Faster than I could get up and run, the man looked down on me from the other side of the bush. He had colours peculiar to people of the north ――― long, dirty blonde hair and pure white skin. I gulped.
Bad, this is really bad. I looked up at the man and his face was scrunched up.
“Don’t fuck around. When did you run off?!!? You fucking little bastard!!!”
He grabbed me by the collar and threw me as hard as he could onto the muddy-snow ground. I tried to act as inconspicuous as I could. I’ve never been so glad that I was used to being rolled on the ground.
Apparently, this man believed that I was a child who had tried to escape. Perhaps because I was dressed in traditional Sill Tribe clothes, like everyone else.
The newcomer children widened their eyes when they saw that I was covered in mud. Before someone could say, “Eliza-sama,” a girl screamed.
“Aslan! Why did you come back!?”
It was Thiele who had shouted. Of course, there was no way she would mistake me for Aslan.
“Did you run away?!”
The man yelled as his spit flew all over, then he grabbed Thiele’s hair.
The man swung his arm. It looked like he was seriously trying to hit her this time.
Then, a quiet voice interrupted him. The man jerked upright and stopped moving.
“I told you not to hurt any of the children, did I not, Jasper?”
It was the voice of a young girl, strangely smooth and serene. And yet, it was a frightening voice full of sweet delight and malice.
With an out-of-place dainty stride, a girl dressed in loose clothing that looked like a priest robe stepped out from the woods. A hooded figure followed after her.
The girl gently took the man’s hand off Thiele’s hair, then she smiled calmly, like Faris, and walked up to me, who was on the ground. She tilted her head slightly.
“Oh my, a red-eyed child?”
The eyes, filled with a strange colour that looked like the sunrise and filled with terrifying malice, peered onto my face which was hidden by the scarf. Her smile was horrible and malicious.
――― But for some reason, she slowly widened her eyes. Then, she muttered in a puzzled and ambiguous voice.
“… No way. Weren’t you executed for throwing a stone at the feudal lord…?”
She breathed out.
Executed, she said. She knew that and mistook me for him ――― this means… this girl is that nun who indoctrinated Radka with anti-noble ideas three years ago.
I opened my mouth to say something, but I didn’t know what to say.
“Hmm? But his name is Aslan?”
The man named Jasper interrupted, and the confusion that flickered through the girl’s eyes faded. In exchange, a calm glint started lighting up in her eyes and I intuitively felt that this was bad.
“You, were, executed. So, you’re no longer, Radka.”
Those words came out immediately.
Was she sure of the name she had uttered?
The girl widened her eyes again, pulled me up then hugged me tightly.
“It’s my fault that you died… But, I’m glad. I’m really glad…!”
A voice overcome by emotion entered my ears. But I noticed something concealed in her voice. ――― Her voice sounded frighteningly similar to the empty words father used to comfort his citizens.
“Come, Radka. I’ve come for you. Won’t you come with me this time? Your mother has passed away, hasn’t she? You don’t have anything left in this land.”
She whispered sweet, venomous words at me, and I frowned behind her hair.
What should I do?
The disturbed girl, who was trying to disturb this kingdom, was defenceless as she hugged me. I can kill her now with my hidden dagger. But it was impossible for me to take out that man, Jasper, and the hooded person who was standing behind her motionlessly. How can a seven-year-old child deal with two grown adults?
Then, what should I do?
I should ――― pretend to be Radka and get information out of her.
“To the place where there are people who hate nobles as much as you and I. Nobles can’t hurt you again there.”
“Then why did you kidnap everyone? That’s, just like… a noble.”
“You’re wrong. I did it to save them from this fief. The current feudal lord is still the daughter of that horrible feudal lord, right? Say, Radka, even if your life is better than before…”
The girl paused.
“… You can’t be deceived even if the feudal lord’s daughter saved you from being executed in secret. Someday, that feudal lord’s daughter will reveal her true nature and start tormenting everyone, just like the old feudal lord. Don’t you think so? If she really didn’t want to execute you, then she wouldn’t, then she wouldn’t secretly help you from behind the scenes.”
“Right?” The girl whispered in my ear. I nodded a little in response. I see, so this is how you brainwash people.
“So, alright? Radka. You must come with us. We need your help to save our people.”
“… Your people?”
“Yes. Yes, the foreign collaborators who have been captured by the feudal lord. We don’t want to be treated horribly by nobles anymore, so we’re getting their help to finish the nobles off.”
… I see. It seems like these guys have come to retrieve the bandits and are trying to demand a hostage exchange using ‘me’.
“Let’s go.” She stood up and I had no choice but to follow the girl silently as she led me by the hand.
The hooded person followed silently behind us, and further behind him, the newcomer children were looking at me anxiously as they were being urged forward by Jasper’s sword.
“Say, why were you with the newcomer children?”
After persuading the girl to take a few breaks, we finally arrived at Milda Village just after midnight.
Jasper and the robed person broke into the sleeping village and occupied the chief’s house, then the girl used the village children as a shield to threaten the villagers with a smirk, “Call the feudal lord here, and tell her to bring the people she has in jail.” Afterward, she made the exhausted newcomer children sit at the entrance and windows of the house.
They were quick to set up the hostages, so it was hard to believe that they were late to receive information about the bandits being moved to the royal capital… They are more accustomed to fighting than I thought.
“Maybe because it’s bad if the citizens found me?”
I was surrounded by the girl and the hooded person in front of the fireplace at the village chief’s house and joined her in her chatter.
Sleepiness, hunger and exhaustion have impaired my ability to think, but the girl should be in the same position as me. The girl could have prepared better since she was questioning me while we were both in this state. I only had to pay attention to my words and attitude since I only had to reply to her, but the girl had to use her head many times more than I do as long as she was the one asking the questions and showing good intentions towards Radka.
“I see… She’s terrible after all. I can’t believe she would suddenly throw you into the midst of foreigners who live and speak a different language… What kind of girl is she? Is she fat like her mother?”
“No, it’s creepy how much she looks like her dad.”
Perhaps the girl always knew this answer. As if to prove this, the girl smiled and nodded once she heard the answer.
“I know. It’s just frightening to think how alike they are… Hey, wait. Are there wolves in this fief?”
I heard Rashiok’s distance howling outside the wooden window. It seems that Aslan has done what I had asked him to do. Thiele, who was sitting under the window, looked at me and I looked back at her. ‘Help has come’.
I saw the hooded person react very slightly out of the corner of my eyes. They hadn’t moved at all until now, so even the slightest movement was noticeable.
“I heard they sometimes come down from Amon Nohl. But they always stay in the northern part of the fief, so don’t worry.”
“Then, that’s alright. I don’t like wolves…”
Do they still not know about Rashiok? Or is it only this girl who doesn’t know? It’s possible that they hadn’t informed the girl since there were only three people on this kind of a mission. Or, judging from the attitude of the other two, it’s possible that the girl was the one who had decided to come to this fief.
“Hey, they’re here!!”
Jasper burst into the room. At the same time, there was a lot of noise coming from outside.
“Let’s go, Radka. Come on, everyone out.”
The children and I got up sluggishly.
The village chief’s house was surrounded by the fief army outside. The girl and Jasper used the village children and the newcomer children as shields and demanded that the soldiers bring forward the feudal lord with a daring smile.
I’ll see what I can do under these circumstances. Rashiok seems to be lurking in the background too. With that in mind, I grabbed the dagger under my cloak to attack the girl who was next to me.
“… What the fuck do you want from me?”
A smooth and somewhat unhappy voice. A small shadow stepped out from behind Claudia after that.
――― I’m afraid I might stop breathing.
Standing there was a familiar mirror image of ‘me’. The only difference was that he was wearing a veil to protect him against the cold. Everything else apart from that was really similar ――― too similar.
Why are you here?
Even though I couldn’t let you meet this girl ―――.
“… I have a favour to ask you.”
My heart pounded painfully as I watched the interactions between Radka, who was standing there in the guise of ‘The Feudal Lord, Eliza Kaldia’, and the girl. I restrained the hand that was holding onto the hilt of the dagger which was on the verge of trembling.
Radka ――― slightly widened his eyes in surprise at the girl for a second. But then, he blinked once and became the perfect ‘me’ again.
The girl had yet to notice Radka and I. Perhaps it was because she didn’t know what Radka currently looked like and my face was disguised with mud and a scarf. She hadn’t noticed our similarities, nor has she noticed the real Radka.
“You caught bandits in this fief, right? We want to trade these children for those people.”
“Trade? Don’t make me laugh. Those children are my people. They don’t belong to you guys.”
“It’s the same, isn’t it? Those bandits aren’t yours either.”
“That’s a funny thing to say. What problem is there with a feudal lord catching criminals who threaten the people in her land?”
“――― Enough of this tedious conversation. You’ll bring them here, won’t you? I think it’s better for you to make an exchange quickly. The children are very weak. We haven’t fed them, and made them walk a long way.”
The girl started threatening ‘me’ for the first time. She was confident that I wouldn’t be able to abandon the children.
… I see, so you did think about kidnapping the newcomer children. Even though they are orphans, it leaves quite a lot of problems in the future to abandon the newcomer children after they’ve been accepted in the fief for criminals.
Well… that was only if the bandits were here.
“It seems I have some unfortunate news for you before we can make a deal. There aren’t anymore bandits left in this fief. They’ve all been sent to the royal capital.”
‘Eliza’ sneered in reply. But the girl smiled evilly and dismissed his statement, “That’s a lie.”
“There are two left here. I know they stayed behind after you faked their deaths. Valon and Ramix.”
‘Eliza’ scorned and jerked his head at Gunter, who was standing next to him. Gunter nodded and threw a cloth bag in front of the girl. Two heavy things shook in the bag as it fell to the ground.
“… What are you doing?”
“You told me to give them back to you, so I’m giving them back to you. Why don’t you check?”
“… Did you kill them?”
The girl’s voice was as cold as a frozen lake.
“You know that I sent the ones who were still alive to the royal capital. Why are you surprised? … Ah, and what do you ‘know’?”
I had the loud sound of grinding teeth from the girl beside me.
“… Yes ――― yes. Then the deal is off!”
She pulled on my shoulder before things ended. “Don’t move,” she said as she pressed a dagger at my throat.
The fief soldiers were shaken. The girl smiled slightly when she saw this. The blade nicked my throat and the girl smiled provocatively at ‘Eliza’ who returned her smile with a slight smile. It was a slightly sad and resigned smile that only I noticed.
“Say, I’m kind, so I’ll give you another condition. Let’s see… How about exchanging them for the feudal lord?”
“… With me?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Maybe. I’ll release the children if you put down your weapon and come towards us alone.”
‘Eliza’ ――― Radka looked at me for a moment. Then, he removed the sword on his waist before I could say anything.
“I don’t have any other weapons.”
“Alright. Then, put your hands behind your head and come here.”
When ‘Eliza’ walked right in front of the hooded person, the girl instructed Jasper to do this and that with the hand that was holding the dagger, and the children were released in turns… Everyone was freed except for me who was still being held by the shoulder.
“What about that child?”
“He’s a hostage to use against you, feudal lord’s daughter. I know that you’ve had martial arts training. Behave yourself if you don’t want this child to be killed, alright?”
The girl laughed in amusement as she flickered the dagger in front of me nastily.
“I see… you should tell that to yourself!”
Radka lunged at the hooded figure as soon as the veil was plucked off to reveal his short hair.
At the same time, I flicked away the girl’s hand which was holding the dagger and rolled away. Then I slashed at her chest down to her waist with my hidden dagger.
Then Rashiok, who had probably been lurking on the roof, lunged at Jasper from above. Jasper’s arm, which was holding the sword, was chomped off in an instant, then Rashiok pinned him down.
“――― Why Radka?!?!”
The girl’s scream pierced the night sky, and a great deal of blood dripped to her feed. At the corner of my eyes, the soldiers were moving under Gunter and Claudia’s command.
It happened in an instant.
Then in the next second ――― something completely different happened.
Something fell straight down like a meteor, from the sky above us, as if it was cutting through the crimson dawn sky.
It was ――― a giant bird-like monster. When the impact from the wind knocked down the people around it, the hooded person grabbed the girl and tried to force her up again.
The hooded person grabbed my arm again at the centre of the sudden storm.
My sleeve rustled and rode up, revealing the thin chain on my wrist.
Claudia shouted my name on the ground, “Eliza-dono!!”
And then I saw ‘him’ widen his eyes as his hood fluttered in the wind.
I stopped breathing.
――― ‘He’ let go of my arm before I could reach out to him.
My screams were completely drowned out by the wind and rumbles, and my outstretched fingertips just scratched the air.