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――As the flames of rebellion spread throughout the Vollachian Empire, signs of unrest were growing with each day.
More than nine years had passed since Vincent Vollachia ascended to the throne as the Emperor, but this was the first time domestic affairs were burnt to a crisp, and people’s hearts have been in turmoil.
The history of the Vollachian Empire was a history of war.
Even if a historically unprecedented era of peace had arrived, conflicts occurring in places beyond the reach of the eyes and ears of the Imperial Capital could not be completely prevented. As a result, people were never truly at ease.
But even so, the people living in the Imperial Capital of Lupugana had had a semblance of peace.
As the Imperial Capital was under the Emperor’s heel, it was only in that magnificent city that conflicts did not occur. In a way, this safety rested upon Emperor Vincent Vollachia’s authority――However, that was a thing of the past.
The year before last, an attempt to assassinate the Emperor had occurred in none other than the Imperial Capital. The Emperor had been so severely wounded as to nearly lose his life, the perpetrator a Divine General.
Since that incident, the people learned that they were never truly safe within the Empire. After they learned it, they also anticipated this.
Therefore the Emperor’s status remained unshaken by the spirit of rebellion of the Nine Divine Generals at the peak of the Empire’s military might and the Vollachian Empire would not collapse no matter how much it was shaken to the core――.
???: [――The safety and expectations of the people have been greatly shaken as of late.]
A report acknowledging the cracks in the basic principles laid out in the Empire.
When this report echoed through the majestic throne room, every person trying to close their ears to these unpleasant words could have been mercilessly beheaded on the spot, so it was not surprising everyone was so hesitant.
The civil officials and military officers, lined up here in the Imperial Capital’s Crystal Palace――even if their respective battlefields differed, all the people gathered here at the very core of the Vollachian Empire were doubtlessly warriors. Even those people could not help but hesitate, because to be seen here as a cowardly warrior was directly linked to nothing but death.
It was not death that any of them feared. What they feared was dying in vain.
They feared they would meet a death unbefitting a brave warrior of Vollachia.
Therefore, the generals paid respect to the white-haired wise old man who proposed it, Prime Minister Berstetz Fondalfon. And then, they awaited the response of Vincent, to whom the Prime Minister issued his report.
The large throne, enclosing the entirety of his slender body, had been continually passed down as a symbol of authority since the era of the first Emperor of Vollachia.
With the national flag hoisted behind the throne, the national emblem of a wolf pierced by swords looked down upon the troops. With the Sword Wolf behind him, Vincent sat calm and composed.
Leisurely leaning back against the throne, Vincent showed no sign of military might.
In fact, no one had ever heard a rumor that this Emperor, endowed with unfathomable wisdom, would excel at martial arts. It was unlikely that anyone had seen him wield a sword or express an interest in hunting.
As long as an Emperor resided on the Imperial throne, he was expected to rule the entirety of the Empire without exception.
Even though the Empire valued strength above all, martial arts skill was not a requirement for the Emperor at its top. That was because the Emperor’s sword was none other than his peerlessly powerful followers.
A large part of the troops were pressured by the Emperor, who did nothing but sit there silently.
Not only would they lose nothing from trying to cut him down, the throne was merely a few seconds’ worth of distance away. If it was natural for the strong to oppress the weak, then the Imperial troops did not have the slightest reason to fear this Emperor.
Nevertheless, the distance and the unopposable presence of the Emperor were unassailable.
Vincent: [The safety of the people, hm?]
Suddenly, breaking the silence till then, these words left the Emperor’s lips.
Just as it seemed that the tension pervading the throne room would subside, it grew heavier instead, constricting the hearts of the troops.
Vincent narrowed his almond-black eyes and gazed at Berstetz, who had continued to pledge his fealty with his palm and fist put together in front of his chest,
Vincent: [Since when had the emperors of my country begun to take notice of its people’s anguish?]
Berstez: […I understand what you are saying, Your Excellency. However, the reality is that the people’s rumors have raised concerns about Your Excellency’s reign. If this is neglected, this poisonous blood will spread like a disease throughout the Empire.]
Vincent: [Are you advising to spill all this poisonous blood?]
Berstetz: [Most humbly, even Your Excellency the Emperor would lose his life if he were decapitated. Would it not be imprudent to lose one’s head to spare a limb?]
Berstetz: [Of course, it would be ideal if this matter could be repressed with just fingers, ears, and nails.]
Concluding his final remark with a bow, Berstetz thus stated his own opinion.
That frank, or, in other words, inconsiderate proposal, made the other troops shudder. But at the same time, they admired him for speaking for them and saying what needed to be said.
After all, Berstetz expressed the collective opinion of all the troops about the rebellion spreading throughout the Empire.
The Imperial Soldiers were furious at the people resigning to Vincent’s reign, bandwagoning with the ones occasionally raising their voices, and rising up in rebellion all over the place.
If one were to be a part of that first group, they would also be qualified to take the stage as a valiant adversary. But what of the shamefulness of those that followed?
Fighting, winning, and securing were the fundamental principles of the people of the Empire.
The people of the Empire must be strong, too many people misinterpreted the intent of that saying, and used it for their own gain. Wouldn’t exterminating them be the only way that the intent of “the people of the Empire must be strong” could be truly embodied?
However, Vincent had not taken proactive countermeasures against these rebellions and relied on the spread out garrisons to fend them off. Although――,
Berstetz: [Dispatching all the Generals of the First-Class just to nip the rebellions in the bud will not fundamentally resolve the situation.]
Vincent: [――Quite eloquent, Berstetz. Facing me directly, with all the troops in formation behind you, makes it look as if you were the head of the rebellion.]
Berstetz: [You jest. I am not prepared to lead a rebellion and drive Your Excellency away from the throne.]
With a small snort, Vincent paid no mind to Berstetz’s refutation.
Nevertheless, it was understandable why Vincent would say such a thing. After all, all of Berstetz’s words had been spoken on behalf of the hearts of the Imperial troops for quite a while.
Including the point where he mentioned the anticipated deployment of the Generals of the First-Class, and advised against it as being insufficient.
Setting aside the blood-soaked, sharp-tongued exchange that followed――.
Berstetz: [Your Excellency, this rebellion is…]
Vincent: [I have heeded your counsel. However――]
Vincent: [――I too have a plan.]
Vincent’s gaze swept over Berstetz and the assembled generals and troops, erasing any lingering distrust they might have had of the Emperor.
When the meeting was called and they were initially assembled in the throne room, each of the troops had their own feelings about Vincent’s reluctance to take a stand against this rebellion.
In fact, it was Berstetz who advocated on behalf of the troops, but the feelings of the troops were shared by all of them, which became all the more amplified when they heard what he had to say.
Those feelings, which in a sense were about to spread like the flames of rebellion, were extinguished.
Like a great fire being doused by wind and water, they were slowed, weakened, and drowned out.
Vincent: [Or, do you doubt my words?]
Berstetz’s eyebrows quivered as he was asked by the Emperor, the owner of such profound wisdom.
What kind of emotions were flickering behind those thread-like narrow eyes, uninferable by the rest, was unknown to anyone in attendance.
Only one thing was certain.
Troops: [――No, absolutely not!]
It was that the troops were in unison with their voices, and they answered the Emperor’s question in a gallant manner.
Stamping their feet, the military officers drew and raised the swords from their waists. The civilian officials clasped their palms and fists together in front of their chests, each making the most respectful bow appropriate for their position and responding as such to the Emperor’s question.
No one could decipher the thoughts of Emperor Vincent Vollachia.
However, if the question being imposed here was whether to dismiss that which they could not comprehend as being something untrustworthy, then that was a no.
If what was needed for trust was words and accomplishments, Vincent had demonstrated a proven record.
His achievements were worthy of note, beginning with his “Imperial Selection Ceremony” to become emperor, which was followed by a reign free of major turmoils.
Having demonstrated his performance, the Emperor had also spoken the words necessary for trust.
――Do you doubt my words, he had asked.
Vincent: [I’ve given this rebellion a great deal of thought. So, unless I tell you everything, from beginning to end about this, is it the case that you cannot even satisfactorily obey?]
Troops: [――No, absolutely not!]
Vincent: [Then if that is so, prick up your ears, and do what needs to be done before your eyes wander about. I have no intention of sugarcoating the veneers of your position for those who fail to do what needs to be done.]
The Emperor’s speech was both cold and sharp, which was why he seemed so familiar to the troops.
Vincent’s gaze and tone of voice had the power to manipulate the zeal of others’ souls. His devilishness, which was capable of being hot or cold, made the hearts of the troops burn at that moment.
The troops’ eyes glazed over with anxiety and suspicion as they wondered what he was thinking.
No concrete answer was given. But the clouded eyes of the troops cleared. ――Because their Emperor made it clear to them that he was working his deepest machinations.
Only then could the many Imperial Soldiers trust in victory and fight on.
Berstetz: [What would you like to divulge to me and the troops, if only a little?]
Vincent: [For what purpose? If I reveal it, it will cast a shadow over my strategy. Instead, what would be gained? Peace of mind for you, and those troops who are frightened of what lies ahead?]
Vincent brushed Berstetz off with a harsh tone, as if to say there’s no merit to comparing these.
But the troops supported Vincent’s answer. They no longer had the feeling in their hearts from earlier that Berstetz’s words spoke for them.
Rather, they even felt angry and frustrated at Berstetz’s proposal. Vincent made it clear that he had his own thinking. That should be enough.
Vincent: [You may disagree. I, however, do not intend to offer an explanation based solely on the prestige of the Empire.]
Looking at the silent Berstetz, Vincent added to his words.
At the sound of the Emperor’s voice persuading his unconvinced opponents, many of the troops inwardly shook their heads. No further words were needed. And yet, the Emperor continued.
Vincent: [But as I stated. I have no desire to reveal my intentions to you. Instead, I have only one word for you.]
Berstetz: [Your Excellency…]
Vincent: [The people of the Empire must be strong.]
Vincent: [――I shall prepare a battlefield befitting the way of the Sword Wolf.]
Nodding deeply, Vincent promised the assembled troops, over Berstetz.
A beat later, a scorching passion burned through the troops’ bodies. The inferno that clad them was no less ferocious than the fires of rebellion spreading throughout the Empire.
If the rebellion was a flame of distrust of the Emperor, then the burning within the troops became a flame of confidence in the Emperor.
Vincent and Berstetz: [――――]
Vincent and Berstetz looked at each other silently as the heat quietly built among the troops.
The Emperor and the Prime Minister, both of whom occupy the highest positions in the Empire thanks to their ingenuity; the surrounding troops could not guess the intent of the glances exchanged by the two.
However, Berstetz did not make any further statements that would undermine the Emperor’s intentions.
Berstetz: [――Your Excellency, with all due respect, I have one more question.]
Vincent: [More questions and suspicions? Unlike the first time, those behind you do not appear to be on your side.]
Berstetz: [It is very difficult for one in the position of Prime Minister to decide whether or not to make a recommendation based on the presence or absence of allies.]
Vincent: [Your mouth works. Speak.]
Vincent urged him to do so, giving a jerk of his thin jaw.
In response, Berstetz prefaced his remarks with the words, “Then,” and then continued.
Berstetz: [――The Crown Prince with the black hair.]
Berstetz: [The ones who rebel throughout the land, have championed him as their leader. He is a black-haired, black-eyed boy, and his origins are… that of being an undisclosed Son of His Excellency.]
Like Fire Magic Stones infused with mana, Berstetz’s act of throwing them in, for better or for worse, once again made the troops around him, who couldn’t grasp their surroundings clearly, speechless.
The troops had heard the rumors about this. Even for them, it would be a lie to say that they did not care about the truth of the rumors. But they did not have the courage to confirm them.
Berstetz questioned this directly, and yet again there was anticipation, as the troops, who should have been overcome with animosity, seemed to do an about-face.
The existence of the Crown Prince was now the sole focus of attention of all the people of the Empire.
How it appeared to Vincent’s eyes, how his ears heard it, and how his mouth spoke of it.
After a short pause, Vincent called out to the Prime Minister with a “Berstetz”.
Vincent: [Do not be swayed by such frivolous rumors. I have no children. If necessary, find out where these rumors come from and bring the heir to the throne before me. I will keep him as a clown for my amusement.]
And with a wicked smile on his face, the black-haired Emperor assured them so.
Berstetz: [――Is the Crown Prince truly not Your Excellency’s son?]
It was the same question that was posed a few minutes ago in the presence of a large crowd.
However, the tone of emotion in his voice was slightly different and carried more weight. It was a serious question and a voice that only those who heard it would understand.
After all, it was a matter of life and death for the old man who asked the question.
The location was neither the throne room nor the Crystal Palace, but the Prime Minister’s residence within the Imperial Capital.
Although they were both in charge of the government of the Empire, the tension between Vincent and Berstetz was always on edge and the perception around them was that they did not get along, to put it politely.
For that reason, their dialogue was sure to be a great shock to those who witnessed it.
Vincent Vollachia secretly visited Berstetz Fondalfon’s mansion and they faced each other in a room in this way.
Of course, if you went by the meaning of the word “shock”, it would be far more on the side of reality.
Vincent narrowed his black eyes at the question, fixed his eyes on his partner and remained silent. Rather than simply deliberating, the Emperor took pauses in order to drive his opponents into a corner, so Berstetz was in no hurry.
He was an old man who knew the effects of both silence and pauses.
In fact, although it was called a “matter of life and death”, there was not a trace of anxiety, agitation, or self-preservation in Berstetz’s appearance as he posed the question and waited for an answer.
Indeed, there was not the slightest hint of self-preservation. That was what was most alarming about this old man.
Vincent: [The answer changes not. I have no heirs. All of that is nonsense.]
Berstetz: [As I told you before, the discussion here will not leak out. Even if it were General First-Class Olbart, his strained ears will not pick up anything. You know this.]
After a long pause, Berstetz responded to Vincent’s answer.
The “tea chamber” in Berstetz’s mansion was a small fortress with all the necessities for the sole purpose of holding secret talks. There was talk that within Vollachia, the mystical barriers that used rare magic were employing things like mysterious curse arts or Meteors.
It was rumored that this “tea chamber” alone cost enough to buy an entire city.
Berstetz: [I have received the necessary stipend. I will offer it to you after my death, so you may put it to good use.]
Vincent: [Do you think a room named “tea chamber” would suit the Crystal Palace?]
Berstetz: [The name and interior are not important, so you can redecorate it as you like. What’s important is its function… Here, you don’t need to wear a false skin.]
Rather than using implied meanings, Berstetz spoke in a frank register to strip him of his mask.
At that, Vincent closed one eye. It was not contemplation. The answer was obvious. This was just another pause, another period of silence.
Even though he knew it would have no effect on the old man before him, he would not cut corners.
He was not going to deviate from what he had already decided. He had been told bluntly by easygoing old acquaintances that it was not a game, but it was in his nature.
Vincent: [I have no reason to follow your lead. You and I are in a relationship of mutual struggle based on our mutual interests. Do not misunderstand that.]
Berstetz: [I see. If that is the case, I would like you to dispel my doubts.]
Berstetz: [I will ask again. You do not have a son, do you, Your Excellency the Emperor?]
Vincent: [――. The answer remains the same.]
Vincent repeated the same answer over and over again. Berstetz responded with a short, “I see,” without a trace of disappointment or relief on his face.
If he considered the goal of this old man, he understood just what he had to respond with, but as Vincent was connected to the matter at hand, he asked a question in return.
Vincent: [For the sake of argument, if I had a child, what would you do?]
Berstetz: [If His Excellency had a son, it means that His Excellency was willing to fulfill the duties of the Emperor. The son would be secured as soon as possible and we would have the real His Excellency return to the throne.]
Vincent: [Hmm. Then, what about me?]
Berstetz: [As to how traitors meet their end, we both know, don’t we?]
Berstetz was thorough in his response, which was matter-of-fact and calm.
It was refreshing to see a man who had come all this way to the extremes of selflessness in order to serve the Empire’s way of being. The fact that there was not a speck of uncertainty in his appearance made the abnormality stand out even more.
With that, despite Berstetz’s thoughts――,
Vincent: [――The rumors about the Crown Prince must have been spread by the man himself, who keeps on getting away.]
Berstetz: [Do you think it will provoke rebellion in various places? Is it possible that there were children of whom even you and General First-Class Cecilus weren’t informed?]
Vincent: [It is not possible.]
Berstetz: [Even you don’t know everything about His Excellency.]
Vincent: [――It is not possible.]
Vincent shook his head at Berstetz, who liked to iron out the finest details.
This was not wishful thinking, a desire, or pretending to understand. It could not have happened. He could assure him without a shred of doubt.
Regardless of authenticity, Vincent Vollachia did not have a child.
The man must have been very thorough to leave no room for such suspicions or even a glimmer of possibility. To eliminate any doubt, he had never even shared a bedchamber with a woman.
A steel will to never close his eyes in front of others, that was what made him stick to his way of being.
Vincent: [――Vincent Vollachia does not have a child. Your actions were just.]
Berstetz: [Just? If this can be called just, then I ought to usurp the throne with my own hands. When that cannot happen, it is not just. To begin with…]
Berstetz: [With these arms that feel like the withered branches of an old tree, I am unable to protect the might of the Empire.]
The old man’s flat tone of voice seemed to be more of a frenzied obsession than anything else.
Many people believed that they were doing the right thing and acted accordingly. Otherwise, they would not be able to fully demonstrate their abilities and, of course, they would not be able to validate themselves.
Just how many people in this world could remain unwavering while they were realizing that they were making mistakes? Unwavering, they returned with only these results.
――So then, as they moved forward while making mistakes, just what awaited on the path ahead.
Berstetz: [If all doubt has been dispelled, what I ought to do shall remain unchanged.]
While Vincent was contemplating, Berstetz was speaking in an unconcerned voice.
Perhaps he did not anticipate the existence of a Crown Prince in the first place. If he was told by his closest confidant that there was no such possibility, he could withdraw his doubts for the time being.
Consequently, Berstetz’s attention and topic of interest also quickly moved to the next subject.
Berstetz: [Then, how do we deal with the rebels who turn their blades against you?]
Vincent: [Were you unsatisfied with the exchange from the throne room?]
Berstetz: [I dared to represent the troops, but I am ultimately in a different position from them since they have complete trust in your wisdom and authority. ――We have sent General First-Class Arakiya and General First-Class Madelyn to various parts of the country to crush the seeds of rebellion, but that alone is not enough to compensate.]
While propping up his chin in his chair, Vincent listened silently to Berstetz’s report.
In fact, Berstetz’s behavior in the throne room was not arranged. But given the situation within the Empire and Vincent’s position, it was the best tactic possible.
With that, the troops’ frustration and suspicion were redirected. However, Berstetz, who had knowledge of the fact that Vincent was merely sitting on a vacant throne, was doubtful about his authority.
Berstetz: [Normally, this is the point in the plan where the commanding ability of either General First-Class Chisha or General First-Class Goz is required. Since it is difficult to mobilize both of them, an alternative plan… how about bringing General First-Class Groovy back?]
Vincent: [――The movements of the Northwest are awfully suspicious. Whether it is Kararagi or another party, we have no option of moving them away from that border at this time.]
The original duties of a General First-Class was to uphold domestic security and keep external threats in check.
This situation was caused by Vincent and Berstetz’s collaboration, but if it jeopardized the Empire’s footing, it would be like putting carriage before Galewind Horse―― strangling it to death because of self-centered leadership.
Groovy Gumlet’s deployment was also an indispensable linchpin in the defense of the Empire.
Berstetz: [Then, how about General First-Class Olbart?]
Vincent: [We do not want to carelessly move him away from the Imperial Capital and unnecessarily expose him to the rebel forces. It is essential to keep him in the Capital and deploy him at strategically important points. At least, for now, as long as he is willing to follow us.]
Berstetz: [There is also the recuperation for the arm that was lost in the incident in the Demon City. Given the circumstances, it will not be too difficult to keep him in the Imperial Capital. If that is the case, then General First-Class Moguro.]
Vincent: [For him, there is a duty that only he can fulfill.]
Tapping the floor with the toe of his shoe, Vincent dismissed Berstetz’s suggestions one after another.
The Nine Divine Generals had all been given critical assignments. There were only a few of the Nine Divine Generals that did not fall into this category.
Berstetz: [Is General First-Class Cecilus still an unknown?]
Vincent: [It is extremely difficult for him to distinguish between friend and foe. His beliefs do not change no matter what principles or great causes one has. Therefore, I have removed him from the board.]
They had known each other for a long time, suffice it to say. But not once had they felt like they understood one another.
Perhaps no one but Cecilus could understand Cecilus. His ability with the sword was undisputed, but there was no room they could afford to leave for the uncertainty in his standpoint.
Though for Cecilus, who desired to stand on the grand stage, it seemed to be quite a regrettable story.
Vincent: [In any case, there is no chance of him returning. More than ones that can not be used, pawns that are troublesome when used will only derail the calculations. In general, the rebels should be looked at in a similar manner.]
Berstetz: [――. If he is not returned to the board, I have no objections. If so, what war potential do you have in mind to engage the Crown Prince, insolently presenting himself as His Excellency’s son, the rebels gaining momentum, and General First-Class Yorna?]
Vincent: [Arakiya, Olbart Dunkelkenn, and Madelyn Eschart.]
Vincent: [If you think it insufficient, add in Chisha Gold and Moguro Hagane.]
At the word “insufficient”, Berstetz shook his head and just said, “Not at all”.
Although it was doubtful how open-minded one could be about this, it was an extraordinary situation to have five of the Nine Divine Generals face off against an adversary. In addition, there were also the Generals of the Second-Class, with Kafma Irulux at the front, who could virtually be called a General First-Class in terms of strength, and were not few in number.
Vincent: [――In the Imperial Capital of Lupugana, we shall engage the rebels.]
Berstetz: [Perhaps the rebels will change their war strategy once they assemble all their forces.]
Vincent: [A black-haired Crown Prince to gather forces, and a bunch of collaborators using him as a symbol of deception? How can such a group of people be so united in their insistence on the authenticity of a non-existent Crown Prince? In the short term, this might be a clever move to light the fire of rebellion, but discrepancies will inevitably build up over time.]
The rebels took advantage of this opportunity to raise their voices, many of them under the banner of a fake crown prince.
Even if all the rebel forces from all over the country were to gather in the Capital, they would not be able to coordinate with each other. However, Vincent Vollachia certainly had not failed to consider such a possibility.
With that in mind, it left some element of unease. And, speaking of unease――,
Berstetz: [――A decisive battle in the Imperial Capital, hm? Ever since the founding of the Sacred Vollachian Empire, for a group of rebels to march on the Imperial Capital, it’s just like in “Magrizza’s Guillotine”.]
Vincent: [You certainly seem to be enjoying yourself.]
At Vincent’s remark, Berstetz gave an unusually confused “Huh?”. However, when he pinched his cheek with his fingers, he became aware of these feelings for the first time.
Thoroughly probing for the joy that had slightly spread, and for its true origin,
Berstetz: [I am terribly sorry. I know it’s me of all people, but I offer my heartfelt apology.]
Vincent: [Apologies are unnecessary. Why do you smile?]
Berstetz: [A smile …It’s just, I thought it was as expected.]
Vincent: [As expected?]
Berstetz: [As expected, the depiction of a maelstrom of war, that very thing is the Vollachian Empire itself.]
To anyone outside the Empire, it would have sounded like a silly thing for an old man to say.
However, this was probably a sentiment held by almost everyone in the Vollachian Empire, young and old, and Berstetz was not unique in this regard.
――No, of course, it was rare for anyone to say such a thing, even in this position.
Vincent: [Is the existence of the Vollachian Empire entirely determined by that?]
Berstetz: [We each have our own picture of the future we envision. Your Excellency… no, I’m sure you do too.]
In the tea chamber, there was no margin for eavesdropping, nonetheless, he had said a bit too much.
This kind of talkativeness was uncharacteristic for Berstetz, and perhaps it was proof that human blood flowed through his veins. If that was the case, then perhaps Vincent may not have human blood in him after all.
The reason was――,
Vincent: [――You said too much, Berstetz. Just who do you take me for?]
Indeed, in the quiet words of his response, the elation and lamentation that should have been there, had not been present whatsoever.