A little while after Elena and her uninvited reinforcements had caused an uproar at Cortecreas Castle——
Folnier Lucida Chandrys, the empress of Chandrys, was holding a war council.
She surveyed the circular table of a total of four generals (and one general-class soldier), with Joe at its head, in turns.
Each one of them was a knight-captain who supervised over a thousand knights and was also a respectable liege lord to boot.
In other words, they were those who held the position of 'general' in the Chandrys military.
"The situation is just as what I've said. We will begin our invasion of Sunkwoll as soon as you're ready. Does anyone have any objections?"
One person swiftly raised his hand.
Folnier looked inquisitive as she said,
"……I'd thought that you'd be the first to approve, Zartz. Is there something that displeases you?"
"Never! You misunderstand me, Your Majesty."
The twenty-something year old youth named Zartz brushed back his unkempt black hair and added, "didn't mean it that way." He continued,
"I meant to ask, why aren't we taking over all of Sunkwoll's territory while we're at it!? I mean. Why are we limiting ourselves to just Safir?"
"Hmm, that's a good question."
Folnier placed her elbows on the round table and rested her chin on top of her entwinned fingers. She gazed at Zartz pleasantly and continued,
"that's what you'd normally think. And I'd do it, if I was being serious. After all, I'm not particularly fond of the idea of a partial invasion myself. But there's a reason we need to approach it carefully this time. Joe and Shing have both agreed with me on this."
Zartz and the other three generals looked at Joe and Shing equally at Folnier's words. Joe got the ball rolling in response.
"I'm sure all of you are aware. Rain is in Sunkwoll. As someone who is well aware of how strong he is, I'd rather not do anything careless. Truthfully, I'm not very eager to support this plan."
Zartz and Shing looked at Joe with a sudden sense of dread encroaching their faces. They were afraid of what Folnier's reaction to his casually stated protest would be.
However, Folnier simply smiled and cast a sideways glance at Joe.
"My Grand General certainly is stern. I'll take your words of rebuke as they are."
Then, she stuck out her chest and righted her posture.
With a deep breath, she decisively declared,
"sorry, but I won't be changing my objective. We'll keep our established objective and move to invade Sunkwoll."
It was truly a sudden proclamation.
She had always been the type of ruler who didn't hold grudges. This made it exceptionally easy for the people under her give her advice. On the flip side, however, it also meant that Folnier could be terribly stubborn sometimes. For instance, there were many cases in which she refused to listen to even Joe's, who had held a position of authority since before she was born, words.
This was one such case.
Joe bowed silently.
"Then I suppose war is inevitable. It'll affect morale if I admonish you any further, so I won't. Let us discuss what methods we can take to win henceforth.
"Yeah. I really evaluate that attitude of yours highly. I'll leave it in your capable hands……or so I say, but I plan on joining you this time around."
"——! You're planning on leading this military expedition personally as the Empress, Your Majesty?"
Zartz was the first to respond.
He sounded quite happy.
"Indeed, though I'll only be watching over your efforts."
"Heheh, my arms are twitching for some action!"
he said as he literally began flexing his muscles. It showed clearly that he wasn't trying to butter up to his ruler but was honestly ecstatic that he would be allowed to let loose.
On the other hand, one person responded in a manner which Folnier hadn't expected.
"Wow~. The famous 'Unknown Genius' of Sunkwoll, huh? I've always wanted to meet him. Junna's one too, but I've always had a lot of respect for geniuses."
The owner of the voice was so casual and carefree that he might as well have completely forgotten that they were in the middle of a war council.
He was just about as young as Zartz. Yet, while Zartz clearly looked every part the warrior no matter how you looked at him, this young man carried the peaceful atmosphere of a country bumpkin fresh out of the countryside.
And, sitting nestled up close right next to him was a young girl with beautiful chestnut-colored hair.
The two of them were siblings.
……Or at the very least, that's how it was on paper.
"Are you stupid, Sayle?! That's super contradictory!"
Zartz butt in sullenly. He continued,
"what do you mean, the famous 'Unknown Genius'? That makes absolutely no sense!"
"Oh, huh. I guess you're right. Ahaha!"
Sayle laughed without the slightest trace of restraint.
Zartz was about to make more sarcastic comments at Sayle, but he closed his mouth in a panic upon noticing the fixated glare coming from the girl sitting beside the latter.
"No. It's not like I was trying to nitpick Sayle or anything——"
He was discomposed.
To put salt on his wounds, Junna swiftly turned away in the middle of his excuse.
Zartz became visibly depressed.
Shing, who was relatively old in comparison to the other members at the council, looked over the entire exchange and shook his head.
"……We have such a warm and fuzzy atmosphere going on during a war council right before we invade Sunkwoll. Is this really okay?"
"It's fine, isn't it, Shing?"
Folnier laughed in high spirits and continued,
"I have nothing to complain about as long as they're able to fight properly when it counts. Whether it be Zartz, or Sayle, or Junna…… I have no doubts about them when it comes to their actual abilities. It's fine if they relax a little now while they can."
Shing silently bowed his head.
He, too, knew of Sayle and the others' abilities.
Folnier surveyed the mostly young generals and gave a big nod.
"Now then. Allow me to express my thoughts now that you've all agreed. As Joe's said, Rain is a man whom we should be very wary of. I've felt this about him myself after meeting him."
Folnier smiled and gently closed her eyes as if she was recalling their meeting.
But then, she promptly opened her eyes again and forcefully said,
"however. Individual military prowess cannot change the fate of a decaying kingdom! I'll be looking forward to the fruits of your actions!"
Joe and the other generals bowed after their ruler's fervent speech.
But——Joe secretly thought to himself,
is that really true?
Certainly, one individual's military prowess was of little significance before the flames of war. Battles were generally decided by the quantity of troops that fought them. There was no doubting that.
Yet, he didn't think that Rain's natural talents were limited only to his military prowess.
As proof, he had already repelled the invasion of a large kingdom like Zarmine once.
An army that was led by an excellent general occasionally demonstrated strength beyond their actual abilities. Time and time again they overcame the absolute difference of sheer numbers.
Joe understood this truth better than anyone else who was present.
Chandrys promptly completed her military preparations upon receiving Folnier's stubborn resolve and organized a unit to attack Sunkwoll.
Its numbers were composed of seven thousand cavalry and thirteen thousand foot soldiers——a large army totaling twenty thousand.
Aside from Zarmine, the strong country of the north, or Leyfan, the neighboring large country——
Of the cluster of small countries currently located in the south of the continent, only Chandrys had the resources and ability to mobilize an army this large.
Chandrys had been victorious in all of the large-scale wars she had waged and could be said to have steadily increased her nationalistic might from doing so.
After just a few days of preparation, Empress Folnier had her large army depart for their western neighbor, Sunkwoll, though it was Joe Lamberck who actually commanded it.
The march through Chandrys' internal borders was going exceedingly well. There wasn't much of a wealth disparity in Chandrys, and Folnier's impartial administration of the country was welcomed by the great majority of her citizens.
In addition, there was no one who didn't know of Joe Lamberck's mystique and undefeated military history.
There was genuine respect and love in the citizens' voices as they welcomed Joe and Folnier when they passed the highway.
It was quite troublesome because there were people who would follow after the army.
And so, even Joe was a little relieved by the time they had finally reached Chandrys' border.
"You're as popular as ever, Lord Joe,"
Sayle said as he drew his horse closer while they traveled across the highway that weaved through the mountains.
Joe only saw a handsome young man as he cast a glance at Sayle, who was beaming brightly, with Junna, who did not know how to ride a horse, saddled in front of him.
No, well, he actually is just a handsome young man.
"……I must ensure that I don't betray their trust,"
Joe replied quietly.
Even if this was a war he would rather not fight, he couldn't help the fact that it had already begun.
He had no choice but to achieve a secure victory with the fewest casualties possible.
"You're right. Junna and I'll have to do our best too. Let's do our best, okay, Junna?"
Sayle said to his younger sister, who was securely entrusting her weight to her older brother as they rode together. Junna looked up with her cherubic eyes and beamed. She raised the precious magic staff in her hands up a little.
"……I'll do my best to help you, brother,"
she said totteringly.
Junna, a girl who was 'general-class' at just shy of seventeen, was quite attached to her older brother.
"Mmhmm. You freely wield the alias, "Genius Mage," after all. I'll be counting on you. ……But you can't be too far away from me, okay?"
Junna nodded in agreement.
She wouldn't have willingly left her brother's side even if Sayle hadn't said that. Or so Joe thought.
Driven by a sudden impulse, Joe decided to speak to Sayle. He didn't want the two siblings to get hurt. He was worried for them.
"Sayle, there's something I want to warn you about."
"I'll listen to whatever it is that you have to say, Lord Joe. What is it?"
"——I'll do my best to keep this from happening. But, even if you end up encountering Rain during this battle, don't ever challenge him in single combat."
Sayle and Junna, who had been riding neck-to-neck with Joe, opened their eyes wide together.
They couldn't be blamed for their surprise.
After all, Joe's words were too diffident to be considered as good advice for people who were about to head to a battlefield. Even Joe, the giver of this advice, was aware of this.
It was normally not something that he should have said.
However, Sayle did not frown upon hearing Joe's words.
Instead, his friendly smile disappeared as he stared directly a Joe.
"……Lord Joe, you're well-aware of how strong I, no, how strong Junna and I are when we team up together. Considering that you're saying not to fight him even still, I guess that this Rain person is stronger than the rumors say."
"He's strong……stronger than you can imagine,"
Joe said without mincing his words. He continued,
"not only that, but he's also extremely obsessed about winning, to the point that it's troubling. The rumors about him are still too naïve. He really has defeated the strongest of mythical beasts, if nothing else."
"A Dragon Slayer, huh. ……Man, I wanna meet him all the more now. I kinda look up to people who're overflowing with talent like that."
Joe smiled wryly at Sayle's happy tone.
"I understand that this is one of the things that makes you so endearing, but please, don't forget my advice."
"It's okay! I know where I stand,"
the agreeable youth resolutely guaranteed.
He stroked Junna's chestnut-colored hair, which was directly in front of his eyes, and continued,
"besides, it'd be one thing it I was alone, but Junna's with me too. So I get it. Even if I happen to encounter him, I'll only watch him and do nothing else! If he comes after me, I'll run away immediately!"
Sayle reassuringly stated his terribly pessimistic statement.
A smile had formed at the edges of Joe's lips before he realized it.
"I'm glad you understand. ……Though I suppose it'd be best I don't give Zartz the same advice."
"Well, yes, I agree,"
said Sayle with a grin. He continued,
"he'd go straight for Rain if you did. He really hates losing."
Joe and Sayle exchanged glances and laughed. Only Junna was left staring at them blankly in bewilderment.
By the way, Sayle said nonchalantly,
"if Junna and I teamed up to fight time ten times……we'd have the chance to win at least once, right?"
Joe shook his head decisively. He continued,
If you fought him a hundred times, you'd lose all one hundred battles.
Joe closed his mouth before the words came out. He felt that it wasn't something that he should be saying to a warrior, regardless of how truthful it may be.
Actually, considering their abilities, it was possible that even Rain would lose against the siblings in certain situations.
But even still, Joe thought otherwise.
Even when faced with such an unfavorable situation, Rain's tenacity would conclude the battle with his victory in the end.
Truly, that man is so obsessed, though without any ill intentions, in the concept of "winning" that even Zartz, who hates losing, couldn't match his tenacity.
In addition, there was something else that Joe had completely come to believe after having fought Rain directly:
There was something to be feared about him even other than his genius talent.
——That man isn't afraid of death.
He didn't have the fear that all humans should naturally have.
He had properly defended against Joe's attacks when they had fought, of course.
And perfectly too, at that.
However, it hadn't been because he was afraid of suffering injury……or so Joe felt. Instead, Joe thought that it had simply been the natural conclusion of Rain's composed calculations, so to speak.
It's more effective to defeat an opponent by evading their attacks than it is to suffer them and risk slowing down from the wounds.
And so, Rain had defended himself with clear coldness.
If it was only possible to achieve victory against Rain through a mutual kill……Rain would go through with it without hesitation.
And he wouldn't hesitate even for a minute before doing so.
While being something beyond talent or skill, it was also the primary thing that made Rain different from Zartz or Sayle. Even Zartz would hesitate at least a little when faced with such extreme situations. However, Rain did not have those meager few seconds that he should. And that——
Would lead him to step in deeper and attack more aggressively.
In the end, he would defeat his opponent.
To begin with, it was impossible to defeat him even if you were equally as strong as him (if it was even possible for that to be true for anyone other than Joe himself).
That was to say nothing of Zartz, Sayle, and Shing, who were so much weaker than Rain that the difference was comparable to that of the heavens and earth……
Sayle felt something as he watched Joe in the latter's hesitation to speak and gulped audibly.
Not only that, but he also displayed exaggerated fear as he hugged Junna closer to him and said, "whoa, I'll definitely not go near him!"
Well, half of his attitude had been just for show.
Still, Sayle always put his younger sister's wellbeing first and foremost. He would probably heed Joe's advice.
"……Please don't. That being said, it's not as if you can blatantly avoid fighting him in front of everyone else, so I'll do my best to rush to your aid. ……Only if it gets to that, of course."
Then, Junna, who had been looking back and forth between her brother and Joe up until then, inquisitively said,
"my older brother is strong. He won't lose to anyone."
Sayle and Joe swiftly exchanged looks and laughed.
Then, just as Sayle had placed a hand on Junna's shoulder and was about to say something to her——
A knight who had been sent to scout ahead had returned.
"What is it?"
Joe stiffened up his expression at once.
They were already near the fortress at the border.
Joe doubted it was the case, but it was possible that the knight had caught sight of Sunkwoll soldiers.
But, instead, the knight, who had galloped in at full speed, twisted his visage into an ambiguously complicated look and said,
"there was something right in front of the fortress."
"Something? What was it?"
"I don't believe that it poses any immediate danger…… But it'd be faster for you to see it for yourself,"
the knight stumbled over his words.
Joe knit his brows, but only for a moment, and immediately shrugged and noted his acknowledgement.
He had been planning to spend a night at the fortress anyhow.
"It's fine as long as it doesn't pose any danger. ……If it's faster to see it for myself, then that's what I'll do."
They continued the march and Joe finally understood what was going on after they had arrived at the border fortress.
He also understood why the scout had worn such a strange look.
I see, this really is difficult to react to.
A brand new and ginormous signpost was standing conspicuously right across from the Chandrys fortress……in other words, right off the side of the Sunkwoll highway that was within a stone's throw from the fortress.
It was easily three times larger than a normal signpost.
There used to be an inconsequential signpost that showed how far it was from the capital, Lydia, but it had been pulled out and cast off to the side.
In its place was the signpost in question that was facing the Chandrys border fortress instead. More precisely, it was asserting its presence in a rather self-important manner.
Joe was able to read the writing on the signboard even from the fortress watchtower with his superior vision.
"To those who would invade our borders with wicked intentions,
Abandon all hope henceforth if you don't plan to have a change of heart.
——To put it simply:
Don't underestimate me, damn it!
Yours truly, Phantom Thief Black Mask"
How should I put this……this is truly skillful penmanship.
It's much too obvious as for who came up with the content, but I wonder if he wrote it as well. If so, he has great handwriting. ……Zartz happened to run by as Joe looked on in admiration and looked at the signpost in a similar fashion.
His face grew deep red once he had finally read the writing on the signpost by squinting and re-reading it multiple times over with strenuous effort.
"What's this nonsense about "Phantom Thief Black Mask"?! Who's that even supposed to be anyway?! Stop messing around with usss!"
Zartz drew his sword explosively and was about to break out into a run. Joe stopped him by swiftly catching hold of his shoulder.
"Wait, Zartz. Where are you planning to go with your sword drawn?"
"——Isn't that obvious?! I'm gonna go chop up that disgusting sign!"
"It's best if you don't,"
Joe admonished him quietly. He continued,
"just let it be. That signpost isn't going to kill anyone. Don't get provoked by such trivial things, Zartz. Your opponent will only become all the happier the angrier you get."
Zartz didn't quite seem to agree with the sentiment, but it seemed that the line about making his opponents happier had worked.
Zartz fell silent in discontent.
He re-sheathed his sword for the time being.
Joe pat him on the shoulder without another word and called out to the soldiers who had been observing them from the vicinity.
"Did anyone see who erected that sign?"
A few guards stealthily exchanged looks upon his words. It looked like they were hesitant to speak up after witnessing how angry Zartz had become. They probably didn't want to get caught up in his anger and be reproved for it.
Joe smiled and said,
"I'm not going to blame you. I simply what to know the details."
Finally, one youth stepped forward. Joe asked him,
"did you see what happened?"
"Yessir. ……Actually, a lot of people did."
"Hmm. Tell me what you know. Just who……was it that had so much free time on his hands?"
Joe somehow managed to get the details of what had happened after pacifying and relieving the youth, who spoke in a roundabout manner, of his worries.
To sum it up, the course of events had occurred as follows:
Just some time ago, a man who had looked like he was in a terrifyingly horrible mood had ridden up to where the old signpost had been while carrying the large signpost across his shoulder.
He had pulled out the old signpost and set up the one he had been carrying in its place and had written the message with black charcoal in one go right where he stood.
Then. As soon as he had finished writing, he nodded solemnly and spun the signpost around to face the fortress and had left back the way he had come without so much as a smile……and that was what had happened.
'He' had looked sour throughout the entire ordeal from start to finish and had left without even sparing a single glance at his objective, the fortress……
Joe readily thought up of the image of the man who had silently served Rain by his side in his mind. If he wasn't mistaken, the man's name had been Gunther.
There's no doubt. He was the man who came to erect that thing on purpose on Rain's orders.
……And all the way out here, too.
"You goddamned idiot!"
Zartz howled, unlike the calm and composed Joe. He continued,
"why the hell did you guys just watch and let him do it?!"
"But, but sir!"
the youth said, flustered,
"that's still Sunkwoll territory. I couldn't just tell him not to put up the signpost there. Besides, it's not like we've officially started a war with them yet……"
"The hell are you talking about?! All you had to do was let an arrow loose without thinking up of all that crap——"
Joe interjected. He continued,
"it's just as he's said. As of yet, we don't have any intention of making Rain's side, who has Princess Shelfa with them, our enemy. He was right to simply watch it happen."
Zartz swelled up his cheeks like a child and said,
"it's obvious from that message that they plan on fighting us!"
Even Zartz didn't usually talk back to Joe, but he was evidently unable to stomach the situation this time around.
They had been marching for several days after departing from the capital, Zawoll. Sunkwoll had most likely already noticed their movements. After all, it was obvious to see who their target was because their army was marching directly west.
Or, well, Safir might not know about anything despite that, but Rain's side had surely noticed.
There was no doubt that Rain's spies had already reported back about the march in detail.
"……We'll send out a messenger to explain our circumstances to them soon. They'll probably reach Cortecreas Castle in a few days. We can decide on our course of action depending on the reply the messenger brings back, after we've seen it. So don't jump the gun just yet. There's no need to make ourselves additional enemies on purpose."
"What kind of message are you planning on having the messenger take to them?"
It was none other than Folnier who answered Zartz's doubt-filled question.
"What, it's not like I thought up of anything much. "Our enemy is Safir alone. Thus, we seek your tacit consent." ……After consulting with Joe, I decided just to give them the truth as plainly as possible."
Joe and Zartz bowed to Folnier, who had walked over to them from across the road.
When he looked back up again, Joe said,
"well, it should be adequate. All that's left is to see how they respond."
"Hmmm. ……Maybe we should have sent out a messenger earlier? I wonder if he mistakenly thought that we were going to lump him together with Safir when we attack? No, well, it's entirely possible that he'll be pissed off even if he understands the situation,"
said Folnier, not quite regretfully, before she walked up to the watchtower and cheerfully looked down at the signpost.
Following after her were the many footsteps of Sayle, Junna, and even Shing, causing the already narrow watchtower to become full at max capacity.
The generals who followed after her had already seen the signpost long ago, but they observed the signpost for a while once again.
After a brief moment——
Sayle laughed out loud while pointing at the sign, and even Junna followed his lead and smiled.
"……Why is he, what is his reason for calling himself a 'phantom thief'? Sir Rain is the only person who'd do something like this, no matter how you think about it. Does he have experience in burglary or something?"
Only Shing commented on the signpost in all seriousness.
"What the hell?! Why isn't anyone else getting pissed off?!"
Zartz was the only person who didn't find the situation funny. Still, he was interested in knowing why the three who had met Rain previously, including Joe, were so certain that the culprit was Rain.
"Keke……oh, don't be mad, Zartz,"
Folnier said merrily with her shoulders still shaking with laughter. She continued,
"indeed, the culprit is obviously him no matter how you spin it. Is, isn't our Rain quite the pleasant man? Joe, you agree, don't you?"
"……By your will. He's probably the only person on this continent who'd purposefully send out his men to do something like this."
"Is that how you see it?"
Zartz, still in a bad mood, continued,
"I don't like this one bit."
"Um, Lord Joe. There's something I don't understand,"
asked Shing while giving Zartz, who looked offended, a side-eye. He continued,
"what is the meaning behind the signpost? What was his reason for going out of his way to dispatch someone here to erect it?"
"There probably isn't one."
Joe smiled before he knew it once the words had left his mouth.
Really, is that something an adult should be doing?
"There's no reason to it. If I had to say there was one, though, it's probably that he wanted to cause some mischief. ……That's the kind of man he is."
Shing shook his head, exasperated, upon hearing Joe's words. As serious as he was, he probably couldn't understand Rain's actions.
The signpost probably wasn't the only reason Gunther had come all the way out here, of course. Even Joe could guess that much.
Gunther's primary mission was probably to investigate their movements. The signpost was probably just a bonus.
Still, Joe was confident.
That regardless of whether he had the objective of gathering intel or not, Gunther had carried the signpost here on Rain's orders.
And, instead of raising his eyebrows at Rain for doing something like this when he was almost twenty-six years old, it actually made him like Rain all the more.
Of course, that didn't mean that he would pull out of the war just because of that.
"Well then. We'll finally be in Sunkwoll territory tomorrow…… I wonder what Rain's reply will be?"
Joe whispered to himself.
Everyone present heard the faint smile in the sound of his voice.
The faint sound of crackling firewood echoed throughout the otherwise quiet room.
It was caused by the brightly burning blaze of the fireplace in the room of Cortecreas Castle to which the messenger had been guided.
Thanks to that, the messenger who had dutifully run across the highway in the freezing cold winter was able to warm up his body. He was considerably thankful for it.
The castle lacked an audience chamber, so his audience with the Sunkwoll princess simply took place in a remodeled reception hall.
The princess that sat down on a hastily improvised throne before the messenger had bowed his head before her, and, from then on, he could not help but sneak occasional glances at her beautiful figure, more beautiful than the rumors of her had foretold.
She had long, straight, and blindingly blonde hair that fell down behind the throne and a girlishly delicate, yet still perfectly-shaped bridge of the nose. In addition, she had deep blue eyes that were beautiful beyond compare.
He had heard that trueborn noblewomen of Sunkwoll were all extremely beautiful because of their characteristically blue eyes, and he could not help but agree with the statement with all his heart.
The messenger felt that it was worth having risked his life to come here just to have even one glimpse of her.
Only, the beautiful princess was unfortunately not the only person before him, as the rumored Rain was standing next to her.
Just as the rumors had said, he was dressed in all black garb as he towered beside the princess, who was in formal dress, like a guardian deity.
The messenger hadn't forgotten that Grand General Joe Lamberck had personally warned him to be wary of Rain.
Naturally, he had also seen the signpost that had been erected the other day with his own eyes as well.
This was why he had been literally prepared to die as he asked for an audience, but……
Rain suddenly opened his mouth.
he said gently.
The messenger's voice came out like that of a chicken with its neck being wrung due to a blend of nervousness and fear.
The princess, who had been reading over Folnier's letter, raised her head at his voice but soon returned her gaze to the paper in her hands. ……The edges of her lips were curled up in a smile for some reason.
Rain, the crucial point of the messenger's focus, opened his black eyes wide and said,
"oh no, please be at ease……. I simply called out to you because you appeared to be a little nervous. Are you feeling unwell, perhaps?"
he asked in a truly polite manner.
……Rain was somehow so completely different from the image of him that the messenger had heard so much about that he was bewildered.
The messenger had been quivering in fear that he would be killed if he upset Rain somehow, but Rain showed no sign of ever doing such a thing. Rather, Rain was treating him like a guest of honor.
Still feeling that something was a bit off about the princess and her retainer, the messenger suddenly recalled something as he replied appropriately and said,
"um, about the signpost……"
while still trembling with fear.
Rain looked so surprised as he curiously asked, "hmm? What about a signpost?" that the messenger was shocked.
Rain really looked like he had no idea what the messenger was talking about.
At this rate, the messenger felt like he was about to become 'the idiot who suddenly sprouts nonsense.'
And so, unable to do anything else, he said,
"no, it's nothing……"
as vaguely as he could.
Thankfully, the princess had finished reading through the letter and had looked up.
"……Do you also know of what was written in this letter?"
"Yes……. The gist of it……at least."
He looked away restlessly.
He felt guilty for having thrust a letter containing an unreasonable request at her, even if it was it duty to do so.
The princess, however, did not look upset.
Instead, she smiled at him with a smile that was filled with so much kindness and affection that it made him want to reconsider his entire life.
"Then, is there anything else you would like to add on to it?"
"N, no, not in particular. Though, I'd like to receive a letter from you in reply if possible. That was what Her Majesty wished for."
"In that case, I already have one prepared."
While he was flabbergasted for a moment, Rain, upon receiving the princess' gaze, approached him elegantly and handed him something that was probably the reply in question. It was placed inside a cylindrical paper tube and sealed with candlewax.
Additionally, it was tied in a flamboyant ribbon.
And it was pink, too……
"Here you go. This is the Princess' reply."
"Eh……no, but… I only just got here."
"Do you mean to ask why we already have a reply prepared?"
Rain smiled bewitchingly at the messenger, who nodded fearfully. It was brilliant the smile of someone who was meeting with a friend of over ten years.
You're my precious friend!
——was what he felt like Rain's eyes were saying.
"Well, you've already invaded into our lands, after all. We've simply been thinking about various things on our end."
It barely answered the question.
Did he mean to say that they had already predicted that a messenger like himself would come to them?
That was impossible.
Before anything else, however, the messenger thought that Rain's kind smile was inexplicably creepy.
The fact that Rain, someone who was in the important position of high general, was being so strangely polite to him was creepy as well.
Both points were completely contrary to the man's reputation.
Furthermore, the princess was giggling too, for some reason.
The two of them weren't actually outraged, were they? It was said that extreme anger was sometimes expressed with a smile. Their lands had been invaded, after all. It was only natural to think that they would be upset.
The messenger thought that this was most likely the case. Their patience would wear out when he turned his back, and they would switch over to a look of pure rage as, when his back was exposed to them, they would——
"Is something the matter, Sir Messenger? You don't look so well……"
Rain asked with goodwill dripping in every single word.
He looked like he wanted to give the messenger a hug at any moment.
The princess laughed again as if she was having fun. With a florid voice, at that.
The messenger shuddered from the bottom of his heart.
He had never before known such fear in the thirty-five years of his life.
"No! There's nothing wrong! A, and, I've received your reply! P, please excuse me!"
He gripped the paper tube tightly in his hand as he did a right about-face and headed for the exit with unnatural speed. His right hand and right leg were moving together in sync.
He hadn't yet been told that he was allowed to leave, but he didn't care. It was something that he could care about only if he was still alive.
He didn't want to stay there for even another second.
Thankfully, the two guards near the door obediently opened it for him.
Rain called out to him in an abysmally cheery voice.
The messenger's body froze up at once.
"It's been dangerous as of late."
Then, with a suddenly ominous note to his voice, Rain continued,
"after all……some random country has suddenly invaded a small and innocent kingdom out of the blue. You really must be vigilant these days (and then the princess laughed again)."
The messenger was no longer able to express any other words.
"Well, that aside. In any case……do be careful on your travels. ——I'll be praying for your safety……since it's been dangerous as of late~"
The messenger was at the end of his rope.
He ran out of the reception hall without even replying. His footsteps, so fast that it sounded like he was tripping over his feet, grew farther and farther away.
Rain and Shelfa laughed for a while as they looked at the door that had been slammed open.
As he laughed, Rain waved his hand at the guards standing by the door and ordered, "I have something to discuss with the Princess, so you guys can leave."
Once they saluted and left, he looked down at Shelfa, who was seated on the throne (actually just an extravagant chair), and winked.
"Did you see how scared he looked? Like, isn't it fun to mess with people?"
"Of course not. It, it's a bad thing to do."
Her words weren't very persuasive, however, because she was still giggling.
When Rain pointed this out, Shelfa placed a hand to her lips and protested.
"Well, you were being so uncharacteristically polite with such a straight face……and it was hilarious."
She was trying to hold in her laughter, possibly because she felt guilty about it, but was unsuccessful in her attempts.
"Hmph. I can be the politest person in the world if I felt like it. There just aren't many people who I bother being polite to."
Rain placed his hand on the faintly fragrant blonde hair below his gaze and toyed with it.
Shelfa's gorgeous hair, which she always kept well-brushed, was truly pleasant to the touch. Shelfa, too, lightly closed her eyes as if she also felt good.
She moved to one side of the throne as if to get even a litter closer to Rain, who was still standing beside her.
"It makes me happier when you talk to me normally like you are now……"
"Yeah, I'll do that when it's just the two of us. ——By the way…"
Shelfa opened her eyes and looked up at Rain in discontent when he drew back his hand as he spoke.
With a wry smile, he placed his hand on her delicate shoulder in exchange.
"By the way, I had something I needed to talk to you about. I want to use a little more of the treasure we brought out of Galfort. Or, actually, I've already used some. Sorry I'm only asking you after the fact."
"Please use it as you wish. You can do anything you like with it, I won't mind. ……Is the money for the battle with Chandrys? Is there no way we can avoid fighting?"
Shelfa finally stopped smiling and looked serious.
"Even if we don't want to fight, there's nothing else we can do if they chose to invade us anyway. It's not like you were thinking that it was okay to like that vixen invade us if she was only going after Safir, right?"
He had been reading the letter Shelfa had received from her side, so he knew what Chandrys' stance was.
Well, regardless of what they said, their own course of action had already been decided upon. This was why they had been able to prepare a response in advance.
Rain had received information that Chandrys was preparing for war almost as soon as it happened. The Empress had begun organizing a large army the moment she had returned from Sunkwoll……and there was no way that it was just a coincidence. In other words, to a degree, he had predicted that Chandrys would invade.
The invasion itself wasn't something that had exceeded Rain's predictions by much. It wasn't strange for that overly-ambitious empress to do something like this. Even after taking her out of the picture, Sunkwoll currently had too many weaknesses as it was.
Still, they could not accept the contents of the letter.
Rain thought that they were being shameless.
No normal ruler would simply allow another country to rudely invade their own even if the invaders had said that they would not lay a hand upon them.
"……Sunkwoll is still my birthplace, even if I've lived inside the castle for most of my life. That's why……I'm bitter about this land being invaded."
Shelfa looked down in sorrow, just as Rain had thought she would.
"Yeah. Isn't it normal to feel that way? But things won't go as that smug vixen wants it to."
"You've already thought up of something, haven't you?"
"Well, bits and pieces of something. ——Joe is a smart man……so this might actually be pretty fun."
Instead of further explaining himself, he continued,
"still, as long as you'll allow it, I'd like to end the hostilities from either side with as little fighting as possible for this upcoming battle. I want there to be as little enmity between us as possible. ……Do you know why?"
Shelfa furrowed her gently sloping brows and gave the matter serious thought, but eventually shook her head no without a word.
"——The reason's simple. I want Chandrys to fight against Zarmine by our side as our sworn allies by all and any means. We have a greater chance at victory if we get other countries involved than if we try to take Zarmine on alone."
Shelfa tilted her head to the side in an adorable manner when Rain readily revealed his intentions.
"But Rain, you looked like you didn't care about forming an alliance at all when we met with Lady Folnier."
"If that's what you thought, then it means that I'm quite the actor,"
Rain said with a devilish smile.
He drew Shelfa closer by the shoulder and breathed his cunning words into her ears.
"Listen up, Little one. The most important aspect, or you can even call it the basics, of diplomacy is to sell yourself as high as possible. In this case, even if we wanted to form an alliance with them so badly that it hurt, we couldn't let them know that. Ideally, we want them to be the ones to beg us to form an alliance. Then, they can't take advantage of us, right?"
Shelfa leaned against him after being pulled closer and listened fervently.
Rain gently placed a hand on her cheek and continued,
"I did think we hit jackpot when they brought up the topic of an alliance first. After all, an alliance with Chandrys was a part of my plans regardless. But, even if you had agreed on an alliance with them at that time, the vixen would have ultimately withdrawn her proposal. We probably didn't look like the most reliable allies at that time no matter how you spin it. In that case, it'd be more convenient for us in the future if we acted first and called off the alliance ourselves, right?"
"——So you acted like you couldn't have cared less about an alliance on purpose?"
When he nodded, Shelfa looked back at Rain enthusiastically as if she had just witnessed an act of unparalleled genius.
Rain smiled wryly again before he knew it.
This kind of 'silent diplomacy tactic (as named by Rain)' was the basics of the basics for Rain, but Shelfa, who was not worldly wise, had interpreted it as profound wisdom.
Still, Rain thought that things were fine as they were.
Machiavellian wiles did not suite her.
It was his job to play the role of the 'bad guy.' That was why he nodded lightly and said,
"well, just leave it to me. And, I'd still like your consent before I do anything. Is this plan alright with you? To sum it up……we'll wrap up our war with Chandrys with no bad feelings and, on top of that, form an alliance with them?"
Shelfa unhesitatingly nodded in approval.
Rain's plan sounded simple when you put it to words, but most people would have asked if something like that would really work.
However, as usual, Shelfa did not express a single doubt of that nature. She was apparently convinced that Rain would not fail in what he set out to do.
And just then——
Rain cut their conversation short upon hearing faint jeering and listened closer.
When Shelfa looked puzzled, he said,
"do you hear that? Something's going on downstairs."
"……I don't hear anything. But if you say so, Rain."
"——I'm certain of it. Let's go see what's going on; I have a bad feeling about this."
Rain took Shelfa's hand and briskly exited the room.
Ralphus became suspicious when he saw the messengers from Chandrys approaching from the other end of the hallway in a hurry. He had thought that they would still be in an audience with the princess.
So why was the entire group, including the chief envoy, at a place like this instead?
He promptly called out to them, causing the person who was most likely the chief enjoy to freeze up at once. Something felt strange to Ralphus.
"Where are you headed, Sir Messenger? Is the audience over already?"
"Yes……rather, it ended without a hitch,"
the chief envoy said rapidly as he wiped the sweat from his forehead. He continued,
"in any event, we were just about to return to Her Majesty's side."
Ralphus knit his brows.
They had only arrived just this morning. He had thought that they would at least stay the night.
Naturally, Ralphus did not take to Chandrys' sudden invasion very kindly.
However, that was precisely why he wanted to have a discussion with the messenger that Folnier had sent so that he could use it as an opportunity to investigate their underlying intentions.
Additionally, he had thought that they might be able to find some common ground in between them.
And yet, they were leaving already.
Just what kind of conversation had they held with the princess? Ralphus exceedingly regretted that he had not been able to join in.
Still, the messengers had finished saying what they had to say and were trying to walk away as fast as possible. Or rather, the chief envoy alone seemed like he was strangely in a hurry and his attendants were made to follow along after him.
In any event, Ralphus said,
"please wait a moment! In that case, I'll at least see you to the castle gates."
Ralphus obstinately shook his head when the chief envoy tried to refuse him and accompanied them out.
A few of Rain's subordinates were following behind the messengers, but the ever-diligent Ralphus decided to accompany them personally just in case.
Ralphus immediately noticed that something was abnormal as he exited into the courtyard and approached the castle gates.
A hooded wagon was parked in front of the gates and the gatekeepers were talking to its driver.
From what he could hear, they were arguing over whether the carriage should be let through or not.
"Is something the matter?"
Ralphus called out to them while he was still a distance away.
The two guards on duty saluted him.
The younger of the two answered,
"it's nothing much, sir. The driver who delivered the vegetables is a different guy from usual. We were trying to confirm his identity. In cases like this, we require that people receive proper authorization from their predecessors. However, this man over there——"
he looked to the driver, who had gotten out of the wagon,
"says that he received his authorization but forgot to bring it with him, so we were in the middle of letting him know that it wouldn't do."
Ralphus pursed his lips upon hearing about the situation.
It wasn't that he thought there was something wrong in particular, but he informed the messengers to wait for a moment and personally went over to the wagon.
He was not particularly suspicious about anything.
It wasn't unusual for the driver who normally delivered foodstuffs to a castle to swap out with someone else if the original driver was sick or something similar.
Most people would dismiss such complicated regulations regarding the replacement and would not check each individual driver. They would simply wave their hand and let the driver pass.
Thus, it could be said that the gatekeepers were being overly cautious. It was possibly because Rain, the lord of the castle, was surprisingly strict about such matters.
And so, Ralphus, who had an even stronger sense of responsibility than even the gatekeepers, decided to personally verify whether or not there was any danger presented in the situation.
"What's going on?"
he asked the man in question who was simply standing around. Ralphus continued,
"you seem to be a different driver than the person who usually comes; did something happen? Did he get sick or something of the sort?"
He felt that something was off about the other man even as he spoke.
The man had no prominent features and looked docile, but he also seemed apathetic. To put it moderately, he seemed out of it, and to put it plainly, his reactions were somewhat dull.
He looked a little like someone half-lucid who had been deep asleep and was suddenly slapped awake.
There was a faint haze over his eyes as the man in question turned away from the gatekeepers to face Ralphus.
Sluggishly, he explained,
"yess. Jean caught a little cold. So today, I——"
The man suddenly cut off his words the moment he nonchalantly looked over behind Ralphus.
He suddenly opened his eyes wide.
His creepy eyes, which had become bloodshot red.
He turned to the wagon and suddenly, as if he was cutting through the air, shouted,
"come out! Those guys are our prey!"
Men, who had likely been hiding in the vegetable crates, jumped out of the wagon's hood with a racket one after another.
Several among them had bows and nocked their arrows.
Ralphus instantly turned around and shouted at the messengers from Chandrys.
But, only the chief envoy and one other messenger reacted immediately and took cover, and the rest were directly hit by the arrows and fell down while clawing at their chests.
They died almost instantly.
Then, one of the gatekeepers finally moved as if he had just woken from a dream and blew the emergency whistle.
The other, slightly older guard tried to draw his sword in a panic but was slain by the driver, who had drawn closer.
A naked blade was suddenly hanging from the man's hand, possibly because he had received it from one of his comrades. Naturally, it needn't even be said that all of the men who had jumped out of the wagon were armed.
Each and every one of them was carrying a weapon as they ran toward the surviving messengers.
In addition, the men who had fired arrows were preparing for a second round.
They had prepared a two-staged attack.
Ralphus didn't know whose idea it had been, but regardless, the attackers wanted the messengers dead.
They probably did not expect to return alive.
"I will not let you!"
Ralphus had not been armed because he was within the castle's premises. Still, he instantly picked up the fallen gatekeeper's sword and fought back.
He stepped in and brandished his sword against the enemies who were about to fire arrows. Without sparing even a glance at those who had erupted into a spray of blood upon having their throats slashed, he indiscriminately swung his sword at multiple enemies at once.
Screams rose and blood spewed. Ralphus did not allow his enemies the leisure to escape and they were not able to put up much of a resistance either. Ralphus' sword mowed down or pierced through his enemies' torsos as easily as if he had been cutting grass. The men who had initially jumped out of the wagon had no choice but to die as Ralphus' sword hit their vitals.
Normally, Ralphus was a man who was never seen without a smile on his face and never forgot to show his consideration to even the lowliest of soldiers. However, that was not the entirety of his nature.
Right now, Ralphus was exhibiting his forte as a warrior as he slew the men with bows in the blink of an eye.
He immediately twisted his body and chased down the driver and the other men who were pursuing the messengers.
He clicked his tongue before he knew it.
The two surviving messengers from Chandrys were standing in a daze. The younger gatekeeper ran to stand in front of them and block them from their pursuers, gallantly trying to fulfil his professional duties.
More guards, who had heard the whistle, were running toward them with a hand on the swords at their waists. Things would become more advantageous for them if he held his ground.
In any event, there were only seven~eight enemies remaining.
Ralphus shouted at him as he ran.
It was the most advantageous move to make in this occasion. Their attackers would have fewer cards to play if they made it inside the castle.
He couldn't let the messengers from Chandrys die here.
The gatekeeper was taken aback upon hearing Ralphus' rebuke. Still, he soon nodded and urged the messengers to run.
The chief envoy did not remain in a daze this time. He, along with the other remaining messenger, ran to join up with the guards coming up from behind them.
That the messengers had not chosen to fight for their honor——was the silver lining amidst all of these unfortunate events.
It was thanks to this that Ralphus, who was behind the attackers, was somehow able to calm down.
He purposefully swung his sword with a loud yell in order to draw attention to himself. He brought down his sword without mercy.
He slashed one across the back and sank the other into a sea of blood as he drew his sword back.
The attackers unexpectedly did what Ralphus wanted them to as he efficiently cut down their numbers.
They turned around all at once and attacked him with their swords at ready. Only the man who had pretended to be a driver had not. Instead, he accelerated drastically and swung down his sword at the surviving messengers.
The powerful sound of the sword cutting through the wind reached even Ralphus' ears.
The man was terrifyingly strong. He had clearly surpassed the limits of a normal human being. The vice envoy, who had been split in two from his head to somewhere around his stomach, sank down to the ground twitching.
The blood that erupted from his body dyed the earth red.
The chief envoy, who was finally the last one left, heartbrokenly cried out his colleague's name. Damn you! he screamed as he tried to turn back around, perhaps because his anger had driven away his fear.
Stop! Ralphus yelled.
His warrior's intuition had told him that the fake driver wasn't normal.
Ralphus' fortune continued yet.
A flood of guards had rushed the fake driver before the one-on-one duel that Ralphus feared could come to pass.
They promptly formed a wall between the fake driver, who had raised his sword again, and the surviving chief envoy.
"Don't kill him!"
Ralphus yelled once more as he wielded his sword freely in every direction. They had to determine who's orders the man was working under.
However, that was easier said than done.
The fake driver suddenly roared a beastly howl.
It was so beastly and raw that it was impossible to believe that it had come from human vocal cords, and caused the guards, who had been attacking the fake driver all at once, to stop dead in their tracks.
The man's muscles began to ripple and swell in a creepy manner. His bulging jacket increased in volume before their eyes until it finally burst apart, buttons and all.
The man continued to roar his beastly howl throughout the entire process.
The changes to his body did not stop at his muscles.
Bristles grew from places where his skin was exposed, like his face and arms, and he transformed into something inhuman and reminiscent of an ogre.
"You, you monster!"
someone who had been watching with their eyes bulging cried out sharply and brandished their sword to rush the fake driver.
The rest of the guards followed along at once and jumped the creepy man. The fake driver, who was simply standing there, was promptly attacked by swords all over his body.
The fake driver had been more of a monster than the guards had ever imagined.
Their swords, which they had swung with all of their might, had been repelled by the man's thick layer of muscle, and the tips of their swords were stopped after only giving the man a few scratches even when they pressed the full weight of their bodies against their blades.
The guards stopped attacking for a moment, knowing that their freely wielded swords were to no effect.
They attempted to fall back as they shared chilly expressions with one another.
The beastman glared at them with his large eyes.
he roared and chased after the guards.
He swung his large sword sideways with such ferocity that it was barely a blur. Two heads flew with just one swing.
He attacked left and right, leaving everything to brute power while ignoring defense from the onset. Still, his speed and muscular strength were far beyond ordinary, and the heads and torsos of unfortunate guards flew and were rent every time he swung his sword.
None of the guards were cowards, but their barely existent flames of courage extinguished naturally in the face of an opponent before whom they were utterly powerless.
All of them tried to crawl away from the monster. Even the guards who had arrived late as reinforcements stopped in their tracks with pallid faces, unwilling to get any closer.
The monster suddenly turned around.
He had found the chief envoy from Chandrys, who was still trying to run away.
Ralphus' stern cry reached the monster's back as he tried to chase after the chief envoy. The tone of Ralphus' voice had been so sharp and firm that even the fake driver, who had turned into a beastman, had listened.
Ralphus cut down the final attacker who had been trying to block his path and pursued after the beastman.
He already had his sword at the ready by the time the beastman had turned to him.
Ralphus pierced the monster's eye with a loud cry to boost his fighting spirit. As Ralphus had thought, the monster's eye could not repel the blade and the monster roared a blood-curling roar as fresh blood spilled from the wound.
Ralphus pulled out his sword and went in to attack the other eye without a moment's delay but was blocked by the beastman's thick and hairy arm. The beastman's skin was tougher than even a real ogre's, and like the guards, Ralphus could not cut through it. And his sword had been repelled with such ridiculous strength, too!
Ralphus bit his lip.
This sword won't do.
It would only work on the monster's eyes, and it would be difficult to reach the monster's face now that it was on its guard.
On the contrary, it already took Ralphus everything he had just to avoid the large sword that the pseudo-ogre was swinging around.
Having failed to fully dodge the monster's lunge, Ralphus fell. Then, the monster's large foot rose to try to stomp on him. Ralphus rolled and somehow managed to escape and back away.
"Boss, you good?!"
Guen's voice echoed from somewhere.
Evidently, he had noticed the commotion.
At some point, the fight had moved from the castle gates to deeper inside the castle grounds.
"——! Here, take this!"
Ralphus perfectly caught Justice, which Gwen had thrown across the distance to Ralphus with his herculean strength as he ran. Then, Ralphus turned back to the fake driver, who had been on the verge of charging at him, and drew his sword, throwing the scabbard aside.
He swung the radiant crimson sword diagonally upward. Drops of blood followed after the sword as it drew a vibrant arc of red light.
Even the monster's tough skin could not block an attack from a magic sword, which had been imbued with magic. He had avoided a direct hit by promptly twisting his upper body, but a shallow wound still opened across his stomach and chest.
It had been a far cry from a fatal wound, but the monster still cautiously leapt backward. Then, Gwen and Nigel ran forward to stand by Ralphus' sides.
Evidently, the monster still retained his intelligence.
The monster's remaining yellow eye darted here and there, likely because he had discerned that the tides had turned against him.
"Uweh. What's the deal with him?"
Gwen spat and readied his gigantic battle axe. Nigel had already long since drawn his sword.
"An ogre……but its physique's a little too small. And its face looks human,"
Nigel calmly pointed out.
With his eyes still glued on the monster, Ralphus replied,
"an ogre wouldn't have appeared this close to town. He was a normal human until just a little moment ago. He suddenly transformed."
"He suddenly transformed? What's with that?"
Gwen asked. He continued,
"is he some kinda vampire? But he sure as hell don't look like one."
"He probably a beast master's servant."
His brazenly composed voice sounded no different than it always did.
Ralphus turned around to see Rain looking calmly over them with a surprised Princess Shelfa by his side. "Yo," said Rain while he raised a hand, as if they as met within the palace as usual.
With his eyes fixed on the monster, Rain said,
"I fought with one a bit once during my travels a long time ago. There are these masters who implant their 'species' into people. Then, that person gets reduced to being the master's servant. In exchange for a little bit of the 'master's' power. Well, they're not a tough as vampires anyhow."
Rain cut off his words for a moment and observed the monster closely with his black eyes. He continued,
"hmmm. He's probably a 'servant' who had some other species implanted inside of him. If he was the master, he would've been a bit bigger and a lot stronger."
After making his conclusion, Rain added,
"……he's lacking in speed because he relies too much on his muscles and the sturdiness of his body. And the muscular strength that he's been so proud of isn't much to write home about either. I'd give it a thirty-five at most."
After assigning the monster an arbitrary point value, he finally asked Ralphus,
"I'm fine. But, according to what you just said, wouldn't he be strong enough to be the 'master'?"
Ralphus shook his head and continued,
"this was my mistake……. I let all of the messengers from Chandrys, save the chief envoy, die."
"You have a bad habit of making everything your fault."
Ralphus' friend thoroughly sounded as if he thought that nothing was wrong. Rain continued,
"for starters, you protected at least one, so isn't it fine? By your logic, I'm the one who has more responsibility over what happened. Since I only posted guards inside the castle building."
It was Rain's bad habit that he all too frankly added, "but I don't mind one bit," at the end.
The chief envoy from Chandrys, who was now surrounded by a sizeable number of guards, had an unspeakably complicated look on his face upon hearing Rain's words.
Then, the 'servant' in question who had ignored the conversation around him glared at Rain and readily stepped forward. It was as if he had suddenly lost his obsession with killing the messenger and his interests had moved to Rain in the messenger's stead.
In a grating, unseemly voice, he said,
"are you Rain? My Master told me about you. No, from the start, my true mission was to fight you."
"Oho. So I guess you're from that mysterious organization. You're gonna be my opponent?"
Rain flashed a grin.
Ralphus had seen him grin like that numerous time before.
"Sure. I'll take you on, just like you want."
Just like that, Rain casually walked toward the servant to close the distance between them.
By then, Rain's three aides, starting with Leni, finally came running, but Rain pointed them to the princess instead.
"I'll trust the Princess and the messenger to you guys."
Leni answered right away before Gazaram could say anything. That he preferred to guard the princess over fighting was written plainly on his face.
Senoa and Gazaram felt as if they had been dragged alongside Leni. Still, they probably obeyed their orders because they did not doubt that their liege would win certain victory.
Suddenly, the servant roared.
The roar had been so abrupt that knights, starting with Ralphus, sharply brought up their swords again. The servant roared a deep, long roar that was far more ferocious than he had previously.
Once again, his bestial transformation progressed for all to see.
Stiff bristles grew even on his face this time, making him look like a hairy bear. His muscles swelled again and rippled uncomfortably. The creaking noises that his muscle made reached even Ralphus' ears. He was probably stronger than an ogre in terms of pure strength.
His jacket had long since been reduced to rags, and now his pants began to expand as well.
His second transformation had completed at the same time that he had stopped howling. Standing before them was a beast that had completely deviated from humanity, which they had never seen before.
He still resembled closest to an ogre, but his face and limbs still looked somewhat human, causing Ralphus to feel psychologically repulsed just by looking at him.
Ralphus was apparently not alone in his sentiment as Selphie and Yuri, who had come running out of the castle building, both screamed magnificently.
The servant glared at Rain as if that had been his signal.
He glared with both his eyes as the eye that Ralphus had taken pains to destroy had regenerated at some point.
Rain clapped his hands.
He did not look the slightest bit nervous as he apathetically brought his hands together in applause.
He was the only one who stood straight with a sarcastic smile despite that there were many among the soldiers who were trembling in their boots.
It was as if he had left behind his fear and panic in his mother's womb.
"To think you'd be able to transform twice; you've put a lot of thought into this. I'll add on another five points and make it forty."
"……Prattle on while you can. You'll end up getting ripped to shreds by me anyway."
"Quit bragging, you big ball of fur,"
Rain sneered. He continued,
"I guess you don't even know why your master ordered you to attack me. Well, that's how it usually is for underlings."
"My Master believes that the likes of you isn't worth the effort."
"You're wrong. Your master wanted to use you to test how strong I am before fighting me. If they were sure they could win, they would've just come in person. Now, I wanna ask you something too. Were you changed against your will? Or did you want this for yourself?"
"Obviously, I wanted this for myself."
The servant stuck out his chest as he said his grating words. He continued,
"nobody makes a fool of me anymore. Not a single one!"
The beastman laughed loudly in dark satisfaction, though no one else knew the story of his past and how it had led to his becoming this way.
Then, he swung his large sword and rushed at Rain the moment he stopped laughing. Rain initially put his hand on the hilt of his magic sword, but he reconsidered his actions and let go. He twisted his body and kicked the servant's wrist the instant the latter appeared before his eyes. It connected cleanly. The sword flew out of the servant's thick and hairy hand.
However, the enemy did not fall into a daze upon losing his weapon.
The servant immediately tipped back the scales and grabbed at Rain with both hands.
The black-clad Rain and the pseudo-ogre servant were locked against each other hand in hand.
If anything, Rain's hands were on the larger side, but his hands looked terribly small in comparison to the enemy's and they were completely hidden away by the enemy's palms.
The servant, who was taller than even Rain, forcefully increased his output of strength in order to attack Rain from above.
Ralphus tried to jump in and assist Rain upon seeing that, but he changed his mind after seeing the expression on his friend's face. Rain was smiling brazenly even as he clashed in a contest of strength against the servant.
"What's wrong? Put a bit more spirit and power into it, will you?! Your beloved muscles are crying!"
Rain challenged the servant, his countenance still as composed as ever.
It was hard to tell because of his thick fur, but the ogre-like servant was astonished. He had been planning to force Rain down, but was being pushed back by Rain instead and his giant knee was about to buckle.
"Do you really think you can beat a dragon in a contest of strength? 'Cause that's exactly what you're trying to do right now,"
Rain pointed out in a level voice.
Turmoil visibly ran through the servant's visage.
"——Impossible! Master said that it was just a rumor!"
"Well, your morale would've plummeted if they told you the truth. It would've been inconvenient in testing me out, even if you can't go against your orders. Your master used you as they pleased."
Rain abruptly looked up after he finished whispering his piece.
He shook his head a little at his enemy, whose breathing had grown haggard.
"I can tell. You aren't a match for me. ……If you're gonna resent someone, resent the master who used you as an experiment."
"Lies! Dragon slayers can't possibly exist!"
Contrary to his words, the servant was already sure of the truth.
Vivid fear colored his face at the last moment as the servant shook off Rain's hands and attempted to flee.
For a moment, it had looked like he had made a successful escape.
But a dull sound reverberated in the next.
The servant opened his large eyes wide.
Rain had pierced through the chest of his fleeing enemy with his hand with extreme ease. He had effortlessly penetrated through the servant's tough chest and his bright red hand stuck out of the servant's back.
The ground rumbled as servant collapsed to the ground the moment that Rain withdrew his hand. There wasn't even a need to confirm that he was dead.
The castle guards, who had gathered one after another, let out a loud cheer when they saw that the match had been decided. Rain lightly raised his hand to answer to their cheers, but he didn't seem all that happy for it.
"As expected of you,"
Ralphus said, despite knowing that his friend was not too excited.
"Nah, beating the likes of him isn't something to be proud of. It would've been better if the beast master had come in person instead."
"So like I'd thought, was he really from the same organization as the girl named Talma?"
"Probably. Like the guy said himself, his main goal was to test out my strength, and the scheme to provoke discord between Chandrys and Sunkwoll was an added bonus. Still, they're a bunch of shameless jerks, what with all they're doing."
"Indeed. But the fact that he——"
Ralphus cast his gaze at the noisy crowd of soldiers that had circled around the corpse,
"wasn't sent from Zarmine is a silver lining amidst all of these unfortunate events. I suppose they're still busy reorganizing their army."
"King Leygur wouldn't do something this pointless. I think that Talma's gang doesn't have a clear grasp of our military strength yet. And they're underestimating me in particular."
"You can't blame them for their disbelief. Though I understand that you don't want to fight weak foes."
He pat Rain on the shoulder in an attempt to console him.
Then, the sole surviving messenger from Chandrys approached them.
He bowed his head to Rain and Ralphus in a surprisingly polite manner.
"I suppose I must give you my thanks. In any case, you saved my life."
"Don't worry about it."
Rain returned to his usual mood and flashed a grin. He continued,
"it'd be inconvenient for us if you'd died."
"Don't sweat it, I was talking to myself."
Rain swiftly exchanged a glance with the princess who stood beside him. As far as Ralphus could tell, there was something going on between them. Rain continued,
"well, that aside. Marvelously enough, my threat from before came true. It's dangerous, so I'll have you escorted to the unit that's waiting for you."
"H, how did you know that we had troops on standby?"
Sweat slowly but steadily began to form on the messenger's forehead.
Nonchalantly, Rain said,
"that furball from earlier would've killed you guys somewhere where it was easier to do it if you guys had been few in number to begin with. He would've wiped you guys out first before coming here. The reason that he couldn't was because you had a bunch of guards accompanying you. It was better to attack us here where both of us would be present if it was gonna be dangerous either way. In any case, he had a better chance of killing at least one of us if he took us by surprise."
The messenger had no words to say.
Since their conversation had wrapped up, Rain briskly ordered his three aides to compose an escort unit.
The messenger would more or less be able to return to Folnier with this.
Still, they wouldn't be able to avoid fighting with Chandrys just because they had saved the messenger's life.
Ralphus did not know what kind of response the messenger would be carrying back, but he knew that, ultimately, conflict could not be avoided……
The signs of war were closing in on this kingdom once more.
Ralphus was certain of this.
The disturbance from noon had died down and the castle had regained its tranquility by the small hours of the morning.
Ralphus had been making himself at home in the room that he had been provided when Nigel, his aide, paid him a visit.
It was a terribly rare occurrence.
Unlike Gwen, who would drop by even when he didn't need anything, Nigel, while still loyal, was not the type of person to visit his liege's room just for fun.
"What is it? Is there a problem?"
Ralphus asked, steeling himself a little as he offered Nigel a chair and poured him some wine from the North.
After all, in his experience, Nigel only sought a discussion with him when something troubling was going on and the like.
"I wouldn't really call it a problem. ……The reason I visited you today has to do with Sir Rain."
"Rain? What about him?"
Nigel rocked the glass in his hand and fell into a contemplative silence. He seemed hesitant on whether or not he should speak his mind—yet another rare occurrence.
A faint trace of distress appeared on his handsome visage.
After finally making up his mind, he gulped down his wine all at once and spoke.
"You were once the authority of Sunkwoll, Lord Ralphus. However, Sir Rain's voice has grown more influential ever since Her Highness Princess Shelfa's reign began. From what I've heard, our fundamental plan of action for the Chandrys war was finalized and offered to the Princess by Sir Rain. If it had been King Douglas, he would have asked for your opinion first, Lord Ralphus."
Ralphus stared long and hard at his trusted aide. Nigel did not meet his gaze, as if he was avoiding Ralphus on purpose.
Instead, Nigel stared stubbornly into the center of his glass.
"It's not that I dislike Sir Rain. The fact that he's very broadminded and overflowing with ambition isn't something that he should be ashamed of as a knight. Likewise, I don't think that Her Highness had any particularly ill intentions for appointing Sir Rain to a position of responsibility. But at the end of the day, I'm your retainer, Lord Ralphus. I can't turn a blind eye when the liege I respect gets ignored like that!"
It was the first time in Ralphus' memories that the ever-reticent Nigel had spent so many words in such a fit of passion. Nigel's cheeks were slightly red. He had apparently been longing to say this for a while.
Ralphus made an effort not to provoke his aide any further as he calmly said,
"so is this what you're trying to say? That……Rain is a man of many schemes, and ultimately, he's planning on using us as chess pieces to accomplish his own desires?"
Nigel nodded slightly when Ralphus spelled it out.
He finally looked Ralphus in the eyes.
"I don't believe that he's a bad person. Still, he's too sharp, and much too strong. He might even be aiming for the throne one day…… Am I simply imaging things to be worried about him?"
"You're unusually talkative today, Nigel."
Ralphus smiled, and without letting that smile fade from his face, he continued,
"I personally don't mind even if that's what he plans to do."
"——! Lord Ralphus!"
"Wait. I still have more to say. ……I don't mind, but I doubt that he'd ever want the throne even if it's the last thing he does. He'd likely leave the kingdom if someone tried to force the throne on him. That much is as clear as day to me."
When his aide looked all the more unconvinced, Ralphus gently admonished him, saying,
"you don't have to understand him, but I want you to trust him. I want you to trust my friend as you trust me. Deep down, contrary to what he says, Rain isn't the type of person to care about money or prestige. What he's after isn't something of that nature……probably."
"Then, do you mean to say that my worries are unfounded?"
He smiled and prefaced his next words, saying, "it's not something you'll ever hear him say," and continued,
"but I can tell. He doesn't have any underlying ambitions. He does want to support Her Highness, but he doesn't want any power or authority for himself. He only appears ambitious because he pretends to be that way."
Nigel fell silent once again and stared fixatedly at Ralphus.
Ralphus silently accepted his gaze and nodded. Eventually, Nigel let out a sigh.
"……You're good at seeing people for who they really are, Lord Ralphus. I've seen many examples of your skill firsthand, so I suppose all I can do is trust your judgement on this despite how doubtful I am."
Ralphus smiled wryly.
Still, at the very least, Nigel looked like he felt a little better than he had when he first walked into the room.
"Understood. If you trust him, Lord Ralphus, I'll trust him as well and see how things go in the long term. I'll clear away my baseless suspicions of him."
Ralphus gave Nigel a hefty nod and reached out to pour him another glass of wine.
Their kingdom, or rather, their group that was centered around Princess Shelfa, was to face a mighty foe with only what little power they had.
At the very least, I want to stabilize the sense of unity between us as allies…… thought Ralphus.