Under the towering vaults, the Holy Song finally came to an end. The faces of the twelve high-level bishops were ghastly pale. As they staggered to their feet, their servants and subordinates quickly came forward to support them. These influential people were either bishops in Lusitar or academicians. Their standings were prominent and could be said to be inferior only to those that administered the Holy Cathedral of Fire. In line with their statuses were their abilities.
Amongst them, Archbishop Christoph of Cohen, Andrels, and Sarton, the academician, had long stepped into Elemental Enlightenment and were a step away from Holy Realm. Other than those three, the other nine people had reached Elemental Activation. Usually, they would hardly preside over holy ceremonies or sacrificial ceremonies, but they would not become so haggard even if they did.
“How impressive.” The one who spoke was Valar. Those who had never seen the person administering Holy Cathedral of Fire would never imagine him to be a benevolent old man. His eyebrows and goatee were white, and his body had shrunk. Wearing a red shawl with white fur, he stood with his hands behind his back. The old man seemed so vulnerable as if a gust could bring him down. However, the eyes that gleamed with wisdom under those droopy eyelids and overly obvious lines at the side of his tightly pursed lips were signs that showed the man who had controlled the Holy Cathedral of Fire for half a century was not as simple as he seemed.
People called them the bishop who brought iron and fire to the world. As the only one who had experienced the complete Holy War, there was a saying about him—the bishop was definitely not merciful. It was a description of his personality, indicating that he was not as benevolent as he looked.
At that moment, he was standing at the altar with two other people. The person he was speaking to was a woman standing behind him. She was tall, wore a white shawl and a crown, and held a sceptre with a golden fire emblem on it. Her long cape dragged onto the obsidian floor. However, her facial features were not so womanly; her cheeks were sunken in, making her appear overly grave. A long thin braid hung over the shawl beneathher platinum blonde shoulder-length hair. This woman was Sidney Metfalica, the third biggest administrator in Holy Cathedral of Fire, also the fourth-strongest person in Kirrlutz. There were countless legends about her, and it was rumoured that she fought the leader of the fourth Buga Mage. Though she lost, it was a glory defeat.
People usually use the word eagle to describe a sharp gaze, but it was too weak of a description for Sidney. Her gaze was sharp and piercing, and just by shooting a glance, people would be able to understand what she meant. Deep within her iris was a circle of golden fire rings connected to the divine power she possessed—the Holy Sword of the angel Akroma. No one in Kirrlutz could compare to her attainments in the Holy Words, not even Valar.
Caesar was the other person next to Valar, who ranked rather low amongst the twelve bishops. Despite the extravagant silk robe he was wearing, he looked more like a merchant with his benevolent appearance. Although his name sounded imperious, and he was a hardworking man, he barely had any major achievements.
Sidney remained silent as usual. Even when the leader of the Holy Cathedral of Fire spoke before her, she showed no signs of entertaining him. Nonetheless, Valar admired her personality. This generation of inheritors in the Holy Cathedral of Fire was rather young. Compared to the era where the previous bishops lived, these youngsters were too radical and not steady enough, except for her.
“Her Majesty issued a decree on the 14th, and those people entered the city. People from the academy are the most enthusiastic about this.” Caesar reminded softly.
Valar nodded. He understood what Caesar was implying. The imperial power had finally reached the pinnacle in the recent century, and he could not help but wonder if he was born in his teacher’s era. At that time, the holy cathedrals could freely expand their power in small kingdoms, such as Aouine and Antoburo, and could intervene in worldly affairs. In that era, the churches held the greatest power, and even the bishops had control over the inheritance of the throne. However, things had changed.
At that thought, the man felt sorrowful.
“After this time, I’m afraid Her Majesty’s influence in the internal body of the holy cathedral will grow bigger.”
“I understand.” Valar shook his head. People from the academy had always been close to the royalty. From the Year of Thunder, they had been trying to revolutionise the churches and were dissatisfied with him. Even though some people were cleared out after the Holy War, it was still insufficient to stop those lunatics. However, he, too, realised the holy cathedral needed a transformation, but it did not mean those people should handle it. Otherwise, that would be the end of the Holy Cathedral of Fire.
He knew Caesar was reminding him that he should not fulfill Constance’s request. Even though the imperial power was slowly reaching into the cathedral, they still had the authority to decide their own internal affairs. His decision had allowed the queen to influence their affairs and had stirred dissatisfaction amongst the other people. It was obvious since only he, Sidney, and Caesar showed up here. Sidney was not interested in authority while Caesar was timid.
“But it’s the Azure Lance.” Valar sighed.
The queen was too hard to deal with, and at times, he wondered if it was fortunate for Kirrlutz or unfortunate for the Holy Cathedral of Fire to have her as the queen. Azure Lance was a holy artifact, an item from the Second Age brought upon by the Azure Knights after shattering the heavens. In the Pale Poem, it was described as the hope of humanity, a lance that changed fates. It was easy to imagine how much the prestige of the Holy Cathedral of Fire would increase if they could be acknowledged by the artifact. Anyhow, he could not reject it.
Caesar, too, kept quiet as he also understood what it meant. Unable to suppress his curiosity, he turned around and glanced at his colleague. Even the stony-faced Sidney looked expectant.
After all, it was the Azure Lance.
“How unfortunate that the holder of the lance is a Highlander.”
If Caesar did not know the Azure Lance would be transported out of Aouine and that it already had an owner, he would have thought that this was all part of the queen’s plan. That was because everyone knew that in the nations under the reign of the Holy Cathedral of Fire, only the Highlanders did not obey Gretel. They believed in animism and were referred to as the barbarians. However, the Azure Lance acknowledged them.
“Your Majesty, you’re playing with fire, handing an item that can change fate to a foreign tribe just to subdue us. Humans cannot have control over the future as God views it as a sin,” Valar mumbled to himself.
From then onwards, the trio remained silent as they watched the crystal in the center of the hall become thinner and eventually disappear. The lady within it had her eyes tightly closed. With a lance in her hand, she dropped to her knees weakly, as if she had lost her balance. In the next second, she fell and fainted on the ground covered with layers and layers of arrays.
Valar stared at the crystal fragments on the floor and felt as if he could see the shattering holy cathedral. The academy was no longer on their side, and the local bishops were fickle. Williams’s failure landed a devastating blow on the prestige of the Holy Cathedral of Fire in Kirrlutz. Reminded of that useless person, Valar was enraged.
It was humiliating to him, House Cecil, and the holy cathedral that a Paladin lost to a youngster.
After that, he was reminded of the count in Aouine, the grandson of the legendary Sword Saint Darius, and he mumbled, “Why is it this guy again? He’s everywhere.”
When Caesar heard his mutter, he shuddered, for he still remembered what happened forty years ago. The decline of the holy cathedral happened because of that unjust verdict. Glancing at the bishop beside him, he suddenly realised Valar might not have agreed to the queen’s condition so readily only because of the Azure Lance. Caesar recalled that in the royal banquet last week, the queen seemed to have disclosed that the new countess was related to the count in Trentheim.
At the thought of this, he broke out in a cold sweat and recomposed himself, afraid that Valar would see through him.
However, Valar did not even look at him. Instead, he turned to Sidney and said, “Sidney, bring the count to freshen up. Be nicer to her.”
She was startled at first but soon nodded impassively.
Scarlet was dressed to the nines. In a yellow dress befitting a princess, she looked around anxiously. Her long red hair cascaded down her slender neck and collarbone where a silver necklace with a red gemstone pendant was seen. The amber colour of the pendant complemented her glowing skin.
As if intending to dress her like a porcelain doll, the hem of the dress was lined with rose-like frills, the sleeves were heavily layered, and there was even a giant bow before her chest. The corset tied around her body was so tight that she could barely breathe.
The past day had been like an outrageous dream to her. She dreamed that she was in a deep slumber within an enormous amber. Throughout the time she was inside there, she experienced many things and saw many odd sceneries. However, at most times, she was covered by a black cloth or was locked in a box. When she felt unsettled, a voice would talk to her but not frequently. The lady in the Azure Lance was haughty, and it always felt like she wanted to call Scarlet an idiot.
Then, Scarlet “saw” herself being transported into a magnificent holy cathedral, and many bishops surrounded her to perform a rite. All she could hear were murmurs from them chanting the Holy Song. After that, she felt herself waking up, and a woman dressed in white ordered some servants to bathe and clothe her. As she had never experienced something like that, Scarlet tried to run away a few times. However, the woman would stop her each time. The strength she was ever so proud of was useless before the woman.
Scarlet remembered that each time the woman looked at her, she would chant a prayer. Later on, a force fell from the sky, penetrated the cathedral's vaults, and pressed onto Scarlet, stopping her from moving.
Now, she was sitting in an extravagant wooden chair that resembled a throne. Even when she was at the lord’s castle, she had never seen such a beautiful chair like this.
Scarlet looked at her reflection in the mirror before her in a daze, though the lady looking back at her was too pretty to be her.
A few servants surrounded her, combing her hair and putting makeup on her. Knowing that she could not resist, Scarlet remained still like a puppet and let them do whatever they wanted.
As they combed her hair and put on sparkly earrings on her, they whispered to each other and giggled, making Scarlet feel embarrassed. She had yet to find out where she was, how she got here, and why she was wearing such an odd outfit. Though she wanted to contact Ovina, it seemed like the latter was busy today. However, she was relieved to sense the presence of the Azure Lance still.
The servants were cute and energetic, meaning they were handpicked to serve her. By their red hair of different shades and lengths, it was easy to tell their background and bloodline. Scarlet could not bring herself to be angry at them since they were her kins and were speaking softly to her. All she could do was suppress her temper. Of course, she knew that the commanding female bishop was outside.
“Lady Courtesy,” a round-faced servant called her in an envious tone. “You’re truly our princess, the most beautiful woman amongst the Highlanders.”
“W-What did you call me?” Scarlet was not used to interacting with strangers, but the servant’s words made her blurt out in shock.
“Oh, Lady Courtesy, you don’t know about this yet. You’re the first ever person receiving the title of a countess from Her Majesty within the past centuries. Your territory is the richest and most beautiful land of the kingdom. It’s near the Wilderness of Four Realms!”
“Yes! I’ve been to the maple forest there. My goodness, it was so beautiful. Her Majesty sure is fond of you.”
“Most importantly, it’s near to our homeland—Wallachia Mountain Ranges! I really want to go home for a visit.”
Scarlet was utterly confused as she listened to their excited chatter. She could not understand what they were saying. Though she had heard about the homeland of the Highlanders, Wallachia Mountain Ranges, those there too far away from her. Her mind was muddled from all the terms—territory, Her Majesty, Lady Courtesy. Nothing came to her memory.
Nonetheless, she could tell that the servants truly admired her. “Lady Courtesy, we heard that Her Majesty intends to hand the authority of that land over to you. Once you have that territory, it’ll be like it has returned to our people! We’ve been dreaming for freedom and independence for millennia, and it can finally be fulfilled through you!”
Soon, the enthusiasm in their voices died down.
The treatment the Highlanders received in Kirrlutz was worse than in Aouine. The Kirrlutzians viewed them as barbarians, and the royalties captured them as though they were animals. They were caged, taken away from their homes, and sold to royalties as servants if they were lucky. Otherwise, they would die in a random mine.
No one would want to leave their homes, but the history of the Highlanders resisting against the Kirrlutzians had become a legend. The minority of the tribes submitted themselves to houses in the kingdom, and the majority lived a hidden life in the forests like animals. Those who did not belong to either category were captured and enslaved.
It seemed that the girls shared the same life experience. After a long silence, they started sobbing. The round-face servant struggled to speak amid sobs. “Lady Courtesy, do you know that thanks to you, we will no longer be forced to leave our homes and be separated from our families nor would we be hunted like animals by the Kirrlutzians. Lady Courtesy, your name has spread across the mountain ranges in the kingdom. One day, you’ll be the hero of the Highlanders!”
Scarlet opened her mouth, but no words came out.
Thinking that she must be dreaming, she grabbed the armrest and tried to walk, but the crystal shoes hindered her movements. She staggered forward like a puppet until the servants quickly supported her and prevented her from tripping on her dress.
Scarlet looked around and asked numbly, “I-I don’t understand what you all are talking about. Where’s the Lord?”
“Lord? Isn’t that you?”
Scarlet shook her head and wanted to rebut when someone knocked on the door. Following that, Sidney’s voice was heard. “Countess Mitra, if you’re ready, someone wishes to see you.”
The servants fell silent as if they had become puppets, for they knew only one person would come over at this time.