With the safety of Prime Minister Lange Austin guaranteed, there were no more obstacles to begin the negotiations. But before they even managed to begin properly, the government of Gran Flamm undermined the very core of Windhill Kingdom, they revealed the truth of Erwin’s lineage to a third party. This was a drastic decision taken for two reasons. One was a desire to hasten the surrender of the enemy to gain more time to prepare for the upcoming conflict with Alexandros Empire. The other was mistrust for the Windhill administration and a non-insignificant chance they would betray again. Fragmenting the enemy even further seemed like a neat solution to both, and it did yield results.
Those nobles in Erwin court that still remained with him, evidence or no evidence, acted on the new information like common sense dictated. Viscount Austin denied everything, of course, but the damage to his reputation had already been done. But now that he knew that his secret was out, he was fully aware it was no longer tenable for him to be a noble under the Gran Flamm crown. He started to actively oppose the idea of surrender, thus getting into conflict with pretty much everyone of note. Soon, suppressing the unrest in the court became impossible for him and for Erwin, and it was clear that any further attempts would just lead to more hidden trouble. The King of Windhill completely lost control over his vassals and his court, his kingdom was as good as dead. Isolated, and fearing treachery, he and Lange Austin chose to flee.
“Hurry! Once we can pass this place, we ought to be safe!”
A horse-drawn carriage was rushing through the night escorted by a posse of cavalry. The group was being led by Will, and he was urging everyone onwards. His squad, the Royal Guards, in truth was just a loftily named group of knights from Austin’s territory. The vehicle they had been escorting was heavy and gaudy, bringing the horse pulling it to the edge of exhaustion. There were three people seated inside – Erwin, Lange, and Julia, Erwin’s mother. An outsider might see this as a family fleeing for their life, for the fallen king this was nothing of the sort.
“Hey, will this truly be alright? Can we really get away?” asked Julia pensively.
“I believe so. Gran Flamm will most likely not go out of their way to hunt us down. Honestly, they cannot afford to do so.”
Lange was pretty much on the money. Once a large group of Windhill-affiliated aristocrats had approached seeking vassalage, Gran Flamm abandoned all plans of chasing Erwin and Lange. Pursuing Erwin and his family to punish them for the crime of rebellion would leave the government with no choice but to punish the aristocrats that had supported Windhill in the past as well. There was nothing to gain from this in the present situation, it was better to provide the aristocrats with peace of mind now, and slowly earn back their loyalty over time.
“Where will we go from here?” asked Julia again.
“…To a country where neither Gran Flamm or Great Alexandros have much influence. Merica would be ideal, and I hope they decide to grant us refuge. If they refuse us, we can simply search for a more sympathetic nation.”
“I see… Well, I suppose the place does not matter much so long as we can live peacefully.”
“I shan’t know for sure until I try negotiating with them, but Merica should be willing to take us in. And, from there, we can start clawing our way back where we belong.”
“Haven’t you had enough already? Let’s just spend our remaining days in peace.”
“…We can think about that if Merica turns us away.”
This conversation between Lange and Julia was unbearable for Erwin because there was that certain kind of aura about them as they discussed the future. It only served to remind him of the doubts he now held regarding the truth of his own lineage. After all, if he truly was not of Windhill blood, for whose sake had all his deeds up to this point really been?
“Hey, do other people know of the relationship between us?” Julia pushed.
It seemed that she was no longer content with hiding things. At the beginning of their relationship, she had gone along with Lange’s ambitions and then even became the mother of a king but, originally, her only wish had been to live an affluent life, a wish she could have accomplished with her position as the concubine of a Marquess.
Lange hesitated, before finally replying slowly, “…They do not.”
“What are your plans then? Do you plan to have us live a lie again?”
“For a while at least, until we are ready to reveal everything in due time.”
“In due time? When is that going to be!? Can you give me a straight answer for once?”
“Stop it already!”
Erwin, who had kept his silence all this time, could no longer bear seeing his mother acting as Lange’s woman.
“Erwin?” asked puzzled Julia.
“So you really have been betraying me all this time?”
“What are you saying? We have never betrayed you…”
“You did! You both deceived me!”
“That… wasn’t our intention. It was just… there is a possibility of you being the son of either of them…”
These were not things that one could properly say to your own son, so she ended up making excuses. Still, her words amounted to a confession that she had been in a relationship with both Lange and Lord Marquess Windhill at the same time. Which was obvious, when considered objectively. The Marquess would absolutely not have believed in that farce, had he and Julia not been in a relationship, to begin with. However, to hear that straight from his mother’s mouth was unbearable for Erwin. He held his breath for a moment.
“But I am that… thing’s son. Is that what you are telling me?”
Julia looked at her son with reproach in her eyes, “‘That thing’? You are being rude.”
“Then what should I call it? Are you asking me to call it father? After all this time?”
“You should. And you should do that with pride.”
Julia wasn’t thinking of Erwin’s feelings at all. He was always proud of the bloodline of House Windhill in his veins. It had been the foundation he built his life on, the reason he had tainted his hands with evil just to secure its inheritance and so much more.
“…Mother, did you not just tell me you do not know who is the real father?”
“I did. But, if you take the date of the birth into consideration…” Julia suddenly stopped and became evasive. “There is the possibility of premature birth, though…”
She suddenly decided to allow Erwin to keep believing who his true father was, even if it might be too late for that. And too late it was.
“In other words, Father, I mean the former lord, may have noticed it as well.”
Hearing Julia’s words, Erwin finally understood everything. The man he had called father had certainly harbored doubts as well. That would explain the fate of Blade of the Blue Wind as well as Lord Windhill’s choice of retirement location.
“There’s no way that’s true…”
Julia was unaware of the events of the war. And no wonder, the flow of information to the public had been strictly controlled.
“The Blade of Blue Wind, the proof of power over the House of Windhill, is currently in the hands of Ariel. It seems that it was given to her immediately following Vincent’s death. What more proof do you want that Father, no, the Marquess, never recognized my succession?”
“It’s just a sword, isn’t it? You were given the seat of power, right?”
“…Just because he thought the Windhill bloodline had been extinguished with Vincent’s death, is that not obvious?”
“Stop being ridiculous. If he really thought that, he could’ve just conceived another child.”
The more Erwin spoke to his mother, the worse he felt. She didn’t seem to take the position of the Head of the House very seriously and he, on the other hand, valued the title greatly, believing that only someone truly superior deserved it. That line of thinking, brought about by the misconceptions regarding his own birth, was why he had acted the way he had. If he had known otherwise, even he would have considered such behavior nothing more than usurpation, a truly unforgivable crime. ‘Everything for the sake of House Windhill.’ – that sentiment had been the cornerstone of Erwin’s character. It had been his guiding light, the ultimate justification. But now, with the revelation of his true heritage, he began to desire atonement in the depths of his heart. Nevertheless, it was far too late for regret. There was no way for Vincent’s death to be reversed and, consequently, to make his sins never be.
Suddenly, the stillness of the night was broken by a high-pitched sound followed by an explosion. The carriage jolted in attempt to stop, and great commotion erupted outside its walls. Erwin understood what was happening. And he could easily guess who was responsible.
“…Lancelot, you damn bastard.”
He knew what caused the explosions. It was his knowledge of these weapons that prompted him to bend his knee to the Great Alexandros Empire, at least until he could secure something to level the playing field.
“Enemy attack! Form ranks! Protect the carriage!”
The Royal Guards quickly took positions according to Will’s shouted orders.
“Calm down. The Guard will protect us. There is no need to worry.”
Lange was trying to calm Julia down but in reality, he wasn’t entirely sure what was happening either.
“Defend! Don’t allow them to take the carriage!”
Will shouted, again and again, the desperation in his voice betraying the severity of the situation. Then, another round of explosions came. And the voice issuing further orders belonged to a different person.
Realizing that the current situation would not permit him to calmly remain in the carriage, Erwin stepped outside. He saw that the attackers had donned unmarked black cloaks, offering no clues who did they work for. But he didn’t really require any.
“Mere spies believe they can kill me!?” he raged, magic aria forming in his thoughts. But before he even managed to start forming it on his lips, a gunshot echoed. Erwin was blown backward. He tried to rise to his feet, but failed, collapsing with a groan.
“We got the target! Secure the area!”
The voice was unfamiliar, someone from the assailants most likely, the first words spoken by them since the start of the ambush. Soon, the sounds of battle faded, and the only thing that could be heard were sobs of the women. Erwin felt ill at the thought of what awaited them now that the area was “secured”.
“And how is this different from what you have done?”
Another new voice asked a question as if reading his thoughts. Erwin was too weak to answer.
“A man dead, a woman enslaved. The scale is not the same, of course, but I just do as you have.”
It took a moment to understand his assailant’s words. It was about how he conspired to send Vincent to the gallows and sell Ariel into slavery. The stranger claimed to walk in his steps.
“…Y-You…don’t…have the right…to condemn…me…” he managed to choke out.
He had certainly played his part in that drama. It didn’t, however, change the fact that Maria and Lancelot had been the main driving forces back then. In his mind, nobody working for those two had the right to pass judgment.
There was one crucial problem with that idea.
“But we do,” answered the voice back. “I do. I have always been waiting for this moment. Far too long, perhaps.”
“Y…You… D…Don’t tell me…”
Erwin never got to finish what he was trying to say, his words cut off by a violent outburst of flame. He struggled, rolling on the ground in agony, but the flame, instead of going out, kept more intense by the second. Soon enough, Erwin stopped moving. And when the flame winked out of existence, not even ashes remained behind. On that day, Erwin and his followers disappeared from the stage of the story forever.
Somewhere near the frontlines of the war between the Great Alexandros Empire and the Fatillas Kingdom, Maria was leisurely basking in the presence of her harem without any kind of self-restraint. And not a single person around her would dare question it. Though this time, for a change, they were truly discussing important matters. After all, Maria’s Imperial Guards were also her military officers.
“It appears the matter of the so-called king has been dealt with.”
The one reporting was Matthew Barton, the intelligence officer of the team. It was not an official position in the Empire, just his role in Maria’s harem.
“Hmmm, I see. What happened afterward?”
“As of the time Erwin fled his kingdom, almost all of his former vassals have switched their allegiance to Gran Flamm.”
“Mhm. As expected then. To be able to predict that much… I’m impressed.”
Saying this, she glanced at another member of her harem, Alan Shelford. Alan was the strategist of the group but, despite being called that, all of his duties revolved around devising shady schemes.
For Maria’s group, destruction of that kingdom was not only a welcome development but also one they had actively worked for. It wasn’t even about Erwin being an eyesore for the Great Alexandros Empire, Maria held a grudge and personally desired his destruction. He had always seemed to scorn her methods, looking at her plans with cold and cynical eyes. But he had also always agreed to them in the end, an attitude which never failed to anger Maria. She also resented how he had gained from the end of the game while she and Lancelot met such a cruel fate. It was her revenge for unjust persecution. Of course, if Rion and Ariel ever heard this they would be horribly confused, unsure whether they should be enraged or stupefied by that attitude.
“I am flattered, Your Majesty,” replied Alan humbly. “But it just so happened that Erwin was an idiot, dancing to our tune all the way to the end. He made the task far too easy.”
He beamed at Maria’s praise. And whether he really was happy or not, Maria had always enjoyed that sort of reaction.
“Make sure to thank ‘them’ too.”
“…Wouldn’t that gesture be wasted on such gutter trash?”
Alan’s face turned cloudy. The underground organization they had frequently employed in the past had a hand in this matter too. Their undisputed usefulness, however, was precisely why Alan feared to allow them to get any closer to Maria.
“They are very useful. Wouldn’t cutting them off now be premature?”
“…It is as you say, Mistress. I will convey your gratitude immediately.”
Judging from Maria’s words, she didn’t plan on using them for long and Alan was relieved. Unfortunately for him, Maria enjoyed shrugging off peoples’ questions in this fashion and did so frequently. Just as she played with men’s hearts, she also enjoyed toying with their minds like this to have them do as she pleased.
“Excellent, what comes next?”
“I expect that once Gran Flamm recovers some of its strength, they will finally go on the offensive.”
“That seems plausible. What do we have in store for that?”
“Their first step, without a doubt, will be an attempt to recapture their former capital, the Imperial Capital City of Toque. Our preparations there are proceeding smoothly, we can just wait and deal with them when they arrive.”
“Is there no chance of them attacking Coteau instead?”
Coteau, the largest city in the west, was the former stronghold and a seat of power of the House Aquasmea. Its value as a strategic target matched, in not surpassed that of the capital.
“We are preparing for that as well, just in case, Mistress. Nevertheless, we feel that it is unlikely.”
“Their current base of operations is Bandeaux. Marching on Coteau would force them to abandon that, they cannot possibly do it.”
“I guess. Marching from Bandeaux, they will naturally reach Toque first, right?”
“Exactly so, Mistress.”
Alan agreed with Maria’s musings, but his view of the situation wasn’t as simple as hers. He knew that once Gran Flamm secured the central areas of the former Kingdom, it would be far easier for them to deal with enemies, regardless of the direction they came from. And while this might have been a very simple strategic concept, its significance could not have been overstated. Not to mention that recovering their capital would have given Gran Flamm the ability to project an image of a Kingdom in revival to all the surrounding nations. That would be a crucial boost to their momentum.
“In that case, it will be bad if we fail to eliminate Fatillas before then, right?”
“Not really, Mistress. There is no real need for haste.”
Maria thought that even for the Great Alexandros Empire it would be difficult to fight Gran Flamm and Fatillas at the same time.
“Soon, the Kingdom of Fatillas will have bigger problems than us.”
“What have you done now?”
“We handed out some weapons to the people suffering from hunger and discrimination under the oppressive rule of our enemy. Then, we told them that if they slay their villainous lords and pledge allegiance to us, we will gladly accept them as our citizens.”
“An uprising, eh? Will it succeed?”
“Well… We plan to give them a bit of encouragement. After all, those people have also been persecuted in their own way.”
“That’s wonderful. Overthrowing those with vested interests to allow citizens to create their own, equal and ideal, society. I really like that kind of idea.”
A woman coveting power and authority of an apex noble, who insisted that equality was her true ideal. That was Maria, and she saw no issues in that self-contradictory stance. In her mind, people of ability ought to be rewarded, while those lacking skill should fall to a position that they actually deserve. This was how she understood equality.
And she was not being entirely hypocritical either. Right now, in the empire, new noble houses were being invested, and common citizens were being elevated to various government posts. But, for as long as these positions remained hereditary, all that would lead to in the long term was an emergence of a new ruling class.
“Once we completely and thoroughly destroy Gran Flamm in the upcoming capital campaign, the useless aristocrats of the former Kingdom will all be weeded out and we will create the ideal society that Mistress Maria desires. We just need to wait a little longer.”
“No, we still have a long way to go. After Gran Flamm, there is Merica. And then, the whole continent awaits. We will create a new world as we spread the Great Alexandros Empire to every corner of this land.”
Maria’s lust would never be sated. The lack of freedom resulting from obtaining the title of Empress she had always desired caused her to become restless again. And now she desired something more than a mere imperial crown. She was yet to notice it, but these feelings only feed the greed lurking in the depths of her heart.
revised on 17th January 2018
Translation by Hikkinomori Translations
with the kind permission of the author
All rights to Ayato-sensei