-A little while before Rain had smashed apart the doors of the audience chamber and departed. –
Selphie and her friend Yuri were in a particular saloon in the castle together.
There were several tables scattered throughout the room that were covered by flawless tablecloth paired together in set with chairs of gorgeous texture. Selphie and Yuri were sitting on splendidly decorated sofas that had been placed in the corner of the room.
The saloon had originally been created as a place for high generals to gather and converse, but was hardly in use at the moment because the number of high generals had decreased sharply after the war.
It was the most suitable place to told secret talks.
There were a few more people in the room along with the two girls.
First, there was a heavily bearded man of a strong and sturdy build who looked like a mountain bandit. In stark contrast to him was a slender youth with effeminate features. Their names were Gwen and Nigel, respectively, and were aides to General Ralphus. This was Selphi's first time seeing them, and she thought that she would be hard-pressed to find a pair who were as contrastive to each other as those two.
There were seated around a table that was a little way from Selphie and Yuri, and another group, composed of Rain's three aides —Gazaram, Leni, and Senoa— were seated at another.
Then, there was one final person.
The person in question, Gunther Valoa, who wore leather armor on his upper body underneath his usual black mantle, was finishing up what he had to say.
"——And that is how it is,"
Gunther closed nonchalantly, looking like he was in a worse mood than he usually was. He continued,
"Lord Rain will likely open hostilities against Safir's party in the near future."
Gunther had sounded as if he was not talking about anything important, but on the contrary, the contents of his speech had been anything but.
To oppose Safir, who boasted about being King Douglas' successor in accordance to the late king's will, meant that he would be rebelling against the kingdom of Sunkwoll itself.
The atmosphere in the room tensed up in silence for a moment, likely because everyone had understood this.
Shattering the tension, Yuri suddenly raised her hand and said,
"I have a question!"
Gunther quietly and reluctantly pointed at her. He did not put it into words, but his face made clear that he was thinking something along the lines of, "don't ask questions on a whim when the discussion's already over." Or, perhaps, that was simply how his faced looked like to begin with.
"The aides aside, I don't there was a point in discussing this with underlings like me and Selphiee."
"You're exactly right,"
Gunther said without holding back in the slightest. He continued,
"however, I called the both of you because you are heavily connected with Lord Rain."
"……Huuh. That how it is?"
Even Yuri was having a difficult time having her way while talking to Gunther. Selphie found herself thinking that this was funny, despite the occasion.
No, this isn't the time to find things funny, she pulled herself together in a panic. This could be a major crossroad in her life. She had never in her wildest dreams thought that she would ever find herself in this situation, but surprisingly, she did not find herself hesitating in the slightest. Instead, her heart was racing. Just because she wasn't hesitant didn't mean that she wasn't anxious.
"If that's all ya had to say."
The mountain bandit-like man abruptly stood up. He picked up the giant battle axe, which looked like it could kill by its looks alone, from the floor and slung it over his shoulder.
He looked more like a self-made mercenary, or even a straight up mountain bandit, than a knight.
"I'm goin' back to the courtyard. I hate that shithead Safir's guts, but I'm still Boss Ralphus' aide. I'm not the one who's gonna be doin' the decidin'."
Then, the effeminate Nigel, who had been sitting with him, quickly followed suit. He headed straight for the exit without saying a single word.
Selphie had secretly been wondering what he sounded like, so she was a little disappointed that she did not get a chance to hear him speak. Though, she knew that this was not the time to be thinking about such things.
Gwen followed Nigel out of the room, but before he walked through the door, he calmly turned and said,
"What is it?"
"I hope we don't become enemies. Though, knowin' the boss, I doubt I need to worry."
"Not really. I'll simply defeat you with my full strength should the need arise."
Selphie could only see his profile, but Gunther did not seem to have changed his expression and his voice had not wavered. In other words, he was being as unsociable as ever.
She thought that Gwen would be upset, but instead he burst out in laughter like a howling tiger as if he found something hilarious.
"I like that part of ya, ya know that?"
After he finished laughing, he merrily raised a hand and said, "see ya!" as he left the room. Incidentally, Nigel had already left a while ago without saying a single word. They both appeared to be commoners, but they had rather prominent personalities. The only commonality they shared was their loyalty to their liege.
Without betraying any sign of lingering attachment to the now-closed door, Gunther turned around to face the group of Rain's aides.
In an incredibly offhanded tone, he asked,
"and what will you people do?"
He sounded as if he couldn't have cared less. Regardless of how he actually felt on the inside, he was as sullen and as unsociable as ever on the surface.
Leni sighed and raised a single hand as if he was taking a pledge and said,
"yeah, I'll follow the General. Honestly, I think he's up to something outrageous again, but, well, I really don't want him as my enemy either."
Gunther nodded without even the slightest trace of a smile. He continued,
"Hey now, I'll follow him too, of course."
Gazaram, whom Gunther had turned his eyes to, answered decisively while looking vexed that he had even felt the need to ask. Gazaram continued,
"I'll never forget how he took me under his wing. I've already decided that I'd die at his side."
Selphie was deeply moved by the stern-faced aide's resolve, but Gunther simply replied, "fair enough," as if it was none of his concern.
His deep green eyes, which sometimes could come off as a bit cold, turned to Senoa next. Senoa, in return, turned away in a conspicuous manner.
Senoa, who Selphie had gotten the impression that she was always angry, looked flustered. Her appearance suggested that she was a completely a pure-blood noble, so it probably wasn't easy for her to make a decision. Even Selphie could guess that much.
"I'd like it for you to decide as soon as possible. It's troublesome to be unsure of who's an ally and who's an enemy."
Yuri raised her hand again and continued,
"aren't you gonna ask us?"
"……Do as you like. There won't be any effect on our military formation even if the two of you were to join forces with Safir."
Whoa. This gloomy man just laid it out straight.
Yuri complained under her breath as she was curtly rejected by Gunther. Selphie shared her sentiments, but then again, she realized that what he had said was technically correct.
Senoa, who had been contemplating so seriously that she had not even heard this exchange, abruptly turned to Leni.
"Sir Leni. No, Sir Lelbyni! Are you sure about this? This means that you will be turning against the kingdom itself!"
"Eh…… Even if you put it like that… My mother just happened to be a part of the lesser nobility. So the entire betraying the kingdom thing doesn't actually bother me too much. And all things said and done, I've been following the General for a long time now."
He scratched his head and stood up as if he was fleeing from the situation.
"On that note, I'll be returning to the courtyard too."
"Wait! Is that your only reason, Sir Leni?! That's your only reason for turning your back against Sunkwoll?!"
"……No, I have a proper reason for it."
Leni, who had been half-way out of the room, stopped in his tracks and turned around. He continued,
"I've always been timid and easily scared ever since I was born, you see. Everyone around me always called me a coward."
Senoa blinked her blue eyes in awkward embarrassment.
It appeared that she had been one of them.
As Selphie looked on, Leni smiled and said, "no, no, it's not like I'm trying to be sarcastic or anything," as if he was trying to make Senoa feel less uncomfortable. Then, he quietly continued,
"but the General……he was the only person who didn't use that as an excuse to ridicule me. He yells at me a lot, but strangely enough, he's never made fun of me."
——That's my reason, I think.
Leni scratched his head again, embarrassed, and left the room. Riding his momentum, Selphie stood up as well.
"I'm going back as well. Yuri, you're coming with me, right?"
"——Well, it's not like there's anything else I can do. I guess I'll have the ask the auntie down the street to look after my little sister again."
Yuri shrugged and got up as well.
Gunther and Gazaram headed for the door in silence.
Then, after the four of them had taken a few steps out of the room.
They heard the door slam open with a huge bam! behind them.
Oh, she's not talking in her usual strained voice.
Selphie turned around in surprise.
The blonde Senoa looked strangely cornered and was on the verge of tears.
"I'll not have you simply leave me behind! I'll follow General Rain as well!"
Selphie had always thought that Senoa was somewhat of a nasty person.
Strangely enough, she did not dislike the other woman all that much at the moment.
Gunther nodded petulantly.
From somewhere far away, they heard the sound of something being destroyed.
It was clearly the sound of something being smashed to pieces, and Selphie instantly thought,
'has the fighting already begun!?'
Gunther was the first person to begin running.
He had been the first person to react to the noise, and on top of that, his was not the speed of a normal person either. His figure grew smaller before Selphie's very eyes.
Selphie and Yuri desperately chased after him in silence, and Gazaram and Senoa chased after them in turn. Leni had already had a head start on them to begin with, and Selphie could not see him anywhere.
Then, four armed knights suddenly jumped out from behind the corner of the corridor before them. They had probably invaded the castle from the courtyard.
Their gaudy outfits absolutely reeked of the nobility. As further proof of their identity, they had drawn their swords the moment that they laid eyes upon the group.
However, one of them had looked beyond Selphie and the rest and shouted, "is that Lady Senoa of the Estherhart house?!" the moment he saw Senoa. The female aide was more well-known that Selphie had originally thought.
"Surely, you aren't siding with the commoners?!"
another soldier with a mustache yelled.
"Don't misunderstand. My social status has no bearing on this matter. I am General Rain's retainer!"
Senoa declared rather happily, as if she had finally freed herself from past chains.
"You fool! It's all the same! How pathetic of you, for someone who was born from a noble house! We will grant you to the divine punishment you deserve!"
There was no convincing them otherwise.
The began attacking at once.
"Enough with your babbling! I haven't become weak enough to get killed by greenhorns like you yet!"
Gazaram howled as he charged into the fray.
He was already attacking by the time that they had realized that he had drawn his sword. The mustached soldier tried to ready his sword, but did not make it in time and fell after taking a hit to the head. Realizing how formidable Gazaram was, two of the remaining three knights turned to face him. The only problem was the fourth.
He had rushed headlong in Selphie's direction instead.
As a result of her daily training, Selphie was able to draw her sword on reflex and meet him evenly.
Sword hit sword, causing Selphie's blade to chip. It was probably because it was of a cheap make. She could smell the scent of metal. It abruptly reminded her of the sensations she had felt when she had been attacked during the parade.
"Selphie, I'll back you up!"
"Hold, Yuri! They're fighting one-on-one! It's underhanded for you to assist her!"
Senoa spewed out her useless knightly spirit as she stopped Yuri.
D, don't say that please help me~.
Selphie was about to cry, but she did not have the leeway to look away from her opponent.
The man pushed his luck upon realizing that Selphie was not going on the offensive and highhandedly began attacking her again. Somehow, she was able to catch his sword with hers.
This——is different from a training match!
Two, three…… Selphie understood after just three clashes with him.
He was weak…… From Rain's perspective, he would have ranked under even a newborn baby, and he wasn't worth calling an opponent even by Selphie's standards.
——But, do I have it in me to kill someone again?
"You spineless coward!"
Mistaking Selphie's hesitation for cowardice, the man brought his sword up and help it over his head with the intent to bring it down on her in one blow. The move left his torso utterly defenseless. Acting upon her warrior's instinct, Selphie quickly stepped in to slash through him——but froze in her tracks.
She recalled her nightmare from the other day.
The horrible sensation of rending through flesh. And her opponent's scream when she had severed through their bones. The red, red blood that had gushed out…… And the look of terror and despair on the assassin's face as they fell.
Would she have to experience that all over a——
"Selphie, you idiot! Hurry up and dodge!"
By the time that she had registered what Yuri had yelled out, the blade was already on the brink of falling down upon her.
Her body would not move.
But the pain never came no matter how long she waited. When she slowly opened her eyes, Selphie found that her opponent's sword had stopped a hair's breadth away from her head.
He had stiffened up with shock etched on his face as blood dribbled down from the corner of his lips. Selphie stepped away from him in a panic. Her body was moving properly again.
When she took a closer look, she found that Gazaram's sword was wedged into his side and yet another sword was poking out from his chest. It was a black magic sword that emitted a strong magical aura.
Behind her opponent was a slender man with a morose visage. Gunther had returned to help at some point during the scrimmage.
When Gazaram and Gunther unhesitatingly pulled out their swords, the knight, who's name she did not know, collapsed to the ground with a thud, dead.
Selphie sank to her knees where she stood before she knew what she was doing.
Yuri crouched down beside her.
"Don't scare me like that. I thought you were a goner!"
……I thought I was, too, Selphie thought to herself.
A hand was suddenly thrust out before her.
When Selphie looked up, still lightheaded, she saw that Gunther was reaching out to her with displeasure. When she tilted her head, wondering what this was all about, he said, "……take my hand." He was trying to help her up.
Selphie was surprised by his consideration, though she felt that this sentiment might be a little rude to him, as she gingerly grasped his hand.
……It was hard. There were callouses all over it. The callouses around his finger joints were especially prominent.
She knew that anyone who carried a magic sword wasn't an ordinary person, but after seeing his hands she knew that he carried a sword that was befitting of his ability.
He pulled her up with ease, and Selphie was pulled close enough that their bodies nearly touched. In a low voice, he whispered so that only she could hear,
"……this is something you must come to terms with on your own. No one can help you with it."
Selphie unconsciously stiffened up.
When Selphie timidly looked up at him, Gunther nodded lightly in an indifferent manner.
He saw right through me……
she thought, but she was surprisingly not too embarrassed about it. This was probably because, while Gunther's word choice was the epitome of bluntness, his tone of voice was rather normal and he did not seem to be trying to take pity on her or anything strange like that. His unexpected kindness moved her to the point of tears. Selphie had always been a crybaby.
Fortunately, Gazaram interjected in a hoarse voice,
"Hey, I see you've got a magic sword too. Aren't magic swords with black blades pretty rare?"
Swiftly evading the question, Gunther sheathed his sword and began running again.
Everyone began running after him, and so, thankfully, no one saw Selphie wiping away her tears.
Or had they?
Selphie looked over at Gazaram, who was running heavily beside her. He was grumbling about how Gunther had ignored him, but the aged knight did not seem too angry about it. Had he actually been looking out for her as well? Had he created her a window of time to wipe her tears on purpose?
Their eyes met.
"Let's do our best. Yeah, sister?"
His stern face changed into a grin.
Selphie replied in a voice louder than she needed it to be and returned her gaze to Gunther's back.
Yeah, yeah that's right…… I need to work hard. Dad worked hard until the bitter end.
"You're in the way!"
The magic sword flashed once.
Several soldiers who just so happened to be in its path were sent crashing into the wall in a spectacular fashion and stopped moving.
Rain took point and sent his enemies flying with one side-sweep of the Siren's Blade whenever they appeared in front of him.
But he hadn't killed them.
The invisible slash only carried as much power as Rain wanted it to. While it was capable of destroying sturdy walls, it was also able to simply send people flying at will. There was no weapon that was more convenient when dealing with large groups.
"……The 'Siren's Blade,' which was said to be responsible for the fall of Celestia in the ancient past. To think that it truly existed."
Ralphus glanced at the bluish-white magic sword from the corner of his eye and shook his head as he ran next to Rain.
"A sword depends on its user, doesn't it? There's no sin in the actual blade itself……. Well, I'll admit that it's a bit of a strange sword, though…"
Rain's words trailed off at the end.
The sword already invited enough misunderstandings as it was, so he didn't want to say anything unnecessary and add insult to injury.
He looked away from Ralphus, who still looked like he had questions, and purposefully increased his speed. The stairs that they had been running down had ended and they ran into the courtyard from the nearest exit. Fortune smiled upon them as Gunther and their other comrades spilled out from a different exit at the same time.
"Oh, Gunther! It looks like you explained everything properly."
Gunther bowed lightly with his usually grim face. Senoa and their other comrades all looked like they had broken free of something (put differently, they looked desperate), and appeared to have had decided to follow Rain.
Rain nonchalantly looked over to Senoa.
"Is everything okay with you? You have a sick mom back at home, don't you? Will everything be alright?"
Senoa's look of alarm was rather impressive.
"H, how did you know that?"
"You underestimate me. I know everything there is to know about my own subordinates. ——So, is everything going to be okay with you? You can go home if that's what your filial piety drives you to do, you know."
Her beautiful features twisted to the brink of tears for a brief moment, but Senoa regained her stiff expression and flatly rejected the offer.
"We employ many attentive servants at home. I am sure that they will bring my mother to safety should anything happen."
Rain simply nodded and accepted Senoa's answer. Still, he kept in mind to keep her situation under consideration.
Senoa jerked up and trembled a little when he slapped her shoulders in an attempt to cheer her up.
Rain turned to face the mass of soldiers before him.
"General, you were safe!"
"Look, it's Rain! He's the enemy, everyone!"
Both armies began calling out as Rain and the others approached. The courtyard was currently densely packed with troops. Although Sunkwoll was a small kingdom, the courtyard of Galfort Castle was as wide as you'd expect of any royal castle. The troops were divided up in to two armies, one belonging to Rain and Ralphus' allied forces and the other belonging to the nobles who had joined Safir, and the two factions were glaring daggers at the other.
As the highest-ranked commanders of either armies were not present, they had simply been standing around as the tension built up around them, but that tension had finally broken upon Rain and the others' arrival.
"Archers, at the ready!"
Someone short-tempered from the enemy ranks called out. The archers who had been stationed at the corner of the enemy army's formation readied their bows as one.
Their unit commander was on the brink of giving the order to fire.
Naturally, Rain and Ralphus' forces had not remained silent either. Rather, they had responded faster than the enemy army, which was comprised mostly of nobles, and readied their archers before them.
One wrong step would mean that the courtyard would become a battlefield.
"All of you shut the hell up!"
Crackle crackle crackle!
Rain raised a fist to the heavens as he scolded the soldiers, activating magic that promptly dropped countless bolts of lightning down upon the enemy ranks.
They were so bright that the entire area turned blindingly white, and clumps of earth burst out wherever the lightning fell. The lightning hit only the sparse areas of emptiness within the densely packed noble army, as if someone had guided them on purpose.
It was fortunate that the lightning hadn't hit anyone, for if it had, it would have spelled out disaster for the enemy army.
Both armies, which had been in an uproar, quieted down at once.
After making sure that everyone had settled down, Rain hoisted Shelfa up in his arms and mounted Kris, who had come over at some point.
Ralphus, too, had returned to his aides in a hurry in order to explain what was going on.
Rain sat Shelfa down in front of him and deliberately glared at the enemy army.
"Hey, don't go dishing out orders when you're just an underling! I'd be more than happy to oblige if you really wanna go at it, but as you've seen, I can use as much magic as I please. It won't be a problem for me that you have a few more numbers on your side. So, do you still wanna fight?!"
He was obviously threatening them, but the enemy army was rendered silent. Most of them had hardly ever seen magic before, and they looked like their legs would give out from under them at any moment.
At a brief glance, it was easy to tell that the majority of the commanders in Safir's army were either nobles or from noble families and that commoners only populated the lower ranks. Even then, the commoners had likely been conscripted into the army against their will.
Since the nobles who commanded the army were stunned into a stupor, no one did anything to fight back against Rain.
After confirming that everyone had remained quiet, Rain turned to his own army and began to speak.
"I'm sure you all know this by now, but Safir has returned to the castle with His Late Majesty's will. Apparently, the will said that His Majesty has left all future matters in Safir's hands."
Ignoring the small commotion that was stirring up, Rain continued,
"however! I believe that the will is fake. That idiot Safir probably forged the will by copying the late king's handwriting. While that's preposterous on its own, what's even worse is that he tried to make the Princess his in order to solidify his own political power. He completely ignored the Princess' wishes and tried to force her into marrying him. And just to satisfy his own lust and greed! Now, he's planning on getting rid of me for interfering with his plans."
A cry of anger suddenly burst out from the crowd.
Intense booing echoed around, mostly from Rain's army. While it was a given for Rain's army, most of the knights in Ralphus' army were commoners as well, and they were generally resentful of the nobles' treatment of them.
The reason that Rain's and Ralphus' armies had an overwhelming number of commoners in their ranks was not due to favoritism or anything of that sort. It was simply the natural result of recruiting knights based on ability alone.
In any case.
It was only natural that the commoner knights, who had been used to the nobles' constant oppression of their class, had erupted in rage upon hearing Rain's story. After all, Princess Shelfa herself was sitting in front of Rain with her brows furrowed, nodding in agreement as he spoke. There was no room for doubt.
Rain raised a hand to silence the crowd and eloquently continued,
"Ralphus and I've decided to break off our relationship with Safir, of course. But there is nothing for you to fear! The Princess, who has taken sympathy on us for breaking away, has agreed to come with us. We will never become traitors to the crown as long as we walk with Her Highness Princess Shelfa, who stands with us here today! So please, follow Ralphus and me without worry!"
As he spoke, Rain took Shelfa, who was sitting in front of him, by the waist and lightly lifted her up and seated her on his right shoulder so that she could be easily seen by everyone.
Shelfa blinked her large eyes in surprise upon being lifted up as easily as a doll, but she soon smiled brightly and lowered an arm around Rain's neck.
A loud cheer of jealousy, or perhaps of bliss, arose from the knights.
"Safir, that stupid piece of shit, will probably start telling people that I kidnapped the Princess or something. But, I want you to be the ones to decide who's telling the truth! You can decide who you want to side with after that."
Without even being told what to do, everyone in Rain and Ralphus' allied forces raised a fist and made clear their intentions. It was easy to decide who was in the right after seeing the Princess nestle close up to Rain with great familiarity.
It was only appropriate that it was Shelfa's attitude that prompted their decisions.
She had instinctively wrapped her arms around Rain's neck simply because she was happy for the attention he was giving her, and not because she was acting for the sake of eliciting a specific reaction from the crowd. There were no such cunning calculations in her actions.
Still, her innocent behavior held tremendous effect.
A cheer that seemed to rumble the very ground erupted from the impromptu allied forces. All of the soldiers were pumping their fists into the air and calling out Shelfa's, Rain's, and Ralphus' names in succession.
They had completely been united as one.
If Shelfa had not been there with them, even Rain and Ralphus, despite their popularity, would not have been able to dispel the touch of uneasiness from their armies. But, since Shelfa, who carried royal blood in her veins, was with them, they were able to spread a sense of security. For the soldiers, if Rain and Ralphus had sworn allegiance to the Princess, it would mean that they, too, would be working for her cause.
Furthermore, there was no one in the army (which was comprised mostly of men) who was disinclined to work for the obviously beautiful Shelfa's sake.
Everyone was burning in enmity against Safir, who had tried to make the Princess his against her will. On the other hand, Safir's army was naturally in turmoil.
Without a moment's delay, Rain said,
"alright! We'll be departing for Cortecreas Castle. Regardless of whether we end up choosing to fight or not, we need to get out of here first!"
A spirited cheer rang out from the army in chorus, and Leni and Rain's other aides began dishing out orders. One after another, the troops began to move out toward the castle gates.
Rain had prepared a supply unit with provisions in advance when he first received news that Safir was coming.
Only, he had yet to earn Ralphus' consent about going to Cortecreas Castle. Even Rain had not thought that Safir would have picked a fight with them quite so soon, so he had missed the chance to discuss things with Ralphus beforehand.
Still, Starhill (Ralphus' castle) was much too close to the capital anyhow.
Sorry, but I'm gonna call the shots on this one,
Rain thought as he looked apologetically at his friend.
Ralphus smiled from up on his horse, nodded, and gave his troops the order to form ranks. He seemed to have understood Rain's intentions.
Rain sighed out in relief, sat Shelfa back down in front of him, and turned his glare to the enemy army. They were in a bewildered daze right now, but no one knew when they would regain their senses and begin attacking.
Rain's allies began to march behind him in an orderly fashion…… He could tell that morale was rising just by hearing the rhythm of their beat.
He unintentionally repeated to himself,
"——there is no pride to be found in the path you've chosen. But I'm sure you'll do just fine."
Shelfa turned around and peered into Rain's face. She asked,
"what are you talking about?"
"Oh, my bad. Did you hear that?"
You see, this is……
Keeping his eyes glued on the enemy, he told her,
"it's something an old man told me a long time ago, when I was still a kid."
"Is that so? And……what is he doing now?"
"——I killed him,"
he said as nonchalantly as he could.
Shelfa was not frightened. Instead, she gently gripped his hand.
Her eyes, which were still looking up at him, were as steady as they always were.
"I'm certain that you had no other choice, right?"
"……You really never seem to think ill of me, huh. You still wouldn't lose your trust in me even if I brandished my sword before you with the intent to cut you down, would you, Little one?"
"Of course. Should such a time ever come to pass, I'm certain that it will be because you had no other choice but to cut me down for my own sake. It's you, Rain, and no one else, after all."
A bitter smile crossed Rain's face.
He wrapped an arm around Shelfa's waist as she continued to look up at him.
"Should the time come……I'll pray that that your, and the old man's, judgement wasn't wrong."
Rain went silent and continued to watch over the enemy until the last of his troops had disappeared behind the castle gates.