"My brother is not a bad person."
It felt like an especially insensitive thing to say, given what his brother had done.
"He's just... going through some things."
Even Eiji himself cringed when the words came out of his mouth. Of course he wanted to console his... were they friends now? But in his heart, he was relieved the world was rid of the Secret Society's influence.
It was the first time in two long years that he finally felt relaxed. Whilst there would always be unseen evil lurking in the shadows, tonight, he could rest knowing they'd cut off at least one head of the hydra. It would take some time for the remnants to regroup - his brother included.
Sho was resourceful, but surely, murdering the leaders of the Secret Society would put even him at odds with his underground contacts. He would have to resurface sometime soon.
Eiji took another sip of wine, and settled back into the plush velvet of his chair. It didn't feel real; the stillness of the night, like they'd destroyed the whole world. The only sound was the crackling of the fire in the grand fireplace in front of him.
He stared into the flames waiting for his company to say something - anything, so that he wouldn't have to keep justifying Sho's actions to himself. Were the ruins of the Secret Society's headquarters still smouldering, too, or had they been quickly extinguished and covered up, just like everything - and everyone - close to them?
When there was no evidence of an adversary ever existing, the victory felt hollow. Yes, he'd met interesting people, and forged even more interesting friendships, but it was so cliché to be happy about the journey, when the destination left everyone involved without closure.
He never imagined he would find himself in a chateau in the French countryside, sharing an obscenely expensive bottle of wine with his once hated rival. It was barely a week since they had clashed in the arena for the entertainment of the Secret Society; they both still had bruises and stitches from it.
"You do not need to make excuses for him; I know you would have stopped him... if we had arrived just a little earlier."
It wasn't that Sho Shinjo was directly responsible for every single bad thing in Duke Rambert's life; he was just somehow involved every time something terrible happened.
Sho was clearly an important part of the Secret Society, despite Eiji's insistence that it was a misunderstanding; that his brother wasn't in his right state of mind. Sho had ruined Duke's life without ever having said a word to him.
If Eiji hadn't challenged Duke to that first duel, the Secret Society would never have known about him. If the Secret Society had never started their surveillance of him, they would never have lured his girlfriend away. If his girlfriend hadn't joined the Secret Society... she would never have done those terrible things, and Sho would have had no reason to kill her.
He hated that man more than his chivalrous heart dare admit. It was stupid and petty, considering he'd used the very same words to explain Uranus' actions only days before.
He didn't even get the chance to talk to her...
To ask her why...
Had she called out for him, and been met only with Sho's merciless blade? Did he cut her down quickly, or was she made to suffer? It was too painful to think about. His beautiful girlfriend... no matter what anyone else said about her, he loved her, and he wasn't there when she needed him the most.
Her fair hair was streaked with blood, her armour cracked and dented, as she lay crumpled on the arena floor beside her superior's body.
Duke couldn't get the vision out of his mind. Every time he closed his eyes, all he could see was the way her head flopped back in her oversized gorget when he took her in his arms one last time.
He had fought so hard to make it to her - to be the one who would challenge her, but he had fallen short. He was prepared to kill Eiji during their match - a thought that, now, he found unbearably selfish. Kill him to reach her? It wasn't even a choice at the time. No one else mattered.
He looked over at the adventurer, whose bare arms were mottled with various shades of purple. Multiple layers of silk and velvet covered his own wounds; he did not wish to display them so boldly. He had even let his long hair down from its usual ponytail, in an attempt to hide the swelling down the side of his face.
It made him look even sadder.
Eiji gave a wary smile. "I would have tried."
There was no stopping Sho once he had his heart set on something. If killing Master was his goal, then anyone who got in his way would suffer the same fate. Uranus might well have been collateral damage; only Sho knew what happened in that bloodstained arena.
Duke didn't realise just how lucky he was to arrive too late to confront the talented swordsman.
"I always thought... if I found her, I would bring her back home." The knight admitted sadly.
Uranus - the cold, calculating right hand of the Secret Society's mastermind. Uranus... the beautiful woman he thought would someday be his wife...
"Are you going to be okay?" The adventurer asked.
Duke thought for some time about the question, before giving a deep sigh. "No."
It was ungainly and dreadfully common to cry, so he set his determined stare directly in front of him until he was able to rein his emotions in. With his lips jammed tightly together, and his hand curled into a trembling fist, he only just managed to retain his noble dignity in front of his guest.
He was completely alone in his misery. His household were too scared to talk to him about it, and he knew that Eiji and the others were certainly not mourning the loss. If he had just arrived earlier...
"...I could have saved her."
She'd sacrificed too much of her past, and stained her hands with too much blood to ever step back. The only thing she could do was keep striving for more.
A title and riches as the wife of a nobleman were the dreams of an unimportant little girl who didn't know there was anything else. Becoming the leader of the Secret Society? Now, that was the goal of someone meant for greatness.
She had been one step away from having everything she ever wanted. With Master dead, it would have all been hers...
The power. The great power she had been seeking all her life.
To be Continued...