67. Aylans Kingdom (2)
It had been 3 months since the Aylans Kingdom declared war on the Holy Kingdom. There was to be at least a 6-month cease-fire, according to the law of the continent. Its purpose was to give citizens a chance to evacuate to another country and hopefully avoid war. A long line of refugees stood out in the border area between Aylans Kingdom and the Holy Kingdom. They were leaving their homeland, abandoning their old lives for fear that the war would consume them.
“It’s a trip~! A trip! Dad! Where are we going?”
“We’re going to the other country, right? Whoa~!”
Refugees pulled their wagons with exhaustion, but the many children who didn’t understand the situation yet smiled innocently. Parents smiled faintly as they looked at their children. Halsem, following the same path the refugees were, rode on a donkey-drawn wagon with a dejected look.
“Aah, it must be nice for the kids, since they don’t know how the world works. I envy them!”
Halsem had given up on being a gambler ever since the incident at the Golden Fief. He was now a ‘merchant,’ a job that took guts, spirit, and eloquence. His reason for doing so was simple.
‘I did it because that lad told me to…’
It was a job that the Holy Knight apprentice he met in the Golden Fief told him to try. Thanks to that, he was now making enough money to eat and live.
‘He was just a Holy Knight apprentice? No way… does he know how to do things like fortune-telling? No, he’s not even a Holy Knight, right?’
Halsem was thankful to him.
Although he was just an ordinary merchant, as special as a drop of water in the ocean, when would he have the chance to hold another job as stable as this? He needed to travel a lot to peddle his wares, but it was profitable. At the very least he was never at risk of losing everything like he’d done so many times as a gambler. He smacked his lips while recalling the huge amount of money he’d won from gambling.
‘N-no, no! How long has it been since I stopped gambling that I’m champing at the thought of doing it again?’
Halsem exhaled slowly, his hands trembling. He missed the thrill of gambling more than gambling itself. A huge board of fate, where one could lose everything he had bet all at once, or win big! A single game was exhilarating. The throbbing of his heart was a pleasure that was hard to forget.
“Still, safely working as a merchant is better than risking my life to gamble. It is.”
Halsem glanced over his shoulder, looking in the wagon’s bed. Jars, bowls, and beautiful craftwork furniture jostled in the back. He used the money he had saved with the aim to open a small and shabby trade shop. The trade shop had no name, and the only employee was himself. Such a simple and humble trade shop. No, being merchant suited him better now.
Halsem sighed. For a moment, a painful shame at the state of his life overtook him. Surprised at himself, he shook his head.
‘… No! I’m satisfied with my life now! I’m really really happy! Are you thinking of doing something where you risk your life again?!’
Halsem shouted in his head and comforted himself.
Just then, as his wagon crested the hill that led to the border of Aylans, dozens of arrows flew in from the forest. The arrows struck many refugees; even those children who had been playing around were hit.
The refugees hurriedly got down and curled up behind whatever cover they could find. Halsem grabbed his head and ducked behind his wagon.
“Euaaak! Damn it! Forget I said this was a safe job! What on earth…! What happened?”
Bandits came from the forest, their appearance answering Halsem’s question.
The bandits, dressed in shabby clothes and wielding old rusted axes and poorly made bows, glared at the refugees.
“You move, you die.”
Halsem shuddered at what the bandit said.
‘They might kill us even if we obey. On top of that, I invested all of my money into this stuff! It would be the end for me if I get robbed!’
Halsem looked at the refugees as his thoughts raced. Like him, they were also carrying all of their belongings. If their stuff was taken too, they would end up losing even their funds to cross the border.
‘Damn it! I was thinking of crossing the Aylans Kingdom’s border and going to another kingdom…! If it’s this dangerous…!’
It might’ve been something he should’ve expected. This was the first time that he had been assaulted by bandits so far, so he didn’t think of hiring mercenaries. It was a costly mistake, born of cheap and careless thinking.
“Oo! There are women!”
“There are kids too. They’d bring pretty good money if we sell them to the slavers, right?”
“What do we do with the men?”
“Men can be sold as slaves too. But wouldn’t killing them be better? It’ll be troublesome if they fight back.”
The bandits brandished their weapons and scanned the refugees. Then they separated the men, women, and kids.
“…Ooh! Leader! Here! Here!”
One of the bandits pointed at Halsem’s wagon.
“Hmm? Ooh! Are you a merchant? But… Your items don’t look too good.”
‘Well excuse me, Your Highness! They’re better than what you‘ve got! I invested so much to sell these!’
Halsem cursed in his head while stealthily getting up. He then rubbed his hands together and bowed, looking at the bandits’ leader with a servile expression. The bandit was huge, with thin hair and protruding brow, giving him a wicked impression. His looks could make one question if he chose banditry because he looked the part.
“Uhm… These, these items don’t really look good. So please be easy on me! Even just, just a half…”
“Ha? How could you tell bandits to be easy on you?”
The bandits’ leader sneered. He kicked Halsem, sending him falling face-first onto the ground.
The bandits surrounded him.
“Leader, this bastard is…?”
“A merchant, though? He must be quick with numbers. We can get a bigger sum of money if we sell smart guys as slaves!”
Halsem’s face turned pale.
‘First, it was a gambler, then a merchant, now a slave? How quickly my fortunes have changed! But why do I have to be a slave?’
Halsem grabbed the bandit leader’s legs.
“Wa, wait! I will give you all of it! So please release me! There will be no slave merchant willing to buy a guy like me! S, so have mercy…!”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Would you show mercy to us if our positions were switched?”
Halsem felt desperate hearing what the bandits’ leader said. He remembered the Holy Knight apprentice and cursed him in his heart.
‘Thi, this is because of that monster-like holy knight! That monster…! De, Devil of Lania? This happened because I was involved with that kind of terrifying guy! Damn it!’
Halsem fell into despair.
“Leader! A woman! I see a woman! A really beautiful one too!”
One of the bandits was shouting in excitement. The rest gathered up out of curiosity. Halsem, who was audibly crying, turned towards the side. He could see two people standing together. They looked more like travelers than refugees.
They wore traveling robes, with their hoods sat low on their heads, concealing their faces. Halsem shook his head upon seeing the two travelers.
Apparently one of them was a woman, and the other one was a man. There was a good chance they were a married couple in the middle of traveling.
Since they got caught by bandits…
‘They’re really unlucky. How did they go on a trip and get caught by bandits…? Ah! By, by any chance are they adventurers or mercenaries?’
Halsem was somewhat hopeful.
‘What if the travelers are mercenaries or adventurers with excellent skills…? They might overpower the bandits!’ Bu, but there are dozens of those bandits. No matter how skillful they are, they wouldn’t be able to overpower them…’
It was then Halsem’s anxiety vanished. Was it because she had felt his gaze? The woman turned her head. Halsem stiffened after seeing the face beneath that hood.
The woman’s hair and eyes fit the word ‘jet-black’. Her skin was pale white, her gaze sharp. Halsem’s jaw dropped. He pointed towards her with his trembling finger.
The woman scratched her head as if she was embarrassed and smiled awkwardly.
The man beside her, witnessing the exchange, looked toward his partner quizzically.
He had golden blond hair with clear amber eyes. There was a scar on his right eye
Surprise took Halsem a second time, leaving his mouth opened wide. He broke out in a cold sweat and recoiled with horror, as if seeing a ghost. The bandits’ leader didn’t know why Halsem recoiled and thought he was trying to run away. He grabbed Halsem and knocked him down again.
“This bastard! Where are you trying to run!”
“Let go of me! We’re going to die…! If we’re with those bastards, we’ll be slaughtered-! We’ll die and be turned into Undead!”
Hearing Halsem’s shouts, the bandits turned back to the two travelers, Tom and Ellin, with anxious looks in their eyes.
A few days earlier, Ellin walked around the Demon Lord’s Castle gleefully. There was only one reason for her excitement: she had a successor! There were ranks for Apostles in the Demon Kingdom, but they had been revised due to Bludifer’s revolt, and the rankings disappeared. All of the apostles were now equal and had gone from 12 to 8 in total. Nevertheless, Ellin’s mood was untempered, because her ‘successor’ was here; the Demon Lord said so herself.
As a doppelganger that had nothing but the ability to change her own appearance, getting an interspecies underling was a good thing.
Wolf was in uniform, following Ellin from behind. She turned to him and said,
“Yes, Miss Ellin.”
Ellin strained her neck as she heard the silver-furred werewolf call her ‘Miss’.
Aa, such beautiful resonance~! I’m naturally straining my neck! I’m also a respectable Apostle!
Ellin was happy, but on the other hand, there was something she was unsatisfied with. The Apostle who got appointed after Wolf, ‘Tom’. He, who formerly was the Devil of Lania, didn’t treat her as a senior. Ellin understood that Tom was the Hero who saved the Demon Kingdom, and the savior of the Demon Lord herself! But… where was he now?
Ellin was really unsatisfied with that fact.
‘It’s okay if he doesn’t treat me like a senior, but let’s at least have a conversation! Would it kill him to have casual conversation?! Before that guy showed up, what in the world was he doing?! Why can’t I find him anywhere I go!’
“Wolf! Do you know where Tom is? You should be able to track his scent…”
“… Are you looking for me?”
Ellin jumped and looked behind her. Tom was already approaching her. Ellin got flustered and avoided his gaze.
“Hm? No, I wasn’t looking for you!”
“Didn’t you ask where I was?”
“… Just wondering what you’re doing.”
“It seems like you have nothing to do.”
Ellin frowned hearing what Tom said.
“I’m also busy! I may not look like I am but I’m also an Apostle! Doing this, and that…”
“What is this and that?”
Ellin pinched her forehead with her fingers and spoke again after a bit of thought.
“Uhm… telling the doppelgangers to collect information on humans… Educating them so they can safely sneak in…”
Tom looked surprised.
“… Unexpectedly you do have things you can do.”
“What? You sound as if you actually think me incompetent…! I, I can’t help it. We doppelgangers are also rare… Most of them are cowards so they hate sneaking into the world where humans live… Even so, there are many kind and courageous ones who are volunteering for the Demon Kingdom!”
Tom stroked his chin, looking at Ellin. Come to think of it, Ellin’s information was unexpectedly excellent.
The information on Kelvin Karakul had given him was also, in fact, information Ellin got. Additionally, it was Ellin who found out about the war between Aylans Kingdom and the Holy Kingdom 3 months ago.
In doppelgangers’ case, they could change their appearance as they wanted and they were convincing for those who were not really skilled priests. They outskilled humans at infiltration.
“They might happen to be useful …”
“Not just ‘happen to be,’ l, we, are useful! Don’t underestimate doppelgangers!”
Tom nodded through Ellin’s rebuke.
“…Hmm? What?” She asked.
“I mean in the Aylans Kingdom. I’m thinking of buying a dwarf slave there.”
Ellin stood firm, holding her hood down. The bandits drew near her with an excited look on their faces.
‘What do we do? We can’t cause a fuss when hiring a dwarf… no, buying a dwarf…! On top of that, that guy! Isn’t he the gambler I saw in the Golden Fief? Oh my goodness! If he’s that guy he would know I’m a demon…!’
Ellin lowered her head hurriedly as her eyes met Halsem’s. Tom was also in a difficult position. He pressed his forehead and sighed.
‘I can’t believe there’s this kind of obstacle right at the start of our mission! On top of that, bandits? I had heard it was dangerous because of the war, but I never imagined bandits would openly come out so close to the border. I figured we could easily enter the Aylans Kingdom if we dressed up like refugees and snuck in, but now look at us. More than anything… I didn’t expect Halsem to be here!’
By the look of it, it seemed like he had taken on a new profession. He wasn’t living as a gambler anymore, but a merchant. Tom was thankful that Halsem put his advice into practice, but fate was full of irony.
‘What do I do? Do I kill?’
Tom looked to his side.
In the forest, there were creatures hiding in between the trees. Werewolves, including the werewolf with silver fur, Wolf, were hiding. They had followed at a distance under the pretext of escorting Ellin and Tom in the Aylans Kingdom.
Even if Tom and Ellin went riding on a horse carriage, they would’ve been able to follow them from afar.
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