Volume 1 — Chapter 4: Thirteenth
Oi, cut it out, please stop talkin’. It’s great that you’re complimentin’ me ’n all, but doin’ it now an’ in that way is just makin’ this situation worse fer me. Ah, look, he’s glarin’ at me, ain’t he? Thirteenth’s glarin’ at me, and he’s lookin’ really displeased. Or is that just how he normally looks? Either way, it’s scary as hell.
“…I had them prepare it the same way we did in the cave. It is enough that it is edible,” Thirteenth finally replied. His tone was less displeased than simply apathetic, and very eerie.
“You jest! I know that you’re a lover of honey.”
“That is because sugar is precious. However, there is no need to add pointless flavor and fragrance to tuber soup.”
“It’s fine to admit to liking sweet foods. Humans have a sense of taste. To ignore the pursuit of taste and abstain from the pursuit of pleasure is to disrespect demons. Isn’t that right, mercenary?”
“Well…I…I think, s’ long as it’s good ta eat…”
Frankly, under these circumstances, I wouldn’t have agreed with her even if the food wasn’t tasteless. I couldn’t have cared less if Thirteenth had a sweet tooth that made him go looking for honey every single night.
Zero pursed her lips and glared at me, looking annoyed, as if it were unimaginable for me not to support her. She seemed like she wanted to say that I was supposed to support my employer, but once I got the message across that I didn’t want anything to do with it by avoiding her gaze, Zero turned away unhappily and tore into her lamb.
“Really…you have lived outside for ten years but are still as thickheaded as ever, Thirteenth. That said, what are you doing ordering people around like that? Get off your high horse. But no matter how much you try to be pretentious, it will not change the hard-headedness at the core of your being.”
“Times change, Zero, and I will do what is most appropriate. If I do not behave as is expected in these times, I will only be regarded as odd, which is something I would much like to avoid.”
The atmosphere felt strained. Very much so. I couldn’t help myself but ask a question.
“So…y’know…you…you two are…friends, right…?”
“We are compatriots,” Zero and Thirteenth responded in harmony. Right, I get it now. Compatriots, eh? It’s probably like the relationships between people assigned to the same troop in an army.
“Oh…but that means you guys ain’t enemies, yeah?”
“I did not feel that way, but this man summoned me, attempted to harm my mercenary, and quarreled with me. Of course I am incensed.”
“I did not mean to summon you, and my target was not your mercenary, but the sorcerer who sullies the name ‘Zero’. It would not be my responsibility had the mercenary been harmed for attempting to shield the sorcerer.”
“You are as adept as ever in evading responsibility are you not, Thirteenth?”
“I will receive your praise, Zero.”
Silence resumed. Trying to escape reality, I looked at Albus. This kid had tried to take my head, but now he was the only one present who didn’t strike fear into my heart. I saw that he hadn’t touched any of the food arrayed before him. It wasn’t because he wasn’t hungry; his hunger was certainly making itself known.
“…Aren’t ya gonna eat?” I asked. Albus scowled nervously at me.
“I can’t eat this…what if he poisoned my food?”
“It ain’t poisoned!”
“How you do you know?!”
“‘Cause I’m a beast.”
Albus looked blankly at me. Then, scowling at the table, he began to wolf down his food. And then—
“This is sooo unappetizing!” Albus yelled with all his might—while scowling at Thirteenth.
“Mhmm, mhmm,” Zero nodded, satisfied. For a split second I wished to be as brave and reckless as Albus, but if I were, I’d probably have died a long time ago. Wild animals don’t run because they’re cowards. They flee because their danger-sensing instincts make them.
Thirteenth’s face seemed drawn from Albus and Zero’s round of “unappetizing”, but I wasn’t sure if it was a hallucination caused by my fear. No. Looking at how he raised his arm listlessly and called over the server, I couldn’t blame it on my imagination.
Before long, a small plate was placed in front of us. What seemed to be baked sweets were arranged upon it, but their surfaces glittered with sculpted candies.
Sugar was a fairly high class product. Candy made from boiled-down sugar was not eye-catching, but when that candy was sculpted, it became the food of the nobility. Is this revenge for the complaints that meal was unappetizing? I didn’t know whether or not he was planning to bring this out after the meal anyway, but…
As if she’d never seen baked sweets before, Zero nonchalantly took one from the plate, saying “at best, it’s just another tasteless food,” and delivered it to her mouth. In that moment, she froze.
As it turned out, “smiling like a blooming flower” wasn’t merely a figurative expression. The fact that I had the impression that she was normally expressionless and cold also added to that effect, lending Zero’s smile an almost lethal intensity.
After looking at Albus and annoyedly at me, she began stuffing her cheeks with the sweets. It appeared to be an overwhelming victory for Thirteenth.
“—So,” Zero heaved a contented sigh and pushed aside the plate. She seemed to be in a good mood.
“Shall we hear your story, Thirteenth? Why did you, after leaving the cave in search of the book, decide to amuse yourself in such a strange way by becoming the king’s sorcerer?”
“That is because the thief employed the most effective tactic. The person who stole the book had already spread the knowledge of magic throughout this kingdom of Wenias, and riled up the fiendish organization called The Coven of Zero in order to enmesh the kingdom in panic and chaos. There were many witches who would resist my recapture of the Book of Zero, and I was but one person. So, I made a proposition to the king: I would aid the witch hunts in exchange for his assistance in finding the book. That was a year ago—even now, I have yet to recover the Book of Zero. That is my tale.”
“Don’t spout that bullshit! You’re the fiend!!” Albus yelled. He slammed his fist into the table and stood up forcefully, sending his chair crashing to the ground.
“The Coven of Zero isn’t a fiendish organization. All we do is protect witches from witch hunts. All we do is attack towns that decide to burn witches at the stake, and save witches who’ll be killed! What do you even mean that your book was stolen?! The Book of Zero was written by that person—”
At that point, Albus seemed taken aback, and stopped speaking.
—The Book of Zero wasn’t written by “that person”.
Albus already knew that. In that case, was “that person” given the book by Zero? And if not, then did they steal it?
Albus glanced at Zero. His eyes seemed to be pleading for help, but Zero said nothing.
“We…didn’t mean for the kingdom to fall into panic and chaos…”
“But the country has fallen into panic and chaos.”
In contrast to Albus, who was drained of all vigor, Thirteenth’s cool voice radiated confidence.
“You lot speak about creating peace for witches, but you kill humans for that cause? If witches win this struggle, the only thing that will remain is despairing fear toward witches. Peace cannot be achieved in that state.”
“It’s not like we started killing humans first—”
“But humans are dying. Do you not think of the lives of the humans killed when witches are being saved?”
“We’ve got no other choice, don’t we?! This is war. Humans haven’t stopped killing witches, so we have no choice but to kill humans in return!
“Well then, can you say definitively that you aren’t killing any humans other than those who’ve killed witches? That you haven’t delivered false justice? Do you believe that yourselves and only yourselves are righteous? That’s why this war began!”
Those were the words I spoke to Albus right then. War begins with revenge for an act of revenge. We feel the same way, don’t we, Thirteenth? But it would be cruel to try to make a kid understand that.