“The First Undertaking as the Feudal Lord.”
Rion ordered the castellan, Cassius, to gather information necessary to govern the land but, as before, that man wasn’t able to procure the data immediately. There was not a single person left in Bandeaux that could be called a civil official.
Until recently, everyone working in the territory’s administration was a central government employee dispatched by the capital. Taking advantage of Rion’s assumption of office, they had all either abandoned their duties without a word or departed the territory leaving resignation letters behind. They saw no more prospect of easy profit, so, in their minds, they no longer had any business there.
The municipal office building of Camargue was completely empty and the government of Bandeaux had stopped functioning altogether. After all, there could be no administration with no officials on the ground.
In such a situation, no matter what Rion would try to to do, hardly anything would be effective. But finally, after much time spent on mulling over ideas and listening to reports, he had found a plan that could work, one he was currently trying to execute.
The soldiers in front of him were fixing the last pieces of armor and shuffling around to establish their formation. This sight marked the very first time he had been impressed by something, ever since he had arrived in Bandeaux.
Even though their lives were rough at the moment, the Six Clans of Bandeau, that once had stood their ground against the kingdom, not only looked strong but were also proving themselves to be so well drilled and disciplined, that even Rion, a complete novice at warfare, couldn’t miss it.
「They’ll be in formation soon, sir.」
The same was true for Cassius Rott, who radiated much more dignity in an armor than when he had been acting as the castellan.
He no longer held that position either, with the territory under a direct control of a feudal lord a castellan was no longer required. Therefore, he returned to his former role of the captain of the Bandeaux Territorial Army.
「Can you answer a question in the meantime?」
「Why do the bandits have such a splendid hideout?」
What the soldiers were about to attack was a den of brigands. A surprisingly well-constructed one, a fact Rion couldn’t possibly miss.
Although it looked old, it boasted impressive dimensions and a rather high wooden stockade which even had a moat dug out around it. The place looked like a proper military stronghold.
「This is a fortification that had been used during the wars of old. It’s one of a chain of forts that once marked the border of a foreign country.」
「Are you saying there are more places like this?」
「Yes, sir. Quite a number of them.」
「And you’re not going to tell me that all of them have been infested by bandits, are you?」
「…Unfortunately, sir, they have.」
Rion’s question was sarcastic and this unexpected answer made him feel dizzy and nearly fall from the horse.
「…Is that why you have not eliminated them yet?」
「… We would suffer high casualties assaulting those forts. After taking on few groups the troops would become too weak to suppress banditry effectively.」
「…Would they now.」
Cassius was lying. Rion was able to grasp that fact and he thought he could understand the reason too. When poor people were no longer able to put food on the table, they could only turn to crime. Rion, with his first-hand knowledge of slums, understood that perfectly.
All those numerous bandit groups were most likely created by the former inhabitants of the fief. Cassius and his people, with their deep ties to the area, probably knew about that too.
「Sir, are we really going to assault this place?」
Cassius asked to substantiate Rion’s intentions.
「Of course. That’s why we came here.」
「Is that so… So be it, I’ll issue the orders.」
「Ah, no need.」
「I do not require the assistance of your troops.」
Cassius, who looked like he resolved himself to go ahead with the attack and was about to give orders to his subordinates, was stopped by Rion’s words. He had not yet learned that Rion was quite stubborn and that once he decided he wouldn’t rely on someone, he would stick to that decision.
「Let us go Ariel.」
Rion headed towards the fort with Ariel at his side. Although Cassius was taken aback by this action, remembering his duty, he followed them in a hurry.
However, nearly immediately, his legs stopped moving.
「What on earth!?」
A gigantic fireball and a huge tornado appeared in the no man’s land and both rushed towards the stockade. Before reaching the wooden wall, the fire and the wind merged into one raging, infernal whirlwind. Then, a loud sound of destruction reverberated across the field.
The sky started raining small, charred chunks of wood.
「…Isn’t this absurd?」
A huge part of the stockade was blown away without a trace.
「Now be good and surrender or the buildings will go next!」
Rion’s yell resounded. There could be no doubt, the spell a moment ago had been certainly cast by the two of them.
「Who on earth are they?」
They were nobles, so, obviously, they would be able to use magic. But common sense dictated that their strength should be proportional to their rank. And it was unthinkable for a mere baron to be wielding spells of this magnitude. This made everyone wonder why Rion was still only a baron despite his obvious power and changed the way Cassius viewed him.
At the same time, the bandits were scared witless by Rion’s magic. If that kind of power was to be used against them the end result would be a one-sided slaughter. Because their biggest desire was to survive, they could not handle such terror.
After Rion and Ariel’s spell destroyed the stockade, the bandits started coming out in small groups to surrendered one after another.
The bandit subjugation attempt was an undisputed success and ended without a fight.
The bandits were restrained and lined up. There were many old people, women, and children among them. It was almost as if a whole village picked up banditry one day.
「…Sir, what do you plan to do with them?」
Cassius was trying to find out how Rion would deal with the bandits. He looked worried and it was plainly obvious he wanted to protect them. And that he was not a very good negotiator.
「What is the customary punishment for banditry?」
「Well… That depends.」
「It’s not a capital offense?」
「It is in some cases…」
The honest answer would be that bandits were punished with death in most circumstances. The law of the kingdom had no mercy for the criminals. It followed the school of thought that treated extreme punishment as the best form of deterrence.
「Who has the final say?」
「The head of the territory, sir.」
「And that would be me, right? Now then, what to do…」
Rion, troubled and thinking over his options, lifted his finger to his brow as was his custom. However, from the perspective of bandits, this looked like he was just trying to play with their lives.
「…Don’t fuck with me.」
One of the bandits that couldn’t suppress his anger any longer raised his voice. This was a spark that set the flames of unrest alight.
「He’s right! It’s not as though we wanted to become bandits in the first place!」
「What they said was right! We were starving, we only did this to survive!」
Just like that, the captives started shouting one after another. But Rion only stared at them with a cold glare and Ariel was looking more irritated by the minute. Neither of them could agree with what the bandits were saying.
「Silence! Quiet down, fools! You are just aggravating your sins! Behave yourselves!」
Cassius, who noticed the couple’s reaction, was desperately trying to calm down the prisoners. However, unable to see his intentions and worry, the bandits had no plans of stopping.
That bravado caused Rion to snap.
「S-sir, a moment please, I’ll calm them down in a snap.」
「This is enough! I will shut them up myself!」
Those words were much more effective than Cassius’ desperate attempts at persuasion. The bandits, understanding the meaning of being personally silenced by Rion, instantly stopped talking and started trembling with their eyes looking at the ground.
The bandit who shouted first was now on all fours looking shrunken from fear. He thought that meeting Rion’s eyes right now meant death. Many others felt the same.
「…Heh, fine, any of you bastards will do. Have you ever eaten bread so bad it was colored in various hues of blue?」
No one answered that question. Not just because they were scared but also because hardly anyone there had done so.
「Have you ever felt forced to eat something so sloppy and rotten, that you could just barely tell by feel that it once was meat?」
This question too remained unanswered. Not a single bandit had experienced such a thing.
「…Sir, what could you be possibly talking about?」
Cassius asked, failing to comprehend the meaning behind Rion’s questions. However, Rion’s eyes stayed fixed on the bandits.
「Nobody? Hah, haven’t you shits had a better life than I had then?」
「I have been eating such things regularly. Back then I considered that better than eating dirt but, now that I look back at those times, people that chewed mud tended not pass out from food poisoning. Sadly I was a stupid kid that did not know better.」
Cassius and everyone else present was dumbfounded by Rion’s tale.
「You see, I grew up in the royal capital slum. I ate what I could scavenge from the capital’s garbage heaps. And even for that garbage, I had to fight viciously, sadly with little success due to my small body. The food scraps, like those I described, were the best I could hope for.」
「I’m not really trying to boast about my misfortune but I am very irritated by how you bastards whine about yours. Especially when all of the orphans in the capital slum were, and still are, living as I did then, with only the luckiest surviving.」
All that was true. Not having parents to help made it next to impossible for the orphans to survive in the slums. The fact that Rion was able to live past childhood could be called an exceptional piece of good fortune and even that was only thanks to the perverts attracted by his beauty that gifted him food.
「So I care nothing for your excuses and I will punish you for the crimes you committed. Keep that in mind as you await your fate.」
Not a single person amongst them felt able to voice further complaints. There were people elsewhere living and dying in much more dreadful conditions than those they personally thought too harsh to keep enduring. The fact that, now that they were made aware of it, they were able to reflect on this knowledge, showed they did not lose their humanity yet.
The bandits were subjugated without a single casualty. The mission was unmistakably a huge success.
However, when Cassius and the others returned to Camargue, their faces were grim. All people currently working in the castle were the original inhabitants of the land. And exactly as Rion expected, they not only knew the bandits’ circumstances but even had family ties with the captives.
They just couldn’t feel happy that this mission succeeded.
Furthermore, they were able to witness the astonishing strength of Rion and Ariel’s magic. If he was to keep using that strength, all of the remaining bandit strongholds were guaranteed to fall as well. This would keep increasing the number of people arrested and charged with crimes. Although that was not unjust, as those people did become bandits, castle employees couldn’t shake off the bond formed by blood and shared harsh circumstances of life.
「There is no other way, I should petition the baron.」
Cassius’ subordinates, although a bit scared, jumped onto their boss’ idea and they all went to Rion’s office.
Within it, Rion was visibly troubled while thinking about how to proceed. Ariel, in the meantime, was sitting on the sofa in front of him, enjoying the situation.
As far as Cassius and his people were concerned, Ariel too was quite a strange existence. She was only doing what Rion wanted and merely duplicating his actions. In addition, she exhibited no desires or objectives of her own simply acting the unusual part of a very devoted wife. Her seeming to have no personal agenda was a really puzzling attitude that Cassius’ group could not understand.
Rion welcomed Cassius with displeasure from the start. He had never liked having his train of thoughts interrupted. If it was Ain and the others, they would wait with the questions until he showed the signs that his thoughts were collected, like lowering the finger from his brows. Unfortunately for the former castellan, he did not yet know Rion’s habits.
「The punishment of the bandits…」
「That again? I have mostly decided on what to do with them. You interrupted me while I was mulling over the final details.」
「I apologize, sir. What is to be their fate?」
「Divide them into three groups. Put those with blood on their hands in the first group and those that did not actively participate in any criminal acts in the second. The last group will be for those who admit banditry but deny murder and those that kidnapped women to exploit their body.」
「…I understand clearly, sir. As for their punishment?」
「Heavy labor for the bandits. I want them to start by repairing the road to the capital. They have two months to accomplish that or additional punishment will be handed down. You are to execute anyone who tries to run or neglect his tasks.」
「I will hear no objections. Those that did not commit banditry are sentenced to serfdom. They will reclaim and cultivate abandoned farmland, all fruit of their labor will be collected by the barony. I am yet undecided on how long will the punishment last and shall announce that later.」
「As for the killers… Murder should be punished by death but manpower is precious and it would be a waste to simply kill them. I want them to do forced labor and I want it to be so hard they would wish to die instead. Can you think of anything suitable?」
「No sir, but I’m sure I’ll find something appropriate.」
Cassius looked pained by the harsh punishment and was certain to find them a task that would not be sufficiently severe. Rion could see through his intentions from the start.
「Tell me Cassius, have you ever considered the feelings of the family and friends of the murder victims?」
「Do not assign them work that’s not sufficiently severe. If you cannot find anything suitable, have them all executed.」
「…So be it.」
There was no room for pleas of leniency. Cassius and his group witnessed the sternness of their new lord first-hand.
「Good. However, we still have a problem.」
「A problem, sir?」
「We have no money to fund all this.」
「…What use is money in this case?」
「Do you think we can operate forced labor without feeding the prisoners? Would they even be able to survive that?」
Rion settled on speaking to Cassius in a sarcastic way.
「No, I believe it would not.」
「Then we clearly have to prepare food for them. And that obviously requires a budget.」
「…Have to prepare food?」
「Isn’t that an obvious thing to do? Not feeding them pretty much makes this a death penalty. And I did not sentence them to death.」
「…That is true, sir.」
And like this, the more Cassius spoke to Rion, the less he could understand him. This was a lord that could hand down heavy punishments and in the same breath worry about offenders’ welfare. It was not a question whether he was strict or gentle. He was unmistakably strict, what Cassius was uncertain about was whether he was also kind or just holding an ulterior motive.
「However, the purse of the barony is empty and I cannot find a solution. Can you think of any other methods to provide the food?」
「That… No, I can not, sir.」
If they had, they would have done that a long time ago – those feelings were clearly seen in Cassius’ attitude. And due to this, his affinity with Rion was pretty bad. Rion thought it was too early to give up on looking for a solution and he treated Rott’s behavior not even as a display of incompetence but as an abandonment of responsibility. And he would never delegate tasks to someone like that.
However, he still had no idea what to do with the problem of money. No matter how much he racked his brain, he found no good solutions.
And then, suddenly, a leather bag was placed in front of him.
Ariel was the one to put it there.
「I might be offering this too soon, but use those.」
「This bag is…?」
「I received it from Mother. Not being able to provide me with a dowry, at the very least she wanted to offer me a farewell gift.」
「Then this is your personal property. I cannot possibly use it.」
「But I was told by Mother that I should use this if the time comes when Rion is really troubled. You certainly look troubled right now.」
Hearing this conversation, Cassius and his group relaxed and gentle expressions crept onto their faces. They saw Ariel’s act of goodwill a lovely display of consideration by a young wife. That was indeed true but at the same time, they were misunderstanding many things.
The first one was the reason for the lack of dowry. They simply assumed that the parents failed to provide one due to a lack of money. To be honest, that was reasonable thought for people that did not know Ariel’s lineage.
But Rion was different. He knew very well how much Marchioness Windhill lacked the common sense.
「…In that case, I’ll just have one.」
This, in turn, was taken by the group as him showing consideration towards his young wife.
「Only one? I believe Mother had put many in there.」
「Only one for the time being. I am certain that will be enough.」
「…I see. Fine, one coin.」
Ariel was somewhat displeased by her goodwill not being fully accepted.
She also still didn’t know the value of money. And Cassius’ group understood that as soon as they saw the single coin that she had taken out of her bag. All of them froze while their jaws hit the floor.
What she held in her hand was a golden coin. One with the crest of the Gran Flamm royal family.
There were many types of gold coins in circulation. Setting aside those issued abroad, there were several known gold coins minted within the country. Because they varied in size and purity of material, even though they were all gold coins, they were valued differently. The official gold coin of the Gran Flamm kingdom had the highest value of them all.
「….Err, isn’t that the kingdom’s?」
Cassius, who came to his senses first, asked timidly. It was the first time that he had ever seen the official gold coin of the kingdom. Others were the same.
「…The official gold coin.」
「Don’t tell me….」
There were still more coins within the leather bag. If all of them were to be like that one… It was unsurprising that they started to imagine things like that.
「Let me repeat, this is my wife’s personal property. Therefore this coin too will be just a loan.」
「Rion, that is something I have given to you.」
Ariel voiced her dissatisfaction before Cassius managed to say anything.
「If you gifted it to me alone, I would take it gladly. However, this time you offered it to the territory and its lord, thus the territory is obliged to pay you back.」
「Why the distinction?」
「Discussing it in front of the involved party, eh? …Well, why not. The main reason is that I do not trust the people here.」
Indeed, that was not something one should say outright in front of the people being spoken about. The faces of Cassius and his group contorted in anger upon hearing this pronouncement.
「Oh? Speaking such a thing so frankly, isn’t my husband rather angry at them?」
「That’s an understatement. They are the same as the bandits we captured. All talk and full of excuses.」
Rion kept offering sharp criticisms as if the people involved weren’t here. Not being able to bear it any longer, they attempted to complain about this kind of treatment but Ariel again replied before them.
「I think you are right. They complain so much but never seem to be doing anything.」
「Exactly. Before, they had left all the responsibilities to the official sent by the capital. But when that person did nothing they should have acted themselves. However, none of them actually attempted to do anything. And that should not be the case if they truly cared about this land.」
Hearing that, the angry faces suddenly turned pale.
「But I think I heard they did not have the authority.」
Ariel didn’t say this to try to excuse them. Those words were spoken to expose the true source of Rion’s anger for the sake of Cassius and the others.
「If they did nothing just because they feared punishment for overstepping their authority, then they were really only thinking about themselves all the time. Besides, no authority? Who else was above them when the last official left and we were yet to arrive? Who stopped them then from giving relief to the suffering people? They are just a group of lazy, privileged locals, who placed their naive selfishness on the upcoming new lord.」
「I cannot disagree.」
All the pale faces now turned red from great shame.
「For them, it’s the outsiders that should make things better and the outsiders that should fund that change. They seem so happy with that prospect, don’t they? Don’t they look perfectly content to just receive things too? Shouldn’t they instead just take things into their own hands to save the land they supposedly care about oh-so-much? I just find their attitudes so hard to believe.」
The denizens of the slums that Rion knew from the royal capital were enthusiastically working for the benefit of their neighborhood. And they were the undisputed dregs of society. That was why Rion would never recognize Cassius and his group as partners or subordinates.
「So in conclusion?」
「I care not for people that merely wait or even expect to be given things. Their demands only grow with time and can never be appeased. I will not allow wasting Mother-in-law’s consideration on such an undertaking.」
「And that is how things look gentlemen. So? What are you all going to do now?」
With a smile on her face, Ariel queried Cassius and his group. There was no more mystery about her. She was radiating a dignity of someone that should be standing above others.
「We will serve the lord with our lives on the line.」
Before answering they all knelt down and bowed their head together.
However, even this was met with Rion’s cold reception.
「Save your words, I do not need pledges. You want to serve someone, serve this land and its people.」
They raised their faces surprised by the answer but Rion was already ignoring their presence immersed in his thoughts.
They did not yet understand that Rion’s trust could be only gained by deeds, not words.