Nejimaki Seirei Senki – Tenkyou no Alderamin Volume 7 Chapter 4
Chapter 3: Parting Forever
When he opened his eyes, the world seems exceptionally clear. Just that was enough for Ikuta to feel the effect of a good rest, and he sat up on his bed.
He looked to the side, and a blonde girl was breathing evenly. Her peaceful sleeping face made the youth raise the corners of his lips as he picked up the pocket watch beside his pillow── It was 7 am in the morning. He slept at 3 pm in the afternoon, it had not been an entire day, but he rested for 16 hours.
Ikuta lightly tapped his cheeks to wake himself up completely, got off the bed and put on the shirt he left on the chair. He kept his partner Kusu into his pouch, and after hesitating for a moment, called out to the Princess.
「Princess, princess, it’s morning.」
「… Hmm… Hmm?」
She slowly opened her eyelids, and her sleepy eyes took quite some time to focus.
She looked first at the dark haired youth, then the tent’s ceiling, then the bed, and her pyjamas. The Princess then backed away from the bed with a flushed face── and fell off the bed.
「Hey, are you fine? Are you the type who is clumsy when you just wake up?」
Ikuta reached out to her with a smile. Princess Chamille who was pulled up by her stood quietly with her face red.
「After getting a good rest, I have to return to my post. What about you, Princess? We won’t be moving our forces yet, so you can sleep a while longer.」
「… I’m getting up. It feels like I have been sleeping for a long time, what time is it now?」
「It’s 7 am in the morning. Both of us slept for a long time.」
The youth answered as he put his hands on his hips and leaned backwards. The Princess was reminded of the vermillion haired girl as she watched him.
「… I wonder if Yatori slept well?」
「Probably not as well as I did. After Yorunzaf Igsem got injured, the burden is all resting on her.」
Ikuta answered without mincing his words. Before the girl could get depressed, he patted her back.
「Here, get changed and let’s go. It’s about time to end this retarded civil war.」
Learning from his past mistakes, Ikuta decided to face the enemy alone. Leaving Princess Chamille to his comrades in the Knight Corp, he picked six escorts and ventured into the dark basement again.
「Sorry for the wait, fox.」
When Ikuta spoke, Trisnai showed his usual mask-like smile. He had not seen the sun for many days, but he didn’t seem to have gotten weaker at all.
「Oh, it’s just you today? What about the Third Princess?」
「I don’t plan to bring her with me again. There are people emitting toxins harmful to children here.」
「Fufu, really now… But did you forget that this is a Royal Conference? The meeting can’t progress without the royals, and it will just be a fruitless meeting.」
「Say what you want. Being led around by the nose is the most fruitless result. So this is fine. All that talk about Royal Conference is just something you made up.」
Discarding the progress on their previous discussion, the youth looked down at the fox before him coldly:
「I won’t be bothered by your nonsense with the line of succession. I have no reason to discuss this here. What I need is the key to ending this coup── simply put, that will be you and the Emperor. It’s not necessary to discuss the line of succession since the Emperor is right here.」
「Please reconsider carefully. As you can see, His Majesty’s health is ailing, and he might pass on at any moment. If the Royal Conference doesn’t reach a conclusion before that, then the crown will be passed down to the first in the line of succession, which is the First Prince. Your faction only has the Third Princess, are you sure you want to let the victory slip away to the other forces?」
「Really? The only thing I’m certain of, is that you can’t pull the trigger yourself. Since you are using your position as the imperial Chancellor and Archbishop to convince the personal sprite, the Emperor’s existence is key to your safety. If the Emperor dies, it will impact your capacity to act on his behalf. Hence, it is impossible for you to kill the Emperor personally.」
「Killing His Majesty… You don’t have to point that out, I don’t have any intention of doing that. I’m sincerely concerned with the Emperor’s illness. My hands are too frail to help with the sickness tormenting his body…」
「If he is really ill in the first place.」
After cutting off his opponent, the youth snorted.
「The Emperor’s symptoms isn’t from an illness, but the results of you drugging him over many long years, right.」
「Why are you making such baseless claims?」
「Because of how much of a schemer you are. It would be strange if the Emperor’s illness isn’t under your control. The great villainous minister Trisnai Izanma won’t use someone who might die at any moment as your lifeline. You have to keep the Emperor alive to protect yourself, isn’t that so?」
「Hmm… It seems that I’m being trusted in a strange manner.」
「We can find out by diagnosing the Emperor’s condition. I have some knowledge about symptoms of poisoning, and have a companion who graduated from nursing school. If it goes well, we might be able to identify the medicine that was used… How about it, Trisnai? Since you are innocent, will you agree to the diagnosis?」
「Don’t even think about. No one other than the imperial doctor is qualified to touch His Majesty.」
The fox shrugged in an exaggerated manner. Ikuta yelled loudly as if he was trying to drown Trisnai out.
「Listen, personal Sprite! The one who caused the Emperor’s health to deteriorate this much is Trisnai Izanma himself! He poisoned him and manipulated him like a puppet, and twist the governance of this country as he pleased! You can’t save the citizens by protecting him! That will just result in more misfortune to befall on the people!」
When the personal sprite on the bed was called by name, it moved a little. Trisnai casually stood in front of the Sprite and shook his head with a smile still on his face:
「Please don’t do that. The personal Sprite is equivalent to being a part of His Majesty’s body, and I don’t remember granting you permission to speak with him.」
「I’m really sorry, pardon my poor manners.」
Casting the etiquettes aside like a pebble on the road side, the youth continued nonchalantly. He didn’t think it was so easy to convince the personal Sprite. He could tell from Trisnai’s forceful behavior that the Sprite’s thinking was incredibly clumsy and forthright. It probably intentionally chose to keep its distance, under the pretext that there wasn’t a common consensus on the correct answer in politics and ethics── Ikuta postulates the personal Sprite’s condition to be like that.
「No matter what, it would take a lot of time to break through this defence, so I will take my time after the situation has stabilized. We will wait to link up with the Remeon faction. Even without an edict or Jewel Voice Broadcast, we are all set with you and the Emperor in our hands. Isn’t that right, fox?」
Ikuta cast a strong gaze towards the fox’s face. Trisnai answered with a mask-like smile still plastered on his face.
「Why are you so sure that the Remeon faction is coming here?」
「Let me put this another way. Why do you think the Remeon faction aren’t here yet?」
The youth didn’t answer. Overjoyed by this silence, the fox told him in a song like tone:
「The answer is simple. They have a traitor. One of the search teams had went around to the back and disrupted the supply and communication line. That’s why they can’t move freely.」
「You are talking as if you are seeing it with your own eyes. The Remeon faction staged the coup with grim resolve, why would there be a turncoat now? Even if that is true, why will you──」
Mid sentence in his refute, Ikuta’s stiffened his lips. Trisnai noticed that Ikuta had noticed it, and deepened his smile:
「I already knew the stage was going to happen ahead of time. That’s the answer.」
The truth was unveiled, and the youth clenched his fists:
「… The espionage team reporting directly to the Emperor…!?」
「So you know? That’s right, they are the only forces I can deploy freely in secret. They might be small in numbers, but they are permitted to serve the Emperor directly. So I worked hard to expand and use this organization effectively. And the results… isn’t that great, but they allowed me to learn more about the inside dealings of the Imperial army than normal people.」
Ikuta clicked his tongue. I sent a spy to infiltrate the army── That was the meaning behind the fox’s words. But that wasn’t strange, and within the youth’s expectations. The problem was that he underestimated the scale of the personnel that was committed into this.
「Quite a number of them infiltrated the Remeon faction’s search team, which had been planned by me a long time ago. The more a group took pride in their unity, the weaker they are too a traitor from within. The minimum standards I asked is for them to disrupt the backlines and delay the enemy forces── But I expect my unit to achieve even better results.」
「… To think you dragged so many people with you in your laughable scheme.」
「No matter what era it is, there are always fanatic believers in the royals. It’s easy to train them into a formidable force. Telling them how great the Empire is, how majestic the Emperor is and how sacred the royal family is── just by telling them the good news and covering up the bad parts will be enough. By doing that for two years, then an excellent pro-royal fanatic will be ready.」
「When he staged the coup, General Remeon should have investigated his organization thoroughly. Did that many of your pro-royal fanatics escaped his surveillance checks?」
「I just need someone to join the checkers. But to play it safe, I offered up a few sacrifices. General Remeon thought the checks were completed with that, what an honest man.」
The fox laughed softly. Ikuta barely suppressed the urge to strangle him by the throat.
「Let me add that in the current situation where you arrive earlier than the other two factions, I only ordered my subordinates to disrupt the Remeon faction. I also sent spies to infiltrate the Igsem faction, but they aren’t doing anything yet. Do you understand what I mean?」
There was no way that the youth missed that. Realizing that his opponent understood, Trisnai told him in a loud voice:
「That’s right, the ones who will reach here isn’t the Remeon faction’s search team. The Igsem faction will reach faster than their counterpart that is being hobbled!」 Like an audience who was eager to see the opening of a show, Trisnai’s face was bright. In contrast, Ikuta’s attitude had fallen below freezing point, and asked in a low tone:
「… Do what? Even if the Igsem caught up, the fact remains that the Emperor is in our hands. This is just changing the order of negotiations.」
「That’s right. I’m taking away your options.」
The fox turned to the personal Sprite on the bed after making his firm declaration:
「── Imperial Edict!」
「── Imperial Edict!」
The shout echoing everywhere stopped the soldiers in their tracks. The Igsem search team heading south towards the quarantine village were surprised by the current situation, and listened closely to the will of the Emperor coming from the mouths of the Sprites.
『── Acting on behalf of the Katjvarna Emperor, Arshankrut Kitra Katjvanmaninik, Chancellor Trisnai Izanma hereby make this announcement. Soldiers with the responsibility of being the official army, if you hold any pride towards your duty, then punish the traitors in the south of the Dafuma Province, who are threatening me, the Emperor, in the secluded village. Purge the grave sinners who intend to infringe on the will of the royal throne.
Their impudence and lawlessness cannot be forgiven. Even if he uses me as a shield, you must protect the authority of the crown that had reigned for 900 years. I realized that my life will come to an end here. Hence from this day forth, you must serve my successor. I will entrust the throne to my child who inherits my blood, and my spirit will watch over my people by the side of God.』
The face vermillion haired girl commander in the center of the formation turned grim. The Jewel Voice Broadcast continued from her partner Shia.
『Those who defy this order shall be branded traitors. Submitting to the traitors is the acts of ungrateful and despicable people. If not, then purge the enemy. You don’t have to worry about me, and bring your full might to bear to crush the traitors. You only need to know that this is the only true justice.
I repeat. Acting on behalf of the Katjvarna Emperor, Arshankrut Kitra Katjvanmaninik, Chancellor Trisnai Izanma hereby make this announcement.──』
「── You bastard…」
Ikuta trembled with rage, and Trisnai turned to him gleefully:
「I gave the Igsem faction the cause and the opportunity. If they subjugate you, they will be the official army, if not, they will be the traitor unit. Alright then, what will you do? ── do you think they will agree to negotiate under such a situation?」
「… Stop kidding me. You keep amending the edicts to your own convenience, who will take them seriously? Telling us to purge the Igsem faction, and ordering them to subjugate us, it’s clear that you want us to fight each other!」
「You will obviously ignore this, the Remeon faction will probably do the same. But it’s different for the Igsem, they are a clan that has always obeyed the edicts. Just imagine── the Emperor who has been confined by rebel forces is ordering them to purge the rebels with no regard for his own life. That they should prioritize the sanctity of the throne over the emperor’s life. This is an act befitting their lord. How can they claim to be loyal if they ignore this edict?!」
The fox declared without any hesitation. The youth shook his head stubbornly to refute this explanation.
「If they are sincere about protecting this nation, then the urgent task at hand is to unite all the forces together! Subjugating us will reduce the fighting forces available to us, and we will lose the means to fend off the invading Kioka army. Even the Igsem faction will understand that!」
「Then you thought wrong. First of all, you only brought about 3,000 men to the Dafuma Province. The main battle of the coup will be played out in central, so you have to leave your main forces there. So even if your entire forces get wiped out, that will just be 3,000 less soldiers, an acceptable sacrifice.」
「Don’t be retarded! Both sides will suffer casualties in a battle, there is no guarantee that the losses will remain within acceptable range. And this time, not only will we lose the lives of soldiers, but time too. There isn’t much time before the Kioka invades!」
「Both problems will be solved if they kill you quickly.」
Trisnai answered nonchalantly. Ikuta started to scowl.
「It is clear to everyone that the 『Rising Sun Regiment』 is only revived because you exist. Once you are dead, this regiment will lose many things. Strategic plans, fame, morale── and the reason to fight. If the Igsem demand the soldiers who lost everything to stand down, they will have no other choice but to accept── hence, killing you is the shortcut to victory」
「I won’t just lay down and die! We have already shown our tenacity in the northern territory, if I have 3,000 men, I can hold out for months! The Igsem should know that too!」
「That’s right── they know that very well. But if there is an outstanding commander who understands how you think, then it’s possible to win the fight swiftly. Fortunately, the Igsem has the only person in the world who can accomplish this?」
The youth stopped breathing, as if this point that was raised had shot him through the chest. The fox continued mercilessly:
「In the near future, Yatorishino Igsem will be ordered by her father to use all forces available to her and swiftly subjugate the rebel Ikuta Sankrei──!」
Ikuta stared with his eyes open, and looked clearly shaken, unlike anything he had shown before. When he saw that reaction, Trisnai deepened his smile.
「Fu, fufufu── you are turning pale. You weren’t fazed when 20 million citizens were held hostage, but all the colours are drained from your face now. Is fighting her that terrifying? Is having your greatest ally turn into your enemy that daunting!?」
The youth couldn’t find the words to refute. Outsiders would have no idea how horrifying this situation was to him. Ikuta shivered as the unexpected blow from the fox shook him greatly.
「The Remeon is incapacitated right now, and the largest faction in the Dafuma Province is definitely the Igsem. Even accounting for their losses so far, the number of troops they can muster within the province will be around 5,000. I repeat, this unit will be led by Yatorishino Igsem── well? With these facts in mind, are you still confident of your earlier declaration? And draw out the fight for months?」
「Rejoice. Your only option is to fight. Aside from fending off the Igsem that is attacking with twice your numbers, you have no other choices. This battle will literally decide the future of the Empire. When you win this fight, you will become the official army and take the place of the Igsem!」
The villainous minister said in a loud and cheerful tone, with a gleam of madness in his eyes. Trisnai Izanma was forcing the youth before him into the battlefield.
「What’s there to hesitate? Achieving victory by defeating the enemy, that applies to you too. Don’t hold back and take action. So what if the body count piles up to four or five thousand? If you become the leader of the military, you can launch any counter offensive you like. Even if the enemy seized some territory for now, you can just reclaim it later. With the wits of Ikuta Sankrei, it will be a cake walk!」
Words urging him to kill each other spilled out from the lungs of the fox. His every word clung on to Ikuta unpleasantly, making him back away with his shoulders quivering.
「Most important of all, you have the reason to kill the Igsem── Hey, have you forgotten? What the Igsem did to you in the past, the pain of losing your parents and the lament on your lost childhood! Have you forgotten all that!?」
That last sentence crossed the line. Realizing he had reached his limits and couldn’t stand this any more, the youth turned and left. Trisnai’s voice chased after Ikuta’s back:
「This is a gospel, Ikuta Sankrei. You can rise to the top if you accept it, or return to dust if you reject it.」
To stop hearing anymore, Ikuta climbed quickly up the stairs, taking two steps with every stride. But no matter how fast he went, the voice still caught up to him.
「Get this clear── do not make the same mistake as your father.」
「L-Lieutenant Colonel Yatorishino, that edict just now…」
Yatori’s superior in the past, Major Nudakka Megu, who was now her adjutant, looked at her with a cramped face. Under the watchful gazes of all her subordinates, the vermillion haired girl shook her head calmly:
「… Don’t panic. It’s not clear if we will follow the edict. According to the law, edicts issued under threats or duress are not legally binding.」
Yatori calmed the wavering Major. Even though she just heard that explosive news, she kept her sharp wits about her.
「Whether that edict is legal will be judged by the Field Marshal, not me. His Majesty might have fallen into the hands of another faction, we will muster all the forces in the area to prepare for a final battle. We will only engage the enemy when it meets the condition of 『necessary battle』 defined for our search mission. If everyone keeps to the principle of this directive, we won’t need to alter our actions.」
She declared firmly, and looked in the opposite direction of the destination── towards the main base.
「Send a messenger towards Hunger Castle at full speed. The fastest we can expect an answer is in four days, so we have to catch up to the 『Rising Sun Regiment』 search team before that── let’s continue the march.」
Seeing their commander acting as cool as a cucumber, the troops calmed down. They started to march again, and the unit headed south in an orderly formation.
However── right before they set off, Major Megu caught up to the vermillion haired figure in front, and asked quietly:
「Lieutenant Colonel, may I ask something?」
「What is it, Major Megu?」
Yatori didn’t turn, and just answer with a sideways glance. Major Megu hesitated for a moment, then asked:
「After receiving that edict, how do you think the field marshal… your father will act?」
It took a long time to receive an answer. The vermillion haired girl carefully chose her words to answer.
「… If the contents of the edict favors the rebel forces, father will ignore it. However, that wasn’t true for the content just now, and seems to be supporting us instead. On the other hand, there is also a part that threaten to brand dissenters as the traitor army, and those who listen as the official government army. It took away our ability to choose, and forces us to fight each other── that is probably Trisnai Izanma’s intentions.」
「Father should understand that, and see how much casualty it will cause if he followed the vicious scheme of the chancellor… However, he will still be troubled by this. From the perspective of the official army, the 『Rising Sun Regiment』 is just a rebel force, while the Emperor is in their hands. It’s vexing, but sending an edict that says 『Disregard my safety and subjugate the rebels』 is very compelling. If we don’t follow, that will be leaving an illicit force to infringe on the authority of the throne. The citizens will probably think of this meek attitude ill fitting and disloyal to the official army.」
Yatori gripped the hilt of her blades unconsciously. She understood how heavy the responsibility entrusted to her clan, and could imagine her father’s struggle as if it was happening to herself.
「I can’t tell what father will decide── for now, we can only wait.」
As he ran towards the tent where the officers were gathered, the youth wanted to scream from anxiety, and kept thinking.
He had fallen into a trap── Ikuta bit his lips as he thought about the result of his meeting with Trisnai.
Should he have pretended to accept the conditions offered before linking up with the Remeon faction? ── he regretted for an instant, then changed his mind as it was meaningless. Even if he did that, the fox will still issue a similar edict, forcing them to fight each other. Trisnai never planned for the forces to meet up. Destroying the balance between the three factions and forcing the Rising Sun Regiment and Igsem faction into direct conflict── Ikuta had to accept that as Trisnai’s goal.
Unable to spare the effort to act calm, Ikuta charged into the tent with a serious face. His companions inside turned his way with a pale face:
「Ikuta-san……!」「Hey, that Jewel Voice Broadcast just now──!」
Nodding slightly in response to Haro and Matthew, the youth glared at the map on the table:
「It might become true──Torway, what’s our current distance from the Igsem main forces!?」
「The last time we saw them was four days ago, so I can only make rough estimations… I think they are less than 120 km away. They will catch up in 3 days at most.」
「Since Yatori is in command, maybe we don’t even have 2 days… Damn it, there’s no time!」
The youth slammed his hands on the table, and fell into deep thought in that position── a few seconds later, he shouted:
「We will set off immediately! Everyone, get your unit ready!」
「Huh── W-Wait! Where do you want to go?」
「I haven’t decided, but we are going south! There’s nowhere to run in this village. It can’t deal with a fire attack! If the enemy attacks with no regards to the Emperor’s safety, we can’t even hold them off for a day…!」
Ikuta knew very well that he didn’t have a plan, and yelled. This quarantine forest was in a middle of a small forest, and couldn’t defend against fire attacks. For an enemy that wasn’t bothered by the Emperor’s safety, this place had no strategic value at all. Ikuta’s group would either be burned alive, or get wiped out as they attempt to escape the fire── they would be destroyed either way.
「We will go south and find a suitable terrain to set up our defence line. This is a sloppy make shift plan, but there’s no other way…!」
「B-But what about linking up with the Remeon faction──」
「That plan is destroyed by Trisnai’s spies that infiltrate them. The Remeon faction is busy dealing with their traitors, and if Yatori reached more than one day earlier than them, both of our forces will be destroyed in turns. There is a high chance of that happening if we stay here.」
Everything the youth said made the group realize how dire the situation was. In the suffocating atmosphere, Princess Chamille asked in a trembling voice:
「S-Solork… does that mean… We are going to fight Yatori…?」
「If we can be defeated easily, she might have to make that decision. So we have to shift our base.」
Ikuta used his last bit of mental strength to soften his tone and explain to the Princess. He pat the Princess’ head to calm her down, then showed a serious gaze to his comrades:
「We are burning daylight, everyone, get moving!」
In the commander’s office on the sixth floor of the Hunger Castle, Field Marshal Solvenares Igsem and his tense officers listened to the edict relayed by the Sprites.
「… What do you think, Field Marshal Sir?」
「I never imagined that the Emperor would give his permission in such a way…」
A short while later, the group around the table reacted to that statement. Some asked the Field Marshal’s opinion meekly, while others expressed their views proactively:
「… I object. This is obviously Trisnai Izanma’s scheme, nothing good will come from accepting this.」
「I concur. Firstly, the risk is too high. The leader of the Rising Sun Regiment… the second rebel force is the son of that famous Bada Sankrei. His performance in the northern territories was outstanding, proving that his ability is on par with his heritage, and not to be taken lightly.」
Two Lieutenant Colonels who were the younger of the staff officers mustered their courage and proposed prudence. They were immediately reprimanded by their older colleagues.
「How can we cower at such a time! What kind of soldiers will ignore an edict to protect the authority of the throne!」
「Indeed. Since we can save His Majesty before the Remeon interfere, and kill off the leader of the 2nd rebel force, it will be foolish of us to not make use of this opportunity. We should include the precondition of this being a short term battle── and send out a subjugation force if the objective can be completed in six or seven days.」
「Yes. We have liberated the First Prince, and that 『Ice Lady』──Lucika Krukk was killed in battle. The Remeon faction search team must be in chaos after losing their leader. The balance between the three forces in Dafuma Province have crumbled… We have no reason to not use this chance.」
The chorus of agreements gained momentum for the hawkish side. The two younger officers felt a sense of danger and stood up:
「Please wait. It’s too hasty to do this…! There’s no guarantee that we will win, and if the fight drags on, there’s the risk of Kioka invading!」
It will be good if they did invade── the young officers hoped in their hearts as they raised their heated objection.
The scouts that had left with message pigeons had sent reports that the Kioka army had not stepped into the former eastern territories. This fact had extended the time limit to suppress the coup, and was a key factor in the strong attitude of the officers before them. There was still half a month of buffer time, so they could afford to use strong measures if they could take down the enemy in a few days. If the enemy was marching to their borders, their opinion would have been different.
「We have not received word of an invasion, but assuming that Kioka are mustering their forces to do so, what will happen in half a month…? Even if this works, the results will be the same if our comrades die in droves. Maybe we shouldn’t solve this with force, and negotiate with the other factions…?」
「Why you little… Are you trying to butter up to the rebels!? Have you no pride as an imperial soldier!」
「Say what you want! Even if this is buttering up to the enemy, I want to protect our country! I believe this is the duty of a soldier, that’s why I fought for so long…!」
The officers with differing opinions started their heated debate, lashing out at each other and was almost coming to blows. The red haired general looked at his subordinates, and said right before things got out of hand:
His words silence the room that was on the verge of erupting. The officers turned docile like toothless beasts, and waited for the sharp eyed Field Marshal to speak.
The red haired general remained quiet. There wasn’t time for him to take his sweet time to think, but he couldn’t rush to a decision either. The man struggled to find the right answer as his mind continued to churn and scrape his very soul.
He went through the conditions on the strategic and tactical level, and whether to fight depending on the situation── it was smooth up until this stage, and he arrived at a military answer from the information available to him. The problem was after that. There was an intense battle going off in his heart, where no one else could see.
Memories flashed across the mind of the Field Marshal. The face of his daughter, the face of the close friend he lost, the face of his friend’s son, as well as the kindness he needed to repay and responsibilities he needed to shoulder. The harsh thing was, he couldn’t ignore any of them. Lined up neatly in his heart were all the values that the man had to defend with his life.
However── before the contradictions caused any fatal crack in the red haired general’s character, he categorized them mercilessly, trimming everything unnecessary to his core goal── and finally, only the path the man had to choose as an Igsem remained.
「… I have come to a conclusion.」
He stated the path they would take── he had no right to apologize to his dear friend.
To be honest, when he was forced to set off without a destination in mind, the youth already knew he had been forced to the brink.
Yatori led the Igsem search team and kept chasing them south as expected. Ikuta’s group had not been caught yet, but they would run into their pursuers if they turned back north, and if they turned to the east or west, they would get caught in the middle of the plains in no time. Through the process of elimination, the only escape route was due south── but even this choice wasn’t good enough to give them hope.
When Ikuta’s group arrived at the quarantined village, they were already near the southern end of the Dafuma Province. If they went south, they would reach the border of the province, and anyone who could read a map knew what awaited them there.
The further they went, the less greenery there were. Barren sand and boulder became more prominent, and rocks block their path. The size of the boulders gradually grew in size until finally, ones that were taller than men could be seen anywhere── as the terrain changed completely, the scene before them looked like something out of an apocalypse.
There were dry stones everywhere, and the boulders didn’t have any cracks for weeds to grow in. Life was sparse in this greyish brown place, as the wind kick up clouds of dust.
The Kugurosaebo rocky terrains. The barren grounds opened up before them.
「… We’re going through here…?」
Haro asked uneasily as she looked at the terrain which was devoid of life. Torway shook his head weakly beside her:
「It can’t be helped. There’s no village ahead, and we have to depend on the Sprites for drinking water. Including the supply team that will soon follow, we have only seven days of food if we ration them… Stepping into this rocky place without supplies is suicide.」
Anyone would find that logical. Matthew sat down on a boulder:
「T-Then, what do we do…」
No one could answer. They all kept their peace as a heavy silence hung over them… But even though he didn’t see any way out, the youth still waited for the sign that would show them the way forward.
「── Is this it?」
Ikuta who was the only one looking to the north found what he was looking for.
「My dear Matthew, it’s too early to despair.」
This made everyone in the Knight Corp turned towards the north── where a few horsemen were heading their way from a few hundred meters out through the difficult terrain. A short while later, they joined their comrades receiving them and reported to Ikuta.
「Report! The messenger from the Remeon search team is here!」
「I’m Sergeant Major Daio Naga! I seek an audience with Ikuta Sankrei-san and Torway Remeon-san!」
The two named officers responded. When Torway saw the face of the messenger, his expression brightened a little:
「Sergeant Major Naga, it’s you!」
「Yes, First Lieutenant. Thank you for your support during the last battle again. Your valiant figure in that fight is still fresh on my mind.」
The aged Sergeant bared his teeth in a smile. The youth smiled back, and introduced him to his comrades:
「Oh, he’s my big brother──Major Sarihasrag’s subordinate. His a veteran sergeant back during my days as a cadet. He had served with my father before, and is reliable and experienced.」
In a sense, he’s relationship to Torway was similar to Suya’s relationship with Ikuta. Capable sergeants were highly valued in the army, and would often be tasked with assisting rookie officers. His close relationship with the Remeon house proved that he was trustworthy, and the dark haired youth nodded:
「Yes. Given the current circumstances, it’s a relief to have someone trustworthy relay the orders. Sergeant Major Naga, it’s incredibly forward of me, but can you tell us the situation on your side in detail?」
「Yes Sir. It’s embarrassing to say, but our search team is in disarray, because some of the officers and men had turned traitor. They had not usurp command of the faction, but our communications and supply lines are disrupted, so the forces we spread out for the search are still all over the place. Acting Commanding Officer Major Sarihasrag is working to reestablish the command structure──」
「Huh── Big Brother? Wait, I remember the Commanding Officer is──」
An ominous feeling made Torway asked loudly. Sergeant Major Naga lowered his gaze depressedly.
「… Regrettably, Lieutenant Colonel Lucika Krukk died in battle. She was attacked by the Igsem faction, and personally led the detachment escorting the First Prince to escape, and in the end…」
When he heard the terrible news, the jade eyed youth lost the color in his face and stood stiffly.
「Teacher… is dead…?」
「… Yes. I saw the body with my own eyes.」
Torway’s shoulder trembled a little. After glancing his way, Ikuta took over the conversation:
「In any case, can we take it that the Igsem faction had seized the First Prince?」
「Unfortunately, that is correct… We also want to ask, is His Majesty traveling with you?」
「Yes, we brought the Emperor with us when we left the quarantine village. Right now, he is staying with the chancellor inside that carriage.」
The youth pointed to a carriage parked nearby, then added:
「If you wish to see for yourself, then lay down your arms and head over there alone. I permit you to check under the supervision of my men.」
When he heard that, Sergeant Major Naga immediately turned to his companions and gestured to them with a gaze. Ikuta also called his men over, and told them the gist of what to look out for.
「Back to the topic, that sadistic pretty boy… No, Major Sarihasrag, how much control does he have over the unit? Is he ready to march?」
「It will take some time to gather all the forces, but the Major is prioritizing sending men over here. He will gather the minimum force that won’t be taken out easily, and is large enough to intimidate the Igsem faction── 3,000 men, before sending them over.」
When he heard what the Sergeant Major said, the pudgy youth interjected:
「Huh── reinforcements are coming!? W-When will they reach?」
「That depends on where you will link up with us… If it is this place, it will be around four days later.」
When he heard that number, Matthew who had found hope turned pale again.
「Four days later…? But Yatori’s group will catch us in a day or two!」
「Shortening this number… I’m sorry, but I’m in no position to make any guarantees. Even four days is assuming the march is at a harsh pace. Any faster, then we will be sending us less than 3,000 men, or there would be many people dropping out from the march, wearing out the men before the fight…」
「So you want us to hold out for four days? Against Yatori’s unit that is almost twice our numbers? Don’t be absurd, we are not defending a fort here!」
The slightly plump youth spread his arms out to indicate the barren grounds around him as he shouted:
「Considering how far we can move from here, there isn’t any defensible structures down south! There’s no river, mountains or valleys! There’s only barren rocky terrain, how can we hold out for that long…!」
Matthew’s wail made Haro bowed her head, and Sergeant Major Naga was at a loss for words.
「… We will wait for five days.」
As the atmosphere descended into despair, Ikuta said confidently. Everyone’s gaze fell on the map he laid out:
「I will add one more day, Sergeant Major Naga. We will march south for another day, and set up base around this area── the northern part of this rocky plains, fend off the Igsem attack and hold out for reinforcements. I can’t tell you the actual spot, but we will light smoke signals on the third day, so just rush to us at full speed. Will this arrangement work?」
「I-It’s fine for us… But can your unit hold out for that long?」
「We will make it work. So your reinforcements have to be timely too── listen, make haste, even if it’s just a second earlier. It’s no exaggeration to say that a second might be the crucial factor in the success of this drawn out battle. That’s the kind of battle we are facing. Please keep that in mind right from the start.」
To avoid misleading him with an optimistic outlook, the youth instructed with urgency. Sergeant Major Naga understood his intent, and nodded with his eyes looking right at Ikuta:
「── I understand. I will relay every word without fail to Major Sarihasrag.」
Their conversation ended here. After receiving the message for his superiors, Sergeant Major Naga and his companions lead their horses away. As he watched their backs, the dark haired youth sighed with a wry smile.
「… I never imagined that there will be a day when I have to wait for that masochist pretty boy to rescue us.」
Ikuta said to no one in particular. Unaware of his thoughts, Haro and Matthew shouted at the same time:
「C-Can we hold out? In this place for five days…」
「Are you serious!? Defending for four days, with Yatori as our enemy…?」
Ikuta raised both hands to ease their worries:
「Calm down. Change your perspective a little, going into the rocky terrain isn’t that bad, since it will hobble the Igsem’s cavalry. It’s a hundred times better than being charged on an open plain.」
「That’s true, but they have more windgunners than us. We can’t set up a defensive net if there’s no cover! We will be crushed if they overwhelm us with numbers…!」
He shook his head to refute the pudgy youth’s worries:
「Your judgement is wrong because you are too hasty, Matthew. I said we will be fighting in the rocky terrain, not here. We will discuss how to fight after we head to the south.」
After saying that, the youth turned his eyes back to the south:
「Let’s continue our march. We have entered the rocky region, but this is just the entrance. The boulders will get larger as we go deeper in, and the terrain will be more complicated──Torway, don’t daze off. We need your keen eyes.」
Ikuta forcibly pulled the youth back to reality, getting his mind off the loss of his teacher. There was no time to mourn, Ikuta had to distract him with the tasks at hand.
「This terrain stretches out in all directions. Hence, there must be a place here where we can hold out for four days. An indispensable place for our survival──」
The Igsem faction search team pursuing them in the southern part of the Dafuma Province had gotten hold of Ikuta’s movement from their scout reports.
「They have entered the rocky terrain… Are they planning to leave the province and flee to the south?」
「That’s too rash, since they can’t resupply, so they must be planning something else.」
Yatori chatted with Major Megu as she thought about the enemy’s plans. But she didn’t have to think at all, as the messenger stated the answer plainly:
「Report! The second rebel force has set up camp 6 km to the south west!」
Yatori’s unit trod carefully along the rocky terrain as they headed towards the enemy location. They didn’t take long to reach there, and she climbed up on a rocky hill nearby to survey the Rising Sun Regiment search team.
「… This is…」
Even though there were rocks all over the place, this place was prominent in its own right. First of all, there was a large grey hill bulging up in the area. And not just one, but several of them were in close vicinity, with a large number of soldiers bustling on top of the hill or around it. After observing for some time, Yatori said:
「They have chosen this place with exposed boulders, and had posted troops on top and in the gaps to defend their base. They had probably deployed their illumination troops and snipers, ready to engage attacks from any direction. As for the cover for their soldiers… they are piling up the rocks to build them manually.」
「But… to think they found a suitable terrain. Not just for a hundred or two hundred soldiers, it must be difficult to find a place to accommodate 2,000 men…」
When Major Megu said that with arms crossed, the vermillion haired girl shook her head.
「It’s at best 70%.」
「They conditions they needed and how well the terrain fit their requirement. They are working desperately to close that gap.」
Yatori watched the scene before her, and analyzed how suited it was for military use:
「At a glance, the shape of the rocky zones aren’t uniform. Some are too steep for them to scale, while others are too shallow for their defences. Some of the hills are too short too. It is possible to make up for this with manual work, but they don’t have time to fill in all the gaps. In the end, they have to deploy more troops there to mitigate the issue.」
She listed the advantages and weaknesses of the enemy, and gauged the enemy’s defence through what she could see.
「Compared to the work needed to build a fort, the amount of rocks, workers and time── are insufficient. Aside from some lucky instances, a lot of effort is needed to reinforce the natural terrain into a stronghold.」
She grasped the situation the opponent faced, and turned to Major Megu and stated the plan:
「Split our forces into three, and send them to north northwest, northeast east, and the south of their base. They are getting their rocks shortage from outside their base, and just doing so will be enough to keep them in check.」
Concurring with a nod, the middle aged officer gathered the troops to relay the instructions. Leaving the details to the Major, Yatori sighed softly.
「… That’s not all we can do. There’s all sorts of ways to disrupt their work, but if we execute them, we might start the battle while we are still not ready.」
The girl muttered uneasily── No matter how many weak spots she saw, she hoped she didn’t have to attack them. The thoughts of the Knight Corps members hustling around to strengthen the defences made Yatori close her eyes in pain.
「Lieutenant Colonel Yatorishino.」
Someone called out to her from behind. She turned back and saw a few subordinates standing there with serious faces.
「A message from the Hunger Castle headquarters.」
Thump! Her heart pounded. She tried to keep cool on the surface, and forced her lips to move.
「Give me the letter.」
On her urging, a soldier carefully proffered the letter kept inside a leather folder. Yatori received it with both hands, opened it carefully, and couldn’t help closing her eyes when she saw a part of the contents.
Just checking the contents of the letter drained all of her courage. She took a minute to open her eyes── at that moment, the familiar writing from her father appeared mercilessly before her.
── We have to act by placing the nation’s establishment as our priority.
Yatori nodded after reading that line. That much was obvious.
── The Katjvarna Empire is founded with the Emperor possessing absolute power, which ensures order and stability to the citizens.
She nodded again. The peace of the citizens were established under the unquestionable authority of the Emperor, that was the nature of the Empire.
── And we serve His Majesty as our lord, with our very lives.
She nodded for the third time. That was a given, the Imperial soldiers had to be such an existence.
── However, the authority of His Majesty is being threatened by villains. Both the safety of the Emperor and the independence of the crown are in danger of being compromised.
She read on without blinking. She understood everything so far. It was only the text that follows which she had difficulty fanthoming.
── In conclusion, we will prioritize the safety of the reigning Emperor, and ensure the normal rule and succession of the royal family. This is our duty as the guardian of order within the Empire.
Yatori turned stiff, and took a long while to understand the content of that passage.
She did so after reading it seven times. Or rather, she was checking for any other way to interpret it.
It implies that even if they left the reigning Emperor to die, as soldiers and guardians of the nation, they had a duty to ensure the independence and authority of the next Emperor.
She kept thinking over it repeatedly, and searched for a loophole in that logic. However── there wasn’t any contradictions.
Because── the Igsem and Imperial soldiers did not pledge their loyalty solely to a person.
All people would die one day. In contrast, the throne of the Emperor could be passed down even in death.
When the former and latter were placed on a scale, soldiers would have to prioritize the latter.
── Performing the duties described above is the essence of the Emperor’s edict.
That was true. Even though the edict was issued by the Chancellor who was controlling the Emperor like a puppet, there was nothing wrong with this order, and the Igsem couldn’t refute it. No matter what, they had no reason to ignore the order to protect the Emperor’s right to rule, which was the foundation of the country.
── Based on the above, the search team commander working independently have to confirm the below conditions.
Yatori knew her pupils were dilating. This last part was the key point she had to read.
── First, to confirm the existence of a faction that is confining the Emperor, and attempting to seize control of the nation in that place.
Judging from the values of the Igsem, there was.
── Second, whether the forces on hand is enough to achieve victory against that faction.
Two thousand odd against five thousand. She had to admit that it was possible.
── Third, is it possible to defeat that faction by force within 6 days of receiving this order.
If it was possible… then what?
── If these three conditions are met, then by order of the Imperial Field Marshal Solvenares Igsem, the search team commander acting independently will be ordered to execute the below mission.
Like I said, what exactly is that order?
── Subjugate the rebel force, and kill their leader.
In the second rebel force, the former imperial soldier Ikuta Sankrei met these conditions.
That was the answer, there was no room for doubt.
Her mind turned blank. Her vision was white. She lost all sensation from her head to the tips of her toes.
She floated in the crumbling world. Everything that bounded Yatorishino to this reality was shaking, like the feathers flying from a ripped pillow, scattering into the void.
To a bystander, she just looked like a little unsteady on her feet. But that was enough to make her subordinates rush to her side. She had never looked so lost before.
Yatori didn’t answer anyone who called out to her. She didn’t even react to her partner Shia. It was like speaking to a hole in a boulder.
More than five minutes later, her crimson eyes slowly regained focus before the frantic soldiers. However, she only gained back a bit of strength. The vermillion haired girl’s face had lost all its colors, as she stood there emotionlessly like a sculpture.
Even in such a condition, Yatori still tried to do something. Something was pushing her to do so. Something deep inside the vermillion haired girl, a steel-like resolve that wouldn’t permit the girl to do something as unsightly as falling onto her knees.
「…… Give me…」
Her lips quivered slightly as she spoke. The subordinates listened with bated breath to her voice that sounded like the breathing of someone on their deathbeds.
「Give me, some, time.」
After saying that with all her self restraint, Yatori turned around with stiff steps, and headed to the tent in front of her. She tripped on pebbles jutting out to the ground several times, and almost fell. The soldiers were beyond shaken, and felt fear at her abnormal demeanour.
After stumbling into the tent, she put down the tent cover almost unconsciously. Yatori walked to the middle of the tent, and suddenly stopped.
At that moment, the girl realized why she came here.
Just like what she said in the past── she had to perform a ritual.
「── Ah, ah…」
Her stalled mind changed direction and went backwards to the past. The flood of memory overflowed and submerged her entire body, the waves washing her very soul. Yatori was slowly drawn into the giant whirlpool formed by her memories.
As she sunk deep into the past── she recalled their reunion at the bottom of the waters.
On a bright spring morning, the Imperial Shigaru High and Middle Schools held a joint school entrance ceremony.
More than a thousand young boys and girls stood on the field with hope and ambition gleaming in their eyes. Only a minority felt uneasy about embarking on this new stage of life, most of them believe that they were the talent that would shoulder the future of the Empire. That was only natural, since they all hailed from wealthy families that could afford the expensive school fees, and earned their spots here after passing difficult exams that tested their mettle.
「Young ones with bright futures that squeezed through the narrow doors and made it here. I congratulate you sincerely on this beautiful day.」
The person who welcomed them spurred the young people with his words. He showered them with praise and cautioned them, taunted them and then taught them to differentiate right from all. After beating around the bush, he affirmed the value of them competing with each other. This was just the entrance to the springboard, their bright future still lies in the unclear future, and they would fall into the abyss with any missteps── his warning entered the ears of the excited new students.
「Well then, next would be the declaration by the incoming cohort. Middle school freshmen representative── Yatorishino Igsem!」
The speech was over soon, and the teacher called out to the girl at the fore of the young group. The girl who was named stepped up onto the podium in her brand new uniform.
Her childishness that had faded was replaced by a strong sense of elegance, her body was supple and had a sense of functional beauty, and her vermillion haired fluttered in the wind. The thirteen years old Yatorishino Igsem had breathtaking charm and style.
Respect, envy, admiration and competitiveness── Eyes filled with all sorts of emotions fell on her. Unfazed by the gazes, the vermillion haired girl and the high school representative stood shoulder to shoulder at the podium, and stared at their competitors.
「We solemnly swear to cherish the opportunity for us to study, and seek physical and mental fortitude──」
Her clear voice spread to every corner of the field. Not just the students, even the teachers were mesmerized by the righteousness in her declaration. This scene already set the tone on who would be in the center of their future campus life.
After interacting with the teachers and new students for a while, Yatori turned down an invitation to an after party, then strolled around the school by herself. Since she would be studying here for several years, she couldn’t hold back her urge to recce the terrain. This was definitely the result of her Igsem military house upbringing.
She entered the school building and looked at each classrooms and other rooms one by one, her mind tracking the place on a 3 dimension map. She finished her survey in less than an hour, then headed for the non academic facilities. There was a garden for plants observation, and a flat exercise field where students regularly visits.
There were many people staying in the open facilities for all sorts of purposes. The girl saw a similar layout in the past. She suddenly stopped. Whenever she recalled that incident, she would stop in her tracks and look up into the sky.
「It had been four years since then──」
Yatori muttered quietly. It had been that long since her exchange study with the Rising Sun Regiment.
Bada Sankrei’s imprisonment and mysterious death. His wife and son went missing, and the Rising Sun Regiment was disbanded── Everything that had happened remained unresolved. At least, not for her.
Yatori started walking again with that in mind, and suddenly felt a presence from above and raised her right hand up high. Thud! A walnut landed on her palm. Yatori looked up with a sigh.
「… I don’t know who you are, but can I throw this back?」
The girl pulled her right arm back as she aimed at the rude person above her. A voice came from the tree:
「W-Wait! I’m coming down!」
A figure climbed down quickly, and reached the ground in a few seconds. It was a dark haired boy wearing a Shigaru middle school uniform just like Yatori. He had an average built, but his face looked world-weary, and he wore his uniform really sloppily.
「Really now, I have to risk my life just to play a prank on you.」
The vermillion haired girl frowned at this person she had only met who was speaking so intimately with her:
「You seem to be a freshman too. Do you have some business with me?」
When she asked that, the boy opened his eyes wide, then drooped his shoulders. Yatori was shocked at how depressed he looked.
「… That reaction hurt me. I didn’t expect it to hurt this much.」
His sullen reaction confused the girl further. The boy told her through pouted lips:
「Did my face change that much?── It’s me, Yatori. Your other half.」
The boy smiled, and it matches a smile in the vermillion haired girl’s memories. The mind numbing blow made her open her crimson eyes wide.
Before she realized it, Yatori had walked over to the boy and touched his face and his entire body. If she didn’t feel him with her hands, she wouldn’t be able to believe her own eyes.
「It seems… you are not a ghost. You have a body.」
「I’m a scientist after all, it will be embarrassing for me to show up as a ghost.」
The boy joked. His tone overlapped with her memories, and the girl was convinced. He wasn’t a spirit and she wasn’t day dreaming. She strengthened her grip on his shoulder unnecessarily.
「… I know I don’t have the right to say this, but I still want to tell you…」
Tossing her self restraint aside, the girl spoke. In this instant, she wanted to convey her feelings more than anything else in the world.
「I’m glad that you are safe. I’m really… glad.」
She said emotionally. What else could she say? The person she had been worrying about, the other half whose fate was unknown, had appeared before her alive and well.
「I couldn’t introduce you earlier, but I have a partner now. This is Kusu, my life savior.」
They sat beside each other at a corner of the courtyard, and told each other how they were doing after four years. Yatori smiled at the sprite Ikuta was holding up.
「You formed a contract with a Luminous sprite, huh── Nice to meet you, Kusu. I’m Yatorishino Igsem, you can call me Yatori. This is my partner, the fire sprite Shia.」
「Nice to meet you, Yatori. Ikuta often mention about you, I heard that you are very outstanding.」
The answer was more fluent than she expected, which surprised the girl. Normally, a sprite wouldn’t say something so fluidly to a person they just met.
「Because Kusu didn’t have a master for a long time, so it is very worldly. I would often talk with it.」
「It appears so, I’m surprised.」
After chatting with the unusual Luminous sprite for a little, Yatori looked at the boy again:
「… Speaking of which, how did you come here? Is that uniform real?」
「Well, it’s a long story──」
With his hands on the grass, Ikuta grunted and started telling what happened to him.
「When that thing happened to Dad, my Mom and I hid in the mountains for the first two years.」
「In the mountains…? Literally?」
「Yes, literally. It’s right in the middle of a forest in the mountains. Dangerous people were pursuing us, so we hid in the place prepared for such emergencies and waited for the situation to calm down. However… there was more turbulence than we expected.」
The boy said as he fiddled with the weeds. The girl could tell from his actions that he was trying to describe a heavy topic in a light hearted manner.
「About three months after living in the mountains, those people discovered the first hideout. The soldiers protecting us didn’t return after going out. To escape from our pursuers, my Mom and I ran deeper into the hills. We didn’t run about aimlessly, and headed to the next hideout as the soldiers instructed. However──」
Ikuta laid down on the grass and continued:
「The second hideout was renovated from an old charcoal making house, and was far more run down than the first one. That couldn’t be helped, but the biggest problem was food and water── we used up the provisions in a month, and also lost the water sprite during our escape from the first hideout. But we couldn’t come down from the hills, and had to search for food there.」
The girl bit her lip as she thought about the life he had. The boy carried on, but his tone had grown heavier:
「Hunting and gathering were more tedious than I imagined. The entire day was spent on it, and we would starve if we didn’t get any results. I managed to hang on by the outdoor skills and knowledge I learned through my Dad’s 『mission』, but everyday was like walking on a tightrope… Until one day, we fell.」
His last sentence froze the blood in Yatori’s entire body. She finally asked the one thing she had been meaning to, but couldn’t say.
「… Aunt Yuka is…」
「My Mom has something she wants me to tell you.」
Ikuta laid back with his eyes closed, and said in a trembling voice:
「『Sorry. I want to pat your head again. 』── that’s what she said.」
That cleared up everything. Yuka’s frail smile flashed across her mind, and tore at Yatori’s heart.
「My Mom had always been frail. She never showed it, but she was worn out sooner than me. But she never thought about going down the mountains once, and exhausted her life to let me live on── and one day, she collapsed. Like a taut string finally snapping.」
At the end of their long escape, was the death of his mother.
「Mom passed away that night… there wasn’t even time to seek help.」
The girl couldn’t say anything. The boy shook his head in response to her silence:
「Cry, Yatori. If you hold back, then no one will shed tears for Mom.」
Ikuta opened his eyes a little to see the blue sky, his voice no longer trembling as he said:
「I have no more tears to shed──」
The two of them went to the cafeteria in the campus and continued talking about the past. There weren’t any classes today, so the cafeteria was deserted with only a handful of students. They chose seats at the corner to avoid others overhearing their conversation.
「… After hesitating for some time, I decided on a fire burial. Animals will dig her up if I bury her in the wild, and it will be difficult to visit her tomb in the future too. Anyway, I took her ashes down the mountains after two years. Partly because my life in hiding is at its limits, and also because I lost the prominent feature of being 『mother and son』. It would be hard for my pursuers to identify me. Ironically, there are countless orphans in this world.」
The boy took a sip of water and frowned:
「However… losing my mother took a heavy toll on me. I felt my body grew heavy after going down the mountains, and could barely move when I reached the outskirts of the village. After going into an empty house in front of me, I blacked out. It wouldn’t be strange if I died there── and then, Kusu appeared.」
Ikuta smiled as he pointed at his tiny partner sitting on a cloth he laid out on the table.
「There is an orphanage where I blacked out, and Kusu was taking care of the children there. A long time before I met him, his former master who worked at the orphanage died from illness. As you know, sprites that lost their master will enter 『waiting for contract』 mode. If they can’t find the next master around them, the sprite will start wandering around to search for a new master. It found me during its search.」
As he caressed Kusu’s head, the boy continued cheerfully:
「I then joined the Solork orphanage. I didn’t get along with the orphanage director, but hit it off with a staff named Floshira, who helped me a lot. That and Kusu finding me were consecutive strokes of good luck after a long time.」
He stopped at this point, and informed her:
「Hence, my name now is Ikuta Solork, you have to call me that too. I can’t use my old family name anymore.」
Officially, he was still on the run. The vermillion haired girl nodded without any hesitation:
「So this is the first time we met, that’s the official story.」
This was unnecessary to keep the boy alive. Ikuta nodded and said:
「── As for why I’m here, the Solork orphanage isn’t an illegal establishment used to trick people of their donations, but an official orphanage recognized by the nation. So the national scholarship programs applies to them too. It is a scholarship given to children with extraordinary performances, and there aren’t any bonds if some conditions are met. The system also provide recommendations to specific schools. Shigaru has a slot, and I got that scholarship.」
「To think you got a hold of that recommendation. You are definitely capable, but you are on bad terms with the director of the orphanage, right? I can’t imagine you buttering up to people you dislike.」
「It’s as you suspected, there are some complications in between, but it all worked out in the end. I made plans in the dark, but most importantly, I had the support of Floshira. The director and the other staff members respects her a lot.」
When she heard that, Yatoru crossed her arms and fell into deep thought:
「I see. I understand how you enrolled here── but you didn’t tell me the most important thing.」
「What do you mean?」
「What you said explained how you got here. What I wanted to know is, why are you here. If you are just here to see me, then you don’t have to work so hard to earn your recommendation.」
Ikuta smiled in response to her sharp question.
「I want to be your school mate── isn’t that good enough of a reason?」
「I’m really happy. This explanation is good enough for Yatorishino, and I want to jump with joy… But I’m asking as an Igsem.」
She stared right at him with her dark crimson eyes that demanded a straight answer.
「You must know by now. You have more than enough reason to hate me.」
When he was asked, the boy lowered his eyes with a lonely expression that Yatori had never seen before.
「You think… that I’m hiding a knife and mean to harm you?」
「I don’t… But I won’t bear any grudge if you did. I── the Igsem made you suffer so much. We took your home, your parents… and you lost your home, the Rising Sun Regiment forever.」
Ikuta looked up and shook her head at the girl who was admitting her sins.
「I have to correct that first, you aren’t the ones who did that. Furthermore, I don’t think the Igsem was behind this too, so I have no reason to bear a grudge. Be it to you, your father, or your house.」
「I thought so too. But my father was the one who arrested General Bada and handed him over to the ministers. And the crimes pinned on Uncle… the shame of acting out of line should have been borne by my father. Because he knew that if no one did that, the country will fall into crisis.」
She didn’t uncover the entire incident, but she had found out a lot of facts in the past four years. The girl spoke from what she knew, but the boy remained unmoved, crossing his arms and said:
「… I investigated this incident too. The only thing I’m sure of, is that Dad picked the short straw himself. No one asked him, but I’m very sure of that. Since his buddy can’t ignore the edict, then he will take matters into his own hands── mobilizing the army with such thoughts is just like my Dad’s style.」
He had reached a conclusion too. The boy followed his late father’s thinking and continued:
「My Dad was aware of everything and chose to act, while your father gave his silent consent. I’m not happy that he didn’t discuss it with us beforehand, but I don’t plan to bear a grudge against any of them. Because there were only two choices. If my Dad wasn’t executed as a war criminal, then the opposite would happen. Isn’t that right?」
「That’s why you should hate me!」
Yatori raised her voice without realizing it. The calm tone of the boy and his decision to not blame the Igsem was hard for her to accept.
「As a result, the Igsem house kept its standing as the conservative faction in the Imperial army, while the Sankrei house was destroyed as traitors… However, if Uncle Bada didn’t shoulder the blame as a war criminal, then the standings of the two houses would be reversed. This means…」
The girl lowered her voice to not let anyone else hear her, and clenched her fists.
「I should have lost everything instead of you──」
Yatori concluded with her gaze lowered. Ikuta looked straight at her and said:
「… Do you remember that day when we fought the wolves? From that day on, I always thought of you as my other half. Like left and right hands, right and left brains, we are two in one.」
The girl nodded. That was one of the most memorable experiences in her thirteen years alive.
「When there are two different situations, we have to endure each one separately. We can’t choose who will endure what, but that isn’t too much of a problem. The right hand will carry the heavy luggage sometime, and the left hand will carry it in other times. It just happens to be my turn── that’s all.
Because, if our situation was reversed, you will tell me the same thing too, right?」
Ikuta asked as if this was a given fact. Yatori questioned with trembling lips:
「… Can you really accept this?」
The boy nodded quietly:
「When I was missing, you are also shouldering a heavy burden. I’m not stupid enough to miss that.」
He was worried about the girl instead. After pausing for a while, his face twisted bitterly:
「… Yes, that’s right. Now, the heavy burden is on you instead. To me, the situation is the opposite. I’m the one who is free, while you are the one who is tied down.」
「… What, do you mean?」
In response to Yatori’s question, the youth took a deep breath.
「Let me answer your earlier question. Why I am here.」
Ikuta leaned over the table, and replied from close range while staring into her eyes.
「I’m here to abduct you, Yatori. Abduct you away from this country that has no future──」
「There are some people inside the government that wishes for the Igsem to lose their standings.」
The two of them changed location again, and walked out of the campus and into a crowded restaurant nearby. They picked the table furthest inside, and continued talking as the noise from the other patrons masked their conversation.
「And it didn’t start recently. The ministers who want to deploy the army at their own convenience detest the segregation of politics and army upheld by the Igsem. Even though they were stopped by the rules that segregates nobles and soldiers, those people still kept trying to send in their people into the military. In response, the imperial army sent such people to the northern territory to keep the integrity of the organization. And of course, I know that this is just a ruse.」
Ikuta scrape the meat off the drumstick he ordered as he continued in a quiet voice. In contrast to their earlier conversation, the content of this talk couldn’t be made public for a different reason.
「The ministers wanted to privatize the Army, while the Igsem insisted on the independence of the military. As the two had been on opposing sides under the table for a long time, I think the ministers changed their thinking. They think that ── as long as the Igsem continued to lead the military, then there was no way they could get their hands on the Imperial Army. First, they needed to change the leader.」
The chicken drum is overcooked～ the youth grumbled as he tossed a piece of chicken meat into his mouth. Yatori held the same view towards the dish, and continued listening to him:
「When they first had that thought, I think their first candidate is General Remeon… But they quickly realized that wasn’t practical. That general had a firm will that wouldn’t be swayed by the nobles, and was just as difficult to deal with as Field Marshal Igsem, and also holds a critical attitude towards the establishment. If that man becomes the leader of the military, it will endanger the positions of the nobles.」
After cleaning out the first drumstick, Ikuta stabbed his dining knife into the other drumstick:
「And the next candidate was my Dad. His words, actions and values weren’t like that of a typical soldier, so the ministers think they can get him to compromise, and he was very capable too. Aside from the officers from the Three Loyal House, his performance was the best since Ilshim Giorgo.
Thinking back, despite how my Dad looks, he was great at negotiating with nobles. When his unit needs to be deployed to any place in the country, he will get things sorted out with the locals ahead of time. It was a hassle, but he still gets it done. There were many adjustments that resembles deals during these interactions, which caused the nobles to misunderstand him. Sigh, it was Dad’s mistake for not realizing this situation.」
Ikuta sighed, and started scraping the meat off the chicken bone.
「And so, the scheme to make Bada Sankrei the head of the Imperial Army started turning. They are targeting to unseat Field Marshal Igsem. There must be plenty of twists and turns in between, but I’m not interested in that, and will skip it… What the cabinet members planned was very simple── force Field Marshal Igsem into a position where he had to disobey an imperial edict. When Kioka invaded, the Field Marshal was prohibited from intercepting with his forces. And that was during a situation where he had to act swiftly.」
After scrapping the bone clean with his teethy, the youth continued:
「Your father is stricter with discipline than anyone else, but he would never accept this edict, which is an order that will destroy the Empire. That was what the Emperor’s orders implies. Leaving an invading army alone and watching them ravage the Empire’s citizens and territory── that was asking him to abandon his duties as a soldier.」
Yatori nodded in silence. The bits and pieces she found out matches the youth’s deduction.
「Since the situation has developed this far, your father didn’t have many options. Since he couldn’t stand by and watch idly, he had to despatch his units against the edict. Everything so far was predetermined── the remaining question is, who will be carrying out this order.
Since the edict demands the military to stand by, the one who mobilize his unit will be charged with treason. If the Field Marshal didn’t act, then he had to offer up a sacrifice from his subordinates, and it has to be an officer of the general ranks. They had to mobilize at least a brigade to defend against the Kioka army.」
When Ikuta said that, the vermillion haired girl added quietly:
「… Furthermore, that person has to be an excellent commander. The Kioka’s commander was a formidable foe. If I don’t go, I can only ask General Bada── My father said that.」
I see, the youth nodded.
「I know your father isn’t someone who will prioritize saving his own skin in such a situation… That’s why this was such a painful decision. Should he sacrifice the Igsem to save the country? Or offer up his friend’s life? With these two impossible choices, it’s not difficult to imagine how torturous the entire process was.
Hence, my Dad made the decision on his own. He sacrificed himself without waiting for anyone to say anything, and mobilized his Rising Sun Regiment to repel the Kioka army── and took on all the blame, dying in prison as a war criminal.」
The youth gripped the cup of fruit juice in his hand harder, his fingernails gradually turning white.
「That damn fool, is he trying to be a hero?」
Ikuta ground his teeth, and ripples appeared in the cup of juice.
「Hey Yatori, why do you think my Dad died? Because of a scheme by the aristocrats? Because he protected the nation even if he had to defy the edict? To stop your father from falling from grace?」
The youth’s face turned gloomy as the youth continued with a hollow laugh:
「The answer is all of the above. Simply put, my Dad died from overwork. He took on all the burden himself, and sunk into the mud because of the crushing load… With no regards of how others felt. Even though he taught us that a war is fought by everyone together.」
The girl lowered her head and bit her lip. Their silence hung heavily in the noisy restaurant.
After pausing for a long while, Ikuta started speaking again. There was a clear sign of resignation on his face:
「The Empire is beyond saving. Soldiers performing their duties aren’t rewarded, and their reputation and character gets run into the ground, and tossed aside like a used consumable── Such unreasonable things are happening as if it was normal. I have given up. Be it the Emperor or the nobles, none of them realized that they are strangling their own necks. Either the talents get depleted, or the military abandon the establishment── no matter which comes first, there is only destruction in the future.」
After saying that, the youth stared at the other party before him, and his depressed voice regained some strength:
「Let the country die… However, I can’t allow the fall of the nation implicate you, so I came to abduct you. Before you meet the same fate as my Dad, before this nation grinds you to the ground.」
Yatori gasped. Ikuta continued with a serious expression:
「In the near future, I will take you with me and leave the Empire. It’s fine to go anywhere we want── anywhere that has a better future than here. I have the means to do so. I have re-established contacts with Gramps Anarai and his disciples, so if I want to, I can escape easily.」
The girl couldn’t find the words to respond, and Ikuta nodded slightly, acknowledging how she felt:
「I know you can’t accept this proposal so easily. That’s why I enrolled in the same school as you, so I can stay by your side and take my time to convince you.」
The dark haired youth showed a bold smile, and raised the glass in his hand up high:
「Brace yourself, Yatori. From now on, I will do everything I can to tempt you to stray into depravity.」
With that joke-like declaration which was entirely serious, the two of them started their life in school.
Right after the school semester begins, Ikuta was obviously not taking classes seriously. He will skip classes on a whim, and sleep openly during lectures. He even built nests in the trees all over campus like a spider. The student body looked dumbfoundedly at his antics from afar, and in a few months, 「Ikuta the Lazy」 was famous in the entire school.
But he didn’t turn into a bum after four years either. Yatori noticed shortly after the semester started. Ikuta’s laziness was just a performance.
Just like their time together with the Rising Sun Regiment and scientists, the youth understood the joy in learning. He absorb new knowledge, acquired new skills, and learned from history── in the past, he enjoyed all this forthrightly. Be it through practical studies or reading from literature, exploring the unknown was Ikuta’s life goal. The foundation remained strong after four turbulent years.
What he lost wasn’t the passion towards knowledge, but the innocence of showing it directly. Anyway, he was adamant on wasting as much of the scholarship he snatched from the country as possible. He even wished to show this waste to the people around him. That was probably his way of venting his anger at the country that robbed him of so many things.
「This is very childish── Sigh, I know that too.」
One day after school, the youth muttered as he read a book under a tree. Yatori could only sigh. The fifth lesson for today was geography, and he skipped classes to read 《The Encyclopedia of Geography》.
「But think about it, I spent two years living in the deep mountains without any civilization, so it’s only natural that I will be slower than others in realizing that, correct?」
That was sophistry, but Yatori who knew the reason behind this had no intention of chiding him for his twisted attitude── she would be glad if something so simple could let him vent his frustration. Because he had every reason to exact a graver revenge against the Empire.
「I won’t seek revenge. That’s not scientific, and I promised my mother.」
Ikuta who was lying down closed the book he was reading and stood up.
「Alright, now’s a good time, let’s go out to play.」
The youth who has great memory will learn bad habits whenever he visits any rowdy places. Today too, he and Yatori visited a casino in disguise.
「Oh～Oh～ There’s so many people.」
There were many tables in the wide room, and groups of various, age, gender and body sizes were swamping them. Cheers and screaming rises and falls, and the curses of the losers never stopped. The smog from the patrons’ cigarettes covered the place in a white mist.
「This is a great place. Just breathing the air here makes me feels like I’m deviating from the right path in life.」
「Nice joke. I don’t know how narrow the correct path in life seems to you, but if you can deviate from it this easily, I won’t be having such a hard time. Even if that path is just a hair wide, you will still walk right on it.」
The youth sighed intentionally and surveyed the room.
「All the games had been set to favor the house. Even with that in mind, it’s still fine to enjoy a match, but I’m not in the mood for that today. Since you are joining me, let’s play something more exciting.」
After that opening line, Ikuta pressed his hat down and turned his gaze:
「The target is over there, that table by the wall with poker cards. Just watch from the corner of your eyes for now.」
Yatori observed the table he was gesturing at with his eyes for almost ten minutes. The youth then asked:
「… What are your thoughts?」
「It’s cheating. The dealer is in cahoots with one of the patron.」
The girl answered immediately. Her crimson eyes watched the game progress with a gaze that was sharper than a razor.
「His shuffling looks odd. He probably pulled something to deal good cards to his companions.」
「With your eyes, you can get a job here as a bouncer.」
The youth smiled wryly at that, then explained:
「In any case, as you can see, that man had used the same technique to cheat tens of people recently. His conning skills is just normal, but he is good at keeping his mark. He won’t clean them out completely, and keep coercing them to stay. He depends mainly on the glib of his tongue and keeps a low profile, so it’s hard to see through him.」
Stopping here for now, Ikuta leaned to the girl’s ear and whispered:
「I want to make that guy pay for our drinks tonight, what say you?」
I see, Yatori thought in her heart. This was playing with fire, but he wants to do it in such a way?
「… I’m in. But don’t drag the other patrons in.」
An excitement she hadn’t felt for four years welled up in her chest, and the vermillion haired girl accepted without any hesitation. The youth nodded with a smile:
「Got it. Your style is my style, so let’s just take two plump fish from the pond.」
Ikuta then spent ten minutes to explain the detailed rules, and Yatori grasped the sequence of events by observing the game. She understood the detail in no time.
When they were ready, they saw the people playing cards at the table leave. Ikuta seized this chance and said:
「The table is open. Alright then── mission start.」
The porcelain cups clanked as they clink them together. After completing their 「mission」 in the casino, they entered a bar and sat down at a table. They sipped on alcoholic beverages and conversed cheerfully:
「That was fun. But the opponent this time is too weak.」
「He turns fragile once his defence line got broken through. He probably never imagined that someone would mark him.」
「Instead of saying that, the credit lies with your sharp eyes. After you saw through the timing of his cheating move, he had to give in. Towards the end, you even knew what cards he was dealing out, right?」
The adrenaline from their victory made them talk more, and they chatted on eagerly.
「What about you, keeping track of which of the 177 cards from 3 decks have been dealt from the very start, and still pretending to be retarded, how evil. When you lost intentionally and pretended to bang the table in anger, I had to hold back my laughter.」
「To bait the opponent into being careless, we have to make them think we are easy pickings. Want me to teach you the trick of pretending to be retarded?」
「I can tell by watching. Simply put, just act emotionally by the things happening before you, correct?」
Her straight talking tickled the youth. Seeing him empty his cup in between their conversation, Yatori changed the topic:
「Before you get drunk, my father has a message for you. 『Are you facing any inconvenience in your life?』.」
Ikuta grinned, then raised the glass in his right hand:
「I’m living the good life on government funding!」
When she heard that obtuse answer, Yatori sighed── with permission from the youth, she had reported Ikuta’s situation to her father.
The two of them already agreed that Solvenares Igsem wasn’t the one who sent men to apprehend Ikuta. Instead, he belonged to the faction that worked hard to protect Bada’s wife and son. Feeling relieved once again that her father wasn’t hated, the vermillion haired girl nodded.
「I will tell him that── Furthermore, he suggested adopting you.」
When they got into the main topic, the youth stopped moving his hands mid meal.
「… Is he serious?」
「I have never seen my father crack jokes before.」
Yatori stated it as an indisputable fact. The girl then explained further to Ikuta, who looked as if he just saw a ghost.
「This suggestion isn’t that strange. You are Uncle Bada’s son, a long time friend of my father. He has close enough relation and good enough reason to adopt you. You don’t have to worry, there’s nothing strange going on behind the scene.」
「I’m not talking about that… By the way, has the Igsem ever adopted sons before?」
「Yes, but usually as an adopted son-in-law.」
Ikuta almost spat out his wine. Yatori looked at the youth coughing hard and continued nonchalantly:
「Don’t worry, I’m not proposing a marriage this time. I’m asking if you want to become a child of my clan.」
「… Wouldn’t that put your father in a difficult position? I’m the son of a war criminal, you know?」
「That’s why he will want to adopt you. My father wants to revitalize the Sankrei bloodline in the military. He probably wants you to fill in the gap left after Uncle Bada died. That will be in the future though.」
「Dad’s achievement has nothing to do with my abilities. It’s impossible for me to fill in for him.」
「You are probably the only one who thinks that.」
Ikuta turned silent with a sour face. Taking care to give a fair explanation, the vermillion haired girl added:
「That might be so── but just as you feared, there are downsides too. If you join the Igsem house, you have to live as an Igsem. You won’t be forced to learn dual wielding from scratch, but as a member of the clan, you have no options other than living the life of a soldier.」
Yatori didn’t mince her words. The youth shook his head slowly after listening to that:
「… Becoming your family is an enticing offer, but I will refuse.」
「Rejection on the spot, huh. Maybe I should save that last part of the explanation for after the adoption papers are done?」
The girl joked, and Ikuta shrugged with a wry smile:
「You aren’t running some sort of unethical business racket. If your clan went that far to recruit me, it would be my honour.」
「If possible, I very much would like to recruit you. I feel the same way as you… But I know you will turn me down.」
Yatori said as she took a sip. Their conversation on the topic of adoption was like a set of predetermined set moves. The youth stared at the girl.
「I told you before, Yatori. I’m here to abduct you. If I join the Igsem house, I won’t be able to realize my primary goal.」
「I knew you would say that… Sigh~ I got dumped.」
「When I invited you to be scientists together, didn’t you dump me too? Right back at you.」
When that topic concluded, the two of them smiled at each other and clinked their glasses.