V2 Chapter 144: “A Smile”

At the moment the pressure of Kei dissipated, Gozu Seema had to resist the reflex to drop his hand onto the tatami.

Beads of sweat formed on his forehead, and heavy breaths escaped his lips. As the Shiba of the Mitsurugi family and the Third Rank of the First Banner, Gozu was severely drained by the remnants of the battle that erupted outside the mansion.

He wasn’t the only one breathing heavily. Many of the banner warriors gathered in the grand hall were similarly affected by the recent pressure of Kei. Their faces uniformly showed surprise and tension.

Judging from the Kei, it was clear that Sora had won. The former heir, now a minion of the Kijin, had defeated the current heir and the vice-commander of the Third Banner and was likely on his way here. Their astonishment and tension were understandable.

In Gozu’s view, the only ones who remained calm were possibly the Sword Saint and his peer—no, there was another.

The gaze of the Mitsurugi family’s Shiba turned to Ayaka Azurite, who sat in the third-ranked seat behind the Second Banner’s vice-commander.

Ayaka sat quietly with her eyes lowered, showing no sign of surprise or tension, appearing far more composed than her direct superior, the vice-commander of the Second Banner.

Then, the Shikibu suddenly spoke, his voice echoing unusually well in the silent grand hall.

“Has Ragna arrived?”

The lord chuckled, his throat vibrating with amusement. The banner warriors gazed at him in a daze. It had been a long time since the cold and ruthless Sword Saint had smiled in front of his subordinates.

Gozu thought to himself, watching Shikibu.

—Did the lord anticipate this outcome?

Ragna had left the grand hall just moments ago on Shikibu’s orders. Zenon and Lucius wished to accompany Ragna, which Shikibu permitted. Ragna, taking the two with him, headed for the Southern Sky Fortress and undoubtedly challenged Sora, who was before the Mitsurugi mansion.

If the battle took place in front of the mansion, the banner warriors gathered in the grand hall would inevitably sense the outcome of the fight.

Ragna aimed to elevate his standing by defeating Sora, solidifying his position as the rightful heir. Naturally, defeat would also become known to the generals, which Ragna had undoubtedly factored in.

At that time, Ragna had openly declared his intent to fight Sora, proclaiming, “As the heir of the Mitsurugi family, I promise to fulfill my duties adequately.” Declaring that defeating his brother, now a minion of the Kijin, was his duty as the heir.

Therefore, defeat would naturally deem him unfit as an heir. Ragna was prepared for disinheritance when he faced Sora.

Shikibu must have understood this resolve, allowing Ragna, who normally had no right to speak in the council, to propose and replace Shukuya, sending him to Sora.

As evidence of this, Shikibu had remained motionless during the recent battle and did not attempt to mobilize his banner warriors. If Shikibu had not anticipated the siblings’ combat, he would have sent his subordinates to stop the fight between Sora and the others. His inaction clearly indicated that Shikibu had predicted the battle between the brothers.

If there was something that concerned Gozu, it was the purpose behind Shikibu allowing the brothers to fight.

As mentioned before, it’s almost certain that Shikibu understood Ragna’s resolve and permitted the battle with Sora. However, it’s unlikely that he predicted Ragna would master the Void Armor. That would be less of a prediction and more akin to foreseeing the future. Even for the Sword Saint, such omnipotence seems improbable.

Ragna’s mastery of Void Armor was merely a result. Therefore, Shikibu must have had another purpose.

It probably wasn’t to kill Sora. If that were the intent, Shikibu wouldn’t have sent the lower-ranked Zenon with Gozu but one or both of the equally ranked pairs with Ragna.

Since that didn’t happen, it can be concluded that Shikibu’s goal wasn’t the elimination of Sora. The remaining possibility could be to gauge Sora’s strength since returning from the Demon Realm.

Shikibu might have wanted to determine how Sora would fare against his brother Ragna, the vice-commander Lucius, and the banner commander Zenon.

Losing was out of the question. But it wasn’t just about winning. The significance changes depending on whether he wins after a hard battle or overwhelmingly dominates the opponent. Also, whether he wins using the same tactics as before without any innovation or devises new strategies to become stronger would affect the evaluation.

Shikibu probably intended to judge based on these observations.

—Whether Mitsurugi Sora was a worthy opponent for him to face.

Thinking this far, Gozu felt an inexplicable chill and slowly turned towards his lord.

In his line of sight, Shikibu still wore a smile. Realizing what that smile signified sent a shiver down Gozu’s spine.

Just then, the banner warriors in the grand hall began to stir.

Footsteps were heard. Someone was approaching the grand hall with slow and confident steps. Despite being capable of appearing in the hall in an instant without making a sound, they deliberately let their footsteps echo, announcing their presence. It was a declaration of not hiding or running away.

Several banner warriors glanced at Shikibu, but he remained unmoved. And if Shikibu didn’t move, his subordinates couldn’t either.

After a moment, a black-haired young man appeared at the entrance of the grand hall. His hair and clothes were disheveled, and blood from the battle was vividly splattered on his skin and clothing.

With that appearance, the young man—Mitsurugi Sora—curled the corners of his lips in a mocking smile at the banner warriors.

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