“Crown Prince Gil Mephius.”
Even though he himself had shouted out the name, Nabarl Metti could not believe that the person before his eyes was real.
He had never spoken in person with the prince but he had seen his face when at Court. That face was identical to that of the person in front of him. He was almost certain of it. Nonetheless, Nabarl’s mind was in turmoil since Crown Prince Gil Mephius had lost his life right here, in Apta, and should no longer be in this world. Nor was it limited to Nabarl; his nearby subordinates, and even the war prisoners who had ridden in the same boats from the opposite shore of the River Yunos, were in the same state. Everyone was holding their breath and wore identically astounded expressions. It was as though time had stopped in that instant, until the man before Nabarl’s eyes suddenly bent down and picked up something that had tumbled to the ground.
It was the sword which had dropped from Nabarl’s hand just a moment ago. Its glittering tip which, just like the surface of the river, blindingly reflected the light of the morning sun, was offhandedly thrust towards Nabarl’s own neck.
“Nabarl, was it? You’ve got quite some nerve to point a sword at me.”
“Ah, n-no, that was…”
“I know. It’s the proof that you’re diligent in your duties.”
The man who had exactly the same face as the prince and who talked in exactly the same voice as the prince smiled faintly, and returned the sword to Nabarl’s waist.
The colour drained from Nabarl’s face, just as the energy did from his entire body, leaving him looking faint and about to collapse at any moment.
Imperial Prince Gil Mephius left Nabarl in that state and started walking briskly. The soldiers hurriedly made way. He continued on, the rows of their bewildered faces flanking him on either side. Rogue Saian and Odyne Lorgo followed a little behind him.
As they climbed up the path carved into the cliff, cross-shaped stakes came into view, driven into the ground of the open training space. There were more than fifty of them. Tied high up on each one were men who were stripped almost naked. Gil pointed to them.
“Aren’t they all former Imperial Guards?” he asked.
“Aye’” replied Rogue.
“Didn’t I ask you, General Rogue, to look after them in an earlier letter.”
“Indeed. They were once serving under me.”
The prince curled his lips in a way that did not make it seem like he was amused. “And yet now, they’re tied up. Certainly, most of them are former slaves so they must be guilty of some kind of lapse.”
“No. Given that His Majesty the Emperor has stated that the west had robbed Your Highness of your life and that testimonies from the Imperial Guards differed from that, Sir Nabarl deemed them to be suspicious and was going to have them executed.”
“That’s strange. As to why it’s strange… Well, I’m still alive. Aren’t I, Odyne?” keeping his eyes lowered, Odyne Lorgo gave a slight nod. “I’ll take charge of them again. That fine with you, Rogue?” “The prince’s word is my command.”
Both Generals Rogue and Odyne interacted perfectly naturally with the prince, as though he had never been gone – or in other words, as though he had never been believed dead. In actual fact, their feelings, as though shaken by a tempest, were just as chaotic as Nabarl’s, but they did not let it show on their faces.
Nabarl caught up with them at that point.
“P-Please wait, Your Highness.”
“What is it?” the prince did not even look at him.
Sweat glistened on Nabarl’s rather fat cheeks. “H-His Majesty, this… Does he know that you are alive, Your Highness?”
“Right now, I don’t have the leisure to be giving an account of every little thing.”
“H-However, on His Majesty’s orders, Apta is currently under my jurisdiction. And so are those former Imperial Guards.”
“So then, was their execution ordered by my father?”
Nabarl was unable to utter another word. Sentencing the former Imperial Guards to execution by firing squad and undoubtedly been his own doing. Even though he had made that decision based entirely on the belief that the emperor would not object to it, he could not help but hesitate to carry it out now that it was being stopped by Gil Mephius, the heir to the throne.
Gil pressed forward in silence towards his intended location.
A crowd of people were gathered in that open space. Since it was usually used as a training ground for the dragons, it occupied an especially wide area within the fortress.
The execution of the former Imperial Guards, bound at the stakes, that was scheduled to take place was currently on hold. There had been a report earlier that Taúlian soldiers had appeared on the opposite bank of the River Yunos, and Nabarl’s subordinates, as well as the generals, had all left because of it.
The people of Apta had been watching the execution of those involved in the prince’s assassination from the other side of the palisade, but at this point, most of them had scurried home. Even those who had stayed behind, only to see things through with their own eyes, were understandably anxious.
For their part, the soldiers who had their guns at the ready were restless and looked as if they were wondering whether they would be ordered to intercept the enemy. The same held true for Gareth, the one who was in charge of them and also the one who had originally proposed that the Imperial Guards be executed.
At long last, General Nabarl could be seen returning along the road on the western side. Rogue and Odyne as well. The soldiers who were likewise following in succession were not wearing tense expressions either. At any rate, it seemed that Taúlia had not trespassed across the border.
However, sensing that something even stranger was going on, Gareth closed his mouth shut.
The people’s gazes were also spontaneously attracted to a certain point, and then, as though by common agreement, their mouths all dropped open vacantly.
Apta had only just greeted the morning but, for a moment, in that one corner of it, a silence as still as death reigned. Gareth, the soldiers who had been about to pull the trigger at his command, the former Imperial Guards whose four limbs were bound to the cross-shaped stakes, and also the people of Apta. Nobody uttered a sound.
The crunching sound of footsteps from the line of soldiers treading firmly across the ground was strangely loud. Then in that moment someone cried out –
“It’s the Prince!”
From the other side of the palisade, one of the children pointed towards the head of the group. A man who appeared to be his father hurriedly caught him in his arms but, as though it had been a cue, a commotion ran throughout the surroundings.
“That person is…”
“I-Impossible. It can’t be.”
“No, but… Any way you look at him…”
The people did not erupt in delight but simply looked at each other as though hoping that someone would be able to transform their doubts into conviction, then had their eyes irresistibly pulled back in the same direction – towards the person with the same face as Prince Gil.
Although the Imperial Guards, who had been awaiting execution, and the riflemen, who had conversely been about to carry out that execution, all had their eyes open round in surprise; none of them could formulate any definite words or approach to the situation.
The temporary execution site was filled with a bizarre atmosphere.
Amidst it, Rogue Saian separated himself from the line of men and surreptitiously called for his subordinates. These soldiers had been lying hidden and, the moment the execution began, they had been going to save the Imperial Guards and restrain Nabarl and Gareth.
They received new orders from the veteran general and, although somewhat bewildered, put them into effect. Several of them drew out a single stake, cautiously laid it down and carefully cut loose the Imperial Guard with the use of their short swords. First one, then another - one-by-one, they released each of the prisoners from their bindings.
The people watched the proceedings in growing amazement and with a greater clamour than earlier.
When Gowen, the former commander of the Imperial Guards, was freed from the stake, his gaze met Gil’s. For now, Gil could only acknowledge those emotions with his eyes. Next to Gowen was Pashir, the swordsman who had formerly been appointed captain of the Imperial Guards’ Infantry Troop. His face was all but expressionless.
“W-What is this!” Gareth called out in a panicked-sounding voice as Nabarl approached. His gaze was also glued to Gil and he did not so much as glance at his superior officer.
“Don’t you get it!” Nabarl spat, his complexion devoid of colour. “The ways of the imperial family aren’t for us to understand, tsk. Anyway, the execution is suspended.”
At the same time, probably because they had already heard the rumour, more and more people were coming back to the other side of the palisade. As one by one the number of people increased, the population’s astonished wonder was shared among the crowd. Although they were somewhat hesitant, they carried a faint hope in their hearts which went along with the actual sight before them, and it was undoubtedly with hope that they called out.
“Your Highness Gil.”
When Gil responded with a slight lift of his hand, a crack opened in the people’s hearts. And then all at once, the feelings that they had been tightly holding back were set loose from that crack.
“I-It’s Lord Gil.”
“Everyone, His Highness Gil is alive!”
All around, shouts started to arise. Caught up in the raging fires of delirious enthusiasm, even the former Imperial Guards, who had only just been freed from the stakes and who had still been wearing uneasy expressions, all at once went wild, jumping up and down on the spot and hugging each other.
“You really believed in me,” was the first thing Gil said. “I’m grateful, Rogue, Odyne.”
“It is we who are grateful.”
“It is good that you returned. Welcome back.”
It was probable that not even facing certain death would cause the two generals’ attitude, which was as firm as a boulder, to crumble; yet right now, their eyes were sparkling and shimmering like those of young men.
Gil Mephius gave a small smile then said, “I’m sure there’s a pile of things to talk about but there’s a lot that needs to be dealt with first.”
“Yes.” Rogue glanced around at their surroundings. This small part of Apta was overrun by the population and not a single person seemed about to leave.
We should send in the soldiers and have them move for now – As Rogue was about to suggest that, the prince said something unexpected.
“Rogue, I want you to dispatch a ship from your fleet. A battleship seating ten or twenty, maybe.”
“A ship?” Rogue blinked, in a way that was very unlike him. “But, to where?”
“To the west, across the River Yunos and inside Taúlia’s domains. There’s no need to arm the ship. There’s someone there who is waiting to be fetched.”
At Gil’s lightly spoken words of sending a ship to the west, the two generals once again stared at him in amazement. Even without taking into account the long history between Mephius and the west, and simply considering the recent battle between the two countries, this was an order that defied common sense.
And so –
To Rogue and Odyne, what Gil had done and what he would do from now on, looked every bit a dazzling as the morning sun which was illuminating every face there.
It’s warm, she thought.
Feeling somebody’s warmth through their skin, heat seemed to permeate her cold body. She had never thought that human skin could be something so pleasant.
At first, Vileena Owell had not known who the owner of that skin - or rather, who the person who was holding her to their chest and gazing fixedly at her, was. That was because the area around their face was dim, as though a haze was hanging over it and the only thing she was sure of were two glittering eyes.
So after all – the princess thought from the depths of her somewhat nebulous conscience – so after all, you really are a liar. She had called out to them, but she herself did not know if her voice had actually come out.
However, she had the feeling that the desperation in the eyes of the man looking her way had imperceptibly softened.
The princess’ eyelids fluttered faintly before she opened her eyes wide.
She blinked twice, three times. What she could see was neither the star-speckled sky nor the ceiling of a building. It was a cloth fluttering in the wind. After a moment, she realised that she had been left to rest in a tent.
The warmth of the skin she had felt was far away. The arms that had carried her, the chest that had held her, had all suddenly disappeared.
So after all – she thought once more.
That had always been her experience so far. Time and time again, as soon as she felt relieved that that was just a bad dream, she would be hit with the reality that this was what was really only a dream. And every time, she regretted it bitterly, feeling as though someone had seen through her indulgent desire.
So after all, I was just mistaken?
Vileena had simply not been able to believe that Gil Mephius had vanished so abruptly. It was for that reason that she had left Solon, had deceive the people in Mephius, and flew an airship to Apta.
But what the girl who lived holding the pride of kings had been thrust into there was a harsh truth and the signs of a war that would engulf a great many people.
A surprise attack.
Vileena’s efforts to stop the war between the two countries had been in vain and the opening of hostilities had cruelly unfolded. She had drawn fire to the airship she was piloting, had fainted along the mountain path she had crashed into, and had been rescued by a man named Rone Jayce. Along with his daughter Layla, he had taken great care of Vileena – of the girl who had been obliged to call herself by the false name ‘Luna’.
The village that they lived in had been attacked by somebody. At first, she believed that it was by Mephian subjects. However, the assailant who had confronted Vileena clearly had Zerdian features and his aim appeared to be her own assassination.
Vileena’s consciousness, which had awoken only a moment ago, was struck with stabbing pain and a flickering sensation. The flames burned a brilliant red, Rone’s figure lay collapsed, his abdomen pierced through, Layla was crying out to him in tears.
Vileena abruptly tried to get up but, feeling a pain as though a blade was embedded in her own belly, she broke into a violent coughing fit.
“Princess!” She heard a young man’s voice. An armed Zerdian soldier knelt by her side. “Princess, have you woken up? Ah, please don’t do anything excessive. I will call a doctor immediately.”
The soldier seemed about to dash off at any moment, so in a faint, trembling voice, Vileena called out to stop him.
Taking a second look at things, there were only herself and the young soldier guarding the entrance inside the tent.
He was a Taúlian soldier and apparently belonged to a different group than the party who had come to the village in search of her. While on route to the Mephian border, they had noticed that something unusual was happening at the village and had rushed over.
Although the young man was covered in soot and sweat, his expression and his voice were bright. From that, Vileena was finally able to entertain some hope.
“Then, you saved the village?”
“Of course, we also fought,” the young man nodded proudly, “but it was him who did the most to save you, Princess.”
“Him?” Vileena slowly lifted her torso. The joints of her body ached, especially around her abdomen, but there did not seem to be any particularly severe problem.
“Do you not remember? He was the one who rescued you, Princess, from a dangerous situation. There were some alarming rumours going around in Taúlia but, in the end, he is definitely the hero who slayed Garda. Maybe there’s something in his nature that guides him to places where he can demonstrate his heroic abilities.”
“I’m afraid I’m not very familiar with the people of Taúlia…”
“No, while he is certainly a mercenary of Taúlia, he is originally from Mephius. He is a masked swordsman called Orba.”
At that moment, on opposite sides of the border, and although their situations and personalities were of course vastly different, Nabarl Metti and Vileena Owell fell into a very similar state of mind. Even as she herself said his name, there was no actual feeling of reality to it.
“He immediately headed for Apta. It might be at Master Ravan’s suggestion but I think it’s likely that he is going to hold talk with Mephius. Moreover, he also said that a ship will soon be coming from Apta to fetch you, Princess.”
“From Apta?” Vileena was falling into greater and greater confusion.
Mephius and Taúlia had only just clashed in battle. Vileena herself was in this land which had been turned into a battlefield. Yet even though that was the case, she was told that a ship would be coming from the Mephian territory of Apta to fetch her here in the western territory of Taúlia.
She did not have a clue what was going on. Her brain was functioning so poorly that she herself was irritated by it. Still –
Right, something was starting to move. Orba’s name, what was being said about Mephius – while the “reality” she held in her head was being smashed into tiny pieces with each swing of the hammer, it also felt as though the indulgent desire that obstinately remained in the girl’s heart was finally taking shape.
Still, taken another way, Vileena was a girl who had seen many “realities”. She did not immediately latch onto the first sign. Afraid of having her hopes smashed again, she could not cling to the same hope twice.
Although the soldier repeatedly urged her to rest, she instead got him to help her get up.
She lifted the tent flap.
There was the village that Vileena had spent eight days in. Although saying so, not a single thing she had known of it remained.
Vileena almost collapsed in an instant for reasons that had nothing to do with her limbs being heavy and sluggish. The soldier hurriedly supported her by the shoulder. Although the Zerdian was caught in turmoil about whether it was appropriate for a young man of his social position to directly touch the skin of a young girl coming from royalty, Vileena’s heart was too torn to pay any attention to that.
Most of the houses no longer retained their original form and had been reduced to piles of scrap wood from which black smoke arose. In one part, the fire was still burning and half-naked men were working to extinguish it.
A crowd of injured people had lain on the ground to rest. There were men who had received injuries from swords or spears, women who had silently fallen prostrate, and young children who had been burned and whose dark-red skin lay exposed. The sobs and agonised groans were incessant.
Vileena hated herself for having been the only one comfortably sleeping in the tent.
At almost the same time, she took a shuddering breath. Among the injured who lay collapsed, she had spotted Rone Jayce. Lying next to him must be Lennus, the young man that Layla had been going to rescue. The front half of his right arm was gone. His expression was one of anguish.
The young soldier looked around them pityingly. “Medicine is being brought from the relay base even now. However, there aren’t enough doctors. We have requested that more be dispatched but in the current circumstances, who knows how long it will take for a sufficient number of doctors to arrive at the village.”
There were only two large-sized air carriers in Taúlia. Since a valuable ship had been downed during the counter-attack against Garda, they were currently forced to make use of older model ships. Given the present situation, it was uncertain whether the precious air carriers would really be sent out to provide medical care for the villagers.
Layla was also there, close to Rone and Lennus. Kneeling down, she was giving her father water to drink and wiping Lennus’ sweat.
Vileena almost ran towards her without thinking, but stopped before she had even taken three steps. It was her life that the assailants had been aiming for. Rone and the others had essentially gotten entangled in that. On top of that, she had hidden her identity as a princess of Garbera. Vileena could not think of a single word to say.
The princess savagely bit her lower lip. Time passed. Then, as though having reached a decision, she broke away from the soldier’s hand and took a step in Layla’s direction.
At the same time, the soldier raised a flustered voice. “Princess, over there!”
In the sky, which was growing light, the outline of a ship had appeared. It was fast approaching.
What halted Vileena’s steps once again, as she looked up at the sky, was that it bore the crest of Mephius. It was a twenty-man high-speed battleship. It was somewhat larger than the models Vileena was used to. That was probably because Mephius’ techniques for producing dragonstone ships was inferior to Garbera’s.
Amidst the shrill noise of its ether engines, the battleship landed by the edge of the village, blowing wind and earth throughout its surroundings as it did so.
Several Mephians disembarked. To show that they were not hostile towards the Taúlian, they carefully laid their guns and swords on the ground, then waited for the Taúlian soldiers to approach them.
After a brief exchange, one of Mephians was led into the village by the western soldiers.
His face was as young as that of the soldier who had escorted her out of the tent. His eyes met Vileena’s.
The Mephian’s expression suddenly turned to one of delight.
Vileena recognised him. His name was Neil Tonson. He had been the commander of the airship division within the prince’s Imperial Guards. The princess had instructed them during flight practice. Also, he was the one who had gone to meet her when she had left Nedain for Apta.
“There is no greater joy than to see you safe and well, Princess. Please be at ease now. I have come to fetch you from Apta.”
Contrary to the somewhat excited Neil, Vileena’s tone was cold. Neil was bewildered.
“W-What do you mean by why?”
“I warned Taúlia of Mephius’ invasion. I do not recall criminals such as myself being greeted with such courtesy when they are about to be bound in chains.”
“A criminal you say,” the young man’s ruddy face grew even redder, “… Certainly, Mephius and Taúlia were at war. But the ones who brought that to an end were none other than you yourself, Princess, and our Crown Prince, Lord Gil Mephius.”
“Lord Gil Mephius…”
Vileena repeated those words in a murmur. Her expression was wooden. Just as when she had heard Orba’s name, she had the illusion that on some level, she was still dreaming.
Thinking about it, Nabarl should also have placed this young man, Neil Tonson, under restraint. On the groundless accusation of having taken part in the prince’s assassination. Yet he had come from Apta by ship to fetch her.
It’s, I see. No, but…
A hundred, two hundred words that could not be expressed seemed to well up from within the depths of her heart and immediately fill up the tiny container that was the girl, threatening to overspill at any moment now.
The young Taúlian soldier who was acting as the princess’ guard and Neil spoke at the same time. They had expected her face to light up with joy but instead, her platinum hair abruptly fell forward and she hung her head.
After who knows how much time had passed and how many times they called out to her, Vileena raised her head and said something unexpected,
“How many ships of the same type as that one are there in Apta?”
For a moment, Neil mouth gaped open vacantly.
“General Rogue’s air force is stationed there so there should be several such ships.”
His words were somewhat vague as there were after all strangers nearby. Vileena paid it no heed and spoke quickly.
“Please have them send as many as possible here.” She went on to explain that she wanted those ships to fetch the injured from the village and carry them to Apta.
Although normally it would be preferable to go to Taúlia, Apta was closer, however they would need to obtain consent from the Taúlian before Mephian ships were sent. But Vileena was loathe to waste all that time.
Naturally, both Neil and the Taúlian were startled.
“There are no ‘buts’. The people of this village protected me. I will not turn my back on the debt of gratitude that I owe them and unconcernedly escape by myself. Nothing will make me move from here without the guarantee of their safe arrival at Apta. But if you wish to tie me up and drag me away across the ground, by all means, please do so.”
She sure can rattle on – the one who thought that about the princess’ caustic words was none other than Vileena herself.
It was no one else’s fault but her own that they had ended up in this situation so this was her responsibility. While keenly aware of that, Vileena deliberately adopted a high-handed attitude.
Neil excused himself for a moment and went to consult with what appeared to be the commander of the Taúlian side who was standing near the ship. In the end, it looked as though both sides accepted the condition.
Having come running back, Neil promised Vileena to bring a flotilla of ships from Apta.
“However, please return with us on board this ship, Princess. If you yourself are not present, the people of Taúlia will fall under suspicion.”
After that exchange, the villagers were informed that Vileena was a princess of Garbera and the injured would shortly be transferred to Apta.
“Why somewhere like Mephius?”
Shouts rose up and there was not a man there who did not have complaints.
Many believed that it was Mephius that had attacked the village and the Taúlian soldiers had to go around convincing them one by one. Vileena Owell herself went towards Rone Jayce to express her fervent hope.
Layla, who was nursing him, noticed the princess approach and quickly averted her eyes.
“There are a lot of things I need to tell you,” Vileena could not conceal the stiffness in her tone. “However, right now, the most important thing is your father’s life and the lives of the villagers. Please, won’t you come to Mephius with us.”
Of course, Vileena did not know the circumstances surrounding the Jayce family. She did not know what it would mean for them to set foot in Mephius. Layla however recognised that she needed to prioritise her father’s life over anything else. Apparently, she had already strengthened her resolve after consulting with her mother.
“I understand,” she answered in a voice that seemed to fade away.
And so, the battleship that Neil had ridden on left.
Vileena, Rone, Layla, who was attending on him, as well as seven others who were particularly badly injured were also on board. The man whose entire body was wrapped in bandages was also among them. Rone had found him before Vileena and the man had been in the care of the Jayce family ever since. He gave the mistaken impression that he had been severely wounded in the recent attack.
The airship slowly travelled along the surface. That was unavoidable since it was heavier than on the way coming due to increased number of people. As she looked out of the window to the remains of the village below, Vileena felt the back of her eyelids grow hot.
At most, she had only spent eight days in that village.
But, those eight days…
She had spent them not as the princess of Garbera, not as the fiancée of the Crown Prince of Mephius, but as an ordinary girl of the people. There she had encountered manual labour, the unfamiliar songs of the Zerdian people, and the warmth of the Jayce family.
Unheeding of such sentimentality, the airship picked up speed and landed in Apta before noon.
Instead of having soldiers suddenly burst in and seize her, or denounce her as a traitor, the Mephians greeted Vileena courteously and invited her to board a carriage.
They travelled along the paved street. Peering out of the window over which a curtain was half drawn, Vileena knit her eyebrows at the sight of the townspeople running along the way. There seemed to be a large crowd. And everyone seemed as excited as if a festival were about to begin.
At long last, they arrived at the side gate to the castle’s main building. The princess stepped out of the carriage and once again set foot on Mephian land.
Her heart was beating wildly. On the way to Apta, she had strongly repressed her own feelings. She was almost at her limit. She barely saw the people who sent greetings her way, or heard their voices. Even so, the moment she reached the top of the staircase and stepped into the upper part of the hall –
Only that clear-ringing voice reached her ears.
Without her realising it, Vileena’s feet, or rather, her entire body, came to a stop.
That day in Apta, in the southwest Mephius, had turned into an extraordinary one.
Against the backdrop of the brilliant blue sky and from a balcony that opened out onto the town area, Gil Mephius waved his hand as he was enveloped in the cheers of the people.
“It was here, that night, that cowardly bullets rained down.”
When Gil swept up his forelocks a vivid scar stood out clearly against his forehead. It looked like the traces were from where a beast had raked its claws. If you looked closely, you would realise that it was a mass of smaller scars gathered together, but from a distance, it could only be seen as a single, large wound running in a long diagonal line.
Confronted with it before their eyes, the people raised shouts mingling horror and surprise, grief and admiration.
“But I, Gil Mephius, am not one to die so easily. Especially if the opponent is someone as vulgar as Oubary.”
Amidst the roars of laughter, Gil Mephius’ lips did not lose their faint smile.
“Those who would attack me had best be determined. Do their hearts hold righteousness? Are they prepared to have their hands smeared in my blood for all eternity? Finally, do they have the courage to carry the weight of Mephius on their backs? Act only after thinking carefully. When I am about to take someone’s life, I certainly question myself.”
The people were in a frenzy over the calm figure of Crown Prince Gil Mephius. This was the land which had a deeper connection with the Crown Prince than anywhere else in Mephius. For the people, Gil Mephius, who had fallen in Apta and been revived in Apta, was already an object of almost religious faith and unmistakably emitted a dazzling brilliance. Men who could not contain the excitement boiling in their blood brandished hoes or spades, while those who did not have anything like that at hand raised brooms, daikon radishes, or at the very least their arms to the sky.
It could well be said that at that time, almost every person in Apta had their gazes concentrated on Gil Mephius.
Vileena Owell was, of course, one of them.
Having been led by the soldiers, she was standing directly behind the balcony. The Garberan princess stood still, not uttering a sound. She could not clearly distinguish the back of the young man who was only some twenty paces away from her. Not even she understood why that was.
Layla was also among those with their eyes fixed on Gil. After alighting from the airship, she had been walking next to the stretcher that was carrying her father. Even forgetting to go with him, Layla stopped. The point she was looking up at was the youth who was making a speech. Although she had prayed to forget as soon as possible, not for a single day had she forgotten. That was, beyond any doubt, Gil Mephius himself.
The figure of the lover with whom she had once promised the future flashed through her mind. It was that man who had destroyed that future. Instead of happy days spent hand-in-hand with her loved ones, they had started out on a difficult journey away from Solon. Even when the journey had come to an end, it was to a life of hardship in a land she was not used to.
She had endured that daily reality, and just when she thought she had finally achieved the normal life of a human being where she could feel hope in tomorrow, if only a little, even that meagre wish was engulfed in flames. Amidst the blazing fire, the father who had always protected her had taken an assassin’s blade and had fallen to the ground.
All of it, all of it had been caused by Gil Mephius. He was like something inhuman, a fiend born from another world that continued to curse and torment the Jayce family.
And then, there was one other.
The man whose entire body was covered in bandages peeled his eyes wide, almost devouring Crown Prince Gil Mephius with his fixed gaze. He was being transported when, along the way, he had heard Gil’s voice and had run, half-tumbling, to the public plaza. The soldiers chasing behind had lost sight of him in the crowd.
When the man’s gaze fell away from Gil, he started trembling violently and while the crowds gathered in the square before the hall jostled against him – they were simply too excited and happy to pay it any attention – he alone went against the throngs of people and left the plaza.
Having finished his impassioned speech for the time being, Gil finally turned away from the voices of the populace who seemed reluctant to let him go.
As soon as he left the balcony, Gowen, the former commander of his Imperial Guards, promptly held out water for him. His bronzed face with its sparse beard wore a terrifying smile.
“For now, I’ll give you my thanks for having saved our lives, but there are a lot of other things I want to talk about,” he said in a hushed voice. Gil drained the water in one gulp. “Yeah. We’ll make time later.”
“And when’s that going to be,” Gowen muttered low.
There were not many people who knew the incredible truth that the current Gil Mephius had once been a sword slave. He had to arrange separate times for the people he needed to reencounter as Prince Gil and for those he wanted to celebrate his reunion with as Orba.
“However, Your Highness,” Gowen suddenly changed his tone as Rogue and Odyne approached, “there is someone that you should meet with before us.”
“Oh,” having drawn up to their side, Rogue immediately guessed what the topic was, “don’t worry about putting off uncouth men like ourselves. Even if it’s only a second earlier, please go and reunite, Your Highness.”
“Who’s this about?”
“That’s right,” Odyne pulled a wry face, “there’s the matter of Her Highness the princess to be settled. From what I hear, Your Highness’ subordinate Orba rescued her from peril. Is it because this information had reached you that you requested a ship? It can’t be that Your Highness has no suspicion as to how the princess was in a place like that.”
“She arrived in Apta just a short while ago. Now, please go and show yourself quickly. I’m sure she is waiting impatiently.” “…”
For a while, Gil remained silent. His expression was like that of a soldier whose favourite sword had suddenly broken in half on the battlefield.
“Really, waiting impatiently?” a woman’s voice threw out.
It was Theresia, the Garberan princess’ head lady’s maid who had been the only person to accompany her when she had travelled to be married.
She was maintaining a distance from Gil and the generals, probably because she was mindful of her own social position, but contrary to that admirable attitude, her expression and voice were as cold as ice. “A little while earlier, the princess was also here. Apparently not even hearing my voice, she simply gazed intently at the prince’s back. And yet she flew off before he had finished talking.”
“W-What did you say?” Rogue’s voice sounded like he was spluttering. “A-And, where the princess go?”
“Well, how about His Highness be the one searching this time? Just as the princess was for a long… truly, a very long time.”
“Don’t speak so unkindly. Miss Theresia, you know, don’t you? Then how about telling His Highness.”
Despite what the old general said, Theresia turned her head away haughtily.
This is… The two generals exchanged glances, looking somewhat troubled.
“Me too,” Gil Mephius spoke. “I… please. Could you tell me where the princess went?”
Right behind him, Gowen bit back his laughter.
After rudely staring long and fixedly at Gil Mephius’ face – at the face of the heir to the throne of Mephius – Theresia said, “well, it’s fine. It was good that you showed yourself before the people first. Since you could not really have appeared covered in bumps and bruises, now could you?”
According to Theresia, the princess was in the parlour that had been allocated to her on the castle’s second floor. As he was on his way there, any number of soldiers and fortress servants gazed at Gil excitedly, but he himself was pulling a somewhat long face.
This, Gil Mephius – in other words, Orba – surreptitiously touched his own cheek, maybe I should prepare myself to get hit once or twice. It was after all that Vileena.
“I believed in your return and waited for you,” her saying that with tear-filled eyes was not something he could even imagine. What Theresia had said was not in the least bit exaggerated. This time, he had to be prepared for palms or fists flying his way.
And even more than the princess’ personality, the cause of that and the one responsible was clearly Orba himself.
That girl, with her unyielding spirit and a personality that hated to lose, had come to marry from a foreign country, moreover an enemy country, and had struggled to somehow familiarise herself with this land. Every time Orba had found himself in a predicament, she had said, “I want to help.”
Orba had betrayed that girl’s spirit in the worst possible way.
And there was one other thing.
Orba was worried about one other thing. When he had met Vileena again in Taúlia’s domain, it had seemed as if she recognised the masked Orba as “the prince”. Because she had been all but unconscious and was in a daze – maybe she just made a mistake, or else… At any rate, that was something that he would have to figure out.
But it was still too early. In fact, what it was that he was using to measure whether it was too slow or fast, even he himself did not know; but he simply felt that right now, he should not reveal his true identity.
Theresia left when they were in front of the door. Her eyes had remained cold to the last. For a while, Orba was unable to move, just as though her gaze had encased his feet in ice.
He hardly knew what he should say to start. Nor what kind of expression he should wear.
However, since worrying endlessly would not improve the current situation, Orba gritted his teeth. While steeling his resolve, for all the world as if he was going to face a giant with nothing but beat-up armour and a single sword, his fist hit the door in a light knock.
“It’s me,” he said. For some reason, both the knocking sound and his voice seemed to echo far too loudly. “It’s Gil Mephius. Princess, can I come in?”
There was no answer.
He wondered if maybe she wasn’t there, but there had definitely been signs that something had moved behind the door when he had knocked.
He cleared his throat once. Knocked a second time. As before, there was no answer. Yet more resolve was needed to make his next move. He grabbed the door handle and turned it. It felt heavy in his hand. Beyond the open door, there, in the centre of the parlour adjoining her bedroom, the fourteen-year-old girl was sitting.
Vileena’s gaze was turned out of the window to the side. With her elbows resting on a small table, her posture was evidently not one of a princess who was going to go and greet her fiancé.
When they had been reunited in Taúlia’s territory, she had been wearing the clothes of a commoner girl but, of course at Theresia’s urging, she had changed into a dress.
Has she gotten thinner? Orba wondered. He had the same impression as when he had met Princess Esmena in Taúlia some time earlier. Vileena’s figure, as she turned away from him with a grave face, seemed far more grown-up than in his memories. The shadows that her long eyelashes cast over her eyes, the soft lustre of her swaying hair – for some reason these intensified the feeling of tightness in Orba’s chest.
It was similar to a fleeting look up at a girl from a different social class striding along in a sunny place while he himself was just one of the crowd, hanging his head in the shadow of a building’s eaves – in short, Orba was suddenly made keenly aware that the difference in social position between himself and the princess was so great that originally, they should never have met.
Why, at this point…
Before entering the room, Orba had been worrying his head about what to say first about all sorts of things, but the moment he caught a glimpse of her, all the words disappeared from his mind. Nor did he know anymore why or what he should do.
As a result, the silence dragged on for nearly five minutes until finally,
“A-Acting so rashly,” those were the first words that Orba strung together. Vileena still did not look his way. “Riding alone into Taúlia… that isn’t something a princess should do. At the very least, you should have given the order to my men.”
“All of your subordinates had been arrested at the time.” Her petal-like lips parted for the first time.
“O-Oh, right,” Orba was still just standing by the doorway. “They were falsely accused and going to be executed, huh. You also acted for their sake. You have my gratitude, Princess…”
“Your gratitude?” Vileena suddenly interrupted Orba’s words in a scathing voice. At the same time, her eyes turned towards him for the first time.
Being stared at straight on, Orba licked his lips.
What is this?
Orba was rooted to the spot. A strange feeling seemed to be noisily rising up from his feet to his chest.
“I-Indeed, my gratitude. Your brave actions, Princess, saved my men and Taúlia. So…”
“There is not the slightest reason for you to be grateful.” Her wide, beautiful eyes still fixed straight on him, Vileena rose from her chair. And immediately fired off these words, “since you are not Prince Gil.”