In the distance a flock of birds made its way across the wintry sky with its background full of gray clouds. Seven days after they had departed from the camp of Arma Zirnitra, Tigrevurmud Vorn arrived at Silesia together with his travel companions. The sun had already passed its zenith.
Going by their plans, they should have arrived at the capital much faster, but they were forced to waste precious days on avoiding the territories ruled by lords who supported Valentina.
All the gates of the capital had been opened up, and long lines of merchants, workers, and travelers had formed at each of them. As long as the country was peaceful, the stream of visitors never ceased, even during the deepest winter. Tigre and the others got off their horses, and lined up together with all the other people waiting.
“Tigre, my mustache isn’t twisted, right?”, asked Gaspal behind the youth with a seriously depressed look on his face.
Tigre, Damad, and Gaspal had disguised their lower faces by adding a false mustache.
Laughing, Tigre retorted, “Don’t worry. It looks very natural.”
Naum was the one who came up with this disguise. Several days ago, he told the other three, “You guys have recently been in the capital, right? It’d be better for you to conceal your faces.”
“Is just a fake beard enough to deceive other people?” Gaspal had asked with his head tilted in doubt.
“It’ll be fine as long as people don’t recognize you guys at a glance,” had Naum answered with a nod. “If people who aren’t used to disguises go with something too elaborate, it’ll make it easier to see through it instead.”
Since the other three had seen the truth in what he was saying, they had decided to follow Naum’s advice.
Naum pointed a finger at the top of the wall when they had advanced to a point not far from the gate. Flags with a circle of black and white in the center on a light blue ground fluttered in the wind next to Zhcted’s Black Dragon flags. Those were Osterode’s flags.
“Aww, shucks, the fun journey has come to an end, it looks like. At last we’re going to infiltrate enemy territory, huh?”, bantered Gaspal in a casual, jesting tone, probably trying to soften the group’s tension.
Lured in by that, Tigre burst into laughter, and even Damad, who had remained silent so far, couldn’t help but to let a chuckle escape. A smile also revealed itself on Naum’s lips. It wasn’t as though they had forgotten their mission of rescuing Eugene, but the four had doubtlessly enjoyed their little excursion thus far.
Tigre, Gaspal, and Damad were accustomed to traveling. Naum, on the other hand, had been able to gather some experience since he hadn’t traveled over such a long distance until now.
They had spurred on their horses, stopping over at villages and towns to resupply and gather information. Whenever they spotted groups of bandits and unknown military forces in the distance, they circumvented them. If they ran into bigger groups of beasts, they scooted in a hurry. They camped out during the cold nights while taking shifts on the night watch. And while surrounding pots filled with ukha, they had chatted about silly stuff, letting the laughter of three different nationalities echo into the surroundings. It was a journey for which the descriptors tense and lonely would be alien.
“Let’s go,” said Tigre, stowing away the recollections of those last few days deep in his memories.
Naum smoothly explained their circumstances to the soldiers standing next to the gate, and the four were allowed to pass without any of the guards suspecting anything.
Exiting the gate on the other side, Tigre’s group was immediately engulfed by a heated hustle and bustle. All kinds of stalls lined up on both sides of the main street, and their owners touted their wares with passionate praise. Salt-pickled pork hung in bundles from the edges of eaves, and bottles filled with olive oil, spices, vodka, and vino were arrayed up atop of stands that were covered by hemp cloths. Bread, draniki, kvass, and many other things were also up for sale.
Minstrels were thrumming their balalaika and gusli on free patches of land. Just as there was a girl dancing beautifully while freely whirling her multicolored cloths around, a man exhibited a puppet show by manipulating the strings with the fingers of both hands. The passerby enjoyed the performances and songs while buying food and drinks at the stalls.
“This is what you call peace,” commented Gaspal full of admiration while nimbly dodging the coming and going housewives and children.
“The capital’s guardians, eh…?”
Tigre muttered a term they had often heard during their travels. It represented the people’s evaluation of Valentina and Osterode’s army. When he was looking at this sight, doubts whether it was truly proper to try to overthrow Valentina welled up within him. What Valentina had done was unforgivable, but it was also true that she was a good ruler.
“What’s wrong for you to space out like this?”
Tigre came to his senses when Naum tapped his shoulder, “No, I just thought that it sure is lively here.”
Lebus’s knight apparently guessed from those words what Tigre wanted to say.
“Once we rescue the Earl of Pardu, it’ll be fine to leave the rest to him. I don’t know the earl well myself, but he was appointed to be the next king by late King Viktor. The Vanadis and you trust him as well. I think we can leave things to him.”
“Thank you,” answered Tigre.
It’s just as he says. I feel sorry about pushing the clean-up of what we’ve done on Eugene, but there’s a limit to what the Vanadis and I, as a stranger on these lands, can do. I think we won’t have a choice in cooperating with Eugene in some way to lower his burden, though.
When they reached the middle of the street, Damad stepped forward.
“It doesn’t look like anyone is tailing us. Let’s go.”
First they would go to a Muozinel merchant, who was close to Damad, and have him refer an inn to them. The capital was under the control of Valentina, and seeing how they didn’t know how long it’d take them to rescue Eugene, they should avoid staying at a normal inn. While walking behind Damad, Tigre lent half an ear to the talk of the people out on the street, but he heard something that surprised him. Gossip claimed that the many strange phenomena had vanished because of Prince Ruslan visiting the temple every day to offer his prayers.
──Is this also a plot devised by Valentina?
He found it a very likely story that Valentina would intentionally spread rumors fitting her own objectives when it became clear that Ganelon had perished and that no unusual phenomena would take place anymore. But, of course it was also possible for those, who idolized Prince Ruslan, to have decided upon this reason after searching for a way to explain why the phenomena had stopped all of a sudden.
“We also caught sight of His Highness in a temple before departing the capital, but…he didn’t look like he was praying to the gods at all.”
Gaspal had apparently heard the people talking as well. He spat out a sigh in bafflement. Because he had fought against Ganelon together with Tigre and the others, he most likely couldn’t come to terms with this kind of rumor.
“I’m sure His Highness will listen to us if we explain the circumstances to him later,” said Tigre to console his friend who was just like an older brother to him.
Damad continuously proceeded from one side-road to another without ever getting lost. Gradually the noise started to fade into the distance.
Tigre was absorbed in his thoughts while pulling his horse and following Damad’s back. The current state of the capital he was witnessing right now, and the rhythmic clanking of the hooves might have become the trigger.
──Valentina said that she wants Osterode to prosper.
She mentioned it during their talk in the capital before he headed out to fight Ganelon. He believed those words to reflect her true thoughts. But, at the same time, he felt like something was off about them. They had heard that Valentina was taking part in the governmental affairs as First Prince Aide. But, she very likely believed that any hope for Ruslan’s comeback would be in vain, Tigre suspected. At least he couldn’t consider it any other way, going by her cold, indifferent tone from back then. And, Valentina apparently didn’t intend to dispel the accusations cast at Eugene either. If she had such an intent, she’d have proven Eugene’s innocence long ago.
If Ruslan succumbs to his sickness, and Eugene gets executed, the throne will be vacated. Just, I wonder who she’s planning to install there? Is she possibly trying to take the throne for herself?
When he reached that conclusion, a rather big shock hit Tigre.
I might be overthinking. But, it’d explain several things. Even the plot to establish a hierarchy among Vanadis might have been no more than the groundwork for her to become king. If only Sofy was here, Tigre thought, she’d add her own conjectures to the many pieces of information, and might have been able to provide me with valid opinions speaking for and against this conclusion.
Suddenly, an intense aroma of spices was carried over by the wind, causing Tigre to interrupt his brooding.
Damad had stopped in front of a store, and was now looking back at Tigre. It was a fairly big weapons store with two floors. Wooden racks had been set up at the storefront, filled with curved swords as they were used by Muozinel in addition to the common swords with straight blades. Gauntlets with iron claws and bows were on display as well.
After Damad talked to a fat man, apparently the store owner, about something in Muozinel, he said to the other three while pointing at a side door of the building, “There’s a stable in the back. Once you tie the horses, enter through the door over there.”
Tigre’s group bowed at the owner, and went around to the back of the building. The rather small stable was deserted with not a single horse being held there, but once they led their four horses inside, it was immediately crammed to the limit. The men lowered the luggage from their horses, removed the harness, and wiped the horses’ bodies.
Once they had finished their brief work, they left the stable, and entered the building. As they passed through the door, they found a room that served as a working area and resting place. A Muozinel-native carpet covered the floor, and the room was equipped with a table and chairs. Several wooden boxes were stacked in a corner. The boxes were stuffed with swords, spears, and polishing as well as whetting tools.
A middle-aged woman stopped wiping the table in the middle of the room, and pointed at a stairway with a smile. Her dark brown skin immediately betrayed her Muozinel origin. Tigre suspected her to be the store owner’s wife.
The second floor appeared to be used as a storehouse. Over here, not only weapons, but also armors, shields, helmets, and many more things could be found. Tigre and his friends lit the lamp hanging from the ceiling, and somehow managed to secure themselves enough space by carrying sets of armors into a corner of the room.
Just as they finally sat down, the Muozinel woman from before brought them a meal. Damad was with her as well, carrying a tray with pottery cups for all of them.
What the woman placed down in front of them were boiled potatoes covered by melted cheese. The cheese’s fragrant aroma immediately stimulated their appetite, and all the more since they hadn’t eaten anything after a light meal in the morning. A peculiar aroma also stemmed from the cups Damad had brought with him.
Gaspal took one cup into his hand, sniffed at its content, and asked, “What’s this?”
Damad listed the names of several spices.
“It’s often drunk in our country to warm one’s body.”
“I’ve heard the winters are warm in Muozinel as well, though,” objected Naum while scrutinizing the pattern drawn onto the cup.
Damad laughed, “Compared to Brune and Zhcted, that is. But in the end, our winter is still cold.”
After thanking the woman who then went downstairs, the men sipped on their drink. It contained a strange sharpness within its warmth, triggering the men to exhale deeply.
Next they bit into the potatoes. The salty cheese and potatoes melted alongside their heat inside their mouths. It was necessary to chew slowly so as to not burn their tongues, but the dish’s tastiness went beyond expectation. Not only Tigre, but the other three as well broke into smiles.
“Where in the capital are we here?”
Damad cocked his head in puzzlement upon Tigre’s question while chewing on his potato.
“Let’s see…around 400 to 500 alsin east of the royal palace.”
The royal palace’s circumference was filled with noble residences. The closer to the palace a lord was able to live, the more honor it granted him, but questions of security also played a role. If an enemy broke through the wall, the noble mansions would serve as bulwarks to protect the palace. Considering all that, you could easily say that this place was rather close to the palace.
“When you reach this neighborhood, you just need to grab a Muozinel and ask them about Shayahl’s store, and they’ll know.”
“Thanks, and also thanks for the meal.”
After finishing their potatoes, Tigre and Naum stood up. Gaspal was about to also get up, but Naum held him back with a hand.
“Tigre and I will be enough. You two wait here or gather information in an inconspicuous way. It’d be welcome if we could learn a bit about Arma Zirnitra’s movements.”
Tigre and Naum left Shayahl’s store. The two were wearing cloaks and had lowered their hoods over their eyes. Tigre hid his chin underneath a false beard. The piece of paper Elen had given him contained the names of three people. After engraving all that was written on the paper into his mind, he had burned it yesterday. They planned to visit all three before the day was over.
Around the time when Tigre’s party infiltrated the capital, Valentina visited Ruslan’s bedroom in the palace after being called over by him.
“Oohh, thanks for coming, Tina!”
As soon as he saw Valentina’s face, Ruslan waved a hand with a smile on his lips. The 38-years-old prince was sitting upright on his luxurious, canopied bed. His golden hair was disheveled and the stubbles on his jaw were rather conspicuous, but his complexion seemed much better than usual.
A boy in silken attire stood next to the prince. His hair color was similar to the prince’s with its pale gold, and his eye color was as blue as the prince’s, too. Nothing that could be described as an emotion was reflected on the boy’s face as he cast no more than a single glance at Valentina.
──I wonder where Sir Miron went.
While puzzled by the grand chamberlain’s absence, Valentina walked up to in front of Ruslan, and bowed respectfully. Next, she performed the same kind of bow for the boy as well.
“How are you doing these fine days, Your Highness Valery?”
The boy called Valery by Valentina looked up to her and nodded lightly, but didn’t utter a single word. Valery was Ruslan’s son. He had turned ten years old this year, but he was small and thin, making him look several years younger than his actual age. Even Valentina felt a certain extent of pity with this boy.
Valery had lost both his parents at an age of two. His mother succumbed to illness, and his father became mentally ill. And on top of that, his grandfather, King Viktor, locked away his grandson in a room. It was said that the late king had feared the possibility of his grandson afflicting the same mental illness as his son.
King Victor likely hadn’t spared on providing Valery with all the food and clothes he might have desired, and he had undoubtedly made sure for Valery to receive a certain level of education, but in the end, Valery had been living by himself ever since he was old enough to understand what was going on around him.
As such, Valery was looking at Ruslan like he was watching some stranger rather than his father. After directing a somewhat sad smile at his son, Ruslan looked up to Valentina with a serious expression.
“I have summoned you because there’s something I’d like to request from you by all means. Could you hear me out?”
“I am Your Highness’s retainer. Please feel free to order anything you wish.”
For Valentina as First Prince Aide no answer other than that could exist.
While pointing a gentle look at his son, Ruslan said, “I’d like to entrust you with taking care of Valery. It might be unfair to put it like this, but there’s no one else I could ask to do this.”
Confusion dyed Valentina’s eyes while she still kept her head lowered. Unintentionally lifting her face, she blinked several times while staring at Ruslan. His father’s words also seemed to come as a surprise for Valery. The boy looked back and forth between Ruslan and Valentina.
She started, but the word ‘me’ didn’t leave her lips because Ruslan was beckoning her over. Bending, Valentina brought her ear close to Ruslan’s mouth.
“Miron hates this child. He’s regarding this boy as the cause for what happened eight years ago.”
Valentina’s eyes widened due to the whisper that caused her eardrum to tremble. At the same time, she comprehended why Miron wasn’t present right now. She suspected that Ruslan had him step out.
The matter of eight years ago concerned Ruslan’s mental illness. Ever since those days, all kinds of speculations about the cause had been swirling around, and even what Valentina could find out by herself only hinted at it having been either an illness triggered by the shock of having lost his wife, someone poisoning Ruslan, or something like him having been possessed by an evil spirit.
Nowadays Valentina knew the truth. Natasha, the younger sister of King Viktor, had told her. After having prevented a rebellion, King Viktor had even gone as far as suspecting the Vanadis and royals close to Ruslan because they hadn’t actively allied themselves with himself. Unable to persuade his father, Ruslan had gulped down a cup of poisoned wine on his own accord. That was the full story behind it.
It wasn’t supposed to ever come to light. If it had been revealed that King Viktor had driven his own son into madness because of his own obstinacy, the king would have suffered an irredeemable blow to his reputation and honor. The royals and Vanadis, whom he had been suspecting, wouldn’t have been able to take it calmly either. In the worst case, it could have sparked a new rebellion.
Once Valentina raised her body, Ruslan coughed a few times. He looked up to her while smiling weakly.
“I’m counting on you.”
“──As you wish, Your Highness. Please leave it to me.”
Valentina had no choice but to bow and confirm.
Leaving Ruslan’s bedroom, Valentina bowed to Valery once more.
“Your Highness, please leave everything to me, Valentina Glinka Estes, starting today. I shall make sure that you experience no inconvenience whatsoever.”
What a speech for a treacherous retainer, Valentina smiled cynically at herself in her mind, but Valery limited his reply to a frank, “Okay.”
“By the way, how am I to call you? Umm, my father…has been calling you Tina.”
The instant he was about to say father, Valery was clearly confused. It wasn’t as though he wasn’t used to calling Ruslan his father, but rather stemmed from his hesitation to call Ruslan like that.
“Tina is my nickname. As long as you are fine with it, please feel free to call me like that, Your Highness.”
“Very well, then I shall take you up on that offer. It’s a bit sudden, but Tina, what is that thing you’re shouldering?”
Valery’s eyes, full of curiosity, had zoomed in on the long-handled scythe she was shouldering. As might be expected, Valentina had left her draconic tool outside before entering Ruslan’s bedroom.
“Ezendeis. It is the draconic tool that has designated me as Vanadis. It is dangerous, so please do not touch it.”
Just like that the two started to walk through the hallway, heading towards Valentina’s office for the time being. Valentina tried to match the pace of the far too young prince as much as possible, but Valery was quite slow as he kept inspecting the ceiling and walls as if seeing something unusual.
──Up until now, the things he was able to see were so limited that he could actually count them… The hand extending out of the silken sleeves are small and his skin is white, too. I should have considered it as odd. I should have realized that Miron, who has been displaying such strong loyalty towards Ruslan and King Viktor, hasn’t mentioned Valery with a single word up until now.
No, she had noticed it. But, Valentina didn’t harbor any interest or concern for Valery, and thus she didn’t pay it any heed. She was convinced that Miron was likely taking proper care of Valery’s necessities as grand chamberlain.
──What should I do about this?
She racked her brain while walking. Valery’s existence didn’t matter to Valentina. Once Ruslan would pass away sooner or later, she planned to make him abdicate his right to the throne before putting him into some temple. Valentina didn’t see any value in a ten-years-old boy. But, now that she had been asked to look after him by Ruslan, she couldn’t simply ignore him either. Even Valentina herself felt hesitant to neglect the care-taking of a child despite having been ordered to deal with it. That feeling was also influenced by Valery being Ruslan’s son, she suspected.
She couldn’t entrust the prince to the maids and court ladies serving in the palace. After all, Miron stood above all of them. For this very reason Ruslan had expressly called for her. She considered the option to borrow some maids from a noble lord, but if the lord learned about the charge being the prince’s legitimate son, it was easy to imagine that he’d try to butter up Valery without even trying to hide any ulterior motives.
I guess I need to call over the elderly couple of servants working at my mansion in the capital.
At that moment, a certain idea struck Valentina. Making her dress’ hem wave by stopping all of a sudden, she smiled at Valery.
“Your Highness, there is a place I would like you to accompany me to, but could I have you come with me?”
After looking up to Valentina with a curious expression, Valery shortly bobbed his head, and Valentina felt like she had heard a faint approving grunt.
Valentina changed her direction. Passing through a very long corridor, she descended a stairway, just to walk across another hallway, before taking a corner. Eventually she stopped in front of a certain room.
“Where are we?” Valery asked with a puzzled look.
In response, Valentina smiled sweetly at him and asked, “It is the archive, Your Highness. With all due respect, do you feel any discomfort about reading or writing?”
“I’m fine with it, I think.”
It was a vague answer, but still more than enough for Valentina. Pushing the door open, she stepped inside. Faint traces of tension could be seen on Valery’s face.
As soon as Valentina lit a lamp, the darkness in a section of the room was expelled. Looking at the huge bookshelves and the books lined up within, Valery swallowed his breath. Him grabbing the hem of Valentina’s dress likely stemmed from him feeling slightly scared.
“Please do not worry, Your Highness. You will not find anything scary in here. Only books are inhabiting this room.”
“Books…,” muttered Valery in blank amazement, and then frowned as if having realized something. “I don’t like studying all that much.”
“We have not come here to study. Did you ever happen to read 『Ephram and Ivan』?”
Valery tilted his head in confusion at her question, “Ephram? Ivan? Who are they?”
Valentina was lured into smiling against her will. A long time ago she had made the same mistake. If someone were to ask why she still remembered such a triviality from a distant past, the answer would lie in her having been frequently teased with this by Natasha and Petrov ── Ruslan.
She answered with a question of her own, “Your Highness, do you like tales?”
After blinking several times while looking like he was pondering, Valery asked as if to make certain, “Do you mean something like the story of a bear and a wolf traveling alongside a river? My nursing mother told me that story in the past.”
That tale was very famous as a story for children in Zhcted. A bear and a wolf, both close friends, casually looked at the upper stream as they stood at a riverside. The wolf wondered where the river was originating from and proposed to the bear that they should go and take a look. The two went on a journey while sharing the salmons and deer they hunted down, and being chased around by bee swarms after trying to steal honey. Of course, Valentina knew this story as well.
“Yes, I mean that kind of story,” confirmed Valentina.
Hearing that, Valery put on a sad expression, seemingly troubled.
“I loved listening to the stories of my nursing mother. She also told me a story about everyone trying to pull out a huge, huge turnip. However, she stopped visiting when I became five years old…” 1
I see, Valentina agreed in her mind. She felt like she was able to take a small peek at a fraction of Valery’s life up until now. ‘I’d like to keep learning more about him in preparation for the things to come, but asking him too insistently is probably going to produce unwanted results instead.
Responding with, “Please wait a moment,” Valentina walked up to a bookshelf, and pondered for a bit which of the books didn’t use too difficult a language while gazing at the many spines.
──This scent…is something I’ve forgotten for a long time, isn’t it?
She thought in a corner of her mind. Valentina had indulged in reading during her house arrest, but after having started to act, she didn’t even have time to touch a book.
──It might be interesting to use this chance for testing His Highness.
There were many versions of 『Ephram and Ivan』. Choosing two other books in addition to 『Ephram and Ivan』, Valentina headed back to Valery.
“I know it sounds rude, but I do not know anything about you, Your Highness.”
She passed the books she was holding to the young prince. The boy held the three books with both arms.
“Therefore, could I have you read these? I do not mind you skipping over anything that is too difficult for you to understand. Once you have finished reading, I would love to hear you impressions by all means.”
“Am I going to read them here?”
“Do you wish to do so in your own room?”
Valery shook his head at her question.
“I don’t really like that room much.”
“How about my office then? I have some things I need to do, so I cannot spend too much time with you, but…”
“That is fine,” confirmed Valery.
The two left the archive, and started to walk towards Valentina’s office.
Two reports were delivered to Valentina on that day.
One was about the outcome of the battle between Arma Zirnitra and the tribes. It caused Valentina to frown as the report stated that the 20,000 barbarians had been defeated by Arma Zirnitra with its less than 5,000 soldiers. She had wished for both parties to clash and it had played out just like that, but she couldn’t call the result desirable in the least. Not only was the damage to Arma Zirnitra negligible, but the northwestern and northern central lords, who had suffered from the tribes attacking, were now supporting Elen and the others for showing their might as Vanadis.
Of course Valentina had expected such an outcome as a possibility, but now that it had turned into reality, she still wasn’t happy about it. The northeastern lord had been obeying Valentina for a while now, so this turn of events didn’t endanger Osterode right away. But Valentina decided that she should start to consider the probability that the final battlefield might lay somewhere between the capital and Osterode. She had to play some kind of hand against the northwestern and northern-central lords, too.
──Still, there’s one point that doesn’t make any sense.
Valentina reread the report from the beginning once more. It was a writing her subordinate in Piwa had put together. According to this, the Vanadis all displayed valorous, hard fights as they stood at the head of their soldiers while going through many weapons.
It wasn’t unusual for a knight, who was putting forth great efforts on the battlefield, to wreck several weapons. Of course, it often included a certain rate of exaggeration, but Valentina had actually witnessed such fighters, too.
Just, this would never apply to a Vanadis who wielded a draconic tool. Under normal circumstances.
On top of that, another piece of information stood out as very interesting to her, although it was based on the words of an Arma Zirnitra soldier. He had stated that the Vanadis had apparently announced to their men before the battle that they couldn’t use their draconic tools.
The scenery of her cutting down Sofy revived in Valentina’s mind once more.
As I thought, she couldn’t use her draconic tool.
A smile revealed itself on her lips, but she immediately tightened her expression again and decided to dispatch several of her subordinates to Piwa.
She assessed that she probably should kill as many of the other Vanadis as she could while they couldn’t use their draconic tools. But before doing so, she wanted to get her hands on precise information first.
The second report was about several lords in the south having raised armies. Lured by the confusion after the death of King Viktor, they accused neither Ruslan nor Eugene to be fit as next ruler while endorsing Adelaiyda, the daughter of the Rodina family that ruled over the land of Vyelka, as the next ruler of Zhcted.
Adelaiyda was the daughter of Veronika, the eldest daughter of King Viktor. She was fourth in line for the throne. Looking at it from just this point, you could say that she possessed the necessary qualifications to claim the crown for herself. But, she was an eleven-years old girl. In addition, her father and patriarch of the Rodina family, Karl, had lost his eyesight in an accident, and was currently ruling over Vyelka with the support of his wife and daughter. The ringleaders of the lords who had raised their armies were Ginova Chenbel and Tsagil Eleck. Both were Adelaiyda’s guardians. So it should be obvious that the girl was used by both of them.
“Send a messenger to her at once and tell her to stop this meaningless dispute,” ordered Valentina while keeping her thoughts to herself.
──So I finally got them to move, huh?
Adelaiyda’s raising of an army had been arranged by Valentina. Its aim was Pardu, the homeland of Eugene. Valentina didn’t believe that it was enough to put Eugene in jail. She was convinced that she had to strike down Pardu, just like she had destroyed Bydgauche’s army after murdering Ilda. After all, she expected that Pardu would become her enemy sooner or later once she took the crown for herself. Valentina planned to get rid of two threats by having Adelaiyda’s army clash with Pardu’s soldier and thus exhausting both sides. She was even willing to team up with either side to crush the other, before finishing off the remaining side herself, depending on the circumstances.
Valentina had ordered her soldiers to be ready for sortie at any given moment. She knew that she had to decide soon whether to turn the brunt of her attack northwards or southwards.
While she processed the governmental affairs, read through the reports, and handed out new orders, Valery was silently flipping through one of his books while sitting on his personal chair Valentina had prepared for him alongside the wall of her office.
The commanders were holding a war council in the camp of Arma Zirnitra near Piwa. Dealing with the aftermath of the battle against the tribes had finished yesterday, and the army got everything ready to resume its march in the course of today morning, but the situation had changed after they received the messenger of a certain lord. The soldiers interrupted their work of taking down the camp, and decided to wait for further orders until their commanding officers had decided the future course of action.
Just when noon was around the corner, the four Vanadis and Lim put their heads together inside Elen’s tent. Each of them had a silver cup with Mila’s black tea placed in front of them.
Liza explained with an expression that didn’t manage to hide her confusion, “We have received a request by a lord who is a distant relative of the Kurtis family. They’re asking us to protect Bydgauche.”
After Bydgauche’s army, led by Julian Kurtis, was annihilated by Osterode’s army, Bydgauche’s land had been plagued by squabbles. The family’s relatives were fighting over who was supposed to become the new head of the Kurtis family. But, that didn’t mean that all of the relatives were vying for that post like vultures. Just as some of them watched this wretched, shameful argument while feeling completely fed up with it, others considered resolving the issue by involving outsiders. One of those following the latter approach had asked Arma Zirnitra for help on that matter.
“Impossible,” Elen turned it down instantly with a curt denial.
Lim and Mila also nodded their approval.
“Right now, we don’t have the leeway to protect some territory. Not to mention that the Bydgauche Dukedom is amongst the biggest powers in Zhcted’s north. It’s evident that such an endeavor would require a long time”
“Our first and foremost objective is to take down Valentina. I won’t go as far as saying that we should ignore the public order in the north for that sake, but I’d prefer for noble families to at least solve their problems internally.”
The two arguments were quite reasonable, but the story didn’t end at that.
“Please wait a moment. There’s a continuation to this.”
Liza talked about Adelaiyda raising an army. Bydgauche’s messenger had informed her of this. Eugene’s wife was Ilda’s little sister, and due to that connection, a tie, albeit a small one, had formed between both fiefs. Owed to the distance between both territories, it was limited to exchanging letters once every few years, though. Apparently Bydgauche’s messenger had heard of the circumstances in Pardu through that line.
Elen, Mila, Lim, and Olga looked at each other due to the sudden shift towards a talk about Zhcted’s south. Liza supplemented her explanation by preparing a map.
“The one ruling over the land of Vyelka is Karl of the Rodina family. Adelaiyda is his daughter. She’s also King Viktor’s granddaughter, and as such she’s fourth in line for the throne after His Highness Ruslan, His Highness Valery, and Lord Karl. And──she’s eleven years old.”
“She’s obviously being used as a figurehead,” commented Mila with a bored snort, and then looked at Elen who was next to her.
Elen was scowling at the map, her silver hair swaying from her trembling out of rage.
“You’re saying they’re targeting…Pardu, while fully aware that Lord Eugene is absent? What a despicable low blow.”
“That’s the very reason why they’re doing it in the first place, no? Isn’t it their plot to then use the momentum to attack the capital in order to kill His Highness Ruslan?”
Elen didn’t make a single comment towards Mila’s remark. It wasn’t as though she hadn’t heard it, but rather, her head was preoccupied with finding some kind of means to save Pardu as obvious from her gleaming, ruby eyes.
After casting a worried glance at Elen, Liza surveyed everyone’s faces once, “Could I have you listen to my opinion on the matter?”
Olga, who had been silent for a while now, Lim, and Mila nodded. Even Elen, who frowned over having her train of thought interrupted, recalled that she was currently sitting in on a war council, and redirected her attention to the ongoing discussion.
Liza swallowed her breath lightly as she stared at the map surrounded by the five of them. As if making sure whether her own thinking was correct. After shaking off her hesitation, Liza spoke up.
“Let’s split up our army. Olga and I will protect Bydgauche. Elen, Mila, please take your respective armies and head for Pardu.”
“Wh-….!?” Elen was about to jump up, shouting, but she swallowed her words when she noticed the two odd eyes fixed at her. Persuading herself to listen to the end, Elen sat back down.
Mila was on the verge of jumping up in the same way, but after watching Elen, she reconsidered and sat back down as well.
Elen asked with a voice as calm as she could muster, “What is the idea behind splitting up a small army of less than 5,000 men even further?”
“Does that mean you’re telling us to stop attacking Osterode and go south after coming this far?” Mila also showered Liza with a sharp look.
Liza responded to both with a smile, and stared down at the map with tension dyeing her face.
“Let me first talk about attacking Osterode. After having learned about most of the northeastern lords allying themselves with Valentina, I’ve deemed this to be an extremely difficult endeavor.”
Elen and Mila nodded, albeit reluctantly.
Next Liza pointed a finger Pardu’s location on the map, “Pardu is a land we must protect. Even if we endorse Lord Eugene, it’ll all be for naught if his territory were to fall into ruin. I think Tigre would be sad as well.”
“Shouldn’t we head with the whole army for Pardu then? Why would you need to go to Bydgauche…?”
“That’s the crucial part here,” responded Liza to Mila with a confident smile.
Her odd eyes gleamed as fighting spirit blazed deep within.
“It’s difficult to attack Osterode. But, I’d like to show them our willingness to give it a go if they show us an opening. Bydgauche is a prominent fief in the north and lies near Osterode. As such it is the perfect location for that objective.”
“But, if we don’t move from Bydgauche, it’ll invite Osterode’s army in the capital and the armies of the northeastern lords to launch an attack from their side, won’t it?”
Liza shook her head at Elen’s objection. She moved the finger she had placed on the map.
“The northeastern lords won’t be able to make any careless moves. Brest is situated south of Osterode.”
Having that pointed out to her, Elen’s eyes widened as she stared at the map. Olga looked somewhat triumphant while holding her cup in both hands. After all, Brest was the principality she governed.
“Olga Tamm is in Bydgauche together with me. Just this piece of information alone will be able to detain the northeastern lords, and likely Osterode as well, from making any moves in our direction. If they were to move their soldiers, Brest’s soldiers would definitely start heading north in order to save her.”
“It’s fine to put your hope on that. I’m confident in their marching speed,” added Olga with a smile.
Brest’s main force consisted of equestrian tribes. They were an assembly of skilled riders who were capable of riding horses as good as Olga or even better than her.
While looking back and forth between Elen and Mila, Liza continued her explanation, “Also, although we’ll move in two ways, Valentina can’t simply leave the capital unmanned. If she doesn’t come at us with her whole force, I’m confident that we’ll be able to fend her off in Bydgauche. I can also request reinforcements from Lebus.”
“I see. And it also means that Valentina will become unable to throw all her forces at us either, huh? She’ll need to stay vigilant of you two in Bydgauche.”
Grasping the idea, Elen exhaled deeply.
It’s a dangerous move. If we make a single error, we’ll end up getting killed one-by-one. But, Pardu isn’t that far away from Leitmeritz and Olmutz. If we immediately send fast runners to either principality with orders to send soldiers to Pardu and hurry to Pardu while avoiding all battle, we might be able to scrounge up enough of a fighting force to fight against Osterode’s army.
“──Ludmila.” Elen turned her whole body towards Mila, sincerity glowing in her scarlet eyes. “I want to protect Pardu. That’s why I agree with Liza’s plan. But, you──”
“Fine.” Interrupting Elen, Mila stated in a rather brusque manner. While Elen became dumbfounded by the unexpected, quick approval, Mila averted her eyes and loudly proclaimed, “I said it’s fine! However──” Mila folded her arms and glared at Elen with her face becoming beet red, “──you’ll entrust your soldiers to me. Limalisha and you are to head over to Pardu ahead of us. Over there you’ll explain the situation to Lord Eugene’s family and gather up as many soldiers as possible.”
When Mila finished speaking, Elen spontaneously grabbed her hands.
“I got it! I’ll definitely show you great results! Thanks, Ludmila!”
Mila stared at Elen, who repeatedly thanked her with her eyes sparkling in joy, with a face which made it clear that she didn’t know how to react. While feeling very conscious of the warmth enveloping her hands.
On the third day of their visit in the capital, Tigre and Naum met a man called Albatov. He was one of the people Elen had jotted down on the memo she gave Tigre. The place he designated for their meeting was a bar with the funny name 『No Gloves Needed』. It was located in the eastern part of Silesia and used the fact of the bar’s interior being warm enough that you wouldn’t require gloves as its selling point. And because of the walls actually being warm and the bar offering private rooms ─ albeit for an extra charge, the establishment was flourishing.
Tigre and Naum met Albatov in one of the private rooms. The man said that he’d become forty this year. His traits could be summed up with a characteristic hook nose, a conspicuously receding line of dark brown hair, and a medium build. His expression was stiff from the very beginning of their conversation, although it was unclear whether it stemmed from the seriousness of their topic or him having a cramped expression by birth.
The three sat around a table, facing each other under a lamp. A waitress had placed bronze cups filled with wine and a plate with roasted beans on the table and then excused herself. After she had closed the door and another five breaths had passed, Tigre removed his false mustache.
Albatov exclaimed in surprise, “Oh, Brune’s Lord Vorn? Fancy to meet you here. You suddenly vanished from the palace so I had already wondered what might have happened to you, but…”
“I had some things to take care of, so I left the capital for a while,” explained Tigre with a nod and smile.
Just in case, they hadn’t brought up Tigre’s name beforehand. Naum had claimed, “He might be willing to at least hear us out when we mention Lord Eugene’s name, even if we don’t bring up your name here,” but even so, Tigre had to admit that Naum was a resourceful man when it came to negotiations, seeing how he had only needed three days to set this whole thing up.
──I had explained the circumstances to Lord Eugene alone on the day before leaving the capital, but…it looks like he didn’t confide with anyone else about it.
Tigre considered that to be inevitable, however. Eugene had been thrown into jail on the very next day after Tigre departed Silesia. He couldn’t imagine that Eugene would have had time to consult with anyone else in that short span of time.
“Sir Albatov, there is something we would like you to tell us. Is it true that Lord Eugene has been imprisoned on suspicions of having colluded with a foreign country?”
“How is hearing about it going to help you in any way?” Albatov stroked his nose with doubt coloring his eyes, and continued, “This is an issue of our country. Even if yours might have friendly relations with ours, we still wouldn’t want a foreign country meddling in our affairs.”
“I wish to help Lord Eugene. If Lord Eugene is being confined on baseless charges, I want to rescue him, no matter what it takes,” Tigre unreservedly revealed his own feelings on the matter without hiding anything.
He could see Naum’s lips twitching out of the corner of his eyes, but Tigre wasn’t entirely sure whether this was Naum holding back his laughter, Naum being nervous, or both at the same time.
The sharp glint in Albatov’s eyes intensified as he glowered at Tigre.
“You say you want to rescue him, but what are you going to do after succeeding in that? The charges filed against Lord Eugene…of course I believe them to be false accusations, but are you telling me that you’ll clear them away?”
“That is my intention, yes,” Tigre agreed reassuringly, taking Albatov’s stare straight on. “It is not just me either. The Vanadis of Leitmeritz, Eleonora, shares that wish. And the Vanadis of Olmutz, Lebus, and Brest are going to help us as well.”
“Ah, you’re talking about Arma Zirnitra, right…? I’ve heard that you fought the barbarians in the north,” commented Albatov and lowered his eyes at the cup in front of him.
After a short moment of silence, he quietly asked with his eyes fixed on his wine, “I can understand our country’s Vanadis making a move, but, why would you get involved in this? Lord Eugene becoming the ruler of Zhcted certainly might be convenient for Brune. However, if something were to happen to you, who are hailed as a hero in your country, the loss for Brune would be unfathomable.”
“It is not that I am acting on orders from Brune. I am simply following my own heart on this.” After making that preface, Tigre further added, “You said that I am hailed as a hero. But, I became a hero because Eleonora helped me. She lent me her strength two years ago when I lost a battle and became her prisoner of war. Thanks to her assistance, I was able to protect my fief. The same can be said about this year. Although she had also been ordered so by King Viktor, she exerted herself in the war against the enemies who attacked my country. Valentina also assisted on that occasion, but I feel a much stronger debt of gratitude towards Eleonora.”
Tigre breathed out lightly, and after a short pause, continued, “Besides, I like Lord Eugene’s character. Even if he has committed a crime due to some sort of situation, I still cannot believe that he would collude with a foreign country to bring harm to Zhcted.”
“It is just as you say.” Albatov curtly agreed, just to clasp his cup and down the wine in one breath. “If Lord Eugene had been that kind of a man, he would never have been entrusted with the task of being our country’s diplomatic envoy in Brune over such a long period of time. And even if he hypothetically betrayed Zhcted, for argument’s sake, he wouldn’t have used this kind of method.”
For almost a quarter koku after this, Albatov continued to passionately talk about Eugene, obviously having accumulated quite a bit of complaints over the recent weeks. Tigre and Naum silently listened to it all. This allowed them to learn that Albatov had also been removed from his official duties by Miron, now only being allowed to handle miscellaneous chores. According to him, the other two people mentioned by Elen were currently in a situation similar to his.
“──Excuse me. I allowed my emotions to get the better of me,” apologized Albatov and lowered his head.
Tigre and Naum shook their heads, showing him that they didn’t particularly mind. Rather, they felt it to be reassuring to know that Albatov was still adoring Eugene.
“What do the Grand Chamberlain and Osterode’s Vanadis say about Lord Eugene?”
Albatov shook his head at Naum’s question, “Neither is willing to talk about it. I’ve asked them several times to check the charges once more, but they keep telling me that it’s unnecessary. To be honest, I harbored some hope when it came to Lady Vanadis, but I was too naive. At this point, Lord Eugene is being treated as a rebel. No one in the palace speaks on his behalf anymore.”
Tigre and Naum looked at each other.
Naum asked once again, “Does that mean Lord Eugene has no supporters left in the palace?”
“I believe that a fair number of people feel pity for him in their hearts, but when it comes to openly supporting him….,” answered Albatov, unleashing an aura of gloom.
Tigre leaned himself forward, “Sir Albatov, how far would you go in cooperating with us?”
“How far, you ask…?” Albatov suspiciously gazed at Tigre while caressing his nose with a finger.
“I have told you a little while ago, but we wish to rescue Lord Eugene. Even if we have to infiltrate the palace. But, we do not know where Lord Eugene is being imprisoned. We are going to think up ways on how to sneak in from now on, but could we hope for your assistance in this endeavor?”
Albatov pursed his lips and shifted his eyes towards his empty cup. But, even if there was any turmoil occurring within him, it lasted but a short moment.
“I understand,” nodded Albatov his consent with a bright smile. “I can’t help you directly. But, I’ll do as much as I can.”
“Are you sure? If this comes to light, things will not end with miscellaneous chores this time around.”
Naum asked in order to ascertain Albatov’s determination. He planned to give up on Albatov and contact one of the other two, if Albatov showed the faintest hesitation here.
“If things go smoothly, I’ll be able to work under Lord Eugene again. As long as it works out one way or the other, I wouldn’t even mind moving to Pardu. ──Please, free His Lordship.”
His last request was packed with all his sincerity. Tigre and Naum nodded, switching their discussion to the practical part of the rescue mission.
After Albatov had left the room, Tigre and Naum stayed behind for a while longer. They had judged that it’d be smarter to not go outside together, but instead leave separately.
An empty bronze cup and almost untouched roasted beans remained on the table. Just as Tigre grabbed some beans, Naum suddenly asked him, “What do you think about our Vanadis?”
Tigre reflexively jerked his head around, staring directly at the man next to him. As for Naum, he was currently glaring into his own cup, not even attempting to return Tigre’s look.
Wondering whether he might have misheard, Tigre asked, “Come again?”, causing him to have a coughing fit. “……Are you talking about Lady Elizavetta?”
Tigre going out of his way to use her formal name to check back with Naum was proof of him having pulled himself together. Even so, he couldn’t help asking himself why Naum had to bring up this topic so shortly after they had finished a mentally-taxing, secret talk.
“You’re aware that our Lady likes you, aren’t you?” Naum asked while still avoiding looking at Tigre.
The wrinkles on his face looked a lot deeper than usual. Probably owed to the lamp light’s angle.
Tigre shortly confirmed
It had only lasted for a short period of time, but Tigre had served as her personal attendant for a while. He would never forget her smile when he bid farewell from Liza after recovering his memories. Then again, it was only recently that he had clearly become aware of her feelings for him. When he came to Zhcted in autumn, met her, and talked with her on many occasions, he had started to consider it a possibility.
However, he had made an effort to act like he didn’t pay attention to it, also because she hadn’t directly confessed her feelings to him like Mila had. He already had Elen, Titta, and Regin. And now even Mila. As such he felt like he didn’t have the qualification to bring it up from his side.
Having said that, it wasn’t as though he could Naum honestly tell all that, and thus he said, “You’re probably going to tell me to stop being so conceited, but whatever your answer might be, I can’t act from my side. On top of that, there’s my and her positions to be considered.”
Publicly, Tigre was an earl of Brune while Liza was a Vanadis of Zhcted. It was the same as with Elen.
“I’m aware of that,” Naum turned himself, body and all, towards Tigre while making the chair’s legs screech across the floor, fixing his eyes on the youth. “And yet, I beg you. If you don’t think badly of our Vanadis, please tell her directly, regardless of whether you’re going to reject or accept her feelings.”
As might be expected, Tigre was bewildered by this. However, he knew that Naum meant it seriously. He could sense the older man’s tension from his expression.
“What do you mean?”
Naum sighed lightly and stroked his face’s wrinkles many times over as if to demonstrate his irritation. After inserting a pause in such a way, he explained with a tone that sounded as though he had somewhat given up, “Our Lady possesses excellent abilities when it comes to governmental and military affairs. But, I’m afraid, she’s a completely lost case in anything related to romantic affairs. She’s been often talking about you in front of us, but she’s always happy with just having been able to talk to you for a bit. It’d be a different matter if she was a girl at the tender age of ten, but we’re talking about a nineteen-years old woman here.”
Being able to vividly imagine the scene of her bragging in front of her soldiers, Tigre had to do his utmost to stop his face from twitching. Somehow he could feel the bearing of a big brother or father from Naum’s sullen face.
“Because of her position as Vanadis, it wouldn’t be odd for her to marry a man after passing the age of twenty. Same happened to our country’s preceding Vanadis. Even so, it’s painful to listen to her bragging about having been able to talk with the man she likes a bit longer than the day before while not even trying to confess her feelings despite him being right next to her.”
The latter part of his words was a flood of emotions.
“And so you’re telling me to, umm, tell her my feelings…?”
“I’m not asking you to do so as soon as we join up with her again. You probably need to prepare yourself mentally, too. In the first place, it’d be okay to wait with this for after we’ve cleaned up this whole mess here. You might consider it a bother, but if you don’t come clean from your side, our Lady probably won’t be able to move ahead, whichever direction it might be. She’s that kind of a person. If possible, I’d like you to do it before you go back to Brune.”
Likely having said all he wanted to get out of his system, Naum placed his hands on his knees and breathed out deeply while looking downward.
For a while Tigre silently stared at Naum’s head, but eventually he sighed, and answered, “I got it.”
‘Whether you accept or reject her feelings’ is what Naum had told him. Considering his standing in all this, he should be trying to get Tigre to accept Liza’s feelings at all costs. He could have insisted on Tigre at least reciprocating her feelings, even if a marriage was no option. But, he hadn’t done so. Tigre knew that this was Naum’s own way of expressing sincerity and friendship.
“I’m sorry, really,” said Naum, finally lifting his face again. “I had planned to tell you before we arrived at the capital, but it’s nothing I could have mentioned in front of Gaspal and Damad. In the end, it got delayed until now.”
“Now that you’re having me take responsibility for this, make sure to see this through to the end, ‘kay?” Tigre joked.
Their laughter made the atmosphere in the room tremble.
The day after their secret talk with Albatov, at night, the four of Tigre’s party had hidden themselves in a side road near the palace. Tigre, Gaspal, and Naum wore common linen clothes, armor, and a helmet while carrying spears. They’d be pretending to be guards patrolling the palace.
The pedestrian traffic, which was thriving during the day, had abruptly died down as soon as the sun went down. After all, no one really had any business with the palace once night came around. Then again, as some of the lords held modest banquets or continued working deep into the night, several of the noble mansions around the palace still had light shining out onto the streets through their windows. But, Tigre suspected that they wouldn’t come outside unless a fairly big disturbance occurred outside.
Last night Albatov had told Tigre and Naum a lot of things, including the fact of Eugene being locked up in a prison located in the basement of the royal villa, the low number of guards stationed in the villa which had been built by a king many generations ago but didn’t see much use nowadays, and the ease of entry and escape since the villa was surrounded by gardens.
“Nice, that’s very detailed,” had Tigre praised.
Albatov had shook his head with a laugh, “I had been granted just one meeting ever since Eugene has been imprisoned. I wasn’t permitted to talk with him, but I could at least confirm his condition. Back then, he still seemed to do fine, but… After that, I made my way to the villa many times over, believing that I might be able to meet him once more.”
The Muozinel weapons dealer, Shayahl, had sold them spears looking very similar to the guards’ weapons. According to him, he could have prepared identical weapons through an acquainted moneylender, if they gave him another four or five days, but Tigre had politely turned down his offer with a wry smile. It basically meant some of the guards were in such dire financial straits they they would borrow money from a moneylender while using their weapons as collateral.
──Still for us to make plans and immediately put them into practice on the next day…
Tigre himself wondered whether they were a bit too hasty here. Since they’d have only one chance, he had been asking himself whether they shouldn’t put more thought into things first.
However, they didn’t know how long Eugene would be safe. Albatov mentioned that Eugene had already spent close to forty days in his prison. It was plain obvious that neither Miron ─ without saying ─ nor Valentina intended to release him from there.
Plus, they had made sure to not be tailed by anyone, but the same couldn’t be said about Albatov. It was quite possible that Miron was keeping him under surveillance out of caution. Besides, it was already the fourth day in the capital for Tigre’s group. If they were found out, they’d be forced to prioritize their own safety first, abandoning all plans to rescue Eugene.
Because of all these reasons, they had decided to act tonight.
Looking up to the sky where the moon was shining and the stars twinkling, Tigre’s group endured the cold wind blowing across the side street while quietly waiting for their moment to come. At the end of Tigre’s line of sight were guards, each standing along the garden at fixed intervals between them. Their shift change would be the time for Tigre’s group to make their move.
Even just the torches held by the guards were enough to tell that the garden was tended carefully. Tigre could imagine that the winter flowers blooming in all kinds of colors would be a feast for his eyes. At the far end of the garden towered the royal villa as jet-black shadow high into the air. Torchlights betrayed the guards over there, but they numbered one, or at most, two.
After half a koku had passed, just when the moon had climbed the firmament even further, several guards appeared at the garden. They finished the shift change and took up position at their assigned positions. The people, who had served as guards until then, walked away while yawning and stretching.
“Should we head out?” Gaspal asked.
But Tigre held him back, answering, “Let’s wait another thirty.”
Then he started to slowly count to thirty under his breath. Despite the cold air, sweat drenched his forehead. He suspected that his armor feeling oddly heavy was owed to him not being accustomed to it.
Tigre took one, deep breath, sucking in the cold night air, just to exhale a hot breath in return.
“Let’s go,” he said to Gaspal and Naum.
Damad would wait until the three came back here. It was owed to him serving as lookout and because someone had to secure their escape route, but above all, it’d be a stretch for a Muozinel to be a guard at Zhcted’s palace.
“Come back in one piece.”
With Damad’s words as parting gift, the three men walked towards the garden. Of course, guards called out to them, questioning, “What unit do you belong to?”
“We’re going to guard the villa’s basement from now on.” Naum also presented a unit’s name with a bold attitude.
This was something Albatov had found out for them until today afternoon. The guards nodded, and stepped to the sides, indirectly telling them to move on.
“Come to think of it──”
Being addressed all of a sudden just as he was about to pass by, Tigre’s shoulders stiffened up, “What’s up…?”
“Captain said that recently some scoundrels have apparently exchanged their weapons for money. Adding that they’d very soon inspect the barracks very soon. Make sure to also inform your relief shift, too.”
“Got it. I’ll tell them.”
Since the guard’s tone suggested him having more of an idle chat that a serious talk, Tigre responded by shrugging his shoulders. With this spelling the end of their conversation, Tigre, Gaspal, and Naum continued to walk along the garden. No sooner than having distanced themselves around a dozen steps from the guards, they breathed out in relief.
Afterwards, their group encountered guards only two more times, but Naum got them through all of it by responding in the right way. As the guards weren’t suspicious of them or anything, they walked away just like that.
──When push comes to shove, we must cut them down.
That prediction caused a layer of ice to freeze over Tigre’s heart. However, he rallied his courage while tightly pursing his lips.
We aren’t on the battlefield here, but on enemy ground. If I don’t man up, we’re going to get caught, hindering us from rescuing Eugene. Causing such a situation is something I must avoid by all means.
Eventually, the group arrived at the villa. The building itself wasn’t as grand as they had expected from the impression its towering shadow gave. Most of its fine ornaments was currently swallowed by the darkness. As there existed only one entrance at the front, just one guard stood watch. Torches were installed on both sides of the door, cladding the surrounding in a warm light. Large, groomed flowerbeds adorned the sides of the path leading up to the door.
The guard had the same equipment as them. Once he spotted them, he asked the three, “What unit do you belong to?”, but he didn’t appear to be overly wary of them. This time Tigre stated their fake names and the name of their unit.
“Actually we’ve been told to escort the guy held in the prison. You might think it’s a weird story, considering this late hour, but…”
“I see. I guess his execution has been decided at last.”
“No, you see, we haven’t been told any details.”
Tigre losing some of his eloquence was probably owed to him having heard a surprising piece of information. And while Tigre attracted the guard’s attention, Naum had casually moved behind the man. As soon as he tossed his spear into the flowerbed, he drew a dagger and cut the windpipe of the soldier while blocking the man’s mouth with his other hand.
As all of this happened within moments, the guard didn’t realize what happened to him. When his body limply lurched over, Gaspal quickly caught it as it’d be bad if it fell to the ground loudly.
While Naum stood watch, Tigre and Gaspal heaved up the dead guard and hid the corpse close to a flowerbed. They hoped that no one would easily find the dead body over there. The problem lay with the blood stench, but this was out of their hands. Tigre searched the guard’s body, and retrieved the key.
Using it, he opened the door and stepped inside the villa. He was greeted by a spacious hall, but it was empty, not even having any furnishings whatsoever. Likely for the sake of the guards, two torches had been affixed to the walls, casting a dim light at the deserted hall. One of them illuminated the stairway leading down to the basement.
“Their vigilance appears rather lax, despite them keeping Lord Eugene imprisoned,” whispered Tigre what was bothering him.
Naum answered, “Maybe he served his purpose at the very moment he had his position as chancellor deprived of him. Or maybe they wouldn’t see it as a problem even if he were to escape, for some reason.”
“If that’s the case, it’d be much easier if they had quickly released him, though,” Gaspal sighed.
The three descended the stairway with Tigre in the lead. The basement was narrow. Just one long corridor stretched on straight ahead with a wall forming the left side and an array of barred room the right. A torch was hung up between each room.
No more than two guards were at the other end of the corridor. Their armor dully shone as it reflected the torchlight.
The corridor itself was so narrow that it was difficult for two adults to walk side-by-side. Naum boldly walked up to the two guards, and while they were looking at him dubiously, he told them, “His Excellency the Grand Chamberlain wishes us to bring him Eugene.”
“His Excellency the Grand Chamberlain? For what reason?” One of the guards inquired, looking puzzled.
Before Naum could even explain, the other guard answered, “He probably wants to bicker again. He already showed up here a few times just for that very reason. Did Lady Vanadis ── the First Prince Aide say anything about this?”
The latter part of his remark was directed at Tigre and the other two. While acting like he was trying to recall it, saying, “What was it again?”, he looked back towards Tigre.
Tigre chose his words carefully, “I think it was about her ordering us to make sure that he doesn’t do anything strange to the prisoner.”
It was a line based on his idea of Valentina possibly not wanting to harm Eugene more than necessary, but the guards didn’t object it. One of them walked up to the barred door, and removed the big lock. Then he shouted into the prison, “Get out.”
After a brief moment, a man showed up from within the room ─ Eugene. Under the torchlight, his face looked haggard. His hair and beard were a mess. He wore plain linen clothes, his hands were immobilized by wooden shackles, and both his legs were connected by chains. The chains were short, obviously making running difficult. He was barefooted as his boots had apparently been confiscated.
Despite his wretched state, Eugene showed the guards no weakness. He stood tall with his back straight. Tigre was relieved in his mind that he couldn’t spot any injuries at a glance.
Tigre and Gaspal linked arms with Eugene from both sides. The earl’s body was lighter than his outward appearance gave away, causing worry to assail Tigre once more.
“Well then──,” just when he was about to walk away, the guard called Tigre to halt.
“Which reminds me, I didn’t hear anything about your affiliation.”
Naum stepped forward, attempting to answer in Tigre’s stead, but the guard held him back with a hand, directing his eyes at Tigre. Suspicion flickered in his eyes.
“Let’s have you answer.”
Suppressing the anxiety welling up within his chest, Tigre answered with his fake name and unit. The guard’s expression abruptly turned grim, and he stepped forward.
“Where have you been born to have such strange accent?”
Tigre was at a loss for words. And him being unable to answer on the spot only deepened the guard’s suspicions. The guard readying his spear happened at almost the same time as Tigre dashing forward after separating from Eugene. The guard’s spun spear grazed Tigre’s left arm. Meanwhile, Tigre drew the dagger hidden at his waist.
In the next instant, faster than the guard could raise his voice, blood flew through the darkness. He should have reverted his order of actions. Or to be precise, he should have shouted before swinging his spear.
The other guard was facing Naum. He knocked down the spear, which Naum tried to thrust at him, with his own spear, but him doing so was Naum’s aim to begin with. Naum quickly closed the distance, and drove his fist into the guard’s face without any mercy. Above all else, Naum couldn’t allow him to raise his voice. Blood spurted out of the guard’s nose, and saliva flew out of his mouth alongside a groan. Naum drew his dagger, covered the guard’s mouth with the other hand, and slit the man’s throat. The last noise of the guard didn’t make it past his lips.
Tigre and Naum carefully put down the corpses on the floor. Tigre whispered an apology, causing Naum to curtly answer, “Don’t mind it.”
The stench of blood and death filled the narrow corridor. Eugene, supported by Gaspal, didn’t say a thing, but even he couldn’t hide his surprise in light of the events taking place in front of his nose.
“Just what is going on here…?”
“Lord Eugene, I am glad to see you safe and sound. It’s me, Tigrevurmud Vorn.” Tigre took his helmet off, revealing his face to Eugene.
The youth hoped he’d get the earl to recognize him even through his false mustache. For the sake of conveying to Eugene that he was happy about finding him safe, Tigre somehow beamed a smile on his lips. Eugene’s eyes flew wide open, but he immediately pulled himself together.
“You do realize that it’s not like everything will be resolved if you rescue me in such a way, right?”
“I do. I’ll tell you the details later. For now, please hurry.”
While Tigre and Eugene had their short conversation, Naum searched the corpses, finding a bundle of keys. He used those to unlock the chains and shackles.
“Since we’re going to pretend to be escorting you, I’d like you to remain patient until we leave the palace.”
Tigre, Gaspal, and Naum believed that it’d also be possible to have Eugene put on armor and helmet to pretend being a guard, if they had some time, but seeing him stagger the instant Gaspal separated from him, they quickly discarded that plan.
Tigre and Gaspal propped up the old earl on his left and right side while Naum walked in front of the group. The four left the villa, and as soon as Eugene saw the night sky, he breathed a sigh.
“So it was night, huh…? It’s been a really long time since I last saw the sky.”
The four continued through the garden which was wrapped up in darkness. When they had made it halfway through, Naum stopped. A light ─ probably a lamp ─ appeared from behind what seemed to be a stone statue.
Tigre and the others heightened their wariness. It was not a torch which also meant it wasn’t a guard.
“Who goes over there?”
The lamp holder raised their voice, heading their way. If they ran away here, the other party might consider them suspicious and alert the guards. On the other hand, they needed them to come a bit closer to silence them.
Naum took a step backwards. It was a measure so the three of them could hide Eugene. If he was spotted, they planned to explain that they took him out for reasons, but it’d be much better for him to go unnoticed.
The lamp closed in. Realizing the identity of the lamp holder, Tigre swallowed his breath.
It was Grand Chamberlain Miron.
Naum feigned calmness, stating his fake name and unit.
“At present, we are patrolling the area around here, Your Excellency.”
“Good work out in this cold. I’m very grateful for all the effort you guys put into this.”
Without a hint of suspicion, Miron revealed a smile as it’d befit any good-natured old man, and grinned at the group in front of him. It was a face Tigre was used to seeing on him. Back when Ruslan was still in good health, he had been meeting people with this kind of expression.
“We feel deeply thankful to receive your kind words…” Naum performed a stiff bow while measuring the distance to Miron.
He suspected that it’d be an easy feat to get out of the palace, if only they could take him hostage. However, Naum’s plan audibly fell apart in the next moment.
Without any of those present having noticed, two guards had closed in on the group. Being too preoccupied with Miron, Tigre, Naum, and Gaspal were late in perceiving them.
Spotting them, one of the guards called out with doubt filling his voice.
“What are you guys doing?”
Tension raced down their spines, and they wavered on how they should move in this situation. They had the option of forcibly taking Miron hostage or running away while carrying Eugene. Tigre and Gaspal could handle the guards while Naum would subdue Miron.
Can we pull this off? In the worst case, if we let Miron get away, he’d call for reinforcements, effectively cutting off our path of retreat.
The blades of the guards’ spears gleamed ominously as they reflected the lamplight.
Tigre, Naum, and Gaspal exchanged a look, nodding at each other. The three left Eugene right there, and closed the distance to the guards in one breath. They had decided to knock them out, prioritizing their armed opponents. Afterwards, they’d take Miron hostage if they could, but if it proved impossible, they’d run away while leaving him behind.
Tigre was as good as a beginner when it came to spearmanship, but he could still serve as a restraint. Without a moment’s delay, Gaspal thrust out his spear in the path of the evading guard on the left side. Having the spearhead bore through his throat, the guard dropped his own spear, and his body powerlessly lurched over, falling to the ground with a thud. In the meantime, Naum slew the other guard.
At this moment, no one was around Eugene. Even Tigre, who was closest to him, had turned his back on him while being several steps away from the old earl.
“Eugene…?” Miron muttered with a stunned look on his face.
His eyes weren’t fixed on the battle of the guards, but Eugene alone. Until a little while ago, he hadn’t seen him since Eugene had been hidden by Tigre, Gaspal, and Naum’s bodies. But, right now, no such obstruction existed between the two old men.
“Eugene! You bastard!” Miron’s face twisted in rage.
The elderly chamberlain had instantly grasped that these guards were impostors who had come to the palace in order to free Eugene. He let the lamp fall to the ground, and attacked Eugene with a bloodcurdling expression. No one among Tigre’s group had expected that Miron would be capable of taking such an action.
Eugene tried to dodge the charging chamberlain, but his movements had become dull because of the long time he had spent in prison. Unable to avoid Miron, both bumped into each other, rolling across the ground while entangled.
Tigre and Gaspal hurried over to the pair. But, Miron was one step faster than them. The lamp on the ground illuminated a dark gray blade, followed by Eugene groaning in pain. Tigre and Gaspal tore Miron off Eugene, and thrust the chamberlain away.
This opened up their view on Eugene, allowing them to see the red patch spreading on the left flank and the bloodstained dagger which Miron had held in his hand.
Tigre’s group hadn’t anticipated that Miron would carry a weapon on him. It was something they couldn’t have possibly known, but the dagger had been given to him by King Viktor in the past as a charm against evil spirits. Even Miron, who usually wouldn’t carry any weapons, still kept this much on him.
“Lord Eugene…!” Tigre lifted Eugene up in his hands.
Even during that time, the earl’s simple clothing continued to dye redder, and fresh blood dripped on the ground. Tigre ripped his sleeve apart, created a long cloth out of it, and coiled it around Eugen, all while impatience gnawed at him. But, as the wound was apparently quite deep, blood started to immediately seep through the cloth as well.
Yet, Tigre couldn’t do much more under the current circumstances. Tigre picked up Eugene, carrying him on his back. Naum and Gaspal surveyed the vicinity, but they couldn’t discover Miron as he had melted into the darkness, and they didn’t have the leeway to search for him either. After all, several torches were visible in the distance, approaching their current location after perceiving that something strange was going on.
“Forgive me, Lord Eugene. Please hold out for a bit longer.”
Tigre felt irritated at himself for being unable to say anything besides that.
“You’re…not to blame,” answered Eugene, his face pale and his breathing irregular.
Tigre’s group ran through the darkness with Naum in the lead. Naum and Gaspal used their spears to kill all guards, who stood in their way. The three continued to sprint straight ahead, not halting or slowing down at all.
Even after leaving the palace grounds, the three plus one more kept running. Noticing that someone was chasing after them, Naum was about to swing his spear, but realizing that it was Damad, he lowered his weapon.
“It’s become quite the big uproar. That’s bad,” reported Damad while looking at Eugene.
He quickened his pace, and ran ahead of Naum.
The five men entered a side road, taking several corners, before entering an even narrower alley, but at that point, Damad stopped. At the end of the alley, they could see a figure with a lamp at hand. It seemed like they hadn’t noticed their little group yet, but they didn’t show any intent to move from their current spot either.
“We might be unable to return all the way to Shayahl’s place,” cursed Damad with his face drenched in sweat.
At that moment, Tigre noticed how his helmet was missing. Apparently he had dropped it somewhere along the way. Naum and Gaspal had also removed their helmets and armor without him having realized.
“If the news reaches the walls, it’ll be checkmate for us. Even if we hide somewhere, they’ll comb through each house.”
Naum groaned. Tigre reflexively stared at his left hand. He wondered whether he should call the Black Bow to himself and rely on its power. He couldn’t think of any other means but to destroy the wall or gate, steal horses, and flee.
“Southern…” Eugene squeezed out with a weak voice from behind Tigre at that moment. “To the guard station at the southern gate…”
The other four looked at each other. They didn’t know what Eugene was thinking. But, among the five of them, he was more familiar with the capital than Naum. Above all, they had no time to hesitate.
They tossed away all unnecessary baggage and tightened the bandaging of Eugene’s wound. Tigre and Naum lent Eugene their shoulder while Gaspal took the lead and Damad secured the rear. With Damad and Naum giving directions, they passed through side roads and back alleys, soon arriving at the guard station of the southern gate.
A single guard stood next to the station, but no one else seemed to be in the area. Even Osterode’s soldiers, who were guarding the wall, didn’t appear to pay any attention to this side of the city. Fortunately, the news hadn’t yet reached this place.
“Thanks. You guys wait here. I’ll be fine by myself.”
While being propped up by Tigre, Eugene planted his feet on the ground. The bleeding had already reached the next layer of cloth they had earlier coiled around his wound. His face was drenched with sweat and he was panting wildly, but he didn’t make any attempt to lend Tigre’s hand.
Leaving the four behind, Eugene walked up to the guard station with a steady gait, and passed through the door. The other men remained under cover, waiting for Eugene to come back. They kept waiting while worry and impatience clawed at their hearts since they didn’t know when the search teams might reach this area. As far as they could tell from the lights in the distance, the guards were currently focusing their attention on the east and north of the city.
After around a thousand breaths had passed, Eugene stepped out of the guard station. Tigre and his comrades felt like they had waited manifold that, but either way, they felt relieved seeing him safe and sound. Eugene’s side had been treated, now covered by new bandages. And a single guard was accompanying him, pulling two horses.
Eugene showed a gentle smile when he saw the four blink at him in surprise, “The guard captain over here is an old friend of mine. I incurred a huge debt with him, though…”
“Pay it no heed,” replied the guard who was leading the horses.
He was still young, probably in his early twenties.
“Thanks to you, Earl Pardu, we have been saved from thug-like nobles and caravans on many occasions. I had heard about you having been imprisoned, but I believe that this happened on false charges.”
“I see, so that’s how it was,” nodded Tigre.
Some time ago, Lim had taught him a bit about the work of gatekeepers. It didn’t only include examining those entering and seeing off those leaving. Gatekeepers had to stop those starting fights after trying to steal a march in the queue, humor arrogant nobles, and hand over merchants, who tried to bribe them, to the authorities. Tigre assumed that Eugene had mediated each time such troublesome situations occurred. At least they felt so grateful to him that they were willing to break the law.
“──We’ll open the gate slightly for thirty counts from now on.”
“Thanks,” said Eugene to the guard, his voice palpably exhausted.
“Well then, this is where we separate.”
Naum had lightly tapped Tigre’s shoulder. Once the youth turned around in surprise, he and Damad showed him fearless smiles as they stared at Tigre.
Damad said, “If it’s me and one more, it’ll be a breeze to keep a low profile until the heat dies down. We won’t do anything as stupid as letting them catch us. Now, hurry up and go.”
A light film of tears covered Tigre’s black eyes. Countless emotions, which were hard to put into words other than gratitude and regret, violently swirled within his chest. What made it even sadder was the fact of them not even having any time to spend on the parting. As such, he couldn’t say much more than, “Thanks.”
“I leave Lady Vanadis in your hands,” Naum said from behind while Tigre helped Eugene on the horse, before straddling it himself.
He tied Eugene to himself with a rope so that the elderly earl wouldn’t fall off. Meanwhile Gaspal had mounted the other horse.
“Once we’ve wrapped up everything, I’m going to treat you guys to so much booze that you won’t be able to drink it all.”
“You sure? Your wallet will empty out in the blink of an eye,” joked Damad.
“Don’t act out of character and become piss drunk in no time, man.”
Those were Gaspal’s parting words which also served as a promise for a reunion.
The gate opened, and that very moment, the soldiers of Osterode atop the wall apparently noticed that something was out of order. But, they were too late by then.
Tigre and Gaspal swiftly slipped through the gate, and spurred their horses into gallop, only focusing on the road ahead of them within the darkness that would hold dawn at rein for a long time to come yet.
“Where are we going, Tigre?” Gaspal asked after bringing his horse next to Tigre’s.
Being able to let his horse run next to another without causing both animals to clash, despite most of their surroundings being shrouded in blackness, was proof of outstanding skill.
“If we’re going to join up with Arma Zirnitra, we must make a big detour northwards, but…”
“We won’t go north,” Tigre replied while looking straight ahead.
Back when he had mounted his horse, the youth had heard Eugene’s feeble voice, telling him, “To Pardu…”
Tigre didn’t know whether this expressed his wish to go home or his hope that they’d be safe in Pardu. But he believed that he should take Eugene to his beloved homeland. But then again, it was questionable whether Eugene’s body would last so long.
Tigre knew that the palace would soon send pursuers after them, making it impossible to go easy on the horses. While burdened by anxiety and fretfulness, Tigre single-mindedly kept his horse galloping onwards.
Valentina was still wrestling with her governmental work in her office when she received the report of Eugene’s jailbreak. Ever since she had started to rule over Osterode, she had never neglected her official work. This might be an outcome from her having watched various nobles relying on Natasha during her childhood and having firmly promised herself to not become like them.
First and foremost Valentina ordered the officials to ascertain the safety of Ruslan and Valery. After all, it wasn’t said that the goal of the collaborators was limited to Eugene’s escape. If one had to assume potential targets in the palace, it’d be Ruslan, Valery, and Valentina.
Next she ordered a search for Eugene while expanding the search radius across the entire capital. It’d lead to the capital becoming somewhat noisy in the middle of the night, but Valentina regarded that as inevitable evil.
Ruslan and Valery’s safety was confirmed in no time. After the civil official left while panting heavily, Valentina turned her attention to the documents that still required checking.
‘I think it’ll be fine to wrap these up after noon. After all, I’ll most likely need to stay up until dawn. Now then, I wonder how things will play out.
After having become the First Prince Aide, Valentina had loosened the surveillance of Eugene and decreased the number of his guards. It didn’t go as far as letting him out of the prison, but she had arranged for him to receive three meals a day and get a daily change of linen clothes. She had also permitted him to wipe his body with a soaked, thick cloth.
All these measures followed two notions. First, her consideration towards those still backing Eugene. If she were to treat Eugene too harshly, it’d only fan their antipathy towards her. It was better to keep things moderate. Second, for the sake of inducing Eugene to escape. If he were to escape, Valentina could call Eugene’s culpability into question all over again, making people suspect that he had run away because the suspicion of him having colluded with the Muozinel was actually true.
Previously, she had told Miron that it was necessary to choose the time for Eugene’s execution wisely, but this wasn’t just a means to soothe Miron’s anger.
──Him having escaped through the southern gate means he’s headed for Pardu, just as expected, huh?
Valentina knew that the chief gatekeeper at the southern gate supported Eugene. Her having left him in his post despite his connection to Eugene stemmed from the chief gatekeeper being a capable man and her not really minding it, even if Eugene were to flee.
“It’d have been perfect if we could have caught him at the very moment he tried to leave through the city gate, but I guess the saying that not everything always develops as one wishes holds true.”
However, this was the moment when Valentina stopped smiling. Having received a certain report, she immediately called Miron over.
The elderly Grand Chamberlain appeared after a quarter koku. He had changed into new clothes, but a big, blue bruise could be seen around his right eye. Seeing Miron pull a triumphant face as if he was a hero who had slain an evil dragon, Valentina knitted her eyebrows.
“Your Excellency, according to reports you have stabbed Earl Pardu with a dagger.”
Being told so with a cold, low voice full of indifference, Miron finally started to feel that something was out of place.
She hadn’t asked him why he had been in such a place late at night because she had previously received reports from the guards about his visits. His visits to the dungeon for the sole reason of insulting Eugene.
“Hmm, realizing that the bastard tried to run away, I got a bit too heated…”
Valentina lightly sighed at Miron’s excuse. However Miron himself didn’t understand the problem with this.
As this was plain obvious, the black-haired Vanadis suppressed her emotions to the utmost while explaining, “I should have explained this to you beforehand, Your Excellency. Namely, that we would get rid of him for another crime, if we assume that Earl Eugene truly concluded a secret agreement with Muozinel.”
Miron nodded while blinking many times over. Valentina continued, “If he tried to escape, it’d have been fine to just let him do that. This would become a perfect excuse to publicly denounce the earl. However, as things stand, rumors about him having run away because you tried to murder him will very likely spread. It’ll affect your popularity, of course, but also the honor of His Highness Ruslan who has been trusting you.”
“That’s…I’m terribly sorry…”
Seeing Miron groan while looking totally dejected, Valentina judged that this much scolding would be enough. In most cases, she regarded rebuking someone as a duty and not a joy.
“Your Excellency, please take a rest for today. In exchange, I will have you put in even more effort starting with tomorrow. It might sound harsh, but I would be troubled if you indefinitely remained discouraged because of a single blunder,” she told him with a voice intending to calm him.
At last Miron lifted his face, however regret over his own failure still revealed itself on his wrinkled face.
“I understand. Then…please allow me to take you up on your kind offer and get some rest.”
Miron left the office, his shoulders slumped.
Now alone, Valentina stared at the wall and murmured, “It might have been better for him to have retired when King Viktor had passed away.”
As grand chamberlain he certainly possesses the necessary abilities. But, once he gets involved in matters going beyond his station, he makes mistakes. It might be best to get rid of him before those mistakes drag me down as well.
However, Valentina couldn’t quite make up her mind on this. Because Miron had served as grand chamberlain for a long time, it’d be difficult to find a suitable successor on a beck’s call. And right now Valentina was too busy with her governmental affairs to spend time for a search. Moreover, since she actually felt that the number of people she could trust was steadily growing, she thought it’d be fine to postpone this particular matter.
All these reasons played a role, but above all, the most pressing concern for Valentina was the question how Arma Zirnitra, the runaway Eugene, and Adelaiyda’s army would move. After all, her ambitions would finally bear fruit, once those three sides were completely obliterated.
After rescuing Eugene and putting a fairly big distance between them and Silesia, Tigre and Gaspal halted their horses and treated Eugene’s injury. Then they waited for daybreak, before rushing into a town situated along the main road. There they looked for a doctor and had him examine the wound once more. The doctor smeared a medical salve on the wound and had Eugene drink a herbal decoction.
However, the doctor also told them at the time of leaving, “He probably won’t last for more than ten days.”
Afterwards they spurred on their horses for another four days, before finally entering the Pardu Earldom. Tigre and Gaspal felt that they should let Eugene rest at this point, but it was none other than the earl himself who entreated them to continue the journey. At first the two men wavered, but in the end they granted Eugene’s request.
Advancing through the earldom, they needed another day to enter a town called Zabrdje, where the three stayed at an inn. They avoided divulging Eugene’s identity by calling over the town’s mayor.
As might be expected from the inn being called the best in Zabrdje, the rooms were spacious and clean. The beds were decent, too. Tigre and Gaspal carefully placed Eugene on one of the beds. At this point, all vitality had drained from Eugene’s face, making it look like a white sheet. At times his breathing became rough and sweat started to gush out all over his body.
──The medical treatment was too late.
While wiping off the sweat and having Eugene slowly drink some water, Tigre was tormented by violent pangs of regret.
In the end, I didn’t manage to save Eugene. I only caused him even more pain by taking him out of his prison. Even though Elen, Albatov, and the others trusted me enough to leave everything to me, I failed them.
“──Brother,” Tigre called out to the other young man, who stood stock still while being overwhelmed by the same spell of helplessness, with a trembling voice. “Could I have you go to Litomysl…?”
Litomysl was the central city of Pardu. It was the home of Eugene’s mansion where his wife and daughter should be right now. Eugene couldn’t be moved any longer. Tigre could tell since they had ridden the same horse until yesterday. All they could now do was to at least call his family.
“Got it. I’ll take your horse as well.”
Gaspal quickly pulled himself together. Or maybe he simply tried to devote all his attention to the task he had been given.
After Gaspal swiftly left the room, Tigre focused on watching over Eugene. Right now it was Tigre’s duty to keep him alive for as long as possible.
The madder red spilling into the room through the small window had maybe flickered on the backside of Eugene’s closed eyelids. The old earl weakly opened his eyes halfway.
Tigre brought his mouth close to Eugene’s ear and told him the name of the town.
Looking up to the ceiling, Eugene faintly murmured, “So I came home…”
“Very soon your wife and daughter are going to arrive here. Please…” Tigre grabbed Eugene’s hand as if to encourage him.
As of yet, his palm still remained warm, but his grip was mostly powerless.
“Uh huh,” answered Eugene before breathing out thinly.
As he had been asked by Eugene, Tigre told him what had happened so far. He gave the earl a full account on him leaving the capital to fight Ganelon, him pooling his power with everyone in the land of Zagan to destroy Ganelon, them forming Arma Zirnitra to fight Valentina, their group separating from Elen and heading to Silesia in order to rescue Eugene, and so on…
The times of Eugene being awake were short, and because they were quite irregular on top of that, it took Tigre quite a bit of time to finish the whole story. Tigre worried whether Eugene would be able to comprehend the details about Ganelon and the demons, but even so, he decided to be frank about it. His decision was also grounded on the notion that it’d make little sense to keep his words ambiguous in front of a dying man.
Probably because he had heard reports about the various, strange phenomena, Eugene lent the youth a careful ear while nodding at each and every of his explanations.
Tigre also told him about his relationship with Elen. Although the earl exclaimed, “Hoh,” with a happy voice, he didn’t look overly surprised. Tigre suspected that Eugene might have had a vague inkling.
When he reached the point of talking about Valentina, Eugene suddenly said as if having thought of it for some reason or another, “Maybe she’s trying to become the ruler…”
Tigre’s eyes widened. It was the same thought he had when he had visited the capital. He guessed that Eugene’s intuition as ruler might have led him to that conclusion. Or maybe Valentina’s hidden ambition had started to seep out on the surface to such an extent that Eugene and Tigre could now sense it.
However, Tigre couldn’t probe any further because Eugene fell asleep when he continued to talk about this topic.
And then, in the afternoon two days later, Gaspal came back. However, he had brought with him an unexpected pair of people in addition to Eugene’s wife Marina and his daughter Alyssa. Tigre stared dumbstruck at the two who stood in the door.
His lover and her best friend.
All four of them had disheveled hair and traces of dried sweat stained their faces. Their overcoats were terribly dirty with dust and mud. Exhaustion clearly dyed their pale faces, but if you considered the distance from Litomysl, it was evident that they didn’t have a chance to get any decent sleep.
As soon as Marina saw her husband, her eyes flew wide open in shock and fright. She rushed over to his bed with her legs staggering. Even Alyssa, who was usually full of life, had lost her natural cheerfulness as she grasped her father’s hand while standing next to her mother.
Seeing the three like that, Tigre quietly stood up as he didn’t want to remain here as an outsider during their family reunion.
“Please wait…Earl Vorn.”
He was just about to leave the room, but Eugene stopped him. Once Tigre turned around with a puzzled look, Eugene sat up on the bed with the help of his wife and daughter. When he spotted Elen and Lim, a smile formed on his lips.
“Eleonora, Limalisha, you’re here as well? I’d like all of you to keep me company for a bit.”
The latter part of his request was accompanied by an audible strain in his voice, but the gleam of a strong will nested in Eugene’s eyes. Tigre, Elen, Lim, and Gaspal exchanged looks, but once Marina firmly asked them to follow her husband’s wish, they gathered around his bed.
“I’m really sorry…” Eugene apologized to his wife with his beard, which had grown long, swaying. “But, I…must accomplish my duty. I want to use my remaining time for that sake. Please forgive me.”
Marina faced her husband and nodded with a face on the verge of tears while supporting his back. The raging emotions triggered by the imminent death of her loved one had robbed her of the ability to form words.
Eugene exhaled lightly, and after straightening his back, he looked up to Tigre.
“While lying on this bed I had brooded about what I should do for the sake of this country.”
His voice wasn’t loud by any means, but it reverberated loud and clearly in the ears of everyone present. The miniscule amount of passion carried by each and every word might be fragments of the little life force remaining in him. Eugene had chosen to use up all of it at this moment. For the sake of achieving what he had to achieve.
“I’d like you to become the king of this country. As the one succeeding me.”
It felt as if time had come to a grinding halt. Even the faint airflow, their breathing, and everything else had stopped. At least, Tigre was assailed by such a feeling. Everyone stared at Eugene in shock, all their movements ceased. It was such a shocking statement.
His own mumbling allowed Tigre to come to his senses as it shook the air inside the room. Tigre, who had finally grasped what he had been told during the space of a single breath, was utterly confused.
“W-What are you talking about…?”
“I’m serious. In the first place, I wouldn’t be able to make jokes about something like this,” declared Eugene after coughing, “I’ll be able to entrust this country…to someone who would inherit my will. I told you the other day, didn’t I? Only the one inheriting the will of his predecessor can become the next ruler.”
Tigre nodded. Those were the words Eugene told him during the hunt which Ruslan had held for Tigre at the beginning of winter.
“Are you saying that I should become that inheritor?”
Tigre’s voice quivered. His whole body was numbed by tension and agitation, making it already a chore for him to keep standing. But, Tigre sent power into his legs, trying to stop them from buckling.
Leaving aside how he should answer this, Tigre knew that he had to accept everything that Eugene felt and was trying to tell him. This didn’t stem from a sense of duty, but his obstinacy and pride forced him to do so.
“Indeed. You might think that we haven’t spoken that much with each other. But, Eleonora is next to you.”
Distinctively understanding the meaning behind his words, Elen’s cheeks dyed crimson.
Eugene shifted his eyes to Elen and smiled all of a sudden, “I didn’t teach Eleonora and Limalisha only about etiquette. I believe I also passed on how they should act as rulers. Both of them have properly inherited my pride and soul as ruler. If you say you’re standing next to Eleonora, the same applies to you as well.”
“But, I’m not a Zhcted. I’m a Brunian,” Tigre squeezed out with a pained voice, “Would the people of Zhcted approve of a foreigner becoming their king? Wouldn’t this lead to one battle after the other, ultimately ending in the nation’s ruin?”
“At present, it’ll likely lead to that outcome, no matter who might be named as next king.” Eugene’s voice carried a grimness that didn’t permit any objection. “Ilda has died. According to your story, His Highness Ruslan will soon pass away as well. I’ll also be gone soon. The other possible successors are too young or ridden by illness that would make kingship too much of a burden…”
Marina and Alyssa’s faces twisted when he curtly announced his own impending death. Eugene placed a hand on Alyssa’s head who had started to cry. He slowly and gently stroked his daughter’s head as her father.
Eugene faced Tigre again.
“You said that you’re no Zhcted. But, despite being no Zhcted, you’ve earned the trust of four Vanadis. Do you understand the gravity of such a feat in this country? You’ve managed to achieve something neither King Viktor, nor His Highness Ruslan, nor Ilda, nor me could pull off.”
A spirit as it could only be released by someone standing at the abyss of death overwhelmed Tigre. The youth was tricked by the optical illusion of Eugene’s thin body having manifold grown in size. Gritting his teeth and mustering all his willpower, Tigre did his utmost in order to prop up himself.
“That’s because I’m not the king of Zhcted.”
“Are they going to stop placing their trust in you once you become king? Are you going to shirk your efforts in maintaining a relationship of mutual trust with them?” Eugene scowled at Tigre as if having become exasperated with him.
“Of course not.”
This was the only answer Tigre could give.
“But…but…if I seize power, I might change.”
Tigre’s words were shaped by his anxiety and fear towards the unknown. A huge nation, a mighty army, a huge number of citizens, the enormous riches brought about by them, and chief vassals who would all bow their heads in front of him. Tigre lacked the confidence that he’d be able to stay himself without giving in to the power while being in an environment that would do his bidding.
The look in Eugene’s eyes suddenly softened. Maybe he had evaluated the youth highly for honestly stating his feelings, or maybe he laughed at the youth’s worries being no more than needless anxiety.
“I have watched the four years of Eleonora’s rule as Vanadis. You said that you want to respect that. That’s not simply because of love, but likely because you believe Eleonora’s rule in Leitmeritz to be a good one. That’s why I’m entrusting my will to you.”
Eugene closed his mouth, apparently having said everything he had to say. Silence took over.
It was Tigre’s quiet voice that pushed that silence into a corner rather than tearing it apart.
“Could you give me some time to think it over? Around a quarter koku, if possible.”
Eugene looked up to Tigre and nodded lightly. After confirming his consent, Tigre bowed at Marina and Alyssa, and exited the room. Following him, Elen, Lim, and Gaspal also left. Only the family now remained inside the room.
Shortly thereafter, sobbing shook the air.
Looking up as he left the inn, the sky was split in two thirds vermilion and one third indigo blue coloring. Tigre was deep in thought as he vacantly stared at the sun slowly vanishing beyond the horizon. The air, as it was in the process of switching towards night temperatures, felt pleasant on his skin, but it didn’t manage to cool his heart. Eugene’s words had delivered a considerable shock.
──Though I was also surprised when I was approached about a similar offer by Her Highness Regin.
However, this time it had even more of an impact as it was about him taking the throne of a foreign country. Him who was already hesitating about taking the throne of his own country. Hence he required time to collect himself.
“Things have become quite absurd, haven’t they?” He mumbled to himself.
He felt like he was being forced to stand at the edge of a bottomless cliff. Tigre wanted to answer Eugene’s feelings and hopes. He also had to make up for his own blunder. But, accepting the request to become the ruler of a foreign country was too heavy and too big a burden for Tigre.
“──It sure looks like you’re troubled,” a voice suddenly addressed him from behind.
Once he looked back, he found Elen standing there.
“What do you think about this?”
Tigre also wanted to ask her why she was here, but this was the question he should currently prioritize above everything else.
Elen lined up next to the youth with a laugh, and stared at the distant horizon.
“Currently I don’t want to tell,” her silver hair dyed by the setting sun, Elen quietly continued, “this is something you must consider and decide upon by yourself.”
“Yeah, you’ve got a point. Sorry,” apologized Tigre frankly.
Just now he had tried to use Elen’s opinion as a reference. That was a bad idea since it was a problem he had to decide himself. Otherwise, he would inexcusably wrong Eugene whose flickering flame of life was about to go out.
He breathed in. As if to spread the cool evening air into his heated head. He recalled each and every single word Eugene had told him. And he noticed that there were unexpectedly few of them.
Probably because he had wrung them out while chipping off his slowly-waning soul, Tigre suspected. Still, can I really put my weight behind matters that have to be done for the greater good of Zhcted’s people? Very likely this question lies at the core of the hesitation weighing down on me. Fighting for Brune didn’t worry me, and if I believe something has to be done in order to protect Alsace, I’ll do it regardless of appearances.
Tigre turned his eyes in Elen’s direction. She looked back at him, her head cocked in puzzlement.
As soon as he stared straight into her ruby eyes, Tigre realized a certain fact. He extended a hand, and drew her into a tight embrace.
Elen appeared to be surprised by this abrupt action, but she didn’t resist him. Rather, she put her arms around Tigre’s back, and entrusted her weight to her lover.
Tigre could place his entire trust on her, without a fragment of doubt. He knew that Elen would walk and stand by his side. Even if it might be a path littered with corpses.
“You’re too much of a worrywart, Tigre,” whispered Elen into Tigre’s ear.
That short comment allowed him to perceive that his own conclusion hadn’t been wrong.
Elen is going to stand next to me. And I can give my all if it’s for the sake of Elen. For me, Zhcted is Elen and the many people I’ve met through her. If I run for king as a non-Zhcted, many people will become my enemies. It’ll very likely lead to many battles and lots of blood being spilled. The hatred and resentment will also engulf those supporting me.
And yet, I must walk onward, Tigre had decided. Not for someone else, but only for himself.
When Tigre and Elen entered the room again, Eugene was still sitting up on the bed just as he had when they had left a quarter koku ago. Marina and Alyssa stood at his side, their eyes red and puffed. Lim and Gaspal also were present, standing at the wall.
Tigre sat down on the chair in front of the bed, facing Eugene.
“I will become the king of Zhcted.”
“What are you going to do about Brune’s throne?” Eugene asked, his voice hard, not allowing any weasel-words.
This time Tigre answered without getting overpowered.
“I don’t intend to give up on that either.”
Still, I have to admit myself, I’m quite the greedy guy, am I not? Even though it’s already very gutsy to just desire the throne of my own country, I’m actually reaching for two thrones. But, just Zhcted’s throne wouldn’t be sufficient. If I plan to protect those precious to me in Alsace and Brune.
Probably reading the youth’s determination on his face, Eugene put on a smile, “Very well, then I shall leave the rest in your capable hands. I’ll endorse you as the next king. All those present here will stand witness. And──I wonder whether it’d be fine for me to make a small request. Watching you woke the wish in me to state just one more selfish desire.” When Tigre nodded, Eugene’s face relaxed, “I’d like you to take care of my wife, my daughter, Pardu, and the people living here.”
“Regard it as done.”
If Eugene still had any future, he’d have never voiced such a request, and instead carried it out with his own hands. Precisely because he knew that, Tigre had to protect this land and Eugene’s family to the bitter end, as the one who had inherited his will and as the one who had stolen his future.
On the next morning Eugene calmly passed away amidst the tender care of his wife and daughter. His face looked hollow, but so gentle that anyone would believe he was simply sleeping and might wake the second they called out to him.
“Thank you very much, Lord Tigrevurmud,” Marina bowed deeply at Tigre.
He answered with a sorrowful expression, “I haven’t done anything that would deserve your thanks.”
Those were Tigre’s true feelings. He believed that Eugene had entrusted Tigre with his own will because Tigre was unable to rescue him properly.
Marina shook her head, “This is my request. Please regard him entrusting his will to you with pride.”
Tigre stared at Marina, taken aback. Despite her face being haggard and washed with exhaustion, she smiled at him. This caused Tigre to curse himself. He had been encouraged by the person who should grieve over Eugene’s death more than anyone else and who had more right to blame Tigre than anyone else.
She managed to withhold her tears, but couldn’t hinder her body from quivering. Tigre took Marina’s hand and bowed deeply.
She told him in a gentle tone, “Please do everything you wish to do and only you can do. And then, someday…”
I’d like you to entrust the will you inherited to someone else.
Tigre had definitely heard the will she never put into words.
Eugene’s remains were bedded in a coffin, placed on a carriage, and transported to Litomysl. On the way Tigre asked Elen and Lim why they were here and not in the north. While at it, Gaspal told Elen and Lim what had occurred since their departure from Arma Zirnitra.
Tigre and his group had two tasks. Announcing his candidacy as next king, and attacking Adelaiyda’s army which would soon arrive in Pardu.
- That’s a story I know. It’s a children’s story about people trying to pull out a turnip, and since the original farmer doesn’t manage alone, more and more people, animals, etc. show up to help him, forming a huge line of pullers. It’s kinda funny, but I don’t think it’s a common children’s story in the West. Rather, it’s more popular in former Soviet countries as it’s an older Russian story called “The Gigantic Turnip.”