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Noel’s force of five thousand departed from Evear castle and headed first to capture Rockbell. Afterwards they would take the Kanan highway and aim for Madress. The enemy forces in villages and outposts would be driven off by the promise to do no harm unless resisted. Noel, their commander, was incredibly infamous, so most of them gave up on resistance. The last war had proven what befell local lords who opposed her. Not wishing to be burned alive, they sent hostages as proof of compliance. The seeds Riglette had planted had finally sprouted.
Others simply joined their number, and Noel advanced, accepting all volunteers. It was then that Noel spotted a nostalgic face among the newcomers.
“Oh, if it isn’t Mirut. What are you doing in a place like this?”
“I thought I’d meet you if I came. The other villagers and I were waiting for you.”
“It’s really been a while. So, have you been well?”
Noel gave Mirut an intense slap on the back which caused him to stumble. He had grown in the last three years, but was even more slender than before.
“Not really since I had to work in the mines the whole time. I was finally released thanks to the Red Circle Army.”
The villages in North Coimbra had been ordered to send workers if unable to pay the harsh taxes, and the young were taken away to work the mines even though there was no way they would easily find anything considering that even Grohl had already given up on them. Countless lives had been lost to the never ending labour and cave-ins. Nothing could be gained from escaping, either, as the villages had all fallen into poverty. It was blessing enough to be in good health.
“I see, then that’s good that you don’t have to work anymore.”
“Yeah, it really is, though it’s rather strange to be saved by the Red Circle Army. It might be fine to trust in Lord Elgar considering that he isn’t pillaging like the previous one. That’s why we figured it’d be best to join in.”
Mirut plucked the string of his old bow with a fearless expression, surrounded by men who were most likely Zoim villagers. Noel had a vague sense that she remembered them. There were still former Zoim villagers in Noel Corps: the ones who had refused to go home after the last war. They were the ones who had acted in concert with the White Ant Bloc, and been overjoyed at Noel’s return. Having desperately practiced to become a military band, their performances were top notch.
Noel stated her disapproval, “Ah, but you might die, you know. If you came here on a whim, I think you should go back. Death comes quick.”
He looked way too thin to fight, and she didn’t want Mirut to die after he had been so kind to her in the village. Hence she told him to stop.
“If you hadn’t come, I’d have died in that mine, so I need to repay that debt. You’re going to invade the South, right? In that case, you’ll need as many hands as you can get. Please let me help.”
The Red Circle Army had already absorbed a large number of such volunteers when they gained total control over North Coimbra. They were of one mind: wanting to get revenge on those who now smoked sweet perfumes. Their hatred for Wilm and Gaddis, the traitors of the previous war, was particularly vehement.
“What will Cal do? You can’t leave her alone.”
“She’s already fine by herself. She lived fine in the village, even without me. She still treasures that picture book…”
Noel forcefully cut him off, “What are you saying? I can’t have that.”
Living alone was horribly lonely. Even with all her companions, Noel understood that. Just thinking about returning to her solitary wandering was horrifying, and Noel was sure she would be unable to bear it and die.
“It’s still lonely to be alone. I think Cal’s just gotten stronger.”
“We aren’t kids anymore. We can’t be together forever!”
“Then bring her along. If you work hard, you’ll even get food.”
Noel proposed a plan as Mirut bounced back. It would keep her amused, and keep Cal from being lonely, so it truly was killing two birds with one stone.
“Ah, but I really can’t let her get caught up in the fighting…”
“It’s fine, it’s fine. You can just run if it looks dangerous. I’ll let you go if that happens, so how does it sound?”
“It’s fine if you don’t like it. It’s fine to go back and live happily with Cal. I think that’d be for the best.”
“I get it… to be honest I was worried about leaving her by herself. I’ll come back.”
“Yup, that’s good. Then we can play together again! Also, I’m sure it’ll go well this time.”
Noel laughed, and held out a hand to Mirut, who grasped in his own, heavily scarred hand.
“You really don’t change, Noe- Captain Noel. You’ve grown, though.”
“Ahaha, you’ve gotten old Mirut.”
“At least say I’ve become an adult…”
After returning to Zoim for a while, Mirut brought Cal back. With some thinking for a while on what to do, it was decided that Cal could be Riglette’s assistant. Essentially, she was busied with odd jobs. They made sure Cal overheard, so that she could feel better, even though Riglette’s duties actually increased considering she had to train Cal. Noel figured that sometimes troubles were good, and didn’t pay it any mind.
“Um, Noel-oneesan… Riglette seems kind of angry…”
“That’s how she is, so it’ll be fine once you’re used to it. She’s surprisingly funny sometimes, so do your best, okay?”
Noel tenderly patted Cal on the shoulder. Riglette was flaunting her glasses while striking an imposing stance with her hands on her hips.
“I don’t care if it’s a little girl from the sticks, or some foolheaded redhead, I just don’t feel like feeding them. Work hard so that you don’t starve. Essentially, I hate incompetence.”
“It sound’s interesting, doesn’t it?”
The first laugh she had heard from Cal in a long while was cramped. While she did think it was all a bit much, Noel figured that Cal would get used to it.
Even still, Noel’s companions had increased in number. The five thousand men who were cooperating with Noel were a real motley gang: the youths from her island of exile, the former pirates who had once attacked her, and even the Coimbran soldiers that had been on the island. On top of it all, she still had the White Ant Bloc as well as the subordinates from when she had been promoted to command of one hundred in Coimbra. At present, the Red Circle Army and the Zoim villagers were adding to her number, and Kai had happily sent them some of the light infantry from Gemb with their characteristic, wide-brimmed helmets.
I’ve gathered so many companions, and my world has really broadened.
Noel had traveled to many provinces during her time in exile. Because she had brought prosperity to the island, the soldiers guarding her had come to an understanding with her, so she had basically been free to do whatever. Siden had made arrangements for her to visit Gemb via Giv, and then move through Karmbeeth, so she had been able to speak with many different people. Every province had been suffering, and she had troubled herself with thoughts about bringing Amil down. As a result, all of the viceroys close to Siden had begun to form plans to make use of Noel. She had only gotten on board because she knew she would also be following Elgar’s plans. Noel had no intentions of being a disposable pawn, but she would cooperate and become companions with those who would help her further her goals. Furthermore, Siden had shown her much kindness for which she felt some gratitude. All this was why she had decided to take the soldiers from Willa island to Elgar when Gemb attacked Longstorm. That was how she could repay Siden for his conveniences as well as protect her promises to Cynthia and Elgar.
Siden appeared to be plotting something else, but it didn’t seem to be particularly bad, so she was going to let it slide. She was curious about how meek Kai had looked, but she had been unable to get an answer out of him no matter how many times she asked. Gembites were not only famous for their valour, but also for their obstinacy to the death.
As Noel thought about various things, Cynthia launched into a dark soliloquy beside her, “But still, what will change will change. Who could have thought that the people hated Major Gene-, no, Wilm, enough to support us this much.”
“It’s simple. Whenever something bad happens, the people will want a scapegoat, right? As long as there is somebody in the wrong, and it doesn’t matter who, there’ll be somebody to stone. That is how humans are.”
“You seem to have started saying wise things,” Cynthia nodded slightly, “It seems that not only your height has grown, but also your character.”
Noel’s chest puffed up with pride, and she put on her glasses to emphasize her intelligence. They could double her persuasion powers.
“I’ve studied up these past three years, after all; interesting and annoying matters alike. Balance is important in all things.”
“That’s right; even of those who understand, and those who don’t yet.”
“To put it simply, it would be a problem if it was always sunny, so I’ve put up a little with that detestable rain.”
There were sunny days, rainy days, and cloudy days that were neither nor. Though she would be in a great mood if every day was full of sun, the land would dry up around her. Conversely, if the rain did not let up, the crops would rot in the soil. Balance was the key. As far as Noel was concerned, the optimum mix was 7 parts sun and 3 parts rain. She could work the land when the sun was out, and stay in bed all day when it rained. It likely would only take that much to enrich the soil.
“While that is true, it seems a bit painfully obvious.”
Cynthia gave a bitter smile. If something so obvious did not occur, the land would become horribly dry. Invading another continent to store up riches on their own had destroyed all sorts of balance. The greatest mystery of it all was how it continued despite the knowledge of what the expedition had done. She couldn’t comprehend it, but Riglette had said that it was simply how people were, so it couldn’t be helped.
“Well, that’s true, but you know, the most amazing thing is how I can put up with the rain.”
She would still get irritated, but it no longer showed, or so she hoped, but the children on the island had told her that her face scrunched up all funny in the rain. She tried tutting.
“It isn’t all that impressive, but considering you, it may be.”
“Basically, it’s thanks to the three years on that island.”
After her suitable statement, Noel turned to gaze restlessly at her surroundings.
“Oh yeah, do you want to go check out that old, rundown fort? Is it still there?”
For some reason, Noel wanted to visit the fort where she had first met Cynthia, and she was incredibly curious about how it was doing. She didn’t have time to mess around, but there was no preventing her curiosity.
“It’s probably still there, but we don’t have time for it. What would you do with those ruins in the first place?”
Noel gave her sincere plans while touching her glasses, “Explore it while bathing in memories? I’m sure there’s plenty to do.”
Cynthia’s amazed expression was just like before. It was an face that Noel was fond of. It was the face of an untimely interruption with the intention of training a certain troublesome individual, and she could feel some gentleness inside it. She had spent those three years learning how to find just such a thing.
“Like I said, we just don’t have the time. We’re going to attack Rockbell. Try to be a little more nervous…”
Just then, a messenger rode in on horseback.
“Sir Noel! The gates of Rockbell have opened, and the city is surrendered! Please enter the city as is!”
“Yup, I hear you. Let everyone know. Also, pay close attention to those troops from Madress. Barbas, be careful, okay? I doubt it, but they might try for a sneak attack.”
“Roger that!” the messenger shouted as he turned his horse to face Barbas Corps.
Shocked, Cynthia was grabbed by Noel.
“Wait, what is this!? As if they would surrender without even crossing swords with us once! And that lord should be related to Wilm!”
Noel knew that, of course. In a serious fight, they would take serious damage, so they had surrendered. There were always those who would forget about their social positions and status when faced with their deaths. Riglette had been the source of information on her relative’s personality.
“I trusted the matter of negotiation to Riglette. I let her use any method to just get them to surrender. Looks like it went well.”
“S-sir Riglette did?”
“Yup. While we were on the island, Riglette further refined her tutting abilities, but that wasn’t the only thing she did, because it looks like she’s taught herself how to intimidate people. She grabs with all her strength once she gets her hands on somebody’s weakness, so you could even say that she’s even more tricky than before.”
“I, I see…”
Cynthia was clearly pulling back, not wanting to be too close to the yet monologing Riglette at Noel’s side. Poking fun at her was too tempting, so Noel couldn’t pass up the opportunity. The reactions were interesting, so it had become a habit. Seeing it all reminded her that Noel had praised Riglette earlier, saying that her perseverance was the same as always, but had started to look a bit more evil. The statement had been met with a tut.
“I’m known as the fiend right? So she probably said that if they don’t surrender, something horrible would happen, or threatened them like that. You have to remember my infamy. Is this the noblesse oblige?”
Always getting even with people, Riglette had continued with her distasteful hobby of furthering Noel’s infamy in their destination by spending her funds spreading tales of the bravery of the fiend, as well as horrific stories of her exploits in full belief that those seeds would grow into a resplendent harvest. Noel herself was troubled by it, tiring of the constant threats and the fact that the Willa islanders had been calling her the fiend the entire time. It seemed to be a term of endearment, but that didn’t help much.
“Right… what could it be?”
“Well, we really should avoid unnecessary efforts.”
After a laugh, Noel gave a signal, and began to walk forward with her troops in tow; their target: Rockbell. The inside would likely still be destroyed as Wilm had neither the will nor the way to repair it.
“I wonder if it’ll be torn up like always in there?”
“I’ve heard it is. Wilm focused on Operation Light of Dawn. Using the impoverished northerners as fodder, he spent money and men on his continental gamble. The results are as you can see.”
It was unthinkable to try that kind of expedition, but Noel thought she wanted to try talking to him. She had the feeling that her world would expand. That was when she remembered the continental Irvan, and she though about having a conversation with him as it seemed to be interesting.
“I thought I could do well for myself in the last war, but it seems a lot harder than expected.”
“If you rise too high, you’ll be saddled with a great amount of responsibility. That is what a leader is.”
“That’s true, but a single decision would effect everyone. That’s really harsh. I’d end up in charge of so many lives.”
“Those aren’t the words of a military leader. The soldiers will become uneasy, so please stop it with that.”
Cynthia gently prodded her head, and Noel once more felt nostalgia.
“Ahaha, that’s true!”
“But if I make it big, I’ll get loads of companions right? That’d be, like, super fun, so I think I will aim high after all. I want to rise even higher.”
Noel took out her trumpet and displayed just how much more skilled she had become. The day’s music was: March of the Noel Corps. Not only the soldiers from Willa island joined in, having practiced it countless times, but the Coimbran troops they had at some point bonded with also joined in. Even Noel was surprised, and in the end they all marched as they sang. Riglette’s bugling was as always, though. The twin hammer banner flew proudly as Noel entered the fallen city of Rockbell.
Merely five days after reports of the fall of North Coimbra had reached Madress Castle, reports of the fall of Rockbell —supposedly the final wall of defence before Madress itself— arrived.
“To think they call themselves Coimbran soldiers after surrendering without any fight!? Are they women!?!?”
“Viceroy, it is South Coimbra at present,” Perius spat bitter words, “And we had already sent our best troops to the continent. Though we do have numbers, they are all new recruits. No military pride has been instilled in them yet.”
Wilm gave him an irate glare. The reason he had made use of Perius, though knowing he was hated himself, was because of his popularity with the civil officials and the plebeians. There was also that he knew a man so upright would never betray him, and because Wilm did not have the luxury of being able to kill off capable men.
“Then notify the deserters that they will receive harsh punishment. I don’t care if I have to kill their wives and children to make an example! If we don’t put a stop to this, the army will collapse!”
“The Lord of Rockbell was one of your relatives. I can hardly imagine that he surrendered without any fight. If you wish to punish the men, your appointed officials would not be able to escape responsibility. Do you still intend to do it?”
Wilm could not find the words to respond. It had been none other than Wilm himself who had appointed that man. Count Barel Ludwig had died at the hands of the first rebellion. Wilm had placed his son Leue in the military and appointed relatives to control all the surrounding cities to solidify his position. He expected them not to betray him if they all shared a similar position, but his expectations had been betrayed fairly easily. Wilm never thought that they would bend so easily to spare their own lives.
“Either way, at this rate we won’t be able to defend every fort and city. Recall Leue from his defence of the highway. It might be best for him to remain in the castle.”
“Shall you wait for those reinforcements here? Hardening the defence before the rebels arrive.”
It was a cowardly strategem, but an attack had too many risks. The only commanders Wilm could trust were Leue and himself. Naturally, it was unthinkable for him to sally forth himself and leave Madress undefended. All he could do was wait.
The promotions of military and civil officials should strengthen the province by strengthening the soldiers. To think we’ve missed the main point of governance. Just how long have my eyes been clouded?
Wilm had surely been thinking of the province’s future before he had betrayed Grohl. Truly, he had wanted to help the people and enrich his home, but the ambitions that sprouted in him had taken over and he had only worked to further them alone. He hadn’t once thought of the people since Amil had become the emperor.
“But… can we stop them from advancing further?”
“Yes. Fortunately, Madress wasn’t caught up in the previous war, so the defences are still solid. We can last quite a while provided we remain supplied by sea. There is even a possibility that the rebel army will dissolve on its own over time.”
“Okay, so we’ll wait in the castle. Request reinforcements from Bahar and supplies from Ribeldam. If they are reluctant, tell them they’ll be next!”
With a short response, Perius turned to leave, and Wilm called out to him as he retreated.
“Wait, Perius. Don’t you want to join the Red Circle Army?”
“Whatever do you mean?”
“Don’t play dumb! The late Grohl’s son is leading them, and I’m sure you’ve sworn loyalty to Grohl. Why are you still here?”
Even his relatives had betrayed him and surrendered. He had killed Grohl, so there was no way that Perius would forgive his usurpation. Wilm didn’t think he was the type to betray anyone, but the seeds of doubt had been sown in his soul. So he sought confirmation.
“I cannot accept changing things through military force. Forcing one’s own justice with force is the way of the world, but does it not merely spread more hell? Now more than ever… That is why I do not bear a sword, and that isn’t going to change, no matter who the opponent is.”
Perius’ thoughts would be incomprehensible to other leaders, but he was a man who would probably reprimand an emperor, even if it brought about his death.
“I do, however, wish that I could take your head and deliver it to the young master, however unreasonable that might be. I am very sorry, but please do not ask that again. I might get caught up in my emotions and try something rash.”
“Uh… oh, okay.”
Wilm averted his eyes, unable to bear the hateful gaze.
This shouldn’t have happened. Things went so well at first, but how could they have come to this? Just where did I go wrong?
The expedition that Wilm had been betting on had looked promising at first. They had brought over goods and gems, even people, and trade had opened up with a new province. When people began to return, the economy began to grow in South Coimbra. Wilm had brought about good for the people, and everyone recognised him as being more suitable for rule than Grohl. Then everything changed in an instant. Advances on the continent were brought to a halt as numerical superiority dwindled away, and as if to add insult to injury, the situation turned such that the money and men sent on the expedition were clearly not going to return. If anybody tried to stop things now, Amil would become incensed, and take action on his own even more. Having gained his position through force, Wilm was unable to oppose anything. Gaddis had it worse in the north, requesting reinforcements every day. Wilm did not have the luxury of being able to support him, so he had ignored it all, inviting the present state of affairs.
The Red Circle Army arises in the face of misgovernment and takes Rockbell… could history be repeating itself?
Gohl’s passing played in Wilm’s mind: a death in despair amidst the disparagement of the people and his soldiers, having been betrayed by his most trusted advisor. He found himself imagining his own form in Grohl’s stead. According to his men, the leader of the force was Noel Bosheit, bearing the twin hammer banner. At some point she had escaped Willa Island and had joined up with Elgar, likely having killed Riglette; not that it bothered him. He had no sympathy for that girl.
“She was unendurable to the end. Couldn’t even observe someone right. Still, that Noel… just how much does she want to get in my way? I should have dealt with her when I had the chance!”
Wilm had never liked Noel, but he had been completely led by the nose as he had thought she was nothing more than a little girl with some martial skills. That was why he had been able to deal with her using only false accusations. She shouldn’t have been so much of a problem, but all he had done was prolong the issue. And now she came for him. Wilm was struck by an unspeakable unease.
Feeling something behind him, he whirled around. Naturally, there was nothing there, but he could feel a presence; some small black soul, as if he had seen the afterimage of a child running for cover.
“How foolish! Ha, I am the man who rules Coimbra. I’m up against no more than Grohl’s son at the head of the Red Circle Army, and a little girl whom I have already defeated. There’s no way I could lose. Any force gathered on the fly like that is highly brittle. They shall meet their end at my hand!”
Wilm raised his voice so that he would be sure to hear it, for if he could not, his mind would remain unsettled.
At any rate I have reinforcements on the way, and defending Madress shouldn’t be too hard. It matters not how many times the enemy attacks. This is all well within my ability.
He had arranged to receive Bartheck, one of Amil’s trusted and valorous retainer from Bahar, who had inherited the war wagons from the present prime-minister Mills. They had been entrusted with looking after their neighbouring province with their speed, and they had undoubtedly heard of the rebellion already. There was no need to send a messenger, so all that remained was to prepare. Wilm could trust him to make good decisions as he was also a seasoned military man.
Madress was defended by five thousand men at the time, and Leue’s highway defence force also numbered five thousand strong. Gathering all the surrounding soldiers could probably net Wilm twenty thousand men. Reports stated the Red Circle Army had about ten thousand men. The land surrounding the castle was going to be damaged, but Wilm’s disgrace was already inevitable. He should have initiated a purge to curb rebellion even if it meant butting heads with Gaddis. Dead men told no tales, after all.
Elgar, you brat… you’ve been coasting so far. I, Wilm, shall teach you that you can’t win a war with willpower alone. Then I’ll send you to greet your father in hell!
Wilm struck the ground with his swagger-stick as if to shake off the seething anger that had boiled up within him.
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