The day has dawned.
The day of the great hunt.
Mariella, dressed in full maid’s attire unlike last night, held up Julian’s clothes.
“This is your last day.”
Julian said to her, one arm wrapped around the clothes she held out. His tone was somewhat grumpy.
Mariella didn’t pay him much mind, but gave him a curt reply.
“Yes, well, it happened.”
“You look good.”
She looked up at the unexpected words and checked his face.
He puckered his mouth like he had something to say, and then stopped.
Mariella didn’t ask any more questions and went back to her work.
“It’s over. Leave the rest to the squire. I can’t be responsible for Your Grace’s life.”
‘Today’s the day to look into the Duke’s desk. Maids can’t watch a hunting tournament anyway.’
She planned to take this opportunity to steal Julian’s letters to and from the Church.
Even though Julian was the Pope’s adopted son and head of the Holy Knights, it was suspicious that the Order was so willing to bend to his wishes. He must be baking Baredescha’s priests in lies and deceit, and she wanted to catch him in the act.
‘If I can find clear evidence of a rift between Baredescha and Derschabach through the letters, I can turn the tables.’
As she glanced at Julian’s quarters and mulled over her options, the closed door suddenly burst open, revealing his face.
“Don’t stand still. Get ready for the hunt, because you’re coming with me.”
She repeated, puzzled.
‘Do you have some kind of black magic that reads minds?’
He added, averting his gaze, just in time to catch her fright.
“I mean don’t forget your place, you’re my maid, at least for today.”
She glared at him, then nodded reluctantly.
* * *
The hunting tournament is held on the royal family’s hunting grounds. The Rheinwalds, a pristine white forest an hour’s carriage ride northwest. It was renowned for its snowy ground and even paler trees.
‘I never thought I’d see this in person.’
Mariella laughed as she scanned the hunting grounds.
She could already see the eyes that would be on her if she had to sit here for hours without a lady to serve her.
She rolled her eyes, hoping to avoid as much embarrassment as possible.
“May I, Your Grace, rest in the carriage until you return?”
“Because I don’t dare to interrupt.”
Julian’s head snapped round at that. In the place where the chairs were set up, the ladies of the famous family were gathered in a circle, chattering away. The maid’s presence was certainly out of place.
“Stay with the princess.”
“I am really deeply impressed by Your Grace’s graciousness.”
Mariella smiled brightly and thanked him. It was meant sarcastically, of course, and she hurried over to Marianne and stuck her side before he could make any response.
The scheduled time had arrived.
Each of the hunt’s participants sought out their lovers, greeting them with determination.
Mariella bowed her head deeply and yawned softly, trying not to show her disinterest. The men were supposed to go out and hunt, but the women had to sit here and wait for the winner. She was already bored and tired.
‘What am I doing here, really.’
She muttered under her breath, and when she looked up, she saw a familiar face in front of her. It was Josef.
“My great spring. I will devote all my passion to bringing you glory.”
Josef walked up to Marianne and spoke no differently than the men around him. The words were a little more pompous, a little more formal, but the content was the same. It was a simple greeting that didn’t even reach his ears.
Marianne said, her gaze lingering over his shoulder. Usually, she seemed guiltless of deceiving others, but it was different to deceive her own mind.
“I’ll do my best, my snowflake.”
He kissed the back of her hand, as usual, and returned to his seat.
The blond prince on his white steed, and his best friend, Julian, right beside him, icy-faced and black-haired.
It was a sight that reminded one of a fairy tale, but one could not think of such a thing if one knew the emotions that were boiling inside the two of them.
The sound of a horn trumpet announcing the start of the hunting competition echoed through the arena.
The two men exchanged words of encouragement.
“Don’t push yourself too hard.”
The sound of hoofbeats echoed across the white plains. The nobles participating in the tournament rode into the forest in their own groups.
Two men stand out: one with a white horse and one with a black horse.
Josef and Julian split up and rode away.
* * *
The Rheinwalds were one of the best hunting grounds in the Verdan. Not even the Lassane hunting grounds, which were said to contain 100 species of quadrupeds and 101 species of flying beasts, could match its fame.
Several species of wintering birds, rarely seen in the Verdan, as well as elk the size of cows and wolves with silver manes, were among the rarest species found in the Rheinwalds.
Normally, hunting competitions are scored according to the value of the animal killed, but this is not the case here. The Rhinewalds are home to an unfathomable variety of animals, and with so many rare species, it was clear that such a system would lead to arguments.
Choosing the Winter Knight is surprisingly simple. The winner would be the one who killed a white stag with golden antlers.
Before the hunt begins, the royal family spots a swift white stag, paints its antlers with gold, and releases an entire herd of white deers into the forest.
Only one deer has golden antlers. Naturally, only one can become the Winter Knight.
Because of these rules, there were some years when there was no winner, but no one complained about that.
The rarity only added to the honour of being a Winter Knight.
In the snowy forests of the Rheinwalds.
The sound of an arrow cutting through the cold air echoed from the beast’s mount.
The sound came from a nearby vine. It was Josef who shot the arrow.
His eyes were unusually dull, and his blade stood still.
One of the knights rushed over and picked up the dying animal from the bow.
“A red fox.”
Josef glanced at the dead fox, then at his surroundings, his grim face showing no disappointment, no satisfaction.
The knights behind him glanced over and spoke a morale-boosting word.
“Not a bad start.”
“Red is the colour of victory, isn’t it?”
These were all Josef’s attendant knights, not participants in the hunt, but those tasked with assisting the prince in the hunt.
In addition to the piper and the driver, the hunters are accompanied into the woods by a team of hunters, collectors, and escorts. Their outfits were expensive, and the number of entourage members they brought with them often determined the hierarchy among the men.
In the case of Josef and Julian, they were leading groups of eleven and eight, respectively. It was a rather modest number of men compared to their reputations, but neither cared. What mattered was who got the golden-horned stag, not who looked the better for it. At first glance, the two men, who seemed to have nothing in common, were fierce pragmatists.
Josef looks around with an impassive face. Not far away, a dry branch swayed.
It was probably just the wind, but he took out his bow anyway.
Josef pulled the string for the second time, and the arrow flew with a loud crack.
The arrow flew past its prey and struck a tree. At the same time, a startled deer leapt out of the grass. It was too fast to see, but he could tell it was a white deer.
Without hesitation, he drew another arrow. He stopped breathing, focused his gaze on a single point, and pulled the string of his bow.
The deer trotted away two or three more times before collapsing in a heap. It lay on the ground, flailing in vain at the air, looking pitiful and hopeless.
The two knights hurried towards the deer.
The prey before them was larger than they expected.
“It’s a black-tailed deer.”
As the knight said, the tip of the white deer’s tail was slightly black. Like a piece of paper dipped in ink.
Tsk. Josef made a small click of his tongue.
“I thought it was a white deer…”
He knew it wasn’t golden antlers. However, Josef, who assumed that it was at least one of the herds of white deer released in the forest, spat out a regretful sound.
It was a small murmur, more like a whisper to himself, but everyone heard it.
The mood quickly subsided, but Josef didn’t care. It wasn’t these little things that were getting on his nerves now.
Ever since Marquis Alphonse had become Chancellor, no, ever since Marquis Siegrid had been assassinated in a planned accident, his already-complicated head had become even more tangled.
To his entourage, including Mariella, he acted as if he were a man overflowing with measures, but inside he was anything but.
He felt like he was living a nightmare every day. From the moment he opened his eyes in the early morning until he fell asleep late at night.
He kept asking himself questions.
Who is the real enemy hiding behind the aristocracy.
Maybe the enemy aware of his true identity.
If so, how? Are there traitors within?
If there is a traitor, who could it be?
But first, why does such a great enemy want to get rid of him?
Is there a specific reason why it would be problematic for another family to take the throne?
So many questions flashed through his mind.
The one that struck him the hardest.
‘…What is the relationship between Julian and Mariella?
The sound of dry leaves crunching came from somewhere.
Josef stopped his endless musings and hesitantly pulled his bowstring towards the sound.
The arrow flew a short distance and struck a bush. A knight dismounted and busily collected his kill.
It was a brown rabbit, a little smaller than a grown man’s forearm. Slightly skinny, it looked as if it had been starving all winter.
Josef gave it a cursory glance, as if he wasn’t interested this time.
No interest in what he had already killed. His eyes quickly searched for other prey.
Hunting other animals here was merely to prove that he was not a poor hunter. Finding the white stag with the golden antlers was a priority to become a Winter Knight, but Josef didn’t let that stop him from pulling the bowstring.
For him, hunting was a way to clear his mind.