Humans gathered around the main road to cast a brief look at our carriage. A lot of them looked excited while some showed subtle apprehension. After all, this was their first and last time witnessing the royal princesses stepping out of the borders for the royal parley as it only happens every five hundred years.
“This is a first,” mumbled Zaria as she peeked behind the window curtain.
There was a hint of excitement in her eyes as everyone’s attention was focused on the carriage and I remembered how she was practically confined within the royal grounds since her existence was a weakness that could be used against the royal family.
It reminded me of her expression during the tournament. Zaria wanted to be surrounded with people after growing up alone and alienated by her own family. I couldn’t help but feel regretful after seeing the pleasant smile on her face. She deserved to be treated as a princess, yet she could only enjoy some of its merits when she’s with me.
“So, this is what the downtown looks like,” she remarked.
Hindi naman matanggal ang ngiti sa mga labi niya habang nakadungaw sa bintana. She was looking at everything in awe. The humans. The infrastructures. Even the dried trees and strange flowers lining up the roads.
Kinailangan naming bumaba mula sa carriage nang marating namin ang bukana ng Sybaris Forest dahil hindi na ito makakadaan doon.
“Follow us, Your Highness, Princess,” Kei said as we got out of the carriage.
He and Sigrid led the way through the forest. Thick mist shrouded the trees and ground. Leaves and branches rustled as the wind blew. There was a palpable tension in the air after the trespassing of undead in the forest before. Kei could night-travel us to the dock, but we decided to walk as that skill might be more useful for later.
It took us about an hour to reach the shore, but I stopped short upon seeing a familiar face waiting for us.
“Dmitri,” I called as the elder noble stood in front of the newly built ship.
He was wearing a white long-sleeved linen shirt with a red sash around his left shoulder down to his right waist and paired with black trousers. There was also a sheathed sword hanging on his left waist, its bottom half hidden by the black cloak around draped around his shoulders. Was that his combat attire?
“Your Highness,” he said while bowing in my direction.
“Why are you here?”
He gave me a small smile. “I’m here to wish you a safe journey.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. There was no way the head of the noble clan would go into the Sybaris Forest in full military dress and without any retainers just to see us off. He must have had other reasons.
I suddenly remembered his behavior during the court meeting, and wondered if this was about that.
“Is the Estrei clan pledging its allegiance to the royal house?”
Their faces might have remained impassive, but I knew the three behind me were quite surprised. On the other hand, Dmitri’s smile widened.
“Not the royal house, no,” he responded while looking at me with an amused expression.
Wait, don’t tell me…
I scoffed in return. “Are you offering your fealty to me, Dmitri?”
His dark eyes gleamed in levity. “Perhaps I may, Your Highness.”
My shoulders twitched upon hearing his reply. It was astounding that the mighty house of Estrei who had been neutral since Father took the throne a few centuries ago was willing to bow its head to me, who was only here for less than a year.
“You may be fledgling, but you have already grasped the political system of the land,” he said while giving a glance at Zaria. “You have wisdom on your side, too. Perhaps your reign may bring the kingdom to its peak.”
Hearing such praise from Estrei was surprising and at the same time, it sounded like a threat. Still, having someone like him by my side would strengthen the royal faction.
“Let’s talk about this when I return,” I said.
“As you command, Your Highness.”
He gave a slight bow at me before heading back to the forest, and I could only watch in silence as his figure disappeared from my sight.
My mouth hung open as I stared at the ship docked in front of us. My attention was focused on Dmitri earlier that I only noticed how great this masterpiece was.
“What is this ship called?” tanong ko.
“It’s a galleon, Your Highness,” replied Kei.
There would only be four of us, yet the ship Dmitri had provided was massive. It has four masts with sails bearing the sigil of the royal house of Stryzyga—two swords across a crowned skull with intricate runes in blood behind it—and the flag of Vrivarya.
“This way, Your Highness.”
Zaria and I followed my retainers and I almost gasped at the sheer size of the main deck. It felt like I was walking through the royal courtyard as it was designed to look like one. Plants endemic to Vrivarya lined the deck while a dais containing two highchairs was setup near the main mast.
“Dmitri surely did not want to disappoint you,” Zaria chuckled as she wandered around the deck. “I cannot believe he made this in less than a month.”
Constructing a ship of this size must have cost a lot and would probably take at least three months. No wonder the royal house and the Dvorach-Kuslav faction wanted the Estrei house on their respective side. With this kind of craftmanship, they could create artilleries and armors, and they must also know hidden passages within the royal palace as it was their ancestors who built it in the first place.
“We will prepare for our journey,” said Sigrid. “Your Highness and Princess Zaria shall rest for now.”
She went to the quarters to check each room while Kei took the helm. The galleon was still a shock to me, but I guess it was necessary to board such ship as it was a testament of Vrivarya’s wealth and power.
“Shall we?” Zaria said while gesturing at the dais.
I nodded and we walked toward the highchairs.
“That was amazing,” mumbled Zaria while sitting on the right. “You got Dmitri on your side.”
“I wonder what changed his mind,” sagot ko naman at umupo sa kaliwa. “It feels unnerving.”
“Surely, he saw a potential in you that he hadn’t seen in Father while he was in the throne.”
Zaria looked convinced that I was someone worthy in Dmitri’s eyes, but it was still too strange. I was only here for almost a year and Father had been the king for centuries. Was that enough time to see what I could do once I assume the throne when he barely interacted with me?
Isang malalim na buntonghininga ang binitiwan ko. Meeting Dmitri before the royal parley made my thoughts frazzled. It wouldn’t do us good if this would get me distracted during an important assembly. I would worry about it once I returned. For now, I had to think about the forthcoming discussions about our kingdom.
The galleon set sail from the waters of Vrivarya. There was a feeling of uneasiness in my chest as we had to sail during the night. The galleon was equipped with light runes, but it couldn’t illuminate what was ahead of us. Fortunately, the moon was full tonight, and its light could help Kei navigate a little easier through the darkness of the Sea of Mirovia.
The night was except for the occasional sound of waves hitting the galleon, but Kei and Sigrid immediately ran to us when the calm waters suddenly churned. A high-piercing shriek filled the salty air and about seven figures emerged from the water.
Their algae-covered scales glinted under the moonlight as they bared their shark-like teeth at us. Their misshapen faces and beady eyes, covered with thick straggly hair that looked like seaweeds, came into view as three of them leapt from the water. A chorus of ear-piercing shriek filled the salty air and I shuddered when the galleon lurched a bit.
“Disgusting fishes,” muttered Sigrid as she jumped off the deck.
“She can handle them, Your Highness,” said Kei as he steered the helm hard. “Our problem is the whirlpool in front of us.”
I could only gasp as I watched Sigrid behead the mermaids on the surface while using their bodies as a foothold to keep herself from falling into the water. She swung her scythe without mercy, and before I knew it, the sea had become crimson.
On the other hand, the sheer size of the galleon made it hard for Kei to evade the growing vortex along our way. It was already bigger than the galleon and it would easily wreck it if we got sucked in it.
“There is no other choice,” he grimly murmured. Kei started fumbling with the weights attached to his ankles.
Don’t tell me he was planning to night-travel the entire ship? It would consume much of his stamina!
I was about to refrain him from doing it when Zaria suddenly stepped toward the bowsprit and walked through the narrow piece of oak.
Lumingon siya sa akin at ngumiti. “Allow me to be a useful attendant to you.”
“Wait, what are you—”
Her words echoed inside my head so clear that my mind almost went blank. It was only then that I realized she used her charm to make the whirlpool disappear. The command wasn’t as powerful as Mother’s, but I thought it was already on par with Kamilia’s. Although she said she couldn’t command living things, it was still a terrifying ability.
Her sudden display of that skill stunned both Sigrid and Kei. After all, only three people knew about it.
She looked at Kei and nodded. “We shall continue our journey.”
“Y-Yes, Princess,” he responded.
Sigrid also went back to the ship, and we activated the defenses Dmitri had set up to prevent more mermaid attacks.
Somehow, I felt proud that my own retainers finally witnessed her ability. She had been treated unfairly for far too long and I wanted to stop that from happening any longer.
Halos sabay kaming bumalik sa upuan namin at agad ko naman siyang nginitian. “You’re starting to sound like Mother,” biro ko.
She chuckled in return. “Oh, please. If Mother said the same words, the Sea of Mirovia would not have a single wave nor a ripple. I think the mermaids would even fall asleep.”
I silently agreed. Mother’s charm was just too powerful. No wonder the royal house wanted her by their side no matter what. If she hadn’t married Father, the Dvorachs could easily usurp the throne with her on the front line.
Muli akong napatingin sa direksyon ni Kei. “How many hours until we reach Katur?” I asked.
“About eighteen hours, Your Highness.”
Kei steered the galleon faster while Sigrid kept guarding the surroundings. We had an hour of peace, but another round of mermaid attacks occurred, and it kept us from resting.
The four of us continued defending the ship and there were moments when I just wanted to spill the sea with my blood to poison the mermaids because it was so tiring, but that might kill other seafolks, so I opted not to do it.
It was already noon when the frequent attacks stopped since their body temperature weren’t used to the heat of the sun. I also didn’t want to see their hideous faces in broad daylight.
Sigrid grunted after wiping the blood off her scythe. “It stinks.”
I felt bad at her for being in-charge of thwarting the mermaids. They smelled really bad. Imagine a raw fish that had gone bad but only a hundred times more putrid.
The sun was already setting when Kei informed us that Katur was just a few kilometers away.
A small island peeked from the horizon as I walked toward the bowsprit. There was a strange tingling sensation on my skin. In a few more hours, I’d be meeting with my fellow heirs.
Little did I know, a single decision of mine later would make that small island before me a land soaked in bloodbath instead of peace.