Three days later. Zenjirou looked down on the short young man kneeling before him, and kept an inexpressive look, although he had to strain all the muscles in his face in order to hide his inner nervousness.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Master Zenjirou. My name is Xavier, the third son of Marquis Guzzle. I am terrible honoured to be given the opportunity to become acquainted with you.”
The young man— Xavier offered his greeting clearly, but still somewhat awkwardly. Zenjirou continued to look down to him from his chair as he slowly began to speak.
“I am Zenjirou, the husband of Queen Aura I. Raise your head.”
“As you wish.”
When Xavier looked up to him so intensely that you could practically cut the tension with a knife, Zenjirou felt the urge to back off for a moment, but managed to suppress it.
(Hmm, I haven’t seen anyone as straightforward as him in a while.)
His first impression of the young man was quite positive, but unfortunately, Zenjirou lacked the composure right now to let it show on his face.
Xavier Guzzle was the appointed successor to Marquis Guzzle.
The mission to resolve the problem on the Salt Road had initially been given to him.
Together with a bearded hunter, he had been sent over to Valentia by Aura with the “Teleport Magic”. Zenjirou knew exactly what they were here for, since he was not an idiot.
Precisely because of that, his heart was currently beating so fast as though he had finished a full marathon just now.
If his assumption was correct, this young man had come to Valentia with extremely bad news for Zenjirou.
Nevertheless, he had to hear him out.
“So, why did Her Majesty send you over here?”
On the surface, it looked like Zenjirou was asking casually, but deep inside he was sweating bullets. Xavier then briskly took out a sealed document from his pocket.
Needless to say, the wax seal on it belonged to the Carpa Royal Family.
“Please look at this.”
With these words, Xavier humbly held the parchment out and the waiting maid Ines took it from him after a signal from Zenjirou. Once she had confirmed that it had not been tampered with, she opened it in front of Zenjirou.
Under normal circumstances, the dragonskin parchment would be handed to Zenjirou, so that he could read through it, but regrettably, he still was not proficient enough in the language to read it by himself.
It looked a bit embarrassing, but Ines spread the letter so that Zenjirou could see it and read it out aloud while tracing the words with her right index finger, just like a mother reading her child a picture book.
“Then allow me. On this occasion, I nominate Xavier Guzzle to be put in charge of the Pack Dragon Subjugation. He shall fulfil his task as a direct report to Zenjirou Carpa, the current ‘fully authorized representative’ of the Duchess of Valentia.”
At the bottom stood the name of Queen Aura in her typical handwriting.
(I knew it.)
His presentiment proved to be true, so Zenjirou was seized with a pain that made him feel like he was going to black out. But well aware of the fact that it would be quite bad to let on about his mental state here, he pretended to be calm as he answered.
“I see. All right. The troops of Valentia were already dispatched to protect the nearby farms, though.
We will discuss the details tomorrow, when the other officers are back. Understood?”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
Xavier responded loud and clear, since he h
* * *
“Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit. What do I do now…”
Back in his own room later on, Zenjirou chased out all the acquainted waiting maids from the Inner Palace, starting with Ines, and broke out in a cold sweat once he was all alone in the room.
The problem that plagued him was obviously Xavier Guzzle, who had been leapt here with “Teleport” earlier.
His arrival taken by itself was truly a godsend. Xavier had actually encountered the Pack Dragons various times on the Salt Road, so he could confirm whether the Pack Dragons that had attacked Valentia were the same pack from the Salt Road and the “bearded man” he had brought with him, was a professional hunter, someone Zenjirou had lacked in his line-up.
His knowledge about dragons and his observant eyes would surely be a great help to the Dragon Subjugation. Aura must have thought the same, since she had used her precious magical power to cast “Teleport” twice on the same day.
However, her consideration had put Zenjirou in quite the political bind now.
“We already send out a Pack Dragon Subjugation Party at my behest. And I even put Raffaelo in charge of it already. But now Aura’s interfering from the Capital. This won’t end well.”
At the time when he had sent a “Small Flying Dragon” to the Capital, the Subjugation Party had not been formed yet, so Aura obvious had no way of knowing about his further actions. It did not change the fact, though, that this situation was bad.
“Well, Aura did wrote that she’s just ‘nominating’ him, so maybe I can overlook it? Nah, that would be bad. It would turn into a big mess, if the Prince Consort ignores a personal nomination from the Queen.”
Zenjirou was mumbling away to himself.
Then, what would happen, if he were to accept her nomination and put Xavier in charge of the Pack Dragon Subjugation? That would actually be even worse.
After all, Zenjirou was the “fully authorized representative for the Duchess of Valentia” right now and Queen Aura had no longer any authority as the original Duchess of Valentia, because that was what it meant to “represent the full authority”.
Thus, Zenjirou was practically the Duke of Valentia now, albeit representative, and Queen Aura was “interfering” in his business.
It was an unmistakable intervention from the Monarch into the self-government of a Feudal Lord’s domain.
“Argh, hasn’t Aura noticed anything? I doubt it… She probably thought the ‘Small Flying Dragon’ from me was asking for further instructions, instead of just exchanging information.”
The Capital and Valentia were too far away. Even if they made full use of the Small Flying Dragons and the “Teleport Magic” from Aura, an exchange of information still took three days.
It would inconvenience everyone at the scene, when you asked someone for help, who needed three or even four days to respond. Therefore, Zenjirou had only intended to report the matter, when he sent a “Small Flying Dragon”, but apparently, Aura had interpreted in such a way that he was waiting for instructions from her.
General Puyol had been worried that the “simplified message from a Small Flying Dragon could cause a misunderstanding” and as chance would have it, it proved to be true in this case.
But who was to be blamed now? Zenjirou? Because he did not wrote in the letter word by word that he merely wanted to exchange information and did not require further instruction?
Or was it Aura? Because she assumed that her husband in a faraway land was waiting for each order like always?
Or maybe Zenjirou after all? Because he usually acted passive and pretended to be incompetent as much as possible, yet he forgot all about that, since he was shocked by all the causalities around him, and acted quickly for a change?
“…Guess it’s mainly my fault after all.”
Zenjirou tended to put the blame on himself as a matter of principle, so he ultimately reached such a conclusion and hung his head in low spirits. In practical terms, Xavier and his bearded hunter were a valuable asset to the Pack Dragon Subjugation.
He could also understand what Aura had in mind. Marquis Guzzle had brought the original incident of all this on the table in order to let Xavier, the next Marquis, make a name for himself. When Aura had seemingly met with Xavier personally, he must have left such a good impression on her that she was willing to lend him a hand in that matter.
In other words, Aura had sent Xavier to Valentia in order to do him and Zenjirou a favour. A duplicate goodwill, so to speak.
But in reality, her good intentions were driving Zenjirou into a tight corner.
“No use crying over spilt milk. I get a sinking feeling, but I’ll make it work out somehow.”
He realized that he could not avoid a political éclat in its entirely, no matter what he did, so he slapped his cheeks with both hands and settled on that conclusion.
* * *
In the early morning of the next day, all the important figures in regards to the Pack Dragon Subjugation were assembled in the large conference room in the residence of the Duke of Valentia and sat around a long table.
Zenjirou had taken seat at the head of the table and looked into the faces of the gathered people as he spoke frankly.
“Okay, let’s hear your report first, Raffaelo.”
First of all, he called the name of the “current” person in charge of the Pack Dragon Subjugation: Raffaelo Márguez.
The addressed Raffaelo stood up on the spot and began to explain.
“Yes. Like before, the five units from the army of Valentia as well as the borrowed unit from the guards of Princess Freya have guarded the farms last night again. Fortunately enough, the Pack Dragons did not launch an attack.”
Zenjirou heaved a sigh of relief in light of that report.
Today was the fourth day after the initial attack. The Pack Dragons had already launched one more attack two days ago. For the second attack the Pack Dragon Subjugation Party had properly been prepared, so their counter-attack had made it in time and they managed to kill a couple of dragons while human causalities had been kept at zero.
However, it did not change the fact that a farm had been raided. The loss of livestock, mainly Meat Dragons, was quite severe again. If attacks of this kind continued to happen, all the nearby farms that provided meat and wheat for Valentia, would be demolished by the Pack Dragons.
Zenjirou put on a saturnine look and said.
“Good. I‘m glad to hear that they didn‘t attack, but the current situation won’t improve unless we exterminate the Pack Dragons. It’s important that we figure out how to wipe out the Pack Dragons while protecting the farms from them at the same time.”
He was only pointing out obvious facts by now, but everyone present nodded wholehearted on their seats.
Seeing their reactions, Zenjirou concluded that the right timing had come to introduce the two people standing behind him.
“And for that, we need detailed information about the Pack Dragons. The good news is that Her Majesty Aura has sent us a reliable support, because she had been worried about my ignorance on the matter.
Let me introduce him to you: Sir Xavier Guzzle.”
On the cue, the short young man took a step forward and introduced himself with flushed cheeks from nervousness.
“Th- Thank you for your kind words. My name is Xavier Guzzle. I have participated in the subjugation of the Pack Dragons on the Salt Road. And while I may still be wet behind the ears, I do hope that my experience can be of use to you somehow!”
Xavier was a prominent noble, who was appointed as the successor to Marquis Guzzle. Due to that, only Zenjirou, the Prince Consort, had a higher status than him amongst all the men gathered here. But he was still young and never really left his home domain before, so it would be kind of unreasonable to expect him not to be nervous in this situation.
Having said this, the bearded hunter standing next to him was even worse off on that note.
“And the man next to him is Mr. Antonio, a talented hunter from the March of Guzzle. I doubt you will find anyone more knowledgeable about Pack Dragons than him.
He was especially enlisted as an adviser, because of that.”
“M- My… My name is Antonio! N- Nice to make your acquaintance!”
Although he still looked like he could faint at any moment, he somehow managed to introduce himself. That effort was quite praiseworthy.
The middle-aged man was nothing but a mere hunter in a room with over ten noblemen, including one royalty. The normal reaction was to curse one own’s luck, instead of considering it an honour.
“Sir Xavier has encountered the Pack Dragons numerous times on the Salt Road and it goes without saying that Mr. Antonio is an expert on the field. I would like to hear their opinion on the matter.”
No one dared to reject the proposal from Zenjirou.
Around then minutes later, Zenjirou witnessed another good point of Raffaelo Márguez.
“I see. Then there is no doubt that the Pack Dragons from the Salt Road have fled here?”
“Yes, Sir Raffaelo. We surrounded the hill we identified as their hide-out from the east in a semi-circle, so if they escaped from there, they had to run west. Valentia lies in the west of the Salt Road, so it does match up.”
Completely freed of his nervousness, Xavier confidently answered the question from Raffaelo.
“I see. Then is it possible that the Pack Dragons have crossed some mountains in a few days to get here, Mr. Antonio?”
“Y- Yes. It’s definitely possible. No one can beat them, when it comes to running through a thick forest. But if it really are the Pack Dragons from the Salt Road, it means they kept losing out in the territorial fight inside the forest, like I mentioned earlier. And when they lost so often in such a short time, I’m not sure they still function as an organized pack…”
The bearded hunter on the other hand was still a nervous wreck, but at least, he could vocalize his own opinion without problem now.
It seemed that the man called Raffaelo Márguez was a “good listener”.
Practically paralysed with nervousness at the beginning, Xavier and the bearded hunter gradually regained their composure now while they talked with Raffaelo, who kept a soft tone and expression up the whole time.
Anyway, the brainstorming session about the Pack Dragons that attacked the Salt Road, and the Pack Dragons that were currently attacking Valentia, was going well thanks to that.
“Then it really may be better to assume that the Pack Dragons that attacked Valentia, were the same from the Salt Road.”
Raffaelo drew such a conclusion.
“Your reason being?”
Zenjirou asked for an explanation with this short utterance.
“Certainly. The main reason is that we found ‘blood from Pack Dragons’ at the first raided farm. Our troops did not manage to get there in time, so it raises the question who actually harmed the Pack Dragons? But it makes sense, when it were the Pack Dragons fleeing from the Salt Road.”
The blood of Pack Dragons was red like the one of humans, but it was extremely viscous and sticky, so it could easily be differentiated in daylight.
But the clarification from Raffaelo only created more doubt for Zenjirou instead.
“Hmm? You mean the wounded Pack Dragons from the Salt Road crossed a few mountains and came to Valentia while bleeding all the time? Isn’t it more likely that they die or the bleeding stops at some point?
When Zenjirou pointed out the obvious, the bearded hunter declared a different belief.
“Th- That is most likely attributed to the spears and arrows still stuck in them. They do heal quite fast, so even if an arrow remains stuck in their back, the wound will close after a while and the bleeding stops.
But since the arrowhead is still there, the wound will open again every time they move around too much, spilling some blood now and then.”
The coherent explanation from the hunter convinced Zenjirou for now. However, one of his doubts remained.
“Still, if it really is the same pack, why was the ‘Huge Pack Dragon’ never sighted during the two attacks here at Valentia?
The first attack aside, the subjugation party did fight the dragons during the second attack. Did the Huge Pack Dragon already die?”
It was Xavier, who responded to that question this time.
“Ah, no. Even on the Salt Road, the Huge Pack Dragon only got close enough to engage him once. It was always just giving orders from the back and kept himself safe deeper in the forest.”
“Indeed. We did receive a report from a soldier that the Pack Dragons retreated into the forest on their second attack after a ‘deep howl’ could be heard from inside the forest.”
Raffaelo testified like that so as to affirm the assertion from Xavier.
Zenjirou inadvertently frowned in light of that reasonable explanation. If their information and speculations were right, the Huge Pack Dragon was large, strong and smart, yet also a coward. It made their chase all the more troublesome.
“It would be easy to subjugate them, though, if we could immobilize them somehow.”
A captain of the Valentia Army grumbled like that by accident. His irritation was understandable.
As a matter of fact, the Pack Dragons were admittedly tough opponents for unarmed villagers or trade caravans with only a few guards, but they were hardly a challenge for a well-trained army.
The problem was their quick legs.
“How about we dig a pitfall?”
“A Pack Dragon can jump as high as I am tall from a standing position. It would be pointless unless the hole is quite deep.”
“What about using something like bird lime then?”
“They have quite strong legs, so they will just break free from it. To begin with, they have an excellent noise as well, so it is quite likely that they will not even be trapped by it anyway.”
“Sheesh, how do they even move about so purposeful in the thick forest? If they just came over from the Salt Road, they shouldn’t be familiar with the area here.
Man, wild animals sure are unreckonable.”
The bearded hunter gave the complaining captain a wry smile while answering dutiful.
“Well, that is because of the ‘scent’. They urinate in various places or rub themselves against tree trunks in order to leave their own scent behind as a waymarker.”
Zenjirou had only listened carefully so far, but that word called something to his mind.
“Then what would the Pack Dragons do, when we erase that scent?”
The sudden question from the Prince Consort seemed to confuse the bearded hunter, but he responded honestly nevertheless.
“I- It would throw them off. Or at least, they would halt and loiter for a while. …But, Master Zenjirou, your idea is not feasible. For one, their scent is pretty dominant. Secondly, they have a really good sense of smell. You cannot get rid of their scent so easily.”
Having discerned the plan from Zenjirou, the bearded hunter spoke apologetic, but Zenjirou was not put off by it.
“But since you know about it, there must exist a precedence, where the Pack Dragons were mislead by erasing the scent, no? How did that take place?”
“It was a landslide. An heavy rain during the rainy season washed away the whole trees on a slope. Then the Pack Dragons no longer had any waymarkers and made a ruckus, when they ended up in a completely different place.”
That certainly was not an easy method to erase the scent. An artificial landslide could not be come up with just like that.
Even so, Zenjirou was still confident that the plan to “erase the scent” had a chance of success.
He looked at everyone and spoke.
“Can we somehow utilize it, if there actually is a way to erase the scent?”
Raffaelo was the first to speak up in response to that.
“If what Mr. Antonio said is true and we really have a way to deliberately erase the scent, then we may be able to control their route to some extent by getting rid of some of the waymarkers beforehand.”
“Indeed. And when we establish a unit with a method to erase the scent, we could detain the attacking dragons by erasing the scent on their escape route.”
Following this, Xavier also brought up an idea he had thought of.
Then the captains of the Valentia Army joined the discussion, too, encouraged by the ideas of the two men.
“Certainly. Our problem is how they always get away. So as long as we can delay their escape even for a bit…”
“But isn’t it too late, when they have already entered the forest? We can’t use our ’Raptorial Dragons’ there. A pursue would be difficult, even if the Pack Dragons have lost their way for a bit.”
“The biggest concern is the Huge Pack Dragon, isn’t it? Once we defeat it, the rest will drop like flies. There’s no way such a large pack with over hundred dragons will stay organized after that.”
One of the captains said so with a confident expression. During the first attack, they could not get an accurate grasp on their numbers, but they properly engaged them on the second attack and a lot of soldiers turned in a report.
A normal pack usually consisted only of around ten dragons, so it could be called a calamity, when it suddenly consisted of a whole hundred dragons.
“A large pack with over hundred dragons? Are you sure about that?”
Xavier exclaimed surprised, when he heard that.
“Y- Yes, I am. Is there a problem?”
At this point, Xavier finally noticed that there was a discrepancy between their information.
All the information Valentia got about the “incident on the Salt Road” was passed on from Zenjirou and Raffaelo. They both had heard that “a large pack lead by a Huge Pack Dragon was blocking the Salt Road”, but they had not been told any details about it.
That was only natural. No one had expected that the ruckus with the Pack Dragon would escalate all the way to Valentia back then, when Zenjirou was “leapt” here.
Xavier realized that it was his duty to inform them about the details, so he revealed everything he knew while being extra careful not to cause a misunderstanding.
“The pack that attacked us on the Salt Road consisted of around fifty dragons. We engaged them several times and always killed some of them, but their numbers still amounted to fifty, when they attacked the next time.
General Puyol conjectured from that fact that they must keep a number of dragons separated from the main force as reserves.”
And that conjecture proved to be true.
Although they did not encounter the main force, the hunt with reinforcements revealed in the end that the pack did not consist of a petty number like fifty, judging by the abundant evidence (such as feces or claw marks) they found all around.
The bearded hunter had assumed that their numbers amounted to “at least two hundred, or at worst, to over five hundred”.
Despite that, the number of dragons attacking Valentia added up to over one hundred.
“What does that mean? Did they stock up the main force, because the battlefield here is wider than on the Salt Road?”
It would be the absolutely horror, when the dragons even took the size of the battlefield into consideration and adjusted their force accordingly, but considering the judgement of the Huge Pack Dragon so far, it could not be ruled out and that was a terrifying thought.
However, the one with the best knowledge about dragons and mountains, namely the bearded hunter, came up with a completely different opinion after musing for a while.
“No… The pack is most likely stretched to its limits.”
“Stretched to its limits?”
“What do you mean?”
The somewhat optimistic remark from the hunter threw everyone present into a dither.
From his humble point of view, the nobles and officers of the Royal Army looked at him elated, so the bearded hunter did flinch, but somehow managed to voice his idea.
“W- Well, I meant to say that the one hundred dragons that attacked, are the last hundred dragons of the pack.
It had bothered me from the beginning that the Pack Dragons would cross the mountains and yet again attack us humans on the other side, when they just had fled from the very humans on the Salt Road.
It’s a bit weird that they would attack a different ‘nest’ of humans after they just escaped from them.”
The captains inadvertently looked at each other.
Now that he mentioned it, it certainly made sense. The dragons had escaped from humans deep into the forest, so why would they next cross the mountains and attack humans again?
With all the gazes focused on him, the bearded hunter continued his explanation nervously.
“The forest has its own hierarchy. Each powerful dragon species has its own territory and the weak species have no choice but to live in the space in between. But dragons are pack animals, so they need a wide territory.
Furthermore, the pack of the Huge Pack Dragon consisted of way above a hundred dragons. If they retreated deeper into the forest, they were bound to cause a ‘fight over territory’.
The winner takes the territory and the loser flees in search for a different territory. Now I believe that the Pack Dragons have lost like this inside the forest over and over again, coming as far as to Valentia.”
“You mean, there are dragons deep in the forest that can defeat a large pack with two or three hundred dragons on every occasion?”
Zenjirou, sitting on his chair, unconsciously looked into the direction of the forest. Needless to say, they were in the conference room in the residence of the Duke of Valentia, so all he could see was an aged stone wall, but in his mind, he pictured a monstrous dragon breaking down that wall with ease.
Born and raised in the Carpa Kingdom, Raffaelo and the others seemed to share that sentiment, albeit a bit stronger, so a chilly silence hung over the conference room for a while.
Still, no matter how monstrous it might be, they did not need to concern themselves with it right now as long as it did not suddenly came out of the thick forest. It was more important that they focussed on the given threat now.
Raffaelo was the first to regain his composure and he checked with the bearded hunter in order to get the discussion back on track.
“Mr. Antonio, you are basically saying that the dragons that are currently attacking Valentia, are the ‘remnants of a defeated force’, correct?”
In response, the bearded hunter nodded with a confident expression as his intention had come across.
“Yes. I think their numbers gradually lessened, when they lost one fight over territory after another. It goes without saying that a fight over territory took place once they went deeper into the forest and since they came all the way to a human settlement, I would say it’s also beyond doubt that they kept losing. In that case, the size of the pack must to have decreased for sure.”
That theory sounded all too favourable to them, so it was to be taken with a grain of salt, but it certainly made sense.
It was hard to believe that dragons with an own territory inside the forest would let several hundred Pack Dragons pass through without a fight. Besides, the Pack Dragon had crossed several mountains covered with a thick forest at full speed in such a short time span, so it would be more natural to think that they simply left behind those, who could not keep up physically.
While such ideas were exchanged, Xavier remembered that he still had not revealed one more piece of information.
“Speaking of, the force of fifty dragons that attacked us on the Salt Road had no female dragons amongst it. It proved that we were dealing with their main force, but how was it here? Were there any females amongst the hundred dragons that attacked here?”
This question was answered by a young captain of the army as he raised his hand.
“Yes, indeed. We finished off several dragons during the second attack and one of them was certainly female.”
This strongly backed up the assumption from the bearded hunter.
“It seems we have reached a conclusion.”
Raffaelo said this and nodded convinced.
“The abnormal aggressively of the Pack Dragons certainly makes sense then, too. Instead of calling them aggressive, it would be more accurate to say that they were merely desperate for food.”
If they kept losing the fights over territory while they passed through the thick forest, it meant that they had one fierce battle after another and no time to properly search for food.
In that case, it would also make sense why the actually smart Huge Pack Dragon made a dangerous choice like attacking a human settlement. If they did nothing, they would starve. Before that happened, they might as well take a risk to get some prey. That had probably been its train of thought.
It was a bit sad that the powerful enemy raiding their farms turned out to be a concerned animal from the fights over territory, but a welcome fact, nevertheless.
The case would be closed, when they slaughtered the offensive one hundred dragons.
“Good. Looks like we all agree on it. Then we now have to speak about how to lay these last hundred dragons to rest. Your ideas, Gentlemen?”
Taking his cue from these words, Zenjirou started to discuss a concrete battle plan with Xavier and the others.