That critical day had passed like a dream.
The musicians' instruments carried a relaxing tune across the large hall. Prominent knights from Sunkwoll and Chandrys were engaged in friendly conversation while they gathered in a hall that could hold a hundred people.
Beautifully dressed noblewomen from Sunkwoll also adorned the hall like flowers.
Only, there was a stiff divide between the two countries that looked difficult to overcome.
Rain thought that there wasn't much that could be done about it, though.
They had more or less been enemies until just recently. Still, men like Sayle, who carried absolutely no ill feelings about the situation, existed, so the day that everyone could see each other as sworn friends would one day come.
Besides, they had finally recovered the capital and returned to Galfort.
The two armies, once on the brink of war, had now joined hands and became one allied army.
Folnier had many runners-up as a ruler, but Rain felt that the way she didn't hold any grudges was a passable virtue of hers that he didn't mind acknowledging her for. After all, she had promptly abandoned her extremely selfish attitude and had become so friendly to them that he could have mistaken her for someone else as soon as Shelfa had readily broken through "Joe's spell".
She had personally said, "I've caused you a lot of trouble. As such, I apologize," as she lowered her head and even went as far as to propose, "From hence forth, I'd like to walk together with you as sworn friends." She had said this all so readily, despite how strongly she usually insisted on having her way.
Perhaps that test had caused Folnier to see Shelfa in a more positive light, if only a little.
"And now——all's good and happy with the world. I guess I'll go back to my room and sleep."
Rain, who had been "wallflowering" in a corner of the hall, whispered words that sounded enigmatic to all who heard them before he downed a glass of wine and surveyed the hall like it had nothing to do with him.
It looked like the boorish knights from Chandrys had finally made their resolve.
Rain saw them begin to tenderly approach the dolled-up Sunkwoll ladies (who were all from the anti-Safir faction, of course) in hopes of a dance here and there in the crowd.
The sight of the squalid upper-class knights shyly taking the women's hands brought a smile to Rain's face. Or rather, he found it outright hilarious. Most of them looked ridiculously out of place.
Well, that aside, it appeared that the ball, which had been organized to deepen the amity between the two countries, would end in a resounding success.
Incidentally, Rain had been the one to propose this and he had christened it,
'the plan to invite anything pretty (the noblewomen) in droves and blow away all of their (his former enemies the Chandrys army's) ill feelings away'
——in his heart.
It was a spectacular plan that would have both sides join hands and quickly deepen their friendship——and he was proud of himself for coming up with it.
The way he had invited loads of Sunkwoll noblewomen was akin to how pretty girls attracted and entertained guests at a tavern. Only, his newfound allies would get angry if he made his ulterior motives obvious by calling it that out in the open, so he had decided to officially call it a simple ball……or something like that.
At any rate, his role was over now that things looked like they would go well.
Then, Folnier and Joe approached him just as he turned around to leave.
Joe was wearing a white outfit made of silk that was more ornate than his usual attire. Folnier, on the other hand, donned a crimson dress, and the two of them stood out quite a bit.
Folnier called out to him.
"Where are you going, Sir Rain? It finally looks like everyone'll get along."
Rain replied with a tone of peerless elegance.
"Indeed. However, I will be taking my leave as I am a militant unsuited for a setting as florid as this. I ask that Your Majesty please relax and enjoy your time."
He then bowed with an air of extreme solemnity, causing Folnier to stare blankly back at him. A beat later, she looked up and roared with laughter.
……As I thought, this one's more a relentless ruler than she is a refined lady.
Or rather, is it really that funny?
"Y, you truly are an amusing man. What's the point of being so polite after all this? There are things that some people are suited for, and things that they aren't. You should talk like you normally do."
"But that simply will not do. We have finally forged an alliance, after all. It is in my humble opinion that I ought to pay Your Majesty some proper respect."
"You can stop."
Folnier wiped away at her moistened eyes and declared,
"you're surprisingly suited for playing the proper knight. But I like the normal you better. I'm already used to it. So please."
"That so? Then yeah, I'll call it quits. As if I'd keep it up while you keep laughing at me, ridiculous."
Rain shrugged sullenly and promptly returned to his usual manner of speech.
He didn't really like being all polite either since it was a pain in the ass.
Joe was currently studying Rain carefully. He continued,
"you always wear the same clothes whether on the battlefield or at a ball. It's quite impressive how far you push through your beliefs."
So he says while looking at someone else's clothes.
Is his trying to get in a snide comment in from the side or something?
Or so Rain thought, but Joe had spoken in all seriousness. He had apparently only said what he truly thought.
"You're still an amateur. This isn't my normal black shirt and pants; it's actually my party outfit that's been made from extremely good fabric. Let me tell you, this stuff ain't cheap,"
Rain said zealously, but Folnier and Joe both flatly said, "It looks the same as always to me," at the same time.
It was only natural that Rain got offended.
"……None of you get it. I'm gonna go back and sleep."
"Now, now, you should wait,"
Folnier said as if she was trying to console him. She continued,
"besides, weren't you waiting here for someone? Will it be all right for you to return to your chambers all by yourself?"
"So you knew. Now then, did the Lit……no, the Princess tell you?"
Folnier nodded with a grin on her face. She continued,
"I heard much about you while I had lunch with her. She was looking forward to tonight's ball as well……it would be terrible of you to stand her up."
"I'm not really the type of person to dance…"
"Oh, don't be like that. It's not too bad every now and then. ……While I'd like to ask you to a dance myself, I've unfortunately already been reserved. I suppose I'll save the fun of dancing with you for another time."
Folnier urged Joe away after one last bewitching glance at Rain.
Rain called out after them quietly once he had finished checking to make sure that no one else was around before they got too far away.
Both lady and servant stopped in sync. It was strangely impressive how they both stopped at exactly the same time.
Joe turned around, composed, and indifferently replied,
"that man is already dead."
"That so? Nothing of that sort was ever recorded in the legends, you know? They only mention all the great services done by Joe Jervael in heaps and bounds. Naturally, they end with the scene of Joe traveling off to somewhere far away after being showered with the tears of many a young maiden."
Joe cleared his throat while Folnier shot a side glance at him.
"Then allow me to rephrase myself: that man is said to have died. I'm sure I don't need to worry about it since this is you we're talking about……but let me ask you not to spread it around too much just in case."
"Rest assured. I don't make it a hobby to poke at other people's secrets, and I'm not here to get your autograph either. There's just something I need to ask you. I'd like to ask you about a bunch of stuff another day, but there's just one question I need to ask for now. You have daemon blood in your veins…… You're at least half daemon. How about it?"
"It's as you say. My mother was a daemon. She's already passed. ……I'm surprised you figured it out."
"Yeah, well, I've met a real daemon before. He had a unique presence to him that I'll never forget. But all things said, you had this somewhat human scent to you, but……yeah. Besides, you used magic without chanting an incantation."
"Can I cut in?"
Folnier interjected. She continued,
"I want to ask you something now that the opportunity's come up. I've only just heard about this from Lady Shelfa, but I hear that you've fought King Leygur in single combat. Are you sure that he was truly as daemon?"
"Without a doubt. Like hell I'd let a human like him exist. To begin with, do you really think any normal person could've survived being stabbed through the heart without croaking? With the Siren's Blade?"
Folnier and Joe exchanged looks in silence.
Eventually, Joe muttered,
"then he's probably an exceptionally strong daemon. At the very least, none of the daemons that I fought long ago were that strong."
"Really?! Then we still have cards to play. I was thinking that, myself aside, everyone else would be in a bit of trouble if guys like him were here in droves."
"That is true. But it'd be a mistake to underestimate the daemons too much."
Joe's voice grew stricter as he continued,
"let me tell you this. Unlike what they say in the legends, the humans in the ancient war didn't——"
"——Didn't emerge victorious against the daemons. That's what you wanted to say. Am I wrong?"
Both Joe and even Folnier opened their eyes wide when Rain finished the former's sentence.
"How would I know about something that happened that long ago? It's just my intuition. Besides, why does everyone only believe in the nicer parts of the legends? That's the bigger mystery to me. If you put a little thought into it, it's obvious that there's no way the daemons would've just been wiped out like that."
To begin with, no one knew for sure when the daemons first appeared on the continent to begin with. It was truly only immediately before the great war that they first appeared in the continent's history.
Joe nodded deeply when Rain brought this up.
"It appears that you were closer to the truth than I'd imagined. In that case, allow me to answer the question you likely want answered the most before you ask. They stopped fighting of their own accord and disappeared off to somewhere. That is the truth of the war that later came to be known as the "Holy War" or the "Hegemonic War"."
"So in other words, you don't know anything at all——about where they went off to, what they're doing there, or even about why they suddenly stopped fighting to begin with?"
"That's how it is, as pathetic as it sounds."
"Then your mother —what about her?"
"……My mother passed away before the great war without telling me much of anything."
"So then……I guess I was off the mark. I'd thought that I'd learn about a lot of things if I asked you."
Rain looked up to the ceiling. With this, I'm back to square one——he thought.
Folnier cut in as if she was trying to mediate.
"In any event, if King Leygur truly is a daemon, then it's possible that he may decide to challenge humanity again on a whim. And so, my question is do you think the people of Zarmine know what he truly is?"
"Probably not yet. But I think it's only a matter of time until they do. He'll probably make himself an opportunity to reveal himself on a grand stage. He'll be all like, "I'm a daemon." And it'll probably happen sometime in the not too distant——"
Rain suddenly cut himself off.
It was because he saw Ralphus approaching with Elena, who had apparently forcefully coiled herself around his arm.
"Well, let's continue this talk another day. It's not like we gathered here today for a war council."
"Indeed. I was just thinking that I wanted the opportunity to speak with you at leisure."
"Ditto to that."
After a friendly smile at Rain, both master and servant turned toward Ralphus and Elena.
They left for real this time after the two parties had exchanged pleasantries. They had probably gone to greet other people. Empresses were quite popular these days.
"What were you talking about? It looked rather serious,"
Ralphus asked with his head tilted to the side.
"Nah, we were just talking about worldly affairs."
Rain glossed over his answer with something that technically wasn't a lie, but couldn't exactly be called the truth either. Elena would throw a fit in he repeated his prior conversation within reach of her ears.
Thus, he quickly changed the topic.
"That aside, they were saying that you two looked good together. They were praising you."
"Y, you, is that true?!"
Elena shouted before Ralphus could say a word. She had looked rather reluctant to Rain and had even turned away from even him, but she evidently couldn't resist responding to his words.
She was enthusiastically letting her voluptuous breasts spill over the red roses embroidered here and there on her white dress. Her attire was something exasperating that people could gossip over for at least three days.
She was the complete opposite of Ralphus, who wore plain and modest white ceremonial clothes.
"Hey, just where do you think you're looking?! Unfortunately for you, I have no desire to make friends with you."
"Thank the gods for that. Please never do. I'm okay with just looking at you since it makes me laugh——but I'd never consider dating you even for a second."
"What did you say?!"
"Enough, Elena. You should get used to the way Rain speaks already. ……He was only teasing you, you know?"
"By, by teasing, do you mean just now or before?"
Both times, probably, Ralphus said, troubled, and turned to Rain to say,
"Elena isn't very used to jokes. Why don't you end it there?"
"She's missing out on some of the best parts of life if she doesn't like jokes. Well, whatever. More importantly, Ralphus. I know this is a bit sudden, but I'm thinking of giving Folnier some gold as a present when she returns home……and I'd like you to be the one to tell her about it."
"That was truly quite sudden."
Ralphus looked exasperated. He continued,
"I don't mind as long as Her Highness has granted you her permission……but why the money?"
"I've already talked things through with the Princess. So basically…"
Rain explained himself as simply as he could so that his friend of a wealthy upbringing could understand.
——All while purposefully whispering it by the latter's ear so that Elena couldn't hear.
"Other than the fact that she's forged an alliance with us, Folnier has nothing to show Chandrys about the results of a war she waged herself. She didn't gain any territory, and neither did she get her hands on any treasure.
There are a lot of people in Chandrys. Which means there are probably at least a few of the narrow-minded sort who can't see things in the long-term. People like that might start complaining about the results in the shadows. And, while I doubt it'd actually happen, it's still entirely plausible that Folnier's approval ratings could drop because of it. That'd be bad for us too, right? Now that we've become sworn allies, we want Folnier to stay popular with her people.
So, I'm saying that we should put some effort into making sure she does. It's not that unnatural to give her money under the pretext of "celebrating our alliance"……and other countries have done it before, too. It'll be like our way of celebrating the alliance, since they were the ones to bring it to the table first. Basically, we'll be creating the "fruits of Folnier's expedition" for her. We'd have to give her a pretty colorful sum of money. But, fortunately, funds are the one thing we have plenty of. ——So, do you approve?"
Rain also told Ralphus the total sum of money he was thinking of presenting. He'd figured that the amount he was suggesting would work out fine.
Ralphus, who had been listening quietly, was deeply impressed as he looked back at Rain.
"……I see. Well, this was something I hadn't even considered. I approve, of course. But why me? Can't you tell Lady Folnier yourself?"
"She——well, a lot of people actually, sees me as something of a tactician. And people are generally cautious when dealing with tacticians."
Rain laughed in self-deprecation and continued,
"let's say I'm the one who tells her. She'd definitely get suspicious. I'm sure Joe'd see through everything anyway, but it'd still be better if you were the one to bring it up. At the very least, your sincerity about it is the real deal."
"I see……I understand."
Ralphus' smile deepened as he gently pat Rain on his arms. He continued,
"but, leaving the past aside, I'm not on guard at all with you right now. I swear this on the heavens."
"I know. That's why we're friends."
Rain said idly as he nonchalantly looked to the entrance. It was hard to say stuff like this with a straight face.
Then, Elena, who had miraculously been docile up until then, finally stirred up a fuss.
"Hold it. What are you two talking about? It's quite nasty how you're only whispering to Lord Ralphus! Just what strange thoughts are you whispering into my beloved Lord's head?!"
Elena squared her shoulders and nodded.
Then, Rain casually said,
"I was telling him my secrets on how to break up with arrogant women with huge tits."
From red to white and back to a furious scarlet. Elena's face changed colors rather magnificently.
Wel~p, I guess I've just made myself another enemy,
Elena never got along with him to begin with, so Rain thought that it was only natural that they were incompatible.
And that was perfectly fine. There were enough people in the continent who hated him that he could probably start lining them up to give out number tickets to. It was about time that Elena joined that list if he put it that way.
Elena was barking curses at him from the side while Ralphus tried to console her. Rain let their voices in through one ear and out the other. Eventually, Ralphus pulled Elena away and left.
Anyway, the Little one's pretty late.
I wonder why women always have to take so long to dress up. She's not changing even her underwear and stuff, right?
That being said, it's not like I've ever seen her wear anything other than white.
Shelfa finally arrived as rude thoughts were running through Rain's head.
She was escorted past the entered by Gazaram, who was on guard duty for the day, and lost no time in finding Rain. She looked straight at him and smiled.
She looked adorable in the snow-white dress that fit well on her slender frame and its frilly skirt. She looked every bit a princess who wouldn't embarrass herself no matter where she presented herself.
Incidentally, Gazaram, who was wearing the same attire he always was, flashed a grin at Rain and stuck up his thumb.
The hell? Rain furrowed his brows as Gazaram, still looking like an old man as ever, lumbered away.
He apparently wasn't going to participate in the ball.
While it was certainly true that most of its participants were nobles, exceptions to that rule, such as Rain, were present as well. He should've just stayed without holding back. Or maybe stuff like this just doesn't suit him……or something like that. It's Gazaram, so that's more likely to be true.
"Hell, it doesn't suit me either. Screw you for running off on your own."
"What are you talking about?"
Shelfa, who had walked elegantly over and stood before him, tilted her head a little to the side.
Each and every strand of her extremely straight long blonde hair followed the movement of her slender neck and glistened luxuriously.
And her large eyes, which seemed to reflect the blue of the sky itself, were so clear that you would lose the words to describe them with if you peered in.
As always, she was so beautiful that she had no need for cosmetics, but she looked especially beautiful today, even in Rain's eyes, perhaps because she had dressed up. It was frightening to think of how beautiful she would grow to be in the future.
"It's nothing. I was just saying how I'm not really suited for events like this. ——Anyway, have you gotten a little bigger? I guess it shouldn't be the case since it's only been a few months?"
"Oh, is that true? It'd be so happy if it is. I'm quite short in stature, after all. I want to hurry and grow up to be a height that's better suited to you, Rain."
No, you're not actually as short as you think you are. And besides, I was actually talking about your breasts.
Rain shook his head and refrained from speaking out loud.
Well, it probably only looks that way because the dress is a bit tight. And more importantly, that's not the kind of thing we should be talking about at a ball.
Their voices wouldn't reach them due to distance, but everyone was catching glimpses of them every now and then. The Chandrys men, in particular, were looking at Shelfa.
It was neither the time nor the place to spurt out things a dingy old man would say even if it was half a joke.
"Well, let's go back to what we were talking about previously. You were the one who said we should hold this ball to begin with, Rain,"
Shelfa said cheerfully without having seemed to notice that Rain had fallen into silence. She continued,
"tonight is quite the special night. Why don't you enjoy yourself too for once, Rain? ……Well?"
Rain looked down sullenly when she grabbed his hand like it was the most natural thing in the world.
Evidently, it's already a clear-cut fact to the Little one that I'll be her dance partner for tonight.
Which means that it'll be impossible for me to carry out my initial plan of "finding a suitable partner and playing the role of an escort".
But I still have one more card left to play.
"……Hey. I just thought of this, but there are too many curious eyes staring at us here. Why don't we slip out and dance somewhere else?"
Shelfa stared back at him in puzzlement when Rain made his proposal.
"I thought that you weren't the type of person to care about such things, Rain. Strangely enough, I don't particularly mind the eyes of others when you're by my side. ……But if that's what you'd prefer."
Shelfa was a little guarded against the others, but she truly did not seem to want to leave.
After all, there was no other place better to dance than where they currently were since there was a band of musicians strumming at their lutes here.
Which meant that Rain had little choice left but to confess.
He sighed in surrender and said,
"well, how should I put this? Even I have a reason to be conscious of prying eyes tonight. ——Can you keep a secret?"
"But of course. What is it?"
Shelfa's eyes sparkled in excitement at the mention of a secret.
Rain drew in close to her ear and gravely whispered,
"listen up, you can't ever tell anyone else. The truth is……I can't dance."
He pulled away and nodded.
Shelfa stared back at Rain fixedly for a moment before a smile covered the whole of her face.
"You, Rain, with your genius athletic abilities and reflexes?"
"Even with good reflexes, there's no way I can dance if I've never done it before."
"Then I'll teach you! Now, let's go!"
"Hey, don't pull! Besides, why are we going to the center? I can't even dance. I'm fine staying off to the side where no one'll see!"
And why do you look so happy? I'll flip up your skirt, damnit.
He thought like a rebellious brat as he was pulled along by the hand. He also thought, If I go and learn how to dance from her, then everyone'll figure out that I can't dance anyway.
The musicians performing in the corner of the hall had undoubtedly been paying attention to them from the very beginning. They suddenly switched numbers when Shelfa forcefully took Rain's hand in preparation to dance and started to play a moodier piece better suited for dancing to.
The true banquet had just begun.
Everyone pulled closer to their partners and began dancing like they were lovers.
'Ugh,' Rain thought as he handed the glass he was still holding in his other hand over to a server.
Then, Shelfa wrapped her arms around Rain's body and began to whisper as she stuck firmly to him.
"I'm sure you'll learn quickly, Rain. All you have to do is mimic how I carry my feet……"
Rain resigned himself to his fate and moved his feet as he was told. The stares from their surroundings hurt so much he wanted to die.
Just what the hell am I doing here?
Besides, how is the Little one dancing so nimbly?
"I was made to learn how to dance and sing along with my other studies,"
she answered when he asked.
"I see. ……So you were the kind of princess who knows how to sing and dance."
Shelfa simply smiled at Rain's foolish response. Then, Rain gave up and focused his undivided attention on learning how to dance.
——It looked like he would step on Shelfa's feet multiple times before the banquet was over.
Well, I guess this sort of thing is okay once in a while.
Eventually, a wry smile alighted Rain's strained visage.
After all, they still had to finish their fight with Safir.
Rain decided he didn't mind doing something like this during their momentary periods of rest. In any case, he would have to jump on a horse and follow after his army as soon as tomorrow.
What other man has seen the rise and fall of a noble from up as close as I have?
Ludic smiled in self-derision as he walked through Greatark's completely deserted corridors.
While it was nothing new for people to readily change their minds, Ludic felt that there were no other people in the world who were abandoned as easily as a noble who had lost a war. The Safir faction, which had easily surpassed ten thousand in number just the other day, had quite literally scattered to the winds following their defeat against Chandrys. To sum it up, Safir had been abandoned. The soldiers had deserted one after another as soon as they had returned to the castle.
They had all likely considered the following:
The Chandrys army had held the absolute advantage in numbers against the Princess' faction. And yet, Safir and suffered utter defeat at Chandrys' hands.
So——how could such a cowardly and disappointing man ever hope to emerge as the final victor?
Even Ludic could not blame them for their conclusions.
The common-born soldiers who had been worked like slaves had been the first to desert, and those who had safely fled all the way to Greatark were either nobles or those associated with their respective parties.
In other words, none of them were fit to fight on the frontlines. And even then, they barely numbered five hundred.
Moreover, at this rate——
Ludic shook his head a little as he walked through the corridor. According to a report from a scout he had sent out, the Princess' faction had quickly sent forth soldiers north in advance after resting their army.
It seemed that key figures like Rain and Ralphus had stayed in the newly reclaimed capital for a bit to process the aftermath of the war, exchange prisoners of war with Chandrys, and entertain Folnier, but they would likely depart to rejoin with their units sooner rather than later.
Ludic had no doubts that Rain had drafted all of their strategies, and he wasn't the kind of person to waste any time in getting things done.
They would surely arrive by tomorrow.
Ludic picked up his pace without realizing it and made his way to Safir's room at the topmost floor of the castle.
No one stood at guard in front of the room.
Even the guards had fled, evidently.
Ludic resisted the urge to click his tongue and, having little other choice otherwise, knocked.
"It's Ludic, Your Majesty. You called for me?"
"Come on in."
He had thought that Safir would surely be terrified by now, but the latter's voice was surprisingly composed.
Ludic shook his head and entered the room as he was told.
And then he was promptly shocked speechless.
Safir was smartly dressed head to toe in white clothes adorned with golden crests and carried a ceremonial sword at his waist. His attire was similar to what the late King Douglas had often worn in the audience chamber.
Moreover, he had cleanly cut off the curly hair that had once hung from either side of his head which Rain had lopped off a portion of and now sported a short clean trim.
Neither his usual frivolous and forced cheer nor his arrogance was visible on his mien as he simply stood silently by the windowsill and looked back at Ludic.
Ludic had originally thought that Safir would have fallen into his drunkard habits or had invited the girls from before back to his chambers to chase away his melancholy by now——but he was happily wrong in his assumptions.
"Y, Your Majesty, this……"
Safir ignored Ludic, who had opened his eyes wide in surprise, and abruptly cut in,
"Ludic. I give you my deepest thanks for your faithful service until today. I came all the way to where I am today thanks to your efforts, and I even got to fight a battle against an invader. All of this was possible largely due to your help. I was blessed with a great retainer……"
Did, did he finally lose his mind?
Ludic thought, knowing full well that he was being rude.
However, there was no hint of madness in Safir's cerulean eyes. They were filled only with the light of gratitude as they looked quietly back at Ludic.
His strangely peaceful master yet continued,
"now that I look back on it, it's obvious to me that I am responsible for the current state of things. I allowed myself to obtain a peace of mind after relying on you and drowned myself in wine and women."
Safir's face twisted in anguish when he admitted those things about himself.
However, he quickly regained his calm and continued,
"and this is what happened as a result. ……I crowned myself a ruler, and so I must take the final responsibility for my actions. You may leave the castle now, Ludic, as I will be paying you your wages for all your work until today. I'm sure the Princess' faction will welcome someone of your abilities with open arms. I will allow it. So please, go."
Safir laughed bashfully.
"……I wanted to reward you with a fiefdom, but I no longer have the power to do so. You'll at least accept money, yes? I've already made the arrangements for it."
Even a man of Ludic's caliber was so taken aback that he failed to answer immediately.
Was Safir trying to curry to Ludic's pity by acting like this on purpose? A small seed of doubt sprouted in Ludic's mind.
Yet, Safir continue speaking in a matter-of-fact manner and even lowered his head a little in the end.
"Thank you for all your hard work. I am grateful for everything……. Well then, I'll be praying for your good health, Ludic. You may leave."
Safir's expression remained quiet the entire time as he nodded.
He did not utter a single word to stop Ludic from leaving.
At this point, even Ludic had little other choice but to believe his master was being sincere.
When his mind began to work again, he opened his mouth and said,
"b, but Sire——. What will you do, Your Majesty!? They'll be here soon!"
"Yeah, you're probably right,"
Safir concurred calmly. He continued,
"I've already made my resolve. I don't know how many men I have left, but I'll fight alongside those who are. I don't mind if no one's left. That simply means I'll fight alone. I haven't done a thing to deserve the title of high general until now, so I'll at least wield my own sword at the very end……"
Safir smiled a lonely smile as he finished speaking.
It was a transparent smile free from any dark thoughts that the noble-born man had never worn before.
Ludic was finally convinced.
That smile…… He's serious…… He's seriously prepared to die.
Ludic fell into a moment of contemplation before resolutely opening his mouth.
——But then, someone barged into the room without even knocking and shouted,
"Your Majesty, it's Shadac. I come bearing great news!"
What the hell, he was still here?
Ludic scowled heavily and stared at the pointlessly energetic knight captain from the corner of his eye.
He was actually more surprised that Shadac was even still alive. Ludic was sure that the latter had perished during the last charge against the enemy.
And yet, Shadac didn't spare Ludic a second glance as he triumphantly prattled on.
"Please rejoice! A reassuring ally has appeared before us. The heavens are on our side!"
"What are you talking about, Shadac? I've already prepared to die."
It was only natural that Safir was equally perplexed.
"Preposterous! We still have a winning chance. There is no need to rush to death. We will show the Princess' faction that they've had it coming."
And just where does that confidence of yours come from?! Hurry up and tell us!
Ludic was irritated at Shadac, who was simply posturing in triumph with his nostrils flaring without giving any of the important details.
Should I say something?
Ludic thought, but never got the chance to.
Out from the still open door stepped in a figure that he hadn't expected to see. The man's presence had truly exceeded all of Ludic's wildest expectations.
"Enough, Shadac. It would be better for me to tell him myself."
The man who walked in with a sunny voice——he had the slender face of a young nobleman, but his eyes were merciless and looked like they were always scheming something.
He was once a high general and had since betrayed Sunkwoll alongside Gilles.
In other words, he was Ganoa.
He looked as hale and hearty as ever as he nodded at the flabbergasted master and servant.
"Hello, Sir Safir. It's been a while. And you are……hmmm. It was Ludic, yes? Your defeat in battle was truly regrettable."
With that, Ludic finally snapped back to his senses.
His expression grew severe as he thrust a finger at the former high general.
"How dare you speak so readily, you traitor?! Where did you even crawl in from? No, more importantly. How dare you so shamelessly step foot into your homeland?!"
"——What did you say? Who gives a shit about where I came in from? I got here as rapidly as the currents of the great sea. I see that your tongue is rather active for someone who was routed and is about to lose their castle!"
Ganoa's mood, once cheerful, had promptly soured. He had always been the person to be the most conscious of one's social status. He continued,
"besides, how dare you talk back to me when you were a mere centurion just the other day?"
"My previous rank has no bearing on this. Once a traitor, always a traitor!"
He might as well have poured oil into a fire.
Ganoa finally grasped the hilt of his blade. Ludic, naturally, was not one to lose. He, too, swiftly reached out for his own waist.
I've heard that Ganoa is one of the few nobles who were skilled at the sword, but hell, there's no way I'll lose to a dirty traitor! Ludic thought. However, a panicked Shadac wedged himself in between the two.
"Is, isn't that enough, Sir Ludic? Lord Ganoa, too, please quell your anger for now. Please prioritize speaking with His Majesty first."
Reluctantly, Ganoa let go of his sword.
"Shadac is correct. It would be child's play to cut down the likes of you, but my duties come first."
Ganoa had evidently decided to ignore Ludic and turned instead to Safir. He continued,
"well then, Sir Safir. I came with good news on behalf of our past friendship. When I heard of your rout, I spoke of your predicament to my master, Lord Leygur, and beseeched him to come to your aid. And lo, my merciful King took pity on you and suggested that you seek asylum in Zarmine. Then, he declared you as the "late king's true successor" and stated that he would lend you Zarmine soldiers to try to take back your lands with. How is it, I do believe that it is quite a good deal?"
Ganoa got readily to the point without beating around the bush.
Which was fine and all, but——
How dare he bring up something so dirty while pretending to be friends?
Ludic was exasperated as he listened in from the side.
Ganoa had essentially come as a guide for Zarmine's second invasion. "Safir's reign" would never come to be even if he accepted the offer. Even if things went well, he would be a king in name only as he carried out a puppet government on Zarmine's behalf.
In any case, the true state of affairs would be that Sunkwoll would end up in vassalage to Zarmine.
King Leygur had likely been nagged at by Ganoa until he decided, 'Well, there's no harm done if it succeeds,' and gave the latter his permission to commence negotiations. If the negotiations succeeded, he would be able to gather all of the Sunkwoll nobility's soldiers and wealth for himself and it would become easier to invade the kingdom——that is what King Leygur might have thought.
Besides, it wouldn't be any skin off Leygur's back even if the negotiations failed.
Ludic further thought that Ganoa had brought his up so that he could earn points with Leygur. Sometime along the way, he would overthrow Safir and rule the kingdom for himself with Zarmine's support.
——It was more than probable.
After the war with Zarmine, there had been whispers among the officers and men that King Leygur was not a human, but a daemon. Ludic had been revolted by the news and had even flown into a rage. There was no way that he would ever give in even if Safir accepted the deal!
And so Ludic made his resolve.
The first words he said afterward was,
"have you gone mad, you bastard?! Selling out your kingdom is one thing, but are you even willing to bend your knee to a daemon who once tormented us in the distant past and offer up your homeland to him on a silver platter?!"
Unlike Ludic, who was seething with rage, Ganoa was the very picture of cool composure.
"Save your opinions for tomorrow. And feed your cheap sense of justice to the dogs or something while you're at it. Besides, Shadac over here welcomed me here because he has already agreed to this. May I expect a favorable response from Sir Safir as well?"
Then, he swiftly turned away before Ludic could criticize him some more.
Shadac, who had been called out, cut in between the two while trying to calm the situation down.
"We are His Majesty's retainers, Sir Ludic. It is only logical that we abide to his wishes."
The hell are you spurting?! You're just an ingrate trying to sell off his fatherland!
Ludic, ever the patriot, was on the verge of spitting out his thoughts but decided to hold back just for now.
Even if he was to go wild, he would do it after hearing what Safir had to say.
He might have to kill everyone present depending on Safir's answer. He could not simply stand around idly and do nothing while this plot unfolded, even if it would mean losing his life. It was true that he was nothing more than a general of a defeated army, but he hadn't lost his pride as a knight yet!
Ludic turned decisively to his master once his had made his resolve.
Safir had listened quietly to what Ganoa had to say and was now standing by the window with his head down and staring at the patterns on the carpet below. He had yet to offer any opinions of his own.
And when everyone else had waited a while with baited breath——
Safir finally looked up and had a faint smile on his lips for some reason.
Suddenly, Safir began talking about something that had nothing to do with their current conversation.
"I can say this because it's now, but I'd always thought of myself as a cowardly dastard who only ever drowned himself in wine and women. I always knew of how rotten my true character was, despite all of the braggadocio I usually sprouted. That's why, though I always did my best to hide it, I've never really liked myself for a while now. I wanted, from the bottom of my heart, to be able to like myself, but it's not easy to deceive yourself even if you're able to deceive others……"
What is he trying to say?
The other three, including Ludic, turned their heads to the side because they couldn't grasp what Safir was trying to say.
Saifr paid them no heed and continued with a distant look in his eyes.
"A person's true worth will be unveiled for the first time when they are placed on the brink of life or death. This is something that Rain said to His Former Majesty back when the latter was still of good health. This was when he was still a centurion……I still remember it for some reason……his words resounded with me."
Then, Safir, who had been slouched over until then, straightened up his back as straight as it would go.
"If that's true, then it appears that I wasn't as worthless a man as I'd appraised myself to be. Ganoa, it seems that I haven't fallen quite as low as you."
——No one spoke for a brief moment.
Still, a slow smile had spread across Ludic's visage and Shadac was staring blankly. Then, Ganoa looked back at his former colleague with sober eyes, the way one would look at a scrap of leftover meat at the table.
"So, in other words, you are refusing my offer?"
"……You fail to see the big picture. This kingdom will end up in Zarmine's hands one way or another. It's only a matter of time. If that's the case, then don't you think that it would be best that she is governed by someone who still has ties to the kingdom regardless of what form that governance takes?"
"I don't. You can reason it out as much as you'd like. But I think that it'd all just be sophistry in the end. Yeah, it's something I did fairly often in the past."
Safir flashed a grin.
He looked to be free of all hesitation.
Ludic stepped up and blocked Ganoa's path before the latter could say anything and solemnly said,
"His Majesty has spoken! I'd actually like to cut you down where you stand, but we cannot afford to provoke Zarmine at the moment. Hurry up and leave, Ganoa."
Ganoa's irritation showed through for the first time during their encounter as he turned to Safir again.
"Are you truly all right with this? You will die like a wretch at this rate!"
The threat was apparent in his voice.
Still, Safir looked like he had finally been freed from the dark spirits that had haunted him and nodded at Ganoa's threat with a sunny smile.
"That is fine. ……I was able to like myself, even just a little, at the very end……hahahaha!"
"This isn't the time to be laughing, you fool!"
This time, Ludic had his hand placed squarely on the hilt of his sword.
"You don't need to tell me twice,"
Ganoa spat out loathingly. He continued,
"I wouldn't earn a single copper even if I killed you both here. I don't engage in fights that result in no gain. ……If you wish to die that badly, then be my guest."
What an utter waste of my time!
Ganoa spat out one last time before quickly leaving the room with no lingering attachment to the place.
Shadac, who had been standing around in a blank daze, tried to follow after him, flustered.
"Wait, please! Take, take me with you!"
"Hold it, Shadac."
Once Shadac had stopped and noisily turned around, Ludic quietly asked,
"……Isn't it only logical that we abide to His Majesty's wishes? You said as much just earlier, did you not?"
A wave of guilt ran through Shadac's youthful looks for a moment. But only for a single moment.
Shadac tried to turn around without offering a response, perhaps because he feared that Ganoa would leave him behind if he didn't hurry or because he had discerned that he would lose in a war of words.
Ludic took a deep stride and instantaneously drew his sword.
A silver light chased after Shadac's neck with a small whistle.
Shadac's head had rolled heavily to the ground with a blank look stuck eternally on his face by the time Ludic returned his sword to his sheathe with a click.
Blood spurted out like a fountain a beat later as the body fell over sideways to the floor.
Ludic calmly turned to Safir and bowed deeply.
"Your Majesty, as you can see, I have cut down the traitor who tried to sell out his kingdom. ……I apologize for dirtying your room."
Safir blinked and nodded reflexively.
Eventually, his mind caught up to reality and he slowly shook his head while looking at the corpse.
"There are many proud and valiant warriors in house Estherhart. But it seems that he was an exception to the rule. ……This is yet more proof of how blinded I've been……haha."
Safir laughed weakly before pulling himself back together.
"Well, there was nothing lacking in your work even at the very end. Good work, Ludic!"
"The very end? What are you talking about, Your Majesty? I will still follow after you! I'll follow you until the 'very end,' as you put it."
Ludic's response had evidently been far outside his expectations.
Safir finally returned to making the blank and foolish face that was better suited for him. It had been a while since he had made a face that befitted him so.
That dumb look had always irritated Ludic until now, but today it brought a smile to Ludic's face as he said,
"allow me to say this first, but this is a matter of my pride as well, so please refrain from trying to persuade me otherwise."
Ludic looked directly at his master as he spoke.
Then, his expression softened as he continued,
"you will find at least one single flower blooming even in a wasteland filled only with barren rocks if you search heard enough. Well, I'm just a dirty old man who's nothing like a delicate flower, but that's the kind of existence I want to be, at least at the very end."
He ended with a joke and laughed out loud.
Safir, however, did not follow suit. He didn't even let slip a chuckle.
He kept his silence for a while before finally backing heavily into the window behind him and sliding down to the floor.
"Y, Your Majesty!"
Ludic panicked, ran up to his master, and knelt beside him.
He only noticed when he propped up the other man's upper body.
Safir was trembling, if ever so slightly.
Safir looked back at Ludic's bewildered visage and spoke in a pitiful tone.
"I at least wanted to be a worthy ruler you could be proud of when I saw you off. At the very least, I wanted you to remember me that way. But——as pathetic as it is, I was hit by the recoil from bracing myself for too long after hearing your reply……. So I suppose I'm just a pathetic ruler until the very end. Haha……hahaha."
Ludic could not find the words to say.
No, Sire, you're worthy at this moment, if nothing else!
It would only come off as consolation if he said as such——or so he thought.
Eventually, Safir's lonely laughter faded and he let go of Ludic's hand.
"I'm all right now. I'm sorry for surprising you,"
he said peacefully while lowering his head.
That being said, he slid out his sword from the sheathe at his waist instead of standing back up.
He looked into the image of his face reflecting back at him from the glistening silver longsword's blade.
He stared at it for a long time without ever taking his eyes off of it.
Then, he spoke up in a low voice after some time had passed.
"I finally understand. I never hated Rain —I was envious of his way of life and his talents. It's so obvious to me now that I've taken an honest look at my own heart."
Then, Safir fell into another period of silence.
Eventually, he began to whisper to himself without ever taking his eyes off his sword.
"I wanted to become a man like Rain. Someone who draws in considerate people, wins their trust, and is relied upon by them——I wanted to be someone like that. But I had neither the ability nor the magnanimity nor the popularity to make it happen, and instead I inconvenienced a lot of people and created this mess. ……That's my only regret."
"My only regret……"
Safir repeated himself once more as tears welled up in his eyes. This was the first time in his life that this noble, renown for his arrogance, had disclosed himself so openly.
However, he did not continue weeping forever.
With one last sigh, he pushed himself up with all his strength. He seemed to clear away his weakness with his resolute movements.
He then looked to Ludic and said,
"……you have a family. Are you truly sure about this? There's no need for you to be so stubborn——"
"No, Your Majesty,"
Ludic interjected and shook his head. He continued,
"my wife and child would be ashamed of me if I ran away in the middle of all of this. Besides, I, too, am just as responsible for our defeat as you are, Your Majesty. I have no intention of escaping that responsibility alone."
"……I see. You're quite the stubborn man."
"What's this now; you're cut from the same cloth too, Your Majesty."
The two men exchanged looks and smiled wryly at each other.