Sharia Magic University, Research Building.
Zanoba's research lab.
Six individuals are in a circle around a table.
Zanoba, Cliff, and I are sitting; Elinalise, Julie, and Ginger standing as if to surround us. Elinalise is holding her baby, so really 7 people are present.
Zanoba looks very troubled, and Cliff agitated. Julie also looks troubled, and Ginger looks ready to burst in tears.
Even Elinalise looks flabbergasted.
An unhappy mood permeates the air.
"Zanoba, calm down, can you start again from the top, this time with details?"
Zanoba is expressionless, which is terrifying since he usually has a smile on his face. It's like he's a different person entirely.
"This morning, a soldier from Shirone delivered a letter to yours truly."
He already showed us the letters, which I'm currently holding. I take it out again to read.
The envelope is sealed with the Shirone Kingdom crest and Pax's signature, with three letters sealed within.
The first details the political turmoil in Shirone Kingdom in the last half a year.
The gist of it was about how the Seventh Prince Pax, who was sent off to study abroad at Kingdom of Dragon King, gained their backing, and returned to Shirone Kingdom.
Then he initiated a coup, murdered King Shirone, as well as rest of the royal family, and became the new king of Shirone Kingdom.
The contents seem to prattle on with praise for Pax.
The second letter concerns what happened after the coup.
It's mainly about how most of the country's ministers and generals were replaced or escaped from Shirone.
As the population declined in Shirone, its effective combat force declined as well.
Once they realize this, countries in the North will likely take advantage of the situation and attack.
Because Shirone lacks the force necessary to defend itself, a plan was hatched to recall the miko Zanoba to defend his home nation.
The letter is written with a [political change is necessary, so Pax did nothing wrong] tone.
The third letter is an official letter to recall Zanoba.
It includes a cancellation of the previous king's order and an order to return home.
It even has the seal of King Shirone stamped on it, very official looking.
Basically the three letters are [Pax's Heroic Tales], [Excuse], and [Draft Letter].
The coup led to a decline in their fighting force.
Reinforcements are necessary to stave off enemy attacks.
It sounds like a bunch of excuses, but they kind of make sense.
Of course, a question remains about how useful Zanoba is in combat.
But Zanoba is quite famous in Shirone, so recalling him alone should at least help with the troops morale.
But considering that they have the backings of the Kingdom of Dragon King, why not leave national defense to them?
I don't know the situation on the ground, so maybe there are reasons why that's not possible.
No alliance is set in stone.
If the letter didn't mention protection from the Kingdom of Dragon King, it probably isn't possible.
Pax and Zanoba had a history together.
Eight years ago, with Zanoba's help, I destroyed Pax's scheme.
As a result, Pax was sent off to study abroad in the Kingdom of Dragon King, and Zanoba was sent off to study abroad in Ranoa Kingdom.
If Pax still holds a grudge, he won't let Zanoba off that easily.
So maybe this draft letter is really a trap for Zanoba.
Well, leaving that aside. The problem now is what to do? What will Zanoba choose?
"Then, given the situation, what will you do?"
"I'll follow the order to return to Shirone and join the battle."
Here's the problem.
No matter if it's Cliff or Ginger, they all disagree.
They could understand if Zanoba wanted to return to avenge the previous king.
They could also understand if Zanoba chose to disobey the order too.
But Zanoba did neither.
Even though it's obviously a trap, he's going to comply.
With the usurper.
"You have no reason to go."
That's what Cliff said.
He thinks the chance of a trap is high.
Or rather, he already decided that this is a trap.
"You want to take a chance, but this is obviously a trap for your life."
"In a coup, the most obvious thing to do is to eliminate the entire royal family, to avoid problems down the line."
Cliff himself has been affected by the political struggles underway at Holy Kingdom of Milis. If his father the pope loses, his life will be in danger.
Eliminate an enemy by killing his entire clan. It's only natural.
"And even if the enemy attack is real, what good will you do on your own?"
"Um... Maybe not much. Regardless, I'm a miko after all."
Frustrated, Cliff slams the table with a bang.
Zanoba lets it pass.
"Even if you beat back the enemy, have you considered what Pax has planned for you?"
Cliff knew about why Zanoba was sent out of the country.
When was he told? Probably when I was telling him about how Zanoba and I first met.
That's why he knows what kind of person Pax is.
Maybe his opinion was biased, but I can appreciate why he's so adamantly opposed.
"He'll probably get rid of you after he's finished using you!"
That's why he was saying this.
But I agree with Cliff on this one.
Assuming that war is really on the horizon because other countries are invading.
Assuming that Pax really wants Zanoba's power.
Assuming that Zanoba returns to Shirone, using his miko power, solves the crisis.
As royalty, Third Prince Zanoba, what kind of existence is he for Pax?
When enemies attack, Zanoba has value.
He might even be considered the savior of a nation.
He might even become really popular among the soldiers that he saves.
What would Pax think about someone like that, with the same royal blood flowing in his veins?
No doubt he'll be a hindrance.
A potential threat to his position and survival.
When Pax considers this, what will he do?
"Zanoba, I think so too."
"... It's highly probable."
After I concur with Cliff's opinion, Zanoba nods seriously.
He should know well that Pax still holds a grudge and might make an attempt on his life.
"But I must go."
Even though Zanoba agrees with us, he still thinks he needs to go.
Why? I don't get it at all.
"Because this is an official order of the kingdom."
True, the stationary has the king's stamp.
Forget the previous king's order, immediately drop out of school, and return home -- that's the order.
"But that order comes from Pax, right? The king has changed. There's no need for you to comply?"
"Shisho, if everyone disobeys their orders just because the king has changed, then the country cannot survive."
"Even if you say so, he didn't become king through the proper channel... isn't he just a usurper?"
"No matter how he did it, the reality that Pax is the king does not change."
Is that so?
Yeah, in my previous life this happened in many countries as well...
What would the ministers of a country do in this situation...
Would they keep working even under the usurper...
"Zanoba, you really want to work for Pax?"
"That's not the case."
Slowly, Zanoba shakes his head.
There's nothing we can do.
Zanoba refuses to listen, regardless of what we say.
Realizing that frustrates me.
I unconsciously raised my voice.
"Even though you know you'll be killed, and you don't plan to follow him, then there's no reason for you to go. Why are you so stubborn?"
Or is he afraid of the consequences?
If Zanoba refuses a direct order, Shirone Kingdom might retaliate.
But this is Ranoa Kingdom, it'll take at least half a year to rush here from Shirone.
If I ask Ariel for a favor, he should be safe as a refugee in Asura Kingdom. [Due to the coup in Shirone Kingdom, to escape the danger I'm exiled to Asura Kingdom.] But I don't know whether that excuse of exile will work...
Zanoba laughs at my confusion.
A different laugh from his usual, natural one.
A forced laughter.
"Shishou, you're aware, that for Shirone Kingdom I'm considered a nuisance."
"Not really, since you're a miko?"
"Yes, but, I'm a miko that murdered royal blood because of my lack of self-control."
Hearing this, I suddenly recall Zanoba's nickname back at Shirone Kingdom.
[The Head Ripping Prince.]
He ripped off the head of princess escort's newborn - his own brother - a mad prince.
It doesn't need to be said, killing his own relative without reason, even royalty can't escape that unpunished.
But, Zanoba himself was left untouched for that, even though his own mother was forced out of the country.
"I was forgiven, because I am a miko. Because they believe one day I can be of use."
A bit shaken, Cliff looks nervously at my direction.
Maybe he hasn't heard about this before.
"After that, I even ripped the head of my own wife, which precipitated a civil war."
Zanoba has married before.
A politically motivated royal wedding, and on their wedding night he ripped her head off.
This caused a crisis in the kingdom.
"Even though she said some unforgivable things, which I never plan to forgive, but punishing me for the resulting conflict would not be unreasonable."
Zanoba looks at me as he says this.
"But I was not punished."
Then, he sighs, and as matter-of-fact he continues.
"Shisho, do you know why the kingdom let me live?"
I have no answer.
"After that, I met Shisho, and the country kicks this troublesome me out of the country. It would be perfectly reasonable to sentence me to death then, but I was merely send abroad. I wasn't just exiled, but instead sent to Sharia. The kingdom even spent heavily for my living expenses. What do you think is the reason?"
I know where Zanoba is going with this.
I get why the kingdom left Zanoba alive.
"So at the moment of crisis, I can save the kingdom."
I have no answer to Zanoba's strong reasons.
Even Cliff can only stare.
Only Ginger looks understanding, pained.
"Fighting for my kingdom is my duty. This is why I'm left alive. It's for this reason my nation forgave my transgressions. That's why, I must go. Otherwise, if I wait for the kingdom to be attacked, it'll already be too late. Rather, the enemy might already be attacking. That's why I must make haste."
As repayment for nurturing him, letting him live, he has to repay his kingdom.
A debt must be repaid, that's only natural.
Perhaps, he thought he should have headed back during Pax's coup.
But what's past is past.
Right now if he starts another insurrection, it will further degrade the nation's combat strength, Shirone Kingdom might really face destruction.
That's why he will obey Pax, and become the protector of Shirone Kingdom.
I get it.
This isn't like you.
Weren't you a more free, selfish person?
Shouldn't you be saying, [This has nothing to do with me. More importantly, look at this doll! Look at these exquisite details!] Aren't you that kind of character?
.... But I can't say that.
That's not right.
Honestly, I want to tell Zanoba [You can let this slide.]
But, that's not right.
"... You will get killed."
I only have this to say.
"If the motherland wants me dead, then I can only die."
Resolutely, he answers.
Maybe if you ask the warriors of the old, the soldiers of the old Japanese army, they might answer the same.
But, I need to stop him.
I don't want Zanoba to die.
But, I can't just be straightforward and reject him.
Because Zanoba right now is looking straight at me.
Or maybe I have changed.
I have nothing to say.
I don't know what to say.
"Shisho, Cliff, please don't look like that."
Zanoba shows a happy smile.
His usual smile.
"When I was in Shirone, duty was never a thing on my mind. But after meeting Shisho, meeting Cliff, meeting Nanahoshi, after living here, I thought about a lot of things. About what my purpose in life is..."
And that's how, his conclusion became [protect motherland?]
How did he connect the time we spent together with protecting motherland?
I don't get it at all.
"Ha, that might sound presumptuous, even I don't really know how that came about! Ha ha ha!"
Zanoba laughs, but I can't.
I don't want to argue about his conclusion.
Whether it's right or wrong, it's only up to him to decide.
I can only respect his choice.
The only thing is, what happens with that choice, that is, if Zanoba dies... I don't want that to happen.
Zanoba is my dear friend.
Thinking back, he has always been by my side.
He is the one that came to my aid in Shirone.
When I came to the university, if I hadn't met him, I might not have the friends I have now.
Meeting Rinia and Pursena, that was because of Zanoba's dolls.
Without Zanoba, Cliff and I might not have got along like we are right now.
When we went to the Magic Continent together, he single-handedly held back Atofe.
The Magic Armor as well, without him, making it would be impossible.
Now that I think about it, he has always come to my aid.
Moreover, when we make dolls together, those are always happy moments.
I'm really happy.
He always puts me on a pedestal, no matter what I do he showers me with praises.
Just being with him alone is comforting.
Maybe others think differently, but for me, without a doubt, it's very comforting.
And it's him, in my future diary, that stood by my side till the end.
I can't just stand by and watch Zanoba march to his death.
Rudeus Greyrat can't let Zanoba Shirone die.
Suddenly, I realize something.
"What is it, Shisho?"
As if only natural I follow up with.
"I'm going too."
How Zanoba reacts, the mix of anxiety and happiness on his face, leaves a strong impression on me.
After that talk, I head over to Orsted's place.
I spend the day there thinking about the situation.
First, Zanoba summoned by his motherland. That never happened in the diary.
Zanoba was always in Sharia.
Right? I don't know for sure, but according to the diary he's always by my side.
The diary never mentions any draft notice.
Maybe Pax's coup failed? No, rather a coup probably never took place.
Either way, this differs from the diary.
In that case, maybe... Hitogami is up to something again.
Now I think about it, for the past year and a half, I have yet to see another 3 Hitogami apostles appear together.
If Pax is an Apostle, then it's reasonable to expect that he has been working in the background during this time.
Orsted has said, [Wait for the opportunity], maybe this is the opportunity he speaks of.
Um, this is it.
It shouldn't be wrong.
I have been training for this exact moment.
To help Zanoba.
Orsted is his usual self, busy writing something on a high class table.
"Ah, Rudeus, what is it?"
I explain the situation to Orsted, who looks scary as usual.
That Zanoba has received a draft notice, which didn't happen to Zanoba in the diary.
"Isn't this Hitogami's doing?"
I said full of confidence, but Orsted just stares at me with his scary face.
Did I make a mistake?
"According to the history I'm aware of, Shirone Kingdom will be destroyed due to Pax Shirone's coup in thirty years."
Orsted, looking terribly scary, answers the troubled me.
Wait no, he looks no scarier than usual...
".... Thirty years?"
Orsted explains to me what's supposed to happen.
The original history.
In other words, when the Metastasis Event never occur and where I was never involved with Shirone Kingdom.
In that history, Pax took advantage of the kingdom's slave market to gain allies and a war chest, taking hostages against his enemies.
And finally, initiates a coup.
The coup was a success, and Pax became king.
But by then, Pax has lost his drive and burned out.
After becoming king and gaining complete freedom, Pax starts questioning his kingship.
He vacated the throne and proposed a republic.
Thus, the Shirone Republic was born.
Shirone Republic went on to become a powerful nation.
It managed to swallow about half of the current strife zone.
Thus, Shirone Republic became the fourth power of the world and a hindrance to Hitogami.
"Hitogami hates that, thus he manipulated you to head to Shirone Kingdom, and used you to exile Pax from Shirone Kingdom. But..."
Because I followed Hitogami's advice, the situation in Shirone Kingdom changed.
Both of them were exiled from the country, and the cause of Pax's kingship disappeared.
Shirone Republic won't be born.
"If Pax becomes king, it'll give birth to a republic."
Orsted looks troubled.
In other words, this is exactly opposite of what Hitogami wished for.
"This time with Kingdom of Dragon King as his backing, maybe he won't propose forming a republic?"
"No, that won't change. I have seen similar situations before, in the end Pax always made that proposal."
Regardless of history, as long as Pax becomes king, he'll propose a republic, and Shirone Kingdom will become Shirone Republic.
Kind of like Ariel's situation.
The conclusion is destined by fate.
As soon as he's king, the rest is set in stone.
"Huh? What about Pax in the future diary?"
"Perhaps Pax did not initiate a coup, like Hitogami originally intended, and Shirone Kingdom remains a small nation."
In other words.
Past timeline: [Pax coups, becomes king, gives birth to a republic.]
Diary timeline: [Because of Hitogami's manipulation, Pax loses the kingship, the republic becomes stillborn.]
This timeline: [Pax coups, becomes king, likely gives birth to a republic.]
Something like that?
In other words, this time Hitogami is purposely changing the scenario to what it supposed to be.
"Why would he?"
"It's a trap."
Orsted's words add another layer of fog on the situation.
"Maybe Hitogami is willing to trade-off returning to the original situation to kill you off."
Like in mahjong where you break your own hand to ruin the opponent's. 
Something like that?
"Thus, if you go, Hitogami will likely have a sure-kill trap set for you."
"Can his target be Orsted-sama?"
"That is a possibility, but Zanoba Shirone is your friend, so he's the bait."
Pax summons Zanoba home.
It's pretty much confirmed to be a trap, but Zanoba resolves to go regardless.
Even though Hitogami shouldn't be able to predict whether I would go or not, but I'll probably take the bait if Zanoba has a high chance of death.
Hitogami really knows me well.
... Hitogami is rather clever this time.
"Zanoba makes your equipment. Even if you don't go to Shirone, Hitogami probably thinks getting rid of him would help him down the line."
Two birds, one stone.
If I come, he'll take care of both of us.
If not, just one is fine.
"Chances of Zanoba as an apostle?"
"Unlikely in this scenario. He's pretty much a nobody in the history of Shirone Kingdom."
He's very important to me!
Right now, I'm ready to take the bait willingly for him.
"Then, what should we do?"
"Just like before, wreck his plans straight up."
"... Ah, right."
If Orsted comes along, it should be easy.
Just like what happened with Ariel.
It doesn't matter if there's a trap.
Even if I'm drawn in like a moth to a flame, I can always just say [Please mister.]
Like the light on an angler-fish, he can rush to my aid and easily strike down my enemies.
Recently I've been called [Dragon's Underling] or [Dragon's Claw], but truth be told I'm really [Dragon's Lantern.]
"But, it's possible too that Hitogami isn't involved."
"Since this was supposed to happen."
This was supposed to happen.
"What we talked about so far, truthfully are mere guesses. The diary never did mention what happened around this time. Maybe Zanoba Shirone did go home, then returned safely."
Without Hitogami's interference, it happened anyways.
Zanoba like the previous was recalled to Shirone Kingdom, did his job, and returned home safely.
Is... this... possible?
"Zanoba in the diary had a bounty on his head due to Milis. Considering that, Shirone would likely bar him from return. Or maybe Zanoba himself rejected the draft notice, or maybe Ginger discarded it for him..."
That makes sense.
If I calm down and think about it, the diary situation is already different than now.
Even if Pax succeeded in his coup in the future diary, Zanoba still had a bounty on his head.
Ignoring the existence of a person wanted by the Holy Kingdom of Milis makes a lot of sense too.
Holy Kingdom of Milis has mercenary knights.
If Zanoba returned, those knights would likely consider Shirone an enemy state.
The possibilities are basically endless.
"But didn't Hitogami already use me to change the history of Shirone Kingdom? Will Shirone still become a Republic in this situation?"
"He wants to change it but failed. That possibility exists. Your fate might be strong, but even you aren't strong enough to change everything."
Oh, even I can't change history as I please.
Just now, Orsted realized something.
He's in his thinking pose, with his hand on his chin.
"W-what is it?"
"Wait... Pax was in the Kingdom of the Dragon King before, correct?"
"In that case, the possibility that the King there led the coup is high."
"Ah, that's right."
Ah, that's the case.
Pax was in Kingdom of Dragon King.
In other words, the possibility exists that Pax was manipulated by another apostle there.
Thus the possibility exists that Pax isn't an apostle.
Rather, someone else at Kingdom of Dragon King is Hitogami's apostle.
This person is the actual person manipulating from the shadows this time.
"Alright, I shall head to Kingdom of Dragon King and check for apostles there."
You're not coming with me?
"B-but, if Shirone Kingdom really is Hitogami's trap... then what should I do?"
"... If you're scared, then don't go."
In other words, leave Zanoba to die this time?
Well, as Orsted mentioned, maybe Zanoba won't be asked to do anything important.
Orsted promised to protect my family, even though Zanoba is my dear friend, he isn't family.
Ah, then I should just make him family.
Ask one of my family members to marry him...
Wait, no, that's not right.
If it's Zanoba, I won't mind leaving one of my sisters in his care, but that's not right.
"Zanoba has helped me. In the diary, even till the end, he always helped me."
"I won't leave him to die."
Question is, will I alone be enough to help Zanoba?
No, I don't have to go alone.
Who can I send to help Zanoba?
Eris has contacts with Holy Land of Swords, knows some Sword Saints, maybe I can arrange Zanoba a bodyguard army or something.
No, I can't let outsiders know about the magic teleport circles.
My mercenary army isn't ready to mobilize yet...
"Then you go to Shirone, I to Kingdom of Dragon King, and we will destroy Hitogami's plans. That's that."
Thinking about it, all sorts of possibilities exist.
We definitely need to look for clues and investigate.
"Say, I forgot to mention, when you head to Shirone, promise me one thing."
Definitely don't die on me, something like that?
If he said that, I might get nervous...
"Don't kill Pax Shirone, even if he's an apostle."
"Don't kill Pax Shirone."
It's that important? That you have to tell me twice?
Ah no, it's because I didn't react the first time.
Don't kill Pax...
Why.... Oh, I get it.
Because if Pax is killed, Shirone can't become a Republic.
Even if Pax considers us an enemy, I will let him know beforehand that I won't kill him.
But the difficulty has been raised.
If Pax wants us killed, but we can't kill him.
In that case... all I can do is try to avoid getting killed.
And bring Zanoba back with me.
Say, what must Zanoba do before he returns to Sharia?
What does Zanoba want?
Then how far does he have to go before he feels satisfied?
Well, forget it.
All in all, I'll go first, and try to convince him when the opportunity arises.
"Thank you very much, Orsted-sama."
"No need to thank me."
I make a deep bow towards Orsted and leave the office.
But, a Hitogami trap.
Zanoba had no complaints about me coming along.
But, if I told him it's a trap, he might reconsider.
And if he reconsiders?
Suppose he refuses, should I tell him?
In order to kill me off, Hitogami set a trap using Shirone Kingdom.
Using you as a bait to kill me off.
That's why you shouldn't go, etc...
No, that won't do.
He'll just say [Even if that's the case, I must go] in response.
In that case,
... then I'll stay quiet for now.
Zanoba might end up hating me this time.