"The King is currently questioning Commander Vallis, we will have to ask milord to stay and wait here."
To his anger, he poked the royal guard's chest and screamed. "Why the hell should I wait? I'm his family!"
"Let him enter." The Chamberlain opened the door, his face wooden along with a tone devoid of any respect.
Duke Vallis gave him a fierce glare, pulled on his suit and sauntered forward. He was guided towards the audience hall when he was about to be announced he stopped the Chamberlain from doing so. After a long walk in the corridors, the heat in his body somehow dispersed and his head cooled. He slipped into the crowd seeing his younger brother kneeling in the middle of the hall with four Halcyon Knights guarding him.
Everyone present at the scene knew the duke came for his brother. Would he plead for him? They are known to be close going as far as giving this brother of his their family's own soldiers. The eyes of people couldn't help but turn to the duke causing his already relaxed countenance to turn from red to an ugly purple. The scrutiny and ridicule were uncomfortable, all of it because of this stupid family member of his.
"They have long thought themselves as high above everyone else. How many deaths occurred in their fief because of their negligence?"
"As the duke, he is someone with a complete hold of his people. Shouldn't he be more aware of his position in society? How come his brother was let to run rampant like this?"
"Huh, I say he was afraid of this commander turning his fangs against him so he allowed him to be undisciplined. Have you noticed the Vermillion's rotten character? That much is evidence, now look at them going as far as offending the royals."
In truth, Duke Vallis had no idea how it suddenly came to this. He gave authority to his younger brother to avoid dispute but that's beside the point. The scheme he came up with is to trap Duke Nachtwald today! However, he could not see a shadow of the said duke anywhere. What is happening?
No one bothered to answer his furious thoughts. No one bothered to tell him that his brother, upon hearing his plan also made one of his own. Unfortunately, he calculated wrong and ransacked the wrong cargo.
Putting aside the Vermillion's deplorable characters, the people are more curious to know how a person like Duke Vallis who has experience in the court makes a mistake like this? The issue of their negligence during the calamity is still being discussed. Though the brothers came from the same family, they divided their power to maintain balance. Not being able to influence the commander is understandable, however, today's problem went beyond negligence, they intentionally provoke a monarch. The Queen no less.
A crime that will crush the whole Vallis.
The duke stood on the side and calm himself down. When his eyes went below the throne room, he finally made a decision.
The King had no intention to let this drag on. After his verdict, House Vallis will undergo reformation. Vermillion will be given back to the Chivalric Order. Commander Vallis collaborated with the mercenaries to rob and destroy the Queen's possessions. It was treason.
Commander Vallis was sent to the dungeons awaiting the death sentence. While inside, the commander hoped for his brother to plead for him but he was bitterly disappointed, the duke decided to deny him emphasizing that his actions had nothing to do with the ducal house.
In the eyes of the public, the siblings broke their ties. Duke Vallis mercilessly cut all his connection with the commander to save his own neck. Though not spoken loudly among their peers, the heartless treatment of the duke to his own brother caused their image to suffer a harsh blow. Not only that in just a few days both supporters and so-called old acquaintance began withdrawing one by one rocking their foundation unstable.
Three days after and Duke Vallis is still unaware of the ongoing catastrophe, he contently drunk his favourite liquor enjoying luxury. He was finally free of that lecherous stupid brother of his. Losing their military power is not as important as losing his position in the chamber. As long as he retains his power, their house can recover. There is still Bernice after all. No words can describe the happiness he feels.
His duchess just came from the drawing-room with a frown.
"An envoy from the castle came." she said handing him a scroll with the King's seal.
He received the scroll broke the seal and unrolled the parchment.
"The issue had been settled. We have nothing to do with--"
The duchess words didn't finish yet when the duke suddenly dropped the edict on the floor. His whole person frozen.
"What happened!?" she frowned even more not understanding what's happening.
The edict states that Duke Vallis will retire from his position in the chamber to reflect. The duchess couldn't take the news and fell into a dead faint. The afternoon of the same day he was summoned into the castle to hear the King's command.
His only saving grace is that his daughter is still a Hallowed One candidate. But it is speculated from here on that no matter Lady Bernice wins or not, the standing of Vallis household be it social or political will inevitably crumble never to recover.
The decision inside the audience hall immediately spread among the circle of upper nobles, then to the merchants until everyone down to the beggars of Aurea knows the fall of Vallis. Duke Stolz was stroking the head of a beautiful woman when he heard the news, he laughed so hard until he was choking on his spit.
The King had been planning to do this. Duke Al gave him the opportunity to cut off a rotten part of the military. How did they do it? Simple.
They played along.
From the beginning of this so-called food shortage, they have been waiting who will willingly jump into the trap. The ten nobles who monopolized the markets of Aurea are now inside the dungeons who are until now still cannot believe of the sudden turn of events. With their signatures as evidence, it would be impossible for them to refute. Those same nobles hoarded their products to pressure Duke Nachtwald into submitting. Not only that, their own people were forced to give one-third of their harvest and pay higher taxes.
The ruse of the bandits looting the supply convoy for the north was cooked up by them. Blue Falcons had been lying in wait and finally caught them. It was all to create an illusion of scarcity while the stolen goods returned back to their respective lords.
As Duke Al said, two days, he was true to his words. The King had no idea how he did it but Nachtwald's produce really made it to Aurea within just two days while hiding away from his enemies. Even though Nachtwald is now stable, how can it feed the whole royal capital? The King, however, did not know about the Cycle six years ago. When the land recovered it underwent into a three-year Cycle where crops grew abundant and fast. Most of the excess products are stored inside the Fortified wall and even after six years only a quarter of it was consumed.
Sterne herself went home before the march and took a huge amount of meat, grains, spices and vegetables to bring in the northern territory yet still plenty of it remained.
Oblivious to the ongoing struggle within the Royal Capital the camp outside Moonless Forest maintained its jovial atmosphere. Veiled by the moon and countless diamonds in the sky, the enrollees stood facing several seniors and mentors at the conclusion of today's test.
"Congratulations to big brother Dio, your sister did great today." Milcah said affectionately not even trying to hide her zeal in public.
"It's all Sterne's effort. You were inside the forest monitoring the progress, what do you think of this year's batch?"
She pondered on it with a serious face. "They are all excellent seeds, this time the academy invited several good mentors that will help them grow even more. The seniors back in the academy are excited to receive them. These juniors might be vital to the upcoming meeting with the other three big schools. As we know, the Royal Academy withdraw from participating in any exploration activities for many years now. Are you worried about your sister?"
"Hmm?" Dio gave a vague smile.
"Don't worry, I'm still inside. Even though you already graduated I can help you look out for her." Lady Milcah thought he might be too embarrassed to admit that he is worried for her so she volunteered herself.
"Then, I'll trouble you." He said with a sheepish smile. Milcah is known to easily warm up to everyone and even though she no longer considers herself one of the Hallowed One candidates a lot of them still address her with respect. She had long given up her position for the crown and never showed a slight interest in it. If anything, she treats all these ceremonies as a joke.
Dio could put his mind at ease if someone radical like her would be by Sterne's side. After the mentor's speech, the enrollees trickled out of the field. Some returned to their tents while others remained outside to chat with their peers.
"Finally over." Odette said pounding her shoulders. "I truly envy Sterne, you only have ten preys in your card and didn't have to work extra."
Sterne laughed. "What can I do? I was born lucky."
"Maybe it's a good thing you finished early. Say, how long have you been in that tree?"
"Me?" she pointed her nose. "An hour or so, you work too slow I nearly fell asleep."
Those enrollees who were walking nearby heard her words nearly died of anger.
Fall asleep when everyone is risking their neck almost dying out there?
There was nothing wrong with her words but it still hurt, dammit.
This duke's daughter is abnormal.
At least consider our fragile feelings.
Odette sighed. "If you weren't there from the start. I don't know what could have happened to Maelys."
"Hey, it's not me. It's the other person who saved her first. I actually came a second late."
Achoo! Who's talking behind my back? A certain person who saved the maiden complained.
"Hmph, you're trying to sound humble. I feel uncomfortable." Odette nudged her shoulder causing her to wobble and hit someone.
"So sorry." Sterne muttered to the person.
"Did you hurt yourself, milady?" said by a gentle voice.
Quillon smiled down, held her shoulder to stop her from falling. When she turned to glare at Odette she already ran ready to pester Maelys next. Sterne moved away from him and fixed herself.
"Thank you, commander."
"We finally get to talk again."
"Is it something serious?" Sterne straightened up and looked up to him with a serious inquisitive gaze.
He couldn't help but find her widened eyes funny. A small laugh came out of him. "Why, am I not allowed to talk to you when it's not something serious?"
"No, no that's not what I mean."
"Actually, I just wanted to talk to milady. Just talk."
Her eyes narrowed. "We are talking."
Not far away from them Maelys and Odette wore awkward expressions.
"What is he doing?" Odette elbowed Maelys.
"Looking for an opportunity to snatch someone else's catch."
Odette was slow to understand. "The commander wants to be a thief? Wait, I wasn't asking about that… he seemed to know Sterne from a long time ago. Do you have any idea?"
"Have." the other girl said. "But I'm not telling you. A certain Young Master might find out and--"
"What are you two doing?" from behind Royce appeared.
The two girls stiffened. Odette was just affected by Maelys tensed reaction, although she doesn't have the vaguest idea of what is going on, she could somehow tell that there is something wrong in the air.
Royce ignored the two and looked ahead. There was no hint of surprise on his face, he just continue to look ahead and said in a low voice.
"It's very late and cold, you two should go inside."
Maelys had an impulse to shake her head and make excuses, but after seeing the abnormally calm look on his face she forced herself to agree and drag Odette. "I'm sleepy, let's go."
Maelys patted her shoulders. "Little girl, listen to big sister. When I say let's leave, we leave."
Ah, this beginning to be a headache.
"Because someone just found something to aggravate himself with." Do you want to suffer frostbite? She wanted to add.
Odette still doesn't understand but she followed her to the tents anyway. A few minutes after they turned their backs, Royce sighed heavily and prepared to leave as well when he heard his name being called so loud it could startle the dead.
Sterne is waving at him vigorously. Before he knew it, his eyes were locked on the figure trotting towards him. The moment she smiled at him, the heavy feeling that was starting to accumulate around him began to disperse. Her enthusiasm is like a strong ray of light cutting through the dense mist, scattering the fog away. Then, like a feather, it caressed something that had long been asleep deep within him.
"You're still awake?" She greeted with a wide smile.
He groaned an answer. "En."
"It looks like you weren't exhausted from the test. That's cheating."
Royce uttered no snarky retort, he just looked at her slightly pouting face. "What about you?"
"I'm fine, I'm fine." Sterne said proudly.
"Tomorrow we will be returning to Steinburg, even if you're not tired you still need to rest." His eyes briefly went towards Quillon and back to her face. "It's already past midnight."
"Unn, let's go."
He was surprised she easily agreed.
Sterne stretched out her hand to grab his sleeve when she noticed Royce's eyes following her movement. She stopped all of a sudden, stowed her hands behind her back, "You're on guard duty. I forgot."
He felt his ears turn hot. "I, I am. You go and rest."
"Alright then, goodnight." Sterne's eyelashes moved when she blinked and smiled.
"Have a good night." He whispered softly. His moonlit face turned warmer and mellow as he followed her retreating figure with a gentle gaze.