Apta Fortress. A border citadel located in the South-West region of Mephius that was encircled on three sides by massive ramparts, while the west side abutted on the overhanging cliffs. Directly beneath it, the Yunos River flowed from south to north.
The fortress’ interior was designed to hold a population of five thousand. The day had faded, and surveying that panorama upon which darkness had descended, stood Vileena Owell.
At fourteen years old, she had recently travelled all the way from Garbera to marry the Crown Prince of Mephius, Gil Mephius. Her appearance retained some childishness, but particularly impressive was that if she glared at someone with hostility, it could make one feel as if they were being cut.
The wind was somewhat cool and carried a faint trace of moisture; she had several times heard the local people chatting about how heavy rains might fall before long.
The restoration work in Apta was currently being continued even throughout the night. Vileena’s eyes were idly following as lamps were lit here and there, when she spotted different lights to the east side of the fortress.
The row of flickering lights drew nearer to Apta and, as they were allowed through the castle gate, Vileena revised her first thought that this was a night raid by Ax Bazgan’s forces. In all likelihood, these were General Oubary Bilan’s troops; she had heard that they were due to arrive at Apta any day now.
As the row of lights finally passed through the castle gates and into the fortress’ interior, Vileena turned her gaze towards the sky. The thick clouds hung low, so that not even a single star could be seen. She sighed for the umpteenth time that day.
“So this is where you were, Vileena-sama.”
Theresia approached from behind her. She had been at her side since Vileena was born and had served as her Head Maid since their days in Garbera. Although her hair was streaked with white, both her figure and heart remained young.
“It seems that another of those tiresome banquets is being held in the hall again today. However this being the princess, you were somehow able to decline attending, were you not?”
“Ah”, Vileena nodded. “Say, Theresia.”
“What kind of things would make a man cry?”
While Theresia was at a loss at the unexpected question, Vileena continued to look up at the sky from where she stood on the barracks’ rooftop.
“More than that, to be wailing like a child, to look as though his body and his world were shattered. …It was the first time I saw something like that. That a man can cry like that.”
Theresia was wise also: questions such as “Who is this about?” never left her mouth. In a quiet voice, she merely asked:
“Did this happen in front of you, Princess?”
“No.” Her abundant platinum hair undulated as she shook her head. “Accidentally… Yes, I only happened to see it by chance.”
After a short pause, Theresia said: “However it may be, gentlemen probably aren’t so very different from ladies. For gentlemen, the way of doing things is to put on manly airs in public, yet even gentlemen are creatures who have delicate, fragile hearts.”
“Theresia, you truly are knowledgeable.”
“Even if it seems so, it is because I have lived more than twice as long as Vileena-sama.”
While the princess thought that let alone twice, it was more like three times as long, those words never left her mouth as she simply chuckled. Keeping a straight face, Theresia continued:
“That is why I think that a man’s reason to cry where no one will see or know about it is probably not so very different from what Vileena-sama’s reasons would be.”
That thought had never occurred to her. As Vileena reflectively agreed, she seemed to be remembering her own past. When she was very young, she remembered sometimes crying after being scolded by her grandfather. Because she loved him very much, she had felt mortification at not being understood and a dread of perhaps being hated by him. Of course, nowadays, she realised that her grandfather loved her unconditionally.
Also when she was very young, she had cried when her brother Zenon had returned wounded from the war. Although Prince Zenon was thirteen years older than Vileena, she adored her strong, kind brother, and he also doted on his much younger sister.
And going back not even a year, there was the time she had had to resign herself to taking second place in the airship race held in Garbera. At the open celebration after the race, Vileena had showed a smiling countenance, but when she had returned to her own room and after dismissing her attendants, she had fallen onto her bed and wept alone. She had been so confident in her skills. As she shed countless tears from the frustration of not achieving victory, she felt that her entire life would be tarnished by that disgrace.
And after that… was Zaim Fortress.
The Garberan general Ryucown had raised the banner of revolution and occupied Zaim Fortress. Ryucown had once been Vileena’s betrothed. Even though they had met only a few times, he gave her an impression of masculine sincerity – in that sense, he resembled her brother Zenon – and surely because of that, Vileena had held a favourable opinion of him. She had neither knowledge nor interest in love between a man and a woman, but she had a faint premonition that if were Ryucown, she would be able to love him all her life.
It was such a man that, after a year’s separation, she had confronted at Zaim Fortress. Vileena had believed that if she could meet Ryucown directly, she would be able to remonstrate with him. He who had the heart and soul of a knight surely loved Garbera, the country of knights, above all else. However, when she had tried to reason with him, she understood that more than for his beloved Garbera, to get closer to his ideals – that was the reason he rose in rebellion. She also realised that he was no longer someone who could turn back.
Not only that, Ryucown had unsheathed his sword and pointed it towards his lord’s daughter, Vileena.
At that time, Vileena had cried. Not out of fear. As he was, Ryucown’s determination was pitiable. She had been unable to stop him and had grieved at her own powerlessness.
Cutting the thread of the reminiscences she had been going through one by one, Vileena shook her head. Burned clearly in her mind was the sight of Gil Mephius as she had seen him from behind: heartbroken, on his knees and wailing. It was the time immediately after the imperial prince’s return from Taúlia. In a castle room whose ceiling had collapsed, bathed in the fading evening light, Gil Mephius had been sobbing. He had seemed like a completely different person from the prince who had taken command during the battle and who had laid that bold and minutely thought-out trap.
Seeing him like that from behind, Vileena had caught her breath. Had not the conflict with Taúlia ended in line with Gil’s strategy? Or had there been some devastating setback to the peace which should have been warmly received?
She hadn’t been able to ask him. Somehow, driven by the feeling that it would be terribly wrong for her to see more than she already had, Vileena had turned away from there as though running away.
Could it be that someone close to him was killed during the fighting?
While the battle with Taúlia had ended in a complete victory, it couldn’t be said to have been achieved without there being a single victim. Among the Imperial Guards, there were particular individuals such as Shique or Hou Ran who appeared to share an especially strong bond of trust with the prince.
Perhaps one of them was killed?
If that was the case, what could she do to help the prince? Since he was of course a man, he probably wouldn’t want a girl to have seen him crying, so she hesitated to ask him directly.
From the start, ignoring the issue had never been an option for Vileena. Although in doing so she sowed the seeds of distress within herself one after another, she wasn’t even aware of this troublesome nature of hers, as she hummed out loud.
The uproar from the banquet downstairs that they had been able to hear until just now suddenly stopped. Vileena and Theresia looked at each other. Before long, they heard a woman scream. With that, the clamour started up again however it was obviously different from the previous merrymaking. Above all,
“So-somebody stop him!”
“Prince! Please stop, prince!”
Those shouts clearly reached Vileena’s ears.