Chapter 1 - The Girl with Red Hair and Crimson Eyes
Lead colored clouds brood in the sky. The sky was like this when I received my appointment letter banishing me to the borders, Regis thought. His gaze returns to the ground, the town that is similar in color to the sky is different from the capital. He did not miss the bricks, marbles and streetlights, but the walled streets remind him of a prison.
The border town Turnvale. 100 li (444km) away from the capital and 5 days travel by horse carriage. The streets are dim even in daylight, the freezing wind inflicts pain. The cloudy weather is normal during winter for a place in the north near the border. But it feels like a sign of his future.
Am I a failure? Regis thought. He lost his master, status and future, and was exiled to the front lines in the north.
"Well, it's not too bad... Life is not just about career advancement. In fact, this will increase my leisure reading time."
The afternoon bell was ringing in the church when the caravan arrived. The people in the convey spread out to source for lunch. Regis walks towards a shop that has nothing to do with food. The shop windows are lined up with books. Rows of bookshelves are lined inside the building constructed from stone. The smell of paper and ink lingers in the air.
"—Ah, I am free if there are books, and that place will be my home."
Quoted from Cello Romeros 'Bourgui Journals' -- he added silently in his heart.
Regis claims to be a book enthusiast, but he is actually a bibliophile.
He searched passionately in the shelf labeled new release.
His mouth widens gradually due to panic.
"What, what's happening..."
"Hmmm? What's the matter Mr. Soldier?"
The bearded shopkeeper behind the counter deep within the store asked. The scar on his face and his muscular body made him look closer to a military drill instructor instead of a bookstore clerk.
Regis continues searching despite the oppressive air.
"I can't find the new release by Cello. Or Count Ludocell. Or Professor Illusi... Are they sold out? I know they are popular, but that is too cruel."
"Mr. Soldier, did you come from central?"
"Ah, I came from the capital..."
"That's why you didn't know. The books you mentioned won't sell in this town, so most stores won't import them."
"... What, did... you say...?"
Regis sounds like a stranded man in the desert craving for water.
His throat was dry in an instance.
The storekeeper shrugged, he doesn't seem to be joking.
"This is a war zone. Heroic stories and erotic novels are what sell here. Ah, this one is the bestseller in my shop."
He pointed at the title 'How to write your will without regrets'.
No way!! Regis hugs his head as he thought.
"Wait, wait a minute... There are no stocks of those famous authors? Am I really still in Bulgaria? Did I stumble into a barbarian settlement?"
"Well, this was the neighboring nation's territory 50 years ago."
"Uguu... And what is with this price? It's 10 times that of the capital..."
He finally found a book he wants, but Regis looks like he is about to cry when he reached for it.
The bearded storekeeper says casually:
"Well, books are heavy and bandits are roaming around recently. It takes lots of effort to transport it here, and the customer base is small... near the borders, books are a luxurious hobby for the upper class."
"Why is this happening!?"
"Sorry about that..."
The shopkeeper reaches for the book Regis is holding.
Regis hugs the book in a panic.
"Wait, wait wait, I didn't say I'm not buying...!!"
"Eh? Are you serious? You look like a young soldier. It's strange for me as the seller but... pardon me, wouldn't that cost you a week of your wages?"
"Uguu... This is hell..."
At this moment, the storekeeper let out a weird sound "Oh!?" and stares with his eyes wide open.
Regis follows his gaze and turns around.
At the entrance of the shop is a young girl with her back to the light.
A pretty young girl with red hair that looks as if it is burning and ruby colored eyes. She is around 13-14 years old. Her features are still a bit childlike, but she has a charm that holds your gaze, making you unable to avert your eyes.
Her erect index finger is touching her lips.
-- Be quiet? Why? What does she mean?
Other customers patronizing the bookshop are nothing special. But Regis was strangely unnerved.
The young girl brings her hand down and opens her pink lips.
"There are many recruits lamenting about the hellish conditions of a war zone after being dispatched to the front lines, but I think you are the first to do so in a bookstore."
Her voice feels as cooling as a breeze.
The young girl smiles cheerfully.
"We finally meet! You are Regis Alric, 5th grade admin officer right?"
"Eh? Oh, me?"
"Am I wrong!?"
"No, you are right! I am Regis..."
"Great~. I was wondering what to do if I got the wrong person."
Her smile of relief has an innocence befitting her age.
Regis cheeks became warm.
Because the girl before him is very pretty-- no. That's not it. He is just feeling embarrassed and ashamed when a girl who is obviously younger than him addressed him by his name.
"Err, name… How did you know about me?"
"It is obvious to remember the name of the person you are picking up. Please don't look down on me just because I am a child."
"No no, that's not what I think... I see, you are here to pick me up."
Regis looks at the girl again.
She is wearing leather pants and boots under her brown cloak. A common attire for carriage drivers.
"You came from the fortress to pick me up, that means you are a soldier?"
"Ara, do I look like one?"
"No... That's impossible, you are underage?"
"Yes, I just turned 14."
In Bulgaria, you are an adult when you turn 15. Excluding extreme cases, underage children cannot enlist in the military.
"I see, you must be a temporary driver... I was planning to take the public stagecoach there. But to send someone to pick me up, what a privilege."
"... Are you happy?"
"... I feel a bit moody being rushed to work."
"Fufu, you are really honest."
"I don't like to lie."
"Is that so? But you are -- a tactician right?"
The girl looks at him with her crimson eyes.
Regis feels pressured to speak by the girl 4 years his junior.
"... Well, there are some who say that... I was a librarian in the military library."
"You say some interesting things. Let's continue on the wagon."
Regis feels that it is hard to breath and massages his temples.
The girl walks out as she hurries him.
"Come on, let's go. The clouds are getting thicker, it's probably going to snow."
"That's right... Ah, I forgot!"
Regis was heading out but then remembered something and walks back towards the shopkeeper and puts money for the book at the counter.
"I will buy this book... Hmm? What's wrong shopkeep? You look ill?"
"No, it's nothing. Thank you for your patronage, Mr. Soldier."
The bearded shopkeeper covers his mouth with his hand and lowers his head for some reason. He seems to be enduring something.
The girl approaches Regis with a sour expression.
"Are you an idiot!?"
"What, so sudden...?"
"Books are a luxurious hobby at the borders. Only rich people and morons will spend so much money."
"Well, I don't think I am a smart man... The thirst for knowledge is the pride of mankind, giving in to this desire and reading is my way of life. No matter the obstacles or the lack of funds, telling me to give up reading is the same as telling me to give up on life."
Regis shuts his mouth after finishing, feeling embarrassed for being so serious with a child.
The girl has an unexpectedly serious expression.
"The same as giving up on life... Is that so, then I can understand. Me too..."
"Nothing! Let's go!"
Regis puts the book under his armpit, dragging his luggage out of the store as he is chasing the girl.
A small wagon pulled by a single horse was parked before the shop.
A thin brown horse gazes this way.
The girl easily jumps up to the driver seat which is at the horse's waist level.
"Hey, hurry up!"
"Yeah... By the way, what's your name?"
Regis looks up at the girl and asks.
Her eyes turn sharp and she speaks with a low tone slowly, syllable by syllable.
"I am leaving you behind."
Regis scrambles up the driver seat.
That wasn't a good time to ask.
Taratara... The wooden wheels creak as it turns on the road. They are moving towards the north gate that is enclosed in stone walls. The most forward position known as Century Fortress.
A girl holding a rein is sitting on the driver seat. To her right is Regis and his luggage. Behind them are timber and bricks covered by a cloth.
"-- So, what about my name?"
"Well, how should I address you?"
The girl holds her well formed jaw with her leather gloved hand and thinks.
Is this something you need to think about? Regis was baffled.
The girl relaxes her tensed lips.
"Yeah, you can call me Altina."
"Is that an alias?"
He asked without thinking too much about it, but that was a mistake. The girl named Altina frowned.
"... How rude... Isn't this a wonderful name? I was considering giving you the privilege to use it, should I take that back?"
"Sorry, please let me address you as Altina."
"Mah, I will allow it if you really want to."
"I really do."
"Fu~... You are not like a soldier at all."
"Haha, I feel the same."
Regis smiled bitterly, and so did Altina.
There are vast fields of wheat on either side of them. The seedlings are growing despite it being winter. The world is colored in the palette of the grey sky and the brown earth.
"Nah, you didn't come here voluntarily right?"
"My goal since joining the military is to be a librarian. To be honest, I enlisted because of financial issues... By the way, is there a library in Century fortress?"
"I think your room will be known as one someday."
"Ah, is there no god?"
"... Are you making puns with paper(kami) and god(kami)? Boring."
"I –I, I wasn't making puns."
"What did you do in your last unit?"
"Why? Are you questioning about my existence as a soldier?"
"That's not it, I am asking how did you draw the short straw and got posted to the front lines?"
"I think it is my punishment for losing a battle."
"And you accepted that? You are just a young non-commissioned officer. You don't even have any command authority, isn't it strange for you to take responsibility?"
Regis gazes into the distance.
The field is full of rows of wheat. He can see the undulating mountain range over the horizon.
"... Is a good man."
"My previous employer. I was terrible in swordsmanship and horsemanship, the last place in military academy. The one who employed me is Marquis Tennessee."
"Last place? But I heard you have never lost before in military strategy class."
"You know a lot. I wonder who told you that... Well, the rumors are not wrong... I pull up my grades with military strategy, but it is something akin to playing chess."
"But Marquis Tennessee hired you to be a tactician, not a chess player right?"
"I am just a junior tactician staff. I was just 15 after graduating from military academy, so it was something like apprentice work."
"Be it a junior staff or an apprentice, I think it is amazing to be a tactician at such a tender age... Are you dissatisfied?"
"No way! I think the Marquis only employed me on a whim... But I am still grateful for his kindness, even now."
That is why Regis eyes became watery when he parted with the Marquis. Regis grips his luggage tightly, crushing his bag.
"... Marquis says I was needed. But... I left him to face his death."
His tone is so low that it seems to be someone else's voice.
Altina's expression became heavy.
"If I remember correctly, Marquis Tennessee in that summer battle..."
She knows a lot for a temporary hire, Regis thought. Is she concerned with the war because she is living in the front lines, or is Altina a weirdo. Or maybe there is some other reason.
"Left him to face his death? What happened?"
"That is just how my opinion..."
"I want to know your opinion. Not through rumors, but directly from you... Nah, can you tell me?"
Regis considers it.
It is a long journey. There is nothing to hide, it was published in the newspapers after the military court sessions anyway.
It happened one day during that summer--
He remembers the words and expression of everyone clearly, but he doesn't know where to start.
He took some time to organize his thoughts.
"... During that war council... Marquis Tennessee used the proposals submitted by the head tactician. Well, the minor details are not important. We were fighting 500 barbarians with 3000 empire soldiers. With victory in our grasp, the council focuses less on the battle and more on chit chat on which wine should accompany duck meat for dinner."
"So they were in victory mode before the battle started?"
"It was common, the empire army is strong... But the problem is our lack of contingency plans if the savages flank us and attack our rear."
"The opponents are barbarians right? Isn't it a waste of time to plan for that?"
"That's right, the undisciplined savages are unlikely to pull such a move off successfully, so they prefer to clash head to head. But according to past records, there are instances of them conducting such sneak attacks when there are huge disparities in numbers. There is a need to be careful... I proposed this twice. But the head tactician dismissed me as a coward, and suggested the Marquis to watch for our victory from the rear... something like that."
"So you were chased out of headquarters."
The military court session had a similar debate, and the atmosphere is shifting towards the interrogation of Regis.
Should he have proposed a third time even if they bark at him? That's what he thought now. If he had insisted on his viewpoint, they could have defended against the sneak attack.
"Are you blaming yourself?"
"... I was afraid of punishment more severe than banishment from headquarters... so I didn't propose a 3rd time."
"The head tactician was a noble right?"
"Yeah, I think he was...?"
"If that is the case, he won't accept a commoner's proposal no matter how many times you try. Marquis Tennessee can't do anything if it compromises the status of a noble."
Regis was a commoner unaccustomed to aristocracy, so he didn't take into account that the Marquis might be hesitant to belittle the head tactician.
If only he had thought deeper. He had the knowledge of the social status of aristocrats.
Altina consoles him:
"That's why you shouldn't blame yourself."
"No, now that you mentioned it, I realize the reason for his behavior... It is my fault for overlooking the delicate relations between nobles... If I approached the Marquis in person instead of doing so during the war council... Maybe... Tch!!"
Regis grits his teeth. His stomach feels heavy and his eyes are heating up. Tears seep into his vision.
Altina suddenly called out to him in a commanding tone.
Compared to having his named called, the forceful nature of the voice was more shocking to him. This makes him doubt whether this girl is really a simple driver.
"Don't be too hard on yourself. You did your best, isn't that right?"
"...Ah, that is true. But I don't want to think that the Marquis died to protect a reputation of a noble... But because I was too naive."
But I understand that now, Regis thought.
Looking up, they see several white shadows drifting down from the sky.
"Snowing on my first day here... They are welcoming me... Hahaha."
"You won't be able to laugh if this turns into a blizzard."
"Yeah, I know."
"You lived in the north before?"
"I read about it in books."
"...Ah, is that so... I need to speed up, hang on and don't fall!"
Altina lets out a sound that is a mix of anger and surprise as she whips the horse.
The wolves are howling from afar.
Ah Wooo! The sound of wild beast intimidates travelers. It is the same for the horse pulling the wagon.
The horse suddenly shakes its head and veers off course.
Altina pulls the reins.
The horse starts to neigh.
Regis was stunned.
The wagon skid on the snow covered road as the wheels lost traction. It is tilted towards one end.
The bricks and timber cargo stowed under the cloth tumble noisily. The noise stops with an unpleasant sound of wood snapping.
The impact threw Regis into the air.
The one screaming is Regis, while Altina is grabbing his shoulders and supporting him.
They avoided falling off the wagon.
The wagon stopped in the middle of the road.
The horse stops and starts to neigh.
After a while it calms down and looks towards the driver seat.
I screwed up -- The horse seems to realize that. Just like an uneasy child who messed up.
Altina jumps off the driver seat and caresses the head of the horse.
"Are you okay? Where are you hurt?"
The horse neighs in reply.
Regis doesn't know what it means, but he sees that Altina is examining the right hind leg of the horse.
"Is it injured?"
"... It can run if we force it too... But if its leg deteriorates beyond healing, it will be put down."
She sighs as she caresses the horse.
She unfastens the harness from the horse to let it rest, and ties the reins down to prevent it from wandering off.
Regis looks towards the smoking horizon over the snowy plain.
"How far are we from Century fortress?"
"About 5 Li (22km) away... But it is impossible to start walking."
"Because a blizzard is coming. Without any lights, it will be pitch dark at night. If we veer off course onto the wheat field, we won't reach the Fortress even if we walk till day break. We might even fall into a ditch."
"Well, I don't want to walk 5 Li with my luggage either."
"Are you really a soldier!?"
"Haha, my grades for loaded march were terrible. This is more survival training than loaded march training."
Ha~, Altina sigh as she presses her temple.
Regis tilts his head.
"Isn't it the tactician's job to think of a way?"
"Well, my command abilities have been praised before... but this situation is better suited for soldiers, merchants or adventurers."
"Aren't you a soldier?!"
"Oh, that's right."
"What a surprising man."
"Hey, calm down Altina. Humans can pull it off if we put our minds to it."
"Right... Freezing to death in a blizzard is something that can be pulled off."
"So you really have no ideas?"
"Hmmm, right... let's read this."
Regis took out the book he bought in town.
"Ah, you mean that book can be used in this situation? Well done!"
"I wonder. This work describes the life of a young man who encounters a fairy and the 6 beautiful ladies around him. A slice of life and fantasy novel."
"Are you stupid? This is not the place for nonsensical stories!?"
"It's rude to dismiss it as nonsense. Apologize to the author."
"You will freeze into a Popsicle if this goes on, you won't be able to read anymore! The priest will read some scriptures for you though."
"That is why... I want to read the last book I bought."
"You are giving up too easily!"
"Just joking. It is not good panicking. We have to calm down and think. Let's climb up the wagon. It's much better to have some shelter."
"...You are right."
Altina's head and shoulders are covered in snow when she enters the wagon.
The timber and bricks are piled up on one side because of the wagon skidding earlier.
Regis sat down on an empty spot.
Altina sat down nearby.
"It's great that the winds are blocked."
"But it is still cold."
"It can't be helped. I will take a warm shower when we reach the fortress. I definitely will!"
"How luxurious for a driver... Could it be that you are acquainted with someone important within the fortress?"
Altina stutters for unknown reasons.
Was his guess close to the truth?
"Well, I will find out when we reach the fortress."
"If we reach the fortress..."
The snow and wind picks up. It is a full blown blizzard.
The breeze is strong enough to enter the shelter, making Altina's shoulders shiver.
Regis search through his memories of a book he read.
"As I thought, it is better not to wander off in this situation..."
"Is that so?"
"Compared to expending energy to move, it is better to wait for other wagons to pass by. How concerned do you think the people in the fortress will be about you? Will they forget about a temporary driver? Or are there friends waiting for you?"
"Well... I think they will not forget about me. They should be... worried about me. Probably."
"In that case, there is a high chance a search party will come before night fall. There is only one road between the fortress and the town. They will see us if they go to town, lessening our burden."
"I see... your mind turns quite fast."
"It's just my knowledge."
I read a story with similar situation -- For Regis, that's all.
"Next is to use items that will help us get over the cold."
"Yeah, there is something!"
"There is a cloth over the luggage compartment. It is rather small though."
Altina pulls out a rough piece of cloth from under the timber as she speaks.
"It really is small."
"But it is thick and warm, so use it."
"Thank you... Use it, Altina."
"I might look this way, but I am still a soldier. Protecting the citizens is the duty of a soldier, right?"
"That's just a phrase."
"But I am serious."
"Fu, what an interesting person, you... How about this?"
Altina takes the cloth, sit to the left of Regis and lean onto him.
Regis left arm links with Altina's right arm.
"This way, one piece of cloth can provide warmth for two people, right?"
"Ah... I see, is that right?"
Compared to the cloth, the body heat of the young girl makes him warmer.
His heart races so much that his back is sweating.
Regis tells himself in his heart -- calm down me. She is only 14. Still an underage girl younger than me. She is really pretty, but to lose my cool because our arms are linked is really shameful for an adult.
Altina's face closes in.
"Are you fine? Your face is really red..."
"It, it's nothing."
"Is that so..."
Regis calms down.
He can only hear the wind and Altina's breathing.
"Eh? Wha, what?"
"I think you are an interesting person."
"Haha... I get that a lot."
"The soldier should protect civilians, that is just an official motto that are said but not followed. There are more people who think soldiers are more valuable."
"That might be so... But shouldn't those with power protect those without? That is the reason why humans form society. Just like adults protecting children, it is the same with the strong protecting the weak... So soldiers should protect civilians, that's what I think."
"That means the aristocrats have to protect the commoners, the emperor has to protect his citizens, right?"
"That should be the way. Although the nobles are fighting meaningless wars and wasting the lives and wealth of the citizens."
"Is the war with the barbarians useless? We can't begin peace negotiation with them, and we will be massacred if we lose in a war, right?"
"... That's right, the savages are terrifying. But they should lure the barbarians to a more defensible position and build long and sturdy walls if they really want to protect the nation."
"Can't they scale the walls easily?"
"It is hard for cavalry and wagons to pass through, so that will be enough to deter large armies."
"Oh I see... Why aren't the generals doing that? They didn't think of that?"
"What I am saying is knowledge as common as books. The upper classes want to fight on because this is a business for them. Repelling the barbarians will earn them prestige as a soldier. The weapons and food can be sold at a high price during war. Military academy training troops are also a source of income for the nobles. It burdens the nation as a whole, but those with authority will stand to gain..."
"This is unforgivable!"
Altina's face closes in on Regis almost hitting him.
Regis was pushed back by Altina's intimidating air and backed away.
However he can't escape because their arms are linked.
"Calm, calm down Altina... I am not saying all aristocrats are like that. I think Marquis Tennessee doesn't act this way."
"Yeah, he even proposed to the emperor opposing the expansion of the empire's territory, and to focus on strengthening the security of the nation instead. He was the one who suggested the plan to construct defensive walls during the aristocratic conference."
"That is a great idea! That should cut down on the casualties and poverty rate after a battle!"
Altina's eyes are sparkling because of Regis' words.--
The two of them turn silent a short while later.
Regis saw her dangerous expression for an instance.
"... Could it be this incident?"
"Hmmm? What is it Altina?"
"Nah, I just thought of something unimportant. That's right, there are all sorts of people among the nobles."
"Yeah, that is why it is troubling if the emperor doesn't manage them well."
Regis says with a bitter laugh.
Altina's body trembled. Regis noticed because they are so close together.
"... Do you think the current emperor... is bad?"
"If I say he is bad, I will be convicted for treason..."
Maybe it is too late now. But this is in the middle of a blizzard. Only Altina and the horse are listening.
Regis begins his monologue.
"The current emperor has reigned for too long. His body is too weak to handle his administrative duties. The first prince should have succeeded him 5 years ago. But the first prince is sickly and weak while the 2nd prince displayed his talents in politics and the military. The 2nd prince has a stronger backing too."
"That seems complicated."
"The 1st prince was born to the 2nd concubine. The 2nd prince was born after this to the queen. The queen enjoys higher status as an aristocrat too. This resulted in succession issues within the empire."
"The fight for the crown between the princes... is the fight between their supporters. This caused the extension of the emperor's time on the throne. This lead to the nobles doing as they please and the wave of corruption."
"There are other imperial children besides them."
"Well, the third prince is just a 15 year old student. He is a dark horse that probably can't stand up to his brothers."
"There, there is one more... right?"
"Hmm? Ah... speaking of which, the commander of Century Fortress is a royalty."
"Yes! What about that person?"
Altina leans in again and Regis retreats to the right. He is almost falling out of the luggage compartment.
"Erm, the Arrow-Sparrow Princess. Nobody remembers the full name because it is too long."
"Well, it is rather long..."
"I think she is called Marie Garter Argentina Bulgaria... I can remember the story in books, but it is hard to memorize such a long name."
"Don't push yourself. By the way, what is the Arrow-Sparrow Princess?"
"I will be under her care for now on, it will be troubling to say things akin to badmouthing her... This is her nick name in the capital."
"So, what does it mean?"
"What I learned are from word of mouth... Well, we have ample time anyway. This is the story of a pitiful princess who was forced to the nation's border--"
15 years ago--
For the background, let's talk about the mother of Marie Garter.
In the imperial capital Versailles, the emperor is hosting his grand 50th birthday party.
The court orchestra is playing waltz. Lavish dishes are presented one after another, the generals share their victory reports as gifts. Not only powerful nobles and famous tycoons are here, even the lower class aristocrats and their family are invited, that's how grand the party was.
Among the peasants sitting at the end of the seat is a breathtakingly beautiful young girl.
Her hair is as dark as night and her eyes as black as obsidian, contrasting with her snow white skin, making it even whiter.
Unbelievably, the one chatting with this 16 year old girl is the emperor who left his throne and walked slowly across the room.
"Will you dance with me my lady?"
According to the records of the imperial scribe, Claudette Bartholomew bows curtsy politely and replied:
"It is my pleasure. How may I address you?"
As for why she asked for the emperor's name, there are several theories. 'Not noticing' seems too offending. 'Noticed, but following the rites of a party' and 'she is a bold lady who dares to joke with his majesty' are more convincing theories.
But she is the only one who knows the truth.
The beautiful brunette girl extends her hand, and the emperor smiles as he takes her hand.
"Pardon me. I am Liam Fernando de Bulgaria. The people address me as Liam the 15th."
"Then, please call me Claudette."
The conductor known as the best in the empire waves his baton after a moment of hesitation and the orchestra came alive.
This is commonly known as the Claudette incident.
Half a year later--
Ms Claudette who is now 17 became the 4th concubine of the emperor.
Her name is changed to 'Marie Claudette de Bulgaria'. It was rumored that she was pregnant during the wedding.
The concubine bore the emperor his 4th successor before his 51st birthday. She is Marie Garter Argentina de Bulgaria.
She is officially the legitimate daughter of the emperor, but she is considered an illegitimate child by the masses.
When Liam the 15th received news of the birth of his 4th child he was said to have asked "Is the hair red?".
The first emperor of Bulgaria known as the 'Flame Emperor' had crimson hair, red eyes and a stock body. He defeated the surrounding barbaric tribes and established the foundation of the empire.
Liam the 15th is the same, he is a huge man with red hair and crimson eyes, despite having a frail body.
Although the 3 princes have crimson eyes, they inherited the blonde and brown color of their mother's hair, and they are not huge in build either. Liam the 15th does not concern himself with military and financial affairs, but the thinning of the 1st emperor's blood made him sad.
The chief chamberlain fidgets as he bows and reports:
"Your majesty, the hair is red, but it is a girl."
Liam the 15th's concern for the child seems to stop at this moment.
A commoner becoming a concubine and bearing a child in less than a year. This is unbearable shame for the aristocrats hungering for glory.
If Claudette's child is a boy, he might have been assassinated. Rumors have already spread, saying 'the body of the 1st prince is frail because of poisoning.'.
Fortunately, Marie Garter was born a girl and grew up peacefully until she was 13.
She learns about swords and politics even though she is a girl, her strange actions have become a joke in the courts.
But as she becomes old enough to enter the social circle, a problem arises.
Marie Garter's beauty exceeds her mother.
At this time, a handsome bard with a solid voice was very popular in the social world. This man was invited to the courts by the queen-- when he passed by Marie Garter, the bard started singing praises of her beauty.
"Oh~ what a beautiful, beautiful day! This sun like angel makes me dazed! Your flames burns my very soul, the dazzling ruby steals my words and woes!"
And of course, this infuriates the queen. The bard was chased out of the court and banished from the social world.
Things did not end here. The queen's son, the 2nd prince Alan de Laterleo Bulgaria is a dangerous man with a mind as sharp as swords. Although he is just the commander of the first army, he has been taking command of the entire military at the age of 23, standing in for his aged father and frail brother.
Laterleo presents a proposal to the elderly king.
"If the beautiful princess commands the army, it will ignite the passion among the troops. I suggest posting the princess to the northern war zone."
"A brilliant plan."
At this moment, Liam 15th's adoration for Claudette is totally gone.
Empire year 850--
The aged king sits on his throne with nobles smiling coldly lined on either side of the red carpet.
The 4th concubine is not present.
Marie Garter flicks her crimson hair behind and kneels.
"Greetings, Your Majesty."
Liam the 15th simply nods in reply.
The chief chamberlain opens the imperial edict and reads it out in the name of the emperor.
The age requirement for Marie Garter was waived because of her royal lineage, and she was appointed the commander of Parismiso border regiment.
Snickers break out among the aristocrats.
There is no one present who knew what the princess is thinking.
After dismissing the chief chamberlain, the elderly king asks softly:
"... What would you like as a parting gift?"
This is a traditional question that is asked when blood relative of the emperor leaves the capital. According to tradition, the answer is 'The words of Your Majesty motivates me more than any present I might take.' But...
Marie Garter puffs her chest and said:
"Please grant me a sword of the Flame Emperor."
The crowd turns rowdy.
The nobles throw obvious looks of disdain.
'Don't you even know proper manners you beggar?' Someone insulted.
The emperor considers for a moment.
"...The founding emperor had 7 swords. You are my 4th child, so I will grant you the 4th sword. When you next return to the capital, just deposit it back into the treasury."
The 4th sword--
An armored soldier carried in an oversized double edged sword.
Named as 'Emperor's Thunder Quartet'.
The giant sword was made according to the height of the first emperor, 26Pa (192cm) long.
Although Marie Garter is tall for a lady, the sword is too thick and long, making the difference in height comedic.
The audience hall was filled with the despicable laughter of the aristocrats. The princess will probably leave without even touching the sword-- most of the people present thought.
"I am grateful... I will borrow this... Hya!"
Marie Garter used all her might.
The marble floor creaks under the pressure.
She lifted the sword.
The snickering stops and turn into surprise.
The princess lifted up a sword taller than she is.
"... I will take on this heavy responsibility of my appointment."
She bowed towards the elderly emperor.
She looked at the stoned face 2nd prince and the hateful glare of the queen.
Only Marie Garter knew what she was thinking, the world can only guess.
She turned and left the silent audience hall behind.
"Well, that is the gist of the story."
The blizzard is shaking the shelter.
Altina asks after Regis finished.
"Wait a minute."
"Where did the nick name Arrow-Sparrow Princess come from?"
"Ah, didn't the princess wear the sword on her waist?"
"Is there a problem? There is no other way, the sword is too long. It will drag on the sword along the floor if it is put it onto the back."
"Did Altina see her too? Does the princess wear her sword that way in fortress Century?"
"Eh? Well, yes... I have seen her before."
"Have you thought about it? When the soldiers and peasants see the petite Marie Garter wearing the sword that way, they think it looks like a sparrow shot by an arrow."
Altina open her eyes wide, stunned.
"It is hard to beautify her image now. She has not made any appearance in public and has no famed endeavors. Everyone has tied the nickname Arrow-Sparrow Princess with her. I was away on the front lines so I have never seen her."
"Are you okay, your shoulders are trembling... Is it cold?"
"That's not it! I have no reason to complain to you, but it can't be helped!"
"Please keep it a secret from her. It will be hard to live here if she hates me."
"You can relax. She is not dumb enough to hate the person who happens to utter the rumor."
"That will be great... Oh yah, are you hungry? You haven't had lunch yet correct?"
"What have you got?"
"I left some bread to eat while I read."
Regis opens his bag, shifted the sword and took out the toasted bread.
"Although I would prefer some warm milk right now."
"Are you sharing it with me?"
"I told you my principles. I won't force you."
"... I want some."
Regis smiles as he cut the bread in half and gave one to Altina.
"Thank you... There are different kinds of smiles."
Altina mumbles as she stares at the bread.
After finishing the hard bread, Regis asked:
"Did you say something?"
"... I have seen colder smiles."
"Hmmm~ where did you see that?"
Nom, Altina takes a bite of the bread.
The horse suddenly neighs.
It's an urgent neigh begging for help.
The two of them looks out towards the driver seat's direction.
Altina points with her finger. The front of the wagon, where the front legs of the horse are pointing.
There are five shadows in the blizzard.
A black light shimmers in its golden eyes.
There are 5 blood colored mouths.
Regis feels as if a demon is clutching his heart.
"Grey wolves (Loup Gris)."
"Fire... We need to throw torches at them. Ah, do you have a tinderbox!?"
"Calm down Regis! There is no way I have one."
"Ugh... You are right."
"The horse will be in danger if this goes on."
"After that will be us... Ugugu... Tch!!"
Regis retreats to the luggage compartment near the shelter.
He picks up his sword and jumps off the back of the wagon.
Altina squints her eyes and sighs.
"Well, even though he says he will protect the citizens..."
No matter how cool he was saying it, it is a different matter when his life is on the line. Altina knows this.
Is he the same? Altina thought.
But Regis went around to the front of the wagon.
He did not run away.
He lifts his sword and face at the largest wolf.
"What, what are you doing? Even a knight will have a tough fight when facing grey wolves!"
"I know! That's why I am doing this!"
Regis hands are not shaking because of the cold.
His stance was that of a novice.
No, worse than that.
His back is hunched and there is no power in his hips, he looks like he is going to turn and run at any moment.
Even a child playing around will have a straighter stance.
Altina grabs her head with her arms.
"Can you win this way!?"
"Haha... It is nothing to be proud of, but I have never won in sword sparring before."
"That is really nothing to be proud of."
"Go, Altina... Take the horse and force it to run. We will become lunch for the wolves if this carries on..."
"Are you serious? You will die!?"
A scream filled with sadness.
It is not a smile to ease Altina, or because he has something up his sleeve. It is a smile that came naturally.
Even Regis doesn't understand why.
"Even so... Death is more pleasant than living a twisted life."
Even Regis thinks it is weird. Why is he smiling? Is he mocking his moronic self? No, that is too negative. Just mark it as a victory for holding true to your principles despite the dire situation.
"Even I could buy some time. The wolves won't attack easily when facing foes that approach them instead of running. It will gauge the opponent’s strength and only close in when it is sure of its victory... Ah, eh? I think they are closing in on me!?"
"That's right, your stance seems very weak."
Altina's voice sounds cheerful for some reason. It is as if she is smiling?
The largest wolf closes in.
It opens its maw lined with sharp fangs and growls.
Although the distance is still far, Regis swings his sword to intimidate the wolves.
He leans to one side because of the heavy sword.
The sword tip hits the ground.
A knocking sound was made. The sword hilt hits Regis' left knee.
"Thank you Regis. You have successfully protected the citizen. Protected the wagon driver Altina."
Regis turns his head because of the cheerful tone.
Altina' crimson eyes are shining.
She took something silver out from the luggage compartment. It shines brightly even in the darkness of the blizzard.
Pushing the bricks and timber away, the girl pulled out the item hidden underneath with her lean arm.
A rattling sound can be heard.
Something amazing and unbelievable is happening.
It was heavy, broad, thick and huge.
It took some time to register what the item was because of its large size.
The wagon barely hides its full length. A lump of metal too heavy for humans to wield.
Putting its colossal size aside, it has been polished clean without any stains.
The body of the blade is just like a mirror.
Regis' lips are trembling.
"... The Emperor’s Thunder Quartet."
Altina is holding the sword of kings in her right hand.
The cloak she is wearing is fluttering in the wind like the cape of a ruler. Her flaming red hair was flicked to her back with her left hand.
"It is time for me to protect you, Regis. Watch closely."
"Is this sword just an oversized arrow stuck on a sparrow, or is it a blade wielded by a king!"
Altina's legs sink into the snow.
She kicks the snow away and moves forward.
The sword in her hand howls as it slices through the air.
She slashed it down.
Shattering the earth.
The snow on the ground explodes.
Instead of a slash, this is closer to being a direct cannon hit, Regis thought.
He can feel the tremors in the ground.
The grey wolves will probably back off.
-- My guess was right.
The only thing that was blown away is the snow, the grey wolves have retreated to a safe distance and escaped certain death.
Altina take out the bread from her chest and threw it to the wolves.
The bread went with the wind and fell before the wolves.
"This is for you! Hurry up and go home!"
The wolf cautiously sniffed the bread, ate it and ran off.
They disappeared into the white fog of the blizzard.
Regis relaxed his tense waist and collapse.
Altina stuck the sword into the ground and faced him.
"Are you injured?"
"Huff, huff... My left knee hurts."
"Didn't you hit that with your own sword?"
"I was in a dream back then, so I don't remember."
Altina smiles awkwardly.
Regis scratched his head.
"I'm impressed with you... No... Your royal highness Marie Garter Argentina de Bulgaria, 4th royal princess... Is that right your highness?"
"Isn't it too late for this?"
"Hah, you are mean."
All Regis can do is sigh.
Altina was all smiles after pulling off her scheme successfully.
"You really didn't notice?"
"Well, I noticed your red hair and eyes, but Altina seems too long a nickname for Argentina."
"That's what my mother calls me."
"Argentina is the name of Claudette Bartholomew's homeland. And Altina is the nickname for that place..."
"Why didn't you notice if you knew that?"
"It was too preposterous, so I dismiss it in my head. The commander of the unit I am transferring to is the 4th royal princess. For the princess to pick me up in the guise of a wagon driver is a bit much."
"I thought I will be found out in the bookshop and was nervous for a while."
"I understand the suspicious behavior of the shopkeeper now. Are you always doing things like this?"
"No! If I keep doing this, rumors of a moronic princess will spread."
"...We were in town earlier, did the news already spread... Delivery Service Princess."
"That sounds better than Arrow-Sparrow Princess."
She is seriously troubled over this.
Regis tilted his head.
"You said that you don't always pull stunts like this... So why me? Do you have a grudge against me?"
"No matter how positive I look at this, I have disrespected the emperor. Putting my manners towards your disguised self aside, criticizing the emperor is a heavy crime."
"Why did you say it if you knew it was a crime?"
"Such conversations are nothing more than a greeting among commoners."
Hmm, Altina put her hands on her hips and frowns.
After calming down, the situation is turning bad. The storm is still brewing while the temperature will fall after the sun sets.
"I don't want you to misunderstand. I don't have a grudge against you and have no intention of indicting you for criticism against the emperor."
"Because I heard a rumor that you were a capable tactician."
"Are you talking about me? I think it is exaggerated."
"I think there is a possibility... I need the help of able men... Not just capable, but also ones that have the right values and principles. I need to investigate further."
"That's why you disguised yourself as a driver?"
"There are things that won't be said before royalty right? I want to listen to your true real thoughts, Regis Alric."
"The only thing you found out today is that I have zero passion towards military affairs."
"Your swordsmanship too."
Altina jokes as Regis scratched his head.
She suddenly looks to the distance.
"Ah... Seems like your hunch was right."
Altina listens intently.
Regis follows her lead.
Sounds of horse hooves running in the snowy road can be heard.
She was just talking to me earlier, her hearing is great. Regis is impressed.
"... Ah, but could they be bandits or barbarians?"
"I can hear metallic armor, so it is them."
"You can hear that too?"
As she spoke, five horsemen appears from the direction of the blizzard.
The armored knight dismounted before Altina.
"Princess, are you alright!?"
A bald middle aged man with black beard asked.
"Thank you for picking me up. I am well... But the horse is injured."
"I understand! Let my horse pull the wagon."
"Yes, I leave it to you."
The horse drawn wagon is back in action after substituting the horse.
The injured horse was guided back with its reins.
Two soldiers lift Altina's sword and bring it towards the cargo compartment.
After glancing at the soldiers carrying out their task, Altina walks towards Regis.
Her white hand reached for Regis who is sitting down from exhaustion.
"Come, time to go."
"Erm... Your highness, princess?"
"Forget it, it's too late for you to address me that way."
"No, I thought you were a driver back then..."
"It will dampen my mood. You said you will call me by my nickname earlier. Were you lying?"
It's because of you are disguising as a wagon driver. But Regis can't say that.
Regis' back is drenched in cold sweat.
He thought it was bad being banished to the border regions. But he might have arrived at an incredible place.
He raised his head and looked towards the sky.
Regis reached out towards the hand extended towards him.
"... I think I am someone who can tell the mood... But is it really okay, Altina?"
Of course! Her voice is full of energy as she speaks.
"Welcome to my border regiment. I will work you really hard, Regis Alric!"