...The man laid motionless on the hard ground, sprawled out on his back.
He wasn't dead, nor was he asleep. He just closed his eyes, carefully regulated his disorderly breathing, and quietly organized his thoughts. Arranging, arranging, arranging...
Jamal: "Oi, are you alive?"
Todd: "...Yeah, I'm alive."
A voice called to him from above, and when he opened his eyelids, he saw the face of a man he knew. It's a rare talent to be able to look at someone upside down and not lose one’s rough image of them. Anyhow, there was no connection between that and solving the current situation.
Todd: "And them?"
Jamal: "They broke through us, and after you got knocked off, they escaped as fast as they could. You... better do something about that. It's painful to look at.”
Todd: "That? ...Ah, this."
Scratching his head, he got up and looked at his side where the other person had pointed. Thereupon, there was a single thick arrow pierced deeply into his side. It dug into his left side, and if it had been positioned a little higher, it would have pierced his heart. Although he was wounded near a fatal area, he didn’t react to it much. Not only visually, but also emotionally to the fact that his own body had been pierced.
Todd: "It doesn't actually hurt as much as it looks, okay? It'll make it hard to move for a while, though..."
Jamal: "Idiot. Who said I was worried about you? I'm the one looking and I'm the one saying it hurts. Quickly, take it out.”
Todd: "You're a little rough with the wounded, aren’t you. And..."
His companion grimaced as he grabbed the arrow that had pierced him. The difficulty with an arrow wound is that the arrow needed to be pulled out before the flesh tightened. Fortunately, it had only been in there for a short time, so he was able to pull it out with a bit of force. As for the bleeding, he stuffed a piece of torn clothing into the wound to force it to stop.
Todd: "Well, that arrow is just as I ordered. What to do now?"
Jamal: "That’s a serious wound, so you should back off and rest. I'll take some of our men and crush that bunch that escaped. We’ll teach them ourselves that they're our prey."
Todd: "...That would be a bad idea, Jamal."
The man who had stated his plan, Jamal, was reigned in by his hand. He could understand why Jamal would want to chase down a fleeing opponent to get some payback. However, if he were to go ahead with his attack in a hasty manner, those who would have a painful experience would be the people here.
Todd: "Think about it. Why did those guys brazenly stroll into Guaral? Considering what we’ve done, it's obvious that we’d be the ones in this city."
Jamal: "...Unless they are thoughtless fools."
Todd: "...They went out of their way to enter the town. They went as far as concealing an ambush outside of it..."
Jamal glanced at the extracted arrow and cleared his throat. As a warrior, Jamal had the ability to assess the power and accuracy of the arrow that had struck Todd. He must have naturally come to the same conclusion as Todd did.
Jamal: "If that's the case, then their aim is...!"
Todd: "They're going to lure out the Imperial soldiers in Guaral and hunt them down. If we chased them with all our assets here, or rather, our small force, we would play right into their hands. ...Let's see which one of us is prey."
Jamal's teeth clenched in frustration, and glared in the direction his opponent had fled. Inwardly, Jamal was being controlled by a blood-boiling rage, but Todd understood his feelings painfully well. ...It need not be said. More than anger, admiration occupied his heart.
His opponent had boldly used himself as a decoy to catch his foolish enemy off guard. He was undoubtedly a formidable enemy, a product of war.
Todd: "I failed to kill him.... I really screwed up, didn't I?"
He muttered this to himself as he looked in the same direction as Jamal. He then took a breath as if to regain his composure.
Todd: "There will be a chance for revenge. ...No matter what, they’ll come again."
Jamal: "And when they do, there will be no mercy."
He silently nodded in agreement to Jamal’s angered gesture. And for the time being, he regarded this battle as a defeat. On top of that...
Jamal: "Yeah. ...What’s up with your hands?"
Jamal raised an eyebrow at Todd, who had his feet sprawled out and both his hands stretched out. Todd tilted his head at Jamal’s lack of comprehension.
Todd: "You know what I mean, a piggyback ride."
Jamal: "Go die alone!"
As if to say, “That’s not something you’d reply to a true friend!” Todd shrugged his shoulders.
Stomping on the firm wooden floor, Subaru stretched his legs forward as the wind whipped around his shoulders. As he approached his destination, he couldn’t help but feel an irresistible urge to lean out of the carriage, and then, when the moment had finally come close at hand, his body jumped out of the carriage with great vigor.
He felt as if he heard various voices around him that were trying to stop him, but he paid them no heed. He shook them off and, in a straight line, headed toward the building of his aim. As he entered the large wooden building in the center of the village, the gazes of the multiple people in the building focused on him. And then…
???: "You're back? That was quicker than I expected."
Stating that shamelessly was a pompous man wearing a demon mask. Without saying anything about that self-affirmative attitude, Subaru went straight for him. Subaru let his momentum carry him forward as he ruthlessly grasped the demon mask off the man looking down at him with his outstretched hand. Without much resistance, the mask was removed, revealing the man's beautiful face. Subaru grabbed the man by the chest and brought him to his feet. And then, as he was about to slam his fist into the man’s face...
???: "Wait, Subaru!"
Just as Subaru was about to punch the man in the face, his right arm was forcibly stopped from behind. He was stopped by Mizelda, the chief of the village, who was tall and whose hair was dyed at the top. Subaru was about to open his mouth to complain about her interference.
But before that, Mizelda interjected.
Mizelda: "Listen, leave the face. Anywhere else, I will allow."
One beat after receiving the unwavering Mizelda’s response, Subaru drove his fist into Abel’s outstretched and cut-up torso. The man who had been prepared to be punched in his face groaned in pain and stumbled back. There’s no way that was enough to clear up all the pent-up anger, but...
Subaru: "Don't think this settles it, you piece of shit....!"
Abel: "Hmm, you're a greedy man."
The man who picked up the demon mask that fell at his side, and put it back on, was Abel. After striking a blow at the man who was the source of his pooling pent up-anger, Subaru let out a ragged breath.
For three days, Subaru had traveled back to where he started, just so he could take a swing at Abel.
Flop: "Behold, my little sister! This is the village of the notorious People of Shudrak!! It's in a secluded forest just like they say! What a great discovery!"
Medium: "Wow! That’s amazing, An-chan! Look, look! They all have chiseled abs, just like me, chiseled! Chiseled, An-chan!”
Flop: "They're chiseled alright!"
Such reactions from the carefree siblings who couldn’t choose a place, echoed in the air of the village. Exchanging these frank opinions were the O'Connell siblings, Flop and Medium, who had been invited to the village of the People of Shudrak, which was slowly falling apart. In the middle of the village, on top of a carriage, the siblings were surrounded by curious Shudrak. Apparently, their fearless nature in an unfamiliar place attracted a lot of attention, but yet they showed no signs of fear, caution, or anxiety. The reality of their situation was that they were surrounded by uncivilized tribal women with little information about them, so it would be a normal and appropriate reaction if they felt fear for their lives and personal safety.
???: "You've brought back some very noisy company. Are these the kind of people you need for your journey? If that's the case, then you and I have different values."
???: "I'm not denying that we have different values. There is a big difference in how we see things. Even so, I don’t think that is the best attitude, no matter how you look at it."
Sitting on the floor of the assembly hall, Subaru and Abel were face to face, just as they were a few days ago. Abel, who had just been punched in the stomach by Subaru's punishing blow, showed no signs of remorse in his words or actions. He was the one whom Subaru did not want nor expected an apology from. But he couldn't let the insult to the O'Connell siblings slide. Because...
???: "Abel-san, those are the people we dragged into this. They were kind to us when we were stuck at the city gates...It is just for that reason."
The reason for Subaru's anger was explained by Rem in his place.
Unlike last time, the meeting hall was not cleared of people, and faces other than Subaru and Abel were present at the discussion. Sitting upright beside Subaru was Rem, along with their traveling companions, Kuna and Holly, and beside Abel were Mizelda and Talitha. Louis, by the way, was being taken care of by Utakata, who’s close to her in age. At that time, the O'Connell's were probably in the center of the village in their carriage, surrounded by the Shudrak. In any case...
Rem: "With the help of those two, we were able to make it back here safely. Now, Flop and his sister are in the situation of being targeted by the city's soldiers..."
Abel: "Wrong, I’ll correct you. The ones targeting us and the people outside are not the city soldiers... It's the soldiers of the Empire. The people who serve this country have become your enemies."
Subaru & Rem: "..."
Abel's cold words pierced Subaru and Rem through his demon mask. Rem's pale blue eyes only lowered helplessly as she listened to those dry words. Indeed, Subaru understood that this was an undeniable fact. However, understanding it is not the same as being satisfied with it.
Subaru: "It was because of my mistake, that the Imperial soldiers from the encampment were looking for me. Their hostility is also the result of the actions I chose to take."
Abel: "That's true. It's the fate you've been tied to since before you came into contact with the People of Shudrak."
Subaru: "I have no excuses for that fate. Because it was definitely me who made an enemy of them… But it would have been better if I was the only one who had to pay for that fate."
It is true that most of the blame laid with Subaru, but the problem here was Abel's approach. From the very beginning, he should have understood the dangers of Subaru and the others entering Guaral. He must have been aware of the possibility of encountering the surviving Imperial soldiers and that Subaru and the others could be attacked.That's why…
Abel: "I instructed Kuna and Holly to wait outside the city for you beforehand. If you were chased and ran out of town, I wanted them to follow you."
Holly: "It was a really, really, close call, nooo. If it wasn't for me and Kuna, Subaru's head would have been chopped in two by an axe by now, nooo"
Holly, sat cross legged, while she chewed on a round of dumplings, and spoke in a carefree manner. Unlike Kuna, who looked uncomfortable next to her, she didn’t understand the mood of the room. Of course, Subaru was grateful for the help of Holly and Kuna. Without the help of those women, the possibility of having his head cracked open would have most likely come to pass.
Subaru: "Kuna's eyes to watch and Holly's skills to save us... bow and arrow sniping from long distance, it's like a combination of those two’s skills."
Kuna: "...I didn’t hear that the situation would be that bad, though."
The lack of power in Kuna's words was evidence of her guilt towards Subaru and the others. However, Subaru can say that the guilt that Kuna was feeling is misplaced. Before entering Guaral, the words she left Subaru with when they parted gave a hint. If it hadn't been for that advice, he wouldn't have been able to get the help that Holly mentioned earlier. However...
Subaru: "That idea only applies to two people, Kuna and Holly. ...I'm not going to be nice to you, someone who predicted perfectly well that this would happen."
That's why the first thing Subaru did when he returned was to strike a punishing blow on Abel. It would have been a different story if Abel had shown some remorse after that. However, as Subaru most likely expected, Abel had not shown any remorse, nor any guilt. With that unchanging, arrogant point of view, he fiddled with the anger of Subaru and the others. In fact, even now, on the other side of the demon mask, the keen sparkle in his eye hadn’t darkened at all. It looked as if Abel was about to say, "What about it?”
Subaru: "Hey, why don't you speak up instead of keeping quiet?"
Abel: "...Why should I do that?"
Subaru: "You had the nerve to say that seriously..."
The abhorrent imaginings of Abel hitting close to home, and Subaru's gaze sharpened as he grinded his teeth at Abel's words. Abel, however, coolly brushed aside Subaru's accusing glare.
Abel: "You came back with a vengeance, struck me with a blow, and now all you have to respond with is a trivial complaint? After all, I warned you from the beginning,that this wouldn’t be an easy road.”
Abel: "Know that this is punishment for latching onto the idea of short-term peace and not using your head. The city closest to the burned camp is the most likely destination for the defeated soldiers. It was so obvious"
Subaru: "Then if it was...then if it was... you should have said so from the beginning!"
Down on one knee, Abel's words stung Subaru's inexperience with every word. However, Subaru understood and admitted that he was wrong in the first place. He knew it was an explosion of unfortunate circumstances caused by his lack of thinking and his earlier actions. But Abel's act of overlooking the danger, knowing that it was there, was an act of simple self-interest... If the perspective of both sides is off the mark, it's as good as setting a trap.
Subaru: "You knew all along. The possibility of us running into the surviving Imperial soldiers in Guaral, the possibility of us escaping from the city, the possibility of Rem in the midst of that...."
Subaru: "Anyway! You knew everything. And yet, you didn't tell me."
When Subaru opened his mouth, he knew he was about to say something he shouldn't have. Quickly restraining himself, Subaru focused his anger on Abel, trying not to look at the face of Rem, who was standing next to him. Abel with a cool... no, cold expression looked at Subaru, who's flames of anger rose. How far did this man see into the world with his penetrating gaze? And for what purpose was he toying with Subaru and the others when he knew what was coming?
Subaru: "Answer me, asshole. You, why did you want us to..."
Abel: "I was just saving you the extra trouble."
Subaru: "Extra trouble....?"
Abel said with a sound indistinguishable from a sigh at Subaru's sharp tongue. When Subaru blinked at his answer, Abel gently rubbed the ground of the meeting place with his hand, picking up the dry soil in his palm.
Abel: "Fools like you value what you see with your own eyes more than the advice of a wise man. The harshness of these droplets falling on you is far more eloquent than anything I could say."
Abel: "Thanks to me, I'm sure you're now painfully aware of this. ...There is no escape for you people."
As he said this, a few drops of soil fell from Abel's palm. With just that gesture, Subaru had the illusion that he was terribly and clearly slammed in all directions.
As the Emperor of the Sacred Vollachia Empire, it was easy for Abel to manipulate others with words. In front of the tough, sly old dog of an Emperor, Subaru's complaints were no more than the cries of a caged monkey. And thus, at the harsh reality of it all, Subaru was at his wits’ end.
Subaru: "...Ultimately. ...What do you want to do?"
Abel: "I've already told you what I want. I want to take back what was stolen from me. To that end, the Empire, as it exists right now, is my enemy. It's also an enemy to you."
Subaru: "...You’re telling me to help you??"
Abel: "For the time being, I explained that I have no reason to harm you."
Abel's words seeped into Subaru's head like poison. Abel's conversational skills didn’t allow a clear answer, and seemed to possess a cunningness meant to confuse Subaru, while at the same time it felt as if it was a test.
Again and again, without declaring anything, Able continued to speak.
Abel wanted Subaru to think for himself and to make his own decision. Here, too, Abel was provoking Subaru to come up to his own level if he wanted to argue. Currently, Subaru isn’t even close to the same level of discussion as him. And his Excellency the Emperor wasn’t so kind as to wait for Subaru to obediently come up to the stage.
Subaru: "...So everything is in your palms, huh? I don't like that."
Abel: "...Unfortunately, there are only a few people in my palms who I can control. Because I couldn't control the part that wasn't, I'm sitting on the ground now."
Abel's reply to Subaru sounded self-deprecating. Subaru couldn't see Abel’s expression, and there was no noticeable change in the tone of his voice. But it sounded self-deprecating. It was unusual... no, it was the first time Subaru had heard Abel being self-deprecating. And it was a sign of his undeniable acceptance of reality.
He’s an uncrowned Emperor who was forced to leave his throne after allowing his subordinates to rebel against him. The fact that he’s sitting on the soil of the People of Shudrak’s meeting place, in the middle of this vast forest is proof that he has made a mistake for which there was no excuse.
Fixing his gaze at Abel from the front, Subaru quietly pondered. He didn't know what Abel's real intentions were nor his plans for the future. Subaru didn't want to be taken in by Abel’s intentions again and suffer the same kind of misfortune he had earlier.
In fact, what the hell was Abel thinking? Subaru didn't think that Abel would go through such lengths to bring him into the fold. Abel shouldn’t find that much value in Subaru. Nevertheless, if there was a reason why Abel wanted to keep Subaru with him, it wasn't so much because of Subaru himself, but because of his interest in other things.
???: "...Husband-kun! The people here are so delightful and open-minded! I'm impressed!"
Gasping for breath, Subaru was in the midst of serious contemplation. Slipping into the entrance of the meeting hall, Flop appeared with his well-traveled beautiful voice echoing. He gazed at the faces lined up inside the assembly hall.
Flop: "Oh dear, I apologize for the delay in greeting you! It seems that the people here are the representatives of this village. The child! Miss Kuna and Miss Holly's look-alike!"
Kuna: "It’s him."
Holly: "Hi there, nooo."
Flop: "Oh, right! This is rude!"
Running a hand through his long bangs, Flop moved nimbly to the middle of the assembly hall, where he bowed with a friendly smile.
Flop: "Let me correct myself, I'm Flop O'Connell! I'm a peddler with my sister, Medium and Botecliffe. For various reasons, I've been asked to accompany Husband-kun, his wife and his niece on their strange journey. I look forward to working with you all from now on!"
Talitha: "It's like you're trying to be polite, but you're not..."
Talitha looked like she had a headache after Flop's vigorous greeting. Then she glanced over to Mizelda next to her.
Talitha: "What do you want to do, sister? Outsiders are ordered to stay away..."
Mizelda: "Well, ....he is a sexy man. Leave him in my chamber."
Crossing her arms, Mizelda judged the treatment of Flop by his face. Mizelda’s decision was easy to understand with very simple logic, but it must have been a headache for Talitha, who supports her sister as Chief. Of course, if that was the only criteria for Mizelda's decision, Subaru wouldn’t be able to stay in the village, so there must be something else going on.
Subaru: "Yes, Mizelda-san, I would like to confirm one little thing. Flop-san is my guest, or rather, I brought him here at my own discretion. However, to have him undergo the Lifeblood Ritual..."
Flop: "The Lifeblood Ritual? Is that some kind of traditional welcoming ritual in this village!? I'd love to experience that myself!"
Subaru: "It's a traditional ritual, but it's a bit rough to be called a welcome."
Flop was positive about the challenge of the ritual, but even he would be reluctant if he was presented with the possibility of being forced to fight a demon beast. Perhaps Subaru was afraid that there's a chance that Flop’s attitude wouldn’t change when he heard that, but anyway, Subaru didn't want to let that happen...
Abel: "...I knew from the moment we were separated by a thin wall that they were noisy people."
And it was the ruthless Emperor in the demon mask who did not welcome Flop's attitude. There was a stark contrast between the sunlit warmth of Flop and the coldblooded Abel... At least, Subaru's blood froze when Abel seemed to have no reason to like Flop.
Flop: "Oh my! That's an unusual mask. ...is he the head of the village? I read something about people in special garments being in a position of power!"
The first encounter between the two began with Flop mentioning Abel's eccentric outfit. It was hard to consider Abel as a Shudrak, though, it wasn’t hard for Flop to judge him as such from his conspicuous demon mask. After all, other than the demon mask, the rest of his outfit was culturally far removed from the rest of Shudrak. Once again, the outfit was too out of place.
Abel: "You're not of terrible mind, but you lack caution and forethought. Earlier, you spoke of peddling for a living..."
Flop: "Oh, yes! My sister’s falo pulls a carriage and we travel around the Empire, peddling our wares.... We are the vagrant siblings who wander with the wind!"
Flop replied with a hand on his chest as if he was singing.
Then, from outside the building, towards the middle of the village, a voice could be heard,
Medium: "Just what I expected from you An-chan!”
Even though they are separated by a thin wall, they have a strong bond.
However, the proof of their wholesome connection was not enough to warm Abel's cold heart. When Abel heard Flop's answer he gave a small snort.
Abel: " ...Natsuki Subaru, you told me you picked these up in the city."
Subaru: "Don't treat people like objects. To begin with, a more accurate way to describe the situation would be to say that we were picked up by Flop-san."
Abel: "What's important is the essence of the situation. I don't have time to dwell on trivial matters. But I'll be the first to praise you for coming back like this. How troublesome..."
Subaru: "I don't feel like I'm being praised. ...What the hell are you scheming?"
To be honest, it was Subaru's view that Flop and Abel weren’t compatible with each other. Because of that, he had Flop wait in the village square so Subaru could introduce them when the right time came, but Abel's reaction was something Subaru hadn't expected. Although Abel's interest was not in Flop's character. He was certainly not interested in the existence of Medium, whose voice he could only hear loudly. If this is the case, the answer was clear.
Abel: "Peddler, how familiar are you with Guaral?"
Flop: "That's a good question, Village Chief-kun! I'm proud to say that I'm quite well known in Guaral. Anyhow, it's clear that if I venture too much, I'll be dead! Because even as a peddler, you have to get used to traveling back and forth in the place you settled in!”
Kuna: "There is a fine line between cautious and cowardly..."
Kuna exhaled in dismay at Flop's answer, which was positive and full of confidence. However, having heard Flop's answer, Abel, hiding behind the demon mask, became silent. ...No, Subaru's ears were faintly picking up a faint sound. It was the sound of Abel's throat making a small noise.
Abel: "How fortuitous. You made quite the find, Natsuki Subaru. ...Any peddler familiar with the city will know of a secret path or two."
Subaru: "Hey, hold on, Abel. A secret path? What are you talking about?"
Abel: "Are you looking to others for answers again? It seems that you don't understand the meaning of my repeated questions. I don't have any words to give to such a buffoon."
Subaru was annoyed by every word Abel said, but he couldn't say anything back to him. In this case, Natsuki Subaru was too isolated and helpless to break off the discussion and turn his back on it and leave. Consequently, an alarming thought came to his mind. ...No, even without thinking about it, he had a general idea of what Abel was thinking. It was obvious from his question to Flop just now.
Subaru: "Abel, you can't possibly be..."
Abel: "Even the slow minded can find the answer. Yes, it’s what you think."
Subaru's lips quivered and his cheeks tensed as he looked back at Abel, whose transparent gaze behind the demon mask indicated a ruthless plan. Then, as if to let those other than Subaru know...
Abel: "...We will make the fortified city of Guaral fall. We will need that city to be our next base of operations."