Once the bureaucratic paperwork was in order, to receive a simple explanation of the situation, Rudel's party scheduled an audience with royalty… with the current king Barqah Celestia.
But the only one who could attend was Rudel.
The reason was a discriminatory one, and a decision by Celestia that a Courtois non-native like Izumi and a demi-human like Millia were unworthy of the meeting.
Within the flurried palace interior, Rudel was kept waiting in the waiting room. Knights left to watch over him stationed nearby, Rudel read through the documents from Celestia's side.
"… I don't think there will be a problem guarding Princess Cleo on the way to the volcano, but protecting her throughout two days before departure will be difficult for me alone."
The contents denoted were orders for Rudel to serve as Cleo's guard. With the other party being the princess of a foreign country, Rudel felt there was a limit to how far he could accompany her over a course of two days. The bath, bathroom, changing and such, it would be embarrassing for a man to be by her side.
Rudel had already been kept waiting over an hour for his audience. Within all that, Millia saw in a chair as she sipped tea. While she looked calm, perhaps she was irritated within, as she sent some glances towards the knights stationed around.
"I get why you're the only one who gets an audience, but aren't they treating us too terribly? And there's a bit of a problem relying on a foreign knight to protect the precious princess."
Millia's words afforded her glares from the knights. Izumi sipped her tea calmly.
"I'm sure Celestia has some preparations of its own. And we did arrive quite ahead of schedule."
"There's a limit to that. And even if it's an audience, he's just meeting in the king's office, isn't he? I don't want to say it, but Rudel's a future archduke. They're treating him too lightly."
Millia's anger could be called natural. There was no helping if the country made light of them. When it came to keeping Rudel waiting, they recognized it as a foreign diplomacy tactic. But they also knew it was a measure to be taken against those of lower status.
The small country of Celestia boasted less land than Rudel's own home.
There was an active volcano close to the fortress city, with some towns and villages dotted around. The national population didn't reach a million.
There were hot springs around, and accepting travelers, they were in possession of assets in foreign currencies. The fruit juice that made up their specialty product was widely exported. It was certain these lands were livelier than the Arses territory governed by Rudel's parents.
But they depended on a foreign knight. They took an attitude as if to pick a fight with a major power. It wasn't strange at all to think they were going beyond their reach.
"… For now, I have come on a mission as a single knight. I don't think they're treating me lightly. But more than that, the princess' guard detail will be a problem. I can't follow her to the bath or changing room."
"Can't Celestia dispatch some female knights?"
On Millia's arbitrary statement, Rudel shook his head.
"Unfortunately, there are no female knights in Celestia. No soldiers either."
Different countries had different customs. The female knights that were gradually becoming natural in Courtois were nothing but heresy here. Rudel thought the reason for the limited audience was also related to those customs.
Women were not permitted to enter the restricted class of knights. There were other small countries around Courtois, but even among them, Celestia was special.
(This is a troublesome mission. I guess I'll try negotiation.)
Thinking it would be difficult to serve as the only guard, Rudel decided he'd ask for Izumi's cooperation in the case that Celestia hadn't made and preparations of their own.
A butlerish man appeared in the waiting room.
"Rudel Arses-dono. The preparations are in order, so I shall be guiding you to the King's office."
Leaving the documents and standing to his feat, Rudel straightened his uniform as he walked off. Izumi and Millia sent him a look, so he gave a light nod.
His entry into the king's office permitted, Rudel offered his greetings to King Barqah, taking a break in the room.
But the King didn't turn his body towards him.
(Hmm. It's just as the captain said. This isn't the attitude of a small nation…)
With Rudel's position, he couldn't stick his mouth into political decisions. And once Rudel finished his greetings and got to his feet, Barqah took the cup left on his break table in hand.
"I wish to speak some with him. Have the others stand down."
On his words, the knights and servants stationed took their leave. Sensing them on standby outside the room, Rudel waited for Barqah's words.
He took a glance at the king's extravagant work desk.
It was piled with six whole mountains of documents.
"My apologies. Because that daughter of mine got attacked, I'm busier than you could believe. Originally, I wanted to use the audience chamber, but even now, the authorities who hold antipathy towards Courtois are not few in numbers."
(The princess is treated as a 'that'? I don't feel I'll come to like this person…)
The antipathy surely referred to the war eighty years past. But Rudel felt rather than antipathy, this was something closer to contempt.
And he didn't like how the man referred to his daughter. Barqah sent his gaze above the fireplace, not in use for seasonal reasons. It was furnished by three separate professional paintings of what seemed to be his family.
From the documents received in Courtois. The first depicted Barqah's queen and children. The second, a woman with blue hair, and two small children… that one was placed in the center. It was bigger than the other two.
And the third along, Rudel found unnatural.
It looked to be a painting of Barqah in his younger days. His right hand rested on a woman of blue hair. The king was positioned in the center, making his left side seem strangely desolate.
(It looks like someone's been taken out. But that's the best smile the king's shown of the three.)
"… They're paintings of my family. The precious family I'm supposed to protect. Now, we can't stay like this forever. Let's talk about work, Dragoon."
His bright green hair straight and long, Barqah stroked his beard, making a serious face to talk about work. In his early thirties, the king could be classified as young, but his dignified air was well-formed.
"I have gone over the documents. I accept the guard mission. But I think it will be difficult for me to guard the princess alone."
"But all of your guards are male, are they not? I believe it in your best interest to send around a trustworthy woman."
"I have come here accompanied by one High Knight and one defender. Would it be possible for them to take part in this mission?"
"You have my gratitude. And what will our schedule be for this two-day period? It was not detailed in the documents."
Barqah stopped stroking his beard, gazing out of the window.
"I decided to give that one free time. It's her last after all. For now, she should be spending it with her younger brothers and sisters, but this is an important period. I'd like to avoid time with her family wavering her resolve. If it will let you divide them, then I mind not if you listen to that one's wishes."
Rudel thought over what the reason might be for treating the princess of his own country… his daughter like this. He heard she would be offered as a sacrifice. Taking that into consideration, it wouldn't be strange if he already had his feelings sorted out in his heart.
After that, Rudel was told to hear the specifics from the knights on guard detail and was excused from the room. When he left, Barqah called over.
"Dragoon. That one is a pitiful girl. You must protect her."
"… Leave it to me."
Rudel couldn't determine whether that was his heart speaking or not.
(I've taken on quite a troublesome mission.)
He thought of it as a mission to regain Sakuya's spirits, but ever since he arrived at the palace, he was struck by many a strange feeling.
Taking Izumi and Millia along, Rudel made for the plaza where Sakuya was stationed.
There, those of the royal line… the royal children were watched over by knights as they studied the dragon. Sakuya looked at the children with a tilt of her head.
"Turn this way, you big lunk!"
The child who spat those last words really didn't understand the amazingness of a dragon, or so Rudel was filled with sorrowful sentiment.
(Good grief, if I had just a day, I'd drill a dragon's splendor into his body.)
"R-Rudel. Your eyes are scary."
With Millia's worries, Rudel reverted his glare and approached the woman surrounded by knights. The reason the knights gave such harsh looks must've been because their jobs were snatched away. Rudel thought as she approached the woman.
"Pardon my intrusion. My name is Rudel Arses. On this occasion, I have been ordered to accompany Princess Cleo as a guard."
Giving a drilled Courtois-styled salute, Rudel looked at the surrounding children. Two blue-haired women. Apart from them, a green-haired and brown haired child. They looked older than he had seen them in the paintings.
The woman in her later teens… Cleo let her hand part from her younger sister of similar hair color and countenance to give a curtsey.
"I am greatly delighted by Courtois' assistance in this matter. You have my thanks for taking up my guard."
She smiled. It was hard to imagine she would lose her life in two days.
(Is this… resolve?)
Rudel took caution in his words as he lightly exchanged conversation with the princess. He also introduced Izumi and Millia who were standing back.
"Are they female knights of Courtois? And the defenders? My apologies. I am none too knowledgeable on the affairs of Courtois."
"That's perfectly alright. The defenders are an organization only set up recently. There's no helping if someone of foreign lands has yet to hear of them."
Rudel dealt with her as he recalled the painting in the king's office. A majority of the children here had been painted. But the one individual who had been kept out… he noticed it was Cleo.
(Is this that family… no, national circumstance thing?)
Knowing he wouldn't be able to dig too deep into it, Rudel conversed with her.
"Even so, to think dragons were something so large. It's the first I've ever seen one, but I'm surprised how white and beautiful it is."
"She praised me! Rudel, she praised me!"
The one whose body twitched in response was Cleo. Perhaps those around could only see it as a roar, as the knights stood in formation before the royal line. From Rudel's point of view, it could be nothing more than a cry of delight.
"She's just happy to be praised. But you've got a good eye on you, Cleo-sama. Even among the dragons, this girl is an especially cute one, and her name's Sakuya. See, the blue gemstone in her forehead's pretty, isn't it? And when she spreads out all four wings, no one can take their eyes off of…"
"Rudel. Rudel! You're troubling the princess!"
Izumi immediately suppressed Rudel's mania, causing him to repent as he lowered his head at Cleo.
"Think nothing of it. You really love dragons, I see. But I do understand those feelings just a bit. To want to get on such a large back, and ride somewhere…"
Were those her true feelings? It didn't seem the one in question noticed it. Rudel would be able to let Cleo on her back. But as he thought over whose permission he'd have to get, a knight leading soldiers along made his appearance.
The knight stood out more than the others. No, from Rudel's point of view, he felt his skill level was a cut above the rest. But he the soldiers behind him didn't quite look like elites. Even as they closed in, the three soldiers cowered at Sakuya.
"Princess, so this is where you were? I have a message from his majesty."
"And I am still serving as your guard, Princess."
Cleo happily spoke with Emilio. In contrast, Emilio took on a businesslike correspondence. To Rudel, it somehow felt as if the knight was pushing himself. Hearing the message from Barqah, he instantly understood it was meant to pull the princess form her family.
Once Emilio related it, Cleo's expression clouded after all. And the royal children got together to say their goodbyes.
They were firm-hearted, Rudel thought. It was at that moment the knight… Emilion looked at him and narrowed his eyes. He felt something close to rage.
When Rudel turned, he found the three soldiers in light-weight armor lined up.
One's face was unshaven. One was slender and tall. And the last one was short and stout. At a glance, they didn't look much like soldiers at all.
"Is something the matter?"
"N-no. It's just a rare opportunity to speak with a knight of foreign lands, so. Um…"
"Boss, you can do it!"
"Boss, fight on!"
After looking at the two cheering on the bearded man, Rudel sent a glance to Izumi and Millia. The two of them shook their heads as if they didn't know what was going on either.
(It doesn't feel like they're picking a fight.)
"W-we were also chosen as guards, so we thought we ought to give our greetings. No, I don't know a thing about knights' etiquette, so I've no clue what to do."
A forced use of words. And attitude… thinking of Rudel's standing, it wasn't something to be permitted. Even to any dragoon of the major power of Courtois, that was a bit much. Or so was the general consensus.
But Rudel smiled and held out his right hand.
"I'm Rudel Arses. There's a lot I don't know in this mission as well. It would be a big help if you helped me out."
"Y-yeah! Leave it to me."
"S-shake my hand too!"
As Rudel shook hands with the three, Izumi, who had wandered to his side, called out.
"Is this alright?"
What, she wouldn't say. But he understood what she was worried about. Rudel was a dragoon in foreign lands… what's more, the representative of Courtois. Answering to such a light treatment might not be taken too well.
"It's fine. .The feelings got across. Rather, I'm sorry for pushing guard duty onto you two as well."
"That's not a problem. It's my field of expertise."
While at this very moment, Izumi was stationed to keep an eye on Rudel as a special investigator, she was originally a high knight. As a bodyguard, she was even more knowledgeable than Rudel.
"I'm sorry to you too, Millia."
"I-it's fine, doesn't matter."
As Millia turned her face away, Rudel mulled over what he had said wrong. Unlike with Izumi, he didn't understand how Millia felt in the slightest.
"Boss, you think that dragoon doesn't understand a woman's heart?"
"Quit it, Passan. See, get in the way of someone's love and… huh? What was supposed to kick you again?"
(TL: The saying he's referring to is, Get in the way of someone's love, and you'll get kicked by a horse and die. Meaning, if you stand in the path, the horse is going to run you over.)
When Ben looked at Pano, Pano also thought a while. But unable to hit on anything, he looked up at the dragon.
"A dragon's kick looks painful."
"I-in that case, to hell with that!"
As the party of three cowered from Sakuya, Rudel spoke.
"Sakuya's fists hurt more than her kicks…"
"… Why is everyone so stupid."
Izumi pointed out Rudel's err, while Millia breathed out a sigh.
"Hey, why are we wearing these robes?"
"Why did you have something like that on you!? That's what I want to know!"
Aleist and Nate wore black robes as they walked down the alley. There were arrows drawn on the walls, and simply by following them, they arrived at their destination. As he walked down the maze-like back alleys different from those in the kingdom of Courtois, Aleist was holding his nose and mouth.
"Even so, this place is too confusing, the smell is harsh and… what business do you have here anyway?"
Nate silently climbed the bridge, sitting on the spot and touching her palm to the wood flooring. Looking right around, she scratched her face.
"No combat took place, so there aren't any traces. The main road has too many people so the traces have all disappeared… so I guess we're just wasting our time."
"Some so far and we're wasting time?"
While Aleist looked surprised, Nate deeply pulled down her hood. She ran off from the spot. Startled by her swift movements, Aleist chased her a little behind. There, at the end of the bridge, they ran into a man wearing a similar robe.
But Nate thrust a dagger at his throat. Pinning him up against the wall, a knife fell at the hooded man's feet. Nate kicked it away and slid it towards Aleist.
Quickly retrieving it, Aleist felt a dull glow from the knife's edge. A sticky liquid had been plastered over it.
"Senpai, you'd better not touch that."
"Poison. A powerful one at that. It's the sort that induces numbness, but get it in the wrong places and it'll leave permanent effects."
(Yeeaaah, the knife I can deal with, but what exactly is Nate supposed to be?)
While she had always been a member of his harem, with the sword master Seli and the tiger tribe chieftain's daughter Juju, in an assortment of all sorts of quirky ones, he thought she was a relatively docile girl. But Aleist felt he would have to reevaluate his recognition of her.
When Nate muttered something, the power left the robed man's body as he collapsed to his knees. He wouldn't meet eyes with her.
"Where did you come from?"
"Eh? The empire? Is he a tourist?"
While Aleist desperately thought, Nate dispatched one question after the next. But after a certain extent of time, an arrow was fired. The sound of an arrow released from the depths of the passage, the one to react quickest was Aleist.
At the same time, came an assault from atop the building.
"Senpai, we should probably run."
"Way ahead of you!"
Rather than aiming for them, the group seemed to be focused on rescuing their supposed ally, so Aleist and Nate ran. But Aleist…
"You know… aren't we in a really bad situation here?"
Racing down the maze-like alleys, he said to Nate. There with her hood still on, Nate stuck out her tongue and hit a fist against her head.
"Yep, real bad. Tehe."
"That wasn't cute at all! What do you think you're doing!? Rather, what are we even trying to do here!?"
Aleist's pained cry echoed through the alley.
Perhaps from a stroke of good luck, or because they were let off, the robed men showed no signs of chasing the two.