“The Neighbor’s Envoy”
The day of the duel between Mercury and Sol had arrived. Actually, “duel” was too grand of a word, as there was no contest to be had. Mercury may have been a prodigy with only a couple of rivals in Bandeaux within his generation, but the opponent this time was too difficult for him and the fight was settled almost instantly.
Sol was among the handpicked elites of the Royal Guard, one predicted to soon take the seat of the strongest in the organization. There was no way Mercury would be able to win against him.
At present time, of course. If the young Blau were to diligently polish his skills and push himself, it was very likely he would reach, or even surpass, Sol’s level. After all, his father, Kiel, was still presently stronger than the guardsman.
The current difference between them came from the fact that one simply trained his swordsmanship every day like a young man belonging to a powerful family would and the other was trained with the assumption that war could break out at any moment. To put it simply, it was the difference between a military man and a civilian. Mercury and his group still were naive in certain ways.
Sol called out to Rion once the duel was over.
「Hmm? What’s the matter?」
「How can you even ask? I am aware that you are busy but how about actually watching the contests involving your subordinates?」
Although Rion was present at the place of the bout, he spent that time reading correspondence. And Sol was rebuking him for that.
「You know, having improved a little bit over the past months, I’m no longer blind to obvious differences in skill. The outcome was clear before you even started.」
「Even if that is the case, is watching the battles of your vassals not your duty as their lord?」
「I agreed to this exercise to force Mercury to confront reality. It was never about the battle itself, hence watching it was pointless.」
Rion agreed to this farce so that the new generation of clansmen would not falter upon seeing the actual might of the Kingdom when they grew up like their fathers did. If, having confronted the truth, they decided to continue their quest for independence nevertheless, he would accept their decision. After all, who was he to laugh at impossible dreams? His objective was equally reckless.
「How much longer are you planning to mope?」
「Lord… I, as your guard…」
「You should know by now that I don’t need guards to fight for me in battle. I need them to plug in any openings I expose while fighting. And that can be done even by taking the blow with your body.」
Rion might have said this casually, but this was tantamount to declaring that all he needed were disposable meatshields. This was not a role easily accepted.
「Understood, Lord! I will not hesitate to offer my life!」
However, Mercury replied immediately, almost as if saying that it was an appropriate role for him.
「With this you have no more reasons to feel downhearted, correct?」
Mercury’s face instantly turned from depression to delight. He took Rion’s words as being finally recognized as his personal guard.
「Then proceed to the next contest. Mock engagement, a hundred cavalry each. Go make preparations.」
「A Cavalry Battle? Understood! Hey! It’s a mock battle! Prepare the horses!」
Mercury began instructing the members of his squad with enthusiasm and the place immediately turned busy.
「So you think that he is going to win when it comes to a cavalry clash?」
「Who knows? It’s been quite some time since I’ve last seen them in action, with me being away and all that. I don’t know to what extent they have improved themselves.」
「…Assuming they did, what then?」
「Then it’ll be your turn to confront reality.」
Rion saying this much made it clear just how strong was the cavalry of Bandeaux was, Sol suddenly felt he was tensing up.
「…I see. Even if they are young, they are still warriors of Bandeaux, huh?」
「You should prepare too. I’m looking forward to this match. I plan to watch it carefully. Very carefully.」
「…I am not your vassal.」
「True. But I thought you tagged along to learn things, no? This means I have to see what you lack. Unless you plan to do nothing and just observe passively?」
「…Fine. Do not look away for an instant, you shall see we are nothing like we were at Nyegert.」
After all, Sol hadn’t just remained idle after seeing how the Bandeaux retinue fought. He had trained the squires to make them maneuver as well as the clans, if not better.
The time he had them practice may have been rather short, but Sol was confident that they had improved considerably. He saw today as a perfect opportunity to show Rion their progress, the prospect fired him up and made him long for the battlefield.
He had, however, forgotten what Rion said to his retinue when they had been practicing independent squad marching – that the young clansmen under Mercury had already been capable of this feat. And his immediate opponents would be exactly those young clansmen.
「Don’t stop! Go right, full speed!」
Sol was ardently commanding the riders attached to him, but his squad didn’t move as instructed. When the clansmen split into two groups going left and right, the confused squires, at a loss who to follow, briefly halted their horses.
At that moment their opponents wheeled around and attacked them. With the horses still, the royal guards were an easy target and pierced from two sides lost member after member under the blows of training spears.
「Shake them off! Just go forward!」
Sol’s orders were already too late. As his remaining troops attempted to follow, the clansmen blocked the way throwing the formation further into chaos.
Exploiting the situation, Mercury’s subordinates penetrated the gaps between the ranks of their enemies. Now, even though the fight started as an equal numbers contest, the squires felt like they were facing an enemy many times their number.
The clansmen, now split into many smaller squads, were tearing up the remaining slivers of organized resistance and the squire squad could no longer keep order. All of them, confused and milling around at a standstill were successively taken out.
「Scatter at once! We will reform at..!」
This instruction as well was already too late. Even if his riders managed to scatter and reform, there were hardly any of them left.
「The match is over! Mercury’s Unit wins!」
Rion’s voice reverberated across the field. Sol understood quickly that Rion was being considerate by stopping the fight before his group got completely eliminated. Nevertheless, he couldn’t lose any much harder anyway.
The words the Viscount spoke to him before this match proved more than true and Sol now understood how inexperienced his unit actually was.
「…So, how was it?」
Rion came over to question the dejected Sol without holding back.
「Exactly as you just saw.」
「Yeah, and it was an utter defeat. But it’s not the essence of my question. What are you going to do the next time? Will you try the same strategy? Invent a new one to counter what they did?」
「…A bit too early for reflections.」
「Eh? You have no thoughts on the subject?」
「The battle has only just ended after all.」
Sol thought that Rion was simply poking fun at his loss. Of course, Rion was not the type to waste time on such worthless pursuits when he was serious.
「You really haven’t given this any thought when it became clear you were going to lose?」
「When the outcome was clear, halfway through the encounter, did you really not even try to analyze your opponent in case you met them again? You sure give up easily.」
「I guess you are of no use at all then. And here I was thinking of using whatever you have come up with as a reference.」
This gave Sol a shock even stronger than the fact that he had lost to Mercury’s group. It revealed that Rion was always thinking of the future, no matter what situation he found himself in. Even if he lost once, he wouldn’t give up and instead start preparing to win next time. This was, honestly, not any kind of special way of thinking, but Sol was sure that not many in the Kingdom’s army actually diligently cultivated this kind of mindset.
He had an order from the Knight Commander to learn from Rion, but, in reality, that was something he wished too. His goal was to learn from Rion and surpass the youth one day. However, now he suddenly realized he might be unable to do that the way he currently was.
At the same time, he felt that he could now roughly understand how did the young men of Bandeaux feel. Would he really of use to Rion himself? It was hard to serve someone when those thoughts lingered in your mind. Even harder for people who had previously had some confidence in themselves.
He also knew that coming to that realization wasn’t exactly a good thing.
「We will figure out a way to win. You can be assured of that.」
Never giving up. That mindset, Rion’s mindset, was the important thing.
「Is that so? Well, do your best I guess. Let me just tell you this – their current way of fighting has not matured yet. It’s rather hard to explain how would its final form look, just know it’s not this. That much is clear to me.」
And that too. The phrase “acceptable” didn’t belong in Rion’s vocabulary. He was always thinking how to improve the current for the better. So while Sol tried to catch up, Rion would power forward with all his might. He was a tough target to chase.
「…If that is really the case, then I vow I shall surpass that final form too.」
But even so, Sol still answered with confidence. Simply pondering difficulties of the task would not do anything to help him achieve his goal.
「Oh, so that’s how it is, eh? I wonder what ideas will you come up with. I guess I will also have to work hard not to lose. The first thing to do is to see the problem, and from there….」
And just like that Rion was again lost for the World, locked deep into his thoughts. Sol could only watch that with a mix of complex feelings on his face – reverence, dread, astonishment, and uneasiness.
The envoy of friendship from Orcus came earlier than expected. This was a troublesome development for Rion and the others. Especially because only twenty days had passed since the announcement of his impending arrival. There was just not enough time to carefully prepare the reception.
In the end, they had given up on formalities and received him like any other normal guest. At the end of the day, the visitor himself was partly to blame. If they still had the nerve to complain despite that, there would be no hope for any cooperation from the very beginning. Which would be counter to basic rules of foreign diplomacy.
Thankfully, it didn’t really become a problem. At the very least, the envoy himself was very understanding of the situation.
「My sincere apologies for the suddenness of the visit.」
「Please, no need for that. But we absolutely have to apologize for not receiving the honored guest with proper decorum.」
This kind of start to the visit made everyone on the Bandeaux side feel relieved.
「I am Alexander Dante, the second prince of the Orcus Kingdom.」
「And I am Rion Frey, steward of Bandeaux on behalf of His Majesty the King.」
In the self-introduction that followed, the visitor had named himself as the second prince of Orcus. Knowing for certain now that they were indeed hosting royalty raised the tension of Rion’s entourage once more. It was likely that this caliber of a guest was a harbinger of bad things to come. Alexander’s next words, however, blew that worry out of the water.
「In that case, calling you Rion sounds appropriate.」
「It would not do for a friend to be strictly formal and call you Viscount Frey.」
「For a friend, you say…」
「Oh, you do have a sense of humor. That is most excellent.」
At the end of this exchange, the prince was beaming a most delighted smile and Rion was not smiling at all. He wasn’t bothered by the over-familiar attitude, but he wasn’t pleased by being called a Viscount. They might have been neighbors, but there was no reason for Orcus to take so much of an interest in a minor noble from across the border to even know about his very recent promotion. Obviously, he had been investigated.
「Now that your highness’ wit dispelled the tension of everyone present, may we know the reason behind this visit?」
「…Oh now, why be in such a rush?」
「A sudden, unexpected, visit from foreign royalty raises a specter of all kinds of bad things. While this might be impertinent of us, knowing your highness’ intentions is the only way to assuage everyone’s worries.」
While Rion did want to learn the purpose, right now he was simply using it as an excuse to speed up the talks.
「Were you not told I would come as a gesture of friendship?」
「We were, highness. But none of us are diplomats, we can’t help worrying about the less obvious motives.」
「Mhm. Is that so.」
Even professional diplomats wouldn’t have the luxury to just take that reason at a face value. Orcus kingdom was in a formal alliance with the Gran Flamm kingdom. For this reason, it made no sense for them to single out a Viscount to deepen relations with. Prince Alexander had to have an objective that he could not raise in public.
「Have we had enough time, we would have called for someone fitting from the capital to keep your highness company. Does highness wish us to do so anyway, perhaps?」
「No, no, the matter is nowhere near as serious. We simply wish to solidify relations, or rather, to be more precise, display our gratitude.」
「You see, towns on our side of the border are also experiencing rapid growth, albeit not to the same extent as Camargue. And this is mainly to your prompt action on maintaining safety of the roads.」
「A matter where your country’s cooperation is deeply appreciated, highness.」
「Well, compared to the hardships frequent demon appearances place on this land, we are not really doing all that much.」
「…Frequent demon appearances on “this” land?」
There was something strange with the way Alexander phrased his reply, so Rion repeated those words as a question.
「Oh, do you not know?」
Fortunately for Rion, that was something that the prince didn’t really need to hide and he did not have to strike an unwelcome bargain for the information.
「Demons don’t appear in the lands of Orcus, do they?」
「The situation in the Hashu Kingdom is the same, isn’t it?」
「I am unable to offer you much detail on that, but I have not heard of any casualties over there.」
Rion wanted to mull over this fact right at this instant, but the situation did not allow for his usual habit of sinking deep into his thoughts.
「That is why, thanks to your actions, the trade routes shifted and go through our country now. The Merica Kingdom is apparently trying to have its border lords adapt and adjust accordingly, but, apparently, it does not go well. When it starts, though, it will bring us trouble.」
「That is true. But this kind of situation will not persist forever. The demon subjugations are going well.」
「Also thanks to your efforts, Rion. This raises a lot of complicated feeling at my court, you know. We know it is not proper to delight in the misfortune of your neighbor and wish for it to continue, but it is that exact misfortune that brought us favorable conditions.」
「This is why, highness, we have to prepare for the coming change while the fortune still smiles at us.」
The conversation started to head in the direction Rion wished it to go. He needed the cooperation of the neighboring kingdoms for the upcoming developments and it would be best if current talks paved the way for that..
「Indeed. And we would like to be able to depend on you for this very much.」
「I was told that safe travel is not the only thing that draws people to Camargue.」
「…Perhaps? I do not deny that we are working hard to have more attracting factors than just safe roads.」
And as expected, the talks would not be easy, because what Orcus really wanted was not a cooperation, but an one-sided favor.
「No need for humility, my friend. After all, who has not heard about Camargue and its great pleasure establishments? The best in the eastern region, apparently.」
「…Did that subject pique your interest, highness?」
It would be fine if he was interested with pleasure quarters themselves, their reputation was high and would not affect him badly. But there were places with women, alcohol and gambling there too, not something a royal should dabble in.
「Our country is so poor that it does not have any popular locations of the type. For such a country to flourish, it must offer something that other countries do not have.」
The prince might have said that, but he was actually planning to imitate Camargue. It looked like Orcus had no scruples about this kind of thing whatsoever. Rion did not consider that to be necessarily wrong, though. In his opinion, excellent rulers did not hesitate about copying others if it would make their country flourish.
「…So you plan to make the same kind of town? Don’t you fear it will hurt us both instead?」
If they really tried to make something similar on their side of the border, they would be competing for the same customer. That offered only downsides to Bandeaux.
「No need to worry, our plans involve a different location and a different border.」
「A border with Merica Kingdom, by any chance?」
Kingdom of Orcus didn’t border Gran Flamm only, of course. They also shared borders with Hashu Kingdom in the north, Merica in the south, and one more country further to the east. There was a lot of traffic in the vicinity of that southern border, which was why the prince would not be willing depart with nothing despite outwardly coming only to profess gratitude.
「Still, your plans will negatively impact our revenue. Majority of our customers come from your Kingdom after all.」
「This may indeed happen. Nevertheless…」
「That’s why, I believe there’s no need to come and tell us if you’re planning to make a town of this type on your own. It’s not like we have the right or ability to interfere with your plans.」
「…I was hoping we could use your town as a reference.」
Of course, things were not as easy as Rion made them sound. Camargue didn’t make its name on infrastructure only, what made it so highly valued was the quality of service.
And Prince Alexander wished to copy precisely that. Truly a selfish request.
「Reference? Is this about how our merchants conduct their business, highness?」
「…I wonder about that, though? From my experience, merchants dislike parting with their secrets.」
「True. But it would be much easier if Rion put in a good word for us.」
「Me? I might be their lord, but I don’t believe I have that much influence.」
「Oh, I am sure you can find a way.」
「No, I don’t think this is possible for me.」
「I disagree, Rion. They are merchants, threaten to revoke their licenses and they will do as told.」
This made it clear that Alexander, at the very least, was not a person to put much trust in. Still, saying this right now would be imprudent so Rion kept his tongue.
「So, how about it?」
「What about the effects of such a move? Incurring the ire of our merchants will only result in a decrease of tax yield and cause much loss to the territory. With this, even if it’s a prince’s request, I have to decline.」
「…I am sure we could arrange for a sufficient compensation.」
「Then how about removing the taxes for those merchants who wish to do business in my territory?」
Allowing the conversation to end on a vague promise would be a mistake, so Rion brought up a concrete proposal.
「Removal of customs duty, eh?」
The prince did not look surprised, this was clearly within the other side’s expectations.
「With the tariffs gone, more merchants should come to our town. It’s unclear whether it will be enough to compensate for lost income, but it would be a start.」
「…This tariff suspension …Would it involve all the tariffs on our border with the Gran Flamm kingdom?」
「No, just those on people wishing to do business in my town. Incidentally, it should apply on all of your borders.」
Prince Alexander questioned the scope as if it was to be potentially a very serious concession, but unexpectedly Rion wanted even more. The prince’s little scheme to make negotiations for his side easier backfired spectacularly.
「That would be unreasonable. If we allow people to cross our borders freely, how can we tell where they actually aim to do business, if at all?」
「Why not charge them anyway, then? Once they come here my administration will issue them a certificate which will be a proof required to claim back the money.」
With this, the proposal started to sound plausible and the prince started to give it a serious thought.
And it wasn’t like he was as concerned about the customs duty as he made it look. Despite their overt alliance, Kingdom of Orcus was, in fact, a vassal of Gran Flamm and the tariffs between them were already low. The tax from other borders might have been lucrative at present, but the government was fully aware that this was a temporary situation. This was why they were looking for alternative measures for the future. And why they weren’t really all that concerned about the future tariff income.
「So, highness, how about it?」
「The proposal is worthy of consideration.」
「Is that so? In that case, we will await your decision eagerly. When does highness plan to visit us again?」
「On second thought, I believe the matter is acceptable and that there is no need to bother Father with the minutiae.」
It was the prince’s turn to find himself in a situation where suspension of the talks as they were was inconvenient. After all, it was his Kingdoms that sought Rion’s cooperation, an artificial delay was not in their interest.
「Absolutely. I was given sufficient authority to make the decision.」
「I understand. Sadly I lack such leeway and need to refer to the officials in the capital. Given the time this is likely to take, I believe that it would be best for highness to return home for now.」
Rion did not need to hurry. As long as he made his decision before merchants started to return to the old trade routes on the Merican side of the border, things would turn out fine.
「…Is that so?」
For the first time in this conversation, Prince Alexander looked dejected.
「Unless highness wants to try the other method of learning how our merchants conduct business? By becoming their customer?」
「But, of course, it would be unreasonable to expect a prince to visit a brothel. Designating a subordinate might be prudent.」
「While the idea sounds sensible…」
All of the prince’s attendants were people of high standing, the thought of visiting a brothel sat ill with them.
「I see how a brothel might seem an impossible destination. But highness must know that there’s a special reason why Camargue’s ladies are called the best in the east. A reason that makes thinking of them as simple prostitutes rather unreasonable.」
However, Rion invited them anyway and their social status was what he was after.
「They can refuse a customer they dislike. All of the elite flowers of Camargue are free to choose and reject their patrons. This may not be true for the cheaper courtesans, but we’re not talking of those.」
「They can refuse a customer?」
「Yes highness, they will never accompany someone they do not like.」
「Is that not bad for the business?」
「Arguably. But pride over money. That’s the mindset of our most elite courtesans. On the other hand, if one of them decides to offer herself to someone, it clearly shows that the man chosen is not an ordinary person.」
「Mhm, I see..」
「I think the reputation that comes from being accepted by the best of them is beyond value.」
The prince swallowed Rion’s sales pitch hook, line, and sinker and ended up completely agreeing with what Rion said. Exactly as Rion expected.
「Does highness feel like trying?」
And a final provocation, a taunt to prince’s self-confidence. One Alexander found impossible to deflect.
And thus a new facet was added to Camargue’s shining reputation.
A place where courtesans refuse even foreign princes. Where wealth stands for nothing and where one will not find company without being a capable man. Those who were confident and wanted to make a name for themselves were welcome to try their luck.
According to the rumors spreading alongside the invitations, that is.