Lead coloured clouds loomed in the sky. The sky was like this when I received my appointment letter banishing me to the borders, Regis thought. His gaze returned to the ground, the town that was similar in color to the sky was different from the capital. He did not miss the bricks, marbles and streetlights, but the walled streets reminded him of a prison.
The border town Tuonvell. 100 Li (444 km) away from the capital and five days travel by horse carriage. The streets were dim even in daylight, the freezing wind inflicting pain. The cloudy weather was normal during winter for a place in the north near the border, but it felt like a sign of his future.
Am I a failure? Regis thought. He had lost his master, status and future, and was exiled to the front lines in the north.
"Well, it's not too bad... Life is not just about career advancement. In fact, this will increase my leisure reading time."
The afternoon bell was ringing in the church when the caravan arrived. The people in the convoy spread out to search for lunch. Regis walked towards a shop that had nothing to do with food. The shop windows were arranged with books. Rows of bookshelves were lined inside the building constructed from stone. The smell of paper and ink lingered in the air.
"—Ah, I am free if there are books, and that place will be my home."
Quoted from Cuiller Romeros 'Burgundy Journals' — he added silently in his heart.
Regis claimed to be a book enthusiast, but he was actually a bibliophile.
He searched passionately in the shelf labeled ‘New Releases’.
His mouth widened gradually due to panic.
"What, what's happening..."
"Hmmm? What's the matter Mr. Soldier?"
The bearded shopkeeper behind the counter deep within the store asked. The scar on his face and his muscular body made him look closer to a military drill instructor than a bookstore clerk.
Regis continued searching despite the oppressive air.
"I can't find the new release by Cuiller. Or Count Ludosel. Or Professor Illue... Are they sold out? I know they are popular, but that is too cruel."
"Mr. Soldier, did you come from central?"
"Ah, I came from the capital..."
"That's why you didn't know. The books you mentioned won't sell in this town, so most stores won't import them."
"... What, did... you say...?"
Regis sounded like a man stranded in the desert craving for water.
His throat was dry in an instant.
The storekeeper shrugged, he didn't seem to be joking.
"This is a war zone. Heroic stories and erotic novels are what sells here. Ah, this one is the bestseller in my shop."
He pointed at the title 'How to Write Your Will Without Regrets'.
No way!! Regis hugged his head as he thought.
"Wait, wait a minute... There are no stocks of those famous authors? Am I really still in Belgaria? Did I stumble into a barbarian settlement?"
"Well, this was the neighboring nation's territory 50 years ago."
"Uguu... And what is with this price? It's 10 times that of the capital..."
Regis had finally found a book he wanted, but he looked like he was about to cry when he reached for it.
The bearded storekeeper said casually:
"Well, books are heavy and bandits are roaming around recently. It takes lots of effort to transport them here, and the customer base is small... Near the borders, books are a luxurious hobby for the upper class."
"Why is this happening!"
"Sorry about that..."
The shopkeeper reached for the book Regis was holding.
Regis hugged the book in a panic.
"Wait, wait wait, I didn't say I'm not buying...!!"
"Eh? Are you serious? You look like a young soldier. It's strange for me as the seller but... Pardon me, wouldn't that cost you a week of your wages?"
"Uguu... This is hell..."
At this moment, the storekeeper let out a weird sound "Oh?!" and stared with his eyes wide open.
Regis followed his gaze and turned around.
At the entrance of the shop was a young girl with her back to the light.
A pretty young girl with red hair that looked as if it was burning and ruby colored eyes. She was around 13-14 years old. Her features were still a bit childlike, but she had a charm that held your gaze, making you unable to avert your eyes.
— Be quiet? Why? What does she mean?
Other customers patronising the bookshop were nothing special, but Regis was strangely unnerved.
The young girl brought her hand down and opened her pink lips.
"There are many recruits lamenting about the hellish conditions of a war zone after being dispatched to the front lines, but I think you are the first to do so in a bookstore."
Her voice felt as cooling as a breeze.
The young girl smiled cheerfully.
"We finally meet! You’re Regis Auric, fifth grade admin officer right?"
"Eh? Oh, me?"
"Am I wrong?!"
"No, you’re right! I am Regis..."
"Great~ I was wondering what to do if I got the wrong person."
Her smile of relief had an innocence befitting her age.
Regis' cheeks became warm.
Because the girl before him was very pretty— no. That's not it. He was just feeling embarrassed and ashamed when a girl who was obviously younger than him addressed him by his name.
"Err, name... How did you know about me?"
"It is obvious to remember the name of the person you are picking up. Please don't look down on me just because I am a child."
"No no, that's not what I think... I see, you are here to pick me up."
Regis looked at the girl again.
She was wearing leather pants and boots under her brown cloak. A common attire for carriage drivers.
"You came from the fortress to pick me up, that means you are a soldier?"
"Ara, do I look like one?"
"No... That's impossible, you are underage?"
"Yes, I just turned 14."
In Belgaria, you become an adult when you turn 15. Excluding extreme cases, underage children could not enlist in the military.
"I see, you must be a temporary driver... I was planning to take the public stagecoach there. But to send someone to pick me up, what a privilege."
"... Are you happy?"
"... I feel a bit moody being rushed to work."
"Fufu, you are really honest."
"I don't like to lie."
"Is that so? But you are — a tactician right?"
The girl looked at him with her ruby eyes.
Regis felt pressured to speak by the girl four years his junior.
"... Well, there are some who say that... I was a librarian in the military library."
"You say some interesting things. Let's continue on the wagon."
Regis felt that it was hard to breathe and massaged his temples.
The girl walked out as she hurried him.
"Come on, let's go. The clouds are getting thicker, it's probably going to snow."
"That's right... Ah, I forgot!"
Regis was heading out as well but suddenly remembered the book he was holding on to and walked back towards the shopkeeper, placing money for the book on the counter.
"I’ll buy this book... Hmm? What's wrong shopkeeper? You look ill?"
"No, it's nothing. Thank you for your patronage, Mr. Soldier."
The bearded shopkeeper covered his mouth with his hand and lowered his head for some reason. He seemed to be enduring something.
The girl approached Regis with a sour expression.
"Are you an idiot?!"
"What, so sudden...?"
"Books are a luxurious hobby at the borders. Only rich people and morons will spend so much money."
"Well, I don't think I’m a smart man... The thirst for knowledge is the pride of mankind, giving in to this desire and reading is my way of life. No matter the obstacles or the lack of funds, telling me to give up reading is the same as telling me to give up on life."
Regis shut his mouth after finishing, feeling embarrassed for being so serious with a child.
The girl had an unexpectedly serious expression.
"The same as giving up on life... Is that so, then I can understand. Me too..."
"Nothing! Let's go!"
Regis kept the book under his armpit, dragging his luggage out of the store as he chased after the girl.
A small wagon pulled by a single horse was parked before the shop.
A thin brown horse gazed their way.
The girl easily jumped up to the driver's seat which was at the horse's waist level.
"Hey, hurry up!"
"Yeah... By the way, what's your name?"
Regis looked up at the girl and asked.
Her eyes turned sharp and she spoke with a low tone slowly, syllable by syllable.
"I’m leaving you behind."
Regis scrambled up the driver's seat.
That wasn't a good time to ask.
Taratara... The wooden wheels creaked as it turned on the road. They were moving towards the northern gate of Tuonvell that was protected by stone walls, heading for the most forward position known as Sierck Fortress.
A girl holding the reins sat on the driver's seat. To her right was Regis and his luggage. Behind them were timber and bricks covered by a cloth.
"— So, what about my name?"
"Well, how should I address you?"
The girl held her well-formed jaw with her leather-gloved hand and pondered.
Is this something you need to think about? Regis was baffled.
The girl relaxed her tensed lips.
"Yeah, you can call me Altina."
"Is that an alias?"
He asked without thinking too much about it, but that was a mistake. The girl named Altina frowned.
"... How rude... Isn't this a wonderful name? I was considering giving you the privilege to use it, should I take that back?"
"Sorry, please let me address you as Altina."
"Well, I will allow it if you really want to."
"I really do."
"Fu~... You are not like a soldier at all."
"Haha, I feel the same."
Regis smiled bitterly, and so did Altina.
There were vast fields of wheat on either side of them. The seedlings were growing despite it being winter. The world was coloured in the palette of the grey sky and the brown earth.
"Hey, you didn't come here voluntarily right?"
"My goal since joining the military is to become a librarian. To be honest, I enlisted because of financial issues... By the way, is there a library in Sierck Fortress?"
"I think your room will be known as one someday."
"Ah, is there no god?"
"... Are you making puns with paper (kami) and god (kami)? Boring."
"I- I- I wasn't making puns."
"What did you do in your last unit?"
"Why? Are you questioning my existence as a soldier?"
"That's not it, I’m asking how did you draw the short straw and get posted to the front lines?"
"I think it is my punishment for losing a battle."
"And you accepted that? You’re just a young non-commissioned officer. You don't even have any command authority, isn't it strange for you to take responsibility?"
Regis gazed into the distance.
The field was full of rows of wheat. He could see the undulating mountain range over the horizon.
"... is a good man."
"My previous employer. I was terrible in swordsmanship and horsemanship, the last place in military academy. The one who employed me was Marquis Thénezay."
"Last place? But I heard you have never lost before in military strategy class."
"You know a lot. I wonder who told you that... Well, the rumors are not wrong... I pulled up my grades with military strategy, but it was something akin to playing chess."
"But Marquis Thénezay hired you to be a tactician, not a chess player right?"
"I am just a junior tactician staff. I was just 15 after graduating from military academy, so it was something like apprentice work."
"Be it a junior staff or an apprentice, I think it is amazing to be a tactician at such a tender age... Are you dissatisfied?"
"No way! I think the Marquis only employed me on a whim... But I am still grateful for his kindness, even now."
That was why Regis eyes became watery when he parted with the Marquis. Regis gripped his luggage tightly, crushing his bag.
"... Marquis said I was needed. But... I left him to face his death."
His tone was so low that it seemed to be someone else's voice.
Altina's expression became heavy.
"If I remember correctly, Marquis Thénezay in that summer battle..."
She knows a lot for a temporary hire, Regis thought. Is she concerned with the war because she is living in the front lines, or is Altina a weirdo? Or maybe there are some other reasons.
"Left him to face his death? What happened?"
"That is just my opinion..."
"I want to know your opinion. Not through rumors, but directly from you... Hey, can you tell me?"
Regis considered it.
It was a long journey. There was nothing to hide, it was published in the newspapers after the military court sessions anyway.
It happened one day during that summer—
He remembered the words and expression of everyone clearly, but he didn't know where to start.
He took some time to organise his thoughts.
"... During that war council... Marquis Thénezay used the proposals submitted by the Head Tactician. Well, the minor details are not important. We were fighting 500 barbarians with 3000 empire soldiers. With victory in our grasp, the council focused less on the battle and more on chit chat on which wine should accompany duck meat for dinner."
"So they were in victory mood before the battle started?"
"It was common, the empire's army is strong... But the problem was our lack of contingency plans if the savages flanked us and attacked our rear."
"The opponents are barbarians right? Isn't it a waste of time to plan for that?"
"That's right, the undisciplined savages are unlikely to pull such a move off successfully, so they prefer to clash head to head. But according to past records, there were instances of them conducting such sneak attacks when there were huge disparities in numbers. There was a need to be careful... I proposed this twice. But the Head Tactician dismissed me as a coward, and suggested the Marquis to watch for our victory from the rear... Something like that."
"So you were chased out of headquarters."
The military court session had a similar debate, and the atmosphere was shifting towards the interrogation of Regis.
Should he have proposed a third time even if they would bark at him? That's what he thought now. If he had insisted on his viewpoint, they could have defended against the sneak attack.
"Are you blaming yourself?"
"... I was afraid of punishment more severe than banishment from headquarters... So I didn't propose a third time."
"The head tactician was a noble right?"
"Yeah, I think he was...?"
"If that is the case, he won't accept a commoner's proposal no matter how many times you try. Marquis Thénezay couldn't do anything if it compromises the status of a noble."
Regis was a commoner unaccustomed to aristocracy, so he hadn't taken into account that the Marquis might be hesitant to belittle the head tactician.
If only he had thought deeper. He had the knowledge of the social status of aristocrats.
Altina consoled him.
"That's why you shouldn't blame yourself."
"No, now that you mentioned it, I realise the reason for his behavior... It was my fault for overlooking the delicate relations between nobles... If I had approached the Marquis in person instead of doing so during the war council... Maybe... Tch!!"
Regis gritted his teeth. His stomach felt heavy and his eyes were heating up. Tears seeped into his vision.
Altina suddenly called out to him in a commanding tone.
Compared to having his name called, the forceful nature of the voice was more shocking to him. This made him doubt whether this girl was really a simple driver.
"Don't be too hard on yourself. You did your best, isn't that right?"
"...Ah, that is true. But I don't want to think that the Marquis died to protect a reputation of a noble... But because I was too naive."
But I understand that now, Regis thought.
Looking up, they saw several white shadows drifting down from the sky.
"Snowing on my first day here... They are welcoming me... hahaha."
"You won't be able to laugh if this turns into a blizzard."
"Yeah, I know."
"You lived in the north before?"
"I read about it in books."
"...Ah, is that so... I need to speed up, hang on and don't fall!"
Altina let out a sound that was a mix of anger and surprise as she whipped the horse.
The wolves were howling from afar.
Awooo! The sound of wild beasts intimidated travelers. It was the same for the horse pulling the wagon.
The horse suddenly shook its head and veered off course.
Altina pulled the reins.
The horse started to neigh.
Regis was stunned.
The wagon skidded on the snow-covered road as the wheels lost traction. It tilted towards one end.
The bricks and timber cargo stowed under the cloth tumbled noisily. The noise stopped with an unpleasant sound of wood snapping.
The impact threw Regis into the air.
The one screaming was Regis, while Altina grabbed his shoulders and held onto him.
They avoided falling off the wagon.
The wagon stopped in the middle of the road.
The horse stopped and started to neigh.
After a while it calmed down and looked towards the driver's seat.
I screwed up — The horse seemed to realise that. Just like an uneasy child who messed up.
Altina jumped off the driver's seat and caressed the head of the horse.
"Are you okay? Where are you hurt?"
The horse neighed in reply.
Regis didn't know what it meant, but he saw Altina examine the right hind leg of the horse.
"Is it injured?"
"... It can run if we force it too... But if its leg deteriorates beyond healing, it will be put down."
She sighed as she caressed the horse.
She unfastened the harness from the horse to let it rest, and tied the reins down to prevent it from wandering off.
Regis looked towards the smoking horizon over the snowy plain.
"How far are we from Sierck Fortress?"
"About 5 Li (22 km) away... But it is impossible to start walking."
"Because a blizzard is coming. Without any lights, it will be pitch-dark at night. If we veer off course onto the wheat field, we won't reach the fortress even if we walk till day break. We might even fall into a ditch."
"Well, I don't want to walk 5 Li with my luggage either."
"Are you really a soldier?!"
"Haha, my grades for loaded march were terrible. This is more survival training than loaded march training."
Ha~, Altina sighed as she pressed her temple.
Regis tilted his head.
"Isn't it the tactician's job to think of a way?"
"Well, my command abilities have been praised before... but this situation is better suited for soldiers, merchants or adventurers."
"Aren't you a soldier?!"
"Oh, that's right."
"What a surprising man."
"Hey, calm down Altina. Humans can pull it off if we put our minds to it."
"Right... Freezing to death in a blizzard is something that can be pulled off."
"So you really have no ideas?"
"Hmmm, right... Let's read this."
Regis took out the book he bought in town.
"Ah, you mean that book can be used in this situation? Well done!"
"I wonder. This work describes the life of a young man who encounters a fairy and the six beautiful ladies around him. A slice of life fantasy novel."
"Are you stupid? This is not the place for nonsensical stories?!"
"It's rude to dismiss it as nonsense. Apologise to the author."
"You will freeze into a popsicle if this goes on, you won't be able to read anymore! The priest will read some scriptures for you though."
"That is why... I want to read the last book I bought."
"You’re giving up too easily!"
"Just joking. It is not good panicking. We have to calm down and think. Let's climb up the wagon. It's much better to have some shelter."
"... You’re right."
Altina's head and shoulders were covered in snow when she climbed onto the wagon.
The timber and bricks were piled up on one side because of the wagon skidding earlier.
Regis sat down on an empty spot.
Altina sat down nearby.
"It's great that the winds are blocked."
"But it’s still cold."
"It can't be helped. I will take a warm shower when we reach the fortress. I definitely will!"
"How luxurious for a driver... Could it be that you are acquainted with someone important within the fortress?"
Altina stuttered for unknown reasons.
Was his guess close to the truth?
"Well, I’ll find out when we reach the fortress."
"If we reach the fortress..."
The snow and wind picked up. It was a full-blown blizzard.
The breeze was strong enough to enter the wagon, making Altina's shoulders shiver.
Regis searched through his memories of a book he had read.
"As I thought, it’s better not to wander off in this situation..."
"Is that so?"
"Compared to expending energy to move, it’s better to wait for other wagons to pass by. How concerned do you think the people in the fortress will be about you? Will they forget about a temporary driver? Or are there friends waiting for you?"
"Well... I don’t think they will forget about me. They should be... worried about me. Probably."
"In that case, there is a high chance a search party will come before nightfall. There is only one road between the fortress and the town. They’ll see us if they go to town, lessening our burden."
"I see... Your mind turns quite fast."
"It's just my knowledge."
I read a story with similar situation — For Regis, that was all.
"Next is to use items that will help us get over the cold."
"Yeah, there is something!"
"There is a cloth over the luggage compartment. It is rather small though."
Altina pulled out a rough piece of cloth from under the timber as she spoke.
"It really is small."
"But it is thick and warm, so use it."
"Thank you... Use it, Altina."
"I might look this way, but I’m still a soldier. Protecting the citizens is the duty of a soldier, right?"
"That's just a phrase."
"But I’m serious."
"Fu, what an interesting person, you... How about this."
Altina took the cloth, sat to the left of Regis and leaned on him.
Altina's right arm was linked with Regis' left arm.
"This way, one piece of cloth can provide warmth for two people, right?"
"Ah... I see, is that right?"
Compared to the cloth, the body heat of the young girl made him warmer.
His heart raced so much that his back was sweating.
Regis told himself in his heart — Calm down me. She is only 14. Still an underage girl younger than me. She is really pretty, but to lose my cool because our arms are linked is really shameful for an adult.
Altina's face closed in.
"Are you fine? Your face is really red..."
"It, it's nothing."
"Is that so..."
Regis calmed down.
He could only hear the wind and Altina's breathing.
"Eh? Wha, what?"
"I think you’re an interesting person."
"Haha... I get that a lot."
"Soldiers should protect civilians, that’s just an official motto that’s said but not followed. There are more people who think soldiers are more valuable."
"That might be so... But shouldn't those with power protect those without? That is the reason why humans form society. Just like adults protecting children, it is the same with the strong protecting the weak... So soldiers should protect civilians, that's what I think."
"That means the aristocrats have to protect the commoners, the emperor has to protect his citizens, right?"
"That should be the way. Although the nobles are fighting meaningless wars and wasting the lives and wealth of the citizens."
"Is the war with the barbarians useless? We can't begin peace negotiations with them, and we will be massacred if we lose in a war, right?"
"... That's right, the savages are terrifying. But they should lure the barbarians to a more defensible position and build long and sturdy walls if they really want to protect the nation."
"Can't they scale the walls easily?"
"It is hard for cavalry and wagons to pass through, so that will be enough to deter large armies."
"Oh I see... Why aren't the generals doing that? They didn't think of that?"
"What I am saying is knowledge as common as books. The upper classes want to fight on because this is a business for them. Repelling the barbarians will earn them prestige as a soldier. The weapons and food can be sold at a high price during war. Military academies training troops are also a source of income for the nobles. It burdens the nation as a whole, but those with authority will stand to gain..."
"This is unforgivable!"
Altina's face closed in on Regis, almost hitting him.
Regis was pushed back by Altina's intimidating air and backed away.
However he couldn't escape because their arms were linked.
"Calm, calm down Altina... I am not saying all aristocrats are like that. I think Marquis Thénezay didn’t act that way."
"Yeah, he even proposed to the emperor opposing the expansion of the empire's territory, and to focus on strengthening the security of the nation instead. He was the one who suggested the plan to construct defensive walls during the aristocratic conference."
"That is a great idea! That should cut down on the casualties and poverty rate after a battle!"
Altina's eyes were sparkling because of Regis' words.—
The two of them became silent a short while later.
Regis saw her dangerous expression for an instant.
"... Could it be this incident?"
"Hmmm? What is it Altina?"
"Nah, I just thought of something unimportant. That's right, there are all sorts of people among the nobles."
"Yeah, that is why it is troubling if the emperor doesn't manage them well."
Regis said with a bitter laugh.
Altina's body trembled. Regis noticed because they were so close together.
"... Do you think the current emperor... is bad?"
"If I say he is bad, I will be convicted for treason..."
Maybe it was too late now. But this was in the middle of a blizzard. Only Altina and the horse were listening.
Regis began his monologue.
"The current emperor has reigned for too long. His body is too weak to handle his administrative duties. The first prince should have succeeded him five years ago. But the first prince is sickly and weak while the second prince displayed his talents in politics and the military. The second prince has a stronger backing too."
"That seems complicated."
"The first prince was born to the second concubine. The second prince was born after to the queen. The queen enjoys higher status as an aristocrat too. This resulted in succession issues within the empire."
"The fight for the crown between the princes... is the fight between their supporters. This caused the extension of the emperor's time on the throne which led to the nobles doing as they please and the wave of corruption."
"There are other imperial children besides them."
"Well, the third prince is just a 15 year old student. He is a dark horse that probably can't stand up to his brothers."
"There, there is one more... Right?"
"Hmm? Ah... Speaking of which, the commander of Sierck Fortress is royalty."
"Yes! What about that person?"
Altina leaned in again and Regis retreated to the right. He was almost falling out of the luggage compartment.
“Yeah, the Arrow Sparrow Princess…”
“What is that?”
"Erm, the nickname of the fourth princess Marie Quatre. Nobody remembers the full name because it is too long."
"Well, it is rather long..."
"I think she is called Marie Quatre Argentina de Belgaria... I can remember the story in books, but it’s hard to memorize such a long name."
"Don't push yourself. By the way, what is the Arrow Sparrow Princess?"
"I will be under her care from now on, it will be troubling to say things akin to bad mouthing her... That is her nickname in the capital."
"So, what does it mean?"
"What I learned was from word of mouth... Well, we have ample time anyway. This is the story of a pitiful princess who was forced to the nation's border—"
15 years ago—
For the background, let's talk about the mother of Marie Quatre.
In the Imperial capital Versailles, the emperor was hosting his grand 50th birthday party.
The court orchestra was playing waltz. Lavish dishes were presented one after another, the generals sharing their victory reports as gifts. Not only powerful nobles and famous tycoons were here, even the lower class aristocrats and their family were invited, that's how grand the party was.
Among the peasants sitting at the end of the seat was a breathtakingly beautiful young girl.
Her hair was as dark as night and her eyes as black as obsidian, contrasting with her snow white skin, making it even whiter.
Unbelievably, the one chatting with this 16 year old girl was the emperor who left his throne and walked slowly across the room.
"Will you dance with me my mademoiselle?"
According to the records of the imperial scribe, Claudette Barthelemy bowed courtesy politely and replied:
"It is my pleasure monsieur. How may I address you?"
As for why she asked for the emperor's name, there were several theories. 'Not noticing' seemed too offending. 'Noticed, but following the rites of a party' and 'she is a bold lady who dares to joke with his majesty' were more convincing theories.
But she was the only one who knew the truth.
The beautiful brunette girl extended her hand, and the emperor smiled as he took her hand.
"Pardon me. I am Liam Fernandi de Belgaria. The people address me as Liam the 15th."
"Then, please call me Claudette."
The conductor known as the best in the empire waved his baton after a moment of hesitation and the orchestra came alive.
This became commonly known as the Claudette incident.
Half a year later—
Ms Claudette who was now 17 became the fourth concubine of the emperor.
Her name was changed to 'Mary Claudette de Belgaria'. It was rumored that she was pregnant during the wedding.
The concubine bore the emperor his fourth successor before his 51st birthday. She was Marie Quatre Argentina de Belgaria.
She was officially the legitimate daughter of the emperor, but she was considered an illegitimate child by the masses.
When Liam the 15th received news of the birth of his fourth child he was said to have asked "Is the hair red?".
The first emperor of Belgaria known as 'L’Empereur Flamme' (Flame’s Emperor) had crimson hair, red eyes and a stocky body. He defeated the surrounding barbaric tribes and established the foundation of the empire.
Liam the 15th was the same, he was a huge man with red hair and crimson eyes, despite having a frail body.
Although the three princes had crimson eyes, they inherited the blonde and brown color of their mother's hair, and they were not huge in build either. Liam the 15th did not concern himself with military and financial affairs, but the thinning of the first emperor's blood made him sad.
The chief chamberlain fidgeted as he bowed and reported:
"Your majesty, the hair is red, but it is a girl."
Liam the 15th's concern for the child seemed to stop at that moment.
A commoner becoming a concubine and bearing a child in less than a year. This was an unbearable shame for the aristocrats hungering for glory.
If Claudette's child was a boy, he might have been assassinated. Rumors had already spread, saying 'the body of the first prince is frail because of poisoning'.
Fortunately, Marie Quatre was born a girl and grew up peacefully until she was 13.
She learned about swords and politics even though she was a girl, her strange actions had become a joke in the courts.
But as she became old enough to enter the social circle, a problem arose.
Marie Quatre's beauty exceeded her mother.
At that time, a honey-faced bard with a baritone voice was very popular in the social world. This man was invited to the courts by the queen— when he passed by Marie Quatre, the bard started singing praises of her beauty.
"Oh~ what a beautiful, beautiful day! This sun-like angel makes me dazed! Your flames burn my very soul, the dazzling ruby steals my words and woes!"
And of course, this infuriated the queen. The bard was chased out of the court and banished from the social world.
Things did not end there. The queen's son, the second prince Allen Deux Latreille de Belgaria was a dangerous man with a mind as sharp as swords. Although he was just the commander of the first army, he had been taking command of the entire military since the age of 23, standing in for his aged father and frail brother.
Latreille presented a proposal to the elderly king.
"If the beautiful princess commands the army, it will ignite the passion among the troops. I suggest posting the princess to the northern war zone."
"A brilliant plan."
At that moment, Liam 15th's adoration for Claudette was totally gone.
Empire year 850—
The aged king sat on his throne with nobles smiling coldly lined on either side of the red carpet.
The fourth concubine was not present.
Marie Quatre flicked her crimson hair behind and kneeled.
"Greetings, your majesty."
Liam the 15th simply nodded in reply.
The chief chamberlain opened the imperial edict and read it out in the name of the emperor.
The age requirement for Marie Quatre was waived because of her royal lineage, and she was appointed the commander of Beilschmidt Border Regiment.
Snickers broke out among the aristocrats.
There was no one present who knew what the princess was thinking.
After dismissing the chief chamberlain, the elderly king asked softly:
"... What would you like as a parting gift?"
This was a traditional question that was asked when a blood relative of the emperor leaves the capital. According to tradition, the answer was 'the words of your majesty motivates me more than any present I might take.' But...
Marie Quatre puffed her chest and said:
"Please grant me the sword of L’Empereur Flamme."
The crowd turned rowdy.
The nobles threw obvious looks of disdain.
'Don't you even know proper manners you beggar?' Someone insulted.
The emperor considered for a moment.
"...The founding emperor has seven swords. You are my fourth child, so I will grant you the fourth sword. When you next return to the capital, just deposit it back into the treasury."
The fourth sword—
An armored soldier carried in an oversized double edged sword.
Named as 'Grand Tonnerre Quatre' (Emperor’s Thunder Quartet).
The giant sword was made according to the height of the first emperor, 26 Pa (192 cm) long.
Although Marie Quatre was tall for a lady, the sword was too thick and long, making the difference in height comedic.
The audience hall was filled with the despicable laughter of the aristocrats. The princess will probably leave without even touching the sword— most of the people present thought.
"I am grateful... I will borrow this... Hya!"
Marie Quatre used all her might.
The marble floor creaked under the pressure.
She lifted the sword.
The snickering stopped and turned into surprise.
The princess lifted up a sword taller than she was.
"... I will take on this heavy responsibility of my appointment."
She bowed towards the elderly emperor.
She looked at the stone-faced second prince and the hateful glare of the queen.
Only Marie Quatre knew what she was thinking, the world could only guess.
She turned and left the silent audience hall behind.
"Well, that is the gist of the story."
The blizzard was shaking the wagon.
Altina asked after Regis finished.
"Wait a minute."
"Where did the nickname Arrow Sparrow Princess come from?"
"Ah, doesn't the princess wear the sword on her waist?"
"Is there a problem? There is no other way, the sword is too long. It will drag along the floor if it is slung on the back."
"Has Altina seen her before? Does the princess wear her sword that way in Sierck Fortress?"
"Eh? Well, yes... I have seen her before."
"Have you thought about it? When the soldiers and peasants see the petite Marie Quatre wearing the sword that way, they think it looks like a sparrow shot by an arrow."
Altina opened her eyes wide, stunned.
"It is hard to beautify her image now. She has not made any appearance in public and has no famed endeavors. Everyone has tied the nickname ‘Arrow Sparrow Princess’ with her. I was away on the front lines so I have never seen her."
"Are you okay, your shoulders are trembling... Is it cold?"
"That's not it! I have no reason to complain to you, but it can't be helped!"
"Please keep it a secret from her. It will be hard to live here if she hates me."
"You can relax. She is not dumb enough to hate the person who happens to utter the rumor."
"That will be great... Oh yeah, are you hungry? You haven't had lunch yet correct?"
"What have you got?"
"I left some bread to eat while I read."
Regis opened his bag, shifted the sword and took out the toasted bread.
"Although I would prefer some warm milk right now."
"Are you sharing it with me?"
"I told you my principles. I won't force you."
"... I want some."
Regis smiled as he cut the bread in half and gave one to Altina.
"Thank you... There are different kinds of smiles."
Altina mumbled as she stared at the bread.
After finishing the hard bread, Regis asked.
"Did you say something?"
"... I have seen colder smiles."
"Hmmm~ Where did you see that?"
Nom, Altina took a bite of the bread.
The horse suddenly neighed.
It was an urgent neigh begging for help.
Both of them looked out towards the direction of the driver's seat.
Altina pointed with her finger. The front of the wagon, where the front legs of the horse were pointing.
There were five shadows in the blizzard.
Black light shimmered in their golden eyes.
There were five blood-coloured mouths.
Regis felt as if a demon was clutching his heart.
"Grey wolves (Loup Gris)."
"Fire... We need to throw torches at them. Ah, do you have a tinderbox?!"
"Calm down Regis! There is no way I have one."
"Ugh... You are right."
"The horse will be in danger if this goes on."
"After that will be us... Ugugu... Tch!!"
Regis retreated to the luggage compartment near the shelter.
He picked up his sword and jumped off the back of the wagon.
Altina squinted her eyes and sighed.
"Well, even though he says he will protect the citizens..."
No matter how cool he was saying it, it was a different matter when his life was on the line. Altina knew this.
Is he the same? Altina thought.
But Regis went around to the front of the wagon.
He did not run away.
He lifted his sword and faced the largest wolf.
"What, what are you doing? Even a knight will have a tough fight when facing grey wolves!"
"I know! That's why I am doing this!"
Regis hands were not shaking because of the cold.
His stance were that of a novice.
No, worse than that.
His back was hunched and there was no power in his hips, he looked like he was going to turn and run at any moment.
Even a child playing around would have a straighter stance.
Altina grabbed her head with her arms.
"Can you win this way?!"
"Haha... It is nothing to be proud of, but I have never won in sword sparring before."
"That really is nothing to be proud of."
"Go, Altina... Take the horse and force it to run. We will become lunch for the wolves if this carries on..."
"Are you serious? You’ll die!?"
A scream filled with sadness.
It was not a smile to ease Altina, or because he had something up his sleeve. It was a smile that came naturally.
Even Regis didn't understand why.
"Even so... Death is more pleasant than living a twisted life."
Even Regis thought it was weird. Why was he smiling? Was he mocking his moronic self? No, that was too negative. Just mark it as a victory for holding true to one’s principles despite the dire situation.
"Even I could buy some time. The wolves won't attack easily when facing foes that approach them instead of running. It will gauge the opponent’s strength and only close in when it is sure of its victory... Ah, eh? I think they’re closing in on me?!"
"That's right, your stance seems very weak."
Altina's voice sounded cheerful for some reason. It was as if she was smiling.
The largest wolf closed in.
It opened its maw lined with sharp fangs and growled.
Although the distance was still far, Regis swung his sword to intimidate the wolves.
He leaned to one side because of the heavy sword.
The sword tip hit the ground.
A knocking sound was made. The sword hilt hit Regis' left knee.
"Thank you Regis. You have successfully protected the citizen. Protected the wagon driver Altina."
Regis turned his head because of the cheerful tone.
Altina' crimson eyes were shining.
She took something silver out from the luggage compartment. It shone brightly even in the darkness of the blizzard.
Pushing the bricks and timber away, the girl pulled out the item hidden underneath with her lean arm.
A rattling sound could be heard.
Something amazing and unbelievable was happening.
It was heavy, broad, thick and huge.
It took some time to register what the item was because of its large size.
The wagon barely hid its full length. A lump of metal too heavy for humans to wield.
Putting its colossal size aside, it had been polished clean without any stains.
The body of the blade was just like a mirror.
Regis' lips were trembling.
"... Grand Tonnerre Quatre."
Altina was holding the sword of kings in her right hand. The cloak she was wearing was fluttering in the wind like the cape of a ruler. Her flaming red hair was flicked to her back with her left hand.
"It is time for me to protect you, Regis. Watch closely."
"Is this sword just an oversized arrow stuck on a sparrow, or is it a blade wielded by a king!"
Altina's legs sunk into the snow.
She kicked the snow away and moved forward.
The sword in her hand howled as it sliced through the air.
She slashed it down.
Shattering the earth.
The snow on the ground exploded.
Instead of a slash, this is closer to being a direct cannon hit, Regis thought.
He could feel the tremors in the ground.
The grey wolves would probably back off.
— My guess was right.
The only thing that was blown away was the snow, the grey wolves had retreated to a safe distance and escaped certain death.
Altina took out the bread from her chest and threw it to the wolves.
The bread went with the wind and fell before the wolves.
"This is for you! Hurry up and go home!"
The wolf cautiously sniffed the bread, ate it and ran off.
They disappeared into the white fog of the blizzard.
Regis relaxed his tense waist and collapsed.
Altina stuck the sword into the ground and faced him.
"Are you injured?"
"Huff, huff... My left knee hurts."
"Didn't you hit that with your own sword?"
"I was in a dream back then, so I don't remember."
Altina smiled awkwardly.
Regis scratched his head.
"I'm impressed with you... No... Your Royal Highness Marie Quatre Argentina de Belgaria, Fourth Royal Princess... Is that right Your Highness?"
"Isn't it too late for this?"
"Hah, you are mean."
All Regis could do was sigh.
Altina was all smiles after pulling off her scheme successfully.
"You really didn't notice?"
"Well, I noticed your red hair and eyes, but Altina seemed too long a nickname for Argentina."
"That's what my mother calls me."
"Argentina is the name of Claudette Barthelemy's homeland. And Altina is the nickname for that place..."
"Why didn't you notice if you knew that?"
"It was too preposterous, so I dismissed it in my head. The commander of the unit I am transferring to is the Fourth Royal Princess. For the princess to pick me up in the guise of a wagon driver is a bit much."
"I thought I would be found out in the bookshop and was nervous for a while."
"I understand the suspicious behavior of the shopkeeper now. Are you always doing things like this?"
"No! If I keep doing this, rumors of a moronic princess will spread."
"...We were in town earlier, has the news already spread... Delivery Service Princess?"
"That sounds better than Arrow Sparrow Princess."
She was seriously troubled over this.
Regis tilted his head.
"You said that you don't always pull stunts like this... So why me? Do you have a grudge against me?"
"No matter how positive I look at this, I have disrespected the emperor. Putting my manners towards your disguised self aside, criticising the emperor is a heavy crime."
"Why did you say it if you knew it was a crime?"
"Such conversations are nothing more than a greeting among commoners."
Hmm, Altina put her hands on her hips and frowned.
After calming down, the situation was turning bad. The storm was still brewing while the temperature would fall after the sun has set.
"I don't want you to misunderstand. I don't have a grudge against you and have no intention of indicting you for criticism against the emperor."
"Because I heard a rumor that you were a capable tactician."
"Are you talking about me? I think it is exaggerated."
"I think there is a possibility... I need the help of able men... Not just capable, but also ones that have the right values and principles. I needed to investigate further."
"That's why you disguised yourself as a driver?"
"There are things that won't be said before royalty right? I want to listen to your true thoughts, Regis Auric."
"The only thing you found out today is that I have zero passion towards military affairs."
"Your swordsmanship too."
Altina joked as Regis scratched his head.
She suddenly looked into the distance.
"Ah... Seems like your hunch was right."
Altina listened intently.
Regis followed her lead.
Sounds of horse hooves running in the snowy road could be heard.
She was just talking to me earlier, her hearing is great. Regis was impressed.
"... Ah, but could they be bandits or barbarians?"
"I can hear metallic armor, so it is not them."
"You can hear that too?"
As he spoke, five horsemen appeared from the direction of the blizzard.
The armored knights dismounted before Altina.
"Princess, are you alright!!"
A bald middle aged man with black beard asked.
"Thank you for picking me up. I am well... But the horse is injured."
"I understand! Let my horse pull the wagon."
"Yes, I leave it to you."
The horse-drawn wagon was back in action after substituting the horse.
The injured horse was guided back with its reins.
Two soldiers lifted Altina's sword and brought it to the cargo compartment.
After glancing at the soldiers carrying out their task, Altina walked towards Regis.
Her white hand reached for him who had sat down from exhaustion.
"Come, time to go."
"Erm... Your Highness, Princess?"
"Forget it, it's too late for you to address me that way."
"No, I thought you were a driver back then..."
"It will dampen my mood. You said you will call me by my nickname earlier. Were you lying?"
It's because you were disguising as a wagon driver. But Regis couldn't say that.
Regis' back was drenched in cold sweat.
He thought it was bad being banished to the border regions. But he might have arrived at an incredible place.
He raised his head and looked towards the sky.
Regis reached out for the hand extended towards him.
"... I think I am someone who can tell the mood... But is it really okay, Altina?"
"Of course!" Her voice was full of energy as she spoke.
"Welcome to my border regiment. I will work you really hard, Regis Auric!"