As the battle continued on, the atmosphere enveloping the spectators changed. If the mood that swept the audience earlier were excitement and worries, now they were only filled with astonishment. Their faces that were red from excitement grew pale. Some bureaucrats who weren’t used to the sight of blood even gagged like they were about to vomit.
Blood spurted onto the fighting ground again, and the ground was a bloody mess. It was hard to tell if the blood was fresh or if it was previously there.
“Huff! Huff! Huff!”
Byner’s breathing was rough. His hands trembled, and his vision became hazy.
“How is it? What is a battle for life and death like?”
Zich’s voice felt distant, like a ringing echo.
“Isn’t it thrilling? If you think that the blood flowing through your body is like a living creature, each drop feels so precious. In a way, you feel the most alive when you are about to die.”
Zich’s sword flew towards him again, and Byner blocked the sword with his shaking hands.
The attack wasn’t even that strong since Zich was as much injured as Byner, but Byner swayed at such an attack.
“This is what I like about our family. They won’t make a fuss to end a fight like this.”
It was true the Count and everyone else wasn’t requesting to end the duel because this was the Steelwall family’s custom.
“Let’s get this over with soon. I have another guy that I have to finish.”
While dragging his sword, Zich approached Byner.
Byner didn’t even have the strength to move. He blankly stared as Zich raised his sword over him. Byner felt cold.
“You fought well. If you endure this ordeal now, you will be able to jump up to the next level.”
‘Of course, if you fail to do that, you will be rolling in the mud like a common loser.’
Zich hit Byner’s head with his sword’s handle hard, and Byner lost consciousness.
* * *
Byner collapsed. The winner was decided, but instead of cheers, joys, sighs, or even curses, the audience was dead silent.
“…The winner is… Sir Zich Steelwall!”
After Tiner’s loud shout, people finally began to murmur. It was as if they finally remembered how to breathe again.
Zich took in a deep breath.
‘I won somehow.’
He had to admit that Byner was a genius knight. Zich started a deathmatch to use Byner’s lack of experience against him, but the knight had endured.
Byner felt anxious, seeing the blood of the eldest son of the family he served—no matter how much he hated Zich, the thought of accidentally taking Zich’s life had put him on edge. Byner’s wounds and fear for his own life distressed him, and most of all, Zich swung his sword around like an immortal dripping in blood. All of these factors pressured Byner throughout the fight.
Furthermore, unlike Zich who was accustomed to bloody battles, Byner had only engaged in actual fighting a couple of times. But with all these factors against him, Byner persisted.
Even with the same number of injuries—the difference in experience, patience, movements, and other factors resulted in Zich’s victory. All the knights, including the Count, realized this.
“How did he learn all that? Where did he gain the experience? Who taught him?”
If somebody had taught Zich, the butler, Trell, who knew almost everything inside the household, would know of all people. Trell shook his head.
“I was also not aware of the level of skill that the young master possessed. From what I know, I heard that he practiced by himself in the back of a garden.”
If Trell was this certain, there was no way that Zich would have learned from someone.
“Then how can he fight like that?”
Trell whispered, “Don’t you already know the reason? I think you just don’t want to admit it.”
The Count shut his mouth. Trell’s words had hit the bull’s eye. The Count scowled and said as if he was lamenting, “You are saying that…he is born talented.”
A figure like that appeared in history once in a while. As if the gods chose them, they broke all common logic and won victoriously without any education or experience. Trell was saying that Zich was someone like that.
‘This is not good.’
The Count wanted to hand over Steelwall to Greig, not Zich. Thankfully, Greig’s abilities were outstanding, and due to a series of several causes, the residents of Steelwall all hated Zich and liked Greig.
‘The next Count is Greig.’ That was the already accepted perception in Steelwall. However, if Zich showed overwhelming talent, that thought would be broken into pieces.
‘Tradition favors Zich. If I try to hand over Steelwall to Greig without a good reason, other people will try to meddle in. Furthermore, even if they all dislike Zich, if the boy shows outstanding talent, their hearts may waver in favor of him.’
All of them were in Steelwall, which was located in the Kingdom’s frontline; above all, skills in military arts were the most important trait a person could possess. People would even follow a person they hated if there was a high chance that he or she could protect them. All kinds of thoughts rushed into the Count’s head.
When all eyes were on him, Zich moved.
* * *
Priests began to come forward to treat Byner. The priests raised their arms and shook their hands widely to indicate that Byner’s life wasn’t in danger, and people sighed in relief.
The priests also approached Zich.
“Sir! We will treat you right away!”
The priests’ voices were urgent, because although Zich had less wounds than Byner, the wounds were also severe.
“I still have something to take care of.”
Zich pushed the priests who were about to use God’s miracles on him away and walked to the stadium’s outskirts. Zich’s unexpected behavior drew everyone’s attention again. They were also frightened by the sight of him staggering while dripping blood all over his path.
Tiner, who was standing in front of the social seat in front of the audience asked, “What is it, Sir Zich?”
“Ah, Sir Tiner. It’s nothing much. I just have something to say to Greig.”
Zich’s voice rang out. Mana was imbued into his voice so that everyone in the stadium could hear him well.
Tiner was surprised yet again. It didn’t surprise him that Zich could imbue mana in his voice since he could use a skill like Extension of the Senses, but it was impressive that Zich could use mana so cleanly while he was heavily injured; only a few trained knights could accomplish such a task.
Zich yelled at Greig.
“Greig! Come down! It’s a duel!”
Greg was so astounded that he let out a gasp. Everyone else was astounded too.
“…What are you saying?” the Count asked. As if he was also in shock, his response was a bit slow.
“What do you think I am saying? I am challenging him to a duel. Father, didn’t you also permit this? I know that the rumors have spread quite far already.”
‘A duel between Zich and Greig,’ people murmured.
“Isn’t that the unofficially announced duel for the Steelwall’s inheritance?”
“Mind your words! It doesn’t make sense that a single duel would decide the heir.”
“But that’s what the rumors say. Even the Count’s actions seem to indicate that he will give greater preference to the victor of the duel. It’s so obvious that they’re trying to give Sir Greig the edge in becoming the heir since they thought that Sir Zich had no chance in winning.”
The bloody battle, Zich’s unexpected win, and his behavior encouraged the audience to say the words that they had held back.
“S-Sir! Let us treat your wounds first…!”
Zich pushed the priests away and shouted again.
“Hey, Greig! Come down quickly! I will fight in my current state! I thought I should at least give myself a handicap while fighting my younger brother!”
People were surprised again, especially the priests beside Zich. They felt like their feet were rolling and they were on the verge of having a stroke.
“S-Sir! You can’t! You have to get treated immediately!”
With blood pouring out all over him, Zich looked like a red monster. He looked like he was about to die from excessive blood loss, but Zich remained calm.
“Don’t overreact. I won’t die with this much.”
“No, this is really dangerous, sir!”
As if they were annoying flies, Zich waved them away with his hands, and the priests thought they were going mad.
“What are you doing, Greig! Hurry up!”
“W-what kind of nonsense are you spouting! Receive treatment first! How are you going to duel like that!”
Greig had a point. Anyone could see that instead of dueling, Zich needed treatment immediately; he should be lying on a bed.
“I will handle that. Besides, we made a promise in the first place.”
“I’ll decide when our duel begins.”
Greig shut his mouth. He was the one who had proposed the duel while placing his conditions. Now that Zich brought up the promise, Greig had no choice but to comply.
“Stop it! How are you going to fight with those wounds! Are you planning to crush your brother’s heart in worry about your physical condition?!”
“Ah, is that right, Father? I didn’t think far enough. But you know, I have no choice but to misunderstand. I mean, look at Greig’s face right now,” Zich said with an innocent face. But in contrast to that, he was blocking every path that his opponent could escape from.
“Doesn’t he look afraid?”
Usually, Greig would’ve thrown a fit. For many reasons, Greig hated to be considered lower than Zich in any area more than anything; but now, he was silent. Only his lips twitched as if he had something to say.
Greig’s face became pale, and his pupils shook while his lips bled. Everyone could see that Greig was frightened.
“Stop it, younger brother. Lighten up a bit. Or else, other people will misunderstand. Like me, they might believe that you are just a coward, so fearful that you will break a promise to escape from a duel.”
People stared at Greig. Their eyes, which had always been filled with confidence and faith towards Greig, began to show doubts.
“Even if that is the case, Sir Greig still lacks experience. To say that he is a coward…”
“Then, do I have experience?”
Tiner tried to defend Greig but fell into silence at Zich’s words.
‘Yes, this is the biggest problem.’
Everyone who watched the duel between Zich and Byner could completely understand how Greig was feeling: even if the Count placed great expectations onto him, Greig was just a boy in his mid-teens.
Also, Zich’s spectacle had ruined everything; he had shown that he could be a more fitting figure to inherit the Count’s position, and according to tradition, he had a great advantage.
“I am worried about you, Brother. Even if I am the traditional heir, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have the right to succession. What will people think if you run away from here like a coward? They might be very disappointed in you to see that you don’t have the courage like the eldest son. They might even start to say that they don’t want to see you succeed.”
“What kind of nonsense are you spouting!”
“It’s not nonsense, Mother.”
Upon hearing Zich say Mother, the Countess’s expression crumpled, and people began to murmur again.
Zich continued, “Although this duel is unofficial, it is very important to Greig and me. But as his older brother, I am trying to make the situation more advantageous for Greig. Look at my body. Isn’t it a complete mess? If he tries to escape from a situation like this, he won’t be able to lead even a flock, more or less Steelwall. And above all, Mother, Greig promised me a duel where I get to decide the date and time.”
Zich’s eyes searched for the Count. Then, once he found him, Zich smiled at the Count who was scarily glaring at him.
“What are you going to do, Father?”
“…Greig, go down to the fighting ground.”
Both the Countess and Greig shouted in surprise, but the Count didn’t take back his words.