A magnificent carriage pulled by four white horses passed through the castle gates and advanced into the courtyard of Grain Hold, the royal castle of the Kingdom of Skard.
The carriage was protected by eight knights, four each at front and back. They were clad in ceremonial armor, all the same size and shape, and they’d taken on matching swords and shields. A coat of arms had been painted on their pale green breast plates, divided into two sections and emblazoned with flames and a dragon.
Every person in the Duchy of Moss knew the coat of arms as that of The Dragon’s Blaze, the Kingdom of Harkenne. The dragon on the coat of arms signified their adherence to The Dragon’s Pledge, and the flames were the coat of arms of Harkenne’s royal family.
Normally, they would have been wearing armor bearing only Harkenne’s coat of arms. The use of the two part coat of arms revealed that the party in this carriage was a formal envoy associated with The Dragon’s Pledge.
Two days previously, a courier had arrived from The Dragon’s Scale, Vennon, Skard’s protector kingdom to the north. The courier told them that a delegation from the Kingdom of Harkenne was on its way to the Kingdom of Skard.
By rights, the reception of an envoy with such a message from Harkenne should have prompted the dispatch of another envoy, to confirm the visiting country’s intentions. But this messenger had been a knight of Vennon. Dispatching the delegation from Harkenne without waiting for Skard’s reply was an event completely without precedent.
Skard’s knights buzzed with the news, everyone wondering if some emergency had occurred. Skard was a small country, and not even a member of The Dragon’s Pledge. A messenger should never have been sent to them, not in times like these.
Harkenne designated Skard and regions like it only as “The Autonomous Vennon Regions.”
Although they didn’t understand the reason for the visit, they had no reason to behave impolitely towards an envoy from the great nation of Harkenne. The Skard court had been thoroughly busy for those two days, making preparations for the reception.
The carriage advanced to the center of the courtyard and stopped.
The guards dismounted from their horses, and bowed reverently to the three people who stood at the entrance to the royal castle.
Each of these three wore a crown on their head.
They were Skard’s King Brook, Prince Nashere, and also the Princess Reena.
Brook counted his age at forty years. There was not one bit of useless flesh on his tall frame. He wore the air of a wise man, and there probably wasn’t a single person in Moss who could surpass him as a soldier.
Prince Nashere, although there still remained traces of youth on his face, had already surpassed his father in height. His reddish-golden hair stretched long, and was wrapped in a metallic band to keep it off his face. Perhaps because of that, he left a somewhat feminine impression.
Princess Reena differed from her older brother, having black hair and black eyes. That hair and those eyes stood out conspicuously against her white skin, and gave her an extreme prettiness, like a doll. Her eyes were open wide, staring at the company in the carriage with deep interest.
The knights of Harkenne opened the door to the carriage, and bowed their heads even more deeply than they had for Skard’s royal family.
Accompanied by a single lady’s maid, a woman who obviously held a high position descended from the carriage. She was wrapped in a pale red dress, and on her forehead was a small simplified crown.
“Princess Elanta,” the father said to his son who waited at his left side.
“The third princess… …isn’t she?” his son answered.
“Why would a princess of Harkenne come to this country?” Reena pulled at her brother’s sleeve, asking this simple question.
“I don’t know.” Nashere’s answer was curt.
“You’re mean.” Reena puffed up her cheeks, and looked up at her brother reproachfully.
Skard was not a country that had a great harvest of visits from princess of superpowers. Even politically ignorant Reena understood that.
The country was known for its excellent ale, which it traded with the Dwarf tribes, and for the weapons, armor and other handiwork brought in from those earth sprites.
They had a monopoly on trade with the Dwarves, so even though Skard was a small country, their economy flourished. They were occasionally asked by Vennon for a delivery of money and goods under one pretext or another, but they still had plenty of rich treasure saved up in their national treasury.
So then, what was the purpose of this visit?
Escorted by her knights, Princess Elanta stepped up to them.
“We were told a delegation was visiting, but a princess’s visit…” The king crossed over to her and offered to take her hand.
“For goodwill with Skard.” Elanta answered with a smiling face, but she didn’t take the king’s hand.
Her gaze turned to Nashere, standing next to Reena. “This is the famous…”
“The prince Nashere,” the king proudly introduced Nashere. He winking lightly at his son.
Seeming to understand, Nashere stepped up to stand before Princess Elanta. Taking the princess’s right hand, he lightly kissed it.
Elanta’s cheeks glowed like a rose in full bloom.
“You must be tired. Please, take your rest until the feast. Your room is this way.” Taking the princess’s hand, Nashere made as if to escort her into the castle.
But the princess grasped Nashere’s hand and started off in the entirely opposite direction. “I’m not tired at all. Actually, this is a rare opportunity. I’d love if you’d give me a tour of the castle until the feast.”
Nashere gave a look of consternation, like he thought she was being a little assertive.
Seeing her brother’s embarrassment, Reena raised her voice without thinking. “If it’s a tour you want, I’ll do it!”
At that statement, Princess Elanta slowly looked back at Reena. “I appreciate your kindness, but I think I’d like to take my tour with Prince Nashere.”
The phrase was polite, but the gaze was cold. Her expression was one she might use on a blundering lady’s maid.
I’ve been looked down on, Reena thought. Her face went bright red in intense embarrassment.
Elanta’s laugh made a light noise. The princess started walking towards the herb garden in the backyard, pulling Nashere along with her.
The Harkenne knights tried to follow them, but Elanta waved her hand vigorously, and they sank back. “Prince Nashere is said to be the best swordsman in the duchy. What use are knights going to be!”
The knights looked at each other. What was that about? they asked each other with their eyes.
Eventually, the knights silently withdrew, but their drawn expressions showed their true feelings. For men who made their living by the sword, the princess’s words could not have been more insulting.
Nashere and Elanta twisted their arms together and headed off. All Reena could do was watch their backs as they left.
A sensibility even Reena herself didn’t notice sparked in her eyes and became a fire.
The island named Lodoss is a remote island that lies to the south of the continent of Alecrast.
It is known among the inhabitants of the continent as the Accursed Island. As a violent war raged around it, the island was created as a place to house demons, to keep them apart from human beings.
The southwest region of Lodoss is a mountainous land with steep ranges. But even here, people make their lives and a country flourishes.
The name of this kingdom is Moss.
But no king exists here. After the fall of the ancient kingdom of magic, Castule, countless small countries rose up in this region. Because it was a difficult land both to defend and to easily attack, a unified kingdom was never born.
But in other regions unity prevailed, and mighty kingdoms came into being. Soon, their military power turned on even these mountainous lands, and for defense, the small countries of this region bound together in an alliance.
The agreement thus signed was The Dragon’s Pledge.
According to tradition, in this mountainous region lived a number of dragons, demon animals, the strongest of mythical beasts. By likening various countries in the regions to those creatures, a bond was formed as the single country of Moss.
The name of dragon was added to the various countries who had signed the pledge, and they swore an oath to battle against aggression from neighboring countries and to maintain the union.
This oath was acted upon, and Moss pushed aside the foreign invasion.
On the other hand, civil wars weren’t extinguished in the region. Each country spent its time fighting insatiably to expand their own power. When one kingdom’s power grew too large, the other countries would bind together to effect a regional self-purification.
Thus, the theory of small countries standing together didn’t change the situation very much in practice.
Soon, the people who controlled these various countries came to call themselves king, and the name The Kingdom of Moss became inappropriate for the unification of countries in that region. Therefore, it became known as the Duchy of Moss instead.
Essentially, a duchy, as compared to a kingdom, is a name for a smaller country. In going against this and using it with the opposite meaning, they highlighted the weakness of the united family of Moss, and the strength of the independent countries.
But, when there was aggression from an outside country, The Dragon’s Pledge would be invoked without fail. Countries that had been crossing swords only the day before would line their shields up next to each other at word of the pledge being invoked.
Seen from the outside, this bond could only be called peculiar. But this was the way of things in the region called Moss.
On the southern edge of this Duchy of Moss was the small country called Skard.
The population was a mere ten thousand. The number of knights charged with protecting the kingdom wasn’t even a full hundred. Having no affiliation with The Dragon’s Pledge, they looked for help to the large regional leader to the north, The Dragon’s Scale, Vennon, and were under their protection.
The name of the current king is Brook.
Two children had been born to Brook. A son, Prince Nashere, by his primary queen, and a daughter, Reena, born to his second queen.
The golden-haired brother and black-haired sister didn’t look anything like each other, but the beauty of those siblings was the pride of the people of Skard.
The people of Skard had given them the title “Prince of the Sun, Princess of the Moon.” This praise was known even in court, and the knights of the kingdom came to use it.
Prince of the Sun Nashere was fifteen, Princess of the Moon Reena, thirteen.
They were at an age where they had to sever their connections to an innocent childhood.
* * *
The banquet to welcome the envoy from The Dragon’s Flame, Harkenne started that evening.
Foods of every extravagance were lined up, and barrels of first-class ale, a drink normally forbidden domestically so that they could export it to the Dwarf tribe, had been carted in.
The music started, and jesters presented miming and magic.
The knights and ladies amused themselves with dining, chatted, and dancing. Men and women began to softly sneak away from the banquet to talk of love.
The atmosphere became brilliant and filled the banquet hall.
But to Reena, the atmosphere in the banquet hall was choking. She leaned back against the stone wall, a glass of wine in one hand. The cold of the wall cut through her pure white dress and spread out from there.
Her gaze stayed fixed on one couple. Her older brother Nashere and the guest of honor, Princess Elanta, danced in the center of the hall.
Elanta looked like she was having the time of her life. Nashere responded politely to the Princess’s demands, the smile never leaving his face.
Elanta seemed to be using her brother as a personal valet, and it made Reena vehemently angry. But there was no point in putting that on display. Treating the Princess rudely would be an insult to the Kingdom of Harkenne, and in a worst-case scenario, might be used as an excuse for war. At that point, the Kingdom of Vennon would have to take up the challenge, but if the fault was Skard’s, they would make demands for a huge war chest.
It was a pain, but she could only be patient.
She figured her brother felt the same. But, judging by Nashere’s expression, that kind of feeling hadn’t occurred to him. Rather, he looked like he was enjoying serving the daughter of such a large country.
Princess Elanta was fourteen, one year younger than Nashere. She had a beautiful look, full of the grace of a princess of a great nation. Despite her age, she had ample chest and hips. There were probably plenty of men in Harkenne who hankered after her. Perhaps her brother’s attitude wasn’t a lie, maybe he really wanted to steal the Princess’s heart.
The song had changed three times, but Nashere and Elanta continued dancing. You couldn’t say that the Princess was entirely without dancing ability, but with Nashere’s skillful guidance, she looked brilliant.
“It’s weird, but when she dances with my brother…”
Reena sighed dully.
“Princess Reena, if it would please you to have me as a partner for a dance…”
A knight of Harkenne had come over on his own, and he was inviting Reena to dance.
Reena stared motionless at the knight’s face.
His age was somewhere around twenty, and because he had been selected to guard the princess at such a young age, he was probably of noble birth, even for a knight.
He had a slim build and his manner was soft. He had a thin mustache, and flashed a smile full of confidence. He seemed to be accustomed indeed to handling women. With that sincere-looking expression, one could easily imagine what he was thinking.
Silas, knight-commander of Skard, was like that. The knight-commander hadn’t shown up for the start of the banquet, and had already left the hall. One of the countesses had disappeared too, probably chasing after him.
“I’ll pass, thank you.” Reena turned away.
At this unexpected reaction, the knight’s smile, so full of confidence, froze.
The knights of Skard who had come close sniggered.
Shaken by the humiliation, the knight of Harkenne backed away.
“Our Princess has danced with Prince Nashere since she was born. If she can’t dance with a prince, other guys don’t stand a chance.” One of the Skard knights said, walking up to the Harkenne knight with a mug poured to the brim with ale and handing it to him.
“His Highness has himself one tough little sister,” the Harkenne knight answered in a rueful tone.
“You’re telling me. If you ask Princess Reena, the fact that Lord Nashere is her older brother is life’s greatest tragedy. The man who outrivals the Prince just doesn’t exist. Even your princess must be in his trance by now.”
The Harkenne night sniffed as though he wasn’t interested. “He was born prince of this tiny country. Even if he does have tons of charm, he’d still get buried.”
“That much is true,” the Skard knight answered. Because the other man’s words were the truth, they weren’t very insulting. “But Skard is a peaceful kingdom. The Prince supports this peace. And the Prince lives an easy life in this peace. I’d be delighted if we were immune from bloody battles, if only for the Prince’s sake. Knights from large countries, such as yourself, certainly understand the value in that, don’t you?”
With an eerie expression on his face, the knight of Harkenne headed off in the direction of the tables, where dinner was lined up.
Just then, the music stopped. Couples who were exhausted from dancing removed themselves from the center of the hall for a drink, changing places with those hoping to join the line of dancers anew.
Princess Elanta and Prince Nashere, too, walked in Reena’s direction.
Princess Elanta was in a cold sweat all over her body, and breathing fiercely. Nashere, on the other hand, was just as usual. Her brother tempered his body with swimming and horsemanship, and was beginning swordplay. He could remain composed throughout any dance.
Finally, she could dance with her brother. Picking up the skirt of her dress, Reena hurried over to her brother.
“Will you dance with me, brother?” she said with enthusiasm.
Nashere’s right hand was on Elanta’s back. Reena tried to assertively take his free left hand. But when she did, Elanta rebuked her.
“Nashere must be exhausted. If you need a partner, you’d better look for someone else.”
(My brother is not tired!) Reena shouted a protest in her heart, but of course, she wasn’t allowed to raise her voice. She looked at Nashere, appealing to him.
“As My Lady says,” Nashere said in a quite voice. And then he winked, as if that explained everything.
Failing to understand his meaning, Reena stood blinking, unable to move.
“Father’s angry with you,” Nashere said, drawing his mouth close to Reena’s ear.
Hastily, Reena looked back in the king’s direction. Brook was looking right back at Reena. His expression was severe.
(That expression again…) Reena thought with deep sadness.
It was an expression he used on people who’d drunk the forbidden ale. It was the expression he used whenever he scolded Reena. She’d never seen him direct it at Nashere.
“If you need a dance partner, you could be served by one of our knights.” Elanta’s triumphant smile overcame Reena. It was a smile that said there was nothing she could do about Elanta’s monopolization of her brother.
(Prince Nashere is mine!) Reena thought, like she’d spoken it aloud.
The color of her face went red and the paled from anger and shame.
“My Lady Reena…” One of the Skard knights, seeing the change in color, came near in concern.
“I’m not feeling well. I’m going to get some air.” She thought if she stayed in that banquet hall any longer, she’d suffocate.
She hurried through the hall entrance as if she were running away. When she looked back, Nashere was chatting again with Princess Elanta, having already forgotten all about Reena. And her father had an expression of frank relief, and was saying something to a knight of Harkenne.
(Nobody needs me.) She despaired.
She half-ran down the hallway, and exited into the courtyard.
Bathed in moonlight, the outdoors was brighter than she’d thought.
Reena headed for the stables.
If no one needed her, she didn’t have to be in this castle.
Such thoughts ruled Reena’s heart.
Once she arrived at the stables, she stood before one of a pack of horses. It was a chestnut horse, her brother’s most favorite. She put a saddle on it and straddled its back.
Just like that, she exited the stables. From the courtyard of the royal castle, she aimed for the back gate, grasping the horse’s neck. She kicked the horse’s stomach, set in like a whip.
Like a gale, the horse started running.
From somewhere in the distance came a wolf’s howl.
* * *
Several moments later, the guard who served as gatekeeper at the castle gate rushed into the banquet hall. He hurriedly ran over to King Brook and whispered something to him.
Upon hearing it, Brook’s eyebrows drew up in surprise, and he moved his mouth, saying something.
“Shall we, sir?” The guardsman asked.
Brook looked around the situation in the banquet hall, and shook his head as if depressed.
“Let them loose,” Brook said over his shoulder, turning his body away from the guard. “Her mother was a selfish woman, too.”