The conference room was comparable to the courtroom of the Imperial Palace. It was where the Duke discussed matters big and small and where he held his most important meetings.
The Duchy of Agnus, one of the most powerful military forces in the Empire, divided its vassalage into the knights, and the various nobles below Earl who took charge of administration, recruitment, and external affairs.
Today the Duke held a regular session with his vassals. A long line of the Duke’s most key subjects stood on either side of the luxurious red carpet, waiting for him to speak. The man himself was perched on a seat as ornate as the Imperial throne, lost in contemplation. He just stared wordlessly at the door with hazy eyes.
“Next, please. Important issues only, since we all know the day approaches when the Duke will return to the capital. Please take this chance to inform us of the biggest issues on the agenda.” Count Anghel, supposedly the brains behind Duke Agnus, was managing the proceedings. A middle-aged, impressively muscled man quietly raised a hand.
“Sir Armstrong, speak.”
“Our dispatched members have returned suddenly.”
Several of the gathered vassals caught their breath. The Golden Mane Corps, Armstrong’s command, were undoubtedly the strongest knights in Agnus; their performance was without question.
Except for the bare minimum required to defend the family, the knights of Agnus were deployed outside the territory. Duke Agnus intended for his knights to gain practical experience from the world at large. Of course, this was only a minor part of their mission: the main goal of their dispatches were to understand the dynamics of the Empire, purge impure elements, assassinate or abduct traitors, and so forth; Despite their outward pride, they were heavily involved in wetwork.
The return of not one, but two deployments was bound to be trouble.
“Firstly… it was reported that the situation in the Black Monster Forest, to the north, has changed dramatically.”
The Black Monster Forest, bordering Agnus to the north, was true paradise for monsters. When the blood moon rose, ferocious monsters would come down to prey on their people. It was one of the Duchy’s long-standing troubles.
“Up until now, the garrisons could handle it on their own—but, for some reason, the number of monsters descending has doubled.”
“Oh my God… There must be thousands of them then…”
Armstrong nodded in affirmation.
“The bigger problem is that the Black Ogre has appeared with them.”
“Why is that monster showing himself…?” The conference room rippled with agitation.
The Black Ogre, a ferocious and solitary beast, was the apex predator even amongst the vicious monsters inhabiting the Black Forest. Its jaws could tear through trolls, and its thick hide could weather any magic below Class 3. In other words, only a 4th-Class wizard or a B-Class knight could challenge it.
“I will take care of it,” said Duke Agnus. The noisy conference room quieted in an instant. Here, the word of Duke Agnus was law—if he said he would take care of it, the vassals didn’t question him. It was one of the oldest rules of Duke Agnus.
Count Anghel broke the silence with a small cough.
“—Please tell us about the next one, Sir Armstrong.”
“...Okay. The second case concerns the Fifth Duke.”
“The Fifth Duke?” This time, Duke Agnus was interested enough to straighten up.
“Yes, the Pontier family.”
“The Pontier family…” The Pontier family was the wealthiest in Avalon. Above all else…
Did Charles and Cox have another reason to come here? Duke Agnus mulled over it for a while.
“Let’s hear that report separately.”
“All right.” Armstrong stepped back.
“If you have anything to add to the agenda, please speak up.” Count Anghel nodded firmly. Some of the vassals raised their hands and spoke their concerns.
The family’s financial condition, the movements of large sums of money… Various topics were brought up, such as a report on a promising new knight, but Duke Agnus remained aloof.
“Finally, we have the most important item on today's agenda.” A hush fell over the conference room.
“As you are all aware, something significant occurred just yesterday. Master Joshua, only nine years old this year, has been elevated to a C-Class Knight in recognition of his abilities. He is the rising star of the Duchy. In terms of talent alone, he is said to surpass even Master Babel, who thought to be the finest talent in the Empire.”
“Count Anghel, isn’t that too subjective?” One of the vassals openly frowned.
“Yes, Count Tluman… Which part of my sentence would you call ‘subjective’?”
Count Tluman glanced around before rising from his seat. He had a thick, bushy beard and a cheerful demeanor that made him look more like a marauding bandit than an aristocrat. Contrary to his crude appearance, however, he sat in one of the most powerful positions in the family, the financier.
“I admit that Young Master Joshua’s talent indeed deserves recognition. However, we can’t say for certain if his talent can surpass even Young Master Babel. Master Babel has rigorously practiced since his childhood, while Young Master Joshua has only just awakened to his mana. Even if they’re both C-Class, there will no doubt be a significant disparity.” Count Tluman carried on, unaware that Joshua and Babel had already tested their prowess against each other. “If that’s all, I would be done. But… don’t you know? Young Master Joshua certainly has some unclear circumstances.”
Most of the Ducal vassals shook their heads. Some of them agreed, some of them were shaking their heads in disapproval.
Count Tluman glanced at Duke Agnus; seeing that his expression remained stoic, he opened his mouth again.
“As you know, not so long ago, Master Joshua was an outsider and often called a bastard. Most people would not have recognized his face. He was far cry from the genteel upbringing Young Master Babel received.” Some in the audience nodded eagerly. “He appeared one day and became a C-Class Knight at meteoric speed. Considering his age, this situation becomes even harder to explain! How did he reach that level, anyways? Even if the Duke guided him year-round, it would be a bumpy road. ‘Talent’ isn’t sufficient to explain this.”
“So, what does Count Tluman want to say?” Count Anghel pushed him to get to the point.
“I…” Count Tluman hesitated. “I suspect Young Master Joshua bowered the power of a monster.”
“What do you mean, ‘monster’?” Count Anghel was taken aback, but most, including the knights, nodded as if they’d anticipated it.
“Everyone must have seen it. That unheard-of weapon Young Master Joshua used.”
“A weapon that changes form. As far as I know, the only things imbued with magical powers are artifacts. Even I haven’t seen a weapon like that.” All the money and treasures headed for the Duchy passed through Count Tluman’s hands, including those destined for the Duke himself. Tluman had acquired an eye for weaponry.
“It had an odd form. Although it superficially resembled a spear, I doubt such an enormous force could be contained in a spear. Or at least, this was the first I’d ever seen it.”
Such was the extent of their understanding of the spear.
“I agree with Count Tluman.” Chiffon rose to his feet. “I had the opportunity to see Young Master Joshua a little earlier than most of those gathered here. Back then, he looked so weak I thought he might have a congenital mana disorder.”
The vassals were abuzz.
“Those who were present yesterday must have felt it. The eerie aura coming from Young Master Joshua when he struck Lord Joker was mixed with various auras, but in a sense it definitely had similarities with magic.”
“Magic—!” The audience erupted.
“...In other words,” Count Anghel inquired with a grim expression. “Sir Chiffon also believes that Young Master Joshua achieved that state by borrowing the power of a monster?”
Chiffon nodded without hesitation.
“If that’s true, then Young Master Joshua—”
“Black magic and demon magic are taboo across—”
“It would causes great damage to the family. It feels like I’ve been turning a blind eyes to such—”
Despite his vassals’ agitation, Duke Agnus remained silent.
Then, the tightly shut doors swung open, allowing a small boy into the conference room.
Instantly, the hall was silent enough to hear the fall of his little feet. Duke Agnus and his vassals cast peculiar looks at Joshua.
“Monster…” Joshua murmured, and cast Chiffon a frigid smile. “You can test it yourself.”
The assemblage was astounded by the words coming from his tiny mouth. Only Duke Agnus, eyeing him from down the length of the table, sported a wide smile.
How long will you entertain me?
Duke Agnus chuckled, too quiet for anyone else to notice.
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