Two days past the time I woke up, I traveled again with Erina. We were headed towards East. To the port city of Piraeus, which at that time was in a turmoil due to its Lord’s apprehension on the grounds of treason. It was the city where the villagers at the foot of Twin Peaks headed.
Originally, I was to return to the Duchy with my father, but I excused myself from doing so. The reason was,
“I want to give a proper burial to those who’ve died from the previous encounter.”
Understanding my reason, Father agreed to head to the Duchy before me. He did so after arranging the soldiers who were called to gather charcoal remnants of the forest. He also agreed to meet the villagers who evacuated to Academia. He’d meet them in the Forest Path further south from the burned portion of the forest.
“What’s wrong?” Erina asked. Her question overlapped with Celes’s voice that occurred to me during my sleep.
What’s wrong? What are you afraid of? Was the words that came from Celes.
And just like how Celes asked, “What are you afraid of?” Erina added.
For a second, while I leaned my chin on the palm of my hands, I closed my eyes and dwelled on the question. Various thoughts ran through my mind, but until I lifted my eyelids, not a single one answered Erina’s question. The same was true when Celes asked me. I couldn’t answer. I didn’t have a concrete response.
Then instead, I remained quiet and stared at the passing scenery through the carriage’s window. Gradually, the scenery changed and soon revealed a silhouette in the distance. It was still far and vague, however, I was able to distinguish its outline. It was a structure that stood before the valley between Twin Peaks, the border gates leading to Brent.
Ah. There’s Max too…
My frown grew even bitter. Then like a preordained prophecy, another weight stacked itself within my core with a loud clack.
That time, I knew that I shouldn’t have minded it. I shouldn’t have let the thought occur inside my mind again and again. But like a pest, no matter how many times I drove it out, it kept on returning. And each time the thought returned, I couldn’t help but shiver.
When was it? When was the last time I felt fear? Wasn’t it back when I struck a deal with Celes?
Questions after questions barraged me. It reminded me of how I thought of myself.
Since the day I first lost my sanity, I couldn’t help be afraid of myself at times. Each time I swung my sword and tore off a limb or two, slit a neck or decapitate a head completely, or stab someone’s chest and rob them of their life, I didn’t mind. Hesitation never pulsed within me. The thought of them having the life of their own never occurred to me. Because deep inside me, I thought of them as guilty, no, I judged them guilty.
Was a girl at the age of eleven be out in the fields, wielding a sword and a shard normal? Was it normal for someone to not hesitate in taking someone’s life? Was a princess like me supposed to be too used to seeing dead bodies over a pool of blood?
At that time, I realized. Something’s wrong with me. And at the same time, Someone like me will never fit to be a Queen.
Serving my people naturally occurred to me—it was nothing out of the ordinary—after all, I myself am a royal. But each time the thought of myself becoming a monarch, three words would repeat itself in my mind. A ruthless tyrant.
Contrary to how I thought of who I am, the people of Laurel would say, ‘The Princess is a good person’, ‘A Royal who knew what the people felt and needed’, and ‘The next Elena’.
Absurd. Wasn’t it because that I’m bounded by the shackles of royalty that I helped them? Wasn’t it because I knew what it felt to lose everything that I didn’t want them to feel the same way I did? Wasn’t it because that I have to maintain the image of Laurel’s royalty that I responded like that?
Suddenly, Erina broke my contemplation and asked, “Are you running away?” Her words stabbed me like a spear.
In response, my lips parted. But rather than voice a word, or even a groan, my lips closed and accomplished nothing.
Am I really running away? No… I’m—
“Making up reasons to hate yourself,” Erina continued. “Amelia, stop. Just stop thinking about it. Nothing good will come out from you overthinking and jumping to conclusions. Don’t blind yourself with your own thoughts.”
Right. I slouched myself on my seat and shifted my sight towards the ceiling of the carriage.
“Say, Erina, what is right and what is wrong?” Then I shifted my sight towards Erina. She wore a hint of sorrow in her eyes.
“Amelia,” she called with a frown. “There are several bases for what is right from what is wrong. However, correcting mistakes would always be right.”
“Then, is what am I to do right or wrong? Is it morally or ethically correct to save an innocent person from a different world in exchange for hundreds, no, thousands of lives? Or is the other way around, surrendering the Hero to the church, and risk Randia into falling into a deeper and hateful war between races? Which outcome would lead to a better future?”
“...” For once, Erina wasn’t able to respond.
At that moment, the image of the angels descending over Aves flashed through my mind. Angels came down from the sky, then, with an unknown ritual, a magic circle manifested. Then as if it was sucked into the center, a crack in space appeared, then like a swarm of locusts, more angels appeared and dipped Aves into chaos.
Ragnarok. According to Celes, Ragnarok was a ritual magic used to open the gates of the place called Heaven. It calls upon the angels sleeping within it.
And just as she explained, beams of light fell like rain over Aves. It induced shouts of pain and anguish. Cries of sorrow while they held their dead family within their arms. Voices that begged and pleaded for their life. And lastly, a call for help from us, the royals who was supposed to protect them.
It all occurred while I was chained inside a spire that surrounded Aves. Helpless, weak, and pitiful. A point where not even manifesting my horn was possible. That was then that it occurred to me.
Won’t I just be an ordinary human without my horn?
“Erina. Is it right for me to decide the fates of others? For me to drag the Hero to Academia, wouldn’t that be the same as me telling their citizens to die for my cause? To bleed and offer their life just to save my own people from peril?”
But if I drag her to Academia, the attention of the church, no, of the angels, would be diverted from the racial war to me and the Hero. It would reduce the strain on Brent, and at the same time, reduce the burden on Laurel by giving it more time to support itself and Brent.
Then unconsciously, I held my necklace and began wasting my mana by repeatedly drawing a magic circle within me. The magic circle formed, then broke. Formed then broke. Each time, my mana dispersed to my surroundings.
“Erina.” I closed my eyes. For a few seconds, I gathered my resolve and lifted my eyelids. “As the First Princess of Laurel, I, Amelia Laurel, order you, Erina Frei Trois, to remain within the Duchy’s premises on the day we return to the Duchy itself. You are to remain there until I order you to do so.”
Erina gasped as her eyes widened, but as immediate as she could, she glared. Her lips tightened into a frown. Then for the second time, since the day I gave up and returned to Laurel like a corpse, genuine anger flashed across her face.
“Erina, I’ll execute you myself if you disobey.”
How many lives would be lost in Academia? Hundreds? Thousands? Are the angels my only enemies? There are three other Heroes. It wouldn’t be that far-fetched if they turned their blades on my neck this time around.
Erina shook her head. “There’s no need for that. I’ll take my own life before you do.”
“If you take yours, then I’d take mine. I wouldn’t mind dying with you right here and now, Erina.”
It was a contest between Erina and I. We glared at each other, each of us was not willing to go back out. But the longer it took, the more it became visible from whom of us won.
My voice trembled. “Please, Erina, for once, just listen to me.”
Erina remained silent.
“Please, I don’t think I’ll be able to take it if I lose you. More than the thousands of lives I’d be sacrificing in the process, I’d rather have you live. You may call me a failure of a human—a despicable trash and a being worse than dirt—but this is what I feel. Erina, I’ll break. I’ll break again if I lose you.”
“Amelia, is this all you can think of? To push away your allies to save them? Is this your limit? Is this what the nine-year-old girl from back then who strived to compete with adults can do? Is this everything you got?”
“No! I refuse to accept that this is my limit! But Erina, this time is different! Who would have thought that I’d cross swords against angels? Against mythical creatures that can easily turn a town into nothing?”
I begged. I pleaded with everything I had.
“True, it’s possible for me to take one down, but two at a time, or more than that. I’d die Erina. I’d die! I’m not some Hero in the legends or in fairy tales that can overturn logic for the sake of the people I loved! I’m a human...”
“A human with a divine blood... But even if I had it in me, I know next to nothing about it. After all, I lived my life as a human. My enemies aside lived for eons. My knowledge can’t compete. My experience amounts to nothing compared to theirs. Ability wise, I’m inferior.”
The sword is useless if I can’t drag them to the ground...
I took a sharp breath and continued.
“And even if I received knowledge from her, the time isn’t enough. Just how much knowledge do I know will remain correct once the truth is revealed to me? When would I understand everything? I’d have to live thousands of years for that Erina, and I don’t have that. The least she could give me reprieve is three months. Three months Erina. That’s all I have to prepare.”
“Erina, I’m not a God.”
Within the palace of Tercel in Aves, a silver-haired man remained seated on a chair within an office. It was Argent. The desks that surrounded him were filled with stacks of paper neatly arranged in accordance with their type. Some were filed under requests, certificates, balances, and more.
Then with a slip of a knife underneath a letter waxed by a red seal, the letter was opened. After placing the knife on the table beside him, he slid his fingers into the envelope and pulled out the letter. Carefully he unfolded it and read its contents.
“So both sides agreed huh,” he said as he slightly furrowed his eyebrows.
The letter was about the arranged marriage suggested during the dialogue between Amelia and Maxwell. The betrothal between him, Argent Laurel, and Brent’s first princess, Clarissa Brent.
Argent and Clarissa weren’t strangers to each other. They’ve met twice or thrice during the time he visited Brent along with his father, Auguste. During that time, the first steps of the arranged marriage between Amelia and Maxwell had begun.
Back then, Amelia was still eight and Argent was ten. On the other hand, Maxwell was twelve and Clarissa was similarly ten. Naturally, since both Argent and Clarissa were royals and had the same standing, they were allowed to meet each other.
“H-hello,” the small Argent greeted.
By nature, Argent was timid around women. It was the result of Diane’s constant and repeated teaching that he should never, not even once in his life, tread the same path as his father.
“Hello...” Clarissa replied. She bore the same blonde hair and green irises like Maxwell. Her hair was slightly wavy and reached up to her shoulders. Similar to Argent, Clarissa was timid. Perhaps due to her still being young, Clarissa was rarely allowed to leave the palace. And so she seldom meets anyone aside from adults.
Due to their nature, nothing much occurred between the two. At that time, they were like two peas in a pod.
“I think Grandmother would be happy to hear this.” Then a wry smile flashed across his face.
Argent had an attachment to his Grandmother, Galilea Laurel. Originally, Galilea Est Faisal was a woman born from a marquis house. The house of Faisal owned a fief consisting of a port city and a few villages northeast of Aves.
Back then, Randolf would fawn over Amelia, and Galilea would fawn over Argent. They were both a headache for both Auguste and Diane since both of them would usually spoil the two. However, since Auguste can’t go against his father Randolf, Amelia naturally fell to Randolf’s care. On the other hand, Galilea and Diane had decided to take turns in taking care of Argent. During those times, Diane was the sole wife of Auguste.
It was at the time that Amelia turned six and Argent eight that Galilea vanished. She vanished without leaving a trace. Rumor says it was an assassination, but no one knew the truth. A month after Galilea vanished, Randolf abdicated the throne to Auguste saying, “I have grown old am no longer fit for ruling.” However, despite his announcement, Randolf remained active in his endeavors and had continued to visit the Tribe in Alabaster.
It was only recently when the truth came to light. Randolf was forced to focus on retrieving Galilea from the fairies and made him abdicate the throne earlier than expected. It was also the time that Randolf had started saying the phrase that Galilea was traveling the world with the butterflies.
“Is the situation that worse? Or is it just they wanted to re-forge that friendship that was once lost due to that event?” Argent asked himself.
At the time Amelia returned Laurel like a corpse, Diane, and Auguste were furious. They held contempt for the failure of Brent’s royalty to immediately aid Laurel’s. That time created a large chip between the friendship forged between the two kingdoms.
As an official statement, Brent announced that they themselves failed to protect the royals of Laurel. It was something that they couldn’t deny or hide. But they also announced the reason. The unusual timing of villages along their path burning down on their own.
In response to their statement, Laurel remained silent. They neither denied nor acknowledged Brent’s statement on the issue. Then, in turn, the trade between the two kingdoms had gradually decreased. And naturally, the marriage between Amelia and Maxwell was dissolved.
However, six months after Amelia recovered, Amelia, along with Maxwell, paraded in Tervin’s Dukedom. It was a plot between Amelia and Maxwell to quell the bitter relationship between the two kingdoms. The people of the dukedom, the central trade city in Laurel, had responded positively to the unfathomable relationship between the two.
But since it wasn’t enough to restore the relationship as it used to, Amelia and Maxwell made it a habit to do a parade each year. The parade occurs a few days after the school period in Academia ends. A time when Amelia was returning to Aves and Maxwell to Brent.
Well, they abruptly announced it along with the treaty. Brent might have planned it since a few years ago.
“But annexing Brent through Clarissa is the least we could do if something happens to Brent.”
Argent isn’t one to think of conquering kingdoms and desire for power. Since, from his childhood, he knew how tedious it was to rule a kingdom. He had always thought how hard it would’ve been if he was an Emperor instead.
In any case, at this time of war, if Brent falls along with its royals, the responsibility would fall to Clarissa, who’d soon be Argent’s wife. The order would naturally then turn to Argent, giving him just cause to revive Brent, but under the name of Laurel.
The same was true for the princess of Niveria. Her lineage would soon be shared with Brent’s and would make Niveria into a kingdom that once existed in the annals of history.
Although Amelia takes it as a prank on Argent, who still failed to approach a woman, she knew the circumstances behind the marriage. But each time thought crossed her mind, Amelia would naturally shake her head and said, “Max can do it.”
“Well then,” Argent said after placing the letter on the table. He then lifted himself from the chair and said, “I have to prepare the gifts.”
Leisurely, Argent paced around the office before deciding which gifts he should offer to Brent’s Royals. Afterward, he went towards the door. Just before his hands reached for the knob, a knock came from the other side.
“Your Highness, there is a message from her Majesty.”
“Come in,” Argent responded, taking a step away from the door.
The one who opened the door was a butler. When Argent’s figure immediately entered his sight, he promptly bowed and said, “Her Majesty wishes to share a meal with you this evening.”
“Right.” Argent nodded. “Please inform her Majesty that I’d do so.”
Later that night, the clatter of metallic utensils resounded within the silent dining hall. On the table laced with a cloth, Diane and Argent sat across each other. To Argent’s right, and Diane’s left was a large empty chair plastered with a red cushion and a wood painted with a black varnish. It was the King’s seat.
Above them, Golden chandeliers hanged with numerous balls of light surrounding it. It was a magic tool fitted with a modified Light Ball magic circle. It was naturally fed by a crystal thread with mana.
A short distance behind them were the maids and butlers in wait.
After tapping her lips clean with a serviette, “Argent, are you fine with it?” Diane asked.
Likewise, Argent did the same and answered, “Yes.” Argent held no qualms about his marriage.
Argent and Diane spoke in idle chatter as they passed the time until the topic turned to Amelia’s issuance of a Royal Order.
“What do you think?” Diane asked.
Argent knew that his Mother had already decided and wished to see how he’d respond. In a way, Diane had been slowly building Argent’s knowledge in ruling Laurel in the future.
“It’s, without a doubt, a decision that both His and Her Majesty would end up given the same situation.”
Diane remained silent and continued to stare at Argent with an oppressive yet cheerful smile.
In return, Argent swallowed his saliva and said, “In this situation, Libet would be forced to give a statement to her question. However, knowing Libet, they’d surely feign innocence or outright deny her accusation despite the evidence of the priest’s stole.”
“At this time, where we lost resources from the burned forest, halting the trade with Libet would secure us for the coming winter season. In a sense, halting the trade would be beneficial to us. Especially that now that we needed to take care of the refugees that came from Niveria.”
While Argent was speaking, the maids approached and refilled their glasses with water. Diane, while still silent, took her glass and drank from it.
“Despite all that,” Argent continued. “We’d still continue the trade with Libet. But instead of openly trading with them, we’d trade through underhanded means where we can increase the price at least twice the original.”
Both Argent and Amelia knew their mother well. Diane wouldn’t stop at the idiom of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’. Instead, Diane ruled those underhanded and illegal means indirectly. It was also a means of collecting information from all over the human kingdoms. One example was the existence of brothels all around Laurel.
“We can start by supplying them with an amount that would satisfy their needs. Then over time, we can reduce the amount under the pretense of tightened security, increased demand, difficulty in transportation, and more. Along with that, we can increase the price further and rip them off their pockets.”
Inwardly, Argent heaved a deep sigh. Haah… I passed again.
“But you missed one thing.” At her call, Argent’s back stood ramrod straight. “You’ve forgotten about the free trade. The commodities brought by our merchants can be bought by the church for the same price we offered them to Brent. And to remedy this, we need to collude with the merchant’s guild in Brent. Possibly, to strike a contract with their merchants.”
“Ah...” Argent muttered.
Later that night, Argent was further lectured by Diane.