Inept with a sword, unable to ride a horse, and apathetic toward the empire he serves, Regis Aurick is a hopeless soldier who spends his days buried in books. Banished to the borderlands, he encounters a stirring young woman with red hair and ruby eyes. She is Fourth Princess Marie Quatre Argentina de Belgaria, known simply to Regis as Altina. “…Do you want to become my tactician or not?” Having sought him for his rumored strategic prowess, she aspires to reform an empire led by self-seeking nobles and driven to pointless wars, the legendary blade of an emperor, the Grand Tonnerre Quatre, at her hip. Continuously underestimated by her regiment, including her would-be tactician, the princess resolves to prove her worth beyond a shadow of a doubt—no matter the risk. Here is a tale of war, love, and politics, woven by the bookworm and the sword princess.
Chapter 1: The Girl with Red Hair and Crimson Eyes
The sky hung heavy with clouds the dull gray of lead. Quite the familiar sight, Regis mused. The same dreary atmosphere had loomed overhead on the day he received the decree banishing him to the border.
His eyes returned to the land. While the sky above had indeed been recognizable, the town ahead bore few similarities to the capital. He felt no lingering attachment to the marble, the brick and the streetlamps he had grown so accustomed to, but the narrow, walled streets ahead did bring a prison to mind.
This was the border town of Theonveil, over a hundred lieue (444 km) from the capital and a five-day trip by carriage. The streets were dim despite it being the height of noon, and the air carried a cold, stinging bite. This wasn’t unusual for a town in the northern outskirts of the nation during the midst of winter, but Regis couldn’t help but see the weather as an apt metaphor for the road ahead.
Am I a failure? he wondered. He had lost his lord, his standing and his future, and to add further insult to injury had been exiled to the front lines in the north.
“Can’t complain, I guess... Life isn’t all about promotions. I’ll get more time to read out here.”
The caravan arrived just as the church was ringing its afternoon bell. As his fellow travelers scattered in search of lunch, Regis made a beeline for one particular shop that couldn’t have been further from an eatery.
Its windows were lined with books, and the wooden door gave way to rows of packed shelves which lined the building’s stone interior. The faint scent of paper and ink lingered in the air.
“Ah, I am free where there are books, and such a place shall be my home.” A quote from Coillier Romeros’ Travels Through Bourgogne, he subconsciously tacked on.
Regis would only go so far as to proclaim himself an avid reader, but he was more truthfully an insatiable book rat—le rat de bibliothèque. His eyes passionately traced over the shelf of new releases.
“H-How could this be...!?” his lips quickly trembled.
“Hm? Something wrong, soldier?” the bearded man behind the back counter called over. His muscular build and the scar across his cheek made him look more like an instructor from a military academy than the keeper of a bookstore.
Almost oblivious to his overpowering aura, Regis parted his lips again to speak.
“I can’t find Coillier’s newest work. In fact, I don’t see Count Ludosel or Professor Illue here, either... Are they all sold out? I know they’re awfully popular, but this selection is terrible.”
“Well, soldier, I take it you came from central.”
“Yeah, I just arrived from the capital...”
“Ah, then that explains your confusion. Those sorta books don’t sell out here, so we rarely stock them, if ever.”
“...Could... Could you please... repeat that...?”
Regis’s voice escaped gravelly as though he were stranded and pleading for water in the desert. His throat had dried up in the blink of an eye. This all elicited little more than a shrug from the storekeeper, and it became very quickly apparent that he wasn’t joking.
“This is a war zone. The only profit to be had is in tales of heroics and eroticism. Just have a look at our best seller.”
The title he pointed out read, “How to Write Your Will without Regrets.”
This can’t be happening! Regis screamed internally as he hugged his head.
“H-Hold on a tick... You don’t stock such famous best-sellers? Am I really still in Belgaria? Have I, by chance, taken a wrong turn into a barbarian settlement?”
“No, this is indeed Belgaria. Although it was only fifty years ago that we belonged to the country one over.”
“Erk... And what’s the deal with these prices? This is more than ten times what it goes for in the capital...”
Having finally found a book that caught his eye, Regis had picked it up to have a closer look, but he was already on the verge of tears.
“Books are heavy and bandits are rampant—it’s a trial and a half just to get them here. Not to mention the tiny customer base... In these parts, books are just another expensive hobby for the upper class,” the bearded storekeeper indifferently explained.
“Dear Lord, why!?”
“Yeah, sorry about that...”
The shopkeeper reached to take the book from the distraught Regis, who hurriedly pressed it against his chest in a panic.
“Wait, wait, wait, I never said I wasn’t buying it!”
“Huh, are you serious!? By the look of things, you’re still a young recruit. I know it’s in my best interests to make a sale, but... Pardon me, would that not cost a whole week of your salary?”
“Ghhh... This is hell...” Regis groaned.
It was at that moment the storekeeper blurted out an awry “Oh!?” as his eyes shot open. Registraced the man’s line of sight as he turned.
There in the doorway stood a girl, her form emblazoned by the light streaming in from outside.
She was a lovely-looking young woman with blazing crimson hair and red, ruby-like eyes. She had to be around thirteen or fourteen years old. While some immature features lingered on her face, she carried a charm that caught the eye and kept it—enough so that he was subconsciously taken in.
She raised her index finger in front of her lips.
Be quiet? But why? What could she mean?
To have another customer patronize the store was far from unusual, and yet Regis could feel a peculiar unrest.
The girl lowered her gesture before parting her lips.
“There are plenty of conscripts who lament the hell of the battlefield upon being dispatched to the front lines, but I reckon you’re the first to do so in a bookshop,” she said in a refreshingly clear voice. An energetic smile crossed her face before she continued.
“We finally meet! You’re Fifth-Grade Administrative Officer Regis Aurick, correct?”
“Huh? Oh, me?”
“Oh, are you not?”
“No, ah—yes, I am! I am Regis.”
“Excellent! I was starting to think I had the wrong person. I’m not too sure what I would’ve done had that been the case...”
Her relieved smile carried an innocence befitting her age.
Regis soon felt a strange warmth spread across his cheeks. The girl before his eyes was clearly so beautiful that— No, that wasn’t it. He was simply ashamed by how flustered he had acted simply because an evidently younger girl had called his name.
“Wait, my name... Why do you know my name?”
“When you’ve been sent to retrieve someone, it’s fairly crucial to at least remember their name, no? Please don’t regard me as though I’m some stupid child.”
“Oh, no, that wasn’t my intention at all. I see now, you’re here for me.”
Regis took another look at the girl. She wore a brown hooded robe, under which he caught a glimpse of leather pants and boots; common attire for a coachman.
“If you’re here from the fort, does that make you a soldier?”
“You tell me. Do I look like one?”
“No... probably not. You’re underage, aren’t you?”
“Correct. I just turned fourteen.”
The age of adulthood in the Belgarian Empire was fifteen. Barring extreme circumstances, minors were unable to enlist in the military.
“I see. Then you must be the driver of a hired carriage. I had planned on taking the public stagecoach. To have a personal escort, I must be quite the VIP.”
“Are you glad to receive such special attention?”
“It makes me a little depressed, honestly. It’s like they’re telling me to hurry up and get back to work.”
“Fufu, you’re surprisingly honest.”
“I’m not one to lie.”
“Is that so? But you’re... a tactician, are you not?”
The girl stared at him with her ruby eyes. Regis could feel an indescribable intensity from the girl four years his junior.
“...Well, there are some who would call me that... I only enlisted with the intention of working in the military library.”
“Sounds like an interesting story. How about we continue it on the road?”
Feeling almost unable to breathe, Regis tugged at his collar in a feeble attempt to loosen it. Meanwhile, the crimson-haired girl was urging him outside.
“Come on, we need to go. The clouds are getting heavier; there’s a good chance it might snow soon.”
“You’re right. —Ah, I nearly forgot!”
Just as he was making his way out, Regis suddenly recalled his position and returned to the shopkeeper. He placed the money for the book on the counter.
“I’ll be purchasing this. Hm? What’s wrong? You’re not looking too good.”
“No, I’m fine. Come again anytime, soldier.” While Regis couldn’t begin to guess the reason, the bearded storekeeper had lowered his head, one hand rested across his mouth. He seemed to be holding in words.
The girl once again approached, although this time with a visibly sour expression.
“Are you an idiot, perhaps!?”
“W-What’s this, all of a sudden...?”
“In these borderlands, books are far too expensive a pastime. Only the rich and the foolish would shell out such a fortune!”
“Well, not that I’d ever call myself a smart man... but the lust for knowledge is, to me, the most glorious aspect of human nature. It’s what defines us as human, and abiding by that base instinct through reading is what gives me purpose, no matter the expense. My funds may run dry but, the way I see it, giving up on reading is no different from giving up on life.”
Only after he’d finished did Regis shut his lips tight, ashamed he had gotten so worked up over a comment from a child. Her eyes were still fixed on him, her expression now serious to a surprising degree. She gave a low nod.
“The same as giving up on life... I see. I may be able to sympathize. I also...”
“Ah, nothing! We need to go!”
“Oh, yes, of course.”
Regis wedged his freshly-bought book under one arm, snatched up his baggage and trailed the girl out of the shop. A small, covered one-horse wagon was parked under the eaves, from which a lean, dark brown horse peered at him.
The girl’s long hair fluttered as she nimbly jumped up onto the cabman’s perch which was at waist-height.
“C’mon, hurry up!”
“Sure... What’s your name, by the way?” Regis asked, looking up at her.
The look in her eyes sharpened. She lowered her voice, clearly enunciating each syllable to end all discussion.
“I. Will. Leave. You. Be. Hind.”
He hurriedly clambered up into the seat beside her. Now was clearly not the right time to ask.
✧ ✧ ✧
With a clitter-clatter, the wooden wheels stumbled their way across the earthen road. They passed through the northern gate of the town’s stone walls. Their destination was the frontmost line, Fort Sierck.
The girl sat in the driver’s seat with a firm grasp on the reins. To her right, Regis sat holding his baggage. There was a canopied wagon bed behind them that seemed to be loaded with lumber and brick.
“—So, you wanted my name?”
“Right. What am I supposed to call you?”
“Let me see...”
The girl touched the fingertip of a stiff-gloved hand to her shapely chin in thought. Was there any need to think about that? Regis doubtfully wondered.
Her tight lips finally loosened.
“Yes. You may call me Altina.”
“Is that an alias?” he asked thoughtlessly, given that she had taken so long to answer. But doing so was a clear mistake—the girl named Altina furrowed her brow.
“...How rude... It’s a lovely nickname, is it not? I was considering giving you special permission to use it, but perhaps I should take that back?”
“I’m sorry, beg pardon, I would be honored to call you Altina!”
“Very well then, I’ll allow it. ...If you insist.”
“Hm... You’re not very soldier-like, you know that?”
“Haha, I’m aware.” As Regis gave a bitter laugh, Altina was led along into a smile of her own.
Farms of wheat spread out on either side of the road they traveled. With it being winter, these bore nothing but lines of small seedlings indistinguishable from the undergrowth. The world had become a bichrome of gray sky and barren earth.
Altina spoke with her eyes facing forward.
“Hey, you didn’t volunteer to come here, did you?”
“No, I was more than happy working in the military library. To be honest, I only joined because I was having trouble finding the money to live, let alone buy books. ...Come to think of it, does Fort Sierck have a library?”
“I get the feeling that’s what they’ll be calling your room, eventually.”
“Quite the novel observation...” he muttered blankly.
“Hm, was that an attempt at a pun?”
“Ah, n-no, I wasn’t—”
“Heh. What did you even do in your previous unit?”
“Eh? Have you started to doubt that I’m even a soldier?”
“Not quite. I’m talking about what you had to do to get shipped off to the front lines.”
“Ah. I believe it’s my punishment for losing a battle.”
“And you just accepted that? You’re a fledgling non-commissioned officer. Isn’t it strange for someone of your status to take such responsibility when you aren’t even in command of any troops? Did something happen?”
Regis cast his eyes into the distance, beyond the seedlings lining the wheat fields to the highs and lows of the mountains beyond the horizon.
“...He was a good man.”
“My previous employer. I was never any good at swordsmanship or horse-riding; I was always behind everyone else at the military academy. Only Marquis Thénezay would employ a failure like me.”
“A failure? I’ve heard rumors that you were undefeated when it came to strategizing.”
“You’re surprisingly knowledgeable. I wonder who you could have heard that from... Rumors are always embellished, you see. Military stratagems may have been my one saving grace, but those were never real battles. It was more akin to playing chess.”
“But, if I’m not mistaken, Thénezay hired you as a tactician, not to play chess.”
“I was at the bottom of a rather lengthy totem pole. I was only fifteen when I left school and all; I was an apprentice, so to speak.”