Prologue: Return of the Dragoon Cavalier
At first glance, she didn’t realize what it was supposed to be.
It was just a stone pillar, only coming up to her knees. There was no way something this crude could ever be called a gravestone.
Actually, calling it a “stone pillar” was a stretch—it was nothing more than a cluster of roadside boulders stacked on top of each other. There was absolutely nothing to indicate its purpose. No markings, just rocks stacked up like the toy blocks a child might play with. Its horrendous simplicity conveyed no respect or reverence for the deceased. She would have gone right past it if she hadn’t already known what it was.
“Th…This…? This is…?” moaned Dominica Scoda.
The ashen clouds hanging over her head seemed to tinge the noontime sky with a gloomy hue, and standing in front of a grave only served to heighten the effect.
The elderly men of the village who had led her to this spot nodded, keeping their wrinkled faces bowed down. They were too intimidated to speak.
Naturally. After all, they were in the presence of their lord, who had returned home victorious after the long, tumultuous period of war. But Dominica was sure that what intimidated them most of all was actually the bizarre, hulking creature behind her.
Its gleaming silver–and–dark–black colors clashed with one another. Its great black wings were folded, and its long neck was bent downward. Its size dwarfed that of a cow or a horse—in fact, such animals were merely prey for this gigantic beast.
The positioning of its head and limbs might have suggested some semblance of a humanoid form, but the similarities stopped there. Its neck and limbs were far longer than a human’s, and it had a horn on top of its horse-like, ovular head. However, the biggest departure from human physiology was the long tail protruding from its midsection.
While it resembled a human in some ways, it was not human.
Though it had wings, it was not a bird.
And though it had a tail, it was not a mere beast.
It was an undoubtedly strange creature.
But what most distinctly distinguished it from any other being was the fact that it had no distinguishing features at all. That was because the surface of its body was covered—but not in fur, nor in blubber. Some would say that it looked to them like scales, yet these were clearly not the scales of a snake or lizard. They were large, and had formed themselves over the creature’s body, covering its entire surface and giving the creature the appearance of having plate mail armor like cavaliers would wear.
For that reason, creatures like these were given the name “dragoons”—armored dragons.
She kept telling everyone not to be scared, that it was all right, but with the overbearing presence of the monster before them, it was natural that they’d all be afraid. In fact, by not screaming and running away, these old men guiding Dominica had certainly shown that they had guts. The first time she had come face-to-face with this dragoon, even Dominica herself was so overwhelmed that she could barely stand.
Dumbstruck, she uttered the name of the one buried beneath the gravestone.
Her little sister Lucie had been the only family she had left.
“Big sis, big sis—”
She was her only blood-related sister, dearly beloved. Even now, when she closed her eyes,Dominica could see her smiling face. Through all the silence, she could hear her voice in her head…
“Big sis, look at this flower! Wouldn’t it look great in your hair?”
“It sure would. Why don’t we also take some to Mama and Papa’s graves?”
The Scodas were a family of cavaliers that had fallen on hard times. As countryside nobles, they didn’t own much land, and it had taken all they had just to live modestly while keeping up the bare minimum of appearances as a cavalier family.
Before Lucie was able to comprehend the world around her, their father, who should have been there to protect his family, went to war and never returned. Dominica figured that he just hadn’t been suited for battle—though theirs was technically a family of cavaliers, those born into it did have their own fields they dabbled in. And several years after their father left, their mother succumbed to illness.
Their mother had been earnest to a fault, just like their father. She must have suffered so, having to raise two daughters all by herself with the little income they had, all while trying to retain the dignity of the Scoda household. To be honest, she had to deal with so much that even if she had been cured, she couldn’t have been saved.
“Big sis, we’ll be having duck today, right?”
“Wait just a bit. I’m making my special mustard sauce you love so much!”
After that, Dominica and her little sister Lucie had lived together under the same roof.
Sparse as it was, they did still own land, so they had received enough income to live on—at first. However, it became gradually apparent that the residents of their village were skipping out on paying their taxes. Sure, the Scodas were “nobility”, but the previous head of the household had been killed in action, and he had only left behind two girls without servants who weren’t even twenty years old, so of course no would take them seriously. And the two girls had no means of challenging this disrespect.
Dominica had realized that it couldn’t go on like this.
At the time, there was no sign that the long period of war was coming to an end any time soon.
On the contrary—the front lines were always being pushed back, and there was no telling when Dominica and her sister’s hometown would become a battlefield as well. Considering the small amount of land they owned and their current meager nobility status, Dominica feared they might even be abandoned by their own country. Taking all this into consideration, there was a real danger of being smothered by the flames of war.
When Dominica had told her sister that she was heading off to war, Lucie had been crestfallen. Dominica remembered the painful reluctance in her heart that day—but regardless, she had already made up her mind at that point. There was no turning back.
If she attained some accolades on the battlefield, she would be able to increase the amount of land she owned, or perhaps even move her territory further away from the front lines. Even the villagers would respect her as a lord then.
She had no backing from anyone. In this world ravaged by war, this was the only way she could protect her sister.
“Big sis…when will you be back?”
Of course, even though she came from a family of cavaliers, she hadn’t known the first thing about martial arts. The one who should have taught her how to fight, her father, was dead, and getting someone with any renown to teach her required a great deal of both money and time. It went without saying that she could afford to spare neither of those.
Thus, the ways she could go about gaining accolades within the army were limited. No—truthfully, there was only one method available to her. She never had the luxury of choosing in the first place.
In order to keep that dream alive, she gave her own body away.
In other words…
There, in front of the pitiful grave, Dominica fell to her knees.
“The war finally ended, and yet…”
She had received the accolades she had desired, acquired new land as part of her spoils, and returned home victorious…and even after all that, this was the result.
“Why…why did it have to be like this?”
“Look at that…”
Around her, the villagers looked like they were explaining to each other the circumstances of Lucie’s death, but Dominica hardly heard any of what they were saying. She was completely focused on what was in front of her—her deceased sister lying beneath the dirt. There was no way she could think of anything else at a time like this.
Everything had been for the sake of her sister. There was no one else she felt the need to protect. There were other things that she could protect, but it was solely because of her sister that she felt like she needed to protect anything in the first place. It was for her sake that she offered up her body to burly soldiers and “purebred” cavaliers and the like, a harrowing method of getting on the battlefield that most would flinch from.
And when she got there, she had fought and fought until she had received her rewards. But…
Had she been wrong to go to war?
Perhaps she should have never left her sister’s side. Even if she wasn’t able to avoid her fateful demise, she could have cared for her sister while on her deathbed. Then they could have at least passed away together.
Surely Lucie must have waited every day on tenterhooks for her sister’s return.
She must have died while being utterly consumed by loneliness and despair.
When Dominica thought that…she couldn’t bear it any longer.
Right there, in front of Lucie’s grave, Dominica broke down and wept.
She balled up both her hands in fists and slammed the ground repeatedly as she sobbed, paying no heed to the dirt smearing her once-glistening silver armor. Not knowing how best to deal with the grief endlessly welling up inside her, she put all the feelings she couldn’t express into her fists and continued to pound the ground.
Then, a noise resounded from the cloudy sky hanging over Dominica.
A howl that almost completely echoed Dominica’s sobs issued forth from the dragon in silver armor. Head tilted back to the heavens, its large body trembled as it released its lament toward the darkened, cloudy expanse above.