Shing, who had received orders from the grand general he so respected, made haste to the border with Sayle and Junna's cooperation. He only finally received credible news after a few days of hurrying along with their cavalry-focused unit.
They had met with an express messenger from their home country in the middle of their march.
The information the messenger had brought indicated that Folnier had been right on the money.
"You saw the enemy's insignia? Are you certain of this!?"
"I am! We sighted the enemy army crossing the mountains!"
The messenger continued to rattle on as his breathing grew ragged. He continued,
"there have been multiple eyewitness reports. The insignia——was of a pure white phoenix with its wings spread open holding a magic sword in its mouth against a black background! The colors of the dyes used on it were vibrant! The army, led by a general dressed in all black, numbered about two thousand five hundred! At present, they have circumvented one of our fortresses and are breaking through the border!"
"All right! You may return. Tell the standing army that they are not to move from Sadaraan under any circumstances! We'll take care of the rest!"
"Sir yes sir!"
Even the normally reserved Shing could not help but feel so excited that he could have jumped for joy at the time. He uncharacteristically pumped a fist while still on horseback.
"We've finally got him by the tail! We can catch up to him if we hurry! That sneaky thief's plan wasn't half bad, but that's all there is to it once it's been uncovered. Even Sir Rain, once feared as the 'Unknown Genius', can get tripped up by his own strategies."
"Sir Sayle, is something the matter?"
Sayle swallowed his words upon seeing how much of a good mood Shing was in.
"Do you really think it'll go that well? Isn't there a chance that he's pulling a trick on us?"
Sayle could not find it in him to say the words that he had wanted to say. This was one of the things that made Sayle such a good-natured person.
Oh well, he thought.
He had no concrete proof of the contrary to begin with. While he was suspicious of how easily they were able to chase after Rain, it was still true that Rain would have lost time if he did not take the regular route.
There's likely no doubt about it if they've sighted a unit that looks like it might be his……
As usual, Sayle firmly hugged Junna, who was riding in front of him, and smiled amicably.
"It's nothing. And, how should I put it……we'll do our best too, so please go and bring home great deed of arms!"
"What are you talking about?! If we annihilate his unit, it'll be an achievement to share amongst all of us. I should be the one asking you for your support, Sir Sayle."
The older commander bowed his head low to Sayle, who was his junior in years by far.
I really respect his attitude, especially considering that my rank is a lot lower than his. He really is a good person.
Sayle was thoroughly impressed. He truly wanted, without considering his personal costs and benefits, for Shing to be able to return with a stellar deed of arms.
That was why Sayle drowned out his sudden bust of anxiety and, from the bottom of his heart, said instead,
"let's hurry! We'll be able to capture him soon if we're lucky!"
Shing and the rest of his unit hurried forth, brimming with hopes of certain victory.
"The invading army has split into two. One unit of ten thousand, led by General Shing, is headed our way!"
Rain chuckled to himself upon hearing the report.
(I'm willing to bet money on it…… The great Joe was overpowered by his vixen of a liege.)
What kinds of insights they had offered, how the flow of the conversation had went, and what the ultimate decision from the war council had been——. Rain could imagine the gist of what had happened even without having been present in the discussion.
"While Ralphus and his unit act as bait to draw out our attention, Rain will target our short-staffed capital."
The plan that they had imagined for Rain wasn't a bad one per se, but Rain was aiming for something else entirely.
For better or worse, even Joe Lamberck had yet to realize what Rain's true motives were. ……Though it would become troublesome if he didn't.
In any event, Rain, the man who was being targeted by both Folnier's Chandrys army and Safir and the other nobles' army, was currently sitting at leisure against a rock on cliff on top of a steep ravine dubbed "Dead Valley".
A highway weaved its way through the rugged mountains at the Chandrys-Sunkwoll border and occasionally cut through between two mountains just like it did here at the place where Rain was.
The highway had originally been a river that had dried up ages ago, and was thus literally a dried up, "dead valley".1 Both Sunkwoll and Chandrys maintained the natural-made path to use as a highway.
The entire path zig-zagged all throughout, causing for horrible visibility.
Moreover, the cliff that Rain had chosen was over a hundred meters above the road and stuck out over it like a terrace.
Rain had piled up stacks of boulders and earth and was biding his time on top of the cliff.
Indeed, unlike what the express messenger from Chandrys had reported to Shing, Rain and his unit had yet to cross the border and were actually quite far from it. Not only that, but he had no intention of invading into Chandrys at all.
However, the Sunkwoll unit that the enemy had sighted had most certainly existed.
The unit that had actually crossed the border were residents of Astel whom Rain had paid to act as dummy soldiers. Since they had money to burn, they had vigorously gathered people to recruit and had organized a decoy unit.
The decoy unit had accomplished their objective in spectacular fashion. They had circumvented the border fortress and were following along the mountains while they invaded into Chandrys one after another.
At the moment, they were probably dawdling around marking time at the other side of the border. In addition, the enemy's standing army was likely defending Sadaraan castle with everything they had. Even if they weren't they did not have the numbers to spare for a counterattack.
Which meant that Rain was free to use bold strategies.
Rain was basking happy-go-luckily in the sun when a lone runner knight ran up to him. The knight had brought him a follow-up report.
"General! A report from the spies: After receiving a report from an express messenger from the Chandrys standing army, the enemy unit led by Shing has increased their marching speed and are approaching at a rapid pace!"
The knight returned back the way he came after Rain had nodded lightly.
After seeing off the knight's retreating figure, Rain surveyed over the individuals who had gathered on top of the cliff. Leni, Senoa, and Selphie and Yuri. The usual lineup, along with Miran and their subordinates, were awaiting on standby.
Rain turned to them and simply said,
"you heard what he said, it's almost time for the main show. I'll have you guys work for your wages too."
Everyone nodded while looking like they'd wet themselves.
Still, as always, Yuri said,
"then what are we standing around here for, Geeneral. You don't need us here with you, right, Geeneral?"
"……The way you say "Geeneral" like that really conveys your utter lack of respect for me. Well, I guess you never really had any, though."
Rain scowled but still answered her anyway. He continued,
"what you said is true. But, well, how should I put this, I've been pretty popular as of late. I don't really mind taking them all on, but I probably shouldn't 'cause we're in the middle of an operation right now. Which is also why I'm not supposed to be alone until the very last moment."
Yuri looked like she had just been made to hear the doctrine of some shady cult.
"Umm, I have ab-solutely no idea what you just said."
"That's fine. I'll spell it out for you when everything's over."
Yuri flared her nostrils in displeasure as Rain waved her away with a hand and cast a quick side eye. At the receiving end of her look was Senoa.
As for what the beautiful aide with outstanding figure had been doing for a while since, she had drawn her sword before her beautiful eyes and was rubbing it down with a piece of cloth with all of her might.
She could have just obediently sat down and waited.
The sight of her was a headache for Rain as well.
She apparently could not help but really, really want to polish her prided weapon and had been scrubbing it clean for a while. Now that Rain thought about it, she had bragged that, "this treasured sword is an heirloom of the Estherhart family, hohoho," not too long ago.
Though, nobody had asked her about it.
Anyway, while Rain didn't know if the treasured sword was really an heirloom or whatever, the sword had certainly been polished so much from Senoa's endless effort that her face reflected off of it.
She breathed on to the blade of her sword and wiped it down with a "creepy" smile on her face……and she did that over and over again.
Nobody dared to sit around her because they were frightened by the dangerous scene, creating a hole around Senoa.
"Well, there's certainly someone here who you might want to quarantine~,"
Yuri said, as if she was seriously considering the long term.
Rain sullenly furrowed his brows and stood up for the first time since they had gotten there. He briskly walked over behind the blonde Senoa.
However, Senoa, smartly clad in white leather armor, did not take notice of him.
She simply continued to sit down in a ladylike manner and furiously polish her sword.
"Haaa~~ (the sound of her breathing onto her sword)"
Then, she wiped it down with her cloth and grinned at spotless blade of her polished sword.
"Quit it, it's getting annoying!"
Rain kicked Senoa in the back of her head so hard that onlookers could not help but wonder if he really had to put so much strength into it, causing Senoa to tumble to the ground while still holding her sword.
She almost impaled her own throat because she had been holding her sword vertically upright and screamed a scream that sounded like her soul was fading away.
She had probably meant to say "oh my god," but she was too flustered and couldn't get the words out properly.
She grew vigorously angry after she finally stood up with a pallid face.
"What are you doing?! I almost died a dishonorable death because of you!"
"You're being plenty dishonorable just as it is! Go back to your family's castle and pull grass in the courtyard or something, you stupid idiot!"
"E, even if you're my liege, there are things that you should and shouldn't say! It's the honorable duty of a knight to look after their weapon before battle ish it not?!"
Rain mercilessly interrupted Senoa, who was rattling on so fervently that her tongue could not quite keep up with her.
"What do you mean, "ish it not"?! I don't know what you think you're talking about, but you're in command of rear support for this battle. The unit that'll be doing the actual fighting deployed a while ago."
"No, no way!"
Senoa's visage had just been about to recover, but then the blood drained from her face again. It was quite the spectacle. She continued,
"I was planning on mowing down swarms of our enemies and showing off my skill with the sword today! So why, why did you put me in command of da rear?!"
At this point, Senoa stopped caring about the number of eyes looking at her. She quickly stood up, grabbed Rain by the collar, and protested with a threatening attitude.
Rain found himself in a pickle. Even if he honestly told her, "you'd die in five seconds flat if you fought as you are now! Go wash your face in soup and come back again!" his aide wouldn't have been satisfied.
She was fairly talented with her other duties outside of fighting due to her steady personality, but not only did she lack experience when it came to actual battle, she overwhelmingly lacked ability as well.
In other words, Senoa could only display her strengths in warfare up until the point where swords began to clash.
"Listen up, Senoa."
Rain promptly cut through her gushing protests that bordered verbal abuse and firmly grabbed Senoa's sloping shoulders with both hands.
The effect was immediate and Senoa quivered. Rain didn't quite understand why, but she was apparently weak to getting physically touched. She visibly lost steam even though she had been in the middle of an angry huff.
And so, Rain had recently taken to almost exclusively touching Senoa physically during times like this.
There was a small amount of danger of being misunderstood from various points of view (particularly Shelfa's), but he couldn't have cared less about that at the moment.
"A general's job isn't to actually fight. It's to command; our job is to command our soldiers! You need to start being more aware of your own position."
Senoa glanced repeatedly at the hands on her shoulders and grew visibly red. She had become as meek as a lamb.
She probably would have forgiven him if he had let his hands wander lower and grabbed her breasts in this state, but even Rain refrained from doing so.
Though he couldn't make any promises for the future.
"Do you understand?!"
With the area under her eyes still blushing faintly, she quietly continued,
"General, you wield your sword in battle yourself, do you not, sir?"
Do you not, sir? Hey, why're you being so polite all of a sudden?
Rain thought, but purposefully stopped himself from asking out loud.
As surprising as it was, it could simply just be the way Senoa normally talked when she was home in her family's castle. She would occasionally let her girlishness slip out, but that might have actually been the real Senoa.
Is she pushing herself too much when she's here?
Rain kept the thought locked away in his heart and spat out his usual lines.
"I'm special. A genius is a genius because he does what others don't. And by genius, I mean me."
"I, I understand……"
Senoa agreed readily as she fidgeted while looking down.
Rain didn't know why, but the effects had been amazing.
When Rain looked up while wondering what was up with her, everyone else who had been watching them with baited breathed suddenly looked away.
It looked extremely forced.
Rain could guess the reason as to why Miran's face was bright red for some reason (Miran was pure at heart after all), but he had no idea why Selphie looked like she was about to burst into tears.
Rain let go of Senoa and tilted his head to the side.
Then, Leni speedily turned to him with a mixture of nervousness and a tinge of fear on his face.
"In, in any case, I hope it all goes well! T, the Princess is eagerly awaiting your return after all, General. You have to hurry back to her soon, right?"
Yuri said in a suddenly happy tone as she leaned forward. She continued,
"she……I mean, the Princess really does like to cling to you, General, so how was it like when you parted, huh, huh?"
She looked extraordinarily interested.
Yuri was a girl who liked to ask questions in general, but it looked like she had developed yet another bad habit.
"Even if you ask me how it was like. ……Well, it's true that she was being difficult."
She had really been difficult this time around. He'd told her that he'd be back soon, that he wouldn't be gone for weeks or anything like that, but the Little one had been difficult to convince.
Shelfa was a princess who had been raised on a noble upbringing, but she was extremely obedient to Rain on a fundamental level. She had a tremendous amount of trust in him. For instance, if he told her, "I need the money so let me use your funds," she would allow him to do so without even asking what he needed the money for.
She tended to be like that with Ralphus as well, but she seemed to be particularly convicted in her belief that "there are no errors in Rain's counsel."
However, she was only difficult to satisfy with half-hearted reasons when it came to "Rain going somewhere without me".
She had persistently asked Rain to take her along with him even after he had carefully chosen his words to explain why it was inadvisable. It had been terribly difficult to persuade her——that it was a terrible idea so she should bear with it for now.
"I feel like everything around me becomes dark when you're not here, Rain…… I'll be good, so please take me with you."
She had stare~ed up at him with teary eyes as she spoke.
Her eyes were terribly destructive and he had needed iron willpower to deny her what she wanted.
She became naturally miserable since she had not meant to trouble Rain in the slightest and had only been thinking about how she was about to be left behind.
It had taken quite a bit of energy to persuade Shelfa in her "take me with you mode".
If an unknowing third party had seen them, they would have thought that Rain was about to leave the princess' side permanently.
Rain returned to his senses when he suddenly heard rough breathing.
He turned around to see Kris, whom he had completely forgotten about, making signals at him with his eyes (or so Rain thought).
"Is something the matter, Kris?"
Rain looked at his comrades.
Selphie quickly looked away in a panic after he met her……how should he put it, her accusing gaze.
Rain tilted his head a little, but he felt the enemy approaching with his skin so he honed his senses and searched out their presences.
"Hmm……now should be a good time. Alright, you guys can go back to your posts now."
He clapped his hands loudly once.
When everybody was nervously getting up, he nonchalantly called out,
"err~, Selphie, you stay behind for a sec. I have something to say to you."
He ignored the fact that Yuri's ears and immediately perked up but was surprised when everyone else stopped where they stood as well.
"Hey, quit being weirdly suspicious. It's serious talk, seriously."
Selphie timidly walked up to Rain. Then, she looked down at her feet and didn't move in the slightest.
Rain wasn't sure if he should say that her movements were stiff, but, in any case, she looked visibly nervous.
Rain waited for everyone to descend down the path behind him before starting a conversation with her, but——
Before he did, he gave Yuri, who had remained behind, a strict order.
"You hurry up and scram too!"
Yuri puffed up her cheeks in dissatisfaction but she obediently turned around.
It had looked like she would continue down the path, but she stopped in her tracks and cast a 'V' with her fingers in Selphie's direction.
She jogged away only after wishing Selphie the best of luck.
"What exactly is she wishing you luck on?"
"W, who can say?"
Selphie hung down her head again.
Rain stroked his chin and cut straight to the point.
"Do you not want to kill people anymore?"
Selphie's head shot straight back up.
She was undoubtedly still frightened, but she also looked somewhat relieved.
"——I know. I'll just be that much of a burden on someone else if I run away…… But even though I know that, I don't know if I'll be able to kill someone or not……"
"I get how you're feeling."
Selphie blinked her light green eyes, perhaps because Rain's tone had been surprisingly kind. Evidently, she had thought that she was about to get yelled at. Rain continued,
"it's normal to worry about that. Only those who are messed up in the head somewhere are able to cut people down one after another without any questions."
"You know, Selphie…"
Selphie tilted her head to the side in a quizzical manner.
Rain smiled and quietly said,
"it's not a disgrace to not be able to kill. You should actually be proud pf it. It just means that you're a caring person. It's not something you need to beat yourself up over. If you don't want to fight anymore, you can choose a different path for yourself. No one will blame you for it. Myself included, of course."
Selphie looked like she was trying to hold something back as her lips quivered.
"……But even still, I still want to be a knight. Just like my late father was."
Rain replied concisely and simply nodded.
Everyone had their circumstances. She would tell him about hers if she wanted to. There was no reason for him to pry, and they didn't have the time for it either.
"Um……I have a favor I want to ask of you."
Her voice was colored by tense anxiety.
"What's up? Need another advance payment?"
"No I doon't~. Lord Rain, it's like you think that money is the only thing I ever need to ask you about."
She finally smiled.
She continued on her momentum and her mouth swiftly opened again.
"Um, I know it's a bit sudden. But I wanted to ask you……to hold me."
Rain furrowed his brows and pulled his lips taut.
After surveying his surroundings with a gaze that wasn't any lesser than what he would have used when in battle mode, he whispered tensely like he was sharing a secret.
"You talking about getting down and dirty?"
Selphie immediately turned bright red. She too surveyed the surroundings in a panic.
"Ab, absolutely not! And besides, what's that even supposed to mean anyway?!!"
"You're awfully flustered for someone who didn't know what that meant."
Rain laughed out loud.
Selphie half-pretended to flare up at him. But, she stopped after looking up at Rain's face.
A smile escaped her.
"……You were trying to get me to cheer up by saying that, weren't you, Lord Rain?"
"You're thinking way too much into it. I was being serious. ……Anyway, c'mon. It's cool."
"Well, this is more of what you meant, right? It's easy enough, as favors go. C'mon, get over here, Selphie."
Rain stretched out both arms and smiled gently.
The tone of his voice was slightly different from usual and it was almost as if he had returned to his boyhood days from a long time ago.
Selphie timidly looked up at Rain as she reservedly walked toward him one step after another until she finally buried her face into his black shirt.
A tremor ran down her supple figure like ripples when Rain wrapped his arms around her.
"Lord Rain, you're not my Dad, and I've never really thought that you two were similar before now…… But you're just as kind as he was. You're both kind and large and warm……"
"——Oh yeah? I don't know about me, but it sounds like you had a great old man."
Selphie cried just a little upon feeling the deep compassion in Rain's short reply……
Selphie eventually left as well and Rain looked down at the highway from the top of the cliff alone with only Kris following behind him.
The highway below was straight for the most part, except that there was a smaller road that branched off from it a little behind the point Rain was standing over. But hardly anyone ever used it because it was the long way around to get to Chandrys.
And, on top of the cliff Rain was standing on——
There were the piles of rocks and earth a little to the back so that it couldn't be seen from below, and further behind them was a line of large jars of oil. The stage had been set and the preparations were complete.
Rain nodded lightly and stood where he was. Kris trotted up next to him as he did.
Rain looked to his side and said,
"it's almost time. I'm counting on you, partner. It's be totally lame if you flipped over midair."
He was immediately met with a gruff snort.
It was likely Kris' way of saying not to make light of him.
"I know. I'm kidding. Actually, I should actually be worrying about getting thrown off of you, shouldn't I?"
Kris nodded as if to express his consent.
Rain pat Kris' abundant mane and waited for the moment closing in on them.
He couldn't afford to lose……for everyone's sake.
"Hurry, hurryy! If we don't hurry, the enemy will notice us approaching and they'll slip through our fingers! Keep moving as long as your horses draw breath!"
Shing had his favored horse run at full speed and occasionally shouted out to rouse his comrades.
While he was concerned about letting the enemy getting away, he was more concerned about letting Rain reach the capital before they caught up. In the worst-case scenario, there was the possibility that Sadaraan would have already fallen by the time Shing got there. He didn't think it was likely, but he couldn't deny that the possibility existed. And he had heard that Rain was skilled at not only open battles, but at siege battles as well.
At any rate, there was no record of Rain having ever lost a battle which he had personally commanded.
Moreover, Shing and his unit would be forced to siege their own main castle if Rain captured Sadaraan. There would be nothing more ridiculous than that. Which was why he had to catch up to Rain by all means possible so that wouldn't happen.
That being said, he still took the necessary precautions.
Shing hadn't forgotten that Joe, whom he respected greatly, had warned him not to fight Rain in single combat, so he had suppressed his impatience and positioned himself at the rear of his army.
This way, he would not have to face Rain in single combat even if they were to suddenly engage in battle.
Shing held no delusions about his own abilities. He understood that he had no chance of beating Rain, who had fought evenly with Grand General Joe Lamberck, in a fair fight. And, most of all, he had no intention of repeating the mistake that Garblake of the Zarmine expeditionary force had made.
This was why Shing did not stand at the vanguard of his army despite his impatience.
This was also the case of Sayle and Junna.
Still, it did not mean that they were being overly cautious.
This was because they were determined to chase after Rain. Shing's army considered themselves as hounds chasing after their prey. In addition, the fact that the enemy army was comparatively smaller than their also weakened their wariness.
Our troops number ten thousand. What can a force of a little over two thousand possibly do to us?!
They had more or less become conceited over the fact that Chandrys had not known defeat for the past few dozen years ever since Grand General Joe Lamberck had assumed his title. Almost nobody understood that……their victories were owed more to how excellent of a commander Joe was and not because the Chandrys army itself was particularly strong.
And so, their army, which was organized around their cavalry, broke through the mountains that bordered their homeland while kicking up clouds of dirt.
After Shing's army had disappeared from "Dead Valley", which could not be said to be wide even in the slightest, with a cloud of dust in their wake——
Soldiers shuffled out of the forest at the foot of the mountains and secretly began to tail them.
Unfortunately for them, Shing's army had focused their attention on only what was in front of them. They had not thought even in their wildest dreams that enemy soldiers would appear from behind.
And thus, Rain's plan was half completed.
↑ The original Japanese for Dead Valley is (枯れ谷, karetani), which combines together the Japanese words for "to whither, to dry up, to die" (枯れる, kareru) and "valley" (谷, tani). This sentence is playing with the fact that the valley had literally "dried up."