“Is there something wrong, your Grace?” Viktor Odhran asked as he watched the strange young maid fly off into the distance.
“I’m not quite sure myself,” Duke Solaire replied. “Finram, do you know?”
Lord Finram shook his head, looking even more dumbfounded than everybody else here. “I don’t have the slightest idea.”
“Well, I assume Akasha will come back if she wishes to. In any case, few of us could catch up to her and ask her what happened, now. Oh, I’ll be sure to reimburse you for the damages your courtyard sustained, Earl Odhran,” the duke added after a moment, looking at the shattered ground where the young maid had jumped. “I’m terribly sorry about this.”
“Hahaha. Don’t worry for such a little thing, your Grace. A bit of magic, and it’ll be like new. I’ll send word for the guards to let your servant in, in case she turns up. Or would you prefer a more proactive approach? I can send people into the city to look for her if you want.”
Viktor left unsaid the other questions he wanted to ask.
Who was this little girl, exactly?
And how on earth had the Duke managed to employ an apostle as one of his servants?
Viktor was curious, but he would never let his curiosity get the better of him. If the duke wanted him to know, then he would tell him on his own time. Viktor Odhran might not be as great a leader as his great-grandfather had been, but he was still in charge of a full earldom – one that housed the second-greatest orichalcum mine in the human territories – and had been for quite a few years, now. The imperatives of his station had given him enough common sense to know that some things were better avoided.
For example, offending one of the most influential human noble houses with intrusive questions.
The Springfield family might have a reputation for honesty and righteousness, but it was also rich and successful and powerful. And Viktor knew that, in the human political arena, no such thing would be possible without at least some measure of ruthless pragmatism, especially considering the Springfields’ vocal and divisive opinions. Solaire Springfield might look like a kind man, and in some measure, he probably was, but he was still not someone Viktor would want as an enemy.
Fortunately enough, if perhaps not friendship, the Odhran and Springfield families at least shared a long-standing alliance, which did allow Viktor some leeway, but he still wasn’t about to push his boundaries.
“Thank you for asking, Earl, but there is really no need. This girl is not beholden to my house, you see. She’s simply a friend of my daughter. And I expect she can fend for herself well enough without our assistance.”
A friend of his daughter…?
Viktor couldn’t help but be a bit doubtful at this explanation.
The duke’s daughter, Lilly, took this opportunity to tug on her father’s sleeve. “Father, is Akasha all right? She looked a bit weird, just now.”
“I’m not sure,” Duke Solaire answered, shaking his head. “But she knows our names. If she wants to find us, she can definitely do so easily enough.”
The girl didn’t seem convinced. She turned to the duke’s wife. “Mother…”
Rieshia Springfield smiled bitterly. “Even if you ask me, I have no answer to give you, Lilly. Maybe, Akasha left because she had something important to do?” She patted and gently combed her daughter’s hair between her fingers. “Don’t worry too much. I’m sure you’ll meet her again.”
Despite her parent’s coaxing, the child looked crestfallen as she walked, holding her mother’s hand, head down.
Viktor was watching the scene out of the corner of his eye, and it didn’t seem to him as if Lilly Springfield was acting. She really did look genuinely sad.
It wasn’t the first time Viktor Odhran had met this little girl, and she had always struck him as pure and innocent – much more so than he would have expected from the child of a duke. He had never gotten the impression that she was in any way pretending to be so, either, and he very much doubted that she would be able to put on such an elaborate play, just for his benefit.
Even if she was acting, what would be the point?
Denying any link between the Springfields and the apostles, which the strange maid’s presence might have implied?
Plausible, if he’d been anyone else, but Viktor was one of the Springfields’ staunchest allies, and that seemed a lot of trouble to go through to deceive someone such as he, who would only see this link as a potential asset to aid them in their common cause.
…Was this Akasha really just a friend?
Could apostles actually be friendly?
Judging by the few he’d met – though ‘seen’ would probably be a more accurate word, as a ‘meeting’ implied at least some form of interaction between the two parties involved – the thought itself seemed alien and preposterous to Viktor.
Or maybe she was a devil, instead…
Could devils be friendly?
Now, that question didn’t just seem alien and preposterous.
It was downright insane.
The earl shook off this train of thought as he led his guests through a series of wide, bright corridors that appeared quite at odds with the atmosphere in the rest of the town, as if his estate was a small island of cleanliness in the sea of dust and soot that was Fushia City. There were very few decorations anywhere in sight, and those that could be seen were all very understated. This was to Viktor’s preference. He’d stored – or sold – away most of the garish and gaudy knickknacks his father and grandfather and great-grandfather had ornamented the estate with, when he’d inherited the place.
Soon, the group arrived in a small, cozy room, away from the probing eyes and ears of the outside.
When everyone was seated, Viktor spoke with a serious expression, cutting directly to the chase. “I assume your were the target of the attack on the train?”
Duke Solaire nodded. “That is correct.”
“Do you know who instigated it?”
Viktor felt his eyebrows arch up in surprise. “Foss? The general? Are you sure?”
“Not entirely, but there is a good chance. We visited him a couple of days ago. That must have been the impetus for the attack, though they were definitely prepared for it since a long time ago.”
“I see. Do you intend to bring that up officially?”
The duke shook his head. “That would create more trouble than it’s worth. It wouldn’t benefit anybody. And I suspect they’ll have enough to keep themselves busy already,” he added with a small, wintry smile.
“What? I don’t…”
“Arehm Keller died in the attack.”
Viktor’s breath caught in his throat, and he stared at Duke Solaire, looking for any sign that this was a joke or a lie. He found none. His eyes flicked to Lord Finram sitting beside, and at the clear traces of recently healed injuries upon the man’s face, then at the scuffed uniforms of the maids standing behind them. It felt somewhat unbelievable to Viktor that Finram Springfield could emerge victorious from such a battle. At only 54 years old, he was the youngest 9th-rank warrior alive, which certainly did mark him as the most talented, but also as the least experienced. It was generally accepted that he was still the weakest among those peak powerhouses – though being the ‘weakest’ still put him head and shoulders above 99.9% of Caldera’s population.
“I see. Yes, that will… make some waves.” Viktor hesitated for a moment, then shook his head. “I’m not sure how Foss is going to explain that one away. But this is insane… Using a 9th-rank warrior in an assassination attempt… What is this? Civil war?”
The duke shrugged. “There isn’t much to it, really. It’s just the only reliable way to get past Finram.”
“Not reliable enough, apparently.”
The duke smirked. “Apparently.”
“Still, I really didn’t expect they would be so blatant in their hostility,” Viktor said after a few moments, stroking his chin thoughtfully.
“Neither did I, to be honest, but at least, it made their positions clear. The war is definitely going to blaze up again soon. Did you not hear any rumor of mobilization, Earl Odhran?”
“I did, of course, like everyone else, but nothing concrete.”
“I see. That’s something. It means we should still have six or seven months to get ready while they muster the armies.”
“Should I contact my people in majin territory?”
Duke Solaire considered for a few moments before replying. “Yes. With all the tension hanging in the air around here, it would take a very blind or very stupid man not to notice what’s going on – and Yulan and the Major are most definitely neither – but we should still send them what information we have. Giving them intelligence they already have probably won’t be enough to make them very grateful to us, but on the other hand, it won’t cost us anything, and little profits are better than none at all. It’ll at least open the door for future cooperation.”
“I thought so as well,” Viktor said, nodding. “What worries me a bit more are the devils. With most human troops busy in the Thread, they’ll never let such an opportunity pass by. I’d really like to know how Foss plans to deal with their interferences.”
“Quite…” The duke rubbed his forehead in thought, and looked to his brother. “Finram, do you think we could prevail upon Akasha for a few answers?”
“I… I frankly have no idea,” Lord Finram replied, shaking his head. “Every time I start thinking I’m beginning to understand that girl a little, she does something inexplicable. In point of fact, I’m not sure she even has any links to the devils. I think so, but devils are usually rather… mentally unstable.”
Lilly Springfield looked a bit uncomfortable at her uncle’s words and spoke up in her friend’s defense. “Akasha isn’t like that! She’s a good person! She helped us on the train!”
Finram Springfield apparently couldn’t win a debate against his niece, because he only looked at her helplessly and kept his silence, a small bitter smile on his lips.
“Well, we’ll just have to wait and see on that front,” Duke Solaire said finally. “Foss is a warmonger, but he isn’t the kind of idiot who would willfully disregard a threat like the devils. And the God-Emperor seems to take them seriously, too. No, I think we should stay focused on the majin, for now, and try to limit the damages, even if stopping the war itself seems like a lost cause at this point.”
“Understood, your Grace.”
“If there is something that might affect the situation, it’s the explosion that wiped a quarter of Lamos off the map. We need to find out what happened over there.”
Viktor nodded. “Yes, we saw the flash all the way from here. There was quite a lot of confusion in the reports we received afterward, so it wasn’t quite clear what was going on, at first. Well, it still isn’t clear, in fact, but… Was it really that powerful?”
“We were in Aldenfell when it happened, so we fortunately didn’t experience it firsthand. But yes. Apparently, it really was that powerful. I wasn’t exaggerating when I said ‘a quarter of Lamos’.”
“Are the majin responsible?” Viktor asked, his face grave.
If they were, both he and the duke might have to reconsider their position. The two of them strove for peace, but if the majin themselves didn’t, and even dared to deal such an attack to humanity, then there was little they could do.
Peace was a two-way street.
“Nobody knows, yet,” the duke said, shaking his head. “We’ll have to wait for the results of the investigation.”
The conversation quickly wound down after that, and after accompanying his guests for a shared dinner, Viktor Odhran found himself alone in his study, once again, back to the accumulating work of managing a mine with several thousand workers and a territory with several tens of thousands of citizens. Viktor had of course delegated most on-site decisions to his subordinates, but in the end, he was the one who had to sign off on most things. Micromanagement was impossible, but it was still important to keep abreast of what was happening on his own home ground. If nothing else, responding to the queries of people looking into today’s attack on the railroad would not be the task of a single day’s – or night’s, as the case may be – work.
The room was silent for a long time, except for the scribble of Viktor’s pen, until at length, he set it down onto the desktop and leaned back into his upholstered chair, closing eyes stinging and burning with fatigue. He let out a low sigh as he rubbed the bridge of his nose.
When Viktor opened his eyes again, after a minute of rest, he jumped in fright, and his breath caught in his throat.
Someone was seated in one of the two guest chairs in front of his desk.
The young apostle maid of the Springfield family.
Akasha, he remembered her name was.
The small lamp on Viktor’s desk produced enough light to allow him to read whatever documents he needed to work on, but it didn’t do much to illuminate his visitor. He could see her mouth, nose, and the edge of her eyepatch, along with the long, messy white hair framing her scarred face, but her left eye was kept in shadow. He could only see it as a point of brilliant red light, aimed right at him.
…When on earth had she come in?
Viktor hadn’t noticed anything. Guards were supposed to be posted in front of the door to his office, too. Viktor wasn’t sure what had happened to them, but the possibility that the girl might be a devil made disturbing ideas pop up within his mind.
Viktor took a deep breath to calm his startled heart and, noticing the tension running through his shoulders and back, made a conscious effort to relax. “Is there anything I can do for you?” he asked, finding his own voice unexpectedly calm and level, despite his apprehensions.
There was a long pause before the answer echoed inside his head, though Akasha’s lips didn’t move.
[…I have questions.]
Her voice – he had to assume it was she who had spoken, probably through some form of telepathy – sounded childish, but strangely monotone and emotionless. Cold. It was a bit eerie, but Viktor tried not to let it bother him.
He didn’t let the fact that a servant was addressing him in such a peremptory way bother him, either, though he might have taken more offense if he hadn’t been so spooked by her sudden appearance.
“What questions are those, then?”
Did this have anything to do with what had happened during the day, when she’d fled in tears from the estate?
[…The pink tree, in your courtyard. Where does it come from?]
She wanted to know about the tree?
What on earth was this about?
“I’m not quite sure I understand your question. It doesn’t come from anywhere in particular. Why? Where did you think it might come from?”
[…Did it grow in this place?]
“As far as I know, yes,” Viktor said, having trouble hiding his confusion. “It was already there when I was a child. I daresay it was already there when my father was a child, too. At least, I’ve never heard anything to the contrary.”
When Akasha didn’t say anything, Viktor continued. “Well, there might be some story to it, but it never occurred to me to ask. Is there something wrong with the tree?”
[…No. Are there any others?]
Viktor shook his head. “No. At least, not here. There might be others near other orichalcum deposits – they’re the cause of the pink color of the leaves, apparently, though I couldn’t tell you why that is – but the one in my courtyard is the last in Fushia City.”
There was another long silence before Akasha spoke again. […So there were other such trees here in the past?]
“Oh, yes. The entire mountain was covered in them, before we started mining. I suppose my family might have kept the one tree as a form of memento.”
As he rambled on, Viktor could feel a sudden chill settling in the room, the temperature dropping inexplicably until his breath misted in front of his mouth with each exhalation. He glanced behind him to check on the window, but it was just as closed as he had expected. In any case, it wasn’t the season for such weather.
Before he could wonder about it, though, Akasha continued.
[…I saw a statue, in this city.]
After trees, statues, now?
Viktor still had no idea where this conversation was supposed to lead. It was quite exasperating, actually. Duke Solaire was irritatingly cryptic sometimes, as well, but he at least had his reasons – and he was a duke, which certainly afforded him some leeway. But to be talked down to like this by a little girl was a bit…
“Which statue are you talking about? We have several.”
[…Three men, fighting a… demon.]
“What about it?”
[…Tell me about the event it depicts.]
Viktor sighed audibly and shook his head. His annoyance was winning over his wariness, now, and the room was still so damn cold. “Child, there are many people who could answer that question. Why are you asking me? Duke Solaire – or even Lilly Springfield – could tell you all about it. Aren’t you friends? Go as her. As for me, I still have quite a lot of work to do, so if you’ll excuse me, I’ll…”
His words died in his throat as chains of ice suddenly materialized around his body and bound him to his chair, their biting cold seeping into his body and sapping his strength.
Viktor struggled against his restraints, but to no avail. His limbs were growing number by the second. It had only been a few moments, but he had already lost all feeling in his hands and feet.
[…I am not a child. Answer the question.]
Akasha’s voice was still as dispassionate as before, but when his gaze returned to her, he couldn’t help but notice that the point of red light that represented her left eye was definitely shining brighter than before.
And the guards still weren’t coming.
They ought to have felt the qi fluctuation from that spell, just now.
What on earth were they doing?
At least, now he knew where that chill from earlier had come from…
The word exploded within Viktor’s mind, and he almost lost consciousness on the spot, but the ice around his body suddenly grew colder, and the sting and burn of it woke him up instantly. He felt a line of blood trail down over his lip from his nostril.
“I, uh…” Viktor’s mouth was too dry to talk, so he swallowed his saliva. Even that was a struggle. He tried to focus on Akasha’s question and on the story his grandfather had taught him. “Um, i–it was maybe… 300 years ago? Something like that? At the time, there wasn’t any Fushia city. O–Only a small, isolated village nobody visited and practically nobody even knew about. And, uh, on top of the mountain next to that village lived a wolf demon who’d sometimes go down to terrorize the villagers. After a time, the God-Emperor heard about the village’s plight and sent a group of warriors to subjugate the demon. At that time, my great-grandfather, Odhran, along with two friends of his, volunteered to guide those warriors to the demon’s lair.”
“Yes, I think so. They’re not depicted on the statue, though. I–In any case, the wolf demon’s minions attacked as they made their way up the mountain, and Odhran and his two friends were separated from the God-Emperor’s warriors and ended up having to fight against the wolf demon by themselves. They managed to hold on until the warriors dispatched the minions and arrived to reinforce them, upon which the wolf demon itself was defeated.”
[…Tell me more about the demon’s… minions.]
“W–What? I don’t know. I don’t remember. It happened 300 years ago, and I haven’t heard that story since I was a child. It’s obviously apocryphal, anyway. How could three untrained villagers possibly hold their own against a monster like that? Demon hunter organizations exist for a reason!”
[…If you don’t know, then who would?]
[…Who would know about the demon’s minions?]
“I… I don’t know.”
“Why are you interested in that old story, anyway?”
[…Where is Odhran now?]
“Od– My… My great-grandfather?”
“Well, uh, he’s passed away. That story happened 300 years ago. Everyone involved is long dead.”
Akasha said nothing in response to his words, but Viktor could feel the temperature of the room once again dropping vertiginously. It quickly became so cold that the small lamp on his desk started flickering and eventually died completely, plunging the office into darkness.
The gloom brought Akasha’s glowing eye into even sharper contrast, and Viktor could tell with just a glance that it was blazing brighter and redder with each passing second.