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.
————— End of Part 1 —————
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.
————- End of Part 2 ————-
- 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.”