A Young Man’s Heart
Lower Fire Month (9th Month), 2nd Day, 23:30
The man lit the lantern that hung at his waist. It used a special oil for fuel, which produced a green flame, and it gave off a creepy-looking light which illuminated the surroundings.
He stepped outside, and felt as though he were walking into a wall of heat. A look of distaste crossed the man’s face, but the season had always been hot to begin with, and nothing could be done about it. Around this period, every place in the Kingdom was still muggy and unpleasant, even after sunset. That said, the time of harsh heat was gone, and the temperature ought to go down as time went by.
Still, there was no sign that it was changing for the cooler.
“Ah, today was hot too.”
“Yeah. I heard that it’s cooler up north, near the ocean,” the man grumbled. His partner for tonight replied:
“If only there were some rain. That would take the edge off the heat.”
He looked to the sky as he said that. The sky was clear; there were no clouds in the sky, to say nothing of rainclouds. The constellations seemed abnormally large, but it was simply the usual night sky.
“Yeah, some rain would be good… Alright, time to work.”
It would not be quite right to describe these men as ordinary villagers. For starters, they were armed. They wore leather armor and had longswords at their waist; far too militarized for ordinary village guards. In addition, their faces and bodies did not look like those of farmers, but hinted at a familiarity with violence.
The two of them walked into the village without a sound.
Shrouded in night, the village was silent save for their footsteps. They pressed forward steadily amidst this sinister atmosphere, as though nothing else lived here. Their calm attitudes suggested that patrols like these were daily business for them.
The village they walked in was surrounded by a high wall, and there were six watchtowers within sight. They looked sturdy and well-built; even frontier villages which were frequently attacked by monsters would not boast such formidable watchtowers.
This was not so much a village as a military base.
Even so, a third party might only consider this to be a heavily-fortified village. However, what that observer saw next would truly furrow their brow.
Under normal circumstances, most people would only encircle residences and storehouses when building a wall, and leave the crop fields outside. That was because a wall that was big enough to include the fields would be a ruinous investment of time and money. However, this village had done precisely that, gathering the green fields of crops which swayed in the night wind into its walls, within the village. It was as though said crops were gold bullion which had to be hoarded.
The men walking through this strange village felt someone looking at them from a watchtower. The fact was that there were bow-armed men on the towers. All he needed to do was raise his lantern high in case of an emergency, and his friends would come to his aid.
That said, when he thought about his colleague’s skills, the man was not very excited about having them support him with arrow shots. However, he was greatly reassured by the fact that his friends could wake all their comrades by ringing the alarm bell.
His colleagues — who were sleeping between shifts — would give him an earful if he raised his lantern by mistake. However, the man was determined to wave it at the merest sign that something was wrong.
He did not wish to lose his life over a small matter.
That said, he did not actually think anything bad would happen. They had been performing the same patrols for several months, and he imagined that these patrols would carry on forever.
As he considered his future with distaste, the man continued his slow walk through the village down his fixed route.
Halfway through his patrol, a serpentine object suddenly wrapped itself around the man’s neck. No — that was not a snake. The object that wrapped itself around his mouth and did not let go was an octopus’ tentacle.
Right after it lifted the man’s chin, searing pain blossomed over his exposed throat. This sequence of actions took less than a second.
A gurgling sound, like that of drinking, came from his throat.
That was the last sound the man would ever hear in his life.
The hand holding his mouth let go, supporting him from behind so he would not slump to the ground. After verifying that the man had been thoroughly exsanguinated, his assailant pulled out the Vampire Blade, the weapon which had killed him.
The being holding the man upright was a figure in black. Its entire body was obscured in jet black clothing save its eyes. Said clothing was made of cloth, with gauntlets and other pieces of armor to improve defensive ability. A metal plate covered its chest, but it bulged visibly, giving it the shape of a pair of feminine breasts.
Another similarly-dressed figure emerged from behind the other man’s back. Much like her partner, she wore a metal breastplate. The first looked to the second, and nodded.
She scanned her surroundings after verifying the silent death of her victim. It would seem nobody had noticed this.
Somewhere in the corner of her heart, she breathed a sigh of relief.
The lanterns illuminated them, but the observers from the platform above should not be able to see them, given that they were pressed tightly against the two men. All they had to worry about was that they might be spotted in the instant of their [Shadow Step] -- a short-ranged teleportation from one shadow to another -- but that worry was a thing of the past now.
She paid no attention to the dagger, whose bright red hue had become even more vibrant after draining blood, and propped up the man’s body before it could collapse.
From the observation platform above, it looked like the two patrolling men had stopped in their tracks. However, if they kept the two men standing still or let them slump to the ground, someone would be suspicious.
Something had to be done right away. However, that was not their job.
Suddenly, the woman felt the man’s limp body lurch under her hands, as though someone had driven a stake into it. In the next moment, she knew she had not been mistaken; the man lurched into stiff motion.
The man was still moving despite being clearly dead, but the woman was not alarmed. Everything was proceeding as planned.
She let go and at the same time activated a skill. This was a ninja technique she had learned, called [Shadow Meld]. With this ability, she could fuse seamlessly with any shadow and become invisible to the naked eye.
The two of them blended into the men’s shadows, and the men stepped forward, like they had been suddenly unshackled. The pause and then the way they walked their original patrol route looked like they had suddenly remembered what they had to do. However, they moved slowly and clumsily. Their wounds had not been healed, but they did not leak blood either. That was because said blood had been completely drained from their bodies.
The two men had become Zombies, obediently following the will of their creator. There was no other explanation for how they could still move in that state.
The women were not the Zombies’ creator.
To an average observer, there were only two men here. Even if one saw through the women’s camouflage, there would only appear to be four people here. However, there was a fifth person present. This fifth person was the creator of the zombies.
Their eyes could not see anything, but one of the ninja skills they had learned allowed them to detect the presence of those who were concealed by magic or some other skills, and one such entity stood before them.
“The preparations here are complete.”
She spoke quietly and received a similarly hushed reply.
“Mm, got it, I saw it all. I’ll be heading to the next location. I need to catch someone who’s sufficiently important.”
Another female voice. However, hers was higher-pitched, giving the impression of a tender maiden.
“We’re going to begin our assault too. How about the other two?”
“Are they slacking off because they can’t contribute?”
“As if. They’re hiding near the village and they’ve set themselves up. In an emergency, they’ll launch a frontal assault coordinated with you for a pincer attack. Alright, I’ll be heading towards Priority One. Stick to the plan, you two.”
Their concealed companion floated gracefully — at least, they got that impression — into the sky. It seemed consistent with the movement granted by the [Fly] spell.
The presence drew further away, until she vanished into the building she had designated as Priority One. This was one of the structures within the village, and a key point which had to be taken.
In truth, other buildings should have had higher priority, but this place took precedence over the others once the problem of the [Message] spell came into play.
Many people regarded that form of magical communication as unreliable, and so it was rarely used. However, there were others who did not think of it in that way and made use of it. For instance, there was the Empire and its cadre of nationally-trained magic casters, a certain number of important traders who valued the quick reception of information, and then the enemies who controlled this village. Therefore, their top priority was to apprehend the communications personnel within the building.
Since their colleague was already on their way, they had to hide themselves near their objective as quickly as possible. This was because they had to act simultaneously and launch their attack before the enemy discovered their presence.
The two ninjas exhaled suddenly, and ran.
Normal people would not be able to follow the way they flitted from dark corner to dark corner. On top of that, when they used the magic items they had on them, even high-levelled adventurers would have a very hard time spotting them. In other words, nobody in the village could detect them.
One of them flashed a series of hand signals to her companion as they ran. Though it was merely a series of finger-bending movements, the meaning was immediately clear.
—We’re lucky they didn’t have dogs.
Came the reply: “Agreed”.
This was sign language, of a kind commonly used by assassins. To consummate professionals like themselves, these hand signals were as quick as regular speech. They had also taught their companions the language, but said colleagues had only learned how to make simple gestures and basic secret signals. In contrast, the pair of them had a wide enough “vocabulary” and sufficient signing speed to use that sign language for everyday speech, and they frequently passed secret messages to each other in that way.
—Good point. Things are much easier without dogs being drawn by the scent of blood.
If the patrollers had brought dogs with them, the assassinations would not have been so easy. While they had ways to deal with dogs, it was better to not have to deal with troublesome things.
After her response, her companion rapidly signalled:
—Then, I’ll head for my designated building.
She replied, “Got it”, and then her companion peeled away and to the side.
This left her to run by herself. She glanced aside to the fields.
Those fields did not grow wheat, grains or green vegetables. The plants there were the raw ingredient for a forbidden drug whose spread was on the rise throughout the Kingdom, called “Black Powder”. There were many such fields within the walls of this village, and they all grew the same crop. This proved that this village was a center of drug cultivation.
The drug known as Black Powder was also known as Lailah Powder. It was a black, powdery substance that was dissolved into water and drunk.
This drug was easy to mass-produce, cheap, and gave its users an easily-accessible high and sense of intoxication. Thus, it was one of the most famous drugs in the Kingdom. While it was toxic in addition to the abovementioned effects, its users often believed that it had no side effects, and so it was widely abused.
She snorted as she thought about the Black Powder’s side effects.
All drugs had side effects. “I can quit any time I want to” was the stuff of a madman’s ravings. After dissecting the corpses of Black Powder addicts, they found that their brains had shrunk to four-fifths the size of a normal person’s.
Black Powder, made from a concoction of wild plants, was originally a powerful poison. Who would believe that such a toxic plant was not poisonous?
The Black Powder which was ubiquitous on the streets was a narcotic that was made from a cultivar of the original plant which had reduced potency.
Even so, the Black Powder was still very poisonous, and it would only be eliminated from the body after a very long time had passed. As a result, many abusers who stopped using the drug often dosed themselves again before it had completely left the body. As a result, after reaching a certain stage of addiction, it was nearly impossible for users to quit the habit cold turkey, unless the priests used their magic to forcibly purge their system of the drug.
The most troublesome part about drugs like these were their subtle signs of addiction. Even users on a bad trip did not show signs of physical violence and harm others. Thus, the higher-ups in the Kingdom did not understand the danger of Black Powder, and it had practically received their silent approval.
It was little wonder that the Empire had submitted formal complaints on the matter, on the suspicion that the Kingdom was running an underground industry in the production of Black Powder.
While she had still been an assassin, she had used Black Powder on occasions, and her organization had grown the plants needed to make it. As a result, she was not personally opposed to the substance. Drugs like that could be put to efficacious use if applied properly. The fact was that it was simply a dangerous medicinal herb.
However, she had been hired for this job, and her personal opinion had no say in it. Still—
...Requests that don’t go through the Adventurer’s Guild are a little dangerous.
—She was not entirely comfortable with this request.
She frowned under the cloth covering her face. The requester for this job was a friend of her team’s leader. While she had been reassured that the other party would remunerate them appropriately, not going through the Guild might cause problems. That was true even if they were one of the two adamantite-ranked adventurer parties in the Kingdom.
Hm, isn’t it three of them now?
As she thought about the newest adamantite-ranked adventurer team, she arrived at the building designated No. Two.
Her task was to recover all the intelligence within this building, and then to set the fields on fire.
The thick smoke emitted by the burning drugs was poisonous, but it had to be done to complete the mission.
It was quite possible that the wind might carry the smoke in a direction that would harm the villagers, but they did not have the time or the ability to evacuate the villagers.
Sacrifices must be made.
With those words to herself, she cast all thoughts of the villagers’ safety out of her mind.
She had been trained as an assassin from childhood, and death rarely troubled her heart. In particular, she was unmoved by the sad fates of strangers, regardless of what tragedies befell them. The only thing she disliked was the look on her leader’s face whenever somewhat had to be sacrificed. However, she had obtained her leader’s approval while drawing up this plan, so the thought of saving others did not even cross her mind.
More importantly, after the attack here was completed, she would need to use teleportation magic to move to another village and burn it down as well. That plan occupied her mind and consumed all her efforts.
This was not the only site which grew the raw materials for drugs. According to their research, there were ten large-scale plantations within the Kingdom, and those might not even be all of them. Otherwise, they would not be able to sustain the massive quantities of drugs being trafficked throughout the Kingdom.
All we can do is pull up the weeds where we find them… it’s tiring, but there’s no other way...
Ideally, they would be able to find written orders within this village, but that was not likely. All they could do was hope that this village’s supervisor or equivalent had information of similar importance.
Leader would be happy if we could find some traces of the organization’s involvement in this...
The criminal organization which grew these drugs was known as Eight Fingers. The name came from the eight-fingered God of Thieves who was a vassal of the Earth God. It was a vast criminal syndicate that dominated the Kingdom’s underworld.
This organization was divided into eight divisions, responsible for the slave trade, assassination, smuggling, burglary, drug-trafficking, security, finance and gambling. These eight divisions worked together as the collective kingpins of the Kingdom’s crime. Due to the size of their organization, their full extent was veiled in secrecy.
However, there was a clear sign of the extent of the influence within the Kingdom. That was the village before her eyes.
They were openly growing contraband plants in villages. That alone was proof that the lord of the land was in cahoots with them. However, even an official inquiry would not bear fruit.
Even if the Royal Household began an investigation or took legal action, actually bringing the nobles in question to justice was very difficult. The lord of the land would certainly say, “I didn’t know these plants were the raw materials for drugs”, or he would simply dump the problem on the villagers and say it was their idea.
There were limits to the legal action that could be taken, and even if one wished to stop the flow of drugs, the process would be impeded by corrupt nobles aligned to the organization. The situation had deteriorated to the point where those who stood on the right side of the law could no longer resolve it.
Therefore, they were left with the last resort of using violence and burning the fields down.
Her frank opinion was that burning these drugs was only treating the symptoms, and not the disease. The illegal organization eating away at the heart of the Kingdom was too powerful, and their political backing was too strong.
“We’re just buying time… if we can’t turn things around, then all these efforts will be for naught…”
The rain fell.
The cacophony of the falling droplets rang in the ears.
The streets of the Royal Capital had not been designed with drainage in mind, particularly the small alleys. In the end, the entire alley became a miniature lake.
Splashes of water flew up as raindrops fell upon the water’s surface. The wind blew ripples through said splashes, and the scent of water was heavy in the air, making the Royal Capital feel as though it were submerged underwater.
There was a boy in this world that had been dyed gray by the splashing of water.
He lived in a run-down hovel. No, using the word hovel would be giving the location underserved praise. That building was supported by narrow beams as wide around as a man’s forearm. A tatty piece of cloth substituted for a roof, and the edges which draped down served as walls.
A boy of six lived in these conditions, which were little different from an open-air restaurant. He was curled up in a corner like a casually-discarded piece of rubbish, lying on a thin cloth where he laid his head.
When one thought about it, the wood supports and the tatty cloth that served as both roof and walls were most likely the fruit of this boy’s hard work — like a child building a secret base.
The sole merit of this house that was unworthy of the name was that he was not directly soaked by the rain. The endless deluge made the temperature sink like a stone, shrouding the boy in shiver-inducing cold. The condensation from his short, infrequent breaths were the only sign that he was alive, and as the weather stole their heat, they vanished into the air.
The boy had been soaked by the frigid rain long before entering his home, and he was rapidly losing body heat.
He had no way to stop his shivering.
However, this bone-chilling cold soothed the bruises which covered his body. That was the only solace for him amidst these horrific conditions.
The boy remained curled up on the ground as he looked out at the abandoned alley — at the world.
The only things he could hear were the sound of the rain and his own breathing. There was nothing else in the absence of those sounds, which made him think he was the only person left in the world.
The boy was young, but he understood that he was going to die.
He was not afraid of it because he was young, and did not fully understand the concept of death. In addition, he did not feel that there was any particular reason to continue living. He had been clinging to life all this time because he was afraid of pain and fled it.
If he could die, right then and there, without feeling any pain — only the chill of the wind and the hunger gnawing at his belly — then death was hardly a bad thing.
He slowly lost the feeling in his rain-soaked body, and his mind began to fade into a blur.
He should have found a place to hide from the rain before it fell, but he had run afoul of several thugs and received a vicious beating. It was good enough that he had managed to return here.
This was the sole morsel of joy he clung to. Did that mean that everything else was suffering?
It was quite common for him to go two days without eating, so that was hardly misfortune. He had neither parents nor anyone to take care of him, and that was how it had always been, so that did not qualify as misery. His tattered clothes and their repulsive stench were a fact of life for him, so that was not a hardship for him. Eating rotten food and drinking dirty water to fill his belly was the only way of life he knew, so it did not count as suffering.
But then, his hovel was sometimes taken by others, or destroyed by those who took pleasure in wrecking it, and he was also beaten up by drunken men so his entire body ached. Was that suffering, then?
No, it was not.
The boy suffered, yet he was blind to his own suffering.
However, all this would soon be over.
The misery of which he was blissfully ignorant would end here.
Death came without distinction to the fortunate and the unfortunate alike.
—Yes, Death was absolute.
He closed his eyes.
His body had long since stopped feeling the cold, and now he lacked even the strength to open his eyes.
He could hear his own faint heartbeat in the darkness. The sound of the rain blended with it, but then he heard something strange intrude into this world of his.
A voice drowned out the sound of the rain. Amidst the fleeting remnants of his consciousness, the boy forced open his eyes, drawn by that curiosity unique to children.
“It” entered the narrow field of his vision.
The boy’s rapidly-closing eyes widened.
It was beautiful.
For a moment, he had no idea what it was.
The best description for it would be “gem-like”, or “glittering like gold”. Of course, someone like him who ate discarded, half-rotten food to survive the days could not think of such things.
There was only one thing in his mind.
—Like the sun.
That was the most distant, unattainable thing he could imagine. That word appeared in his mind.
The rain had dyed the world grey. The sky was filled with thick, black clouds. Perhaps the sun felt that nobody would notice, and so it had taken a walk and appeared before him.
A thought like that ran through his mind.
“It” reached out a hand to stroke his face. And so—
The boy was originally not a human being.
Nobody had treated the boy as a human being.
But on this day, he became a human being.
♦ ♦ ♦
3rd Day of the Lower Fire (9th) Month, 4:15
This was the Royal Capital of the Re-Estize Kingdoms. The Fortress Ro-Lante stood at its heart, its grounds encircled by 1’400 meters of curtain walls with 20 huge towers spaced along its length.
This room was located within one of those 20 towers.
The lanterns were out in this none-too-spacious room, and there was a bed in there. A young man, somewhere between boyhood and adolescence, lay on the bed.
His blond hair was cropped very short and his skin was tanned and appeared healthy.
He possessed only a name, but no surname. He was a soldier who had been permitted to defend the lady with the title of “Golden” — an honor which had earned him the envy of many.
He rose early, always before the sun rose.
When he realised his consciousness had emerged from a faraway world of darkness, his mind cleared up immediately, and his body was almost fully operational. Climb was proud of his ability to sleep and rise quickly.
His eyes opened wide, and an iron will burned within them.
He peeled away the thick towelket covering his body — it was summer, but the nights were cold when one was surrounded by stone — and Climb sat up on his bed.
He touched his fingertips to the corner of his eyes. They came away wet.
“...That dream again, huh.”
Climb wiped his tears away with his sleeves.
The heavy rain of two or three days ago must have made him recall that memory of his youth.
He was not crying out of heartbreak.
How many people could one meet in a lifetime who deserved respect? How many worthy masters could one serve, the kind for whom one would gladly throw one’s life away?
On that day, when Climb had the good fortune of encountering a certain lady, he had decided to give his life for her at any time.
The tears he shed came from joy. He wept out of gratitude for the miracle that encounter had brought.
Climb’s youthful face was filled with a steady determination as he rose to his feet.
There was no illumination here. In this lightless world, Climb spoke, in a voice that was hoarse from over-training:
The lamp on the ceiling shed white illumination in response to Climb’s command word, lighting up the room’s interior. This was a magic item enchanted with the [Continual Light] spell.
While items like these could be bought on the market, they were not cheap, and Climb only possessed one due to his unique position.
Stone towers like these had poor ventilation, and burning things for illumination was not safe. Therefore, almost every room here was furnished with magical illumination, despite the steep initial expense.
The white light revealed that the floors and walls were also made of stone. Several thin carpets were laid on the ground to lessen the cold hardness of the stone. In addition, there was a crudely made wooden bed, and a slightly larger clothes cabinet that seemed big enough to store his wargear. There was a desk with drawers, and then a wooden chair with a thin cushion on its seat.
An outsider might consider this austere, but it was more than he deserved, in his opinion.
Regular soldiers would not be allocated individual rooms. They would share double bunks and live in groups. The only other furniture they were assigned besides their beds was a locked wooden chest for storing personal items.
He then glanced at the pure white suit of full plate armor in the corner of the room. It was so lustrous that it seemed to shine by itself. A standard soldier would never be issued such an exquisitely-made suit of armor.
Naturally, Climb had not earned such special treatment through his own merits. This was a gift from the liege to whom Climb owed his loyalty. Thus, it was unavoidable that others would resent him.
He opened the dressing cabinet, and took clothes from within. Then he dressed himself as he watched his image in the cabinet’s mirror.
First, he put on an old set of clothes. They smelled of metal, no matter how many times he washed them. Then he slipped a chain shirt over it. Normally, he would have donned his armor on top of that, but there was no need to be so formal right now. In its place, he wore a many-pocketed vest and a pair of pants, and then he was dressed. He held a bucket with a cloth in it.
After that, he studied the mirror once more, inspecting himself for anything out of place or any oddities in his personal bearing.
Any mistakes Climb made would be fodder for attacks launched against the “Golden” Princess whom he served.
Therefore, he had to be extra careful. He did not live in this place to cause trouble to his Mistress. He was permitted to live here in order for himself to dedicate everything he had to her.
Climb closed his eyes before the mirror, and imagined his Mistress’ face.
She was the Golden Princess — Renner Theiere Chardelon Ryle Vaiself.
As expected of her high-born bloodline, she was surrounded in a sacrosanct aura, like a goddess descending upon the earth. She seemed to glow with compassion, and her mind produced many wise plans and policies.
She was a noble among nobles, a princess among princesses. She was the perfect woman.
Her golden brilliance — like an immaculate gemstone — could not be marred in any way.
If one were to use a ring for comparison, Renner would be like a huge, brilliant-cut diamond. As for Climb, he would be the setting which held the stone in place. Any shortcoming in the setting diminished the value of the ring, so he could not do anything which might devalue her.
Climb’s chest burned uncontrollably as he thought about his Mistress.
Even the most pious supplicants to the gods could not compare to Climb’s devotion.
He examined himself for a while longer. After he was certain that he would not disgrace his Mistress, Climb nodded in satisfaction and left the room.
3rd Day of the Lower Fire (9th) Month, 4:35
His destination was a training hall which occupied an entire floor of the tower.
Usually, this place would be abuzz with heat and activity from the soldiers here. However, it was early, so there was nobody here. The empty room was silent. The surroundings were made of stone, which made Climb’s footsteps echo exceptionally loudly.
The [Continual Light] magical lamps lit the training hall brightly.
Within the hall, there were pieces of armor tied to wooden pillars and dummies made of straw, to serve as archery targets. All manner of blunted weapons hung on the wall.
Training should have been conducted outside, but there was a reason why it was done indoors.
The Valencia Palace lay within Ro-Lante Keep. Therefore, having soldiers train outside, where ambassadors and diplomatic parties could see them, would be boorish. Thus, several indoor training halls had been built within the towers.
Granted, having proud and strong soldiers training in public could be used to impress one’s counterparts during diplomatic negotiations, but the King did not like that sort of thing. To him, the Kingdom was a nation that ought to show its graceful, elegant and noble side to foreign guests.
That said, some training still needed to be conducted outdoors. At times like those, the soldiers had to do so secretly in corners, or in fields outside the Keep or outside the Capital entirely.
Climb quietly entered the hall, as though wading through the cold air, and began warming up in a corner.
After about half an hour of stretching, Climb’s face was an uncommon shade of red. Sweat beaded on his forehead and he exhaled puffs of smoke from his exertions.
Climb wiped his sweat away and then approached the arms racks. He picked up a heavy, blunted practice sword with a freshly blistered and callused hand. Then he felt its weight, making sure it fit well in his grip.
After that, he loaded his pockets with metal slabs and fastened them in place, lest the slabs fall out.
After being weighed down by several metal slabs, his clothes now weighed as much as a suit of full plate armor. Unenchanted full plate was sturdy, but very heavy, and the joints also restricted one’s range of movement. Therefore, Climb should have worn a set of full plate to practice, for realism’s sake.
However, Climb did not want to wear a suit of full plate armor just for regular practice. In addition, he knew that the white armor he had been awarded was not suitable for training. Therefore, he used the metal slabs as a substitute.
He tightly gripped his sword, which was larger than a greatsword, and adopted a high stance. Then Climb began to swing down, expelling his breath as he did. In the moment before the practice weapon struck the ground, he held it still, keeping it from actually striking the ground, and then brought it back up again as he inhaled. He slowly increased the speed of his swings, his eyes fixed on the air in front of him, his mind focused on his practice.
He repeated these movements around 300 times.
Climb’s face looked as though it could not possibly get any redder, and droplets of sweat flowed down his cheeks. His exhaled breath was hot, as though to vent the accumulated heat inside him.
Climb had been through harsh training as a soldier, but the weight of a greatsword was still quite heavy to him. Controlling the sword’s speed to keep it from striking the ground after swinging it down required considerable arm strength.
After the 500th repetition, Climb’s arms began to cramp up and they felt like they were crying out in pain. The sweat flooded down his face in a deluge.
Climb realised that he was at his limit. Even so, he did not intend to stop here.
“Don’t you think it’s time to take a break?”
—A third party called out to him. Climb hurriedly turned around to see a male figure enter his field of vision.
There was no better word to describe him than “mighty”. Indeed, he was a man who looked like a slab of forged steel. His stony face wrinkled, and the lines thus produced made him look older than his actual age. His bulging muscles proved that he was no ordinary person.
There was no soldier in the Kingdom who could not recognize him.
He was the Kingdom’s Warrior-Captain, Gazef Stronoff. He was hailed as the mightiest man in the Kingdom, and a warrior which nobody in the nearby nations could rival.
“You’ll be overtraining if you keep it up. There’s no point forcing yourself.”
Climb lowered his sword, and looked at his arms as they trembled uncontrollably.
“You’re right. I might have been overdoing it.”
Gazef rounded his shoulders at Climb’s expressionless thanks.
“If you really understand, then don’t make me keep nagging you about the same old thing. How many times is this, anyway?”
“I’m very sorry.”
Gazef shrugged again as Climb bowed in apology.
This back and forth had repeated itself between them countless times. Under normal circumstances, the two of them would leave things at that and focus on their own training. However, today was different.
“How about it, Climb. Shall we go a round or two?”
Climb’s typically blank expression was thrown into disarray as he heard Gazef say those words.
They had met here in the past, but they had never crossed blades. That was an unspoken rule between them.
That was because it did them no good to practice together. Or rather; there were merits to doing so, but they were far outweighed by the demerits of doing so.
The Kingdom was now divided into the Royal Faction and the Noble Faction, the latter of which was composed of a coalition of three of the nation’s Six Great Nobles. The power struggle between them left the Kingdom’s situation in a very precarious state. Some even felt that the only reason the country had not yet fallen apart was because of its yearly wars with the Empire.
Under these circumstances, the King’s right hand man — the Warrior Captain Gazef Stronoff — could not be defeated. For instance, if he were to be beaten, it would provide the opposing Noble Faction with ample material to criticize him with.
As for Climb, suffering a grievous defeat might mean that the nobles would no longer allow him to defend Princess Renner’s body. The fact that many nobles were disgusted that a nameless soldier like Climb was actually permitted to stay by her side, being that she was a world-class beauty who was also an unmarried princess.
Due to the abovementioned circumstances, neither party could afford to lose.
More than that, they could not allow others to see their weaknesses and give their enemies an opening to exploit. Both of them were of common birth, and so they had to be very careful in everything they did, in order not to cause problems for their masters.
That being the case, why had Gazef decided to break this unspoken rule?
Climb looked around.
It could not be because there was nobody else around. The keep was a densely-populated area. Surely someone would be watching from afar or spying on them from the shadows, but he could not think of any other reason.
Climb had no idea if it was because of a good or a bad reason. He was confused and shocked, but he did not express it on his face.
However, the person before Climb was the mightiest warrior in the Kingdom. Though Climb’s momentary consternation might have gone unnoticed by an average person, the person before him picked up on it, and replied:
“Recently, I’ve begun feeling that my skills are inadequate. Therefore, I wanted to train with someone who could last a while against me.”
“You actually think that, Stronoff-sama?”
What exactly had happened to make Gazef, the Kingdom’s best warrior, doubt his own skills? Just then, Climb remembered that the unit Gazef led was short of several people.
Climb had no kin, and so he had only heard the rumors in the messhall. Apparently, the unit had been involved in a certain incident and had lost several people.
“Indeed. If not for a certain compassionate magic caster who aided me against the foe, I might not be standing here today—”
Climb could no longer maintain his iron mask when he heard this. Indeed, there was nobody who would not be surprised to hear those words. Unable to restrain his curiosity, he asked:
“What sort of person was that compassionate magic caster?”
“...He called himself Ainz Ooal Gown. By my reckoning, he ought to be on par with that monster of a mage from the Empire.”
Climb had never heard that name before.
Climb worshipped heroes, and he had a secret passion for heroic sagas. His interest even crossed racial boundaries. In addition, he hungrily devoured any adventurer stories that he had come across in the neighboring countries. However, he had no memory of the person whom Gazef had mentioned.
Of course, he might have been using an alias.
“That, ah — ahem!”
Climb tamped down his curiosity.
How could I ask him excitedly about an incident where he lost his men? ... That’d be terribly rude.
“I shall remember the name of that great person… then, is it really alright for me to train with you?”
“Well, it’s hardly training, just crossing blades once or twice. Whether or not you learn anything from it is all up to you. After all, you’re a first-rate warrior among the Kingdom’s soldiers. I feel more motivated when I train with you.”
This was high praise, but Climb could only take it as standard courtesy.
It was not that Climb was very strong, but that the standards by which he was judged were too low. The average Royal Army soldier was little better than the average man, and far weaker than the Imperial Army’s professional Knights. Virtually none of them were famed for their martial skill throughout the surrounding nations like Gazef was. While Gazef’s direct subordinates were excellent soldiers, they were still a notch beneath Climb.
Among the adventurers’ rankings of copper, iron, silver, gold, platinum, mithril, orichalcum and adamantite, Climb himself would be gold-ranked at best. He was not weak, but there were many others who were stronger than himself.
Could a bit player like himself really motivate Gazef — who was adamantite-ranked in adventurer terms?
Climb chased away those weak-minded thoughts of his.
Having the Kingdom’s strongest man train with him was a rare opportunity. He would not regret it, even if Gazef ended up disappointed by the end of their session.
“Then, I pray you will exchange a few blows with me.”
Gazef smiled thinly, and bowed.
The two of them went for the weapons cabinet and picked out weapons suited for themselves. Gazef selected a bastard sword, while Climb selected a small shield and a broadsword.
After that, Climb removed the metal slabs from his pockets. It would be terribly disrespectful to wear them while fighting someone stronger than himself. In addition, he had to give this battle his all, otherwise he would not be able to grow.
His foe was the mightiest warrior in the Kingdom. He had to focus all his energies and experience the power of mighty wall before him with all his strength.
After Climb was ready, Gazef asked:
“Are your arms alright? Are they still stiff?”
“Yes, they’re fine. They’re still a little hot, but it doesn’t affect my grip or anything.”
Climb waved his arms. Gazef saw his movements and nodded, knowing that he was not lying.
“Is that so… though in a sense, it’s a bit of a shame. In actual combat, it’s very rare that one will be able to fight in tip-top condition. If your grip is affected, you’ll need to think of a way to fight that compensates for it. Have you learned anything like that?”
“No, no, I haven’t. Would you like me to swing again—”
“Ah, no, there’s no need to go that far. I’m just saying, you’ll need to protect Her Highness at all times. You should practice fighting styles which can be used when you’re attacked where swords can’t be borne, or perhaps practice using various forms of weapons in battle. It won’t hurt.”
“...Swords, shields, spears, axes, daggers, gauntlets, bows, clubs and thrown weapons. The use of these weapons are known as the Nine Arts, and they are the foundation of all armed combat… however, if you try and learn too much, you’ll end up spreading yourself too thin. I’d suggest picking two or three and training with them. Alright, I’ve babbled enough.”
“Please don’t say that, Stronoff-sama. Thank you for the lecture!”
Gazef grinned, and waved away Climb’s thanks.
“Then, let’s start once you’re ready. Start by giving me your best shot in your current condition. After that, depending on the time… Well, I might not be able to put you through your paces, but I’ll find a chance to explain the Nine Arts and the secrets of fighting with other weapons.”
“Yes. I pray you will teach me unreservedly.”
“Very well. However, I’m not treating this as practice. Come at me like this was a real battle.”
Climb slowly brought his sword down to a low stance, obliquing his body so his left side faced Gazef from behind his shield. The look in Climb’s eyes was razor-keen, indicating that he no longer treated this as a training bout. Similarly, Gazef’s stance spoke of battle-readiness.
The two of them locked eyes, but Climb could not bring himself to make the first move.
It was much easier to move now that he had removed the metal slabs, but still, he did not think he could beat Gazef. The other man was far superior to him in terms of physical ability and experience.
Stepping carelessly into his reach would only invite a counterattack. Gazef was a better warrior than he was, so perhaps it could not be helped. However, if this were a real battle, did that mean he should simply throw his life away because “it could not be helped”?
If not, then what should he do?
The answer was: he had to attack the weaknesses in Gazef’s stance.
Climb was his inferior in physical parameters, experience and spirit; all the qualities a warrior required. If there was any way to address this disparity, it would be through their respective armament.
Gazef used a bastard sword. In comparison, Climb was using a broadsword and a small shield. Perhaps if his equipment was enchanted, he might be able to compensate, but these were practice arms, so their weapons were fundamentally the same.
However, Gazef only had one weapon, while Climb had two — after all, a shield could be used as a weapon. It was weaker, but it gave him more options.
—He would deflect a blow with his shield and then strike with his sword. Either that, or use his sword to make an opening and then bash with his shield.
Climb decided on his strategy, which was to take advantage of opportunities to riposte. Then, he carefully studied Gazef’s movements.
After several seconds. Gazef chuckled.
“Not coming? Then, maybe I should go to you — are you ready?”
Gazef raised his sword in a casual manner. He lowered his stance, gathering strength like a coiling spring. Climb too began suffusing his body with might, ready to deflect any attack which might come.
Then, Gazef stepped forward, swinging his sword at the shield.
Climb immediately abandoned the idea of deflecting that blow. He turned all his energies to defense, in order to endure that hit.
And in the next moment — a startling impact exploded on his shield.
So mighty was the blow that Climb wondered if the shield had splintered. It had been so strong that Climb’s shield hand had gone numb. There was no way to avoid it without using his body’s entire strength.
To think I actually wanted to deflect it! What kind of timing would you need to exploit a weakness in that technique? At the very least, I need to endure that blow!
Climb grunted at his naivete, and then another impact blossomed on his gut.
Climb’s body flew through the air. His back thumped heavily on the stone floor, knocking the wind out of him. When he looked at Gazef, he immediately realised what had happened to him.
Gazef was retracting the leg which had sent Climb flying with a vicious kick.
“...You focused on my hands because I was only holding a sword. That’s not good. You might end up taking a kick like just now. While I aimed for your belly just now, I should have been aiming for somewhere with thinner protection, like trying to break the kneecaps or something. Also… even with a cup, being kicked in the groin with a metal boot might break something if you’re unlucky, no? You need to keep an eye on your opponent’s entire body and study his every move.”
Climb slowly rose to his feet, gritting his teeth against the throbbing pain coming from his belly.
Gazef was the Kingdom’s mightiest warrior, and his physical strength matched his reputation. If Gazef had been serious, he could have easily broken Climb’s ribs through his chain shirt or otherwise left him unable to fight. The fact that Climb had not suffered such a fate was probably because Gazef had not been fighting in earnest. Instead, he had merely picked out a target with his foot and then applied a bit of force, so all he had done was send Climb flying.
So it was training after all… thank you very much.
As he savored the taste of being personally tutored by the greatest warrior in the Kingdom, Climb raised his sword again, his heart brimming with gratitude.
This was a priceless period of time. He had to be careful not to let it run out too soon.
Climb covered himself up with his shield again. He inched towards Gazef, who studied Climb in silence. If this kept up, he would only be make the same old mistakes again. As Climb closed in, he was forced to reconsider his tactics.
Gazef placidly awaited his oncoming foe, a look of fearsome calm on his face. It would seem Climb could not force Gazef to use the full measure of his abilities.
However, agonizing over that fact would be a form of arrogance.
Climb was nearing his limit. Though he woke early to practice every day, his rate of growth was slower than an old cow ambling down the road. He had made far too little progress ever since he had started learning the sword. While he might be able to improve his speed and strength by training his body, he might not be able to master special abilities like martial arts and the like.
It would be terribly rude for someone like Climb to grumble about not being able to force a gifted individual to use his true abilities. Rather, he should blame his own lack of talent for not being able to make his opponent go all-out.
In all likelihood, when Gazef told him to treat this as a real battle instead of simple training, he was telling Climb to “fight like you want to take my life, otherwise you are not worthy to be my opponent.”
Climb gnashed his teeth quietly.
He despised his weakness. If only he were stronger, he could be more useful. He could become the Princess’ sword and directly confront the villains plaguing the Kingdom’s people.
He felt guilty that the Princess’ sole sword was so weak that it had to be gingerly wielded.
However, Climb immediately shook off his guilt. He should not be wallowing in self-pity right now, but using all his might to contend with the powerful foe before him, in the hopes of growing, if only a little.
There was only one thought within his heart.
That was to lend his strength to the Princess.
“Hoh,” Gazef exhaled, and the expression on his face changed somewhat.
That was because the young man before him had a different look on his own face. Until just now, he looked like a starstruck lad, eager and nervous. But with a simple kick, that annoying mood was gone, and now he looked like a proper warrior.
Gazef raised his alertness level by a notch.
Gazef thought better of Climb than the lad himself did. What he appreciated most was Climb’s hunger for strength, as well as loyalty which bordered on zealotry. Next was his sword skills.
Climb had not learned from a master, but observed others and cobbled his insights into a self-taught style. His technique was not elegant and had a lot of wasteful movements. However, it was different from styles learned through rote lessons. He carefully considered every stroke he made, forming a style that was ideal for practical combat, or to put it more bluntly, for murder.
Gazef felt that this was a good thing.
Swords were ultimately murder weapons. Sword skills learned as a form of recreation were not useful on the field of battle. Their users would not be able to defend those they wanted to protect, and they could not save those they wanted to rescue. The only thing they could do was wait to be hacked down by the enemy.
However, Climb was different. Gazef was sure that he could slay his foes and safeguard the people who were important to him.
“You’ve changed your attitude, but I’m still far superior to you. What will you do now?”
Frankly speaking, Climb had no talent. However hard he worked, however hard he trained his body, he would never be able to reach the zenith of swordsmanship without talent. He was as dust compared to people like Gazef or Brain Unglaus.
Climb’s desire to become stronger than anyone else was nothing more than a dream or fantasy.
Even so, why did Gazef wish to help train Climb? Would it not be more beneficial to spend his time on someone better?
The answer was simple enough; Gazef could not overlook Climb’s unwavering diligence, however useless it was. If every man had their own personal limits, then one could say that Gazef pitied the fact that Climb hurled himself bodily against the wall of his own limits.
Therefore, he wanted to teach Climb something else.
He felt that there was a limit to one’s abilities, but not limit to one’s experience.
In addition, there was one more reason. He felt a deep-seated pity for the tragic state of his greatest rival.
So I’m using him as a substitute, huh… I’m doing Climb a disservice… but I doubt sparring with me will do him any harm.
“—Come at me, Climb.”
He received a strident answer to his self-directed mumbling.
As he answered, Climb planted his foot firmly on the ground and soared forward.
Unlike just now, Gazef’s expression was stern as he raised his sword into a high stance.
He would hack down from above.
If Climb blocked with his shield, he would be stopped in his tracks. If he blocked it with his sword, his weapon would be knocked away. That attack essentially made his defense meaningless. Blocking it was a poor move, but Climb was using a broadsword, compared to Gazef’s bastard sword.
All he could do was rush into Gazef’s reach. Gazef knew this and squared himself to meet the charge.
It was like running into a tiger’s maw — but Climb only hesitated for a moment.
He plunged into the attack range of Gazef’s sword.
Gazef was waiting for him, and when he swung down, Climb blocked it with his shield. The awesome impact was greater than the one he had felt just now. Climb grimaced as pain worked its way down his arm.
“What a shame. To think history would repeat itself.”
There was some disappointment on Gazef’s face as he aimed his foot at Climb’s belly, and then—
—The look on Gazef’s face changed to one of shock as he heard Climb shout.
The martial art [Fortress] did not require a shield or sword to be used. If desired, one could activate it with one’s armor or even bare hands. Of course, most people would use it when blocking with one’s weapon or shield because the timing had to be exact. When using it with armor, a miscalculation would result in one being left defenseless before the foes. Therefore, most people would rather use it with a shield or weapon. It was common sense.
However, Climb knew that Gazef would go for a kick, so he did not have to worry about that.
“Were you aiming for this?!”
The force of Gazef’s kick seemed to fade away, as though absorbed by something soft. Gazef could not put any strength into his extended leg and thus he was forced to regain his uneven footing. Seeing how he was off balance, Climb swung down on him.
He brought his sword up after initiating the maneuver, and then swung it down in an overhand chop.
You need to develop a technique that you can deploy with confidence.
After heeding the advice of a certain warrior, the untalented Climb had worked body and soul to produce this move, a strike that came from above.
Climb’s body was not sheathed in muscles. He had been born with an average physique, and building muscle was difficult. Neither was he gifted with dexterity, allowing him to move as he willed even with a musclebound body.
Because of that, he had honed a specialized muscle structure in himself after nigh-endless training.
The fruit of that was this downwards stroke. It was a high-speed slashing attack that had been refined to extraordinary levels, a flash of steel followed by a mighty wind.
That strike bore down on Gazef’s head.
It would be fatal if it connected, but Climb was not thinking about that. His trust in Gazef was absolute. He had only used this move because he was certain that the mighty Gazef would not be done in by an attack of that level.
There was a crisp ringing of metal, and the broadsword collided with the raised bastard sword.
All this was still within his expectations.
Climb focused the full extent of his strength in an attempt to throw Gazef off balance.
However, Gazef remained as motionless as a mountain.
It was difficult to maintain one’s balance on one foot, yet Gazef had easily blocked that strike made with Climb’s full strength. It was as though he were rooted into the very earth itself.
Climb had struck his mightiest blow with all the strength he could muster. Yet even the combination of these two factors could not shake Gazef standing on one foot. This fact shocked Climb to the core, and his eyes went to his belly.
He had to close in to strike with his broadsword. That meant Gazef might be able to kick his gut once more.
As Climb leapt away, said kick struck Climb’s body.
There was a faint, throbbing pain. After that, both of them staggered several paces apart.
Gazef lowered his eyes and the corners of his mouth turned up slightly.
It was a smile, but not one that caused displeasure. It clearly displayed his good humor. Climb was a little uncomfortable in the face of that smile, which was like a father watching his son grow.
“Very well done. Therefore, I shall get a little serious now.”
Gazef’s face changed.
A thrill of terror ran through Climb’s body. That was because his instincts told him that the Kingdom’s strongest fighter now stood before him.
“Actually, I’ve got a potion with me. It should be able to mend broken bones, so don’t worry.”
“...Thank you very much.”
Climb’s heart lurched as he heard his opponent imply that he would be taking a fracture. While he was used to being hurt, it did not mean that he enjoyed it.
Gazef took a step forward, twice as fast as Climb stepping in.
The tip of the bastard sword pointed to the ground, tracing a low path that came at Climb’s legs. The sheer speed of the attack panicked Climb, and he planted his sword on the ground, preparing to protect his legs.
There was a fierce clash. Just as Climb realized it, Gazef’s sword bounced up. The bastard sword travelled along the body of the broadsword in an upwards slash.
Climb threw his face — and the rest of his body — backward, and the bastard sword zipped past his body. Several strands of severed hair fell in the wake of the swing.
Filled with fear at how Gazef had overwhelmed him in an instant, Climb cast his eyes toward the tip of the sword. Then, to his horror, he saw the bastard sword suddenly halt, and then turn.
His body was moving before his mind could think.
As though driven by a basic survival instinct, he stuck out his small shield, which collided with the bastard sword and produced a ringing sound of metal.
And then —
There was a surge of pain, and then Climb was sent flying across the room. He struck the ground rolling, and the impact jarred his sword loose from his grip.
It would seem the bastard sword had immediately changed direction into a horizontal sweep after bouncing off the shield, and it had savagely struck Climb’s side, which he had left exposed.
“Flow from move to move. Do not think of attack and defense as separate things. Every movement must be made in order to launch the next attack. Think of your defense as a way of setting up an attack.”
Climb picked up his fallen sword and grabbed at his waist as he struggled to his feet.
“I didn’t use too much force to spare you a fracture, so you should be able to fight, right? How do you feel?”
Climb’s breathing was ragged from tension and pain, in contrast to Gazef’s even, regular breaths.
He was only wasting Gazef’s time if he could not even take a few hits. That said, Climb still wanted to become as strong as possible.
He nodded to Gazef, and raised his sword.
“Alright. Then let’s continue.”
With that hoarse cry, Climb broke into a run.
He was struck, he was knocked back, he was even bodily beaten. Climb crumpled to the stone floor over and over again. The cool slabs drained the heat from his body through his clothes and chain shirt, and it felt very comfortable.
“Huuu… huu… huu…”
He did not wipe his sweat away. More precisely, he lacked the strength to do so.
As pain flooded into his mind from all over his body, his whole body was gripped in a sudden surge of fatigue, and his eyes closed lightly.
“You did well. I tried to avoid breaking or splintering your bones while swinging. How do you feel?”
Still on the ground, Climb moved his hands to feel up the places which hurt.
Then he opened his eyes.
“No problems here. It hurts, but those are just bumps and bruises.”
The waves of pain were quite light. They would not affect his duties of protecting the Princess.
“Is that so… then we won’t need to use the potion.”
“Mm. Besides, using it carelessly will remove the effects of muscle training.”
“Well, it’s meant to provide rapid healing, but the effect of the magic also reverts the muscle to its original state. Just as well. You’ll be going to bodyguard the Princess after this, am I right?”
“Take it, then. Just in case. Use it if anything comes up.”
The medicine bottle clinked as Gazef set it down by Climb’s side.
“Thank you very much.”
He sat up, looking at Gazef. He looked upon the man whose swordplay he could not hope to match.
The unscathed man found it strange, and asked:
“It’s nothing… I just thought you’re really amazing.”
Gazef’s forehead was devoid of sweat. His breathing was calm and regular. Was this the difference between Climb, sprawled on the ground, and the strongest man in the Kingdom?
Climb sighed, but he was satisfied with this outcome.
Gazef, on the other hand, seemed to be grinning.
“...Really now. Well…”
“—If you want to ask why I’m so strong, I can’t rightfully give you an answer. Basically, I was talented. Incidentally, I learned how to fight as a mercenary. The nobles call my habit of kicking people crude, but I learned it during that time too. There was no secret to becoming strong,” Gazef concluded. Climb had thought that repeating the same practice over and over would eventually make him a little stronger, but that had been rejected in an instant.
“In that sense, you’re quite suited for my style of fighting with fists and feet, Climb.”
“Is… that so?”
“Oh yes. You haven’t been trained as a swordsman or a soldier, but that has its good points too. Once one picks up a sword, it’s only natural to focus on using it… but I don’t think that’s a good thing. I feel that the sword should only be an attack method, alongside punching and kicking and so on. That’s a practical fighting style; or a dirty… an adventurer’s fighting style.”
Climb’s face was no longer its usual blank slate. There was a smile there now. To think the mightiest man in the Kingdom would actually praise his haphazard, slapdash sword skills!
He was delighted that his swordsmanship — which the aristocrats scorned — had received such accolades.
“Alright, we’ll stop training here. I should go. I need to meet the king in time to for his breakfast. Don’t you need to hurry to the Princess’ side?”
“No, because the Princess has a guest today.”
“A guest? Which noble is that?”
To think that Princess would have a caller. Gazef was quite surprised, and then Climb answered:
“Aindra? Oh! ...Which Aindra is it? From Blue… or is it Red?”
“That would be Aindra-sama of Blue Rose.”
Gazef sighed in visible relief.
“I see… so that was it… so if a friend’s come, that means…”
Gazef had guessed that Renner had barred Climb from her side because she had a friend over, but the truth was that Climb had gently refused the invitation.
While he and the Princess had a relationship where they did not need to quibble about trivialities, even Gazef would frown in disapproval if he learned that Climb had refused the invitation of a member of the Royal Household. Therefore, he did not state the truth, but let Gazef draw his own conclusions.
Climb had met Aindra through Renner, and Aindra thought well of him. Surely she would not reject Climb like the other nobles if he were to join them at a dinner party.
However, Climb had considered that his mistress (Renner) had almost no friends of the same sex, and he felt that if he, as a man, were not around, the two ladies would be able to speak about personal things they could not normally utter.
“Thank you very much for today, Gazef-sama.”
“Please, don’t stand on ceremony. I had a good time too.”
“...If it pleases you, could I ask for your guidance again, like today?”
Gazef could not answer for a moment. Climb saw his reaction and began to apologize, but Gazef spoke first.
“That’s fine. As long as there’s nobody else around, of course.”
Climb keenly understood Gazef’s reluctance, and so he did not say much. He forced his sore aching body to his feet and spoke his heartfelt feelings.
“Thank you very much!”
Gazef waved back grandly, and strode forth.
“Then please tidy up here. It would be terrible if I could not meet the King for his morning meal… oh yes, that downward slash of yours was pretty good. However, you need to think about what comes after that. Consider what you’d do if your strike was dodged or blocked.”
3rd Day of the Lower Fire (9th) Month, 6:22
After bidding farewell to Gazef, Climb wiped off his sweat with a damp towel and headed to a place that was drastically different from the training hall of just now.
This room was around the same size as the training hall in question. It was filled with many long tables and benches, packed with people chatting happily away. A delicious fragrance filled the warm air of the room.
This was the dining hall.
After entering the room, Climb passed through the hubbub of humanity and joined the back of the line.
Much like the people in front of him, Climb had several stacked containers in front of him. There was a tray, a wooden dish, a wooden spoon, and finally a wooden cup.
He collected his meal in the appropriate order.
One slightly-larger-than-usual steamed potato with brown bread, a thick white stew laden with ingredients, pickled cabbage and a sausage. To Climb, this was a sumptuous meal.
The dishes smelled fragrant on his tray. Climb looked around the dining hall as the smell prickled at his gut.
The noisy soldiers were currently eating. They sat with their friends and as they ate, they talked about what they would do on their next leave, the food, their families, and other light topics. This was standard fare.
Climb spotted an empty seat and wound through the din as he headed for it.
He stepped over the bench and took a seat. There were soldiers on either side of him, chatting heartily with their friends. As Climb sat down, they turned to look at him, but then they immediately lost interest and turned their eyes elsewhere.
It was as though Climb sat in the eye of the storm.
An onlooker might think this was quite creepy.
Though there was cheery conversation all around him, nobody sought out Climb to speak to him. While it was true that nobody would chat up a stranger, they were all soldiers, serving in the same location, and they might need to depend on each other in times of mortal danger. From that point of view, their attitude was quite strange.
It was as though Climb did not exist to them.
On his part, Climb did not plan to speak to anyone else, because he clearly understood his position.
The guards in Ro-Lante Keep were not mere soldiers.
Soldiers in the Royal Army included conscripts armed and outfitted by the lords of various domains, mercenaries hired by the cities, guards tasked with patrolling the cities, and so on. However, the one thing they had in common was that they were all of low birth.
Of course, allowing commoners of uncertain provenance to approach the Royal Household and the Palace, with its many secrets, would cause a lot of problems.
Therefore, the guards of Ro-Lante Keep had to be recommended by a noble. If the guards caused any problems, their sponsoring noble would bear the blame for them. Therefore, all the candidates were pure and upstanding citizens.
However, this practice led to a certain phenomenon.
That was “factionalization”.
All the sponsoring nobles belonged to one faction or another. The troops they recommended would naturally join their masters’ factions. Since anybody who opposed the nobles had no chance of being picked at all, it was hardly a leap to say that all the soldiers here were affiliated with one faction or another.
It sounded purely disadvantageous, but it had a benefit in that the soldiers constantly honed their skills lest they be drawn into a factional conflict. While they were still nowhere near the level of the Imperial Knights, the Keep’s guards had some measure of skill.
Of course, Climb was much more skilled than them, but the nobles had managed to find fault even with that. After all, he was stronger than the troops which the nobles themselves had put forward.
While it was true that the sponsoring nobles might not belong to a faction, under the current circumstances, the Kingdom was split into the Noble and the Royal Faction. Under these circumstances, there was only one noble who could flit between both sides like a bat.
There was a similar individual among the serried ranks of hand-picked troops.
That individual was Climb.
Climb was in a very awkward position.
Originally, someone like Climb could not possibly hope to stand by Renner’s side. As one of common birth, he would never be entrusted with the weighty task of defending royalty. It had always been that only nobles could protect the Royal Household.
However, there were exceptions, in the form of Gazef Stronoff — the Kingdom’s strongest soldier — and the elite troops under his command. And then, almost nobody could publicly object to Princess Renner’s fervent wish. Perhaps a member of the Royal Household could gainsay her, but since the King, the highest authority in the land, had given his approval, nobody else could object to it.
Climb had a personal room due to this awkward position of his.
Renner’s word had given him a room of his own. But at the same time, it separated him from the others. After all, Climb was not affiliated with any faction and was uncomfortable in either camp, so he was like a hot potato.
Given Climb’s situation and background, he should have been a member of the Royal Faction. However, the Royal Faction were a group of nobles who had sworn their loyalty to the King, and they did not welcome Climb, whose origins were unknown.
In the end, Climb had become a very prickly being to take into their fold. Instead, they chose to leave him alone and wait for him to volunteer to help of his own accord. On the other hand, the Noble faction felt that drawing Climb in would have benefits, but it would also be like letting a wolf into their own homes.
However, the factions were made of many nobles, and not all of them were of one mind. The factions were ultimately organizations formed for profit. That being, the case while some members of the Royal Faction gave him the stink-eye — because he was a mere commoner who had been allowed to be the closest person to the Golden Princess — others also wanted Climb on their side.
In any case, nobody had been careless enough to risk splintering their faction for Climb.
In conclusion, both of them considered Climb an asset that neither of them wanted, but which neither of them wanted to surrender to their rivals.
That was why nobody spoke to him, and he was left to eat by himself.
He did not talk to anyone either, and he paid their business no heed. He simply ate, and finished HIS breakfast within 10 minutes.
“Alright, let’s go.”
Sated, he mumbled to himself — a practice picked up from long hours of solitude. Just as he was about to stand up, he bumped into a passing soldier.
Climb’s face was impassive as an elbow struck the place where he had been hurt while sparring with Gazef, but he froze from the pain.
The soldier who had hit him said nothing, just carried on. The soldiers around him kept silent too. Several people furrowed their brows as they saw this, but nobody said anything.
Climb sighed deeply, and headed out with his bowl and plate.
This much was par for the course. He was simply glad that there was no hot stew in the bowl at that time.
Nearly being tripped by an extended foot. People running into him under the pretense of an accident. He was used to these things. However —
Climb continued forward. They could not do anything more to him — not in a public place like the dining hall.
Climb kept his chin up throughout. His eyes were fixed forward and he would not waver.
If he showed any sign of unseemly behavior, it would cause problems for his mistress Renner. After all, every move Climb made reflected directly on the reputation of Renner — the woman to whom he owed his loyalty.