Albus still had enough sense not to mention his name.
The vassals surrounding the king only looked at Albus dubiously as she stood there with a pale face.
The king gave a serene smile. “Please leave us,” he said. “I need to talk to Albus.”
“Are you being threatened?” Albus asked after the last person left the room and the door was firmly shut.
She couldn’t think of any other reason for the king to take Thirteenth back to the castle.
He must have threatened the prince so he could return, then take over the kingdom again. He even changed his appearance to deceive the eyes of the king’s subjects.
But the king denied it. “It seems that there has been an unfortunate misunderstanding while I was away. So I will say it: I did not return to the castle until now of my own volition.”
“But the throne was vacant after the king’s passing! A kingdom is nothing without its ruler. That’s why I asked you to return!”
“I’m sure you understood why. I couldn’t return because of the risk of assassination. If I, the last remaining member of the royal family, died, the Kingdom of Wenias would be finished. To be honest, I shouldn’t even be back yet. If you didn’t start a war with the Church, I wouldn’t be here right now.” The king regarded Albus with icy eyes.
Albus felt an uncomfortable sensation in the pit of her stomach, as though she had swallowed a stone. “B-But… a war will break out someday anyway…”
“Saying that something that will happen someday may as well be hastened to the present is like saying that you will die in ten years anyway so you may as well die now. That’s what I think, at least. Don’t you agree?”
“No, Your Majesty! I meant to start a small war now to prepare for a bigger one that will happen one day. That way we can clearly distinguish friend from foe. If we use this war to strengthen our ties with the nations that are with us, and use the bigshots from nations that are against us as hostages…”
“Do you really think a small kingdom like ours can beat the Church?” The king guffawed.
Albus winced. She wondered if he always laughed like this. The king Albus had known—he was just a prince back then—was gentle, wise, and kind, like his predecessor.
She heard that when Thirteenth came to the castle, he was the first to learn Sorcery and Magic. Excelling in Magic, he strongly advised the late king to coexist with witches.
Albus liked the young man. She adored him as much as the previous king.
“According to the commander of the knights, you gave fifty Mages permission to use Magic this year. Thirty are old witches who practiced Sorcery, and the remaining twenty are former members of the Coven of Zero. Most of them are assigned to maintainig security and public safety. I doubt they can fight a war. There also seems to be many problems with the Beastfallen employed for security. Apparently, there’s a horrifying animal shed underground as well.” The king waved a sheaf of parchment in his hand.
Thirteenth, who was standing behind him, was as expressionless as ever. As always, it was hard to tell what he was thinking.
Albus clenched her fists, her lips quivering. “There’s a reason and purpose for everything I did.”
“I know. I’m just saying, I think your reasons are inadequate. A small war to determine friend from foe? It sounds convincing, but let me ask you this: You can’t tell friend from foe without waging a war?”
“I will not hear your excuses, Albus. I value results. Had I remained in the castle, I would not have allowed this to happen. Why didn’t you follow Thirteenth’s advice? Why did you doubt him and even try to kill him? Who in the world put you up to this?”
“No one! I thought of everything myself!”
“In that case, you will have to be punished.”
Then Albus realized. The young man returned to the castle as king, taking Thirteenth, his master, with him. The king would not listen to her words, no matter what she said.
In short, she lost to Thirteenth.
“Are you… going to execute me?”
“Execute you?” the king asked back, surprised.
He gave a hearty laugh. It sounded mocking for some reason. Albus flushed.
“What would be the point of that? It would just make the warding disappear, causing more trouble.”
“Oh… So imprisonment for life, then?” Albus’ tone was challenging.
The king did not rebuke her for her attitude. “I don’t know,” he replied. “We have more pressing matters at hand anyway, like how to deal with the Church. How can we avoid a head-on collision with them? Fortunately, there seems to be a way out. If we can get Torres to help us, we may be able to get in touch with the Church peacefully.”
“Your Majesty! I—”
“What would you do, Thirteenth?” the king said, cutting Albus off.
Thirteenth looked Albus straight in the eye for the first time.
Not wanting to hear any words coming out of his mouth, Albus stormed out of the Contemplation Room.
The king did not stop her.
He doesn’t need me. The king doesn’t need me around anymore.
“We have more pressing matters at hand anyway, like how to deal with the Church.”
He sounded as if he were cleaning up a child’s mess.
Albus declared war, fully prepared to face death. It was a decision made after much distress, thought, and hesitation. Yet the king seemed to call it a small, trivial mistake.
She felt terribly puny. The world she perceived was so small, the scope of her understanding incredibly narrow.
Was I wrong?
Her goal was to distinguish friend from foe, but before she knew it, she had no allies around her.
What was I supposed to do?
What was the right thing to do?
Tears streamed down her face endlessly as she walked, eyes on her feet. An overwhelming sense of defeat and helplessness threatened to crush her.
She bumped into someone and stopped in her tracks. She looked up to see a white wolf Beastfallen—Holdem, looking at her with concern.
“Young lady? I thought you went to see His Majesty.”
“Shut up! It’s none of your business!”
Albus became furious for no reason and pushed the Beastfallen aside. Flinching, Holdem took a few steps back. Albus then started running.
“Young lady!” Holdem went after her. “What’s the matter?!”
“Don’t follow me! I know you look down on me too! You keep comparing me to my grandma!”
Holdem’s footsteps came to a screeching halt.
That’s right. Holdem was only taking care of Albus because his original employer, the great Solena, told him to.
He begrudgingly followed Albus’ orders. Whenever she was being unreasonable, he always gave her a weary look, like he was appalled and disappointed that this was the direct descendant of Solena.
She had told him many times that he was free to go, but Holdem’s loyalty to Solena prevented him from abandoning Albus.
Albus hated that. She despised the fact that she could only show her worth by being Solena’s descendant.
So she strived hard.
Wiping her tears away, Albus bolted out of the castle and into the woods. Her feet led her to her usual hiding place.
“Oh, dear.” Sept let out a sigh as he watched Albus go with an exhausted look. He placed the bundle of papers on the table. “As soon as I returned, my subjects’ eyes immediately lit up and they start giving me all sorts of reports. No time to even mourn the death of the previous king. And Albus was in the same position until yesterday. I really should’ve returned sooner.”
“Mooncaller is more than capable of handling matters,” Thirteenth said. “She is wise and brilliant. She also possesses strong will and courage. At least, she did.”
Sept shrugged. “Your high opinion of Albus makes me jealous.”
“I failed to take into account the immaturity of her mind. This is my fault.”
No matter how much Thirteenth tried to sway Albus in the past, she never wavered. She chose to be burned at the stake rather than assist the sorcerer. She had a strong mind.
Thirteenth never imagined that someone could enter Albus’ mind and make her act incompetent.
Thirteenth’s pride was to blame. He believed he was the best at deceit, at getting into someone’s head. If he couldn’t do it, no one else could.
“You’re here to make up for that blunder, aren’t you? I just disavowed everything she did so far. She should be running to the one person she can rely on. You go follow her, draw her to you, and then hand her over to Zero. Don’t screw this one up, Thirteenth.”
Thirteenth turned to chase after Albus, his cloak flaring behind him. His back seemed extremely cold.
“Not even a ‘take care’ to your disciple?” Sept said. “I might get assassinated. I know you don’t care about anyone but Zero and Albus, but I wish you’d at least pretend to care.”
“I wouldn’t have let you back into the castle if I was worried about you.” Thirteenth left the Contemplation Room without even stopping.
Letting out a chuckle, Sept leaned back on the chair and stared at the ceiling. “I’ll take that as a compliment, Master. The highest kind, as well.” He stood up.
Albus was no fool. Deceived by someone, she had made some stupid decisions, but she had carefully prepared an escape route for every situation.
Although Sept couldn’t say it directly to the man, he saw a little bit of Thirteenth in her meticulousness.