The lodging of Tigre in the capital of Silesia was a boarding house located at the edge of the royal palace’s compound. Or to be precise, it should be called the lodging of Brune’s delegation, but a few days ago, the youth had sent the majority of the delegation back home. Seeing how they had finished their official duties, Tigre had no intention to have them stay around for what could be called private reasons.
The ones still using the boarding house were three men who could be called Tigre’s direct subordinates: Gaspal Rodant, Gerard Augre, and Damad. The three met in front of the house at dawn on the day after the battles of the Vanadis. The rain had ceased during the night, allowing for a cloudless, azure sky to dye the firmament.
“In the end, Tigre didn’t come back last night, huh?” Gaspal commented.
Possessing black eyes and black hair, which recently had started to show traces of gray, he was acquainted with Tigre since childhood. In the first place, it’d be more appropriate to call Tigre and Gaspal sworn brothers than friends. For this reason, the timbre of his voice carried worry about Tigre as his big brother, and not so much as his subordinate.
“Indeed. A messenger arrived late at night, telling us that he’d stay over at Lady Obertas’ mansion.” Gerard answered while rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.
His clothes were put in order, but his quirky, dark brown hair had clear traces of messy bedhair.
Damad, the sole Muozinel among the three, hid his body beneath a thick overcoat. Him staying gloomily silent since a while ago wasn’t owed to him being dissatisfied with something, but rather him getting affected by the chilly weather. It wasn’t so cold that he, who had trained himself as a soldier, wouldn’t be able to bear it, but it was cold enough to lower his communicativeness significantly.
“What should we do? Head over to the mansion for the time being?”
“Let’s grab a bite somewhere first. I’m not talking about wine here, but I’d like to drink something warm.” Gaspal suggested out of concern for Damad.
The Muozinel smiled faintly, but didn’t comment on it.
The three men stepped out on the streets. A thin layer of ice blanketed the roadsides, a frozen memory of last night’s rain.
“Are we going to pace around the capital today as well?” Damad asked no one in particular after they took around ten steps.
These three, and Rurick, a knight of Leitmeritz, had been putting effort into gathering information in the capital in the same way as Tigre. They had formed two-man-cells, Gaspal with Rurick, and Gerard with Damad, heading into streets different from those visited by Tigre’s group.
“I’d say that depends on Tigre’s situation.” Gaspal answered while blankly gazing at the people frequenting the streets.
“If he’s been placed into troublesome circumstances, we have to help him out.”
“I thought the circumstances were already troublesome enough, though.” Gerard flashed a sarcastic smile, lowered his voice, and continued, “For Vanadis to fight each other in the city, albeit in a back alley, wakes the wish in me to tell Lord Tigre that we ought to pack our things by today and head back to Brune.”
“I agree with you on that one, but he definitely won’t make such a call. We should get ready to be prepared when push comes to shove.”
The person crossing both Brunians’ minds was Princess Regin, the ruler of Brune. Rumors said that Regin became so angry that all those seeing her cowered away in fear, back when Tigre went missing on his way back from Asvarre. Gaspal and Gerard hadn’t personally experienced it. Moreover, for those knowing the usual Regin, it was a sight extremely difficult to imagine. However, both of them were aware that she loved Tigre as a woman. People like Prime Minister Badouin also anticipated Tigre to become Brune’s next king.
If something should happen to Tigre, the two likely wouldn’t be able to escape responsibility.
“If you hate it so much, you just need to tie him up and drag him back to Brune, don’t you?”
In response to Damad’s words, Gaspal shook his head, and Gerard shrugged his shoulders.
“It depends on the situation, but if we did something like that, he’d never listen to us again.”
“I’d like to excuse myself from incurring the wrath of our future king.”
Even while saying all that, it wasn’t resignation or dissatisfaction that showed on their faces. If one tried to put their expressions into words, it’d be something along the line of, “That’s why I must stick close to him.”
“By the way, what about you? You’re not planning to head back to your homeland?” Gerard looked at Damad with curiosity gleaming in his eyes.
Tigre had promised Damad that he’d release him once their duties were over before leaving Brune. And since their official duties were done now, Damad should be free to go. It wasn’t necessary for him to walk through Zhcted’s capital with Gaspal, Gerard, and Rurick.
After letting a time of three beats pass, Damad answered with a frown, “I need to ascertain Zhcted’s state of affairs with my own eyes.”
In the last few days, Damad and Gerard had visited the Muozinel merchants and craftsmen living in Silesia, and listened to their stories. According to them, infighting seems to have broken out in Muozinel. Or it might be armed disputes by now. Of course the condition of the neighboring countries should be of interest for Muozinel, and anyone holding detailed information on such things would likely be welcomed with open arms as a valuable asset. For that reason, Damad had to remain in the capital for a little bit longer.
Hearing that explanation, Gerard laughed out as if having heard something comical, “I guess we’ll keep it at that.”
Damad looked glum because of that reaction, but he didn’t file any protests. Achieving military exploits under his lord 『Red Beard』 Kureys Shahim Balamir, gaining fame, and living in luxury had been the dream of Damad who was born as fourth son of a poor farmer family. Even nowadays, this dream remained unchanged. However, he had reached a point where he thought that it might be okay to make a little side trip on the way to realizing his goals. He felt that she should have at least that much leeway.
Sofya Obertas’ mansion was wrapped up in a hectic atmosphere. Thanks to an unexpected visitor. Seeing Sofy entering the hall to welcome him, the visitor revealed an apologetic smile.
“Sorry for dropping by so early in the morning, Sofya.”
“No, not at all. I feel honored to have the opportunity to welcome you in my humble abode, Your Highness.” Sofy bowed respectfully.
The one standing in front of her was Prince Ruslan. It was yesterday late at night that Ruslan’s messenger had visited Sofy’s mansion. After confirming Tigre’s presence, the messenger had asked whether they knew about Liza’s whereabouts.
After Sofy informed the messenger about Liza’s stay in her mansion, he left after saying, “His Highness the Prince is going to visit tomorrow.”
──Still, I hadn’t expected him to show up here so early in the morning.
It was a time where the city’s residents would still take their breakfast. Ruslan had hidden his identity by wearing an overcoat with the hood lowered deeply over his eyes, and came here from the palace, accompanied by merely two attendants. It was a carefreeness unthinkable of someone holding the position of prince.
Once Sofy instructed a maid to lead the prince’s attendants to a guest room, she guided Ruslan to Liza’s room. As Rainbow Eyes only woke up a little while ago, some pain and languidness still weighed down on her body, but after hearing about the circumstances from Sofy, she had decided to put a shawl on top of her night clothes, and meet the prince.
Ruslan watched Liza raising her body on her bed with a pitying look after entering the room, and told her to lie back down without any need to mind him.
“Elizaveta, it’s great to see that you survived. I’m terribly sorry for my incompetence to have put you through such troubles.”
“I feel grateful for Your Highness’ deep consideration. But, it’s nothing you would need to worry about. It’s a fact that I suffered a shameful defeat as a Vanadis. Besides, no one can predict what other people think or how they’re going to move, and cope with it appropriately in advance.”
Ruslan nodded with a bitter smile at Liza’s words, “I’ll keep it in mind. I ordered Figneria under house arrest. Currently I’m having the person, who provided the secret information, investigated, too. Depending on the evidence, I plan to decree a fitting punishment. I won’t tell you to calm your anger because of that. But I’d like you to contact me first should you have something on your mind.”
Ruslan implicitly told Liza to not act rashly. This might have been the very reason for his visit, but Liza decided to heed his request.
“I also don’t feel like deliberately starting wars. If things can get resolved by talking it over, I will gladly choose that method under Your Highness’ mediation.”
As a matter of fact, rage and enmity towards Figneria lurked in Liza’s heart. However, the prince of her country had made the effort to come all the way to her while only bringing two attendants along. Moreover, early in the morning. She thought that she should honor his sincerity, and besides, her not wanting to start any wars was true.
Ruslan left the room after telling Liza to properly rest up. Him not spending too much time on his visit was likely his consideration towards her as an injured person.
After thanking Sofy, who had been waiting in the corridor, Ruslan asked her, “Could you lend me a room? There’s something I’d like to discuss with Earl Vorn.”
Thus it led to Tigre, who had been woken up by Titta moments ago, meeting with Ruslan in one of the guest rooms. The maid with the chestnut-colored hair had quickly fixed Tigre’s bedhair with practiced hand moves. Tigre and Ruslan sat down on leather-covered chairs, facing each other in the room with its calm atmosphere. Maids carried in a bottle of wine, two silver cups, and plates filled with cheese and roasted beans, placed all of these down on the table next to their chairs, and left.
“I guess it’s the first time for us to talk like this ever since you arrived at the royal palace with Brune’s delegation.” The prince’s tone and expression were somewhat stiff.
Tigre showed a gentle smile to soften the mood as much as possible, and replied, “Your Highness, we aren’t in public here, so please feel free to call me Tigre.”
A smile crept on Ruslan’s lips. He stood up from his chair, stepped up to Tigre, and shook his hand. Tightly grasping Tigre’s hand while overlapping both his hands, Ruslan bowed deeply.
“Tigre, allow me to thank you from the bottom of my heart for having saved a precious Vanadis of our country.”
Tigre was confused before feeling happy. Ruslan’s hands were dry, and he had a stronger grip than his outward appearance gave away. It seemed as though his feelings of gratitude were contained in the warmth passed on to Tigre through his hands.
Pulling himself together after a very short pause, Tigre honestly expressed his feelings while paying attention to not grimace out of pain, “Your Highness, I thank you for your kind words, but I didn’t do much more than protecting an important comrade-in-arms.”
“Comrade-in-arms…?” Ruslan lifted his face, casting a curious look at Tigre.
The youth nodded, “Elizaveta Fomina is my benefactor and someone who stood on the battlefield next to me.”
“I’ve heard that you’re close to the Vanadis of our country, but…” Ruslan spoke up with keen interest dyeing his voice, and let go of Tigre’s hand.
After sitting back down on his chair, he poured wine into the two cups before passing one to Tigre. Tigre accepted the cup with a short word of thanks as it was unimaginable for him to refuse it. Ruslan lifted his cup at eye level and toasted. As Tigre wasn’t overly fluent in the Zhcted language, he imitated the prince.
“Tigre, if you like, could you also tell me about the other Vanadis besides Elizaveta?”
“Very well. I’ll shorten it down a bit to not take too much of your time.” Tigre responded with a smile.
He believed that Ruslan must be curious about the Vanadis, who were chief vassals of his country, being close with someone from another country. Wetting his lips with wine, Tigre began to talk, starting with the Battle of Dinant two years ago. He then continued with Brune’s civil war, his trip to Asvarre, and the period of him working for Liza after losing his memories. He omitted the part about the demons as he judged that it’d be too complicated to fully explain them to Ruslan.
Ruslan carefully listened with a serious expression without interrupting even once, but in the middle he became lost in the stories with his eyes sparkling. He asked Tigre to expand on certain details so often that it caused the youth to be baffled.
As Tigre eventually came to an end of his recount, Ruslan leaked a sigh full of admiration.
“I see. Comrade-in-arms is a perfectly fitting term.”
“In regards to this matter, I didn’t have any intent to save Lady Elizaveta as chief delegate of Brune’s delegation, but as someone saving their comrade. I’d like you to think of it like that, if possible.”
Tigre’s remark also made it clear that he had no plans to divulge the incident publicly.
Understanding that, Ruslan smiled, “I’ve understood your wish. Well, I’d like to give you a private present for your friendship that you exhibited towards a chief vassal of our country. Is there anything you wish for?”
“I’m very grateful for your kind hospitality. However, since I can’t come up with anything on the spot, would it be alright for me to think it over for a while?”
Tigre said so because he guessed that the private present mentioned by the prince also served as a bribe for secrecy. Apparently he had no choice but to come up with something.
After putting on a stiff expression, Tigre carefully spoke up, “Your Highness, about Lady Valentina…”
The instant Ruslan heard her name, deep wrinkles formed on his middle forehead. Tigre flinched in his mind, but bracing himself, he continued to speak.
“Normally it’s nothing I should concern myself with, but please pardon this little interference of mine. It looks like there are some who harbor feelings of anxiety of Your Highness’ heavy reliance on her.”
Tigre felt how a bitterness, which was difficult to describe, spread within his mouth. Of course he felt angry at Valentina, but she had saved him many times on the battlefield. Thus Valentina was yet another of his comrades-in-arms. Above all, Tigre wasn’t a Zhcted. It would be a different matter if Valentina were to target Brune, but since this wasn’t the case, he was in no position to readily voice his opinion.
Ruslan silently closed both eyes. He had the option to get angry and harshly rebuke Tigre. Even if he did, it’d be Tigre’s fault for interfering with another country’s domestic affairs as an outsider. Moreover, Tigre wouldn’t be able to protest against getting remonstrated for trying to meddle under the guise of an advice.
However, without doing any of that, Ruslan took a sip of his red wine, and then replied calmly, “I’ve been told the same by other people. Speaking of others involved in this matter, Earl Pardu gave me his counsel many times as well. Do you know of him?”
Tigre nodded while feeling lightly surprised, “His Majesty Viktor was as kind as bringing us together previously.”
“I see. It’s because father…His Majesty deeply trusted Earl Pardu.” Ruslan narrowed his eyes, obviously fondly reminiscing of the past, but immediately tightened his expression. “I wonder if you’re aware of it, but there are fairy-tales describing how children, who strayed into the world of fairies, came back from playing with the fairies for around half a day just to find that 50 years had actually passed with their parents and friends long gone.”
Tigre blinked several times, baffled by the sudden topic change. He confirmed Ruslan’s claim while still unable to grasp where he was going with this.
A light shadow crossed Ruslan’s eyes, “I’ve heard that my mind had actually been ill over a period of eight years, but…I don’t remember any of what happened during that time. No, I think it’s more precise to say that I don’t understand it.”
Grave irritation, distress, and anxiety dyed Ruslan’s voice. As Tigre didn’t respond due to the strong, surging emotions in Ruslan’s eyes, the prince continued, “On that day eight years ago, I had been working on official documents in the palace from morning till noon. His Majesty had entrusted me with a part of the governmental affairs back then. After taking lunch with the civil officials, I was assailed by a strong sleepiness, and thus laid down for a bit. It was scheduled for me to meet envoys of various countries in the afternoon…” Ruslan pointed his blue eyes at Tigre, but he didn’t look at the youth, “However, when I tried to get up, I found myself resting in a temple’s room. My body felt quite sluggish and stiff. My head didn’t work either. I even thought that I might be watching a dream. The one who appeared there was Tina…Valentina.”
Ruslan described how Valentina nursed him, and informed him of the current state of affairs. At first Ruslan didn’t want to believe her, but after being shown his own face in a mirror and leaving the temple to see an acquaintance of his from far away, he accepted her words as truth. Or rather, he had no choice but to do so.
“Apparently Valentina looked for someone, who got healed despite suffering from the same illness, and arranged the same medicine as they had taken. She told me that I’d need to take the medicine for roughly one month.”
Ruslan shifted his eyes to the window which was brightened by the sun. While gawping in that direction, he continued, “I hadn’t expected that the same thing as in the previously mentioned fairy-tales would happen to me. All those dear to me have grown old or passed away…”
Each time he learned something new from Valentina, Ruslan received another shock. Without hurrying him, she proceeded to slowly talk to him, waiting for him to regain his calm. And then she arranged Ruslan’s return to the palace, and made sure that he would be able to receive an audience with King Viktor.
“At the audience with His Majesty, I was surprised first and foremost rather than happy. The King Victor in my memories was someone who emitted dignity and vitality by just sitting on the throne. However, the man in front of me he had visibly weakened, thinned, and shrunk.”
Once the audience came to an end, Ruslan considered leaving the palace. He had painfully realized how many things he had lost during the eight years of sickness. What dated back several days for him was a matter of eight years for the other people. He believed that he wouldn’t be able to fill this wide gap. However, while answering to the various questions asked by King Viktor, something changed in Ruslan’s heart. He decided that he must support the king as a prince, and as a son.
“It was easy to imagine that it’d cause chaos at the court if I were to return now. But once I asked Valentina and others, I heard that Asvarre was fighting against Sachstein, that Brune was ruined because of wars against other countries, and that Muozinel had just recently been defeated by Brune. I also anticipated that Earl Pardu would cooperate with me. Above all, I had Valentina with me.”
Ruslan’s expression clearly told Tigre that his trust in Valentina was close to absolute.
──I guess that’s only to be expected.
Tigre stared at the prince with understanding written on his face. When he was completely locked up in his own world, Valentina had shown Ruslan a path he could tread on to walk towards a new future. It was unimaginable that he wouldn’t trust her. If Tigre had been in Ruslan’s shoes, he might have relied on Valentina in the same way.
“So far there had been precedents where Vanadis served as the advisors of kings and princes. If that girl used her relationship with me to get her family high-ranking positions at court or to fill her own pockets, she and I should be criticized for it, I believe. But, that’s not happening. It’s not strange for me to appoint personnel to make it easier for me to run the government, don’t you think?”
“Excuse me, Your Highness. I’m terribly sorry for having caused you discomfort while not being aware of these circumstances.” Tigre bowed sincerely.
Of course there were some questions left unanswered. How could Valentina have known of the symptoms of Ruslan’s illness? How could she make this country’s prince take medicine for a whole month despite him being confined in a temple?
However, it was plain as day that Tigre would offend Ruslan if he pressed him for answers. In the worst case, Ruslan could interpret it as slander against a loyal retainer and friend. In such a case, things wouldn’t just affect Tigre alone. It might even be seen as Brune having taken a hostile stance towards Zhcted.
“Valentina might follow her very own plans as well.” After a pause of several breaths, Ruslan spoke up again, “Her influence will naturally grow if I’m installed as the next king. I plan to treat the other Vanadis as impartially as I can, but I don’t intend to slight those who are supporting me.”
Tigre nodded in reflex. Two years back, when he fought to protect Alsace, Elen lent him her strength because of her trust in him, and her own interests. If he were told by someone else that she was shady and that she might have had some ulterior motive in helping him, he’d likely become angry.
──What I should do isn’t to keep Valentina away from this man.
Suddenly Tigre came up with a certain idea. Taking a sip of the wine in his cup, he left a little pause, before saying, “By the way, Your Highness, about the reward you said you wish to give to me…”
“Did you think of something?”
Partially because he was relieved over the change in topic, Ruslan leaned forward while biting into a piece of cheese.
Tigre answered with a happy smile, “Could I have you hold a hunting feast?”
“During winter…?” Ruslan dubiously looked at Tigre, obviously unable to infer the real intention behind this. “We will likely find little game even if we visit the usual hunting grounds, and the lords must be busy with their winter preparations, so I don’t think that we’ll be able to find many willing to participate. Wouldn’t it be better to choose something else?”
In addition, Ruslan found it difficult to do anything too flashy since they were still observing the mourning, although he didn’t voice it out. Such a sad hunting feast wouldn’t serve as much of an entertainment.
But, Tigre shook his head, “Please leave the hunting of the necessary amount of game to me. It might not seem so, but I do have a bit of confidence in my hunting skills.”
If Elen and the others were present at this moment, they’d have probably smiled wryly at Tigre’s comment. But, since Ruslan wasn’t aware of Tigre’s hunting skills, he kept it at a little nod.
Tigre continued, “It’s also unnecessary to gather many people. Lets keep it at a modest hunting feast, including the permission to use the hunting grounds managed by Zhcted’s royal family. Would that be fine with you?”
“What is your aim?”
“I’d like to provide an occasion for you and Earl Pardu to deepen your friendship.” Being directly asked by Ruslan, Tigre answered without hiding anything. “I think that Your Highness is aware of my country’s current situation. The wars have finally come to an end, and we must focus our power on restoration. We wish Zhcted, our friendly neighbor, to remain peaceful. For this reason it’s necessary that people learn of your close friendship with Earl Pardu. That’s what I think.”
Silence spread between the two men once Tigre finished speaking. After around ten breaths had passed, Ruslan moved. Entrusting his body to the backrest, he exhaled deeply while looking up to the ceiling.
“Don’t give me so much trouble.”
As Tigre was puzzled about the meaning behind the prince’s words, Ruslan showed a somewhat bitter smile, “I also worried whether nothing could be done about my relationship with Earl Pardu. Although it can’t be helped under these circumstances, I’ve approached this issue too reservedly. It’s because I’d like him to return to his former self.”
“Former self, you say?” Tigre asked, having his curiosity piqued.
In reaction, a gleam of nostalgia crept into Ruslan’s eyes.
“He was a man of integrity who didn’t shirk away from saying what he believed he had to say, even while knowing that he’d incur His Majesty’s wrath. It’s something that happened in the past, but when a servant terribly dirtied His Majesty’s clothes out of carelessness, His Majesty had a fit of anger, and was about to slay the servant on the spot, but Earl Pardu stopped His Majesty by wedging himself between the two.”
“How did Earl Pardu persuade His Majesty?”
“Earl Pardu meticulously listed all achievements of that servant. And when His Majesty asked, 『Are you telling me to pardon the wrongdoing of this man?』, the Earl boldly answered, 『Please reconsider, Your Majesty』, while standing in front of His Majesty who had drawn his sword.”
The staring contest between king and retainer ended with King Viktor giving in. The king asked, “Then tell me how to resolve this.” Eugene replied, “How about giving him one of your attires as reward for his achievements so far?”
“Basically he told His Majesty to give the servant the clothes, if he couldn’t stand the dirty attire to such an extent. His Majesty yielded while laughing, but if Earl Pardu had only interrupted from the side without standing in front of His Majesty, I don’t think that His Majesty would have complied.”
Tigre sighed in admiration. Once again he realized the reason why King Viktor had appointed Eugene as his successor. Ruslan watched the youth’s reaction gleefully, but quickly put a serious expression back on.
“My current authority is anything but stable. That’s why Earl Pardu refrained from giving me advice. While thinking that we must meet sooner or later, both of us delayed it under the pretext of being too busy… I’ll gladly accept your assistance. Thanks”
“I’m the one who has to thank. You have my gratitude for lending an ear to my opinion.” Tigre placed his hands on his knees, and bowed.
Ruslan extended a hand, “Could you become my friend, Tigre?”
Tigre looked full of surprise at the prince due to the sudden request. Ruslan continued speaking in a way that made it clear that he wasn’t joking, “I’d like to chat with you again, once things calm down a bit. Next time I’d like to hear your hunting stories. I didn’t hunt myself overly much, but His Majesty often talked about it. You and I could be parent and child going by age, but if you don’t mind it, I’d be happy to listen.”
Tigre hesitated for around two breaths, then he roughly wiped the sweat of his palm with the hem of his attire, and clasped the prince’s hand.
“Come to think of it, His Majesty mentioned that he held hunting dogs and raised falcons when he was as old as I’m now.”
Ruslan replied, “I see,” with a broad smile. Tigre also beamed a smile on his face as he nodded.
I’m looking forward to getting along with you, Your Highness.”
The grip of Ruslan’s hand was powerful, just like a while ago.
The one dispatched to Valentina’s mansion as an observer was Baron Pergament, currently 27 years old. Without a territory, even a baron wouldn’t be able to receive a governmental position at the court. Hence he used the last few years to amass achievements by serving as governor in towns and villages. Rather than capable, he had a quite diligent character, and was selected for this job for his evaluation as being neutral, neither belonging to the Ruslan faction nor to the Eugene faction. He himself was also quite aware of that fact.
It was the day after the battle between the Vanadis that he visited Valentina’s mansion accompanied by ten soldiers. Valentina welcomed him in her bedroom because “her physical condition had deteriorated.” Pergament had the soldiers wait in front of the mansion, meeting with Valentina by himself.
Valentina had entrusted her draconic tool to an elderly attendant and had him wait in a corner of the room. Sitting up in her canopy bed, she bowed to Pergament as soon as he entered her bedroom.
“I’m terribly sorry that my ineptitude has led to troubling you, Baron.”
Pergament nodded with an expression he deliberately kept formal.
“Please take good care of yourself. But, I’d like you to understand that our side can’t neglect the duty assigned to us out of consideration for your health, Lady Vanadis.”
Explicitly putting all this into words might be, for better or worse, very typical of this man. Valentina answered, “I will keep it in mind,” with a meek attitude.
“Sorry for the suddenness, but could I have you hand over your draconic tool?”
The baron’s eyes wandered from Valentina to her attendant and the draconic tool he was propping up with his shoulder. Draconic techniques couldn’t be used without a draconic tool. Thus confiscating the draconic tool from a Vanadis held a profound meaning. The attendant lifted up the long-handled scythe, shouldering it, and stepped forward. Pergament received the draconic tool with its frightening shape in both hands.
Fixedly staring at the scythe, he voiced out his surprise, “Hmm, it’s not as heavy as it looks.”
“Allow me to tell you one thing in advance, Baron.”
Valentina’s violet eyes had a cold gleam.
“That draconic tool ── 『Tearing Void of the Sealed Calamity』 Ezendeis is mine, but at the same time it’s a priceless treasure of Osterode. It’s a weapon I succeeded from my predecessor alongside the principality, and which I’m going to hand over to the next Vanadis.”
“I’m aware of that. What about it?”
As Pergament looked up, knitting his eyebrows, Valentina squinted faintly.
“If something should happen to Ezendeis while it is under your care, Osterode itself will become your enemy.”
“Are you intending to threaten me?” Pergament’s face stiffened and he glared at Valentina.
Exactly because he didn’t possess an official rank or a territory, he reacted to those words very sensitively. Valentina shook her head, causing her black hair to sway.
“No. I’m just asking you to treat Ezendeis with utmost care. Besides, nothing I told you is a pretense. I’d be troubled if you blamed me later for not having told you ahead of time.”
“I shall keep it in mind.” With that curt reply, Pergament left the bedroom.
He headed to the living room, and stored the draconic tool in a wooden box that had been prepared over there.
A Vanadis could summon her draconic tool at will. Based on that, they adopted the measure of Pergament checking the box three times a day. If the draconic tool were to be gone, it’d be regarded as Valentina having summoned it, resulting in her receiving further punishments.
“House arrest for a Vanadis who’s said to only bend her knee in front of His Majesty the King, huh? I guess it’s at least a grace for her spending the arrest in her own mansion.” Pergament muttered to himself.
The harsher versions of house arrest involved having to stay at the house of another family, which could force an even stronger mental strain. For Valentina’s house arrest not having taken that shape might have been Ruslan’s concern to not agitate the people and soldiers of Osterode too much.
Afterwards, Pergament called the ten soldiers, and confirmed several things with them, such as the number of maids and servants, the mansion’s plan, and the number of exits. Although he had heard all that information in advance, Pergament wasn’t satisfied as long as he hadn’t checked everything with his own eyes.
──One elder servant, one old and one young maid.
With all three living in the mansion, the old man and woman basically didn’t leave the mansion while the young maid was in charge of things like shopping. The number of exits amounted to three: one at the front, one at the back, and one in the kitchen.
Lastly, after he personally checked every room, Pergament gave the soldiers their instructions. Although he had ten of them at his disposal, it might be better to consider the number to be five since he was going to use them in night and day shifts. He stationed one soldier at each exit, and had the remaining two be on standby inside the mansion. Should something happen, those two would be the first ones to move.
Pergament himself would stay in the living room. Three times a day – morning, noon, and evening – he would visit Valentina’s bedroom to make sure that she didn’t act strangely. He also had to check the box with the draconic tool.
This was the beginning of Valentina’s house arrest.
After Pergament left with the draconic tool, Valentina threw herself down on the bed in bad manners, and started to flip the pages of the book she had put down next to her pillow. Her expression was cheerful, lacking even the slightest hint of bad, physical health.
The elderly attendant breathed out in relief after seeing the state of his lord, and left the bedroom after bowing. Confirming that the door had closed, Valentina stopped flipping the pages, and peeked underneath her bed. A long-handled scythe of jet-black and deep crimson colors laid there, hidden in very dim light. It was her draconic tool Ezendeis.
“Still, I think it’d be safer to wrap you up in a big cloth or something similar.” Placing a finger on her lips, the black-haired Vanadis revealed a beautiful smile.
What she was looking at right now was the real draconic tool, whereas Pergament held onto a fake that looked completely identical. She had a skilled craftsman create the fake in secret around the time when she got used to her life as Vanadis. No one besides her knew of its existence. Even not the maids and servants in this mansion. She believed it’d be better for her to be the only one in the know.
Valentina raised her body, and laid back down on the bed.
“I suppose I’ll stay obedient for around two or three days.”
She had already played her next hand. It was the reason why she had attacked Sofy yesterday. Her being ordered under house arrest, and a man like Pergament being chosen as her overseer was well within the range of her expectations. She had also arranged everything so that she could get the information she needed without leaving the mansion while also being capable of giving out instructions as necessary.
Moreover, depending on the abilities of the soldiers serving as her warders, she believed that she might be able to slip out of the mansion without even relying on Ezendeis.
After reassessing the general outline in her mind, she raised her body once more, and returned to reading. Valentina happily enjoyed the time of her turning the pages while immersing herself in the story.
Ruslan’s permission was necessary to meet with Figneria Alshavin who was under house arrest in a room of the royal palace. But then again, as there didn’t seem to exist anyone in the capital who would try to expressly meet with her, Tigre was immediately granted permission for the next day, once he requested it.
In the morning of that day, Tigre and Lim visited the palace while wearing formal dresses. Tigre wore a blackish, silken attire. His hair had been carefully put in order, and a dagger of very high quality hung at his waist. Thanks to Titta’s efforts, Tigre looked like a proper noble youth.
Lim wore the bluish uniform of a military officer. Instead of a skirt, she had put on trousers, and a rapier was visible at her hip. The rubies used for her silver hair ornament and her tunic somewhat softened the overly stiff impression.
The one welcoming the two was Grand Chamberlain Miron. The plump chamberlain, whose body was clad in a loose version of the governmental official attire, answered Tigre and Lim’s humble behavior with the expression of a good-natured old man, “Please do not worry. With you being a friend of His Highness, I could not leave this task to a normal servant.”
After handing over their weapons, the two were led through a very long hallway by Miron.
“By the way, what did you talk about with His Highness, Earl? As you might expect, I was surprised when I heard that His Highness became your friend.”
Miron’s question was very reasonable. Tigre replied with a smile, “I told His Highness that I had protected my comrade-in-arm during the recent event. Also, about how I stood by her side on various battlefields, fighting together with her. I dare say that His Highness was very pleased with that.”
A person in the position of Grand Chamberlain should be well aware of the battle between the Vanadis. Hence Tigre believed that Miron would understand him if he phrased it like this.
“I see. His Highness is in a position which makes it difficult for him to become friends with others. It is impertinent for me to speak of this, but please take good care of His Highness.”
Eventually, Miron stopped in front of a certain room. Armed soldiers stood on both sides of the door. The chamberlain spoke with one of the soldiers, resulting in the soldier unlocking the door.
“Lady Vanadis has been staying beyond this door.”
After thanking Miron, Tigre and Lim entered, just to run into a long and narrow passage with stone walls on both sides. Lamps were suspended from the ceiling. Their illumination made it obvious that two chairs had been set up in the middle of the passage. A small hole was drilled into the nearby wall.
“I guess they’re telling us to speak with her through the wall.”
“It makes sense since she might take us hostage.”
Of course Figneria’s weapons had been confiscated, but a Vanadis could always summon her draconic tool. Besides, considering her quick-wittiness and agility, they couldn’t lower their guard, even with a wall between them.
Lim and Tigre sat down on the chairs. The hole in the wall was right at the height of their faces, and had a size of around two clenched fists lined up next to each other.
Peeking through it, one could immediately tell that the room on the other side was fairly spacious. A small table was set up in the middle of the room, and the lamp placed on top of it offered enough brightness to illuminate the whole place. A carpet had been laid out on the floor, and a fireplace was installed on one side. Likely it was a room for the sake of locking up nobles, seeing how it had been prepared as a guest room.
However, with the absence of windows, there existed no light sources besides the lamp and the fireplace. Close to the table were two chairs and one big sofa. Figneria was sitting on the sofa, staring in the direction of the hole.
“Elen isn’t with you, huh?” Those were her first words.
Suppressing her emotions, Lim answered, “Under the current circumstance, it was judged that it wouldn’t be smart to have you meet with her.”
It wasn’t a lie. But, it wasn’t the only reason. Lim had judged that their conversation wouldn’t lead anywhere if they let Elen meet with Figneria.
In the past Figneria had killed Vissarion, the leader of the Silver Gale Mercenaries and the foster father of Elen. Although it had happened in a one-on-one battle on the battlefield, Elen and Lim couldn’t come to terms with it.
Figneria seemed to laugh under her breath at Lim’s reply. But she immediately subdued her laughter, and turned her almond eyes at Tigre. The youth calmly took on her fierce, stabbing gaze that might have caused any timid person to flinch away.
“There’s some things I’d like to ask you. If you can answer me, I’ll listen to your story.”
“Figneria, the one wanting to talk with you is me.” Lim barked at her with a harsh voice.
However, Figneria didn’t care at all.
“So what is it going to be?”
Tigre gently restrained Lim’s arm as she was about to get up from her chair in reflex. Taken aback, Lim looked at Tigre’s face, and sat back down with an apologetic look. Her dull, golden hair weakly hung down within the dim light. Lim put in an effort to remain calm, but it seemed hard on her since she had a fateful bond with Figneria.
Tigre called out to Figneria through the hole, saying, “Go ahead.”
Considering the issue with Elen, and moreover, the incident with Liza, Tigre didn’t think all that well of Figneria, but picking a fight with her would kill any meaning in coming here.
“How long have you been using the bow? When did you touch one for the first time?” Figneria’s question was straightforward, and very concise.
“According to my father, I apparently used a bow as a substitute for toys when I reached an age where I knew what was going on around me. Personally I don’t really remember when, but I went on my first hunt at the age of nine. Back then my father protected me, and there were many companion-like people with us as well.”
“When did you go hunting by yourself? And what did you kill?”
“At the age of 12. I left the mansion early in the morning, rode a horse through the mountains until the sun went down. Many animals managed to escape, but I brought down one dove and one weasel.”
“So you’re a genuine hunter despite being a noble, huh? What was your biggest game so far?”
Tigre hesitated how he should answer that.
“If limited to bow and arrow, I think it’d be the snow leopards or big bears living in the Vosges Mountains.”
Four years ago Tigre encountered an earth dragon during his hunt. He managed to barely defeat it by using the terrain to his advantage, but he didn’t feel like counting the dragon as “game.” Figneria continued her questioning without trying to probe any deeper.
“I’ve heard that you can shoot an arrow over a range of 300 alsin, but since when did you become capable of that?”
“──Figneria.” Unable to just watch, Lim cut into the conversation from the side.
A strong wariness dwelt in her eyes. To Lim it was obvious why Figneria was curious about all this. She was certain that Figneria was trying to look for Tigre’s weaknesses in preparation for the time then she’d fight him.
“A little bit more.” Figneria bluntly refused Lim’s warning without even looking in her direction.
Wavering to decide, Lim turned her eyes towards Tigre. The youth told her that it’d be alright with a smile, as if to give her peace of mind, and turned his attention back to Figneria.
“As far as I can remember, it was around the age of 15. But──” Tigre calmly told the truth, “──right now I can shoot an arrow up to a range of 400 alsin.”
In this instant, Lim witnessed something extremely valuable: Figneria’s eyes widened, and she became speechless.
In the first place, being able to shoot an arrow over a range of 300 alsin was already plenty weird. But, suddenly adding another 100 alsin to that value wouldn’t make only her flabbergasted.
“That’s a nice bluff. You’d be good mercenary material.” Figneria cracked a joke after several moments had passed.
Her putting on a disappointed look right afterwards was owed to her thinking of her own remark as childish.
“If you prepare a location, I can prove it to you, you know?”
“No, no need,” Figneria shook her head, “If you say so, I’ll believe you. It looks like my information was completely outdated.”
Now it was Tigre’s turn to shake his head.
“I ended up acting all high and mighty, but it’s been only recently that I became able to extend my range. I think it’s inevitable for you to not be aware of that.”
Upon hearing his words, Figneria stared at Tigre with a marveled look.
“You’ve been answering quite honestly despite me being the one asking. Why? Are you confident that you can prevail even if I come up with a move to win against you?”
“Because this was our deal.” Tigre replied without losing his composure. “You said you’d listen to our side if I answered your questions.”
“What if I lied about that? And even if it wasn’t a lie, I might simply give you random answers.”
“I don’t mind. As we interact, I’ll learn about your character.”
Figneria widened her eyes a bit, and a smile crept on her lips.
“You’re right. It’s just as you say.” After saying so with a voice full of admiration, Figneria closed her eyes as if to ponder about something.
Tigre and Lim didn’t say anything either, waiting for her next words. When around ten breaths had passed, Figneria opened her eyes again. Different from moments ago, seriousness shone in her black eyes as she gazed at Tigre.
“It’s my last question. ──When your arrow hits albeit it usually shouldn’t be possible, do you believe the victories gained by it to be your own?”
Tigre knitted his eyebrows. Even more than the strangeness of the question itself, it seemed as if Figneria had her very own idea of an answer for this. Without answering right away, Tigre pursed his lips and pondered. Figneria silently observed the youth without hurrying him.
──An arrow that hits albeit it usually shouldn’t be possible, huh?
He had experienced this on countless occasions. Even before he got used to handling the bow, and also afterwards. In his battle against Duke Thenardier, he shot and hit an arrow that truly shouldn’t have hit under normal circumstances. The wind had slightly altered the arrow’s trajectory. The duke’s sword cut at empty air, and the youth’s arrow embedded itself in the duke’s forehead.
“Those victories…no, even without winning, I think that what I’ve gained is my own.” Tigre said at the end of his pondering and worrying. With his usual attitude, dumping the polite speech.
“Why do you think so?”
“My will dwells in my arrows.”
Figneria smiled. It was unclear whether she had accepted Tigre’s answer, but at least she appeared to be satisfied with it.
“You allowed me to hear something very interesting.”
And then Figneria shifted her eyes to Lim, “I’m grateful to the Earl, but if you’re planning to bore me with tedious talk, I’ll ask you to go back now.”
“That part of you hasn’t changed at all, has it?”
Lim responded with a cold voice and look. And yet, a silent fighting spirit burned in her blue eyes. The black-haired Vanadis erased her smile as an inexplicable tension formed between the two.
“Could I have you tell us why you attacked Elizaveta Fomina?”
“There was some secret information about her betrayal. Didn’t you hear about this?”
“So I’ve been told, but there are two aspects that bother me about this. First, you didn’t explain the part about the secret information to Elizaveta-sama, nor to Earl Vorn who showed up later. I’ve heard about the circumstances back then from both of them, but you had more than enough time to explain your reasons.”
Without looking perturbed at all, Figneria answered the instantaneous follow-up question, “Assuming Lebus’ Vanadis had truly schemed to start a rebellion, it’d be very unlikely for her to honestly admit so even if I had asked her. As for the earl, I believed that I shouldn’t talk about such a topic to a foreigner like him.”
“I hear that you tried to launch an attack on Earl Vorn, though.”
“At first I thought that he came to assist Lebus’ Vanadis. However, after seeing how he acted, I judged that I misunderstood.”
Listening from the side, Tigre was astonished by Figneria’s barefaced lie, but Lim’s face remained completely unmoving. With the calm expression of an observer, she stared at Figneria so as to not miss even the slightest change in her mannerism.
“What you’ve gained out of that judgment is the hostility of Lebus’ citizens, the derision of the noble lords close to Elizaveta-sama, the discredit of Legnicia’s citizens, the stigma of being put under house arrest, and the discomfort of not being able to leave that room.”
“You’ve got any other business with me?”
Although Lim didn’t change her expression upon Figneria’s short question, she needed a moment until she was ready to reply.
“But then again, you gained Valentina’s trust with this, didn’t you?”
Inside the dim room Figneria seemed like she stifled a laughter, and answered in a tone as if it was completely irrelevant to her, “Come to think of it, there was that as well, huh? Either way, it’s never bad to be trusted.” After casting a glance at Tigre, Figneria looked back at Lim, and added as if it was some random trivia, “If you know where you rank in strength among the seven Vanadis, it becomes easier to weigh what you can and cannot do. During my time as mercenary the pecking order was often decided by duking it out.”
Lim was puzzled, not knowing what Figneria was suddenly talking about, but in the next moment she swallowed her breath as she grasped the meaning behind her words.
While tightly clenching the fists on her knees, she asked for confirmation, “You’re saying you started a battle for the sake of testing Elizaveta-sama’s strength?”
“No. Just as I’ve told you earlier, I attacked her because of the information of her betrayal. However, going by my past experiences, I believed I’d learn my opponent’s strength if we fought.”
If she knew Liza’s strength, she could use that as a basis to draw conclusions about the power of the other Vanadis. Since Vanadis possessed draconic tools, and thus draconic techniques, it’d be difficult to make a clear distinction about the differences of their individual abilities, but if it came to the questions of whom to fight and with whom to ally, this might serve as criterion to make a decision.
“That doesn’t sound right.” Lim said with a grave look, “There’s another aspect that bothers me about this incident… Someone like you should have been able to predict what situation the things listed by me would produce, if you attacked Elizaveta-sama. Even if it allowed you to measure the strength of the other Vanadis, it wouldn’t be worth all of this.”
Just like Elen had described her as someone moving out of self-interest, Figneria was someone possessing a calculative thinking. In the first place, a mercenary moving around by herself without belonging to a mercenary band wouldn’t survive for long without at least this much predictive ability.
“Your actions put Legnicia in jeopardy. In the worst case, it might trigger a war between Legnicia and Lebus. Just what did you believe you’d be able to gain by risking that much? Did Valentina promise you some kind of collateral?” Lim leaned forward as she pressed Figneria for answers, obviously having gotten worked up while speaking.
The people of Legnicia mentioned that Figneria was running her government well. Lim wondered why Figneria would choose a path that might drag them into the turmoils of war.
“──I think you’re overestimating me,” Figneria answered curtly after staying silent for a short time, “Until last year I had been nothing more than a simple mercenary. I merely believed that I might be given territory as reward if I successfully managed to kill a traitor.”
Lim was certain that this was a lie, but even if she were to state so, she knew that Figneria wouldn’t admit it.
“Figneria, I intend to offer my service as mediator so that Legnicia and Lebus won’t fight each other. Getting you to cooperate in this is──”
“Keep your own station in mind.” Figneria interrupted while appearing to be flabbergasted.
Lim frankly admitted her own mistake, and bowed while apologizing. Currently the two definitely didn’t share a friendly relationship. Even if Lim moved in order to corner Figneria, using her position as mediator, Figneria herself wouldn’t be able to learn of it, let alone do anything about it, while under house arrest. Considering that possibility, it was unthinkable that Figneria would entrust such a task to Lim.
Lim looked at Figneria with a bitter expression. If not for something quite unexpected, she’d never be able to unveil Figneria’s real motives.
──Is she saying that she doesn’t plan to avoid a war?
Suddenly a certain scene of the past surfaced in Lim’s mind. In some bar, Vissarion and Figneria talked about something across a table. The other mercenaries didn’t involve themselves with those two. It’s because they knew that it was a complicated talk which wouldn’t garner any interest with them as they wouldn’t be able to understand the topics anyway. Elen and Lim were in the same bar. Vissarion had allowed them to drink wine or mead as long as they associated with the mercenaries, so he had them sit in a place where he could keep an eye on them. Lim recalled what Vissarion discussed with Figneria back then.
Figneria frowned at that word which abruptly left Lim’s mouth.
“What are you talking about?”
Lim didn’t fail to hear the faint trembling accompanying her voice. However, before confronting Figneria, Lim tried to carefully verify whether this memory could be applied to Figneria’s actions, or whether it was just her imagination.
──I have nothing to prove this. But, likewise I’ve got nothing else I could throw at her either.
Lim lifted her face, fixing her eyes on Figneria.
“In the past you talked about your dream with Vissarion, didn’t you?”
The instant that name left Lim’s lips, the space between the two trembled as if having frozen.
“I don’t recall having told you anything about that, though.”
“I’ve listened to your talk back then from the side. I remember it in fragments. But then again, I didn’t quite understand what you were talking about at that time.”
It was after Elen had become a Vanadis that Lim started to think about the content of that talk.
“Are you planning to put that dream into reality?”
“I think that’s impossible.” Figneria immediately declines. “Someone in the position of a Vanadis can’t do something like that. You should be well aware of that.”
Without answering, Lim stared at Figneria with eyes clad in suspicion, anxiety, and a single determination. With that, the battle of words between them came to a close. Figneria had no will to keep talking, and Lim had judged that she had asked everything she ought to.
Lastly, Tigre addressed Figneria once again, “What I’m about to tell you might sound completely unbelievable. I won’t mind even if you dismiss it as a silly prank with a laugh. However, please make sure to keep it in mind.”
With that as preface, Tigre told her about the demons. He thought that Valentina might have told her about it, but seeing how Figneria was a Vanadis either way, he believed that he should share that information with her.
“Demons…?” Figneria knitted her eyebrows, apparently not having been told anything about demons by Valentina.
Although she immediately recovered from her surprise, she still looked at Tigre with eyes full of distrust.
“It doesn’t look like you’re trying to pull some prank here, but…”
“All of the other Vanadis have encountered demons and fought them. Same applies to Alexandra Alshavin, the previous Vanadis of Legnicia.”
Seemingly feeling uncomfortable, Figneria stirred within the very dim room. She seemed perplexed how to interpret what Tigre had told her.
The youth continued, “I’m terribly sorry if I caused you any distress with this. I don’t plan to ask you to cooperate with us in regards to the demons. It might sound repetitive, but it’ll be plenty if I can have you at least remember this matter for now.”
Tigre was sure that she probably wouldn’t believe in the existence of demons as long as she didn’t see them with her own eyes. Still, he thought that he should at the very least warn her.
After hesitating for a short moment, Figneria told Tigre and Lim, “Got it,” causing both to breathe out in relief.
The sun was nearing its zenith when Tigre and Lim stepped out of the royal palace. Although a cold wind was going, the sky was blue, and a faint heat could be felt on one’s skin in sunlit places.
Lightly tapping the shoulder of Lim, who had a stiff expression, Tigre grinned and suggested, “Want to take a little break somewhere before we go back to Sofy’s mansion? I’ve become hungry, too.”
Cheered up by his smile, Lim’s lips faintly curved up at long last as she quietly gave her approval.
They bought some appropriate drinks and food from a stall at the roadside. Their newly obtained provisions consisted of a flat roasted dish of roughly sliced and grated potatoes with egg added to them, called flat-fry, mutton skewers, a roasted dish which had onions and chicken meat rolled up in a layer of kneaded wheat, and sour juice in earthenware cups.
Afterwards, the two headed to a nearby plaza. Several benches that had been cut out of stone were set up at the edges of the plaza with its flattened, level ground. Tigre and Lim sat down on a free bench. Children played with a round cloth ball and skittles in the center of the plaza.
While biting into the mutton skewer that used salt as the sole seasoning, Tigre casually asked, “What kind of dream does Figneria have?”
Lim’s expression darkened as she lowered her eyes at the cup with kwas in her hands. Tigre waited for her while chewing on the mutton as he expected that she would tell him sooner or later as long as he gave her some time to gather her thoughts.
Around the time when he had finished his first skewer, Lim spoke up, “Lord Tigrevurmud, how much do you know about Vissarion?”
“I’ve heard that he was the leader of Elen’s and your mercenary band, that he dreamed of building a country, and that he died before being able to accomplish that dream.”
“…How much do you know about Vissarion’s dream?”
“I heard from Elen that he wanted to build a country where everyone could live with smiles on their faces while being able to pull through any freezing coldness without needing to be scared of bandits, beasts or starvation.”
Tigre considered those to be magnificent intentions. His father had told him something similar. All of those were things a ruler should keep in mind.
“You forgot the a prospering coming and going of people.” Lim laughed while finally looking at Tigre. With an expression full of mixed feelings as she seemed to bear with the pain of old wounds while recalling a time long past, she stared into the distance, “The only one who understood Vissarion’s thinking among those of the mercenary band was Eleonora-sama ─ Elen. And even Elen couldn’t come up with any ideas how to turn that dream into reality. Though I believe that it was inevitable if you consider her age and the environment back then…”
“Did Figneria understand it?” Tigre asked quietly so as to not interrupt her reminiscence.
Lim nodded, “Vissarion was a foolish man who opened his heart to anyone, but it seemed like he got along with Figneria especially well. I think that Figneria also considered Vissarion to be more than just a mercenary comrade. Otherwise she likely wouldn’t have kept Vissarion company in his stories each time she met us.”
Tigre agreed without voicing it out. Figneria wasn’t just an enemy for Lim and Elen. It might be for that very reason that both harbored such strong emotions towards her.
“And just as Vissarion gained a conversation partner in Figneria whom he clearly told about his own dream, I think she also formed her own dream after getting influenced by Vissarion.” Lim took a little bite of her draniki, chewed on it slowly, and gulped it down. “If you interpreted Vissarion’s dream as a country with improved domestic affairs, Figneria’s dream would count as an antipode in a certain way. What she came up with is a country specialized on foreign campaigns, or in other words, bringing prosperity to the country by continuously starting wars with the neighboring countries to expand its domain.”
Stealing goods through conquest and looting, kidnapping people, and threatening through money and resources – by displaying one’s military might to the surrounding countries, it’d give the other countries the impression that it’d be smarter to concede and compromise than to strike back or resist. If that country managed to always seize the initiative by forestalling the other countries while making sure to ally with some countries so as to not get surrounded or isolated, it might become a grand, powerful nation. Of course, if such a country were to repeatedly go to war, the number of soldiers would decrease, despite the soldier’s quality rising. But then again, it’d be possible to bolster the ranks by training the kidnapped people into soldiers, just like Muozinel did with its slaves.
After having listened to Lim’s explanation to the end, Tigre pulled a face as if having drunk an exceedingly bitter wine. He unintentionally shivered, feeling that the temperature around him had suddenly dropped. Figneria’s dream sounded to him like the rambling of a madman.
“Something like that is supposed to work as a country…?”
“If you look at historical records of various countries, most countries adopted such policies during their phases of growth and expansion. Of course plenty of countries perished in the process, but you should avoid labeling this as a bad method by just looking at the examples of failure.” Lim answering in the tone of a teacher wasn’t just because she had regained her usual calm, but also because she perceived the rejection to the idea revealing itself on Tigre’s face. “Let me tell you just so that you don’t misunderstand. I don’t wish for you to follow such an idea, Lord Tigrevurmud. You have your own dreams and ideals. And I’ll gladly offer you my help in walking down the path you chose.”
Taken aback, Tigre stared at Lim, turning embarrassed by his own shortcomings. Even if he’d never choose the path dreamed of by Figneria, he should at least be aware of it, if he wanted to be a statesman in the future. Looking somewhat awkward, Tigre thanked Lim while scratching his cheek.
“I suppose you’re right, Lim. I’ll pay attention to it. Please allow me to keep relying on you from now on.”
Lim cast her face down with her cheeks faintly tinged red after being exposed to Tigre’s smile. Then she cleared her throat to pull herself together, and returned to their topic.
“I can’t come up with any other answer that it’s what she desires, even if it exposes Legnicia to danger. But, just as Figneria mentioned herself: it’s impossible for her to realize her own dream at the current stage. It’s because the whole idea builds on the question of what kind of country she wants to create.”
The preamble here would be for Figneria to think up and decide on policies as queen and move the soldiers in accordance with those. However, although the lord of a principality possessed the right of self-government, the Vanadis were still subject to the king.
Two years ago, Elen had gone to the capital and requested permission from King Viktor to be allowed to intervene in Brune’s civil war. Vanadis, the retainers of the king, had to follow such formal procedures.
“However, if she could resolve that issue…by…let’s say, having the next king yield all authority over wars to Figneria for example, things would be different.”
“That means, you believe Valentina has promised her such an authority, and asked her to attack Liza?”
“If you think back on Figneria’s statements, there was a remark suggesting as much.”
The part about her own ranking in the hierarchy of strength among the seven Vanadis – as far as Lim understood her, Figneria basically had no interest in such things.
“It was only during her times on the battlefield that she tried to create pecking orders. But, once a war ended, she wouldn’t drag it out. Turning this around, her referencing pecking orders would mean that she’s assuming a war is going to take place.”
There was no need for Figneria to explicitly spell this part out. After all she hadn’t changed her stance of having attacked Liza because of some secret information about Liza’s betrayal. It wouldn’t have been a problem even if she had remained silent.
After groaning in admiration at Lim’s deep analysis, Tigre tilted his head in confusion, “But, why did Figneria tell us about her own expectations, albeit in a roundabout way? I mean, she could have played dumb even in regards to the matter with her dream.”
“That’s because of you, Lord Tigrevurmud.” After quickly eating the last remaining piece of fried chicken in her hand, Lim revealed a gentle smile. “You have sincerely responded to Figneria’s questions. That’s why she also conceded to some extent, I believe.”
Tigre revised his opinion of Figneria in his mind. Having said that, she still possessed many parts that were difficult for him to accept, and thus he simply answered, “Anyway, it’s great if the information can be of any use to you, Lim.”
“It goes far beyond just being useful.” Lim turned her whole body towards Tigre, and shook her head violently. “If you hadn’t been present, Lord Tigrevurmud…I would have likely been unable to draw out any information at all from Figneria. I’m truly thankful for your assistance. And I will definitely return that favor someday.”
“Your thanks is more than enough for me. You’ve already helped me on so many occasions, Lim.” Tigre said with a laugh, and extended a finger towards Lim’s face after noticing a crumb stuck to her mouth, removing it with a casual movement. He only noticed her staring at him with blushing cheeks when he tossed that crumb into his own mouth.
Widening his eyes, Tigre tried to justify his action in panic, “No, you see, that just now…some time ago I did the same when I was dining with Elen, so I just…”
“I already thought that it was something along that line.” Lim covered her mouth with a hand, averting her eyes.
It was a gesture to hide her embarrassment, happiness and her inability to deal with it after having to hear about the fondness between her lord and her lord’s lover.
An awkward atmosphere hung between Tigre and Lim. The ones blowing it away were two men.
“Just when I thought I knew those faces, spell me surprised to find you two here, Lord Tigrevurmud and Lady Limalisha.”
The one calling out to them cheerfully was Rurick. He was a knight of Leitmeritz, a friend for Tigre, and a subordinate for Lim. His marvelous bald head duly reflected the sunlight, giving anyone the impression that he felt no chilliness even beneath this wintery sky.
“Excuse this guy for getting in your way.” Gaspal bantered in a jesting tone.
Tigre smiled wryly, leaving it at a shrug. He, who was like an older brother for Tigre, had previously teased Tigre over his relationship with Lim as well. Even if Tigre were to give some lame excuse here, it’d just have the opposite effect.
Both men wore thick overcoats. Together with these two, Gerard and Damad still walked around the streets of the city, continuously striving to gather information.
“Let me have some of that, will you?” Because of their longstanding, close friendship, Gaspal extended a hand towards Tigre’s draniki. Once the youth nodded with a smile, Gaspal tore off a piece and tossed it into his mouth. As it apparently suited his taste, his face lit up with a broad smile.
“You want some too, Rurick?” Tigre held out a piece of his draniki towards Rurick.
The bald knight accepted the offer with thanks, but when he met eyes with his superior, Lim, he refrained from asking her the same.
“Did you hear any strange stories?” Lim, who had recovered her footing while the two were chewing on the draniki, asked with an indifferent tone and her usual, unsociable face.
In response, the Brunian and the Zhcted looked at each other, causing Tigre to raise an eyebrow.
“Could you tell us, no matter how trivial it might seem?”
These last days, Tigre and the others hadn’t gathered any information. Tigre and Lim had spent their time on preparing for their meeting with Figneria after putting in the request with Ruslan. Elen had gone to Eugene, asking for his cooperation with the hunt. Sofy had applied for permission to use the palace’s archive, and consolidated the information they had previously gathered in Brune. Mila, Olga, and Liza had been helping Sofy.
For those reasons, the task of information gathering had been completely left in the hands of the four men.
“Tigre, allow me to confirm something first.” After letting his eyes wander across their vicinity, he carefully asked, “There were battles between Vanadis in the palace and the city, but a gag order should have been imposed, right?”
Upon Tigre’s nod, Rurick’s expression turned grave, “Either case has turned into big rumors. It looks like the people didn’t find out the details on which Vanadis fought, and thus all Vanadis have become targets of the rumors.”
This time it was Tigre and Lim’s turn to look at each other. Leaving aside the battle between Sofy and Valentina in the palace, no one should know about the battle between Liza and Figneria. That battle unfolded in a back alley, and the ones who rushed onto the scene were only Tigre, Mila, and Olga. Tigre had draped Liza in his overcoat, and carried her to Sofy’s mansion. Because of the rain, they didn’t pass any other people on the way.
“We should interpret this as someone knowing of the circumstances deliberately spreading those rumors.” A strong wariness crept into Lim’s eyes.
Tigre asked Gaspal, “Did you hear anything about the reason why the Vanadis fought?”
“Yeah, various stuff such as they competed over His Highness Ruslan’s favor, it turned into a brawl over the affection of a certain noble, the Vanadis split into Ruslan and Eugene factions and fought each other, or they had a conflict going to begin with which simply erupted because of King Victor’s death…”
“The one finding the most support among the people is the story revolving around the affection of a certain noble. I mean, nothing is as juicy as the love affairs of other people.” Rurick reported with an unconcerned look.
Him saying this, as someone having several lovers in Leitmeritz, carried a weird persuasiveness.
Gaspal continued, “Moreover, this particular rumor has a continuation. Several nobles, who got wind of the rumor, have apparently called for soldiers from their territories for the sake of protecting themselves. And in fact, some folks looking like private soldiers of nobles have been spotted walking across the streets. Very likely, their numbers are growing by the day.”
Seeing the soldiers of other nobles, some nobles would definitely believe that they ought to call their own soldiers as well. And even if each noble only called for ten soldiers, it’d quickly turn into a hundred soldiers if just ten nobles gathered their troops. That would be a number capable of causing havoc in the capital.
“You don’t know who spread the rumors, do you?”
“If it’s spread this far, it’s impossible to track the source. Besides, assuming those rumors were spread intentionally, I think it was done by several people. Even if you caught one or two, I dare say, it’d be meaningless.”
Tigre groaned at Gaspal’s remark.
──Just who has done something like this? Is it Valentina’s handiwork?
Tigre immediately suspected. But he denied that idea right away. Not because she was in the middle of house arrest, but because it’d actually harm her. If it became publicly known that Vanadis had fought in the capital, it’d damage the authority of Ruslan, the current ruler. This should be inconvenient for Valentina who was planning to secure a firm position under his rule.
Tigre tried to bring up his thoughts with Lim. She pondered about his words for a moment, and then nodded lightly.
“Essentially, I agree with your view on this, Lord Tigrevurmud. But, I don’t think that we should discard the possibility of Lady Valentina being the one behind this.”
Several interpretations of the fights’ reasons appearing as rumors on the streets meant that it’d also be possible to produce the theory of the Vanadis having fought after being dragged into an intrigue by Eugene. In such a case, Eugene might bear the full brunt of the damage, despite such theory being removed from reality.
“For now, let’s go back to Sofy’s mansion and discuss this with everyone.”
They had just finished their meal anyway, so Tigre and Lim stood up, and left the plaza with Gaspal and Rurick.
Walking next to Rurick, Tigre asked, “Rurick, are you going to come with us to the mansion?”
“I appreciate the invitation, but Lord Gaspal and I will make a few more rounds. Which reminds me, this is something I’ve heard from Damad’s companion, but──” Rurick lowered his voice. It was very typical of him to avoid bringing up Gerard’s name. “Have you heard the story of the man who lost his shadow?”
“Is it some kind of fairy-tale…?”
Rurick shook his head, seeing how Tigre pulled a doubtful face, “It seems like that man indeed lost his shadow. No matter whether under sunlight or illuminated from any angle, no shadow appeared beneath him. Even when he lined up with other people, only that man’s shadow wouldn’t show. I hear he got taken to a temple in the neighborhood because several people believed that he got cursed.”
“If it’s that much, it sounds like a common ghost story though. It appears like Gerard had gone around, asking whether that story was really true. After getting testimonies from several people, he also managed to find out the man’s name and the location of the temple he was brought to, and even went to that very temple.” Gaspal took over, talking with a stiff expression.
Tigre looked at Gaspal with a curious look while admiring Gerard who wasn’t present right now. He had believed that it was a weird story at most, but maybe Gerard had hit upon something there.
“So what did you hear about that from Gerard?”
“According to a priest of that temple, the man in question apparently killed himself after going mad.” Gaspal recounted dispassionately with his eyes pinned in front.
The mood engulfing the four suddenly turned heavy.
“Recently many odd stories circulate in the capital, but I wonder whether you can all simply waive them off as ghost stories. I think we should check up on them, just in case. Gerard also asked around for that reason, I guess.”
“What do you think brother?” Being asked by Tigre, the young noble with the black hair put on a sullen face.
“You can’t put too much trust in such stories, but…as someone who saw a genuine monster like Ganelon, it’s nothing I can fervently deny either.”
Not only Tigre’s, but also Rurick’s face cramped up when the name Ganelon was mentioned. In spring of this year, a rebellion took place in the capital of Brune. At that time, Tigre, Rurick, and Gaspal had encountered Duke Maximilian Bennusa Ganelon in a corridor of the royal palace. Because he made Gaspal and Rurick faint right away, they had only witnessed a fraction of Ganelon’s abnormal powers. But, just that fraction was already more than enough for Rurick.
He had caught an arrow shot by Tigre between his fingers, and pulverized its iron head. Moreover, he repelled Rurick and Gaspal’s slashes by merely swinging his bare fists. The two swords shattered, and both blacked out after getting hit by the aftermath of the fist blows.
──I wonder where Ganelon is right now and what he’s doing?
Thinking back on it now, Tigre hadn’t seen Ganelon ever since that encounter. According to Valentina, who had fought Ganelon, he managed to escape, though.
A shiver ran across Tigre’s whole body when he recalled the battle against Ganelon. The aura cladding the small man was of the same kind as the one of the demons he had fought so far. Considering that Ganelon had also expressed interest in Tigre’s Black Bow, the youth judged him likely to be a demon.
──One day I’ll need to settle my score with him.
Tigre clenched his fists, letting his fighting spirit spill out. Still, not only Tigre, but no one else seemed to know that Ganelon was actually in Silesia.
It wasn’t unusual for beggars to visit bars during the cold winter nights of Silesia. However, it was considered manners for them to not enter boldly through the front door, but instead go around to the back, knock at the back door, and beg to be let in for the sake of getting through the freezing night.
Even the bar would usually give shelter if it was just one beggar. It wasn’t as though a law had been passed on this. It was merely an unspoken agreement created among the people at some point in time. However, since there existed a law ordering the residents to bury the frozen bodies of unidentifiable casualties by themselves, this was likely one of the reasons for that unspoken rule to come into existence.
Thus, the beggar, who visited a certain two-storied bar on this night, didn’t draw any particular attention. That beggar hid their whole body by covering it with such a big robe that its hem dragged across the ground. Only the beggar’s eyes were visible through holes, but no one cared about that. It was a common occurrence for beggars to hide their appearance out of shame, and moreover, it was winter right now.
However, that beggar, who was allowed to enter the kitchen through the back door, pulled out a gold coin from within their robe, and handed it over to the bar’s owner. The owner placed the gold coin on a scale, and once he confirmed that it was real, he guided the beggar to the second floor, making sure that the other guests wouldn’t notice the new arrival.
When the beggar had scaled the stairs, their violet eyes gleamed up in joy. Hidden beneath the robe was a woman. Her name: Valentina Glinka Estes.
After having been placed under house arrest in her mansion, Valentina spent her days relaxing by reading or sleeping, hardly ever leaving her own bedroom. Her meals were brought to her room, and buckets filled with hot water were arranged for her which she used to wipe her body besides washing her hair. As the days passed by, Valentina secretly gathered all kinds of information, using the servants and maids at her mansion to stay in contact with the outside world.
For example, she called a young maid to her room, had her recite a story, and then made her repeat a certain passage three times under the pretext of liking this specific part. That became an instruction for the maid. Afterwards, the maid would leave the mansion to go shopping, but instead contact a civil official, who had gone out to the city for some kind of business. The maid would weave the passage, which she had to read repeatedly, into idle gossip, and the official would implement Valentina’s instruction after returning to the palace.
This was just one of her various communication methods. She also used the method of adding a piece of paper with written instructions to the trash when her elderly servant went out to throw it away.
Using such means, Valentina experienced absolutely no problems with obtaining information and handing out instructions despite being locked away in the mansion. Among the information collected by Valentina were details about her overseer Pergament.
Pergament was faithful to his official duties. He visited Valentina’s room once in the morning, at noon, and in the evening. After making a short greeting, he would leave without so much as a chat. And once he checked the box with the draconic tool, he would stand by somewhere in the mansion. Two times he made a surprise visit to Valentina’s room late at night. It was for the sake of ascertaining that she wasn’t doing anything suspicious, but on either occasion she was in her room, rebuking Pergament for his rude conduct while wearing her nightgown.
Valentina didn’t need to investigate his abilities since she had already seen through them, but she looked up information about his friends and work acquaintances. After obtaining the necessary pieces of information, Valentina took action. She passed money to one of Pergament’s friends so that he’d invite Pergament over for dinner. Of course the money reached his friend’s pocket after passing through several hands. His friend probably didn’t even know that it came from Valentina.
Pergament went along with the invitation of his friend. Him choosing a restaurant close to Valentina’s mansion was owed to his overly serious character, but it didn’t change the fact that he had left the mansion, and that was all that counted for Valentina. Once she ascertained that he had left around sunset, Valentina hid herself under a robe, and sneaked out of the mansion while pretending to be a beggar. Without relying on Ezendeis, she escaped by climbing down a robe from her bedroom’s window.
Valentina’s mansion was located in a part of the city with many noble residences. Once she left her mansion, she simply looked like a beggar going from one mansion to the other in the hope of getting some alms. Even the soldiers watching her mansion wouldn’t leave their station just because they suspected some random beggar. While rather enjoying herself playing that role, Valentina arrived at a certain bar.
Several private rooms lined up on the bar’s second floor. Those were mostly used by guests who wanted to have some private fun without being disturbed by the hustle and bustle in the public parlor, but they were also used by spies and people looking for opportunities to have secret talks.
Valentina headed to the room furthest down the corridor, knocked and entered after receiving an answer. Two men were sitting around a table within the dim room. One of them was a Zhcted, but the other had the characteristically dark brown skin of a Muozinel. Three silver cups and a bottle of wine stood on the table.
“Sorry for the wait.” Valentina said not in Zhcted or Muozinel, but in Brunish, and sat down on the free chair while still in her beggar outfit.
The Zhcted and Muozinel looked at Valentina with crabby looks, and silently nodded their heads a bit, an action that seemingly was supposed to serve as a greeting of sorts. Without minding their blunt attitude at all, Valentina cast a friendly look at the two.
“I’m happy that you were able to give me some of your time tonight.” Valentina poured wine into the three cups.
All three then toasted, but not a single one of them actually drank their wine.
“Time is precious. Let’s start right away.” The Zhcted man said in a way making it clear that he wished to cut out any pointless pleasantries.
The Muozinel nodded at that, retrieved a rolled-up parchment from the bag at his feet, and spread it out on top of the table. It was a map depicting Zhcted’s south and Muozinel’s north.
“We will invade Zhcted. The Vanadis protecting the south will show up, leading her forces.” The Muozinel let his finger wander across the map.
“Matching that, I’ll dispatch my soldiers to this place.” The Zhcted pointed at a spot on the map. The location, which was roughly in the middle between Silesia and the southern border, was an area called Krunov. The Zhcted continued, “Once the contact with the capital is cut off, the Vanadis will likely turn her back on the Muozinel army.”
“We will use that chance to assault, dealing a heavy blow to the Vanadis’ army.” The Muozinel nodded deeply.
By the way, their entire conversation was held in Brunish. After all, it’d invite dissatisfaction on either side, if they went with either Zhcted or Muozinel.
Afterwards, the two men continued to speak about the schedule and the number of soldiers each of them would move. But then again, the general stuff had already been decided in the days before, and today was merely a rehearsal. Valentina didn’t interrupt the two, sticking to remaining a silent witness.
A man called Hakim belonged to Muozinel royalty. He was a nephew of the late king who passed away around summer this year, and owned a rather big territory within the kingdom. He was a fairly influential man who could call many lords his friends. Moreover, he was also the guardian of the second princess.
But, Hakim’s flaw was his lack of achievements on the battlefield. The younger brother of the late king, 『Red Beard』 Kureys Shahim Balamir, was highly popular among the soldiers, and naturally, Kureys had announced that he’d succeed his brother as king. The late king had four children, but even the oldest among them was only 12 years old, making it impossible to entrust any of them with national politics.
However, not few royals and nobles opposed Kureys’ claim. They couldn’t accept Kureys trying to snatch everything and anything away from them, who had been serving the princes and princesses in the belief of being rewarded for their support at some point, as a newcomer entering the fray from the outfield. Hakim was one of them.
He had to gain popularity among the soldiers by quickly achieving deeds of arms for the sake of coming out victorious in the competition over the throne. For this reason, Hakim had considered invading Zhcted. His territory being situated in Muozinel’s north was yet another huge reason.
It was halfway through autumn that Valentina had learned of the various circumstances revolving around Hakim. At that time she had pondered whether it wouldn’t be possible to drag out Muozinel’s infighting by using him, and thus deliver a blow against Kureys, but because Zhcted’s state of affairs took a sudden turn, she changed her thinking. Valentina decided to use Hakim to further her own ambitions.
She indoctrinated him with the idea that neither Ruslan nor Eugene could be called capable, and instigated him to invade Zhcted. Taking her up on her words, Hakim dispatched an envoy to hold a meeting to sort the details. Rather than Valentina, Hakim had to settle things as soon as possible.
Finishing their private meeting in no time, the Muozinel ── Hakim’s envoy left the room. They had agreed to leave this bar one person at a time while leaving some time in-between their departures. Next, the Zhcted left his seat. This man was an envoy of Viscount Struve who ruled over Krunov. Viscount Struve was one of Eugene’s supporters, and planned to dispatch his soldiers for the sake of installing Eugene on the throne. Just when the envoy was about to open the door, he looked back at Valentina as if having remembered something. His face was still as unsociable as before, but he bowed deeply.
“Allow me to thank you for lending us your assistance in advancing and completing the negotiations with the Muozinel in place of my lord. Thank you.”
“I haven’t done much. I just introduced you to their side, so I believe that it has been His Excellency the Viscount who made an effort for this to succeed.” Valentina answered, hiding a smile underneath her robe.
The envoy bowed once more.
“All is for the sake of Zhcted. We can’t leave this country to a man like Prince Ruslan. We’re looking forward to working with you from now on.” With these words, the envoy departed this time for good.
──For the sake of Zhcted, eh?
Valentina revealed a nasty smile in the room now occupied by her alone.
Isn’t it the height of folly for him to say that it’s for the sake of Zhcted when he’s trying to corner Ruslan, the legitimate descendant of the late king, by conspiring with a foreign country?
Valentina stood up after roughly 500 breaths had passed since Viscount Struve’s envoy had left. The black-haired Vanadis exited the room while dragging the hem of her robe behind her. All that remained in the room were just three untouched cups and a bottle of wine.
Valentina had been absent from her own mansion for around half a koku. The mansion was dead silent, having turned into a huge, jet-black shadow with the moon and stars shining in its background. Apparently no one had noticed her slipping out of the mansion.
──It’s just as planned, but still lacks some excitement. Even the rope I’ve used for my escape has been left as is.
While mumbling this impression in her mind, Valentina used the rope to return to her own room. Within the darkness she flung off the beggar’s clothing, and quickly put on her nightgown. It was at that moment that she sensed a powerful presence, accompanied by a gust of chilly night air.
Lowering her body, Valentina kicked off the floor, leaping back towards the window. Her long, black hair spread out like a fan. Erasing any emotions from her face, a calm fighting spirit lit up in her violet eyes as she stared at the darkness luring in a corner of her room. Depending on the situation, she intended to summon her draconic tool while jumping out of the window.
“It’s not good manners to sneak into a lady’s room at night.”
“It’s unavoidable, don’t you think? It’s not like I can boldly visit you during the day.” Words came back at her from within the darkness, carrying a stifled laughter.
A light appeared at the place where the voice originated from. It was the light of a candle. Valentina scowled at the unpleasant fact that one of her candle stands had been arbitrarily used by the uninvited guest. However, the one using it didn’t pay any heed to her feelings on the matter.
Illuminated by the flame, the figure of a small man wearing a cloak over pompous silken clothes became visible. If one were to try describing his features, grotesque would be an apt attempt. His head was completely bald beneath the small hat, his eyelids were awfully large, and his eyes were so narrow that it was hard to tell whether they were actually open to begin with. His skin was ashen, lacking any vitality, and green spots sporadically blemished his cheeks and jaw. The arms extending out of his clothes were surprisingly thin.
Moreover, the aura released from his whole body was even more abnormal than his outward appearance. Even if he were to happen upon an unknowing child, it’d likely consider him to be some kind of monster rather than a human. That was how much the presence engulfing the man had veered off human life.
“It looks like you’ve become quite haggard since our last meeting, Duke Ganelon.” Putting her breathing in order, Valentina grinned at the man.
Ganelon formed a smile on his lips. He held up the candle stand with its short grip and placed it on a nearby table.
“It’s not like I’ve lost weight. I just devoured a new demon, and that’s showing a bit on my face.”
Valentina was puzzled in her mind upon hearing his words.
I know that the small man in front of me possesses the ability to steal and extinguish the life and abilities of demons. He called that act 『devouring』. In days long past he devoured a demon with the name Koschei, and most recently another with the name Baba Yaga. However, no changes occurred to his body back then. How about now? A skin color unimaginable for a living human, and green spots. Can you really wrap all this up with ‘showing a bit on my face’?
However, without voicing her doubts, Valentina asked with a smile, “By the way, what kind of business might you have with me? Since I’m under house arrest, I’d like this to not take too much time, if possible.”
“A lass who has just gone out to play around prattles about house arrest? Are you trying to be funny with me?” After laughing, feigning surprise, Ganelon stroked his own throat. “My throat is somewhat dry. Can’t you at least provide me with some drinks before we talk?”
“If you want vodka, there’s some in the kitchen. How about you go fetch it?” Valentina’s reply was spiked with a bit of malice. After all she knew very well that Ganelon wasn’t fond of Zhcted’s vodka.
However, Ganelon nodded without looking offended at all, “Okay, thanks for your offer.”
In the next instant, something like black fog manifested around Ganelon, and his figure vanished as if melting into darkness while Valentina felt a slight shiver of surprise.
Accompanied by the cold air of night, silence befell upon the room.
──It looks like he told the truth when he mentioned that he devoured another demon.
After pulling herself together, Valentina picked up the beggar’s clothes that had been left lying on the floor, and stuffed them under her bed. Then she put on a shawl. She hesitated whether she should summon her draconic tool, but that would be like demonstrating a will to fight. It wouldn’t be too late to do so after listening to what Ganelon wanted to tell her. Sitting down on her bed, she waited for Ganelon to come back.
Around 20 breaths later, darkness expanded in a corner of her room as if billowing out in empty space, just for Ganelon to exit from within. He held two bottles of vodka and two crystalline glasses in his hands.
──Has his taste changed? If he had searched the kitchen, he should have also found wine and mead. Considering Ganelon’s abilities, it is highly unlikely for the guards to have noticed him. Him not even making this much of an effort can’t mean anything but him wishing to drink vodka.
“Thank you.” Valentina said as she stood up from the bed.
She poured the vodka into the glasses.
“Well then, a toast to our reunion.” When Valentina lifted up her glass, Ganelon imitated her while smiling somewhat sarcastically.
He sat down on a chair, and drained the vodka in one go.
“Could you pour me another one? Somehow I can’t seem to quench my thirst.”
Valentina poured vodka into his glass with a smile, but as could be expected, she sensed that something was off with him.
“It seems like you’ve become quite the vodka connoisseur.”
“Wine and mead are simply too weak.” Answering to Valentina, Ganelon immediately drained down the second glass as well.
Then, while excusing himself, he grabbed one of the bottles, and filled his glass once more. When he had emptied his third glass, Ganelon finally recovered his composure. He exhaled a hot breath mixed with an alcoholic stench, and looking at Valentina with upturned eyes, he laughed.
“Causing an uproar in the palace and being placed under house arrest, isn’t that quite different from your initial plan?”
“Oh, if it’s that plan, I’ve dumped it a while ago.” Valentina shrugged her shoulders without even trying to refute.
With Ruslan becoming the new king, she’d gain his trust by supporting him in governmental and military affairs. Some time later she’d become the queen after having him yield the throne to her. That was the plot Valentina had come up with at first. However, she decided at an early stage to abandon that plan. Two reasons led to this: First, King Viktor immediately appointed Ruslan as his successor after he returned to the palace. Second, that very King Viktor passed away.
Because of this, Ruslan quickly established his position at the court, subsequently leading to him having no time to build trust with the noble lords. This caused her plan to fall apart. Something like being passed the throne by a king with a shaky standing would result in her queenship being likewise shaky from the get-go.
Valentina readily discarded her initial plan without clinging to it. Ever since then, she had moved in accordance with her new plan, which was currently proceeding smoothly.
“I’d love for you to tell me what happened to you after we bid farewell to each other in Brune. You mentioned that you devoured a new demon, but what is that about…?”
“Uh-huh, I devoured that shitty Vodyanoy.” Ganelon answered bluntly without putting on airs.
By now he was on his fourth glass of vodka.
“Afterwards, Drekavac got destroyed. In battle against Tigrevurmud Vorn.”
Valentina’s eyes widened slightly, and she covered her mouth. Even for her, who didn’t get perturbed by most things, this was an astonishing piece of news.
“That means all demons have perished, doesn’t it?” She didn’t add that he was the only exception.
“Indeed. Even if those guys revive, I think it’ll take them hundreds of years to do so.” Ganelon responded while slowly drinking the vodka now as if to savor it.
Although Valentina had brought her glass to her mouth, she only drank very little from it. She carefully said, “It looks like various strange things have taken place in the city most recently. There are rumors about people having seen fairies or met ghosts, just to lose their shadows thereafter…”
This fit with the information Tigre’s group had gathered by walking all over the capital. Guessing what Valentina wanted to say, Ganelon leaked a stifled laughter.
“It’s not just limited to this city. I’m sure similar things are happening all across the continent.”
Placing her glass on the table, Valentina threw a question at Ganelon that probed deeper into the matter, “As for all those strange phenomenons, I believed it to be the effect of the demons trying to allow Tir Na Fal to descend on the surface, but was I wrong?”
Tir Na Fal was one the ten chief gods, and the goddess ruling over night, darkness, and death. Valentina knew that the demons, including Drekavac, had been trying to let this goddess descend for the sake of reshaping the surface. If the demons perished like Ganelon said, the mysterious happenings should have actually ceased.
“It’s as you say.”
Despite the lack of a wind going, the flames of the candles flickered, as if being frightened of something. A crooked smile that couldn’t be just described away with evil showed on Ganelon’s face within the dim illumination.
“It’s not the demons, but me who’s going to summon Tir Na Fal to the surface.”
“In Zhcted…?” Valentina narrowed her eyes, and her voice became deep and threatening.
Ganelon nodded deeply, answering cheerfully, “What are you going to do about it? Are you going to fight me in this place?”
However, Valentina didn’t go along with his provocation.
“Even if you summon the goddess, you don’t intend to turn the world into one for the demons, right?”
Ganelon didn’t answer, but his silence already served as a proper reply.
“In that case, I don’t care.” Valentina smiled sweetly.
She had roughly grasped Ganelon’s objective. And she knew that it wouldn’t necessarily run counter with her own interests.
“Still, what makes me wonder is for what reason you’re trying to devour the goddess…”
“Is it that strange for me to crave for devouring the goddess?” Ganelon looked at Valentina with the face of a child innocently asking a simple question. None of his monster-like intimidation that he had emitted until a moment ago could be found. “Even you are craving for the throne, right?”
──I’d like him to not lump us together, though.
Those were Valentina’s thoughts, but on the surface, she limited her reaction to nothing but a frown. It’s because she knew that Ganelon was saying this seriously. Assuming that she would be searching for tremendous power while believing that she’d be able to control it, she might have said the same.
“With that said, won’t you join up with me?” Ganelon asked.
Valentina blinked three times before starting to look like she had understood. It sounded like a really abrupt idea, but it wasn’t unusual for him.
“Did you visit me tonight to make that suggestion?”
“Tigrevurmud Vorn is necessary to let the goddess descend. But, he’s being protected by several Vanadis. I think it should align with your interests.”
“Even though it might not seem so, I still have taken a liking to him, you know?”
Right after saying this, Valentina burst into laughter upon her own words. Those were her true feelings, but she wouldn’t hesitate to sacrifice the youth if it was for the sake of obtaining the throne. Besides, as far as Valentina could see, Elen and the four other Vanadis had gathered with Tigre being their core.
If Tigre is gone, the Vanadis might split up. Also, I’m sure it’ll be a devastating blow for Brune to lose its hero.
“Hmm, I have one condition, though.”
Ganelon urged Valentina to continue by nodding.
“It’s about the relationship between us Vanadis and the demons. You should be aware of it, right?”
“That’s what you want to know?” Ganelon laughed. “I’m going to digress a bit, but you’re aware that three personalities exist in Tir Na Fal, right?”
“You mean the theory that three chief gods became one being with the name Tir Na Fal?” Valentina asked to confirm.
The half-demon nodded, “We have three names for each of her personalities: 『Tir Na Fal of Humans』, 『Tir Na Fal of Demons』, and 『Tir Na Fal of Power』. One allies with the humans, one allies with the demons, and one lends her strength to either of the other two. The two personalities 『Human』 and 『Demon』 are constantly fighting each other.” Taking a short breather, Ganelon moistened his mouth with a gulp of vodka. Then he resumed, “Charles ── my old friend said so once. The demons might be beings from another world with 『Tir Na Fal of Demons』 being their goddess. In that case, 『Tir Na Fal of Humans』 would be a goddess of this world.”
“I wonder, why did they become one when they were always fighting each other?” Valentina slightly tilted her head.
Ganelon shook his, “That much remains incomprehensible to someone who’s not a god. Personally I think it was done for the sake of Tir Na Fal being able to affect the world with her power. Anyway, now comes the answer to your question. In the past, I think hundred of years ago, 『Demon』 was on the verge of obtaining victory against 『Human』. The demons were about to alter the surface to their liking. If nothing had happened, this world might have been completely different from nowadays.”
Ganelon’s expression was unusually sincere. Valentina was surprised by his behavior, while carefully listening to his words. At the same time, she remembered that the founding Duke Ganelon was said to have been a priest.
Ganelon continued, “At that time, a single priestess sought help from 『Human』. 『Human』 was unable to do anything about the surface world herself, but she relied on the god-slaying, three-headed dragon with the name Zirnitra.”
Valentina widened her eyes. Zirnitra – the legendary black dragon depicted on Zhcted’s flag.
“It’s said that Zirnitra granted seven weapons containing his own powers to a single human, or released a single human containing himself on the surface world. It doesn’t really matter either way, but now that I’ve explained up to this point, you understand the rest of the story yourself, don’t you?”
Valentina recalled the legend of Zhcted. A man calling himself the incarnation of the black dragon appeared at a time when the people were fighting each other. He bestowed seven weapons to the daughters of those following him.
──You girls are 『Vanadis』 from this very moment on.
“In short…it’s the outcome of you people entreating the goddess.” Ganelon’s voice was tinged with malice.
Even while feeling suspicious of his attitude, Valentina still gave him her opinion honestly, “Although it’s something I asked you, you’ve been quite detailed about it. I’ve read through all sorts of books until now, but your version is something I’m hearing for the very first time.”
“Well, at some point I frantically researched it myself.” Ganelon said with a whitish light shining in his eyes.
Going by the strong smell of alcohol in his breath, Valentina thought that it might possibly stem from him being drunk. When she slowly turned her eyes towards the table, she noticed that one of the two vodka bottles was empty with the other being already down to a half. Valentina hadn’t even emptied her first glass yet.
“If the power of the Vanadis is gone, it might become impossible to repel the demons. But, it’s not like humans didn’t adopt any measures either. They kept thinking up methods on how to oppose the demons…”
“That means your power is one of those methods?” Valentina’s question sharply stabbed into a part of Ganelon’s consciousness, apparently causing him to sober up.
All emotions vanished from his face, and coupled with his skin color, he turned into something similar to a statue cut out of a lump of earth. Only his eyes released an eerie brightness.
“──It looks like I blabbed a little too much because of the great alcohol.” As he stood up from his chair, Ganelon’s figure got shrouded in black mist. “Well then, I leave the matter of Tigrevurmud Vorn to you.”
Just as he finished saying so, Ganelon’s figure blended into the darkness. Valentina breathed out lightly as she stared at that darkness. Trails of surprise still flickered in her violet eyes, but the nightly wind that blew into the room through the window scattered those.
Coming to her senses, she stood up with her body quivering due to the chilly air. After tightly closing the window, she hid the vodka bottles and glasses inside her shelf, and crawled into her bed.
“Come to think of it, what role plays Earl Vorn’s black bow in all of this?” Valentina suddenly wondered.
There was no mistaking that it was a weapon granted to the humans by Tir Na Fal.
“My own knowledge is too lacking to make an educated guess… I’ll try thinking about it after gathering some information.”
As soon as she closed her eyes, sleepiness assailed her. It was a long time ago that she last felt this tired. Soon after, she glided into the land of dreams.
After leaving Valentina’s mansion, Ganelon unsteadily staggered through the city which was wrapped up in the darkness of night. There was no doubt that it was a blessing for everyone that no people were out on the streets around this time. After all he might not have felt any remorse to kill anyone witnessing him within a moment’s notice.
Ganelon pressed a hand against his forehead, bearing the pain. But it didn’t come from him being drunk. The fierce headache, which seemed to scrap against his skull like a rasp, wouldn’t settle down. And he knew the reason for that. Entering a side road, Ganelon leaned against a wall and breathed out deeply.
“To hell with you, Vodyanoy and Drekavac. For you to use such a sly move…”
The one tormenting him was a demon he ought to have devoured in the past – Vodyanoy whom he had defeated at Saint-Groel which was located underneath Brune’s Artishem. His soul remained inside Ganelon without having extinguished yet. And, he had been causing all kinds of pain within Ganelon’s body. It wasn’t just limited to headaches. There were times when Ganelon’s body became so hot that he felt like being grilled. At other times, a buzzing in Ganelon’s ears, strong enough to make him almost deaf, afflicted him for several days. There were also times when he was assailed by pain as if having his body stabbed by iron rods.
Why is only Vodyanoy’s soul so stubborn and tenacious, unlike Koschei and Baba Yaga whom I’ve devoured before?
Ganelon guessed that this was related to Drekavac’s power.
──Very likely Drekavac entrusted a part of his own power to Vodyanoy before challenging Tigrevurmud Vorn. They probably thought that they would be able to gain control over my body, if they had the power of one body and a half, as they wouldn’t vanish right away after getting devoured by me.
Ganelon fixed his eyes on the darkness in front of him, and poured power into his whole body.
──That’s very welcome. After all, I was able to make a part of Drekavac’s power, which I thought to be lost, mine to some extent.
Shut up, he shouted at Vodyanoy’s soul, and tried to suppress it by applying pressure. Miasma that changed into black mist gushed out of Ganelon’s whole body, and completely engulfed him. The atmosphere became murky, dark, and stagnant. The surface of the wall he was leaning on became tattered, peeled off, and dropped down. The ground at his feet turned into ash which got whirled up. This effect continued to spread with each moment.
Suddenly the miasma stopped gushing out. Vodyanoy’s soul, which had been caught by Ganelon, extinguished its presence. At the same time, the violent headache that had plagued Ganelon faded.
──It managed to get away once again, huh?
It sounded strange, but Vodyanoy’s soul ingeniously suppressed its presence while being inside Ganelon. Whenever Ganelon tried to pulverize it, it concealed itself while making him catch a decoy.
Now that Ganelon thought back, Vodyanoy always possessed several lives as a demon. Cutting him up once or twice wouldn’t do anything to him.
“Well, whatever. You bastard have cut off your own path of retreat. Sooner or later I will erase you completely.” Ganelon boasted arrogantly, and left the alley.
Immediately following, he disappeared into the darkness with a powerful stride.