Arc 3, Waxing Moon
They resumed traveling just before noon, and as they had previously decided, stopped at the village in front of the forest to rest the night.
It came as a surprise to Ernst that despite this being only a village, it held an inn for travelers to rest.
Merchants were the ones who held the right to manage inns. When farmers or mountainfolk gathered together, they formed ‘villages’, whereas when merchants congregated, they formed ‘towns’ or ‘cities’. The merchants who owned this inn seemed to be the only ones with this business, and they also managed a small shop attached to the inn.
This place could not be considered a midway point between ‘villages’ and ‘towns’, but neither was it strictly defined as solely a village.
The few merchants in this village did not do business with their fellow villagers, but rather traded with the travelers who passed by, and the goods they had on sale were often products for the road. In essence, the fact that so many travelers stopped for the night at this village told that the forest ahead was very dangerous indeed.
“Well, it seems like the number of bandit sightings really has increased since this spring.” Mage returned, sharing the info he had gotten from the innkeeper. “Even with all of the lords who pass on this road being too dirt poor to…”
Minaha rushed to block Mage’s mouth as he spoke. Ernst smiled wryly; he nodded to indicate that he didn’t mind, and for Mage to continue.
“Um… er, I mean… being unable to… spare the funds to hire mercenaries, and their militia troops also being not too strong… that is… it’s, easy for them to be targeted by bandits, it seems.”
That sounds about right, Ernst thought.
All of the territories north of Linz fief, including Meissen, were poor territories.
For border territories such as Meissen, at least, they were still required to have a certain number of trained troops, but that was the exception; in other territories, the militia were soldiers in name only and functioned more like handservants for the Lord.
This was especially the case for territories like Linz fief, which was surrounded by its own country on all borders, or in places like Gris fief, with its wide open plains, where if you asked its people what they might need protection from, the only things to come to mind would be wolves or boars. In such places, there wouldn’t seem to be any point in having soldiers..
From the Lord’s perspective, it would be better to reduce the number of militia to as few people as possibly needed, since every person in the militia was someone who not only didn’t have to pay taxes, but also had to be paid wages instead.
Brez asked in a low voice, “How many attacks have there been so far?”
There were several other guests staying at this inn. By the looks of them, none of them were villagers – they were all other travelers.
Yet it cannot be said that just because they seemed the part, that meant they really were actual travelers.
The possibility of bandits mixing into the crowd could not be ruled out.
“From the start of the new year to early spring, two servants of Lords had been attacked, and of those two, one of them had all of their Lord’s taxes seized. From spring until now, seven servants of Lords and eight merchants have been attacked; three of those servants lost everything, and five of the merchants had all of their good and money stolen. …And, in the half year that has passed since the start of the year, sixteen people have been killed.”
Such high numbers made Ernst draw a breath.
“Just what are the kingdom’s soldiers even doing…”
Ernst had unintentionally muttered his thoughts, and in response, a scornful smile rose on Targes’ face. But that smile wasn’t directed at Ernst.
“… They probably set this road up as bait.”
“Bait? … I see…”
When Ernst thought of all the roads connecting to the royal capital, Ernst came to the same understanding as what Targes had spoken.
There were five main roads which extended from the royal capital.
The road which stretched from the capital through Sminacca fief was, of course, the road used by Sminacca, which paid the most tax out of the entire Kingdom.
The road which passed through Sisic fief connected to Silus Kingdom, and a large number of merchants traveled on it.
Similarly, the road which passed through Ananique fief to Lux Kingdom had many Luxian merchants, and the road through Alatania fief had merchants from the Helesian country of Cobo traveling on it.
If the merchants from other countries frequently suffered attacks, then business with other countries would cease, and Rintz Kingdom’s financial problems would instantly mount.
Moreover, Sminacca fief was a metropolis whose power was second only to the King’s. If its taxes were stolen, there was a high likelihood that its Lord, Marquis Kataliner, would take advantage to delay the payment of his fief’s taxes.
The road which would do the least damage even if it were attacked was precisely the road Ernst was on, the road which extended from Mutica fief.
Rintz Kingdom wouldn’t suffer a hard blow even if the taxes along this road were stolen, and moreover, the powerless Lords along this road could be censured for having allowed themselves to be robbed, and thus be made to pay twice the amount.
“The taxes that Sminacca fief pays must be more than all the taxes of the Lords on this road combined, huh.”
Ernst recalled the numbers that had been driven into his head back in his days as the Crown Prince, specifically regarding the tax payments of each fief. That statement was exactly the case; in the eyes of the kingdom, the people who used this road were the least significant.
“How can you say that…! Even though this year, Lord Ernst is bringing the tax to be paid…” Brez said in a bitter and reproachful tone, and Ernst had refrained from saying to him, That’s exactly why this is the case.
Especially as the former Crown Prince, he must absolutely never delay his tax payments to the country.
If such an instance were to ever happen, then all sorts of people would come scurrying out to attack him at that critical time.
It was only a matter of course that Ernst as an individual would be attacked, but there may also be people whose attacks would reflect on his status as a former royal.
In order to protect the status of both the King and the new Crown Prince, Ernst was in a position where he had to pay his taxes no matter what circumstances were to befall him.
Yet in front of these troops who were ready to lay down their lives to protect him, Ernst couldn’t speak such self-demeaning words.
Ernst internally let out a sigh of self-derision.
He wondered if there was anyone who could put up with being dethroned over the illness they were afflicted with, driven out and abandoned their kingdom’s most remote area, and having to live with this body of his.
The fact that those beings Ernst had only vaguely realized existed had gone to such lengths to ostracize Ernst made his chest feel empty, hollowed out.
“Um… excuse me…”
At the sound of the trembling voice calling out to them, Ernst turned his head to see a man standing alone. He looked exactly like a man from the country who had done his utmost to dress fashionably.
“I am very and truly deeply sorry for having called out to you so suddenly, but may I ask, are you also the servants of a Lord?”
With faltering and stuttering polite speech, the man looked at Targes with his face lowered. It was no surprise, seeing as how Targes looked the most outstanding of them all.
Targes glanced at Ernst, What should I do? written in his eyes.
“Our group belongs to the fief of Meissen,” Ernst spoke up, and the man startled with a surprised expression. The way his emotions showed so openly on his face reminded Ernst of the simple folk of Meissen.
“Ah… I am sorry, that was rude of me. U-um… would you happen to be the son of the honorable Lord?”
“Forgive me for my lateness in introducing myself.” Ernst stood from his chair and performed a light bow. “I am the seventeenth Lord of Meissen, the Duke Ernst Gille Farson Rintz Kleber.”
The man seemed to be either a butler or a militia soldier who hadn’t yet received much training.
Although when it came to social status, Ernst’s was far above the man’s, in this meeting they were both people who carried the weight of the lands they came from on their backs. Ernst thought it best to show courtesy.
“Eh…! The Lord himself…! I, I have truly spoken a great wrong to you.”
The man hurriedly took a step back, and he bent over to lower his head in a deep bow.
“There is no need to go that far; the matter is not that important. I am no more than a Lord from the countryside, after all.”
Even among the people of Rintz Kingdom who were accustomed to the sight of Kleber’s disease, when they saw a person with the appearance of a young boy or girl, they would think that person was a child.
Besides, no one would think that a noble would contract a disease said to be caused by poverty. Ernst encouraged the man, who had shrunk back in shame, and inquired after the reason why the man had called out to them.
“My name is Toscatey, and I am a servant of Nibe fief. I was traveling to pay Nibe fief’s yearly taxes, but to be honest, I have been waiting to find other people who will pass through the forest. I deeply apologize for this incredibly rude and unbecoming request, but… when you pass through the forest, may I humbly be permitted to maybe come with you…?”
The militia troops instinctively shared glances with each other.
“That is… this is actually my second time carrying Nibe fief’s taxes for this year. My first time, I was attacked by bandits and had the taxes stolen from me. The Lord of Nibe fief forgave me and just said that it was just good that I had managed to survive, but we still must pay taxes to His Majesty the King no matter what. We somehow managed to scrape together more money so that I can try to transport the taxes again this time, but I were attacked again… that’s why…”
Toscatey tightly held his own stomach with both arms. It was in that area that he must be carrying the money.
Even without carefully observing him, when considering the thinness of his arms and neck, the swell of his belly was unnatural. He had tightly wrapped the heavy gold and copper coins onto himself, then protected them as he made his journey all the way up to here.
“We had given everything we possibly could in order to gather this money, and Milord was unable to send anyone else besides me. I have to take this money to the capital somehow. Milord gave me his trust, and he entrusted everything we have to me. Even if I have to give up my life to do it, I must bring this to the capital no matter what.”
Bandits were not the only ones who could steal the Lords’ taxes.
It was not uncommon for servants and soldiers to betray the Lords and steal from them.
Therefore, the Lord had to choose several people to transport the taxes. In order to make sure they kept watch on each other and safely carried their cargo, the Lord might even choose people who never got along to go with each other.
As such, there were even Lords who thought that even if they fought and killed each other during the journey, as long as the money was safe, nothing else mattered.
“Humm… Targes, what do you think? If we bring Toscatey with us, will we be able to make it out of the forest?”
Targes crossed his arms and thought it over, then opened his mouth.
“It will be quite… difficult, is what I think. In truth, I had intended to request Lord Ernst to leave the carriage behind in this village, as the carriage would have difficulty riding through the forest. As such, what I had planned for Lord Ernst’s transportation had been to invite you to ride one of our horses.” 
As had been mentioned in the earlier conversation, if people did not regularly go into the forest, then the forest may not be well-maintained. Although it wouldn’t be as much of a problem for the horses, the road might be too rough for a carriage to run at full speed.
“Protecting the wooden box with the tax inside would be left to Ganche, while I would take on the duty of guarding Lord Ernst, and thus request that Lord Ernst ride alongside me on my horse…”
“What’s with that?! I shall be the one protecting Lord Ernst!” Ganche said, full of enthusiasm for his preferred task, but Targes halted him.
“That won’t work. You’ll be the one handling the bandits. We have no idea just how many of them will come at us. It’s better if Lord Ernst isn’t with you so that you can swing your sword and your spear at will. It doesn’t matter how much damage the wooden box takes, but we can’t let Lord Ernst get wounded, can we?”
After Targes’ scolding, Ganche reluctantly nodded his head.
“Don’t worry. Lord Ernst will be safe as long as you defeat the bandits. Whatever leftovers you leave behind, I’ll clean them up,” Targes said with a huff of laughter, as if trying to reassure Ganche. He then turned to Ernst. “It is for this reason that we are unable to protect yet another person. Unfortunately, neither Brez, Mage, nor Minaha currently possess the skills to have another person ride with them and still keep control of their horse as they fight. If Toscatey can ride a horse, then I can come up with another plan, but…”
With each of their names brought up, the three militia troops looked over at Toscatey with sorry expressions.
Ernst had also never seen any of the militia undergoing training on horseback. In the first place, there weren’t enough horses in Meissen to form a cavalry.
“… I, I am unable to ride a horse…”
As he looked at Toscate, who had hung his head, Ernst thought, as seemed to be the case.
Toscatey’s shoes were dirty and broken. Nibe fief was located several fiefs over from Linz fief. Most probably, it had taken Toscatey over a month of walking in order to reach this point.
“I have an idea. There is one plan which may work; however, this will only be possible should Toscatey put his trust in me.”
Although it was much more fortunate than Meissen, Nibe fief, also, could not be said to be a wealthy territory. It had about a thousand residents, and its primary product was rock salt.
“It is to allow me to carry the taxes of Nibe fief in your stead.”
When Ernst looked at Toscatey’s face, which had been well-tanned by the sun, it made him remember the people of Meissen. It was a face that had endured a simple and difficult life.
Ernst no longer carried any such notions that people living in remote areas were pure and genuine folk.
There were times where they might cheat or deceive others in order to somehow improve their difficult lives. In places such as Meissen, where there was no education to instill principles of right and wrong, they were unable to judge what was undignified for a human being.
Toscatey looked as if he was lost.
It was because he wasn’t pure that he knew to distrust other people.
That was by no means a bad thing.
The only people who knew nothing about distrust were a handful who had grown up happy, protected behind tall and sturdy walls.
One was unable to live without knowing how to doubt.
That was how it was for people who lived normally.
“We can count the amount of Nibe fief’s tax that Toscatey has brought here, to this place, at this time, and when that has been ascertained, I shall write down the amount. If by any chance a notice comes from the Kingdom that the tax has not been paid, then you can show them that paper. After doing so, the bill for Nibe fief’s taxes shall be sent to me.”
“Lord Ernst…” Targes, who had been listening quietly, now spoke up with anxiousness in his voice.
“Fortunately, I have brought with me the papers used for official documents, as well as my stamp of lordship. I am able to write up an official document tonight to hand over to you, Toscatey. Furthermore, there is still room within the wooden box we are using to carry Meissen’s tax. We should be able to if the money for Nibe’s tax within. Ganche will be guarding the box, will you not? In that case, there is no further need to worry over its safety.”
After Ernst spoke, Targes sighed in defeat, a wry smile on his face.
“I suppose you’re right. No one knows better than Ganche what Lord Ernst had been feeling while collecting Meissen’s taxes. …No matter what happens, you’ll protect it, right?”
“Naturally.” With a single word full of reliability, Ganche gave a forceful nod.
Toscatey seemed unable to follow the flow of the conversation, his eyes swimming.
The tax was something that someone from each fief had to carry and transport to the capital. In lands without a Lord, such as Meissen in the past, the Lords of the neighboring fiefs would gather that land’s taxes and pay it alongside their own.
It was unheard of for there to be such a splendid Lord that other fiefs would entrust their taxes to them.
“Um… is it really, okay to do that…?” Toscatey timidly asked, as if unable to decide on his own.
“It is. Since Lord Ernst said it’s possible, then it will be fine. That’s because our Lord is more familiar with the laws of this Kingdom than anyone else.”
At Brez’s words, Ernst smiled wryly and nodded his head.
“There is no need to worry. Although the law says that tax must be paid, nowhere in the national law is written any mention of whose hands ought to be delivering them. As proof of that, Toscatey, when you had previously delivered taxes to the royal capital’s officials, had they ever tried to confirm whether or not you were a resident of Nibe fief?”
“…That’s right… All I had to do was say it was Nibe fief’s taxes and hand over a tax payment certificate with Nibe fief written on it. Then the officials just counted the money. They never looked at my face.”
“It is as simple as that.”
As if finally relieved, Toscatey showed a smile for the first time.
The next day, Ernst invited Toscatey to his room and showed him the document he had drafted the previous night.
Since Toscatey served as a butler in Nibe fief, he was able to read words. Ernst internally sighed in relief.
If he were like the butlers in Meissen, who were unable to fluently read words well, then no matter how precise of a document Ernst wrote, he wouldn’t have been able to judge whether it was correct or not.
He asked Toscatey to confirm the words of the document, and to verify the count of Nibe fief’s taxes.
After Ernst, Toscatey, and then Targes had verified the sum of money, Ernst wrote the number into the document and stamped it with the mark of Meissen’s Lord.
The document was placed inside a thick envelope, which was then sealed with wax.
Now released from that money which had weighed him down in every sense, Toscatey stored the letter in his pocket and laughed, as happy as a child.
 The servant is trying to speak in keigo, a very difficult but extremely polite and respectful way of speaking in Japanese. He is doing his best.
 Although Targes always speaks to Ernst respectfully, you still get a bit of a close feeling. In front of the outsider, he’s doubling up and using fully respectful and proper language, like the difference between “Alright Lord Ernst, please get on this horse” to “Lord Ernst, if you may, please ride this horse”. I can’t get it across well in English, but imagining Targes as a very proper knight dutifully attending to his Lord (because someone else is watching) is super funny to me. Especially because in the interludes with the other militia soldiers, he’s always like 5 seconds away from smacking someone upside the head. For the record, Ganche is always suuuuuuper polite in his speech as well (to Ernst only).
Targes: So Lord Ernst cuddles up nice and close with me on my horse. Ganche gets the box.
Ganche: The fuck?!
So after reading this story for so long, I decided to draw Ganche and Ernst the way I imagine them. I uh, I actually messed up Ganche’s armor really badly because I was drawing this at work and forgot how it was described \(^q^)/ (failure) The description even comes in the next chapter…
Anyway, this is just my personal taste. I like Ganche with long, fluffable hair and Ernst looking like a cream puff!!
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