“The First Step Forward.”
Although he had become a fief lord, Rion’s daily schedule didn’t really undergo much change. He simply allocated the period of time formerly dedicated to his duties as a valet to performing the tasks demanded of the fief lord.
He never abandoned his pre-dawn physical training sessions and those were, in fact, continuing even after his arrival to Bandeaux. One could even say that he was more keen on them than before.
Back when he had experienced real combat, by fighting against one of the demons during the event, he thought that he had become considerably strong. However later, when he had stormed the execution site to rescue Vincent, he literally couldn’t do anything against the knight commander.
The defensive magic of Diane, that he considered his trump card, wasn’t even able to react against the swordsmanship of the enemy. The magic assault of Sarah didn’t even have time to start.
Every time he recalled that fight, he felt ashamed of his conceit.
He was still inexperienced. He had to forge himself to obtain the strength required for defeating the knight commander. Fueled by that determination, he trained zealously. But the results weren’t good.
Rion reached the limits of self-learning and polishing his swordsmanship on his own. The problems he identified when he had still been in the capital were yet to be solved. It left him wondering if there were any other methods to pursue. Before he knew he stopped swinging his sword and immersed himself in his thoughts.
「My lord baron.」
A voice suddenly woke him up from his ruminations. He knew who that was just from the sound.
「It is me, milord.」
Cassius, the former castellan, that now served as the commander of the territory’s army. A person that Rion personally wouldn’t wish to see out of his own will. He still didn’t trust the man or, for that matter, anyone else he had met here ever since his arrival.
「Do you need anything?」
「No, milord, I was simply passing by. Noticing I was not alone made me curious.」
「Is that so.」
If he had no business then the conversation was over. Rion refocused on his training and prepared the sword. In the end, the only thing he could do was more practice swings. So he decided that he should put his thoughts aside for now and just execute them diligently but…
「If my lord doesn’t mind, may I serve as a sparring partner?」
Cassius brought up an unexpected proposal.
「Practicing swinging your blade helps to build good foundations but, in my humble opinion, it does not offer any further benefit.」
「…Are you strong?」
「That I do not know. But I have been learning the sword ever since I was a child.」
「Is that so… Fine, spar with me.」
Since Cassius recommended that himself, Rion would gladly use him. After all, it was exactly what Rion wanted.
「At once, lord.」
Rion waited while Cassius took the position in front of him. As soon as they raised their swords, he immediately understood that the former castellan was really just being humble.
Ki Aura erupted from the man’s body. He intended to overpower Rion completely.
「…Here I come.」
Cassius seemed to take just a few slow steps, yet, suddenly, Rion found himself right in front of him and in the path of a blade in a downward swing. He immediately raised his sword horizontally to guard but the force of the blow was tremendous. He felt he would be crushed on the spot if he remained there.
He managed to escape at the last moment by deliberately falling backward and used the distance gained with that maneuver to stand back up.
Cassius voiced his admiration.
「What are you acting amazed about, you were a wolf in sheep’s clothing all this time, weren’t you.」
「I was never really feigning weakness. I am but a simple man that knows nothing besides the sword, couldn’t help getting nervous when told to govern the castle.」
「…And the way you talk is different, too. So this is the real you, huh?」
「Well… In the end, I am a soldier before all else.」
His former humble way of speaking nowhere to be seen, Rion could feel pride from this new Cassius that looked and behaved like a military man.
「…Bring it on, then. After all, if my opponent doesn’t have at least this much strength to practice against, I won’t be able to beat the knight commander in the future.」
「This time, I’ll be attacking. Here I come!」
Yelling out the line Cassius used a moment ago, Rion tried to shorten the distance. However, his opponent was not going to let him approach and swung his sword from overhead with a staggering force.
Rion was able to somehow avoid this blow but a horizontal follow-up strike from Cassius could not be evaded. Unable to properly receive that one, Rion felt his stance collapse.
Again, Cassius muttered to himself.
「This is somehow irritating. Okay, this time I’ll go for real.」
Or so Rion thought as he charged at Cassius again but this time he was defeated perfectly. Without even being able to cross swords properly, he received a direct hit and crumpled into a heap.
And from that point on, this had become Rion’s daily routine.
「…Those bastards. They are just venting their grudges.」
Rion was lying on the bed and complaining incessantly. Ariel was enjoying seeing that side of him for the first time while tending to his arms, both of which were heavily bruised and covered with medicinal herbs.
Rion’s morning training had truly changed into a somewhat improved one. If being covered in fresh bruises every day could be called an improvement, of course.
He also obtained more sparring partners than just Cassius. Four people had visited his exercise spot so far and took turns training with him.
All of them were leaders of the Six Clans of Bandeaux.
Apart from Cassius, who headed clan Red, there was also Kiel Blau of clan Blue, Mohit Grün of clan Green and Apollo Gelb of clan Yellow.
They employed different fighting styles but each of them was strong. Although the extent of Rion’s abilities was still unknown, no matter how much he tried he couldn’t land a hit on them.
Each time they sparred he ended up being one-sidedly beaten, earning himself another collection of bruises as a result. The worst ones, that were almost proper injuries, could be healed by Ariel’s magic. But the end result was an undamaged but battered skin covered by red and blue bruises, where the color of one part of the body differed from another. It looked really amusing.
And it made Ariel laugh.
「If it makes you complain that much, why not stop?」
She asked well aware of Rion’s likely answer.
「Won’t happen. If I can’t even beat them, I won’t be able to beat the knight commander either.」
「Is he stronger?」
「I don’t know. I’m not experienced enough to tell. However, someday, I’ll be strong enough to find out. No, I’ll get even stronger than that…」
Glaring at nothing in particular, Rion put his determination into words. Ariel could feel the bloodthirst emanating from his body as he said that.
「Oh my, how scary. Which Rion is currently in control? Judging by the dangerous aura… Is it the one raised in the slums?」
「…Oh, no, it’s not like we replace each other.」
Rion’s bloodlust melted away before Ariel’s jest.
While they still had been in the capital, Rion had told Ariel everything. He had thought it would be unfair to let her marry him while keeping secrets.
He had felt anxious about her potential reaction but, in the end, his fears had proved groundless. That had been because Ariel had already held suspicions that Rion was not just an ordinary orphan from the slums. Not due to the strength of his magic but because of his speech and conduct.
His knowledge that had been alien to Ariel, his unusual way of thinking and, most noticeably for her, his habit of occasionally using peculiar words never before known to this country.
His ideas about spirits had been a very good example of this. Although the word spirit existed, the concepts of Salamander, Undine, and Sylph had been unheard of this country and perhaps even the whole world. That had raised an obvious question of where would Rion have learned that. And though she had not by herself considered that the answer might lay in a different world, she had not been really surprised when Rion told her that. And neither had she required much convincing.
That being the case, she would just accept Rion’s words on face value regardless. Ariel couldn’t really care less about who, or what, he actually was. That was just how deeply Ariel, a noble lady from a marquess lineage, fell in love with Rion, an orphan from the slum.
Ariel’s face moved in closer to Rion’s as she was staring into his eyes.
「Your left eye is shining right now.」
「Eh? Is it really brighter than the right?」
「Yes…. It’s rich crimson… Beautiful.」
Rion put his hand on her cheek and kissed her gently. His other hand was already on Ariel’s waist. He pulled her slender hips closer. Suddenly, just like that, they changed places and he was on top of her.
His hand left her face and slowly wandered towards her chest. The other hand started to slowly creep downwards.
And then, Rion regained his senses, released her body and laid down at her side.
Ariel’s cheeks puffed up as she showed her discontent. This seduction attempt ended in failure too.
「Whew, that was close. I almost lost myself.」
「And where’s the crime in that? We are husband and wife.」
「Do you feel nothing towards me?」
「You know that’s untrue. Just a while ago, I was about to… Ah?」
Rion finally noticed that he might have been worried about something stupid all along.
「Nevermind that. You see, I always felt repulsed by a woman’s body. It feels… Filthy. Something to grudgingly bear with when I had to sleep with others before.」
「…I don’t understand?」
A story about past affairs, no matter of its contents, was never pleasant.
「All this time I was worried that I might feel the same about you.」
The abstinence until adulthood was just an excuse. Rion had always hated the times when he had to bed a woman. Seeing them drown in their own lust disgusted him to no end.
And all this time he had been worried that he might feel the same about Ariel whom he loved deeply.
「…Is this why?」
「Yeah. That’s why I have avoided the issue all this time.」
「I see. And now?」
「Until now, I did not dare to try to embrace the woman I desire. But it looks like my body seems to share none of my fears and it has acted on its own.」
Ariel understood what Rion was trying to say. But even so, she wanted to hear it from his lips.
「…I think we don’t have to wait to adulthood anymore?」
With a smile on her face, Ariel entrusted the weight of her body to Rion. It was finally the time for the two to unite in marriage…
「My whole body hurts.」
Rion’s body wouldn’t cooperate.
「…Then we can’t do it before you’re healed.」
「Eeeh? But I train daily…」
Far from getting better, he would get more and more battered by his morning training sessions. He could only heal completely once he was able to properly match the sword of Cassius and the others. And that would take…
「Muu… I don’t know anymore.」
The time they had been waiting for had finally arrived but with the situation turning out like this even Ariel would turn peevish.
Eventually, she ended up scolding him again by stimulating the most painful bruises on purpose.
Later that day, during the time he designated for his work as the fief lord, Rion was in an even more foul mood than usual.
He had finally overcome the mental block stopping him from making love to Ariel but still found himself unable to do the deed. He was going to use those who injured his body to give a vent to the resulting annoyance.
Rion knew that, in truth, he was just sulking, so he wouldn’t go as far as finding faults with everybody and everything. He was instead deliberately ignoring their existence.
Grasping the mood of their lord, Cassius and the others present in the office felt uncomfortable. But it wasn’t like they could just leave the room because of that. Even if that probably was what Rion wanted, they were certain it would not help them earn his trust.
And thus the only sound in the oppressive atmosphere of the room was Rion’s pen scratching on paper.
「A message for the lord!」
Finally, someone showed up disrupting that awkward situation. It was one of the soldiers on sentry duty at the gates.
「There is someone requesting a meeting with you, lord.」
「With me? Who is it?」
Ever since Rion took over the fief, he had his hands full with getting a grip on the situation of his land and barely had any external contacts. Therefore, there was a limited amount of people that could possibly wish to see him.
Despite that fact, Rion still decided to ask.
「It’s a merchant from the capital, my lord. He seems to be thinking of opening a business here.」
「Is that so. I guess there still are enterprising people in the word. Alright, I’ll meet him. Lead him here right away.」
「At once, milord!」
Receiving Rion’s orders, the soldier returned to convey his will to the visitor.
「It seems I have a guest, you may all leave.」
「As you wish milord.」
Everyone in the office left as they were told. Except for Cassius.
「…Didn’t I tell you to go?」
「It is my duty to escort the lord.」
「The visitor is just a merchant. There’s no need to worry.」
「So he says. We do not know that.」
「…I do not need an escort.」
「There are many people stronger than you, lord. Me included.」
For a purely military man, Cassius chose a good spot to pick on. The combat strength was the only thing Rion acknowledged in him and his group. And with that being the case, he couldn’t forcefully contradict the man on that subject.
Without saying anything further, Rion turned his eyes back to the documents on the desk. This was a tacit assent for Cassius to remain in the room.
After a while, the soldier from earlier came back bringing a stranger with him. Rion, seeing that, stood up from behind his desk and moved to the side of the sofa in front of it.
「Please have a seat.」
Encouraged by Rion, the man took a seat. Rion then sat in front of him.
「Welcome to my fief. Did you have any difficulties during your journey?」
「…On your way here…」
「Ah! No everything was fine. And I have seen so many interesting things too.」
「Did you now, that’s good. Now then, I heard you were planning on conducting some business here?」
「Boss? What’s with that? Is that way of speaking popular here or something?」
「Don’t call me boss you halfwit! We’re not alone!」
「A-Ah. …How do you do, errr… Not boss… How should I call you, boss?」
Finally noticing the presence of Cassius, the man attempted to act out his role but he was not very good at it, to describe things charitably. Well, that was not really surprising. There’s no way a scoundrel from the slums would be able to conduct himself like a proper merchant.
「…Drop it, it’s too late already.」
「I’m sorry, boss.」
And so Rion had given up on the charade.
「So someone finally showed up. However, to be blunt, I didn’t expect it would be you, Folz.」
In the ranks of Rion’s subordinates, Folz was nowhere near the top. Even if that was not the case, he was not very good at jobs demanding false appearances as shown by his inability to play a proper merchant.
「Well, stuff happened. There were no problems with me leaving, so I got picked.」
「First big bro Gordon said he would go. That would be bad, so others stopped him.」
「Well, duh, he and Ain are needed in the capital to keep the organization going.」
Those two had discovered the good sides of not standing at the top of an organization but serving under someone like Rion instead. Rion, despite being the reason for that, had still not grasped the fact.
「Yeah, that’s right. Big bro Ain was easily made to understand but Gordon was a sneaky bastard. He unexpectedly said that he was lower in the ranks of the brotherhood and as the underling, he would go instead.」
「…Him, an underling? He was a boss formerly and he is older too.」
「Yeah. So people were looking for an excuse to stop him and ended up sending me instead since I’m neither a grunt nor a big fish.」
「I see. I think I understand.」
Folz was chosen as someone completely unlike his two key subordinates in order to convince them to stay.
「So that’s that boss, things are gonna be rough for a bit, so do treat me well.」
「Yeah. How long are you going to be here?」
「Huh? Aren’t you going back to the capital eventually? There’s something I want sent there.」
「Ah, other guys will do that. My job here is to set up a brothel.」
「Here, in this town?」
This wasn’t a part of Rion’s plan.
「Yes. It’s strange not to have a base on the boss’ land so we decided to build a brothel.」
「…Won’t it lose money?.」
There was no one in this place that would go to a brothel. Not only was the population low, it was also desperately poor.
「Thought so too seeing the town. But there are reasons.」
「The whach-ya-call-it? Not a contact point but… Relay station? Yeah, it’ll be that thing.」
「So not just a contact point but a relay station, huh?」
The plan Rion left to the organization assumed establishing a base in every single town on the highway from the capital to Camargue. This town was supposed to be a terminus of the network. Rion was suddenly having to evaluate the significance of having a base functioning as a relay station in this place instead.
It looked like his subordinates had cooked up something greater than he envisioned. That fact made him a little happy.
「Yeah. That’s why, boss, profit doesn’t matter..」
「Okay. Is the permit for a brothel really enough?」
「Ah, that’s right. We wanted to make it the same as in the capital eventually.
「So a brothel, a public bath, a bar and a gambling house. Okay. With this permit, you are allowed to do all of that.」
「I am the lord of this land. Gambling houses need a permit too.」
With this, Rion’s criminal enterprise made the first, if for the moment token, attempt to legalize its operations. He couldn’t possibly know that this would be the first huge step towards resurrecting the economy of Camargue.
「Okay, now I need you to do something for me.」
「I have several things I want to send back to the capital. This is the most important one.」
Rion pointed at a batch of documents, the financial records he gathered.
「What is that, boss?」
「Don’t worry your little mind about the contents. Tell Ain this needs to reach Charlotte Lanchester and that he is to handle it.」
「Sure thing, boss.」
「Tell him to keep the other part for the time being in case she refuses to act on what she’s given. Details and the contingency plan are written down too.」
They would act as Rion instructed. That was just how Rion’s subordinates were in general. However, as opposed to Cassius’ group, the dwellers of the slums were actually capable of executing his instructions.
The main reason for that, though, was the confidence they gained from witnessing the improvements in the slum resulting from their efforts. Regardless, that difference in capability made Rion only keep Ain and the gang in his thoughts, which was very unfortunate for Cassius’ group.
Anyhow, the reformation of governance that couldn’t happen before was finally under way. Now that Rion decided on what to do, it was the time to act.
A month had passed since Folz had visited Rion. As Rion expected, something began to stir within the capital.
「Sir, a new criminal intelligence was handed in.」
At Royal Guard Investigation Bureau one of the investigators presented a fresh report to the bureau head.
「…This is …An irregularity within a crown vassal’s domain? Outside our jurisdiction.」
The bureau head rejected the content after a brief examination. He gave his subordinate a look of reproach for accepting something they shouldn’t deal with.
However, the man already knew that this was not within their authority and he felt he had a valid reason for escalating it.
「This comes from Charlotte Lanchester of House Fatillas.」
「The jurisdiction doesn’t change even if a daughter of a marquess house is the source.」
「The territory in question belongs to Baron Frey, sir. Baron Rion Frey.」
Just by hearing the name the bureau head’s complexion changed.
「…The one married to Ariel? That Ariel?」
「Yes, sir. Baron Rion Frey and his wife Ariel. Formerly Rion the Valet and Ariel Woodville Windhill.」
「So it is them.」
「How shall we proceed, sir?」
「Launch an investigation post-haste. Any tangible results are to be handed over to the Department of Internal Affairs without delay.」
The head of the bureau and his subordinates were said to be heartless but they were still humans. They believed it was their most important duty to show a strict front to the criminals.
For the bureau, the case of Vincent and Ariel was a huge fiasco. It wasn’t because the charges were false, that had never stopped them before as long as the case was for the good of the kingdom. But this one was not.
Even now Minstrels sang about the tragic fate of Vincent and Ariel. All those tales cast the bureau in a completely different light than usual making it seem wicked, cruel and inhuman. And as those ballads had spread, so had the antipathy to the royals they incited.
The Crown was, of course, trying to clamp down on this, which predictably, caused the songs to spread even wider. The tug of war between the government’s attempts at suppression and Rion’s subordinates that were fanning the flames resulted in an explosive growth of the discontent.
Seeing the situation was helpless, the top echelons of the kingdom directed their irritation at the Investigation Bureau. Mainly because focusing it on Arnold’s group was unthinkable.
The bureau, not entirely blameless in this, craved for a chance to redeem themselves.
And now, Rion, aware of all this, was using this knowledge. He was using them even though they were his enemies, or rather, he was using them exactly because they were his enemies. Because that was just how he operated.
The bureau investigated every present and recent official assigned to Bandeaux in one swoop, regardless whether they were retired, dead or in hiding. If the whole affair had been reported to the Department of Internal Affairs from the start, as the jurisdiction dictated, the guilty parties would be able to whitewash the whole thing. But because it was the Royal Guard’s Investigation Bureau that was leading the case, the corrupt officials could do nothing. With their misdeeds coming to light one after another a huge number of people was arrested.
The greatest embezzlement case in the history of the kingdom – that was how the senior government figures started to call it.
Plenty of thanks to Charlie.