The person who Zirco had heard was a young boy who looked like he had just turned ten years old.
He had a magnificent head of silver hair and marine-blue eyes. This handsome young boy looked like he had a bright future ahead of him.
But Zirco could tell, based on her battlefield experience, that this child was not what he seemed.
“Hey kid… who the hell are you?”
“Nice to meet you. My name is Bard Cornelius. I’m the heir of the ruler here.”
“No way. You’re my sister’s son?”
Saying that, she noticed that he had inherited his mother’s silver hair.
Suddenly, all the strangeness of his appearance made sense.
He had the body of someone who was ready for battle at any time, and hidden inside of him was the knowledge of someone who had killed another person in battle.
This would seem strange for the son of a noble, but if it’s Magotte’s son…
“You’re an acquaintance of my mother?”
“Well, we haven’t seen each other in a while, but back during the war we were so close we ate from the same plate.”
The more she looked at this kid, the weirder he seemed.
It wasn’t just training. Zirco could sense that he had experienced killing someone.
Having said that, he didn’t have the air of a flawless vagabond that Magotte had had. He was armed with the knowledge and dignity of a noble.
Could this mean that he was a pure-blooded noble?
“Have you come to visit my mother?”
“Yeah. Seems she’s out right now.”
“Is it possible that I could be of some use to you?”
“Hey kid, there’s no need for the son of a count to use such formal language with someone like me.”
“Ah, I’ve been brought up by strict teachers all my life, so I just naturally use formal language with people older than me.”
Bard awkwardly scratched his head.
There were many warriors who were loud and poor-mannered, so before one knew it, one started to expect it.
Bard was aware that this habit was not very becoming of a noble. But it wasn’t something his mother paid much attention to.
“You’ve got my sister’s blood, huh… Anyway, I keep hearing that there’s not much work for mercenaries in this country. However, I got a feeling that there’s something going on around here.”
As soon as she said that, Zirco could not help but notice that Bard’s eyes suddenly narrowed.
It looked just like the face Magotte would make when discussing prices for her spoils.
(Woah…No doubt about it; this is her son, alright.)
In the next second, the knowledge that Bard had killed someone made Zirco’s muscles quiver.
At that moment, she understood that Bard would be an absolutely formidable opponent in battle.
Those eyes – they looked as if they held not only all of his life, but someone else’s too. They were eyes that seemed to be looking for something outside of this world.
How could he have eyes that looked like they’ve seen countless battlefields already?
(This is no joke! I’m looking at someone who’s died. This boy has thrown his life away on the battlefield like a scrap of paper. Sister, what kind of child have you raised!?)
Without pause, Bard regained his composure, and Zirco struggled to refocus her energy.
“I see. Your senses might be right. It’s true that there are some strange things going on around here.”
Not understanding what it was about Zirco’s words that had touched his heartstrings, Bard spoke nonchalantly. Without a doubt, she could grasp something about the horrors of war in his future.
Zirco was scared to the bottom of her heart.
She had met many strong opponents in battle, but none had made her feel fear like this.
The so-called fear of the unknown. Furthermore, knowing Magotte’s understanding of things that were non-human made Zirco weary.
“The truth is, I came here to find a mercenary to work as a bodyguard. Zirco, would you like to work for me, and find out if your premonition is correct? It would not be unfavourable for you.”
She thought Margotte was going to offer her a job, but instead she was offered one by her son.
She was thankful, but it felt kind of like admitting defeat.
Zirco laughed fearlessly, and stared back at Bard.
“I am Zirco, known as The Strong Wind. Don’t you dare think I work for cheap.”
Without the occupation of war, a mercenary is just another bum without a job. So, Bard’s offer had to somehow be related to outbreak of some sort of fighting.
It was a delicious offer she wanted to accept, but a mercenary has a mercenary’s honour, which means if there is truly fighting close-by, Zirco had to somehow scrape together a living until then.
She had no plans to be nice enough to be used by a kid for pocket money.
“How does three gold pieces a month sound?”
“Kid, you don’t know my strength. I want five a month at least.”
“Okay, five it is. In exchange, I’d like you to introduce me to some people you trust.”
“…hey, hey, wait, is that really OK? Just like that?”
Bard had agreed so easily that Zirco had to ask again.
With Cornelius’s unenviable financial position, no one knew any mercenaries around. This is why Bard agreed so easily.
Paying Zirco five gold to be act as a mercenary would make sense, but for a short-term bodyguard position, three gold, or even two-and-a-half, would have been fine.
(Is this kid really OK?)
If a genius military commander has no knowledge of economics, this can drag down those he works with.
Bard was an elite warrior, but Zirco was beginning to suspect that he was still a baby who didn’t understand how poor his family was.
“It’s not a problem. I can pay you with my pocket money. We’ve got five people now, so I’d like 3 gold as a down payment from each of you. If you are able to do what I want, then I don’t mind paying 5 gold. I want you to be our commanding officer.”
“Wait, what is it you want me to do?”
It seemed like this wasn’t the regular “defend against bandits” style of bodyguard job.
Zirco was starting to think that what he would ask her to do might be even more dangerous than her usual mercenary work.
For starters, if you add everyone up, Bard was paying 20 gold per month in salaries. The heir to a destitute count shouldn’t have that kind of pocket money saved up.
“Lately, more people have been trying to peek in on our secret. And it’s not just that; I’m starting to think we might have some rabble-rousers trying to butt in soon enough.”
“So, this secret is how you’re getting all this money?”
“I’ve got too many secrets for me to say where it’s all coming from. Let’s just say that keeping secrets is very profitable for me.”
(Ah. This guy’s a lot different from Magotte. He’s an absolute monster.)
There’s certainly some strange people in this world.
For example, there are people who are nice, kind, and easy to talk to, but inside are fundamentally different from normal people.
Bard might be trustworthy as a person, and even as a boss, but there’s something about him that’s a bit off.
Zirco could tell, having seen many strange people on the battlefield.
At the same time, Zirco could feel an excitement running through her body like she’d never felt before.
(This is getting interesting!)
Mercenaries tended to be realists, with no room for ideals or illusions, but there were also those who chased a sense of romance over money.
You could die a dog’s death on the side of the road, or you could find a reason to risk one’s life in battle.
It could be out of friendship, respect for your commander, love for your home – the reasons were too many to count. Mercenaries chose their battles based on these reasons.
Thinking a job will be interesting is just as good a reason as any of those.
“Well, boss, this all seems interesting to me. Let’s have some fun.”
She hadn’t changed her manner of speaking, just switched “kid” to “boss”, but it seemed to indicate that Zirco was going to start treating Bard with more respect.
(To think the day would come when I’d be working for Magotte’s son. I guess you never know what sort of interesting situations life will throw at you!)
“Ah! Master Bard!”
“We’ve been waiting for you!”
As soon as they saw Bard coming to inspect the fields, Margo and Tyros came running to greet him.
There were like small dogs always following after their master.
“Who’s this big woman?”
“She’s the strong bodyguard who’s going to defending our fields from now on.”
“A strong woman, huh? Kinda like Magotte!”
Margo meekly looked up at Zirco, eyes filled with respect.
Unused to such attention, Zirco sheepishly rubbed her nose and pulled at Bard’s sleeve.
“Hey, boss. You really want me to defend these fields in the middle of the countryside?”
“You’ll understand soon enough.”
Bard looked at Zirco like he was tormenting a small animal.
Zirco, while a wild warrior, was not especially experienced in the world. She was feeling something she’d never let herself experience before. Not even she herself realized this.
“Shall we continue the camouflage?”
“Yes. Grow some clover near the outside, and plant a mix of turnips and sweet potato in the middle. That’ll make it hard for anyone to figure out what’s going on.”
“Any word from the outside?”
“A lot right now. There’s rumours going around about a gold craftsman and a sugar farm. This place just looks like a kid’s playground right now, though.”
“Let me know if there’s anything you need from me.”
Tyros had become more dependable than Bard had imagined as a mediator between himself and the kids.
He was already able to read what Bard was thinking. He had the talent to be promoted to a close advisor in the future.
All the fields they had converted to sugar beet farming, they were now camouflaging as plain-looking farmland by creating pastures and planting sweet potatoes.
Now they were bringing in cattle, including goats and cows, rare in the Cornelius domain. The children’s products were gaining overwhelming popularity.
The farm looked like a children’s playground from the outside, but it was really a testing ground for farming practices.
Of course, they knew that more than half of the farmland looked completely normal, but the kids still didn’t carelessly spend the money they earned from Bard, in order to maintain a favourable impression.
Even the castle village wasn’t especially populous, not to mention the surrounding farmland, so most people recognized each other.
Cornelius’ standing army was larger than required for such a peaceful time, so soldiers took on the duty of patrolling the town.
The soldiers were usually born within Cornelius’ domain anyway, so they knew everyone’s faces.
Because of this, whenever a problem came up, it was assumed that it had been caused by someone outside of the community.
This is all to say, infiltrating as a spy was an incredibly difficult task.
The geographical characteristics of the Cornelius domain made espionage even more difficult than the historical Satsuma domain of Japan during Bakumatsu.
Nevertheless, Bard and Selena limited the flow of information, and mixed in fake information, so that when the corporations in the capital and outside countries began to notice something puzzling, the truth was still shrouded in darkness.