"Your Highness! You are truly beloved among them! The people did not forget that it was Constellation and the Jadestar Royal Family that guaranteed them such a bountiful life."
The speaker was Baron Limor. As the suzerain of four local villages, his castle stood at the point of intersection between those four villages. To the south, the Renaissance Avenuewhich was situated in the Central Territory and was covered in yellow fallen leavescould be seen. To the north, a panoramic view of the birch tree forestunique to the Northern Territorycould be seen.
This was the fourth morning of their journey north to Eckstedt. They stopped a few times on their way to restock. If all went well, they would be able to enter the Northern Territory in the evening and reach Broken Dragon Fortress the following night.
Although Baron Limor was only over thirty years old, he was almost as plump as the old Duke Cullen. The Baron laughed to the point that his eyes could almost not be seen.
He spoke passionately to the second Prince of Constellation, Prince Thales Jadestar, who was surrounded by smiling members of the populace, "The people were looking forward to your arrival very much, and feel extremely honored. The continuation of the Jadestar Royal Family line is indeed a great show of love by the Sunset Goddess."
Baron Limor stroked his belly and said with a smile, "I believe that in the future, under your rule, Constellation will become even more bountiful and blissful. It will become even more successful than it used to be!
"We are, after all, the descendants of the Empire!"
Thales walked along the clean, spotless village where even the mounds of snow were completely swept away. Maintaining the most standard of smiles, he waved at the people who were clad in bright and dazzling clothing.
Beside him, Wya, Chora and five Jadestar private soldiers anxiously separated him from the crowd. Aida followed behind them, and judging by the way she walked, it was obvious that she was in low spirits.
The head of the Jadestar Private Army, Chora, said with a serious expression, "It is best that we leave immediately, Your Highness. Staying here is really not a good idea."
"He is right. Your duty is to serve as an envoy, not to conduct inspections. You are merely passing this place by." Wya stopped a squire in his tracks.
Thales nodded and casually made a few hand gestures towards the distance, which no one could understand except for one person.
'How is it?'
Looking at the prince's hand gestures, Wya furrowed his brows.
Displeased, he looked towards the other direction of the village. As expected, Ralf's figure appeared at a secluded place some distance away right at the perfect moment. Racking his brains, he made two hand gestures at Thales in reply.
'At the back. Fake. All of them.'
Thales' heart sank. He looked towards the child who was nearest to him. The child was about seven or eight years oldaround the same age as him.
The child had a dark complexion, and was so thin that he was only skin and bones. He was dressed in obviously ill-fitting clothes. His tiny hands could not reach out of the sleeves at all. His eyes were filled with fear, and he was shivering. However, he deliberately forced himself to flash a fake smile.
A man, who was in the prime of his life and had an apathetic gaze, waved his rough and deformed hand with difficulty.
A shy woman with a scarf on her head wore a shirt and a skirt that did not match at all in terms of style. The style of her shirt was obviously closer to the ones that are trending in the capital city.
An old man who seemed almost sixty was wearing a comical-looking cape that looked like the ones used by nobles to shield themselves from the rain. The lower half of his body was dressed in thin, unlined pants. At a corner where others could not see, he shivered violently from the cold.
'And The spotless village with everyone lining up on both sides of the street to welcome me.' Thales heaved a sigh and looked towards Baron Limor with a smile.
Did they think that he was an idiot?
'So, there is a Potemkin Village  in this world too.'
"We should have finished restocking by now." Again, Thales gesticulated at Ralf, which no one but he and Ralf could understand. He shook his head and said softly to Wya and Chora, "Let's go."
Wya even gave Ralfwho was a distance away and had a profound expression on his facean angry glare. He then caught up with Thales together with Chora. He was the one who was supposed to be the second prince's attendant!
Despite Baron Limor's reluctance for them to leave, persuasions for them to stay, and his profusely gratuitous farewell, the carriage fleet of Constellation's diplomatic group that was heading north towards Eckstedt prepared to set off.
"I thought you enjoyed that feeling of being supported by the multitudes."
The vice diplomat of the diplomat group, Lord Putray, took out a tobacco pipe from somewhere and lit it. It produced a thick cloud of smoke which made people feel uncomfortable even just by looking at it. He puffed from it, and looked at the second prince mockingly.
"No, I would prefer to enjoy the kind of support that is undeceiving and simple, but is sincere." Smiling, Thales took the water a guard passed to him. "And I would rather not watch as they are coerced by their suzerains to wear clothes that were prepared beforehand, force the most deliberate smiles, and tell me lies about their happy lives while lining up on both sides of the street for no reason at all in a village that has been swept beforehand, welcoming a prince that they do not actually like."
Thales sighed softly, "How many people among them do you reckon are smiling, but are actually full of hatred for me, a prince who suddenly appeared?"
"Not even one." Unexpectedly, Putray denied his words. "If you insist on finding some, it would probably only be that plump baron."
Thales raised his brows.
Putray scornfully heaved out a mouthful of smoke. "Don't think of yourself as too important, future king. In many people's eyes, the Nine-Pointed Star does not even carry as much weight as an ear of wheat. Wheat can fill their bellies. What can the Nine-Pointed Star do? Oh, there are still perks to it." Putray chuckled. "Take for example, their suzerain fed them a good meal and distributed some unwanted clothes to them so that they can welcome some heir of the Nine-Pointed Star who passed by with some semblance of decency."
Thales' expression was grave. Before entering the carriage, he had glanced at this villagewhich was on the border of the Northern Territory and the Central Territoryfor the last time. He could not help but say, "This is the intersection point between Renaissance Avenue and the birch tree forest. The specialties of the Northern Territory and goods from the Central Territory both will pass by here. There is no shortage of land and hunting grounds, too. But the people here are still so poverty-stricken. Is it because too much of their pay is embezzled, or is it a problem with the land, or high taxes?"
Putray exhaled two smoke rings from his nose and said mockingly, "Let's put it this way. Baron Limor is one of the vassals under Count Talon. He collects taxes and responds to calls for enlistment on the latter's behalf. At the same time, the Talon Family is a distant relative and supporter of the Jadestar Royal Family. The exact reason why the villagers here are so poor is because the rulers of the territory are too patriotic and loyal to the kingdom."
Thales was silent for a while until Wya interrupted his ruminations.
"Your Highness, that veteran kept refusing to leave. He is now still following us." Wya pointed towards a limping figure behind them and sighed. "We have already passed by Talon Family's Ice River City. I reckon that the food and supplies he has are not enough for him to journey back to Eternal Star City. Moreover, he does not have clothing that can ward off the cold. The further we go northwards"
"In my opinion, we can hand him over to that baron. This way, we do not have to worry about him starving to death or dropping dead on the streets." Chora ran his fingers along his red hair.
"You saw how he was like. I reckon that the veteran is not good at dealing with nobles. And the baron will probably send him straight into the dungeons." Thales shook his head as he watched Genard's stubborn figure a distance away.
"And he was, after all the late Duke John's personal guard. You can say that he is related to the Jadestar Family."
Thales' gaze sparkled. He thought of the late king's younger brother in the burial room.
[Starlight God of War, Liberator of Zodra, Duke of Star Lake, John L.K. Jadestar, 613-660]
"Then let's bring him along."
Thales looked towards his vice diplomat in puzzlement. Lord Putray realized in frustration that the fire in his tobacco pipe had gone out due to the cold again. He fumbled around his pocket in a flurry. Wya sighed, took out a piece of flint and walked forward.
"In my opinion, to have the willpower to follow us for three days and three nights on footthank you, you are a lifesaverif he isn't the most loyal follower, he would be the most dangerous enemy."
Putray lit his tobacco pipe and looked towards the end of the carriage fleet, which was where the carriage with coffin was. Scornfully, he said, "No matter which one he is, you have a reason to bring him along and place him under your observation and control. There are all sorts of creatures in your disorderly carriage fleet anyway."
Thales furrowed his brows, pretending not to have heard Putray's complaints about having the Blood Clansmen as travel companions. "A loyal follower and a dangerous enemy. I don't feel like risking a bet on any of those two possibilities."
Putray sucked in a mouthful of smoke with great force and closed his eyes in satisfaction. "It's hard to tell. Sometimes, it is also possible that both apply."
Thales rolled his eyes in exasperation.
"Your Highness, how about that veteran?" Wya asked probingly.
Thales contemplated for a while. Suddenly, he walked towards the veteran from the Starlight Brigade. Behind him, Ralf quietly followed.
Wya was stunned for a moment. He then immediately caught up with the second prince. At the same time, he glanced unhappily at the Phantom Wind Follower. After overtaking Ralf, he instinctively took a step forward and became the person closest to the prince.
Wya felt that his position as the prince's attendant was seriously threatened by this silver-masked man who could only walk with the help of prosthetics.
For example, that sign language that only Ralf and the prince could understand, but not him, even though he was the attendant.
Thales shouted from afar, "Veteran! What is your name?"
Genard, who was hugging himself and shivering in the cold, raised his head. Seeing the Nine-Pointed Star embroidered on Thales' clothing, his eyes brightened.
He recalled the scene that year, when that lackadaisical, middle-aged duke walked out of the barracks for the first time, and straight towards him.
"Ge-Genard," he said while shivering.
"Still not willing to give up, are you?" Thales narrowed his eyes. "However, you know, it is impossible that I will let you follow us. You were sent here by Zayen Covendier, and I do not trust him."
Genard was stunned. He immediately explained, "I am not from the same group as they are. I was captured by them I don't know why they want to send me here either"
"But it has been three days. Why are you following me?" Thales cut him off and stared straight at Genard's face. "Give me a reason to believe in you."
Genard stared at Thales in a daze. 'True. He is, after all, not the duke. He won't believe in me.'
If it was the duke, he would probably have smiled mysteriously and tapped Genard's shoulder. In an extravagant manner, he would tell Genard to collect a serving of food and leave after saying a few words, "I will be watching you." He would then leave, reassured.
'However, it was precisely because of this personality that the duke that'
The veteran of over thirty years old gritted his teeth and raised his head, "When I was brought here, along the way I heard those people bringing me here saying that you-you were going to Eckstedt to calm down the fury and hatred of the Northlanders with your own life?"
Thales stared at him and did not say anything
Genard hugged himself and said while trembling, "Please let me follow you. Let me follow the Nine-Pointed Star."
Thales did not speak.
At the point when Genard was overwhelmed with anxiety, the second prince finally said slowly, "I heard that"Thales exhaled"you were once from the Starlight Brigade, and was Duke John's, my grand uncle's personal guard?"
Genard's gaze dimmed. "Yes."
'And I let him down.'
Thales coldly said, "If it is out of loyalty for Star Brigade's comrade-in-arms, you may go back to the capital city and continue serving my father, King Kessel."
Genard's face was covered in dust. As he gasped for breath with difficulty, he looked at Thales. "I have served him for twelve years in the capital city, but now, I have nowhere to go."
That year, when the Starlight Brigade was disbanded, most people followed the captain to Broken Dragon Fortress and had three bloody battles with Eckstedtians. After the 'Garrison Contract' was signed, they continued guarding the border of Constellation in the bitter cold.
But he did not go. He wanted to stay and continue serving the Nine-Pointed Star and the Jadestar Family in the capital city. To atone for his sins.
Genard thought of his mind-numbing life in the city defense team, which went on for twelve years. He chuckled forlornly.
Seeing his expression, Thales heaved a deep sigh.
"Go and look for Chora, the one with the red hair." Under Genard's surprised gaze, Thales pouted. "Since you are a veteran, ask him to assign a position to you. The diplomat group cannot take in useless people."
Shivering, Genard stared at Thales. The man shuddered violently. Two streams of tears flowed out uncontrollably from his eyes.
Thales was taken aback. This was the type of situation he could not handle the most. He immediately turned and left.
This time, Wya followed closely. He did not forget to glance at Ralf, but Ralf was staring at the veteran whose eyes were brimming with tears.
'Another lost person Just like me.'
Thales walked further and further away.
'If he was John's personal guard, if he participated in those battles, then he must had lived through the truth of the incidents behind the Bloody Year. Those truths that I want to know.' Thales thought.
The second prince entered the carriage without saying anything. The carriage fleet continued its journey, exiting Renaissance Avenue and entering the birch tree forest which was unique to the Northern Territory.
The next evening, when the carriage fleet with the Double Cross-Shaped Stars flag hung on it finally reached the border of the birch tree forest, snow began falling ceaselessly. Everything around them was becoming silvery-white.
When they stopped to rest, Wya lit a torch from the bonfire started by the guards. He held it close to Thales, who was so cold that he was rubbing his hands. "Please pay attention to the temperature, Your Highness. From now onwards, unlike the capital city, snow not melting will become the norm."
"You came here before?" Thales gratefully took the warm torch and emitted a hot puff of air.
Wya chuckled softly. "I didn't just come here before. The Tower of Eradication is situated in the southwestern direction of the intersection point between Eckstedt and Camus Union, within the mountain range at the northern side of the Great Desert. At that time, the Desert War raged violently. The roads in the Western Desert were obstructed and I could only make a detour through Eckstedt from the Northern Territory to report for duty."
Thales' interest and curiosity was piqued. As he was about to enquire further, Putray walked towards them. "This year is a little colder than usual. Broken Dragon Fortress will only be colder than this." Lord Putray scooped up a handful of the thin layer of snow on the ground. His expression became grim. "It is good and bad news at the same time."
"How so?" Thales who did not know much about both the Northern Territory and Eckstedt, humbly asked the vice diplomat who was obviously experienced and knowledgeable, but was always blunt towards him.
"The good news is that the Day before the Bitter Cold Winterwhich is weather exclusive only to the northwill come earlier than usual. No matter how good Eckstedtians are at battling during winter, it will be impossible for them to mobilize a large number of soldiers and form any sort of battle formations, or lay siege to the fortress in such weather where water freezes as soon as it is poured out. Their supply line would collapse from the bitter cold."
Putray then said in a contemplative tone, "The bad newsis, if Lampard wants to take down Broken Dragon Fortress, these two days would be his last chance."
A chill ran down Thales' spine.
Amid Wya and Ralf's sullen expressions, Putray rudely snatched Thales' torch and extinguished it in the snow. "Yes, my prince, Broken Dragon Fortress is not far away. If you still intend to prevent the flames of war and not just wander around enjoying the beauty of nature, you'd best hurry up and press onward!"
At that moment, the cloaked woman and secret protector, Aidawho had been in low spirits all the whilesuddenly shuddered violently and sat up.
"That-there's someone" Aida stuttered while dusting off the snow on her body.
But she was immediately cut off.
"Enemy attack!" A distance away, a voice yelled loudly and furiously! It was the veteran, Genard's voice.
Thales abruptly stood up. Wya, and Ralfwho was at his sidewere even faster than him. One of them drew his sharp blade out of its sheath and the other shielded Thales behind his body.
"Chora!" Putray called calmly.
"Get into formation!"
As soon as Chora had furiously ordered, the thirty Jadestar Family's private soldiers shouted loudly. Their swords left their sheaths and their shields formed a wall surrounding Thales. They formed the Starlight Formation that was renowned in Constellation.
But Thales, pressed between and protected by his attendant and the Phantom Wind Follower, looked around in bewilderment at the evening landscape of the birch tree forest.
'Where are the enemies?'
In the next moment, he did not have to wonder anymore.
Indistinct figures suddenly appeared in a bizarre fashion behind almost every tree around them. There were at least twenty. A chill ran down Thales' spine.
He had seen people abruptly appear in this manner before. It was like glitching frames in animated movies.
As if they were facing a formidable enemy, the private soldiers of the Jadestar Family lit torches and passed them to a few key points within the round formation, providing a source of light. The flames illuminated their surroundings.
Figures dressed in luxurious clothing and armors (the two unexpectedly appeared at the same time on all their bodies) materialized one by one in the dim forest. There were both men and women, and every single one of them stood with tall, erect postures and were extraordinarily good-looking.
However, all of them were staring at Thales and his entourage coldly with sharp, piercing gazes, as if they were looking at prey that would most certainly die.
"Who are you?" Putray shouted calmly as he also whipped out his sword while holding a torch.
Under the surprised gazes of the Constellatiates, a graceful figure slowly walked forward elegantly and quietly.
It was a woman. It was the first beautiful woman Thales saw since he transmigrated. She was so beautiful she could steal a person's breath away.
How do you say it she was breathtakingly beautiful?
She was wearing a well-tailored, black, formal dress which brought out the shape of her body perfectly. Her face was gentle, she had silvery bright hair, and a pair of endearing purple eyes that seemed as though they were glistening with tears.
If placed in Red Street Market, she would definitely be an existence that only high-ranking individuals of a duke's status could meet.
This adorable beauty whose age could not be determined, slowly parted her cherry lips. She, undoubtedly, had an endearing face. But at this moment, she spoke coldly like a robot.
"Ladies and gentlemen, good day. I am Katerina Van Corleone. My enemies like to know me as the Weeper."
Everyone's breathing suddenly froze.
Thales immediately looked behind him towards the carriage with the black coffin in it. He was shocked and bewildered.
'Corleone? Katerina? The Weeper? Isn't that'
But everything continued to unfold before him.
This beauty in black with an endearing and innocent appearance blinked her watery eyes, but her tone was bone-chillingly cold.
Her gaze became harsh, and she pressed her hands on her stomach before she slowly said, "Now, I order you all to hand over my sister. And then all of you will sleep here eternally."
1. Potemkin Village: Derived from a Russian, it is any construction built solely to deceive others into thinking that a situation is better than it really is. The term was originated from stories about a phony settlement built by Grigory Potemkin to impress Empress Catherine II during her journey to Crimea in 1787. (Source: Wikipedia)