At my aunt's greeting, Duke Asteria nodded lightly and looked at me. "Is this my escort?"
The duke frowned when he asked, and my aunt smiled. "Yes, it is."
"I'm definitely looking at him, but it feels like he doesn't exist, as if he’s a ghost.” The duke frowned when he tried to identify me because of my magic interfering with recognition.
"If the VIP himself can’t sense you, there's a problem. So you should remove the recognition interference magic." My aunt ordered me in formal speech, unlike usual. My aunt's formal speech made me feel creeped out.
"Excuse me for a moment." I put my hand on the duke's forehead and cast magic so he could perceive me instantly.
Since he could perceive me now, I adjusted my voice to sound distorted. It was dangerous for anyone as sensitive as the duke to hear my voice.
"Oh, I can see you properly now.” Duke Asteria laughed as his frown relaxed.
"I thought I had presbyopia when I was looking at him. Well, it's not that I don’t have presbyopia, but still."
The duke joked playfully, and my aunt smiled and took a step back. "Then I will leave now. This escort is competent, so if you need anything, you can tell him."
Wait? Leave? If you're going to call me out and take advantage of me, at least explain the details!
"All right, thank you for your work.”
Simultaneously as the duke spoke, my aunt left so fast that you could almost see her afterimage.
I was out of it and couldn’t catch my aunt, and Duke Asteria got back in the carriage and beckoned me. "What is it? Hurry and get on."
Looking blankly at the place where my aunt left, I sighed inwardly and boarded the duke's carriage. The interior of the carriage was just like its exterior, very luxurious.
I sat across from Duke Asteria at his behest. The duke smiled at me and asked, "My usual escort says that he's able to guard better when he's comfortable. What do you think?"
The usual escort he was referring to was probably the platinum plate adventurer, Debt-ridden Knight.
"That’s not necessarily wrong if you’re skilled. There’s no need to be all tense as long as you have the ability to respond quickly and cope with any situation."
Of course, if you ask the Debt-ridden Knight if he is that adept, he’ll probably tilt his head.
"Ho, is that so? So you're good enough to be relaxed?"
For some reason, the duke continuously asking me questions reminded me of that time when he was at the adventurer’s guild and also kept giving me queries.
"Skills are always relative. I'm not arrogant enough to think that there's no one I can't deal with."
There were many monsters in the world. For example, the one taking advantage of me, my aunt, was also a formidable monster. If my aunt was being this cautious, I also better be nervous.
The strongest of the monsters I've seen so far were my father, Doomstone Blade, Elder Mirpa, and Elder Weger. Arpen, the great elder of the Butterfly Tribe, Dragon King Muk of the Dragon Tribe, and my grandfather Zendia Blade were also amongst them. Lastly, I can probably include that woman with the red mask who I encountered in the past at Marquis Baltain’s territory.
The duke asked jokingly, "Despite saying that, you look very relaxed?"
I shrugged lightly at the duke. "Well, I don't think I can deal with just about anyone, but I also don't think there's a situation I can't run away from. In any situation where we are in danger, I don’t know about the carriage driver, but I am confident that I can run away while carrying Your Highness."
It was different when I was running away from home, but with the magic stone from the ruins, mana stone from the great demon, the Holy Sword, and the Witch of Pride’s bracelet, I could probably run away even if I ran into my father. Maybe. Frankly, even with all these items, the thought of being able to beat my father never crossed my mind.
"Isn't that being arrogant?”
The duke asked like my statement was ridiculous, and I nodded. "Of course, but it's far from arrogant to always remember the option to escape."
Listening to me, the duke had a slightly grim look on his face. "Saying it like that, that's not bad sophistry."
"Hahaha, thank you for the compliment."
The duke laughed alongside me. "What a pleasant fellow you are. I feel like you’re familiar from somewhere.”
I felt my neck tingle but shrugged my shoulders as if nothing was wrong.
The duke smiled at my sneaky response and changed the subject, "By the way, have you been given an explanation about this escort? From what I hear, it’s about someone outside of the Big Mama Information Agency."
My thoughts became complicated at the duke's question. How much and what did aunt say about me? Why did she specifically make me the duke's escort? How are the duke and my aunt connected? Does the duke know that my aunt is from the Crow Tribe? I had many questions at the moment, but the first thing I had to do now was to establish the relationship between the duke and me as something other than a civil servant.
"I wasn’t able to hear any explanation. I did not even know until just now that I was escorting Your Highness."
The duke stroked his chin. "Oho, is that so? Big Mama is too much.”
Duke Asteria's expression looked delighted, contrary to his words. "Then, can you tell me how much you know? That way, I can figure out how much to explain to you."
I replied with a nod. "First of all, as Your Highness knows, I'm not a part of the Big Mama Information Agency. Your Highness can just think of me as a mercenary hired on a contract."
If the contract stipulated granting three requests, this escort mission could be said to be the first request of the contract.
"What I've heard is that there's someone who needs a top-secret escort tonight and that someone is an important figure in the Big Mama Information Agency. I can use any means to ensure the safety of the VIP during this mission. The escort period is until the VIP reaches the desired destination. That is all."
Most of this humble information was what I heard from Milpia. Milpia told me to get the rest of the details from my aunt, but my aunt abandoned me without giving me any information.
Upon hearing my answer, the duke held his head in his hand. "Hmm, seems like you heard most of the information needed."
This? I looked dumbfounded momentarily, but it didn't show outwardly because of my mask.
"However, the key point is missing. Do you know of a group called the Twelve Zodiacs?"
I nodded slowly. "I don't know the details, but I have heard of such a group."
Not only have I heard of them, but I’ve encountered them once before.
"You say you’ve heard of the Twelve Zodiacs, a secret that very few even in the imperial family know?"
The duke looked at me with surprise. "Then do you know what kind of group it is?"
"Well, I don't know much, but isn't it a secret organization in the temple that is trying to overthrow the empire?"
To be honest, I wasn't particularly interested and didn't want to get involved. Anyways, the golden mask guy that appeared to be the leader got hit by my magic and was on the brink of death, so it wasn’t worth paying attention to.
Yet, at my reply, Duke Asteria looked bewildered. "What did you just say? Temple?"
It was as if he had never heard of it. Did I say something wrong? I didn't think someone like the duke wouldn't know of this.
If you know about the Twelve Zodiacs, you should be aware of the third princess’s attempted kidnapping. Then, a little while later, the archbishop suddenly became bedridden, so it was reasonable to be suspicious.
"Yes, isn't the great temple’s cardinal who’s in the heart of the capital the head of the organization? I think he was called Leo."
My thoughtless passing remarks astonished the duke. "What! Cardinal Fernando?!"
"Uh... Did Your Highness not know? The archbishop of that place also seemed to be working with a person named Libra."
The duke frowned and murmured, "My goodness, no wonder. Five years ago, during Operation Spider Trap, I did think that Scorpio and Libra managed to escape too easily from the capital. So there was a collaborator on the inside….”
I couldn't keep up with the duke at all.
The duke closed his eyes for a moment, arranged his complicated thoughts, and sighed. "First of all, there's something you're misinformed about. The Twelve Zodiacs is an organization of several groups, not just one. The Leo you mentioned is not the leader of the Twelve Zodiacs but the head of a separate organization that joined them. Although, I didn't know that organization was the temple."
The duke rubbed his face, still full of complicated thoughts. "The Twelve Zodiacs has a total of twelve, or ten members now since two were eliminated during Operation Spider Trap, with organizations that follow them."
The duke began to tell me intelligence I didn't want to know. "Based on our knowledge, Libra is a religious cult leader of the past Demon King worshippers who revere the Demon King. Capricorn and Cancer are from the Hunter Tribe, one of the battle race tribes allied with the empire’s foreign enemies. Ah, Cancer died at the hands of General Bloody, so that seat is currently vacant.”
The duke went on continuing to explain about the Twelve Zodiacs. To sum up the duke’s fairly diffuse explanation, the Twelve Zodiacs was something like an alliance of various groups, and each group mainly has hostile feelings toward the empire. It was also said that each group would only temporarily join forces if necessary and that each group didn’t trust each other, hiding their identities.
Come to think of it, I remember Uncle Bloody at the ball last year asking me if I was a Cancer or Gemini. At the time, I didn't comprehend what bull crap he was talking about, but listening to the duke's story, I began to gain a rough understanding.
"So, what do the Twelve Zodiacs have to do with the current escort mission?"
Duke Asteria smiled playfully. "Regardless of whether it's related or not, Big Mama is currently on the move to get information on the Twelve Zodiacs."
What does my aunt getting information on the Twelve Zodiacs and my escort mission have to do with each other? Wait a minute.
"It’s not, right?” Please, I want the duke to tell me that it’s not the truth.
But contrary to my earnest desire, the duke laughed mischievously. "You're rather quick-witted. That's right. We've become the bait so Big Mama can move easily.”
Oh my god.
That meant that right now, I was the target of a group that was openly hostile to the world's most powerful empire. I didn’t even have time to regret my decision before I grabbed onto the duke, smashed through the carriage door, and flew out. Right when the duke and I escaped the carriage, a blade wrapped in an aura blade struck and obliterated the carriage.Previous Chapter Next Chapter