When I interrogated Valon based on what I had heard from Claudia and Gunter, who had interviewed him beforehand, the man spoke without suspicion, and gave immediate replies without contradicting himself.
He said that some of the bandits, including himself were followers of the Western Alfena Church of Lewa, and that it was the Western Alfena Church who had given them orders.
Furthermore, some of them were nobles from Densel Dukedom.
He said that they had come to Arxia to fulfil the orders of the church.
They were to meet a woman named Deiferias, who was waiting for them in Agren fief, and help her.
They had purposely advanced through Jugfena to cause a disturbance in order for their comrades to safely meet up with Deifarias.
They stopped at Kaldia because it was the most desolated fief in Jugfena, or rather because it was the most ruined fief in all of Arxia, and they thought that they could escape from their pursuers here.
He said that the rest of the bandits were actual bandits and were employed by them.
According to him, the woman named Deiferias had contributed a large sum to the Western Alfena Church.
It has almost been four months since we’ve captured them, but never before has a proper name been spoken.
“What did Deiferias want to do with your help?”
“Who knows, I don’t know the details. But I’m certain she was going to do something in Arxia.”
Do something…? My mind was still on Nordsterm, who were acting suspiciously, and the nuns who were repeatedly coming in and out of that fief. The nuns in particular, were a danger, since they were spreading infamy about nobles and disrupting the order of Arxia.
Agren, where the bandits were supposed to meet up with the woman, belongs to the family of the current wife of the head of Nordsterm. It was natural to think that Agren was complicit in their suspicious activities.
“Then, does the Western Alfena Church want to expand into Arxia? Or do they want to destroy Arxia?”
“Of course, they want to destroy Arxia. Fantics like Ramiz believe that this nation should be destroyed, since it was built upon the heretical religion, Xia. I’m… I’m different. My parents are like that, but I joined the church because of money. After all, it’s lucrative. There are many believers, like Deiferias, who sink a lot of money into the church in hopes of bringing destruction to Arxia.”
“That’s why I don’t want to die while being associated with that ideology,” Valon spat out. It seemed that Ramix was the name of the man who was still in the dungeon. I am no longer interested in a man who will only become a frozen corpse afterwards.
Nevertheless. If Valon’s story is to be believed, then the Western Alfena Church was only a church in name, and they were a terrorist group or organisation who are anti-Arxian. They also had a lot of supporters.
“If that’s their view, then it’s easier to understand the purpose of the other believers.”
“Yeah. Other than the fanatics, the people who make donations are mostly merchants and nobles. The merchants are ones who are after Arxia’s concessions or those who deal in arms and medicine. Then there are nobles who want land.”
In other words, they would stand to profit if a war broke out. Either, the merchants would gain special procurement contracts or they’re aiming to separate the vassal state from Arxia and will invest in powerful terrorist organisations.
The nobles want Arxian land, so they will invest in terrorist organisations with spies to gain as much of an advantage as possible when war actually breaks out.
… And, a noble from our kingdom, the Nordsterms might be involved in this?
A scorching emotion bubbled in my stomach.
“But if they’re being that showy, then they should be a little more well-known.”
“The Western Alfena Church is a small church. The original church was much bigger, so it’s hiding under that umbrella.”
… Unlike the Xia Church, there are many Lewa Churches. However, all of them seem to hold a number of small churches under them, and it would be difficult to find information about the smaller churches.
I’m sure all of their major churches have the words ‘West’ or ‘Alfena’ in their names. It was impossible to find information on the churches. If all the small churches did that as well, then there were a lot of churches with the same names. Particularly if the church was small enough to only be known by the locals. It was nearly impossible to dig dirt on them.
Valon waited in silence for a while as I thought in silence. But then a thought occurred to him and he spoke, “Hey, are all the Arxian kids as creepy as you are?”
“… Who knows.”
“You don’t look any older than ten. If you had been born in Densel, then people would have accused you of being possessed by a demon, and then you would have been killed.”
“Well, being born in Arxia already makes you half possessed by demons in the eyes of the people of Densel,” the man continued.
I found myself frowning. There concept of a demon didn’t exist in Xia, but I learnt that it was a word that was used frequently in the Romur Ringworl languages, which was used in the eastern states. With my previous life memories, it was easy for me to understand the concept.
Hence, my reaction. The many deeds of the vicious Kaldia House were considered by me in my previous life as the ‘work of the devil’.
Then, I think of the words that I was about to tell the man. Those words will really be the work of the devil and lived up to the Kaldia name.
“I understand what you have said. I will keep my word.”
I also smiled back at the man who was beaming.
“Yes, of course I will.”
I got up from my seat, and at the same time, two soldiers restrained Valon’s arms from both sides, forced him off the chair and onto his knees. I borrowed a sword from Gunter, who was standing behind me, and held it up to the man’s throat.
The man’s smile froze. Those were the last words he uttered.
The thin sword pierced him in the neck and having avoided his spine, the point now stuck out behind his neck. He choked as reddish brown blood flowed from his mouth onto the floor.
“―――… I forgot to mention this, but you’re already a dead man. So, the only way you were coming out from that prison was as a dead body.”
The man’s eyelids trembled slightly, and his bloodied lip shook.
His voice didn’t come out, but I felt like his lips moved and said, ‘demon’.
It’s too late now. It felt like I was already cursed when I was born into this world as Eliza Kaldia.
I hadn’t planned on letting the bandits go free in the first place. They had injured and raped my citizens. It was only natural they should die and pay for it.
“Eliza-sama, it’s time for dinner.”
I was surprised when a voice called out to me.
I’d been holed up in my room all afternoon, straightening up some paperwork, but I became too engrossed in it before I noticed.
I felt a dull sensation in my back and neck when I looked up. It seemed like I had single-mindedly done work for a long time. The candle that had been left lit for a long time, since it was dim in winter, had grown much shorter.
“Oh ―――, thank you very much, Lady Hortensio.”
Lady Hortensio stood by the door and called out to me. She had come to call me since I hadn’t left my room. It was already completely dark outside, so she had a lamp in her hand. The light from the lamp flickered in the reflection of her eyes.
“I’ll be there in a minute.”
I gently placed the quill back into the penholder to prevent the ink from splashing or spilling out and then stood up.
Lady Hortensio smoothly entered the room and put a robe on me, instead of a jacket. The temperature in the room was maintained by the fireplace and a heating unit that circulated the heated air from the fireplace, but that wasn’t the case in the corridor.
Lady Hortensio suddenly spoke when I had just finished tying the cord around the collar of my robe. Smiling gently, she looked into my eyes with a gentle gaze.
“What is it?”
“You’re praiseworthy. You try to be a good lord and do your job well.”
Lady Hortensio took my hand and wrapped her hands around it. She smiled at me when I returned her gaze and spoke slowly as if she was persuading me.
“But before that, you are also a child. It’s wrong to treat yourself as an adult just because your position is no different than that of an adult.”
“… I can’t do that.”
I muttered with bitterness. Lady Hortensio’s words were warm and soft like the spring wind in a field. It slid smoothly into my dry and cracked heart.
That was why it was painful. It was terrifying. I even felt the need to remove my gaze from my paralysing thoughts.
The wood in the fireplace crackled and exploded.
However, Lady Hortensio didn’t look away from me as if she hadn’t heard me.
“No. You must recognise and treat yourself as a child.”
She declared clearly. Her eyes were still kind, but they were also powerful. That was what scared me.
“Eliza-sama. When Earl Thelesia gave me this job, he had certainly instructed me to treat you as an adult. But you are a child. Nothing can change this fact. I believe that the reason why you are suffering so much is because no one… and most of all you yourself, will recognise you as a child.”
“… Please stop.”
The back of my teeth grinded together.
There was a presence at the back of my head screaming that I mustn’t listen, that I mustn’t let this woman say anything else to me.
I had trouble breathing. I felt as if I was being strangled by soft cotton.
“It’s unfortunate that no one in this mansion has ever raised a child. So, they don’t know how to make things easier for you.”
Lady Hortensio spoke in a friendly tone. She wrapped the hands that were holding my hand around my shoulder.
No. Don’t say anymore. A scream gushed from the back of my mind.
I want to run away from here. I thought but couldn’t move an inch. Her arms gently wrapped around me as I stood frozen on the spot, like I had grown roots. Her arms felt as if she was holding something broken.
“You’re still at an age where you can act spoiled.”
The words that had been whispered in my ears made my brain go sweetly numb like thick honey.
I could smell the soft, sweet and gentle scent of milk coming from her. My skin, which was touching the warmth of human skin, missed the temperature and wanted to melt.
If only I could relax my body and lean on Lady Hortensio’s shoulder, which was in front of me.
This is mayhem, I thought. There was a warmth here that I couldn’t resist. There was a whole different world inside and outside of her arms.
The back of my eyelids felt hot. The back of my thought hurt badly, ――― it felt hot and painful.
“… Eliza-sama? Are you crying?”
Drip. Lady Hortensio’s hand rubbed my back in comfort at the same time as the lukewarm water accumulated at the edge of my lower lids and dripped down.
“――― Please stop.”
And yet, I couldn’t just sob convulsively.
――― If you don’t want to suffer, then stand alone. Don’t make yourself vulnerable. You have too many enemies in your path.
Priestess Faris’s advice, which spoke softly of death, echoed in my mind over and over again.
“Let go of me, Lady Hortensio.”
I pressed my hand on her shoulder as I said that. I saw her eyes shake with slight surprise, then pity.
My heart was pounding so hard that it seemed as if it would burst at any moment.
I covered my eyes with my sleeve and staggered back. Lady Hortensio’s arms didn’t restrain me. I stepped back until my back bumped lightly against the desk and finally felt an odd amount of relief.
I could hear the sound of Lady Hortensio’s gentle sigh.
“… I know this is rude, but I overheard the conversation between you and the dark haired one, Elize-sama, during the day. It was through a door, so I didn’t hear everything, but… the reason why you clash so much is because you haven’t experienced enough as a child. Both you and Elize-sama.”
With those last words, her presence faded away along with the sound of footsteps. My strength drained from my body and I slid onto the floor.
My hands trembled. I trembled in fear which was different from that sweet temptation.
Why had I refused to accept Lady Hortensio’s words?
I desperately tried to stifle the conflicting emotions there were making me sob. Still, in the back of my mind, I told myself it was the right thing to do.
I’m sure Lady Hortensio was right.
But I was certain that if she were to treat me like a child now then I would be weak and unable to stand alone.
I clenched the chain on my left wrist that he had given me. Help me, I wanted to say. Have I ever thought that I needed him so desperately since he recognised me as both an adult and a child?
――― But I’m sure that if he had been here, I wouldn’t have said those words.
I finally learnt the true meaning of the phrase ‘stand alone’.