After seeing off Barbasse’s daughters, Herscherik turned around and followed Oran. He never stopped even when he showed his usual warm smile to the knights and officials he walked past in the castle. Once he entered the garden passageway inside the inner palace grounds and no one was around anymore, he finally dropped the façade and his gaze became sharp.
“So… where was it leaked from?” Herscherik asked. He continued to walk when a shadow moved in response. Up until now, it had only been Oran behind the prince, but Kuro was there, responding to his master’s call.
“Both sides,” Kuro quietly answered and walked beside Oran. He wore his pitch-black spy clothes that allowed him to blend into the darkness.
Kuro’s answer made Herscherik lower his eyes. Today’s outing was announced ahead of time—something he never did—so he could observe the flow of information concerning him. That was why he purposely leaked the info to see how the minister’s faction or the Church would move.
Herscherik was troubled that they couldn’t pin which side took the bait. He stopped, turned around, and looked up at Oran to ask, “Which one do you think?”
“The assailants targeted Lady Violetta, and Lady Gene appeared to be unaware and was surprised by their appearance. If she was acting, then I’m going to develop a distrust of women,” Oran answered. The trio had discovered the hidden side of Gene after they investigated Gene’s background. However, based on her behavior today, the attack wasn’t in her plan. “That’s why I think it’s unlikely it’s from the minister. That leaves the Church, but that magician protected Hersche.”
Shiro, who was affiliated with the Church, protected Herscherik from an incoming attack. But that didn’t completely eliminate the possibility of the Church’s involvement. Herscherik agreed with Oran’s thoughts, lowered his gaze, and furrowed his brow. If it wasn’t the minister or the Church, then was there another entity? Herscherik had earned the ire of many from his Venture Strategy, and he had accounted for people holding grudges in his plan, which many involved were from the minister’s faction. Regardless, he doubted any aristocrat would dare lay a hand on the minister’s daughter.
Oran noticed his master standing there and wracking his brain. He exchanged a quick glance with Kuro before addressing his master, “Hersche, what was the true purpose of today?”
“True purpose?” Herscherik looked up in surprise and answered the question with another question.
The knight elaborated, “I know that you wanted to see how our enemies would move, but you didn’t need to expose yourself to so much danger. You think so too, don’t you, Black Dog?”
Kuro nodded his head in agreement. He had been against the plan since the beginning. He tailed the group the whole day and observed their surroundings. He was even nearby when the attack happened. In fact, there were actually five assailants, but he lessened that number to two. By the way, those three assailants were handed over to the patrol as suspicious people. Kuro would have jumped in the moment Herscherik attempted to protect Violetta if he hadn’t noticed Shiro casting magic.
Herscherik saw his aides’ disapproving gazes and wryly smiled. They had seen right through him. Oran and Kuro were more concerned about his safety than he had believed. He felt apologetic about his actions, but he also could help but feel both embarrassed and happy about it. He had wanted to keep it a secret for as long as he could, but now that they knew, he had to disclose the truth.
Herscherik inwardly sighed and revealed, “I wanted to give a warning.”
“A warning?” the aides asked.
“Yeah… Even though Mr. Shiro and Miss Gene are hiding something, I can’t bring myself to see them as evil people. If possible, I don’t want to hurt them.” In these two months, Herscherik had observed them as they observed him. He couldn’t see them as inherently evil even with those people behind them. That was why he warned them of his true nature. Even if this would put him at a disadvantage.
“Naïve,” Kuro said, exasperated. Oran agreed and let out a small sigh.
“Sorry…” Herscherik quietly muttered an apology for dragging his two aides into danger with him despite knowing the consequences.
Kuro noticed that Herscherik was still clenching his fists. His voice was gentle when he said, “Still… that’s how you are, Hersche.”
“I’m sure we’ll manage,” Oran added. His voice was the same. The words from the two made Herscherik close his eyes. They always supported him. He needed to become someone worthy of them.
“Thanks, you two,” Herscherik said, and his aides nodded.
“Oh, that reminds me. I have another thing to report,” Kuro added. “That Gene girl is acquainted with that magician.” An aristocrat’s daughter and an archbishop’s adopted son. Normally, they would hardly ever interact with each other. And if there was…
“Are you referring to ‘Songbird’?” Herscherik asked. That was Gene’s alias, her underground persona. They had a feeling that the minister and the Church were connected and cooperating, but Herscherik couldn’t imagine that their goals would align.
“And the church has been acting suspiciously.”
These added pieces of information made the group gulp.
Gene put her younger sister to bed before going to visit her father’s study to report today’s events. She entered the always oppressive room and addressed Marquess Barbasse who was reading through documents as usual.
“Excuse me, Father.”
“…How was it? I want to hear your conclusion already.”
He didn’t even look up from his documents when he spoke to her. Gene cast her eyes downward. It seemed that it was finally time for her to report what she had been postponing this whole time. But she had already come up with a conclusion. Even if today’s events hadn’t transpired, she had already experienced Herscherik’s strong determination on multiple occasions.
“Father, it is impossible to get Prince Herscherik on our side,” Gene clearly stated, and only upon hearing these words did Wolf finally look up from his documents for the first time since she entered the room.
“Did Violetta do something?” he asked in his low, authoritative voice and directed his sharp gaze on her, but Gene couldn’t perceive her father’s emotions from his face or voice. This was how sparse their interactions had been.
“No, Violetta and His Highness’ relationship is amicable. It’s just that…” Gene knew that Violetta’s feelings toward the prince were like a maiden falling in love. Violetta didn’t seem to be aware that she was in love, but it was clear to those around her that she adored the prince. Herscherik wasn’t cruel to Violetta either. In fact, he even used his body to protect her. But the prince had already discovered Gene’s true identity and would surely never break. Hersecherik had said it himself that he would be merciless to those who got in his way. “His Highness will never side with us.”
“I see.” Wolf gave that short reply before going silent.
Gene wished one thing of her father: for him to please reconsider his foolish plans. She knew what her father was doing and how far he had gone to maintain his current authority. And she was an accomplice to some. But she didn’t want him to move forward with this one.
“Erase him,” he ordered her as casually as if he was telling someone to throw away a broken toy. Yet they were such cruel words.
“Father! The prince is still a child! It’s possible that he may leave for another country!” Gene knew what she was saying was just an excuse. The prince would never run away. He would definitely get in her father’s way. But she continued to insist.
Wolf sighed. Gene had been obedient up until now, This was her first time opposing him. He emotionlessly looked at her, as if she was some pebble on the road. He told her, “Remember your raison d’être.”
“Fine. Leave. But you won’t care if I use Violetta instead?”
Gene saw the most precious person in the world to her in her mind—her sister. Violetta was the one in this whole house who unconditionally needed her, so if she had to choose between the prince and her sister, she would absolutely choose the latter, even if this would lead to her sister despising her. Gene had no other choice.
The Church’s cathedral had closed for the day. Statues of many gods were enshrined in this dimly illuminated place, and before the large statue of the creation god at the center of them all stood an altar. Archbishop Hoenir would give his sermons from there to the believers sitting in the pews in front. Shiro sat down on one of them in the empty cathedral and looked up at the statues of the gods.
Hoenir called him from behind, “Noel, how do you feel after spending two months with the prince?”
“Nothing in particular…” Shiro reluctantly answered Hoenir’s question.
In the beginning, he thought the prince was strange. Herscherik didn’t fear the monstrous Shiro and even tried to talk more often with him. That was how the prince managed to worm his way into Shiro’s heart.
Next, Shiro thought he was a pitiful prince who couldn’t use magic. Yet he was greedy for knowledge and absorbed it all like a sponge to water.
And finally, today, the prince’s expression and air were something he had never seen on a child. When Herscherik said, “I won’t show mercy to those who get in my way,” just how much did the prince know?
Shiro’s adoptive father Hoenir lamented the current state of the kingdom. The royal family oppressed their citizens, and the people suffered. While the Church’s purpose was to support the suffering people’s spirits and listen to their cries everyday, it couldn’t interfere with the country or government. That was why Hoenir involved the Church with the minister and planned to correct the kingdom’s royal family. This was inexcusable, but Shiro didn’t care about whatever would become of the country. Nevertheless, he strove to pay back Hoenir for adopting him, and he hid his disdain for people as he accompanied the prince.
However, Shiro suddenly had doubts. Were the father and siblings the prince treasured so dearly really oppressing the citizens? The prince Shiro knew wasn’t dumb enough to be so delusional about his family.
“That means you had a lot of fun, right, Noel?”
Hoenir’s words had interrupted Shiro’s thoughts, and Shiro shouted his adoptive father’s name in indignation, sat up from the pew, and glared at him. Hoenir would usually return a smile. But this time, it was an evil grin, one that Shiro had never seen on him before.
“Then, I guess now is the perfect time.”
Shiro took a step back, having never sensed this air around his adoptive father before. The unease he felt before grew exponentially and rang all the warning bells in his head, but the part of him who believed in Hoenir silenced them.
“The prince has now become someone as precious or almost as precious as me in your mind, correct?” Hoenir’s voice was slightly lower than normal and made Shiro take another step back.
“What are you saying…?”
“My adorable Noel… My adorable doll…”
Shiro felt electricity run through his body. He wasn’t even capable of crying out as he crumpled to the floor. This was… manipulation magic. And curse magic to be exact. Foreign mana stripped control of his body away from him. However, the effects of curse magic should normally be weak and even more so if the target possessed greater mana than the caster. Hoenir certainly had high levels of mana, but Shiro’s mana should be magnitudes above. That was why it was strange for Shiro to be affected by curse magic. He considered the possibility of a third party, but no, only he and Hoenir were around.
—My adorable Noel (doll).
The way Hoenir said his name echoed in Shiro’s head. He realized. He didn’t want to, but he had to face reality.
The effects of curse magic were weak. But that was only when utilized immediately after casting. However, with time and layers, the effects will gradually increase. And with an object or word as an intermediary, the effects could be strengthened.
The name “Noel” was something given to Shiro by Hoenir when he was adopted and taken from his real family. He had long forgotten the name his parents gave him, and back in those days, his parents and those around him only addressed him as a monster. When Hoenir asked for his name, Shiro responded with “monster”, so Hoenir gave him a name.
And from that moment, Hoenir must have cast curse magic on him. This had to be true. The only person he trusted in the whole world never existed. This fact was enough to drop Shiro to the depths of despair.
“Good night, my sweet Noel.” Hoenir’s voice echoed. His voice was gentle, but there wasn’t an ounce of emotion in them.
However, just before Shiro’s consciousness was forcefully terminated, the sound of the youngest prince calling his name echoed in his head, “Mr. Shiro!”.
Hoenir ordered a subordinate to carry the immobile Shiro and deeply exhaled. Manipulation magic required a massive amount of mana and complex magic schemata. It took many years of continually and painstakingly casting this curse magic so Shiro wouldn’t notice. But the day to reap the reward was near.
Hoenir knelt before the statue of a certain god and lowered his head. It was the stone statue of Saint Fellis: the hero who united the world and became a god during the Dawn Era. They were a pillar who symbolized peace among the many gods and the object of Hoenir’s eternal reverence.
“Everything in the name of Saint Fellis,” Hoenir said. He looked calmly, but a deranged light that would cause anyone looking at him to tremble in fear filled his eyes.
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