Akuyaku Reijo Ni Koi Wo Shite - Chapter 74
’’THE FEELINGS THAT WERE SHAKEN AND THOSE THAT REMAINED FIRM.’’
A huge commotion erupted after Rion's departure despite the presence of the royal couple in the audience hall. A missing member of the royal family had been found at last and it was a prince, not a princess to everybody's great surprise. To be fair, people might have taken this calmer if the person in question wasn't Rion.
Many of those present had harbored malice towards Viscount Frey and actively acted against his interest. Those people all remembered what they had done and feared having their actions exposed. Others, those who saw Rion in a favorable light too felt a complex mix of emotions. They valued him highly because his abilities would be of great use to the kingdom while he was a vassal, but if he were to be a prince instead, those same abilities threatened catastrophe. After all, it was a common knowledge that there was no love lost between Rion and Arnold. Viscount Frey wouldn't be able to oppose the Crown Prince effectively, Prince Frey was a completely different proposition and a great source of worry.
Those, and many other, speculations clashed furiously in people's heads.
The King expected it to be difficult to control people in this situation, so he instructed the audience be dissolved. But this was exactly what his retainers wanted. There were things to be discussed, preferably without the presence of the monarch. Very soon, the audience hall stood empty.
The only people that remained were the King on his throne, greatly perplexed, Queen Sophia, beside her husband and in tears, the Knight Commander, with a complex expression on his face, and the Crown Prince.
The Crown Prince who looked to be on the verge of tears.
The King didn't even attempt to lift his face to answer his son. Or to be more exact, he couldn't find it in him to lift his face all the more now that he was called. He could perfectly imagine Arnold's next words.
「Is Rion my younger brother?」
And here they were. Anybody would see that coming.
The King replied with a single word without raising his head.
The Queen's said nothing more, just her son's name. She did neither confirm, nor deny. Her innermost feelings didn't allow for anything else. This was pretty much the same as admitting everything, she just couldn't bring herself to deny Rion as her son anymore.
「Why didn't you say anything?」
Having understood his mother's response, Arnold didn't have to repeat his question.
「Why would We? There never was anything to talk about. Even now nothing changed.」
The King continued to feign ignorance. He put his duty as the monarch above his feelings as a father. And nobody could honestly fault him for that.
Arnold understood. Moreover, he knew that as the next king he should learn from his father. And yet...
「I... I had my brother's lord killed. Did I really just kill my brother's friend!?」
He could not make himself act as the Crown Prince, only as the King's son.
「You do not have a brother, boy!」
But even so, the King chose to not acknowledge Rion. Not even due to the fear of inheritance conflict. Acknowledging Frey as the missing prince would also, in turn, acknowledge his wife's cruelty in abandoning their newborn child. As a ruler, and Sophia's husband, he could never do such a thing.
「...So be it, Father.」
Arnold was not satisfied, but he understood that pressing his father any further would lead nowhere. And his mother's excessively pained expression stopped him from asking any more questions.
Crown Prince Arnold left the audience hall, his steps weak and unsteady.
「The spread of rumors can no longer be stopped, Majesty.」
Once Arnold's silhouette vanished from sight, Frederick spoke up at last.
「We know. Still, We shall suppress as much as possible. The masses must not learn of this.」
Rion was very popular among the commoners. Arnold's reputation was tarnished. If this news reached the wider masses, the results would be unpredictable and likely impossible to stop. A ruler had to prevent such a thing at all cost.
「How, Sire? The Intelligence Bureau is leaderless」
Controlling the flow of information from behind the scenes was usually the Bureau's job. But, as things were, they did not have the capability to enforce a gag order, and any attempt on their part to do so would only make the story spread even farther.
「...After today, We cannot simply appoint a successor.」
The former head was a devil. This had been established without any doubts today, and that meant the whole organization was potentially tainted. Just appointing a new head would not do, everyone involved had to be investigated.
「There are also other things than the matter of Viscount Frey to consider, Sire.」
「We know, Lord Dawson. ...Gather Our cabinet, We must discuss measures against the devils.」
「As you wish.」
The Intelligence Bureau was not the only one in need of investigation and, possibly, reorganization. Other department heads had to be suspected now. It was even possible that another devil was hidden among the cabinet members.
The resulting inquiries would paralyze the Gran Flamm Kingdom for some time. The same thing should be expected to happen to the Merica Kingdom if they experienced a similar situation. The King knew he owed Rion some gratitude. Although, in the present situation, he could not quite make himself follow up on that.
Events started to move at rapid pace. Even Maria, with her great knowledge of the game, would now struggle to imagine the ultimate outcome. After all, the familiar story had by now changed into something completely else.
After leaving the audience hall, and the castle, Rion headed out into the capital city. The lodging house was not his destination. Truthfully, he didn't have one. He let his feet carry him wherever and, somehow, ended up at that place.
The execution grounds. For Rion, this location was Vincent's memorial.
He climbed the stairs of the gallows and fell to his knees. There were tears in his eyes and his thoughts mirrored Arnold's.
People responsible for Vincent's death were his own family.
This didn't mean that Rion had already acknowledged himself as a royalty. He wanted this whole mess to be a lie, or a misunderstanding. He wasn't sure he would be able to sort out his feelings otherwise.
He was very sure that the grudge born as a result of Vincent's death hadn't vanished from his heart.
However, the same heart ached when he contemplated whether he was capable of killing his brother. Before, he had been adamant about bringing the whole country, his parents' country, to ruin for smearing Vincent with all manner of crime.
Now, he wasn't sure if he was still capable of doing it. He struggled to find the same kind of resolve not only when it came to that ultimate goal, but even when he considered his next steps.
It suddenly occurred to him that Ariel might have known of this. Perhaps, that was the reason why she had told him that it was fine to abandon their revenge. But even if that was the case, Rion didn't blame her for staying silent. He knew that she was just worried about him and that she was likely troubled as well.
Thinking of Ariel caused Rion's mood to improve.
In the end, she was the most important thing in his life and that fact didn't really change. She had been, and still was, his absolute top priority.
He slowly stood up from the boards and a bit of strength returned to his gaze. He turned around and headed towards the exit where a person welcomed him. Sol Aristes.
「...Do you need anything?」
「Well... How to put it... I am at your service, lord.」
Sol said that with a bit of hesitation.
「...That's news to me. Wasn't that missing princess your destined master?」
「Well... I do not know how that came to be, but I was told that you are, in fact, the missing royal child.」
「What are you talking about? I grew up in the slums. I do not know who my parents were.」
「I have finally found you! Why are you like this!?」
Rion's attitude had prompted Sol to raise his voice.
Rion was the destined lord Sol had been searching for all this time. Now that he found that person having that event brushed off so casually was unbearable.
「Even if I were who you say I am, I wouldn't have you serve me.」
「...Why is that?」
「I have told you this once before. When I served, I served the person named Vincent Woodville, not Lord Vincent, the heir apparent of House Windhill. I will never accept subordinates that choose their lord by his title.」
「...You're wrong. I'm not like that at all. I 」
The desire to serve Rion had already planted itself inside Sol. However, the part of him that was a Royal Guard couldn't bring himself to do that, that would be betraying the Princess he should be serving, and so he could not put his true feelings into words before.
But if Rion was that ’’princess’’, Sol would be able to follow his wish. This incident made him rejoice from the bottom of his heart.
「Just... stop. My family is Ariel, and Ariel alone. I do not have any family other than her and neither do I need one.」
However, Rion didn't feel like hearing Sol's explanations.
Sol frantically tried to prevent Rion from leaving.
「I'm sorry, but let me be alone for now. I do not want anybody's company.」
But, after being told this, the guardsman couldn't prevent the youth from leaving any longer. He knew why Rion had come to the site of Vincent's execution after learning the truth of his birthright.
He would eventually come to regret letting the boy go, though.
After parting from Sol, Rion headed to the lodging house, a thing confirmed by many eyes observing his every move. By virtue of today's events, he had attracted much attention, after all. All of them lost his trail pretty soon though and the only thing that remained was a letter addressed to the Knight Commander.
All the figures important to the devil subjugation process were gathered in the palace's conference hall. It was not just the members of the military, but even the civilian subordinates of the Prime Minister, who were called here while in the middle of a completely different meeting.
The reason for the meeting was a letter written by Rion that the Knight Commander passed to the King.
It was presented in front of everybody attending the conference, with the seal unbroken. Numerous people knew that Rion had left a letter behind, this careful method of handling it would prevent any unnecessary doubts aimed at the youth who discovered himself to be a royalty.
The King broke the seal and read the contents silently and nobody but him knew what was written. But based on the people summoned to attend, it was obvious the letter was related to the devils.
「We see everyone is present. Good. Some explanations are in order before we start.」
Having confirmed the attendance, His Majesty started the proceedings.
「My King, a moment please.」
However, the Prime Minister raised an objection.
「What is it?」
「Not all of those present seem to belong here, Sire.」
「...We have no objections.」
The King knew who the Prime Minister was referring to. After all, he counted them too when he had been checking if everyone was present.
「But Sire, are we not about to conduct a very important conference?」
The Prime Minister didn't back down despite the King's words. It was not unexpected, the people he took umbrage to were Cassius and the other Clan Heads.
「But they do belong here, my good sir. Father summoned everyone involved in the subjugations. They are involved.」
Arnold, being the one who brought Cassius and the others here, challenged the man in his father's stead.
「Even if they are, they are not direct vassals of the Crown. The right to sit at this table aside, they don't even have the right to meet His Majesty. Am I wrong, Highness?」
From the King's perspective, the Clan Heads, as retainers of Rion, were at most provisional vassals. This way of using Cassius and the other's presence was a subtle way to declare Rion nothing more than a Viscount.
Arnold, on the other hand, by silently bringing the Clan Heads to the table was implying that Rion's retainers were direct vassals of the royal clan.
「Their oath of allegiance has been temporarily transferred to me. This makes them my retainers for the time being. With this in mind, are they still unworthy of attending this conference?」
The Crown Prince had no grounds to say that Rion's retainers were direct vassals. So he used sophistry instead.
「I see, highness. Nevertheless...」
「Arnold. Do they know?」
Because the King couldn't see his son backing down from this, he decided to resolve the matter personally. For him, such bickering in the present situation was a waste of precious time.
「It seems that Rion did send them a missive, Father.」
「...What have they been told?」
The King briefly wondered when did Rion have the time to do such a thing, while at the same time thinking that it was to be expected of him.
「That they must not be swayed by any rumors they may hear. That they should do what they must. Nothing more.」
The King struggled to properly judge this action. Had this been Rion's refusal to accept his own royal bloodline? An expression of doubt about the veracity of those claims. The monarch valued Frey's abilities highly and feared him for that exact reason.
「Do you not think of returning?」
While his liege struggled with his thoughts, Frederick questioned the Clan Heads.
「...It is clear to us that our lord wishes us to see the subjugation to the end.」
Cassius answered as the representative.
「Mhm. Have you heard the rumors yet?」
「...We have, Lord Dawson.」
「What do you think?」
Frederick was the only person present able to ask such a question casually. This wasn't callousness, he thought that asking this would be the fastest way to resolve this incident.
「...Whoever Lord Rion may be, things for us won't change. From the very start, we thought of him as a strange man, one we were drawn towards nonetheless.」
Cassius emphasised the name in order to show that their devotion to Rion was not related to his title.
With this, the Knight Commander got a bit more than he bargained for. The answer he wished for was that they would continue to follow Rion as their feudal lord. That they would continue serving him as the lord of Bandeaux. However, Cassius, lacking the political mind to offer the ’’best’’ answer could only reply with his honest feelings. And those could be interpreted as their desire to follow Rion no matter what he planned to do. To be fair, that wasn't much of a surprise.
「Enough of this. Time is pressing, let us start the proceedings.」
Seeing that the situation was going nowhere, the king forcefully dismissed the whole matter and ordered the conference to start. He was right to state there were urgent matters to take care of.
「Viscount Frey sent Us the information he obtained on the subject of the devils and his resulting conjectures. We wish to hear opinions on his theories.」
「What kind of conjectures, My King?」
The Prime Minister, thus far hesitant about starting the meeting, was the first to react after hearing the information came from Rion. He took part in uncountable number of conferences on this subject, but none of those was called with the intention to discuss countermeasures.
And with top government officials being currently investigated one at a time, without a plausible end in sight, the political apparatus of the Kingdom ground to a halt. The Prime Minister, as the most important official in the land, was the most unhappy with the situation.
「It is possible that the lair of the enemy lies in the capital.」
「What!? That is absurd!」
「Viscount Frey provided multiple reasons to substantiate this theory. The first being that the demon attacks could have been purposefully concentrated along the borders of the Kingdom to draw the army away from the capital, leaving the defenses undermanned and open for Merican invasion.」
「Would the demons be capable of such tactics...?」
「They have shown to be capable of intricate schemes during the war with Merica. They have shown themselves capable of striking us in the back while we were in battle. Why would they not be capable of this?」
This argument was also included in Rion's letter. But the King was cunning enough to present it in his own words, since many of those present would oppose any of Rion's ideas because of who authored them.
「...There is no reason they would not, Sire.」
「The second reason involves the former Head of the Intelligence Bureau. The fiend called himself one of the four Great Generals, clearly a high position in the enemy hierarchy. But during the time he had disguised himself as a loyal subject, the creature hardly left the capital. If the demon leadership operates in any way similar to the way we do, they must be meeting regularly somewhere close in the capital.」
「...They could have used the teleportation magic.」
Nothing less could be expected of the Prime Minister. He instantly pointed out a flaw in the reasoning.
「That was established to require huge amounts of mana. Therefore it could not be done in one place repeatedly. And if they tried to change the location each time, the chance of them being discovered would be high.」
There was no way Rion would miss the possibility teleportation magic had been used. And he rejected that as impossible.
「That is true, Sire. Furthermore, a search for traces of such magic in the capital was conducted many times. Nothing was found.」
「Couldn't they've done that outside the city limits?」
The Prime Minister was convinced, but the Acting Marshal of the Crown asked one more question. The man was a former deputy of his disgraced predecessor, who was still under arrest and would be made to resign soon.
「There would be records of him leaving the city. Even for someone in his position, frequently leaving the capital for unknown purpose would cause suspicion.」
「He managed to perfectly vanish from the city just now. Considering his supposed profession, wouldn't he have clandestine ways to go in and out of town at hand?」
「That is possible, indeed.」
The observation was correct. The subject of the discussion was a devil. It would be naive to expect the fiend to brazenly and foolishly come and go via the main gate.
「Which is why the letter mentions another possibility tied to the first one.」
This possibility was also within Rion's expectation though. His letter predicted, and answered, all the criticisms even though the author wasn't here.
「What kind of possibility, Sire?」
「According to Viscount Frey's letter, the enemy's base may be underground.」
「...Underground? Eh? Sire, could that possibly be about the capital's catacombs?」
Connecting the sudden disappearance of the unmasked devil with the possibility of their headquarters being underground, would naturally lead one to this conclusion.
「Exactly. But rather than being in the catacombs themselves, the enemy lair is connected to them.」
「What does Viscount Frey base this theory on?」
「He started with the demon horde's whereabouts. Hiding a horde numbering hundreds of thousands requires a place where people will not stumble upon them by chance. We know they are not in the wilderness along our borders, they would have no need for magic circles to move about if that was the case.」
「What are the other reasons, Sire?」
They could be underground, but they also could not. It wasn't as though mountains and forests suitable to hide a huge number of demons could only be found near the national borders.
「There is an abandoned castle not far from the capital where Our son was attacked some time ago. During that incident, the demons came from under the ground. We believe that to be enough reason to investigate the catacombs, even if the reasons are otherwise inconclusive.」
「Oh, this is bad...」
With the exception of Cassius' group, everyone present was aware of the event that occurred in the abandoned castle during the Crown Prince's Academy years. The aftermath had been investigated, of course, but that investigation concluded as soon as it was established that the defeated undead all turned into sand.
Such lack of thoroughness was highly unsatisfactory now, but World made the things be so as any other outcome would inconvenience the overarching plot.
「And then, there is the final argument, or rather conclusion.」
「Viscount Frey advises asking miss Maria Theodore whether any, or all, of those theories are, in reality, facts. He writes that she is certain to know the location of the final battle against the demons, he proposes she should be tortured were she to feign ignorance.」
「So, miss Theodore? Do you feel like telling us the honest truth? The safety of the realm is under threat, your gender and status can no longer be a reason to reject certain methods in search for information.」
「...I know where it is.」
The gaze of the King was strict, there would be no laughing this away with a joke. So Maria didn't try to make a stand against that threat. Her information pretty much validated the entirety of Rion's letter.
Finally, the last, decisive battle with the demons would happen, but it wouldn't be a simple affair. According to Maria's statement, they should be expecting an attack from both above and under the ground.
If they wanted to be the ones attacking, they would have to find the enemy's lair without the devils learning that the Kingdom was coming. Only after discovering that location, scouting the enemy forces and assembling an army to match them, would they be able to launch a strike. There were still many, many things to do before the final battle.
But, without a single doubt, the struggle against the devils was reaching its conclusion. The story of the game would soon reach its end.