Chapter 157: The Death of Soria
Eckstedt, Dragon Clouds City, Heroic Spirit Palace.
Nuven the Seveth’s administrator, Lord Byrne Mirk was standing in the corridor outside the Hall of Heroes. He was staring into the murky, snowy sky, deeply absorbed in his thoughts.
The White Blade Guards were on standby around him; their gazes were sharp and grim.
Mirk lost count of the times he stared at the falling snow in Northland throughout the forty years of his life.
The leader of the king’s entourage and current head of the White Blade Guards, Nicholas the Star Killer approached him from behind and stood next to him.
“Winter will be harsh this year,” said Lord Mirk without turning to look at him.
“I think so too, old pal.” Nicholas squinted as he peered at the snow outside the window and smiled in a strange manner.
“Do you remember when we were still new in the White Blade Guards, those days of training in the harsh winter?”
“Of course I do.” Lord Mirk, who had been working as an administrator for years flashed him a slight smirk. “Just like you now, that stone-faced Kaslan trained us mercilessly… We called him ‘iceberg’ behind his back, even in our sleep. We prayed for him to die early or be spouseless for the rest of his life.”
“Until the day his wife came to visit him at the camp.” Nicholas guffawed. “Monty was extremely shocked… Who knew Iceberg’s wife could be so beautiful? The injustice!”
Mirk stared into the distance.
He recalled when he first joined the White Blade Guards twenty years ago. The infamous Ground-Shaker Commander Kaslan Lampard chased the new recruits out to the field with a whip in the bitter winter. At that time, those who could make it into the White Blade Guards were mostly strongmen who had fought in the frontlines.
“Feeling cold? The north wind and harsh winter are the greatest gift bestowed on us Northlanders by the Master of the Mountains. They make you stronger, tougher and unstoppable!” That was what Kaslan told them.
Mirk still remembered his old superior’s brawny physique. It was like that of a snow land grizzly, and his frost-covered face was filled with an unwavering ferocity. “Stop slacking, take off all your clothes, and start running—there’s some hot water at the finishing line. If you can’t make it within half an hour, you’ll freeze to death!”
Thinking of this, Mirk averted his gaze to Nicholas and asked, “Are you still carrying out the rite of initiation? Making the new recruits run around on the field in the bitter winter?”
“Absolutely. We were all tormented the same way,” Nicholas said, chuckling. “Wouldn’t it be unfair if we let the new recruits off the hook?”
The both of them exchanged glances, smiling.
At that time, the legendary, undefeatable Kaslan was still young and robust; Dominic the ‘Blood Mace’ had yet to die in the White Mountain battle; and Terende the ‘Inextinguishable Blaze’, who counted the laps as they ran with an infuriating smile on his face still carried his Motionless Bow with black and silver stripes in a truly pompous manner.
At that time also, three of the future Five War Generals were gathered there: Soray Nicholas was merely a haughty, misanthropic newbie, and had not gotten the nickname ‘Star Killer’ at the Fortress. No one would believe that a little rogue like him, who was frequently targeted by bullies would become Kaslan’s successor someday. No one expected that Yvsia Sullian, nicknamed ‘Spike Wind’ and ‘Prince of Guards’ (for he often whined about the canteen food) would make himself known in the legendary Battle of the Thirty-Eighth Sentry Ground. Perhaps no one would have believed that the formidable ‘Raven of Death’, Nate Monty, used to be an archer from the countryside, who liked to tell dirty jokes and ogle women on the street as well as gauge the sizes of their bottoms.
They were young and dauntless warriors, one prouder and more impulsive than the other— Mirk still remembered, to this day, that due to Nicholas’ disobedience, he was tied to a pole in front of all the new recruits. With a small piece of plank between his teeth, he groaned as Kaslan beat his body into a bloody pulp using a thorny whip.
Under Kaslan’s merciless training, they became King Nuven’s most trusted weapons, the toughest of the Dragon’s Imperial Guards. They bled on the ground of Glacial Sentries, on the battlefield of White Mountain’s valley, the maze-like Golden Passage, and the Broken Dragon Fortress, leaving behind countless bodies of their comrades. They wept for their defeat, chanted war songs amid the battles, and drank themselves to oblivion to celebrate their victories. Finally, they carved their names on the platinum-coated pages of the ‘Legend of White Blade Guards’ alongside the names of Northland’s heroes from the Ancient Empire Era.
Those were the days. Now, everything felt like a dream.
There was also a young man with a bright grin, who kept his blue-blood status a secret. He trained with them back in the day, and fought Mirk for a bowl of broth.
‘That cheeky fellow.’
Thinking of this, Mirk could not help but smile. However, the glint of joy soon faded from his eyes and he sighed. His own daughter became twenty this day.
It was then Nicholas’ turn to sigh as well. “It’s time.”
Snapping back from his flashbacks, Mirk kept the memories deep in his heart. He turned around and bowed slightly before the two petite figures beside him. “Please come with me, Lady Alex.”
“It’s four in the morning!” Wrapped in a thick coat, Alex Walton, a drowsy, sweet-looking girl, looked like she had been dragged out of bed a while ago. She was rubbing her eyes with one hand, and blowing hot breath into another. “If there’s anything to discuss, why can’t we just do it tomorrow?” she hissed.
Seeing this, Lord Mirk silently lamented.
‘This girl is too spoiled.
‘Her temperament is akin to that which belongs to daughters of rich merchants, or jumped-up vulgarians.
‘This is not good—she’s still the last direct descendent of the Walton Family despite being a girl.’
“I told you—this is an order from His Majesty.” Lord Mirk nodded with a vacant expression. “And believe me when I say what happens next is crucial to your future, Your Highness.”
The king’s granddaughter looked away and huffed, expressing her discontent as well as frustration.
Alex pulled her robe tighter around herself and glanced at the person behind her. Her girlish voice was filled with resentment. “Then, why is this lowly servant here?!”
Standing behind Alex was a skinny, shabbily-dressed girl. She had platinum hair and she wore a pair of black, thick-framed glasses. The poor girl was shivering in the wintry midnight wind. Hearing what her mistress said, she stepped back timidly.
“She’s also here under His Majesty’s order,” Mirk answered coldly. “We must obey.”
Alex was immediately silenced. She glared at Little Rascal, who was standing behind her and the latter threw her arms around herself pitifully.
Mirk nodded, escorting the girls towards the Hall of Heroes.
Alex yawned and lifted her chin pridefully. Meanwhile, Little Rascal followed her mistress and kept her head down. She flinched and took a small step back when she spotted a formidable-looking member of the White Blade Guard.
At that very second, Nicholas called out to Mirk from behind.
“Byrne, do you still remember the moment we raised our white blades and took an oath of allegiance before the ‘Legend of White Blade Guards?'” Nicholas inhaled deeply, his gaze brimming with nostalgia. “Do you recall the last few lines?”
Mirk thought that Nicholas had been behaving somewhat oddly the entire day—he was never so sentimental on other days.
He gazed at Nicholas, searching for hints in his stoic face.
“Of course.” The training in his early days had become part of his muscle memory. Mirk gave a light chuckle before his facial expression stiffened. “I swear on my blood, my body, my sword, my soul…” Word by word, he uttered the phrase.
Nicholas’ eyes gleamed. He nodded and with Mirk, he recited the next line, “Ward off the enemies and win countless battles until we bleed out.”
The White Blade Guards around them each had on a stern look. Together, they placed their fists on their chests. “Fend for countless lives, fear not of death till the end of humanity.”
Alex, who was waiting impatiently rolled her eyes and huffed.
Little Rascal on the other hand, was excited by the sight of the grim-faced White Blade Guards.
“Be guardians of the future, honor your beliefs till the sun and the moon grow dim.
“This is the ‘New Oath of White Blade Guards’,” Little Rascal muttered. “Year 1386 in the Empire Calendar, Seyre Arunde recovered the ‘Legend of the White Blade Guards’, and reassembled the renowned White Blade Guards, combining the ‘Old Oath’ and the Knighthood Pledge…”
“Shut your mouth, idiot!” Alex hissed at her. “You’re really annoying.”
Little Rascal’s eyes reddened and she lowered her head.
Nicholas and Mirk glanced at each other and chanted in unison.
“Leave a legacy of hope, cast the light of glory, till the world falls into an eternal slumber.”
They exchanged a wordless smile.
Mirk nodded and led the two girls into the Hall of Heroes to meet the man he respected the most.
Nuven the Seventh, who had recently fought in a duel was sitting on the staircase in one of the corners in the hall.
Seated beside the king was the envoy from Constellation, whom his fellow vassals would not stop talking about—the young and intelligent Prince Thales Jadestar. The two of them however, were sitting side by side in silence. They did not seem to be in a good mood, as though they had just ended an unpleasant conversation.
Mirk ushered the two seemingly confused girls towards the king.
The administrator nodded at the king, and stepped aside. “Your Majesty, Lady Alex is here.”
Thales lifted his chin.
‘What’s going on?’
He gawked at the blue-eyed brunette and Little Rascal behind her, who appeared to be petrified by the situation at hand.
Noticing his gaze, the preteen girl responded with a glare. Thales just frowned.
‘So, this is…
‘My future wife?’
Fazed by the secret King Nuven had told him earlier, Thales looked away subconsciously and sighed.
Witnessing his attitude, Alex’s lips protruded in a sulky pout.
“What is it, grandpa?” Alex Walton, the sole remaining direct female descendent of the Archduke of Dragon Clouds City pouted. “I’m very tired…” She fawned over the blank-faced king.
Little Rascal was hiding behind Alex. She stuck her head out cautiously and sneaked a curious peek at the seemingly dejected Thales.
‘That boy… what happened to him?
‘Is he unhappy?’
Nuven the Seventh did not reply. With a goblet, he scooped some wine from a keg beside next to him, and took a sip.
“Mirk,” the old king’s raspy voice sounded, “my granddaughter will marry this boy.
“As a former member of the White Blade Guards and my current administrator, what should you do?”
Mirk frowned slightly.
‘Although it’s expected, but when one hears it for real…’
Lady Alex screamed.
Her teeny eyes widened larger than her gaping mouth. She scanned Thales from head to toe in disbelief. “Grandpa, you’re handing me over in marriage to… this-this…
“You want him to be my husband?” Alex’s breathing accelerated. She stared at the moping Thales—the boy whom she ran into in the library yesterday evening, the boy who chastised her in front of her servant. A wave of exasperation washed over her.
“He is skinny, and so much shorter than me!” Alex whipped around and told her grandfather, “Marrying Little Rascal to him is more like it!”
Little Rascal, who stood behind her paled and began to tremble.
“Come on, Lady Alex.” Brooding, Thales had no energy or intention to maintain his relationship with a preteen girl. Without looking at her, he coldly said, “Marrying you is not exactly good news to me either.”
Alex was taken aback, but her astonishment soon turned into anger. “You little—”
At that very moment, Mirk spoke, interrupting Alex who was about to lose it.
“Despite the fact that Prince Thales comes from Constellation, if this is Your Majesty’s wish…” Lord Mirk lowered his head respectfully and subtly signaled for Alex to keep quiet. “I will devote myself to him as I have to Lady Alex.”
King Nuven stared at him for a full three seconds.
“Good.” The king turned to Thales and said, “I believe you’ve met before. This is Byrne Mirk—back when he was in the White Blade Guards, he was Soria’s most trusted subordinate.”
Thales’ expression changed.
‘King Nuven’s eldest son?’
He looked up at Mirk, who also turned to him and gave him a polite nod.
Fuming, Alex attempted to speak, but she was silenced by Mirk’s stern glare.
As it seemed—Thales thought—this spoiled girl with horrible temper really listened to her father’s former subordinate.
“So, to express my gratitude for your aid, and prove that there’s no more ill feelings between us, following Northland’s custom, after you take a sip of this wine, Jadestar and Walton will be allies from then on.” King Nuven narrowed his eyes, lifted the wine goblet, and placed it before Thales.
Thales frowned as he peered at the old king with bemusement.
‘What is he doing?
‘Is he reiterating my status to Alex and Mirk, or the relationship between us?
‘Is it even necessary?’
The Prince of Constellation pondered for a few seconds and sighed. “You know, Lampard of Black Sand Region did the same thing—he handed me a cup of wine and asked me to become his ally. I rejected him though.”
“Clever decision,” King Nuven said, feeling amused. “How about now?”
Pressured by King Nuven’s stare, Thales pursed his lips.
“Shouldn’t we wait till tomorrow, after you send out your messenger crow and wait for my father’s reply?” Thales asked cautiously. “If my father has other terms to—”
“That will be an issue between your father and I.” King Nuven’s firm gaze implied his sincere determination. “But you are you, Thales. I am speaking to you not as the son of Kessel Jadestar, or as the Second Prince of Constellation—this has nothing to do with the diplomatic marriage between you and my granddaughter, or whether Jadestar will ally with Walton.
“I am asking about your opinion, Thales.” The old king raised the goblet and his eyes lit up. “Do you wish to put the personal vendetta between us, between you and the Walton Family behind?
“I am asking you, and only you.”
Thales felt a jolt.
He realized that ever since he was crowned as prince, this had been the first time someone addressed him as “Thales” without the history and status that came with said name.
Thales looked King Nuven in the eye.
At last, the Prince of Constellation sighed.
“Certainly.” Thales received the goblet from the king, staring into the black wheat wine that filled half of the goblet.
Seeing Mirk’s vigilant stare, Alex’s sulky pout, and Little Rascal’s curious, anxious gaze, the old king smirked.
Thales closed his eye and took a small sip of the drink.
He thought he knew all about alcoholic drinks in this world—the scullery in Jala’s Sunset Pub supplied countless brands and Thales often dug around for them. Nonetheless, when he swallowed the wine, he finally realized that no two types of alcohols were the same in this world.
‘At least, the rye wine exclusively served to the King of Eckstedt is…’
Cough, cough, cough…
Thales flung the goblet onto the staircase and began to cough violently!
The tangy, pungent taste of the alcohol gushed down his throat, filled his mouth, his nostrils, and his brain!
In his past life, he was a guy with extremely low alcohol tolerance. Thales did not know whether his current body was better than that, but he knew one thing for sure—rye wine was definitely not something he could take!
Thales’ cheeks were now red and his eyes were brimming with tears.
“Hahaha.” Seeing that, Nuven chuckled happily. “Maybe we should start with something more child-friendly.”
Thales felt a surge of warmth across his face.
Shortly after, he eventually recomposed himself. He stared at the wine goblet with a sullen look. Then, he huffed and shook his head as he said, “It’s alright… Kaslan told me that a child will never grow up of he doesn’t drink.”
Mirk’s face twitched.
Hearing that name, King Nuven’s smile froze.
Little Rascal appeared as though she had heard his name before. Her eyes gleamed behind her glasses as she fixed her gaze on Thales.
The king looked at Thales in an odd manner. “Kaslan?
“The old fellow who sells alcohol in Black Sand Region?”
The taste of alcohol gradually faded from Thales’ mouth and nose, after which he let out a sheepish chuckle.
‘Have I said something wrong?’
Holding the king’s gaze, he stuttered, “Umm… I-I heard from Putray that he was the head of your personal guards, the former commander of the White Blade Guards.”
King Nuven continued to stare at Thales, who felt a little uneasy due to the attention.
Then, the king spoke again.
“The best Eckstedt ever had,” he said, sighing. “Although saying this is a little unfair to Nicholas.”
Lord Mirk, who was standing few feet away nodded. He also cast a warning glance at Alex, who was left aside and seemed like she was about to throw a tantrum again.
King Nuven murmured, “Kaslan. So, you met him… He mentioned me to you?”
“Yeah.” Thales flashed an awkward smile, nodding. “Kaslan said, you used to be a good king.”
Nuven the Seventh was slightly startled. He then slapped his thigh and let out a hearty laugh. “Hahahahaha!”
“‘Used to be’?” King Nuven caught the keywords instantly and continued to guffaw. “Well said!”
Astonished, Thales shrugged helplessly.
The king’s laughter echoed throughout the hall.
Mirk lowered his head slightly.
King Nuven suddenly stopped laughing. Sighing, he seemed to be reminiscing about the past.
“Tell me, what did that old fellow say about me?” he snorted and asked.
Thales watched King Nuven’s facial expression closely. “He said, you are only human. You will age, and will be driven by desire, rumors, and impulse someday.”
The smile faded from the king’s face.
His gaze flickered with hints of strange emotions.
And Thales was beginning to feel on edge.
Eventually, King Nuven gave a long sigh. “I can’t say he is wrong.”
“Now, Thales, why don’t you serve our beautiful maiden a cup of wine?” King Nuven said abruptly. He handed the goblet to Thales and nodded at Alex. “Given your future relationship…”
Receiving the goblet, Thales was startled by his request.
‘What is going on?
‘Make the arrogant, pampered young mistress… drink the rye wine?’
Lord Mirk, who was watching this not too far away was also puzzled.
“Huh?” Alex turned white. Frantic, she peeked at Thales. and then the metal wine goblet, shaking her head stubbornly. “No, Grandpa, I don’t want to…”
King Nuven stared at her quietly and coldly.
Terrified by the old king’s gaze, she lowered her voice.
Nevertheless, the king’s granddaughter refused to give up. Her frown faded when an idea dawned on her. She turned around and tugged at Little Rascal. “She can! Let her drink on my behalf! She is my servant after all!”
Being dragged forward by her mistress, the unsuspecting Little Rascal panicked. The bespectacled girl glanced at King Nuven, then at Thales. She was close to tears. “I… that… No…”
Thales squinted at them, bemused.
Right at that moment, Mirk spoke up.
The king’s administrator stared at Alex sternly. His gaze was filled with wrath. “Stop making a big fuss!”
Alex’s voice faltered and she flinched timidly.
“It is an order from your grandfather, your king!” Mirk pulled Alex away from Little Rascal with a forceful tug. “Obey him, whether it’s about the wine…
“Or your marriage.”
Chastised by Mirk and pressured by King Nuven’s beseeching gaze, Alex stepped forward dolefully.
She took the goblet from Thales with much reluctance. With her reddened eyes, she glared at him, and looked at King Nuven pitifully, but the latter appeared unfazed.
Thales shrugged, implying there was nothing he could do.
Being left with no choice, Alex pouted and downed the wheat wine angrily.
Alex dropped the wine goblet with rage and shot Thales a sharp stare. A few seconds later, she started to cough due to the heavy taste of the alcohol.
The king chuckled lightly.
“Mirk, this reminds me of Soria’s drinking habit,” King Nuven said, laughing. “I heard from Kaslan that when he was in training with the White Blade Guards, he’d win every drinking game.”
“Yes.” Mirk also laughed and nodded. “Prince Soria was… very easy-going, and he really could drink.”
“Yes. I recall you have a close relationship?” King Nuven looked up at Mirk with much nostalgia.
“We knew each other since a long time ago. All the way back when you let him train with the White Blade Guards under a fake identity.” Mirk had somewhat of a half-smile as he nodded. “He wasn’t just the prince. He was my fellow comrade and friend—I still remember his hearty laugh.”
King Nuven’s lips curved.
Ignoring the glare Alex aimed at him, Thales watched the king and his vassal as they reminisced about the former Crown Prince, Soria Walton, thinking whether he should leave.
“Yes. He likes to laugh like that— like me.
“It’s such a shame that he went and got himself a sulky wife.” King Nuven sighed. “I remember every time they dined with me, they never took a proper look at each other.”
“Lady Adele came from Vine City in the southwest region of Camus, where the climate was warm and humid. Moreover, she was the daughter of a marquis and she never got used to the arduous Northlandic life.” Lord Mirk glanced at Alex and heaved a sigh. “Lady Alex obviously inherited much of her mother’s personality traits.”
Alex pouted once again.
King Nuven snorted lightly.
“Thales.” King Nuven cast the Prince of Constellation an icy look as the latter was about to excuse himself. “I told you that my eldest son’s death was not an accident, but an assassination.”
Mirk seemed slightly startled.
He peeked at Thales, then at King Nuven. He hesitated to speak.
The next thing that came out of the old king’s mouth threw him off balance.
“Tell him, Mirk,” King Nuven said coldly. “How did my son, Soria, die?”
Thales held his breath. He took a peek at Mirk, his mind laden with questions.
‘Something isn’t right.
‘The eldest prince? Why mention an incident that happened so long ago?’
Besides, it was a hard topic—did he bring this up on purpose?
Alex seemed to know how serious this topic was. She quieted down and had a timid expression.
“Your Majesty,” Lord Mirk voiced his objection with a grimace. “This topic is a little sensitive for Prince Thales’ position—”
He was interrupted by King Nuven.
“Tell him! He needs to know.” The old king picked up his wine goblet from the floor with a cold look. “From the beginning to the end,” he said.
Mirk gawked at King Nuven, whose expression became horrifyingly grim.
Intimidated, Alex looked down and took a step back, bumping into Little Rascal.
“Why?” Thales tried hard to subdue his tone of voice. “Your Majesty, you told me that the assassin was from Constellation, right?”
Mirk was startled. He was surprised by Thales’ knowledge of this detail.
King Nuven shot Mirk a stern glare.
Thales rolled his eyes, watching the awkward situation unfold. He secretly regretted not leaving sooner.
‘The atmosphere’s really taking a turn for the worse.’
The administrator sighed, and began, “It happened twelve years ago, shortly before the winter came.”
Thales was alarmed. ‘Twelve years ago?
“Prince Soria brought Lady Adele and Lady Alex out of Dragon Clouds City for a hunting trip. Lady Alex wasn’t even a year old yet.
“I was in charge of Prince Soria’s safety even before that, so Nicholas assigned me to protect them with a small unit of White Blade Guards.” Mirk looked down. His voice was deep and filled with agony as he recalled the painful memory. “But things went wrong nonetheless.”
Thales said nothing and listened closely.
“Coincidentally, Harold Lampard—the oldest son of the former Archduke of Black Sand Region was visiting Dragon Clouds City that day. He too, was heading to the same place to hunt.” Mirk paused for a second before he continued. His voice began to shake.
“That assassin… had infiltrated Harold’s entourage.”
Thales narrowed his eyes.
“He hid under Lady Adele’s wagon, waiting for Prince Soria to return after talking to Harold, and then…”
Mirk clutched his fist and clenched his teeth as he exhaled.
Sitting on the staircase, King Nuven remained silent. His gaze was numb and vacant.
“I shot out a signal arrow, requesting immediate aid.” Thales could tell that what Mirk had gone through that day devastated him. His face twitched and his eyes were closed. “Nicholas stopped the assassin while he was getting away… but in the end, he managed to escape.
“Prince Soria was fatally wounded and he died of blood loss instantly… Lady Adele wanted to protect Lady Alex, and…”
Again, Lord Mirk squeezed his eyes shut in anguish. “I couldn’t protect them…”
Alex lowered her head and stared at the ground blankly, while Little Rascal, who stood behind her restrained her breath.
Lord Mirk eventually calmed down after a few seconds. He swallowed and began to speak woefully, “Although there was no substantial evidence, according to Secret Room’s investigation, we were certain that…
“The assassin came from Constellation. It was apparently ordered by the Royal Court.”
‘The assassination twelve years ago?
‘Wasn’t it the Bloody Year in Constellation?’
His thoughts were interrupted when King Nuven looked up and spoke in a gloomy, heavy tone.
“Thales, twelve years ago…
“We sent troops down south to Constellation for a good reason.”
Constellation, Eternal Star City, an unknown dungeon.
The shrill metallic sound of an opening gate echoed in the dark.
Two torches that had earlier been dipped in Eternal Oil were lit and two wardens walked down a gloomy corridor.
The fire illuminated the surroundings and rows of prison cells with thick metal bars became visible.
The noise and firelight caused a ruckus in the jailhouse.
“Bloody hell! Don’t you have a normal routine like other sane human beings?” In one of the cells, a clean and well-groomed but plainly-dressed man was awakened by the noise. He seemed to be an aristocrat. He lay in his bed, grumbling sleepily, “It’s probably midnight, or one in the morning! Back when I was in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs…”
The two wardens who held the torches ignored him as though they were used to it.
They stepped aside, clearing the path for a robust figure in the middle.
“Your Majesty, King Aydi! You are here at last!” Drawn by the firelight, a scruffy, delirious old man lunged forward. He held on to the metal bars and shook them. “Please reconsider what I’ve said! Even if you don’t think for yourself, what about Prince Midier? Do you want to pass down a failed nation to him?”
Instructed by the robust figure, the two wardens exchanged glances and began to lead the way.
On both sides of the path, prisoners in the cells gradually woke up. Each reacted differently to their arrival, but most appeared deranged and shouted manically.
“You’re all going to die, hahahaha!” An old prisoner laying on his stomach roared in hysteria “Even the Royal Family, you’re going to die as well… how dare you, how dare you… haha…”
The three figures moved on, unbothered.
“Look who’s our guest today.” A young, well-built prisoner leaned against the bars, squinting at the firelight. He still appeared to have a sound mind. “Well, isn’t it our fifth prince, the Royal Family’s disgrace… Why aren’t you continuing to spread your weak seeds on top of some poor women? Why loiter here instead?”
“It wasn’t me. It really wasn’t me!” A prisoner buried his head in his arms, crying. “I never touched Prince Herman’s wine glass! No! It was Jenkins! He added the poison!”
“Novork… right, Novork.” This was a prisoner with his back facing the corridor. He was carving something onto the wall and mumbling non-stop to himself, “I know what he’s planning and he’s doing it behind Duke John as well as Count Karabeyan’s backs… Perhaps it’s related to the rebel army. I’ve suspected him a long time ago, but that hateful woman, Sonia Sasere…”
The trio continued moving forward.
“Hey, boy!” A convict with scars all over his face pounced on the prison bars once he saw their faces clearly. He roared, “What happened to the Western Frontlines? Have we retrieved Blade Fangs Dune after you conquered the Desert God’s Altar? What about the orcs? What about the Eight Great Tribes belonging to the subordinates of the Dragon Skeleton Throne? Tell me! Hurry up and tell me!”
The robust figure paid no attention to the voices on both sides and strode forward.
The two calm wardens brought him to the next area. The interior of the prison cells in this place could not be seen as there were not prison bars. Instead, they were replaced by thick, locked iron doors that created sealed-off prison units. There was only one horizontal vent on each iron door, which acted as the only connection between the sealed-off prison units and the world outside.
The two wardens brought the person to the innermost prison and one of them knocked on the iron door with great force.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
The other warden cast a glance at the robust guest, while the latter nodded his head slightly.
Hence, the warden seized the iron bolt controlling the vent on the iron door and drew it open, revealing a small hole that could fit half of a person’s face in it.
The cell was dark and horrifically quiet.
That silence lasted for a long time until a bold and unconstrained voice travelled out slowly and airily from the pitch black cell.
“What a pleasant surprise.
“What could possibly bring the mighty Iron Hand King before a traitorous duke?”
The two wardens bowed slightly. Once they stuck the torches in the grooves of the wall behind them, they left in a respectful manner.
Under the illumination of the light provided by the fire, a haggard face made to look incredibly shaggy by the beard on his face appeared behind the vent on the iron door.
The prisoner in the cell was the current Duke of Northern Territory, the Iron Eagle, Val Arunde. He was staring at the person beyond the door with a sharp gaze.
Beyond the door was the Supreme King of Constellation—Kessel the Fifth. He sat down gently on the chair that had long since been prepared outside the cell.
Without any expression on his face, Kessel spoke softly, “I came here to talk to you about the past, regarding the Northern Territory’s fall during the Bloody Year.”
Val’s expression changed and he disappeared from the iron door.
Immediately after, his depressed laughter traveled forth from the cell.
As the light from the fire swayed, Kessel fell silent. He did not speak.
Once the Duke of Northern Territory had his fair share of laughter, he spoke coldly, “There’s nothing to talk about. When the war was at its peak, I wasn’t even in the Northern Territory. My father, brothers, wife, and my older sister were the ones fighting in that war.
“If you want to talk about it, go to hell’s river and talk to them.”
Kessel quietly stared into the darkness behind the vent, which did not allow him to see the end of the cell. He then exhaled softly.
“I want to tell you the true reason behind the war,” Kessel the Fifth’s voice was as strong and firm as ever, but there was a hint of sorrow as well as dejectedness added to it. “It’s about Eckstedt’s invasion.”
The person behind the iron door fell silent in an instant.
“What do you mean?” Val’s voice rose into the air slowly.
“The rebellion in the past was very bad. The entire Blade Edge Hill, half of South Coast Hill… along with Barren Bone Tribe and the orcs in Western Desert Hill as well as a third of Constellation’s land burned in the flames of war,” Kessel said calmly as if he was talking about something very normal.
“And after the counter-insurgency forces switched sides… We could not even mobilize an armed army.”
“That is why your uncle was sent to enlist recruits into a new army.” Val let out a cold harrumph behind the iron door. “Starlight Brigade.”
Kessel nodded, even though he knew that Val could not see him.
“Eckstedt saw the change. Nuven the Seventh regularly contacted the archdukes. The invasion of the Great Dragon to the North was practically set in stone. They decided on the date to mobilize their army, and in the beginning of spring of the coming year, they would head south to Constellation.”
For several seconds, neither of them spoke.
However, the Duke of Northern Territory soon discovered that there was something off.
“Wait, you said the beginning of spring for the coming year?” Val’s tone changed.
“Impossible! Eckstedt undoubtedly invaded us during winter that year!”
This time, the silence lasted for an especially long period of time.
Kessel sighed deeply.
The King spoke in his most sombre voice. It came from the bottom of his throat, and his words were indistinct. “That’s right. That was their original plan. Due to an accident, they brought the date of the invasion forward.”
Val’s face appeared behind the vent again.
His expression was frosty. He fixed his stare on Kessel, who was beyond the cell.
He realized what was off about this.
“What accident?” the Duke of Northern Territory asked agitatedly. “Why did the Eckstedtians bring their schedule forward?”
King Kessel stared at the ground motionlessly.
“Answer me.” Val gritted his teeth.
“Answer me, Kel!”
Kessel sucked in a deep breath before he lifted his head to stare at his former bosom buddy.
“When we received news from Northland, the entire palace was in fear. The rebel army, the Barren Bone Tribe, Eckstedt… Constellation was powerless to face a battle from three sides,” Kessel said slowly.
“Hence the palace proposed a plan.
“We wanted to push the date of Eckstedt’s invasion back.”
A chill that never appeared before in Val’s heart rose in him.
“Push back?” the duke asked instinctively.
Kessel nodded without any emotion on his face and said, “We wanted to stir up the conflict between Dragon Clouds City and Black Sand Region so that they would be busy with their own matters and would not be bothered to invade us.”
Val swiftly pounced forward. He grabbed the edges of the vent before he gritted his teeth and fixed his stare on Kessel. “What did they do?”
“Constellation sent assassins and dispatched all personnel. Their target were the two heirs in Dragon Clouds City and Black Sand Region—Soria Walton and Harold Lampard,” Kessel’s voice became increasingly hoarse. It sounded as if some kind of force was devouring the strength in his robust body.
“That assassin should have shifted the blame of one of their deaths on the other, then create an eternally irreparable rift between Dragon Clouds City and Black Sand Region.”
When he heard this, Val’s breathing grew heavier.
“But an accident occurred.
“Due to some reason, that assassin was exposed,” Kessel said slowly, “and Soria… Nuven’s eldest, died as well.”
Val turned around with his back facing the iron door. His expression could not be seen.
“Even though we didn’t leave behind any proof, Nuven still knew that we were the ones who acted.” Kessel closed his eyes. “Worse still, it broke the illusion of power we created and exposed our true strength… It told them that we were powerless to fight against the soldiers from the North.
“You know what happened next?” Kessel opened his eyes slowly, and his voice was filled with fatigue. “Eckstedt brought the date of their invasion forward and chose to attack during winter. They chose a date when it would be the worst possible time for restocking military supplies and deployed their troops to the south.
“Horace brought a handful of soldiers to meet with Nanchester and headed into Broken Dragon Fortress… On the second day after his death, John conquered Zodra, the final territory of the rebel army… Ten days later, the fortress fell into enemy hands.
“The beginning of spring in the coming year, Eckstedtians used the fortress as their base and like a tidal wave, flooded the Northern Territory.
Another long period of silence.
It lasted so long that the light from the fire started becoming dimmer.
It lasted till the Duke of Northern Territory broke the silence.
“Hahahaha…” Val started laughing in desolation.
“The assassination plan that was originally supposed to postpone Eckstedt’s invasion instigated and brought forward their plans instead?
Kessel did not speak. He only listened to the duke’s laughter quietly.
The duke finally stopped laughing.
“Who was it?” he asked airily.
“Who was it?!”
Val seized the iron door and gritted his teeth in sorrow. “Who suggested this damned plan?!”
Kessel stared at Val. He saw the expressions of grief, pain, anger, hatred, and shock mixed on his face.
The king shook his head.
“Father was forced to.
“Starlight Brigade suffered straight losses at the start. John was forced back inch by inch from Jade City to the Land of Ivory, then to Walla Passage. The rebel army had even extended their roots deep into the underground world of Eternal Star City.
“No one thought that John would be able to turn the tides in such a short time and win so many battles.
“At that time, the entire palace was cast in the shadow of having the country fall.” Kessel took a deep breath. “That was why the assassination happened.”
Val’s expression slowly froze, but his hands trembled non-stop as he seized the cell door.
“If-If that plan hadn’t been around and that assassination didn’t happen…” the Duke of Northern Territory instinctively mumbled.
Kessel pressed his hands on his knees and lowered his head slightly. “Yes.”
His expression was slightly distorted. He controlled his neck to allow himself to nod while he was trembling slightly. “If Eckstedt had waited till the beginning of spring before they attacked, from what I can see now, John’s Starlight Brigade could have absolutely, without a doubt, arrive in the north to provide your father and the fortress with support.
“Broken Dragon Fortress would not have fallen.
“And whether it be Cold Castle or… Both would not have fallen.
“The Northern Territory would not have suffered such a tragedy either.”
Val slid down behind the iron door dejectedly.
The muffled sound of knees crashing against the floor appeared from behind the iron door, along with the Duke of Northern Territory’s oppressed, tormented growls.
“Are you saying… that all of you… all of those bastards in your father’s Imperial Conference and that stupid plan of theirs… brought about the deaths of millions in the Northern Territory?” Val asked with a hoarse voice.
“Haha… and we always thought that King Nuven had seized the opportune moment to launch the invasion and conquer the fortress… and in the end, hahaha…”
Kessel did not answer him. He only waited quietly.
The brilliant light illuminated his side profile. There was only numbness in the depths of the King of Constellation’s eyes.
After some time…
“What about that foolish assassin? That idiot who exposed himself after he failed the assassination?” Val’s voice, which had changed slightly in pitch due to his grief and hopelessness travelled from behind the iron door. There was deep hatred buried in his voice. “Did you dig out his heart?”
Kessel the Fifth turned his head around and stared at a completely empty spot in space.
It was as if a person was standing there.
For a period of time, only Val Arunde’s deep and depressed sobs could be heard in the air.
Kessel’s eyes were filled with complicated emotions that were difficult to understand.
No one knew how much time had passed. The Supreme King of Constellation, Kessel Jadestar the Fifth was just staring into thin air. With an emotion that was difficult for an average person to understand, he spoke slowly, “That assassin is paying the price for that failed assassination, which brought about grave consequences.
“He is forever imprisoned behind a cursed mask and he will never see daylight ever again.”
The king stared at the spot that was void of any living person, and his voice was incomparably quiet. “In endless loneliness and never-ending darkness, he will taste pain and suffer through eternal torment.
“He will serve his sentence…
“With the remainder of his lowly life…
“For that devastating battle…
“And for the countless souls he owes.”