“Heart to Heart.”
Rion Frey became a viscount. However rank was the only thing that changed in his life. His domain was still limited to Bandeaux and its borders remained unchanged. He might have been given a sizeable sum of money, but it was not sizeable enough to fund a new initiative within his land. On the whole, the reward he was given paled when compared to his war effort.
Not that Rion cared about this at all. His objective had been to raise his fame, within the capital at the very least, and that had been achieved. There was still the small matter of spreading the rumors and tying all this to Vincent, but that was for the members of Resist to accomplish.
He was actually more occupied with the question of when he would be allowed to return to his fief. The memorandum permitting his return was yet to arrive and he was stuck wasting time waiting for it.
「Hey, are you listening?」
For Rion, this might have been wasted, but it wasn’t so for other people. People like Charlotte.
「…Yes? What is it?」
「You really should pay more attention to your surroundings. The rumors regarding you are quite bad right now.」
「I’m sure Miss Charlotte is correct and I can guess where those rumors originated.」
「If you know this much, you should do something about it.」
「Why would I?」
「Why? It is all done to prevent you from achieving any more feats of arms, you know?」
「Miss Charlotte is very well informed, as expected of someone belonging to the three Houses.」
Charlotte wavered hearing that. Rion guessed that his observation likely wasn’t the only reason for that.
「I see. So your family is scheming too.」
「…They are. They do not listen to a word I say.」
「And it’s not the first time, right?」
Rion brought up the time when he had contacted Charlotte seeking help for clearing the false charges from Ariel and Vincent. For both of them, those memories were bitter.
「Thankfully, this time everything is going according to plan. So all is good.」
「I didn’t try to monopolize the merit for fame alone. I knew that once I tried to do that, other people would get worried enough to try removing me from the subjugation campaign. Which would let me go back to my domain and focus on governing.」
「So you did it on purpose?」
「And here I was worrying for you terribly.」
「Would it be so bad to tell me this beforehand?」
「….Tell Miss Charlotte?」
「Exactly. Tell me.」
Rion and Charlotte’s relationship was one in which both parties felt free to speak candidly with each other. Rion saw nothing unusual in this, but for people that knew his personality better, that kind of relationship was pretty special already. Due to this, it wasn’t exactly proper, but, at the same time, it wasn’t exactly improper. On balance, all things considered, they were forced to acknowledge that it probably was within the bounds of decorum.
「Hey, you, aren’t you getting overly familiar? You certainly have guts to say things like that in front of Lady Ariel.」
While Rion was at loss for words, Venus spoke up.
「Venus, not a word more. You’re now under a house arrest.」
「But wasn’t she rude?」
「…Not nearly as much as a commoner that addresses a Lady of a Marquess lineage with the words you used, don’t you think?」
He didn’t bother pointing out that the way she spoke to him, her liege, was as bad. It was way too late for that.
「My loyalty is for Lady Ariel alone, I don’t care for other people.」
「…Your house arrest period will be extended to a month.」
「You quite obviously haven’t reflected on your actions. Especially leaving the territory out of your own volition and commissioning those sets of armor.」
The guard-maids from Clan White had left the territory on their own once they had learned that the battle was over. That had been why they had been present to take part in the triumph.
And they commissioned the creation of those matching sets of armors out of frustration born from being told they would be useless on the battlefield.
「Didn’t it prove helpful in the end?」
「It did. But if I start excusing bad behavior just because the outcome somehow turned out to be alright, it would be unfair on those that are dutiful and work with dedication.」
「….Hmph, it’s for Lady Ariel’s sake.」
「And that kind of attitude is unacceptable. Listen to what I’m saying for once. Those who serve must be mindful of their liege’s reputation at all times. Furthermore, they have to be mindful of their own too. After all, if the servant has a bad attitude, it’s natural to expect the master to be as bad, if not worse. 」
「….To think that those kinds of words would come from Lord Rion.」
Venus only knew Rion as someone who paid no attention to what others thought of him, someone who was constantly being told to stop doing that.
「Well, I’m not a valet anymore.」
Rion was perfectly aware that this was how he had treated the world around him.
「I can’t imagine you as one. How was that even possible? 」
「No point trying to change the subject. A month of house arrest to commence once we return to Bandeaux.」
「How harsh. Even though we worked so hard to shape up and finally be of some use in the war.」
Since trying to change the subject by provoking Rion to anger failed, Venus changed tack and tried to evoke sympathy instead.
「People that show noticeable improvement with just a month of effort are amateurs and I have no use for those. Besides, all that you really managed to sharpen up is your appearance..」
And that too failed miserably.
「But a month is too long.」
「You reap what you sow. Furthermore…..」
Rion stopped talking mid-word and cocked his head.
An unexpected voice could be heard from the direction of the roof. Hearing the words, Rion relaxed visibly.
「See? You’re not useful at all.」
「You didn’t even notice we are surrounded. I was worried we were about to be attacked, but thankfully it’s just an acquaintance.」
「There are that many of them?…」
Rion’s explanation made Venus terribly depressed. She was also vexed by the apparent contrast between her and Chandra, who was properly discharging his duty.
But there was no time for consolation. There was much disturbance near the door and Rion could think of only one person capable of causing such disruption.
And soon after, the Crown Prince entered. He was not on his own, though. Unexpectedly he was accompanied by Sol who, while a Royal Guard, was not assigned to Arnold. This meant that there was a reason for both of them to be here.
「I never expected to meet His Highness in this kind of place.」
Rion rose from his seat and moved to welcome the Prince. There was a hint of malice in his words.
「I do apologize for intruding. There is a matter that brooks no delay, as well as topics that cannot be discussed in the palace.」
Arnold didn’t seem to mind. He answered without touching on Rion’s attitude.
「…Did something serious happen?」
「Serious… No, not really. On the whole, the matter is rather silly.」
「Highness came all this way to discuss something… Silly?」
「I failed to prevent this from happening. This makes the matter partially my responsibility and demands I offer an apology.」
「…Could we start with some explanations, perhaps?」
「Ah, yes. The date for your return to Bandeaux has been set. You will, however, be ordered to leave your retinue behind.」
Rion could not comprehend the intention behind the order, even for harassment, this went too far. Protection of the Kingdom was the task of the army and the knights, retinues were meant to protect domains of the nobles. In the rare case they would be needed at war, their liege-lord would have absolute authority.
In this kind of reality, a country that demands that a noble hands over his retinue could only be called unjust and tyrannical.
「There is an excuse, of course. “Viscount Frey must return to his fief as keeping him away from his domain for this long is bound to have a negative impact on the governance and stability. However, his retinue must remain as it has valuable experience in fighting the devil forces and its departure at this time would be an irreplaceable loss to the Kingdom’s effort.”」
「…Pure sophistry. There’s some truth to the argument, but the order is, nevertheless, fundamentally unjust. And yet it was approved.」
「Correct on all counts.」
「Is it binding? How do they plan to enforce it?」
「It is not and, to be precise, they do not. But any veto on your part shall require certain bureaucratic formalities. I expect them to prove unusually troublesome and abnormal in your case.」
「Will it now…」
He would have to argue with those that were harassing him, after all. In normal circumstances, this would not be something that required any procedures. But this scheme was backed by Charlotte’s family, House Fatillas, and, most likely, House Aqusmea too.
Even backed by reason, tradition, and law, Rion would have his work cut out for him.
「My sincere apologies. I argued for our future war effort to be centered around you, but my proposal was rejected.」
「…Surely, that would not be acceptable.」
Rion was barely holding himself back from asking Arnold if he understood what adding fuel to the fire was all about.
Arnold started to speak again but soon hesitated as if he couldn’t make himself say something.
「…The memorandum was already acknowledged.」
「Acknowledged? I don’t recall knowing any of this before now?」
「…Not by you.」
The Crown Prince couldn’t force himself to tell the story to its conclusion, but Rion figured out the rest on his own.
「Ah. I see. The Six Clans of Bandeaux agreed.」
「We would never!」
Venus objected loudly, as a member of Clan White she could not leave Rion’s words unchallenged.
「…Five Clans, then?」
Now Chandra refuted his Lord’s statement.
「…Four then. Not entirely surprising, I doubt that the existence of Clans White and Black is widely known.」
「I doubt that happened intentionally, your retainers were likely tricked with sly words.」
Arnold tried defending the Clans feeling that aura around Rion turned dangerous.
「…Whatever the case, I do not mind. They have their own goals, they are free to do whatever they feel necessary to achieve them.」
In Arnold’s eyes, Rion was just pretending to be tough.
「When will the memorandum arrive?」
「It should be served tomorrow, which is why I sought to meet you in such haste.」
「Then I guess tomorrow is when I’ll go. Finally able to return to my fief…」
「I must ask you to wait.」
This was when Sol joined the discussion. He did, after all, have a reason to be here.
「I was ordered to take my unit with you to the Bandeaux. The order was so sudden that we are not yet prepared for departure.」
「…Your unit? Whatever for?」
「Two reasons – to supplement the defenses of Bandeaux while your retinue is away and to learn from Viscount Frey.」
「…Oh? And how much will I be compensated for this?」
「Are you expecting to be tutored for free?」
「…You want… Payment?」
「I don’t really need money, but I do not like to be taken for granted either.」
「I received an order.」
「Orders this, orders that. Do your orders justify everything? It’s not my problem that your superiors didn’t consider other involved parties. It’s really amusing to see them expect everyone to just fall in line.」
Outwardly, Rion pretended to be unaffected, but internally he was seething with rage. And Sol was a very convenient target to vent some of it.
「Orders. Hmph. Fine, I’ll play along. You may leave if you have no more business with me.」
「Oh, right, since His Highness is here, I should be the one to go. Do excuse the lapse of manners. I bid you good day, sirs.」
This particular lodging house was one of those belonging to Rion, still, he rose and left just like he had said he would. No one followed him. No one but Ariel.
But even she was at the limits of her patience and had something to say before she went.
「I have told sir Sol before that Rion trusts no one, yet yarns for somebody to believe, haven’t I?」
Her anger was also focused on Sol.
「…You have, milady.」
「The reason for my husband’s lack of trust is a crippling fear of betrayal. But even though Rion is like that, he still tries to gather the courage to reach out. So, why? Why is this world so cold to him?」
「That’s not something I can….」
「Sir understands nothing and thus has no right to serve under my husband. What sir sees is just the surface, that is no different from any other person.」
After saying this, Ariel followed Rion out of the building.
To be fair, Ariel’s words weren’t targeted at Sol specifically and anyone that knew all the circumstances would be able to see that. But the knight did not have that kind of knowledge and struggled to find sense in her words.
Her words did wound him though and completely deflated his mood.
「”The world is cold towards Rion.” …I never thought about it that way.」
Charlotte mused on this unexpected fact. By this point, Rion had managed to grow to superhuman stature in her eyes. She saw him as someone that could do anything and he was indeed talented enough to give people that impression. But if one really thought about what he had achieved so far, the only desire he managed to fulfill was Ariel.
And even that came with a price steep enough that Charlotte couldn’t say with certainty that the two of them were happy.
「Truthfully, Ariel is no different. She gave everything to be a perfect fiance for the Crown Prince, only to be repaid with loathing and a betrayal of the worst kind.」
Arnold picked up the thread of Charlotte’s thought. But those words were less about Ariel and more about his regret and that made Charlotte flustered.
「Your Highness… Do you still love her?」
「That is no longer the case. Not entirely, at least. I still have some feelings for her, but I shall not let them coax me into something unbecoming again.」
「If so, why mention her circumstances?」
「…I just wonder. How can they understand each other so well. How could they do it when Vincent was still with them. What bonded those three so strongly… I just wonder, what do they have that we miss?」
Arnold, as he was in the present, had no trusted companions. It became obvious to him that all those strong relationships he thought he had built were but illusions. And that made him admire the relationship between those three even more,
「…That, Highness, is something I would like to know too. 」
Charlotte’s thoughts were somewhat different to Arnold’s. She’s wondering what she should to do to make Rion accept her more, even if just a little, and how could she ever understand him just like Ariel.
「Rion is an impossible goal, you know. Trying to tear those two apart will end up turning you into another sorry me.」
「…I plan nothing of the sort, highness. After all, I have tried such a thing before.」
「You have what?」
「I have tried to disrupt the relationship between Your Highness and Miss Ariel. Maria’s chastisements were instigated by me in a way that would put blame on your former fiance.」
「…That… In other words…」
This sudden confession shook Arnold to the core. Until now, he had viewed Charlotte as the only upright member of their group and now he knew how wrong he had been.
「I was part of that tragedy. I also have Vincent’s blood on my hands.」
「So that was the case……」
「I this is why I wish to save them from further betrayal. I want to be their ally, even if they will not have me. That is my way of atonement, Highness.」
「I hear you. 」
While Charlotte and Arnold renewed their resolve, Rion and Ariel headed towards the slums. That place, one he faced death in multiple times, was the only refuge where he could find peace.
Once he was noticed by the locals, some of them tried to approach but were warned away by Ariel. Rion’s bad mood was rather noticeable and it was clearly one of those times when it was better to let the demons sleep. So they sent her off with a smile and commiserated through hand signals.
Rion couldn’t fail to notice that, of course.
「Was my mood actually that bad?」
The question was a clear indication that he had actually calmed down.
「Yes, it was. Really, really sour in fact. Anywhere particular you were heading to?」
「…Nowhere really. 」
「Shall we go to a brothel in that case? We could be alone in there for a bit.」
「I… Isn’t it too bright for that?」
With this, there was no more anger in Rion’s heart. He couldn’t really keep raging while alone with her.
「So daytime with me is not good? 」
Ariel started to needle Rion.
「….Not at all. We are discussing a brothel, though.」
「Hmm, I guess Rion is right. I would not want my groans to be heard by people I know.」
「…Really, Ari, you should stop saying things like that.」
As usual, Rion would start to complain as soon as Ariel turned even slightly indecent. After all, he didn’t have much more to complain about.
「Why would I??」
「Because Ariel is a woman I yearn for.」
「I am your wife, silly.」
「Even if you’re my wife, I still want you to remain as the woman I yearn for.」
「A woman Rion yearns for… What kind of woman is that?」
「One just like Ariel.」
Grabbing a hold of Rion’s cheeks with both of her hands, Ariel brought her face closer to his. Without a shred of care about the fact they were being watched. And then, as their lips intertwined, she embraced his head.
She was doing this on purpose. She knew perfectly well that people would make fun of Rion as a result and she wanted him to remember this warmth of slum dwellers.
For all the good and all the bad, slums were the place Rion had originated from. Nobody was conscious of this more than her.