Kingdom's Bloodline 488 That Nigh
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Thales stared at the Duke of Western Desert gravely; he glanced at his appearance which grew more terrifying as his wrinkles increased, and his hair grew scarcer after six years.
After being held hostage for six years, it left Thales feeling faintly estranged from the people, matters, and things in Constellation. However, when this n.o.ble—who hailed from a great family and looked terrifying like he was an old tree that had turned into a mythical spirit—reappeared before Thales' eyes, his sharp and piercing voice resounded in the prince's ears, and all the past memories returned to him in that moment.
The National Conference that determined Thales' fate in Eternal Star City six years ago seemed to have only happened yesterday.
The chilly wind moaned as it blew outside the tower, it made Thales s.h.i.+ver as the prince only wore a thin layer of clothing.
"The Ruins are not far from here." Thales tried to eliminate the distracting thoughts, and composed himself as he glared at Fakenhaz.
'Calm down. I'm in Williams' territory and under the watch of the regular soldiers of the royal family, he can't do anything bad to me. Let's see, when the second prince appeared six years ago, what was Fakenhaz's position? How was his personality? And the reason he's here is…'
Thales remained calm.
"So, what exactly led an honorable man like you to painstakingly and laboriously come all the way to this filthy and chaotic border of the country?"
Fakenhaz let out a strange bark of laughter. He moved his cane as he approached Thales step by step.
"Your Honorable Highness, are you indeed new to this place and have no time to attend to the matters here…"
The man's terrifying and withered face enlarged slowly before his eyes. It made Thales feel uncomfortable. The prince had no choice but to hold on to the dagger behind his waist tightly as he suppressed his desire to back away.
When the Duke of Western Desert was only a foot away from the prince, he stopped. He was so close to Thales that the latter could see the dry skin that seemed to just hang off his bones, and the smattering of fine wrinkles on it.
"…or were you kept in the dark from the beginning to the end?"
Much to the prince's surprise, the calm-looking Cyril suddenly extended his hand to pull the chair in front of the study table to behind him. It caused long and unpleasant screeching sounds to rise as it was dragged on the ground, making Thales frown.
"I guess your complete question should be…" The duke put on a fake smile as he sat comfortably in front of Thales' bed. He pointed at the general direction of the window behind him.
"When the dukes of Western Desert were having a good sleep in the camp, they dropped their helmets and armors, suffered a great loss, and failed tremendously because of the unexpected attack; when they lost everything, from command of their army to logistics, from confidence to reputation, and from inside the camp to outside the camp; when a lot of them lost the criteria and courage to stay behind and guard Blade Fangs Camp, retreated rejected, and were about to go back to their homeland; when the Legendary Wing and his regular soldiers of the royal family returned with honor and glory, stomped on the local n.o.bles' failures, and entered the Blade Fangs Camp as its owner…"
Cyril Fakenhaz's sharp voice was just like his nickname. Along with his words, which were spoken at a deliberate faltering pace and made people uneasy.
"What exactly is it that made a cunning man like me go through all the trouble to come to Blade Fangs Camp, overseen by the prince, and has a special meaning to the kingdom?" Fakenhaz pulled a strange smile. "This is what you meant to ask while we faced the circ.u.mstances I listed just now, yes?"
Thales listened to the man's narration quietly. His gaze followed the direction Fakenhaz pointed, and he glanced at the buildings outside the window.
The attack and chaos the night before left a scar on the camp. The burnt traces on a certain fort were still in sight. A troop of soldiers sealed off the place and blocked a howling man who was suspected to be the owner of the fort. They also seemed to be giving orders to workers to clear up the mess around them.
One street away from where the soldiers were, was an alley that was not locked down. People, including merchants, herdsmen, mercenaries, thieves, beggars, and prost.i.tutes, continued to roam the unsealed alley. It was noisy, and it bustled with activity, just like before.
The great commotion that was unique to Blade Fangs Camp traveled faintly into his ears. It acted as an accompaniment to the Silver Double Cross-Shaped Stars Flag that fluttered above the gates at the camp.
Disaster, and the opportunity to live; ruin and reconstruction. It was as if nothing had happened… It was just another day at Blade Fangs Camp.
Cyril's unpredictable jokes and tone, his secretive words that did not answer the questions asked, and his voice and appearance which possessed great destructive power, caused Thales, who had gotten used to the Northlanders' straight-forward and loud mannerisms in Dragon Clouds City, to feel somewhat troubled.
"Your Grace, I have heard about your loss, and I am deeply sorry."
Thales, interrupted from his meal, forced himself to remain alert and tried hard to think. 'Blade Fangs Camp was under attack, and Williams won the battle. This is the situation in the camp… That is to say, the reason Duke Fakenhaz, who holds the highest position in Western Desert, rushed into my bedroom so rudely and violently is to…'
He thought out loud, "I would never think of that. This was indeed an unfortunate day, please express my regrets to your va.s.sals. And yet now, I do not think Baron Williams will be happy to see—"
Fakenhaz interrupted him. "I heard that you liked to play chess while you were in the Northland."
This random sentence caught Thales off guard. 'Chess?'
The Guardian Duke of Western Desert laughed coldly and in a terrifying way. "Do you know what I find to be most interesting about chess?"
Just when Thales was thinking about what he could say to finish the conversation politely and send his guest off, Cyril suddenly shook his left hand, and the end of his cane hit the ground heavily!
The longsword tied to the cane shook as well.
When Thales realized that the man only wanted to find a place to rest his cane, he already subconsciously held his breath and leaned over while holding the dagger behind his waist tightly.
Once Fakenhaz rested his cane, he did not seem to notice that Thales was on his guard as if he was up against a formidable enemy. Instead, he withdrew his smile and pressed his palms against the front of his knees. Then, he leaned his thin body forward, towards the prince, who sat on the bed.
"That is… there are no blind men in a chess game. Both opponents of the game can see clearly and understand every piece, square, and move every player of the game makes."
After much effort, Thales finally calmed his breathing. He started to ponder over the man's words. Cyril, whose eyes were fixed on him, suddenly reached out his hand to seize the tray on the table.
The duke put the tray with its rich contents firmly on his thighs. He picked a grilled fish that appeared to have a generous amount of herbs added as seasoning, then he opened his mouth to chew on the fish violently with his broken teeth. He did not obey the conventional dining etiquette, nor did he care that it was the prince's meal.
"So, let's stop pretending that we can't see the chess board. Hmm, this tastes good. It reminds me of the fish caught in Shepherd's River, the batch that is offered respectfully to me on Renaissance Day, that is."
Cyril munched on the fish—it still had bones—and nodded his head in all apparent seriousness, as if he was giving a food review.
'Stop pretending we cannot see the chess board…' As he stared at the man's face, which delivered great visual shock, Thales felt the uneasiness that made him feel like there were p.r.i.c.kles running down his back again.
"Your Grace, what exactly do you want to say?" The prince no longer wanted to be polite or humor him. Instead, he watched the duke seriously.
Cyril smiled. It looked as though his ugly face was going to crack at any moment. He continued to chew and lifted the grilled fish—now with only half remaining—to point it at Thales.
"To save a guard who seemed important..." Cyril looked out the window. As he watched the Blade Fangs Camp that underwent a night of chaos, his eyes shone with a rarely seen chilliness. "A particular chess player sacrificed a knight generously. Little did he know that the knight was winning the game. It charged forward and was finally promoted to become the prime minister. It took countless p.a.w.ns, swordsmen, s.h.i.+eld troops, knights, and even catapults."
Cyril did not eat further. His gaze revealed a dangerous look.
"Teach me, Thales. In this game, between the knight and the guard... who exactly does the chess player want to sacrifice, and who does he want to save?"
'Chess game. Chess player. Knight. Guard.' Thales felt he had headache after thinking so much.
After he got used to the boorish and old Heroic Spirit Palace, and became familiar with the forceful and bold Northlanders, Thales did not feel comfortable with the unbearably indirect, sarcastic, and mean Guardian Duke of Western Desert who also made others displeased with him. Even the Archduke of the Reformation Tower, who was known for being stingy and cunning, paled in comparison to him.
The prince could only sigh, and he tried his best not to look at the grilled fish that was chewed into bits and pieces in the man's hand.
"I am sorry, I am not a chess expert, it is only a hobby."
Cyril let out a strange cackle. The cheeks on his ugly and dry face shook. "Ha. You could not care less." He leaned forward again and, with his left hand pointed at Thales. His tone grew cold. "But you should."
The man's abrupt change in att.i.tude confused Thales. Duke Fakenhaz immediately raised the grilled fish in his right hand and shook it before the prince's eyes.
"Just like how you do not care about this fish, I do not care about it, too. But…" Then, right before Thales' agitated expression, Cyril bit the fish's head and ripped it off. It was accompanied by a crunching noise. Thales glanced at the grilled fish and felt uncomfortable.
As Cyril continued to munch, he watched Thales coldly and shook the headless grilled fish in his hand lightly. "But it still cares about itself."
There was a grave expression on Thales' face. He had dealt with quite the number of high-ranking opponents before, and many of them carried an imposing countenance unique to themselves. For example, Lampard had an aggressive and mighty presence, King Kessel was a man of few words and kept a distance from others, and Count Lisban had a deep gaze that made others feel uneasy.
No matter where these men appeared, even if they sat quietly in the corner of a room, their presences were still impossible to ignore.
But Cyril Fakenhaz seemed rather unique; his face was shriveled and terrifying while his body appeared rather dreadful. Even when he looked at other people, he still craned his head forward while with narrowed eyes. He left an extremely uncomfortable and awkward first impression on others, while his sharp and unbearable voice made them scowl and wish they could ignore him.
As Cyril changed his movements, intonation, and gaze, there would always be one accidental instant where this shriveled old man would make a person feel as though there was a blade tip pressed against his or her back, and that person would shudder because they sensed danger. This was similar to the feeling of how a person would constantly be wary of hidden barbs that would p.r.i.c.k his or her fingers when the person combed through a pile of straw.
He made it seem as though he could slowly affect the atmosphere, make the emotions of others near him acc.u.mulate and feel like they were pushed gradually into a horror movie that reached its climax.
Just like now.
Thales tried hard to shake off the trauma from the bottom of his heart. He could only do what the Northlanders were most familiar with: he went straight to the point.
"Your Grace, I appreciate you coming to visit me. I also know that the Fakenhaz Family has contributed a lot in my journey back to my kingdom… But trust me, I know nothing about the 'chess game' in the camp between you and the Baron of Blade Fangs Dune. I was only dragged into it coincidentally, and am completely helpless against it. As for the other things, I believe…"
Cyril's face grew cold.
"I still remember six years ago…" the duke said as he put the grilled fish down. He stared at Thales' face so intently that he looked like he wanted to drive his soul out of his body. "…when you did not care about the expression of that 'Cunning Fox' of a teacher of yours in the National Conference and spoke wildly."
Some thoughts came to Thales' mind; Cyril's words made Thales recall the past slowly.
"When the stubborn One-Eyed Dragon oppressed you, you retorted and retaliated; when that Iris Flower brat ignored you, you took your opportunity and made a fatal attack; when the short-sighted n.o.blemen did not respect you, you remembered what they did and returned their 'favor' a hundred fold. Your words were biting and harsh, you went along the momentum and attacked head-on, and you argued about something until you won."
The Duke of Western Desert's expression was interesting as he spoke. He appeared to antic.i.p.ate what was going to happen next, and there was slight admiration on his face, but he also appeared mocking, as if he was watching something entertaining.
Thales recalled what Gilbert said to him after he stood against the dukes in the National Conference. The prince sighed somewhat regretfully.
"I was a child back then. If I had offended you, it was because I was young, wild, ignorant, and fearless—"
Fakenhaz interrupted him crudely again and took over the conversation. "You were also a p.a.w.n who was not pleased with being manipulated by others."
In that instant, Cyril's gaze was extremely sharp.
"To break free, you dared to test your sharp blade even when you had to deal with the endless stars who are placed high above you."
The words sounded rather profound and inevitably stunned Thales. Once he said this, Cyril turned his head around and violently spat out the crushed fish bones in his mouth. With how much force he used, he looked like he did not just spit out fish bones. Instead, he looked he just hacked at a very difficult piece of firewood.
"I have to say, I liked you better back then. You were more…" The duke turned around, took out a handkerchief to wipe his mouth and hands, and revealed a profound gaze. "Adorable."
Thales inhaled deeply, he seemed to have understood what the man said between the lines. He decided that he had had enough of it.
"But look at you now." Cyril watched and studied him with ridicule, as if he was sizing up the prost.i.tutes who served wine in a banquet. "You are gentle, polite, and solemn. You keep your blade in your sheath, your poisonous teeth in your mouth, and your sharp claws in your palms." The duke's sharp voice traveled to all corners of the room.
"Don't you find it a waste?"
Thales looked up and stared straight at Cyril. He was no longer interested in playing games with this presumably high-ranking, strange old man who spoke ambiguously.
"Maybe this is the right way. My teacher told me that the wise hardly debate," the prince murmured. It was a pity he never got to achieve it. Thales sighed in his heart. The second prince's voice was profound and carried a subtle hint of firm rejection. "And I believe that we are not fools."
Fakenhaz laughed again. This time, he laughed for a very long time, to the extent that Thales, who was very patient, actually felt impatient.
Cyril stopped laughing and said faintly, "Very good. At least, you will not repeat Herman's mistake."
Thales did not register what he heard for a moment. "…Who did you say?"
Cyril looked around the room. He laughed strangely and continuously; it sounded like the chilly gusts.
"As a diplomat, he had an elegant demeanor, obeyed etiquette perfectly, talked with eloquence, and was quick-witted and skilled with words. He made everyone who wanted to raise their volume before him feel ashamed and inferior, they would also feel tongue-tied. Therefore, he could always use his gift of gab to his greatest advantage in a negotiation, no matter who he dealt with."
'Herman?' Thales' heart tensed. He subconsciously glanced at the corner where his fourth uncle's luggage was. Herman Jadestar's will was also there. 'Why did he mention him? Is it because… we're in Ghost Prince Tower?'
When he recalled that it was the place of another Jadestar's death, and that the bed he lay on might have been where the man slept before he died, Thales felt suffocated.
"As he succeeded in every endeavor, he built a high wall in his heart, and used his polite smile and intelligent conversational skills to reject everyone…" Strangely, Cyril's expression became profound, and he appeared lost in thought. This somewhat chased away the gloominess brought on by his horrifying face. "Regardless of whether it was the officials' flattery and lies, or his friends' bitter truths… That was why he paid a price for it."
This began to heighten Thales' concentration. 'What does he mean by paid a price for it?'
"You knew Prince Herman, my uncle?"
Fakenhaz did not answer him. The ruler of Western Desert turned around slowly and studied this narrow room on the top floor. Faint, unpleasant noises echoed as the legs from the chair sc.r.a.ped against the floor.
"I remember that night." As he studied the furnis.h.i.+ngs in the room, Cyril Fakenhaz snorted lightly. It was unclear whether he was being sarcastic or regretful. "That night..."
Thales could see a strand of darkness in the man's horrifying eyes.
"When I got here, he lay quietly on the ground. He was covered in blood and was no longer able to speak. The camp alarm sounded, and the soldiers under the tower panicked. His personal guard hurled all kinds of abuse at me. The outraged attendant took the regular soldiers to hunt all living men within a hundred feet, and they even killed a few local n.o.blemen. Internal strife exploded, the regular soldiers of the royal family held weapons and stood in opposition against the local recruits who rushed here as well as the mercenaries. They clashed several times, and it led to countless wounded and dead men. Baron Luhmann and I tried to mediate the conflict, but there was little effect. Everyone was tense and panicky."
'That night.' Thales immediately realized what the man referred to.
Duke Cyril seemed to have forgotten Thales' presence as he slowly observed the room that once belonged to the Ghost Prince.
"Soon, riots broke out in the quartermaster's depot, the supply warehouse, the Prison of Bones, and other places. Like these past few days, order in the camp collapsed, and we were too pre-occupied to attend to it. In less than half an hour, the beacons and signal arrows traveled one by one from five picket miles away. Orcs and Barren Bone people inexplicably rushed over while it was dark, and unprecedented attacks were launched.
"The prince's death had far-reaching impact. The regular soldiers could not suppress their enmity and only wished to retaliate. The suzerains' minds were in chaos, and they made defence their priority. The mercenaries harbored ulterior motives and only thought about saving themselves. Generals and commanders were suspicious of each other, the morale among soldiers was low, and with the moles causing trouble… We could not last a day even though the situation was to our advantage in the beginning."
Cyril turned his head to look at the rows of houses outside the window. His gaze slowly sharpened.
"In the most critical moment, all departments lost touch with each other. I was struck off my saddle, and half my face was even blown up by a G.o.dd.a.m.n orc. Baron Luhmann even lost his life while he acted as the rear guard after we evacuated. If it weren't for the lack of military discipline among the orcs who intercepted us, making them only care about robbing others amid the chaos… Hmph."
There were hints of sarcasm and disdain in Cyril's eyes as he snorted faintly and shook his head. Thales sighed and closed his eyes.
"But that was not the worst of it." Duke Fakenhaz's face grew more intense. His unbearably ugly and shriveled face turned into an indifference and coldness that could not be ignored. "When we retreated to Blessings Town to reform the defeated military, and planned to deliver Herman's body as well as a plea for help to Eternal Star City… more terrifying news traveled from Wing Fort."
'More terrifying news?' Thales' heart tensed.
"Eternal Star City was in chaos. An unfortunate accident had happened in Renaissance Palace. The king and crown prince… were both a.s.sa.s.sinated."
As Thales listened to the man, his breathing slowed down.
"The capital was in lockdown and cut off from any communication. Many of the n.o.blemen and suzerains of the city went missing. The sovereignty of Constellation was dumbstruck. We did not know when our reinforcements would ever come."
Cyril turned around to look at Thales. With his head lowered and back hunched, his gaze became unfocused, as if he was staring at the s.p.a.ce behind Thales.
"And it was only the beginning. The emergency messages were sent one after another from Wing Fort, the nightmares also came one after another."
Cyril turned his back against the light. His face appeared dull and gray in the chilly wind.
"To the north, Broken Dragon Fortress fell to enemy hands, the second prince died, Eckstedtian soldiers encroached on the Northern Territory, traversed the Land of Cliffs, and were impossible to resist. The third prince died on Broken Bridge Fort to the east. The prince had been in charge of the aqueduct that supplied water specifically to the northern and southern battlefields, and it stopped working because of his death. The news of the Duke of Star Lake's death brought internal strife to the southwest. Starlight Brigade failed to live up to expectations and even lost their leader and supplies. They also fell apart and disappeared."
The bleak chilliness in the duke's words caused the prince to s.h.i.+ver unbearably and recall the scenes Gilbert narrated to him about the b.l.o.o.d.y Year. But Thales immediately recalled Zakriel's partly true and partly false description and the royal guards' tormented confessions in the dungeon. He could not help but clench his fists.
"Constellation was enveloped in the flames of war, the kingdom lost all hope, our enemies encroached into our cities, and the royal family was nowhere to be found. Where does Western Desert go from here? Many of them who attended the conference held by Western Desert suzerains in Blessings Town already had ulterior motives: there were those who shut themselves out from others and only guarded their own interests; those who compromised and surrendered; those who stationed soldiers and established their own regime; and those who secretly discussed who should be crowned king. Compared to those, the invasion of the mixed breeds and Barren Bone people, the fall of Blade Fangs Camp, and the robbery at the borders of Western Desert seemed to be of little significance."
Cyril looked up. The chilliness of his ugly face frightened Thales.
"As I listened to their meaningless arguments in the Sunset Temple of Blessings Town, I could only allow myself to be supported by others because my body was wounded all over. I stood before Herman's body while he was covered with a thick piece of cloth, and I asked him in my head, 'Old friend, pretty boy, where has your handsome face and quick-witted eloquence that you were so proud of gone to?'"
Cyril's tone was gloomy and chilly, with a sense of loss and melancholy that was unexpected to Thales.
"It is all over now." Thales tried to comfort him, and send him away at the same time. "Now, we have—"
But Fakenhaz stared at the ground andlet his hands fall from his knees. He said abruptly, "Thus, sometimes I do regret."
'Regret?' Thales was stupefied.
Cyril raised his head while his eyes flickered. His expression was strange. "That night, if I had not done that, what would our future be like?"
Thales was a little confused. "'Done that?' Done what?"
Cyril let out a cold laugh and put the tray back on the table. He looked at Thales again, as if he was once more the same Duke of Western Desert who spoke and behaved strangely, and mocked and ridiculed other.
"That night, if I had not let the a.s.sa.s.sins from Shadow s.h.i.+eld into the camp in secret… and if I had not led them before Herman…"
In that instant, Thales' heart skipped a beat. He felt as if the hair all over his body had risen. 'Let the a.s.sa.s.sins from Shadow s.h.i.+eld… into…'
Cyril said faintly, "What would happen in the b.l.o.o.d.y Year, then?"
Everything stood still.
Thales felt as if the Sin of h.e.l.l's River had taken effect again. Only the strong moans from the wind outside the window reminded him of the pa.s.sing of time.
Thales was like a frozen ice sculpture. He watched the man without moving at all. Before his eyes, the visually horrifying Guardian Duke of Western Desert, Cyril Fakenhaz, did not smile, speak, ridicule, or pierce him with his words; he only watched Thales quietly and with utmost calmness.
The chilly wind outside the window grew stronger. It caused Fakenhaz's robe to flutter continuously. The logo on his robe bore a skull with four eye sockets—it symbolized the Fakenhaz Family. It appeared very eye-catching, yet it also looked as malevolent as before…
…as if it was alive.
Only G.o.d knew how much effort Thales put in to stop the urge of calling out to Yodel or going into his combat stance.
Only G.o.d knew.
After a while, Thales finally managed to squeeze a word out solemnly, seriously, laboriously, and with hostility. "You?"
Cyril leaned against the back of his chair and narrowed his eyes. "Me." His tone was calm as he retained his poise.
Thales breathed in deeply. Both of them were still for a few seconds. Only the whoos.h.i.+ng sound of the wind was heard.
Then, Cyril revealed a satisfied expression. "Very good."
The duke straightened his body. A rarely seen astute and solemn expression was revealed on his shriveled, dry, and pale face.
"Now, we can finally begin our talk."
Kingdom's Bloodline 488 That Nigh
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Kingdom's Bloodline 488 That Nigh summary
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