Rakuin No Monshou - Volume 9 - Chapter 4

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Chapter 4: The Attributes of a King

Part 1

Winding back time a little.

The day after Nabarl and his men left Apta as 'messengers', Orba once again crossed the River Yunos as Gil Mephius.

’’I need to formally give Sir Ax my thanks and my greetings,’’ he explained to the generals. Seeing the prince breezily cross over the border between the two countries, Rogue and Odyne looked like they were in the grip of strong emotion. ’’I'll be back soon. You're in charge while I'm gone.’’

Even though he had been missing until just recently, Orba said that entirely in the manner of a lord. Of course, the generals and Imperial Guards were respectful.

He boarded an air carrier along with a few others. Gowen was among them. They had not met directly since their violent verbal clash, but now Orba deliberately went up to him.

’’This your first time in the west, Gramps?’’

He clapped him on the shoulder expansively. The old warrior, unused to the rolling of the ship, staggered forward and returned a glare towards him.

I told you not to call me Gramps - was probably what he was thinking, but Orba paid it no mind.

’’It's a good place. The people, the atmosphere and the land aren't bad at all. But right up to the end, I just couldn't get used to the food.’’

’’I see.’’

’’There are also many beautiful women. Gowen, you're still in active service, so don't go too wild.’’

When he said that, the Winged Dragon officers manning the bridge laughed. Gowen managed a strained smile, but once Orba's back was turned, he gave a small scowl in his direction.

News of Gil Mephius'survival had turned into a rumour that had been carried on the wind back to Taúlia. There had not yet been any official announcement, but just how much of an impact that rumour had was obvious from the way people were lined up along both sides of the streets where the carriage travelled, standing on tiptoe and craning their necks to try and catch even the smallest glimpse, as well as from the sight of people running alongside it. It was proof that the story that Mephius'Imperial Crown Prince Gil was riding in it had spread like a flash.

Despite the fact that Mephius had only very recently violated their border, the people's expressions held neither hatred nor fear. Instead, they were as wildly enthusiastic as if they had been eagerly awaiting a hero's return. That was in part because there was a widespread rumour that just as the second attack force was about to leave Apta for Taúlia, Gil Mephius had appeared in person to halt their march.

Finally, the carriage entered the premises of Taúlia's castle. Naturally, the people could not enter with it so they gathered along the fence on their side, forming a ring of excited faces.

In the audience hall, on the highest floor of the castle, its master was sitting on the throne for the first time in a long time. Ax Bazgan had hurried back to Taúlia as soon as he had received the news from the strategist, Ravan Dol. On either side of him was that self-same Ravan Dol, Ax's wife, Jaina, and his daughter, Esmena.

Decked out in full uniform, Bouwen Tedos stood slightly before the royal family, while the remaining high officers were also assembled.

It was not just Taúlia;Lasvius from Helio, Moldorf and Nilgif from Kadyne, as well as the commanders who had come rushing from the various countries were lined up shoulder to shoulder.

Since some time earlier, this crowd of people had constantly been exchanging glances and talking among themselves. They were hardly any less excited than the populace.

Only Ax Bazgan looked a little despondent.

The noise instantly stopped when the door to the audience chamber opened and the soldiers showed a man in. Leaving those soldiers standing by the doorway, the man proceeded to walk alone straight into the throne room.

The first to react was Princess Esmena Bazgan. Seeming startled, she suddenly got up from her chair. Her mother Jaina gestured to rebuke her for her lack of manners, but nobody was looking. All eyes were turned to the man who was striding along.

Although they had, of course, been informed beforehand of the visit, neither Ax nor Bouwen could hide the surprise from their faces. Oh, this man is... - Lasvius, Nilgif, the Blue Dragon of Kadyne, and the others, meanwhile, observed him with great earnestness.

Only one person, Nilgif's older brother Moldorf, wore a slightly different expression from that of the other officers but, as with Esmena, there was no one to notice it.

The one who had stepped forward - Crown Prince Gil Mephius of the Imperial Dynasty of Mephius, dropped to his knees in front of Ax, his cloak fluttering.

In appearance, he was the very picture of a fearless young warrior but it was said that only a few months earlier, he had been shot by an underling and had almost lost his life. The significance of the decorative circlet on his brow was that it was to hide the scar. But what astonished the people gathered there more than anything was the story that it was none other than the lord of Taúlia who had saved him when he had been wandering between life and death.

Both of these things had only just been explained to them a short while earlier by the strategist, Ravan Dol.

’’It has been a long time, Lord Ax Bazgan.’’ Gil raised his head and gave his greetings with a smile. For all that he was kneeling, Gil and Ax were bound by a relationship of personal alliance. ’’Although having said that, it's only been two or three days since I left. Taúlia is now like a second hometown to me. When I sensed the western wind, it truly felt as though I was coming home.’’

Ax did not answer for a while. It was unclear whether he actually intended to create that 'gap', but when Ravan Dol discreetly cleared his throat, he replied with unchanged despondency,

’’The most important thing is that you have recovered from your injury, Prince Gil.’’

’’It's thanks to you. As long as I live, I will never forget the warm care that I have received from you Lord Ax, and from Taúlia.’’

Damn that sly fox.

While forcing himself to smile, Ax was seething with rage. When he had received the urgent notification from Ravan, Ax had truly considered whether he should just finally strangle the old strategist. There he was saying that ’’Mephius'Crown Prince Gil was actually being sheltered in Taúlia’’ as though it were perfectly natural.

It was a story that passed his comprehension.

When he got to see Ravan Dol face-to-face to grill him about it in detail, he was told that, ’’it seems that the subordinates I have spread throughout Taúlia looked after the injured prince without knowing who he was. Once he had recovered from his wound, he announced himself as Mephius'crown prince and I, hearing about it, rushed to him with all haste.’’

Gil had asked that no one be informed for a while that he had survived. In exchange, and as thanks for sheltering him, he had sent his men, the former Imperial Guards Orba and Shique, to enlist as mercenaries in Taúlia's army.

’’And of course, you didn't think the situation important enough to tell your liege about it.’’

’’My lord, there is a time and a place for all things,’’ Ravan gravely informed him. ’’You, my liege, being honest and frank, are a gentleman who cannot tell a lie or be sneaky.’’

’’In other words, you're saying that I'm a foolish and stupid man. Yeah, that's right. I splendidly made Orba captain of the mercenaries without realising that he was Gil's subordinate.’’

’’I am filled with awe at your perspicacity.’’

All seemed to be well. It looked as though Ax had not realised Orba's true identity but had only clearly discerned his sharp wits.

’’However, I would like you to pretend that you knew from the start, Lord Ax. If we say that it was according to your intent that Sir Gil was hidden here, the situation from here on will proceed far more smoothly.’’

’’With the way you cleverly deceive me, it's as good as saying that you actually intend to make Taúlia yours one of these days.’’

’’Even if that were the case, I do not have many years left to live. There is no doubt that I will be called to the Dragon Gods before you are, my lord. Fortunately, as I have neither child nor grandchild, I will not be leaving behind the seeds of calamity,’’ Ravan said nonchalantly.

While Ax vowed in his heart to drink a toast in celebration when the old man eventually died, he had no choice but to go along with the plan. Gil needed to have some kind of weakness. After all, there was still that matter of the sovereign's seal from the Ancient Dynasty, which is proof of being king, not only of Taúlia, but of Zer Tauran. When they had assaulted Apta, Gil had stolen it with his own hands, although it had later been returned to Ax through Esmena.

Before Gil's visit, Ax had summoned his officers and had given them a general explanation about the prince - the matter of the sovereign's seal of course excepted.

Bouwen, who was personally acquainted with Orba, seemed utterly astounded. Certainly, they had once fought at Apta, but he could not possibly have imagined that the masked swordsman who had cornered them then was the same person as the one who had killed Garda.

’’Well, if we're talking about goodwill,’’ wiping his various emotions from his expression, Ax spoke to Gil, ’’we're also grateful for you having lent us a capable subordinate, Prince. He magnificently accomplished a difficult task. I would like to purchase him for a high price, but I don't suppose that his prince would nod his consent.’’

’’Orba is certainly an able man. Somewhat like a sword forged by a master craftsman. No matter how sharp it may be, if the one wielding it is not endowed with strength, it will be of no more use than a pillow. To tell you the truth, I too was surprised by his accomplishments this time. As expected of Sir Ax Bazgan, the leader of the west, you skilfully use your soldiers.’’

’’Humph, well, anyway,’’ Ax's bad mood had lifted. However, ’’Orba's name is now quite well-known throughout the west. Returning him to you, Prince, is regrettable, after all.’’ Seized by the sudden urge to make mischief, he grumbled deliberately. Standing beside him, Ravan gave him a sidelong glare but Ax ignored him. ’’I've been thinking. How about taking a man from Mephius, and furthermore, one of the prince's subordinates, as a high-ranking commander here in Taúlia? If we did that, the people would surely be impressed by the friendship between our two countries.’’

’’Well. That's...’’

’’Humph. Still not satisfied with the offer? Then, for example, how about Esmena here?’’ Ax glanced at his daughter who was looking blank. ’’If I approach Orba with the offer of Esmena here for his wife should he stay in Taúlia? I wonder how he would answer?’’

At the word 'wife', Gil Mephius coughed violently. Unusually for him, he could not hide his consternation over Ax's teasing.

The people filling the room however were naturally well-acquainted with their master's personality and did not take it seriously. The lord has started joking around again.

They watched the exchange with warm, contented feelings, and only Bouwen Tedos looked stunned.

Even though he had known that Orba was Mephian, Bouwen's feelings towards him were a little complicated as he had neither realised nor been informed that he was the crown prince's subordinate. In all honesty, he kind of wanted to seize him by the scruff of the neck and send him flying, but it would be beyond a joke if his childhood friend Princess Esmena were to be added into the mix.

Just as he was about to unthinkingly throw aside his position and rank, and loudly rebuke Ax -

’’Father!’’ Princess Esmena cried out in such loud accents that Bouwen was even more astounded than before and even Ax was surprised. Esmena had once again risen from her seat and, with everyone's attention focused on her, she regained control of her tone of voice.

’’... His Highness Gil looks troubled. It would be rude to let a joke go too far. On your orders, Father, Sir Orba, who is a foreigner, risked his life and defeated Garda. Has this not sufficiently expressed the faith and friendship between our two countries?’’

’’D-Definitely, it's as my daughter says,’’ although taken aback by his sheltered daughter's unexpected behaviour, Ax nodded magnanimously. He then purposely took the war fan hanging at his waist in his hand. ’’Indeed, when Taúlia and Mephius join hands as though the sorrowful history that passed before were no more than a lie, there is definitely nothing that they cannot accomplish. It is because these two countries joined forces that the menace that was Garda could be driven from the west...’’

’’And that I, Gil Mephius, could be saved,’’ Orba continued.

Ax Bazgan gazed in turn, not only at his own retainers, but also at each of the officers who had been invited from the various other countries.

’’How about it? It is my wish that Taúlia should continue in its friendship with Mephius. The other countries of the west are certainly not without relation to Mephius but would you welcome this?’’

’’For us, there is no doubt. Both His Excellency Hardross and His Highness Rogier are in agreement.’’

At Lasvius' answer, the Red Dragon Moldorf threw out his massive chest.

’’If the king of Taúlia, which shares a border with Mephius, says so, Princess Lima is certain to have no objection either.’’

Ax nodded in satisfaction.

’’However,’’ the one who interpolated was Gil Mephius, ’’however, for this to come to pass, it is first necessary to halt a certain ambition.’’

’’What ambition?’’

’’To devour the west, starting with Taúlia - my father, Guhl Mephius'ambition.’’

The atmosphere in the audience chamber immediately became tinged with a hint of sternness.

Considering the implications of the crown prince's survival and of his formal visit to Taúlia, this development was to be expected. But now that Gil himself had broached the topic, those who were there, standing at the crossroads of history as they were again about to confront Mephius together, the omens of war swirling ever more strongly in their hearts, felt a strange and deep emotion sweep through their breasts.

’’You, his son, are saying that?’’

Ax's expression grew taunt. Gil nodded.

’’It would be meaningless to gloss over things at this point. Therefore, I bare my heart and although this may be shameless of me, I have a request to make of you, King Ax, as well as of you gentlemen of the many western countries.’’

’’Soldiers,’’ Ax anticipated Gil. Since this was naturally to be expected, Ax was showing consideration by voluntarily making the proposal himself. ’’We will not spare our strength in helping the prince who gave us assistance in subjugating Garda. So, how many do you need? When should they hasten towards Mephius?’’

His tone was incredibly light but there was doubt that Ax's words expressed considerable resolve. If he lent a great many soldiers to Gil, it would mean war between the west and Mephius. And there would be casualties. To earn the neighbouring country's friendship - taking a long-term view, this could not be more beneficial, but how strenuous an effort it would be for the Tauran region, this war that would have no immediate benefits for the west that was exhausted after suppressing Garda.

Was it because Gil understood that situation that he said -

’’About a thousand.’’

’’A thousand,’’ repeated Ax.

It was by no means a negligible number, but a slightly surprised look flickered across his face. Taking into consideration Mephius'full capacities, he had to wonder if the prince could really fight with only those reinforcements. And what Gil Mephius said next had not only King Ax, but also Lasvius and the Twin Dragons, opening their eyes wide.

’’Yes, a thousand. But there is no need for those troops to leave the western territories. It'll be enough if they can raise their banners in full and show Mephius that the western forces are prepared to move.’’

’’What?’’

Just as Ax was finally unable to conceal his emotions any longer -

’’Oh, and also, there is another thing I'd like to request.’’

’’W-Which is?’’

Unconcerned by the lord of Taúlia's confusion, Gil remained quiet for a moment.

Should it be said that he had played his hand well by aiming to create a pause at the last moment, when the other was becoming impatient? Gil Mephius gave a radiant smile that was quite unsuited to the strained atmosphere in the hall and spoke.

’’I would like to borrow a few dozen of the beautiful dancing girls that Taúlia is so justly proud of.’’

Part 2

’’What the hell are they doing?’’ Talcott, a mercenary born near the coast, asked, thoroughly pissed off.

All around him were Stan, with whom he had worked for a long time, Kurun, an apprentice dragoon from Helio, and all the other members of Orba's unit.

Speaking of Orba's unit, they had, of course, accomplished considerable achievements in the war against Garda. And they had been given a very warm reception in Taúlia. Yet a crowd of soldiers had suddenly marched in on them, imprisoning nearly all of them together in a large room.

Having said 'all of them', they were actually short three people: the all-important captain of the unit, Shique, and Gilliam. In other words, only the Mephians had vanished.

’’They can't possibly have really been executed?’’

The reason for Talcott's misgivings was that just before they were imprisoned - which had been shortly after the invading Mephian army was driven back - Orba had been confined alone. Rumour had it that, at that time, Bouwen Tedos, who had been left in charge of Taúlia's army, might have flown into a rage against Mephius for disregarding the peace agreement by attacking, and, as an example to others, had Orba executed.

Just as Talcott was about to start feeling genuinely anxious about their own fate, they received a change of environment. Having been locked up in a single room, they were now transferred to a large hall. It had a great many rooms and, as Orba's unit had never been large, each member was provided with his own bed. They were also given freedom within the building. Although Taúlian soldiers stood guard outside, it was somewhat different from the treatment given to criminals.

At the same time, the Mephian mercenary Gilliam was brought to the hall and was locked up in it along with Talcott and the others.

’’Jumbo, what the hell's going on?’’

’’Who knows,’’ the contours of Gilliam's eyes were black and blue, as though someone had hit him, but he laughed cheerfully. ’’If you're clever, you're a patriotic hero, if you're unlucky, it's the scaffold.’’

After two days had passed, Gilliam began to talk about the truth of the situation. At first, Talcott completely disregarded the idea of Orba and Shique serving as Imperial Guards to the crown prince of Mephius, and that they had come to the west to accompany the prince, who had himself been forced by circumstances to leave Mephius.

’’Why would the crown prince's men fight against Mephius?’’

’’That's just it. The crown prince himself doesn't want war with the west. That's why he had them drive back the Mephian army that one time.’’

After that, the crown prince had given Orba a letter to take to Mephius. As on the Taúlian side, they had still not been able to ascertain the prince's identity, until Orba returned, the people of his unit were detained as hostages.

’’What a joke! What Imperial Guards? Playing along with your bragging is just going to end up putting us in danger!’’

Talcott was starting to become enraged when Stan calmly interrupted.

’’No, Brother. When it comes to Mephius' masked swordsman Orba, even I've heard of him. They have the same name and both are swordsmen that wear masks. It makes sense.’’

’’Again, why can't you keep your mouth shut when it's important?’’ Talcott spoke disgustedly. ’’We've always been together for a long time now, there is nothing that you know that I don't. Stop playing along with his reckless bragging.’’

’’Brother, that's because you're always in a trance over some woman or another and don't listen properly to what people are saying.’’

’’What's that, you bastard?’’

Even if they quarrelled, their situation did not change. They were given food each day and, if they asked the guards, they could even get books and board games, but not knowing what was going to happen to them left them increasingly irritated.

On the third day after they had been moved to the hall, the streets had been noisy since the morning. As they were wondering what was going on, the door to the hall opened and a man wearing a hood appeared. Talcott and those by the door leapt up, convinced an executioner had arrived but -

’’I've caused you trouble.’’

The man pulled back the hood and exposed his face. Well, in this case, rather than a face, it could be better said to be the mask worn over his face.

’’Captain!’’

Many of the mercenaries rushed towards the entranceway. For a moment, Talcott, mouth wide open, clung blankly to a pillar. Then -

’’Y-You. What's with that nonchalantly showing up? Whose fault do you think this is?’’ He lunged to grab Orba by the collar.

Faster than anyone around them could react, Orba dodged lightly then flung a heavy leather purse onto a shelf in the entrance hall where things like water jugs were kept.

’’I don't think that this is enough to be forgiven, but... It's prize money from Sir Ax.’’

’’Prize money?’’

Acting out of something like a natural instinct, Talcott snapped out of his rage in an instant and immediately started inspecting the contents.

’’It also includes all of your wages up until now. It's to be divided equally between everyone.’’

’’What does this mean?’’ Stan asked in place of Talcott, who was busy counting the money.

Orba looked around at all of the members of the unit who were gathered there.

’’The unit is being dissolved,’’ he told them. After which, he repeated the same explanation that Gilliam had given them. ’’I was not lying about my loyalties when I wielded my sword for Sir Ax, but actually I'm an Imperial Guard to Crown Prince Gil Mephius. Having also received permission from Sir Ax, I'll be going back to Mephius with the prince.’’

’’Gilliam also told us about it, but are you saying that you fought against Mephius even though you're the crown prince's subordinate?’’ Surprise was plastered all over Kurun's face.

’’It's a question of having made up my mind,’’ Orba said impassively. ’’But for most of you, Tauran is your birthplace. You won't be as determined as I am, and besides, you'll all be far more concerned about the reconstruction of Tauran than about the civil war in Mephius. So I'm dissolving the unit.’’

’’That's pretty abrupt, isn't it?’’

Where had the energy that Talcott had when he tried to seize him gone? He had rapidly gone back to looking listless and dispirited.

Orba once more looked around at everyone.

’’I'm fine with you hating or resenting me. But please don't think that because I'm the prince's subordinate, I deceived you to have you fight. There was absolutely no connection between my real identity, the swords you wielded and the blood you shed for the west, or with the heart and soul you all displayed for the sake of defeating Garda. And it is a truth beyond all doubt that you are heroes who saved the west from the hands of evil.’’

The entrance hall fell completely silent.

Everyone was moved to the point of being paralysed. When at that moment, ’’your manner and tone have kind of changed, huh,’’ Stan expressed his feelings in a low voice.

Ah! - Orba inwardly put up his vigilance. Because he had not worn the 'mask' of the crown prince for a long time, his words and manner had come out as exaggerated. Nonetheless, the words he had just spoken to the soldiers were undeniably Orba's true feelings and he was grateful towards the people who had fought for him under all circumstances.

After that, he summoned the unit's treasurer and had him start dividing the money between the members. While that was going on, Orba called Gilliam to a spot away from the others.

’’You made it back.’’

’’Yeah, somehow.’’

When Shique had left for Apta, Gilliam had been imprisoned for the crime of helping him escape. However, once the meeting between Orba and Ravan Dol ended, he had temporarily been released. After which, Ravan Dol had personally come to see him.

’’This is what you need to tell the people of the unit for now.’’ He had drilled into him the 'circumstances' that Gilliam had recounted to the members of the unit. The idea was to prevent too many rumours from springing up in the future.

’’Since I was locked up in here, I couldn't go and see the crown prince's face as he went along the streets.’’

’’He was in a carriage, so you wouldn't have seen it either way. Why the interest?’’

’’Because it's the Prince's face and, more importantly, because it's the face under that mask.’’

’’Oh’’

’’You don't need to keep putting on an act for me at this point. So now that I know, you going to have me stealthily assassinated?’’

’’Looks like I'll have to be careful who to choose for the assassins. I don't want to lose a whole bunch of soldiers just to take one life.’’

Gilliam burst into loud laughter. Then, he placed his brawny arm around Orba's neck.

’’It looks interesting, so I'll stick with you a little longer. But I'm only promising this for now. If you ever feel like I know too much or I'm in the way, and want to have me killed in secret, you don't need to choose any hitmen. Come at me yourself. I've been thinking that one of these days, we should fight seriously.’’

From behind the iron mask, Orba looked at this man that he had known since their time in Tarkas' gladiator company.

’’Got it,’’ he nodded.

'Orba', who had entered Taúlia, as 'Crown Prince Gil', had not played the part of 'Imperial Guard' for a long time.

As soon as he left the hall, he had to go around giving his greetings to a number of people as Gil Mephius;then, by which time it was nearly dusk, he had to go and see people as Orba. Bouwen Tedos was one of those that he had to greet a second time.

Basically, in the morning, he had thanked him as Crown Prince Gil for looking after Orba, and in the afternoon, he went as Orba the mercenary to apologise for having kept silent about the prince.

’’The Old Master knew about it, right? Then it's fine,’’ Bouwen had some inner conflict but, having also talked with the prince first-hand, his manner was outwardly calm and mild.

’’Thank you for your care, General.’’

’’What are you talking about? Thanks to you, even I, who couldn't join the punitive force, was able to be hailed as a hero to some extent. I'm grateful. But...’’

’’But?’’

’’I hope that next time we meet, it'll be as friends.’’

’’Of course.’’

It could not be said that Orba did not feel warmth welling up within him. The two of them shook hands firmly and parted ways.

After that, Orba went to call on Ravan Dol in his room within Taúlia's castle. Although, for all that it was his room, it was so filled with old books that there was literally nowhere to stand. There were quite a few of those books that piqued Orba's interest. Noticing how Orba's eyes immediately went back to them as soon as he had finished his hurried greetings, Ravan laughed.

’’Later, I'll be happy to let you have as many as you want.’’

After having regained the 'mask' of Gil Mephius, Orba had received no few favours from the old strategist. He started by giving his thanks for those.

Ravan's attentiveness had been at its height when it came to crossing the River Yunos to return to Apta. First, he had provided boats on the pretext of returning Mephian war prisoners. Orba, his face hidden under a hooded cloak, had ridden on board along with the prisoners, but there had also been a man there with the exact same clothing as him.

Acting on Ravan's arrangements, he was, so to speak, another 'body-double' for Gil Mephius.

It was to be feared that if Prince Gil had appeared in Apta right after Orba, the swordsman in the iron mask, had headed that way, the soldiers who had acted as Orba's guards or the war prisoners who had travelled with him might become suspicious and start to wonder if those two people might not be one and the same.

Therefore, a person with the face covered by a hood had been slipped in among the war prisoners, and as the soldiers had been ordered to treat that person only with courtesy, when they wondered about it later, everyone would have been made to think that the man must have been Gil Mephius.

Said person was one of Ravan Dol's men who had received his orders directly from him. Once Orba had used the name Gil Mephius after crossing the Yunos, the man had secretly removed his cloak and, feigning innocence, had returned to the other shore along with the Taúlian soldiers.

’’He's a man I've watched grown up from a baby. He is part of the group that I raised and that I spent as much time training as the dragons in order for them to become my eyes, hands, and feet.’’ Ravan explained. ’’His intuition isn't bad so he may have somewhat guessed the situation, but he is a man who always keeps my orders in mind. He won't reveal anything.’’

’’I see.’’

’’Although,’’ Ravan's gleaming eyes were not at all like those of an elderly person, ’’just as with the books, if you want it, I will be happy to present Your Highness with his life. Ever since sailing back from Apta, he has, after all, been preparing himself to die at the Prince's hands.’’

’’No need,’’ said Orba. ’’There are already two people in Taúlia who know my situation: Princess Esmena Bazgan and you yourself. There is no one with more influence than them in Taúlia. With these two people around, no matter what kind of rumours may spread within Taúlia, it is precisely because they know the circumstances that they will be able to put out the fire. And if, in the unlikely event that these two people decide to use that knowledge to harm Mephius, then...’’

’’Then?’’

’’To extinguish the fires, one will simply have to extinguish Taúlia itself. But that scenario is of course purely hypothetical.’’

’’Oh, indeed.’’

Ravan nodded with the air of one having a pleasant chat over tea.

Having been able to express his gratitude to the Old Master, Orba was going to leave for the moment but -

’’Actually, Your Highness, I would like to ask that you do not needlessly reveal what I am about to tell you.’’ Ravan's somewhat guarded tone cut that thought down.

Orba smiled involuntarily. ’’Then we'll be on equal footing when it comes to not letting out secrets. What on earth is it?’’

’’To tell you the truth, just the other day, my liege-lord Ax Bazgan was assaulted and very nearly lost his life.’’

Ravan spoke with his usual detachment but even Orba found himself at a complete loss for words.

’’One might suppose that my lord's opponent was a particularly brawny assassin but, from what I heard from the soldiers who were acting as his bodyguards, it was a woman. Furthermore, the fact is that he was almost stabbed as they were sleeping together.’’

Ravan explained with the air of one forced to endure their humiliation.

Orba, for his part, could not hide his surprise. If Ax were to die now, it would be a hard blow, not only for Orba himself, but also for the entire western world. Since Ax could now be considered the leader of the western alliance, while on the one hand he had all the fame and popularity that he could wish for, it could also mean that the threats to his life had increased.

However -

’’This was not an assassin who was simply sent to rob us of control over the west,’’ although there was no else around, Ravan lowered his voice.

According to his story, the one who had saved Ax from the assassin's blade had been neither his guards nor he himself with his trusty sword, but another unidentified person. After this person had driven away the woman who used mysterious spells, he had conveyed to Ax words to the effect that -

Garda is still alive.

’’Garda?’’

Orba repeated mechanically. Garda - the very sorcerer who had once dragged the whole of the west into a tempest of atrocities. The one whose life Orba himself was supposed to have taken with the sword he wielded.

Ax's unidentified saviour had further added that he himself ’’came from the Barbaroi village’’.

Garda and Barbaroi. Orba frowned, unable to grasp the meaning of those words suddenly appearing.

’’Actually,’’ Ravan Dol picked up a book in his collection from a set of tomes that looked particularly ancient, ’’after Garda was defeated, we investigated the ruined temple in Zer Illias that served as the sorcerer's base and found books similar to this one. It seems that they were memorandums left behind by a subordinate of Garda's - by 'Garda', I am not referring in this case to the sorcerer that the western alliance fought against, but to the man who served as the head magician and High Priest to the Dragon Gods more than two hundred years ago, in the era of Zer Tauran.’’

’’Oh?’’

The story was becoming increasingly perplexing.

’’Naturally, the Bazgan House, descended from the king of Zer Tauran, also possesses books from that period but, most of them do not go beyond conforming with the doctrines of the royal family and of the priests. The real facts about the dark side of history, or in other words, the parts which are inconvenient for the royal family, have not been set down in writing. This book however is held to be particularly precious as the author, despite being one of Garda's direct subordinates, appears to have incurred his displeasure at some point and was thus kept away from politics and religious functions. Probably so as to avoid it being burned if it was later found by people from the royal family or by Garda, the entire text is written in code.’’

’’Meaning that it records something close to what the people of the time really thought?’’

’’Exactly. Moreover, it is the true opinion of a man who was close to Garda, who has remained an enigma from that day to this.’’

Naturally, Ravan had been seized by an intense curiosity. Fortunately, Ax had ordered him to convalesce a while so as to heal from the wounds he had suffered during the war and so he was able to spend most of his waking hours studying the book.

’’I've still only managed to decipher part of it, but for a westerner like me, even that one part has been astounding. As an example, it contains a description related to the 'Dragon God's Claws'. Your Highness, you are aware of what these claws are?’’

’’The sovereign's seal of the Ancient Magical Dynasty... was it? If I'm not mistaken, Sir Ax holds one of the pair.’’

’’That is correct.’’

As for 'being aware' Orba had himself been in possession of that claw for a while. However, he had not directly laid eyes on it. It was stored within the war fan that Ax always kept about his person.

’’According to the history books, these claws were left behind by the very mightiest of the Dragon Gods that once ruled the world, a being that must certainly have been very much like a deity. It is said that these items are imbued of a wondrous power and that those who possess them can even dominate the world, but for a long time, they were protected by a nomadic tribe that roamed the high plateaus of Tauran. And then, one day, Yasch Bazgan, who had at the time been dispatched from Mephius with orders to survey the west, chanced to encounter these nomads. The history books say that the elder of the tribe proclaimed Yasch 'the vessel of the king who will dominate the world' and conferred upon him the Dragon God's Claws - thus leading to the founding of Zer Tauran.’’

However, according to the memorandum that Ravan had analysed, it seemed that somehow or another, the head magician Garda had long been in possession of the Dragon God's Claws.

’’Did Garda originally hail from that tribe of nomads or did he steal them from them - and besides, the tale that the 'Dragon God's Claws' were owned by a Zerdian tribe was never more than a legend in the first place. In any case, Garda personally handed one of them to Yasch and recognised him as king, while he himself excavated the ruins that had stood throughout the Tauran lands since the time of the Ancient Magic Dynasty and wracked his brains over studying them. And Garda's magical powers increased proportionally to that, until finally, he was so powerful that not even King Yasch himself could interfere with him, says the memorandum.’’

’’...’’

’’And then, Barbaroi.’’

Ravan directed a glance at Orba.

’’The author states that Garda held an uncommon degree of interest in Barbaroi. The legendary territory said to be by the shores of Lake Kurán. Whether he had any basis for his belief in it, I don't know, but what is certain is that at some point, Garda had some form of 'contact' with Barbaroi.’’

’’When you say 'contact'...?’’

’’Garda himself personally visited it and there is what appears to be a description of his return. Since the author did not accompany him, the details are unclear however. Did he attempt to hold a dialogue with the Ryuujin tribe that lived in Barbaroi, did he lead a raid against them, or did it even perhaps go as far as war... Anyway, the memorandum goes on to say that from that time, Garda acquired a woman.

’’A woman?’’

’’Yes. The author of the memorandum speculates that Garda might have taken this woman away from the Barbaroi village. Here is a description of her: 'in appearance, she is much like a Zerdian, but her pale hair is unlike that of any of the people on this planet. Furthermore, her entire body is tattooed with unintelligible designs and she does not vocalise human words.' Garda seems to have spent most of his time locked up in the sorcery research facility built beneath the temple, so that even the author, who at the time still had Garda's trust and could even be called something like his right-hand man, could only seldom meet with him. The author talks about how Garda might have made this mysterious woman into an object of research into sorcery. And then...’’

Ravan, who had spoken in a single breath, paused to inhale .

’’And then, the woman seems to have been called a 'Dragon maiden' by the researchers who were close to Garda.’’

’’A Dragon maiden.’’

’’Indeed. They are beings who are also mentioned in the legends about Barbaroi. In exchange for not having human voices, they need only emit a single sound to control dragons as they please.’’

Orba remembered having heard something similar. If he remembered correctly, it was just after he became a mercenary of Taúlia that his fellow mercenary Stan had told him the same tale.

And there was one more thing.

Halfway through listening to Ravan's story, he could not help but call to mind a certain acquaintance of his. There were many similarities.

He did not seem to be surprised and shaken to the core. Rather, Orba was serenity itself. That was because the girl who had spontaneously appeared in his mind always wore the same unchanging smile.

Well, I'll hear about it when she feels like it - was all he thought about it.

Ravan Dol had said that he had previously seen 'her' on the battlefield. So there was no doubt that he was trying to connect this story with her, but even so, Ravan did not talk about it any further.

’’Garda still being alive is honestly hard to believe. If a sorcerer could continue to live after having his head cut off, he would have to be a being that distorts the very laws of life itself. But if Sir Ax's life really is being targeted, we can't afford any lies or careless remarks. It's not for me to say this, but make sure there's a strict watch around his person.’’

’’I understand. Just to be on the safe side, we are currently investigating the temple ruins in Zer Illias and probing into the area around Lake Kurán where the Barbaroi village is believed to be.’’

As expected, there were no oversights from that strategist.

There were certainly many points he was still curious about, but for now, Orba decided to put this conversation aside. His own war was waiting very close at hand.

Part 3

By the time he was finally reaching the end of his round of greetings, the evening was fast approaching. But -

’’Found you!’’

’’So this is where you were?’’

The Twin Dragons Moldorf and Nilgif, followed by Lasvius, Helio's commander of the dragoons, ran up to Orba.

As soon as he arrived beside him, Nilgif wound an arm that was just as thick as Gilliam's around Orba's shoulders and urged -

’’Come join us. And no saying no.’’

His breath already reeked of alcohol.

At Orba's resigned expression, Lasvius stealthily whispered from behind him,

’’Don't worry. Tomorrow we have an informal war council with Sir Ax. Most likely about organising the troop of a thousand to be the reinforcements for Mephius. The Twin Dragons have already drunk plenty so you won't have to keep them company for long.’’

That was an outright lie.

The Twin Dragons of Kadyne, Helio's Lasvius, as well as Orba and Gilliam, who had joined them at some point, were occupying the second floor of a comparatively large inn and were having platters of food and drink brought in one after another. Trade between Tauran and the north had just resumed and, on top of that, the various city-states had in turn presented gifts of food and wine to ’’Lord Ax, the leader of the west’’ so that in Taúlia, the mood of thrift that had accompanied the war only recently and suddenly turned into one of gaiety.

What do you mean, 'not for long'?

Lasvius, the very one who had vouched for that, did not have a high tolerance for alcohol and had left in less than an hour;and Orba had the distinct feeling that the Twin Dragons had, from the start, no intention of letting him go until morning as they kept offering him wine cup after wine cup.

’’It's a contest,’’ he had been told, but apart from those involving swords, horses or a battle of wits, Orba had no concept of 'contest'.

He was very much afraid of revealing his real identity if he got too muddled up but no matter how much he set his mind to not getting wasted, the more time passed, the more he became light-headed and he repeatedly had to shake off the drowsiness that was creeping into the back of his consciousness.

’’So you were on a mission for the crown prince of Mephius?’’ Nilgif had been going over the same topic for a while now. ’’Is that sharp brain also something you learned from him? The etiquette and methods of war are probably different between the west and Mephius,’’ he nodded with conviction to himself as he thought it over. ’’Huh? Your glass is empty. Well then, have a refill.’’

He started to fill the cup to the brim. It seemed that Nilgif had no patience for a situation in which the wine was not constantly flowing.

’’No, I've had enough.’’

’’What're you saying? I bet it's because you still resent us for the time when we were enemies and haven't opened your heart to us yet. Am I wrong? Right, we warriors are the sort that feel that whatever the past, once we drink together, we're like comrades-in-arms who have had each other's backs since long ago. Here, drink, come on, drink, just drink!’’

Orba had long since passed his limit. How long had it been since they had entered this store? His sense of time was become increasingly vague and he finally succumbed to sleep, starting to nod like a boat bobbing up and down.

As soon as he noticed it, Nilgif made to slap him on the back to wake him up, but then, his eyes happened to fall on the mask.

Glancing around, miraculously, no one was looking that way. His brother Moldorf had only just left his seat. He must have gone to the kitchen to order something directly.

He softly cleared his throat once.

There was no sign of Orba waking up.

Nilgif gulped. Slowly, taking his time, he stretched out his large arm. A dark shadow fell on Orba's mask. He still did not wake up. As he gradually extended his fingers, Nilgif felt the touch of iron.

’’Sir Nilgif.’’

A voice called out from behind and the Blue Dragon's burly shoulders leapt up. Looking around, it was Gilliam with a bottle of alcohol in hand. Although they had not encountered him on the battlefield, the Twin Dragons had taken an instant liking to this Mephian soldier.

’’What are you doing?’’

’’N-Nothing.’’

’’Then let's have another drinking contest. Morning is still far away.’’

’’Just what I wanted.’’

Hearing that exchange, Orba suddenly woke up. At some point, the Red Dragon Moldorf had also reappeared nearby.

’’That was dangerous.’’

’’What was?’’

’’Weeeell, who knows. So, are you joining us?’’

’’No, I've had enough to drink.’’

Instead, Moldorf invited Orba to go outside the inn and behind the building. Thinking that anything would do as long as he could escape from the alcohol, Orba quietly went along. The gentle touch of the night breeze felt good against his flushed skin.

As he was wondering what they were doing there, Moldorf exposed his lower half and vigorously spewed forth from it.

They were in Taúlia's better residential area, in a slightly elevated location. Moldorf's urine drew an arc, flew over the fence and disappeared among the flickering city lights beneath them.

’’Go to the privy. Why come here especially?’’

’’It was jammed packed when I went earlier.’’

Orba sighed but before long he too felt the urge to urinate and, in the end, started pissing outdoors alongside Moldorf.

Sometime later.

’’This Gil fellow that you serve,’’ Moldorf asked abruptly. ’’What kind of man is he?’’

’’A man with many secrets.’’

’’Yeah, I'll bet.’’

Moldorf laughed. Because he was still urinating energetically as he shook, Orba leapt to one side.

This bravest of all the western generals had seen Orba's face when he had removed his mask in the temple at Eimen. And he had, of course, been present that very day when Orba had appeared in Taúlia's audience chamber as Gil Mephius.

’’Conversely,’’ this time the question came from Orba, ’’how does the Red Dragon see that man?’’

’’He doesn't give himself room to relax.’’

’’Room to relax?’’

’’Or rather, outwardly, he pretends to be relaxed. Taken the opposite way, that's proof that his heart doesn't have the leeway to be as composed as he pretends. Although the show he put on wasn't bad, I haven't accumulated all these years beneath my belt for nothing. The hidden side of such a heart is easy to read.’’

’’I see.’’

Orba had already emptied his bladder but Moldorf was still going on.

’’Moreover, it's best not to create too much distance from yourself. If someone is always on their guard, even more than for the person himself, the hearts of those below them will shrivel. Being a prince is different from being a platoon leader. The number of lives they're responsible for is different, and so is the number of people watching them.’’

’’...’’

’’I wonder if that was meant to be taken seriously.’’

’’That?’’

’’Sir Ax said that he wanted to have you marry the princess.’’ The momentum having finally abated, Moldorf jiggled his large body up and down while he laughed.

’’Oh, King Ax did, did he?’’ Orba acted as though he was hearing about it for the first time.

Moldorf glanced at him sideways. So you didn't fall for it? his expression seemed to say but then he immediately burst out laughing.

’’It's like what we were talking about earlier but above all, it's a very good example. Take a look at Sir Ax. Does that lord even know how to create a distance? But that's absolutely fine by me. His retainers and his people are also really carefree. It's my first time coming here, but I'll remember Taúlia with all the nostalgia I would my hometown.’’

The next day, Gil Mephius bade his farewells to Taúlia's court and, properly showing his face this time, he made his way to the air carrier, showered in cheers from the people.

That he sometimes swayed as he rode along, was it because the serious gun injury he had received had still not healed, even several months after the fact? And since his complexion was pale, it gave rise to needless speculation among the crowd that was seeing him off.

’’It's absolutely heart-rending that the crown prince of Mephius almost lost his life because of a base, cowardly vassal.’’

’’Even though he's in this state, he came all the way back here for our master, Lord Ax. He's such a gallant man.’’

’’Ah, he's waving his hand this way! Prince, Prince Giiiil!’’

Gil Mephius - which is to say, Orba, somehow managed his horse while enduring the violent nausea in his gut. It felt like his stomach was roiling like the sea in a storm every time he was jolted up and down on horseback, but even so, when the horse had taken a few steps beyond the castle gate, he suddenly turned his head over his shoulder and looked up high above his head.

Esmena Bazgan was at a castle window.

Orba nodded lightly and then once again faced forward.

Where he was headed was, of course, Mephius. Apta.

Nabarl would soon be arriving in Solon and would transmit the report of the crown prince's survival. Which meant -

Finally.

The fight would start. Orba's personal fight.



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