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"Although we at Seidokan Academy respect the right of students to engage in duels, unfortunately, in this instance, things must end here."
Speaking as she came forth from within the crowd of onlookers was a young woman with dazzling blond hair.
She possessed a calm and collected bearing, and a beauty which, while different in style, was no less stunning than Julis'.
If one were to make a comparison, Julis would be likened unto a rose, blooming in gracious artistry. This young lady's appearance, in contrast, spoke of the serene tranquility of water's depths.
"...Claudia. By what authority do you stand in my way?"
"Why, under my authority as student council president of Seidokan Academy, of course."
The young lady, apparently named Claudia, revealed a light smile, and raised her hand to reveal the school badge she held within.
"By the authority bestowed upon me as the chief representative of the Red Lotus, I hereby annul this duel between Julis Alexia van Riessfeld and Amagiri Ayato."
Julis and Ayato's school badges, which had been glowing with a red light, now ceased to do so.
"Well, no harm, no foul, right, Amagiri Ayato-kun?"
It seemed the storm had safely pa.s.sed.
Ayato wiped the sweat from his forehead and sighed heavily.
"My thanks, um...President-san?"
"That's right. I'm the student council president of Seidokan Academy, Claudia Enfield. It's a pleasure."
Reaching out to take the hand extended to him, Ayato returned her handshake.
Seeing Claudia from this closer distance, she truly was a captivating presence.
As for what about her was so captivating, well...simply put, it was that overly abundant bosom of hers, which strained at her uniform.
That said, this was hardly the time to be making comparisons to Julis.
Indeed, Julis wore a distinctly dissatisfied expression, clearly unhappy with Claudia's ruling.
"Even if you are the student council president, barring some greater reason, you still don't have the right to interfere in a duel."
By the authority bestowed upon me as the chief representative of the Red Lotus, I hereby annul this duel between Julis Alexia van Riessfeld and Amagiri Ayato
"Of course I have a reason. He's a transfer student, right? Even if he's already registered his information and had his emblem authenticated, there's still one last procedure he hasn't yet finished. More strictly speaking, Amagiri Ayato-kun is not yet an official student of Seidokan Academy," Claudia explained, smiling broadly.
"Only those who are students may engage in a duel. Accordingly, this duel is invalid. Any complaints?"
Julis bit her lips in frustration.
Given her reaction, with no verbal response forthcoming, it was evident she agreed the argument held merit.
"Good. Now that we're all clear on the matter, I'd like to invite everyone to please depart. If you linger here for too long, you'll be late for cla.s.s."
At these words, the crowd broke off into small groups, and wandered off.
A handful of students were clearly dissatisfied with the abrupt conclusion to the duel, though they could find no point on which to refute Claudia's decision.
Suddenly, Ayato remembered the sniping arrow from the duel just now.
It was probable that the student who had sniped Julis was even now fleeing the scene of the crime, hidden amongst the crowd. Even though he was hardly familiar with the rules and customs of his new school, this sort of despicable act still wasn't something he could simply ignore.
Allowing the culprit to simply disappear would be anything but wise.
"Um, please wait..."
Ayato was ready to shout when he was interrupted by a pat on the shoulder from Julis.
"Pretend you didn't see anything. This time, whoever it was got off easy."
Julis slowly shook her head, a wry smile on her lips.
"Moreover, as a Page One, suffering an ambush like that is hardly unexpected."
"Ugh. It's truly unfortunate, but this kind of thing isn't all that rare. That said, this time, they've really gone too far. A third party taking advantage of a duel to sneak in an attack is something unforgivable. I'll ask the disciplinary committee to look into it. Once we catch the culprit, they'll be dealt with harshly."
At these words from Claudia, Ayato was taken by surprise.
That meant, after all, that Claudia had clearly seen the sneak attack just now.
Even given the number of onlookers who had watched the duel, evidently not a single one had noticed the attack.
Perhaps the only one who hadn't had their gaze captured by Julis' fiery explosions was this young maiden.
"Er, on that note...Regarding just now, um...thank you."
Julis turned to Ayato with an apologetic look.
She seemed to be referring to the sniping during their duel.
"Oh, well, putting that aside for the moment...You're not mad?"
Even though unforeseen circ.u.mstances had forced his hand, the fact remained that he'd pushed Julis down; that, he couldn't deny.
Remembering the soft sensation in his hand, Ayato inquired with fear, causing Julis to blush and avert her gaze.
"Well, I can't say I'm not the least bit upset, but...you definitely saved me."
It seemed that Julis was quite an earnest person.
Although her expression revealed that it wasn't quite so easy to let things go, she bowed her head.
"I'm very aware that what happened was unavoidable."
Things were progressing rather differently than when he'd returned her handkerchief.
Truth be told, Ayato was at his limit simply holding back her fireball; there simply was no time to think up an alternative method. Even if Prana was capable of raising one's defensive abilities, it wasn't to the point of being able to shrug off a sneak attack like the one she'd undergone.
"That's why, just this once, I owe you one."
"That's right. Doesn't that make things much simpler?"
That certainly was easy to understand, but it was also a decidedly dispa.s.sionate way of dealing with things.
"I see you still haven't changed. Honestly."
Claudia's tone of voice revealed a certain distaste.
"If you ask me, you really should try to be a bit more straightforward."
"Don't worry about it. I'm pretty straight as it is, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future."
"Hmm...I seem to remember a certain someone struggling to find a partner, no?"
Julis gaze fell as she mumbled.
Her reaction was an answer in itself.
"The PhoenixPhoenix Star Warrior Festival registration deadline is in two weeks. That doesn't leave a whole lot of time."
"I-I know! I just need to find someone before then, and it'll be fine!"
Julis promptly flipped an about-face, and stormed off.
Claudia's gaze followed Julis into the distance, looking all the part of a mother watching a rebellious child.
"So, the significance behind why this century has been nicknamed 'The Calamitous Century'. This is due in part to the physical effects of the Ember Tearsmeteor shower, which visited unprecedented destruction upon this world. For three days and three nights, meteorites rained down from the sky, changing the world in drastic ways. The nations which had previously held power fell, giving rise to the Integrated Enterprise Foundation, and a change in societal notions of ethics. The meteorites further resulted in the inception of a new kind of human, able to exert influence over Mana - that is to say, the Starpulse Generation. This led to the creation of new scientific inst.i.tutions devoted to the study of Mana, which, by leveraging the techniques of meteoric engineering, has grown by leaps and bounds. Regardless of whether these changes are beneficial or not, nevertheless, within the history of man, the Ember Tears stands as a monument of great change."
Pa.s.sing by the cla.s.sroom, an older teacher could be heard giving instruction.
"Furthermore, according to current schools of thought, the notion that the Ember Tears did not consist of ordinary meteorites is now a predominant theory. All observatories surveying the phenomenon have noted the release of a particular aerosol being produced as the meteorites made contact with the Earth's atmosphere. As for what this portends..."
The droning monotone made for an effective tranquilizer, needing only to enter one's ear before quickly sending one off to count sheep. Indeed, a quick glance within the cla.s.sroom revealed the majority of students lying asleep on their desks.
"It's pretty early to be in cla.s.s. Cla.s.s shouldn't have started yet, right?"
"That's right. These students are taking extra lessons."
"This early and already in extra lessons..."
"After all, our school focuses on both civil and martial paths. You'd best remember this."
Leading Ayato along the path to the student council room, Claudia turned with a smile.
Unlike the cla.s.sical architecture of the girl's dormitory, Seidokan Academy's design is much more modern.
The university, high school, and junior high buildings enclose a communal courtyard. Of these three, the high school enrollment was the largest, and subsequently, so was its building.
"Oh, that reminds me. Ayato-kun, you and I are the same age, so feel free to relax a little."
"Huh? Wait, that means...the student council president is just a first-year?"
Her calm and cool temperament completely belied her age.
"That's odd...The student council president...?"
It's currently June. If she was indeed a first-year like Ayato, then she should have entered school but two months prior.
Although admittedly he hadn't the slightest clue what the process for selecting the student council president entailed, but to have risen to such an elevated position in such a short time was nonetheless staggering.
"You're right. My term as president began during junior high; this is already my third term," Claudia calmly explained as they made their way through the hallway, brilliantly illuminated by the rays of sunlight pouring through the gla.s.s panes.
It wasn't the case that the different school levels held no autonomy, but rather that the student council of Seidokan Academy was a single body drawn from all three levels. Resultantly, among the members of the student council could also be found those who were at the junior high level and those who were at the university level.
"That's why, please just address me by my name."
"So that's how it is, Claudia-san."
"Claudia. Anything else is unnecessary."
"Er, that's a little bit..."
Given the circ.u.mstances, it wasn't like he could do much else, but for Ayato to directly use the first name of a girl he had just met was still something he was rather hesitant to do.
"That's what I mean...that's...."
"...Alright, I understand already. Claudia."
Contrasting her appearance, she appeared to be quite stubborn indeed.
Having lost out to her mulishness, Ayato had no choice but to give in and address his student council president with her given name. Claudia narrowed her eyes in delight.
"Well then, please call me Ayato... even if it's a little embarra.s.sing, to be sure."
"Got it, Ayato."
"Is it really fine not to use any honorifics?"
"That's a.s.suredly not the case. Just chalk it up to my personality."
"Indeed. I harbor quite a sly personality, so I make sure to leave a good first impression on others. Afterwards, I influence them little by little."
From the very beginning, Claudia looked nothing so much like a warm, caring mother, so digesting what'd just said necessarily took Ayato some time.
"...A sly personality?"
"Just so. Deep within my heart, a dark something is boiling over, almost like a black hole, wreaking havoc. It's so black, it's even darker than black honey."
That certainly is dark.
"That said, would you like to see for yourself?"
Having thus spoken, Claudia gripped the bottom of her blouse, and began to roll it up.
"Wah!? Wa-wait just a moment!"
Catching a glimpse of that exquisite abdomen, Ayato frantically turned away.
Of course, Claudia never intended to reveal anything more.
"Hahaha, I'm just playing. Such a cute reaction."
Claudia laughed delightedly, covering her mouth with her hand.
This made it abundantly clear just what she meant by a "sly personality".
"-Alright, we're here. Please, come in."
It'd taken them some time to reach the student council room, located on the top floor of the high school building. Looking more carefully, it seemed all the rooms on the top floor were related to the student council in some way.
Using her school badge, Claudia authenticated herself at the door, which slid open to reveal a vast and s.p.a.cious room which felt a bit much for a student council room.
The floor of the entryway was covered in a dark brown leather rug. A depiction of Seidokan Academy's school grounds was hung on the wall. Placed in front of the large window, with room to spare, was a heavy oaken conference desk with matching chairs. Simply put, it looked for all the world like the boardroom of a large corporation.
Claudia sat down at the head of the table with a practiced ease, placing her hands together, she spoke once more.
"Well then, once more... Welcome to Seidokan Academy, Ayato."
Having looked at Ayato this entire time, Claudia now broke eye contact to turn to face the window.
"And...welcome to Rikka, the Asterisk City."
Ayato followed her in looking out over the city from their high vantage point, a neat and tidy cityscape filling his gaze.
Floating atop the crater-lake in North Kanto, left by an immense meteorite, lay the artificial-island city. In the center of its hexagonal layout sat the central district, with one of the six schools reaching out in each direction, giving one the impression of a large snowflake. The name of this city, RikkaSnowflake, was rooted in this fact.
Each school had its own district, with a large road leading up to the school itself, the architecture of which resulted in a star shape, or more precisely, a asteriskhexagram.
Granted, the origin of this name was something that had to be seen to be understood for those students who journeyed from around the world to be here.
"We of Seidokan Academy have but one expectation of you, the special invitee transfer student, and that is victory."
Looking down upon the city, she continued, "Defeat St. Garrardsworth Academy, subdue Allekant Academy, subjugate the GerronWorld Dragon Seventh Inst.i.tute, overpower Le Wolfe Black Inst.i.tute, and triumph over Queen Veil Girl's Academy. That is to say, to obtain victory during the FestaStar Warrior Festival."
Ayato could only scratch his head and frown.
"I'm sorry. I'll be honest; I have no interest in any of that."
The truth of the matter was that each school was supported from behind the scenes by the Integrated Enterprise Foundation. Their power, superior to the now fallen nations of times past, was sufficient even to warp and alter the law. Whether it be wealth, position, or prestige - nothing was beyond reach.
To be certain, of the students gathered to this Asterisk City, a full half were here for the express purpose of realizing such dreams.
The remaining half, namely those students wielding the special powers of the Starpulse Generation, were eager to test themselves, hoping at least once to fight to the very limits of their ability. For these students, there was but one place in this world where they could fight to their hearts' content.
Nonetheless, Ayato fell within neither of these two camps.
"I know. I'm aware you don't feel anything in particular about this sort of thing, which is why you've rejected our invitation once already."
Signaling the end of this phase of their conversation, Claudia turned her chair to face Ayato once more.
"The fact remains, however, that our school's performance in the Festa these past years has been anything but stellar. Last season, we placed fifth in the overall rankings. With that said, the sixth-ranked Queen Veil are so ranked by design only, the official rankings notwithstanding. The reality of things is that we are currently last. This is not a situation we can allow to continue; for this purpose, we need every talented individual we can get our hands on."
Although the Festa is described as a single compet.i.tion, in truth, it is composed of three separate parts.
In the summer of the first year is the partner battle PhoenixPhoenix Star Warrior Festival, in the fall of the second year is a team battle, GrypsGryphon Star Warrior Festival, and finally in the winter of the third year is the individually fought LindvolusDragon King Star Warrior Festival.
Those who perform well are able to have to their scores subst.i.tuted in place of their traditional school grades; their final point acc.u.mulation at the end of the Lindvolus becomes their grade. Thus three years of grades can summed up by this one cycle.
As Claudia has just mentioned, Seidokan Academy's performance these last few cycles has consistently lingered near the bottom.
"Students have the opportunity to partic.i.p.ate in the Festa three times. Unfortunately, looking at it in another light, our best students only have three chances at most to partic.i.p.ate. To be frank, our current numbers are inadequate."
Students may register for the Festa when they are between the ages of 13 and 22, a period of 10 years. During this time, they may, of their own free will, choose to partic.i.p.ate in any Festa, even if only a part thereof.
For example, there are those students who will partic.i.p.ate in all three Festa segments in one cycle, departing at the end of the three year cycle, as well as those who, in their nine allotted years, will opt to take part in the Lindvolus only.
The more excellent students, the better. Taking this att.i.tude, each of the six schools spares no effort in seeking out the very best and brightest, leading students from all around the world to gather here.
Free tuition, living stipends, sponsored equipment; each of the six schools had its own methods for attracting students. From the point of view of these schools, these special invitees were to be had no matter what.
"On that note, why was I invited to come here? Although it's a little strange to be saying this myself, but I don't think there's anything particularly noteworthy about me."
"That's certainly the case. Because of your utter lack of a reputation, I faced quite the opposition pushing your name through."
"Ehh? You're the one who recommended me!?"
The majority of those who were sought out as special invitees were those who had performed well in the Festa. The exceptions to the rule were the StregaWitches and the DanteMagicians. However, these individuals were duty-bound to heed the will of their respective nations and were not free to escape the fate of being selected.
When it came to this point, from the time when he was young, Ayato had been raised as a pract.i.tioner in a kenjutsu dojo, and had never before partic.i.p.ated in the Festa.
"Just so; it was I who forced the school to admit you. At that time I was truly appreciative for the position of student council president. Three cheers for power!"
"...don't you mean force?"
"If you'd rejected my invitation, that would have been rather embarra.s.sing for me. Your change of heart was quite fortuitous."
"Who said anything about a change of heart?"
Ayato shrugged as Claudia narrowed her eyes.
"If that's the case, then why did you accept my invitation?"
Turning serious, Ayato placed his hands on the table, and looked Claudia in the eye.
"Claudia, the news that my sister - Amagiri Haruka - attended this school...Is it true?"
"Hmm, well, how to put this?"
Claudia directly accepted his gaze, extending her forefinger.
"All I know is a rumor, that she once attended this school. All information regarding her stay here has since been deleted by an unknown party."
"Deleted...Is that really possible?"
"Generally speaking, of course not."
"Even for the student council president?"
"Even someone in this position is hardly omnipotent...although, if it were someone a step above that, that's another matter entirely."
Continuing to stare at Claudia's bitter smile, Ayato's serious expression didn't fade.
A position even higher than the student council president, in other words, the Integrated Enterprise Foundation.
"There are no records of 'her' ever having taken part in the Festa, nor is 'her' name recorded in the Named ChartsBattle Omnicon. To be frank, whether or not she ever attended this school is unknown. a.s.suming she did indeed attend here, that was but some five years prior. There are both students and faculty here who have been here this entire time, and yet none remember her. The strange point is this, though."
"Any possibility the compet.i.tion records were altered?"
"None. For starters, hiding someone means pulling the wool over the eyes of the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of fans who watch the Festa. Each Festa is broadcast live all over the world, and the Named Charts are updated in real-time, as well as online. Even small incidents like the occasional intra-school duel are immediately captured by the media, and immediately spread to every corner of the city. Take, for example, the duel between you and Julis; it's already on the web."
Almost as if to interrupt Ayato's words, Claudia operated the computer beside her.
A screen dropped down, depicting a young woman.
Ayato's eyes opened wide.
"This is all we've been able to recover. She entered five years ago, departing after just half a year for personal reasons. Her name, birthdate, background; almost nothing remains."
Nonetheless, for Ayato, that was already more than enough.
This was it! Without a doubt!
"...How did you come by this, Claudia?"
In order to recover lost information, one obviously had to be first aware it had been discarded. However, of this student, neither records nor memories remained.
That being the case, how did Claudia know?
"I apologize. I'm afraid I can't reveal that. Do you not trust me?"
"Oh, no, that's not what I meant at all," Ayato frantically responded.
As a student council president, she definitely had her own sources of intelligence.
It went without saying that such things were confidential.
"It's just that, the way I see it, regardless of what's occurred since, it's almost a surety that 'she' is no longer here. If your reason for coming is her..."
As Claudia spoke, she grew increasingly fl.u.s.tered, however, Ayato's expression quickly returned to normal, and he shook his head.
"Thank you. Don't worry about it; my reason for coming wasn't just because of her."
In response, Claudia inquired further with a questioning gaze.
"Then...why did you choose this school?"
Ayato folded his arms, lost in thought, before answering with a smile.
"If I had to say, it's probably because I would like to discover a goal to seek after."
"How terribly abstract."
"Eh, really? I would've thought most students answer similarly."
"Ahh...I'm more and more intrigued by the moment."
Claudia felt that Ayato sought to muddle the issue with his answer.
The truth, however, was that he'd honestly tried his best to respond.
If it was at this school, he sincerely felt he'd be able to find a goal worthy of striving toward.
If his sister truly was here-
"Oh! That's right; I almost forgot to tell you something."
Clapping her hands together, Claudia suddenly cut in.
"Our special invitee students, aside from waived fees and the like, have several other privileges. One of these is priority access to the school's Ogre LuxPure Star Type Armaments."
"Ogre Lux refers to those which use a special type of Mana Dite, right?"
"That's correct. They use an Ulm Mana Dite."
Among the meteorites that had fallen to the Earth during the Ember Tears, accompanying the unknown element now known as Mana, was also the unique ore; manadite. A "Mana Dite" is the crystallization of the element Mana, from the Mana bering ore manadite, and recent advances have allowed for its artificial production.
Meteoric engineering research into Mana, manadite and Mana Dites had paved the way for new industry, not the least of which was centered around the ability to employ the Mana (in Mana Dites) as an energy source for weapons; the LuxShining Type Armaments.
When activated, Lux weapons materialize and focus Mana, producing a blade of light (there are also arrow and bullet forms).
The might conferred by Lux weapons exceeded those of existing weapons, and furthermore, carried other beneficial properties (for example, a Lux gun needs no ammunition). For this reason, for the most part, Lux weapons have since replaced traditional weaponry. They have become popular to the point that they now see such widespread use as weaponry, self-defense tools, and even children's toys.
Among the types of Mana Dite is one of exceedingly high purity, and equally rare. These are the so-called Ulm Mana Dites, which form the core of the Ogre Lux weapons. Their capabilities are incomparable to those of normal Lux weaponry, but are rumored to be even more difficult to control than the unique Mana abilities of the GenestellaStarpulse Generation Strega and Dante.
The vast majority of Ogre Lux weaponry belong to the Integrated Enterprise Foundation, although a select number are provided to each school for research purposes.
"If you'd prefer not to utilize an Ogre Lux, then of course, we won't force you. They do carry some side effects, after all. That's the 'price' of using something like that. What do you think?"
"I've heard you first need to verify compatibility?"
All users of an Ogre Lux, when drawing out their weapon's power, experience some sort of change.
If rumors are to be believed, then Ogre Lux weapons are self-aware, and choose their own owners.
"More than that, you should say it's the most important factor. Here at Seidokan Academy, the minimum requirement is an 80% compatibility rating. Any lower than that, and we can't accommodate the wishes of the student in loaning out the item."
Putting aside for a second whether or not he was interested, having to go through procedures to borrow the item in question each and every time struck Ayato as troublesome; in any case, to begin with, he had no idea if he was compatible or not.
Knowing Ayato had his own thoughts on the matter, and seeing his wavering expression, Claudia was mindful of his concerns.
"What's the matter?"
"Well, this isn't something I've been able to verify, so take it with a grain of salt. Truth be told, the requirement to register in order to use an Ogre Lux is a little suspicious."
"What do you mean?"
"The management of Ogre Lux weaponry is necessarily strict. But using 'who is currently borrowing what Lux' records seems almost a pretext for something else. More specifically, it's almost like by using verified combat data, they're trying to isolate that combat data which has no a.s.sociated registration information."
"By that you mean... unregistered Lux use?"
"Well, if the record's been altered, yes. I think the probability is quite high. These records are housed within the database of the management department, which has acc.u.mulated untold amounts of Ogre Lux combat data. As its inner workings are far from clear, it's impossible to eliminate the possibility of tampering."
"Let me guess, that data remnant is from five years previous?"
Ayato sighed heavily.
"If that's how it is, it seems best that I take a look myself."
According to this reasoning, the probability that his sister had used an Ogre Lux is quite high. If that was the case, he wanted to confirm with his own eyes the Lux weapon she'd used.
"I understand. I'll look into this more thoroughly and then notify you of my findings. For now, please use this."
What Claudia extended to him was a Lux activation tool.
"This is a traditional sword-style Lux. It's already been configured with your personal settings, but if you'd like to make any modifications, please pay the Equipment Division a visit."
"Ah, thank you. Oh, that reminds me."
Seeing this Lux reminded Ayato of the one he'd borrowed earlier, the one that a member of the crowd had thrown for him during the duel with Julis.
"This is troubling, how do I return this...?"
Ayato pulled out the Lux from earlier, but unfortunately, as expected, there was not a name engraved there.
"Oh, don't worry about it. If it's just that, the school just hands them out."
"Really? That's pretty generous."
This kind of combat-refined Lux is of course not cheap. Nevertheless, when compared with the potential benefits that came from the Festa, they were of small value indeed.
"Switching topics for a second, I just thought of something. Mind if I ask?"
"Sure, go ahead."
"You'd mentioned 'one last procedure'...what was it?"
"Oh, that. Well-"
Saying that, Claudia suddenly stopped.
Stopping to contemplate for a moment, she quickly glanced around.
"...Is something the matter?"
"Oh, not at all! It's nothing like that."
Claudia waved her hands frantically, giving off an appearance utterly unlike that of just earlier.
Her cheeks seemed to have taken on a slight reddish tint, and her gaze was lowered.
"Er, how do I say this, would you mind closing your eyes for just a moment?"
Why would this last procedure require closing one's eyes?
Despite this thought, Ayato had no intention of investigating further, and obediently shut his eyes.
He heard the slight whine of chair wheels, and not long after-
Ayato felt a slight impact on his back.
Though he was slightly taken by surprise, it wasn't like it'd hurt; in fact, the sensation was rather soft.
Or rather, wasn't it too soft?
There's no way, Ayato thought, as he opened his eyes. Opened to his gaze were a pair of hands, enclosed around his abdomen. In other words, he'd been hugged from behind.
The unbelievably soft yet overwhelming ma.s.s pressed into Ayato from behind.
Ayato, anxious, was unsure what he should do.
If there was anything he could do, that is.
"...Finally...Finally I get to see you..."
The bits and pieces of muttered words he heard were faint, but spoke clearly of long repressed nostalgia.
Though he was slightly taken by surprise, it wasn't like it'd hurt; in fact, the sensation was rather soft.
Although the feeling was indisputably conveyed, Ayato could only shake these thoughts from his mind.
He received no response.
Ayato briefly considered turning to look behind him, though, fact of the matter was, he was completely at a loss.
More importantly, someone who left such a strong impression on others such as Claudia could hardly be forgotten, right?
For some indeterminate length, that moment in time simply continued, the two of them unmoving and silent. Finally, the two arms released him.
"-Fufu. I'm just teasing. Were you surprised?"
Ayato finally turned to look, finding a thoroughly genuine smile awaiting him.
It was just a gut feeling, but he felt like he'd lost the opportunity to inquire further.
"...Getting suddenly hugged like that from behind; is there anyone who wouldn't be surprised?"
"Don't misunderstand. That's not something I'd do for just anyone. I'm quite pure, you know?"
Claudia covered her mouth with her hand, and coupled with her earlier statement, it was difficult to tell which parts were just a joke.
"Don't tell me that was the so-called 'last procedure'?"
Ayato forcibly brought things back on topic.
Disregarding everything else that had occurred, this was the primary reason Ayato had come, after all.
"Ohh...that. Yeah, that was a lie."
Ayato felt his jaw drop.
"Because it's easier this way~"
From the looks of things, Claudia didn't feel the least bit of remorse.
"You're already a part of this school, procedures and what not, it's a~ll done already. It's just that, in that circ.u.mstance, this was the most effective way to handle things. Julis is quite the zealous person, so I can guarantee that if it wasn't 'a violation of school regulations', she'd undoubtedly have continued that duel."
"But, but that's..."
"Oh, do you mean to say that you would have preferred to continue?"
Of course that wasn't the case.
"If things had continued down that course, what would you have done? Neither I nor the school have any desire of witnessing such things."
Well, if nothing else, what Claudia had done had been for his sake, after all. While her actions weren't quite to the degree of "ruthless", her way of doing things definitely differed from her appearance.
Nor could hide nor hair be found of the weak and delicate Claudia who had hugged him just now.
"Now then, cla.s.s is about to start, so let's end things here. If there's anything you need, don't hesitate to ask. If there's anything I can do to help, it'd be my pleasure."
Smiling beautifully, Claudia sent Ayato off with her gaze.
"Ah- Well then, this is the special transfer student Amagiri Ayato. Please get along well with everyone."
What a careless introduction.
Because of their new environment, teachers usually placed extra emphasis on caring for transfer students; in this instance, however, not the slightest hint of concern could be felt.
Ayato turned to gaze at the woman by his side, the homeroom teacher of Year 1 Cla.s.s 3, Yatsuzaki Kyouko, whose only reaction was to say, "It's your turn now."
She was rather tall, with a gaze best described as penetrating...or perhaps ferocious, and a tone and an att.i.tude utterly unsuited to being a teacher.
That said, that was not what was most surprising, which would be the nailed bat she held in her hands. Well-worn, and dyed a deep scarlet, its forbidding presence discouraged further inquiry.
"Hey, hurry it up."
"Ah, right away! Um, I'm Amagiri Ayato. Pleased to meet all of you."
Ayato's introduction extended only as far as his name; perhaps he wasn't the talkative type.
Every gaze in the room centered on him.
There were students who were intrigued, students who couldn't care less, students who seemed to stare deeply, and students who were on guard.
Transfer students were always the subject of attention, but this was rather excessive.
Just one girl stared at Ayato with a complicated expression, the reasoning for which Ayato was only too aware.
"Seat, hmm...Ah, why don't you sit with the person you were playing with fire with. It just so happens to be empty, perfect."
"Who, who did you say was playing with fire with that guy?!"
The person Kyouko had referenced, Julis, stood up, her face reddening.
"Hmm, who other than you, Riessfeld? This morning, you were too unrestrained. As a member of the Top Twelve, you can't just rampage about whenever you feel like it. This is not Le Wolfe after all!"
Julis reluctantly sat back down in her seat, located in the second row from the back.
Luckily, there were empty seats on either side of her.
"I'd never have guessed we'd be cla.s.smates."
"...I'm not laughing."
At Ayato's words, Julis could only sigh.
Not all that warm of a welcome, it seems.
"Even though lots of things happened earlier, in short, pleased to meet you."
Julis still had a few words for Ayato, so she turned to him to speak.
"I owe you, so when you need my help, I'll lend you a hand just once. Other than that, leave me alone."
Having said her piece, she abruptly turned away.
From behind drifted over a comment half sympathetic, half exclamatory.
Ayato turned around. He saw a young man with lean facial features, a sympathetic expression on his face, extending a hand toward him.
"Well, you are dealing with the Princess, after all."
Ayato grasped the young man's hand, which he shook vigorously.
"My name's Yabuki Eishirou. We're roommates."
"Roommates...you mean in the dorms?"
"Yep. My room was intended for two people after all."
"My apologies. After having the room to yourself for so long, it must be a little cramped now."
Eishirou seemed to be quite the candid young man.
Though it wasn't immediately obvious while he was sitting, he ought to be a full head taller than Ayato. His att.i.tude seemed rather childlike, but both his expression and his stature spoke of his maturity. His left cheek bore an obvious scar, giving a sense of unbalanced aesthetics.
"Anyway, if I'm going to have a roommate, I'm glad it's an interesting one."
"...I'm a pretty ordinary person, you know?"
"What're you talking about? The very first morning of your transfer, and already dueling one of the Top Twelve? What's more, daring to push down that Princess in front of that crowd of onlookers? There's no need for false modesty here."
Ayato felt he hadn't the slightest degree of false modesty, and if given the opportunity, would gladly take an hour or two to clear up the misunderstanding. Nevertheless, it appeared as if rumor had long since spread.
Accordingly, the second cla.s.s ended, he found himself surrounded.
"Hey, Amagiri-kun, what happened at your previous school? Transferring in at this time means something must have happened right?"
"Also, why were you dueling the Princess? We still haven't received any information on that!"
"Nononono, what's important is, is it really okay to be that pa.s.sionate about the Princess? Hmm? What do I mean? Wasn't that duel about ending your love in a blaze of glory? Or wait, maybe forbidden love?"
"Wait, wait! Rather than all that ridiculousness, what I want to know is your strategy for fighting the Princess! How'd you do it?"
"I never expected this."
The other group of students were separated by a wall of indifference.
"This is, of course, due to the Gruene Rose's lenience toward a newcomer."
"Honestly. Whether it be personal background or reactionary speed, this is far in excess of what pa.s.ses for normal in this city. Relatively speaking, this might be even harder than making it into the Named Charts."
"Why's someone like that a special invitee? Not that it matters one way or another."
And so on and so forth.
It felt to Ayato as if cla.s.s had continued without ceasing. By the end of the school day, he was exhausted in both heart and mind.
"It's been hard on you. It sure isn't fun being popular."
The light of the setting sun poured through the cla.s.sroom windows, shining upon Ayato, collapsed upon his desk in exhaustion, and Eishirou, giving him a friendly pat on the back.
"Well, I've come to a realization through all of this."
"That I'm not the popular one; Julis is."
Ayato glanced at the seat by his side, exaggeratedly shrugging his shoulders.
The owner of that seat had vanished without trace the moment cla.s.s ended.
"It wasn't that people were interested in me per se, but rather that they were curious about 'the one who'd dueled the Princess', right?"
"Hmm, not bad."
His expression revealed his esteem for Ayato's remark.
"The thing I don't get is this; if that's all they wanted, why not ask Julis directly?"
"If it was that easy, things wouldn't be like this. Haven't you noticed? That Princess isn't exactly friendly."
"...More or less, yes."
Thinking of the smile Julis had shown after having her handkerchief returned, Ayato wondered why she kept others at a distance.
"Well, who knows what the reason is, but it's a fact that she deliberately maintains a distance between herself and others. Moreover..."
"Um, just a moment. You've been saying 'the Princess' over and over; is that a nickname? It seems like everyone else was doing the same."
"Hrm, nickname or not, huh...Well, truth be told, she's an honest-to-goodness princess."
Ayato was sure he'd misheard.
"A princess? You mean like the kind in fairy tales?"
"Exactly. Getting cursed by an evil witch, saved by the kiss of a prince, forced into a political marriage, coming from a magical land, sold into slavery, and getting toyed with by tentacles, that kind of princess. Simply put, the daughter of a king."
Although the second half of that answer sounded rather strange to Ayato, he nonetheless understood.
"After the Ember Tears, the nations of Europe returned to being monarchies. While true control over both government and economics was grasped by the Integrated Enterprise Foundation, they found it convenient to place puppet monarchs on the throne. The first princess of one of those countries, Lieseltania, is that Princess. Her full name is Julis Alexia Marie Florentia Renate van Riessfeld. Her name is recorded on Europe's list of royalty."
"Um...that was a little too detailed, don't you think?"
"Oh, this is just purchased information. Provided by the Newspaper Club, incidentally."
He smiled brazenly.
"Why was the Princess fighting in a place like that anyway? Normally, princesses should be more graceful."
Remembering the incident where he'd nearly been roasted alive, Ayato tilted his head in thought.
Julis indeed possessed elegant demeanor, august manner, and boldness–– in excess.
"Who would have guessed you didn't know yourself? And here I was, thinking I'd get the inside scoop."
Eishirou wore a serious expression which seemed to say, "looks like my information was correct."
"She's decidedly lovely, fiercely strong, and a real princess to boot. It's obvious that she'd be the center of attention. Since joining our cla.s.s last year, she hasn't just caught the eye of others; they stirred themselves into a fanatic fervor as her 'guards'. Not long ago, she issued them a command."
"...I can picture that all too easily."
"Anyway, do you know what it was she told them? 'Silence! I am not a work of art to be admired.'"
"...Again, all too easily imagined."
"The majority ran off, but as expected, this completely normal response left some very unhappy. The Princess responded by challenging each of them to a duel in turn, and one by one, defeating them handily. Not long after, the Princess soon achieved a position as one of the Top Twelve."
That was to be expected.
Having fought Julis himself, Ayato was very aware that her strength was anything but a sham. Even here at the War-Academy City, Asterisk, there were likely only a handful of individuals stronger than her.
"That's why, there's no one capable of approaching that Princess. Until today, there hasn't been a single person able to work up the courage to simply talk to her like that."
"Uh...how do I say this; she does have friends, right?"
"At least as far as I know, no, no one. Oh, pardon me for just a moment."
Eishirou raised his hand to forestall further comment, before reaching into his pocket to withdraw his ringing phone.
"What's up, President?"
Inbetween them a "s.p.a.ce" window had opened, displaying a girl with shoulder-length hair snarling at full volume.
『"Don't ask me 'what's up'! I told you already I wanted your article proofread and ready for printing first thing in the morning! What on Earth have you been doing!?"』
"Ah, sorry, something came up..."
『"No excuses! Just get your a.s.s over here within the next five minutes!"』
As the s.p.a.ce window suddenly disappeared, Eishirou kneaded his forehead with a wry smile.
"...Well, that's how it is. If I don't head over, things won't go well for me."
"It's just about time for me to head back anyway."
"Let's meet back at the dorms then."
Facing Eishirou, preparing to exit the cla.s.sroom, Ayato tossed something to him.
Eishirou caught the item with a surprised look on his face. Inspecting it more carefully, he laughed.
"So you noticed."
"Thank you. If it wasn't for this, I'm sure things wouldn't have ended that simply."
What he'd thrown was a Lux activation tool.
It wasn't, however, the one he'd received from Claudia, but rather the one from this morning.
"How'd you know it was me?"
"Hmm? Oh, your voice."
Playing things down, Ayato replied mildly, but Eishirou's face lit up.
"In the middle of all of that, you still remember a single voice from that crowd so clearly?"
"Return what is owed. That's something my sister repeated time and again."
"...Hah! As I thought, you really are interesting!"
Eishirou shook with laughter.
"So, Amagiri, the duel from this morning...in actuality, you won, didn't you?"
"...Ehh, for the current me, I don't think that's possible."
This was not a lie.
"Hmm...'the current you', is it?"
Satisfied with his answer, Eishirou left the room with a lively gait.
Ayato, now alone in the room, sighed heavily.
"This school is really more difficult than expected."References Jump up↑ To understand Claudia's comment requires understanding the term I've translated as "sly", i.e. 腹黑. This is used to describe a sly, calculating personality, but literally translated, 腹 means "abdomen", and 黑 means "black".