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Chapter 9: Determination

Determination.

There wasn't much longer to Beim, and we were taking our final break.

The reason we rested a little separated from the main road was so travelers and peddlers, and other adventurers wouldn't be able to recognize that we were one party guarding another.

I don't think there were too many out there able to make it out at a glance, but there were no absolutes, so we took a break a little ways away.

(Though that's not all there is to it.)

Keeping wary of our surroundings, I turned my eyes to the carriages we were escorting. With the last attack, their exteriors were left in quite a state, but with a little servicing, they would work just fine.

Nearby, that attackers' horses were resting, loaded with the attackers' belongings.

From the Jewel, the Fourth spoke

[We'll have to leave the horses with someone, so the expenses will pile up. And if we aren't skillful in selling the equipment, the information will flow around. Maybe you should safe keep them for a while.]

I was of the same opinion. If it all ended with me thinking too much about it, then that's all and well, but if our opponent was persistent enough to search for us in Beim, there was no room for negligence.

The Sixth let his voice.

[Of course, if they wanted to find it out, there would be any number of ways for them to do it. Never think there'll be no way for them to trace you. Now then, before entering Beim, how about you...]

"KYAAAAAH!!"

Before the Sixth could finish, I heard a scream.

It was a woman's voice. Me and Eva, who was also on lookout, raced over, and there stood the injured man who we had come to the aid of. He had been out cold up to now.

He quietly mumbled to himself, as he held up a knife.

"... Aura... Aura..."

Perhaps she was in the middle of treating him, but the consecrated virgin nearby had fallen onto her back in fear. Behind her, Aura-san stood stock-still.

"W-why are you..."

She had an expression as if she couldn't believe something, and it seems her mind hadn't caught up the current situation.

(Her fatigue from unfamiliar travels must be at their peak as well. Ah, for now, I should...)

We weren't the only ones to run over.

Thelma-san and Gastone-san came as well, and they called for Aura-san to run.

"What are you doing!? Hurry and run away!"

Thelma-san grabbed Aura-san's arm, and shook her back to reality. The indivual herself successfully recovered from her confusion, but...

"Aurraaaaaaa!!"

The man jumped at Aura, and the virgin stepped up front. He pushed her aside with brute force, so Gastone-san stood out in front of Thelma.

"Guh!"

It looked as if a knife had pierced through his stomach.

I leapt forward, grabbed the man's arm, cast aside the knife covered in blood-like substance, and held him against the ground.

The man screamed out, as if under a spell.

"Auuraaaa!! Auraaaaa!!"

He cried out a number of times. A Skill that interfered with, and controlled one's psyche. Whether it was the same as the Third's, or only a similar one... whatever the case, the man was controlled by that Skill..

"Stay down!"

I restrained the struggling man, as Eva raced over to Gastone-san. Clara also came over to lend a hand to the consecrated virgin on the floor.

Aria and May kept watch.

Thelma-san went to Gastone-san's side, and gripped his hand.

"Gastone!"

"T-Thelma-sama... so you're safe."

His breathe was rough, and as Thelma-san answered, 'everyone besides you is uninjured,' he seemed delighted.

Aura-san slowly wandered over to him.

Gastone-san looked as if he was forcing his smile.

"W-why did you cover for me? I'm... not a Holy Maiden candidate or anything anymore."

There, Gastone-san...

"I apologize for getting you involved in this. But I'm glad you're safe..."

As Thelma-san grasped Gastone-san's chest, that blood-like substance flowed out in a steady stream.

His clothes were dyed a deep red.

Thelma-san laid Gastone-san down, and held onto his arm. Others began to gather around, and when they shed their tears, Aura-san's legs gave way beneath her.

I tied up the flailing man, and rendered him unconscious, before speaking.

"... We will take an extended break. Our party shall also assist in the burial services."

Thelma-san...

"Thank you."

And Aura-san, still collapsed on the spot, shouted out.

"What's this... this is all because of your failure! Because you didn't protect us! That's why High Priest Gastone had to throw down his life, is it not!? If you took up the request, you should be risking your life protecting us! What's this? What's all this..."

Seeing the young Aura-san's tears, my heart began to ache.

-

-

-

... Thelma was with Aura in their carriage.

She sat on the right side, facing the front. Aura sat far on the left.

Lyle's party was preparing a grave for Gastone, and Thelma had boarded the carriage in order to calm Aura down.

"Aura, don't blame yourself."

When Thelma said that, Aura's tears started coming down in large droplets.

"I mean... I mean..."

From Aura's point of view, there was no doubt that Gastone was just a High Priest using her. But it was also true how much he cared for her.

Even Thelma had been nothing but a merchant's daughter at the start.

Aura was born into a poor knight household, being left in the custody of the temple when she no longer had any relatives left to look after her.

To the two of them, the Holy Maiden was nothing but the marionette of the High Priests. And within that all, Gastone had served them with all his heart.

No, perhaps that had all been to protect Zayin, but neither Thelma nor Aura could bring themselves to hate the man.

"Having managed to protect you, Gastone was satisfied. He was smiling, you know."

Aura spoke.

"If that lot had done their work properly...! Then Gastone...!"

The day she had become a candidate for the Holy Maiden position.

Gastone had told her to drop any honorifics when dealing with him. In order to make clear their position as master and servant.

And Gastone had served her the whole time with that level of earnesty.

"Aura, it's not as if Lyle-dono's party had been negligent. Lyle-dono... had sensed the possibility that something like this would happen. He even insisted we kept as far away from that man as possible. But I was the one to push for it."

Right, Lyle had requested his party be the one to look after the injured. Thinking back, he had likely predicted the possibility right from the start.

"Then he should've just out and said it! It's because he..."

"Aura!"

When Thelma cried out, Aura's body jerked in response, and she shut her mouth.

"... I'm sorry. But I knew this was going to happen."

"Eh?"

Thelma closed her eyes, and indifferently went on. Inside the carriage, with her robe still partly stained red, she crossed her arms over her lap.

"Our lives would eventually be targeted. That's precisely why we ran. I thought that the possibility would be lower for you. But you were the first one he tried to target. Originally, it would have ended with us alone."

Aura looked at Thelma with a blank expression.

"... Then once you let me run, you, and everyone else would..."

Thelma hung her head.

"There would likely be nothing we would be able to do on our own. Run as we may, they would come to kill us. But I never thought you would be their highest priority."

Thelma spoke from her heart.

The one targeted with the highest priority was Aura.

The Divine Knights... no, the one Zayin wanted dead was Aura.

Aura spoke.

"Then, it's my fault Gastone..."

Thelma went on.

"It would have happened eventually. 'Twas only a matter of sooner or later."

Aura held both hands against her head, and gripped onto her hair. She looked as if she was about to tear it out, so Thelma took her hands, and stared into her face with a serious expression.

"Aura, when you get to Beim, you're going to live a quiet life, right?"

"Thelma-sama?"

"I'm going to try struggling with those that remain. Luckily, Lyle-dono has some connections. I've no idea how far we'll be able to go, but I'll make sure to direct Zayin's eyes my way."

Her words filled with determination were no fabrication.

Aura shook her head to the ide.

"Let's run together! I can't have you die as well. If it comes to that, then I'll have but another debt I cannot repay..."

In her messy tear-filled vision, her eyes caught a glimpse of the red stains on Thelma's robe.

Perhaps she imagined Thelma's death, as her expression was growing paler.

(Even if you may speak ill, you answered our expectations, and became a Holy Maiden candidate. You're truly a kind girl.)

She hurriedly rose to compete against the current Holy Maiden Remis. Had she the time, she may have even won.

But Thelma knew the girl herself had only become a candidate out of obligation to her.

"Aura, from here on, you should decide your own life."

"M-me?"

"That's right. You need to make the decision. If you're going to live quietly in Beim, then once we enter the city, we'll be nothing but complete strangers. I'll leave it to Lyle-dono to make sure you've got the arrangements to make a living. But do not get involved with us again. That will be for your sake."

"I don't want to. I don't want something like that!"

Aura put both her hands around Thelma, and Thelma embraced her in return.

"It's fine to run away. If you choose to fight, what awaits you is surely a crueler road... both me and Gastone only desire your happiness."

Aura raised her face to look at Thelma. Her eyes were reddened, and her mouth fastened shut. It seems she was holding back her tears.

"I... don't want to part anymore. I don't... want to lose any more family. Mother..."

Thelma kindly patted her head.

"Even when I told you not to call me that anymore... ever since you were small, you were always such a spoiled one."

She gave a bitter smile. Thinking of their age difference, they really could be mother and child.

In all actuality, the age gap was only a little less than Lyle and his own mother.

Gently separating herself from Aura, Thelma spoke with a smile.

"We'll reach Beim by the end of the day. Aura, you have to choose. It's you're life, you know."

Aura cast her eyes down once, before wiping off her tears, and raising her face.

"I will fight. As a Holy Maiden candidate, as one concerned, I will fight. So please don't leave me behind."

Thelma's face turned serious.

"Are you fine with that? You won't regret it? A quiet life has it's own happiness to be found."

Aura's face was just as serious.

She had already resolved herself.

Thelma nodded, motioned Aura to disembark from the carriage, and spoke.

"... I'm sure they're already done with their work. Aura, come down, and wash your face. You can't be showing such a look to Gastone, can you? And you must tell everyone your decision."

Aura nodded, opened the carriage door, and jumped down.

Thelma watched her back with a smile. It was truly a motherly smile.

But...

"... Eh?"

When Aura reached the outside world, her face cramped up, and froze...

-

-

-

There were two doors on the carriage.

In front of the left door, we applauded Aura-san as she disembarked.

Aria and I, as well as Clara, Eva, May, and everyone involved.

Alongside us, the consecrated virgins who came alone, and others concerned.

The man who was flailing about before was also clapping with a smile.

Gastone-san looked quite delighted.

"Aura-sama, so you've finally made your decision?"

Seeing him break into tears, there were a few others who ended up crying as well.

But the girl herself... Aura-san had frozen up as if she'd seen something she couldn't believe.

When Thelma-san jumped down beside her, Aura-san grabbed her.

"You tricked me!?"

"How rude. I have done no such thing! In truth, that man was injured, and unconscious, and it's true that his mentality was interfered with. Lyle-dono got rid of it beforehand. But the one he tried to aim for first really was you... Aura. And the possibility of me or Gastone dying is still as high as ever. Bringing you around as you were without resolution was making me uneasy. And if we didn't go this far, you'd think up an excuse, and would never have spoken your true feelings. How many years do you think we've known one another?"

Thelma-san looked at the man who'd been thrashing about, and he scratched his head in embarrassment.

The voice I ignored from the Jewel came from the Third.

[Ain't my Skill amazing? If it can brainwash people, then of course it's possible to dispel brainwashing.]

With the Third's Skill, we were able to disarm the man who'd become a human trap.

So we had him put on an act, and borrowed some blood-like substance from Monica's bag of tricks prepared to kill some time.

(But telling him his comrades had died... and then having him put on that act. That one was also a painful one.)

From my consultation with the Third, that was the means we'd selected, but...

The Fifth laughed.

[Even your terrible personality's showing up in your Skill. Though it worked out well this time.]

The Third and Fifth laughed, as if to threaten one another.

The Seventh spoke to me.

[Now then, Lyle... it's about time to disclose the trick.]

I took a step forward, and spoke to Aura-san.

"In order to make you serious, I directed a play. By the way, if you refused, you'd have been motioned to go out the right-side door, where'd you'd find a fake grave. While you prayed for him, Gastone would have been sent ahead to Beim. But you've shown your resolve! We will support you with all we have!"

When I said that with a smile, Aura-san returned the smile as she walked up to me.

The reason I purposely said it in an irritating way was to make her direct her dissatisfaction at me.

It would be troublesome if she started hating Thelma-san or Gastone-san, after all.

Having the help of all three of them was an absolute necessity.

"I see. So you mean to say I've been dancing on the palm of your hand? I thought you looked unreliable, but you're looking more promising now, Mr. Adventurer."

We both smiled and laughed, before my conversation partner raised her fist into the air, and slammed it into my body.

I had underestimated it as the fist of a young girl, but it seems my appraisal had been mistaken. The movements of her body were smooth, and her fist without a shred of hesitation pounded into my stomach.

"Gahah!"

The impact rang through my insides, and I spat out the air in my lungs before collapsing onto my knees.

(When I told her I was the one behind the curtains, I thought I would get a slap or two, but for her to go for the solar plexus...)

She had even added in the motion of her hips, and on that splendid blow, I forcefully formed a smile.

"S-splendid body blow."

There, Aura-san continued smiling as she looked down over me, and pointed her thumb at the ground.

"Very well. I shall take part in your plan. You've been able to fool me splendidly. And if you can do that much, then perhaps I can place a bit of expectations on you."

From the Jewel, the Fourth let his voice.

[This angle... that fist... you're bringing back memories of my wife.]

The Sixth.

[Well she looks resolved enough. Now then, we've gotten all the cards we wanted in our hands. Lyle, it's starting to get fun.]

(... It's starting to get painful for me.)

When I put all my effort into my smile, Aria beside me muttered.

"Lyle, you're trying too hard..."

It seems she was empathizing with me.

Eva spoke.

"I think I'm going to cut out this scene. Let's just try to spin it as an emotional one."

She was taking memos to turn it to song. And hearing that, Clara...

"You should be firm when you're making records. Decisions like that cause chaos for scholars down the road."

"Like I care. I just want them to listen to the song. There's no need for unnecessary truth. You've got to please the customers."

"That's your take on the matter. I don't think it's good to decide it so arbitrarily. It's because elves are like that, that so many scholars are still fighting over the meaning behind folk songs."

It doesn't seem she would forgive Eva cutting this scene. If you wanted to ask if it was Clara-esque, it was. So they both took their memos, and clashed their opinions.

May looked over us from afar.

"Humans sure are a pain."

And said that. But I...

(I think so too.)