Early next morning, we left Abram at around daybreak. There were several things that I wanted to set before the army leaves the town. It would take a normal traveller one week to reach the mining village from Abram. As for the march of an army that is bringing wagons, when thinking about it, would it take them roughly two more days to get there? Since there is a somewhat large town en route, I could predict that they would stay one more day there. Taking those things into consideration, we could probably return to the dungeon about two days faster without having to do anything. The feeling of wanting to make practical use of that time to do something might be me being a coward.
Around the time we advanced half a day away from Abram, we started setting up. In the middle of the highway that the army would probably travel along, I searched for a spot in the forest where I could look down on the highway without being detected easily. If I could create a hiding spot within there, the preparations would be complete. And then, on the side of the highway, I had a small group of Skeletons, which I had somehow been able to call out, on standby. Of course, I gave them as much camouflage as possible by covering them with the branches of trees so that they wouldn’t immediately be discovered.
I don’t have a single reason to believe that I will be able to win with these soldiers numbering less than ten. As for what the purpose this all served, it was because I wanted to know about the opposing group’s fighting power and use of tactics. If I were to speak honestly, I would like to shave off a bit of their fighting force, but this is probably nothing but avarice.
「It will probably be about ten more minutes until the army’s forward detachment passes through. What shall we do?」
「Since it would be of no use to meaninglessly kill the reconnaissance soldiers, we’ll leave them be if we discover them. Once their main force passes, we’ll have the skeletons make a surprise attack from the flank.」
While we were attentively watching the situation from a distance, Astarte whispered to me with a low voice, maybe because she noticed something.
「Even deeper than the spot where the Skeletons are, someone is there…… Could it be……a scout?」
「Eh? That means that there’s someone else around here, right? ……Do you think we’ve been discovered?」
「No, it would seem that they came here just now. It looks like they haven’t noticed us yet but……they might be noticed by the Skeletons. Nevertheless, it is strange.」
After doing a bit of thinking, I immediately thought of the reason Astarte was doubtful.
「True, if they were scouts of the Abram army, they wouldn’t come from the opposite direction.」
「Eliott-sama, does anything come to mind? From the story you told me yesterday, you and that commanding officer were friends from when you were young.」
The tone of her voice was a little intense. Last night, I explained to her that Olivia was an acquaintance from the past, but from the fact that Astarte’s mood has subtly not been good since that time, could it be that she’s jealous?
「There are several possibilities. One, they are from a neighboring village and on a pleasure trip. But, if that were the case, they would be closer to the highway and should be going to a place where they can see better. Another one would be the possibility that they came to exterminate the Skeletons that I summoned. Someone being made to guard the expeditionary force from the shadows…..if it were something like that, it might be a possible story. However, in that case, the possibility that we were noticed is also high, but there are no signs of anyone standing watch of us as of now……right?」
If that’s the case, the one with the highest possibility is……
「Could it be that they intend to meddle with the expeditionary force for a different objective than us?」
「That possibility does seem high. ……There is the possibility that unbeknownst to us, someone chose to make an ambush at the same spot by coincidence. After all, the world of nobles doesn’t just end with everything being clean.」
Bothered with how that thought was being phrased, I asked about it.
「……I’m not good with roundabout ways of speaking. If you were able to make some kind of conjecture, could you tell me about it?」
After making a small pause, Astarte answered me.
「For a dangerous expedition like this even if there was an unfortunate accident, no one would question it. After all, this expeditionary force is on its way to fight against dangerous demons.」
「……I see. In this case, Olivia the noble, who has value in being targeted, has the highest possibility of having a bull’s-eye painted behind her back. But, why?」
This is what I didn’t really understand. Why would someone do an act that would be profitable to me?
「The townspeople were gossiping about it even in Abram. That this time, there might be some political background in how that commanding officer with no military service records was chosen. That’s right, the army moving, and exterminating the demons. This would be a fully-fledged military gain, and something honorable. Most likely, this is just to officially recognize that commanding officer, who is a woman, being ushered in to be Margrave Abram’s successor as an adopted child.」
Astarte’s words were too indifferent that I couldn’t see any emotion behind them. However, if the contents of what she was saying matched with that aim, the situation would even seem crueller.
「……In order to steal her right of inheritance, they’ll assassinate her. Is that what it means?」
「Count Abram’s biological children have all died, haven’t they? I wouldn’t say all of them, but most likely several of them were assassinated. That’s just how nobles are. Whether they are human or whatever, that will never change.」
I was finally able to see some emotion in Astarte’s words, but they were cold enough for me to get a faint chill……Or maybe she just looked sad.
「Wait. I want a bit of time to think. There isn’t enough evidence to judge what kind of profit there is for this……」
「Eliott-sama, unfortunately, there isn’t any time. ……They’ve come.」
Speaking from the conclusion, Olivia’s commanding ability was neither a bluff nor was it a decoration. Her own fighting ability didn’t seem all that high, but thanks to her ability to make instant judgements, she was able to grasp the troop’s movements and the opponent’s fighting force. Even with how she walked around the surroundings in order to uplift the morale, everything she performed was done at an above average level. Since I was only able to see her in action once, it was too early to make a judgement on everything with just that, but the small group of Skeletons that succeeded in their surprise attack from the flank were only able to make a few injuries to the enemy infantrymen that clashed with them head on, and were crushed without being able to inflict much damage. Olivia wields a commanding ability that would choose victory on top of doing the utmost to avoid her soldiers getting injured.
The hidden third force seemed to have aimed for Olivia just as Astarte pointed out. Since their movements stopped when the Skeletons made their attack, it seems that they didn’t notice the existence of the Skeletons.
However, their movements after that were fast. Seeing the melee that had started, they changed their location under the cover of it all and conducted some sniping from the inside of the forest with a small sized bow. That fired shot that was probably aimed at Olivia ended in a misfire thanks to an elderly knight waiting nearby to protect her, and it all ended with only that one knight getting light injuries. Since they immediately made their escape once the fired shot ended, those were probably the movements of someone adept with this sort of occupation.
……There were several pieces of information that I got from here:
One: That the third force……That the assassin was an individual, or even if they weren’t, only had a few cooperative workers. Two: That since the direction they were headed to was in the direction of my dungeon, so there was the possibility that I would eventually come in contact with them. Three: That they most likely did not notice our presence. Even with only obtaining this information, the situation has become quite profitable for me. Once I return to the dungeon, if there was anyone that would come to contact me……There’s probably no mistake that I would be seeing the comrades of this assassin first.
That being said, only this amount of information isn’t enough. Also, my desire to talk with my former friend was unusually strong. Though that might be considered naive. Though she might have already forgotten about me. Though she might become allied with my enemies the next time we meet……..As the expeditionary force adjusted their ranks and started to move, we also departed from that site.
In a place that was only four more days between Abram and my dungeon, there was a town with a population of about 500 people. It was the only town that I had once gone to together with my mother other than my hometown, but compared to Abram, it was too small.……Well, it was wrong to compare it to Abram which has the leading population count within the country in the first place.
It was just past noon of the second day of our stay here when the expeditionary force arrived at this village. Since this was made known to the village beforehand, a campground for the expeditionary force to use was created in the plaza on the outskirts of the town. Even that vast site where people gathered for a summer festival got filled in no time when the 100 troops put up their tents.
Fortunately, since I did not have any acquaintances in this town, I got a lodging while passing myself off as a travelling merchant. When I listened to some stories, it was said that the commanding officer of the expeditionary force and the knights would be lodging at the town headman’s house. Well, since they will be entertaining nobles, it’s probably an honor for them as the town headman, so in a certain way, that’s probably only natural.
My plan to meet face-to-face with Olivia was stopped by Astarte. However, although this is due to my selfishness, it was also needed for the meaning of obtaining information. After coming to the conclusion that the risks were low, since my identity hadn’t been exposed, I ended up pushing my will through.
Visiting the town headman’s house, when I sought a face-to-face meeting at the entrance, the young soldier that received me at the beginning made a dubious face. Well, that’s reasonable. The middle aged knight and the young woman (though I say that, she’s probably a bit older than me) officer-of-arms made even more dubious faces. I honestly told them that I was from the mining village, and that although Olivia might not remember, I was a former acquaintance of hers. And then, though it was a bit inaccurate, I told them that I ran away from the village on the very day that the incident happened, and conveyed that I would be able to provide information on the town even if it was only a little.
The officer-of-arms woman made a blatantly troubled-looking face, but the knight showed an interest in getting the information on the geography of the village. Furthermore, maybe because they showed an interest in my words of being an acquaintance of the past, but for now I would like for them to not have any expectations, so I tried asking just for the sake of trying.
「Well then, could you tell Olivia……-sama this. That, the son of the inn that always wore a hat has come to visit.」
When the knight went back inside of the house, the officer-of-arms breathed a sigh and glared at me.
「You may be a friend of hers from the past, but that is something from more than ten years ago. Olivia-sama is already living her life as a noble. I would like for you to avoid anything that would disturb that person’s livelihood but……」
She wasn’t impolite, but she didn’t hold back either. She was the type that would say, 「since your social statuses are different, bear that in mind」.
Well, she was probably raised to be the noble’s lady-in-waiting. Since it was only natural for her to hate it when a strange bug arrives if she were Olivia’s attendant and lady-in-waiting, I didn’t mind it too much. Of course, I had feelings of missing her and wanted to meet with her, but more than that, I also had the objective of obtaining information on the expeditionary force.
At that time, a voice called out saying
「Eliott-dono, were you granted a face-to-face meeting with the commanding officer-dono?」
From behind me. Astarte in the nun outfit that I saw her in when I first met her was there.
「Ara, Nun-sama, what sort of relationship might you have with this merchant-dono?」
The officer-of-arms made a face that said that things had become more troublesome, but even so, she made an inquiry to Astarte with a voice that saved only respect towards staff of the temple.
「You must be from the expeditionary force, may the Gods’ blessing reach you all. ……I have come from the northern frontier, and have come here only recently. The mother, this Eliott-sama’s mother had helped me greatly in the past. As his mother had passed away, I thought to pay my respects and travelled to this region but……Although I was fortunate to be granted a meeting with her son by chance in this town, I did not think that his village would be attacked by demons, so I was thinking about what I should do.」
……Well, if I were to start questioning her deeply, holes in her story would appear, but Astarte was covering me in her own way. Once we seized information from the third force, the authenticity would increase………Though there was no guarantee that that third force weren’t accomplices.
The officer-of-arms stared at me and Astarte with eyes that seemed to be evaluating us. There was no warmth in those eyes. And it felt as if a feeling of cold-heartedness, akin to her looking at merchandise or prey, resided within them. If this officer-of-arms was also a noble, then the world of nobles must be frightening. As I was absentmindedly thinking that, the middle-aged knight from a short while ago came back accompanied by a young man that looked like an attendant.