The moon rose highly in the bright winter night sky. The silver disk whose edge was greatly waned was casting a soft light onto the earth.
There were three silhouettes lurking in the darkness, avoiding that moonlight. It was not only because it was midnight that their figures melted into the darkness. It was also because they wrapped their bodies in black clothes. They wound a black cloth on their head and only where there were the eyes and nose, small openings were made.
The place where they were hiding themselves was the Brune Kingdom’s royal palace. More exactly, they were in the garden located in the royal palace’s courtyard. Hiding in the shade of beautifully decorated sculptures and flower beds, the three people were inquiring the situation of the corridor.
One civil official walked down the hallway while rubbing his eyes as he seemed to be sleepy. The three people knew that this civil official worked until late at night every day. They were waiting for him to leave.
As the three people exchanged looks, they stealthily left the garden. They walked into the hallway.
Torches lit with fire were established at regular intervals in the corridor and soldiers were standing on watch. While sometimes clinging to the ceiling and then sometimes hiding behind pillars, the three people were cautiously advancing along the corridor.
What they were aiming for was the princess’s bedroom. The bedroom of this country’s ruler, Regin Ester Loire Bastien do Charles.
About 20 days ago, they had individually crawled into the royal palace posing as a servant of a certain noble, as a maid or even as a rookie soldier. And they thoroughly investigated about the pathway until the princess’s bedroom and the places where soldiers stood on watch.
In order to assassinate Regin.
Before long, the assassins advanced until near the princess’s bedroom.
Before the bedroom’s door, one knight serving as a guard was standing on watch. He attired himself with armor and a helmet and wielded a sword in his hands. The dark gray sword blade was glittering reflecting the flames of the torches. Unlike the soldiers whom they went past so far, he drifted a presence with no openings.
One of the assassins took out something like a small stick. He took off the cloth covering the bottom half of his face and stuck it on his mouth. Another assassin approached the knight while bending his body.
Perhaps because he sensed a presence, the knight looked his way. He raised the face guard of his helmet and looked hard into the darkness.
It was at that moment that the assassin who put the stick on his mouth began to emit a small breath.
Immediately after, the knight opened wide his eyes and leaked an anguish groan. The assassin had used a dart smeared with poison. The dart small like a nail pierced the knight’s cheek and made his body become numb.
Although the knight greatly staggered, he tried not to collapse as he put strength into both his feet. However, it was just what the assassins wanted. If he had fallen, the armor would let a loud sound reverberate.
The assassin who was approaching the knight ran at a stretch and brandished the dagger he was hiding. The knight, unable to even lift his sword, could only glare at the assassin.
The assassin drove in the dagger with a blade like a thick needle into a gap of the armor. It deeply pierced the knight’s chest. He held the knight’s mouth with his other hand. It was so as to not let him scream.
The other assassin rushed over and grabbed the sword which was in the knight’s hand. Almost at the same time, the knight’s whole body lost all its strength.
Two assassins supported the knight’s corpse and carefully laid it down on the floor. Then, the one who held the dart came walking. The three people exchanged looks and one quietly touched the door. With a hand gesture, he conveyed to the two others that it was locked.
One of them took out a strangely bent wire from inside his clothes. He plugged it in the keyhole. About five seconds haven’t yet passed when a sound of the door being unlocked quietly resounded.
The three people unsheathed their daggers. As soon as they opened the door, they jumped all at once.
At that moment, something which flew cutting the bedroom’s air attacked the assassins. One of them was blown off and fell. His head and chest was smeared with blood, and a bolt used for a crossbow pierced him.
The remaining two realized that they were caught in a trap.
Within the darkness, three figures of people were standing as to protect the bed with a canopy. They were wearing armor and each had a crossbow in their hands. The crest of the Calvados Knight Squadron was carved onto the left chest of the armor.
“You scoundrels who dared sneak into Her Highness’s room! We won’t let even one of you escape!”
One of the knights raised a loud voice. It was a man in his prime who grew an abundant beard from under his nose and his cheeks and he was called Auguste. The other two were his subordinates.
While Auguste was shouting, the other two knights casually tossed aside the crossbow which had already shot its bolt. They picked up their sword and shield which they had put on the floor. They were here since two koku. Their eyes which had gotten used to the darkness properly perceived the assassins’ figures.
The assassins’ judgment was slightly later than the knights’. As they bent over on the spot, they cut the throat of their friend, who fell down after receiving the bolt, with their dagger. Fresh blood spouted within the darkness and depicted a distorted dark red parabola. They sealed his mouth.
One of the remaining assassins headed towards the knights, and the other ran to the bed that had a canopy. Even if they just ran away, they would not succeed. A hostage was necessary.
Auguste who set up a sword and shield broke in before the assassin who ran to the bed. The assassin brandished his dagger aiming at Auguste’s feet while rolling on the floor. But, Auguste bashing him with his shield was slightly faster. With a strong striking sound, the assassin was blown off.
The assassin raised his body while enduring the pain. When he tilted his head and glared at Auguste, he took out a small tube, put it on his mouth and shot a dart. However, Auguste swiftly moved his shield and protected his face. The dart struck against the shield and fell to the floor.
It was not like Auguste saw through the fact that the assassin had a dart gun. He was just cautious of the existence of a projectile weapon. They were people who sneaked into the princess’s bedroom. He could not make light of them.
The assassin stood up, tightly grasped the dagger in his right hand, held the tube for shooting darts in his left and confronted Auguste. He no longer had any path aside from outwitting Auguste and capturing Regin.
It was about ten days ago that the Calvados Knight Squadron was appointed as Regin’s guards. That day, in order to report the situation of the northwestern area, Auguste had visited the capital with 30 subordinates. And then, he was called by Prime Minister Pierre Badouin.
Auguste looked puzzled at the order to protect the Princess. There should be guards under direct supervision for Regin. Why does he not use them? The old Prime Minister’s answer to that question was clear.
“I leave it to them while Her Highness is awake. When she sleeps at night, I would like to leave it to you people. Also, it must be known only to a restricted number of people.”
Auguste understood in the last part of his lines. It meant that Badouin’s aim was that he wanted to pretend that the situation was the same as usual outwardly until then. By openly increasing Regin’s guards and revising the time when guards were changed, he probably thought of making those aiming at the Princess find it suspicious.
Auguste wholeheartedly received the appointment. As he and the 30 knights pretended to have left the capital within that day, they spent their days in one room of the royal palace so as to not be noticed by the public gaze afterward.
Although short, a fierce fight unfolded. The assassins were killed and were lying in the pool of blood that they made themselves. Auguste also lost one of his subordinates. It was an instant death as poison was smeared on the assassin’s dagger.
Auguste lay down his subordinate’s corpse on the floor and closed his eyelids. Then, he looked down at the assassin’s corpse with a bitter face. He was such a tough opponent he had no leisure to capture him alive.
“We weren’t able to make them spit out whom they were hired by…”
Before long, a little less than ten knights showed up in the bedroom. They rushed after hearing Auguste’s shout. To them who gasped as they saw five corpses lying down outside and within the bedroom, Auguste told in a serene tone.
“Her Highness is safe. We’ve killed all the enemies who attacked here. But, there’s no telling if they were the only intruders. Tell also that to others, and look around in the royal palace.”
The knights split into groups, some of them went outside to inform the others and the remaining knights carried out the bodies of their comrades and the assassins.
At that time, from the back of the canopy covering the bed, the Princess called out to Auguste.
“──Auguste. Could you tell me about the situation?”
Auguste, startled, turned around to the bed and bowed to Regin. Since the light of several torches illuminated the bedroom, the Princess’s shadow dimly floated on the other side of the canopy.
Though her voice was fraught with tension, she stayed firm and showed no signs of being frightened. Even though there had just been ghastly killing on the other side of this piece of thin cloth.
Although feeling deeply impressed to Regin’s attitude, Auguste once again explained what happened just now this time though it was to the Princess.
“I apologize for having made her Highness’s bedroom stink of blood.”
“I don’t mind. What are the names of the two knights who died?”
Although puzzled about her question, Auguste told the knights’ names.
Regin prayed to the gods so that the two knights’ souls rested in peace.
“I will not forget their brave fight. Could you convey so to the two’s bereaved families?”
“I will not fail to convey it word by word.”
Auguste took off his helmet and deeply bowed his head.
“By the way, how about you change the place where you will be sleeping? Because even if this room is cleaned immediately, the smell of blood will remain for a while.”
“If I am not a hindrance for you people to accomplish your duty, I do not mind staying here.”
“As you wish.”
It was certain that this bedroom was most suitable if they wanted to protect Regin. An unexpected joy welled up in the heart of this knight in his prime.
—This calmness of hers is admirable. Even the fact of having prayed for the subordinates…
When Regin had come to govern Brune as she succeeded King Faron, honestly speaking Auguste felt anxious.
This was because this young Princess did not have any firm achievements. Regin’s delicate, gentle appearance and calm demeanor looked somewhat unreliable for a ruler.
But, that impression was an error. She possessed both strength and gentleness.
Afterwards, the knights cleaned the pool of blood on the floor and respectively returned to their posts. Auguste let his subordinate, who survived, take a rest and in his stead chose two persons among the knights who were on standby.
—I don’t think that we will receive another attack by the end of tonight, but…
He could not say it with absolute certainty. For Regin’s sake, too, he should be prepared.
“How was this?”
The knight who picked up the crossbow asked in a low voice while loading a new bolt. Auguste too answered in a low voice so as to not disturb the Princess sleeping within the canopy.
“It’s a tremendous power. It certainly takes time, but it’s worth it.”
“But, this is also a kind of bow, right? I don’t think that it’s necessary for us to use it though.”
In Brune Kingdom, the bow was made light of.
It was considered to be the weapon of hunters, farmers, cowards and those who couldn’t decently handle a sword or spear and was by no means highly valued. Even in the Calvados Knight Squadron which Auguste belonged to, that viewpoint did not change.
But, Auguste himself did not have such a narrow-minded opinion about the bow.
Though there was also the fact that he was born commoner, this was because in Alsace where Auguste was born and raised, there was little prejudice regarding the bow. On the contrary, the lord there Tigrevurmud Vorn also known as Tigre was a skilled archer to the extent that he was praised by other countries.
When he was appointed the Princess’s guard by Badouin, Auguste gave a condition. That he wanted to give a crossbow to his subordinates, but he wanted it to go by the Prime Minister’s order.
“Even if we become Her Highness the Princess’s guards, the enemy aren’t the kind of people who will fairly challenge us head-on. Above all, if we think about Her Highness’s safety, our honor as knights is something worthless.”
Auguste added such a reason and got Badouin’s approval.
There were several reasons why he thought about using a crossbow.
Through the battle with the Muozinel army and the civil war, the Calvados Knight Squadron had nearly 20% in casualties in their ranks. Even if they got rewards from the Kingdom, it was not like they could supplement new knights immediately. It requires time to bring up an apprentice knight to a full-fledged one. It was necessary to raise their military power quickly.
Also, the crossbow did not require so much training in comparison to the bow. Extremely speaking, it was fine as long as one understood how to pull the string, to load a bolt and to shoot.
In addition, Auguste also aimed for the fact that if they came to familiarize with the bow, they might come to properly acknowledges Tigre’s bow skill.
This was because it was reality that even those who admired Tigre as a hero having ended the civil war were reluctant about highly valuing his bow skill.
“Still, why would Her Highness be targeted at such a period?”
“It’s precisely because it’s such a period, right?”
Auguste shortly responded to his subordinate’s mutter.
In preparation for the Halo Festival ── the New Year Festival several days later, a great number of people gathered in the capital Nice. They were various people such as local feudal lords, nobles of foreign countries, peddlers, itinerant entertainers, Shinto priests, wandering knights and the like. As a matter of fact, their numbers were increasing as the New Year Festival approached.
If something were to happen to Regin in such a situation, Brune would probably fall into great confusion. Truth and rumors would be jumbled together and fly about all over the country; and there was no doubt that those away from the capital would be shaken.
As they load the bolt to the crossbow and set up their swords on the floor, Auguste and company turned the lights off.
They didn’t notice the fact that they were also people beside the assassins who sneaked into the royal palace this night.
At the time when a great number of soldiers were busily running around in the royal palace, there were four silhouettes that went down the slope of Luberon Mountain and appeared on the street.
Those four were people who succeeded in escaping after sneaking into the royal palace and accomplishing their purpose. All of them were dressed up in black from head to toe, and small gaps were made at the places of the eyes, nose and mouth.
Two stood at the vanguard and kept watch on the surroundings, and the other two were carrying something wrapped with a black cloth. It was rod-shaped, big and heavy to the extent that two people were needed to carry it.
Just as planned, they went into an old house as they blended into the darkness. The inside of the house was pitch-black, but someone was present in there.
A low voice resounded from inside the darkness and a small fire appeared. It was the owner of the voice that turned on the light. As the intruders did not reply to it and quietly advanced, they put the thing which they were carrying on the floor.
As the fire flickered, the voice’s owner appeared. It was a young man who grew gray hair up to his shoulders. Owner of well-ordered features as to let one feel dignity, he was holding a lamp in hand.
The man’s name was Charon Anquetil Greast. He was once a Marquis of Brune and was known as Duke Ganelon’s confidant. It was this man who worked out and led the plan of this time.
As Greast walked until before it which was wrapped with a black cloth, he went down on a knee to the floor and put the lamp to the side. He put his hands on the black cloth and removed it with careful hands.
Having appeared from inside was one large sword sheathed in its scabbard.
“Durandal”. It was Brune Kingdom’s treasured sword. Roland holding the nickname of Black Knight wielded it before, but it was displayed near the royal palace’s throne after he passed away.
—I see. This is…
Greast could not help but hold his breath. He had several times seen the so-called famous sword, but he had never been moved by it even once. Even when he saw Durandal at the time when it was in Roland’s hands, he did not feel anything.
But when he took the treasured sword up close and stared at it like this, he was almost overwhelmed by the mysterious power that Durandal wore.
“It is said that Durandal has the power to wipe away evil; this may be true.”
As he sighed, Greast once again wrapped the treasured sword in black cloth. He wiped the sweat which floated on his forehead, raised his face and looked at the men in black.
“You did a good job. I prepared a change of clothes and a reward over there. You may rest until tomorrow morning.”
Greast pointed at the back of the room. He was sincere with those who showed talent. Saying nothing, the men in black quietly walked to the nearby room. When the day dawned, Greast planned to load Durandal into the carriage he had prepared and leave the capital with them.
—They will not think that aiming at the Princess was a diversion.
Durandal’s acquisition was Greast’s purpose. Of course, so that it wouldn’t be seen through, he also prepared the master hand of Regin’s assassination plot and gained enough time.
It was Greast who was the intermediary with the assassins, but it was the merchants based in a port town on the southern coast of Brune that prepared funds to move them. The merchants held dissatisfaction towards Regin’s reign and they thought about whether they could remove her.
Having lost the treasured sword would definitively become a great blow for Regin.
“Aside from the merchants, there is also Melisande. And even the Sachstein Kingdom. It looks like it’ll become an enjoyable show.”
Melisande was the woman who was Duke Thenardier’s wife. She was from the royal family and Regin’s cousin.
Holding the treasured sword wrapped in the black cloth with both hands, Greast suddenly talked to himself.
“Still, I wonder what Lord Ganelon is doing. He said that he’ll come back here before spring, but…”
It was at dawn that the people of the royal palace noticed that Durandal had disappeared. The reason why it was noticed late was because everyone was focused on Regin’s welfare.
While understanding that it was too late, Regin ordered to look for those who stole the treasured sword. But since it could not be made public, it was clear that they would run into difficulties.
Furthermore, the Princess also had to deal with the situation at hand.
Durandal was always displayed behind the throne. If it disappeared, anyone would question it. It would not take that much time until question changed to doubt.
There were still a great number of domestic people who were hostile to Regin. There was no doubt that someone would press questions.
If wrongly dealt with, Regin’s reign would be greatly shaken.
“There is only one way…”
Regin, who was talking with Badouin in the office room squeezed her voice as to spit out blood while shaking her shoulders with anger and disgrace. In her heart, she muttered Tigre’s name. The darkish red-haired youth’s name always gave her courage.
“We shall prepare a fake Durandal.”
Tension and determination were shining in the Princess’s pair of blue eyes.