Joshua unconsciously looked towards the voice, but his gaze turned friendly.
His sunken eyes glowed brightly, as if poised to spit fire at any moment. The man’s thick mustache was nowhere to be found, but his face was exactly as Joshua remembered.
“Why is the captain here?”
“I heard he was on vacation…”
The large but polite man carefully approached Joshua, ignoring the 12th Battalion’s loud mumblings. His tall frame loomed over the ten year old boy, casting him in shadow.
“I have heard the rumors. Are you Young Master Joshua von Agnus?”
“You’re Viper Baison, right?” Joshua peered intently up at him, wearing a sweet smile.
“Oh?” Surprise flashed across his face. “You seem to know me well.”
“I’ve heard a lot about you.”
Viper examined Joshua with a puzzled expression.
He hasn’t changed. Joshua’s grin widened as he recalled old times.
Viper was more loyal and obedient than anyone else, even when Joshua was roughing it as a mercenary. He stood at the front lines, bravely breaking through anything in their path. He was a trustworthy leader, well-regarded by both his superiors and subordinates.
He was one of the reasons why Joshua chose to join the Imperial Knights.
I thought we would meet soon, but not this soon.
Viper spoke up just before Joshua could.
“How well do you know Berche’s Bloody Battle, Young Master?”
“...Your comrades asked me the same thing.”
“Hmm.” The way Joshua described Viper as the knights’ “comrade” rather than their “captain” caught Viper’s attention. “Do you know the rules of Berche’s Bloody Battle?”
“Rules?” Joshua tilted his head.
“One, or even two, captains at the least should be present; we don’t want anyone selling off their rank for money.”
“So you’re here to see the results?” Joshua laughed. “But from what I know, only the 10th Battalion and higher have captains. It’s said that the 11th and 12th Battalions’ captains are just puppets for formality’s sake.”
“I was just explaining the rules,” Viper calmly explained. “The restrictions still apply, even if the captains in question have no power.”
Kases heaved himself up, covered in blood.
His defeat was witnessed by a few hundred knights, whether they were following the rules or not. His fate was set in stone, and seeing Viper try to defend him only made his heart sink.
“I’m… I’m alright, Commander.” He propped himself up on his unsteady knees and gingerly wiped the blood from the corners of his mouth. “I always say that if we want to run away from the painful truth, we have to keep our pride intact at the very least.”
“Kases… I know you’re trying to keep your pride, but it never mattered. You said you wanted your kids to see you as a knight, rather than a scary mercenary, right?”
“And what happens to your daughter? Your status gets her treated by a high priest in the capital’s temple, but it isn’t going to cure her. If you go back to being a mercenary, the priest will demand donations you can’t afford to pay. What good is your pride when you have a family to feed?”
Kases bit his lip, choking down his tears.
“Young Master,” Viper said to Joshua, “I apologize on their behalf for showing you something so unsightly.”
“No…” Joshua shook his head. “I’m actually grateful that nothing has changed.”
“If you’re worried about your subordinates, isn’t there still a way?”
“What are you implying?”
“I know the rules are different when a captain or a unit commander is the one losing the fight. Am I right?”
“Commander, this is ridiculous!”
“I would rather resign than make you fight the Young Master!”
“What is this trash—”
“Do you understand what you’re saying, Young Master?”
“Of course.” Joshua knew more about the fight than anyone else—he’d seen it first hand.
Each battalion had two seats—two leaders. When the captain was absent, the unit commander assumed command. On the off chance that one of them was defeated…
I’d stay an Imperial Knight, but I would be stripped of my rank. What’s more, I’d never be able to climb the ranks again.
In other words, losing would mean he’d be trapped in the low ranks forever. He’d be doomed to watch his subordinates be promoted over him, and then watch his juniors do the same. Taking orders from someone you used to outrank was like a slap to the face, to the point where it was preferable to resign of your own will.
“It’s the same, even if I resign. It was foolish of me to think that there was another way around this.”
“This never should have happened—”
“Stop that.” Viper looked over the silent knights with hard eyes. “This role was only created because it gave us a better chance at survival.”
“That aside, I consider you all my comrades—and my friends.” Viper looked around at the knights. Each one met his eyes and bowed. “Young Master, you should be recognized by at least three knights of the battalion for you to replace me. In order to do that—”
“I just need to be smarter than them.” Joshua smiled faintly.
“Are you sure? I mean, I'm embarrassed to say it, but the level of skill between you and the knights is significant. We were formally trained and ordained as the Empire’s strongest knights.”
“Really?” Joshua took a step back to look at the knights. “Then what’s this trampled pride I smell in the air.” He hefted his spear and grinned at Viper.
“Five years,” he told the bewildered knight. “I’ll turn the 11th and 12th Battalions into the greatest knights that Avalon has ever seen.”
I can do it. I can imitate it.
Then, Joshua pumped unfathomable amounts of mana into Lugia. It hummed with barely-contained power.
The knights could hear thunder. They didn’t know where it came from, but it was certain that it had something to do with this… spear. It felt like the same energy as when Joshua summoned his Aura, but what happened next was completely unexpected.
The crackling energy formed a third blade between Lugia’s original two. Its sheer power threatened to tear the fabric of the world in two, forcing some of the newer knights to shut their eyes and cover their ears.
Viper stared at the spear, dumbfounded.
“I greet the dazzling Sun of Avalon, Your Majesty the Emperor.”
“Ah, Babel. It’s been a long time—I recall the last time I saw you was when you graduated from the Academy.” Emperor Marcus smiled at the boy—no, he’d grown quite a bit. It would not be a stretch to call him a man already.
“Yes, Your Majesty.” Babel bowed once again.
“Now, now. Please, raise your head.”
“As you will.”
Babel’s prim and proper manners made the Emperor’s eyes crinkle.
“I’ve heard you’ve progressed even more. C-Class Intermediate, right? That’s a great achievement! You make Avalon proud.”
“All by His Majesty’s grace.” Babel bent his head once more.
“Oh, please. It was all because of your overflowing talent. You’re gifted beyond measure.” Emperor Marcus laughed heartily. “What age are you now?”
“I’m fifteen this year.”
“Even your father wasn’t at that level at your age, and you’re not far from being B-Class. Keep up the great work! I’m expecting great results soon.”
A boy’s face briefly flashed through Babel’s head. Why?
Because it doesn’t feel like this praise belongs to me?
“Your Majesty, there is still much to be done.” He smiled cruelly. “I’m afraid I’m still far from what you expect.”
“Yes,” Marcus said, leaning in closer with a wide smile. “In comparison to that boy, it’s not nearly enough. Your brother, Joshua von Agnus—but worry not! I shall bestow a gift to you.”
Emperor Marcus snapped his fingers with a boisterous laugh. Jaken appeared and presented Babel with a vial of clear liquid.
“I’m sorry, but… what is this?”
“It’s a gift, for the Empire’s greatest treasure. You may be able to obtain a large amount of mana through this, thus accelerating your plans.”
The effects of such elixirs varied a little, but most boasted sky-high prices.
“Such a priceless present, Your Majesty—”
“I order you to drink it.”
Babel mumbled something incomprehensible.
“Take it as soon as possible. If your father is busy, I can help you manage the effects of the elixir.”
“How can I impose on Your Majesty like this—”
“I’m making that an order.”
“Your Majesty, I shall obey.” Babel accepted the elixir gracefully, oblivious to his monarch’s ulterior motives. He let the delightful aroma tickle his nose for a moment, then downed the elixir.
Emperor Marcus let his satisfaction show for a brief moment.
Soon, another man emerged and slowly approached the slack, dull-eyed young man.
“It was a success, Your Majesty.” The man bowed.
“You’ve worked hard, Evergrant.” Emperor Marcus rose from his throne and examined Babel.
“We met pretty frequently when you were a student at the Academy,” he said to the half-conscious boy. “You made a pledge to me at that time. You must succeed Aden von Agnus, which means you must not lose your position to your half brother. Do you understand?”
Emperor Marcus smiled eerily, finding a glimmer of gold in Babel’s vacant eyes.
“I’m placing my trust in you, Babel von Britten.”
Frightening revelations in the Imperial Palace aside, five years passed in the blink of an eye.
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