In the well-tended gardens of the palace, flowers of unknown names abounded. Yet they did not appear disordered. If the Winter Palace's gardens evoked the feeling of a serene and orderly park, the Spring Palace's gardens seemed to be in the midst of a festival.
Berthus's garden was barren, but not untidy.
Charlotte's palace was ornate, but not chaotic.
A garden filled with flowers, and another devoid of even a single bloom.
I felt that these aspects ultimately spoke of the similarities between the two.
Charlotte, who loved flowers, and Berthus, who despised them.
Because Berthus detested flowers, Charlotte planted even more of them, even going so far as to take and plant the flowers Berthus had discarded, as if to defy him.
Both were fixated on each other's likes and dislikes.
What would become of Charlotte's garden if Berthus were to die?
With no reason to obsess over flowers any longer, the garden might not disappear, but it would certainly lose some of its current brilliance.
In this way, I realized they were truly similar.
Such thoughts crossed my mind.
Charlotte led the way through the garden brimming with flowers. The gardeners tending the flower beds paid their respects silently upon seeing the princess.
No special conversations took place.
There were no questions about the unexpected guest.
If the Winter Palace gave off a cold impression, the Spring Palace, whether due to its name or design, appeared comfortable and cozy.
Surrounded by vibrant flowers, the palace that exuded warmth rather than opulence seemed to compensate for its lack of grandeur.
The garden was a part of the palace.
I thought that this applied to both the Winter and Spring Palaces.
The Imperial Palace Tetra was no exception.
"Really no bees?"
Charlotte's eyes widened at my words.
"The flowers are beautiful. They smell nice. They're well-tended. I didn't expect you to say that, but you were still thinking about it?"
Of course, I was!
With so many flowers, it was natural to expect bees, but as you said, there really were no bees in sight, which was astonishing!
"Of course not. If I got stung, the gardener's head would roll."
As Charlotte spoke with a laugh, I broke into a cold sweat.
There must be no bees in this garden, or they could not come here. The pest control must be quite effective.
"No, but then… what about… you know."
If there were no bees, the pollen transfer wouldn't happen, and wouldn't that be a problem?
"You worry about strange things. They'll figure it out."
"…Reinhardt, I don't know about such things."
Charlotte loved flowers, and thus, this vast garden of blossoms was created. There was no need or reason for her to know the specifics of what the gardeners had to do.
That was the nature of power.
Charlotte lived a life where such things were simply taken for granted.
No matter how I looked at it, Charlotte was a distant figure to me.
I don't need to know such things. The underlings will handle it.
How bold it was for her to say so.
Charlotte walked through the garden and arrived at the entrance of the palace. Inside, a grand hall, spiral staircase, statues, and columns awaited.
I couldn't help but think that the palace was far too vast for Charlotte to live in alone.
No, she would not live alone. There would be maids and servants, various personnel tasked with different duties, and an escort of soldiers.
There were no servants to be seen in the grand hall.
Well, they could be seen, but...
There should have been people coming to greet Charlotte.
No one came to meet Charlotte, and there seemed to be very few people around.
Something must have happened here, and this quietness was a trace of that event.
Although Charlotte had forcibly brought me here, would there be no chance for me to see anything suspicious?
Charlotte was the first to speak in the cold palace.
"I told you before, don't make useless remarks. I will handle it."
I will keep that in mind.
It was as if Charlotte had admitted that she could rely on me.
What a pleasant feeling.
And then, a person who had been sitting somewhere in the hall stood up and came to greet Charlotte.
I couldn't help but widen my eyes at the sight of the approaching person.
He was alive.
The cavalry lieutenant who had provided crucial assistance when we escaped the Demonic Realm.
"Have you returned?"
"Ah, Dyrus. Say hello. This is my friend, Reinhardt. Reinhardt, say hello. This is Sir Dyrus, my escort knight."
Now Charlotte's escort knight, Dyrus, was standing before me.
I had been guessing that Dyrus might be dead, and I couldn't ask Charlotte about it. There was no reason for me to know Dyrus.
He had become Charlotte's escort knight. Charlotte had managed to protect the person who had saved her in some way.
However, Dyrus's skills were not superhuman. I could not know what kind of development had taken place since then.
He was safe.
But contrary to my relief, Dyrus looked at me with a cautious gaze.
"Your Highness, bringing an outsider here is..."
"He's a friend."
Despite Charlotte's words, Dyrus showed a troubled expression.
The rumors of what had happened here were likely true.
That's why the entry of outsiders is currently prohibited.
Charlotte was desperately trying to cover up my coercion with her own, and Dyrus looked troubled.
The princess who had brought a friend home against her friend's wishes was now making a fuss herself.
And then, cutting through Dyrus's voice, another familiar voice was heard.
It wasn't familiar to my ears, but it wasn't unfamiliar either.
"Your Highness, you should refrain from bringing outsiders here."
I had seen her before, the commander of the Empire's 1st Knights Division, Shanafel, Sabiolin Tana.
Why is she here?
She, dressed in the Knights Division uniform, was walking toward Charlotte and me.
"It hasn't been long, Reinhardt."
She, of course, recognized me.
"You ought to have been invited, but I'm sorry, I must ask you to leave."
She spoke as if Charlotte's opinion did not matter.
Has Shanafel been put in charge of the Spring Palace's security?
The effect of the rumors that Sarkegaar had mentioned was unfolding before my eyes in real-time.
What on earth had transpired?
Was Charlotte safe?
"Captain Tana, I am the one who makes that decision."
"Although temporary, I am the one responsible for the palace's safety."
Suddenly, a nerve-racking standoff unfolded between the world's strongest woman and the First Princess.
"Are you implying that Reinhardt is a dangerous person?"
"I believe you understand that's not what I'm saying."
I resolved to bluff, trusting my intuition, but was Charlotte engaging in an unnecessary battle because of my stubbornness?
Sabiolin Tana stared at me, as if to say, she had tolerated enough of Charlotte's persistence.
It would be better for me to take the hint and back off than to have her engage in a confrontation with the princess. The expression was as if to say, "You should know when to leave on your own."
However, I could not retreat, even with the world's strongest woman before me.
I needed to find out what was happening to Charlotte here.
I had no intention of backing down.
Upon seeing me stare back defiantly, she turned her gaze back to Charlotte.
"Your Highness, let's talk for a moment."
Her tone was almost commanding.
Was this the extent of the authority and power that Sabiolin Tana possessed?
"Yes, Captain Tana."
Charlotte's spirit remained unbroken.
It was strange that both Dyrus and Sabiolin Tana opposed my visit.
Therefore, it was reasonable to think that this situation was exclusive to the Spring Palace.
Sabiolin Tana, Charlotte, and Dyrus went somewhere to talk privately.
They went far enough away that I couldn't hear their conversation.
There were no other knights in sight, except for the commander.
She seemed to be alone.
I couldn't tell whether the others were hidden and guarding someplace or what.
If a murder had occurred, shouldn't security be heightened?
Why was it so eerily quiet?
An ominous feeling crept in.
How much time had passed? When they returned, Sabiolin Tana appeared to be quite agitated.
I felt sorry for Charlotte.
Because of my unnecessary stubbornness, she had to engage in an unnecessary battle.
"Eat dinner and go. It's alright."
Charlotte said, smiling brightly, while the others remained silent.
I was amazed that my persistence worked.
It was a request that could barely be accommodated even in ordinary circumstances.
Yet, in this extraordinary situation, Charlotte granted my insistence.
"Shall we take a walk?"
As if offering to show me around, Charlotte led me through the quiet and desolate Spring Palace.
Neither Dyrus nor Tana followed us.
"What's really going on all of a sudden?... I didn't want to fight with Captain Tana."
"Did you fight?"
"Not exactly, but... Just know that I had to sacrifice my reputation to take care of you."
There seemed to be a slight chill in Charlotte's gaze. I wondered if I had caused trouble by relying solely on my intuition.
"Anyway, don't be rude to Captain Tana or Captain Dyrus. Got it?"
"Of course. I'm not crazy."
"Right. It would be strange now if you were."
I have a conscience, and I should admit what needs to be admitted.
"You're right. I might be crazy, but I'm not so insane as to mess with the commander of Shanafel. Don't worry."
"Then why are you messing with me?"
Charlotte, as if she couldn't stand to hear it anymore, covered her ears.
The echo of Charlotte's shout filled the corridors of the Spring Palace, which was eerily silent.
"It's quiet here."
"...It wasn't always like this. We've reduced the number of people recently."
"Yes. Let's go."
Having brought me here, Charlotte seemed to have no intention of showing me around with enthusiasm, but she eagerly led the way. There were no signs of a murder. Even if there were, I wouldn't be able to recognize them, and there would be no reason for them to remain.
The first place Charlotte took me to was the gallery.
"Do you like paintings?"
"...I can't lie about this. I don't like them at all."
"Can I assume you have no interest in anything related to art in general?"
"Actually, neither do I."
Charlotte casually walked past the numerous paintings and sculptures hung in the large gallery within the palace.
"I don't understand it. Paintings are just inferior imitations of reality. They're simply lesser versions of reality, and their only function lies in their preservation, like taxidermy. But with the development of mnemonic magic, that function has become obsolete. Still, it's strange to see people still fussing over brushstrokes."
Charlotte could be quite cynical at times, incomparable to Berthus.
The value of painting, an imitation of reality, had plummeted with the development of magic similar to photography.
Abstract art seemed to be an unknown concept here. I learned an unexpected fact. While denying the potential of painting, Charlotte walked through the gallery filled with portraits.
"These are portraits of the people who lived in the Spring Palace. Some are royalty, others are not."
"Really? So, even non-royalty can live in the palace?"
Although it was only a confirmation of what I already knew, Charlotte eagerly explained.
Her earnest demeanor was quite endearing, so I pretended to be curious on purpose.
"The Summer Palace has the largest scale, with many subsidiary palaces. That's where the royal relatives have lived since ancient times. The Autumn Palace in the south is where the officials work."
I wonder who lived in the Spring Palace in the original work.
Although it was where Charlotte lived, she would not have been able to return, and another master would have taken her place. I don't know about that. Berthus lived in the Winter Palace in the original work as well.
One cannot know what they don't know. The residences of the royal relatives might have expanded.
There were two potential heirs living in two of the four palaces.
Charlotte and Berthus, each the master of one of the palaces, and Oscar de Gradias residing in the eastern Summer Palace, the residence of the royal relatives.
Even if they were all royalty, Berthus's words about them being incomparable to one another now made sense.
After walking through the gallery, we visited the chapel next.
Though dust did not accumulate, the space felt as if it had been unused for a long time.
In the presence of the statues of the five gods, Charlotte looked at me.
"Do you have a god you follow?"
"I thought so."
Although I am Tiamata's master, I naturally have no god that I follow.
The religion of this world is peculiar. Rather, it has to be different.
There is no concept of not believing in gods.
There are gods.
However, the question is whether one follows that god.
Those who follow are considered religious. One cannot deny the existence of gods, for there is the divine power called godly force, and the divine artifacts bestowed by the gods.
"Me? Not really..."
Charlotte shook her head.
"Of course, if Artorius hadn't won, I would have died, so maybe I should serve the War God, Alse... I've thought about that."
Ragan Artorius was not a priest of Alse, but he did wield the divine artifact, Alsebringer, to defeat the Demon King.
"Even though I think Artorius saved me... it doesn't feel like it was just that..."
Charlotte smiled wistfully.
She must have been thinking about Valier. Was my existence such a great salvation for Charlotte? Of course, I did save her life, but if Artorius hadn't existed before that, the war wouldn't have ended.
"How strong must the Demon King have been? Even if Artorius had been defeated, couldn't the allied forces have killed the Demon King if they joined forces?"
I say this, but in fact, I know.
The former Demon King, Valier.
Although the novel begins with the death of the Demon King, how powerful was he?
If it wasn't for Ragan Artorius, the Demon King wouldn't have died.
The allied forces would have been defeated.
People know that Ragan Artorius killed the Demon King, but they don't know how he did it. The battle took place inside the Demon King's castle, with no audience to witness it.
That is something only I know in this world.
If it wasn't for Alsebringer, even Ragan Artorius wouldn't have been able to subdue the Demon King.
If Ragan Artorius hadn't been there, the Demon King would have won, and I wouldn't have had to flee. Charlotte would have died.
"How ridiculous... to think like this."
Charlotte and I, having left the chapel, continued to walk around the palace. There was a music room, but no musicians. The instrument storeroom next to it was also empty.
Charlotte introduced me to various places. Quarters for palace staff, kitchen, dining hall, dressing room, storeroom, and guest bedrooms.
Even more surprisingly.
"Is, is this alright?"
"...Every time I realize there's a limit to rudeness, I'm amazed. What's not alright? You've already been quite rude."
Charlotte even showed me her bedroom.