This time, no celebration was held to commemorate the success of the Nyegert’s defense. The overall commander, Crown Marshall, did not want to have one and no one was able to complain about that fact.
Maria and her group shared his mood. Rather than feeling the joy of victory, they were frustrated by being outwitted by Rion and had no desire for a banquet. And Rion himself had never felt the need to socialize anyway. Lack of a celebration party was something he welcomed as it saved him the necessity of inventing excuses not to attend.
But even so, the city’s bars were lively and boisterous. Regardless of what their superiors thought, the rank and file were happy to win and live another day.
At the same time, those who didn’t feel like celebrating still, of course, had to gather for a meal. That included Maria’s group.
The circumstances forbid going out to establishments in the town, not that they ever had any such intention, so they congregated in the mansions of the local feudal lord to partake in the extravagant food on offer.
「…We can’t let things go on like this.」
Said Maria suddenly after a moment of silence. She was the first one to voice what they all had in their minds.
「I am aware. This is unlikely to be the last battle against the Devils though, we shall definitely earn recognition next time.」
「Which is irrelevant. Us not making achievements is not the problem.」
「What are you talking about then?」
Although they shared the sentiment of not wanting to let things develop as they currently were, Maria rejected Lancelot’s words.
「If things continue this way, the Demon God might be revived.」
「…What did you say?」
Lancelot couldn’t help but doubt his ears. The resurrection of the Demon God was synonymous with the kingdom’s destruction. Which was exactly what Maria came to this world to prevent.
「The story is developing in the wrong direction. While Rion takes all the achievements, we’re unable to do anything. If this carries on, the devils we should be defeating might end up being beyond our reach.」
In the end, her intentions were unchanged, she wanted all the merits to go to her group. The reason why she disagreed with Lancelot was simply that she found the idea distasteful when voiced aloud.
「That is… A huge problem, is it not?」
Lancelot didn’t say this because he felt alarmed, Maria’s words actually reassured him. Understanding her hidden intentions he simply matched her tone to exaggerate the effect. Arnold was sitting at the table with them and this show was all for the Crown Prince’s benefit.
「That’s right. We have to do something to revert everything back to the original storyline. We have to think of a way to make that happen.」
This was also said in consideration of Arnold being here. Maria understood that the current Arnold would not cooperate if she hinted at simply rigging a way of monopolizing all the recognition for their group.
「Should he not just be returned to his territory?」
「Would that alone really be enough?」
Having Rion be removed from the fight against demons was not really that complicated a matter. Although the Crown Prince would most likely be against it, having a feudal lord from a remote region take part in the operations was already odd in the first place.
If they tried to remove Rion from the front lines, the Crown Marshall would certainly be the first to agree. And he wouldn’t be the only one. There were many influential people that didn’t want Rion to be the only one to raise his name in this endeavor.
However, Maria disagreed with this course of action because she felt that the situation demanded something else.
「Do you have any concerns?」
「Wouldn’t he just go and subjugate demons on his own even if he was sent away?」
「No, probably not. All feudal lords are prohibited from taking their retinue beyond the borders of their own territory on their own accord.」
Lancelot was lost and couldn’t understand what Maria was thinking anymore. So he just refuted her worries in a normal manner.
「What if other lords cooperate with him?」
「That… Would probably make it possible for him to act in such a manner.」
But even then, Rion would be limited to the lands in the general area of his fief. The noble not required to join the subjugations wouldn’t let retinues from other territories to just pass through their land without the instructions from the Crown. Lancelot was certain of that but he figured there must have been a reason why Maria was fussing over this possibility so much, so he decided to stop completely denying it outright. The two found themselves cooperating very well in this.
「In order to return the story back to its original track, we have to completely remove him from the battles.」
「We could just remove him from his position of the feudal lord.」
For normal people, this suggestion from Lancelot would be outrageous.
「Lancelot, stop with this foolishness.」
And Arnold, incidentally, was pretty much thinking like a normal human being.
「Oh, I know it cannot be done. Just seeing Maria look for a way so hard made me keen to help and say something stupid without thinking things through.」
It wasn’t as though he said that without giving it a thought. Lancelot was just making sure that the current Arnold was not capable and willing to indulge in unreasonable actions as he had been in the past.
「And it is no less of a problem. You are raising a prospect of taking away the territory of someone who distinguished himself greatly. Such a thing would make our subjects question the sanity of the Crown.」
「I know that. I would not dream of saying such a thing in front of other people.」
「That aside, why do you all feel the need to remove Rion from the fight? Thanks to him, the devil subjugation is proceeding well. I can foresee no problems in the future.」
「Maria just said that things will end badly.」
Lancelot couldn’t come up with any good pretext to justify having Rion sent away from the battlefield.
「That’s because… Everything’s a little, no, really strange.」
Maria could not come up with anything concrete either. But she had no choice but to explain the problematic points, so she focused on the multiple other tangentially related issues.
「General-class demons have appeared in the previous battle. However, such strong demons aren’t supposed to appear yet.」
Maria was truly flustered by the fact that the strongest class of demons had appeared in the opening stages of the arc.
「We were able to defeat the devil without any problems despite that.」
「That’s true indeed. But what about the next one? The devils and demons are gradually growing stronger. Even if we barely managed to win this, the next would be dangerous.」
「…Rion is also still improving.」
In fact, Rion was displeased in how the last battle played out despite the fact that it ended up in a victory. Arnold knew for a fact that the young baron saw many things to improve in regards to his command skills and how his army moved.
And he did not disagree. Even from Arnold’s point of view, Rion’s swordsmanship was poor, even if he had an obvious talent for it.
It was also a fact that all the marching training started to show results.
The Crown Prince had no doubts that Rion still had much room to grow, both as an individual and as a leader.
「That’s not the problem. We are the ones that should be getting stronger.」
「Well, no objections here. We can all just get stronger together, though.」
「But in order for that to happen, we should be the ones to kill the devils.」
「…Maria. I cannot comprehend the meaning of your words.」
「To defeat the last devil we will need at least one strong magician for each of the elements merging their magic. That is us.」
The presence of four comrades attuned to different elements able to merge their magic together was a mandatory condition to win against the last boss. The devils, having obtained power from their god, had an outstanding magical ability and the strongest magic of each element alone would not be enough.
What was required was the ultimate, special technique – the『Fusion』. As far as the game was concerned once they had that, they would be certain to win.
This was why her, Arnold and the other younglings from the Marquess Houses, all five of them, had to be the ones to take all of the achievements. Or at least that was how Maria wanted the situation to look, but Arnold, upon hearing the explanation, thought of another possibility.
「What do you mean by “merging our magic”?」
「By learning about each other’s respective special magic and mixing all the different elements together, we will be able to boost the effectiveness and change their element. And that, of course, is not something anybody can just do.」
She was just now implying that only they were capable of that but Arnold offered an unexpected reply.
「… That sounds just like how Rion uses his magic, though?」
This was probably one of the best embodiment of the phrase “architect of their own downfall”. Maria had never seen how Rion fights from up close. She had known he could use different elements but she had no idea he could fuse them together.
「Rion’s magic is peculiar. Not only can he use the two elements but he can utilize their effects in order to create ice. And Ariel too seems to be excelling in wind magic. So that is how they were able to raise the effectiveness of their spells so much, huh?」
To Maria, this was a shocking revelation. Right now she was still unable to use the 『Fusion』. She was required to overcome many future events in order to learn that ability.
「So, was that what you mean by “merging them together”?」
Maria found herself unable to think straight. If she replied affirmatively to Arnold’s question, the worth of her existence would lessen even more. If she tried to deny the truth, it would require an explanation on what exactly was different.
「Maria said that the Fusion is the combination of all four elements. Even if the principles are the same, wouldn’t the effect be different?」
Lancelot took the reins of the conversation. He was determined to stop it veering off into a very bad direction.
「I believe that once Charlotte is included all four elements are present, though?」
In other words, even if all of the people here did not participate, it would still be possible to defeat the last devil. That prospect greatly disturbed not only Maria but also Lancelot and Erwin.
「…Arnold, are you really fine with that? That would make even you… Unnecessary for the devil subjugation. 」
「And why would that be bad? As long as the devils are defeated in the end?」
「Well, you are correct, but….」
Lancelot once again tried to ignite the Crown Prince’s jealousy but once again the attempt ended in failure. Arnold was already different from how he was while studying at the Royal Academy.
The case of Vincent had brought his reputation straight to the ground. He was no longer praised as a genius and there were actually people worried about the Kingdom’s future, something that hadn’t happened for a long time before that.
At first, that had made him heavily depressed and brought him to the verge of despair. But at one point he had suddenly realized that he no longer needed to push himself in order to be the wise Crown Prince that everyone had seen in him before. That flash of insight had made him feel relieved, relaxed and as if the range of his vision expanded. It had been also the reason why he had been able to rise from his inner chaos
The Arnold of today had no desire to be the greatest anymore. His heart now had the flexibility to accept that there were others that were better than him and even capacity to think of how to utilize them.
Which was exactly the mindset needed by those destined to govern and a proof that the present Crown Prince was indeed wise.
「The Devil’s menace is an important matter for this Kingdom. Should we not tackle it by pooling all our strength?」
Even though he said that, everyone present knew that Arnold was not far from a conclusion that it would be fine to leave all the things to Rion. And that was something the other three would never acknowledge.
「It would be good indeed if those feelings of Your Highness reached everybody, but…」
At this point, Erwin, so far taciturn and tight-lipped, spoke himself. He felt he finally found the start of a thread that might lead to getting rid of Rion.
「…What are you saying?」
「Will Your Highness not mind, even if what I have to say is a bit rude?」
「Well then. Is there not a grudge that the Freys hold towards Your Highness? Is it not heavy enough that they might desire revenge in the future?」
Arnold was aware that he was being resented. After all, at first, Rion wouldn’t even listen to anything he said.
「I feel worry seeing someone like that is standing at Your Highness’ side. And I fear such a person obtaining, and then using, unnecessary power from merit he does not need to gain.」
Seeing Arnold’s reaction, Erwin continued to speak. He was purposefully raising the danger presented by Rion in order to get rid of him.
Arnold could not refute those words. If the couple truly bore a grudge, it would be natural to expect them to think of revenge. And he was perfectly aware his past deeds had warranted that.
「I think those two are dangerous. It is my understanding that he was made a lord of a remote region was in order to soften his anger about the handling of Vincent’s case while not providing him with too much power.」
This was actually far from reality but at present the exact circumstances were irrelevant. Erwin just wanted to stir up the Crown Prince sense of threat by any and all reason.
「It is as Erwin says and I agree. That man is dangerous.」
Seeing the situation head into a favorable direction again, Lancelot jumped on board of Erwin’s argument. It carried a strong power of persuasion because Rion resenting the Crown Prince was a known fact.
「…Both of you are right.」
「What are you going to do then?」
「As I thought, trying to avoid that subject was wrong. I knew I should have talked with them about that matter.」
The answer that came from Arnold’s lips was entirely different to what they were expecting.
「I know that matter is not something easily resolved. Nevertheless, it is no reason to avoid it. I guess we can discuss and work it out step by step.」
Despite their intention to separate the two, the conspirators ended up bringing Rion and Arnold closer.
「I shall just go and ask Charlotte where they are right now. My apologies everyone, I have to excuse myself.」
On top of everything, Arnold was planning to act on his decision promptly. To the point of immediately interrupting their meal time together.
Lancelot, perplexed by the sudden development, could only stare helplessly as the Crown Prince left the dining room. There was a rift between Arnold and Rion. However, the distance between them was not as large as Lancelot and the others had thought.
「…A huge failure. huh?」
「Like you can judge. All this happened because you raised the idea of Rion’s threat.」
「And Sir Lancelot backed that up, did you not?」
「I did not expect Arnold to say… That.」
「I guess something must have happened while they were marching together. That’s why I said we should have accompanied him.」
Erwin flagged up the risk of averting their eyes off from the danger. Lancelot and Maria overruled him and right now all he had in his mind was “I told you so”.
「Are you trying to say we would have earned some achievements had we done that?」
「That I cannot say for certain.」
「Then how can you state that we were wrong?」
「How? What do you think is going you happen now? What will it make us if the Crown Prince turns that man into his ally?」
「Us? What us? Did you mean to say, “me”?」
「What did you say?」
「The one to be troubled the most if Arnold and Rion become closer is you. After all, you might lose the position of the heir of House Windhill to the child of those two.」
Lancelot had just given voice to what Erwin feared the most. Even though speaking that out loud resolved nothing. Truthfully, Lancelot was afraid as well. Without his relationship with Arnold his position in the race for inheritance weakened too and he was simply picking on Erwin to hide his fears.
「Instead of fighting pointlessly, we should think of something.」
Maria interrupted the imminent spat. This was indeed no time for them to be fighting against themselves. For her the events were pointing to a worst possible scenario. Her dream of being the Queen was under threat and she considered that a very serious matter
「Even if you say that, with Arnold being like this we can hardly do anything.」
「It’s not like we’re limited to relying on him. There should be other avenues available for us.」
「Beside Arnold? Just who are you trying to move?」
Even though he was the heir of a Marquess House, Lancelot did not have that many connections to call on. If he tried to use his family’s resources again and failed once more, he would not be forgiven so he had to act with caution.
「I expect there to be many people wishing to remove Rion from the war, we just need to approach them.」
「I know that. But did you not say yourself that this alone would not be enough?」
「I only said that returning him to his territory won’t be enough. We need to strip him of his strength first.」
「What do you mean?」
「His army, obviously. We will take the Bandeaux Army from him.」
「That cannot possibly be done.」
「We don’t know until we try. Think about this. It’s not as though Rion is good at commanding. His true strength is that army that fights for him. So we’re going to steal it and make it our own. And once that is done, we’re certain to achieve much in the upcoming battles.」
For the first time in their relationship Maria showed Lancelot her real, wicked side and that astonished the young lord greatly. But she no longer felt she had the luxury of hiding it.
「Moreover, no matter how you think about it, that army of his really belongs to us. Do those four colors on their armor not represent the four elements? Should we not lead the groups that fit our attribute? Don’t you think that just sounds cool?」
「Y-Yeah. However, I am convinced we still need Arnold to make that come true.」
「His cooperation or lack of one doesn’t matter. He is a person bound by his position, no longer allowed to move to his heart’s desire. The problem is Charlotte. We need to do something about that woman.」
「…We need to pull Arnold back to our side.」
「That won’t be as interesting anymore. Doesn’t that woman have any older or younger brothers? We really need to have her recalled and replace her with the heir of the house.」
「That is not an option. Her brother is not nearly old enough to head to the battlefield.」
「Is that so… Then, we have no choice. I don’t want to use it but I guess it’s time to pull out my trump card.」
「That woman has a secret. She might be earnest on the surface but away from people’s eyes she had done very many terrible things.」
Maria’s trump card was the truth about the chastisements she had experienced. She was not the type to just let someone bully her and get away with it.
「…Is that so.」
Although he was curious for more details on the subject, Lancelot found the topic scary and he did not pry more. In that, he was right in a way. Knowing the truth would reveal that Maria deceived all of them and had, in fact, full knowledge that Ariel was not the real mastermind behind her chastisements.
But then again, since he had already seen Maria’s wicked side, he would just acknowledge that as a matter of the past.
「Rion is standing out too much. And the nails that stand out get hammered, you know? We will use those who consider him a nuisance to remove him from the war. And we can just say that we need the experience that his army represents. As long as Rion is a bother, if we just choose the right person any excuse will work.」
「You are right.」
「Erwin, did you catch all that? Stop just sitting there, brooding, you need to act too.」
The reason why Maria had shown them her wicked side was because she knew that they already reached a point at which they could no longer distance themselves from her. And her guess was correct. Regardless of what kind of woman Maria truly was, neither Lancelot nor Erwin could refuse to cooperate with her anymore. In fact, they would act more assertively to make her schemes come true.