“Seriously, what is with that face?” Eryn looked at me curiously while poking at the ice covering my cheeks.
“Your old friend Corny decided to give me a temporary facelift. It was the only way I could’ve snuck into the cake competition.”
“If it weren’t for your voice and my knowledge of Cornelius’s capabilities, I would’ve never guessed it was you.”
“Sigh… to think that my plans to secretly stare at my master’s nice figure was all for naught. What a rare occasion to see you in fancy clothes.” I joked to divert her attention away from my disguise. That earned me a whack on the head and a slight blush on her cheeks. What a treat.
Having led Eryn to a secluded wing of the Duke’s mansion, we started talking like nothing had ever come between us. It was like our bond had never been broken. If anything, Eryn felt a bit different now, a bit more open seemingly.
Without hesitation, she fumed about the situation that she had been caught in. The frustration on her face as she revealed what she had learned of the Duke to me was an unusual sight. Before, her mannerism had a measure of restraint. One that used to carefully hold back her language to appear ladylike and likable. One that contained an aura that prevented others from getting too close. Her current state held none of that, and it was something I only noticed due to the stark contrast.
And so, I stood there and listened, so that I could carefully ingrain what may have been the first time I truly saw the person known as Eryn Faulkner. At the end of it all, I knew for certain that I had not been thrown away, that my efforts had not been for naught.
“I don’t know what may come of me, but please stay by my side.” Eryn looked up at me tearfully.
It was not a look of love, but of trust. Trust that I would follow her no matter what trials were in store. Trust that I would never abandon her regardless of how much she was dragged through the dirt. At that moment, it was enough for me. I could not ask for anymore. With a smile, I accepted the terms.
“Of course. To hell and back, if I have to.”
It had been less than a year since I came to know her, and only now that I saw her true face, but for this one question, there was not a single doubt in my mind.
“But first, we need to think of a way to stop your marriage with the Duke,” I said with a stern look, shifting to the more important topic at hand. “Cornelius sent me here thinking that there would be some secret dealings that the Duke may be involved in that we could use for leverage.”
“I’m pretty sure that he arranged for uncle’s murder, amongst other things, but how do we find evidence of that? The only place I can think of is the locked desk in his study.”
“You’ve already searched elsewhere? That saves me a lot of time.”
“Yes, but I wasn’t able to get in previously. My abilities were locked before, but now we could force our way in if need be…”
The two of us hurriedly headed towards the Duke’s study. I led the way, relying on my mana detection skill to keep an eye out for the Duke’s servants and guards. I had discovered that people would give off traces of mana, regardless of how unskilled they were. Like a cloud of dust wrapping around them, little wisps of mana extended past a person’s body, sometimes meters away depending on the individual’s ability. As such, even those in hiding became easily visible to me.
Taking advantage of that skill, we quickly found our way to the Duke’s study undetected. I reached out to grasp the handle but noticed a lock had been placed on it. Turning the lock in my hand, I found no sign of a keyhole or combination to undo it.
“That is a magical lock. It reads the signature of the user’s mana to activate and release. Looks like there’s no way around it, we’ll have to find another way in.”
“Wait.” I held my hand up to stop Eryn.
My eyes glowed purple, signifying the skill’s activation as I stared closer at the lock. A few small lines appeared on the back, revealing a slight leakage of mana. I grabbed my hammer and hit it once. Instantly, the lock shattered in my hand and fell to the ground.
Having watched this entire display, Eryn couldn’t hold back her urge to ask.
“How are you doing this? And what’s with those purple eyes? You’ve been doing things that I don’t recall you capable of doing since I last saw you.”
“It’s a new skill. Apparently, it lets me detect mana, including fragile places where it seems to seep through.”
“Then…!” Eryn covered her gasp with a hand.
As Eryn guessed, my combat capabilities had increased dramatically. Magic would be easier to detect and dodge. Weapons and armor could be shattered since I could visually make out the weak points where a person’s mana trickled out. I had returned to Eryn as a proper partner, one that could stand by her side on the battlefield with confidence.
While it had certainly taken a long time to reveal itself, this skill had picked the best time to appear.
Walking right up to the desk, I saw similar locks placed. Within moments, those too had been shattered, giving us undeterred access to the contents within. Eryn pulled out a few letters and glanced through them. After several minutes of searching, her gaze stopped on one, in which she read aloud.
“Duke Charlemagne, I believe we can find common ground in our mutual displeasure of Prince Oswald. I have heard of support from Earl Kaiserslautern, Earl Warrington, Viscount Madiswil, Viscount Lingonberle, Viscount Cornwallis, amongst many other lesser nobility in support of an alternate successor. With your guidance, our borders will once again expand as they have in the past. Nothing else would please me more. Please hold my name in high regard in the future… Marquis Deggendorf”
“Eryn, what does that mean?” All I could comprehend was a list of random names giving their support.
“I’m not completely sure, but it sounds almost as if the Duke was planning-“
“A coup d’état.” A sudden voice sounded at the door.
A ball of mana formed in Eryn’s hand, and I drew my knife as we both turned towards the sound of the voice. Dengel, the Duke’s secretary, was casually standing at the door while adjusting his glasses. Since the Duke’s right-hand man had stumbled upon us, we were fearing the worst, but Dengel’s next words were unexpected.
“How troublesome, that blasted man. To think that he was plotting something that ridiculous,” he said with a scowl, the vein on his forehead once again throbbing.
“Wait… you’re not a part of that?”
“Hell no! If he achieves something like that, then there will be no escaping him ever! Keeping me in the dark about the important things and only leaving me the dirty work, how aggravating.”
Eryn and I looked at each other and relaxed our guard. Dengel continued his ranting.
“I mean. I had a feeling that he was planning something big, but my Lord is ever so secretive about his personal interests. I still don’t understand what he sees in the two of you.”
“Huh? The two of us?” I looked towards Eryn who had the same confused expression. My disguise was still intact. What did he mean?
“You think I didn’t notice, my Lady’s familiar? You may be in disguise, but your actions can’t fool me. A large shipment of imitation sugar was made by order of Reichenstein to be sent here, who is in close relations with my Lady here. A shipment of a product that had just came to market and approved by a certain otherworlder who has the same voice as the chef in front of me.”
When he put it that way, I hadn’t been exactly covert with my movements. This was why I was no good at scheming, leaving most of the details to Cornelius.
“What do you plan to do then?” Eryn asked, scanning Dengel for his intentions. “What do you want with us?”
“Given your connection with Earl Reichenstein, I feel like we can make a little trade. Seeing as you are in here, I would have to guess that you are looking for evidence of the Duke’s illegal dealings, evidence that I have in this notebook.” Dengel walked forward and showed us the contents.
Pages filled with contacts of underground dealers and criminals, some of which had been arrested for illegal activity recently. There were ledgers of payments made for specific jobs. All of this was circumstantial evidence, but heavily implied direct arrangement of illegal activities.
“Hmm. Cornelius would definitely be able to piece this together into a compelling case. But what do you want in return?”
“My Lady, the reason I work for the Duke is due to his threats to my family. If Earl Reichenstein were able to ‘acquire’ them under his service, then at the very least they would be safe. Those are my only terms.”
“Given that all this is true, the Duke is likely going to deny all of these charges. Even the ‘Watchdog of the King’ won’t be enough to bring him and his supporters down without more support and being caught in the act.”
At that moment, I heard something strange from Eryn.
“Watchdog of the King? Who? What is that?”
“Oh, I guess I never told you. Cornelius holds a special position that investigates the wrongdoings of nobility and reports them to the king. When he discovers those that seek to marginalize the power of the royal family, he rallies the nobility to strike them down.”
Eh? Mr. Corny had such an important job? No wonder he asked me to dig for some dirt on the Duke. If the letters that we found came to his attention, then he would be able to mobilize.
“True. The supporters that the Duke has number quite many. Not only their retainers, but also the kingdom’s army is under his grasp. It will be tough for even Earl Reichenstein to rally enough force to oppose them.” Dengel bit his thumb. “If there was only a way to lessen their numbers…”
“I have an idea about that. Can you leave it to me?” I interjected. “I had originally planned to cause a disturbance so that I could take Eryn and escape.”
I proceeded to describe my intent of using the imitation sugar. After my explanation, Dengel snorted with his hand over his mouth.
“Well, that’s one way to trim their numbers. That would mean that we would have to knock them out during the actual ceremony. A risky move, I might say.”
“It’s better than getting overwhelmed by reinforcements later,” Eryn added.
“Still. Even if we manage to subdue him, the Duke’s standing is greatly above all of ours. Who would the king believe? Certainly not us commoners and lower nobility.” Dengel scratched his head in thought.
“Then, we’ll just have to make him confess.”
“Confess? You’re joking, right?” Dengel and I looked very skeptical at Eryn’s statement.
“Not if you have the right item. In fact, the Duke used a potion on me a few days ago in order to make me follow his commands. Likely, he’ll be using it on me again on the wedding day.”
“A submission potion? What kind of evil thing is that? Did he do anything to you?!” My anger started to bubble at the thought of Eryn being made to do unsavory things.
“No. No. He just had me undress a bit. It’s no big deal.”
“HE WHAT?!” I gripped my knife hard, with a sudden urge to stab something, anything.
“Look, I’m okay. Let’s forget about it now and help me find the potion.” Eryn made her way to the wall and started searching for the magic circle to open it. Moments later, the sound of a wall receding could be heard.
As the three started walking down the stairs to the Duke’s secret room, Eryn suddenly had a thought.
‘Was it fine to show the other two what was down there?’