The Postwar Reconstruction Implementation Agency, Kleeman.
Although it was the only one of its kind on the continent of Verbist, it was no exaggeration to say that it was a super-organization dedicated to its cause. It was a unique organization that had been founded by a number of countries who had pooled their resources and brought over some of their best men in an effort to collaborate.
However, while the organization was certainly grandiose in title and pedigree, the truth was that when it came to facilities and personnel, it was anything but.
To be honest, the organization really wasn’t made up of much more than leftovers from the collaborative effort to take down the Gaz Empire. And truthfully, most of the ruling powers all had their hands full with the postwar reshuffling of their infrastructure, and would push forth the excuse that they should just focus on their own territories for the time being. To put it bluntly, the agency was just a way for them to display to the public that they weren’t just resting on their laurels.
No personnel, no funds, and no real power. These three telltale signs of a weak organization were the true face of Kleeman.
As for these “best men” that were sent from the countries, the people who were dismissively selected were talented in their own right, but were just a bit…off to be considered normal—including, for instance, Konrad’s female aide, Karen Bombardier.
“I’ve received Gillette Corps’ report on making contact with her.”
No sooner had the man in charge of Kleeman, Konrad Steinmetz, returned to his office after a brief smoke break out in the courtyard, than Karen had given him this information.
“Chaika Gaz,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone, pushing up the glasses on her face with one finger and looking positively high-strung.
On the surface, she seemed like a rather strict middle-aged woman, and in fact, she was indeed a stickler for the rules. She was quite skilled at office work, but she was one of those that acted like because something was possible for her, anyone should be able to do it; so, for all intents and purposes, she was quite difficult to be around. Because of that, though, she also considered things beyond her to be beyond everyone else.
In her hands was a sheaf of documents. This was probably a copy of the aforementioned report that Gillette Corps had sent.
“The Demon King’s daughter, huh,” said Konrad as he passed by Karen, making his way to his desk.
Karen wrinkled her nose a bit at the tobacco smell coming from him, but she didn’t say anything about it. The decision—or rather, order—that smoking in the office was prohibited had been hers. She was of the opinion that it killed efficiency in the workplace and it made the room smell awful. Konrad had begrudgingly conceded, but even Karen probably understood that smoking outside was his compromise. If he had been ordered to quit smoking completely, then efficacy and performance be damned, he would put the entire facility on hold.
“That got here faster than expected,” said Konrad. Now sitting at his desk, he began to examine the pages. “I sure as hell hope this one is the real deal,” he added, emitting something sounding like a low groan.
The “Taboo Emperor” Arthur Gaz’s daughter, Chaika Gaz. Actually, Gillette Corps wasn’t the only group that was searching for her; there were two other groups in Kleeman who were also on the hunt. Time and time again Konrad had received similar reports from these groups that the Demon King’s daughter had finally been found, but those reports had all been false. Every time they “caught” her, she would turn out to be an impostor.
In the first place, it wasn’t until after the war that anyone had ever even heard of Arthur Gaz having a daughter. While the war was still raging, there was no indication that the “Taboo Emperor” had any blood relatives at all. So, from the beginning, the information that Arthur Gaz had a daughter was highly suspect.
But even so, or actually, because of that very fact, amidst all the postwar confusion, there were idiots who falsified Gaz’s lineage and claimed that they were the princess of the Gaz Empire, and though they were captured time and time again, they just kept on coming. It was true that because the Gaz Empire had fallen, there was no way real way to check and see if they were the real thing, but of all the people out there to impersonate, Konrad had no clue why someone would even want to claim themselves as one of the Taboo Emperor’s relatives.
“It looks like she had some help.”
“Oh, so they intend to deceive us with a group scam again?” Konrad said disgustedly as he thumbed through the pages.
All the cases up until now had been the same: people craftily trying to wheedle their way out of paying whatever debt they owed to merchant or to their count by pledging to “bring about the dawn anew and resurrect the Gaz Empire” or somesuch other bull. It wasn’t always the resurrection of the empire; sometimes, it was that Arthur Gaz supposedly gathered his assets in a hidden place, and this was their attempt to find it.
At any rate, in the majority of cases, there was a group of people involved to make it seem more credible. There was no way anyone would believe that a princess who no one even thought existed would just show up out of nowhere one day, so they had to put on a performance to deceive their detractors. For that purpose, there had to be some “supporting actors” in the mix as well.
“Apparently, they fought with Gillette Corps,” Karen stated coldly.
Konrad, in the middle of arranging the documents, stopped. Furrowing his brows, he looked up at his aide, urging her to continue. “And?”
“It seems that Chaika Gaz hired two helpers while in Del Solant. A young boy and girl. Their lineage is as of yet unclear, but…the two that Chaika Gaz hired fought with Gillette Corps, and apparently, in the end Gillette Corps was forced to retreat from the two under Chaika Gaz.”
“That report was directly from Gillette’s group?”
Aside from the corps leader Gillette, the rest of the team was quite the mishmash of professions, but each of them was incredibly skilled, and were especially frighteningly good in combat situations. Yet, against these two, they actually felt the need to engage in battle, and what’s more, had to retreat?
Clearly, this boy-and-girl team were not your run-of-the-mill citizens.
They must be mercenaries, or maybe even saboteurs. At any rate, they were the kind of people that didn’t need to resort to your everyday swindling techniques. After all, though it was only informally, a cavalier had felt the need to retreat from his post. At the very least, there was no public organization backing the two up, and this time, there were no con artists going out of their way to do whatever they pleased.
“Then, it’s the real thing?”
“We can’t say for sure yet,” said Karen. He knew that one of the things that Karen hated most in the world was being uncertain. “According to Gillette Corps’ report, the group in question stole the piece of Arthur Gaz’s corpse that Roberto was holding, and promptly escaped with it.”
Of course, the possibility that one of the people out there calling themselves “Chaika Gaz” was actually the real one was not zero. In fact, that was the reason that Gillette Corps and the rest were out on duty—because they had anticipated this worst-case scenario.
“We need to confirm whether or not it’s her.”
“Currently Gillette Corps are in hot pursuit of the girl,” Karen said as she flipped the pages. “Your orders, sir?”
Konrad knew that that question meant “Should we give the order to continue pursuit, or should we have Gillette Corps fall back and reconvene with another unit?”
“It doesn’t really matter,” Konrad said, dropping his gaze to the sheaf of documents once more. “We won’t know whether she’s the real one or not until we capture her, anyway. Regardless of whether she’s real or fake, though, the fact remains that the very possibility the Demon King’s daughter does exist would make anyone uneasy. Our original objective remains unchanged. We’ll continue with the current pursuit. Once we’ve successfully apprehended her, we can confirm her authenticity for ourselves. We can then decide how to proceed from there.”
“Understood,” Karen nodded. That nod must have signified that she wholeheartedly agreed with his assessment.
“Well then, I’ll prepare a wizard so we can inform them of our decision.”
And with that, the issue of “Gillette Corps in pursuit of the Demon King’s daughter” had been resolved, for now.
The Postwar Reconstruction Implementation Agency, Kleeman.
An organization in part born out of the negligence of the ruling powers. They were always understaffed and overworked, and they still had a mountain of issues to conquer. The documents pending approval were always piling up, and so was the workload.
Konrad and Karen solemnly began work on the next item on the agenda.
* * *
Beneath his feet, he could hear the rumble of the vehicle’s wheels rolling over the dirt.
It was early afternoon, and the horse-drawn caravan continued to make its way along the path. Though there were eight horses pulling the caravan, it was only moving at a pace just a bit faster than walking.
While it may have been in part because of the combined weight of the caravan and the passengers inside, the real reason was that this path was not very well-maintained. Countless rocks were strewn along the road, and if the caravan went any faster, it would run the risk of rolling over one of them and possibly tipping over.
The responsibility of maintaining the road lay with this the count of this land… of course, this was the postwar era, so there were two possibilities: it could have been that the count was simply too busy to deal with it, or that he had died and left this land in the lurch.
In this case, it was clearly the latter.
On both sides of the road, an expanse of discolored wasteland spread out.
There was nothing else. Nothing as far as the eye could see, beyond a flat, completely empty landscape.
The scenery was easy on the eyes, sure, but the land was just so perfectly barren that it couldn’t look anything but unnatural. In fact, there weren’t even any plants, or anything even resembling uneven terrain. Just entirely flat land.
This had been the scene of a battlefield.
During the latter parts of the war, large-scale magical weapons were implemented. This land had fallen victim to one of those, literally razed down to the ground. There was once a town here, with a fortress belonging to the count, but there was no way anyone looking at this land would ever believe such a thing once existed. The road that ran through this town had once made it a hotbed for trade and commerce, yet the only trace that remained of it now was its name, everything from the ground up to be forgotten forevermore.
Not a single blade of grass had grown over the five years since the war’s end, because the large-scale magical weapon had hardened the vast landscape into one giant mass of rock. Even if some vegetation began to take root by way of the wind scattering bird dung, there was no soft earth anywhere with which for it to prosper. The soil could probably be restored through digging irrigation ditches and regular maintenance, but there was no longer any count in the vicinity with the time to do so.
Just looking at it was depressing.
“What is that?”
“Isn’t that…you know…”
“Wow, that’s creepy…”
He could hear everything that the passengers were whispering.
Having gotten bored of looking at the expanse of absolute nothingness, the passengers’ gazes had naturally gravitated to the other passengers on board. It was a long trip and there was nothing to really talk about, so it was only a matter of time that before they began to turn their attention to all the unknown faces in front of them.
At times like this, Tohru cursed his exceptional hearing.
He was better off not listening to all this excess noise; it put him on edge. If he put his mind to it he could just ignore them all, but it wasn’t like he didn’t understand why they were so apprehensive towards them, so he felt somewhat guilty.
Generally, this type of caravan was only used by commoners.
This model was different from the horse-drawn street carriages you’d see around town. It was specifically designed to go from town to town, or village to village. In other words, it was a model that was designated to travel long distances. Incidentally, the reason why it was only commoners that rode this type of caravan was because nobles and merchants had their own way of getting around, usually by either a horse-drawn carriage or vehicle that they owned.
But the majority of commoners rarely ever left the town or village where they lived. It would be wrong to say that they were completely self-sufficient, but their daily lives were primarily confined within the borders of the town. In fact, it wasn’t rare for people to spend their entire life without taking a single step out of their birthplace.
At the same time, that meant that anyone boarding the caravan must have had a good reason to do so, like attending someone’s funeral, visiting a distant relative, making a pilgrimage for religious reasons, or maybe even something as simple as mere sightseeing.
But among all these passengers…there was one that was conspicuous.
Actually, maybe it would be better to say they stuck out like a sore thumb.
The passenger in question titled her head quizzically.
Tohru thought about how great it would be if she were a complete stranger to him, but alas, it was not to be.
“What is it?” Tohru said, clearly in a sour mood.
Narrowing his eyes, Tohru removed his gaze from the window and looked across from him, meeting the gaze of the young girl there.
It was Chaika.
Looking at her once more, she certainly was pretty. She seemed almost fragile, like a doll.
The first thing that stuck out was her long, silver hair. Her white skin was unblemished, and her violet eyes were perfectly positioned in the center of her face. Her eyes somewhat reminded him of a cat’s, without any of the severity or mystery that accompanied a cat’s gaze. Everything about her gave a strong impression of frailty, as though if you went and hugged her carelessly, she would break.
She was just like a snow-white porcelain doll.
She was wearing a dress that had a basic theme of black against white, which made her look even more uncanny, and blue stones in the shape of butterflies adorned both sides of her headband and around her collar, which contrasted well with the color of her eyes.
Anyway, she was cute. Way too cute.
And that was precisely why she stood out so much among all the passengers on this caravan.
“You don’t say?” Tohru narrowed his eyes, giving her a stern glare. “And whose… face… are… you… talking… about…?” He said it word by word, as if to say, “you’d better not avoid the question, either.”
But Chaika appeared completely unfazed. Rather she pointed her thin finger directly at Tohru’s nose so brashly that there might as well have been a snapping noise.
“My face looks perfectly normal, so what’s the big idea behind pointing at me like that and saying ‘weird’ in front of all these people?”
“You, frowning. Everyone, staring.”
It took all he had to suppress the impulse to scream. He could feel nausea rising in the back of his throat. Tohru adopted the most subdued, dignified tone he could, because anything more than that would draw people’s attention even further.
“Chaika. First off, let’s get one thing straight.”
“The strange one here is you.”
“…!?” She put both her hands up to her face in absolute shock, feeling around her cheeks, forehead, everywhere around her face, and then spoke in a quivering voice.
“Shocking truth.” She shivered like she had received the shock of her life.
“Come on, not your face.”
This time, she began patting down her body, starting with her chest, then her waist and hips and so on. At last, she gave a strange nod like she understood something.
“Future, expect much growth.”
“What does that mean?”
“Truthfully, these, pads.” She pointed to her own chest.
“Wait, really? If that’s true then just how small are your—I mean, never mind that!” Resisting the urge to cry out and make a scene, Tohru harshly whispered to her.
“It’s not your body either! By the way, don’t just divulge useless information like that!”
“Ugh, why can’t you get it already? It’s your ‘luggage!’ The thing crammed up in the loft!” He pointed to Chaika’s luggage.
The caravan had seats lining its walls on both sides. Well, they were called “seats”, but they were actually just waist-high boxes attached to the walls with metal fixtures. The passengers were supposed to stuff whatever they were carrying into the boxes and sit on them.
Tohru was sitting in the very back of the passenger’s cabin, at arm’s length from Chaika, who was sitting opposite him.
At least, she was kind of sitting. There really wasn’t any better way to phrase her current state.
In actuality, she wasn’t sitting on anything at all. Instead, her luggage was actually taking up the space of her seat.
In other words, the coffin with the Gundo inside that Chaika carried with her. Because the coffin was in her seat, she was hanging from it, in the sitting position but practically floating in the air. Tohru had wondered if she was getting tired from doing that, but she somehow looked at peace. He hadn’t expected it, but she was able to keep her balance, reducing the burden on her knees and hips.
“Important. Indispensable. Will never abandon.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know.”
Tohru already knew that Chaika valued this coffin on the same level as her life. No, given the circumstances, she might even choose it over her life. It was so important to her that if it wasn’t close enough to her where she could see it and touch it, she flew into a panic.
But even so, there was a coffin, a box to put dead people in, in the back of the passenger’s cabin. There was no way it wouldn’t draw attention, and the way Chaika looked only served to further the interest of the rest of the passengers.
At first, the coachman wouldn’t even let them bring it on board because it would cause all sorts of problems, naturally. But Chaika wouldn’t take no for an answer, and eventually the coachman had to concede.
So of course, it was natural that the rest of the passengers, with their distrustful glances, would be asking all sorts of questions. “Who is that girl?” “What is that thing doing here?” And there were indeed some that looked visibly displeased. Riding with such a strange girl carrying an ill-omened object, how could they not be?
“What a mess…” Tohru moaned.
Of course, there was a reason Tohru’s group was riding this caravan today. It was because of their pursuers: Alberic Gillette and his team.
That bunch probably had some sort of carriage or vehicle that belonged to them, and what’s more, they most likely had the backing of some organization. Taking that into account, they would be able to easily catch up if Tohru’s group continued to move leisurely on foot. Tohru’s group had taken all sorts of different countermeasures as a result, which included taking the road less traveled and crossing through the mountains, and staying there for several days hoping that they could lose their pursuers.
However… the problem was that Chaika was tagging along, and she had no stamina to speak of. Had they continued like that, there was no way Chaika was going to be able to keep up.
So even though they knew it was conspicuous, they had decided to ride the caravan. But…
“A silver-haired girl with a coffin?”
Chaika’s uniqueness and reckless disregard for lying low had naturally drawn the other passengers’ attention. Even if they looked past her appearance, it was the coffin they simply couldn’t ignore. Really, it stood out to the point where she might as well have been walking around carrying a gigantic sign for her pursuers saying, “here I am!” Anyway you looked at it, Tohru thought, this was not a very smart way to go about this.
As he was mulling all this over in his head…
“What’s wrong, Nii-sama?” He heard Akari’s voice. “If something is troubling you, then by all means, feel free to pour your heart out to me.”
“Uh, no, there’s really nothing to ‘pour out’…”
“Doubtless, your thoughts span deeper than the ocean and are loftier than the skies themselves, so someone of my caliber may not even be able to reach out to help. But even so…”
“Sorry to burst your bubble, but you’re giving me too much credit,” said Tohru wearily. “Just thinking that maybe I didn’t think this through enough.”
More precisely, he was thinking about how spur-of-the-moment the decision had been to stick with Chaika and continue to serve under her.
“No, Nii-sama, you can’t fool me,” said Akari, her eyes boring straight into Tohru’s.
“What would be the point of fooling you?”
“You’re just concealing how you really feel. I know that my Nii-sama goes out of his way to pretend to be a careless, rude individual.”
“Why would I have to go ‘out of my way’ to do that?”
“Because it makes you seem approachable, I would think,” said Akari in a grave manner that did not fit her dialogue.
Because this girl was naturally poor at showing emotion, her facial expression stayed the same no matter what she said. Her manner of speech would be no different whether she was saying “I’m going to kill you now” or “I’m going for a walk now.” As such, when she was saying ridiculous things it was frustratingly easy to misinterpret her.
“How can I put it? It’s like—”
Furrowing her brow, she put her index finger up to her forehead like she was in deep thought. After a bit, she said,
“Well, frankly, it makes you seem enticing.”
“…”Tohru stared at his sister like she was the most inconsequential thing in the world.
“Ah, sorry, Nii-sama. That was actually wrong of me.” She raised her hand up as if she was making some sort of oath. “It wasn’t enticing.”
“Oh, I see.”
“It was arousing.”
“…Yeah, well, your innermost feelings aside…” groaned Tohru. He let out a sigh. “We need to focus on this situation. It sucks.”
“I wholeheartedly agree,” nodded Akari. “At this rate, everyone in the caravan will get aroused.”[I literally just slammed my head on the table impulsively as I read that.]
“Will you give it a rest with the ‘arousal’!?”
“Impossible. After all, I am already completely aroused.”
“All right, just shut up!” Tohru half-yelled. “What I mean is that we’re way too conspicuous here. Get with the program already.”
“…Of course. I understand, Nii-sama. It was just a joke.”
“What’s with that wishy-washy response…?”
It then occurred to Tohru that perhaps even she didn’t understand what she was saying, but that was neither here nor there right now.
“Though, I’d really like to not meet up with those guys again if at all possible…”
Alberic Gillette and his subordinates. A cavalier, a mercenary, and an assassin.
In the first place, having such a rare assortment of people in the same spot or even on the same battlefield, never mind the fact they were traveling together, was surprising in itself. However, there was absolutely no denying that their skills were top-notch.
He had managed to win while squaring off against one of them…but he wasn’t confident the outcome would be the same in a second encounter.
The outcome of a match was dependent on a number of factors. This was of course true in sports and tournaments and such, but especially held true in actual combat situations. In other words, much of the outcome of a battle was up to chance. The ability to win a battle regardless of bad or good luck was the true strength of a warrior. Those who prattled on about war needing to be fought under mutually favorable conditions were naive idiots who wouldn’t even last three days on the battlefield.
Thus, in real combat situations, the optimal thing would be to avoid actual combat whenever possible. If you absolutely have to fight, make sure you have some kind of trick up your sleeve to increase your chances of victory…at least, that was what Tohru had been taught. Basically, “you should only unsheathe your blade after the battle is already won.”
“We definitely need to consider our options at the next town.”
“Of course, we’ll have to get a separate room for Chaika to sleep in. Boys and girls older than seven should not be sleeping together.”
“Now wait a minute, haven’t you and I been sleeping in the same room together since way back?”
“I’m your sister, so that’s allowed.”
Tohru turned his gaze away from his sister, who seemed somewhat prideful now for some reason, and towards the desolate landscape, sighing once more.
“It looks like we’ll need some form of mobility after all.” Tohru dropped his voice so that none of the other passengers could hear. “A horse-drawn carriage, a vehicle, anything that moves. Though I really doubt anything like a carriage would just be conveniently lying around…hey, Chaika.”
“Mui?” She blinked her eyes at Tohru’s sudden beckoning, and then leaned forward.
“Right now, you’re pretty loaded, right?”
“Like, for instance, do you have enough money for us to procure a used vehicle, or a carriage that could hold a small group?”
“Ah…affirmative,” Chaika nodded.
In truth, this girl was actually quite wealthy. As expected of a former imperial princess, he supposed. Perhaps she had made off with it during the collapse of the Empire, but she possessed a large sum of gold coins and jewelry. At any rate, they wouldn’t have to worry about travel expenses, at least for now.
They would have to be smart about how they spent it, of course; it was easy to use it all up in the blink of an eye. And being on the run meant it was all the better to have some capital. Critical moments where the use of violence would mean throwing caution to the wind could now easily be resolved. Such was the power of money.
In the long run, it would benefit them more to go after one of the older modes of travel; it would undoubtedly save them money. And they probably wouldn’t be able to just use it whenever and wherever they liked, so they wouldn’t be able to continue aimlessly like they were doing now anymore.
“What’s more,” said Tohru as he stole a furtive glance over at the coachman’s view of the caravan where the horses were taking their time, just ambling along, “carriages aside, if it’s a vehicle we’re after, then only wizards will be able to operate it.”
Vehicles could basically be thought of as giant Gundos that were specialized for movement. That meant that a wizard was required in order to make them mobile.
“If we’re comparing the ground they cover, a vehicle would be the best option. If we’re able to get one I’d much prefer a vehicle over a carriage, but if we do, Chaika, you’ll have to be the one in charge of driving it. Are you okay with that?”
“Understood. Can do.” Chaika gave an emphatic nod.