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I continued listening to Tina’s story while feeling rather bitter about it.
A short while later, Kasal’s voice came to us from outside the tent, “I’ve brought some food, sirs. Would you like some?”
“Ah, hang on. Let me join you guys outside. There are some things I’d like to hear from you as well.”
Damon and I stepped outside the tent, leaving Tina and my skeleton behind inside.
I let her be on her own and headed straight into the midst of the mercenaries currently sitting around a campfire.
However, even I could tell that they were quite tense. From what I heard, they were like this because of how so many of Aslan’s Necromancers were cruel and volatile in nature.
The atmosphere suggested that this was not a place I should stick my nose in, but it couldn’t be helped as I had a pressing matter to attend to. After getting a bowl of soup, I wanted to somewhat soften the stiff mood around, so I stared at Hans next.
He was still glancing at me every now and then as if he wanted so badly to solve his curiosity over the skeletons I summoned earlier.
“You said your name was Hans?”
When I addressed him, he flinched grandly and quickly looked back at me. “Y-yes, that’s correct.”
He might have been nodding his head, but his shoulders were visibly drooping; probably after he felt intense pressure from all the glares of the nearby mercenaries landing on him.
They almost died from Hans’s poison bomb, after all. And judging from the overall atmosphere, they were more than likely worried about the merchant saying something dumb to piss me off.
The truth was, I was rather intrigued by him.
My [Mind’s Eye] returned the results of him possessing the attribute of ‘alchemy’. It was one of the techniques employed during the magic tool manufacturing process.
A profession where you used the neutral energy source called Mana to manufacture medicines and magic tools which utilised either divinity or demonic energy. I found that quite interesting.
“According to the mercenaries, you’re a merchant and an Alchemist?”
“Ah, yes. I am.”
“Your wares seem rather excellent.”
Hans’s eyes began gleaming once I praised him a bit. It seemed that he was a bit on the gullible side.
I carried on talking to him in a slightly flattering tone of voice. “Indeed, your products seem quite useful. If it’s alright with you, I wouldn’t mind purchasing some of them.”
“O-of course! I have many varied wares to choose from. Such as the crystal sphere containing poison that will explode, a goggle to detect any traps lying in wait, and also…”
Hans sounded quite excited as he began introducing his products. Now that I heard him, several of his things really did sound useful.
“I wish to learn alchemy as well. Is it possible?”
Hans flinched upon hearing that.
He replied while cautiously minding my reaction. “That… will be difficult, sir. My family forbids the passing of our alchemy skills to someone who is not of our descendant…”
“I-I… I apologise!”
Hans quickly prostrated on the ground.
I could only smack my lips at his reaction.
Well, it wasn’t as if I planned to force him into teaching me alchemy anyway. The important thing right now was to learn the current situation between Aslan and the Theocratic Empire rather than studying some alchemy.
Okay, enough of these side distractions. Time to get to the main topic.
I asked the one thing I was dying to know to the nearby mercenaries. “In your view, how does this kingdom’s situation look to you?”
I deliberately asked in a vague manner. Since they saw me as a noble of Aslan, I should play along to their misconceptions.
The mercenaries tensed up even more.
A lengthy bout of silence later, Kasal finally opened his mouth as thick cold sweat drops trickled down his face. “I-if you’re referring to the war between Aslan and the Theocratic Empire, then of course, our great and noble Aslan is on the winning streak!”
I was a bit flustered by that reply. I was initially sceptical of the Theocratic Empire being on the losing side, but then it occurred to me that Kasal only said that to hopefully please the ‘noble’ of this country.
Damon also seemed a little taken aback by Aslan’s situation and paid closer attention as well.
I spoke up again. “I pray that you answer me honestly. I’m simply curious. I merely wish to find out what the citizens are thinking of, that’s all.”
The mercenaries began exchanging glances with each other after hearing what I had to say.
Another bout of silence ensued until Hans decided to butt in. “Apparently, we’re in the middle of a negotiation, sir.”
“Negotiation, is it?”
I stared at Hans.
He continued on. “As you may well know, Aslan has taken hostage of the Theocratic Empire’s Second Crown Princess Consort and the Imperial Princes.”
So, both Ruppel and Rose were now hostages?
“Even then, the empire didn’t stop their invasion, bringing much hardship and suffering to the kingdom’s subjects. Five cities have already been burned to the ground and created countless refugees. We keep losing in the war, and despite Aslan’s continued threats, none of them seem to work, so from this humble one’s perspective… the subjects should be resenting his majesty by now.”
That sounded about right. Knowing the Holy Emperor’s personality, threats wouldn’t work on him.
You don’t want to release the Imperial Prince? Invade away.
Making threats using the Imperial Prince as a hostage? Burn down a city.
Injured the Imperial Prince in some way? Send a warning by ripping off the limbs of countless captured nobles.
And the Imperial Prince is about to get killed? No more negotiations, then.
This invasion would never end until all of Aslan’s nobles and its king were slaughtered into oblivion, leaving not one alive.
Aslan’s leadership should have realised that point by now.
If they wanted to end the war, it’d be only normal to send back both Ruppel and Rose home. However, seeing that there was no mention of that…
“Honestly speaking, I’m rather suspicious of Aslan’s rulers even holding the Imperial Princes and the Second Crown Princess Consort captive, sir. There’s a certain rumour doing its rounds among the kingdom’s subjects at the moment.”
What Hans said just then caused an outbreak of cold sweat to flood out from the mercenaries. Mainly because he basically declared his distrust of the kingdom just now, that’s why.
This dude, even I could tell that he wasn’t the most quick-witted person in the group who obviously enjoyed needlessly blabbing away whenever he had a chance.
Since it was good for me either way, I let him be. “Oh-hoh, that certainly is interesting. What kind of a rumour is it?”
“That both the princes and the crown princess consort are missing. The rumour says his majesty King Rahamma wishes to stop the Theocratic Empire by any means necessary, and so, he is currently scouring the land for their whereabouts. His agents are supposedly moving in secret, but if that is so, then we wouldn’t have any rumours to begin with.”
Seeing how the rumours had spread among the populace like this, should I take that as Aslan being dead serious about finding them?
With how things were already at this level, the odds of the Theocratic Empire cottoning onto the rumour were pretty high, too. And that’s probably more reason for the Holy Emperor to go on an even crazier rampage.
“From what I hear, the Third and Seventh Imperial Princes, the sword king Oscal Baldur and the Second Crown Princess Consort, have all gone missing, sir. And both the Theocratic Empire and Aslan are searching high and low for them.”
Hans’s talkative streak caused the mercenaries to keep a close watch on any visible changes to my mood.
Kasal sidled up to me, and then tried to whisper to Damon and me. “Honourable sirs, y-you can simply ignore this fool. All of it is nothing more than some hot air of a…”
“Nah, it’s alright. I find it rather interesting. In any case, do carry on.”
When I reacted positively, Hans’s talkativeness became even more belligerent. He continued blabbing about everything he knew.
I was constantly amazed during his lengthy monologues.
This guy, he somehow managed to keep his life this far. I mean, judging from either his attitude when dealing with a noble or how loose his lips was, his lifespan should’ve been cut short by now.
Maybe he enjoyed pretty great luck or something.
As Hans noticed how attentive I was, he suddenly stood up from his spot while looking clearly excited about something. “Ah, by the way, good sir. I have portraits as well.”
“Portraits, is it?”
“Yes, it’s a bunch of portraits featuring the faces of the missing Imperial Family members!”
This time, it was my turn to flinch in surprise.
“Of course, these are nothing more than carpets for the major nobles to step on. Honestly speaking, I believe their real appearances are a little different from the depictions.” After he said that, Hans walked up to his wagon and pulled out a single portrait from his luggage. “These portraits were drawn up to insult the Imperial Family, you see. Nobles use them as carpets so that they could walk all over the faces of the Imperials. Sure, they are humorously caricatured to some degree, but you can still make out the general outline of… Huh?”
I lightly dusted myself while standing back up.
Riiight, so… How should I handle this?
I leisurely walked up to Hans. He was rooted to the spot, busy alternating his gaze between the portrait and my face.
“Uh? Eh? Huh?”
He seemed to be confused and dazed at the moment.
I placed my arm around Hans’s shoulders and quietly pressed down on him. Then, I took a peek at the portrait held in his hands.
“…Ohh, for some reason it’s a bit different from the face that I know of. I mean, the real deal is a lot more handsome than this drawing, wouldn’t you say? Actually, isn’t this quite uncanny? You won’t tell the difference unless the real thing is right next to the portrait!”
“W-well, that… that, that is… Ha-haha… No way?”
“No way what, exactly?”
I smiled meaningfully at Hans.
With a pair of trembling hands, he carefully folded the portrait away. As thick cold sweat drops rolled off his face, his whole body went stiff and he dared not to look at my face anymore.
He finally squeaked some words out. “N-no, it’s nothing at all, good sir. I… I haven’t seen anything and heard nothing at all. T-that is why…!”
As I thought, this guy enjoyed a run of great luck. Despite his loose lips and lightweight behaviour, he somehow managed to keep surviving in this harsh, unforgiving world.
Unfortunately, his luck seemed to have finally run out this evening.
A tall shadow suddenly appeared from behind Hans. A summoned skeleton stood there and reached out to firmly grab him by his shoulder.
When the atmosphere fell off a cliff in an instant, the mercenaries flinched nastily, and as befitting a bunch of men with quick wits, hurriedly vacated their spots around the campfire.
“Why don’t we have a more measured, intimate conversation, just the two of us?”
While I smiled oh-so happily at him, Hans’s complexion became deathly pale.
More sweat flooded down from his face as he murmured one other thing in a weak voice, “T-that alchemy thing, do you still wish to learn it, good sir?”
It was good to know that he was so willing to change his tune. Too bad, he seemed to be a bit tardy in that regard.
I shook my head. “Nah, I’m good.”
“W-w-wait a moment, please!”
He fell into a bout of a deep contemplation. He was probably searching for a way to keep breathing, or so I thought.
No matter how dimwitted he was, he should be able to figure out by now that the current situation was rather precarious to his overall health.
His eyes urgently shifted from this way and that before he suddenly clapped his hands as if he finally managed to recall something. “Ah! B-by any chance, have you heard about the treasure trove hidden inside an ancient ruin?”
“An ancient ruin?”
It was Damon who reacted this time.
I glanced at him and then looked back at Hans.
“Y-yes! There is an ancient ruin suspected of being a ‘dragon’s lair’.”
Hans rummaged through his inner pockets and eventually pulled out a small reptile’s scale.
“This… This is a scale of a dragon.”
He swallowed back his dry saliva and addressed me.
“I, I can tell you where it is if you are interested.”
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