At the time when Elen looked at the violet sky above Boroszló Plain, Tigre witnessed the very same phenomenon without any prior notice whatsoever. It happened in an area blanketed by grasslands, several days from Lebus. Tigre had been walking on the road while leading his horse, but when it occurred, he unconsciously clenched down on the Black Bow in his left hand, and extended his right towards the quiver hooked to the horse’s saddle.
The unusual phenomenon disappeared all too quickly, allowing the sky to regain its previous azure. Tigre relaxed his tension after slowly counting to three in his mind, but by then sweat had already started to gush out from all pores across his body.
“Are you okay, Mr. Tigre?”
The one calling out to Tigre was a roughly ten years old girl, wearing a pelt above her linen clothes. Her chestnut-colored hair had been tied into a somewhat short twintail.
Tigre pulled himself together, and cautiously asked the girl, “Did you see it? The sky…”
“Turned violet? Yeah, it’s creepy, isn’t it?”
Tigre blinked several times at her response. The girl’s ─ Lena’s way of speaking gave away that it wasn’t her first time to observe this phenomenon.
“Did you happen to witness something like this in the past?”
Lena nodded her consent, walked several steps ahead, and said to a man, “Hey, Daddy, you’ve seen it many times as well, haven’t you?”
The man kept walking, only turning his head in her direction. His tough body build was hidden underneath a deer pelt, laying atop the same type of linen clothes Lena wore. The lower half of his face was covered by a thick, black beard. He held a bow in his right hand, and game ─ three rabbits and one pheasant ─ in his left.
“Lena, Mr. Traveler must be tired. Don’t bother him too much, okay?” His voice was tinged with rebuke.
Lena fell silent, pursing her lips.
As for Tigre, he wanted to ask the two about more details, but decided to let it rest for the moment. After all, he had no interest in thoughtlessly stirring up a quarrel.
The man’s name was David. The two had said that they were hunters living in a nearby village. Tigre had met this pair of father and daughter one koku ago, just around noon, when he had passed through a forest where the two were taking a rest.
Naming himself Tigrevurmud without mentioning his family name, he had told them that he was a traveler. Giving them his family name would have been equal to identifying himself as a noble, which would just make them wary unnecessarily. He had also told them that he was a Brunian to avoid being suspected for his Brunian accent. Then he had asked whether there were any villages nearby, which welcomed travelers, as he was on his way to meet an acquaintance in Lebus.
“It’ll be plenty as long as I’ll be able to find shelter for one night. I’ll depart as soon as dawn breaks. Also, I’ll pay extra if they can sell me provisions, water, and arrows.”
David had been vigilant of Tigre, but Lena pleaded for Tigre with her eyes as her curiosity and kindness had apparently won over her caution.
David had sighed, saying, “You can use the storehouse next to our place,” just to add after a short pause, “But, it won’t be for free.”
Tigre had noticed how his eyes rested on the Black Bow. Accordingly, Tigre had asked them to give him around half a koku, and brought down a pheasant in the meantime. David closely observed the youth’s archery skills whereas Lena loudly praised him, excitedly clapping her hands.
Seeing the joy of the innocent girl reminded Tigre of Titta whom he had left back in the capital. He had believed that she’d be fine as she had Gaspal and Gerard at her side, but now he wondered whether she might be truly safe over there.
“Our village should be around one koku away from here.” Lena informed Tigre.
Apparently it was a rather simple settlement. And probably because he had just thought about Titta, the scenery of the villages dotting his own territory crossed his mind, causing anxiety rather than nostalgia to well up within him.
──The many, unusual phenomena occurring all over Zhcted are probably occurring in Alsace as well. No, I’m sure they do. The demons mentioned that they’d remold the world. It’s kinda impossible for that to be limited to Zhcted alone. Some kind of phenomena must be taking place in Brune, the distant Asvarre and Sachstein, as well as Muozinel at this moment, too.
Lena walked up to her father, and asked worriedly, “Are Mr. Gleb and the others going to be okay? I wonder whether they’ve already healed up.”
“It’ll be alright. They might still be sleeping, but they’ll have improved by tomorrow.” David’s expression as he gently caressed the head of his daughter was hard.
The remark just now apparently had the aim to give Lena a peace of mind.
Bothered by it, Tigre asked, “Did something happen?”
Lena looked back at Tigre, about to reply, but seemingly recalling her father’s earlier scolding, she held her tongue, quietly looking up to her father. David had kept his silence, obviously brooding about something, but soon spoke up.
“Several villagers have fallen ill… Didn’t you hear elsewhere about rashes similar to blue pockmarks appearing on people’s necks and the backs of their hands? As soon as something like that occurs, the sick person starts to get a fever, and collapses, becoming unmoving as their face and hands stiffen up.”
“I’m terribly sorry, but it doesn’t ring any bells.” Tigre shook his head as he heard about this illness for the first time.
“It’s said you catch the disease if you look at the fairies on the fields and in the forests──”
“Lena,” David cautioned his daughter, preventing her from speaking any further. “Fairies and their ilk are chimeras. I for one have never seen one so far.”
Tigre gave his utmost effort to not show the agitation raging within him on his face while listening to David.
──That illness is definitely linked to the abnormal phenomena. But, how should I explain this? Even if I mention Tir Na Fal here, it’ll only confuse the two, I’m sure.
Besides, Tigre was unable to heal the illness, and thus limited to praying that it wouldn’t get any worse.
──Are these things going to cease if I stop Ganelon?
He assumed that this should be the case, seeing how things had developed into this direction as a byproduct of Ganelon trying to allow Tir Na Fal to descend on the surface.
After making two breaks, Tigre and the two arrived at the village just as the sky began to darken with the sun sinking in the west. The village itself was surrounded by a simple fence with two square, stone pillars towering at either side of the entrance. The pillars were around one head taller than Tigre, and had patterns carved onto their surface.
Thinking that they might be some charm against evil spirits of sorts, Tigre scrutinized them.
It isn’t unusual for villages to put up such things.
But, he immediately realized that he had been wrong. Both of the pillars had only carvings on three of the four sides.
“It’s said to be a carving of an ancient god from several hundred years ago or something like that.” Lena explained to Tigre with an expression free of any worry.
According to her, these pillars had been around since before the village was founded, but she didn’t know what god they depicted either.
──Tir Na Fal, I reckon. Only three sides of the pillars having carvings on them must stand for her representing three goddesses in one. God of War Triglav is considered to also possess three faces, but as far as I can see, the carvings on the pillars show bulgings at the chest, symbolizing women. I guess it means I’m getting closer to Lebus…to Zagan.
Many ruins of buildings, where ancient gods had been worshiped, remain in Lebus. A temple dedicated to the demon Baba Yaga can be found over there as well. It wouldn’t be strange for stone pillars with carvings of Tir Na Fal to be strewn across the region. However, Lena said that she only knows about these pillars depicting a god, but not which. Very likely the same applies to most of the other villagers, Tigre judged. If they were going to hide that this is supposed to be Tir Na Fal, it’d make no sense to mention that a god had been carved onto these pillars in the first place.
Tigre pulled his eyes off the pillars, and let them wander across the landscape visible from his location.
“It’s a village with a gentle and calm atmosphere.”
At that moment, a villager who had spotted the group, called out to David in a friendly manner.
“Yo, David. Get back just now? ──The guy with you is?”
“A traveler, he says. I’ll let him lodge in the storehouse next to my home for the night.” David replied.
Lena added with a smile while flapping her hands, “He’s a nice person. He even shot down a pheasant with ease!”
Tigre bowed in the direction of that villager.
“I will not do anything to cause you trouble. Of course I have also promised to not stroll through the village on my own accord. Could I have you let me stay here for just one night?”
Tigre finally felt that he had gotten close to Lebus. Thus he believed that he ought to tread carefully from here on out, paying close attention to his stamina and physical condition. As such, the question whether he’d be able to pass the night under a roof while protected from the cold wind was extremely important.
“Well, sure is troublesome to camp out during this season.” The villager confronted Tigre with an amiable smile, and then pointed into a part of the village with a finger. “Ain’t like I don’t trust you ’bout not strollin’, but let me tell you just in case. Stay clear from that place. We keepin’ the sick there.”
Tigre grasped that this was likely the place where they were treating the people with the pockmarks. He bowed politely, expressing his thanks.
After bidding farewell from the villager, Tigre started to walk after father and daughter. Probably because the sun was about to go down, almost no villagers were out on the streets. Light leaked through the small windows of their homes, and smoke billowed up through the little gaps built into the thatch roofs. Tigre thought back on the villages in Alsace. Of course, Alsace’s villagers constructed their houses differently, but he felt like there wasn’t all that much difference in atmosphere between the two.
Eventually they arrived at David’s home. It had a thatch roof just like the other buildings, and mortar plastered onto the walls which were a combination of wood and earth. Next to that house stood a storehouse made in an older style. A bar had been lowered on the door.
“This is going to be your roost. But, could I have you help out for a moment before that?”
The help requested by David was to prepare the rabbits and pheasant. Tigre borrowed the necessary tools and a working place, skillfully dismantling his game while David dealt with the rabbits. Evaluating Tigre’s work, it was done well enough to elicit an approving grunt from David.
“Wait a moment.” David said after the work finished, and disappeared into the house, but came back almost immediately.
He was holding a hemp sack and arrows in both hands.
“How many do you need? I’m going to share some with you.”
Tigre thanked him, and picked up food for three days and several arrows, before handing David some silver and copper coins.
Suddenly Tigre felt a pang of discomfort. Pondering about the source for a moment, he immediately noticed what was irking him. David having a thick cloth coiled around his neck while wearing gloves on both hands had caught his attention.
──It’s probably not because it’s cold, seeing how he’s taken off the deer pelt. Leaving aside the neck cloth, it should have been easier to process the rabbits without gloves. I wonder whether he dislikes getting in touch with animal blood so much.
Afterwards, Tigre and David left the house, and headed over to the storehouse. Lena was baiting the horse Tigre had pulled along. After getting David to remove the bar, Tigre stepped inside the storehouse, just to have his nose assailed by chilly, dusty air.
As he surveyed the interior by holding up the lamp, he found the storehouse to be carelessly crammed with old, worn farm tools, hemp sacks, and wooden buckets, but no windows.
──This place should protect me from the wind.
It didn’t look like he’d have any problem spending a night here.
Tigre boldly called out to David who had turned around and was about to leave the storehouse, “Did you happen to see the violet sky many times?”
After casting a glance at Lena who was brushing the horse, he turned around, and lowered his voice by a degree, probably so as to not let his daughter hear what he was going to say, “Do you know anything about that sky?”
Tigre told him that he had come here from the capital where all kinds of unusual phenomenons were also taking place.
“So, I just thought, if you knew something…”
David responded with a heavy sigh.
“I’m the one who wants to know just what the heck that eerie sky is about. I think it was close to one month ago that I saw it for the first time… Back then, it wasn’t as though everyone in the village had seen it. That’s why I thought I made some kind of mistake. But then weird things started to happen around the village,” David explained. “People claiming to have seen fairies in the forest and on the fields started to show up, just to collapse a little later. Several people talked about the cemetery at the village’s edge having been devastated and how they had seen people who were supposed to be dead walk around. We called over a priest from the neighboring village and had him offer prayers, but to no avail.”
Tigre knitted his eyebrows. This was a piece of news he hadn’t heard of so far. When he considered all these events in combination with the sky turning violet, he could immediately tell that the situation was obviously growing worse. Tigre wavered whether he should tell David about Tir Na Fal.
But, in the end he reassessed to keep it to himself as it’d only spur on David’s worry and uneasiness. Tigre’s face turned bitter as he bit down his vexation.
Seeing the youth, David continued speaking with an expression mixed with fatigue and bitterness, “Yours ain’t the face of someone looking for a safe place to get away.”
“I’d love to tell you otherwise, if only I knew a safe place, but…”
“No, it’s just if you were going to run──” David shifted his eyes, gazing at Lena who was caressing the horse’s snout, “I’d considered asking you to take her along with you.”
Tigre could only answer, “Sorry.”
If it came to places with someone whom he could trust enough to take care of the girl, Lebus’ governmental residence would be the first choice. However, Tigre didn’t have that much spare time to take her all the way.
“Don’t worry. It was silly of me to mention it to a passing traveler. Please forget I said anything.” He closed the door after him.
Him not locking the door with the bar from outside was likely his own way of showing faith in Tigre.
Tigre sat down on the floor, leaning his body against the wall, and breathed out in relief.
“I had wondered what was going to happen, but this sure is a big help.”
Not only had they allowed him to stay the night in the storehouse, but he was even able to replenish his food and arrows. Above all, Lena’s bright personality and David’s loving concern for his daughter cheered Tigre up.
I must return this world to normal as soon as possible so that these kind people can live here without constantly feeling anxious.
Depending on the lamp’s illumination Tigre produced a leather bag with water and food out of his luggage pouch. His dinner was hard bread, dried meat, cheese, and dried apples. He drank his water while alternatively tearing off a piece of bread and meat. After finishing those, he slowly enjoyed the sweetness of the dried apples of which he had only few left now.
Food during travels only consisted of things that could be preserved for a long time. Even if you could take down a bird or rabbit every once in a while, you’d end up eating the fresh meat on the spot, burying the rest.
──Man, I have a craving for the bread and wheat porridge Titta always makes for me…
The maid, who had supported him from early childhood, was fully aware of Tigre’s taste in food. During this season, it would be well-baked bread with butter or wheat porridge with fragrant, finely-cut winter herbs. Fish soup would also work.
──I must simply be tired… Guess I should quickly get some sleep.
Finishing his dinner, Tigre lied down, covering himself with his overcoat, and soon started to snore.
Tigre woke up to noise sounding like the howling of beasts. His hand reached for the Black Bow which he had placed nearby. Because he had extinguished the lamp before going to sleep, he was currently wrapped up in darkness, but he didn’t make any attempts to get the illumination going again. First he had to know what was going on.
Groping around, he grabbed the Black Bow and a quiver. However, at that moment, Tigre sensed a minuscule flow of 『Power』 from the bow, trying to tell him something.
──Is it related to the noise outside?
With his tension heightened, Tigre walked up to the door, just to hear another howl. But, now he could also hear something being broken and someone screaming.
“Don’t tell me…a demon?”
He couldn’t believe that his bow would warn him if bandits or wild animals were behind this disturbance. Cautiously opening the door, Tigre peeked outside, and was immediately confronted with a bizarre spectacle.
Several bluish flames with the height of an adult were flickering in the darkness, furiously floating about. There were around ten of them in total. On top of that, the screams of women and children reached him from the houses in the village.
──What the heck are these things?
Despite feeling dumbfounded, Tigre immediately pulled himself together. Once he strained his eyes, taking a good look at the surroundings, he spotted something like a black figure among the blue flames. That something, which looked humanoid, was clad in the blue flames. Tigre felt an indescribable eeriness from it. This feeling resembled the one he experienced when he confronted non-human beings such as Torbalan and Vodyanoy.
──So the Black Bow was trying to inform me about these things, huh?
Tigre concluded them to be monsters 1 Monsters that were attacking this village.
Flames rose from one of the houses, apparently under attack by the blue flame monsters. The small, wooden house was about to be completely wrapped up by a mix of red and blue flames.
Tigre rushed out of the storehouse, dashing towards the house from where he could hear screaming. Two monsters noticed him, hurrying in his direction. One of them closed the distance while running on all four like an animal.
“Who are you?” Tigre yelled after stopping and taking a breath.
The monsters didn’t reply.
He swiftly nocked two arrows on his Black Bow. The distance between him and his adversaries had already shrunken down to less than fifty alsin. As he had suspected moments ago, both monsters looked like blue human torches.
After drawing the bow string to the limit, he immediately released the arrows. The first arrow hit the right shoulder of one monster, the second buried itself in the thigh of the other. If they had been human, they’d have lost their balance and fallen over, or stopped because of the pain. But, the monsters merely shook their bodies lightly, and continued heading for Tigre while snarling in a weird tongue.
Tigre widened his eyes, realizing that they weren’t ordinary opponents. While he pulled new arrows from his quiver, the quadrupedal monster kicked off the ground, leaping at him. Its jumping power was reminiscent of a wolf, despite it undoubtedly having the physique of a human.
He evaded its ramming attack by throwing himself on the ground in a hurry. Gaining some distance by rolling, he shot an arrow at his attacker while keeping the other monster in sight at the corner of his eyes. His target toppled over after having its head penetrated by his arrow.
The other monster drew close to Tigre, snapping at him. Instinctively sensing the danger, Tigre kicked its leg, using the recoil to roll further across the ground. Then he nocked another arrow.
He couldn’t draw the string as much as he wanted to, but the arrow, fired from close distance, stabbed the monster’s left eye. At the same time, the arm mowed down by the monster cut through the air, buzzing.
Tigre got up, retreated, and then fired another arrow. Having its nape pierced, the monster whimpered shortly, shook violently, and heavily flopped down after tilting to the side.
The youth walked up to the monster while nocking a new arrow. The blue fire engulfing the monster was slowly getting smaller, but it didn’t seem like it’d fade anytime soon.
Taking a closer look, Tigre swallowed his breath. It was the same man who had called out to David when Tigre had entered the village in the evening. It was even wearing the same clothes.
“What’s going on…?”
His Black Bow hadn’t reacted in any way when Tigre encountered the man earlier. Tigre wondered whether the man still hadn’t been a monster at that time.
──Do humans suddenly turn into monsters? Then again, many unusual phenomenons took place in the capital.
When he lifted his face, scanning the village, a weird atmosphere was obviously enshrouding the whole place. As if anything and everything would be remade into something else.
──Is this what it means for the world to change?
Suddenly he heard jarring brays. It came from the area around the other monster he had brought down. Once he turned his eyes in the direction of the laughter, he saw palm-sized midgets manifesting from the shadow of the monster’s corpse. They wore triangle hats, had long and narrow ears, and ill-will twinkled in their eyes. As soon as Tigre pointed his bow in their direction, the midgets hurriedly hid behind the corpse.
A blue flame flickered at the corner of his eyes. Tigre’s face warped. The other monsters had let their rage free reign while he had been fighting the two monsters.
If I enhance the Black Bow’s power, I might be able to blow away the flame monsters in the distance altogether. But, if I were to do that, I’d inevitably damage the buildings and hurt the villagers.
Tigre turned his feet towards David and Lena’s house. He decided that he had to get them to run away after explaining the situation. If possible he also wanted them to tell the other villagers to escape. The things Tigre could do by himself were limited.
He started to run, but came to a grinding halt after not even having taken ten steps. The door to David’s home was wide open, a man engulfed in blue flames standing in the doorway. It was David. He carried Lena in his hands while holding something like a dark red rope in his mouth. That rope extended from the abdomen of his bloodstained daughter.
Lena’s eyes were hollow, having lost all their light. Traces of blood were visible at the corners of her mouth. She was already dead. Tigre stared at her father in shock. Just a few hours ago he had been a great father only thinking about the best for his daughter. And now this.
Tigre set up his bow, but didn’t nock an arrow. He pulled the bowstring while pouring his anger and grief into his fingers. Sensing the will of its user, the 『Power』 took the shape of an arrow. It wasn’t anything you’d call powerful. The arrow soared through the air without getting affected by the wind at all, and embedded itself between David’s eyebrows. David fell backwards, still embracing Lena.
Tigre walked up to father and daughter with an expression full of sadness, and knelt down next to David. Checking from close-by, he was still wearing gloves and covering his neck with a cloth, just as Tigre had expected. While staying on guard, Tigre carefully removed one of David’s gloves.
Bluish pockmarks blemished the back of David’s hand. He suspected that these pockmarks must have transformed the villagers into blue flame monsters.
Tigre exhaled lightly, gently lowering Lena’s eyelids. Then he tightly grasped his bow, and stood up. Turning around, he perceived that the number of dancing blue flames had grown in comparison to before. He guessed that the people, who had hidden their pockmarks like David had, had turned into monsters. The number of screams reaching his ears had clearly increased as well.
──I must save as many people as I can… Though I wonder whether I’ll be able to do so. Within this darkness and chaos.
David and Lena, who had known Tigre’s identity, were dead. It was quite perceivable that the villagers would immediately attack a strange, young traveler like him. And yet Tigre hardened his resolve to do what had to be done. Even if he’d be suspected and hated, the youth couldn’t turn a blind eye on the tragedy occurring in front of his eyes.
“Everyone who’s still alive, run outside the village! You have to escape!”
Tigre breathed in deeply, before loudly shouting with the wish to save as many people as possible fully occupying his mind. He was telling them to evacuate the village to avoid shooting someone by mistake. Of course he had taken into account that his yelling would draw the monsters’ attention.
And just as predicted, several blue flames headed his way. Setting his aim on one of them, Tigre allowed the bowstring to whir.
As dawn broke, Tigre leaned against the fence surrounding the village, quietly observing the faint sun rays pouring onto the houses and streets. Exhaustion had deeply edged itself onto his face. The scenery filling his visual field could be summed up with one word: gruesome. Corpses were scattered all over the place, and several houses had turned into ruins over the night. Thanks to the villagers who had transformed into monsters. Several houses were still smoldering, flames licking and smoke billowing. The survivors were mud-caked as they extinguished the raging fires by destroying walls with farm tools.
Three middle-aged men stood next to Tigre. Each of them was shouldering a farming tool such as hoes and spades, facing Tigre with scrutinizing, wary looks.
Tigre had continued to fight the monsters while urging the villagers to run away all night long. The battle came to an end before the first sun rays crawled across the horizon, but until the sky began to brighten, the youth hadn’t been able to ease his tension, and the villagers, who had followed his advice to take refuge, had stayed away from the village.
Just now Tigre had finished explaining the circumstances to the villagers who finally made their way back.
“Come to think of it, I heard David mention that he’d let a young traveler stay over.” A single villager growled.
Tigre’s face twisted faintly. Fortunately, it seemed like David had informed the other villagers about Tigre’s presence. Without that, things might have become a lot more complicated.
“Folks said that this guy protected the villagers from the guys who went crazy, and told them to run away.” Another villager spat out in annoyance.
His discontent wasn’t directed at Tigre, but the situation itself. This mess wasn’t something he could swallow just because it was visible right in front of his face. Obviously, as people who had been friends and acquaintances until yesterday had suddenly turned into monsters, slaughtering and devouring other villagers.
“Does that mean similar things are happening in the capital as well?” The third villager checked back with Tigre, doubt coloring his voice.
Tigre only nodded in silence. He was aware that it was irrational, but he could also understand their feelings. From their point of view, the other villagers were killed by unknown strangers. Even if those villagers had actually transformed into monsters. It was only reasonable for them to be unable to come to terms with that.
By listening to their conversation, Tigre also learned that 20 villagers had turned into monsters and that there were 50 casualties in total. Since the village’s population apparently was below 150 to begin with, it meant that roughly half of the village’s population had died within a single night.
──I wonder whether they’ll be able to last the winter.
He didn’t ask the villagers since he knew that it’d just invite their wrath and scorn, but Tigre was worried anyway. Tigre couldn’t tell just how much of an emotional shock they had suffered. But on the other hand, he couldn’t think of what he should tell them either.
Close to noon, a single villager walked up to in front of Tigre. An old, bald man with a characteristic white beard covering his jaw. Going by the respect the other villagers showed him, he appeared to be one of the village’s influential people.
After wrapping up the greeting with a simple nod, the man immediately got down to business.
“Could I have you leave the village at once?”
“As you wish.” Tigre obediently confirmed since he had already expected as much. However, he added a request, “Would you be kind enough to bring my horse and things out of the village then? Also, if you have some arrows left over, I’ll gladly take them off you. If not, even just arrowheads would do…”
Tigre had run out of arrows during the battle. In this regard, his situation had actually worsened in comparison to before his stay at the village. He had to obtain some arrows at all costs.
The elderly man looked at Tigre flabbergasted, obviously not having expected this, “Spell me surprised. I had counted on you complaining about this treatment.”
Originally it’d be proper to send off Tigre, who had saved many villagers, with words of gratitude. And yet, he not only didn’t hear a single word of thanks from the villagers, but instead was suspected and monitored, just to be thrown out of the village in the end. The old man probably believed that it’d have been very justified for Tigre to resent them for such behavior.
However, Tigre shook his head. His response was based on the assumption what he’d have done if the same had happened at his birth-town Celesta or some other village within Alsace, namely, some traveler of unknown origin slaughtering the villagers – even if out of necessity. Tigre himself might have been able to thank the stranger, but probably not while smiling.
“Understood. We’ll prepare as many arrows as we can spare.” The man promised Tigre.
Afterwards Tigre spent around half a koku outside the village waiting. His horse was safe, and his luggage had been placed behind his saddle. The quiver tied to the saddle contained 20 arrows. The old man had scraped them together after persuading the villagers.
“Thank you very much.” Tigre bowed to the old man who had come outside the village.
It wasn’t as though the man had done so to see Tigre off. Rather, he wanted to make sure that Tigre really left the village and its vicinity. Thus, his reply was cold and curt.
“Hurry up and be gone. We’ve got enough other things to do.”
Some feeling of guilt might have been included in that blunt dismissal. But, it was also true that they were busy. They had to bury their dead and treat their wounded. Moreover, they had to carefully check the bodies of the surviving villagers for pockmarks, and strictly isolate those afflicted – which was probably the task they hated the most.
At the end, Tigre offered a silent prayer to the gods for David and Lena’s souls to rest in peace, and departed from the village. He was very grateful towards his horse for carrying him along without minding his mood. After all, he might have heavily dragged his feet if he had to walk by himself right now.
──No matter the reason for making Tir Na Fal descend, I cannot forgive Ganelon for this.
Tigre had met David and Lena only yesterday, but he had definitely shared some friendly conversations with the two.
His body felt sluggish from exhaustion, and thus he decided that he should take a break after distancing himself from the village. However, Tigre’s head was filled with anger, which showed no hints of abating. He felt like he wouldn’t be satisfied until he slammed those furious emotions into Ganelon’s face.
The current capital Silesia seemed as though it had been plunged into a quagmire of chaos. Moreover, not only didn’t the city manage to crawl out of the bog, but it kept sinking further instead. Less than ten days had passed since Tigrevurmud Vorn left the city, and yet the situation in the city continued changing by the minute.
Eugene Shevalin had been dealing with the governmental duties as proxy rule instead of Prince Ruslan who had collapsed from overwork. The earl tried to carry out his work sincerely while rallying the people serving at the palace. However, Eugene soon got imprisoned by Grand Chamberlain Miron based on groundless suspicions, resulting in Miron becoming the new proxy ruler. This whole affair took place on the next day after Tigre left the capital.
Miron didn’t harbor the slightest ill will or ambitions, but looking at it objectively, anyone concluded this change in rulership to be the result of a power struggle. And the civil and military officials serving at the palace couldn’t help but harbor the same scruples as everyone else. Thus they wondered whether the governmental duties would really be carried out properly with the grand chamberlain at the helm.
Ruslan and Eugene had experience as both had supported the late King Viktor as assistants. Ruslan had received a broad education as the next-king-to-be and participated in many official duties. Eugene had served as diplomatic envoy for a long time, and moreover, was known to have managed the Pardu Earldom he had been granted by the previous king without a hitch.
On the other hand, none of that applied to the grand chamberlain.
And thus, things developed just as the officials had feared. Miron replaced several of the bureaucrats backing Eugene.
In the eyes of Miron, Eugene was a traitor who had waited for the perfect opportunity to snatch the crown, and thus it was only natural for him to keep people, who trusted such a man, at a distance. However, when Eugene took over the governmental affairs as Ruslan’s proxy, he hadn’t made any changes in the personnel the prince had installed. Even though the bureaucrats following the prince opposed him, he had prioritized resolving the ongoing state of disorder.
Because of that, people were also slandering Eugene behind his back, claiming that he was throwing his weight around in the palace as if he was owning the place, but this measure avoided a stagnation of governmental affairs.
As such, Eugene’s arrest was grave enough to make the bureaucrats fear for the future. Still, Miron hadn’t served many, many years as grand chamberlain for nothing. Once he set out to handle the governmental affairs, he produced such a steady and reliable output that it gave the bureaucrats a peace of mind. However, most of his experience and knowledge was limited to the inner workings of the palace, and he lacked imagination about what might be going on outside the capital.
On the fourth day after Miron had become the proxy ruler, a messenger from Julian Kurtis, who had raised an army in the Bydgauche Dukedom, visited the palace. Julian’s letter, which the messenger presented after having been led into the audience hall, was surprisingly high-handed.
“Four thousand of Bydgauche’s soldiers are currently three days by foot away from the capital. As long as the foolish Ruslan doesn’t concede his right to the crown and leaves Zhcted forever, my father’s grudges won’t be cleared. We won’t stop our march either. We’ll soon cross the Varta and attack the capital. I’d like you to also understand that you won’t just be facing Bydgauche’s soldiers either. Those holding territories north of the capital mourn over the death of my father, and intend to send their soldiers to support my case.”
The officials lined up in the hall were lost for words. They wondered whether Julian Kurtis planned to destroy the Kurtis family in his generation.
“Has Duke Bydgauche lost his mind?”
Of course, Miron was enraged, but he couldn’t avoid being wary about the second half of Julian’s letter. The Kurtis family was prominent and famous within Zhcted without a doubt, and it was also a fact that some people felt anxious and distrustful when it came to Ruslan.
Julian’s father Ilda was King Viktor’s nephew. He had garnered the support of many people as someone excelling in military prowess. If Julian were to make use of those personal connections and his blood relationships, he might be able to form a huge power opposing Ruslan in Zhcted’s north. If that were to happen, Zhcted would be split right in half.
“Tell Duke Bydgauche to immediately withdraw his soldiers and return to his territory. We have already ordered the neighboring lords to suppress Duke Bydgauche.”
Just then, several among the civil officials looked at Miron with eyes colored with blame. At the time when they received the report about Duke Bydgauche’s movements, it was Eugene, and not Miron, who had decided to request the neighboring lords to deal with the situation.
Miron’s way of handling this matter was correct as a politician. Giving the other side the impression that he, as the current proxy ruler, had carried this out could make the other side falter. But, it was questionable whether they’d actually consent to his demand.
The messenger kept his silence, but the light dwelling in his eyes was clearly full of scorn towards Miron.
Being rubbed the wrong way by this, the elderly chamberlain thundered, “In the first place, what’s the idea with the Kurtis family pointing its weapons at the capital despite being related to the royal family!? His Highness Ruslan has been engaging in governmental affairs without any problem whatsoever, doing his utmost to maintain the kingdom’s stability. Doesn’t Lord Kurtis understand that causing confusion and disorder after surrendering himself to his emotions is also going to disgrace the late Lord Ilda!?”
“In that case, I’d like to be given an audience with His Highness.” The messenger’s sharp voice, teeming with poison, echoed throughout the audience hall. “Where is His Highness? What about Earl Pardu? What would Lord Ilda, my former master, say if he saw the current, wretched state of the royal palace!?”
The military officers swiftly exchanged tense looks upon the messenger’s outburst. Seeing how Julian had dispatched a messenger like him, he obviously didn’t plan to negotiate any further. A buff military officer stepped forward, wedging himself between Miron and the messenger.
“Your Excellency, I believe we should allow the messenger to take a rest at the royal palace. And we should also close the capital’s gates at once.”
This should have been a reasonable measure. But, the grand chamberlain shook his head, frowning.
“…No, let’s avoid going this far. If the neighboring lords move, Duke Bydgauche should realize his own mistake. It goes without saying that he’ll have to face a severe punishment, but I think we should give him the chance to make up for his wrongdoings. If we close the gates, it might result in the duke feeling cornered.”
The officer was dumbstruck. Without hiding his irritation, he raised his voice, lashing out, “Even if we assume that the duke is going to acknowledge his mistake, we should only grant him some kind of opportunity to do so, after he demonstrated his will to atone by employing all means available to him.”
“Your Excellency, I share his opinion.” Another officer spoke up.
He exchanged a look with his nearby colleagues, telling them to escort Julian’s messenger out of the audience hall. Once he made sure that the messenger had left, flanked by two officers, he turned around to Miron once more.
“It’s plain obvious that Duke Bydgauche is currently overflowing with fighting spirit. Right now we don’t have many soldiers in the capital. Our forces are limited to those guarding the palace, manning the walls, and maintaining public order on the streets. Please order the gates to be shut, even if only for the sake of avoiding the worst case from happening.”
“But, if we exhibit our intent to resist by closing the gates, it’ll only fan Duke Bydgauche’s will to fight. Moreover, aren’t the citizens already anxious because of all the strange incidents occurring in the city most recently? If we were to close the gates under such circumstances, it’d frighten them unnecessarily.” Miron objected with a sullen look.
The elderly chamberlain had almost no battle experience. Thus he felt reluctant to make a decision that would turn the capital into a battlefield.
“Being defenseless against the several thousand soldiers approaching the capital would frighten the citizens as well, wouldn’t it?” A civil official, who didn’t hold Miron in high esteem, spat out.
Miron looked down on the official with a bitter expression, but he had no choice but to admit that the mood drifting in the audience hall was clearly in favor of the official’s opinion.
“I understand. Let’s close all gates…” Miron finally folded, urged by the silent pressure from all sides. “But, get everything ready so that we can send a messenger to Duke Bydgauche at any time. Though it’d be great if the lords could rein him in for us.”
The vassals exchanged gloomy looks in response to the chamberlain’s statement. But, they had no time to bicker around. If the letter told the truth, Duke Bydgauche’s army stood three days from the capital. On top of closing the gates, they had to adopt various measures to alleviate the citizens’ worries.
The time when things in the capital started to become turbulent spelled the end of a battle that had taken place on a plain extending in an area north of the capital, around two and half days away by foot.
A wind pregnant with the stench of blood whirled up clouds of dust and carried them across the land. Close to one thousand armored corpses were littering the ground with broken swords and spears serving as their grave markers. Mixed among those corpses were the abandoned flags of the Kurtis family, stained with blood and mud.
They were the soldiers who had followed Julian Kurtis. From among his 4,000 soldiers, 1,000 had gone back to the mud, 1,000 had fled, and the remaining 2,000 had capitulated after discarding their weapons.
The ones who had defeated them were approximately 5,000 soldiers wearing armor and fur while holding swords and spears. The losses on their side didn’t even amount to 50, and even if you included the injured, the numbers still remained below 200.
With a cold, wintry wind blowing, they had gathered the surrenderers in one spot, watching the vicinity to make sure that the soldiers, who had run away, didn’t come back. The flags they were flying depicted Zhcted’s black dragon on the one hand, and a circle consisting of black and white in the center of a light blue background on the other hand. Latter was the flag of Principality Osterode.
Their commander was a beautiful woman with long, bluish hair and violet eyes that gleamed bewitchingly. The pure white dress enveloping her delicate body was decorated with roses all over, matching her white rose hair ornament.
She was shouldering a huge scythe which didn’t fit her transient appearance. The scythe was as tall as an adult, and had an ominous shape that would immediately remind anyone of a dragon claw, while furthermore emphasizing that impression by a combination of deep crimson and pitch black colors.
The woman had lightly brandished that scythe on the battlefield.
Her name was Valentina Glinka Estes, a Vanadis with the alias 『Illusory Princess of the Hollow Shadow』. The scythe held by her was her draconic tool 『Cracked Void of Sealed Sinisterness』, Hollow Shadow Ezendeis. 2
After Valentina had escaped the capital, she headed back to Osterode right away. And while secretly moving her soldiers, she investigated Julian’s movements, waiting for a golden opportunity.
Three soldiers showed up in front of Valentina who was sitting on her mount in the rear of her army. They were courteously carrying a single corpse.
“We have brought what we believe to be Julian Kurtis.” One of the men went down on his knees, reporting.
The other two placed the corpse on the ground. It was a young man with an age of around 15 or 16 years. His hair was disheveled, and dry blood clung to the left side of his handsome face. The silken clothes, adorned with extravagant embroideries, were tattered and smeared with blood. The gauntlet of his left arm was twisted in a strange direction.
Valentina got off her horse, and knelt down in front of the remains. No emotions were visible on her face.
“Indeed. It’s definitely Lord Julian.” Valentina announced, gently closing the eyes of the corpse.
She had met Julian on several occasions in the past. The last time was in the midst of autumn, back when he had visited the capital to succeed the Kurtis family after his predecessor Ilda had lost his life in the palace. Valentina had kindly consoled the youth who was saddened by the sudden death of his father.
Several days later, Valentina and Julian had met once again. With them being alone, Valentina passed on a certain message to Julian, who had apparently calmed down somewhat after having inherited the Bydgauche house and its dukedom as well as having received Eugene’s patronage.
She had told him, “Ilda’s death might have been deliberate.”
Prince Ruslan had shown up in the palace after having recovered from his illness roughly one month before Ilda’s death. At that time, Ilda had begun to investigate the prince’s condition, harboring doubts about it. Valentina informed Julian of all this.
In the eyes of someone who knew all the facts, they might be shocked by Valentina’s audacity. After all, it had been none other than her who had deliberately murdered Ilda while pretending for it to have been an accident.
“Then again, I don’t believe that His Highness would do something like that since he had been greatly relying on Lord Ilda.” Finishing their conversation with this remark, Valentina had bid farewell from Julian back then.
But, after Julian had gone back to Bydgauche, Valentina began to plant Ruslan’s guilt in his head. Of course not directly. She used the scheme of employing many middlemen so that it wouldn’t ever be possible to track the source back to her.
All kinds of people such as Julians relatives and friends, the nobles visiting his dukedom, and merchants closely tied to the Kurtis family talked to Julian. Some among them insisted that “Lord Ilda had been assassinated by His Highness Ruslan.”
“To His Highness it looked as though Lord Ilda was aiming for the crown. If something were to happen to His Highness or His Highness’ son, the crown would fall into Lord Ilda’s hands.”
Assuming Ruslan and his son Valeri were to lose their lives, Ilda, who ranked 7th in the crown succession line, would succeed the kingship. In the past, King Viktor had nominated Eugene, who ranked 8th in the crown succession line, as his successor. However, King Viktor himself retracted this later on.
Also, Eugene silently obeyed when Ruslan recovered from his illness, but Ilda didn’t even try to hide his doubt and discontent over this. There were even rumors about him having said to King Viktor that he couldn’t agree with entrusting the governmental affairs to Ruslan.
For this reason, Ruslan had assassinated Ilda. Before he was done in first…
Julian bought that story. He was a smart, young boy, but he lacked the experience to notice the scheme coiling itself around him. Furthermore, it was certainly true that his father’s death had some questionable aspects to it. As the subordinates, who had served the family since his father’s time, agreed with him on this, Julian raised an army, labeling Ruslan as his enemy.
And then he and his army got defeated after suffering a surprise attack by Osterode’s army.
For Valentina, who was plotting to obtain the throne for herself, the Kurtis family was a hindrance she had to crush while she still had the chance.
The Bydgauche Dukedom boasted the best military forces and was abundant with wealthiness among the northern lords. If the Kurtis family felt like it, they could move thousands of soldiers within a day. If such a family had become Valentina’s enemy, Valentina would be forced to always set aside soldiers to protect Osterode from this looming threat.
This was why Valentina had instigated Julian.
Julian had no children, meaning the Bydgauche Dukedom would likely be broiled up in a succession dispute for some time. At some point, they’d probably settle on someone, but it’d be no problem to ignore this side over the winter, Valentina assessed.
“Hand over Lord Julian’s corpse to Bydgauche’s army. Having it buried by them might give his soul some peace.” Valentina stood up, ordering her subordinates.
──Still, it does have a bad aftertaste…
Valentina mumbled under her breath. She had executed this plan because she considered it necessary, and thus didn’t regret any of it. But, her having closed his eyes was not only an act of courtesy, but also stemmed from a certain extent of sentimentality.
──Oops, that’s no good. Is it because I’ve heard that folklore from Aunt Natasha?
Shaking her head, she got rid of the tiny reservation nesting in her heart. While mounting her horse again with the hem of her dress fluttering, Valentina surveyed her subordinates.
“Well then, let’s head for the capital, shall we? The Varta should come in sight the day after tomorrow. As soon as we cross it, we’ll be right there. Also, we must send a messenger to the capital, don’t we?”
After making sure that Bydgauche’s soldiers had retreated while carrying the corpses of their comrades, Osterode’s army resumed its march. As proof of their victory, they had loaded the armaments of Bydgauche’s soldiers and their flags on carts.
And then, three days later, Valentina arrived in Silesia. Seven days after Tigre had left.
Osterode’s soldiers successively entered Silesia through its northern gate. If someone aware of the palace’s circumstances to some extent had seen this, they might have been baffled by that spectacle. Valentina, the commander of Osterode’s army, was a criminal. As such she usually shouldn’t be allowed to pass the gate with her troops just like that.
However, she calmly led her horse at the head of her army as protector of the capital who had repelled Bydgauche’s army. The residents had gathered at the sides of the main street, watching the procession, but their eyes were only filled with hope and curiosity, lacking any hostility or anxiety.
The number of soldiers she had taken with her from Osterode amounted to roughly 5,000 men. An army of this size was the maximum she could move during the winter. Valentina had chosen 500 soldiers from among them to enter the capital with her, ordering the rest to remain on standby outside the city. If she had tried to enter the city with all soldiers at once, she’d have invited uneasiness among its residents which would have inevitably led to chaos spreading.
Seeing how she was planning to stay in the capital for a long time, she had assessed that she ought to avoid such a situation.
“Lady Vanadis, what are we going to do with these iron chains?” The knight instructing the soldiers from Valentina’s side asked.
Upon Valentina’s order, the supply unit had loaded very long, iron chains on wagons that were pulled by two oxens. Moreover, it was a convoy consisting of several wagons. Yet, none of Valentina’s men had been told what she was planning to do with these chains.
“Please transport them to my mansion. I can’t let you in on the details, but please be aware that these are very important.”
“As you wish, milady. I shall order the soldiers to handle them carefully.” The knight saluted, and left to pass on the directives to the supply unit.
Valentina suppressed the wry smile forming on her lips. There was no way she could actually talk about the intent behind those chains. After all, they were capable of sealing a draconic tool’s powers. She had gotten her hands on these chains in Brune. Charon Anquetil Greast had secretly handed them to her. The power of the chains had been proven when he had used them to hold Elen prisoner.
Of course Valentina wasn’t so naive to believe that these chains would allow her to prevail in the battle against the other Vanadis, but there was no doubt that they were an effective weapon against them. For this very reason she had to keep them hidden until the other Vanadis would challenge her on the battlefield.
After proceeding along the main street while casting a sweet smile at the residents, she arrived at the palace.
──I’m sure no one has expected me to return in such a manner.
After having the majority of her soldiers wait outside the palace, she took five soldiers with her and entered the compound. The one greeting her was Miron, unable to hide his mixed feelings. He didn’t come out to meet her alone, but had several civil officials standing behind him.
“Lady Valentina, you have my gratitude for having defeated Bydgauche’s army for us.” In his position, Miron had no choice but to say so.
Valentina responded with a smile, “Don’t mention it. It’s my duty as Vanadis to protect the capital. Although I had expected you to accuse me for having escaped the capital despite having been placed under house arrest.”
Having been beaten to the punch, Milon and the civil officials grimaced. They hadn’t yet been able to collect their thoughts on how to tackle that issue since they weren’t able to keep up with the sudden changes in the situation.
Valentina continued with a calm face, “It sounds like all kinds of problems are occurring at various places within the Kingdom, but I shall make any effort to protect His Highness and this capital. I’d like you to give me your permission towards this end. I also find it hard to believe that Bydgauche’s army would give up after one defeat…”
Valentina knew that Bydgauche’s army wouldn’t make any moves for a while, but Miron and the people at the palace didn’t. Remembering Julian’s letter, worry towards Bydgauche’s army overshadowed all their other emotions. Miron lowered his head, adhering to decorum.
“I shall leave it in your capable hands, Lady Valentina. Please protect His Highness and the capital.”
“Please count on me.” Valentina elegantly bowed once more.
This was the moment she had secured an unshakable position in the capital.
“Then, as for the matter of you having broken your house arrest, we will put it on hold for──”
Miron interrupted the civil official, who had spoken up, by lifting his hand.
“No… Thinking about it now, Lady Valentina was punished for having tried to protect His Highness from that cunning Earl Pardu.”
Valentina had challenged Sofy to a fight in the palace’s garden after taking the secret information that Eugene was targeting the crown seriously, at least according to what Valentina had told Ruslan.
“Seeing how Earl Pardu’s plots have come to light, the actions of Lady Valentina and Lady Figneria are nothing that ought to be regarded as crime. Rather, they should be praised for their loyalty.”
“…Did something happen?” Valentina asked, nervousness somewhat coloring her face.
Of course this was no more than acting. Valentina knew very well what had happened. After all, it was one of her own schemes that had led to this.
When Miron explained that Eugene stood in contact with Muozinel, Valentina intentionally acted surprised, asking with a shocked face, “That Earl Pardu?”
“Where is the earl right now then?”
“I have thrown him into the dungeon. As it’d plunge the capital in confusion if I announced the truth, I felt that it’d be prudent to wait a little bit longer until things have settled down.”
“I agree with your line of thinking, Your Excellency.” Valentina flashed a smile at Miron.
For her Miron was far easier to deal with than Eugene.
“By the way, I’d love to visit His Highness to take a look at his condition.”
With the talks having reached a breaking point, Valentina requested to do something she wanted to confirm above all else. A sheen of sweat appeared on Miron’s forehead as he looked back at the officials behind him. One among them spoke up.
“His Highness’ body still is not back in shape, and thus he has been resting.”
“I’m well aware of this.” Valentina returned at once, a faint trace of cold indifference dyeing her voice. “As one of his retainers, I’m deeply concerned about His Highness’ health. Please do not take my words as me wanting to unreasonably wake him. I’ll be more than satisfied with taking a look at him from a distance. If you claim that something of this level cannot be granted, I’d like to know whether there’s some reason for your refusal.”
“No, that’s not how it is.” Miron shook his head in a hurry.
The old chamberlain believed that Valentina’s loyalty towards Ruslan was as firm as a rock. He found it unbearable to be suspected by her that they attempted to keep her away from Ruslan because she harbored some evil intentions.
“Very well. I shall take you to him, Lady Valentina. In the meantime, I’d like your attendants to wait in a guest room. Would that arrangement be alright with you?”
Valentina consented, and after entrusting her subordinates to the civil officials, followed Miron through the hallways of the palace. They arrived at Ruslan’s bedroom in no time. Valentina passed her draconic tool to a soldier serving as guard.
Once Miron opened the door, she could see how Ruslan was laying on a luxurious bed located in the center of the spacious room. The court physician was standing next to the bed. As soon as she saw Ruslan, Valentina felt a pang of tension. With her eyes being widened a bit more than usual, she unconsciously pursed her lips.
Without noticing that change in Valentina, Miron explained the circumstances to the physician. Being invited by Miron, Valentina walked up to the bed.
Ruslan was apparently awake. Albeit dimly, his eyes were open. His pale golden hair had been carefully tied at his nape, and he was clean-shaven. His face was somewhat pale, and his cheeks had lost some of their fleshiness.
──It appears he’s going to last a bit longer for me.
She calmly analyzed while pushing her emotions aside. Valentina would be troubled if Ruslan died on her in this situation tomorrow or the day after. She wanted him to at least stay alive until the end of winter.
“Your Highness, Valentina Glinka Estes has come to visit you.”
While maintaining her politeness as retainer, Valentina quietly watched Ruslan’s state. Ruslan moved his eyes, looking up to her. Then a hoarse voice escaped the prince’s lips.
“Yes, Your Highness. I am here.” Valentina smiled after being addressed with her nickname.
However, Ruslan’s next words caused Valentina’s smile to freeze.
“Tina, did you read Leitmeritz’ 『Ephram and Ivan』…?”
Despite the casual nature of the question, Valentina couldn’t reply right away. 『Ephram and Ivan』 was a märchen passed down in Zhcted since ancient times. Its story revolved around the wise Prince Ephram defeating the evil Grand Chamberlain Ivan, but after being altered by many people over decades, it was said that more than fifty versions of the fairy tale existed nowadays. This was the reason why Ruslan had expressly added 『Leitmeritz’』.
“…Yes. I enjoyed reading it.” After leaving a pause of two breaths, Valentina answered with her smile still stuck to her lips.
That was no lie. In the so-called Leitmeritz version, Ephram was an illegitimate prince, and after overcoming all kinds of ordeals, he defeated the grand chamberlain, who was about to take over the kingdom, and ascended the throne in the end. The story of 『Ephram and Ivan』 itself was rather simple, but it was the kind of story Valentina liked.
Ruslan put on a smile, “I was sure you’d like it. Albeit being a girl, you always liked stories of bravery. You should read 『Northern Sea Baron』 when you get a chance. Aunt Natasha──”
As his voice became too quiet during the latter part of his comment, only Valentina could hear what he said. But then his words got interrupted by a strong coughing fit.
Miron cried out, “Your Highness!”, but Ruslan held him back by lightly shaking his head. Closing his eyes right after, the prince soon began to snore.
Seeing that, the chamberlain felt relieved. Miron then exchanged a look with Valentina, and the two left the prince’s bedroom after nodding at the physician.
Miron addressed Valentina, who accepted her draconic tool from the guard, with a confused look, “Lady Valentina, did you meet with His Highness in the past?”
“No,” Valentina shook her head, causing her long, black hair to sway.
At that time, she had already regained her usual composure.
“I just went along with his story. I was surprised by the sudden topic, but I also happen to have read 『Ephram and Ivan』.”
“But, His Highness called you Tina…”
Seeing on Miron’s face that he found it hard to believe her, Valentina added, “His Highness said 『Albeit being a girl』, didn’t he? I consider myself to still be young, but unfortunately I’m not an age anymore where you could call me a girl. I fear that His Highness has confused me with someone else because of his weak condition.”
“…Hmm, that makes sense. It must be as you say.”
It wasn’t as though Miron had asked out of some conviction. And Valentina’s argument that Ruslan had mistaken her for someone else carried a persuasive power.
Pulling herself together, Valentina bowed at Miron, “You have my deepest gratitude for having allowed me to visit His Highness Ruslan. Let me ascertain you once more: I shall protect His Highness, and expand all of my meager abilities to defend the capital from foreign enemies.”
“I leave it in your capable hands, Lady Valentina.”
After Miron deeply bowed as well, the two talked about the upcoming measures and plans. Valentina requested for all gates to be opened as proof of peace having returned to the capital. On the same occasion, she got Miron to agree with Osterode’s soldiers gradually entering the capital.
“I will have my soldiers man the walls and patrol the streets. Your Excellency, you can leave all matters related to the military to me. So could I have you take care of the governmental affairs instead?”
This was an arrangement Miron had desired to begin with. The elderly chamberlain readily consented, and led Valentina to one of the guest rooms.
“I’d like you to use this room for the time being. I’ll have a room for your personal use prepared by tomorrow at the latest.”
“Thank you very much for your kind consideration.”
When Miron had left in order to give the bureaucrats the necessary instructions, Valentina leaned against the wall and sighed deeply, now all alone in her room. Various emotions swirled through her violet eyes.
“For him to have remembered this of all things…”
Ruslan had certainly mistaken her as he had addressed the past Valentina.
──A girl with the nickname Tina; if it’s only that much, it’s not limited to me alone. But…
Ruslan had only one aunt with the name Natasha. She was the younger sister of the late Viktor, and Valentina regarded her as her second mother. Natasha had married twice, and lost both husbands. King Viktor had urged his sister to remarry many times over, but she refused that, and moved to Osterode, saying that this was the land where her second husband had been born and raised. This was something that happened close to twenty years ago.
Valentina had lived at Natasha’s mansion for five years after she became seven years old. This had been arranged by King Viktor with the aim to comfort his sister, but Valentina hadn’t been chosen for this task because she was suitable, but as a result of a process of elimination.
As Natasha was the king’s sister, holding the right to the throne, many of the noble lords approached her. Just like some of them tried to curry favors with her out of selfish interests, other lords tried to passionately bring up entreaties the king had rejected.
Natasha moving away from the capital to Osterode wasn’t just a result of her cherishing the memories of her husband, but also followed the aim to escape all these troublesome approaches.
If it came to placing someone close to his sister, the king wanted to avoid relying on someone of high status or someone with many relatives in the capital. However, someone of low social standing would likely falter away in front of her, and King Viktor loathed the idea of placing someone of unknown lineage at his sister’s side. Moreover, since it’d be bad for nasty rumors to crop up, men above a certain age were excluded as candidates as well.
As such Valentina came up as a candidate. She was a distant relative, but still royalty as she held the Estes family name, and given that she also possessed an obedient character, the king chose her.
Natasha harbored neither interest nor indifference towards the seven-years old girl that visited her mansion. Beginning with her language, Natasha strictly educated Valentina in etiquette, but she also taught the young girl many practical things such as reading and writing, knitting and embroidery, and the art of brewing tea. On top of that, Natasha passed on many stories and songs she knew.
Valentina became fairly attached to Natasha. For her, who had had a lifestyle equal to that of a commoner despite being royalty, everything and anything she encountered in Natasha’s mansion was a fresh experience. Moreover, Valentina quickly realized that all of Natasha’s teachings were for her own sake, causing her to make a serious effort to learn as much as possible. Because Valentina’s body was weak back then, she couldn’t go outside much, and thus she used her free time to read books next to Natasha, or listen to her tales.
Furthermore, there was yet another important experience at Natasha’s mansion for Valentina. Someone from the capital visited the mansion around once per month. The visitors varied. Just like a middle-aged woman wearing a silken dress came over, it also happened that slender, young men visited.
Natasha welcomed all these people without reservation, led them to the guest room, and listened to their stories, but Valentina still remembered very clearly how Natasha almost always looked weary after those guests left.
At some point, Valentina started to eavesdrop. 80% of the reason lay with her sense of justice to make a huge ruckus if something happened to Natasha, but the remaining 20% stemmed from the thrill of witnessing something scary. Valentina intuitively sensed that she’d encounter a world she didn’t know, or very likely, a world best left unknown.
The guests were all people visiting the mansion to influence King Viktor and the kingdom’s authorities through Natasha. Because Natasha didn’t look all that eager after listening to them in most of the cases, they explained the circumstances down to the last detail, and fell back on fervent speeches. After these guests left, Valentina often told Natasha, “Aunt, let me handle the next visitor. If I tell them that you are preoccupied, I am sure they will go away.”
However, Natasha always shook her head while gently stroking Valentina’s head, “Don’t mind it, Tina. Those people are my guests, so I must deal with them.”
Thinking back on it now, Valentina knew that it was the shallow thinking of a kid. It was unthinkable that visitors, who had traveled all the way to Osterode from the capital, would simply go back because a child said so. And just the fact that they were relying on Natasha, who was as good as retired, already showed the gravity of the problems they wanted to bring up with her. Understanding all that, Natasha didn’t turn them away, and occasionally listened to their requests.
By the way, some of the knowledge Valentina had obtained by eavesdropping on those meetings, she later used for her own ambitions after growing up.
Most of the visitors weren’t really welcome, but there also existed exceptions. One of those exceptions was a blond youth called Petrov. He was around twenty years old, giving everyone who saw him a cheerful impression. Whenever he visited, Valentina was also allowed to sit in. Natasha never called him by name, but instead referred to him with boy. Petrov accepted that with a smile.
As far as Valentina knew, Petrov never mentioned any requests towards Natasha. He talked about the news of the capital to her, enjoying the light-hearted casual chats. Sometimes, when he stayed over for the night, he’d sit on the sofa next to Valentina, completely absorbed in reading books.
As she was curious about him, Valentina asked Petrov all kinds of things, but with him dodging all her questions, she could only extract that he was apparently royalty just like her. Once he found out about Valentina’s liking to read books, he introduced various kinds of books to her. He visited Natasha’s mansion once every two months, but sometimes he also brought books for Valentina with him.
Before long Valentina noticed that Petrov was just an alias. It often happened that the name Petrov was used as an alias because it was so common in Zhcted’s north. This was also the reason why Natasha never called him by that name. However, since Valentina had become very close to Petrov at that time, she didn’t pay any real attention to it.
Once Valentina turned twelve years old, her duty was taken over by someone else. It wasn’t as though Valentina had made a mistake. It just followed King Viktor’s belief that it wouldn’t be overly wise to allow a single person to keep staying by his sister’s side.
Back then, Valentina didn’t understand the idea behind it. She felt devastated that her daily life up until then had come to an end. However, Natasha telling her, “You’re always welcome here, my beloved daughter,” made Valentina very happy. Afterwards Valentina made sure to visit Natasha at least once a year.
Several dozen days ago, even before departing Osterode with 5,000 soldiers to take the capital, Valentina had visited Natasha. She had knocked on the door of Natasha’s mansion with the intent to bid farewell for the last time.
Even though Natasha noticed that an atmosphere different from usual clad her “beloved daughter,” she welcomed Valentina with the attitude she had always used when dealing with the young woman.
Without mentioning anything unnecessary, Valentina enjoyed a friendly chat with the elderly woman while drinking the black tea Natasha had brewed for her. During her childhood, Valentina had never requested anything of Natasha that would require time and effort, even when it came to her childish pleas.
When their conversation hit upon the time when Ruslan fell ill at the capital, Valentina ended up asking something that had been bothering her against her better judgment.
“Aunt Natasha, do you know anything about the mental illness that befell Prince Ruslan in the past?”
Eight years ago Ruslan had managed to garner the respect and popularity of the people through his own efforts as the one to succeed the throne in the future. But then he suddenly fell ill and set fire to the royal villa. Valentina had investigated the cause for his illness at a time, but in the end she failed in finding out anything.
After remaining silent for a short while, Natasha turned her eyes to the wall. However, what the eyes of the old woman were apparently looking at wasn’t a white wall, but a distant past.
“Let’s see, big brother has already passed away, so I guess it’s alright for me to tell you alone.” Natasha told Valentina with a calm tone as if narrating an old story, “Do you know anything about the previous Vanadis?”
“No, not really…” Valentina shook her head.
She had heard some things from the people working at the governmental residence about the Vanadis who had ruled Osterode before her. But, she had never seen that Vanadis in person. That was only natural if you considered the system of the draconic tool searching for a new Vanadis after its previous owner passed away as Vanadis for some reason or another. It was a rare exception for the title of Vanadis to stay in the family as it happened with Ludmila Lourie’s family.
Seemingly having predicted Valentina’s response, Natasha nodded slowly, “The previous Vanadis, you see, were often women overflowing with valor, even when looking at them from my point of view. The relationship between them and my brother was very bad.”
Does she mean that they possessed an abundance of fighting spirit? Valentina mumbled in her mind. They must have been quite incompatible with King Viktor who considered war as annoying.
“Ruslan was on very good terms with two particular Vanadis. That boy wanted Zhcted to become greater by giving the Vanadis more freedom. I hear my brother and that boy have often argued about this issue. In the end, neither could accept the other’s view on this.”
Valentina’s eyes widened ever so slightly. This was something she heard for the first time. Going by the stories she had heard in the palace, Ruslan was a good prince and son.
──Strengthening the authority of the Vanadis to expand the kingdom, huh?
That part was surprising for Valentina since Ruslan had come up with the same idea she had in mind.
“I don’t know which of the two was right. On all other points, they were close to each other as father and son, just as it’s said by those who had been around them.” Natasha continued her story, “At some point, a certain royal plotted an uprising against my brother. He moved around very carefully to get everything ready, and succeeded in winning over several influential nobles, and moreover, two Vanadis. Those Vanadis allied with him because they harbored animosity towards my brother. In terms of the result, the revolt failed.”
King Viktor found out about the intrigue before it was carried out, and arrested the ringleaders on other charges, forced a confession out of them, and executed the whole lot. This intrigue became a scandal only known to a very few people.
Very likely the biggest salvation for King Viktor was the fact that he didn’t need to punish the two Vanadis. At the same time as the royal betrayer was executed, the draconic tools left their owners. Both had lost their qualification to be Vanadis, resulting in them departing from Zhcted. It was considered that the whole affair had ended with this, but King Viktor didn’t intend to leave it at that. His eyes zeroed in on the other royals, and the Vanadis who didn’t actively ally themselves with King Viktor during this incident. And among them were also Vanadis and royals who were close to Ruslan.
“I don’t know anything about the conversations between my brother and that boy. But, according to what I’ve heard from my brother, Ruslan tried to fervently persuade my brother, but my brother didn’t even try to lend him an ear. He said that their opinions and attitude towards the Vanadis differed too much to find a common ground.”
Valentina agreed with that in her mind. Natasha had heard this from her brother, King Viktor. Valentina was aware of the intrigue against King Viktor, but she didn’t know anything about what happened afterwards.
I dare say that currently no one in the palace knows about this.
“And then I heard that Ruslan took poison in order to stop my brother.”
A faint shadow of gloom crept into Valentina’s violet eyes. She had now realized why Natasha was telling her all this.
“Forgive me, Tina.” Natasha bowed her head lightly.
Valentina shook her head, “No, there is no need for you to apologize, Aunt.”
Natasha had said, “it’s alright for me to tell you alone.” Natasha probably believed that at least one of the royals should know about this. Valentina was distantly related to the royal family, and possessed the family name Estes.
“Speaking of Ruslan, I think I should tell you something else as well. You were very close to him as a child.”
Valentina tilted her head in confusion. After all, she had met Ruslan for the first time when she visited the capital after having become a Vanadis.
Natasha continued with a smile, “Do you remember Petrov?”
The instant Natasha asked her this, the dots connected deep in Valentina’s mind. Until this very day she had striven to not pry into Petrov’s background. This stemmed from her respecting his wish of not wanting to reveal his identity, but there was also a part in her that believed that she’d stain her memories of him by learning the truth.
Valentina nodded while anticipating Natasha’s next words.
“That boy was Ruslan. He was visiting me to check on my condition in my brother’s stead.”
After leaving the royal palace, Valentina soon arrived on top of the wall enclosing the capital. She was shouldering her draconic tool, the scythe Ezendeis.
Valentina didn’t get perturbed by most things, but as might be expected, she needed some time to calm down after having heard Ruslan’s words. On top of that, the aspect of her getting confused by something like that was unexpected for her.
Up here she didn’t run the risk of drawing any suspicions, even if she walked around by herself. It was the perfect place to cool down her emotions.
Soldiers of Osterode were already visible atop the wall. They were serving as lookouts while cooperating with the soldiers who were assigned to patrol the wall to begin with. Of course, they didn’t forget to put up Osterode’s flags at all the key points. After all, it was necessary to let everyone know that Osterode’s army was protecting the capital.
“Thank you for your hard work.” Answering the soldiers saluting her with a smile, Valentina kept walking on the wall while looking down at the streets.
The eastern gate was wide open, and a long line of merchants and travelers had queued up there. The majority was trying to leave the capital with only very few trying to get in.
“It looks like His Excellency the Grand Chamberlain has opened up all gates just as I’ve asked him to. In some days the gate will likely thrive with people wanting to enter again.” Valentina cheerfully muttered while scanning the vicinity of the gate.
Until just a little while ago, the capital’s gates had been firmly locked day and night. It was only natural that many people felt like escaping a city under such circumstances. Valentina was certain that all those people would come back again once they realized that the capital was safe.
When she arrived at a deserted section of the wall, Valentina revealed a bitter smile while allowing the wind to whirl up her black hair, “One always runs into unforeseen situations, eh?”
Even when Valentina made Ruslan drink the medicine and thus allowed his awareness to slowly return, and also after Ruslan had fully recovered his former self, he had never broached the topic of him having acted as Petrov. Valentina suspected that he might have forgotten about it since it was something that took place more than ten years ago.
By no means had Valentina expected that he’d suddenly remember after she had heard the story from Natasha. But then again, he had merely picked up a fragment of a memory deeply buried in his unstable mind, and it was quite possible that he’d forgotten about their short conversation by the time his consciousness resurfaced next.
Valentina very naturally entered a place out of sight. After making sure that she couldn’t sense any looks on her or the presence of anyone, she quietly closed her eyes, and inclined her scythe a bit. Then she soundlessly mumbled, “Your Highness.”
──It feels slightly strange that His Highness and I have been aiming for the same thing. But I won’t become arrogant and say that I’ll fulfill His Highness’ dream together with him. The only thing I can fulfill is my own dream. The more concrete its shape, the more it will turn into nothing but my dream.
No matter how much their dreams resembled each other, Valentina was convinced that her dream would never become Ruslan’s and vice versa.
──Come to think of it, if it’s the progress it’s going to make during winter…there might be no visible, huge misalignment between His Highness’ and my dream.
Maybe this was her appeal to Ruslan, an attempt to persuade herself, or both. Valentina opened her eyes. As a happy smile formed on her lips, distinct ambitions gleamed in her amethyst-like eyes. Ruslan’s words had gone through several deep contemplations, and had now apparently turned into a new source of motivation for her.
──The things I have to do haven’t changed. I’m going to consign all those who point their weapons at me to oblivion as Ruslan’s loyal retainer. And then I’ll become the queen of this country after inheriting the crown from Ruslan. Since this is no disobedience against the king, my draconic tool won’t have anything to complain about either.
It’s not a really ingenious plan. Valentina herself didn’t believe that her way of doing things was overly creative or anything. It might lead to her having to repeatedly go to war for the sake of unifying the country under her rule after becoming the queen, but right now none of the neighboring countries had the leeway to invade Zhcted.
Moreover, the Kurtis family was on the brink of collapse, and the Kazakov house had recently lost most of its power, so it’d be an ease to grasp all of Zhcted’s north. Valentina had manipulated those two after foreseeing that. The rest would depend on how much she could whittle down the power of the other Vanadis.
“I think I should go and take a look at Legnicia’s state for starters.” Valentina raised her scythe overhead with her bluish-black hair flying in the wind. “──Space Corridor”
As soon as she swung down Ezendeis, cutting through the air, space around her warped. Colors and contour rapidly faded from Valentina’s body as she melted into the space distortion. An instant later, she soundlessly vanished altogether, leaving not a single trace of her former existence in this place behind.
The joint army of Olmutz and Polesia led by Ludmila Lourie and Sofya Obertas advanced along the main road, heading straight for the capital Silesia. With Olmutz’s army fielding roughly 4,000 soldiers, and Polesia roughly 3,000, their joint army had 7,000 men in total.
These two armies had repelled the Muozinel army which had crossed Zhcted’s border, and furthermore defeated the military forces of Viscount Struve who had taken advantage of the domestic chaos to raise an army. Thus the disorder, which was about to swoop down on Zhcted’s south, was resolved surprisingly quickly by the two Vanadis.
The blue-haired Ludmila Lourie was 18 years old, holding the nickname 『Snow Princess of the Frozen Wave』. Her age was the same as Tigre’s and Elen’s, but she was slightly shorter than the two and was blessed with a small body build. However, she didn’t fall short to Elen when it came to her ability as warrior, and as for her pride as Vanadis, she surpassed Elen by quite a margin. But then again, after she met Tigre and fell in love with him, kindness and emotional dependence could often be seen dwelling in her blue eyes. She was well aware of her own change, and secretly welcomed it.
Mila wore a silver breastplate atop her bluish clothes, and her white skirt was concealed by metal pieces. Her outfit was so skimpy that you’d expect her to freeze in this cold weather, but the spear in Mila’s hand protected her from any coldness. It was Lavias, her draconic tool that was also called 『Piercing Horn of Evil Slaying』.
The one riding a horse next to her with her wavy, blond hair gently swaying was Sofya Obertas. She was four years older than Mila. She wore a thin overcoat above her silken dress that combined green and white colors. What Sofy was holding as if embracing it was a golden bishop’s staff. Its hue was beryl, similar to Sofy’s eye color and it was decorated with beautiful ornaments while linking several loops together. It was Zaht, her draconic tool with the alias 『Purifying Shell of Demonic Expulsion』.
Right now the two were traveling towards the capital to report their victory. But then again, this was but a pretext. Mila and Sofy’s true intention was to constraint Valentina. They couldn’t afford to let the black-haired Vanadis steal the capital.
And when they were just a little distance away from the capital, ‘that’ occurred above their heads. The azure of the early afternoon sky transformed into an odious violet.
Mila glared at the sky with her eyes wide open whereas Sofy was covering her mouth with a hand, speechless. Mila’s Lavias released cold air from its tip as if to warn its owner while Sofy’s Zaht scattered light particles that covered Sofy in an attempt to protect her.
But, the sky’s azure color returned in the next instant. The change was so short-lived that one might believe they had possibly fallen for a hallucination, and no visible effect lingered in the vicinity either.
Yet, the tension didn’t vanish from Mila and Sofy’s eyes. Their partners, the draconic tools, had reacted strongly to this, so it was impossible for this to have been an optical illusion.
“What do you think?”
“It’s probably something related to Tir Na Fal.” Sofy knitted her slender eyebrows as she answered Mila’s question.
The soldiers behind these two had started to become noisy. They also had seen the violet sky.
“This reminds me of something unpleasant.” Mila’s face distorted in discomfort.
It happened back when they had investigated the archives in Brune’s royal palace. At that time she had spotted a writing about a frog fairy called Vodyanoy. The book also contained a picture depicting that fairy, but the picture also featured a violet ground and a green sea. The sun was black and the moon red. When she saw it, it felt eerie to her, but now Mila guessed that the picture had hinted at this kind of change.
“Would it be better for us to tell the soldiers something?”
“As long as it’d allow us to give them a peace of mind. I’m not confident that I could find the right words right now.” Sofy shrugged her shoulders atop her horse.
She had judged that, for the time being, they couldn’t do much more than showing their soldiers that they didn’t care overly much.
After traveling for another half koku on the main road, around the time when the wall of Silesia became visible in the distance, the two Vanadis had no choice but to admit their defeat. The cavalry unit they had sent out to scout the capital’s circumference had returned and reported following:
“Osterode’s flags are flying in great numbers atop the wall. The gates are open.”
Mila and Sofy exchanged a look, realizing that Valentina had taken the capital. Both thanked their soldiers and had them step back.
Mila sighed, “There’s nothing as frustrating as having been unable to prevent the enemy from achieving its objective despite having known about it in advance.”
“You know, you can also be honest about your feelings and show that you’re worried about Tigre’s safety.”
Having the worry, which she had pushed down into the deepest corner of her heart, pointed out to her, Mila grimaced. Just close to twenty days ago, Mila had confronted Tigre with the feelings she had carried in her heart for a long time.
“I have no doubt about Tigre being safe. It’s unthinkable that he’d let the likes of Valentina catch him.” It was a childish statement, but also what she truly believed. “Rather than that,” Mila changed the topic, “what are we going to do next?”
“We have no choice but to join up with Elen and the others first. Or, do you want to attack the capital?”
“Don’t be silly.” Mila rejected Sofy’s teasing suggestion with a laugh.
If they tried to attack the capital, they’d be regarded as enemies by the people living in the city, unless they had a very convincing, just reason to do so. Moreover, it’d just earn them the people’s animosity, regardless of whether they won or lost. Mila had absolutely no intention to burden herself with such a disgrace.
And even if they had such a convincing, just cause, they’d require a tremendous amount of soldiers and siege weapons to scale Silesia’s wall. Neither Olmutz’s army nor Polesia’s had made any preparations in that direction. They lacked too much manpower and resources to fight Valentina under such circumstances.
The two stopped their march, and dispatched several messengers to the capital. It was based on the hope that their men would be able to find some clue how to tackle this while reporting their victory to the court. Afterwards they set up their camps next to the road.
Around the time of the sun going down in the west, more than a hundred soldiers in either army fell ill. However, unlike the soldiers of Leitmeritz and Lebus who suffered the same fate on distant soil, the soldiers here were released from their unknown suffering after roughly half a koku. Sofy, who had guessed the cause behind this, had gathered those afflicted in a single place, and brandished her golden staff while standing amidst them, exercising her draconic art.
“Petals, dance and purify the ground I’m standing on.”
Light particles gushed out of the tip of the staff she held up, forming large flowers above her head. The golden radiance originating from those flowers spilled over and fell onto the ground, melting with the soil while spreading. The soldiers, who got touched by that light, got healed within a moment.
This draconic art wasn’t intended to heal ailments. Its purpose was to purify evil. Thinking that this illness might be related to the violet sky they had seen during the day, she had tested how her draconic art would work on it.
“It’s great that it had an effect,” Sofy felt relieved from the bottom of her heart.
The messenger they had dispatched to the capital returned late at night. Mila visited Sofy’s camp and carefully listened to their report while treating them to black tea as a display of her appreciation. It was at that moment that the two Vanadis learned of Eugene’s imprisonment and Miron taking over as proxy ruler.
“You didn’t see Valentina…Osterode’s Vanadis?”
“She was referred to as an aide of the first prince. We were told that His Grace the Grand Chamberlain, the current proxy ruler, and Osterode’s Vanadis were protecting the capital.” And then the messengers were sent back after Miron further passed on, “You shall be awarded an appropriate reward in the near future, so quickly head back to your own territory, break up your armies, and remain on standby.”
After they thanked the messengers once more and had them leave, only Sofy and Mila remained in the tent. They looked at each other. The one speaking up first was the Snow Princess of the Frozen Wave.
“The prince’s aide, eh? I suppose she has taken back the position from before her house arrest for starters.”
But then again, Mila guessed that the real circumstances were different. She had no doubt that Valentina had concentrated a stronger authority on herself when compared to before.
Sofy placed a hand on her cheek, and sighed, “Sir Miron is not a bad person by any means, but…his outlook is too narrow for a ruler. I feel that part of him is being used against him. I’m also worried about Lord Eugene’s safety.”
The other piece of news that cast a grim expression on Mila and Sofy’s faces was information about Tigre. The messengers had asked the bureaucrats working at the palace about Tigre on their behalf, but according to them, Tigre had one day suddenly disappeared. Hearing this piece of news, Mila suspected an assassination for a moment, and became deathly pale with her eyes wide open.
Sofy soothed her by gently tapping her shoulder, and gave her an explanation to give Mila a peace of mind.
“Just as we talked about before, Tigre has a lot of value. Before assassinating him, they’d rather steal his Black Bow and throw him into prison.”
Sighing, Mila could come to terms with that logic reasoning. However, this still didn’t answer the question of where Tigre had gone.
“Let’s first join up with Elen’s group and then think about the next steps together. We simply lack too much information to come to a conclusion on our own.”
Mila had no option but to agree with Sofy.
After waiting for dawn, the two Vanadis’ armies departed westwards under the pretext of “relieving Leitmeritz’s army.” Both of them came up with the fabricated story that Elen had requested help as she was struggling with Legnica’s army. This was the easiest means to join up with Elen while also answering Miron’s “Return to your principalities” with “We shall prioritize the kingdom’s peace and stability.”
And then two days after they had moved their armies away from the capital, a soldier came to give his report to Mila just after noon.
Having preceded the army as scout, he told Mila that he had caught sight of a group, which he judged to be bandits, consisting of several dozen people approximately one belsta ahead of their advance. Given that it looked like they were about to attack several travelers, he had assembled several soldiers on his own without reporting back first, and routed the bandits.
“Well done. Did you take those travelers under our protection?” Mila praised the soldier with a smile.
If her soldiers were to ask for their commander’s decision each and every single time, they might not be in time when it came to rescuing travelers. Subordinates capable of making their own decisions on the go were very valuable.
Even as he looked thankful, the soldier continued his report with a slightly troubled expression, “Yes. We tried to escort them to a nearby town, but…once they heard that we belong to the armies of Olmutz and Polesia, they insisted on meeting Your Ladyship by all means, claiming that they were acquainted with Your Ladyship… What should we do?”
Mila furrowed her eyebrows. It was a possibility if it was someone who had escaped the royal palace. She asked the soldier for the names of the travelers.
“They’re three Brunians. A young girl called Titta, and two Brunian nobles called Gaspal and Gerard. They’ve claimed to be acquaintances of Earl Vorn…”
After becoming dumbfounded, Mila mumbled under her breath, “It can’t be helped, I guess.” Leaving aside herself, only 2,000 soldiers had participated in battles together with Tigre among the soldiers of Olmutz. And furthermore, that was a story from two years ago during the civil war in Brune. It was inevitable that many wouldn’t know the maid serving Tigre. Gerard had been mostly working on logistics in the rear of the army, and thus didn’t really stand out either.
“Bring those people to me. Also, send someone to Polesia’s army, and have them call Sofya Obertas. ──Also, Damad too.”
Damad was a young Muozinel soldier. Due to various circumstances, he’d been acting together with Tigre, but when Mila and Sofy had been appointed to deal with the Muozinel invaders, Tigre had asked Damad to cooperate with Mila. And even after the battle against the Muozinel army had ended, he had accompanied her without going back to his homeland.
After Mila and Sofy ordered their soldiers to set up camp and take a rest afterwards, they reunited with Titta, Gaspal, and Gerard in the supreme commander’s tent of Olmutz’s army.
Titta was 16 years old. She had bound her chestnut-colored hair into a ponytail on the back of her head. Her small body was covered by a red overcoat. Her face was stiff from tension and exhaustion, but once she saw Mila and Sofy, it loosened up, blooming into a smile that looked like she’d break into tears any time soon.
“U-Umm, Lady Ludmila, Lady Sofya…”
Tears welled up in Titta’s eyes, and immediately trickled down her cheeks as her emotions apparently broke through all at once. After calling the two Vanadis by their names, she seemingly became unable to form any further coherent words.
“It’s great to see you safe and sound.” Mila said with a smile, and Sofy gently hugged Titta so as to console her.
Seeing Sofy’s action, slight envy appeared on Mila’s face. Being able to act like that on the spur of the moment was doubtlessly one of Sofy’s strong points.
Gaspal and Gerard were, just like Titta, clad in traveling clothes. The two kept up their decorum as Brunian nobles, and bowed their heads at Mila and Sofy.
“You have my deepest gratitude for having timely rescued us. Since we are currently in the middle of traveling, I can only offer you words of thanks, but I would be delighted if you allowed me to express my gratitude properly in the near future.”
Mila generously nodded at their words of gratitude.
Gaspal was the second son of Earl Mashas Rodant while Gerard was Viscount Hughes Augre’s son and Brune’s Royal Secretary. Hence it was necessary for both to observe etiquette, even when giving their thanks.
Damad only commented, “You survived, huh?”, when he saw Gaspal and Gerard without so much as a change in his expression. Gaspal broadly grinned at that, returning, “Back at you,” whereas Gerard answered with a shrug of his shoulders, “I really wonder whether it’s your lacking vocabulary or the Muozinel language’s shortage of kindness that’s at fault here.” The young Muozinel snorted in amusement without taking any offense at all.
On the other hand, Damad said, “Well done to have prevailed,” to Titta, apparently taking her needs a lot more into consideration as a woman who was younger than him. Titta answered him with a smile, “Thank you very much.”
Mila instructed a soldier to get a meal ready. A little while later, hot water with a large quantity of honey, wheat porridge, fish soup, finely-cut cheese, dried apple which had been cut into bite sizes, and many other dishes were lined up in front of the three travelers. Steam rose from the soup and porridge, whetting the appetite of anyone looking at them. Of course, Mila hadn’t failed to also provide her personally brewed black tea. As for jam, they had the choice between strawberry and apple.
“If you want to eat bread or meat, I’ll have it prepared. Please don’t hold back on telling me.”
Thus they began to dine in a harmonious atmosphere. Seemingly having endured their hunger, Gaspal and Gerard wolfed their porridge down within moments. Titta, on the other hand, slowly sipped on the soup so as to heat her body from within.
“I’m sorry to do this while you’re busy eating, but could you tell us why you’ve been in such a place?” Mila asked while drinking her tea.
Unable to answer at once, Titta looked at her two companions in hesitation. With porridge still stuck to his mouth, Gaspal clapped Titta’s shoulder to give her a peace of mind.
“If there’s anything missing in your explanation, I’ll supplement it.”
Titta bobbed her head, and turned back to Mila and Sofy.
“More than ten days ago Lord Tigre suddenly vanished from the capital. He left a note behind asking Mr. Gaspal and Mr. Gerard to take care of me, but it didn’t mention a single word about where he was going…”
Mila and Sofy stared at the small maid in surprise. They had heard about Tigre’s disappearance, but they didn’t expect for it to have happened that long ago. Pulling herself together, Mila told Titta to continue.
Of course, Titta and the two men looked for Tigre. But, even after investing several days into their search, they couldn’t obtain a single clue. Upon Gerard’s proposal, Titta tried to rely on Eugene. But once they headed over to the palace, they were bluntly turned away, only being told that they couldn’t meet him.
“We are formally requesting an audience with His Excellency the Earl as Brune’s special envoys,” Gaspal had told the guards, but they didn’t even announce their arrival. It was only later that they learned of Eugene’s imprisonment.
Moreover, with rumors about Julian Kurtis leading an army against the capital from Bydgauche circulating, the atmosphere in the capital teemed with anxiety. The travelers and merchants coming from the north reported that they had seen several thousand armed soldiers, and this piece of news spread in the city in the blink of an eye.
At that point, Titta and the two men had hit a dead end. Even when trying to gather information, most of the people were only talking about rumors of strange phenomena or their fear of Bydgauche’s army, and thus no one listened to their questions.
When the capital’s gates were closed, Titta had finally made up her mind.
“──I wondered whether Ti Na Fal couldn’t provide the answer we sought.”
A short silence settled between the six people. Mila breathed out, though it wasn’t clear whether out of admiration or shock.
“An oracle, huh? Quite the drastic measure you took there…”
Priests and shrine maidens would seek divine guidance by offering prayers to their gods. This was called oracle. Since only the medium would be able to tell whether the result represented the gods’ will, the answer they intuitively arrived at was regarded as oracle.
Mila and Sofy had heard from Titta about what you could describe as her having a strange bond with Tir Na Fal, but offering a prayer to a goddess who was seen as evil in Brune and Zhcted was definitely nothing that could be touted publicly.
“The temples facing the main streets were all crowded by throngs of people…so I had Mr. Gaspal and Mr. Gerard search for a temple that has many gods enshrined while being secluded. That’s where I offered my prayer.”
“Did Tir Na Fal tell you anything?” Sofy asked gently.
Titta nodded shortly with a tense expression.
“It’s not as if she used clear words, so it’s more of a vague feeling, but she told me to head northwest.”
“What is to be found northwest?”
Tittal weakly shook her head at Mila’s question, “I don’t know. But, going by the tone in her voice, it looks like I’ll find out once I get there…”
‘That’s quite ambiguous,’ Mila judged in her mind, but she decided to accept it based on her belief that oracles simply worked like that.
“You mentioned Bydgauche’s army, didn’t you? They were defeated by Lady Valentina’s army, resulting in all of the capital’s gates being opened again. As such we’ve been able to leave the capital only now…” Gerard reported while ransacking his dark brown hair.
“And then you were almost attacked after leaving the capital and heading northwest, huh?”
“Your soldiers saved us in the nick of time,” Gerard answered with a profound tone.
Mila and Sofy exchanged a look, and then Sofy spoke up, “If we’re talking about northwest from here, it’d be either Legnica’s north or Lebus. I’ve heard that countless temples of old eras are sleeping in Lebus.”
“Old eras…” Mila narrowed her eyes, not looking very amused.
It followed a certain consistency. It wasn’t as though the gods, beginning with Perkunas, had been worshiped since the beginning of Zhcted. When the kingdom of Zhcted was established, the gods of the various tribes living on its territory were consolidated to a certain extent, leading to the currently, commonly-accepted gods.
Mila folded her arms and pondered, but she reached a decision rather quickly.
“I understand. We’ll believe you. Sofy and I are going to head there as well.”
Titta felt flabbergasted by that declaration. The same applied to Gerard and Gaspal.
“U-Umm, I would be very delighted if you could accompany us on our travels, but…” Titta squeezed out in confusion while pointlessly flapping her hands.
Sofy smiled sweetly, caught her hands and tenderly put her hands on top of Titta’s.
“You don’t need to mind it. You see, we’re also worried about Tigre. Besides, I can’t believe that he’d leave the capital for a trivial reason during this season.” With those words, she released Titta’s hands, and shifted her eyes to Mila.
“What are we going to do about the soldiers?”
“We can’t take them along. That much is clear.” Mila shook her head.
First, provisions would become a problem. At present the armies of Olmutz and Polesia had food, water, and fuel for no more than a few days. So far they had also advanced along the main roads as much as possible for the sake of procuring all these things from the cities and towns along the way. This option would immediately become erratic if they continued advancing according to Titta’s guidance. After all, whenever they’d proceed away from the main road, they’d need twice the food provisions, if you included the way back.
The next issue would be what opponent was awaiting them. If this whole matter was related to Tir Na Fal, it was a feasible possibility for demons to show up. If that happened, it’d be foolish to challenge the enemy with numbers.
“In that case, it’d be best to carefully select a number of soldiers, and have them wait in a place close to the capital.” Sofy put a hand around her mouth as she brooded.
Her idea was based on the wish of wanting to station some troops close to the capital in preparation for the possibility of Valentina, who was occupying Silesia, to take some kind of hostile action towards them. However, if they were to station their soldiers there, they’d have to prepare food and fuel for them. And, since they didn’t know how much time this new endeavor would take them, they had no choice but to lower the number of stationed soldiers.
“Also, how should we inform Elen and the others about this?”
Mila answered Sofy’s question with a solemn expression, “We have no option but to dispatch soldiers to Legnica and Lebus since we don’t know the current location of Eleonora and the others. Since I only have 100 cavalrymen with me, four units of 20 cavalrymen each would be the limit. I’d like to keep at least 20 cavalrymen at hand, just in case.”
“I can send out around the same number of cavalrymen. Let’s firmly order them to immediately escape without any worry if it looks like they’d need to fight against Legnica’s soldiers.”
Mila had no objection to Sofy’s suggestion. Neither of them knew about the conclusion in the battle between Elen and Figneria as of yet. As such they had to always consider the worst-case possibilities in advance.
“I will also try to ask Tir Na Fal to pass on information about Lord Tigre to Lady Eleonora and Ms. Limalisha.” Titta offered in an attempt to be of assistance while tightly clenching her small hands.
Mila faced the small maid with an apologetic smile, and only told her, “Make sure to not go too far.”
In reality Mila thought that she should stop Titta, but she couldn’t. She had personally experienced the bitterness and mortification of not even being able to know about the danger looming over the man she cherished.
“Lady Vanadis, could you give me a moment please? There is something I would like to inform you about.” Gaspal spoke up, probably having judged that the conversation had reached a breaking point. “We spotted His Highness Ruslan in the temple we entered for Titta to pray to the goddess.”
“His Highness? In the temple?” Sofy furrowed her eyebrows.
Going by Titta’s story, they had chosen a remote, inconspicuous temple. Ruslan had collapsed from overwork, which led to Eugene, and then Miron, taking over the governmental duties. In other words, Ruslan shouldn’t have recovered yet.
Next Gerard spoke up, “Please forgive me for saying something that will very likely sound very rude. Back then, His Highness looked like he was terribly drunk. His hair and clothes were disheveled, he was tottering, he was singing a weird, disharmonious song, his body swayed, and even his head shook. Just as we were dumbfounded by that sight, a goddess servant, who was working at that temple, appeared and led His Highness away.”
“I’d heard rumors that he had been behaving just like that back when His Highness was affected by his mental illness, but…” Mila sighed, unable to prevent anxiety from showing on her face.
She suspected that the prince’s mental illness was gradually regaining its former dreadfulness.
“I’m worried about His Highness, but…let’s leave that part to Valentina for the time being.”
Hearing Sofy’s comment, Milla pulled a puzzled look, seeking an explanation from the blond Vanadis.
“The actions of Valentina until now were always based on having His Highness Ruslan in mind. Even when she attacked us. And also when she defeated Bydgauche’s army. She should try to protect His Highness, no matter what might happen.”
‘Ruslan should still have more than enough utility value to Valentina. If things developed into a situation of us and Valentina fighting, we’d politically be at disadvantage by her having Ruslan at her side.
After having this explained to her by Sofy, Mila nodded with her blue eyes gleaming.
“You’re right. Let us hurry over to Tigre.”
Seeing how the discussion between the two Vanadis had reached its conclusion, Gaspal looked at Damad.
“I’ve got a request. Won’t you help us with our journey?” He lightly placed a hand on Titta’s head, and continued, “I’d like you to protect this girl together with me.”
Damad looked back at Gaspal, and then shifted his eyes to Gerard.
“I guess this guy is of no use for that task.”
“Damn right, he’s a completely lost case when it comes to fighting,” Gaspal answered.
“You’ve got a point there, I suppose. Accordingly I have a request, if you allow,” Gerard lowered his head at the two Vanadis with a nonchalant expression despite having just been ridiculed from the side, “Would it be possible to allow me to join one of your armies?”
“That would be fine with you?” Mila asked Gerard with a stabbing look as if somewhat testing him.
Her eyes implicitly asked him whether he was alright with not accompanying them in their upcoming search of Tigre as Tigre’s subordinate since the time of Brune’s civil war.
Taking on her scrutinizing gaze, Gerard calmly answered, “It’s not like I came all the way out here to become a hindrance to my comrades.”
“I understand,” Mila nodded with a mean smile, “Your field of expertise was the management of supplies and finances, wasn’t it? You may work for my army for a while.”
Thus it was decided that Mila, Sofy, Titta, Gaspal, and Damad would head northwest as indicated by Tir Na Fal.
It was morning of the third day after leaving Boroszló and starting to march towards the capital that Liza and Olga were called over to Leitmeritz’s camp.
“I wonder whether something happened. Normally the trip should be uneventful as we’re merely heading for Silesia.”
Even while cocking her head in puzzlement, Liza had followed the call and visited Leitmeritz’s camp together with Olga. The two Vanadis were immediately let through to Elen’s tent.
The tent’s interior had thick carpets and layers of pelts covering the ground. Writing materials, all kinds of different-sized tools such as maps, wine bottles, porcelain cups, and silver cups were visible in a corner of the tent. Two swords, one with a golden blade and the other with a scarlet blade, were among all these items.
“Sorry for having you come over in person.”
Elen and Lim sat next to each other on the carpet. Lim didn’t wear her usual blue uniform, but white trousers and a blackish shirt with a breastplate on top. A scarlet muffler was coiled around her neck. The bandages wrapped around her exposed arms and legs spoke of the burns beneath them.
“Are your burns healed already?” Liza asked while sitting down opposite of Elen.
Lim bowed in greeting, and answered, “Thank you very much for your kind consideration. I got burned from head to toe, but by now the scars have shrunk in size, and the pain has faded as well.”
Liza quietly scrutinized Lim’s expression. It didn’t look as though Lim didn’t feel any pain at all, but neither did it look as though she was forcing herself. Liza suspected that such kind of adjustment might have been possible with a weapon like Bargren.
“I’m relieved to hear this. On another note, those are rather peculiar clothes considering your usual style.” Liza commented with an expression that made her surprise clear.
Lim’s usual, unsocial expression softened faintly in response, “These are my spares. I have made them while copying the outfit I wore in the past. For the sake of not forgetting the feelings from that time.”
While Lim was answering, Elen pulled a wine bottle and the appropriate number of wine cups to herself. Filling each cup with wine and placing them in front of everyone, she asked with a serious expression, “There’s something I’d like to ask you two. Have you ever heard of the word Zagan? Be it a person’s name or a location, anything works.”
“Zagan?” Liza repeated the word quietly while knitting her eyebrows.
Next to her, Olga brought the cup to her lips while shaking her head.
“Is anything wrong with that word?”
In response to Olga’s question, a frown formed on Ellen’s face as if she was wavering how to choose her words. Even Lim seemed to feel somewhat awkward, going by her expression.
After a pause of two breaths, Elen answered, “Lim had a dream. A dream of Sasha and Figneria.”
“With Sasha you’re referring to Alexandra Alshavin…?” Liza blinked several times at the mention of an unexpected name.
Olga had never met Sasha, but she had heard a while ago that she used to be a close friend of Elen. Staying silent, she carefully listened to the continuation.
“Please allow me to continue from here.” Lim spoke up, staring at the two Vanadis in front of her.
“Last night I had a dream. The space inside the dream was wrapped up in darkness, and before I knew it, Lady Alexandra and Figneria stood in front of me, each wearing their black uniform as Vanadis. And then I could hear a voice telling me 『To Zagan』. Even though the voice sounded like theirs, it also sounded like the voice of someone completely else at the same time.”
When Lim finished speaking, a strange silence descended between the four.
Grimacing, Liza said, “Elen, and Limalisha. You called us for the sake of talking about that…?”
“I understand your doubts, but please humor us for just a bit longer.” Pouring strength into her hands that were resting on her lap, Elen patiently continued, “If it had just been Figneria, I could have understood it as we just fought her the other day. But for Lim to mention that even Sasha made an appearance in her dream caught my attention. Moreover, Lim apparently heard the term Zagan for the first time in her life. By some chance…”
“…their spirits are warning Limalisha…no, us. Is that what you mean?”
After watching Elen, who also seemed confused, Liza shifted her eyes to Olga, implicitly asking for her opinion. Liza was well aware of the trust Elen had in Lim. However, she still didn’t consider it such an important matter that it’d justify them being called over to hear about this.
Olga looked up to Lim with her head slightly tilted to one side, but before long curtly asked, “Were you close with that Alexandra person?”
“Despite her rank as Vanadis, Lady Alexandra was kind enough to interact with me familiarly. However, if you are asking whether we shared a relationship close enough for me to meet Lady Alexandra by myself, I would have to deny.” Lim made an effort to be as honest as possible with her answer even though she wasn’t quite sure of the meaning behind Olga’s question.
Next to Lim, Elen folded her arms, and supplemented, “Lim has that troublesome habit of trying to keep her distance out of tactfulness. But, from my point of view, I can vouch that Lim’s explanation of their relationship just now is correct. Is there anything else that’s bothering you about this point?”
Without trying to answer Elen’s question right away, Olga directed her look towards something behind the two – the pair of small swords that were adorned with beautiful ornaments. Returning her look to Elen and Lim, Olga confronted them with another question.
“Did you two sleep here last night?”
“Yeah. Lim’s burns haven’t completely healed yet, so I thought that it’d be better for me to stay close to her.”
After lightly nodding at Elen’s reply, Olga finally worded out her own idea, “I think that draconic tool showed you that dream.”
Upon the comment of the youngest, the eyes of the other three converged on Bargren. While tracing the blade of Mad Roar, her own draconic tool, with a finger, Olga continued, “My Muma cannot speak, but it definitely possesses a will. I have sensed this many times over when I held Muma in my hands. That draconic tool over there might have tried to inform Limalisha about something by borrowing the appearance of its previous wielders.”
Following that, Olga absentmindedly looked up to the ceiling, “According to a legend of the equestrian tribes, soul fragments occasionally live on in items that have been used for a long time.”
Elen hummed. With her arms still folded, she looked at Liza, “Come to think of it, how about you? Do you have any idea what Zagan could be?”
“In my case, the mention of Zagan immediately reminds me of a location within my territory.” Liza used her finger to depict a very crude map on the carpet, “I think it’s around two or three days away to the north from here by horse. It’s a wilderness off the main road. At most it shelters the remains of a town where they worshiped the gods of the old era.”
“The gods of the old era?”
It was Elen who reacted to those words. Lim only knitted her eyebrows.
“It’s nothing that unusual in my Lebus.”
“That might be true. But, we also know of a very troublesome goddess of the old era, don’t we?”
Upon Elen’s remark, the other three remembered the existence of a certain goddess at the very same moment. A goddess with three personalities who ruled over the night, darkness, and death.
“If you consider that it has been the spirits of the dead within darkness, it certainly adheres to consistency.”
“But, we’ll run into a pile of problems if we were to head to Zagan from now on. As I told you just moments ago, Zagan lies away from the main road.”
Even if it might be a level ground, the speed of any army would drop if they marched across wild land. Their legs would get stuck in quagmires, they’d injured their feet by stepping on pebbles, the hems of their uniforms would catch onto long grasses, and many other problems. On top of that, it could trigger fights among the soldiers when they bumped against their comrades while falling down. If the speed of an army decreased, it’d result in an increase of marching time and decrease of resting time per day. This would gradually chip away the stamina and morale of the troops. Not to mention that neither Leitmeritz’s army nor Lebus’s army had much leeway in provisions right now. These circumstances didn’t differ all that much from Mila and Sofy’s situation.
“Besides, if we don’t return to the capital as soon as possible, Tigre will be in danger…”
“That’s the part. I think Tigre might have possibly something to do with this Zagan.” Elen leaned herself forward, staring at Liza. “The one involved with Tir Na Fal isn’t us but Tigre. Isn’t Lim’s dream telling us to save Tigre?”
“You mean Tigre is in Zagan?” Liza lifted an eyebrow in doubt, but she couldn’t deny the possibility.
Liza thought that Valentina’s objective lay in keeping them away from Silesia so as to make the occupation of the capital easier. And Valentina knew about the power of Tigre’s Black Bow.
‘In that case, wouldn’t she use some kind of means to get Tigre to leave the capital after being separated from us?
“──I understand.” Liza admitted after deliberating for around five breaths. “Let’s bet on your assumption, Elen.”
The three Vanadis and one knight looked at each other and nodded. Afterwards their conversion shifted to the practical parts of executing their plan. They decided that only the four of them would head to Zagan. Elen didn’t look overly happy over the prospect of Lim, whose wounds hadn’t fully healed yet, coming with them, but Lim persuaded her with the fact of it having been her dream.
If not for Lim, Elen would have doubtlessly lost in the battle against Figneria. When she thought of that, the silver-haired Vanadis couldn’t come on her best friend too strongly. Also, as the one who incited Lim’s affection towards Tigre, it was hard for Elen to forbid Lim from accompanying them on an endeavor to possibly rescue Tigre from danger. Elen was quite aware that she’d have insistently desired to come along, if she had been in Lim’s shoes.
They would leave 1,500 soldiers in each army and have the rest return to Leitmeritz or Lebus. The combined 3,000 soldiers would head east to join up with Sofy and Mila. On top of that, Elen and Liza wrote up several letters to landed nobility possessing a friendly attitude towards them.
They had to prepare a place for their soldiers to wait for their return in case they wouldn’t be able to get close to the capital because of Valentina’s interference. It’d be somewhat more efficient for their armies to buy their provisions and fuel altogether from local lords who had some leeway. Moreover, it’d also have the advantage of making it easier to find their armies later on if they could ask the lords for their whereabouts. Both came to the clear decision that it was necessary to lower the number of soldiers.
“No matter what Valentina might be scheming, we’ve got five Vanadis on our side. It’s going to be a 5 vs. 1.” Elen declared with a forward-facing attitude.
Of course Elen was aware that Valentina would know of this as well and had likely prepared several hands to play against them in order to make up for that difference in power. Her deliberately voicing it out nonetheless was no more than an attempt to encourage herself.
The instructions to reorganize their armies took up all morning, and thus it was past noon when the four departed for Zagan.
- I don’t remember whether trash mobs where also called demons in the past, but I’ll reserve ‘demons’ for named monsters such as Vodyanoy and such, and call the rest monsters, fairies, apparitions, or whatever fits the situation.
- Ezendeis’s title was previously translated as Hollow Shadow, so I’ll leave it at that, but personally I’d go for “Mimic,” a monster that lures people into false safety by shapeshifting, False Copy, or something similar. The name consists of 虚影 (きよえい), meaning attacking in an unguarded moment/falsehood + portrait/painting of people and things.