Translator: EndlessFantasy Translation Editor: EndlessFantasy Translation
“Tell me, child, among the many orcs in this world… Hack-cough-wheeze…”
His uncle’s voice was followed by heavy coughs. Even the galloping noise from his personal guards’ horses beside him could not drown them out.
“…which ones are the most dangerous?”
He registered the words and raised his gaze from the soil under the horseshoes. “The ones that are the closest to death.”
He did not appear enthusiastic on his horse, and he was behind his uncle’s horse by a distance of one body.
“You are correct. The ones that are the closest to death.” His uncle’s weak voice seemed to have been injected with new energy. He sounded like how he used to when he was in the prime of his life, when he commanded his country and lived freely.
“They are like desert scorpions that hide their poisonous stingers in the back of their tails; like venomous snakes that bury their poisonous teeth in their mouths; like dangerous quicksand that is hidden underground.”
Back then, his uncle’s back was masculine and tall, his arms were full of power and energy, and his voice was serious and sonorous. When he thought of this, he grunted and pulled the reins to make his horse go faster and arrived before the horse carriage.
His uncle was like the desert after a storm, his re-energized voice became dispirited and hoarse again. “So, what kind of orc is the safest?”
He did not hurry or slow down as he answered, “The dead ones.”
“No, this is what the old Scholar Mahn taught you.” His uncle grunted. “Only dead orcs are good orcs. But I must tell you, Cyril, that the safest orcs are the dying ones.”
He was stupefied. His uncle’s weak voice sank and rose as his horse moved onwards.
“Because they are like arrows at the end of their flight; the end of a terrifying sandstorm; the last flames of burned fuel. They may have great momentum, but they don’t have any strength in reserve.”
Cyril clamped his thighs against his horse and frowned intensely. “This damn riddle… Old man, did you regain your libido and slept with some priestess from Dark Night Temple last night? Or worse… a priest?”
His uncle quieted down for a while. Only the galloping sound of his personal guards’ horses could be heard in that moment.
A few seconds later…
“Fine.” His uncle laughed softly in resignation as he coughed. “Perhaps this is why I like you.”
As he listened to his uncle’s coughing—they were worse than the week before—his heart sank before he pulled himself together.
“‘Like me’? if these are your last words, old man, I have to say they’re very lame.” He pretended to be relaxed and whistled. “Anyone who hears this might think you’re an old pervert who likes to toy with his nephew.”
His uncle was silent for a while. The personal guards at his sides continued to advance alongside him dutifully and without any expression on their faces, as if they did not hear their conversation.
After a long while, his uncle spoke in a weak, resigned voice, “…Orcs who are near death are dangerous, but safe. So, why did the Barren Bone people say the Desert God is harmless yet unforgivable? This is because there is only a thin line between bringing harm to and forgiving someone, and one often moves in between them. Therefore, we must always be on full alert.”
Cyril scratched his ear in resignation. His uncle continued to speak, his voice growing more serious.
“Although the royal family’s relatives from Blade Edge Hill may appear to have turned over a new leaf, abide by the laws, and behave themselves, since it is difficult to change one’s nature, they would actually bring harm upon themselves sooner or later.
“Although the fat and devious merchants from the Eastern Sea may appear to have extensive and friendly relationships with everyone and appear to be good-natured and harmless, they often take advantage of the situation and abandon their benefactors once they have achieved their goals. While the men of the Land of Cliffs may pretend to be arrogant, proud, neutral, and selfless, they are actually nothing but rats who rely on the mountain ranges as their natural stronghold.
“As for that cowardly old wretch from the South Coast, hmph, he’s even more conservative and closed-minded than the priestess who woke up next to a man. None of them are reliable to you.” His uncle’s voice became dejected.
After Cyril listened quietly and was silent for a while, he suddenly asked, “Old man, you… Did you really sleep with a priestess?”
A heavy noise caused by a collision traveled from the horse carriage!
His uncle seemed to have choked again, even his breathing became disorderly. Cyril smiled faintly.
Finally, his uncle suppressed his anger and sighed.
“Ahh, forget it… In comparison, old Dylan in the Northern Territory seems rather tenacious and unyielding, and he appears to constantly strive to become stronger so that he can be independent. What is rare is that the eaglets he gave life to and raised turned out to be mature and united. They stand as one family…”
His heart grew tense. He was worried that this matter would remind his uncle of something sad.
Fortunately, his uncle only summarized the past briefly.
“It is a pity that their location is far from ideal. When there is a rebellion, they are the first to bear the brunt of the rebellion, and it is difficult for them to be of any support to others.”
He felt depressed, and he did not think further. Instead, he raised his head to look at the plants that grew in number on both sides of the Avenue of Blessings.
“You seem to have left out the most important point?”
His uncle’s breathing froze for a moment.
The fleet took a huge turn. At the roadside, a few farmers driving a cart curled up in fear and trepidation as they waited for the Four-Eyed Skull Flag to pass.
After a while, his uncle’s weak voice echoed with the indignation and resentment that continued to linger even after years had passed.
“The stars beyond the universe… stand up high. One can only look at them from afar and not have any delusions about them, much less trust them.”
He sensed a hint of coldness in his uncle’s voice.
“Be sure to remember this. Do not trust them.” His uncle’s words turned into heavy, inauspicious coughs.
He did not speak.
After a few seconds, he loosened his grip over the reins—he almost broke them.
While his uncle coughed in discomfort, Cyril took a deep breath and forced himself to smile before he said, “According to what you just said, we should all be independent and take a solitary path, because we don’t get along well with anyone and are not welcomed by others, is that right?”
His uncle stopped coughing, but he did not speak immediately. Only the noise from the galloping horses and the carriage wheels could be heard.
Finally, a long sigh traveled from the horse carriage.
“Isn’t that… the reason for our presence in Western Desert?” There was resignation, relief, and even indignation in his tone.
Duke Fakenhaz opened his eyes.
Before his eyes, another prince that went by the name of Jadestar stared at him nervously.
‘Do not trust them.’
Fakenhaz snorted lightly at the bottom of his heart.
Thales’ arm grew stiff behind him as he pressed down firmly on the dagger under the blanket.
The teenager saw past the Duke of Western Desert’s eyes, which appeared to be lit with a half-hearted, amused look, and Thales seemed to be able to see another bloody and hideous dead man’s head whose eyes were hollowed out.
It was Stake’s skull.
The second prince inhaled deeply. ‘Wait a minute. If Fakenhaz was the mastermind behind Herman’s assassination… Why is he telling me this now? What can he get out of revealing this in front of another Jadestar? Is this his attempt to gain the upper hand by a show of strength, an indication that he’s about to have a fall out with me, or could he have another motive?’
As usual, Thales put on a surprised expression and made it seem as if he had lost his composure while trying to figure out the key to what he heard just now was.
From the time when he was a child-beggar, to his life as a prince, this trick had worked on people who were not smart and were rather arrogant, like Quide and Nicholas, and even people like Ian the Nuisance and Monty the Raven of Death, who were as cunning as wolves.
They always felt that they were far more superior and far more intelligent when they saw Thales act like he was alarmed. They then revealed the greatest weakness while immersed in satisfaction and regarded him with scorn.
After he went through so much, this trick became Thales’ most familiar instinct. He used it so much that sometimes, he was confused about whether his lack of composure was real or only a performance.
However, this trick occasionally failed, like when he faced King Chapman in the carriage…
“What now? Have you gotten so comfortable in Northland that you are frightened by this?”
The Duke of Western Desert’s playful tone rose again. He stared at Thales who appeared to be dumbfounded, and he felt somewhat displeased.
“How about this?”
‘What about ‘this’?’ Thales did not have time to think when he saw Cyril extend his hand to seize the longsword on his walking stick.
A thought appeared in the prince’s mind.
As the sound of gold and leather rubbing against each other was heard, the sword was unsheathed, and it drew a silver light in the air!
The Sin of Hell’s River rushed through his nerves, Thales instinctively got up, rolled off the bed, and fell onto the floor!
‘Are you kidding me?’
He got up on bent knees a safe distance away from the silver light. Then, he went into the Iron Body Style with his dagger in front of his body.
Thales had not recovered from the shock he felt as he watched Cyril Fakenhaz, who remained steadily seated on the chair.
The longsword that was unsheathed not long ago was held in the duke’s hand. The duke turned his wrist gently and the longsword drew a slow arc in the air. The atmosphere was bone-chilling. The duke gave off a rather foreboding presence; a faint aura, as if he was pressuring Thales.
“Very good. At least you are not a coward, as suggested by your appearance.” Cyril smiled in a ghastly manner. He did not care about the prince’s pale face the slightest bit.
‘What’s going on?’ Thales watched Cyril in disbelief. ‘Did he just… turn against me?’
But what bothered Thales even more was another matter: Yodel was still quiet in the dark. He did not do anything even when his life was in jeopardy.
‘What’s the matter? That man couldn’t possibly have been upset by what just happened, could he? Is he the type that is hard to appease?’
Just when Thales was getting headache as he tried to think of a way out, a familiar, hoarse voice echoed softly in his ears.
“Stay calm.” The Masked Protector’s voice was indistinct and could hardly be heard, but it managed to make Thales relax, and he no longer breathed while feeling tense.
“It wasn’t him.”
‘It wasn’t him.’ The familiar voice made Thales’ heart stop racing in his chest. ‘It wasn’t him.’ In that moment, Thales seemed to grasp something as he watched Cyril’s malicious smile.
‘This is Blade Fangs Camp, a territory directly under the royal family; a sizable number of regular troops are stationed here. The Legendary Wing is next to the camp while King Kessel is behind it. No matter what it is, Fakenhaz shouldn’t have admitted to the crime or threatened the prince.’
The prince, whose thoughts were interrupted just now when he put up his battle stance, took a few deep breaths and forced himself to ponder the matter from the beginning.
‘Then why… Why…? It wasn’t him.’
After Yodel reminded him of this, Thales seemed to think things through. He opened his mouth to ask, but did not for one moment relax from his combat stance. “Are you or are you not the murderer?”
Cyril locked his gaze on him. The longsword in his hand was incomparably steady and his eyes revealed an extraordinary sparkle. Finally, the Duke of Western Desert laughed faintly and shook his head during the intense confrontation.
“It looks like you do not know about it.” Right before Thales’ serious face, Cyril’s dark and cold smile faded slowly. The duke placed the longsword horizontally above his knees and played with it slowly. He did not glance at Thales again.
‘I don’t know about it?’
Thales did not understand what he just heard. He inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly.
“You said you let the assassin appear in front of Prince Herman…” The prince gritted his teeth and asked, “Why?”
Fakenhaz did not even turn his head around. He only focused on studying the exquisite longsword on his knees.
“Because it was his wish.”
Thales’ questions ended abruptly. ‘His wish?’
This time, the Duke of Western Desert did not wait for Thales to start questioning him, instead, he answered softly in a faint voice and with complex emotions, “He wanted to find them himself. He found those assassins, Shadow Shield, I mean.”
Thales was at a loss for words.
‘But. But… Herman? And Shadow Shield?’
Once Thales understood the duke’s words, his eyes immediately widened.
“Eighteen years ago, Herman came to me and asked me to do my utmost to help keep him away from his personal guard who have worked in the Royal Guards, or were part of the Jadestar personal soldiers, so that he could privately meet with some stranger who was his guest. It happened more than once.”
‘To keep him away from his personal guards… Some stranger who was his guest…’
A chilly breeze swept through the room, and it made the duke’s leather robe flutter slightly, his gray hair also danced in the wind. The wind stirred up endless dust and revealed his true form that was seldom noticed under the sunlight. The large amount of dust that flew back and forth rolled in the air strangely.
Cyril continued to look around, and his eyes seemed to sparkle.
“Until… the last time.”
‘The last time…?’ For some unknown reason, Thales felt a chill down his back.
“Shadow Shield avoided the royal family’s surveillance, met up with him, and so…”
Thales lowered his dagger in disbelief before he straightened his body. He moved his lips laboriously. “The Bloody Year… That was him? Herman?”
The narrow room on the top floor of Ghost Prince Tower quieted down. Only faint noises from outside the window, and the strong, cold wind that climbed to this high place was heard.
But the prince only felt he had fallen into a thick layer of mist, and he was drawing closer to the truth behind the mist.
Samel’s hateful words, spoken in the underground prison, appeared in his mind.
“‘Was it Beauty Herman, who had nothing but good looks and literary talent, but was narrow-minded, venomous, and ruthless?
“‘Was it a patricide, or a fratricide?”‘
‘The fourth prince, Herman Jadestar?’
Cyril did not answer. Thales was dazed for seconds before he immediately shook his head. Countless riddles rushed forth to his mind, and they tried to outdo each other to reach the front of his brain.
“But why? Why? If he’s the Jadestar who is the mastermind behind all this… Why did Shadow Shield want to kill him?”
‘This doesn’t make sense!’ His eyes were fixed on Fakenhaz, whose mind seemed to have wandered off elsewhere.
The duke closed his eyes gently before he immediately opened them. He let his arms touch his knees while he leaned forward. He schooled his expression before he turned to look at Thales, laughing faintly but terrifyingly again.
“I wish to know as well.”
Thales was dumbfounded. “Do you not know?”
Cyril laughed lightly, as if he did not care about it.
“No. Perhaps he was too silly, and it got him double-crossed; perhaps he was supposed to be the sacrifice and was destined to be betrayed; perhaps he was merely an insider, but he could not escape the disaster; or perhaps he was dragged into it accidentally, and he tried hard to turn the tide.”
Cyril looked down while his lips curled slightly. It was unclear whether he was being sarcastic or he was mocking the entire situation.
“But… he didn’t want me to know about it.”
‘He doesn’t know…’ Thales was not happy with the answer. He took a deep breath, stepped forward slowly, and sat at the end of the bed again while looking straight at the duke.
“Is that so? He asked a favor of you while he kept you in the dark about the truth, and you agreed to it? You did not even ask about it?” Thales said coldly, “Aren’t you too generous?”
Cyril turned his head slowly.
Perhaps it was a figment of his imagination, but Thales suddenly felt that Duke Fakenhaz’s ugly and hideous face seemed to have relaxed a lot.
“Believe it or not, child.” Cyril’s gaze suddenly grew very serious, and his sunken lips and teeth opened and closed under the sun. “Herman was one of the few friends I had… at least, compared to his brothers who only cared about conspiracies, massacres, wealth, and women. When he asked, I offered my help. It was that simple.”
Thales scowled. ‘…his brothers who only cared about conspiracies, massacres, wealth, and women…’
Cyril observed Thales’ expression. He shook his head and laughed faintly. But the prince’s next sentence made him change his expression.
“Does this have anything to do with Prince Horace?”
Thales relaxed his brow, but the seriousness in his eyes was at its peak.
“What was the reason behind Herman seeking out Shadow Shield, yet dying at their hands?”
In that moment, Fakenhaz’s expression froze.
‘Horace…’ He stared at Thales. Though he still looked ugly and hideous, he did not appear as playful as before. “Why do you ask in such a manner?”
Thales let out a breath. He asked him another question, “As for you… Why are you telling me all this at the place where Herman died, after eighteen years?”
Cyril stared at Thales for a long time. Finally, the duke’s elbows left his knees; he straightened his body on the chair.
To Thales’ surprise, Cyril, who seemed to have become serious, did not answer his question but lifted the longsword off his knees and studied it.
“Have you seen a sword like this, Your Highness?”
Cyril seemed to have walked out of his past memories—he had regained his terrifying and relaxed smile.
Thales was startled. He only now noticed that the duke’s longsword had a unique appearance: It had a bronze cross-guard, and a sword hilt that appeared especially slender. It may not fit the most ideal structure for receiving impact, but it was elegant and neat. The two sides of the blade extended smoothly into a curve—similar to a sand dune—and provided an esthetic comfort. A pure black gem was set in the pommel, though it was unknown what gem it was.
Cyril did not even look up. He just admired the exquisite sword to his heart’s content. “This is the national sword of the Ancient Empire, or rather, it is known as the ancient knight’s sword—its unique pattern, curve, and extraordinary balance makes brandishing it very easy, you can also move it swiftly and deliver even more powerful strikes. It can only be made with top-quality raw materials and extraordinary forging skills. It’s also worth a very costly price. I guess this is why they were destined not to be mass produced. In the end, they disappeared from the battlefield, and the few remaining pieces becam family heirlooms.”
Cyril turned the sword upside down to show Thales the bottom of the sword hilt.
There, was a carved Ancient Empire letter, it was unfamiliar to Thales, and he almost did not recognize it: F.
The carving of the letter appeared rather crude in comparison to the more exquisite parts of the sword, causing a mismatch.
‘The national sword of the Ancient Empire? The ancient knight’s sword? Hold on.’ A thought came to Thales. ‘This curve… seems rather familiar.’
“I have seen one.” Everlasting Truth. It was Ricky’s longsword, and it had a silver shaft that bore the same graceful curve. The sword appeared in Thales’ mind.
“But what does it have to do with what I asked; with Herman and Horace?” Thales asked vigilantly while he shifted slightly further away with a calm face. He made sure his feet touched the ground.
Cyril continued to admire the sword that might belong to the Fakenhaz Family, and served as their family heirloom. He then clicked his tongue and said, “Legend has it that the materials used to make the first batch of the Ancient Empire’s national swords were supplied by dwarves and cast by elves using underground flames as the forge. They had the essence of the seven seas gathered in them, and then offered to the first emperor who began the golden age of the human race—when the land had no borders. They was given to the Great Emperor, Camelot Karlose.”
Thales’ thoughts froze for a moment because of what he heard. Cyril looked up and laughed coldly.
“That is right. I am talking about your ancestor, the man whose blood was tinted with gold and sparkled, according to legend.”
Thales spoke subconsciously, “But you—”
Cyril seemed determined not to be interrupted. His focus returned to the longsword in his hands.
“This sword is named Sentinel. It was used in the Battle of Eradication by Tyberia Fakenhaz six hundred years ago; he was Tormond the First’s sword master when he was young. He was also the oldest follower of the King of Renaissance, until he was conferred a place in the Ruins and became the first Guardian Duke of Western Desert, and my ancestor.”
‘Sentinel. Tormond the First. Battle of Eradication…’ Thales began to grow a little impatient. “When I have time, I will listen to your family history but for now, let’s—”
“And the last time the Sentinel was in active service!” Cyril suddenly raised the volume of his voice to drown out Thales’ voice. The duke narrowed his eyes slightly as he turned his head to the side to watch Thales, who frowned.
“It was in another Cyril Fakenhaz’s hands. He was my great granduncle, and served under the Silent. He was part of Sumer the Fourth’s Royal Guards. During the critical moment when the king passed away, he held this sword and led the guards, forcing their way out while surrounded by enemies. Thus, they protected the young Aydi the Second so that he could ascend the throne, and a new king was born in Constellation.”
As Cyril spoke, he brandished the longsword in his hand in a flourish. His highly skilled movements and steady hold of the sword caused Thales, who always assumed that it was difficult for Duke Fakenhaz to move freely, to change his perception of the duke.
‘Hold on.’ Thales’ expression changed, he seemed to have gathered something from the conversation. ‘Another Cyril Fakenhaz? Royal Guards? “The Silent”, Sumer the Fourth, the king passed away… And… Aydi the Second?’
Thales stared unwaveringly at Sentinel. Before he could figure things out, Cyril let out a sigh.
“Fakenhaz. This surname is as old as Arunde, and the name has been passed down since the age of the Empire. Its members have followed the Jadestar Family until this day.”
The duke looked at his national sword of the Ancient Empire.
“Just like the ‘Sentinel’, here before our eyes, we have witnessed and got to know too much from the days of the Battle of Eradication to the Bloody Year.” A strange spark shone in the duke’s eyes. “Regardless of whether it is the rise and fall of Constellation or the Jadestar Royal Family…”
Fakenhaz untied the sheath from his walking stick. He cast a rather profound glance at Thales from the corner of his eyes.
“There was always bloodshed involved.” Cyril exhaled slowly and put Sentinel back into its sheath. “In comparison, does the answer you seek still matter?”
Thales raised his eyebrows. When he recalled what he saw and heard in the past few days, the prince suddenly had a wild guess.
“Aydi the Second, my grandfather, I heard that he was the eldest among Sumer the Fourth’s surviving children, and that he was male.” Thales spoke slowly, “I suppose it must have been smooth sailing for him to succeed the throne and be crowned?” He narrowed his eyes. “Then why did you say there was great ‘bloodshed’?”
The duke put away his nostalgic face, and a smile blossomed there slowly. He turned around and stared at Thales with burning eyes.
“Then, perhaps your history teacher did not mention that your grandfather’s stepmother, Vera the Witch Queen, who hailed from the Iris Flowers Family, and her sister-in-law who was the Duchess of Blade Edge Hill, and also your grandfather’s aunt, the former Princess Helene.”
‘The Iris Flowers Family, Vera the Witch Queen. The Duchess of Blade Edge Hill, Princess Helene.’ As he listened to the unfamiliar names, the gears in Thales’ mind started turning.
“I bet he also did not mention how they conspired together and pretended to act on imperial orders after Sumer the Fourth passed away. They wanted to send your grandfather, who was not of age, to Sunset Temple to enter lifelong priesthood, so that Queen Vera’s own son, John Jadestar, who was still a baby, could replace his brother, usurp power, and be crowned king.”
Thales’ eyes suddenly widened!
‘John Jadestar… Conspired together and pretended to act on imperial orders…’ Thales could not hold back from clenching his dagger. ‘Queen Vera’s own son… replace his brother.’
Cyril put the sword down. He could not help but sigh. “Of course, if Queen Vera had succeeded sixty years ago, you and I would not have to be troubled by all this.”
‘If Queen Vera had succeeded… would not have to be troubled by all this… Damned old man.’ Thales took a deep breath to suppress his astonishment.
“That’s enough, Duke Fakenhaz. From earlier until now”—Thales’ face turned dark—”what exactly are you hinting at?”
This time, the second prince locked his gaze on the Duke of Western Desert with a hostile demeanor.
“You said the late king’s brother, John, the Duke of Star Lake could have risen above my grandfather and ascended the supreme throne of Constellation?”
Fakenhaz curled the corners of his lips.
“Or was it the Covendier Family of Iris Flowers who tried to intervene with who should inherit the crown?”
Cyril’s smile remained.
“And the family of Princess Helene’s husband—the Duke of Blade Edge Hill, whose whole clan died eighteen years ago—was also dragged into it?”
Thales gritted his teeth as he watched Cyril’s relaxed and composed expression.
“Or could you be hinting that in the Bloody Year, it was indeed my grandfather’s son who had the same thought to replace his brother and… usurp power?”