After the ball at the castle was over, Rion and Ariel headed to the slums for a happy reunion with Ain and the others. After enjoying a lively and carefree banquet, completely unlike the royal event, Rion had spent next three days in meetings about the situation of the slums and the progress of the group’s expansion to other towns. Once that period passed, he and Ariel immediately set out to return to Bandeaux.
While on the road, they always spent the nights in back alleys of the towns on their route. They never approached the sort of an inn ordinary aristocrats would choose as their lodgings. This was both to meet Rion’s underlings that the organization had dispatched there as well as out of caution in case someone present at the ball would try to act against them.
That, actually, proved to be effective. There was indeed a group of unknown affiliation trying to follow them that was forced to abandon its mission having achieved nothing.
The only people truly aware of how deep was the connection between Rion and Ariel to the slums were Lord Marquess Windhill, his wife, and Charlotte, who knew that Rion had some sort of connection to suspicious people. But she would never dispatch people to pursue the Freys nor would she speak of anything she should not be talking about.
Even to the Crown Prince himself.
The person shocked the most by the events of the ball was Crown Prince Arnold. He had not been aware of Baron Rion Frey and his wife’s existence for two reasons: he had never involved himself with affairs of state and people that had been aware of the particulars decided against telling him, fearing it may trigger some sort of outburst from the prince.
Thus, Arnold, blissfully unaware, had simply assumed that Rion must’ve been exiled to some faraway place. But then, suddenly he was there, right in front of him, a guest of the ball sponsored by his father and boasting the rank of a baron. Furthermore, Ariel, who should’ve become a slave, was Rion’s wife.
And to add insult to injury he had to witness one more astonishing development as he stood there paralyzed by the surprise.
Arnold’s mother, always looking depressed for as long as Arnold could remember, was chatting with the couple in good humor and had even given them her blessings. He had absolutely no idea why had such a thing been happening.
But in the end, although the events had shaken him greatly, the crown prince was, unsurprisingly, no longer gripped by jealousy. Nevertheless, he had still sent a group to pursue Rion and obtain all the details for his own gratification but the men dispatched came back empty-handed.
So to Arnold, the ball just brought disappointment.
And then, the next person. Someone, who also felt disappointed by the failure of the pursuit, and at the same time someone, whose intentions had been clearly malicious
It was Erwin and what had shaken him had been the appearance of Ariel rather than Rion. His half-sister, who should’ve fallen into slavery, had somehow attained the position of a noble’s wife, even if that noble occupied the bottom end of the hierarchy. And that husband, Rion, somehow had good enough relations with the queen to make her summon him for a conversation. Even the king himself had decided to cut short his discussion with other aristocrats to join his wife. He had been unable to imagine a single reason that would justify Rion, a mere servant from the slum, having that kind of a position in the court. That didn’t stop him from seeing them as a threat, though.
He feared the couple’s continuing existence as nobles was a threat to his position. And any child they would end up having would be an ever greater one.
It was impossible for Rion to become the heir of House Windhill. Neither was it possible for Ariel, found guilty of a crime and banished from the family. Their child, however….
Would Lord Marquess Windhill abandon his grandchild, the offspring of Ariel on whom he doted so much?
Just thinking about that made Erwin begin to fear for his future. The completely groundless rumors that he was not a legitimate child of the Lord were still spreading. Their lack of veracity wouldn’t make them any less of a problem if they were to be used against him. For Erwin, who ruined his half-siblings with the help of a lie, this was a reasonable worry.
He had to do something about this problem. Prompted by that truly simple imperative, he had sent assassins after the Freys but that attempt was no more successful than Arnold’s. And now he feared his murder plot becoming public too.
Thus Erwin had fallen into the same kind of mental mire Arnold was suffering from before.
He was obsessed with doing something about the marriage of Ariel and Rion. But the land of Bandeaux was too far and currently outside his reach.
Charlotte was also surprised by Rion and Ariel’s appearance at the ball. However, she, as opposed to others, had felt genuine goodwill towards the couple.
She had seen that the two of them, instead of ending up at the bottom of an abyss of misery as could be expected, had become a couple that positively radiated happiness. And then those impossible lovers had received the queen’s blessing for their marriage.
She couldn’t believe that the world could give birth to such a miracle. That surprise was rooted in a sense of wonder, not incredulity.
And although she had known it wasn’t proper, for a brief moment she had thought that maybe Vincent’s death was necessary for the sake of bringing the two together.
She also wanted to experience that kind of love, to cast aside her position and rank. Charlotte, in her heart, began to embrace that kind of dream.
She wanted to love someone who would be willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of his beloved. Just like Rion. He might have been a bit clumsy and thick-headed but his concern for his partner was heartfelt. He might have been a bit cold, to the point of being cruel at times, but to those precious to him he had kindness that would bring others to tears.
Charlotte wanted to meet that kind of person, to be loved just like Ariel.
And then she awoke to the thought, that she wanted to meet Rion again. To see the boy she had not met for a long time, whose face was still beautiful but now tinged with masculinity.
She wanted to speak with him again, even if she wasn’t sure what about exactly.
And those thoughts made her giggle spontaneously. She wanted to meet him and those thoughts, this desire, began to well up in her heart.
To Maria, the reappearance of Ariel and Rion was not surprising at all. In the game, Ariel ended up married off to a distant lord. It just happened that the lord in question was Rion. The only thing she was not expecting was that there would small be a minor happy end for Ariel hiding behind that storyline.
And that fact had completely erased all feelings of guilt lingering in her heart. Seeing how things turned out convinced her those two ended together thanks to her efforts.
When she turned her thoughts to Rion, she expected that he might perhaps still end up being an ally.
The events of the execution grounds had given Maria quite a shock. Rion had stopped her full-force magic attack effortlessly, with just one hand. He might have been a rare character but that display of power had been far too overbearing.
From then on, she had begun to look at her strength with cool head and had started to train anew. Now, she was confident that she was much stronger than she had been on that day.
But even so, she still desired Rion’s strength.
It had become public knowledge at the ball that Rion had personally fought and exterminated demons. While she knew that at this stage those demons would not really be a big deal, it still made her frivolously want Rion to be of some use in her own battles.
Thanks to his support, she had suddenly gained the backing of the kingdom for her Devil Subjugation quest. That gave her a rather favorable start compared to the game. There, the officials were refusing to recognize the existence of the demons, forcing the protagonist and her comrades to leave the capital and begin exterminating demons and devils on their own in the course of their travels. Only when the damage caused by the attacks could no longer be ignored did the kingdom offer their backing in recognition of their subjugation achievements.
Those seemingly good starting conditions didn’t give her any peace of mind, however. On the contrary, she expected that to raise the difficulty of the opponents she would be fighting in the future.
Ever since the ball, she had been anxiously asking herself, if her group could really challenge enemies like that.
She didn’t know that the reason why Rion had revealed the existence of her notebook was not just to escape that situation but also to jump-start her quest so that the story would end faster. This way her protection period would also expire quicker, as her plot armor should vanish with the conclusion of the story.
While she was oblivious to his motives, she too thought that the faster the story ends the better. After all, what awaited her once demon subjugation was over was a luxurious lifestyle as the crown prince’s wife and later, as the queen.
She began to think she needed more comrades. Ones as strong as Rion. Or even better, she needed to make Rion her ally at all costs.
Although all of the game’s key characters had some sort of reaction to Rion’s reappearance, they were not alone in that. There was soul-searching going on in the Royal Castle as well.
Two people, without consulting each other before, met in the room where Rion had been given audience in the past – the King and the Knight Commander. The reason why they met to rethink the case of the Freys was simple, they were starting to feel apprehensive about Rion once more.
The Knight Commander didn’t need to ask what was the question about.
「Like a statesman, and he completely looks the part too. He should be a novice and yet he completely overturned my expectations.」
「People with practical experience differ from those that had none. I guess it’s better to start as young as possible.」
The King said this not only to cover for the shortcomings of Arnold but also to stop the old knight from growing even more wary of Rion.
「It is still not late to reconsider.」
「That may be so but honor demands otherwise. Matters of honor aside though, what’s the actual state of that place?」
「Do you not know?」
「I thought we have been able to excise the cancer thanks to that person but it seems the work is not done yet. Oddly enough, I received no reports about Bandeaux.」
Naturally, Rion’s official complaint about the corruption of the territory’s officials had reached the ears of the king. The monarch was enraged by the fact that such irregularities were occurring in the territory under his direct control. Despite his desire to have the matter thoroughly investigated and offenders disposed of, the report about the barony of Bandeaux had not reached him yet, making him think it was still incomplete.
That was just his misunderstanding, though. The government departments were already busy with all that had been happening and having so many officials punished didn’t help matters. Truthfully, being unable to replace missing workforce easily, they just had no time to pay attention to the matters of a remote region.
「Investigations conducted by my order are also lacking, nevertheless, it seems that the territory is on a steady path to recovery.」
「Any more details?」
「He started by subjugating the local bandits.」
「Starting with military operations, really?」
Simply exercising the power of one’s army was not the right way to govern. Meaningless fights, even if victorious, would just exhaust the country’s strength.
「That is what I initially thought myself but it seems that I was wrong. The bandits captured in the process were made to repair the roads and work the fields.」
「Ohh. So it was done to secure a workforce, wasn’t it.」
「Because of all the corruption, Bandeaux was essentially bankrupt. If that really was his original aim, then that was a brilliant idea.」
The Knight Commander wanted to stress that Rion’s real intentions were unknown. He didn’t think it would be good for the King to be overly impressed with the boy. Regardless of his opinion about Rion as an individual, he had no intention to let a succession conflict occur in the future.
「As the commander of the knights, what do you think he aimed for?」
However, the King would not allow such sophistry.
「…I believe he did it to secure the workforce.」
「From what I heard, the way he treats those people is different than what would usually be the case for criminals. They are being fed proper meals. They don’t seem to be forced to work excessively either. And although their labor starts with sunrise and lasts till sunset, they are granted breaks during the day too.」
「…This sounds so good it shouldn’t be applied to criminals at all.」
Although the King had thought this was due to Rion’s naivety, the next words of the Knight Commander had prompted him to reconsider and conclude that he was mistaken.
「Indeed. However, and again I cannot tell if this was by design, when the other bandits learned of that treatment, they had begun surrendering one after another. I believe it would be reasonable to assume there are no organized bandit groups left in the territory at this point.」
「All of them work on reconstruction-related projects?」
「That seems to be the case. It looks like currently all of the barony’s inhabitants, not just the bandits, are dedicating all their effort towards the restoration of the land.」
「…..I give up. I’m beginning to think that he may even be better than me.」
「Not at all. It’s not as though he was able to get every citizen, or rather retainer to be exact, in his grasp.」
「…Oh, it’s about them, isn’t it, the Bandeaux Clans.」
As one would expect, even the king knew about the Bandeaux Clans. He was not aware there were six of them though.
「Yes. They seem to be maintaining their distance to him. To be honest, my knowledge of this subject is rather vague. I had known nothing about the six clans before but when I investigated them, they turned out to look rather shady.」
Just from a cursory investigation, even though he found no concrete leads, the commander was able to figure out that the clans were hiding something. That was a result of their naivety. They were unable to show things that should be shown without wariness.
「So those kind of people exist in Bandeaux, don’t they….」
「I don’t believe the concern is necessary. Compared to those powerful families he is still of a higher priority.」
In the end, even the knight commander evaluated Rion highly.
「…So, what should we do about that problem in that case.」
「I believe having them reconciled would be the best solution. It doesn’t matter if it’s one sided. If things were to be exposed, as long as that thing would speak even a single word of apology, everything would end without any incidents.」
The Knight Commander thought that Rion should be the one to ask for reconciliation. That was because he considered Arnold to be a terribly prideful person, even if he and his coterie did not realize that. He arrived at that, incidentally correct, conclusion after the matter of false charges against Vincent and Ariel was explained.
He doubted that Arnold would feel obliged to apologize and suspected that he might possibly even seek to have them be disposed of. Therefore, in order for the relationship between Rion and Arnold to be restored, the initiative to relinquish all grudges should come from the young Frey.
He didn’t consider it impossible for Rion to do that and he thought that because they were brothers, they would be able to reconcile.
「Do you think the wounds will heal with time?」
「…I don’t think it’s impossible but it would help if the distance between them was reduced to the point that a feeling of brotherly affection arises once everything is revealed.」
All those various overlapping expectations would entangle Rion. While the motivations behind them varied, their objectives were the same. And when so many people scheme, the outcome is certain.
No matter how much Rion wanted it not to happen.
There was no way for Rion to know the expectations heaped upon him in the capital. He wanted to return to his territory as soon as possible and had set out in a hurry. But once he reached the fief he couldn’t help but notice an oddity.
This was the fourth time he had used this particular road and the situation on the highway was markedly different when compared to the previous three times. There was a lot of traffic this time. A lot of it merchant wagons under armed escort.
Although this was a development Rion wished for, he did not know how it came about. All the initiatives aiming at boosting trade should still be at the preparation stage.
「Ari, can I pick up the pace?」
「Of course, go ahead.」
Having obtained Ariel’s assent, he urged his horse to speed up.
When they finally arrived in Camargue, they were welcomed by a town full of merchants coming and going all the time. It was positively bustling with energy.
「….What on earth happened here?」
Rion asked the guards at the gatehouse.
「Ah, milord. Welcome back, you must have been tired from your long journey」
Seeing Rion, the soldier on duty came to greet him.
「Thank you. I am curious why are there so many people here, do you happen to know?」
He acknowledged the greeting hurriedly, immediately proceeding to question the guard.
「It is surprising is, it not, milord?」
「It certainly is. I was so surprised seeing the traffic on the way back that I hastened my journey to learn more. Do tell me all you can.」
「Yes, milord. It all started with a single merchant group that crossed the national border.」
「….Why pick one so dangerous?」
In Rion’s mind, only shady merchants would attempt something like that but he was wrong this time.
「Apparently the southern highway was closed yet those merchants desperately wanted to enter our country. Somehow they have heard about another highway to the north that passed through the national border. Ours.」
「So all this happened because the usual merchant route was closed?」
「No, milord. Obviously, that alone would not be enough. That merchant group spent a night in town and has taken a liking to the place. After they left, they have kept spreading the good word about us as they traveled from town to town. That made merchants from the kingdom try using our roads too. And they, in turn, boosted our reputation abroad, leading to this.」
The blockade was just a trigger that helped to spread positive opinions about Bandeaux by word of mouth. And there was only one place Rion could think of that could be the source of the initial good impression.
「…The place that left such a good impression on them, is it Folz’s establishment?」
「There’s no other inn to stay in this town after all.」
「I see… Alright. Thank you.」
Now armed with the knowledge of the circumstances, Rion headed towards the establishment run by Folz. It was an inn, a bar, a gambling den, and a brothel in one. There were other services on offer too but those four were the main areas of focus.
Once he and Ariel arrived at the place and opened the front door…
They were welcomed by employees standing in a line, next to a reception desk at the side of the entrance hall, to welcome new arrivals.
「Ah, master Rion. You have returned already?」
Seeing it was them, one of the employees came and greeted him. She was one of the former residents of the capital city’s slums, a face Rion recognized.
「Yes, just now actually. Is Folz here?」
「He is inside. I will go call him.」
The front side of the building was occupied by the bar and cafeteria, there was also a hallway that led deeper into the premises. The employee headed into that hallway because Folz was currently in the gambling den.
Since getting him would probably take some time, Rion and Ariel headed behind the reception desk to avoid being a hindrance.
And while they were waiting, a customer appeared.
He looked bewildered by the employee’s voices greeting him in unison. Then one of the staff present approached to talk to him.
「Did sir come to dine, or perhaps to lodge?」
「Oh, I came to lodge.」
「Perfect. Let us please go to the reception desk in that case.」
The customer was led towards the reception desk, just next to Rion, and the employee herself went behind the counter. She took out the inn’s ledger and enquired how long the customer was going to stay. Once she got the answer, a single night, she wrote down the guest’s name and asked for the payment. With money received, the process of lodging was done.
「Alright, I shall guide you towards your room now, sir. We will help you with your luggage too, please hand it to the employee behind you.」
As soon as she said that, another employee headed over to the customer.
「I will take care of your luggage, sir.」
「Ah no, my bags are..」
「Place it on the cart, please.」
Without minding the customer’s hesitation, the employee presented a luggage cart in front of him.
The customer put his bags on the cart as he was told. It seems the fact they would not be manually handled by the staff was enough to make him stop hesitating and consent to the idea. This was, incidentally, not in Rion’s instruction but an idea they came up on their own.
「Thank you, sir. Please follow me.」
The employee that handled the lodging process started to guide the guest carrying the keys. The customer followed along with the employee pushing the cart. At the foot of the stairs, the keys were passed to the luggage clerk who carried them and the bags up the staircase. Not saying anything more, the customer simply followed. The other member of staff remained downstairs and bowed towards the guest’s back. She then returned to the reception desk with the empty cart.
Watching this scene made the corners of Rion’s eyes become damp. This manner of customer service was not something that could be established in a short time. They must have kept practicing even though they did not know when, if at all, would the customers start coming. And those efforts had borne fruit now. The town’s reputation was something created by these employees.
「Oh, boss. You have returned.」
「……Yeah. I just did.」
「Surprising isn’t it? Seeing the customers suddenly flooding in this single month.」
「But that’s as expected of you, boss. No matter how decrepit a place you come to, it will be completely reborn. Just like how it was in the slums.」
「…..This not my achievement. It was all thanks to the effort every one of you made. Thank you.」
Rion bowed before Folz and the employees. Partly because he could no longer hold the tears and having that kind of face be seen would be embarrassing.
「….But even so, it’s still thanks to the boss. We gave our all because the boss is with us.」
「….That’s my line.」
Rion had been giving his best because he had been thinking of them. He wasn’t just working hard for the sake of his revenge only. He held a strong desire to improve the lives of the people who followed him.
Rion was a statesman, that worked hard not to satisfy his greed but for the sake of happiness of others. And he had absolutely no idea how important an existence like that was in this world.
Not only him, though, the important residents of the capital city were just as clueless.