The stranger’s robe slipped off, revealing the person beneath. She stared at Joshua for a moment.
“Um…” Joshua gaped at her.
Had she surprised him? No—in fact, it was exactly as he had expected. She was not the timid Iceline from before, but a true woman now. In Joshua’s eyes, at least, her blue, waterfall-like hair, big, droopy eyes, and the contrast between her immaculate white skin and brilliant, rose-petal lips was as attractive as ever.
He knew she was still growing—she only came up to Joshua’s chest—but she had the proportions of a goddess, which her heavy robe could not disguise.
“A lot has changed.”
Iceline remained silent. She was no longer the same girl he knew five years ago. The pleasant glow remained, but it was tinged with an icy chill. Her stare carried a tangible cold, but they also hid something darker: sadness… or maybe emptiness.
They were the eyes of someone who had given up on life.
Her long, wavy hair had been cut short, about to her shoulders. It seemed trivial, but it was anything but. Long hair symbolizes the femininity of a noble woman; for her, an aristocrat, to chop her hair off was a firm statement of abandoning everything.
“Humans are shaped by their environment,” she said, coldly.
Joshua grimaced. He knew that look; he remembered it from his past. Iceline, the first 7th-class archmage from Avalon, the “Cold-Blooded Slayer…”
“This is not a battlefield. What do you mean?”
“Let me clarify,” Akshuler interrupted. “I’m sure you know this because of your association with the Imperial family—the battle of Rebrecca. You were in the midst of it all, so there’s no way you haven’t heard.”
Joshua glanced around to see if any of the mercenaries had left the camp and gotten closer to them, then doffed his hood.
Iceline’s eyes widened as Joshua’s appearance was revealed1, but only for a brief moment. Her expression frosted over quickly.
“If the outside is quiet, the inside is boisterous,” Joshua told them. “Conflicts between major and minor territories in the Empire happen dozens or even hundreds of times per year.”
“However, if you only count the wars between counts or higher, is it still common?”
Joshua nodded to Akshuler.
“That’s why I find it strange. Even if I didn’t hear any rumors from the Imperial family, I’m ashamed that I only heard about this just now.”
“I see.” Akshuler scratched his chin thoughtfully.
Joshua’s eyes sank. He knew Iceline’s family was doomed, in some fashion. She didn’t carry a surname in Joshua’s past life—he didn’t even know she came from Count Rebrecca’s family. What he didn’t foresee was her family perishing in the same manner.
“...Does that have anything to do with it?”
“Does what?” Joshua cocked his head at Akshuler.
“Do you happen to know which family was at war with the Rebreccas?”
Joshua shook his head. This was the first time he’d heard of Count Rebrecca’s war; he had no way of determining their opponents.
“The family responsible for the downfall of Count Rebrecca is Marquis Crombell.”
Joshua was stunned.
“Marquis Crombell? From the Twelve Families?”
“Their estate is far away, why did they—”
“I agree, so I made my own inquiries. There was only one result, in the end. After Count Rebrecca fell, Marquis Crombell commenced his all-out war against the Pontiers—which I assume you know of, since you’re an Agnus.”
“This is no small territorial war, it’s a battle large enough to utterly destroy an entire family—a Count and Duke. Do you think Marquis Crombell can do as he wishes when it would affect the entire nation?”
“If this was the Emperor’s doing, it would explain everything. Is Marquis Crombell not known as the Emperor’s faithful dog? It’s the best explanation at the moment.”
“Why share this with me? From the Imperial family’s perspective, your words could be constituted as treason. Have you forgotten who I am?”
“How can I forget? You’re Baron Joshua Sanders, the auxiliary battalion commander of the Imperial Knights.” Akshuler grinned and held out two fingers. “There are two reasons.”
“One, the issue is becoming more urgent. Marquis Crombell placed a reward for her capture a few days ago for fleeing with a family secret. 10,000 gold, a significant sum.”
There were one thousand silvers in a gold coin. A family of four could comfortably live for a month with five gold; with 10,000, you could purchase a stronghold in a rural area and live in luxury for three generations.
“With that said, I’m going to change the quest conditions a little. Protect her from them!”
“Why are you doing this to me—”
Akshuler gave him a cheeky smirk.
“Did you not say that meeting her was a sufficient reward? Are you really satisfied with that? I wouldn’t think so…” Akshuler peeked at Iceline’s frosty visage and his smirk widened. “What do you think? Laypone in exchange for protecting her and helping us dig up the truth.”
“She hasn’t said anything yet.”
“I agree. You want the artifact I made; if you agree, I’ll give it to you.”
Joshua sighed. Evidently, Akshuler had figured out how much he needed Laypone. Given that Akshuler was already using it, he was surely aware of how useful it could be.
“I can tell he’s accepted from the look on his face.”
“I have one condition: I can’t be with her all day. I have personal matters to attend to.”
“Just do what you can, and I’ll take care of the rest. I may have been heavy-handed, but please.”
Joshua nodded in acquiescence.
“You must be wondering about the second reason I’m telling you this?”
“I understand. You don’t need to spell it out.” Joshua’s nonchalant expression drew Iceline’s curiosity. “Because I am Duke Agnus’s descendant, is it not?”
“True.” Akshuler smiled affably. “And that’s the end of it. If you were an Agnus with ties to the Emperor, I’d have my doubts, but I don’t think you’re an enemy.
“Of course, I’m not relying on that alone. Even in the storm of rumors about the escalating conflict, your story has the entire Empire abuzz. As a real gambler, how could I resist?”
“Rumors about me?”
“You met with the Emperor, didn’t you? Something about ‘Whatever you’re expecting, I’ll exceed it.’ But hey! That’s a good attitude. Anyways, you’re an awfully privileged child.”
Akshuler’s impression of Joshua made him scrunch up his face.
“Word has already spread that you’re going to leave the Imperial Knights if you deliver in the Master Battle. The fact that you were headed to Reinhardt made me think you were just a boy obsessed with honor, but it seems like you’re something else entirely. I’m just banking on my intuition.”
“You sound like a real gambling addict…”
“I appreciate the compliment! There isn’t much in this world as great as gambling. The excitement between falling into an unending abyss or ruling over all of humanity—what’s not to love?”
“I think we’re done here.” Iceline walked away.
While Akshuler chattered about gambling and youth, a figure in the distance spied on them while pretending to fix the camp.
and thus began her lifetime simping ↩️
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