Stronghold City Urvan also had another name – the “Duchy Capital”. It was situated on the border between Ri’leir and Northland and served as the central pillar of the United Duchy of Acland.
Its appearance held true to the name Stronghold City.
Its high class urban area was built in an orderly fashion, centered around the lord’s castle that stood atop a slightly elevated rocky mountain. This compound was surrounded by a thick wall, the first rampart. Beyond spread general, unorganized city districts looking like milk had spilled out of a pot.
At the outer edge of the common urban area towered the second rampart, joined by an irrigation channel, clearly added there for defensive purposes. That second rampart was in no way inferior to the first one, and it did not seem like an average attack would be able to put a dent into it. And the irrigation channel that also served as a moat would be very effective against equestrian raids.
The city’s surroundings were blanketed with farm fields, and among that lush sea of green which gently rustled whenever the early summer’s wind swooped across the lands, you could occasionally see farmer’s sheds and the red roofs of the relay stations. Moreover, castelliums with guards and tall watchtowers dotted the plains, towering over the surroundings like small islands in a vast ocean, or perhaps like satellites surrounding a planet.
Not just the ramparts but the entire urban area itself served as an organic defense point.
Hence, the name Stronghold City.
The lord’s castle in the center of the city.
Likely a remnant of the time when Urvan was but a mere pioneer village, the castle was plain and simple, emphasizing functionality. It housed a herb garden in the courtyard, parade grounds which took up lots of space, the capital’s library next to the parade grounds, and spires protruding from various parts of the castle.
An old man was currently in the room of the tallest spire, called donjon. That room was equipped with a big glass window to allow brightness to flood the interior.
He had ashen hair, proof of the hardships of a long life, as well as a long beard. The corners of his eyes and brows were full of wrinkles, and the light in his eyes had grown old and dull. He wore a red robe woven with gold threads. At the base of his throat gleamed a warding talisman with a big ruby inlaid in its center. A crown glowing in a dull golden color adorned his forehead.
Indeed, this man was the lord of the Stronghold City Urvan and at the same time the ruler of the United Duchy of Arcland.
Archduke Arial Klauzé Urvan Arcland.
Klauzé sat at his work desk with his back facing the window that offered an unobstructed view of Urvan’s townscape, continuing to grapple with a mountain of paperwork, even as he occasionally suffered violent coughing fits.
He picked up a document from the top of the heap of papers, scanned its contents, signed it, stamped it with the seal on his ring, and moved on to the next document. He proceeded with this work endlessly, donning a difficult expression.
But then, around the time when the pile of documents had decreased to half of its original height — albeit it wasn’t clear how long it took him to reach this point — Klauzé suddenly covered his mouth with a hand, starting to cough intensely. It was a chesty, very painful coughing which seemed to well up from the bottom of his lungs.
“…Your Grace.” Standing next to the desk, a bald, elderly man addressed him in a reserved manner. “How about taking a break any time soon?”
“…Hmm.” He returned the quill into its holder, leaking a groany sigh while leaning back in his chair. “…Perhaps I should. Walter, prepare tea. And call Antonio.”
“As you wish, Your Grace.”
The bald man called Walter glanced at the maid standing at the wall. With a graceful bow, she silently but promptly left the office.
“…Good grief, my old age sure is showing.”
As soon as the maid was no longer visible, Klauzé relaxed his shoulders. Perhaps because he was alone with Walter, his regal expression overflowing with dignity fell apart, turning into that of a normal old man.
Walter offered his encouragement to the weary-looking Archduke.
“Certainly you are jesting. You are still a prime example of healthiness, Your Grace.”
“…Hearing this from someone younger than myself doesn’t sound all that reassuring.” Klauzé sighed with a resigned expression while glancing back at Walter’s smile in exasperation.
Thanks to their long association, he knew that this comment, which could be interpreted as hypocritical courtesy or even plain disrespect, was Walter’s own way of expressing humor and sympathy.
The prime minister of the United Duchy of Arcland, Count Walter Bergmann Schmdeler.
He had been Klauzé’s right hand for several decades — ever since he took up the position of Urvan’s lord and Archduke.
“No, not at all. As of late I have started to worry about my hair loss…”
“Oh please, come on.” He snorted at Walter’s comment who was rubbing his smooth baldness, and heavily forced his body to get up.
Squinting at the sunlight entering the room through the window behind his chair of simple make, he directed his eyes at the territory of Acland spreading out beneath him.
As he gazed at the scenery with his arms folded behind his back, his eyes seemed somewhat distant. Looking at the back of his lord which seemed to emanate loneliness, Walter naturally kept his mouth shut, erasing the silly smile from before.
“…Lately,” Klauzé began solemnly, “I have been considering to pass the throne to Dietrich.”
Walter’s eyebrows went down, making him also look somewhat lonely. Klauzé continued as he combed his fingers through his long beard.
“Dietrich is still young, but the problem lies in me having grown too old. Considering what ‘could’ happen, abdicating while I can would keep the conflicts to a minimum.”
“I see… Do you intend to retire completely, Your Highness?”
“No. I’ll work as an adviser.”
“Oh, I see.”
Walter nodded amusedly at Klauzé’s answer.
“So it will be merely for “form’s sake”, as it is commonly called?”
“Yes. No matter how smart Dietrich might be, he’s still too inexperienced to entrust everything to him. The last few years have been peaceful… but currently the political situation is quite complex. There is the matter with the Snowland people, and I also hear of worrisome movements among the Grassland people.”
Putting on a slightly grave expression, Klauzé grabbed a report from his desk.
Several reports had come in from the government-general he had assigned to the Grassland people’s stronghold Riff. According to those, the tribes, which had been opposing the duchy’s rule, had suddenly quieted down as of late.
Looking at it superficially, this would qualify as good news, but it was hard to imagine that people who have continued to be rebellious for a long time would suddenly turn obedient. In all probability, they were planning something nasty — both Klauzé and Walter believed.
During the previous military campaign, the Grassland people suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the magician corps that was organized by Urvan, but their mobility and offensive abilities while on horseback were nothing to scoff at. Even if they rose in rebellion, it would not be too difficult to put them down, but at the same time, Klauzé considered the Grassland people to be opponents he could not underestimate.
“…By the way, what’s the situation with Northland?” He asked as he put the report back on the pile of documents.
Lifting the corners of his mouth into a cynical smile, Walter answered, “It seems as though they are continuing their usual internal squabbles.”
“I see. That’s good.” Klauzé nodded in good humor at Walter’s contemptful tone.
In the past, the duchy and Northland went through a period of conflicts, but nowadays they shared a relatively friendly relationship. The disputes concerning territory had — partly due to the Grassland people’s intervention — been settled by dividing the rule over several northern towns.
As this had resulted in Northland encroaching into the duchy’s realm, Klauzé did not find the situation very appealing back then, but as a result, human traffic had increased between the north and south, which in lieu boosted the economical growth. Urvan’s side provided food, luxury items and medical supplies, whereas Northland exported its great arms and some portions of its metalwork.
This relationship was of advantage for either side. However, Klauzé feared that the Snowland people would turn their swords at Urvan once again, and thus adopted several measures for the sake of avoiding a war.
One of them was the territorial dispute among the Snowland people taking place in the western part of Northland.
Originally Northland was famous for its harsh wintry environment, but the western part, which faced the ocean, was an exception. It had a relatively warm climate, was rich with crops and was generally considered as land allowing for an easy life.
And — for that very reason, it was prone to become the seed of conflict.
Because of the increase in population in recent years, the Snowland people had begun to run into a lack of good land. They desired land with abundant crops that could reliably provide food. However, only the western part possessed such land in the cruel northern environment.
But then, Klauzé succeeded in fanning the rivalry among the tribes by sending in a large number of spies pretending to be peddlers, who then intentionally supplied the wealthy western tribes with cheap medicine, further widening the disparity in living standards among the tribes.
And eventually, this resulted in the occurrence of disputes.
The improved living standards caused by Urvan’s medicine and other technologies triggered a spike in the population growth, but ironically enough this became yet another reason for the tribes to lash out at each other. But, if Klauzé hadn’t interfered, the brunt of this pressure might have been pointed at not only Urvan, but the entire duchy.
In addition to their superior weapons, the Snowland people also possessed a unique body-enhancing technique called 『Crests』. Up until now, small military conflicts, which could be described as skirmishes at the most, had repeatedly taken place, but when it came to a massive invasion accompanied by a migration of tribes, it would be hard to imagine what damages it might bring about.
At the very least, I wish to avoid an all-out war.
Those were Klauzé’s thoughts on the matter. What the duchy needed right now was time — the time it would take to divide the Snowland people. The tribes had always been at odds with each other, hardly ever finding a common ground, but they would still march as one once they decided to unite against a common enemy.
For this reason, it was indispensable to thoroughly drive a wedge between them.
It would be far too dangerous to stir up trouble with the Snowland people after they banded together in this situation where the duchy also had to worry about the Grassland people as a seed of trouble. If the duchy and Northland went into an all-out war, for argument’s sake, the Grassland people would probably see it as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to stage a revolt.
In the end, this would be way too risky. As for whether the benefit would be worth the risks…
…The western part of Northland certainly is attractive.
Klauzé let his thoughts wander towards the distant ocean as he gazed at the Aria gently streaming its way beyond the horizon.
The ocean, and the harbor connecting to it. These were the true desires of Klauzé as the Lord of the Stronghold City Urvan.
And for the people wishing for a war against the Snowland people, these could possibly become the foundation of that claim.
“…Recently, the war advocates have become naggy as well.” Walter muttered as if talking to himself, seemingly having have seen through what Klauzé was thinking.
Klauzé seated himself once more with a faint sigh escaping his lips. The color of disgust dyed his face, betraying his mental exhaustion.
Some among his retainers loudly advocated a war against Northland.Most of them belonged to the military faction or defense contractors. Maybe they wanted to secure some war funds, or they were aiming for a special procurement of arms and similar — most likely various ulterior motives were entwined in this, but the underlying reasoning behind their public stance was to acquire a bridgehead to overseas.
In other words, they wanted to acquire the western coastal area of Northland.
“If we procure our own port, it’d solidify Urvan’s position, they say. Well, what they’re saying is valid in itself.”
“…However, it is still too early.”
“I share your view, Your Grace, but… as of late, Kitene has been… getting carried away… would possibly be a smart way to phrase it. As such, a number of people cannot suppress their anger.”
Klauzé could only grimace at Walter’s implication of how lamentable it was.
Stronghold City Urvan.
Fortified City Satyna.
Mining City Garon.
Port City Kitene.
If one were to think of the metropolis of the United Duchy of Arcland, those four would be the first to come to mind, but among them Kitene was the duchy’s sole access to the ocean. Single-handedly shouldering everything from foreign trade to salt production, Kitene boasted an outstanding economic prowess, distinguishing it from the other cities.
Indeed, it had the biggest economic strength, disregarding the leading power that was Urvan.
Then again, the cities upheld a balance with Urvan excelling in military might, Garon in industrial power, and Satyna being capable of handling everything without a fault, but the complicated part of this problem lay in the fact that Urvan’s position as the duchy’s leading power was not set in stone
The nobles, who had joined the United Duchy of Arcland, didn’t swear an absolute oath of allegiance to the lord of Urvan. They merely obeyed to Urvan, which boasted a formidable military force, as subjects due to the promise of safety
As such, they had adopted the name of United Duchy of Arcland, but the political powers within were ever-changing, and at times even awfully ambiguous.
In the first place, the United Duchy of Arcland did not even exist as a state until a hundred years ago. Back then, it was a small country centered around Kitene, and Urvan was no more than a provincial city. On top of that, the family lineage of the current Archduke Klauzé could be traced back all the way to the bloodline of Kitene’s lords. After repeated political disturbances and disputes with various ethnic groups, the lord decided to relocate to Urvan which had grown significantly, resulting in the duchy as it was today.
Looking at it from another perspective — it was a viable possibility another relocation could happen in the future.
Having said that, it wasn’t as though Port City Kitene had started to boast a tremendous economical power just the other day.
Urvan had tried to stand against Kitene’s salt monopoly by holding onto the mining rights of the rock salt at the Grassland people’s headquarters once they fell under the duchy’s rule.
Satyna used a unique taxation system to keep tabs on the merchants going through Kitene, and actively approached other economic powerhouses.
Setting aside Garon that decided to not get involved in the politics for better or worse, the rest of the cities had been restraining and regulating Kitene in a positive manner,, so it had never developed into much of a problem.
As of late, Kitene’s lord had started to show threatening, and in some respects even treacherous ambitions.
“I can not help but think that, if not for that rumor…” Walter sighed with an unusually sorrowful expression.
He was referring to something which occurred a few months ago. A certain rumor had started to spread among the common people.
According to that rumor, His Highness the Archduke had health problems and was bound to die soon. And because his heir, Prince Dietrich, was far too young, the current lord of Kitene would become the duchy’s leader.
Such a credible lie had propagated from some street corner, market, or a pub in the outskirts, and was now spreading throughout the duchy at an alarming speed.
Because of how unnatural and blasphemous it was, the intelligence unit spearheaded by Prime Minister Walter attempted to trace its origin, which resulted in…
Port City Kitene.
Of course, the lord of Kitene immediately denied being involved in this, but once this came to light, the nobles of Urvan had started to argue.
This must be Kitene’s provocation against Urvan.
It was a fact that many interpreted it just like that.
…I wish nothing extreme comes out of this, but…
Klauzé pondered while stroking his beard. The face of Kitene’s lord surfaced in his mind.
Just what are you thinking…
They had been meeting each other once every few years, but Klauzé always had the impression of Kitene’s lord being a quiet and honest man, somewhat contradicting his brilliant business abilities which he had inherited from past generations. However, because he was so untalkative, it was sometimes hard to guess what he was thinking.
Thinking logically, it would be a waste of money with no real merit for Kitene to aim for the duchy’s throne when they were clearly inferior in terms of military power. Klauzé’s intuition somewhat told him that this was not Kitene’s plan.
Still, if that’s truly the case, it’d mean the rumors were influenced by a third party.
To begin with, Klauzé’s bad condition had been a confidential matter only known to a select few nobles. It was not a piece of information someone would spread for no reason. In which case, it would be natural to think that someone, who planned to sow the seeds of discord, among the duchy’s nobles was the ringleader here.
…But who? And to what end?
Their identity was a mystery, but their intentions were unknown as well. Frankly, if it came to spreading rumors as a manipulative measure, there were better ways to go about it. The current speed at which the rumors propagated was so abnormal that it actually screamed manipulation.
Who, and why…?
No matter how much he thought about it, his doubts just kept swirling and a heavy feeling kept accumulating inside his chest. But then, a heavy cough spilled out from deep in his lungs, as if he had suddenly remembered about it.
After a violent coughing fit, Klauzé shook his head to get rid of his negative thinking.
Good grief, my body won’t last at this rate…
He could feel his old age. He did not tell anyone about it, but lately he had been awfully forgetful as well.
He did not even want to think of the worst case scenario, and wished to watch over the duchy’s future for as long as he could, but in the end, he decided that it would be best to resign while he could still think rationally.
Forgive me Dietrich… it’ll result in me placing a heavy burden on your shoulders.
The old king sighed as he recalled the face of his young – very young – grandchild, and then decided to put all those gloomy thoughts aside.
“…Speaking of which, His Highness’ birthday is going to be soon, is it not?”
Walter chose this moment to bring up another subject.
“So he’s already turning fourteen years old.”
Only at times like these, his expression – probably one that ought to be described as the gentle look of a grandfather – appeared to be boundlessly kind.
“…We have to hold a grand celebration.” He said, then added with a muttering, “It’ll also serve as a great opportunity to introduce him to the citizens.”
“In that case, shall we arrange for some special event?”
“…That’d be wise, especially when considering the future…”
Klauzé let his thoughts wander as he tapped his desk with a finger.
“…Skilled warriors are never enough. Should we hold a martial arts tournament?”
When Klauzé glanced at Walter, he replied with a big smile, “That is a great idea.”
“Then let us go with that.”
“As you command.”
Just as Walter gave a respectful bow, footsteps became audible on the other side of the door.
Klauzé reverted back to his dignified expression while Walter corrected his posture. Following that, knocking could be heard from the door.
“Lord Antonio has arrived.”
“Let him in.”
Walter answered with a flat tone.
The door opened and one man entered the room along with a maid holding tea utensils.
He was a plump man with a round face, seemingly in his early forties. He wore a gorgeous robe adorned with jewels and a small hat decorated with a feather. His outfit clearly told everyone that he was a great noble.
“Your Grace, it delights me to see you in such good health…”
The man bowed exaggeratedly with a gentle smile. He was called Antonio. He was Klauzé’s physician and exclusive doctor.
“I’ve called for you because I’m not in good health.”
“My deepest apologies…”
Antonio’s gentle smile cramped up when Klauzé answered with a smile of his own. But he quickly recovered, promptly placed a medicine box on the small table set up by a maid, and prepared things such as scales and cups.
“…Now, what could be troubling you, Your Grace.”
“The usual. The constant coughing gives me trouble.”
“Please give me a moment.”
With a bow, Antonio started to compound medicine with nimble hand movements. He skillfully measured a fine powder and syrup, and mixed them together inside a cup filled with the water he had brought himself.
Soon enough, he had finished producing a gooey medicine of muddy green color which looked anything but decent.
He picked up a new spoon, scooped up a bit of the liquid, and put it into his mouth.
“Hmm… There seem to be no problems with it.”
This was a ceremony not for trying out the taste, but to test for poison as a display of responsibility. However, Antonio got past this as if it was nothing worthy of mention, and next poured the liquid into another silver cup the maid had carried over.
At a glance, it seemed to be an ordinary cup, but those with a trained eye could see the powerful magical waves radiating from it. It was an expensive magic tool which would immediately inform its user whenever it detected poison within.
The maid brought the cup, which was filled with medicine to the brim, to Klauzé. Thereupon, so as to make doubly sure, Walter snapped his fingers from the side.
A soft, golden light drifted around the cup. All present hallucinated seeing a small, feathered figure within that light.
Walter served as the duchy’s prime minister, but at the same time he was also an excellent magician who had studied magic at the national magic academy. Poison testing spells were his specialty as well, so it was nigh impossible to fool his trained eyes through human means.
The light that licked all over the cup flickered several times and faded away.
“…There are no problems.”
Only after hearing Walter’s calm affirmation, Klauzé picked up the cup.
He glanced at the swaying liquid with an annoyed expression, then resolved himself, and drained it all down in one go.
Right afterwards, he grimaced. It was terribly bitter and had a bad aftertaste. But at the same time, he felt refreshed, as if a load had been lifted from his chest.
“…As always, your medicine works wonders. Good work.”
“Your words are wasted on me.”
The drug’s bitterness seemed to have been really intense, seeing how Klauzé’s words sounded somewhat sloppy even while he drank black tea with plenty of honey, which a maid had poured into a new, silver cup, to wash down the bad taste. Even so, Antonio prostrated himself as if overcome with emotions.
“As of late, my limbs sometimes feel strangely cold… Could you do something about this as well?”
“Yes. If that is the case, I have an idea what medicine to compound.”
“Arrange it for the next time then. I’ll be in your care.”
“Yes, Your Grace! It is too great an honor…!!”
While carrying his medicine box, Anotnio left the room while being smarmy and kowtowing repeatedly.
Walter’s gaze followed his back suspiciously. But he did not let it show on his face.
Stronghold City Urvan, in a certain corner of the lord’s castle.
A small room was situated in a poorly-lit area of the above-ground floor.
It was a strange room. All the walls were occupied by shelves which were full of dried plants in bottles, various kinds of seeds, and unknown dried food. Even the floor was littered with boxes, leaving almost no space for a person to stand inside. A mortar, pestle, scales, beaker, cups, test tubes and other such things densely crowded a table which was far too big for this room.
A man was inside that room.
By all means, he was ugly. His face had been hideously burned, probably by fire.. One of his eyelids was rolled upwards and the eye below looked murky. Yet, the other eye looked too small for his face. This lack of balance grossed out anyone who saw it. He had profusely swollen lips, and uneven teeth were visible through his faintly opened mouth. As the man, who had a hunchback entering the domain of abnormality, sat at the table, he was silently grinding some strange, bone-looking purple substance with a pestle.
The pestle’s grinding dominated the room’s interior. He turned that bone-like substance into powder, moved it to a different container, and then started grinding once again. He continued this simple yet very straining work without an end in sight.
But then — after an unknown amount of time, footsteps clacking across the floor at a quick pace approached outside the room.
The ugly man stopped what he was doing, and pulled the hood of his robe low over his face with practiced hand movements so as to not offend his master, who would soon enter, with his gross face.
At the same time as the footsteps were audible from right in front of the room, the door was flung open without any knocking or whatsoever.
A man silently entered the room — a plump man with a round face and a luxurious robe — Antonio.
“How are things going? Hmm?”
Antonio asked in a pretentious way, completely different from how he acted in front of the duke.
“Y-Yes, everything is going well thanks to you.”
“Mhm. His Grace was very satisfied with the compounded medicine today too. Be proud of it.”
“Yes sir. Thank you very much.”
The ugly man bowed unnaturally with awkward movements. As to not displease Antonio.
“Now, on to the main issue. His Grace has been feeling coldness in his limbs most recently. I believe kanjintoa grass, lioca fruit and and laise bean extract would be effective, what do you think?”
The man pondered as he listened to Antonio’s long-winded speech.
“…It is as you say, perfectly so.”
“Right, thought so. My judgment is never wrong.”
Antonio snorted arrogantly, obviously very pleased with himself.
“With that said, let’s see, I need three days’ worth. Finish it by tonight.”
“Yes… By tonight?”
“Is there a problem?”
Preparing such an amount from scratch was a fairly unreasonable demand. Seeing the man’s slight surprise, Antonio asked back in ill humor. The ugly man hurriedly prostrated himself and answered.
“N-Not at all. I shall prepare the share for three days by tonight.”
“Yes. Very well.”
Antonio nodded, but then he suddenly revealed a demeaning smile on his plump face.
“Make sure to keep in mind who feeds an ugly monster like you.”
“Then… Do as I told you.”
Antonio declared with a smirk, as if amused by something, and then left, slamming the door shut behind him without sparing the other man so much as a glance.
Over the whole period as Antonio’s footsteps faded away, the man remained prostrated. Finally, when the footsteps couldn’t be heard any longer, he muttered, “Hmph… You sure have a nerve to order me around as the greenhorn, who can’t do anything yourself, you are…”
His voice was full of contempt, but it also sounded somewhat cheerful.
He went through the shelves while limping and collected the ingredients. He lined up leaves and a bin filled with some nuts on the table, and returned to grinding, just as he had been doing before the interruption.
Mechanic and somewhat violent sounds echoed throughout the room.
He kept at it for an unknown amount of time.
Around the time when the evening glow shone into the room through the gaps of the closed shutter, he heard something similar to a door knocking.
However, it did not originate from the door, but the closed window instead. The man put down the pestle, his gross face warping into what was probably a smile, and quickly opened the shutters.
What awaited him was a crow. A crow with deep red eyes, perched on the window frame.
At the same time as the shutters opened up, the crow entered the room, apparently used to it.
It first jumped on the table and then hopped down on the floor.
The ugly man on the other hand headed for the door. Carefully, without making a sound, he opened the door and checked outside.
There was no one present.
After confirming that, he shut the door again.
And when he turned around — an old man dressed in black stood there.
That old man had an odd atmosphere to him.
First was his stature. His body looked smooth while being wrapped up in a jet-black robe. His straight back, despite his age, was proof of his healthiness. He had a short black beard and similarly short hair. The hands peeking out of the robe were full of wrinkles, appropriate for his age, but his gaping eyes were brimming with wild vigor. Deep crimson eyes similar to blood or burning flames.
The old man lightly waved his hand without a word.
In the next moment, all sound vanished.
The daily noises faintly audible through the window and the ceiling were completely cut off. The ugly man, despite his lack of knowledge, vaguely guessed that he probably used a sound blocking spell.
If one carelessly used a spell inside the castle, the court magicians would immediately detect it. He had heard something like that before, but he knew that the old man before his eyes was someone beyond any ordinary norms.
“…Well well, it’s been a while. Have you been doing well?”
The old man asked in a friendly manner while peering at the shorter man.
“Y-Yes. All thanks to you…”
He responded with a dark smile. But this time, it wasn’t a smile forced for appearance’s sake, but one oozing with true reverence.
“I see, I see… And what about the condition of His Grace?”
The man’s ugly smile deepened even further at those words.
“…It seems that he feels cold in his limbs as of late.”
“Ka-ka-ka-ka… I see, I see.”
The old man took a small bottle with a colorless liquid out of his pocket while laughing wickedly.
“In that case… his days are numbered.”
He then handed that bottle to the ugly man.
As he accepted it, the man revealed a smile that seemed to be cramped.
Their scornful laughers resounded in the all too quiet room.
Before long, the sound of laughter was replaced by the flapping of wings.
And after even that sound had faded, only the grinding of the pestle could be heard.
Continuing without rest.
As if nothing had happened.