1

The next morning, Tsutomu went on a run to work up some sweat before reading the newspapers. Stampede-related topics were all the rage these days, and it was no different today — if one was into that, they practically never would be bored.

And as it turned out, Absolute Helix was not the only group that had been summoned by the nobility. Other major Clans — Ealdred Crow, Golden Tune, and Scarlet Devil Squad — were also expected to leave for the Royal Capital soon.

Having been contacted by House Babenberg regarding yesterday’s letter from House Kantjelucia, Tsutomu headed to their estate after he was done reading the newspapers. There, he got to discuss in detail the implications of the letter with the head of House Babenberg, as well as the eldest son Smith and the eldest daughter Biancaea.

“It would be wise for you to accept the invitation,” the head of House Babenberg said, “If you refuse, well… to say it bluntly, House Kantjelucia will do whatever it takes to get you to go. And by whatever it takes, I meant it literally — the head of their house is someone who would do that.”

“…I see. I suppose I’ll do that, then.”

Seeing that the head of House Babenberg was well-versed in the affairs of the nobility, Tsutomu reluctantly agreed to follow his advice. Still, it remained a fact that being summoned as a specific individual by House Kantjelucia was a great honor. As such, Smith frowned upon Tsutomu’s attitude and felt the need to give the latter lecture.

“Come now, a direct invitation from House Kantjelucia ought to be a great honor to anyone. Why do you look so downcast?”

“Apologies.”

“……”

Hearing nothing from Tsutomu to go with his obligatory apology, Smith turned away, a half-indignant expression painted on his face. A while later, Tsutomu left the estate and went straight back to his Clan House.

“…And that’s that. We’re going to the Royal Capital tomorrow.”

And so Tsutomu informed his Clan’s members of the summons. Although he had mentioned some time ago that they might have to visit the Royal Capital in preparation for the Stampede, everyone except Diniel was still quite surprised — particularly by the mention of House Kantjelucia.

Xeno and Leleia, who were originally from the Royal Capital, had the strongest reactions, being quite spooked to see the crest on the letter envelope. Even Hannah, who was from a village in the countryside, seemed to know about House Kantjelucia, though she seemed excited more than anything, as if she was at a festival.

“Anyone here don’t wanna go?”

“Me,” Diniel immediately answered, raising her hand — which was promptly pulled back down by Amy.

“D-Dini? You’re not supposed to admit it like that!”

“Yeah, I don’t wanna go, either!” Tsutomu exclaimed and raised his hand, prompting Garm to pull it down.

“…Is that your idea of a joke?”

Then, seeing that no one else was opposed to this trip, Tsutomu had a disappointed look on his face as he told everyone to prepare themselves.

“Woo-hoo! We’re actually going to the Royal Capital! I’ve never been there before!”

“I’ve already been there once! What about you, Korinny?”

“I-it’s been quite a while since I last visited…”

“You gotta see the castle, Hannie — It’s, like, SUPER HUGE!”

“Ooh! That sounds awesome! Super duper awesome!”

Hannah and Amy were particularly excited, perhaps due to the relatively low number of times they had actually been to the Royal Capital. Korinna, on the other hand, seemed somewhat replused as she looked away, perhaps due to her being from there.

“Have you been there, Garm?”

“Three times, all on Guild business. Speaking of which, Xeno and Leleia are from there, if I remember correctly?”

Hearing Garm say that, Hannah’s eyes sparkled as she grabbed Leleia’s arm.

“Oh, yeah, she is! Leleia! You gotta teach me about the Royal Capital before the trip tomorrow!”

“U-uh-huh…”

Although bewildered by how Hannah was suddenly acting like a child begging her to sing a nursery rhyme, Leleia proceeded to explain what she knew about the Royal Capital.

Tsutomu, after spending a moment watching them in a tepid mood, spoke up,

“Come to think of it, I’ve never been there, either.”

“Me too, me too! I’m glad I’m not alone on this…”

Daryl popped out from behind Garm and gave him a reassuring smile, but then Tsutomu reacted with a look of disgust on his face.

“The way you said that was pretty creepy, you know that?”

“Huh!? How come!?”

“It just was.”

“But how!? That doesn’t make any sense! Right!?”

Daryl looked around, seeking agreement from the others. In response, Amira, leaning back on the sofa, looked up at him with a hint of disdain.

“Man, you ARE creepy, actin’ like a little girl…”

“Uh…”

“Whenever I see you like that, I feel like I wanna make you cry or somethin’.”

“S-Sir Tsutomu, look… Amira’s been so weird these days…”

“Shaddup, boy!”

As Amira kept teasing Daryl, Tsutomu watched on without saying a word. After a while, Xeno walked up behind the former two, putting his hands on their shoulders.

“Now, calm down, you two. In this very moment, I, THE Xeno, shall give you a detailed explanation of the Royal Capital!”

“Dammit, get outta my way, you pretentious ass–“

“–So first things first, the Royal Capital is…”

Right when Xeno began running his mouth, Amira covered her ears and walked away. Daryl, on the other hand, seemed quite intrigued; he wagged his droopy dog ears happily and stayed to listen.

Tsutomu also stayed partway through, leaving when the talk started shifting to Xeno’s bragging about his past accomplishments. Instead, he went to Ollie and discussed preparations to head to the Royal Capital. As it turned out, Ollie had already organized most of everyone’s belongings.

“I plan to join you on this trip — Is that all right?”

“…Well, yes, but… Staying in the Dungeon City would be safer, don’t you think?”

“I can take care of myself, and just waiting for everyone’s return is… frustrating, you see. Besides, with a group of ten, someone needs to handle miscellaneous tasks. You can count on me for that.”

“…Are you sure? I have a bad feeling about this coming Stampede…”

“In that case, Mister Tsutomu, perhaps you’ll have to work even harder to survive it. I’ll help to ensure everyone is in the best possible condition for battle.”

Tsutomu, faced with Ollie’s determined smile, reluctantly accepted her request. And so, Absolute Helix began preparing for the journey to the Royal Capital the next day.

▽▽

“H-have a safe trip~~!”

Leaving the Clan House in the hands of Ollie’s apprentice, the whole Absolute Helix Clan made their way to the gates of Dungeon City. While most members seemed lively as usual, two among them carried notably subdued spirits.

“I wanna go home already…”

“I wanna explore the Dungeon…”

Diniel and Tsutomu dragged their heels as if they were convicts heading toward the prison. Diniel, as usual, maintained her demeanor, while Tsutomu’s lack of enthusiasm was an uncommon sight. Garm and Amy, to the duo’s side, wore expressions of surprise.

“Let’s skip this trip, Tsutomu.”

“Yeah, let’s.”

“How hold it right there!”

“Just kidding,” Diniel said with a face so straight that one would not believe that she was joking.

Tsutomu, on the other hand, said nothing and only sighed wearily. Exiting Dungeon City, they were greeted by an oversized, unnecessarily extravagant carriage. A stern-faced knight adorned in armor bearing the insignia of House Kantjelucia guided them, welcoming the members of Absolute Helix into the carriage.

“Can I have the window seat!?” Hannah turned to ask Tsutomu, her eyes sparkling.

“Sure.”

“Thank you!”

As such, the first to enter the spacious carriage was Hannah, hopping on with much enthusiasm. The others quickly followed, climbing on without much regard for seating order, and then the carriage promptly set off towards the Royal Capital.

Amy, seated next to Tsutomu, observed the knight holding the reins on the driver’s seat. Then she leaned in and whispered,

“Looks like they’re not exactly happy to see us.”

“Yeah.”

Indeed, the look in the eyes of the knights of House Kantjelucia was far from welcoming. This time, due to the unusual Stampede that had threatened Dungeon City six months ago and mysterious phenomena such as monsters disappearing from the southern Dungeons, they reached out to Dungeon City just to be cautious, but in their minds, they were dissatisfied at having to deal with Explorers.

[I just hope this doesn’t get us in any trouble…] Tsutomu thought to himself while observing his Clan members.

Hannah, enjoying the scenery from the carriage window, fluttered her wings on her back. Amira seemed engrossed in conversation about the Royal Capital with Korinna, who also took this free time to comb her cream-colored hair. Leleia appeared to not be doing anything in particular, but upon closer observation, she was surreptitiously listening to the conversation between the two.

Xeno kept on running his mouth, the speed at which resembled the chirping of birds, and Garm and Daryl listened with apparent interest. Diniel, alone, had her arms crossed, on the verge of dozing off. Amy, sitting next to Tsutomu, looked up with a puzzled expression when their eyes met.

“Something wrong?”

If he could help it, he would not have taken his Clan members on this trip to the Royal Capital — and neither would he let them take part in the defensive battle against the Stampede, the scale of which was yet unknown. However, if he were to openly go against House Kantjelucia, his Clan members would be put in danger as a result. Any support from House Babenberg would likely do nothing to change that.

“Nothing,” Tsutomu said and patted Amy’s head, prompting the latter to blush and cast her eyes down shyly.

With the commitment to not let any of his Clan’s members die — even if it meant sacrificing strangers along the way — he continued on the journey, hoping to return safely to the Clan House. Tsutomu pledged so in his heart while gazing at the passing scenery.

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