“Even mediocre kings have ambitions.”
In the end, Rion succumbed to the King’s pressure and begun working on a plan to cause Merica the greatest possible damage. Not only was he told that the task would be given to others if he continued to refuse, but, and that was possibly the biggest threat, he himself would be sent to the front lines too.
While Rion didn’t lack the confidence to fight, he didn’t want to be caught up in a half-baked strategy of someone stupid enough to confidently declare he can do what the King wants.
From there on, things progressed fast. After all, Rion had, in the past, been considering exactly the strategy that the monarch desired and only rejected it in favor of a simpler, purely defensive, plan once he concluded it was overly difficult to pull off.
Rion dusted off and presented those old designs, outlined the risks they carried and the resources they required. The King accepted without objections and, like so, the first stage of preparing the strategy was concluded.
Which meant Rion had nothing to do at the moment. The Crown was busy assembling what he had said was required and the invasion was not expected to happen just yet giving more than enough time to prepare.
His current greatest problem was the fact that he was going to be involved in the practical application of the plan, and was given the commanding position on top of that.
Of course, opposition to that state of things was great. However, no one wanted to lead the defense by himself in his stead. The situation turned out exactly as Sol had described it before – nobody but Rion could possibly execute the strategies Rion came up with.
Therefore, everyone protesting his appointment advocated a change of strategy too. But, to Rion’s great disappointment, no credible alternative plan surfaced yet.
「Well then, let’s start.」
「Whenever you’re ready, lord.」
「…Here I go!」
While all that politics was rumbling in the background, Rion was using the free time to train himself by having mock duels against Kiel. Something that was only possible in the capital those days.
He opened the duel by immediately lunging at the opponent. The older man attempted to avoid through footwork, but Rion had no intention of letting the clan head slip away and matched his moves.
Rion’s blade arced high, but the blow was blocked.
Even so, Kiel was terribly surprised. Even considering they hadn’t sparred for a long time, Rion showed remarkable improvement. In the past, when serious, Kiel would be able to avoid every attack without having to use his blade.
「I improved a little, didn’t I?」
「How did you achieve so much?」
「I studied the footwork thoroughly. That is where all the secrets of the clan styles lie. I tried to find the common points and discard everything else with the assumption that will let me gain all the merits in one, new, style..」
「You really are…」
「Too early to be surprised. The real thing starts here.」
「Oh? I shall accompany you with my full skill in that case.」
「Here I go!」
And again, Rion closed the distance between them. The movement was neither very fast, nor very unique, but it surprised Kiel. It was both sudden and very natural, though, and, for the master of the Blau style sword, it was plainly an amazing feat.
What Rion did by eliminating all the inefficiency from his approach was, in essence, a secret technique of his clan’s school. A thing only a very select few managed to achieve in their lifetime.
And he was on the verge of reaching those heights by self-study, a truly outrageous talent.
But even so, Kiel still had no intentions of losing. The clan head had trained for much longer to reach this point, he still had the advantage in experience.
The fight went on for quite a while, but, eventually, Rion could keep up no more and his stance crumbled. Kiel was not a fighter to let such an opening go and smashed the flat of his blade into the defenseless youth’s side.
The pain was too much for Rion to bear and he fell onto his knees.
「Not today. I cannot afford to lose yet.」
「…Hurts. Ah, it’s been so long since I’ve felt this.」
Despite losing, Rion smiled. It wasn’t that the defeat didn’t frustrate him, the happiness that Kiel still remained a wall to overcome was simply stronger.
「Hearing you say this, have you been winning against Mercury?」
「I haven’t reached that stage yet, but neither can he make me show this kind of an opening.」
「Is that so? I guess I must have him work harder. After all, he is the next head of Clan Blue.」
「He is working hard as is. His pursuits simply take him in a different direction.」
「By now, he is probably better than you in small-scale cavalry tactics. If he manages to increase the numbers he can effectively command, I believe he’ll become an excellent leader. He had already shown himself to be superior to a royal guard of your generation.」
Since his win against Sol, Mercury had been more inclined to commanding cavalry and had set his mind on mastering that. He had been that happy to be praised by Rion back then.
「…Interesting. So he took the path of a commander rather than that of a soldier.」
「That would be assuming too much for now. I think it’s safer to say he’s trying to learn many different things and leading cavalry is just what absorbs him the most for now.」
「Even if that’s true, he should just pursue what fascinates him.」
「I don’t disagree. Just bear in mind that is only possible because he has enough time to pursue his interests.」
Kiel understood the meaning behind Rion’s words instantly. It made the old man unbearably happy and pained at the same time that he was so well understood by his lord despite such a long separation.
「Bandeaux still needs your generation. And it will need it even more from now on.」
「…We are not capable of governing.」
「That doesn’t stop you from offering support. For now, there’s a certain momentum in a favorable direction, but that won’t last. Contrary to what you may expect, if the restoration of the territory succeeds and things get better, various new kinds of discontent will emerge. The young ones will not be able to handle that.」
The problems of the citizens of Bandeaux in the past had been prosaic – no money, no jobs, nothing to eat. But now that there was work, the people had an income and didn’t go around hungry, it would be wrong to think that the dissatisfaction would disappear. Humans were inherently greedy, once they achieved something, they would seek more. Their desires would just become more diverse. With that in mind, Rion was certain it was impossible to resolve the discontent with providing simple necessities.
「I believe it will be fine as long as you’re with them, lord.」
Kiel was aware of that Rion’s strength was making others follow.
「…If that’s what you think, then not doing anything is fine too. There’s no need for you to be of any use so do not die. Return to Bandeaux alive. That’s my wish.」
Rion, having realized it would be impossible to convince them with logic, straightforwardly expressed his feelings instead. This was the first time for Kiel.
「Do not think I separate people according to whether I can use them or not. I dislike everyone equally by nature. Not by choice, mind you, I was just raised that way.」
While Rion was speaking with clear embarrassment in his voice, Kiel’s feelings gushed forth confronted with the youth’s sweet side not many got to witness.
「…Yes. I am aware that… That Lord Rion… Loves people themselves.」
Someone who tried to trust people even though he hated them. Someone who wanted to trust people, feared being betrayed, but not wanting to hate them even more decided to avoid them as much as possible.
This was Kiel’s description of Rion after many deliberations.
「…Didn’t I say I hate people? Anyhow, dying in vain won’t be forgiven. Tell that to the others too.」
「Yes, lord. You can rest assured.」
Maria was not the only one scheming on the sidelines. The King himself was hatching a plot and while his objectives were different than hers, he couldn’t really hide his designs as well.
Just the idea of leaving the whole battle against Gran Flamm’s rival in the domination over the continent, Merica, to Rion was so unprecedented that it naturally made one think that he was plotting something. In fact, many people had already moved to investigate just what did the king see in Viscount Frey.
All of those probes were hindered by the thick barrier of the slums and failed. Which was a blessing in disguise to the kingdom.
However, it didn’t make the current situation favorable either. Many a person jokingly said that Rion may actually be an illegitimate child of the monarch, unaware of just how close to the truth that was.
This situation caused the Knight Commander a lot of anxiety and since Frederick was the only person capable of admonishing the King in matters regarding Rion…
「What are you trying to do?」
「…I want to damage Merica more than they have ever been before.」
The King understood what was being asked, but purposefully avoided the real subject. Making it all the more obvious he was hiding something.
「Do not play the fool, please. You are fully aware I ask of Viscount Frey.」
「And I am giving you an answer. The one who made the strategy will be the one to execute it. That is the most sound thing to do, is it not?」
「He cannot possibly be given command over ten thousands of troops at his current rank.」
Rion was not only just a Viscount, he wasn’t even a part of the military. Nominally, he lacked the right to command even a single recruit.
「There will be a different titular commander, Rion will have control as a strategy staff officer.」
Frederick couldn’t fathom the reasons behind the King’s insistence on making Rion take command. Having him stand out more than he was at the moment would not be good.
「You may not know, but there are odd rumors making rounds in the castle for a while now.」
「They say that Viscount Frey may, in fact, be an illegitimate child of the king.」
The king was rendered speechless. It also made it clear that he did not suddenly start seeing Rion as part of the royal family. Frederick was greatly relieved.
But he still had to understand his liege’s motivation for the conversation to proceed.
「At present it is a humorous anecdote without any basis in facts. 」
「…Oh. Do not scare me like that, please.」
Predictably, Frederick was able to dispel the King’s worry in an instant. But the ease with which he achieved it angered the old knight.
「This is no reason to relax. The very fact of this being considered a valid joke is a problem.」
「I know that much.」
「No, you probably do not. You have not given any thought to why this is amusing to so many and who is being actually ridiculed, have you?」
「Ridiculed? How does it ridicule anyone?」
「Of course it does. An excelling illegitimate child of the king by necessity has to be compared to someone. Who do you think that would be?」
That was painfully obvious. The king had only one other son.
The Crown Prince was no longer being described as wise. The king was not aware of the change of sentiment those days. That was unavoidable, no one would purposely criticize Arnold in front of his father and all he ever heard about the Crown Prince were the words of praise.
The only person that would dare to do otherwise, Frederick, even now, thought that the prince was an excellent young man and would not tolerate him being badmouthed.
But in time, the new general sentiment around Arnold reached Frederick’s ears too.
「Why would Arnold be ridiculed?」
The King could not think of any reason for his son’s prestige to fall that low.
「Because of Viscount Frey. You could say Arnold is reaping what he has sown.」
「…The case of Vincent Woodville, I guess?」
「Yes. It seems that there is a new ballad popular among the minstrels as of late. The story of a marquess house’ child and his loyal retainer, one of love between that retainer and his wife to be despite the gulf of social standing between them. Remarkably popular, really. That story has a villainous young prince too. All fictional characters, of course, but not very hard to draw connections to actual living individuals. Which most people do.」
「Such a thing is happening?」
「It cannot be just shrugged off as a trivial problem. The thing has spread far and wide among the people, and, by that, I do not mean just the capital alone.」
No minstrel ever stopped just at one town. They tended to travel from one place to another to let as many people hear their craft as was possible. A song that became popular in the capital, would naturally be requested more in the provinces. And that was how the story of Vincent and Rion had spread throughout the kingdom.
「That… Is very bad.」
「By the way, the song seems to evolve in time. The most recent additions describe how the royal retainer became a hero to restore his lost lord’s honor.」
Predictably, even the king would notice the oddity. While it was true that the story of Rion’s life would make a good story material, it was not natural for it to be followed this closely and spread so far, so quickly. Especially when the Crown was actively suppressing the information about the fate of Vincent.
「Right now, this is just my suspicion, but I believe this is spread on purpose. And the culprit is most likely…」
「Rion. The most obvious suspect. So he actually has that kind of capability, eh?」
「It does seem that the strength of our Viscount is not limited to the resources of his fief. But its precise extent is uncertain. He is certainly strong enough to prevent others from investigating him closer..」
So far, Rion’s connection to the underworld was hidden from prying eyes. He had met with Folz and numerous other shady people, but that was mostly in Camargue, the other parties were under the guise of merchants, and they were actually behaving like merchants would. Some people did think that certain business partners of Rion were somewhat shady, but nobody had a clue that they were his actual subordinates in a crime syndicate.
Cassius would be the person that knew the most about those links, but he seemed so distant to Rion, both physically and emotionally, that no investigator paid attention to him.
However, an overly strong information security suggested something of importance was being hidden. Frederick understood that much without much difficulty.
「…I agree that has to be stopped. But it and the current affairs are two different things.」
「If the fame of the Rion increases more, the Crown Prince’s reputation will fall further.」
「Which is why I said that has to be stopped. And, long-term, this will cease to be a problem when the relations between the two brothers are mended. Was that not your wish, Frederick?」
The King knew that fixing the relationship between his two sons was not going well. But he said that anyway because, presently, having Rion in command was more important for him than the prestige of his heir.
「…Why do you insist on having Viscount Frey take command so much?」
Coming to the conclusion that he would get nowhere with further probing, the Knight Commander decided to ask straight up instead.
「Because he offers the best prospect of victory.」
「Did he not say it himself that we can avoid battle by making it obvious there are no openings to exploit? I agree with that opinion.」
「Avoiding battle will do nothing to change Merica’s power. But if we manage to beat them completely…」
The Knight Commander was finally able to understand what drove his monarch. And why he insisted on Rion this much.
「You desire hegemony?」
「…Is that wrong, Frederick? I am still in the prime of my life.」
Flames of ambition suddenly flared in the King’s heart. The ambition to bring the entire continent under Gran Flamm’s dominion. It was a wish of his predecessors from long past too, a wish he saw a chance making real during his own reign.
This wouldn’t be worthy of condemnation if he had this desire for a while now and worked towards that goal in the past. But Frederick was aware that was not the case.
His majesty knew his own limitations in the past and his only real cherished desire was to bequeath the realm to Arnold who would be able to take it to the heights beyond his father’s skill.
But after coming this far in this pursuit it was all changed by Rion’s existence.
「Do you think… Can you…」
Frederick couldn’t finish his question. He was going to ask whether the King had the capability to make Rion obey, but this was not a question for a subordinate to ask.
「That man IS my son.」
But the King was able to comprehend the unsaid doubt. And that was his answer.
「A fact you cannot tell him. Would he really work hard for the sake of the kingdom?」
「He has brought results thus far.」
「Results for the sake of the restoration of his lord’s honor. A goal he even now is working to achieve.」
「…If he will not labor for the Kingdom, he will just be told the truth.」
「And if that sows the seed of desire in his heart? I have just told you how the popular opinion sees those two.」
「I understand your feelings, I really do. But please, please consider the future harmony of this land.」
Frederick had his head bowed deeply as he said this. His frank advice to the King would be to forget his newfound ambitions, do nothing, and leave matters for the next generation to resolve. But he was aware that would be really harsh.
「….Am I that bad of a king?」
「Looking at the dynasty as a whole, you can be considered wise.」
「Is that so….」
The hero called Rion was born and this was certain to bring turmoil to future generations. Even a mediocre king would know that much.
It would take four months before the force to intercept the invasion of Merica departed. There was no formality, or pomp, to their departure. Nor was there any ceremony to appoint a commander. The troops split into numerous small groups and headed out of the capital trying to avoid attracting attention.
That was not the whole army either. Multiple detachments had been deployed before that under the pretext of demon subjugation. All of them bound to perform their own task at a designated day.
They were all ordered to assume a predetermined position until the day of the decisive battle.
A fuse of the war between the Kingdom of Merica and the Gran Flamm Kingdom, a background event merely narrated in the game, was lit.
Its explosion would make Rion’s name resound through the whole continent.