“Return To Bandeaux.”
The journey back to Bandeaux was considerably harsher than the amateurish attempt at marching practice. Rion was forcing a very fast pace on everybody since the Royal Guard presence meant he couldn’t stop at the settlements along the way to check on the situation of the Resist members there like he would usually do.
Not being able to do his work for the organization, he decided to return to Camargue as quickly as humanly possible to resume the government duties instead. The result was a forced march that was harsh on the Royal Guard squires and even harder on Clan White’s warrior-maids. It was natural for those girls to suffer more, not only was their constitution weaker but they had much less training in their life.
And unfortunately for them, Rion treated this journey as a way to make up for the latter deficiency and applied himself earnestly to the task. Most of the time, he pushed them on with a barrage of harsh words, but whenever it looked like they were about to break he offered warm words of reassurance and comfort. He balanced the two so well that even Venus couldn’t complain about their treatment. Eventually, all the girls, miss Weiss excepted, started to get attached to Rion as a result.
Ariel wasn’t blind to that, of course. Whenever she spotted a girl whose level of affection for Rion rose visibly, she cracked down hard mercilessly hammering down all the nails that stood out with harsh warnings and strict treatment. She was now certain that, at the very least, she would have to be on her guard once they returned to Bandeaux.
After all, Rion had vices that even she could do nothing about. He might have had no interest in women that weren’t her, but he still had that outrageous tendency to entertain any girl determined to get close regardless.
He was an easy target for them due to his lack of recognition of the merit in different approaches to handling women, something that Ariel found mortifying. Being of noble birth, her private feelings aside, Ariel, as a wife, was fairly tolerant of the idea of her husband’s relationships with other women. The problem was Rion’s complete lack of self-awareness in situations like this one, regardless of how angry she got with him. He saw no connection between how he treated other women and how he treated her, a stance that brought her an equal amount of worry and joy.
And, this small digression aside, this was how Rion’s group happened to return to Bandeaux at an astonishing pace.
「…That’s, kind of, amazing.」
Rion said this to nobody in particular upon seeing how busy Camargue had become.
「Is this fief not yours?」
「Eh? It is. Obviously.」
「How can you be surprised by this if that is so?」
「Maybe because I’ve been away for waaay toooo looong and the place is much livelier than it was when I left it.」
Rion had put a strong emphasis on “way too long”. Sol shrugged it off since that had nothing to do with him. And besides, from the Royal Guardsman’s point of view, Rion, like all nobles, belonged to the Kingdom.
「…I guess this place does not need its Lord.」
He was not the type to stay mum after being told off either.
「Does it not look like so?」
「…That’s tantamount to saying that the country itself does not need its king.」
「I do not recall phrasing it like that?」
「Still, it’s one and the same in the end. It’s rather surprising to discover that the Royal Guard entertains such extreme ideas.」
「…This conversation is over」
「As you wish.」
The two of them squabbled in this manner for an uncountable number of times now. It would take a lot more for their relationship to improve.
The squabble with Sol over, for now, Rion returned his attention to his domain again.
The main road was so busy that a person remembering Camargue from before couldn’t be faulted for doubting they have arrived at the correct destination. There were also many shops Rion saw for the first time. Although the way Sol phrased it was incredibly irritating, Rion was actually very happy that the restoration of Bandeaux kept proceeding apace even without him.
「…You seem happy.」
Sol mused without enthusiasm. This was a conscious action. He figured that since nobody else was trying to start a conversation with Rion, he should be the one to do so.
「Won’t disagree. When I saw this town for the first time, it was nothing like this.」
「So you are not only a good commander, but a good ruler too.」
「Am I? As you said yourself – cities can grow even without a Lord. All it takes is dedication and effort from the citizens.」
Sol had figured out some time ago that as long as he prodded Rion into a conversation, without fear of the inevitable barbs that would come his way, he would, eventually, get this kind of response. An unfiltered response, one coming from Rion talking without concern for social standing – Rion that dazzled more than usual.
「Oh? They came to greet us.」
Rion’s gaze rested on a group of people not far off in front of them. They were not the residents of the castle – it was Folz and the employees of his establishment. Sol did not know them but could guess from Rion’s reaction that they were of the rare kind Rion was not wary of.
「Welcome back, boss.」
「I am back indeed. Sorry for pulling you off work, you seem busy.」
「Not at all. We had just finished accommodating a guest that booked lodgings, we have a free moment.」
「Is that so. Seems that the things here turned out great, somehow.」
「Apparently there’s a rumor making rounds that this is the safest place in the Kingdom right now. It seems it just developed on its own.」
This meant that this particular rumor was not instigated by Resist. It was true, though, that Bandeaux not only had the safest road to the capital but also was the safest place to trade with neighboring countries.
「…Really. I see that the number of shops had increased too.」
「Didn’t you order that, boss?」
「I guess I did.」
It was true that Rion had ordered new businesses to be proactively ordered and supported but he had never expected his policy to be this successful. To be fair, it had not been the only, or even the main, contributing factor behind the growth of commerce. It happened mostly because Camargue was perceived as the safest location for people to gather.
「A town where you can get unusual things safely. This is how Camargue is now seen.」
「Exotic food, live animals, farming implements… Many things are being sold here. So many, in fact, it’s impossible to list them all. Best if boss goes to look around by himself.」
「Alright. I’ll do just that, then. Anyhow, I have so many things that I want to talk about but I don’t want to hinder your work. I’ll come visit again later.」
Hearing these words everybody in the group started to complain at once. They had not seen him for a long time now and all of them had much they wished to talk about.
In the end, Rion, somehow, managed to pacify them and depart. He too had duties to return to as soon as possible. While he did have some information about the state of things during his absence, there surely were many things he had no knowledge of.
「….Can I ask you a strange question?」
Again, Sol initiated a conversation with Rion.
「About those women from earlier. Are they…..」
「…You mean their jobs?」
「I do. Not that I have anything against their occupation, by no means. I just noticed you seemed to be close to similar women back in the capital as well.」
What Sol was referring to was the scene during the triumphal parade. Rion had been welcomed by denizens of the slums and their number naturally included prostitutes. Sol couldn’t fail to notice their enthusiasm as they had surrounded Rion back then.
「Well… I’m acquainted with many people.」
「I guess you are indeed.」
「But if you have to know, I never entertained any of them. There is no connection between us.」
Rion started to make excuses so that Sol wouldn’t get a wrong idea, but he said too much. The knight was a bright guy, he would obviously start to wonder what kind of relationship could there be if it was not the typical patronage.
「…What makes them love you so much if that is so?」
And obviously, Sol was the type to ask that kind of question straight on. This was just one of many things he wished to learn of Rion.
「Well… It’s that, I guess.」
He couldn’t possibly tell Sol that he was actually the boss of the brothel’s head. That alone wouldn’t be a problem, but if Sol managed to connect the dots to the wider Underground, things would turn complicated.
「…Prostitutes fostered me. Makes sense, right?」
This was a lie thought out on the spot. However, it was based on a grain of truth. Rion knew for a fact that his actual foster parent was a woman and there weren’t many job opportunities for a female in the slum.
「…You were raised by a prostitute?」
This was outside Sol’s expectations. He asked the question with eyes wide from surprise.
「Do you consider that a bad thing?」
「Ah no, not really.」
「Spare me hollow denials. I remember people looking at me with eyes like yours ever since I became aware of my surroundings. It’s not hard for me to spot contempt in others.」
Rion said this while indicating at his eyes. The opprobrium associated with being raised by a prostitute was nothing compared to what faced those with heterochromia.
「…Is that so.」
It wasn’t really Sol’s fault those kinds of understandings kept happening. He couldn’t really imagine what kind of things Rion had gone through in his childhood, but he was slowly beginning to comprehend how the boy’s complicated character came to be.
They were welcomed once again before they managed to reach castle gates, this time by the castle staff. To Rion, this was surprising, there shouldn’t have been any retainer left in there that would go out of their way to welcome him.
And those weren’t the retainers, but the guests – Jan and the others.
「Oh? So this is what it takes to get me this kind of treatment? I have to go away for a while?」
「There’s no time for bad humor, Rion.」
Rion’s attempt at a joke fell flat in front of Sept.
「No time? Why the rush?」
Clan Black should have informed him of any emergencies, yet no such report reached him.
「We had been visited by an envoy.」
「Envoy? To make it here before us… That’s really quick.」
Rion’s first reaction was to expect that the envoy was from the capital.
「Think again. The messenger came from Orcus.」
Sept’s reply came so far out of the left field that it took a good while for Rion to process it.
「Our neighbor, Kingdom of Orcus, sent us an envoy..」
「Why on earth…?」
「To announce the visit of friendship from their prince.」
「…That …Makes no sense whatsoever. Shouldn’t that kind of diplomacy be conducted in the capital?」
「I don’t know their reasons. And whatever they are, it’s on us anyway since he’s coming to Camargue.」
「Ah, hold on. Where is that envoy right now?」
「He hurried back to Orcus to inform them of your return.」
「Without attempting to confirm that I agree to this?」
「…I guess so.」
Sept had blundered by allowing this to happen, but then he had never studied to be a diplomat He chanced into the role by having nothing better to do when Bandeaux needed someone to send to neighboring kingdoms to discuss the demon invasion.
Trying to blame him here would be overly harsh, so Rion didn’t even try.
「Sorry. But to be honest, we had no clue how to proceed. After all, it’s an official visit from a foreign country, by a royal at that.」
「…Which is why you’re all here waiting for me like this. I thought there must have been a reason.」
「And you were right. The envoy has been awaiting your return for a long time now. Hearing that you have come back must have lit fire under his feet, bound to happen I guess.」
「We have to hasten the preparations in that case. Let’s have… Ariel take charge of things. She’s the most knowledgeable in this area.」
「…So be it, I shall try.」
Ariel did have some knowledge regarding social occasions, but it did not extend to the nuances of diplomacy. Hence, she was not fully confident. Nevertheless, she knew very well she would do a better job than if they had to rely on commoners, so she accepted the charge.
「And you mister royal guard. You help too.」
「Escorting prestigious guests is a part of a royal guard duty, no? You should know what to do.」
「You may be technically correct, but do you not think escorting and preparing a reception are two completely different things?」
「Ah stop complaining already, there’s no one here that knows more than you about the subject.」
「…I am a knight.」
「Don’t care. I won’t accept no for an answer.」
「…I will accept no blame if this fails.」
「That’s fine. Then the two of you… Wait, two of you? Don’t even think about any funny business with Ariel. You got that?」
「Like I would do such a thing」
「Haa? What’s with that tone? Are you trying to say Ariel has no charms?」
「And just how do you expect me to answer that?」
Sol knew that trying to deny would just lead straight back to Rion complaining about his potential advances on Ariel and that, in cases like this, the correct choice was to give no answer at all.
「…I guess I’ll let you off. I’d like to know what kind of business brings the prince here, but it’s too late for investigations and we don’t really know how good they are in dealing with foreign spies.」
He didn’t have to add that this matter didn’t warrant putting Clan Black personnel in danger and he didn’t actually have the authority for any kind of serious negotiations. He was sure that the Kingdom of Orcus knew the latter too, so, on the whole, it really might be a visit of friendship.
「I guess we’ll do some sleuthing once they are here. There are many more tools at our disposal on the home ground.」
This concluded the matter for time being. There was much more Rion wanted to learn, but he decided to wait with asking until they got to a conference room. In the end, despite just coming back he spent his day as busily as usual.
The meeting Rion desired couldn’t start immediately as there were various distractions to clear first. Distractions like:
「I apologize, Lord」
Mercury bowed down deeply, begging forgiveness as soon as Rion entered the room. The young Frey had absolutely no idea why.
「…Did you do something bad?」
「Eh? Ah, no, Lord. I’ve caused no problems myself.」
「Why apologize then?」
「Because of my father’s… Betrayal.」
The fact that Kiel and the other clan heads chose to separate from Rion and continue taking part in the subjugation wars had reached the locals already. Mercury took that as a betrayal.
「Betrayal is a big word, you know?」
「They started acting on their own and separated from you Lord. That’s clearly a betrayal.」
「They can’t afford to go against a royal order. Even I understand and acknowledge that.」
There was one more reason for Mercury’s behavior – he was unsettled by the fact his father and the rest were just meekly following the Crown’s will. The same Clan Blue that should be aiming for independence was now working for the benefit of the overlord. He suspected self-interest behind this and the fact he rebelled against such a motive highlighted his young age.
「Believe me when I say this, for I know that much – Kiel, at the very least, has not betrayed me.」
「I have investigated both the Clan Head’s reasons and the circumstances that led to their decision. They do not share a common goal, nevertheless, Kiel did what he did with Bandeaux in mind. This is no betrayal.」
「…Did he really.」
Mercury showed signs of relief hearing those words. He did not honestly believe that his father had betrayed Rion. However, because he was not privy to reasons behind Kiel’s decision, he had no explanation to offer. So now that Rion had hinted at the motivation and demanded no clarifications, Mercury felt relief.
「There’s really no reason to stretch it as far as betrayal. I expect them to return immediately once their mission is over.」
「I understand, Lord.」
Actually, Rion thought that none of the Heads committed treason. What he said was designed to dissolve the worries of clan members remaining in the Barony. However, he had also purposefully avoided going into details of what he had found out when he had investigated the issue.
The reason why the clan leaders went along with Maria and the Crown Prince was the simple fact they finally understood the reality of their situation. They might have been unmatched in the demon subjugation wars so far, but interacting with the Knights and the Army forced them to accept a cold, harsh truth – they would never win a full-on war against such a force. They had feared so before, yet still dared to hope anyway, but this mission woke them up from the daydream. Independence for Bandeaux was impossible.
Having been forced to face the hard truth and figure out a new way forward, they split into two camps.
One party, headed by Apollo and Cassius, advocated elevating the status of Bandeaux as a Kingdom member through military achievements under the Crown Prince.
Kiel, on the other hand, advocated leaving the future of the territory in the hands of Rion and the next generation. Mohit agreed with this proposition.
They went along with Apollo’s plan with relations between Rion and the young clansmen in mind. Kiel aside, relationship the Clan Heads had with Rion was frosty at best and didn’t seem to be improving with time. Therefore, if the young Frey was to put down roots in Bandeaux, the distractions caused by the old guard had to be removed. Having them separated by hundreds of miles of distance would be a good start and would definitely help his interactions with the upcoming generation of the clansmen.
This had been what Rion had found out about the matter. All four of them, in their own way, had done what they thought best for Bandeaux, so their deed could not be called treason. However the split in their intentions could not be made known publicly, or it might affect unity of the clans at home. Something Rion was acutely aware of.
「With that cleared, can we start the meeting now?」
「Yes Lo–, hmm?」
Mercury’s eyes, for the first time today, rested on Sol. That was because the knight was following Rion exactly in the place Mercury should occupy as a personal guard.
「…Who are you?」
「Ah, true, I have not yet introduced myself. Sol Aristes, Royal Guard..」
「A Royal Guardsman!?」
Mercury’s eyes opened wide like saucers, he had obviously misunderstood.
「Not my guard. He was sent here by the Crown.」
Rion explained in order to clear the confusion away.
「Ah, so that was the case. That’s obvious, I am Lord Rion’s guard, after all.」
Mercury was visibly relieved, but Sol picked up the conversation.
「…You? A personal guard of Viscount Frey?」
「What? Do you have complaints to make?」
「Do you even have the ability to actually be of use in that role?」
「Are you strong enough to protect him? Smart enough to offer suggestions? And before all that, does he even trust you enough to accept you in this role?」
「…Like you have any right to ask those questions!」
Not being able to refute any of the questions, all that Mercury could do was to yell.
「But I do. I am a personal guard to the royal family, the best of the best. I cannot stomach someone unworthy laying a claim to the profession.」
「…Do not just decide my worth on your own.」
「Prove me wrong then.」
「Bring it on! Let’s have a duel! I’ll make you recognize my strength!」
「Oh, by all means! I will teach you the folly of proclaiming yourself a personal guard on your own!」
The two of them became increasingly fired up as the conversation progressed, but Rion just wanted to start the conference already and, for him, this was nothing but a bother.
「Can this wait? Or can you take this elsewhere, at least? I have a serious meeting to conduct here.」
So he just coldly interrupted their verbal joust.
And just like this, the duel was postponed. It had no meaning for Mercury without Rion present to acknowledge his prowess. Sol’s actual feelings were the same, even though the Knight did not realize it himself.