The clouds looked as if they had been sketched across the light blue sky. Under the fleeting rays of autumn sun, a big white tent stood out from the grassland. The blue dragon flag of Ziol and the flying horse flag of King Akafah hoisted up high on either side of the tent, fluttered freely in the weak wind.
The <Ceremony of Falconry Exhibition>, a hunt for which King Akafah had invited Ziol’s Lord Ouhan, was one that required meticulous advance training. When it had first been held ten years ago, it had been a chance for the falconers serving Akafah’s royal family to exhibit their skills, but before long, the falconers of Ziol joined the ceremony as well, and it turned into a competition for the two sides.
The broad tent was open at the front, and the people inside sat on camping stools. They relaxed as they waited for the falconry to unfold on the plains before them.
“…Make sure not to fall asleep.” Makokan whispered.
Hossal drowsily snorted at the comment. The area around his chin was gently illuminated by the autumn sun.
“Falconry sure has long waiting periods, hasn’t it?”
He looked at the falconers dotting the plains. The ones with the red headbands were Akafah’s falconers, the ones with the blue headbands were Ziol’s falconers. Both were quietly standing with their respective falcons perched on their fists.
Some falcons cooed warily whenever the wind carried the barking of the dogs over, but the majority quietly concentrated, waiting for the beaters and falconry dogs to drive the prey in their direction.
“Those who lack patience are unsuited for hunting.”
Just as Makokan made his comment, the steward of Akafah’s royal family silently walked over, kneeled behind Hossal, and bowed.
“Sir Hossal Yugroul, please forgive my intrusion. I have been sent to tell you that the light meal is about to begin, if you would please make your way over when you are ready.”
It was Akafan etiquette not to explicitly mention the host when extending an invitation, a sign of respect from the king of Akafah.
Hossal nodded, and stood up. However bothersome he might find this, Hossal conducted himself very calmly when in front of people of high rank. He never showed them his mischievous side like he did to Makokan for example.
Hossal’s seat reflected his status as a noble visitor from Akafah, but knowing that he’d probably feel uncomfortable facing the king and his retinue, he made a vague excuse about wanting to enjoy the view from a better angle before the meal, and escaped to this location.
As Hossal approached the seat of honor, Yotal smiled and nodded lightly at him. Hossal returned the gesture with a light bow, and sat down on the seat he had been guided to. Makokan sat down on a chair set behind Hossal for the servants. When Master Rona met Hossal’s eyes, he slowly nodded. As always, his face was the epitome of calm.
Each time they met him, Makokan thought that clerical healers were more like spiritual seekers who served God rather than doctors.
However, the young pupils sitting at the lowest-ranking seats couldn’t stop themselves from glancing at Hossal, apparently unable to maintain their composure in his presence. Seeing their expressions, Makokan recalled how Hossal had previously said that some of the young priests had shown an interest in Otawal’s medical techniques, and that it would be nice if they could freely chat with those folks.
I see, I also think that there are some who are truly interested.
As he indulged in such thoughts, suddenly the idea that those guys might simply be curious about the Devil’s Child struck Makokan, causing him to smile bitterly in his mind.
Light dishes had already been arranged on the long dining table, but King Akafah and Lord Ouhan had put their heads together and were fervently discussing something so they hadn’t taken any notice of the meal yet. They didn’t even notice that Hossal had joined them, whispering seriously.
When an autumn breeze blew into the tent, the sweet aroma of the spiced wine that had been placed on the table spread across the table with it.
On the western side, where the relatives of Akafah’s king were sitting, various dishes such as lapate (cheese with nuts), and fruit, preserved in sugar and dressed with lachu (fermented milk), were lined up, but where Lord Ouhan’s relatives sat there was not a single dish that contained milk. Instead there were dishes such as fried rice cake deep-fried to the colour of honey then sprinkled with sugar.
Once Hossal was seated, the woman in the seat next to him offered him some lapate with a smile. Her hair, which had been put together in the Akafan style, was held together by an ornate Ziolian-style hairpin. She was Slumina, the niece of Akafah’s King and Yotal’s wife.
Hossal bowed cordially in return and accepted the small plate of lapate from Slumina, immediately taking a bite. As soon as he bit into it, his expression made his appreciation clear.
“This is an unusual flavor. It’s rich and strong.”
Slumina’s face bloomed with joy.
“Indeed, it’s Oki laputa made with reindeer milk cheese. It’s something I like very much, and whenever it appears on the market, I send my wet nurse to order some.”
Makokan perked up when he heard that. The figure of Sae as she disappeared over the cliff into the valley during that blizzard crossed his mind as soon as he heard the word Oki. He had used every means at his disposal to look for her when spring came around, but in the end, he didn’t find any signs of her or the runaway slave.
So this cheese came from that basin. That northern land is said to be inhabited by people who follow herds of reindeer for a living…
“This flavor is because it was made with reindeer milk?”
“Yes, the taste is slightly different, isn’t it? Do Otawalians not eat cheese made out of reindeer milk?”
“We don’t, I’d say. The sacred land is further south than Akafah, so merchants from the Oki District almost never go so far.” After giving such a reply, Hossal lowered his voice a bit, and whispered, “Still, doesn’t Lord Yotal hate it? It’s a dish made with milk.”
Slumina smiled wryly, “My husband never eats it. Since I think that he dislikes even seeing me eat animal milk, I make sure to not eat it around him. But…” For a second, Slumina’s eyes gleamed impishly as she added, “I have been eating it with my sons behind my husband’s back. In front of their father, my sons look like they wouldn’t eat things like lapate, but in reality they love those dishes. Especially soft reindeer lachu – it’s a favorite of theirs…they resemble me closely, don’t they?”
Hossal chuckled, “That’s truly wonderful. Fermented milk is good for the body. So long as you’re not found out by Lord Yotal, please, by all means, eat.”
Slumina lifted her eyebrows and smiled with a nod.
“Akafans can’t live without lapate and lachu. However, in recent years, it’s been nothing but dishes with cow and sheep milk. I wonder, did reindeer milk lapate stop appearing on the market entirely? In my case, the relatives of my wet nurse have connections with the reindeer market, so I have some set aside for me every year, but I wouldn’t get my hands on it if I didn’t do that.” Slumina said as if sighing, “My sons prefer reindeer milk, but my big brother said that his children won’t eat it as they all consider cow milk lapate delicious.”
As he listened to their conversation, Makokan thought, Come to think of it, it’s been quite a while since I last ate Oki laputa.
Since the lapate he remembered from his childhood had always been made out of puyka milk, he wasn’t so fond of Oki laputa that he couldn’t live without it like Slumina, but now that she mentioned it, Makokan felt that he hadn’t seen Oki laputa in Akafah’s bars these days.
Speaking of dairy products in the Akafah of the past, it had always only contained puyka or reindeer milk. However, many of the immigrants Ziol had sent into Akafah brought sheep and cows with them. After they arrived, Akafah’s markets were flooded with food containing the milk of cows and sheep, causing the prices of those products to drop. Hence, it quickly and unexpectedly reached a point where those dairy products were preferred over the traditional ones.
Additionally, because Ziol’s army had been promoting the raising of puyka for political reasons recently, the number of reindeer might have decreased as a side effect. With Muconia posing a threat in the west, I believe Ziol’s army wants to increase the number of puyka, which are quite suited for mountain battles.
King Akafah and Lord Ouhan were still deep in talk. The Akafan and Ziolians looked completely different, but the bodies of these two men were so similar it was almost eerie. They were both old men who were still very muscular and in shape, despite their large builds.
Well, it’s because both of them are hunting dogs still on active duty. Makokan thought. I don’t think they plan to cede their respective leaderships to their sons for a long time to come yet.
Most recently Lord Ouhan has been strengthening his military forces. It’s all very hush hush, but rumor on the street is that Ziol’s emperor is not all that eager to expand his territory towards the west, but Lord Ouhan, who’s always been wary about the moves of the neighbouring Muconia, has repeatedly advised the emperor that he should display Ziol’s might by not just defending the border, but actually extending it. However, the emperor won’t readily send reinforcements to the west. He probably doesn’t have leeway for that since the war in the south has been intensifying day by day. It’s only natural for him to prioritize a war that’s currently happening rather than a war that may or may not happen, but I guess that’s frustrating for Lord Ouhan.
Previously when the topic of strengthening the military came up, Makokan had tried to ask Hossal, “I wonder, does Muconia really harbor such ambitions?”
Hossal had answered boredly, “I’m sure they do.”
“The largest hurdle for Muconia’s advance east is the Toga Mountainous District. It’s not that the mountains are so tall or steep that they can’t be crossed, but soldiers will be exhausted from traveling the mountains, and above all, it’s quite hard to transport provisions and supplies. If they can capture Akafah, it will be possible to use it as a base to capture Ziol.”
“But by that logic, the Toga Mountainous District is a hindrance to Ziol as well, isn’t it? If neither side can make a move, wouldn’t it be easier for both sides to use that mountainous district as a boundary?”
Hossal answered with a laugh, “You’re a man with absolutely no ambition, huh?” Then, more seriously, he added, “Those who are careless will be disadvantaged when it comes to relationships between countries. Anyone who is relieved by the existence of the Toga Mountainous District will lose. Since both Muconia and Lord Ouhan are instinctively aware of this, Akafah will remain a strategically important territory as long as there exist two major powers.”
At that moment, Miral cut in while refilling the tea, “It means, all living beings have a strong desire to eat. …But, it’s not like those who were eaten simply vanish either.”
Hossal grinned broadly, “Oh, it came out, the temperament of an Otawalian.”
As Makokan frowned, not understanding the meaning behind their words, Miral enlightened him as she offered him tea.
“Otawalians believe that there’s no victory or defeat in this world. If you’re going to be eaten, it’s better if you’re eaten cleverly. After all, the one eaten will become a part of the eater’s body.” Miral smiled stiffly, a little embarrassed. “There’s the saying <Keep other lands alive, and live for yourself>, and accordingly we’ve been living this way for hundreds of years.”
While watching the tiny ripples on the surface of the tea move, Makokan thought, That makes sense. It’s truly characteristic of Otawalians. Even when the kingdom perished in name, they survived by assimilating into another kingdom. It’s a way of life that’s probably hard to pull off unless you possess quite a bit of resourcefulness and resolve, but the Otawalians have been stubbornly living on in such a way.
As she poured tea into her own cup, Miral muttered, “By letting others live, you survive as well, and by making others happy, you’ll become happy as well.”
That sounded like a prayer.
The barking of the dogs gradually came closer. The falconry dogs were skilfully herding the game to where the falconers were waiting.
A man with a red headband, standing in the middle of the grassland, looked in this direction, and nodded. It was a signal to gain their attention and relay that the hunt would begin soon.
The atmosphere in the tent grew tense with the silent anticipation and excitement of its occupants. Even King Akafah and Lord Ouhan, who had been absorbed in their talk, stopped speaking, and turned their eyes towards the plains.
“…Lord Mazai sure is calm.” Hossal commented.
“That’s because he’s someone who has won multiple medals on several occasions. He probably can grasp the rough location of the game from the dogs’ barking and his falcon’s behavior.”
In Akafah falconry was considered to be part of noble etiquette, and thus young royal men were taught how to raise falcons from childhood. Mazai, the one who had given the signal just now, was the Akafan king’s nephew, and a candidate for the most skilled falconer in the royal family.
Two young boys stood next to him. One was Mazai’s eldest son, Izam. The other was Yotal’s son, Orim. Makokan narrowed his eyes at the slender boy, who was obviously pale and nervous even from a distance.
…I see, I guess it’s because Lord Orim is technically Lord Mazai’s nephew. Yotal’s wife Slumina is Mazai’s younger sister, and thus the boys standing over there are cousins.
Even though he knew the relationship, it still bothered him to see the son of the invader, and royalty of the invaded country standing so close together.
There was no way that Orim, who wasn’t of age yet, was participating in the contest. They simply allowed him to stand next to his uncle, who was an excellent falconer, to learn his techniques. Nonetheless, it seemed provocative to Makokan that Yotal had his own son stand in the Akafan camp, and not the Ziolian camp, in front of the eyes of his father and his subordinate soldiers.
In contrast to Yotal who was amiably chatting with Akafah’s royalty, his older brother Utal stood on the plains with the blue headband of the Ziolian camp proudly wrapped around his head. The falcon resting on his arm had bluish feathers, a rather rare color around here.
He was probably quite mortified about losing to Mazai in last year’s Ceremony of Falconry Exhibition. I can feel his drive just from watching him way over here.
The dogs’ barking rapidly drew near. The falconers shifted their postures to determine where in the thickets and bushes surrounding the edge of the grassland the prey would emerge from… At that moment, the bushes behind them suddenly rustled, and a number of black shadows leaped out in succession.
For a brief moment, Makokan thought that the falconry dogs had returned from that direction. Even the royals seemed to think so as they only frowned slightly, and silently watched as the black dogs closed in on the falconers from behind.
Their faint suspicions changed into shock when they realised that the blacks dogs had no intention of stopping and were upon the falconers in barely a breath.