Side Story 1: Part 2
Leonel needed the shadow of someone so powerful that even Devondus wouldn’t dare to touch him.
Leonel went to the queen.
“Your Majesty, please protect me.”
Queen Alexandra scrutinized Leonel as if appraising an object. Leonel stood still, enduring the heavy silence. When the queen’s lips remained sealed, Lady Etkin interjected.
“I heard he has talent in swordsmanship.”
A heavy breath exhaled from the front, but Leonel couldn’t bring himself to look up at the queen’s face.
Born second but exceptional from a young age, the queen lived crouched to survive the constraints of the princes. She was once driven out of the palace but built power outside and seized the opportunity to cut the throats of her brothers and ruthlessly eliminate her adversaries.
The queen didn’t hide her ruthless nature. Nobles feared her, and Leonel’s parents were no exception. Leonel inherited that fear. Nevertheless, there was only one reason why he sought the queen.
The queen’s unwavering protection.
The absolute protection of someone in power was the most crucial thing for Leonel to survive.
“I will become a knight.”
Leonel raised his head to look at the queen.
“I will be your sword, Your Majesty.”
The queen let out a brief chuckle.
“Do you know what that means?”
She stepped down from her throne and stood before Leonel.
“It means you are willing to give your life for me.”
Offering one’s life to avoid losing it to someone else may seem ironic and meaningless. However, the queen had never killed without reason.
“I will conquer the neighboring countries. If unlucky, you might die on the battlefield.”
Even so, it was better than doing nothing under the uncle who killed his parents and getting killed helplessly.
It was a death with dignity.
The queen stared directly at Leonel. The eyes of the boy, who had not yet stained his hands with blood, were paradoxically red. Within them, the burgeoning sadness and anger mingled with the beginning of adolescence.
“But if you survive, you will wield glory and authority like never before.”
Leonel knelt on one knee, bowing his head deeply.
* * *
The queen’s reaction to Leonel’s swordsmanship was succinct.
Whenever Leonel thrust towards a person, hesitation was apparent. It was textbook, too theoretical, and impractical for the battlefield.
The queen made Leonel stay in the palace, receiving training in swordsmanship and military tactics. Directives were issued to the Altwood Duchy, and Devondus had no courage to defy the queen’s orders.
Occasionally, when Leonel went down to the territory, Lady Etkin or someone from the queen’s retinue accompanied him.
Devondus couldn’t manage the territory recklessly. Although the queen generally didn’t interfere in the fights among nobles, she didn’t ignore anything that reached her ears.
Thanks to this, Leonel could pass a few years relatively peacefully. However, his mind wasn’t at ease.
‘If I don’t perform well, I might be discarded.’
Anxiety lashed him like a whip. Encounters with friends drastically decreased.
“Leonel, why do you look harder to approach than when you were in Altwood?”
“You got engaged to Liliana. Why suddenly engage with her?”
Relatives and influential figures insisted that Leonel marries before participating in significant battles. The purpose was plain to see: to keep the person they wanted by his side.
It wouldn’t hurt if Leonel rejected their chosen mate. They could use anyone as a hostage.
However, Leonel had no intention of following their wishes. Thus, he needed someone untouchable—a person who would safeguard him against unwanted pressures. Conveniently, Liliana also sought someone to watch her back, having been pushed aside in the succession fight at the Marquisate.
“Because I needed to.”
“Even if it’s for political reasons.”
Adelhardt barged into Leonel’s room, sprawling on the bed while grumbling.
Tatiasun, who practically lived in the palace, paced near Leonel, who was reading a military manual.
“You don’t look well, Leo. Are you sure everything’s okay?”
“You haven’t smiled once since you came to the palace.”
In a life-threatening situation, Leonel couldn’t afford to smile.
“I have to read. Leave.”
Adelhardt grabbed the back of Tatiasun’s jacket as he tried to leave.
“Tatiasun, it’s okay. Let’s go. We’ll be back, so take it easy and rest a bit.”
Adelhardt shook hands with Leonel and left the room.
Although Leonel felt his friends were upset, he couldn’t spare the time to explain everything he had been through and the dangers he faced.
His friends would stay there until the situation stabilized. He thought he could explain and seek forgiveness when things were more settled.
Two years passed this way.
There were always battles, big and small, in the border regions, so knights were always needed. From the final stages of training, Leonel participated in small skirmishes.
The battles were always brutal. Living off dried meat on a pile of corpses was more disgusting than he had imagined.
He was sent out and returned to the capital or estate repeatedly. Leonel was growing weary.
Even when resting in a comfortable and safe place, the experiences of battle gradually consumed Leonel.
Now, even the smell of meat made him nauseous.
Tatiasun, who used to have meals together with Leonel, called him quietly while Leonel only ate salad.
He pushed aside the food, pulled a chair next to Leonel, and sat down.
“Tell me. I’ll listen.”
“You don’t have to carry it alone. I’m your friend.”
It felt like a dam holding back his sanity had burst.
Like water pouring out, Leonel opened up about his parents’ death.
He revealed the betrayal that relentlessly haunted him like a curse and the heaviest burden on his conscience.
“And, I killed someone. In battle, I… I didn’t want to survive that desperately.”
Tatiasun’s face, which had been comforting Leonel with kind words, turned cold.
In response to Leonel’s suddenly quiet demeanor, Tatiasun, who was now questioning his silent friend, looked up. When their eyes met, Tatiasun grabbed Leonel’s wrists.
“Leo. The enemy isn’t human.”
“What do you mean…”
“It means you don’t need to feel guilty about killing bugs.”
It was an unbelievable statement coming from his always thoughtful friend.
Although Leonel felt a tingling sensation in his hair, he didn’t pay much attention to it.
Many people in the war had similar thoughts. Moments of hesitation due to guilt determined life and death.
He simply blamed himself for being weak and tried to numb himself to death.
He didn’t question why such words came from his childhood friend, who grew up peacefully.
And one year later, the war with Desatell began.
* * *
“Captain, reinforcements have arrived from the capital.”
Faust walked in, lifting the cloth that blocked the entrance to the tent. Leonel paused his discussion with Arette and Levance.
However, his gaze remained fixed on the map.
“Please don’t say that. Come out and see. You might be pleasantly surprised.”
Faust chuckled and lifted Leonel, pushing him forward. Leonel’s expression, which had shown little interest, changed instantly as he saw the person leading the reinforcements.
Leonel took a step closer and tightly embraced his friend. Tatiasun, surprised by the more intense welcome than expected, showed a bewildered expression.
“What the… It’s gross. Never seen you like this before.”
Despite his words, there was a hint of warmth in Tatiasun’s voice.
After casually patting Leonel’s back a few times, he stepped back first.
“Adel wanted to come too, but the opposition was too fierce.”
“He’s the only heir.”
“Still, he might join the battlefield toward the end.”
Grateful but not exactly comforting news.
Adelhardt tirelessly persuaded and manipulated nobles in the capital to secure financial support. He must be suffering from the same lack of sleep and nerves.
Thanks to his efforts, Attenu’s military rarely faced shortages during the war.
“He’s more helpful focusing on logistics in the capital like he does now.”
Leonel watched the soldiers exchanging greetings and then gave an order.
“Since the reinforcements have arrived, prepare a generous dinner.”
As Levance, who was standing behind, relayed the message, Tom shouted and rushed towards the preparations for the meal.
Leonel sat down with Tatiasun.
Major forces naturally gathered nearby.
Especially Faust, taking the seat next to Leonel, playfully bumped shoulders and started a friendly conversation.
“Captain, your face has brightened up quite a bit.”
“Someone worthy of entrusting our backs has arrived.”
“Then, have you entrusted us with something other than your back so far, like your buttocks or something?”
As Faust grumbled, Arette quietly stood up and drew his sword.
“Immediate execution for the troublemaker.”
As Faust stepped back with a swagger, he drew his sword.
“Hey, if you say that, it sounds really bad!”
“It’s the truth.”
Faust muttered a curse and ran away abruptly.
Other soldiers, familiar with such incidents, laughed and cheered for Faust and Arette, dividing into factions.
Sophie had stepped forward and was collecting money.
Tatiasun glanced around at the surrounding chaos that had quickly become the market floor.
He turned his head.
The sight of Leonel sitting on the floor, occasionally laughing, felt awkward.
Leonel, feeling Tatiasun’s gaze, looked at Tatiasun who was still standing.
“Do you want me to get you a chair?”
Tatiasun shook his head then he sat in the space left by Faust’s escape.
With a gaze fixed on Faust, who was running around with a booming voice, Tatiasun asked Leonel.
“Who is that man?”
“He doesn’t seem like a noble.”
Leonel looked at his friend with a puzzled expression.
Tatiasun answered the silent question with a nonchalant tone.