Chapter 3 - n.o.ble Eyes
"Huh? c.r.a.p, I must have taken the wrong path."
Ayato had taken what he had originally supposed was a shortcut, cutting through the courtyard, only to find himself trapped behind a locked gate.
It looked like certain school entrances were locked once night fell.
Although the gate was quite tall, it wasn't to the degree that he couldn't make it over if he jumped. Still, remembering the incident from this morning, he decided to play it safe.
"Ah, whatever. It's not like I'm in a rush anyway."
Moreover, taking a walk was one of his admittedly few hobbies.
The central courtyard was larger than a mid-sized park, and all vegetation had been carefully trimmed.
Looking closely, semi-human robots with doll-like forms, replicants, were pruning the trees. Though it seemed military-use replicants were remote-controlled, the actions of ordinary replicants were automated, and thus both slow and limited to simple commands. These days, such acts of manual labor in harsh working environments were generally the purview of the replicants.
Though in the city Ayato had previously resided in, this was a sight rarely seen.
"...If that's the case, why'd you duel that newcomer!"
A young man's voice.
Only someone rather ill-mannered would be roaring in public like this, the air shaking at his volume.
(An argument, is it...?)
Ayato hid in the shadow of a nearby tree. Positioned in front of him was a pavilion, within which stood three male students. The most noticeable of the three was the one in the center, of large stature and, evident even from Ayato's location, an overbearing manner. The other two, one skinny and one slightly overweight, trailed slightly behind, almost like younger brothers.
The other party sat within, hidden from view.
At the circ.u.mstances, which looked primed to erupt at any moment, Ayato refused to turn a blind eye. Nonetheless, given both his role as a third party and his unfamiliarity with school customs, he felt it best to limit his actions to observation for the time being.
"Answer me, Julis!"
Upon hearing the familiar name, he unconsciously leaned out from behind the tree.
"I am under no obligation to answer you, Lester. Everyone has the privilege of dueling as we please." Said Julis.
"I am under no obligation to answer you, Lester. Everyone has the privilege of dueling as we please."
"Of course, I'm the same."
Moving stealthily, Ayato caught a glimpse of a rose-haired girl seated within the pavilion.
It seemed like the tall male student, named Lester?, was arguing with Julis, and it seemed that sparks would fly at any moment.
It was a very volatile atmosphere.
"In the same way, we have the right to reject any duel in which we'd rather not take part. No matter how many times you ask, the answer is still no."
"And why is that?!"
"...It seems that you're incapable of understanding unless I tell you straight out." Julis sighed heavily before rising to meet Lester's glare. "To put it simply, I've already beaten you thrice. If we were to fight again, it'd just be a waste of my time."
"Next time, I'll win! How dare you always look down on others?! You haven't seen my real strength yet!"
"That's right, that's right! When Lester gets serious, no one's fit to be his opponent!" The pudgy student standing behind Lester took the opportunity to cut in with a comment of his own.
"Then feel free to demonstrate ––with someone else."
Julis unilaterally brought the conversation to a close by turning away.
"Wait! I'm not done yet...!" Lester reached out to take hold of Julis' shoulder...
Just then, Ayato stepped out from behind the tree. "Oh my, isn't this Julis? What a coincidence, meeting here."
"...What are you doing here?"
"Who are you?"
At Ayato's timing and words, too perfect to be truly be coincidence, Julis, Lester, and his two lackeys all frowned.
"Hahaha...It seems I took a wrong turn somewhere."
"Ah! Lester! That guy is the new transfer student!" Prompted the pudgy student.
Lester's glare, filled with provocation, pierced through Ayato.
Ayato, on the other hand, was completely calm as he spoke to Julis. "Julis, this individual is...?"
"...Lester McPhail, ranked ninth in our school."
Julis folded her hands behind her back, a blank expression on her face. "Oh, so you're also a Page One. That's amazing."
"Ah, right. I'm Amagiri Ayato; it's nice to meet you." Although Ayato extended his left hand for a handshake, Lester pretended he hadn't seen it, opting instead to continue to stare daggers at him.
From up close, Lester's exaggerated stature was all the more apparent. He looked just about two meters tall, with broad shoulders and well-toned musculature.
The muscles of those in the Starpulse Generation were indeed different from others. In addition to the their increased effectiveness, they had the peculiar trait of not changing much in appearance even with training. Lester's well-defined muscles thus spoke to the degree of training they'd undergone.
His short, tawny hair stood on end and his facial features twisted in rage. "You'd...You'd willingly duel someone like that, and yet won't accept my challenge...?" Lester clenched his fists as his voice began to tremble with rage.
"Don't screw with me! You're going to suffer defeat at my hands! No matter what tricks you try!"
Lester's eyes had long ceased to take note of Ayato's presence. Waving his hands, he approached Julis.
"Wait! Please wait Lester-san! Calm down...note where we are..." Lester was heedless of the cries of his (other) skinny compatriot.
Although Julis was of average height for a girl her age, that meant nothing in the face of Lester's frightening physique.
That notwithstanding, Julis retreated not one step, instead responding firmly and resolutely. "That's impossible. Until you change that personality of yours, no different from a wild boar, that will never happen."
"Wha... How dare you!" Though he seemed ready to explode, if he reacted on impulse in this situation, he'd only be validating Julis' claim.
"Y-you! You're going to regret looking down on Lester! Next time, for sure...!"
"Shut it, Landy!" Lester roared at his flunky and exited the pavilion, his rage barely restrained.
"Don't you dare underestimate me! I will make you acknowledge my strength!" Shouting these words, Lester left the scene, with the remaining two scrambling after him.
"Ugh... I can't stand him."
Waiting until they had pa.s.sed out of sight, Julis sat down once more.
"Ahaha... it looks like I've stuck my head somewhere unwanted again."
"Seriously. Thanks to your meddling, I wasted more time than usual."
"Sorry about that. Is it usually like this?"
Julis threw her hands up in response. "Lester can't stand me. Even though there are others like him, he's still the first to hara.s.s me to this degree."
"But still, he's ranked ninth. He must be quite strong, right?" Ayato thought he'd follow up by asking if things were fine. Even though he'd only known Julis for half a day, he knew she wasn't the kind of person to speak ill of others.
"If you're going to ask if he's strong or not, well then, of course he's strong. That said, the ranking doesn't just refer to how capable you are.To find a place in among the Named Charts requires more than just strength; suitability matters more than anything else." Julis lifted her face, the corner of her lips turning in a smile.
Seeing Julis' eyes light up, Ayato hurriedly turned his gaze.
"Seeing as this is the perfect opportunity, I want to ask you something."
"Hmm...Wha, what would that be?"
"The duel this morning, were you using Meteor ArtsMeteoric Battle Techniques? How'd you use that Lux without tuning it first?"
"Oh. No, that wasn't."
"...What do you mean?"
"Well, to begin with, I can't use Meteor Arts. Truth is, I've never really found a Lux I'm compatible with before, a cause of no small frustration for me. If given the chance, I'm much more accustomed to using a normal weapon."
"Then that technique from this morning...?"
"That was purely kenjutsu. My family runs a dojo which practices sword techniques pa.s.sed on from long ago, so I can somehow manage."
"That was just kenjutsu...?" Julis' eyes opened wide in astonishment.
"...If it's a Lux blade, severing my flames isn't something unimaginable. With that said, this is the first time I've ever seen anyone do such a job of it. Just what levels of swordsmanship have you attained...?"
"Haha, nothing out of the ordinary."
"...Forget it. You just keep wearing that stupid expression and playing the role of a spectator. This isn't the kind of place you think it is, where you can just naively stride your way through things."
"I'm nowhere that naive." Ayato shook his head lightly. "Anyway, Julis, why are you taking part in these kinds of dangerous battles?"
"I'm curious. You're a princess, right?"
"I most certainly am Lieseltania's First Princess, but that's not why. Those who come to this school are all fighting for the same reason –– to grasp those things which cannot be obtained otherwise. This holds true regardless of t.i.tle or position or anything like that."
Although she answered in a calm voice, her iron will and steely resolve could be clearly felt.
"...And what is it that you seek?" Ayato was unsure if he should continue this line of questioning, but in the end, he continued.
Surprisingly, Julis answered. "Money."
"I need money, and fighting here is the quickest way to get it."
...a princess was fighting for money? No matter how you looked at it, a princess ought to be rather wealthy indeed. Just what did she mean?
"There's not much time left. I must seize the victor's crown at each event of this season's Festa. That's my goal."
"Winning all three events..." In other words, a 'grand slam.' Ayato fully understood just how impossible a task that was.
"That's right. First up is the Phoenix. At the very least, I need the money from that."
The prize money from the Festa was split among the winners. Supposedly winning just once was enough to live comfortably for the rest of one's life.
As Ayato was still searching for his own goal, her answer was hard to digest.
The differences between what they sought were readily apparent.
His remaining question, however, was much more easily answered. "Speaking of which, I seem to remember you're still looking for a partner?" Remembering Claudia's words to Julis from earlier, he inquired.
The Phoenix was a partner-based tag-team format, and thus Julis was incapable of entering by herself.
"Mm, that's right. There certainly is such a requirement." Julis mumbled out a reply. Finding a partner was anything but trivial for her––given her personality––this was, after all, only to be expected.
"E-even if I haven't found a partner yet, don't take that to mean I don't have any friends, ok?! Or rather, even though I really don't have any friends, this and that are two different things. The problem is that I can't find anyone who meets my standards for a partner."
––She'd just admitted she had no friends.
"So what kind of person are you looking for?"
"That, hmm...Well, for starters, they can't be weaker than me; at the level of one of the Top Twelve. They must have impeccable character, a keen mind, staunch will, and the n.o.ble spirit of a knight."
"...Isn't that a bit much?"
"Re-really? I'd considered lowering my standards a bit..."
This part of her was true to her image as a princess.
"The registration deadline is rapidly approaching. This really isn't the time to be so demanding."
Julis muttered to herself, picking up her bag and rising. "Well, it's about time for me to head on back. Actually, first, I want to ask something. What brought you here?"
"Oh, well, originally I thought this way was a shortcut, but the gate was locked."
"Yeah, once evening comes, some of the gates will lock automatically, though this seems to be restricted to those connected to the junior high building."
That made sense.
"Hmm, even if you say they close automatically, is there really no chance that they'd take a day off and just stay open?"
"Well, it's just that I like to go out for walks, and so this is kinda troublesome."
At Ayato's words, Julis looked like she'd just caught a glimpse of a total fool.
"...A-ahahaha!" Unable to restrain herself, she broke out into laughter.
"Of course not! Are you an idiot or something? After what happened this morning, did you really not think to consult a map? Don't worry, even if it's night, the high school gates don't close."
She looked as if she'd just told the greatest joke.
This expression suited her age, and for a moment, she looked nothing so much like a normal girl.
"Hmm? What's the matter?"
"Nothing. I just never thought you'd smile like that."
"W-what are you saying all of a sudden?! Are you making fun of me?" Returning to her default angry state, she turned aside in a huff.
"You should try and lighten up a little, otherwise it's such a waste."
"So annoying; keep your words to yourself." Julis gritted her teeth. "A-And that leisurely look on your face; you should change it! A loose face and loose actions! That's the cause of this morning's stupidity!"
...That was getting a little carried away.
"Certainly, half of that was definitely my fault. The other half was caused by lack of knowledge."
This school was simply way too big. Add to that a mountain of unknown customs and practices, and it was all too much for a transfer student to take in.
Perhaps he should have someone guide him-
Ayato turned to stare at Julis. "Wh-What is it...?" Julis unconsciously reddened slightly and retreated a step.
"––Julis, would you mind showing me around campus? Oh, and around town as well?"
In response to Ayato's request, Julis' thinly veiled disgust showed on her face. "What're you talking about? Why should I do anything like that?"
"Because, didn't you say that you owed me one? You never said anything about what I could call it in for. At least hear me out."
"Well, I certainly did say that...Don't tell me you're being serious?"
"If that's what you really want, then sure. My original intention was that when you found yourself in a moment of crisis, I'd come to your aid. The favor I owe you isn't something trivial. Anything up to a certain degree ––excepting, of course, anything shameless–– is fine; for example, borrowing my strength, the strength of a Page One."
"By that you mean you'd lend me your strength in battle?"
Ayato rejected her offer flat-out with a shake of his head.
"As before, I think getting more familiar with this campus is best."
At his immediate reply, having spared not a moment's thought before answering, Julis turned a questioning glance at Ayato before laughing.
"What an immeasurable man. Or maybe just an idiot...?"
"...If those are my choices, I'll go with the first, thank you."
"You don't say. Whatever, forget it. If you want me to guide you, then allow me."
"I appreciate the help."
"I... it can't be helped. A favor's a favor. The campus tour we can do tomorrow, after school. As for the tour of the city, hmm...leave your day off free."
And the last of his worries was solved.
"Alright, then I'll head back now...U-uwah!"
Turning to exit the pavilion, Ayato's lapel was grabbed from behind.
"Here's the first lesson. If you want to head back to the male dorms from here, the fastest way is through the university building."
"*cough* *cough.* Thanks. Also, if your 'lessons' were a little gentler next time, it'd be greatly appreciated."
Looking at Ayato, choking, Julis smiled lightly.
"That wasn't listed as a requirement just now, so... I refuse."
By the time Ayato arrived back at the dorms, the sky had already turned dark.
The male dormitories faced directly opposite the female dorms, with the high school building in between. When compared to the female dormitory building, with its cla.s.sical architecture, the male building was decidedly more plain.
"Hmm, room 221, looks like."
This time carefully double-checking a map, Ayato entered the room.
Although each of the buildings were separated, the use of a communal staircase gave opportunities to catch glimpse of both junior high and university students, a rather novel experience. There were a few students who studied Ayato like a rare animal. This left him feeling out of place, a feeling he ended by shaking their hands.
Room 221 was located on the second floor. Next to the door, a shiny new nameplate read "Amagiri Ayato".
Knocking on the door before he entered.
"Welcome back. It's pretty late, though."
"Some things happened." Ayato saw Eishirou lying on his bed, waving his hand in welcome.
"Wow, it's bigger than I imagined."
It was a ten-tatami room, already furnished with a bed and a desk. Aside from a chair, not a thing lay in sight, except the luggage he'd sent earlier.
"Is that all your stuff? There's way too little!"
"Just clothes. You don't have all that much either, Yabuki."
All that adorned Eishirou's desk was a pile of sticky notes and a mountain of books; all in all, rather plain.
"I don't bother with things that don't interest me. Everything there is related to club activities."
"That reminds me, the newspaper club ought to know. The student named Lester, what kind of person is he?"
"Lester? Lester McPhail?"
"That sounds right. I hear he's ranked ninth?"
"You've heard correctly. KornephorosFurious Axe of Distant Thunder Lester."
Eishirou sat up, fiddled with his phone for a bit, and brought up a display screen s.p.a.ce window in midair.
An image of the person he had just seen appeared before his eyes.
"Lester McPhail. First year student at Seidokan Academy, ranked ninth among the Top Twelve. His style leverages his physical strength, proving unmatched in close-quarters combat. However, he has no strategies for dealing with the Strega or Dante. His weapon is an axe-shaped Lux named 'Bardiche Leo'."
"Well, that's all stuff you can find online. If you want more detailed information, then that's an altogether different matter."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean you need this."
Eishirou rubbed his fingers together.
"Of course. Students at this school ––actually, this applies to all the schools; students of Asterisk City–– can basically be divided into one of two groups. Those in the first are like the Princess, who place the Festa as their goal. The other consists of those like myself, who gave up on the Festa early on."
"...You've already given up?"
"That's right. Even if we're all from the same Starpulse Generation, it's ludicrous to even think of winning. Once you find yourself here, whether you want to or not, the difference between your abilities and others' is very quickly made apparent. Of this gaping chasm of ability, I am well-aware. Although, truth be told, to those who refuse to simply give in, that's not quite how we look at things."
"What do you mean by that?"
To Ayato's searching eyes, Eishirou seemed quite delighted.
"That's simple. When it comes to those of us who have nothing to do with the Festa, watching by the sidelines and cheerfully earning money as others fight it out is something only our Newspaper Club can do."
"But how does the Newspaper Club earn any money?"
Student club activities weren't exactly something you normally a.s.sociated with making money.
"How rude! We happen to have plenty of work, you know? You've probably seen videos of Asterisk on the TV or on the web before, right? Those are the fruits of our labors. We have an agreement with outside news organizations who are unable to enter the premises."
That does seem to make sense.
"Haha, so that's how it is. In other words, you guys sell this footage and other information to outside news organizations."
Eishirou gave a thumbs-up.
"This aside, there are many other paths. Taking the clubs, for example, there's the meteoric engineering research society, whose skills likely exceed that of the equipment division. That said, when compared to the best in the city at it, Allekant Academy, we're nowhere near that level. There're also methods slightly less on the up and up which use match results as a grounds for betting. Numerous students make their money that way."
"...That's not banned by the school?"
Their actions had completely surpa.s.sed the bounds of what Ayato felt was approvable school behavior.
Eishirou lightly shook his head.
"In today's world, as long as you have money, no one will say a word. "
The Integrated Enterprise Foundation's efforts to enliven the economy were centered around stimulating trade.
Achieving this goal required the smooth circulation of money. To this end, they would reward efforts which resulted in increased consumer spending.
It was for this very reason that Asterisk had been established.
"Put simply, particularly outstanding students usually have their own following. For the Top Twelve, this is doubly true."
"Hmm? Does that mean that Lester does as well?"
Ayato thought of the two students who had followed in his wake.
"Mm, do you mean this?"
Eishirou manipulated his phone, opening two more windows.
One person was rather thin and the other rather plump. Although their outer appearances were polar opposites, the servile, fawning expression on their faces was identical.
"The skinny one is Cyrus Norman. He's a Dante, and though we have no records of his battles, his ability should be object manipulation. The slightly larger one is Landy Hooke. He was formerly listed among the Named Charts, although he has since dropped out of the standings. He uses a bow-type Lux."
"Just one after another..."
Ayato didn't know what to say.
Eishirou's information seemed to cover all sorts of prominent students, including even these two.
"Hehehe, scared, are we?"
Eishirou closed the windows and leaped onto his bed.
"Now then, it's just about time for dinner. Why don't I show you the cafeteria?"
"Before that, there's something else I'd like to ask about Lester."
"What's his relationship with Julis?"
At Ayato's question, Eishirou broke into a wide grin.
"I see, I see. Here I was, wondering why you'd suddenly ask about Lester all of a sudden; now it makes sense. You're really aiming for that Princess?"
"I-it's not like that."
Despite his words, it was the undeniable truth that Ayato was greatly concerned with Julis, though he wasn't quite clear why.
"Good question, but... Didn't I just finish explaining how this world works?"
Waiting for Ayato's nod of agreement, Eishirou opened another window.
This time it was a video. The screen showed a young girl, in command of flames, dancing around a battlefield.
Her opponent was a large male student, brandishing an axe almost as large as he was. A moment's glance was sufficient to determine which party was in complete control of the situation.
"This was taken during last year's official ranking matches. At the time, Lester was ranked fifth, the Princess, 17th."
"Yes, it was the Princess' complete victory. This was her inaugural match as one of the Top Twelve."
"I'm guessing Lester didn't see it that way."
"Yeah, in the two following ranking matches, Lester challenged her twice, losing both times."
The official ranking matches were a tournament held monthly to determine the school's best.
Although students were granted the freedom to accept or reject duels as they might, the ability to reject each and every request was counterproductive. In order to prevent students from monopolizing the rankings by simply rejecting all duels, the official ranking match system was put in place. Under this system, when a Page One received a duel request from a lower ranked student, they had to accept the match.
"Challenging any particular opponent to a ranking match can only be done at most twice, forestalling the opportunity for foul play."
"-In other words, Lester can no longer challenge Julis in an official ranking match?"
That would explain why he was constantly pestering her for a duel.
"Lester's not just proud, but very pa.s.sionate as well. He wants to get even, no matter what. That said...I don't think it's possible."
Having thus spoken, Eishirou returned his phone to his pocket.
"What're you thinking?"
"Even given what we've just seen, I don't think winning's impossible."
His compatibility against Julis was certainly poor, but that only made his strength all the more evident. Luck played a factor as well.
"It's just that...they're looking at different things."
Julis' eyes held no trace of Lester's presence.
No, she was gazing afar, at something far out of reach.
If that truly was the reality of things, then indeed Lester had not the slightest hope of catching up to her.
––Ayato remembered the same look in her eyes as she'd fought him.
"Thanks, Yabuki. How much do I owe you?"
Even if Ayato was a special invitee student, with tuition, room, and board all waived, it wasn't like he was flush with cash either. The family dojo, after all, teetered on the edge of ruin.
He wasn't at the point of needing to work for pocket money, but it was still best to be a little frugal.
"Right then, let's get some grub! Let's go, Amagiri!"
Eishirou's response was to hook his arm around Ayato's neck, and drag him out the door.
"Our cafeteria has both j.a.panese and Western cuisines. Which do you prefer?"
"Um, j.a.panese then..."
"j.a.panese is it? Today's dishes are yuan-yaki, agedashi tofu, and daikon and chikuwa stew. Please treat me to the agedashi tofu."
"In celebration of your arrival, I'm waiving the fee this time."
Eishirou laughed, patting Ayato on the back with his arm.
"What do you think, I'm pretty easy to get along with, aren't I?"
"I'd normally agree...if you weren't the one saying it."
Ayato smiled, returning the friendly pat on the back.
Jump up↑ Kenjutsu
Jump up↑ Yuan-yaki (j.a.panese style of grilling, using meat or fish which is marinated, impaled on long skewers, and then broiled over hot coals)
Jump up↑ Agedashi tofu
Jump up↑ Chikuwa