The villagers approached cautiously. Before them was a sight that they would never have thought was possible, until now.
The speaker was sitting at a considerable height. Garbed in a simple tunic and of medium size, his ordinary appearance was entirely at odds with the rest of the scene. In his hand rested one gargantuan link of a metal chain, and underneath him, resembling a miniature hill, was a giant. Quite literally. The oversized humanoid must have been at least twenty times the size of the youth sitting atop him, and could quite likely crush the youth with a single finger - if not for the equally oversized chain that was restricting his movements completely.
The hero, Alten. His exploits were so legendary that many considered him a myth, and doubted that he ever existed at all. So much so that almost nobody knew his real name, and he came to be more commonly known by his title -
The Hero with a Thousand Names.
Wherever he went, he would defeat, conquer, slay, and overcome everything that stood before him. Wherever he went, he acquired a new name.
The poor villagers, terrorized so often by a particular rogue giant, could hardly believe it when such a person had appeared before them the day before, asking for information on the giant. They had already grown so accustomed to the threat of the giant that none of them dared to think that this was the real deal. But deep in each of their hearts, there had definitely been a tiny hope.
If this was truly The Hero with a Thousand Names...
And now, with the giant captured and subdued, there could be no more doubt.
"Hey, hey, don't come close so easily, it's still damned dangerous, you know," Alten added carelessly, still sitting atop the giant. "I might have tied him up, but this guy can still move if he tries."
As if to prove his point, the giant thrashed about as much as he could within his restraints, but the chain held resolutely fast.
"Curse you, human! You can't fight me fairly and cheated! Let me go!"
The giant's bellow was loud enough to match his size, and the approaching villagers clapped their hands over their ears, for fear of going deaf from his outburst.
The hero, who was seemingly unaffected, shook his head. "Those old guys like to say that there's such a thing as the right weapon for the right occasion, right? "
"I've never heard of any such old guys!"
"So that must make me some kind of genius, cause I'm so damn smart."
"What the hell are you talking about?!"
"Blame yourself for being stupid."
Caught completely by surprise, the giant was at a loss for words. It was not often that a giant was ignored, but the hero had done exactly just that.
Fine, keep yapping away, bastard. I'll break out of these weak chains and destroy you in no time.
The giant tensed his muscles in preparation for the perfect moment.
...I wonder if he knows that I made the chains weak on purpose? He should at least know that he can get out, right? I've heard that giants are stupid, but nobody can be that retarded, can they? He has to know. Maybe I should give him a hint or something. I'm getting bored to death here.
"Anyway, if you want to get out, why don't you just give it a try, asshole?" Alten crossed his legs and lay down comfortably on his back.
The perfect moment had arrived. Of course it had. When both sides were aiming for the same goal, there could naturally be no end to these perfect moments. Cooperation was truly a beautiful thing.
The giant roared and unfurled himself. It was a scene that looked much like an explosion, as the metal chain shattered, raining metal links everywhere. Alten was tossed off the giant rather unceremoniously, and crashed into the ground from a great height.
"You're dead meat, 'hero'."
The giant curled his fist, which really looked more like a giant boulder from a human's perspective, and slammed it down upon the tiny figure of Alten.
If silence was the absence of sound, then what followed could not be silence. For silence was merely the absence of sound, but what had occurred was a state where there should have been sound, and sound had been completely expected, and yet there had been no sound. Something that was entirely too surprising and yet was not magic, or any kind of trickery. Just reality.
The hero was, of course, the first to speak.
"Come on now. What the hell did you think would happen? You'd have to be a total moron. Maybe I'm not a genius, although if you ask me that's just bullshit, but even then nobody's that damn stupid."
At first glance, it seemed as though the giant's fist had landed squarely on the ground, but if a person were to look closely, it was possible to see that there was a minuscule gap. If that person were to look even more closely, he would see that propped up against the giant's fist, in a way that defied all common sense and laws of physics, was a small hammer in Alten's hand. If that person were to not look closely at all, he would instead perhaps realize that the links of the metal chain were now nowhere to be seen.
"Screw this. If that's all you got, then no more second chances, giant. Go to hell."
The giant's fist was flung away, and Alten drew his arm back. In one swift movement, his arm shot forward and released the hammer with it, and the metal projectile collided with the giant's temple.
The monstrous human collapsed like a landslide.
"And don't come back!" Alten yelled, not caring that his opponent was now almost certainly unconscious.
A loud cheer went up, and the villagers rushed to his side.
"Praise be! A true 'Giantslayer' has saved us!"
"How can we ever repay you?!"
Today, 'The Hero with a Thousand Names' added one more to his count.
"No, no. Get off me, I don't need anything. Screw the rewards, too," Alten said hastily, striding past the crowd of people as he struggled to ward them off.
I hope I'm guessing correctly, I still can't hear what the hell they're saying. Or anything else, really. That giant's yelling hurt.
The hero gazed off into the distance.
Now then...Where to next? Castern? That's the name of the kingdom that's close by, right?
The chattering and muttering that surrounded the young man felt more like the twittering of birds than human speech.
"His eyes...like the devil's...unholy..."
The young man closed his eyes. On his shoulder perched a petite, slightly plump bird. It belonged to the species that was commonly known as a wren. It was of the same colouring as himself - the black of the night. His dark cloak fluttered in the gentle breeze as he walked along one of the town's few streets.
"...he want? I hope...bad..."
"Lord...us from this..."
I'm used to hearing both birds and humans, so this is fine.
It was unfortunate, but he was already used to this kind of reaction towards his appearance, which had always been considered as an ill omen.
Besides, his appearance was usually the least of a person's concerns, once they found out more about him.
Because of that, the young man paid no heed to his surroundings. It was necessary for his way of life. For awhile, the young man walked unimpeded, but eventually his feet slowed down to a stop. In his way was a little boy, who looked furious.
"Who are you?" the boy demanded. The surrounding chatter from the rest of the townspeople subsided quickly. There was a kind of horror and fascination that prevented them from speaking.
"Me?" The young man raised an eyebrow. "My name is Wren."
The bird on his shoulder let out a shrill chirp.
"Are you a demon? Why do you look like that?"
"Alan - !" A distance away, a woman gasped and covered her mouth with her hand.
Ah, the bravado of youth. It's amazing how humans like to think that they're invincible. It's so natural that children exhibit it all the time, until they know better. His mother really should learn to watch over him more carefully.
Wren extended a hand towards the boy from beneath his cloak.
"As a matter of fact, I am not a demon. But you should watch out, boy. What if I had been a demon? You could have been cursed, or taken away."
The young man smiled at the child.
For the first time, the child seemed to be unsure of himself, and the frown on his face faltered. It took a few more moments before he spoke again.
"...Is that so. So you're just a normal human, mister?"
"Do I count as a human, I wonder? Well, I'm afraid that I would say most probably not, boy. I might not be a demon, but I am still a magic user. Or perhaps it would be easier if I just said that I am a wizard."
The terror in the eyes of the townspeople was now unmistakable. Some turned and ran, seeking refuge in their houses, while others began creeping slowly towards Wren. All except for one, the woman who had cried out earlier. There was no hesitation or doubt in her mind. She simply hurried over to the boy and hugged him, intending to shield her child from Wren.
"Let my child go!"
I am not popular these days, huh. First there was that whole army at Darbine, and now this. I'm quite tired, honestly.
"Certainly. I was never going to touch him in the first place, ma`am," Wren replied, bowing slightly.
It looks like it would be better for me to head elsewhere. This is no place for me to do my work.
"But, with respect, I have to say that you should be worrying about educating him better. Demons are the least of an ordinary person's worries. Who knows if they even exist? Even as a wizard, I have to say that I've never seen one before for myself."
"But leaving demons aside, there's plenty of other things to worry about. Like his fellow humans. Or perhaps wizards, as well. There may not be any demons around to cause curses, but they aren't needed. After all - "
The wren squawked.
"As you can see, a wizard creates curses just as well. Especially if there are humans."
The young wizard's cloak swished through the air as he disappeared from sight, leaving behind only the faint impression of a grin.
"Boris, what do you think is the meaning of life?"
"...Who knows? I'm not smart enough to ever know the answer to that, I reckon."
The questioner, a little girl with blonde twintails, tilted her head upon hearing the reply. Accompanying her was a man who looked to be the prime of his life, and a girl who seemed like a teenager. The man, in particular, had a rather striking appearance, thanks to his white hair and strong jawline. Strapped across his back was a gigantic silver axe that looked very lethal indeed. The young woman, on the other hand, was freckled and looked considerably plain, and her oversized brown dress did little to change that impression.
Together, they formed a rather unlikely trio.
"An answer that shows self-awareness, if nothing else," said the little girl. From the way she narrowed her eyes, it was clear that she was not very happy with the answer.
"I'm just a mercenary, Beowulf. I can't answer a difficult question like that. For a mercenary, there's no point in worrying about the meaning of life. We're too busy worrying about keeping our life in the first place," the man named Boris said.
The girl, who seemed to be named Beowulf, nodded, and her expression softened. "I suppose you're right. ...I must have gotten impatient. Forgive me."
"There is no chance of me holding a grudge against a kid," Boris replied gruffly. "But still, what brought all this about? Is it that book that you're reading?"
He glanced at the large tome that Beowulf was holding with both of her hands. The title itself was complicated, and he had never been good at reading in the first place, but the mercenary at least knew enough to make out the word 'life'.
"Mmm. I thought that I would be able to learn something from it, but the main message of the book seemed to be that each person had to discover the meaning of life for themselves."
"What's wrong with that?"
"Something like that...It would have been preferable if the author had actually had the courage to take a stand and write for something he believed in, rather than just giving an easy answer like 'it depends'. That's what I feel."
"Is that so? I can't say you're wrong, and it's not like I really understand this, but why don't you try asking Sarah?"
The little girl and the mercenary turned to face their meek companion.
"Eek! M-m-m-me? Well, I'm not sure, I'm totally not sure...Is it even okay for someone like me to think about something as grand as the meaning of life? I don't know, I don't know at all...What if I suffer divine punishment for this? What if I think that I'm right but I'm just absolutely, completely wrong? What if..."
Trembling, Sarah started twisting her fingers together and bit on her lip.
"Calm down, Sarah. It's not something that you have to be worried about."
"O-okay. If you say so, Mr. Boris..." Despite Sarah's reply, her hands were still clasped together firmly.
"See that, Beowulf? This meaning of life business might be complicated, but I just can't think that Sarah treats her life the same way you would. Not when she's so different. And I'm sure the same goes for me. So on the whole, I'd say I agree with the author of that book that you read. It's not as simple as choosing a single meaning."
The little girl nodded once again. "What you say makes sense, Boris. Thank you. I managed to learn something new again, today."
"Don't thank me. I'm not so sure that what I said even has any value, after all."
"No...It definitely does. It meant something to me, and because of that it must have value."
"If you say so."
"By the way, Boris, if you absolutely had to answer what the meaning of your life was, what would you say?"
"Do I have to answer this?"
"Please," Beowulf replied, lowering her head. "I think I would appreciate it very much if I could know."
"Hmm...If I absolutely had to answer..." The mercenary scratched at his chin.
"I'd probably say it would be to meet more animals. Especially furry ones."
A hint of a smile appeared on his usually taciturn face.
Beowulf waited, but it seemed that Boris was not going to elaborate in any way.
"...I see. I will do my best to understand. Where are we headed to next?"
"No particular place. What do you think, Sarah? Where do you want to go?"
The meek girl yelped in shock. "W-w-w-where do I to go? Anywhere's f-fine..."
"There must be a place you want to visit."
"How about C-Castern, then? I d-d-d-d-don't mean to overstep my boundaries or anything! But I heard that the Kingdom of Castern has a very beautiful princess who is fairer than anyone else, and I'm sure Beowulf would like to know more about her, and Castern is a place that I haven't been to myself as well, so - !"
She was talking extremely fast.
"Don't worry. I like the suggestion. What about you, Beowulf?"
"No complaints. I am very much interested."
"Let's head there, then."
The door creaked open, and an old man crept through the doorway with a weak candle in his hand. It was of just the right intensity - bright enough that the old man could see where he was going, and dark enough that he would not wake up anybody who was sleeping. It was immediately obvious upon entering the room that there was a candle lit in it as well, and that candle's glow was more than sufficient to illuminate a vague silhouette sitting at a desk.
"Ah, you're awake, Your Highness. And here I was afraid of waking you from your sleep."
The old man moved more boldly now, and the light from his own candle made it possible to see the shadowy figure more clearly.
"Not to worry. You are as thoughtful as ever, old Mikael."
The second man was much younger compared to his counterpart, but there was a certain quality in the way his brows furrowed and the set of his lips that was at odds with his youth. Certainly he did not seem to be the sort to take things lightly in any way whatsoever. Leaving all that aside, however, his build was lean and strong, his features were quite perfect, and his fair hair and bright eyes were very much in the style admired by most. There was no denying he was a very handsome man if one were to judge from his appearance alone.
"Normally I would not intrude at this time of the night, Your Highness, but I bring important news. Not, pardon me, that you should be awake in the first place. I understand that you have much important work to do, but it only serves to slow you down in the long run if you neglect your health," the old man chided lightly.
"I shall try to keep that in mind when possible."
If only you would, Your Highness.
Leaving his own doubts aside, the old man carried on. "The marriage, it seems, has been decided."
"Is that so?" The young man's voice remained even, but his eyes widened just a fraction.
"Indeed. We have just received word from His Majesty, the King of Castern. Congratulations, Your Highness."
"Finally. It's been quite the wait."
"Well, these matters are of grave importance, Your Highness. " the old man replied.
The young man nodded, but his expression made it clear that he was somewhat bemused. "Yes, of course. The linking of two nations is no joking matter."
"Aha. I see what you're thinking, Your Highness. But it's not quite as simple as that, oh no. You are young; that is why you cannot understand.
Certainly, an alliance between our nations of Lendia and Castern would have many repercussions that affect the rest of the land, but that is not what I'm referring to in this case. You see, His Majesty - naturally he is a king, but he is also a father. And I'm certain that you will not understand this, but when he decides who his daughter should marry, he is not thinking of what nation, of which prince this man might be. Not at first. His worry is whether that man is the right man, and the right person who will make his daughter happy. Doubly so when the girl is as young and pretty as that one. Even a man as old as myself can see her beauty, who is said to be the fairest of all. You are very lucky, Your Highness."
The prince said nothing, and merely listened in the manner of a person who knows to take advice from someone who is wiser than himself.
Encouraged, the old man continued speaking.
"But even so, you do not seem too happy, Your Highness."
"Is that so? I am happy at the news...But there is little point in beating about the bush. I understand what you're trying to say. After all, even more than our King, it is you who I truly treat as my father. Are you worried about me, Mikael?"
"Indeed I am, Your Highness. You are happy, you say, but I can't help but wonder if you are happy for yourself, or merely for the marriage itself. Are you in that much of a hurry to be King, boy?"
There was a pregnant pause.
"That is the case," the prince replied quietly.
"Our country, Lendia - it is a beautiful country, and I love it and our people. But we are suffering, now, and it is not the harsh winds or cold snowfall that causes that. The King is confined to his bed, even now, and must surely be on his last breath. My mother tries her best, but it is not enough. And I, as Crown Prince, do not have as much power as I need. My abilities do not help matters as well, and many oppose me. The throne is the only way, but for that, I must take a wife, as is the tradition of our people. My own happiness is of no consequence."
Mikael smiled wryly. "How strange are the ways of the heavens! You are not wrong, Your Highness, and yet you are not right as well. Very well, I understand. But I must confess that your tastes are equally strange. The princess, she is the darling of all. And yet you are not happy to take her as your wife?"
For the first time, the young man seemed entirely at a loss for words. Some time elapsed before he spoke again.
"...I suppose not. It is true that she is very beautiful, but I wonder why I do not like her. Our personalities do not match. There is something that is off about her. It is a little similar to an untamed horse, perhaps. It may appear docile, but a skilled rider knows that it will throw him off at the first opportunity."
"Oho. In that case, perhaps I should fear for your life and not your happiness, my Prince."
"That may well be prudent."
The Black Cat was one of the most popular tea houses in the Kingdom of Castern, thanks in no small part to its delicious confectioneries and beautiful owner. Maria Heydner was a young woman, but her voluptuous figure, calm aura of maturity, and aristocratic bearing was an undeniable factor in the success of her business. It also helped that she was a well-known figure; formerly Lady Heydner, she had relinquished her title to live the life of a commoner after the financial situation of her estate had fallen beyond saving. Fortunately, the popularity of The Black Cat meant that she had not much to worry about.
At the moment, however, her shop was quite empty, having closed up early for the day. Empty save for one person, who was currently sitting opposite Maria and sipping her tea gently. Maria herself was petting Hecate, her pet black cat and namesake of the establishment.
"It's nice to see you again, Claire. I only wish that you had given me notice earlier. My customers weren't very happy when I turned them away, you know," Maria said.
Her Highness Claire Luna Castern, Princess of the Kingdom of Castern, shrugged her shoulders and glowered. It was a side of the princess that the common people never got to see, but it was acceptable given the circumstances. In public a charming smile was the order of the day for the princess, whose peerless beauty was renowned throughout the land. Despite her bad mood, Claire's silky blonde locks were still immaculate, and her sharp blue eyes retained that same fatal brilliance that had captured the hearts of many men. Indeed, the view of these two beauties sitting at the same table was quite a sight for sore eyes, if anyone else had been around to enjoy it.
"I'm sorry. But I don't have much of a choice, Maria. It's an urgent matter."
Maria gave no response. She merely smiled in a pleasant manner and waited, aware that Claire would continue to speak at her own leisure.
"Both Castern and Lendia have come to an agreement; Father just told me today. The marriage is slated for sometime this year."
"With Stanislaus? He's the crown prince of Lendia, isn't he?"
"Why, congratulations, then!"
That did little to improve Claire's mood. "Spare me, Maria. That's not what I want to hear."
"Oh dear. So what is the matter then, Claire?"
"Isn't it obvious? I have no intention of marrying Stanislaus whatsoever."
"What a pity. He's quite good-looking, if I remember right. And with you being so beautiful as well, Claire, I'm sure most people will think of it as a perfect match."
"That may be the case, but that has nothing to do with me," Claire replied coldly. "A loveless marriage is not something any woman looks forward to, is it?"
"I know how you feel, but does he not like you, Claire?" Maria asked, perplexed.
"Most assuredly not."
"Oh? But how do you know that?"
"That's...a little difficult to explain. Let me put it this way. I am a beautiful woman, am I not? I don't mean to be arrogant, but this is fact. You say so yourself, Maria."
"Yes, of course, Claire."
"Well then, because of that, there are many men who are charmed by me. That is also a fact. And because of that, Maria, I know. There's no real reason or method behind it, but I can tell when a man is in love with me. I've seen too many. But it's not like that with Stanislaus. Not in the slightest. I can tell that he has no such feelings at all."
"Is that so? His eyes must be spoiled, to not appreciate your beauty."
"Singing my praises isn't going to get us anywhere either, Maria."
"Ah, but if he's not in love with you either, then why is this marriage happening in the first place?" Maria pointed out.
"There are...benefits," Claire replied, looking rather disgusted by the word.
"Exactly that, I suppose. Stanislaus needs to marry me, or marry some woman at any rate, in order to become King. It is a Lendian tradition to not recognize a man as an adult until he has taken a wife. Rather barbaric, but just as expected for such a kingdom, really. As for us, it's a good way of dealing with Lendia. We've always been threatened by them, historically. It's difficult to invade them due to the cold weather in the north, which makes a military answer rather out of the question, and they've never been receptive towards diplomacy, either. Of course, there has never been war, but it's not wrong to say that Lendia has always had its own special spot in Father's list of worries. The alliance will allow us to free up our worries from the north and focus on other problems.
And then there's the fact that I'm a woman," Claire finished dryly.
"His Majesty thinks that Castern would be safer with a king protecting it rather than a queen, I guess?"
"Yes. Utter nonsense in my opinion, of course. General Sigyn is female and I don't see anyone questioning her ability. But then - I suppose I am only a sheltered princess, who has never proven herself," Claire said with downcast eyes.
"Still, I would much rather rule the kingdom without Stanislaus' interference. What's to guarantee that Lendia won't betray us and take over the country still? I don't trust them."
"Hmm. What you say makes sense, Claire. But you know, that isn't it, right?"
"What do you mean?"
"We have to go back to what you mentioned first. Deep in your heart, you're just angry that you'll have to marry a man that doesn't love you, am I right? It's something that you would never have considered possible, and rather an affront to your pride, too."
"Wha - ! That's - !"
Maria waited patiently as the princess stopped and took several deep breaths. It was an act that she was very used to and very good at.
"...Well, I suppose you're right."
"There's nothing wrong with that, though. You may be a princess, but you are still a woman, too."
Claire nodded gratefully. As always, there was nobody as disarming as her good friend. "Thank you, Maria."
"But still, this is quite some trouble, isn't it? Have you tried asking Mistress Karen?"
"I'm not that desperate. Besides, it's well-known, isn't it? The 'Dark Witch' does not interfere in the affairs of kingdoms. She acts for her students alone, and we're no longer her students, Maria."
Karen Nyx Valendia - alias the 'Dark Witch' - was a figure feared by all, but that fact also made her a very capable schoolmistress. Despite being a witch's school, Mistress Karen's Academy accepted all kinds of students and taught them all sorts of useful things such as the mundane sciences, mathematics, writing, and even politics. Although some magicians were indeed trained there, a large majority of the students had no magical aptitude whatsoever and still benefited from a rather complete education. Because of that, many of the students were nobles.
Despite being a former noble, Maria's family had never been of high status, and they had no direct connection to the royal family. Her friendship with Claire had bloomed from a chance meeting at the Academy, which they had both attended at around the same time.
"What do you propose then, Claire?"
"I don't know, honestly."
The princess of Castern paused. It was to be a rather significant pause.
"If only a dragon would show up and scare Stanislaus away."
"So we're just going to bet it all on that, then?" Maria grinned.
"I suppose not."