The Pope, and…
BEFORE I ENTERED the inner sanctum, I had to undergo a body search to confiscate anything that could possibly serve as a weapon. I had to give up everything from my trusty knife to my scrolls.
“We’ll hold on to your belongings.”
They didn’t seem to view my armor as a weapon because they didn’t ask me to take it off. Cliff certainly knew, but the fact that he didn’t say anything was probably a sign of his trust in me. So as a show of equal good faith, I gave up my two gauntlets as well; my left that was loaded with a stone of absorption, and my right that could fire a shotgun blast.
The central area was a maze of halls. No straightaways in sight, all labyrinthine twists and turns. The flat white walls obscured where the turns where and where they might take you. Ah, but this was the heart of the Millis Church, after all. It was surely built against possibility of enemy invasion, just like a castle would be.
Cliff glided smoothly through it all, eventually bringing me to the pope’s office. The office was guarded by two knights and a barrier.
“Just to clarify, you won’t be able to use magic in here.”
The barrier’s strength was probably Saint-tier or King-tier. These knights also looked about that rank. And if a fight somehow broke out, it’d be all of that versus just me and my fists.
“Your Holiness, I’ve brought your visitor.”
Beyond the transparent barrier was Cliff’s grandfather, Harry Grimor. He looked like just the gentle old man that I imagined he’d be from his letter. He had a long, white beard and wore vestments embroidered with gold.
“Yes, I appreciate it.”
There was no sense of Sauros’s force or Reida’s incisiveness. I couldn’t feel an air of strength; instead, I felt the great presence of a magnanimous heart. It was like instant recognition, “Oh. The pope. Of course.” I felt no aura, I just felt warm.
It was hard to explain it.
“Allow me to introduce you. This is Rudeus Greyrat. He’s an underclassman of mine from the Ranoa University of Magic. He’s an incredibly brilliant man, with an aptitude for magic that exceeds even my own. As our friendship is one that I intend to maintain, it seemed prudent to present him to you.”
The pope nodded along to Cliff’s introduction with a placid look on his face. It seemed like any further explanation would have to come from my own mouth. As Cliff and I discussed last night, all he was doing was introducing a friend to a family member; beyond that, any agenda I had with the pope would require me to take the first step.
“I see. Now, then… I take it that Mr. Rudeus has come to request something of me? Perhaps permission to set up his mercenary band? Maybe permission to sell the Superd figurines? Or could it be an invitation to join the Dragon God Orsted’s forces?”
Or, not. Sounds like good ol’ Cliff preempted me a little. Filled him in on my goals, positions, and reasons for coming to this country. Well, I’d get to all of it eventually. If anything, not needing to start from scratch was a serious time-saver…
Huh? Cliff was looking back and forth between me and the pope with his eyes widened in surprise.
“I see the Right Hand of the Dragon God is not easily rattled. Not even a twitch of the eyebrow… You should take notes, Cliff.”
The pope’s first impression of me hardened irrevocably before my soft little brain even caught up to what was going on. It was too late. The pope mistook me for a badass.
“Apologies. I did some research beforehand.”
The pope began reading off of a nearby document with a light smile.
“Rudeus Greyrat. Blood relative to the distinguished house of Notos Greyrat. Son of Paul Greyrat and pupil to Sword King Ghislaine Dedoldia. You were caught in the Displacement Incident, but in a mere three years you managed to return to your homeland on your own strength. Shortly after, you enrolled in the Ranoa University of Magic and befriended Princess Ariel. Years later, you battled against the Dragon God Orsted and surrendered to him. You worked behind the scenes during the turmoil in the Asura Kingdom to defeat both Water God Reida and North Emperor Auber. You pushed for Ariel Anemoi Asura to assume her current position as ruler. After that, you worked to expand your private army into lands around the world while persuading those in power to cooperate with the Dragon God Orsted… Am I missing anything?”
Not bad. But nothing obscure; it’s not like I did any of that in secret. It was all out there to find if someone wanted to. Besides, the pope himself can have no secrets. His biography is picked apart by thousands. Research like this merely levelled the playing field.
That said, it wasn’t all correct.
“There are three mistakes. By no means did I return from the Demon Continent on my strength alone. I had the help of a Superd warrior by the name of Ruijerd. I was not the man who defeated the Water God Reida; it was the Dragon God Orsted. Likewise, Auber was defeated by the combined efforts of Sword King Ghislaine and Sword King Eris. Last, and by far most important, I would like to add that I am in fact pupil to King-tier Water Magician Roxy Migurdia.”
“Oh my, an honest one, I see.”
The pope nodded to himself and wrote something down on a nearby sheet of paper. I didn’t know what he wrote, but I really did hope that he added the part about me being Roxy’s pupil.
“So, does that mean your reason for selling these Superd figurines is to repay your debt to their race? You’re not plotting to overthrow the government by increasing literacy rates?”
What did raising literacy rates have to do with overthrowing a government… I guess it was the same logic as a butterfly causing a tornado with the flap of its wings.
“Then may I ask, why do you solicit people to cooperate with Orsted?”
“So that the world can be prepared to fight back against the Demon King Laplace when he resurrects in about eighty years.”
The pope didn’t bat an eye at that answer. He just nodded understandingly.
“I see. So, you took advantage of Cliff to reach me here and request my cooperation, no? ‘If you wish for the Dragon God to save your forces, you’ll do as I say.’ Is that right?”
“No, that’s not correct.”
I got the feeling that this old guy had already slipped into negotiation mode. Well, fine by me; we were going to negotiate eventually. But I had to be clear where I stood.
“The ally I really want is Cliff.”
“Well, now. Should I expect that you’ll be supporting Cliff from the shadows?”
“No… True, that was my intention at first, but Cliff told me that he wanted to test how far his own strength alone could take him, so I decided against it. If nothing else, I’ll be entirely hands-off until he establishes his own power within the church.”
The pope broke out into a smile when he heard that. It was the face of an old man who’d just learned that his grandson scored a hundred points on a test.
“I see, so Cliff really told you that…”
“He did. So please, treat me like I’m just a humble servant of the Dragon God for today.”
I told him the truth. He’d already investigated me; while there were some holes in his intel, he’d gotten the gist. Who knew what else he’d dug up, so better not to lie and get caught. Maybe fools favored honesty, but it’s a likable kind of foolish.
“I have two requests. I’d like assistance with the creation of a mercenary band, and I’d like permission to sell the Superd figurines.”
The matter with House of Latria could wait for now. That was personal. Anyway, having some connections would incidentally strengthen my position there.
The pope looked at me as a smile subtly spread across his face. It was like a poker face; he might have had a smile, but his expression betrayed nothing.
“You know, human connections, once established, can never truly be severed. No matter how hard some may try,” the pope stated, his smile staying constant.
I wondered if that was a word of warning. Perhaps to me, for making my request as someone cut off from Cliff. Or perhaps to Cliff, who wanted to cut me off to test his own strength.
“So, in light of your connection with Cliff…I will assist you with your mercenary band.”
Just like that, I had my wish. I had my doubts as to why he didn’t seem to ask anything in return, but it only took a moment of thought to get there. The “in light of your connection with Cliff” part was his return. And eventually, once Cliff got big enough, I’d be an asset to him and the papalists. To the pope, this was an angel investment.
“However, permission for the Superd figurines will prove difficult.”
“Why is that?”
“I have a position as both the pope and as the leading figure of the Demon Integrationists. However, the cardinalists who espouse the expulsion of demons have expanded their influence as of late. Currently, I simply don’t have the leverage to grant permission to sell these Superd figurines on my own. And since the next pope will surely be chosen from among the cardinalists… You understand, no?”
The pope then gave me a look. As though he was implicitly telling me I needed to crush the Demon Expulsionists to get what I wanted.
But would I, now? I wasn’t opposed to being an agent of the pope. I disavowed the House of Latria after a fight, so I was already well on my way to being their enemy. Very sorry, Therese, but I’d crush the expulsionists or anyone else who crossed my path.
Hang on. Wouldn’t that count as helping Cliff? It was a gray area. Cliff needed enemies to push himself to overcome. What if those were also my enemies? Should I hold back? But wait; if I became an asset for the Millis Church, wouldn’t that count as an accomplishment for Cliff? Was any of this right at all? Hmm…
“To be clear…I have your support with the mercenary band, correct?”
“Then for today, I’ll be happy to accept your deal regarding the mercenary band.”
Everything else could wait—it didn’t all need solving in one day. Besides, selling the Superd figurines wasn’t a part of my scope for this meeting to begin with. If I had the pope’s support in building the mercenary band, then it was best to quit while I was ahead.
“I see. That’s a shame, then.”
The pope’s smile remained firm as he concluded the meeting.
Cliff had other business to attend to, so I left the headquarters alone.
I let out a huge sigh the moment I got out. I was exhausted… First the Blessed Child, then the pope. Sparring against two exceptional people in one day. Both had some wild eccentricities, and each belonged to opposing factions to boot.
The pope, a Demon Integrationist. The Blessed Child, protected by the cardinalists who pushed for demon expulsion. If I were asked to pick a side, then there was no question that I’d join the integrationists, the pope’s side. That’d square me off against the Temple Knights, who were aligned with the Demon Expulsionists. Also in those ranks: the House of Latria, and by extension Therese.
Therese had saved my hide twice now. I despised the rest of the Latrias, but I couldn’t disregard my debt to her. Plus, the Blessed Child didn’t seem like a bad person. I guess you could count that entourage against her—but let’s not. It’d be wise to postpone taking sides as long as possible… And I wish I were the perfect wise man who could’ve pulled that off. So much for my plans and ideals.
Anyway, arranging to bump into the Blessed Child a few more times seemed like a fine idea. I wanted to get a better idea of what her ability was. Maybe see if she were a disciple of the Man-God…which, to be honest, would be impossible to find out.
Hypothetically, if she were a disciple, that would complicate my mission here in ways I couldn’t prepare for or foresee. In the Asura Kingdom, the Man-God hadn’t interfered with my work building the mercenary band. So was my work posing a threat to the Man-God, or wasn’t it? If he stepped in, that’d be a clue at least. But I had no way of knowing, and overthinking it would just run me in circles. I had to think what I was doing mattered, and he hadn’t interfered in my past work against him. So, I would act on the assumption that he wouldn’t interfere here. I’d reserve my search for disciples for when I did face interference, or for when I felt that something was truly wrong.
At the moment, there was no shortage of suspicious players in this game. The Blessed Child; Claire; the pope. But winding myself into paranoid knots had been my downfall in the past. I could head that off by building the Mercenary Band branch quickly, setting up the contact tablet, and getting ahold of Orsted at once.
Yep. For now, today’s meeting had gotten me the support of the pope. That was my starting point. I’d scout out potential buildings for the Mercenary Band, then purchase one. There, I would set up the contact tablet and the emergency teleportation circle. After all that I’d finally have my business call with Orsted.
“All right. First order of business: choose a building.”
Next move, locked in. I could let Aisha handle the details. There were plenty of questions to account for, such as which district our location should be and which merchant we should do business with. Knowing Aisha, her mind was already working on the problem. It was such a relief to have a reliable partner.
The problem was Zenith. If Aisha left her behind to tour the city, she’d have nobody looking after her. Asking Wendy to do so was an option…but hey, this really needed to be a group decision. I ought to head home and discuss it with the others.
I took a horse-drawn carriage across the city and returned to Cliff’s residence in the Divine District.
The sun was setting. I was getting hungry, so I was looking forward to dinner. And ugh, the food! It was so nice to have fresh eggs here. Boiled eggs, fried eggs, omelets… We also had some bread, so I could probably make pork cutlets, too. Ah, the presence of a single egg opens the door to new worlds of culinary delights. New horizons of joy to explore in every meal, with every egg!
Thank goodness I brought Aisha so someone knew how to cook one.
“I’m hooome! And boy, am I hungry!”
“What do you mean she’s still not back?!”
The moment I returned, I heard Aisha shouting with fury. I hurried inside the house to find my little sister cornering Wendy.
“Why did you let her leave the house?!”
“B-but, he said it was fine…”
“Why would you believe something a stranger told you?! You heard what we were talking about last night, didn’t you?! Why wouldn’t you tell someone about what was going on?! What made you think she couldn’t have held off until tomorrow?! If you could’ve waited for a few minutes, I would’ve gotten back in time! You could’ve asked my brother too!”
“I-I mean, I heard what you talked about, but, well, I didn’t really understand it, and that person said it was fine…”
“Is that all you have to say for yourself?! I’m telling you that no, it was not fine! Wait, don’t tell me, did you come to sabotage us?!”
Aisha lifted her shoulder and raised a fist as Wendy cowered in fear.
Rare to see Aisha get angry enough to shout. That was as deeply as I thought through the situation as I walked up behind my sister and held back her raised fist.
“Aisha, calm down a little.”
She swatted me away. But at least now Aisha noticed that I was there.
“Ah, Big Brother… I’m sorry…”
Aisha clutched the arm she swatted at me with and hung her head.
I should start by asking for the details. If there was a fight, I assumed they were both a little bit in the wrong. But Aisha kept her pale face lowered. She wasn’t answering. This wasn’t like her—she wasn’t shy about sharing her opinions.
Seemingly unable to bear the silence, Wendy tried to fill it. “Well, this afternoon, a person named Geese came by—”
“Geese came here?”
“He said he felt bad for Zenith since she was cooped up inside after finally coming home, so he took her outside…”
So here’s what Aisha was reacting to.
“And they haven’t come back…”
All the blood drained out of my head in an instant. I took a deep breath.
“Aisha, I need you to explain everything—calmly. From the beginning. Can you do that for me?”
Aisha started talking.
That afternoon, Geese came to Cliff’s house. He introduced himself as Zenith’s friend coming to check up on her. Aisha didn’t see him for herself, but after hearing Wendy describe his appearance, speech mannerisms, stature, equipment, and what he talked about, she seemed pretty certain that it was Geese.
Aisha had to ask what’d happened because she wasn’t there.
“Where were you, Aisha?”
“I figured we’d need a bunch of stuff to live here, so I went shopping… Wendy can’t read, and she probably wouldn’t know what we needed, so I did it… I’m sorry.”
“Oh, no, it’s fine.”
Aisha had a lapse in judgment, and during that lapse, something that we could never have predicted occurred. These things do happen. People mess up. It’s fine. Geese chatted with Wendy and Zenith for a while.
And then, Geese said, “I feel bad for Zenith, all cooped up inside after finally comin’ home. I’ll take her around to see the sights.”
And Wendy allowed it. Part of me was so dumbfounded by this that I wanted to clutch my head and scream. She’d been there when we talked last night. Hadn’t she heard?
But I couldn’t pin it all on Wendy. She didn’t see how awful the Latrias were for herself; she only had secondhand knowledge. It made sense that she didn’t understand that they were dangerous. Besides, Geese had a way with words; if he had nothing else going for him, he could talk anybody into anything. I’d been planning to show Zenith the town myself too, so I could hardly blame Wendy for letting her guard down and thinking that maybe an hour’s outing with a friend would be all right.
“I ran out right away to search for them, but I couldn’t find anything…”
The moment Aisha returned from shopping and heard about what happened, she leapt out the door and searched everywhere…to no avail. Even as the afternoon turned into dusk, not a trace. Even when she returned home in the vain hope that they might have showed up while she was out, they hadn’t come back. With no idea left of what to do, Aisha took her frustration out on Wendy…which was the point at which I arrived.
“What do we do, Big Brother? I was the one who said we’d be safe here… It’s all my fault, isn’t it? What do we do… What do we do?!”
Aisha was losing it in a way I’d rarely seen from her; she was almost in tears. The first order of business was getting her to settle down.
“Calm down. It’s Geese we’re talking about. He probably just forgot about what he promised and took her all over the city.”
“But, right now, we don’t have any clue where Mother Zenith is!”
“Look, just calm down.”
Part of me was getting anxious too. But this was Geese she was with—he might have had the combat prowess of a wet puppy, but he was a sharp, trustworthy guy. Out of all the people who could have potentially whisked Zenith away, I felt a little more at ease it was him. By the same token, this was Geese. He probably got distracted, went chasing after something silly, and then lost track of time. Any minute now, and he could pop in through that door and say with a chuckle, “Ah, sorry, brah, I ran into an ol’ buddy and just had to catch up.”
“For now, let’s wait a bit longer for them to come back.”
That was my decision.
Time passed. The sun set. Eventually, Cliff returned from work, exhaustion on his face.
Zenith and Geese, however, stayed gone.
I…wouldn’t say that time was wasted. In those hours, Aisha and I were able to calm down. I think.
“I’m sorry… But please, don’t take it out on Wendy. She didn’t mean to do anything bad, I don’t think…”
Cliff gave Wendy a scolding, firm but fair, and he made sure she knew that he was still on her side. He probably didn’t anticipate that anything like this could happen, either. He originally hired her for light housework. And given that she’d reached her age without getting either employment or a foster family, Cliff had to have known that she wasn’t going to be the sharpest knife in the drawer.
But it wasn’t right to berate someone over their shortcomings. Don’t cry over their spilled milk; clean it up instead.
“I’m going out to look. Cliff, stay on alert in case we miss each other.”
It was around dinnertime when I decided to go out in search of her.
Maybe I took too long to decide. But if you’ll allow me to make an excuse, I promise I would have thrown myself out the door in an instant if I knew that Zenith was on her own.
However, she’d gone with Geese; if Wendy’s story was true, then Zenith should still be with him. The chimp might have been too cowardly to handle a fight, but any other challenge he faced would be no problem for him. Be it gathering intel, mapping, shopping, cooking, maintenance, or even giving health checkups for his party members, he was an all-around star player. So for whatever reason, I got the idea that Zenith would be all right.
But when I thought about it, I realized that his uselessness in battle was indeed a fatal flaw. If he had to fight, he wouldn’t be able to protect Zenith. Geese had developed a knack for avoiding danger to make up for it, but something could still go very wrong. Zenith could space out and step on the foot of a tough-looking old dude. There were even women who wouldn’t hesitate to throw a punch just for looking at ’em funny.
And Geese was a demon. What would the House of Latria think if they happened to spot Geese and Zenith alone together? They’d say that I wouldn’t let her stay in her own home, but here she was, out alone with a demon. They might decide to attack and take Zenith back by force.
Or wait. Maybe the Latrias were behind this. Knowing their resources, the Geese that came earlier could have been an impostor. They could have caught someone with similar appearance, build, and speech mannerisms, and then had him pose as Geese to talk Wendy into giving up Zenith…maybe. Not that he’d be easy to imitate.
Last, and maybe I was paranoid for even considering it, there was the possibility that Geese was the Man-God’s disciple. Why was he here when he hated the Holy Country so much, anyway?
I refitted my robe and magic armor and left the house.
Aisha followed my lead like it was the most natural thing in the world. “Where do we go first? Do we split up?”
She must have been anxious over Zenith’s disappearance. If she was, it was all the more vital that I stayed calm.
“No, I can’t risk you getting kidnapped. We’ll go together.”
“O-okay. Got it…”
Aisha’s breath hitched at the word “kidnapped.” She had to have considered the possibility. There were plenty of kidnappers in this world, after all…
It wasn’t all that likely, though. Maybe not if she’d been stumbling around alone, but she was with Geese. Beating the crap out of Geese to make Zenith a slave was a lot of work. If I were in their shoes, I’d find a different, more defenseless target.
After a few steps, I suddenly stopped. Where was I supposed to look first, again? Shit, I was slipping; guess I hadn’t fully calmed down. People didn’t calm down just by telling themselves to. They needed deep breaths.
There was someone smarter than me right next to me. I had to talk to her.
“Aisha… Where do you think Geese is?”
“Um… Maybe in the Adventurers’ District?”
“Geese said before that he couldn’t enter the Divine District, and I don’t think he’d go to the Residential District when so many followers of Millis live there. If it’s between the Adventurers’ District and the Commerce District… Well, Geese is an adventurer, so I think there’s a higher chance he’d be in the Adventurers’ District.”
“All right. Let’s roll.”
Knew I could count on Aisha, she was a quick thinker. We had no time to waste.
“Let’s hurry,” I said.
“Okay… Oh, right. Should we use a horse? We still have one from the carriage, right?”
A horse… I still wasn’t able to ride them. I mean, I had the basics. I’d done some practice, and I knew how to handle a carriage. But I was far from skilled enough to ride wherever I pleased in an emergency situation. But Aisha had nothing to worry about. When I really needed to, I could move as fast as any horse.
“We don’t need one.”
I princess-carried Aisha in my arms and gathered mana into my magic armor. Legs, green light. All systems go. I’d practiced neutralizing the landing impact plenty of times.
“Aisha, hold on tight.”
Aisha’s body tensed up as she clung tightly to my robe. I made sure to hold her so that she was locked in place.
“N-no! No! Stop!”
I’m sure she said some other things, but I ignored them. Zenith was missing. This, of all things, was no coincidence. Maybe Geese did it, or maybe it was the handiwork of the Latrias. Perhaps the papalists had a shadowy hidden agenda. Maybe we’d gotten wrapped up in the designs of the Blessed Child…
Or maybe this was the work of the Man-God.
Agonizing over the answer wouldn’t solve anything. Hesitation solved nothing. Regret solved nothing.
We had already let too much time slip by, and between the long day and my mental state, I was in bad shape. I had no idea who in Millishion was an ally, or who my enemies were. In a fight against the Man-God, you could never truly know.
We weren’t having a repeat of the Shirone Kingdom. I’d learned from my mistakes.
I braced for whatever was coming and leapt into the night sky.
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