The official had come to ensure Sungchul was appropriately dressed now that Sungchul was to have an audience with the Emperor. And to this Sungchul threw a question in his characteristically calm tone of voice.
“Has the Emperor sent you?
The Imperial Official gave a long, very dull, and roundabout explanation that essentially boiled down to no. It was likely that he was ordered by a very simple minded high ranking official in charge upholding formalities to try and carry out his responsibility.
What fault was there to place on these men? They were only following orders from above.
Sungchul squeezed his eyes shut as he replied with a sigh.
The officials were terrified to see Sungchul’s annoyance and quickly turned to quickly escape with their heads bowed down low.
Although it was but a brief incident, it was enough to bring back Sungchul’s memories of his days as the Imperial Commander in Chief and the frustrations he had always kept locked away in his heart during those days.
‘The palace was such a demented place.’
Since the olden times, those in positions of power desired to be distinguishable from those beneath their station. From it spawned various etiquettes and formalities. And the palace of La Grange was no exception. It had a very high number of social rules to distinguish between ranks. From clothes and armor that the others could see, to the intonation of speech and word choice, even his movement like the manner in which he held his eating utensils, the variety of rules were endless and complicated without equal. None of that mattered now that he had left behind civilization to live in the wild, but it was a source of great pain back in those days when he had no choice but to perform such empty social rituals for sake of vanity.
But it was nothing in comparison to what the Emperor had to put up with. He was bound to obey formalities and etiquette that were incomparably more stringent than that of a mere official like the Imperial Commander in Chief. And having reached that far in thought, a faint grin appeared on Sungchul’s face.
‘Now that I think about it, that Emperor somehow endured through all that.’
William Quinton Malboro may look like a mallow man, but he had a very unique mind underneath all that. He had many eccentricities, like letting the beard grow until they won a battle, insisting on wearing sleeveless clothes even in the middle of winter, or refusing to wear socks in summer. For such a capricious man to have remained in a position with the strictest of all codes of behavior was nothing short of a grand triumph of will.
Sungchul was lost in thought as he followed the officials that had come to fetch him towards the Emperor’s camp.
Before the Emperor’s tent at the anchorage, a number of soldiers were lined up. These were selected elites from an order of knight that was considered the strongest combat unit in the vast Empire.
Sungchul could see in them their fear, caution, and especially hostility. The fact that a knightly order would remain hostile to Sungchul was a foregone conclusion. Back in La Grange, Sungchul had injured the Empire during the order’s watch. Even if this was a one on one duel, their failure to stop the attack on the Empire was recorded into the Order’s record of valor nonetheless.
“We will not forgive you if anything were to happen to his majesty.”
The Captain of the Imperial Knights who knew Sungchul from before whispered to Sungchul as he allowed Sungchul to enter the Emperor’s tent. Sungchul did not reply and walked in.
The inside of the tent was spacious, but there wasn’t much decoration to speak of.
Beyond a small table holding a small arrangement of food was his former comrade clad not in his golden armor but casual clothes. He sat and drank alone.
Sungchul instinctively looked towards the food arranged on the table.
A cooked meat with a sprinkle of salt, haphazardly arranged salad, and a dark crumbly bread.
It was a meal too modest to believe was a meal of an Emperor.
It was a very simple dish that was provided to foot soldiers, made so that it could be prepared even in the tumultuous deck of an Airship. A deep wrinkle too hold on Sungchul’s forehead.
The Emperor paused from his drink to look at Sungchul.
“That was a much faster reunion than I had expected.”
Sungchul couldn’t hold back his surprise.
The Emperor’s face and his attitude was completely different.
Unlike the majestic but utterly suffocated and gloomy appearance he had, his features regained strict but free spirited liveliness that he had back in the rebellion days.
Like how Sungchul had instantly identified a change in the Emperor, so had he noticed a change in Sungchul.
The Emperor put down his drink and spoke with a baritone voice.
“You look tired, Sungchul.”
Sungchul sat at the table without a word.
The Emperor lifted up his drink and poured the alcohol into the cup himself. If the official in charge of the presentation and formalities of the Emperor saw this, he would have gasped in horror. The Emperor himself poured a drink for the enemy of the Empire.
Sungchul drank the alcohol that the Emperor poured for him. Unlike the food, the alcohol was of high quality.
“It makes sense that I might look tired. Considering I fought a demigod.”
Sungchul replied while eyeing the rather unappealing clumps of meat.
“That wasn’t what I was talking about.”
The Emperor took some meat onto his dish and cut them up. He ate them without any hesitation.
“Mmm. It’s good. Have some.”
Emperor offered some meat to him.
Sungchul reluctantly cut up some half heartedly burnt piece of meat and bit into it.
[The score of this dish is… 18 points!]
Sungchul shook away the words that had appeared before his eyes and quickly swallowed the meat he barely chewed. He drank the alcohol again to wash away the uncomfortable aftertaste.
“What I mean is…”
The Emperor lifted up his glass as he spoke.
“Your eyes look dead. Like you looked back then.”
The Emperor took a sip before answering.
“After you failed to be picked by Ryze Himerr, when you were spending your days with alcohol and women.”
There was a transformation on Sungchul who had been looking slightly out of it. It was because he heard a name he did not want to hear.
“If I remember correctly, I believe you ran into trouble because of it. Didn’t a woman show up at the nursery swearing that she bore your child and kick up a huge scene?”
Sungchul looked deeply embarrassed. This was the first time Sungchul reacted like a human being since entering this tent. Bertelgia sensed the tempo of his heartbeat change and shook violently.
Unlike Bertelgia who was brimming with overwhelming curiosity over Sungchul’s nervousness, the Emperor continued to speak thoughtfully.
“Well, it turned out that the child of that woman was half black, so it was all thrown out the window. But it could have been quite bad. What would you have done if it resembled you?”
“… I have no memory of sleeping with that woman. She just happened to be next to me after I woke up after a night of drinking. She’s a typical snake.” (flower snake is korean term for women that try to trap men with pregnancy to get their wealth)
“A snake you say.”
The Emperor’s smile had a very human quality to it. Even for someone as austere as the Emperor, he must have thought the whole incident and Sungchul’s word choice to be humorous.
“Well, the reason why I bring up the past is because you look like how you were back then.”
“Is that so?”
Sungchul drank several glasses of drinks one after another before he answered.
The Emperor nodded.
“Yes. You have such a drained look that doesn’t befit one called the Enemy of the World.”
“That’s how I look?”.
Sungchul spoke back. The Emperor nodded before picking up a bell on the table and ringing it.
“Please excuse my intrusion.”
Once the knight stationed outside entered the tent, the Emperor simply instructed him to bring that. And soon, a cook brought Sungchul a steaming dish. Sungchul’s eyes betrayed his astonishment.
It was boiled meat slices.
Before Sungchul began to learn how to cook in earnest, this was the only dish he could cook aside from fried eggs.
Although everyone else disliked it, calling it a primitive dish that was nothing more than meat cooked in hot water. But William alone appreciated it, saying Sungchul’s cooking had an element of the english puritan spirit.
The Emperor sliced a well cooked pork with a knife and offered a portion to Sungchul. Sungchul ate the meat absentmindedly.
It was a completely unrefined dish that hadn’t even gotten rid of stench, thrown into plain water. The fact that there was no Kimchi only made it worse.
It was the very dish Sungchul had served his partymates after insisting he cook, over 20 years ago.
A bitter grin emerged on the corner of Sungchul’s lips.
“It’s so disgustingly awful.”
“It seems palatable to me.”
“I have nothing to say to that.”
A brief silence fell over the two of them. It was because the Emperor was absorbed in his meal.
After a portion of meat and a round of drink were sent to his stomach, Emperor returned his gaze to Sungchul to return to their original topic.
“Anyway, that’s the impression that I got. Last year in new years, and at the World Parliament before that, the fiery spirit that you had with you is nowhere to be seen.”
“Did something happen?”
The Emperor’s eyes seem to glisten.
Sungchul felt his heart drop for a moment. He suddenly felt a gigantic clump of feelings he hadn’t been aware of until now wriggle close to his heart.
This came as a shock.
Long had he believed that his long isolation and years of suffering had eroded away his feelings, like a blunted sword. But still his heart had so much left inside, with such vibrant and plentiful things.
As he reeled back from the initial shock, it became evident what those emotions were signifying.
He closed his mouth tightly.
‘What is this, this feeling…? Could I… Sungchul Kim wishes to rely on someone else?’
On the last day of the auspicious year that the first Calamity was overcome, Sungchul had declared his severance of all relationships with the Emperor from across the table. It was because Sungchul had judged that he was not even good enough for that.
But the feelings that surrounded him were definitively flowing in a different direction from his firm resolve at that time.
It was then that Sungchul finally came to realize.
Just how deep were the injuries he had sustained in the Fae World.
The fatigue he had been ignoring was no ordinary bodily exhaustion. It was because his mind couldn’t accept it and closed itself off. The only thing dulled was his willingness to open up. The crushing weight that the injury had left him had not changed.
The Emperor silently watched Sungchul sit upright in his chair and struggle internally.
“It seems many things had happened.”
Sungchul nodded without opening his mouth.
Another moment of silence passed between them.
A dragon’s cry of agony could be heard from not too far away.
No doubt that Kha’ness was being fussy.
“What an ironic situation.”
The one to break silence was the Emperor.
“I had finally made up my mind after seeing your resolve, but now that we meet again, you have those dead eyes as if you’ve always been this way.”
Sungchul’s eyes that had been staring blankly into space were turned towards the general direction of the Emperor.
“My Imperial Knights, as well as many of my aides, would love to rip your skin off with their teeth. But personally, I feel a deep sense of gratitude for what you did back then.”
“I suppose you can call it inspired? Seeing you commit yourself to a cause so resolutely made me examine myself. And I was truly ashamed.”
The Emperor’s eyes became slightly unfocused. It was because the Emperor had drunk more than his limit, despite knowing that he had a low alcohol tolerance.
He picked up the drink once more and poured the alcohol into cups. Sungchul grabbed the bottle when alcohol was about to fill to the cup’s capacity and overflow.
The Emperor gave a faint smile. He only drank enough to wet his lips before he resumed talking.
“It is true that I was in a disgraceful state. Emperor I may be but truthfully… well it’s like that.”
“Does this have anything to do with the Wandering King?”
Sungchul fixed his posture as he asked his question. The Emperor shook his head from side to side and replied.
“No comment. Just for one day, let’s not talk about that man, overwork, or cause. What I want to talk about is you.”
His explanation made Sungchul realize that the Emperor was heavily inebriated. No wonder, considering he had been drinking without a pause.
“The important thing is you.” The Emperor pointed his finger at Sungchul. “Your eyes lack life. What happened in these short few months?”
A small grin appeared on Sungchul’s lips.
‘So troublesome. This is why old… friends…’
Sungchul replied calmly as he concluded his thoughts.
“I ran into another one. Another snake.”
It was at this moment that the knights defending the Emperor’s tent could hear it for the first time; The Emperor of the Human Empire’s honest, unrestrained laughter.
One by one, the shocked retainers and servants began to gather around the Emperor’s tent.
Sungchul calmly gave a brief summary of what he had been through. It was because there was no particular reason to hide it.
The Emperor listened, sometimes with a smile, others with a frown.
“So in the end, you have successfully completed your quest.”
The Emperor nodded and commented once Sungchul was done saying everything.
“…You could say that. But it is not over.” Sungchul could feel the uncomfortable sensation of the cross of the Unbreakable Vow that was embedded in his heart.
‘So in the end I have come back to where I started. Back to being a gladiator who is forced to fight each and every day to survive on the arena floor.’
What he had vowed was to end the Calamities. So the source of Sungchul’s motivation ultimately stemmed from just one thing. To avoid death. He had no choice but to face and fight the Calamity so that the cross of the Unbreakable Vow doesn’t destroy him.
The problem was the intensity of his desire to live.
Unlike in the past where he was willing to fight to the teeth like a demon to survive, the value of life was fuzzy and unclear, like an explosive covered in dust. This reflected in his mind and body, visible through his gaze, and the Emperor who was a longtime confidant recognized that.
“…I believe that if it’s you, you will be able to find an answer.”
The Emperor was the first to stand up. This was completely unexpected for Sungchul.
“What? Are we already done?”
“I have drank too much.”
“I believe you had more you wanted to discuss with me.”
Sungchul was absolutely certain that the reason why the Emperor had called him was to talk about the third Calamity. The Mission to unify under a single king. And to ask for Sungchul’s support in completing this task.
But the Emperor had not mentioned this once, to the end.
“More to discuss? Ah. I guess there is one thing.”
Instead, he told his own story to finish this modest banquet.
“…I am also working on completing my own quest.”
William Quinton Malboro gave a confident smile before leaving the tent.
This was how their meeting came to a conclusion.
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