“My lord, please be patient. We just need to wait for confirmation.”
The head I pulled out was actually the prince’s head, but like my own body, he had undergone a transformation to look like me. It was actually easier to transform the dead body than it was to transform my living one. Well, no one probably knew what I looked like anyway, so any devilkin head would probably do.
I snorted. “Do you not recognize a prince when you see one?”
“M-my lord, it’s just, given that a royal wedding is occurring today, we have to confirm everyone.”
“Exactly!” I snorted snobbishly. “Which is why I don’t want to be late to brother and sister’s wedding. Youngest sister will be heartbroken if she can’t see her big sister get married.”
As I spoke, I grabbed Bala and pulled her over to me, fondling her in a way that was very much unbrotherly. Bala didn’t resist, but she had an icy expression on her face like she wanted to cut me down. I really hoped that this was her acting and not her genuine feelings, but it was difficult to tell. Although Bala could be dynamic in bed, she also was not someone who liked public displays of affection. However, I was trying to act how I imagined her brother would act and hoping she filled in the blanks.
“Ah! You have the princess?” He glanced over, only now realizing that it wasn’t just one noble, but two at the entrance waiting to get in.
“So, how about you just let us in. We wouldn’t want the King to be upset, now would we?”
Of course, I made sure to put particular emphasis on the King. Anyone still in the Capitol would be aware that something was going on in the higher command. Since I understood that much, it made it exceedingly unlikely that I was someone sneaking in. Although any given thing could be fact, the presence of two of the royals, the invitation, and the head of a hated devil, and it all added up in the guard’s mind. I could see him doing the mental math.
He glanced around one last time and then he nodded. “It seems like you all check out. No need to get anyone else involved, right?”
His actions showed just an ounce of fear. Likely, a lot of guards had been recently disposed of. Anyone who was too loyal to the last King would have been taken care of. This left the city with a lot of nervous people eager to show their loyalty to the new regime and afraid of becoming their next target. I was let in with only a wave. Those behind me weren’t even checked, as they were the retainers of a royalty.
After passing the tall walls and entering the city itself, I was absolutely shocked. Entire buildings were made out of wood. That isn’t to say that the wood was cut and nailed and erected into houses. Rather, it was like the houses were grown out of the ground. They didn’t resemble trees, but they also didn’t resemble built houses from the human lands either. The town we had stopped by outside the Capitol had been erected the old-fashioned way. These designed could only be described as elf architecture.
If Saria had been with me, she assuredly would have bragged about how magnificent elvish architecture was. Wood was one of their primary exports, and I was starting to understand why. They seemed to be able to shape it as it grew, seemingly creating entire pieces made out of nothing but wood. Each house looked like a knot of a hollowed tree, except that it also had windows, doors and various other expected parts of a house carved into this with a certain degree of refined detail. I was incredibly impressed with what I was seeing. Bala only looked past it, giving no looks that could be nostalgia or a feeling of returning home.
The streets were packed, and movement occurred slowly. I used my privilege as a prince, or rather the borrowed privilege of Garwin as an elf prince, to shove my way forward. I wasn’t completely savage, so I wasn’t to the point of running people over, but I did force a few to jump to the side. They’d offer me curses before realizing who I was. The guards did their part too by fingering their swords, further adding a degree of threat.
“You’re good at this,” Bala said after a bit of silence. “It’s clear you had practice.”
I snorted at the cutting remark, making sure to squeeze her butt in retaliation. She stiffened but understood that if she fought back in public, she’d be creating an unfortunate scene. Anyone could guess how many eyes we were under at the moment.
We had managed to get our way halfway to the castle when the crowds split open. A group of guards rode up. They had an arrogant air to them, and when they saw me, rather than show respect, they wore sneers. That definitely was interesting to me. It looked like Gorwin wasn’t as respected as I had supposed. I adjusted my grip on Bala. She leaned over, taking the opportunity to whisper in my ear.
“They’re second brother’s men. You can tell from the colors they are wearing. There is an order to my brothers. They don’t separate from just age, but status.”
“Thanks for letting me know,” I responded, only with a bit of bite.
Bala was the kind of person who wouldn’t speak unless it was needed now. I supposed I couldn’t blame her for not mentioning this sooner. She was right about colors. The men who were under Gorwin had an orange and yellow color scheme, while the second brother wore brown and black. Ayda, and the King’s men, were wearing green and dark green. It seemed like that wasn’t the only difference, though. The princes were all in order as well. That meant Gorwin wasn’t just the youngest, but the lowest in status as well. Only Bala was lower than him. It was no wonder that he got Bala and Gantar went for Saria. It had nothing to do with age or beauty, and everything to do with status. Saria was too good for Gorwin.
Gorwin was the absolute lowest on the totem pole. It was no wonder he was so ready to fall under one of his brothers. Perhaps, the first brother saw himself as respected by all of them. This gave the second brother the opportunity to make his move, gathering Gorwin and Gantar by his side. It was unclear if Theo was similarly restrained.
“How is brother Akkar doing?” I asked pleasantly as if there were no issues at all.
“Hmm… follow us.” The guard ordered, turning and leaving.
I followed them with everyone else in tow. I was a bit surprised that the two beastkin prisoners weren’t bringing more interest. Well, I did have them cover their beastkin parts, but the chains that my guards were holding were in clear view. In front, I acted as casually as I could with Bala next to me. Although it seemed clumsy for a prince, for me, I understood Bala was the only real protection I needed.
Well, chances were that if things went belly up, there was nothing I could do to escape. In many ways, this was a one-way trip. We either succeeded and escaped, or we died. Even Bala and Baba together wouldn’t be able to get me out of this city alive if my identity was exposed prematurely.
We ended up heading to a structure which combined the wood that seemed like it was grown with various other building techniques. By its size alone, it was either the palace of some extremely powerful church. Since I had heard very little about an elf religion, my guess was that it was probably their castle. I noticed that it was the second prince’s colors on the guards as we were brought into the castle. At this point, I could all but confirm that he was currently in charge of the Capitol.
“Your men wait out here.” The guard said gruffly.
I nodded and tossed the men a bag of coin. This was something we discussed and was basically a dismissal for the men. They could leave the city and the country and return home. My time with them had come to an end. Even if they went with us further, it’d only threaten their lives and not increase my own chance of survival a lick. Captain Moar hesitated for a moment, surprising me greatly.
He had never been trustworthy and had even extorted my mother over many coins. Yet, he had also been the guard who had protected me when no others would. For fifteen years, the drunk Captain Moar had been near my side. Yet, somehow, in this short journey, he had gained something he never thought he would—respect for his superior. The reluctance only lasted for a second as he bit his lip and gestured for the other man to go with him. The two walked off as we were brought into the building.
We were brought past long wooden hallways. Bala seemed to move down them with familiarity, keeping her head lowered as if this place contained bad memories to her. Baba also walked as if she owned the place, but that didn’t change no matter where she went. Although the guards didn’t know who Baba was, they seemed to get a sense that she wasn’t to be bothered, and thus they didn’t show her any disrespect. That isn’t to say they were respectful, just that they aimed all their snide looks in my direction.
We were finally brought into a room. It wasn’t the throne room, but a smaller receiving area. It would probably be odd if a King received his son in a throne room, or a brother received his brother. Once the guards left, I turned to Bala and hissed in her ear.
“Is there anything else I should know?”
Bala looked away. “I don’t know. It has been a while since I was last here. I’ve always had to keep my head low, and pray my brothers didn’t notice me. I spent most of my time trying not to be seen. Saria was the only one who looked after me.”
Looking at the complicated look on Bala’s face, I gave a light sigh. It was clear that returning here had brought up a lot of bad feelings from her childhood. Saria had protected her from her brothers. She was the lowest on the totem pole. I had always assumed given the King’s easy-going nature, that his children wouldn’t have orientated themselves so brutally into a caste system, but it did shed some light into why Saria treated Bala the way she did, even though she loved her sister. Well, Saria also had a bit of a sadistic side, but she probably got that from her brothers.
The point was, Bala was always on the bottom end. She allied herself with Saria because she was given no other choice. Naturally, her brothers weren’t an option for her. Now, she was serving a different Master, and her sister was in danger of being wed off to one of her brothers.
From what they explained to me, after waiting a few days for me and noticing the forest was starting to recover, the group had headed back the Capitol under Ayda’s forces. Before reaching the Capitol, they were met by forces under Akkar and informed of the ensuing battle with the beastkin. They took possession of Saria, and accidentally revealed the wedding, as well as rejecting my visit to the Capitol.
Bala would have been dragged back as well, but Ayda had intervened and kept that from happening. It was most likely because she knew my connection with Bala, and feared if they found out about it before I had left. It was about the most kindness she could show for me saving their entire country. Gorwin was sent to get rid of the incoming guests and saw an opportunity to deal with me too. Now, Gorwin had returned with eight fewer troops, but instead of killing or expelling the beastkin, he brought them directly into the castle.
After about fifteen minutes of waiting, the door finally opened, and a man stepped. I froze when I saw him, but thankfully my capacity to deceive went beyond my illusion magic. I immediately put on an ingratiating smile. It was exactly the kind of look I’d expect a pompous noble to unwillingly give a brother who was of higher status than him.
“Brother Theo,” Bala said the word out loud as she curtsied, thus allowing me to put a name to the face.
I hadn’t known the name, but I had recognized the face. It was Theo, after all. We had met and fought once before, deep in those tunnels. He had been harrying the goblins across the country to cause havoc and had also been slaughtering his own kind. He had used the opportunity of Ayda sending her forces underground to wipe out a good chunk of them. After all, they were loyal to the King.
He was the one who provided me with the map that allowed me to so successfully navigate. Perhaps I should thank him, although he had also tried to kill me and take Olivia away. Of the five brothers, he was the one who was set to marry Saria. Gorwin had also fancied Saria, but he was of lower rank and thus ended up settling on Bala.
“Brother, congratulations on the marriage. I have to admit. I didn’t expect you to greet us. Should you not be preparing for your wedding?”
“Hmph…” He snorted disdainfully. “I only came because I heard you successfully brought sister Bala back. She’ll be coming with me.”
He reached out to grab her, but I pulled her away. I could feel her stiffen as her brother’s hand went for her.
“What is this, brother?” I demanded indignantly, “Don’t tell me you have sights on both sisters. Bala is mine!”
Theo’s face turned ugly. “What have you done to deserve her? You were sent to accomplish one job, and it appears you failed.”
His eyes shot to the beastkin. Since Gorwin was supposed to execute them, bringing them in as traitors put a snaggle in things, after all, if we had killed them out on the road, it was easy to claim ignorance when the beastkin demanded information. By bringing them through the Capitol, assuredly some spies had seen who they were and reported on it. It was now public knowledge that the daughter Lucy and General Tucci were captured by the Capitol of Peri. They couldn’t just claim ignorance.
This, of course, had been part of my intentions too. There was a reason other than cost that I hadn’t just used illusions to make the pair appear like some guards or someone inconsequential. I wanted people to see the chains, take a look into their hoods, and notice they were beastkin. After that, it was pretty easy to put two and two together. It created a safety net for the two of them until we were able to escape.
“I… brought the head of Prince David!” I hastily went for my belt to bring it out again. “I destroyed a devilkin.”
“Inconsequential!” Theo snorted. “I encountered that brat not too long ago. He was nothing to be impressed by. He was only a minor insect. Squashing him deserves no praise.”
“You…” A flash of anger appeared on my face.
It wasn’t even really acting either. Apparently, I had overestimated my own value. To most of the world, I was still the spoiled, unskilled brat who had single-handedly brought devastation upon the human realm. My presence from the beginning wasn’t important to them. Other than bringing Saria and Bala back, I was just someone to be tossed away.
Surprisingly, Bala’s body shifted more aggressively than my own. She had grown angry over his words. That fact alone calmed me down and allowed me to school my face. It was a peculiar a but pleasant feeling to see your woman get angry on your behalf. Behind my back, I reached out and gave her hand a single, gentle squeeze.
“As for the beastkin, they came with a letter. I thought it in the best interest that big brother read it.”
“Oh, does Gorwin now think he can make decisions now?” Theo said mockingly.
I lowered my head, looking like I was beaten. “Of course not. Rather, I did not dare make this decision on my own. That is why I brought them here.”
Theo snorted. “Well, at least you have more sense than Gantar.”
My eyes lifted in genuine surprise. “Why? What happened to Gantar?”
He made a bitter expression. “Rather than return with sister Olivia, he fled north.”
I immediately began to feel for her presence, and as he suggested, she was still to the north despite me already being in the city. If I concentrated, I had the feeling like she was moving farther and farther away. That bastard
“It looks like he got cold feet after getting what he wanted.” Theo continued. “He seeks asylum in Dongeng, the land of the fairies.”
Dongeng was the land that I was least welcome. Both my mother and my older sister were in this land, but I was saving it for last. Rather, I had no plans to enter such a hostile place. I would have been just as good tossing myself into the land of the Celestials. Once I had the rest of my sisters, I was going to pressure for her release. After all, I already possessed 5/6th of the nation. Even if it came to war, the final 1/6would abdicate her authority rather quickly with the support of all my other sisters.
“This isn’t good,” I said to myself, but Theo gave a snort in response.
“So, you can imagine how Akkar worries about you. Two days prior, Aunt Ayda came riding in claiming a story where David killed you.”
I made a dark smile. “As you just said, he was hardly anything. How could that be true? I did warn you about her betrayal.”
“You did.” Theo nodded. “But according to Ayda, it was Bala who swung the killing blow. So, she will be needed for questioning. As for you…”
My eyes narrowed and then widened. “You don’t care about the truth? You planned to strip me of my rights anyway!”
Theo laughed. “What can I say? We’re just cutting away the useless fat.”
“It turned out Gantar was the smart one,” I responded bitterly.
I had miscalculated completely. Theo and Akkar had planned to betray all of their brothers from the get-go. The bribes given to Gantar and Garwin were just tricks. Gantar must have realized it and fled. As for Garwin, well, I walked right into Garwin’s trap!
“Well, brother has never been anything much.” Theo laughed.
He reached out and grabbed Bala, yanking her over to him. I gave her a look not to resist as guards swarmed into the room. As for the two beastkin, they didn’t have a choice. So, it was time for plan B.