Read at Watashi wa Sugoi Desu!
Chapter 17: That Which Crawls on The Ground
The Royal Castle of Lidsalessaloth was built atop a hill in the capital city of Nephimen, overlooking the black walls that surrounded the city.
If one were to observe closely from the balcony where I overlooked the lights of the city during yesterday’s banquet, one could see a large hole in the outer wall. It was not on the southern side where the main gate was, but on the eastern side, relatively close to the castle. Amidst the billowing dust and smoke, we could see the figure of a giant centipede-like insect. It seemed that this was the monster known as a yazu.
“…It’s a pretty nasty-looking creature, right?”
It had countless legs and a jaw full of fang-like teeth. Even I felt a chill run down my spine as I imagined being attacked by its armour-clad body as it twisted and turned. I frowned wryly, while in contrast, Jolga turned his head slightly, his expression annoyingly calm.
“Is that so? The adult sandworms that I helped subjugate in Sahana were far more fearsome. At any rate, the mucus exuding from their exteriors—”
I slapped Jolga on the ass as he was about to start a long-winded rant about his saga, urging him to hurry up and go. With a slight smile on his face, the Knight Commander kissed me lightly on the head, then grabbed the balcony railing and nimbly swung himself over it. I didn’t think he would jump directly down from the balcony, so I hurriedly looked down in a slight panic. However, after kicking the stone wall a few times to cushion the impact, he landed gracefully with his military uniform fluttering. He then jumped on his horse, pulled on the reins, and started racing away, getting smaller and smaller as he went in a straight line toward the hole in the black wall.
“…What a monster.”
Even though I said that I wasn’t honestly in a bad mood.
With him by my side attending to me, it was easy to forget that Jolga was the best knight in the kingdom of Palcemith. Jolga’s sons, Sigurd and Lutora, while outstanding among the knights, were still no match for their father in terms of ability. Such a man was my husband.
Neuschler stepped out onto the balcony with his walking cane and stood next to me as I looked off at Jolga, then turned to Taiga, who was protecting his back, and smiled.
“You can go ahead, too.”
“I’ll be fine. The whole King’s Guard is present… and more importantly, you want to see it up close, don’t you? The pride of the Palcemith Kingdom, the Shield of Valor.”
“Tell me all about it later. I’m looking forward to it.”
“Thank you, my liege… I’ll be right back.”
After planting a kiss on Neuschler’s cheek, Taiga jumped off the balcony, just like Jolga. After spinning around in the air, he landed softly and smoothly as if gravity was not a factor. Was that ability unique to feline beastkin? Moreover, after shaking his shoulders vigorously, Taiga started running on all four legs without using a horse.
The figure running further and further away in a flash seemed like a beast running on land. He was probably as fast as or faster than a horse. Taiga might not be a match for Jolga in terms of brute strength, but it would be impossible for Jolga to catch him if he tried to run away.
“Lord Anderheim! Your Majesty!”
“If it isn’t Princess Shirayuki. Good morning.”
“Good morning, Princess Shirayuki. Are you all right?”
The party of three comprising Princess Shirayuki, his attendant Asagi, and his escort Yoimachi, seemed to have rushed to the scene in a hurry due to all the surrounding commotion. They appeared a tad disconcerted to see Neuschler and me looking so relaxed. Neuschler beckoned to Princess Shirayuki and he obediently stood by his side, but looked up at the King, whose eyes were still closed, with a puzzled expression.
“Your Majesty, um…”
“Hmm… What is it, Princess?”
“There’s a hole in the city’s outer wall. From there, large bugs…”
“Fufu, indeed, I’m well aware. No need to worry. The Knight Commander of Palcemith and Taiga are on their way to deal with it. The bugs will soon be subdued.”
As he was saying this, a dying cry from the yazus that could not be described as a scream or a shriek echoed through the clamour of the city. Even from a distance, we could see one of the giant yazu’s heads crumble in half. One head after another was sliced off, their long bodies flailing about, and then they were completely smashed by someone. …Clearly, the yazus were overpowered.
Even the King’s Guard standing on the balcony let out gasps of admiration.
“…It’s about time, isn’t it?”
Lightly patting Princess Shirayuki’s head, Neuschler gently pushed the boy’s small back and urged him to go stand by me. After making sure that Princess Shirayuki, whose eyes were blinking in confusion, had moved close to me without objection, I drew my thin sword from my waist.
“I’m counting on you, my brothers.”
At Neuschler’s words, the King’s Guard, who had been quietly standing at various corners of the balcony until now, all took up a fighting stance. They took off their heavy helmets and held their twin swords in a low posture, much like Taiga’s. Those who guarded Neuschler’s well-being were probably all unified as members of the Mutani tribe.
Something that we couldn’t hear was making the air tremble.
At the same time, we felt an eerie vibration. It wasn’t like an earthquake, where the earth itself trembled, it was more like something heavy crawling across the ground. As soon as it reached the castle, it ran up the walls without stopping.
“Pardon me, Princess.”
Before it could reach us, I took Princess Shirayuki in my arms and took refuge inside the room.
Just then, tearing through the stone floor as if they were eating through it, giant heads of insects popped out onto the balcony one after another. The grotesque figures chattered their jaws and wriggled their antennae in an attempt to catch their prey. Asagi, who had rushed over to Princess Shirayuki, held up his dagger to protect us, as I was still holding the Princess. However, his hands were trembling, probably from the horrifying sight of the swarm of yazus. Yoimachi showed momentary signs of hesitation, but at Neuschler’s prompting, he eventually rushed to Princess Shirayuki’s side.
The yazus crawled up onto the balcony and surrounded Neuschler and the guards, all the while making creepy noises. From where we stood, it looked as if nothing could be done for them. But Neuschler and his bodyguards were unperturbed.
“Neusch, the guests have evacuated.”
“What the heck, there’s fewer of them than I thought. You read too much into it.”
“Stop yapping and make sure they don’t bounce on the guests. Neusch will be mad at you later.”
“Yeah, yeah, roooger thaaat.”
“Don’t screw this up, ‘kay?”
After giving a smile at the exchange of quips between the guards, Neuschler raised his right hand. The King’s Guard, who had been displaying their close comradery, instantly became expressionless, leaving only their beast-like eyes, with irises narrowed vertically, glowing ferociously.
“…Slaughter them, brothers.”
They moved the moment Neuschler spoke.
They tore the swarm that had occupied the balcony apart. The greenish bodily fluids of the giant insects were splashed onto the debris.
I quickly covered Princess Shirayuki’s eyes and turned him away from the graphic scene.
With countless legs and body parts torn off, the yazus screamed in agony and attacked Neuschler and his guards but he avoided them by lightly twisting his body as if he could see their movements. The King’s guard proceeded to twist, slash, and crush the yazus’ writhing bodies like beasts tormenting their prey. No, for the guards this was more of a hunt than an extermination.
At this rate, it wouldn’t take much longer for Neuschler and his guards to wipe out the yazus. If so, then…
“…Well, I suppose they’ll come now.”
I turned around and smiled at Princess Shirayuki, still covering his eyes with my hand.
“Isn’t it about time you came out?”
While Princess Shirayuki and Asagi were shaken, Yoimachi kept his small sword at the ready and looked toward a corner of the room where the light did not reach.
“…Did you notice?”
A voice emerged from the shadows.
At the same time, a muscular man’s body appeared.
It was the figure of Fukagawa, one of Princess Shirayuki’s attendants. I did not know where he had brought them from, but behind Fukugawa were several black-clad men with weapons at the ready.
“Thank you for all your hard work,” I commented sarcastically.
I smiled thinly behind Yoimachi.
“It was all based on the process of elimination. I knew from the moment I entered this country that you would make your next move here.”
“…So, then you also know the implications of what I am doing?”
“But of course.”
I combed Princess Shirayuki’s hair leisurely with the hand I was not using to blindfold him.
“The life of Princess Shirayuki, first in line to succeed the throne.”
Princess Shirayuki’s shoulders jerked. He grabbed my hand covering his eyes and pulled it down. Princess Shirayuki’s eyes were full of shock as he stared straight at Fukagawa.
“Why… why, Fukagawa!”
In response to the young princess’s outright denunciation, Fukagawa furrowed his brows and simply bit his lip.
“Princess Shirayuki, it’s because your diplomacy was successful.”
In place of Fukagawa, who did not dare to answer, I, being the kind person that I was, proceeded to explain in detail so that Princess Shirayuki could easily understand.
“Summoning the Kingdom of Palcemith’s Knight Commander to Hinoe to slay the giant snake may sound simple, but anyone involved in running a nation knows how insane a request like that is. No matter how much silk is piled up or taking you as a concubine, it was just not possible. You were tasked with a mission that could only have resulted in you being disgraced or cut down on the spot.”
“Even if that didn’t happen, if you were to return to Hinoe without results, the only thing that awaited you was a future of being used as a sacrifice. For Fukagawa, either outcome would have been fine. As long as his master Lord Seiji moved up in the line of succession to the throne.”
Fukagawa, whose thoughts I had guessed, glared at me as if I were an unspeakable enemy of his parents and gnashed his teeth.
What a foolish man. If he didn’t want the Princess to know, he should have thought of something more clever.
“You and your two brothers are pretty sheltered. There are cracks in the facade of the national government and it is in danger of crumbling. The human heart may be driven by good intentions, however, a state must not be guided by them.”
And yet, contrary to their expectations, the Kingdom of Palcemith made a move.
When the decision was made to officially dispatch the Knight Commander, Tokiwa and Seiji’s aides panicked. In his haste, Prince Tokiwa’s confidant “Tsurara” plotted to poison Princess Shirayuki while he was staying at the Oswein House so he could pin the blame on Palcemith.
This time, they wanted to make the Kingdom of Lidsalessaloth responsible for Princess Shirayuki’s death. If they could take the life of the young King as well, that would be great. So Fukagawa sent his men to infiltrate Nephimen and manipulated the yazus into attacking the castle as he had always planned.
Fukagawa gazed at Princess Shirayuki’s heartbroken expression, tears welling up in his eyes at my nonchalant explanation. He then looked at Yoimachi, who was glaring at him intently, and bowed his head deeply.
“Please, Yoimachi… stand back.”
“…What a mind-boggling joke.”
“I don’t want to kill you. …Just the Princess, that’s all. Then, Master Seiji will be the first in the line of succession. I will be the one to accompany the Princess on her journey to the afterlife. …So, can you please do me a favour and take care of Master Seiji?”
“Stop talking nonsense, Fukagawa.”
Me; Princess Shirayuki, who couldn’t fight; and Asagi, who was far from strong enough to do much were all being protected by Yoimachi alone. The battle between the yazus and Neuschler’s men, which was still raging on the balcony, was not likely to end any time soon. Even though he was at an overwhelming disadvantage, Yoimachi refused to back down, causing Fukagawa’s face to turn sad.
“I didn’t want it to end like this, Yoimachi.”
“Palcemith’s counsellor, it is just bad luck that you got caught up in all this. …Give it up.”
In front of Fukagawa, who had his sword drawn—
—I tried to hold in my laughter but my shoulders were shaking.
In the end, I couldn’t hold it in. Not only Fukagawa, but also the black-clad men behind him, Yoimachi, and Princess Shirayuki, all stared at me with dumbfounded looks as I burst into laughter.
“Hey, hey… have you lost your mind from fear?”
After my bout of laughter, I finally calmed down. Then I took off my silver-rimmed glasses and wiped teardrops from the corners of my eyes with my fingers. Like that, I poured my jade eyes leisurely over them with a sidelong glance, making Fukagawa and the black-clad men gulp.
“Oh, no, no. I’m sorry. It’s just going too much—”
“It’s just going too much as planned.”
“What did you say…”
Before Fukagawa’s quizzical expression, I pulled a small brass whistle with a string from my coat pocket and hooked it around my fingers.
Fukagawa, who probably guessed what the whistle dangling in the air was without me saying a word, gulped.
“You should be more aware of the whereabouts of your belongings. I asked Toriichi to duplicate the one Yoimachi found for me before we left Palcemith.”
On top of that, I put the original back where it belonged, so Fukagawa wouldn’t suspect a thing.
What I was toying with in my hand was a custom-made whistle. It was similar to the one that Fukagawa had hidden under his clothes. Though it was hard for humans to hear, it produced the same sound that yazus made when calling out to their own. The yazus might not be able to hear it if it was considerably far away. However, as long as it was near the outer wall of the castle, the whistle’s sound would probably reach them.
“I’ve noticed that you have been rather restless since we decided to go through Lidsalessaloth. I knew you’d try this at some point.”
“In other words, this is exactly what you had in mind?”
“Well, I suppose so. …Now, let me remind you of something here, Fukagawa.”
I lifted the corners of my lips and just laughed at Fukugawa.
“You know who I am, correct?”
You’ve even seen it once with your own eyes, right in front of you, too.
“You must already know what I prefer to do in this situation, don’t you?”
If I had a copy of the flute, I would—
“Kuku. …You figured it out? There.”
Fukagawa’s face turned pale and he rushed to the window where he could see the castle wall tower I pointed to, turning his gaze to the top floor.
Fukagawa shouted his master’s name.
Seiji, looking somewhat confused, hid in plain sight through the gaps between the row of bartizans. There were no guards around Seiji, and he was looking around as if searching for something or someone. He had been summoned, told that Princess Shirayuki needed his help.
“You should have warned him not to open the door for anyone, so he wouldn’t have been tricked, Fukagawa. An older brother who loves his younger brother. …Although it is good that he is compassionate, he should learn to be a little more sceptical.”
The top floor of the walled tower where Seiji was standing was roughly the same height as the balcony.
Once the whistle was blown, the yazus would not hesitate to attack Seiji.
At the same place in the walled tower where the Sage was…
If I could blow the whistle, then…
But it also meant that the person blowing the whistle would suffer the same fate.
Fukagawa realized this fact and stared at me with a look of disbelief.
A single figure stood behind Seiji.
He was ready to blow the whistle as soon as he received the signal.
With the whistle in his lips, he stared at me in silence, eyes vacant.
The voice calling out the name of the “discarded pawn” that I had taken the trouble of preparing resounded with a wailing cry.
The power of out-of-reach despair is stronger than any tangible fear in consuming the mind.