"Shing, Sayle, and Junna——you're telling me that all three of them were captured!?"
That was the first thing that Folnier said after meeting with an express messenger from their home country.
They could not use Magic Vision because they had kept the few mages they had with them, so they had no other choice but to use a fast horse——
It was likely that Folnier hadn't given much consideration to the possibility that Shing and the others could lose.
She was at an uncharacteristic loss for words and her expression was stiff.
However, Joe Lamberck, who was listening next to her, quickly switched gears and confirmed something crucial after confirming that no one else was present in the large tent they were using as a command post.
"In that case, is it all right for us to think that……the three of them are safe?"
"Yessir, there's no doubt about that. All of the soldiers who had temporarily been prisoners of war gave the same report. They appear to have asked to "be allowed to become prisoners as well because they were worried about their commanders." But, Sir Rain, the enemy, replied, "I'll release them once the war is over. I'll take responsibility and promise that, so go back to your country in peace.""
"I see……thank goodness."
Joe sighed before he knew what he was doing. He wore an expression that seemed to suggest that he didn't quite know what kind of face to make as he urged the messenger on and asked for details regarding the "Battle of Dead Valley".
"……Hmmm, that was marvelous. The plan itself wasn't all that complex, but he skillfully kindled our fear and pressed us into a retreat,"
Joe whispered before nodding at the messenger. He continued,
"thank you. You may go back and rest."
The messenger saluted in response, relived because Joe had remained calm, and exited the tent.
Joe did not go out of his way to tell the messenger to keep word about this information to a mum. After all, rumors of their defeat had already spread amongst the soldiers. The rumors hadn't quite reached Folnier's ears yet, but most of the knights had already known about their defeat before the messenger had arrived.
Rumors of this nature spread quickly, but this time, Rain's forces had spread the news on purpose.
He'd only shown off a small glimpse of his skill during the Battle of Dead Valley, but Rain was truly gifted in the art of psychological warfare.
"But why……? What was the reason he needed to capture the three of them alive……?"
Folnier finally opened her mouth after hearing Joe mumbling to himself.
"Isn't it just the silver lining that they are?"
"But of course. However, going off of the messenger's words, Rain seems to have planned his strategy with the intent of capturing them unharmed from the beginning. I cannot see the reasoning behind his doing so."
"……He probably means to keep them as hostages,"
Folnier replied, annoyed.
After all, that was what one would normally think.
But Joe thought otherwise. Rain seemed like an incredibly carefree man on the surface, but he always had an accurate reading of his enemies' intentions. The Battle of Dead Valley had proved this point.
Even if Folnier withdrew temporarily because of the hostages, it was plainly clear that she would challenge them to a rematch quickly afterward. Additionally, she would likely aim to capture hostages from Rain's side in retaliation……
As such, threatening Folnier by using the hostages as shields would not lead to a resolution on a fundamental level.
Rather, it would have the opposite effect in the long run.
Rain should have predicted all of this already.
And this was precisely why they had to be so cautious of the fact that he had purposefully planned to take Shing and the others as hostages anyway.
"Joe, this is bad."
Folnier was walking around the tent in irritation, unaware of the lengthy considerations that were playing out in Joe's mind. She continued,
"we'll have to figure out how to rescue Shing and the others somehow, but before that, there's the fact that our forces have been halved. Replenishing our numbers……will probably take some time."
"Indeed. And they'll be coming for us this time."
He understood what Folnier was trying to say all too well.
In other words——she was saying that, while Shing and the others had been defeated, they hadn't actually suffered many losses.
With that being said, the scattered soldiers wouldn't return to them immediately. Most of their forces served Shing and Sayle directly as their lieges and thus were not under Folnier's direct command. Chandrys was no different from Sunkwoll in this aspect.
Folnier was the empress, but her position could also simply be called "the greatest and most powerful liege lord in Chandrys."
Shing and the other lieges with territory to their name served under her.
It wasn't certain that Sayle's and Shing's men would answer to Folnier's summons when she wasn't their direct liege when their own lieges were in captivity.
Besides, even if the soldiers did answer favorably, it would still take time for all of the troops to gather together again. They would lose their chance to strike even if the order passed through their home country and the soldiers obeyed them immediately. Joe doubted that Rain's side would quietly give them the time to fully reconvene.
Folnier, who acknowledged all of this, stopped walking around the then and turned back to Joe.
"There's nothing we can do about what's already been done. We'll have to think of a way to break through our situation. Joe, what are your thoughts?"
"It depends on what you want to do, Lady Fol."
"Meaning that you must choose between fighting or withdrawing. We'll have to send over a peace treaty posthaste if you wish to withdraw……but do you?"
Folnier sat down on a nearby chair upon hearing Joe's question and silently shook her head.
It was as Joe had expected.
Joe consented and sat down opposite of Folnier on the other side of the table.
Then, he explained to his liege what he thought they should do.
Presently, their main force was spread out around Lydia to put pressure on the capital.
If they wanted to fight Rain, they would first capture Ralphus' unit, who were headed their way, and pursue Rain afterward. In other words, their best strategy was to annihilate their enemies one by one……
"Is that the order you're proposing……? But then, why didn't we do that to begin with? Couldn't we have pursued them instead of stationing ourselves here?"
"I thought that doing so could prove dangerous. Ralphus' unit is small. If we pursued them with our vastly greater numbers, they could have used their mobility against us and escaped to rejoin Rain. If they did, it would have made things more difficult for Shing and the others. But now——"
Joe slowly continued,
"now, they're closer to us than they are to Rain. There is a good chance that we'll be able to capture them."
Joe was only guessing at Ralphus' whereabouts, however. He had sent out scouts, but they had only been able to observe from a certain distance because Ralphus' army was on high alert, as usual.
Folnier looked suspicious as she nodded. She continued,
"since we haven't seen them yet, they've probably stopped marching somewhere to observe our movements…… And we can't leave them be for much longer. I suppose it's just about time."
She passed a pregnant gaze at Joe as she spoke.
It was possible that she had already realized that Joe had taken a passive stance in regards to this war.
Indeed, Joe had intentionally refrained from taking any aggressive measures until now.
It needn't be said that one reason for this was because he was being wary of Rain's clever schemes, but he had another reason as well.
Ever since the war had started, Joe had felt a strange premonition ——or rather, a conviction, that it was "better not to do anything during this war."
Truth be told, after observing Rain's actions, he felt that Rain had not been going out of his way to emerge victorious. If Rain had wanted to corner them into a crushing defeat, the Battle of Dead Valley would have concluded with a greater tragedy.
And yet, upon closer inspection, neither army had suffered many losses. To put another way, Rain was being lenient. He was being soft.
Joe could not bring himself to think it was by mere coincidence.
Just then, Folnier pressed on,
"in any case, now is the time to act."
Her emerald eyes, brimming with aspiration, were already clear of any hesitation or regret.
Moreover, she had the impish grin of someone who had just thought up of the greatest prank.
"Hey, why don't we just go on ahead and occupy Lydia? Would we have enough time?"
"……Time would certainly pose a problem. But more importantly, Rain would ignore us, regroup with Ralphus, raid our capital, Zawoll, and might actually conquer Sadaraan (Chandrys' main castle) if we did. If that happened, we'd realistically be exchanging countries with him……are you all right with that?"
"I am most definitely not,"
Folnier promptly replied with a sour look on her face. She continued,
"that sort of exchange would end in my net loss, wouldn't it?"
She shook her head in extreme distaste before speaking again.
"Wise men……no, tacticians are so difficult to deal with. They come with all sorts of plans to oppose us that I can't even begin to think up of. I'm so glad that I have you with me."
Joe abruptly opened his eyes wide and stared at Folnier.
His liege tilted her head to the side quizzically.
"……What is it?"
"Ralphus' unit…… In the end, they weren't a decoy. ——Am a wrong?"
Shock and comprehension spread across Folnier's countenance.
Indeed, one look at the results of the Battle of Dead Valley told them without a doubt that Rain had predicted that the Chandrys army would pursue him. From the very start, his aim wasn't to capture Sadaraan, but to annihilate the detached force that had broken off of the Chandrys main army.
He had predicted how they would react.
Which meant that, unlike their initial presumptions, Ralphus was not some mere decoy.
Then, just what was Ralphus' role?
"Lady Fol, do you still wish for war no matter what?"
"——But of course."
"Then let us pursue Ralphus posthaste. I have a bad feeling about this."
"All right. Then we should hurry and——"
"Is it true that Junna and the others were captured as prisoners!?"
Zartz suddenly rushed in, pushing aside the piece of cloth that served as the entrance to the command center, and cut Folnier off with his booming voice.
He was considerably shaken, judging by the fact that he had forgotten to greet or salute them. In fact, the panic had already colored his face. He had lowered his head in a hurry upon seeing Folnier, at least, but he showed no signs of having noticed that Joe was present as well. Besides, going off of how he had said, "Junna and the others," his inner turmoil was plain for all to see.
Joe and Folnier exchanged looks and sighed before they knew it.
The sun had begun to set by the time they had explained the current situation to Zartz and left the large tent. Still, they had no time to waste.
They would still have to inform the commanders about their new course of action, even if they wouldn't begin forming battle formations until tomorrow morning. Joe had immediately planned to send out a messenger to summon all of the knight-captains, but——
He saw a fast horse approaching from the distance and furrowed his brows. Only ill-boding news had reached him as of late. In any event, he steeled himself and waited for the messenger.
Upon seeing the knight draw near while parting the sea of their allies, Joe realized that he was the man whom he had ordered to scout out Ralphus' unit.
With barely even a greeting, the messenger promptly whispered certain information in Joe's ears as quickly as he could.
Joe remained silent for a while.
He simply combed through his thoughts without a word and let out a sigh once he arrived at an answer.
And now, I finally understand Rain's objective……he thought.
Zartz interrupted Joe's calm composure before Folnier could.
"What it is, what happened? Was it bad news again!?"
"……I suppose you could say that."
Joe ordered the messenger to fall back with his eyes and informed Folnier and Zartz of the news he had received in a business-like manner.
"Ralphus' unit, which had been encamped at a town along the way, has resumed their advance. The problem lies in their numbers. The scout I dispatched was only able to spy on them from afar, but—"
Joe looked to the other soldiers and lowered his voice.
Folnier urged him on in agitation.
"……Going by what he saw, their current numbers are between eight and nine thousand. In addition, their numbers are increasing rapidly as they continue their march."
Folnier and Zartz exclaimed loudly at the same time. The voices centered the attention of all the soldiers in the area on them.
Joe quickly nodded.
"And yet it's the truth. Their numbers didn't suddenly increase overnight. We've underestimated the man named Ralphus Juliard Jervael a bit too much……it seems."
Joe had instantly understood more information than what he had heard from the scout knight.
Why had their numbers, which had once been a mere two thousand, suddenly increased? It wasn't as if they had convened with another detached force, so where had the numbers come from? It didn't take much thought to reach the answer.
Sunkwoll did not have any reserve soldiers to spare. And, naturally, their numbers hadn't suddenly increased out of thin air. As such, the answer was obvious.
Joe quietly summarized his conjecture and explained it.
Folnier and Zartz's expressions turned astringent as they listened to him speak.
……This will be difficult.
Was what they were probably thinking.
Joe concurred. Moreover, he also clearly understood the all-important point behind this plan that his two companions had yet to realize.
And, this very reason was likely Rain's true objective.
A little before Joe had received the scout's report……Ralphus was speaking quietly to a large crowd of citizens in the plaza of a town that his unit had marched through.
His words were neither difficult nor political in nature.
All he was truly doing was asking them one single favor:
Please, lend me your strength.
"——It was a simple explanation, but this is the current state of our kingdom. We are simultaneously facing both a rebellion and an invasion from another country.
Naturally, the first thing we must do is recover the lands we have lost.
We'll prepare your weapons. All I ask is that you act as dummy soldiers, nothing more. It is our duty as knights to put our lives on the line and fight for real.
You need only accompany us to the battlefield. Our troops will take responsibility if, by chance, our strategy fails. I will personally take responsibility before anyone else!
I have no intention of dragging you to the battlefield just to die. But please, if you still hold hope for this kingdom's future……please lend me your strength……"
Ralphus spoke gently to the people around him and lowered his head a little when he was done.
"It was unmistakably our lack of power that brought about this situation today. I am sorry for causing you all such an inconvenience……"
The citizens who had gathered around the small plaza whispered Ralphus' name. Then, they drew closer to him one by one and began speaking to him without pause.
"I, I have experience serving in the garrison. If you give me a weapon, I'll fight for our kingdom with you, Lord Ralphus!"
Once a robust young man in his prime said his piece first, others came up before Ralphus as though not to be outdone. There were the elderly, women, and children among their number and they all spoke with great fervor.
"I don't have any experience in battle, but I can still use my life to stall the enemy. Please take me with you!"
"I can do that too——"
Ralphus suddenly raised a hand and stopped everyone in their tracks. The hustle and bustle died down at once.
"I'm grateful for your feelings, but it is supposed to be our job as knights to die first."
There was no hesitation in his decisive words.
He surveyed over the crowd, which threatened to speak over him again, with his lake-colored eyes.
"That being said, your lives may fall into danger depending on the situation despite everything I've said. As such, I don't want any of you to overdo it. I'd already be more than grateful if you would simply follow along behind the army."
"——Then, please let me follow you. Even I can do that much."
Somebody's voice suddenly sounded.
It belonged to a single youth who had kept his silence up until now, and he continued with a slightly embarrassed look on his face.
"I've hated nobles all my life until now……but my feelings have changed after seeing you, Lord Ralphus. I'm sure the Princess is a wonderful person too, since you're supporting her——that's honestly what I thought after hearing you speak."
Though he was stammering, the youth managed to finish what he had to say and turned deep red.
"……Are your parents all right with that?"
"My mother passed away the other day, so I'm on my own now."
But I haven't given into despair or anything, the youth declared while looking Ralphus straight in the eye.
He looked like a young, naïve boy at first, but his will was strong.
Ralphus stared deeply back at his eyes for a moment……but he eventually broke out into a smile.
He swiftly extended out his right hand.
"What's your name?"
"……Huh? Oh……erm, it's Johann!"
"Then I'll be in your care, Johann."
Ralphus took the youth's hand before the latter could shy away and shook it.
He didn't mind at all that Johann had grown incredibly flustered.
Many people within the crowd began to laugh naturally——truly naturally, upon seeing this. Their hearts had grown warm after hearing the good-humored way Ralphus had spoken to the youth. There weren't many who hadn't heard of Ralphus' reputation, and his sincere attitude had deeply moved the people anew.
Before anyone knew it, the crowd surrounding Ralphus had grown larger and larger.
Ralphus' subordinates were watching the scene from a short distance from them. Well, Elena had forcefully joined them as well and was sighing little sighs of love.
"Oh! How gallant Lord Ralphus is! I don't know how I feel about him lowering his head before the common folk, but such is the greatness of the man I've decided my heart upon! See how popular he is."
She snapped open her white feathered fan and hid her face behind it.
Then, she wiped dramatically at the tears around her eyes.
Gwen and Nigel, who had stepped away from her, exchanged glances as they watched her antics. And it wasn't because they empathized with her.
Frankly put, their exchange was a sign that they were both repulsed by her and were thinking, 'what nonsense is this woman sprouting?'
They both held deep respect for Ralphus, but Gwen and Nigel were also hardworking commoners.
There was no way they were about to be impressed to tears like Elena was.
"……Well, at least we've got our numbers for now,"
Gwen suddenly whispered, as if he thought he couldn't leave the situation be. He continued,
"ya think our Boss really understands how much influence he has? They'll start fightin' when we get to the battlefield at this rate, if things go poorly."
Nigel, who had been staring at his liege with his arms crossed, cast a quick side eye at his colleague.
For once, he nodded slightly and expressed his concurrence.
"Lord Ralphus always underestimates himself. ……Though it looks like Sir Rain understands this about him all too well."
He shook his head as if to express his exasperation.
Gwen's gigantic eyes widened just a little.
Surprised, he asked,
"oho? Didn't ya dislike Boss Rain?"
It sounded like ya weren't angry at him anymore just now."
"That was a misunderstanding on your part. I don't dislike him."
Nigel turned to Gwen and subtly corrected himself.
"——I'll admit that I did almost dislike him, but I've changed my mind. I've decided to put my faith in him, just as Lord Ralphus does. That's why I'll turn a blind eye to something small like this. ……Plus, there's also the fact that the situation doesn't allow for otherwise."
Nigel allowed a small tint of distress to color his eyes before swiftly turning away.
Gwen's bear-like face lightened up as he broke out into a grin. He gently pat his partner, who still only looked like a slender, effeminate boy, on the latter's slim shoulders.
"That's great! He and our Boss are good friends, all things despite. That's why we gotta believe in him too. ……There's no way that he'd let all the people gathered here suffer. I have faith in him!"
"That is preposterous!"
Gwen aside, even Nigel was surprised when a loud voice cut into their conversation.
Elena, who had inched closer without them noticing, had evidently overheard them talking.
She then began scolding them with stern eyes.
"That is a preposterous misunderstanding, you two! There is no way that all-black commoner is fit to be friends with My Lord! How could you not understand this as his aides?!"
Gwen and Nigel silently exchanged looks.
Naturally, it wasn't because they didn't know who the "all-black commoner" was.
Both Gwen and Nigel agreed that it was actually Elena who wasn't "fit for Lord Ralphus (the Boss)," but they also felt that there would be no point in pointing that out.
After all, she'd only start barking louder.
Eventually, Ralphus returned with great timing as Elena was beginning to quiet down.
"What's going on between the three of you? Let's start preparing to take off soon. We have to march as far we can, even slowly."
Elena promptly ditched the other two and called out to Ralphus in a saccharine tone while clinging onto his arm. She continued,
"please rebuke those two, if you will! They are being imprudent despite being your aides!"
Elena prattled on and on about her claims with great vigor.
Neither Gwen nor Nigel were able to hold back their laughter.
There had to be a limit to how stupid one could be. Elena had made a fundamental misunderstanding of Ralphus despite being so deeply in love with him. Sure enough, Ralphus looked to Elena in fury after hearing all that he had to hear.
"……Elena Felicia Hartoul."
"Wh, what is it?"
Elena stopped in her tracks upon being called by her full name out of nowhere. She blinked her blue eyes quizzically. Not many people failed to correct their posture when Ralphus began speaking to them seriously. Elena was no exception to the rule.
"It seems that you aren't aware, so I'll spell it out clearly for you. Rain is my friend. A very dear one, in fact. I'll have to ask that you refrain from speaking ill about him!"
Elena was rendered speechless by his decisive words. Ralphus untangled his arm from her and looked to her with quiet eyes. He continued,
"……how unfortunate, Elena. It appears that we're fated not to be able to understand one another after all."
The blood swiftly drained from Elena's face.
Ralphus had struck the arrogant noble princess, who refused to budge regardless of what anyone said, in her only weak spot.
Gwen and Nigel exchanged looks again upon seeing Elena stand stock still in a daze.
……This feels like it'll bloom into another uproar later down the road,
they both thought.
After all, the girl named Elena was a girl who seemed skilled at shifting the blame unto others instead of finding honest fault with herself.
And, in this instance, all of the blame would be placed unfairly on Rain……both Gwen and Nigel were sure of this.
——Well, in any case…
Ralphus' call had been answered favorably in this town as well, and the number of people following him had increased yet again.
Their unit, which had drastically increased their numbers (though Ralphus only planned for them to be dummy soldiers), marched toward Lydia slowly but surely.
Meanwhile, the Chandrys army had increased their activities.
They had quickly moved forward with both the reorganization of their troops and the formation of their battle lines and were nearly finished with their battle preparations.
All they had left to do was to begin marching with the coming of dawn. Still……Joe, seeking a quiet place to speak with his liege, invited Folnier out for a walk for once. It was impossible to talk at leisure in the busy camp.
Naturally, no one insisted that Folnier brought an escort to protect herself against the enemy nearby because Joe was accompanying her. Everyone had faith in Joe's abilities.
Joe walked in-line with his liege for a short while.
……He had only just now realized that the fierce winds could be bad for her health. Besides, theirs was only a walk in name, and all they could see were the rustling grasses by their feet and the watch fires of the camp that was now a distance away.
And yet, Folnier seemed to enjoy it nevertheless.
"Haha, this is rare. To think that you'd ask me out on a walk. ——Have you finally awakened to my charms?"
Joe looked back at Folnier in a little bit of surprise.
His liege quickly shrugged in response.
"It was a joke. After all, you're a thickheaded and inconsiderate man, Joe. I'm sure you don't care for me at all."
"You misunderstand me."
Joe glanced at his liege from beside her underneath the unreliable light of the moon.
He felt that she had suddenly said something absurd.
"You are an important figure in my life, Lady Fol. I'm always worrying over you——"
"No, that's not what I was talking about,"
Folnier cut in as she toyed with her blonde hair in irritation. She continued,
"you really are as dull as a mud doll! You should put the effort you put into polishing your sword skills into something else from time to time."
Folnier shook her head and urged him to another topic when Joe tilted his head to the side.
"Well, whatever. I not that old yet. I'll be patient and wait (for what? Joe wondered) since I still have time. More importantly, you had something to say to me, right? I doubt that you seriously only meant to invite me out on a walk. Go on, let's hear what you have to say."
Something about her choice of words tugged at Joe a little.
He couldn't quite put a finger on it, but something about her tone had sounded completely desperate.
It worried Joe a bit, but he decided to put aside investigating into the matter for another time and promptly broke the ice.
"Rain desires for peace."
"——What did you say!?"
She was likely surprised by how sudden his proclamation had been.
Folnier stopped in her tracks for a moment. She adjusted her coat from top to bottom to regain her dignity.
"What do you mean? We've been completely done in by that man, and yet you're telling me he wants peace?"
"It's certainly true that he's done us in……but more people would have died if he had been serious. There was no reason for him to go out to his way to capture Sayle and the others unharmed if his only intentions were to win."
"You say that, but he's still recruiting civilians by the hundreds to increase the size of his army, you know?"
Folnier pointed out sharply instead of replying.
Joe nodded readily as he walked.
"Indeed, the people of this kingdom are flocking to him by the hundreds. ……Do you understand why Rain and his comrades began to gather the people, Lady Fol?"
"Like I said, it's to increase their numbers, is it not?!"
"And yet, you don't seek to avoid battle despite that the tides had changed against us in terms of numbers, Lady Fol. What is that?"
"Why, you ask……the answer's obvious. It's because it's easy to break through an army of ordinary people who aren't even soldiers no matter how large their numbers are."
"Numbers are a form of power. Moreover, that man is the one who is wielding it…… I doubt that things are as simple as they seem. But, well, let's put that aside for now. On the assumption that it'll be as easy as you say it will be, Lady Fol, do you plan on killing the civilians as well when the fighting begins?"
"It's only natural, since they've decided to step onto the battlefield. Even civilians should understand that there are casualties in war even if they aren't soldiers!"
"It is truly just as you've said."
Joe bowed lighted and continued,
"but if you do, it will become difficult to rule this land after you've emerged victorious from the war."
Unrest ran its course across Folnier's visage for the first time during their walk after a brief moment.
She had undoubtedly failed to think that far through.
As if to supplement his liege's thoughts, Joe pointed out,
"most civilians have families. Do you believe their families will follow you obediently even after losing their loved ones to an invader?"
He shook his head sharply and continued before Folnier could answer.
"To be blunt, they will not. It is a completely different matter to when a knight, who's job is to fight, perishes on the battlefield. There were surely be riots……and not only a few. The civilians will resist you to the bitter end. Or, they will pretend to obey you while burning the flames of their hatred in secret…… They will think, "just you wait, dammed invaders!" ——It will be next to impossible to rule over a country in that state."
Folnier had long since stopped walking.
She looked up at Joe, who had also stopped walking, with a stiff expression on her face.
"——Is that what Rain is after?"
"No, I don't believe that he truly intends to get the civilians involved. Which is why I think that this is a warning from Rain. All of his plans up until now……they all contained the same message. He is telling us withdraw before we dig our own graves."
"B, but that's still a dangerous wager, isn't it?! I don't know about Rain, but I've heard that the man named Ralphus is virtuous in character. Will he really partake in a wager that might expose civilians to danger?"
Joe smiled ever so faintly.
He thought that Rain would probably grow angry if heard what Folnier had said. Well, he also felt that there was a chance that Rain surprisingly wouldn't mind.
"Naturally, Ralphus is likely planning to dismiss the volunteer soldiers he gathered if we don't fall back and retreat before the "threat of numbers". However, he is not aware of his own popularity with the people. He underestimates himself too much."
"So, the people won't disperse?"
Folnier asked timidly.
"Indeed, they won't. They will grow concerned for Ralphus, who will head willingly to his death, burn even fiercer in anger against the unreasonable invaders, and will stubbornly continue to march. ……This time, of their own accord, and not because of Ralphus asked them to. There is a possibility that the people, newly determined, will fight as well as a group of soldiers of equivalent numbers."
Folnier fell into silence.
There was hesitation coloring her face, unbecomingly of Joe's normally unyielding liege.
However, after her moment of silence, she spoke up in a tone of half admiration and half annoyance.
"……Did Rain calculate everything that you just told me about? All of it, including Ralphus' miscalculation?"
"Yes, he likely predicted everything from the very start."
And——Joe thought without saying it out loud.
Rain was using this incident to test Folnier, so to speak.
Something along the lines of, "now then, are you worthy of joining hands with us?"
Joe was able to surmise as much after seeing the series of actions that Rain had taken.
Just as they had initially wanted to forge an alliance with Sunkwoll, Sunkwoll had also considered joining hands with them as well. It was what Rain had planned for, at the very least. And now, Rain was moving in accordance to his revised scenario to put his script back on its intended track.
Still, if Folnier refused to give up her fixation on the war and still moved to wrest victory for herself, then Rain would bare his fangs at them for real.
You aren't worth forging an alliance with!
Rain would undoubtedly judge them thus.
However, instead of elucidating all of this to Folnier, Joe simply told her, "It seems that Rain might wish to forge an alliance with us."
"An alliance? He looked completely uninterested in one when we first met."
"That's the kind of shrewd man he is. That much is obvious just from the way he devised a plan as elaborate as this."
Joe gracefully shrugged his shoulders.
If he had to add on to his statement, he'd note that Rain had predicted that Joe would uncover his plans part-way through and would attempt to persuade Folnier out of fighting. Right now, Joe was acting exactly as Rain had wanted him to……regardless of how Joe felt about the situation.
From the depths of his heart, Joe thought that Rain was a man to be feared.
"He is merciless……and he will be a man to be feared should we make an enemy of him. However…"
Joe gazed deeply into Folnier's eyes before he continued,
"there will be no one more reliable than he should we make him our ally."
What will you choose, Lady Fol? I'd be joyed if you chose peace. Because if you don't……than it will be my turn to have to choose.
Just as a liege had the freedom to choose their retainer, a retainer, too, had the freedom to choose their liege.
Joe, too, would have to choose what stance to take on this matter.
Distress colored Folnier's beautiful countenance after a rather long period of time of passed.
"It might be selfish of me, but I don't want to accept defeat so readily. I still don't think that my decision was wrong——that we should feed Zarmine our weaker neighbors as bait."
Joe nodded honestly and continued,
"we still have time. I will await your decision, Lady Fol, until the very last moment poss——"
Joe suddenly broke off his words and looked toward Lydia and pursed his lips.
"There is a dizzyingly large amount of Ekseed……in other words, 'Ki', swirling about inside of Lydia."
"Tell me what that means in words that I can understand."
"My apologies. Allow me to rephrase myself: It seems that the nobles who had holed themselves up inside the capital have begun to move."
"——! Are you serious?!"
Folnier instantaneously regained her unyielding spirit and sharply raised her head. She continued,
"they're preparing for battle——is that what you're saying?"
"By how animated the Ekseed is… I believe that there's no doubt."
"That fool! He should've just stayed huddled up inside the walls of both Lydia and Galfort Castle like a good little boy. He needs to learn his place."
Folnier's lips twisted as her almond eyes flared brilliantly in the night. She continued,
"Rain and Ralphus one thing, but to think I'd allow the likes of Safir to bare his fangs at me! Fine, I'll show you what happens when you bite off more than you can chew!"
Joe looked to his liege with dazzling thoughts.
Folnier certainly had her faults. Yet, she also had the magnanimity to acknowledge them. ——Or so Joe thought she did.
Moreover, and more importantly, Joe believed that her ambition and fighting spirit would be indispensable for the wars that were sure to come.
Folnier, who had quickly and boldly begun walking back to camp, turned back to Joe.
"Joe! What are you doing?! We have to wake the soldiers into action and begin preparing for battle!"
Joe nodded firmly and began following after his liege, who had already starting walking away.