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One by one, the corpses were thrown inside the deep hole they’d dug. They had been stripped of their black garb, and even their dying faces, pitiful and wretched, had been laid bare. Their deaths would neither be known nor mourned by anyone, laid here beneath the cold, dark soil.
???: [I think a phrase like life comes and goes is quite fitting here. Life’s fleeting after all. Don’cha think?]
He called out to the corpses as they were buried, but naturally they didn’t reply back to him.
One of the soldiers burying the bodies called out to him instead with an: “Al-sama”. He was a member of the so-called Red Plates, with red armour bedecking his entire body.
The soldiers were part of the private forces belonging to Priscilla, who was the lord of the Barielle Territory; several of them were busying themselves with burying the bodies. As could be plainly seen from the sloppy manner they were going about it, the ones they were burying weren’t their own comrades or associates. It was the opposite.
Soldier: [I heard that you crossed swords with one of the assassins that broke into the mansion; were you injured?]
Al: [Should be pretty obvious from looking at me. The fighting was really damn fierce you see, I even ended up losin’ my left arm.]
Soldier: […I really don’t know what to say to that.]
The overly-serious young man pulled a wry face, to which Al shrugged his shoulders, thinking to himself “Ugh, this guy doesn’t get jokes.” That said, the youth was actually worried about him, so Al raised his right arm up and turned around,
Al: [No need to worry, I ain’t injured. After persevering thirty times, I finally managed to find a good way to win without straining myself.]
Soldier: [Huh…? Nevermind, the main thing is that you’re okay.]
The Red Plates were often swept up in Al’s eccentric behaviour, thus they didn’t bother probing into what he’d said, unable to understand what he was referring to.
Soldier: [In any case, I’m glad neither Al-sama nor any of the servants were harmed. ――Not to mention, I can’t imagine what we would have done if something were to have happened to Priscilla-sama.]
Soldier: [The one who protected Priscilla-sama was that awfully ill-reputed Deputy Commander of the Royal Guards, or whatever. I guess he’s still the Sword Saint’s father, even if he’s rotten to the bone.]
Soldier: [Yet even if he’s the Sword Saint’s father and the Deputy Commander of the Royal Guards, it’d be real nice if he weren’t so rotten.]
The other soldiers used the words of the youth, who was delighted about Al’s safety, as an opportunity to continue speaking while they filled the hole in. Though they held mixed impressions about the Deputy Commander, there was probably a lot of merit to their scathing backtalk. Al’s impressions were more or less the same. ――They were mixed, but there was some gratitude in them.
Al: […I really had no idea what was gonna happen to the Princess after all.]
He’d decided a long time ago that he was ready to put his life on the line as Priscilla’s meat shield wherever possible. Even so, it wasn’t realistic for him to protect her by always sticking with her around the clock.
He wondered what would have happened to Priscilla if she’d been completely on her own in what had happened earlier.
Al: [Knowing her, the Princess would probably still end up pulling through somehow, even on her own…]
Soldier: [Even so, an assassination at a time like this… It has to be one of the other Royal Selection Candidates, right?]
Al: [Don’cha think they aren’t the sort of women who’d lose their cool like this? Well, either way, the Princess probably has an inkling about what’s going on, actually, no, she probably knows exactly what’s up. Though I don’t imagine she’ll tell us straight.]
Soldier: [‘Tis quite vexing for those of us at her side protecting her.]
Al: [Yeah, I agree.]
The soldier cast his eyes down and let out a sigh before getting back to his burial work. Since Al only had one arm, he could only play the part of the supervisor, rather than holding them back with their work. Nevertheless, he could fully understand the worries and fears the Red Plates carried.
Al silently plunged deep into thought over the turmoil of the situation Priscilla had been put in, while gazing at the faces of the dead being buried in the ground, destined to become fertiliser for the soil.
About a month had passed since the disaster that was the Witch Cult attacking had been settled.
Priscilla’s group had returned back to their own lands in the south of the Kingdom. As soon as they’d gotten back, they’d been besieged by assassins, right in their dearly-missed home.
Fortunately though, they were able to turn the tables on them with the fighting strength they had in the mansion, and things ended with the camp incurring no damages.
Even so, it remained unclear to whom the assassins belonged. Priscilla had ordered Al to bury their bodies with the help of the Red Plates, and they’d just finished doing that.
Although the Red Plates were concerned as well, the simplest possibility as to where the assassins came from was from one of the other Royal Selection Candidates―― After all, they were in the midst of a battle for the Kingdom’s throne. Stuff like assassinations and secret plots should be pretty unsurprising.
However, due to what had happened back in Pristella, the other camps probably couldn’t afford to put any energy into these feuds. And the candidates’ personalities too, they probably wouldn’t be too fond of such things.
Of course, he also had to consider the chance that someone took preparations to ensure that their favoured candidate would win, and it having nothing to do with the personalities of the candidates themselves, or their involvement in the first place. But this was going to get him nowhere.
Priscilla would surely skip over such details and come up with an answer using her powers of insight that no one else was privy to. However, whether she was going to give him a reply was a different story…
???: [――The assassins who targeted me must have come from Vollachia.]
In stark contrast to what Al had been expecting, Priscilla presented her thoughts without any fuss.
???: [Vollachia…You mean the big Kingdom to the south?]
Priscilla: [It looks like you’ve been studying, but that’s not quite right. Vollachia is an Empire, not a Kingdom, since an Emperor, and not a King, stands above the masses.]
???: [Is there a difference between a King and an Emperor…?]
Priscilla: [No, not really. They’re both foolish and ugly compared to me.]
Al: [That ain’t much of an answer…]
Priscilla was in her study, sitting with her legs crossed on her favourite chair, surrounded by tons of bookshelves. She glared at Al with her crimson eyes as he muttered his complaints.
He shrank back from her piercing gaze and shamelessly cowered behind the short servant ― Schult ― who was there standing there next to him.
Schult: [Al-sama, Al-sama! I’m pretty small, so Priscilla-sama can still see you!]
Al: [Whoa whoa, c’mon Schult-chan. Please help me out here and turn into a man that’s big enough to hide me.]
Schult: [I-I’ll try my best…! Oh, I know! What if I take a suuuper deep breath…]
Schult looked adorable as he tried to take in a deep breath to make his body look a teensy-bit bigger. Al managed to hide his head behind the young boy’s cute efforts, before then speaking out.
Al: [Anyways, how did you know the assassins were from Vollachia?]
Priscilla: [You fool, how could I not? They failed in their assassination, and before committing suicide, I asked one of them a question. It should have been pretty obvious from their reaction.]
Al: [The wolf of the sword… I know that refers to Vollachia’s coat of arms, ya feel? I get that their reaction is fishy as hell too, but what I’m asking is: from where did the Empire come into this in the first place?]
This was why the ones who ought to have attracted their suspicions first should have been the Royal Selection Candidates and those involved with them.
Even if the suspicion cast on them had been cleared up due to some factor, he still couldn’t comprehend why the next option that had popped up was a foreign intervention.
Al: [Plus, why’s it gotta be Vollachia? I’ve got nothing but terrible, terrible impressions left towards that country.]
Schult: [Did something happen to you there, Al-sama?]
Al: [Yeah, as you can see, I ended up losing my left arm.]
Hearing Schult’s innocent question, Al let out his second one-armed joke of the day. Although, this time his answer had a shred of truth to it.
Al had lost his left arm and became a one-armed man due to the spectacle that went on in the Vollachian Empire’s Gladiator Island, Guninhive, in the arena.
Al: [It’s pretty rough having to kill one another for the entertainment of others, ya know? It would have at least been better if things had ended up easier…]
Schult: [Easier… But even so, I’m glad I got to meet you, Al-sama.]
Al’s eyes gazed in wonder inside his helmet as he heard those unexpected words coming from the little boy. Schult’s round eyes widened in surprise as continued to reflect Al in his red irises.
Schult: [If you’d ended up having it easy back there, Al-sama, I wouldn’t have been able to meet you like this. Meaning, that in that earlier kerfuffle, I would have…]
Al: […Jeez, you sure have a way with words, don’cha?]
Since Schult could say these things quite naturally, without any pre-planning, it led to him having a natural talent for getting people to like him. Coupled with his adorable looks, if he kept growing up like this, he could end up being renowned far and wide as a playboy in the future.
Al: [Either way, it makes me proud to say that having protected a future like that is one of my crowning glories in my life. Princess, are you going to answer my question from before? Like, what basis is there for these Vollachian assassins…]
Priscilla: [It’s obvious. ――The Empire really felt like killing me.]
Al: […You, princess? Don’t tell me it’s some sort of issue with the catastrophe Leip left behind?]
The domain Priscilla ruled over, the Barielle Barony, were originally the lands of her late husband, Leip Barielle. The barony was located near the border with the southern Vollachian Empire. It served as a buffer zone between the Kingdom and the Empire; the latter of which was always in conflict with the former one way or another.
It wouldn’t surprise him if they’d earned the Empire’s enmity from something like that. And although Al had been thinking that, Priscilla’s reply came as a complete shock to him.
Priscilla: [No, my foolish husband had nothing to do with it. The reason why the Vollachian Empire is trying to kill me should be because I come from its imperial family, but faked my death before later fleeing the country.]
She said those words while resting her chin against her hands, with a look of tedium on her face. Although he’d taken in what she’d said, his brain could barely process what she’d meant, leaving him completely confused.
What was it that she’d said now? ――That she came from its imperial family?
Schult: [So you’re really from the Empire, Priscilla-sama!]
Priscilla: [There’s really not a scrap of significance to be had in where one is born. Regardless, were you to trace back to where I was born, it’s sure to be that land where my history began.]
Schult: [Um, but like, you came to the Kingdom?]
Priscilla: [I had to, in order to avoid those troublesome rules. It’s the way of the Empire after all, to be unable to succeed its throne without first killing all of your siblings…I am completely fed up with it.]
Al: [Wait, wait, wait, wait, waaaait.]
Priscilla casually answered Schult’s innocent question, showing no signs of hesitation. Nevertheless, Al really couldn’t help but interrupt, having been listening beside him in utter confusion.
This was news even for Al, who due to one reason or another possessed a lot of knowledge that others didn’t. He’d never dug deep into Priscilla’s history, but…
Al: [Princess, if I’m not mistaken, wasn’t your title: daughter of a feudal lord?]
Priscilla: [That’s because I switched places with a girl who’d come as a servant, to learn the ways of etiquette, at the time I faked my death.]
Al: […So you’re seriously Vollachian nobility?]
Priscilla: [What reason would I have to lie? You ought to be mindful of your heedless behaviour.]
Though Priscilla’s demeanor was cool and collected, there was still time for Al’s mind to snap back to its sense.
Of course, there were times where Priscilla would say pretty erratic things, but that was just down to the fact that her ability to think outside the norm went beyond the understanding of ordinary men and women. That, and she wasn’t the type who’d go out of her way to deceive people.
In other words, it meant that everything she’d told them here was the truth.
Al: [I’ve heard that the succession to the Vollachian throne is a pretty damn crazy affair. All the Emperor’s children who hold the right to succession set out to kill each other, right? So, the current Emperor must be…]
Priscilla: [My elder brother. Though he’s my half-brother.]
Her reply was nonchalant as ever, but that shouldn’t have been the case to begin with.
He’d taken up the seat of Emperor with another one of his siblings who held the right to succession still alive. It would be a terrible scandal if that were to come to light, even should he be ousted from the throne.
Al: [Then why did you participate in the Royal Selection?]
Al: [Like, isn’t it obvious? You hold a position that stands out a ton, so you saying you pretended to be dead so you’d escape makes no sense. Shouldn’t it be obvious that the Empire would notice, as well as that assassins would come?]
Priscilla: [So, you’re implying I should live in fear of them, with my head down, eyes shut and ears plugged? If you’re being serious about that, then I must have been awfully wrong about you.]
Al let out a small gulp as he felt cold heat coming from her crimson eyes.
However, he wasn’t going to be so reluctant as to take back his opinion because of that. Al was convinced that his opinion was right in this matter.
If Prisiclla held her life dear, then she shouldn’t have gotten involved in stuff like the Royal Selection.
Al: […Though who am I to say that?]
Al realised, as he tried to call Priscilla’s behaviour into question, that he didn’t have the qualifications to do so.
The one who’d twisted her path into shape, had been none other than Al himself. There’d once been the choice for him, to progress things in a different manner, and not let her participate in the Royal Selection.
Al had already made the choice when he refused to help Leip Barielle with his wicked scheme. He was wrong here to pin the blame on Priscilla for his own choice.
Al: [So, Princess… What will you do now?]
Priscilla: [Hmm. Since the assassins won’t have returned, the Empire will immediately make their next move. It will be nigh impossible to change their minds. Thus, the path we must follow is but one.]
Priscilla gave a radiant smile, like that of a blazing fire, as she snapped her fingers.
Priscilla: […To settle this in person.]
Al’s breath hitched for a moment when he heard her unyielding answer. Beside them, with a nervous look on his face, Schult anxiously observed their back and forth. Even if his worries for Priscilla were genuine, he could barely follow the conversation, considering how young he was.
That’s why only Al could advise Priscilla against this.
Al: [Princess, I know you may not want to listen to me, but please listen to what I have to say. It’s not like we have only one option. We can forget about the Empire, and even with the Royal Selection, and everything, there’s the option to abandon them――]
Al counselled her with rueful resignation, that it’d be for the best if it was to put her first.
Or otherwise, he had to take into account the possibility that this might incur her wrath as well. That’s why he’d been somewhat surprised, though not enough as to cluelessly wonder why.
――Even were he to have his head burnt off, without having a chance to explain himself, by the Yang Sword of Priscilla, who’d gotten up from her chair.
There are things that won’t change, no matter what you say or how many different actions you take.
That was the case with fate or faith unyielding, things which weren’t influenced by the actions or interference of others. A stubborn person, who won’t budge once they decide on something, won’t yield, regardless what kind of persuasion or threats you use. And the most stubborn person Al knew, was Priscilla.
Thus, when his attempts to make her give up on the idea were about to reach one thousand, Al was left with no choice but to regretfully admit that his persuasions weren’t going to work.
Priscilla: […To settle this in person.]
Priscilla’s choice couldn’t be changed anymore by outside interference. Al understood that more than enough, thus he let out a sigh, and said.
Al: [I get what you mean, Princess. I don’t have any objections.]
Priscilla: [Oh? Now that’s surprising. Considering your behaviour recently, I was thinking that you’d have been foolish enough to not understand your position and go against me, getting your head lopped off in the process.]
Al: […I’m sorry things haven’t gone your way.]
Al couldn’t hide the cold sweat within his helmet, speaking to her like he’d seen that before.
Either way, he knew all too well that he wouldn’t be able to change her choice. Thus, what Al could do was deal with every single obstacle that awaited her.
…This was a reawakening of the same determination he’d held on the day he’d decided to stop being a following star.
Priscilla: [Then get prepared. We’ll be going to the Empire as soon as the inspection of our lands is complete.]
Schult: [R-Right away! I’ll give it my all as well!]
Schult stood up straight and replied back to Priscilla, holding no intentions of going against what Priscilla had decided. Al afforded only a glance to the side at their exchange, before looking out at the scenery outside from the study window.
Under the endless sky, far, far away, lay the Vollachian Empire―― A land that Al held a close connection with; a land that Al never wanted to set foot in again, if possible.
Al: […Let’s do this, shall we. Bring it on, oh inevitable fate!]
No matter what awaited, he would break through each dead-end and seize the result they so desired.
Al, or rather, Aldebaran, clenched his remaining fist in determination, unbeknownst to anyone.