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"Good morning, Louie."
"——Good morning, Hibiki."
He returned my meaningless morning greeting kindly, as if it was something terribly precious.
I had been sleeping beneath the countless thin branches of an old tree that sagged downward like ears of rice.
I languidly got up, the marked sense of sleepiness still lingering within me, and checked on our surroundings.
The gloomy, dark grey sky cut off the sunlight and we were surrounded by deformed trees that had lost all of their leaves. There were thin cracks along the dried-up earth. No matter how hard I listened, I couldn't hear any birds chirping to signal the new morning.
To begin with, I could hardly make out the presence of any other living thing besides us.
I blinked several times. My hazy mind slowly began to grow clear.
——That's right, this isn't the peaceful "j.a.pan" I grew up in.
This was a land called Evelier from another dimension that had been endlessly ruined. I idly let myself become lost in my memories.
This world and the world I had lived in were apparently as close as two sides of a coin and influenced each other. If I could turn the people of Evelier, who had been transfigured into terrifying revenants called Reims, back "human" and stop the destruction of the world, the distortions that were spreading in my own world would return to normal as well, or something like that.
"Hibiki, you don't need to force yourself to get up. I want you to rest a little longer."
A gentle voice br.i.m.m.i.n.g with consideration reached my ears and pulled me back to reality. I turned my gaze to the owner of the voice. Next to me was a tall young man with an austere air about him who was kneeling upright on one knee like a servant. There was a reserved smile on his lips. He was waiting earnestly for me to react.
His eyes, which reflected back my sleepy face, were a vibrant gold, as if they were fragments of the moon itself. He had radiant platinum blond hair and smooth tanned skin. I abruptly grew shy upon seeing his shapely figure.
Good morning, I said again while making a conscious effort to sound cheerful.
Louie narrowed his eyes in a bashful manner and looked down a bit with a hint of a smile. Even if it had been on purpose, he looked a little embarra.s.sed at how happy he was.
And it was heartrending.
Louie was the first person I had met in this lonely world on the brink of destruction.
He was a knight who was also the sole survivor of a kingdom called Queen Gallè.
"It'll be about three or four hours until we arrive at Urs?"
It was after our lunch break. I whispered to myself with my head tilted to the side as I saw Louie prepare for travel out of the corner of my eyes.
I amused myself by patting Eru's face when he snuggled closer.
Urs was the name of the village we were planning to stop by.
And, Eru was a sacred beast with steel-colored fur and a scary face. He was a large, lion-like beast who a.s.sisted me as I worked toward reviving the world of Evelier and he didn't give an inch even when someone as tall as Louie rode on him.
"I'm so glad you came here with me, Eru. I'll have to thank Olin later."
There were two G.o.ds that I had come to know when I was suddenly faced with an unexpected and fantastical fate. They were Olin, a G.o.d of war with crimson hair, and Silvai, the beautiful G.o.d of wind.
I brought my forehead close to Eru's as I resolved myself again while recalling their figures.
"I want to see Olin and Silvai again. I'll do my best so that you can return to heaven too, Eru."
Eru was clever enough that I was sure he could understand human speech and was very reliable.
"This is so soothing."
Eru growled happily when I lightly scratched the area around his throat with both of my hands, likely because it felt good, and rubbed the side of his head hard against my shoulder.
"Eru, you're kinda big, so I feel more like you're attacking me than fawning at me when you do that."
He was practically headb.u.t.ting me. Even though I was almost being pushed down to the ground, I couldn't help but naturally smile when I saw how good of a mood Eru was in and I didn't have it in me to stop him. Animal therapy was apparently just that effective.
"We were actually supposed to arrive yesterday, though……"
Eru was almost on top of me. I rubbed around his tufty neck area and sighed.
I had seen something strange yesterday where the stone monuments had been lined up.
A nostalgic dinner table——a shimmering "haze" had projected the world where my family was. The remains of the magic that lingered in the land had distorted s.p.a.ce and had temporarily connected this world to mine.
"I do want to go back. But I didn't want to keep running away as I've been doing until now."
Eru, who thought I was talking to him, licked me on the nose as if to ask, "what?"
I smiled back at him and carefully stroked the whiskers growing around his mouth.
I missed my parents and wanted to see them so much that I felt like those feelings would overflow from my heart even now. But even still, in the end, I chose to stay in Evelier, the ruined world on the brink of destruction, and continue my travels with Louie.
But, just as I'd decided this, we were met with an unexpected disaster.
I don't know if they had anything to do with each other, but a swarm of monsters had shown up after we broke the stone monuments and erased the traces of sorcery left within them. We ended up having to take the long way around to Urs despite how close we were because of this.
"We'll be heading for a town called Lavann next after we secure food and drinking water at Urs."
I reconfirmed our future plans from here on out. According to Louie, there was a temple in Lavann, which was to the south of Urs, and we would be able to translocate to the royal capital from there.
Louie wanted to go to Lavann so we could increase the number of divine sword bearers. He wanted to make turning the princes who could wield divine swords back "human" our first priority.
"I haven't seen a Reim for myself yet. Have you, Eru?"
To be honest, I still thought it might be better to turn even one Reim back human while we were here before going out of our way to go to the capital.
We needed a base where we could sleep safely, supplies, and comrades.
Louie, though, had different apprehensions in his head.
"He wants to keep me from using the divine sword as much as possible."
He didn't want me to have anything to do with the resurrection of the Reims.
"Are they really that creepy? Like ghosts, maybe? Or maybe they're more like monsters? ……Or maybe it's because I look so weak and unreliable that he doesn't want to entrust their resurrection to me? What do you think, Eru?"
I knew all too well that I was lacking in the imagination department. I've never been good at fantastical topics.
Magic and sorcery existed in Evelier, and dangerous monsters appeared here like it was a given.
It was already surprising to me that a world like this even existed, and, above all else, I still found it difficult to believe that I was traveling in said world with Louie and Eru with a sword in hand.
"I wonder if I can't calm down because I haven't gotten used to this world yet. And my heart starts beating weirdly fast whenever I see Louie, too."
I heard Louie approach in a hurry when I sighed while I was being pinned under a fawning Eru.
"Hibiki!? Are you alright?"
He seemed to have mistakenly thought that Eru was attacking me.
I smiled back at him from underneath Eru to show him that I was okay and Louie pulled me out in a hurry.
Eru, who was incredibly shy, scrunched up his nose and glared at Louie.
It looked like it'd be a while yet before Eru got emotionally attached to him.
Louie, too, looked like he secretly worried that Eru was being mean to me.
"Are we going now?"
I couldn't help but smile at the funny sight of the two of them being wary of each other.
I stretched lightly on my tiptoes. Then, I placed a hand above my brow and looked out into the distance.
The hilly wasteland. I couldn't even see the outer edge of the village of Urs from here.
"I'd be nice if we could finally make it to Urs today."
I braced myself so that I wouldn't get discouraged by the bleak grey scenery as we set forth.
We walked without talking much. To someone like me, who was from another dimension, Evelier was an unpredictable land overflowing with mysteries. There was a mountain of things that I wanted to ask Louie, but my bewilderment kept me from speaking out. It wasn't even as if I was trying to preserve my stamina or anything.
It was the scene reflecting before my eyes that was the problem.
——It's so quiet it's scary. There really isn't anyone here…….
That thought brought about a faint chill with it.
The land made its extreme devastation all the clearer as we continued to walk on.
The ground was as dry and hard as stone. It was also discolored, like a potted plant that someone had forgotten to water for a long time. It was like that as far as I could see.
"I can barely feel the wind. I feel like we'll be crushed by the sky."
Clouds of dust had settled into the countless thin cracks that ran across the ground's surface. I felt like things were at least a little better near the forests.
"The air's really dusty too. Maybe it's because I can't feel any moisture at all."
The look on Louie's, who stubbornly refused to face any direction other than forward, profile pa.s.sed beyond pain and fear and only looked emotionless.
I found myself at a loss before the sheer magnitude of loneliness he had suffered.
I was sure that the awkward words floating around in my head weren't enough to accurately portray his suffering.
Would I have been able to get closer to Louie's heart if I'd had a more flexible imagination and better consideration?
I think I'd been staring at him too hard.
Noticing my gaze, Louie turned around with a mystified expression on his face.
"There aren't any demonbeasts in this area, so you needn't worry. There's no food for them here. We'll have to be careful in a bit because we'll be closer to the village……but I won't let them harm a hair on your head no matter what."
Evidently, he had mistakenly thought that I was being anxious. He spoke as if to cheer me up.
——Could it be that my slightest actions are stirring up Louie's emotions?
He always looked dazzled whenever he looked at me. His eyes moistened and wavered as if they were submerged in water.
My heart squeezed tight when I realized this.
"I want to fluff you up all over, Louie, like I do with Eru."
"……What are you talking about?"
The ever-serious Louie asked courteously even though he looked a little shaken.
"I'm frustrated at myself. I sort of understand that there's a better way to act in certain situations and certain things have certain meanings to them, but I don't have the courage to a.s.sert myself. I'm always getting hesitant. Does this have to do with how much EXP I have? Or maybe it's because I don't have good judgement?"
Louie tilted his head to the side, perplexed.
"I really want to gain more confidence soon. You'd feel more relieved if I did, too, right? Hey, won't you hit me hard enough to make me almost pa.s.s out? I think my head might clear up after I wake up from that."
"I want you to take it as a necessary form of tough love and hit me."
He had apparently taken it a strange way. Louie drew back considerably as I looked at him. But then, he suddenly looked deep in thought and he covered up his mouth as a joyful smile appeared on his face. He said,
"I think you're very extreme, no, very gallant, from time to time."
I flatly shook my head at his words.
"I don't believe you. People who are actually gallant don't have such timid thoughts."
"Everyone is at least a little hesitant. And you aren't trying to mature to overcome your own fears……but for my sake, no? It's very knightly of you, the way you try to offer yourself to others."
Unlike when he was coldly gazing at our surroundings, I could tell that there were warm emotions hidden within Louie's moon-colored eyes. That made me so happy that I nodded with all of my might.
"I'll do it. I'll become a knight."
"No, wait. I don't think you need to actually try to become one. Your feelings are more than enough for me."
"Why not? I'm sure I can do it if I train hard enough."
"Training's not the issue here."
"I'll get strong enough to exterminate beasts and demonbeasts in one hit. I wanna become awesome enough that I get a cool nickname, like Divine Destruction Girl or One Hit Kill Knight, that makes the whole world tremble before me."
"No, Hibiki. You've got it completely wrong. You shouldn't be striving for that."
I stubbornly swore that I'd become a knight to Louie, who had grown pale, and continued forward in high spirits.
Eventually, the air began to grow colder. It was hard to accurately tell what time it was because the thick clouds covering the sky blocked out the sun. Still, it seemed like sunset was upon us.
A bunch of irregularly sized building finally appeared from far away as we continued to walk without rest.
The silhouettes of the buildings were hazy as if they were a part of a painting with fading colors.
"Is that Urs?"
I looked closely at the village in front of me. The area around the village was dark, as if a drop of ink had been dropped onto only the sky above it.
It gave me the fleeting impression that it would vanish like smoke the moment a strong wind blew on it.
"There's a small shed. I wonder it if was a barn?"
"There's a granary too. We probably could've seen beautiful countryside fields around here,"
Louie whispered regretfully.
The atmosphere around the area reminded me of j.a.pan's countryside. There were simple wooden granaries and barns with triangular roofs. You could see them all over the wide, level wastelands that were apparently cultivated fields once.
We pushed our way through a small trench that looked like a footpath between the fields until we arrived at a place where the buildings were densely packed together. There was a continuous fence and a tall stone gate erected in front of it. It was more secure than I'd thought it would be. I wonder if it was prepared for times of war.
Set up near the doors of the gate was a watchtower with a large copper drum hanging from it.
The drum was probably used as a signal for emergencies.
"We've finally arrived."
I looked up at the copper drum, which was discolored from all the dust, and sighed.
I was only emotional about it for a brief moment before the gloominess immediately came back and pressed down on my chest again. The village was enveloped by silence without a trace of the energetic hustle and bustle that should've been here. As always, I couldn't feel the presence of other people.
"The residential houses are deeper inside. Come, let's go."
I moved my feet as Louie urged me on.
There was quite a distance from the gates to the nearest building. I took a peek at it as we pa.s.sed by and there was long building that looked like some kind of lodging next to it. It looked like it'd had earthen walls at one point.
"I wonder what kind of building that's supposed to be. Was it an a.s.sembly hall for a vigilante corps or voluntary firefighters or something……?"
This was the first village I'd visited. I wanted to have a chance to take my time and look around.
But, my wishes were vetoed by Louie, who looked around at our surroundings with sharp eyes.
"It'll be sunset soon. We have to hurry."
I swallowed down the little bit of dissatisfaction I felt and followed after him with Eru.
We arrived at a small square after walking for a short while. There were a lot of different buildings with wooden signs hanging from their eaves in the center of the village. I imagine it was some sort of shopping district?
Surrounding the square were box-like buildings that looked to be residential houses.
It was quite a surprise to me, as in my head I'd imagined a more pastoral scene of people living in houses with thatch roofs. To be honest, I'd gotten the impression that this countryside region was tranquil, so I felt even more disconcerted by the difference.
"This village is pretty large."
"It's because the land here is owned by the state."
"Hmmm……? Oh, there's even a building that looks like a shrine."
There were even large buildings that looked like there were made for public use. The majority of the buildings that looked like shops, too, were made from blocks of some kind of brick-like stone piled up together. They were pretty dusty, but if I took a closer look I could tell that the buildings were all composed of a variety of different colors, like copper-red, milk-white, or blue.
"I know about this. It's similar to building techniques from ancient times. The buildings are held together only by the tension in the materials themselves and they don't use any adhesives like cement, right? I remember seeing something about that on TV."
I dodged the puzzled Louie's question with a smile.
"The residential houses are made half with wood and half with stone. A lot of them are broken down."
"……That's likely because there isn't anybody left to maintain them."
All of the buildings had deteriorated and had holes in them or were slanted to the side and they were all covered in rubbish. I tried brushing my finger across one and greyish filth stuck right onto it.
As for the bath that I'd secretly been hoping for……there was a building with a line of columns that looked like the remains of a bathhouse, but I didn't need to check inside to know that it was complete dry.
"Oh, there's a well over there!"
I jumped off of Eru's back and ran over to it, only to be disappointed. There was a yellowish-brown bucket attached to a frayed rope hanging limply into the pentagonal well.
"I guess even the rivers were dried up too. Baths aside, what are we gonna do about drinking water? I'm sure there aren't anything like vending machines here."
I surveyed the entire village as I felt Louie and Eru coming closer from behind.
All of the buildings were placed in properly calculated blocks.
My breath suddenly caught. I was really in a fantasy world. It was like I'd time-traveled into an ancient city without gas or electricity.
"My heart won't calm down for some reason……, is it because I can't see anyone here?"
I let slip as I furrowed my brows and pressed by hand lightly over my heart.
I'd thought this earlier too, but, unlike there area with the fields, there wasn't really a simple atmosphere here inside of the stone walls. Instead, it had a strangely stiff impression about it. Should I say it was plain?
There were a lot more buildings than I'd thought there would be, and if I exaggerated a bit I'd even say that it seemed a bit militaristic.
"It's more like a town than a village."
I climbed back on Eru and tilted my head to the side. There were so many things to see and absorb that I'd forgotten about Louie's warnings to hurry along and ended up wandering around.
Each time I did, Louie would look troubled and would patiently admonish me to look for our objectives without getting sidetracked.
Eru looked like he agreed with him if he had to pick a side. But, my loyal bodyguard was sweet on me and would go along with my selfish desires to go here and there whenever I gently pat at the area around his ears.
I nonchalantly had Eru walk around even as I felt Louie's gaze on me and devoted myself to observing my surroundings.
"Is this also a granary? Did all of the villagers share it together? There are even logs placed around here."
Louie, who was walking a little ahead of me, suddenly stopped in front of a particular building while I was admiring the tall, tower-like storehouse. He had stopped in front of a rectangular building that was built with copper-red blocks. Only its arched doors were made from wood.
The wood was heavily rotten and looked like they would easily fall over from just a light kick. The building was slightly larger than a j.a.panese single house. A chimney stuck out of its flat roof.
"What is this building?"
Louie didn't answer and kicked the door open instead after carefully turning his gaze to his surroundings. The door opened with a dry sound like someone had kicked sand.
"Hibiki, you stay——"
I swiftly jumped off of Eru's back before I heard the rest of Louie's sentence.
I didn't need him to explain what he was thinking after I saw the expression on his face.
He was probably about to tell be to stay on standby with Eru here.
"I'm going with you. I don't have to confidence to stay in one place if I'm left to my own devices. As for Eru……I think it'll be difficult for you to enter the building because of your size, so you stay in front of the door, okay?"
I slipped past Louie's, who had opened his mouth with a fastidious look on his face, side and went in.
It was horribly dusty inside of the building and the air was stagnant. There were windows, but it was still pretty dark because all of them were covered in dust without exception.
I blinked a few times until my eyes got used to it and slowly observed the area.
"It looks kinda like a general store. Am I right?"
"Yeah. ……We don't know when danger will strike. Please, I want you to stay with the sacred beast."
"I want to be together with you, Louie. I want to see you and hear your voice from close by."
Louie was at a loss for words when I turned around and said this to him. I continued,
"but, I'll listen to what you tell me to do if I'm really being a bother to you. I still can't really tell how dangerous things are. I definitely don't want you to get hurt because I was with you."
Louie's eyes wavered as he suddenly turned away and took a step backward. He had strange expression on his face that was heartrending but also somehow exhilarating at the same time.
I was staring at him before I knew it and realized that there was a block of wood fallen by his feet. I panicked. He might trip if he stepped on it.
"Louie, watch out. There's a——"
My balance collapsed the moment I shortened the distance between us as I called out to warn him.
I was the one who should have been paying close attention to what was at my feet. My toes caught on a piece of floorboard that was raised up a little and pitched forward.
Louie extended both of his arms as if on reflex and caught me before I fell. I, too, had immediately looked for something to cling on to and wrapped my arms around his waist.
My face crashed into his chest head-on.
I stifled my embarra.s.sment and shame and looked up to say thank you.
Louie was looking down at me as well. He had the same face as before. He looked like he was in pain on one hand, but his cheeks were also flushed.
I found myself unable to keep my composure because it was a special kind of face that you wouldn't normally show your family or friends. I was enveloped in a sense of gentle elation that was accompanied by a modest amount of heat.
I grabbed Louie's waist tighter in an effort to ignore that strange feeling.
"Louie, you have a really nice body."
He was tall and looked slender, but the area around his waist was actually quite st.u.r.dy. I understood that this was the reason why he was able to carry around such a heavy sword and still move so nimbly.
"How should I put this, but you have a pretty thick waist? You'd look amazing if you took your clothes off."
He had no excess fat. I was so jealous! I subconsciously stroked his sides in my admiration. I swear that I wasn't thinking about anything inappropriate. I was just thinking that it'd be nice if I could be like that too.
Finally, I realized that it was strange how Louie had absolutely no reaction to any of this.
I wholeheartedly regretted the fact that I should have at least said that he had a nice 'physique,' not a nice 'body'. ……Though I guess it doesn't really make much of a difference.
"I was just thinking that you're really cool and had an ideal body type, and…"
I didn't know how to describe the expression I saw on Louie's face when I looked up at him.
"——Hibiki. You are so……"
Louie furrowed his brows in a heartrending manner and his face was filled with pain. He grabbed my shoulders with both of his hands and gently pulled me away.
"You need to be a little more cautious. And you need to be more aware of the fact that you and I are different beings."
I flinched at his strict tone. Was he angry?
The elation suddenly vanished and I felt like my body temperature had lowered. Louie and I were different beings.
I guess that means that I should be more aware of how useless I am, right?
"……Okay. I'm sorry for touching you. I'll go back to where Eru is."
He grabbed my arm in a panic as I did my best to keep myself from getting depressed.
"That's not it. You misunderstood me."
"I wasn't trying to push you away."
We stared at each other for several seconds. The place he was grabbing me was hot for some reason. Even my heart was beating faster.
"I don't think of you as a bother. ……You don't have to go back."
I, as calculating as ever, was revitalized upon hearing his words.
"I can stay with you?"
"Yeah. But don't leave my side."
Louie gave me his brief permission in a conflicted manner.
I suddenly felt ticklish, like I was embarra.s.sed, for some reason that I couldn't explain. I slipped my arm out of Louie's hand in order to mask that feeling and asked him something that had been on my mind for a while now.
"Hey, Louie? Is there a reason why the colors on the building walls are all different?"
"The building's color indicates what properties it has. This house, for example, belongs to a merchant who dealt with daily necessities. Lodgings, bathhouses, eateries, and the like all have a certain set of colors they're able to use."
"Is that how it is? It's nice and easy to understand."
I made an abrupt realization after I was impressed.
"Now that I think of it, there were times when certain colors meant certain things back in the world I lived in too."
"In your world too?"
I nodded at Louie, who had asked kindly. Important ceremonial occasions relating to familial relationships was one of those times.
I wonder if the shapes of the well and baths from before had some kind of meaning behind them too. Louie smiled wryly at me as I was itching to learn more about it.
"Hibiki, let's search for a map first."
He placed a hand on my shoulder and urged me to prioritize our original objective. He was being calm and cautious so that I wouldn't move around too much on my own because I'd taken an interest in things we didn't have the time for. He really was an adult!
"……It is getting closer to sunset, so it's probably better to hurry up. Right."
I decided to obediently follow his instructions for now and looked to the dusty shelf along the wall. I called it a shelf, but it was simply a wooden board that was attached to the wall. Plus, a part of the wood had rotted off.
Several small articles that looked like goods that had been fore sale were fallen in a mess by my feet. I wanted to pick them up and inspect them in detail, but Louie's grim expression p.r.i.c.ked at my conscience when he looked over at me.
I took in the entire room. There was a piece of cloth that looked like some kind of curtain along the inner wall.
It looked like it led to another room.
"I wanna explore……"
I answered in a hurry.
Then, I suddenly recalled the rules of my travels with Uncle Miharu. He'd always said, "Now, don't be timid! Be proactive and sneak into anything that seems suspicious!" I remembered how Uncle Miharu's eyes had sparkled with a mischievous glint when he'd said that and the many nostalgic travels we've had together and almost laughed out loud. But then, my face suddenly twisted.
Uncle Miharu. Was he still in the garden-like and mysterious town of Sarumi?
Is he looking for me?
What should I do if he's suffering because he feels responsible for my absence? Is he being blamed by my parents?
No, my parent's might actually be happy about the fact that they're finally free now instead. The illusionary scene of their cheeriness made my heart hurt.
I vigorously shook my head clear of my loneliness. I erased the figure of Uncle Miharu from my mind as well.
I changed my emotions by taking deep breaths and picked up an old book from the shelf.
"I wonder what kind of maps they have in this world. Scrolls? Or maybe they're a sheet of paper?"
While I was puzzling over this, Louie brushed aside the hanging curtain with his arm and was about to enter the other room by himself.
"Hey, no, no fair!"
He turned around when I tried to hurry after him and gave me a stern look that told me to be obedient and keep searching for a map here.
"Geez! That was so mean."
I sulked quite a bit. I felt all the more miserable because I knew that Louie was being considerate for me so that I wouldn't find myself in even the smallest of dangers.
"I'll have to become that Divine Destruction Girl as soon as possible. I wanna get strong enough that I can easily lift Louie or Eru with only one hand."
I reconfirmed my resolve and began checking through the books on the shelf again. I carefully opened them up one by one.
"……This is troubling. I can speak and understand the language here, but it looks like I can't read it."
I glared fixedly at the strange letters written on the spine of the book I was holding.
I couldn't read it at all.
"Which means that I'll ultimately have to ask Louie to check through these."
I grew irritated at myself and the surface of my heart trembled.
"Does that mean that I can't only cover the physical stuff? It'll probably be harder for me to become a brains-type girl though."
I accidentally ended up putting the book back on the shelf a little roughly. Perhaps that was why a large bug that looked almost exactly like a spider jumped out from behind the shelf and fell to the floor.
I failed to suppress my surprise because it happened so suddenly and ended up letting out a shriek. I'd only just been swarmed by bugs the other day. That was one experience that I never wanted to repeat again.
Louie, who had been in the next room over, came over running with a sharp yell.
"I'm sorry, it was just a bug, nothing actually hap……!"
Louie didn't let me finish my sentence and wrapped an arm secure around my body. Ack, whoa.
"I, I'm okay! There was only one, and it's already run off somewhere!"
Louie's eyes, which were looking down at me, promptly lowered their caution. I was embarra.s.sed at myself for causing such a big fuss for no reason. I was worried about my future if I was panicking at something so small, if I do say so myself.
Louie gently fixed my bangs, which had apparently become disheveled, with the tips of his fingers.
"You should come this way as well."
He placed a hand on my shoulder with natural movements when I stood around, depressed, and guided me to the next room over.
Louie was always kind. Normally, most people would get exasperated and tell you not to freak them out about every little thing if you kept making thoughtless ruckuses on a frequent basis.
Yet, Louie never showed any hints of exasperation and continued to quietly treat me kindly. I was happy for it, but it also weighed down on my heart.
"I found a map. And a few other things that looked like they might be useful."
The other room gave me the impression of a study-c.u.m-bedroom.
Except, there were books and things strewn all over the place as if a burglar had gone through it.
"The air's stuffy here too. And it's dark even though there's a window."
I noticed that there was a couch underneath the skylight and cleared away the dust on it with one hand.
Louie took my arm as I stared aimlessly at the white particles dancing in the air. I sat down on the moth-eaten couch as he prompted me to.
"Here. It's a map of the area around Urs."
Louie took a scroll that had yellowed with age from the shelf at the other edge of the couch and unrolled it in front of me.
"……. Erm, it looks like everything was simplified before it was transcribed on the paper, or something like that……"
My antic.i.p.ation dropped like a sack of bricks and shriveled away. The map was much simpler than I'd expected.
The topography was drawn in with a thick, jagged line. There only other things that were there were letters that looked like they indicated the names of other villages and a graphic pointing to the four cardinal directions located near the bottom.
Honestly, I couldn't see how this map would be useful. It didn't even have a scale for distance.
Taking notice of my disappointment, Louie knelt down beside me and smiled wryly as the area around his eyes softened.
"You might find more detailed maps among the collection in an athenaeum1 of a castle town……but I don't think it'll have as much information as you were hoping for."
"It's a building where a large number of books are managed."
"Oh, so is it something like a library? ……Are all of the maps in Gallè like this?"
"They are. Since most citizens don't really have a need for one."
I tilted my head to the side as I remembered about my own world.
I think it's true that I didn't really have many opportunities to look at a paper map. Maybe only during geography and history cla.s.s.
I'd left almost everything to Uncle Miharu when we traveled. I think that working adults used maps more frequently then students did. Though, it probably depended on their occupation.
"Our kingdom does not tower over other countries in terms of the vastness of her territory. However, we have a firm cornerstone that other countries do not possess."
Louie cut his words off there for the time being and let his moon-colored eyes shine with pride. The pa.s.sionate expression on his virile mien was rare for someone who was usually as reserved as he was. Perhaps it was the manifestation of the pride carried by a knight who guarded his kingdom.
I was captivated for a moment before I opened my mouth to speak.
"And what is that?"
I was a bit bewildered as I received the solemn weight behind his reply.
I understand what tradition means, but that's the cornerstone of the kingdom?
"Am I correct in thinking that you mean that you care a lot about your kingdom's history?"
Louie deliberated for a moment when I asked him hesitantly.
"That's true as well, of course……how should I explain this? We fundamentally don't take too kindly to external interference from other countries, so we don't take any proactive measures to build up diplomatic relations with them outside of times of crisis. We do commence a bit trade with them, but only to the smallest degree possible."
"Is Gallè closed off from the rest of the world?"
Louie nodded unresponsively. I didn't know how I should take this, either. Having as little to do with other countries as possible was how they preserved tradition? Would he dislike it if I asked for more details? At any rate, I soon found myself feeling like I was in history cla.s.s.
I wanted to show off the fruits of all the hard studying I did for my high school entrance exams. I had to become a brains-type girl too, after all.
"By closed off, does that mean that the people aren't interested in other countries? Or does that mean that Gallè itself tries to get by with a policy of self-sufficiency?"
I also think that it's possible that the kingdom didn't have the leisure to care about other countries because of their current standard living.
Louie looked away from me and jogged his memory.
"New Queen Gallè is known as a holy kingdom that was created by the founding king——a G.o.d."
"It's the kingdom that Olin founded, right?"
Louie blinked, and then he stared at me for a bit and smiled.
"There is a lot of importance placed on the fact that we possess the oldest history. We are the only holy kingdom in this land……, which means that our kingdom must never be infringed upon by another. We were originally promised eternal inviolability."
"……Does that mean that other countries can't wage war on you because of something like international law?"
"International law? ……As in laws that were decided upon between multiple countries? No, it has nothing to do with the law. It's simply that we must remain holy in order to maintain order in the world of Evelier. Waging war on us is essentially the same thing as scorning the G.o.ds. Our military might is the pillar of divine authority, not just our own."
I was inwardly taken aback. That sounded kinda amazing.
This was a world where there was a country that was closed off from the rest in order to protect tradition, and rather than saying that other countries allowed for it, it was simply accepted as that country's foreign policy.
"And other countries thought this way too?"
"Yeah. But, while there wasn't any public opposition, there were still emerging nations that weren't satisfied with the way things were. There were also major world powers that approved of Gallè on the surface that joined together behind closed doors and plotted to pillage our lands……but for better or worse, people haven't been able to wage war against each other now that calamity has spread across the entire world."
"When you say that your lands were targeted, erm, does that mean that Gallè was rich in resources?"
"The blessings of the founding king continue even to this day. While terrain and climate does play a small part in it, we still had many lands that were blessed. ……There used to be golden fields, gra.s.slands that smelled of flowers, fertile soil, a beautiful and magnificent capital, vivacity, and pride in our kingdom."
The weary and pained glint in Louie's eyes pressed against my heart.
His beloved kingdom had become so ruined that it could have been mistaken for another land entirely. He was standing in his home country, but it wasn't his home country. His irritation and unshakeable sorrow at the fact flashed across his profile.
Louie soon shook his head and returned to his gentle gaze.
"Yes, we were constantly faced with the equal envy and jealousy of other countries because our kingdom was a land of plenty. But, no matter how much they threatened us, we have never been conquered since the founding of the kingdom. Gallè never allowed herself to grow conceited in the blessing of the G.o.ds and made sure to devote her strength to self-defense. That's why our tradition still remains as pure as white snow."
The way he spoke with firm resolution was both gallant and cute.
"I see. I mean, you have knights and all, too. Louie, you and the other knights are guardians of the kingdom. That's amazing!"
"……No, it's our natural duty as people who live in the kingdom."
"Well, you can't put your life at stake just for the sake of duty, right? It's really cool how you protect the kingdom with pride!"
Louie looked troubled at that for some reason. He seemed to be feeling out of place after being praised for something he never expected to be praised for. Is his face getting a little red?
"Yeah, I think I understand why you and the other knights love the kingdom so much."
A wonderous nation that had never known defeat. Everyone was proud of it. I bet that no one ever really considers immigrating elsewhere. I continued,
"so that's how it is……, I guess it wouldn't really be much of an inconvenience even if you didn't have a map."
"The only people who need maps are those who are with the military."
"Do knights have different types of maps by any chance?"
Louie lightly shook his head.
"No, they're not much different."
"But what if some foolhardy country decided to send in soldiers and force you to start a war —wouldn't a map like this one not be enough? Don't you need to know more about the terrain about where the battle's gonna take place or the status of the towns in the area are or stuff like that?"
Louie's eyes widened ever so slightly.
"——Yes. In that case……we would send out a dark rabbit before the war begins."
"……A dark rabbit?"
"Someone who infiltrates the enemy army or the towns in the area and conducts intelligence a.s.sessments behind closed doors."
"I see. So they're like spies……people like that are called intelligence agents, right?"
This knowledge wasn't a fruit of my studies. j.a.panese manga is GREAT.
"The military is maintained by a large variety of people, not just soldiers. People who support the soldiers' activities work alongside them. Dark rabbits who are skilled at disguise often dig out highly cla.s.sified information from those kinds of people. Then, we can put together a strategy based off of the insider's information they bring back."
"Can't you write down important information like that on a map?"
"Our cards would get leaked if such a map was stolen by the enemy army, no? The majority of generals have a map inside of their heads. Though, there are a few who write down detailed notes in order to pa.s.s the information on to their successors."
I could see it now. Most enemy armies didn't know about Gallè's precise terrain or where the towns and villages were located because the kingdom was so closed off. The reason that there wasn't a detailed map was because it was a kind of strategy.
"It'd be terrible if a general was captured and became a prisoner of war."
"That won't happen because generals don't cross into enemy lines, even if they command the soldiers to."
"Err, so they only command them from far away?"
A scene from a war movie that I'd watched with Uncle Miharu came to my mind. A general was ordering, "foot soldiers, forward!" on a horse.
"Yeah. A battle's about as good as over once you've lost your general."
Now that I thought about it, in the movie, the tides had suddenly changed for the worse as soon as the army lost their commander and they'd lost the battle.
Well, personally, I liked the movie because it was interesting how the exceptional and cool tactician turned the tables and s.n.a.t.c.hed away victory. But I guess it wasn't that simple in reality.
"It's also a general's job to bring over peace negotiations and coordinate our interests when we know we can't win, or when we know we will."
"They agree on a treaty in exchange for stopping the war?"
"It's important to be able to predict when the losing side will surrender. The burden of war expenses, the transfer of lands, the preparation of livestock and hostages……the losing side will bear the brunt of the liabilities."
I panicked a little even as I nodded back. Uh-oh, it's finally started to get too difficult for me. Any more and it'll go over my brain capacity.
"The final decision rests with the king and each respective temple and ring.2 We knights don't have the right to make decisions that concern the government."
I wonder what a 'ring' is? Guessing from the flow of the conversation, I guess it might be like a house of parliament or something. That's what I decided to a.s.sume for now.
The conversation had gotten sidetracked. For the time being, I now understood why the map was so simple.
Louie had been so unenthusiastic about finding a map because there really wasn't much of a point in obtaining one.
I, who had been raised in j.a.pan, had a stubborn notion that maps were useful. I'm sure Louie had thought that I wouldn't give up on the idea until I saw one for myself.
Oh, but there's still something that I'm concerned about.
"What about the population of villages and towns……is there a census?"
"That's managed by the liege lord of each territory. The liege lords have the obligation of delivering periodic reports regarding the particulars about the lands under their control to the Ring of Land and Comfort,3 which bears the responsibility of overseeing the development and maintenance of the kingdom's lands."
The Ring of Land and Comfort? I didn't know what it meant, but I also didn't have the courage to ask.
It really felt like I was in a history or political science cla.s.s. I worked my brain as hard as I could. Maybe it was a government body like the j.a.panese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism? I decided to settle with that for now.
I could always ask for more details later when I had both the time to spare and leeway in the mind.
"Okaay, I got it. Thanks for telling me about all of this."
Louie nodded lightly and cast a curious gaze at me.
"Is something the matter?"
Louie hesitated for a brief moment when I tilted my head to the side before smiling his usual modest smile. His beautifully shaped eyes softened and narrowed. It was a stoic expression, but it made my heart race because it was awfully attractive.
"You're very wise."
"Huh!? I think you're misunderstanding something here!"
"Normally, girls your age don't show much interest in topics like these."
I had complicated feelings about what he'd just said. I wouldn't have voluntarily asked about it either if I wasn't in this kind of situation.
"We have tests on stuff about war, so I have to study it anyway…"
Louie stared at me in blankly as I talked to myself with a sigh.
I felt suddenly embarra.s.sed.
Would I be able to go to school again? The laughter of my cla.s.smates echoed in my ears.
I missed the view of sunlight gently shining into a cla.s.sroom just a little.
Louie and I moved to another room.
We went to a storage room that had been built next to the study-c.u.m-bedroom. We had noticed that there was a hidden door in the wall.
On the other side of the door was a room that reminded me of a shelter for times of crisis, and while it wasn't very s.p.a.cious, it was built to be st.u.r.dier than the others.
"So does that mean that this room really is some kind of shelter?"
Louie turned around at my question.
"Probably. There are emergency rations and preserved water here."
"T, thank goodness. I'm really glad that we found something to drink."
I surveyed the small, dim room in a hurry.
I felt bad for the owner of the house, but I felt more relieved than guilty.
I'd worried about where we'd get our hands on food and water every time we'd stopped to a break during our travels, so I could finally relax for the meantime.
Louie also looked around the entire secret room before bending down to unwrap a grey package that was lying in a corner. I cleared away the dust atop a wooden crate close by and sat on it.
I watched over Louie as he checked the contents of the package.
"This is made from processed grains. It's a common food in this region."
There was a chunk of solid food that was similar in color to a CalorieMate inside of the package that Louie unwrapped. It was about as large as a loaf of bread.
"Can we eat it?"
I wonder when it's expiration date was. It'd be life-threatening to get food poisoning here because we didn't have a way to treat it.
"It's alright, it hasn't spoiled."
Louie turned to me and laughed a little.
"Is there anything else we could take with us?"
Louie nodded, but he turned away with a look of hesitation on his face, like he was slightly bewildered or something. I realized what Louie was feeling as I watched him.
——He's probably feeling guilty toward the owner of this house.
Even if we didn't have any other choice but to do it, it was still technically stealing.
There was an obvious difference in how Louie, who was born and raised in Gallè and had actually seen people live out their daily lives here, and I, who had only seen traces that "someone used to live here", thought and made decisions. If this had been a town that I'd lived in in j.a.pan, I'd probably be a.s.saulted by a strong sense of something that was a little different from remorse too.
On top of that, Louie was a knight who protected the people and cracked down on crime.
It was only natural that Louie felt more uneasy about it than I did.
I jumped down from the crate, moved in front of Louie, and peered into his shadowed moon-colored eyes.
"Erm, I forgive this sin as a member of the G.o.ds' household."
"…Or at least I'd be happy if you humored me on this one. ……Let's put it on temporary hold! Let's come back here together when everything's back to normal and it's peaceful again. We'll bring lots of apology gifts and apologize to the people who live here fore taking their food and stuff without their permission."
Louie opened his eyes wide and subconsciously touched my lips.
It was like he was trying to touch the words I'd said with his own hands.
I knew why he did it, but I was still embarra.s.sed to suddenly get touched by the mouth since I wasn't Eru. I gently pulled away so he wouldn't know how shaken I was.
"So, let's look the other way from it this time and just be thankful, okay?"
I'd meant to lessen some of Louie's burdens, since he carried so many troubles with him, but perhaps I'd said too much?
"I'm sure that Olin and Silvai will turn a blind eye to it too."
I grew a little uncomfortable because Louie, who'd stopped moving, was staring at me for a while.
Perhaps it was unfair of me to bring up Olin and Silvai against someone who took great importance in the fact that he had been born in a holy kingdom.
Or, maybe he found it unpleasant that an outsider like me was running her mouth?
"Err, I wasn't saying things just for the sake of saying them, but if I came off as arrogant or anything……, well that wasn't really what I was trying to do…"
Louie came back to his senses and blinked restlessly as I made incoherent excuses for my words. His cheeks twisted and he dropped his gaze to the floor. I couldn't tell if I'd put him in a bad mood or not.
He soon looked back up again and smiled kindly.
"……Thank you very much."
My breath caught for a moment. Louie's att.i.tude had become weirdly proper, possibly because I'd started talking about G.o.ds and such.
"Thank you for your consideration and magnanimity. Your words have become my salvation."
"……Louie, you're speaking all formally again!"
I said brightly and glared at him a little even as I faltered because of Louie's sorrowful, but dazzling, gaze.
"Won't you please condone it? I should be more cognizant of my place."
He looked a little perturbed and glanced at me with upturned eyes. I smiled before I knew it because Louie's mannerisms were so cute. At the same time, though, I grew a bit depressed.
My words from before had unintentionally made him more conscious of positions and social status. He'd categorized me as a "n.o.ble being".
It scared me for some reason. His a.s.sessment of me didn't suit my station in life.
"I will not. I'm younger than you, after all."
——I don't want to grow distant from you.
I hid my true intentions and pretended to act selfish. I wanted to change the topic to something funny.
"However, it only stands to reason."
"Shall I speak formally to you as well, Louie?"
Louie was at a loss for words when I decided to use force. ……You don't have to be that shocked you know. I continued,
"so, by Gallè's standards, I'm not a princess or a n.o.ble or anything…… Which means that your social standing is higher than mine, Louie. It's rude to only call you by your name, so I will be addressing you as Lord Louie from now on. Why, it's actually quite refreshing."
Uwaa, Louie's face just stiffened up like crazy.
He was a very serious person with very honest reactions.
"Now, we should hurry since evening is almost upon us. Let's check through the other packages as well."
"Please help out too, Lord Louie. I will go through the items over here."
"Alright. I'll do as you say."
He cringed visibly when I called out to him.
"……It actually troubles me that you're being so respectful,"
Louie said in a quiet voice of surrender as he covered his mouth with a hand.
"All right! Did I win?"
I peered into Louie's face with glee.
He grew even more fl.u.s.tered. Like, the corners of his eyes looked red? I couldn't really tell because the room was dim.
"……Yes. You won."
"Yup, 'cause girls are invincible!"
I beamed as I opened up the next package.
↑ The original word here in j.a.panese was 図嶺院 (zuryouin), which is not an actual word and is composed of the characters for 'map/drawing/picture/figure/graph', 'peak/summit', and 'inst.i.tution'. I was too lazy to come up with a fake word for it, so I just went with a synonym for 'library,' (athenaeum) because Hibiki basically compares it to one anyway.
↑ The original j.a.panese word that I translated to "temple" was 院 (in) which loosely translates to 'inst.i.tution/house of government/temple (Buddhist term)/imperial palace' among other things. Since Hibiki has already decided that "ring" (環, kan (not the usual p.r.o.nunciation), 'ring/band/wheel') refers to government-related bodies in Gallè, I translated 院 as "temple" because religion plays a large role in this society, as will be made more apparent later in this volume and in volume 3.
↑ 地楽環 (chirakukan). Not an actual word. Composed of the characters for 'earth/ground', 'ease/comfort', and 'ring/band/wheel'.