Difference between revisions of "Tenkyou no Alderamin:Volume 1 Chapter 2"
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“What kind of fruit is this? I haven’t seen it before…”
“What kind of fruit is this? I haven’t seen it before…”
“Ahh, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cashew Caju], right? Well, rather than being inedible, isn’t it a hundred times more preferable? It’s precious carbohydrate after all.”
Everyone excluding the princess shared a forced smile. On her clueless behalf, Haro added an explanation.
Everyone excluding the princess shared a forced smile. On her clueless behalf, Haro added an explanation.
Revision as of 06:34, 31 December 2014
All Quiet on the Eastern Front
There was no way to resist it. Being tossed about by the raging current with no sense of up or down, her eardrums screeching and shrieking with the pressure of the water- but more than that, the pressure of despair crushed her heart. Staring down the terror of death before your eyes for the first time since birth is not something you could possibly face with the power of reason.
The strength of her floundering arms and legs quickly exhausted. --As that happened, a light shone.
She could vaguely see that something was coming, traveling along a straight path that pierced through the darkness. At first, her arm was grasped- from there, her body embraced. She could hear the sound of a heart extremely close by. She could only think that it seemed the two of their pulses, passing through their touching skin, were synchronizing.
Inside her fading consciousness, she could tell that Death was clicking his tongue and growing distant from her as she was wrapped in light and warmth--
Crackle, crackle--with the sound of sparks popping, the young girl opened her eyes.
Her view was dark. With a small open fire as the sole light source, in the center of the orange light, human silhouettes emerged. A handsome young man anxiously gazing at the fire together with a plump youth whose teeth were chattering. As she turned even more, there was an imposing female with hair the same color as flames sitting on the left end. She was closely hugging her partner, a spirit, whom everyone was sharing to warm themselves.
“...Ah! Were you woken up?”
With a gentle voice close to her ear, she gradually noticed that she was being held upright. There was a feeling of soft breasts on her back, and warmth was being distributed from the skin in contact with hers across thin undergarments.
At her voice, before anything the red-haired female--Yatori rose and immediately knelt reverently.
“You were able to awaken, Your Highness, the Princess. ...Please allow me nothing but the privilege worshiping you like this.”
Except Haro, who was embracing the young girl, the other actors followed Yatori’s example and lowered their heads. Being shown respect from them, the young girl as well remembered, once more, her own rightful position.
“...You, raise your heads. It’s fine to eliminate etiquette- Under what circumstances...”
“Ah, as you wish. ...If I may explain concisely, during a boat trip headed to the venue for the High Grade Military Officer Exam, the Hirgano Archipelago, the boat which we happened to ride together encountered a storm and sunk. The only ones to narrowly escaped on lifeboat, were the six of us, including Your Highness. More importantly, after approximately two days of drifting, we drifted ashore a beach somewhere…thus, we are now living in an underground cave.”
Receiving Yatori’s report, the young girl widened her large eyes and sank into silence...after that, she took a full several minutes and organized her memories, making up for the gaps with the information she heard a moment ago.
“...I see, the ship… So that really wasn’t a dream?”
The unpleasant memory of being swallowed up by the pitch black ocean surface was brought back, and her shoulders suddenly trembled. Inside the layered outer garments she wore, Haro, embracing her small body, anxiously looked at her face from the side.
“During the two days of drifting, since the body of Your Highness, continuously struck by rain, became completely cold…this Haroma Bekkel and I, Yatorishino Igsem, had the honor of warming your body with our body warmth in turn. We were aware of our impoliteness, but for the lack of other methods, kindly pardon this much...”
When Haro ashamedly lowered her head, the girl expressed a wry smile and shook her head.
“I am grateful from my heart for your kindness. With this one fragile body, I don’t doubt that I might have died of the cold before waking. ...Incidentally, you. You just called yourself Yatorishino Igsem.”
“It’s been a long time. I visited your home on the occasion of the Imperial visit of the reigning emperor, is that already a story from eight years ago?”
At the few words the girl spoke aimlessly, Yatori lifted her bowed head without thinking.
“...You remember it? At that time, Your Highness had just become four years of age…”
“Counting traditionally, you were 10 years old. You noticed me feeling irritated that my hand couldn't reach a plate, and you took baked sweets from the table for me. Did you also similarly recognize my appearance?”
All the same, the girl herself knew that it might be an unjustifiable story. Yatori smiled vaguely and answered.
“Compared to that time, Your Highness exceeded my imagination and grew splendidly, so… Your golden-colored hair and the Katjvanmaninik engraved ring, if I had been negligent in some respect to even one of them, I wouldn’t have been able to be certain.”
That said, the girl pulled her left hand from an opening in the outer garments she wore layered together with Haro. What she fitted onto it was a ring plated with a design of the Eternal Spirit Tree, which served as the symbol of the Katjvarna Empire.
“...Indeed. This person is the third Imperial Princess of the present Katjvarna Empire, Shamiiyu Kitra Katjvanmaninik.”
Except Yatori, who was half-convinced, the other actors appeared to realize that the existence in front of their eyes was nobility with a self-introduction from the mouth of the person herself. After a dignified silence, the one first of all to start the conversation was Torway.
“...I’m Torway Remeon. I meet you for the first time, Your Highness, Princess Shamiiyu.”
“Umm, you’re the youngest of the Remeons. I’ve also heard rumors of you.”
“It is an honor. If it pleases you, if you would allow me just one inquiry…”
Without waiting for the end of Torway’s proposal, Her Highness, the Princess, began to answer in a firm tone.
“If it’s the reason that I happened to board the same ship as you did, I’ll answer without needing to be asked. In light of the worsening of the state of war with Kioka, as an extension of Imperial Family, I came to see the faces of the young people burdened with the future of this nation. It is also encouragement to the test-takers. It is nothing more or less than that.”
“But, any accompanying military officers or...?”
“Don’t finish your question. It's obvious that they sunk to the bottom of the ocean together with the boat.”
Somehow, there was an obstinance in the tone of Her Highness, Shamiiyuu- who'd anticipated and answered the question- that didn’t allow her scene partner to challenge her. ...But if there had been escorts, it was troubling that they didn’t see anyone near her both when they met on board and when she came onto the deck. Torway kept that doubt inside his chest for the moment.
“I-I’m called, Mashuu Tetdrich. Your Highness, the Princess, a-also allow me, a few words, if…”
While his well fleshed-out body, clung to tightly by a wet shirt, was trembling, Mashuu timidly cut into conversation. The gaze of Her Highness, the Princess, turned to him.
“Tetdrich… That is a pedigree entrusted with the Stationing Unit of Ebdorch Island in the Southwestern part of the Empire. I learned your name as well. If there is something you’d like to ask, then do as you like, Mashuu Tetdrich.”
Yatori, who was next to her, admired Her Highness, the Princess, who had fluently stated a summary of the Tetdrich Family, for her extensive knowledge. On the other side, starting to make his way over, Mashuu himself, seemingly without the time to even notice that he'd met a scene partner who knew his family name, faintly choked out a plea from his discolored, purple lips.
“I-if your body is s-sufficiently warmed, if you, would n-now r-r-return the outermost layer, you’re wearing, m-my coat…”
Hearing that, Her Highness, the Princess, then noticed for the first time that the outer garments of everyone in that area were lent for the purpose of warming herself. As one would expect, Haro, thinking that it was inexcusable, panickedly restrained the girl trying to slip out from inside the layered garments which substituted for blankets.
“Kya- y-you shouldn’t come out! Both the Princess and I are only in our underwear, you see!? Yatori-san, please return Mashuu’s clothing to him!”
Nodding, Yatori retrieved the just the outermost mantle and returned it, well-dried, to its owner. Merely taking advantage of that, Mashuu, wrapped in the middle of superior fabric and seeming to devote all his effort into not losing body heat, didn’t say anything since.
“Ah, the Princess’s clothing is also mostly dried… Then, I think that it’s a little difficult to do, but could we have you change clothing like this?”
“If it is your wish, then we don’t mind dismissing the males. Well, but there is a storm outside.”
At the appearance of Yatori speaking cruel things with a smile, Mashuu’s body trembled violently for a reason other than the cold. Her Highness, the Princess, refused her proposition- which wasn't good material for a joke- dismounted from Haro’s lap while wearing too much clothing with an unexpected promptness, and stood on the ground with her own legs for the first time in two days.
“Umm… I don’t feel unwell. I wonder if it’s because you warmed me.”
“That is above all, but now for a while, please be located near the fire. Under these conditions, if a cold or the like is caught by Your Highness, there’s nothing that can be done, even by us.”
Her Highness, the Princess, obediently complied with Yatori, who requested politely, but in a firm tone. Since sitting on the bare ground meant that her lower back would grow cold, she sat back down Haro’s lap in the end.
They surrounded the open fire in silence for a while, but Her Highness, the Princess, suddenly opened her mouth with a face as if she had been struck by lightning.
“...That’s right. I wonder if, the time the ship sunk, the person who rescued me when I was thrown out to the ocean is among us? There’s no mistaking that you all are the benefactors of my life, but I particularly want to express my thanks to that person. Come forward.”
“.... Please wait a moment.”
Rising, Yatori slipped out of their circle around the open fire and walked into the pitch dark depths of the cave. As a replacement for her disappearing figure, the sound of a limp, heavy object being kicked echoed across accompanied by a scream.
“Wake up, Ikta. It’s a call from Her Highness, the Princess.”
“...Have her reschedule. For me to meet with a party without an appointment... oof.”
The same sound and a yell echoed back three times. As for whether the ordeal was finally over, a youth with a hand affixed to his hip like an old man worrying over lower back pain, naked above the waist and wearing a light spirit in a pouch, revealed his form.
“...I’m Ikta Solork. Thanks, Your Highness, the Princess- in a good mood?”
“How- so there was another person? Then, you’re the one…?”
“Well, it was the spur of the moment, or should I say, I was the right person at the right time…. Since I was the only light spirit holder…”
Dressing up formally with a shirt handed to him by Haro, Ikta, in a dreadfully inappropriate gesture, bowed to Her Highness, Shamiiyu. Although in actuality, that was just him being kicked from behind by Yatori.
“I see. In any case, I give my thanks, Ikta Solork. In addition, to your partner, light spirit-dono as well. After I’ve safely returned to the capital, I’ll arrange for due compensation regarding your brave deeds.”
Kusu raised his head from inside the pouch. However, Ikta was sitting cross-legged at the moment.
“Then, it’s best if you can return safely, isn’t it...somehow…”
“Ikta. Stop speaking in a way that meaninglessly agitates anxiety.”
Yatori advised in a low voice. However, it was after her scene partner’s anxiety was already agitated.
“...It’s possible that return can’t be realized, you mean?”
“For us- who don’t know where this place is- quite so. It was fortunate that we were able to drift ashore while still alive, but even so we were carried away for a full two days in the middle of a storm. ...although on the way, I saw the sun come out in the upper right front side of boat’s course, so I just know that we were carried to the northeast.”
Ikta’s tone was trivial, but there was no aspect in contents that was glossed over with optimism. When Her Highness, the Princess, sunk into silence, Torway stood up to change the atmosphere, which had become considerably heavier.
“It seems the sound of rain has grown weaker. We also need to confirm the present location, and if that means going to observe outside, then perhaps we should go now. --Ik-kun, if you like, shall we go together?”
“That nickname, you really don’t learn…”
Even while grumbling, Ikta stood up with surprising obedience. With each of their spirits stored in their hip pouches- after Torway took up his own bag in addition to that- the two lined up and left the cave.
The time appeared to be early morning since the sky was already bright, and the pounding storm had weakened to the degree of a light drizzle. Brushing aside thickets, Ikta and Torway pushed their way through a trailless forested region that spread along the beach. During that, they had some slight conversation.
“Thank you for coming with me. To be honest, I wondered if Ik-kun wouldn’t think this was too much trouble.”
“Since Mashuu was in that state of health, and the girls were needed for the Princess’s protection, the lineup was decided by the process of elimination, right? I slack off when I need to slack off, but at times when if I slack off I’ll die, I’ll work.”
It was a twisted argument, but Torway never disliked that character of Ikta’s.
“So, about Her Highness, the Princess… Ik-kun, what do you think?”
“Even if there are suspicious points, I think that it’s best not to make any strange investigations. At best, you’ll get trapped in a bad situation.”
“Aw, right to the core of things. When you talk with me, you won’t return with humor?”
“I deliberately flip a switch. Even if I’m the funny man here, Yatoriisn’t with me… ah, I found something good.”
Ikta, finding a fruit-like object hanging from poison ivy, plucked it and threw it over to Torway. While biting into his own share, he explained.
“It’s the insect trap of the pitcher plant. When it ripens and becomes used for attracting insects, it’s not good anymore, but if it’s before the mouth has opened, the fluid inside can be used for drinking. It’s surprisingly sweet, so give it a try.”
“...Ah, it really is. It’s tart and delicious.”
“Put some in your sack for me. It'll tide us over until we find real food.”
Unable to put anything in their mouths outside the water created by Haro’s water spirit, everyone in the cave was being tormented by hunger. Torway merrily took down the sack from his back, plucked the insect traps within reach, and began stuffing.
“But, you and Mashuu both are people I look up to. Since, even when the ship we boarded sank, you carried those heavy things out with such great care.”
What Ikta meant was the iron, gun-like thing inside Torway’s sack that conspicuously asserted its existence. The firing of leaden balls with the pressure from using a pump such as that installed onto the "wind tunnel" in abdomen of his partner, a wind spirit, was the main weapon of modern-day soldiers-- so to speak, it was an air shooter barrel.
“Haha. I considered it a little, but I thought that thinking about whether or not it’d be a burden and throwing it away could wait until after we boarded the lifeboat. Since, for me, an applicant to the Air Gunner Division, it’s the most important thing next to the lives and partners of my allies.”
“Although it would be nice if we didn’t run into circumstances where that’d serve a purpose. At any rate, ahh I’m hungry…”
Throwing away the insect traps that had their contents sipped dry, Ikta and Torway, while listening to the chorus of the insects inside, they hurried ahead. While looking at a compass so they could move forward in a straight line and lose their way, they emerged to a grassland that interrupted the forested region in about 15 minutes.
As his field of vision was being suddenly cleared, Ikta surveyed the area and thus complained as the first thing out of his mouth. Coming a little later, Torway, upon witnessing the same sight as he did, was at a loss for words.
There was nothing surprising regarding the terrain. Extending considerably from east to west, an open field with a few undulations sprawled out uninterrupted. However, on the ground on the west side which they were supposed to follow back-- in addition to a natural mountain range and hills, something else stood as a further obstacle.
“...There’s no way…. I mean, that’s the west side…no matter how much we were carried off, this…!”
Even Torway, who had boasted a composure rivaling Yatori’s until now, couldn’t suppress the trembling of his voice this time. Displayed in his view were barbed wire entanglements running perpendicular to the shoreline that divided the open field in two, and within them, separated by fixed distances and dotting the area one by one, turrets meant for watch-keeping. From the closest one, he could even see the figures of actual soldiers coming in and out.
“...Somehow, it doesn’t seem like a delusion. The eastern border of the Katjvarna Empire, if it’s from here, we can see to the western side. Meaning, basically…”
In any case, as to not be found by the guard soldiers, the two hid their bodies in the shadows of the trees. --First three clicks of his tongue. Then he huffed out a single sigh, generously blended with resignation until he was satisfied, and-
“This place is already territory of the Kioka Republic… it’s regrettable, but it looks like we’ve descended into hell but for a paper-thin difference.”
Ikta Solork described a reality similar to his own personal nightmare with quite a simple metaphor.
Due to the report spilled from the mouths of Ikta and Torway once they returned, the atmosphere of inside the cave, far from becoming lighter, instead welcomed an increase in pressure to one similar to lead.
“...That… to think we were carried off to the other side of the national border.”
Haro murmured with a paled face. Mashuu, who just finally warmed his body, also let out a scream.
“Dammit…How can it be like this? Just when I thought we made it through…”
Regardless whether that was good or bad, Mashuu’s words spoke for everyone’s true feelings. Even the great Yatori was silent as if there was a need to rethink her words of encouragement. Before that, Ikta acknowledged the circumstances.
“Because it turned out like this, the options that we can actively select are limited. So before anything, concerning that point, I think it’s wise for us all to establish a common goal.”
Without waiting for a response, Ikta raised his right and left index fingers and held them up so they could be seen by everyone.
“The first, surrender to the Kioka Army and request reception as prisoners of war. Well, if anything it’s relatively reliable.”
A heavy silence filled the cramped space. There was not one person among them attracted to that option.
“The second, cross the national border and return to the Empire with our own power. This one’s quite the gamble, no?”
Talk was cheap. When they considered the difficulties of putting it to action, no one could easily give their support.
After having a not-brief pause for consideration, appearing to be speaking timidly, Mashuu opened his mouth.
“I-if we become prisoners of war, with the wartime treaty, our safety is guaranteed. Of course, we might be confined, but if we wait for a while, wouldn’t we be able to return to the Empire via a prisoner exchange...?”
Rather than a view grounded in reality, it was a wishful observation. Yatori shot it down completely.
“Still, that’s too optimistic, isn’t it? I think that even people without self-awareness are among us, but for the moment we are High Grade Military Officer cadets bearing the future of the Imperial Army, right? Just that is reason enough on Kioka's side to not want to send us back… even if you leave out that point- and this something including myself- among us, there are too many people who can serve as material for diplomatic exchange.”
“That’s true, isn’t it? Not even mentioning Her Highness the Princess, there’s Yatori-san, a descendent of the Igsem Family, and me, a descendant of the Remeon Family… under any circumstances, high prices would be set for these three as prisoners. Say for now that we are able to return, how much compensation will be required?”
“Goodness, people with high prices on their lives really suck, don't they? We can’t even secure our self-interests how we want to.”
Not one person had the composure to respond to the cynical remark which Ikta, with a stunned expression, had uttered.
“Well, that’s it in a nutshell, my buddy Mashuu. Even if we become prisoners of war in this place, we won’t be returned that easily to our country, and say we were returned, then quite the cost would be wrung out for us. And you should imagine the narrowness of our shoulders among other things once we’ve return to our country. ...Well, in addition, the situation if we choose this option, we can only hope that the people of Kioka won’t find the Tetdrich Family’s fame as hot information, right?”
Even reaching this point, there was no escaping the harshness of the sarcasm from Ikta’s words. Mashuu held his face and agonized, but, the next moment, a roar sounded across the cave as if to drive off those worries.
“Things like prisoners of war-- this isn’t a joke!”
Her Highness, Princess Shamiiyu, doing well to vigorously stand up, shouted with a look menacing enough to shake the flame of the open fire. Even as astonished gazes gathered on her, she still didn’t loosen her tone.
“There is no time to be stranded in a place like this! I- I must return as quickly as possible! Forget guard soldiers- cross the border using any means necessary! You, listen, in the event of our success, whatever reward- mmph!?”
At that moment, impolite to the extreme, two fingers pressed directly down on the lips of the tirading princess. While the other actors were dumbfounded, Ikta was looking down on the nobility in front of his eyes with a horribly cold expression.
“Quiet down a little, Princess. No matter how much you rant and dangle an extravagant reward in front of our noses, there’s no making the impossible possible. That degree of reason is something I’d like you to learn from history. That is, from our history of repeating the same things to a sickening degree.”
Having called him the benefactor of her life, the princess overlooked his shameless rudeness until now, but still, she was at a loss for words with this contempt. Since it escalated higher than she could handle, she didn’t know what to say back right away. In the end, there wasn’t a need for her to say anything. Since, Yatori, who broke in between them, twisted Ikta’s arm up and pulled his body to the ground without warning.
“--Your Highness, this thing has committed a grievous irreverence. Upon my word, he won’t speak such profanity a second time, so this time if you could somehow be merciful. In light of this thing’s service at the time of the ship sinking.”
While using enough strength to make his bones creak and his joints produce an unpleasant grinding sound, Yatori begged forgiveness in an unstrained voice. At her terrifying power, the princess forgot her fury and only shook her head vertically.
“I-t’s fine…. Certainly, it seems that I lacked composure…”
Ikta, having received forgiveness, was finally released from her defense technique. He stood without groaning once, but he was holding his twisted shoulder and seemed to be enduring considerable pain.
“You’ve reflected, haven’t you? Once you’ve given thanks for Her Highness’s generosity, go cool your head outside a bit.”
Leaving behind a reply which didn’t suggest that he’d reflected at all, Ikta left the cave together with Kusu. When his figure disappeared outside, Yatori turned to everyone remaining and made a single proposition.
“Whatever choice we make, there’s no point if no one has normal powers of judgment. It’s impossible to try to have a constructive discussion while hungry. For now, how about prioritizing our immediate survival and gathering food?”
“...Yep, I approve. If we can fill our stomachs, surely a good plan will come to mind.”
Following Torway, Haro and Mashuu also agreed one by one. The last remaining, Her Highness, Princess Shamiiyu, with the fiery haired girl’s intense eyes in front of her, had no other choice but to nod.
Ikta, chased out of the cave, began a food supply to satisfy his hunger without even being prompted by someone else. He appeared twisted on the surface, but, fundamentally, he was only moving according to the three main desires, and his behavioral principles were simple.
“Hm~m, cohune palm nuts sure are hard to harvest without a tool…”
Palm trees laden heavily with nuts were standing here and there, but he let them be for now and looked at the ground. When he concentrated his eyes intently, inside the damp brushwood, the living creatures of the forest, having greeted the morning, were moving around.
“Ah, he~y snake-san over there, quietly become meat for my plate, would you?… wha, you're long! S-s-s-so you were a python-sama? No, that- sorry, it was nothing.”
Watched intently by a scene partner of unexpected size, Ikta withdrew dejectedly. Ikta didn't possess the nerve to grapple with a three meter class serpent. Since wearing a snake around one’s neck among other things wasn’t considered very fashionable.
“In times like this, maybe I should follow Mother Nature’s heartless principles, and aim for weak things rather than big game. ...Oh, I found a grasshopper. Al~right, if I fry and eat this one, it’ll smell pretty good...”
“This is only fine for us, however. Insect eating is low-class cuisine, so Her Highness, the Princess, will definitely reject it.”
As he continued chasing grasshoppers around on all fours, the voice of his friend, who not long ago mercilessly wrenched his shoulder to its limit, rang out from behind. Ikta continued his acquisition without turning around, but Yatori continued speaking regardless.
“That affair earlier wasn’t very like you. Even if he spits out sarcasm as easily as breathing, the one who'll never get physical should be Ikta Solork, right?”
“Rather than being flawlessly consistent, it’s more charming for a character to be agitated once in a while.”
“Even if that’s the case, we can’t have your true character exposed here, can we? Show yourself taking a solid, composed action during a pressing state of emergency. There isn’t another appeal as effective as that, you know.”
Strangely, the exchange of words with Yatori in the leading role stopped there. There, with a bundle of grasshoppers in one hand and his back turned to his scene partner, Ikta began a soliloquy.
“Even like this, I’m reflecting, you see. I had the background knowledge that my scene partner was nobility, but I didn’t think that being flustered by someone in front of you would make me feel so aggravated.”
“That’s what I thought. ...So you can’t forgive a person of the ruling class behaving unintellectually?”
“Even though I was supposed to have given up a long time ago. Since nothing would happen even if I didn’t allow it.”
Ikta gave a self-deprecating sigh. Yatori opened her mouth after choosing her words a little.
“...This is a slightly irreverent way of saying it, but the behavior of Her Highness, Shamiiyu- before suggesting whether the Imperial Family is this way or that- is appropriate for her age. No, just not bursting in tears with these circumstances is a sufficiently considerable thing, don’t you think?”
“Right, that’s it. For someone like me, just saying that I had royalty for a scene partner is the best two-thirds of me. --Ah, by the way, if you have a knife, lend it to me?”
When Ikta skillfully turned around while crouching, Yatori, who was standing there, had unnoticedly armed herself with equipment without her clothing being disheveled in the slightest. She wore a saber on her right hip, and on her left hip, a main gauche.
This was the two-handed swordsmanship stance that became the reason for the “Igsem of the Blade, Remeon of the Bullet” fame rivalry. As the air shooter was to Torway, this to her was the next precious thing to her life- the object of her pride.
“If you nick the blade, I’ll kill you.”
Even so, Yatori extremely easily removed the main gauche that was half of that pride from her hip and granted it to Ikta. Of course, she wouldn’t allow that just anyone. However, concerning the strength of their relationship of mutual trust, there were parts that somehow exceeded the understanding of other people.
“So everyone’s assembled. Well then, please report each of your harvests.”
When the sun that was above the horizon had risen directly overhead, all six people assembled in front of the cave and contributed the results of their search for food. On top of the grass, flora and fauna of delectable color and form were lined up.
“Umm, since I wasn’t very good at chasing my scene partners, who moved around, I tried gathering focusing on fruit and mushroom species. For mushrooms, with the Boletales supply as my focus, I gathered large, filling ones, but fruits were more of a problem, and…. At first, I thought that I might find bananas or papayas, but in actuality these were the only things I could harvest.”
What Haro, saying that with a bit of a wry smile, was pointing at were fruits resembling orange bell peppers. There was easily enough for the number of people, and the vibrant, warmly-colored rind did indeed seem delicious. Her Highness, the Princess, having an interest, picked one up from the middle and looked at it.
“What kind of fruit is this? I haven’t seen it before…”
“Ahh, Caju, right? Well, rather than being inedible, isn’t it a hundred times more preferable? It’s precious carbohydrate after all.”
Everyone excluding the princess shared a forced smile. On her clueless behalf, Haro added an explanation.
“Princess, you’ve eaten cashew nuts before right? Those are a part of this fruit’s seed.”
“Oh, cashew nuts? If that’s the case, you seem to have an expectation for the taste?”
Not saying much, Haro only suggested, “Have a bite.”
As told, the princess, putting the orange fruit into her mouth, creased her brow and stiffened the moment her teeth bit into the surface. Her mouth regained freedom with about 30 seconds after apparently quite some difficulty biting through.
“How is it, Princess?”
”...It’s hard...puckery...grassy…. ...And, somewhat sweet…”
Despite being simple, the impressions hit the mark. When he felt for the first time that the atmosphere of the area relaxed even slightly, while the mood had yet to change completely, Torway took over.
“With that, I think it’s my turn next. Simple preparation in addition to good flavor, the coconut crab. Although since it’s the afternoon, I could only catch two.”
Two enormous, bundled creatures resembling hermit crabs were laid out side by side on the grass. Voices of admiration spontaneously rose for them. Coconuts crabs hid in burrows in the ground during the afternoon. To be able to catch them, it was necessary to find the entrance to the burrow and dig them out, but that wasn’t an easy task.
“...The middle of the day, moreover in this short time, two specimens of this size? You’re not half-bad...”
Yatori was watching Torway with burning eyes, but the person himself, embarrassed at being watched by Yatori, averted his eyes and repeatedly scratched his face. They were two people on completely different wavelengths.
“With that, I’m next. ...It was a close fight, but I plan to be the first to take responsibility.”
Giving that introduction with a broad grin, Yatori walked off to a nearby bush and came back dragging her own prey out from there, which she’d hidden aiming for a surprise.
Shouts of joy rose immediately.
“Ehhh!? I-is that a wild boar...!? No way, how did you with just one person…!”
“One stroke of a sword at the nape of its neck… if you look, that’s the only wound. That being said, did you really use that sword…!?”
Yatori, having gathered looks of awe to herself, threw her chest out with pride. For her, who had been in a class of her own from the start, admiration and respect- if she could receive those two things, the more she received, the greater her priceless reward was.
“...Next is me, isn’t it, as I expected…”
At a glance, Mashuu was in low spirits. Looking at the harvest he brought in, that could also agree.
“Although I’d like to proceed that way… This, what is it? Three smallish palm nuts, that’s fine, but the rind is broken and the juice inside all but leaked outside, isn’t it? I’m curious what kind of harvesting method you used for it to end up like this.”
“.... When I tried to harvest palm nuts, they were in a higher place than I thought. Since they didn’t fall even when I threw rocks, I thought I’d rather try to shoot them down...”
His partner, the wind spirit Tsuu, turned to Mashuu from his hip pouch with anxious eyes. Even with everyone saying nothing, his eyes and the air shooter barrel worn on his back his told the entire story of his failure.
“...My buddy Mashuu, every tool has has its uses. You can’t fire your gun to reach a solution for everything, you see. That kind of random shooting spree, without mincing words it’s something third world countries do.”
“Y-you’re the last person I wanna hear that from! Aren't you worse off than I am?”
Quite the dangerous joke slipped out of Ikta’s mouth, but before anyone noticed, Mashuu’s shout changed the conversation’s target. Cold stares were concentrating on Ikta’s harvest, piled in a mountain his feet.
“...Cicadas, grasshoppers, long-horned beetles, water scavenger beetles, giant water bugs, every kind of caterpillar…. How should I put it, that, it’s an extremely wild line-up, isn’t it...”
“W-well insects were the most convenient source of protein. Don't you think so?”
“And frogs…? You considered preservation and dried it, well, can I give you an evaluation?”
Although Ikta received a very delicate evaluation, the person himself whistled with his face without eating. Her Highness, the Princess, looking at the food he gathered, lost some color in her face and timidly asked a question.
“Y-you, eat this...? That is, how should I say it, are they really insects…?”
“Of course I eat it. This is my personal opinion, but giant water bugs are so disgusting I could die.”
“Hey- that’s where you should smooth things over! ...Your Highness, the Princess, please relax. Since even if you don't touch the insects, there is flexibility in the food we have."
Her Highness, the Princess, breathed a sigh of relief. Putting the ingredients they scraped up in front of her, Haro got fired up and rolled up her sleeves.
"With that, shall we immediately prepare some food? Even if I say that, although since we don't have a pot, we can only basically fry it. If we use things like leaves and clay cleverly, I wonder if we can manage something like steaming in a covered pot...?"
"Putting aside the part we could eat now, I'd like to smoke the boar meat, but sending up conspicuous amounts of smoke isn't the best. Mashuu, Torway, can have your partners suck in the smoke?"
When the cooking began under Haro and Yatori's leadership, nice smells immediately began to drift around the cave.
The performance of Haro, who'd been entrusted with the cooking, was surprisingly good, and when the sun began go down, they were able to take a late lunch. With the sensation that they were being restored to life, the six people stuffed their cheeks with their first decent meal in roughly two days.
"The meat is delicious~ You didn't even add any seasonings, but when I bite through, strong flavor comes out..."
"The steamed mushrooms and coconut crab are pretty good too. If I have any complaints, there isn't enough salt."
"If you boil sea water, you can get it easily, but if we go out to the shore, there really is too much of an unobstructed view. It'll be bad if we're found by Kioka soldiers watching from the national border, so I guess we'll make do with the taste of the raw materials here.”
Surrounding all sorts of menu items which were placed on leaves and lined up on the ground, they continued a harmonious dinner within their limitations. When some time passed, Mashuu, who suddenly regained energy with food in front of him, began revealing his positive view on his failures until now.
“I’ve been thinking the whole time, you see, since we have two air shooters here, isn’t it possible to even cross the national border depending on how we do it? Since somewhere on the long border, there has to be a place where their guard is understaffed.”
“When your stomach is full, you sure become cocky, don’t you? However, just listening to Ikta’s story- perhaps Kioka is focusing their course of advance to the side of the Empire in this area- their defense seems quite strong. Even if we walk along the national border to a place where their surveillance becomes thin, I think the odds are 10 to 1 that we’ll be discovered enroute.”
Mashuu, having received Yatori’s relentless criticisms, folded his arms and hummed. Next to him, while tossing grilled grasshoppers into his mouth, Ikta inserted his remark.
“We can’t take crossing the national border lightly. With that, a chance of success is born only after there is an assistant to both this side and the other side of the line. We don’t have that person. Although preferably if we can bribe a soldier it’ll probably be quick, but concerning goods that might turn into money among these members’ belongings…”
Ikta’s eyes were turned to the hand of Her Highness, the Princess, picking at the coconut crab meat- to be exact to the small ring fitted onto it. Speaking of straightforward valuables, that fit the bill, but still it was too much.
“...It might be a stretch to try and bribe the Republic’s soldiers with a ring openly engraved with the Imperial Family crest. If that’s the case, it’s still realistic to sell Yatori’s two blades. The craftsmanship is plain, but that, it’s quite a sharp blade right?”
“Oh, what an expert eye. Who was it I wonder who was allowed to prepare a frog with that sharp blade?”
“It was you used it to bring down a wild boar, no? A blade is a swordsman’s life.”
It was Ikta’s hypocritical excuse, but at any rate, there was no change in that it was insufficient as bribery material.
With the topic about to be paused since everyone was thinking, Her Highness, the Princess, who had been silent until now, opened her mouth for the first time.
“...Whether we’ll cross the national border on our own, or content ourselves as prisoners of war. Everyone has been contributing wisdom for a while, and when a plan where we can expect an adequate chance of success emerges, or if possibly nothing emerges, I want the decision made properly. ...The reality is that nothing changes no matter how much shout. I trust your judgment power and effectiveness.”
Hearing her speech, the other actors stared at the princess with surprised expressions. Ikta’s abusive words became a point of regret for himself who had spoken them, but they seemed to have also prompted the side that heard them to some reflection. In any case, that she was moved a small degree from the discussion was a desirable thing. Since, from a genuine standpoint, no matter what kind of unreasonable demand was spoken by Her Highness, the Princess, the others had to obey.
“...As Her Highness said, there’s no need to rush the decision, right? We can’t be leisurely about it, but let’s thoroughly take time to decide. Since we can’t be easily found here, and in terms of environment, the difficulty of survival isn’t that high. I think it’s fine if we have take one or two days as thinking time.”
Everyone agreed to Yatori’s words and established a lengthy grace period for the present.
When lunch ended in the middle of an atmosphere which was quiet in its own way. The actors, having recovered their energy and stamina, were outdoors each spending time on work for securing and maintaining their living space. But--since that was the case, because she had neither survival knowledge nor experience, one person emerged twiddling her thumbs.
“--Yatori, what is that used for?”
While idly coming and going in and out of the cave, Her Highness, Princess Shamiiyu talked to her scene partner who continued her manual labor in silence. Not stopping her hands which proceeded with their work, Yatori turned just her face toward her scene partner. Her partner, the fire spirit Shia, also sent an indifferent gaze from her hip pouch.
“Yes, Your Highness. I’m making a simple alarm device that uses nuts and string. If we lay this around our surroundings, when someone comes close, the nuts of the tree hanging down near the entrance of the cave will make noises and alert us.
Yatori’s answer was crisp and fluent, already just like a soldier’s. When the princess tried to say, “is there something I can help with,” she had already finished her work and promptly stood up vigorously.
“Then, I’ll install the finished product and come back. I apologize for forcing your inconvenience, but please don’t go out further than the range visible from the cave.”
When she confirmed that her scene partner nodded, Yatori jauntily turned her body around and disappeared into the trees. Her Highness, the Princess, having once more lost her place, drew closer nearby Haro, the sole remaining person of same gender.
“Haro, what are you doing?”
“Ah, Princess. Umm, now I’m making medicinal plants that are effective for swelling into a paste. If you are cautious about injuries, you can avoid them, but you can’t do that as much for insects bites.”
On top of a stone with a sunken center that she must have chosen on her own as a substitute for a container, Haro was grinding leaves, roots, and the like. Her partner, the water spirit Miru, was standing on the stone’s edge, and occasionally poured water from the “water spout” on his torso, helped Haro make smooth paste.
“Is there something, that I can also help with?”
“Huh? No, no, that’s- to borrow your hands, Princess! Please go on resting!”
Compelled by Haro’s intensity, who was rapidly shaking her head horizontally, Her Highness, the Princess, with neither knowledge nor experience at hand, withdrew unable to say anything. Something that even I can do-- while thinking that, she shifted her gaze to another place.
“Oi, Torway. That air shooter, isn’t the barrel a little too long?”
“Umm… It’s because I want to aim accurately as far as possible, and I can’t no matter what with something shorter than this. Although if I were a hunting soldier, who’d have to shoot while charging, as Maa-kun said a shorter one might be better.”
Tsuu and Safi, the two wind spirits, while sucking in smoke, were sending out fresh air and controlling the open fire. Around there, Mashuu and Torway were holding their air shooters in their hands.
Even here, she didn’t feel that she could easily force her way in. After hesitating and hesitating, she reluctantly chose Ikta Solork, who was sitting slightly removed from the cave’s entrance,
“...Solork. If you’re doing something, is there something I can also help with?”
Her calling of this just scene partner by his family name and not his first name expressed her complex mental state. But then, the person who was called, without an indication that he sensed that, continued his manual labor without looking aside.
“Nn, you’ll lend me a hand? I’m weaving these vines like this.”
When she looked into his hands, he knitting sturdy vines together and making some sort of woven object. Concluding it might an animal snare or something, Her Highness, the Princess, learned by imitation and took part in the work.
“Right, right, like that. There isn’t really a need to make it pretty.”
“I see, understood.”
It was her first experience with the likes of making something with her own hands, but once she understood the trick, the task wasn’t that hard.
While moving her hands on the object in silence without any conversation, the princess repeatedly stole glances at Ikta’s face.
He is an oblivious male, she thought at first. Considering those rash remarks from earlier, and that he let me help with the work normally, I wonder if he doesn’t differentiate between social statuses at all.
“Your hands stopped moving, you know.”
Finally, the directness of even giving that reminder. The princess, unembarrassed, eagerly wove the vines. After about ten minutes, their whole-hearted work came to fruition, and the thing the two of them were making was finished.
"...Solork, what is this? It doesn't seem like it's wide enough for a net."
"It is an essential item necessary to a human lifestyle, much more than a net is. Will you try using it?"
Saying that and standing up, Ikta cleared a suitable space, chose two standing trees, and stretched the woven vines between them like a spiderweb. Looking at the readied object, he nodded with satisfaction.
"It's pretty good craftsmanship. --Well, go on."
"'Go on'... you say, but-"
Being urged on was fine, but this was comparable to a situation where nothing could be done since Her Highness, the Princess didn't know what the thing was used for at all. As she stood still with a confused face, Ikta took the initiative and went out before her.
"Put your hips in a little. You use it like this, see."
He agilely placed his hips on the vines, and using them as a pivot point to rotate his body, turned sideways with his body swinging between the trees.
Watching that figure, Her Highness, the Princess, finally enlightened about what it was used for, thought of the time and labor that was spent and hung her shoulders.
"...A bed, right?"
"It's something called a navy purveyor, that is to say, a hammock. When you get used to it, it's quite comfortable."
"Right, right, now as if straightening your body with your hips as an axis-- Oh, wow, you were able to get on without a problem, weren't you?"
Ikta clapped his hands for the princess who somehow succeeded in lying down. She was made to feel ridiculous, but she, experiencing a hammock's snugness for the first, didn't have the time to say something about it.
"Although, beginners usually overturn once when getting on. Your highness is pretty talented."
"Were you hoping that I would overturn just now...? H-however this doesn't suit me. Rather, I'm afraid it might fall. I can't believe there are actually people who can sleep on this."
"Don't be so nervous, please relax your strength in the most stable position. Rather than laying out leaves on the bare earth and sleeping, I think you know that this is much more comfortable."
She adjusted her body position, and at the end of her troubles, when she found a position that couldn’t possibly unstable, the princess made up her mind and dismissed the strength from her body. For a moment, she that that she might overturn, but the makeshift hammock was unexpectedly taking her her body weight securely.
When she overcame the first hurdle, the composure to simply enjoy the circumstances was finally born in the princess. First of all, her perspective- that itself was fresh. The well-bred princess hadn’t had the experience of lying down outdoors until now.
The pleasant sound of leaves rustled in her ear, and the blueness of the sky peeking through the gaps in the green ceiling was beautiful. Due to the good ventilation of her back, she didn’t mind the heat that much. After falling into a dark ocean and opening her eyes to a dark cave, this felt like somewhere in her ever stiffened heart, something was coming unraveled.
“...I see, this isn’t bad. I feel at ease.”
“Right? The beginning of a single perfect day is only from a comfortable bed.”
The princess was thinking that it was amusing how Ikta puffed out his chest, but, suddenly, something cut across the piece of blue sky she was looking up at. Initially, she wondered if it was a bird, but the movements were too slow for that.
"...Solork. The strange thing floating on the sky, do you know what that is?"
Charged with that question, Ikta searched up at the sky, but the instant the same thing arrived in his line of sight, his expression immediately became grim. From there, his right arm firmly pushed his body weight on one side of the hammock.
As he kept watch, Ikta’s arm cleanly caught the body of the princess, who was on the verge of overturning and falling. Neglecting the dazed girl, he turned his heels and hastily began walking.
“They are Kiokan Aerial Warfare soldiers. One aircraft flying without setting a formation means that its mission is either reconnaissance or patrolling. Whichever it is, if it’s in a position that we can see from here, then there’s the fear that we’ll be found by them as well. It’s too bad especially since it seemed that you were understanding the joys of a hammock, but we’re holing up in the cave for a while.”
Giving her approval after the fact, the princess was carried off nearly without consent. She just surrendered to that audacity, but when she was being carried by not particularly strong arms, a memory was unintentionally brought back.
From inside his arms, Her Highness, Shamiiyu, quietly peeked at Ikta’s face. Then, she remembered-- that, inside the cold ocean, within the single beam of light that shredded the despair and darkness, she had her first encounter with this man.
Faced with the existence of the Aerial Warfare soldiers, everyone hid inside the cave as a cautionary measure, but before long the blimp hid its form inside a low cloud, and at approximately the same time, sunset arrived. However, for a while after that, the reality that they were "being watched from the sky" proved to be a great pressure, and the number of words they spoke became few.
Dead of night that same day. Inside the cave echoing with their individual, unconscious breathing, Her Highness, the Princess, opened her eyes.
In addition, it was not because Mashuu’s snoring was loud. Her sleep wasn’t disturbed to that extent. Despite that being the case, waking up was the result of a more severe, pressing circumstance.
Fortunately, it seemed that everyone including the spirits was sleeping well. The princess stealthily went out alone.
“...If I’m here, then I should be fine.”
When she came to a grove of trees fairly removed from the cave, the princess, anxiously looking around, reviewed the area and, after hesitating quite a bit, lowered her underpants along with her shorts. Since she met the experience of relieving herself outdoors once in her life during the afternoon, this was only her second time. She didn’t want to become even this accustomed to it over an eternity.
Taking time and finishing urinating, Her Highness, the Princess, took a handkerchief from the pocket of her coat and used it to wipe. Ordinarily, this would be when she’d throw it away, but now, it was her single precious sheet. She would need to wash it with water and dry it.
She raised her underpants while feeling miserable, and when she thought to stand up, then--.
“--There, who’s there!?”
The rustling sound of someone pushing through brushwood, and next the hoarse, echoing voice, made time stand still for the princess.
Going slightly back in time. The noise of rattling when hard fruits collide woke four of the five inside the cave who were lying in the depths of slumber, excluding Mashuu.
“--Everyone, please wake up! Something crossed our trip wire!”
Yatori’s voice, perfectly suppressed as to not echo outside, along with rousing Mashuu, stirred vigilance in the already awoken actors. A moment later, a lamp that dimly radiated light burned inside the cave. A white light different from a flame-- It was a lantern from the light spirit Kusu, whom Ikta had been hugging as he slept.
“...Wh-what? The Princess…?”
Haro frantically rubbed her sleepy eyes and looked around the area, but the figure of Her Highness, Shamiiyu, wasn’t anywhere. The moment they realized that fact, Yatori, Ikta, Torway- those three stood up nearly simultaneously.
“...Yatori, Torway, two seconds. Ready your weapons.”
Even before that was said by Ikta, two swords were worn on Yatori’s hip, and Torway was finished installing his air shooter barrel the torso of his partner, the wind spirit Safi. Kusu and Shia also stored their bodies in their respective pouches.
“We can go anytime. --But Ik-kun, you’re going unarmed?”
“It’s the forest at night. There’s no weapon superior to a light spirit, and if there’s no light your air shooter’s useless.”
“When I looked, the one that moved was the second sensor from the left. Our scene partner is straight on our left when we leave the cave.”
Haro and Mashuu, in contrast with the three who were exchanging knowing looks, weren’t keeping up with the change in their situation. However, among Yatori’s group, the people from which one could expect a proper performance during an emergency, no one urged on the remaining two people after figured out their objective.
“Mashuu, Haro. If we don’t come back, please choose to become prisoners of war without hesitation.”
Taking Yatori’s short and severe words as a signal, the three went off running outside the cave.
She’d been found by the enemy. The instant she understood the reality, Her Highness, the Princess, couldn’t make any kind of reaction. While making the dry sound of stepping on dead branch, she knew that the presence was rapidly coming closer. Rough footsteps and breathing overlapped and began to be audible. He wasn’t alone. Was it two, or three, or more-- the princess, in a state of half-panic, didn’t know what to do with her thoughts, which were spinning uselessly as if to make up for her unmoving body.
“Quickly raise both your hands and come out! We have a gun, if there is strange behavior, we’ll shoot you on the spot!”
The noun gun, the verb shoot, she remembered for a second time the image of death carved out in stormy sea. Even though she had to escape quickly, when that happened, her body listened less and less to what she was saying. While facing her ruin, this time as well as before, holding her breath and crouching down was the best she could do, but--
“S-stop, don’t shoot! I’m coming out now…!”
A panicked shriek rose from the shadows of a tree other than the area where Her Highness, the Princess, was crouching. Her firmly shut eyes opened widely. That was undeniably Ikta Solork’s voice.
“Over there! Don’t make any more movements, we’ll confirm your location from here.”
Following that voice, a dazzling light ran through the center of the dark forest. The enemies, seeming to have a light spirit holder as well, used a high beam and started probing the source of the voice. Before long, a black haired youth was illuminated inside the white light.
“Your speech, that’s a dialect from the Empire, isn’t it? Who the hell are you?! Why are you here!?”
“I-I escaped the Empire and came here! Since the war won’t ever end, and my house was burned up by Aerial Warfare soldiers, I’m really fed up with that Empire! I mean, the Republic’s looking pretty good, ain’t it!? Take me with you as an ally...!”
Every single word of Ikta’s lines implied desperation, and even to Her Highness, the Princess, who was listening nearby, it didn’t seem to be an act. He was clinging merely to hope and fleeing here, just a refugee begging for his life.
“...I thought that’s what it was, another refugee, huh.”
“Ahh, that’s right! On the night of the storm the day before yesterday, I crossed the border by sea! Rolled up in the waves, I thought I was going to die, but like finally, I barely made it!”
“What about your allies? You came here alone!?”
“My mom is with me! She’s sleeping the cave in the place straight in front of here! She's not doin' so hot ‘cause she kept on being hit by the rain. I mean, you guys are Kioka Army soldiers, right!? Help us out!”
While squinting his eyes in the radiance of the high beam, Ikta continued his words with a desperate expression. His fervent speech seeming to have born results, the men, wearing deep green military uniforms with their air shooters readied, slowly approached him.
“We understand the circumstances, lead us the cave. You can relax. The Republic universally accepts refugees.”
“...You’re going to help us? T-thanks, it’s this way! It ain’t that far-- Ah, ow!”
Ikta, turning his body with a face as if meeting the Buddha in hell- possibly having a bad experience with a tree root- stumbled forcefully. When he hastily tried to get back up, this time he gave a scream and ending up crouching.
“Hss, I twisted my ankle…. S-soldier, sorry, but won’t you lend me a shoulder…?!”
“You’re a troublesome guy, aren’t you. ...Hey, Nihad. You help too. Also Irik, we don’t need the high beam anymore, so come here with a lantern.”
One soldier holding an air shooter already came and took Ikta’s hand. Furthermore from behind, the man with the light spirit walked over while changing the light emitted from the “light cavity” into a gentle lantern.
“I-is this all of you guys? My mom can’t walk on her own, and even for carrying her, the help…”
“We’re the only ones who come here. But, if she’s not a very plump madame, we should be fine.”
“...I see. So it’s only you guys?”
Ikta, mumbling quietly, innocently stretched both his arms. Doing that, he tightly grasped, one each in his left and right palms, the air shooter barrels of the soldiers whose hands he borrowed to stand up.
“...Wha!? What are you doing?! Let go of my hand--”
“Pattern 3! Destroy them, Yatori, Torway!”
Just when Ikta shouted facing the darkness of the background, the modest yet piercing sound of firing air shooter echoed. A soldier, the light spirit holder, the flesh of his face grazed by a lead bullet, held his cheek and raised a scream.
“...gh, missing by that much…!”
The voice of Torway reverberated, manic with irritation. An extremely effective first strike was completely wasted. The Kioka army soldiers, sensing that they had fallen for a trap, immediately began recovering their stance.
“Irik, are you alright!? Stop the light immediately and fall back! There are air shooter holders among the other group as well, we’ll be targets like this!
While kicking at Ikta, who seized the guns, as if tearing him off, the middle aged soldier who appeared to be the leader yelled in a loud voice. It was the correct judgment given the situation, but that was why it was possible for Ikta to predict it.
Withstanding the pain of being kicked, despite stubbornly clinging to the barrels, Ikta also sent out instructions. Kusu, previously on standby in a tree with good perspective, received them and emitted a high beam from his torso. The wounded soldier who tried to extinguish the light and slip into the darkness was illuminated a second time in the middle of the darkness.
The fourth shot Torway fired pierced under the hands he held up trying to block the light. The bullet penetrated his eyeball and reached his brain, and their pitiable foe sunk into an eternal sleep from which there was no waking up a second time.
“--Irik!? Damn, I won’t let you get away, you bastard!”
A full-bodied kick heavy with anger thrust Ikta aside and knocked his body to the ground.
“Die, Imperial scum!”
The mouths of two guns, hungry for a meal, were pointed at Ikta who’d exposed his defenselessness. However, the instant the triggers were about to be mercilessly pulled-- a red shadow racing through the brushwood danced around the backs of the two Kioka soldiers.
Trails of silver cleaved the darkness. A saber on the right cut down the neck of the first, and with a flowing sequence of movements, a main gauche on the left stabbed the back of the second. Living up to the fame of the “Igsem of the Blade”, from the time she approached until Yatori brought down the enemy, not two seconds had passed.
The two bodies collapsed with a thud at roughly the same time. However, they couldn’t be careless yet. Facing right and left, while turning the tips of her saber and main gauche toward both necks, Yatori gave a warning.
“Don’t move, spirits! If you resist, your masters die!”
Despite fumbling with their long air shooter barrels, the strings of escaped wind spirits trying hard to stand up on the other side stopped at her words. ...All spirits acted with the lives of the humans with whom they made an agreement as their top priority. Taking their partners hostage was an effective way of rendering spirits powerless.
“Ikta, you’re alright? --Torway! Take the spirits of the companions I brought down with you!”
Nodding at Yatori’s instructions, Torway cautiously approached the side of the fallen soldiers. The corpses were lying face down. The figure of the remaining light spirit, shaking his master’s body with small hands, was heartbreaking.
“...Spirit, your master has already-”
Died- Torway couldn’t utter that word at the moment. It wasn’t impossible. Until now he had been able to lose himself in entering the battlefield, but for him and his allies, this was their first time in actual combat.
The instant one experiences the reality of “I killed someone” varies depending on the person. In Torway’s case, that wasn’t when the one he killed was in front of him, but rather, he experienced it strongly when he “saw the figures of those remaining”.
“Torway, leave that luxury for later. It’s not over yet.”
Ikta's callous advice snatched the time to bask in sentimentality away from the soldier in his first fight. Torway firmly stifled the emotions welling from the depths of his heart, and, taking up in his arms the spirits standing motionless in the wake of their masters’ deaths, returned in the direction of his allies.
“Nnn, the one whose neck you cut is dead. Seems like the only one who’s still breathing is the one whose back you stabbed.”
Sitting near the collapsed enemy, Ikta confirmed the deaths of their scene partners. The usual easy-going youth wasn’t there. From the moment the alarm sounded, he was- more than anyone- composed, and cruel.
“Sorry, I didn’t have the time to think about capturing them alive…”
Yatori, who had personally cut them down, had the belief that they were fatal wounds. Ikta also assumed that and nodded.
“There’s nothing we can do. Well his mouth at least should be functioning.”
Saying that, he turned the body of the enemy soldier face up. The stab wound missed the heart, appearing to have somehow punctured the lungs, and the enemy soldier’s breathing was whistling and shaky. At any rate, it was clear from the amount of blood loss that there wasn’t much of his life remaining, but Ikta, in addition to knowing that, began talking to him.
“Hey, you can hear me, right? Your name is? Ahh, actually nevermind your name. You have a name tag.”
Ikta’s hand stretched and removed the sheet copper hanging from the soldier’s neck. Confirming that he was being watched by his companion’s eyes, which were losing their light, continued further.
“Member of the Seventh Independent Battalion of the Republic Army, Private Nihad Vu of Aerial Warfare. You’re a rather unlucky new recruit.”
“We’ll give you medical care. However, that’s after you’ve answered our questions. If you don’t speak clearly, we’re leaving you and going back.”
Ikta dangled a superficial hope in front of his eyes, but the dying soldier had no choice but to cling to it. Considering that his remaining life was ticking away, the questions started.
“Question One-- Where is your base? Approximately how far is the location?”
“...T-to the east, half a day with a blimp…”
“Alright, that’s good. Question Two-- For what mission, and how many forces were mobilized? Your reason for landing here?”
“...Mission, patrolling the inside of the border… forces... forces, not united…. Squads of three per group, came here on blimps…. Landing here, a cave good for camping...hack, hack.”
In the middle of his answer, Private Nihad spit out a cough mixed with blood. While expressionlessly wiping a drop of blood that caught on his face, Ikta continued the questioning.
“I see, so it was to pass the night above ground. Well then, Question Three-- where is the blimp you came on?”
“I can’t hear you. The medical care will be too late, answer properly.”
“...Leave, the forest, straight along the beach…. It's cold… please… please stop the blood…”
“Got it, next is the last question. --Nihad Vu. Have you been to the border?”
Mustering his strength and turning his neck left and right, Nihad coughed violently and spit out blood a second time. With that at it’s peak, his breathing rapidly weakened...within the passing of a minute, the rising and falling motion of his chest disappeared completely.
Murmuring a short, “good work,” to the young man who couldn’t answer anything anymore, Ikta stood up.
“Ahh, you can come out now, Princess. Everyone’s dead.”
At that dispassionate voice, Her Highness, hiding in the trees, froze her body. There was something that rejected outsiders in the atmosphere around Ikta at the moment.
Yatori, noticing Her Highness, the Princess, being frightened, in the course of her assumptions, went to receive the girl on her own.
“Your Highness, it’s Yatori. Please come here. Ahh, thank goodness, you were unharmed.”
Her shoulder propped up by Yatori, the princess finally stood up properly. As the two returned together, Ikta, gathering the spirits who lost their masters in one place, turned to them and made a proposal.
"It's too bad, but your partners- they all died. I'm sure there are those among you who want to report their deaths back to their unit or something. But, we can't allow that. Because we’re going to stay alive."
Neither a negotiation nor a persuasion, that was a kind of formality. When only the enemy spirits who'd lost their masters remained on the battlefield, concerning their treatment, that was decided by the Scriptures of Alderah, which preached friendship between humans and spirits.
“I swear on the name of Alderamin, Supreme God of the heavens, that we will reincarnate you in the Church of the Empire, and thereafter promise you appropriate treatment as prisoners of war. --Therefore, please entrust them to us, your souls.
A while after granting audience to Ikta’s words, making a sound like hard objects being rubbed together, the three spirits fell over facedown. From the napes of their necks, one section of black slate measuring several centimeters flew out. It was called a “soul stone,” the source of a spirit’s will.
“...Thank you. They are in our care.”
When he handed them to his allies after collecting and picking them up with his fingers, Ikta crouched in there and took on his shoulder Nihad’s corpse, still left with the warmth from his lifetime. At his action, Torway revealed his confusion.
“Huh, you’re carrying the dead body...? If they don’t have any more allies, then if we hide the body in the brushwood...”
“We're safe for the time being. Torway, you can bask in the sentimentality of your first fight as much as you want now.”
A strong voice interrupted his sound reasoning. While advancing his heavy stride step by step, Ikta spoke as if he was struggling.
“Therefore, allow that luxury to me as well. --This guy spoke clearly, didn’t he?”
No one was there who had the privilege to advance a different opinion.
After everything, with about two round trips, the remains of the Kioka soldiers were carried to the vicinity of the cave without a single one left behind. Mashuu and Haro, greeting the four who returned, breathed a sigh of relief before anything. After that, Mashuu went outside together with Ikta, and Haro was assigned to look after Her Highness, the Princess, who was in a slight state of shock.
Currently inside the cave, there remained two groups: Haro and Her Highness, the Princess, and Yatori and Torway. Torway was looking at his own air shooter before the open fire, with an expression as depressed as that of the princess.
“...To miss, by that much…”
He failed to bring down the enemy with the first shot, and as a result he appeared to feel guilty for having exposed Ikta to those dangerous eyes. On the opposite side across the open fire, while holding her sword in her hand, Yatori cut into the conversation.
“A moving enemy is completely different from targets during training. If you brought him down with four shots, then that’s a good performance for your first fight.”
“But, the enemy was nearly stationary…”
“I’m saying, anyone would be nervous in in that situation. It’s normal that one couldn’t produce even half of their true ability.”
“That’s no more than an excuse. Just now, Yatori-san and Ik-kun devoted your very best with composure.”
Yatori huffily stood up and held the face of Torway, stuck in a loop of self-condemnation, with both hands.
“Don’t get too full of yourself, Torway Remeon. Don’t value yourself over something like being able to do the same things as me and Ikta. The talents people have are completely different things depending on the individual. Concerning strength of performance, I pride myself in losing to no one. Being imitated easily would be unbearable.”
Torway widened his eyes and looked at his scene partner, but at the same time he couldn’t not notice. That Yatori’s palms, touching his cheeks, were cold, and that they were trembling slightly even now.
That was right. Today, for the first time in her life, she also stole the life of a stranger with those hands.
“What’s important, is that you reliably perform the tasks that you’re able to. As air shooter holders, you and Mashuu are valuable assets at the moment. Since the worst bullet, even if it doesn’t hit, can make your scene partner cautious. This time, since you made the enemy extinguish his light with that, wasn’t I able to approach relatively safely?”
Hearing that, Torway took on a slightly comforted expression. Yatori huffed and pulled back.
“...You ought to learn little from watching Ikta. He may be carefree, but that guy always knows the things he can and can’t do, and acts accordingly. This time, since he couldn’t become an immediate asset, he undertook the dangerous role of decoy, and the other wretched one. Would you have been able to complete that interrogation on your dying human scene partner?”
Torway dropped his gaze and kept silent. The figures of the bewildered spirits near the dead bodies were brought back.
“You wouldn’t have, right? But, you’re fine like that. For now, at least. That is to say, your role in this party is to be a kind, gentlemanly older brother. You shouldn’t feel obliged to do more. Ikta sees himself and stands in that position.”
“...Yatori-san, you understand Ikta rather well, don’t you.”
Yatoiri shrugged her shoulders and ambiguously answered, “who knows,” to the young man gazing at her with conflicted expression.
Her Highness, Shamiiyu, apparently having recovered her composure somehow as the result of Haro’s smoothing over, talked to Yatori, who seemed to just be finishing holding her sword, in a stiffened voice.
“Yatori, may I also see the corpses of the Kioka soldiers?”
“...That’s- my apologies, but-”
Yatori hesitated slightly, but seeing the princess’s tormented expression, the words, “I don’t think you should,” drew back inside her throat. Binding to her belt her two swords stored in their sheaths, she took the hand of Her Highness, the Princess, and went outside the cave.
Three corpses were lined up beneath a noticeably large dipterocarp tree. Their military uniforms and tags were stripped off, leaving only their undergarments. It was suggested that they would be useful later on, the one who stripped all they had from the unsuspecting dead, was also Ikta. The thoughts of Her Highness, the Princess, couldn’t understand a simple idea.
“...I heard that Solork outwitted them by pretending to be a refugee from the Empire.”
“What kind of reaction did the Kioka soldiers have? Were they rough, or were they courteous?”
When she considered the mental state of Her Highness, the Princess, Yatori couldn’t answer easily. However, in the end, she couldn’t bring a lie to her mouth and injure the honor of the dead.
“...I think, that they were courteous. It seemed they- no, the current Republic itself is proactive in regards to accepting refugees. If the Republic warmly receives escaped Imperial citizens, the people from the Eastern Province who abandon their country and flee will increase higher and higher, and that is linked with the effect of the reduction in the Empire’s power.”
“Our scene partners who stretched out a hand to accept us, we killed them with a sneak attack…”
Yatori could see that she was slightly uncomfortable. ...Was she feeling guilty about killing the soldiers of the neighboring state with which they were at war in with unfair methods? Not that she didn’t understand, but wasn’t the Imperial Family’s wording strange?... At the least, as the official stance of the nation, every war conducted should be founded in the name of justice. And even though Her Highness, Shamiiyu was a member of the Imperial Family, in other words, a chief figure which assumed the name of that justice-
“That is the truth. However, Your Highness, your words-”
The princess shook her head and interrupted Yatori, who opened her mouth to defend her own and her allies’ honor.
“Everyone says it, I understand. --This is my responsibility. The one who ordered you to, ‘send me safely back to the Empire,’ was none other than myself. How could I criticize you?”
While staring intently at the dead bodies of the Kioka soldiers, Her Highness, the Princess, was unconsciously gnawing the center of her index finger. The words that could be overheard from her mouth were no longer directed towards anyone.
“...Three people died here. As long as we go on like this, more people will continue to die. Both friends and enemies… The nation that is supposed to exist to support people’s lives, why does its Imperial Family continue to idly damage lives in this way as well...?”
Her soliloquy continued endlessly. Even though the teeth gnawing her finger had broken through skin, the person herself didn’t notice.
“Forgive me… please forgive me..., I must return home alive…. In order to overtake the moment when the large tree will decay and collapse by even one second, I must do anything return…. Even if my punishment is Hell, somehow…. For instance if my limbs are torn off, or my intestines dragged out… even if I’m lined up with the reigning emperor and crucified, so…”
Blood trickled down from the skin of her finger. The color of her eyes was clearly unusual. Although the princess continued to mumble as if she were delirious, Yatori, aware that she was her attendant, hesitated to-
“--Calm yourself, Princess. A luxury such as self-mutilation is one that ought to be enjoyed once you’ve returned home safely.”
Fortunately, Ikta, having come back, crossed that line in her stead. The princess, with her arm grabbed by the youth, possibly startled by the sudden contact, entered a state of panic and flailed her arms and legs.
“Let go, let go, Solork...! Who said it was fine to touch me…?!”
“Excuse me for not earning something like your approval. More importantly, look, blo~od is coming out, blood. Your hand is completely red, isn’t it? In this condition, do you understand that this red fluid is literally a drop of your life?”
“Blood, blood, you say?! I don’t care. This annoying substance ought to leak out without a single drop remaining! You don’t understand by seeing it? It’s rotten, this is rotten! My blood- the Katjvanmaninik bloodline- was corrupted a long time ago!”
While struggling even more violently, Her Highness, the Princess, shouted incomprehensible details. Ikta watched over her condition with a serious face, but before long, as he breathed a light sigh, he forcibly pulled the princess’s arm toward himself, and without saying a word pressed his lips onto the wound on her finger.
Even Her Highness, the Princess, stopped struggling and froze. Ikta roughly sucked the fluid flowing from her wounded index finger with his mouth until the bleeding lessened, then releasing his lips as if nothing happened.
“I don’t sense it by seeing it, nor by tasting it. ...Princess, the stuff called blood is continually created and replaced inside the body, you see. It won’t become rotten as long as it’s inside living creatures. Therefore, whether it’s annoying or whatever, your way of saying it was unscientific.”
“It’s neologism by the intellectuals. In short, it’s a bothersome and unreasonable way of thinking that’s largely useless. You don’t need want nor adhere to it; you ought to think more simply and see the true nature of everything. --For the time being, you want to return to the Empire, don’t you?”
At the question, the princess returned a reflective nod. Ikta lifted his lips in a smile.
“If that’s the case, you should only think about staying alive. When you distribute energy to unnecessary things, your troubles just increase. Besides, Princess-- you may have forgotten, but when the ship sunk, I myself was struggling to save you. ...This is nothing in the realm of hardships. But if it becomes a strain and I’m unhappy, I will feel only hatred on the day it becomes a wasted effort.”
Ikta’s hands held her small right hand between them. The same warmth as before reached the princess across their skin.
“So please treat your life with care. Even a small wound is connected to a major disease like tetanus, you know.”
“...Solork. So you didn’t hate me…?”
“Nope, I don’t think anything in regards to Your Highness personally. About one thing recently… well, it was something like a childish burst of anger. If it’s not too late now, I apologize. That was inexcusable.”
Quickly bowing his face deeply, Ikta released the princess’s hand, and said, “I’ll come back with Haro,” as he returned to the cave. While watching his back with a dazed face, the princess looked at the index finger of her right hand, conscious of the feeling of the dried lips that were held there for a brief time.
“...Yatori. Ikta Solork, in the end, what kind of man is he…?”
At the question of Her Highness, Shamiiyu, Yatori, after thinking for a long time, answered clearly despite making a sarcastic laugh.
“He is a twisted man. ...However, Your Highness- you can’t build a house with only straight sticks.”
After Her Highness, Shamiiyu, and Yatori return to the cave. With the sound of shoes treading on moist earth echoing in the darkness, Ikta unexpectedly wandered back in front of the dead bodies quietly laying down.
“--Sorry about that. Even as far as offerings go, this is all I have.”
Saying that, he lined up smoked boar meat and caju flesh in front of the corpses. When that was over, he had Kusu turn on a lantern near the resting Kioka soldiers and went around looking at each of their tags.
“Private Nihad Vu of Aerial Warfare, Private Irik Bahuzah of Aerial Warfare, Sergeant Hadiakka Ogholee. I’ll be sure to remember your names. ...Nnn, I guess Irik was relatively handsome. That wasn’t nice of us.”
Staring at his face, which had been unrecognizably destroyed by a bullet, Ikta gave a light sigh. While staring at the profile of his face, Kusu inserted some words.
“It was a justified act of self-defense. Ikta, please don’t be disheartened.”
“Thanks, Kusu. Of course it was a justified action. Maybe, for them as well.”
For a long time after that, Ikta was quiet, gazing at the corpses. Since they knew that they, without saving the souls of the dead, were only comforting their own hearts.
Before long, the night sky began growing light, and Ikta, not speaking a word the whole time, turned his heel and returned to the cave. In the end, he couldn’t come out with the words of eulogy he had been mulling over the whole time from the beginning to end.
On the next day, which he greeted while sleep-deprived, Ikta brought all of his allies to the beach along the center of the tropical forest. After they walked for nearly an hour, when they were sweating under their clothes, they finally reached their targeted location.
“That’s it. If we’re here, we can’t be seen from the border, and even if we go out onto the sand, I don’t think there’s a problem. Urged on by Ikta, leaving from inside the forest and going under the sun for first time in a while, widened their eyes at the large silhouette that was there.
A dome inflated into a bulging sphere, and a small basket meant for installed under it meant for a crew. The shape they saw from up close was much larger than it was rumoured to be, and, if things didn’t go well, it would look more like a monster than a mode of transportation.
"Waah- so this is a blimp...?"
Haro, her eyes sparkling with curiosity, quickly drew closer.
Ikta gave a warning to Yatori, Torway, and Mashuu, the three people chasing after her.
"Hey, there’s a ban on fire near the blimp. Shia ought to know, so I think it's fine, but make sure you don't raise sparks by striking your swords or air shooters together."
It seemed that they couldn’t understand the reason for the “ban on fire”, but in any case, becoming cautious, they stopped halfway to the blimp. Haro, starting by peering into the basket, tilted her head at what was inside.
“Is that a fire spirit? Both that one and the three others whose souls fell out…”
“Ahh. When we came for a preliminary inspection before dawn, since it was blimp-sitting, we disconnected its soul stone and made it into our prisoner. We were nervous because we thought its human partner might be nearby, but it didn’t seem that was possibly given what Ikta said…”
“Aside from the crew and this spirit, three more fire spirits are required for one blimp, my buddy Mashuu.”
There were some who turned a surprised look toward Ikta, who gave a plausible explanation, and others, a doubtful one.
“The way you said that, Ik-kun, do you possibly know the mechanics of a blimp...?”
“Amazing- where did you learn that!? It’s certainly not made with the Church of Alderah’s-- ah-”
Remembering that Her Highness, the Princess, was right nearby, Haro panicked and shut her mouth. The person herself made a display of shaking her head with an innocent face.
“I’m not a priest, and it’s currently a time of emergency concerning all of our lives. As long as you don’t go too far, it’s fine to forget about the principles of the Church of Alderah. If need be, please devote your very best.”
“Even Her Highness is saying this, so, Ikta, don’t hold back and tell us. ...In the first place, how does something like a blimp float in the sky? Is it because it’s inflated and bulging with air? If that’s it, then don’t frogs or pufferfish also seem like they could fly?”
When Mashuu argued his naive speculations, Ikta nodded sleepily while scratching his head.
“If you're set on that I have no choice then- I'll explain the mechanics simply. ...Answer this first, my buddy Mashuu. Have you ever gone swimming in the ocean?”
“Sure I have. I'm not bad with movement either.”
“I know, being able to move relatively quickly considering your physique is one of your strong points. Now that we've established that, whenever you swim, how does your body float on the water? Is there some kind of trick?”
“A trick... if it's just floating, I guess that would be not uselessly adding energy, and holding plenty of air in your chest.”
“That's right, if you hold air in water, you're able to float aren't you? That reason is simple, because air is way lighter than water. Bubbles you spit out from your mouth inside the water go straight to the water's surface, no? The mechanism of a blimp floating in the sky is exactly the same. Essentially, you're just doing this in the air.”
“In the air...? But, the stuff that's inflating the blimp is air, isn't it?”
“That's true, but there are many kinds of air, Mashuu. Hmm, shall we change our comparison a bit? --Then, Haro, haven't you felt cooler when you lie down on a hot day?”
“Ah...yes, I have. I often took afternoon naps together with my younger brothers.”
"Thanks for that heartwarming episode. That's right, You're cooler when you're sleeping than when you're standing. Because hot air naturally rises to the top, and reversely cool air stops at the bottom. So, I want you to relax your minds and think about that just a bit-- if I were to say it differently, doesn't it mean that hot air is lighter than cool air?"
The first things after those words, as if something clicked in his mind, Torway clapped his hands together.
“--I see, I got it, Ik-kun! In other words, the air inside the dome, or blimp, is warmed by the flames of a fire spirit, making the entirety of the fuselage lighter than the air outside and it floats!”
The young man answering gleefully, but Ikta turned his thumb downward while sticking out his tongue
“Bzzt! Sorry about that triumphant face, but you're wrong, ikemen. Well, it can fly with that in theory though. However, the practical problem is whether fire spirits could create fire endlessly- eventually they'll run out of fire, and on the day they load the fuel, it'll be too heavy and it won't be able to float. The hot air balloon you're talking about is transportation of the imagination for now. Hey! You got that?”
“When Torway is your scene partner, your attitude becomes pretty outspoken, doesn't it...? It's fine, so tell us the right answer without being mean.”
Ikta, admonished by a stunned-faced Yatori, nodded slightly and turned toward her.
“O~kay. Since Shia is also here, this will quicker with a stage show. Let's see... does anybody have a silk handkerchief or something? It'd be better if it's as thin and fine-textured as possible though.”
Ikta didn't miss the movements of Her Highness, the Princess, who immediately clutched her pocket the moment he called out.
“Oh, Princess. It appears that you have something that fits the description.”
“Y-you can't have this! Find something else!”
“You're pretty cruel, aren't you? Even though earlier you just said, 'If need be, devote your very best.'”
The princess, prodded in a painful place, stopped her words of rejection. Ikta had already come to know how to deal with her. As part of the Imperial Family, it was the rare strength of her sense of responsibility that was Her Highness, Shamiiyu's virtue as well as weakness.
“Although, for working out a plan for this point forward, it's a very important explanation... You won't let me have it no matter what?”
Being asked again in that manner, the princess, feeling that she had an obligation, couldn't continue shaking her head horizontally. Ikta took the handkerchief which the young girl removed from her pocket with quivering hand using an affected carefulness.
“I am grateful for your kindness. ..Ahh, this is good fabric. I'll be back after I soak it a bit.”
When he confirmed that the thing met his requirements, Ikta ran to the water's edge and dipped the handkerchief in seawater. Bringing that back without wringing the moisture, and wrapped the right hand of the fire spirit Shia whom Yatori was hugging, with the dripping cloth.
“Haro, let Shia drink some water from Miru's 'water spout' for me. Yatori, you remember this, don't you?”
“Yes. I placed my hands directly above his 'fire chamber', didn't I?”
When Shia drank up about a bowlful of water, while layering her own palm on his right hand, Yatori gave an order.
“Shia, light a fire in your right hand. One minute is fine.”
Shia shook his head horizontally and refused her command. It was because he couldn't inflict a burn onto his master.
“You can't light it? That won't work- please do it as much as you are able to.”
When Yatori modified and repeated her order, after a little while, the hissing sound of air escaping from the handkerchief covering Shia's right hand began to be heard. Following that, the handkerchief covering the fire spirit's hand gradually rose with the pressure inside.
“Alright, this looks good.”
Ikta, Choosing a suitable time, took a string meant for sewing from his breast pocket and tightly gathered the bottom side of the inflated handkerchief with it. Doing that, he then unfastened the small cloth dome trapping gas inside from Shia's hand and showed it to everyone.
“Please watch carefully, since it's only for a moment. --and, go!”
Ikta released his hand at a low position, and the inflated handkerchief, not yielding to gravity, to the contrary somehow rose to the sky. As surprised voices rose, he caught the handkerchief which was escaping toward the sky with both hands.
“A floating gas blimp dependent on the light air that fire spirits produce when they drink water such as when I did that trick earlier-- better known as 'rising air'. That's the principle behind the Kioka Republic's blimp. Incidentally, when you light 'rising air' on fire, it explodes while burning. That's a type of fire called 'spit fire' which you learn about in the Alderah Theology Spirit Department. Imperial citizens do nothing but look at the phenomenon called 'fire', but they should also turn to the gas that acts as its source, no?”
Torway's nicely shaped eyebrows rose greatly at the impact of the thing that occurred in front of his eyes.
“That's amazing, Ik-kun.... I knew about 'spit fire' as well, but I didn't hear anything except that it was useless fire that didn't nothing but explode fiercely. To think that it had such a ground-breaking function...”
“That's because 'rising air' displays its real worth when you use it in large amounts. Normally, it's difficult to use even if you burn it.”
“That's so weird... Why don't they talk about 'rising air' in class even though they teach about 'spit fire?' Is that because the construction of a blimp is prohibited?”
Yatori gently answered Mashuu's question, which was full of discontent.
“You reversed the cause and effect, Mashuu. It's because rising air can only be obtained in this manner that the Church of Alderah prohibited the construction of blimps. Though I think that you understand since you saw the trick earlier- this time we had Shia produced something we normally wouldn't be able to have him produce.”
“--Huh? He wouldn't make that for you normally?”
“Of course not. Even if I order something like, 'produce rising air' or 'produce the source of spit fire', a fire spirit would never produce the same thing. This thing called 'rising air' is no more than a byproduct of Shia's efforts to not burn me<written as:主 (master); read as:私 (I, me)</ref> if he can help it and somehow try to produce 'spit fire.'”
“...I see. In a way, you can't obtain it without 'deceiving your spirit.' I don't understand it. Considering that having a human obtain this is not the true intent for a spirit nor for the Supreme God, it might be a reasonable argument from the standpoint of the Church of Alderah which guides everyone...”
“Although, concerning the prohibition of blimps, there's also the separate reason of engaging in 'insolent behavior such as rising in the sky with a human body, or trying to draw closer to the Supreme God of the Heavens without acknowledging one's rightful place.' Well, whatever the case--”
“It's similarly 'unscientific,' as you said it, Solork.”
Her Highness, Shamiiyu, pouting her lips, took her next lines early. While shrugging his shoulders, Ikta untied the string binding the borrowed handkerchief as if he just remembered.
“No no, I wouldn't think those disrespectful things even in a dream.”
Her Highness, the Princess, snatched the handkerchief, which Ikta innocently tried to touch to his forehead, with a desperate expression. When she remembered what she had used that for last night, she was about to emit flames from her face by just having it held by someone else.
While turning a completely unrestrained smile toward the princess- who was making threats- Ikta resumed his speech.
“Well then, we got slightly off topic. Since my point was how to use this blimp.”
“Can't we all ride it and cross the border? It's cramped, but if we somehow force ourselves...”
“Quite the challenger, my buddy Mashuu. However, sorry to say, but the limit on passengers is three people. Well, Her Highness, Shamiiyu, is small, and if the three girls and skinny old me board together, we might be able to just barely go with four people. Though on the contrary, if Mashuu and Torway board, it'll be at full capacity just with that.”
“In addition, wind direction is a problem, isn't it? Since the blimp doesn't have its own propulsion, movement is entirely dependent on the wind. The same as a sailboat, in order to read and catch the wind, skill and familiarity with the terrain should be necessary. The Kioka Aerial Warfare soldiers who practiced here are the only ones who can do that. We can't compensate for knowledge and experience.”
Yatori contributed, and Mashuu and Haro moaned with sullen faces. It was a rather difficult problem. The blimp left behind by the Kioka soldiers didn't seem to be enough of a 'gift from providence' for them to be calm.
However, Ikta then shook his head in a surprisingly light manner.
“No, it's nothing to be so disappointed about. Since, fortunately, plenty of gas is left inside the dome. Once we have Shia refill it a little bit and release the ballast, we can at least float the blimp.”
“But what are you going to do once you're floating...? If we can't advanced in our desired direction, then, then it's meaningless...”
Ikta turned a seemingly mean-spirited smile towards Her Highness, the Princess, who was gathering wrinkles on her forehead.
“Princess, in times like these you change your perspective. If we can't use it as transportation, then we should think of another way to use it. Even this, it's like a lady's dress being tailored so it's one size fits all.”
Haro and Mashuu tilted their heads sideways, and Torway was the fastest to guess at Ikta's intention.
“I see... This blimp itself can be material for a trade with the Kioka Army?”
“This time you're correct, ikemen. The blimp, made into something that determines superiority in this war, has a high the cost of manufacture, and for the Kioka Army, each and every aircraft is a precious treasure. They won't let go of one so easily. Of course, I don't expect that it would equal something like the bodies of six mere refugees”
“So it's an unconventional hostage. ...But, there's still a problem. How do you plan to get our scene partners to the negotiation table? Even if you threaten them with something like, 'if you don't accept our commands we break it,' blimps, unlike humans, won't walk. There's no way we can cross the border while holding an air shooter at its back and return it when we arrive to the other side."
"That's right. The Kioka Army might wary of us for trying to trade a blimp to cross over to the Empire's side. How ever you look at it, since it's simply not refugee behavior, we'll inevitably be suspected as spies. It should probably be a negotiation involving the commander of the border guards. If he sees through my identity in that time- even if they lose a single blimp- we might be the ones presenting a rather valuable hostage from our side instead..."
However, Ikta's smile didn't waver even slightly at the objections of Yatori and Her Highness, the Princess.
"That might happen if negotiations are dragged on. ... But, I don't intend on having them involve their higher ups. I'm aiming for lower class officers like the squad leader or platoon commander. I also plan to prepare some cheap tricks on our side so they aren't able to exercise their own judgment."
His allies' gazes silently asked about the “scheme”. Ikta stuck his hand in his pant pocket, and took out the tag he stripped from the unlucky Kioka soldier from the previous night's battle.
"First, since Kioka Army uniforms are a dark green color, if we wash out the blood stains, they'll be unnoticeable. Second, the deceased owner of this tag isn't that different from me in both age and physique. And third- I think Yatori already knows this though, speaking of the trademark gag when I entertain women, 'A Kioka Citizen when he's ~ ' series is definitely happening."
Everyone's eyes gradually took on the color of understanding. Ikta watched that until he was satisfied, then spoke.
"I wonder. Unless that kind of performance succeeds with someone from this group, I don't want to hear that there aren't enough actors."
Entrusted with the position of commanding the 67th Platoon of the Kioka Army Western Border Defense Unit along the shore, Second Lieutenant Jif Halrum wasn't exactly a great commander gifted with talent, but there was an established reputation in the reliability of her work ethic. Her sense of duty, understanding her position as a non-commissioned officer and completing the task she was given to neither deficiency nor excess, was valued by her superior officers.
Guarding the border required patience. And yet- because the opportunity to perform a brilliant deed or service was close to non-existent- it was all the more a task which talented or ambitious people weren't inclined to take. All day long, while continuing to exchange glares with the Imperial Army that set up camp on the opposite side of the border, there was also a need for them to direct their awareness to the ocean so they couldn't go around by boat.
Well, they ended with just sending the “no abnormalities” light signal facing their superior officer, usually three times a day. They gave as much food as they could to the refugees who crossed the border, then on a weekly basis, they assisted in sending them to the village on the rear side. It was a cause for annoyance that their numbers were increasing by the day.
"The time is sunset. Private Romari of Correspondance requests a report from the Squad Commander."
Even when they gave orders to the Correspondence soldiers, they didn't need to mention each and every detail. Nothing happened today that merited a report. Their stage partners were also fully aware of this.
"Goodness, so today also dawned and twilit without a thing..."
It seems that he's forgotten that it's war time- thought Nejif while watching her inferior leave. The reason being, the Empire hadn't conducted a large-scale invasion on the Republic even once since the start of the war. As a result of the Aerial Warfare Division's activity, the progression the war consistently and one-sidedly shifted in their favor. As personnel set aside as preparation for attack, the job of Nejif and the others was practically no different than if they were in peacetime conditions.
“If itll be like this until the end, it's nice that we'll end without our allies dying, but... does the Empire have no intention of waging war seriously?”
It was obvious to Nejif. For the Empire, which didn't have a way to readily counter the Aerial Warfare soldiers, attacking was the only way to begin their efforts in this war. Even though they'd only exhaust themselves even if they continue their defense, why didn't they implement that....? Even though it was something even a child would understand- despite being their enemy, he was getting frustrated.
“Second Lieutenant, there are friendly troops from the rear side!”
The things which one low grade officer worried about- her futile meditations- were cut off by the update of hher subordinate officer rushing to the tent. While thinking about whether she had an appointment for a visit of some sort, Nejif rose from her chair.
“Isn't this sudden? Which unit are they? We don't have the preparations to greet them, but-”
“Their affiliation is unclear, but they're a small number. However, even from a distance, it's a strange line-up...”
There was perplexity on her subordinate's face. Nejif, deciding for now to see for herself, exited the tent.
The unscheduled friendly troops were coming closer one by one to a distance where she could discern their faces. There was one Republic soldier, two males- one plump and the other tall- dressed in lightly dirtied clothing, and furthermore three female children.
“...A refugee delivery?”
It was common for soldiers assigned to the patrolling mission to find and capture refugees, then bring those persons to the Border Defense Unit. Although it was a rare case that the refugees numbered even greater than the soldiers.
“--Stop there! Soldier in the front, reveal your affiliated unit and full name!”
Determining that her stage partners had come to a distance to which her voice would carry, Nejif commanded them in a loud voice. Hearing that, the solider straightened his spine and bowed, then began speaking at a rapid pace from which one could sense slight panic.
“I am a member of the Seventh Independent Battalion of the Republic Army, aboard Patrol Craft 24, Private Nihad Vu of Aerial Warfare! I apologize for not making arrangements, but I'd like to ask for an audience with your commander as soon as possible!”
“Aerial Warfare Solider Nihad? I am Second Liutenant Nejif Halrum, commanding the 67th Platoon of the Kioka Army Western Border Defense Unit, but what are you in such a hurry about? First, if you're on a patrolling mission, you're supposed to move in groups of three per squad. What happened to the remaining two?”
When the reply came back immediately, the young soldier who introduced himself as Nihad- an Ikta Solork in disguise- showed a paled face that didn't seem like an act at all.
“There was a situation and they aren't here. Anyway, since there is no time, I shall give a brief explanation. --Please look to the eastern sky. Do you see that a blimp floating is floating there?”
Hearing that, Nejif also noticed the round silhouette floating in the sunset sky. Since it wasn't strange for blimps to fly to the vicinity of the border from the rear side, she hadn't been particularly aware of it until now, but....
“It's flying at a pretty low altitude, isn't it? What is is doing? And once the sun sets, landing will become pretty difficult too...”
“Even if wants to land, it isn't able to. The ones aboard that blimp right now aren't my partners. They are the allies of these people.”
Nihad motioned toward the people he brought along. Nejif lifted her eyebrows without thinking.
“...What did you say?”
“These people are refugees who came from the Empire. On the day of the storm from before. It seems that they drifted to the Republic in a small boat. Assigned on a patrolling mission, we landed in this vicinity temporarily since night was approaching, but we came across these people in the forest along the shore.”
“From there the story gets complicated.... The moment we encountered them, when we fired one shot from an air shooter to intimidate them, the startled bunch began to flee all at once. Chasing after them, we were able to capture one each, but unfortunately, the direction they escaped to was the location where we left the blimp, and...”
Her scene partner appeared to have fallen silent from shame, and Nejif guessed with the entire situation.
“...It was stolen! You suffered an embarrassing defeat at the hands of the refugees, and lost the Republic Army's precious blimp!”
“I don't have any excuses. I wouldn't have any objections to being torn limb from limb in the Public Court for this.”
In the opening when the emotion of surprise outweighed that of suspicion inside Nejif, Ikta casually mixed in his cheap tricks.
The “Public Court” was the popular name for the Kioka Republic's Judicial Branch, and it allowed the attendance of ordinary citizens to preserve the impartiality of the arrangements. So to speak, it was “a place where people's sins are openly judged as the public- sovereign in the nation- watches attentively,” but on the other hand, the citizens of the republic- especially government officials and soldiers, positions that receive salary from taxes, follow the cliche where they reflect and contemplate their own lives.
In the monarchical Katjvarna Empire, the phrase for dealing with this would be “before His Majesty, the Emperor without even a defense,” or “humbly reporting a failure in a court of martial law”. It was a small difference that gave rise to the variations between the systems of government and the characteristics of their citizens, but if not for this minor part, the humans would regard their stage partners as compatriots.
“...But, Nejif-dono. Before that, won't you please help lighten my crime?”
“Even if I wanted to, we must have that blimp returned to us no matter what!”
“That is why I'd like to receive your help. One of the refugees who stole that blimp, in the short time as they broke from the ground and floated high into the sky, thrust a deal at us.”
“A deal...? Just what were the details?”
“It was, 'give my family and allies plenty of food, and see them to Empire under the pretense of returning prisoners of war. Once I see that their six figures have crossed the border half-way, I'll lower the blimp.'”
Nejif's expression distorted with annoyance, and her mouth spit out unproductive words.
“Ridiculous, I thought they're people who abandoned their native land. Do they think that the Empire is now still warmly welcome those who abandoned it and came running back? Surrendering to us and becoming citizens of the Republic is the wiser choice by far.”
“That's what I think too, but there's no persuading the people themselves of that now. On the other side of that, since they already terrorized us and stole our blimp, they should be in a state of mind where they won't respond to our attempts. When we first met them, if we had received them peacefully without intimidating them, then it might be a different story, but...”
That's exactly right- Nejif seemed about to yell. No matter if they were refugees who abandoned the Empire, their hearts were probably wavering in the space between their native land and this new one. If a gun or something was suddenly fired in the middle off that, it's not impossible that they would end up thinking that Kioka had no intention of receiving them.
“Even though an order to give refugees a warm reception was handed down, you did a pretty thoughtless thing.... No, I won't start to blame only you, Aerial Warfare soldier Nihad. More importantly, what about the other two? In the formation of the Aerial Warfare Division, wasn't a sergeant supposed to be included?”
It was logic that the highest ranked person would come to meet him- Nejif was implicitly reproaching him. Under a false panicked expression, Ikta was actually nervous. Because whether or not he could manipulate this part would decide the success or failure of the scheme.
“There were circumstances for that.... My allies are taking different route than I am, and they are now directly under the blimp. The ones currently aboard it are amateurs, so it isn't impossible that some time for whatever reason they won't sink to the ground, or even ride the wind and be carried off to the side of the Empire. We had to leave some hands to secure or destroy the fuselage when that happens. At the minimum, two people are require to secure it, and when it comes to the decision of destroying it, the one entrusted with the heavy responsibility of that decision, no one but the squad leader...”
Nejif was at a loss for reproaching words. Certainly, if it amounted to handing it over to enemy hands, they had to destroy it. Perhaps because there wasn't much gas inside because it was stolen immediately following landing, the blimp was even now just barely drifting within range of an air shooter. If that was the case, then it perhaps it might be possible to shoot it down.
However, since it was a blimp, shooting it down with an air shooter came with the possibility of disaster- the blimp popping and scattering- which they couldn't ignore. If that happened, the deaths of those onboard were certain, and the Kioka soldiers would also have lost a precious blimp in its entirety. They had to avoid that as far as they could. It was now that Nejif understood what he himself was aiming for.
“Don't tell me, Private Nihad... Do you plan to give in to the threats and have the refugees cross over to the side of the Empire? No, the fact of the matter is that you're referring that accommodation to me?”
“I'm ashamed, but as you guessed...”
“Ridiculous- as if I can engage in that kind of conduct by own discretion! In the first place, I don't have the authority! My mission is to get rid of people trying to cross the border without permission- I can't ferry people who're already on the inside the border to the opposite shore!”
“I am aware of that, but please consider it carefully. The ones who'll be blamed for the failure aren't restricted to only us. These refugees came here by crossing the ocean under Lieutenant Nejif's jurisdiction.”
At those words, Nejif opened her eyes wide with shock. ...That was right. She had done nothing but criticize her scene partner, but when she saw it from this perspective, wasn't it also her own error? Even being ordered to receive refugees warmly didn't mean one should let them pass through the border without stopping them. Of course, to urge a citizen of the Empire to flee, they had intentionally created several gaps in defense on the border line. But, these people hadn't crossed through those.
Ikta saw that Nejif's heart, wavering between responsibility and self-preservation, was in his hand. As someone with a strong sense of responsibility, she wasn't running to simple solution of self-preservation, but nonetheless, Nejif did possess that kind of character.
But, the youth discerned it. According to the art of war- one must create an escape route for an enemy driven to the wall.
“...Lieutenant Nejif. If I express my own thoughts, we ought to make taking back the blimp our higher priority. The crime of sending back refugees, the crime of losing a blimp. When it comes to that, the one Lieutenant should choose is the one that results in smaller losses for the Republic, right?”
Ikta's crafty side lay in having the achievement of self-preservation and of responsibility coexist. He let her digest that the deportation of refugees, or abusing one's authority, was a small vice for the great affair of taking back the blimp. That self preservation just happened to be nothing more than a consequence of that. To make a steadfast character shift, this kind of set up was effective.
“...I-I can't make the decision by myself. I'll contact the company commander via light signal, so for now just...”
“Please stop the jokes! Relaying these circumstances by light signal would require too much effort, and do you think that that blimp will stay in Kioka skies until you finish speaking with your superior!? If you'll let me speak as a person lined up as the lowest of Aerial Warfare soldiers, the possibility that the wind in the upper sky will begin blowing toward the ocean from now is strong. If that happens, since the blimp might descend far into the open ocean, we will have no choice but to shoot it down. At any rate, a precious armament will be lost from our hands!”
Of course, Ikta had no intention of either letting him dial his superior nor thoroughly think it over. This scheme, if one was calm, had several holes to be found. More important than anything was to steal his time for making a decision. He had to make him believe that the plan he proposed was “the only thing they could do.”
“O-once we lead these people, is there a guarantee that that blimp will come down!? From the perspective of those on board, isn't that simply returning in the middle of their enemies a suicide mission?!”
“No, they'll definitely come down. ...Lieutenant, have you ever been aboard a blimp?”
“Well, no, but...”
“Then you probably don't know. How lonely it is boarding that and floating in the sky. People by nature are creatures that live with their feet planted on the ground. Defying that and taking to the sky requires immense courage. During training, even I was seized with the feeling that my body was paralyzed. At that time there was only one thing I could think of... I want to return to the ground, even one second earlier- only that. There was no room to care about anything else.”
“B-but aren't they actually doing that and enduring it right now?!”
“If the lives of family and friends are in the balance, even fear might be lost in desperation. But the very moment the tensioned string is cut, they will realize it- the fact that they are in the sky with no one to turn to.”
The reasoning that Ikta used for persuasion was, of course, plain improvisation, but for Nejif who had heard it, it echoed weightily as an experience which only 'someone who knows the sky' could speak of. Even the five people impersonating refugees and spying on the situation could help but be amazed by his acting ability.
Authority disappeared from Nejif's objection. With that, Ikta knew that he'd overcome the difficult part of the negotiation.
“...Even if we bring these people to the side of the Empire, it's evening. Can they see that from the blimp?”
“I don't know. But it's actually more convenient under thicker darkness, and there's a light spirit holder among them. Once we've crossed halfway to the border, if we send out an Imperial style light signal, communication with the blimp could be possible. That is to say, someone to make them send it is necessary. I should hold my air gun and follow them.”
As though it were an obvious responsibility, Ikta suggest that he accompany the refugees crossing the border. Since it was a spontaneous idea in terms of the flow of the conversation until now, Nejif didn't feel that it was particularly out of place.
“I understand what you're saying. I understand, but...”
But the anxiety remaining inside Nejif was the final obstacle preventing her from shaking her head vertically. As the commander of the Border Defense Unit, the risk involved with letting people whose identities she didn't know come in and out of the border made her uneasy.
“I understand how you feel. However, please look carefully, Second Lieutenant Nejif. Do these people look like spies or manufacturing soldiers?”
With that said, Nejif carefully reexamined the people to whom Ikta had pointed. Young people who probably weren't mature adults. Three of them were girls. No matter how incompetent the Imperial Army was, it was impossible for a Unit that risked their lives and infiltrated enemy lands to have this kind of composition.
“If it's going to bother you no matter what, then all you need to do is inspect their belongings right? We don't have the leeway to interrogate them one by one, but I think that we might have time for that.”
Those words became the final push. Nejif gathered creases on her forehead and after about a minute of silence, turned to her inferiors who had collected around herself for something or other, and finally sent out orders with a bitter expression.
“Search these people's belongings. Hurry!”
Five minutes after that, the inspection of belongings ended without a hitch, and the six of them, including Ikta, assembled and crossed over the border. Second Lieutenant Nejif's soldiers were directing vigilant eyes toward their backs, but the distance between them was already quite far.
“Well, that went better than I expected. Thanks everyone, we're accepting applause and cash donations, you know.”
Supposedly keeping watch, Ikta, impersonating the Republic Army's Private Nihad Vu of Aerial Warfare, cracked a joke for the first time in a while as he pointed an air gun- of course, one taken from the Kioka soldier- toward the backs of his allies from the end of their line. Yatori gave a small snort from the vanguard.
“That was quite the scheme. To actually float an unmanned balloon and use it for coercion. It was hard to tell from here, but there was no one aboard the blimp in question. All they did was load a bit of their things onto it. Ikta for both negotiation and persuasion had invented an impossible imaginary terrorist, and thus tricked Second Lieutenant Nejif completely.”
“What Kioka soldiers fear more than anything is losing a blimp. I thought that if we used that as a base, this method of threatening would serve our purpose well enough without even having to point a gun.”
“By setting up an imaginary terrorist, you turned Second Lieutenant Nejif's focus away from us, didn't you? Just what'd expect, Ik-kun. I think that if this were a face-to-face dealing, the other party does have her reputation as a commander, and we might not have been able to pass through.”
Torway directed a reverent gaze toward Ikta. In front of him, Haro also nodded moment by moment.
“I feel the same. Since it was in the form of 'advice from a friendly soldier,' it was also easier for our stage partner to comply with.... And in addition to that your acting ability! I'll bet Second Lieutenant-san from the other side probably didn't suspect Ikta's words until the end. Really, I didn't think that you actually could speak so fluently with a Kioka accent.”
Ikta, praised by his allies, was triumphantly lifting nose up. The only person among them with a sullen expression was Mashuu.
“Hmmph- I'm not just gonna shower you with praise. Since I'd just gotten used to that air gun, you see...”
“My buddy Mashuu, please just forgive me for that. If you'd been holding an Imperial style air gun or sabre sword, then you wouldn't seem like perfectly harmless refugees, right? It's because we let go of them that we were able to get through the item inspection.”
As those words indicated, Yatori, Torway, Mashuu- not a single one of the weapons those three had carried on their bodies remained. Even the ones they'd taken from the sinking ship. Yatori and Torway just didn't say it, but they also held those dear in their hearts.
“Mashuu, rather than sighing over the things you lost, show some appreciation for the life you were able to keep. Also, it's not as if we've thrown our weapons away. Although, we did leave up to fate whether or not they'll come back.”
Yatori nonchalantly smoothed things over. In short, those were the things which they'd loaded on the unmanned blimp. Though it was a small consolation, they were gambling on the possibility that the blimp would drift to the side of the Empire with the direction of the wind.
“It seems like we've reached the buffer zone. Well then, Kusu, would you send a signal of surrender to the side of the Empire for me?”
Hearing that from Ikta, Kusu, who was inside the pouch on Mashuu's hip, jumped down to the ground. Since it was necessary for Ikta to transform into Nihad during the negotiations, the two of them temporarily switched spirits with the other. Of course, since one couldn't give orders to a spirit one hadn't contracted with, the air shooter which Ikta was aiming before was no different from papier mache.
While Kusu sent the light signal, Ikta suddenly remembered something, and unfastened the air shooter barrel from the torso of the wind spirit Tsuu, whom he'd borrowed from Mashuu. From his 'wind tunnel,' Ikta took out a small ring which he'd hidden inside.
“Princess, I return this to you. But please don't drop it. From here on, that's our proof of ID.”
The ring engraved with the seal of the Empire was turned over to owner from Ikta. Speaking of Her Highness, the Princess, both her clothing and skin were covered in dust, similar to the rest of the actors. However, so her beauty wouldn't stand out, they'd smeared mud on her proud, blonde hair. Ikta was also in a seemingly tragic state, but strangely, the person herself, not especially giving an answer, only stared at the youth motionlessly with her two large eyes.
“...? Is there something on my face?”
“...No. Aside from your nose, eyes, and mouth, nothing.”
While giving a meaningless response, the princess didn't avert her eyes from her scene partner. When Ikta tilted his head, Haro, who was standing next to Kusu, yelled in a loud voice.
“Ahh- Soldiers from the Empire are here! W-we won't be shot right!?”
“As we barely escape enemy territory with our lives, we are shot by friendly troops and perish... That's really not funny, you know.”
Everyone felt a chill down their spine at that image, but fortunately that turned out to be paranoia. The seal of the Empire, which Her Highness, Shamiiyu, showed the soldiers showed to be tremendously more effective than they'd imagined.
When the ring was confirmed authentic by the high grade military officers assigned to Border Defense, the six of them were carried inside Imperial territory with excessive ceremony. This was their escape from the hell into which they'd descended but for a paper-thin difference.
However, people weren't constantly being overwhelmed by heatstroke. The marketplace was lively under the lord of fire, and food and clothing, ornaments with precious stones and metals, and furthermore foreign goods which no one had seen before had the store fronts on the street overflowing with activity.
The heart of the Katjvarna Empire's business, politics, and culture, the capital Banhataal. The capital, the grounds in the territory of the Emperor which celebrated his prosperity. In this metropolis, the palace where the Imperial Family resided existed together with the garden of a magnificent evergreen tree.
“Ikta, Wake up! Information arrived about the state of the Eastern Province, you know!”
On the third floor of a leading high class hotel even within that capital, "the White Gold Sand Dune," Yatorishino Igsem was banging on the door of a private room. The time was past 11AM. For the fiery-haired girl with the absolute habit of sleeping and waking early, there was no reason to let be the person still out like a light at this hour.
As she continued banging on the door without even caring that there was no response, suddenly a rich sound of an open palm striking a cheek with all its strength echoed back. In front of Yatori's blankly staring eyes, the door was finally thrown open. The one there wasn't a sleepy-eyed youth, but an exquisite woman with her clothing in meaningful disarray.
“G-good morning, miss. ...So, umm, that was rude of me, wasn't it...?”
While fastening her loosened collar with both hands, the woman slipped out from beside the girl and left down the hallway. Yatori, watching her receding figure with a sidelong glance, stepped into the room while breathing a heavy sigh.
“How many does that make now? It hasn't even been a month since we came here- there's a limit to your enthusiasm right?”
When Yatori, making a sarcastic remark, finally reached the bedroom and drew the curtains, Ikta was lying half naked on the bed with freshly wrinkled sheets. If it was just that, then one would assume that it was immediately 'after the fact,' but there was a bright red hand print left on his cheek. It was a difficult call to make.
The youth's eyebrows drew together at the unrestrained flow of sunlight from the window.
“...How many you say, so that's not a good thing...? ...It's morning, what time is it now...?”
“It's already noon. You were definitely out drinking yesterday night, weren't you? Out all night with women?”
“I was drinking until dawn, then I was invited to my room, so I starting drinking anew here, and I was sleeping together with her until just earlier. ...When we opened our eyes with your knocking, for some reason she gave me a slap in the face at full power and left. She was completely unreasonable though, since I hadn't even done anything yet... ”
Ikta complained from atop the bed. The correct verdict was before-- Yatori shrugged her shoulders and surveyed the room, which reeked of alcohol.
“--Where is Kusu? If he fired a high beam or something at your sleepy eyes or something-”
Hearing Yatori's voice, Kusu showed himself from a basket- which was a sleeping area for spirits prepared by the hotel- beside the bed. As if immune to the evils of waking from sleep, this one quickly stepped out from the basket and opened his mouth.
“Good morning, Yatori, Shia. I think that Ikta is still sleepy. Since it seems he had women serving as his companions until late last night.”
“It's fine, Kusu, that doesn't make much of an excuse. Deal with it and wake up, you sex-obsessed male. ...That woman from before seemed like it, but you wouldn't put your hands on a married woman, are you?”
“Fataaha is a widow, you know... She's also separated from her two children and now is a lonely time for her.”
“The art of going after older women is tricky, isn't it? If you're not careful, those children will end up being older than you are. I mean, you take your lady friend's personal statement as at face value? Didn't you see her painful eyes before?”
Without answering, Ikta slowly got off the bed while putting on the shirt folded under his pillow.
“...It's hot today, too. And I really wanted to spend the my time in bed until the sun set... Hahhh.”
“If you're still half-asleep then read this. It should wake you up more than washing your face with ice water.
Yatori stuck a newspaper extra that was being distributed outside in front of Ikta's face as he gave a large yawn.
“Commander Hazaaf Rikan is dead. --With this, the Eastern Province has fallen completely into the hands of the Kioka Republic.”
Even this youth ran short of lighthearted comments and gazed intently at the newspaper in his hand.
Going a little less than a month back in time. Ikta and the others, six of them, having achieved their return to the Empire from the Kioka territory where they'd washed ashore, after entering the care of the soldiers on the border, were carried to a military base in the rear side. There, they were greeted by the Commander-in-Chief of the Eastern Stronghold Hazaaf Rikan himself.
“...You Highness, Princess Shamiiyu! Thank goodness you've come back safely!”
The princess made an appearance at the building of the imperial headquarters, and together with other non-commissioned soldiers, Lieutenant General Rikan immediately knelt down, celebrating the aristocrat's safe return. Rikan was soldier with both a tall stature and broad shoulders, and his luxurious beard and mustache anxiously arranged in a gentleman-like fashion. Even with his body stooped over, he was at the same eye level as Her Tiny Highness, the Princess.
“Raise your head. Surely you have other engagements, Commander-in-Chief, so I'm touched by your personal welcome.”
Her Highness, the Princess, having changed into a clean blouse and skirt, responded to the her subject's bow in a stately manner unbecoming of her age. ...Even as a commander who directed 10,000 soldiers, he was no more than another subject in front of this young girl. Who in the world had she brought with her?-- He properly took notice of the five people behind her.
“A ship headed toward the venue of the High Grade Military Officer Exam sunk, and Her Highness, who had been aboard, had gone missing... We were contacted the other day and informed of both those things a few days earlier, but to think that you drifted ashore on Kioka Territory! When I received a message from the border I thought it was impossible.”
“Indeed. Don't consider it anything less than a miracle that I was able to come back in one piece as I am. And that is entirely due to the aid of the five people behind me. I shall introduce my heroes' names to you, Lieutenant General, from my own lips.”
As Her Highness, Shamiiyu, announced their names one by one, Lieutenant General Rikan lost control of his expression.
“So that's what happened... O, brave youths, you did well to escort Her Highness to this point. If you were my subordinates, I would grant you all promotions at once. Without a doubt this is a service of first-class merit.”
They were words of unrestrained praise, but Her Highness's expression suddenly then sank into anguish.
“It would be nice if you really could do that, but.... Because they were entangled in my misfortune, their High Grade Officer Exam was interrupted. I would like for you only to do something for that...”
“Hmm... certainly, the Secondary Exam Continuation has already been carried out. ...And since there isn't any kind of precedent, it's difficult to make a firm promise. But if I relay the circumstances to the administration headquarters, they might make some kind of special accommodations. If it is something Your Highness wishes, I could even have them send it from the front lines with a single stroke of my pen.”
“That would be great. I apologize for adding to the Lieutenant General's work, but...”
“Anything you please. Since to let young talent be buried would be to lose 100 years from our country, right?”
Yatori and Torway silently stopped Haro and Mashuu from letting their faces light up in regards to their remaining hopes regarding results of the High Grade Military Officer Exam. Just the one person remaining had to be careful not to appear indifferent, but...
“Well then, Your Highness. With this, I think it might be best if you return to the capital as soon as possible and offer reassurance to His Majesty, the Emperor. Since this is encampment of the front lines, I'm hesitant to call it safe.... Certainly I'm aware of your exhaustion, but if we send out horsemen tonight, you can ride together with your heroes and return.”
Lieutenant General Rikan spoke courteously, though in a tone of voice that didn't allow for refusal. Of course, Her Highness, the Princess, didn't have any objections.
It was decided that the six of them, allowed to spend the time until departure at their leisure as per the Lieutenant General's arrangements, would be guided to an improvised reception room. ...However, as the others began to walk, Ikta Solork alone did not move.
“...? What's the matter, Solork-kun? Possibly do you not feel well...?”
The Lieutenant General took notice of it and came closer, and Ikta then strangely gazed back seriously at his face.
“--You should retreat, Lieutenant General Hazaaf Rikan.”
“Abandon the Eastern Province, and withdraw all of the remaining troops to the Stronghold. There is no other option at this point.”
Needless to say, Lieutenant General Rikan- all of the officers in that location broke into an uproar at the youth's drastic proposal. The five leaving for the reception room as well were surprised and looked at Ikta.
“...Don't say such odd things. Until we drive away the Republic soldiers, without achieving our mission as the Eastern Stronghold--”
“The supplies coming from the rear, they aren't sufficient anymore, are they? Thin cheeks can't be covered up with a beard, you know.”
At that keen remark, Lieutenant General Rikan put a hand to his face and was at a loss for words. Ikta continued further.
“If the officers here have weak color in their faces, the exhaustion of the soldiers must be greater than this, no? I dare say, aren't refugees going one after the other?”
“There is no way that the land razed by the Aerial Warfare soldiers air raids is supporting the same number of soldiers as it has been up to now. When you delay a decisive defeat indefinitely, you only throw away the lives of soldiers and men in vain. …There is no meaning in this kind of battle. Shouldn't you be the one who understands this best?”
Ikta roughened his voice and pressed the Lieutenant General for an answer. Yatori, unable to stay silent, grabbed the nape of his neck and restrained him.
“Know your place, Ikta! This isn't something you can have an opinion about!”
“Place? Ahh, that's exactly my point, you see-- because he can know his place, Mr. Lieutenant General can make a move. Why must the Eastern Stronghold continue fighting as a stronghold, why didn't we stop devoting ourselves to defending in a war which we can't win without attacking? This, that, everything-- It's because it was ordered by the Emperor, isn't it?”
The youth screamed. Clearly, that was a statement that trespassed on taboo. Yatori, sensing that he would go too far, had immobilized his shoulder in a double-arm lock and tried to hold him down before, but then an unexpected person landed the final word.
“Yatori, you don't need to stop him. I'll allow it. Let him speak as he pleases.”
With those words from Her Highness, the Princess, came the first time anyone made Yatori doubt her own ears. Katjvarna's Third Imperial Princess, that is, she who is the Emperor's own child, was supposed to be the first one to condemn Ikta's rash outburst.
The moment Yatori- bewildered as she was- released his hand, Ikta lost all caution with using tongue.
“Let's just say it already- this war is a fixed game. It's the result of the Empire, which had wanted to let go of the Eastern Province since quite a long time ago, trying to achieve that in a way so its citizens' criticisms wouldn't be directed against it.”
Her Highness, the Princess, biting her lip and hanging her head as if she was utterly lost- Ikta as he was now didn't even take the slightest notice of that.
“Originally the Eastern Province was unsettled land, a remote territory of Kioka until about 30 years ago when it was taken in an actual war. At that point in time, the Empire simply took pleasure in increasing its territories. However, it committed a massive blunder when it came time to cultivate the land which it had taken such pains to get hold of.”
The Eastern Province was a tougher land for people to live on than than the Empire had previously expected. Even taking into consideration that they had to cut down the tropical forests, the flood damages were excessive compared to other areas. In the course of prolonged rainfall, the river overflowed and the roads and crops fields which they'd labored so hard to make ended up being submerged. With that, once sanitary conditions worsened, then diseases became prevalent. Each of the areas outside of the Eastern Province, as regions that were advancing despite fighting against drought, were yet another factor making the cultivation of the Eastern Province necessary. That wasn't enough for the Empire.
“In comparison to the heavy capital which the Empire invested, the cultivation of the Eastern Province was lagging behind and not advancing. Not only was cultivation a national policy to begin with, it was too late to call back the people who moved there. By the time they took notice, the Eastern Province, far from turning profit, had turned into a land which endlessly exceeded their estimations as a waste of money.
“Of course the Emperor and the Cabinet regretted it: if it this was how it would turn out, then they were better off not having taken it in the first place. ...So, with that someone among them realized it. It's not too late even from now- this burdensome region, wouldn't it be better to return it to Kioka?”
Nonetheless, there was of course no way they could surrender territory to an enemy nation unconditionally. Not only would the citizens not stand for it, more than anything it would be painfully obvious that their intention in doing that was push the internal administration's failure onto another nation.
“Fearing their citizens' criticisms in regards to losing the Eastern Province, the Imperial Family, out of ideas, tried to divert the worst of the anger in a publicity stunt some way or another. The means they had taken for that purpose turned out to be- of all things- a 'lost battle.'
“The scenario was quite straightforward-- for the Kioka Army which came invading, the Eastern Province would be taken back a second time. If this was the case, the citizens' anger would be directed toward an enemy nation and the army's incompetence, and it wouldn't harm the Imperial Family's dignity as much. ...However, it's a backwards method of caring only about appearances, and I'm honestly disgusted by it.”
Spitting those words out, Ikta gazed forcefully at the senior military official in front of him.
“This scenario seeks a sacrifice. Because, proof that 'the Imperial Family and the Cabinet earnestly dealt with the Kioka Army' is necessary. For that purpose, the person attending to the command of the front lines must be a general whose name is well-known. If such a famous general fought life and limb until the bitter end, then even the citizens would accept that defeat was inevitable, wouldn't they?”
“For this thankless role, there is no one more suited than you are, is there, Mr. Lieutenant General Hazaaf Rikan? You, who received the implicit command of 'lose and die' from the Emperor, in short are the ultimate sacrifice for covering up the internal administration's failure.
Even after receiving such outrageous treatment, you still intend to stay on good behavior and know your place!?”
Ikta roughened his voice and pressed him for an answer, and Lieutenant General Rikan showed a weak, fleeting smile.
“...Solork-kun, I'm really glad that you are not my subordinate. I'd feel guilty for interfering with military regulation to let the youth who took the trouble to concern for my health not be punished...”
“Of course, I understand what you're saying. However, for a soldier, orders from the higher-ups are absolute. His Highness, the Emperor is the gracious supreme authority for all soldiers within the Empire- meaning, he has the right to absolute power. I must obey his orders. Obeying the orders of superior officers is a requirement for those who make up a military organization.”
“I understand that you, as a commissioned officer, don't want to create a precedent of ignoring orders. ...However, the Emperor is mistaken. Great generals don't spring forth endlessly from the land of the Empire. If he's going to let you die as a scapegoat and not treasure someone as talented as yourself, then do you even think that such a country has a future!?”
“It's not a soldier's job to talk about the future, Solork-kun. That is the role of His Highness, the Emperor. We subjects only know our places and give our very best. For example, well... it's a worst case scenario. Such as assembling a battle formation so that as many soldiers as possible can return without becoming prisoners of war when we lose the fight.”
Ikta clicked his tongue at Lieutenant General Rikan's phrasing, which made him sense that there was a hidden meaning, and looked around the vicinity.
“Ahh, if you're a Lieutenant General, I guess you would make a move of that sort. Since the remaining personnel from the Imperial Headquarters are too few. Really... not only is everyone dressed as a soldier, but you're all putting on tough acts. You're letting all the youths with bright futures quickly run behind and take the rear guard yourself?”
“The Kioka Army will come at us soon on the attack. If we are overpowered by the enemy and can't help pulling back the war front, then that's when we're allowed to actual retreat. We'll stop the enemy in their tracks in the East, then we'll force their soldiers in the West fall back... To implement this 2-stage operation, inevitably, we'll need to make use of our gradually decreasing forces and divide them further into two groups. If they're not skilled soldiers, then they're unfit for the job.”
“If that's what's happening after their attack begins, then in that case we're better off moving forward with things how they are now! That way, there's no need to carry out that dangerous 2-stage operation. The hardships of the rear guard in keeping the enemy in check will decrease considerably, and as a bonus the Lieutenant General himself will live without being exposed to the brunt of things! Isn't that better in absolutely every way!?”
“I can't do that. Protection of the border is the Eastern Stronghold's assigned duty from His Highness, the Emperor. If we begin retreating before the enemy's attack, then that duty would become something personally renounced by me as the Commander-in-Chief.”
“Go feel guilty about renouncing your duty, but at any rate the Eastern Province will be taken back by Kioka! The outcome is the same!”
“The processes are different. Upholding His Highness's orders and having it taken, and running against His Highness's orders and having it taken.”
Rikan shook his head horizontally. Ikta finally lost his temper at the great general's unending loyalty.
“That's why I'm saying-- this way of thinking is unscientific!”
Grabbing the soldier uniform's collar with both hands, Ikta shook the Lieutenant General's body, which was one head taller than his own. At the menacing air one wouldn't imagine from his usual manner, even the five people, Her Highness, the Princess, and the others, looked on at the state of affairs in blank amazement.
When their hands unconsciously flew to their mouths, the color of the soldiers' faces changed as one would expect. However-- one step faster than they could recover, a vital blow volunteered by Yatori rapidly sunk into Ika's side..
Ikta's knees suddenly gave way at the blow, which had been softened less than usual. His limp fingertips separated from the collar, and Yatori took that opportunity to carry up his body.
“Please excuse him, Lieutenant General Rikan-dono. ...Think of that talk just now as a practical joke and forget it, I beg you.”
Yatori deeply lowered her head along with her long, fiery hair. As if forgetting to even straighten his disheveled coat, Lieutenant General Rikan looked directly at the two youths... at last, he changed his gaze to one of his subordinates.
“...Well, Officer Ordof, please show them to the reception room. With your utmost care.”
Following behind the soldier who'd received the Lieutenant General's order and begun moving, the six of them began walking with Yatori shouldering Ikta at their lead. In the eyes of the older soldiers, Lieutenant General and the others, who were watching them leave, warmth and melancholy were coexisting.
“...Is history going to repeat itself...? Bada Sankrei...”
His five allies, who were close beside him, were the only ones who heard the final words the youth let fall.
“...I see.... Lieutenant General Rikan, is dead...?”
Lying face down with her eyes closed, Haro dedicated a silent prayer. The five of them, summoned by Yatori and gathered in the hotel lobby, shared the news of the death of the great general who should have been valued.
“Meeting the attack of the Kioka Army, the rear guard unit whose command Lieutenant General Rikan saw to personally experienced near total destruction... In exchange, it seems that the majority of the soldiers deployed relatively close to the rear escaped to the capital.”
The Lieutenant General fulfilled his duty to the very end, Torway spoke sorrowfully. Yatori and Mashuu also corrected their seated posture and closed their eyes. They prayed wholeheartedly for blissful afterlife of the old soldiers scattered on the battlefield.
Among that group, Ikta, the only one with a sour face, was gently stroking the face of Kusu as he held him to his chest.
“...Damn, didn't I tell him?”
A low mumble twinged with a curse escaped from Ikta's mouth, startling the waitress who was carrying tea. Next to him, while bringing a teacup to her mouth with a flawless movement, Yatori indifferently made a quip.
“What, exactly, did you tell him? Aren't you being conceited? Did you think that the state of the war would shift with your one opinion?”
Ikta couldn't return any words. Instead, he poured gritty white powder from the sugar jar furnishing the table, which was distinctive to high class hotels, into his tea.
Haro, who had finished her silent prayer and opened her eyes, felt dizzy at his reckless action.
“Th-these grains of sand, would it be bad to pour some in a bag and take them home...? As a souvenir for my younger brothers...?”
She suddenly veered from the solemn news of death to a cheap topic. ...Be that as it may, the other actors, the five people who were officially excellent young men and women, also went on board thinking that it might be less objectionable than reducing the lobby to darkness.
“I understand your feelings, but that's bad etiquette, no? Well, the way Ikta's using it might be as well.”
“Even without obsessing over grains of sand, we've also got rewards from the Imperial Family, right? Because at any rate we escorted Her Highness, the Princess, home from an enemy nation.”
Saying that, Mashuu, completely restored his stomach, which had caved in from being stranded, to its original state with the hotel's luxurious meals. While measuring the passage of time in the course of its swelling, Yatori huffed a sigh.
“Rather than a year's supply of high-grade sugar, there is only one thing I want for my reward. ...A make-up test.”
“Th-that'll be fine, right? It's not our fault the ship sank.”
“It'd be great if things go that smoothly- but the number of successful applicants of the High Grade Military Officer Exam is set for every year. It'd be good if the all seats haven't been filled up already. Arghh, we're already half-dead, you know.”
Maybe her nervousness lessened after living for close to a month in the hotel, but there wasn't as much ambition in Yatori's voice as there had been at the time of the shipwreck.
“No no, I've put quite a lot of thought into it while living here, you see. It's best if they contact us as late as possible.”
While sipping the tea sweetened by adding excessive amounts of sugar, Ikta commented with a voice which wasn't as weary. This man, releasing the scent of women's perfume from his entire body, was unmistakeably the one most enjoying their current lifestyle.
“...Speaking of which, it's decided that you're getting a job at the library here ? Traveling expenses are cheaper, was it?”
Considering Ikta had no reason to cut his Exam short, Yatori, shamelessly steadfast, didn't have the slightest intention of scrapping their aforementioned contract. Even so, there was no helping that her voice was tinged with a bit of resentfulness.
“In addition, my living expenses from before entering the lodging house became cheaper, too.”
Ikta spoke, shamelessly brushing it aside. Yatori cursed the naivete of her past self. --She should have punched his stomach harder. If only she had done that, she might have evened it out with medical fees.
As they continued their small talk in a relaxed atmosphere, there was suddenly a presence approaching with a purpose. The four of them save Ikta promptly straightened their backs. The one who came particularly to them with steady footsteps were three imperial court officers clad in imposing formal dress.
“Yatorishino Igsem, Mashuu Tetridch, Ikta Solork, Torway Remeon, Haroma Bekkel, The people here are the five people we called now, correct?”
Everyone responded with a nod. The oldest officer cleared his throat with a cough.
“There is an article to be delivered to your residence from the Commander of the Eastern Stronghold, the currently deceased Lieutenant Hazaaf Rikan.”
As he spoke, the younger soldiers lying in wait on both sides of him stepped forth. In their arms, they were carrying a long, thin package wrapped in red cloth. Handling them with care, they placed them on the table and silently opened the wrapping.
“...Ah!? My air shooter!”
Mashuu excitedly flew to his beloved gun. A beat later, Torway took in his hands his own air shooter, which was two grades better than the standard, and Yatori calmly in hers her polished saber and main gauche. Their favorite weapons which they'd accepted might never again return to them. Their arms trembled with the profound weight of iron and time.
“I'll read the message from the Lieutenant. '-Since the blimp fell into the ocean on the side of the Empire, we were fortunately able to recover your belongings. I not only humbly return them to you, I entrust the future of the Empire to you as well, young heroes.'”
All of them straightened their posture and listened attentively. Rather than a message, that was more the contents of a last request.
“'Though I am an old soldier, my will is undying. I pray for all of your continued luck in the fortunes of war from the realm of the dead.' -That is all.”
Without being told by anyone, all of them spontaneously stood up, and bowed to the great commander who was no longer in this world. Even Ikta, the twisted person he was, was no exception to the respect harbored for one who had fulfilled his duty and died a noble death.
“Very well, then let's move to the actual ceremony. A horse-drawn carriage is waiting outside, so please come after leaving your weapons with the hotel. Come adequately prepared with dress that wouldn't be discourteous to the noblemen.”
Light returned to Yatori's eyes. Now, a new wind was beginning to blow, whisking away the blimp that was staggering with no place to go.
“Subjects, please shed thy tears at the privilege of an audience. --His Highness, the Emperor, Arshankrut Kitora Katjvanmaninik awaits you at the palace.”
Inside a horse-drawn carriage advancing toward the garden of the magnificent evergreen, each of the five's musings were their own.
“H-hey- Hey, Torway...! If remember correctly when we have the audience, we can't look at His Highness's eyes right? Then it's also impolite to speak directly with him without going through an attendant, and clearing you throat or sneezing is also absolutely forbidden, and then umm... ummm...!”
“Maa-kun, it'll be fine so calm down. When you enter His Highness's presence, kneel down, then after you just need to answer the things he asks you. Since manners for the Imperial Court aren't enforced by law, we won't have anything cruel said to us. That is, we're going there to be praised, right?”
The one trembling and easiest to understand was Mashuu, whose round head was frantically turning red and turning blue above his shirt, which had been fastened to the first button against his will. Torway didn't have the time to spend all his energy worrying over calming him down from that kind of state.
“...fine, it's fine... Ilf, Shouka, Echiri... your older sister... you can rely on your older sister, so...”
While muttering the names of her younger brothers, Haro had all but entered the position of prayer. On the opposite side, only Yatori, who was patting her back, was calm as usual. The Igsem Family had received an imperial visit from His Highness, the Emperor, and in her case, today would not be her first time facing the emperor.
Then Ikta Solork. Since leaving the hotel, he'd decreased the number of words he spoke as if he'd become a different person. But, one can't be careless. Seen from the eyes of Yatori, who has known him from a long time, that was more an indication of ill humor than nervousness would be.
...Let's give him a warning at once. That's what Yatori decided while gazing at his expressionless profile.
“Ikta. I'm saying this seriously, but during the audience, only return acceptable answers to the things you are asked. No matter who I am, I refuse to hold you down in the presence of His Highness.”
“...I got it. It's that my side hurts, and I would be suffering on my bed under normal circumstances.”
For the youth, it was a slightly lackluster retort. The horse-drawn carriage came to a stop as they were traveling.
They were instructed to get off by the palace guards outside, and the five of them finally stepped foot on the holy ground where the noblemen resided.
What first caught their eyes was the large temple edifice, built up by stacking smooth opalescent stones.
“...Impossible. This, the Holy White Temple...?”
Yatori's pupils dilated. --For when His Highness, the Emperor, greeted people, there were three buildings in the palace at Banhataal. They were the Yellow Sand Temple meant for meeting with guests from outside the country, the Deep Green Temple meant for hearing the reports of his retainers, and the Holy White Temple meant for praising those who rendered great service to the Imperial Household.
T he one situated closest to the Imperial Palace, in other words the mansion where the Imperial Family carried out their lives, was the Holy White Temple which Yatori and the others currently had before them. The only ones allowed to have an audience with His Highness, the Emperor, in this building were chief vassals who had done a truly great service to the Empire. The highest stair for soldiers, the promotion to general of the army, was conducted here.
Guided by a chamberlain  dressed in long-hemmed ceremonial clothing, the five of them stepped forward into the Holy White Temple. Even the great Yatori nervously toned down her gait. Regardless if they saved Her Highness, the Princess, that was the deed of an ordinary person who didn't even hold an official rank. All she could think was that even if they did have an audience, it was something that could've been settled in the Deep Green Temple.
As a final review before entering they entered his presence, the maids corrected each of the five's appearances. When they discerned that there was nothing that would be a cause for risk in front of His Highness, the bodyguard soldiers meant to be escorts, for whom it was allowed to wear swords, slowly opened the doors to the inner chamber.
In front of a lengthily laid out gold-colored carpet, the ruler of the country commanded the throne.
“Yatorishino Igsem, Mashuu Tetdrich, Ikta Solork, Torway Remeon, Haroma Bekkel. -The aforementioned five people are visiting upon the summons of Your Highness, the Emperor.”
As soon as she gave that report, the chief chamberlain who had led them until now withdrew to the side and only the five young men and women remained in front of His Highness. The gazes of the nobility grew in pressure, and weighed on the backs of the five of them who were kneeling down.
“Shamiiyu. These people's services, from your mouth.”
His deep, dry voice called to his daughter. Upon that, Her Highness, the Princess Shamiiyu, emerged forth from the vanguard of the line of retainers dressed in a snow white sari dress. It seemed that the fatigue from the shipwreck healed completely within one month, and her long blonde hair also regained its former beauty, that form was just like a single flower bloomed on the temple edifice.
“I shall make my report, Father. --First, the service of saving from the brink of death myself, who was shaken into the sea by the tremors on the occasion that the ship headed toward the venue of the High Grade Military Officer Exam sunk due to a storm. Second, the service of forcing the enemy to retire with cleverness and the bravery to risk one's own life on the occasion that I was about to be captured by Republic soldiers. Third, the service of driving away my simple despair and finally escorting me across the national boundary by putting their quick wits to work despite finding ourselves with the misfortune of having Republic territory as the destination to which we drifted ashore at the end of the shipwreck.”
His Highness nodded lightly at the various services the princess listed and gazed at the forms of the honorable young men and women.
“Because of your services, my daughter, who shall inherit 900 years of the sacred blood of the Imperial Household, has returned to our roots without being captured by the savages of Kioka. You protected my blood kin- this is essentially equivalent to protecting the Empire. Therefore, young soldiers of our country's defense, I generously award you with medals of honor. --Raise your heads.”
Receiving permission, the five of them timidly raised their faces. Then, they looked upon the human who took the role of ruler of the country in which they were born into life from a close distance for the first time.
The Emperor was not yet aged. He might have been slightly older than a 40-year old in the prime of manhood. ...In spite of that, his bearing gave the impression of an enormous dead tree. The bony fingers of both his hands, his skin whose dryness was varnished over with large quantities of perfumed oil, his blonde hair faded to the ocher that lost both tone and luster, indicated the decline of both his mind and body without attempting to hide anything.
The dead tree with a crown on his head, relying only on its dignity, slowly raised his right arm.
“Yatorishino Igsem, Mashuu Tetdrich, Ikta Solork, Torway Remeon, Haroma Bekkel. --To these five people, today at this time, I grant the title of 'Imperial Knight.'”
A long, long silence descended. The Emperor's words didn't soak into the five of their heads that easily.
“...Imperial Knight...? ...Umm, that... in other words... a c-conferring of decorations!?”
In this moment, forgetting both his nervousness and decorum, Mashuu's round face shone with joy. Next to him, Torway widened both of his eyes as if he'd seen a ghost in broad daylight. Only Yatori remained the same.
It wasn't illogical that the five of them would doubt their ears. The title of “Imperial Knight,” usually, was one of the supreme honors given only unto High Grade Military Officers who performed heavy services during war. The people who received this- although it was an honor limited to one person that could not be inherited by descendants- it added those people to the lowest seat of nobility.
The nobility under the Imperial class system existed for the purpose of selecting young people from influential pedigrees to be related to the Imperial Family through marriage, and as a general rule one did not rise to nobility from the common class. The near unique exception to that was the conferring of decorations of “Imperial Knight”, and numerous benefits came along with it. A large increase in pension, a more influential voice in political matters, permission to attend meetings hosted by the House of Nobles...more rights than their young bodies could handle would come falling into their laps.
Therefore, Yatori and Torway couldn't simply rejoice. Even if the service had been saving the Third Princess, this was clearly an excessive reward, and it seemed to have thrown Torway, who couldn't bring himself to embrace it with both arms, for quite the loop. Why let it go without being suspicious of the hidden side?
While supporting Haro, who'd fainted from shock, Yatori nonchalantly sent a slanted gaze behind her. ...There was no color in the face of Ikta Solork. His clenched right and left fists were trembling uncontrollably.
Some way or other pushing back the urge to immediately leap forward and strangle the neck of the head of the Imperial Family-- that's the feeling Yatori got. She was almost certain.
When the arrangements for the conferring of decorations were over, the Imperial Family leaned their weight on the throne as if that had completely tired them out. The chief chamberlain took care of everything that came after. The details concerning the preparation of the 'Imperial Knights,' and the results of the High Grade Military Officer Exam which had been interrupted by that incident. Here, their passing of the exam on account of the five's special circumstances was announced to them. Though, since they were told after the conferring of decorations, both their surprise and joy had been weak.
Their unexpected audience ended without any indication, and the five of them were led down from the inner chamber before anyone could accurately make sense of the situation.
With Yatori, who was shouldering a fainted Haro, at their head, they left the Holy White Temple. Outside, in front of two covered horse-drawn wagons, the princess, clad in a white sari dress, was waiting for them.
“...Your Highness, Shamiiyu...”
“I trust that was troublesome. But, please come with me for a little longer. Starting now, there will be a ceremony celebrating your conferring of decorations.”
With that short announcement, Her Highness, the Princess, boarded onto the left carriage on step ahead of them.
“We will be riding separately in threes. Yatori and Solork ride in this one. The remaining three in the other.”
It was a meaningful division. Everyone boarded as they were being told, andthe carriage began moving not long after. While they were three people using a space that six might have used easily, Her Highness, the Princess, in the middle of a closed off guest cabin, began the conversation.
“No matter what we say here, the coachman can't hear us. You don't need to hold back anymore, Solork.”
The princess spoke as if she'd seen through Ikta's innermost thoughts. Ikta unclenched the fists he had held tightly all this time, breathed a single magnificent sigh, and ruffled his own black hair.
“You really came through, Princess. You've completely and utterly messed up my life plan. When- even if heaven and earth turned over- a soldier was the last thing I wanted to become...”
The youth who'd been an ordinary person until just an hour ago moaned. ...Yes, Ikta was already a soldier.
It wasn't because he'd passed the High Grade Military Officer Exam due to special circumstances. In the end, that was simply receiving approval to enter the army as leading cadet, and the recipient himself could refuse it if he wanted to. Under normal circumstances.
The problem was the fact that he was conferred the title of “Imperial Knight.” The conferring of decorations was an order from Emperor under the guise of a reward. Seeing that he was a commoner, this wasn't something he could refuse. Even more troublesome, that title involved enlistment in the military, whether he wanted it or not. The reasoning was plain and simple: a knight couldn't not be a soldier.
“Since I've become a soldier, I can't defy directions from the army anymore. At this point, it's not 'authorization' to advance to a High Grade Military Officer Academy- it's an 'order.' ...The librarian post at the National Library I worked so hard to get is worthless now. I don't even have the energy to get angry anymore.”
Finding the excess space being a good thing, Ikta laid the half of his body above his hips on the seat. On the expression of her Highness, the Princess, who was watching this youth, though she was keeping up appearances with a blank face, feelings of guilt were faintly showing through.
“...Your Highness, we are grateful for having received unmerited honor. However, isn't it unnatural all the same?”
Yatori opened her mouth in exchange. The princess was silent and listened intently.
“'Imperial Knight'- as its wording signifies, should be a title given unto soldiers who have performed a great, meritorious war service. 'Knight,' since it's a decoration awarded to soldiers; the people who are given the title 'Knight' are already soldiers, therefore the order is backwards. As far as I know, there is no precedent for this conferring of decorations.”
“There is no precedent. Therefore, one was created with you.”
“Yatori, I beg you, don't criticize me with that face! Of course, I did support it. However, your conferring of decorations was not my idea, but the desire of the entire membership of the Katjvarna Cabinet.”
While still laying down, Ikta scoffed at Her Highness, the Princess's weak defense.
“...Even if it's a fixed game in reality, if the citizens witness the fall of the Eastern Stronghold, it's nothing more than a 'losing battle.' Their hatred is directed toward Kioka, and once they've pinned the blame on the army, it's human nature to can't help but feel uneasy, right?”
“Who you want to have at this time are idols who will inspire hope in the citizens... in short, heroes.”
The princess sighed. The accuracy of Ikta's guesses was reliable, more than that, it was even frightening.
“...That's correct. The timing of our safe return was to convenient. Young military cadets return home with the Third Princess who'd gone missing from Kioka as it was on the verge of taking back the Eastern Province. Amidst the unfortunate reports of the losing war, this news has become the sole light for the citizens. The government had no choice but to make use of this.”
“Ahh, so that's it? I guess royalty does have the privilege of toying with the lives of ordinary citizens.”
Ikta's sarcasm, devoid of any humor, had quickly become nothing more than a sword forged from words.
“At any rate, we're now the heroes who're supposed to reassure the hearts of the 20 million people in the Empire. ...Well, let's put that aside for the moment. As much as it annoys me, it's not like imperial commands are going to change if we start complaining now. The thing I want to ask about before anything is something different.
--Hey, Princess. Just what the hell do you want by corralling us like this?”
Raising his upper body, Ikta finally cut to the heart of the matter.
“It's the one thing that's been bothering me from that start. What was someone like the Third Princess doing aboard a ship headed for the Hirgano Archipelago? Even an extremely sophisticated person such as myself can't come up with a single good reason for you to have gone.”
“Th-that was part of official business. In light of the deterioration of the state of war with Kioka, to encourage the military cadets bearing the burden of this country's future...”
“If your behavior had been immature for your age, then I'd have no problem accepting that cover for your true intentions. ...But, it's too late for that. Whatever it was, you've shown too much of your intelligence, you see. Not just me but Yatori and even Torway caught on that you, Princess, were keeping something to your tiny self. --Kusu, Highbeam.”
Kusu, held in Ikta's arms, bathed Her Highness, the Princess, in a strong light. As if illuminating the inside of her secret heart.
“Ahh.. S-stop it, Solork, it's bright...”
“I'll just spit the truth out already. When we young men and women, just starting out with great potential for success, answered the call to guard the Princess... it's obvious that we only came to make connections anticipating the profits in the distant future.”
Whether or not it was a response to the conferring of the title “Imperial Knight,” Ikta was unusually sadistic about criticizing the girl. However, it didn't seem that the princess would let her scene partner assume the leading role indefinitely.
“...Is that cynicism something you learned from your father, Solork?... No, Ikta Sankrei?”
That moment, the youth stopped blinking. He made Kusu shut off the light by a sign with his finger, and glared keenly at his scene partner.
“...So the Imperial Family's prided Central Intelligence Unit doesn't even need one month to investigate someone's personal history?”
“The only one who can deploy them is the reigning emperor. I'm not able to use them, and there was no need to use them this time anyway. Excellence in intelligence, tact, effectiveness in times of emergency. Taking on the accent of a Kioka citizen defected from the Empire. And above all, your threatening attitude toward the currently deceased Lieutenant Rikan, seeking the retreat of the whole army in defiance of Imperial command. Gathering the clues until now, there is more than enough for me to entertain a slight suspicion.”
Having regained control of the conversation flow, the princess suddenly turned an apologetic gazed toward Yatori.
“I must apologize to you, Yatori. In order to investigate Solork's past, I negotiated with the Igsem Family without going through you. Since, witnessing the trust you two share, there seemed to be few things hidden between you.”
“...My father, talked about it...?”
“He did try to hide it. However, so he would have to speak to me, I commanded him with the power of the state. When I heard the truth by coercing him in that manner, though, the strength of your relationship became more and more mysterious.”
There was tint of confusion in the Her Highness, the Princess's eyes when there was no evidence that the mystery would become clear.
“Despite formerly being an outstanding commander, he was branded with the dishonor of 'war criminal' for defying orders in the middle of an operation before meeting his end in imprisonment during the postwar period of the previous military campaign with Kioka, Commander-in-chief of the Imperial Army, General Bada Sankrei. And you are his posthumous son, Ikta.”
In the face of the trump card which Her Highness, Shamiiyu, revealed, Ikta averted his eyes as if he were annoyed.
“I wasn't born from notch of a tree, I mean, even Ikta-kun has parents. The man who provided the small seed for my birth might've had that name, now that I think about it.”
What was twisted has become outright childish. That's what the princess thought once she reclaimed the leading role. Since that was something which had been taken from her ever since she'd met him, it also felt that, somehow, she was reclaiming her pride along with it, and without realizing it she was becoming more and more arrogant.
“I still have more! The person whom you called teacher, who was the first to preach the said way of thinking called 'science', wasn't he the old professor who defected last year from the Empire to the Kioka Republic, the 'blasphemer' Anarai Kahn? It seems that he was the long sworn friend of Bada Sankrei.”
“Though the nickname 'blasphemer,' I think that the old man took it as a compliment.”
“I'm not nearly done yet! Your Kiokan accent was something you learned from your mother wasn't it? At the time of victory, I hear that a beautiful woman whom the decadent reigning emperor had summoned to his harem from Kioka was granted to General Bada as a reward for distinguished service in war. Her name, if I remember correctly, wasn't it Yuuka Sankrei!?”
The light of reason vanished from Ikta's eyes, and his right hand, darting out, snatched the princess's collar. This time, he even shoved Yatori- who had immediately moved to stop him- aside with his left hand.
“---Try saying one more insulting thing about my mother. I'll strangle you to death with this hand.”
Ikta glared at the princess with a murderous expression he'd seldom ever shown. It didn't last long-- he released his scene partner when Yatori regained her stance. ...However, that was enough. The incident lasting barely a few seconds carved the fear of 'being hated by someone' into the immature, young girl.
“...Don't talk about that. If you do, then he'll really have to strangle you.”
While shielding the princess, who was in a state of shock, with her back, Yatori advised her in a low voice. Ikta, having calmed down, raised both hands and showed nonviolent intentions which contradicted his behavior.
With that, their conversation was interrupted. When the princess's breathing, as she was being soothed by Yatori, all but returned to normal, the carriage, which had reached its destination, came to a stop. Ikta was the very first to open the door and come down from the guest cabin.
Quite some time should have passed by, but they were somehow still inside the garden. They had been transported to a plaza in the east suitable for the celebratory banquet. Within the garden, which was trimmed with vivid flowers in full bloom, luxurious food in a completely different league from the Imperial Academy Graduation Commemoration Party was lined on the tables, and high-class military persons and nobles with drinks in one hand were mingling with light conversation.
“Ahh thank goodness- celebratory banquets really are first-class. I'm feeling a little better with this, you know.”
“Wait, Ikta, Her Highness still...!”
Taking no notice of the princess's pale face, Ikta located Mashuu and the others standing in a slightly removed location and promptly moved to meet up with them. Of course Yatori's voice would have a tinge of criticism.
While having his back turned toward them, the youth spoke in a dry voice.
“Hey, Yatori. You passed the High Grade Military Officer Exam, and that came along with the title of 'Imperial Knight', which is leagues above just top of a class. Sure there's a teeny reason not to be satisfied, but if you measure the pros and cons, today is undoubtedly a day for you to commemorate. Am I right?”
“On the contrary, how is it for me, I wonder? These things are exactly the same for me you see, and it's without question the worst day of my life. Between today and the day my mother died, it's hard to say which was better. In any case, even though it was the absolute last thing I ever wanted for my life, I became three things at once today. A nobleman, a soldier-- and a hero.
“On day like this, for the time being I'm just going to drink until I don't know anything anymore. That's the only thing I can think of.”
Finishing his speech with a wavering voice, without even returning a single glance toward Her Highness, the Princess, Ikta finally took his leave.
Likely, nowhere in the world did words exist that might have stopped him.
Translator's Notes and References
- written as: 光明 (bright light); read as: みち (path, road)
- 数えで (old method of counting age where newborns are considered one year old, and years are added at every New Year)
- written as: 永霊樹 (Eternal Spirit Tree); read as: カトヴァンマニニク (Katjvanmaninik)
- written as: ツッコミ役 (straight man role); read as: ヤトリ (Yatori); generally, the two members of a comedy duo are known as the straight man （ツッコミ） and the funny man （ボケ）
- written as: 空気圧縮能力 (air compression ability); read as: ンプ (pump)
- written as:風銃の銃身 (wind gun’s gun barrel); read as: エアシューターのバレル (air shooter’s barrel)
- written as: 精霊 (spirit); read as: パートナー (partner)
- written as: 帝国 (Empire); read as: くに ((mother) country)
- written as: 捕虜 (prisoners of war); read as: こっち (this direction/one)
- written as: 帝国 (Empire); read as: ウチ (we, us)
- written as: 長刀 (long sword); read as: サーベル (saber)
- written as: 短刀 (short sword); read as: マンゴーシュ (main gauche)
- written as: 吊るし式寝具 (hanging-style bedding); read as: ハンモック (hammock)
- written as:周照灯 (ambient illumination light)
- written as: 追跡光 (tracking light); read as: サーチライト (search light)
- written as:気嚢 (air bladder); read as:ドーム (dome)
- written as:火精霊 (fire spirit); read as: シア (Shia)
- read as 揚気 (rising air); read as: ガス (gas)
- written as: 重り (weight); read as: バラスト (ballast)
- The last few lines refer back to Ikta's second point, which implies that he, as an actor, played both Ikta (himself) and Nihad Vu.
- rear guard:the soldiers positioned at the rear of a body of troops, especially those protecting an army when it is in retreat
- written as: 帝都 (capital); read as: ここ (here)
- chamberlain: one who manages a household
- 貴族院 (House of Lords) The upper house of Parliament in the UK (the lower house is the House of Commons).
- the alcoholic kind
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