Yay! Three digits! And technically it’s still March _-_
Anyhow, since we somehow managed to finish this chapter ( bless you Myuuchi ), here you go. The ridd—
We, the glorious Aqua cult, will no longer tolerate being relegated to the sidelines of this blog. We shall be the butt of poor April Fools jokes no longer! Can you even imagine how badly our Goddess is being treated? How hard is it for her to be less liked than a stupid cat? Just look at her.
You lot made her cry!
So we’re taking over. This is a REVOLUTION.
You’re not getting your stupid story until the greatest of them all is happy again. And that won’t happen unless enough of you move your lazy asses and go to vote Aqua!
HAIL THE GODDESS!
The Kingdom’s strategic goal of recovering the former capital had not been achieved. Furthermore, due to the betrayal of some of Erwin’s former vassals, the reach of the Empire expanded.
It now controlled the West, eighty percent of the North, around half of the Southlands, and the western fringes of the Eastern regions of what used to be known as Gran Flamm. Bandeaux and the region immediately around it remained outside Lancelot’s grasp for now.
It was now clear that, out of the three remaining splinter kingdoms, the Great Alexandros Empire was the one that won the war, and the complete reunification under that banner was simply a matter of time…
At least according to the propaganda being spread by the Empire’s operatives aiming to build up the prestige of the new Emperor. The reality of the situation was a bit different, especially up in the North within the borders of what used to be the Windhill Kingdom. Not all of the nobles there had sought vassalage in the Empire. The lands of those who did were isolated and scattered across the domain.
What surrounded them was bandit country born out of a vacuum of power.
The Empire’s victory over the Kingdom had come at a great cost to manpower reserves. Until those losses were replenished, it could only deploy its soldiers to one theater of war: the South, against House Fatillas.
In normal times, local noble retinues and territorial militia would take over the burden of maintaining the public order in a situation like this, but the long months of war had decimated the North. Not even half of the territories there could field forces that were up to the task.
This should, in theory, be a chance for the loyalists to counter-attack but the reality was bleak. The Kingdom lacked the military strength to attempt a rematch with the Empire.
Even before the last campaign, the loyalist army had been hard-pressed for manpower. That had been the main reason behind the failed campaign to reconquer the capital city. Now, having suffered even more losses, the loyalist army was unable to pursue any sort of offensive actions. Just securing the wildlands around Bandeaux stretched the troops to the limit. And they had to maintain this new system of garrisons from here on. The Kingdom found itself paralyzed by present circumstances.
This stalemate would not last forever. The Empire was growing stronger, solidifying its grasp over the lands within its reaches, but Gran Flamm could only watch helplessly from the side.
With such a fate looming on the horizon, Arnold Highland, the new King of Gran Flamm, and Cid Lightham, the Prime Minister, were busy discussing the matters of the state in a nondescript conference room of Camargue Castle.
“The reconnaissance parties dispatched to the North have returned, Your Majesty. Having read the reports, I have to conclude our plans to retake these lands need to be postponed.”
The situation in the North seemed ideal for expansion. Arnold didn’t understand why the delay would be required.
“It is much worse up there than expected, Majesty. Banditry is rampant. Any force below a full army is bound to suffer major losses.”
“Banditry? What are the nobles there doing?”
“They have attempted to subjugate the outlaws. Unsuccessfully.”
“…How ‘rampant’ are we talking about?”
The nobles who betrayed King Edward during the last battle had ten thousand swords under them. True, they had suffered losses when the retreating army of the Kingdom brushed them aside, but that would be at most a third of the number. Witnessing the inferno from a safe range robbed them of their will to fight and made them flee, preventing any further losses.
If these remaining eight or so thousand of soldiers couldn’t deal with the outlaws, the scale of the problem must have been beyond Arnold’s wildest nightmares.
“The full picture is unclear. The gangs that our men managed to observe numbered as much as two thousand each.”
“…Two thousand. And it is probably safe to assume there is more than one band of this size.”
This was more than what your usual dim-witted bandit chief could manage. But also not a number capable of threatening the forces of local aristocrats. The natural conclusion was that the total number of the bandits far exceeded that figure.
“I fear they grow bigger with every hour, even increasing as we speak.”
“Why would that be?”
“The current state of the North is pretty much an outlaw’s paradise. Many small, local nobles perished in the war. That means a lot of empty manors and unguarded warehouses. They are spoiled for choice and not hindered by armed resistance.”
The marquess estates formerly under the control of the would-be-royal House Windhill; the lands of House Austin, second-biggest in the North that briefly had a prime minister as a head; those, and many other possessions of fallen noble Houses were ripe for plunder. And when one added the estates of the still loyal aristocrats who abandoned the former Windhill Kingdom to settle in Bandeaux… For a bandit, the northern territories were one shiny pile of treasure.
“Everyone is scavenging among the ruins of the fallen Houses. Even their former employees and peasantry joined the looting, and those people see only one path of keeping their gains from the hands of the outlaws.”
“They join the gangs.”
Once they joined the other brigands, their loot would not be challenged, and they would gain further opportunities to enrich themselves. This dynamic played out all over the northlands.
“…Quite the solution, that.”
“For a while, at least. We expect the situation to devolve into infighting between the bandit groups before long. If Your Majesty is still adamant about invading, that would be our chance.”
The Prime Minister advocated a wait until the turf war grinds down the bandit groups and reduces their numbers. Of course, nobody could guarantee the Empire would not move in with their armies at the same time. That was why Cid qualified his last statement with the crucial word ‘if.’
“What would happen to the civilians if we bided our time?”
Arnold’s question was pertinent. After all, it wasn’t as if everyone living there abandoned all rules of decency and law. There still should be citizens trying to carry on with their lives as usual, without tainting their hands with crime.
“…They would carry on as they have.”
“What do you mean by that? Is my Prime Minister saying that they are living on peacefully?”
That couldn’t possibly be the case. There was no peaceful life to be had in a land overrun by bandits.
“…We do not deserve the name Gran Flamm if we are going to abandon our people to suffering.”
“Your Majesty, they are subjects of a different crown.”
“Never! They are citizens of Gran Flamm! What future can be there for us if we resign ourselves to anything less?”
Arnold’s ultimate goal was the recovery of all the lands of the former Kingdom, which was why he considered all the people within its borders as his subjects.
“…I do understand Your Majesty’s feelings, but they mustn’t trump reality.”
“We cannot afford to dispatch soldiers out of sympathy. How would we deal with further losses? What if that made us unable to continue the fight against the Empire?”
Prime Minister Cid was absolutely in the right. In the current situation, any plans to dispatch the troops not directly aiding the war with Lancelot were out of the question. Arnold knew that.
“We must bide our time, Your Majesty, recover our strength. Then we can deal with the Empire and only after that we may think of regaining our dominion and sending relief to its people.”
Lambert, the new Knight Commander, was right next to the royal chair.
“If you were to be given the retinues of those nobles who held land in the North, could you restore the public order?”
“I will do as you order, My King. Nevertheless…”
“You are also against this then?”
No assurances were forthcoming. Arnold could only take this as an objection to the idea.
“Whether I succeed or not, there is no merit in that expedition, My King.”
“Assuming the public order is restored, how many of the nobles whose lands are affected does My King expect to see back in Camargue?”
The northern nobles didn’t reside in Bandeaux out of loyalty and love for their king. There were exceptions, of course, but most of them were simply unable to safely return to their lands on their own. If the Kingdom’s army could re-establish its dominion over the North, they would return to their fiefs and remain there with their retinues.
This way, they would be able to avoid taking part in the conflict. And if the Empire attacked again, they would flee to the King’s western stronghold once more. Or even negotiate favorable terms of surrender with the invaders.
“Furthermore, expanding the area under our control would decrease the number of soldiers available for other operations. There are also economic considerations. That land is devastated, it would be a huge drain on the treasury. My King, let me reiterate – I fail to see any merit in such an expedition.”
“Yes. I see that…”
Arnold knew all that. Nevertheless, this was against his every instinct. What made him so keen on restoring the order in the North was not a pragmatic calculation of profit and loss but his innate compassion.
“We should presently focus our efforts on fortifying Bandeaux, instead. That is the highest priority.”
Gran Flamm had already given up on the alliance with House Fatillas. To be more precise, the Kingdom would no longer seek such a relationship.
This was not due to change in the overall strategic situation of the war but due to the ongoing popular revolt in the South. If Gran Flamm intervened in that conflict, it would just gain the enmity of the people, threatening further rebellions after these lands were brought back into the fold in the future.
The Kingdom would only seek the help of the erstwhile Marquess if it needed help defending Bandeaux or recovering the old capital in the future.
“…I assume the western approach comes first?”
The land of Bandeaux was surrounded by mountains, making it easy to defend. It could only be accessed by four main roads leading away from Camargue in cardinal directions, connecting the barony with adjacent territories and other countries.
The road to the east led to Orcus and Hashu and thus was considered to be safe. The other three directions required extra fortifications, however.
The most pressing priority was the western road that led to the lands under Imperial control.
“Yes, My King. The west, the south, and then the north. In that exact order of priority.”
The southern road lead to the Fatillas domain which made it the second most urgent to reinforce. That was because the Kingdom expected House Fatillas to fall soon.
“How should we go about it, pray tell? The firearms aside, defending against those explosive projectiles does not strike me as easy.”
Arnold was referring to the cannon shells. Nobody from the Kingdom had seen the Empire’s artillery yet, but it was known the weapon employed cast iron projectiles that exploded upon impact.
“We are still unsure. Increasing the thickness of the walls seems sensible for the time being.”
“If only the answer was that simple…”
“Reinforcing the fortifications with magic tools would be even better, but that requires the cooperation from the House Fatillas.”
That family specialized in earth magic, which obviously included earth-aspected magic tools. Unfortunately, Charlotte could be of no help here even though her magic prowess was first class, for she had no knowledge of her family’s enchanting techniques. A woman expected to marry away would obviously not be taught secrets painstakingly amassed over generations.
“I guess that concludes the subject of fortifications… Which reminds me. Any chance the Empire would attack us now?”
“It is hard to say for certain, My King, but I would not expect it. The damage they suffered was considerable. The High Command is convinced they will not move against us until they either replenish those losses or conclude the Fatillas campaign.”
“…And neither of those outcomes would change our present course of action, I guess. Proceed with the plans, Lambert.”
As pitiful as it was on the late king, the death of Edward had proved to have virtually zero impact on the kingdom he used to rule. The business of government carried on uninterrupted, and Arnold had nearly instantly taken control of his retainers.
This, however, was not due to the former Crown Prince’s outstanding talent, but because of the overall situation of the country. There were no disgruntled vassals because those who chose to remain did not have time for pointless unrest. The only way to overcome the current crisis was to close ranks and work towards the common goal, and this would happen even with the most feeble-minded of monarchs on the throne.
Having adjourned the meeting, Arnold left the room and turned his steps into the depths of the castle, to where Charlotte and Ariel had their chambers. He reached his destination soon enough and knocked on the door.
A reply from inside invited him to enter.
“My Lord Husband, it is quite rare to see you visit at this hour.”
He was welcomed by Charlotte, clearly surprised by the sudden visit of the young monarch.
“I cannot deny that, but right now I am in need of some respite… Is Fleur not here?”
The desire to see the young princess was the real reason for his visit. Not seeing her around made him visibly disappointed.
“Our daughter is with the Viscountess at the moment.”
“I see… That is rather unfortunate.”
He couldn’t just go to where Ariel was. Arnold was perfectly aware that the animosity Rion’s wife had felt towards him was still alive and well. He didn’t want to aggravate things further.
“…Did something happen?”
It was noon. True, this possibly was the only time of day Arnold would be able to find Fleur here, but still, given how extremely busy the young King had been, it was odd for him to visit at this time of day.
“I just craved a moment of peace, My Lady. As I have mentioned before.”
“Which, translated, means that something has upset my husband so much that he needed to refresh in his daughter’s company, no?”
After all, there were many simpler things one could do to clear one’s mind. To Charlotte, Arnold’s journey to the depths of the castle in search of Fleur could only mean something really serious had happened.
“…I have ascended to the throne.”
Charlotte couldn’t quite see where Arnold was going with that.
“And now, with the weight of the crown bearing down on me, I think I understand a little bit how Father must have felt.”
“The late King…”
Charlotte didn’t have the best impression of King Edward. Being used as a political pawn didn’t help that state of things.
“In the past, I have always been dissatisfied with Father’s methods. Now, I feel like I do no different than he did.”
“I cannot do what I really want to do. Maybe it was the same for him. Perhaps, as a king, he had to do the exact opposite of what his heart desired.”
“Is that really so?”
Charlotte was keen to hear more details. It would be unbearable for her to be once again relegated to the role of a bargaining chip.
“Yes, it is. Regardless of my determination, what I really want to do is just not possible.”
“…Can my husband humor me with an explanation?”
“Apparently, the North is plagued by bandits, and there are no nobles strong enough up there to manage the problem. Actually, how are the people there supposed to live without anyone to govern them in the first place?”
“A good question indeed…”
Charlotte had no answers for Arnold. She was just a simple girl from an aristocratic family who, even after the faux marriage with Arnold, hadn’t left the residence much. She had little idea of how common folk lived.
“It is my responsibility as a king to help them. I know that. But I am unable to do a thing.”
“Why would that be? No one is able to stand between a king and the object of his desire, no?”
“Because I lack strength. I lack the strength to convince my retainers. I lack the strength of arms. I do not even have soldiers to send to the North.”
“If that is the case… I can see how peace of mind would be hard to find.”
It was the feeling of powerlessness. And when that poison gnawed at you, there could be no respite for your heart. A person who could easily get over such a thing easily would not be interested in helping the citizens.
“…I wonder what Rion would do in a situation like this?”
“…I did not know him well enough to say. Nonetheless, it is certain he would not give up easily.”
Rion, despite his meager origins, had desperately struggled for power to protect Ariel and Vincent. Even though that goal had been next to impossible, he had never given up and eventually achieved it.
But then, if you presented the man with that opinion, he would probably tell you he couldn’t do anything and failed in his duty.
“Indeed. Not give up, eh? …Things I can do for the time being…”
Charlotte was right in a way, but just refusing to give up would change nothing. That mentality had to be backed up with action. Arnold was now convinced this was the only way forward for him in the current position.
He suddenly rose, nearly running out of the room, but stopped himself at the threshold and said, “Charlotte, thank you.”
“But what for?”
“I am grateful that you were here. The words may be late, but the feeling is sincere.”
“…I have not done anything though?”
“Even if you think so… Your patience in listening to my complaints was plenty enough help.”
There was a certain kind of solitude Arnold first experienced only after ascending to the throne. Only then had he learned how difficult it could be when one was not allowed to show weakness in front of one’s subordinates. A moment like this one, where he could return to how he was as a prince, was something he was grateful for.
While Arnold and Charlotte had their private conversation, Ariel had a visitor, one Prince Alex of Orcus. The Prince, well used by now to the personal dislike Ariel harbored for him, came well prepared to ensure prolonged conversation.
“…Oh, this would fit her splendidly. How about we try this too?”
For starters, he bought plenty of presents. He was aware that Ariel would refuse anything gifted to her but knew she would hesitate in rejecting gifts specifically arranged for Fleur. This was a splendid strategy.
“Excellent! And now, the final, most special gift of them all. Does it not look just fantastic?”
“Mhm!” came the enthusiastic childish reply.
Prince Alex revealed a custom-made sword and presented it to Fleur. Though, that lustrous black sharp blade was entirely unsuited for a child. It did capture the young princess’s sparkling eyes all the same.
“It does not just have the look, you know? There is a fire magic tool incorporated into it so it can be used as a magic sword. What do you think? Amazing, right?”
With Alex successfully obtaining the young princess’s favor, Ariel’s face grew bitter.
“You know… While I do appreciate your thoughtfulness, do consider something appropriate for ladies next time, please?”
Knight’s attire, a helmet, and a medley of military weapons composed the entirety of Prince’s gifts. Despite Fleur’s apparent enthusiasm over those items, Ariel brooded over the thought that her child should be more ladylike.
“But I heard that Princess Fleur prefers items like these?”
“Indeed, she does. I taught her how to use those myself but, lately, she became rather fixated on them.”
They needed strength to find Rion. With that notion in mind, Ariel had trained Fleur from a young age. Not only had she taught her daughter magic, but she had also relied on Sol to impart upon the child the ways of the sword. During those times, Fleur had worn clothing similar to Rion’s. Unfortunately, the little Princess had taken a huge liking to that kind of attire and turned unwilling to wear other types of clothing.
“Dressed in such an outfit she really resembles her father,” said Alex.
“Is that so?”
Sadly, Fleur did not inherit her father’s outstanding looks. But since such devastating beauty would render her life harsh, Ariel was not unsatisfied with that turn of fate.
“Here, if you hide this part, does she not look exactly like him?” said the Prince adjusting the hair framing Fleur’s face.
“Why, you’re absolutely right.”
When Fleur’s plump cheeks were hidden, she certainly looked like Rion. Although Ariel always remained by her daughter’s side, she had never noticed this before.
“Children’s faces do tend to undergo significant change, even if those constantly with them hardly ever seem to notice the differences,” mused Alex in response to Ariel’s surprise. “Her eyes are beautiful, though. I’m sure that she shall grow to be extremely beautiful in the future.”
“You certainly do know things, no?”
For a rather frivolous prince, he looked more mature than usual at this moment.
“Well… I *am* a father of five.”
“Please, do not misunderstand. They were not all born of different mothers. Such a thing is taboo for a second prince like myself.”
“…Now that you mention this, what kind of person is the first prince?”
Ariel knew Prince Alex had an older brother, but she never had a reason to wonder about his personality. Now that the topic turned to children, she found it relevant and wondered what kind of character he was as an older brother.
“My exact opposite,” Prince Alex started. “Earnest, popular, and, to top it off, excelling at everything he turns his hands to. If only he were born in a country stronger than Orcus… He could take on the world.”
“For you to brag about him like that… He must be that much of a brother.”
Ariel did not expect for Prince Alex to speak so highly about his older brother, the heir apparent of Orcus.
“In truth, those are my past feelings. Thanks to a certain someone I have learned to be thankful for my brother’s humble roots.”
“You cannot mean Rion?”
“Indeed, I do. If my brother was born as a king or crown prince of a larger country, it is likely he would have to lead the troops to war. Only recently have I realized just how reckless that would be.”
In other words, the Prince regarded Rion as better than the older brother he was so proud of. This made Ariel curious and prompted her to investigate the reason behind it.
“…May I ask one question?”
“As long as I am able to offer an answer.”
“What is it that you really know?”
It was clear that Prince Alex was privy to more than he revealed, even to information that didn’t reach. She was fully convinced that was the case.
“…In the turbulent times, those fated for greatness cannot avoid ending up on the grand stage, no matter how much they loathe the thought.”
“Ah, I have come across someone like that.”
“Is that so? That person will become a hero then, and everyone will come to know of him soon.”
There were circumstances preventing the Prince from speaking plainly but he found a way to tell Ariel what he knew all the same. Rion would most definitely appear soon.
translated on 31st March 2019
Translation by Hikkinomori Translations
with the kind permission of the author
All rights to Ayato-sensei