The morning of the day before the scheduled "tax collection".
"Hey, been waiting long?" A whisper arrived on the wind while Dega was waiting in the forest and doing his own physical training routine.
He looked around, but nobody seemed to be here next to him at all. Still, the voice was a familiar one. "Is that you, Mia?" Dega asked aloud in confusion.
For a moment, Mia was tempted to answer with "No, I am your mother," but shook her head and decided it would be in poor taste.
"Yeah, it's me. I'm using a wind magic spell to communicate with you at a short distance," the silver-haired girl informed him while stepping out from behind a tree. "I'd like to ask you to keep a set distance away so that I can talk to you instantly if any situation occurs…"
The two of them talked about what they felt was likely to happen and made various plans. Mia's primary goal here was to help Colson see the reality of the world as a way of training him into one of her right-hand men, along with a special plan she made just for Barnaby in case he somehow managed to go off by himself and get captured by the bandits.
With Mia helping from within, it would be quite easy for the bandits to keep track of the guards' actions. While the guards went around everywhere in large groups, exceptions would always occur, with the most common reason being a bathroom break.
All the guards that volunteered themselves for the tax excursions were already of the less savory sort. The difference between them and Dega's bandits was a very thin line indeed. It was just that the guards picked on the weakest group of all, the citizens, while bandits tended more to pick on wealthy merchants. Mia told Dega not to worry about attacking any guard with their pants down and that it would be an excellent opportunity to thin the guards' ranks.
Naturally, if a few of the guards died, Mia's plan was to eventually have some of the lesser known bandits join the guard themselves, so that she could have her own subordinates within the Hart army as well.
Dega was also itching for a chance at taking some action against the hated Hart army. "I'll be ready," he promised. "Leave any blood-shedding to me."
Mia nodded. None of her plans involved anything major – she preferred to take things step by step. Still, she was now actively plotting someone's death, no matter how evil they were.
Even though Mia resolved herself, she still slept poorly that night. Unfortunately, there was no way to postpone this tax collection trip that had already been scheduled for so long. Roughly half the guards in the Hart army would be going, a party consisting of twenty-something men.
Although Palmo City was the demesnes, or direct area under the control of the Count, Palmo was always spared from tax collection. This was because the Count was a villain who didn't pick on his immediate neighbors, and that the tiny city's population mostly consisted of the wealthiest merchants in the domain as well as the servants and guards' families.
Palmo always got spared from the tax collection efforts. Of course nothing came for free, in exchange the merchants had to bribe the Count in order to be able to do business. Naturally, the Count enriched his own coffers rather than handing such unrecorded money over to the Hoplia Kingdom.
Early in the morning, Mia arrived at the barracks to join the guards' procession heading for the nearby Clearlight Town. The supposed soldiers had seen her join them multiple times before and felt nothing of it. The first time it happened, they had mightily protested, thinking that she would be nothing more than a troublesome babysitting job.
Mia had forced her way along that time by claiming her status as a noble, saying something like it was necessary for her to learn about her own domain and how things worked. The guards guffawed at the time and let her come along, only to mostly forget her presence because Mia never said a word and simply observed their atrocities without comment.
Once the guards learned that she was barely there, just like a ghost, and didn't need much babysitting, they stopped caring about what they did and always went about business as usual, ignoring the fact that there was a little girl amongst their midst. This time, however, there was a new face joining them, the red-headed bodyguard of the little girl.
"Yo! Nice to see that Mr. Sword Teacher here has finally deigned to join us, heh heh heh. Hey, don't worry, I'm a nice guy, and I'm willing to share a slice of the pie with ya as long as ya do some work, gahaha." One "nice" guard even came over and offered to share the spoils with Colson, knowing full well that the farm boy probably didn't know what he was talking about.
"It'll be my honor. I'll make sure to work hard and do my best so that I don't drag everyone down," Colson responded.
Naturally, there were also guards that were jealous of Colson's special treatment as a newbie in being able to get hired as Mia's personal bodyguard, which meant a slightly higher salary as well as a room for him in the mansion, rather than having to stay in the barracks like all the rest. At the very beginning, some irascible guards had challenged Colson to duels. However, the end result was that they all lost.
The average level of guards in the Hart army was merely at level 10. They typically had only mediocre combat experience at best, and most were "failed" adventurers that couldn't take the lifestyle or didn't want to risk themselves in danger. While this was all quite low compared to most average adventurers, it was more than sufficient for them to run around in a province like the Hart domain.
After all, the Hart domain was a rural location filled with mountains and forests. Agriculture was the mainstay of the domain, and this land had no particular unique exports or valuable resources. There weren't even any known high-level dungeons in here that could be exploited. And once Count Hart started ruling, the Hart domain grew only poorer and poorer.
To attract adventurers here, concrete benefits were required. But what was there to even do in the Hart domain? The Adventurers Guilds in this domain had closed up shop due to a lack of business. Ever since then, high-level adventurers almost entirely stopped visiting.
It was also said that part of the reason was that Count Hart hated the idea of having more powerful individuals than himself within his own domain. While there were plenty of adventurers out there far more powerful than the Count, who was only in the level 20s, most adventurers would choose against directly opposing the nobility of a country, as opposing a noble would typically bring about the wrath of an entire government. Thus, Count Hart had it easy in his own domain, being able to rule like a king, with his guards doing as they pleased.
Colson was a sixteen-year-old teenager in the prime of his youth who loved to train, having already reached level 12. Although there wasn't much of a significant power level difference on the surface between him and the other guards, most of the guards now led a relatively sedentary lifestyle. It was a foregone conclusion that he would win the duel challenges.
Naturally, this caused some guards to resent him even more. Still, as the saying went, out of sight, out of mind. Colson was barely around the barracks as he mostly attended to Mia's personal needs. While some guards greatly disliked him, this was mostly out of an instinctive recognition that he wasn't of their own kind. However, none of them had such deep grudges that they hated him to death, or anything like that.
What, they were supposed to hate him to death for beating them in duels? These guards were more people that could only pick on the weak and feared the strong. Besides, Colson didn't really have direct clashes of personal benefits with any of them. Why bother with someone who wasn't a threat and wasn't around most of the time?
Colson was also the type that didn't understand anything that wasn't direct, and he saw the challenges against him as only friendly competition for everyone to improve themselves. Such a person wasn't even fun to pick on for these bullies, so they quickly lost interest in him.
Mack, however, was one such exception. He was the only one who had challenged Colson multiple times – and had lost each and every time. At first, he was simply intending to teach the newcomer a lesson and even intended take the redheaded boy under his wing. However, that little shithead brat didn't know what was good for him, and beat Mack every time with such seeming ease!
Mack was a burly individual with beefy muscles that he was incredibly proud of. His two favorite hobbies in the world were fighting and gambling. He was also considered slightly strong amongst the guards, having also reached level 12 himself. However, he had gotten into the bad habit of relying far too much on brute force and knew very little in the way of techniques, which was why he kept losing to the newcomer brat.
Of course, that wasn't how Mack viewed things. All he saw was an uppity little snot-nosed brat who didn't know his place. Ever since Mack lost those duels, he (in his imagination) felt that the other guards were snickering at him behind his back. Truth be told, most of these guards only cared about themselves, but nobody was going to tell him that.
Mack glanced over at Colson and saw that today, the redheaded boy was wearing a shiny blue new suit of armor that looked like it was made out of light plating. This was in stark contrast to his own tattered, old leather cuirass. Mack's cheek twitched in anger and jealousy. It wasn't that he didn't want to upgrade his equipment, it was that he couldn't afford to. Gambling was an expensive hobby, after all.
Still, even if he couldn't win in a direct battle, Mack had started thinking of a plan once he heard that the sword lover boy would be joining them for today. Payback could take the form of more than just a beating. Wouldn't it be fun to grind the kid's so-called honor into the dust as he took advantage of the citizens in the name of the law? Pahaha! Mack grinned widely as he imagined the kid's reaction.
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