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Rakuin No Monshou - Volume 11 - Chapter 6

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Chapter 6

Part 1

The Zongan port town Washmeel was famous for its large red-light district.

Before the sun had even finished setting, prostitutes from every corner of the world beckoned to the rough sailors who had equally come from all over. Gambling was also prominent, and even when the sun was still high in the sky, shouts of glee and screams of anguish alike rose from the streets leading to that neighbourhood, as the joys and sorrows of winning and losing unfolded.

The ships carrying Prince Kaseria Jamil of Allion and his two thousand soldiers had docked at the port more than two weeks ago.

Kaseria had granted the soldiers a moderate respite, and they were making the most of Washmeel's nightlife. Neither women nor gambling were forbidden to them. They spent money steadily and there was a general opinion that they needed to make the most of Zonga.

Kaseria himself hardly left the ship. He was known to be a womaniser, but he almost never slept with prostitutes.

My tool isn't made to be used with money - he openly declared with a roar of laughter.

Day after day, he stretched himself out on the ship's deck, or would be in his room, also lying down. His attitude was not at all that of a commander leading a large army to war.

One night, Lance Mazpotter was on his way to pay a call to the prince's private cabin. Just as he was about to set foot on the pier, a voice called out to him from the shadows to one side.

’’Sir Lance.’’

It was the Endean prince, Jeremie Amon Doria. However, if someone who had known him in the past, when he was praised in Safia for being the very epitome of an Endean aristocrat, were to see him now, they might well conclude that, although there was a certain resemblance, this must be a different person. That was how much Jeremie's appearance had changed.

Once upon a time, when he rose in the morning, he would take his time arranging his hair with the help of his underlings, but now, it was utterly dishevelled. He, who had once been recognised as a leader of fashion in Safia, did not have a single accessory adorning him;his clothes, which he had not changed in many days, were slightly grubby and were giving off an unpleasant smell. But more than anything, it was his eyes. Those slender, almond-shaped and ever detached eyes had been famed for brimming with a brilliance innate to those of noble birth, and had once captivated countless men and women, yet now, they were now dull and listless.

’’Greetings, Prince. Ah, no, Your Excellency the future Grand Duke of Ende.’’

Lance gave a bow, but Jeremie looked as though he could not bear to waste time on greetings.

’’Sir Lance, what's the situation? Militarily, I mean. How has Ende reacted? What kind of moves is Eric making?’’ He enquired breathlessly.

Lance lips were curved into a gentle smile.

’’But these various matters should already have been communicated to you, Lord Jeremie.’’

’’I-I know. However, that was already five days ago. I want to know what the situation is now. B-Besides, this stay in Zonga is dragging on. When will Allion's forces start moving? At this rate, aren't you just needlessly granting that damned Eric a reprieve?.’’

’’As to that, there are many things that someone in a position as lowly as mine cannot understand. His Highness Kaseria keeps it all safely in his own mind. Ah, but speaking of which, there is a council of war scheduled for tomorrow evening. I am sure that you, Lord Jeremie, will also be called to attend.’’

Lance bowed once again then, after winking to the soldiers on the pier who were standing on guard on either side of the flagship, he made his way on board. Behind him, Jeremie was calling something out, but the soldiers blocked his way. His voice gradually faded in the distance.

Bah. Shrugging his shoulders which were lightly clad in armour, the veteran warrior from Atall pulled a face. A pathetic wretch.

Even though he had been the one to invite Allion to the centre of the continent, Jeremie had already been pushed to the side. Simply because he could not accept being passed over as the next successor, and instead wished to forcefully overturn this reality, he had appealed for Allion's assistance, failing to take into account the risk of his own country being annexed by such a powerful kingdom's military.

Although he could be said to be the man who had given it just cause for its invasion, Allion no longer had any use for him. Afterwards, he would, at best, be kept on as a figurehead. According to what he had heard, Jeremie, either because he was growing more impatient by the day or to repress his feelings of guilt, spent his entire time abusing black water lily powder.

That Eric, his younger brother, was effectively the ruler of Ende was a reality that he seemed unable to allow to continue for even a single moment longer, which was why he occasionally came to see Kaseria and Lance like this. It was unclear though how much longer his spirit would last.

Whether asleep or awake, he's just dreaming.

A smile once again crossed Lance Mazpotter's deeply chiselled face, then he suddenly stopped dead, and, exactly as though he was looking for assassins prowling in the shadows, his healthy right eye sharply darted left and right.

I haven't seen that sorcerer recently.

Jeremie had not fled alone from Ende: his attendant sorcerer Hezel had definitely travelled with him. At first, he could be seen following Jeremie like a shadow but, these past few days, the young sorcerer had suddenly vanished.

Not being from Allion, Lance Mazpotter felt that sorcerers were uncanny and loathsome beings.

The sort to hide lurking somewhere... Well, whatever. The plots of one lone sorcerous vermin won't change the course of fate at this point.

There were also several sorcerers accompanying the prince's troops. So if, for example, he was planning on causing harm by killing the prince and removing the army's central figure, they would be able to stop him beforehand. Thinking that, Lance forgot about Hezel for now. Instead, he continued forward.

’’You here?’’ He asked, and pushed open the door without waiting for an answer.

From inside the room came a woman's scream. Her suntanned back was visible above the bed. Next to her, and almost as though in contrast to her, was a young man with white skin who was smoking a narrow, silver-tipped pipe[1].

’’That you, Lance? You're as uncouth as ever.’’

’’Who knows when and where the enemy might strike. Say that I'd been an assassin, what would you have done, O Heir to the throne of Allion?’’

’’First, I would've used the woman as a shield, then, I would've turned the tables on you.’’

While the woman hurriedly getting dressed in the partial concealment offered by the bed seemed startled at his words, Kaseria raised the sword that had been left nearby. It was unsheathed.

Before long, the woman silently slunk off.

’’If I'm not mistaken, that was...’’

’’Count Washmeel's youngest daughter. He holds jurisdiction over this port.’’

Ah, nodded Lance. Since she had a level-headed personality despite being young, he had thought upon first meeting her that - she's exactly the sort Kaseria likes.

’’It'll be something if her father finds out. As if it wasn't enough that Zonga is acting as though they're being made to swallow a humiliation over this whole affair.’’

’’She's not the sort to go telling tales. She's a woman who can deal with the consequences of having offered up her own ass.’’

’’Oh? I thought I'd taught you most of what there is to know about women.’’ Lance closed his single eye for a second. ’’Unlike with swords and war, you can't rely on previous experience. Never think that just because you've known another woman with a similar personality in the past that things are going to go the same way every time.’’

’’I'll bear it in mind. More importantly,’’ Kaseria had been yawning but now his eyes suddenly shone brightly, ’’have you released the 'dogs'?’’

’’Yeah. They've checked up to the forest. They should reach Dairan five days from now.’’

Lance opened the cabin window as he was giving his answer. Kaseria was smoking black water lily powder, and Lance hated having the strangely slimy smoke coiling around him.

’’Good, finally. Ende's little lord should come flying as soon as we bait him. And then, we just need to crush them in one go.’’

’’That would be great, but...’’

’’What?’’ As soon as he heard that, Kaseria, still in bed, looked displeased. ’’Something's happened, hasn't it? Don't act all mysterious and just tell me.’’

’’Yeah, there's some bad news. Garbera seems to be taking action.’’

’’Garbera?’’

According to information that Lance Mazpotter had recently received, it appeared that the Kingdom of Garbera, which lay south of Ende, was sending a troop of more than two thousand in reinforcement. Kaseria irritably raised his arms overhead.

’’Weren't Garbera and Ende supposed to have only just crossed spears? That damned Jeremie was speaking nonsense.’’

When they had alighted at the Zongan port, they had naturally met with Jeremie, the one responsible for ushering them into the centre of the continent. According to what he had said -

’’Mephius is in the middle of a civil war that has split the country in two, and it's also embroiled in a silent feud with Garbera over the treatment given to the princess who was sent there to get married. On top of that, Eric recently invaded Garberan territory. Since Ende has not concluded any alliances with foreign countries in a long time, it is now virtually isolated and helpless.’’

’’Garbera is a country of knights... was that it? So it should prize righteousness. Just like you, its chivalrous spirit must have been stirred at the thought of defending the descendants of the Magic Dynasty,’’ Lance suggested sarcastically.

Lance had, from the start, been unenthusiastic about this war and, above all, he had strongly objected when he heard about the plan to send a second troop overland. Spreading out between Allion and Ende was a mountainous area through part of which stretched the country of Ryalide. He had been opposed to coercively sending their forces through it.

’’We shouldn't provoke Ryalide with that kind of manoeuvre.’’

’’What can a small country like Ryalide do? You were there last year when I met its king, weren't you? That pig is just a coward who only thinks of his own safety,’’ Kaseria laughed.

’’Don't underestimate him. When the path of escape is cut off, even a coward will bare his fangs. If Garbera joins in and it looks like we're having a hard time during the first battle, Ryalide might send its troops from behind.’’

’’And that wouldn't matter. It's fine if the second wave of troops attracts plenty of enemy attention. That's why I had Sir Phard, my ever-lovable older half-brother, put in charge of them. Even without being told, that hothead is guaranteed to raise some eye-catching sparks.’’

Perhaps tired of lying down, Kaseria sprang to his feet, the sword still in his hand. He swung it horizontally, as though to decapitate an invisible enemy.

’’Even I don't expect to overrun the whole of Ende with this war, you know. But, if we use the right bait, then in a week's time, we might be toasting the freshly severed head of the Lord-next-Grand-Duke-of-Ende in this very cabin,’’ so saying, he roared with laughter.

Humph, Lance's expression seemed to be mocking a young novice's shallow cleverness, but as a matter of fact, the sword play that he was now demonstrating beneath his eyes surpassed that of any soldier from within the country or outside of it that Lance could compare him to.

To think that he would become this good a swordsman - Lance reflected anew.

After his home country had been destroyed by Allion, Lance was employed by its king at the royal palace. He was to become a tutor, or, more specifically, an instructor in swordsmanship, to Kaseria, who was then thirteen-years-old.

Lance had made clear his dissatisfaction. At thirteen, one should already have the physical basics. From what he had heard, however, Kaseria had been a premature baby and, when he was born, he had hovered between life and death. The King of Allion had sent east and west for countless skilled doctors so that his son might somehow live. It was said that he had even borrowed the help of sorcerers. That he had strived so hard towards prolonging his son's life was, of course, out of love for his own child but, more importantly, it was also because the death in infancy of a first-born child was considered an evil omen in Allion.

Perhaps because of that history, both of his parents had spoiled Kaseria rotten. If there was something that displeased him even a little, Kaseria would bawl and cry, or, half in jest, he would blame the retainers for something or another and would ask his father, the king, to have them executed.

I have to teach the sword to that brat?

Just because the instructor was a skilled swordsman, it did not mean that the student would learn to be any good. To make matters worse, the other party was a boy with an atrocious personality who had never even held a sword up until then.

However -

Now, nine years later, Kaseria was one of the best swordsmen in the kingdom. It was not out of sycophancy or deference to the heir to the throne that so many noted fencers had dropped to their knees after receiving one of his blows in the palace's training grounds. Despite his youth, his feats on the battlefield were among the most noteworthy;this too was not because he squeezed his strategists and his subordinates dry of their intelligence and strength while he advanced at a leisurely pace, grabbing all achievements for himself. No matter how difficult the battle, he was always in the vanguard, his entire body covered in his opponents' blood, pressing forward to slaughter more and more enemies.

It'll be the same thing this time - thought Lance, not expecting any unforeseen events as he admonished Kaseria in his usual way.

Even though Eric Le Doria had been waiting impatiently for this news, he could not help doubting his ears for a second.

Reinforcements of over a thousand were coming from Garbera. Moreover, it was said that Prince Zenon Owell would be leading them. It was not only Eric but a great many people in Ende who could not hide their surprise. They had felt the same when their young lord had requested aid from Garbera, but seeing it actually materialise was as unexpected for them as it was for Eric himself, even though he had been the one to actually suggest it.

Nevertheless, it was with an expression that seemed to say that this development was entirely natural, and with a somewhat proud backward glance at his astonished retainers, that Eric personally went to greet the Garberan troops in Safia and exchanged a firm handshake with their prince.

’’It's been a long time, Prince Zenon.’’

’’It has, Lord Eric. I am grateful to you for going out of your way to meet us. Still, I did not think that our reunion would come like this.’’

’’It brings back memories of that shadowy fort, doesn't it?’’

What Eric was alluding to was time when, right after battle had broken out near Zaim and, at Mephius' suggestion, they had held a special three-way meeting in the fort within the Nouzen Mountains.

’’If I remember right, it was raining, wasn't it?’’

’’Yes. Even though it was broad daylight, it was so dark that you couldn't see the expression on someone else's face even if you went right up next to them. Back then, it was myself, you, Prince Zenon, and the crown prince of Mephius.’’

’’Ah, that other gentleman. It seems that he has revived after being dead for a while.’’

’’I thought at the time that he was eccentric, but I would never have imagined it was to that extent.’’

The two of them laughed discreetly.

While doing so and continuing their talk, both was thinking of the other - he's changed.

At the time, they had been mutual enemies who would not have let the other leave the battlefield alive, so saying that they had ’’changed’’ was a matter of course. However, to take the example of Eric, he, who was perhaps not by nature an eloquent speaker, had at the time merely muttered a few short words;yet now he projected his voice as well as an attitude of complete self-confidence. Zenon's manner, meanwhile, had been as regal as it had been severe, with a look that seemed to say that only those who followed him without question were his allies, yet now, that harshness was removed and there was gentleness in his expression.

Whereupon -

’’May we introduce ourselves?’’

Moldorf's large body came up to stand in line next to Zenon. Nilgif followed behind.

’’We didn't even stay three days in Garbera. Next stop by ship, and it's the famous water capital, Safia. How long are we going to be here for? Well since we're at it, don't you feel like comparing all these countries' liquor, Brother?’’

’’Why can't you think before opening your mouth? People will start doubting whether Kadyne's warriors have any manners,’’ his brother thundered.

Lord Eric's eyes opened wide at the appearance and behaviour of the western warriors that he was seeing for the first time, and Zenon, who saw himself as he had been a few days earlier in that, let slip a chortle.

A small welcome party was held that evening. The next day, things turned into a council of war gathering the main army commanders.

In fact, however, Zenon and Eric had met late the previous evening, just the two of them. As the two overall commanders, there were intending to decide on their tactical course of action before the council, which was sure to become a tangled mess of patriotic zeal.

Taking only these two into account, their mutual hatred and enmity had already faded, but it could not be said that the same held true for the soldiers they were leading. As far as the Garberan soldiers were concerned, they could hold nothing but resentment towards Ende, which had come up with some false accusation and used it to invade their country. Meanwhile, the Endean soldiers held a deep-seated antipathy towards Garbera, which had one-sidedly discarded the secret alliance between the two countries.

’’It's unfortunate, but I can't say for sure that having both our forces manoeuvre in the same area wouldn't be dangerous.’’

’’I entirely agree with you,’’ Zenon nodded. ’’It might be best to act separately.’’

The enemy was also broadly divided into two groups. There was Kaseria Jamil's force, which was in Zonga, to the north, and which had yet to make a move. That one numbered two thousand. While the troops approaching Dairan via the overland route in the north of Ryalide, by way of the mountainous region known as the ’’cunning dragon's spine’’, were three or four thousand strong.

The end result was that Lord Eric's three thousand Endean soldiers would be stationed in Dairan, while the two thousand troops from the combined forces of Prince Zenon and the west would take up position east of there and check the troops approaching by the overland route.

’’Once the enemy sees Garbera's flag, even they will probably hesitate. If the two armies remain at a stand-off for long enough, we will hopefully be able to turn Allion back with the minimum amount of damage.’’

With the course of action decided, the council of war generally proceeded along the lines that the two of them had agreed upon.

Part 2

There was no movement, however.

It would soon be a month since Kaseria Jamil had dropped anchor at Zonga's port.

Lord Eric had left Safia with a force of three thousand and had once more trod on Dairan's soil, but when they still failed to make any move, what he felt was not so much impatience as suspicion.

It was the same for the eastern overland force. Perhaps they had received fresh orders from their prince, since far from hurrying their steps, they were remaining lodged in a village within the buffer zone between Ryalide and Ende.

It was a strange situation. As far as the enemy was concerned, taking so much time only meant that their opponents would be able to make their preparations while they themselves whittled away their money and provisions.

Or maybe...

Eric considered the possibility that because of Garbera's sudden participation, the enemy might have gotten cold feet and temporarily halted their military operation, and were now hesitating over whether to advance or to retreat.

It'd be great if they could retreat at this point.

He pondered whether he should send a messenger to Kaseria in Zonga. Something along the lines of: this whole thing was a plot of Jeremie's alone and since it never had anything to do with Allion, let us for now return our swords to their sheathes.

That evening, Eric stopped by the Plutos mansion to consult with Kayness, who was like a second father to him. Kayness endorsed his plan, however -

’’We cannot let down our guard. Kaseria is known to wage war with the ferocity of a raging fire, but in fact, he also excels at cunning. It's probably because his adjutant, Lance Mazpotter, takes part in planning his operations.’’

’’Lance Mazpotter. I think I've heard that name...’’

’’The One-eyed Dragon of Atall. A great general who repelled three thousand of Allion's troops with only a hundred of his own men.’’

Kayness' back was always ramrod straight and his words were few and plain, but each one of them had the weight of a blow that struck true. From back when Eric was a child, in his eyes, Kayness had always exemplified what it was to be a warrior - or rather, a man.

Belmor Plutos was also beside him. Being Kayness' second son and close to Eric in age, the two were childhood friends who had worked hard together in their studies of academics and the military arts. He now stayed at Eric's side in the position of a military officer under his direct command.

’’However, from what I remember,’’ Belmor spoke up, ’’not so long ago, when we were working towards making a move on Garbera, there were overtures that came from Allion. And the sender was...’’

’’Yeah. Kaseria Jamil,’’ the lord of Ende nodded. When he had been fanning popular sentiment inside the country prior to invading Garbera, the one who had sent him a letter announcing we will lend you our help had been none other than Kaseria, the prince of Allion.

If he was not mistaken, it was around the same time that Allion had brought its eastern expedition to a close. Yet regardless of that, it - or rather, Kaseria Jamil - had already been on the hunt for the next scene of bloodshed. From that time onwards, Kaseria had probably been looking for an opportunity to move his armies from the east to the west, and towards the centre of the continent.

Although Eric did not go back on his decision to send a messenger, he abandoned the sweet hope that things could end with that.

And if it did... He did not think that Kaseria would pull back his troops so easily. It was possible that he might be staying so long in Zonga because he had asked his country for reinforcements and was currently waiting for them.

The more he learned about the man called Kaseria Jamil, the more certain he became.

He's like a beast who has acquired a taste for flesh. A beast whose mother's milk wasn't enough so it tore into the flesh brought back from the hunt and learned the joy of drinking the prey's blood.

Although Eric was by no means someone who disliked war, he could not repress a shudder.

That evening, very little alcohol flowed.

Eric did not return to the camp and instead stayed to sleep at the Plutos mansion, but late that night -

’’What is it?’’ He shouted, leaping to his feet with the alertness that came from being battle-ready during a war, then tensing up. He got changed immediately and went out.

Led by Belmor, who was similarly armed and ready, he entered a building that was slightly apart from the Plutos residence.

In a low-ceilinged room, eight or so men were tied up and on their knees. Ten garrison guards surrounded them.

All of the men were covered in soil. Their faces, arms and legs bore traces of blows, and on some of them, blood was pouring from where their skin had split open.

’’Scouts from Allion,’’ Belmor had explained along the way. ’’They were wearing Endean armour, so they might have been planning to slip in as spies. They tried to flee when the guards on patrol spotted them and challenged them to halt, but we soon caught them by sending out airships.’’

The men were not in the least bit agitated upon seeing Prince Eric. Among them, there were some who must have resisted ferociously and who had been roughed up to such an extent that their faces had been knocked into a different shape, but they did not utter so much as a groan.

’’Pretending to be sitting still while moving plenty below the surface,’’ Eric muttered. ’’Have them spit out everything they know about Allion's side.’’

’’Nothing,’’ one of the scouts spoke up. Blood was dripping from his mouth which had lost several teeth. ’’We know nothing. Ordinary soldiers like is at the bottom of the heap could not possibly know anything about Allion's secrets. You should kill us quickly, O youthful Grand Duke of Ende.’’

’’Your lives no longer belong to you,’’ Belmor threatened them expressionlessly. ’’It is no longer up to you what happens to even a single one of your fingers, or even a single drop of your blood.’’

When he sang at banquets and suchlike, Belmor's voice was cute in a way that did not match his bearded face, but when he spoke in a low voice like this, his face expressionless and shrouded in shadows, even Eric could not repress a shudder.

Even so, he felt no compassion for the scouts. This was war after all. You had to be prepared for what would happen if you were captured by the enemy.

’’I'll leave the rest to you.’’ Eric left the place. In remaining silent, he had given permission to use torture.

Early the next day, Eric was eating his breakfast at the Plutos mansion as though nothing had happened.

That morning, Thil and Reen, the daughters of Kayness' eldest son, Darowkin, were also present. There was no talk about war.

’’Lord Prince, how long will you be staying in Dairan for?’’ Reen, the younger of the sisters, asked. Eric used to spend most of the year there, so she felt lonely now that he was often away from home, she explained.

’’You can't say that he's 'away from home', Reen,’’ her older sister Thil said reproachfully. ’’From now on, the Lord Prince will always be in Safia. It'll be much rarer for him to be in Dairan like now.’’

’’That's no fun.’’

’’You sound like you have no manners.’’

’’You know, Thil, I've said it before. You always pretend to be a grown-up in front of the adults.’’

Reen looked so triumphant that Thil, teary-eyed once more, started to protest. It was then that Belmor arrived. Unsurprisingly, he had changed out of the clothes that he had been wearing late last night. He reached for his meal with hands from which the blood had recently been wiped.

Arranged on his low, personal table[2] before him were vegetables, a small portion of rice, and fish from the western lake. Ende's nobles mostly used chopsticks to eat, and Belmor praised Reen for how good she had become at holding hers.

Fearsome warrior though he was, he was also a good uncle to Thil and Reen, and the conversation flitted from one light-hearted topic to another. Belmor clearly found his nieces utterly adorable, beaming with joy when the two young sisters called him ’’Uncle’’ and looking less-than-reluctant when they pestered him to ’’sing another song for us’’.

After breakfast, Eric and Belmor returned to camp.

They had managed to get some results. As Belmor spoke of that, the expression he wore seemed to belong to a completely different person from the one who had been at the Plutos mansion.

They had taken each of the eight to a separate location to continue their ’’questioning’’ but, at first, all of them had kept their mouths shut. As the ’’questioning’’ branched into various different forms, however, they had finally revealed something.

’’Prince Kaseria will not take action for another seven days. He's waiting for reinforcements from home.’’

All eight of them.

Finding that suspicious, Belmor did not loosen his grip. It seemed to him that they might have been instructed to give false information if they were caught. One of them died but, just as dawn was approaching, two of them tremblingly started to talk.

According to them, Kaseria had already led the elite of his troops to the south of Zonga. Beyond the river to the southwest of Dairan which currently formed the national border, there was a forest within which there was an old fortress. It had belonged to a now ruined clan that had used it to fight against the many nomadic tribes in the area. Kaseria was currently lying concealed within that fortress and would soon have a detached advance along the coastline. The plan was for that large force to line up in a conspicuous battle formation, so as to give the impression that Kaseria himself was a part of it. When Ende's army moved to intercept it, Kaseria and his troops at the fortress would strike at their flank...

’’When we informed the remaining spies of that, it was obvious at a glance that they were agitated. Looks like it's reliable.’’ As he made his report, Belmor could not conceal his excitement.

It was as though a harsh wind was striking against the Prince of Ende's cheeks.

This is the best possible chance to defeat Kaseria. Eric was of course aware of that. Moreover, and just as he had feared, the scouts had hinted at the possibility of reinforcements. After having dealt with Eric's intercepting troops, they would continue to advance south with an even larger army.

Right - Eric ordered that preparations to march be made in secret. While these were ongoing, they also sent out scouts of their own to cross the border and investigate the area around the forest. However, they could not afford to wait for these to return;the captured scouts did not, after all, know when Allion's forces would start marching from Zonga.

So first, they needed to make their own move. It would be fine for them to advance and then later, when they met up with their scouts and received their reports, decide on their next course of action.

’’Shall we send a messenger to Prince Zenon?’’ Belmor asked. Eric pondered for a moment then shook his head.

’’We'll just have to do so 'after the fact'. For now, I want to avoid information leaks as much as possible.’’

Eric's words sounded plausible, but part of his reason was definitely because he was eager to first establish his own military achievements. Even so, that was not out of some shallow wish to be seen as a hero.

Eric would henceforth be carrying the weight of Ende on his young shoulders and among the retainers, there were many who still doubted his abilities. Thinking about the future, Eric absolutely needed a brilliant military record to his name.

It was after all Eric's decisiveness which had earned him recognition as a successor from his father, who had then been on his deathbed.

Unfortunately however, Eric had yet to acquire any reliable aides or capable strategists to help him draw up plans.

There was, for argument's sake, Kayness Plutos, whom he trusted as an outstanding warrior, but the ones he had waged long years of war against were mainly the nomads and their sporadic raids. They were enemies who excelled at tactics involving surprise attacks, but they did not use intricate strategies.

In other words, neither Kayness nor his pupil, Eric, had any experience with information warfare.

Furthermore, at the time, Eric was missing another important piece of information, albeit one of a slightly different nature: a little while earlier, a messenger from Crown Prince Gil Mephius had arrived in Safia offering to send reinforcements. Because of a delay in reacting to it however, the news had yet to reach Eric himself.

The capital was still reeling from the rapid succession of events involving the Grand Duke's demise and Jeremie's flight, but it also proved the lack of coordination between Eric - the future ruler - and his retainers.

Actually, when Eric made his decision to launch himself from Dairan, Gil had finished making arrangements with the chief retainers who were in Safia at the time, and had already arrived in Ende. If he had known of that beforehand, Eric's actions might have been very different...

Be that as it may, Eric organised his forces in a great hurry. He would lead a thousand;any more than that, and the enemy might suspect something.

First, he would pretend to be going on patrol and leave with a troop of three hundred and so sent word to Kayness Plutos to ’’Have them open the gate.’’ This was in case enemy spies were still lurking nearby and to prevent them from realising that they were embarking on military manoeuvres.

They then met up with a force led by Belmor, which had previously left Dairan under the pretext of going to train. A unit of riflemen subsequently left through the gates and caught up with them.

Late that night, they crossed the River Daivim, which formed the border. They had previously sent over several small-sized air carriers, with deliberately long intervals between each, so that horses and weapons were waiting for them on the other side.

At the silent riverside, under the starlit sky, Eric mounted his horse. They were not so far away from their native land, but for some reason, simply for having crossed the border, the cold seemed to pierce his skin.

While fixing his long-handled halberd to his saddle and his sword to his waist, Eric peered intently towards the darkness before them. Once the soldiers were all assembled, he calmly gave the order to advance.

Part 3

At around the same time as Prince Eric of Ende was leaving Dairan behind him, Gil Mephius was heading north to that very land.

Also around the same period, Mephius' capital, Solon, was about to be rocked by a disturbance for the nth time that year. That day, Ineli Mephius had invited her close friends, as well as those she was planning on becoming close with from here on, to take tea with her. A stack of presents had already piled up.

’’Princess, given your position, I'm sure you know how much I have always dedicated myself for His Imperial Highness, the crown prince.’’

’’When that despicable Zaat rose in rebellion and I watched how His Highness bravely chased him down, I became convinced that he was indeed the one worthy of carrying Mephius into its next era.’’

’’Ha ha, you only realised it that late? As for me, I've thought since before even his brilliant first campaign that he has, after all, fully inherited the blood of the imperial family, and that he is greatly different from the norm.’’

’’Oh my, is that so? But when you saw His Highness going out to have fun with his friends, you whispered to me that he was truly deplorable.’’

’’T-That's not what I meant, Princess. That is... That wasn't...’’

Surrounded by her entourage, Ineli was at the peak of her glory.

’’Now, now, everyone. If you all talk like this at once, I won't know who said what, or what messages I should be transmitting to His Highness.’’

All around, people were laughing merrily while they pushed others out of the way so as to get even just one step closer to her and hopefully impress themselves on the imperial princess' memory.

The tea party was taking place in the gardens of a mansion belonging to a lady whom Ineli had long been friendly with. However, if there had been any sharp-eyed people among those present, they might have noticed that among the serving boys waiting at the table, among the slaves busy maintaining the gardens, and amid the master gardeners pruning the various trees, there were a number of men who clearly seemed different from the rest. Their eyes were sharp within their suntanned faces, and they kept a surreptitious watch on the movements of the nobles who crowded around Ineli.

’’Princess, did His Highness... did His Highness, Crown Prince Gil, not say anything about me?’’

’’Hmm, well now, did he...’’ Ineli placed a finger to her plump lips. ’’You see, Brother has a very strong sense of duty and never forgets those who have helped him. Just look at how he appointed the gladiators who protected him in Seirin Valley to the position of Imperial Guards.’’

’’R-Right.’’

’’Indeed, I see.’’

’’I know that everyone can't help but be interested in Brother, but if you want to become closer to the crown prince, it's enough to simply support him even more than before. Since he never forgets favours...’’

At that moment, there was a sound like something being ferociously smashed apart, and a woman's high-pitched scream loudly rang out.

Startled, everyone simultaneously turned their gaze towards the garden's entrance. A serving girl had collapsed to the ground. She had been carrying a tray, and the white porcelain teapots and cups that had been on it had shattered into a thousand pieces.

It was not to her, however, that everyone's eyes were nailed. Rather, it was the men who had probably thrust her aside, soldiers whose ferocious appearance were completely out of place in that setting. Everyone held their breath.

Leading them was Zaas Sidious.

He stepped forward, several dozen of his men following behind him.

The clear blue sky, the white shine of the tea set, the sweetly blooming blossoms - they were all coated in the colour of violence as Zaas walked towards Ineli.

’’What business do you have?’’ Although her eyes betrayed her agitation, Ineli stepped forward, brushing past the nobles who were poised to to start running away. ’’I do not recall having invited any louts such as you.’’

’’Nor do I recall having received any invitation,’’ barked Zaas, his face carrying a touch of bestial ferocity. ’’This is an order from Empress Melissa. Imperial Princess Ineli Mephius, I am to apprehend you at once.’’

’’From Mother?’’ Increasingly astonished, Ineli went pale.

Properly speaking, an empress could not arbitrarily make use of armed force. However, as the emperor was no longer appearing in public, his influence was dwindling day-by-day and the power balance in Solon had suddenly been thrown into disarray.

In a way, it was Ineli herself who had helped bring about this situation.

’’It would be best if you followed us quietly. If you do not, I've been ordered to haul you off by force. Now then...’’

Zaas stretched out his arm and caught Ineli's slender shoulder.

’’L-Let go!’’

Ineli struggled but Zaas' grip was like an iron vice as it bit into her wrist without letting go. She swept her gaze around, pleading for help;but those who moments earlier had been trying to get closer to her, now looked away, increased the distance between them, and tried to look uninvolved.

Zaas drew in his arm;Ineli looked as though she were lightly being pulled into an embrace against his chest. The princess' scream echoed through the blue sky.

It was then that...

’’Wait!’’

’’This is outrageous, General Sidious!’’

Voices rose from all around the garden, as their owners simultaneously rushed over. These were the sharp-eyed men who had slipped into Ineli's tea party. They were soldiers serving under Rogue Saian and Odyne Lorgo.

Currently, in Solon, Imperial Princess Ineli had turned into the leading figure of the crown prince's faction. And it was not only her mother who considered that attitude to be dangerous. When Rogue Saian had left Solon, he had left several of his men to watch over her, giving them instructions to ’’keep a close eye on the imperial princess.’’

This had been out of concern that she might be plotting something by driving the crown prince's faction forward, but they could not possibly have imagined a situation in which her own mother would bring out the use of force. Even so, they could not simply leave it be. Ineli was undoubtedly a problematic presence;but right now, when people were milling about in confusion over whether to follow the crown prince, Princess Ineli was also a example for them to follow.

Zaas' glared for a second at the unexpected obstacle, but -

’’Hah, the crown prince's damn dogs. Wretched mongrels at that, who pretend not to know even when they're aware he's a fake so that they get their feed!’’ He yelled and gave his men the order to get rid of them by force.

Since things had come to that, Rogue and Odyne's subordinates could only prepare to put up a determined fight. They grabbed the weapons that they had concealed in various places around the garden, and all at once, it turned into a battlefield.

They were equal in numbers, but those on Zaas' side were fully armed. The first to fall in a gush of blood was one of Rogue's soldiers. The noblemen and ladies were screaming and running around, trying to escape, and Ineli was shrieking as loudly as any of them, begging for help, but Zaas continued to drag her out from the garden.

Suddenly, there was someone standing right before him. And very close.

Irritated, Zaas swung his greatsword. The blade was stopped halfway through its movement. Zaas glared again.

’’You?’’

The one blocking his way was a swordsman with strangely swollen cheeks. Battalion Commander Walt, who had once been in charge of Jozu Fortress. Given his physical appearance, he could not have stealthily crept into Ineli's tea party, but then, in the first place, he was one of her officially invited guests.

His distinguishing feature had been a subject of conversation since the ten-year war, besides which, he had joined Gil's side after having fought directly against the crown prince;so his heroic life-story had caught Ineli's interest, and she had invited him so that everyone could listen to his tales.

’’Damned dog!’’ Zaas' spittle flew as he launched a second attack.

’’Which one of us is the dog, General Zaas?’’ Retorted Walt, dodging left and right with an agility that did not seem possible with his large build. ’’You don't look see anything and only act on instinct - what right do you have to call others dogs?’’

Incidentally, Walt was not wearing armour but had been provided with formal wear. It had been at Ineli's direction, as she was probably aiming for a discrepancy in his appearance. Despite the difference in their weaponry, Zaas could not bring Walt down while also holding the princess close.

Whereupon, Walt started to boldly fight back. He swiped at the arm that was holding the princess. Faced with his opponent's unexpected move, Zaas hesitated for a second then, thrusting Ineli to the ground, he moved back. Or rather, he was forced back. Walt's sword suddenly halted in mid-air then changed trajectory and almost smashed into Zaas' face. ’’Tch!’’ Zaas instantly raised his own sword and struck down the attack.

Amid the shower of sparks, Ineli escaped, crawling along the ground on her hands and knees, very much like a dog. Zaas was instinctively going to chase after her, but Walt was already before him.

’’Damn you!’’

From Zaas' standpoint, those like Folker, Yuriah or Walt, who had been sent, like him, from Solon to subjugate the Impostor Crown Prince, and who had then nonchalantly chosen to follow that fraud - in other words, those who had once been his comrades who shared the same goal as him - were opponents that he could never forgive.

He swung his sword with the force of a fire. Facing him, it had to be admitted that, for all that his opponent was one of the twelve generals, there was a part of Walt that was thinking - what a child.

In truth, however, Zaas was so skilled that it made Walt, who had once won the gladiatorial tournament at the country's Founding Festival, wonder should I focus on stalling for time?

Even though his swordsmanship and tactics in a fight were unpolished, he compensated for it in sheer energy. If he allowed himself to be overwhelmed by that for even a second, Walt might easily lose a limb.

Still, that he could so calmly make the decision to focus on defence vividly demonstrated the current difference between Walt and Zaas.

’’General!’’ Amidst that, Zaas' men called out to him as they came rushing up, covered in blood from their opponents and from their own injuries.

They had not come as reinforcements for him, but to persuade him that dragging things on like this was dangerous. In fact, one of the soldiers from the Silver Axe division had already hurried from the garden to go and inform General Odyne of what was happening.

Zaas once again clicked his tongue furiously.

’’I'll remember this!’’ He bellowed before exiting the garden like a gust of wind, his men following behind.

Walt did not chase after them. He too had heard that General Odyne would soon be here, so he would leave the decision of what to do next to him.

’’Princess, are you unharmed?’’

Walt moved towards Ineli and was going to help her up, but she stood by herself. Her pale cheeks were trembling and she was quivering all over from fear.

She looked around at the attendees, who had scattered as they fled, as she would at enemies who had tried to cut her down. Not a single one could answer her gaze.

’’I am going to Odyne,’’ she announced to Walt, as though pronouncing a verdict against them. ’’Accompany me. We must punish the fools who are still trying to bring civil war to Mephius!’’

Solon, which had been shaken by the dispute between the emperor and the crown prince, was this time rocked as though by a major earthquake by the crack that had appeared between the empress and the princess.

And naturally, Ineli's rage was beyond anything that Walt and Odyne could assuage. She ordered the soldiers from the inner palace to capture the empress and Zaas.

Exactly as with her mother, Ineli did not properly have the right to mobilise military forces. However, as she refused to listen to Odyne and arbitrarily decided that these were rebels against herself - and, consequently, against the crown prince - and as there were many who hoped to buy Ineli's gratitude, Odyne was worried that they might take the initiative of lending soldiers to the princess.

If she is allowed to move as she pleases... Odyne came to a decision: so as to prevent Ineli from acting recklessly and unchecked, he took his own soldiers and went to the inner palace.

By that time however, the empress, Colyne, Zaas and several other members of the ’’Emperor's faction’’ had already left the court. As for where to: they had headed towards the Dragon Gods' temple.

Needless to say, it was the self-same temple that the emperor had personally ordered built. Living there were the elders who were rumoured to be the pillars of his politics, and it was territory in which Odyne absolutely could not set foot.

An even bitterer pill for Odyne to swallow was the fact that Melissa's faction had travelled to the temple with Emperor Guhl himself. Had he voluntarily gone with them or had the emperor, who was said to be in a weakened condition, been taken there against his will? Given that, a day after the tragedy at the garden, there had still been no official statement from him, it was probably the latter.

The areas in Solon surrounding the palace and the temple abruptly came under complete lockdown. Even at night, watchfires were lit in braziers around the temple and columns of armed soldiers came and went, their blades and spearheads gleaming from the flames.

Seeing the signs of another civil war, the townspeople of Solon fell into a feeling of gloom.

Last time, even though secret feuds were everywhere quietly being played out while the emperor and the crown prince fought, order was not noticeably disturbed, at least within the capital. That however was - somewhat paradoxically considering what had caused it all - thanks to the fact that the emperor was the absolute ruler in control of it.

The emperor's presence had now become insignificant.

Disturbances broke out throughout Solon.

One such case was when, because of an increase in robbery and arson, soldiers misunderstood the situation as having been caused by those of the emperor's faction, and moved of their own accord, escalating the amount of bloodshed. Another even larger one was when an influential noble showed a hesitant attitude, and another aristocrat, perhaps seeing a chance to please the crown prince's faction, unilaterally declared that he too must be plotting a rebellion;and so arbitrarily sent in soldiers to make the arrest, which then developed into a small-scale battle involving both families. Bloody incidents occurred one after another, so that it was almost impossible to believe that this was the same land that had been rejoicing at the return of peace only a few days earlier.

A silhouette was looking down upon it.

Oubary Bilan quietly peeped out from behind a bulky, parted curtain.

He would never open that curtain in broad daylight. He seemed to believe that it was an impregnable defence that would keep at a distance the light of day, or in other words, that would keep at bay the very world which had rejected and excluded him. However, when the sun set and the world had adapted to the black of those curtains, Oubary's feelings seemed to calm down, and he would sometimes peek through the window to the outside.

Something must have happened again somewhere as the people from the neighbourhood and the soldiers were shouting to one another as they rushed along.

He caught sight of the glow of flames appearing over the shadowy streets of Solon. Panicking, he tried to close the curtains, but his hand slipped. Having been almost falling forward in his agitation, he now instead gazed fixedly at the flames.

Oubary stopped moving.

It felt like a hot wind was blowing. As though the flames reflected in his eyes had wrapped around his body, his limbs were suddenly burning hot. Unable to endure the pain, he crouched down. Perhaps trying to block out the flames as quickly as possible, he closed his eyes.

It had the opposite effect however. With his field of vision shut down, his memories resurfaced all the more clearly, and the flames burned brighter than ever.

You too can all die in the flames.

A voice, shouting angrily, suddenly echoed piercingly through his mind. His own voice.

Then perish. You damned fools. When that time comes, it'll be too late to realise that I was right. It'll be too late!

Those were the words that Oubary, having been arrested for the crown prince's assassination, had once asserted before one of the emperor's retainers.

You see, you see, you see, Oubary inwardly chanted like a curse. It's just as I said. Isn't Solon burning, just as I prophesised? And the fools are perishing in the flames!

His entire body heaved as he trembled, sweat flying from it to the same rhythm, as Oubary stood up. The muscles bulged on the huge arms he had wrapped around himself.

I was right after all. I was right.

Oubary's eyes slowly opened. His pupils, which once more reflected the flames, were no longer ruled by the same kind of terror as earlier. He had been right - and with that conviction, the entire nightmare of the past transformed into hatred towards the demon-like man who had wrapped himself in the crown prince's skin.

That bastard... The one who'll cut that bastard down... Will be me.

One day, the flames that were constantly burning within his memories would consume his body and soul, leaving nothing but ash that would be scattered in the wind...

Oubary Bilan suddenly felt like screaming. Unlike before, this was not, however, a fit brought about by his nightmares. Whatever the reason, he felt the urge to raise a shout worthy of a warrior and release the energy that was boiling and seething within him.

He wanted steel in his hand.

He wanted to feel the heavy weight of a sword.

At that very moment, there was a violent knock on his door. Oubary turned a sharp gaze towards it.

’’What is it?’’ His voice was a little hoarse, but it was already regaining its former acerbity.

’’I have been sent by the empress,’’ the person behind the door answered in a clearly-projecting voice. ’’She dearly hopes for General Oubary Bilan's assistance. The empress has sent for you in the hope that you, the general who once lost so many of his men to a foul trap laid by the Impostor Crown Prince, will surely rise to fight bravely for the emperor, even now that Solon had been engulfed in his evil influence.’’

Part 4

The disturbances which had broken out in the capital, Solon, had yet to reach the trade city of Birac and today, as ever, countless numbers of ships were coming and going from its port.

Every ship that flew into the sky, loaded with cargo, passed another that was alighting, laden with goods. Amongst them, there was a ship that had come from the neighbouring country, Garbera, bearing the flag of the Kotjun House, which was fluttering in the blue heavens.

Birac had been performing trade with Garbera even before the reconciliation between the emperor and crown prince. Needless to say, when the ten-year war ended, the first ships to leave Birac for Garbera were those of the ever-hungry-for-business Haman Firm. Perhaps because the Kotjun House had been equally prompt when it came to trade, the two had established ties and the heads of both now frequently sent messengers to each other's residence.

Since the pair were extremely shrewd, rather than saying that they were on friendly terms, theirs was a relationship where each was on guard against the other stealing a march on them.

Immediately upon disembarking, a messenger from the Kotjun House went to see Zaj Haman, and Zaj himself then got in touch with a certain soldier.

’’What, the princess!’’ Gowen unintentionally exclaimed, then quickly stiffled his words.

The messenger also lowered his voice. ’’The princess seems to have informed the Kotjun House of her desire to return to Mephius some time ago already, however, returning directly to Solon might unnecessarily complicate matters, so for now, she has come to Birac. She says that she is sure that you, Sir Gowen, will handle everything smoothly.’’

Just doing whatever she wants - thought Gowen, but of course, he did not say it out loud.

Here in Birac, he was still training and organising the new recruits. Naturally, he had heard about the direct confrontation between the Emperor and the crown prince, and, just a short while ago, he had also heard that Gil had headed to Ende immediately afterwards.

Although he was, of course, glad that Orba had safely won that desperately risky contest, Gowen also knew that it was too early to give way to relief. His workload had not particularly changed since this ’’victory’’. Or rather, as the number of volunteers wanting to join the crown prince's forces had only increased, his hours of sleep had been whittled down to even fewer than before.

Now on top of that, with the princess' sudden visit to Birac, he was feeling like every problem was being pushed onto him.

This is all because you just up and left!

It was the same as when Orba had left without saying anything to Hou Ran. At the time, he had harboured a considerable grudge against Orba, and the one he was nursing now was just as big. But anyway, somebody would definitely have to tell the princess. And that role had been left to him.

Gowen steeled his resolve and met the carriage sent by the Haman House. It was unmistakably Princess Vileena who alighted, borrowing the coachman's hand to do so.

They were in the courtyard of Birac Castle. When the girl's slender foot firmly stepped down onto the lawn, Gowen gave a bow.

’’It's been a while, Gowen. I will be causing you trouble.’’

’’Not at all.’’ Mindful of their surroundings, Gowen smiled. ’’This is perfectly normal, Your Royal Highness.’’

’’Normal indeed,’’ Vileena responded, her impish smile conveying that she knew there was nothing normal about it.

Gowen sighed. The princess paid it no mind.

’’What is the situation in Solon?’’

’’Messengers come running every day from the capital. His Highness the crown prince has already led his troops out of the city and, for the present, they are headed for Idolo.’’

’’I see.’’ The princess' expression as she nodded was entirely the same as usual.

Gowen knew, of course, that she had borrowed soldiers from the emperor to turn Salamand away, and that, immediately afterwards, there had been an incident in which she had nearly lost her life. Standing close to her now, however, it was hard to believe that she had lived through such violent scenes.

I wonder what kind of mental state having a daughter like that must leave her father in? Gowen wondered inconsequentially.

He was swiftly pulled back to reality however. As already stated, there was something that he needed to tell the princess. It was for that very reason that he had not brought anyone along with him.

Once he had made sure that the carriage was leaving, he started.

’’...The truth of the matter is, Princess... There is something that I must say to you.’’

’’Honestly, you're so formal. I refuse to listen to any complaints about His Highness. Because really, I'm the one who wants to throw some at you.’’

It was the first time the girl had spoken to him jokingly like that, but her smile faded as she listened to Gowen talk, her eyes grew wider and wider, and by the end, she had gone rigid.

’’It can't be... That...’’ she murmured, then, ’’Why?’’ she asked. ’’Why would she do such a thing?’’

’’We still do not know,’’ Gowen shook his head, his expression serious. ’’Although she herself has talked about various things, none of them go to the heart of the matter. Perhaps she was tricked by someone, but at present, we do not really know.’’

It was about Layla. The girl who had once saved Vileena's life in the West and whose warmth had permeated into her heart, had, here in Birac, attacked the crown prince with an assassin's blade - hearing that, there was no way that the princess could remain calm.

’’Let me see her,’’ the girl entreated, her body leaning forward but, unusually, Gowen firmly rejected her.

’’You cannot. This is the only firm order that His Highness left. He said that once he returns, he will personally interrogate her. Until then, nobody is to be allowed to see her.’’

Although they had tried to keep the matter with Layla quiet, there were inevitably rumours and, sooner or later, they would have reached the princess' ears. Which was why Gowen had no choice but to deliberately inform her about it. Nevertheless, he naturally could not let Vileena meet directly with Layla, since somehow, she seemed to be aware of the crown prince's past.

Gowen was equally unable to indefinitely hide the news of the princess' return, and by the next day, it had already gone all around Birac. He himself had sent a messenger to the capital to inform Odyne about it. If things showed signs of calming down in Solon, Odyne would surely send to meet with her.

From that day on, the princess also suddenly threw herself into a flurry of activity. She flew airships from morning onwards, circling around the castle grounds. She also announced that she would keep the key to her own room, ’’for security reasons’’.

Moreover, once it was known that the princess had returned, there was someone who earnestly requested to meet her in person. Actually, there were many such people in Birac, but this one she recognised.

’’I'll see him right away,’’ he was the only one to whom she granted that permission.

When that young man saw her, he got to his knees, looking deeply moved.

’’Princess, thank goodness... Thank goodness you're safe.’’

’’Please raise your head. It is rather you whose safety I am thankful for. Back then, I was not entirely conscious and I never imagined that my request would have such a terrible impact on your life. Foolish and thoughtless as I was, please forgive me.’’

’’What are you saying? Seeing you safe, Princess, makes it all worth... no, was worth throwing everything else away.’’

The one who spoke in a trembling voice was the Imperial Guard who, after the princess had been shot at, had carried the golden medallion all the way to Birac.

’’What is your name?’’

’’I am called Alnakk.’’

The princess murmured his name and smiled with a flash of her white teeth. For Alnakk, who had climbed up from the bottom of the social ladder, having his name be remembered by such a beautiful foreign princess felt like having obtained a long-cherished dream.

Now that she knew his name, the princess, meanwhile, behaved towards him as though he was a long-time acquaintance.

’’As a matter of fact, Alnakk, there is one more thing that I desperately want you to do for me,’’ she brazenly announced.

’’Yes? Y-Yes. Anything at all.’’

Vileena's head lady's maid, Theresia, had, in the past, held a particular thought about her mistress - she instinctively understands which are the men who cannot go against her. Vileena, who would soon turn fifteen, had an expression that contained the buds of adulthood. A little more time would be needed before the flower was in full bloom;but, even at this point, there were any number of young men from all walks of life who would yearn to see her face a little closer, and who, for that, would hope to serve as her shield from a bullet or a gun.

Vileena could recognise the young men with that disposition. Especially easy to spot were those like Shique or Alnakk, on whom the princess' words and actions made a deep impression. The sincere princess was not one to lavish her smiles after calculating such a thing but, nevertheless, as she lowered her voice and started talking -

’’As a matter of fact...’’

- There was no way that Alnakk could refuse her.

The reason why Vileena had flown an airship since the early morning was to scope out the surroundings.

She had found one place of interest: a tower southwest of the main hall. It had formerly served as a watchtower, but was now being used for storage. Yet, even though practically no one went there, there were always two guards standing sentry by it.

At the princess' order, Alnakk secretly kept watch on them until late at night and reported back that, twice a day, a soldier seemed to bring meals to that same place. Incidentally, it had officially been announced that Alnakk was serving as Vileena's personal guard. Since most people were aware of how he had come to Birac at the risk of his own life, no one was suspicious of how he entered and left the princess' apartments.

’’Then, tonight,’’ said Vileena.

That night, the figures of people appeared at the appointed time. The sentries were on their guard however, as it was not the soldier who usually brought the meals, but a girl dressed as a lady's maid.

The three soldiers, which included the sentries, were subordinates of Gowen's, and they, of course, knew who was inside. Conversely, there were very few people besides them who shared that knowledge. When they questioned her -

’’Lord Gowen has ordered that the one inside be given a wash,’’ was the answer they received.

Apart from the meal, the lady's maid also had a large cloth folded over her arm. Certainly, since the prisoner locked up inside was a woman, this was not a task that men could perform.

’’Still, we didn't hear anything about it. I'll go and check with the Captain.’’

Just when one of them was about to start running off, they heard a gruff voice.

’’Oh, look at that. Someone here's having a secret tryst at this hour.’’ A drunk-looking man was approaching. ’’In a place like this, very suspicious. Hey, hey, let me join in. If you do, I won't tell your boss.’’

The way he unheedingly raised his voice out loud worried the sentries. They did not want to draw attention to this place.

’’Please be careful,’’ the lady's maid whispered to the sentries. ’’Lord Gowen told me about it. That gentleman is called Alnakk and he has only just become a soldier to the princess. He is sniffing about for the prisoner's whereabouts.’’

’’What?’’

Since Alnakk was still coming closer and talking louder and louder, one of them went up to stop him.

’’You seem pretty drunk. Even if you go further, there's nothing here. Now then, go back to your own room.’’

’’Oh? You trying to start something? I might not look it, but I used to be an Imperial Guard serving directly under the emperor.’’

He pushed forward through sheer brute strength, so the other guard had no choice but to also go and help. Just before he did so, he sent the lady's maid on her way.

’’Finish your business quickly.’’

He handed her the key. The lady's maid nodded, and stepped into the tower.

Naturally, the sentries had failed to realise that she was actually the princess. She had asked Alnakk to come up to them, pretending to be drunk, so as to create a sense of trust by having the soldiers recognise that they had a 'common enemy'.

She climbed the dimly-lit staircase. At the end, there was a door. Beyond it lay a circular room and another door that blocked further passage. A padlock hung from it. Opening it with the key, she saw that inside there was a single woman, who was stirring slightly.

’’Layla...’’ her voice unintentionally escaped.

It was undoubtedly Layla within that cold stone-room. This was the girl who had once taken care of the princess when she had collapsed in the west, and who had loved Vileena - who was compelled to use the false name 'Luna' - like her own little sister.

As though startled, the girl got up from the bed and stared at Vileena's face. She looked as though she was about to run away, but her ankles were chained to the bed and staggered forward.

’’Layla!’’

’’Princess...’’

Tears started streaming down Layla's face as soon as she had spoken. She looked away and began to wail as she crouched down.

Driven by her own emotions, Vileena closed the distance between Layla and herself. Just as she was about to touch her shoulders, Layla, perhaps unconsciously, shook her off. The tray that had been carrying the meal tumbled to the floor, but neither of them paid it any attention.

For a short while, the stone walls, which were indistinguishable from the shadows, simply absorbed Layla's sobbing. Vileena's chest felt filled to bursting. Pity and doubts were swelling within her, and she groped about for the right words to say to Layla, but - ’’Why?’’ - in the end, what broke the long silence were words that were too straightforward.

’’Why did you.. the prince...’’

When she heard the word 'prince', Layla's shoulders gave a jerk. Her wails grew noticeably louder. Vileena was unable to say anything further.

The princess had considered all sorts of possibilities before coming. She simply could not believe that Layla had, from the start, been a spy working for some enemy. Even if she had gotten close to wait for a chance to assassinate the crown prince, there was too much that was accidental in her encounter with Vileena. Then, why? What on earth could have driven such a calm-looking girl to attempting a crime like that of murdering the country's crown prince?

The princess could not begin to imagine.

Just then,

’’I,’’ Layla spoke in a trembling voice. ’’I was robbed of my future by His Imperial Highness, the Crown Prince.’’

’’That,’’ having braced herself to ask the question, Vileena was momentarily at a loss for words. ’’What... do you mean by that?’’

The two of them drifted into silence again. Outside, Alnakk's voice could still faintly be heard rising a racket. The princess' heart beat violently. For some reason, she felt that staying here any longer was unbearable to her. She had a premonition that she was about to hear something terrifying - a secret so outrageous concerning the country and its people, that it would have to remain hidden in the shadows in the future without ever appearing in the open - that it would threaten to tear her to shreds just as much as it did Layla.

And then -

While Vileena was hesitating about what to say, Layla, between her tears and her sobs, slowly started to talk.

About how her father, Rone, had been an Imperial Guard under the emperor's direct command. About how, originally, she should already have been married now and living with her husband in Solon.

’’It was during the wedding ceremony...’’

Time and time again, tears fell with every blink of her eyes and ran down her cheeks. And yet, her eyes were lacking any feeling of intense emotion, and she looked as though she were detachedly discussing someone else's story.

It was instead the princess who, in the next instant, had her chest pierced as though by an arrow with strong emotions.

’’In the middle of the ceremony, Crown Prince Gil suddenly appeared. And he claimed his right to the first night. Yes... I was forced away from the one who was supposed to become my husband and told to share a bed with the prince.’’

’’Impossible...’’ Vileena murmured unthinkingly. ’’That kind of... It's impossible...’’

’’Right. It's impossible. It's unthinkable.’’

Layla's eyes once again filled with tumultuous emotions. And what she said next, her tears scattering all the while, reverberated like thunder against the stone walls of that cold room.

’’Because that man... There's no way he can still be in this world. My father was supposed to have killed Crown Prince Gil Mephius. He died! Right in front of my eyes!’’

References and Translation Notes

Called kiseru, this was a type of pipe that was smoked in Edogawa Japan. Eric and the Plutos family are eating at the kind of low, single-person tray-like tables that you might see in some traditional Japanese inns.

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