“Who is the real villain here?”
On their way back to the capital after the latest demon subjugation, Crown Prince Arnold was sitting at a restaurant table, sighing deeply over a letter delivered to him. The contents of it were roughly in line with his expectations and he was regretting the fact his ideas were rejected.
This time, the subjugation was conducted close to the western border of the country. So close, in fact, that there were no large population centers that needed defending. And yet, the punitive force had still chosen to employ the strategy that Rion had used during the previous subjugation.
Their army had been split into many units that had been deployed across the operation area. All of them had been ordered to face demon group closest to them once noticed. This strategy had meant to not allow any damage to even a single town or city. However, the prince had had doubts about the plan itself. He had been of a mind that they had enough troops this time to set up enough defensive lines in the area without having to disperse the troops into smaller units.
However, many of the commanders had been overly fixated on imitating what Rion had managed to do and his opinion was not able to sway the final decision. The outcome of the fight had ultimately been good anyway, but Arnold still felt miserable for being talked into following the opinions of others.
The Crown Prince was sure that if Rion were to be here, he would manage to impose his own will. Or at least, if he had no support, he would see his plans through with his own means somehow to show everyone they were wrong.
When compared to Rion, Arnold had done nothing. He, the Crown Prince, couldn’t even control his own surroundings.
「Haa… Why did this happen?」
Suddenly, Arnold heard a question that seemed to straight out give a voice to his feelings. It was Charlotte and she too was reading newly received letters.
「Ah, my apologies, highness. Just talking to myself aloud.」
Charlotte realized that she voiced her inner frustration from Arnold’s reaction.
「Does highness mind me joining at the table?」
「Not at all.」
Getting Arnold’s affirmation, Charlotte changed her seats. But that didn’t exactly mean she had something to discuss. She just focused her attention back on the letter that she had received.
She was finally alone with the Crown Prince, yet she ignored him completely. Something unthinkable in the past.
「What are you reading?」
This, in turn, piqued the Prince’s interest in the contents of the correspondence.
「A letter from Rion, highness. Now that I am leading his Clan Yellow force, I decided to ask what should I do. His reply just arrived.」
「Is that so…」
The Crown Prince was a little surprised by the fact that Charlotte had done the same thing as he. In fact, the similarity was superficial, since the girl’s motives were entirely different. She didn’t really care about the contents of the reply, what was important and enjoyable to her was the exchange of letters with Rion itself.
「He gave not a shred a military advice, just a description of their personalities.」
「For example – “The clan leader, Apollo, may seem coarse on the outside but he is proud and easy to offend, so be careful with him. But as long as you show that you’re relying on him, he will answer.” Or – “He is the type to get ahead of himself so be strict when the situation demands it.”」
「…He seems to have excellent grasp of his subordinates.」
「Undoubtedly. However, if he knows this much, I wonder why he acts that way?」
「Now that mentioned it…」
From the perspective of an outsider, the relationship between Rion and the Clan Heads, with the exception of Kiel perhaps, didn’t seem to be very harmonious. And the most recent scheme to separate them from him was hatched exactly because that was the case.
However, in the letter that Charlotte had received there were detailed descriptions of their personalities and best ways to treat them. Detailed enough to imply there should be no real discord between the two parties.
「What is he thinking, I wonder?」
「…I have no idea. By all rights, he should be resenting me, yet he still properly replies to all my letters. I am grateful, of course, but I wonder too.」
「…What did highness ask Rion about?」
Charlotte was perfectly aware of the fact that Rion held a grudge against Arnold. And because she very much wanted to avoid those kinds of serious subjects, she changed the topic.
「The strategy of the most recent subjugation. I had doubts, so I sought his opinion.」
「Did it differ from yours, highness?」
Looking at how dejected the Crown Prince was, Charlotte assumed that to be the case. She was wrong, though.
「No, we are of the same mind.」
「Furthermore, knowing that he agreed with me reassured me that I was right all along. And made the fact that I was not listened to all the more frustrating.」
「May that be the difference in sense of responsibility?」
「…Difference in sense of responsibility?」
This suggestion was something Arnold expected the least.
「Rion attempts to shoulder everything himself. That is why he is willing and able push through with his plans. Highness, however, is mindful of the responsibility of others. Which is why you do not try to force matters in a similar manner.」
「Do you really think so? If that is true, I risk turning into someone that shirks responsibility and pushes it on others.」
The prospect depressed Arnold even more, but Charlotte wasn’t finished.
「I do not think that attitude to be wrong, highness. Being like Rion, trying to carry everything on your shoulders is just sad, reckless. Too sad. Other people end up not being able to leave you be and… Ah, I am rambling, am I not?」
It seemed that when it came to the subject of Rion, Charlotte ceased to be the Charlotte Arnold knew. He thought it wiser to remain silent about this, though. It would make for a very awkward conversation.
「Passing responsibility to other people means giving them authority. Is that quality not something a crown prince and the future king needs?」
「…Having it framed in this manner, it is a sentiment hard to disagree with.」
No king was able to run the whole government alone. They tended to have a huge number of subordinates. A necessarily huge number of subordinates. The crux of Charlotte’s argument was this difference in Arnold’s and Rion’s positions. And it did initially improve the Crown Prince’s mood.
「Which is why there is no need to worry about it, highness.」
「…However, is such a quality not necessary for Rion as well?」
Rion, after all, was a territory lord too. The scale might not be comparable to governing a whole country, but the basic principle was the same and entrusting things to subordinates was a must.
「Rather than necessary…」
Charlotte’s reply was quite vague but Arnold immediately saw the reason behind it. It wasn’t as if Rion was chronically unable to delegate, but the truth was quite hard for Charlotte to speak about.
「So that is the reason. He is not acknowledging his subordinates on purpose.」
「…I believe that to be the case.」
「Believe? Do you not understand how he thinks?」
「I can mostly understand what is he thinking of, but the way he gets there still eludes me.」
「…I think I can actually somehow understand him.」
Charlotte found this completely unexpected. From her perspective, those two looked like complete opposites. She thought there was no way the Prince would be able to understand Rion.
「He is trying to avoid having them involved, right?」
「…Involved in what, highness?」
「That is not something that should be explained in this place. But I believe the same reason prompted him to attempt saving Vincent from the execution on his own, without any outside help.」
「…Is that so.」
Invoking the case of Vincent helped Charlotte to understand. Trying to save a criminal from execution was a grave crime and a challenge to the Kingdom. It was completely normal for people attempting that to face the same punishment.
And Rion, presently, was trying to do something of a similar caliber. A plan that once realized would mean high treason.
It didn’t take much effort to figure out what he was aiming at.
「…I guess, highness, that the right question, in that case, is – how can we make him stop?」
Charlotte wanted to stop Rion, no matter what kind of revenge plan he had on his mind. She just didn’t want him to die.
「I talked to Ariel about this, you know.」
「I told her not to let Rion be bound by such dark feelings. That Vincent would not wish it either. Whether she will heed my words, I know not, but I felt I had to say it.」
「Why do so much for Rion’s sake, highness?」
Rion had been, after all, Arnold’s bitter love rival. Charlotte couldn’t comprehend why the Crown Prince would show that much care about how the young Frey wished to live his life.
「I wonder? Honestly, I do not know myself. I feel it would be a waste to lose someone with such talent. To let him rot away on the shadowy paths when he could be walking in the light. Especially now, when he is no longer a valet.」
「…There are times, highness, when I think that the purpose of Vincent’s life was precisely to drag Rion out of the darkness. I will never say it to those two, of course, but I feel that Vincent was meant to live, and die, for Rion.」
「…That is neither a nice thing to say nor something I would agree with. And it does not make my sins any easier to forgive」
If Rion was someone bound by the chains of revenge, then Arnold was someone suffering from the chains of regret.
「How unlike of your highness to be lamenting the past misdeeds.」
「How unlike me indeed…」
The spirit and vigor that the Crown Prince used to be praised for by everyone, could be felt from him no longer. Something Arnold was very aware of himself.
「However, the current Prince Arnold, one who worries about the grief of others, is much more of a delight than his past self.」
「As a person, of course. I would still pick Rion as a man, but we both can agree that as a person, he does have problems, right?」
As Charlotte was frankly declaring her feelings towards Rion with a truly worried face, she radiated so much charm that it eclipsed even her captivating looks.
「Charlotte….. I also think that the present you is most wonderful indeed.」
Which prompted the Prince to honestly say so.
「…A marriage between us is no longer possible, highness.」
「I know. I am now able to see things I was blind to before. I understand that you are here only because of your feelings for Rion.」
The brilliance of Ariel that the crown prince had fallen for had been brought about by her feelings towards Rion as well. It was a truism that women who had fallen in love tended to be at their most beautiful. If only past Arnold had known that falling for that kind of woman, was not necessarily a foolish thing…
The Crown Prince had grown, unlike someone who had shown no growth at all. That someone would be Maria, the protagonist, of course. It might have been true that she was originally an adult already and it would not be strange for her to display maturity unbefitting of her young age, but things didn’t turn out that way. Keeping in mind that she had been a university student in her former world, her current self, after nearly seventeen years in this world, was much older.
But even if she was not, her ever-selfish personality was not something that one could grow out of upon reaching adulthood.
「Just as I thought, it was really thanks to the Bandeaux Army.」
Having finally gained achievements in the devil subjugation that she had desired all along, Maria was in quite a good mood.
「Rather than the Bandeaux Army, was this actually not thanks to us?」
And so was Lancelot, finally able to show results demanded from the heir to a marquess house.
「If you really think that, we ought to crush that army here and now, no?」
Erwin too was satisfied, but he had not lost the sight of his main objective. He didn’t care about recognition, his one and only aim, as a person with an undisputed right to inherit House Windhill, was to crush those he deemed a threat. And that meant taking Rion’s strength away from him.
「We cannot do that yet. Our battles are about to get harsher.」
「…And you really think that the Bandeaux Army’s strength is necessary? I concur with Sir Lancelot, our personal power had the highest impact on the battlefield.」
This was not conceit. The clan forces were now more numerous and lead by five people excelling in magic. Their overall impact was incomparable to when they had been led by Rion alone.
「The upcoming battles will be different. Many lives will be lost.」
「…And they shall be disposed of then. I see.」
「Don’t underestimate the devils. The real battles are yet to start.」
Maria didn’t give Erwin a straight answer. She no longer needed to pretend to be a good person in front of those two, but old habits died hard.
「Speaking of that, could you tell us what is coming already? If the fighting is going to be as hard as you say, the earlier we start planning, the better.」
「You’re right on that. Fine then. I’ll tell you.」
「You have our undivided attention.」
Maria had always been hogging the knowledge for herself. Her pretext was that all the information she had would be rendered worthless if a corrupt government official leaked it to the enemy, but Lancelot and Erwin had seen through that lie a long time ago. They figured out there must have been something she couldn’t speak about, even if the reason eluded them so far.
So having her agree to reveal some of her hand came as a surprise to both of the boys.
「Our next stage will be a war.」
「A conventional war. The Kingdom of Merica is going to attack.」
「This is a joke, right? Why would Merica have a leeway to do such a thing?」
Even now Lancelot and Erwin were not aware that only their kingdom was being attacked by demons.
「I do not know. But they will come, soon.」
And Maria was equally oblivious. She had no way of knowing the situation of a country that wasn’t even playable in the game.
「…How serious will the situation be?」
「The capital will fall. There will be a considerable amount of casualties.」
The fall of the capital would put the existence of the Kingdom itself at risk. Not a prospect Lancelot could take in calmly.
「How do we prevent that!?」
「It cannot be done, the city will fall. However, there is a method to win the war in spite of that.」
「…Cannot be done? That is the capital. The capital!」
Both Erwin and Lancelot reacted the same way. Their mothers were in the capital right now, they couldn’t allow a hostile assault unchallenged.
「We will just take it back. I know how to do it.」
「Are you really trying to tell me that it has to fall!?」
「Yes. And what of it?」
「That… Just what are you thinking?」
「Just have the people important to you escape in time. And make sure that the hindrances stay in there till the end.」
「Are you kidding…」
It was unclear who did Maria consider to be a hindrance, but neither of the youths had it in him to ask. They feared that the gravity of that knowledge would not allow them to remain silent.
「This is the moment to be thinking about our futures beyond the battle with the devils. And the future of this kingdom too.」
Maria was saying this because she realized that her marriage to Arnold was now next to impossible. After all, if things were going to plan, she would be informally acknowledged as his fiancee already. The next fastest ticket to the throne was to allow the current Queen die with the fall of the capital and immediately become a new one.
Given the reality of the situation, that far from her being acknowledged as a marriage prospect she was forced to watch her distance to Arnold grow instead, Maria could already see her ending. This position was beyond recovery, the best she could hope for was ending up as the wife of Lancelot.
And she was not satisfied with that.
For her, an otherworlder destined to obtain the highest position available for a woman, to fall so low as becoming a mere wife of a Marquess… It would be nice to be able to restart the game, but Maria wasn’t so naive to expect that to be possible.
That was why she started to think what to do instead. After all, if realizing her desires within the game was no longer possible, she would simply make them the reality once it had ended. She would be a queen, one way or another.
Which led to the “hindrances” she had mentioned previously. Not only the royal couple, but the whole royal family. Erwin and Lancelot chose wisely by not broaching the subject. They were not mentally ready to consider betraying the whole royal clan, all they wanted at this point was to inherit their Houses.
「…You are not going to try something stupid, are you?」
「Something stupid? Why would I? I just want to make the best use of my otherworldly knowledge.」
「That much is fine, but…」
「That knowledge is where my true worth lies. It would even allow creation of weapons stronger than magic.」
「…Stronger than magic?」
「Strong enough to overturn the world, to make it a place where bloodlines no longer matter.」
Maria’s thoughts were far too dangerous, even for Erwin and Lancelot. So dangerous, in fact, to make them wonder if she wasn’t the real hindrance here.
「A power that would make world domination trivial.」
「…Maria, do you truly wish to go so far?」
「Me? Not at all. All I wish is to be happily married to the person I love and spend the remainder of my days in luxury.」
She was very deliberate with her words. The emphasis on lack of interest in authority, but a desire for a life of opulence. Like a queen, for example. At the side of someone who would become a king thanks to obtaining her knowledge. And, obviously, there were only two viable candidates right now.
「This is a discussion for after the devil subjugation, no?」
Erwin reacted first, though not in a receptive manner. Fearing that Lancelot might start seeing him as a threat, he suggested shelving the subject for later.
「…That it is. Removing the devil threat comes first. But a war before that, eh?」
「It will happen roughly at the same time as the next subjugation. We will be dispatched to deal with the demons again and Merica will use that opening to attack.」
「We, eh? …Figures.」
Lancelot briefly pondered disposing of the Crown Prince, but instantly abandoned that thought. Not because of his feelings towards Arnold, he simply needed the royal’s power for the upcoming war. It would demand a symbol, a role Lancelot was not illustrious enough to fill.
「All things considered, Viscount’s Frey strength will be required to defend the capital, no?」
In the meantime, Erwin thought this was the right moment to get rid of Rion. And he dressed that idea in a rather sarcastic question.
「Oh, you’re right. Rion’s presence is aaabsolutely necessary.」
In the end, Rion’s existence was the thing Maria currently feared the most as she had no clue how to deal with the man.
And thus, Rion was yet again about to be dragged onto the scene by a plot. A plot instigated by none other than the Protagonist. The Protagonist that was utterly vile, instead of virtuous. Which only showed how much the story had deviated from its original track.
A fact that both Maria and Rion were still oblivious to.