Rakuin no Monshou:Volume4 Chapter1
Chapter 1: Dark Clouds over Apta
Oubary Bilan reached Apta some two hours after sunset. By all rights, he should have arrived while it was still daylight, however this was Oubary: having tarried too long with the women at the post-station town, he had ended up being late. But then, there was no reason to hurry. From what he had heard, after having been violently attacked by Taúlia, Apta had finally been forced into an alliance with them. He felt depressed just imagining the wretched atmosphere of defeat that must be pervading the inside of the castle. Although...
Since it's that prince who had supposedly oh-so changed from being so juvenile.
That being the case, it didn't feel all that bad.
Oubary harboured a grudge against the heir to the imperial throne, Gil Mephius. On the occasion of the prince's first campaign, he alone had been recognised for his meritorious deeds; at the time of Zaat's rebellion, his “going along” with Noue was supposed to result in Oubary playing the role of the patriotic hero, but because of the prince, that plan had completely fallen through and instead his disappearance in the midst of the rebellion had caused him to incur the emperor's displeasure.
Because of that, when a slave revolt broke out in Kilro, an area to the southeast of Solon, Oubary had volunteered to personally suppress it. As a general who boasted a long military career, turning his sword against something like slaves wasn't something he could puff out his chest about. He had accomplished his mission regardless, but his pride in his noble self had taken a severe blow.
Be it that time or this.
Oubary felt that it was all Prince Gil's fault. That the slaves had staged an armed uprising at that point was probably because of Zaat's rebellion. But Oubary believed that Gil's lenient attitude in appointing slaves as soldiers of the imperial guard, or in making the sword slaves who had risen in revolt his personal subordinates, was also to blame.
Reaching a point from which Apta Fortress came into view, Oubary could clearly tell that its appearance had changed because of bombing raids. It seemed badly damaged. Oubary smiled nastily. Even the castle gate was not yet halfway through repairs.
“General Oubary Bilan, entering the castle.”
With that proclamation, he passed through the partially destroyed gate.
Setting foot in the town's streets, Oubary drew together his finely manicured eyebrows. He had an uncomfortable feeling. Enemy fire had also altered the appearance of the fortress. Of course, it was to be expected that the damage would extend to the street. He had thought that the place would be sunk in gloom, yet contrary to his expectations, the townspeople who were coming and going as well as the soldiers with whom they were chatting light-heartedly all had cheerful countenances.
Oubary continued beyond the brightly lit main avenue and dismounted from his horse. As the castle hall was said to currently be unusable, he was guided to the largest of the barracks. Once he passed through the entranceway, Oubary's sense of disbelief grew increasingly.
In the spacious hall, a banquet was being held. All around, red-faced soldiers were walking hand in hand with women who appeared to have been gathered from the town to serve as waitresses. Mountains of food were piled high; wine cups were being refilled as soon as they were emptied; it was as if they were celebrating winning a battle.
“We were expecting you to reach here today, but you've arrived rather late.”
Oubary's subordinates from the Black Armoured Division who had been stationed at the fortress were also all in high spirits. Oubary caught hold of a company captain called Bane.
“What’s all this? Did the defeated prince fall ill from despair?”
Bane grinned derisively as though he had heard something outrageous, his appearance as unprepossessing as ever.
“This is a victory celebration.”
“What, a victory!?”
“Even though it was Taúlia's Ax Bazgan, he captured him within this very Apta. The prince – that man is truly skilled at warfare!”
Oubary got a detailed explanation about the battle from Bane. When he learned that after luring the enemy in, the prince himself had bombed the fortress, he almost involuntarily yelped in surprise and it was only with effort that he held himself in check.
“That's not all.”
“"Once again", it was all he could do to give a forced smile, "A ground-breaking campaign, one without precedent. It certainly isn't something that just anybody could do. Although one should be careful not to fool themselves into believing they are rich just because they have money and material possessions."
Even though those words left his mouth, It's strange, was what he was thinking.
He had never spoken with Prince Gil before the latter's first campaign, however he had of course heard many rumours about him. Tales of how he was a fool who spent every day playing around had no doubt even reached other countries. Yet despite that, he had defeated Zaim Fortress' supreme commander, Ryucown, and had prevented a rebellion in Solon. And now, here in Apta, he had captured Ax Bazgan and even brought about a mutual alliance. Furthermore, he had done it without receiving reinforcements from his own country.
It's as though Gil were a general with years of military service.
It wasn't simply that it gave him an unpleasant feeling. He was obviously different from the prince that Oubary had heard about. One could have put it down to his having excellent staff officers, but here in Apta there were no other generals present, and almost all of the prince's attendants were former slaves.
Even though he was royalty, was it possible for people to transform thus in such a short time? Then, was it because he was a fool that, one after another, he came up with plans that other people would never dream of? Not only Oubary, many of Mephius' courtiers harboured doubts at the prince all but turning into a new person.
“Ah, Your Highness.”
“Your Imperial Highness, congratulations for your work against Taúlia.”
Within the hall, that Gil Mephius appeared before him.
Shique and Gowen, Orba's long-time acquaintances who were in the hall drinking with their respective comrades, exchanged glances. Even from a distance, they could tell that Orba was drunk. Staggering unsteadily around the room, he smiled sloppily at the people who called out to him. His face was as red as though scarlet pigment had been poured over it. He probably wasn't putting on an act either. Above all, they both knew that Orba had never been good with alcohol.
When Orba – though of course, to the people in the room, he was the first successor to the imperial throne of Mephius – spotted Oubary Bilan, he walked towards him, waving exaggeratedly.
“Oh, general. So you've arrived. You're late though, I was starting to get worried.”
“Your Highness”, Oubary bowed courteously, “I am unworthy of your concern. To my shame, as the matter in Kilro was unexpectedly troublesome, I did not arrive in time for the battle with Taúlia.”
“It doesn't matter. Come, have a drink.”
As he seemed about to topple over, a nearby chamberlain hurriedly made to catch him. Rudely shaking him off, Gil grabbed some wine from a tray and offered it to Oubary. As his face came closer, Oubary politely declined. Gil's steps were unsteady and his eyes unfocussed, but upon that, he glared.
“You won't drink my wine, general?”, he asked threateningly. Smiling sourly, Oubary took the wine cup and drained it. The prince watched him fixedly then,
Without paying attention to the shouts of astonishment from the people nearby, he smoothly drew the sword from at his waist. Naturally, Oubary rapidly narrowed his eyes at this,
“What is this, Your Highness?”
“Shall we perform a sword dance, general?”
“A sword dance?”
Sword dances were a speciality of Solon's wherein several men would perform a dance while wielding swords. On the occasion of the Founding Festival, such a dance was held at the palace.
“Even though this is called a celebration, the entertainment is lacking. At times like this, the people of Mephius shouldn't be celebrating so crudely. It’s unrefined. So let's perform a sword dance, you and me. Everyone, rejoice.”
Thinking that the prince wasn't sober, Oubary's thin lips formed into a smile,
“Although a gratifying proposal, Oubary Bilan is not worthy of crossing sword with the Crown Prince. Ah, why don't we settle down over there and have a leisurely chat? I would very much like to hear about the battle against Taúlia.”
A sharp crack rang across Oubary's cheek. Gil had slapped the general's face with the back of his hand.
Rather than rise in uproar, the room went deathly silent. As the shocked onlookers held their breath,
“You won't cross swords with the crown prince? A cute thing to say. Then this crown prince orders you. Come, draw your sword.”
Gil made a thrust with the sword he held. Oubary 's smile went stiff but he maintained it even as he drew back. “Your Highness, Your Highness”, he appealed. The prince's posture was unsteady, so evading him wasn't difficult, however when his third thrust skimmed over the top of the general's shoulder, a sharp rush of air struck Oubary's cheek. A small cut opened on his skin. When they saw red drops trickle down his cheek, the women screamed.
"Your Highness, Your Highness, please wait."
The soldiers also clamoured from all around. Although Shique and Gowen were trying to make their way through the surging crowd towards the sweating Gil, he still continued to swing his sword. Oubary's hand went to his own waist. Seeing that, Gil's mouth twisted into a ferocious smile when –
A metallic sound resounded with a clang.
The sword was flung from Gil's hand. He and Oubary both stopped moving and gazed at the new sword that extended sideways from them.
The one holding it was a strong-bodied man. The former sword-slave who had competed with Orba in the final round of the Founding Festival's gladiatorial games – Pashir. He had swept Gil's sword away from the side. Pashir's eyes were partially concealed in shadows as he expressionlessly sustained Gil's burning gaze before returning his sword to his waist.
Around them, all was in uproar.
Oubary held up his hand to take command of the soldiers who were rushing up.
"That... Wasn't that a little too much for a jest made under the influence of alcohol, Your Highness?"
Gil had picked up his sword and, though tension still surrounded him, he returned it to its scabbard.
"Then you should have agreed to a sword dance." He shrugged as though completely uninterested. Then, with a sidelong glance at Pashir, "every last one of you is unbearably tedious. That's why they say that the people of Mephius don't know how to set the mood during festivities." With that, he left the room, his steps still unsteady.
His hand held against his cheek, Oubary watched him leave. More than just turning pale with rage, his entire body was shaking.
"What was that?" He murmured to himself. "He's crazy to call that a festivity. Or was that him showing his true colours as a fool?"
In the doorway on the other side from the one the prince had disappeared through, a single silhouette stood stock still. Vileena Owell. She had been on the roof only a short while ago but had come rushing when she heard the disturbance. Although she had arrived a little too late, she could understand the gist of what had happened from hearing what the people around the room were saying. She stood for a moment dumbfounded then quickly crossed the room to chase after the prince.
"What on earth where you thinking!"
The group of people she was chasing through Apta recognised the figure of the princess who was holding up the hem of her skirt in order to rush towards them.
Held up between Shique and Gowen, the prince, who had been leaning against the wall to walk, looked as though he was hearing something incredibly annoying.
" What do you mean, 'what'?"
He didn't stop walking. She stomped towards him.
"I am asking if this time again, there was a deeper meaning to your actions. Up until now, no matter how foolish your behaviour appeared, you have always a secret reason that I couldn't begin to imagine."
"The fact is, His Highness acted that way because he was drunk."
Although Shique tone was placatory, his words had the opposite effect on Vileena. Her doe-like eyes widened even further.
"He did it because he was drunk? Hmm, is that so? In that case, let me change the question: becoming so drunk that you couldn't tell right from wrong and attacked a retainer with a sword, why on earth did you do it?"
"I was drunk. Because of the wine."
Gil grumbled in a thick voice. He sounded like a typical drunkard. Feeling even more incensed, Vileena started to draw closer. Just as Shique hunched his shoulders as though preparing himself for a thunderbolt, Vileena's furious expression suddenly crumbled.
Because she had remembered.
The prince's appearance, looking exactly like he was grovelling on his knees as he sobbed. Perhaps getting himself dead drunk also had something to do with that; as that thought occurred to her, Vileena lost the energy to be angry.
Entering the room that had been allocated to him in the barracks, Gil - or rather, Orba, threw himself on the bed. Gowen was the first to open his mouth.
"What happened?" He asked Orba, who was moaning softly. Shique turned towards Dinn, the page who had been awaiting the prince's return, and sent him back out saying "It's fine for today", then, having driven away the soldiers standing guard with a few glib words, he closed the door.
"Orba", Gowen said in a low voice. Orba, who was currently as red in the face as Gowen was tanned, gave him a broad grin.
"Oh, right now, you've gone back to your slave overseer face. When they got up in the morning, everyone always knew what kind of mood you were in from the expression on your face."
"Is that right? Then I'll say this: right now, my mood's the worst." Gowen glared down at Orba who was burying himself in his pillow. "Destroying everything you've risked your life to protect up until now by going off and drowning yourself in alcohol is something not even a kid would do. This isn't like your usual calm self. You should be grateful to Pashir; if he hadn't stopped you, you'd have caused your own downfall."
"You're being too serious, Gramps."
"Orba!" Gowen barked angrily. He was raising his thick arms when Shique hurriedly stopped him.
"Now, now now, Gowen. Orba is constantly having to steel himself, so he must be exhausted. Suddenly going from being a sword-slave to the country's crown prince; given the circumstances, it's fine if he sometimes indulges in alcohol, right?"
"It's not." Gowen's breathing was ragged. "Orba, you said it yourself, didn't you? Making you a body-double was probably something Fedom did on his own. If anyone else in Mephius discovers you real identity, you'll be sent straight to the guillotine. Even you can't be ready for that. And also, if your real identity is discovered, we'll also be suspected of being conspirators and our lives will be forfeit. It's not just your problem if your neck gets sliced."
Orba stopped smirking and now lay facing upwards on the bed. Realising it, he turned over again so that his back was towards Gowen and Shique. "Orba", Gowen continued to press him for a response when he heard in a voice that was almost a whisper:
"There's no more reason to continue being the prince."
Gowen suddenly stopped pacing around. He exchanged a glance with Shique.
"There's no reason to let him live." Orba's back was shaking and his words tumbled out unevenly. "My brother died here. He abandoned him. Alice and my mother too, they were probably killed. Because of him. He set fire to villages from his own country of Mephius with his own hands!"
Just a short while ago, Orba had seemed in high spirits from the wine, but now he did a complete turnaround, shouting then immediately after sniffling.
"This 'he' you're talking about...", began Shique. Gowen continued,
"Don't tell me you're talking about that general you attacked with a sword. If I remember correctly, he's called Oubary, right? What did that man do? Had you met him, before you became the prince?"
Even as Gowen was still asking those questions, a possible explanation for all that Orba had just said dawned on him. He already knew that Oubary Bilan was the general previously in charge of defending Apta. Since Orba's brother had died here, could it mean that he had been a soldier stationed at the fortress?
"You say... That he set fire to a Mephian village? Orba, it can't be", as though realising something, Shique raised his voice, "it can't be that you're planning to get revenge on him?"
Orba, his back still turned, didn't answer.
Which also meant that he didn't deny it. Shique gave a large gulp while next to him, Gowen sighed deeply. Up until then, Orba had always been somewhat mysterious. He had a side to him that was very cool-headed, but also he also had a side to him that would see his emotions suddenly burst out. From an outside perspective, the balance maintained between those two conflicting halves looked precarious. Because it was quite possible that at any moment, his emotions might overflow and destroy Orba's fragmented personality.
Is that moment going to be now?
Two years ago – no, it was probably more like three years now, at the time they first met, he had thought that this was a guy he couldn't take his eyes off. It wasn’t just the iron mask, his heart also wore a mask, so it there was no way to grasp his real intentions. Yet now, as he stifled his weeping, Orba's back could not have been more defenceless. The man who boasted of being undefeated with a sword was nowhere to be seen, nor was there any trace of the man whose enemies fell into the traps of his all-encompassing strategies. The shape of that back was just that of a young boy's.
However, Gowen deliberately kept his tone strict,
"Revenge, huh? If you say your family was killed, then sure, it's not something you can just forgive. But here and now, if you let revenge take priority, you'll lose everything. Everything you've obtained by somehow surviving certain death, you'll…"
"Everything, huh? This 'everything', what is it?" Orba screamed in an almost hoarse voice. "I've already lost everything. What else is there? My life? Then I'll give my life. If in exchange he gets to taste the anguish of Hell, I'll give it any time!"
"You have duties to fulfil, Orba. You think that anything is fine if you're tired of messing around with the position of crown prince? But that position comes with responsibilities. Whether you want them or not. Give me one good reason why you should just do as you please."
It was the first time that Shique had seen Gowen be so talkative while admonishing someone.
From the time when he had been an overseer of slaves, he had never been a man to become deeply involved in other people's s lives. He would teach them swordsmanship, and he would teach preparedness and the tricks to pull through. However, he never showed anything like concern for other people's circumstances. It was a world were out of a hundred sword slaves that he trained, he could never know if even one of them would still be alive a year later. Learning about each and every one of them beyond what was needed for the job wasn't possible.
It had barely been about half a year since Orba had become the crown prince. During that time, the bewildering change of situation hadn't only affected him; which was to say that Orba hadn't been the only one to change.
That was why,
"That's right, Orba." Shique also tried to reason with Orba who was in such a state. "Our situation aside, you promised Princess Vileena reinforcements for Garbera, didn't you? If you kill Oubary here, you definitely won't be able to keep that promise. Since general Oubary is currently staying in Apta, there is no risk that you'll lose your chance to act. If you want, as Imperial Guards, we can help you keep an eye on him. It will fit right in with performing our usual duties."
Orba didn't say anything.
When the two of them left, utter silence filled the room. On the bed, Orba lay completely still.
Right after returning from Taúlia, Orba had spoken with the master blacksmith Sodan and learned of his brother's death. He had long realised that there was no possible way his brother could still be alive, but somehow he had still clung to hope – no, it couldn't even be called hope, more like illusions.
Even if he himself was living through days of hell, as long as those he had been separated from, his brother, his mother, Alice and the others were alive somewhere, then maybe, before he knew it, there might suddenly come a day when they might meet again. However, when he formally heard the truth about his brother from Sodan, the fragile illusions that Orba had held within shattered. It wasn't just his brother: Alice, his mother, and everyone he had known before - all his illusions crumbled as he was made to realise from the bottom of his heart that none of them were anywhere in this world anymore.
He had wept. He had wept until his tears dried up, leaving way to burning emotions that raged from within him. He thought of slicing Oubary Bilan's neck. Or perhaps, when Oubary himself was within the fortress, Orba should face him with real intent to kill and without worrying about the consequences.
However, Oubary hadn't yet arrived at Apta. Orba's violent anguish was left with no target. Returning to his room, and without listening to Dinn's advice that he stop, he gulped down wine. One cup, two cups; as he got through them, Orba forgot his own limits. In truth, he didn't feel the least bit drunk. Yet when, after the sun had set, he heard that Oubary had arrived, he had found it difficult just to get up from his chair. After that, the events in the hall had occurred.
The alcohol he wasn't used to was starting to make him feel sick. He swallowed his own saliva several times and twisted his body left and right as he couldn't find a comfortable position. Under the weight of the accumulated fatigue from the battle at Apta to his visit to Taúlia, his body cried out for sleep.
That word fell from rough, dry lips.
His brother had left to go beg for work as a merchant's assistant here in Apta, the fortress town nearest their village. Two or three times a month, he would take a holiday and return to his family. To Orba, for whom the sky and ground of the narrow gorge they lived in was everything, the stories he would listen to about life in the town were like something from a different world. Up until then, Orba hadn't known of the existence of ether-powered airships that flew through the sky, nor had he known of the existence of the circular arenas in which games were held where slaves competed against each other. Though apparently for those slaves, winning the right to live one more day was enough of a reward, Orba had insisted that "If I became a slave, I'd earn money!", which made his brother blink. In a village as rural as the one Orba lived in, there was also no opportunity to meet people from the slave class.
Orba's outlook had been broadened by the tales of his brother Roan's travels and by the many books he brought home. His brother had also been the one to teach him how to read and write. Orba became engrossed in what was written in those books. Illustrated stories for children; books about popular games; books which wrote of the time mankind had left the Old World; books that told of the ancient king Zodias and of his miraculous invention of magic; and, best of all, the many historical tales of heroes.
He would lose himself in reading, then be struck with despair since, after all, such tales would never happen to someone like him. But maybe, someday - if he could break away from that narrow village and step into the wide world - he held the faint hope that he too might live in that world of legends. He wanted to gaze upon the endless blue sea; he wanted to experience for himself the radiance of thickly piled snow in winter; to find out what kind of place the Golden Palace, said to be a nest of intrigue, really was.
Orba thought that his brother - who would open books one by one and also eagerly explain this and that to him - was like him. Since in town his brother had become familiar with the world that he himself didn't know, and since his brother was so much better than him at cleverly dealing with things, since he had always been ahead of him, Orba's young mind thought that his brother must have already set foot in the world that Orba only knew from books.
Within a murky sleep, Orba was dreaming.
In Orba's most vivid childhood memory of his brother, they were sitting side-by-side outside the barn. Above them, the stars were twinkling.
It was back in that time; just a few days before his brother had been drafted to Apta. Orba had been scolded by his mother after getting into a fight with Doug from the neighbouring village, and his brother had come to talk with him.
"Nobody knows what kind of person they truly are."
After he said that, his brother looked up at the sky that was bathed in the pale moonlight. For as long as he lived, Orba would never forget those words his brother had spoken then.
"What are you doing?" At that point, Alice also joined in. She was their childhood friend who lived in the house across from theirs. As she was three years older than Orba, in age she was exactly halfway between Roan and him. Before they knew it, they were talking about their memories. How once, when someone from the village claimed to have seen a wild dragon, the three of them had gone to the place where it had been sighted. However, the path through the ravine was complicated and they got completely lost. Finally, dragging their feet that seemed to have turned to lead, they made it back to the village but as it was already two hours after sunset, they were harshly scolded by their parents.
"Anyway, since Mother told me off for dragging Big Bro along, he didn't get blamed at all. I got scolded in his place."
"But isn't that pretty much what happened?" Alice pursed her lips. "After all, the one who started everything and who was the first to brag that 'I've seen a dragon' was no one other than you, Orba!"
"What are you talking about?"
"Afterwards, when I asked the other kids about it, they all said that they hadn't heard that rumour. Now that I think about it, it must have been you, Orba."
"You're wrong! It was that Doug..."
"However it was, it was fun," Roan said. As he gazed up at the stars which seemed about to rain down, a faint smile appeared on his lips. The other two fell silent.
"Yesterday, I suddenly thought about it. Going by my memories, it was when we were walking through that ravine. I remembered it unexpectedly. In the end, after Alice said that we should retrace our steps, we struggled along for about three hours and finally reached that place which was like a plain filled with boulders. The wind was really strong there; yeah, if it was there, then there might be dragons – and not the kind of dragons that are selectively bred by humans or that have been domesticated, the real thing, from when they were called Dragon Gods, with intelligence and wings... no, it wouldn't be strange to find real dragons there, ones that could recite magic spells – is what I thought."
"Pff, that's really far-fetched. You're definitely brothers. I was thinking that you weren't really alike, but in that one area, you're exactly the same. Honestly, Orba still believes that he'll rise up in the world through strength. A commoner obtaining a country with nothing but one sword: what fairy-tale from what era is it that you believe in?"
Alice continued to tease him in that vein until Orba bitterly huffed: "Well, my bad." As he was saying that, Alice's face as she stared intently at his brother seemed somewhat lonely.
"It's not like that." His brother shook his head a little bashfully. "Even if for adults that was just a thee-hour walk, for us when we were children, that was a great adventure. Not being able to see your destination and having my heart beat fast just from that, I could really believe that once we got there, things would be different and that a life where every day was strange and amazing could be waiting for us." To Orba, it felt like his brother's words stabbed at his chest but he didn't know why.
After that, they started reminiscing again; when Alice poked fun at Orba, Roan gently rebuked her, they went over each of their memories in detail and laughed again.
And that was the last of the time he ever spent with his brother.
When Orba slowly got up, it wasn't yet daybreak.
The effects of the alcohol were wearing off. With only a few hours sleep, his young body had shaken off its fatigue. He grabbed the pitcher that was by his pillow and poured water down his parched throat, emptying the pitcher in one gulp.
Outside his window, the hazy moonlight was shining. For some reason, as Orba gazed up towards it, a single tear fell from the corner of his eye. He glanced casually towards his desk and saw that Dinn had piled a collection of documents as high as a mountain on top of it. Before leaving for Taúlia, he had requested that they be prepared. Within should be contained information about the Principality of Ende. Thinking ahead, it seemed that avoiding trouble with Ende was impossible. And so, he had stocked up on information, including intelligence on Ende's two successors.
But that's also no longer...
It probably wasn't something he would make use of. Like a puppet whose strings had been cut, Orba fell backwards. The bed bounced beneath him.
I no longer have anything to do with the crown prince and all that.
The ceiling he looked up at was much lower than that of his chambers in Solon. That was because since it was originally a room in the barracks, it wasn't all that large. Even so, compared to his circumstances when was a slave, this could be called the height of comfort.
He would kill Oubary. Which meant that he would lose everything from his current environment. Exactly as Gowen had said. But Orba had already lost everything he had wanted to obtain. What need did he have to fear anymore? And yet...
"You have duties to fulfil."
Gowen's words swept through his mind. And with it, a stabbing pain. Maybe because of the wine, or maybe because of the problems that had followed one after another, his head hurt as though it were being split apart.
I'll kill him. Kill him. Kill him...
Duties. Duties. Duties...
Orba's eyelids closed once more. There was no strength left in his body, nor in his heart. He no longer knew what his real self wanted. Even though Orba longed to kill Oubary, Gil clamoured incessantly not to do it.
It wasn't just his head, the fever coursed all the way to his back. The brand that had been seared into it burned with the fire of his deep resentment.
I, who am I?
No matter how many times that cry was repeated within his heart, he felt as though the only thing to reach his ears was a loud echo.
At that time. In the imperial capital of Solon, a Mephian lord, Fedom Aulin, was busy preparing for departure. As it had been a sudden decision, he was swamped with the work involved.
But no matter how busy he found himself, Fedom didn't need to reconsider yesterday's hasty decision.
Ineli Mephius had suddenly shown up at his mansion and, of all things, had said:
"The current Gil Mephius – isn’t he perhaps an impostor?"
Just by recalling that memory, he felt himself turn pale. However, Fedom was aware that he had cast himself into a fight in which he risked his own life. Just barely managing to conceal his trembling, he managed to reply laughingly,
"The prince is a fake? I see; the Court has searched in any number of directions for a reason for the prince's transformation, but as expected of Lady Ineli, your way of looking at things is entirely different from that of other people. However, if you say that His Highness the Crown Prince is an impostor, then what is his true identity? Who is this hero who defeated Ryucown and kept that Zaat's rebellion in check?"
"I don't know if a lady as young as yourself knows this, but looking through history, from time immemorial, there have been many precedents as surprising as this. In particular, there are anecdotes of people now called heroes unexpectedly being shunned and looked down on in their childhood by the people around them. Although I believe that it is the height of impoliteness for someone like me to speculate, if I may humbly hazard a guess, His Highness Gil Mephius will also be spoken of in history in that way, ah indeed, it will surely seem to posterity that he was misjudged by ordinary men unable to discern his talents."
"Is that so?" Ineli frowned. She ran her finger repeatedly around the rim of the cup that she held in her hand. Watching her, Fedom felt somewhat relieved. It was certainly unexpected that such a young girl should come near the truth, but,
After all, it's just a case of a daughter occasionally imitating her mother who became empress.
She probably hadn't had any particular plan.
"As a joke, it was amusing, however it would be best not to speak too recklessly. Whatever one may say, Gil-sama is still the heir to the throne. If someone were to take such a joke seriously and it were to be circulated within the Court, when the day came that it caused a furore, even you, an Imperial Princess, might be called upon to take responsibility. Because of that affair with Zaat Quark, the situation at the Imperial Court is also such that people's minds are uneasy."
As Fedom issued that subtle threat, with a "Hmmm, well...", Ineli smiled mischievously. And in fact, she left soon after as though running away scared.
However... Even supposing that was just a passing thought on her part, if it became a rumour, it could become a problem.
Given his situation, Fedom couldn't help but be rattled by a silly young girl and breaking into a cold sweat. All in all, the utterly selfish actions from Gil's body-double that he had put into place, Orba, were intolerable. He needed to quickly bring him back in hand and put an end entirely to all of his unnecessary behaviour.
With that said, Orba was currently at Apta Fortress, near the southwest border. Now that the prince had formed an alliance with Taúlia, how would the emperor treat him - would he recall him back urgently to Solon, or would he keep him in place as lord of Apta - as yet, no decision had been made.
As such, Fedom had decided to leave Solon for a while. He had so far repeatedly contacted the nobles from what could be called the anti-Guhl faction so that they could gather and hold a meeting in one place. That place was Kilro, southeast of Solon. The place where slaves had risen up in revolt only to be completely suppressed by the Black Armoured Division, led by Oubary Bilan. Kilro had been an area overseen by a powerful family loyal to Mephius, however, as they had been killed by the rebelling slaves, Indolph York, one of Mephius' twelve generals, had been appointed as its new feudal lord. By a stroke of good luck, he was one of those from the anti-Guhl faction that Fedom had won over to his side.
Thinking that it was a good opportunity, and under the pretext of assisting Kilro's governor for a short while, the nobles and generals of the anti-Guhl faction - seven people in all - hurriedly assembled.
It would be the first time that all the members met together. This was certainly no time to blunder.
To set up Crown Prince Gil and raise the standard of revolt against the current emperor - Fedom Aulin believed that it would soon be time to reveal this audacious plan to his family, and so once the meeting was over, he had planned to pay a visit to his domain of Birac, where his family resided.
Though in many ways Fedom Aulin was by no means incompetent, for one engaged in politics, focussing the mind on a single issue could be fatal. The day after he had departed from Solon, exactly as if the timing had been planned, Emperor Guhl suddenly said to the vassals invited to his breakfast table:
"It's about time I sent a messenger to that brat Gil."
Simon Rodloom asked mildly. Naturally, there were many people other than Fedom who were curious as to what kind of approach the emperor would take with Crown Prince Gil.
"I have a verbal message for him."
The emperor had recently fallen into the habit of muttering in a low voice and with his eyes turned aside, without actually addressing anyone.
The vassals exchanged looks. Neither by word nor by deed had the emperor expressed his intentions regarding the war between Garbera and Ende, and now they were going to find out what these were. They felt intuitively that the emperor's message would be to warn Gil against sending reinforcements to Garbera.
"Not only Gil, I also need to send an official letter to that Ax. The Bazgan House, which spat on the Dragon God's divine protection by splitting from Mephius – indeed, I had not thought I would one day be lightly exchanging letters with them like this." He spoke as though to himself.
At that moment,
"In that case, Your Highness, please appoint me as your messenger to Apta."
The request came from so unexpected a source that none of the attendants present – not even Simon – could hide their surprise.
Raising her slender hand, was Ineli Mephius. Of late, she had been secluding herself in the Inner Palace so her complexion was somewhat pale, however her eyes were brimming with liveliness.
The vassals immediately thrashed their arms around as though to say that it was unthinkable.
"Even though we may have formed an alliance with Taúlia, not a single official negotiation has yet been exchanged. Armed troops would also have to go with you for in case the situation broke down."
"You don't need to all exaggerate so much. I may have spoken a little suddenly but I only want to give Brother a surprise. Father, you'll say that I can, won't you? Princess Vileena should also already be there. If you say that I can't because it's dangerous, I wonder what the people of Garbera would think?"
Ineli laughingly stuck her tongue out at the sour-looking nobles. At times like these, Ineli had the art of turning even the most outlandish proposal into pretty, childlike coaxing. Of course, in a year's time she would need to use a different kind of tactic and charm, but in those areas also Ineli's preparations were not lacking.
"You too, Ineli, have yet to outgrow childishness." Emperor Guhl Mephius narrowed his eyes. "Very well. I will have an air carrier prepared. You will make sure to properly convey my message to Gil. The emperor's imperial decree is that unauthorised actions such as those he took with regards to Taúlia will absolutely not be tolerated a second time."
"I understand, Your Highness."
Unauthorised actions would not be tolerated: that surely referred to sending reinforcements to Garbera. The vassals’ conviction of that was deepened.
However, Garbera was of course a nation allied to Mephius, the proof of which was that Princess Vileena was Gil's betrothed. Would prince Gil really accept the warning, and if so, how would Garbera respond to its ally's wait-and-see policy?
Scenting something like the odour of strife, the vassals wore glum faces. And, moments later, they perceived that a disturbance of a different sort might soon occur.
Just as breakfast was coming to an end, Empress Melissa called out to her daughter. The empress too had not appeared in public for several days but, that morning, declaring that her physical condition was fine and accompanied by her daughter Ineli, she had shown herself for the first time in a while.
"Since the emperor is gracious, he granted you his permission; however you cannot behave like a little girl indefinitely. After all, you will soon be the elder sister of a child who will bear responsibility for Mephius."
Everyone smiled as Ineli's expression turned sulky after being scolded but, at the same time, most of the retainers once more exchanged glances.
As expected. Melissa-sama is pregnant.
A small crease appeared between Simon's brows. He had thought that an official notice would be given sometime soon. But at this rate, within a day, everyone in the palace would know about the situation.
Pretending not to notice that other nobles were sending significant glances his way, Simon deliberately wiped his lips with his napkin. Although he feigned calm, his hands were damp with sweat.
Well now, with this, interest within the palace over the prince's treatment will take on a different meaning.
In one direction, Fedom had departed from Mephius' capital of Solon, from where Ineli would leave in turn in a few days; while in the city-state of Taúlia, standing near the border with Apta which was in the southwest of Mephius, Esmena Bazgan was also making preparations to leave.
Immediately after the peace with Mephius had been settled, Crown Prince Gil Mephius had visited Taúlia. This time it was Taúlia's turn to send an emissary for peace and Esmena had insisted on personally volunteering for that role.
"Father. Mother. I, Esmena, will now be leaving to go to Apta."
Within the audience chamber, Esmena performed her official leave-taking of her father, Ax Bazgan. Her mother, Jaina, was by Ax's side. Jaina had originally been a dancer, and her daughter had inherited the entirety of her beauty from her.
"Be sure to be sufficiently careful", said Jaina. "I have heard that he area around Apta is infested with bandits. Not only that but as you know, that land has only recently been returned by Garbera and there might be bands of rebels swooping to attack under cover of the general confusion."
Next to her, Ax unintentionally started coughing violently. Only a few days earlier, he himself had done the same thing as those his wife called 'bands of rebels'. However, Jaina was not sarcastically rebuking her husband. She had an honest and frank nature, and her thoughts flowed straight out of her mouth. Unaware that her words might contain an implicit meaning, she didn't notice her husband's unease at all.
While Archduke Hirgo Tedos stifled a smile that seemed to say that was very like the lady, he turned to address Natokk, the commander of the Sixth Army Corps who had been chosen as escort for this mission.
"Be sure that no blunders are made. Whatever happens, do not let Lady Esmena out of your sight."
"Aye," Natokk nodded. He was the man who had led the surprise attack on Apta. He had been defeated and captured by Prince Gil however, when the peace with Mephius was agreed, he and his men had been released.
"And also", Hirgo lowered his voice so that the Bazgan parents and child, who were chatting together light-heartedly, wouldn't hear him, "if 'those' were to happen again."
Natokk's narrow face tightened. 'Those' were the fits that Esmena sometimes had. In the middle of the night, she would stagger out of her room like a sleepwalker and go outside, dragging along the several ladies-in-waiting who would be attempting to hold her back. Furthermore, she would repeat the name of that abominable ancient sorcerer again and again, as though it were an incantation.
Also because of that, Ax had at first been vehemently opposed to his daughter going to Apta. It was he who had said that she was not to take a single step out of her room. As such, he was even more unlikely to allow her to travel out of Taúlia and into the territory of Mephius, which until only a few days ago had been their long-time designated foe.
"Is it not fine?"
The one who had supported her in a leisurely tone of voice was the strategist, Ravan Dol.
It was on a night, five days earlier, when they were drinking together and playing the board game they both enjoyed.
"There you go again, poking into other people's affairs. If an incident like that happened in Mephius, it might destroy that cobbled-together peace."
Ax – of whom it was pointedly said that when he was irritated, his vassals could not for a moment settle down either – sent him a glance. However, with a soothing expression, Ravan said:
"In regards to that, the princess' fits are subsiding. To a great extent, she is also going back to her previous healthy countenance. Turning down the princess' direct request and locking her up in her room will have an adverse effect, don't you think? This will be Lady Esmena’s first time visiting a foreign country. A change of air and of scenery might also help her feel refreshed."
"Nevertheless, in case of another fit", Ravan being Ravan, he whistled as he took on the elusive expression he was famous for, "they will learn that not only Lady Esmena but also the noble young ladies from all the various cities of Tauran suffer from the same condition. In the middle of the night, they slip out of bed and wander aimlessly about town in a trance."
"However, while this story is whispered throughout the Tauran Provinces, if you take a single step into a foreign country, it appears that truly nobody has heard of it."
Ax now stayed silent. Ravan moved a piece on the board.
"It doesn't matter whether that condition comes from sorcery or an illness, carried by the wind, it will spread across the entire continent - is apparently what isn't happening."
"You – It can't be that 'that' will be a test using my daughter Esmena!"
"Indeed I am not loath to gather information about an enemy we may have to fight one day. However, Lady Esmena has a sensitive heart. I was thinking no further than that it would be good to let her stretch her wings a little... Of course, we will need to prepare with great caution."
"Humph. Although it would certainly be a shame to keep Esmena locked up forever. Ah, wait!"
"It won't wait."
"No, no, I mean the game. I was distracted for those last two or three moves. Let's start again from here."
"That's why I said it wouldn't wait. Be it in war or in life, there are things that cannot be redone."
Because of that exchange, Ax reluctantly allowed his daughter to go. Natokk would be the one to enforce the night watch. And so, because soldiers would stand guard for an hour each before being relieved, there was a large number of attendants.
Nevertheless, when Esmena called to take her leave before the departure, both her complexion and her expression were certainly brighter. Moreover, Ax pictured in his head a future in which his daughter would someday marry the prince of Mephius. For that, maintaining friendly relations wasn't a bad idea.
Watching uneasily over the situation with the Bazgan family was Bouwen Tedos. He was Archduke Hirgo's adopted son and though young, he was an army commander who had taken part in the second raid on Apta.
For three days before the date chosen for Esmena's departure, Bouwen had continually volunteered to be her escort, but as the situation in the Tauran Provinces was currently unstable, he was not permitted to be away from Taúlia for more than two or three days. Since Bouwen was of course a soldier, he couldn't reject an order from his lord and force his will through, however he couldn't help feeling concerned about Esmena. He was certainly concerned about her welfare in Apta but in his case, there were also a few more personal reasons as well.
"Bouwen, please look after Taúlia while I’m gone," Unaware however of what was on Bouwen's mind, Esmena smiled dazzlingly. "And after Father and Mother. I'll buy you something as a souvenir."
"Ha, ha ha..."
Not wanting his childhood friend to notice those personal reasons, his response was more strained than usual.
"What would you like?"
Bouwen, to whom that carefree question was directed, wasn't the only one who was currently troubled,
Within the audience hall, there was another person who harboured mixed feelings, though they were different from his.
He was Ax's nephew. His father was Ax's younger brother, Toún Bazgan, the general in charge of Taúlia's defence.
They've got some nerve all of them, showing those peaceful faces.
Mephius was an enemy of some two hundred years standing. Now, when a mysterious threat known as Garda was looming, entering into an alliance that would safeguard their rear was essential, but naturally, not everyone within Taúlia welcomed that alliance. Because Ax was a very popular ruler, few openly displayed their anger and opposition, however the truth was that most people were feeling surprised and confused.
And chief amongst them was Raswan. He was a youth not yet twenty years of age but his temperament was even fiercer than that of his lord, Ax. Above all else, he had from the start been on equal footing with Bouwen as a candidate for becoming Esmena's husband – in other words, he was a candidate in the succession to Taúlia.
Putting aside his own wishes, he couldn't stomach the fact that after finally launching a bold attack on Apta, his uncle had returned having bound himself in an alliance with Mephius.
There's also that rumour that he had the sovereign's seal stolen from him.
It was a rumour amongst the soldiers. The sovereign's seal was part of Taúlia's history and was the pride of House Bazgan. If by any chance it had been stolen by their arch-nemesis Mephius, then Ax had lost sight of the very meaning of Taúlia's existence. Could such a man be entrusted any further with the fate of his country, he wondered as endless anger bubbled within him.
If I were Ax, I would order Esmena to seduce him, or maybe to conceal a dagger, and plan to recover the sovereign's seal.
It had happened with Garbera and in the end, Ryucown had risen up. And now in Taúlia too, an alliance with Mephius had lit the smouldering fires of discontent.
|Back to Prologue||Return to Main Page||Forward to Chapter 2|