A straight pathway was laid out extensively outside the Royal Palace, stretching all the way to the stone gates of the outer castle. Any sort of transportation was strictly prohibited, the clearance exclusively provided for the royal carriages’ use alone.
Dozens of wagons streamed out of the palace, settling on their respective places as they formed a neat line along the road. The king himself preceded the procession, along with his warriors on horsebacks situated to both his sides. A chariot carrying the Queen followed close by, with her own set of warriors escorting the chariot she was riding on.
Officials and attendants are also present in this ritual, also riding on their personal wagons, with the caravan carrying various items and necessities for the five-day event trailing right behind them.
Seated inside her carriage, Eugene heard a shout coming from the outside. She shifted close to the window beside her, lifting the curtain just slightly as she took a peek outside. She saw the crowd gathering up in huge numbers, filling the road steadily as they scrambled to their places, all of them eager to see the parade before them. The king’s march was indeed a spectacle worth seeing.
However, the sight of the king mounted on the back of his Hwansu was something that the people have already seen numerous times, so it was not the reason why people flocked the space so vigorously. What the crowd wanted to see now was Eugene, not letting the chance go to waste as they craned their necks to catch a glimpse of their queen.
Eugene didn’t expect that people would come because of her. She thought that the tale of the Lark Tree had dissipated, and she assumed that the area near the stone gate would come up empty.
The trip didn’t take too long. The carriage came to a full stop as they reached their destination. The warrior escorting the queen knocked on the metal door. “My Queen, we have arrived at the stone gate.”
Eugene was informed in advance about the procedure when going out to the desert. After leaving the palace seated inside the carriage, Eugene has to transfer to the palanquin prepared for her when they reach the outer wall of the stone gate—which led straight to the desert.
The carriage door swung open. Eugene smiled upon making eye contact with Kasser. She grabbed the hand reaching for her, grasping his hand tightly with hers as she scooted forward. As soon as Eugene had her body out of the carriage, a shout was instantly heard outside, the crowd squirming in anticipation.
The sea of people behind the barricade the soldiers formed seemed endless, the horde stretching in all directions, crammed like sardines as they shout incoherent noises of praise towards the King and Queen.
Before the door was opened, Eugene only heard minimal sounds from where she sat, so she was astounded to see the large number of people before her. The clamor startled her, making her miss a step going down as her body fell straight into Kasser’s arms, her face flushed against his chest.
The unexpected display of closeness caused a wild uproar among the crowd, their screams going up two octaves higher as they cheered relentlessly for the royals. Eugene’s cheeks heated up instantly, feeling embarrassed of being seen in such a predicament. Kasser snickered down at her, laughing softly at Eugene’s abashed appearance.
With Eugene still tucked into his chest, Kasser leaned his mouth closer to ear, and whispered teasingly, “Do you want me to pick you up bridal style, and carry you there?”
Eugene lifted her head to look at him. He looked serious, as if he was really going to do it if she agreed. Eugene scrunched up her nose towards him, smiling sarcastically as she pushed at his chest lightly, pulling herself up to her feet as she stood with her back straight.
The short, playful exchange between the royal couple was not left unnoticed by the public surrounding them, making the people gush at the sight. The comfortable atmosphere between them was clear as day, drawing up nods of approval from the people who witnessed such soft intimacy.
Some even wondered where the rumors of the queen keeping to herself came from, deeming it untrue, having seen the queen in an amicable state today.
There were a lot of rumors going about the queen, since she didn’t used to engage much with activities like this one. And with that also came with the news that said she and the king didn’t have a pleasant relationship.
The masses have their own ideas of what they wanted their rulers to look like. They pictured them to be perfect and superior, void of any flaws that may tarnish their image. And looking at the royal couple now seemed to have fit their narrative completely.
Eugene held his hand and climbed up the camel’s back where the palanquin was placed. Going inside the palanquin, the ruckus from the outside slowly diminished. The structure was assembled in a way that it is comfortable to sit on with legs stretched out.
The flooring had several large cushions strewn out for Eugene to lean on, and pillars were placed in all sides instead of walls, making the air pass through freely. Sturdy handrails and screens were also positioned around the perimeter, sheltering the interior entirely from the outside. A roof was also set up, covering the palanquin perfectly as it prevented the sunlight from streaming in.
People began to move diligently, going down their wagons to mount on their horses and camels. The workers started to move around, and assembled the custom-made wagons into sleds, transforming the wagons altogether.
Kasser climbed on top of Abu gracefully, and raised his right hand. The noise began to simmer down gradually until no sound could be heard anymore. The silence that enveloped the space was deafening— a small whisper would resonate loudly across the wide expanse of land.
“Open the door.” Kasser ordered.
The commander wasted no time as he abided to the king’s order, grabbing the rope in front of him. “Open the door!” He shouted at his soldiers in waiting.
“One! Two! Pull!”
The soldiers screamed in unison, tugging the pulleys along with the connecting rope. The soldiers hunched forward, their heels marking the ground beneath them as they pulled forward, shouting in cadence upon raising the stone gate. The people watching cheered in excitement, anticipating the start of the dry season.
The king had already announced the start of the dry season yesterday afternoon, but it was only today the stone gate was being opened. Generally, the gate was opened after the sun rises in the morning, and closed when the sun goes down.
Eugene stared at the huge stone gate propelling upward. She had already seen how it was opened two months ago, but the purpose of it was entirely different. Before, the gate was opened in order to get inside.
Eugene remembered that day as if it was only yesterday, thinking how confused she was before, not having any idea what would happen if she went inside the gate. So much had changed for the past couple of months, making Eugene feel nostalgic.
The stone gate screeched to a halt. The gate had risen completely.
People’s screams boomed even more loudly at the sight. There are always a lot of people watching every time the stone gate opens, since it signaled the start of the dry season. Everyone began to laugh and talk joyously with each other, their exhilaration increased even more upon seeing the unexpected march of the royal couple.
The king’s hwansu, now in his usual form of a beastly black horse, moved in front of him and marched. The camels sitting down slowly raised themselves up from the ground as they began to move forward.
The camel carrying Eugene’s palanquin slowly rose up, shaking her slightly as it reached its full height. Eugene looked around outside, slightly shocked at the height she was in. She knew that the camel carrying her is a special breed, knowing full well that it is large and tall, but she still felt queasy of how high she was from the ground. She was so high up that she could see the top of a person’s head even when horseback.
The signal blared incessantly around them. The procession started to go forward to the desert, the scorching sunlight making itself felt as it engulfed the caravan beneath it completely. The fleet progressed steadily as the blaring sound grew smaller and weaker, until it could no longer be heard anymore.
In the vast desert where the sand dunes seemed infinite, the caravan continued to march on, never stopping as they strode continuously for hours to no end.
Eugene knew that camels moved slow, however even in its unhurried pace, the camel was able to trudge greatly due to its large strides. A person walking in haste won’t be able to compare.
The camel stopped abruptly. Eugene looked outside and saw the other camels and horses stopping as well. After a short while, warriors on horseback suddenly went to Eugene’s direction, and encircled the palanquin she was riding on.
Eugene was puzzled, having no idea what the reason was for the sudden halt. A person on horseback galloped towards Eugene. It was Sven. “My Queen, His Majesty went to scout the road for a while. He will be back soon.” Sven said.
After a short moment, the pack started moving again. It was almost noon when they stopped for a break and settled down for a meal. The camel carrying Eugene sat down with his knees bent. The sudden shift made Eugene jostle in her seat as the scene dropped down drastically.
“My Queen, we are setting up the tent. I will let you know once it is ready.” Zanne said.
After having spent hours just sitting down, Eugene opted to go out for a walk as to stretch out her numb limbs. She crawled towards the pillars, lifted the screen and looked down. She noticed the gap between her palanquin and the ground below, internally measuring the short drop between the two planes. “I want to get off now.” Eugene exclaimed.
“Yes, My Queen.” Zanne said.
Eugene laughed at herself, knowing that a small jump would have been enough for her to go down. However, she grew accustomed to the royal treatment already.
Zanne came back with a stool on hand, placing it in front of Eugene’s camel. Eugene went down, stretching her arms above her head as she twirled her body left and right. They were in the middle of the desert, where sand is the only thing they could see over the horizon. She placed her hands over her head, shielding herself from the blazing sun.
Eugene decided to walk to a nearby hill. The slope wasn’t too elevated, nor the hill wasn’t too high up. Eugene thought that she could reach the peak with just a short climb, with Zanne and Sven following close behind her.
As Eugene ascended the hill, Jin’s memories slowly appeared in front of her…
Jin was looking down at her feet, her legs slipping every time she walked uphill.
Jin screamed in frustration and closed her eyes tightly, gently placing her hands over her eyes. It seemed like sand got inside her eyes when the wind blew harshly.
“Are you okay?” A woman asked, looking anxiously at Jin.
Opening her eyes slowly, Jin straightened her back and went on. There were other five women with her, all of them Eugene never saw before. After a brief moment, Eugene realized that those were the missing maids.
Eugene’s heart pounded at her ribcage. This must be the memory of the day when Jin went out to the desert.
“We just need to go on a little bit more. His Majesty is waiting, and he would greatly thank you for your hard work.” Jin assured them.
The memory disappeared as soon as Eugene reached the peak. It only took Eugene a dozen of steps to reach the summit, the camping place where the procession stopped just a few meters away. She gazed at the vast landscape before her.
However, her mind seemed to be elsewhere other than the picturesque scene that lay in front of her. ‘Who was waiting for them?’ Eugene thought, Jin’s voice echoing in her ears.
Jin didn’t refer to His Majesty as the king, so there was no way that a king of some other kingdom left his own realm in the midst of the active season. ‘She lied. She fed her maids with lies and took them out to the desert.’
Eugene thought it was strange for maids, besides Tanyas, to blindly follow Jin’s orders. It seemed like none of the maids knew exactly why Jin came to the desert, and why she brought them with her.
Rodrigo was clueless about it too, so Eugene guessed that it has nothing to do with Mara’s Church.
Eugene promptly recalled her conversation with Marianne.
“If you want to know someone’s secret, you need to find the person they’re close with, particularly the person who serves them all day, and get them on your side. Not only they know of their owner’s lifestyle, but their deepest, darkest secret as well.”
“Are you saying that I should pay more attention to the servant, rather than their own family?”
Marianne smiled, shaking her head lightly at Eugene’s question.
“Servants are the master’s limbs; they can’t function well without them. The masters are usually unguarded when it comes to their servants. The servants are well exposed to their masters’ vulnerability, unknowingly hearing a lot of things otherwise confidential, and seeing things that are supposed to be unseen.” Marianne said.
“That’s a weakness then. There’s no way that the enemy won’t take advantage of that leverage. What if the aide suddenly betrays you? What then?”
“Betraying one’s master could only mean one thing: death. Revealing the master’s secrets to their enemies would only bring the traitor to his own demise. The limb that betrayed his head is rotten to the core. By disposing the traitors, it would serve as an example to the other servants as well, reminding them to never cross your master in any way or form. Treachery is something that is unforgivable, especially to the masters.”
As Marianne’s explanation resonated within her, Eugene realized that the way Jin acted was despicable. Jin was the exact opposite of what a noble should be like. She made sure no one knows of her plans, even the servants working under her never knew about it. All Jin trusted then was herself.
‘Secrets. Incantations. Medium. Vessel. National treasure seed. Five maids. What do I make of these?’
She heard someone call out her name. Turning her head, she saw that it was Kasser standing close next to her, with Zanne and Sven several meters away from them.