“Hm?” → Khalid
Khalid looks up confused and sees little white snowflakes, slowly falling over the fortress.
“Ah, it’s the weather bell. It’s informing us about how will be the weather for the next week. It seems the snow will visit us more frequently these days.” → Tara
Tara explained with shining eyes while gazing at the snow that was slowly falling with sparkly eyes.
“…You like snow?” → Khalid
Khalid asked mildly, trying to change the subject from before.
“Yes… The first moment I remember from when I was a child was a snowy night; just like this one, when I was with my brother atop the roof gazing at the village. It was a beautiful view and it was also one of the fewest moments when I felt the most relaxed and at ease…” → Tara
She felt her eyes moisten and tried to hide her face from Khalid.
“Sorry, it’s just… I haven’t seen my brother since almost a year now… I wonder what he’s doing…” → Tara
She looked upwards and felt how the little snowflakes melted on her face.
A little snowflake fell in her eyes, making her blink and for a tear to form and fall downward her white cheek. Khalid reached out with his claw and gently caressed her cheek to clean the tear. The little crystalline drop remained on his sharp nail, gazing at it with deep eyes.
So this is the emotion called sadness… It looks beautiful… just like a shard of one’s heart. → Khalid
He then looked at Tara, only to see her redden.
“U-umm…” → Tara
She tried to say something but the words wouldn’t come out.
W-what was that? Why did he do that? Uuuh~, why does my heart feels so warm all of a sudden? → Tara
Suddenly a loud noise of a hungry stomach resounded and made the both of them wake up from their thoughts.
“… Let’s go.” → Khalid
Khalid said with a neutral expression while stepping forward.
“Eh? Ah! Y-yes!” → Tara
Tara rushed by his side with a slight blush on her face.
I wonder what was that about… → Tara
She wondered on her own then she took a peek at his face.
Eh? → Tara
She was surprised to see a rare smile on his face, with warmth inside his eyes.
She’s right… Snow truly relaxes one’s mind… I wish the old man feels better while gazing at the snowflakes falling. → Khalid
Khalid thought while looking upwards and letting the snow cover his fur while he was walking toward the cafeteria.
On the western side of the fortress, atop the wall, a lone silhouette stood in a trance while gazing at the deserted horizon. Little snowflakes covered his horned head and dropped shoulders.
“Hey, Gerome.” → Bernard
The old man twitches then he turns around. On his left, Bernard looked at him with a slight smile.
“Old man. We just finished the graveyard… Do you wish to visit it?” → Bernard
“…Yes, thank you…” → Gerome
Gerome walked with Bernard on the other side of the fortress, then outside of it, atop a treeless mountain. On top of it, numerous small trees of different species were planted in an orderly manner. There were more different species, chosen by the friends or families of the deceased. In front of the little trees, a little funeral stone was planted on the ground. On it, the date of birth, death, and name of the deceased was written. In front of the entire graveyard, a huge statue of a great stone shield was sculpted on which the name of the kingdom was an inscription, also having the respective words right below. “In the memory of those who fought against the Great Demonic Army of the evil Legendary Dragon Thanatos, and gave their lives for the loved ones and for their homes inside the Athara Kingdom.”
Gerome looked at the simple yet beautiful graveyard with moist eyes. He walked beside a young cedar and fell on his knees in front of the funeral stone. Tama the wise fairy, it’s resting here these were the words written on the gravestone.
While Gerome prayed on his knees in front of the graveyard, Bernard took out a bottle from his jacket, together with two cups made out of pottery. He filled both of them then passed one to Gerome.
Gerome first gazed at the cup, then without even smelling to see what it was, he gulped it in one go.
“Good wine.” → Gerome
He commented right after.
“Isn’t it? Let’s enjoy ourselves and honor the deceased with a bottle of the best wine of the highest quality made by the pigs-men like only they know.” → Bernard
Bernard filled his cup again then sipped slowly, letting the fragrance of the wine envelop his senses.
“… It seems that happiness can also be found in the tiniest of things. This cup of wine it’s a good example; my thoughts are quieter while my mind becomes clearer.” → Gerome
Gerome said with a self-mocking smile.
Bernard patted his back firmly and looked at the old man with a smile.
“Stay strong, Gerome. I saw how you pumped life in that Khalid brat. His eyes shone with the will to live while his face was no longer like that of a dead man. Let me be the same for you and let you taste the essence of life.” → Bernard
“Essence of life… found in a wine made by the pigs-men?” → Gerome
Gerome laughed while drinking another cup.
“Of course! In what else?” → Bernard
Bernard said with a wide grin then asked.
“Old man, what is the biggest regret you have with Miss Tama?” → Bernard
“…The fact that I haven’t spent more time with her…” → Gerome
Gerome said while drinking another cup.
“And what will you do if more will die and this place (the graveyard) gets bigger? Will you say the same thing at that time?” → Bernard
Bernard asked with a calm voice.
“Hahaha~ I understand what you’re trying to tell me. Stop being such a depressed old fool and get down to work. We need all the manpower we have at the moment. Or something like that, right?” → Gerome
Gerome asked with a laugh.
“Something along those lines, yeah.” → Bernard
“Every single one who died was under my commands. They died because they followed me. But the only way I could honor their death would be for me to build an impenetrable kingdom. To make this kingdom one of the safest places for their friends and families that still scream their names. I am just as devastated as you are, Gerome. But crying and licking my wounds won’t do them any good. I, for one, If I died and saw you like this from up there, I think I would’ve gone back on earth and kicked your ass to get back to work, damn it. What, you think those walls raise on their own?” → Bernard
“Boahahaha~” → Gerome
Both of them laughed out loud while drinking another cup of red wine. The snow covered their heads and shoulders, while the trees were slowly covered with white-pure snow.
Gerome sighed out a breath of dark chi, feeling more at ease after drinking and chatting with his younger friend. He then looked at Bernard with a more lively gaze and asked interestedly:
“Let’s put aside this depressing subject for now. Bernard, tell this old man how’s it going with Miss Fiora lately? Any advances in your relationship with her?” → Gerome
“PFFF~” → Bernard
Hearing him talk about such things made him spit out valuable wine and stare at Gerome with a baffled expression while wide still dripped from his whiskers.
“A funny reaction, but it won’t answer my question.” → Gerome
Gerome said amused and waited for Bernard to calm down then answer his question. Bernard also knew that he won’t leave this place if Gerome wouldn’t receive his answer.
“Uhm… Last time I talked with her was when I asked how much until the array was finished… It was about that hectic moment when we barely had any more energy and the array was still charging…” → Bernard
“Don’t give me that, Bernard. You know what I mean.” → Gerome
Gerome stared meaningfully at him while Bernard’s ears downed then sighed helplessly.
“Look here, Gerome. Fiora is a good girl. She’s pure, she never killed anyone but monstrous beasts, even then her tears would fall, unable to support the gore and blood. She’s incredibly beautiful, reaching the top 5 most beautiful women in the kingdom and, even though she’s not a healer, she always tries to take care of anyone, no matter the injury. She’s incredibly expressive and everyone likes her, having a popularity comparable even to Gregor’s as everyone listens to her, attracted by her beauty and kindness. She already received tons of love proposals and I heard that even Jack, my best warrior, has a thing for her, asking numerous times for her hand. Our people are all great men and honorable people. No matter which one she chooses, she will always be happy.” → Bernard
“And why won’t you also try your luck? Just see if she will accept your heart. Do you know? Even though it seems that women are attracted by appearance, that’s only until they mature, then they will also try to listen to their own intuition. And from what I observed, her intuition is earning for you, not for anyone else, not even for Jack who’s your equal.” → Gerome
Bernard looked at his own ferocious appearance in the reflection of the wine inside the cup then gulped it in one go, feeling how the alcohol warmed him inside.
“Don’t read too deep into it, old man… I’m a runaway from home, a disgrace to my family. I have no honor and the only affection I ever felt in my life was the one from my brothers in arms inside this newborn kingdom, you included. Do you think a brute like myself will ever be able to love such a delicate woman? Let me tell you. I won’t, I’ll make heavy mistakes and break her heart. Have I ever told you why I ended up as a slave?” → Bernard
“Hm… If you don’t wish to say it, I won’t ask.” → Gerome
Bernard then frowned and took another gulp and said sternly under the influence of the alcohol.
“No. Let me tell you, so you’ll understand what kind of trash I am. I already said I ran away from home, yes? I won’t get into the details cuz’ that’s another story. But you must understand that with the money I had on me, rather than keep them and search for a job and build my own home, I consumed it all on alcohol and women. I wasted myself and turned into the trash of a man; no objective, no wishes, without knowing where to go from there on or what to do. I simply drank my sorrows and tried to feel the warm I never felt in the embrace of a woman which I had to pay money for… Of course, all my action ended with having no more money, right when I had to pay the woman which I slept. She reported me and I got beaten down, had everything on me stolen, then sold as a slave to a merchant on the black market. I felt like the last man. The only reason why I recovered at least my pride, was because my youngest brother which always looked at me with respect actually tried to get me back and convince me to ask for forgiveness from father, something that I wouldn’t do even if I had the blade of the sword at my neck. In the end, I refused to go with him and remained stayed as a slave, all of this because of my own sense of justice and pride which made me turn against my father.” → Bernard
“Sigh~ Bernard…” → Gerome
Gerome sighed and shook his head, finally understanding why Bernard always tried to evade Fiora, even though he didn’t hate her.
“So you think you’re no good for her because you slept with prostitutes and drowned your sorrows in alcohol. Am I right?” → Gerome
“Am I wrong?” → Bernard
“You’re a big fool.” → Gerome
“Look who’s talking.” → Bernard
“No comment.” → Gerome
The both of them then felt like laughing and continued to take another gulp from their cups then Gerome continued with a wide smile.
“Look here, Bernard. Even though your past is not the most honorable one, you showed to everyone, you showed to me and even to Fiora how much of a great man you truly are. Even King Ryu shows you more trust than any other leader because he knows that you’re a dependable leader. We all know that. Whatever you were in the past, what matters is who you are now. For what reason would you remain in the past when other people which depend on you are waiting for you in the present? If you feel like you’re no good for her, while she’s looking at you, then for the love of all, tell me who else is? Jack? By the gods, Bernard, how many times has he been refused? Four? Five times? She always glanced your way but you built walls away from her only because you’re a scared big cat. Man up for the love of all and do as you feel for once.” → Gerome
“… You were friendlier when you were just a depressed old fool, you know that?” → Bernard
“So? It’s your fault I feel like looking forward now. Take some responsibility and do the same, will ya?” → Gerome
“Damn old fart.” → Bernard
“Snotty brats these days. Still pissing their pants when talking with girls, sigh~.” → Gerome
Both of them talked while laughing together with red noses and a deep blush on their cheeks. After finishing the bottle, both of them circulated their chi and tried to get rid of the alcohol and wake up while feeling the cold wind blow through their hair and fur. Suddenly Gerome felt a fragrant smell then asked with a smile.
“Why don’t we go and eat something? It seems Severus made quite the feast from all that meat we got from the waves.” → Gerome
“Alright. I’m starving and I need to give my men a good pause. They all need a ton of food to recover from their injuries!” → Bernard
They both got up and walked toward the cafeteria while chatting, both of them being covered with white, pure snow that shone in the light of the Illuminating crystals around the fortress.
While everyone was making up and trying to recover from their injuries, be them physical or of the heart, a little back in time when Ryu just entered his tower after visiting Tara and Khalid, he suddenly felt his muscles throb painfully and every step felt as if blades and needles penetrated his entire being.
“Ugh…” → Ryu
Ryu entered his office in a hurry then collapsed on his chair. He touched around on his rib area and felt how blood was dripping.
They said I was healing up, but what is this? → Ryu
His heart beat faster while his face paled. He couldn’t understand what was happening to his body and this terrified him.