Chapter 10 - A Prince's Memories
Many people think of Elswain's royal palace as some magical paradise, cut off from the rest of the world.
Flowering gardens, beautiful maids, carefree days of indulging in fine wine and fine food...
In reality, it is more like a center of endless bureaucracy.
Sure, there were the occasional balls and feasts to liven things up, but an ordinary day in the palace consisted of learned men running around, desperately trying to keep the country together. Not an easy task considering that they were only armed with quills and parchment. Officials, clerks, ministers, and all of the other busybodies dared not slack off in their duties for a second. How could they? The royal family worked harder than any of them.
It wasn't always like this, though. There was a time not long ago when the palace was a place of hedonistic debauchery and pointless excess. But the last two generations of Elswain royalty have been blessed with remarkable temperament. Through their efforts - both in peace time and in the last war with Bulirin - the kingdom was now more unified than it has ever been before.
One particular room in the palace was smaller than the others. It would be easy to mistake it for a servant's quarters, if not for the towering bookshelves taking up most of the limited space inside. This was the private work area of Elswain's youngest Dragon Prince, who was well-known for not liking crowds or wide open spaces. Some may even call him a hermit.
Inside was a young man whose flowing black hair almost reached his waist. A pair of black glasses accentuated his narrow eyes, which were currently studying a thick ledger of accounts. His frame looked so delicate that one would think a gentle breeze could make the prince stumble. However, those who were aware of his wartime achievements knew better than to dismiss him as a feeble scholar.
The sound of a quill scratching parchment filled the tiny room.
Livingnell province is suffering from drought... the harvest there will be insufficient this year... perhaps House Coulport can provide aid.
Nicolai knew that this kind of work should be delegated to his subordinates, but the young man found that progress was simply much faster when a royal signature was attached to the orders. Besides, his stubborn pride would not allow him to take it easy.
There was a series of short knocks on the door.
"Prince Nicolai. A letter has arrived from Baron Humfort of Bask." A black robed man entered the room and bowed.
"Let me see it." The prince answered softly, taking the roll of parchment from his attendant.
With a disinterested face, he broke the seal and began to peruse the contents of the missive. Yet it was only a few seconds later before his eyes widened. After reading the entire letter, he put it down and sat there in silence for a few seconds. The attendant was used to this behavior, however, and did not speak.
"Please leave me for now." Nicolai finally said.
"Yes, my prince." The attendant answered, bowing deeply again before exiting the room.
Third Prince Nicolai read the letter again, a slight smile appearing on his face. Memories of a time long past started filling his head as he stared at the familiar name in the missive. A man he hadn't heard from in years; one of the most incredible people he had the privilege of knowing.
"You've finally shown your face again, old fogey."
* * *
Felix. Tybalt. Nicolai. Elswain's three Dragon Princes are known for their unique strengths and unbreakable brotherhood. Neither of the younger princes have any desire to compete for the crown, yet all three brothers work together for the good of the country. Such a solid foundation can only be envied by houses suffering from petty infighting and power struggles.
But just a decade ago, the Third Prince showed no signs of being as talented as his two older siblings. Felix was a natural ruler; he had a firm grasp of the hearts of men, and could keep the more "problematic" noble houses in line with his overwhelming charisma. Tybalt was the most talented swordsman Elswain had seen in a thousand years - often called the Sword Saint, he was undefeated in duels.
As for Nicolai? He was a shut-in who could not even look the palace guards in the eye while speaking.
Felix and Tybalt loved their brother all the same, and fiercely defended him from the harsh gossip of the courtiers. Yet Nicolai knew how everyone saw him; an incompetent blemish on this generation of the royal family, better suited to library work than leading the nation.
"Big brother, you sure about this? Maybe he should just sit it out..."
"The war with Bulirin is reaching its climax. Sheltering Nicolai will only make him a bigger target of scorn in the future. Don't worry, he'll be assigned to a safe place. Lord Father will give him the fifth battalion."
"Really? That's good then."
In this world, a royal family's sons were always expected to lead soldiers in times of war. Even if they did not have the capacity to be generals, they should at least be officers and see actual combat.
On paper it should have gone well. The fifth battalion was far from any serious fighting, and the Third Prince had studied in the academy; his knowledge of military tactics should have been enough to direct his troops in small skirmishes.
It did not go well.
"Enemy attack! They are trying to block off the pass!"
"There must be over three thousand of them! How did they get past the sentries!?"
"Where is the prince? Get him out of here! Protect him with your lives, men!"
The presence of Elswain's youngest prince was somehow leaked to Bulirin within a week of his arrival at the camp, resulting in a massive pronged attack by two regiments. Bulirin aimed to demoralize the enemy kingdom by taking the head of one of its royals. Heavily outnumbered, the fifth battalion was quickly routed.
At the time, the Third Prince was barely nineteen years old and had never before experienced life and death combat. It was too much for the young man to handle.
Their escape path was blocked off. Nicolai watched, frozen in place, as his personal guards were cut down one by one. The screaming, clashing metal, spraying blood, and spilled innards overwhelmed his senses. This was hell.
Am I really... just going to die here like this?
What have I ever done for Elswain? These soldiers... my guards... what are they dying for!?
Useless he might be, but Nicolai knew that his death would be a huge blow against the Elswain Kingdom regardless. This was a mistake. He should have never agreed to this and just suffered the shame of being called a coward. It would have been better than handing Bulirin such a huge opportunity.
An axe wielding attacker managed to slip past his dwindling retinue and swung at Nicolai's head. The Third Prince had just enough presence of mind left to parry the blow and stab the man in the heart. It was his first kill... while he was distracted by that, another Bulirin soldier broke past the defensive formation and managed to land a blow on the prince, cutting a gaping wound into the left side of his body and knocking him to the ground.
"Your head is mine, Elswain!" The soldier roared, but he was killed by one of Nicolai's last few guards before he could land the final blow.
"My prince! Please, hold on, reinforcements will arrive soon." That guard immediately rushed to the fallen prince's side. An arrow pierced the young man's throat in that moment of distraction.
Another death. From the original one hundred members of his personal guard, only twelve were left now. Every time one of his men was struck down, Nicolai's heart ached with guilt. If only they had been assigned to one of his brothers... they would not have died so needlessly.
Just as Nicolai was coming to terms with his coming death, that man arrived.
He leapt down from the cliff face behind Nicolai's final stand, plummeting almost fifty feet and crashing down onto the Bulirin forces. The massacre began. Swinging a fearsome warhammer, moving at a speed impossible for a normal human being, and dressed in shining plate armor embossed with the God of Light's emblem, this man was obviously a templar. His hammer crushed skulls into paste, and white bolts of arcane energy hit the Bulirin soldiers like God's smiting fist. A chant resonated even as the templar fought - the prince's last twelve guards felt their wounds close and their strength return.
If the Bulirin soldiers had swarmed in like a tide then, without regard for their own lives, it would have been easy to defeat the templar and take the prince's head. But apart from fanatics, who would possibly have the courage to face something like that? They hesitated too long. The templar and guards were able to clear a path through the encirclement and escape into the reinforcements that had just arrived.
Elswain's counterattack was swift, but in the end they were only able to kill a few hundred Bulirin soldiers before the rest pulled out. However, they were able to find the spies and turncoats that had leaked the information, and Prince Nicolai survived - it could be said that this battle ended well enough. If only the damage to the prince's psyche wasn't so heavy.
* * *
Prince Nicolai sat in front of the campfire. It was almost midnight, but he couldn't find it in him to sleep.
A set of heavy footsteps approached, and someone sat beside him. High Templar Whitelaw patted the prince's back like a kindly uncle would, completely ignoring proper decorum. They were not even in the same army, as the Church of Light's templars moved independently of the kingdom's soldiers. Of course, the Third Prince said nothing. Even if the templar or one of his guards had punched him right then, he would only feel as if he deserved it.
"So many were lost because of me." Nicolai finally spoke.
"Yes." The templar simply agreed.
"...How do I face their families? They died protecting the useless prince."
"Then make their sacrifice worth it, mopey runt. There has to be something worthwhile in that head of yours. Or were those years of studying and reading all for nothing?"
Nicolai shook his head. "I'm not like my brothers, they can-"
"Damn right you're not like them." Whitelaw interrupted. "Felix could have rallied the fifth battalion into a steady defense, and held the line until reinforcements arrived. Tybalt wouldn't have been caught in that attack in the first place. He's dumb as a rock but his sense of danger is extraordinary."
The Third Prince winced. How did this templar know his brothers so well? Or was it that they were simply that famous?
"But you have to stop thinking of what the other princes could have done in that situation. Because it doesn't mean shit. The only thing that matters is what you're capable of.
"You are not Felix! Rousing the troops with superb leadership and passionate speeches isn't your forte.
"Nor are you Tybalt. You cannot inspire the men by charging into the fray and overpowering the enemy.
"Find your strength, Nicolai. What do you know? What can you do better than your brothers?"
Whitelaw stood up, brushing the dust off his armor. A fairly pointless action given how it was still covered in Bulirin blood. He walked off, leaving some final parting words that partially snapped Nicolai out of his catatonic state.
"A thousand good men died to protect you today. Don't spit on that sacrifice with your self loathing. Until you save a thousand of our soldiers in this war, you do not even have the right to feel sorry for yourself."
* * *
And so the Third Prince stayed.
Despite the insistence of his older brothers, Nicolai refused to retreat to the capital. Instead, he asked to be given another chance. The King of Elswain granted that wish and gave him command of the fourth regiment. This was a far larger and more dangerous assignment than before, yet it was where the young man's talent would truly begin to shine.
Using his personal war chest, Third Prince Nicolai first focused on improving the army's logistics. He recruited a large team of skilled builders and laborers, erecting bridges at strategic locations to boost the army's mobility. Nicolai then remapped all of the baggage train routes - the new paths may have been more complicated, but they significantly reduced the time it took to get supplies to the front line.
His way of managing the regiment was somewhat odd as well. Nicolai scrapped the old training routines, choosing instead to implement new ones that were far more demanding. They were designed to simulate the stresses of actual battle, while also testing the discipline and cooperation of each squad. If it were not for the promise of monetary rewards and better equipment for those who performed best during these exercises, it may have caused a rebellion.
Near the war's end, these new training methods would be adopted across the entire Elswain military.
Nicolai also greatly expanded the team of scouts and spies within the regiment, bringing in a few experts from the capital to train the new recruits. He wanted more detailed information on Bulirin's movements, the terrain of the battlefields, and so on. This proved immensely effective at tipping the odds in their favor.
The one thing that his soldiers were dissatisfied about was the seemingly cowardly decisions that the Third Prince made. He would never fight a battle unless they had a three to one advantage. Some opportunities were passed up because Nicolai felt like he did not have enough information to act on them. And when they did battle, he relied heavily on ranged volleys and harassment to break the enemy before engaging.
Was the general too afraid to fight? When he learned of the growing discontent, Nicolai called an assembly.
"If I have to choose between killing a Bulirin soldier or saving one of my men, I will never hesitate to choose the latter. Your lives are worth far more to me than the enemy's! Remember that!"
Nicolai had none of his eldest brother's oratory skills. In all honesty, any prepared speech would have sounded horrible coming from him. But it was a different matter when he spoke his true thoughts as they came. This was the honest sentiment that guided his actions.... his strong words echoed throughout the camp.
"Elswain does not need martyrs or heroes! It needs brave veterans who will continue to guide the next generation!"
Some scoffed at the prince, thinking him naive or soft. But it struck a chord in many of the soldiers. They were used to hearing generals speak about the glory of battle or to seize victory even at the cost of their lives. Here was a leader who spoke directly to the fear that was inside them, rather than condemning or ignoring it.
The prince will not throw us away mindlessly. Under his command, we have the highest chances of returning home alive. And if we die carrying out his orders, we are sure to die with purpose, dealing a heavy blow to the enemy.
"You who cut the enemy's head today, will still be needed tomorrow to harvest the fields! Train hard so you do not throw away your lives meaninglessly!"
This lord... doesn't see us as chess pieces as all. Each death weighs on him deeply.
While some may have disdained that weakness, many others felt that this was a leader they were willing to truly follow. From then on Nicolai's soldiers obeyed his orders without question, trusting the prince to safeguard their lives... or at least sell them dearly.
And the results were staggering. They ambushed marching battalions, tracked down and burned Bulirin granaries, captured officers and exchanged them for Elswain prisoners of war... when the ceasefire was finally declared between the two kingdoms, the fourth regiment had lost less than a tenth of its soldiers. As for how many they killed and the merits they rendered? Surpassed only by those under the command of Felix and Tybalt.
* * *
For his services during the war and for saving the Third Prince from certain death, High Templar Whitelaw was granted a symbol of the crown. The moonsteel short sword gave him an honorary rank that was equivalent to a baron, and allowed him to meet with any Elswain noble should he wish to. The royal family would have showered him with gold, lands, and titles too, but he refused all of them.
"Are you really leaving?" Third Prince Nicolai asked the templar, who was now dressed like any ordinary commoner. The two had become good friends during the war, and Nicolai often consulted Whitelaw on many things.
"Yeah. I plan to travel the continent for a bit, then settle down at my old village. I heard my younger brother has a son now, and I'd like to see him." The man answered him, yawning. "I don't want to be bothered there either unless it's important. Don't like my past knocking on my door."
"...Understood." Nicolai sighed. He envied the templar - it would be nice if he could drop his own responsibilities too.
"Heh. I want to relax for the rest of my years, but if the kingdom needs me... well, you know where I am."
* * *
Nicolai once again rolled up the letter from Baron Humfort, then stowed it in a nearby drawer.
All these years he had wanted to check up on his old friend, but he knew that Whitelaw didn't want to be reminded of those days. The war had scarred all of them, so Nicolai respected his wishes. But now this had arrived.
What did it mean for Whitelaw to make his presence felt like this, yet refuse to send an actual letter?
Nicolai could think of one explanation: Whitelaw was saying that he's ready to come back if - and only if - it was truly necessary. He still wishes to stay in retirement, but he was probably concerned about the trouble that was stirring. As the kingdom's strongest White Magic user, he's definitely a significant war asset even now.
I do not want my old post back, but I am prepared to fight if Elswain needs me.
That is just like him. Nicolai chuckled, then contemplated paying a visit to Southcreek Village in order to catch up with the grumpy old coot. But he shook his head.
Just enjoy your peaceful life, Whitelaw. Right now we still have everything under control.