Shelfa had been in an impeccably good mood since yesterday.
It needn't be said that the reason behind her cheer was the fact that Rain had returned to the castle, meaning that she had bid goodbye to her days of staring listlessly out the window waiting for him. Even now, Shelfa was about to leave her room with a smile stretched across her face as she hugged her bag of clothes to her chest. Rain had promised her that they would bathe together today.
Rain, who had returned only yesterday, had predicted, "even if I asked Ralphus to "buy as much time" as possible, there are limits to what he can do. If things go poorly, today might be the only day……that we can rest." In other words, now was the only time they could take things easy. Shelfa had no idea when the next time that they'd be able to bathe together would be.
She opened her door in a cheer.
She instinctively voiced her quiet surprise upon suddenly being greeted by a sour look.
……It didn't belong to anyone suspicious or anything, but belonged to Gunther Valoa, who had been guarding her. He was standing outside sullenly with a look on his face that seemed to silently contend that he was experiencing the absolute worst day of his life right now. He always looked like that, though.
Shelfa bowed to him in a hurry to show her appreciation for his fulfillment of his duties.
Gunther responded by lowering his chin by a single millimeter. ……It was difficult to tell who the master was in this situation. Still, Shelfa already understood well. Just from his small nod, she understood that he was currently in an extremely good humor. The man called Gunther Valoa was impartial to everyone other than Rain to begin with. In other words, he was equally unsociable to everyone without discrimination.
Shelfa, who knew this about him, naturally did not let his attitude bring down her spirits.
"Um…… Thank you very much for listening to what I had to say yesterday,"
she said as she bowed to him again.
Unusually, the taciturn man replied.
"……It looks like you were able to brush away your worries."
A smile broke out across Shelfa's mien.
——Yesterday, just before Rain had returned.
Shelfa had made a habit of bringing a chair up to the window of her room and staring out of it all day long.
She would sit there as soon as she woke up in the morning and wouldn't move from her seat except during mealtimes.
She did this because this room was located at the highest point of the castle, which inevitably made it the room in which you could see the farthest out of.
In other words, she would be able to see Rain return before anyone else from this room.
"I'll be back soon, so best regards."
——It had been two days since the messenger had brought back Rain's reply.
Shelfa had positioned herself by the window ever since. She refused to move from her spot until late at night, when she finally grew sleepy.
But unfortunately, for all of her fervent efforts in keeping watch over the past two days, she had only seen less than a thousand passersby on the highway (including overlaps) and the elderly working in their distant fields.
To begin with, today aside, sitting by the window yesterday had been a complete waste of effort. There was no way that he could return so soon. But, even though she understood this, she ultimately found herself unable to step away when she thought of the one-in-million possibility that he would.
Shelfa keenly reaffirmed to herself just how large Rain's existence was to her. The world was a paradise overflowing with light when Rain was by her side, but when he wasn't, the world promptly lost both its shine and color. She even felt like a shadow had been pulled over her sight.
And no, she wasn't joking.
She didn't think she was being ridiculous, either. If Yuri were to speak to her as an equal, she would have admonished, "heyy, that's not healthy. Like, you're way too into him! There are plenty of other men out there, you know?"
However, there was no advice more wasted on Shelfa than this. To put it in Yuri's words, Shelfa had chosen to be unhealthy of her own accord. Shelfa didn't think that she was capable of explaining her feelings to anyone else, and neither did she intend to anyway.
The afternoon rays slowly lowered their angles and a ruby afterglow began to reflect across Shelfa's white cheeks.
He probably wouldn't come back today.
Armies generally marched around noon, so they were probably setting up camp somewhere by now.
Desolation rose up from her heart as soon as she thought of this. Her spirits had fallen at this time yesterday as well, but it was much worse today. He'd definitely come back today——or so she'd thought, and she felt like she'd be overwhelmed by loneliness as she watched the sun go down.
She clasped her hands in front of her chest as if she was praying and looked over the highway as it slowly sank into dusk.
She always ended up thinking bad things during times like this.
Like the thought that there had been something off about the messenger who had brought Rain's message, for instance. All things despite, Shelfa was sensitive to the expressions of others. Especially when Rain was concerned.
She couldn't help but feel like the messenger had been hiding something. It can't be that……something happened to Rain, can it?
Shelfa had been thinking this ever since yesterday, but she only started to worry once she realized that Rain might not be coming back today either.
Unable to sit still any longer, she restlessly began to get up.
She heard a knock on the door as she did.
"It is I."
Her heart jumped upon hearing the visitor's blunt, charmless voice, and she had to soothe it back down.
Not many people came looking for her, so Shelfa wasn't quite used to hearing this thing called knocking.
Just as Rain had told her to before he had left, she checked the visitor's face by peering through the peephole after their reply.
"Is it you, Mister Gunter?"
When she hurried and opened the door for him, Gunther, looking as terribly sour as he always did, entered the room with a small cart.
It looked like he had prepared some tea, going off of the teapot and two sets of cups that she saw. The tea set looked quite unusual when paired with him.
"Lord Rain will be returning soon."
Shelfa jumped at Gunther's sudden news. She continued,
"r, really?! Did you hear from him?"
"Yes. We can communicate through Magic Vision without having to send a messenger."
Gunther deftly intercepted Shelfa before she could break out running for the castle gates without thinking.
"I said that he'd be returning soon, but I didn't mean that he'll be back right now. He'll still need a few hours. Please have some tea and wait for him at your leisure."
He looked a little hesitant, but Gunther began to ready tea on the small table in the room as if it was the most natural thing to do. At this point, it wasn't as if Shelfa could just simply leave either. She held back her true feelings of wanting to run to the castle gates to welcome Rain home and took her seat.
Gunther sat down opposite of her as well. Evidently, he was planning to enjoy some tea with her.
Shelfa didn't dislike the fact that Gunther would be joining her, but she did think that it was quite unusual of him to do so. Normally, he looked like the type of person who'd never take more interest in someone else than was absolutely necessary.
"Please, have some."
Shelfa looked down, troubled, when he offered her a cup.
"I don't think I can keep it down because my heart is beating too fast."
You're making too much of a big deal just because he's been away from you for a few days,
——Was not what Gunther said.
In his usual grim expression, he replied,
"how unfortunate. This black tea from Fanooj is one of Lord Rain's favorite drinks."
"I'll have some!"
Shelfa replied on reflex and, upon growing embarrassed at how quickly her attitude had changed, stole a quick glance up at Gunther.
To her surprise, he was smiling a little……though just ever so little. It disappeared in an instant, but she had no doubt that he'd smiled.
Shelfa opened her eyes wide in surprise when took a sip of the tea.
"Oh…… This is……delicious."
"Is that so? In that case, please have some of this as well……. You looked like you've hardly had an appetite as of late."
He offered a plate of sandwiches as well.
"Is this one of Rain's favorites too?"
"No. It is one of mine."
It was Shelfa's turn to smile this time.
She had vaguely begun to see why the young man before her had visited……or at least she felt that she could.
He likely had something to say to her. He might be creating an atmosphere that was easy to talk in just for her. Or at least, that's what Shelfa thought he was doing……but after eating for a little while in silence, she was surprised when Gunther suddenly asked her, "Isn't there anything you'd like to say?" It had been the complete opposite of what she'd expected.
"S, something I'd like to say to you, Lord Gunther?"
Keeping his cool, Gunther casually continued,
"something you'd like to say, or something you wish to consult with someone about, perhaps? Like how you've recently begun to feel something unnatural about Lord Rain's attitude when he looks at you——for instance."
Shelfa returned her cup on the saucer with a clack.
He'd been continuously surprising her, but this was the greatest surprise of them all. How had he so precisely seen through something that she'd been trying so hard not to think about?
Yet, the man in question simply continued to eat his egg sandwich while looking as disgruntled as ever……and he was so calm about it that it was almost annoying.
"You……know about that?"
Shelfa had become completely overtaken by Gunther's pace.
"Well, I've had many opportunities to watch the both of you from close by."
——He poured more black tea into his cup and brought it to his lips, sugarless, with an expression that seemed to say that he actually didn't care about it at all.
He really didn't seem to care whether Shelfa talked to him about it or not. He looked like he was simply having a snack and would leave as soon as he was done eating.
But that was naturally not the case.
He wouldn't be here in the first place if he was truly indifferent. Shelfa gingerly placed a hand on her chest and indecisively opened her lips.
If it's him……it might be okay to ask him for some advice.
"Um……I wouldn't say that I'm worried or anything, but……. I realize that he's done this ever since we'd first met now that I think about it, but Rain occasionally looks at me with a mystified look on his face. I only confirmed this recently……while he trained me in sword skills a little while back. In any case, it's been bothering me a little. I wonder why he looks at me like that?"
"What do you think?"
"……I don't know. But, Rain seems to feel that there's something inexplicable about me, and I'm worried that there might be something wrong with me. Come to think of it, Father was cold to me as well……. Also, and this is another worry I've developed recently, I don't want this something about me to cause Rain to——"
Shelfa's voice grew feebler and feebler until she was finally looking down in silence. All of the helplessness that she felt after purposely confronting the fears that she normally tried to turn away from had piled up too high for her to bear.
If that ever happened, I'd absolutely never be able to endure it……
So please, god.
It's all right if anyone else despises me or ignores me.
So please, only Rain, I don't want Rain to——
"——Hate you. Is that how it is?"
Her heart skipped a beat.
When she looked up in surprise, she saw that Gunther hadn't actually read her thoughts or anything and was simply talking quietly while looking out the window.
His words just now had been a response to the what Shelfa had said earlier.
"Lord Rain had begun to notice a secret about you that you yourself have no knowledge of. I'm sure this "something" about you bothers you as well, but what you're truly afraid of isn't the details of this secret. No, it's not as though you aren't afraid of it at all, per se, but your greatest fear lies elsewhere. Am I wrong?"
"……It is just as you say."
She nodded gently.
Shelfa hugged herself in an attempt to stop her shoulders —her body— from trembling and voiced her assent.
"Yes……I am scared. I don't know what the truth about me is, and I don't want to know it either. I am myself……nothing more and nothing less. But——"
I'm scared that Rain will hate me because of this "something" that I have no knowledge about…… I'm scared he'll avoid me…… So, so scared.
She whispered, as if in confession.
A sigh that seemed to diminish her body escaped her, perhaps because she had finally let out the apprehensions that she'd been trying to suppress as of late.
"Have another cup of tea."
Shelfa lowered her head a little at the warmth she felt from Gunther's consideration, though his expression hadn't changed in the slightest.
She obediently cradled her cup in her hands.
She looked down and peered at her teary reflection on the rippling surface of the tea.
"let's say Lord Rain said that he saw a phoenix at the corner of the street just now. ——Would you believe him? Would you acknowledge that the fantastical bird, said only to be a legend, truly appeared as he said it had? What about if someone else made the same exact testimony?"
There was no hesitation in Shelfa's response.
"……I would likely have my doubts if someone else said that. But I'd believe without a doubt that a phoenix was really there if Rain declared that it was. I would accept the fact that a phoenix had appeared at the corner of the road as the truth. I wouldn't even consider doubting it,"
she declared confidently with her head held high.
"And you are confident about this?"
She nodded deeply.
"Yes. As long as he was being serious and wasn't joking around, I would never doubt Rain. This is true of anything, not just the phoenix."
His sullen visage broke out into a very small smile.
His usual grim countenance returned soon and Gunther caught Shelfa squarely in his gaze.
"I don't understand. If that's the case, then the conclusion should already be clear. If you trust in Lord Rain so much, why are you unable to carry your trust through to the end?"
Shelfa opened her large eyes as wide as they would go and balled up her small hands on the table.
She had understood what Gunther was trying to say.
And, at the same time, she felt as if he'd hit the bullseye.
"I have yet to hear anything about this mystery concerning you from Lord Rain. However, I also know that his attitude will not change much even if such a thing truly exists. I know this without even having to guess,"
Gunther said bluntly as he elegantly sipped his tea in utter silence. It wasn't that he was being particularly cold or anything, but that this was simply how he normally talked.
"……I had thought that I was the one who trusted Rain more than anyone else in the world, but now I wonder if I was simply being conceited."
Shelfa grew more embarrassed by the moment and her cheeks burned bright red.
Her heart stung upon having Gunther point this out. She had received a greater shock than she's realized.
"Your heart simply grew clouded because of your strong feelings for Lord Rain……that's all it was. There is no need for you to worry too seriously over it. You simply need to correct any mistakes that you can. No matter what happens in the future, no matter what truths become evident, you have at minimum two allies, including Lord Rain, who'll stand by you. Well, you'll likely have more, but I unfortunately can't speak for anyone else as I'm merely an ordinary person."
This was the first time Shelfa had heard Gunther speak so much at once.
"I'll have "two" allies……you say."
She somehow stopped herself from crying and managed to show him a smile, or so she thought.
He's a little similar to Rain……the way they're both kind but so awkward about it.
Gunther ate the remaining bread with his usually sour mien and nodded after he washed it down with some tea.
In perfect monotone, he added,
"your other ally is an unsociable and uninteresting character, so you may think of him as simply an annex to Lord Rain. ——Now then, it's about time."
Gunther suddenly stood up from his seat.
His actions were decisive, without even the slightest hint of lingering memory or attachment.
"If you'll please excuse me, I must go and greet my master at the castle gates."
"Oh, I'll go with you!"
Shelfa ran after Gunther's back when he promptly left after speaking his peace.
The uneasiness in her heart had completely disappeared at some point before she realized it.
——The brief tea party she had shared with Gunther today held great meaning for Shelfa.
She felt that she finally understood……why Rain had appointed the unsociable man to his current post and gave him his utmost trust.
Meanwhile, Sayle and the others had spent a night in the same castle.
A co~ld stone floor with iron bars in front of them. Interrogation so harsh it made them cough up blood that lasted for several hours, and a prison guard with sharp eyes who wandered about for no real reason to finish the picture.
——The reality of the situation was a happy miscalculation for someone who had imagined he'd find himself in his self-depicted 'dungeons'. He was actually locked up in a much nicer room than he'd ever imagined. They weren't even in the basements, for starters. They were in a completely normal guestroom on one of the upper floors of the castle.
All the tension had left his body upon seeing how unexpectedly good their reception was.
Well, most of Sayle's tension had already left him by the point he had realized that Rain had no intentions of harming them.
Moreover, the guestroom was actually more of a saloon than a room, and three bedrooms had been properly prepared for them in advance. They were being treated so nicely that Sayle almost wanted to tell his captors that they didn't need to go out of their way to prepare three separate bedrooms, as Junna would be staying with him anyway.
And so, Sayle was sipping away at the coffee he was provided with while lounging on a sofa with Junna without even the slightest hint of worry —he was rather at ease at the moment. His face suggested that he was completely in "relaxation mode".
If a stranger had seen him, they would have thought that Sayle was on vacation.
To put it bluntly, his was not the attitude of a prisoner of war who had recently been taken captive. One could say that he'd gotten used to his environment rather quickly. Being able to sleep anywhere (getting used to a place) was one of Sayle's greatest specialties.
However, one of the three comrades still acted the proper prisoner.
The sole prisoner-like prisoner of the three……Shing, in other words, was acting like the very definition of a prisoner in Sayle's eyes and was still wandering around the room in irritation, taking the time to inspect everything whenever he had the chance (in order to find a way to escape), and cursed at least once every twenty steps.
Sayle was secretly impressed because, according to his bored observations, Shing would say either, "Shit!" or "How can this be?!" and stomp on the floor after every seventh cycle he made around the room.
He kinda has really great rhythm?
Shing, whose junior was respecting something totally stupid about him, had circled the room eighty-six times (Sayle was counting out of sheer boredom) before he finally snapped and turned to Sayle and Junna.
"S, Sir Sayle! It troubles me that you're so calm about this! Won't you try to think up of ways to escape too!?"
Sayle laughed~ and scratched his head, but settled on a more serious expression after seeing the look on Shing's face. He continued,
"this place looks like a normal room at a first glance, and I'm not saying that it isn't one, but there's actually a magical barrier set up inside it. And so, it won't be easy for us to escape……or actually, it's probably straight up impossible~?"
"B, but there's a window here!"
Shing stabbed his finger at the window beside him. He continued,
"this is the third floor, but——. If we break the window, we can tie some sheets together and make our way to the ground to flee!"
"Yeah, that won't work."
Sayle readily rejected the plan and waved his hands no. He continued,
"you probably don't understand, Mr. Shing. Defensive magic was applied to this entire room, which means that the window will be sturdier than storm crystals, which are said to be the hardest minerals in the world. It won't be possible to break, at all. Absolutely not."
——Are you serious?
Shing didn't say the words out loud, but they were written plainly on his face.
He looked like he meant to personally put Sayle's words to the test.
He walked up to the table in long strides as a deep furrow appeared in between his brows and picked up a chair. He even ran up to the window before throwing the chair at it in hearty fashion.
By the time Sayle thought he had heard a strange noise, the heavy chair was repelled by the seemingly thin glass and bounced back to hit Shing squarely on the shoulder.
Shing scowled as he pressed down on his shoulder and staggered.
There was not even a single crack in the window glass.
It took Sayle everything he had to keep himself from bursting into laughter.
His sister was even looking at the floor with her shoulders shaking.
"D, damn you!"
Shing sprang back up and began cursing again.
When he was done, he walked up to Sayle, who was lounging about again, and said,
"then what about the door!? Perhaps if all three of us physically slammed into it?! Or, what about magic? You can use magic as long as you chant the spells even if you don't have a staff——"
"Like I've been saying, it won't work."
Sayle cut the other man off even as he felt bad doing it. He continued,
"it's true that it's possible to use magic without a staff, since staves are only there to provide better direction for the spell, but… In any case, let me demonstrate for you. I think it'll be faster. ——Junna, can you put up a shield spell? I'll attack with magic."
Sayle smiled at Junna's cute reply, stood up, and began chanting a spell in a low voice.
He casually stuck out his hand once his spell was completed.
Sayle ignored Shing's wide-eyed attempt to stop him and mumbled,
An incandescent ball of fire shot out of Sayle's hand and rushed forward, scattering orange light all around the room.
It crashed directly into the door and caused a large explosion.
——Or at least, that's what it'd looked like.
The wooden door only changed a little in color as it easily repelled the attack.
The ball of fire bounced back uselessly and scattered a few flames of various sizes across the room as if someone had thrown a bucket of water on it. Naturally, the flames spread toward Sayle and the others as well.
Junna's shield came up just as Shing braced himself. The flames hit against the transparent defensive wall and dispersed lifelessly.
"It, it'll cause a fire!"
When Shing wailed, Sayle, who'd quickly sat back down, calmly pointed out,
"——it won't. Look, the fire's already going away."
Just as Sayle had assured, the fire, which had initially looked like it would spread out and set everything ablaze, promptly faded away. There wasn't even a single burn on even the carpet or the table. He continued,
"see? This is the barrier's power. This is my first time seeing one so strong that it covers even the inside of the room, too. The only things that are breakable in this room are the food and drink they bring in for us, and, well, us. This room would probably be completely fine even if an earthquake happened and the rest of the castle collapsed. Hahaha!"
Sayle laughed in a relaxed manner.
Shing shook his head, exasperated, and sank down into the sofa opposite of Sayle.
Still, he stubbornly continued,
"can this……barrier thing not be broken even with Miss Junna's magic?"
"Ye~ah, that'd still be difficult in our current situation. Not unless my sister's snapped——never mind, ignore that."
Sayle shook his head in a hurry.
Besides, he doubted Junna could break the barrier here even if she was in that state.
"The strength of a defensive barrier depends on the magical might of its caster. In other words, it's impossible to break through the barrier here unless we have the same amount of magical power as Mr. Rain, who's probably the one who set it up. And unfortunately, he's super first-rate."
"Is that so……?"
Shing's shoulders finally slumped down. He had no choice but to accept the situation now that he'd heard all of that.
Sayle fell silent for a while because he felt bad for Shing until the latter began to whisper something again.
When he inadvertently listed in——
"……Even if we don't stand a chance, there's still Lord Joe. There's no way that even Sir Rain can beat him. After all, he's…"
Shing made a sudden realization after saying that much and snapped his mouth shut. He even clamped his hand over his mouth as he cautiously looked up.
Sayle smiled as he nodded back.
"It's okay. My sister and I both know about Lord Joe's real identity."
"……Eh? Oh, you do? I only made the decision to ask Lord Joe about it just the other day."
Shing looked rather surprised.
Well, Sayle couldn't blame him for it.
Sayle was still basically a newcomer when compared to Shing, who'd been in active service for a very long time.
"Well… I'm a bit of the curious type. I asked him about it before because I figured I had nothing to lose anyway, and he told me pretty readily."
Ahaha~, he laughed again. He continued,
"he did make sure to tell me not to tell anyone, though. Incidentally, the only people who know are me, my sister, Her Majesty, and you, Mr. Shing. Then again, it's not like anyone'll find out unless someone explicitly tells them. He looks the way he does, after all. It's a bit of a stretch to figure out that he's an actual living legend."
"Yes, it's exactly as you say……"
Shing smiled a little too, strung along by the mood.
"I understand why Lord Joe decided to confide in you. You have an air about you that really puts people at ease, Sir Sayle. I suppose it's another one of your personal virtues."
"What are you talking about?"
Sayle grew vaguely embarrassed and tried to hide it by smiling excessively.
Intending to return the conversation to the original topic at hand, he said,
"anyway, I know about Lord Joe's real identity and personal history……but I wonder why? Mr. Rain is quite the guy himself, as far as I could tell from when we fought, you know? How should I put this——"
He paused to think for a bit.
He couldn't think up of an adequate way to describe him.
Still, Shing urged him to continue, so he simply said what came to his mind.
"When I was evading his attacks, he moved basically at the same time as I did, and in the same exact direction too. He was probably reading my movements ahead of time from the slightest movements of my muscles……but his battle sense really surprised me. I can't help but respect him. Like, he's on a completely different dimension than me? I guess geniuses really do exist. Junna wasn't the only one."
"I'm nothing special, you know?"
Junna, the genius mage, immediately protested from beside him. She continued,
"besides, you subconsciously held back because he was injured, brother. So I don't think there's really a reason for you to be so disappointed in yourself."
Um~, yeah, sure.
So that's how you decided to internalize it, huh?
Sayle chuckled and didn't go out of his way to correct her. Junna always evaluated her older brother with the benefit of favoritism to begin with. Even if he'd told her the truth and said, "no, I actually didn't stand a chance against him," she wouldn't have believed him.
Then, Shing, ever Joe's fanatic supporter, stubbornly argued,
"still, there's absolutely no way that he could ever defeat Lord Joe. After all, the Grand General is true, bonafide hero!"
Shing puffed up his chest as he spoke, his tone of voice daring anyone to refute him.
Sayle didn't argue.
After all, the latter half of what Shing had said was in fact true.
But——this he could declare: Sayle thought that Rain had a quality about him that wouldn't fall short of even a "real hero". Though, the man in question probably didn't have any intention of becoming anything like a hero, much less have any interest in it.
But anyhow, they might have missed the point when the conversation turned into a debate about heroes.
"I'm actually more interested in how Mr. Rain immediately pushed the other guy out of the way. He prioritized saving someone else over his own safety in a life-or-death situation. ……If he'd prioritized himself first, he would have never gotten hurt in the first place."
Sayle stopped talking when he saw Shing looking dubious.
Now that he thought about it, Shing had still been unconscious when Rain had argued with the oily-faced man.
"Anyway, let's just stop talking about this."
Sayle readily ended the conversation and grimaced. He continued,
"by the way, we have a bigger problem than escaping this room or talking about heroics. Do you know what it is?"
"……A bigger problem than escaping? Hmm?"
"We need a bath!!"
Sayle slapped his knee. He continued,
"Junna's hair is starting to lose a little of its shine. We have to let her bathe soon! It's so sad that she has to go for so long without a bath when she's a girl!"
Junna promptly nodded as if to say that Sayle had hit the nail on the head. She had been toying with her hair for some time now, so a bath was likely on her mind as well.
Shing, however, visibly grew exhausted and looked like he wanted to ask Sayle what the hell he was talking about.
"Hey, you were about to make fun of me, weren't you, Mr. Shing! Mr. Shing, are you saying that it's okay for Junna not to be able to take a bath? You're saying that it's okay that she has to keep on the same panties because she doesn't even have a change of underwear, aren't you!"
"Wh, why are you being so extreme all of a sudden?!"
Shing panicked, oblivious to the fact that Sayle was just teasing him. Junna blushed.
And, just as Sayle was about to mess around with Shing some more, someone knocked on the door so hard it sounded like they were punching it.
The two men quickly stopped moving and exchanged looks.
Shing's face suddenly lit up.
"I know! If we attack the guy who brings us our meals——"
"Yo, how're you guys doing?!"
Rain unlocked the door and opened it before Shing could finish his proposal.
Sayle shrugged in an exaggerated manner and was about to ask, "You really want to attack him?"……but…
His words trailed off before he could finish them.
Ooh, I got to see something nice!
That was the first thing that popped up in his mind.
A single girl was accompanying Rain and was hiding in his shadow.
She's……the Princess, most likely.
Her long, long blonde hair glistened as lavishly as jewels. She was still young, but her facial features were distinct and even made her look like an actual work of art. Moreover, her gradated azure eyes, characteristic of Sunkwoll nobility, were beautiful.
Sayle had never seen anyone other than Junna who's eyes shone with such pure light.
The Princess, who donned a white dress, bowed a little out of embarrassment when she noticed Sayle's gaze.
Whoa, I might want to marry her!?
"Ahem~, sorry to bother you while you're spacing out, but I need you two to listen to what I have to say."
Sayle finally returned to his senses after Rain called him out.
He stood up in a hurry and bowed toward them……or rather, toward the Princess. Shing followed suit in a panic, looking like he too had only just now realized what was going on.
"Oh, how admirable of you."
……No, we weren't bowing to you.
Sayle wanted to complain, but he realized that Rain was probably just teasing them.
Rain had a towel draped around his neck and looked to be in a rather great mood. Both the Princess' and Rain's hair were damp, as if they gotten out of the baths just a moment ago.
Wait……did they both take a bath at the same time?
Sayle shook his head to clear away the "naughty idea" that entered his brain.
After all, there was no way that was true.
"What I have to say is simple enough. We're going to depart tomorrow afternoon, which is a little earlier than planned. I'm just here to tell you guys not to do something unnecessary that'll make more work for me……stuff like that. You know what I mean? There's no point in trying to escape."
"That's cool and all, but…"
Sayle quickly looked to his sister, who was clinging to his arm, and said,
"please let my sister use the baths. Oh, us too, if it's possible. I like baths."
Junna tugged at his clothes and continued,
"……You heard her. By the way, I'm pretty hungry too."
Sayle nodded after he said his piece, causing Rain to lightly growl,
"you should be thankful I didn't take your heads or anything. You guys are pretty shameless for prisoners, aren't you?"
"Haha……. I guess we are. So, is that a no for the baths then?"
Junna looked tremendously sad and stared hard at Rain as soon as the words left Sayle's mouth.
Rain scowled and said,
"fine, baths and food, right? I'll arrange for that. But in return, you're going to the baths one person at a time."
Rain sighed out his consent before looking serious again. He narrowed his eyes and looked at Sayle's group. He continued,
"and, like I said earlier, don't cause me any problems. I'll be departing too, but I'm making sure to leave behind someone who can definitely restrain you guys."
He promptly turned around as soon as he finished saying his piece.
The Princess turned back around as Rain did.
"Please take care. I'll be praying for your safety. ——I hope that things will go the way you plan."
Sayle saw Shing looking surprised out of the corner of his eye as he briskly lowered his head. Rain stared back at him.
After looking like he was pondering over something for a short while, he nonchalantly said,
"……I hear that you call Joe a "God-General" back in Chandrys. It's reckless to fight him because he's someone who can stand shoulder to shoulder with the hero from ancient times in terms of ability. ——Is that what you're trying to say?"
No, that's not what I——
Sayle had a flash of realization as he shook his head to deny Rain's question.
He's making a clear 'query' right now. He's inviting me to "confess if I know the truth" under the guise of nonchalance.
Sayle knew what Rain was doing, but decided to play along anyway.
"That's not what I meant to say, but it's true that I want you to be careful. ……And, going off of what you just said, I'm guessing that you know about the war between daemons and humans that happened a long time ago?"
"I'm pretty sure it's harder to find someone who doesn't…… There are a lot of legends and stories about it after all. And, despite it all, we still don't have an established theory about where the daemons came from."
Rain flashed a grin.
It was as if he was trying to egg them on to keep talking.
Shing looked flustered and repeatedly made a sign that said, "it's bad to be talking about this," but there was nothing Sayle could do about it since he'd already gone ahead and played along.
Rain continued speaking in a tone that sounded only like he was making idle chatter.
"the only people who really know what happened in that war are probably those who are a part of super long-lived races, like elves and mythical beasts. But, not only do those races not interact with humans, all of the all-important witnesses refuse to speak out. In other words, the fact that some mess of a war took place between daemons and humans was passed down through legends, but there are only a few people who actually know the truth behind it. ——Isn't that so?"
Yeah, he's one of those people who have doubts about the "Holy War"……. Rain's words had made Sayle sure of this.
However, this discovery wasn't what he wanted to talk about at the moment.
"——It certainly is. Still, the fact that the hero Joe Jervael participated in the war against the daemons is true. Even if the particulars about his legend are somethings wrong."
Rain laughed in scorn. He continued,
"I'm sure a warrior of the name existed at some point. In fact, there's a deep-rooted rumor among the masses that claim that my comrade's, Ralphus', bloodline "descends directly from Joe Jervael". Ralphus just smiles and denies it, of course, since "Jervael" isn't a rare surname."
"I see, so such a rumor existed……. And according to the legends whispered on the streets, Joe Jervael was a hero with golden hair and blue eyes, too."
"Right. There are a lot of rumors concerning the origins of Sunkwoll nobility. There's one rumor that claims that they're clans with elven blood in their veins, but there are also secret whispers that say that the nobility are descendants of the same few-numbered race of ancient times as Joe Jervael. No one knows for sure which one is true."
Rain spoke perfectly normally, despite that Princess Shelfa, someone who the topic revolved around and was a noble among the nobility, was right beside him.
But the princess in question didn't seem to mind and was listening fervently to everything Rain had to say. In other words, she surprisingly might not have known about her own lineage. Sayle had heard that Princess Shelfa was shunned by her father, King Douglas. She had essentially grown up under a state of house arrest. That was likely due to her father's attitude.
Sayle felt pity for the princess as he returned to the conversation.
"Thank you for teaching me about that, but I actually wanted to talk about the hero himself. Even you would say that the hero is a far superior warrior than yourself, right? Lord Joe is someone who wouldn't fall short of the hero."
"I don't give a crap about stuff that happened way before I was born. Besides, I, for one, doubt that the hero was even as strong as the rumors say. The legends are overrated. And there are times when they're re-written after the fact in order to make them sound more convenient."
Sayle heard Shing take in a deep breath and whispered in the latter's ear in a hurry. He was positive that Shing would start yelling if left alone.
"Mr. Shing, Mr. Rain is saying that on purpose! He's trying to bait us. He's intentionally wording things that way so he can see how we react."
Shing looked at him in sudden surprise.
But, Sayle felt that he might have been too late.
Rain was looking at them with a look of comprehension on his face while stroking his chin.
Sayle had only meant to give Rain a little meddlesome warning out of concern, though not necessarily only because he had been kind to them. Yet, he felt like the latter had ended up taking full advantage of it. Or rather, Rain already seemed to have had a general idea of the truth to begin with.
Sayle thought that Rain was quite the sharp person.
I'm pretty sure that he's not just a warrior, but a tactician too. Only a very few people in the world possess both qualities.
Sayle smiled at Rain as if he was addressing a close friend.
"……I just wanted to warn you that you won't be able to beat Lord Joe as easily as how you beat us. So please, do be careful. If it's possible, I hope that, like you've planned, you'll be able to avoid fighting and both you and Lord Joe remain safe."
Rain laughed a little in exasperation.
"You're pretty strange. But your words are wasted on me. I think you should be more concerned for Joe instead."
"Excuse me, but the Grand General——"
Sayle forcefully stopped Shing from speaking midway through his sentence and gently replied to Rain,
"then please do your best. Please try to avoid fighting if its possible. ……I'll believe in you and will be waiting here patiently for your triumphant return."
Rain simply shrugged and moved to leave the room.
The Princess was about to follow him out, but——
She turned around just before she left and curtsied.
"I apologize for the inconvenience. I will be unable to attend to you because I will be accompanying Rain, but please enjoy your stay……"
Normally, he would have wanted to shout back, "Are you trying to be sarcastic!? Why would you tell a prisoner to enjoy his stay?" but he could tell that the girl before him was being wholly sincere.
The Princess was treating them as guests, almost as if she wasn't aware that they were actually prisoners of war.
Sure enough, no one took her words as sarcasm and the three of them, including Sayle, who had quickly sat back down, reflexively returned her bow. Shing even blurted out, "N, not at all, we're the ones who must apologize for being a burden——" in a feverish haste and almost made Sayle burst out in laughter again.
However, the smile quickly vanished from Sayle's face.
(When she said she was accompanying Mr. Rain, did she mean that she's departing for the front with him……?)
Rain peered down at Shelfa's face after he closed the door with a bang.
"……Accompanying me, you say?"
"Yes. Please, Rain……won't you listen to my selfish request?"
How should he put it…… Rain found himself a little hard-pressed for words because Shelfa was looking at him directly while looking like she had been brooding over something for an incredibly long time. He felt like she would start crying if he said that she couldn't come with him.
"I beg of you!"
Rain didn't think Shelfa thought that she had seen any hopes of convincing otherwise, but there was still another layer of zeal added to her pleas anyway. She grasped his hands with both of her small and sweaty ones and drew closer to him.
Rain searched for any presences in the area in a hurry and found that no one seemed to be close by. Everyone was likely tired and had decided to rest a little earlier than usual.
"There's the fact that I'll be lonely without you, of course, but it also hurts that I'm always leaving everything to you. I feel so terrible about it. So please……"
Rain smiled wryly as he caved and placed his hand over Shelfa's cheek and hair.
"Alright. Besides, you're the master here. There's nothing I can do if that's what you want."
"I'm so glad……"
Rain had been a li~ttle sarcastic with his words, but it had flown completely over her head. She was evidently incapable of sensing any sort of ill will in his words.
Rain was a little troubled at how to react to this because he knew that even she wouldn't have listened to his words so obediently if they had been spoken by anyone else.
Still, Shelfa started to hug him in all smiles and joy without the slightest hint of hesitation. She had already forgotten to be careful about her actions. She probably thought that everything was okay since Rain was sensitive to the presence of other people.
Moreover, she lowered her long eyelashes and whispered,
"a life where you're always right by my side, Rain, no matter when or where……. That's the kind of life I dream about."
——It's dangerous to say something like that, isn't it!?
Rain wanted to voice his thoughts out loud.
But he somehow missed his chance to do so.
It could have been because he thought that, in the end, there was no way he could win against Shelfa's purity.
Rain smiled and gently peeled Shelfa off of himself. He stroked her white cheeks while staring deep into her face.
"You're looking good today. Well, you're as beautiful as you always are, but you've been bottling something up inside of yourself recently, no? I was getting a little worried. ……But it looks like you've already resolved whatever it was. You look real good today. Yep, you're a beauty as usual."
Shelfa looked back at him as if she was a little surprised and then abruptly began to tear up for some reason.
"Wh, what is it? What's wrong?"
Shelfa buried her face in Rain's chest again as he remained dumbfounded and whispered,
"it's nothing, nothing at all——. Rain……I love you so much."
The next day, Rain's army of three thousand, which had somewhat managed to replenish their numbers, gathered in the plaza in front of the castle gates. They were about to head north at full speed in order to convene with their allied army, Ralphus'.
Naturally, Selphie and Yuri, the ever-close pair of friends, were among their number.
Unlike Selphie, Yuri was originally supposed to be working under Leni's supervision, but she had gradually come to be placed under Rain's direct control because she was always loitering around him. Leni could have admonished her to put her back in place, but his kind personality kept him from being able to call her out too harshly.
And so, the two of them were chatting, as always, in a hidden corner of the plaza while they awaited Rain's arrival. Kris was with them for some reason and was eating bread out of Selphie's hands. Yuri, who was drinking wine in the morning while hiding behind Kris' large torso, of all things, was giving her companions a side-eye as if she was making fun of them. It needn't be said that she hadn't the slightest intention of feeding Kris herself. Rather, she was patiently waiting for the chance to snatch Kris' food away. She still hadn't forgotten how Kris had stolen her food (though it was actually Leni's) a while back.
"Hey Selphiee, you should stop giving him so much food already. Now he's gone and made it a habit to come to you whenever anything happens."
"It's fine, isn't it? I'm only giving him some bread."
Selphie beamed as she gave Kris the last piece of bread and let him drink black tea, which she had brought a lot of, out of her leather canteen. Kris was drinking it ravenously and narrowed his eyes.
The horse probably ate and drank anything.
Kris nuzzled his moist nose up again Selphie's cheek after he was done eating as if he was saying, "Man, that was good. Feed me agaain~"
"Teehee…… You're very welcome. Please let me fly in the sky with you sometime if you feel up to it, okay?"
Yuri choked on her wine.
"Huh? What the heck? Do you seriously believe in the rumor that Kris is a pegasus!?"
"I do~. I mean, a lot of people say it's true, including Captain Leni. And besides, Kris ran down a vertical cliff in the last battle, didn't he? A normal horse can't do that. Plus, he eats everything."
"Uh……no, I'm pretty sure that last one has absolutely nothing to do with pegasi. But yeah, I guess it was weird."
The two girls happened to observe Kris at the same time.
The horse, however, blatantly looked away and looked around with a bla~nk look in his eyes, as if he was just the everyday farm horse. He was "looking into the distance," as the saying goes.
It seemed to Selphie that he was nonchalantly asserting, "I'm just a normal horse and I don't have any idea what you're talking about." He even let out a huge yawn that smelled like black tea.
It all looked like a barefaced charade in Selphie's eyes. Still, Yuri seemed to think that Kris was just your everyday dumb horse and readily said,
"can't it be explained this way? The Geeneral put some kind of trick on Kris' legs."
"Eh~, but what kind of trick would that bee? That isn't really much of an explanation~"
Selphie refuted in all seriousness.
Hard pressed to respond, Yuri quickly changed the topic instead.
"Well, I wouldn't really know about that. ——But more importantly, I forgot to ask you earlier, but what happened on top of the cliff after you stayed behind?"
"Wh, what happened……you say?"
Selphie bashfully looked down.
It's too embarrassing to talk about that even if she's my friend……
Then, a sudden glint appeared in Yuri's eyes.
"Oh my god, something happened, didn't it? C'mon and tell your big sis about it?"
She looked obviously excited as she guzzled down her wine.
Big sis, she says…… I'm pretty sure I'm a year older…
Selphie protested quietly.
Still, she figured that it actually wasn't something to be too embarrassed about and decided to tell her friend about what had happened.
"I asked Lord Rain to……h, hold me. I was so moved~"
This time, the wine that Yuri had been drinking flew a good two meters straight out from her mouth.
The wine was about to hit Kris squarely on the stomach, but the horse used his excellent reflexes to immediately run straight ahead.
Hey, that was gross!
he seemed to say as he glared at Yuri.
Ignoring him, Yuri whispered,
"……does that mean you guys did it outside?"
"N, no, absolutely not!"
Selphie's cheeks burned bright red. She continued,
"besides, what do you mean did we "do it outside"? Why did both of you ask something so similar?!"
"Ohh, so it was just a regular old hug, huh? ……That's boring."
Yuri understood what Selphie had meant at once and went back to looking disinterested.
"hey, what are you yapping on about so loudly?"
Both girls exclaimed together.
Everyone had started staring at them at some point. They stuck out like a sore thumb now that Kris, their wall, had moved away. Moreover, Rain had suddenly appeared and was looking down at them with the Princess not too far behind.
——And he was smiling.
She didn't know about Yuri, but Selphie was extremely embarrassed. Everyone else aside, Rain had superior hearing and had probably heard everything that they had said.
"You two are pretty bold~. We're about to depart for the front with our lives on the line, but here you are, dead drunk and spewing out vulgar stuff one after the other."
Yeah, he definitely heard us.
"I, I'm sho sorry!"
Selphie lowered her head in a hurry and added,
"but I wasn't drinking!"
"S, Selphie! You traitor~~!"
Rain didn't particularly seem to mind. He continued,
"it's good that you two are so composed. ……All that's left is to make sure that bottle of wine wasn't your last."
His words made Selphie's heart skip a beat.
"Um, will this be dangerous?"
Selphie asked without thinking before realizing that she was being rude.
The bold look on Rain's face did not change in the slightest.
"Battle is always dangerous. But this time……let's see, I guess it's a fifty-fifty chance that we'll even be fighting to begin with? In any case, it'd only be dangerous for people on your level. It has nothing to do with me."
If Selphie had heard him say this right after coming from Galfort she would have undoubtedly felt animosity toward his words, but right now she found them to be dependable instead.
This is how Lord Rain is supposed to be!
was what she thought.
And so, she said exactly what she was thinking out loud.
"You're so dependable, Lord Rain…… You're so wonderful……"
Then, the Princess, who had only been looking at Rain's face up until now, suddenly shifted her gaze.
She locked eyes with Selphie, making it the first time that the two of them had observed each other up close.
There was no ill will in the Princess' gaze, despite that her heart was beating furiously. She simply stared at Selphie with a mix of bewilderment and empathy in her eyes.
Her azure eyes were speaking to Selphie voicelessly.
When Selphie nodded ever so slightly in response, the Princess returned a modest smile.
Selphie's mien lit up as she grew jubilant. She began to think that she wanted to sit down and have a proper conversation with the Princess one day. She had never dreamt of such thing before because they were too different in social status, but now she felt that she and the Princess could become great friends……
It was eventually time for Rain to leave Selphie and Yuri so he could organize his troops.
As Selphie watched him leave, she heard the Princess' innocent voice asking Rain a question as she walked alongside him.
Selphie saw her tug on Rain's sleeve and ask,
"Rain, what does it mean to "do it outside"?"
I, I guess you heard us, too.
A great commotion stirred when Rain mounted Kris and surveyed his allies.
Shelfa was seated near him on a matching white horse and had drawn closer to him. In truth, she had wanted to ride on Kris with him, but he had casually vetoed the idea this time.
A great number of people stole glances at the Princess, though, in their defense, they did not know what was going on.
However, their gazes eventually returned to their commander.
Once he had everyone's attention, Rain began to speak and deliberately delivered each and every word with clarity.
"We'll be departing now……but first things first. The Princess will be accompanying us this time."
A tumult spread out amongst the troops like a wave with Rain at its center. The stir was half a result of surprise and a half a result of a sudden uplift in morale as most of the men thought, 'I'll definitely have her see me fight!'
Rain raised his voice in order to speak over them.
"Hey, wait! We don't know if we'll actually end up fighting yet. If all goes well, we might not have to fight at all. But of course, there's still the possibility that's we'll be fighting. Everything depends on the other party. Still, if we do end up fighting——"
Rain cut his words short and ran his gaze through the crowd.
Slowly, he continued,
"——it goes without saying that some of you will die. Even I can't guarantee you that "no one will get hurt and no one will end up dead." Someone will always die when it comes to battle. But you already knew that, right?"
Everyone was listening to him in silence. Most of the soldiers in the army had once been mercenaries, and even if there hadn't, they were commoners who had not grown up living in affluence.
And so, no one raised an objection against Rain's statement.
They all already knew……that death could suddenly befall them no matter how famous the general commanding them was.
Rain nodded to no one in particular……and spoke with a kind look on his face.
"It's all fine and well as long as you understand. ——For now, there's only one thing that I can guarantee."
He waited a beat before he continued in a loud voice that seemed to reach their very souls.
"No battle commanded directly by me shall end in defeat! The battlefield we're about to head to is a victorious one. Know this, and follow me without hesitation! Understand?!!"
Rain thrust his pike toward the heavens as soon as the words had left his mouth.
——And then, everyone responded together as one as they lifted up their own spears.
The battle cry voiced by three thousand officers and soldiers resounded before the gates of Cortecreas Castle.
Their cheers, reminiscent of rampaging lions, were absorbed into the endlessly blue sky. Selphie, who was looking passionately at Rain as she yelled in her cute voice, naturally joined in with everyone, and even Yuri raised up her spear, thought she was a little embarrassed to do so.
No one gathered here held even the slightest hint of doubt at Rain's words. They all felt their morale burning bright and rising exponentially.
And a few minutes later, Rain's unit departed from Cortecreas Castle.