Translator: EndlessFantasy Translation Editor: EndlessFantasy Translation
The sun was setting.
Thales rode on a brand new saddle, which had been placed on top of a steed with glossy fur. He moved forward slowly while he headed east.
He looked past the shoulder of the mounted sentry to stare at the weeds and smoke in the distance. Quietly, he let his mind wander.
The ground there was different. It was different from that of Northland and the desert. It was more moist, fertile, and flat. That was the information he obtained from somewhere after he received the blessing to never be lost.
“Your riding skills are very good, Your Highness. You would not lose to a well-trained rider.”
The prince had been immersed in the sensations he obtained from the blessing to never be lost, but he was suddenly snapped out of his musings when the voice rang out of nowhere. He quickly looked back.
Horse hooves thundered. The Count of Wing Fort, Derek Kroma, lifted his reins and increased his speed to move past a few of his personal guards so that he could arrive next to the prince’s steed. His personal guards all moved away with a great show of sensibility so that they could leave behind a certain amount of space for the count and the prince.
The freaks who were supposed to protect the prince and remain by his side were separated from him by the Raven Leaders. Snake Shooter appeared to be little indignant, but he did not dare offend the count. In the end, he could only lower his head and grumble.
“In this day and age, many nobles your age with illustrious families would find it hard to remain on the back of a horse for a long time, even if they are able to display the proper riding stance,” Count Derek said in a calm manner.
Dozens of hours had passed since their group left the camp in a mighty stream. Aside from resting once at noon, the Raven Whistle Light Cavaliers, who were well-trained, increased their speed as they swiftly rode forward.
Thales pinched his thigh before he turned around to cast a glance at Derek’s calf near the stirrup. He felt that Derek had not changed his riding posture a lot.
‘Remain on the back of a horse for a long period of time?’
The prince quirked an eyebrow discreetly. ‘You’re praising yourself, right?’
Thales’ thighs and waist had started to become sore after rushing forward for a long period of time. Now that their horses had begun to trot forward, enabling him to watch the scenery in peace, he was pretty much considered to be resting.
The Count of Wing Fort continued to speak with a myriad of emotions in him, “The military training of the Northlanders is indeed extraordinary.”
Thales nodded politely before he laughed dryly. “Thank you.”
‘As for the Northlanders’ training, why don’t you ask the Star Killer and the Raven of Death?’
The former had persistently taught him through the various riding lessons, which lasted for years, that it was a blessing if he could ride on a “normal” horse.
The latter had thought him while they fled that one day, which seemed like it lasted for years, that it was a blessing if he could ride “normally” on a horse.
When he recalled his bitter past and his present happiness, Thales sighed faintly.
As expected, people learned things by being forced to go through ordeals.
Speaking of which, from Nicholas and Monty to Tolja, whom he met in Black Sand Region…
When he remembered that three of the five famous Eckstedtian War Generals did not like him during his trip to Northland, Thales felt extremely resigned. He found himself to be the most unfortunate… or not. The prince snuck a glance at the air behind him and believed himself to be the second most unfortunate person.
By the way, how was Yodel catching up?
Could he have lain on a horse’s butt somewhere?
“We have finally encountered land that is not covered with yellow sand.”
Count Derek seemed intent to use that period of time to talk a little more with Thales.
“When I served at the border, I would only come out after I spend a few weeks in the desert.” Derek stared at the weed-covered land as well as the smoke curling up from the villages in the distance, and he smiled faintly. “Whenever I see even the slightest bit of green, I become very excited.”
Thales took over the topic sensibly and earnestly.
“Is that not right? The feeling is really good.”
After he had become used to six years of wandering about in a foreign land, when he saw a different terrain and human population, Thales realized for the first time that he was no longer in the dry and cold Northland, or the desert where all he saw was yellow sand.
He was in Constellation.
An unfamiliar but also familiar feeling rose in his heart.
When he noticed the direction of Thales’ gaze, Derek pointed at a few small houses at the end of his gaze.
“Those few villages belong to Blessings Town. It is our supply point for the day. It’s ahead of us and not far away. It is the closest town to Blade Fangs Camp, and it is the town located farthest to the west of Western Desert. It has been providing reinforcements and protection to the Western Frontlines for many years.”
Derek’s explanation created a spark of interest in Thales, which had not appeared in him for a long time. It was a carefree hobby that was unimaginable when he was surrounded by dangers and had pursuers after his tail.
It was clear that Derek comprehended the prince’s emotions through a great show of understanding. That was coupled with how sore the prince’s muscles were after riding for so long. Derek continued with his explanation, “And we will step into the Avenue of Blessings once we are there. The road on the avenue will be much easier to tread.”
“The Avenue of Blessings? I’ve read about it while I was in Northland.” Thales raised an eyebrow. “But this is the first time I will tread on that avenue.”
Count Derek smiled. “Then I believe that once you personally walk on it, you will find that it is even more interesting than the writings in the books.”
‘Avenue of Blessings.’
Thales craned his neck forward as best as he could because he wanted to see the road ahead of him clearly.
However, in the next second, a strange feeling emanated from the distant horizon, which was visible to Thales.
The moment he detected a barely audible ringing in his ears, a wide, flat, and sturdy surface that was about to appear ahead of him materialized in his mind.
Thales instinctively closed his eyes. He could only sense that the road would keep stretching eastward until it touched a liquid wall. The wall was cold, moist, chaotic, huge, and seemed to span endlessly.
‘This is… the Avenue of Blessings?’
“But it may not be the first.”
Derek’s words interrupted the prince’s thoughts. He drew a horizontal line in the air.
“With Eternal Star City as its center, the Avenue of Blessings spans from the west to the east. In the west, it connects the Ruins, Wing Fort, and Blessings Town, which are feudal lands in Western Desert, and it also connects to the Seven Eastern Sea Ports, which have Splendid Port City as their leader and are all connected to the east.”
Derek smiled softly because he was speaking in a teasing tone, “So, if you’ve actually stepped into Eternal Star City, you would be considered to have stepped on the Avenue of Blessings.”
Thales smiled too. “Thank you as well for your words of comfort.”
“There’s also Renaissance Avenue, which also passes through Eternal Star City and spans from the south to the north. These two avenues enhance each other’s radiance, and they pass through countless towns as well as fortresses to link the geographical line in the kingdom. The merchants call them ‘Constellation’s Cross’.”
‘Renaissance Avenue. Constellation’s Cross.’
Thales raised his eyebrows.
“I’ve walked along Renaissance Avenue before. It was six years ago, when I rode north to go to Eckstedt. I also know that it goes through a birch tree forest that leads straight up to Broken Dragon Fortress.”
The memories of the past assaulted his mind, and Thales could not help but feel a little dazed.
“The credit belongs to the beginning of the second century. Your ancestor, Thorn Cutter, Tormond the Third encouraged the policy to develop uncultivated land. He made it so that he and the kings after him could begin renovating the old roads left behind by the Empire, and that is how our kingdom has its territory today.”
Derek extended his hand and gestured to the area around him.
“Hence, to show gratitude and obtain even more support, the nobles who occupied this land the earliest called the small town, which is located at the border and facing the threat of the desert, His Majesty’s Blessing.”
‘His Majesty’s Blessing.’
“How very smart of them to do so.” Thales stared at the barely visible smoke from the village in the distance with interest. “When they are attacked, saying that His Majesty’s Blessing has fallen is much more shocking to Renaissance Palace compared with ‘a piece of the border has fallen’, right?”
Derek nodded. He turned his head around and swept his gaze over the path they took.
“Exactly. At that time, Western Desert was not a good place. Forget Blade Fangs Camp or the nameless bandits hiding in their hideouts in the desert, even the Ruins, which has been built for one hundred years, is a place belonging beyond civilization in the kingdom to the people’s eyes. You can tell just based on its name.”
A thought appeared in Thales’ mind.
‘Ruins. Which idiotic suzerain would name the city he lived in as Ruins?’
Derek looked at the village that was falling back from his gaze. There was a slight degree of sentimentality in his voice.
“In history, the ruling family of Blessings Town has changed several times because they ran out of heirs or because of political marriages.
“Now, its master is the Horman Family. They are the vassals of the Ruins, and their ancestor is also from a branch family of the Fakenhaz Family. In fact, they have a lot of connections to the Bozdorf and Kroma genealogy.” But then Derek’s tone began to turn gloomy. “However, they lost their glory. The current Viscount of Blessings Town even has to survive on loan.”
Thales frowned and turned his head around.
“He has to take loans? Why?”
The steeds continued to move forward with the team, and occasionally, some scouts would clear the path, The mounted sentries who protected their rear would move past them, and they would send orders with their strong and powerful voices.
Derek looked into the distance, and there was an enlightened look in his eyes. “Because of war.”
A thought struck Thales’ mind.
“The Bloody Year?”
Derek stared at Thales. He lifted his reins and moved together with him.
“Yes, but that is not all.”
He stared at Thales fixedly.
“Eleven years ago, to seek justice from the aggrievance we suffered during the Bloody Year, the king decided to send an expedition into the desert.”
‘Send an expedition into the desert…’
A thought occurred to Thales.
“Are you talking about the Desert War and the Battle of Elimination later on?”
Derek quirked his eyebrows, but he had seemingly remembered something. An apologetic look then appeared on his face.
“Oh, I almost forgot. Of course you would know. You were raised by Lord Mahn. He was sacrificed during that battle.”
Thales’ face tensed up.
‘No, I don’t. I heard about this from a certain dastardly tavern owner.’
The setting sun shone over the area before him. The group continued to move forward, but Derek was still staring into the distance, and he seemed to be slightly dazed.
“Before the battle, His Majesty and the National Conference passed the decision for mobilization. During critical times, the Baron of Blade Fangs Dune, who would be on the frontlines, could use the name of the king to execute wartime command in Blessings Town. This included matters such as having command over their public order, imposing curfews, mobilizing soldiers, using their resources, appointing bureaucrats, collecting taxes, as well as becoming the judiciary and executing the law. Of course, it is not limited to just those things.”
“I see,” Thales said when he realized something.
However, he immediately noticed that there was something wrong.
Derek nodded, and his expression was a little downcast.
“Since then, the so-called ‘critical times’ that Blade Fangs Camp declared has lasted for eleven years. It has persisted from the Battle of Elimination, which went on for a long time, until the recent orc invasion.” Derek’s gaze became incredibly sharp.
He turned his head around and met Thales’ gaze; the meaning in his eyes was difficult to decipher.
“It has never been removed.”
Thales was stunned.
‘Eleven years of martial law and military control?’
“Just like that, while Viscount Horman remains as the suzerain of Blessings Town, he has already lost his right to govern the town.
“And Blessings Town is just one of the examples.”
Derek’s voice was low, just like his emotions.
“Now, do you know what the disturbance in Blade Fangs Camp means?”
This time, the Count of Wing Fort threw him a very huge problem, and it was so huge that he had no way of answering it.
Nonetheless, it appeared that Derek did not want him to answer immediately. The count just continued speaking, “War is horrible, yes?”
The young count rode across the road, and the setting sun dyed his armor a golden yellow. But there was indescribable sadness in his eyes.
“Because it does not just destroy lives…”
Thales pursed his lips. He did not know where to start with his answer.
“During the war, in the face of the army personally led by the king, and the citizens’ excited fervor, the old Viscount Horman could only lower his head and go along with the flow. He could only listen to orders, be conscientious, be diligent, and offer up his family’s land in the name of the kingdom.”
Derek’s voice rose and fell a little.
“After the war, as he was confronted by Williams, the old Viscount, who was already sixty years old, could only bring up his genealogy and present the yellowing warrant that conferred Blessings Town to his family in one hand. With his other hand, he held a sword against his own neck and cried while he told us of his grievances during the suzerains’ meeting in hopes that he could get the land returned to his family.
“All of Western Desert watched, but all of us great suzerains are really just cowards. The only thing the guardian duke and the appointed count could do was persuade him patiently to go back, and they did so by stalling for time and lying to him.”
Derek scowled and stared at the spot ahead of him.
“So, when the old viscount died of depression, his son came to Wing Fort quietly. He humbled himself in order to request for a loan so that he could survive, I did not hesitate or act miserly with my money.”
The Count of Wing Fort’s voice was gentle, and there was a depressed air in his tone. “It is what we owe him.”
Thales’ gaze became a little grave.
He remained silent for a while. For a time, only the sound of horse hooves could be heard.
After some time, Thales spoke to break the indescribable silence.
“How many more cases like this have happened in Western Desert?”
Derek lowered his head and did not speak for a moment. He seemed to be thinking, but in the end, he still spoke.
“I do not know. But I do know that around five years ago, the family of one of my subordinates, the Baron of Amos Town—which is a title that has been passed down for hundreds of years—came down with an illness, and all of them died. Their line ended just like that. At least, that is what they tell the people.”
This time, the count’s voice was very downcast.
Derek raised his head, and he snorted. “Clearly, it is because he had been fighting against the implementation of the Tax Exemption for the Opening Up of Border Counties. Based on what he said, the countless parvenu nobles, who were born because of this order, encroached upon his benefits every day. They seized his people and cut off his means of surviving.
“Let us not talk about whether Baron Amos exaggerated his explanations. The worst thing is, in the end… I wonder if it was because he was simply too stupid, could do nothing else, had no one to complain to, was far too stubborn, or whether he drank too much and his mind was not clear… But he did not listen to our advice. He simply acted based on his instincts and chose the extremist way, which our Rudollian ancestors did during the age of the Empire.”
Thales froze for a moment.
Derek tightened his grip around the reins, and a cold look flashed in his eyes.
“That man enlisted soldiers and mobilized an army. He intended to move past Western Desert and bring about great news, which all of Constellation would see so that he could raise a protest against the king and the kingdom.”
‘Mobilize army… Great news…’
Thales’ heart tensed further.
“What happened? What was my father’s reaction?”
Against his expectation, Derek only shook his head and closed his eyes.
“He did nothing,” the Count of Wing Fort said faintly. “Renaissance Palace never knew about the matter. At the very least, before they learned of it, Duke Fakenhaz, Count Bozdord, and I made our decision.”
Thales was puzzled for a short period of time.
“They did not know? What decision? What was it?”
Derek answered his question in one sentence.
“We dealt with him.”
His sentence was short, his syntax simple. There was no hidden meaning behind his words.
That instant, Thales sensed a chill rising from the bottom of his heart.
Derek opened his eyes gently, and his tone was indifferent. “You know that it has not been long since the Bloody Year occurred, and the lesson from Blade Edge Hill still lingers in our minds. As for Western Desert… We cannot let it happen.”
In that second, the count’s gaze turned incredibly dark, and he sounded so tense that even the air refused to move around him.
‘So you… dealt with him. Baron Amos’ entire family became sick, and they died of a misfortune. Their family came to an end just like that.’
Thales felt his skin crawl.
He could not help but remember what the Duke of Western Desert once told him regarding nobility and the royal power.
“‘The horse will not submit to the lash, nor will the coachman give up on lashing at it. As for the passengers, no matter who they are, they cannot sit and watch as it falls apart.”‘
Amid the sound of galloping horses, the Count of Wing Fort gritted his teeth and spoke airily, “We cannot.”
Thales took a gentle breath.
The prince’s group continued to move forward. The Single-Winged Crow with the golden outline shone with a golden light under the setting sun.
However, within those few seconds, Thales had a misconception that the air between him and Derek had become so cold that it could freeze the Northlanders.
After a long while, Thales spoke laboriously, “You do not like what my father has done over the past few years, right?”
When he heard that, Derek took a deep breath.
Fortunately, it seemed like the rays of the setting sun had instantly chased away the chill on the count’s body, and hints of warmth returned to his face.
“I cannot say whether I like or dislike it.” Derek’s impeccable riding posture relaxed slightly, and he spoke airily, “However, I live here, experience my life here, and I am connected to this place. My people, my vassals, my family, and all that I treasure are in Western Desert. I have a duty to them and this land.”
Derek blanked out for a moment. “While they are alive, I wish that they may live at peace. When they breathe, I wish that they may do so smoothly. When they die, I wish for them to die a worthy death.”
The count slowly focused his gaze.
“And if they must die… then I wish that they may die at peace, without feeling any burden and without leaving behind any regrets.”
The Count of Wing Fort exhaled. “I do not want to die while their bodies continue to be crushed by this unpredictable wave that is still tumbling about.”
An unbearable silence descended upon them again.
At that moment, countless thoughts appeared in the prince’s heart, but none of them made him happy.
Thales could only sigh deeply.
As if he had noticed the prince’s emotions, Derek wore a pleasant smile and spoke in a relaxed tone.
“But do you know what is the most ironic thing about Blessings Town?”
Thales gave him an inquiring gaze as his answer.
“Before the suzerains gathered their forces to welcome you back to the country, Count Bozdorf of Brave Souls Fort pleaded His Majesty to no longer place Blessings Town under critical times. He got what he asked for. The regular soldiers moved out of Blade Fangs Camp, and Blessings Town went back into the hands of the Horman Family, but…” Derek’s smile gradually vanished. He sighed softly. “It has been eleven years if you count the wars after the Bloody Year and harsh times they experienced. The Horman Family has left Blessings Town’s center of management for more than twenty years. They have already been degraded to people who have a social position, but do nothing for a living.”
Thales’ heart tightened.
“Hence, when young Horman brought his father’s dying wish to the office on the first day, he found that his family had already lost the ability to rule over Blessings Town, from carrying official businesses, managing public order, managing the system, to gathering talents, and regulating relationships.”
There was an inexplicably strange tone in Derek’s voice. “If a good horse never leaves its stable for twenty years, and a messenger crow never leaves its house for twenty years…”
Right then, Thales suddenly felt a chill in his heart.
“Once he went through the first week in great confusion and was utterly exhausted by overworking and anxiety, the people protested non-stop. All of them were displeased.”
Derek stared at his reins with an intense gaze.
“To prevent chaos, Blessings Town had to make some of the officials, whom the Royal Family appointed, stay. They even had to call a group of them back.
“And after what happened in Blade Fangs Camp, the Horman Family even had to request help from the Royal Family’s regular army, which had originally decided to leave. This was to prevent the scattered threats that could seep through their defenses. After all, the army in Blade Fangs Camp lost completely even when the suzerains were in the camp, right?
“Poor Horman. He can no longer become the master of Blessings Town, or rather, Blessings Town has long since stopped belonging to the Horman Family.”
Derek’s expression darkened.
“You saw what happened later. The storm in Blade Fangs Camp has passed. Williams returned, the regular troops and His Majesty’s order returned as well. Everything has returned to what it was.”
He turned his head around and stared at the setting sun, which was about to sink behind the mountains in the west. There were a few hints of desolation in his voice. “And everything can never return as well.”
In that second, Thales could not help but suck in a deep breath.
He remembered what Cyril Fakenhaz said not too long ago.
“‘In just a few centuries, Renaissance Palace has, step-by-step, gently, slowly, yet firmly stripped, from the nobles, the power to pass on the legacy of their families, the power to hand over their titles to their children, the power to receive taxes, the power to appoint their government officials, the power to pass verdicts in court, and the power to mobilize armies. They do so in an unstoppable manner.”‘
The group slowed down. The mounted sentries began moving back and forth even more frequently. A large group of cavaliers also increased their speed ahead of everyone else to disappear at the corner of the slope ahead of them.
“So, sometimes, I wonder, would everything be better if the Desert War never happened?” Derek seemed to have forgotten about the prince’s existence. At that moment, he sounded as if he was talking to himself. “In fact, sometimes, I think even further back. What if the Bloody Year never happened?”
‘What if the Bloody Year never happened? Then plenty of people will—’
When he thought of this, Thales’ gaze became unfocused for a moment.
A few seconds later, Derek let out a deep breath. It was as if all the discontentment he accumulated over the days had been dispelled from his chest. His tone also returned to normal. “My apologies, Your Highness. I was not myself.”
Yet, Thales only curled his lips. “No, thank you for being honest with me.”
The group went over the slope, and a small town whose style was different from Eckstedt and Blade Fangs Camp appeared before their eyes.
“I understand what you mean, and I remember it now,” Thales said solemnly.
The prince watched the populated area get closer to him, and his smile looked a little forced.
However, that sentence sounded a little more sincere compared with the polite tone he adopted earlier to talk about nothing.
“You are right, Your Grace,” Thales said with complicated feelings. “Sometimes, it is much more interesting to experience things yourself than read about them.”
‘And it’s also much graver,’ he thought in his heart.
This time, Derek stared at him for a long time.
“Thank you, Prince Thales,” the count replied softly. He was incredibly serious.
After he finished speaking, Derek turned his horse around once his steed began to slow down. He extended his hand, pointing to the small town before them. It had appeared right in front of them at some point in time.
“Well then, welcome to Blessings Town.”
Thales took a deep breath and turned his head around.
He stared at the scattered but orderly houses, and the wide paths made of stone tiles that were all over the small town. Nearly hundreds of people waited anxiously behind the line formed by the Raven Whistle Light Cavaliers. They cast curious gazes at the center of the group.
Thales clenched his fists gently.
“Do not forget the source of its name,” Derek said in a profound tone. “This is His Majesty’s Blessing.”
However, in the next second, before Thales could reply, the “welcoming group” in front of him rose into a commotion.
Thales and Derek’s attention were drawn to them at the same time.
Under the wary gazes of the Raven Guards and the freaks who wanted to get close to the prince but could not and could only make a ruckus at the outermost layer of the group, dozens of soldiers in black armor violently pushed the people aside and walked over with heavy footsteps. They looked aggressive, and their might was incredible.
Quite a number of citizens grumbled non-stop, but no one dared to resist the commands. Everyone reluctantly left the path to make way for those soldiers.
A number of Raven Whistle Light Cavaliers instinctively moved to touch their weapons, but they did not do anything major.
The reason was, a flag came with the soldiers in black armor. It tore through the group like a sailboat, and it flew high in the sky.
When he saw the flag, Thales was stunned for a moment.
The background of the flag was yellow, and a lion had been drawn on it with black lines.
‘A black lion with a yellow background.’
“That’s…” Thales was slightly puzzled.
Count Derek sighed. He turned to Thales and whispered, “The Black Lion of Brave Souls Fort, the Bozdorf Family. They arrived earlier than I expected.”
‘Brave Souls Fort… Black Lion… Bozdorf?’
Before Thales could remember anything and react, Derek extended his hand past his saddle and pressed down on Thales’ arm.
“That is Count Lewis. Even though he is also one of your father’s vassals, I sincerely suggest to you that no matter what he says, just smile, Your Highness.” Derek’s tone was incredibly cautious, and his lips curled up slightly.
Thales was puzzled again.
At that moment, a loud and slightly hoarse voice with some degree of warmth, cunning, coldness, and ghastliness rose from among the soldiers in black armor.
“Derek, Derek, my dear young Derek! You came over really quickly, did you not?!”
A middle-aged noble with an average build that leaned on the slightly plump side rode on a horse while he was covered in black armor. He had a sword by his waist. While he was surrounded by soldiers by his side, he arrived before the formation of the Raven Leaders.
Derek’s personal guards clearly knew him. No one stopped him or said a word.
The middle-aged man’s guards also stopped in front of the formation in tacit agreement. They simply allowed their master to move forward with his reins in hand.
Thales also noticed keenly that Derek had taken a deep breath before he exhaled slowly.
The middle-aged noble had a warm but slightly fake smile on his face when he stopped in front of Derek’s horse. He spread his arms at Derek.
“As expected, your territory produces the most horses and messenger crows in all of Western Desert!”
The middle-aged noble sized up Derek’s steed as if he was admiring a fine horse, but his tone gradually changed. “It is obedient, useful, fast, and convenient.”
The middle-aged noble turned his body to the side and cast the Count of Wing Fort a sideways glance before he put on a thought-provoking expression.
“The commoners and the king love them so much.”
Thales pursed his lips. ‘There seems to be an underlying meaning to his words.’
Count Derek looked like he had heard nothing. He nodded respectfully as a signal and smiled as his response. “Count Lewis Bozdorf.”
Derek politely took off his iron glove and extended his right hand. “I am honored to meet you.”
The middle-aged noble smiled. He took off his glove as well and took Derek’s hand.
He did not answer, but his gaze was as sharp as a blade that shot toward Thales, who was next to Derek.
He stared at Thales so intently that Thales, who had been smiling, felt tense.
“So, where is he?”
In the next moment, Count Lewis, who had been staring at the prince, narrowed his eyes. There was a prideful look on his face while his tone became dark.
“Where is the heroic prince who is said to have protected world peace, conquered the Great Dragon, and saved all of Constellation?”