Kilro was about two hundred kilometres southeast of Mephius' capital, Solon. When he had been informed that the lord of Kilro had been hung by the neck during the slave uprising that had occurred there, Mephius' Emperor Guhl had said in a murmur,
Kilro had been part of Mephius since long ago but, in truth, three generations ago counting from Guhl, it had been lost to civil war. After that, it had been governed by a powerful local family. Roughly thirty years ago however, when internal divisions arose within that family, one faction requested reinforcements from Mephius. At that time still in his thirties, Guhl had sent the reinforcements. The terms of exchange were that Kilro would become Mephian territory provided that faction was given considerable autonomy and self-governance.
Utterly suppressing the conflict and with Kilro as his base, Guhl had successfully regained control the Vlad Plateau, which contained Seirin Valley – where the betrothal ceremony between Crown Prince Gil and Princess Vileena was held – said to be the sacred place where Mephius had been founded.
Kilro was at the centre of the Domick Flats. The land was rough and by no means fertile, but it was endowed with a large air carrier relay base, a structure which ranked second only to that of Birac, which was the centre for domestic trade. However, as air carrier trade was sluggish, Kilro was currently more strongly focused on being a military base.
No matter how much they got married with the imperial family or swore vows of loyalty, for such an important location to be left to vassals who were not under his direct control was a situation which couldn't fail to irritate the emperor.
Therefore, was this not "Perfect"?
Guhl had immediately organised troops and had dispatched Oubary Bilan to subdue the revolt in Kilro.
And thus not so long ago, Isphan York had been appointed as the new lord of Kilro. He was one of Mephius' twelve generals.
"Or else there is also the rumour that it may have been the emperor himself who incited the rebellion," said Fedom Aulin within one of the castle rooms. After glancing upwards at the other six people present as though seeking their reaction, he continued, "One point of view has it that even the internal disputes that arose within the governing family thirty years ago were originally one of the emperor's schemes. As we can see from his erecting a shrine to the Dragon God faith, Emperor Guhl is obsessed with ancient conventions. He was no doubt willing to do whatever it took to regain Seirin Valley during his own reign."
Fedom paused on purpose at this point,
"Could that be it?"
"Or it might not be."
The reactions of the six were not pleasing to Fedom.
Tsk. They're all getting cold feet. He inwardly stifled his bitterness.
Their expressions were clearly different from what they had been before. When the seven had gathered there in Kilro, they were united in being concerned over the country's future and were a group of heroes willing to rebuild Mephius by force if necessary. Isphan York was one of those that Fedom had won over to the anti-Guhl faction and when he had been appointed as the new lord of Kilro, Fedom had seen it as a good opportunity to gather together there all the members of that faction under the pretence of helping him govern Kilro.
At first, they had had wild discussions during which they let slip their anger towards the Mephian emperor's wilful self‐righteousness. Raising their wine cups in the air, they had toasted Mephius' future health before draining their cups empty. As the seven were united in a single purpose – namely their ambition to depose the emperor and install themselves as the country's key figures – they had held passionate debates and that future had not seemed so very far away.
Even when offered a worthy topic for criticising the emperor over, the six of them didn't bite.
Fedom felt incredibly thirsty. The sun was still high so there was of course no chance of liquor being brought out on the table tops. But what meaning was there in keeping up the appearance of morality at this point? Feeling waspish, Fedom was about to call over an attendant when,
"It's been over two weeks." Indolph spoke suddenly.
He couldn't tell from the general's ever expressionless face whether he meant it had already been two weeks or that it had only been two weeks. But at those words, the mood within the room sank even further and Fedom lost all urge to drink.
Right, two weeks.
Since Crown Prince Gil Mephius had lost his life –
Perhaps because the general mood was so low, the conversation became more energetic than it had been for Fedom's proposed topic.
"Which reminds me, it seems they still haven't fixed a date for Oubary's execution." Said Tesslan, an aristocrat living in Idoro who was serving in a diplomatic position.
"Say what you will, he is a man who assassinated royalty" Answered Nabarl, a somewhat corpulent soldier. "His Majesty the Emperor probably intends to put on a showy execution before the people. It might involve not only Oubary himself, but his entire clan being fed to the dragons."
"Then has the prince's funeral also been delayed because he's waiting for that?"
Naturally the conversation did nothing to lift the mood. Fedom turned his away from their faces as they carried on their laconic discussion in hushed tones.
Following the prince's death, the emperor's despotism had grown ever stronger. Take Rogue Saian or Odyne Lorgo. For having ignored the emperor's wishes by helping the prince when he was sending reinforcements to Garbera, both generals were being kept away from Solon. Furthermore, even the leading aristocrat Simon Rodloom was still under house arrest on the charge of having remonstrated with the emperor.
Now that they had lost Prince Gil, who was originally intended to be their leader, each of the seven who had gathered because of their anger at the emperor's high-handedness had lost even the shadow of their resolve.
"Speaking of being delayed, what is going to happen with Garbera's princess?" Asked Merlock, a former member of the Imperial Council.
"It seems a delegation from Garbera arrived just the other day," answered Tesslan. "Ostensibly, it's to present condolences for the prince's death, but of course they'll no doubt also be discussing what will happen to Princess Vileena after this. The delegation met directly with the princess herself, but according to rumours among the palace waiting-maids, she appears to have refused an immediate return to her own country."
"Isn't it that she intends to wait for the prince's funeral?"
"But what about the alliance with Garbera? At present, there are no other suitable young men within the imperial family."
"Garbera's Prince Zeno is unwed. Isn't it possible a new alliance will be forged through a marriage to Princess Ineli?"
"No, it seems that Taúlia has been sounding her out."
"And now it's Taúlia," spat Nabarl.
Although Prince Gil had concluded an alliance with Taúlia, he should have attacked and seized the wide western territories and promptly broken free from the suffocating relationship between the continent's three central countries – so said the advocates of attacking Taúlia.
"But at the moment, the emperor seems rather to be considering drawing closer to Ende."
"Speaking of Princess Ineli," as the conversation almost returned to the emperor, Tesslan hastily changed the topic, "They say there's been something strange about her since she returned from Apta, "
"Ah, I've heard that too."
They said that on the day she returned to Solon, as though unable to suppress her anger at something, she had vented at everything and had screamed at her ladies'-maids and friends alike. And when she had been informed of her step-brother's death, she had exclaimed, "That can't be true."
Visibly shaken, she had done no less than go and negotiate directly with the emperor to "Have them investigate it again". The emperor had always been indulgent towards Ineli but as was to be expected, this time he had raised his voice and had scolded her harshly.
"Well, Ineli-sama was close to Prince Gil and she's at that age, so her feelings were probably thrown into upheaval."
Humph. Fedom stifled a yawn. At one time, said Princess Ineli had made Fedom break out in cold sweat as she had come close to realising Prince Gil's real identity, but now that Gil was no more, Fedom had no interest in conversations about her.
Incidentally, regarding the Grand Duchy of Ende which had come up in the conversation earlier. Just recently, Prince Eric had intended to march his army into Garbera but, partly because Prince Gil had arrived with reinforcements, he had pulled up camp almost without their crossing swords. It was thought this might cause some friction in relations between Mephius and Ende, but in the end the delegation that had arrived bore only condolences, without expressing any official criticism or dissatisfaction.
According to whispers in the wind, it seemed that Ende's struggle for succession was coming to a head. That being the case, that country probably didn't want to stir up unnecessary trouble with Mephius.
That damn Orba.
Fedom cursed inwardly as he sipped lukewarm tea in place of wine. Of course, only he knew that Crown Prince Gil Mephius had at some point been replaced by the gladiator Orba.
To die in a place like that.
Orba was a man with the devil's own luck. So when he had heard that he had died when Fedom's back was turned, it didn't feel quite real. He also felt that he was being sentimental in being unable to abandon his ambitions.
Fedom too had dreamed too much. His dreams were too big. One by one they had solidified underfoot and now, when at long last they seemed to be within reach, his dreams had disappeared like a mirage before his eyes. The swaggerers who burned with the ambition of dragging Guhl Mephius from his throne were now no different from elderly nobles who had retired from life in Solon. It felt like they were having an insignificant chat over tea, talking about anything and everything.
But I can't grow careless.
Fedom tightly grasped the hand resting on his knee. The seven people here were, so to speak, accomplices. If their plans fell through here, one of them might approach the emperor by denouncing the other six.
With what happened to Simon and Rogue, doubts and opposition towards the emperor are growing. If I can hold my nerve, I should be able to recruit new companions. I can't change course. It's too late now to throw it all away.
Much too late.
Fedom Aulin wiped his sweaty palms on his knees.
He thought he saw Emperor Guhl's figure flicker in the shimmering heat behind the other six.
Clouds of dust whirled tempestuously. Tens of dragons galloped over the ground. One dragon-riding warrior was outstandingly fast.
"What, what? You can't win against Tauran's other dragoons like this! Are you fine with letting the soldiers of the suzerain state of Taúlia be laughed at?"
The leading rider who had raised his voice angrily was Ax Bazgan. The governor-general of the city-state of Taúlia let his large body be jogged up and down as he sat astride his favourite Yunion dragon. Several metres behind him, the soldiers were likewise galloping along on Unions. Ax was perfectly aware that compared to the small Tengo, these were not dragons that were easy to handle, but still Yunion dragons were by nature far easier for humans to tame than were the similarly medium-sized Baians.
They were a new species that Ravan Dol had taken great pains to train. Ax felt that if one could not handle them as well as a horse, one could not survive in the turbulent war-torn Tauran region. Above all, Taúlia was facing an imminent threat. Until not so long ago, Ax's bitter enemy had been Mephius in the east. But now –
All of a sudden, a shadow appeared in his field of vision. Looking at him from the corner of his eye, he appeared to be a youth of about twenty. He recognised the virile features that could be seen through the visor of his helmet.
"Oh," Ax's thick lips curved into a smile, "so you did it, Raswan."
Raswan was Ax's nephew. As was to be expected, he was skilled. He didn't usually take part in Ax's dragon drills but this one time, he had said, "Uncle, I will be accompanying you today" and had come. And now, without answering Ax's call, he was focussed intently on galloping his dragon.
The road along the ramparts that Ax always used for his dragon drills had been trampled flat by the dragons' feet. An irrigation canal ran right beside it and wide fields spread outwards. The people doing farm work there rested their hands for a bit as they watched the dragons being exercised.
With a sigh, Ax turned to look over his shoulder.
"But still, they're an undisciplined bunch. Raswan, you go first. They need someone to lead them by the hand."
He said and, slowing his dragon's pace, he let Raswan take the lead. Meanwhile, he went around to the tail end and continued encouraging his men from the rear.
The dragon exercises took nearly another two hours. When Ax called out "Right, stop", the men and dragons were so exhausted that they couldn't move from where they were. Only Raswan Bazgan pretended stoicism and gave Ax a bow as he returned to the front.
As Ax was wiping away his sweat, the strategist Ravan Dol came up to him.
"Thank you for your hard work, my lord."
"Aye. I took my eyes off him for a moment and Raswan has become a fine Tauran warrior." As Ax spoke, he knit his eyebrows as though somewhat displeased. "But, that fellow..."
"Is there something which is worrying you?"
"No, I was just wondering about the way he's looking at me..."
When they had been lined up in a row next to the dragons and when he had bowed and left also, those eyes held some kind of negative emotion when directed towards him. Raswan's eyes, like Ax's, had always been dark. But whereas Ax's were always brimming with a vigorous light, Raswan's eyes were strangely irritating to the person he was staring at, and there was something about that made them feel uneasy.
"No doubt he is dissatisfied because my lord was being considerate of him."
At Ravan's words, Ax's expression grew bitter.
"Nothing less from you, Sir Master Strategist. You're good at reading the inner workings of ordinary men."
"At times such as these, when a youth earnestly throws down a challenge to a competition, the elderly should sympathise with their feelings and confront them head on. Taking the long-term view, whoever loses or wins in this kind of situation is frankly of no importance."
"You say that but the people were watching. And Raswan is a prideful man."
"Although my lord has a discerning eye for others, when it comes to the way you treat them, your knowledge is a little lacking"
"You should show a little more of that knowledge towards me," Ax grimaced. "Once I find a better strategist, I'll pull out that tongue of yours and throw you out of Taúlia."
Leaving the Yunion with a dragon-groom and once Ax had changed his clothes, they went towards Taúlia Castle. Although it was called a castle and had a moat dug around it, its appearance was more that of a manor. While eating a simple meal in the ground-floor hall that faced the courtyard, Ax received various reports from his vassals. Afterwards, he brought Ravan to his own chambers.
"Well then," Ax broached the topic in an offhand sort of tone. "Isn't it about time that Taúlia sent a delegation with condolences over Prince Gil?"
"It is still too early for that." Ravan was a man who always had answers prepared so no matter what kind of question might be thrown at him, he would reply immediately and without faltering. "The letter which arrived from Emperor Guhl Mephius about half a month ago praising the "triumph of both armies" was extremely vague, and nothing has yet been made clear as to a peace conference or an alliance. All the less so since Prince Gil, who promoted negotiations for reconciliation, has passed away. First of all, let us send a letter in my lord's name expressing your determination to carry out the prince's dying wish. You could also attach a proposal to have a stone monument erected at the border between Apta and Taúlia in honour of Lord Gil Mephius who worked towards peace between the two countries."
"It appears that Mephius has yet to hold a funeral service for Lord Gil. Don't act hastily until then."
"I get it," Ax nodded unreservedly and gave a small sigh. "Damn, so I won't be able to gauge the emperor of Mephius' mood."
Ax knew that now that the threat of Garda's army was imminent, peace with Mephius had to be maintained at all cost. Besides,
There's the war fan.
When he was defeated at Apta, he had the war fan he always carried snatched away by Gil Mephius. It was no ordinary war fan. It contained the sovereign's seal from the ancient magic dynasty. It was the symbol of royal authority from the era of Zer Illias – in other words, the one who held it, and that one alone, could claim the right to rule supreme over this land of Western Tauran.
Gil had said that he would return it at some point to the Bazgan House. But now the prince was dead and the whereabouts of the fan were unknown. Because the loss of the sovereign's seal had been kept secret from most of Taúlia's subjects, they could not openly press Mephius for its return.
Ravan had sent scouts into Mephian territory. Their aim was of course to locate the sovereign's seal but they had yet to produce any satisfactory results. At present, Ax held greater fury against the criminal who had assassinated Gil Mephius than any of Mephius' chief vassals did.
"Is Esmena still shutting herself up in her room? Should I bring her out even if I have to do so by force?"
Ax's sources of worry were unending. Recently, his daughter hadn't been showing herself in public at all.
"What is it?" Ax asked after a while and gave Ravan a sidelong glare as the strategist hadn't come up with his usual immediate reply. Whether he was plunged in thought or thinking about nothing at all, the old man who looked much like a withered tree had mysterious eyes.
"Indeed, Lady Esmena. Unlike previously, when you were the one to shut her in her room, this time it is she herself who will not take a single step outside."
"Do you not know how to speak without throwing in sarcasm each and every time?"
"The reason is of course because of Lord Gil Mephius," said Ravan, ignoring Ax's rebuke. "Still, Lord Gil Mephius... It's strange."
"Strange in what way?"
"No, it's something I have thought for a while now. I had the scouts I sent to Mephius collect information about the prince and various unnatural points came up."
Mephius' prince was assassinated right after he returned to Apta from having personally led reinforcements to Garbera. The one who had killed him was said to have been a general who harboured a grudge against the prince. "There's nothing unnatural about that."
"What was unnatural were the prince's actions before that. It seems that Lord Gil sent out letters in every direction."
"I haven't pursued the matter to the end, but among them, some concerned a certain Birac merchant called Zaj. He addressed the Mephian nobles and ministers in charge of commerce and said that he would like them to entrust trade with Western Tauran to Zaj. It would seem that he helped during the struggle at Apta, and as that has now become his final will, it looks like the Crown Prince made preparations for his intentions to be known."
It was a name Ax remembered hearing. About a week earlier, a Mephian merchant had been holding a sales promotion on dragonstone ships. Because he went by way of the Northern coastal regions, he wouldn't charge for transportation costs, thus Ax had just given him instructions to procure a warship. That merchant's name had surely been Zaj.
As though guessing that Ax had a dredged up his memory during that pause, Ravan continued,
"Furthermore, there was also a letter in which he applied for the militarily-trained dragons at Apta and their dragon-grooms, not to mention the Yunion dragons sent by our Taúlia, to be incorporated into General Rogue Saian's forces. None of this should have been particularly urgent business, so isn't it exactly as though he was setting up how to deal with the aftermath?"
"The aftermath of what?"
"Of his own death."
Surprise took Ax' breath away.
He stared at Ravan intently. The expression on the old man's face held no indication that he had just said something utterly outrageous.
"You must be joking. Are you saying that Prince Gil had a premonition of his own death?"
"I don't know. Or there is also the possibility that he faked his own death and is still alive somewhere. Sending reinforcements to Garbera was probably not what Emperor Guhl had intended. As Mephius is now, no one knows what might happen for defying the emperor, not even to the crown prince. Perhaps he had already made up his mind when he left for Garbera."
"And so he dealt with various things that would come up in the aftermath? Hmm, it's not impossible... But please don't say anything to Esmena. I don't want her to get her hopes up."
"Well, even if she's at that age, she only met Gil two or three times. Even if talk about marriage to Mephius once came up, what we'll need to do soon is to think about the succession, be it through Bouwen or Raswan."
And with that, the conversation about Gil came to an end. After all, Ax currently had a lot to think about. Mephius in the East and Garda who was approaching ever nearer from the North. Little by little, Garda was drawing towards the southeast while absorbing the soldiers from the fallen city-states. He couldn't just cross his arms and wait to be invaded.
Taúlia was currently widely recruiting mercenaries and was gathering and strengthening its armaments by buying dragonstone ships and weapons from Mephian merchants and from the countries of the coastal regions.
Moreover, there was the previous fight over Apta fortress. As it was said that Taúlia, whose national strength should have been overwhelmingly inferior, had cornered Mephius and within five minutes had bound it in an alliance in which the two countries were on equal footing, Ax Bazgan's fame had grown ever greater within the Tauran region. Messages poured in incessantly from the other cities. They all spoke in the same voice, asking for an alliance to guard against Garda's army.
However, Cherik's name did not figure amongst them. It was a city-state situated west of Taúlia. At the meeting held recently within the hall, as there had as yet been no messenger from Cherik, Ax crinkled his nose, openly displaying his annoyance.
"They think they're away from the route advancing towards Taúlia but they had better not be planning on watching as simple spectators."
"But it isn't certain that Garda is aiming for Taúlia, right?"
"What he wants is the sovereign's seal." Ax had decreed. "It's clear from the fact that he's assumed the name of a high priest of the Dragon God Faith from the former Zer Tauran. Since he's posing as Garda, he's using empty slogans about the revival of the former Zer Tauran to try to become king of the Tauran region. And for that, what he needs is the sovereign's seal."
Above all else, Ax boasted that he himself was the legitimate king of Zer Tauran. Therefore, he believed that a recently emerged power with a shallow history such as Cherik should immediately rush to Taúlia and bow down as its vassal.
The current king of Cherik, Yamka the Second, was still young at thirty-three years of age. In the previous king's time, Ax had frequently crossed swords with them, but when the era changed to that of the current king, they had concluded peace.
"It's probably because of his youth that he finds it embarrassing to rush here immediately so I'll give him time. But I can't keep waiting for long like this."
Ax spread a map of the surrounding area on the table. He thrust his finger at an area north of Taúlia. Looking at it from Cherik, the city-state of Helio was northeast across Lake Soma. It too was bound in an alliance with Taúlia. It went back more than ten years, to when Mephius had attacked Tauran and they had campaigned together in order to drive them away.
Currently, Helio was first in line of Garda's advance. Since Eimen, into which Ax's older sister had married, had fallen, looking at its position, it was easy to imagine that it would be the next target for Garda's army. There were three or four cities north of Helio but according to rumour, noble ladies from each of those countries had disappeared one after another. It seemed that just like Esmena, they had for a period of time been afflicted with nightmares. Perhaps because of that and because they were not in the path of Garda's advance, these cities had adopted a wait-and-see attitude. As these were smaller powers who barely managed to survive through trade with the coastal areas, Ax had from the start held no expectations of them.
If Helio fell, Taúlia would surely be next. Naturally notification of a request from Helio to form a united front had arrived more than a month ago. However as at the time Ax was proceeding with preparations for the capture of the Mephian fortress of Apta, the answer had been temporarily put on hold.
And meanwhile, the political situation within Helio grew stormier and stormier. King Elargon died defeated by Garda's army and the city was bathed in blood from the struggle for succession.
We don't need this kind of trend.
As far as Ax was concerned, no matter how powerful the city-state, it was a territory that would one day belong to himself as rightful king. The present situation in which tiny powers, blind to anything but the immediate future, competed against one another was irritating to him.
"So Helio's royal family has also been wiped out? Then the country's name might also be changed soon – at any rate this current king, Jallah, what kind of man is he?"
"He is a man of no ability. He is only good at reading people's expressions. It is simply that good luck befell him as other men of influence better fit to be king brought about their own ruin." Ravan gave his judgement easily but then added something strange, "But it wasn't only Jallah who was lucky."
"Are you talking about Queen Marilène? Apparently he was blinded by her beauty and wanted her for his own wife. Since she was able to protect her position and power as consort, the queen was indeed lucky."
"No, Helio itself. The men who declared their intention of being king of the new era were all hot-blooded military men. If any of them had become king, they would immediately have focused solely on organising their depleted army to confront Garda's forces to avenge King Elargon – and to dispel the stigma of being labelled a traitor and gain the support of the people – and would no doubt have caused their own destruction. Jallah however is more than half aware of the fact that he does not have the capacity to be king. Even now, he has made no move other than gather soldiers and he saves his strength just as our Taúlia is doing. From what I have heard, he has taken in a mercenary leader exiled from Cherik whose force is nearly seven hundred strong. If reinforcements from our Taúlia were to be added to that, Helio should not fall so easily."
"Ha!" Ax sneered deeply. "Well then, is that also lucky for my Taúlia? Tonight Jallah will be drinking in celebration with the depraved queen. While Hardross who is prostrate with illness will no doubt spend his days unable to even sleep properly because of anger."
Elargon's father, Hardross, was also an acquaintance of Ax's that went back to the time of the war with Mephius, more than ten years ago. Hardross was quite a bit older than Ax but he was a very sensible man.
Ravan had thought so too and had said at the time, "My lord acts haughtily towards everyone. But while King Hardross also occasionally gets angry, he is not loath to deal with my lord’s personality. Even though I am his elder, I feel I should concede his superiority."
"There are also the greetings to Hardross. Should I go over there?", asked Ax. He was by nature impetuous. While the war with Mephius had popularly come to be seen as a victory for Taúlia, in reality it had been severely taunted and knocked about. Moreover, Ax himself had been taken captive at Apta. Those glaring eyes wanted a victory. He had always been hot-blooded and was a lord who enjoyed personally leading the war horses and war dragons into violent struggles.
"No," Ravan shook his thin neck left and right. "Helio will be at war before long. Rumours alone do not give us a complete portrait of our enemy. It is vital to cross blades with them first-hand, so we should first send out the six hundred or so soldiers from the main mercenary force. There will be time enough for my lord to go in person after that."
As he snorted with displeasure, there was something that Ax did not notice and that Ravan deliberately didn't tell him, but in fact Ravan had received information that gave him no choice but to move cautiously.
The mercenary commander Duncan was subordinate to the Fifth Army Corps which was led by Bouwen Tedos. He was thirty-four years old. The Taúlians highly valued his skill at unifying the unruly bunch of mercenaries and it was rumoured that he would one day climb to the top and take the position of leader of the corps.
Duncan had cause for annoyance. It was all well and good to have called for mercenaries from far and wide as per Governor-General Ax's wishes, but even though they had already exceeded their full complement, applicants were still lining up outside the barracks. There were people from many different origins. Although naturally Zerdians were the overwhelming majority, even among them there were various kinds of people, from the ones who lived in city-states such as Taúlia to those who still lived as nomads or those who had settled and lived in tiny mountain villages.
But they weren't what was giving him a headache. No, that was a man called Adelber who had already been accepted as a mercenary.
The story had gone around that he was a descendant of the bodyguards who served the savage Geb kings. When he arrived in Taúlia about six months ago, he had made himself known to several commanders.
He was skilful. If anything, his figure was on the slim side, but he handled his longsword lightly and overwhelmed his opponents with his speed. A number of matches were held on the pretext of being selection tests for enrolment, and Adelber had showily defeated even the skilled regular soldiers of Taúlia.
But on investigation, it turned out that he had originally been a bandit leader. His behaviour in town was also bad. He ate and drank without paying, was rough with women and soon targeted soldiers from other countries.
Adelber had sought service with the government forces but because of his past, none of the commanding officers had agreed to take him. With no other choice, he had turned to working as a sort of backstreet bodyguard in the town and so earned a daily income. When Taúlia started recruiting mercenaries on a grand scale, he finally gave up on entering the official forces and applied instead as a mercenary.
Skilled as he was, he was chosen for employ. That group was different from the "well-behaved" regular soldiers. Duncan had bragged about being able to integrate even those with a bad-habit or two into the mercenary corps. Adelber was of course a thief, but he had believed that he would find a way to tame him. Less than five days after recruiting him, Duncan had begun to regret his decision. On the surface, Adelber never made any kind of mischief. It would have been better if he had, since then Duncan could have punished him or sent him away.
It's influencing morale.
There was something unpleasant about Adelber's features. His eyes that seemed to look down on you and the coarse smile he wore as he gossiped were having an effect on Duncan's spirits. Every night he would call on his fellow mercenaries to go bar-crawling and what Duncan was most afraid of was that the disagreeable atmosphere around Adelber would spread to the other soldiers. For Duncan, Adelber's existence was currently like having a small fishbone stuck in his throat. Once he let himself be bothered by it, his irritation and unease could only grow stronger and stronger.
And just before an important war in which Taúlia's very existence is at stake.
It would be too late once the war had started. He wanted to find a reason to drive him out before then.
Bouwen Tedos had visited the worried Duncan earlier. Surveying the line of those applying to be mercenaries, he had said.
"There seem to be some that we can use. Because what we need are numbers, we've been taking in everyone we could get our hands on but then if we reject all of the current applicants, there's also the chance that we might miss out on some valuable warriors. How about exchanging some of the previous hires for new ones?"
Bouwen Tedos was Archduke Tedos' adopted son and, although young, he was the leader of the Fifth Army Corps. Duncan held him in esteem for his courageous nature and surprisingly effective quick-wittedness. With an "Aye!", he had immediately agreed to the plan.
The next day, Duncan personally interviewed the applicants to choose some of them. Within the queue, he came across a man with an unusual appearance. Among the swordsmen there, his physique was unremarkable but he wore bandages wrapped around his entire face. The only parts that were uncovered were the areas around his eyes, the tip of nose and his mouth. Judging from his skin, he probably wasn't a Zerdian.
"What's with his face?"
"It seems he caught some infectious disease when he was a child."
The one who answered was not the person himself but another man standing in wait behind him. He too was eye-catching. His hair was long and his gestures somewhat effeminate. Though in a different sense from Adelber, he gave Duncan an uncomfortable feeling. In Tauran, it was considered loathsome for a man to make himself look like a woman or to imitate a woman's gestures, even as part of an artistic performance. The only exceptions were the priestesses of the Dragon God Faith. Even a man could assume that position if he took an oath to live as a woman. Because it was only permitted to holy priestesses, it was rather that it was considered "imprudent" for a man who was not one of them to mimic a woman.
"Ah, but there's no problem anymore. It's just that he keeps it covered because the skin breaks out in sores."
"And the name is?"
When Duncan asked that, the person in question finally opened his mouth. When he heard what he said, Duncan tilted his head to one side.
"I've heard that before. That's the name of the man from Mephius who captured Lord Natokk's forces in a single swoop during the recent battle at Apta."
"That's why we came here," once again the aforementioned feminine-looking man interrupted. "The name 'Orba' causes misunderstandings in Mephius so it's difficult to get by there."
They were a strange pair. Incidentally, they had one other companion but as this was the giant who was towering over the other applicants in the line, Duncan had from the outset decided that he would be one of the replacements candidates. Listening to them, they had been gladiators in Mephius.
Ho. Should gladiators be standing on the same footing as Tauran soldiers?
The man in bandages mostly stayed silent while the man who looked like a woman talked. Duncan also added those two as replacements, partly out of curiosity and partly out of a somewhat unkind wish to see them get thrashed.
Having thus chosen about twenty people, Duncan showed them to the barracks. Facing them were swordsmen that Duncan had also personally chosen from amongst those hired. He had intended to have them fight one-on-one but as the number of candidates exceeded his estimates, they were one person short. Duncan called one of his men.
"Get Talcott," he ordered.
Behind the Fifth Army Corps' barracks was an open space for performing joint dragon-handling drills. The swordsmen lined up to the east and west respectively while Duncan brought out a folding field stool and stayed put to observe the fights and decided who would go and who would stay.
There were no complicated rules. They could compete as they liked with the cloth-covered training spears or with wooden swords and axes. There were no armour or helmets prepared. This was as good as saying that as these were soldiers hired from outside, nobody would care even if they broke a bone, or received a life-long injury, or even if they lost their life through lack of skill. The Tauran region was a truly violent area.
Those who had already been chosen and those who would be exerting themselves in order to be chosen would each be thrown into a desperate fight. There was no need to create a life-or-death atmosphere in this situation. Because of the rise of Garda's army, Tauran was an area in which it was becoming more and more difficult to lead an ordinary life. Even though the wages were low, becoming a mercenary of Taúlia meant getting two meals and over three wooden pails of water a day. That was enough to put one's life on the line for.
As Duncan had expected, the giant named Gilliam overwhelmed the already selected swordsman. He had chosen a wooden axe but didn't need to use it as he dodged a horizontal thrust from his opponent's sword then brought a fist like a boulder down on his back. With that, the match was over. Once the swordsman, now frothing at the mouth, had been carried out, the next match began.
Next is that dandy, huh?
Only Duncan's eyes smiled.
That pretentious face would surely turn pale from the violence of the Zerdian way of fighting. But it was too late to regret now. The candidate Duncan had selected to be the dandy's opponent was one whom he had judged would prove comparatively useful.
"Begin!" One of Duncan's men stood between the two swordsmen and swung down his hand. With that, the match started.
"What the -"
Duncan yelped involuntarily. In an instant, the long-haired lady-boy had gotten in close to his opponent and sent his sword flying from his hand. Before Duncan's eyes, it went whirling through the air then pierced the ground. The watching soldiers unconsciously let out a cheer and the dandy bowed affectedly.
Contrary to expectation, he was a usable swordsman and there were no particular objections to hiring him. The selection matches advanced steadily. When only two or three were left, Talcott, who had been called over, finally arrived.
"Do you need me for something?"
Noticeably raising and lowering his right and left shoulders, he approached bobbing along. He too was not a Zerdian. He claimed that he had been a sailor employed by one of the coastal countries, but Duncan judged that it was ten-to-one he had been a pirate laying waste to those same countries.
When he heard about possibly being replaced, Talcott's expression turned sour. He was a youth of twenty-seven with a smattering of sparse stubble and he tried to completely avoid such a 'distasteful topic'. Suddenly rubbing his chest as though in pain,
"I got hurt during the last training drill. I'll be fine in time for the actual fighting but my recovery will be set back if I overdo it today."
"What was that," Duncan said threateningly, his impressive features making him look like a pirate captain himself.
"I'm giving you an order. Pick a sword and get ready at once."
"I'm strong, Captain. Since it's about hiring and firing, there are more appropriate guys to choose."
To be sure, Talcott was something of a master. His partner hired at the same time as he was, a man called Stan, looked slow-witted but excelled at handling guns. Although the two of them were young, their careers as mercenaries had apparently been long.
Then Talcott's eyes gleamed a slyly.
"Oh, how about Adelber?"
"He's been boasting about how he personally beat up some of Taúlia's regular soldiers. Letting it slide might be sowing the seeds of misfortune."
"But that guy can do it. If I order him to take part in the replacement selection and he wins, won't he just get more and more conceited?"
Because the one name that bothered him had been brought up, Duncan started to waver. Talcott closed in on that.
"Pardon me saying so but that man seems to look down on you, Captain. Calling him over here and ordering him to fight without any say in the matter would be a good way to show your authority as captain. If he complains as much as once, you can go all out with yelling at him. Mercenaries are a moody lot. If just one of them seems to be taking the "Chief" lightly, then there's a risk that they'll make a show of not listening to orders. Frankly, whether Adelber wins or loses doesn’t matter at all."
Folding his arms in defeat, Duncan quickly came to a decision and this time ordered his subordinate to call Adelber.
However, there was only one candidate left. The man in bandages.
Damn, when I noticed his skill, I should have allotted the giant to Adelber.
He had no expectation that the man in bandages would win. As a commander of mercenaries for nearly ten years, Duncan was well aware that Adelber's skill was considerable. But Talcott was probably right. More than victory or defeat, the important thing was that he himself was seen to give the order.
The long interval waiting for Adelber to arrive was somewhat unnatural. The man in bandages who was standing around would sometimes look around in irritation. Then,
"Captain. Which unknown nobody is it that you feel like replacing me with?"
Adelber finally arrived. There was a turbulent light in his small eyes. Duncan deliberately pretended not to notice his anger and straightened his back.
"If we're talking about unknown nobodies then it's the same as you."
"Oh, but I think I've thoroughly displayed my skill to the people of Taúlia."
Contempt seeped out of his faint smile. He seemed to silently be complaining that he wanted to be rid of this nuisance, but exactly as though he were dealing with a bratty neighbourhood kid, Duncan flippantly shrugged his shoulders.
"I want to see it again with my own eyes."
Adelber spat out a gob of saliva. Duncan had also thought about what to do if he kept complaining further but unexpectedly, he readily accepted the match. No doubt he was very confident of his own skill. But when he was finally standing opposite the man in bandages who called himself Orba, he said,
"Waving around a piece of wood is boring. A real weapon is best if you want to judge whether a guy is usable in an actual fight."
Duncan was disconcerted and glanced briefly at Orba, who nodded with an air of saying No problem.
In the end, each held a Taúlian longsword. The sun was getting higher and higher.
Wearing his usual scornful smile, Adelber faced Orba.
Slightly apart from there, Talcott dropped down and assumed the air of a spectator.
He loathed Adelber. From the time he had met him, he had lorded it over others and spoke in a tone of command, exactly as though they were his underlings or something. There were some among the mercenaries who loved the skilled Adelber with his grandiose manners like they would a leader and who jaunted around with him daily, but from the bottom of his heart, Talcott refused to breathe the same air as that kind of man.
For that reason, he hoped to see Adelber kick the bucket during this replacement selection test or receive a serious injury, but,
Honestly, isn't there anyone stronger left?
The man he was facing was definitely unreliable. More than that, his build was like a boy's. Of course, it looked like he had been well trained but he couldn't possibly compare with the veteran Adelber.
"Well, since it's that bastard if he just gets into a close-run fight, Adelber's stock will fall."
"So this is where you were, Brother."
The one who called out to him was Stan, the friend Talcott treated like a younger brother. He was short and the only thing outstanding about his appearance was his width.
"What's going on?"
"Mephius' famous gladiators. Want to bet tonight's meal on the man in bandages?"
"I don't have a good feeling about Adelber's opponent."
"Whaaat, that guy's a really famous mercenary. Because a great many powers are after his life, he's hiding his identity like that."
"Oh, I see. I get it."
Stan was by nature docile – or rather, simple. Talcott mentally stuck his tongue out. With that, there would at least be some bright spot even if Adelber won easily.
The match kicked off as Duncan spoke. Without losing a second, Adelber attacked fiercely. One thrust, two thrusts, his violent attacks fell towards Orba.
Orba was fighting defensively. While moving to the right or to the left, he would sometimes bend at the knee and stop a blow, and sometimes take a small leap backwards and dodge a jab. He had no control over the flow of the fight. Adelber's eyes gleamed with cruelty.
"Brother, where are you going?"
"I'm not so rotten a human being that I can watch without batting an eyelid while that greenhorn's neck gets sliced through."
"But the match looks like it'll be over soon."
"And that's what I don't want to watch so – "
As Talcott started to speak, noise suddenly erupted from the training ground.
Reflexively turning around, the mercenaries saw Adelber go in for the finishing blow, only for his sword to pass straight over Orba's head. Having suddenly gotten in close to his opponent, he brought the pommel of his sword against Adelber's nose.
Blood spurting copiously, Adelber fell back. His legs twitched convulsively but there was no sign of him getting back up.
"M-Match over!" Duncan yelled, surprise and joy half mingled in his voice.
"Oi," Talcott unconsciously grabbed Stan by the shoulders and shook him. "That guy's amazing! He knocked Adelber flat!"
"Brother, I won the bet."
"Oi, you did it!"
Ignoring Stan's words, Talcott waved and grinned at Orba who had passed the test.
"I believed in you from the start. And it was me who said to Captain Duncan that you looked like a usable guy and to put you in this test. So hey, treat me tonight. This your first time in Taúlia? Then I know a good place and can take you..."
Talcott's voice petered out and died. Deliberately ignoring him, Orba rapidly walked away under Talcott's very eyes. Even more striking was that he didn't spare him a single glance. Talcott saw red,
"T-That bastard, who does he think he is?"
"That's bad, Brother. Don't pick a fight in front of Mr. Duncan." Seeing that Talcott looked about to chase after him, Stan grabbed his arms and pinned them behind his back. "More than that, I get it. I'll treat you tonight, Brother."
Dammit. Resisting the urge to hurl insults at him, Talcott glared at Orba's retreating figure. Just when I was thinking that fool Adelber was gone, the bastard who's come in his place is even worse.