Most of the nobles in Leon’s cycle from the Knight Academy had been spread out among the Central and Western Territories, along with the most outstanding commoners. The rest of the commoners were sent to the Northern, Southern, and Eastern Territories.
The majority of the Snow Lions had gone east, and a few went north. More than twenty-five of the thirty-six third-tier nobles, however, had prestigious posts in the Central Territories. Due to the status of their families, going somewhere other than the capital or to the warm and comfortable west would’ve been a grave insult, so they were all but guaranteed enviable squireships regardless of how well their units did in the FTX.
Valeria, Asiya, and about half of the noblewomen in the Crimson Tigresses, however, were guaranteed their squireships in the capital for a different reason: that was where the royal harem was located. The Bull King had only one wife, but had taken a great many concubines to ensure he had as many heirs as possible, as was tradition.
The harem was where all of his consorts lived, alongside his female relatives that weren’t legal adults yet and all the female attendants that served them. It would be considered extremely inappropriate for men to guard such a place, but since the Royal Legion wasn’t that popular of a vocation for young ladies, most of the best female talent from every cycle in the Knight Academy was sent to squire for a female knight that guarded the harem to make sure the guard unit was properly staffed.
And so, while they were a little disappointed at the predictability of it, neither Valeria nor Asiya was surprised to learn that they would be staying in the capital and squiring for knights in this unit. What did come as a surprise was exactly what their duties would include; upon arrival, they were assigned to the personal guard of the Bull King’s youngest daughter, Princess Cristina.
It was a beautiful day to be outside in the capital. The sun was shining, the air was warm, and the wind was gentle. It was a day that just begged for Cristina to go out and spend time in the royal gardens. Walking around the bright and colorful gardens was one of her favorite things to do, especially since it got her out of the harem.
There were about a hundred women inside who were official consorts of her father, the Bull King, but only three of them had any children. The Queen had Prince Octavius, while the King’s former favorite concubine had given him the First and Third Princes, as well as the First Princess over the course of a century. She was old now, and the King moved on to a new favorite about a quarter of a century ago, Cristina’s mother, who had also borne him Prince August.
These three women were the highest ranked within the harem, and the rest of the consorts could be cruel and resentful due to their positions. Unfortunately for Cristina, she was only fifteen, still too young to leave the harem. Taking walks through the private gardens was the closest she could get to getting away.
But now, even that one simple pleasure she had was failing to lift her spirits.
“You’re going to ruin your hair if you keep doing that,” Asiya said with a gentle smile.
Cristina was currently sitting on a bench around a circular stone table in a gazebo. She was pressing her head into the cool stone of the table and slowly rocking back and forth, causing her shiny black hair to slowly splay out more and more across the table.
“Mmm, don’t care,” Cristina answered with a light and breezy tone.
“Your head servant will, and she’ll give me an earful if you come back with tangled locks.”
Cristina was silent for a moment before she slowly lifted her head and playfully stuck her tongue out at Asiya, causing the older woman to giggle and respond in kind.
“I’m just so bored!” Cristina exclaimed. “There’s nothing to do here except sit and listen to those hags constantly criticize everything I do!”
“You have one of the most extensive libraries in the entire Kingdom at your disposal…” Asiya mentioned.
“Already read everything worth reading,” Cristina said bitterly.
“… How about learning to sew, or to carve?” Asiya suggested. “There’s plenty of material to do both around here…”
“Uggh…” Cristina moaned in disgust. “I’d rather come out here and watch the grass grow than sit with a needle and thread in hand, and carving sounds only marginally better than that…”
“Hmm,” Asiya responded with a frown. Before she could continue offering suggestions, though, she saw a hint of moving silver out in the surrounding hedges and bushes. She immediately leaped to her feet and started calling out, “Over here!”
That flash of silver turned out to be Valeria’s hair, gleaming in the early afternoon sun. She had just finished her duties with her assigned knight and was wandering the garden looking for Asiya. Hearing her friends shout, Valeria quickly made her way through the garden paths and arrived at the secluded gazebo.
“Hello, Your Highness,” she said with an extremely formal attitude to Cristina, whose head was still on the table.
“Heyyy,” Cristina mumbled back.
“Bored?” Valeria asked.
“Mm hmm,” the Princess responded.
“Well, there’s an easy way to fix that,” Valeria hinted with the ghost of a smile tugging at her lips.
Cristina’s head instantly shot up, her soft brown eyes narrowed in anger and a touch of fear. “No! The last time you dragged me into training I was so sore that I could barely move for a week!”
“No Royal should ever shirk their duties,” Valeria commented seriously. “Your Highness needs to be strong, for Your Highness’ own sake and for the sake of the Kingdom.”
“You make it sound like the Kingdom depends on me,” Cristina murmured.
“It does, to an extent,” Valeria replied. “It relies upon all of its leaders, and as a Princess, that includes Your Highness.”
“Puh! I don’t like training!” Cristina pouted.
“I think Val is just a little frustrated that she hasn’t had a good fight in eight months, not since the Knight Academy sent us off,” Asiya said with a smirk. “She wants someone to spar with, someone on her level.”
“Isn’t that you?” the Princess asked, cocking her eyebrow at the Samar girl.
“She refuses to spar with me,” Valeria explained, shooting Asiya a playfully nasty look.
“I’m confident enough in my own abilities, but I’m not what you’re looking for,” Asiya retorted. The hint of a blush came to Valeria’s cheeks, as she knew exactly what—or rather, who—her friend was talking about, but she wasn’t going to clarify for the slightly-confused Princess.
“Then can’t you ask one of the knights around here? What about the woman you’re squiring for… what was her name?” Cristina asked.
“Dame Aquileia,” Valeria answered. “She’s a sixth-tier knight, not really suited to spar against for me; she’s too strong.”
“Well good luck finding anyone who you can spar against, miss fourth-tier,” Asiya said teasingly.
“It’s not my fault I don’t slack off in my training!” Valeria shot back defensively.
“No, but it does make any complaints of being unable to find someone to spar against hold less water.”
While those two playfully bickered, Cristina crossed her arms on the table and rested her chin upon them. She stared out into the distance, as far as she could—which wasn’t that far, given how thickly forested the area around the harem was, to keep the building private and sequestered.
“What is the city outside like?” she suddenly asked, interrupting the other two ladies.
“What do you mean?” Asiya asked, seeking something to narrow down what the Princess wanted to know.
“I’ve never set foot outside of the harem,” Cristina explained with a sorrowful look. “My Royal Father told me that he would allow me to make my public debut when I turned fourteen, just like the rest of my siblings, but he hasn’t come out of training in years, so I’ve haven’t been able to leave and present myself to the court. I want to know what’s outside! I want to see something other than this place!”
“The city is loud and crowded,” Valeria said. If the Princess wanted to know, then Valeria was going to tell her without hesitation. “There are so many people out there that their body odor can make the entire city stink by mid-afternoon. They set up shops and try to attract customers with garish advertisement, painting the walls of their stores in bright colors trying to draw the eye. The sheer number of people make an ungodly cacophony that leaves your ears under a significant amount of pressure at all times. All told, the city is generally an overwhelming feast for the senses, and one that is rarely pleasant.”
“Oh…” Cristina said quietly as her cute round face, which had rarely ever seen a frown, fell in dejection.
“It’s not that bad!” Asiya almost shouted. “Don’t listen to her, Your Highness! She makes it sound terrible! The capital has a great deal of charm and beauty, and isn’t just noisy, smelly people doing everything they can to grab your attention!”
“But that is most of it,” Valeria said with a thin cynical smile.
Asiya frowned at her friend, but instead of feeding her cynicism, she turned to Cristina and asked, “Is that what you want? To leave this place?”
“Yes, more than anything,” the Princess responded without hesitation. “Unfortunately, I can’t until my Royal Father comes out of seclusion and holds the ball that will present me…”
“Hmm…” Asiya hummed, thinking over the problem. “Well, to sneak you out of here would probably get us strung up on charges of treason, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything we can do…”
“What do you mean?” Cristina asked. Valeria glanced at her friend with a curious look as well, wordlessly asking the same question.
“It sounds to me like you need more friends!” Asiya exclaimed enthusiastically. “You already have me and Val, but you need more! And if you’re not allowed to leave this place, then we can bring them to you!”
“Uh… I mean… what?” Cristina asked quietly; for all her talk about wanting to leave and see the world, she was still a shy and sheltered young girl, and being suddenly told to meet someone made her heart jump in anxiety.
“I… think I know what you’re getting at…” Valeria said slowly. “If we were to introduce Your Highness to someone, it would have to be a person of status, and a woman that wouldn’t raise any eyebrows at meeting a Princess… The only person I know who would be acceptable would be Elise…”
“She’s perfect for this!” Asiya gushed.
“Elise…?” Cristina quietly mumbled, seeking more information.
“The daughter of the Heaven’s Eye Tower Lord here,” Valeria explained. “She’s a good friend of ours, and I’m sure she’ll come if we were to ask!”
“She’ll have to bring guards, and we might need to invite a couple of others to avoid rumors…” Asiya mentioned, “But it should be fine so long as it isn’t too many!”
“I don’t…” Cristina said nervously. “I don’t quite know what to say…” She certainly wanted to experience the world and bringing other people to her was the best way for her to do that for the time being, but it was still a very sudden thing to spring upon her.
“No, Elise is super fun, she’ll alleviate your boredom, I guarantee it!” Asiya said with a bright smile.
“I suppose…” Cristina whispered.
“Of course, we’re going to have to ask the rest of the knights around here first,” Valeria said as she planned this out in her head. “and having a few more respected knights around here for the meeting would also go a long way toward dispelling any rumors about Elise appearing here…”
“I doubt there would be any rumors,” Asiya said after a moment of thought. “No one wants to make an enemy of Heaven’s Eye, and spreading rumors about the Tower Lord’s only child would be an incredibly effective way to get on their shit list…”
“Still best not to take chances,” Valeria replied.
The three ladies continued to chat for about twenty more minutes, discussing the finer points of how and when Elise might be able to visit. By the time Cristina returned to the harem, she couldn’t help but bounce with excitement, and not even the harsh eyes of the King’s childless consorts could bring her mood down.
‘I’m going to get another friend!’ she thought with joy.
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