Zarmine's capital city, Rheagur, was built upon the intersection of several important highways that ran throughout the continent, and was a prosperous city bustling with merchant activity.
Thus, her residents naturally enjoyed a higher standard of living compared to the citizenry of most other kingdoms, and many of them were rather wealthy.
Furthermore, Zarmine's prosperity only increased as she won battle after battle against her numerous enemy kingdoms.
At the heart of the capital city was Gaenys Castle, an old castle that King Leygur had recently renovated.
It was a large and magnificent castle.
A deep moat filled to the brim with water encircled the castle twice, and its ramparts towered over the rest of the city.
However, despite the fact that it had been recently renovated, the castle could not be called an attractive one. After all, it was not decorated in any way.
The exterior of the castle's spires was comprised of the same stones that built its foundation, and neither the castle gates nor the ramparts held any extraneous embellishment.
This was because the castle's master, King Leygur, cared little about the appearance of his castle.
Kneeling before the king in a spacious audience chamber was the prime minister, Jagil, whose voice resounded across the hall as he presented his report.
Nothing covered the floors of this expansive chamber, save for a single crimson carpet that created a path from the entrance to the throne.
The chandelier that hung from the high ceiling and the numerous candles that littered the walls provided sufficient lighting, but the chamber still gave off an unshakably dreary and cold impression.
Neither flowers nor paintings decorated the area.
It was a rather desolate place to seat the throne.
"……According to the reports we received via Magic Vision, we have already taken King Douglass' head. All that is left to do now is to march into Sunkwoll itself. Your verdict please, Your Majesty."
Magic Vision, one of the many spells available to mages, could send images and scenes from one person to another no matter how far apart they were.
Thanks to that spell, Jagil could receive reports about the battle in almost real time.
In this day and age, it was a luxury afforded only to kingdoms that had the resources to employ mages in actual combat.
In any case, Jagil wrapped up his report and awaited his king's orders. Yet, King Leygur remained silent.
He waited for a little while longer, but eventually raised his head after receiving no reply.
The king, dressed in loose ceremonial robes make of sheer black silk, had his eyes closed as if he was asleep and was deep in thought.
Although his long, beautiful silver hair covered half of his face, King Leygur's attractive features were still immediately obvious.
Jagil called again.
Still, Leygur remained silent.
He couldn't have actually have fallen asleep, could he?
Left with little other choice, Jagil began to rise. But——
Leygur opened his eyes at that exact moment. He gazed down at his aging retainer in earnest.
Jagil shivered, feeling as if darkness itself had peered at him through the king's black eyes.
Hurriedly, he kneeled once more.
He did not wish to provoke the king's wrath. After all, the king had succeeded the throne by overthrowing his predecessor. He could easily take Jagil's head if he so wished. Just the other day, he had effortlessly cut down the reckless rebels that had conspired against him. Each of the rebels had been capable and skilled generals in their own right.
"I heard your report, but was there no word from Garblake about Rain?"
Leygur asked in a chilly voice.
Jagil lowered his head and said,
"none. Only that they had taken the enemy king's head."
Leygur began to scowl, as if something had been to his distaste.
And again, he began to ponder.
Jagil wracked his brain. He could not fathom what his king was thinking. His king was too heavily concerned about the commoner named Rain.
For Jagil, who was born of a noble lineage, a mere commoner without pride in his blood was of little consequence.
Rather, it made more sense to him to be wary of the noble named Ralphus.
But, utterly ignoring his reprehensions, his king gravely said,
"…….send a large group of assassins after Rain. Skilled ones."
"Sire. Assassins…… you say?"
"Indeed. Make sure to select individuals who have proven themselves on the field. As for their number…… select at least ten or more. Meanwhile, there is no need to advance further into Sunkwoll yet."
Does he really think that that man is so important?…… Jagil's burst of displeasure made him forget his fear of King Leygur for a moment. And so, forgetting himself, he said,
"it is true that Rain is a talented individual, Your Majesty. However, he is simply a mere commoner. Surely, he is not important enough for you to take him so seriously, Sire?"
The king did not respond immediately. But, after a little while, he muttered,
"…are nobles really that great?"
A cold sweat ran down Jagil's back.
He noticed his blunder. He had forgotten that King Leygur, too, had been a simple commoner who had appeared out of the blue around a decade ago.
"Please, please forgive me!"
Scared to the point that he could not keep his teeth from chattering, Jagil prostrated himself and bowed so deeply that his head touched the floor.
He heard Leygur rise from the throne.
Then, he heard the heavy sound of the king's boots draw ever closer.
Jagil thought that he could almost hear the blade of the magic sword cutting through the air to rest upon his neck.
"Your, Your Majesty! Please! I beg of you!"
Dark boots appeared right before his eyes. Unable even to muster up the courage to raise his head, Jagil simply continued groveling for forgiveness.
Some time passed. He was close to accepting his fate when he finally heard Leygur's voice.
"Jagil, you may raise your head"
said the king.
At the same time, he heard the swish of a cloak…… the king had returned to the throne.
Have, have I truly…… been spared?
Cautiously raising his head, he found Leygur sitting on the throne as if nothing had happened.
"You're still useful to me as a civil officer. Thus, I will forget your slip of tongue from earlier. And you will obey my commands to the letter…… understand?"
"Yes, Sire! At once!"
"Do not forget the fear that you are feeling now. I'll warn you only once: the next time you say something so senseless, I will have your head."
"I will not forget. Never."
Once again, Jagil lowered his head to the cold stone floor.
"That would be for the best,"
Leygur curtly whispered to himself. He added,
"Rain, show me your power. Do not disappoint me……"
His words were so quiet that they never reached his old retainer's ears.
– The courtyard of Cortecreas Castle, Rain's castle. –
Yuri walked through the path between the square flower beds with a light spring in her step.
More than ten days had passed since Yuri had arrived, and she had already warmed up to the castle's atmosphere.
She got along easily with the knights because many of them were ex-mercenaries like Rain, who, like Yuri, disliked stiff formalities.
Well, there were still people like Senoa, the aide, who she found difficult to get along with.
But Yuri had been assigned to Leni, the other aide, so she didn't have to suffer and deal with Senoa personally.
She rather liked Leni, so Yuri had no problems with the situation.
——Except for the fact that all Rain ever did was sleep.
Indeed, Rain had shut himself in his room ever since he had returned and had hardly ever left. He would come out from time to time only to grab a bite to eat or to drink alcohol, and it pissed her off.
This is hardly the time for that, she thought. As strange as it was, she found herself growing irritated at Rain's apparent reluctance to attack Zarmine.
It appeared that Senoa shared the sentiment, as the indignation in her eyes grew day by day. At this rate, she risked snapping at him once again.
Surprisingly, however, the other knights apart from Senoa put their wholehearted trust in Rain. He was popular with them too.
Most of them had even approved of Rain's decision to avoid fighting in the war. Their approval likely stemmed from the fact that most of the knights had once been mercenaries who saw little point in fighting in a war they couldn't win. It wasn't as if Yuri didn't understand the sentiment, but……
"tch. Geez, he really likes to mess with people,"
Yuri muttered as she kicked aside a pebble with a scowl on her face.
She heard people cheering from somewhere.
Turning to the source of the noise, she found a crowd of knights near the ramparts. They had formed something of a circle and appeared to be engaged in some kind of activity.
Yuri walked toward the commotion without a second thought as her curiosity got the better of her.
"Oh!…… It's Commander Leni."
Leni stood in the middle of the circle holding two swords that were slightly shorter than normal. He was sparring with one of his men.
They appeared to be in the middle of sword training.
"Huh. Commander Leni fights with duel blades,"
Yuri noted with a hint of admiration as she observed the match from behind the crowd.
The knight serving as Leni's opponent was breathing heavily and looked to be in a little pain. It was hard to believe, but it seemed that Leni was completely overpowering him.
Inch by inch. One step at a time.
The armored knight moved with determination. He crouched low and drew closer to Leni, hesitantly observing his commander all the while. Yet, Leni simply stood and waited.
Finally seeming to make up his mind, the knight swung his sword toward Leni's neck with considerable speed.
Metal hit metal with a clear ringing sound.
Leni had stopped the deathblow with one sword and apparent ease. He held his other sword right up against the knight's throat.
Wow, I couldn't even see that! He's actually pretty strong……
Surprised, Yuri began to see Leni in a better light. She had thought that he was just some mild-mannered aide, but in actuality he had the skills to justify his position and then some.
"Alright, that's the end of this round. It's already noon, so let's wrap up for today. Everyone, dismissed!"
Leni ordered, fixing his slightly disheveled blond hair.
The crowd cheered just like the ex-mercenaries they were and promptly dispersed.
Leni looked up and greeted Yuri with a smile when she jogged over to him.
"Whoa, Yuri! You were watching?"
"Yeah. You're really strong, Commander. I was impressed."
"N, nah. I'm not that great,"
Leni said with an embarrassed smile, blushing.
Then, he came up with a great idea and clasped his hands together and exclaimed,
"oh yeah! I was just about to eat lunch; wanna eat with me? I have plenty of extra food!"
"Thanks for the food!"
replied a hungry Yuri without missing a beat. She had never been one to turn down free food.
"Can I really have some?"
Yuri asked as they sat down on one of the many wooden benches in the area.
She asked only out of courtesy.
She had also nonchalantly left a bit of space between them as she sat.
"I brought sandwiches today,"
announced Leni as he happily unbundled a package of cloth with a bright smile stretched across his face. Inside it was an unexpectedly large lunchbox stuffed to the brim with sandwiches.
"Yay! Well, don't mind if I do."
"Go right on ahead."
Yuri quickly reached for a sandwich and bit into it without reserve.
It was pretty good for a meat-and-vegetable sandwich. Yuri cradled her cheeks with both hands as she savored the flavor.
"Hahaha. Have as many as you'd like."
"Thank you soo much!"
Yuri devoted her undivided attention to the food for a short while.
When she had finally come back down to earth, she asked Leni, who had been watching her with a smile, a question that had suddenly popped into her head.
"Come to think of it, does General Rain participate in the training from before?"
"Hm~? Well, he only spars with us once or twice a year or so. He usually just avoids them. Says they're a pain."
Leni shrugged in slight embarrassment after meeting Yuri's curious gaze.
The gesture suggested that he had stopped trying to get Rain to practice with them long ago.
"Well that certainly sounds like him. ……I've been meaning to ask, Commander Leni, but between you and General Rain, who's stronger?"
Leni choked a little the moment Yuri asked. He looked as if he couldn't believe his ears.
"I don't even come close to reaching the soles of his feet. It's not even funny…… you shouldn't even be comparing us to begin with."
"Huh…… is the General really that strong?"
"…? Yuri, weren't you acquaintances with the General?"
Leni asked in bewilderment.
"Huh?! Oh, no, our fathers knew each other, but the General and I aren't really……"
Yuri quickly made up an excuse as she broke out in a cold sweat.
Luckily, Leni believed her. In fact, he almost looked happier than before.
"Huh, so that's how it is. Hehehe."
"Oh, sorry about that. So, you wanted to know if the General's strong, right? Well, 'course he is~. He's probably stronger than he lets on, even with all of his bragging."
Yuri opened her eyes wide in surprise.
"Are you——for real?"
"Yep. In any case, I'd never want him as my enemy. Compared to him, I'd take on Zarmine any day."
Leni frowned and began to tremble. Even just imagining Rain as his enemy had caused him to react.
So he's really that strong…… Yuri groaned to herself.
Leni continued in a serious voice,
"I bet he could even defeat a dragon. I've never heard of anyone who actually did, but the General probably could."
Whoa, now that's just ridiculous, Yuri protested silently.
Dragons were the most powerful species in the world by far.
Their magic, magic-nullification field, powerful breath, and overwhelming strength —no other living creature stood a chance against them. They were virtually invincible.
The legends of old stated that 'anyone who defeats a dragon one-on-one will obtain their strength and magical might.'
Many had believed the legends and had challenged a dragon since ancient times past, only to never be heard of again.
There weren't even whispers of rumors about anyone succeeding in the task. Dragon Slayers existed only in the songs of bards.
If anyone who could have defeat a dragon, it would have been the superior "daemon" race that had died out over a millennium ago.
Daemons, who looked no different from humans in appearance but wielded terrible magic and might, could have stood up against the mythical beasts. But they had died out a thousand years ago, while warring against humanity for dominance over the world, so it was impossible to be certain.
Leni smiled wryly as Yuri's face betrayed her obvious disbelief.
"I know it's hard to believe. But someday, you'll come to understand just how ridiculously strong he is too, Yuri. The General is superhuman."
——Well, I'm not denying that he's strong, but…
But I know…… Yuri softly shook her head.
No matter what Leni said, there was always someone stronger. And Yuri, who had been in Zarmine, had seen that ridiculously strong someone with her very own eyes. The image of the king with flowing silver hair was still fresh in her memories.
Countless criminals had been assembled to the execution grounds, and King Leygur had stood before them.
Had that been just for practice?
In any case, he had buried dozens of criminals in a sea of blood without sparing a single one. He was truly…… a monster.
I know…… That no matter how strong Rain is, he can't beat him.
The sandwich that had been in Yuri's hand suddenly disappeared while Yuri was lost in thought.
Yuri was dumbstruck only for a moment.
A horse's long neck had abruptly appeared between Leni and Yuri. Still chewing lazily, the well-bred white horse stuck its head into Leni's lunchbox and stole away the remaining sandwiches.
Then, it continued to chew in leisure.
"You, you stupid horse! You're Kris, aren't you?!"
The horse didn't respond, but Yuri felt that Kris was mocking her with a sidelong glance.
……Of course, it was just a coincidence.
"Ugh!—— this reallly pisses me off!"
"Hey there, Kris. You'll eat anything, as always, won't you? It's hard to believe that you're a horse. Want some of this too?"
Leni offered the horse the slice that he was holding. Kris quickly gobbled it up and thus, all of the sandwiches were gone.
"Wait a minute, Commander! Why are you spoiling the horse like that?! To begin with, why is there a horse here instead of being tied up somewhere?!"
"Huh? Um, well… The General ordered us not to tie up Kris in the stables. That's why Kris is free to roam about wherever she pleases."
"Why the heck did he order that?"
"Who can say…"
Leni nonchalantly tilted his head sideways. He probably did not harbor any ill will behind the gesture, but his unconcerned attitude served only to upset Yuri further.
"In the General's words, Kris is his beloved partner and a pegasus to boot, so it'd be rude to tie her up. But I wonder if pegasi really exist, though."
"That's not the problem here!"
Yuri slammed down on the bench in a burst of anger, causing Leni to immediately straighten up.
"S, sorry! You're absolutely right, hahaha."
Yuri shot a glare at him. Then, she abruptly stood up.
She put her hands on her hips and turned her piercing gaze to the offending horse.
"Kris! It's a great sin to steal other people's lunches! Understand?!"
The horse completely ignored her.
Kris snorted and turned away from Yuri after quickly surveying the scene to find that there were no more sandwiches left.
It was undoubtedly just a coincidence, but Kris had turned just so that her lush tail slapped Yuri across the cheek. Then, Kris simply trotted away.
"Ugh. I hate that horse. I bet she gets it from her master."
Leni spoke up in an almost inaudible voice as Yuri stomped her feet,
"But I don't think that she's ever done anything against you, Yuri……"
Yuri purposefully ignored his comment.
At the time, Rain was laying on his bed and staring at the ceiling of his room on the highest floor of the castle.
There was nothing worth mentioning about his room, other than that it was rather simple for a room belonging to the lord of the castle. His bed was quite normal as well, and was not something grand and canopied like the ones that the nobles favored.
In the middle of the room was a round table with numerous liquor bottles on top of it.
Rain had emptied every single one of them himself.
Raid said with a sigh as he unfolded the letter that he had already read multiple times yet again. It was a letter from Ralphus that had reached the castle the same time that he had, as if it had chased after him all the way.
Still sprawled out on his bed, he read the short letter again.
Rain groaned no matter how many times he read it. He was beginning to get tired of Ralphus' good nature.
The first half of the letter was fine.
As always, Ralphus told him to stop drinking so much and to be wary of the plague, generally saying this and that as if he was Rain's mother. They were all things that Ralphus would truly say.
It was the second half of the letter that Rain had issues with.
I have no idea how you came to be acquainted with Her Royal Highness the Princess, but her life will be in danger if we lose this upcoming battle.
As you two are close, I would like you to protect Her Highness and lend her your strength.
And also…… I don't want to meddle in your relationship with her, but take her age and position into account before doing anything rash (you know what I mean). Alright?
That is all.
""That is all" my ass; the hell?!"
Rain tossed the letter over the sideboard in a huff.
Ralphus was being unreasonable. And besides, while Ralphus had asked Rain in his letter to look after the princess, Rain had never even met her before to begin with.
Does he think that I'd actually lay my hands on this princess of his? I'm not so desperate that I'd lay my hands on a girl I don't even know.
To begin with, Rain could only imagine all too well what kind of joy the daughter of the stuffy old King Douglass would be.
He wanted to tell Ralphus to cut him some slack.
He already disliked nobles to begin with, so to think that he would lay his hands on royalty! And the king's daughter, at that! Surely, she was some bratty, stuffy, silly girl who couldn't even do simple housework.
Rain cursed his friend with every profane insult that he knew of. But all things despite, he knew that he would end up doing exactly what Ralphus had asked of him.
"Well, whatever. I guess I'll do something about the princess when I go to rescue Michelle,"
he muttered after he was finished complaining.
He pictured the beautiful, melancholy girl in his mind. He had promised. He would return for her no matter what.
But at the moment, Rain was more worried about Ralphus. After all, he was probably deep in the heat of battle by now.
At this point, things had undeniably deviated from Rain's calculations. Zarmine was exercising more caution against him than he had expected. According to Yuri, countless eyes surveilled his every move.
If he were to leave his castle, Zarmine's main force would be alerted immediately. That, in turn, would cause Zarmine to grow warier and prevent him from saving Ralphus.
Rain didn't care about King Douglass, who had used Rain for his own gain without a second thought, and the king's death would have been no skin off of his back. But he had to save Ralphus.
"It'd weigh on my conscience if I didn't. That's all there is to it,"
Rain muttered as if he was trying to convince himself that it was true.
In any event, he had debts that he still needed to repay. Ralphus had intervened on his behalf during the numerous occasions when the king had flown into a fit of rage against him, though he had never once asked Ralphus to do so.
Rain, too, had saved Ralphus' life once, but that didn't even begin to cover for what he still owed Ralphus.
And yet, Ralphus always worked to thank Rain for that one time at every opportunity, saying, "words cannot express how grateful I was that day. I will never forget what you've done for me."
He was truly too kind for his own good.
In fact, it made saving him a pain in the ass.
As a rule, Ralphus would never abandon his homeland, Sunkwoll.
In other words, Rain could only keep him safe by forcing Zarmine to retreat.
After all, that idiot, Ralphus, was a passionate type of idiot who would even take on an army numbering in the tens of thousands alone without a second thought.
'I wonder if Gunther's doing well?'
Rain ground his teeth at his inability to act. Perhaps it had been a mistake to have gotten himself put under house arrest on purpose.
Perhaps he should have accompanied that dumbass of a king, even despite all of the disadvantages.
"Fina…… did I make the wrong choice?"
Rain asked in a quiet voice. But then—
Someone had opened the door with a ridiculous amount of force without even knocking. Or rather, they had kicked it open.
Rain turned his head to find Yuri blocking his doorway with her feet spread apart.
"Hold it right there!"
She jabbed her pointer finger in his direction and continued,
"who the heck is Fina?!"
"Don't "eh?" me!"
Clad in a blouse and a skirt, Yuri made a rude entrance into Rain's room and stomped up to the foot of his bed. It was difficult to tell who the real master of the castle was.
Then, she blurted out,
"and what's up with your attitude? How much longer are you gonna just lie there and stare at your empty liquor bottle? Get your damn act together! You're such a slob! This is why you got put under house arrest to begin with! And do something about that damn stupid horse of yours!"
"Argh!! You're so annoying!!"
Her abuse seemed like it would have continued for quite a while if he let it, so Rain interrupted her and began to get up. He continued,
"I'm in the middle of thinking about something important right now! I don't have the time to deal with you. If you need to come see me, do it when you have something extremely important to say or when you're wearing something skimpy and see-through!"
"What the heck are you talkin—— Hey, don't sleep on me!"
"You're a loud one, aren't you?"
Rain, who had been on the brink of falling back into his sheets, begrudgingly got up again.
He sat up on the side of his bed and looked towards Yuri, who was still standing next to him.
"So, what do you want? I knew you were there because I felt your presence, but why are you going around eavesdropping on other people's rooms?"
"Oh phooey, it's not like you had anything to hide in the first place. I was all fired up to come here, you know. Oh, and who's Fina?"
"……Quit jumping around all over the place. I have no idea what you're talking about,"
Rain half-heartedly pointed out before suddenly coming up with a great idea and breaking into a smug smile.
"Wh, what. Why're you smiling like that?"
Yuri asked in disgust as she took a step backwards.
"Nah, it's nothing important. You know, going off of your black hair and eyes, you're originally a commoner from Sunkwoll, aren't you?"
"……So what of it?"
"I'll get right to the point. ——Are you interested in switching sides?"
Yuri held her breath and blinked her light green eyes. She stared at Rain with a blank look. She's taken the bait, thought Rain. He pressed on,
"you're only spying for a living, not because you actually want to, right? It's pretty hard to survive as a commoner in this country. But as long as you're paid, there's no reason for you to have to work for the enemy, is there?"
"That's…… well… It's not like I enjoyed doing it."
"Right, exactly. So how does twenty silver a month sound?"
"Twenty silver…… that's fifty-thousand taran? Hmm~ How about a little bit more?"
Yuri began to lean forward in excitement.
"Twenty-one silver, then."
"Hey, you're pretty stingy with your numbers, aren't you? You're a man; show off your wealth a bit more!"
Rain scowled and shook his head.
"Idiot. The lord of a castle should always be frugal. ——How about twenty-five silver?"
"Says the guy who drinks expensive liquor all the time! Think about my younger sister's…… I mean brother's school tuition!"
"Who cares about guys?! Alright, how about I buy your future prospects as a woman too for thirty silver! Just take it already, you thief!!"
Yuri clapped her hands together with a sparkle in her eyes.
Then, she nestled closer into Rain's personal space and asked,
"you're really gonna pay be thirty silver a month, right?"
"Yeah. But you better work hard to earn your keep."
"Okay! This is great~. Now I can stop lying to my sister——I mean my brother!"
Yuri jumped with joy. Apparently, she had kept the fact that she was spying to make ends meet from her family. She had probably felt horrible about it, too.
"What were you planning to do…… if I turned down the offer?"
Yuri tilted her head to the side in a cutesy manner.
Rain broke out into a wicked grin and replied,
"I would have told Zarmine that you'd switched sides anyway. Then they'd stop employing you even if it wasn't true. I wasn't planning on giving you much of a choice to begin with."
"……You're just plain evil, aren't you?"
Yuri opened her mouth in a show of disgust.
To the contrary, Rain seemed pretty pleased with himself as he took her insult with stride.
Lights began to flicker around the center of the room and began to take shape.
"Magic Vision?" asked Yuri.
Before Rain could answer, the lights converged and took the shape of a man with sharp eyes.
Of course, the actual person in question was actually quite far away.
"……Who's that depressed guy who looks like he's given up on life?"
"Later, later. This is an important report,"
Rain briskly brushed Yuri off.
Judging from the timing of his appearance, the report must have to do with Ralphus' rescue.
"Reporting, Lord Rain,"
the somewhat blurry image of Gunther bowed respectfully and greeted Rain, giving credit to Rain's suspicions.
Shelfa was all alone in a garden deep within the heart of the royal palace. Galfort Castle was currently enveloped in a veil of silence. There had been a commotion until just yesterday as its inhabitants made plans to flee, but now there was hardly anyone left to be seen.
Shelfa leaned against a tree near the small pond at the edge of the garden and gazed over the water’s surface.
This was her favorite place.
It was a quiet place to begin with, but it was especially silent today.
The only thing that she could hear was the sound of the wind rustling the tree's leaves overhead.
She could not hear the sounds of people talking to one another or the hustle and bustle of daily life, even though it was currently noon.
"This castle has truly become empty…"
She knew what had caused the silence. Two days ago, the senior statesmen had received news of Sunkwoll's defeat through Magic Vision.
Although they had not believed it at first, each and every one of them had fallen into despair as they received more detailed reports of the battle.
All of the high generals who had participated in the battle, save Ralphus, had died in battle. To top it off, her father the king had been betrayed and killed.
A strict gag order had been imposed on that information, but rumors of it had spread in the blink of an eye.
It was impossible to seal the lips of man.
According to the rumors, the senior statesmen, starting from the chancellor downwards, had been going around saying things like, "to think that Lord Ganoa would…!"
Shelfa thought it was ridiculous.
She had always disliked Ganoa. In fact, she had recently grown to hate him even more because he had always looked at her with dirty eyes during the rare occasions they had met.
Shelfa had not been surprised at all when her ladies-in-waiting told her that Ganoa had betrayed Sunkwoll.
After all, he was the type of man who would do something like that.
Her father had never had the ability to discern the true natures of his men……
With a soft sigh, Shelfa tried to picture her late father's face.
However, she could not no matter how hard she tried. Her father had rarely met with her; she was lucky to see him even once a year.
She could only remember him glaring at her with hatred in his eyes during the few times she did get to meet him. And she barely had any memories of talking with him.
In all honesty, Shelfa wasn't that upset about her father's death. Though she did get somewhat depressed whenever she thought, 'I must be a fairly cold person'.
I want to see Rain……
This wish occupied most of her heart. She was truly relieved that Rain was still alive.
Three years ago, Shelfa had met Rain for the first time and had opened up her heart to him after brushing upon his kindness.
Ever since that day, Shelfa, who had always been lonely, had begun to believe that she was no longer alone.
Natually, she had never forgotten even a single moment of that day.
Shelfa closed her eyes…
…and promptly recalled those precious, nostalgic memories……
The expansive garden at the back of Galfort Castle was one of Shelfa's few 'favorite places.'
Numerous flowers colored the flowerbeds every season, and a Jura tree spread its long branches toward the surface of a small pond deep within the garden.
Shelfa's one true joy was to draw pictures here alone.
She had planned to spend more time drawing than usual because her governess had let her free early that day due to a "ball" or something.
Squinting from the sunlight, which was still very bright despite the fact that it was already late summer, Shelfa briskly walked to her usual spot at the roots of the Jura tree and sat down. Sitting in the shade was just as cool as she had expected it to be. After brushing back her luxurious blonde hair, she placed her drawing board in her lap and picked up her brush. Then, she tilted her head slightly to the side.
What shall I draw today? ……I've already drawn the scenery so many times……
She then decided to draw a pretty bird or something, but could not find any nearby.
After a bit of contemplation, she decided to draw a person instead.
Naturally, she did not have any intention of asking someone from the castle to be her model. For Shelfa, who was used to being alone, there was nothing more unpleasant than having to interact with other people. And it wasn't as if there was anyone in particular that she wanted to draw anyway. The only person she would have wanted to draw was her mother, who had passed away three years ago, but she decided against it because it would have hurt too much.
Thus, she decided to draw an imaginary person instead. As luck would have it, Shelfa had recently been dreaming about a man she had never met before.
Vaguely picturing him in her mind, Shelfa began to draw with great fervor.
Her brush glided over the paper more smoothly than usual.
Hmm, this is turning out well…… My hand feels like it's moving of its own accord somehow…… This is the first time this has happened.
After she had been drawing absentmindedly for a while, Shelfa thought that she could hear someone singing from somewhere.
She abruptly stopped moving her hand.
It had not been just her imagination.
She could definitely hear someone's voice. Somebody was singing.
A man was singing rather poorly to himself about a romance between a man and a woman. More importantly, he was drawing nearer by the second.
Suddenly, his singing grew quieter. Perhaps he had realized that someone was nearby. Still, he did not stop singing as he grew ever closer.
Normally, Shelfa would have been thinking about how to quietly exit the scene. She could not help the fact that she hated interacting with strangers.
If she was going to have an unpleasant experience anyway, then it was much easier to run away and avoid them entirely.
But she did not feel like running away this time.
She could not fathom why.
It might have been because she had been attracted to how the owner of the voice was singing so openly and freely (though it was atrocious), or it could have been because she had been captivated by his pleasant bass. Shelfa still did not really know, even in hindsight.
In any event, she had lost her chance to flee and the man in question had appeared on the other side of the flower bed.
Shelfa opened her sapphire eyes wide as soon as she saw him.
Stopping his cheerful singing, the man stared intently at Shelfa.
He was dressed in an all-black ensemble with a black shirt and black pants, on top of his already black hair and eyes, and was quite tall.
He had finely chiseled masculine features and sharp eyes. Yet, the depths of his eyes twinkled like those of a mischievous child's.
She did not know this man. ……Or at least, she had never met him before in person.
To her surprise, he looked like the physical manifestation of the imaginary person she had been drawing; in other words, he looked exactly like the man from her dreams.
"Hmm, this is quite the surprise. Hey, Little one. You're one hell of a beauty, you know that?"
he said in an infinitely cheery voice, oblivious to Shelfa's feelings.
'Little one' most likely referred to her. It was the first time that she had been called something like that, but strangely enough, she did not dislike it.
Perhaps it was because he had also called her a beauty.
He had praised her straight from his heart, without even a trace of the usual superficial flattery that other people generally snuck in. That was why she had not disliked it.
"My name's Rain; what's yours?"
"My, my name……?
Shelfa, who had not expected him to ask for her name, began to panic. Come to think of it, how had he even come here in the first place? Only those who had ties to the royal family had access to the garden.
"What's wrong? You can at least tell me your name, right?"
"Y, yes! Um, my name is Shel—— I mean, Michelle."
On the spur of the moment, she gave him a name that had sprung up from the depths of her hearth.
Shelfa had not wanted to give him her real name for some reason. Thinking back, she had probably already lost her heart to Rain at the time.
She had not wanted to distance Rain, whom she had just met, from her by revealing that she was a member of Sunkwoll's royalty.
She did not want to ruin the mood that he had set by speaking so amenably to her.
"Oh, Michelle, was it? It has a pretty ring to it. I guess lovely ladies really do come with lovely names. But still…… that presence I felt earlier…… well, whatever."
Rain contemplated for a bit and quickly nodded to himself. Then, suddenly seeming to regain his interest in Shelfa, he unfastened the longsword with an extravagantly crafted hilt from his hip and crouched down in front of her.
"And your age? My guess is that you're around twelve? By the way, I'm twenty-two"
"I just turned thirteen not long ago."
"I see, I see. It must be some kind of fate that we met here. So, I hope we get along, Little one."
"Yes. Um…… I hope so, too."
"Yeah. So, what'cha doing all the way out here?"
That was the exact question that she had wanted to ask of him, but instead Shelfa obediently picked up her drawing board and held it out for him to see. She had never shown anyone else her drawings before.
"Umm…… Isn't this a portrait of me? Huh, you could probably eat with this. It's pretty good."
"What do you mean when you say that I could eat with it?"
"I mean that you could make a living out of it. But before that, have we met before? Though I don't think I'd ever forget a face as pretty as yours…"
"Today is the first time we have met, Sir Rain,"
Shelfa answered. Then, she explained how she would often draw in the garden alone and how she had arbitrarily decided to draw a person today and how the person in her drawing somehow ended up looking exactly like Rain.
……She was too embarrassed to tell him that she had already seen him before in her dreams, so she didn't.
After listening to her, Rain tilted his head to the side and said,
"So you mean it was a complete coincidence? Even still, it really does look exactly like me."
"Yes…… It's quite strange."
Rain suddenly looked up at the sky and began to ponder.
After a while, he said something outrageous with a solemn look…… and in a dead serious voice:
"Perhaps this was destiny."
"Yeah, destiny. It was meant to be. You and I may share a special relationship——in the future."
"A, a special relationship?"
"Exactly, like sweethearts or lovers or something."
He didn't seem to be joking around.
Shelfa immediately flushed bright red. Putting the content of Rain's words aside, she was more exasperated with the fact that she was not averse to the idea at all.
Especially when she considered that she had only just met this man.
"What's with the sour look? Do the difference in our class statuses bother you as a noble?"
"Eh?! H, how did you know I was a noble?"
"Blonde hair and blue eyes are basically the symbol of Sunkwoll nobility, you know. And your eyes stand out even more because they're blue all the way to the sclera."
"Well, putting that off to the side…… You don't like the idea of being with me? Do you think that class status is everything too, like the other nobles? That commoners should be held in contempt?"
"No! Never…… Rather, if anything, it's the nobility that I dislike……"
Shelfa looked down at her feet in sorrow.
This was how she truly felt.
In her father's eyes, she was just another political tool. A simple tool that was to be married off to another country once she reached a suitable age.
That was all that she would ever be. That was why nobody ever really kept her company.
And her father had only grown even colder still after her mother had passed away.
Rain's large hands tenderly cupped around her cheeks.
"Children shouldn't be making faces like that."
"You can ditch the 'sir' and just call me Rain. Anyway, stop making that face. 'Kay?"
Rain whispered kindly.
Large hands that rested gently against her cheeks——
Shelfa felt as if the warmth from Rain's hands were slowly seeping into the innermost chambers of her heart.
This was probably the first time that someone had talked so kindly to her since her mother had passed away.
Shelfa was moved to the verge of tears.
Before her tears could fall, she forced her trembling lips together and asked him a question.
"S…… Rain, why are you here?"
"Oh. I'm a centurion, you see. I did pretty well for myself in the last war, and, can you believe this? They invited me to a ball as a reward. Geez, I'd much rather that they raised my social standing instead of this pointless crap. This's such a pain."
"Oh, so you escaped from the ball and came all the way here,"
Shelfa said as she nodded. At the same time, she realized that Rain must have been an extremely skilled knight.
After all, her father, who was notorious for his fervent belief in the social hierarchy, had promoted someone who was not even a noble to a knight captain.
Then, Rain placed a hand on top of Shelfa's head.
"And what about you?"
"Well I, I always come to draw here, so……"
Rain stared at Shelfa with a suspicious frown on his face.
Had he figured out who she really was?
Shelfa began to fret…… However, Rain had been more concerned about an entirely different matter, as he then asked,
"does that mean you're always here alone?"
"Yes. I like being alone,"
Shelfa answered, relieved. In turn, Rain vehemently replied,
"That won't do! It's fine to have time to yourself every now and then, but you shouldn't always be alone!"
"Do…… you really think so?"
"I most certainly do. Alright! It's a good thing that I'm here today."
Rain abruptly jumped upright and extended a hand to Shelfa. He continued,
"taking care of a potential future wife is much more important to me than some stuffy ball. Though I wish that I'd met you ten years from now,"
he said with a bright grin. She had somehow been promoted from a potential lover to a potential wife. Shelfa silently stared at Rain in bewilderment. When Shelfa didn't answer, he asked,
"don't get it? I'm saying that we should have some fun together. You'd probably never guess, but I used to be called 'the ultimate playground' when I was younger, you know."
"Are you really inviting me?"
"Is there anyone else here to invite? C'mon!"
Shelfa subconsciously caught her breath as she reflexively began to refuse.
He has such clear eyes…… Deep, black eyes that look like you could fall into them.
And they're so kind…… So very, very kind…… Even more so than my mother's were.
She felt her reluctance melt away like snow on a sunny day as she was mesmerized by his eyes.
"Are you…… sure?"
Shelfa asked in a quiet voice, unable to refuse,
"……are you really inviting someone like me?"
"Yeah. Unless you don't want to?"
"No, I do, Sir Rain. I mean, Rain. I put myself in your care,"
Shelfa said with a radiant smile that she had thought she had long since forgotten how to make and tightly grasped the hand that was stretched out in front of her.
It was hard to believe that it had already been three years.
She remembered it as if it had only been yesterday.
Right here, that day.
At noon, they had eaten the bread that Rain had brought with him, and he had stayed and played with her until evening.
Most of the games he had taught her were meant for boys, but Shelfa had still enjoyed them nonetheless.
She had been content just to watch Rain smile so jovially and to have him gently pat her on the head from time to time.
His black eyes had carefully watched over her as she jumped about.
His large, warm hand had immediately reached out to her whenever she tripped and fell.
Shelfa had wished that that happy moment would have lasted forever.
But it hadn't. Eventually, the sun went down, and it had been time for Rain to leave.
"Now, then. I should head back soon."
His words caused Shelfa to freeze in her tracks.
She would be alone again starting tomorrow…… She felt like this truth would crush her heart.
And that wasn't the only thing. For Shelfa had already realized.
That she had fallen in love with Rain.
She wanted to stay by his side forever, watching him smile. If possible, she also wanted him to hold her close.
That was why Shelfa had asked,
"please, take me with you!"
"Whoa there, Michelle—"
"I don't want to stay here. I don't want to be lonely anymore. Rain, I…… I want to go with you!"
"Even still. You're asking me to travel with a child in tow…"
said Rain, looking troubled.
But, perhaps because he had been moved by how desperate Shelfa was, he began to wrack his brains with a slight frown on his face.
Shelfa knew that she had asked a lot from him.
However, her feelings for Rain were undoubtedly real, and so too was her 'wish.'
Shelfa threw herself at Rain with only her pure emotions. In that regard, she was even willing to throw away everything else just to be with him.
"Alright. Then let's do this."
Coming up with an idea, Rain stood up and began rummaging around his pocket. He fished out a silver coin that had been turned into a pendant by threading a chain through it. Then, he continued,
"I'll give this to you."
"What is it?"
As far as Shelfa could tell, strange letters that she had never seen before were engraved onto the surface of the coin.
The coin itself was fairly old, as indicated by its lackluster shine and color that had been worn down by the years.
"What do these letters say?"
"Well, this is a magic item, you see, and the words say 'bring me to where that person is.' It's a relic from a kingdom that fell a long, long time ago. From even before the Holy War, when mages were more common. It's true."
Shelfa gazed at the coin in admiration. It wasn't as if magic had disappeared altogether, but it had definitely declined sharply since the ancient times.
Thus, magic weapons and items imbued with semi-permanent magic were rare and worth a fortune apiece.
"I found it in some ancient ruins while I was travelling through the Northern Lands…… It's really true! I only have two, but I'll let you keep this one,"
said Rain in a strangely determined tone as he reached behind Shelfa's slender neck and fastened on the coin pendant for her.
Then, he gently placed his hands on her shoulders and looked straight into her eyes and said,
"Listen close, Michelle. I still have things that I have to do. That's why I can't I can't take you with me right now."
Shelfa opened her mouth to protest, but was stopped by Rain's steady gaze. He continued,
"just five years; wait for me for just another five years. I'll have settled my feelings—— no, I'll have finished what I need to do by then, and you'll also have grown up. So, just wait until this day five years from now. If you still haven't changed your mind by then, Little one, I'll take you with me wherever you wish to go."
She had wanted to protest so much.
If it had been possible…… she had wanted to say that she couldn't possibly wait for five whole years.
But she understood that Rain had a good point. She could not expect him to suddenly take a small child around with him, especially when he had important things to do.
So instead, Shelfa made an effort to keep her emotions from showing on her face.
She had resolved to trust Rain and wait. She did her best to smile and nod, and she thought that she had pulled it off.
But it seemed like her real feelings were immediately obvious to Rain, who was much more mature than she was.
Rain smiled and lightly pat her on the head.
"C'mon, stop looking so sad,"
he said gently. He continued,
"That's why I'm giving you this coin. It'll only work once, but you should use it if you ever find yourself in a situation where you absolutely can't wait for me any longer. It's really easy to use. Just grip the coin as tightly as you can, picture me in your mind, and shout out my name. Then——"
Shelfa asked, filled with hope.
"——The magic will take over, and you'll be teleported to my side in an instant no matter where I am. I swear that it's true,"
With a soft sigh, Shelfa clenched the coin tightly against her heart.
As long as I have this, I can see Rain whenever I want. No matter when, no matter where.
"Earth to Michelle? You look like you want to use it right now, but it'd be better to save it until you really need it."
Then, he turned around for some reason and glibly warned her,
"there's a matter of timing, too. It'd be one thing if you suddenly appeared while I was doing my business, but it'd be another matter entirely if you dropped down on top of me while I was hitting up some other girl!"
A prickly pain stung at Shelfa's heart.
She did not understand what he had meant, but the part about 'some other girl' had still hurt.
It was proof that she had completely fallen for him.
"But I understand, Rain. You're giving me this coin as a means of emotional support, right?"
"You're as bright as I'd thought you'd be, Little one. You should always save your trump card for last,"
Rain said with a satisfied smile, nodding. He continued,
"I know that you'll be able wait. Five years will be over before you know it."
Yes, perhaps she really could.
As long as she had this coin.
Rain looked at Shelfa as she tightly clutched the coin and smiled, locking his smiling eyes with hers.
"Little one. You've really impressed me today. So, in return, I'll tell you a secret about myself. Wanna hear?"
"Yes, of course!"
"Alright. Then, I'll tell you something I've never told anyone else."
Rain's voice grew lower as he spoke.
"The truth is, there's nothing in this world that scares me. Do you know why?"
"Is it because you're brave?"
"Nope. It's not something that impressive. It's because my ability to feel fear was burned away during an incident that happened a long time ago. Probably."
Rain gulped and began his story.
"A long time ago, I…… at my hometown……"
Then, something unbelievable happened.
Rain's black eyes began to tremble, and a shadow that could only be called fear flickered in the depths of his eyes.
His usually fearless smile wavered as it etched itself on his face, and he began to grow pale.
She couldn't quite place her finger on it, but Shelfa was sure that a fierce storm was raging through Rain's heart of hearts. Fear was clearly gnawing away at him like worms.
To think that Rain could be so afraid!
Shelfa reached out her hand the moment she thought this.
Rain was taken aback.
Shelfa tightly clasped Rain's hand and, in a voice so firm that she surprised even herself, said,
"……Rain, you seem to be in so much pain, so much sorrow, so I don't want to hear about it now. I'll wait—— so please tell me later when you are ready to do so."
Rain's cheeks twitched as he drew a soft, relieved sigh. He pressed his cheek against Shelfa's hand for a moment and slowly pulled away.
"Geez…… you're a big softie, aren't you, Michelle? Oh man, I think I might really fall for you in the future."
He let go of her hand and stood up.
His usual fearless smile had returned to his face.
"I'm gonna go now, Little one. I'll definitely keep my promise."
"That last bit was unnecessary. I trust you, Rain. I'll be waiting for you here on this day, five years from now."
Shelfa looked up at Rain and forced herself to smile.
Rain nodded with a broad smile in return, raised a hand in farewell, and turned away from her.
His tall, black-clad figure ventured into the growing darkness without looking back. Shelfa did not move from where she was for a long time, even after he had vanished from her field of vision.
——Rain. Please do tell me the full story one day. I'll always be waiting for you. Always.
A long time had passed since she had parted with Rain.
It had been a truly, truly long three years.
Just how many times had I thought about that day and regretted it?
She regretted that she hadn't tried harder to leave with him…… and that she had lied about her name.
Shelfa leaned against the tree trunk and gazed down at the smooth surface of the pond.
She had lied about her name because she hadn't wanted Rain to hate her for it, but now she regretted the decision. Would Rain laugh it off and forgive her the next time they met?
Next time…… just when will that be?
I want to see Rain…… Shelfa thought sincerely. She wanted run away to him and see his gentle smile once more…… She wanted to see him so much that it was almost unbearable.
In any case, it was no longer possible for her to wait.
Most of Sunkwoll's allies had deserted Galfort Castle, and those that still remained were simply waiting for Zarmine to invade it.
Shelfa had already realized that none of her personal ladies-in-waiting or the castle servants were anywhere to be seen that morning.
They had probably already fled that castle.
It was as if everyone had forgotten about her. Just like how she had been left behind, alone, after her mother had died.
She pulled out her coin pendent from her bosom and lovingly caressed its tarnished surface.
If she called out his name and used up the ancient magic that had been charged into the coin, she could go to where Rain was whenever she wished.
That's the reason why this old coin has kept me going ever since I parted ways with Rain.
Shelfa gazed at the coin.
If I used this right now——
She almost called out Rain's name unconsciously. That was all she had to do to see him again.
But—— just as she had done countless times already, she lowered her precious treasure back to her bosom again today.
""You should always save your trump card for last," was it? Rain, I'll head your advice,"
Shelfa said out loud, as if she was trying to convince herself, while slowly breaking away from the tree.
She surveyed the entirety of her beloved garden in an attempt to burn it into her memories.
The flowerbeds overflowing with beautiful flowers, the pond filled to the brim with crystal clear water, and the light brown Jura tree with its giant trunk and hefty branches that stretched over the pond.
It's finally time. I may never return to place ever again.
Even still, Shelfa turned her back on her secret sanctuary. She was willing to sacrifice anything, and would not regret the decision to, if it meant that she could see Rain again.
"I hope there are still horses left in the stables that I can use."
It would take at least two days by horse to get to Cortecreas Castle if she rode without stopping.
She would have to wear clothes that were easy to move in…… and of course, she'd need to pack a separate outfit for her reunion with Rain.
Shelfa returned to her private chambers to prepare the bare necessities for travel and rushed back out to the corridor once she was done.
——There, Shelfa came across a flustered girl who was around the same age as herself.
She was a live-in castle maid whose black hair was adorned by a white headband.
She had been walking around in a somewhat lost manner—— but she stopped in relief the moment that she saw Shelfa.
"Your, Your Highness…… thank goodness you're still here."
"Miss……Riella? What are you doing here?"
They hadn't been particularly close, but Riella was the only girl her age that Shelfa could talk normally to.
Shelfa had always thought that Riella was the more levelheaded of the two, but right now the latter looked like she would burst into tears at any moment.
"I, I had no idea what to do…… Everybody, even the court lady who gave us orders up until yesterday, disappeared. ……If I may ask, is the rumor about our defeat true?"
It appeared that, while the rumor had spread throughout the castle, it had yet to reach all of the maids.
Shelfa did her best to look calm as she nodded.
"……Yes, it is."
"——! No way…"
As someone who basically lived in the castle, she could not brush off this news.
Just then, heavy footsteps rushed in from the other side of the corridor. To think that people would run within the palace walls——
The two girls looked at each other in shock……and Shelfa was the first to react.
In a quick display of ingenuity, she threw open a lady-in-waiting's door that was in front of them.
"In here, hurry!"
she said as she pulled Riella inside by the hand.
Then, Shelfa stopped Riella from screaming out in fear by holding her tight.
——A few seconds later, multiple footsteps stopped in front of Shelfa's private chambers. She heard someone brazenly open the door——immediately followed by hushed whispering. She had heard these voices before…… they belonged to civil officers whom she knew by face, but not by name.
"Hey, she's not here!"
"That's not possible…… Where else could a weak little girl like her possibly go?"
The two girls, still huddled together, exchanged knowing glances.
Being so close together, Shelfa could only tell all too well that Riella was trembling in fear.
She pat the other girl gently on the back, hoping to alleviate some of her terror.
In truth, Shelfa was scared out of her wits as well. However, her fear only served to strengthen her resolve.
I must get out of here, no matter what it takes!
"Anyway…… We have to hurry up and secure her!"
"Agreed. If we don't have something to give to the enemy—— I mean, to the Zarmine army when they get here, we'll be the ones in trouble!"
"If you get it, then keep searching!"
Several voices replied responded in concurrence and gradually began to fade away.
Shelfa pulled away from Riella and let out a deep breath.
She had been holding her breath ever since she realized that they had been searching for her.
Riella said indignantly. She continued,
"they're planning on handing you over, Your Highness, so they can save themselves!"
"There's more to it,"
Shelfa added with a pitiful smile,
"they're probably hoping to receive a decent post within enemy ranks in exchange."
"Doesn't that make your stomach churn, Your Highness?!"
Instead of replying, Shelfa looked Riella straight in the eye and said,
"Miss Riella, you should hurry and get out of here soon too…… Where is your hometown?"
"Well, um, it's further down……south. Oh no! This kingdom, this kingdom might end!"
Riella began to tremble again.
She had only just now grasped the current situation.
"That's perfect. I was planning on heading down south too…… If you don't mind, may I accompany you along the way?"
Shelfa said as calmly as she could as she gently placed a hand on Riella's shoulder.
Riella stopped trembling. She looked at Shelfa in a way that she had never had before.
Then, sounding a little awed, she said,
"you keep your composure well, Your Highness."
For the first time, Shelfa looked down.
She quietly whispered,
"I can't die until I meet Rain again."
"——I beg your pardon?"
"It, it's nothing. We should hurry up and escape…… alright?"
And just as Rain had done to her so many years ago, Shelfa extended her hand to Riella.
A little while later, two guards who still remained at the castle gates caught a glimpse of Princess Shelfa.
They attempted to stop Shelfa and her maid, who rode together on a horse that was sprinting toward, them because it was their duty. They must not allow the Princess to leave the castle no matter what——was the strict order they had been given. Surely, the girl at the reins was the Princess.
Snow white riding pants, a simple tunic, and a plain cloak——Shelfa, who wore such garments for the first time in her life, called out in a dignified voice as the two guards attempted to block the exit,
"Please step aside!!"
Affected by the full force and authority of her voice, the guards jumped aside before they were aware of what they were doing.
The horse leapt right in between them and galloped away.
The two guards could only stare, dumbfounded, at the radiant golden hair that fluttered past them.
That day, Shelfa grabbed fate by the reins and directed her own fate for the first time in her life, and left behind the castle that had once been her cage.