A lone girl walked the Kingdom’s streets.
There was nothing adorable about her face. There was nothing about her looks that made observers want to do a double take. However, she still drew attention, albeit in a negative sense.
Her beady black eyes slanted upwards, giving the impression that she was constantly glaring at others, while the dark circles around her eyes made people think that she was the kind of person who hung around with criminals in seedy back alleys.
It was useful for walking among crowds, but once she reached city gates and other such places, she would receive intensive scrutiny and searches from the local authorities.
That girl, Neia Baraja, looked to the sky.
Above her, the sky was covered in dark clouds, giving observers the wrong impression that it was close to dusk when it was still daytime.
The heart of winter had passed, but spring was still a long way off.
Neia sighed tiredly, then marshalled the keen senses she had inherited from her parents and walked toward the street which led to the inn where she was staying.
The reason why she had to be so wary even in a city was because she felt a powerful sense of exclusion towards herself, an outsider, ever since she had entered this city.
Naturally, it was nothing more than the girl’s imagination.
After all, when she wore a cloak with the hood drawn up over her head, there was no way to tell whether she was a foreigner. However, she had not been mistaken about the heaviness in the air. She peeked at the passers-by and saw that their faces were downcast and their footsteps were heavy. It was as though they wore the gloominess of winter around themselves.
Under normal circumstances, she might have thought it was because of the overcast weather. However, she felt that the sense of entrapment — or perhaps a nameless melancholy — which she felt here, in the capital of the Re-Estize Kingdom, ought to have stemmed from some other source.
Maybe it’s because they were defeated in battle not long ago. Still, compared to the people of the Holy Kingdom, they’re practically jumping for joy.
Although the southern bay region of the Holy Kingdom was still relatively safe, the northern reaches were essentially hell now.
To the Liberation Army — formed from the remnants of the Northern Holy Kingdom’s army — and to her, who had come here as a member of an ambassadorial delegation, such news was of little comfort.
The more she thought about it, the more depressed she became, and Neia reached to her waist in search of salvation. The cool sensation of steel travelled up her hand.
It was the sword she carried, emblazoned with the crest of the Holy Kingdom’s knight order, which served as proof of her identity.
Usually, a paladin’s sword would be imbued with minor enchantments, but hers was not. That was because this was a sword of the sort issued to trainee soldiers.
Only after completing her training and being officially ordained as a paladin would her trusty blade be enchanted with magic. That was one of the rituals involved in donning the mantle of a paladin. While it was little more than a sharpened slab of steel until she officially became a paladin, it was still a personal weapon which had accompanied her through long years of training and practice. One could not fault her developing the habit of caressing it when she felt uneasy.
The sensation of steel calmed Neia down slightly, and she sighed a cloud of white vapor. Then she opened her cape and quickened her pace.
Her feet dragged every time she thought that she had to report bad news. However, it was because she disliked such things that she had to move quickly, to get this over with as soon as possible.
Finally, the inn where their delegation resided came into view.
It was a high class inn, with prices as lofty as its reputation. It was said to be among the top five in the Kingdom.
As she thought about the tragic state of her homeland, the northern Holy Kingdom, she could not help but feel guilty over how she was basking in such luxury while her countrymen were suffering. The truth was, the female leader of the ambassadorial delegation had opposed staying here precisely due to its decadence. She felt that they ought to reduce their expenses on this journey and use the leftover money elsewhere.
However, her opinion had been rejected, thanks to the suggestion of the male assistant leader.
“As representatives of the Holy Kingdom, if we do not lodge in an appropriate inn, people who see us might think that the Holy Kingdom is not long for this world. Therefore, we need to stay in a superior inn to show that our nation is still strong.”
The assistant leader’s logic was irrefutable. Nobody else in the group could deny him. However, their leader was driven by emotion and could not accept that proposal, and she stubbornly refused to go along with it. After a long deadlock, she was finally persuaded by all the other members of the delegation to reluctantly choose this inn.
However, everyone understood that they could not rack up any unnecessary expenses. In order to accomplish their tasks as soon as possible, even Neia, a squire, had been roped in to carry out missions.
The aim of the delegation’s visit to the Kingdom was none other than to secure aid for the Holy Kingdom. Therefore, Neia and the other members of the delegation were running around trying to arrange appointments with the movers and shakers of the Kingdom.
Anyone could make an appointment, even a squire. There was no problem with that part of the leader’s thinking.
However, Neia was the sole squire among the delegation. The others were proper paladins. Even if she made an appointment, what would the other party think in the future when they found out that others had been visited by paladins, but they had only merited a mere squire?
Surely they would be unhappy. Even Neia knew that much. However, despite her roundabout protests, the orders handed down to her had not changed. As a squire, there was little she could say about it. That said, Neia had not given up because of that.
If it was a personal failure, she could gladly accept it. However, doing so might lead to the ailing Holy Kingdom losing more aid from the Kingdom. Neia could not simply write off the possibility that her failures might lead to more of her countrymen dying with a simple, “Yes, I understand.”
However, the fact that a mere squire had immediately rushed into action without waiting for orders had only made the leader even more unhappy. She seemed to think that everything was Neia’s fault. Fortunately, the assistant leader had managed to smooth things over, but the delegation’s leader had a poor impression of Neia now.
Neia had been selected for this ambassadorial party solely because of her keen senses, which had ensured their safety on the road here. Asking her to contribute in other ways would be a tall order.
But it’s not like I can say that...
Neia looked to the sky and sighed Haaah. Then, she watched as the white mist she exhaled drifted slowly in the air and vanished. As she thought about the uncomfortable reception awaiting her at the inn, her gut began to cramp up.
The noble Neia was supposed to meet was not a very important person — he was not highly ranked in the Kingdom — so not being able to make an appointment with him was not a great setback, but even so her leader would gripe at her.
...Usually, even if you wanted to meet someone important right away, they’d still need some time to research your history and learn more about you. So the earliest you could have a meeting was in a week’s time.
Well, at least that did not sound like she was just complaining about the other party’s refusal.
According to our leader’s instructions, we’ll be leaving the Royal Capital in a few days… our leader, huh...
Their leader was now constantly on edge. She did not look like she could properly control her emotions.
In the past, she had not been that way. Neia knew that much. She had been an easygoing… or clueless person, if one were not inclined to be polite. However, ever since the battle where they had lost the Holy Queen, there had been a dramatic shift in her personality.
“...An unsatisfactory performance, huh.”
As a squire, the only thing she could do about her leader’s unreasonable scoldings was to bow her head and silently accept them.
Even so, this was nothing compared to how the surviving people in the Holy Kingdom were struggling. All she had to do was keep her head down and weather the storm.
After steeling herself for the worst — or perhaps she had given up — Neia reached the front of the inn.
She took a deep breath, pulled back her hood, and then pushed open the inn’s fancy doors.
As one would expect of a high-class inn, she did not step into a lounge right away, but a small room. It would seem it had been designed for guests to clean the dirt off their footwear.
That said, the place she had just visited was in a high-end district, much like this inn, and it had been paved with stone. Neither had it rained, so there was nothing she needed to shake off.
Therefore, Neia went on to open the door before her.
A gust of warm air flowed out and washed over her.
The concierge lay straight ahead of where she had entered the room, while the bar was to her right, and the stairs were on her left. There were sofas used for receiving guests near them.
There were no heating stoves inside the room. However, the fact that there was still a temperature difference despite their absence was probably because of a magic item.
Magic casters in the Holy Kingdom were generally priests, and while they could make some magic items, precious few of them were useful in daily life. In that respect, the Kingdom was technologically superior to the Holy Kingdom. That being the case, how much more advanced was the Empire, which her father had once mentioned?
Although she might never have the chance to visit it in her life, Neia still harbored a vague sense of admiration for the Empire.
Typically speaking, a village girl would only be able to see her village throughout the course of her life. Since Neia lacked any distinguishing qualities as a warrior, she might spend her entire life serving her nation and never get the chance to visit other countries.
In that case, perhaps the chance to travel abroad which this trip afforded her might be a faint silver lining on a grim, dark cloud.
These thoughts ran through Neia’s head as she climbed the stairs, toward the room on the second floor where the delegation was staying. The people in the inn seemed to have remembered Neia’s face, as none of them shouted for her to stop.
Considering the matter of expenses, only the leader and the assistant leader ought to be staying here; the other members should have stayed in cheaper inns. However, pinching pennies like that might make the other side think that there was no future for the Holy Kingdom. In the end, the assistant leader had managed to convince their leader of the wisdom of his words.
Neia reached the door of her superiors’ room and knocked on the door, whereupon it opened slightly. Within were the paladins stationed within the room for protection.
The person they were guarding was the strongest paladin in the Holy Kingdom, who was the leader of their delegation. In that case, they would be more of followers than protectors. Going by that logic, would it not have been wiser for herself to stay behind? Of course, Neia knew the meaning of the phrase “the nail which sticks out gets hammered down,” so she did not comment on that.
“Neia Baraja, reporting back.”
The door opened, and she entered the room.
Before her was a large room. There was a long table in the middle, where her Captain sat.
Captain Remedios Custodio and Vice-Captain Gustavo Montanjes were both seated there. And of the seventeen members of their delegation, more than half of them stood at attention along the walls.
She snuck a peek at the documents piled on the table before them. Most of them had been crossed out.
“Captain. Neia Baraja has returned.”
She puffed up her chest, adjusted her posture, and stated her name.
“—How did it go?”
“My deepest apologies. They declined because of a lack of time. They said they would like at least two weeks.”
“Tch,” Remedios clicked her tongue.
Neia’s gut cramped. Was she expressing her displeasure at Neia, or rather, at the nobles who had rejected them? While both the former or latter seemed likely, she dared not clarify such a frightening matter.
“Really now. Thank you for heading out amidst the cold. Go back to your room and rest, then.”
Neia suppressed her sigh of relief at Gustavo’s words. While she wanted to leave right away, Remedios called out and stopped her in her tracks.
“...I wanted to ask you before, but did you really tell them that we wanted to open negotiations as soon as possible?”
“—Huh? Ah! Yes! Of course I tried to ask them, but unfortunately they said no…”
“So it wasn’t because of your poor negotiation skills, then?”
“Ah, that, that’s—”
That’s not true, she wanted to say, but who would dare say it? In addition, she already knew that she would not be able to escape this reprimand no matter how she answered.
“...Captain. It is not just the nobles she asked who refused. Other nobles have rejected the request for a meeting in the same way. Among them were some nobles who indicated they could not lend aid to the Holy Kingdom, but who wished to speak nonetheless.”
Remedios glared at Gustavo, who seemed to have spoken up in order to interrupt their conversation. No words passed between them, but the tension built in the air.
So she was still gunning for her, after all. While Neia had mentally rounded her shoulders in defeat, she did not express it externally, instead responding in a timid tone.
Gustavo had now moved to stand between the two of them, but Remedios paid him no heed and continued glaring at Neia.
“While we are wasting time here, many of our people are being slaughtered by the demihumans led by Jaldabaoth. In addition, four major cities have already fallen, in addition to many more smaller and villages.”
The four cities in question were, respectively: the capital Hoburns, which housed the Great Cathedral that was regarded as the high temple of the Holy Kingdom’s faith.
The port city of Rimun, which lay to the west of the capital.
The fortress city of Kalinsha, which was the closest to the wall, and the first to be attacked by the demihumans.
And then there was Prart, the city between Kalinsha and Hoburns.
In other words, most of the major cities of the north were now under the control of Jaldabaoth’s demihuman hordes.
“In addition, they’ve captured many of the survivors, who they have imprisoned in camps made from captured villages and cities. Just the mention of being sent there is enough to chill one’s blood.”
Those camps were surrounded by walls, and nobody had personally witnessed what was happening inside because nobody had managed to infiltrate the interior. However, the rumors said they were guarded by demihumans. Those people who had probed as closely as they dared said they could hear groans and screams of agony from within.
In addition, what was more convincing was the fact that nobody felt Jaldabaoth, as a demonic ruler, would grant any form of humane treatment to his human prisoners.
“So knowing all that, you still came back with results like this? Did you really try your best? Normally you’d have something to show for it if you did, no?”
“Yes! My sincerest apologies!”
Indeed, she was right. Remedios was correct. However—
The thought that welled up in Neia’s heart refused to fade away.
In that case, what good is the Captain of the Holy Kingdom’s paladin order if she failed to rescue those prisoners?
She dearly wanted to retort with those words. However, as a squire of the Holy Kingdom, she could not possibly say such a thing.
“Since you feel sorry, what do you plan to do? What can you do to show concrete results?”
Neia was at a loss for words.
At the heart of it, Neia was just an ordinary citizen of the Holy Kingdom. She had neither a noble peerage, power, or wealth. She was not even a paladin, just a squire. There was nothing which Neia, as she was, could offer a noble of the Kingdom which could appeal to them. In that case, all she could do was—
“I’ll work harder.”
—Psychology. However, it would seem that answer did not meet with Remedios’s approval.
“I’m asking you how you intend to work harder. Futile effort is—”
Gustavo interrupted Remedios as she was about to say something.
“Why not leave things as they are for now? After all, it’s about time we began our preparations, no? The esteemed members of Blue Rose will be arriving soon. If we take too long welcoming them, we will upset them, won’t we?”
“Indeed. Squire Baraja, work harder and do better next time.”
Remedios made a shooing motion with her hand. In other words, she was saying Hurry up and get lost.
“My apologies, Captain Remedios!”
Even though she was tired, Neia was shouting All right! in her heart and trembling with joy as she made to leave the room. However, her ally from just now transformed into her most dire adversary in an instant.
“Captain, may she be present when Blue Rose arrives?”
Gustavo’s words made Neia’s vision black out for a moment. However, this was a topic that involved her, since she was a squire.
Remedios looked at her adjutant. It was completely unlike the way she had looked at Neia. Her eyes were so caring that it seemed like she had changed personalities at some point, and it confused Neia.
“Really? Well, if you say so… but why?”
“The main reason for bringing her along as a squire was because she has exceptional senses. Perhaps there might be things which only she can notice.”
Many paladins and squires had died during the battles with Jaldabaoth. However, quite a few of them had survived. Even so, the reason she had been chosen to accompany their group was precisely because of her senses.
While paladins were excellent fighters, they were little different from the average commoner in other respects. On this mission, there might be a need for someone to pass unseen, spot the enemy at a great distance, pass through encirclements, and perform other such tasks, which meant that they would need someone who possessed such reconnaissance skills.
Under normal circumstances, one would call on an adventurer or hunter, but most of them were already dead, and the remainder had already fled to the south or to other countries. Therefore, with no more experienced candidates to choose from, Neia had been selected.
While she was far inferior compared to her father, she harbored some pride in the fact that her senses were sharper than those who had only been trained as paladins. She was very happy that her talents could serve her nation, but that feeling was steadily being worn away. Now, she was starting to resent the fact that she had been chosen.
“Really? ...Well, if you think so, then that’s fine. I’ll allow it.”
“Thank you very much, Captain.”
“...Squire Baraja. Like we just said, you will remain in the corner of the room and listen to our conversation. If anything happens, inform us. ...Now go back to your room and freshen up before coming back.”
Finally, I’m free, Neia thought, but then Gustavo followed behind her just as she made to leave. After they left the room, he spoke quietly to her.
“Sorry about the Captain.”
Neia halted in her tracks, turned around, and then she voiced the doubts she had been harboring in her heart all this while.
“...Did I do something to upset the Captain? I mean, I’ve heard that the battle where we lost that city changed her completely, so what happened?”
“...Many paladins died in the battle with Jaldabaoth, including the Holy Queen-sama and the Captain’s sister.”
I know that. But so what?
The same thing had happened to Neia.
Both her father and mother were dead. People like this were hardly uncommon throughout the Holy Kingdom. Of course, she could not actually say that.
“Without a place to vent the grief and anger she felt from that, the Captain chose to take it out on you. I think the reason why she did not do so with us paladins was because we fought and suffered with her.”
What the hell, Neia grumbled in her heart.
In other words, all this was because Neia had not taken part in that battle.
This was just unfair.
Half of Neia’s fellow squires had travelled to the same city and many of them had ended up dying. The reason why Neia had not been in that half was due to her luck, and not because of any choice Neia had made.
“Let me also say this: please bear with it. Right now, the Captain is irreplaceable to the Holy Kingdom.”
“...Even if she takes her anger out on others and gives them a hard time, then?”
Gustavo looked at her with a pained look in his eyes.
Anger raced through her body. She wanted to shout at him. Neia knew that woman was strong, but still, Neia had also done her part in getting them safely to the Kingdom. She had spotted the demihumans’ lookouts and she had been more careful than anyone else when they pitched camp at night. Neia had a role in getting the ambassadorial party to their destination. That being the case, Neia did not feel she was any less valuable than that woman.
However, Neia quashed her feelings as they boiled up.
She had to bear with this for the sake of the people suffering in the Holy Kingdom. Allowing any of them to be lost, and thus prolonging the plight of countless people, was the most foolish course of action imaginable.
In addition, she would be free of this duty once she returned to the country. Thus, all she would have to do was bear with it for a while longer.
Neia smiled and nodded.
“Understood. If it is for the sake of the Holy Kingdom, I will endure it with a smile.”
♦ ♦ ♦
Blue Rose arrived at the inn not long after Neia returned to the room.
Neia waited, among the paladins who stood motionless by the walls.
Soon, the door opened, and a group of people entered.
She was not a fangirl of theirs, but their reputation still shone brightly in the Holy Kingdom, and it made Neia’s heart flutter. These were great people of her gender who had ascended to heights which she herself could not reach. Personally, she would have liked to ask them all kinds of questions. That said, she could not do such a thing.
They’re… one of the three adamantite ranked adventurer teams in the Kingdom. Blue Rose… they’re awesome...
While she had heard their descriptions and names from rumors, this was the first time she had seen them in the flesh. There was quite a big discrepancy between how she had imagined them from their stories and how they actually were.
Standing at their head was Blue Rose’s leader. She was a priestess who bore the holy symbol of the Water God, the wielder of the demonic blade, Kilineyram — Lakyus Alvein Dale Aindra.
Her beautiful features were such that even her fellow females might fall in love with her, and it was hard to believe she was a top-class adventurer of the like which only fighting geniuses could be. If she wore a dress, she would be the very picture of a princess from the dreams of a commoner like Neia
That beautiful woman spoke with a gentle voice that matched Neia’s image of her.
“Thank you for your invitation. We are Blue Rose.”
Remedios, who had stood up to welcome them, nodded slightly to express her gratitude.
“I cannot thank you enough for accepting our invitation, honored members of Blue Rose.”
“We are the ones who are grateful to receive an invitation from the paladin who bears a holy sword and who has skills to match, Remedios Custodio-sama.”
Their exchange contrasted Remedios’s formulaic greeting and somewhat stiff tone against Lakyus’s natural way of speaking. It would seem she really was a noble heiress.
“Ah, I’m the one who should be happy to meet the wielder of a demonic blade like yourself. Ahem. Please take a seat. The people around us are all paladins of the Holy Kingdom. It would be good if we could all listen in. Erm, if there’s time after that, I would like very much to see the demonic blade.”
“Gladly, and the chance to behold your holy sword would delight me as well. Then, let us do as our host bids and take a seat, everyone.”
The members of Blue Rose each sat down in their own way. Some of them had already folded their arms and grasped their elbows. It made one wonder if their bold attitude came from knowing their strength or if they were simply acting in a manner that best fitted it.
“Shall we start by introducing ourselves?”
The Vice-Captain answered, probably to help Remedios out.
“No, there’s no need for that. News of your exploits has made its way around the Holy Kingdom. Ah, and while it’s a little late for this, I’m the Vice-Captain of the Paladin Order, Gustavo Montanjes.”
Lakyus smiled gently at Gustavo’s answer.
“Really now. It would be good if that news was flattering.”
“—Yes. We’ve heard nothing but good things about you. In truth, your heroic exploits make my heart beat faster in excitement.”
It would seem Remedios wanted to say something, but Gustavo had interrupted her. After that, he smiled to Lakyus like nothing was the matter.
“That is quite pleasing. While I wish to ask about the details of those thing you heard, we are here today to fulfill a request. It is not our intention to waste our client’s valuable time. That being the case, let us discuss the particulars of this request.”
“Hmm~ Before that, I’d like to ask the name of that girl—”
Neia jumped in fright as she realized one of the twin thieves was pointing at her. The other one was also looking at her in interest.
The two of them ought to be the twin thieves known as Tia and Tina. Despite being members of Blue Rose, which was famed even in the Holy Kingdom, there were no rumors or tales of their deeds. They were a pair of mysterious individuals.
And now those individuals were pointing at her.
She felt like she had suddenly been shoved into the limelight from the shadows of an audience seat. Thoughts like why, what is this, what’s happening and other such phrases bounced around inside her mind.
“That girl doesn’t have a warrior’s body. Different from our musclehead’s.”
“Oi! What was that supposed to mean!?”
The person who had spoken up was Gagaran, the lady warrior who was built like a brick shithouse.
“Exactly what I said. ...She’s not a warrior, no matter how you look at it. Now this is a warrior.”
“Oi oi, you can train your body with experience, you know.”
“So you’re going to evolve then, Gagaran?”
The thieves’ faces quietly hardened.
“Don’t be mean, I feel sorry for that girl.”
“Hey! Is it me or have you gotten full of yourself since you went training with me? Oi!”
“Nothing’s changed. It’s just that my sides hurts when you grab me with your ridiculous strength when I’m sleeping—”
“—That’s enough out of the two of you… I’m sorry, that’s just how we are.”
“Please pay it no heed. Her name is Neia Baraja. She has keen senses, and she’s made a lot of contributions during our journey here.”
The reply was flat and emotionless, not cute in the slightest.
“...Mm. Well, while that was our fault, we haven’t made any progress at all. If nobody minds, shall we begin discussing the matter? Also, there’s no point talking like fancy nobles, is there? Let’s get right to it, shall we?”
“Evileye,” Lakyus said in a reproachful tone.
That was the arcane magic caster Evileye. Clad in her mask, she could use powerful spells, but she never removed it under any circumstances. She had a very petite frame — some rumors said she might be from a small-bodied species.
“No, that’s fine. I’m not good at all this plotting stuff myself.”
“...Fufu. Well, the other side’s boss has given their approval — how about ours? Besides, once they’ve paid the appropriate fee for the information, they’ll be our clients. Let’s not bother with feeling each other up and get to the question of money. Won’t it be better to seal the deal sooner rather than later?”
“Haaah,” Lakyus sighed, and Evileye continued, seemingly sneering at them.
“Well, our boss has given her okay too, so shall we firm up the details before we talk about payment? I take it you want to talk about the one who’s been running wild in your country. Jaldabaoth?”
“OI oi, do you think we wouldn’t know something the nobles did? The Kingdom has traders who use sea routes too, you know. Plus, the Adventurer’s Guilds do exchange information as well. That said, how about it? Want to share what you know, too? Frankly speaking, we’d be happier to obtain information than money.”
“Mm… may, may I have a moment to discuss this with Gustavo?”
Evileye waved to indicate that they should proceed, and then Remedios and Gustavo rose and entered the adjoining room — the bedroom.
“Then, can we use this flask?”
Gagaran pointed to the flask of water and the glasses around it as she addressed Neia.
Why me, Neia fretted as she replied, “Please do.” She wanted to praise herself for her perfect tone and not letting her voice tremble.
After Gagaran had poured water for everyone, Remedios and Gustavo returned.
“We’ll pay your fee, so can you tell us what you know?”
Huh, Neia thought. For some reason, she had the feeling that Remedios, who had complained about the expense of staying in an inn, would not approve. While Gustavo had probably said something, Neia had no idea what reasons he had used to convince her.
“That’s fine too, although I think we’d be able to tell you what you need to know if you told us about the state of the Holy Kingdom now.”
“Please let us pay the appointed fee.”
Gustavo promptly placed a small pouch on the table.
Evileye jerked her chin at one of the thieves. In response, she swiftly reached out and snatched up the pouch, lightly bouncing it up and down in her hand. Then she caught it and nodded to Evileye.
She was probably trying to see if it contained the expected amount by the sensation from throwing it up and catching it.
“All right. Then I, Evileye, shall explain on their behalf… Although, like I said just now, asking for all the information we have about Jaldabaoth is a bit like trying to seize a cloud. Let’s start by talking about what happened in our country. But before that, I want to verify something with you. Your Jaldabaoth looks like this, right?”
Evileye took a pen and paper from beside the table and began drawing with fluid strokes. However, the picture she produced could only be regarded as childish scribblings as best.
Remedios was about to say, “No, that’s not…” before one of the twins snatched back the paper and tore it in half.
“What the hell are you doing!?”
While Evileye was furious, the other twin snatched away the pen in the meantime and drew swiftly on the new piece of paper, then showed Evileye the finished product. The masked magic caster muttered, Uguu… in a disgruntled tone. The truth was, it was of far greater quality than the picture just now.
His appearance was very difficult to describe with words. He was dressed in foreign clothing and wore a strange mask. After seeing the picture, Remedios angrily clenched her fists and growled like a wild beast.
“That’s the bastard.”
After seeing this, the twins and Evileye ceased their feuding and turned back towards Remedios.
“Then we’ve verified one thing, that this is the same per— the same demon. Well, if demons like that could appear one after the other, we’d be in trouble. Thank heavens for small mercies, as they say. Now—”
Evileye then proceeded to narrate the events that had transpired in the Royal Capital, and Neia winced in her heart.
She knew Jaldabaoth was strong. And she knew that the demon army and that scaly demon existed, so she was not shocked by them. But the fact that there were five maid demons who could each take on an entire adamantite ranked adventurer team by themselves deepened her sense of utter despair.
I don’t think anyone spotted those maid demons in the Holy Kingdom. So they’re Jaldabaoth’s trump card? To think he had something like that...
“—Then, what would you estimate Jaldabaoth’s difficulty rating to be?”
Gustavo’s question caused Blue Rose to look at each other, but in the end it was still Evileye who spoke on everyone’s behalf.
“Let me get this out of the way first; this value is just a conjecture. It might be higher, it might be lower, so I hope you’ll keep that in mind. We estimate that demon’s difficulty to be around two hundred.”
Gustavo gasped. Neia very nearly gasped as well, but she managed to resist that impulse. Some of the paladins lining the walls were not so successful. Remedios was the only one to remain calm, her expression unchanged.
If Neia recalled correctly, difficulty one hundred monsters were not something which humans could defeat.
“Exactly how powerful is a rating of two hundred?”
Evileye seemed to have a bit of trouble answering Remedios’s direct question.
“While difficulty two hundred beings have never appeared in the human world before… well, old Dragons would be roughly around one hundred.”
“An old dragon… while I’ve never fought those before, would that be around the same as the Guardian Deity of the oceans?”
The Guardian Deity of the ocean referred to a Sea Dragon which dwelled in the ocean.
It had two arms and feet and a long, thick tail that replaced its atrophied wings. It resembled a Sea Serpent more than a Dragon, and its intellect was on par with or surpassed mankind. It was quite a benevolent being that would protect ships if it was properly venerated.
Neia had the very good fortune of seeing it once, from a distance, when they had gone to Rimun on holiday.
It had raised its head high above the surface of the seas, and it was a sight majestic enough to earn it the title of Guardian Deity. It was hard to imagine a human being could defeat such a being.
“Captain Remedios. If we use defeating the Guardian Deity as a baseline… hm, if there were a fisherman here he’d be giving us the stink-eye. Still, that means he’s twice as strong as an old Dragon.”
“Indeed. We’ve determined that he’s stronger than the legendary Demon Gods who were defeated by the Thirteen Heroes. That is to say, his appearance in the human world would be a great tragedy and multiple nations will be destroyed. That’s how powerful he is.”
“Although, I hear that when Jaldabaoth was wreaking havoc in the Kingdom, he was driven off by Momon-dono. That would mean Momon-dono must be just as powerful, right?”
Remedios swallowed, and then continued.
“Or does that mean — he used some kind of special item when defeating Jaldabaoth?”
That was when Evileye’s attitude changed.
Neia could not see her face, but she had the feeling that her face was flushing under that mask of hers.
“I don’t think he used any such item. However, Momon-sama fought magnificently when he duelled Jaldabaoth. I was fighting Jaldabaoth’s subordinates back then, so I did not see the full fight, but it was a terrifying battle. It was a battle fought by a hero among heroes, a champion among champions.”
“Is, is that so?”
It was all Gustavo could do to squeeze those words out after being crushed by Evileye’s presence as she leaned herself out.
“Precisely! Ah, what an amazing battle. Momon-sama defended me while he was fighting Jaldabaoth, you know.”
“So he fought Jaldabaoth — that monster — and drove him off? Is that true?”
“What? Are you saying what I saw with my own two eyes was a lie?”
Evileye countered Remedios’s question with a vicious retort. Gustavo struggled to clear the uneasy mood in the air.
“Ah, no, what our Captain meant was that if Darkness could attack some weak point of Jaldabaoth’s, perhaps we could do something too. I apologize for not clarifying.”
“No, we should be apologizing for the immature tone our Evileye is taking with a client.”
That reply came from Lakyus. What was this, when the two main players were sidelined and their supporting cast went on to smooth things out between themselves.
“Hm… well, assuming Jaldabaoth really does have some weak point, Momon-sama must have won by attacking it. Still, it’s hard to imagine a demon like that would leave his weaknesses unguarded.”
“Indeed… perhaps he used an item or a subordinate to make up for it.”
While this was the first time she had heard of the maid demons, Jaldabaoth had several powerful demon minions.
After questioning demihuman captives, they knew there were at least three of them.
There was the demon who ruled the wilderness where the demihumans lived.
There was the demon who ruled the port city of Rimun.
And then, there was the scaly demon who commanded the demihuman army.
“So, can you tell us in detail about that scaly demon you mentioned earlier?”
“That’s right, can you tell us what abilities it has?”
“Yes I fought it before, so I’ll take Evileye’s place and describe it in detail.”
She described its abilities and how they fought it. Lakyus’s tale ended with Brain Unglaus — a man on Gazef’s level — slaying that demon.
“...That’s strange. Jaldabaoth hasn’t made any movements after conquering the Holy Kingdom’s capital, but that scaly demon’s been commanding the demihuman armies in his place. Wasn’t it already defeated?”
“I see… however, we’ve met this Brain fellow before, and I don’t think he was lying. It’s probably not a unique demon, just a high level one.”
“In other words, Jaldabaoth can conjure that demon any number of times as long as certain conditions are met? Or perhaps he can summon the same demon multiple times?”
Neia could not cast spells, but she had heard this during her lectures.
It was difficult to summon multiple beings with summon magic.
In other words, when a summon spell was active, casting another summon spell would cause the previous summon spell to end. The currently-summoned monsters would go back from whence they came and new monsters would be summoned in their place.
However, people capable of high tier summoning spells could simultaneously conjure several weaker monsters at once, of the sort that one would evoke with a low tier summon spell. For instance, one could use a fourth tier spell to summon multiple monsters that could be invoked by a third tier spell.
“I don’t understand at all. His method of summoning demons is still a mystery. While it felt like he was summoning them with spells, he couldn’t have summoned multiple demons of such power… but if he could, that would beg the question of why he did not do so in the Kingdom. Perhaps if he were a magic caster who specializes in summoning, he could simultaneously summon multiple copies of such a creature…”
“So even if we defeated the scaly demons, Jaldabaoth could immediately resummon it?”
“Just so. However, that refers to the situation where Jaldabaoth conjures them with magic. If he used some kind of special ability to do it, that would be another matter entirely.”
“So you don’t know much about that side of things?”
“Sorry, but I don’t. We know very little about him.”
Evileye sounded clearly disheartened.
“...Erm, I didn’t get any of that at all, you know?”
“...I’ll explain it to you later, Captain.”
“No, start clarifying now. I haven’t been able to keep up since just now.”
This is our Captain… the person in charge of all of us...
“That being the case, was that disgusting insect maid one of Jaldabaoth’s summons too?”
“I don’t know. I don’t want to think that way…”
Blue Rose’s members began discussing among themselves.
“Erm, may I ask a question?”
Everyone turned to look at Neia after she nervously spoke up, and the tremendous pressure made her regret doing so. Perhaps it might be better for someone other than her to bring this up. However, the die had been cast, and after firming up her resolve, she asked:
“This might be a very basic question, but where did Jaldabaoth come from? Was the name of Jaldabaoth passed down from earlier days?”
“That is unclear. We’ve studied all sorts of literature, but we haven’t been able to find that name in any of them. We’ve also tried looking for clues based on his appearance, but similarly, we haven’t been able to make any headway either.”
“Could it be an alias? Maybe he caused trouble under a different name in the past?”
“I doubt that. To demons — this applies to angels as well — their names are a very important part of their very being. If a demon wants to show up, it has to engrave its name into the world. Therefore, they can’t use false names. Experiments show that using a false name might even cause them to disappear on the spot.”
Neia knew next to nothing about demons and angels, but if an adamantite ranked magic caster said so, then that ought to be the case.
“As for his origins, if he came from the other side of the continent, then it’s only natural that there’d be no information about him… but after thinking so much, every possibility seems equally likely, and so there’s no telling where to begin.”
“...Say. What if you got Jaldabaoth’s appearance wrong? Was the Jaldabaoth you looked into the Jaldabaoth in the picture? What if that appearance of his was a deception?”
“Ho,” Evileye leaned over the table towards Remedios. “Can you go into more detail?”
“We managed to press Jaldabaoth in that form quite badly, and then he revealed his true form…”
Remedios closed her eyes.
“It was an utter defeat for us.”
“Can you be more specific?”
“Telling them that much should be fine, right, Gustavo?”
“Yes, no objections here. If we can learn more about him from his appearance, hiding that information would be harmful instead.”
“While I feel a full disclosure would be better….”
Remedios began muttering and grumbling, and then she told Evileye about Jaldabaoth’s appearance.
Halfway through, Remedios’s face twisted in anger. She had probably recalled the battle that nobody here knew anything about.
“I see, then we’ll continue our investigations based on what we have just learned. We’ll keep you informed with our findings, so could you tell us if you wish to stay in the city?”
“We haven’t decided that yet. In any case, does that mean you do not know anything about that form of his?”
“—Lakyus, do you remember?”
Lakyus shook her head.
“That’s how it is. Sorry.”
“I understand. Then, after we make our decision, we will contact you immediately.”
“But in that case, we’ll have to consider the worst-case scenario — the possibility that his appearance in the Kingdom was intended to create a false impression, so he deliberately refrained from showing his true power.”
“In other words, our country was Jaldabaoth’s true objective, and that he had some other plan for the Kingdom?”
“Perhaps. If the Kingdom was his main priority, he would have shown his true form like he did in the Holy Kingdom, no? Or was it because he was startled by Momon-sama’s strength, and chose to protect his true identity rather than let his plan be ruined? I really don’t want to think that’s the case.”
Evileye’s words left the room in a gloomy silence, so profound that even the faint sounds of breathing seemed very loud. Who would speak first? In this tense atmosphere, Lakyus proved her bravery.
“Now then, let me say again — we’re in the same boat as you. We want to know more about Jaldabaoth. Frankly speaking, everything we’ve learned is basically analysis from our encounter with him. We have no inkling of Jaldabaoth’s aims, true identity, or abilities.”
“Maybe we could summon demons to learn about Jaldabaoth… But that will stain the soul… And even if we summon low ranking demons, it’s quite likely that they won’t know anything about high ranking demons. In that case, we’ll need to contact a summoning adept…”
“Unfortunately, we don’t know anyone who’s good at summoning demons.”
Evileye had been the first one to supplement Lakyus’s words, followed by one of the twins.
Surely nobody would, at least not under usual circumstances, Neia mused.
Diabolists were typically evil beings, and fortunately very few of them were powerful in their own right. That was because most of the time, they either destroyed themselves or they were slain by death squads.
Of course, there might be some experts in the field who had submersed themselves into the darkness, but they typically hid themselves and did not make friends.
“Still, just waiting there to die is very frustrating. The next time that monster comes to the Kingdom, I want to make him weep with my own two hands. In order to do that, I need to learn as much as I can about him.”
“Also, he was not leading any demihumans in the Kingdom. If he recruited the demihumans due to his failure in the Kingdom, then we’ll need to be even more wary of him.”
Those words were spoken by Gagaran, and then the other twin.
“Is that why you wanted to know what we knew?”
Everyone in Blue Rose nodded. Lakyus summed up for them.
“We'll pay a sum equal to the fees we'd receive for a similar request..”
“Captain. May I handle the upcoming negotiations?”
Remedios immediately agreed with Gustavo’s question.
“—In place of money, we would like some other form of payment.”
“What is it? While we would like to meet your wishes, we can’t do everything… However, if you want to make contact with powerful nobles, that could be arranged.”
“Is that so? Thank you very much. However, we were not thinking of that — could you come to our country and fight alongside us?”
The room was silent once more. It lasted several seconds — no, perhaps it was longer. The next sound they heard was that of Lakyus leaning on her chair.
“I am very sorry, but we cannot offer that form of payment.”
“...We’re gathering intelligence because we don’t want to die. Doing that would be counter to our purposes.”
Evileye shrugged, as if to say there was nothing that could be done about it.
“We won’t ask you to fight Jaldabaoth. All you need to do is wait in the rear and help with healing magic.”
“Bullshit, you don’t have the luxury of doing that.”
Gagaran’s words left them speechless.
She was correct. The northern half of the Holy Kingdom was now subjugated by Jaldabaoth’s beastmen, and all they could do was mount a feeble resistance. Many of the people had been incarcerated in camps, and the surviving paladins were hidden in caves as defeated soldiers.
“No, that’s not the case. We stopped the demihuman advance in the nick of time.”
They still held the south, where the Army and Jaldabaoth’s forces were staring each other down, so saying that they were at the edge of extinction might be accurate.
To Neia, who knew what was going on, Gustavo’s words sounded more like lies than the truth.
“Can you come, in that case?”
Remedios sat up to ask her question, and Evileye flatly rejected it. Given the way everyone in Blue Rose remained silent, she was most definitely not alone in her opinion. They must have all felt the same way.
“...Frankly speaking… we might have stopped them in the nick of time, but we’re also at the end of our rope. The Holy Kingdom is in ruins, but the southern troops are still intact. However, they alone won’t be enough to beat Jaldabaoth.”
Gustavo poured a glass of water for himself, drank from it, and then continued.
“The reason why we haven’t been completely conquered yet is because the navy has been pinning down Jaldabaoth’s army on the northern coastline and holding them off. If Jaldabaoth manages to figure out some way to deal with that and advances his troops to the south, they won’t be able to offer the slightest bit of resistance.”
However, that was the thinking of a man from the north, who knew Jaldabaoth’s power. The people of the south would probably have different plans. For instance, driving off Jaldabaoth with their own might.
While part of the reason for that was because they had not shared their intelligence, it was also due to the long-standing feud between the north and the south.
From the start, many of the nobles in the south had always protested the fact that a woman — skipping ahead of her elder brother — was to be crowned as Holy Queen for the first time in history.
For that reason, in order to avoid a rift between the north and the south, the former Holy Queen ignored even such baseless allegations as “The Holy Queen assumed her position because she had something going on with the temples, and she was secretly assisted by Queralt Custodio.”
After that, the south did not escalate matters any further and thus a full-scale confrontation was averted, but that was only because the north and south had been in a balance of power. Now that the north was in ruins, the south no longer had any reason to hold themselves back any more. Thus, the south began snubbing the north now.
Even in the face of Jaldabaoth’s invasion, the humans still bore grudges against each other. Neia simply found that laughable. In addition, there were whispers of a power struggle for the position of the next Holy King, and it only served to make Neia, a commoner, even more unhappy.
“That’s quite bad.”
“Indeed. The navy has very few assets which can do battle against flying demons, and their battles have taken a terrible toll on them. If this keeps up, they won’t be able to hold off Jaldabaoth’s army forever. We need strength to overcome this situation! Please, I beg you, lend your strength to us! All we need is a month or two! We can pay anything you want! I beg you, please save the Holy Kingdom.”
As Gustavo bowed his head to them, Neia and the other paladins went “Please!” and bowed as well.
The room was silent once more, and then Lakyus’s voice spread through it.
“Please, raise your heads. And — I am very sorry, but we cannot go to the Holy Kingdom.”
Neia jerked her head up at the sudden shout from Remedios. She saw Remedios had risen from her seat and was glaring at Lakyus.
“There’s no way Jaldabaoth will stop at conquering the Holy Kingdom! He’ll gather his strength there and then invade the Kingdom, you know! If you don’t beat him now, he’ll become even stronger in future!”
“You are correct. The possibility of that is very high.”
“Since you understand, why aren’t you helping us!? And it’s not just you, it’s also the nobles of this country, of our country! None of you get it! Isn’t now the time to come together and fight as one!?”
“...The reason why this country’s nobles won’t lend you their strength is slightly different from our own. What do you know about the Sorcerous Kingdom?”
It was a frightening place ruled by the undead, a city taken from the Kingdom and used as the heart of a nation. That was all the average citizen of the Holy Kingdom knew about it. As Remedios said as much, Lakyus smiled bitterly to her.
“That’s true, and it’s largely accurate… but it’s wrong in some places… While the undead are everywhere, the humans there live safe and peaceful lives.”
“...Eh? In a country founded by the undead, who hate the living?”
“There are many kinds of undead, and the Sorcerer King is a ruler of the undead. Ordering the undead under his command not to harm human beings and enforcing that order is a simple matter for him.”
Evileye made a noise of disapproval.
“Evileye… Mm, anyway, we still have the Sorcerous Kingdom before our eyes to deal with, so it’s hard for them to aid your country. Also, a lot of people perished during the battle with the Sorcerous Kingdom, which will have grave consequences in the future. The nobles who appear so well-off are hardly as well-to-do as you might think.”
“Even so, isn’t Jaldabaoth a problem that should be taken care of as soon as possible? The fact is, countless people are suffering because of Jaldabaoth. And the Sorcerous Whatever hasn’t harmed anyone, has he?”
“...Fighting on two fronts at once while you’re exhausted is very dangerous. I trust I don’t need to tell you that, right?”
Remedios shut her mouth.
“Also, it’s the same with us. Two of us were killed in combat with Jaldabaoth and while they were resurrected from the dead, they still have not regained their full strength yet. If we invade Jaldabaoth’s territory in this state, we might all end up being killed.”
“Didn’t Gustavo say that you wouldn’t need to fight Jaldabaoth?”
“What the heck, she actually believed that…”
“Tia! Excuse me. Ahem. I’m very sorry, but I don’t think things will turn out as you imagine. So long as it involves the risk of facing Jaldabaoth, we will refuse this job. We need to become stronger than we are now in order to prepare for the future. ...This is just a hypothesis, but we need to get ready in case Jaldabaoth decides to attack the Kingdom once more.”
The faces of every member of Blue Rose were unmoved. It would seem they could not be swayed.
Soon, Remedios managed to squeeze a few words out.
“Then, who else is there who can save our country?”
Blue Rose’s members looked at each other.
“There’s only one person,” Evileye replied. “Or rather, he’s the person you should have gone to in the first place, no?”
“Momon-sama, of course. The Momon-sama who beat off Jaldabaoth.”
“Ohhh! Did he!?”
“A moment, Captain Custodio… If I’m not wrong, he’s…?”
“You’ve heard, haven’t you? Yes, Momon-sama is now in the Sorcerous Kingdom and is one of the Sorcerer King’s subordinates. Therefore, you will most likely have to convince the Sorcerer King to help you.”
“Geh!” Remedios grunted bitterly.
Neia understood how she felt. Any citizen of the Holy Kingdom would have very complex feelings about asking anything of the undead.
Considering she, as a squire, felt that way, how much worse would it be for the captain of an order of paladins who bore a holy sword? However — Remedios looked forcefully at the members of Blue Rose.
“...If that is the best way to defeat Jaldabaoth, then let’s do it. No, that’s all we can do. If we can, we’ll pin our hopes to that Momon—”
“—I believe it’s Momon-sama, Captain.”
“Er, yes! Can you please write a letter introducing us to Momon-sama?”
After the talks with Blue Rose ended, the diplomatic delegation from the Holy Kingdom to which Neia belonged made an early departure from the Royal Capital. This was because they had already seen that nobody in the Kingdom was willing to aid the Holy Kingdom, researching Jaldabaoth’s true form would need several month’s time, and also because they knew that the only one capable of beating Jaldabaoth was Momon.
In addition, the thought of the Holy Kingdom’s citizens suffering made them anxious to do something for them.
They rested their horses as little as possible, sometimes even casting spells on them, and they travelled east along the roads at speeds that normal travellers could not match.
They passed the final village of the Kingdom, and now they were at the buffer zone between the Kingdom and the Sorcerous Kingdom.
The gently-swelling hills blocked the travellers’ lines of sight, and they could catch the occasional glimpse of a densely-packed primeval forest. It felt like a monster might leap out at them at any time. This might have originally been the Kingdom’s territory, but that was all. The chance of being attacked by monsters had only decreased. It was by no means gone.
On terrain like this, Neia’s sense of vision and smell sharpened, and she forged ahead.
There’s no sign of creatures waiting in ambush nearby. No tracks of large carnivores near the road either.
There were many patches of bare earth exposed on the road. If they continued onwards, they would be entering territory which had formerly been controlled by the Crown, whose roads seemed to have been paved. Paved roads were more convenient for travellers, but to Neia, the bare earth from just now would make it easier to spot best tracks.
Neia looked at her hands.
She did not like these hands.
It was not that she resented the hardening of her hands from her training. It was simply distaste for her lack of talent.
She might have inherited her father’s keen senses, but sadly, she had not received anything from her mother.
Neia’s mother had been a famous paladin in her time, and she had excellent sword skills. However, as her daughter, Neia had no talent for the sword, no matter how much she practiced. Strictly speaking, the bow techniques passed down from her father meant that she could use bows skillfully even without any training.
No, the fact was, Neia was fortunate just to inherit that half of her heritage. However, the skills used by the paladins which Neia so admired could only be used with melee weapons. For Neia, who wanted to become a paladin, being talented with ranged weapons was a waste.
Once more, she gripped the reins tightly.
She straightened her waist and adjusted her position on the saddle. She had spent a long time on horseback after leaving the Royal Capital, and her butt and thighs were quite sore now.
She could have asked the Paladins to use low tier healing spells to get rid of the pain. However, she was a girl, and she was a little embarrassed to ask that of them. Also, it was still not yet at a level where it would affect her ability to work the reins, so that made it even more difficult to ask.
...I’ll just apply the herbs afterwards, as usual. I need to thank Dad for that. In the past, when I said my butt hurt, he’d run over with an annoyed look on his face… Did I thank him back then? ...Hah.
Neia forced herself to stop before her tears spilled out.
“—Ah, Captain, I can see paved roads. We’re about to enter the Sorcerous Kingdom’s domain.”
The dirt road suddenly turned to cobblestones halfway through its course. It felt strange.
Neia looked to the sky.
“So, will we ride all the way to the Sorcerous Kingdom? Or will we set up camp at night?”
“I think we ought to be able to make it before sunset if nothing else happens. However, we might be taken for an invading force. What should we do?”
“Let me discuss this.”
Remedios tugged on her reins and her horse slowed down, and then she began speaking to Gustavo.
However, this ought to be the Sorcerous Kingdom’s domain from here on in… but where are their troops? There aren’t any fortresses either. There were forts on the Kingdom’s side…
Usually, there would be forts at a country’s borders, but there were none here. Since the Sorcerous Kingdom was just one city, had they concentrated all their forces into the city?
Neia’s gaze travelled along the paved road.
The gentle slope ran between the hills. In the distance, she could see a patch of leafless winter forest.
She recalled how she had gone camping in the winter with her father. That did not change, no matter where she went. The scenery here felt just like that of the Holy Kingdom.
...Living in the human world’s a pain, huh.
The words her father had casually mumbled pricked her heart like a thorn.
Her father had chosen to live in a city because of her mother. If her mother was not around, he would have chosen to stay in a little village near the forest, living off the bounty of nature.
When she had still been a child, she felt that living in a natural setting was a pain. However, after going on this journey, she could understand what her father had meant by his words. Was that a sign of maturity? She ought to be able to talk about different things with her parents now.
Pain flashed through her heart as she thought about these things. However, it was only for a moment. That was because ahead of them — due east along the road — she could see something blurry along the snaking path that passed between the hills.
—Could it be a fire!?
Neia squinted her eyes, and then looked carefully again.
There was a milky-white, smoke-like object there. No, it was not smoke, but fog. And—
“Sorry to interrupt you while you’re speaking! There’s something like fog ahead!”
After Neia reported to the rear, Remedios took off her helmet. There was a puzzled look on her face.
“Neia Baraja. Is there anything about it that bothers you?”
“Yes. According to this map, there are no large lakes around, yet there’s a large bank of fog ahead. I’m sure it must be an abnormal occurrence.”
The bank of thick, milky fog seemed to be spreading wider and wider, and it looked like it would reach Neia and the others any time now.
Her father had taught her about all sorts of natural phenomena, and when she pondered the situation based on that knowledge, the appearance of this fog really was quite strange.
“Squire Baraja. Could it be some sort of abnormal climate change?”
That question came from Gustavo, who had picked up on what was going on before Remedios.
These abnormal climate changes referred to usually impossible phenomena occurring in a large area. For instance, there might be a place where a large scale ritual spell gone wrong filled an area with toxic rot-gases, or a place where once a year, a desert might rage with sandstorms for a week, or perhaps a place where multi-colored rain fell at certain times.
In other words, he was asking if this fog was one of those mysterious occurrences. However, Neia had not gathered any information on such things. She sensed that she would probably be scolded if she answered as much, but she had no choice but to answer honestly.
“My sincerest apologies, but I have no information about the fog that has appeared before us.”
“In other words, you didn’t gather enough intelligence, did you?”
Yet another difficult question. Who could say that they had collected enough information?
“Captain Remedios. Deciding what to do now is more important.”
Their horses had come to a halt.
The fog was getting thick enough that horses could not advance through it. Given what they had learned earlier, there were no cliffs near E-Rantel. If they advanced slowly, they ought to be able to deal with whatever came up. However, this rapidly brewing fog made them hesitant to move through it, however slowly they travelled.
Neia sniffed the fog.
It smelled of water vapor and nothing more. There was nothing about it that would have bothered her. However, that was exactly what bothered her.
“Captain, could this fog have been generated by a monster? My father once said that some monsters had the magical ability to generate fog, and they would hide in it to stalk their prey.”
“...Everyone, draw your blades! Anyone still on the road, clear off right away!”
This quick decision-making was a sign of Remedios’s excellence in battle.
Neia and the Paladins moved their horses as directed and left the road, whereupon they circled up. By this time, the thick fog looked like it was going to swallow up the entire world.
It was thick enough that she could barely make out her companions next to her, and visibility was zero beyond fifteen meters. Her unease boiled in her chest, and she imagined she saw wraiths in the movement of the fog’s currents.
It would be good if she could determine what was approaching them by sound, but she was surrounded by fully armored knights. Every move they made caused metal to scrape against metal, and it hampered Neia’s sense of hearing. Under these conditions, it would be very difficult to detect anything that was closing in on them. By Neia’s reckoning, the only one who could still discern objects by sound in these conditions was her father.
As she realized her father’s greatness once more, she desperately pricked up her ears to listen.
“This is a really weird fog; it doesn’t get this thick even on the sea.”
“Aren’t we about to reach the Sorcerous Kingdom’s city? Are there still monsters this close to the city limits? Or are these strange things par for the course because it’s the Sorcerous Kingdom?”
“I don’t know… could it be some sort of defensive spell used by the Sorcerous Kingdom?”
“...Let’s leave magic out of it, just talking about it makes my head hurt. If you see anything, let me know, and make it easy to understand. If it’s a monster, we’ll kill it so we can have the Sorcerer King owe us a favor when asking him to send out Momon. How about that?”
“How do you think that will turn out? While they say clearing out monsters within a country’s borders is the responsibility of that country…”
Perhaps it was because she had focused all her energies on listening intently, but she could clearly make out the contents of the conversation between the Captain and Gustavo. However, if she moved away, she was no longer confident that she could hear them. What would her father do at a time like this?
I can’t keep relying on someone who isn’t here! I need to stand on my own two feet!
However, the fact remained that staying here would only impede her abilities. In that case, should she ask if she could be allowed to move away by herself in order to verify the situation?
—It would be better not to.
Neia quelled her desire to speak up.
Even if she did not do so, the Captain was hardly close to her. If she asked for that and failed, there was no telling how she would be punished. It would be best to avoid causing more problems for herself.
Also, it would be bad if the Captain stopped trusting my guidance as a result.
Neia struggled to make excuses in her heart. However, it would be very bad for her mental health if they ran into danger and she thought, I could have handled this better.
Although part of her mind thought, If we all die here, the people suffering in the Holy Kingdom will have to wait even longer for salvation, Remedios’s barbs had already punched countless holes in Neia’s heart, and she could not bring herself to care any more.
Just then, Neia saw something from the corner of her eye that she could not possibly miss.
Amidst the dense fog, she glimpsed the murky outline of something huge coming from the Sorcerous Kingdom.
“Say, can you take a look over there?” Neia poked one of the mounted paladins beside her.
“...I don’t see anything. Sorry, but the fog’s too thick and I can’t see anything. Is something there?”
She heard the paladin reaching to his waist and fluidly drawing his sword, then the sound of him tightly gripping its hilt.
“Ah, it’s nothing. I thought I saw something, but maybe I was mistaken.”
“Really? Well, if you think there’s something there, just tell us, no matter what it is.”
“All right, I’ll be counting on you when the time comes, then.”
After thanking him with an earnest look on her face, Neia turned back to the front. If one divided the women in the world into those who were suited for smiling and those who were not meant to smile at all, Neia would fall into the latter category. Even a word of thanks from her was better delivered with a serious expression than with a smile.
Neia continued studying the fog bank intently. It was possible that only Neia could see it because it was too far away, but she was sure she had not been mistaken.
Perhaps her interaction with the paladin had restored her spirits, but Neia decided to say something to the Captain. However, she was still talking to Gustavo.
“What should we do next?”
“It’s very dangerous to move around in this fog. Let’s wait a bit more, and if there’s nothing we’ll dismount and rest. Come to think of it, are there fog-emitting monsters in the sea?”
“Of course. However, there aren’t any seas or lakes nearby. It’s just like Squire Baraja said.”
“Is it possible that she made a mistake or overlooked some piece of information?”
“She wouldn’t screw up like that. Frankly speaking, she’s brought us safely all the way here, hasn’t she? When we were leaving the Holy Kingdom, the demihumans patrolling near the broken wall didn’t spot us either. We couldn’t have done it by ourselves, could we?”
“We could have broken through by force.”
Once again, the health gauge for Neia’s heart plummeted.
How much frustration had she gone through to bring them all the way here?
Memories awoke in her mind, of how she had asked them to stay behind while she scouted by herself in the freezing rain, crawling around on the ground and getting all muddy in order to prevent herself from being spotted by ranger-type ambush skills.
If she were spotted, Neia, as the sole vanguard would most assuredly die. Even so, Neia had carried on with the determination to die, clinging to the belief that she was doing this to save her suffering countrymen.
That’s right, I’m not working hard because I want someone to praise me or anything.
She tried her best to talk herself round. Even if the Captain refused to acknowledge her contributions, the others would surely approve of her efforts, even if they did not say so.
Wanting to be praised or rewarded for working hard is just a child’s selfishness. This is what it means to be a shield of humanity. Biting your lip, making yourself a shield, all in order to keep pain and suffering from the people is the duty of a paladin. Surely the Captain must be the same way. Still… could she lower her volume? No, maybe the two of them think they’re speaking quietly enough.
The two of them were still talking.
Neia personally thought that they should not focus on talking and instead keep an eye on their surroundings. Especially Remedios, whose beast-like danger sense and fighting ability meant that she ought to be able to respond better than anyone else.
She quashed the frustration in her heart, and focused on the shadow in the fog. That was also because she had not yet regained the strength needed to call out to them again, and also because she did not want to continue listening in on their conversation.
And then — perhaps the fog had been parted by the currents of the wind — for a moment, just a moment, Neia clearly glimpsed a shadowy wheelhouse.
Eh? No way… is that… a ship?
Indeed, Neia had discerned the true nature of the shadow; a ship which floated upon the sea.
In addition, it was a large ship, similar to a galleass. It was a momentary thing, and it was promptly veiled again by the heavy fog, so even she was not sure that she had actually spotted a ship.
Of course, such a thing was not possible by common sense.
The information she possessed notwithstanding, Gustavo himself had already said there were no lakes in the vicinity. No, even if there was, only a madman would float a galleass in a lake.
If this were a coastal region, it might be possible that they had used an old ship as a fortress or moved it onto dry land for some other purpose. In fact, there were several examples of such things in the Holy Kingdom. However, doing so this far inland was impossible.
I was seeing things, right?
That was the best way to think of it.
Still, her eyes refused to leave that direction, scanning over and over again.
“...So you did see something after all, huh?”
Neia squeaked out an Eh!? in response to the question from the knight she had spoken to earlier.
“You were looking in the direction from just now, which means you did see something over there, right?”
“Ah? No, that…”
I saw a shadow that looked like a ship. If she actually said that, they would probably think she was insane. Certainly Neia would. In that case, what should she say?
“Doesn’t matter if you were mistaken, but could you tell me if you saw something? It’ll help if something’s happening over there.”
It was a perfect argument.
She peeked around from side to side. Everyone was listening in to Neia’s exchange with the paladin, and all eyes were on Neia. Things being what they were, she could not simply bluff her way through this by saying “Oh, I was just mistaken.”
“...Ah, I just felt that there was a big shadow out there.”
“Is that big shadow a monster?”
The person Neia least wanted to hear fired a question her way. Dammit, don’t ask me, she thought, but obviously she could not actually say that.
Neia sighed several dozen times in her heart before answering:
“No, it’s not like that. I had the feeling I saw a building or something similar.”
“...Did you really see it?”
“I’m not too sure. It just felt that way. It’s quite likely that I was mistaken.”
“A building? A fort of the Sorcerous Kingdom or something like that?”
“I don’t know. However, the fact is that we haven’t seen anything that looks like a fort of the Sorcerous Kingdom near the roads, or near the villages. Those wouldn’t be out of place on the borderlands.”
While she had felt that it was a ship, it would go across better if she said that she had seen a building which looked like a ship rather than a ship itself.
“I see… what do you think, Gustavo?”
“I believe her. Although — you didn’t verify that it was a building, did you?”
“Yes, it was just for a moment. It might have been something else entirely.”
“Captain Custodio, in any event, I think waiting in the fog is the best option. I don’t think the Sorcerous Kingdom’s forts will permit foreigners to enter.”
“Makes sense. Let’s do it, then. Everyone, stay alert.”
She was answered by a chorus of voices, as well as Neia.
While they were ostensibly keeping watch, everyone’s attention was focused on a single point. That was because everybody wanted to verify what Neia had seen.
The thick fog continued to obscure all vision, and just as everyone was starting to lose interest in the building, something happened.
Neia and the knight to her right both gasped in surprise.
A shadow was moving in the thick fog.
“W-What? What was that?”
Neia could not answer the paladin’s question. Saying it was a ship was crazy talk.
“Is that shadow… moving? Isn’t that a building?”
The Captain’s question was very reasonable. However, since Neia had not told her what it actually was, all she could say until the end was that it looked like a building.
“When I saw it, it looked like one…”
“But it’s moving now, isn’t it? Also… the shadow looks like it’s getting darker; is it headed our way?”
Indeed, if that was really a ship, then it could move towards them. In other words — that ship was one which could sail on land.
How could that… it’s impossible...
In the end, the shadow approached close enough through the fog until even the people other than Neia could see what it really was.
It was indisputably a ship, and it was moving as though it were sailing upon the waves. Rows of long, thick oars protruded from its sides, rowing like they were actually pushing through the water.
“Are you kidding me?”
The shocked words which escaped Remedios’s mouth spoke for everyone in the group.
“Do the ships of the Sorcerous Kingdom travel on land? The inland countries have all sorts of surprising toys…”
No, no, not like this, Neia said in her heart. She was probably not the only one to think that way.
“A ship that travels through fog… I seem to recall hearing about something like that before…”
“I expected nothing less of you, Gustavo! Come, try and recall it, I’m sure you can do it. You taught me all kinds of things in the past, I’m sure you can do it. Right, want me to shake your head for you?”
“Please don’t do that. Besides, I’m not a sage or anything. It’s just because our Captain has no head for such facts which requires me to remember them on her behalf.”
“...That’s because all I needed to do was ask you or Queralt.”
“It seems we’ve been spoiling you too much. Once we send Jaldabaoth back to hell, I’m going to make sure you make up for all your years of lost learning. Ah, thanks to that, I remember now. It’s a Ghost Ship. I heard some sailors talk about it, a ship that appears out of the fog. It’s a ship that should have sunk, but which sails once more, and it is helmed by the undead.”
“Oh! Yes, I’ve heard that Ghost Ships are preceded by thick fog. ...Everyone, form up! If it’s a Ghost Ship, then we’ll be facing the undead! It’s the enemy!”
Even the paladins could not help but be shaken by their Captain’s order.
“Wait! Please wait, Captain Custodio! The Sorcerous Kingdom which is our destination is ruled by an undead king, so what if this is one of the Sorcerous Kingdom’s ships?”
“What!? He brought a Ghost Ship onto dry land and then used it? ...What the hell is this?”
It was only natural that Remedios would be dumbfounded.
The undead could control other undead. However, what kind of undead being could put a Ghost Ship, that would originally have sailed the seas, under their command?
Soon, the ship revealed itself in its entirety.
Indeed, it was truly a Ghost Ship.
It was broken down all over. There was a huge hole in the side of the hull, and the deck planks were curled upwards in many places.
It was gigantic, even bigger than the Holy Kingdom Navy’s flagship “Iron Hammer of the Holy King.” If it were not so dilapidated, it would give off an impression of tremendous power.
The last of its three masts flew aft sails, while the others had regular square sails. However, they were all torn and tattered, and they did not look like they could accomplish their mission of propelling a vessel.
There was an abnormal sharpness to the way its prow protruded forth. It looked very impressive, like it had been polished. In addition, it glowed with a dim, mystical light, and it gave the feeling that the ship was proud of itself.
After that, the most eye-catching feature was the ensign it flew on top of the main mast. It bore the symbol of the Sorcerous Kingdom.
The ship floated a meter off the ground as it moved forward.
Soon, the ship passed by the group — who were frozen in place by the bizarre sight — from the side.
Nobody was able to move, and then the fog began to thin. Did that ship spew fog as it sailed? No, if that were the case, then the fog would have been thickest when one was near the ship, so they should not have been able to even see the hull itself. It was probably like some sort of concealing layer that shrouded the area around the ship with fog.
Or perhaps it was a cage to keep its prey from escaping. Neia was scared stiff by that thought of hers.
The Sorcerer King… an undead king. He might turn out to be a very scary person.
When she heard he had summoned gigantic goats of uncertain origin, she had imagined them as adorable sheep, so perhaps Neia might have underestimated the Sorcerer King in some small way.
It made her uneasy.
Just like how paladins viewed the undead as enemies, the undead might consider paladins to be their enemies too. If that were the case, the fate of their group would be—
Even so, they had no choice but to beg him for aid, in order to meet Momon, the man who had once fought on par with Jaldabaoth. Neia wiped her sweat away with her palm.
“...The fog’s cleared. Everyone, let’s go.”
The undead king who ruled these bizarre beings.
Neia gathered up her resolve.
The Sorcerer King is undead, yet he permits humans to live… What sort of person is he, really? Well, I won’t be able to see that side of him, being a squire and all.
In the distance, she could see the outermost of E-Rantel’s — the capital of the Sorcerous Kingdom — three walls, and the imposing gate set into it.
However, neither of them could draw Neia’s attention away from the two gigantic statues which flanked the gate.
They depicted an undead creature which held a bizarre staff that resembled snakes coiling around each other. Those statues were probably made in the image of the Sorcerer King, Ainz Ooal Gown.
Despite being a good distance away from them, Neia could make out the intricate detailing of the statues. In all likelihood, she would not be able to find a flaw in them even at the statues’ feet.
Then, she saw several human-shaped creatures working near the statues.
Eh? Ah… aren’t they too big? Aren’t they as high are those walls? While I know the statues are large… who are those people working down there, anyway?
The others seemed to have the same questions as Neia, and the paladins began discussing the identities of those human-like creatures.
“...Those aren’t humans, are they?”
“Yeah. Are they Giants? Although, they don’t seem to be the same as Hill Giants…”
Neia, a mere squire, had never seen a Giant in the flesh before, but she had heard about these beings during her monster knowledge class.
Giants were essentially enlarged humans, but in addition to their powerful bodies, they also possessed racial abilities. Thanks to these abilities, they could endure environments which humans would be hard-pressed to survive, so they typically made their homes in such places. They were a demihuman species which had little to do with humans, who could only live on the plains.
Some races which were skilled in magic were more advanced than humanity.
Race alone did not determine the goodness or wickedness of a being. One of the Thirteen Heroes was a Giant. In the Holy Kingdom, the Giants known as Sea Giants sometimes showed up to trade.
That said, Giants were generally a violent and dangerous race.
On the subject of dangerous Giants in the human world, one would have to mention Hill Giants, who lived in the hills. Giant-kin such as trolls and the like were also quite (in)famous.
In that case, what were these Giants doing in a city of the undead?
“...Were there Giants here in the past? Did he conquer them?”
“Does that Sorcerer King command Giants? I’ve never heard of something like that before.”
That surprised exclamation from one of the paladins was only to be expected.
They had gathered a great deal of intelligence in preparation for their journey to the Sorcerous Kingdom. Of course, a lot of that information was incomprehensible, so they could not be said to have succeeded in their objective, but that still counted as doing their due diligence. Both the Ghost Ship and Giants were matters of mystery.
Was the Sorcerer King an undead Giant? Neia thought. But such a distinguishing characteristic ought to have showed up in their intelligence reports.
Just then, Gustavo addressed her from behind.
“Squire Baraja, it’s about time we changed formation. Move to the rear.”
During their journey, Neia had been at the head of the formation, but now that they were near the city, Neia would occupy the rearmost position. In turn, Remedios and Gustavo would take Neia’s place at the front.
“Captain Custodio, shall we send an envoy out to announce us?”
Surely anyone would be wary of a group of people showing up near a city in full plate armor and bearing arms. Therefore, when they entered a city or village of the Kingdom, they would typically send out a paladin to inform them that they were coming, and then the group would approach, bearing the flag of the Holy Kingdom. This was etiquette.
After receiving Remedios’s permission, they sent a paladin out before them.
After reaching the gates to the Sorcerous Kingdom, he turned and came back.
“Captain, I’ve informed the watchmen of the Sorcerous Kingdom. They extend a welcome to us.”
“Is that so, got it. Then let’s go! Raise the flags! Hold your chests high! Do not disgrace the name of paladins of the Holy Kingdom!”
With that, the group slowly guided their horses towards the Sorcerous Kingdom.
Finally, they reached the stately-looking gates, as well as the Giants working there.
The Giants seemed to be cleaning the statues, as though to make the beautiful statues even more beautiful.
They glanced at the Giants’ appearance, and their skin was bluish white, while their hair and moustaches were white. They seemed to be dressed in primitive clothing made from the hide of some kind of beast, as well as exquisitely made chain mail armor.
“What kind of Giants are those?”
Neia’s keen senses picked up the conversation from the front row.
“This is just a guess, but I think they should be Frost Giants, right?”
“H-mm~” Remedios replied vaguely. “Are they strong? What powers do they have?”
“...Honestly, give me a break… Frost Giants are Giants who live in cold climates, and they are immune to cold. In contrast, they are weak to fire.”
“I see. So if we have to fight one, we should use fire, is that right?”
“Well, pretty much. Mithril ranked adventurers should be able to beat them with ease. However, they can train and learn like us, and sometimes you might encounter a Giant with warrior skills. Therefore, you must be careful.”
Those were Giants.
One could train to be a warrior, a magic caster, or a thief. It was not just humans who could train themselves in such techniques. While creatures with racial advantages generally were not inclined towards such training, some of them would put in the effort to pick up such skills, and that made them very difficult opponents.
Neia’s father had repeatedly told her, “Beasts intimidate you with their appearance. But a powerful foe who does not appear to be one is very frightening.”
“H-mm~ Well, I’ve never fought a Giant before. Still, Ogres are a different matter.”
“Take care you don’t upset them by mentioning Ogres in the same breath as them. To the Sea Giants, at least, it would be like comparing a monkey to a human. Of course, that’s a rumor from a bard, so there’s no telling how much of that is true.”
“H-mm~ The Holy Kingdom can’t hire Sea Giants, but the Sorcerous Kingdom can employ Frost Giants. Which of them is stronger?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know the answer to that…”
While the Captain obviously wanted Sea Giants to be stronger, the important thing now was the sort of treatment these Frost Giants faced in the Sorcerous Kingdom.
Were they treated as friends, enslaved with force, or were they paid for their services in a mutually beneficial relationship?
There was no way to tell from the forms of the silently laboring Giants.
Still, it would seem these Giants are excellent laborers. The Holy Kingdom has worked with demihumans in the past, but if they expanded the scope of that, it could do many more things. Of course, the Holy Kingdom would never do that.
While there were races such as the Mermen, with whom the Holy Kingdom had a long history of mutual cooperation, the memories of war with demihumans still remained, so such a thing would never be accepted.
Had the Sorcerous Kingdom only accepted Giants? Or did it also take in other strange races? If she encountered demihumans here similar to the ones who had attacked the Holy Kingdom, could she rein in the anger within her heart?
No, if I don’t control myself…
For instance, what would happen if she met a Snakeman here? It would be a Snakeman who came from a land far removed from the Holy Kingdom, living in peace with humans in this nation. Perhaps it might not be possible to use an emotional appeal to dissuade the others from showing hostility, but given the present circumstances, they would have to do just that.
Neia looked uneasily at Remedios’s back.
Could she do it?
She mentally shook her head. Worrying about Remedios like that was very rude. She was the leader of this diplomatic party, and she was working to save the country. She could certainly do that much. Such concerns were were being disrespectful to her.
“Can we just enter like that? How about going in through another gate?”
The gates might be open, but the Giants were working. She was worried about whether they would mind the passing of the humans at their feet.
“We’ll go in like this. If word gets out that the Hoy Kingdom’s emissaries went in through another door because they were afraid of Giants, everyone who knows will laugh at us.”
“...Understood. Then we shall obey your instructions, Captain.”
And so, the group advanced toward the gates.
Fortunately, the Giants took a look at them and then stopped their work for a while, allowing them to pass without incident. Neia felt that this was less goodwill towards humans than a mysterious sentiment towards visitors to the Sorcerous Kingdom.
Normally, they would have been stopped outside the gates, but since they had sent someone to announce them, they were ushered in by human soldiers who looked like street guards, and the group passed through the gates, under the light of magical lanterns. Their illumination was distinctly different from that of the sun, and the trained warhorse harrumphed uneasily under their radiance.
“Welcome to E-Rantel, city of the Sorcerous Kingdom. Is this your first time visiting here, honored paladins?”
“I see. Then, I beg your pardon, but can you please dismount?”
This was probably a luggage check, Neia thought. While it was somewhat inconsiderate to conduct one on people calling themselves emissaries from another nation, they were justified in doing so
There was no protest as the group got off their horses and obeyed the instructions to “Walk this way please,” which brought them to a huge door beside the gates.
Going by common sense, this ought to be a side tower, a combination of troop barracks and a defense base.
“Please enter here. This city is different from the cities of the Kingdom and the Empire in that it possesses all manner of different locations within, so first time visitors will have to attend a workshop in the room ahead.”
“Yes. This is to minimize unnecessary disturbances. Only people who have attended this lecture may enter the city. What say you?”
They had come all this way, so obviously they could not refuse the request to attend. While it was to be expected, Remedios’s answer was a definite “Yes.”
“Then, may I request that you give your weapons into our safekeeping?”
Naturally, they could not refuse that, but just as naturally, Remedios had a put-upon look on her face.
Remedios’s sword was a divine treasure of the Holy Kingdom. Just by bearing it, she would not even need to kneel before the Holy King. She could not surrender such a treasure before even meeting the king of the realm, and after hearing that much, the soldier nodded in understanding.
“Is that so? Then it can’t be helped. Then please remain as you are and enter, everyone. The truth is, holding onto your swords was intended to ensure your safety. In that case, please promise me that you will not draw your weapons no matter what once you’re inside. If you can’t do that, I’d advise you to leave this city instead.”
“Understood. We shall return the trust you have shown in allowing us to bear our swords, and so we shall not draw our weapons while we are inside.”
Remedios touched her hand to her chest — to the emblem of the Holy Kingdom there — as she made that declaration. She swore to do so on her honor as a paladin and that of the Holy Kingdom.
“Then I’ll trust you to do that. First, I shall ask the guard for this area to step outside.“
Within the Holy Kingdom, this was an absolute oath that might even draw gasps of surprise from those who saw it, but it was much more mildly received in other countries. After that bland response, the guard knocked on the door.
After that, the door slowly opened, and what suddenly appeared before their eyes was—
Neia went Aiiiieeee, in a voice that was somewhere between a gasp and a wail.
The being that slowly emerged was excessively large in every dimension.
Its black colored full plate armor was covered in red tracery that resembled blood vessels, and it was covered in spikes. Demonic horns protruded from its helmet, and its open-faced helmet revealed a rotted human visage. Its empty eye-sockets contained points of red light filled with hatred and the anticipation of carnage.
The temperature in the room plunged in an instant, as though the darkness was chilling them.
“Please do not draw your weapons!”
Everyone’s shoulders shuddered from the guard’s shout.
“Nothing will happen if you do not draw your swords! But if you do, you will be slain instantly! After that, you will be bound to eternal suffering! Please don’t make me have to witness something like that again!”
His mournful cry sounded like he had experienced this sort of thing before. Had he personally witnessed such an event in the past?
The undead being slowly glared at Neia and the others. There was the feeling that it was waiting for them to draw their blades.
“...And this undead being is…?”
Remedios’s voice trembled faintly as she spoke.
“They are guards who are stationed throughout this city in large numbers.”
Remedios’s quaking voice was somewhere between surprise, fear, and consternation. Neia felt the same way as her. It was unthinkable that a nation would possess so many undead of such extraordinary power.
“A-Ah, excuse me. Is this undead creature under the control of His Majesty — the Sorcerer King?”
The guard nodded in response to Neia’s reflexive question.
“Indeed, that is so. Also, he rules over undead who are more powerful than this one over here.”
“Is it not dangerous?”
The soldier responded immediately to Gustavo’s question. He sounded like he was dying to inform them of this.
“Yes, to date, there have been no incidents in this city where people were killed without provocation.”
The undead were beings who hated the living. As someone who could utterly dominate them and keep them from harming living creatures, the Sorcerer King must be a truly incredible person. Neia was deeply impressed by the might of the Sorcerer King.
“...I see. Ah. Then, can you take us inside the room?”
“Please follow me.”
The black undead creature slowly stepped away from the door, and the soldier boldly walked past him. In contrast, Neia and the others seemed to be looking at each other to see who would make the first move.
While he said that this undead creature was ruled by the Sorcerer King, those bonds were not visible to the naked eye. This made walking in front of it several times more frightening to them than going before, say, a carnivore who was unchained, but which would not attack because its belly was full.
Remedios planned to go forward first, but Gustavo stopped her. After that, he looked to Neia.
I’m the canary, huh.
There was nothing wrong with that logic when one considered whose life would matter least if it was lost. Even so, despite their determination to protect the weak, their own squire was a different matter.
Neia steeled herself for what lay ahead, squeezed her eyes shut, and then strode forward.
After taking several steps forward, she slowly opened her eyes. She had not been cut down. She quickened her pace, and hastily moved past the undead being.
After seeing Neia had crossed safely, the other paladins followed behind her. In the end, nobody was attacked, and they reached their destination.
The soldier opened the door, revealing a long table and many plain chairs.
“Please wait in this room for a while.”
“Understood. Thank you for leading us here.”
Remedios jerked her chin, and Gustavo produced a small pouch from safekeeping and handed it to the soldier who had brought them here. It was a tip.
His rejection was so fierce that it was almost like a cry of despair.
The soldier raised his hands above his head, utterly unwilling to touch that pouch.
Everyone was shocked by his reaction, as was Neia. She could not think of any reason for the soldier’s reaction.
“We are all paid by His Majesty, so please allow me to refuse your show of consideration.”
“But, but since you did us a service… and it’s not a very big sum, no?”
“No, there’s no need for that. I’ll wait outside until the seminar is over.”
The soldier swiftly retreated from the room. The remaining people looked at each other, mystified by the soldier’s overwrought reaction.
“Is that really all right?”
“He said no, so there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Tipping was a natural thing. While not tipping was not a problem, most people of stature did practice tipping. Of course, some people did so to minimize the time needed for luggage inspections and ask people to take care of various small matters, but they had not made any such requests. Frankly speaking, they were simply doing what would be expected of people in their station.
If that was an instruction from the Sorcerer King, then what was his aim in doing so?
“We weren’t told where to sit. So it’s free seating, then.”
After everyone sat as the Captain had directed, a short time passed before the door opened once more.
Neia turned back, and then her eyes went wide.
The entity who had entered was not human.
It was a creature whose species had a human’s upper body and a snake’s lower body, a Naga.
There were several offshoots of the Naga race — for instance, the Sea Nagas which occasionally appeared along the Holy Kingdom’s coasts — but which subspecies this one belonged to was unclear. However, all of them were demihumans who held no goodwill for humanity, yet Neia did not feel terribly afraid.
All this was thanks to that black undead. Compared to that, she could at least muster up a rational response to this.
Ah! Was that what it was all about? That frightening undead creature was not just intended to frighten people, but to numb people to the shock of seeing demihumans? They really did put a lot of thought into letting demihumans coexist with humans...
It would seem the Sorcerer King was not just a powerful undead being.
The Naga slithered through the silent room, paying no heed to the group’s response as he moved in front of them, whereupon he bowed slightly.
“Thank you for waiting, dear humans who wish to enter this city. This one is an immigration official for the Sorcerous Kingdom, Ryurarius Spenia Ai Indarun. Well, it is hardly a vocation which will bring this one into contact with you, so there is no need to remember that name. Then, without further ado, let us begin. This one will briefly explain the differences between living in this city and the surrounding cities, as well as things one should be aware of… firstly, drawing weapons within the city is strictly forbidden.”
That was a very reasonable admonition, and Neia let the tension flow out of her shoulders.
“Mm, many would think of it as an ordinary reminder,” Ryurarius pointed to his face with a slender finger. “It’s written all over your faces. However, I would like you to remember that many races walk the streets of the Sorcerous Kingdom. You have already seen the undead holding their heads up high and walking proudly through the streets. Even if they strike you as dangerous beings, drawing your weapon on them without provocation would be a serious crime, no?”
“A moment please. Does that mean we must flee if a dangerous being appears?”
“That is not the case. Even if there are dangerous entities in the city, none of them will harm you. Even so, there are cases where people feel afraid, or they feel they might be attacked, and thus they draw their weapons anyway. That is what this one was talking about.”
“Can you be sure we won’t be attacked?”
“Oh yes… of the many dangerous creatures who walk through this place, those who will most alarm you are probably His Majesty’s subordinates.”
Ryurarius smiled tiredly.
“Once you stay here for more than a day, your wariness will wane and you will no longer mind them. Well, the first day is the biggest problem. And of course, drawing your weapons in self-defense is perfectly fine.”
“I see. So it’s all right as long as it’s done in self-defense.”
“Mm, yes. Also, mind control magic will be used in the course of investigating crimes in this city. Please keep that in mind.”
Neia’s eyes went wide. Nor was she the only one to do so. A commotion erupted from the paladins. As their representative, Remedios stated her opinion.
“A moment please. Is the Sorcerous Kingdom such a crude nation? Do they allow the use of spells? Are the courts also that way?”
In general, mind control magic was not used when questioning people about crimes.
For instance, by using 「Dominate」, one could make anyone a criminal for a brief period of time. By using 「Charm」, one could find a patsy for any crime. The fact that mind control magic could be used to manufacture offenders to one’s liking caused it to be viewed as a crude act practiced only by tyrants.
“The courts also use similar means. Oh, but I can confidently say that His Majesty will not compel you to speak untruths. On that point you need not worry.”
How could anyone believe that? The use of mind control magic meant that once a nation decided that someone was a dangerous individual, they could paint them as a criminal and then deal with them. No human being would trust an undead being they had never met before.
Nobody said that, but they probably all felt the same way.
“Also, I wish to ask… if you will not enter, will you be returning right away?”
“...No, we can’t do that. Please allow us entry.”
“Ho. That was the quickest answer yet. Traders would usually ask for time and then discuss among themselves. Then, let us continue.”
After that, Ryurarius touched on how “Undead horses drew carriages along the roads,” and other weird things that seemed to mess with her mind. However, when he said, “Sometimes Dragons will fly overhead, so do not be alarmed or let your horses run amok,” her face twitched.
Having Dragons fly above a city was not something that could be summarized as a “big incident.”
Dragons were creatures against whom even fully armed and prepared heroes might fall in combat. That was why all warriors dreamed of slaying a Dragon. Slaying an overwhelmingly superior creature with the strength they had honed, their comrades, and their weapons was a glorious deed and a deed that only the most superlative of warriors could perform.
Surely it would cause a great disturbance if such a Dragon were to appear in a dwelling place for humans.
The undead are fine, because we’ve already seen them as guards, but Dragons… no, still, having one fly overhead as a sentry ought to be fine, right? Also, they have many age categories, and their strength varies greatly depending on their age...
Freshly hatched Dragons were still Dragons. However, such a tiny Dragon was more easily controlled than the undead creature from just now.
“Then, that is about it. Thank you for listening. Now, can you follow the soldier back to the gate after you leave this room?”
“Forgive me, but may I ask a question?”
Remedios raised a hand.
“Hm? And what might that be?”
“You don’t intend to kill or eat us, do you?”
“Perhaps this one might have thought of doing so in the past. However, that is strictly forbidden now. In addition, after seeing His Majesty, I feel that there is no point in feuding with my fellow inferior lifeforms.”
“Is His Majesty really that powerful?”
Ryurarius smiled tiredly.
“He is ten times more powerful than you can imagine. Him aside, even his subordinates are extraordinarily potent… simply put, there is no safer city than one which His Majesty defends.”
Perhaps she was thinking of something, but Remedios fell silent.
“This one does not know why you have come here. However, let me give you some sage advice that a friend with whom I take tea — a widow — told me. Declaring your opposition to His Majesty would be extremely foolish. A wise man would immediately throw himself at his feet and beg for mercy.”
There was a shocking sense of reality to those words. While he said he had heard it from a friend, it was more like that the Naga called Ryurarius was speaking from personal experience.
“Thank you for your advice.”
Remedios stood, followed closely by everyone else.
Neia bowed to Ryurarius from where she stood at the rear of the group before leaving the room.
They walked along the streets of E-Rantel. The group’s destination was the inn which the gate guards had told them was the highest class establishment in this city, the Shining Gold Pavilion.
Neia looked at the assorted people along the streets.
Ryurarius’s words had given her the impression that this nation was filled with demihumans and the undead. However, the reality was different — most of the pedestrians were human.
The only undead she saw were groups of the same undead being they had seen near the city gates, as well as horse-shaped undead with bodies of bones and fog who pulled carriages. There were no other kinds besides them.
On the other hand, there were all kinds of demihumans.
A group of Goblins marched down the streets in neat formation, each of them radiating the aura of a seasoned veteran. That immediately shattered the impression Neia had of Goblins. No, it was not just Neia who was that way. Gasps of surprise came from the paladin contingent.
There were also a demihuman with a rabbit’s face wearing a maid’s uniform, as well as a bipedal, frog-like demihuman, but she had only seen one example of each in the city.
It seems more normal than I imagined… well, not that normal, but still, it’s quite similar to a human nation. You can hardly tell that it’s under the thumb of a terrifying undead king.
There were no looks of fear on the faces of the citizens walking along the streets. Neia was not sure if this was because they had resigned themselves, they had grown used to it, or they had decided that there was no need to worry about living with the undead. However, there were no signs of chaos on the streets. At times, she even heard the sound of children laughing.
This is much better compared to Jaldabaoth, I guess.
Just then, Remedios suddenly halted her horse. Since their leader, who was travelling at the group’s head, had stopped, the rest of them had no choice but to follow suit.
“Excuse me, Dwarf-san. May I ask you a few questions?”
Remedios was addressing three Dwarves who were working by the side of the road. There were also three Skeletons performing earthworks under the Dwarves’ orders.
The culture shock she had received after entering the city had been so great that she now thought little of seeing Skeletons. There was even a hint of relief in her mind which came from seeing an opponent which even she could win against.
“What? Who are you guys? Which country do you hail from.”
“I apologize for speaking from horseback. However, we are from the Holy Kingdom and we are looking for the inn known as the Shining Gold Pavilion. May we ask how to get there?”
“Shining… Shining Gold Pavilion? Ahhh, that’s a classy place.”
The Dwarves gave them rough directions. However, it differed slightly from what the gate guards had told them and it felt like they were being sent slightly off-course. However, her real objective was not asking directions.
“I see. Thank you very much. Gustavo, give them a token of appreciation.”
Gustavo dismounted from his horse and produced a small pouch of coins.
“You do know all we did was give directions, right?”
“It’s fine. After all, we’ve interrupted your work.”
“Really? Well, sorry about that.”
The Dwarves accepted Gustavo’s gift, and smiled.
“Well, when we get some good grub with this, we’ll thank the men and women of the Holy Kingdom for it.”
“No, there’s no need… speaking of which, what are you doing here?”
“Hm? You can’t tell? We’re laying roads. His Majesty himself requested it of us. While it’s mainly the residents who are doing the work, we’re here to serve as technical advisors.”
Gahahahaha, the Dwarves laughed heartily.
“I see. And the undead over there are…?”
“They’re Skeletons that His Majesty lent us, can’t you tell? Ahhh, honestly, you can’t beat the undead when it comes to pure manual labor. It’s certainly changed my view of them.”
“Controlling the undead, huh…”
“It’s not like there’s anything surprising about it… Well, I guess it can’t be helped because you’re travellers. Still, it’s only to be expected in the Sorcerous Kingdom, no? I’ve heard that the undead are showing their stuff in the nearby villages. After all, they can complete tedious chores like planting and so on with just an order. I mean, look, the undead don’t tire, they don’t sleep, and they don’t eat. In addition, they also understand what we want to say, so they do fantastically when given a task within their means. Things being what they are, you don’t even need to work like a dog any more. Even our country’s starting to make use of them too.”
“By your country, you mean a nation of Dwarves separate from the Sorcerous Kingdom?”
“Oh yes. That’s where we come from, but now we stay in the Sorcerous Kingdom’s demihuman district.”
“Yup. It’s where all the races who aren’t human live. They say it used to be the pauper’s district of this city, but it was torn down. Then, it was rebuilt in order to let races of all kinds live comfortable lives. Well, it might be a while before it’s complete, but work on the dwellings for races smaller than you humans — like we dwarves, for instance — has already begun.”
“Originally, we came here to take charge of that building work!”
The Dwarf’s colleague jumped into the conversation.
“I see. But if the pauper’s district was torn down, where did the original residents go?”
Remedios’s eyes went to the undead.
“We’re not too sure, but I think they were sent to villages or something. There’s a lot of ruined, abandoned villages around this city, and I heard they were sent there to rebuild them and work the fields. That’s where being able to command the undead comes in handy. If I’m not wrong, they’ve begun large-scale farming with the undead, or something. That’s why food prices in this country are pretty cheap.”
“It doesn’t matter that it’s cheap! The important thing is that it’s good! And the wine! Ohhh, I fattened right up after moving to this city!”
“If I go back all plump like this, my wife’s going to yell ‘Where’s my share!?’ at me. I’d better slim down before returning home!”
“Ahhhh, we really lucked out in the lottery!”
Gahahahaha, the dwarves laughed again.
“Finally, there’s those horse-shaped undead. Do you know their names?”
“Beats me. Still, doesn’t matter if we don’t know, right? They’re not harming anyone. They’re a bag of bones, yet they’re so damn strong, makes them perfect for moving goods, right?”
“I see… Thank you!”
“Same here. Best of luck to all of you!”
After bidding the Dwarves farewell, the group continued toward the inn once more.
“Captain, why did you ask the name of that horse-shaped undead creature?”
Neia was mystified. She had thought that was what would have interested the Captain least.
“...Gustavo. That was because you were acting strangely when you saw that thing.”
“Say, do you know the name of that undead being?”
“...Well, a name does come to mind… but I think I must have made a mistake. It can’t be, I was probably mistaken. I can’t imagine an undead creature like that could ever be controlled.”
“H-mm~ Well, if you say so, then so be it.”
And that was the end of that.
Before long, the instructions they had followed brought them before a luxurious inn, probably the Shining Gold Pavilion which the gate guards had recommended to them. While its name was written on the signboard, the Kingdom’s script was different from that of the Holy Kingdom, so they could only make a rough guess at what it said. The Kingdom and the Empire had once been the same country, so there were many similarities between them, but the Holy Kingdom had never been tied to either of those countries, so they differed greatly.
“Gustavo, go ahead before us and book our rooms.”
“Understood. Oi, you two, with me.”
Gustavo brought two paladins with him to the inn. Several minutes later, one of them returned.
“Captain, we’ve successfully booked the rooms. The stables are behind the inn, so they’d like us to bring the horses there.”
“All right, I understand. Squire Baraja, bring the horses over.”
She tied the horses’ reins to a tree in front of the inn, and then she led them to the stables one at a time. Taking care of horses was a squire’s job, but the inn was also obliged to help out as well, and so Neia accepted their goodwill and entered the inn.
She smelled a fragrance in the air and thought, Maybe this is to prevent the stink of the stables from getting in.
Was it from some kind of fragrant wood or perfume?
From the outside, it seemed to be of the same grade as the inn from the Kingdom, but after seeing the interior, it might have well been a rank above the latter. She even felt a little embarrassed walking around inside it with her body that was dirty — bathing for them was essentially just rinsing with water until they thought they did not stink — from their long travels.
Neia stepped forward to the room which the inn staff had told her about, and knocked on the door.
“Who is it?”
“Squire Neia Baraja.”
In front of the door stood a paladin, still in armor. The discrepancy between the E-Rantel they imagined and what they had actually seen made them feel that resting would be a waste of time, and so they had decided to take action without delay.
“You’ve come just in time. We’re about to start the meeting.”
While she wondered if she needed to take part, it did no good to ask too much. The people on top had spoken, and obeying them was the proper course of action.
“Then let’s go seek an audience with the Sorcerer King as we planned. Gustavo, I’m counting on you.”
“Of course, Captain. But what else should we do apart from that? The original plan was to meet people in power and ask for their aid…”
Since Momon was an adventurer, they had originally planned to head to the Adventurer’s Guild. However, according to Ryurarius, the Adventurer’s Guild now was essentially closed down, and requests were handled by the Sorcerer King’s underlings.
“Let’s drop by the Guild anyway. Let’s see if we can’t entice some idle adventurers who can come to the Holy Kingdom.”
“I understand. In that case—”
Gustavo gave orders to two paladins, and they immediately sprang into motion.
Neia wondered what kind of tasks she would be given.
Usually, it was a squire’s job to polish the paladins’ armor and swords, do their laundry, among other sundry tasks. Ironing and arranging their rumpled clothes was also part of that. Most paladins now should have gone through such experiences.
Although, that might not be the case for our incredibly talented captain, who directly became a paladin...
“Then how about the others? Will they wait within the inn?”
“Ahh, when I was gathering rumors in the Kingdom, I was led to believe that this would be a grim and dark city. However, it’s far more ordinary than I expected… I trust letting a few people outside would not pose a problem?”
“While it’s hard to tell at this stage, I believe there should be no sudden danger in that.”
“Is that so? Then have several people go to the temples and see if they can help introduce us to Momon.”
“The ruler of this city is the Sorcerer King, an undead being. It won’t be too good to have ties to the temples, no?”
“Still, we’re paladins. Where should we go if not to the temples?”
Gustavo had a sour look on his face. Remedios had a point.
“That’s… also true.”
“Also, it would also be good to see and hear about life in the city from its people in addition to what the Sorcerer King has allowed us to see, right?”
“You have a point there…”
But what should they do if they saw something which they, as paladins, could not tolerate?
Gustavo was having trouble responding because he was thinking about that question.
Neia answered her own question.
Paladins were beings who embodied justice, so perhaps the right thing for a paladin to do would be to censure the Sorcerer King. However, if the result of doing so meant that the Sorcerer King would not help the Holy Kingdom, meaning that they could not save the masses from their suffering, would that still be the right thing to do?
She remembered that her father had once said he did not understand the justice of a paladin. She had not given much thought to it during her days of training with the goal of becoming a paladin in mind. But perhaps her heart had become soft and weak because of the Holy Kingdom’s present state, since she had started thinking more and more about that subject recently.
Perhaps her doubts might be cleared up if she could ask her mother, but her mother was no longer among the living.
In the end, she could only rely on herself to find the answer.
As Neia continued pondering these things, the dialogue continued. A pair of paladins would go to the temples of the Four Gods, while two more groups of two would collect information in town. Remedios and the others would stay behind to take care of anything that might happen.
As expected, Neia was ordered to polish their armor.
After the meeting ended, Neia began working on everyone’s armor.
She wetted a cloth with cold water and then wiped the mud from the armor.
As one might expect of magic armor, there was no damage on its surface. If there were any dents, one would have to hammer them out from the inside, but if one’s fingers were clumsy, that would make the surface uneven and ugly. Since Neia had very little confidence in that field, the enchanted armor which the paladins wore was ideal for her.
She was very happy to bury her heart and mind in work. That way, she did not need to think of unnecessary things.
And so, her forehead beaded with sweat, Neia finished cleaning everyone’s armor.
♦ ♦ ♦
Their audience with the Sorcerer King came earlier than expected. Neia could not hide her surprise. That was because it was set to take place the day after Gustavo had gone to plead his case.
The paladins of the Holy Kingdom — trailed by Neia — found that the residence of the Sorcerer King which they arrived at was quite shabby. Perhaps it might have been quite ostentatious for someone ruling a city of this grade, but it was entirely unfitting of someone who called himself a king. There was no sense of tranquility born of a rich history, no aura of stateliness, and it did not reflect the whims of one who held power. It seemed like a building constructed for practical purposes.
It was quite pitiful compared to the royal palaces of the Kingdom or the Holy Kingdom. Yet, this was the domicile of the Sorcerer King. Since this had once been a regional city of the Kingdom, he had probably decided to make use of the existing small palace after taking control of it.
As the paladins removed their helmets and surveyed the palace, faint traces of disdain appeared on their faces, which only Neia could pick up. Perhaps they were comparing their surroundings with the royal palace of their home country
Who could blame them for that?
And then, Neia recalled the Ghost Ship that they had previously encountered, as well as the undead walking along the streets.
Why would a king who held dominion over so many undead of that level choose to stay in such a shabby old palace?
I have the feeling that there’s some reason for it… if he wanted a luxurious palace, all he’d have to do is order craftsmen like those Dwarves to direct the untiring undead to build one…
As they passed through the gates of the palace, there were two facing rows of undead creatures, similar to the one they had first encountered upon coming to the city. Unlike the undead they had seen at the gate, they were slimmer and crossed their lances high in the air between them.
Flags hung from the tips of the crossed lances. On the right were the flags of the Sorcerous Kingdom, and on the left were the flags of the Holy Kingdom.
Below the flags was a passage that they could move through.
After that, music played. While it was a tune she had not heard before, it was probably best to accept this as part of the ceremony of the whole thing.
From the depths of her brain, Neia recalled a lecture she had received once.
The most important factor of resisting spells is to have a clear mind.
No, there was no way this music could be a magical attack. If this was a trap, there would be no need to raise the Holy Kingdom’s flag.
Neia walked in what she hoped was a proud and bold way, as she scanned her surroundings.
There was an honor guard and the flags of the Holy Kingdom. This was a clear sign that the Sorcerer King was welcoming their delegation as honored guests; in other words, he acknowledged Neia and the others as official ambassadors to the Sorcerous Kingdom, which meant Neia also had to uphold the reputation of the Holy Kingdom.
It delighted her, but at the same time it filled her with gut-cramping stress.
She walked along the path below the hanging flags, and at the end of the passage was — Neia sucked in a surprised breath.
A world-class beauty stood there.
She’s beautiful… she’s incredibly beautiful...
Her face was elegant and attractive.. Her incalculably expensive white dress was free of stains.
Her compassionate smile was enough to make her a woman who might have been mistaken for an angel. However, she was no angel. The proof lay in the pair of jet-black wings sprouting from her waist.
“Welcome, ladies and gentlemen of the Holy Kingdom. While this might be arrogance on my part, I am Albedo, and I have the honor of being the Guardian Overseer of the various Floor Guardians and Area Guardians throughout the Sorcerous Kingdom of Ainz Ooal Gown. To use a term that is more familiar to you, I hold the position of Prime Minister.”
“I, I am grateful for your warm welcome. I am the leader of the Holy Kingdom’s diplomatic party, Remedios Custodio, and I am very grateful that you have arranged to make arrangements to meet with us.”
“There is no need for thanks. His Majesty the Sorcerer King is deeply concerned over the developments within the Holy Kingdom. His Majesty has said that it is only proper that he make time for you.”
“We, we are very thankful for that.”
Albedo was all smiles, and her presence crushed Remedios’s words underfoot. Her preternatural beauty was such that even a member of the same sex — no, it was precisely because they were of the same sex — would be swallowed up by it. Albedo’s line of sight swiftly flickered over everyone, Neia included.
“Now then, His Majesty is waiting for you, so I shall guide you to the audience hall. Can I trouble you to follow behind me?”
“Y-Yes, of course. T-Then, how about our swords?”
“Ah, yes, there is the matter of those.”
Albedo smiled in amusement.
Why would she smile like that? Neia wondered. They could not possibly carry weapons into the presence of a king, so normally they would be asked to surrender their weapons. This was also a show of trust in the other party.
“Normally, we would hold onto them for safekeeping, but there is no need for that. You may bear your arms.”
Albedo said something which Neia could not comprehend.
Remedios was also going Why? Surely someone who had spent all her time by the Holy Queen’s side would have even more reason to question this.
Faced with their justified questions, Albedo smiled once more.
“Naturally, this is because we trust our honored guests from the Holy Kingdom, and also because we, as a nation that contains many undead, must seem like quite a bizarre country to you. Therefore, I feel that permitting you to keep your blades will place you at ease. Of course, we have no intention of harming any of you. But if you wish to leave them with us, we can certainly accommodate that request.”
“Then, our country shall graciously accept His Majesty’s goodwill… May I ask you to hold onto the swords of everyone apart from myself. I apologize, but I carry a national treasure of my country, so I hope you understand when I say I cannot leave it in your hands.”
Albedo glanced to the side, and the undead creature that appeared took their swords for safekeeping.
Perhaps some of the paladins were unhappy about giving their swords to the undead, but since their Captain had ordered it, there was no way they could refuse.
Neia looked at Albedo as she handed over her weapon.
There was no telling what she was thinking as she continued smiling that beautiful smile of hers. Rather, one could say that she had looked upon them with pure goodwill, as though she were lavishing heartfelt kindness on Neia and the others. However, was Neia’s assessment correct? For instance, if that were not the case—
—She permitted armed people to stand before her master. Was it due to the Sorcerer King’s orders? Or… was it because she knew there was no way we could harm him?
The Sorcerer King was a powerful magic caster. Was this due to his arrogance that no amount of paladins from the Holy Kingdom could defeat him?
Or perhaps he has undead guards stationed nearby. Albedo-sama doesn’t look like she has any fighting ability...
The Prime Minister whose beauty was as far removed from violence as possible smiled gently.
“Now then, everyone. The Sorcerer King awaits. Please go forth and meet him.”
♦ ♦ ♦
The throne room was also not as lavish as she had imagined. It would seem it had also been pressed into service directly after being taken.
However, the throne itself glittered brightly; one could say it shone with a golden radiance. Surely it was not forged of solid gold; it must have been gilded with gold foil. But even so, one could see how much effort and expense it must have taken to do so, given the size of the throne.
In addition, the flag behind the throne was just as impressive. There was no telling what had been used to weave it, but there was a depth to its hue that its simple black color could not properly express. A slight alteration to the light levels might make one think that it was a deep purple.
“Please enter, Your Majesty.”
“Everyone, bow,” Remedios commanded.
Paladins are bowing to the undead, while Neia was surprised by how Remedios could make a decision like that, she offered no resistance as she fell to one knee and lowered her head. She had learned this ceremonial practice because she was a squire. That said, her experience with meeting kings was limited to when she had glimpsed the Holy King once, as a squire. She lowered her head as she moved her eyes, frantically stealing glances at the paladins around her.
It seems… everything’s fine.
Of course, that was a decision made based on looking at their backs. Perhaps if she looked at them head-on, they might differ slightly from herself.
It’ll be fine! I wasn’t scolded by anyone even in front of the Holy King-sama. Dad said I did well too, and he even praised me.
“Announcing the arrival of His Majesty, Ainz Ooal Gown.”
As Albedo spoke from where she stood ahead of and to the side of their group, Neia heard a very faint sound that only she could pick up, like that of tearing paper, followed by the sound of footsteps and a gatsun sound of something hard striking the ground. Soon, she sensed someone sitting upon the throne.
“His Majesty grants you leave to raise your heads.”
It was very difficult to breathe during this time. Looking up too early or too late would be a breach of etiquette. After a delay of a few seconds, she silently raised her head.
And then, the being in front of Neia captured her attention.
He, he’s the Sorcerer King, Ainz Ooal Gown...
His face was that of a bare skull. Points of red light blazed within his eye-sockets. Truly, his appearance fitted one of the undead. However, Neia knew he was something else entirely.
The first thing which surprised her was his clothes.
He was dressed more richly than a noble would be at the feast to celebrate the inheritance of his title.
The length of his vestments and the spread of their hem seemed very comfortable, and his sleeves were surprisingly loose. The hem and sleeves were made of spotless white fabric and they were lightly decorated with gold and purple. It was bound up at the waist with a sash, but it did not seem strange at all. Bizarre as it might be, it exuded an exotic flavor, and “beautiful” was the only word she could use to describe it.
After that, he wore gloves that were colored the same as his garments, fitted with metal plates that sparkled in all the colors of the rainbow. One of his hands held a mystic staff which looked like seven serpents coiling around each other. That must have been the source of the hard sound from earlier.
However, it was the halo of obsidian radiance from behind him that was truly surprising.
...Is he really one of the undead? No way...
In Neia’s mind, the undead were creatures like Zombies, Skeletons, Ghasts, and other such creatures.
In that case, the Sorcerer King could not possibly be described as one of the undead in Neia’s eyes. Mysteriously enough, his skeletal face did not frighten her. In fact, one could even say he had an air of purity and divinity about him.
He was a powerful being, a fearsome being, a being whose power exceeded the capacity of the human mind to grasp — in other words, he was a Supreme Being.
Neia forgot Albedo, who stood beside the throne, and looked repeatedly upon the Sorcerer King.
What brought her back to her senses was the Sorcerer King’s voice, which said “Well then.”
“You have come a long way from the Holy Kingdom, Custodio-dono, and you ladies and gentlemen of the paladin order.”
“Thank you very much, Your Majesty.”
“While we could have organized a banquet of welcome for you, I trust none of you are in the mood for such a thing. Therefore, I have taken the time out of my busy schedule to arrange an audience with you. That being the case, rather than wasting time to no use — by beating around the bush and bandying insincere flattery — let us be frank with each other. I trust there are no objections?”
“Not at all, Your Majesty.”
“Very well. Then, tell me the present state of the Holy Kingdom. Speaking without deception or omission will allow we in the Sorcerous Kingdom to better aid you.”
After Remedios indicated her understanding, she poured her heart out regarding the state of the Holy Kingdom.
Neia did not understand the reasoning that Remedios followed which led her to be so forthcoming. Although, it was very likely that Remedios felt thinking itself was troublesome.
The contents of her spiel were just like what Gustavo had told Blue Rose, and she ended by saying that the situation on the frontlines was in a tense state. She probably did not want to say something like the Holy Kingdom was on the eve of destruction to another country, much less to an undead king.
“I see, I see. Therefore, what is your aim in coming to my country?”
“We wish to submit a request to Your Majesty; they say the adventurer called Momon has sworn himself to your nation, and if we could borrow that warrior who could fight on par with Jaldabaoth, there would be nothing for our country to fear. Thus, I beg you to dispatch the warrior Momon to our country.”
The crimson glow in the Sorcerer King’s eyes suddenly vanished, and then it reignited a moment later.
“As I thought. I have also prepared an answer for this eventuality — which would be no.”
“May I ask the reason for that answer?”
“While this is something of a black mark on my nation, Momon is, for the time being, vital for the peace of my country. It is precisely because he is around that the people can live with their hearts at ease.”
“But do you not command legions of the undead, Your Majesty?”
“Huhuhu,” the Sorcerer King laughed quietly. “It would seem you ladies and gentlemen of the Holy Kingdom have seen my undead forces and deemed them quite satisfactory. Then, will you not accept a loan of these undead troops in place of Momon? I trust you have all seen that all the undead I command are quite potent. They ought to be able to eliminate mere demihumans.”
Remedios was left speechless.
She was probably imagining the sight of herself leading an undead army back to the Holy Kingdom. No, it was unimaginable. Commanding the undead was utterly antithetical to being a paladin.
It was true that the undead boasted many advantages as troops. They did not need to eat, they could lie in wait in the middle of primeval forest, and one could call them an ideal army.
However, enlisting the undead — the enemies of all living creatures — into their forces was more frightening than anything else. For starters, bringing another nation’s troops into one’s own country was a source of unease. After solving the Holy Kingdom’s problems, they might then proceed to conquer the Holy Kingdom.
“In, in that case…”
The Sorcerer King chuckled at Remedios’s perturbation.
“Indeed, Custodio-dono. There are those in my country who think the same way as you. Using the undead for agriculture, clearing land, and security are all applications which the people are growing to accept. But unfortunately, those among my citizens who have little contact with these activities have not come to fully accept them yet. Of course, the situation is much better than when I was just establishing my rule, but more time will be needed for that. Momon can listen to their concerns and allay them in many ways. If I send him out now, there is no telling how the discontent of the people might erupt.”
“In that case, surely we paladins can stay behind and complete the work of building trust in the undead, could we not? Many people know that paladins are the foes of the undead. Therefore, would it not be very effective to have us stay behind and declare that Your Majesty’s undead are trustworthy?”
“Muu… That is a proposal which is worthy of consideration.”
After a brief period of cogitation, the Sorcerer King turned his face to the hand which did not carry his staff.
“...Hm. It would seem having foreigners handle that is not quite appropriate, no. One can trust someone who has gone through the same joys and sorrows as themselves; surely there is no way for them to believe someone who appeared out of nowhere and said the undead were their friends, is there? As I thought, you will not be able to take the place of an adamantite ranked adventurer, who is already renowned throughout this city.”
His logic was faultless.
Therefore, she could not refute him with logic. This was particularly true for Remedios, who was the type that was driven by her emotions.
The Sorcerer King then asked the speechless Remedios:
“—Very well. Then let us change the topic. I wish to ask about some people you did not mention, Custodio-dono. In the past, Momon told me that Jaldabaoth commanded maids of considerable power. May I ask if you ladies and gentlemen have encountered people dressed like that in the Holy Kingdom?”
“We have not found anyone so dressed in the Holy Kingdom. In fact, we only learned about them for the first time when we engaged Blue Rose of the Kingdom in conversation.”
“I see… which means it is possible that the maids might be Jaldabaoth’s trump card, is it not? Or does that mean they are active in other locations?”
“We cannot be sure.”
“...I believe you mentioned that the south is still holding out. Are you maintaining secret communications with them?”
“To a certain extent, yes.”
“...So they have not yet infiltrated the south, then? Perhaps I was being too worried. Umu…”
The Sorcerer King suddenly looked up to the ceiling.
“Does Your Majesty feel that Jaldabaoth’s henchmen have infiltrated the south?”
“I did not say that. But I was thinking that if he possessed such powerful pawns, why has he not used them yet… and I believe I asked for full disclosure at the beginning, did I not? Therefore, let me get right to the point — what kind of remuneration can the Holy Kingdom offer me in exchange for the provision of my nation’s aid?”
This was a perfectly normal question and entirely to be expected. However, answering it was very difficult.
“We can offer my country’s friendship, trust, and respect.”
The Sorcerer King snorted at Remedios’s answer.
However, one could not conclude that Remedios’s answer had been wrong. There were times when that was all a paladin would need to rush into a life or death battle. For example, one who championed a poor village that could not afford to pay proper compensation and challenged a demihuman horde would be held up as an exemplar of paladinhood.
“That is very much what a paladin would say. Perhaps one of my past friends might well have been willing to take action based on that alone. But unfortunately, such words cannot move me. I have said before to dispense with meaningless flattery. Can you offer me any tangible benefits?”
Is he saying that Momon-dono is a friend of the Sorcerer King? Is he addressing him so familiarly because he is not just a subordinate?
As Neia pondered that question, Remedios remained silent.
She could not speak. The truth was that Remedios Custodio was in no position to make any promises.
What would happen after they beat off Jaldabaoth?
Of course, they would need to name the next Holy King. However, the likelihood of such a person heeding the words of a paladin would be very low. If he was chosen from the southern nobles, who were unfriendly to her, Remedios and the others would probably be placed under house arrest for their inability to protect the Holy Queen.
In that case, even if they forged a pact with the Sorcerer King, there was no guarantee that said pact would actually be honored. No, before that, it was very dubious that this group even had the right to represent their nation. Ultimately, the true purpose of this ambassadorial delegation had been to build sympathy among the commoners who did not understand the situation.
For that reason, they had no ability to make any promises. No one person could represent an entire country by themselves; the only one who could do that was its king.
“Forgive me, Your Majesty. I am Vice-Captain Gustavo Montanjes, serving under Captain Custodio. Please permit me to speak on her behalf.”
The Sorcerer King lightly raised his chin, to indicate that the man should continue.
“Thank you very much. What Your Majesty asks for is something that we cannot guarantee. Even if we reclaim the Holy Kingdom’s territory, restoring the land that has been ravaged by Jaldabaoth will take a very long time. I do not believe we can offer you anything we promise here with any degree of haste. However, there is one thing I wish to tell Your Majesty, which is the danger of Jaldabaoth.”
“Hm… do go on.”
“Yes. The disorganized demihumans who threatened the Kingdom in the past are now under the thumb of Jaldabaoth. If he is not stopped now, and he is allowed to hide himself, there is no telling what sorts of preparations he can make and where he will show himself again.”
“In other words, you are saying that now is the best time to kill him, given that he has shown his face. Therefore, one should eradicate the seeds of any potential discord as soon as possible. Is that what you mean?”
“It is as you say. I expected nothing less of Your Majesty. Therefore, may we plead with you to dispatch Momon-dono?”
“I see. It is a perfectly understandable reason. Indeed, it is high time this Jaldabaoth was exterminated.”
“In that case—”
Just as Gustavo’s face was lighting up with joy, the Sorcerer King extended a hand to stop him before rapping his staff on the ground.
“However, dispatching Momon is still very difficult. Even if he dispatches Jaldabaoth, Momon’s absence will lead to uneasiness in our political situation and alarm the people. In that case, what should be done? If I had more time to stabilize my nation’s internal politics, I would then send out Momon — with his approval, of course. Given what you have just said, you ought to be able to hold on for a little longer, no?”
“But, but of course… may I know how long will that take?”
“Umu… Albedo, what do you think?”
The Prime Minister who had been standing by the side all this while reported to her master for the first time.
“After considering the gradual induction of demihumans into our nation, it will delay the process more than anticipated. It might take a period of several years. Yes… if we had five years, it would not be a problem.”
“Just so. I trust you have no questions?”
Five years. Gustavo tasted the words in his mouth before gently shaking his head.
“That might present some problems with respect to the time…”
“I see… indeed. I ought to have considered your country’s situation. After all, it is a request from a friendly nation.”
The Sorcerer King placed particular emphasis on the words “friendly nation.”
“Our country will do our best to accelerate the process. Albedo, what is the minimum time needed to carry this out?”
“In that case, how about three years? However, that might lead to unrest in our country.”
“That cannot be helped. We’re saving a friendly country, after all. I suppose there will be some loss of life on our part… well, metaphorically speaking.”
The Sorcerer King seemed to be making a joke, but nobody was laughing.
“...Ahem. Now then, how about that? We’ve sped it up by two years.”
He had already made a concession of two years, but even three years was too long. How much damage could occur during that time? And then, there was the question of whether the Holy Kingdom could even survive as a nation during that time — no, there was no way they could. However, if they came out and said that, perhaps even the promise of sending out Momon after three years might be rendered moot as well.
However, the possibility of the Holy Kingdom’s salvation lay before their eyes.
Perhaps she had come here for this moment. She ought to bet her life on it.
After preparing herself for death, Neia took a deep breath, and spoke.
“My sincerest apologies, Your Majesty the Sorcerer King.”
“...And you are?”
“I am Neia Baraja, a squire of the paladin order of the Holy Kingdom. I understand this is exceedingly rude, but please permit me to request your early dispatch of Momon-dono.”
The Sorcerer King appeared to be deep in thought.
“Neia! How dare a mere squire like you beg a favor of the Sorcerer King!?”
There was only one thing which came to mind when Neia heard Remedios’s rebuke.
If you must slay your squire for her disrespectful conduct, please wait a little bit longer.
“Ahh, don’t worry about it. Your name is Neia, is it not? In that case, how much earlier would you like me to send out Momon?”
“I feel that he should be sent as soon as possible, even if it only hastens his arrival by just one day.”
“And you insist on your request, even though knowing that sending out Momon will damage the Sorcerous Kingdom?”
Neia bowed her head.
She had long since prepared herself to request that her Captain take her head if her words displeased the Sorcerer King, in order to pay for her sins with her life.
She closed her eyes, because she knew she might be cut down at any moment.
“Your Majesty! I sincerely apologize for my squire’s disrespect! We have never once harbored any intention of harming the Sorcerous Kingdom.”
“No, pay it no mind. As a resident of the Holy Kingdom, it is only natural to want to save one’s homeland even at the expense of others… Umu. Albedo, can we cut it down to two years?”
“I believe it would be very difficult.”
“Really now. Still — do it.”
Neia reflexively looked up at the Sorcerer KIng.
“Yes! I understand, Your Majesty!”
As she was bathed in the voice of that powerful, absolute ruler, the faint trembling in Albedo’s shoulders must have been because she was uneasy about the reckless challenge she had just been given.
“Neia… Baraja. How about two years? Perhaps it might still be too long for you, but you ought to be able to hold out so long as the southern armies remain, no?”
Indeed, two years was too long. However, she could not prevail on the Sorcerer King’s generosity any further.
“Thank you very much, Your Majesty!”
The gratitude in her voice was genuine, because she felt that the probability of her nation’s salvation had risen from just now.
After that, Remedios bowed her head.
“Thank you very much, Your Majesty! We are deeply grateful that you have acceded to our squire’s request.”
“It is fine. —Captain Custodio, you have a good woman under you. If she did not love her country so deeply, how would a mere squire dare plead in such a way with the king of another nation? ...I am not mocking her, of course.”
“No, I am certain she must be overjoyed by Your Majesty’s words.”
“Is that so. Then that will be all. This has been a beneficial dialogue.”
“—Announcing the departure of His Majesty, the Sorcerer King.”
Neia bowed her head in response to Albedo’s words.
Once again, the staff rapped along the ground in time with his footsteps, the same way it had when he had entered. Those sounds drew further away, and soon they heard the sound of the door closing. The Sorcerer King had probably left the room.
“He has departed.”
When Neia raised her head, she saw a slightly red-cheeked Albedo smiling and saying, “Then, please allow me to escort you outside.”
♦ ♦ ♦
Neia had prepared herself to be scolded by Remedios, and sure enough, after they returned to the inn, it came.
“You! Do you know what you’ve done!?”
Remedios’s face was red as she closed in on Neia. VIce-Captain Gustavo hurriedly held out his arms and stepped between Neia and the Captain.
“Captain Custodio! A moment please! There is no denying the Squire Baraja’s actions were those of a rogue, but ultimately, she saved us a year of waiting. Is that not something worthy of praise?”
“What nonsense are you talking about!? The whole thing might go up in smoke because of her! Also, you want me to praise her for acting on her own? Are you kidding me!?”
“I sincerely apologize.”
Neia bowed her head as she apologized with heartfelt sincerity.
“—Are you really sorry for this? Maybe you were lucky this time, but can you take responsibility if things end up turning bad for us?”
“...The blame rests on your servant.”
“I know that already! Answer me! Can you face all the suffering people of the Holy Kingdom and tell them that help won’t be coming because of you!?”
“No, your servant cannot bear that responsibility.”
“In that case, then why did you just jump in and do that? What on earth were you thinking!?”
Neia raised her head and looked straight at the Captain.
“Should the need arise, I feel you should take my life and offer it to the Sorcerer King as an apology for my actions.”
Remedios’s eyes went wide as she heard that. However, they quickly narrowed in displeasure once more. Beside her, VIce-Captain Gustavo nodded vigorously in what seemed like respect.
“Do you think that’s enough to earn forgiveness? Do you think a life like yours will be enough of an apology?”
“I do not not know, but I am certain you and the others will be able to think of something, Captain.”
“And what will you do if we can’t think of anything!?”
It was as the Captain said. It was likely that even executing Neia would not be enough to earn the Sorcerer King’s forgiveness. However, Neia had still said what she had in the audience chamber because three years was far too long to wait.
Could it be the Captain was willing to accept waiting for three years? Why am I being scolded by someone who didn’t do anything? I know that the lives of the Holy Kingdom’s people hang in the balance, so I shouldn’t act of my own accord. Even so, someone should have done something back then…
Was it not all right as long as there was a good outcome, or was the process more important? She probably could not give an answer like that.
Even so, it was hard for someone who had stepped forward to do something to endure a lecture from someone who had done nothing.
Of course, Neia had a pretty good idea of what would happen if she actually said that. Therefore, she remained quiet and simply lowered her head.
“Captain, that should be enough. Thanks to her efforts, we’ve saved a year of waiting. Rewards and punishment need to be used in balance. Perhaps you ought to be praising her to a similar extent.”
The Captain looked like she had not yet said her fill as she turned and left.
Gustavo sighed, and then turned to face Neia.
“Your resolve is truly admirable. The Captain might look that way, but the truth is, she respects your contributions.”
That was most definitely a lie. That was a lie which nobody could cover up.
Perhaps Gustavo had sensed her thoughts from her expression, but he looked her in the eye and then smiled bitterly.
“In any case, I’ll go talk to the Captain about this. However, if you run into her now, things might get a bit prickly. Could I trouble you to take a walk outside for a bit?”
“I understand. Thank you, Vice-Captain.”
Once outside the inn, Neia wandered aimlessly through the chill of winter.
“I just feel… hahhh…”
While she had been told to go outside, where should she go in this country?
Neia felt around in her pockets and produced a small leather pouch. There was little money inside, just a few copper and silver coins from the Holy Kingdom. If those could not be used, Neia still had a trading gold coin. It would be more than enough to get a meal.
However, this gold coin was the very last piece of pocket money Neia’s parents had given her. Where should she spend this valuable piece of pocket money?
Neia looked at the foreign land before her.
“What a pain… hahh…”
“You seem to be sighing quite heavily.”
The sudden voice from close by made Neia’s shoulders shudder
“Hurry up and go down that road over there. This place is too obvious,”
The owner of this voice was not someone she would forget in a hurry. Neia managed to stop herself from exclaiming reflexively. After that, she walked as directed, and then she heard something moving from behind her. It would seem that it was not just a voice she was hearing, but that there was someone actually behind Neia, although said person had made themselves invisible so Neia could not see them.
After turning down the road as directed, she heard the voice say, “Take the alley on the left.” Neia obeyed silently.
The alley was surprisingly clean, with no passers-by .
After walking several steps, Neia turned and spoke the name of the voice’s owner.
“Your Majesty, dare I ask why you have come here? Am I unable to see you because of magic?”
“I see, so that’s why you were so obedient. You already knew who I was, hm?”
Saying so, the Sorcerer King revealed himself.
He had changed into an unassuming black robe, but even that gleamed like velvet. It would seem it was a very well-made piece of clothing.
Neia immediately genuflected before him.
“Yes, it is as Your Majesty says. Also… may I ask where Your Majesty’s followers are?”
“No, there are none. After all, having followers around would make things troublesome.”
“W-Why is that?”
“Hm, I want to speak with your Captain in private, so please go and get her… no, it would be better to do so in a room… Can you help me open the window of her room? I will enter through there.”
That was a bizarre request. Normally, she would not open the window just like that. However, she was dealing with the king of this country, and a king who had agreed to aid the Holy Kingdom. She could not do anything to ruin his mood.
The word “assassination” flashed through Neia’s mind, but if the Sorcerer King had wanted to do that, he could have done so in the audience chamber.
Of course, this might be someone masquerading as the Sorcerer King. However, the person before her had the form of an imposing ruler, so he was unmistakably the Sorcerer King from back then. Every move he made was something that was only possible by someone who was a born ruler.
Should she trust him? Or not?
Neia pondered this, and chose the former.
“Understood. I shall do so immediately.”
“Umu… come to think of it, were you sent out on a mission? If that was the case, I ought to apologize to your Captain.”
Neia’s eyes met those of the Sorcerer King.
“...If it was not a mission, then this must be your own free time, no? In that case, it is very valuable — mm, I should apologize to you for taking up your precious rest time by making you do things.”
“No, no, it’s not, it’s nothing of the sort in any case, I will go and open the window to the Captain’s room now.”
Neia immediately ran from the Sorcerer King’s side.
Those kind words from a third party were like someone carefully applying a soothing liniment to a palm covered in scrapes and bruises. They seeped into Neia’s heart, and they surprised her.
Neia ran with all her might, and swiftly returned to the inn.
Of course, running was not permitted inside a high end establishment like this, but that was no reason for Neia to slowly walk around. All she could do was move as quickly as she could without causing any offense, but despite all that, she could feel icy glares directed at her by the inn’s staff. In the end, however, Neia finally reached the Captain’s room.
Neia immediately knocked on the door, and then found it was locked when she tried the handle. A chill ran through Neia’s heart as she realized she had been ostracized, but now was not the time to worry about that sort of thing.
“I am Squire Neia Baraja, please open the door.”
The door clicked, and a paladin showed his face from behind it.
“Forgive me,” she said; now was not the time to observe each and every point of etiquette. Neia then turned to Remedios, who was within the room, and said, “The Sorcerer King wishes to speak to you in private, Captain.”
Neia could sense everyone’s eyes looking behind her back.
“No, that’s not it. He’s not there.”
Saying so, Neia strode over to the window and opened it.
As expected of a high class establishment, the windows slid smoothly open, without any trace of jamming.
“What the hell?”
From a third party’s perspective, this was a sudden, rash outburst. It was only natural that a paladin would bellow at her. It was even less tolerable for a paladin who had once been placed in charge of the Holy Queen’s security.
However, Neia ignored them as she leaned her upper body out of the window and waved to the Sorcerer King, who ought to be outside.
After that, Neia was dragged back in by her collar.
“What are you doing, Squire Baraja? Don’t just open the windows like that, and more importantly, there’s no sign of the Sorcerer King.”
Looking back, she saw a red-faced paladin. His anger was understandable. However—
“That will do, I think. She broke your rules at my behest. If blame must be assigned, then let it fall upon me.”
A quiet voice echoed through the room.
The Sorcerer King slowly revealed himself from where he stood upon the window frame.
Neia saw a paladin reaching for the longsword at his waist, and frantically made to stop him.
“Mm… I apologize for alarming you. I chose to come by myself because I wished to speak with you in private. While it might be somewhat rude to enter via a window, it cannot be helped for the sake of going incognito. I hope you can understand that… And I must apologize to her as well.”
After descending from the windowsill, the Sorcerer King surveyed the interior of the room with the regal poise of a king.
“....I am the Sorcerer King Ainz Ooal Gown.”
Upon the mention of his name, Neia fell to one knee before anybody else. A moment later, she heard the paladins behind her simultaneously genuflecting.
“Very well… You may rise, Since there is no time, is it convenient to have a word with you, Captain Custodio?”
“We have no objections, Your Majesty. Then, please come this way.”
As Neia rose, she let her breath out — just in time to meet the eyes of the Sorcerer King, who had turned around. Of course, there were no eyeballs in the Sorcerer King’s eye sockets, so saying she gazed into his eyes was purely Neia’s imagination.
“Will that squire not be taking part?”
“She is but a squire, Your Majesty.”
“Was she not present at the audience chamber just now?”
The Sorcerer King’s natural tone made him sound like he genuinely did not know. However, his words contained a powerful sense of sarcasm.
“Squire Baraja, come join us.”
Although Neia was not very keen on taking part, for some reason she dearly wanted to know why the Sorcerer King had chosen to pay them a visit.
Remedios and Gustavo faced the Sorcerer King over a table, while Neia and the others stood by the walls. This was the same way in which they had received Blue Rose.
“Now then, Your Majesty, please permit me to ask a direct question. May I inquire as to why you have graced our humble lodgings?”
Remedios nodded after Gustavo spoke.
“But of course. Like I said earlier, I dislike beating around the bush. After all, doing so makes it easy for one’s words to be misinterpreted or have their meanings twisted.”
There was a sense of reality to the Sorcerer King’s words which could not quite be articulated.
“While I have decided to send Momon over in two years, if you will accede to a request of mine, it would not be impossible for me to dispatch someone on par with Momon from the Sorcerous Kingdom.”
“On par with Momon?” Remedios could not help but exclaim.
“...May I know the nature of the request which Your Majesty wishes to make? Depending on the nature of the request, I pray you will forgive us if we cannot immediately give Your Majesty an answer.”
The Sorcerer King chuckled in response to Gustavo’s words, and then he spoke.
“But of course. Given your present state, I can roughly imagine… now, calling you a resistance movement would be a pretty spin on things, but the fact is that you are most likely a band of guerillas hiding in caves, am I wrong?”
Everyone present held their breath.
Neia was no exception.
Why could the Sorcerer King speak about the true nature of their circumstances? How had he divined this? Pinpointing the cave issue was particularly impressive.
The Captain and Gustavo’s faces were stony masks, only their eyes turning to look at Neia. They must have thought she had leaked the truth to the Sorcerer King. Therefore, Neia shook her head, to indicate It wasn’t me.
The Sorcerer King ignored Neia and the others’ shock, and continued speaking.
“The strength of the south is untouched, but yet you did not seek to cooperate with them and conduct joint operations. That is because a rift exists between yourselves and the southern nobles. That being the case, once you — who failed to protect the Holy Queen — fall under the command of the new Holy King, it will probably be very difficult for you to hold on to your previous positions. Therefore, you cannot offer me land, titles, trade concessions, and other such privileges. If you actually kept your words on this matter, the possibility of war with my Sorcerous Kingdom exists, depending on what the next Holy King decides.”
The Sorcerer King clearly highlighted the key points of the war with the demihumans, as well as the decisions they had made about their future.
“Similarly, you cannot use your nation’s treasures as bargaining capital. For instance, the holy sword which you bear, Captain Remedios. If you actually did try to trade them, the most you could do was treat the country’s treasures as having been plundered by Jaldabaoth and then turn them over to me. However, doing so is very dangerous. Should someone inform the next Holy King that said wealth was actually obtained from you, trust in you paladins will most likely sink like a stone. Worthless, in other words. Therefore, all you ladies and gentlemen can do is what you did at the audience chamber, informing me of your plight — mm, I imagine that I have hit the nail on its head, given the expressions on your faces.”
After saying all this, the Sorcerer King leaned back against the back of the chair.
Silence filled the room.
Perfect. He was just too perfect.
Neia felt nothing but respect for at the Sorcerer King’s reading of the situation.
Was this the man they called the Sorcerer King? Neia thought.
Neia had once met the Holy Queen close up, but the Holy Queen had simply greeted her, and Neia had not had the chance to truly interact with a true monarch. To Neia, now was her first time meeting an absolute ruler — one possessed of a dignity and insight that surpassed all others, in addition to incredible might — or in other words, a perfect being. This powerful impact left an indelible impression on Neia’s heart.
“That said, anybody could have imagined that. In truth, I am somewhat ashamed of coming in here and smugly spouting all that… I trust you all did not think I had not even considered that much?”
“O-Of course, Your Majesty!” Gustavo replied with a stiff smile on his face.
“Wonderful. If I had been regarded as an idiot who could not even think of that much, I would not be able to face my subordinates who labor for my sake… now then, based on all that, let me be clear about what I want — which would be maids. I want maids.”
Everyone — Neia included — could only stare dumbfounded at the utterly ridiculous words which had just left the Sorcerer King’s mouth.
“...Ah, my apologies. I was being unclear. Mm, how shall I say this? I believe that during our previous meeting, the topic of Jaldabaoth possessing powerful maids came up. Those are what I want. What degree of magical knowledge do you have?”
“None at all.”
After Remedios said so, the Sorcerer King looked around, as though seeking help.
“Is, is that so… well, in that case, I wonder where I should start explaining from… ah, well, that too… Ah — you can imagine that Jaldabaoth has bound the maids to him by some mechanism. Therefore, my plan is to defeat Jaldabaoth, take that formula for my own, and then place the maids under my control. In this way, my country will gain powerful minions.”
“But, but we have not sighted those maids of Jaldabaoth’s…”
Gustavo’s answer made the Sorcerer King chuckle.
“They were sighted in the Kingdom, after all. I find it hard to imagine they were not there. Or perhaps they will not appear until Jaldabaoth is forced into dire straits?”
“Let me repeat myself… we are not sure if the maids actually exist. What will Your Majesty do in the event that the maids do not exist?”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. I am not asking you to produce something that could substitute for it, in any case. At the very most, I will just write it off as a wasted effort. However, there is the possibility that they might have appeared outside of a maid’s guise, so my request will probably include Jaldabaoth’s subordinates as well. Ahh, that’s right. He might have used some kind of special item to dominate them, so I intend to add a condition that any of Jaldabaoth’s magic items which cannot be determined to be the property of the Holy Kingdom will be mine. It may turn out that the maids which ravaged your Holy Kingdom might end up becoming part of my Sorcerous Kingdom, and in that event I hope I can count on your forgetting your grudges against them since they will then fall under my rule.”
“You mean you want us to forgive people who might devastate our country?”
After Remedios retorted unhappily, the Sorcerer King shrugged.
“That is because I stand to gain nothing else from the Holy Kingdom. Or do you mean to say you have something else to offer me?”
Remedios bit her lip, unable to answer.
“Your Majesty, the Captain means to say that as outsiders, it will be very difficult for us to convince the victims to forget their grudges.”
“Then you will simply have to work hard to convince them,” the Sorcerer King said in a cold voice. “...No, then, just say that the maids were dominated by the Sorcerer King’s magic and taken away. That ought to quell their hatred somewhat, no?”
What would they do? Neia thought as she heard the Sorcerer King speak. If they still refused to accept the Sorcerer King’s terms after he had made this many concessions to them, it was very likely that they would end up with nothing to show for it. It was plain that these were extraordinarily favorable terms for the Holy Kingdom. If they did not seize this chance, then the only word to describe them would be “foolish.”
“That would be quite vexing. Allowing those who ravage—”
“—Your Majesty!” Gustavo shouted over Remedios’s words. “Please allow us to discuss this for a moment! Please give us some time!”
Do you still need to discuss matters after he’s compromised this much? Even Neia felt that it would not be strange for the Sorcerer King to rebuke them. But—
“Very well. However, taking too long will cause me problems, and moving around is troublesome. You don’t mind if I wait here, do you?”
Neia could not help but be surprised by the Sorcerer King’s largesse.
“Thank you very much. Then, we shall quickly discuss things. I pray you will be patient, despite the disservice we do you.”
“That’s fine. Go talk it out.”
The two of them rose to leave, and then they returned with surprising swiftness. No, they had already reached the conclusion from the beginning.
“Forgive the delay, Your Majesty.”
“Oh no, go ahead and discuss more, it’s fine. Well then, how goes it?”
“Yes, our conclusion is that we will abide by all of Your Majesty’s terms.”
“I am not asking you to obey me. I am simply making a trade. Well, that doesn’t matter. Now then, while we should put it in writing, I lack the necessary equipment and stamps. Let us discuss this later… You don’t mind if I use the Kingdom’s writing, no?”
“There are people here who can read it, so it is fine. Then, may I trouble you to introduce us to the person who is on par with Momon?”
“Ahh, he is standing before you right now — in other words, myself.”
Silence filled the room once more, and Neia and the others were unable to speak as they stared.
After blinking several times, their brains finally regained the ability to function.
“Your Majesty is as strong as Momon?”
Remedios’s words made Neia freeze in place, but there was a man who had made a move because of these words.
“Please, please wait a moment, Captain. There’s something else we need to ask His Majesty before this.”
Gustavo turned to the Sorcerer King. “Ah, will it really be all right if Your Majesty leaves your nation and goes to the Holy Kingdom? I do not know how much time that will take.”
“That will not be a problem. Unlike Momon, I can use teleportation magic, So long as I can find your base, I can move between it and the Sorcerous Kingdom at any time.”
“B-But, even so, surely having the ruler of a nation come in person is just too—!”
“After listening to me, did you not think that I would be coming in person? I did say I intended to defeat Jaldabaoth and bring the maids under my control, you know? It would be too much of a stretch to do all that from the Sorcerous Kingdom. In addition, with regards to Captain Custodio’s question, I am stronger than Momon.”
“Then, there should be no problems with that, Gustavo.”
“Of course there’s problems with that! Your Majesty! This jest of yours is really quite vexing for us!”
The Vice-Captain clutched his gut as he shouted that.
“This is no jest. Nobody other than me can defeat Jaldabaoth. In addition, I will be going by myself. I will not bring an army with me. Therefore, I came alone in order to discuss the matter in private with you.”
“But if Your Majesty sustains an irrecoverable injury from Jaldabaoth, that would be very bad for the relationship between our country and the Sorcerous Kingdom!”
“It, it is as Gustavo says. Your Majesty, are there truly no problems in that respect?”
“None at all.”
“—Gustavo! I’m still talking. Don’t interrupt me!” After holding out her hand to stop Gustavo, Remedios bowed deeply.
“Then, we will be in Your Majesty’s care.”
♦ ♦ ♦
The air in the room calmed, as if a storm had just passed — and indeed, it had — but Gustavo’s shout echoed off the walls.
“What are you thinking!? Recruiting a king! The king of a country! To fight Jaldabaoth and whatnot!”
Neia agreed with him.
He might not operate by common sensibilities, but this was simply senseless.
Amidst all this, Remedios spoke quietly.
“Say, don’t you think that it doesn’t matter what happens to the undead?”
The room fell silent once more.
“...You have a demon, and you have an undead being. We won’t be harmed regardless of who gets wiped out. Don’t you think?”
Gustavo’s eyes went wide. This was not acceptance of his Captain’s opinion, but shock at what his Captain had just said.
“Both of them are enemies of mankind. Then ideally, it would be best if both sides destroyed each other… that said, we won’t just sit back and reap the profits. Even if the Sorcerer King is wounded unto death by Jaldabaoth, we will not take advantage of his plight. However, that is all.”
Remedios’s voice grew louder.
“...Captain. If the Sorcerer King, who controls so many undead, is destroyed, then when these undead are freed, will it not cause an incredible amount of havoc?”
“When the time comes, the Kingdom, the Empire, and the Theocracy will cushion the blow. Of course, we will do our best to aid them as well, but the Holy Kingdom has been too badly ravaged by Jaldabaoth. Until our country recovers its strength, all we can do is cheer them on… From that point of view, our country stands to gain the most from a clash between Jaldabaoth and the Sorcerer King…”
“—Captain!” Gustavo’s face was stone as he spoke. “How is this justice?”
“It is. It’s all for the sake of our nation. It is to save the people who suffer the most. It isn’t like I hope that the seeds of suffering will spread to other countries. I also wish for the victory of the Sorcerous Kingdom as it assists the Holy Kingdom.”
Who is this? Neia thought as she looked at Remedios, who was saying all this in a calm, even tone.
Was this really the captain of the paladins of the Holy Kingdom, Remedios Custodio?
Neia was not too clear about her situation. After all, she had always been looking at her from afar. However, she felt that this was a completely different person from the Captain she had heard of.
“Gustavo, you don’t object, right? If you can accept this, then we ought to consider our next move.”
“Our next move, you say?”
“...We have to think about how to properly make use of the Sorcerer King.”
A chill ran down Neia’s spine.
Why am I hearing a conversation like this? Neia thought. No, she was not alone. Peering around, she saw that the paladins standing near her all had the same expression on their faces. Neia must have looked the same way too.
“Gustavo, do you have any ideas?”
“No, no, not at all. Shouldn’t we think about what we should do after bringing the Sorcerer King back with us?”
“Well, if the Sorcerer King isn’t all talk, and he really can fight Jaldabaoth, how about retaking the capital? And then we can ask him to defeat Jaldabaoth right after that.”
“...That would be bad. His Majesty has said that he intends to defeat Jaldabaoth, claim the maids for himself, and then return to his country. Therefore, we ought to leave defeating Jaldabaoth for last in order to reap the greatest benefits… If we follow your suggestion, Captain, we won’t have the strength to defeat the leftover demihumans.”
“Then what do you propose?”
Gustavo paused to think, and then he made a suggestion.
“Let’s increase our numbers first. In other words, we need to rescue our captured comrades from the camps.”
“I see! An excellent idea. After all, there are important people we need to rescue.”
“You mean the members of the royal family, right?”
Remedios agreed with an Ah.
Although the Holy Queen had already perished, they had not received news that the entire royal family was dead. If one of them was still alive, perhaps they could use them as a figurehead, and perhaps gain the full cooperation of the southern nobles.
“Also, the nobles we can rescue will surely appreciate their liberators.”
Most nobles had not expressed their approval of the Holy Queen, and by the Captain’s reckoning, there was nobody there who liked her. However, there ought to be some northern nobles with blood ties to the southern nobles. If they did them a favor, they ought to be able to better make a formal request to the southern nobles.
Remedios looked at Neia.
“Squire Neia. Go accompany the Sorcerer King. Make sure you sway him to our side for our sakes.”
“Hah? Haaaahh!?? Please, please wait! I can’t possibly serve a king or something as a squire!”
“All you need to do is work hard on it, no?”
“This isn’t a matter of working hard!”
Usually, she would have agreed immediately, but now she was desperately trying to refuse. This was not something she could casually accept. There must be something wrong with Remedios’s head.
“Th-That’s right! Captain,” Gustavo chipped in. “If we don’t have someone of appropriate status to serve as his handmaiden, it’ll be taken as an insult to His Majesty.”
“...How many other women are there in the Liberation Army?”
Those women who could not fight had long since fled to the south. However, that was not to say that they did not exist. The Liberation Army still had a few women among them. Gustavo was about to name some of them when the Captain cut him off.
“We need a woman from the paladins. If I gave orders to a woman from the priesthood, what do you think the temples would do? My sister’s no longer around, you know? Also, the person for this duty should be chosen from people who are present and who have heard my thoughts. Can we force this onto a third party?”
So instead you’re pushing it onto me, right, Neia thought, but did not say.
“In that case…”
Gustavo looked at the Captain.
“I need to be fighting on the frontlines, you know? Also, do you want me to go accompany the Sorcerer King? Or should we yield all authority to the Sorcerer King?”
“Even if we’re using him, we can’t just go out and do that, right? There’ll be problems with trust, and if the Sorcerer King sees that we have no fighting power and decides to conquer the Holy Kingdom while he’s at it…”
After seeing the tongue-tied Gustavo, Neia realised the fact that their allies might end up turning on them.
“—Understood. While I might not be sufficient for the task, I will work hard and do my best.”
“Ahh. I’ll tell you this first. Your mission is make the Sorcerer King more easily usable. Flatter him and keep him in a good mood.”
This was no longer just an impossible request. It was just plain absurd. She had no confidence that she could do such a thing at all. However, no matter what she said, Remedios would not change her mind. Neia hung her head in resignation.
“Understood! I will do my best to achieve that aim, and I hope I can count on the aid of everyone here.”
“Good. If there’s anything, just look for me or him (Gustavo).”
Even as despair filled her heart, Neia was surprised that she was actually feeling a little elated.
His Majesty, huh...
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