Rakuin no Monshou:Volume7 Chapter6
Chapter 6: A Traitor's Banner of Justice
At around the time when the sun was starting to descend from its zenith, the Garberan princess was once more standing where she could look out over Apta. She could see a sprinkling of townspeople in the streets. During the day, when Vileena had seen them as she walked along the covered gallery facing the streets, their expressions had been truly heart-breaking.
Prince Gil had been the lord protecting Apta for only a very short time.
Nonetheless, Gil had first driven back a sudden surprise attack by Taúlia, and then, thanks to the clever ploy of evacuating the people and bombing his own position, he had captured Ax Bazgan and had immediately concluded peace. On top of that, he had left from Apta to help their ally Garbera during a crisis, then had once more returned to this fortress in triumph. The people had all welcomed him with loud acclamations.
Not surprisingly, they saw Prince Gil as a hero. They probably mourned his death far more than did the people living in Solon or the nobles at court.
What should I do?
The previous night, she had lain in bed but, just like the night before, had been largely unable to sleep. According to General Rogue, Nabarl was steadily advancing in his military preparations and might be departing for the front as early as tomorrow or even today.
If they invade Taúlia despite being bound by a peace agreement and without any declaration of war…
Would Mephius retain even the minimum amount of dignity that a country should have?
Besides which, as he had been the one to offer peace to the west, she also believed that Gil Mephius’ name would be smeared in mud. Furthermore, if the lie took hold in Mephius that the west had assassinated Gil and if it came to be seen as the truth, the former Imperial Guards who were now being confined would be in danger. If lies about them having conspired with the west were to circulate, there was a good chance that they would be executed.
Flying by airship, would it be possible to give Taúlia warning of Mephius’ invasion? She even wondered.
If Taúlia were aware of the planned attack and made proper preparations against it, Nabarl might be more cautious about moving his troops.
But if she were to do something like that, Vileena would not be able to avoid being branded a traitor. She feared that she would be banished, or otherwise punished for her crime, not only by Mephius, but also by its ally, Garbera.
Vileena quickly drove away thoughts of her grandfather whose face had suddenly appeared in her mind. It was a bad habit of hers to go running to her grandfather, Jeorg, every time something worried her too much.
Just when the princess was once again asking herself what she should do, a voice called out from behind her.
“May I bother you, Princess?”
When she turned around, she saw a man with characteristically dishevelled hair. He was a master blacksmith by the name of Sodan.
“I don’t know if it’s alright for someone like me to talk directly to a princess like this so, I’m sorry if it’s rude.”
Perhaps it was part of his nature to not be very good at speaking, since his somewhat cloudy eyes were darting around all over the place. Vileena tilted her head to one side.
“It doesn’t matter. What can I do for you?”
“The fact is…”
As Sodan continued talking, Vileena doubted her own ears.
“The fact is... I have something that I’m keeping for the Prince.”
“T-That,” Vileena almost spluttered unconsciously, “what is it? Is it a letter for me? When was it given to you? How did you receive it?” She fired off her questions in rapid succession.
So this was all part of one of the Prince’s strategies and he had left something behind to tell her about it when the time came – for one short second, Vileena was able to convince herself of that.
“Ah, no, it’s not a letter… It’s this.”
Sodan held out a package in his chapped and scalded palm. Something glittering peeped through from inside. Vileena almost snatched it from his hands but when she saw the parcel’s unexpected contents, she was left speechless.
“I got a request to fix it but… now, there’s no way for me to give it back anymore. I don’t really know myself if giving it to you, Princess, is the proper thing to do.”
Sodan had experienced this before. Handing something over to someone who then stood stock still, for some reason, staring at it fixedly without saying a word. Gil Mephius had done so and, just like Gil, Vileena did not seem to notice when Sodan left but remained there for a while longer, her head bowed.
In Vileena’s hand was a medallion on a chain that the princess, herself, had once given to the imperial guard, Orba. She had sent it as a proof of friendship for him, who would be taking part in the gladiatorial tournament.
It had also protected the Prince from a bullet shot by the rebel Zaat Quark. Although it should have been handed to Orba, it seemed that the Prince taken it “as a lucky charm”. It seemed probable that he had asked a master blacksmith here in Apta to repair it before returning it to his imperial guard.
A horse and sword, the crest of Garbera, were engraved on the medallion’s surface. A single transparent teardrop fell onto it.
The Princess’ platinum blond hair swept forward and hung down, concealing her expression. But it could not conceal the sound of her weeping as the teardrops continued to rain down on the medallion.
After all this time – right, even after all this time, a heavy sense of loss welled up within her heart.
Is this what I came to Apta for? She wondered.
Not to look for Prince Gil’s trail, but to experience with certainty the reality of Gil Mephius’ death.
She would never see those mysterious eyes of his again; she would never see his smile, with its trace of boyishness, again.
She would never drive him into a corner, or conversely, have her nose put out of joint by him again. She would have no other chance to try to get closer to his heart, or to be infuriated by his secretive way of doing things.
Images of Prince Gil, the masked swordsman Orba, and Shique swirled around and around in her mind.
Vileena finally collapsed to her knees and seemed about to abandon herself to her emotions and cry out loud.
And that was when –
Something strange suddenly struck her tear-filled vision. A glittering line seemed to be weaving its way through the streets of Apta.
A group of armed soldiers. They looked like they were going to depart from the town’s north gate. A military troop automatically suggested some kind of emergency, but there were no townspeople in sight to see them off.
The surprise attack? Vileena guessed.
In that moment, the bottomless sense of loss within her heart felt as though it were being filled by another strong emotion.
It was Prince Gil Mephius who had chosen friendship with the west. He had bombed his own fortress and then personally gone to Taúlia; all because it had been necessary to remove the threat from the rear when going to help Vileena’s own native country, Garbera.
A tear ran down her cheek. With a sudden jerk, she wiped it away with the back of her fist and raised her head.
I did not come to Apta simply to wallow in grief.
If by some chance she had been led there by fate, then there was something that she needed to do here in Apta. Vileena Owell placed the medallion around her neck and before she realised it, she had started to run.
Countless doubts and conflicts still filled her heart. As though to crush them underfoot, she took a firm step forward and continued to run.
The River Yunos separated Mephius and Taúlia east from west. Vegetation growing along them, the cliffs on either side of the river rose ever higher as one went west and about a hundred Taúlian border guards were permanently stationed at the top of them. Following the ridge even further west were the Gajira Plains where Mephius’ Prince Gil and Taúlia’s Lord Ax had once met in conference.
Since the reconciliation between Mephius and Taúlia, the area around the River Yunos had become very quiet, but that day, for the first time in a long time, the guards all grew tense. There was a report that armed soldiers had been sighted on the opposite bank. Naturally, they were Mephian troops. It had been confirmed that a large number of boats had been launched across the river.
There was also a report that a ship had flown down towards Apta from the north. Since it carried no weapons though, it was probably not a warship. Nobody knew what to make of it.
Just as the captain of the guards was preparing to get in touch with Taúlia, the soldiers were thrown into complete confusion. An airship had been sighted crossing the River Yunos and headed towards them.
“At the ready!”
Following the captain's orders, soldiers armed with guns formed an orderly row at the top of the hill.
Having apparently anticipated this, the Mephian airship, which was shaped like a wyvern, rapidly lost altitude and landed right in front of the riflemen. The reason why they did not immediately open threatening fire was because the pilot was clearly a woman. As proof that she was in no way hostile, that woman spread her arms wide on either side of her.
Five or six soldiers, their guns still at the ready, surrounded her. Then one of them rushed to the captain.
Not surprisingly, the captain’s expression was the very picture of bewilderment. The pilot had identified herself as the Garberan princess Vileena Owell and her errand –
“Mephius is going to invade?”
– Was to bring advance information.
The only reason he did not write it off as complete nonsense was because of the Mephian troops on the opposite shore. He had certainly been anxious about whether they were preparing to ford the river.
But neither did he know whether this person was really the Garberan princess. There was a risk that the woman’s information was itself a trap.
Still, either way, it did not change the fact that the situation was urgent. The captain of the border guards went to meet directly with the Princess and talked with her for a moment. As the result, he reached a decision.
“This is beyond my authority. Dohrai! Choose three of your men and guide the Princess to Taúlia.”
As per these orders, Dohrai and the three other men were to take the woman who called herself Vileena – who was of course the real Vileena Owell – to Taúlia by airship.
“Please be careful,” the swarthy-skinned Dohrai called out to her just before the airships were about to take off together.
“I have some confidence in my piloting. Please do not worry,” the girl answered, but Dohrai, his expression serious, pointed to the handgun that hung from his waist.
The girl’s cheeks tensed. Although he was young, Dohrai had grown a truly splendid beard. The mouth that was surrounded by that beard did not speak the words, but the warning was there. If you act suspiciously, I have orders to shoot you. That “be careful” included the meaning of “be careful what you do.”
Vileena’s airship took off, with Dohrai and his men surrounding it on all sides. Stopping to replenish their ether at a relay base on the way, they hurried towards Taúlia.
They arrived at the city just as the sun was about to set. Things being what they were, and so that the Princess would attract as little attention as possible, just before they entered Taúlia, she was asked to change from her flightsuit to the simple clothes of a Taúlian girl and was covered in the veil that unmarried women sometimes wore.
They passed through the gate and entered the town.
“Keep your face lowered,” Dohrai advised her.
It was the first time Vileena came to this land, but of course, there was no leeway for her to view her surroundings. So she walked forward, watching only her own feet.
There must be a banquet going on somewhere since she could hear the sound of laughter, singing and the beating of a drum carried on the wind.
They continued along the town’s streets and this time, her ears caught the rough whinnying of a horse. The horse stopped just next to their party, its front legs suspended in the air.
“What?” Dohrai glared agitatedly at the rider.
That other person’s laughter was like a clap of thunder.
“I’m on my way to buy wine. But everywhere I go, they’ve run out.”
“It’s right after a war. People can’t be too extravagant.”
“My unit rendered the most distinguished service, you know? We got warmer welcomes in the other places. It’s complete bullshit that Taúlia is overflowing with hospitality.”
He spoke with insolence but he seemed to be the kind of man that no one could hate. Dohrai gave a crooked smile –
“Go visit old Hamdi’s shop on Third Street. That old man’s a boozer himself. He should have some left over that isn’t meant for customers. He loves war stories, so if you tell him a few, he’ll let you have some.”
“Is it an order from your captain?”
“Our captain doesn’t know how to have fun. He found a woman he liked in Eimen, so I thought he might’ve loosened up a bit, but, yeah.”
The man’s laughter boomed like a gong as he galloped off again.
“Isn’t that…?” Asked one of Dohrai’s men.
“Yeah, it is,” Dohrai answered while he urged the Princess to continue on. “That kind of giant isn’t seen in Taúlia. I bet the quantities he drinks are impressive. His name’s Gilliam, isn’t it?”
Something brushed against Vileena’s mind. That name rang a bell. She also felt that she remembered having heard the voice from earlier before.
With that being said, she was on an important errand. Her increasing nervousness as they approached Taúlia castle drove any speculation about Gilliam right out of her head.
It was Bouwen Tedos who received her.
As previously mentioned, despite his youth, he was currently the one in charge in Taúlia.
Princess Vileena is here with information about an invasion from Mephius. Even when he heard it from the soldier, it was too sudden for Bouwen to believe it. On top of that, only moments earlier, he had been thinking about how they would be strengthening their ties with Mephius from here on.
Still, he was from the war-torn land of Tauran. It was not rare to suddenly be at war with yesterday’s ally.
By the time he left his seat at the banquet, Bouwen’s feelings had completely changed.
During the war against Mephius, for a while, Bouwen had been held captive in Apta, but he had had no opportunity to meet Princess Vileena in person. Which was why he sent for Natokk, who had arrived in Taúlia not long after Orba’s unit. The commander of the Sixth Army Corps had in the past gone to Apta as Princess Esmena’s guard, and so had met Princess Vileena.
“That is, without a doubt, Garbera’s princess, Vileena Owell, in person,” that self-same Natokk assured him.
Bouwen entered one of the rooms in the castle to meet with her.
Oh, she… Upon seeing her, he felt his eyes go wide.
A girl with regular features who was beautiful to behold. Although her countenance had a childlike innocence, he could sense the graceful dignity behind it. In a few years’ time, she would certainly grow into a beauty on par with Esmena Bazgan.
And yet, this princess who should have been at court being admired, had come with information that Mephius’ army was marching towards them. This was not a normal situation. According to what she said, hundreds of soldiers had already left Apta.
However, there had yet to be a report of a beacon being lit at the border. Even so, he did not believe that the princess who had crossed the border was lying.
“Princess,” after listening intently to her words, Bouwen pressed his fingers together on top of the table, “I am deeply grateful for you coming all the way here with this report. However, you are a princess of Garbera, Mephius’ ally. Won’t your actions risk compromising both your position and Garbera’s?”
The Princess lowered her head for a moment but then immediately lifted her eyes again.
“But leaving things as they were would have gone against all sense of justice. I sincerely wish for peace between both countries… just as my husband-to-be Prince Gil did.”
The way she gave that justification was very girlish. And in a way, that made Bouwen trust her more than anything else had.
“I understand. What will you do now?”
“I will return to Mephius,” answered Vileena, unfaltering and unhesitating. “Of course, if you prefer that I stay here until you have verified my words, I will do so.”
That was almost like saying that she would remain as a hostage. Bouwen closed his eyes. And then said –
“Prince Gil pledged his friendship to my liege, Ax Bazgan. Imprisoning his fiancée would be inconceivable. Dohrai will escort you.”
But – Bouwen could not help but think – returning to Mephius will be far more dangerous than staying here in Taúlia.
That was of course something that Vileena knew as well.
After the Garberan princess had left, things suddenly got busy for Bouwen.
He first reported to Ravan Dol, who was confined to bed, and to Toún Bazgan, who was in voluntary confinement within his own chambers; then he personally reconfirmed the military manpower currently available within Taúlia.
The city’s Defence Force, led by Toún, now stood at a mere two hundred soldiers. Normally, there should have been at least five hundred men, but about two hundred had been taken for the Zer Illias capture force, and about a hundred of those remaining had joined Raswan Bazgan in his recent uprising.
The Fifth Army Corps, which Bouwen should originally have been commanding, had essentially been annihilated during the battle against Garda’s army and Greygun’s forces in the outskirts of Helio. The last remaining trace of the ‘Fifth Army Corps’ was the mercenary unit attached to it, currently led by Orba, and which was about fifty men strong.
Less than a hundred of Nidhal’s soldiers had escorted Princess Esmena back as her guards, and Natokk had likewise returned from Eimen with about fifty men.
There was also the crew of the cruiser that Esmena had returned in, but this was after a major battle: they did not have sufficient arrangements either for personnel or for ether.
It was very obvious that if Mephius were to march in earnest, forget about repelling them, with their current military strength, they would be hard pressed to even defend against them.
Taúlia’s fate depended on it. Bouwen lived in constant shame over the defeat in the battle at Helio and of the disgrace of having afterwards let one of Garda’s lackeys kidnap Esmena. If Ax had given him permission, he would voluntarily have abandoned his position as general.
But now, before him was a fight worthy of a warrior, one in which he could throw his life away proudly.
Since it means death either way.
He hoped to die reclaiming his honour as a warrior, holding fast until the end and defending Taúlia until reinforcements arrived. He would consecrate his death to Ax, who had placed expectations in him, and to the now deceased Archduke Hirgo Tedos, who had adopted him as his son.
It was close to midnight when Bouwen summoned the various commanders. Three company captains under Toún’s command, Nidhal, Natokk, and also – although as a foreigner he stood out – the mercenary platoon captain, Orba.. Bouwen briefly explained the situation. As it would only invite needless speculation, he concealed the fact that the messenger who had brought the advance warning was Princess Vileena. The fastest to react to the name ‘Mephius’ was, both surprisingly and unsurprisingly, Orba.
“Impossible!” He almost leapt to his feet.
That was rare for him, who never expressed any emotion and whose face was hidden behind a mask; it was usually impossible to know what he was thinking. For a second, everyone’s eyes turned towards him, and even though he immediately returned to his senses and sat back down, he could not conceal how shaken he was.
Nor was it only Orba; informed of the emergency, the warriors whose faces had been flushed red after the banquet suddenly looked tense. And hatred towards Mephius of course filled the room.
“Curse Mephius, so they can’t be trusted after all.”
“They must have caught wind of the war with Garda. The alliance was probably a trick to throw us off guard.”
“So this is how base you really are, Guhl Mephius!”
But cursing Mephius now would only be a waste of time. They quickly moved onto discussing the real issues at hand. Most of them were of the opinion that they should use what little ether they had left to fly airships requesting reinforcements. But even after sending messengers to their nearest neighbours, Helio and Cherik, help would not arrive for about eight days – even at the very lowest estimate, it would take at least five days.
Can we hold out that long? That thought was written on every one of their faces.
The messengers would of course continue from Helio and Cherik to Eimen, where Ax was.
“It would be good if you report that the enemy numbers over ten thousand.”
The one who said that was a man who had barely opened his mouth until then – Orba.
“Ten thousand?” Bouwen asked.
He did not have detailed information about their numbers, but ten thousand must surely represent the vast majority of the total number of troops that Mephius could mobilise under normal circumstances. But as he was asking the question, he realised the intention behind that ‘ten thousand’.
“You want to give the impression that this isn’t a request for reinforcements for Taúlia but a call to arms to every city to defend the whole of Tauran?”
The masked swordsman gave a slight nod.
It was the same as saying that the threat was not simply against Taúlia, but that Mephius was going to invade the entire western region. And this was also right after all the cities had united to subjugate Garda.
Messengers requesting reinforcements would be sent immediately. What came next was deciding how to defend the city with their remaining troops.
“Should we increase the guards at the border? It would let them see that we’ve made preparations. Since the enemy is planning a surprise attack, once they’ve realised that we know what they’re up to, they won’t be so quick to cross the border.”
“No, we should call back the guards. According to the messenger, the soldiers have already left Apta.”
“They’ve lined up formations on the opposite shore? I still find it hard to believe that they’re going to violate the border…”
At that very moment, a messenger came rushing from the border zone. The enemy force had crossed the border. The reason the guards had not sent up a beacon was to hide the fact that they had noticed the invading troops.
Everyone there was feeling increasingly furious.
Naturally, everyone understood that it would be a difficult fight. In a way, the sense of crisis was even greater than when Garda's army had taken Helio and were drawing in on Taúlia. The problem was not only the number of soldiers. Their ruler, Ax Bazgan, was away and the old sage, Ravan Dol, was confined to bed since his injury had been a serious one.
Because of that, the warriors were even fiercer than usual and the blood was rushing to their head. It looked like at any moment now, bullets would start flying right there, and they would grab their swords or guns and go charging out.
They could no longer postpone things by wasting time and words. Having reached that conclusion, Bouwen was going to have the entirety of Taúlia's military take up position and prepare to defend the city.
Slow – Orba muttered in a low voice. The nearby Bouwen lashed out.
"I know," he barked. "We've lost the initiative. That's why we have to hurry and..."
"No," said Orba. His arms were crossed in such a way that it looked as though his nails were digging into his own skin, but he did not seem to have any intention of unfolding them. "It's Mephius who is being slow."
Dohrai exclaimed in surprise when he saw the unit of guards that he belonged to earlier than he had expected - which was to say- when he saw them near Taúlia rather than at the border.
They were in the middle of escorting the Princess back. The sun had set, so flying at low-altitude without guidance was difficult. When they stopped at the relay station to replenish their ether, they had taken a three-hour nap. Even after waking up, there had still been no report of a beacon being lit.
The night had already been considerably advanced when Vileena, Dohrai, and the others had touched down there to resupply before covering the final distance to the border only to run into the border guards. About three hours earlier, these guards had seen lights on the River Yunos and had immediately dispatched a messenger to Taúlia – who seemed to have stopped by while Dohrai’s group was sleeping and so had missed them – after which, the captain had decided to pull back. Considering how low their numbers were, staying would simply have meant needlessly squandering Taúlia’s military manpower.
“Princess,” the captain of the border guards turned anxious eyes towards her. Now that the enemy invasion had become a reality, her position had become far more perilous. And it would become even more so if she returned to Mephius.
Vileena, however, shook her slender neck. “I do not think that I will be able to do anything more. But still, I will try my best.”
She once again sat astride the airship. Aware of how determined the Princess was, Dohrai and the others acted sensibly and furnished her with a tank of ether from the supply tanks in their ships. With no one to guide from there on, she would need to pick up altitude. And for that, one could never have too much ether.
“Thank you… Well then, see you next time.”
With those parting words, Vileena speedily flew off. In no time at all, she had ascended high and was cutting her way through the wind.
Next time – she herself did not believe in it. She had done her best to keep her expression unconcerned for the sake of the Taúlian, but once she was alone, she bit down hard on her lip.
So they crossed the border after all.
She had been expecting it, but now that it had actually happened, even the wind, which should have been lashing at her from the front, seemed to have turned into a heavy weight pressing down on the girl’s shoulders.
How could they tear up an agreement so easily?
How could they smash peace as though it were nothing?
As expected, Nabarl was in the lead with three hundred of his soldiers. They had set up camp and lit their fires on top of the hill which had been occupied by the Taúlian border guards until just a short while earlier.
Having noticed the sound of the airship, the sentries had the raised the muzzles of their guns. Vileena was unfazed and dropped her altitude when she was right before them, just as she had earlier with the Taúlian border guards. Realising that the pilot was the Garberan princess, the Mephian soldiers all broke out into cries of surprise and confusion.
Their commander-in-chief, Nabarl, stepped forward with an understandably equally surprised appearance. Thinking that there would be enemy guards in this area, he had from the start made an ostentatious show of fording the river and had expected a verbal challenge or warning shots to be fired, so it had come as a surprise to find the border area completely empty.
His unit of course included Pashir, who had been made up to look like Felipe.
Once Vileena had alighted from the airship, her long hair swaying, Nabarl started interrogating her like he wanted to rip her apart.
“Princess, would you care to tell me why you are here, across the border?”
“I also have the same question to make.”
“I have just been to Taúlia.”
Although the Princess’ complexion was a little pale, she stood up straight and faced Nabarl.
Unease flitted across Nabarl’s face. Vileena nodded.
“Is there something strange about that? The relationship with Taúlia is one of sworn future friendship. The Princess of Taúlia, Lady Esmena, was received at Apta. This time, as the daughter of the king of Garbera and as the fiancée to His Highness Gil, the crown prince of Mephius, I was the one to visit them.”
“Ah yes, by the way…” Vileena deliberately paused as she was speaking. That way of doing things resembled her fiancé. “Just before leaving for Taúlia, I observed a military unit departing through Apta’s north gate. I thought it strange since these are not times of war, but being a woman, it is not something I would understand. When I talked about it with the people in Taúlia, everyone greatly wondered at it. Oh but right after that, for some reason everyone seemed to become very busy. The gentlemen especially seemed to be hurrying to prepare guns and armour.”
A commotion ran though the soldiers while Nabarl was left temporarily open-mouthed. His thoughts could not catch up with reality.
This commander-in-chief – This commander-in-chief– a new thought struck Vileena as she observed his expression– she might be able to sway him depending on his mental state.
Meanwhile, Nabarl had finally grasped that this girl had betrayed information of the surprise attack to Taúlia.
“Princess. I do not know what you are playing at, but this is an act of treachery towards Mephius.”
“Playing? I merely went to Taúlia. Did I not say so? If it comes to that, what are you gentlemen planning? Surely you are not taking guns and swords to go sightseeing in Taúlia?”
“It’s a shame, Princess, but we don’t have time to waste playing word games with you,” Nabarl barked, visibly irritated.
Vileena frowned slightly at his rudeness, “even if you continue to drag your cannons to go and ‘play’ in Taúlia, those on the Taúlian side already know and will be preparing their swords and guns to ‘play’ with you. Your strategy was no doubt to suddenly go and ‘play’ without prior declaration, but that plan has already failed. Fortunately, there has not yet been any exchange of gunfire. I am willing to return, once more, to Taúlia and apologise for your ill-manners which have induced this misunderstanding.”
Nabarl’s face was thunderous but he remained silent. Convinced of her victory, Vileena clapped her hands together. It was a strangely discordant sound on that almost barren hilltop.
“Right, it will soon be dawn. If you tarry too much in returning home, the families of the soldiers will get worried, won’t they? It would be wise to move back for now. I am sure that Taúlia will welcome you if you come to ‘play’ another day, bringing a visiting gift rather than weapons and…”
“Ha ha,” Nabarl snorted with contemptuous laughter, cutting through the girl’s words. “Are you imitating Prince Gil? He also seems to have liked putting himself forward, pretending to be a hero.”
“You might be royalty, but you’re very young. You seem to think that you’re some sort of envoy of justice, but what happens if I decide not to step back?”
“What is it you are trying to say?”
Nabarl rudely stepped up and shoved his face near hers.
“Because you betrayed information, more soldiers than expected will die on Mephius’ side. Which is the same as saying that you killed them, Princess.”
Vileena’s face was even paler than before. She clenched her trembling fists.
“Absurd. If you know that there will be casualties, then that gives you all the more reason to turn back. What justification does this war have?”
There was no more playing with words.
“So,” Nabarl suddenly stooped, bringing his gaze level with Vileena’s, “this conversation is over, Princess. I guess what I’m saying, in a roundabout way, is that you are stupid.”
Vileena said nothing. This time, it was the Princess’ thoughts that were having trouble catching up to the reality of so much disdain. Nabarl barred his teeth and laughed.
“Hand over information.. befriend our enemies... do whatever you like. I’m sure you don’t know this, but Taúlia doesn’t currently have the military strength to stop us. In other words, what you did was completely pointless. Do you understand why I said that you’re stupid?”
Nabarl then continued in a voice too low for the soldiers to hear.
“I see... Was it at your instigation that that foolish prince seemed to change? He was stupid too. Seduced, by an empty-headed woman, he took himself for a hero and died.”
This time, Vileena’s face flushed crimson.
The sound of slap rang out as her palm struck Nabarl’s cheek. Hidden from the soldiers view, at that moment, Nabarl’s hand had brushed Vileena’s breasts.
Nabarl stroked his cheek with a smirk.
Her face still flushed in anger and humiliation, Vileena quickly turned her back to him and rushed back to the airship.
Nabarl sneered, “What do you intend to do, Princess? Are you going back to your country to cling to your father in tears?”
“I’m going back to Taúlia.”
Straddling the airship, Vileena glared sharply at the Mephian soldier.
“If you bomb or charge at Taúlia knowing that I am there, it will be the same as turning your sword against Garbera. Mephius will then unilaterally have broken its alliance not only with Taúlia, but also with Garbera. It will not be able to escape censure for baseness.”
“Ooh. Protecting your dignity by dying with the people of Taúlia?” Nabarl still jeered.
I’ll show you even if it means dying – Vileena wanted to retort, but it just felt to childish, so she kept her rosy lips shut in a straight line.
Nabarl, commander of the Blue Zenith Division, watched the airship once again soar into the sky.
“Take up formation. That little girl has spared us the trouble of lighting a beacon. Taúlia’s first wave of troops is coming!”
He seemed rather joyous and his paunch juggled as he laughed.
Lights were moving in the dead of night.
They flew by so fast that they almost seemed like nothing more than a hallucination, but the darkness that followed was filled by galloping cavalry and dragoon units. The only ones carrying torches were Orba, who was riding in the lead, and the soldiers who were handling the dragons that were pulling the cannons.
His iron mask warmed in the flames, Orba silently galloped on.
Mephius is invading. – When Bouwen had said that, Orba had not been able to draw a clear ‘picture’ of it in his head. And that despite the fact he usually had good insight.
Mephius was, of course, his native land. It was a little different from not being able to believe it. For he, who had spent several months as the crown prince, had at some point subconsciously started to feel that a part of ‘Mephius’ belonged to him. It was a strange impression, as though he were in a corridor and, despite there being no mirror at the end, there was someone who looked exactly like him, who then drew their sword and charged to attack.
However, when he had heard the details from Bouwen, the ‘Mephius’ that was embodied by the figure of the Crown Prince – or in other words, by Orba himself – had vanished like smoke, and gradually a different figure had formed.
Orba could see those eyes, filled with suspicion and lust for power, and those lips that were twisted into a vicious smile. At the same time, what had once been Orba’s image of a statesman and a man in authority superimposed itself on top of that until it almost entirely filled his field of vision: Oubary Bilan, smiling on horseback as the village burned and the villagers, whom Orba knew, had their heads sliced off by gleaming swords and spears.
In the middle of the council of war and behind his mask, hatred had made his temples throb, and he had ground his teeth and clenched his arms crossed so strongly that their muscles bulged and that he himself would have trouble uncrossing them.
Orba did not wonder – why attack the west now. Rulers such as Guhl Mephius constantly burned with the ambition for supremacy. He had probably been told of the military campaign against Garda by the spies he had sent west, and had judged that now was a good opportunity.
The troops which had been observed to have left Apta had crossed the River Yunos and had set up camp on the Gajira plains. Therefore, it seemed that they either intended to wait for troops following behind them, or they were not yet clear on how to move next.
After the council of war, Orba was given a hundred regular soldiers on top of the fifty or so from his mercenary unit, as well as two cannons. Originally, he would have preferred a few more guns, but Mephius could be intending to use its troops to attract their attention before appearing from above in ships. The city’s air force could not be increased, so most of the cannons currently in Taúlia had to remain in position around the it.
There was one cruiser currently in Taúlia. This ship, which had brought Esmena back from Eimen, would for now be the central pillar of their defence. If the point came when they decided that they had no other choice, they planned to use it to allow Esmena and the queen to escape.
In exchange for not being able to give him as many cannons as he would have hoped for, most of the soldiers he received were riflemen. Bouwen Tedos had responded as best as he could to Orba’s request.
“Orba is Mephian.” During the council of war, Bouwen had deliberately brought up what should have been best left unsaid, no doubt also as a way of showing consideration to the surroundings. “He knows more about the enemy than we do. There’s no objection to entrusting soldiers to the hero who killed Garda, right?”
The commanders did not say a word.
What the situation required more than anything was a swift response. The more time passed, the more the enemy numbers would increase and the more the difference between them would widen. Forget the fact that reinforcements would take about a week to arrive, they were afraid that if they made a single mistake, Taúlia would be engulfed in flames this very night. Although no one said it, the atmosphere inside the room seemed to throb.
The fighting was finally over. That's what people thought, not only in Taúlia but everywhere in the west. In this land, where swords had once constantly been soaked in blood and where at any given time a stone city was surely ablaze, everyone now shared that one belief. And yet now, the castle belonging to Ax Bazgan, the leader of the western union which had defeated Garda, was on the verge of falling at the hands of its base and treacherous neighbour.
With that, they had deftly avoided a pointless fight among comrades on the same side.
After the council of war had finished, Orba summoned everyone from his unit. That of course included Shique and Gilliam as well as Talcott and Stan.
“We’re going to be attacking the Mephian forces which have invaded Taúlian territory.”
That curt announcement astounded everyone in the unit.
He dispassionately explained what tactics they would be using and then, still with the same lack of emotion, he finished outfitting himself.
Shique looked like he had something he wanted to say but Orba responded by making the first move.
“There’s no time to rest, huh?”
“If we manage to push Mephius back, I should give the men a holiday. Neither Bouwen nor Ax would say no.”
“That’s for sure,” Shique interjected. “What will you do on your holiday?”
Orba stayed silent for a moment as he sheathed his blade in leather.
“Right,” he opened his mouth to speak, “I could swim the Yunos. I was always playing about in the river when I was little, so I’m confident in my swimming. I could go and show off to those guys in Apta.” No – smiling unintentionally, Shique used that smile to show his agreement with Orba, but inwardly, he was thinking something else.
When you have the time, you read books – while jotting things down with a sullen face in that terrible handwriting of yours – and if you’re not doing that, your training with a sword... or a horse... or a dragon.
It’s like you can’t live fast enough. I don’t know anyone else who’s as bad as you at taking it easy.
“Are they coming?”
Having established their position in the Gajira Plains, Nabarl gave a huge smile when he caught sight of the line of torches drawing closer to them.
“Probably a reconnaissance team. How many?”
“There aren’t that many lights. It looks like trying to trick us but… it should be less than two hundred.”
Hearing that answer from the soldier who was looking through a telescope, Nabarl’s smile grew wider and wider. After all, the soldiers from his Blue Zenith Division as well as the guards from Apta were likewise a mere two hundred apiece. While that was twice as many as the enemy numbers, this was the enemy’s territory. Besides which, the surroundings were still wrapped in darkness. They would have to wait to engulf the enemy like an inferno.
Although actually, the Mephian soldiers in the encampment were not the first to have crossed the River Yunos. He had previously sent soldiers out along the route which the enemy was now marching on. When those scouts had pulled back, he had received a rapid succession of reports from them. Nabarl heard them while stroking his cheek.
“Right – we’ll install one of the guns on higher ground. César!”
He summoned the vice-captain of his main troops. Incidentally, the former Imperial Guard Pashir had placed under this César’s command.
For the next half-hour, he fired off instructions to his men, César included. The enemy had started to line up along the ridge of the Gajira plains. They had been fast so most of them must be mounted soldiers. And then, no doubt to stall for time, a single messenger rode up, a torch in one hand.
Held in check by the Mephian riflemen, the messenger called out so that Nabarl could hear him from within the camp.
“You all from Mephius, what kind of situation is this? You are treading into our territory. We received neither prior notification nor declaration. We ask that you turn back at once. If you do not, even though we are linked by a peace agreement, we will not leave things as they are either.”
Fire! – Nabarl desperately repressed the urge to give that merciless order. If they fired, the enemy guns would commence bombardment. On the grounds that the battle had not yet started, and also with the intention of delaying things, Nabarl forbade that any threatening actions be made against the messenger and simply allowed him to shout.
Probably coming to the conclusion that things could not be settled, the messenger returned to his own side.
For a while, there were neither gunshots nor raised voices as the face-off continued into the night. From the enemy’s point of view, wasting time was not a bad trick. Since Mephius had been intending a surprise attack, they might be hoping that once morning came, they would be compelled to turn back having used up all of their resources.
The sky was finally starting to turn light.
The darkness had served as the slender thread that maintained the balance between both sides, and at the same time that it was dispelled, movement appeared. The soldier who had been monitoring the ridgeline suddenly raised a flag and sent Nabarl a signal. Nabarl stared hard in the same direction then –
“Fire!” This time, he gave the order.
The guns in the camp roared.
Although, as mentioned, the sky was starting to grow clear, the bombardment had to be done without their having a proper grasp of the enemy’s position. Although they did not receive any substantial damage, the Taúlian side became strangely agitated.
Not because of the gunfire.
But because flames could be seen rising up further west, beyond the ridgeline – from Taúlia’s direction.
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