Rakuin no Monshou:Volume12 Chapter8
Chapter 8: Sword
Lord Eric of Ende had also already cast himself into the free-for-all fight.
Although the armour of the surrounding Endean soldiers was lined up to shield him, one after another gasped for breath, then fell at Eric’s feet, spitting up blood. At first, Eric had wielded an axe but, with an enemy blade approaching, he had cast it away and used his sword to repel the enemy’s blow . Meanwhile, the ferocity of Allion’s Prince Kaseria had not abated in the slightest.
Opposite him, Ende’s soldiers were, of course, trying to kill the enemy commander-in-chief; but just when you thought that Kaseria was only looking ahead of him, his body would suddenly twist to avoid a spear coming from the right, or sometimes, he would slash backwards while his horse was in the very act of jumping left.
Was a direct confrontation between the two commanders-in-chief already close at hand? Kaseria was moving ceaselessly, constantly killing enemies. Slender though he was, he did not seem to know fatigue.
Although Eric himself was an outstanding warrior, in this situation in which he had been driven to a wall, his impatience was growing out of control. All the more so as the flames rising from Dairan were still glowing red in the distance. And that impatience was robbing him of his physical stamina to a remarkable degree.
“Nooow!” came a high-pitched yell.
It was Kaseria. As soon as he had gauged that one side of the enemy line had collapsed, he charged into the crack. His cloak billowed behind him like an ominous banner, dark crimson and almost slimy from the enemy blood it had absorbed.
“My lord, go to the rear,” cried a soldier standing by his shield, but he had already retreated as far as he could. Then, the soldier who had cried was dealt a blow to the head by Kaseria, and collapsed without another word, his throat pierced through.
“Got you!” Kaseria called out, his entire face gleeful.
“No, Now I’ve got you!” Eric yelled in return.
Sword crashed against sword.
“Dairan will fall, Lordling,” laughed Kaseria.
Eric was a master swordsman, and it was because he had been hoping for it that the prince of Allion laughed. Partly to provoke the enemy to impatience, but also simply because he found this kind of exchange fun.
“The men will all be enslaved to Allion. The women will be given to the soldiers on the spot. The children should sell for a good price in the coastal countries.
Never – Eric’s only response was a fierce glare. He was only barely able to repel the iron sword that aimed downwards towards his shoulder. Next was the crown of his head. Somehow, he managed to defend against that too, but Eric’s posture was unsteady.
Every single blow seemed to reverberate within his entire body, stinging through his flesh and bones. Since Kaseria’s build was not large, his sword did not have ‘weight’, but his unerring aim towards vital spots, coupled with the speed with which he unleashed it, gave the weapon a ‘sharpness’ that the sword of soldiers who took pride in their own strength did not have.
Even though we’re descended from the same dynasty…
“Exactly,” Kaseria laughed again, as if had been reading his mind. “That’s why Allion will be taking it. Land, fortune, culture… and people.”
Kaseria’s sword had been forged by Valkess, Allion’s greatest craftsman. Said in life to have been loved equally by the spirits of flames and of water, it was claimed that, if wielded by a talented owner, the swords created by that master blacksmith could cut through boulders without receiving a single nick.
And now, Eric’s sword snapped right in half. Kaseria struck his next blow without even pausing. Eric desperately drew back his head, but his shoulder was sliced into.
It was to his credit that he did not cry out, but he would not be able to sustain another blow from the sword that Kaseria was raising overhead.
Kaseria’s – Allion’s victory was fast approaching.
Just as he was thinking so, Kaseria sensed a ‘presence’ surging like a wave behind him. One that he knew.
There had been one or two of Eric’s men who had come rushing up when they had realised the danger that their young lord was in, but one of them had been dealt a blow with an axe for having turned his back on his opponent, while the other was too far to make it in time.
From beyond the mêlée, a messenger was crying out as he galloped towards him. His attention caught by that, Kaseria found himself obstructed by soldiers who had interposed themselves between Eric and him.
“I’m here!” Kaseria called in annoyance.
“Enemy reinforcements from Dairan – It’s a raid!” The messenger’s answering voice came through a curtain of swirling dust. “Mephian forces. A large number of enemy riders are closing in and they’re flying Mephius’ flag!”
“Mephius?” the same groan came from both Kaseria and Eric. Moreover, the image of the same man flashed through both their minds.
And in the next instant, Kaseria Jamil lost himself in delirium.
It felt as though a sharp piece of iron had buried itself in his forehead at some point, and it was now unexpectedly giving off heat, as though to remind him of its existence.
Is it him?
When he had been on the verge of checkmating Dairan by taking its inner keep, that man had stopped him. And on top of it, that man had brought a sword down on him.
For the second time, that man appeared just as he was about to end things. Humiliation and anger once more heated that iron fragment. And with it, he could not hold back his laughter. It seemed as though the man had only chased after him to offer Kaseria an easy chance for revenge.
He turned his back on Eric. In a flash, he was whipping his horse and, without giving his men a single order, he forced his way through the confused mass of enemies and allies. He drove away any obstructive soldiers with a sword swung left and right. Be they from Ende or from Allion, Kaseria currently made no distinction between them.
The ‘presence’ that he had felt coming from behind him had undoubtedly kicked up that cloud of dust that was making straight for him. Just then, the ground’s surface started to glisten white. With pale light as its backdrop, the approaching troop had that young man in its lead.
Almost unconsciously, Kaseria grabbed the torch that one of the common soldiers hurrying behind him was carrying, and lifted it above his shoulder level. He saw himself as a guidepost for the enemy.
“State your name!” he called out sharply. “I am Kaseria Jamil, first prince of the Kingdom of Allion. If you want my head, then state your damn name.”
“Gil Mephius, crown prince of Mephius,” replied his opponent. Compared to Kaseria’s voice, his tone had a quiet calm that seemed to soak into you.
Yet in his eyes burned the unmistakable flame of fighting spirit. He cast aside the spear that was under his arm and, still on horseback, seemed about to draw his sword.
“Oh, Mephius’ prince?” Kaseria too quickly threw away the fire.
The flame was still tracing an arc in mid-air when Kaseria urged his fine horse to lunge forward. Gil Mephius did the same.
The scattered sparks flying from the discarded torch seemed terribly slow.
In the sky, the nebulous light of dawn was starting to erode the darkness.
In that moment, on a battlefield where the fighting had turned into a free-for-all and chaos had reigned, the ‘wind’ in which was mixed the fighting spirit of friend and foe alike suddenly stopped blowing.
It was like a scene from a play: from the right, Kaseria eagerly leaned forward, spurring on his horse while, from the left, Gil likewise bent forward, his horse sprinting.
Foaming at the mouth, both horses rushed wild, their eyes starting and squirming, and each reflecting the oncoming figure.
In an instant, the sword belonging to the commander-in-chief of Allion’s troops flashed, and the sword belonging to Mephius’ commander was swung.
Sparks flew from the clash of steel.
Even as they were passing by each other, they struck again.
Once distance divided them, both turned.
They would clash again.
This time, both slowed their horses’ steps when they were within point-blank range of one another and exchanged strikes and thrusts.
Coincidentally, the torch which Kaseria had thrown away earlier was still lit and at their feet as they crossed swords.
The two blades gleamed scarlet, bathed in the light of the flames, and trailed an afterglow behind them as the collided again and again.
The power and skill both competed with was astonishing. The two of them were well-matched.
“Kuah!” sounds like the cry of an ominous bird escaping from his throat, while Kaseria freely sprang about.
Replying voicelessly, Gil Mephius’ sword repelled it.
Gil was fighting no defensive fight however. He attacked as soon as he saw an opening. From the right, from the left, from overhead, from below. Yet his opponent’s vital points were already no longer there. His head pulled down, his chest pulled back, his sword raised, Kaseria too skilfully parried.
At first, Kaseria felt a heat at his forehead as though his brain was being broiled.
He felt that if he left this man alive here a second time, then he would never sleep peacefully again. That iron fragment that pierced deeply into his forehead would forever more project this man’s scornful smile before him. Whether in the middle of making love to a woman or simply while sleeping, every time that mocking smile would come to his mind, Kaseria would leap out of bed screaming, and only by whipping the backs of hundreds of slaves, and maybe occasionally beheading them, would he be able distract the ache in his blood amidst the rising screams and pillars of blood.
Although it had only been a one-time chance encounter, that was how deeply-rooted the prince of Allion’s conviction was.
Yet, blow after blow, as he took his enemy’s attacks and had his own strikes repelled, while the countless sparks flew before him, even Kaseria’s fury and hatred vanished like the mist along with the ring of steel colliding with steel. Thoughts and emotions lost their shape, their meaning lost all use, and Kaseria himself was now no more than the sensation of steel being swung and engulfed in battle.
Unaware even of his own breathing in this fight that he had wholly cast himself into, somewhere at the back of his mind, Kaseria thought that this was just like that time.
It was just like the day that he had first grasped a sword.
From the time he had been born, nothing had ever fulfilled him. He had been constantly irritated. Feelings that he could not identify raged inside him like a tempest and, so as to not miss a single opportunity to release them, he snarled at everything he laid eyes on.
When Lance Mazpotter had been assigned to him as a sword instructor, Kaseria had vehemently protested. He would rather have bitten off his own tongue than be bound by another’s orders. And then, Lance thoroughly trounced him. And just like now, every time Kaseria had attacked to the very limits of his strength.
Back then, Kaseria had also experienced the feel of losing his own form. Fury, irritation, pride – all had vanished within the sparks raised with each beat of the clash of steel. Was that how so many cultures, once considered great in this world, had faded?
Since then, Kaseria had gone to the battlefield, and fought in the vanguard for no other reason than to taste again the excitement and exaltation of that almost unattainable sense of unity with the sword.
Of course, Lance was still his mentor. In terms of simple skill with the sword, he was a step above Gil Mephius, with whom Kaseria was currently clashing. With Lance, however, there had been no ‘intent to kill’ for a long time now.
With Gil, this was undoubtedly a struggle for survival. Which was why he was pulled into this whirlpool of murderous intent born from conflict. Even his feelings melted as he became one with that whirlpool and seemed to be swallowed up by is centre.
Meanwhile, Gil Mephius – or rather, Orba – had also fallen into the same mental state.
Competing like this in power made this moment feel incomparably sweet. He was entranced, his body was almost shaking from the delight of being re-awakened to the feeling of throwing himself in that gap, no wider than a single thread, which lay between victory and defeat, between life and death. He forgot about the crown prince’s mask and about the Grand Duchy of Ende, yearning to be absorbed in the world of the ‘sword’.
Just like Kaseria, the flesh and soul known as ‘Orba’ were already collapsing, and the dark blood that was seeping out as they did so drew a spiral to which he gave himself, feeling himself being absorbed into the whirlpool of violence.
And yet –
As he parried Kaseria’s sword for perhaps he tenth time, he felt a scorching heat at the back of his head.
The dazzling sun was overhead.
Cheers rained down incessantly.
Orba’s breathing was a little disordered.
Which was also when he noticed for the first time that someone’s hand was touching his shoulder. Suddenly, forcefully, that hand pulled him back, as though to keep him away from the whirlpool of violence.
Orba started, wide-eyed. Was it an illusion born of the dust cloud conjured by the wind from the swords? The owner of that invisible hand was the beautiful gladiator, Shique.
No sooner did he wonder if a ghost had come to him than it turned into Gowen’s brawny arm before just as quickly transforming into the soft, white hand of a young girl.
Each time all of those arms seemed to pull Orba to them, scene after scene of those countless death matches he had experienced were seared into his mind even as they were torn from it.
Right… That’s right…
With the whirlpool approaching right before him, Orba realised anew.
That fighting, sword in hand, was his only way to keep on living. That had been true, both in the arena and after he had become the crown prince’s body-double. The instant he let slip the split-second chance for victory, he would be stretched out as a cold corpse. Now, however, this was not his fate alone. Once before, at the forest of Tolinea, he had realised that the fight was not his alone.
The moment he realised that, Shique’s face, which had become blurry from the flurry of dust, broke into a smile. Gowen nodded. The girl, looking elated, let go of his hand. The thunderous black blood stopped drawing a spiral within Orba.
And with that, his five senses, which had been sharply tied together in their focus, now flew loosened and extended in all directions.
The next second, Orba almost imperceptibly shifted his horse’s position, purposely escaping to the front. Kaseria saw an opening in his opponent. He immediately had his horse leap to fill the gap so that he could slice the space where Orba would move to.
A fresh surge of fighting spirit instantly battered against him.
Pashir had charged, spear in hand. Waiting ready in the rear, he had realised that Orba had left that gap for him.
The attack pulled Kaseria back to himself. He hurriedly jerked backwards and watched, astounded, as the spear whizzed by right before his eyes.
“Coward!” Kaseria howled.
Even though he had finally achieved that feeling of ecstasy in which it felt as though his body and mind would melt, it was as though he had been doused with cold water just as he was reaching its peak.
Atop his horse, Orba smiled scornfully.
“As long as I take your head, there’ll be no question of cowardice. I’ll just have it advertised that I fought Allion’s prince fair and square in a duel, and magnificently killed him.”
For all that he was younger than Kaseria, Orba had, in a sense, lost his youth, and what he had said fit in with his way of doing things.
Although Kaseria’s face was flushed, having come back to his senses, he could grasp what his own situation was.
At exactly that moment, Lance Mazpotter came galloping up, having been searching for the prince’s whereabouts.
“Pull back, pull back, Prince,” he shouted as he had his horse rear bolt upright. “If you don’t pull back, you’ll have to face me too, Kaseria. I told you earlier. I’ll haul you away even if I have to drag you. Do you want to look that pathetic, Kaseria!?”
Kaseria Jamil had suffered his second defeat that day. And at the hands of the same opponent. Roaring something unintelligible, he fiercely kicked his horse’s flanks.
“Go, give chase!”
“This is our chance to win!”
The Ende-Mephius alliance pursued after Allion’s army as it started to flee.
On Allion’s side also, it seemed that the commander-in-chief, Kaseria Jamil, had decided to resign from this battle front, so the officers were calling out to each other, leading the chorus of cries to withdraw.
Once one side started to retreat then, as a matter of course, the balance of battle would collapse in one go, and those of Allion’s soldiers who fell behind by even a little were intercepted by enemy soldiers and suffered the penalty of death. Amidst that, Lance Mazpotter personally took his spear to serve as the rear guard and allow their commander to escape.
“Get them, get them!”
They chased on and on. Now that victory was decided, the desire to kill a famous enemy and claim the reward had spread like fire. With things having come to this, there were quite a few soldiers who charged recklessly to seize Lance’s head, only to be killed instead.
At that point in time, Allion was not resigned to being defeated. There were still a thousand soldiers who had been left in the north, in Zonga, and on the east side were the troops led by Phard Chryseum. Although Mephius’ intervention had temporarily placed them at a disadvantage and caused them to abandon their position, they intended to immediately regroup their battle formation.
However… Phard had also been forced into an unexpectedly hard fight.
When Dairan went up in flames and Garbera’s troops inevitably moved west, Phard had been hot on their heels, but Moldorf, the commander of the force sent by the western alliance, stood in his way. Just like Kaseria, his younger half-brother, Phard was a fearsome commander who had fought a hundred battles without ever knowing defeat, but he was now faced with an opponent stronger than any he had known before. Moreover, Moldorf was intent on single-handedly keeping him in the same place.
As soon as he had drawn Phard to himself, the troops led by his younger brother, Nilgif, had gone ahead and were stalling for time.
On Moldorf of Kadyne’s rapid instructions, the Pinepey tribe were deployed along the path of retreat to provide protective fire. Assisting them were the cavalry commanded by Natokk of Taúlia and the infantrymen under Bisham of Helio.
“Eei, move! Move, why don’t you!” Phard opened his mouth wide to roar, as the horses’ hooves kicked up untold amounts of dust and sand.
There was a loud clang and sparks rose from his iron shoulder guards. A bullet had rebounded off of them at an acute angle, yet his massive form did not even stagger.
Phard had already slaughtered more enemies than could be counted on the fingers of both hands. Yet the enemies that he should normally be able to kick aside like ants when he went on the offensive were beyond persistent.
Moldorf and Nilgif especially, whose huge frames were every bit as large as Phard’s own, and who both excelled with the spear. Not even an invincible army would rush thoughtlessly to attack that pair.
As for the Twin Dragons, they too were looking at this enemy with wonder.
“What do you think of finishing that opponent?”
Once, when the two brothers passed each other by as Moldorf temporarily retreated and Nilgif advanced, the older brother called out.
“If there were a few less enemies, right about now, that guy’s head would be on the tip of my spear. And you, Brother?”
“He’s strong. Spending too much time on him will put our side in danger. If either you or me were defeated, the enemy would gain the momentum to overwhelm the Garberan forces. Don’t go competing with me for achievements by paying too much attention to him.”
Although Nilgif fell a little short in judgement when compared to his older brother, he was not one to lose control of himself in situations like these were there was a clear goal. He was not so young as to be ardent about reversing a situation with his spear alone.
While the Twin Dragons were buying time, the Garberan troops led by Prince Zenon had escaped from the valley and were reforming their battle array. When they had first managed to reach that position, Zenon had been planning to divide his forces into small units and deploy them so as to gradually slow the enemy’s progress while they contacted those in Dairan. Yet shortly thereafter, a messenger had arrived by airship from Dairan.
The young Garberan prince had still been on horseback, but when he heard the report, he had flung back his head with laughter.
According to what he heard, Lord Eric had launched an incursion against the enemy position so as to reverse Kaseria’s trap, but during that time, Dairan had been attacked. Following which –
Just as he said, Mephius’ crown prince had materialised and rescued them from their predicament.
“It was the same thing back then with me. But really, that crown prince, does he always know, whatever the situation, when to make the most effective entrance? If it’s him, I’d even be willing to believe he was pulling everyone’s strings, enemy or ally, from behind.”
Zenon summoned the apprentice knights under his command and had them notify the entire troop of the situation. He lifted his longsword, engraved with the crest of Garbera’s royal family, above his shoulder –
“There’s no longer anything to be worried about. If the enemy advances any further, our swords will force them back.”
Within the next half hour, the troops of the western alliance also filed through the narrow path one by one and joined the Garberan army’s position. Moldorf and Nilgif were at the very end of the line.
At long last, Phard Chryseum was going to follow after them, but seeing the enemy unexpectedly take up a firm position at a point not very far away, he naturally thought it strange. Anyone would have viewed it as unnatural that they were not retreating further even though their own base was burning.
“Bastards. Don’t underestimate me,” Phard gave a deep snort.
That they had been able to slow him down somewhat had gotten him wound up. The iron balls jangled on their chains. Readying his personal weapon, and after making sure that the entire force had regrouped behind him, he was about to give the order to charge again.
Which was when –
“Whaat?” he shouted, rearing back his horse until it stood bolt upright. He was so stirred up that he almost plucked the head of this soldier who seemed about to get in his way. However, he heard the soldier’s words, which had been prefaced with “a message from Master Morga…”
“What?” Phard was flabbergasted. With his eyes opened round and his mouth hanging open, his face was exactly like a child’s. “Running away? What’s that stupid little brother of mine doing? Didn’t he take Dairan?”
He was visibly displeased, but the commander-in-chief for this expedition was Kaseria. Besides, Phard was a man who displayed his might in battles of brute strength, even when his situation was at a disadvantage, but once things grew even a little complicated, he was not one to use his head to think.
“Unh, unh, unh,” while the message from the sorcerer continued, his face puckered but, this time as well, he ended up abandoning any attempt to think through things on his own. “Eei, well then, retreat, retreat,” he yelled, his face as red as though boiling water had been splashed over it.
Phard’s true worth and greatest strength lay in how he made swift decisions and took immediate action. And when Phard easily abandoned the battle and started to flee, his subordinates hurriedly followed after him.
“Good,” watching this, Prince Zenon went into action.
They did not give chase. He left most of the troops, including those from the western alliance, where they were and personally led five hundred cavalrymen towards the north, going by way of Dairan.
At that same time, Kaseria Jamil, who had likewise taken the route north. Although there were several possible opportunities to counter-attack, the combined troops of Gil Mephius and Ende’s Lord Eric bore down on their positions every time.
Both the side being chased and the side giving chase were covered with sweat and blood, and their faces were black from the dust being kicked up by the cavalry troops. Kaseria was no exception. He continued on horseback while his skin, which was normally so white it reflected the sun, was dyed dark.
“Garberan then that damned Mephius…”
He had heard that the situation in the three countries, Ende included, was explosive. Which was why he had been resolute in his decision to advance troops, despite his father’s resistance to the idea. Ende’s Lord Jeremie, who had called for Allion’s army, had said the same as well.
Then how was it that they were cooperating like this? He did not believe that this was a spontaneous military alliance.
“I didn’t hear of anything like this!”
Meanwhile, once they reached a point a few dozen kilometres north of Dairan, Gil called a temporary halt to their side’s advance. Garbera’s unit joined up with them at about the same time.
While Mephius’ Crown Prince Gil, Ende’s Lord Eric, and Garbera’s Prince Zenon drew up their horses side by side, Kaseria’s main force continued north in a cloud of dust.
The sun rose in its leisurely ascent, and finally filled the entire surroundings with its rays.
At long last… There was no doubt that the one who felt the most deeply moved, as he bathed in the sunlight, was Eric Le Doria.
The shadows cast by the three lined-up horses grew longer on the ground’s surface.
“I’m sorry.” Lord Eric was the first to speak. “I was fooled by the enemy’s trick. My foolish decision caused trouble to Garbera and Mephius. I was determined to drive them back with nothing but the platoon I was leading, but…”
Bearing responsibility for an entire country was not easy. Eric fell silent, feeling that it sounded like he was making excuses.
“What’s that?” Prince Zenon clapped Eric’s shoulders comfortingly. “That’s how skilful Allion is in warfare. The problem doesn’t lie with Ende. If Garbera had been the one they had set their sights on, we would also have needed help from the both of you. Isn’t that right?”
Asked that pointed question, Gil Mephius nodded.
“It probably isn’t over.”
The morning atmosphere was clear and calm. The festival of blood which had swept through the wilderness only a short time earlier with its shouts, angry roars, and rising smoke, was already far away. The morning sun washed away the previous day’s filth, and a new day was starting.
“Mephius included, there’ll be cause for cooperation again from now on.”
That cooperation could no longer be limited to three of them, but needed to be extended into an alliance between countries – such was his meaning. Neither Zenon nor Eric raised any objection.
Of course, there were still many things that needed to be settled and done for that to happen.
Now, with this war only just drawing to a close, Gil Mephius – Orba, was already turning his eyes towards his ‘home country’, Mephius.
Kaseria arrived back in Zonga on the evening of the next day. Messenger airships having been flown ahead, ships had been sent out to meet him near the national border.
Onboard the return ship, Kaseria did not speak a single word.
Once at the port of Zonga, his adjutant, Lance Mazpotter, was kept busy organising the returned soldiers and checking their numbers, but his priority should originally have been elsewhere. Not having anticipated that was possibly the greatest mistake that he made in the war.
When Kaseria Jamil arrived at the port, he swiftly headed for one particular place.
It was a house at the end of a street of warehouses. Incongruously for the location, it was under heavy guard by armed soldiers. Allion’s soldiers. “Move it,” Kaseria bit out before violently wrenching open the door, paying no further attention to the soldiers who had stepped away to either side, visibly intimidated by their lord’s mood.
He trampled roughly towards a room at the end of the second floor.
Lord Jeremie Amon Doria was inside. Even though it was still early morning, the room was filled with black water lily smoke. Or perhaps, thanks to that drug, he had been escaping from reality since the previous evening, practically without sleep.
Jeremie had stared with lifeless eyes at the prince’s entrance, but now opened his eyes wide in apparent astonishment.
“G-Goodness, Prince Kaseria,” his long-stemmed pipe fell from his hand and he hurriedly sat upright. “It seems that you were gone this past while, but where have you been to?”
“To Dairan,” Kaseria smiled. A smile so gentle that anyone would have smiled in return.
Jeremie looked startled all over again, but then his face gradually broke into a smile.
“R-Really? And then? And then, what happened to Dairan? No… since it’s you, Your Highness Kaseria... Did you cast those allies’ of Erics to the fire? And from now, with Dairan as our base, those who oppose my reign can be utterly…”
“Yes, sooner or later,” Kaseria gave a slight nod and, still smiling, moved his hand to his waist. “Sooner or later, I’ll turn Dairan into a sea of flames. I swear by the royal blood of Allion. But before that…”
A gleam of silver streaked/flashed from Kaseria’s waist. Did Jeremie Amon Doria even realise that these were his final moments? Spinning rapidly, his newly severed head rolled until it stopped before a grimy mirror placed in a corner of the room. His lifeless eyes gazed impassively at his own death.
“First is your blood. Filthy as it is, it can’t possibly sate my thirst but, well, might as well while I’m at it.”
Without a single uneven breath, Kaseria wiped off the blood on a curtain, then left the building at the same pace that he had entered it.
Just under two thousand of Allion’s soldiers left the port of Zonga. Up until that time, Gil, Eric, and Zenon had set up position north of Dairan in order to intimidate Allion’s forces, but once they received the information that Allion’s army had set sail, soldiers throughout the camp had raised their guns or spears high, and had burst into loud victory songs.
It was at around that same time that they were joined by the western forces, which had confirmed Phard’s retreat. General Moldorf wordlessly went up to Gil, and just as wordlessly, they bumped fists.
“What’s this, Brother,” coming up behind him, Nilgif tilted his head. “When did you get so close with Crown Prince Gil?”
“First-class warriors understand each other after just a single day of being in the same camp,” Moldorf puffed out his broad chest, while next to him, Orba gave a wry smile.
For the present, Allion had suspended going to war with Ende. However, just as Orba had pointed out, this did not signal the end of Allion’s – and consequently, of Kaseria’s – ambitions.
Future generations would call this campaign the “Dairan Disaster”. It was the first of many battles to come between the “Mad King of Allion”, Kaseria Jamil, and the “Dragon Emperor of Mephius”, Gil Mephius.
They returned victorious to Solon.
By all rights, fireworks should have been booming since morning and throngs of people should have gone out to greet them, but it had not yet been five days since the announcement of Emperor Guhl’s demise. In order to observe mourning, the people were forbidden from wearing bright colours, while taverns, brothels, arenas, and any other entertainment venues were to remain shut.
Despite his achievements and the hopes for the future that the people held, the hero who had rushed to aid the Grand Duchy of Ende, and who had repelled Allion’s expeditionary force quietly alighted from the ship which had landed with an equal lack of fanfare.
Naturally, he had been informed of the emperor’s death before he had returned. It had left Gil Mephius – Orba, lost for words. He listened in silence to the detailed explanation.
Guhl Mephius had been bathing in a puddle of blood on a cold stone floor. There was no clear information as to whose hand had killed him. However, slightly less than ten people, including elders of the Dragon Gods’ faith, the empress and Zaas, had afterwards fled in a suspicious air carrier believed to have been concealed beforehand within the temple. It was certain that they were responsible.
Most of the retainers understood Orba’s silence as grief over the death of his father. Yet – needless to repeat at this point – Orba and Guhl were not related by blood. The circumstances to which each had been born were wildly different. They had barely even spoken face-to-face from the time he had become a body-double, whereas his life had been targeted more than once. However, saying that Orba had simply pretended to receive a shock and then sink into silence would also be incorrect.
Orba had, in fact, experienced shock. It was similar to receiving a serious injury.
But whether what he was feeling was a sense of loss because victory had been so abrupt, pity for the pitiful dictator, or perhaps even regret that he had not personally killed him, Orba himself could not tell.
The enigmatic feeling followed him even after he had disembarked in Solon.
With a mourning token attached to the coat he wore over his armour, Orba was met by nobles of his acquaintance who were similarly clad in mourning, but they barely exchanged any words. He merely stopped to sweep his gaze over all of their faces and give a brief nod.
It’s so sad.
Just as had happened on-board, everyone understood that Crown Prince Gil was grief-stricken.
He won the war, then his father died just as he was returning triumphant and victorious.
Although they’d led soldiers to wage battle against one another, they were still father and son.
And his lady mother has already passed away.
No matter how heroic he is, the Lord Crown Prince is still young. It must be so hard…
Ineli Mephius was at the centre of the group of nobles. He was aware of everything that she had done in Solon. Calling both her and Odyne forward, Orba said only a few brief words: “You did a good job looking after things.”
Afterwards, he did not return to his own chambers but instead went somewhere as though to avoid the public eye.
The Black Tower soared above the centre of the city of Solon. The shrine to the Dragon Gods had once been housed beneath it. Normally, before the ceremonious funeral, the remains of royalty should have been laid out in state in the temple where that shrine had now been moved to. However, that place was what it was, and the elders who managed the temple were now viewed as those responsible for dividing the country in two, as well as being suspected of having murdered the emperor. Which was why the corpse had been transported to the underground morgue beneath the Black Tower.
This had been reduced to an almost cylindrical cavity. The paintings, gorgeous ornament, and sculptures of the successive generations of emperors which had once lined the walls on both sides had been transferred to the temple.
While the tapping sound of his footsteps echoed, Orba walked along alone, holding a torch aloft.
The sound of footsteps stopped.
He could see the temporary altar which was all that had been carried from the temple. A coffin had been quietly laid out.
Orba stood still for a long time before it, neither opening the lid nor approaching any closer than necessary to the casket in which his ‘father’ slept.
Somehow, now that things had come to this, he felt that there was a lot that they would have needed to say.
For example, maybe there should have been words of reproach. For so long, the emperor had been unable to distinguish between his real son, and the impostor that Orba was. For Orba himself, he felt both that it was a relief and, at the same time – or rather – that he would have wanted to reveal his own identity, and fling all of his reproaches to the statesman who had robbed him of everything.
Or perhaps he would have wanted to receive instruction on all sorts of things from the one who had ruled for so long, and who, for all his faults, had so much experience.
Or perhaps he would have wanted to assert his intention before the emperor that from now on, he would take care of the country in his place, like a true descendant of the imperial family.
That was something else that not even Orba himself could tell for sure.
“Who are you?” only Guhl’s voice as he had asked that question continued to reverberate within Orba’s mind.
Well then – Orba mentally asked in return – who were you?
Thinking about it now, the emperor, who never trusted or let others into his heart, was the very image of a lonely old man. Yet Orba’s own heart violently opposed the thought of neatly summing up the emperor’s last years with just those few words.
This was the man who had held the throne of the Imperial Dynasty of Mephius for many long years. Despite innumerable conflicts, he had held fast to most of its territory. He had defended his people with high stone walls and the might of the sword. These past few decades, at least within the cities, barely anyone had known starvation. Even if the price for that prosperity had been the emperor’s despotism and the lives of several hundred, or even several thousand slaves, it was impossible to feel that the life of a man who had reigned, with ups and downs, over an entire country could be understood just by saying that “he was lonely.”
Shit – Orba kicked at the stone floor, aware of his own inner turmoil.
Orba knew what it was like for the sacrificed slaves, for the populace on the very bottom rungs, who were held down and suppressed through force. It didn’t need to be said that he himself had been one of them. And so –
It’s fine for me to laugh.
It’s fine if I spit on your coffin and kick your corpse. It serves you right. A slave that you thought was worthless… no, whose existence you didn’t even recognise, is going to grab everything that you cherished during your life, while all you can do is curse and grind your teeth in your grave…
Even though he tried to work himself up, his emotions did not reach half the pitch he had hoped for, and he was not even able to grasp a genuine sense of having finally won. And more importantly –
Where did Guhl go wrong?
However much he tried to manipulate his own feelings, that question stayed with him and would not vanish from his mind. It irritated him.
Where did he go wrong, where was it?
It’s because of what he did wrong that the retainers grew arrogant, and looked down on the people and slaves like something to be harvested in the fields each year. And the result was that my home village was burned down, I lost my brother, my mother was killed…
It’s because of what he did wrong that so many men died before me. That there were people I had to kill.
Even if he were somehow to never more have a reason to grasp a steel sword, the smell of blood would never fade from Orba’s hands. The colour of entrails torn from inside a body, the appalling stench of them, would never disappear from his memory.
Within that darkness in which there was nothing to lean on, Orba had firmly trampled on those sacrifices, one step at a time, as though walking along a road. His guidepost had been the thought of revenge, its flame constantly flickering right before his eyes.
And yet now that he had finally arrived where he had been going, he had, at the same time, lost sight of that flame.
No… Orba sighed deeply – it didn’t just start now.
I’d already lost sight of that flame after I defeated Oubary.
A new voice then asked a question within Orba.
So then, why did you come this far?
It hadn’t been to bring down Emperor Guhl. It wasn’t a simple, fairy-tale-like story, or a play in which the last scene was overthrowing the dictator.
Orba took a deep breath as he realised that anew.
Orba neither laughed nor kicked the coffin, but simply spoke.
“You should have gone all the way with being a ruthless ruler. The kind of ruler who would want ten slave sacrifices today and a hundred tomorrow. It would’ve been great if you’d been an emperor who seized all of his retainers’ assets, then started wars all over the place to stifle their complaints.”
Was it because Orba’s eyes were filled with the black shadow that had abruptly risen from the coffin that they were so dark even as he spoke curses?
It had human limbs. The shadow did not have any facial features, but Orba was certain that he could sense them: an unmistakably powerful gaze. Along with words being spoken.
Orba pretended not to notice. He continued to speak –
“If you had, it could have continued to serve as a guidepost to the future. Intending to carry everything all alone. You’re…”
Whose voice was it that replied?
The road you are advancing along is the one that I followed. The road I travel is the one you once walked.
Step by step, the shadow came closer to Orba. He could neither escape from it nor fight it. His eyes wide open, Orba could only watch as the shadow gradually turned gigantic, and prepared to swallow him whole, from the top of his head to the tip of his toes.
“Were you able to talk with His Majesty?”
A voice spoke from behind him. At the sound of that gentle voice filled with hidden strength, the shadow which had been one second away from pouncing on Orba scattered and vanished like the mist.
Orba turned around, looking as though he had just snapped out of a dream.
It could not have been sorcery. The one before him was Vileena Owell. For all that she was an oddball princess, she could not hide sorcerous power in her voice or her kiss, like Hou Ran.
Besides, Orba had realised the identity of the wraith-like shadow about to strike him a moment ago. Although of course, he did not know that Emperor Guhl Mephius had once experienced similar conversations himself, both within his own room in the main palace, and in the underground of the temple to the Dragon Gods’ faith.
“Am I bothering you?”
“No,” Orba shook his head.
He stepped to one side to leave a space for her beside him. Vileena, however, stopped a step before that. She gazed at the coffin placed in front of the altar.
“His Majesty Emperor Guhl Mephius was not easy to understand.”
Only a single light illuminated the semi-darkness. Vileena’s eyes shone bright. She scrunched up her eyebrows.
“He threw a retainer who had admonished him to the dragons, promoted gladiator games in which fellow slaves were made to kill each other, and turned his blade against my native country, Garbera. In that, the gentleman was unforgivable. Yet when I talked directly with His Majesty, he was like a completely different person from the one who had done those things.”
“When we watched the gladiator games together, he made a bet in fun with me. Then, when I brought up that bet and asked for soldiers, he readily agreed to it. Even though I was almost suffocatingly nervous during every second that I spoke with him, in no way did I hate him. If – although talking about it won’t make any difference now – but if we had just a little longer, if we could talk some more, it might be possible to shorten the distance with him, even just a little, and to understand him maybe just a little bit more. I keep thinking that.”
“Me too,” answered Orba as he too looked towards the coffin. “Now, I also think that. He was an unforgivable ‘father’, with a lot that needed to be corrected about him. But, he was, after all, the emperor. He was the one who showed the way that I needed to take from here on.”
“Empty talk,” Vileena Owell said softly and closed her eyes. Tears ran along her cheeks, but Orba again pretended not to notice. “Thinking that now is truly pointless. Why didn’t you spend more time with your father before having to regret it?”
“Because with a father like that he wouldn’t even have listened to me.”
“No, no,” this time, it was the princess who shook her head. “Did you make any effort to understand your father? And did you even make any effort to be understood?” Her tone was approaching one of cross-examination. Orba did not answer, and Vileena once again shook her long hair.
“It’s too late after something like this has happened. Much too late. When words haven’t even run dry but you decide that you cannot understand one another, you’re inviting a situation like this, in which father and son, brothers, or mother and daughter fight against one another. There are already so many cases like that. People from the same country spill each other’s blood, family members who share the same blood turn their blades against one another, I’ve had enough already.”
Vileena buried her face in her hands. It was as though she had been intending to talk matter-of-factly but, before she realised it, had been overwhelmed by her feelings, and, one after another, tears fell from between her white fingers. When he tried to place a hand on her shoulder, Vileena shook her head fretfully, shaking his hand off at the same time. The princess sniffled.
“I don’t want to have to regret anymore. I don’t want to be bitterly sorry and bite my lips and stamp my foot like a child when it’s already too late,” the princess fervently complained, sobbing like a child.
Now that I think about it… Orba suddenly realised something as he stared at her profile.
Right, now that he thought about, Vileena was a girl who had witnessed internal battles again and again. She had not even been ten years old when a man named Bateaux, who was supposed to be a leading figure among Garbera’s long-time retainers, had rebelled right before her eyes. She and her grandfather, Jeorg, had been taken hostage, but they had prevailed thanks to her grandfather’s tact and the princess’ ability to take action.
Then, no sooner had Orba and Vileena met than they were dragged into the drama of the Garberan general Ryucown’s similar rebellion. He had been none other than the princess’ former fiancé. Grieving over the future of Garbera and of chivalry, he had even raised his sword against her.
Even after she had come to Mephius, internal conflicts occurred one after another, with Zaat Quark’s attempted uprising, the war between Mephius and the west which were supposed to have become allies on the prince’s decision, and now, the civil war between father and son. Although Orba himself did not know it, back in her native country of Garbera, a quarrel between her two brothers had also been on the verge of intensifying.
Innumerable motives intermingled. To carry through the justice one believed in, to satisfy one’s own ambitions, out of worry for where one’s country was heading… That selfishness of men gave rise to the clash of violent emotions, and bloodshed became inevitable, which had also left the princess’ emotions in disarray. With Emperor Guhl Mephius’ death, she had probably reached a kind of saturation.
Orba realised as much, yet at the same time –
“What you’re saying really isn’t like you, Princess.”
The words that came out of his mouth came off as sharp. And, as was to be expected…
“What do you mean by ‘not like me’?” the girl glared at him with red eyes. “What do you know about me?”
“What makes you think I don’t know?”
“No, you can’t know. You have no interest in anything except yourself and victory in your own fights. You show no concern for other people or topics,” the princess flatly stated.
Orba desperately bit back the wry smile that almost appeared on his face.
“It isn’t too late for everything. It’s true that my father and I ended up with this miserable result because we wouldn’t understand each other. But, standing in front of my father’s altar like this and leaving my emotions to one side for the first time while thinking about him, I wondered. I wondered about what kind of things my father, the emperor, had done until now, and what he had been thinking of doing from here on.”
“That might not have been possible when my father was still alive. If we had continued with our usual relationship – sounding each other out with our words, cautiously observing each other’s expressions – I probably wouldn’t have had an opportunity to think particularly deeply about him. I won’t say that it’s a good thing that my father died, but it definitely gave me that opportunity.”
“But… But. That’s too lonely. To think of someone for the first time when you’ve already been separated by death, that’s just too…”
“There’s no fixed shape for the relationship between people. The process that leads to understanding each other and sympathising, the method, and the result… they vary. Understanding each other doesn’t only mean happily taking each other’s hand. Understanding each other absolutely perfectly could lead you to mutually trying to erase the other’s existence from this world.”
That’s… Vileena’s voice disappeared into a faint sob, unable even to form into a murmur.
Orba gave a nod. “I understand what you want to say, Princess. There are plenty of situations were fighting comes about because people don’t understand each other, or because misunderstandings have piled up. That’s what happened with the war with the west after I disappeared. That’s what happened between Garbera and Ende. For those involved, that’s certainly very sad and heartrending. Deeply grieved over it, the fourteen-year-old princess sobs in front of her hateful fiancé.”
Maybe because he had deliberately gone and said that, or maybe because he had failed to say something else, he found himself on the receiving end of another glare from the princess. As she turned her red and swollen eyes towards him, Orba grinned.
“But, Vileena Owell. You aren’t just ‘a fourteen-year-old princess’. You can’t be. Or, at the very least, the Vileena that I know – the girl who was my trustworthy comrade, who was an opponent I couldn’t be careless around otherwise she would do me in as soon as my guard slipped, and who twisted me around at every opportunity – she wouldn’t be crying and complaining at a time like this, but would look at me with a cool expression.”
What are you… Vileena’s eyes asked. Their redness added to the intensity. Orba received that glare head on and straightened his posture.
“Prince, from now on, the two of us, let’s create a country which tries to understand others even after words run dry. No, you have to. If you don’t, I, Vileena, will never forgive you and will chase you down with a gun…”
Vileena gaped open-mouthed as Orba imitated a woman’s voice to speak. He then watched as the princess’ face instantly flushed redder, perhaps from anger, or embarrassment, or a mixture of both, and while it did so –
“And like that, you draw out my heart, Princess. The twisting, winding, complicated road I follow becomes so very simple thanks to you,” he said almost in a whisper.
Vileena’s eyes went perfectly round. The smile Orba was wearing closely resembled the expression she had once caught a glimpse of in the evening glow, lit up by its flaming light. And then –
“Vileena, you’re adorable.”
Unable to keep up with what he was saying, Vileena did not even notice that at some point, Orba had placed his hands on her shoulders. The torch that he had been carrying was now hanging on the wall. As the light coming from it shone to one side of his face, he continued –
“You’ve shown me how you look when you’re sobbing and falling apart. A clever princess like you, must have already realised how I look when I’m in that state too – right, like someone said before, I’m sure you’d see me as childish. We haven’t spoken much. We haven’t spent a lot of time together. But compared to when we first met, I’m sure I’ve learned a lot more about Princess Vileena, and that I’ve come to respect that princess, that I find her a difficult person to deal with, and that, sometimes, I think she’s a girl I feel at peace around. How about you, Vileena?”
“I… I’m… I am… I, also…”
“For the two of us, we’re different in that we were born in separate lands, we’re a man and a woman, we honour different values… but, it would be good if we could lower the fences between our different positions, one by one. It’d be good to create a country in which everyone had a chance of doing that. That’s what I’ve resolved on, after losing so many things in so many battles. As long as you, Vileena Owell, just you shared that thought, nothing could make me happier. Nothing could be more reassuring.”
Vileena’s face was now as red as a glowing sunset. Any kind of blockhead would be able to tell that the reasons for that were different from earlier, but it was at that moment that Orba let go of her shoulders.
Ah… said her face as Vileena followed his hands with her gaze. Her expression was one of having only now noticed the touch of his hands for the first time, and of only now being bewildered about why her shoulders were so hot they were almost burning.
Orba took half a step back.
“Emperor Guhl was undoubtedly a very great father,” he said.
For a second, Vileena was perplexed all over again at how he seemed to be going back to that topic at this point.
“Even if I don’t inherit all of that, unworthy though I am, I, Gil Mephius, will carry it as best I can. However, even if Mephius currently has a father, it has no mother.”
As he spoke, Orba suddenly got down on one knee.
While the crown prince bowed his head far more deeply than he had when, not so long ago, he had been before Emperor Guhl, the princess held her breath.
“Lady Vileena Owell, third princess of the Kingdom of Garbera. Proud princess, would you become Mephius’ mother?” he asked.
Vileena finally lost all power of speech.
The single light threw their two shadows against the stone floor from which frescoes had clearly been torn off. Each time she seemed about to say something in reply, Vileena struggled for breath and gave up. She repeated the process several times.
Orba did not move.
Not speaking, he remained kneeling.
It was less than a few minutes that passed, but how long did it seem to the two of them?
As might be expected, Orba was beginning to feel conscious of sweat forming on the back of his neck.
“My lord prince,” a voice landed on top of his head.
Orba did not show any expression.
“Is that all you wanted to say?”
“I feel that your words are missing something. It can’t have been your intention, my lord prince, to embarrass me by saying something like this to me – who is, after all, a girl – and watch my face burn red with shame?”
Orba silently stretched out his knees and stood up straight.
Vileena’s face was right before him, a little lower down.
He opened his mouth which had previously been shut.
He knew, of course.
What it was he needed to say. He had known that since long ago.
Yet now that it had come to it, his back was throbbing.
At some point, the fire hanging from the wall had spread to his body, and it felt as though his back was blazing hotter and hotter.
His back was burning.
His brand was burning.
His slave brand was burning.
The flame erupted violently from his back and engulfed every direction around him within its scarlet veil.
But only for a moment.
There was only a fleeting moment in which Orba closed his eyes then wrenched them open again.
He once again focused straight ahead of him.
Vileena Owell’s countenance was before him.
His wavering gaze, in which countless emotions struggled against one another, met her eyes and in that moment, the flame went out.
“Princess, I definitely need to talk to you.”
“Right,” Vileena nodded decidedly.
“It will probably be a long, long conversation.”
“Even so,” she smiled brightly. “Your Highness, we have time. From now on, we have a long, long time ahead. But I am not patient enough to spend all of that time waiting. You do understand, right? Your Highness?”
References and Translation Notes
- Traditionally, people wore mourning badges attached to the breast of their clothes in Japan, but the custom of wearing an armband has also been adopted along with western clothes, so it’s unclear what, exactly, Orba is wearing.
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