Once Upon a Time in Lugunica
Sons inherit their father’s—or grandfather’s—names. That itself was not particularly unusual—it was commonplace in noble families, and not unheard of in others. However, bloodlines that did it successively again and again were a rarity.
In the main family of that great house, the head always inherited the same name without exception. It was an absolute rule regardless of sex, and as a custom that had been done for the last four hundred years, and continued through twelve generations, it would likely continue from here onwards, too.
“Roswaal L. Mathers.”
The one whose name was called was a figure with long, dark-blue hair.
He respectfully knelt on the red carpet, raised his head, and stared straight ahead at the person in front of him. His eyes were a rare two different colors—the right being blue, the left being yellow. In the Dragon Kingdom of Lugunica, yellow was the normal eye color. Blue or green weren’t rare, but the vast majority were an earthy yellow. So a blue eye reminiscent of water took most people’s breath away with its beauty. His striking profile gave off the same impression.
He was a young man—or rather at an age where he could still be considered a boy. This fourteen-year-old youth, however, was in a situation where it would normally be too much to bear unless you had experienced it a number of times, yet he faced the ceremony with a calmness as though having been granted nerves of steel.
Ceremony. Yes, this was a ceremony.
In this world, the Dragon Kingdom of Lugunica was counted as one of the four great nations. And this was an important ceremony within the kingdom, carried out to recognize those who are to be part of its nobility.
It was a momentous ceremony, done so one of Lugunican nobility might inform the person who stood at the very top of the kingdom that they had succeeded their predecessor as head of the family.
“Thank you for providing this important opportunity,” said the young boy with a sweet voice upon raising his head—a voice that was on the verge of breaking, and still very much on the border between adult and child. There wasn’t a lick of nervousness for the grand stage in the beautiful voice that tickled the listeners’ ears.
Grasping that from his tone of voice, many of the high nobles present were internally amazed. They wondered whether or not they’d have been able to do the same thing when they were his age. Asking themselves this, the majority shook their heads, while the remainder were either remarkable men, or a few insolent individuals who were too arrogant to admit their true worth.
“I repeat, I am here to report. I, Roswaal L. Mathers, am taking the place of Roswaal K. Mathers as the head of the household. From here on out, I will endeavor to not stain the name of this house, nor shame the royal family of Lugunica as I serve them.”
It was a magnificent report on the change of the head of the family.
Accepting this, the King—Randohal Lugunica—showed everyone a wide smile and nodded. “Your predecessor—Margrave Mathers—served us well. As the heir to such an outstanding man, you must be equally prepared. But listen to the words of your subjects, be intimate with the citizens of your domain, and meet their trust with trust. That way you, too, will be loved.”
The king’s words were warm and tender, and idealistic to the extent that those hearing them were embarrassed. If the one who had said those words had not been Randohal, and if those who had heard those words were not his subjects—for example, it had been the Emperor of Vollachia, known for his severity and aggression—they would not have smiled, but more likely would have roared with laughter.
But out of the subjects of the Kingdom, not a single person laughed. They understood him. This calm and pacifist way of the king was a sign above all else of the peace preserved in Lugunica, and the stability itself that their everyday lives was built upon.
“Wonderful words. I certainly will. I may still be inexperienced, but I will strive to be able to take over my great predecessor’s role as soon as possible.”
At the youth’s excellent words, who was to carry the Kingdom of Lugunica on his shoulders from now on, the king gave a deep nod. “Good. Advancing steadily is best. I expect great things from your efforts.”
Receiving Randohal’s encouragement, the boy gently rose and turned toward those present. Then, with a graceful bow, said, “I endeavor to learn a lot from all of you ladies and gentlemen, too. I am young, but I look forward to working with all of yooou.”
With his back turned to the king, he shut one eye, looking contemptuously down at those around him with just his yellow one.
“Dear me, my shoulders are so stiff.”
As he said this, the boy—Roswaal—rotated his shoulders in a wide arc, having changed out of his formal attire. He’d left the royal castle, and was now in his room at an inn, located on the border between the Nobles District and the Commoner District. For a commoner, it was considered fairly expensive, and for a noble, considerably cheap. Roswaal liked this ambiguity, and always made it his choice to stay there when he spent time in the royal capital.
“Being treated so nicely by the owner here a few decades ago was a deciding faaactor too, though.”
If anyone had been around to hear that murmur, they would have probably been taken aback by his mature way of speaking. Such words did not match the boy who was sliding a finger across the window frame and looking over at the stores and houses in the vicinity. However, anyone who would have been around to see the way he stood there wouldn’t have been able to laugh his words off as a joke.
Roswaal L. Mathers.
The boy who had just finished his audience with the king in the royal castle had a presence that didn’t match his youthfulness. The previous Roswaal had suddenly passed away, and the next Roswaal in line was this boy.
He understood it, but his body, which was steadily developing an affinity with its soul, had the grounds to be considered a masterpiece within the Mathers family line, which had continued for roughly four hundred years.
“So I’ll have to take good caaaare of it then.”
Gently touching his own body, Roswaal took a deep breath and turned away from the window.
Today, he was not accompanied by servants or guards. Roswaal hated going about broadcasting that he was a man of importance. Rather, it might be more accurate to say he was bad at it. He had never really lost his habit of being concerned about his public image that he had had since long ago—a really long time ago.
“Well then, time is limited. I can’t dawdle.”
Even if the attendees that had watched Roswaal’s audience with the king considered him magnificent, he had some of the nervousness you might expect on such a grand stage. With that out of the way, he wanted to take a rest, but he unfortunately had much to do in order for a novice aristocrat like him to become popular.
For now, although the biggest task was over, there were still a number of other people and places to make a courtesy call to. In particular, the magic research institution in the capital anticipated Roswaal’s visit, as Roswaal J. Mathers from two generations ago had founded it, and he would now be inheriting her knowledge.
During the previous generation, it had been a place he had visited less and less. But this generation’s Roswaal would not do the same. He needed to maintain an intimate relationship with them.
“Right, shall I goooo then?” Mumbling as though attempting to persuade himself, Roswaal left his room in minimal attire.
He informed the inn owner of his approximate time of return, who saw him off as he left. As the sun was still high in the sky, he decided the order of his destinations in his head, then narrowed his eyes once more at the view of the capital, laid out before him at the bottom of the gently sloped road.
—Since the troubles approximately 25 years ago, there hadn’t been any big wars in the Kingdom of Lugunica. Of course, they had dealt with the sparks of disputes, but having put them out before they became raging fires, the months and years had passed by without any large issues.
“…Hm. For me to be so deeply moved by this is rather unexpected,” Roswaal said with a slight chuckle at his mild sentimentality toward the peaceful town.
That there were once people making every effort to protect this every day shone brilliantly within his memories even now. But him having been the first to leave it all behind—that was a complicated feeling. Being here made it easy to be spurred on by those thoughts.
So that he wouldn’t carelessly come across people he had known in the two generations before him, he had stayed away from the capital during his previous iteration. However…
“This time, I can’t dooo that. I need to be fully prepared.”
At any rate, from now on he couldn’t afford to make any mistakes. That had also been the case up until now, but he had to steel himself far more than before. The reason being—
He’d been walking deep in thought and unexpectedly collided with a figure exiting an alleyway. It was a small boy with a hat pulled low on his head, and Roswaal had stopped at the light collision. The boy, however, repeatedly apologized without pause. “If anyone finds out I bumped into a nobleman, I could get into serious trouble. Let me go just this once, would you?”
“That’s a very shaaaameless request. If you watch where you’re going from now on, I shaaaall let this slide.”
“Oh, really? Thanks for your kindness. Well then…”
After a light-hearted exchange, the youth quickly turned to leave, when Roswaal grabbed him by the wrist. The boy yelped, and he dropped something from the hand that had been seized.
It was a gold-crafted plume that the boy had pickpocketed when they collided.
“This is a valuable item. Unfortunately, I caaaan’t let you have it.”
“Tch… you’re perceptive.”
Taking the fallen plume in his empty hand, Roswaal smiled. “When you’re walking through crowds of people in the capital, it’s a necessary precaution.”
From his impressive skills, it was clear the boy was a habitual thief. However, Roswaal had no intention of handing him over to the guards. No one should ever regret making use of their abilities in order to survive. If using them went against the law, then one should learn how to get around it.
“Seeing as I got my plume back, I’ll let it slide today. Sooo next time steal from an easier target. I won’t blaaaame you.”
“…You sure are a strange noble. In fact, looking at you, you’re just a kid!”
“It sure is unusual to be called a kid by someone younger than me. Aaaanyway, judging people by their looks is baaad.”
“Then you shouldn’t be able to tell if I’m a kid either.”
“No, no. I’m certain you are. After all, there are only a handful of people older than me.”
The boy looked in astonishment at Roswaal, who had the plume in one hand, one eye shut. A provocation that, naturally, would have only made him feel as if he were poking fun at him. He quickly felt a surge of anger rise and clenched his jaw. And as Roswaal remained cautious of his next move…
Contrary to Roswaal’s anticipation, rather than attempting to forcibly shake free, the boy turned skillfully and grabbed his wrist, going for a joint lock. Surprised by the fluidity of his technique, he instantly released his grip. Then, in the next moment, the boy shoulder-tackled him, took a step back and, using that chance, nimbly sprinted down the alley.
“How cunning.” Roswaal was surprised by the unexpected counterattack, but what had truly shocked him was the tenacity toward his loot. The plume that he had already retrieved had once again been stolen from his hand. He had high praise for that passion, but he couldn’t lose the plume—it was a prestigious article.
He sprinted down the alley after the boy. His shoes were unsuitable for running, but that could not be helped. Realizing that Roswaal was behind him, the boy grimaced. As he ran, Roswaal made use of the map he had drawn in his mind and chased the youth into a dead-end with precision.
“I already told you—that item is very valuable. If it were anything else, I wouldn’t mind handing it over as a reward for fighting so well, but not that. So…”
Driven against a wall, the boy stiffened up as Roswaal tried to recover the plume. His curiosity had grown to such an extent that he considered treating the boy to a meal after this and asking about his circumstances. However—
“—Sorry, but that one’s mine.”
Immediately following those words, a towering figure dropped between them from above.
The figure had, quite literally, dropped from above the narrow alleyway. The timing of the intrusion was almost as if they had been watching the chase pan out between Roswaal and the boy. Greeting the large man in front of him, Roswaal furrowed his brows.
He was a distinctive man with an athletic build and oppressive, boulder-like facial features. Approximately in his mid-twenties, he wore dirty clothes that any old thug in the capital might wear. However, the air of power that coiled around the man was somewhat refined for a mere thug.
“Stand down, Bel. I got a ton of stuff I want to say to you… But for now, I’m taking your ass back,” the man addressed as Captain responded roughly as the boy’s eyes lit up at his appearance.
Hearing this, and watching the boy he’d cornered, Roswaal shut one eye and gazed at the man with his single yellow pupil. “‘Captain’ is a bit of an exaggeration, isn’t it? You look neither of age nor position to be leading a knighthood in such a back alley…”
“That’s enough sarcasm, noble youngster. The staggering lack of a sense of danger is a common vice amongst you people. Thanks to that, it’s become easier for us to do.”
It was a surprisingly educated response, and Roswaal pondered on the unsubtle exchange. The man before his eyes brought on a wave of curiosity in the exact same way the boy behind him had. If possible, I would like to have a deeper conversation with him. “I wonder. How about we try a peaceful negotiation with each other heeere? I don’t want to hurt you. Besides, I don’t intend to go to the trouble of condemning you for stealing.”
“You scared?” the man prodded.
“Scared? Me? Exactly why and who would I be scared of? I defeated the one I was most afraid of in the world myself a long time ago.” Roswaal intimidated his opponent, extending his arms as he requested a reasonable discussion. Just as the man before him had a personality unlike that of a thug, Roswaal had also conveyed that he was not the naive fourteen-year-old boy he appeared to be.
However, despite communicating this to them clearly, the man’s attitude didn’t change in the slightest. “Despite appearances, it seems what’s in your head is way off the mark,” he said. “I’m gonna teach you a lesson.”
“…You’re going to regret that big mouth of yours,” Roswaal replied. The instant he recognized that their negotiations had broken down, he made his move.
There was about five meters between them, but Roswaal, cloaked in wind, closed the gap in a single breath. His target was his opponent’s torso, which was remarkable in terms of speed. His muscles were tough as armor, but if the impact passed through the gaps, his internal organs would be easy pickings.
A single strike that dealt a crushing blow to the internal organs behind the muscle—it was a technique called fa jin that he’d learned two generations ago. In order to deliver the blow, Roswaal placed his palm on his opponent’s stomach, and—
“Hah!” The strike made contact at the same time he stepped, and the blowback passed behind him. The wind born from it blew away the dirt in the alley, and a sensation ricocheted back through his entire body.
The power with which it tore through his internal organs easily sapped the strength from the two legs supporting his massive frame. Naturally, without any support for his body, it gave out…and yet, he remained standing.
“What?” Roswaal uttered in surprise.
“Ah, crap… That hurt, you lanky brat.” With the assumption that he’d fall having failed, the man clicked his tongue and grit his back teeth in frustration. Seeing this, Roswaal gulped. It wasn’t that he had dissipated the impact with some special technique. He simply endured it with an insane level of tenacity.
His eyes bulged at this revelation, when the man jerked his body widely, unleashing his fists. The single blow, clothed in a mighty wind, struck the petrified Roswaal in the gut with a devastating impact.
“…Gah.” Blown back, Roswaal slammed into a wall. His head spun. Before he even realized what had happened, his senses started to fade…
“…Crap, I’m not done. How pathetic…”
With those final words of self-resentment, he completely lost consciousness.
“Are you awake?”
Roswaal came to and opened his eyes.
In front of him, he saw the blue sky that had been so violently torn away. There was a hard sensation at his back, and he could comprehend that he was lying sprawled on the floor in an inhospitable environment.
Gradually, he checked his awareness and memory for consistency, recalling the events that had taken place just before he lost consciousness, when the pain in his abdomen reminded him that he had been beaten to a pulp.
“Ah, ow ow ow…”
Grimacing from the pain, he sat up and nervously looked at his stomach. The front of his jacket was open, and a bag of ice had been placed on his thin, exposed abdomen. Cooling down a bruise was a straightforward first-aid measure. But on top of that, a fine coat had been spread out beneath his body, indicating that someone had been tending to him. That someone was…
“…This was you, riiight?”
The young blond man shrugged. “I just hope I wasn’t being too intrusive.”
He was a distinctive character of a similar age to Roswaal with a handsome profile and clever-looking green eyes. Perched on a step in the alleyway, he held a book in one hand as he stared at Roswaal. Judging by the fact that he wasn’t wearing a jacket, there was no doubt that he had been the one who had administered the first-aid.
“Ah, if you want the particulars, it’s pretty simple. I heard a commotion in the alley… a rather loud one, too. I had a peek out of curiosity and found you collapsed there.”
“And your conscience told you to perform first-aid? Well, well, seems you have a rather honest disposition. Your parents would be proud.”
“No, even if it was the proper thing to do, my parents wouldn’t praise me. At any rate, it’d be a much bigger deal if I’d abandoned the new head of the Mathers family there.”
Having had his identity guessed correctly, Roswaal’s breath caught in his throat.
This young boy doesn’t have any malicious intent towards me, he thought, based on the fact that he’d helped him. He probably isn’t an ally of the other two, either. So, then, his intention must be—
After giving it some thought, Roswaal concluded that the young man’s aim was most likely to seek some kind of reward from him.
“Have you considered that I might have good intentions?”
“Isn’t that something that you yourself juuuust denied? Since you’ve made it clear that you’re aware the person you saved is from the Mathers family…you probably have an ulterior motive.”
“You’re right. I’m not denying it.” Throwing up both hands, the young man affirmed Roswaal’s suspicions with a chuckle.
The integrity of the interaction made it tempting to continue this conversation. However, he could not yield to that temptation. Having checked his personal belongings, he knew his wallet and jewelry were safe. However, the most important thing—that plume—was nowhere to be found. It was clear that since he’d been defeated, the spoils had been carried away by the victor.
Slowly getting to his feet, Roswaal brushed off his clothes. “I have to get that back…”
“Are you okay?” the young man asked. Having also stood up, he was a little taller than Roswaal. “I don’t know the circumstances, but wouldn’t it be better to rest a bit? If not, I can at least call your servant or companion—”
“Unfortunately, I’m traveling alone in the capital. I have no one I can rely on. A youngster who just inherited the seat of a great house would be, from anyone’s point of view, nothing more than an eyesore. Right?”
“This could just be my imagination, but you seem to be in quite an enviable position.”
“You speak frankly—I don’t haaaate it.”
On top of being kind, the chemistry in the pace of our conversation is giving me a rather favorable impression of him. As he assessed the other party, Roswaal turned toward the end of the alley—toward the main road. The youth who had stolen the plume, and the large man who had protected him—he had to find one or both of them and retrieve his lost item.
“If I’m not mistaken, you seem to be planning something dangerous…?”
“Yes… Wanting to meet up with the one who so mercilessly knocked me out would probably be considered dangerous according to common sense. What do you think?”
“Without a doubt, it would be dangerous. Even more so if you have no one to rely on.”
He didn’t need to be told that it was a suicide mission, but Roswaal had good reason not to retreat. He had just vowed to himself that failure would no longer be an option. He could not afford to leave the score unsettled.
“The Mathers are a great noble family. You don’t have to do everything by yourself. Don’t you also have the option of enlisting the help of the capital guards?”
“Like I said. We youngsters stand at a disadvantage. One wrong move and you’ll be eaten alive by the ambitious others around you. That’s why you can’t rely on people.”
“I see. You’re starting to sound more and more helpless. Then, have you already devised a plan to resolve the situation on your own?”
“Unfortunately, I’ll just have to wing it.”
After all, he’d only just opened his eyes after an unexpected defeat.
He needed to take action before they sold that plume or ran away somewhere else. Or, worst case scenario, before they inadvertently lost it.
As if sensing what was on Roswaal’s mind, the young man nodded in agreement, letting out an enthusiastic, “I see! What do you think, Margrave Mathers. You don’t seem to have anyone else to depend on given the circumstances, and the fact that we’ve crossed paths seems like fate… How about you let me help?”
“You? Help me? For what reason?”
“The same ulterior motive that drove me to tend to you. My family is just one of the hundred merchant families in the capital. As the second son, there’s not much of a bright future awaiting me… And that’s where you come in.”
The young man gestured toward Roswaal, flashing a carefree, calculating smile.
With his impish grin, he continued, “I’ve just had the pleasure of interacting with a noble of an esteemed house, helpless and alone. Nothing wrong with a little bit of dreaming, no?”
“…I understand what you’re saying, but you’re considerably determined. If I were the type to dislike one for their attitude, or were repulsed by those blatantly trying to curry favor with me, it would be over for you in an instaaant.”
“…Are you that kind of person?”
At the challenging tone and look in his eyes, Roswaal chuckled lightheartedly.
This was a young man willing to make a bold gamble. A necessary quality for taking hold of one’s own fate. And, to Roswaal, that was a desirable human trait. As such, the young man who had triumphed in his do-or-die game needed a suitable reward.
“I am Roswaal L. Mathers, and I would like to accept your proposal.”
“…Ha-ha, that’s a relief. Look—my palms are sweaty and my knees are shaking.” Relaxing his tense expression, the young man let out an exaggerated sigh of relief.
Roswaal shrugged. “You’re a good actor.”
He went on to ask the name of this man who had dared to extend a hand to him in this cut-throat royal capital. “Your name…?”
“Russell. I’m Russell Fellow. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
As he said this, the young man—Russell—gave an awfully ambitious smile.
“Well then, Margrave, what you’re searching for is…”
“Roswaal. If you want, please call me that, okay? If we’re walking the streets together from now on, I’d like to keep a low profile.”
“Okay. Then, Roswaal.” He addressed him without a title, indicating he precisely grasped Roswaal’s intentions.
Accompanied by Russell, who had offered his assistance, Roswaal made his way out of the alley and onto the thoroughfare. People came and went along the main street. Not surprisingly, the two figures from earlier were nowhere to be found. Even if they had wanted to pursue them, not a single trace of them remained.
“How long was I out for?” Roswaal asked.
“About ten minutes after I found you,” Russell answered. “I rushed to the scene as soon as I heard the commotion, so I’m assuming that’s about the same time our guys took off.”
“I see. The item I am looking for is a family heirloom. I have to recover it no matter what.”
“Could you give me a detailed description?”
“It’s a plume made of gold—about the size that can fit in the palm of your hand—and it’s decorated with my family crest.”
It wasn’t a terribly important item, but it was a symbol of the head of the family. To have it stolen, he wasn’t sure what the other nobles, not to mention his relatives, would say. He also had a considerable attachment to it.
“If they only did it for the money, then it’s strange that they didn’t take any other valuables,” Roswaal said.
“Are you saying their intention was the plume from the start?” Russell asked.
“Well… That’s something I think we’ll only learn from the men in question.”
Surely they had enough time to rummage through Roswaal’s pockets before anyone else arrived on the scene. Had it been under the orders of the man they called Captain that they refrained from doing so?
“At any rate, the man was called ‘Captain’…” Russell mumbled thoughtfully upon hearing the description of the two suspects.
“…? Do you know of him?”
“Actually…” Russell continued. “Roswaal, have you heard about the ‘Brotherhood’ that has been making the rounds in the capital these days?”
“The Brotherhood?” parroted Roswaal. Having no memory of the term either in name or substance, he shook his head. “No, never heard of them.”
As mentioned before, Roswaal had distanced himself from the capital for a good while. It was true that he had no connection with the recent happenings in the city.
“The capital has a number of social classes, roughly split into three groups—nobles, commoners, and the poor—as you know. The Brotherhood is a group founded by impoverished youths who collectively oppose such classist discrimination.”
“A group of youths stating their dissatisfaction with the times, hm? Sooounds probable.”
“As a group, they attack nobles, steal valuables, and stage assaults in the name of punishment. And the so-called ‘Captain’ who leads them has the same description as the man who beat you up.”
“So he was the Captain of the Brotherhood, huh.”
After listening to Russell’s explanation, Roswaal understood the reason he’d been targeted. In short, an immature youth walking alone without any attendants made an easy mark. He was relieved to know it wasn’t a personal grudge against House Mathers. Nonetheless…
“But what is the capital garrison doing letting these ruffians hang around? If it’s not enough for the knights to act, then at least the guards should do something about it…”
“You of all people should know the answer to that.”
“…I see. So that captain has overwhelmed them.”
If it was that man—the captain who had knocked down even Roswaal in a single punch—then the elite troops in the capital garrison wouldn’t stand a chance.
What an incredibly terrifying man.
“But the knights aren’t naive enough to just let internal affairs play out like this. There must be something else too… right?”
“You have a discerning eye. You’re right—the garrison doesn’t know what to do with the Brotherhood. The problem is that it’s not just limited to them. The capital has another issue on top of the Brotherhood.”
Just as he tried to urge the next part of the story on, they were interrupted. A middle-aged man emerging from a street stall approached them. “Russell, about the person you’re searching for…”
At present, they had both been relying on the breadth of Russell’s notoriety to trace the Brotherhood’s footsteps through eyewitness testimonies from the commoners on the streets. One of these sources, the owner of the stall, began to speak in a hushed voice. “Word on the street is that they used the alleys on the west side to slip into the slums. Public safety has been pretty bad in that area, but it seems like those Brotherhood guys have expanded their influence there now.”
“The west side, is it? Thanks. If you hear anything else, let me know,” Russell responded politely, before handing over a small bag with a reward to the shopkeeper.
Confirming its weight, he saw them off with a smile. “Thank you for your patronage.”
Once the shopkeeper was out of sight, Roswaal commented, “You seem very skilled at this. Have you been doing this a while?”
“By ‘this’, do you mean…?”
“Helping foolish nobles get their stolen heirlooms back.”
“No, no, of course not. A great adventure like this is a first for me. But I do have a lot of acquaintances among the merchants of this area. I worked hard to ensure I have some connections just in case.”
It sounded like modesty, but Roswaal could feel the definite conviction behind Russell’s words. And he liked that sort of paranoid preparedness. Every challenge in life depended on one’s degree of preparation before encountering said challenge. What to others may seem like an unnecessary precaution could save a life in the event of an emergency.
And Russell’s accumulated experiences had certainly contributed to Roswaal’s share of difficulties.
“I’ve decided. No matter how today turns out, at the very least meeting you was a stroke of rare good luck.” Roswaal said.
“Then it’s my job to put that luck to use…” Russel responded. “According to what was said earlier, the way they went is this alley. Watch your step.”
As Russell led the way, Roswaal gently brushed his abdomen. The after-affects from the earlier blow were succeeded by extreme bouts of pain even now.
House Mathers was known for its magical prowess, and if he used healing magic, then this sort of injury would be instantly healed. However, healing magic was the only thing that Roswaal had absolutely no aptitude for. This was the only skill that could not be acquired through any number of generations of flesh and blood. There was a time when blood with a superior aptitude for water mana found its way into the family, but even then, it was to no avail.
I wonder if this is a kind of cuuuurse.
It was no exaggeration to say that the power to heal people was the kindest power in this world. And Roswaal lacked the qualifications of kindness required to be blessed with that aptitude. It was a testament to the blood that the Mathers family was built upon—layers of resentment and sacrifice.
“Speaking of which, continuing our earlier conversation… You said the garrison was facing another problem besides the Brotherhood. What is it?”
Russell drew a deep breath in response to the query posed from behind. Due to them already having set foot in one section of the slums, Russell was alert of their surroundings, and double checked the area for any sign of life before answering. “The social-class problem is deeply ingrained. In a way, the Demi-Human War had such roots, too, in that lineage was the cause of the fighting. However…”
“From that preface, I assume that there is another group on top of the Brotherhood that is concerned with social class?”
“Yes, there is. The Golden Wing Faction is a group of nobles, the complete opposite of the Brotherhood and their gathering of peasants.”
“The Golden Wing Faction… Hm.” Roswaal pondered the name of this new group. Nobles concerned with the social class system, and a group that’s formed around that. In short, the nobles that participated in it were…
“Weak nobles, or the second and third sons of their respective families. They’re most likely a gathering of those who were never given the important role of family heir and have developed an inflated sense of noooobility.”
“How merciless. But you are right.”
Even among nobles, there were an unexpected number with bad ideals. However, nobles couldn’t exist by themselves. It was only with the existence of the people in their domain and those under their protection that they could be nobles. However, a number of those born into nobility were only nobles in name, raised without a sense of responsibility or duty. To maintain their self-image, they had no choice but to prove that they themselves were nobles, too.
That would have been an impressive tale had they done so through politics or good deeds. “Punishing problematic laborers or the poor in order to maintain the capital’s image… Such vigilante movements have taken things too far. Isn’t that what caused the Brotherhood to rise in the first place?”
“They were all born around the same period, but which came first is a rather unproductive discussion,” Russell explained. “Whether the Brotherhood was born from hatred of the pressure of nobility, or whether the Golden Wing Faction grew from the inability to overlook the Brotherhood’s violent actions—it’s true that both of them are causing trouble for the capital.”
As a citizen of the capital, Russell appeared rather tired of it all—the way he spoke of the two problematic groups was full of loathing.
Either way, it was obvious why the capital garrison had their hands full. On one hand, the Brotherhood continued their violent expansion without hesitation. On the other hand, the Golden Wing Faction held the position and power of nobility in name alone, while putting on a front of concern for the kingdom.
Both organizations represented the challenges faced by each and every country, not just Lugunica. Humanity was not developed enough to easily manage such things.
“We’re about to enter the area the eyewitness mentioned. If this man is the Captain of the Brotherhood, he’ll probably be surrounded by his gang. Be careful.”
“I will. His gang will only pose a small problem… Although in my opinion, he seemed like the type that doesn’t leave the fighting to other peeeople.”
Men of incredible strength are often hamstrung by their comrades. Especially that captain, who confronted me to protect the pickpocket boy. If I demand for a rematch out of fairness, there’s a good chance he might comply. Just as he pondered about such a possibility—
Feeling an unsolicited gaze on the back of his head, Roswaal slowly turned around. The stare had no malice or hostility in it. But, with Russell’s warning, he was cautious of his surroundings. Nevertheless, this gaze overcame his vigilance and found him in plain sight.
And the owner of the gaze was—
Standing still on a corner of the slums was a lone boy. Around four or five years old, he was wearing a well-tailored white shirt and short pants. With a neat outward appearance unfit for the slums, one could only guess he was the child of a noble family.
He had a fiery-red head of hair and striking blue eyes that seemed to contain the sky itself. Among his well-formed childish features, his blue eyes innocently observed Roswaal and Russell.
Roswaal gasped at the mere sight of those eyes, puzzled as to why exactly he had gasped. “…You…are…”
“…Roswaal?” Hearing Roswaal’s husky voice, Russell looked over his shoulder, noticing the child.
His eyes widened in surprise at the unexpected sight. Seeing the reaction of the two older boys, the child opened his mouth. “Um, please wait. My father is in the middle of working.”
“Yes. He’s trying to reason with his friend. So…”
The child glanced toward the end of the alley where Roswaal and Russell were headed. If they were to trust his words, that was where his father would be working. The reason he had stopped them was so they wouldn’t disturb his father.
“…What should we do?” Russell asked quietly at Roswaal’s side.
The person this problem affected was Roswaal. Russell was nothing more than an ally with no say in the matter. Of course, they could ignore the child’s request and move forward, but…
“Okay. We’ll wait until your father finishes his work.” Roswaal assured. “Is that okay?”
“…! Yes, thank you!”
Hearing his reply, the child’s face lit up and he bowed his head. At the same time, the somewhat dry atmosphere had softened, and Roswaal and Russell exchanged glances.
“Is it okay if I ask something?” Russell asked, bending at the waist. “We have something to do this way. Could you tell us the name of your father who works this way?”
“My father? My father is…” The child answered Russell’s question fearlessly. His eyes held a proud glint in them, as though he was speaking the name of the most reliable person in the whole world. “Heinkel Astrea. That’s the name of my father.”
—Meanwhile, at the same time as Roswaal and Russell’s chance meeting with the child.
“…Hey, come back to the knights already. How long are you gonna sulk like this? We’re both adults.”
On a corner of the slums, lined with abandoned buildings, two men faced each other. Or rather, it wouldn’t be right to say they faced each other. Because in contrast to the one that was speaking, the other was staring up at the sky with a lousy attitude.
“Adults, huh?” The man looking listlessly at the sky lowered his gaze. “You’re pretty persistent, yourself. Why don’t you give it a rest?”
It was apparent from his demeanor that he was growing impatient at both the words being thrown and the thrower himself. From every aspect of his behavior, it was obvious at a glance that he looked down on the other. Naturally, this was also obvious to the party at whom his attitude was directed.
“I can’t back down just because you tell me to. You know the complicated position I’m in. Don’t be so difficult.”
“You know, I’ve been thinking, you’re awfully cocky in the way you address me. Since when were we such good pals, you and I?”
“Surely you don’t think so just because we have the same teacher? How many students does Bordeaux have? Are all of them your friends?”
With a pained expression etched on his face, the man who had opted for softer words was rendered silent.
He was a good-looking man with flaming red hair and a gentle, well-defined face. His voice and countenance was sweet, blessed with the features that many would find attractive. Unfortunately, that alone wasn’t enough to get through to the man standing before him.
From their exchange, it was obvious that the relationship between the two had never been good. Regardless, the two were facing each other here and now…
“Heinkel, it’s time you stop being nice to everyone. It’s because you’re like this that you’ve been forced into a job you’re not suited for.”
“Forced? I’m the one who signed up for this.”
“Are you sure about that? I can picture all the people around you slowly pressuring you to ensure you self-nominated yourself, as usual.”
The good-looking one—the man called Heinkel—hardened his face at those words.
His response made it obvious in a single glance that the other man hit the mark, revealing a personality that was far too naive and honest at its core. Heinkel, however, exhaled as though to cover his emotions, and quickly drew his sword—his treasured sword—from his waist.
“…You’ve drawn it.”
“Yes, I’ve drawn it. I’ve really drawn it. Regardless of what you say, I have a responsibility to fulfill the duties assigned to me. You, too, have responsibilities. Right… Marcos?!”
“I’m not denying that. I won’t deny it, but… So what? What are you gonna do about it?”
Staring at Heinkel, sword drawn and pointed directly at him, the large man—Marcos—scratched his cheek. As he did, he casually began to close the distance between him and Heinkel by a step or two.
“Will you bring me back by brute force? Can you? By your own hand?”
Marcos swung his thick, long legs and gave Heinkel’s sword a kick from the side. The knight’s sword left its owner’s hand with the impact, and tumbled into the dirt of the slums, making a sad sound as it did. Heinkel’s blue eyes followed it in surprise, and Marcos snorted. “What are you going to do if you can’t swing the sword you took the effort of drawing?”
“Pick it up and get lost, pisshead,” Marcos spat at him, to which Heinkel’s expression distinctly contorted in pain. Marcos didn’t see it, however, having already turned his back.
“Even if a witchbeast were to appear, don’t think I’d save you like last time.”
Feeling Marcos’s unwavering rejection from his turned back, Heinkel cast his eyes downward. He picked up his beloved sword from the ground and sheathed it once more. “Doing this would make your legendary father sad,” he said. “Rickert is also concerned about you…”
“You’re the one with a legendary father and mother. Worry about yourself, not me—about your son and Louanna.”
It happened immediately after Marcos’s words.
A drawn sword was placed against the neck of the sneering Marcos. The move of his sword was like a flash of light, but Marcos’s back remained turned, expression unfazed. It was a face of a man that grasped the ability of his opponent and understood that he would not reach him.
“What the hell do you know?”
“Nothing. But what I do know is that you can’t cut my head off here,” Marcos declared, brushing away the tip of the sword which threatened his neck with a finger.
It was a useless struggle that couldn’t be stopped even with one last flash of his sword, and Heinkel’s face twisted in humiliation. But neither his swordsmanship nor words reached Marcos.
“Don’t come back. You make me sick.” Marcos waved his hand without turning around to face him.
Heinkel turned his back, attempting to brush off the words said to him. Unable to fulfill his duty, the red-haired knight began walking in the direction of the fading sunset.
Sensing the concern and footsteps fade into the distance, Marcos scratched his head of short green hair and sighed. Just as he had told Heinkel, he felt sick to his core. A certain amount of it was self-loathing for having lashed out at a person weaker than him. Clenching his fists in frustration, Marcos quietly looked over his shoulder.
“Let me warn you, I’m in a bad mood. If you think I’ll go easy on you, then you’re sorely mistaken,” he spat in irritation at the young man who had appeared in place of Heinkel.
Shameless ambition shook the air, and he felt as though his organs were being squeezed.
Having been hit with a fighting spirit that had increased since they happened to meet in the alleyway a short while ago, Roswaal shut one eye and composed his elevated mind. He couldn’t be overwhelmed by his opponent’s energy. Otherwise there would be a repeat of his previous defeat.
Roswaal, wetting his lips with his tongue, purposefully made the first move with his words. “This is a fairly disheartening situation. I wonder if it’s a good thing that you drove away your friend in that waaaay, Marcos.”
“…You heard that, huh.”
Roswaal shrugged. “The child told us to wait, so we just happened to overheeear it.”
The large man—Marcos—looked at him with annoyance. He turned his attention toward Russell, standing beside Roswaal.
Marcos had an intimidating aura not unlike that of a witchbeast. Despite being bathed in it, Russell remained undeterred. Of course, that may have only been a front, but just being able to keep up appearances like this was fairly extraordinary.
Marcos seemed to make the exact same appraisal of Russell’s attitude. “You look frail, but you have more guts than the pisshead… So? You’ve brought along an equally-frail friend to help you get revenge?”
“I’m sorry for giving you such an unmerited impression. But please be assured, I’m just here to help him find what he’s lost. Fighting isn’t really my area of expertise. Look at these scrawny arms.” Extending his arms out in submission, Russell denied any hostility.
Taken aback by his casual attitude, Marcos clicked his tongue. “Tch. You’re just a weakling. Then what the hell did you come here for?”
“Well, as you just heard, he’s my new friend,” Roswaal explained. “It was thanks to your powerful punch that we came to know one another. So I’d like to express my graaatitude.”
“Thanks for hitting you? What will I get if I hit you again? Your exaggerated title, your privilege, and all that rich-boy crap, Young Master?”
With Russell sandwiched between them, Roswaal and Marcos exchanged a war of words. But in contrast to Marcos’s increasingly dangerous words, Roswaal’s responses stuck out like a sore thumb.
Unconsciously smiling further, Roswaal let out a laugh.
“…What’s so funny?”
“Sorry. It’s just rather novel to be called a young master… Your hatred of nobles is so full of contradictions.”
“Despite your vulgar speech and natural grit, you blend in pretty well, but my eyes can’t be fooled. I am, after all, by far the most experienced when it comes to masquerades. I can tell from your slightest gestures and behavior.”
The wrinkle in Marcos’s brow indicated a distaste for Roswaal. As he watched the crease deepen gradually, Roswaal felt a revival of the fighting spirit he tried to suppress. I can’t contain myself. —Seeing an opponent that was hiding what seemed to be a strange, unusual desire, Roswaal could not hold back his curiosity.
“You’re a knight, right, Marcos?” he declared, as the gap between them vanished.
It was a step that seemed to shake the earth, imprinting a deep footprint into the ground. Leaving behind evidence of his strong leap, Marcos closed in on Roswaal instantaneously, and struck him with a violent kick.
The overwhelming destructive force made him realize that he had been holding back with the punch in the alley. If he had taken the sole of that shoe head on, he might not have regained consciousness for another year. However…
“I showed you my pathetic side earlier. It would be embarrassing to have that mistaken as my true strength. So let me redeem my honor, would yoooou?”
The frontal kick concealed an absurd amount of power, but it didn’t reach Roswaal. Before it could, ten mud walls had risen up, forcibly blocking the kick. Upon seeing such an inconceivable sight, Marcos immediately withdrew his foot, gnashing his teeth.
“A magic user, huh?”
“Does that not prove that I was not bluffing?” Roswaal asked, shutting one eye, separated by a single mud wall that was cleanly left standing,
Hearing this, Marcos grimaced, kicking the last wall to smithereens with his raised foot. Stepping back, he cracked his thick neck. “Nobody was watching that back-alley brawl. There’s no need to redeem your honor.”
“Well, no, there’s you, and my friend here knows, too. Then there’s the boy you covered for. But above all, there’s one more person for whom I must redeem my honor.”
“I can’t reunite with my beloved teacher without first erasing this shame.”
The passion-filled words were the result of a thumping in his chest—beating erratically just by thinking of his teacher.
It seemed like the seriousness of the situation had gotten across, and Marcos made no attempt to laugh. Instead, he folded his burly arms and asked, “Why?”
“Why exactly do I have to go along with your revenge match? According to your logic, I won that fight. So quitting while I’m ahead should be pardonable.”
“Hm. Hard to argue with that.”
Of course he had no reason to go along with Roswaal’s vindication of honor. Much less so as Roswaal intended to take back his heirloom once he had exacted his revenge. To do that, he had to get him to fight somehow…
“Then I’ll lay out a reason for you to fight. How does that sound?” Russell, who had distanced himself from the fight, cut into the conversation from behind the pensive Roswaal.
Marcos appeared disturbed by this attitude, to which Russell nodded and affirmed. “I also have a resolution to succeed in life as a merchant. As such, I can’t just balk at an opportunity to negotiate. So count me in.”
“You’re a shady bastard. What makes you think you can provide a good enough reason for me to mess around with this guy? What the hell are you scheming?”
“…If you manage to defeat Roswaal, I’ll give you information on the Golden Wing Faction. As the head of the Brotherhood, that’d be quite useful for you, yes?”
Marcos drew a sharp breath at Russell’s conditions, then clicked his tongue as if ashamed by his own reaction. “You know something about that group of spoiled pricks?”
“Merchants are blessed with opportunities to go in and out of the Nobles District. We sometimes get private requests from individuals to procure hard-to-find items that they don’t want the members of their house to know about. That said… I have a lot of cards in my hand. So how about it? Still not enough for you?”
“That group’s weakness, huh?”
Flashing a friendly smile, Russell shook the scales. Then, after some conflict, Marcos jerked his chin in Roswaal’s direction, “If I take him out, you’ll tell me what it is. Is that the deal?”
“Yes, that’s fine. As you can see, I’d hardly be able to shake you off if you came after me. Not with these legs. I’m also a big coward, so I’m a good talker.”
“A coward wouldn’t make that kind of gamble here,” Marcos spat violently, to which Russell let out a slight laugh of surprise.
Then he looked back over at Roswaal once more, and gave a deep bow. “I apologize for my impudence, but the stage is set. Since I’m putting the trust my family cultivated with our customers as collateral, we need you to win, Roswaal.”
“…That was a bold move. You’re more of a find than I originally thooought.”
“Considering your state in the alley, I’d say I’m the one who found something, but… Whoa.”
Exchanging frivolous sentiments, Roswaal threw his coat at Russel, who rushed to catch it as he called out, “Step back.”
Roswaal and Marcos faced each other, and squared up.
“There’s a reward to be had, so I won’t hold back. If you die, I’ll dig you a deep grave.”
“Ooh, how scary. Don’t worry, I’ll only half-kill you.”
Both sides hurled provoking taunts at each other, and—without any signal—collided.
The air crackled, and on one corner of the slum, a battle that defied common sense began between the two transcendent beings.
In an alleyway just a short distance from the battleground was the figure of a single knight, shoulders slumped as he walked.
“…Crap, Marcos. I already knew that; you didn’t have to say it.”
Dragging melancholy behind him, various unforgiving words pierced Heinkel’s heart. He could still feel the blood coursing through his veins. His steps were heavy, as he dwelled on self-hatred for his failure to fulfill his duty, his fury toward the disobedient fellow student, and the dejected looks of disappointment he was bound to receive.
Raising his lowered head, Heinkel was dumbfounded by the sight of a child standing in the alleyway. His young son, Reinhard. It was nothing short of astonishing that Reinhard, who should have been obediently waiting in their residence, had not only gone out, but to the slums of all places.
“Hey, hey, hold on. Why are you here?! It’s dangerous! Where are your grandparents?! What the hell?! What is going on?!”
“S-Sorry, Father… I was worried about your work.”
“N-No, it’s okay. I’m sorry for yelling. Are you okay? Did anything happen?”
Confirming his son’s safety, Heinkel breathed a sigh of relief. From what he could see, there were no injuries or bruises on Reinhard’s body, nor did he appear to be lying. It was certainly a miracle that no one had come across such a well-dressed child wandering about the slums.
“I thought my heart had stopped… Don’t make me worry like that.”
“Sorry. Are you angry?”
“I’m not angry…. Maybe I should be? Either way, I’m more relieved than anything, really…” Gently stroking his son’s identically-red hair, Heinkel got to his feet. Lifting up Reinhard’s light body at the same time, he headed toward the exit of the slums. “Once we get back, I’ll need to have a word with those housekeepers… Reinhard, please don’t scare me like that again. Your father is fine on his own, so stay with Louanna.”
“But what about Mother’s wish?”
Heinkel exhaled at the sight of his son’s childlike desperation. The fact that his son, a mere four years in age, worried so much over him made him feel pathetic.
I need to be strong.
“If only Marcos had listened…”
“Yes, he’s a friend of your father’s… Well, something like that. It’s complicated. He’s very stubborn. If he’d just return to the knights, then…”
“If he goes back, you’d be happy?”
“Hm? Yes, I would, I would. That would be great.”
As they spoke, the father and son returned to the well-lit streets.
After listening to Heinkel’s worries, Reinhard nodded in his arms. “…Granted.”
In the evening slums, the fierce battle between the two transcendent beings continued.
One of them had the burly physique of a giant, whose entire body could be considered the embodiment of muscle itself. With each step the ground shook, and he approached his adversary as swift as an arrow, making him an absolute nightmare for his opponent. The force behind every punch and kick invited certain death wherever they landed. Merely committing to close combat with him would shorten one’s lifespan by a few seconds.
If one was to suffer from his attacks—thread with powerful winds—no degree of training would mean anything at all, no matter how big or small.
The young man remained determined in this hand-to-hand fight, showing admirable bravery. Or perhaps, rather than admirable, it would be better to call this demonic bravery abnormal. The one exchanging blows in such close proximity with violence-incarnate could also be called superhuman.
The still youthful boy, with his long indigo hair tied back loosely, made full use of his dainty, slender body to attack and defend against this opponent who appeared to be twice his weight.
But the most surprising thing wasn’t how the young boy managed to survive so long against his massive opponent, but his extraordinary ability to make the fight appear evenly matched to the untrained eye.
And indeed he made sure to put such flair on display.
“…Tch. You’re pretty skilled.” The giant clicked his tongue as his opponent landed on the toes of the foot he had extended after throwing a violent front kick.
When the giant lightly swung his arm, shards of frost fluttered down gently. They were the remains of sheets of ice that had taken the punches in place of the boy.
It was proof of his struggle that amidst the violent conflict, the young boy weaved magic into the hand-to-hand combat to sway the battle in his favor. Seeing this up close, the giant clicked his tongue in frustration, upon which the youth used his kicking foot as a springboard to leap backwards.
He landed in an open area away from his opponent, shrugging his shoulders and giving a bow. “Thank you, thank yooou,” he began. “It is a huge honor to receive your praise. Allow me to offer you a compliment in return. I never expected to find a man of such caliber… It seems that the Kingdom is still full of wonders.”
In contrast to the smiling boy, the giant never relaxed his annoyed countenance. “A fresh-faced noble shouldn’t speak like he knows the world.”
Considering the relationship between the two, the giant’s response was far more understandable. After all, they had both broken into a fight immediately upon their first meeting. And this fight was a rematch, not a reconciliation.
The two fighters—a young boy called Roswaal, and a hulking beast named Marcos, whose fateful encounter was due to Marcos’s underling having stolen a valuable item from Roswaal. The circumstances of their twilight duel, however, was a bit more complex than that. And it was precisely the very witness to this complicated situation who spoke. “Dear me, how incredible. From an outsider’s perspective, my eyes can’t keep up. I was right to not assist—I wouldn’t have been able to hold my ground!” said the young man, clapping and praising their fight from a short distance away.
Marcos scowled at the youth with a glare that would shake the Royal Guard. But the boy faced him head on, responding with a natural smile. “Do excuse me. If I’ve caused you any displeasure, then I do apologize.”
It was clear that this was no ordinary boy from the fact that he’d had courage and skill to orchestrate this duel between Marcos and Roswaal. Including this young boy, Russell, these were the three men involved in this evening duel in the slums.
“Don’t look away. You maaay be strong, but negligence is a powerful enemy.”
“Quit babbling,” Marcos spat. “This isn’t negligence—it’s composure.”
Extraordinary in their own ways, none of the three were inferior to the other.
In what could be regarded as a bad habit of his, Roswaal reveled in this twilight duel to the fullest. Marcos defended against Roswaal’s barrage of attacks head-on, striking with erratic violence. His abilities were excellent—better than anyone he’d come across in the last few decades. You’d have to trace back to the Demi-Human War to find someone as powerful as he was.
Which is precisely what made Roswaal aware of his over-excitement.
Roswaal’s skills made full use of a multitude of highly disciplined martial arts. Interwoven with magic to corner his opponents, they were virtually impossible to deal with on the first attempt, as only a select few could replicate such feats in modern times.
Marcos, however, overcame them with outlandish physical prowess and endurance. If he had time to do so, he would dodge or repel them. If he didn’t, he’d brace himself and take the full force of the hit. He had ample resilience to continue the fight.
On the other hand, unlike Roswaal’s various combat skills, Marcos’s attacks were plain and simple. He approached Roswaal and threw fists. He launched kicks. That was it. However, those attacks were tremendously strong on their own.
It was a common misconception to mistake the physically large as slow. Yet while that might be the case when that size was due to excess fat, in Marcos’s case, the majority of his large frame consisted of a layer of muscle, akin to armor. Contrary to the impression that came with his size, his movements were quick.
Roswaal put distance between himself and his opponent’s arm as though it would burn. His heart shuddered every time Marcos threw a punch.
Of course, Roswaal was capable of playing it safe. Indeed, he possessed flying magic, an impossible feat for most humans to emulate in this day and age. He could keep his distance and carpet bomb the enemy from a safe range. That alone gave him the confidence to take on most opponents—even an entire army. But he refused to be so inelegant in a duel. Not to mention, I won’t be able to wash off the shame of losing in the previous fight by plucking a win from a safe distance.
“Besides, how could I possibly tell someone I respect that I attacked my opponent from afar due to cowardice? I could never do that.”
With Roswaal engrossed in his thoughts, Marcos drew an arc with his leg in the air and drove it toward his opponent. Ducking low, Roswaal evaded the kick and leapt toward his chest. And exactly as he had done a few hours prior in the alleyway, he struck Marcos’s abdomen.
“But this time, let’s kick it up a notch… This time, I’m intending to kill!”
Unlike last time, when his only aim was to incapacitate his opponent, this strike had enough power behind it to damage the internal organs of a large witchbeast. Unlike your typical fa jin, it was a new technique that incorporated Roswaal’s creativity—a strike combined with fire, capable of blazing through its victim’s viscera.
It was a murderous technique derived from the worst conceivable imagination that could incinerate and immobilize the innards that had been blown apart by the blast. But it was only from a certain level of confidence in his opponent that he dared to attempt it.
“…You son of a bitch!”
Marcos, whose bowels should have been baked, duly responded to Roswaal’s credence. At the moment of impact, he tightened his abdominal muscles and twisted ever so slightly, allowing him to escape fatal injury with that movement alone. However, even he couldn’t come out unscathed. A fact which sparked a fire in his smoldering fighting instincts.
Before the roaring Marcos, Roswaal reflexively lowered his head. Immediately following, a sharp attack grazed his temple, and his consciousness hazed over. He couldn’t remember why he’d lowered his head.
The fact that it was to avoid Marcos’s devastating elbow strike was something he’d ultimately never recall for the rest of his life. Nonetheless, one could guess that he’d instinctively ducked his head to divert a crisis.
A knee about the size of a child’s head flew towards Roswaal’s face from below. The power behind a knee kick was several times that of a punch, and his had enough destructive force to blow a person’s head clean off their shoulders if it landed.
Roswaal managed to escape by ducking backwards even more forcefully than when he had lowered his head. He spun around as strands of indigo blue hair danced in the air around him, lopped off by the knee which they had just fallen short of escaping.
Taking his eye off his opponent at point blank range was the epitome of recklessness. But Roswaal had done so intentionally. In the opening he had deliberately exposed, he received Marcos’s attack. And in that instant, his right shoulder shattered. The impact came from nothing more than a thumb graze of his opponent’s fist. But with that single hit, Roswaal’s right arm was rendered out-of-service.
That was worth it, though, he thought. “I finally got completely within your reach.”
Shirking off the pain from his broken shoulder, Roswaal was confident in his victory. He’d lightly bumped into Marcos’s chest with his back. Although it left him in a backwards stance, the surface area that made contact with his body was far greater than that of his palm.
The force of the fa jin released from this position was roughly ten times stronger than that released from his palm—a force that even Marcos couldn’t withstand.
Although interwoven with magic, it was ultimately through martial arts that he overcame his opponent. Having accomplished this difficult task, he could at last report back to his teacher with pride. However, in the moment he released the fa jin, Roswaal realized something.
With his back turned, he sensed Marcos tighten his chest muscles. It was not a defensive stance to withstand Roswaal’s powerful strike—it was the initial stance done in preparation for releasing fa jin.
Occasionally, the world would give birth to a titan—a child of battle, endowed with a violent ferocity capable of overwhelming others, allowing them to readily absorb an opponent’s long-cultivated martial arts and handle them at will, as if that skill were their own.
Marcos was the perfect depiction of such a titan.
Sensing his preparation to release the fa jin, Roswaal shuddered. His contact with Marcos’ chest, which had given him such conviction in his victory, in that moment had become an omen of his opponent’s counterattack.
The match now hinged solely on who could deliver a faster, more devastating blow. Roswaal had a slight advantage in how long he had used the ability. While not particularly reliable in the face of a titan who was a master of martial arts, he had nothing else to rely upon. He put faith into these techniques, which he had cultivated and tempered every day, to surpass the existence of this titan… It was at that instant.
The growing awareness of the martial arts against his back dissipated. The tension eased up in an instant, leaving Roswaal at a loss for words as to what had happened. But it was too late to stop the arrow he had drawn. His full-body fa jin had been released.
The air exploded with a bang, and the ground beneath Roswaal’s feet cracked. The impact hit Marcos directly, his huge frame snapped, and he tumbled to the ground.
Marcos lay splayed out on his back. Roswaal’s eyes widened at the sight, dumbfounded.
“…What the hell?”
With his broken right arm dangling limply, the curtain fell on his spoiled fun.
“Such a disappointing end is unbearable! I will not accept such a victory!” Roswaal complained, glaring at Marcos, who sat cross-legged on the ground.
The victor had been decided when Marcos tumbled to the ground, having been struck with such a powerful fa jin. That much was clear from anyone’s perspective. However, it was the victor himself who stubbornly refused to accept it.
Gently rubbing his own stomach, Marcos heaved a sigh, “No matter how you look at it, you won. Unlike our last brawl in the alley, I’m the one knocked out this time. I have nothing to say. So what’s the problem?”
“What’s the problem, you say? Everything! I’m not satisfied by any of it! You were only out for two or three seconds. How about a rematch…ow, ow, ow!”
“Please calm down, Roswaal. Winners shouldn’t act so shamefully.”
The cause for the tears in Roswaal’s eyes was his broken right shoulder. Unfortunately, healing magic was the only thing he could not do, so he had no choice but to let it heal naturally. Russell applied some basic first aid. From the blow to his abdomen, to his injured right shoulder, it was Russell who tended to all his medical needs.
“Any amount of favors I can offer such an esteemed family is a welcome thing. Favors are good. They don’t require inventory, and they don’t expire. And best of all, it’s up to the buyer to set the price.”
“That’s an answer I like to heeeear…”
Composing himself from the pain, Roswaal gave Russell a wry smile. At that, his new friend shrugged, turning his intellectual eyes toward Marcos, who spat, “…What do you want, you even shadier brat?”
“What an upsetting evaluation. The way you put it makes Roswaal sound like a shady brat, and me even worse than him.”
“Am I wrong? You’re both bad-natured, but you seem even sleazier.”
“I see. I’ll keep that in mind to work on in the future.”
Becoming more and more displeased with his answer, Marcos clicked his tongue at Russell, who reacted with a smile. “Are you really okay with that?” Russell narrowed his eyes. “Even to my eyes, you seemed a little on edge in that final moment, either from hesitation or indecision… Actually, it seemed as if you were distracted.”
“Had it not been for that, the outcome may have been different. It would’ve been Roswaal lying there in defeat, most likely missing his head.”
“How ruuuude…” Roswaal glared at the two men’s merciless conversation with his heterochromic eyes, but met only by their ignorance, he let out a big sigh.
Marcos scratched his head, completely oblivious. “I don’t intend to make excuses. I definitely was a little distracted… But a loss is a loss.”
“Hmm… I understand.”
“Are you fiiiinished? Then, the rematch can—ow, ow, ow, ow!” Undiscouraged and pressing for a rematch, Roswaal cried out in pain as his right arm—that had been fixed in place—was prodded.
“With an arm like that? Impossible.”
Casting a sidelong glance, Russell shook his head. “It’s no use.” Facing both Roswaal and Marcos, he continued, “Roswaal’s complaints aside, let’s fulfill our prior agreement. For his victory, you’ll return the item your subordinate stole from him… Although we didn’t clearly agree on that before the duel.”
“No need to explain. I’m not gonna argue about losing.” Letting out a snort of displeasure, Marcos turned his face to the sky. “Bel! You can come out of hiding now. And bring the goods!”
“Gah, what the hell, Captain?! You could have feigned ignorance!”
“Like hell I would. Get out here now! Or I’ll spank you till your ass swells up!”
Marcos’s angry yell reverberated through the air. The dirty figure of a young boy appeared. An oversized hat hung low on his head, the youth stood behind Marcos sullenly, glaring at Roswaal from behind his boss. “He’s a mess… If we surround him now, we could beat him to a pulp.”
“Try it. Pull something so shameless and I’ll kick your ass. I’ve told you this countless times—no acting shamelessly.”
“…Fine,” the young Bel begrudgingly accepted, receiving a palm strike to the head.
Watching the exchange between Marcos and Bel, Roswaal noticed a certain level of civility in their relationship—or in this case, in the way the Brotherhood functioned. He sensed a certain degree of decorum there.
Going by Russell’s description of them, he had the strong impression that they were nothing more than a group of reckless ruffians. But after witnessing Marcos’s leadership in action, it was clear they were more than that.
“Well, it’s not too difficult to sway the majority by waving your fists in the air,” Roswaal remarked.
“Hah? Are you insulting me to my face?”
“Of course not. I’m admiring your leadership. Even once you’ve unified a party, if your own ideologies are biased, that group can easily devolve into a band of outlaws.”
Preserving that order, to a certain extent, was the result of Marcos’s abilities, plus a measured amount of pressure. Of course, the existence of a common enemy—namely, the Golden Wing Faction—was another major factor. Such were his conclusions on the matter.
Hitting his hand as though remembering something, Bel pointed a finger at Roswaal. “O-Oh yeah, Captain! This guy is from the Golden Wing Faction! That way we have a reason for all of us to beat him up, right?”
“This guy? Golden Wing Faction?”
Roswaal and Marcos simultaneously twisted their faces in confusion at Bel’s words. In Marcos’s case, he became suspicious of whether or not this was true. But for Roswaal, he seemed unable to grasp the youth’s intention.
Bel clicked his tongue at Roswaal’s dismissive stance, viewing it as deception. “You can’t fool us! Look, Captain! The thing I stole from him was this—a golden plume! That’s their symbol, isn’t it?!”
Bel drew the golden plume enthusiastically from his pocket, modeled after the Mathers family crest. Seeing it, Marcos furrowed his brow as if he had genuinely accepted Bel’s accusation. However—
“Do excuse me.”
Russell grabbed the plume from Bel’s palm. Ignoring Bel’s surprise, he murmured his appraisal of the plume. After a brief inspection, he declared, “Seeing as how this is indeed a real gold plume…it’s definitely a fake.”
“Hah?! I-It’s fake because it’s real?! What the hell’s that even mean?” Bel lashed out at Russell’s declaration.
However, without answering Bel directly, Russell requested for a confirmation over his head. “I mean exactly what I said. The Captain… Sir Marcos gets what I’m saying, yes?”
Marcos let out a low snort that sounded like rocks groaning. “…Yeah, I get it.”
“Captain? What the hell? Did I say something wrong?” the unconvinced Bel asked.
“No. It’s not your fault. It’s those spoiled pricks of the aristocracy who are to blame. It’s not your fault that you can’t tell the difference.”
“…?” Still confused, Bel tilted his head.
Roswaal seemed convinced, although his own prior knowledge of the matter was about the same as the youth’s. “In short, although the gold plume is indeed a symbol of the Golden Wing Faction, the plumes they use are cheap—they don’t use real gold.”
“For some reason, it seems to closely resemble the Mathers family crest,” Russell added.
The unreasonable resentment Roswaal had incurred from the Brotherhood seemed to have had another hidden side to it.
“I see… Roswaal, huh?” Marcos said. “I knew I’d heard that name somewhere. House Mathers, huh?”
“Yes. Although I’ve only reeeecently inherited the household. I’m the current head of House Mathers, Roswaal L. Mathers.”
“A great house, and the head of it at that… Then you probably have nothing to do with the Golden Wing Faction.” Considering Roswaal’s lineage, Marcos understood Bel’s mistake. He grabbed the youth—unaware of the gravity of the situation—by the head, and forced him into a bow, deeply lowering his own head on the spot.
“What’s that for?” Roswaal asked.
“As you can see, he’s apologizing,” Marcos explained. “Regardless of his ignorance, stealing from a nobleman could have his head blown off at your behest. It also goes against Brotherhood protocol to steal from unrelated parties.”
“Hm.” As Marcos explained, head still lowered, Roswaal put a hand to his chin. Ignoring the sharp pain that came with carelessly moving his right arm, he gave it careful consideration.
Of course, stealing a family heirloom should have meant severe punishment for Bel. But that thought hadn’t even crossed Roswaal’s mind. Now that the heirloom had been returned, he wasn’t interested in accusations. Rather, as this event was what led to his meeting Russell and the intriguing Marcos, the rewards had been far greater.
But they likely wouldn’t understand, even if he were to explain and let them go. To them, it would surely take on the appearance of a pardon, leaving a bad aftertaste and causing them to live the remainder of their days in fear. It was important for Roswaal to find a point of compromise, and for that sake…
“Can I ask you oooone thing? Marcos, you’re a knight, right?”
“While yes, I have been knighted… The one who knighted me probably regrets it.”
“That may be. So I see, you were indeed a knight. Although I suppose it depends on the person who knighted you as to whether or not he regreeeets it.”
Frankly speaking, Marcos’s abilities had the potential to go down in the Kingdom’s history. If the one who knighted him was a respectable person, then he was probably sufficiently proud.
The question was—why was someone who had been granted the title of knight doing this?
“C-Captain may be a knight, but he’s different from the likes of you nobles!”
With his head still pinned down by Marcos, Bel twisted his neck as he pleaded, “Let me speak! If I don’t, they’re just gonna misunderstand you.”
Marcos sighed, making a bitter face as he spoke. “It’s nothing big,” he began. “Even after I joined the order, I just ended up doing the same sorts of jobs as the guards. Do you know what kinds of scoundrels you meet patrolling the capital? Most of them are unemployed slum brats.”
“Even if you toss ‘em all in jail, all you’ll hear are awful stories. Can you really expect punishment to lead to reform? Like hell you can. Reforms are carried out by actual villains. These brats have nothing to eat and nowhere to sleep—how can you call them villains?”
“So you’re siding with them?”
“It started to feel stupid dealing with all you guys.” Marcos sighed in resignation, confessing his reason for discarding his status as a knight. Hearing his story, the shame in his voice, and seeing the pain in his expression, Roswaal closed one eye. He looked at Marcos’s wrinkled brow with his blue pupil.
In the Kingdom of Lugunica, there was a definite disparity between the rich and the poor. This was not something restricted to this kingdom alone—it could be found in the shadow of every country. However, Lugunica may have been the only one with such a clear division in the very heart of the nation—in the capital city.
The slums were left to themselves, considered an extraterritoriality. Its residents, in many cases, had no choice but to stain their hands with crime for the sake of survival. All the while asking—why must we suffer? All while the Kingdom that managed them offered no answer.
Wanting to bring change to that image of hell, Marcos threw away his status as a Knight and descended into the wild.
“And that’s why you command the Brotherhood,” Roswaal said, tying it all together. Marcos said nothing. But in his stead, Bel’s sharp gaze pierced through Roswaal.
“This is simply an outsider’s perspective, but it’s true that the Brotherhood’s actions are backed by the slums,” Russell added. “Even with all the radical actions making headlines, the casualties are minimal… Though I wouldn’t call it praiseworthy, giving people a sense of purpose has tremendous impact.”
“You’re saying they have breathed life back into the slums. You’re very well infooormed about this.”
“A good ear is a fundamental quality for a merchant.”
After failing to sound modest, Russell took a step back as if he had said too much.
Listening to what he’d said, Roswaal gave it some thought. He cast a glance in Russell’s direction. “What about the information on the Golden Wing Faction that you were going to hand over to Marcos if he won? About their weakness?”
“You of all people are asking me? I already said—that information rests on the credibility of the family. It’s…”
“I’ll pay whatever price you ask. I don’t believe I need to explain my family’s financial power to you, right?”
Russell’s eyes widened for the first time as he was interrupted with a proposal. Finally, I said something that exceeded his expectations, Roswaal thought, somewhat satisfied. “My intuition tells me that your information is beneficial. It may even have the potential to change multiple situations in oooone breath.”
“───” Russell sank into silence as he searched for the right words.
Marcos spoke up in his place. “Hey, what the hell are you guys talking about?” he demanded, turning a suspicious eye on Roswaal with a stiffened expression at their private exchange.
Roswaal’s mouth relaxed into a smile. “You seem bewildered. I like that. Throwing people’s expectations into disarray really is exhilarating.”
“Give me a break. I may have lost the last fight, but I have no intention of losing the next one. So watch your mouth. What are you up to?”
“Oh, how scary. As for what I’m up to, well…” His right arm dangling limply, Roswaal supported his chin with his left hand and shot Russell a sidelong glance. Russell’s shoulders drooped, clearly a wordless response to Roswaal’s question. Consequently, Roswaal’s smile deepened, giving Marcos a villainous stare. The man gulped nervously, to which he replied, “How about it, Marcos? Why don’t you become my accomplice?”
Fareed Impusen was a real nobleman that served the Kingdom of Lugunica.
He was the fourth son of the viscount, Adnell Impusen. The right to inherit the house was reserved to the eldest son, while the succession of the various family businesses was promised to the second and third. Fareed burned with a strong desire for the role that would be left to him. Destiny, however, was a cruel thing.
When Fareed’s turn came around, there were no roles left in which the Viscount House of Impusen could contribute to the Kingdom of Lugunica. Fareed’s patriotism had nowhere to go.
Having no assigned role, Fareed was given an appropriate position that sounded good in terms of freedom. But in reality, it was nothing more than leaving him to his own devices. His brothers envied him. But to Fareed, their positions were far greater objects of envy.
He loved the Kingdom of Lugunica.
And because of that love, he knew he should take action. So Fareed called out to other young nobles who also possessed patriotism without purpose to create their own path. It was from this genuine patriotism that the opportunity manifested for the creation of the Golden Wing Faction.
Taking on the responsibility as the party’s leader, Fareed grew concerned about the situation in the capital. After the civil war, the Kingdom was said to have entered an era of peace. However, the sheer reality was little more than averting one’s eyes to the thin ice they tread.
Along with the discrimination between humans and demi-humans continuing to smolder and interference from other countries, including the Vollachia Empire to the south, the Brotherhood that had emerged at the same time as the Golden Wing Faction was the biggest of their problems.
How should the Kingdom proceed? What can we do? Should we plan a coup in order to take over House Impusen?
He’d started to feel like he hit a wall when…
“Oh, helloooo. Could I take some of your time, Fareed?”
The son of a merchant who frequented him had introduced him to a youth with a bewitching smile.
“I’m sorry for gathering you here for this. It may feel a little cramped, but I couldn’t find a better place, you seeee. So please bear with it for now,” Roswaal asked, flashing a smile at everyone assembled in the single room.
Roswaal had intended it to be more welcoming, however not a single person present looked at him with kindness. Every expression bore some level of tension and trepidation, while more than a few of them showed clear signs of hostility. So much so that if left unchecked, an explosion accompanied by bloodshed was bound to occur at any moment.
Under such circumstances, Russell broke the ice. “It’s a fine room. Is this your property?” he asked.
“Yeah, it is. My grandmother bought this shop out of her love for drinking and socializing. Before she passed, the walls were lined with her collection of liquors. But when my father took over, it was completely abandoned. Fortunately, the building itself was well-preserved thanks to the family butler.”
“I see. He must have been a very talented butler. Someone I’d like to meet at least once.” Russell was far more concerned with the building they had assembled in than this volatile gathering of people. Although his mind was undoubtedly ill at ease, he was big on avoiding unnecessary anxiety. His attitude was likely attributed to the fact that he was not party to the event, nevertheless, it was still an impressive feat.
Just as explained to Russell a moment ago, they were gathered in a long-abandoned building that once served as a pub, located in one corner of the Commoner’s District of the capital. It was just one of the properties under the Mathers family name, but this was his first time using it in a few decades.
“I don’t fancy letting the rich brag about bein’ rich. Get on with it, Roswaal,” Marcos called out in an irritated voice from the center of the room, sitting with his arms folded. Nearby stood Bel and a few others from the Brotherhood. In order to preserve the integrity of the meeting, each side was limited to five attendees.
“I appreciate your concern, but I’ve heard that the captain of the Brotherhood is a force to be reckoned with, even up against all the guards together. As one who only learned swordsmanship as a matter of etiquette, I’d hardly be able to put up much of a fight.”
With a clear voice, the fine man—Fareed Impusen—lightly raised his hand and gave a wry smile. Around him stood a line of his allies, just as Marcos had, and their fine dress functioned as a clear contrast between them and the Brotherhood.
With the information given so far, it was clear that Fareed was the founder of the Golden Wing Faction. So, in short, here stood both heads of the two factions that were causing trouble for the Kingdom—the Brotherhood, and the Golden Wing Faction.
Of course, Roswaal had a reason for gathering these two natural enemies together in one room. But the person who had made the biggest contribution to help make this happen was the new friend he had only just met in the capital—Russell Fellow.
“Well, Fareed isn’t wrong,” Roswaal stated. “If Marcos were to attack in earnest, the only ones walking out of here alive would be the Brotherhood. Even Russell and myself would be in danger.”
“That sounds pretty horrific,” Russell added. “Please, let’s refrain from letting something like that happen.”
“Are you even listening? Get to the damn point. I don’t need your stinkin’ theatrics,” Marcos barked at Russell and Roswaal’s lighthearted exchange.
With his right arm in a sling, Roswaal accepted the rebuke. “Okay, okay.” He shrugged. “I gathered you all for only one thing. You should both already know what kind of people your opponents are by now. I understand that as enemies, you probably want to tear each other apart, now that you’ve finally met. However, for now, I’d like you to refrain from doing so.”
“You’re talkin’ a lot of crap right now…”
“We have no objections. Please continue, Roswaal.”
Marcos scowled, contrasting with Fareed’s formal countenance, neither meeting the other’s gaze. For the time being, both parties cooperated with Roswaal’s first objective of getting them to meet face-to-face.
Despite the clash between their organizations, both leaders’ dispositions allowed them to talk rationally, as one could infer to a certain extent from their actions and purpose of establishment in the first place.
In other words—
“The reason I asked you both to gather here is simple. The current hostility between the Brotherhood and the Golden Wing Faction that is causing chaos within the capital… I’d liiike to resolve it in one fell swoooop.”
“Resolve it in a single swoop…” Upon hearing those words, Fareed’s handsome face clouded over with doubt. “Roswaal, we are a gathering of those concerned about the future of the Kingdom. Being born into nobility allows us to see things that commoners cannot. Yet despite that perspective, we still lack the means to do anything. So—”
“So as a result, you just put a lid over it?” questioned Marcos. “Your sincere attitude toward wrestling with the country’s problems is truly splendid. Your aspiration to clean up the roadside garbage brings tears to my eyes.”
Marcos snorted at the end, to which Fareed’s face reddened. “What?!” he cried. Sensing utmost disrespect from his opponent, his lips trembled.
“I get that you lot love to keep things clean. But the trash you’ve been cleaning up has a point of view too. In fact, trash like us much prefer it if you’d look the other way.”
“Calling yourself trash… But your group hurts people! What’s that about?!”
“We only aim for the foul punks collecting money in cruel ways. Using dirty money, living in a dirty town…it’s self-purifying. Got a problem with that?”
“And exactly where do you draw the line?!”
Fareed leapt to his feet, striking the table between them. Marcos did likewise, rising to confront him. Fareed may have been a tall man, but even so he was looked down upon by Marcos’s giant frame. With both leaders standing, the others had no choice but to follow suit. It was a scary situation—like a spark in a powder keg.
“…And with that, you’ve heard each other’s opinions,” Roswaal declared.
Cutting between them, Marcos and Fareed scowled at Roswaal. Taking in the sharp gazes, he glanced at the two faces in turn. “I understand Marcos’s opinion. The slums are struggling, and they need help fast. On the other hand, Fareed’s opinion is also understandable. The strain on the Kingdom needs to be rectified, starting with the capital. But, individually, we are fairly powerless. We can’t fight against such a big imbalance.”
“Then what are you saying we should do?” Russell interjected perfectly into Roswaal’s theatrics.
Roswaal turned as though having waited for the question. “It’s my turn noooow. Individual power is useless against big imbalances. So we need to fight against it with numbers.” Divulging his plain and simple plan, Roswaal once more turned to face Marcos and Fareed. He pointed at the speechless pair with a finger each. “I just so happened to have a device left behind by my predecessor… A so-called ‘magicreation tool’ that I’ve wanted to disseminate. I just needed the manpower and the right people to manage this operation.”
The Brotherhood and the Golden Wing Faction simultaneously grew flustered at Roswaal’s suggestion.
“Of course this can only be considered a stopgap. I cannot employ everyone in the capital who wants work, nor give posts to every youth burning with patriotism. But it’ll work as a first-aid treatment, just as this has assisted in healing my right shoulder,” Roswaal said, showing the two the sling around his right arm.
Both the Brotherhood and the Golden Wing Faction were organizations founded upon the desire to help those struggling in the capital. He could give them work and something worth doing. Not to mention, this would also help Roswaal with his future goals. He was greatly pleased with himself.
“How about it? It’s not a bad idea, right? I’m the head of House Mathers, which prioritizes competency and motivation… Or so I’ve just decided, anyway.”
Shutting one eye, his blue pupil passed over every individual in the room. Naturally, everyone was in a state of shock at Roswaal’s sudden proposal—
“Ha… Hahaha… Hahahahahaha!”
Just as he thought that, a laugh rang out that sounded like the jaws of a snapping beast. It was one of the decision makers; the giant with a permanent scowl on his face—Marcos.
Roswaal’s eyes widened. It was the first time he had seen Marcos laugh since their meeting. “So this is what it’s like to see a boulder laugh,” he remarked.
“Back off, shitty rich boy… What a heavy-handed move. You can’t save everyone that way.”
“I already said that. Of course I can’t save everyone. But why should that stop me from helping the few that I can? Besides…” Roswaal held out a finger before the scowling Marcos and laughed. “Another fool like me might come along, and then another. Perhaps a hundred nobles like myself could help everyone, right?”
Marcos released another sharp exhale at the preposterous suggestion. Opening his oversized fist and looking at his palm, he mused, “I’d rather not have to beat up a hundred fools like you.”
It couldn’t be said that the issues between the Brotherhood and the Golden Wing Faction were settled in one fell swoop. Such a deep-rooted problem wouldn’t resolve so easily. The same issues between these groups would likely spout again in a different form. But as long as this common ground became a precedent, it was fine.
Both the Brotherhood and the Golden Wing Faction had withdrawn, leaving the shop wide and empty as Russell muttered, “The eldest son inherits the estate, and the second and third sons help out with his work. But what about the children who come after? I’m no stranger to that, either.”
Roswaal responded to his mutterings with a shrug and a question. “Really? With your competence, I think it’d be easy to take your older brother’s place.”
“I won’t do that. I don’t want to sow any futile discord. I’m a pacifist.”
“If it’s for a good reason, I don’t think it’s too much to aaaask. You might be surprised at how little resentment it’ll leave. Or rather, that you might not leave any.”
“Such meaningful words. It sounds as if you’ve experienced this yourself.”
Roswaal smiled silently at Russell’s banter. Snatching away the family estate, and driving away any blood siblings and family—in reality, Russell was entirely correct. Roswaal had experienced something similar—not in this body, but in an incident several hundred years ago.
“Still here, I see,” Roswaal said.
They both spied Marcos’s figure, looking at the two of them from the entrance. Taking long strides as he walked, he took a seat at the counter beside them.
“How did your comrades taaaake it?”
“It’s been chaos, obviously… But it’s not all bad. We have Leno, who I’m putting in charge. He’s an honest guy of few words. He’s taken an interest.”
“I see,” Roswaal replied. “If he’s competent, then that’s all fine. And if he’s not, then his enthusiasm should be enough.”
“Watch your mouth,” Marcos cautioned Roswaal on his unnecessary comment with an exasperated look. Glancing at the empty shelves, he commented, “Not a single drink, huh? What a waste of space.”
“I agree,” said Russell. “It’s excessively sad for such valuable real estate.”
“Or so you thought. I actually hid some.”
In response to the other two’s requests, Roswaal leapt over the counter and slid a board at the back of the empty shelves. From inside, he took out a single bottle of alcohol. Relieved that it hadn’t been stolen, he also retrieved some glasses from the same hidden compartment.
“Granhiert? You have good taste.” Marcos said, noticing the drink.
“My grandmother’s favorite. I imagine she regretted dying before she could drink it.”
“Oh my, how terrible. Then let us drink up in her honor,” Russell suggested.
Exchanging sinful looks, they opened the bottle of alcohol that had aged for so long. A rich aroma drifted from the amber liquid as it was poured into the glasses. Taking one glass each, they clinked them together before bringing them to their mouths. As a guilt-inducing flavor hit their tongues, they were each momentarily at a loss for words.
“Drinks always taste best after a hard day’s work,” stated Roswaal. “And that goes for anyone, regardless of birth, don’t you think?”
“Is that supposed to be some sort of conclusion? Like I’d agree, idiot,” Marcos spat.
Downing his drink in one gulp, Marcos placed his glass on the counter. Then, he paused with a stony countenance and said, “…I’ll go along with your idea, Roswaal.”
“…I’m glad to heeear it.”
“You did what you said you would, and showed results. Even as just a temporary measure, it’ll give a path for those with nowhere to go. So I’ll help you out with your plan,” Marcos replied with resolution, twisting his face into a sneer.
Before attending the meeting with the Golden Wing Faction, Roswaal had made Marcos a promise. “I will propose a solution for the capital’s current situation. And if you like the proposal, you must cooperate,” he’d said.
For that sake—
“I’ll return to the guards temporarily… Though I’ll probably get a good scolding.”
“Well, resign yourself to it. It’s fine—you’ll be in great demand… But I did think that you’d put up a much bigger resiiiistance.”
“I find it odd myself. I don’t feel particularly bad about it. That might be because I feel I’ve become a ball in the palm of your hand, and have resigned myself to that,” Marcos replied, shaking his head as he got to his feet. Turning toward the entrance, he continued, “I’ll contact you periodically, but I don’t do idle chit chat. Keep the letters to a minimum.”
“But I’m so proud of being a frequent writer.”
“I figured you were, hence the warning… You should reconsider the company you keep.” That last part was directed not at Roswaal, but instead Russell, as Marcos exited the shop.
Watching him leave, Russell wet his tongue with the alcohol and chuckled. “It’s not very convincing coming from him.”
“Dear me, you are certainly right. But even so, you have done a lot for me.”
“I’m just happy to be of help,” Russell answered humbly before Roswaal refilled his glass.
Russell was always modest, although he’d done nothing but help Roswaal from the very start. Starting with his passing out in the alley, to the duel with Marcos, and also arranging the meeting between the Brotherhood and the Golden Wing Faction.
“A man like you will probably come in handy,” Roswaal stated. “I’d like for this relationship to last as long as possible.”
“If you say so, then my time spent running around has been well worth it. But still—”
“—I imagine you’ve had many opportunities to be asked for advice, right? For example, by Fareed, perhaps?”
The smile vanished from Russell’s face. But only for a split second.
“What do you mean?” he hastily asked, smoothing over his appearance.
“Well, it’s just a guess… Fareed’s burning patriotism is a rare thing for a noble, but he’s not very good at making use of that passion. Someone must have advised him and pointed him in the right direction. Naturally, he firmly believes he made all these choices of his own volition.”
“A true tactician never lets his target know that he has been taken in by his plan. After all, his target must truly believe that the decision was all his own. So there isn’t a single reason he would know,” Roswaal explained, emptying his glass at the same time.
This time it was Russell’s turn to pour the refill. “That’s an interesting supposition,” he said. “Are you an accomplished writer as well as a magic user?”
“Unfortunately, writing stories isn’t my forte. My hands are full with what’s already written out for me.”
With a slight chuckle, he downed his second drink. It was strong. Although he only had to return to his lodgings after this, it wasn’t good to drink too much. Not to mention the youthfulness of his body—he was well aware that he needed to take care of it.
“I’ll only have one more. Will you drink with me?” Roswaal asked as he shook the bottle, now with little left in it. “As my new friend.”
Russell nodded. “When you put it that way, I have no choice.”
Thus began the first of numerous drinks these two would share together, their true motives hidden behind suppressed laughter.
“…Belmont, you there?”
That night on the streets, once everyone had gone and he confirmed he was alone, the youth called out his subordinate’s name. The figure responding to his call emerged from the alley, a boy with a hat pulled low over his head.
Without acknowledging the small shadowy figure, the young man continued. “Accompany Fareed Impusen and the Brotherhood. And stay in touch.”
“Understood… What about Lord Mathers?”
“He’s caught on to more than we bargained for. By snatching the plume that wasn’t even on display to begin with, I assumed he’d realize that he was our target from the start.”
It had all gone as planned until Roswaal realized their involvement and sought to exploit their intentions. But discovering the true identity of the founder of the Golden Wing Faction, as well as the reason for its inception was a completely unexpected turn of events. They reevaluated him as a force to be reckoned with. However, he himself appeared to have no intention of leading the country.
“At the very least, not at the moment…huh?”
“Just talking to myself. Did you manage to detect the thing in question?”
“Yes. Somehow it seems that a Divine Protection is at work. The source is probably…”
At the question, his subordinate trailed off, and the youth concluded, “I see.”
Then, raising his cold eyes, he looked over the residence before him. The estate, lying on the edge of the Nobles District, had been proclaimed an impassable zone by the Kingdom of Lugunica.
Heinkel Astrea woke at midnight with a feeling of unease in his gut. Roused from his sleep, he was in a single, dimly-lit room. He had been sleeping on the floor, wrapped in a blanket. Of course, there was a bed in his own room, but Heinkel preferred to sleep here:
In the bedroom, where his wife slept.
“…Did Reinhard get out of bed?” Heinkel grumbled as he made his way out of the room, stifling a yawn. His son was still young, and not as lively as other children. He hadn’t learned how to rely on people, likely due to his mother’s slumber. He felt inadequate, struggling with this unfamiliar fatherhood. For what he lacked, he depended on the elderly couple that had long served the mansion, or his parents who lived elsewhere. However, Heinkel truly wished to rely on his parents as little as possible.
Down the moonlit corridor, he noticed the curtains fluttering in a sudden wind. He slowly moved forward to close the window, head tilted. This window should have been closed. Why is it open?
“Don’t turn around.”
A cold voice cut in from behind, and Heinkel froze. It was a voice devoid of emotion and as sharp as glass. Sensing this, Heinkel scolded himself for not bringing his sword with him. If only he had his sword on hand, he might not have ended up in such a predicament.
“Heinkel Astrea, you are under suspicion of criminal insurrection.”
“H-Huh? Criminal? Me? Why…”
Heinkel’s voice stuttered at the sudden accusation of a crime he had no memory of committing. But he couldn’t turn around and explain—he could sense from behind that the person wouldn’t let him.
Strictly speaking, there were more than the single individual who spoke. He sensed a large number of people, and that both himself and the mansion were surrounded. And he knew not only himself, but his wife and son were fair game as hostages.
“W-What must I do to ease your suspicions? And first of all, why do you think—”
“—The Divine Protection of Mind-Changing.”
Despite his request for clarification, Heinkel was struck with a term he had never heard before, which was clear from his reaction to the other party, who had been watching him intently.
“Historically, it is a dangerous Divine Protection that has been observed a number of times…allowing one to influence people’s thoughts. Depending on its usage, it could even make it possible to overthrow a country. It has been perceived to be centered around you.”
“N-Nonsense, I don’t have any Divine Protections! I… If I had a Divine Protection—”
“It is said to influence the thoughts of those involved. Do you remember Marcos Gildark?”
It was the name of the old friend he had just met today. But just as Heinkel was about to refute the claim, something occurred to him—something of an extremely small and limited possibility…
“That Marcos…the Divine Protection… W-What happened?”
“Although there is a possibility that external factors might have played a role, he changed his mind. He is returning to the knights.”
Which meant that Heinkel had fulfilled the duty assigned to him by the knights… and that there was a slight possibility of someone having done it for him.
Coming to a realization, he broke into a run. There was a momentary delay in the response of the presence he sensed, which Heinkel left behind as he ran toward a certain door. Flinging it open, he entered.
The child sitting atop the bed looked at his father in surprise. Relieved to find his son safe and sound, Heinkel flew over to him and seized his tiny shoulders. “Reinhard, did you make any kind of wish for my sake? Because I said I’d be happy if Marcos returned to the knights?”
Hearing this, Reinhard’s expression warped. Fear flashed across his eyes, and he hugged his red-haired head. “I-I’m sorry. I wanted…to help you, Father… A-Are you angry?”
—Not angry, Heinkel hesitated to say. He was happy Reinhard felt that way. The consideration of a son who thought of his father—that itself was heartwarming. But he recalled the words of the figure a moment ago.
Reinhard held the Divine Protection of Mind-Changing, which had the potential to overthrow a country. He could not afford, then, to respond with kindness.
“Reinhard, that’s not okay. You can’t do that.”
“I’m telling you, Reinhard. Don’t use that power ever again! It’s not okay to use it. You are not allowed to bend people’s heart’s to your will and change their minds! They aren’t yours to play with! Understood?!”
Embracing his frightened son, Heinkel’s voice transformed into a yell so his words would reach the ears of the assassins throughout the mansion, and everyone in their party—regardless of who they were.
“I’ve told my son! I won’t let him use it ever again! So please! Reinhard will be fine! He’s a good kid! This child is Louanna’s son! He’s our treasure!”
He wasn’t quite sure if his frantic shouts would pierce through the cold-hearted group, but Heinkel screamed with all his heart, praying for Reinhard’s safety.
“Please… Don’t take my son… Don’t take away Louanna’s way home…!”
He had already lost so much. Having experienced nothing but loss, that which he had gained was few in number. Losing the one wish he had been granted was unbearable.
He clung to him, sobbing, wondering exactly how much time had passed since his unsightly complaint. Before he knew it, the numerous people he’d sensed had disappeared. Heinkel only realized that fact when his son’s tiny hand touched his cheek.
“Father, I’m sorry. I won’t use it ever again… I-I’ve erased it,” Reinhard assured him. Heinkel was taken aback by both his frantic behavior, and the disappearance of the unknown entities.
Letting out a breath, he placed a hand on his son’s head. “You…erased it? Haha, okay, I understand. A Divine Protection is something that stays with you your whole life… But I get it. Do your best to live without it. Okay?”
“…Okay. I’m sorry, Father.”
“It’s okay. It’s alright, Reinhard… As long as you understand, it’s fine.”
Exhausted, Heinkel accepted Reinhard’s apology. Rather, there was no need for his son to apologize to begin with. Divine Protections were something you were born with. Owners of such powers had to understand that they walked a different path than everyone else. They had to be prepared to live like that.
His closest family would need to understand that—
“Huh? Did…you just say something?”
“No, nothing. Father… Um, today could we…”
“Yeah, let’s sleep together. With Louanna, too. Let’s sleep in the same room, as a family.” Pleased with the idea, Heinkel lifted his son in his arms and carried him out of the room with his pillow. As they left, Reinhard’s gaze shifted toward the window.
“Devote yourself to the Kingdom… For your family.”
Only Reinhard’s blue eyes witnessed the shadowy figure’s lips moving as it stood outside the window. An image that would remain within the child’s mind for a long, long, long time.
“Right, I’ll be counting on you from now oooon, Fareed.”
“Likewise. I’m grateful to you for giving us this opportunity.”
Finished with his business in the capital, Roswaal was ready to set off to return to his own lands, accompanied by everyone from the Brotherhood, when Fareed had come to see him off.
Unlike the Brotherhood, who came with no baggage, each member of the Golden Wing Faction had much to sort out first. But the youths that comprised it were all burning with passion. They were all equally excited at the prospect of going to a new place where they could make full use of their abilities.
The previous Roswaal had the tendency to keep people at a distance. However, the magicreation tools he had developed over his reclusive lifetime indicated a sign of a bright future.
“Looks like you’ll have much to sort out once you arrive. I’m counting on you, uhh… Leno Rex, was it?”
“…Thank you. You too,” replied the unsophisticated man taking over Marcos’s role with a simple nod. Despite his reticence, his sincerity was clear. He would get along just fine.
“At any rate, we need to double the size of Costuul over the next ten years. We can’t be caaaareless.”
As Roswaal muttered to himself, Bel appeared beside him, arms behind his head. “I don’t really understand, but it sounds pretty important.”
“Oh my. It’s you.”
This youth, who had been the catalyst of this whole situation, planned a fresh start with the Brotherhood alongside Roswaal. And he was very welcome to.
“Caaan I count on you when I want to get in touch with Russell?”
“…I don’t get what you’re sayin’. I’ll just say, your letter might get delivered to him by mistake.” The youth shrugged. The whole ordeal was obvious from his attitude, but he maintained his pretense. Roswaal didn’t mind such theatrics and went along with it.
All things considered, the time I spent here bore much fruit, he thought. Obtaining a foothold in the development of Costuul, considered a difficult endeavor, plus acquiring two favorable connections in the capital, was quite a big deal.
Both the immeasurably talented Russell, and Marcos, who’d accepted his complicity, were irreplaceable friends. He looked forward to the times when he’d be able to travel to the capital and meet them.
Having something valuable stolen on purpose, and using that as an opportunity to deepen a connection… Perhaps that plan will come in handy at some point in the future. Pondering this, Roswaal—accompanied by the impatient youngsters—returned to his domain.