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――The man remained motionless, sprawled out on top of the stiff soil.
He was neither dead, nor asleep.
He simply closed his eyes, organizing his thoughts in silence as he adjusted his unsteady breaths.
Assembling them, putting them together, building them back――,
????: [Oi, you alive?]
???: [――Yeah, I’m alive.]
As someone called out to him overhead, he opened his eyes to see the face of a familiar man.
He felt like the man was in possession of exceptional talent, since the boorish impression he gave off persisted even when looking at him upside-down. Anyway, that was completely unrelated to resolving the current situation.
???: [What happened to those guys?]
????: [They managed to pass through me, and ran away as fast as they could after they threw you out. You’re… you better do something about that. I can’t help but feel pain whenever I look at it.]
???: [That? …Ah, you mean this.]
He sat up while scratching his head, glancing towards the side of his body, where the other man had pointed at with a finger. Just then, he spotted the thick arrow embedded into his body.
If the arrow piercing his left side had been positioned slightly higher than where it was, then it might have pierced his heart.
Although the injury had nearly taken his life, he had few strong emotions about it. Not just about how it looked, but also about the fact that his own flesh had been pierced.
Todd: [It’s not really as painful as it looks, alright? Though it’ll be difficult to move for the time being…]
Jamal: [Dumbass. Who said they were worried about you? I said it’s painful to look at. Hurry up and pull it out.]
Todd: [You’re kinda rough with wounded companions, aren’t you. ――And]
Hearing that from his frowning partner, he reluctantly grabbed the lodged arrow. The trouble with arrow wounds was that the arrow needed to be pulled out before the flesh closed around it.
Fortunately, it had only been stuck there a short time, so he was able to pull it out in one go with some exertion.
For the flow of blood, he pressed a torn piece of clothing on the opening of the wound and forcefully compressed it to stop the bleeding.
Todd: [So, here’s the arrow just as you ordered. Now what do we do, huh.]
Jamal: [If it’s a deep wound, you should withdraw and rest. As for those guys that got away, I’ll take some people along and crush them. We’ll show those bastards ourselves that they’re prey… ]
Todd: [――That’d be a bad move, Jamal.]
The man dictating the course of action from here―― Jamal, was reined in by his hand.
Todd understood why Jamal would want to pursue the fleeing enemies who had made fools of them to get payback. But, if they proceeded with a hasty offensive move, the ones who would be met with a painful experience would be those here.
Todd: [Think about it. Why exactly, did those guys brazenly enter Guaral? Considering what they themselves did, it’s obvious we’d be in this city.]
Jamal: […Unless they’re brainless idiots.]
Todd: [――They deliberately marched in. They went as far as to conceal an ambush outside the city.]
With a glance, Jamal looked at the arrow that had just been extracted and cleared his throat.
Jamal, as an experienced military man, had the ability to perceive the direction from which an arrow had been fired and its accuracy, and was able to determine from how high it had been shot.
Naturally, he would reach the same conclusion as Todd himself.
Jamal: [If that’s right, their aim is…!]
Todd: [To lure out and hunt us Imperial Soldiers who’d entered Guaral. If we abruptly chased after them with our entire military strength, or rather, if we pursued them with our small force, we’d be playing in the palm of their hand. ――Which of us would be the prey, I wonder.]
Gritting his teeth in frustration, Jamal scowled in the direction their opponents had fled.
On the inside, Jamal looked like he was being swayed by gut-boiling fury, but Todd knew that painful feeling all too well―― that was something he wouldn’t say. Rather than fury, it was admiration that had taken hold in his heart.
Brazenly using oneself as a decoy, successfully taking advantage of unpreparedness to lure out a foolish opponent.
He was certainly a formidable enemy, a child of war.
Todd: [I seriously fucked up, failing to kill you…]
While looking the same direction as Jamal, he softly muttered that.
And then, he took a breath, “Ahh” as if he had pulled himself together,
Todd: [Seems we’ll have an opportunity for revenge. ――They’ll come back, no matter what.]
Jamal: [When that time comes, I’ll show absolutely no mercy.]
Todd silently nodded in approval of Jamal stifling his anger.
Then, for the time being he would confirm this battle as a loss. Moreover――,
Jamal: [Oh. …What’s with those hands?]
Todd’s legs were stretched out on the ground, both hands extended in his direction, and Jamal frowned.
Todd tilted his head at the incomprehension, “Just what it looks like”, he continued,
Todd: [Piggyback ride.]
Jamal: [Die alone!]
He shrugged his shoulders, really, that was not a response of true friendship.
Stepping strongly on the hard ground, Subaru marched forward with long strides.
As he neared his destination, his restlessness increased and his ability to suppress the need to jump out from the ox cart decreased. And so, with the moment of arrival finally at hand, his body leapt forward with vigour.
He felt like he heard voices trying to stop him, but they all went in one ear and out the other.
Shaking them off, he headed straight for the target building. A wooden building, noticeably larger than the rest, located at the center of the settlement. Entering it, he drew the gazes of several people inside.
???: [――So you have returned. Quicker than my expectations even.]
An arrogant man brazenly declared, sporting an oni mask.
Saying nothing towards his haughty attitude, Subaru charged straight forward. Letting the momentum carry him, he, without hesitation, peeled off the mask of the man who looked down on him.
Letting his mask be removed with little resistance, the man’s graceful features became exposed.
Grabbing the collar of that unbearable person with his demonic face, Subaru pulled him up into a standing position. Next, he brandished his fist, ready to send his fist flying into that face and――,
???: [Subaru, wait.]
Just as Subaru was about to punch him into oblivion, his drawn right arm was forcibly stopped from behind.
A tall figure, who dyed the ends of their hair red. It was this settlement’s clan leader, Mizelda, who had stopped him. Wanting to complain about her action, he opened his mouth, about to say “Now? Of all times?”.
However, faster than he could object, Mizelda prefaced, saying “Listen,”
Mizelda: [Not the face. Anything else, I’ll forgive.]
Receiving her unwavering answer, Subaru, after a brief moment, delivered his fist directly into Abel’s stretched torso.
Subaru did not know if Abel had expected to be punched in the face but, having been hit in a location he was not ready to be hit in, the man let out a cry of pain and took a few steps back. Not all of Subaru’s pent-up anger was released by just that but――,
Subaru: [Don’t think we’re even now, shithead…!]
Abel: [――hmph, what a greedy man you are.]
The man picked up the oni mask that had fallen to the side and put it back on. The man who always had something to say back―― Abel.
Having struck the man who was the source of his dam-level pent-up anger, Subaru harshly exhaled.
For he had travelled for three-plus days, taking the path back, just for this one strike.
Flop: [Look sis! Apparently, this is the village of the famous People of Shudraq! It’s in the backwoods of the unexplored regions, just like the rumours say! What a find!]
Medium: [Woah! Amazing, big bro! Look look! Everyone’s abs are ripped just like me! Ripped! Big bro, ripped!]
Flop: [Mega ripped!]
The siblings’ voiced thoughts echoed throughout the settlement. They were seemingly easy-going, no matter where they were.
The duo exchanging their candid opinions were the O’Connell siblings, Flop and Medium. Caught up in the flow of things, they had been invited into the People of Shudraq’s settlement.
They were in the middle of the plaza, sitting atop their ox cart, surrounded by the Shudraqians who had gathered in curiosity. Their fearless attitude appeared to be a constant even in different lands and environments. Acting like big shots, they showed not a single emotion remotely resembling trepidation, alertness or anxiety, even while drawing the eyes and attention of many.
However, they should become more aware of the dangers and harms to one’s life and body when interacting with others. It would be more normal and appropriate to be scared, because currently, they were being surrounded by a pretty much unknown, wild tribe.
Abel: [You have brought back rather noisy company. Were those people required for your journey? If so, the way you and I see value is different.]
Subaru: [I won’t deny we value things differently. There’s a big difference in how you and I see things. ――Saying that, that attitude of yours is really something isn’t it?]
Sitting on the floor of the meeting area, Subaru and Abel faced off against each other, much like how they had done a few days prior.
Abel had received Subaru’s punch of retribution earlier, but there was no inkling of repentance in the tone of his words. Never mind wanting an apology, he did not plan on giving one anyway.
However, Subaru could not ignore his comment on the siblings.
That was because――,
Rem: [Abel-san, we inadvertently got those people involved. They were kind to us when we were stuck standing outside the city… Just because of that.]
The reason for Subaru’s anger was explained instead by Rem.
Unlike last time, the meeting room had not been cleared out, and so members other than Subaru and Abel were also participating in the discourse.
Next to Subaru was Rem, seated seiza-style and their fellow travellers, Kuna and Holly. Seated next to Abel were the sisters Mizelda and Taritta. 
As a side note, on the topic of Louis, she was being looked after by the person closest to her in age, Utakata. She was currently, most likely at the ox cart in the plaza, with the Shuraqian-surrounded O’Connell siblings.
In any case――,
Rem: [With their assistance, we were able to return safely. In doing so, they are now being targeted by the city’s soldiers…]
Abel: [Incorrect, I shall amend that. The ones targeting us and the two outside are not the city’s soldiers. They are the Imperial Soldiers. The ones who serve this country have become your enemy.]
Rem & Subaru: [――――]
From behind his oni mask, Abel’s cold words pierced through Subaru and Rem.
Hearing his dry statement, Rem could only avert her light-blue eyes tiredly. To be honest, that was the undeniable truth of the situation. Subaru understood that.
However, understanding and agreeing with the truth were two different things.
Subaru: [Drawing the badwill of the camp’s Imperial Soldiers was my mistake. Their hostility is also the result of my choices and actions.]
Abel: [That is correct. It is the fate you tied yourself to, even before you encountered the People of Shudraq.]
Subaru: [I can’t make excuses for that fate, because the one who made them an enemy is unmistakably me. ――But, the one who had to pay for those consequences should have just been me.]
It was true that the majority of the fault fell on Subaru, but the problem here was Abel’s attitude.
From the start, he should have known the danger Subaru’s group would be in if they entered Guaral. He should have noticed the possibility where they were attacked after coming into contact with the surviving Imperial Soldiers.
That was why――,
Subaru: [You ordered Kuna and Holly – in advance – to wait for us outside the city. To help us if we were trying to escape the city from pursuers.]
Holly: [For real for real, you guys were in quite a pickle you know~. If me and Kuna weren’t there, Subaru, your head would’ve been split in two by an axe by now~.]
Plunking down into a cross-legged position, Holly stated casually while stuffing her mouth full of dangos. Unlike the person sitting next to her, Kuna, who held an uneasy expression, she did not comprehend the mood of the conversation.
Of course, Subaru was thankful for Holly and Kuna’s help. If not for their assistance, the possibility of his head having been split open back then was quite high.
Subaru: [Using Kuna’s eyes to keep watch and Holly’s bow to support us… A long-range bow and arrow snipe. It’s what you’d call a combo skill with both your talents.]
Kuna: [… No one told me that the situation was that crap though.]
Kuna’s spiritless comment evidently showed that she harboured a sense of guilt towards Subaru’s group.
Saying that however, the guilt that Kuna carried was invalid. That was because the words she had given Subaru before they entered Guaral that had been what had given him the hint he needed.
Had she not advised him, the help that Holly mentioned would have been unattainable.
Subaru: [That kind of thinking only applies to Kuna and Holly. ――Someone like you, who foresaw the whole thing, I’m not going to be nice to.]
This was why he had made the first thing he did after coming back to be his strike of retribution on Abel.
If Abel had shown any traces of self-reflection after receiving that, his feelings may have been different. But, mostly as expected, Abel showed no remorse or even any sign that he thought he did something bad.
With his unchanging, arrogant attitude, he toyed around with Subaru’s anger.
Even now, the sharp stare behind his oni mask showed no clouds of doubt.
It was as if he was about to say, “So what of it?”.
Subaru: [Oi, why don’t you say something instead of shutting up.]
Abel: [――So what of it?]
Subaru: […You actually said it.]
With the aggravating response he had predicted becoming reality, Subaru grit his teeth at Abel’s words and sharpened his glare.
However, Abel coolly let Subaru’s accusatory stare slide and,
Abel: [After returning with vigour and striking me, all you can lay out are dull words of abhorrence? First off, I warned you from the start, did I not?―― That it would not be an easy path.]
Abel: [Latching onto the closest peace and safety you could find, understand that this was the penalty for not using your head. Out of all the actions any of those defeated soldiers could take, going to the city nearest their burnt camp had the highest probability of occurring. It is common sense.]
Subaru: [Then… Then, you should have said that to begin with!]
Sitting with one knee raised, Abel’s words poked unsparingly at Subaru’s overhastiness.
Still, in the first place, Subaru understood his mistake and acknowledged it. He understood that it had been his lack of thinking and actions beforehand that had caused the unfortunate sequence of events to explode and unfold.
However, Abel had been aware that danger lurked, and let it slide. His actions had directly benefited the enemy―― If being allies or enemies was an irrelevant detail, then what he had done was equivalent to setting Subaru up in a trap.
Subaru: [You knew everything from the start. The chances of us encountering the Imperial Army’s survivors, the chances of us having to frantically escape. How, in all that mayhem Rem would…]
Subaru: [Anyway! You knew everything. But you kept your mouth shut.]
Letting his mouth run off without thinking, words which should not be spoken almost came tumbling out. Quickly preventing himself from saying any further, Subaru concentrated his anger at Abel, avoiding to look at the face of the person sitting next to him, Rem.
Subaru was getting worked up in his flames of anger. Towards that, Abel coolly――no, coldly, gazed towards him.
Just how much of this world did this man see through with his penetrating gaze.
And, for a person able to see through so much, for what purpose did he toy with Subaru and the others.
Subaru: [Answer me, shithead. Why did you let us…]
Abel: [To save myself from extra work. Nothing more, nothing less.]
Subaru: [Extra work..?]
In response to Subaru’s angry biting look, Abel let out a sound indistinguishable from a sigh.
When Subaru blinked at his response, Abel gently rubbed the ground of the meeting room, and picked up the parched earth in the palm of his hand.
Abel: [Fellows like you value what is seen with your own foolish eyes more than the words of the wise. The intensity of falling raindrops is more eloquent than anything that could come from my mouth.]
Abel: [Thanks to that, you must feel it keenly. ――That for you, there is nowhere to run to.]
As he spoke, he sprinkled the dirt from his palm and scattered it.
With just that action, Subaru felt an optical illusion of being terribly and clearly blocked in every direction was very much being thrust toward him.
As the Emperor of the Sacred Vollachian Empire, it was simple to manipulate others with skillful words.
In front of the tough sly fox of an Emperor, Subaru’s complaint was no different from the cries of a caged monkey.
So in reality, Subaru was just left at his wit’s end.
Subaru: […Ultimately, what is it you want to do?]
Abel: [I have already told you my intentions. To regain what was stolen. To that end, the current Empire is my adversary. It is your enemy as well.]
Subaru: [――. You’re telling me to cooperate with you?]
Abel: [For the time being, I have explained I possess no reason to harm you.]
For the troubled Subaru, Abel’s words seeped in like poison.
Abel’s art of conversation refused to allow for a clear answer to be grasped, and was endowed with cunning as if to mystify Subaru, but, on the other hand, it also felt as though he was attempting to test Subaru.
Again and again, Abel did not make any assertions to Subaru, yet he continued to speak.
Telling him to think for himself, and choose what to take from it.
This time as well, Abel was provoking him to rise to his level if he wanted to argue. Currently, Subaru could not rise to his same level of discussion.
And His Excellency the Emperor was not so kind as to wait for Subaru to obediently rise to the occasion.
Subaru: […So, everything rests in the palm of your hand? I don’t like it.]
Abel: [――. Unfortunately, I hold only some people in the palm of my hand. It is because of the portion I could not control that currently, I am here, sitting upon the dirt.]
In the reply to what Subaru had spitten out, Abel’s self-deprecation was audible.
His facial expression was not visible, and the tone of his voice also did not change. Still, it seemed like self-deprecation. It was unusual―― No, it was the first time Subaru had heard Abel mock himself.
And it was proof that he had accepted the undeniable reality.
He had allowed his own subordinates to rebel, an uncrowned Emperor, ousted from his throne.
Deep in the jungle, sitting upon the dirt of the Shudraqian meeting place, that situation in particular was evidence that he had made a foolish blunder for which there was no excuse.
While fixing his gaze directly at Abel, Subaru deliberated quietly.
Subaru still was unaware of Abel’s true intentions, as well as his own or their own plans of action hereafter. He wished not to be taken for a ride by Abel’s calculations yet again, and suffer similar misfortune.
Actually, what the hell was Abel thinking?
Subaru certainly didn’t think that Abel would go so far as scheming to bring Subaru over to his side. That he would detect such value in Subaru did not appear plausible.
In spite of that, if there was a reason for Abel to keep Subaru on hand, rather than Subaru’s own self, it was an interest in other accessory――,
???: [――Husband-kun! The people here are truly delightful and big-hearted! I’m impressed!]
Subaru gasped, right in the middle of his serious deliberation.
Losing his footing at the entry to the meeting place, the figure of Flop appeared, his beautiful voice resounding through. In the middle of the meeting place, while he looked out over each face lined up,
Flop: [Oh dear, I apologize for the late greeting! Apparently, it seems the people here are representatives of this village. Oh! Miss Kuna and Miss Holly look-alikes too!]
Kuna: [It is us.]
Holly: [It is~]
Flop: [Oh right! I’m being rude!]
Smoothing down his hair with his hands, Flop briskly moved to the center of the assembly, and bowed wearing a friendly smile.
Flop: [Allow me to correct myself, I’m Flop O’Connell! I do peddling with my sister Medium and Botecliffe. It seems for various reasons we ended up accompanying Husband-kun, Wife-san, and Niece-chan on an incident-filled journey to this position. From now on, everyone, I am in your care!]
Taritta: [Is he being polite or not…]
At Flop’s vigorous greeting, Taritta wore a vexed expression. Then with a glance she peeped at the adjacent Mizelda’s face,
Taritta: [Sister, what shall be done? Outsiders are ordered to stay back…]
Mizelda: [That’s true… Well, he’s a sexy man. I’ll keep him in my room.]
Folding her arms, Mizelda decided on Flop’s treatment by his face.
Mizelda’s judgement by exceedingly simple logic was easy to understand, but seemed troubling to Taritta, who supported her older sister as the chief. Of course, if that alone was the basis for Mizelda’s judgements, Subaru would not have been able to remain in the village, so he thought there must be more to it.
Subaru: [Right, Mizelda-san, there’s one thing I want to check. Flop-san is my guest, or perhaps I should say I decided on my own to bring him along. But, about making him undergo the Lifeblood Ritual…]
Flop: [Lifeblood Ritual? By chance, could that be some kind of traditional welcoming ceremony passed down in this village!? Certainly, I would love to have that experience too!]
Subaru: [It’s a traditional ceremony, but it’s a bit rough to be called welcoming.]
Flop was looking forward to trying the ritual, but even he would likely become reluctant if he were presented with the possibility of being pitted against a Witchbeast. Subaru was afraid that there was a possibility that Flop’s attitude would not change upon hearing that, but either way, he did not want to let it happen.
Abel: [――I knew from the moment we were partitioned by this thin wall, but they are a noisy bunch.]
And now, the one who did not welcome that attitude of Flop’s was the ruthless Emperor donning an oni mask.
It was a stark contrast between the sunny warmth of Flop and the cold blood flowing through Abel. At least, the fact that Abel seemed to have no reason to like Flop made Subaru’s blood freeze.
Flop: [Oh my! What an unusual mask… Is he perhaps the head of the village by chance? I read somewhere that people who have special appearances have special positions!]
At the first chance meeting of the pair, Flop started by referencing Abel’s striking appearance.
Flop’s conclusion from the conspicuous oni mask was understandable, but it was difficult to deem Abel as one of the People of Shudraq. At any rate, the part about the oni mask aside, he was culturally quite far removed from the other Shudraqians. Especially from visuals, his appearance was far too irregular.
Abel: [It is not a poor way of thinking, but lacks attentiveness and prudence. A moment ago, you spoke of your occupation as being that of peddling…]
Flop: [Oh, yeah! My sister’s Botecliffe pulls the ox cart that carries our goods, and we do trade all over the Empire… We are nomadic siblings wandering with the wind!]
With his hand pressed to his chest, Flop responded as if singing.
Outside the building, a voice could be heard saying “That’s my big bro!” from the public square. Even though separated by a thin wall, there was a deep bond between the siblings.
However, even proof of such a wholesome relationship, seemed not to be grounds to Abel to warm his utterly frozen heart.
Upon hearing Flop’s reply, Abel sniffed a small “hmph”,
Abel: [――Natsuki Subaru, you say you picked these up in the city.]
Subaru: [Don’t go treating people like objects. To start, if I accurately express the state of affairs, a more correct representation is that we were picked up by Flop-san.]
Abel: [The essence is what matters. I am not at leisure to concern myself with trifles. Nevertheless, I will first commend you for returning in this way. It was a great feat.]
Subaru: [Sure doesn’t feel like praise… What the hell are you scheming.]
Frankly, Flop and Abel were a bad match in Subaru’s view.
For that reason, he had planned to ask Flop to wait in the square and introduce him when an opportunity arose, but Abel’s reaction was unforeseen by Subaru.
But then, Abel’s interest was not in Flop’s humanity. Naturally, it would not be the presence of Medium, who was known by the loudness of her voice alone, either. As such, the answer was clear.
Abel: [Merchant, to what degree are you acquainted with Guaral?]
Flop: [That’s a good question, Village Chief-kun! I’m proud to say I’m pretty well-known in Guaral. At any rate, it’s certain our lives would be over if we traveled too far. Since even peddlers have to get accustomed to travel coming and going from fixed places!]
Kuna: [Seems like a fine line between caution and cowardice, huh…]
Kuna let out an exasperated sigh at Flop’s overflowing ever-positive self-confidence.
But, listening to Flop’s answer, Abel kept silent under his oni mask. ――No, Subaru’s ears picked up a faint sound out of the silence.
It was a small noise from Abel’s throat.
Abel: [How fortuitous. Quite the find, Natsuki Subaru. ――A peddler intimate with the city would likely happen to know a byway or two.]
Subaru: [Oi, hold up, Abel. A byway? What are you suggesting?]
Abel: [Again you look towards another for answers? It would appear you fail to comprehend the purpose of my repeated interrogation. I lack the words to label such ignorance with.]
Every single bit of his manner of speaking was aggravating, but he had no retort for Abel’s words.
Natsuki Subaru was too isolated and helpless to actually break off the discussion here, and turn his back and leave. Therefore, he thought carefully, even if it was annoying.
――No, even without thinking about it, he had a pretty good grasp on Abel’s intention.
Just now, it was evident from listening to the interrogation of Flop.
Subaru: [Abel, you, are you seriously…]
Abel: [Even slow minds can happen upon the answer if utilized. Ahh, as expected of your thinking.]
With trembling lips and stiff cheeks, Subaru looked back, and Abel’s penetrating gaze from behind the oni mask told of his cold-hearted plan.
Then, Abel spoke, informing everyone besides Subaru.
Abel: [――The Fortress City of Guaral shall fall. That city is necessary as our next base.]
 – Seiza (正座) is the Japanese term for the formal way of sitting in Japan (kneeling with the tops of the feet flat on the floor and sitting on the soles). It is literally translated as “proper sitting”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seiza