For a country that could be the target of an impending war, Vrivarya was surely bold to be in a festive mood.
It was just daybreak yet both undead and humans were already preparing for the Royal Festival—as what has people called it. The palace staff was moving, too, albeit hushed, and I wondered if it was alright for me to just laze around.
Curious, I stepped out of the balcony and observed the courtyard. Most royal knights and attendants were busily polishing their weapons and warming up. I guess everyone was excited for the coliseum fight during the festival.
My thoughts were interrupted by the sudden knock on my door. It creaked open and Zaria’s smiling face came into view when I turned around.
Tumango naman ako at agad siyang pumasok sa kuwarto ko. She walked toward the balcony and stood right next to me. We both watched the courtyard in silence and the city from a distance.
“Nervous?” she asked.
I managed a smile. “No, not really. In fact, I am kind of excited.”
Zaria lightly chuckled. “Oh, great. Me too.”
“Will Olga participate in the coliseum fight, too?”
“She insisted. Besides, it’s the only time of the year where they can showcase their strength and ability outside of their lords’ orders.”
Apparently, the coliseum fight happens yearly, during the 8th full moon. I just learned that the number 8 was closely tied with both the undead and the concept of death. The number depicts infinity, a never-ending sign when written—an apt representation for the undead for their immortality. But for the mortals, eight represents death and destruction.
“I thought 8 is a lucky number for them,” I murmured.
“I think it’s 7 and since that also represents stability and luck, what comes next means chaos and destruction, hence 8 becomes an inauspicious number.”
It was fun learning some information from Zaria and it seemed like she enjoyed sharing them as well.
Matapos ang ilang minuto ay nagpaalam siya sa akin para maghanda sa festival. I did the same, too, although it was quite hard without Sigrid. Halos nasanay na akong siya ang gumagawa ng halos lahat ng bagay para sa akin.
I picked a simple black dress but stopped short as I contemplated whether Sigrid and Zaria would approve of it or not. In the end, I opted for a fancier dress since it was a special occasion anyway.
It was a black and crimson ombre dress, with long, open sleeves and ruffled skirt. I also draped a deep velvet cape on my shoulders and wore wedge heels. Mainam kong tinitigan ang sarili sa salamin. My appearance seemed royal enough, so this would do.
Since I was free to roam around today, I went out of the palace together with my temporary royal escorts. Boarding the carriage I used upon visiting the noble clans, the royal knights was about to maneuver it with my grim but they halted when a figure appeared right in front of us.
Agad naman akong lumabas nang makita ko kung sino iyon.
“Kei,” I called and he immediately knelt in front of me. “What are you doing here? Aren’t you supposed to be at the coliseum—”
It was already too late when I realized what I just said. Crap. I forgot that it was supposed to be a surprise event for me.
Kei chuckled after a few seconds of silence. “It seems like you already knew about our little surprise, Your Highness.”
I pursed my lips in regret. “I do. Did that disappoint you?”
“Oh, of course not, Your Highness. After all, I chose to forfeit my chance at the fight.”
The four of them were training real hard and this was one of the rare chances where they could showcase their strength and growth without abiding their master’s orders. What happened?
Akmang magsasalita na si Kei nang bigla na lamang nag-ingay ang grim. It was stomping its feet impatiently while neighing at us. Mukhang nagrereklamo ito dahil paalis na dapat kami pero hindi iyon natuloy dahil sa pagdating ni Kei.
“Alright, let’s talk inside,” I said while pointing at the carriage. “Looks like the grim wants to gallop already.”
Agad naman kaming pumasok sa carriage at pumuwesto siya sa harapan ko. I hadn’t looked closely at them since their training began but I noticed the significant increase of his presence and aura. Although undead could not improve their physical build as they were technically living corpses, they could refine their techniques and boost their abilities instead. Kei, who was supposed to be the weakest among my retainers when it comes to physical strength, looked more intimidating now.
The carriage began moving and I shifted on my seat while staring at Kei. “So, why are you not participating at the coliseum fight?” I asked.
“The maximum number of retainers per lord that can participate in the event is three. We have already decided to settle it with a match, but I chose to step out of the competition myself.”
My eyebrow creased in confusion. “Why? You were looking forward to it.”
He gave me crooked smile. “Oh, I wish I could show you my renewed strength, Your Highness, but I do not want to embarrass myself in front of you, either.”
“What do you mean?”
“Those three are far stronger than me when it comes to strength and techniques. I’d be more useful in devising strategies and commanding those monsters.” He paused for a second and I flinched when his face suddenly darkened. “Besides, we cannot leave you without a single retainer by your side. I heard some of the nobles were disrespectful toward you during your official visit.”
“Oh, that. It was expected and I came prepared. Do not worry too much,” I replied, although I remembered getting pissed at the Kuslavs when they were talking about Zaria. “So, are you going to be my escort for today?”
“Yes, Your Highness,” he replied as he lightly bowed at me. “If you have any questions, you can always rely on me. Rest assured I will also protect you from any harm that may come your way.”
I was surprised at his serious resolve and suppressed a snicker upon remembering his smug attitude while they were escorting me to Vrivarya. I wasn’t sure if he had gotten humbled by our near-death experiences or perhaps there were still lingering effects of the blood curse coursing inside him, but he seemed more respectful and protective of me.
“Alright. I am counting on you.”
The city of Valens came into view as soon as I peeked from the windows of the carriage. It was the capital of Vrivarya and the only city directly overseen by the royal palace as each of the five big cities were under the nobles’ reign. I hadn’t gotten the chance to visit it last time since I had my hands full with dealing with the nobles and their territories.
Located at the heart of the kingdom, Valens was an economic hub where other cities would trade or buy goods, and where the best infrastructures, shops, and delicacies could be found. The streets were lined with stalls selling food, weapons, clothing, and accessories. Every corner of the place was bustling with both humans and undead, and probably most of them came from neighboring cities. At its center was the largest blood bank in the kingdom and there was a long line of humans in front of it today.
“Why are they donating simultaneously today?” tanong ko kay Kei.
“Oh, that’s for the coliseum fight. To watch the upper tier fights, they need to donate a few milliliters of blood.”
“Upper tier fights? So, there’s a lower tier?”
He nodded. “Humans fight in the lower tier. They showcase their strength, hoping to find a potential employer in the audience. The upper tier are exclusive for the undead.”
Muli akong napatingin sa bintana at doon ko lang na-realize na halos nakatingin na pala ang lahat sa carriage na sinasakyan namin. Nang huminto ito sa gitna ng street ay bigla na lamang lumuhod ang mga nasa labas.
“Wait, why did it stop here?”
“It was probably the grim’s doing,” Kei remarked. “Perhaps she wants everyone to pay their respect to you.”
He chuckled. “That grim has become more conceited especially after you have taken a liking on him, Your Highness.”
“He needs to get off his high horse,” I muttered.
Dahil mukhang wala na rin naman akong magagawa ay lumabas kami mula sa carriage. Kei and the royal knights manning the vehicle stood behind me while the grim neighed haughtily.
“Pay your respect,” Kei suddenly announced. “Her Highness, Princess Vyrka Stryzyga has graced us with her presence!”
“Long live the princess!” everyone responded in a chorus as they bowed deeply at my direction.
I was still not used to this and felt like I didn’t deserve the royal treatment, but I managed to remain composed. Kei said I should give a speech in the streets as that was reserved for the coliseum fight, but it looked ungracious if I just leave without saying anything.
Before reaching the ministry building, I turned slowly and faced our subjects. “Surely, I would enjoy this festival,” I said with a practiced smile. “I am looking forward to what have you prepared for me.”
Some looked excited, while others had a look of disbelief in their faces. Embarrassment had caught up with me and I hastily turned around to escape the situation, but before I could step inside the building, the crowd erupted in cheers.
The meeting hall in the ministry building looked quite similar to the royal court, but smaller in comparison. There was a dais at the far center of the room while a huge circular discussion table was placed in front of it. Five seats were provided for the noble lords and six more for the human chieftains of each city.
The tension was high inside the hall, and you could feel it in the air. Everyone looked calm, some were even smiling, but it was obvious that they were warily watching each other. To make the situation worse, the tension skyrocketed when I walked up the dais. Every pair of eyes were carefully observing me. I felt thankful that Kei was here because I would have felt intimidated if I were alone.
This meeting was solely for formality. They were here to greet me and express their support. It would be disrespectful, after all, if they wouldn’t show up during the royal festival when it was prepared for me.
The five noble lords were present, and they were dressed in their finest formalwear. Alastor Revali immediately greeted me, followed by Dmitri Estrei and Laci Sereka. And as expected, Kamilia Dvorach forced herself to pay her respect while Orell Kuslav’s pretentious demeanor was too obvious that it sickened me.
Meanwhile, the six chieftains seemed intimidated. They were sweating profusely and could not even directly look at me. Apparently, it had been ages since a royalty visited the capital and the nearby cities.
The nobles were quick to leave after they gave me their greetings. Laci was the last to leave, but she turned to me before exiting the doorway.
“Oh, by the way, Your Highness, I presume you still remember our talk yesterday?”
As if on cue, her words echoed inside my head. “Then, is it alright if I evaluate them using my own retainers?”
“I do remember, lady Laci,” I replied.
An amused grin escaped her lips. “Alright, then, Your Highness. I look forward to the coliseum fight later.”
Nang tuluyan na siyang makaalis ay naiwan naman ang anim na chieftains. They briefed me about the festival’s schedules for the whole week, and it was honestly a lot to take in. Mabuti na lang talaga at nandito si Kei dahil siya na ang nakikinig noong bandang dulo na.
After the arduous meeting, I finally had the chance to get out. The coliseum fight would start in the afternoon, so I still had a few hours to roam around.
“Where shall we go?” tanong ko kay Kei dahil wala akong ideya sa kung ano ang dapat puntahan.
“Perhaps the food stalls, Your Highness?” he suggested.
It turned out the grim had been detached to the carriage and he was waiting for us outside the building. He neighed angrily at Kei, as if he were complaining at how long we were holed up inside.
“Alright, alright, calm down,” I said while giving him a gentle pat on the head. Nalipat naman agad ang tingin ko kay Kei. “Should I give him a name?”
There was a sudden look of apprehension on his face. “Names are powerful, Your Highness. Naming a lower-ranked undead may pose unexpected risk, but . . .”
I wasn’t sure what he meant by that, but why does naming a grim worry him too much? Gusto ko lang naman siyang pangalanan para mas madali siyang tawagin.
He heaved a sigh. “This one seems loyal to you, so I guess it’s okay,” he murmured.
“Is it? Alright, then I name you Sheriff,” I declared while looking at the grim and he neighed excitedly as he circled around me. Suddenly, I felt a light tug in my gut. What was that?
Before I could ask questions, Sheriff nudged me and gestured at the saddle on his back. Kei helped me mount Sheriff while he remained beside him.
We went to the line of food stalls near the coliseum. An array of the most delicious and mouthwatering dishes for humans was displayed on different stalls, and they were racing toward their favorite food before they sold out, but it had the opposite effect on me. The smell was nauseating, and they looked unappetizing. Undead surely hated this place because there weren’t a single one here besides us.
Agad akong napatingin kay Kei. He was glaring at the stalls, and I suddenly remembered how he looked disgusted when I was eating a hamburger back then.
“Why did you even bring me here?” I complained.
The look of revulsion on his face was immediately replaced with a teasing grin. “Pardon me, Your Highness, I thought you still like human food, but I guess you have already discarded your mortal palate after your awakening.”
Nagsimula naman ulit siyang maglakad at nang makarating kami sa dulo ay unti-unti nang napalitan ang amoy. The scent was now pleasant, and even enticing.
At the far end of the street was the right place for famished undead. Each stall was selling human blood of different levels of purity in luxurious bottles. There were even bottles that contained swirling vortex of white smoke.
“What are those?” sabay turo ko sa mga iyon.
“Humans’ life force, Your Highness,” he replied.
“They can obtain that?” I asked, aghast.
“Only with the help of an arcane mage. They can collect a human’s life force through their powers.”
I remembered sucking someone’s life force when I was craving for blood and slowly awakening while we were enroute to Vrivarya. It tasted so sweet and addictive that I almost killed the guy because I couldn’t stop.
There were only stocks of high purity blood in my closet, and they were good, but I kind of missed that sweet taste.
“Shall I buy you some?” tanong niya at agad naman akong tumango.
And that was my first mistake of the day.
I was never a big spender. Roesia, who posed as my grandmother before, had brought me up to be thrifty and careful when it comes to spending money. Being too absorbed in material things is a dangerous flaw, she would always say.
And yet, here I was, already on my ninth pouch of goods. Aside from bottled life force, I also bought several simple dresses that I could be comfortable in, modest accessories that were not too heavy or flashy, and three flat shoes. Mabuti na lang at nandito si Sheriff dahil siya ang naging tagadala ng mga binili ko.
Kei was also looking at me suspiciously, but fortunately, he didn’t say anything.
Sakto namang nagsimula ang coliseum fight noong papunta na kami sa iba pang stalls. Mabuti na rin iyon para hindi na madagdagan ang mga nabili ko.
Standing at 50 meters high and 160 meters wide, the coliseum was the largest structure in the city, with a seating capacity of about thirty thousand. It towered over the blood bank, which was quite huge by itself. There was a long line outside and almost everyone was already excited to witness the upcoming fights.
We went to the entrance solely for nobilities’ use and we had to leave Sheriff outside.
My mouth fell open upon entering the gigantic amphitheater. The stands were almost full now, and there were still at least five thousand people waiting in line outside.
The huge, flat space at the center was the fighting area and it was surrounded by transparent magical barrier cast by mages on standby to ensure that the humans watching would be safe from any stray attacks. The seating was also tiered, and three magical screens were provided to ensure that everyone could see everything that was happening in the arena wherever you were seated.
We went to the designated space for royals and nobles. It was a roofed and segregated section at the middle of the stands, complete with cushioned seats and better personal space.
I sat at the highest and most comfortable seat while the nobles settled one level below me.
Most of the audience seemed unaware of my presence since they were in a frenzy of excitement for the upcoming fights. I was silently basking in comfort because of that, but it immediately dissipated when I met the gaze of the familiar announcer.
Uh oh. This would not go well.
“Before we start, I want to inform everyone that we have a very special guest for today,” Baldric, who turned out to be the announcer, said. He gestured toward my direction and gave me a defiant grin. “Her Royal Highness, Princess Vyrka Stryzyga has graced us with her presence today!”
Everyone turned to my direction, craning their necks, and standing just to see me in person. The crowd of thirty thousand erupted in loud cheers and I could feel the coliseum vibrating with all the fervor and excitement.
All the attention was on me now and I had no choice but to stand up and give an opening remark. Kei put his finger on his lips and the crowd suddenly went silent, which was quite daunting.
Well, I don’t think they would appreciate a good luck. After all, they all wanted to prove themselves through a contest of strength and showcase their growth. They didn’t want luck. What they needed was acknowledgment and honor.
“Humans and undead,” I called. “May this event showcase the strength and abilities you are proud of. Bask in glory. Crave for acknowledgment. Live for honor. This is your moment.”
I stared at Baldric at the last moment. He was testing me, and I didn’t want to disappoint him.
No longer suppressing my presence, I reveled in their attention and reverence toward me.
“As subjects of Vrivarya, make me proud,” I said, and another round of thunderous cheers filled the stadium.