“Understood, understood. So, the Earl Oyano Bou, Viscount Shinobi, and Marquis Jet, conspired to attack the Hope household, according to the investigation by the knights.”
Christina and the others were being questioned by Grey, the head of the Knight’s Investigative Division, in the bedroom of the Hope mansion, with the morning sun beginning to shine through.
“Then, the the blood-soaked clown, Jack the Ripper, appeared there. He exterminated all the attackers, but he didn’t harm any of you and just left. It’s quite a convenient story, isn’t it?”
Grey cast a suspicious glance at Christina.
“But, that is the truth.”
“In that case, it’s still a natural assumption that Jack the Ripper was an assassin and bodyguard hired by the Hope family.”
“That’s not it! It’s not that simple.”
“Making it less clear might be their way to escape suspicion.”
“Please, stop this. Instead of that, the most important thing is that Earl Oyano Bou, Viscount Shinobi, and Marquis Jet attacked us. Investigating their motivations and connections should be the knight’s job…”
“Well, regarding that matter, the attack on the Hope family could be seen from the viewpoint of the Hope family.”
Grey narrowed his eyes and gave a small, amused smile.
“…And what do you mean by that?”
“Earl Oyano Bou and the others might have been lured to the Hope family and falsely accused. You can view it that way as well.”
“Impossible! They were armed and wearing masks, ready to attack!”
“They are cautious and clever individuals. They probably anticipated being attacked and had undercover guards nearby. It was a wise decision, but… it resulted in an unfortunate outcome.”
“Earl Oyano Bou himself was also wearing a mask! Where is the evidence that the Hope family lured them in?”
“We are still investigating that. Besides, it’s just a perspective. Right now, Jack the Ripper is the talk of the city. People are obsessed with discovering his true identity and his motives. The most suspicious party at the moment is your Hope family.”
“Are you accusing us based on mere rumors and gossip?”
“No, no, not at all. I apologize for any misunderstandings. It’s just that these rumors and sentiments can’t be ignored. The citizens are living in fear of Jack the Ripper’s next target. The city is quiet right now. The lights of the shops have gone out early, and there are no people in the streets. Everyone is afraid of Jack the Ripper. If this situation continues, public dissatisfaction will grow, and it may lead to witch hunts. We’re afraid of that.”
“I understand… not that I’m asking for your understanding. We’re in a difficult position as well. Last night, we were scolded for not investigating the Hope family promptly, and for not arresting them.”
Grey explained, offering a somewhat apologetic smile.
“Now, let’s get back to work. Kanade and Sid, was it? I might need to speak to each of you individually later, so please cooperate when the time comes. The truth is always singular.”
With a pose reminiscent of Conan from “Detective Conan,” Grey smiled at Kanade and Sid and left the room.
Kanade tried to comfort Christina, who was looking downcast.
“The Hope family is at risk of being treated as the culprits.”
“That would be a disaster.”
Sid Kagano, enjoying high-quality confectionery, chimed in.
“Night Sword will surely try to pin the blame on the Hope family. If we could only prove their innocence…”
“Speaking of which… Jack the Ripper left a message behind, right?”
“Oh, this one?”
Christina retrieved a note from her pocket. The card had been confiscated by the Knights as evidence.
“‘The dandelions, all the bad guys must be killed, although we always count them, sometimes we play like this.’ He wrote this message.”
She read out the message she had noted down aloud.
“I think it holds some meaning. He left it intentionally.”
“The ‘Dandelions’ line indicates that his target is, indeed, Night Sword.”
“Kill all the bad guys means that Jack intends to kill all of Night Sword.”
Kanade said with a sense of accomplishment.
“But I’m not quite sure about the next two lines…”
“‘although we always count them’ is quite puzzling. Counting something? What is he counting?”
“That’s true… for instance, corpses.”
As Sid mentioned this, Christina seemed to have realized something.
“Jack the Ripper is counting the Night Sword members using the numbers from the cards.”
“So, does that mean he is just counting the bodies using the numbers on the playing cards, and leaving messages for fun sometimes?”
“It might be something like that.”
“Oh, I see. I thought there was a more significant meaning to it.”
Kanade sighed disappointedly.
“It’s not just that. Jack the Ripper’s purpose of killing all the Night Sword has become clear.”
Ignoring the two of them, Sid seemed to have noticed something.
“Oh, wait a minute. This message can also be read horizontally.”
He pointed to the note and said so.
“Eh! Read it horizontally?”
Both of them peered at the message and simultaneously realized.
“Could it be the Duke Oshoku White?”
“He’s one of the high-ranking members of the Night Sword. He’s also the owner of the grand mansion ‘White Mansion’ on the outskirts of the royal capital.”
“Oh, that luxurious mansion…”
In other words, Jack the Ripper’s next target is Duke Oshoku White… a warning of the impending crime. Well done for noticing, Sid.”
“Oh, it was just a coincidence.”
“Well, I had also kind of noticed it halfway.”
Kanade retorted mysteriously.
“Well, that’s good. But Jack the Ripper put another meaning into the message. I remember the card was the 10 of spades. Spades represent winter, and the number indicates the week. So this card represents the tenth week of winter. By the way, today is the ninth day of the tenth week of winter.”
“Tomorrow is the tenth day of the tenth week of winter. Tens in a row, isn’t it a coincidence?”
“Um, so Jack is going to make a move tomorrow?”
“The tenth day of the tenth week of winter, Jack the Ripper will target the White Mansion. With this much information, we can also prepare.”
“But why did Jack leave such a message in the first place?”
A simple question from Kanade.
“That… it’s certainly mysterious.”
“Yeah, doing something like this could lead to failure.”
As the two of them tried to analyze further, Sid’s cough interrupted them.
“C-Cough, Jack the Ripper is a genius beyond our imagination, I think. He anticipated all possible scenarios with his extraordinary intelligence and found the optimal solution from a far higher vantage point. We, ordinary people, can think all we want, but we’ll never understand his purpose…”
He said it quickly.
“Maybe Jack the Ripper… is trying to tell us something.”
Christina muttered with a serious expression.
“Something? What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. I just had a feeling…”
“Instead of that, how about informing the Knight Order and the Night Sword about the meaning of this message? If the Knight Order tells the Night Sword, they should take precautions. For example, gathering their forces and confronting Jack as a group… If Jack the Ripper appears suddenly in a place like that, it should completely clear the suspicion from the Hope family.”
“But, if that happens, Jack the Ripper…”
“He’ll probably be killed, right?”
“Is Jack the Ripper really an enemy? Perhaps he’s also a victim of the Night Sword.”
“But no matter what reasons there may be, Jack the Ripper is committing murder. It’s something that can never be defended!”
Sid said with a strong sense of justice in his eyes.
“But… yes, I’ll go inform them.”
Christina, with an unenthusiastic demeanor, went to report to Gray, the head of the Knight Order’s investigation division.
Alexia took a sip of high-quality coffee in the Hope Mansion’s sitting room.
“So, the Knight Order is in a panic…”
She said that and handed the note with Jack the Ripper’s message back to Christina.
“So, the Knight Order will be participating in the Jack the Ripper capture operation after all?”
Christina asked, and Alexia shook her head.
“The Knight Order seems to be sealing off the area around the White Mansion.”
“Eh? They’re not going inside?”
“The Night Sword also have elite fighters. They will definitely want to capture… no, probably kill Jack the Ripper with their own hands. They’re desperately gathering their forces. Tomorrow, both the top-notch swordsmen from the surface and the underground will be assembled at the White Mansion.”
“It’s become quite serious… Is Jack the Ripper really going to show up?”
“No fool in their right mind would come after gathering this much firepower. The message is a bluff, and the real target may be something else. That’s the common assumption. The Knight Order is moving with that in mind.”
“But Jack the Ripper’s abilities are not ordinary.”
“According to what I know, Jack the Ripper overwhelmed the martial artist from Wakoku. Every martial artist who goes to Wakoku for training is exceptionally strong. So, if he managed to overpower him, he must have considerable confidence in his skills… In that case, he might actually show up.”
“Is that so…”
Christina let out a small sigh.
“You look troubled too, Christina.”
“Jack the Ripper is a heinous murderer. But is this really the right way to handle it? I can’t help but think there might be a sad, tragic past that turned him into a heinous murderer… Maybe he’s trying to convey something to me…”
“All right, Christina. How about going to the White Mansion with me tomorrow? We won’t be able to go inside, but we can watch from the outside with the Knight Order.”
“Is it okay!?”
“The Night Sword probably won’t like it. But with the power of a princess, I can manage anything. Let’s witness the conclusion of this incident together.”
Alexia took a sip of her coffee and let out a small sigh.
“Um… Alexia-sama, you seem to have a troubled expression as well.”
“Yes… I have a lot to think about. Claire still hasn’t woken up either.”
“Claire-san. Is she okay?”
“The doctor says her condition is stable, and she’ll wake up eventually, but that doctor, Mu, or whatever her name is, gives me a bad feeling.”
“Sid mentioned that he trusts the female doctor.”
“He has no eye for people.”
“But I think Sid-kun must be suffering too. She’s his only sister. He refused to stay at this house because he was worried about Claire-san.”
“He… cares so much about Claire…”
“Yes. They’re really close siblings, aren’t they?”
“I thought he was a more callous guy. Let’s buy some delicious sweets from Mitsugoshi for him next time.”
“He’ll surely appreciate that.”
“Yes, that’s true. He can’t not be happy with a gift from me.”
Alexia softened her expression and suddenly brought up a topic.
“I talked to my father yesterday.”
“Considering everything that’s happened, as well as everything leading up to this… I can’t handle it all on my own, so I want you to hear me out a bit.”
With that, Alexia began to recount what had happened yesterday.
Alexia confronted King Midgar in her private room.
“What’s this about, Alexia?”
King Midgar spoke calmly.
“Why do you allow the Night Sword’ tyranny, Father?”
“That topic again…”
King Midgar let out a sigh.
“I won’t give up until you answer me, Father. And this isn’t just about the Night Sword! It’s also about the hidden forces operating behind the Night Sword!”
“Well, what are you talking about?”
“Stop feigning ignorance, Father. I know everything. I know about the Diabolos Cult, and I know everything!”
King Midgar let out a deep breath once more. He closed his eyes for a while, deep in thought.
“It’s about time, I suppose.”
He opened his eyes and said so.
“Time for what?”
“Well… I was planning to tell you eventually. About the Diabolos Cult.”
“So, you did know.”
“The Diabolos Cult is a power that seeks to control the world’s darkness. If we oppose them, this country will suffer significant losses.”
“So, you’re siding with them?”
Alexia’s voice became more severe.
“We had to maintain a working relationship with them for the sake of the country.”
“…You make it sound so simple.”
“That’s politics. Sometimes, there are priorities higher than good and evil when it comes to protecting a nation.”
“…I find that hard to accept.”
“Fighting evil alone won’t work in politics. If we did that, the country would have been destroyed long ago.”
“But that doesn’t mean joining forces with the Diabolos Cult!”
“We didn’t join forces with them.”
“We didn’t ally with the Diabolos Cult, Alexia. The Midgar Kingdom simply managed to coexist with the Diabolos Cult. That’s all.”
“Isn’t that the same thing?”
“The Midgar Kingdom has never acknowledged the actions of the Diabolos Cult. And, of course, we’ve never cooperated with them.”
“But the Diabolos Cult has committed heinous acts within the Midgar Kingdom! There were even infiltrators in the Knight Order!”
“Those were individual actions, done without our knowledge.”
“It’s the same thing! You’re turning a blind eye to it!”
“The Midgar Kingdom never cooperated with the Diabolos Cult. However, we managed to maintain a working relationship with them. That’s all.”
“So the cult has been allowed to do whatever they want?”
“The Diabolos Cult never sought the spotlight. They needed us as a hidden shield. They, too, understood the limits.”
“What about what happened at Midgar Academy? Are you forgetting that? They even kidnapped me! Are you saying that was within the limits!?”
“A few years ago, they were within the limits.”
“A few years ago…?”
“Until Shadow Garden appeared.”
King Midgar rose from his seat and approached the window. He touched the windowpane and gazed at the darkness of the night.
“In just a few years, the world has changed significantly. Mitsugoshi Trading Company in the open and Shadow Garden in the shadows are trying to revolutionize society itself. Those who can’t keep up with this tide clamor, scratch, and resist. These are the times we’re living in.”
“The Diabolos Cult is getting anxious?”
“In the past, they wouldn’t have taken such reckless actions. Their organization is being cornered by Shadow Garden, and the repercussions are starting to show.”
“So, you’re saying my kidnapping was just collateral damage?”
King Midgar stated firmly.
“So, you want me to accept that?”
“As a father, I’ll apologize to you, Alexia. That’s the way it is.”
“But as a king, there’s no need for me to apologize. I’m the king of Midgar before I’m your father.”
“We don’t have the strength to confront the Diabolos Cult. They have the Knights of Rounds, immortal swordsmen, and the Children, a combat group strengthened with ancient knowledge. As you know, wars are decided by the quality and quantity of swordsmen. Regular soldiers are not useless. If ten soldiers equipped with anti-magic armor work together, they can restrain a single swordsman. With high-quality soldiers, there’s even a chance to target their mana depletion. That was the common knowledge of warfare. However, it applies when dealing with regular swordsmen. Exceptional swordsmen can kill ten soldiers with a single strike. Years of training and expensive anti-magic armor turn into nothing in an instant. That’s what the cult’s swordsmen can do.”
“The cult’s swordsmen are of overwhelming quality, and nobody could oppose them. That’s how it was until now.”
“Shadow Garden’s appearance changed everything. There have been groups opposing the cult, and, of course, even within our country’s Knight Order. But they were all crushed.”
“The Knight Order of our country…”
A certain man came to Alexia’s mind. He wielded a large axe with both hands, and he had eyes that seemed to have given up on everything. He was the former chief librarian of the Knight Order.
“Shadow Garden will probably be crushed soon as well. Everyone thought that would happen. Of course, even the cult… But it didn’t turn out that way. They never crumbled. On the contrary, they started to weaken the cult’s forces. It’s completely different from what we’ve seen before. Shadow Garden’s name spread rapidly in the underworld. Everyone paid attention and started to hope.”
“Hope, you say?”
“They might be able to put an end to the world controlled by the cult. The leader of Shadow Garden possessed overwhelming power to make people believe that. Not just the leader, but everyone under him is formidable. They, as an organization, had the strength to stand against the cult. They weren’t just a dream but a real hope.”
Alexia still remembered the beautiful bluish-purple light that Shadow had released in the capital.
It wasn’t just admiration. It was a light that she had promised herself to reach one day.
“Not only Shadow but also those who acted under them are strong. They had the solid strength to challenge the cult as an organization. If the cult were to fall, there would be no one in this world to oppose Shadow Garden.”
The chief librarian had said the same thing just before his death.
“If that happens, nothing will change. That’s why I needed to assess Shadow Garden’s existence. That’s why I was hesitating about which side to support.”
“What do you plan to do?”
“Now, we can’t just let the Diabolos Cult and Shadow Garden continue their struggle forever; that’s not ideal for us.”
“I’m joking. To be honest, I’d prefer not to choose. But at a pivotal moment in the changing times, any force that makes an undecided choice ends up destroyed throughout history. Regardless of my feelings, we’ll eventually be forced to make a choice. Even if either choice leads to a future of destruction, we have no option but to choose one. That’s what it means to be part of a significant era.”
“The flow of time…”
“The cult is getting anxious. Their recent recklessness is a sign of their anxiety, and it’s also pressure on us. They are demanding us to side with them. I thought that Shadow Garden would contact us eventually…”
“There hasn’t been any contact?”
“That’s right. Even if we tried to initiate contact, we have no idea where they are. Midgar Kingdom might not be essential to Shadow Garden. That’s how it might be. If so, there might be only one path for us.”
The king smiled somewhat tiredly.
“What will happen to Oriana Kingdom? They opposed the cult…”
“They’ll probably be crushed soon. Rose Oriana was recognized as a heretic by opposing the cult and Saint Faith. Trade will be severely restricted. That small country, which has nothing but art, will probably dry up soon.”
“So there’s no way to save them?”
Alexia had felt relieved when she heard that Rose had become the queen. They had sworn to fight together in the past. Even though their paths had diverged, it was heartening to know that Rose hadn’t lost her determination to oppose the cult. But now, the path ahead seemed thorny.
“It depends on Shadow Garden.”
“So, they are involved after all.”
The king nodded.
“Where do you think Rose Oriana had been hiding after killing her father? Both Oriana Kingdom and Midgar Kingdom, as well as the cult, searched for her desperately, but she was never found.”
“Do you think she was hidden by Shadow Garden?”
“It’s natural to think so. Everything, including Rose Oriana’s rise to power, was probably carefully arranged. By Shadow Garden… Or, should I say, by Shadow. Whenever Rose Oriana made a move, Shadow was always there behind her.”
“Speaking of which, during the Bushin Festival…”
Shadow had helped Rose escape during the Bushin Festival.
“It’s still unconfirmed, but there were testimonies saying that Shadow appeared at the same time as the ‘Black Roses’.”
“Rose-senpai… I mean, Rose Oriana joined forces with Shadow Garden.”
“That’s right. Even though Oriana Kingdom is restricted in trade, they still have plenty of food. If we consider that Shadow Garden is providing supplies, it all adds up.”
“So, Oriana Kingdom will be saved?”
“We can’t be sure yet.”
“The cult is making a move. They’re approaching Saint Faith and pushing for the elimination of heretics. Quietly, they’re also urging Midgar Kingdom to send troops.”
“The Vegalta Empire will probably act as well. In the past, that country repeatedly invaded Oriana Kingdom. Each time, they withdrew for unnatural reasons.”
“It seems that the cult was intervening. The cult maintained the balance between Oriana Kingdom and the Vegalta Empire. But this time, the cult sided with the Vegalta Empire. With the righteous cause provided by Saint Faith, it’s the perfect opportunity for the Vegalta Empire.”
“Father… I mean, what will Midgar Kingdom do?”
That was a question as a princess.
The king let out a deep breath and fell into silence.
Outside the window, snow was falling.
“You aren’t suggesting that you’ll cooperate with the cult, are you?”
“…Once the snow melts, the war will begin.”
“Are you planning to invade Oriana Kingdom?”
“Alexia, the cult is testing us. They want to see which side we’ll choose: the cult or Shadow Garden. The choice we make here will determine the future of Midgar Kingdom.”
“If you decide to invade Oriana Kingdom, then I…”
“I will make the decision before the snow melts. I’m simply choosing the path that ensures the survival of Midgar Kingdom. Alexia, do as you please.”
“Is it really okay?”
“Iris is getting closer to the cult.”
“So, my sister is involved with the cult after all?”
“That’s what she wished for.”
“No, she’s just being manipulated!”
The king shook his head.
“Alexia, if you can get close to Shadow Garden, then no matter which side you align with, the bloodline of Midgar Kingdom will live on.”
“I… I can’t guarantee that I’ll get close to Shadow Garden.”
Alexia clenched her fist tightly.
“Do as you wish.”
The king turned away and spoke those words.