The sun was shining down on Leni, but it wasn't very warm because it was almost winter.
On the contrary, it was rather cold. A chilly wind relentlessly assailed Leni as he sat on a bench in the courtyard. Crimson leaves fluttered down from the trees that had been planted at set intervals inside of the castle walls.
——It's kinda cold. But Yuri might come by, like she did a few days ago.
He was thinking about giving in and returning to the shelter of the castle, but he didn't know if and when Yuri would come. He could not simply let waste the possibility of having lunch together with her.
She had finally taken interest in him and had admired his sword skills, so this was where the real battle began. Just a little more, just a little more(?), and…!
……Leni did not even stop to consider that Yuri could have seen him train the other day simply by chance.
The wind began to grow colder and fiercer, as if it was sneering at Leni's stout, yet pathetic, determination. In response, he persevered even as his fingers grew numb while holding onto his sandwich.
"Well……at least it's pretty peaceful."
Currently, they were preparing to depart for the frontlines under Rain's orders, but the general in question had not issued any specific directives. On top of that, unlike the knights and squires who worked under him, Leni, a knight-captain, was not particularly busy to begin with. Well, actually, he wasn't supposed to have as much time on his hand as he did, but he figured that it was necessary to take a break every once and a while.
In other words, nothing was out of the ordinary. Even despite that the leader of the kingdom had died and most of their allied troops had been wiped out. Well, Senoa was making a fuss about it, but she was the only one.
But even still,
Just what in the world was going in the General's brain?
Four days ago, Rain had called his two aides, Leni and Senoa, to his room in the evening.
He was beaming from ear to ear with his ever-youthful face, which made him look younger than he actually was, and had said,
"I received a report about the situation with the Zarmine expedition through Magic Vision today."
He had worn such as cheerful smile on his face. He had been in a good mood, too. And the color of his face looked vibrant and healthy (though this was always the case).
Have we won the battle with a "surprise comeback victory" against all odds?! Have we defeated Zarmine?!
Leni had been convinced that Rain would say something along those lines, so he had grinned like an idiot before Rain had said anything else.
Anyone would have thought the same thing after seeing the General's smile at that time. He wasn't at fault here…
But as the matter stood——the truth had been completely different.
Most of the expeditionary force, save for Lord Ralphus' unit, had been annihilated. King Douglas had been killed in battle due to Ganoa and Gilles' betrayal……
Leni had thought that his legs would give out under him on the spot. He remembered thinking, why the heck is the General laughing about this?! Leni had worked under Rain ever since their mercenary days, before Rain had become a knight of Sunkwoll five years ago, but he was still unable to comprehend this aspect of Rain's personality.
He had paled and had begun to tremble, and Senoa had drawn her sword and waved it around in a violent fit of emotion…… Just remembering the scene gave Leni a headache.
"Well, I guess it doesn't really matter."
Leni looked down at his half-empty lunchbox, put the lid back on with a touch of lingering regret, and stretched with his arms to the sky.
He did not have a personal relationship with the king, and the ever-kind Lord Ralphus had been saved, so the situation wasn't really all that bad.
(And the General was and is my only master to begin with.)
Indeed, while King Douglas had been the ruler of the kingdom, he had never been Leni's liege. Leni had only ever accepted and followed one master.
And, from the bottom of his heart, Leni was glad that Rain had not abandoned Ralphus.
A relieved voice called out to Leni and stopped him from leaving.
Turning to its source, Leni saw a youth in his teens jogging toward him. If he remembered correctly, the youth was a squire from a unit that he was in charge of. He did not remember the youth's name, but he was sure of this.
"Did something happen?"
"Um, yessir. Actually, I was at a bit of a loss…"
"I'm on guard duty at the gates today, and someone who looks like a noble that I've never seen before came asking for General Rain just now. And, I didn't know what to do…… She wouldn't give me her name,"
said the young gatekeeper, who brought the matter to Leni's attention with large gestures while still wearing full armor.
Leni listened attentively and nodded while also secretly thinking, 'why do people always come to me when something happens?'
Miss Senoa's here too, so why me? And I was just about to go take a nap, too…
"We can't let them in, of course,"
Leni said decisively, which he did not do often, while hiding away his inner whimpering. He continued,
"we're basically at war right now. Even if they look like a noble on the outside, we have no way of knowing if they really are who appear to be. I tell you all the time, right? That you mustn't let suspicious people in."
The youth seemed extremely disappointed for some reason.
He stole one last fleeting glance at Leni before reluctantly doing a right about-face, as if he had seen that there would be no room for compromise.
Leni hardened his heart and deliberately refrained from calling after him.
After all, we're at war right now.
We can't just let someone who won't even give us their name into the castle. Some rules have to be strict, even when we're not really doing much. Yep.
As he was leaving, the youth muttered under his breath,
"Aw man~. And she was such a beauty too. Oh well…"
"Wait a minute, you!!"
Leni had already caught up to youth by the time that he had shouted.
He had reacted immediately.
"My intuition tells me that I need to at least meet with this person. Yeah, I'll go and meet her personally."
And just as he said he would, Leni quickly departed and left the gatekeeper behind. He also left his lunchbox behind on the bench.
He ignored the youth's confused stammering and hurried on.
"N, no fair! You can't just get a head start like that, Commander Leni!"
Leni simply quickened his pace as the youth continued to call out behind him.
An angel stood before the castle gates.
It was a ridiculous expression, but it had undoubtedly been the first thing that Leni had thought when he laid eyes upon her. The girl before him was simply that beautiful.
She was probably fourteen to sixteen years old.
Her long, straight, golden hair reached down to her waist. Her large, sapphire eyes grew steadily darker inwards from the outer edges of her iris to her pupils like a gradation. No matter how you looked at it, she was a genuine Sunkwoll noble.
The beauty with gentle, —-but strikingly handsome, features looked up at Leni and almost immediately looked back down in crushing disappointment.
She was rather mild-mannered, which was rare for a noble.
"You guys, you're scaring the lady! Quit staring at her!"
Leni said for the time being, his orders directed at the youth who had called for him and two older guards. Both of the older guards had been gawking at the girl with their mouths wide open.
Unable to defy a direct order, the two guards reluctantly turned their eyes away from her.
As a man himself, Leni understood just how smitten they had been. But he wouldn't rescind his order, of course.
Then, he stared at the angelic girl himself with an intensity that could have bored holes into her.
"Come now, Miss. Please ask me if you need anything."
"……Um. You see, I……"
The angel lifted up her face ever so slightly and immediately looked down again after meeting Leni's intense gaze.
"What's wrong? Please, feel free to ask me anything. I, General Rain's aide Leni, will——whoa!!"
It had been as sudden as it had been unexpected.
The beautiful girl, who had been shy and bashful up until now, had suddenly drawn closer to Leni.
She had come so close to bumping into him that a sweet fragrance that he could not name tickled Leni's nose.
"Rain's aide! In that case, please let me meet with him!"
She looked up at Leni once more with a strong light in her clear blue eyes.
Apparently, there was more to the docile girl that she had let on.
"Yes, of course…"
Leni subconsciously nodded so many times that he started to get dizzy. He was almost about agree to her every whim and desire then and there.
At that moment, he felt the two gatekeeper's piercing glares.
They brought Leni back to his senses.
Indeed. It was he himself who always strictly enforced the order, "you mustn't let anyone into the castle without a good reason!" to the point that it had become tedious to all parties involved. It would be bad for him to bend the rules because he had been charmed by the allure of some girl. Really bad. It would also cause problems concerning the way he governed his men.
"Ah~, sorry 'bout that."
Feeling a little self-conscious under his men's piercing glares, Leni awkwardly cleared his throat. Then, once he had regained the composure in his voice, he asked the happily smiling girl,
"well, you see, it's not that I wouldn't refuse to take you to see the General if the circumstances called for it, but I'd at least like to ask for your name and your business with him."
A shadow instantly fell over the girl's face. It seemed like she was caught up in some kind of complicated situation.
Still, it was a question that he had to ask, so Leni silently waited for an answer. A bit of time crept by before the troubled-looking girl finally opened her delicate pink lips.
"……My name is Shelfa."
"Shelfa? Hmm~, I feel like I've heard that name somewhere before…"
Something tugged at the edges of Leni's memory. He was certain that he'd heard that name before. The two gatekeepers tilted their heads to the side just like Leni, as if they too were of the same opinion.
Unlike Leni, pureblooded nobles had entirely blue eyes like this young girl's. No part of their eyes was white. Could this girl possibly be someone famous?
"Miss, you're obviously a noble…… and a noble from a prestigious family, too, right? What's your full name?"
The silence that followed this question was longer than the previous one had been.
The three men exchanged nervous glances between each other until the girl gave them her name with extreme reluctance.
"My full name is——"
"……Shelfa Iras Sunkwoll."
"Shelfa Iras Sunkwoll…… Sunkwoll…… wait, whaaaaaat?!"
Leni startled himself after repeating her name after her. Suffice to say, he was utterly astonished.
There were only a few people in the kingdom who were named after the kingdom itself.
Once the full revelation of the beautiful girl's identity finally sunk in, the three men literally jumped back in surprise.
Oh crap! thought Leni as he felt sweat drip down his brow.
She's one heck of a beauty!
I have to hurry and inform the General!
Leni opened the door without any prior warning and stuck his head inside, his eyes as wide as saucers.
Rain looked away from the map laid out on his table, which he was actually using for once, and sighed deeply.
"……The hell is wrong with you all? Quit bothering me when I'm finally in the mood for cooking up a plan! And besides, this isn't some dingy room from some cheap-ass inn. It's the room of the most important person in this castle. So at least knock, would you?!"
"That's not that important! Something huge's happened! Really huge! Something so huge that everything else pales in comparison!"
"You're being repetitive. Spit it out already."
"Alright. I'll tell you; are you ready?"
Leni took in a deep breath and declared with a touch of theatrical flair,
"she's here at the castle! The Princess herself! I was so surprised!"
"Cut it down a notch!"
Rain rebuked sharply while begrudgingly getting up from his seat.
Oh, so I didn't have to go and pick her up.
"……You don't seem very surprised…?"
Leni asked with a hint of suspicion.
"Well, yeah. I just got a letter from Ralphus asking me to take care of the Princess, and the Princess must have heard about the arrangement from Ralphus. He probably told her to come and find me if anything happened. Well, I guess there's nothing I can do about the fact that she's already here."
"You, you brush her off so easily…… She's a real beauty you know, the Princess, that is. Shouldn't you be a bit more……"
"Quit lying to my face,"
Rain interrupted him, laughing with contempt. He continued,
"as if that sweaty old geezer could possibly father a beauty."
"General, he's still the former king of this kingdom! We, well, whatever. But I'm serious. I doubted her identity at first, too, but she really is the Princess and she really is beautiful!"
"Argh, okay, I get it. Then why don't you take charge of her? That should keep you happy, right?"
"Huh? Really? Hooray~ ……wait, no! Even if I wanted to, the Princess herself said that she wanted to meet with you no matter what!"
"With me? Why?"
"How would I know?! She seemed like she knew you from before, though."
Leni glared at Rain with jealousy in his eyes.
Leni was like an open book. It was obvious that he had taken interest in this princess of his even though Yuri was already the apple of his eye.
"How the hell would I know this princess? You were probably misunderstanding something."
"I really don't think I was. It was like, like she was desperate to see you or something."
"Even if you say that, I really can't help the fact that I haven't got a clue about what she wants. Well, either way, I can't refuse if the Princess says she wants to see me."
Rain proceeded to leave his room with great reluctance.
Well, he figured that he might as well at least hear her out.
Rain's attituded seemed to vex Leni, as the latter then, a little forcefully, declared,
"her beauty will surprise you when you see her."
"You really think so~? Wanna bet on that?"
"You bet I do! If you still think she's isn't beautiful after you see her, I'll run around the castle a hundred times, naked, doing a handstand, and singing all the way!"
Rain was surprised, to say the least.
To think that Leni, the timid man who boasted his utter lack of self-confidence, would go that far!
Perhaps it really was better to meet her at least once.
He sped up in anticipation and entered the hallway.
If I see her and she looks exactly like King Douglas, I'll make him do exactly what he said he would!
A blonde beauty briskly walked up to him as he made his way for the parlor on the first floor. She was wearing a mauve coat that reached down to her knees and pants of the same color.
Much to Rain's chagrin, it was Senoa. She looked like she was about to scold him again.
she called out as soon as she caught sight of him.
She immediately looked angry, and it ruined her pretty face……as usual.
"Well met, General. There is something that we must discuss at once!"
"Right to the point, as always…… Sorry, but I'm not free right now. Some high-profile guest has called for me, you see."
Rain answered with a steady voice and a straight face. It went without saying that he did not stop moving his feet.
However, Senoa was not one to simply let the matter go at that, so she fell in step with him and snapped,
"and who might this high-profile guest be?"
"It's Her Highness the Princess herself! Isn't that awesome?"
Leni happily followed up in Rain's stead.
……Not that it matters, but stop bragging about it like some little brat, Rain thought piteously.
"What?! Her, Her Royal Highness the Princess?!"
Senoa stumbled in shock and steadied herself with a hand against the hallway wall. She placed the other on her forehead and looked up at the ceiling in unadulterated astonishment. Her reaction was so overdone that her audience could not help but wonder if she was doing it on purpose.
"W, when did she arrive?"
"Um, just now, actually……"
Leni answered her in the kindest manner that he could manage, but Rain simply left his two aides behind him and hurried onwards.
Sticking around Senoa inevitably meant having to deal with her nagging, and that was a huge pain. Then, though Rain really should have expected it, he heard someone pursuing him hot on his heels as Senoa caught up to him and fell in step with him again.
And just then, she badgered,
"why have you neglected to inform me about such an important matter?"
"Look here, I only found out about a few moments ago myself! If you're going to complain, complain at Leni!"
"General! How could you!?"
"In any event. I shall accompany you as well."
With a sharp glare at Leni, Senoa stated her most inconvenient intentions.
Completely fed up with the situation, Rain stopped in his tracks.
"Suit yourself. We're already here."
He raised a hand to knock on the sturdy, iron-enforced door in front of him……and froze.
Something akin to a sixth sense, that Rain had cultivated though countless battles, sounded a silent warning around him.
The person inside was dangerous.
A surge of power that was stronger than that of any enemy that Rain had ever faced before made the hairs on his neck tingle so much that it hurt.
What is this? The person inside is the Princess, right? But this power……it might even rival mine. No, it might actually be stronger.
And that wasn't all.
I've felt this before. I've met someone who emitted the same kind of pressure before. I'd forgotten about it, but I'm sure it was……
"General, what's wrong? You've frozen solid."
Rain blinked and regained his composure after Leni peacefully called out to him.
Gently, he put down his hand.
"Hey, Leni…… Senoa, you too. I'm asking just in case, but does the Princess excel at swordsmanship or martial arts? Or magic, even?"
Leni tilted his head to the side and Senoa looked at Rain as if she had no idea what he was talking about.
Irritated, Rain tried again,
"in other words, is she strong?"
The two aides traded glances.
After a slight pause, Senoa answered,
"Her Highness has almost always been confined to the castle grounds. I have heard that she is learned in academics and etiquette, but I don't believe that she had ever studied swordsmanship or magic."
But he could not have possibly been mistaken.
After all, he could still feel the pressure even now. Rain did not doubt his sixth sense. It was the only reason that he was still alive.
It was only a matter of entering the room.
There is nothing in this world that I'm afraid of. So why don't we go ahead and see who's inside?
With newfound vigor, Rain raised his fist and knocked on the door.
A young girl turned toward him as he entered the room, her long golden hair dancing nimbly around her.
The girl, who had refused a seat and was standing up to look out the window instead, looked straight at Rain, and only Rain, with her large blue eyes.
Whoa there…… Rain found himself at a loss for words.
He was stunned by how beautiful the girl wearing the frilly white dress was.
Wait a minute. How is that fugly old man with stinky feet the father of this SUPER beautiful girl? She doesn't even look like him!?
Rain knit his brows together.
I feel like I've seen this girl before.
Pushing the matter of the intense pressure aside, Rain stared hard at the girl's handsome face.
All of a sudden, tears began to bubble up from the corners of the girl's eyes.
At the verge of tears, she stretched out her trembling hands and began to walk toward him.
"Eh? Umm~, are you Her Highness?"
Rain's hesitant question did not seem to reach the girl's ears.
"I missed you…… I've been for you for so, so long."
The girl drew nearer to Rain, who was still at a complete loss, one step at a time until she finally threw herself into his arms. He felt her soft body press into his chest.
This time, it was Senoa and Leni's turn to freeze up.
Leni, in particular, had both of his arms stretched out like he was waiting for a hug and wore the expression of a kid who had had his candy taken away from him.
The Princess clung onto him as if her life depended on it.
"Whoa, hold it!! Excuse me, Your Highness, but I think you have the wrong person…?"
Rain said while firmly wrapping his arm around her waist. He took a moment to appreciate how good he had it.
"Rain, don't you remember? It's me. You played with me three years ago……"
The girl finally broke out into a stunning smile and looked up at him.
Three years ago…… He finally remembered after hearing those words. Of the young girl he had met in the garden that had been off-limits, of her melancholy beauty, of the promise they had exchanged……
The image of the young girl from his memories overlapped with that of the princess in front of him in vivid detail.
"I remember now~! Are you the Little one from back then?"
Rain said in a louder voice than he had meant to.
"Yes, I am! You remember me!"
"Course I do! But man, I hardly recognized you! You've become incredibly womanly in just three years, huh. It took me so long to realize it was you!"
Feeling nostalgic, Rain tightly embraced the girl with the intent of welcoming her back to him. She squeezed him back with the arms that she had wrapped around him as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
Whoa! Her flat chest filled out quite well over the——
A voice from the shadows cut Rain's bliss short. Senoa was glaring at Rain with a steady gaze. She had a hand on the sword at her waist.
As for why she was armed inside of the castle, was a complete mystery.
"May I ask for an explanation of the current situation?"
"You have a really unpleasant aura coming off of you right now, you know."
"The situation, Sir!"
Her hand, wrapped tightly around the hilt of her sword, began to shake.
She had snapped just as easily as ever.
It was unfortunate, but Rain hastily took his hands off of Michelle.
"Yeah, I'll explain, so calm down. This girl is an acquaintance of mine, and her name is Michelle."
"Huh, whaat? Isn't she Her Highness the Princess?"
asked Leni, who had finally de-frosted.
"Uh…, nope, not at all. Well, I can guess why she said she was. Michelle probably used the Princess' name in order to meet me because she couldn't get into the castle otherwise, am I right?"
Michelle timidly tried to interpose.
——With shyly upturned eyes.
Rain smiled and waved his hand in the air and signaled to her not to worry.
"Don't worry about it, Michelle. If some random guy tried to pull that on me, I'd send them flying, but you're special. You don't need to worry about any~thing."
"N, no, that's……"
"It's fine! A harmless prank or two every now and then is nothing. When I was a kid, I used to be called the 'emperor of pranks,' you know?"
"That's not it!"
Michelle suddenly raised her voice.
Then, with a proper and serious expression, she continued,
"I lied to you, Rain."
"Please allow me to re-introduce myself with my real name. My name is Shelfa Iras Sunkwoll……and I am the daughter of the king…… I'm sorry, Rain. I've been lying to you this whole time."
Rain's mind went completely blank.
After staring at her in a daze for a short while, he finally managed to say,
The atmosphere in the room suddenly grew heavy.
He was dreaming.
He was dreaming of crossing swords with a man whose silver hair was long enough to cover an eye. The man was closing in on Rain, who had never known defeat after leaving his hometown, and was close to brining the battle to an end.
thought Rain in his dream.
Is this even possible? For me to be cornered this far-—
I have to be the strongest. I must not lose to anyone! Never again will I——
However, the silver-haired man ignored Rain's distress and mercilessly brought down his blazing magic sword on Rain. Before long, the crimson blade flooded Rain's field of vision and cut him to pieces.
Rain jolted awake, drenched in sweat.
He found himself in his own bed in his own room, as he always did, and sunlight filtered through the window.
Rain took a moment to grimace while remembering the crappy nightmare he had just had before shaking his head and climbing out of bed. ……It was only just a dream. There's no way I would lose.
He decisively nodded to himself and headed for his dresser. He changed into his usual ensemble, consisting of a black shirt and black pants, and yawned lightly. He had finally regained his composure.
……We're departing tomorrow, after all. I guess I'll at least take things slow for today. I even had some strange dream. I must be more tired than I'd thought I was.
The lord of a castle was supposed to be busy on a day like this, but Rain, who disliked troublesome things, decided to leave the work to Senoa and conceal his whereabouts from her.
He had Gunther feeding Zarmine false information. The fake orders that Gunther had mixed into all of the orders that the army was receiving from their home country would likely render them immobile for a short while. If everything went as planned, they would meet at the kingdoms' borders.
Rain finished changing while thinking about all of this and looked down at the courtyard from his window after fastening on his magic sword, which had been propped up against the wall.
"Hm. No one's watching."
He nimbly jumped out of his window after briefly making sure that no one was there.
With the agility of a cat, he somersaulted multiple times in the air and landed safely from a six-story jump, which normally would have spelled death for an ordinary man.
"Now, maybe I'll go on a long ride or some……whoops."
At the edge of Rain's field of vision was a youth, who could have still passed as a child, with his eyes wide open.
Unknown to Rain, the youth was the guard who had initially greeted Shelfa yesterday.
"Yeah, I have this bad habit of automatically excluding men from my field of vision. Ah~ hey, c'mere for a second."
At Rain's call, the youth tottered over with his eyes still open wide.
"What's your name and rank?"
"S, sir! My name is Miran. I'm a squire, General."
"I see, Miran, was it? Did you see me just now?"
Rain smiled and tightly clasped Miran's shoulder.
"Hey, Miran. Let's talk about scary stories for a bit. I'll tell you the scariest story I know."
"No, no thank you, Sir. I don't really…"
"Just listen, will you?"
Rain silenced Miran, who had stiffened up, with a sharp glint in his eyes and began,
"it's a story about a certain squire that I know, let's call him M…… One day, M accidently learned about a secret of the lord that he served. Then, because he was quite the chatterbox, you know, he happily told someone else that secret."
Miran began to sweat profusely, despite how cold the weather was.
"A, and what happened to M then?"
he asked, paling. His lips had turned purple.
Rain shook his head in great exaggeration and replied in a dramatically tragic tone,
"it was such a tragedy, and a scary one too. First, as punishment, M was put on lavatory duty every day, then he was put on gate guard duty for the next five years straight, his wages were halved, and what's more, his chances of getting promoted had vanished forever. How was it? Scary, right?"
"Ve, very scary, Sir. Extremely scary,"
said Miran as he nodded, trembling.
His face had gone from pale to ghostly white. Rain looked deeply into his eyes.
Then, in a low voice, Rain said,
"so, let's go back to the question I asked earlier: did you see anything strange just now?"
"I, I saw the General properly exit the castle from the entrance and nothing else!"
Miran replied on the verge of tears.
"It's all good and fine as long as you understand. You'll be a future centurion, M!"
Rain smacked Miran hard across the shoulder before walking away in good spirits, leaving Miran behind in stupefaction.
……I might be serving under someone totally amazing,
thought Miran, standing as straight as a pole as he watched his liege lord walk away.