-Ten years ago-
A man and woman of nobility were arguing in their bedroom. Victor and Amelia von Reichenstein, Earl and Countess of their domain, had been at odds with a decision made long ago.
“You cannot possibly think that this charade can continue as long as you desire! ‘He’ is starting to become of age. There will be people questioning! Our child won’t be able to fool those who are curious. We would be placed under even greater criticism if the truth were discovered!” the woman yelled at her husband.
“That may be the case, but I WILL not yield the title of Lord to my sibling! If you had only conceived us a male heir, then none of this trickery would be necessary!”
“Oh, now it’s my fault?! That I became barren? That we were only blessed with Cornelius? I don’t care if you are the Lord! I will strike you down with my magic and ensure your carcass is displayed in ice-“
A soft rap sounded at the door, in which a blue-haired child poked her head through. The child, though female, was dressed in clothing suitable for a young male heir.
“Father, Mother, is something wrong?” she innocently asked.
“N-Nothing, we were just discussing the details of your education. That is all,” the Lord of Reichenstein quickly spouted.
“Yes, dear. Why don’t we go to the garden and play a bit? We’ll be expecting some important visitors soon. Maybe even someone who would be a suitable partner for you in the future.” The mother walked over to the door. “After all, I think we are done here.” Her voice took on a bitter tone with the last statement, a cold chill visibly forming upon the hand hiding behind her back.
The sharp warning was clearly directed to her husband, who slunk back slightly. Though he was well trained in the basics of fighting, his forte had been his quick wit and planning. On the other hand, his wife wielded a talent in ice magic, something that could easily overwhelm many fighters of his caliber. Still, he needed to maintain the appearance of being the family’s figurehead.
It had been rather unfortunate that his only heir was female. Try as they might, Cornelius had been the only child born from them. Due to the country of Sistina being a patriarchal society, female lords were uncommon. Once the question of succession arose, there would be no doubt that his brother would stake his claim to the domain, especially with an important title such as Earl.
For that reason, Victor could only shake his head as he suggested that they raise Cornelius as a male, praying that the future would be more lenient by the time she had become of age. Yet, nearly a decade had gone by, and still, they were no closer to a permanent solution.
Rather, Victor pressed his child to ensure that ‘he’ behaved perfectly fitting of how a future lord would. Anything that was perceived as a weakness by masculine standards was not allowed. But recently, he had observed some signs of rebellion from the young Cornelius. ‘He’ had been particularly stubborn about some hobbies that involved the arts.
Victor inwardly sighed. It appeared also that ‘he’ had acquired the talent for ice magic like ‘his’ mother. Often, he caught the child conjuring up creatures of ice from ‘his’ budding imagination. Certainly, focusing on such a talent was advantageous, but he hoped for more constructive ways that would yield renown.
In the garden, Amelia was playing with the young Cornelius, showing ‘him’ how to create small sculptures made of ice. This had been a hobby of hers growing up, and she was happy to pass it on. Surprisingly, what took her years to learn had been quickly absorbed by the young child.
Though she had significant magical ability, she was never considered as anything more than a bargaining chip in an arranged marriage. Though she loved the husband that she had ended up with, her powers had been simply something beneficial to pass on to a male heir, who could make a name for himself in combat.
Amelia sighed. Victor was not a bad man. She understood the importance of maintaining a standard in high society. That was why she didn’t feel bad about teaching Cornelius everything she knew. And by posing as a male, Cornelius would have a chance to demonstrate ‘his’ abilities.
“Hey mother, look! Look what I can do!”
Cornelius started drawing ice over ‘his’ face, making it blend in with the natural skin tones. The result was a rough imitation of Victor’s face that was somewhat convincing if seen at a distance.
Amelia looked on in wonder at the innocent, playful gesture. Though the result looked quite comical on the body of a young child, it sparked a sudden thought.
“Dear, are you able to control that continuously?”
“Yes, mother. I could probably keep it on for several hours.”
“Interesting…” Amelia wondered if that technique could be fine-tuned a bit.
The sound of footsteps approached. She turned to see her husband gawking in awe.
“Indeed, that is rather interesting. Now, if only that ice could be adjusted to fit ‘his’ body appropriately…”
And so, the Earl and Countess of Reichenstein coincidentally came up with a similar idea – to train young Cornelius to hide ‘his’ identity through the mirage of ice magic. After a bit of tinkering, they had been satisfied with the result. Now, young Cornelius could face the world as a male without worry, as long as the magic was not dispelled. Frankly, very few people in the country would be able to see past it, since a person’s mana signature hovered so close to one’s own body.
Now, they only needed to train the young Cornelius into a proficient knight that could stand ‘his’ ground compared to the other potential heirs.
Their wish was soon realized as they saw rapid progress in magic training, much more so than any child of equivalent age. Cornelius had been unhappy about it at first, but after making friends with another lady knight-in-training, ‘he’ had suddenly gained an enormous amount of motivation.
Time passed. A few years before becoming of age, Cornelius had demonstrated ‘his’ prowess in wielding ice magic, astounding evaluators and practicing magic knights alike with the sheer amount of control that was wielded. Needless to say, Cornelius was seen as a prodigy.
However, would that still have been the case had ‘he’ been female?
Nonetheless, Cornelius von Reichenstein, right as ‘he’ became of age, inherited the title, Earl of Reichenstein. There was no question amongst his peers that ‘he’ would be the next head, due to the influence and skills that were demonstrated.
As Cornelius showed up at the castle in Engelberg to formally be recognized as the new Lord, one person near the King suddenly walked over and whispered into the ruler’s ear.
“Is that so? I see…” The king nodded with acknowledgement to those words, but allowed for the rest of the ceremony to continue.
Once it was over and the other attendees had filed out of the throne room, the King spoke up.
“Earl Reichenstein, I have one more matter to address, but in private.” The king nodded to the others around him, hinting for them to leave. Only the King and the man whispering to him earlier stayed behind.
“First of all, congratulations once again, Earl Reichenstein. Your merits have certainly made a name for yourself.” The man, who was known as the Chancellor, gave a slight bow.
“Why, thank you. A man such as I holds deep honor that you think as such.” Cornelius returned the gesture.
“Even more astonishing for such a renown to be held by a woman.”
Cornelius froze. The Chancellor’s words deeply pierced her. Cold sweat started beading on her forehead. When had she been found out? She had been sure that everything had gone perfectly, both in her disguise and her mannerisms.
“From your hesitation, you had believed that you had us fooled. However, you are standing before the Chancellor, one who wields the most advanced magic abilities that this country has ever known. Certainly, he was able to tell that something was off about your mana,” the King proclaimed.
Cornelius went down on one knee and bowed with her head down. “It is as you say. I have adorned myself in such an appearance because I would not have been taken seriously otherwise. I beg your forgiveness.”
The King held up his hand. “Raise your head, Earl Reichenstein. I merely wished to understand your intentions. Truly, your efforts may not have come into fruition without such a scheme. I will not hold that against you.”
“I thank you, your Highness!”
“However, the others that you have sought to deceive may not be so magnanimous.” The King gave Cornelius a stern warning. “What you need is protection. A guarantee from the royal family should your standing come into question. If you would be willing to offer us your help, then I shall grant it to you.”
“Yes, your Majesty! The lords of this country serve under you. I would be happy to take on such a request!”
“Splendid.” The King nodded and made a motion to the Chancellor, who only smiled in acknowledgement.
“From henceforth, Cornelius von Reichenstein, you shall be deemed the ‘Watchdog of the King’!”
Cornelius awoke with a jolt. ‘His’ hand grasped the sheets of an unfamiliar bed.
‘His’ memories seemed to be a bit jumbled. ‘He’ vaguely recalled getting in a fight with Claude, but it had resulted in Cornelius blacking out at some point. Just what had happened? Where was ‘he’ now?
The only conclusion that made sense was that ‘he’ had lost and was carried back to a nearby town to recover. Just when had Claude gotten so strong?
Cornelius sighed at this unexpected outcome. For now, it would be best to look for someone.
Just as ‘he’ was about to get out of bed, the door opened. A familiar chef walked in, but just as quickly, he looked surprised and bolted back through the door he came from.
Cornelius cocked an eyebrow at the strange behavior.
“Sir Claude, what is the matter? I suppose that you are still suspicious of me,” Cornelius said the first thing that came to mind that made sense. After all, ‘he’ had just attacked the chef, though the tables had ended up turning on ‘him’.
“U-Um… I just wasn’t expecting it to unravel.”
Cornelius looked down, seeing that ‘he’ had been wearing a loose outfit that was black in color. It seemed to be the same outfit that the chef was wearing currently.
However, the top portion had become undone and now hung loosely, leaving the chest area partially exposed. An obvious mound was exposed to the open air.
Cornelius panicked and pulled the shirt over her chest. Now, she understood why Claude had panicked.
“YOU FOUND OUT!”
“Of course, I found out! Who would not find out after I saw you naked!” the chef yelled from behind the doorway.
Due to the sudden commotion, several pairs of footsteps echoed throughout the house, and soon, they had an audience.
“Lord Reichenstein, I never realized that you were a woman…” Princess Katalina looked surprised. “If Claude hadn’t convinced me, I would’ve sworn that you were a different person.”
“Ludmila couldn’t tell either from mana signature.”
There were some children and old folks that Cornelius didn’t recognize, but that was hardly on her mind at the time.
“It’s a magic disguise for a reason! It wouldn’t be very effective if it could be easily unmasked! Speaking of which, how was it even dispelled?!”
For many years, no one had been able to detect, much less cancel, the illusion that Cornelius had placed on her entire body to make herself appear male. Not even when she was facing off against the Chancellor had it come undone. This was a testament to how advanced her magic control had been.
“Well, Sir Claude has the ability to cut magic. And also, to cut armor. It appears that someone was a bit strip happy with that power. Isn’t that right, Chef Strippy Pants?”
Claude recoiled at that statement from the princess, who had smirked at the nickname Claude had acquired on their return trip from Macali.
“Wasn’t my fault! I was just returning the kind gesture of being frozen by Corny. Maybe I was a little heavy-handed with the mana, but aside from that, why did you have to go and bring that up again?!”
‘Claude can cut magic?!’ Though Cornelius had a feeling that had been the case during their fight, she barely had the time to process it all. Adding on to how he had gotten so strong, there were plenty of things that she had to catch up on.
But before that, she had to explain her previous actions. Perhaps, there was another way to deal with her current dilemma.
“Sir- I mean, Claude. Please allow me to apologize for attacking you. It was under the order of Chancellor Willingham. It appears that he has taken quite the interest in you for some reason. Enough to manipulate the country into a disastrous state.”
“Me? What the hell would he want with me?” Claude pointed at himself in a strange manner. Just one of the typical odd mannerisms Cornelius had grown accustomed to from him.
“Who knows? But at the center of his diabolic plans is your beloved master and my dear friend.”
When it came to Eryn Faulkner, Cornelius von Reichenstein would sacrifice everything else. That much, even Claude was clear about.