Chapter 3, Part 3
The room Dominica had lent them was on the inner second floor.
“But really, what’s up with this mansion?”
Their conversation in the courtyard was over, and Tohru was in the process of surveying the mansion once again.
Yes, it was small, but aside from that the structure was nothing unusual. It was essentially the kind of mansion any noble would own. Saboteurs like Tohru would undertake assassination missions on occasion, so they possessed a general knowledge of the layout of these mansions.
However, there was one unusual point.
The mansion felt like it had barely been lived in. The walls and pillars looked brand-new, like the kind you would find in a home that had just been built; however, while the floor had no visible scuffs or scrapes, it was completely covered in dust. It looked almost as if it had been abandoned after its construction, and had had no tenants since. Perhaps—none of the rooms except Dominica’s had ever even been set foot in. Thinking about what Dominica had said about no longer having any interest in fame or fortune, as long as there was a roof over her head so she could rest without worrying about rain or wind, anything else was probably trivial. For her, that probably wasn’t so unusual.
“Something’s…still bugging me…”
Muttering to himself, Tohru opened the door to his designated guest room.
Though comparatively small, this was a noble’s mansion after all, and so the guest room was still quite large. The entirety of the dilapidated shack Tohru and Akari stayed in at Del Solant could probably fit in this one room. While there were no decorations, there was a bed, a set of candle stands, and a writing desk; in other words, the bare essentials for one to stay the night.
However, this room, too, was like the others in that it looked like it hadn’t been used in years.
A thick layer of dust coated the entire area, and even the air felt unclean. It wasn’t the kind of unclean you could take care of by just cracking the window open a bit, either—it was the kind of moldy, musty nastiness characteristic of an abandoned building.
And in the midst of it…
The area around the bed, pushed up against the wall, was oddly immaculate.
It was the only area that had been cleaned, as if it was the only part of the room that mattered.
It had been quite a while since Tohru’s group last had the opportunity able to sleep soundly with a roof over their head, so it wasn’t like Tohru didn’t understand the feeling of finally obtaining a good bed.
“What is it, Nii-sama?”
Akari, standing at the bedside, replied to him.
“May I ask you something?”
“Absolutely, Nii-sama. If it’s a question from my beloved brother, I will answer, no matter how embarrassing. Ask away, from the color of my underwear to when my safe day is,” Akari said, gripping her fist tightly for some reason.
Her enthusiasm was clearly misplaced.
“And why are you assuming that it’s something embarrassing?”
“Because you prefaced your question with “may I.” That means it’s something I’d normally be embarrassed to answer.”
“What use would I have for knowing something like the color of someone’s underwear, anyway?”
“You’re not interested, Nii-sama?”
“I’m not interested in your underwear, at least.”
“I see. You mean to say ‘it’s not the underwear that’s important, it’s what’s inside them.’
“By the way, currently I’m not wearing any.”
“That was a joke,” Akari said in her deadpan voice.
“This is what I want to ask you about!” Heaving a sigh, he pointed to the bed.
The bed itself was your normal, everyday bed. It was a canopy bed, but that was a common piece of furniture for nobles—the bed wasn’t what had him concerned.
“Why are there two pillows here?”
“Because someone put them there.”
“And who was it?”
“Then it’s okay if I get rid of one of these, right?”
“If that’s what you desire, Nii-sama, I won’t stop you, but two people on one pillow sounds awfully cramped.”
“…” Tohru glared at Akari with half-lidded eyes.
But Akari, unfazed, brazenly returned Tohru’s glare.
“Nii-sama, perhaps you’ve forgotten, but we’re supposed to be wuvvy-duvvy siblings tangled up in a forbidden love, chased from our hometown and on the run from our family.”
“…Don’t say wuvvy-duvvy.”
“Of course you are.”
“Say you’re completely kidding!” Tohru let out a groan.
“At any rate, we can’t let that dragoon cavalier suspect anything, so I propose that we need to make our “immoral sibling” ruse as thorough as possible.”
That was why Akari suggested they sleep in the same room and the same bed.
“There’s no need to go so far in a secluded room like this! It’s just overacting at that point!”
Then, he looked around the room.
“Actually, where’s Chaika?”
“The next room over.” Akari pointed to the wall.
“We have a lot of things we need to discuss. Which room would be better to gather in, though…” Tohru muttered.
“Probably this one. It’s a double room, in name at least.”
Akari must have sensed that it was now time to be serious, as she replied immediately.
”By the way, I did a basic check for any voice tubes or hidden traps, and this room seems to be safe. I would bet the next room over is as well,” she added.
Before spending the night somewhere, saboteurs would habitually first check the area for any tricks or traps. Well, it was less a habit and more a rule. In more extreme cases, there could be an assassin lurking underneath the bed, voice tubes for intercepting messages, magical surveillance devices, or other cleverly-hidden traps that would go unnoticed if the room wasn’t searched first.
“Okay, I’ll go call her.” He went back out into the hallway.
* * *
“Good person, Dominica Scoda.”
That was what Chaika had to say.
“Well, you’re not wrong, but…”
Tohru crossed his arms and let out a sigh.
He had called Chaika over from the adjacent room, and Tohru had just finished giving a suggestion for a plan.
“Incredibly nice,” she said, hitting the bed for emphasis.
It was just as Chaika said—Dominica Scoda had been very accommodating towards them. Of course, Dominica was unaware of their true background and objective, but even so, for a couple of coincidentally acquainted strangers she was really rolling out the red carpet. Ordinarily, one wouldn’t even open their door to someone who had such an unclear background.
“I think the reason she’s being so nice is that you’re here, Chaika.” Tohru declared.
“During the war—no, directly after it, it seems—she ended up losing her sister. Look out there, you can even see it from this room…that thing in the garden.” He pointed to the window.
Of course, “that thing” he was referring to was the hologram of Lucie Scoda.
“When you put the two of you side by side, you look similar. And you pretty much look the same age.”
“They do look somewhat alike,” Akari agreed, looking out the window.
“She blames herself for heading out to war instead of staying to protect her sister. Because of that, it seems she’s lost all interest in fame, fortune, or power. It could also be why she seems so indifferent to everything.”
If she had the mindset that nothing mattered anymore, of course she wouldn’t have any qualms opening her home up to complete strangers. It also followed that she wouldn’t care about their background.
“But Nii-sama, when did you find this all out?”
Akari looked away from the window and back to Tohru.
“In the garden just now.”
“That’s my Nii-sama.” She nodded and crossed her arms in a display of what looked like admiration. “You sure are a master of getting women to let their guard down.”
“Is that praise or an insult!?”
“It’s praise, of course. Imagine, me insulting my beloved Nii-sama.” She shook her head dismissively, but then she took her fist in her palm, as if she just hit upon something. “No, wait, Nii-sama. If you actually really love being insulted, then this humble Akari Acura will give all she has to make you the target of constant disparage.”
“Just be quiet already.”
“It goes without saying, but binding, whipping, kicking and trampling are all on the table if necessary.”
“Just shut up. I’m begging you, shut up,” groaned Tohru.
“But wow, Dominica Scoda has a thing for her sister, huh.”
“I. Said. Shut. Up. Don’t lump her in with your warped character. It’s a normal relationship. Normal.”
The love that Dominica and Lucie shared was probably innocuous, familial love.
At least, it wasn’t the type of love that included binding, whipping, kicking, or trampling, he thought. At least, he wanted to believe that. But it wasn’t like he knew their circumstances anyway.
“At any rate.” He cleared his throat to indicate they were going back to the topic at hand. “You’re right, Chaika. Dominica Scoda isn’t a bad person. Treating us the way she did was an altruistic deed. She accommodates complete strangers…almost like a saint. However…” Tohru pointed right at Chaika’s face. “Have you forgotten, ‘Chaika Gaz?’ This dragoon cavalier was most likely one of your father’s enemies.”
Chaika’s expression clouded over.
Yes. Whether she had a piece of his corpse or not, this person had been present at the battle for the Gaz Empire’s capital, and it was highly likely that she was one of the heroes who had a direct stake in crushing him.
Chaika appeared to be sinking further and further into despair. Most likely, after having the truth that she was trying so hard to avoid thrust right in front of her, she was now getting depressed—even if it was a bit late.
She curled herself up into the fetal position.
“Um…well, you know…”
Tohru stumbled over what to say. He hadn’t expected it to hit her this hard. Sure, it was a statement that was intended to make her reflect upon her actions, but it now almost looked like he was bullying her.
“I, I’m not saying you have to hate her…necessarily…”
“Ahh, dammit, what do you want from me, an apology!?”
Tohru glanced over at Akari, hoping she would rescue him from this unpleasant atmosphere.
“I see now.” With her arms crossed, Akari gave a big nod. “So this is your “Throw Them Into Turmoil” technique. Not bad.”
“It’s nothing to be impressed over!”
Tohru had reached his yelling limit.
But then Chaika—
“I, apologize. To Tohru.”
And though a bit forced, she smiled.
“Tohru, always thinking. Always trying, hardest. Not in the wrong.”
As always, her grasp on the common language of the continent was less than stellar, so sometimes it was hard to parse out what she meant….but basically, Tohru understood that she was trying to say “Tohru is always thinking about what’s best for me and trying harder than anyone else, so there’s no way he’s the one in the wrong.” It seemed that she was trying to console him, or rather, just be nice to him.
“Ah…” Tohru scratched his cheek.
Putting his embarrassment aside for now…
“So anyway, I take that to mean that you’re against this plan?”
“Muu…” Chaika looked conflicted.
“Even though it’s pretty much our best chance of pulling this off…”
Tohru had proposed that they employ the use of drugs.
To be more specific, poison.
They had to confirm whether or not she had the remains. But what would happen after that? That was the problem.
Of course, Tohru had anticipated Chaika’s “good person” part of her response, so he also had been considering a simple negotiation for the remains.
Dominica, who no longer cared for the world or its material possessions, might also see the remains as inconsequential. The possibility that she might just hand them over wasn’t zero.
But, how should he reply when she asked why they wanted the remains of Emperor Gaz?
Society widely regarded the Gaz Empire as “the root of all evil.” Though she was effectively retired, if a dragoon cavalier “good person” knew that the daughter of the “Taboo Emperor” was right in front of her, would she change her tune? Tohru didn’t want to find out.
And he also had to think about the chance that she might refuse.
If that happened…she’d be even harder to deal with than she is now.
She would definitely regard Tohru, Akari, and Chaika with suspicion.
Sneak attack or not, an alert dragoon cavalier was nigh-impossible to defeat.
And as for a weak point…the woman had practically become a hermit due to losing her beloved sister, so Tohru couldn’t even begin to imagine what would rile her up at this point.
So Tohru determined that the safest option was to put all their eggs in one basket and strike while she was still unaware…which is what led him to propose the plan.
However, Tohru had no idea how much poison, or any drug for that matter, it would take to affect a dragoon cavalier. Their recovery magic might not only cover the skin, but also reach the nerves and internal organs. Not only were there few dragoon cavaliers to begin with, but the full spectrum of their abilities was a closely-guarded military secret. As such, it was difficult to tell how much of the information Tohru had heard was actually genuine.
“An amount way over the lethal dose” was probably a good guess.
If they used a substance that paralyzed the nerves, it should render her immobile for a while even if it didn’t kill her. Dragoon cavaliers were beings that wouldn’t die unless you cut their head from their body—but perhaps that also meant complicated areas like the brain took longer to heal, or maybe weren’t able to heal at all.
“Well, in the end, we’re just saboteurs.” Tohru sighed. “We’re not picky about achieving our objectives, but in this case this objective…isn’t ours.”
Chaika blinked her violet eyes.
In a tone that left absolutely no room for confusion, Tohru said the following.
“When you get right down to it, our objective is whatever you want it to be, Master.”
“Tohru…I…” A mixture of surprise, joy, fear, and worry appeared on Chaika’s face as she stared at Tohru.
He then made it a point to deliver his next words coldly, in an attempt to stifle his own sentiments to the best of his ability.
“So if you say “let’s not do this,” if you’d rather prioritize letting the “good person” Dominica Scoda live over your own goal of gathering the remnants, then we have no right to stop you.”
When something is gained, something else is lost.
That held true even in a recovery mission.
Something is always used up, whether it be time, money, honor, fellowship, love, or trust.
“I can come up with the methods, but it’s up to you, our client, to decide whether to implement them.”
Chaika looked hesitantly at Tohru, and then Akari. Yet Akari only nodded. She shared Tohru’s opinion.
“Well…you don’t have to decide right this instant.” Truth be told, she was hard to look at right now. Tohru averted his eyes from the downcast Chaika—a half-baked action coming from a saboteur who made it a principle to utilize their spirit, technique and physical condition as tools to fit any situation.
“However, we probably don’t have that much time. That cavalier’s group will catch up to us soon enough.”
“…Understood.” Eyes still cast downwards, a crease formed between her eyebrows.
Well, an immediate answer is probably too much to ask for, Tohru reasoned.
Chaika’s hesitation was likely born from the same weakness that afflicts a soldier before and after their first battle. It wasn’t just soldiers—anyone on the battlefield, be it saboteur or cavalier, likely went through the same thing.
Up until that point, the “enemy” had been an abstract being, a target of destruction in countless practice drills. But on the battlefield, staring down a flesh-and-blood enemy, any preparation and resolve immediately flew out the window. Not only that, but the techniques you had spit up blood to master, practically etched into your body, were lost to the wind.
Of course, some suffered less extreme setbacks. However, the initial shock of a situation with a high possibility of death did have somewhat of an adverse affect on one’s fighting prowess.
Yes. The enemy was no abstraction, nor object. They were living, breathing humans. That was obvious, but knowing it and experiencing it were two different things.
The raid at Del Solant had most likely been Chaika’s first recovery mission. That was the only piece of the remains that she had, at least. Therefore, she should’ve had little to no prior experience facing off with an enemy, much less stealing from one. Not to mention, the count displayed unbridled killing intent towards Tohru’s group, so she hadn’t yet experienced the pangs of conscience.
But Dominica Scoda was a different story
They had come across her unprepared, and she had even rescued them. They had been recipients of her goodwill.
Therefore Chaika was unable to steel her resolve to view this woman as her enemy, even going so far as to call her a “good person.”
That in itself, Tohru thought, was not a bad thing. In fact, it was an admirable characteristic, a wholly human sentiment.
But even so—
Clearly glum, Chaika’s gaze dropped to her knees.
* * *
I’m not sure if it’s suitable enough fare for a count of your stature, but…”
With that apology, Tohru set Dominica’s plate down in front of her.
They were all gathered in the Scoda residence’s dining room. Tohru, Akari and Chaika had invited Dominica to dinner.
The mansion’s kitchen had obviously been neglected for years. From the oven to the kitchen utensils, everything had been coated in dust. Tohru and Akari, having tidied up to a point where the kitchen was usable again, had cooked up a simple meal using ingredients brought over from the Svetrana. And Chaika, ousted from the kitchen because her clumsy, accident-prone nature ensured she would be nothing but a hindrance, had been in charge of cleaning the dining room area, which had been just as dusty as all the other rooms.
“Well, it’s true I am a count, but before that I was sleeping and eating meals on the battlefield. Far be it from me to possess such an ostentatious palate. On the contrary, I find it to be quite nostalgic.” Dominica smiled.
In front of her was a slab of dried meat rehydrated in bone marrow soup, stir-fried vegetables, scrambled eggs, and sliced bread. A quick, painless meal, yet one that still managed to include all the necessary nutrients. It was indeed reminiscent of a meal you might be served on the battlefield.
“We are so grateful.” Akari and Tohru both bowed their heads in unison.
Where the hell does she normally eat? That was bugging him.
As aforementioned, it was evident that neither the kitchen nor the dining room had been used in a number of years. No, not just that. Judging from the amount of dust over the whole household, it was like the whole building was deserted. It wasn’t just filthy; it was as if no one was even living here.
As Chaika brought her own portion of bread to her mouth and chewed, she would periodically glance over at Dominica and then immediately avert her eyes. She was clearly feeling uneasy, probably still torn over whether or not to risk talking it out with Dominica and lay their circumstances bare in the process.
Of course, if Dominica was to agree and hand over the remains, they couldn’t ask for a better outcome. But if she refused, their hand would be forced and they’d have to face her on extremely unfavorable conditions. Depending on the circumstances, they could end up dead. Taking that into account, the best option really was to poison her, and then confirm if she had what they were looking for.
Chaika tilted her head, something having just come to her attention.
Dominica’s fork hand had frozen in midair, and she was staring directly at Chaika.
“Ah, please forgive me.” Dominica smiled wryly. “I was just lost in thought. My little sister, see, would have looked similar to you were she still alive.”
“Oh, but it must be quite unpleasant to be told you look like someone who’s already passed on. My apologies.”
“No problem, no problem!” Chaika waved her hands in a fluster.
“I’m aware how ridiculous this sounds, but…I wasn’t with my sister when she died. By the time I returned, she was already in the ground. So sometimes I’ll find myself thinking that she’s going to appear right in front of me the next day. The height of idiocy, really,” Dominica said.
“Understand…can sympathize. Greatly.” Chaika nodded with agreement.
Shit…thought Tohru beside her. Chaika was showing empathy towards Dominica. Tohru was thinking that as long as Chaika gave a definite answer, even if it was “let’s give up on the remains” or “if she refuses, we can just explain everything and reveal our backgrounds”, it was going to be fine—he would come up with a countermeasure for any setbacks. But in Chaika’s case, simply agonizing over it might not be enough for her to come to a decision. When all was said and done, she wasn’t the type to force others to her will for her own convenience—in other words, she was a “good person.”
So Chaika never witnessed her father’s death, either.
Losing a father and losing a sister were two different things, but there was no helping the fact that the two were now bonding over their similar circumstances. A family member had died, and they had been unaware.
It was becoming clearer that at this rate, Chaika wasn’t going to reach a decision any time soon. Gillette’s group would catch up to them, and he couldn’t guarantee the girl’s safety after that.
“Miss Scoda.” Tohru stopped eating and addressed her directly.
“What is it?”
“May I ask you a question, please?”
“If you have something you need answered, ask away.” Toward Tohru’s overtly formal tone, she seemed almost wary.
Tohru closed his eyes, hardening his resolve.
“You wouldn’t happen to possess one of Emperor Gaz’s remains, would you?”
The one who looked the most surprised at Tohru’s question was actually Chaika. Akari just went on scarfing down food as though Tohru hadn’t even spoken. She had been with Tohru for as long as he could remember, though, so perhaps she had predicted this outcome.
“I heard that you’re one of the heroes of that war, the ones who directly subjugated Emperor Gaz. I also heard that even though it was officially announced that Emperor Gaz’s body was incinerated in an explosion, in truth the heroes divided up the pieces of his corpse, each a valuable source of magical power, and each took a piece home with them…”
“Tohru—you…” Dominica raised her eyebrows as she stared at Tohru. She was surprised, but there was no trace of anger or hostility on her face.
“…Supposing that were true…” She gave a slight pause. “Just how did you get that information?”
“Because one of the Gaz Empire’s own is right under your nose,” Tohru replied.
When he said it, he paid attention to where Dominica’s eyes moved—however, she didn’t especially look in Chaika’s direction. It seemed that she was at least unaware that Chaika was the daughter of the Taboo Emperor.
The count at Del Solant recognized Chaika. But Dominica’s never seen her before, even though they’re both heroes…what’s that discrepancy mean? Was Chaika really not there during the attack after all?
“I see.” Tohru’s thoughts were interrupted by Dominica’s voice. “And—say I did have a piece of the remains. What are you going to do about it?”
She narrowed her eyes.
Even now, he couldn’t feel any hostility or killing intent from her, nor did it seem like her mood had worsened. Her gaze was quiet and cool, as if she were ascertaining Tohru and the rest of them.
“Would you allow us to have it?”
“…You do realize that if such a thing did exist, it would be worth more than gold itself, right?”
Arthur Gaz’s remains weren’t only valued as an excellent source of magical power. Just from the rarity of such an item, people would want it no matter the cost. It was forbidden in the majority of countries to traffick human bodies for their magical power, but if the price was right, they were willing to go to any lengths of deception.
“We’re aware of how ridiculous this claim may seem.”
“Whatever could you want it for?” Dominica asked, her eyes boring through him.
Tohru hesitated for a split second. He could, of course, come up with a plausible set of lies. But Dominica wasn’t asking about the particulars of their circumstances. She was most likely asking the same fundamental question that Tohru had asked to Chaika earlier—namely, What’s your objective?
“There’s a person dear to me.”
Tohru said it outright.
“We need it to complete this person’s objective.”
On the edge of his vision—he could see Chaika, wide-eyed, looking at him.
“Not for yourself?”
“My objective is to complete that person’s objective.”
She nodded—and then, in the next instant.
The tip of her sword headed right for Tohru’s face.
There was probably only a single sheet of cloth…no, a sheet of paper’s length distance between the sword’s sharp point and Tohru’s forehead.
Chaika leapt from her seat in astonishment and Akari readied her guard…but Tohru himself didn’t budge an inch.
Because Dominica’s attack was devoid of intent to kill. If she had wanted to kill him, though, he wasn’t confident he could have dodged in time. In the first place couldn’t even determine when she had “created” her sword.
“I knew you weren’t just some amateur,” she said.
“Huh, so you were watching us during the orthrus fight. Still—”
With the cat out of the bag, there was no further need for Tohru to keep up the formal act.
“Honestly, that was faster than expected. Color me surprised. You didn’t even chant a spell.”
“Don’t move a muscle.” She brought the tip of her sword forward slightly, grazing Tohru’s forehead.
It didn’t draw blood—yet. It had merely slipped under the elastic of the outermost layer of skin.
But if Dominica’s hand were to waver one bit, the sword would pierce his forehead and blood would drip out.
“Your sister over there seems to be experienced as well. Assassins, perhaps? No, you don’t seem to be the cavalier or soldier type. Which only leaves…mercenaries, or perhaps saboteurs.”
As he replied, his gaze was not fixed on the sword nigh-penetrating his own forehead, but the equally sharp glare piercing him from the other end of the sword.
“But if you’re saboteurs, I half-expected you to poison and assassinate me, then search the place at your leisure. I hear there’s no such thing as foul play in your vocabulary?” Dominica retracted her sword.
“There’s a reason for that. This way is much faster.” Tohru shrugged. “Naturally, I’m not thrilled about the prospect of facing off against a dragoon cavalier. So I’ll ask you again. If you really do possess the remains, won’t you hand them over? They should be of no consequence to someone who has no interest in the world, its powers, or material capital, correct?”
After glaring at Tohru for a while, she turned to look at Chaika. The girl’s silver hair was reflected in her lucid crimson eyes.
Chaika flinched a bit in surprise…but perhaps not wanting to have Tohru take the whole fall, she mustered all her willpower and stared right back at Dominica.
“I do indeed have a piece of the remains.”
Dominica said. Then she told them the next part quietly.
“But you will not have it…unless you can pry it from my dead body, you mongrels of war.”