The next day, Zich and his companions went up to the capital with D’niel’s guidance. The villages they visited while passing through were not much different from the first village. However, some of the villages they passed by were big enough to be considered a town or even a city. Everyone also admired the enormous walls made out of large, thick trees intertwined together.
After they continued to walk through the forest, a massive city that far surpassed all the villages in size appeared in view.
Snoc’s admiration burst out at the sight in front of him; while it was to a different extent, the other people in the group also let out their admiration. From the ridge, they saw the city stretched beneath them. To humans, it was a city that was strange and exotic, but nevertheless very beautiful. The city was big and a beautiful lake was part of it. Although the walls made out of trees were covering the city, the wall did not cover the lake area. Thanks to the natural terrain, there was no need to put a wall next to the lake.
‘No wonder Leona’s tribe is called the Lake Tribe.’ Zich could understand right away why this was the Lake Tribe.
“This is the Lake Tribe’s capital, the Droud forest.” D’niel introduced the forest. Zich recalled Leona’s full name and nodded. An elf’s last name was derived from the forest they were from; and Leona’s official name was Leona Pearl in Droud. From her name, it was easy to see where she was from. Even though it was strange for humans to hear a being named after a forest, this was natural for an elf. Moreover, it wasn’t unreasonable to call Droud a forest. From the walls to the houses that the elves resided in, everything was made out of growing trees.
“And that place is my house!” Leona pointed at a large building in the center of the city. Even though all the buildings were on top of thick and large trees, the building in the center of the city was set on particularly big and thick trees. There were seven trees holding up the building. It looked like a palace built in the sky. Since Leona was a princess, her house was probably the palace. As expected, the building looked special and extravagant. However, there was another building that looked extra special in Droud.
“What is that?” Zich pointed at an area that was right next to the Droud Forest. There was another building there. It was a building that was made on top of a giant tree that stuck out from the surface of the lake. The size of the building was similar to the palace in the middle of the city. The living tree crossed the lake and formed a bridge that connected the lake to the rest of the city.
“It’s an altar. It’s a place where we interact with the spirit around us. It’s also the place where we put the Lake’s Tear,” D’niel said while he stared at Leona. She turned her head and avoided his gaze. Zich and his companions went inside Droud. Since they were now pretty used to an elf city, they no longer looked around with curiosity. Even in Droud, tensions about a possible war hung thick in the atmosphere.
D’niel guided them to the palace entrance. The elves had used a wooden column to make a staircase leading up to the palace. They went up the staircase and went into the palace. The inside of the palace looked even bigger than how it looked outside. The elves who were walking around in the palace greeted them. Even though Leona, a princess, was in front of them, they merely nodded and did not express any exaggerated manners.
“Please excuse me.” Someone approached them. It was a dignified-looking elf with a white mustache. Since elves had a very long life expectancy and aged at a very slow pace, the elf in front of them was probably extremely old.
“Freid!” Leona loudly called out the name of the old elf. Freid, the old elf, smiled when he saw Leona, but his delighted expression was short-lived. His face quickly became serious and he said to Leona, “You’ve returned, Princess.”
“Yep! What about my older brother?”
“He is waiting for you inside.”
Freid quickly scanned Leona’s body to check if she received any injuries. He was like a grandpa worrying about his granddaughter. Fortunately, there seemed to be no serious injuries on Leona’s body. Freid was relieved, but he didn’t show it on the outside. Instead, he masked his expressions even further.
“Princess, are these people your companions? I’m Freid Will Droud. Even though I’m lacking in many ways, I’m in charge of taking care of the palace.”
He greeted Zich and his companions. They returned his greeting.
“I heard that you protected the Princess and helped her find the Lake’s Tear. As a member of the Lake’s Tribe, I express my sincere thanks.” He bowed deeply to Zich and his companions. “Let’s go in. The Prince is waiting inside.”
In order to guide them inside, Freid turned his body around and stared at Leona. “Ah, and also Princess, please come and talk to me after you’ve spoken with the Prince.”
Even though his face didn’t change at all, his intentions didn’t look peaceful at all. Leona gulped nervously. “…Are you mad at me?”
With an indifferent voice, Freid replied, “Of course.”
Leona’s shoulders drooped down, but no one helped her. No, they couldn’t help her. Who was going to interfere with the discipline of a princess who caused serious trouble?
“Of course, I will be after the Prince. The Prince is very determined, so I think it’ll take a while before you come to see me.”
Leona’s head drooped along with her shoulders. Freid looked at D’niel.
“You worked hard in guiding the Princess and her companions. I prepared a place for you to stay, so you can excuse yourself.”
“Yes, sir!” D’niel replied with a lot of energy and bowed towards Leona and the rest. Then he followed behind an elf that was waiting for him and soon disappeared from their sight.
“I heard that D’niel got demoted,” Leona mentioned this to Freid, but he shook his head.
“I don’t have anything to say about him, and I also don’t have the power to do anything about his situation. Please ask the Prince about that matter.”
“…About Father, Mother, and Grandma too?”
He tried to not show it, but Freid looked very distressed as he replied. Freid led them inside an immense room. Two thick trees that broke through the floor rose from both sides and penetrated the roof. The branches and leaves that were sprouting from the top of the trees looked like fancy chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. Across the entrance, there was a platform rising from the ground. On top of the platform, two large chairs were on top of it.
It was the throne for the King and Queen. Right below the throne, there were two more chairs on each side of the throne. Zich and his companions saw an elf pacing in front of the chairs. As they went inside, the elf turned his head to face them.
“Older bro!” Leona ran towards him. Leona’s older brother smiled brightly towards her and spread his arms wide as if to hug her. Leona did not hesitate to also spread her arms wide. It seemed as if they were going to hug each other—but Leona’s older brother raised his fist.
Zich’s companions flinched from the loud sound. Leona clutched her head and fell to the ground. The fist that landed on her forehead made her head spin.
“What the heck are you doing!” Leona raised her head and shouted at the elf in front of her. There were tears in her eyes. However, the elf in front of her had zero sympathy for her. Instead, there was no trace of his smile anymore; Leona bent her head back at the ferocious expression on his face.
“Do you think I would say, ‘Welcome back!’ with a nice smile on my face, you stupid sister!”
Then he shook his fist in front of her. Leona dropped her head down, but she soon looked back up and croaked, “I-I found the Lake’s Tear…”
However, she soon clamped her mouth shut again after seeing the scary look in her brother’s eyes. He stared at her for a while and then let out a sigh.
“Do you know just how much we were worried about you?”
Leona had no words to say, because she could feel the concern and love he had for her in his voice.
Her voice was despondent as she made her apology, and the Prince let out a big sigh. He looked down at his dispirited sister. Even though his face looked angry, love and concern flowed in his eyes.
“…But it’s good that you came back. It’s also fortunate that you don’t seem seriously injured.”
“Yeah!” Leona replied loudly. The Prince helped Leona get up and turned his gaze towards Zich and his companions. Zich and the rest were quietly waiting to not interfere with the siblings’ reunion. The Prince walked towards them, and Leona followed him from behind.
“I apologize. I have made a scene in front of esteemed guests.”
“No, it’s alright.” Zich stepped forward and replied to the Prince.
“I’ll first introduce myself. My name is Dronian Pearl Su Droud. I’m the prince of the Lake Tribe and the older brother of this rascal.”
With Dronian’s introduction, everyone introduced themselves.
“I’ve heard the news. I heard that you protected my sister and helped find the Lake’s Tear. I don’t know how we’ll be able to repay you all.”
He seemed very thankful, but he continued on with embarrassment, “If it was any other time, we would have given you all the best possible treatment, but our situation is not good right now.”
“I’ve heard. The Iron Tribe is holding hostages.”
“Yes, that’s right,” Dronian replied with melancholy in his voice.
“I was able to get the Lake’s Tear’ back. Isn’t this enough to get them back?”
Even though Zich had already refuted the possibility, Leona wanted to ask just in case. But Dronian also refuted her desperate question.
“No, it’s not possible, because that’s just an excuse. Even if we got the Lake’s Tear back, they’re not going to release the hostages.’
“Your Highness, are the only ones who have been held hostage the Lake Tribe’s king, queen, and shaman?”
At Zich’s question, everyone stared at him.
“The other elf tribes must have also participated in the Puola. Then what happened to them? They must have either approved of the Iron Tribe’s actions or were also held hostage by the Iron Tribe too.”
Dronian asked, “Hmm, can I ask why you are curious about that?”
He felt uncomfortable about Zich’s detailed question, especially in a situation where war could break out at any moment. Even if he was a benefactor that protected his sister and the tribe’s treasure, he could not help but be suspicious. For that reason, Zich understood Dronian’s wariness.
“It’s nothing much. I was wondering if we could help.”
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