Shirou inwardly sighed.
Persuasion wasn't his strongest suit as he'd never really had much of a way with words. If the current matter was just something as simple as threatening the adversary to carry out an objective or cease hostilities, then this would be done by now. However, this was far more complex then everything seemed on the surface.
The creaking of wood echoed from Aultcray's tight grip over the armrest of his wooden seat across from Shirou.
Now then, how to begin?
Shirou could see the wariness flickering across Aultcray's eyes. The subtle way the man hadn't fallen victim to fear while surrounded by weapons poised to skewer him at a moment's notice denoted a firm mental strength. His muscles were taut, his back straight, and most of all, not once did his right hand let go of his trusted cane.
However, careful inspection would reveal something telling for those who knew of the man's past and then saw him now.
"You are a changed man," Shirou began in the silence, noting the anger that crept up the old King's face. "The fact that you can't see it yourself is quite the shame."
He waited, but the old King didn't rise to counter his point. This was a good start: It meant the man was thinking.
Shirou knew he wasn't the shrewdest of individuals, but keeping silent and forcing down any outbursts while threatened at sword point was simple common sense. You wouldn't want to instigate the other party into needless violence. Besides, he only needed the old King to listen and decide for himself.
Stubbornly, Aultcray held his tongue, his visage settling into an impressive poker face at the threat of death. His breathing had slowed, and there was a careful meticulousness to his gaze.
Pressure would cause change. Those that couldn't adapt would always be the first to succumb to danger, but most of all, instinct wasn't something so readily forgotten.
If peace breeds weakness and lethargy, then urgency was what brought heightened awareness back.
For the first time in years, Aultcray was truly 'looking' at the dilemma presented before him. Metaphorical gears and cogs could be seen spinning within his mind.
More than once, Shirou noticed Aultcray observe the entrance of the room blocked by swords, then back to the swords in the air, then back to Shirou himself.
Only a single conclusion was reached, and Shirou noticed as Aultcray came to this realization: There was no escape. The only method was to fight and defeat the oppressor, and in this game of man against man, one side was surely lacking.
"You're surprised?" Shirou knew exactly what to say not because of the type of person he was, but due to the influence of the very cane Aultcray was clutching in support. "How would I know anything about you, when you know next to nothing of me? Every variable in a fight may be fatal, and you know it."
This was exactly the point. Aultcray couldn't get a read on Shirou, and therefore, couldn't properly assess a threat level nor plan of action. Considering that escape hinged on Aultcray's ability to discover the mystery of Shirou's unknown 'magic' and capabilities, Aultcray was forced into passivity.
A trace of astonishment nearly shattered Aultcray's façade of calm, but the man was quick to clam up again.
"You might be thinking what do I want or why I'm here and not with the Shield Hero?"
A tug of the lips; a careful crinkling of the brow; these were the only indications Aultcray gave in the man's growing sense of unease.
"You may be curious, but I won't answer that. It's not something that you should care about," Shirou calmly found a place to sit on a recliner in front of Aultcray.
The swords hovering in the air impeding Shirou's path, parted at his movements even without Shirou looking.
A telekinetic ability? Aultcray struggled for an answer. It may have been plausible too, if Aultcray hadn't seen Shirou make the swords out of nothing. The more Aultcray furiously brainstormed, the warier he became.
Shirou noted Aultcray's behaviour, and inwardly sighed. There was no use in telling the man to relax. No sane man would do so in this situation, so instead, a distraction would prove the most effective method.
"Do you recall the name of a man who alone causes apprehension to the other kingdoms of the land?" Shirou began slowly, taking careful note to any changes in Aultcray's expression. "They called him the Wise King of Melromarc. His presence would bring turmoil into the hearts of the enemies at the Kingdom's borders… I've yet to meet him."
Once again, Aultcray remained silent, but the tightening grip he had over his cane was evidence of some sort of emotion.
"You are rash, reckless, and lost in your own hatred for something you yourself had never fully understood." Shirou decided to strike right at the heart of the matter. More than anyone in Melromarc or the entire world, he alone knew Aultcray best from the history he could see from the staff Aultcray had in hand. "The Hakoku, the Demi-Human race of White Tigers, killed your only family. The one person you swore to protect after your parent's passing."
A glint of confusion marred Aultcray's features at the fact that Shirou knew something so personal, yet the man still held his tongue despite the sheer fury welling up from deep within him.
"You killed the Hakoku in vengeance, going as far as to abandon your homeland and any fighting chance you had at a throne larger than even Melromarc's." Here Shirou paused, staring intently at Aultcray while leaning forward on his seat. "You must have thought of it before, but what if from the beginning, you were wrong?"
Aultcray froze, a deathly silence pervading the room as veins popped over the old King's skin.
"…And why should I listen to you?" Aultcray forced out.
Shirou glanced up to see Aultcray on his feet, cane pointed forward threateningly despite the swords leveled near his neck. The man was angry. Angrier than ever before, yet Shirou only smiled sadly.
"Because you aren't the foolish man you've become. There was no body, only blood and pieces of scattered furniture in the place you and your sister once called home." Shirou stood up, waving the swords threatening Aultcray away at the man's blank gaze. "Have you awoken, Wise King of Melromarc?"
From the beginning, Aultcray wasn't an unjust King. He was the King Melromarc was most proud of: Stern yet just, meticulous, and lawful.
Aultcray gradually lowered his cane to seriously assess the 'fifth' Hero summoned alongside the Four Legendary Heroes. In this world, everything should have meaning.
"What are you getting at?" Aultcray's featured dimmed at the current subject.
"A wager," Shirou said, knowing the only method to rouse the old King out of his slump. "The suspicion that you've always had, your sister survived."
"She is dead," Aultcray hardened his gaze. "I checked, I searched, I did everything, but it all pointed to the machinations of the Hakoku."
"Then will you take a gamble?"
Shirou began to concentrate, forming a single sword in his hands while beads of sweat lined his forehead from the effort. A black blade was formed, gnarled and double-edged, it exuded a fearsome bloodlust.
"This sword points and seeks in the direction of the blood it has consumed. No matter where you are or where you go, this sword will surely lead itself to its pray."
Before Aultcray could react, a small line of blood was drawn from his hand where the tip of the particular sword had pricked him.
Carefully, Shirou let go of the sword. One hand it pointed to Aultcray, but on the other, it seemed to sense something in another direction and angled itself accordingly. Not all siblings had the same blood group, but the sword that slew Grendel could understand the purpose Shirou wished of it.
Aultcray just stared, and then stared again at the sword as the implications set in.
"I will find out what happened to your sister," Shirou said immediately. "In exchange, stop and reflect on your own actions as of late."
Aultcray's mouth mutedly opened then closed, and before he knew it, Shirou had left as quickly as he'd appeared.
The swords that had filled the room and blocked all avenue of escape faded away at once into mots of blue light as if they'd never been there.
Left alone, Aultcray breathed in, then out slowly before slumping into his chair. His heart was beating rapidly, and there was a dull ache at his temples. Just now, he felt as if everything he'd taken for granted had just been shattered.
The possibility of a 'what if' scenario played in his mind, and he grudgingly considered if this had been Shirou's actual ploy. Worse, it played entirely into his own suspicions of the past.
What even was this? No one should have known other than his wife, and it was impossible for his wife to have betrayed him to someone he'd just summoned into this world recently.
"Father, it's done!"
In the midst of his internal crisis, Myne, the fake adventurer name of his eldest daughter Malty, entered his hidden study.
"The Shield Hero is moving as predicted." Malty immediately moved to Aultcray's side and beamed. At any other time, he would have been smiling with her at the success, but once again, he had to consider this 'what if' scenario.
The only thing asked in exchange was nothing expensive or outrageous.
Reflect on your own actions.
It was a simple request, all things considered.
For the first time in years, the meticulous mind of the man who'd garnered the affection of the Queen of Melromarc began to whir once more.
He looked at Malty, expression carefully neutral as he observed her. She was his bundle of pride and joy when he'd first held her in his hands, and now she'd grown into a woman at the blink of an eye.
'You spoil her.'
His wife's disappointed words repeated internally, and now that he decided to reflect on his actions, he realized just how many times he'd allowed her to abuse authority. Any other person would have been jailed or sentenced to death at such clear signs of corruption in his heydays.
When he noticed how much pleasure she was deriving from the misfortune of the Shield Hero, he realized another point he'd been remaining ignorant of.
His hatred and discrimination towards Demi-Humans and the Hero they worshipped had justification in the means of his past history with them, but then how about Malty?
In comparison to himself who understood the weight and ramifications of assassinating a Legendary Hero, and was thus steeling his resolve for the consequences, Malty was smiling from ear to ear.
Had she always been this vindictive to garner genuine amusement from the misfortune of others?
Was this what his Queen had warned him about regarding their eldest daughter's personality?
"Papa?" Malty called out to him unsurely. She'd noticed a change in his general demeanor. It was slight, but it would become much more noticeable as time passed.
Aultcray shook his head ruefully. "Leave child. I wish to think."
Malty noticed the subtle differences in speech, but she dared not say anything before bowing and cautiously leaving with furrowed brows. She'd never seen him so solemn and it made her realize that manipulating her father would no longer be as simple. But how hard could it be? Her father would never scold or discipline her.
"By your leave," She said, acting her part as the dutiful and filial daughter and leaving without a second wasted.
Perhaps Aultcray's dismissal of Malty was too unexpected, but from the shadow secretly placed to monitor Malty, an uncharacteristic gasp was heard before a hasty retreat.
Aultcray wasn't always reckless fool. He was always sharp when it came to his intelligence, and he knew that he hadn't placed any scouts on Malty. The only other person who had the authority to do so was only one woman he hadn't seen in months.
This was just an assumption, but it was almost certainly the truth. If Malty had a Shadow keeping tabs on her, then what of himself?
"Shadow, reveal yourself," he called out calmly. There was no way that he wasn't heard.
No answer, but he was a patient man.
He knew the Shadow was there. They always were as of late when the Queen was away. The fact that he'd never realized what it meant for his own Queen to monitor him in her absence when she'd never once done so before in their past was telling.
The growing distance between them over the past years to the point of taking custody of his second daughter, more so.
His Queen was not a bitch, or a woman who would just turn her back on the man she'd married. Instead, she was prudent, kind, determined, and coldly rational as her station of Queen demanded. For the kingdom, she could even sentence her own kin to execution despite her own regrets. That was the kind of woman she was.
Then why was she no longer by his side? Why did she no longer confide in him when it was always him who she once admitted had the edge in wit and foresight in politics and battle?
Melromarc was a matriarchy. The fact that she'd let him as King administer the Kingdom in her proxy revealed her trust in him, and what had he done in the following years of peace?
The resigned expression on his wife's face in their last meeting came to mind.
Had he really fallen so low?
The shadow must have noticed a change in the air surrounding him and hesitantly appeared in the midst of his melancholy.
He wouldn't blame the Shadow for her confusion. It was likely she'd never seen the demeanor of the Hero of Melromarc in the war against the Demi-Humans. He was no longer just the inept 'King' her Queen had sent for her to keep tabs on.
He sighed. "Tell the Queen to stop worrying," he said abruptly.
The Shadow had other concerns. "The Shield Hero-"
"I know. I will rectify the situation," there was a sense of finality in Aultcray's tone. "The Queen would have never authorized such actions." Or the past him for this matter. He may still hate Demi-Humans and the Hero they worshipped, but he'd certainly tolerate them if they could give him or his kingdom benefit.
"You may leave, but one more thing," Slowly, tentatively, he tossed a decorative medallion to the Shadow, much to the Shadow's confusion. "Give this to her. She'll understand."
She may not believe it, or may even outright deny it, but if one thing was for sure, he was going to prove it starting with an investigation for the true outcome of his younger sister.
Peace had addled the mind, yet purpose once more gave it strength.
He turned his back to the Shadow and waited before the Shadow left in a show of agility as only a light wind was left behind. He grunted in self regret.
His Queen had surrounded herself with capable personnel, whereas he….
He sighed thinking of the aristocrats and foreign diplomats sidling up to him in the past years in order to curry favour. Truly, trash would surround themselves with trash. How must he have looked like in his Queen's eyes?
She'd likely lost her faith in him, but even so, he wouldn't cower nor ask for forgiveness to play into whatever sentiments his wife still had of him. He wasn't that kind of weak man that would resort to using guilt or affection against his loved ones.
Actions would prove everything, and he could only hope that the spark between he and his Queen still burned strongly.
He would wait and see regarding a certain wager and the tracking capability of a Hero of another world.
Truth or lie, this was a wake-up call, and Lüge Lansarz Faubrey was now awake.
The problem was, now that he was aware of the mistakes he was making, it was now his duty to rectify them.
He looked down at his own staff, dusty and left forgotten after years of neglect.
There were no guards he could muster quick enough, but there was one person who knew how to navigate the winding corridors of the catacombs better than anyone.
He discarded his lavish robes and accessories and placed them haphazardly on his desk, scoffing as he changed into regular leathers.
What was he if not a Hero?
The cane in his hands, thrummed in answer.
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