As Ponpius wanted to leave, Darius accompanied him to the entranceway of his mansion. On the way, just as they got close to the mansion’s garden, Ponpius suddenly stopped.
Ever since Darius lost his standing at the court even the garden, which had always been kept trim and proper by a gardener, was left to its own devices, allowing Mother Nature to spring its children wildly. This was a direct result of Darius saving on the gardener’s wages for the sake of paying the expenses to investigate the Divine Son of Destruction.
Darius asked Ponpius what was wrong as the other man was blankly staring at the unruly garden. However, without answering that question, Ponpius asked Darius in return, “Wasn’t there this soldier of commoner birth you had your eye on? What happened to that guy?”
Darius was surprised by the sudden question, but immediately recovered and put on a bitter smile. What surfaced in Darius’ mind at this moment was the face of a middle-aged man with a lazily shaved beard and shortly trimmed salt and pepper hair.
“…That cursed Bogus apparently died together with Marius, all to allow an old fool like me to escape.”
Darius who had put in his word for Bogus to become a general claiming that birth didn’t matter as long one possessed ability, and Ponpius who had opposed this recommendation claiming that it’d only invite unnecessary chaos in a country that had no such precedent. Each time these two met, it developed into a heated discussion, and before either noticed, those arguments turned into greetings.
While remembering their exchanges of old, nostalgic sentiments welled up in Darius’ chest.
Ponpius asked him another question, “Darius, do you know the story 『The Two Drunkards』?”
Darius shook his head, looking puzzled.
It was a story Ponpius had heard when he investigated the Divine Son of Destruction and Bolnis after being asked for assistance by Darius.
The story went as follows:
One day, two men, who were soundly drunk in one of Bolnis’ bars, criticized Souma’s government over the snacks served with their wine. However, although you could call it criticism, it was no more than the nonsense babbled by some drunkards. And originally the story should have ended at this point. But, had preordained, a government official was present at the bar, unnecessarily informing Souma of their talk. Thereupon, Souma immediately had the two men tracked down, and dragged in front of his eyes.
Forced in front of the infamous Divine Son of Destruction, the first man turned ashen pale and begged for his life, rubbing his forehead against the floor and asserting that all he said was silly trash talk under the influence of alcohol. Due to that, Souma released the man without punishment.
But, the second man, who was dragged in next, had already resolved himself as he was certain that his life would end today. He proudly straightened his back in front of Souma, and criticized his government in great detail. When he finished, everyone believed that the man would receive the capital punishment. However, not only was Souma far from being angry, but he was even greatly pleased. On top of giving the man a hundred gold coins, he actually promoted him into a responsible post within his government.
It was said that ever since then the city of Bolnis was overflowing with people debating Souma’s government in every crook and corner in the hope that they might become a second drunkard.
“It’s truly ironic, isn’t it? A man who can run a government capable of properly assessing those who have abilities sought after by us, has become our enemy.” Flashing a smile full of self-mockery, Ponpius shifted his eyes from the garden to Darius. “There was a time when I got scolded by my grandchild when it visited my mansion to play.”
Darius knitted his eyebrows at the sudden change in topic. But, without paying any heed to that, Ponpius continued, “The gardener working at my mansion has an odd, special skill. He can prune garden trees into the shapes of all kinds of animals. My grandchild was overjoyed when it saw my freshly pruned garden. However, when it visited my mansion again three months later, my grandchild said following when seeing the garden…” Ponpius made a small break, and then proceeded, “…『The animals were broken』.”
Ponpius smiled wryly as he thought back on that time.
“After three months had passed, the garden trees had sprouted new leaves, resulting in the animals losing their shape and stopping to look like animals. For me, as someone living in the mansion, it was a natural change. But for my grandchild, who only knew the state of three months ago, it must have seemed as if the animals were broken.” Ponpius put on a serious expression, and said to Darius, “Say, Darius. Could it be that you think so as well? That the destruction triggered by the Divine Son of Destruction might actually be radical reforms and transformations…”
The hallway was pregnant with silence for a short while. After that silence which engendered a tinglingly tense atmosphere as if the two were glaring at each other with real swords in their hands, a smile abruptly formed on Darius’ lips.
“Isn’t it one of the last remaining entertainments for old, senile men to get in the way of young greenhorns who only appreciate the new?”
“Isn’t that what you’d rather call a display of ugly senility, Darius?”
“As long as Holmea is saved by it.”
Ponpius deeply stared into Darius’ eyes as if to read his true thoughts, but after a short time, he slapped his bald head.
“…Sorry, my bad for asking something so awkward.” After smiling bitterly for a moment, Ponpius asked Darius, “So, Darius, can you definitely win next time?”
Darius was unable to give an instant reply. He clenched his teeth as if to crush his molars, and then squeezed out at long last, “I don’t know.”
“I don’t know,” Souma declared.
It was a statement he made at the war council he was holding after gathering all the main leaders of his camp in preparation for the soon coming battle against Holmea.
Souma had defeated General Darius and the 7.000 soldiers under his command with a mere 1.000 soldiers. Compared to five years ago, the number of his soldiers had grown and their provisions were well in order as well.
The answer Souma gave referred to the opinion that there might be little to fear even if General Darius should once more lead an army against them under the current circumstances.
While sensing the surprised looks focusing on him, Souma said while visibly choosing every word carefully, “We had a lot of luck in the victory five years ago. That’s all there is to it.”
Even as he thought back on it now, he realized just how thin the ice was they were treading back then. It was such a close battle that if anything had gone down slightly differently, the scale of victory might have pointed towards Holmea instead. What made Souma’s blood run especially cold was Darius’ ability of prediction which he had learned about through the prisoner interrogation after the war.
General Darius had precisely estimated Souma’s situation, and even saw through their plan to protect Bolnis with a single heap of firewood. And that was not all. At that time, the plan Souma had considered as second best completely matched Darius’ forecast. If he hadn’t come up with the idea to have the zoan run through the forest to stab into the flanks of the heavy spear infantry regiments at the last minute, that hill might have been littered with their corpses after having their strategy seen through. Moreover, Souma could only think of this idea because he knew of the zoan’s traits. It was no more than a plan based on what he managed to learn about them after getting in close contact, and not some information investigated by someone else.
Souma who knew about the zoan through close contact, and Darius who didn’t. That was the only difference. And this tiny difference decided the winner and loser of their battle.
However, the same move wouldn’t work a second time.
Souma was relieved when he had heard that General Darius had lost his standing after King Warius lost his temper. Souma didn’t have the disposition to get very excited at the prospect of battle like some combat-driven races. Because of that, the battles he carried out were no simple game or betting for him. The stronger the opponent in battle, the higher the damage to Souma’s side. And that damage would be paid in the currency of life by those who had been following him. If he could make a wish, Souma would appreciate it if the enemy was as weak as possible.
For this reason Souma was honestly relieved about General Darius’ fall.
However, that very Darius, who should have lost all his authority, had secretly sent out letters to restrain Jeboa and the marmen. That fact made it pretty clear that Darius had been continuously regarding Souma as his enemy and taken actions against him, even after losing his standing.
While despairing over the loss of many officers and men under his wing, Darius was chased out of the royal court accompanied by scorn and insults without having the entreaty, he appealed for under the risk of his life, even noticed by King Warius whom Darius had always served loyally.
And yet he’s still trying to defeat me for the sake of Holmea. Souma felt a shiver run down his spine when thinking of Darius’ tenacity.
“Five years ago, General Darius was shackled down by subordinates who underestimated us, and new recruits who weren’t used to fighting. But――” Souma stood up from his chair, and slammed his palms on the table, “――the next time he’s going to appear in front of us, he’ll truly be Holmea’s strongest general.”
Everyone stayed silent in response to Souma’s fervent declaration. The zoan warriors such as Garam and Zurgu remembered the “Black Beast” their ancestors had told them about, filled with rage and fear. The former Holmean soldiers Marchronis and Setius visualized the figure of the general, whom they had idolized while harboring awe and respect towards him, in front of their mind’s eye.
“Are you telling us to curl up our tails before the battle then, my 『Navel Master』?”
It was Shyemul who broke the gloomy silence dominating the place.
Souma shook his head at her provocative question, “No, nothing like that. I haven’t spent the last five years twiddling my thumbs either. I won’t lose, even with General Darius as an opponent. ――No, I got everything ready so that we can win, even with General Darius as our opponent.”
Afterwards, Souma slowly looked into the silent faces of his comrades, “The same should apply to all of you as well, right?”
At once and simultaneously, all of them answered Souma’s question with fearless smiles of daredevils.
Nodding at that in satisfaction, Souma raised his voice in a dignified manner, “Garam, Zurgu, Dvalin.”
The three who had their names called out answered with curt grunts of confirmation.
“Please begin to secretly gather the soldiers in the place we talked about before. There isn’t much time left anymore, but please try your utmost to avoid notice by Holmea.”
Just then, as Souma was giving further instructions to the three, Chief Court Lady Eladia arrived.
She elegantly bowed once, and then whispered into Souma’s ear, “Lord Soma, that person has arrived.”
Upon hearing those news, Souma’s face immediately brightened up.
“Alright! So he came. I was sure he’d make his way here sooner or later!”
As if somewhat bewildered, Eladia raised an eyebrow at Souma who looked like he would rush out to meet the new arrival at any moment.
“But, Lord Soma, what do you plan to do with a person like him at this point in time?”
Souma smiled bitterly at Eledia’s question that implicitly suggested that it’d be a waste of time to meet up with useless trash this late in the game.
“I intend to have that man lend us his help for a little bit.”
Then Souma started to explain his idea. As soon as he finished, Eladia burst into a high-pitched, loud laughter, commenting, “That is so very like you, Lord Soma. You are a truly evil man.”
“In that case, please tell him _____ in _____ way, Lord Soma. I shall take care of the rest.”
The guest visiting the lord’s residence in Bolnis was Lobnas, who had come here disguised as a merchant. Lobnas, a general of Romania, came to Bolnis by passing through Holmea, where tensions were rising due to King Warius’ declaration of eradicating the Divine Son of Destruction, even at the risk of being captured or executed if his identity were to be exposed. All for the sake of affirming Souma’s readiness and will for battle.
After all, the time had finally come. The time when Holmea and the Divine Son of Destruction would clash.
Five years ago Lobnas had suggested to King Doldea to support Souma. The aim behind this assistance was to weaken Romania’s old enemy Holmea by pitting Souma’s group against it. And yet, despite receiving a tremendous sum of money as funding, no fights between the Divine Son of Destruction and Holmea had started during the last five years. It even led to many Romanian chief retainers openly jeering at Lobnas with sarcasm and insults, saying things like, “The famous general who advised our clever king must be shocked by the lack of news.” On top of that, even King Doldea, who had initially supported Lobnas, had most recently begun to shun him.
For Lobnas, who would lose his place in Romania at this rate, Holmea’s declaration to put down the Divine Son of Destruction was the good news he had eagerly awaited for a long time. And thus, as if to make doubly sure, Lobnas marched into the lord’s residence in order to instigate Souma to engage Holmea in a grand and magnificent war.
“Killing that heinous King Warius is for the sake of the whole country and its people. It’s the very definition of justice. I’m certain that heaven is going to assist you on this noble endeavor, Sir Soma.”
However, despite Lobnas exerting himself to hold an especially fervent speech, Souma remained depressed from the beginning to the very end. No matter how much Lobnas denounced Holmea, and no matter how much Lobnas extolled defeating Holmea as righteous, Souma not only forced a smile, but he even sighed repeatedly.
“Just what could be wrong for you to have such a gloomy face?”
After looking as if he was hesitant to speak up for a brief moment, Souma told Lobnas who couldn’t help but to ask for the reason of Souma’s behavior, “As a matter of fact, I’ve been wondering whether I should capitulate to Holmea.”
Lobnas’ jaw dropped like lead.