Having accepted a mission to be Cleo’s guard, Rudel stood before Emilio’s unit in thought.
(Even if they’re official knights and soldiers, how truly unreliable for a princess’ guards.)
While that wasn’t the best way to put it, it was one knight and three soldiers.
… From Rudel’s point of view, it wasn’t an assortment that made him feel much motivation.
In the room he had been permitted use, the princess Cleo, and those assigned to be her guards had to think about their roles henceforth. A lady servant prepared tea for everyone. Within all that, Rudel called over to Emilio who was looking at him.
“Emilio-dono, in regards to the guard detail, I’d like to decide on the division of labor.”
“… That should do just fine. But even if I say that, the departure is in two days, so our mission only covers today, tomorrow, and the next morning. You don’t mean to tell me Courtois’ elite Dragoon requires sleep to exhibit his strength?”
It was a provocative phrasing, but Rudel understood his sentiment. The king of his country didn’t trust the knights of his own country. In a situation where he had to follow the orders of a foreign knight, there was no helping his irritation. What’s more, he was trying to do his job.
For now, that was enough… no, thinking of the mission period, it was plenty.
In that meeting-room like space, the nine of Courtois and Celestia sipped their tea in an inexpressible atmosphere. Cleo sat in a chair conversing with Izumi and Millia.
In front of the entranceway, the nervous soldier party of three stood to the side of the door.
(They’re too tense. They’re not going to hold out to nightfall…)
From the way they stood, Rudel perceived they hadn’t received a great degree of training. He looked at Emilio. Emilio was reputed to be proficient, and on the way here, he had spoken of how he saved Cleo in the incident.
Perhaps he was a trustworthy knight.
“We will be fine. Your worry is uncalled for. But if it’s possible to increase the number of knights and soldiers, then I must make the plea.”
Without an incentive to oppose, Rudel thought of nothing more than increasing the guard success rate. He simply tried to handle it with numbers.
But Emilio shook his head.
“That will be impossible. With last time’s attack, the knights have been spread out to the limit to provide security for the fortress city. The soldiers as well.”
As Emilio said that, Rudel thought.
(This is your country’s princess we’re talking about. But still…)
Rudel looked at Cleo. While she did seem cultured, it was honestly hard to imagine she had received education as a member of the royal family. She was kind at heart, but he heard much too many words from her mouth that would show weakness in foreign diplomacy. As seen as a princess, she was a failure, as a person, a kind and beautiful woman.
(A life lived just for death, eh.)
Rudel recalled Sakuya.
He recalled the goddess who cast away what little remained of her life to grant him a dragon. While the reborn Sakuya carried on her name, her memories didn’t remain.
He suddenly ended up seeing Cleo overlap with the goddess.
Rudel closed his eyes and suppressed his emotions.
(That is this country’s problem. The mission I’ve been given is to guard her until the day comes. Don’t waver, Rudel.)
Reminding himself of it, he returned to his discussion with Emilio.
“It would probably be best for a woman to enter the princess’ private quarters. I shall station Izumi and Millia at her side. The rest of us should guard her when on the move, and defend the perimeter while she is asleep. Of course, the soldier at the door will be deployed on rotation.”
Emilio grit his teeth at Rudel’s words. He was also aware the party of three didn’t have the stamina to keep up guard duty for two days.
Listening in, the three raised their voices.
At their cry, Cleo was surprised as well.
“We’re not chopped liver!”
“T-that’s right! An all-nighter is nothing.”
“With an afternoon nap, I think it’ll work out?”
Following on from stubble Ben’s loud voice, Pono weakly voiced the same opinion. Passan gave a reply that was quite clearly right out.
Emilio grit his teeth at that reply. Perhaps he wanted to tell them to shut it, but before Rudel and the others, he held it in.
“You lot, we don’t need your input for now. Once matters are decided, I’ll relay the orders.”
“I-I mean, captain…”
While Ben hesitated, Emilio silenced him with just a glare. Rudel evaluated him as a knight with some experience under his belt.
(He’s skilled. And unlike me, he has experience.)
Rudel himself could easily tally up his own real combat experience. Even so, as he looked at Emilio, he felt something close to home.
From Rudel’s point of view, this mission was a mission given to him because he had contracted with a splendid dragon… with Sakuya. Perhaps it was precisely because he knew that, that he could act so calmly.
But Emilio didn’t take kindly to his composure.
“Then how about it? Why not use this opportunity to discern one another’s level of ability?”
“… I have no problem with that.”
He brought the match to Rudel.
Cleo brought her feet to the training grounds used by the knights.
It was her first visit, and she did feel a something more suffocating than she had imagined. The training ground build indoors was lined with wooden swords, spears, and logs to use as targets.
When Rudel’s and co. were the only ones who were supposed to be there, the place reeked of men. Perhaps the way the room was constructed to hold in heat was to blame.
“I-it feels a little peculiar here. Are the knights always training in a place like this?”
Cleo struck up conversation with Izumi to her side. Black hair was a rare sight to her. And the dignified Izumi was older than her, giving off a reliable impression. If her own country had female knights, she imagined they would surely give off such a feeling.
“It varies by country and knight brigade, but when it’s built indoors, it can’t really be helped.”
Izumi understood what she wanted to say, not saying anymore. From how muddled her words were, Cleo understood it was pretty much the same wherever you went.
It was true that she was a little excited, coming to such a place for the first time.
“Unacceptable! You’re nowhere near up to par!”
“Not enough training!”
“No technique to speak of!”
As she saw Rudel take down the three coming at him bare-handed, her face turned pale. Looking at Izumi and Millia to her side, they were making unconcerned faces.
Defeating the three challengers in an instant, Rudel brushed off his hands as he spoke. At his feet were the forms of three trying to stand. Pono and Passan still struggling to their feet. And Ben had clutched onto Rudel’s ankle.
“But your resolve alone gets a passing grade.”
Hearing of their success, the three of them passed right out.
“I-is that a dragoon? That all happened too fast for my eyes to follow.”
While Cleo was troubled, Millia explained.
“It’s fine. Rudel is outside of the norm, so you don’t have to compare him to a standard knight. As long as you remember he’s the strange one, you won’t have any problems.”
“I-is that so. He’s strange? I don’t know anything when it comes to knights.”
The troubled Cleo looked at Rudel. He was hoisting up the three, and putting them to sleep on the benches. Emilio took off his overcoat and tossed a wooden sword at Rudel.
Catching it, Rudel took a stance with the left side of his body protruding forward.
“I don’t see a shield.”
Emilio also got in stance as he said. Rudel laughed.
“I just don’t want to change my stance. And I’ve no intentions of getting hit.”
On Rudel’s provocation, the two of them stepped in for an intense clash of wood. Looking at Emilio on the moment of impact, Cleo was surprised to find there was a knight who could keep up with Emilio. Fighting on even terms with the knight heralded as a genius was surely a marvel.
Seeing her expression, Izumi spoke up.
“Neither side is particularly serious, so there won’t be any injuries.”
“I-is that so?”
As Cleo looked at two knights violently swinging their wooden swords, it seems she thought they were going full force. There, Emilio increased the arc of his sword. With that opening, Rudel tried to leap in, only to instantly jump back.
Giving pursuit, Emilio gradually strengthened his offensive.
Seeing the superiority of a knight of her country, no matter how much she detested violence, Cleo was relieved. The fact that her country’s knight could stand his ground against a knight of Courtois was an important fact.
But Izumi made a bit of a conflicted face.
“The world sure is vast. To think he would have a move like that.”
Cleo couldn’t’ understand what she was saying.
In his match with Emilio, Rudel saw an opening and tried to dive in. But he found himself on the receiving end of an attack.
The wooden swords came at him left and right, but there were a number of slashes that faded away as if they had only been afterimages. And some attacks where he couldn’t even see the swing.
“You use some interesting moves.”
He found his mouth curving into a smile, so Rudel took a big step back and used his left hand to cover his face. Through the gaps in his fingers, he could see Emilio’s haste. Even if neither side had been serious, that was more than enough to measure the other’s competence.
(This is bad. I want to fight more.)
His emotions surging, Rudel renewed his grip on the wooden sword in his right hand. This time, he would go on the offense to probe out the identity of his enemy’s move.
But there, Izumi raised her voice.
“That’s enough, both of you.”
Rudel looked at Izumi, and saw Cleo who’d been looking over the match was teetering. Perhaps her eyes had spun too much to follow the two moving around.
Taking a deep breath, Rudel parted his left hand from his face. There, Emilio gave a slight smile.
He gestured towards the sleeve of his left hand. While he had removed his coat, looking closely, there was a slight tear on his shirt’s sleeve.
Knowing that had been inflicted by the enemy’s sword, Rudel laughed just a bit.
“It does seem this match is my loss.”
It wasn’t the sort of wound that would decide victory or defeat, but at the very start, Rudel had declared he wouldn’t be hit. In that case, even if it was a graze, he decided to admit his loss. Perhaps Emilio hadn’t anticipated that attitude, as he was a little taken aback.
But retrieving up his own overcoat, he headed for Cleo.
“Princess, you should return to your room.”
“I-I’m sorry, Emilio.”
Millia approached the two of them, while Izumi picked up Rudel’s coat and walked over. Before presenting the coat to Rudel, she handed over something to wipe his sweat.
“How was it?”
Rather than Emilio’s capabilities, she was more curious about the technique he had displayed.
“I thought it was a large swing, but that was just to draw my attention. His real aim was a sharper swipe I couldn’t see… I thought, but that’s wrong too. There’s definitely some trick or device to it.”
“You look happy. You’d better not show that face before the princess.”
Rudel was a battle enthusiast. As long as he had a strong foe, he was the sort of man who would want to fight to climb to greater heights. He repented at Izumi’s words, but at the same time, he thought.
(I want to fight him seriously for once, but that doesn’t look plausible.)
“… Rudel, I’ll just throw this out there, but…”
Izumi understood what was going through his mind. A little panicked, Rudel took the coat off her hands.
“I know. The mission takes priority.”
“As long as you get it. For now, let’s go to the princess’ room.”
The two walked off, leaving the party of three behind.
Having removed their robes, Aleist and Nate walked down the main road.
The two of them linked arms, walking the street like lovers. But as the color of Nate’s hair stood out, there were many heads that turned to take a second look at her.
Giving a bitter smile, Aleist pretended to have fun.
“Aha, ahahaha, how fun!”
“Oh darling, oh you!”
The one who suggested they put on a couple’s act was Nate. And Aleist was extremely against it. But she earnestly convinced him that the attackers of the Gaia Empire wouldn’t give chase if they stayed in character.
For that sake, Aleist and Nate paced the main road as if on a date.
(This is definitely unnecessary. How did she manage to convince me this was a good idea?)
Generally speaking, persuading Aleist was not a difficult task. The reason being, if you just kept pushing him, he would fold under pressure. If that wasn’t the case, then he would’ve been able to prevent the continued expansion of his harem. And it was precisely because he was unable, that Nate could push through.
(Am I too much of a pushover after all?)
He thought as the two dropped by a stall. The lad manning the stall called out to her in a lively voice.
“That’s some splendid blue hair you’ve got there, madam.”
“You think so? We just came to Celestia to see the sights. But for some reason, I feel like I’m really sticking out.”
Taking on a half-witted tone as she spoke with the shopkeeper, she moved the conversation towards gathering information. In order to stay out of the say, Aleist looked at the souvenirs lining the space.
“What’s this, it’s amazing! (Why am I praising such a peculiar piece, I wonder.)”
What he took in hand was an ornament made of a round torso, and four cylindrical legs. He thought it was a spider, but for that, the number of legs was too scarce. Where the round body leveled off, making one think a face might go there, a red paint had been slathered on.
It almost looked like a single eye.
As Aleist took the souvenir in hand, the shopkeeper closed in on him rather than Nate.
“That’s the guardian deity.”
“Eh? This thing is!?”
Surprised that something like this was a god, Aleist carefully inspected the article in his hands. No matter how he looked at it, he could only see a mud doll made by a child.
“To be more specific, it’s modeled after the god’s servants you can find on the mountain. Heard they look quite like the god. The real one’s enshrined where the ceremony takes place, but ordinary folk aren’t allowed in, see. So like this, we make souvenirs of the servants that are said to look like the god.”
Aleist looked at the piece. But he wasn’t getting any image of a god. All he saw was a bug, or perhaps a robot drone that’s job it was to be done in.
“Hey! Shopkeep, we were in the middle of talking!”
“S-sorry for that. It can’t be helped if you stand out. Blue is the hair color of the royal family in these parts. What’s more, the shrine maidens who hold a special meaning. The area’s real tense right now, so the surrounding eyes are going to be harsh. Don’t let it get to you.”
“In the past, see? A little before the previous ritual. The royal princesses splendidly fulfill their roles, but even so, there was an unruly one in the royal family.”
From the shopkeeper’s tone, Aleist wondered what could have happened in the past. And as he put power into his hands, one of the ornament’s legs snapped off.
When the shopkeeper screamed out, Nate raised a laugh.
“You can’t do that, darling!”
“Ah, no, wait!”
A panicked Aleist apologized to the shopkeeper, saying he would buy it, and producing money from his wallet. Having bought that dubiously high-priced artifact, Aleist spilled complaint after complaint within.
(If it was fragile, he could’ve just said it.)
Now with the deadweight ornament to occupy him, Aleist didn’t have to hold Nate’s hand as they made a round around the other shops lining the main road.
There was no light in that palace room.
Paying mind to his surroundings, the one who entered was Emilio. He called out to the individual within. But he couldn’t see their face.
“Oh, what seems to be the matter?”
“This room is too bright.”
“… You sound like you’re in a hurry. What happened?”
In that room purposed to give reports to his contact, Emilio gave the right watchword in response. The normal lost servant would just be turned away, but if the password was correct, the contact would fulfill their original job.
“Soldiers who don’t know anything have been made my subordinates. Can they be taken off”
“They cannot. They have been selected as those for whom it matters not if they disappear.”
Hearing that, Emilio muttered an, I see. His face was a little concerned.
(I’d like to do something for them, but…)
After learning that he couldn’t take the three off for the sake of his goal, Emilio immediately gave his report.
“That dragoon’s skills are greater than expected. I have begun to doubt whether I can win or not.”
“I’m aware. But I heard you injured him… as expected of a knight of Celestia.”
“I could do without the flattery.”
As Emilio said that, the contact relayed the orders.
“… Depart from the palace tomorrow. The preparations are ready for that.”
“Won’t they think it too unnatural?”
“Just have it come from the princess’ mouth. Then the higherups should accept it without complaint.”
Emilio listened to the plan and hammered the contents into his head. Any memos he took would leave evidence. That’s why they met in a dark room. Emilio didn’t know the other party’s face. But they knew Emilio.
(This is getting troublesome.)
“… And that is all. The princess is necessary for the plan. The ceremonial tools are all together, so all that’s left is,”
“I know. I just have to present the princess to your group, right? What happened before shall not happen again.”
“… Are you sure about that? After looking into it, it seems they came from the Gaia Empire. Though we haven’t gone as far as to look into why they came.”
“That’s your job. I’d appreciate if you did it properly.”
Emilio recalled when he was surrounded. He remembered the group in the black robes.
“I must apologize for that. Then make sure tomorrow goes according to plan.”
“Leave it to me.”
Emilio left and looked around. From the start, it was a corridor that experienced little passage. And as he walked off, he muttered.
“Tomorrow, huh. I’ll have to do something about the Dragoon and his comrades, but how should I go about this.”
Unbeknownst to himself, Emilio’s hand had reached to touch the egg-shaped pendant in his breast pocket from over his clothes.
The dragoon was taking part, and he had even been stuck with subordinates who would drag him down. Just how would he struggle through the next day? Emilio thought.