rather dangerous way to greet someone.” Sofy revealed a similarly friendly smile while holding her golden bishop’s staff at the ready. The loops at its end jingled. “Though I’d be happy if you could explain yourself.”
“To keep it simple…you’re in the way, Sofya.” Valentina answered while keeping up her smile unchanged.
In contrast to her, Sofy erased her smile, and glared at the black-haired Vanadis as a warrior. In her mind she laughed at herself for having been spot on with her apprehensions.
Surrounded by the autumn flowers, the two Vanadis kept cautiously closing their distance.
While the two Vanadis were facing off in the royal palace, Liza walked through the slightly dirty back alleys of the capital by herself. Clad in an overcoat made out of deer pelt, and wearing a hat covering even her ears, she pretended to be a traveler. Her right eye was closed with make-up applied to its eyelid so as to fake a swelling. It was her own way of disguising herself. Her usual black dress and draconic tool were concealed beneath the overcoat.
──It sure is a surprise for Valentina to know of such back alleys…
Liza frowned while walking through an alley squeezed in between buildings, barely allowing a single person to pass through. Her grimace stemmed from the trash scattered on the ground, and the nauseating stench hanging in the air.
Yesterday around evening, Valentina’s messenger visited Liza’s inn, and informed her of his employer’s words, telling Liza that Valentina wished to speak with her somewhere other than the palace. Because the number of people coming and going in the palace was too high, Vanadis stood out all the more. With this, the idea of a private talk was out of the question. Accordingly Valentina wished to change their meeting place to outside of the palace. An open, cleared space, where Valentina and Figneria would wait for Liza, was supposed to exist at the end of this route.
Once Liza looked up, she saw a thin line of sky, laden with heavy, gray clouds hiding the afternoon sun, drawn between the buildings.
──I wonder if I should have told someone about it.
That thought suddenly crossed Liza’s mind, with Tigre, Elen, or Mila as possible candidates. But Liza shook her head, discarding her own notion. Tigre and Elen might have asked to accompany her if they had suspected something. Besides, Liza also had pride in her own abilities. She didn’t want to rashly depend on someone else, and thus was okay to keep it like this.
She came out at an open space. Punctured barrels and broken jars were piled up in a corner. A faint trace of a rotten smell rose from the ground. And, a woman wearing an overcoat of the same color as Liza’s and a black hat with a wide brim leaned against a wall. Figneria.
“Just you?” Liza called out to her, feigning calmness.
Figneria lifted her face slightly. Her black eyes stared at the rainbow-eyed Vanadis, bearing a single, clear intent. Liza stopped. She fixed her posture, and drew her weapon at the same time as she powerfully stepped in. Both of them moved without a single shred of hesitation. Figneria’s hat danced through the air, her overcoat fluttering.
In response to the Princess of the Thunder Swirl’s shout, the black whip in her hand transformed into a cylindrical weapon. Alongside a flash, an odd noise resembling wind being torn apart resounded when the whip clashed against the two swords. The smell of burned air tickled the noses of both Vanadis.
Faster than Liza could force her back, Figneria leaped backwards. While restraining Liza with the small, golden sword in her right hand, Figneria skilfully grabbed the hem of her overcoat with the left hand as she held the small sword with the scarlet blade, and flung it off, obviously bothered by it.
“What bad luck.” While flashing a smile that would make anyone shiver, Liza also discarded her overcoat and hat on the spot. Countless, golden light particles had expanded beneath the overcoat, protecting her body.
As creations by Thunder Swirl’s power, each and every single light particle was a lightning endowed with powerful heat. If Figneria had suppressed the black whip with one sword while cutting at Liza with the other, the blade would have been repelled by the lightning particles, and Figneria might have suffered a severe counterattack.
“I wonder, could you be so kind as to tell me what you’re intending to achieve with this?” Liza glared at Figneria with her odd eyes while returning Thunder Swirl into its usual shape.
The black-haired Vanadis stared back at Liza without a word. Her calm eyes told Liza that she should probably understand even without spelling it out explicitly.
──So it means, there’s no point in talking it over.
They had either seen through Liza joining them with the intent of betrayal, or they had invited her as comrade with the intent to isolate and kill her from the very start. Liza didn’t know which of both applied here, but what she fully understood was that she’d likely never leave this back alley as long as she didn’t fend off Figneria first.
A fearless smile formed on Liza’s lips. It wasn’t her style to yield obediently when challenged by an opponent. She was able to forge that trait against Elen. She felt some anxiety over her right arm which hadn’t fully recovered yet, but the battlefield was no place where such things mattered.
With a spirited yell, Liza brandished her whip. Figneria dodged the lashing, which approached sharply while drawing a skillful curve, by swiftly lowering her body. In no time, Liza turned her wrist around, unleashing a second lash. Figneria dodged that one as well by rolling across the ground. However, when she raised her body, she felt the wall behind her.
Liza switched her whip from her left to her right hand. In this narrow space, she had an overwhelming advantage when it came to combat distance. She intended to defeat Figneria crushingly by driving her on so that Figneria wouldn’t get another chance to get close.
An impact. Valitsaif’s tip warped after being repelled by the two blades. Liza twisted her wrist. The whip drew a spiral, swooping down on Figneria without a rest. The wall was smashed apart alongside the sound of stone crumbling. Liza widened her eyes.
Figneria’s body was airborne with the swords ready to strike. After she had repelled Liza’s whiplash, Figneria had jumped, and kicked off the wall, furthering her jumping height through the recoil. Her physical abilities were astonishing. Then she landed, stooping. Using that momentum, Figneria dashed, closing the distance to Liza in a breath. Liza barely managed to reel Thunder Swirl back for defense while retreating backwards.
The two draconic tools clashed. Raging flames burned the atmosphere, and lightning dazzled visibility. Being overwhelmed by the impact, Liza rolled across the ground, sensing an intense numbness in her hand. Standing up, Liza roughly wiped away the dirt on her cheek. Then she noticed Figneria staring her way without a single change in her expression, swords ready to lunge.