Leaving my training room, I slowly walk through the hallways of the imperial palace. All the people I cross paths with, servants and ministers alike, stop and greet and display their respect for me when they see me.
But I barely even notice any of them.
Milla is dead.
Those animals killed her.
And Father thinks I did it on purpose.
That I sent her there precisely so that the majin would kill her.
He didn’t say it, of course – he didn’t say anything – but I could see it in his eyes, in the way he looked at me.
And yet, he didn’t strike me or berate me or anything of the sort.
He didn’t do anything.
He simply looked at me for a few moments, then left.
…But I didn’t plot the death of my own sister.
What kind of monster would do such a thing?
It’s true that I disliked her, but that was only because she shamed our family with her laziness. Someone with the name Adkins cannot afford to still be a 2nd-rank warrior in her seventies. Even the lowest, most miserable peasant could do better than that. Any Adkins should reach godhood before 30 years old.
And for her to always neglect her own cultivation despite Father’s orders to the contrary…
Of course I disliked her.
Did she not realize how hard the rest of us had to work to regain the prestige of our family she so casually tossed out the window? Did she not realize the amount of effort the rest of us put into our cultivation to be worthy of our family name, while she just lazed about and took it for granted?
So I sent her to majin territory to ‘negotiate’.
Of course, those negotiations were nothing more than a formality. More ‘declaration of war’ than ‘negotiation’, really. In a way, it could even be called a provocation. I was perfectly aware that the majin would not welcome our delegation with open arms. Why would they? I expected riots and hostility.
And that is why I sent her.
To demonstrate to her that strength is a necessity, in this world. To crush her delusion that she would achieve anything with the paltry rank she had reached. To show her that, without Alfons and his strength at her side, she would be utterly helpless.
Even discounting the two dozen elite warriors I sent with him, Alfons alone should have been more than enough to quell any sort of violence on his own. He was only an 8th-rank warrior, but there was no way Yulan would send a 9th-rank warrior or a god just to get rid of someone as useless as Milla.
They all should have been safe.
But for these madmen to simply obliterate the entire palace where the delegation resided…
How many of their own comrades did they sacrifice, just to get to her?
And why go so far? Her philanthropic activities made her somewhat popular among the commoners, but Milla’s influence on the political stage was very much negligible. She wasn’t just useless, she was irrelevant.
I can’t see any reason why the majin would go so far to assassinate her.
They’re all simply insane.
…And they will pay the price for their crimes.
In fact, at this point, this war has basically turned into a liberation.
This atrocity has clearly shown to the world that Yulan and his goons simply do not care about the innocent civilians they crush under their heels. They kill their own people so wantonly it’s disgusting. These tyrants don’t seem to realize that rulers only exist to safeguard the citizens beneath them. It should be patently obvious that this is the duty of people like us, who stand above others.
But since they don’t seem to realize this truth, it falls to me to teach it to them.
When the meeting finally draws to an end, the ministers and advisers start to file out of the room in order, giving me their farewells.
“Jarod, Malhtur,” I call. “Stay here a moment, please.”
Two men, their appearances suggesting long histories in the military and looking distinctly out of place among the fat and soft politicians around them, look toward me for a second for confirmation, then sit back down, exchanging a knowing glance. A few of the ministers also glance in their direction, probably wondering what it is I want to say to them that the others cannot hear, but none of them have the guts – and idiocy – to ask me more details.
When the three of us are alone in the wide conference room, I look toward Malhtur.
“This conversation should be private. If you could?”
Malhtur nods and waves a hand, and with a small surge of qi, a barrier cuts us off from the outside world to prevent the sound of our voices from being heard by anyone else – two barriers, actually, with a layer of vacuum between them.
I take a second to be properly impressed by his grasp of wind magic – it’s almost as good as his father’s – before inwardly listing the points I’ll need to address in the following conversation. Then, I focus back on the two in front of me.
“Thank you. I suppose you’ve both realized why I asked the two of you to stay. Malhtur, I received your father’s request for replacement of the lost sixth division of apostles, and I can give you the answer right now. We don’t have another batch ready, so you’ll have to make do without, for now. The loss is regrettable, but there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Malhtur looks like he bit on a bitter fruit at the unwelcome news, but as I said, there’s nothing any of us can do about it. “I see. Thank you for warning me, sir. Will the new batch be ready for the deployment of the troops in majin territory?”
Current estimates from Foss place that in nearly five months.
“Unlikely. The next batch was being prepared in the laboratory in Lamos. The one that blew up. The third laboratory was focused on… something else, so by the time they redirect their efforts toward producing new apostles, it’ll be too late.” I pause for a moment to collect my thoughts. “I’m not even sure that they will redirect their efforts in the first place. My father is over there right now, so I’ll wait for him to come back before informing you of his decision. In the meantime, as I said, you’ll have to make do with only five divisions.”
Then, I turn toward Jarod. While Malhtur is the vice commander of the apostle divisions within the imperial army – and the son of the commander – Jarod is the intelligence officer in charge of collating and analyzing and investigating everything he can on the enemies of humanity, along with setting up covert operations to act on that information. Basically, he could be called the spymaster of the empire.
“Sir?” Jarod asks, seeing me focus on him.
“For you, two matters. First. How goes the hunt for the Major?”
“Hmm. My apologies, but we haven’t found her, yet. We’ve eliminated some potential suspects, but we’re still narrowing down the possibilities. I have to say, I didn’t think it was possible for someone to hide so thoroughly. Simply staying on the trail is taxing all my resources, so climbing up that trail all the way to the source will probably take some more time.” Jarod awkwardly rubs the bridge of his nose. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to find some more clues in the recent incidents in Elphen, and, ah…”
Apparently realizing that this might be a sensitive subject for me, Malhtur throws urgent glances at Jarod, whose voice slowly trails off upon noticing his blunder.
I only grit my teeth and urge him to continue. “Go on.”
“Um, yes. The explosion of the laboratory in Lamos was powerful enough to wipe out all traces, so we couldn’t find anything there, but if the Major really is to blame for what happened in Elphen, we might have more luck there. Our sources in the city have already reported that they found a corpse, away from the governor’s palace, that was identified as one of the Major’s known associates, a rhuth going by the name of Aran-Riha, wanted both in human and majin territories for more crimes than I care to recall. The corpse was destroyed almost beyond recognition, so there is little chance we’ll get anything off it, but the fact that it was there at all implies that the Major encountered some form of resistance during her attack on the palace. We’re still trying to find out who acted against her, so that, if we’re lucky, we might get some information from them. Apart from that, we’re also continuing on the intelligence based on the interrogation of that asmodian we captured a year ago.”
“Hmm. Her. She’s the one who escaped alongside AK-A-13, right?”
“That’s correct. But simply looking at the records of the events in the Planar Prison, there doesn’t appear to be any premeditated cooperation between her and AK-A-13. It only seems to be luck that she was the one to escape.”
“What about trying to find that woman – Sif, I recall her name was? She might lead us to the Major.”
Jarod shakes his head at my suggestion. “That is unlikely, sir. She already spilled everything she knew during her interrogation – truthtellers confirmed this – and even then, I doubt she would try to rejoin with her erstwhile allies. Considering how much damage we dealt them based on her betrayal, she most likely wouldn’t be welcomed back. The asmodian has to realize that, as well, so she’ll probably simply change her appearance and disappear into the wilderness.”
“Oh, right. An asmodian. She’d probably be even more difficult to find than the Major, now that we’ve lost her trail.”
“Quite so. But as I said, sir, we’ve already whittled down the Major’s power base by quite a lot. With just a bit more time, we’ll definitely find her. I’m just trying to be careful and not break the thread by tugging on it too hard.”
“All right. Good. Even if it takes a bit longer than anticipated, just do what you think is best, as long as you’re successful in the end.”
“Then, the second matter I need to consult with you. AK-A-13. What news do you have for me?”
I’ve been simply too busy dealing with the aftermath of everything that happened in the past few days to handle AK-A-13 personally, but even though this frantic pace is probably going to continue for a while yet, removing that particular threat is still very high on my list of priorities. Even if she hasn’t caused another disaster since Fushia City – no matter how busy I was, I would have been alerted at the slightest sign of trouble – I must absolutely take some time to find a way to fix this issue, regardless of how thorny it is.
Hearing my question, Jarod nods sharply as if he’d been expecting it. “After Fushia City’s destruction, she appears to have followed the Springfield household back to their duchy in Rigonn. There doesn’t seem to have been any noteworthy incident on the way – at least, none that we’ve noticed. As per your orders, we limited ourselves to surveillance and observation from afar.”
“She’s staying inside the Springfield estate?”
“That’s right.” Jarod hesitates for a moment before continuing. “Sir, I don’t think it would be a good idea to attack the estate trying to get to her. Considering the level of their defenses, we wouldn’t be able to do it quietly. And with the current political climate, we might…”
“I know that,” I interrupt him with a bitter smile. “Do you think I want to cause a civil war?”
Duke Springfield has too much influence right not for us to touch him directly, and I’m not as reckless as General Foss. Even Foss, if he wasn’t absolutely necessary for the upcoming war against the majin, would have been punished for the mess he caused by attacking the railroad. Severely punished. In fact, as soon as the war is over, I’ll definitely have a word or two with this idiot.
…In the end, as terrible as it is, I suppose Fushia City’s tragedy at least served to cover up the attack the Springfields suffered while aboard the train. Since all witnesses died in Akasha’s destruction of the city, Solaire Springfield will never be able to make anything of publicly accusing Foss. I suppose that’s a silver lining in this list of consecutive debacles.
I close my eyes and take a deep breath. “All right. We can’t touch AK-A-13 while she’s within the Springfield estate. So we just need to lure her out.”
The question is, how to do this?
The simplest would be to play on her objectives.
Which would be, reuniting with her family.
At least, that’s our best guess. And Father concurs on this point.
Information on her family’s location would most likely be enough to make her move, but it’s actually a bit of a puzzle how to transmit this information to her in a believable way. Who on earth would believe it, if random strangers suddenly started saying within earshot of her that ‘a woman called Nerys appeared in such-and-such city’. Akasha’s not a moron. Such a contrived coincidence would undoubtedly arouse her suspicions. And if she notices we’re baiting her that way, it’ll spoil any further opportunity we may have.
No, we need to get it right the first time.
If she shared her goals with Duke Springfield, we might be able to use him as a messenger, but wouldn’t that old fox be even harder to fool than Akasha herself? His intelligence network is one of the best in the empire; they can definitely strip truths from lies and warn Akasha not to trust the news.
How to do this cleanly…?
“What about the devils, sir?”
I open my eyes and raise my head at Malhtur’s suggestion. “What about them?”
“Well, even if we can’t act openly against the Springfields, I doubt the devils would share our scruples,” Malhtur says, looking back and forth between Jarod and I, gauging our reaction to his words. “And I assume they would be very interested to learn where their common ancestor is currently residing. They’d definitely do everything in their power to meet with AK-A-13.”
Jarod shakes his head at that. “It’s too risky. I agree that we could leak AK-A-13’s location to the devils, and they would indeed be pleased to, uh, make her acquaintance. But what if they do more than just introduce themselves to each other? If AK-A-13 actually joined up with the devils, the amount of damage humanity would suffer would be catastrophic.”
“Hmm… There is indeed some risk involved,” I say, “but it might be an opportunity, as well. An opportunity to destroy the devils at the same time as we take care of AK-A-13. Two birds with one stone. Three birds, if the Springfields receive some damage from this.”
This is a pretty good idea.
But do I need to act personally?
Who else but me could do this?
Akasha’s strength has already been clearly demonstrated in Fushia City. Even two provincial gods attacking her at once wasn’t enough to overpower her.
But I do not believe this mongrel is any stronger than I am. Her mere 300 years of flailing around like a blind fool could never measure up against my own techniques, refined and developed and researched for tens of thousands of years through generations of the Adkins family.
I’ll bring Orsino with me, to act as support and to deal with the devils while I handle Akasha, and we’ll clean up this mess once and for all.
I suppress the smile trying to rise upon my lips at the thought of it and slam my palm on the table, interrupting the heated debate still going on between Malhtur and Jarod. “All right, I’ve made my decision. We’ll go with Malhtur’s idea.”
“Enough, Jarod. There is some risk, but success here would be incredibly valuable. We could even manage to clean up all our greatest domestic problems at one fell swoop before the war against the majin can start. Instead of thinking about avoiding this, try thinking of ways to make it work. You’ll be in charge of leaking Akasha’s location to the devils and keeping track of them once they come out of the woodwork, so I’m counting on you for this.”
This will definitely succeed!
I will not fail!
I will show you!