By the time the Flame Dragon’s head was placed upon the gates to the Imperial Capital, it had been several months since the earthquake, and in the meantime, the fear in everyone’s hearts had slowly faded away.
The Flame Dragon was a force which could not be resisted by humanity, and people the world over considered it a natural disaster, much like an earthquake. Therefore, all people could do in the wake of the tragedy which the Flame Dragon brought was sigh and mutter, “Such misfortune”. They felt it was sent by the gods to torment humanity, much like floods and hail. This attitude of helpless acceptance was deeply rooted in people’s hearts.
Of course, people had tried to protect themselves against such disasters. Much like how measures could be taken to protect against floods, many heroes who had tried to slay the Flame Dragon had appeared. The key word was “tried”. Until now, nobody had succeeded.
Those heroes might have been weak, but they did not lack for either courage or motivation. The only thing they had done wrong was that they had lost. It would not be an exaggeration to say they could never have won.
And because of that—
There were two main opinions when it came to the rumors of the Men in Green chasing off the Flame Dragon. Some were filled with hopeful expectation while others were dubious, and a brewing tension filled the air between both camps. These rumors were spreading in the countries allied to the Empire, let alone within the Empire itself.
And so, today, the symbol of terror and despair — the Flame Dragon’s head — now adorned the Imperial Capital’s main gate, for everyone on the streets to behold.
Just being able to drive off a Flame Dragon was impressive enough. Now that the proof of the Flame Dragon’s death was before their eyes, it had a powerful impact on everyone who saw it. Their reaction could be described as “awestruck” or even “dumbfounded”, though a more objective description might be that “they stared with eyes wide and mouths open”.
Usually, when an enemy army was defeated, a castle was conquered, or when a hated foe was slain, the people’s hearts would be filled with a fierce joy, and they would cry out in excitement. However, the being called the Flame Dragon was so powerful that it seemed unrealistic that someone could actually kill it. Now that they saw the Flame Dragon’s head, separated from its corpse, all they felt about this was confusion.
In any case, the lack of excited action or cheering could be due to the shock which filled everyone. That said, it did not mean they were unmoved. Their reaction could be described as a “dormant heat”. For instance, a wildfire burned hot and strong, but if left alone, it would quickly burn itself out. In contrast, the people’s feelings were like how boiling magma would flow everywhere without being exposed to the light of day. If someone cast a flammable object into it, a great fire would blaze up in an instant.
High city walls surrounded the Imperial Capital. The southern face of the walls was where the Imperial Capital’s main gate was located, in the form of a pair of well-fitted double doors.
The south gate was jammed up by those people who had come to see what the fuss was about. Every single location in sight was filled with people, be it the streets or the windows of nearby buildings, and some people had even climbed onto the roofs in order to see the Flame Dragon’s head.
Everywhere, one could see people moving back and forth, to the point where they were rubbing shoulders against each other and treading on their neighbors’ feet as the moved. Fortunately, there was no large scale disturbance or panic. As they looked at the Dragon head, they froze and watched with their mouths wide open, hardly daring to blink as they let this incredible fact wash over them. Shortly after that, the people began whispering to each other.
“Who could have done something amazing like this?”
“Was there a poster or did anyone say anything?”
After all, there was no mass media which could swiftly inform people of facts. When people wished to show or declare something before the masses, they had to put up a plaque or a poster with their desired message. Otherwise, people would not know what had happened or who had done it. For instance, some charlatan might jump out and declare “I did this!” as the people were busy discussing the matter.
However, there had been no announcements or a bill posted. All the audience could do was look at the Flame Dragon’s vast head.
Who had done this, and what sort of massive battle had that person fought to obtain an achievement like this? Nobody answered the crowd’s doubts and questions. This magnificent trophy before them was a silent witness to the monumental victory that had been won.
That silence was more convincing than any amount of words.
Humans were a race that came up with their own theories, explanations and conclusions, and then sought people to agree with their findings. That being the case, the speculation started at once.
Some people said, “I think only the Men in Green could do this. What do you think?”
By the time the Emperor announced the slaying of the Flame Dragon, that news had already been making the rounds on the streets. Slightly earlier, the Emperor considered that this might be a matter of national security. In order to make a judgement call on this issue as quickly as possible, this news raced up the reporting chain to the Emperor. However, that method resulted in the widespread circulation of rumors.
Almost everyone who heard the news wondered if their ears were working. After that, various ruling nobles sent envoys or even went in person before the Emperor to verify the truth with him. The Dragon’s head had appeared on the south gate in the morning, and by the time the highest authority in the Empire, Emperor Molt Sol Augustus released an official statement, it was evening.
Emperor Molt simply said, “Is that so” after hearing the report from Count Marx, the head minister of his Cabinet. After that, he gave an order -- dispatch troops to disperse the crowds, and have the head on the city gates brought into the Imperial Palace.
“Your, your Majesty, did you know about this beforehand?”
Count Marx was surprised by the Emperor’s calm reaction to this news, hence his question.
“It seems the canaries in the palace are starting to get uneasy. In the face of that, I have gathered my resolve. I will not be perturbed no matter the situation.”
The defeat of the Imperial Legions, the sudden earthquake, the collapse of the Senate Building, all these frightening events had occurred recently, one after the other. Perhaps it was because of these events and the promise of future ones like it that the Emperor said he had “gathered his resolve”. Still, his attitude toward bad news was quite surprising. Therefore, Count Marx was deeply disturbed as he stood before the Emperor.
“Mm. The news of the Flame Dragon’s demise has flustered some people. But this is not in itself a bad thing. Being able to eliminate a disastrous entity like that is a cause for celebration.”
“But it seems the situation is not as simple as you say…”
“I understand. The slaying of the Flame Dragon is a feat that has never been accomplished before and may never be done again. It is a feat comparable to a single soldier defeating an army or taking a castle. Should that Dragon’s slayer report his name, they will receive ample praise and compensation regardless of their origin or species. But that person has not yet come forward, which I cannot understand. It would make sense if that person was humble, but then why would a humble person put the creature’s head on display? It is a contradiction I cannot resolve.”
“Indeed. That person’s motives are unknown. Still, there should be some way for us to understand his actions...
“But perhaps I am thinking too hard, and trying to see something where there is nothing. If this person intended merely to inform the people of the Flame Dragon’s death… Count Marx, I hereby charge you with investigating who was the person who hung the Dragon’s head on the gate. If we can find out who did it, even if that person’s intentions are hard to grasp, we should still be able to gain a clue regarding them…”
Count Marx bowed with an “Understood” before leaving, with the intention of investigating as swiftly as possible. However, the Emperor called out to him before he could leave, and he turned back to the Emperor once more.
“May I serve you in some way?”
“Call Piña to me.”
“Piña-dono, you mean? From what I know, she is currently entertaining the ambassadors from Nihon… shall I summon her immediately?”
While a summons from the most exalted ruler of the Empire should be obeyed immediately, the person being summoned was carrying out an important duty of the state. So, should she be summoned, or not? Count Marx was waiting for that answer.
And then the Emperor changed his mind, and waved his hand as he continued speaking.
“Oh, that’s right. Tonight we celebrate the return of our countrymen. I should have attended that event, but I forgot.”
“Your Majesty, may I know what matter requires Piña-dono? If the need is great, I could…”
“Never mind. I will see her again at the celebration tonight. We can talk then.”
“If it pleases your Majesty, could you enlighten me with regards to your intentions?”
“Mhm. In truth, I intended to ask her about a report concerning the Men in Green. The report stated that the Men in Green drove the Flame Dragon away from a village. I had thought it to be a joke at first, but things being as they are, I feel it is worthy of further investigation.”
“From the looks of things, could it be that these people exterminated the Flame Dragon…?”
Count Marx looked profoundly disturbed as he said that.
“Mhm. Who are these Men in Green? Which country do they hail from? We must investigate this matter thoroughly. Then, I shall entrust you with that task.”
Count Marx dipped his head in respect while replying, “Understood” in a suitably deferential tone. Then, he muttered the words “Men in Green”, as though to carve them into his heart.
At this moment, the luncheon to welcome the Japanese ambassadors was about to begin in the southern palace of the Imperial Capital.
It was organized by Princess Piña Co Lada. In attendance would be various ministers, important Senators, military figures, patricians, as well as their accompanying spouses and daughters.
According to the Empire’s practices, if a foreign ambassador was present, they would be formally welcomed regardless of whether their nations were at war with each other. Otherwise, the subsequent talks and negotiations would not be officially recognized. Since this was the most important part of the process, the Emperor would speak words of welcome to the visiting ambassadors, which was in effect a formal guarantee of protection and free movement for the foreign ambassadors during their time in the Empire. After that, the foreign contingent could begin mingling with the Imperial diplomats.
And then, the Japanese had chosen to politely refuse this invitation.
The reason was because both sides had already done battle with each other, and the spectre of the Ginza Incident loomed behind both sides. In addition, the hostage return was not yet completed, and the Japanese government felt that treating each other as friends at the current moment would not be appropriate.
Therefore, Princess Piña came up with a solution that satisfied both sides — she organized a luncheon in her own name. After the luncheon, the guests from both sides would move to the adjacent hall, where a celebration would be held to welcome back the released prisoners. In this way, the Japanese would have a reason to be there, for the return of the prisoners. After that, the Emperor would show up in person to meet the Japanese guests.
It might have sounded surprising that the willingness of people to attend an event could change depending on what it was called. That kind of thinking could be considered laughable and pointless, from a certain perspective.
It was because of this pointlessness that adults needed excuses like “showing off” and “presence” in order to show up to these occasions. However the fact that people could think of these occasions as laughable and pointless was a sign of prosperity. Only a developed and mature society had the luxury of thinking of events in that way. Even without reams of rules and regulations, people could respect each other's’ boundaries and live while understanding each other. After all, in an undeveloped society, people would scoff at these values, perhaps even ignore them entirely, and life in that society would be chaos.
For example, it would be like a student at school being bullied and looked down on by their peers. One could imagine the final result of that.
Phenomena like these existed in the international community. In order to live in peace, one needed something to be proud of and which others could respect. Therefore, even the pointless things described above would prevent the seeds of future conflict from being sown. That was diplomacy. Unlike interpersonal relationships, there was no room for error in international diplomacy.
This extended to the peace talks as well. Although the objectives of both sides was to reconcile differences in opinion and clear up contradictions, since the talks would involve the reputations, traditions and customs of both sides, among other things, it made the process of these talks very complicated and troublesome.
However, a diplomat’s job was dealing with these problems and achieving a common understanding with people who were troublesome, but who had something worth trading for. In order to ensure both sides could come to a common understanding, even those pointless things as mentioned above might become part of a scheme.
With that in mind, the composition of the diplomatic party from Japan became obvious.
For example, there had to be around 20 politicians among the personnel going to the Imperial Capital, as well as several colonel-grade military officers, as well as a certain councilwoman called Shirayuri Reiko, who was Japan’s representative. Her job title had been changed from “Prime Minister’s Aide” to “Vice-Minister for Special Region Problem Countermeasures”.
This was done in order to address the arrogance of the Empire. Said arrogance was best expressed as “Since no other nation is our equal, a Senator from the Empire is automatically superior to a Senator from any other country.” The fact that she was present was a form of countermeasure employed against the Imperial diplomats, who were used to being arrogant and patronizing to their foreign counterparts.
The Empire did not have female ministers. When a female emissary came to the Empire, the assumption was that she must be some form of royalty. According to courtly etiquette, someone like her would be below the Emperor and the Imperial Household, but she would be above senior politicians and officials. This time, the Japanese delegation had chosen personnel in defiance of the Empire’s usual practices. In response, the Empire decided to lower the quality of their reception — in terms of etiquette, dress, and so on — of the Japanese by one grade below the highest possible level. In other words, the Japanese contingent’s welcome would be slightly poorer than the Empire’s highest standard, in order to preserve a sort of equality.
The preparations for all of these could be attributed to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs official Sugawara Kouji. Currently, he was introducing the key figures to Vice-Minister Shirayuri, as though he was showing off the fruits of his diplomatic labors.
“This is Lord Cicero, a member of the Senate.”
“Well met, Vice-Minister-dono. I had not expected the representative of Nihon to be a female. May I ask if there are many female ministers in your land?”
“No, there are not many. Even in my country, the politicians are usually male.”
“Thus, being able to hold your position must imply formidable ability on your part.”
“You flatter me. In truth, I was somewhat worried about taking this position.”
Her words made Cicero think of their earlier defeat, and he smiled bitterly.
“It seems we have been completely deceived. I was thinking the same thing when I met with Sugawara-dono, but it seems that the people of your nation are overly humble. Please be merciful to us on the negotiation table.”
After they had exchanged the minimum basic pleasantries, Cicero beat a hasty retreat.
With that, the Imperial diplomatic offensive was concluded.
In accordance with Japanese protocols, Vice-Minister Shirayuri Reiko wore an evening dress which was not fancy but yet not plain. In accordance with Imperial traditions, she lounged on a large couch. “It’s strange, this place.” she said to Sugawara in a tone that might have been taken as a complaint.
Sugawara explained, “We have no choice but to use the enemy’s capital as the place for negotiations. Do consider the speed of their communications. Normally, we would have begun talks in a neutral country, but given that the Empire uses horse couriers to pass messages, just about any disturbance could be used by them to send out a messenger to buy time…”
Shirayuri replied, “That’s not what I mean.” though those last words seemed somewhat ambiguous. Then she looked at the patrician ladies nearby. The way they dressed like Japanese people was quite surprising.
As an example, the upper crust of European society had been influenced by movies and television shows recently. Once a culture reached its peak and flourished, all sorts of strange and wondrous trends might emerge. For instance, people might wear big hats that made others ask “Isn’t it heavy?”, tied with ribbons that made people want to ask “What are those for?” as well as hairdos that were several times bigger than one’s head. And then there were designs which were unnaturally revealing, which showed off the curves of the body, and there were even outfits which resembled tropical birds...
Vice Minister Shirayuri’s son frequently watched anime, and these people looked just like the characters in those shows.
“I heard that the formal wear of males in the Empire was roman togas, so I assumed that their women’s clothing would also be in the Roman or Grecian style...
In truth, only their host, Princess Piña, had met her expectations, which confused her even more. Normally, there should not have been such sudden changes in fashion. At the very most, there should only have been slight variations from the basic styles. But given the two strikingly different styles before her, she was quite curious as to what had caused this to come about.
Fortunately for Sugawara, Shirayuri was only voicing her doubts, and not asking for a proper investigation.
The changes in Imperial fashion were result of contact with other cultures, and in a way, Sugawara was somewhat responsible for this. That being said, explaining the true nature of “Cosplay” to the ladies of the Empire would be difficult even for someone like Sugawara.
“Sugawara-sama? Can women become ministers in your country?”
The welcome party organized by Piña had successfully concluded, and right after that, the next event was about to begin. In the Japanese context, it would be like an after party following a wedding.
Unlike the previous welcoming party, the atmosphere of the next event was much more relaxed. People chatted and enjoyed fine food and drink, and the sounds of joy and laughter rang through the air. As expected, everyone had been wound up after the stiff lunch party for the ambassadors of the enemy.
In contrast to that, the purpose of this second party was to celebrate the return of 15 patrician men, who had been thought dead. The gathered family members lost themselves in the revelry, and it was only natural that the atmosphere was one of jubilance.
Because of that, the Japanese contingent seemed somewhat out of place. The delegates gathered in a corner of the room, sampling the food laid out on the nearby tables and exchanging notes about the key figures in the Empire as they awaited the Emperor’s arrival.
Just then, a voice called out in greeting to Sugawara.
Sugawara had been busy with translation duties and making introductions since the start of the previous party, and he was taking advantage of his spare time now to catch his breath. However, shortly after that, he was startled by that voice, and he was certain that the owner of that voice should not have been here.
His head began to ache as he slowly turned back to look at the source of that voice.
Standing by herself was the heiress of House Tuery, Sherry-san.
This young lady had just celebrated her 12th birthday several days ago. She was cheerful and adventurous, and her big round eyes made her look adorable. This girl tilted her head and smiled mischievously at the obviously startled Sugawara.
In the past, Sugawara had given Sherry a necklace of small pearls. That necklace now adorned her neck. In addition, she was wearing a dress which covered her whole body and made her look like a flower. The way she was trying to doll herself up and look like an adult was quite amusing.
“Sherry-sama, not tonight.”
Sugawara turned away as he said this. As a member of the Japanese delegation, he was wearing a tuxedo. Just then, someone tugged on his sleeve.
“Please don’t be so cold. I know you’re not interested in a young girl like me, Sugawara-sama. However, in four years’ time I’ll be a woman in my own right. Until then, I’m going to work hard to make myself into a woman who fits you, Sugawara-sama. So, please be kind to me. Treat it as a future investment. Then, next up... why don’t you introduce me to that lady minister of your country?”
Sherry’s eyes shone from her smiling face. She was confident that she would not be refused.
Just then, Sugawara was started to feel dizzy.
Even if she had boldly come over and spoken intimately to him. Sugawara could not treat this girl coldly, because she was a valuable connection to Marquis Casel. At first, he had thought his role to be that of a babysitter, but a misunderstanding had occurred somewhere and changed something in this girl’s heart. Since Sugawara was not good at looking after children, he decided to learn from Professor Higgins in “My Fair Lady”, giving her guidance on how to speak and act as well as teaching her Japanese. Perhaps that was what had caused the problem.
That said, to Sugawara, girls of her age changed their minds at the drop of a hat. At first, he had thought Sherry’s parents would not seriously consider this sort of thing, so he thought of maintaining a respectful distance to cool things between them, which might solve the problem. However the Tuery family had exceeded his expectations. When Sherry had made her feelings known, Marquis Casel, who was her caretaker, immediately named Sugawara as a candidate to be his future nephew, and began to take him seriously.
The reason for that was simple — political considerations.
At present, House Tuery did not have rich lands, nor did they count any capable officials or up-and-coming soldiers among their family. In order to improve their present circumstances, they would have to improve their ties to Nihon and make their presence felt in the diplomatic arena.
The surprising thing was that this idea was not the brainchild of the house’s adults. It was Sherry who had listed the pros and cons of the plan on her own accord in order to convince her father to support her pure love.
In addition, Sugawara was nearly 30 years old. As an elite diplomat, his future was worth watching. Ever since he had begun working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, his objective had always been to reach the highest ranks of that ministry. However, the ridiculous notion of becoming a new son-in-law of House Tuery, and that his intended wife was going to be a 12 year-old daughter of a nation over a thousand years behind Japan, was not only unheard of, but would actively hold back his career. In addition, it could be considered a crime, and Sugawara had no interest in young girls. Therefore, he refused to have anything to do with this mess.
From Sugawara’s point of view, it would have been much better to discuss wedding plans with the heiress of a first-class enterprise. Of course, looks and family background were not the only criteria. Anyone whose family background could exert great influence in the diplomatic field would also be desirable. For instance, someone who had connections with the great economic powers of Western Europe, and so on.
In any case, Sugawara had been using the excuse of work to avoid Sherry, but he had not expected to meet her here. House Tuery must have been quite something to bring a 12 year-old girl to this event.
“No, the one I shouldn’t be underestimating is this young lady…”
Sugawara sighed as he felt a bout of dizziness come over him. At the same time, he felt like he was being bound by something.
Sherry drew closer to him, and said in a voice like throwing a tantrum, “I haven’t seen you much recently, I’ve been feeling really lonely…”
“I’ve been busy recently. After all, my work is my priority. I hope you’ll understand.”
“Wah, I’m so happy! I always thought you treated our meetings as work. But little did I know you started taking them as personal meetings. I’m so happy to hear that~”
“No, no, that’s not what I mean…”
Sugawara tried to keep Sherry from hugging him, but the girl before him would not be denied.
“I’m so glad every time I see you. But this must be boring for you, is it not, Sugawara-sama?”
As Sherry said this, she grabbed Sugawara’s hand and pressed it to her developing chest. Now that she had him in his grasp like that, there was no escape.
“Or does this mean you’re already tired of me? Okaa-sama told me that no matter what kind of feelings I had for a man, I should not cross that final line. If not, he would treat me coldly. Sugawara-sama’s been so cold to me, that must be why, right?”
“It’s not like that! Sherry-san, please don’t say things in public that will damage people’s reputations!”
Sugawara lifted up his unpinned hand and frantically waved it to indicate “no”.
“Ah, that’s wonderful. I can tell from your words that you know what that legendary final line is, Sugawara-sama. But what does that mean? Okaa-sama’s lectured me about it before, but it seems I missed the chance to ask her about it and now I don’t know anything about it. Could you tell me, please?”
I’ll make sure to teach you properly! Sugawara shouted… in his heart, of course.
“Is this proper? Things like that should not be mentioned in front of many ears. The truth is that rumors are like the wind. One cannot see the wind, and people tend to make up things in their minds to fill in what they cannot see. Now, if crude people were to make up things in their own heads and spread them, it would lead to a terrible result. In the end, the lady in question will be worse off for it. Please understand that I am saying this because I am thinking about you.”
“Yes. I know very well that you think about me, Sugawara-sama.”
Sherry seemed to absorb that lesson politely and sincerely. And then she said, “Let us meet in private afterwards and talk, then. Promise me!”
Suddenly, another wave of dizziness came over Sugawara . He grabbed his head and groaned, unable to reject Sherry’s invitation.
“Now, for various reasons, I must now greet the Vice-Minister that my future husband serves. Sugawara-sama, please introduce me.”
“What are these ‘various reasons’? I won’t agree if you can’t explain them to me.”
Sugawara was still desperately trying to avoid the topic of becoming a son-in-law.
“Don’t say that. After all, there’s no harm in introducing me, right?”
“But how shall I begin?”
“In any case, please look over there.”
As Sherry said so, she indicated the Japanese delegation with Vice Minister Shirayuri.
“As you can see, the people of the Empire are merely clustered together and watching the movements over here. Wouldn’t that make this chance to mingle meaningless? Therefore, I shall set an example, and then the others will follow, ” she said.
At the present moment, the gathered nobles surrounded the released prisoners. They had no plans of even speaking to the Japanese, let alone understanding them. An observer would come away the impression that neither side had any intention of speaking to each other. After all, as nations at war, the people from both sides might well have lost people to the armies of the other. From the perspective of the Imperials, this was only natural. Sugawara and the others understood this too, so they also felt that there was no reason for either of them to try too hard to reach out to the other side.
“Well, this isn’t a big problem. The delegates have already spoken with the important people of the Empire, haven’t we?”
Piña’s welcome party had been organized for just that purpose. Afterward, all they would have to do was wait for the Emperor to show up, exchange pleasantries, and then the basic formalities of the peace talks would be complete.
And then, Sherry wagged her index finger while going “ch, ch, ch”.
“How naive you are, Sugawara-sama. To us, the people of the Empire, Nihon is an unknown quantity. Even a girl like me knows that your country has remarkable culture and frightening military power. However, how much do they know about the people of Nihon? I know full well that you are a kind man despite your cool exterior, Sugawara-sama. Of course, that is only limited to the special relationship I enjoy with you. I don’t know about the rest of your fellows. In addition, the leader of the Japanese delegates is female, and given the rumors I’ve heard, there’s reason to believe that the women of Nihon are incredibly vicious and powerful. I believe everyone is afraid to approach her under the effects of that misconception, fearing that anything they do might invite a brutal beating with fists or feet.”
Sugawara recalled the brutal melee in front of the Emperor, and the servicewoman who had beaten the Crown Prince half to death with her bare hands. He had been there at the time and remembered the incident vividly.
“It seems that the events of the night of the earthquake spread like wildfire. The people of the Empire are still worried about how long that peace will last, even if it is achieved. Have you considered that?”
Humans were creatures that sought to exorcise their fear by force of arms — “They are scary, so I must defeat them”. This impulse caused a chain reaction that might lead to the seeds of future conflict being sown, such as civil wars and the like.
The government of Japan had extended an olive branch to the Empire to avoid that sort of thing.
“Things being as they are, your efforts ought not be wasted. You need to work harder to achieve a common understanding with us.” this girl suggested. “That being the case, I, Sherry, shall set a good example. In this way, our countries will take a step toward mutual understanding, and this will be a great help to Sugawara-sama’s work here.”
Sherry batted her eyelashes as she finished, as though to ask Sugawara, ”How about that?” At this point, even Sugawara had to take her proposal seriously — her words were definitely worthy of consideration.
“Is she really only 12 years old?”
In Arnus, there was a girl who looked about as old as her, but who was actually over 900 years old. “Could it be Sherry-san is someone like that?” Sugawara thought for a moment. The words, “high and mighty” or “putting on airs” failed to do justice to this girl. Indeed, she was hard to understand.
With these thoughts in mind, Sugawara could not help but ask, “Sherry-san, were you hit by a truck in a previous life and reincarnated with memories of your past life?”
After listening to Sugawara, Sherry smiled adorably and said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about. You’re saying strange things, Sugawara-sama.”
At this point, Sugawara realised that he had been unconsciously affected by Itami. The man’s constant babbling of nonsense had left its mark on him, and he cursed his own lack of focus.
That being said, this girl called Sherry was wise beyond her years. And in truth, her optimism and vision was difficult for Sugawara to deal with. However, at this point in time, he had to separate his personal feelings from his evaluation of her proposal.
“All right, I get it, then let me introduce you. However, don’t get it wrong; I may have accepted your proposal, but that doesn’t mean I accept you.”
“Mm, I understand. I understand your true intentions, Sugawara-sama. Then, I’ll leave the rest to you.”
In search of guidance, Sherry thrust her hand out at Sugawara like a patrician lady.
“Does she really understand?” Sugawara had his doubts, but things being as they are, he had to take Sherry’s hand, knowing well what others around him might think.
“Your Excellency, my name is Sherry, a member of House Tuery, and I am pleased to meet you.” Sherry said as she curtseyed neatly before Shirayuri. Sugawara could not help but be impressed by her immaculate Japanese and her picture-perfect politeness. However...
“I have received much of Sugawara-sama’s affection. I hope to learn many more exciting things from him in future.”
As Sherry said this with a blush, Todo and all the other men of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs pierced Sugawara with their needle-sharp gazes. Their eyes seemed to be asking, “What have you done to this girl?” or “Sugawara, you’re finished.” They seemed to be revelling in their rival’s misery. Sherry’s words had not only devalued Sugawara in the eyes of others, but they had even put him in one hell of a fix.
“Thank you for your inquiry, my lovely young lady. Your Japanese is very good.”
“Your Excellency is most kind. After all, I have only studied phrases suitable for greetings.”
Sherry’s humble attitude, along with the Japanese she had learned in just a few months, reflected on the various things Sugawara had taught her and what he had spoken to her. The emphasis on “exciting things” was unmistakeable. Shirayuri bowed politely to Sherry after hearing that, and then fixed him with a judgemental look.
“Sugawara-kun, I trust you have not been irresponsible?”
“I have conducted myself with restraint.”
“That is good. In future, please avoid developments which might lead to unsightly consequences.”
“That goes without saying.”
The way Sherry had interacted with the Japanese contingent allowed the patricians to shed some of their tension.
As Sherry had predicted, the patrician ladies began flocking to Sugawara, asking to be introduced. Then, as though drawn in by the spectacle, the Senators and other Imperial worthies joined them.
This was how the talks between the Japanese diplomatic contingent and the Imperial patricians, which were also the first step in the peace process, began.
At this moment, the atmosphere in the hall was one of peace and harmony.
And then, as though aiming for this moment, one of the followers struck the ground with his staff, sending a sonorous sound ringing through the room.
“Announcing the arrival of his Imperial Majesty Emperor Molt, his Imperial Highness Prince Zorzal and her Imperial Highness Princess Piña!”
This was the first public appearance of Zorzal El Caesar as Crown Prince. Given his personality, he might have been quite cynical about it.
“Zorzal-sama. May I ask why you look so bothered?”
In response to Tyuule’s question, Zorzal slowed down and replied in a rough and agitated tone.
“Why do I have to meet with the Nihon delegates?!”
“This is public activity, and your Highness is the Crown Prince, so…”
“Dammit! What a pain in the ass!”
Tyuule has no choice but to jog behind Zorzal, given that her stride was shorter than his and she was wearing high heels which she was unaccustomed to. The corridor they travelled was dark and made of stone, so it was very slippery. Tyuule could not help but squeal as she almost tripped and fell several times. And now, Zorzal suddenly stood still and braced her with an arm that was as solid and stout as a log.
“Don’t you know how to walk, idiot? Also, I was not scolding you.”
“However, the mission from last time failed, and that was all my fault…”
“The ones at fault were the useless operatives. You just relayed a message, where is the fault in that?”
Ever since Zorzal had become Crown Prince, his attitude to Tyuule had slowly changed.
Of late, he had kept Tyuule by his side, without the chains and collar, and even allowed her to wear respectable clothing. Incidentally, Tyuule’s clothes were modelled after the latest patrician fashions. Not only was there barely any material to them, but they lushly illustrated the curves of her body. They seemed designed to embarrass the wearer. This form-fitting clothing was covered up by a long tunic. If a Japanese person was present, he might see it and think, “This must be a bunnygirl from some high-class nightclub.”
Zorzal slowed down so Tyuule could catch up with him, and spoke quietly.
“The antics end here. The most important thing is to gain the approval of the troops. In addition, we must maintain relations with the pro-war faction. Once the defeatists relax, we’ll pounce on them in one fell swoop, so now is the time for us to get some pawns for us to use.”
“Y-yes, I understand.”
“Ahh, what a pain! At a crucial time like this, I need to mess up their negotiations by any means!”
In his eyes, the end of a war meant a military victory, and a perfect victory would be icing on the cake. And now, the war was going to end without fulfilling either of these criteria. Zorzal felt that a conclusion like this did not sit well with the kind of country he intended to rule.
“Of course there is no such thing as an army which does not know defeat. However, in the past, the Empire has had situations where they were temporarily at a disadvantage. Yet, did the Empire not overcome these difficulties each time? After all, the army of Nihon is only defending the area around Arnus Hill, and they have no way of doing battle in the Empire’s domain. In other words, the enemy feels that invading the Empire is a tricky affair, which is why they are rushing to talk of peace. Has nobody discovered this yet?”
Anyone who realised that ought to know that it was possible to fight a war against Nihon. Yet, the Emperor had succumbed so easily to the request to make peace. These actions would only benefit the enemy, Zorzal was declaring.
Before long, the two of them had reached the end of the corridor, and the door to the hall lay beyond.
The Emperor and Piña appeared before his eyes. Zorzal was about to try and convince the Emperor, but one of his followers advised him not to make noise. After all, the gathering was on the other side of the door, and however thick the wood it was made of, a loud voice would still carry through it.
Zorzal resisted the impulse to shout, and then quietly but fervently tried to persuade the Emperor and Piña to forbid the peace proceedings.
But the Emperor did not listen to him, nor did he intend to support the Crown Prince’s demands.
“Zorzal. When the war began, nobody could have expected so many unexpected developments. Since things are not going according to our desires, we are best served by ending hostilities before the damage becomes too severe.”
“The Empire can still fight!”
“All the more reason to end this sooner rather than later. Once we can no longer go on… perhaps there may not even be the time for talks.”
“What happened to the pride of the Empire?!”
Zorzal was trying his best to keep his voice down, but even so, this was close to a shout. He kicked the wall and said, “To think Father was such a coward.”
At this embarrassing moment, Tyuule stepped forward to clear the air.
“Your Highness, the time is nigh. Please quell your anger.”
Since Zorzal was now the Crown Prince, he could not do as he pleased like he had in the past. In his current position, he had to make sure the ceremony for the return of their prisoners went well. Abdicating his duties and messing the ceremony up would be an unthinkable sin.
As Tyuule helped adjust Zorzal’s clothes, she surreptitiously looked at him and realised his foul mood was no longer present on his face.
After a few deep breaths, Zorzal managed to calm down. He might feel angry, but he had to nod.
“I understand. I will play my part at this ceremony.”
“It is as you say, your Highness. Please wish the prisoners well for returning to our soil.” Tyuule said in relief.
“Announcing the arrival of his Imperial Majesty Emperor Molt, his Imperial Highness Prince Zorzal and her Imperial Highness Princess Piña!”
As the herald spoke, the doors before them swung wide.
Just then, the brilliant light of the hall beyond shone on Tyuule.
But even that was only for a fleeting moment. As the sound of the doors closing carried through the long corridor, the shaft of light illuminating her grew narrower and narrower until the doors were shut. In the abnormally silent and darkened hallway, Tyuule lowered her head and muttered, “What a simple man.”
Then, she spoke, as though to someone, “Is everything ready?”
As she finished, a garbled voice came from a seemingly empty corner.”
“Yes, all is ready. We have made ample preparations, so please look forward to the results, kihihihihi~”
“I will not permit failures like last time. That is what comes of leaving the important work to others.”
“I have no excuses for the failure to assassinate Noriko. That is why I have summoned the elite of our tribe, Ukushi, Kakushi and Kurume.”
Three shadows suddenly appeared in the darkened hallway.
“Then, proceed. Let me see what havoc you can wreak.”
Tyuule grinned evilly as she raised her head.
The ministers, patricians, officials, officers and the others welcomed Zorzal and the others with a round of applause.
According to etiquette, the country’s leader would be first, followed by Zorzal, and then Piña. The imperial family would meet first with the ministers and senators, and then the Japanese delegates, who were the most important people in this event. The released prisoners were placed at the end.
However, when Zorzal arrived, he went straight for the prisoners, who were by the side and out of sight. Then, he began calling their names, and patting these confused people on the shoulder.
“Viscount Helm, you’ve returned!”
“Your, your Highness. Thank you for your concern.”
“You’re the son of Marquis Karasta, am I correct? Are you well?”
“I am grateful that a beaten officer like myself could receive your Highness’ concern…”
Zorzal smiled secretly. This event was to celebrate the return of their prisoners, so nobody had any reason to stop him.
Emperor Molt, Piña’s aides and the guests in presence had not expected Zorzal to misbehave himself and not play by the rules. They could only stare at Zorzal doing as he pleased, unable to interfere.
“Your Highness, perhaps it is time for yourself to return…” one of the aides nervously suggested.
Zorzal ignored the aide’s reminder. Instead, he began asking about the difficulties these prisoners had gone through. His ears were poised to listen to their complaints, and from his attitude he clearly opposed the peace talks.
The Emperor looked at his back, and sighed deeply.
“Leave him to it. He will speak to the captives, while I will proceed with the following events.”
After the Emperor’s statements, the events involving Zorzal had to be cancelled.
The Crown Prince’s willfulness made the guests frown, so everyone had no choice but to ignore him and go on with the proceedings.
However, Zorzal’s attitude moved the former captives. After all, ever since they had been imprisoned, they had spent every day under the supervision of guards who did not speak their language, fearing, “Will I be executed today?” or “Will I be sold as a slave tomorrow?”
In truth, they had not been ill-treated. What made them uneasy was the fear that they would be treated the same way the Empire treated their prisoners of war. If they regretted their actions, these imprisoned Imperial leaders would surely rethink their conduct in the future. However, it was now too late to think of such things. After all, as prisoners, they did not know what suffering they would meet in the future. In that climate of unease, the footsteps of their guards were like the sound of the Grim Reaper approaching. As they held their breath and listened, they feared that those footsteps would stop outside their cell door.
And now that they had returned safely to their country, they had to worry if they would be accepted by their people. After all, they were stained by the ignominy of having been taken prisoners, and they were worried that they would be treated coldly when they returned.
Because of this, the Crown Prince had disregarded the proper procedure and gone to the prisoners when he should have met the Japanese delegates. His warm words and comforting pats on the shoulder filled their hearts with warmth.
In addition, Zorzal’s concern for the prisoners was genuine, and not an act. After all, he had been beaten and insulted as they had. The events of the night of the earthquake were an indelible scar on his pride.
Ever since that night, the smiles of the maids as he passed them in the hallway felt like mockery; the whispered words of passing officials felt like they were criticizing him.
The only way Zorzal could preserve his pride was to tell himself, “That was a stratagem to make Father think I was useless.”
“All the headache-inducing things I have done up to now were on purpose.”
“Being beaten by a woman was painful, but there’s no need to dwell on it.”
Shortly after, his hard work was rewarded. The Emperor, who was reluctant to let go of his power, had named Zorzal his successor. This was because Zorzal’s antics made the Emperor think that he was a useless puppet who would dance on his strings.
However, after becoming the Crown Prince, he could not act as he wished. The wounds on his body had healed, and after applying dentures made of wyvern scale, his physical appearance had been fully restored. Zorzal decided to discard his previous act, and let others realise his true ability.
And then, the Emperor chose to disregard Zorzal’s actions.
Normally, without the Crown Prince, the events could not continue, but the Emperor simply said, “Let him be.” In the end, the others around the Emperor agreed with him and ignored Zorzal.
Zorzal sneaked a glance around him, and saw that the Emperor was greeting the Japanese delegates.
This was the time to formally recognize the Japanese contingent as ambassadors. After that, the Empire could officially begin the talks that Zorzal had so strenuously opposed.
At this time, the released prisoners pleaded with Zorzal.
“I should be grateful for the chance to return to our country, but I can’t just sit there and see our Empire bound by unfair terms.”
“Your Highness, give us a chance to wipe away our previous mistakes!”
They quietly pleaded with Zorzal to give them another chance.
“Be patient for a while. The war is not yet over. I will give you all an opportunity to show your true strength. I need more time.”
After hearing him, the prisoners looked at Zorzal with hopeful eyes and said, “We will obey you.”
Those eyes were the only ones turned to him. Normally, everyone in court should have been looking at him, the Crown Prince.
“Still, why did it turn out this way…?”
Zorzal gritted his teeth when he realised the Emperor had completely ignored him.
“Speaking of which, Princess Piña, do you know about the Flame Dragon’s head that was hung on the city gate?”
“I have seen it with my own eyes. Truly a heart-pounding sight.”
“I saw it too, but it did not seem as fearsome as the legends told. Flame Dragon or not, it seems anyone with a bit of skill could have taken it down.”
“Indeed, I concur. The legends spoke of many heroes failing to subdue the Dragon… could it be that they were just weak?”
The young patrician men were relaxedly chatting with Piña and sharing their thoughts. Under normal circumstances, the 10 ren (roughly 16 meters) area around her would be designated a danger area which all males should avoid as much as possible, but today seemed special, because Piña was surrounded by many boys.
Piña, who had been sampling food in the corner, was quite surprised by this development. At the same time, she was quietly watching them, to see what they planned to achieve by approaching her.
“Your Highness, you seem to be in a good mood.”
Piña nodded and replied, “Mm, I am.” The truth was that this was a joyous day for the Imperial Princess Piña Co Lada. She could finally shrug off the burden weighing down on her shoulders. During the Battle of Italica, the JSDF had made their strength abundantly clear, and during the visit to Tokyo, what she had seen in that country called Japan made her realise that continuing the war would be suicide. In order to avert the Empire’s destruction, she had to do everything she could to end the war with Japan. Because of that, on most days, Piña had gone around with a melancholy expression on her face.
Of course, she also felt that even if the basic aim was to make peace, the Empire should not roll over and accept every single condition the other side proposed. Otherwise, even if the Empire managed to limp along, the livelihoods of the people would be wrecked. When that happened, even the Imperial Capital would become an empty ruin which could not support human habitation.
Earlier, Sugawara had informed her of Japan’s terms in an informal manner… for instance, an astronomical sum of compensation.
If they tried to accumulate the money to pay up, even the neighboring countries would be plunged into an economic crisis, to say nothing of the Empire itself. Therefore, her new objective would be to find some way to lower the amount payable.
Although the peace talks had started, the situation was far more dire than fighting a battle. The Empire had very few chips they could use for leverage.
Even so, this was no longer something Piña had to worry about. The peace talks would be attended by representatives chosen by the Emperor. This meant that she only had to continue being a mediator for both sides, and maintain the relationship they had built with Japan so far. Of course, that included training up translators, arranging various activities, immersing herself in Japanese culture and other chores. Compared to that, the duties she had handled in the past were hardly worth mentioning.
As she thought about that, relief flooded through her heart.
The days of worrying about the Empire and being depressed by day and sleepless by night would be over. She could hand the cleanup after the party to Hamilton, and the thought of that freedom filled Piña with relaxation.
“I’ve felt this way before…”
She had felt the same way at the garden party she had organized with Sugawara, when she had successfully convinced the pro-war Senators about the importance of making peace.
However, after her brother Zorzal barged in all of a sudden, and learning that Count Marx was working against them behind the scenes, she had to take up the burden she thought she had put down. What kind of scheme was Minister of the Interior Count Marx hatching? Piña felt that whatever it was, it was not good, so she had no choice but to be on her guard.
After that, there had been several incidents which threatened to derail the peace process.
The brawl in front of the Emperor, the request to free the kidnapped Japanese, and the destruction of the Senate. There was even the attempted assassination of Noriko.
Every time one of these things happened, Piña’s gut would swell, her head would ache, she would get dizzy and nauseous, among other things, and deep wrinkles would appear on her brow.
However, these worrisome things would end today.
“Things being what they are, there’s no need to worry. No matter what happens, the peace talks will go though.”
After all the trials she had gone through to date, caution was now part of her personality.
Her pessimistic imagination was finally starting to cleave to reality. Given the current circumstances, no matter how hard Piña tried to imagine things, she could not visualize anything which could upset the present situation.
As long as nothing happens to Father, there’ll be no problems.
Because of that, Piña’s expression was one that only a successful individual who had overcome scores of difficult problems would possess.
In this calm and peaceful state, the curve of her lip and her soft, velvet cheeks broadcast a wave of feminine appeal that snared the souls of all the surrounding men.
“Oh, she’s too beautiful.”
“Your Highness. In future, please continue blessing us with your radiant smile.”
The patrician boys were entranced by Piña, and gathered to praise her grace and beauty. Feeling a little embarrassed, Piña held her face with one hand, curling her hair around her finger. At this point, she was doubly sure of one thing — she was feeling very relaxed now.
“So that’s what it was all about…”
Piña tried her best to put on a look of elegant grace.
“The Flame Dragon is not worth being afraid of, you say. I shall engrave those words into my heart. The Empire needs talented individuals like you gentlemen. However, nobody has discussed how best to harness your courage and ability. Therefore, I hope you gentlemen will voluntarily enlist, lead troops into battle, and burn brightly for the Empire.”
Once she finished, the stammered replies came in from all around her.
“Ah, no, well… about that…”
“My family has produced generations of bureaucrats, so I need to carry on the family tradition.”
And they all took half a step back.
“Aw, what a disappointment. If only you gents could enlist with the same courage you use to chase girls, I might become closer to you. Don’t you think so, Shandy?”
“Indeed, your Highness.”
The woman called Shandy Kaf Marea was one of the female knights who had been called back to the Capital along with Bozes in order to translate for the peace talks that would start tomorrow. She was only 17, but her linguistic knowledge could be put to use immediately in her role as an interpreter. Her chestnut brown hair was tied into a braid, and she radiated an air of elegant charm. Since Hamilton was busy today, Shandy took her place as Piña’s attendant.
“The doors of the Imperial Army will forever be open to you.”
“Mm. Currently, the Imperial Army is undermanned, so promotions will be easy. After all, we are still at war, so chances to prove yourself will be commonplace.”
“Exactly. Also, they say the country of Nihon does not trade in slaves, so if you are captured, you may rest easy.”
“And if that happens, you can rest assured that I will work to persuade them to release you. However, that might take around ten years…”
As she said this, the patrician youths started recalling urgent things to do, and they left in a manner that resembled fleeing. In an instant, the area around Piña was devoid of male presences.
“Hmm. Do you think I overdid it?”
Piña seemed to be scorning the boys as they fled, and she hmphed in disgust. At the same time, she coughed on something she brought up into her throat.
“I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing your Highness’ razor tongue in action for a while. It was a most refreshing experience.”
“It has been a while since I managed to vent on other people. I feel quite refreshed now.”
More accurately, she had not had the free time to mock people. One could imagine the pressures that had been dogging Piña up till now.
“But if nobody brought it up, I would not have known that someone hung the Flame Dragon’s head on the city gate. Is it true?”
“Indeed it is. I had my suspicions at first, so I went to verify it myself. The Flame Dragon looked like how the old people described it. Judging by its fearsome appearance, I am sure it is the real thing.
Piña coughed again, and quietly said, “Itami-dono, did you succeed at last?”
“Your Highness, while I believe it is only proper to relax after doing good work, stuffing your face with cake like that is like despoiling a natural landmark.”
Naturally, the “landmark” of which Shandy spoke was a stern yet beautiful thing.
After hearing that, Piña hastily washed down her cake with a mouthful of wine, and dabbed at her mouth with a handkerchief.
“Did Itami-dono succeed at last? I hope he is well…”
This time, she managed to speak those words out loud. Shandy applauded as she heard it.
“ I’m sure he’ll be fine.”
“Do you know the facts of the matter?”
“How shall I say this… I wrote the report myself. I was in Arnus before Itami-sama left, and I don’t know what happened after that, so I was worried as well. But it’s good that he’s made it through that trial intact.
Shandy’s joyful expression was as though she were describing her own activities.
Piña looked at her with surprised eyes, and then said, in a vaguely reproachful and suspicious tone, “So you wrote that report. I thought it was some sort of prologue to a heroic epic…”
“Your Highness, I hope you can praise me with a ‘Well done, Shandy’.”
Just then, a wave of pain shot through Piña’s head. Shandy’s essay was well-written, and it was plain that her appreciation of art had taken a great leap forward. However, objectivity was the essence of a report, and so Piña carefully reminded Shandy to take more care in future.
“The report was very detailed, so I have no doubts. However, writing Tuka into a man was too much.”
After that, Shandy shrank and said, “I’m very sorry.”
“Although, I eagerly look forward to subsequent reports. I am quite interested in how Itami-dono did battle with the Flame Dragon.”
“Indeed. Panache-nee-sama is collecting information now, and she will return soon. I am all wakuwaku in anticipation.”
“Yes, wakuwaku tekateka. It refers to a state where one’s heart beats rapidly, and one’s skin glistens. The meaning is roughly ‘my heart beats rapidly in anticipation, and my excitement is such that my skin glows from the thin layer of sweat upon it.’”
Shandy clasped her hands in front of her chest as she related the term she learned from Arnus, with a dreamy expression on her face.
As Piña saw this, she began to worry for the state of Shandy’s mental health.
“What’s wrong? Are you alright?”
“Yes, I am feeling very well. Although I left for Arnus on your Highness’ order, in truth I could not muster up the motivation at first. However, after witnessing several things for myself, I began to feel that I would have volunteered myself, even without your order…”
The truth was that Shandy had been given secret orders to seduce Itami. Because Panache, leader of the White Rose Knights, had been ordered to Arnus for language classes, Piña had intended to let Shandy inherit the position of the White Rose Knight Leader. However, Panache had stubbornly. said, “I wish to go to Arnus with Onee-sama”. Piña had given her those orders as a condition of sending her over. As a result, Shandy had been very interested in Itami’s activities.
“Haa… Let’s set this mission aside for the time being. Do not act without my express permission.”
“Ehh~ Whyyyyy~ You’re so meeeean~ yo~ur~High~ness~” Shandy pouted to Piña, her lips pursed like the mouth of a porcelain teapot.
This made Piña think of Shandy’s hobby; she liked to worship famous people. For instance, the champion of a martial arts tournament, or a handsome male actor amidst a sea of female actresses.
Anyone could see that a person who could defeat a Flame Dragon would be the object of admiration for a girl like herself. Still, while she might have been given the order of “seduction”, if she developed actual feelings for him, that would be bad.
“I’d advise you not to act incautiously around him.” Piña warned.
A few reasons came to mind, but to Piña, the most important — and most troubling — reason was that she did not wish to offend Risa, the source and a creator of the “fine art” that Piña so loved.
“But aren’t the two of them already divorced?”
“The truth about the relationship between a man and a woman cannot be easily learned by looking at the surface of matters. I lack experience with such matters and do not fully understand their mysteries, but I can be sure that they are always messy and troublesome. Shandy, even if you told me ‘I can’t hold back this feeling any more’, I would not relieve you of the mission you have been tasked with. Missions like these are hard to hand to someone that I do not trust completely.”
And if true feelings actually developed, Piña would have to consider the possibility of betrayal.
“Uuu… does that mean I won’t be able to go to Arnus anymore?”
“I don’t like that. I don’t like that at all. However… I understand, I’ll bear with it.”
Shandy drooped her shoulders in despair.
“Are you really alright?”
“I will… try…”
As she finished that, she puffed up her cheeks and looked up, her unhappiness plain on her face. In contrast, Piña was done reproaching her, and she stuffed her mouth with a dessert she had been holding. “Then, I shall personally view the Flame Dragon’s head. I believe it was at the city gate…” she said as she rose.
“Your Highness, you’ve stuffed your mouth again. Your cheeks are bloated, it is truly a crime against nature.”
This time, the “nature” of which Shandy spoke referred to her charm and presence.
Piña motioned to Shandy to wait as she hurriedly chewed and swallowed the food.
“These desserts are a gift from Nihon, it would be a shame if I did not try them. Besides, if you want to talk about eating habits, aren’t you eating as much as I am?”
“We are playing different roles. I may be a patrician, but since my status is low, a minor faux pas can be forgiven by everyone on account of my cuteness. However, your Highness’ beauty and refinement is a “charm point” in your position an Imperial Princess. Therefore, you must never do things which would sully your Highness’ image.”
“Mm, yes. And speaking of the Flame Dragon’s head, the Emperor has already ordered it taken down, so it is no longer at the city gate.”
“How… how fast.”
“It can already be considered fairly slow. After all, it has been there from dawn to dusk, and the gawkers blocked the roads up.”
Thanks to that, traffic in the Imperial Capital had been paralyzed all day.
“Then, where is the Flame Dragon’s head now?”
Shandy touched her chin with an index finger, a confused look on her face, but an instant later, she cheered up again.
“...it’s over there.”
As Piña looked in the direction which Shandy’s finger was pointing, she was just in time to see the Flame Dragon’s head being carried in.
The Flame Dragon’s head was very large, and very heavy.
It had required 20 strong soldiers to lift and move it. How had it gotten onto the roof of the gatehouse tower? She kept thinking about that point. Count Marx’s report had said, “Though we are still investigating, we have not learned anything significant so far.”
“To think nobody noticed despite it happening at the main gate. How sad is that?” the Emperor sighed as he furrowed his brows.
“I understand your Majesty’s displeasure, but please consider that the Imperial Capital is a metropolis of over a million souls. The crowds pass through the gate day and night. In addition, the gates have never been shut for over 200 years. The patrols only come by at fixed intervals. Once night falls, people will only focus on the ground beneath their feet, and not on what is above them.” Count Marx explained in a convincing tone.
A long time ago, the gates of the Imperial City would shut at nightfall, and then the sentries would look around with wary eyes, But now, wagons bearing goods came in and out even in the dead of night. Moving items around the city gate was nothing new, and would not attract attention.”
“It can’t be helped. However, the investigation must continue. In particular, the places frequented by the Flame Dragon. Pay attention to the tribes, settlements and the movements of our allies.”
After giving the order, Molt reached his hand out to caress the chin of the Flame Dragon’s head. He tapped it a few times to test its hardness. After feeling the feedback from the uneven and solid surface below his fingers, he stroked it to feel the wall of impenetrable armor its scales produced. It would be impervious to swords or bows. Its teeth were more impressive still. The smallest were the size of a grown man’s thumb, while the largest were as thick as a woman’s slender arm. It seemed the legends of Dragons being able to chew through stone towers were not exaggerated.
The Dragon’s eyeball was nowhere to be found, yet the empty socket was still bone-chilling.
This was the proper feeling that a Flame Dragon, bringer of terror and despair, should inspire. The head itself was already so large — the size of its body, from wingtip to wingtip and snout to tail, would beggar the imagination. From ancient times, legends of the Flame Dragon struck fear into the hearts of men, so people imagined it to be a beast beyond the bounds of reality. As it turned out, the truth of the beast was not far behind the legend surrounding it.
Before he realised, there were a crowd of guests gathered to look at the Flame Dragon’s head.
The gawkers were so frightened by the fearsome visage of the huge draconic head and its teeth that their bodies trembled.
Just then, Molt turned around and addressed the guests who were looking at the head.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please, take heed. This is the head of the Flame Dragon which appeared in the Imperial Capital and struck fear into the hearts of many. In the past, not only did it lay waste to cities, but it also slew many. The lives of the people were miserable beyond words. However, that accursed creature is now a corpse. There is nothing to fear from it. Let us treat this as a gift from the gods, and celebrate this memorable day!”
“Your Majesty, who was responsible for this?” an officer asked. The answer was one that everyone present was looking forward to.
“The facts of the matter are not yet clear, and I have heard that there are people spreading lies about this. No matter what, we cannot make a hasty decision about this, so I feel this matter should not be discussed here. After the appropriate investigations are made, I will make sure I enlighten everyone on the subject.”
After that announcement, Emperor Molt left.
Then, as though to fill the gap he left, the ones watching from far away came closer, bringing their faces close to the surface of the Dragon’s head. Some even went to touch the gaps between the Dragon’s teeth, and they all discussed their opinions of the head.
Molt turned around as he heard Piña’s voice. “Oh, Piña, I was looking for you.” he said. Then he stepped out of the crowd, in order to touch his daughter’s shoulder.
Piña asked her father, “Did the Men in Green do this?”
“Indeed. Earlier, when I received your report, I could hardly believe it, so I merely skimmed it. Now that I think about it, I must thank you for your hard work.”
“Please, do not blame yourself so. It could not be helped. The fact is that when I drafted the report, I could scarcely believe it myself.”
“Then, have you learned anything new? We must reward them for their great achievement.”
“Five people went forth to purge the Flame Dragon: Itami, Rory, Lelei, Tuka and Yao. I sent someone to observe their movements. Perhaps you could ask her for more details.”
Piña introduced Shandy to the Emperor as she explained herself. Molt seemed particularly interested in one of the names.
“You mentioned Rory?”
“Yes. That would be the Apostle of Emroy, Rory Mercury.”
“Oh, if she was part of their group, then the elimination of the Flame Dragon would be a matter of course. Still, it is hard to believe someone could persuade one of the Apostles, revered in the same breath as the gods, to lend her aid. Perhaps it was a whim of hers? ...Although if that is the case, the glory will go to the gods, and not to the Men in Green, as the rumors say.”
“That would be incorrect. Itami Youji is one of the Men in Green.”
“Itami? That name sounds familiar.”
Piña nervously said, “He was… the man who struck Ani-sama, before your presence.”
Molt muttered, “So it was him.” with a crestfallen look on his face.
“So the Men in Green are enemies after all… Then, how about the others?”
“Tuka is an Elf of the Rodo Forest, while Yao is a Dark Elf of the Schwarz Forest.”
Perhaps he was displeased, but the Emperor seemed more and more depressed, muttering, “More non-humans.” Then, when he heard Shandy’s words, he cheered up and smiled.
“The last member of the group was Lelei La Lelena. She is a disciple of Sage Kato, and a resident of Coda Village.”
“Oh, that Master Kato! Is she human?!”
Shandy was a little confused by the sudden change in the Emperor’s attitude, but she answered him.
“Y-yes, she is. She is one of the Rurudo people… she seems to have settled in Coda Village so we can consider her a citizen of the Empire.”
The Emperor nodded, smiling brightly as he muttered, “Yes, yes…”
“Marvellous! This is truly welcome news. I am relieved to hear that a member of the Empire aided in the slaying of the Flame Dragon. Piña, find that Lelei person and invite her here. Listen well, this is an order. You must accomplish it by any means necessary. Do you understand?”
Emperor Molt was suddenly overjoyed, as though a switch had been flipped within him. Then he spread his arms, and announced the news he had just heard to all the guests.
The unexpected thing was the vigorous applause that news garnered.
The mood in the hall had been pleasant enough, but people had not overly displayed that joy. That was because the people in the Empire did not wish to have to loudly thank an outsider for slaying the Flame Dragon. To members of the ruling class, doing so would be gravely regrettable and damaging to their pride. However, if they could praise a member of the Empire for exterminating the Flame Dragon, that would be a different matter. It would be something about which they could be proud.
In this world, those who made great accomplishments not only earned great glory for themselves, and it would be a potent diplomatic tool for their countries of origin. If someone could win the approval of other countries or tribes, then once that exalted person showed up, even his fellow countrymen would benefit from the glory reflected of him, and their influence would skyrocket.
For example, someone like this would be like an athlete who gathered all manner of Olympic gold medals and world cups to himself. While such a person may not exist, if such a person did exist, he would be praised by all the people of the world, who would gather to cheer in unison, “Incredible, incredible” for him.
Starting with the Elbe Kingdom, many other tribes and nations had bestowed knighthoods or honorary chieftainships on Itami, one after the other. They did this to draw closer to him, and gain benefits from affiliation with him. Thus, their actions were not purely to praise him.
Similarly, the Emperor would laud Lelei for her accomplishments. The answer to the question, “Where does Lelei La Lelena, pupil of Master Kato hail from?” would spread through the Empire and its surrounding territories like wildfire.
And of course, the happier the nobles were, the more upset a certain man became.
The black flames of jealousy burned fiercely in Zorzal’s heart. Hatred flowed throughout his body, and he clenched his fists so hard the nails broke his flesh and caused his blood to flow. He glared viciously at the Dragon’s head and at the Emperor himself.
“Dammit… What’s so great about killing a mere Flame Dragon?”
As the Crown Prince, Zorzal had no choice but to endure the ignominy of being ignored, while someone who was not even here earned the praise and respect of everyone present.
To Zorzal, that was an unforgivable sin. It was absolutely unforgivable that he was not the one being praised by all, that he was not the one bringing victory and glory to the Empire. Nor could he forgive the man who made that announcement. If pressed, he would say it was because the name he announced was not Zorzal, but that Lelei La whatever. Why was he praising an outsider so generously, but his own son, not at all?”
Unforgivable. This is absolutely unforgivable. I want to kill them all. That man, that Lelei, I want to kill them all!
After that, the hatred in Zorzal’s heart seemed to have become a form of strength.
“Everyone, let us drink a toast in celebration of this joyous occasion!”
Emperor Molt led everyone in the toast, as the clinks of glasses echoed back and forth throughout the hall. Just then, a golden wine goblet fell to the ground.
Following which, a scream shattered the sudden silence.
Before anyone could react, the Emperor had fallen on his back, facing the sky.