* * *
The Emperor declared that he would bring the Scarlet Scales Mercenary into the fold of the Empire. A week later, a banquet would be held for the knight order promotion of the Scarlet Scales Mercenary.
Some lamented the fact that the rumored emerging power had fallen into the hands of the Empire, while others looked forward to their appearance at the banquet.
Each one of them was said to be an outstanding beautiful man, such as the belonging member Lumen Dominic of Mainue Kingdom, or the strength-lending fairy who had not been seen in the world for a long time.
Since this was an event where the truth of unconfirmed rumors was revealed, interest in the banquet was skyrocketing.
And at the center of the anticipation was Cadel. He sought out Van and Lydon before the preparations for the banquet began in earnest.
Van and Lydon were still staying in the deserted old inn. Following the red thread of the ring, he opened the door to the room, and the first thing he saw was Van.
The dark circles under his eyes, his gaunt cheeks, and the dryness in his eyes spoke volumes about the mental suffering he had been through, so Cadel stood at the door, unable to approach.
Van called Cadel like that. He raised his body from where he was sitting on the bed and slowly walked towards him.
Hesitantly approaching, Van widened his stride a bit, frustrated by the distance that never seemed to close, until he was right in front of Cadel’s nose, unable to embrace him, unable to touch him, only to stare at him.
“Sorry. You waited a long time, right?”
Cadel spread his arms in front of Van. As if waiting for that, a wave of heat engulfed Cadel.
Van hugged Cadel’s shoulders, resting his cheek against his head. Cadel could hear his uneven breathing clearly. The steep rise and fall of his chest, the furious beat beyond.
Cadel wrapped his arms around Van’s waist and ran a gentle hand down his back. Van had always cared about him more than anyone else, and how he’d fretted during those long days without Cadel.
It was a decision to survive, but it wasn’t a decision to save them all. Cadel was only doing it for himself, and if his subordinates were hurting and suffering because of it, he was so sorry, and he felt guilty that he couldn’t stop. Cadel’s heart was heavy every time.
“……I don’t want you to get hurt. That’s enough.”
There was a deep sense of relief in Van’s voice as he spoke. As if what he had to go through because of Cadel was nothing.
Van didn’t move from his embrace with Cadel. He didn’t move the hand on Cadel’s shoulders, or the cheek against Cadel’s head. He was frozen in place. It was as if he was trying to engrave Cadel deep into his body with his tight embrace.
But the embrace couldn’t last forever. Carefully pushing Van apart, Cadel scanned the room.
“What about Lydon? I heard he’s still not fully conscious. Has he woken up yet?”
Even though Van was disappointed that the warmth was disappearing, he gently let Cadel go. His gaze remained fixed on Cadel.
“He often regains consciousness, but not for long.”
“Not for long……?”
“Maybe it was for recovery, but he seemed sleepy all the time. He’s been waking up more frequently and for longer periods of time lately, which has made it more annoying.”
Van led Cadel to a small cushion next to a pillow. On the pure white cushion lay Lydon, wrapped in a thin handkerchief. Cadel crouched down at the foot of the bed and leaned in close, Lydon’s breathing even as he slept.
Looking at the peaceful face of Lydon, Cadel offered an apology that would not be accepted. As soon as he broke his seal, Cadel forced him to fight a terrible battle. Lydon had never been unconscious for so long.
It was strange to see him sleeping like a dead man. Cadel was sure he’d wake up at any moment and start spouting off.
As Cadel carefully adjusted his hair with his fingers, Lydon’s eyebrows furrowed slightly. He seemed annoyed. Cadel withdrew his hand, not wanting to interrupt his rest, but his tightly closed eyelids fluttered open.
Half-opened red eyes rolled slowly. Lydon blinked several times, as if shaking off a deep sleep, and finally focused on Cadel. Lydon’s dry lips formed a gentle arc.
“Are you okay, Lydon? Let me know if you’re struggling, and I’ll get you to a healer right away.”
When Cadel asked him how he was doing, he kept mumbling Cadel’s name. It was hard to tell if Lydon was sleeping or not.
Cadel looked up at Van, unsure of what to do, but Van merely shrugged. Lydon tightened his grip on Cadel’s index finger. Pulling his fingers, Lydon rested his forehead against Cadel’s fingertips.
“I had a dream about Cadel.”
“I tried to share my candy, but Cadel kept getting mad at me for giving it to you like last time……. So I just gave you the whole thing, even my share. You ate well, Cadel.”
“I, I see…….”
Lydon chuckled languidly at who knew what was funny, then slowly closed his eyes. Drowsiness was creeping in again.
“Don’t worry, Cadel. I’ll be…… back soon…….”
The strength in his fingers slowly faded. In front of Lydon, who was fast asleep with no time for further conversation, Cadel wore an ambiguous expression, unable to cry or laugh.
‘Why are you reassuring me?’
His heart sank. Cadel hung his head, unable to pull his fingers out of Lydon’s grasp. A sigh escaped him.
He found himself bemoaning his inability to be a better commander at every turn, and he wondered if progress was even possible.
“Commander, have you eaten? If you’re here because you’re worried about us, it’s okay, just get some rest. Even if Lydon is staggering around like that, he’ll recover.”
“No, I’m already well-rested, and I came to you today to check in on you, but also because……. I made a big deal.”
“A big deal? What…….”
Where should he start talking? Receiving Van’s puzzled gaze, Cadel chose his words carefully.
* * *
“Become a Knight Order of the Empire…….”
“A bit sudden, isn’t it?”
It was sudden and unwanted. For someone who despised nobility, to belong to a group surrounded by nobles everywhere and work for the Emperor would be no different from making them live in a hut in a minefield. In that sense, it was even worse for Van.
When Cadel caught his eye, Van tried to soften his stony expression, though it only resulted in an awkward flinch.
“I also don’t want Commander to live with the disgrace of being a traitor to the Empire for the rest of your life. If the Emperor offered such conditions, I think it would be right for you to accept. It’s just, I’m……. I’m just a little surprised.”
He rubbed the corner of his mouth lightly, then burst out laughing. Then he turned to Cadel, who was squirming awkwardly in his chair.
“I hate nobles, to the point where their laughter sends a chill down my spine. I feel like my reason is being torn apart. The only reason I’ve been able to get away with killing Lumen in the past is because he doesn’t laugh very often, and I can’t stand to see a nobleman happy.”
Pausing for a moment, Van rubbed the back of his neck and looked down at the floor. A smile still tugged at the corners of his mouth as he spoke of the gory details. As Cadel wetted his dry lips, Van spoke once more.
“Guarding such disgusting people and working for them……. I didn’t think it would be easy, even if Commander ordered me.”
Before he knew it, his eyes were focused on Cadel. His gaze was fixed on Cadel. There was no anger or contempt in his bright golden eyes, just his usual, calm gentleness.
“There really is nothing Commander can’t accomplish.”
Once again, he chose to stand by Cadel’s side.