Entering the Capital
Editor(s): Speedphoenix, Joker
Argus Ladorio knit his brows as he regarded the subordinate that stood before his desk. Though the shocking news certainly had an impact on his expression, it did nothing to warp the fox-like smile that almost seemed to perpetually rest on his gentlemanly face.
“I’m terribly sorry sir,” said his minion. “And I apologize that this report is coming as late as it is. None of us were expecting Kakuza of all people to fail, so we hadn’t checked on him until we realized that he was taking far too long to report back.”
“Enough of that.” Argus dismissed the other man’s excuses with a wave of the hand. “Continue on with your report.”
“It appears that he was able to carry out the first of the plan’s two phases. We have found many sources confirming that Sengillia was indeed subject to an attack.”
“He failed during the second phase?” Argus put down his pen and clasped one hand over the other. “That is rather unexpected. Were his words not convincing enough to turn the people against her?”
“It’s exactly as you say, sir. Unfortunately, not one of Sengillia’s residents were harmed in the attack. Every single individual, soldier or civilian, came out utterly unscathed. The hero was able to single-handedly fight off the invasion on her own.”
“If that is true, then I can certainly see why Kakuza’s arguments failed to hold,” said the noble, bewildered. “But is the hero really that powerful? From what I could tell, she seemed much weaker than her predecessor.”
“With all due respect, sir, I think it would be wise not to continue underestimating her potential. Heroes are often granted their positions due to their powerful latent abilities. It may very be possible that hers had only recently awakened,” said the messenger. “But even with that considered, murdering several hundred monsters single handedly seems like a stretch.”
“I suppose that is just how heroes are. But don’t worry, it isn’t a problem. The next trap I’ve set for her is one that will deny her the opportunity to make use of her powers,” said Argus. “So what of Kakuza? Is he alive?”
“No,” said the noble’s subordinate. “But the circumstances surrounding his death are a bit… out of the ordinary.”
“Out of the ordinary?”
The man with the fox-like smile raised a brow. The agent reporting to him was one that rarely beat around the bush. The lack of clarity and conciseness clearly indicated that he was about to be made privy to news that he wasn’t going to like.
“We found his remains inside of a den of monsters. Its inhabitants had clearly vented their rage on him. He was beaten so brutally we hardly recognized him,” said the minion. “The strangest aspect of it was there were a few much cleaner wounds mixed in with the rest. They were clearly carved into him with a small knife, one too refined to have been made by the likes of ogres.”
“I see…” said the noble. “So in short, you’re telling me that he was crippled by a third party and thrown to the monsters to be disposed of?”
“I believe so. And I do have a piece of what I believe to be related news that you may be interested in.”
“And what exactly might that be?”
“The hero seems to be accompanied by a man claiming to be her fiancé,” replied the noble’s pawn. “His most striking feature is that he wears a mask designed to look much like the face of a jester or clown.”
“A Mask!?” Argus’ smile found itself replaced by a look of shock, only to rectify itself a moment later. “Is this so-called fiancé of her’s the same masked man that suddenly showed up out of nowhere during the prince’s coup?”
“I can’t say for sure if the two are the very same, but it’s highly likely. The Masked Meister worked closely with both the church and the hero during his last advent.”
Argus contemplated several possibilities and muttered a few likely conclusions under his breath before raising both his head and his voice.
“Are you saying that you suspect that the Masked Meister was Kakuza’s murderer? And that he managed to crack him?”
“I am, sir. We’re still missing too many details to make any real conclusions, but it’d be best to work under the assumption that our identities have been compromised.”
“As annoying as that is, I have to agree. If the hero’s fiancé really is the Masked Meister, then we’ll have to be on our toes. Whatever the case, we can’t let our guards down. Kakuza was one of my most war-fluent men. If even he was killed without a fuss, then we’ll have to assume that every wrong move can potentially come with the consequence of elimination.” Argus paused for a moment to contemplate his options. “Whatever the case, we need more information. Stop attacking the hero. Keep her monitored, but redirect any efforts that would have been used to worsen her position into investigating this so-called fiancé of hers. You’re free to use up to half the men.”
“I’ll get to it right away, sir.”
Argus’ servant bowed, turned around, and promptly left the room.
The noble’s smile faded as soon as the other man was gone, replaced by an expression equal parts dark and ominous.
“This is ridiculous,” he said. “How useless do you have to be to fail at manipulating one dumb girl? And he even let himself get captured and likely interrogated? Ridiculous. The bastard should have just slit his own neck. That would’ve been the far more honorable choice.” After a moment of clenching his teeth in irritation, Argus slowly relaxed.
“But in the end, it doesn’t matter. Your return has come too late, hero. My plans have already been put into action. All that’s left for you now is despair.”
A quiet, mocking chuckle resounded through the room as the puppeteer readied himself for the next act of his play.
It’d been a few hours since we left the city. News of Nell’s departure had apparently got out, as an entire crowd was there to see us off. The people cheered and waved as our tiny carriage slowly made its way off into the sunrise. Much to my dismay, the early morning parade ended up being the only eventful thing that happened all day.
“Ughh… this sucks. I thought roadtrips were supposed to be fun.” I groaned as I looked between the dreary scenery outside my window and the less-than-entertaining cards scattered out in front of me. “But this is just awful. I’m bored out of my fucking mind.”
“The scenery around the capital tends to get a bit bland,” said Nell. “We won’t see anything but the same few things until we get there.” She placed her cards on the table and revealed her hand. “Full house.”
“Damn it. Two pair,” I said as I flashed her my cards. “You’ve got a pretty good poker face.”
“Well, we have been playing the game every single day for a month,” she said with a smile.
I grumbled a few incoherent curses under my breath as I shuffled the deck. Though I appeared disgruntled, I was actually pretty far from it. If anything, I felt relieved. The anger Nell had derived from my shenanigans had finally dissipated. She was no longer prodding me in the chest, and her smile had finally stopped projecting an aura of anger. Man, that was pretty damn terrifying. Shit was scary enough to give any malevolent spirit a run for their money.
Her mood had corrected itself overnight, no doubt in part because of my efforts. Thankfully, the suffering I’d exposed myself to had paid off. Specifically, accompanying her on a shopping trip had seemed to solve the issue. It was the first thing we’d done after taking a quick nap, and effectively the only thing we’d spent the day on. Oh man… what a day… I don’t even want to remember it.
The experience had reminded me that the female mind was an enigma not meant to be understood by the likes of mere men. Seriously, why is it that all girls seem to like shopping so much? I don’t fucking get it. Like, first of all, this isn’t even Japan. There aren’t even malls to shop in. Secondly, how the hell can they take so much of it? Like, for fucks sake. Do you know how fucking exhausting that shit is? Though, that might’ve just been me ‘cause I was doing shit all night, but still.
Nell had dragged me around beyond the brink of exhaustion. I was so tired of the activity that I’d started dying on the inside. And yet, she was still all gung ho and ready for another round. Seriously, what the fuck? I’m not even supposed to be able to get tired. My body literally isn’t capable of it. I guess this just means not even demon lords can match up to girls on shopping sprees. Goddamn.
The carriage suddenly began slowing down right before I dealt another hand, so I set the deck aside and stuck my head out the window to investigate. My eyes were greeted with walls, walls that went on and on for as far as the eye could see.
“Oh shit! We’re finally here!”
The capital was finally in sight. That was also why we had ended up slowing down. The road was no longer as empty as it had been in the middle of nowhere. There were several other carriages ahead of us, and they’d opted for a more laid-back pace.
I heard an audible gulp from beside me. Nell, who had also poked her head out the window, had frozen at the sight of the city’s walls. Unlike me, she had been dreading our arrival.
“It’ll be okay.” I plopped a hand on her head and ruffled her hair. “I’ll be right here with you, every step of the way. And I’m not the only one that’s got your back. You’ve got plenty of allies here. Everything’ll be alright.”
With her eyes still fixed on the capital’s ramparts, she slowly, slowly nodded her head.