Chapter 574: Antecessors
Translator: EndlessFantasy Translation Editor: EndlessFantasy Translation
In the hall of the mansion of the Secret Intelligence Department manor, Thales stood before a portrait that faced the entrance corridor.
“This is Leinster Covendier,” Raphael said from behind him.
The man in the portrait was elegant and well-dressed. He sat on a red leather chair and was fiddling with a half-unsheathed dagger in his hands—a cold gleam reflected from the blade and there was a precious stone embedded on the sheath.
“One of the six knights under the King of Renaissance—Deadly Iris.”
Hearing this name and moniker, Thales seemed to realized something. He looked towards the tapestry under the frame:
[Leinster P.T. Covendier, Before 27—20]
“Seven hundred years ago, he funded and aided the then Prince Tormond who had yet to be crowned king, and recruited and trained the first batch of professional agents and spies. He made important contributions to the Battle of Eradication and the founding of Constellation, and was the first Chief of Intelligence of the kingdom.”
Raphael stared at the portrait as if he was looking at the person himself. “He is recognized as the founder of the kingdom’s Secret Intelligence Department.”
The Deadly Iris under the painter’s brush was no more than 40 years old. He looked focused but was frowning. He exuded an air of melancholy and mystery, as if masking an infinite gloom that had no release.
Making the beholder sympathize with him.
‘Founder of the Secret Intelligence Department.’
The prince pondered, “Is he the ancestor of the Covendier family, and the first Duke of South Coast Hill?”
Thales nodded but did not speak. He trailed behind Raphael.
Inside, they treaded on the star-blue carpet that was common within the kingdom. The hall of the mansion that presented itself to Thales was spacious and bright, vastly different from the rustic and desolated exterior of the manor.
Thales looked around. “It looks bigger than it seemed from the outside.”
Sunlight shone in through the windows, making the silver Double Cross-Shaped Stars on the tapestries and banners glimmer. Unexpectedly, there was no trace of gravity and dreariness.
“That’s credit to the original master of this manor. The architectural layout is ingenious and it was skillfully built.”
Raphael gaze remained focused as he kept on walking.
“Unfortunately, the manor encountered bloodshed during the Bloody Year and was almost burned to ruins.
“Otherwise it would not have become our headquarters in the first place.”
A few people in casual clothing sat in the hall, attending their own matters. Some were handling documents; some were conversing in hushed tones. They ignored the presence of Raphael and Thales.
It was almost no different from an ordinary municipal department.
Raphael led the youth into a side hall.
From the design of the wall corners, pillars, stair rails and even the ceiling, Thales could see the luxury and glory of the manor’s past and the precipitation of history. But Raphael walked quickly, as if accustomed to this pace. So even though the youth had the intention to fully admire everything, all he could do was have a quick glance.
Until he saw another classic portrait in a corridor.
[Halva C.M. Karabeyan, Before 14—65]
The man in the painting was nearing middle-age, but age did not show between his brows. Mustached, the corners of his mouth revealed a faint smile and he looked plain and sincere.
In direct contrast to the shrewd Leinster.
“That’s Chief Karabeyan,” Noticing Thales slowing down, Raphael revealed the identity of the person in the painting with just a glance, “Leinster’s deputy and successor.”
Thales thoughts were set in motion.
Raphael nodded slowly. “Thanks to his talents and perseverance, the intelligence network personally managed by Leinster was not reduced to a short-lived fluke due to poor reputation after the death of the ‘Deadly Iris’, but was officially named the ‘Kingdom’s Secret Intelligence Department’. It continued to recruit talent and establish conventions that have been passed down to this day.”
Thales’ gaze shifted to the tapestry under the frame. On it was a phrase that had been embroidered with gold thread in a simple font. The text was half ancient half modern, something between the language of The Modern Empire and contemporary common language.
[The Eyes and Ears of the King. The Night Sentries of the Kingdom. To Know and Keep Knowledge Secret is Our Duty.]
Raphael continued, “Of course, Halva was eventually promoted from the position of Chief of Intelligence. He was made a minister and given a noble title, and became the second-in-command in the kingdom, the prime minister known historically as the ‘Wise Prime Minister’.”
“‘Wise Prime Minister’,” Thales repeated the moniker while recalling Gilbert’s history lessons, “‘Wise Prime Minister’ Karabeyan?”
He had a peculiar expression on his face.
“I know what you’re thinking.” Raphael thought of something and sighed. “Whenever this nickname is put together with this family name…
“There seems to be a big contrast, right?”
Thales snorted, and immediately resisted the desire to smile. He put on a straight face and continued walking.
It was smooth and quiet along the way as they traversed countless corridors and halls. From time to time, someone would pass by with a stack of scrolls in their hands, appearing from one doorway and disappearing into another with urgent footsteps and looking busy, merely nodding to acknowledge the two.
“It seems that not many people are on duty?” the prince asked, curious.
“Whether it’s to deal with the incident involving a certain prince at the Western Desert, or to deal with the incident involving a certain prince at the banquet, many people have already pulled all-nighters for a consecutive number of days without changing shifts,” Raphael replied without any qualms about giving Thales face, “Have some pity for them.”
Thales could only shrug embarrassedly.
“But why are we here? Since Covendier can’t be punished, and you can’t do anything about the case.”
Raphael shot him a look and was about to reply when the door behind him opened and a man called out, “Raphael, the Asses have everything on the white gloves incident ready. Do you want to have a look?”
As the man spoke, his eyes kept drifting towards Thales. He wanted to greet him but hesitated.
Raphael was lost in thought, but Thales frowned.
“Did he say, Asses?” Thales leaned closer to Raphael and asked in a whisper, “Ass?”
Raphael turned around and waved an indifferent hand at the prince, ignoring his expression. “It’s the special unit under my command. I’ve told you their full name.
“Do you want me to repeat it?”
Thales forced a smile.
Raphael raised his eyebrows empathetically, turned and walked towards the man. “Very well, Darney. Let’s verify the procedure, it shouldn’t take long.
“By the way, direct your gaze appropriately.”
The man at the door immediately retracting his furtive glances towards Thales.
Thales was about to follow Raphael into the room when he was halted outside the door by the Barren Bone man.
“No. I’ll be out soon. Wait for me here, don’t go anywhere.”
Raphael left him with a jovial smile and closed the door.
Thales, who was abandoned in the corridor, rolled his eyes.
‘Hmph, Ass Wipers.’
It was still quiet in the corridor. Bored, Thales walked a few steps along to look at the portraits hanging on the walls: most of them were of men in their prime or were middle-aged, looking either solemn or overbearing.
In contrast, a unique painting first caught his eye:
It was a full-length portrait of a woman.
She was reclining on a dark sofa with a stretched posture. Her skin was fair and beautiful and she had striking features. In her exotic clothing, she did not shy away from revealing her slender legs to show her sexy and provocative figure. Under the painter’s skillful brush, even her curled toes looked exquisite and adorable.
But unlike her seductive figure, the lady’s expression was mysterious and indifferent, seemingly unconcerned about everything around her.
While viewing the portrait under these two contrasting aspects, Thales seemed to, at times, see a sensual figure, but at times, sense an untouchable nobility.
Thales looked below the frame:
[Elva Sardo Kar Mimeux Hanbol, 39—77]
“This is Elva,” A thick voice said from behind in a familiar Western Desert accent, “People call her ‘Eastern Beauty’. This is one of the rare portraits of hers that hasn’t been destroyed or burned.”
Thales turned around. He was surprised after he saw who it was.
“Wait a minute, I know you. You’re…”
The man was well-groomed and had slightly dark skin. He bowed to Thales in respect and appeared just like he did when they were at Blade Fangs Camp. “Norb, Your Highness. At your service.
“It is a pleasure to meet you again. I am glad to see you healthy and at ease, Prince Thales—or should I say, Duke of Star Lake?”
Thales assessed him with mild surprise, finally confirming the man’s identity.
He was the cadre from the Secret Intelligence Department who dared to confront Legendary Wing in front of an entire army at Blade Fangs Camp.
“Why are you here?”
Thales gaze shifted to Norb’s right leg subconsciously.
Nothing seemed abnormal on the surface, but the prince noticed that Norb’s right hand was holding a cane to support half of his body.
Norb smiled weakly, respectful as ever. “I’m back for a debriefing…on the Western Desert incident.”
“I see,” Thales hesitated for a split second and finally burst out asking, “How, how is your leg?”
He turned slowly to stare at his own right leg, then his cane, and looked downcast.
“Thank you for your concern.
“The Secret Intelligence Department has effective medicine, but…”
Norb forced a self-deprecating smile and pointed at the cane in his right hand. “I have to learn to get used to this thing now.”
Thales was silent for a moment.
He recalled how, in order to cover for him, Roman unreasonably broke Norb’s right leg in the desert, and felt guilty.
Norb shook his head and put away his sorrow. “It’s not your fault.
“Moreover, if it weren’t for this leg,” he chuckled, “They probably wouldn’t allow me to come back so easily. Who knows, it might be a blessing in disguise.”
Thales did not know how to respond to his self-deprecation and generosity.
Norb apparently noticed the awkward atmosphere. He turned around quickly to look at the woman in the portrait, and attempted to drive away the gloom with a change of topic. “Anyway, Elva hails from the Hanbol Dynasty of the Eastern Peninsula. According to rumors, she is the remnant heir of ‘Grand Cadillac’ Amma Mimeux Hanbol in exile.”
Thales was confused. “So, Elva? She’s a foreigner, and a woman…and a member of the Secret Intelligence Department?”
Strangely, Norb shook his head before nodding straightaway.
“After ‘Black Eye’ John the First failed in his northern expedition and dismissed ‘Wise Prime Minister’ Halva, the Secret Intelligence Department lost credence and at one point, its future was uncertain.”
Norb stared at the foreign woman with a profound gaze. “Until Black Eye decided to gift this insignificant toy to his dearest lover—like an inconsequential position in remuneration, or I should simply say, a gift—to persuade the ministers to allow him to have her around.”
‘The king’s lover?’
Thales turned around subconsciously to take a closer look at this Lady Elva.
The subject of the painting still looked indifferent in a comfortable posture, unbothered by the viewer’s gaze.
“Bearing the disdain and hostility from internal and external pressures, Elva fought for the budget of, reorganized and preserved this neglected and dying department that was suffering from low morale.”
Norb sighed, “That’s right. During those years, Eastern Beauty controlled the flow of intelligence and expanded the information network. She was effectively the brains of the Secret Intelligence Department, the Chief of Intelligence.”
He was lost in thought. “And she did the job well.
“So after Black Eye died, she was accused of regicide and sent to the guillotine, despised by the people.”
Thales was shocked when he realized what he had just heard.
Norb chuckled and shook his head. “It wasn’t her—to have been able to persuade the Ten Great Clans to let go of their differences and come together, and even having to ask the Great Dragon for help to save the kingdom from destruction, ‘Black Eye’ isn’t the type to simply place his trust in the wrong people.”
Norb leaned on his cane, took a few steps forward and pointed at the gold-thread-embroidered text under Elva’s name:
[Plans are bitches, don’t trust them—even if you’ve already paid.]
“After Black Eye, his three sons inherited his ambitions, but none had their father’s vision.”
“I know this part. At the end of the first century of the Calendar of Eradication,” Thales took over, “Three stars divided, brother turned against brother. Land was split in a battle for the throne and war ravaged the kingdom.”
Norb nodded with a deep gaze.
“So, when you don’t have the commensurate merit and reputation, but intend to bypass your two brothers to officially wear the Nine-Pointed Star royal crown left by your father…”
He stared at Elva and said softly, “The easiest way is to avenge the former king. And to take revenge…”
The prince quickly understood. He looked up blankly and interjected, “You have to first find a murderer.”
Thales stared at the charming lady on the wall.
“I’ve seen this plot before.
“A foreign spy and tramp adored by the former king and at the same time feared by everyone else, but as it happens, also possessing unrivaled beauty and skill,” the youth began to comprehend, and said in a low voice, “In terms of regicide, there’s no better scapegoat.”
The prince stared at Elva’s charming figure and imagined the scene where this then foreign beauty—unkempt, covered in cuts and bruises and in shackles—limped solitarily up the scaffold towards the guillotine while enduring the cold gaze of the schemer and the curses of thousands.
Her head was probably held high in that moment.
As if he knew what Thales was thinking, Norb took a deep breath and smiled.
“Don’t worry. After ‘Peace King’ Kessel the First was crowned, ending of the division of the three stars and unifying the kingdom, ‘Eastern Beauty’ was vindicated.”
Thales was relieved.
He stared at Elva in her prime and felt a sense of solace.
“That’s why I am still able to see her portrait here.”
But Norb shook his head in disagreement.
“A re-painting of her portrait.”
Thales turned around in surprise.
“When this re-painting was completed, Eastern Beauty had already passed.” Norb sighed. “The painters and artisans had to restore her former elegance of roaming the peaks of power and ruling the clandestine world with her feminine poise.
“But as you can see, no matter how they exhausted their talents and imaginations…”
Staring at Elva, who was depicted with alluring curves, Norb shook his head in disappointment.
Thales and Norb were silent for a while.
Norb pulled himself together and asked, “Are you waiting for someone?”
“Yes,” Thales replied somewhat bitterly.
The prince glanced toward the room that Raphael entered, and shrugged. “He…won’t be out for a while.”
“In that case.” Norb gestured towards the next portrait along the corridor. “If you don’t mind?”
Thales nodded and walked with him.
This was far more interesting than Scholar Bonar’s grammar lessons and Raphael’s satire plays.
Norb raised an arm and pointed at the opposite wall. “Campbell Tabark, also known as ‘Dark Moon’.”
Thales turned around.
[Campbell W. B. Tabark, 137—215]
“Tabark? The ruling family of Blade Edge Hill, Blood Moon of Blade City?”
Thales thought about Duchess Lyanna whom he had not seen in years.
Chief Campbell in the portrait was middle-aged, portly and had a noble look about him. Unfortunately, his smile was stiff and comical from placing the weight of his entire body on the cane in front of him and trying to tuck his belly in and stick his chest out. Coupled with his receding hairline…
In the other world, he would probably be deemed “unphotogenic”.
“He was the Chief of Intelligence that served three kings from the end of the second century to the beginning of the third century.”
“From ‘Line Breaker’ Sumer the First, to ‘Ascension King’ Alan the First, to ‘Thorn Cutter’ Tormond the Third, these three kings relied on him as their right-hand man and trusted him very much.”
At the mention of this familiar name, Thales could not help but compare it to Gilbert’s history lesson. After comprehending something, his expression turned cold.
Norb lamented. “Don’t be fooled by his appearance. It is difficult for people who have been born in our era to imagine how much, how meaningful and how consequential Chief Campbell’s contributions were to our kingdom.”
“Why is that?”
Norb exhaled. “Because in history books, everyone sees only the kings and prime ministers, generals and dukes, praising their foresight, sagacity and achievements, but are unaware of, or actively ignore, the filth in the darkness.
“Because we cannot imagine, in the era before Campbell Tabark, how terrifying the power and influence of the Sunset Temple was within the kingdom—they were able interfere in a range of matters from crucial ones such as the granting of fiefs, governance and inheritance, to trivial ones such as marriages, funerals, and everyday life.”
“One order could alter everything, one word could decide fates.”
Thales was deep in thought. Norb clicked his tongue and shook his head. “In that age, the king’s staff was lighter than the bishop’s robes, the people’s loyalty was derived from their piousness, and the gaze of the gods was the destiny of the world.”
Norb looked up. His expression was solemn. “But from when Chief Campbell took charge of the Secret Intelligence Department and aided the king, to when he retired of old age and passed away in Blade City, a tumultuous half-century passed…
“Sunset’s believers split into the two factions of Church and Temple. They were entangled in endless disputes and suffered decline from internal strife.
“They could no longer meddle in the succession lineage of the royal family, nor interfere with the political policies of the kingdom, let alone dictate the daily lives of the people.”
Thales frowned. Priestess Melgen, explaining “the battle between the elder and the younger” in theology lesson, appeared before his eyes—oh, and that anxious young nun as well.
“In the end, the gods became lofty and transcendent again. Their believers had no choice but to bow their praying heads to the Nine-Pointed Star royal crown and gradually withdraw from the political center of Constellation.”
Norb stared at the plain-looking Campbell with gleaming eyes. “During this period, Chief Campbell made great contributions even though they were not well-publicized.”
Thales stood before Campbell’s portrait. ‘You can’t judge a book by its cover.’
But he spoke too soon.
Because the next portrait that Norb pointed out to him was of a hunchbacked old man that looked like he had been through the mill.
[Rather than have men fear you, have them underestimate you.]
“William the Hunchback,” Norb introduced.
The William in the painting looked ordinary and mediocre. Not only did he not have any striking characteristics, his hunchback made him look deformed and ugly.
“The first Chief of Intelligence that was not born of nobility—as you can see, he has no family name. From the middle of the third century, he was in charge of the Secret Intelligence Department for fifty years, carrying out his duties conscientiously and diligently.”
Norb tapped the floor lightly with his cane. He stared at William’s hunchback and seemed to resonate deeply with him. “When people talk about the legend of the Empress Dowager Iron Spike’s regency, of how she prevailed for seven dynasties, they always neglect to mention this inconspicuous official that served during the same period.”
Norb was absorbed in his own narration and almost forgot that Thales was present.
“But it was William, this Chief of Intelligence that had neither remarkable merits nor the reputation of a noble, who—together with Empress Dowager Iron Spike—supported Constellation through the weakest, darkest and most dangerous half a century in the history of the kingdom.
Thales lowered his head and thought about the origins of Ballard Room.
“Did I bore you?”
“Of course not,” Thales snapped out of his daze and replied with perfect etiquette, “Please continue.”
Norb’s eyes lit up.
“Ah, I’ve got it. You’ll definitely be more interested in this antecessor of the Secret Intelligence Department.”
He led Thales forward, bypassing a few Chiefs of Intelligence, and stopped in front of the most outstanding portrait.
Thales was stunned: different from the other portraits, this one was framed with a silver frame, making it distinctive.
What grabbed his attention more, was the young woman in the painting.
She was riding a horse in full armor. She had one hand on the reins and the other on her sword. She looked confident and composed, as if she would burst through the frame and pierce the heart of the spectator with her sword at any moment.
This was the second female portrait that Thales saw in the Secret Intelligence Department, the first being Elva.
Crucially—Thales squinted to look at the engraved pattern on the lady’s armor, and was dumbstruck:
‘The Nine-Pointed Star.’