Episode 100. Gradus Duel (1)

Marquis Ashtein fiercely protested.

“From a national standpoint, our request is truly small and insignificant. If you can’t even make those concessions, then we’ll have to re-approach the terms of the settlement from scratch.”

However, King Theodore remained adamant.

“Do so if you wish. It does not matter how long it takes.”

Marquis Ashtein did not expect the king to step up at the last minute to put a wrench in their negotiations.

“But you should know whose side time is on.”

He bit his lip upon hearing the king’s words. After all, they were not wrong. King Theodore’s expression never changed as he looked down on the enemy marquis staring at him insolently. He simply waved briefly to show his respects to the other officials in the conference room and left.

“I think we should renegotiate the terms of the settlement.”

While the king and marquis exchanged words, a senior Adenburg official had entered the conference room to speak to one of the negotiators.

“We demand double the compensation.”

“What are you saying!”

The official’s words were tantamount to overturning all previous negotiations. Marquis Ashtein shouted in exasperation.

“Our kingdom has already shown our sincerity in these negotiations! How could you, then, ask for even more in reparations!”

“Perhaps you are unaware of the happenings of this world because you’re away from your kingdom. I’ll give you some information out of consideration for your situation. Listen carefully.”

The Adenburg negotiator slowly spoke as he observed the marquis protesting, face red in anger.

“We have just received news that Griffindor troops have invaded your western border.”

“What are you…”

Completely taken aback, the marquis immediately got up, knocking his chair back in the process. He leaned in as if to grab the official by the neck.

“From what I’ve heard, they sent at least three regiments’ worth of troops. Given the sudden development, it seems like they’ve been thoroughly preparing for when the weather improved. I’d imagine it’ll be difficult to drive them back.”

The marquis staggered as he listened to the explanation, strength leaving his legs. The other Noctein officials belatedly rushed in to help.

‘But you should know whose side time is on.’

The Adenburg official looked at the marquis as he recalled King Theodore’s final words.

“Reparations will increase with time. So think carefully before you decide.”

The moment he heard the confident voice, the marquis knew.

He had completely failed these negotiations.

***

Seon-Hyeok soon received word that the post-war settlement with the Noctein Kingdom had been reached. He shouted in delight – it was now time for him to receive his reward.

However, there was something he needed to confirm first. He immediately looked for Marquis Reinhardt and found him without much difficulty.

“The terms demanded by the Nocteins have been nullified.”

“Why is that?”

“It looks like you’re disappointed to hear that.”

The marquis was right. Instead of refuting his claims, however, Seon-Hyeok once again asked why the terms of the settlement changed.

“His Majesty wishes that Adenburg’s Spear does not rust like the kingdom’s other swords.”

In essence, the king was suggesting Seon-Hyeok would be thoroughly used in place of the knights. Seon-Hyeok let his shoulders droop in disappointment, but Marquis Reinhardt clicked his tongue before explaining the reason behind the altered negotiations.

“The Nocteins would have wanted a definitive answer on your participation in future conflicts, but His Majesty was adamant, and their western border recently fell into turmoil. If they held out stubbornly and the situation developed to their disadvantage, the Nocteins could have ended up paying several times as much in reparations.”

After all, no matter how hawkish the Noctein Kingdom may be, it would have been burdensome to wage war against two neighboring kingdoms at once.

“In any case, now that the situation has come to this, you’ll have more responsibilities in the future.”

“Since the Drake Cavalry has been disbanded, don’t I just need to take care of my territory now?”

Seon-Hyeok blanched and took a step back at the marquis’ suggestion. The knight once again clicked his tongue.

“Once Fort Kalstein has been returned to the Nocteins, the old man from Mangsk will officially retire from his position as commander of the Western Army. Of course, he won’t be completely detached from the situation there, as he’s also the lord of a western territory, but he won’t oversee the entire region.”

Seon-Hyeok looked dully as he listened to the marquis’ words. He strongly expressed his desire to take a step back, claiming that it was up to Commander Mangsk and his successor to remedy the situation. However, the marquis said this was no longer possible, since his reputation now exceeded that of anyone else in the Western Army.

In the end, his growing reputation, something he had no ambitions for in the first place, ended up shackling him to these additional responsibilities. However, Seon-Hyeok was not worried.

He was not sure how well promises were kept in this world, where war was commonplace, but he already knew that the settlement included a commitment from the Nocteins not to invade their territory for the coming 10 years.

“Well, think as you please. You should know well by now that wars aren’t always defensive in nature.”

The marquis’ words seemed to carry some hidden meaning. Seon-Hyeok began to think hard about the situation, and his eyes grew wide as he realized something.

“It can’t be? The Griffindor invasion…”

“You’re correct. It’s all the work of His Majesty.”

Seon-Hyeok’s heart sank when Marquis Reinhardt confirmed his suspicions. He thought he was finally saying farewell to war, but it could not be the case given the current developments in this world. The marquis hinted at the possibility of further conflict, depending on how successful the Griffindor Kingdom was in their war.

“Damn it.”

***

The possibility of yet another war hung over them like a specter, but the atmosphere in the royal capital was festive. The victory ceremony and accompanying events, delayed all this time due to the ongoing negotiations, were finally starting.

The first domino to fall was a tribute to the contributors in the war.

“I was unable to get a read on the number of Nocteins in our borders and responsible for the heavy casualties we suffered. As the commander-in-chief, how could I even dream of receiving a reward for my contributions in this war? I, Wittenfeld Royen Mangsk, vow not to move a single foot from Fort Kalstein until the day it is returned to the Nocteins.”

However, Commander Mangsk, despite making the greatest contribution in the preceding war by capturing Fort Kalstein, refused all rewards on the pretext of his own failings in the prior invasion and claimed he would fulfill his duty as the occupier for as long as necessary.

Since the greatest contributor refused to even show his face at the capital, the people’s attention was naturally directed to the individual who had the next-greatest accomplishments.

And this was Kim Seon-Hyeok.

“Even looking back at the history of the Adenburg Kingdom, there has not been a single person with as many achievements in such a short time and as sudden a rise in stature like you.”

King Theodore was dignified and full of charisma as he spoke during the victory ceremony. Despite their faces being full of excitement and smiles, the nobles could not even exhale comfortably while he spoke.

“As such, there was much debate even within the royal family. We did not know what a suitable reward would be for your contributions.”

Just the fact that an ordinary cavalry rider had ascended to the rank of an earl in a few short years was truly extraordinary. As such, it was natural for the royal family to wonder.

“Listen closely, Earl Drachen!”

At King Theodore’s words, Seon-Hyeok knelt before the king and lowered his head. The nobles expressed admiration for his now-refined etiquette towards the royal family.

“From here on, you will be fully recognized as an official earl, not just an honorary one, and your territory will become your earldom. It is not difficult to grant you new lands, but considering the hard work you put into developing Rheinperle, I trust that additional territory would be meaningless as a reward. Instead, I will arrange for 2,000 healthy men and women of childbearing age to relocate to Rheinperle, and will send 100 craftsmen to set the foundation for revival of the land. The royal family shall bear all expenses involved in these individuals settling into your territory.”

In this world, where the number of healthy, productive people in a territory directly corresponded to the land’s financial output, it was a tremendous reward to receive over 4,000 new people to call his own. However, the king continued to expand on the rewards, considering how symbolic Seon-Hyeok’s victories were and how large his contributions were.

“The royal family will give you 50 war horses from our own stables, as well as 100 sets of armor and well-balanced swords. In addition, we will provide 300 pigs and cows…”

At first, the nobles listened, thinking that the reward was appropriate given the magnitude of Seon-Hyeok’s achievements. But soon, one by one, their jaws dropped. The royal family’s reward was simply beyond the scope they had imagined.

“And finally, we will give you 1,000 gold and exempt you from tax obligations for the coming 5 years.”

Seon-Hyeok looked forward blankly, struggling to process the lengthy list of rewards he had been given. King Theodore, seeing the foreigner’s expression, asked with a grin.

“Do you think that this is too much?”

“I do. However…”

Seon-Hyeok was already aware that King Theodore intended to make full use of his abilities, and as such, he decided to act shamelessly.

“I will accept it all with great gratitude, knowing that you are giving me this with high expectations for my future contributions.”

He was fully aware that refusing the reward did not mean he would be excused from his upcoming obligations.

“Good. Then I am satisfied.”

The king chuckled in amusement. He seemed thrilled by the foreigner’s response.

At the same time, however, the other nobles looked displeased, as they viewed the rewards as excessive. They were unable to voice their displeasure considering the overwhelming dignity of King Theodore, but they nonetheless glared at the foreigner in disapproval.

Ah, I think they might be resentful of me from now on.

Noticing this, Seon-Hyeok smiled bitterly. He wondered if even these looks of jealousy and disapproval had all been intended by the king.

The conferment of honors continued on. However, since the reward Seon-Hyeok received was so incredible in scale, the rewards others received felt relatively shabby, and the atmosphere died down. As if noticing this change, King Theodore raised his glass and shouted after giving recognition to those with significant wartime achievements.

“For today, at least, don’t worry about the troubles of tomorrow! Drink and enjoy until you’re drunk! This is a royal command. I will remember everyone who fails to get drunk today!”

“I will do as you say!”

Regardless of their displeasure with the treatment given to the foreigner, everyone acknowledged that the victory being celebrated was truly monumental and would go down in history. Even the nobles quickly became immersed in the festive atmosphere, acting like they were forced to enjoy themselves under the royal command.

“You. Drink next to me, and don’t go messing around somewhere else.”

Before he knew it, Marquis Reinhardt was next to Seon-Hyeok, handing the latter a glass. Seon-Hyeok looked at the knight in bewilderment.

“Is the head of the Royal Knights allowed to drink like that?”

“Didn’t you hear? His Majesty ordered everyone to get drunk today.”

Seon-Hyeok gave up when he heard the marquis’ ridiculous excuse. He filled the knight’s empty glass.

“When will you head back to your territory?”

“Now that the conferment of honors is over, I’ll handle some final matters and head back right away. It’s been too long since I was last there, and I’m starting to get worried.”

“Is that so?”

In a flash, the marquis finished his drink and handed him the empty glass. Seon-Hyeok immediately understood the marquis’ intentions and accepted the cup.

“You were a child when we first met, but you survived and made it this far.”

The marquis’ words were not an insult, but rather held a hint of pride. Seon-Hyeok raised his glass and responded.

“Well, I almost died several times, but I somehow managed.”

“Don’t let your guard down. Don’t be conceited. Don’t be overconfident. This is only the beginning.”

The marquis’ tone was heavier than ever.

“Until now, you were just a troublesome foreigner, but the situation will be different from now on. The eyes of the enemy will always be trained on you, and they will stab you the moment they see any weakness.”

Just listening to the marquis’ words made Seon-Hyeok shiver. The knight continued on while looking over at the nobles glancing in their direction.

“Don’t assume that the daggers will only come from the front. It’s true that they’re limited in what they can do because of His Majesty, but the nobles’ greed is greater than you imagine.”

“I will keep that in mind.”

“Right now, in this world where knights and mages are banned from participating in conflicts, you are Adenburg’s greatest weapon. I’m telling you not to fall victim to something stupid.”

Seon-Hyeok grew more sober as he listened to this advice. Noticing the foreigner’s now clear eyes, the marquis grinned.

“If it’s ever too much, you could give it all up and join the Royal Knights. I, and the royal family, will always be willing to provide protection.”

“Was that your point from the beginning?”

Seon-Hyeok smiled and jokingly responded, feeling the heavy atmosphere become somewhat lighter. The marquis shook his hands a few times and got up from his seat.

“I thought you said you’d drink until you’re drunk.”

Marquis Reinhardt did not show even the slightest hint of being drunk as he got into position behind King Theodore and vigilantly looked around.

Once he returned from the victory ceremony, Seon-Hyeok went about completing his tasks in the capital. As part of this, he sent messengers to a number of knights, and Raiden Laylark, the Sword of Lightning, was the first person to be contacted.

“So you’ve been going around gossiping behind my back?”

From his conversations with other knights, Seon-Hyeok knew full well how Raiden Laylark was making excuses for his previous defeat. Naturally, he did not have a good impression of this talkative loser.

Instead of continuing to make his excuses, Raiden Laylark shut his mouth, suggesting he was not convinced by the results of their previous duel. The Sword of Lightning burned with the urge to avenge his “loss” in their present meeting.

“Beating you once might be luck, but twice? That’s all skill.”

Just like he did in their previous duel, Seon-Hyeok tauntingly gestured towards the knight. Seeing this, Raiden Laylark glared back coldly as he gathered his sword energy.

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