Chapter 540: Never Kneel
Translator: EndlessFantasy Translation Editor: EndlessFantasy Translation
When the king stepped into Mindis Hall, Thales struggled with his breathing.
He felt a slight chill as his knees planted onto the carpet of Mindis Hall.
The sound of numerous footsteps came from the front; one set was advancing steadily ahead while the others followed intermittently.
Thales heard his own breathing clearly and realized for the first time that it sounded so harsh.
“Rise, everyone,” a familiar voice ordered, dignified as before.
“This is a banquet, not the Imperial Conference—that bunch of old geezers is annoying enough.”
No one dared respond.
For a brief moment, it was as if the Duke of Star Lake was transported back to six years ago, when he first entered Mindis Hall naively.
It was the first time he met King Kessel. The solemn atmosphere seemed so heavy it could crack the floor tiles, which made the then child beggar uncomfortable and unable to speak.
Thales stared fixedly at the carpet pattern—there shouldn't be any iron spikes below. The duke realized bitterly that, after six years of experience and hards.h.i.+p, when the same scene reappeared, the heaviness that he felt not only did not lessen at all but was instead more substantial.
King Nuven, King Chapman, of all his enemies that he dreaded, no one gave him such a feeling.
Why was it so?
Thales kept his head lowered.
From guests to attendants, guards to servants, everyone saluted in a low voice; the sound of people paying their respects could be heard incessantly.
But it did not relax Thales in the slightest.
Finally, those rustic but expensive boots stopped in front of him.
The base of the Staff of Constellation settled on the carpet, as if about to put down roots.
After what felt like a century, a palm appeared before Thales.
On the hand, the bronze ring signifying royal power glimmered slightly.
Thales briefly slipped into a daze: he saw the Iron Hand King walk into Hall of Stars at the National Conference six years ago, and the va.s.sals of the kingdom kneeling and kissing his ring as a sign of loyalty.
The Duke of Star Lake took a deep breath. He removed his gloves and took the outreached palm as he prepared to kiss the king's ring in accordance with etiquette.
But to Thales' surprise, the king held his hand instead and stopped him.
Thales looked up in surprise. What he saw was a pair of profound blue eyes looking at him coldly and imposingly.
“When you were in the morth,” King Kessel spoke slowly, his tone regular but the content leaden, “in the face of King Nuven, in the face of the new king, in the face of the entire Eckstedt…”
“Did you kneel?”
Thales was shocked.
He met the gaze of those bottomless blue eyes for a second and felt the determination and dignity under them. He gulped and replied, “No,”
The youth added the address with much difficulty, “Your Majesty.”
The next instant, Thales felt a weight on his arms as he was hoisted involuntarily from the ground!
“Then don't develop this bad habit,” Kessler said coldly. The imposing atmosphere seemed so cold it could freeze and condense on the walls.
Thales did not have time to react or think.
“As a Jadestar,” the king looked at his heir expressionlessly, “even if your legs have been incapacitated,”
A fleeting bout of chatter formed amongst the crowd, then dissipated instantly to silence.
“Especially…” the Iron Hand King loosened his grip. He looked at the portraits of the Three Constellation Kings, paused, then looked up at the chandelier above and the interior furnis.h.i.+ngs of the hall, his emotions unreadable, “here.”
Thales, who was accustomed to the weighted aura that surrounded the king, was slightly taken aback.
He didn't make me kneel, nor make me kiss his hand.
The supreme king of yesteryear with overwhelming vigor and steady strides.
The crowd that knelt in salute continued to bow their heads, their thoughts unknown.
Thales stared inquiringly at his father, but replied obediently, “Yes,”
He felt a s.h.i.+ft in the atmosphere, and added spontaneously, “Father.”
King Kessel stared at him; he did not express an opinion but merely clutched his staff again.
The interaction between the king and the prince seemed like a command; the crowd around them gradually got up and performed their duties following the arrival of the king.
The royal guard commander that accompanied King Kessel, Lord Adrian, greeted Thales with a smile, then started to converse with Mallos in hushed tones.
Thales was still deep in thought, while King Kessel did not stop nor exchange greetings as he bypa.s.sed Thales and walked on.
As if what happened earlier was merely a brief interlude of the royal family.
Until the king stopped in his tracks, as he faced the only person in the hall who refused to kneel or salute and did not bother with pretense.
Val Arunde, like an unsightly pillar firmly anch.o.r.ed to the floor of Mindis Hall, was glaring at his old friend, not saying a word.
Thales could smell a faint sense of anxiety.
King Kessel did not speak either. He silently stared at the duke, occasionally s.h.i.+fting his gaze to glance at the latter's shackles.
Their gaze met in mid-air.
In that moment, too much was embodied in their gazes.
Both were tacitly silent, which made the attendants around them anxious and awkward.
Until a gentle and pleasing voice of a woman broke the silence. “Unbelievable—is this young Thales?”
Thales turned around slowly to face a lady who had entered with the king and was escorted by a crowd of women.
He tensed up.
The lady was dressed extravagantly. Her demeanor was elegant yet lively. There was surprise in her eyes as she sized Thales up. “In a blink of an eye, years have pa.s.sed. Look at you… Do you remember me?”
Thales looked behind the lady. Jines, dressed in the standard gown for female officials, nodded to him subtly with a solemn expression.
The youth grinned and took his stepmother's hand with mixed yet nuanced emotions as he bowed. “Your Majesty, you remain graceful as ever.”
There was a glow in Queen Keya's eyes. She looked at Thales then turned around and said to one of her escorts, “See, Elise, he recognized me at first sight. He was only a tiny little thing then…”
The queen was radiant, had a sweet smile, conversed fluently, and was natural and friendly, which gave everyone a good first impression.
If Thales had not seen her six years ago.
“Of course,” another lady with delicate features who had escorted the queen looked at Thales, “Prince Thales has always been known for his intelligence,”
The lady who wore a dark gown and a velvet shawl was equally elegant, with a touch more serenity.
“Even in the north.”
Thales silently stared at the velvet.
Keya held Thales' hands as she took stock of him from head to toe. She let out a sigh and turned to Jines, and said in an annoyed tone, “Oh Jines, you should have let me bring the children. Perhaps Lydia is a little mischievous, but I could have at least brought Luther and let him learn from his brother, learn how to be a good prince…”
At the mention of those names, the smiles of the people around them froze.
Female Official Jines looked like she had been put on the spot. She exchanged a knowing look with the velvet-clad lady then said somewhat urgingly, “Keya…”
The servants that had traveled along from Renaissance Palace already had a tacit understanding; two female servants quietly stepped forward.
But the queen was still holding on to Thales and a.s.sessing him, unwilling to let go as she admired her stepson. “After all, they are children of the royal family, what shall I do with them when they grow up…”
At that moment.
A deep voice called out, like the tightening of the city gate hinges.
The next instant, Queen Keya's enthusiastic speech ceased.
She turned around with a timid expression and looked at the king's back.
King Kessel silently reached out an arm.
The queen gave Thales an apologetic look before stepping forward obediently to hold her husband's arm.
“Val,” Keya looked at Duke Val, who was standing across from the king, with a glow in her eyes, as if greeting an old friend, as if she did not notice the shackles on his hands, “How are you?”
The duke of the Northern Territory, who had been staring at King Kessel, was slightly taken aback. He looked at the queen, a frown dissipating as soon as it formed.
Finally, Val responded disdainfully, “Couldn't be better.”
Upon those words, Duke Arunde turned around and walked towards the banquet hall without looking back; he did not need guidance, as if it was routine for him.
With a glance by Mallos, Gray Patterson and a few other guards in charge of escorting the prisoner followed closely behind and remained vigilant.
“Let's go,” King Kessel stared at his childhood friend's leaving figure and said in a somber tone, “Someone must be impatient.”
The king strode forward. Without any instruction from Guard Captain Adrian, the royal guards escorting His Majesty trailed silently from a side. Their expressions were unchanged and their postures natural, on point but not conspicuous.
In contrast, even if they were from the same source, whether it was grace or style, his Star Lake Guards…
“Is it just me,” behind Thales, Doyle carefully observed the scene of royal family greetings and whispered to Glover, “or did Mindis Hall really become colder?”
Glover glanced at the sweat forming on Doyle's forehead and whispered in reply, “It's not just you.”
In the next moment, he felt a grip on his left arm.
“Mind lending me an arm?”
Thales turned around startled. The lady with the velvet shawl was holding his arm with a smile.
Thales looked at the former king's adopted daughter that he had met once six years ago with complex emotions. His gaze landed on her shoulder; he felt a phantom pain from a scar in his chest.
He said insincerely, “The shawl is beautiful,”
Elise replied with an elegant and attractive smile, “Thank you. And you've grown up too—you're a real man now.”
Thales, his arm held by his aunt, automatically kept up with the king and queen. His attendants and escorts followed suit.
“Don't worry,” in contrast to Thales' rigidity, Elise's pace was calm and her smile was appropriate, “you'll get used to it.”
Get used to it.
Get used to what?
Thales sighed inside. Did he have to get used to his father's inherent mood-killing personality, or get used to the complicated n.o.bility circle in the capital?
They were several steps behind the king as they headed towards the banquet hall under heavy escort.
Elise tone turned cold suddenly, “Smile,”
Thales was stunned.
“If you go into battle, you'll need a full armor,” Elise continued to exhibit an affectionate smile towards those around her, but her tone became lofty, “And on the battlefield, a smile is the best armor.”
This sounded familiar.
But before he could figure it out, Elise turned around and looked towards those that were escorting them inconspicuously.
“I haven't congratulated you, Tormond.” Elise looked at Mallos warmly. “I'm happy that you became a royal guard watchman, and Thales' personal guard captain.”
Lord Mallos nodded gently, his expression and tone calm, “Lady Elise.”
Instead, it was Elise that was emotional after sizing up the watchman. “Your father would be proud,” Her Highness sighed. “His biggest wish was to see your family return to the Seven Jade…”
Mallos suddenly raised his voice and interrupted Elise, “Please head in with His Majesty, Your Grace. This is your welcome banquet, you wouldn't want to miss it.”
Mallos nodded at Thales and accelerated to catch up with Adrian.
Thales steadily kept pace with the princess and said thoughtfully, “You're old friends with my guard captain?”
Elise looked at Mallos' back and slowly nodded.
“Before their decline, 'Razor' Mallos were influential in the Seven Jadestars Attendants of Central Territory and held overwhelming power over all levels of society. There are as many as three baron t.i.tles bestowed by the royal family in their genealogical record, said to be on an equal footing with the 'Wild Stallion' Barney family,”
Elise seemed to sigh. “When the previous king was still around, old Viscount Mallos even proposed marriage on behalf of his eldest son to Princess Constance,”
Influential Seven Jadestars Attendant under the royal family.
Thales realized for the first time the meaning of his personal guard captain's family name. He could not help but frown.
“From crying to threatening to hang herself to running away from home, Constance stirred up a huge fuss. Long story short, it was ugly and messy… After the nuptials fell through, the previous king felt apologetic, so he thought to offer the second best thing and asked if I was willing to marry into the Mallos family.”
Thales shook slightly.
“You mean…” Thales looked at his aunt, then at Mallos' back, and exclaimed, “You and… him?”
Elise smiled plainly. Oddly, in that moment, she looked wan and sallow.
After some difficulty, Thales managed to retract his surprise.
So Tormond Mallos, his favorite personal guard captain, almost became his uncle?
Thales made a note to himself to force Doyle to spill all the gossip about the latter's superior.
“What happened after that?” Thales asked.
“After that, I agreed,” the princess replied calmly.
“But probably because of indignance, or because a princess without royal blood didn't meet their expectations, old Viscount Mallos rejected the previous king and turned instead to Duke Arunde of the Northern Territory to propose marriage.”
The foster daughter lowered herself to comply obediently and agree to the marriage in place of the wilful biological daughter, but was rejected decisively by the groom's side.
This ancient history aside…
How powerful were the Mallos family then?
Thales carefully glanced at his aunt, but found that her smile was still friendly as she occasionally nodded to greet the guests on both sides, not the least frustrated about the past humiliation and sorrow.
Thales suddenly remembered, Elise's husband died at Red Street Market six years ago, and the culprit was…
Thales looked at his aunt and understood that her subsequent marriage had not been perfect either.
At this thought, Thales felt a rush of sympathy.
“But Mallos is no longer part of the Seven Jadestars Attendants, so how did they…decline?” Thales cleared his throat as he thought to change the topic to something that might cheer his aunt up.
But Elise shook her head and replied without a hint of joy, “b.l.o.o.d.y Year.”
Thales froze a little.
Elise was reluctant to say more than that so diverted the topic, “Speaking of which, Thales, did you notice any nice young ladies during the years you were up north?”
During the years up North…
“Nice young ladies?”
“Yup.” Elise nodded with a smile. “Even after you've returned from the Northland, the capital hasn't stopped talking about this.”
Thales suddenly remembered that silly little girl who hid in the library, mucky from head to toe.
And the Archd.u.c.h.ess years later who held up King Nuven's ring in Hall of Heroes and roared like a lioness to command the troops.
But at the thought of her current botched military campaign and unsure whether she was still alive, Thales's mood hit rock bottom.
That girl…would she survive?
He immediately pulled himself together.
“Of course,” Thales looked up, his expression unchanged, “Miss Jennie is beautiful, lively, cheerful and interesting. We're very close and I enjoy traveling with her the most.”
Princess Elise's footsteps staggered.
Everyone around them fell silent.
“Jennie?” Elise frowned as she repeated the name.
Traveling with her…
And a Northland la.s.s…
Doyle cast a mischievous glance at Glover, initially one of astonishment, turning into comprehension.
As expected, this was ignored by the latter.
Princess Elise gave the eavesdroppers around a warning look.
“You shouldn't have answered directly, this will bring about consequences.”
A low hum of chatter could be heard amongst the servants, guards, and guests, like bees buzzing, and spread out with the sound of footsteps coming and going.
The severity of this news was unquestionable.
Thales' aunt tightened her grip on his arm, and could not help but lean carefully closer and whisper, “So, which Northland family is… Jennie from?”
At the same time, despite being firmly separated, the surrounding eavesdroppers turned their ears towards them, ignoring the displeased tones of the royal guards' commands.
But Thales raised his voice, unbothered, having no intention of hiding his romantic history during his time in the north. “I don't know,”
He continued casually, causing another bout of whispered chatter, “But judging by her posture, coat color, pace, appet.i.te, defecation as well as her pickiness towards her feed, stables, and horsekeepers,” Thales recalled the key points in appraising horses from Nicholas' horsemans.h.i.+p lessons, and replied sincerely, “she is most likely n.o.bility.”
His aunt was momentarily stunned.
“Coat color, stables…” Elise narrowed her eyes and slowly reacted, “Jennie… is a horse?”
Thales turned around and chuckled. “A good horse.”
In the next moment, those that had intentionally listened in let out a sigh of disappointment in unison and gradually dispersed.
Thales looked with satisfaction at Elise's weird gaze and the defeated expressions of those around them.
That's right, Jennie is a good horse…
Wriggling out of her restraints in the middle of the night, sneaking out to eat the night feed at other mangers, making everyone at Heroic Spirit Palace anxious and vigilant about a thief. Not until she was discovered by Aida who was stealing a piece of chicken thigh in the dead of the night was the truth revealed…
Fierce and overbearing in front of Wya Ralf, obedient and innocent in front of Thales and Nicholas, foul-tempered at the sight of the horsekeeper with a whip and harness, friendly at the sight of the horsekeeper with hay and brushes…
Which part of the great Miss Jennie could be a.s.sociated with the word 'good'?
(In a stable in the Northlands, an elegant mare sneezed. She looked up vigilantly from the manger, and with an agile rear kick, drove an indignant war horse back into a corner, then continued to steal its night feed.)
A few seconds later, Elise smiled in relief. “Well done. Even though you've been hit in a sore spot, you dealt with it calmly and with humor.”
She stared at her non-blood-related nephew. “Now… you are fully armored.”
Hit in a sore spot…
Thales felt a tightening sensation in his heart.
Elise smiled faintly and, without pointing out the elephant in the room, merely held his arm and continued forward.
“Ahh I miss it so much,” Elise retracted her gaze from the portraits of the Three Constellation Kings emotionally, “In the past, your youngest aunt often dragged me here to play.”
“Youngest aunt?” Thales stirred slightly. “Constance, what type of girl was she?”
They were both silent for a moment.
Elise directed her bleary gaze towards a past she could not return to.
“Constance, she wasn't one to sit still and be quiet. Every time she was here, she was either jumping around or demolis.h.i.+ng something. I could only pretend to be ill to evade her enthusiasm—to the point where the considerate Crown Prince Midier prepared a special 'sick ward' for me.”
Constance, jumping around, demolis.h.i.+ng something…
Thales thought of the ashes and urns in the Jadestar family tomb and frowned.
“When she rejected the proposal,” Elise let out a burst of laughter, “she ran away from home four times, and even wanted to take me with her. Twice she was hauled home by Lord Zakriel, once by Jines, and the final time Crown Prince Midier had to do it himself… His Majesty the previous king didn't bear to hit her nor Madam Aida who had secretly helped her, so he merely allowed Kessel, who had colluded with her, to be whipped by Lord Zakriel…”
Elise paused at this point. She glanced at the king ahead, then sighed and continued, “Now that I think about it, the days when we ran away from home together, starved in the streets together, sigh , they weren't that bad.”
Thales was absorbed in the story.
“Constance sounds like,” Thales said faintly, “a lively and adorable girl.”
“Lively and adorable?” Elise laughed, “You've just never been at the receiving end of her pranks…”
“The time she drew a cute kitten on Horace's armor. The entire barracks saw it but no one dared speak up. It ended up being a captive that told him…”
“Because she was worried Third Brother could not find a wife, she wrote love letters to prospective sisters-in-law that she approved of in Bancroft's name and arranged dates with them…”
“Because she thought Herman was too full of himself, she swapped his perfume for dog urine when he had a cold and couldn't smell anything…”
“Because she was interested in what adults did in bed, she followed Kessel to Red Street Market, hid under his bed and jumped out halfway to ask him about his thoughts…”
Thales laughed at these anecdotes.
“Only Crown Prince Midier could keep her in check,” Elise shook her head, “Even so, Constance still managed to get one over him. She successfully applied delayed-onset pepper spray on Midier's wheelchair. In the end he was a sh.e.l.l of himself and partic.i.p.ated in the Imperial Conference for an entire day with no change in his expression…”
Thales was still laughing, but he realized something and froze.
“Aunt Elise, you mentioned…” Thales frowned and said softly, “Midier's…wheelchair?”
The atmosphere between them sunk.
A few seconds later, Elise frowned. “Did you not know?”
Thales narrowed his eyes.
“That's right,” Elise let out a long sigh, “It's ancient history anyway, and involves those who have pa.s.sed, it's only normal that you didn't know.”
The Duke of Star Lake looked around subconsciously. He belatedly realized that wide slopes were constructed on all the stairs in Mindis Hall.
It seems…they weren't just for decoration?
“And…” Elise spoke softly as she stared into a void. In that moment she seemed to cut off the noise of the outside world and immersed herself in the past.
“Although his smile was always the warmest, caring, forgiving, and compa.s.sionate towards everyone, although his shoulders were always the st.u.r.diest, supporting, lifting and protecting everyone,”
“Although he was so empathetic and gentle, no one could truly…understand his pain,”
Thales turned around and looked at her in shock.
“Crown Prince Midier met with an accident on a journey when he was young,” Elise continued faintly, “Ever since then, he had problems with his legs and couldn't walk well,”
“And had to use a wheelchair for the rest of his life.”
Thales was stunned.
Former owner of Mindis Hall.
Once heir to the supreme throne, the widely commended wise prince.
Crown prince in a wheelchair?
Kessel recalled earlier, how Kessel hoisted him up from the ground.
Along with his cold words.
As a Jadestar, even if your legs have been incapacitated…
In the next second, without pause, they followed behind the king and queen and stepped into the banquet hall.
Joining a tide of people in a sea of pandemonium.