Chapter 99 – Returning to the Surface
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It was the absolute worst outcome.

Just a mere thirty minutes ago, the group was making decent progress through the tunnels. Though they ran into a few roaming bandits, the presence of two knights was more than enough to make them disperse without much incident.

Instead, the trouble started when the group passed a set of what looked like a railway track. When asked about it, Jack informed the rest of the group that they were indeed meant for vehicles, allowing individuals living in the tunnels to get through its expansive network in a more expedient fashion.

After passing by the track, their underground journey continued safely through the mines unobstructed. With a few quick turns through the familiar rocky passageways, the group was well on their way to reaching the surface.

Indeed, it was the absolute worst outcome. For Jack, that was.

He’d been emphasizing how dangerous it was to roam around the tunnels at this hour and how running into the Rat King would’ve been a fatal encounter for all of them. Unfortunately for him, nothing remotely dangerous had occurred other than a brief stop in their journey when Riku took a moment to throttle the man for scaring Sakura with one of his outlandish stories.

“Well, we’re here.” Jack addressed the rest of the group as they stopped in front of a ladder that led to the hatch above.

“Thanks for the help,” Medrauta said. “Guess not everyone down here’s horrible. Granted, you didn’t have much of a choice.”

“No, I didn’t.” Jack replied with a grin as he recalled how Medrauta had kept her sword pointed at him for the better part of their initial meeting. “But y’all weren’t too bad yourselves, I guess.”

Medrauta nodded and then gestured to Riku. “We should bring Lady Sakura up first. Get her some fresh air.”

Riku nodded. “Good idea. She’ll be able to replenish her ki reserves if we can get her close to an area with more greenery. That should let her walk on her own until we reach Helfried.”

While Riku attempted to negotiate his way up the ladder with Sakura clinging tightly onto his back, Medrauta kept an eye on them from below. As they’d decided Viviane would go up before Medrauta, the noblewoman turned her attention to Jack who was simply standing there with nothing else to do, much like herself.

“Ah, right! We didn’t get time to ask you earlier, but you mentioned that Dame Marilyn offered a deal to the people living down here, yes? May I ask what that deal was?”

Jack shrugged. “Sure. S’not like she told us to keep it secret or somethin’. Apparently, the duke’s son staged some sorta coup and he’s taken over the duchy. Marilyn wanted us t’ help her get revenge and attack the castle.”

Viviane raised an eyebrow, surprised. She’d expected the senior knight to enlist help from the criminals in one way or another after coming down to the tunnels, but she hadn’t expected that Marilyn would be so blatant about the whole situation. “...And did you all agree?”

“Some of us. I did.” Jack shrugged again. “Woman said she’d pardon our crimes if we helped out, and... Well, honestly, I’ve got quite a bit saved up in my stash. Wouldn’t mind breathin’ the outside air again.”

Technically, Dame Marilyn doesn’t have the authority to pardon them, though... Viviane decided to keep that thought unvoiced. After all, if the duke had expired and the duke’s heir was a traitor, that would make the senior knight the highest authority in the duchy, albeit temporarily. 

Even so, she still wouldn’t have the authority to pardon crimes as a knight, but Viviane figured that the emperor probably wouldn’t mind Marilyn overstepping her bounds if she succeeded in quelling a troublesome rebellion in the midst of a war.

“I see. Did she mention any plans as to how she would mount an attack?”

Before Jack could reply, the sound of the hatch popping open traveled to Viviane’s ears, drawing their attention inadvertently. The two of them looked up, watching as Riku and Sakura finished ascending the ladder safely.

“Looks like it’s time for us to go,” Medrauta held a hand out toward Viviane.

“Yeah.” Viviane nodded. “Thank you for your help, mister Jack. Perhaps we shall meet again when Dame Marilyn decides to strike.”

Jack smiled dryly. “Yes. Perhaps. I suppose I don’t need to say this seeing as you’ve got your knight guarding you somethin’ fierce, but safe travels.”

With that, Viviane bid farewell to Jack with a curtsy. Though the gesture would normally appear somewhat awkward by the fact that she wasn’t exactly wearing a dress or even a skirt, Viviane still managed to make it seem as elegant and natural as ever.

After Viviane began climbing the ladder, Medrauta quickly followed suit once she’d seen her lady make it to the top. As the knight pulled herself free from the underground and returned to the surface, the group all peered down the hatch once more to wave Jack a final farewell.

As Jack departed, Medrauta slammed the hatch shut, sealing the way to the underground and turning her attention to the horizon. The sun was already halfway swallowed, but their walk back to the carriage shouldn’t take too long provided they weren’t obstructed.

Thankfully, there weren’t many people outdoors in Orinth at this time of day. Those who were more accustomed to the criminal nightlife deemed it too early to begin their activities, and those who were simply downtrodden civilians forced to live in this dismal excuse for a town had long retreated into their shelters in preparation for the coming night.

The unsavory individuals that they did pass by gave them a wide berth. Though some of them had thought of approaching the group after seeing Sakura’s sickly figure, Medrauta’s razor sharp gaze quickly excised such foolish desires before they could be acted upon.

The one worry that remained in Medrauta’s heart as they walked was the possibility that their carriage might have been happened upon by a patrol made up of Bastiche’s men. Though the coachman was a soldier, he would no doubt fall against several of the duchy’s guardsmen if they chose to attack.

Sensing her knight’s unease, Viviane squeezed her beloved knight’s hand gently, flashing Medrauta a bright grin as she turned to face Viviane. It wasn’t exactly difficult for the noblewoman to notice the tension that Medrauta’s face betrayed, but the knight appreciated her lady’s attentiveness nevertheless.

“Thank Aluvsha...” Medrauta let out a sigh of relief as she sighted the carriage in the distance as well as the coachman sitting alert and ready to move at the slightest hint of danger. The moment she caught the coachman’s attention and waved to one another, it felt as if a great burden had been lifted from her shoulders.

“Lady Viviane, Dame Medrauta! It looks like you’ve been successful in recovering the foreign dignitaries,” the coachman smiled in relief. “I was beginning to worry you wouldn’t return even after the sun had set.”

“Believe me, I was a lot more worried about that than you,” Medrauta laughed. “Our next destination is Helfried. Can we make it there before the next sunrise?”

“Helfried?” The coachman raised his eyebrows, surprised. “Were we not supposed to confirm the contents of Lord Bastiche’s official statement?”

Medrauta shook her head, jerking her thumb toward Sakura’s direction. The foreign lady was currently being helped into the carriage by Viviane and Riku. She looked comparably better now that they were outside the town of Orinth and surrounded by greenery, but she still hadn’t recovered the strength needed to support herself.

“Lady Sakura has been poisoned. I’ve recovered a sample of her blood and determined it’s jansem poison. I think that’s enough of a confirmation if you ask me.”

“What do you mean?”

“Lady Sakura’s only awake and moving around ‘cause she’s got some special technique or something they teach the nobles in Higashi. In other words, I’m willing to bet that Duke Revelo was done in by the exact same poison.”

“W-What do you mean!?” The coachman exclaimed, surprised. “Are you insinuating that Lord Bastiche would poison his own father!?”

Medrauta stared at the man for a second, wondering how he could be so oblivious. Then she shook her head, realizing that the coachman hadn’t exactly been privy to Dame Marilyn’s letter, nor did he actually have much information regarding the situation outside of the official statement.

Of course, the coachman was aware that Medrauta and Viviane had been wary of Bastiche’s claims, but he still doubted that the lord would actually poison the duke. It was an act that amounted not only to treason, but patricide. Normally, something like that would be unthinkable even for the most heinous of criminals.

Medrauta nodded. “That’s exactly what I’m saying. Bastiche screwed up, if you ask me. Jensam is a plant that only grows here in the empire. Sir Riku didn’t even know what kind of poison his lady had been afflicted with and had been forced to watch helplessly as Lady Sakura’s life ebbed away with each passing day.”

“...I see.” The coachman nodded. Though a soldier now, his previous occupation as a guardsman in a large city once tasked him with investigating crimes and apprehending criminals. As he listened to Medrauta speak, his past instincts resurfaced, allowing him to realize the importance of her words.

While he initially thought that the foreigners could simply be putting on an extremely elaborate show by also imbibing the poison in an effort to clear themselves of suspicion, he quickly dismissed the thought. After all, he’d lived and worked in the capital for long enough to know that a knight would never willingly allow their noble to suffer so greatly.

“Medrauta! Lady Sakura says she’s ready to go!” Viviane called out to her knight from inside the carriage. It was a tight fit, but they’d managed to squeeze all three of themselves into the vehicle’s cramped interior.

Medrauta nodded. She glanced into the interior with a pensive stare, holding her gaze for a short while before finally making a decision. “It pains me to be apart from you, but will you be fine alone?”

Viviane stared at Medrauta speechlessly for a moment. “Um... W-What? What do you mean, Medrauta?”

“I’ll ride with the coachman on the box seat. It’s far too cramped for comfort in there and Lady Sakura is already unwell. Besides, do you really think I haven’t noticed how badly you’ve been wanting to catch up with her?”

Those mere words had caused Medrauta’s heart to tighten even as she spoke them. Of course, she was aware of how her lady had worried incessantly about Sakura and how much she’d wanted to catch up with the foreigner, but even so, she hated seeing Viviane so close and friendly with another woman.

Particularly one as attractive as Sakura.

Viviane shook her head hurriedly to alleviate Medrauta’s fears, worried that her knight was getting the wrong idea. “I-It’s not like that, Medrauta! My heart is yours and yours alone!”

Medrauta grinned, the relief evident in her smile. She knew there was no need to doubt Viviane, but she still couldn’t help feeling uneasy about leaving the two of them alone together. “Of course. I wouldn’t let anyone steal it from me.”

“Excuse me... But can the two of you lovebirds please hurry up?” Sakura spoke up, surprisingly frank in stark contrast to her usual elegant demeanor. No one could really blame her though given her current condition.

“A-Ahaha, right...! Well then, let’s set off!” Viviane said.

“Actually, one moment.” Riku pushed himself off his seat. “I think I’ll join Dame Medrauta on the box seat if there’s room for three. I am not exactly fond of sitting here when I must protect my lady now more than ever. The cramped quarters and restricted vision do me no favors. May I, Lady Sakura?”

Sakura nodded. “Of course.”

The foreign knight bowed once more and climbed out of the carriage, closing the door as he went. Thankfully, the carriage’s box seat was wide enough to accommodate the two knights and the coachman who was now sandwiched between them.

“Uh... To Helfried?” The coachman asked, slightly nervous as he somehow managed to find himself in a rather strange position.

Medrauta nodded.

“To Helfried.”