Chapter 120: A Pressing Decision
… … …
After ending their conversation with Christina, Rio and Celia retired to an available room in the basement, facing each other on their beds. Celia had taken off her hair color-changing pendant, while Rio left his on.
「Hey, Rio. I…」
「You want to accompany Princess Christina, right?」
She looked worried as she spoke—and reading her like an open book, Rio didn’t even let her start.
「Ah, no. I’m worried about that, I mean…」
「It’s your life, ma’am. Please, follow your heart so you can move forward with no regrets. That’s why I took you out of the castle, after all.」
Celia chewed on her lips muttering his name. It had been a few months since she followed him, and her weary heart got the rest it needed so badly. Until then, she was effectively living under house arrest, with a forced marriage and little else on the horizon; but once she left, her world opened up wider than she thought it could.
Born and raised a noble, to continue living and abandoning her obligations was unthinkable, but… She found herself enjoying every day she spent with Rio.
「If I were to go with Lady Christina, you won’t come with us, will you?」
Rio replied with an apologetic tone.
「Unfortunately, I have no intention of working for Beltram.」
「Do you hate Beltram Kingdom?」
She asked timidly, as though she already knew the answer.
「I don’t hate the kingdom. Rather, it’s the blue bloods running it that give me my sense of aversion. Miss Celia excluded, of course.」
「… I see. I’m sorry, to be asking something so strange.」
「Don’t worry about it.」
A silence hung in the room for a few moments.
「Rio. I-Is there anything I could do for you?」
「That was pretty sudden. What’s wrong?」
「I mean, all I’ve done is receive; I haven’t done anything in return.」
Celia looked down, remorseful, until Rio disagreed.
「That’s not true at all. You’ve saved me more times than I can count back at the academy.」
「I didn’t really do anything special…」
「Of course you did.」
「To me, Miss Celia is someone special. You were the only one who showed kindness to a worthless orphan like me, and the time I spent with you was the only time I felt at ease. Can you truly say you haven’t done anything for me?」
「Um, ah, no, that’s… How would…?」
Unable to form a coherent sentence at Rio’s frank confession, Celia looked away as she tried to speak. But the undeniable redding of her cheeks was enough to get Rio to smile.
「You really haven’t changed at all. Please never lose that gentle smile. If you can do that, there’s nothing more I could ask for.」
She nodded, but her voice was faint and weak.
「… Well, that’s my selfish little wish, I suppose. I’d like it if you just kept it in the corner of your mind. Sorry if it seemed pushy.」
Rio looked embarrassed when he said it, and Celia suddenly raised her voice in response.
「N-Not at all! Actually, I’m happy! I never knew you thought so highly of me—I’ll try my best to keep it that way!」
Celia sat straight, her hand on Rio’s shoulder. Despite her shorter stature, the determined expression on her face made her seem taller than himself in his eyes. Celia swallowed, then spoke again.
「Y-You see! Rio!」
「Um, you know. I, me too. For me as well, Rio is, Rio is…」
She stuttered, trembling as Rio waited silently for what she wanted to say. But before she could get the words out of her mouth…
The inorganic Aisia’s voice suddenly echoed in the room. Rio and Celia bolted upright as she appeared by Rio’s side like she’d been there the entire time.
「I need to talk. Do you have a moment?」
「Mm? Ah, yeah. Of course.」
Aisia sat next to Rio as she usually did, but for some reason she looked like you couldn’t pry her off him if you tried.
Rio felt a chill down his spine hearing Celia’s icy tone, but Aisia only cutely cocked her head to one side.
「Did you happen to hear what we were talking about just now?」
「I was listening.」
「Gh… (I completely forgot about this girl!)」
There was absolutely no need whatsoever for her to appear at exactly that moment. Celia considered only two possibilities: either it was intentional, or Aisia was a genuine airhead who couldn’t read the room.
I wonder, maybe she came out to help me? If I rode my own momentum any further I would have said some really embarrassing things…
Amid her complicated feelings, Celia was hit by a sense of relief, and of shame. Cheeks slightly red, she took herself out of her thoughts and back to the matter at hand.
「A-Aisia, what is it you wanted to say? My father is going to be here tomorrow morning, so we should be getting to sleep soon.」
Once she finished, they heard the sound of something shifting outside the room. It was similar to when they first entered the basement.
「Is the thing you want to tell me…」
「Mhm, something is coming down here.」
Aisia nodded, confirming Rio’s suspicions, and returned to her spirit form; the air in the room grew tense when she was gone. Rio slowly stood, grabbing his knife and silencing his footsteps as he crept toward the door.
They waited ten seconds, with no indication of any struggles outside—then they heard a knock.
「… It’s Vanessa. Count Claire arrived early. He’s waiting for everyone in the dining room now.」
Rio eased up, having been ready for a fight, then turned and nodded to Celia.
「Thank you. We’ll come immediately.」
When Rio and Celia made it over, Vanessa and Christina were speaking with an unidentified man—evidently Celia’s father, Laurent Claire. He had a somewhat slight build, but for a middle-aged man he was quite attractive, with a dignified air about him befitting his position. It seemed Christina was in the middle of explaining things.
Laurent looked confused for a moment when Celia entered the room, then descended into hysterics as the gears in his head started turning again.
「Ce… Celly?! What are you doing here?」
Rio took some time to process what he just heard, and Celia answered with a dry smile.
「Ahaha, please excuse me for my sudden absence, Father.」
Laurent was already on his feet, arms wide open and moving to hug his daughter.
「H-Have you been well? A letter arrived with your handwriting after you disappeared, but I couldn’t stop worrying.」
「I’m terribly sorry. I had to withhold a lot of information from my letter… But as you can see, I’m quite alright.」
It looked like he doted on Celia pretty heavily. It was a stark contrast from the noble aura his presentation gave off, but all in all Rio thought he wasn’t a bad guy.
「Mmm… There is something I must speak with the princess about, but…」
「I’m sure it won’t take long, so please talk with Miss Celia while you can. This reunion was a long time coming.」
Laurent had trouble sorting his priorities—he had a lot of things he wanted to ask his daughter, after all—so the ever-perceptive Christina threw him a lifeline. He hesitated briefly, then made his choice.
「… No, what Your Highness needs to hear is more important right now.」
「I understand. It doesn’t appear to be good news, but please tell me.」
「Right. It seems an additional search party has been sent from the royal capital; I expect they will carry a warrant signed by His Majesty. If so, I will have no choice but to show them the entire property, including this basement.」
A sullen look crossed his face as he spoke. A search warrant was tantamount to a death knell for not only Christina, but her companions and House Claire as well. Although, nobody in the conversation seemed ready to give up so quickly.
「… When will they be here?」
「Though His Majesty may buy us some time, even that has its limits. The fastest they should arrive should be tomorrow morning.」
「If that’s true, we need to leave right away.」
Christina struggled to get the words out, knowing how tall of an order that was.
「Agreed. We would stand out if we leave during the day. And the number of personnel on the mansion’s grounds is lower at night.」
Laurent’s reaction was much the same. Fewer soldiers or not, there was no option with a high chance of escape, so Christina turned to Rio as if she was ready to beg.
「… Sir Amakawa. The magic tools you use to change your hair color, may I ask that you’re willing to lend them to us?」
「… It’s possible. I have spares in the room. Would you give me a few moments to retrieve them?」
「Pardon me, then.」
Without any delay, Rio left the dining room.
「Miss Celia, please tell Count Claire what’s happened to you up to now. And I apologize for rushing you, but I would like to hear your reply regarding what I asked you about.」
「… I understand.」
「Hm… Talk about an outrageous story, but if it’s coming from Celly I have no choice but to believe it.」
Laurent was silent through the entire thing, only his bitter expression serving as a response during. When Celia was done, his eyes pointed to Rio, who had returned somewhere in the middle. He stood from his chair, walked up to Rio, placed his right hand over his chest and bowed.
「Sir Haruto Amakawa. As the one who saved my Celly, allow me to express my gratitude. You have my thanks.」
He had to take a few seconds to clear away his discomfort. Rio was preparing himself to be abused.
「No, that is, rather, I had done something I couldn’t take back. If anything, I should apologize for causing you such distress.」
「Well, certainly, if my opponent wasn’t Albou’s son I would have reduced him to ash myself before any of this happened.」
Rio’s smile cramped a little hearing that remark get thrown around so casually. Laurent Claire was considered one of the greatest mages in Beltram Kingdom. While Rio would give him a run for his money, Laurent could easily leave most as nothing more than a pile of embers with a snap of his fingers.
Soon, Laurent returned to his seat, and Celia spoke up with a resolute glint in her eyes.
「… Father, I’m going to follow the princess.」
「And even if I say you shouldn’t go, you wouldn’t listen, right?」
Laurent resigned to her decision. Matters would have been made that much worse if, after having been inexplicably gone so long, she’d suddenly appeared in the basement of her family’s manor alongside Christina.
「Yes. Somewhere deep down after I left the castle, I was always anxious, wondering if that was okay. And in order to find the answer to that, I asked Haruto to bring me here. The situation we’re in is unexpected, but I feel like I need to do this.」
Leaving Laurent to sort through his thoughts, Celia then faced Christina.
「Lady Christina, you have my reply.」
「Thank you very much. To be quite honest, having a mage of your caliber with us is a great boon. Should we survive this, I will see to it that you are properly rewarded.」
As she spoke, the princess bowed deeply to Celia.
「I’m honored… Your Highness. May I speak with Haruto privately for a little while?」
Receiving permission to do so, Celia and Rio left for a quiet room.
Celia couldn’t help but laugh a bit at Rio’s change in tone, but her expression immediately changed to a gloomy one.
「I’m sorry, Haruto. I made my decision without talking to you first. It probably looked like I was just using you for my convenience…」
「Not at all. I wanted to help you, and try to repay the years of kindness you’ve shown me.」
Rio shook his head and responded with a smile.
「Thank you… If you say it yourself, I understand. So, I guess I have no choice but to rely on you forever, right? Even if it seems unfair, you’re the only one I’ve ever been this comfortable with… But, Haruto, you’ve already done so much for me. Far beyond anything I have for you.」
She smiled warmly, continuing.
「So please run away, Haruto. It’s not too late. You should be able to get out just fine if you’re on your own, right?」
Naturally, even with all the people searching for the princess and her entourage, escape would be a simple matter for Rio if he called on Aisia’s aid. However, she knew he was reluctant to use his spirit arts in public; she also knew it was better to conceal them. So no matter how much she wanted him to save her again—she couldn’t bring herself to ever say it.
「I could pretty easily. That said, do you honestly think I’d just leave you alone in this situation?」
Rio looked genuinely surprised that she would even suggest it.
Hate Beltram’s nobles, don’t you?
Celia choked down what she was about to say.
「I know. And maybe you’re right.」
Regardless of whether or not he wanted to help Celia, he held no such desire for Christina, nor any obligations toward her.
「Even so, that’s not reason enough for me to just up and abandon you.」
Before she knew it, tears were welling up in Celia’s eyes. She wiped them away quickly, trying to hide how happy she was to hear those words from his mouth.
「That’s why I want you run. Any more than this and I’d never be able to stop depending on you.」
「Whether or not you get out of the mansion safely, will you be able to join up with Restoration so easily?」
After a brief pause, Celia nodded.
「That’s a lie. It’s impossible.」
「That’s not true at all, I can.」
Celia pouted at him, but she couldn’t honestly deny his evaluation.
「You’ve never killed anyone. The same goes for Princess Christina. It’s probably the same for the kids with the black hair, too. Vanessa is the only one who’s had the appropriate training and experience, meaning she’s the only one capable of proper combat. And even then, the five of you together would stand out.」
As expected, his analysis was spot-on.
「To reduce the risk to you all, you need a diversion, which means splitting the group. What do you plan to do?」
「I… I’ll be the diversion.」
「Out of the question. If you’re caught, you’ll only bring trouble into your house. Can you explain how you showed up here of all places out of nowhere?」
「Then… I just won’t let them catch me.」
「No, you’ll get caught for sure.」
「I won’t be caught. Why are you so confident about this?」
She was getting irritated, and it showed.
「Because your reflexes are slow, and your running speed even slower.」
It was incredibly embarrassing to even respond, as Rio stated those things as fact with a deadpan tone and gentle smile as if he was mocking her.
「S-So what! It’s fine! I’ll be just fine without you, Haruto! You should just hurry and go off somewhere else!」
Celia shouted angrily, like she was trying to get him to hate her for it.
「Sure, I’ll go.」
Suddenly, her face contorted in shock at his instant consent.
「Of course, I’ll only go after I escort you to Restoration. I’ll be in your care until then.」
「I won’t ask you to…」
「I’m aware. Even if you refuse, I’ll just go make a racket on my own.」
「… You idiot…」
Celia’s shoulders drooped. Crestfallen and realizing that any further attempts at persuading him would be fruitless.
「So that’s why, Your Highness, do you require my power?」
After the pair rejoined the rest of the party, Rio brought it up with Christina.
「I couldn’t ask for more. As it is now, though, I have no suitable reward I can offer. Are you really okay with this?」
「A reward doesn’t matter to me. Aside from the matter of lending the items you need, I’d like to ask that you agree to a few conditions under a magic contract.」
「I understand. Then, after we come up with a plan, let’s make the contract. Judging by what you said, am I to assume you can safely get us out of the city?」
Squinting, Christina asked him about his idea with an expectant voice.
「That’s right. I’ll worry about diverting the soldiers. I’ll pull their attention to make a gap in their search, so please use that time to leave the mansion.」
Everyone besides Celia gasped. Laurent, listening silently so far, spoke up.
「Frankly speaking… This is no different from making yourself a sacrifice. I can’t allow this. There are soldiers and knights all well-trained in combat against other humans, and if they don’t simply kill you they’ll torture you to death. Can you really pull this off?」
「I can. However, I ask that you acknowledge the chance of there being victims in the uproar, and the city being effectively paralyzed for some time.」
「… How confident. Alright then. I can overlook some property damage, but if at all possible, please spare the civilians as best you can. Other than that, feel free to go wild.」
Laurent finished with a delighted grin, granting Rio his express permission to go on a rampage. Next was drawing up their strategy.
「Thank you very much. So, I suppose first would be…」
Shortly before the plan was due to commence, having changed his clothes to something black and donning a matching robe, Laurent called out to Rio.
「Sir Amakawa… No, Haruto.」
「What is it?」
Rio stood at attention once he saw Laurent bow to him.
「I want to ask this of you as a man. Please… Protect Celia. I beg you.」
「That goes without saying.」
A light pause kept Rio from answering immediately, but he recovered and did so with a smile. Of course, there was no need to ask, but he was somewhat glad to know Celia’s father was counting on him.
「… I see. In that case, please take this with you.」
Standing straight again, Laurent handed Rio a small filled bag.
「Traveling expenses. You may have a need for money one way or another, no? Please take the remainder as your reward as well. I don’t know if it’s enough however, so we shall arrange the rest if fate allows us to meet again.」
「No, this… I can’t accept this.」
「Please do. At the very least, let me shoulder the costs of travel.」
At his insistence, Laurent was practically shoving it onto him.
「… I’ll give the remainder to Lady Celia, I suppose.」
「Hm, you’re quite stubborn. A promising one for your age. I would love the chance to chat with you over a drink, but it’s about that time. Farewell.」
「Right. Excuse me, then… I’m off.」
Leaving his parting words behind, Rio climbed the stairs to the mansion’s garden. He cracked open the door in the ceiling to scan the area. Confirming a gap in the soldiers’ formation, he threw the door open and leapt out; then without missing a beat, he slipped by the search squad, using the trees in the garden to clear the tall fence leading to the rest of the city.
「It seems his skill is genuine. He’s a kind young man as well. But I won’t forgive him if he makes my Celly cry.」
Laurent closed the secret entrance, muttering to himself while he returned to the basement. Shortly after, a ball of light loudly exploded over the middle of the city. Not even a few minutes had passed.