“Your Highness,” he called out, then abruptly fell silent.
The one before him was undoubtedly the crown prince of Mephius. However, as he currently had a tankard of beer filled to the brim in his right hand, while his left one was firmly wrapped around the waist of a half-sitting prostitute, that particular form of address was completely inappropriate.
“Your friend calls you ‘Your Highness’?” The prostitute laughed, visibly amused.
The crown prince of Mephius opened his mouth wide as he roared with laughter. “That’s his way of being sarcastic. Look at what an educated face he has. Whenever he wants to look down on the ignorant me, that’s how he calls me.”
The Prince gulped down his alcohol. However, when he cleared his throat with a sullen expression, the crown prince shoved away the prostitute, looking rather fed-up.
“Go along, there’ll be complicated talks about national affairs from here on. Can’t hold them in front of a tart.”
“What’s that, Idiot!” The prostitute puffed out her cheeks at the harsh words. But her rouged lips immediately curved into a smile. “Well then, see you, ‘Your Highness’. Next time you’re around, please look me up.”
She gave him a formal curtsy and then, laughing shrilly, she started throwing flirtatious glances at other customers. A few minutes later, her backside was already sitting on yet another man’s knee.
The air was filled both with the stench, close to the odour of beasts, of alcohol turned sour, as well as with the incessant din of lewd jokes, of rogues raising their voices angrily, and of the laughing cajoling of prostitutes.
“You really are careless,” the crown prince smiled cynically, “Marching into a place like this, you stick out like a sore thumb. Here, drink.”
“Aren’t we friends who used to have drinking bouts until dawn in the old days? Oi, you lot, some decent booze for Lord Jurome.”
‘Lord Jurome’ was the nickname that he gave him when they wanted to hide their identities.
He sighed again. “I can’t take those kinds of excesses anymore, Argos.”
Given where they were, he called the crown prince by his alias.
‘Argos’ flashed his teeth. “You sound like an old man. Since you’re three years older than me, you shouldn’t even be thirty yet.”
“I’m not that young anymore. The same goes for you, Argos. At the very least, you can’t keep going out all night without a single thought to your own safety.”
“If we’re talking about settling down, you go first. I’m prudent by nature. Once I’ve watched you set up a family, and after you’ve provided me with enough reference material, then I’ll take my time carefully choosing a bride.”
“What’s this about you getting married, Argos, Your Excellency?”
A man at the same table turned his ruddy face towards them. His head was wrapped in bandages. Blood was still seeping through them. It was not only him; the dozen or so men at the table all had injuries to their faces or limbs. It was hardly surprising. Only a few days earlier, they had all been standing on a battlefield awash with murderous roars.
“If you’re choosing a bride, go for a woman from the southern coasts. The women from Zonga especially, their passion runs deep and their chests are abundant. Not only that, in a fight, they’ll use the self-defence swords they got from their parents to protect their man.”
“You can only talk about what you know, but this guy doesn’t know any other kind of woman, Excellency,” another man barged in. “Now I’m an expert on this point. I’ve even slept with island girls from Baroll. If you want to feel like there’s a fire burning beneath your skin, there’s nothing like them.”
“Nonono, noblewomen from Ende are the way to go. They’re not like clodhopping Mephian women, they’re cultured and refined. And more importantly, they have smooth skin! There’s a story about those fat merchants from the northern coasts offering to exchange their own weight in gold for them when they all pleaded with the Ende nobles.”
The number of people chiming in kept increasing and it turned into a review of the women of each country. The man referred to as Lord Jurome was the only one who did not get involved, instead staring up at the ceiling towards which smoke was gently wafting.
All of those around the table were old, familiar faces. But if you compared them to the informal ‘pre-battle ceremony’ that they had held in a similarly cheap hostel before going to war, the number of people had decreased.
They had lost the battle.
The bullets threatening at their backs and the raised swords and axes had created the sensation of a wind of steel that had buffeted both Jurome and Argos repeatedly. No matter how much alcohol he drank, the scenes of his friends falling in front of his eyes would not vanish from Jurome’s retinas. Yet even so, Argos and the others still joked around idly and gulped down cheap alcohol, just as they had during that ‘pre-battle ceremony’.
Strangely enough, that battlefield was the same one on which Argos – the crown prince of Mephius, had taken part in his first campaign.
That had been eight years ago. The land that they had seized from their neighbouring country, Garbera, at that time had been snatched back by an army led by King Jeorg Owell in person.
The crown prince’s forces had steadily been cut down, and he had lost a great many of his men. Even so, his thirst for victory was insatiable and Argos had every intention of fighting to the bitter end, but had been forced to turn back when he received direct orders from his father, the emperor of Mephius. Thereupon, the first place he had headed for was this tavern.
Eventually, having settled his bill, Argos left the store with just Jurome in tow. They headed towards the stables. Argos, ever generous, handed an excessively large tip to a pimply-faced stable boy. Then, ignoring the boy’s repeated thanks, he leapt onto his still-fastened horse.
After that, Argos spurred his horse into a gallop and sank into such morose silence that it seemed hard to believe that he had been merrymaking at the tavern.
Jurome followed him, also in silence.
They halted their horses at the usual place.
They were at the top of a hill that commanded an unbroken view of the centre of Solon. Normally, several soldiers on watch would be stationed there, but Jurome had gone there a little earlier and had asked them to turn their posts over to him. Thanks to that, there was no sign of anyone around.
The ‘Black Tower’ rose tall in the middle of the twinkling lights from the houses.
“About that topic a while back…” Jurome said as he sat down beside Argos, who was lying sprawled in the grass.
“A while back?”
“About your bride.”
“Oh,” Argos pulled an uninterested face and turned on his side, half covering his head as he did so.
“Think about it seriously. It’s high time. Since you became the crown prince, it’s no longer your problem alone.”
“Do I have to?”
“Of course you do. For you who are going to be emperor, Mephius is a bit like your own child. There are parts that a father alone cannot see. For a child, a mother is obviously needed. You have strong arms to lift a child up, but you don’t have breasts to give it comfort.”
“No, alas,” taking it as a joke, Argos stifled his laughter. “If you’re going to bring that topic up again, then all I have to say is, what about you? Do you have a woman in mind?”
“Alas as well.”
“If you get too annoying, I’ll use the authority of the imperial family to push a bride onto you. But only after having picked all the most unattractive aristocratic girls and having drawn one by lots.”
For nobles to get married, the permission of the Mephian imperial family was needed. Moreover, as Argos had mentioned in jest, the imperial family could decide on a noble’s marriage partner, and even had the right to order a divorce. Thus, when nobles got married, they needed to pay a heavy tax to avoid seeing them use those rights. In other words, since the whole point was the tax itself, just like the right to the first night, there were hardly any historical cases in which they had exercised those rights, so that you could say that this authority was purely nominal. Jurome grimaced nonetheless, probably feeling that his old friend was capable of anything.
Argos laughed all the more. And then he once again fell silent.
“His Majesty has become a coward,” the crown prince said abruptly. “I heard that back when he stood on the battlefield in person, at least he wasn’t like that. And in this last war too, although it’s true that for a moment, we were being pushed back by the enemy, but we should have held out. That war was winnable.”
“The enemy brought out an impressive amount of airships,” Jurome chose his words carefully. “Whereas we didn’t even have enough riders; the difference in mobility was huge. His Majesty had probably calmly assessed the situation. Don’t be impatient. He foresaw that there would be a ‘next time’ once we’ve worked out enough counter-measures. We’ve only lost for now.”
“Once we’re defeated, soldiers lose their morale. It can chip away at the country’s unity.”
“What, Simon?” Pulling an unpleasant face, the crown prince called him by his real name. “Whenever you use that tone of voice, it means you really are going to act like an old man.”
“Well then, let me ask you something, Guhl,” Simon Rodloom shut one eye. “You’re saying that once you’re sitting on the emperor’s throne, you will continue to win, no matter what kind of war it is or who the enemy is?”
“Of course,” Argos – no, Guhl Mephius, immediately replied.
Oh – Simon hummed again. “An emperor is not a god, Guhl. Even though he has the highest authority in the country, he cannot freely make use of the entire country, or of the people’s lives.”
“No, he has to be a god, Simon.” Guhl suddenly stood up straight. Gazing straight ahead, he took the sword at his waist in his hand. “Or at the very least, the retainers and the people have to think of him as a god-like existence. If they do so, their spirits will be united, and with the country as one, it will demonstrate a strength not to be defeated by anyone. And then there won’t be any unnecessary victims, and nor will any needless fights spring up within it.”
“Of course, my father has his own Mephius, as I have my image of the nation. It’s like your theory about it being like child-rearing. I’ll make my child grow up big in my own way.”
“Your Highness Guhl…”
“I’ll worry about a bride after that,” Guhl looked at Simon, who had also stood up, from the corner of his eyes. “Honestly, I haven’t even thought about it. Right now, you’re basically my wife.”
He then closed his eyes. What appeared in the darkness that fell before his retinas was probably the same thing that Simon had seen in the cheap ale-house. As proof of that, Guhl said in a voice that was almost a whisper,
I’m glad you didn’t die.