Chapter 1, Part 4
Ipsom was basically the type of fort town you would find anywhere on the continent of Verbist.
In other words, it was structurally similar to Del Solant, the town that Tohru’s group had escaped from previously. Ipsom was a bit smaller than Del Solant, and was surrounded by a forest instead of mountains, but other than that, it didn’t have any real distinguishing characteristics.
After coming this far with the caravan, Tohru’s group had decided to try to find an inn here to stay at for the night. There was nothing wrong with camping, but honestly, sleeping out under the stars for days at a time was really beginning to wear on them. Fortunately, there were a number of inns of all sizes located next to the market area, so they were able to secure suitable rooms.
“Well then, I’m off to search.”
With that, Tohru left the inn.
This was a solo mission. He had determined that Chaika didn’t need to be loitering around in public due to her conspicuousness, so he had Akari guarding her for now. It was true that Chaika was a wizard, but it was precisely because of that that she was absolutely no good in close-combat situations. If, in the worst case, she ended up coming across Gillette’s group again, forget defeating them—he wasn’t sure if she’d have time to even escape.
For now, we just need to avoid another encounter with them.
Even in peak condition, Tohru figured their chances of victory would be slim. Gillette had others at his disposal besides the assassin and the mercenary. In the worst case, Gillette could have even brought along a wizard of his own. If so, Gillette had all sorts of resources to secure victory. To win, Tohru’s group would have to resort to surprise attacks, clever schemes, and out-of-the-box thinking.
Tohru had a veritable mountain of things to consider. Over the past few days, ever since leaving Del Solant, they had been continuously moving. So much so that they had barely had time to sit down and discuss the situation or even consider it. Even after they had made camp, Tohru and Akari had been taking turns keeping watch, meaning they each only had half as much sleep as before.
But, if they secured a vehicle, they would finally have the leeway to hold a discussion.
Above Tohru was a sign reading “Market.”
In most towns, there were parking lots in the market’s vicinity where dealers sold horse-drawn carriages, vehicles and so on. All sorts of methods of transportation could be purchased here, as well as materials to repair the ones already owned.
Since vehicles required a wizard to handle, many dealers didn’t even bother with them…comparatively, there were a surplus of those that dealt in the rudimentary horse-and-oxen-drawn carriages. The war’s end had opened the floodgates for international trade, so dealers everywhere were bustling and shops were always well-stocked.
Apparently, the market was right around the corner.
Tohru turned the corner nonchalantly, and then…
As quietly as he could muster, slowing his walking pace to match the rhythm of his heartbeat, he slipped into the shadow of a nearby stable. To tell the truth, he had wanted to kick off the ground as hard as he could and make a dive for it, but he had somehow managed to resist that impulse. In this normal city scene, moving at anything other than a normal walking pace would be immediately conspicuous. In order to not get noticed, it was better for him to adopt an unassuming face while passing through rather than flying into a panic and hiding.
“Really, now?” he moaned, keeping his back up against the wall of the stable.
He took a deep breath and began to slowly erase his presence—snuffing it out all at once, he feared, would alert his pursuers—and inched his way around the building. The windows and doors were all open, no doubt to ensure breathability for the animals inside. However, that meant that under normal circumstances, he would be exposed from the opposite side if someone was looking from the right angle. There were groups of horses in the way, though, so Tohru surmised that he could still stay hidden.
“Shit, he’s already caught up with us.”
Tohru was looking straight ahead. Across the way was a single storehouse.
The building was flat and wide. The loading dock was open, so Tohru tried to peek in from his location. He saw rows of carriages and vehicles of all shapes and sizes. It had to be a dealer’s storehouse.
Of course, the dealer probably also owned the stable that was currently providing Tohru cover. The horses in the stable were thick and muscular, unlike horses meant to be ridden. These horses were bred [since the ‘bred’ metaphor is used below] for pulling weight.
“And one other one too… doesn’t look like the assassin girl, either.”
Two figures had emerged from out of the storehouse. He realized that one of them was walking towards his left.
It was the young blonde-haired cavalier, Alberic Gillette.
With his elegant, refined features, he certainly looked like nobility. He definitely gave the impression that he had been brought up with a silver spoon in his mouth. But, as Tohru knew, his skills with the sword were anything but ordinary. To be perfectly honest, Tohru wasn’t confident he would come out on topin a one-on-one fight.
In the same way that some horses and dogs are selectively bred…it would be fair to say that the noble families that were known for their skills in the martial arts were of a different breed entirely than that of a normal human. Their ilk had learned to grip the hilt of a blade before even learning how to walk on their own two feet. Regardless of muscle or bone structure, they had been optimized for battle through day-in-day-out martial arts training.
There was no doubt that Alberic Gillette was the descendant of a family of warriors. The blood of those who fought at the war’s inception flowed through his veins.
Walking next to Alberic was a petite girl who looked to be in her mid-teens.
She seemed to have a somewhat composed demeanor, with azure eyes and small glasses on the bridge of her nose. She was clearly a completely different person from that assassin girl Tohru had met a few days ago…if memory served him correctly, that girl’s name had been Vivi.
Of course, this girl looked completely different, but there was also the way she walked. Putting it bluntly, the way she carried herself reeked of inexperience. From just that, Tohru could tell that she didn’t have a clue about the martial arts.
But… she certainly didn’t look like your everyday commoner.
There was a lack of ornamentation on her clothes, but she had belts around her waist and thighs where a number of accessory bags hung. Such an appearance made Tohru think that she might be a craftsman, or maybe that she dealt with mechanical parts.
“…A wizard, maybe?”
If she was a wizard, that would certainly explain why she knew nothing of martial arts.
Judging from the speed that Alberic’s group had managed to travel, it was safe to say they had a vehicle. Of course, that meant they also needed a wizard to make the vehicle move. This girl was most likely the vehicle’s driver. He had heard that there were wizards without Gundo who just specialized in large magical devices.
“If I’m right… then yeah, this is bad.”
Tohru waited for them to pass, still hidden in the shade of the stable, and then breathed a sigh.
He was not so optimistic as to believe that meeting them here was a coincidence. Most likely, he and Alberic had been thinking along the same lines.
Tohru’s group could no longer walk or use any sort of public caravan. Therefore, Alberic must have foreseen that Tohru’s group would have to procure a means of transportation as soon as possible and had made a visit to all the dealers. Most likely he had given them descriptions of Tohru and Chaika, and asked the dealers to report back if they caught sight of anyone fitting the description. Or maybe he had just ordered them to refuse service to Tohru’s group. By issuing this command under the guise of a public order, a simple commoner had no choice but to comply.
“What to do, then?”
Right now, for Tohru’s group, obtaining a vehicle or carriage was of the utmost importance.
Over the past week, after going on foot and using the caravan, they had exhausted all possible options. What’s more, even after using those methods Alberic’s group had still caught up.
“Should we just take one by force?”
For Tohru’s group, it certainly wasn’t impossible.
But that would also definitely cause a disturbance, creating a trail that would lead Alberic’s group right to them. Right now, Alberic’s group shouldn’t have been aware of Chaika’s presence in this town, so if fortune favored them, maybe Alberic’s group would just head off in another direction and pass them by.
“No. We’re just going to have to postpone getting one.”
After re-confirming the direction that Alberic and that girl headed off in, Tohru bolted off in the opposite direction. Fleeing was quite the departure from his original plan, but it was the only way he would make it back to the inn quickly.
“Right now, we’ve got to get out of that inn!”
He didn’t know how many were actually in Alberic’s group. All he knew of were Alberic’s two comrades: the giant mercenary and the girl assassin. It would make sense if they were acting as a unit detached from Alberic himself, investigating the inns. The mercenary, whom Tohru recalled was named Nikolay, had most likely not yet recovered from the wounds he received in their battle; however, with the possibility that there could be someone out there that Tohru didn’t even know about yet, he couldn’t help but think that Akari alone would be insufficient to protect Chaika.
Tohru ran, making his way through the back alleys, lying as low as he could.
He was in a hurry.
And that was probably why…he failed to notice the boy’s presence.
The boy spoke up leisurely as Tohru zoomed past him in the narrow alley.
“You don’t have to be in such a rush. Chaika Gaz is safe, for now.”
In the next instant, Tohru kicked off the ground and pivoted, his heel scraping across the ground as he landed, killing his momentum. Assuming the battle position, he was ready at a moment’s notice to grab both short swords out of their scabbards hanging from his mantle.
Who had that been? No, what had that been?
The boy who had been there just a moment ago was gone.
Or, at the very least, he could no longer feel the boy’s presence.
People who used techniques to control their presence could completely erase it by blending into the scenery, to the point where you wouldn’t be able to notice them even if you were looking right at them. In a way, it was similar to what Tohru had done earlier where he had carefully erased his own presence. But…
If he was using techniques to control his presence, he was damn good at it. Even though the boy seemed to be in front of him, the presence Tohru could sense was paper-thin. Even staring straight at it, he could not tell where the boy actually was.
He didn’t look like a commoner. In fact, he had more of a refined, noble look about him. He seemed to be about in his mid-teens, about the same age as Chaika. He looked like he was on the cusp of growing into a man, so some boyish features still remained. His flaxen hair and amber eyes accentuated his handsome face. Yet, something about it seemed uncanny.
It was almost like he was a puppet, certainly looking the part of human, but lacking something necessary. If Tohru had to say what, it was that he seemed too clean. He didn’t “smell” of humanity.
“Oho?” At Tohru’s kneejerk reaction, the boy turned to look at him and issued a light laugh. “My bad. I didn’t intend to scare you.”
“…” Tohru stayed silent.
Who the hell is this? No wait, before that, is he an enemy or an ally?
At the very least, the boy knew Chaika’s name and her lineage. He also knew that Tohru had been tagging along with her. Otherwise he wouldn’t have said what he had.
But how on earth could he have known those things?
Maybe he was another one of Alberic Gillette’s subordinates. But then again, if that was the case what he was saying didn’t make sense. Rather than letting Tohru know of Chaika’s safety, he should have kept his mouth shut and captured her.
“Who are you?”
“Well now, that’s a difficult question to answer.” The boy gave a light smile. “I’m not sure I have a response that would satisfy you.”
“Although, it would be rather inconvenient if you didn’t have anything to call me by. For now, let’s go with… ah, I got it. You may call me Guy.”
The boy stuck out his hand as if he expected Tohru to shake it.
* * *
Alberic Gillette was a purebred cavalier. From the onset,the Gillette family had been known for their prowess in the martial arts, and as such, from a very young age, Alberic underwent martial arts training while simultaneously learning the fundamentals of etiquette. All his life he had unquestionably believed that one day he too would stand on the battlefield.
However…the war ended before he had the chance to experience his debut battle, so he never actually got to know real combat.
At first, it didn’t really bother him. After all, he understood that the war’s end would finally bring about peace. Taxation to fund the war would be a thing of the past, and the citizens could at last prosper. He knew that it was something to be celebrated.
Even when he had been deployed to the organization Kleeman under his king’s orders, he viewed it as a laudable line of work, one where he could contribute to keeping the peace. At the very least, he did not subscribe to the popular belief that it was just a way for the top brass to keep face. Rather, he felt it was a blessing to work with like-minded individuals.
In that way, Alberic certainly was a cavalier, through and through.
After selecting his subordinates, he had,for better or for worse, unflinchingly devoted his whole being to his duty. As expected of a cavalier, he had smothered any doubts or uncertainties he may have harbored, replacing them instead with unbridled pride and dignity.
“War’s fine with me. You’re telling me you wouldn’t want to go back to that era of chaos?”
Ever since the day of that encounter, those words had stuck in his head. He was unable to shake them off.
At the time he had simply thought, What in the world is he talking about? He absolutely could not believe that there were people out there who would actually take issue with the fact that peace had finally come after all these years.
But now…it had suddenly occurred to him that he and the saboteur might actually be the same.
Though their morals, position and upbringing were of course different, they too had probably had their minds and bodies forged to be warriors since birth. It was probably no exaggeration to say their sole purpose in life was the battlefield itself.
But…the war was now over. What’s more, he had heard that all the saboteurs’ villages had been razed to the ground by cautious statesmen under the pretense that they would surely incite rebellion through dirty schemes and the like. At that time, the saboteurs, too, must have been in denial that everything they had worked for had all now been rendered useless.
No, it wasn’t just cavaliers and saboteurs. There were many out there who must have felt that way. After all, the war had gone on for hundreds of years. There had to be people whose very livelihood and futures hinged on war; whose path in life became unclear after that was suddenly snatched away from them.
Right now, Alberic was on the statesmen’s side, the one with authority and capital.
But what would he have done if that wasn’t the case?
Alberic mulled it over as he walked.
“Hm? What is it?”
Hearing a voice from beside him, he turned to look at the person there.
Alberic’s group, having finished their visits to all the dealers, were now walking along the town street, on their way back to where they had parked their large-model “April” vehicle.
Surveying his surroundings once more, the streets were bustling; he could see booths and stalls scattered here and there. This place sure seemed lively…seeing that, he reasserted in his head that this was a case-in-point example of the benefits peace had wrought.
“What’s wrong? You look like you’re deep in thought,” the petite, glasses-wearing girl next to him asked.
Zita Brusasco. One of Gillette Corps’ skilled wizards.
“Oh, no, it’s no big deal.” Alberic forced a small smile. “What’s more pressing is that at this point we’ve done a basic sweep of the town.”
They had now walked around the entire town. This past week, Chaika Gaz and the saboteurs that were supposedly helping her had been heading toward this town using some form of transportation, either on foot or perhaps riding a caravan, and had finally ended up here. For that reason, Alberic had visited every single one of the dealers that sold any wheels, whether they be horse-and-oxen-drawn carriages or vehicles, and pressed them for information. However, there was no indication that they had purchased anything. In the meantime, he had left them each with personal descriptions of Chaika and the others on the off-chance that they would show up trying to purchase one, and told them to contact the Kleeman organization at once if they did.
In other words, those three were trapped for now.
Now they just had to wait for them to show up…was what Alberic had thought, but…
“Your opinion, Zita? You don’t think we could have overlooked something, do you?”
“Hmm, let’s see…” Zita tilted her head. “I don’t know anything about horse-drawn-carriages, but as for vehicles, it could have something to do with the fact that we didn’t investigate the stalls selling individual vehicle parts. Though, of course, they probably aren’t capable of assembling a whole vehicle by themselves, and even if they were, they couldn’t do it in such a short amount of time. Not to mention, they’d need some sort of workshop…”
As previously stated, this girl was a wizard.
However, her fundamental abilities as a wizard, including her magic aptitude and acuity, were less than average. Mattheus, who was also in Gillette Corps, actually had a higher aptitude for magic than she did.
But when it came to the handling, setup and maintenance of Gundo, vehicles, and other magical devices, it was a different story.
On top of being a wizard, the girl was also an engineer, versed in all sorts of mechanical knowledge. In fact, her sole strength as a wizard happened to be expertise in handling, setup, and maintenance of Gundo and similar devices. Furthermore, because those devices included comblades, she was an indispensable asset to Gillette Corps even though she had no actual combat ability to speak of.
“Barring the possibility that the dealers lied to us, or they simply betrayed us after having been bribed or taken hostage or something like that, we’ve completely sealed off the Demon King’s daughter’s means of escape…but if she has accomplices, they could have gotten someone on the outside to prepare a vehicle, and then gone to meet them.”
“Right now, there doesn’t seem to be anyone other than those saboteurs helping her, though.”
“However,” Zita frowned, “a fundamental question remains. How in the world did that girl manage to survive these past five years?”
To be honest, Alberic had been wondering about that, too.
At the time of Arthur Gaz’s subjugation, the allied forces’ armies had surrounded the imperial capital and stormed the castle. There should have been literally zero openings. In the midst of all of that, how on earth did Chaika Gaz manage to escape and survive for five whole years? Chaika looked like she was in her mid-teens. If that was true, then she would have had to have been at most ten when she escaped. No matter how resilient or powerful she was, a ten-year-old girl shouldering all of that by herself, managing to survive and stay hidden even with that ridiculously unique appearance, and avoiding any human traffickers to boot, was incredibly hard to imagine.
She must have had help along the way. But if so, where were they now?
Perhaps they perished along the way. Or maybe they simply abandoned her.
“Well, this is all based on the assumption that she’s the real Chaika Gaz, though,” Zita said.
Of course, Alberic knew that there were plenty of fakes out there masquerading as “Chaika Gaz.”
The assertion that Arthur Gaz actually had a daughter was dubious to begin with. Though he was known around the whole continent as the “Taboo Emperor,” almost nothing was actually known about his private life. Basic facts like where he was born or whether he had any family at all were shrouded in mystery. There were no existing records of there ever being an empress, either.
“I do get the feeling that something’s off about all this,” Zita said.
“You mean that the girl might be a fake?”
“Not quite that. More like… there’s something major that we’re misunderstanding.”
“Misunderstanding… huh.” Alberic folded his arms.
A major misunderstanding.
Right and wrong. Good and evil. The holy and the wicked. Light and shadow. Fire and water.
Though they were polar opposites, when compared together they were, in a way, very alike.
For that reason, a simple misunderstanding could make one lose sight of something’s true nature.
“It very well could be.”
The image of that girl calling herself “Chaika Gaz” flashed through his mind.
A silver-haired girl, elegant and ephemeral.
He remembered what he had told that saboteur, but to be perfectly honest, it was hard even for him to imagine that girl as the successor to the Demon King. But then again, she was a complete enigma.
Her appearance aside, he got the strange feeling there was some larger force at work… that getting tangled up in all this was part of someone’s plan. But whose? And to what end? He didn’t know.
The face of that saboteur now flashed through his mind once again.
For this earnest, upstanding, noble cavalier, this would be the first time that he’d harbor feelings of doubt towards his duty. It would, of course, be a while until those feelings were to manifest clearly.