Tenkyou no Alderamin:Volume 3 Prologue
Once a year, the sounds of fiddles and drums suffused the Grand Arfatra Mountains in festive cheer.
Shortly before the appointed hour, the Shinaak tribe would split into two groups and accomplish their respective tasks. The youths would descend from the mountain in groups to "pray" at the temple; the elders and children would prepare the delicacies for this auspicious day and await their return.
Once the youths finished their prayers and returned to the village with their spirit companions, the long anticipated Spirit Thanksgiving would commence at dusk. Accompanied by music and song, the entire tribe would throw themselves into the festivities with a gusto. A people normally given to frugality and survived on a small serving of corn starch that could fill the tiniest of containers each day, today was the only day they were allowed to open the storage sheds and celebrate to their heart's content.
The Shinaak tribesmen prepared places of honor for the spirits, for they were the true centerpieces of this festival. In addition, the Thanksgiving Dance was presented to those who sat upon these honored daises with heartfelt appreciation, a dance that would be conducted by the dancers for three days and three nights.
As for the aforementioned spirits, while they did possess the freedom to move as they will, they instead chose to sit quietly upon their honored daises and accept these heartfelt feelings. --Perhaps they did this because they accurately understood this feeling called "gratitude"? At least, that was the assessment of Anarai Khan from the perspective of a leisurely outsider.
However, it was an adult's prerogative to enjoy this sort of festival in its entirety, as the children had no place in it after the banquet at sundown. They who were dispatched home at the anointed hour could only enviously listen to the raucous cheers of celebration while reluctantly retiring to their beds.
"Seriously. How~ wily."
Disgruntled mutters slipped through pouted lips -- the young foreigner who had joined Anarai's expedition to the Grand Arfatra Mountains, the 8 year old Ikta Solork, was no exception.
Amid the pitch dark room bereft of any light, Ikta was covered in a blanket as he lay alone on a stiff bed. The time to undergo a spirit contract was determined by his parents' discretion, so he was currently without a spirit companion. Even if he had a spirit companion, his counterpart was probably adopting the Shinaak custom and obediently observing the Thanksgiving Dance from its exalted seat.
Ikta really didn't want to sleep as the corners of his mouth drooped -- there was something wrong with Old Man Anarai as well. If he was going to bring up morals like "children should go to bed early", then he should have forbidden Ikta from joining this expedition in the first place.
Generally speaking, the Grand Arfatra Mountains was not a place for an 8 year old to challenge. By the time Ikta stepped onto the place that caused him to think "Thank goodness we're at the top!" and was able to peer into the true peak lurking amidst the clouds above him, he was unable to differentiate whether he was feeling moved or in utter despair.
Fortunately, the village they arrived at was roughly 40% of the way up, but if actually asked to hike the entire way, Ikta may come to reevaluate the science espoused by Anarai to be "the terrifying spirit of child abuse". No, scratch that, he truly believed that he would probably die in the attempt.
"Given that, what's with this sort of treatment?"
Ikta continued to verbalize his frustration. The reason why he never complained while participating in such a grueling hike was because of the childish pride he took from "being a member of the expedition"...... Owing to this reason, the youngest "Disciple of Anarai" acknowledged by the professor was highly discontent with the current situation.
"--OK, it's decided. I'm running away."
Having made up his mind, Ikta lifted his torso from the bed. While escaping from the room did not mean he had anywhere to go, his mood would surely improve compared to just lurking in the darkness and hoping to snatch a bite somewhere. If fortune favored him, he was also going to try that thing called "wine" that all the adults sought to conceal from him. Given the happiness everyone expressed when enjoying wine, surely it must be delicious--
As he reached out from bed and groped for his shoes, a sudden gust of cold wind swept in from the other side of the room. The ruckus from outside entered a brief crescendo before immediately returning to its original volume.
"--Who is it?"
Comprehending that the door had been opened before swiftly being closed, Ikta asked the darkness as he didn't believe one of his companions from the expeditionary team had returned. Even in the silence, he could feel the powerful glance the other individual transfixed him with.
The air conveyed clear but gradual movement as the mysterious individual lightly approached Ikta. Just as he was about to warily climb to his feet, his body was tightly clasped by someone from the front.
Shocked, Ikta reflexively waved his arms and jostled the blinds hanging before the window. For an instant, moonlight penetrated into the dark room. Nonetheless, for eyes that had already grown accustomed to the darkness, that was more than enough light.....
"I am here on a night raid, Ikta!"
The minuscule light within the darkness revealed the luminous smile of a young a girl who had her arms tightly around Ikta, denying him any possible movement.
"......So it's you. You gave me a fright, Nana."
His throat loosening with released tension, Ikta let out a relaxed sigh and called out the other person's name at the same time.
She had chocolate skin burnished by the sun's powerful rays and black hair swept into two short pony tails on each side of the face coupled with a round pair of eyes that evoked the sense of a squirrel's boundless curiosity. Although she was two years older than Ikta, her physical stature that peeked out beneath the short tank top was not vastly different than Ikta's own.
Her name was Nanak. Since the Shinaak tribesmen generally went without a surname, for now she was just plain Nanak. Shortening the name to Nana was a gesture of closeness -- though the only outsider bestowed with this privilege was currently befuddled by the actions before his eyes.
"......So, what is a night raid?"
"What, don't you know? OK~ I'll teach you!"
Nanak loosened her embrace behind Ikta's arms and reached out to take hold of his shoulders in order to turn Ikta's body towards her. At close proximity, the two of them faced one another and sat back down onto the bed.
"As for what night raid is -- during the eve of the Spirit Thanksgiving Festival, women voluntarily seek out men with a promising future ahead of them and request to share a bed!"
"Oh? That I wasn't aware."
"Ho ho~ Ikta, you might know a lot, but you do not know the most important things!"
Nanak puffed her chest with a proud look on her features, but her opponent, Ikta, had arrived at the conclusion that this was a unique tradition to the Shinaak Tribe. As a disciple of science, curiosity prompted the youngster to inquire about the details.
"So...... What happens after they share a bed?"
"Don't tell me that's all there is? Since this was a special request, doesn't anything happen afterwards?"
Faced with an innocent query perfectly befitting a child's logic from Ikta, Nanak began contemplating in an even purer fashion.
"Well...... I guess they go to sleep together?"
"Eh~ How boring. Wouldn't they be unable to do anything after going to sleep?"
"You...... You have a point there....... Then, maybe they talk to one another?"
"That may be so...... But Nana, in short, you also don't know what happens afterwards, right?"
Ikta cut straight into the heart of the matter, causing Nanak to avert her face as she was temporarily at a loss for words.
"That's....... That's not my fault! That's because Father and Mother as well as my grandparents refuse to tell me what happens next! No matter who I go to, everyone says "You're know when you're older" and starts playing dumb!"
"Ho~ ......Refusing to tell children...... Smells like a secret. Specifically choosing the night of the Spirit Thanksgiving that only happens once a year, there must be a reason behind this."
"Yeah, yeah! They also don't allow me to try that thing called wine. Adults really like their secrets!"
"Hm, that is true...... Well then~ If so, let's go outside and give them the shock of their lives--"
Alight with rebellious fire, Ikta was about to rise from bed when Nanak frantically pulled his collar. Owing to this, Ikta fell back onto the bed with a cry of dismay.
"H, hold on a second, Ikta! ......T, That sort of thing, we can do that tomorrow morning!"
"......I say, Nana. What are you thinking?"
"If I knew the answer I wouldn't have to go through all this! ......Still, I think that since the night raid involves coming to the other person's sleeping area, wouldn't this mean that the boy and girl need to be alone?"
"Hm...... I see, you may be onto something."
"R, right? So...... Even if it's for a short while, how about the two of us just chat for a bit? Besides from what we talked about before, were there other old tales from Yaponiku that your mother shared with you?"
"If you like, there are a lot of similar stories. Well, let's see......"
"Ah! Wait a second! Hold on!"
Nanak reached out a hand to halt Ikta just as he was about to speak. Afterwards, she hesitated briefly before looping around to take a seat behind the young man and using her entire body to wrap around Ikta.
Unable to divine the purpose behind such a restrictive action, Ikta opened his mouth to object.
"I say, Nana, this makes it really hard to talk."
"I, isn't this just fine? I can hear you perfectly."
"Forget it, if that's how you feel...... Is there a point behind this posture?"
"Pay no attention to it. Since I have no idea what to do during a night raid, I'm just going to do what I want to."
Hearing this, Ikta chuckled wryly before nodding his head and began rummaging through the drawers of his memory to pick the proper story. Acceding to the young girl's wish to hear a story, it was in this fashion that they continued until the moment the sky began to brighten -- becoming an irreplaceable moment in their young lives that became deeply engraved in their memories.
......And who would imagine that this benign history would suddenly reconnect to this nightmarish present?
Here in the Grand Arfatra Mountains again, the young man and young lady who shared that childhood memory were currently facing one another. What was different from the past -- was probably everything besides for the location and individuals involved. The young man of present day was a soldier, whereas the young lady stood here as the chieftain of a tribe. After waging war amidst the bloodshed, they now congregated here from the perspectives of the victor and vanquished.
Within the murky tent, Yatori solemnly loosened the bindings that bound Nanak Dar’s hands behind her back. Sitting in front of Nanak, Ikta watched her from a distance where merely stretching out one’s hand was enough to brush skin.
“......What are you doing? Why are you untying me?”
Realizing she was now a captive of war, Nanak was bewildered by the events that surpassed any of her expectations. Ikta was the one who answered her.
“That’s because regardless of how many times we apologize to someone under restraint, the most favorable interpretation would be an altered form of duress.”
Now, another wholly unexpected phrase being issued forth another's mouth caused Nanak to wrinkle her brows.
“Apologize……? For what do you who emerged victorious in this conflict need to apologize towards we who were defeated?”
“For the cruelty our side has inflicted upon yours.”
Ikta replied back without hesitation. The utter brazenness and hypocrisy of saying such words to the vanquished filled Nanak with immeasurable fury.
“Bullshit……! You will not find a single man among the warriors of the Shinaak Tribe who was not ready to die in battle! If the victors apologize out of self-aggrandizement, such an action would only insult our warriors!”
A hostile glare centered itself on Ikta. Even Yatori, who stood by on the wings but remained in a position to intervene, felt herself echoing Nanak’s anger. This pride was universal among all fighters, but……
“True, if this were the cruelties of war or the harsh measures taken on the battlefield, I would not even consider apologizing here.”
Ikta clearly shook his head in order to dispel this misunderstanding.
“First, in relation to the fundamental decision of ‘whether or not to go to war against the Shinaak Tribe’. This was the decision handed down by high-ranking officers who possessed the right to attend strategy sessions, so there’s no way for us to take responsibility even if we wanted to. Likewise, the righteousness of this war itself can also be described in the same way.”
“Second, in relation to the independent tactical decisions carried out by the lower-ranking officers, myself included. While the primary objective was to pursue the most efficient methods of wiping out your forces -- on that point, I don’t plan on apologizing either. The reason being that this is the way of war. Although this was not according to my wishes, since I am here in the capacity as a soldier, then I must do my part in securing military objectives. I have no intention of excusing myself in that regard.”
Not that I plan on taking pride in that either…… Ikta snidely inserted that line before diving into the main topic.
“That being said, now I speak of the rampage conducted by the soldiers under the direct command of us lower-ranking officers on the front lines -- the unnecessary atrocities and slaughter carried out against noncombatants. In regards to this heinous behavior, I must offer my sincere condolences. That is because this event has transcended acceptable military boundaries and, in another manner of speaking, was the result of our inability to rein in our forces.”
Once Ikta finished speaking these words, he used his eyes to signal Yatori. The fiery-haired young woman sighed before pulling out the dagger from the right side of her waist and handed the weapon along with the stool carried beneath her right arm to Ikta.
“I am not so arrogant as to beg your forgiveness here and now, seeing as the dead would not come back to life just because I apologized.”
He placed the stool on the ground as he said this. Innumerous scars and indentations dotted the surface of this tool showed its frequent use for repair work.
“‘My condolences’, ‘sorry’, or ‘my sincere apologies’ -- these short phrases do not possess the power to erase human transgression. So then, what is an act of contrition? What does it signify? …...In my youth, there was a time when I deeply considered this question.”
With the palm facing upwards, Ikta spread his left hand across the stool’s surface.
“There was once a similar story -- a long time ago, in an era before the wind musket, nay, before even the crossbow had been invented, there lived a hunter on the Great Arfatra Mountains. His skill with the bow was so incredible that he could strike down a deer on the mountain next to the peak he was standing on. Everyone in the mountains was in awe of his talent, and all the animals on the mountain feared him…… However, he grew arrogant due to his ability, until one day he accidentally struck a young village girl who interposed between him and his prey.”
Nanak’s chest tightened as she listened to the young man tell his story, but she was not able to immediately identify that this was nostalgia.
“Faced with the young girl who fell due with a serious wound, the hunter deeply regretted his pride. He offered vast amounts of goods and gifts as well as spoke the most contrite phrases of apology, but the father of the young girl refused them all and said: ‘No matter how much is prepared, gifts are only objects; no matter how many words you say, they are only restricted to your tongue. Where is the most important thing, your sincerity?’ ......Then, he gave a small knife to the hunter.”
As Ikta spun his tale, for some reason his pinky was tightly wrapped in rope. Blood circulation was blocked from the fingertip, causing the finger to become deathly pale.
......Realizing that the circumstances fit tradition perfectly, Nanak’s entire body stiffened.
“The hunter looked upon the knife his hand and arrived at the answer himself -- the first duty of the one who erred was to guarantee that he or she would never repeat the same mistake. Only when he was in a position to ensure this guarantee would the path to reparation be open…… It was at this moment the hunter realized what the other side wanted him to do with the knife. With this, he could truly guarantee that he would never repeat the same error.”
The blade emitted a brief flicker as it was placed against the first digit of the little finger as the right hand holding the dagger began applying pressure.
The cut was not a clean bisection. The blade came to a halt upon reaching bone and the skin was still attached, so until the digit was entirely severed, he had to repeat the motion two more times. Even though the blood loss was greatly reduced due to the preparations before hand, the rope bindings serving as a stand-in for anesthesia could not entirely erase the pain of the cut. The nerves connecting his fingertip to the brain had turned into a highway of pain.
Once the painful peak passed, Ikta was barely able to recover his breath before continuing his narrative.
“......The hunter chopped away the ring and little fingers of his right hand and kept the three fingers that were absolutely vital to pulling a bow. The father of young girl asked, ‘Is this because you are unable to abandon that?’ The hunter shook his head and replied, ‘It is true that cutting off those three fingers would render a misfire impossible. Yet, that would also render reparation impossible. A mistake made as a hunter can only be recompensed by a living a correct life of a hunter. Abandoning the bow would the same as fleeing from the error. Thus, I have cut away the two unnecessary fingers that symbolize my pride and shall view the remaining three fingers on my right hand as an eternal warning.’ It is said that the determination behind those words convinced the young girl’s father and he finally accepted the hunter’s will to atone.
Since then, “slicing off fingers” as a method of atonement became a tradition among the Shinaak Tribe -- that was the story you told me, Nana.”
“......! W, wait a minute, you are......!”
Ikta did not wait for Nanak’s memories to recover entirely and placed the dagger’s edge along the second digit of his little finger. This there there was also no hesitation. He put his entire weight behind the downward push and even went one step further sawing the edge of the blade back and forth. The sound of his teeth grinding back forth to combat the pain was to the point that the teeth shatter against one another.
“Whew...... Ugh......! ......My thanks to the hunter within that story. If he had cut off his thumb, then I would be facing a situation where I must forfeit my head. That’s because my errors as a commander, regardless of the cognitive thought or the physical order, both originated above the neck--”
Ikta took twice the amount of time to remove the second digit compared to the first one. Afterwards, he switched the blade over to the edge of the short stump that was barely a third in length of the finger. The rope serving as anesthesia had long since lost its effect and fresh blood oozed forth from the gory wound onto the stool. Off to a side, Yatori could only watch the proceedings with a dismayed expression.
Though plainly no one ordered him to do so and no one would hold it against him if he faltered halfway, Ikta remained steadfast. After a desperate effort, he practically tore apart apart the last scrap of flesh and bone yet conjoined. Practically at the same moment that the dagger slipped from his right hand, Yatori bound forward and began dressing the wound.
Nanak tore her eyes from the three fleshy bits atop the stool towards the face of the young man who had forever bid farewell to his flesh and asked in a trembling voice.
"......What...... is your name......?"
"I am Warrant Officer Ikta Solork of the Imperial Army...... Many events transpired since we last met, hence why I bear a different surname than before."
The young man even wore a grin as he volunteered his name while large tear drops fell from Nanak’s eyes.
“......You...... are Ikta......? Truly...... that......?”
“Yep...... Long time no see, Nana. Although this is entirely the wrong time, you’ve became really beautiful.”
The instant those words registered into her hearing, Nanak immediately pulled her gaze away from the young man’s for, lowering her head in a desperate effort to control some emotion threatening to burst forth. Although Ikta shared her sentiments entirely, he kept his gaze steady.
“......Yatori, you don’t have to keep bandaging me. Return these to her.”
After finishing treatment, Yatori rose and removed a small bundle containing a tiny rectangular object from her uniform.
“Here, with our compliments.”
Nanak wore a confused expression as she accepted the object Yatori offered her and tentatively unwrapped the bundle. However, she held her breath when her eyes ran over the black rectangular shape within.
“This...... this wouldn’t be......”
“This is your companion, the soulstone of the spirit Sya. After the previous engagement, we were fortunate enough to successfully recover this.”
When she heard those words, Nanak let out a choked sob as she pressed her forehead to the soulstone. Her lost other half had returned -- that sublime belief sent a shiver through her entire body.
“Nana, in return for the three severed digits, I hope you can accept these three one-sided proposals from our side.”
Currently, she did not possess the leisure to formulate an answer. Ikta pressed onward fully aware of the wretchedness of his actions.
“The first condition was mentioned earlier, as we request your acceptance regarding the travesties conducted by our forces. The second condition is that we hope the Shinaak Tribe can provide assistance in defending against the Holy Aldera Army invading from the north.”
Her duties as a chieftain forced the distressed Nanak to raise her head. In order to show her actions the proper respect, Ikta also began negotiating from the stance of a Warrant Officer of the Imperial Army.
“Ra Sai Alderamin dispatching troops at this juncture...... I’m sure you are aware of the significance of this act? Those guys are looking to press the advantage with the Northern Garrison and the Shinaak Tribe exhausted from their protracted struggle. Strictly speaking, the Holy Aldera Army is also a pawn in the game, with the true instigator being the Kioka Republic. Just as the ones who taught you all guerrilla tactics also came from Kioka.”
“W, what......! You mean those guys from Alderamin are coming over God’s Stairway to invade the Empire......?”
“I too would be skeptical had I not witnessed it with my own eyes, so I can only say we all lacked foresight on the matter...... However, you do understand the situation, correct? Those guys are here to annihilate us. In the name of “saving spirits”, they seek to shatter the Shinaak Tribe and the Northern Garrison at the same time.”
Within that steely assessment, Ikta seamlessly included his own analysis. Exactly how the Holy Aldera Army would treat the Shinaak Tribe was dependent on the enemy’s strategic objectives. If this young man was fighting for the other side, he would first seek an alliance with the Shinaak Tribe to establish a working relationship and inciting them to continue resistance efforts against the Northern Garrison. This increased the number of potential allies while exhausting their respective fighting strength and was likely the most efficient approach.
Nevertheless, it was Ikta’s hypothesis that there was less than a 50% chance the enemy would adopt this strategy. Ra Sai Alderamin was a deeply religious and highly orthodox country. Based on that quality, even if they were only strategic allies of convenience, it was highly doubtful that they would show leniency towards the heretical Shinaak Tribe.
......That being said, given that they had allied with the Kioka Republic, a country founded on technological advancement that gradually ran counter to Aldera dogma, this preconception could also be overturned. Precisely because of this, Ikta absolutely needed to fully utilize his personal relationship with Nanak Dar and strike first.
“If you are willing to assist our forces against the Holy Aldera Army, I can guarantee the position of the Shinaak Tribe in the Empire afterwards. It is inevitable that the Grand Arfatra Mountains will be conquered by the Holy Aldera Army, so our side will provide another area for settlement. Given that the Empire has more land than it knows what do with, there will be no problem finding somewhere that meets all the criteria.”
“......Is this your personal proposal? Or......”
“This is of course the united consensus of the Northern Garrison and we have also obtained approval from the commanding officer, Lieutenant General Safida. So long as I am alive, this covenant will not be overturned. Additionally, another authority can also provide support for this.”
Besides for his position as an “Imperial Knight”, the current Ikta could also call upon his connection with Princess Chamille. Deftly employed, these assets should be able to give him enough clout even when haggling with the country itself...... The caveat was that the perquisite involved him surviving the crisis before him.
“I am afraid there’s no time for you to deliberate. Please make your decision, Chief of the Shinaak Tribe.”
Ikta pressed Nanak for an answer. Being forced into a major decision, Nanak wracked her brain for a moment before asking a question of her own.
“......Wasn’t there one more?”
“Didn’t you slice the little finger into three parts? Thus far I have only heard of two ‘one-sided proposals’.”
That was a shrewd observation. Using his unblemished right hand to scratch his scalp, Ikta let out a wry chuckle.
“This is probably the most important one too. If possible, I would like to continue calling you Nana in the future.”
Nanak’s sense of time ground to a halt. Even Yatori observing the negotiations to one side pressed a hand to her forehead with an expression of disbelief on her face.
“......You...... Don’t tell me...... Just for that, you increased the number of things that needed to be taken care of from two to three......?”
“The first and the second were actions demanded of me as a soldier, whereas the third was atonement as a friend...... In all honesty, even though this is tradition, I really didn’t want to give such a bloody gift to a lady.”
The young man said this as he lowered his head to gaze at the severed parts of his own body. Nanak could only sigh at that.
“......If only you had become an insufferable person, I wouldn’t have to trouble myself over all this......”
“Really? It was precisely because you became such a wonderful lady, that I could cut off my little finger without an ounce of hesitation.”
The wry smile that came after those words coincided perfectly with the expression in her memory, serving as the final motivator to bolster Nanak’s decision.
“......I understand. Then I, Nanak Dar, accept your three one-sided proposals on behalf of the Shinaak Tribe.”
“......My word, you do know that the finger you cut off will never grow back, correct?”
Three thousand meters above the ground, the mountains sat beneath a sky so blue it veritably gave men the chills. Immediately after leaving the tent, the fiery-haired young woman sidled along Ikta and began lecturing him in an irate tone as they paced ahead.
“Huh......! H, how can that be! Why did you warn me ahead of time!?”
“Oh my, my apologies for not being thoughtful enough. And here I thought that ‘Anarai’s Box’ had some sort of all-purpose adhesive that could reconnect parts of the human body.”
Hearing the young man feign madness even at this time, Yatori averted her gaze as though she clearly had enough. Realizing that his joke had gone too far, Ikta switched gears and verbalized his real thoughts.
“No, I’m the one who should be apologizing. Just like the Kioka Incident, every time I borrow your dagger I swing the blade at something outrageous.”
“In truth, compared to severing a comrade’s finger, cleaning frogs is infinitely preferable...... However, that’s not the question at hand. The point is why did you need to take things so far in the first place?”
Highly distressed, Yatori turned her eyes onto the left hand that was short a finger, to which Ikta chuckled wryly and shook his head.
“My hand was forced. Nana is a smart girl, but right now we don’t have the time to persuade her with logic. Since we are requesting assistance from opponents who were still hostile to us yesterday, in order for them to accept our one-sided conditions, a performance capable of resonating with Shinaak aesthetic ideal was absolutely necessary.”
“I am referring to how odd it is for you to take full responsibility for everything. The rampaging allied unit was not under your command, so wouldn’t logic require the commanding officer on site bear the responsibility instead?”
“What you say makes sense, but having ‘me’ make the apology just now does have its own significance. Rather, negotiating with Nana would only succeed going through me, so the situation naturally developed this way.”
While she could rationalize the young man’s explanation, Yatori still wore an expression that signified she found this difficult to stomach. That was because she was unable to bear the thought of her comrade being sacrificed while she herself got away unharmed.
Since this was an unavoidable wound, then she should be the to bear the burden -- that was Yatori’s pride as a knight. Ikta was perfectly aware of this aspect of Yatori’s personality, but he still clearly shook his head in the negative.
“My little finger and yours are on entirely different levels of value. Clueless as I am at close quarters combat, even I know that holding a sword starts from the little finger. In our current circumstances, any loss in your fighting ability is a serious detriment. Comparatively, so long as I still have everything above the neck, even losing the little finger would not inconvenience me too badly.”
“......Even if that’s the case, wouldn’t that be a problem in the future?”
“In regards to that, so long as I still have my index and middle fingers, I won’t have any problems in bed at least.”
Upon hearing her counterpart cracking jokes in his usual irreverent manner, Yatori snorted and curbed her tongue. The two of them happened to arrive at the command tent at this time, only to find that they were beginning to pull camp and only a few familiar officers were in attendance.
“Ah, Ik-kun! How did it go?” “Were the negotiations successful?”
Torway and Matthew hurried over the instant their eyes met. Ikta casually kept his left hand out of sight and smiled without saying a word. Inferring that everything went well based on this attitude, the two of them sighed in relief.
“......Though the future if fraught with peril, being able to call upon the Shinaak Tribe for assistance will be a tremendous help.”
“They said that there should be 500 men in two days and 800 after five...... Of course, this is thanks to the popular support Nana has as chieftain, though Captain Sazaruf’s contributions should not be overlooked either. Thankfully, since the village was spared from the torch and the inhabitants gathered together instead of slaughtered, this saved us the hassle of gathering any scattered manpower.”
“Thanks for the compliment. Its absolutely astounding that I would be thanked for engaging in this ridiculous battle.”
How apt? Speak of the devil and he shall appear. Captain Sazaruf approached the group with a RYO cigarette dangling between his lips with Haro trailing a few steps behind him.
Excluding Haro, the other members of the Knights Club formed themselves into a row and saluted their superior officer in unison.
“Hey, now you guys actually look a bit more like soldiers. Practically night and day from the time all of you were on base.”
“If that is the case, I am certain it is all thanks to your tutelage, Captain.”
“Ha, easy on the jokes...... Even if I didn’t offer any guidance, you all would have made it, right? In spite of that, now you have got me here at the short end of the stick.”
Lieutenant Sazaruf expelled a cloud of white smoke filled with self-ridicule and defeatism from his mouth before continuing onward.
“OK, let’s change the topic...... Our esteemed Lieutenant General Safida, the Garrison Commander who was the first to bail on us, has decided to confer an amazing gift upon each of you.”
“If you are referring to one-way tickets to Hell, we’re still puzzling over how to get rid of the tickets we got earlier.”
The captain got a chuckle out of Yatori’s sarcasm that was laced with more than a healthy dosage of spice.
“......The ones receiving these gifts may view this as real estate from Hell, but at least it does serves a purpose from a practical standpoint. --So, first up are Warrant Officer Ikta, Warrant Officer Yatori.”
“Here, sir!” “Yes, yes, yes......”
“Field promotions for the two of you. From this point, the two of you are 1st Lieutenants. Congratulations.”
Pah, pah, pah...... Captain Sazaruf clapped in a lackluster manner. At this plainly obvious development, Ikta and Yatori were too lazy to sigh and were even on the cusp of yawning.
“Next up we have Warrant Officers Matthew, Torway, and Haro. From this point, you are all promoted to 2nd Lieutenants.”
“Oh......” “Ah...... Yes, sir!” “That was sudden!”
The three of them responded differently, but were united in the sense of depression, causing Captain Sazaruf to sigh.
“What~ You should all be happier! You guys are the first ones to be promoted in your cohort and can crow about it when you get home.”
“Yes, we can crow about it when we get home if we actually make it home.”
As if recalling the despair looming at the back of his mind, Matthew’s tone grew bleaker. Ikta and Yatori thought back to the situation that caused his depressed state -- the military conference that had just finished an hour ago.
“--Anyone! Does anyone have a suggestion!?”
Even with Lieutenant General Safida’s hysterical screams, the crowd of staff officers within the tent hunkered down and stayed quiet. During this entire time, the enemy army creeping closer from the north.
The news that the Holy Aldera Army was on approach caused a tremendous shock among the members of the Northern Garrison who had just relaxed from the protracted struggle with the Shinaak Tribe. Everyone from the rank and file to the officers felt the blow, so given the current hour, perhaps their panicked mob mentality was only a matter of course.
“Don’t just sit there, I want to hear suggestions! Do any of you understand the situation? The enemy is at the gates! The foot of the Grand Arfatra Mountains will be right in front of them once they get through the trails of Gagarukasakan Forest!”
In addition, the commander-in-chief responsible for bringing order back into the ranks was in a similar state before their eyes.
“Are we going to withdraw entirely or throw the dice and repel them! Shouldn’t you guys be able to assess a small thing like which one of these offer the high chance of success?!”
Despite Lieutenant General Safida frothing at the mouth in fury, the beauty of it all was that he was not consciously aware of the problem’s focal point. Regardless of whether they were withdrawing or retaliating, both options were bereft of any chance of success. Besides from the Lieutenant General himself, everyone present was aware of that fact, hence why everyone kept their peace.
Based on Torway’s observations and assessment, it would take the Holy Aldera Army just over five days at a minimum to enter the Grand Arfatra Mountains and attack the Imperial Army. In comparison, no matter how they reran the numbers, the Imperial Army needed at least 20 days to fully retreat from the battle zone. A swift comparison between the two numbers clearly showed that simply fleeing would undoubtedly end in enemy attack during the retreat.
As for whether fending off the enemy held a higher chance of success, this was also a desperate gamble. Based on confirmed reports alone, the Holy Aldera Army had mobilized troops northward of 12000. In contrast, the Empire had already been decimated by the internal conflict with the Shinaak Tribe and their original troop count of 18000 was now tragically below 8000.
The enemy was one and a half times their number already, without going into the fact that the Imperial forces were already exhausted by continuous warfare. Taking into consideration that they were also desperately short on supplies, the absolute difference in firepower between the two sides does not bear further mention.
“......Captain, the situation will not improve at this current rate.”
“Keep it down. If you want to return alive, do not even think about jumping into the ring and clarifying the situation.”
Hearing Yatori’s whisper, Captain Sazaruf minutely shook his head. Within the cramped confines of the command tent, chairs were only for high-ranking staff officers while everyone else from captains on down remained on their feet while listening to the meeting progress.
“On that regard, although I do want to agree with your point of view, Captain…… But if this keeps going on, we may get to the point that the meeting adjourns only to find that our forces have been completely surrounded by the enemy.”
Ikta said this with a sigh. Under a pincer attack from his two subordinates, Captain Sazaruf scratched his scalp with a gusto.
“......Spare me, guys. You all and I have clearly overworked ourselves up to this point, no? What valid reason do we have to keep drawing the short end of the stick?”
“We are soldiers. I fear that more than constitutes a valid reason.”
Yatori’s gaze was highly forthright. The captain sought to escape this pressure, but on the other side he had Ikta’s pair of pitch black eyes waiting for him. He had no where to run.
“......It’s only a matter of sooner or later, isn’t it, Captain? If we don’t come up with a plan and this turns into the Holy Aldera Army pouring into the north after hiking over the Grand Arfatra Mountains, then all we can do is join in the defense…… No matter how impossible the situation becomes.”
“I am of the belief that since we still have the opportunity to determine our destiny, intentionally drawing the short straw is still better than having others dictate our future. The point here is that there is a proper time for sloth.”
“......You make it sound so easy, but we’re up against 12000 men. Do you have a concrete plan in place to handle so many?”
“Yes. Yatori and I just came up with a countermeasure.”
These two officers each pressured their superior from their unique standpoints. As if finally caving in, Captain Sazaruf raised his head to the heavens and held that position for ten seconds as if steeling himself for the plunge.
“You bunch over there! You have been nattering for a while now, do you have something to say!?”
Caught between a rock and a hard place, Lieutenant General Safida vented his spleen on the officers from the lower ranks whose names he didn’t even know. Internally mocking himself for this perfect opening, Captain Sazaruf raised a heavy right hand straight into the air.
“......I do have a suggestion. Based on our current situation, we should leave a detachment as a rearguard in attempt to half the enemy advance.”
A ruckus broke out within the tent. The staff officers that had hitherto remained silent each wore an expression of “this guy actually said it aloud” and all began speaking as if waking from a long dream.
“Hm...... He’s right, that’s the only way.”
“In that case, who should command in the field......?”
“This is a sticky decision, though we also have to consider the unit size......”
Though there were voices in all the chatter, no one seemed to be eager to take on this assignment. Highly put out by the gazes all directed towards him, Captain Sazaruf plowed forward with his explanation nonetheless.
“......The Holy Aldera Army is approximately 12000 in number. The purpose of our retreat is to return to our homebase in the north in order to regroup and meet the enemy, so a corresponding amount of soldiers must make it out. Conservatively speaking, it will take at least a month for Central to marshal enough reinforcements. Therefore, the number of soldiers sufficient to hold out in the north during this time, including the remnants still in the various bases in the area, would probably be just above 6000 men or so......”
Since Captain Sazaruf did not have experience commanding large bodies of troops, he was not entirely confident in this number. However, the fact that not a single staff officer offered any objections served as proof for his assertion.
“In that case, the maximum size of the rearguard would be the 2000 or so men left from the 8000 after removing the 6000 defenders. The next issue would be how to utilize this unit......”
As for the next phase, the captain actually had no idea. At this time, Yatori stepped forward to take on this burden.
“Captain, may I continue explaining?”
“Ah...... Uh...... I’ll leave it to you. --My apologies, my aide will take over now.”
Since a mere Warrant Officer would never be allowed to speak during a strategic conference, Captain Sazaruf intentionally gave Yatori the opening by implying “she was just expressing what I wanted to say”. Even left before the astounded gazes of the staff officers, Yatori mentally thanked the captain for this opening while fearlessly pressing onward.
“First of all, the majority of the rearguard would naturally be deployed along the defensive perimeter on the mountains. When faced with the Holy Aldera Army climbing the mountain range from the north, we will adopt the strategy of erecting fortresses along their march -- in other words, we are modifying the tactics the Shinaak Tribe used against us for our own purposes.
Yet, given the well-fortified defenses the Shinaak Tribe erected facing the south, it would be a logical assumption that the defenses facing northward would be considerably weaker because they were never expecting an attack from that direction. While we must adopt field preparations to make up for the deficiencies, with the enemy reaching our position in five days, it is frankly impossible for us to make it in time.”
Here, Yatori took a breath. Already inferring what was going to happen next, Captain Sazaruf softly muttered, “You have got to be kidding.”
“As such, before the defensive battle required to buy time for the entire army to retreat, another defensive stand must be made to obtain the necessary time to fortify. The number allotted to this unit will be whatever is left from the 2000 needed for fortification purposes...... which is around about a company of 600 men. Any less would render the mission impossibly difficult, whereas any more would impact the field preparations on the mountain range.
Lieutenant General Safida read between the lines of Yatori’s words. His eyes widened as he replied back.
“So you mean...... Requesting a mere company of 600 men to hold off an enemy force of 12000 while the field preparations are finished.”
“This is not a request. This is mandatory because we have no other options.”
“......Since you dare to say that, surely you have a more concrete plan to buy time?”
“We will use fire.”
Yatori did not hesitate with her reply. After accepting the map seamlessly handed to her by Ikta, she unfurled the map so everyone could see.
“As the Lieutenant General said earlier, the trails north of the Grand Arfatra Mountains leads into the Gagarukasakan Forest. Since this sea of trees is wider running east to west, the Holy Aldera Army must pass through this forest or else take a very long detour. Ergo, if our forces set this forest ablaze, we can utilize a wall of fire to halt the enemy army.”
“W, what...... Setting the forest alight......!”
This audacious suggestion shocked the staff officers, even prompting Captain Sazaruf’s jaw to drop.
“This is just enlarging the scale of the fire perimeter duties normally carried by the Incendiary Corps. The Gagarukasakan Forest has not been developed for large troop movement, so there is only one wide road we need to law a fire perimeter across. Furthermore, this is a dry forest bereft of any moisture except during the rainy season, making it the ideal location for a fire attack.”
“This would lead to a wildfire! How can this be controlled with only 600 men --”
“Ah, I will explain the manpower issue. Our insufficient numbers will filled in by petitioning the Shinaak Tribe.”
Ikta’s addition caused all the skeptical gazes from the staff officers to congregate onto him.
“Calling upon the Shinaak Tribe for assistance......? What is this farce? That’s not something that can be done in one day!”
“Actually, that’s not the case, because Chieftain Nanak Dar is among the captives. As long as we can convince them the Holy Aldera Army is our common enemy and guarantee the Shinaak Tribe’s position and rights in the Empire, she doesn’t have any reason not to accept based on her position as chieftain. Once the negotiations are complete, I will allow her to gather men from the village to our rear and instruct her tribesmen not to obstruct the Imperial Army defending against the Holy Aldera Army.”
If placed in a situation where they could be stabbed in the back by the remnants of the Shinaak Tribe, any talk of a defensive position would immediately collapse. Under that context alone, successfully convincing Nanak Dar was an absolutely necessity for this operation.
“Even if you could successfully convince the Shinaak Tribe, can you guarantee that there will be no problems with the fire perimeter throughout the entire forest? It’s impossible to gauge the extent the fire will spread!”
“T, that’s right! Depending on the wind, there is a possibly our forces will be harmed by the flow of the fire. What if it rains in the middle? Wouldn’t that put us back to square one?”
Faced with the horde of blustering officers, Ikta mentally snorted in derision.
“......Such a thing will not come to pass. First, this area is still in the dry season. Though it is nearing the end, there is still at least half a month before we can expect any rain. There is an extremely low probability at our current time frame that we will be hampered by a rainstorm.”
“Uh...... What about the change in wind direction? Winds atop the mountain can be highly unpredictable!”
“Even taking into consideration of impacting other areas, all of this is within expected parameters. The real problem would be if the wind is too weak to adequately spread the wildfire...... Well, worrying about either scenario would be moot. The reason for that is because during this time, the winds along the northern Grand Arfatra Mountains are all southwestern winds blowing down the slopes.”
“What did you say......? How can you be sure of that?”
“Have you heard of chinook winds before? As its name suggests, this type of wind climbs the mountain on one side and blows down the mountain on the other. So long as a strong gust is blowing on one side of the mountain, wind coming down the other side of the mountain is inevitable…… With the areas in southern and central Katjvarna currently in the rainy season, I am sure everyone here has felt the winds blowing over the mainland from the southwestern seas.”
Next to the young man explaining the situation, Captain Sazaruf made the connection and clapped his hands.
“......That’s it! The fall winds!”
“That’s correct. The winds that bring the rainy season for the mainland will bring that same blessing into the northern region in another month from now...... No, although the rain has not yet come, the wind itself can be felt. The fall winds will climb along the face of the Grand Arfatra Mountains then turn into chinook winds and rush down the northern facing. Based on that phenomenon, the fires we set should even spread out before the approaching enemy.”
Well? Ikta visually inquired. With the tide of resistance ebbing from the staff officers, he wordlessly poked his superior officer in the bank. Reading Ikta’s cue, Captain Sazaruf solemnly began to speak.
“......Since the one who made the proposal should bear the responsibility, I, Senpa Sazaruf, request to be appointed the officer in charge of carrying out this operation. What is your decision, Lieutenant General......?”
“......My apologies for burdening you with this.”
Even Ikta was unable to joke about this…… Continuing watching the hand wringing in the military conference would only result in death, that was beyond question. However, that drawing the short end of the stick was necessary to avoid the worse case scenario was a lamentable situation in the extreme.
“.......Hm? Hey, this isn’t like you at all. Don’t give me that expression. Though you guys were the ones who pushed me, ultimately I was the one who made the call, wasn’t I?”
Captain Sazaruf chuckled dryly and put a hand on top of Ikta’s head. At the very least, his face showed no signs he regretted his decision.
“Using a single company of 600 men to throw back an enemy force of 12000! Wouldn’t it be amazing if we really pull it off? Speaking of which, I can’t believe myself. Living to an age like this and still trying to be a hero.”
After a round of self-derision, the captain adopted a serious expression and turned his eyes onto the others.
“Switching gears -- Lieutenant Matthew, Lieutenant Horo. If you like, the two of you can retreat to the rear.”
Haro seemed to have already gotten the memo, so the only who wore a shocked response was Matthew alone. With a grave expression, Captain Sazaruf continued explaining to the befuddled Matthew.
“The two of you are very diligent and, amidst the situation where other officers and cadets fell one after another, have accomplished your mission of surviving. This is, after all, the first tour of duty you have undergone.”
“No...... But...... Hasn’t the rearguard forces been decided already......?”
“Technically, it’s being drafted as we speak. Currently, I have the authority to pull in outside forces to take your spots. Seeing as none of them have done as much as you guys so far, don’t feel too bad about it.”
Faced with a sudden path of egress, Matthew could only stand there in a daze. At this time, Yatori also offered her two cents.
“Matthew, may I also chime in? After watching you from a close distance, I must say I am impressed. You remained calm even during repeatedly desperate straits and provided the leadership for your soldiers to fight bravely. This is the performance of an exemplary commander in anyone’s eyes. Take pride in this.”
Matthew turned wide eyes onto Yatori. Up until this moment in his life, he had never received such unreserved praise from Yatori.
“Haro is the same. With mountain sickness running rampant along the frontlines, your work ethic and performance were exemplary. If not for Haro’s unit, our own units would undoubtedly have shockingly high casualties.”
“......It’s been an honor.”
“The two of you would undoubtedly be fine commanders. --Precisely because of this, here is where you should learn when to retreat.”
The words of departure that opened with praises struck deeply into their chests. Ikta continued on.
“Yatori has already said the words I wanted to say...... However, Torway, I owe you an apology here. The Wind Gunners equipped with wind rifles are irreplaceable, so there is no way for you to leave. Best chalk it up to your own bad luck, but let’s work together moving forward.”
Although Ikta’s mood was dark as he said this, Torway actually nodded with a proud expression across his features. On the other hand, the assessment of “irreplaceable” awarded to Torway struck a blow on the young man who did not win the same honors.
“At any rate, owing to these reasons, we shall bid a temporary farewell to you two. I don’t know when the next time will be, but if possible, I would like to share a drink in Central -- Wah!”
Ikta was planning on finishing his statement, but Matthew suddenly rushed forward and lifted him by the collar. Torway and Haro were about to intervene, but Yatori shook her head and halted them.
“......You see yourself entirely as the guardian. It’s too dangerous so go home first? Who the hell do you think you guys are......!?”
“Ow ow ow...... Well...... You know, basically Yatori and I are now 1st Lieutenants......”
“Oh, right, here the two of you are ranking officers, that I can admit. That being said, under these circumstances, would a superior officer tell his troops “it’s too dangerous, go home”? Would they use an excuse like “here is where you should learn when to retreat” to tell them to run? Bullshit! You know that’s impossible!”
Matthew kept his hands locked onto Ikta’s collar while shaking him like a rag doll. Ikta could only allow Matthew to do as he willed.
“Let me verify one thing! Up until the battles now, have I really been a burden?”
“......No, you have been a reliable comrade.”
Ikta’s dark eyes looked directly forward as he made this declaration. Without any hesitation, Yatori echoed his sentiment with a nod.
“Given that! At this time, what you should say to your comrades is not “you run away first”!”
This sentence was more like an angry howl. There was no disguise or embellishment within, and it was precisely this reason that it convinced the others.
One person remained suspended in mid air while the other stood there without moving a muscle. Ikta and Yatori found themselves both troubled over the same issue.
“......We will be faced with a harrowing battle, Matthew.”
“It’s not going to be like before. You’re going to lose a lot of your subordinates.”
“You yourself will be exposed to danger. A single mistake will kill you, just as bad luck will also kill you.”
“Even if everything miraculously proceeds according to plan, there is still a chance that all of us still wind up dead.”
“I know that!”
A stubbornness welled up within Matthew’s heart, forcibly shoving aside all hesitation. At the same time, he thought…… it’s time to admit to the difference in level. At least the current gap in their abilities was something he had to accept, albeit reluctantly.
In spite of this, they were all equal as comrades. Only this sense of pride was a creed that he would never let go.
“You guys must be planning on doing something about all this, right? Would I be a burden?”
In that instant, both Ikta and Yatori were filled with shame. The targets of said shame were they who a few minutes ago could not recognize Matthew’s determination and careless words that trampled over his feelings. So, there was only one thing to say now.
“--I retract my earlier words. My sincere apologies, my friend Matthew.”
“I too must apologize for my earlier rudeness. In the following battle, please lend us your strength.”
After hearing this, Matthew loosened his hands around Ikta’s collar.
“Seriously, you guys should have said this from the very beginning.”
Faced with Matthew turning his face aside and muttering in displeasure, Ikta could only apologize again. On the other side, Yatori turned her eyes onto Haro.
“Haro, no matter how we put it, that was Matthew’s answer. While it is your choice to emulate him, please remember not to be too affected by it and make a decision based on who you are. Even now, my proposal surrounding the hour of retreat has not changed.”
Yatori used a stringent tone to query Haro. In contrast to her expectations, Haro had a ready reply.
“I will also stay. If the situation is that desperate, then all the more reason for me to help.”
“Honestly, if Mr. Matthew had been forcibly evacuated to the rear, I was planning on acting in concert with him. If I was accused of “being unneeded because I’m a burden”, I really can’t deny that.”
Haro fiddled with her watery blue hair and revealed a bashful smile.
“But, if that’s not the case...... If there’s anywhere I can help, but allow Mr. Matthew and I to insist. To me, the “Knights Club” is an important place to cling to. Even for a short while, please allow me to help to protect that.”
With that, Haro inclined her head deeply, to which Yatori swiftly raised her up.
“I am the one who should bow, Haro. I am sorry for acting in a manner that looked down upon your determination.”
“As a fellow member of the “Knight’s Club”, I will also be relying on everyone’s strength moving forward.”
Ikta stepped over and put a hand on Haro’s shoulder, who nodded while using the uniform sleeve to dab away at the corners of her eyes.
“......Ah~ To be young again. If this were five years ago, I might be one of you guys.”
Captain Sazaruf, who had been watching the proceedings, appeared to be lost in his own memories. Directly ahead of this elder’s warm gaze, Ikta raised his left hand to eye height as if suddenly remembering something.
“Haro, I do have something that needs your urgent attention. I actually just cut my hand......”
“Ah...... OK! Let me take a look at the wound, I’ll immediately begin disinfecting and treating...... Eh...... Waaah! H, how come there’s nothing there?! Mr. Ikta, why is your finger gone!?”
“What?” “Did you say finger gone......?”
Even Matthew and Torway came running over wide eyes. Having heard about the “negotiation tactics” before hand, Captain Sazaruf kept mum on the subject, to which Ikta replied back with a cheeky smile.
“Well~ My hand slipped while I was using a knife......”
“What did you do so that a slip took off your entire little finger? Where is the part that was cut off!?”
“I chopped it in three and gave it to a girl as a gift.”
“Is that some sort of curse!?”
Captain Sazaruf chuckled wryly as he watched the five of them squabbling together before lighting a new cigarette. I really wish there’s some way I can get all of these noisy kids back home alive -- he thought.
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