The Empty Knight and the Burning Princess
Chapter Five - Silent Assault
Zeil fell back against the bed and closed his eyes.
The ensuing discussion had taken quite some time. The sun had already begun to set when they finished, but Ena and Alexis had still left the inn to make their preparations, leaving Zeil and Alisa alone.
The final course of action that the group of four had decided on was to head to the capital and attempt to take the Stormring. That had been easy enough to agree on, but they had to think of countermeasures against certain potential stumbling blocks in their plan as well. It was necessary to make their way to the capital as inconspicuously as possible, of course, and Alisa, at the very least, would need to disguise herself once they were in the capital. Thus far, her prediction that the common people of the kingdom would not recognize her had held true, but it would be foolish to expect her to go unnoticed in the capital.
"There wasn't much for you to do, was there?" Alisa asked. She crossed her arms as she spoke to Zeil. A princess like her was not at all used to being spoken to in such an imprudent manner, but she had already come to expect that from him.
Zeil broke into a grin. "Nope, not at all. Basically, I was pretty useless, huh?"
The swordsman's past was still unknown to to the rest of the party, but it had been easy enough to tell that his strengths lay in combat, not strategic planning. He had little to contribute to the discussion and mostly remained silent throughout.
"I suppose so. It would have been very helpful if you could have thought of a plan. We were unable to think of anything ourselves, after all."
What Alisa was referring to was the main problem - attaining the Stormring.
Despite their best efforts, it had been impossible for them to come up with any sort of concrete plan for that. And in fact, Zeil was quite aware of the possibility that they would not be able to make any moves at all during the Tempest Trial. Everything depended on how the Trial itself would be conducted. If they were unlucky, there wouldn't be any openings to take the Keystone. For example, if Ezen intended to let all of the applicants handle the stone directly, then a possible plan would be to prepare a duplicate and substitute it surreptitiously, and then try to escape from the capital right after. Such a plan at least had some chance of success, in theory.
If, on the other hand, the method used was something else - something that did not require the Keystone to be present - then it was difficult to imagine that they could break through the defences that would surely be put in place to guard the Keystone. An item as important as that would most likely be guarded within the palace, and there was almost no hope of getting to it with a mere four people. They had far too little firepower.
"Well, sorry about that," Zeil replied. "I'll prove myself when we get there."
Yet, despite all of those obstacles, they had still agreed that it was necessary to travel to the capital. Even if they decided, in the end, that it would be wiser to not do anything, there was still a meaning in being present at the Trial. At the very least, they would know if and when the Stormring acquired a wielder. The importance of information like that could not be underestimated. If a person who could use the Keystone were to appear and join Ezen's side, it would only make their goal of retaking the kingdom for Alisa all the more difficult. It would mean the addition of yet another dangerous enemy that they had to be careful of, but the repercussions of such a development stretched beyond Ezen's military might alone.
Alisa nodded. "I am sure that it will be necessary for you to do just that. I'm counting on you."
The Keystones of Creation were not just powerful magical artifacts. Within the Kingdom of Crimtain, they also represented the power and authority of the royal family. Ezen may have managed to take over the kingdom, but his position as monarch was not yet absolute. He was maintaining it through his own personal power as a wielder of a Keystone. Successfully taking the Stormring for themselves would not only strengthen Alisa's position, but also weaken Ezen's authority. On the other hand, should he manage to find a suitable user for the Stormring, his position would be so secure as to be practically unassailable. For Alisa's group, who were lacking in military strength, the only realistic means they had at their disposal to retake the throne was to seek aid from nobles or other kingdoms, but it was difficult to imagine that anyone would be willing to do so against a monarchy with two usable Keystones in its possession.
Once that was considered, it became obvious that Alisa's group could not allow Ezen's plan to succeed. And yet, they were also aware that there might be nothing at all that they could do about it. It was harsh, but that was exactly the kind of situation that they were in. Their challenge was one against overwhelming odds. There was nothing they could do but accept that.
"Just leave it to me."
And in response to those same overwhelming odds -
Zeil simply brushed it all aside.
It was incredible. That could not be denied. But that, Alisa felt, was nothing more than the initial impression that served to cloud one's eyes. That superhuman confidence of his was amazing and unbelievable - so unbelievable that she could not help but wonder how Zeil could possibly act in such a manner. Every human held fear. There were those who were prepared to die, especially amongst soldiers who knew they had to defend their home, or mercenaries who had decided to bet on their life for money. But that kind of resolve was made in the face of fear, not in the absence of it. Given Zeil's martial prowess, it would not have been strange if he had belonged to one of those professions in the past, but his devil-may-care attitude was not at all similar. It almost seemed as though he did not care if he died.
Once again, the princess of Crimtain was reminded of just how little she knew about the man who had declared herself her ally.
"Above all, what is this sense of unease that I'm feeling..." Alisa thought.
And then she saw it. A ray of red light - from the setting sun - passed through the window from her right, and, for just a brief instant, a small puddle of shining crimson appeared to the left of Zeil's ear. For just a brief instant. It then disappeared as though it had never been there.
It was a very minor observation, one that could have very easily been ignored. But its implications were enormous. Something that shouldn't be possible. That was what she had seen.
"The light...passed through him? What happened?"
Alisa had completely shed her sense of decorum. It was an action unbefitting that of a princess, but she stared at Zeil, intent on understanding the meaning of what had just happened.
And at that moment -
Zeil's voice snapped her out of her trance. She blinked and shook her head hastily.
"Nothing is the matter," she replied. "I must be feeling tired."
"Uh huh. You probably didn't get to sleep too well over the past few days, huh? I bet nothing can compare to the accommodations in the palace."
"Perhaps. But I have no choice other than to adapt to my current circumstances. I am no longer a princess."
"Hmm." Zeil pushed himself off the bed, assuming an upright sitting position. "That reminds me. The king and the queen are dead, right? But earlier, you said that Ezen Hreight would only aim to capture you, and not kill you. What's so special about you?"
A direct and callous question, but there was no sense in shying away from reality.
In response, Alisa raised a solitary finger. "I will tell you, but only if we exchange information. Alexis may have gone too far yesterday, but his concerns are, fundamentally, sound. I want to know more about you. It is not that we do not trust you. Rather, my fear is that you do not trust me. That is necessary as well, is it not? We must mutually believe in each other."
Zeil sighed. "What does it matter what I was doing in my past...Fine, fine. I'll tell you a little, milady. Just a little. It looks like you want to know no matter what, and it'd be way too troublesome if you guys kept bugging me the whole time."
"Thank you. I will very much appreciate it."
The princess and the swordsman looked at each other.
"Really, what can I say here?" Zeil said, scratching the back of his head. "I learned how to use a sword back in my homeland. And after that, I joined a group of mercenaries. And after that, we ran into some trouble. To put it simply, we got wiped out during one of our jobs. I was the only person who survived that, but there's nothing left for me back there. And that's why I started travelling. That was all I did until I met you."
Alisa waited, but Zeil said nothing further. It seemed like he had not been joking when he said 'just a little'. He did not intend on saying anything else.
"Well...I suppose I should be happy that I learned anything at all about him. It is certain that there are many things that he is still hiding, but this will do, for now," she thought.
"So that's my story, but what about you, milady?"
"Ezen Hreight has a simple reason for wanting to keep me alive. He is in love with me. I have never accepted his advances, of course," Alisa said, closing her eyes.
Blood relationships aside, there was no doubt at all regarding Alisa's own feelings on the matter. Who could love a person who had singlehandedly ruined her life? To have the murderer of her parents and the usurper of her kingdom desire her - that could only be considered a nightmare from her point of view.
And that, Zeil realized, wasn't the end of it. Ezen's motivations were not wholly clear. He seemed like a power-hungry type, a person who, above all else, desired things. Power, status, authority. It was thus not at all strange that he would wish to rule over the kingdom himself, but these were not necessarily the only reasons behind his actions.
If he wished to have Alisa for himself, and had sought to be king for this reason - that would mean that Alisa had, in some ways, been the cause for this series of events. It would mean that she had been responsible, even if it was only indirectly, for everything that had happened. And Zeil was sure that she was herself aware of that possibility.
"I'm starting to understand just why she's so determined now..."Zeil thought.
"I'm sorry I asked, milady. You see, there's no point in thinking about depressing stuff like that. And that's why I don't like talking about my past, either. Nothing good can come of it. All that we have to care about is what we can do," he said. He nodded twice and gave her an uplifting grin.
"Thank you. In some ways, we're quite similar people, are we not? You and I resemble each other, Zeil."
The white-haired swordsman's smile froze.
"Just what do you mean, milady?"
"We're both people who survived, when everyone else around us died."
"Something like that - "
The door swung open with much force, stressing its hinges to their very limits. There was only one person who would act in such a violent manner. Ena stepped through the doorway, relinquishing her grip on the doorknob, and Alexis followed behind. The blond boy could not resist rolling his eyes at his mistress' excessive show of force.
Zeil and Alisa nodded in acknowledgement, leaving the princess to wonder what Zeil had planned to say before they were interrupted.
With their preparations mostly completed, the group of four decided to set off the next day. The evening passed with little of note happening, and Zeil and Alisa did not speak to each other much. It seemed that neither of them were interested in broaching the subject of their pasts again.
And thus, when the dark, moonless night fell, everyone immediately retired to their rooms. The arrangement was the same as before - Alisa with Ena and Zeil with Alexis.
And it was in Zeil's room that a dark figure was now standing. It reached inside its clothing.
Due to the cover of the clouds, there was no moonlight to illuminate the dagger that it had retrieved. The figure looked behind it, at the door that had been smashed open, and looked back at the youth who was resting on his bed. His eyes were resolutely shut, and he looked deep in sleep. He had been described as having white hair and crimson eyes, but neither of these attributes were visible now. Nonetheless, he had already been identified earlier.
The figure strode swift next to the bed. Despite its hurried footsteps, there had not been a single sound to alert anyone of its presence.
Its hand rose up, gripping tightly onto the dagger. It plunged the weapon towards Zeil's chest.
Five fingers curled around its wrist.
Zeil rubbed his right eye with his other free hand, yawning a little.
"Alright. Let's see who you are, damnit."