A crowd gathered around Haiburi Castle’s warp gate, near the city center. A bright flash of light enveloped the gate, spitting out a figure. Soon, everyone could see it was Joshua.
“Welcome to Haiburi Castle, Baron Joshua Sander, the pride of the Empire!”
Joshua grimaced slightly as the crowd’s cheers rolled over him. How did they know he was coming, though?
That insignia… Count Haiburi? Many of them wore a silver-plated medal with the same symbol that was proudly displayed on the knights’ breastplates: two overlapping cartwheels, the crest of Haiburi’s lords.
Joshua saw a familiar middle-aged man and sighed.
The head of the household will come to see me, of course. So much attention… I don’t like it. Joshua shook his head. I’d better get a new identity before I go on.
The middle-aged man met Joshua with a wide grin as he walked away from the warp gate.
“It’s been a long time, Baron Joshua. We haven’t met since His Highness the First Prince’s birthday celebration, was it?”
“Thank you, Count Haiburi. You’re right, it’s been quite some time.” Joshua smiled back at the kind-faced Count and shook his hand.
“No, I should be the one thanking you. It’s such an honor to meet one of the Empire’s greatest talents.”
“You flatter me.”
I heard he acts just like an adult, but now that I see him he's just fifteen. Yet, this atmosphere… Count Haiburi cast a glance over Joshua, admiring his humility and calm attitude. He seemed to lack the typical joy or arrogance of people his age.
Joshua Sanders felt like a finely made sword—or… not? That wasn’t quite right.
He’s like a blade that hasn’t been unsheathed yet. His strength still sleeps within.
He grinned. Money, power, or force, Count Haiburi knew how hard it was to conceal your power.
He’s very gifted. I can only speculate as to why His Majesty the Emperor made such statements.
“Why did you come out like this to greet me? A lot of knights were pulled from their stations just to say hello…”
“Ah, you see—
“It’s… It’s due to His Majesty’s orders.” A woman with a striking similarity to the Count interrupted. She wasn’t beautiful, but she was hardly bad looking—a typical pretty woman you could find in any community. “H-His Majesty said that since Baron Joshua is heading to Reinhardt, our house should take it upon ourselves to make him feel comfortable and welcome.”
Joshua grinned with understanding.
“Who is this one?”
“Oh, she’s my daughter. Mei?” Count Haiburi motioned her forward.
“I’m Mei ken Haiburi.”
“I’m Joshua Sanders, from the capital.” He smiled at the shy girl. “It’s a privilege to meet the daughter of Count Haiburi.”
“Ah…” She flushed crimson.
Joshua was good-looking enough to draw crowds of admirers, but his frigid demeanor made him difficult to approach.
“My world—Really, it’s really Sir Joshua!” A blonde girl appeared, looking as thrilled as if she’d met a prince from a fairy tale. It was Senna, who visited Arcadia to attend the Prince’s birthday party. When she found out that Joshua was traveling to Haiburi, she forced her father to let her use the warp gate.
“Ah, that’s my niece—”
“Senna! My name is Senna lu Reifonbeo. It’s such a privilege to meet you here, I mean, I really really adore you, see?”
“Reifonbeo…” Joshua examined Senna. “Ah! Torosen lu Reifonbeo, commander of the 7th Battalion of the Imperial Knights.” His memories conjured images of a middle-aged blonde knight with a crisp bearing.
Hmm… Yes, he looks like her.
“You’re Sir Reifonbeo’s daughter.”
“Why don’t we go inside for now?” Count Haiburi interrupted, attempting to prevent Senna from talking for hours as she was wont to do. She pouted, but the Count ignored her. “How are you feeling? It would be great if you stayed in our castle for a day or two—the Master Battle is still a ways off.”
“I appreciate your consideration,” Joshua replied, instantly brightening their expressions. “However… I have a number of personal affairs to attend to, in addition to the Master Battle. I’ll have to settle for the Count’s good intentions.”
“Ah.” Count Haiburi and the girls let out disappointed sighs. “Then why don’t we get something to eat?” he ventured, refusing to give up hope.
“Hmm…” It would be difficult for Joshua to reject the Count’s offer.
“Given His Majesty’s instructions,” the Count added, “supper would greatly relieve my heart. Please spare my reputation.”
Joshua nodded, resigned, much to their delight. He could only smile bitterly at their excitement.
“Well, if you insist.” After all, I have to travel there first. “However, it will be difficult at this time—there is an important matter I must address immediately. I’ll make it to Haiburi Castle by evening.”
“We’ll be waiting.” Count Haiburi beamed. He had enough political expertise to know that pressing the issue would end poorly. “Please let me know if you need assistance at any of Haiburi Castle’s inns. All of the inns in the area are related to our family.”
“Thank you for taking such good care of me.”
“Of course. I’ll see you later.” Count Haiburi turned around and the crowd followed suit.
“You must come,” Senna implored him. “We’ll be waiting.”
Joshua watched them go.
“For now, let’s start with the Mercenary Guild.”
An enormous map filled the table, spilling over its edges. It charted the division of the continent, particularly the holdings of the Avalon Empire.
The map was worth every penny, but the lady in front of it lifted her finger and pointed without even looking at it.
“This blue region here—” She gestured towards the southern section of Avalon. “—represents the Pontier family’s current territory.”
The tall man next to her grimaced at her words, though they flowed from her lips like jade beads.
“Then there’s the red spots…”
“Yeah. The Crombell family’s domain. Before the all-out war over territory, the areas in green were our family’s estate.”
“It looks bleak.” The man sighed heavily.
The green region was at least one and a half times bigger than the red before the territorial war. But the blue area was now not even half the size of the red. The Pontier estate was no more than a third of the Crombell territory.
“The rumors were not exaggerated. The Pontier family is about to be decimated—” Cain halted, realizing what he was saying.
“It’s fine,” Charles said. “It’s true.”
“The Princess’s pragmatism is commendable.”
“I-Icarus?” Cain seemed puzzled.
“Do you think we have a chance, Icarus?” Charles’s eyes sparkled.
Icarus smiled sweetly, took up a pen, and drew a straight line across the map.
“There.” Icarus turned to Charles. “Now I’ll show you why they call me a genius.”
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