Rakudai Kishi no Eiyuutan:Volume1 Chapter 3
Chapter 3: Rebellion
Shizuku Kurogane had a man she loved. He the only person who showed her a kind smile among the grim-faced adults of her childhood, her one-year-older brother by blood, Ikki Kurogane. Shizuku loved him, so she suddenly kissed him at their reunion.
But Shizuku didn't see Ikki that way at first.
Four years ago, she loved him only as a younger sister would, and though her feelings changed when he left home, that separation hadn't formed romance in her heart. No, it only made Shizuku realize how her parents, eldest brother, and other relatives had ignored Ikki. Why didn't she notice her brother's pain before he disappeared, even though she was so close to him? She'd been tormented by unending regret, which turned to fury toward her family for hindering her gentle brother even after he severed ties, simply because he lacked talent. Simply because "Producing an F-Rank knight would disgrace the family name."
So Shizuku Kurogane decided, who cares about "taboo"? Who cares if their father, their mother, if the whole world no longer loved Ikki? She'd love her brother in their place, enough that no one else in this world would be nearly so loved.
But then something intolerable appeared: Ikki's self-declared slave, Stella Vermillion. Shizuku knew just by looking that Stella was interested in her brother and seducing him under pretext. That girl, that eyesore, was recklessly trying to cross the line with him. Even today, after Shizuku's house arrest was lifted and she invited Ikki to the movies as celebration, Stella intruded and demanded to join them.
Shizuku couldn't stand this. Her brother, being the kind of person he was, allowed Stella to tag along after hearing an excuse like "I don't know this country well so I'd like to find out more". Shizuku had been upset, but of course she was upset at Stella, not at Ikki, because Shizuku considered her brother the most wonderful of men. And that was why she couldn't tolerate Stella coiling around Ikki.
Shizuku's roommate, Nagi Arisuin, smiled at her griping.
"Oh my, such a bad mood today too. Did something happen with the princess again?"
Fresh from the bath, Shizuku replied in a seething rage while Arisuin combed her hair. She usually spoke politely, even with Stella and of course with her brother, but she wasn't so reserved around Arisuin. Her expression wasn't as aloof as usual either; she was pouting, which Arisuin could easily see.
"Haha. A maiden in love sure has it rough."
Shizuku had already explained it all to her roommate. She naturally despised others regardless of gender, because her shyness had turned to mistrust after Ikki left home. Who was she supposed to trust in this world where parents could feel nothing for their children? Yet she told Arisuin about her love even though she met this person only a week or so ago.
It seems kind of fun to just talk with Alice….
Arisuin listened to what others had to say, and let others speak as they pleased. When Shizuku was delighted about something, Arisuin also became happy, but never meddled in matters Shizuku didn't share. Shizuku had brothers, but Arisuin was the perfect model for an older sister, so Shizuku sometimes simply told Arisuin too much.
"…Do you think it's strange for a sister to love her brother?"
Shizuku knew she was being childish, so why did she ask this unnecessary question? It was because she wanted Arisuin to guess her feelings, and give a different answer.
"Under common sense, of course it is. I don't think society can accept something like that. You should know it even without me saying so, right? But if you love him anyway, then I think it's a real and splendid love."
As usual, Arisuin guessed right.
"Sorry, Alice. I asked something pathetic…."
"My my, isn't it just fine? Seeing you think of him so much, I feel your love is something truly beautiful."
"Thanks. I'm not the least embarrassed about how I feel. But still, I'm worried whether Onii-sama will accept me."
"That's a contest of patience, I think. If he cherishes you as a sister, then it would be quite hard to become a woman in his eyes. The princess has an advantage in not having to jump that hurdle."
Arisuin's calm analysis turned Shizuku gloomy. In truth, Shizuku wasn't so devoid of common sense. She knew she shouldn't push herself on her brother, but she needed to approach him even if it meant loosening the screws in her head a bit. She needed to turn herself from a sister into a woman for Ikki, overwhelming him if that was what it took. The distance between them had broadened after four years, and if she didn't close it now, she'd have no chance at all. But even an overwhelming attack would repel her brother if it lacked charm. He might not even love her as his sister someday. Shizuku was so uneasy about it, she could break into tears at any moment.
Arisuin sensed Shizuku's depression.
"Don't make that disheartened face. Your rival does have her own obstacle in social position, after all. And there's no man who'd hate being approached by an assertive girl. If the girl's as cute as you, that's all the more exciting."
But is that really true…?
Shizuku didn't know if she was the kind of girl Arisuin described, but if Arisuin said men were like that, then that was how they must be. Arisuin definitely understood men better than she did.
"Thanks, Alice. I feel a lot better now."
"You're welcome~♪ …But still, a kiss like that right after meeting him is a bit too much, you know. I know it was also meant to fix your resolve, but if you do something so grand right from the start, you'll make your partner defensive instead."
"…I'm regretting it too."
"Then it's fine. You have to melt a guy's conscience slowly and carefully… just like melting a piece of candy with your tongue. Now leave tomorrow's date to me. I'll give you a makeover like you've never seen before―♡"
"That's right. I have Alice with me. I won't lose to that person."
If her rival was going to exploit being Ikki's slave, then Shizuku would use her status as Ikki's sister to the utmost. She wasn't about to give up, not when she was the only one who could understand her kind and lonely brother. She couldn't leave him to that girl. Strangers cared only for themselves, but Shizuku would never betray her brother. She'd never make him sad. She'd stay by his side forever, and her feelings would last even longer. That was why she had chased him this far.
Never… I'll never let that girl have him.
Arisuin's words gave Shizuku courage, and she regained the energy she lost when Stella intruded on their date.
"I'll do my best!"
"That's the spirit. Okay, it's done."
Arisuin turned off the dryer, and Shizuku's silver hair rustled when she tilted her head. It was completely different from when she styled it herself. When Shizuku learned of Arisuin's amazing skills, she stopped fixing her own appearance and allowed Arisuin to completely spoil her.
I want to do something for Alice too, but….
But what could she offer? Shizuku thought of something and turned around.
"That's right. Hey Alice, how about going with us for tomorrow's movie?"
"Oh, is that okay? Won't I be in the way?"
"It's fine. The date was ruined the moment that person joined."
"Haha, that's true too. Then please let me come along. I was hoping to chat with the brother you're so proud of at least once."
Good, Alice seems happy about it.
Shizuku quickly sent her brother a mail. Ikki was bringing his own roommate, so he should understand.
"Looks like tomorrow will be fun. If he turns out to be a good man, maybe I'll try for him too."
"Eh? Sorry, I didn't quite hear that. Could you repeat it… if you can, that is?"
"No, I'm sorry! That was a joke so please stop pointing Yoishigure at my neck!"
It was fine as a joke, but if Arisuin was being serious, Shizuku couldn't help but draw blood.
On the morning of the day they arranged to see a movie with Shizuku, Ikki Kurogane and Stella Vermillion stood waiting at the academy's main gates. They weren't in their usual uniforms; Ikki had on a comfortable-looking shirt and jeans, while Stella wore a cardigan that had a springtime feel to it, on top of an elegantly trimmed white blouse.
"They're late, Ikki. What are they doing?"
"We could've left together if we were in the same dorm, but…."
Ikki and Stella lived in student dormitory number one, but Shizuku was in dormitory number two on the opposite side of campus, with the main school building located between them. That was why they were meeting near the gate, but the time for their rendezvous had passed long ago and Shizuku was still nowhere to be seen.
"Well, I think they'll be here in a moment. I never figured Stella to be interested in movies, though."
When Shizuku asked him out, Stella had immediately jumped up shouting "I'll go too! I'll definitely go! I'll go even if you tell me not to!" It had been an astonishingly vigorous reaction.
"Leaving you alone with Shizuku in a dark cramped space is way too dangerous."
"Eh? Why is it dangerous?"
"And so is how you can't notice incoming disaster! Did you forget what happened on the first day?"
There was certainly no way Ikki could forget that. In truth, it had been his first kiss.
"If that's what you're worried about, didn't Shizuku apologize the next day? She said she was overcome with emotion after meeting me after four years, and that she's reflecting on it. Besides, I'm just her older brother so I won't be eaten alive like that again."
"…If you don't want to be eaten then don't get so close to her…."
"Huh? What was that?"
"I called you a sis-con."
"I-I'm not a sis-con! No, Shizuku is my precious little sister and I love her very much, but how many times do I have to tell you she's just my sister? Related by blood! I definitely won't start seeing her as a woman just because we've been apart for four years!"
"Really? You won't be captivated anymore?"
There's no way he'd get excited after seeing his sister. It was painful to deny something so obvious, but as Ikki lamented how little Stella trusted him, the one they were waiting for arrived.
"Sorry to make you wait, Onii-sama."
"You're so late. What were you…."
Ikki and Stella turned around to reply, and their expressions froze as Shizuku apologized with her head bowed.
"I'm sorry, I took too long picking out what to wear."
For some reason Shizuku looked even prettier than usual. She was wearing a Gothic Lolita outfit that made the best use of her silver hair and small build, greatly raising the charm of a girl who was originally like a bisque doll. She looked much better in these clothes than in her school uniform.
Still, Shizuku had worn this style in childhood, and Ikki was already familiar with it, so he shouldn't have felt anything special about such clothing. But the magic Shizuku gave off didn't allow that.
Shizuku stood before him under a halo of sunlight, and the scenery around her seemed to dim. What kind of devilish magic had she cast to draw his attention so much? Ikki fell silent and the back of his tongue went dry… but looking more carefully, he quickly realized the source of this witchcraft: makeup. Her eyes were painted with light eye shadow, and there was a faint crimson on her lips. Her eyebrows were curled flawlessly, and each strand of silver hair was dancing in the breeze so together they gave off a faint argent radiance, as if Shizuku herself was shining. All these changes improved her appearance without diminishing her charm―no, they raised that charm many times over, making Shizuku look not like a sister, not like a child, but as a fascinating woman.
Stella howled at this sight.
"W-What is this!? It's cheating! This appearance, it's no amateur work! Did you call a stylist!?"
"I'm not a princess so I wouldn't cheat, and I don't know any stylists. My roommate was the one who helped me."
"Ah, was it Arisuin-san who's coming with us today?"
They had already learned the name from Shizuku's mail. According to Shizuku, Arisuin was an "older onee-san" type of person.
"Yes, Alice should be here shortly."
And just as Shizuku spoke, Arisuin appeared behind her.
"Jeez, you left too quickly, Shizuku. If you trip, the makeup will be ruined, you know?"
Stella and Ikki's expressions once again froze, because no matter what angle they looked, the person who did Shizuku's professional-level makeup was… a boy.
"Hahaha. Nice to meet you, and thank you for inviting me today. I'm Shizuku's roommate, Nagi Arisuin. I'm not much for being called by my full name, so I'd be happy if you call me Alice―♪"
The boy with the tall and lean figure was dressed like Shizuku, with a visual-kei type of appearance. He took off his bowler hat and greeted them with smile, reaching out for a handshake.
"E-Eh, erm, nice to meet you too."
"Ah, yes, how do you do…?"
Ikki and Stella nervously returned the greeting, but they couldn't hide their unrest and started whispering to each other.
"H-Hey wait Ikki, what's going on?"
"Err, it troubles me too, you know."
Both of them had thought Arisuin was a girl, but no matter how they looked, that wasn't true. He might be a little thin for a guy, but not enough to mistake him for a woman. And he was taller than Ikki, probably past 180 centimeters.
"His speech and gestures are girlish, right? Is this a gag? Should I laugh?"
"I'm telling you I can't answer these questions."
"Hahaha. Look, Shizuku, they both seem mesmerized by my beauty."
"What's with that positive thinking!?"
Stella and Ikki retorted in unison, then Ikki scratched the back of his head.
"You don't have to use '-san'. I'm bad with formality."
"Then, Alice… are you, erm… an okama?"
"Not at all. I'm just a maiden born in a man's body."
"W-What's the difference, Stella…!?"
"Don't you start asking me!"
Looking at the two who were obviously uneasy, Shizuku spoke.
"Does it really trouble you?"
Since their confusion was seen through, Ikki awkwardly scratched his cheek.
"Aha, haha. Well, I knew people like that exist, but this is my first time actually meeting one, and I'm not sure how to talk with them, so… sorry."
"Oh, you don't have to apologize. I'm used to it. But Shizuku wasn't bothered at all, you know."
Shizuku glanced to one side.
"Because I don't really care about genders that much―"
Ikki was deeply moved by how easily Shizuku declared she didn't mind Arisuin's circumstances, even though he couldn't hide his own bewilderment at meeting someone from the tribe called okama.
I haven't seen Shizuku in so long, but she sure has matured a lot.
Having the heart to allow things that goes against common values, it was something he needed to learn.
"―since it doesn't matter whether they're male or female. I simply dislike humanity in general."
Praise retracted. Someone please find the glue to mend his sister's splintered heart.
"Well, Alice isn't a type you'd come by often, but she considers herself a woman and I do likewise. Both Onii-sama and Stella-san, if you can, please think of her as a woman as well, and treat her so."
"I'll try my best."
"Thank you, but you don't have to push yourself. I'd hate to make things awkward, you know."
Arisuin was quite smooth, giving them an escape route like that.
"Anyway, this means everyone's gathered, so we should head for the movie theater."
"That's right. Just standing here is boring too."
"There's still a while until the movie starts, so let's take our time, Onii-sama."
Shizuku proposed that after looking at her wristwatch, and entwined her arm with Ikki's as if it was completely natural. It was a position she took while walking with Ikki, back when they were kids.
Ikki yelped. His hardened resolve was already about to break, and frankly the possibility that Shizuku would bewitch him today was strong. He wanted to pull away, but….
"Mmm, it's been a long time since we last walked like this. Right, Onii-sama?"
"Eh, y-yes. That's… right."
He couldn't say anything when Shizuku smiled so happily as she remembered the past. Shizuku yearned for his love as a sister, and wished to stand beside him like this, but he couldn't see her as his sister. His heart was too uncool.
But even if Shizuku wished for nothing more, there was no way Stella could quietly let it pass. She suddenly cut in between them.
"Hey! What do you think you're doing so suddenly!"
"What? This is just simple skinship between siblings. We used to walk like this plenty."
"Ah, erm. Ahaha, that's true."
"Th-Then me too―"
"I thought you'd say that, so I prepared just the thing. Here, a leash. Please use this to enjoy a slave's skinship to the fullest."
"Oh, how thoughtful―yeah right! Just where is your mind turning!?"
"But walking beside your master lacks propriety, you know. You said you snapped at me only because you're Onii-sama's slave, yet you don't honor that relationship correctly? I think I see the real Vermillion princess."
"No, it's alright. If you want to hold hands with Onii-sama then shouldn't you just go ahead? It's fine since he has two hands. But wanting to do this with a boy, do you have special feelings for him? Could it be that Stella-san, towards Onii-sama―"
"Th-There's nothing like that! I simply lost a duel with him and became his slave, that's all! That's our relationship―"
"Then there's no reason for you to hold hands, is there?"
And Stella was thwarted like so.
"Shall we go, Onii-sama?"
"…What was all that about not being captivated, you sis-con. Pervert…."
Ikki walked down the road with Shizuku on his arm, while Stella's curses hammered his back over and over. Could the trip go peacefully with these two here?
It was the beginning of a day they would always remember with unease.
There was a large shopping mall near Hagun Academy, and their destination Cinema Land was located on the fourth and highest floor. The group didn't head there right away, because as Shizuku pointed out, there was still a while until the movie started. The fourth floor only had the theater and some merchandise shops so they didn't need to go there so early. Instead, the group went to the food court on the first floor to pass some time.
"Nn~. This is delicious~"
Stella's voice started to waver at the taste of the crepes they bought on Arisuin's recommendation. Shizuku agreed, and nibbled away with her small mouth.
"I thought they were ridiculously expensive, but they're really worth it."
Arisuin nodded as well.
"It is, right? The crepes from this court uses some very rich cream―♪ But if it's ice cream, I'd suggest the Thirteen Ice Cream shop  on the third floor."
"You seem familiar with a lot of things."
"Well, visiting this place from time to time pays off. And pastry is something every girl lives for―♪"
"Alice is definitely the one to ask about sweet pastries or beautiful clothes, if you're looking for anything."
"I haven't seen any shops that sell dresses for a cute princess, but for tasty sweets I can point you to a number of places. Shall I be the guide today?"
"Really? Wow, sounds fun! What other stores do you know about?"
"Well, there's a coffee shop in this mall, and the tiramisu there is―"
While the girls(?) had fun eating crepes and discussing food, Ikki watched from outside their circle. He didn't like sweets that much, so he couldn't find a way to join this conversation.
But Alice sure mixed in fast.
Even Stella, who had been more surprised about Arisuin, was talking with him far more closely than she did with the boys in class. Arisuin really might be the onee-san type, though girls would probably fall in love with his beauty alone.
While Ikki sipped his iced coffee in solitude, he noticed a bit of cream stuck on Shizuku's cheek.
That would sully the make-up. Sure, Ikki felt nervous about Shizuku's appearance, and he was relieved and thankful to not be mesmerized anymore, but…
…But still, the makeup took so much time to prepare, spoiling it would be such a waste.
"Yes? What is it?"
When Shizuku turned towards him, he wiped the cream off her cheek with his finger and―
"This was on your face. Since you went to the trouble of dressing up so nicely, you should be more careful."
―he licked it off without any hesitation at all.
Shizuku's whole body went red as if she had burst into flame, and she dashed behind Arisuin's chair. Taking cover immediately whenever she got embarrassed was one of Shizuku's old habits.
"My my, can it be that Shizuku's the type with all attack and no defense?"
"Sh-Sh-Shut up Alice! It happened so s-suddenly, I-I was just a bit surprised!"
Ikki watched Shizuku stutter while hiding behind Alice.
"You really don't have to be so embarrassed just because of some cream."
Alice smiled at his comment.
"I don't think that's the reason, but great job, big brother."
"Oh? Then why?"
"Hahaha―♪ That's not something you should hear from me."
Arisuin smoothly dodged his question. And from the side of the table, Stella started coughing violently.
"Huh, Stella? What's the matter? Do you have a cold or―"
When Ikki turned, he saw Stella's whole mouth covered in cream, like she was wearing a Santa Claus beard.
"What's the matter, Ikki? You look so shocked. Is there something on my face?"
"You think there isn't!? That's even more shocking!"
"I-I-If there's something… then… that… can't you wipe it off, l-like with Shizuku?"
"No, it's not an amount I can wipe off with a finger! I'll bring a towel, so just wait a bit."
Not pausing for Stella to finish her words, Ikki went to borrow a towel from the shop clerk.
"…Erm. Stella-san… Could it be… that you're a moron?"
"Oh, that was so awkwardly cute it makes me want to help you out too."
"Sh-Sh-Shut up! It's not like I had a secret motive or anything! My hand just slipped and it got on my mouth! That's all! Really!"
After the four of them finished eating crepes, they ended up chatting until the movie was about to start.
"It seems to be about time, so let's go to the fourth floor."
When Shizuku proposed that, all of them prepared to leave the food court, which was when Stella raised a very late question.
"Hey Ikki, what movie are we watching today?"
"I don't know yet."
After all, the invitation came from the cute little sister Ikki hadn't seen in four years. He wouldn't refuse in any case, so he didn't ask for that detail.
"…You, why did you even come here?"
"Shouldn't we ask you the same thing?"
"I'm only here to chaperone, so it's fine. Shizuku, what movie are we watching?"
"Just a normal love story."
"Of course it is. You see? I was right to tag along!"
"And the title?"
"I Fell in Love with My Little Sister. Rated R-15."
"How is that a normal love story!?"
"It's a love that's normal and pure, if you don't mind them being siblings."
"How is something so immoral in any way pure!? And how little sense do you have!? You've got some nerve trying to see this stuff with your brother! You think the atmosphere is going to be normal? That'll go way past mere surprise!"
"I don't want a lecture from someone who declares herself a slave in front of all her classmates."
That was quite an apt rebuttal, but Ikki wasn't so lacking in sense that he'd see a movie like this alone with his little sister.
"Shi-Shizuku…. let's not watch this."
"Eh~? Why? What's wrong with it?"
"Please explain what's not wrong with it."
Wouldn't it be terrible if he, with his little sister, had to see an R-rated love story about a forbidden sibling relationship?
"A-Anyhow, I can't do it! Let's watch something else!"
"Hrm, if you're that unwilling, I guess I'll have to accept it. What do we watch then?"
Shizuku used her student datapad to access the theater's website, and Stella voiced a preference.
"Ah! Isn't this one good? Karna, the Desert Queen. It's an animated movie where Princess Karna gets kidnapped by desert bandits but ends up falling in love with the young bandit leader. It sounds like a romantic―"
"I don't want to see a movie starring a bitch who opens her legs for a hoodlum she doesn't know anything about."
"It's far better than a perverted movie where siblings do this and that!"
"Well, it seems like we won't make up our minds even if we argue more. How about we compromise and go with Men's Fallen Paradise? Also R-15."
"Who said to compromise on gender!?"
Stella and Shizuku's comeback was in complete harmony. Maybe they could get along rather well, even if it made Alice pout.
"How inflexible. Then there's only one option left, an action movie."
Ikki glanced at the schedule.
"There's not much time before it starts, though."
"That's unavoidable since it's a small theater."
"But I think both boys and girls can enjoy an action film. Is that okay with you two?"
"Ugh. It's regrettable, but if Onii-sama says so…."
"We don't have any other choices. But since I like action too, that's fine I guess."
Alice nodded at Shizuku and Stella's responses.
"Then there we go. The movie will start soon, so let's hurry."
"By the way Alice, what's the title?"
"Gandhi, the Nirvana of Rage."
On the website's movie poster, beneath the word Gandhi, there was a macho man in a tank top carrying heavy weaponry and standing against a flaming background. The tag line was "You said forgiveness is a sign of strength, huh? That's a lie."
"What the heck is that!? I wanna see it!"
Drawn to that exaggerated image, they reached an easy consensus, so Ikki and company headed for the escalator going up to the fourth floor. But as they reached the third, Ikki stepped off.
"Sorry everyone, I need to go to the washroom. Please buy the tickets for me."
Arisuin also followed Ikki.
"Oh my, I think I'll join you."
Stella and Shizuku nodded.
"Then we'll go on ahead and buy your share, so pay back the money later."
"And please get back before the movie starts. There's not much time left, you know."
"Okay, we'll come back as soon as we can."
"Shizuku Shizuku, I want a seat beside Ikki~♪"
"Onii-sama, we're buying tickets for three."
"No! That was a joke, a joke!"
And so Stella and Shizuku left, while the two boys headed for the third floor washroom.
"Hahaha~♪ Finally, it's just the two of us."
Ikki cringed at Arisuin's words.
"Umm, if you say it like that...."
"Eh? Heading for the washroom wasn't an excuse?"
"You're totally wrong!"
"I know, I was just kidding. You really are easy to tease."
"…Sorry, it's my first time talking with someone like you, so I can't seem to grasp the distance well…."
"You just have to treat me like a normal girl―"
Yeah, that's not possible.
"―but don't worry, I'm not interested in straight men."
"In other words, I'm not sexually interested in you."
"O-Oh, so that's what you mean. Yeah, that helps, that really helps."
"But it's true that I wanted to talk with you alone. I've heard a lot of things from Shizuku so I was wondering what kind of person you were."
"I was also interested in you, I guess."
"Oh my? My my my! That's a surprise! Then should the two of us go and see Men's Fallen Paradise right now?"
"Not in that way! It's just that, you know, Shizuku's really shy so she doesn't make friends easily, especially with boys, so I was curious."
"Well, I'm just a normal girl… hey, what's with that look? Are you objecting?"
"No, not really."
Is he serious? Is he seriously saying that?
It really was impossible to know how people of this tribe think right after meeting one. Ikki knew he shouldn't step unprepared into a topic he didn't understand, so he changed it quickly.
"About the things you heard about me from Shizuku, what sort of stuff were they?"
"That's a secret between girls."
Arisuin put a long, slender, pianist-like finger before his lips. It might be unrefined, Ikki figured, to continue being bothered about this sort of behavior. Luckily, Arisuin relented.
"…But she told me Ikki Kurogane is a very strong and interesting man. After meeting you today, I agree. You're just like she said. But something bothers me. May I ask?"
"Is it true that you couldn't participate in any combat because of your family's interference?"
"Y-Yeah, the school banned me from doing so. From both classes and mock battles."
Ikki wondered whether Shizuku also talked about his dispute with the Kurogane house, even though it was considered a family disgrace unsuitable for gossip. Shizuku, still part of the Kurogane household, wouldn't share it unless she trusted Arisuin deeply.
"But it's fine this year. The new board chairman changed the policy."
"Isn't that just good fortune? What would you be doing if the chairman hadn't come?"
"Whatever I can, as usual. I didn't know about her appointment or plans when I decided to repeat the year, after all."
"Don't you think doing the same thing for another year would be pointless?"
"Not at all. I think Alice already knows this, but the teachers at the academy are professionals. They can grasp a student's strength just by looking at them. And for a mage-knight academy, there's nothing more noteworthy than producing a Seven Stars Sword King, so really, all I have to do is convince the teachers I can reach that level. I'll just become strong enough to make them believe it, no matter how many years it takes."
With effort, he would make himself so valuable that Hagun couldn't sell him out to the Kurogane house. Ikki kept his conviction strong as always.
"But I'm grateful to the new chairman. Even I wouldn't go through so much trouble if another road was open."
"I see. I understand now."
For a moment, Ikki saw something in Arisuin's eyes as Arisuin looked at him from an outsider's vantage. It was… pity.
"Ikki… you… you've become used to being hurt, haven't you?"
"This is something from my own experience, so it might not apply to you. Strength is, in the end, all about just how much you're able to endure. If you don't let strength go once in a while, and continue to struggle under your burden, then one day you'll break hard enough that you can't be fixed anymore. Normally, the heart would cry out with all its anger, sadness, and irritation, that 'I want someone to know my pain' and 'I want someone to understand my sorrow'. But you've been holding it in so long you no longer hear that cry."
Ikki was surprised by these words. He couldn't understand them, even though Arisuin's face closed as if grieving.
"….Th-That, I don't think that's the case though."
Ikki didn't lack such emotions, and there were certainly times Ikki felt angry or sad. But Arisuin shook his head.
"No, you can't hear it. At the least, you can't right now. I mean, if you could, how would you stay so calm? How would you smile so easily?"
I haven't exactly sailed through life so far.
But still, Arisuin was probably over-thinking it, so Ikki couldn't do much but show a troubled smile even though Arisuin was talking so seriously with such a grim face. Arisuin sighed at Ikki's unclear expression.
Well, there's no way my words would reach him.
How much weight did these words possess? Ikki was a stranger whom Arisuin just met today, but even though Arisuin knew he wouldn't get far, he ended up trying anyway. He wanted to open Ikki's eyes, because not only was Ikki Kurogane important to Shizuku, but Arisuin also thought him a pleasant person.
In the end, Arisuin gave an encouraging smile, and kissed the silver rosary hung around his neck.
"It'd be nice if someone who can hear that cry for you ever appeared. I pray from the bottom of my heart, as a friend."
But Ikki didn't understand that prayer. Was he supposed to thank Arisuin? He couldn't help but be confused, and Arisuin's words remained in his mind, echoing almost as if it was a kind of revelation.
Suddenly, Arisuin's expression hardened. It wasn't the sad expression he just wore, but a tense one filled with concern. He started to scan their surroundings.
"Ikki, could you follow me for a bit?"
Arisuin grabbed Ikki's arm and rushed onward.
Without listening to Ikki's complaints, Arisuin dashed towards the washroom they were headed for. Maybe he couldn't hold it anymore?
Just when Ikki thought that―he heard an explosion, glass breaking… and gunshots accompanied by screams.
Two men wearing black combat uniforms and gas masks entered the washroom where Ikki and Arisuin were hiding.
「Good, all that's left is this men's room. I'll go search the stalls. You wait here.」
「Bah, why do we gotta check them one by one?」
The man with the frivolous tone ignored his partner, aimed the muzzle of his M4 assault rifle towards the stalls, and swept the room with full-auto fire. By the time the gunshots stopped, all the stall doors had been blasted to ruin. Nobody there could come out unharmed, but blood didn't flow from any of the half-destroyed stalls.
「You see? Nobody's in.」
「Don't do stuff the lazy way! We're supposed to take the customers hostage, dammit!」
「I just wanted to fire a gun. Ain't it okay, since there's no blood anyway? So they're empty. Hahaha.」
「…If Bischof-san kills you, it won't be my problem.」
The sound of disturbing laughter followed the two men's exit, leaving only debris and a burnt smell in the restroom, but from the shadows cast by fluorescent ceiling lights, Arisuin and Ikki popped their heads up as if out of black water. After confirming that their enemies had left, Arisuin raised himself from the shadows.
"Hmm, looks like they're gone."
In his hand, a dagger shined with dark gray radiance.
"That's my Darkness Hermit. Quite handy, right?"
"A power to manipulate shadows? It's certainly useful."
"Well, in a brightly lit field without any obstacles to make those shadows, it's not quite so good."
Ikki had guessed the same. This power was better suited for assassins than for knights.
"But if someone found out that you used your Device outside campus, you'll get in trouble."
"Harsh situations demand risky moves. I didn't have a choice here. It's okay if you don't tell anyone though."
Arisuin offered his other hand to Ikki, and when Ikki grabbed it, Arisuin pulled him up.
"I won't say anything. Thanks for saving us. Just who were those guys?"
Ikki's eyes widened at Arisuin's unhesitant reply. Rebellion was the world's most infamous crime syndicate. They called Blazers humanity's new chosen breed while deeming all others inferior, and they wanted to destroy society so they could build their own paradise where the chosen few ruled over the common people.
"How do you know they're Rebellion?"
"I was dragged into something like this where I used to live, and the equipment is exactly the same. More importantly, I'm worried about Shizuku."
"Yeah, but there's something we have to do first."
Ikki took out his student datapad and dialed an emergency number he registered beforehand. The call immediately connected and the familiar face of Hagun Academy's board chairman, Kurono Shinguuji, appeared on screen.
「I'm aware of it.」
Kurono immediately dispensed with explanations. It seemed the problem was already known outside the mall.
"That helps a lot. Then please give Ikki Kurogane, Stella Vermillion, Shizuku Kurogane, and Nagi Arisuin permission to use their Devices outside campus."
「Very well, I authorize you four to use your abilities off school grounds.」
"Great. That takes care of the most critical thing."
After Ikki finished, Arisuin spoke up as well.
"Chairman, can you tell us what you know of the situation?"
「The culprits are Rebellion, about twenty to thirty units, all equipped with weapons. Their objectives are ransom money and the goods and cash in the mall. Long story short, this is their periodic fundraising.」
"Have there been casualties?"
「A few people were banged up while escaping the uproar as it first occurred, so just some light injuries. Still no dead or heavily injured. According to images we took from security cameras, Rebellion has gathered about fifty hostages in the food court.」
"Food court… where we had our crepes?"
"Yeah, that drafty plaza."
"I can reach that far with my Shadow Walk. We can get there immediately."
"Then we'll first move to a place with concealment and observe the situation. Stella and Shizuku are probably there too."
Those two would never abandon the hostages and run away. They should've mixed in with the hostages while hiding their magic power.
「I think you already know, but the safety of hostages comes first. Don't go overboard.」
Acknowledging Kurono's advice, Ikki turned off the datapad to make sure it made no noise.
"Okay, let's move."
"Leave it to me."
Arisuin clasped Ikki's extended hand, and they immediately sank into their shadows. Connecting shadows with one another like waterways, Shadow Walk could only be manipulated by Arisuin, the user of Darkness Hermit, so Ikki held his breath and swam through like Arisuin did.
After swimming in the darkness for a short while, they reached a place overlooking the food court, the shadow of a pillar in the third floor atrium that gave a bird's eye view of the whole area. Leaving Shadow Walk and reconnoitering, Ikki and Arisuin confirmed Kurono's info. Hostages were gathered below, encircled by about ten people wearing the same black combat uniforms they saw before.
In the direction Arisuin was pointing, Shizuku's figure was visible among with the hostages.
"But I don't see Stella-chan."
"…No, there she is beside Shizuku, the one with the large hat. She's famous as a knight so she's concealing herself."
"Now that you mention it, she's appeared in newspapers, right? But the situation's not too good."
"Yeah, the hostages are placed too close to the criminals. If we break through recklessly, the hostages will definitely get hurt. And besides, the number of Rebellion troops doesn't add up."
"Maybe they're acting in squads? We have no choice but to wait for now."
Even if Rebellion was acting in squads, the ratio of hostages to Rebellion troops was a little too high, which would be a problem for the troops if the hostages tried to escape. There might be opportunities using that oversight, so they decided to stay put and keep watching for the time being―but the situation changed in a way they couldn't have imagined.
「Don't bully my mother―!」
Suddenly, a boy around the age of a kindergartner rushed toward a gun-toting Rebellion soldier.
This was bad, but they were in no position to stop the boy, who screamed and threw the ice cream he held at the man, splattering the man with white. That couldn't possibly bring a man down, but it was more than enough to provoke.
The soldier screamed in rage and kicked the boy―who wasn't even tall enough to reach his waist―in the face without hesitation.
A woman in her twenties, probably the boy's mother, dashed out from the ring of hostages. Her abdomen was large, but she moved so quickly that one wouldn't think her pregnant, and she desperately moved between the boy and the soldier.
「Out of the way, woman! Don't butt in!」
「I'm sorry, I'm sorry, he's still just a child! Please forgive us!」
Another Rebellion soldier looked toward all the noise.
「Hey, what the hell are you doing!?」
「This fucking brat got ice cream on my clothes! I'm gonna kill him!」
「What's the matter with you!? How many times have I told you not to touch the hostages, dammit!? You can go die by yourself, but if you piss off Bischof-san he ain't stopping till he kills a dozen people. Don't get us involved in your mess!」
「Shut up! There's a lot of 'em so it won't matter if we shoot one or two!」
After that, the soldier turned around and pointed the muzzle of his rifle towards the boy and woman.
「No, please! Spare us!」
「You people might as well be pigs in our utopia, but you dare dirty an honorary citizen like me? You'll pay for that with your life!」
He put his finger on the trigger without any hesitation, and a lead bullet burst out from the barrel. To block it, the pregnant mother covered her child with her back. How futile. The bullet would penetrate the woman's body and hit the child behind her too.
But the bullet never reached the mother―because Stella's flames burned away even the specks of dust that flew from the muzzle.
「It's best if I go out by myself… I would've been found out sooner or later… It's alright. If they know who I am, they won't kill me right away… That's why you should keep hiding and make preparations just in case.」
After stopping Shizuku with these words, Stella scorched the bullet by casting fire into its path, and the Rebellion soldiers fell into confusion at the sudden threat.
They turned towards Stella reflexively and fired their rifles at her in unison. A storm of bullets shot forth.
Stella's feathered robe of flame vaporized all the bullets before they even reached her. But―
―the hostages started to panic because of the sudden gunfire. M4 rifles didn't have perfect accuracy. At this rate, the hostages would also end up being hit.
"Everyone settle down!!!"
A voice filled with dignity rang out above the sounds of gunfire and screams, and caught the attentions of everyone present whether they liked it or not. The hostages who were preparing to flee froze, and the Rebellion soldiers tensed up like scolded children.
"I don't want to fight you all, so please calm down and listen to what I have to say."
That takes care of the panic for now.
Stella felt relief as she spoke. In Japan, she was merely a high-schooler, but she was also a princess of the Vermillion Empire. She knew quite a bit about the international crime organization Rebellion, including how it organized its units. Even though Rebellion was widely known as an organization of Blazers, in truth the majority of its members were non-Blazers referred to as 'Adherents'. In the new world order that Rebellion wanted to create, the 'Apostles', who were Blazers, were actually a minority. Rebellion units were composed of this small group of Blazers commanding the non-Blazers as soldiers.
Every single Rebellion soldier here was an Adherent, so the Apostle leading them was probably somewhere nearby.
There should be only one Apostle for an operation of this level. I really didn't want to move rashly before he comes out though.
Showing herself in this situation was a major disadvantage. With that in mind, Stella once again cast a sharp glare towards the soldiers.
"I'll represent the hostages here and negotiate with your leader."
"W-What the hell's this girl saying!? You, how dare―"
It seemed like the soldiers hadn't recognized her yet, so Stella removed the hat she borrowed from a store.
"Oh dear oh dear~? It looks like we have one hell of a VIP mixed in here."
A voice interrupted Stella before she could reveal her identity. Looking toward that voice, she saw a man standing with a group of around ten fully-armed soldiers. When their eyes met, the man smiled, twisting the tattoo drawn on his face.
"Well, if it ain't the Vermillion Empire's second princess. Hehehe."
"Full black clothing and a gold-decorated overcoat… an Apostle's robe. It means you're the boss of these fools, right?"
"Hehehe, so pleased to make your acquaintance. Yes, that's exactly right. I go by the name Bischof. The honor is mine, Princess."
The man―Bischof―bowed respectfully towards Stella, then turned towards his subordinates encircling the hostages and gave an offended expression.
"Hey, what the devil are you bastards doing? Can't you even babysit properly?"
"Didn't I tell you to wait? Didn't I tell you not to touch the hostages? Didn't I?"
"W-We tried to stop him! But that bastard Yakin wouldn't listen!"
"Ya~kin. Was it you causing this mess?"
"N-No wait, th-that brat dirtied my pants and―"
"Huh!? You went nuts just because of… no."
Bischof turned around with a thoughtful look.
"Ahh, Yakin. That must've been a disaster. I sympathize, really."
Bischof's attitude changed suddenly and he patted the soldier who had ice cream spilled on his pants, then pulled out a gun and pointed it at the boy who the mother was protecting.
"Rest easy. I'll balance the scales for you, my honorary citizen."
Stella spoke up in shock.
"W-What are you doing!?"
"What? Ain't it obvious, Princess? I'm gonna have this kid take responsibility for what he did. Responsibility is important, no?"
"Didn't you say you weren't going to touch the hostages!?"
"Well… that would be true if they stayed still, but this brat didn't. Ahh, he ain't an adult yet so we can't judge him too hard, but… what the kid did was still a sin. He trampled the dignity of this honorary citizen here, so he has to pay with his life. Penance for sin, forgiveness for penance, that's my motto, you see!"
Bischof suddenly squeezed the trigger a little. He was really going to shoot, so Stella didn't hesitate to manifest Lævateinn.
She leapt forward and slashed at Bischof. Seeing that, Bischof smiled.
He baited me!?
But no matter! She wouldn't give him time to summon his Device. Bischof was only holding a handgun. There was no way he could block Lævateinn with something like that!
Stella slashed the man along his gun, but―Bischof stopped that slash with only his index and middle finger.
"Hehehe, oh dear. You're fast and strong like the rumors say about A-Ranks. But alas, you don't know how wide and terrifying this world can be."
Stella couldn't hide her surprise. A slash with all her might had been completely blocked with only the fingers of one hand. That was no human technique; the finger and the arm should've been torn off together. Even if the slash had somehow been blocked, the arm would still be burnt by Lævateinn's flames. But Bischof was completely unaffected by both force and heat, stopping her sword casually.
How? Faster than the answer could come, Bischof's right hand struck Stella's abdomen.
It was an offensive power that completely shattered her Empress Dress. Stella collapsed with just one hit.
How? He didn't look like that strong a Blazer…!
What was with this crazy attack power? Stella almost fainted in agony, but she looked up at Bischof and realized the secret behind his attack.
Bischof was wearing a ring on the middle finger of each hand, and they emitted an ominous red light. They might look like simple accessories at first glance, but―
"This is my Device, Judgment Ring. Its specialty is dealing with "sin" and "penance". The left absorbs all attacks towards me, while the right converts it into a magical power and returns upon my enemy. Hehehe, in other words, the stronger my enemies, the stronger I become."
"…I see, so I was hit by my own full power."
His explanation was credible since she couldn't stand up.
"You really shouldn't jump in when you don't know what power your opponent holds, dear princess~."
"…Aren't… you the one… who made me do it?"
"Hehehe, oh, you're quite right. Against the Crimson Princess, I really couldn't afford to be picky with my tactics. I'm so sorry about that. But well, I'm impressed. You, the princess of another country, could've stayed nicely hidden, but you chose to shield some brat. It's truly touching. Is this what they call noblesse oblige? I, Bischof, am truly in awe, so I'll tell dear Princess Stella a way to save that kid."
"There's a very simple method, you see, a method of repentance everyone knows: apologizing after doing something wrong. But your highness, you must apologize in the kid's place―kneeling while stark naked! Ha ha ha ha!"
At Bischof's demand, Ikki boiled with anger. He wanted to leap out from the hall above and cut the man to pieces, but―
If he did so, it would result in chaos, and the hostages would suffer casualties. He had to avoid that at all cost.
"Hehe… of course, I won't force you. How could I ever order a princess around? I won't mind if you refuse. But if so, I'll have this brat take responsibility as planned."
What a filthy man!
Ikki bit his lips hard to suppressing his anger. Bischof thought that Stella couldn't accept that demand, so he gave her the option just to humiliate her. But Stella's reply was exactly as Ikki expected.
Stella dispelled Lævateinn and released a sigh of surrender while concealing her vexation.
"In return, promise me the hostages won't take a scratch."
"Of course. I, Bischof, am a man known for not breaking his word, so rest assured. Well, the ransom money and our successful escape must also be guaranteed."
"…As you promised, then."
After confirming, Stella stood up. Her knees were shaking, probably from the damage she took before, but her hands removing her clothes were shaking not from pain, but from agitation.
"Wow, haha! This is awesome, an imperial princess strip show!"
"What a nice idea! It's just like Bischof-san to think of it!"
"Yeah, strip strip strip! Hahaha!"
Stella's face was dyed red in shame. She had no choice but to expose her naked body in front of these scum, so she took off her clothes one piece at a time.
Her cardigan fell, and her beautiful shoulders were exposed.
Her skirt slid down to her feet, and her slender and alluring legs were bared.
Her blouse buttons came off one by one, and her small navel could be seen from the crevice.
And finally she only had her white-string undergarments left.
"Man, crazy. That's one hell of a bust. Is this really a high school girl?"
"I can't get enough of this!"
"Bischof-san! Can we take pictures?"
"You're too noisy, you horny bastards. Hehehe, the real show starts now."
Taking that unbearably filthy voice to heart, Stella's body trembled. At that moment, Ikki saw something glittering on Stella's cheeks.
The moment he saw that small sparkle from her eyes, Ikki heard a ripping sound and felt something tear apart. That was the sound of his lips being bitten open, and the reason suppressing his anger coming undone.
But Ikki could not move from his spot.
He felt as if his body was tied to the ground. When he turned his neck, he could see Arisuin's Device Darkness Hermit stabbed into his shadow. Arisuin had stopped Ikki's actions with a Noble Art that arrests a target's movement, Shadow Bind.
"Calm down. What were you about to do, jumping in at a time like this?"
"But if I don't go now, Stella will…!"
"It's alright. I have a plan. Shizuku's making her move, so just wait a little bit."
Ikki couldn't believe those words.
"Yes. She's making a water barrier while hiding her magic power."
Hearing that, Ikki looked toward the hall again and tried to search for the presence of magic, but―
"…Is that true? I don't see anything."
"Well, of course. Shizuku might be inferior to Stella in overall scores but when it comes to magic control, she's unquestionably this year's number one. You could say Shizuku has A-Rank ability in that area alone."
Ikki's face showed clear surprise at Arisuin's explanation. According to that status, Shizuku could do things using a quarter the magic power that any other Blazer would need. Furthermore, Shizuku Kurogane was a technique-type Blazer.
"If someone of Shizuku's level hides her magic power, no one could detect it."
Arisuin showed his student datapad to Ikki, having apparently left it on but silent. A mail from Shizuku was visible.
「setting barrier now will signal when complete」
It was a short message that she probably typed while not looking at the terminal as a precaution, but the meaning was easily understandable.
Ikki called out his sister's name joyfully in his heart. As if responding to his call―
The water user Shizuku Kurogane raised a barrier to separate the hostages from the Rebellion soldiers. That was her signal.
A barrier of water abruptly rushing upward―only a Blazer could create such a thing. Bischof considered the possibility that some other knight had been hidden, and shouted―
"If you won't stay quiet then we'll just kill everyone! All of you bastards, fire on the hostages!"
At Bischof's order, the Adherents aimed at the civilians on the other side of the barrier and pulled their triggers in unison. Those hostages, startled by the water and then the volley of gunshots, panicked and screamed as if they'd been thrown into a cauldron of hot oil.
But not a single fired bullet reached the hostages. Despite making noise like a crashing waterfall, the bullets were all stopped by Shizuku's Noble Art, Shouha Suiren.
Water had very strong impact resistance, and falling onto its surface from high up was like hitting concrete. For a high-speed object like a rifle bullet, hitting ordinary water would be enough to break it to fragments, and water infused with Shizuku's magic power had a solidity like iron. Nothing made of lead could penetrate that.
And Shizuku was not fighting alone. At the same time she used Shouha Suiren, Ikki invoked Ittou Shura. He jumped from the third-floor atrium, making a decisive surprise attack from above Bischof's head.
"Tch! They had people above too!?"
But Bischof was a terrorist who had struggled through many extreme situations. Noticing the surprise attack immediately, he quickly made a countermove, reaching out toward Ikki's Intetsu with the same left hand that had caught Stella's Lævateinn before. The Judgment Ring that seized every single attack as sin―his left hand activated the ability that had rendered Stella's earth-shaking blow powerless.
Ikki's sword was only faster than Stella's sword; it was several times less powerful, so it couldn't penetrate that ability. The surprise attack must have been a blunder. Ikki's blow would surely be taken as sin and returned to him as penance―if Bischof's left hand could capture Ikki's flashing blade!
In that instant, Bischof saw something unbelievable: his own left arm flying in a spray of blood.
No matter how well Bischof's left hand rendered attacks powerless, it had no way to catch an attack Bischof couldn't see, and what Bischof couldn't catch, he couldn't stop. Ikki swung Intetsu with a speed that far exceeded human motion perception, so quickly that Ikki's own body couldn't track. It was an invisible slash, one of Ikki Kurogane's seven original sword techniques.
"The seventh secret blade―Raikou."
「I'll deal with the smaller fish, so Ikki, please incapacitate their vulgar monkey of a boss.」
Ikki did exactly as Arisuin said. With the invisible slash Raikou, he cleaved Bischof's sin-stealing left arm and sent it flying, then with a returning stroke he severed the right arm as well.
With both Bischof's arms were gone, it didn't matter how strong his bluster was, though these injuries hardly stopped the man's mouth.
"Gaaaah! M-My arms! You fucking―"
"Such noisy rattling, huh?"
But Bischof withdrew his rant the moment he saw Ikki's angry face.
"Even if it looks bad, I went easy on you. After what you did to Stella, I wouldn't mind taking another limb or two. After all, with treatment in an iPS capsule, that kind of trauma isn't permanent."
Ikki spurned Bischof by turning his freezing gaze away, as if from filth. The hostages he now surveyed were uninjured, meaning his move had been a success.
*Thump* Arisuin patted him on the shoulder.
"You did it, huh?"
"Alice. Are you also done over there?"
"Should I say that I'm done? Maybe it's done, instead? That girl's quite amazing, I think."
Ikki frowned at Arisuin's unclear words, and turned―but he soon saw what Arisuin meant. The Rebellion soldiers were collapsed here and there, not a single one still standing. On that battlefield, he could see only one person's back.
It was the Crimson Princess with her deep red hair swinging, her body clad in a dress of flame, and her hand gripping Lævateinn as it scattered flame. After suffering a critical strike and a disgrace she had never received before, Stella still made the first move and floored every one of the soldiers so quickly that Arisuin couldn't do his part. She had precise judgment with calm composure, and despite being humiliated so, she still controlled her strength. Ikki agreed with Arisuin's view that it was amazing, but―
Arisuin pushed Ikki lightly in Stella's direction.
"Let me report this to the people outside."
She shouldn't have been forced to do something like that!
Ikki ran up to Stella, and when she turned toward his voice, hugged her close.
"Ah! Hey, w-what!?"
Stella was confused and alarmed about being suddenly hugged, but Ikki didn't care. Right now, he knew he wanted to do this, so he tightly embraced Stella, concealing her skin with his own body. It seemed to put that gentle, heroic girl at ease.
"Sorry. If only I had come and saved you more quickly… then you wouldn't be embarrassed like this."
Whether his feelings were coming across or not, Stella entrusted her small trembling body to Ikki's embrace. Ikki tried not to look at Stella's expression, but his embrace remained strong.
Not long afterward, Shizuku called out to him.
"Shizuku, thanks. Raising a barrier was a big help. Was anyone injured?"
"Of course not. Do you think I'm that clumsy?"
Looking indignant, Shizuku extended to Stella the clothes Stella had dropped on the floor.
"I gathered them for you. You don't plan to stand around half-naked much longer, I hope."
"T-Thanks…. I'm surprised you'd do that for me."
"How rude. Shouldn't you be thankful that I covered for you after you rushed out so carelessly?"
Glowering at Shizuku, Stella self-consciously averted her gaze. But Shizuku―
"Still… I have a bit better opinion of you."
"I couldn't save that parent and child, yet you put your life on the line for a complete stranger's sake."
"…I-It's not like I was trying to look good. …But well, it would've been dangerous if your barrier hadn't been there. That technique was excellent…."
They had acted thoroughly hostile to each other until now, but whether from honest appraisal or embarrassment, Stella and Shizuku's glances were both unusually warm, and Ikki spied the exchange of some mutual acceptance.
It'd be nice if they could take this opportunity to get along better.
"Ah, that's right. Shizuku, can you cast healing?"
"Of course, but… no, you're not telling me you were hurt?"
"No, not me, him."
He pointed at Bischof. The man's bleeding was severe, so they couldn't leave him the way he was, and healing a wound by manipulating water was a skill limited to high-level water users.
"You don't need to connect the arm, just stop the blood. He'll become violent and troublesome again otherwise."
"I understand, Onii-sama. You wouldn't want this man's life on your conscience."
"I've rendered him powerless, but let's still be careful―"
An angry scream erupted from among the hostages. Ikki and the girls turned toward the voice, and saw a young man in a red T-shirt thrusting a handgun at a middle-aged woman's temple.
"P-Please save me!"
"Freeze, all of you brats! If you twitch, I'll blow this hag's head off!"
"Oh no, one slipped into the hostages?"
"…Hehe, hahahahaha! Hiding among the peasants ain't something only you kids can do!"
The criminal gave a distorted sneer with his tattooed face while blood gushed from both armless shoulders.
"Hey, the goth-loli midget over there!"
"M-Midget you say!?"
"Yeah you, midget. You said you do healing, so get over here and fix my arms! You won't tell me you can't, right? Hehehe…."
At Bischof's laugh, the middle-aged woman screamed again. If a gun was pressed to Ikki's temple, he'd probably do the same.
Ikki ground his teeth in anger. Ittou Shura was still active, but the muzzle was firmly pointed at the woman and he couldn't risk a discharge.
"We don't have a choice. He's taken control of the situation―"
"Not at all."
A boy's voice resounded directly in Ikki's head, then countless rays of light passed beside him. *Swish swish swish* They were magic arrows shining with sky-blue radiance.
The magic arrows pierced Bischof and the hostage-taker repeatedly, this time leaving them helpless for sure.
"What!? What was that―"
Stella shook at the sudden turn, but Ikki had seen this before. He knew this voice.
This technique is….
"Hahaha, well well, it's sad having to lend a hand after all. I didn't want to steal someone else's achievement."
The empty space before their eyes began to sparkle, and then the image of empty air crumbled like scales falling. In the midst of that crumbling, a slender young man appeared holding a bow-shaped Device. Even Arisuin, who was able to sense Bischof's group from a distance, hadn't detected him.
But it didn't surprise Ikki, because stealth was this young man's special ability. Ikki knew because they were originally classmates.
"Kirihara-kun. It's been a while, hasn't it?"
Shizuya Kirihara. Last year's top new student, and last year's Seven Stars Sword-Art Festival representative. Kirihara calmly smiled at this reunion, and sent a scornful gaze through narrowed eyelids.
"Yeah. It's been a while, Ikki Kurogane-kun. You're still attending school?"
Stella and Shizuku made noticeably unpleasant expressions, but this person had helped them, so they didn't complain.
Suddenly, around seven girls ran out from the middle of the hostages, pushed Ikki's group aside, and rushed up to Kirihara. They were Kirihara's girlfriends who came with him today to visit the mall.
"Kirihara-kuuun! We were so scared~!"
"You had a frightful experience because of my disappointing juniors, didn't you? But it's fine now."
"Yeah, I had faith that you would save me."
"Ah, Kirihara-sama~. You're so cool. After all, you're such a strong knight~"
Shizuku coughed and Stella scowled at the extravagant praise from these dressed-up girls, and at Kirihara for basking in that praise.
"…What an unlikeable fellow."
"This is the first time we've agreed on something, right?"
The police who Arisuin had contacted rushed into the courtyard just after Kirihara cleaned up the situation, and they began restraining Rebellion soldiers and caring for the hostages. Ikki saw that the turmoil on their day off was more or less over, and as the tension left him, his body shook violently and fell over. His fatigue from using Ittou Shura had gushed out.
"Ikki, are you okay?"
"…A-Ah, yeah, I'm fine. …If I rest a little, I can just about walk."
"Then you should sit down for a while, right?"
As Arisuin put Ikki on a food court bench, the police officer in charge called out and ran up to the four of them.
"Hey! You guys are the student knights who settled the affair, right? Will you come with me to the police station to make a report right now?"
"My my, it's not a good time, you know? We'd like Ikki to get some rest if we can."
Arisuin turned his gaze to Kirihara who was surrounded by girls, but―
"Should you be begging me to deal with a troublesome investigation after I cleaned everything up for you?"
―it seemed Kirihara didn't want to keep helping them quite so long. Giving that unapproachable refusal, he started talking with his female followers about going somewhere to relax.
"No, Alice. It's fine. …If I rest in the patrol car, I think I'll recover a bit."
"Ikki, you're not pushing yourself too much?"
"I'm fine. Nothing was really hurt…."
Ikki stood up, pretending to be tough despite his deeply fatigued expression. After a moment, he turned in Kirihara's direction and bowed lightly.
"Thank you, Kirihara-kun. You really saved us today."
"I don't need thanks. The strong should support the weak."
Stella and Shizuku again took on dangerous faces at Kirihara's malicious words, but having Ikki rest was more important to them right now than snapping at this boy, so Stella took Ikki's shoulder and tried to guide him to the patrol car.
"But Kurogane-kun… are you still trying to become a knight with that pitiful strength?"
Stella couldn't disregard Kirihara's scorn this time.
"You… how dare you!"
"Stella, it's fine."
"It's not fine! I won't stay quiet after such self-indulgent insults!"
Shaking off Ikki's attempt to restrain her anger, Stella lifted his shoulder away and pointed a finger at Kirihara.
"You can say what you want, but Ikki is much stronger than someone like you! I've seen his strength myself! Do you even amount to the dirt under his feet!?"
The biting words Stella threw were only wishful thinking. Stella didn't know Kirihara's power, didn't know the hopeless gap between Ikki and that boy.
"W-What's so funny!?"
"All of it! How can I help laughing at this? Saying the Failed Knight over there is stronger than me… hahaha! Him, the coward who once ran away because he was too scared to fight me? That's a masterpiece!"
Ikki ran away from a match? Stella turned her head in astonishment and disbelief, but… Ikki didn't deny it. He stayed quiet, staring at Kirihara, and she couldn't read his response. But Stella knew such a thing was impossible, so she once again turned to Kirihara.
"You're lying! There's no way it's true!"
"Hahaha, because you're convinced he's stronger."
"Exactly! Ikki won against me, so he's no ordinary knight!"
"Oh? Then Vermillion-kun, how about we make a wager?"
"…Wager, you say?"
Kirihara switched his gaze from Stella to Ikki.
"As a matter of fact, a good way to find out whether you're right or wrong is already prepared. Kurogane-kun, I'm guessing your datapad's off? Turn it on and take a look."
Ikki quickly pulled out his student datapad, and the moment it started up, a mail receipt message began. The sender was… the selection battle executive committee! And the contents―
「The opponent for Ikki Kurogane-sama's first selection battle match has been chosen: Shizuya Kirihara-sama from Year Two Class Three.」
"That's right, your first-match opponent is me, last year's Sword-Art Festival representative. Me, Shizuya Kirihara, who holds the nickname 'Hunter'. Our fight has already been scheduled, so if I lose I'll take back everything I said today, and apologize like Vermillion-kun demands. But if I win… I want her as one of my girlfriends."
Naturally, Ikki raised his voice to protest.
"Kirihara-kun! Don't make such a ridiculous―"
"Fine. I'll accept those terms."
Stella easily accepted it, to Ikki's chagrin.
"Stop, Stella, this doesn't mean anything! I don't need Kirihara-kun's apology!"
"Even if you don't need it, I do. I have no position of my own while the knight who beat me is called weak."
Ikki didn't give up trying to persuade her, and Stella didn't give in. Neither were willing to compromise, so unfortunately Kirihara's wager was set.
"That concludes the negotiations, right? Heh, it's a boring match that I'll win of course, but maybe now it's a bit more worth the bother? Let's meet in the arena next time, Kurogane-kun. I don't think I have to say it, but if you stand before me with such shabby power… well, you better be prepared. The selection battles are real combat, not like mock battles. Fight hard if you don't want to be killed. Ha ha ha!"
Laughing loudly, Kirihara left with his girls. Neither Arisuin nor Shizuku nor Stella had positive impressions of Kirihara after that display of arrogance.
"Hmm. His face is good, but having such a crooked personality is terrible."
"…What an unlikeable feeling."
"Ha, no matter what he says, you won against me, so you can easily beat that guy. Don't you think so?"
Stella expected Ikki to strongly agree. But―
"Do I? For me, he's the worst possible opponent."
―the answer she expected didn't come. Unlike Stella, Ikki knew Kirihara's overwhelming Noble Art, so he couldn't make a firm promise. This fight… Ikki had a hunch it would become gravely difficult.
And so the selection battles for the Seven Stars Sword-Art Festival began. Stella's, Shizuku's, and Arisuin's first matches were at the beginning of the week, on Monday. Ikki's first match with Kirihara was the next day, on Tuesday, and it would be Ikki's first official competition. It would be different from the mock battles up to now, a fight with real meaning. That debut battle was approaching before his eyes.
- Gothic Lolita: A Japanese female fashion subculture which involves Victorian-style dress. The "Gothic" subset of Lolita fashion emphasizes darker colors in clothing and makeup.
- Onee-san: "Big sister". In this context, it refers to a personality type based on an idealized young lady admirable for embodying elements of traditional Japanese femininity, such as gentle manner.
- Visual kei: A fashion style that is associated with male Japanese musicians of certain rock and pop-music genres. It typically combines flamboyant makeup, hairstyles, and outfits with an androgynous appearance.
- Okama: Male transvestite or homosexual. The term is also used to describe an effeminate man.
- Skinship: An act of deepening or reinforcing a close personal relationship by engaging in intimate skin-to-skin contact.
- Thirteen Ice Cream: A play on Thirty-One Ice Cream, Japan's name for its branches of the American ice cream chain Baskin-Robbins, based on its slogan of "31 flavors", one for each day of the month.
- R-15: Japanese movies are rated by the nation's Motion Picture Code of Ethics Committee, inspired by the American rating system, into the categories of G, PG-12, R-15, and R-18.
- Darkness Hermit: This uses the kanji 黒き隠者, Kuroki Inja ("Black Hermit").
- Shadow Walk: This uses the kanji 日陰道, Hikagedou ("Shadow Path").
- Empress Dress: This uses the kanji 妃竜の羽衣, Hiryuu no Hagoromo" ("Empress Dragon's Raiment")
- Bischof: A German surname, meaning "Bishop".
- Judgment Ring: This uses the kanji 大法官の指輪, Daihoukan no Yubiwa" ("Ring of the High Judge")
- Shadow Bind: This uses the kanji 影縫い, Kagenui ("Shadow Weave").
- Shouha Suiren, 障波水蓮: "Hindering Wave Water Lotus"
- Raikou, 雷光: "Lightning"
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