Tales Of Leo Attiel ~Portrait Of The Headless Prince~ - lightnovelgate.com
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The conference would take place after both sides had finished taking their breakfast together.
The location was in the outskirts of Tiwana, the capital city of the Princ.i.p.ality of Atall, and, more specifically, in a castle built by the youngest brother to the previous sovereign-prince, in a village where had chosen to establish himself. A long table had been set up in one of the castle rooms, on either side of which the representatives from Allion and Dytiann faced each other. Presiding in the seat of honour was the witness from Atall.
Dytiann's delegation consisted of Mordin and Bishop Baal.
When they had received reports, a month earlier, that "Mordin Yanos might be attending," Atall had been abuzz. He was very much a big-shot. This was the man who held command over the entire military of the Dytiann Alliance, and rumours claimed that he was now calling himself "king". He had ridden to Atall on a gorgeously decorated air carrier.
Opposite them sat Aventa Navarro, who was the younger brother of Allion's king, Hugh-Jarl Jamil, as well as Administrative Deputy-Secretary for the capital city.
With him was also the greatly-experienced Hawking Ingram.
According to the rumours which had been floating about, Hawking had been unwilling to come to Atall, claiming that he was, after all, "practically retired". He had not, however, been able to refuse after being personally nominated by the king's younger brother, Aventa.
Finally, the witness from Atall was Branton Attiel, the eldest son of Sovereign-Prince Magrid.
And next to him, with the position of aide to his brother, was the second son, Leo Attiel. He was nothing if not closely related to the incident at Conscon Temple, being the mastermind who had received a.s.sistance from Dytiann to defeat Hayden, the commander of Allion's army. As such, he was more closely concerned with the matter at hand than any of the great men present.
As far as the sovereign-prince was concerned, he wanted Atall to remain strictly neutral throughout the meeting. Accordingly, he had not intended to let Leo attend, given that he was bound to cause trouble, but when both Allion and Dytiann nominated him, Magrid was unable to flat-out reject their request.
Behind Leo, who was sitting at the head of the table, was Stark. He was serving as an advisor to the a.s.sistant but, naturally, he had also been tasked with monitoring Leo.
Everyone introduced themselves and exchanged greetings.
The meeting started out comparatively peacefully.
To begin with, Dytiann's stance rapidly became clear. While justifying themselves to Allion, they did not wish to seem unduly servile. When all was said and done, it was Allion which had first caused all the turmoil. Without any just cause, they had marched their troops towards what was a holy site for the Cross Faith, and so, if anything, Dytiann felt like they should be the ones denouncing the other party. Of course, however, they did not want to provoke a war by relying on that kind of emotional argument.
Broadly speaking, Allion was following the same lines as Dytiann. Although they were censuring Dytiann for having trespa.s.sed into their territory, they didn't want to make it into anything bigger than it needed to be. However, since Dytiann had been caught violating their borders, public opinion in Allion would not accept it if they did not obtain at least one concession from Dytiann.
Skill was required from the representatives of both sides.
Dytiann insisted that: "Our sole purpose in dispatching our troops was to protect all of the believers at Conscon who share the same G.o.d as us." This agreed with the explanation that Lord Leo had given to the king of Allion, about why he had sent reinforcements.
In other words, they were playing on the fact that their position was the same as Price Leo, whom Allion had more or less forgiven. "We had no intention of invading Allion," "there is no reason for you not to overlook our actions, just as you did with Lord Leo's," they pet.i.tioned.
Opposite them, Allion demanded explanations. "Well then, why did Arthur Causebulk cross the border?"
Incidentally, the one speaking for Dytiann was almost entirely Baal. Mordin would occasionally interject with a grunt, or give the very slightest of nods, but he did not speak.
On Allion's side, only Aventa, the king's younger brother, was talking - so excitedly that he was practically frothing at the mouth. Hawking's expression remained uninterested from start to end. Once again, Aventa leaned forward towards those on the other side to press them for an explanation:
"Isn't it absolutely obvious that you intended to attack Allion under cover of wartime fire from the temple?"
Bishop Baal replied,
"He was there only to create a distraction. As it took place on the battlefield, I do not have the full details, but I believe he intended to cut Sir Hayden's attacking forces from their headquarters, and so chip away at their morale. Isn't that right, Your Highness Leo?"
Although Leo was supposed to be an observer, Baal seemed intent on dragging him into things at this point. The tone he spoke in was mild, but his eyes were darting poison.
At that moment, Stark, pretending to pick up a sheet of paper which had fallen to the floor, whispered something in Leo's ear.
"I do not know the full details either," Leo's answer was concise. "Although I too was certainly present on the battlefield, by the time I arrived at the temple, Sir Arthur had already been killed in battle. However… what the lord bishop has just said accords with what I later heard from the people at the temple."
By presenting it as second-hand knowledge, Leo pulled himself away from the whirlpool of arguments he had risked being dragged into. In so doing, he also gave some measure of support to Bishop Baal, but Allion's interrogation did not end there.
"I hear that in your country, there is a tendency to view Arthur as a hero? And that he is even being seen as a saint who 'sacrificed himself for G.o.d's teachings'. Are you aiming to exacerbate people's hostility towards Allion?"
"Absolutely not!" Bishop Baal interrupted so forcefully that he was spewing spittle.
It was actually true that Arthur was being treated as a hero. Or, more accurately, it was true that the higher-ups in the Church were acting that way, so Allion's concern was entirely reasonable. The aim, however, was not to stoke people's fighting spirit.
Instead, the problem was Leo Attiel, whose fame was resounding throughout Dytiann. The people in those religious lands were singing the praises of the prince who had faced the mighty Allion in order to defend a temple of the Cross Faith.
"Why didn't Dytiann do anything?"
"Surely the temple must have asked for help from Dytiann as well? But the top-bra.s.s in the Church are afraid of Allion."
"To think that even a tiny country like Atall took action, even though it only has a distant connection with G.o.d's teachings - the Church really is deplorable. Normally, they always look as though everything they do is in accordance with G.o.d's will, and they're quick to preach His teachings, but when they need to protect His devout followers, they just run away."
The Church had come under repeated criticism. It hadn't been so very long since the civil war had died down in Dytiann so, if, at the time, the situation had developed into war with the mighty Allion, the people would likewise have been outspoken in their condemnation. Yet, for the same reason that the civil war was so recent, the Church feared nothing more than this sort of criticism.
Which was why it needed to loudly proclaim that, "our Dytiann fought to defend Conscon. This victory was not achieved thanks to Lord Leo's courage or prudence, but instead owes far more to Arthur Causebulk, the commander of the Sergaia Holy Rose Division, who took action even at the cost of his own life."
Allion's side naturally understood these circ.u.mstances, it was just that they wanted the extra ammunition to fire at their opponents.
Given that everyone there understood the circ.u.mstances, n.o.body was remotely interested in Baal's reb.u.t.tal. They all knew that nothing that was said was true. And naturally, for that reason, those who heard him were as impa.s.sive as walls, and Baal's words merely bounced off them in vain. However -
"Arthur left for the front on my orders."
Everyone there turned their startled gazes in the same direction.
He had one brawny arm stretched out on top of the table, and his other palm was placed on top of it. If Leo's memory served correctly, he had remained in that same position since first entering the room.
"There is no cause for regret when a warrior bravely offers his life in a foreign land on the orders of his liege, and in accordance with the Divine Will. We were not especially holding him up as a hero, but merely asked that prayers be offered so that his soul could find peace. And the people simply responded to that call."
The tone in which he spoke was low, but it was heard far more clearly than Baal's raised voice.
A little after noon, they took a short break.
Once the representatives had left the room, Leo called Percy over to a corner of the room.
"What do you think?" He asked briefly.
Percy had also been in the room from the start, mixed in among the pages, and so he had witnessed the full proceedings. He thought for a moment before answering.
"It looks as though both countries have their own circ.u.mstances to consider, and want to avoid an open confrontation. Both sides are attacking lightly while waiting in ambush for the opponent to make concessions."
There was always friction between countries. They wished to avoid attracting hostility from other lands but, at the same time, if they appeared weak, then they would lose support from their own people. They constantly had to weigh in the balance the twin dangers of having other countries send troops against them, and of rebellion erupting from within.
"In Allion, fights are still breaking out in the wake of its wars of expansion. From what you hear, the king himself is constantly galloping off in all directions to suppress them or to act as mediator. Well, then again… rumours say that the king loves being personally present in battles and war."
I can sort of see it - Leo was reminded of the king that he had only ever met once. Among Leo's acquaintances, the one he most resembled was Claude Anglatt. Their positions and outward appearances were completely different, but they were alike in that they were both br.i.m.m.i.n.g with energy, and both seemed bad at staying quietly in one place.
"Meanwhile, in Dytiann, it has been five years since the civil war came to an end, but no doubt they want more time to consolidate their ground. It was certainly unexpected to learn that Mordin, the army's supreme commander, would be coming here, but, from that alone, it is clear that they want to avoid a head-on collision with Allion."
That a man in Mordin's position had come in person was, in itself, a mark of Dytiann's consideration for Allion.
"That being the case, how's this meeting going to end?"
"In Allion, the notion of subjugating Dytiann will be brought up because of this. Those voices won't be particularly loud since, thanks to Sir Claude's 'achievement', they did not take any direct damage. Still, the king is as he is. And from time immemorial, retainers have taken their cue from their king's personality. With the younger warriors at its centre, the momentum will build up."
Percy's reading was to prove accurate.
Once the meeting resumed after the break, Allion launched itself into an offensive. In contrast to earlier, it was Hawking who spoke.
"We would prefer not to have to listen to your country making long, drawn-out excuses again. We want firm promises. We would like you to guarantee to us that, from here on, Dytiann will sever all contact with Conscon Temple, and that you will not send soldiers to that area again," he stated firmly.
Across from him, Baal grimaced. Conscon was conveniently located as far as Dytiann was concerned. If they could maintain their connection with it, it would make a very good defence if Allion made a push towards the east. Moreover, Conscon Temple was displaying grat.i.tude towards Dytiann over the recent incident. If they could use that to build up their relationship, Conscon's usefulness would further increase.
Besides which, there was also the loss of Arthur. Baal had known Arthur since the later had been a child, and he did not want his death to go to waste. In spite of himself, he became emotional.
"If it's a matter of firm promises, then we want the same. And in the first place, if Allion does not send soldiers against the temple, we will have no reason to dispatch our own…"
While Baal looked ready to take up the fight, Mordin cut his words short by raising his hand.
Wow, what huge hands! Unconsciously, Leo opened his eyes wide.
Mordin was so huge that Leo really couldn't compare, and even his face would probably fit several times over in the surface of Mordin's own.
Baal was also startled and bit back his words. Just now, he had almost said that it's because you sent soldiers that we sent soldiers, but that backward and forwarding of blame had already been endlessly exchanged through letters and messengers before the meeting had started, until both sides had grown tired of it. Which was what had led to both sides sending envoys to meet face-to-face.
If he repeated that childish exchange now, it would harm the authority and the whole meaning of this conference. After bringing Baal under control, Mordin seemed to swiftly reach a decision.
"We have no intention of bringing fights into holy grounds."
The meaning behind those words was that he accepted Allion's request.
Having obtained the commitment they had asked for, Allion's side might have been expected to leave things at that for now. Yet if anything, Hawking, the veteran, did not stay his hand and attacked with such vigour that his earlier lack of enthusiasm for the meeting seemed impossible to believe.
"Then next…" he went on to add further stipulations.
Baal's expression changed once more. It wasn't just him: emotion even flitted across Mordin's face, which had so far remained expressionless. Hawking had suggested that Mordin go to Allion's capital and meet the king in person.
Of course, he did not go so far as to say that Mordin should offer obeisance to the king as his retainer, but the humiliation that he was going to force onto the commander of the crusading army was very close to that.
The problem was that Hawking's provocation was not only aimed at Dytiann; it was also meant for Atall, which had been contenting itself to act as a neutral party.
Percy's a.n.a.lysis had been correct, and neither Allion nor Dytiann wanted war with one another. However, Hawking's a.s.sessment was that Atall will also want to avoid any deterioration in the relationship between its two neighbouring countries. And it was with that in mind, and with the intention of observing Atall's att.i.tude, that he had deliberately made a request that Dytiann would never comply with.
Will the observers from Atall try to soothe us, or will they try to persuade Dytiann?
Simply put, he was virtually holding a blade to their neck and demanding - "Which side will Atall choose?"
Not surprisingly, Branton, the official witness, was thrown into confusion. He half rose from his seat and looked first towards the crimson-faced Bishop Baal, then towards the proud-looking Hawking but, in the end, he sat back down again without saying a word.
At that point, Hawking turned his attention towards Lord Leo, who was sitting next to Branton. From his att.i.tude, it seemed as though Hawking had only just noticed that he was there, but this was very much an act. If Hawking found anything worthwhile in this meeting which he otherwise had absolutely no interest in, it was the fact that he might be able to grasp Leo Attiel's personality.
Ever since withdrawing from the frontlines, Hawking had mostly been engaged in drawing up plans and gathering information. Through his own schemes, Hayden Swift had forcefully pushed the situation into his desired direction, and when Hayden had come to ask for his cooperation, those schemes had held a certain fascination for Hawking. He had even entrusted his own son to them.
Yet the result was that Hayden's troops had been crushed.
By Leo Attiel.
Just what kind of man is he?
More than anger, what he felt was curiosity. Because of that, Hawking had gone to Jester Castle when the king had met directly with Leo, to see what he looked like. And since what he looked like was a normal, insignificant boy, Hawking's interest had been piqued all the more.
Now then, what moves will you make?
He had felt a certain amount of antic.i.p.ation, but, after all, Leo had kept quiet in front of all these powerful figures, remaining silent, with his eyes lowered. Hawking had been somewhat disappointed.
Is he the kind of hothead who only shines on the battlefield? Or did he achieve those military exploits simply because his retainers had paved the way for him?
With Atall unable to say anything, Hawking had taken the opportunity to press Dytiann still further. Which was when Baal, whose emotions were at breaking point, made a slip.
"I-Isn't it you who first attacked the temple for no reason at all? You've been calling for apologies and for His Excellency Mordin to go to your capital, but aren't you forgetting your own position?" He blurted out the words that Mordin had earlier managed to get him to control.
Naturally, Hawking would not let that chance slip.
Branton hurriedly intervened as both sides started to get heated.
"I-If the king of Allion and His Excellency Mordin were to meet, how about doing so at a castle in Atall?" he suggested.
If Mordin went to Allion, it would be nothing but a humiliation for Dytiann, but if they met in neutral Atall, both sides would save face. It would have been much like this current meeting, but Hawking was intent on bringing shame to his opponents.
"I would appreciate it if you gentlemen from Atall would keep quiet. This is between us." The authority with which he turned him down threatened to overwhelm Branton.
The meeting was turning stormy.
Needless to say, Hawking Ingram was not being serious. Allion, however, had sufficient room for manoeuvre, so if they take it seriously, then fine.
During the interview, Hawking had constantly been scrutinising the expressions worn by the representatives. The conclusion he had come to was that if the negotiations broke down now, neither Atall nor Dytiann had either the guts or the desire to mobilise their troops. Even if these talks were suspended, both of those sides would no doubt do everything they could to set up a new meeting.
Out of the three countries of Allion, Dytiann and Atall, it was after all Allion which was the most powerful. Although Hawking did want to avoid war, he also believed that it would not matter if these talks broke down. He was ready to rise from his seat and proclaim that "it will be too late for you to back down later!"
At the same time, however, if there is one person we need to be careful about… that was Mordin, who had come to take part in the meeting.
His presence at the talks was completely outside of Hawking's predictions. Moreover, as he was, by nature, a man who was slow to express emotions, Hawking was having a hard time reading him.
He's a man of high standing. If I push too much now, he might decide to go to war on nothing but his own authority. Now then, how will you navigate these stormy seas? Will you bring things to an end or will you self-destruct?
Hawking glared down at his surroundings, showing that he was prepared to leave if needs be, depending on what Dytiann and Atall would do. Baal was loudly arguing, but not a single one of his words was sincere, while Mordin remained silent, perhaps because he was hesitating. Branton was just looking around him in a panic.
"Mordin, Your Excellency."
Leo Attiel called out to Dytiann's 'king'. Having finally spoken after so long, what would he say?
"I am acquainted with the king of Allion. If you meet with him, I could come with you," he offered.
For a moment, Hawking was as astounded as Stark, who sat behind the prince. Yet that quickly turned to gloating. Oho, so Atall's prince has chosen to support us and to try and persuade Dytiann? Well, as expected, he has an eye for things. Even if it causes friction with Dytiann, they can't take on Allion.
At that moment, Leo looked straight towards Hawking. And smiled.
"Would His Majesty the King be willing to meet with me a second time?"
"But of course. His Majesty, King Jamil, frequently praises your bravery, Lord Leo. He has been telling us until our ears burn that he wishes the men of Allion had even a fraction of your daring, so I have no doubt that he sincerely wishes to see you again, Prince."
Hawking spoke as though he was stroking the head of a puppy which had come to be hugged. And yet -
"Is that so? Certainly, when I think about it, the king of Allion was a gentleman who was courteous even to a shallow youth such as myself. When I said that I very much wished to meet him in person, he said that he would hate to have me travel all the way to his capital city, and went out of his way to select a meeting point that was halfway between the Anglatt domains and the capital. Naturally, he will also be anxious to meet with His Excellency Mordin. And it's none other than Atall which is the halfway point between Allion and Dytiann. Yet, Sir Hawking, for some reason, you don't really seem to favour that solution. So in that case, where would be a good place?"
"Hah?" Hawking exclaimed somewhat foolishly.
What is this idiot of a prince talking about? What does he mean, 'where would be good'? If anywhere within Allion would have done, I'd have said so from the start. The whole point for us is to have Mordin go to the capital. Does he want me to repeat myself?
"Ah, no, Prince… Please hold on."
Given that it concerns our Allion and that Dytiann…
Hawking realised the meaning behind the smile that Lord Leo had maintained throughout. Leo had stated that "I will accompany Mordin," and furthermore, he had asked, "Would the king be willing to meet me?" By confirming the latter, Hawking had agreed to the former. In other words, he had agreed that the Princ.i.p.ality of Atall was not unrelated to this matter.
Just as Hawking unintentionally fell silent, Leo spoke again.
"I would like to confirm this with our guests from Allion. The Kingdom of Allion no longer lays claim to Conscon Temple, is that not right?"
"Naturally. Peace has already been concluded in our king's name."
What are you trying to do by going over all of this again, brat? Hawking scowled faintly at Leo, who did not turn his eyes away.
"Then that's perfect. The land with the deepest connection to this matter is, of course, Conscon. His Majesty Jamil said that what happened was 'an acc.u.mulation of misfortunes'. I share the same opinion. We must not risk repeating the same misfortune. Do you not agree that if the king of Allion were to go to Conscon, it would symbolically sweep away all of those misfortunes and misunderstandings?"
"Wait! You want our king to go to Conscon?"
"Yes," Leo's cheerful smile was unwavering. "If the king of Allion and His Excellency Mordin are to meet, there is nowhere more suitable. Isn't that right? If they truly wish for peace, I hope that they will give it some consideration."
Why Conscon of all places? Faced with Leo's beaming smile, Hawking Ingram chewed on the corner of his lip.
It was currently at peace with Allion but, obviously, it wasn't the sort of place in which the man who held supreme power in Allion - which had once led hostilities against it - would currently want to set foot. Conversely, Dytiann had sent soldiers to their aid, so the temple was sure to warmly welcome them.
The meeting between Mordin and the king is supposed to be a concession on Dytiann's part, but does he intend to turn it into a concession from the king of Allion by having him go to the temple? And more than that, since the prince is personally concerned with this, it makes it difficult for us to refuse.
While inwardly growling, Hawking outwardly presented a expression from which the interest was fading.
"Hmm, thinking about it, I'm not sure it's such a good idea."
He backed down. Which brought the talk about a meeting between 'kings' to an end. From the start, that had never been something Hawking was really aiming for. And with Allion pulling back from that issue, Dytiann was also more or less able to save face.
After this, Allion and Dytiann would follow the established route of continuing to exchange frequent messengers, and the talks came to an end.
Although all of those who had taken part in the meeting - including Stark Barsley, who had been observing closely from start to end - rose from their seats with calm expressions, all of them had but one name which similarly and deeply impressed itself upon their minds.
Hawking's expression had turned ugly when he heard that name, but on their way back to Allion, the ship he was riding on had no choice but to drop anchor for a while at the temple.
Soldiers who had been wounded in battle, and who had thus been slow to escape, were being held there as prisoners of war. Given that locking them up was nothing but a burden in terms of time and money, those without status had been released. Those who were in any way prominent, however, had remained confined up until now.
It had been more than three months. Allion had deliberately ignored them in favour of investigating the relation between the temple and Dytiann. During the conference, Leo had promised Allion that they would be returned without any request for ransom.
Out of consideration for the feelings of those living on Mount Conscon, the air carrier landed some distance away from the foot of the mountain. Hawking himself had remained on board. "You go," he had ordered one his retainers with a sour expression.
At the same time, the imprisoned captives were being let out of the building in which they had been kept, and were being made to stand in row. Warrior monks armed with spears and guns were keeping watch over them, with Camus at their head.
"You!" One of the prisoners of war shouted towards him in a violent - but unmistakably high-pitched - voice.
Looking at him, he was still young - probably about the same age as Kuon. However, unlike Kuon, who gave the impression of a somewhat feral child, this boy had a certain dignity in both expression and manner. Even though he had been held captive for over three months, it was clear at a glance that he was young but strong-willed.
"You've forgotten? I'm Randius!" Even though he was a captive, the boy puffed out his chest.
After thinking about it for a moment - Ah! - recognition seemed to dawn on Camus' face, but he then proceeded to ignore the boy. That was how little importance he gave to him.
"You've got it now, right?" Randius, however, continued to talk in that voice of his which still had a trace of boyishness in it. "You were pretty good. Of all the monks at the temple, you were the strongest. That probably makes it even harder for you to have been defeated by me. You're pretending not to recognise me and trying to look like it's nothing big, but that's just because you don't want to admit how bitter you feel. I get it, I get it, you know?"
Camus pretended not to hear. The voice rose even higher into the blue sky.
"Did you all hear, warrior monks of Conscon? That man over there was defeated by me. And then, just before I could kill him, he managed to escape by having a sniper shoot at me. What a coward! n.o.body with even the smallest knowledge of the art of fighting would act that way. Cowardly, underhanded and base a thousand times over!"
The spear in Camus' hand started to shake and, in the next moment, he had suddenly rushed up to Randius.
"Who's a coward? On the battlefield, taking you captive makes me the winner, getting caught makes you the loser. There's nothing else to it!"
"Shut up you pathetic fool who pretends to get your power from G.o.d. Both our wounds should have healed by now, so let's have another round!"
"Victory has already been decided. Look, they've come from your country to take you back. I don't care whether it's by ship or on horseback, but hurry up and leave these sacred grounds, you little cretin."
"Are you afraid of losing again, warrior monk? Actually, no - I've heard your name. It's Camus, right? If you're even half a warrior, have a rematch with me, one-to-one. If you don't, then don't think that battlefield is over yet."
Randius was still shouting. Just then -
"Please do so later, Master Randius."
The one who spoke was a man who had come for the prisoners, and who had already come up to the two of them. Not having been given a chance to explain himself, Randius' face flushed bright red and he turned to look at who had spoken, before suddenly exclaiming - "Ah!"
"Igor, it's been forever! Don't tell me you've been sent to fetch me?" Randius' face broke into a boyish smile. "Perfect timing. Give me your sword; I need to settle things with this guy."
"And I ask that you do so at some later time."
"What did you say? Even you - even though you've served Father for a long time, if Father hears about this, he'll be furious. How can you not help his son wipe out his disgrace and…"
"Have you not heard about it?" The middle-aged man said with a grin. "I've just returned from Atall. I was waiting on your father, who was attending the conference with Dytiann."
"Father… Father came here?"
Randius' ruddy face underwent a complete transformation as the blood drained from it at an almost frightening speed. Igor bit back a smile.
"Your father is waiting for you at the ship. Now then, we mustn't take up too much time with these gentlemen of the temple. Young master, you know that Lord Hawking hates nothing as much as being kept waiting."
"I-I know," Randius had turned astonishingly meek. Still, as they were heading towards the ship, he turned once to look back.
"Camus! We'll postpone settling things for now," he did not forget to call out.
"What's with that young cub!"
Camus was snorting with indignation, as his sister came to stand beside him.
"It looks like you have a fated connected with that eligible young bachelor," she teased. "Wouldn't it have been better to bring things to an end? Couldn't you have settled it in a second?"
"I don't wield my spear for no good reason," Camus sullenly replied.
Just as Igor had done earlier, Sarah had to fight back a smile. Actually, n.o.body wanted to settle things more than her brother did. In that battle, Camus had fought like one possessed, but because of that, he ran himself into complete exhaustion, and it was when both his body and mind had reached their limit that the boy had challenged him. He had taken a cut to the leg and had been pushed back until he had been on the verge of losing his life, only to be saved by a bullet fired by Sarah.
I would never have been defeated by that kind of brat if I'd been in peak condition - there was no doubt that Camus, who fundamentally hated losing, felt that way. Which was why he had probably very much wanted to accept when Randius had challenged him to a rematch.
But as one who followed G.o.d's teachings, he was desperately trying to convince himself that "On the battlefield, a win is a win."
It was because she understood his anguish very clearly that Sarah was so amused.
While Hawking and the others were returning to Allion, Lord Mordin and Bishop Baal were sailing back to Dytiann.
The two of them had spent their time in separate cabins but, having entered Dytiann's territory, they disembarked at a location some distance away from the cathedral. It was forbidden to ride up to Dytiann Cathedral in an air carrier, and Mordin was no exception. Or more accurately, it was Mordin himself who had created the rule.
People should not brazenly dance near the sky in those holy precincts, was the explanation that was given. The real reason, of course, was to protect the cathedral.
Mordin and Baal were jolted about in the same carriage as they travelled the road leading to it. For a while, the two of them remained silent but, when the sun had almost sunk out of view behind the forest, Mordin abruptly spoke up, startling Baal.
"The prince helped us out."
Seen from the side in the setting sun, Mordin's appearance was even more like a wild beast's than usual.
"He holds considerable talent."
"B-But, Your Excellency…"
"I know." Since Mordin was gazing straight ahead, seen from the side, it seemed as though he was just muttering to himself. "That's what convinced me. Just as you said, that young lord definitely pretended to request reinforcements and caught Arthur in a trap."
"Subjugating Atall will be a fitting pledge to offer to G.o.d. But, Baal…"
"I understand, Your Excellency," Baal's expression turned solemn.
There was no one else in the carriage. There was nothing to fear from the coachman either, as he was out of earshot. Yet even so, Baal lowered his voice still further.
"Now is the time for caution. So that very soon, Your Excellency will single-handedly hold all real power within the Church."
After the representatives of Allion and Dytiann left Atall, the higher-ups decided that the talks had, at least for the time being, been a success.
Numerous voices rose in praise of Branton, who had skilfully served his role as a witness. Branton outwardly received those plaudits with modesty, saying that "I showed my face, nothing more," but Percy, who had also been present at the meeting, was strangely concerned about Branton's manner right after it had ended.
After both sets of envoys had left, he had walked up to Leo.
"You saved me," Branton had said. "It's a good thing you were there. Being deceived like that by Allion, we would probably have lost any chance of smoothing things with Dytiann."
His words had been sincere. But for that very reason, Percy had been all the more aware of the unease in the smile that he had given Leo. There was no sense of jealousy or hostility towards his younger brother. Rather, it had seemed like he didn't have the strength to smile. He seemed to be depressed.
Even so, Percy had no tangible cause for concern, so he did not speak about it. Instead, as they were leaving the castle which had served as the stage for the meeting, he talked to Leo on a different topic.
They had avoided any deterioration in their relations with Allion and Dytiann, but that was only on the surface. In fact, seeing the two of them together had highlighted that both sides had the same thought: The present situation is as it is, but one day, this is an enemy we will cross swords with. On this, at least, Leo and Percy were in agreement.
"It felt a though even if right now their interactions are courteous, it would only take one chance opportunity for a ma.s.sive war to erupt."
"And when that happens, the blade will definitely fall on Atall," Leo wore a thoughtful expression.
He did not say anything further, but Percy had learned to read this prince's mind, even if only a little. That means that we can't be negligent in our preparations. Whatever direction the blade falls from, we can raise a shield overhead. And from the openings in the shield, we can thrust out a spear at any time.
"It's amazing, isn't it?" Leo spoke again after a while.
"I'm not sure how to put it - Oh, right, for example: when I was living in Allion, I never imagined that I would meet people like Mordin or Hawking. Or, obviously, that I would watch them discuss their countries' policies right in front of me. And that wasn't a problem. There was nothing missing in my life, at least as far as being to able live it went."
"But seeing them like that, watching as they tackle discussions that might involve entire countries in turmoil - I can't believe that I used to live such a carefree life. Even though so many strategies are mapped out in this world, even though there are people who are like G.o.ds in that they're playing a game far above the heads of the people and the soldiers, and who, with just a single word, can mobilise ten thousand, or a hundred men… I didn't have even the slightest sense of crisis, and all I thought about were things like what was supper going to be that evening, what book would I read that night, or wouldn't it be nice if tomorrow was sunny..."
Percy understood what Leo was trying to say. After all, he too had started to become aware of a similar sort of feeling to what the prince was describing.
"I also look with consternation on how I used to know nothing."
"Right, consternation. And what I find especially appalling is that there are so few people who have that in common, here in Atall."
Percy very much shared that feeling.
When taking their first step into society, it was common for young people to feel fearful of that world which was so much wider than anything they could have imagined, and that they were starting to catch glimpses of.
At the same time, they felt scornful of their previous, ignorant self. And simultaneously, some people would start to lament that I'm the only one who understands, and those laments were close to being a sort of superiority complex. In other words, they would look at the people around them and think forlornly "They live their lives without noticing a thing. How can they be so stupid and slow?" And they looked down in mocking contempt at everyone - their present self excepted and their old self included.
At that time, Leo Attiel was in a frame of mind that closely resembled that. And, as often happens when young men feel a sense of superiority, his desire to change the current situation as quickly as possible, even if it was only by a second earlier, invited impatience.
I have to make them understand, thought Leo. Those fools who think that simply avoiding the pebbles that they can see in front of them is enough to protect themselves, their property and their country - I'll make them understand that war isn't something you see in front of you, that it's always lurking in the shadows underfoot. And I'll show them what they need to do to protect the people and their belongings.
Some of his time had been taken up by attending the high-level conference, but even so, after his Personal Guards were established, Leo continued to personally go on inspection tours in the villages, and to appoint youths. Exaggerated rumours sprang up about how "the prince is hunting for men," and "where Lord Leo pa.s.ses, not a single able-bodied man remains".
A few days after the meeting, Leo held a large-scale kabat tournament in the grounds outside of Guinbar Castle. Those who qualified to take part were men above fifteen and beneath forty. That was the only requirement.
"Anyone who manages to win three times in a row will receive a reward," Leo had his subordinates spread the information throughout the villages.
More rumours spread about the 'man-hunting' Lord Leo - "If you catch the prince's eye, he'll appoint you to his Personal Guards". As a result, the number of partic.i.p.ants swelled to a startling degree.
Since kabat was a form of grappling contest that originated in Allion, there was practically no one in Atall who had officially performed it. The good thing about kabat, however, was that the rules were simple and that it was fun to watch, even if the contestants were not particularly skilful.
The crowd got excited as those who took pride in their strength spectacularly collided with one another, and when those of less impressive physique made free use of inspiration and technique to topple those larger than them, the spectators roared their appreciation.
When one contestant valiantly managed to knock his opponents down one after another, they cheered that: "He'll end up a great general." When a soldier of slight build threw a large opponent, the praises swirled: "He's got a talent for fighting."
The tournament's fame grew by the day, and more and more people came to watch. As was common at the time, traders and prost.i.tutes appeared wherever people gathered. Leo turned a blind eye to them. Bets on the matches started to take place between the spectators, but once the bookies had properly introduced themselves to him, Leo gave his tacit consent to them too.
At one point, though, an incident occurred.
Two young men who were clashing with one another in the circular ring made of piled earth were fighting with unusual ferocity. They repeatedly skirted close to breaking the rules with elbow strikes to the throat, or by striking their opponent's jaw with their shoulders. Upon inquiry, it turned out that the two of them were from neighbouring villages, and that those villages were constantly quarrelling and competing. The two of them were close in age, they were both wild, and, from the time they were born, they each seemed to have decided that the other was their 'arch-enemy'.
Even after the match was over, they continued to scuffle with no intention of stopping, until finally, other youths from the same villages also rushed into the ring, and a fight broke out among all of them.
"Prince, please step back!" The soldiers tasked with Leo's personal protection stepped forward to shield him.
Percy and Camus, who had only just arrived in Guinbar, entered the fray to act as mediators. With the Personal Guards also threatening the youths with their spears, the brawl finally died down, but Percy then suddenly realised that Lord Leo was no longer there. He had apparently returned to the castle, escorted by guards.
The atmosphere on the grounds turned strange.
Even at the best of times, tempers frayed easily, but the prince's absence threatened to spoil it entirely. Even if the matches continued, it didn't seem that there would be much enthusiasm. "Right," Percy threw off his leather armour.
"Everyone! I know that you don't know me, but I'm Percy Leegan, a spearman who follows His Highness, Lord Leo. Is there anyone who will be my opponent? I will recommend whoever defeats me to the prince," he entered the ring while shouting loudly.
"In that case, me too," Camus also stripped the upper half of his burly body.
Percy and Camus' names had spread since they were closely attached to Leo's fame. The area abruptly started bursting with excitement.
Since Kuon was also nearby, Percy had been hoping that he would also step up but, for some reason, the boy had constantly been in a bad mood recently. He had been watching the kabat with a bored expression, and, perhaps because the earlier brawl had completely killed any enjoyment he had, he seemed to have left with the prince.
When Percy later returned to the castle, he addressed Leo in scolding tones,
"At times like that, shouldn't the organiser turn around and come back?"
"But Percy, when there was that uproar, you were one of those shouting 'Prince, withdraw'."
"That was only supposed to be temporary. Without you there, Lord Leo, the situation was unstable. And because of that, look at me."
Percy pointed to the cuts and bruises that covered his entire body. He had got them when breaking up the brawl, and in a series of kabat fights. Even the tip of his nose had been sc.r.a.pped raw, and looked comically red.
"I see, I'm sorry," Leo gave a slight frown and nodded. He got neither angry nor depressed, and simply seemed perplexed.
The prince displayed almost startling amounts of talent but, on rare occasions, one caught a glimpse of how lacking in experience he was. Since he had been left in a foreign country from when he was very young, he probably didn't have a standard by which to measure the effect on others of the actions of someone in authority.
- The incident was only a small one, but the impression it left on Percy would be an unusually lasting one.
It had been two months since his Personal Guards had officially been inaugurated, and about half a year since the end of the battles around Conscon Temple. As new faces joined, Percy gradually came to be acknowledged as Leo's right-hand man by those around them, while Camus, who was coming and going between Conscon Temple and the Guinbar area, started to be know as a retainer who served as a link to the temple.
Yet - as I already mentioned earlier - the third hero who had once rescued Lord Leo from Allion's territory, Kuon, the mercenary who came from the mountain lands, had been in a bad mood recently.
For a start, he had nothing to do.
He had, for now, joined Leo's Personal Guards. However, there was no particular danger within the princ.i.p.ality, and although, when the prince was moving around he did so without pause, when he stayed still, he did so for extended periods of time. Perhaps those times caused Kuon's gloominess to increase, but he got into quarrels over the most trifling things with his fellow Guards and with the young men in the towns.
Honestly, not this again, sighed Percy.
When they had been fighting Allion at the temple, Kuon had often caused disturbances among his companions. Remembering how he had to run around and break things up each and every time, Percy decided that he needed to give Kuon something to do.
"If you're free, won't you supervise the training for the new recruits?" he asked.
Having no particular reason to refuse, Kuon accepted, but as he was taciturn and seemed to bad-tempered, he did not have a good reputation among the recruits. More importantly, although they were 'new' recruits, the overwhelming majority of them were older than Kuon, and since he had not earned any particularly noteworthy achievements in the previous battles, an increasing number of people started to look down on this 'instructor'.
At that point, Kuon's bad mood also increased.
"If you're not happy, then come at me!"
The fights he picked only grew more numerous.
Yet interestingly enough, Kuon never slacked off about training. Even though he tended to talk as little as possible, and his manner was a little rough, he taught methodically. He was especially in-depth when it came to helping those whose physique was slightly on the underwhelming side, enthusiastically drilling them in how to choose a weapon, or how to use their size.
"When you tangle, it has to come from you," he hurled his instructions. "If your legs are injured and you fall, it's the end. When you take a blow, you absolutely have to pull back while your armour is deflecting it, and quickly move in to attack again from a different angle."
It was obvious that he was familiar with teaching the art of fighting to others. Since neither Percy nor Camus had any experience with doing so, in that sense, Kuon was invaluable, and Percy often felt what a waste it was that he attracted so much criticism and displeasure because of his att.i.tude.
"Kuon seems to be getting more irritated by the day. Do you know why?" Percy asked when Kuon wasn't around.
He had approached Kuon several times to ask him what was wrong, but Kuon shot him down with a curt, "Nothing."
"If that's what's worrying you, leave it to me," Camus thumped his chest. "Kuon is my beloved disciple. Considering his personality, he'll be stubborn at first, but with G.o.d's love, I, his master, will pry open his hardened heart, and then surely, in a flood of pa.s.sionate tears, he will lean his head on my welcoming chest and will honestly bare his emotions."
Camus went up to Kuon, br.i.m.m.i.n.g with self-confidence.
"How about it, Kuon? Won't you come to ma.s.s sometime soon? It's nothing too formal. You only need to listen as the Holy Scriptures are read out loud, and immerse yourself in the atmosphere."
First, he planned to use an indirect approach. He expected Kuon to answer with, "Shut up," and to turn him down flat. And yet -
"Speaking of which, Camus, I've been meaning to ask you about it. G.o.d, that is."
"O-Oh!" Camus' voice was filled with emotion. Seeing Kuon so unexpectedly proactive, he only barely managed to avoid shedding 'pa.s.sionate tears' of his own.
"I see, there are points you have been thinking of. No, no, there's nothing remotely strange about it. It isn't as though, when you enter the faith and offer your body and soul entirely to the Divine Love, all of your doubts and misgivings are cleared away. Instead, it means that you are standing at the starting point. Everyone hesitates and loses the way whilst walking it, and that's why we need the help of mentors and of senior disciples. Indeed, the path of faith is a hard one, and it is not one that can be walked alone. Well then, Kuon, what is it? Think of me as an older brother to whom you can say anything."
"Camus, it's something you said earlier. Before our ancestors rode a huge ship and landed on this planet… I mean, on the planet they lived on before that, you said that the Cross Faith already existed."
"That's right. Our Master is the G.o.d which has been believed in for the longest time. His great works are…"
"I've been wondering about it since I heard it, but…" Kuon continued, cutting through Camus' words. "That G.o.d is on the previous planet, and he's also on this planet, so does that mean he also rode on the big ship?"
"But if you think about it, isn't it weird? Or is there one more G.o.d every time there's another planet?"
"D-Don't be stupid. G.o.d definitely isn't the kind of being that you're imagining. G.o.d… right, He dwells in the hearts of all who believe and resonates with them… No, wait. That's wrong. I was going to just give you my interpretation. I am still a greenhorn. This isn't a topic that can be settled with my words alone. Let's put it on the agenda for the next reading session. And for that, I need to get the materials ready at once. Faith is truly profound…"
Camus' mind was struck with a puzzle of its own, and his attention was entirely taken up by it. To put it simply, he proved completely useless.
Percy felt extremely foolish.
What a completely unreliable monk. He's far more useful in fight. But anyway, about Kuon. Percy was fairly sure that he wouldn't get anything out of him either. But if I ask him directly, it might just make him even more irritated. And it will become difficult if he puts his guard up afterwards. I need to carefully remove the obstacles and give him as little provocation as possible, and take my time, without getting impatient, to edge my way closer…
He continued to worry over it. As bad luck would have it, though, Sarah had witnessed the whole series of events and, the day after her brother failed in his attempt -
"Kuon, everyone says you've been strange recently. Well, since it's you, did you eat something which was lying about on the ground and get a stomach ache?" she approached Kuon so outspokenly that had he been there to see it, Percy would probably have felt faint.
"It's nothing," Kuon was as curt as ever.
Sarah became indignant.
"Yesterday, I thought the stray dog was getting tamer and attached to me, but today it goes and bites me."
"What? Who's getting attached to you? If you got close, even a puppy that hasn't grown fangs yet would bite."
"What did you say? Animals love me, I'll have you know."
Even though it was a metaphor that she had brought up herself, it was very much like Sarah to then take it at face value. Just as it looked like they were about to get into their usual quarrelling -
"It's good to see you getting along."
Normally, it was Percy's role to get between the two of them, but just this once, it was Lord Leo who stepped in. Not surprisingly, Sarah quickly stopped talking while Kuon looked uncomfortable.
Leo Attiel sat down on the bare ground.
They could hear the voices of soldiers coming from the castle courtyard where they were training. Leo was on a leisurely inspection of them. He was watching as the young men fought with staffs to capture the others' flags or broke in horses, when Kuon suddenly asked a question.
"When's the war going to be… if I may be so bold as to ask?"
Leo looked surprised.
"Since you're training soldiers, there's going to be a war, right?"
"Just because you're gathering and training soldiers doesn't mean a war is definitely about to break out," Sarah giggled. "The prince is doing what he's doing so that he'll always be prepared for when a war does break out."
"I get that," Kuon bit out, as much as to say 'don't b.u.t.t in'.
"It's not like I don't understand. You want to earn glory as quickly as possible. And in the last battle, you lost your chance to kill Hayden, right? It's because you don't have any achievements to your name that the recruits treat you like a fool. So I understand that you're feeling impatient."
"That's not…" Kuon started to gnash out his words again.
"Percy mentioned something," Leo's gentle voice broke in between the two of them. "Kuon, he said that you clearly have experience in training recruits. That's how good at it you are, you know?"
"That's… On the mountain, that's just normal," said Kuon.
The 'mountain' he was talking about was not Mount Conscon, but the place where he had been born and raised. Leo had heard from Percy that Kuon's birthplace was the rugged land that lay south of the Kesmai Plains - an area which was called "the Fangs Mountain Range" on maps in the princ.i.p.ality.
"Most of the young men in the mountains become soldiers. It's only natural that the seniors teach the juniors who've been incorporated in the same unit. If they don't, then the unit loses strength and they're the ones who'll be in danger."
"What do you mean by 'unit'? Are you organised in units from childhood in your mountains, Kuon?"
"The 'unit' is… Well, you're right, but it's more like something like a family. Most kids join the same 'unit' as their father, although there also cases where that doesn't happen, but then… you know, they change their 'surname'."
Kuon's expression indicated that he was having a hard time explaining. Other than for martial arts, he wasn't used to explaining things to someone who knew nothing about them. But Leo patiently listened to him, while still observing the soldiers who were training.
"For example, I was called Kuon Wei. The one who looked after me was a man called Datta Wei. And because Datta was the strongest of the Wei's, he was the head of the 'Wei'. So if I left the 'unit', I'd have a different surname."
It wasn't simply that Kuon was bad at giving explanations, when he said the name "Datta Wei", his expression seemed pained. His past seemed to include some unpleasant memories, but Leo deliberately pretended not to notice.
"So, Kuon, you were trained by the people of the 'Wei Unit', and you also taught the younger 'Wei' children?"
"Those who were good with a sword taught the sword, for those who were skilled at archery, it was the bow, and if your strong point was marksmanship, you taught how to use guns."
"I've heard that you're good with all of them. You must have been given an important position. So, Kuon, if you hadn't left the mountains, would you have one day ended up leading the entire 'Wei' unit?"
"No," Kuon declared firmly. "That wouldn't have happened."
"Why not?" Sarah had been listening with considerable interest. Actually, since this was the first time that Kuon had talked about his birthplace, she hadn't been able to rein in her natural curiosity. "Although it pains me to admit it, you're strong, aren't you? Or else, is your 'mountain' full of apes all as skilled as you are?"
"Even if I'd won the festival, I probably couldn't have become Warrior Raga."
"The strongest warrior on the mountain. He was a swordsman said to have been granted the shape of a beast by G.o.d to expel evil spirits but, obviously, now, he doesn't actually look like a beast... but when the time's right, they choose the strongest man."
Kuon really wasn't any good at giving explanations. Leo and Sarah listened to him while sorting out the words in their heads.
So 'Raga' is the name of a legendary swordsman from the mountains and, from generation to generation, they've been selecting the strongest man and respectfully give him that as a t.i.tle - is that what he means?
"Even though they said that either me or Diu might be the next Raga, if I'd beaten Diu, they'd probably have found all sorts of reasons for not recognising me as Raga. Like how Raga's soul couldn't dwell in a half-blood like me, or…"
Having talked up to that point, Kuon suddenly seemed to snap back to himself.
"Anyway, never mind about me," he almost spat out his words. "I'll work for you, Prince, if you give me money. If you say to do it, I'm fine with training recruits. But it's just that if there isn't going to be a war, then that isn't worth doing."
Leo carefully observed at his profile.
Given that Kuon had been growing increasingly irritated recently, his thoughts probably didn't match his words. He wanted war. What Sarah had said about him wanting to "earn glory" probably wasn't wrong.
Leo didn't know what his reason was, but -
"Be patient for a bit longer, Kuon."
Leo Attiel stood up while patting the dirt off from his backside, before stating something that left Sarah startled. "It will only be for a short while. There will soon be a war in Atall."