The mansion of the Marquis of Arell, where Princess Marianne and her two handmaidens were being held hostage, was surrounded by a hemispherical shield.
The perimeter was guarded by the Knights of the Black Wolf, but unfortunately, it didn’t seem to be doing much good.
Just off the front of the manor were makeshift outposts made of tents, the largest of which, and the one closest to the manor, was for Julian.
“You are to wait outside.”
After a quick circle around the mansion, Julian entered the tent, leaving only Mihael behind.
The outpost contained a large table and chairs for strategising, and a cot for resting. On the table was a floor plan of the manor, with several locations marked where the enemy might be.
Julian walked over to it and skimmed it. Mihael moved closer to him and stole a glance at the map.
Suddenly, Julian called out to him.
Startled, Mihael flinched. But then he composed himself and answered the call in a serious manner.
“How much do you love your lover?”
The unexpected question left Mihael speechless, his head spinning. He couldn’t decide now whether the purpose of Julian’s question was an accusation of his own foolishness in falling in love with the princess, or a reaffirmation of his resolve in this matter.
When Mihael hesitated to answer, Julian kindly narrowed the question.
“I’m asking how far you’re willing to sacrifice for her.”
“…I love her more deeply than my own heart, no, more deeply than the spirit of the knight I have believed in and upheld throughout my life, and the honor of my family.”
Julian stared wordlessly into Mihael’s face. Reddish curly hair, almost orange, and dark freckles. Despite his youthful appearance, he looked quite strong. There was a youthful bravado in him, a determination to protect his lover at all costs.
Julian was uncomfortable with that determination. For some reason, he hoped that Mihael’s feelings for her were only temporary, so he deliberately asked him a question that would shake him to his core.
“There will be an endless downward spiral after the brief excitement. Can you say that knowing that?”
“I’m prepared for it.”
“Even if it’s your own downfall?”
Mihael’s eyes widened, and Julian explained. His tone was somewhat cynical.
“What if your lover isn’t as committed as you are? Did it ever occur to you that she might just want to have a little fun? No, let me change the question a bit. What if you realised that your lover was meeting you with such thoughts?”
Mihael’s jaw clenched at Julian’s probing question, his eyes downcast as he considered Julian’s words for a moment, and after a moment, he recited his own thoughts.
“If I’m going to fold when I learn the truth, I’m not even going to see her, and I’m going to take that with me, because even if it’s just a fleeting moment of pleasure for someone else, it’s going to be an eternity of glorious memories for me.”
“Eternity… sounds like hell to me by the way you describe it.”
“I suppose that’s up to you. For me, it would be heaven.”
Mihael’s voice was strong.
Julian realised that the basis for that conviction was no one else’s but his own. As soon as he realised this, a bittersweet feeling came over him.
Julian wondered who it was that had been running away like a child all this time.
“Yes, that could be…”
Julian muttered in a small voice. He called Mihael’s name again.
“I see your resolve, now show it in action.”
“Leave it to me.”
Julian drew his longsword from his waistband and slammed it into the ground. With that movement, a black aura centred on the sword burst forth, sending a shiver down Mihael’s spine as he saw the sight for the first time.
Julian turned his head and stared at him.
“From now on, I will break this barrier. I’m going to use sword skills, but the problem is that I need an environment where I can concentrate. I don’t want anyone visiting, do you understand me?”
Mihael stood at attention and bowed his head.
“On my life!”
There was a lot of determination in his voice.
* * *
After his bizarre dealings with the Marquis of Arell, Josef led the members of the Blue Wolf Knights to visit the Marquis’ mansion.
He was immaculately dressed, the traces of his sins washed from his face and hair.
The first thing he saw was his friend Julian. The Black Wolf Knight at his side answered immediately.
“They’re getting ready to dig the defences. According to the knight who came with us, they said not to let anyone in.”
The Black Wolf Knight’s reply implied that they shouldn’t bother looking for him. The members of the Black Wolf Knights, unaware of the tragedy that had occurred inside the castle, looked down on him inwardly. It was an arrogance that shone through to Josef, but he didn’t let it get to him, even stopping a Blue Wolf Knight who was about to draw his sword with a wave of his hand.
The hierarchy of warlords was not what mattered to him now.
“So be it.”
He nodded a couple of times in understanding. Then he turned his head.
Josef’s gaze fell on the hemispherical silver shield and the blurred outline of a building through it.
“I’d like to explore the building.”
“It’s dangerous. We don’t even know what they are yet…”
The Deputy Knight Commander of the Black Wolf Knights beside him tried to stop him, but Josef’s stubbornness was undeterred.
“I know, but my wife is in there, and I can’t do nothing. I’m just going to take a look around with this fellow.”
He gave a pleading look, one that shook the knights.
After a long moment, the leader of the Black Wolf Knights sighed softly and granted Josef’s request.
“If you wish, please do so.”
“Thank you. I will not forget your kindness today.”
Josef thanked him and left the room.
In his wake, the Deputy Knight Commander shook his head.
“It’s me…Captain. Did you notice anything strange?”
“His Highness the Prince’s mannerisms and aura seem to have changed a bit…”
Immediately, the knight commander’s voice descended.
“Find a way to breach the shield while you’re at it, aren’t you ashamed of yourself for letting go and letting the Duke of Bayer do all the work!”
It was not until a few more days had passed that he realised that the Deputy Knight Commander was right.
* * *
Josef walked along the manor wall with only one knight as his escort.
He stopped at a deserted side of the manor.
Josef glanced around. There were only four or five knights keeping watch.
Josef muttered to himself.
“This is as good as it gets.”
The escort, who hadn’t heard him correctly, repeated. Instead of answering him, Josef reached for the shield.
There was a crackle of static and a pale spark. His bodyguard interrupted him angrily.
“Your Highness, it’s dangerous.”
“Yes, I’m sure it is, it looks that way.”
Josef looked down at his fingers, which were still tingling. A moment ago, the shield had opened slightly at his touch. His escort was too stunned to notice, but he could see it clearly in his eyes.
‘So the Marquis of Arell was right.’
Josef thought of the magical parchment in his hand. It was the magical parchment that the witches of Farni had sent to the royal castle to negotiate. Marquis Arell had said it was the key to getting through the defences. The parchment in his possession had the power to temporarily disable Farni’s defences.
‘The problem is, it’s only for one person.’
There was no time to complain about such a small thing. It was important to ensure Mariella’s safety somehow.
‘Well, what can I do. It’s better than treading water and not solving anything.’
Josef shrugged needlessly.
The Black Wolf knight who had seen the spark approached him and asked.
“Your Highness, what was that…”
“You’re just in time.”
Josef said, gesturing to the Black Wolf Knights standing on guard.
“Get them out of my way, I want to think.”
Fortunately, the knights didn’t protest too much and did as he asked.
Now there were only two of them left, Josef and his escort knight.
Even though only four people had been removed, the atmosphere was eerie.
With the translucent shield in front of him, Josef mused.
According to the information Marquis Arell had passed on, the witches had planned from the beginning to meet with him alone and get what they wanted directly. That’s why Cedric Arell had infiltrated the castle.
The Marquis Arell’s real role was to isolate Josef from people, cloud his judgement, and send him off to meet the witches alone.
“Don’t touch them. It’s too dangerous.”
His escort warned him when he seemed to be getting too close to the magical shield.
Josef put on a cheeky face and reassured his escort.
“You worry too much. Did you see me fall twice in the same place?”
He then ordered his escort to stop interfering with him.
“You too, stand back. I’m the kind of person who doesn’t like to be disturbed when I’m deep in thought.”
The escort took ten steps back.
Josef held out his hand with a look of disapproval.
The knight took ten more steps back.
“Is that enough?”
“Yes, very well.”
Josef crossed his arms and stared at the shield. Halfway through, he glanced back to make sure his escort was still far away.
“Okay, let’s go.”
He took a deep breath, and soon he was inside the shield.
Tiny sparks burst out from every part of his body that touched the shield.
Startled by Josef’s sudden action, his bodyguard rushed towards the shield.
But he only slid backwards with a cheerful shout.
“You can’t come in. This is a key that only lets one person in.”
“Wait a moment. I’ll fetch the knights.”
Josef clicked his tongue.
“I only brought one of you so as not to cause a disturbance.”
“Nothing comes before the safety of Your Highness.”
The escort remained stiff to the end. Josef loved the knight’s high-handedness, but today his loyalty was unwelcome.
Josef shook his head, dismissing him.
“I am not unaware of your loyalty, but give me a chance.”
Josef smiled weakly and added.
“A chance to give my life for the woman I love.”
It wasn’t his words that convinced Josef’s stubborn escort to do his bidding.
It was Josef’s bittersweet smile at the end that tied the stubborn knight’s feet, who was ready to leap from his seat and call for his allies at a moment’s notice.
His smile was filled with a sense of the futility of life and the lamentation of love.
It was Master Jay’s heart for Lady Marie.
He hid it so tightly that no one else could see it.