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Chapter 1 – Recollection/Last Night
From when she became aware of things around her, Claudia thought, although vague, of walking the same path as her parents.
In fact, Claudia was a resourceful child worthy to be called prodigy; she possessed high intelligence and physical ability ── and above all, while very young, she excelled at delicately reading surrounding people’s subtleties, intuitively guess what they desired and what they hated, and was also good at the technique to control it through the mood, words and gestures.
Be it in terms of ability or even judging from her family status principle which remained deeply rooted to a part of the Europe’s Integrated Enterprise Foundation, she was a talented enough person. And in terms of prospects, Claudia was supposed to become a top executive of the Integrated Enterprise Foundation and be added among the handful of humans moving/leading the world.
Only if she was not a , that is.
Such time would eventually come. The number of , in other words, the ratio of in the total population would surely increase, though slowly. In dozens of years later or hundreds of years later…… there was no mistaking that the time when the would free themselves from the minority would come.
But, it was still different now.
In this day and age, the were regarded to the bitter end as no more than heretics. No matter how much talented they were, no matter how many achievements they piled up, there did not exist a place where the could get into the system’s upper echelon.
Naturally, Claudia’s parents, Isabella and Nicholas, knew it, and Claudia herself also understood it while she had not yet reached 10 years old. Even so, Claudia did not feel frustrated or disappointed.
She neither had any strong desires, nor earnestly sought something.
She only stood alone in a remote place far from craving and pa.s.sion.
In other words, Claudia Enfield was such a child.
Together with a voice filled with fighting spirit, a sharp sword slash drew an arc.
Shining golden hair lightly danced in the air, and on the ground, another blond hair waved, disheveled trying to chase it.
『A fierce attack of player Blanchard! But, player Enfield splendidly evades it by a hair’s breadth! This fierce fighting is really worthy to be this ’s final!』
There were many Martial Arts Tournaments belonging to the low-end category of the , but the , which was held up in the western European countries, was a tournament known widely among them. The entry qualifications were limited to children under 13 years old, and the safety measures too were stricter compared to those of the . The obligation of wearing a protector, the limitation of the use weapon (only luxes with power/output adjusted to the minimum level) and the complete prohibition of the use of ability through mana…… if one had to describe it, it would be the closest to call it a made intended for children. It was for that reason that the score system was brought in; one got a point when his attack hit his opponent’s protector, something like competing for the amount of points.
Regarding the physical growth peculiar to the ── a strong physique, strong muscles, the amount of prana and the like ── individual differences were remarkable. Although generally they arrived at a constant level by the end of the secondary s.e.x characteristic period, there was especially a striking disparity regarding the amount of prana, which meant instability on the side of defensive ability by the in their childhood period. So the safety measures were a necessity.
However, it was not for an ethical viewpoint; the aspect of not wanting the players to injure themselves at the evaluation stage was bigger.
Not only this , but also the other Martial Arts Tournament belonging to the low-end category of the did not hold that big a value in the commercial meaning.
Moreover, it is more accurate to say that a tournament for children was a selection meeting for each academy of Asterisk to discover new talents.
(……To be forwarded to a freak show, a certain level is required; so it’s quite tough)
While Claudia muttered so in her heart, she evaded the sword slash of her opponent ── Laet.i.tia Blanchard, who won and advanced until this final at the age of 9 just like her, with steps as if dancing.
“Tch, moving around restlessly!”
Laet.i.tia, becoming irritated, swung her thin sword type lux; but Claudia splendidly handled her fierce attacks with a small sword type lux she held with both hands.
“Fufufu…… looks like you have improved your skills again, Laet.i.tia.”
“Kiiiiiih! That composure of yours, I do not like it! Then, how about this……!”
The point of her sword suddenly drew a perpendicular trajectory.
Laet.i.tia’s thin sword approached Claudia’s chest from an unexpected angle. Claudia has crossed swords with Laet.i.tia on countless occasions, but this was a sword line that she has never seen so far.
On Laet.i.tia’s expression, a smile convinced of her victory appeared.
Claudia greatly turned her upper body away and evaded Laet.i.tia’s blow with all her might.
And as she got up while twisting her body using the small sword in her right hand as support, she drove in sword blows consecutively on the protector of Laet.i.tia’s leg, arm and chest.
Almost simultaneously, the sound announcing the end of the match echoed in the stage, and Claudia stored her lux while turning a soft smile to the stunned Laet.i.tia.
“That last one was really dangerous. Too bad for you.”
Though there was no exaggeration in her words, Laet.i.tia’s face turned red and she bit her lips in vexation. Tears looked like they spilled over her eyes at any moment.
“T-Today, luck wasn’t just on my side! So, you shouldn’t get too c.o.c.ky!”
“I see, luck, huh…… It may certainly be so. That said, including the practice match, I have seven wins with this; looks like Laet.i.tia is a bit too unlucky.”
“Besides, victory depends on luck in the first place. In other words, shouldn’t you think of including that luck’s factor from the beginning?”
Unable to retort, Laet.i.tia was at a loss for words with an expression of being about to cry.
Claudia, who saw that, held out her right hand with a wry smile.
“……But, the balance of the luck too might incline to your direction next time. At that time, I would like you to go easy on me.”
As Laet.i.tia turned her back for a moment and briskly wiped her eyes, she immediately turned to face Claudia again and took her hand.
“T-That’s right……! Properly praising one’s opponent is also a lady’s modesty…… Congratulations, Claudia. But, the next time for sure, I will absolutely, absooolutely win!”
Although slightly crooked, a smile appeared on the face of such Laet.i.tia. The height of her pride, the strong will of trying to endure the humiliation and complicated feelings such as jealousy and envy towards Claudia exuded from that smile as she was unable to conceal them. But, an honest praise could certainly be felt in the root.
In fact, Claudia did not dislike such a part of Laet.i.tia.
When Claudia and Laet.i.tia shook each other’s hands, great cheers rose from the audience all at once. Even if the commercial value of the was not that much, the degree of attention of the event itself was high. The audience seating was filled to the extent that there were also people standing watching the matches.
『This final where both girls confronted each other like last year! And the winner is, again like last year, player Claudia Enfield!』
While the voice of the excited live reporter resounded, Claudia smiled wryly and shrugged her shoulders.
“In the first place, you cannot freely display your ability here, so I also do not think that I have really won.”
Laet.i.tia was a and she could originally create shining wings and manipulate them. Although one form of offense and defense of that ability was still in development, even so there was no room of doubt that it was powerful. This , in which the use of ability was prohibited, was something like a handicap battle for Laet.i.tia.
“I-I’m not so shameful as to complain about the rules at this late hour!”
But, Laet.i.tia said so plainly.
Though it was not like she did not think that it was good to put the fault on luck, it seemed to be Laet.i.tia’s dignity in her own way.
“Besides, even without being in a hurry, I would one day be able to fight against you at a more suitable place.”
“By that, do you mean in Asterisk?”
“Ara, of course you’ll go there as well, right?”
In a way as if to say ‘what are you saying now?’, Laet.i.tia tilted her head to the side.
“That’s, right…… probably.”
Although she affirmed as such, Claudia’s answer was somewhat unclear.
This was because Claudia herself did not have a clear thought regarding such future.
There was no doubt that the majority of children partic.i.p.ating in this were aiming for Asterisk. For better or worse, that Academy City of the Far East was the only place in the world where they could keep the meaning in being after all.
However, Claudia herself did not particularly have any fixation on Asterisk. Be it taking part in the like this, or also polishing her skills for fight, if she was compelled to say it, she just somehow did it like that without any particular reason ── nothing more, nothing less.
Objectively judging her ability, there was no mistaking that she could distinguish herself well enough even in Asterisk. At the same time, Claudia also knew well that in the world, there were many people hiding talent surpa.s.sing hers.
And then, the wall stretching out there was probably not something so easy as to be able to cross it with just efforts and training.
Or if one had the motivation in overcoming it, he might find some meaning in going to Asterisk; but unfortunately, Claudia did not have even a fragment of pure foolishness to challenge such reality that could not be overturned.
“By the way, Laet.i.tia. It has been bothering me for a little while now, but…… what is it with your tone?”
“Eh? Y-Yes, this is, um……”
When changed the topic saying so, Laet.i.tia averted her gaze with a bashful face.
The Laet.i.tia of before should have a slightly informal, child-like way of talking. However, although the current Laet.i.tia’s tone was polite, it somehow felt as if she was stretching herself.
“T-The truth is that the other day, I have gotten acquainted with a certain pair of brother and sister…… I was deeply impressed by their overflowing wisdom and n.o.ble character. So, well, I admire them and I want to get closer to them even if a little; and if possible I would also like to be like them……”
Laet.i.tia said while squirming her body.
It looked like she was influenced by those brother and sister. Though it was not strange judging from Laet.i.tia’s simple character──
“Are you perhaps talking about the Fairclough House’s siblings?”
“O-Oh, do you know them, too?”
Laet.i.tia unexpectedly made her eyes twinkle.
“No. I am not acquainted with them, but I have often heard rumors about them.”
The fact that in the prestigious Fairclough House, there were siblings of the same generation Claudia and Laet.i.tia ── and with overwhelming sword skill at that was a famous topic. Though, they have not yet appeared in the front stage such as the even once. And despite that, the part of rumors about their skills spread out was probably not fake, but the real thing.
“Ah, then that sword line…… you learnt it from the Fairclough House’s siblings, right?”
“W-Well, you could say that……”
Laet.i.tia scratched her cheek with an expression mixed with bashfulness and boastfulness.
“A-Anyway, those two said that they will eventually go to Asterisk; and like that, there’s no doubt that they will enroll at Garrardsworth like me.”
Both the Fairclough House and the Blanchard House accounted for one of the factions in the Integrated Enterprise Foundation EP which was the parent organization of St. Garrardsworth Academy.
“You will go to Seidoukan, right? I am looking forward to meeting you in Asterisk.”
Laet.i.tia said so and fearlessly laughed, seeming completely convinced that Claudia would go to Asterisk.
“Fufufu…… That’s right.”
However, as expected Claudia stopped at just returning a vague smile.
It might become like that, or maybe not.
For Claudia, either way did not make much of a difference.
“If possible, I want to be next to Ayato forever.”
Inside the setting sun, Saya bashfully said so.
On the other hand, Ayato standing before her only stood stock still in blank amazement as is.
“It’s fine. You can give me your reply anytime. Just…… I only wanted to tell you that.”
As Saya left only these words, she left at a quick pace towards the girl’s dorm.
Her pace gradually quickened, and when she reached a place where Ayato’s eyes could no longer see her before long, she suddenly strayed to the side and hid behind a tree
Saya, who leaned on that tree’s trunk, joined both her hands, held them on her chest and greatly exhaled.
That figure of her tightly closing her eyes with a flushed face was quite fresh.
It looked like the confession just now was a big resolution even for Saya.
“──Ooh, Sasamiya is unexpectedly a maiden, too.”
While steeling a glance at her figure from a far treetop, Eishiro shook his shoulders and loosened his cheeks. Of course, voice could not be heard at this distance. He read the lips.
“However, hasn’t this become quite interesting? Even Amagiri made an absentminded face like an idiot.”
When he returned his gaze to Ayato, the latter did not seem to have moved yet from where he was probably because he was quite surprised.
The place where Eishiro lurked was a corner of the grove of trees that colored the Seidoukan Academy in green. Although it was the autumn, the time was early for leaves changing color, so the leaves which hid Eishiro’s body were still bright green.
“Haa…… Still, Sasamiya too saying that it’s fine for him to give a reply anytime, that won’t do! Ah geez, that’s irritating!”
Eishiro grumbled as he said so.
Saya and Ayato, neither of them seeming used to this sort of things, honestly there was no more irritating than this.
However, there was no mistaking that with this, a stone was thrown in the relationship of the women group surrounding Ayato.
“Well, in any case, I’ll have to report it to the Prez, I guess. And if I get to see even one of her surprised faces with this, it’ll mean there is still cute part in her, but……”
Saying up to there, Eishiro shook his head while saying “no, no way”.
The figure of that Claudia being shaken by this much, he could not even imagine it.
“I guess it’d be good as a material for the newspaper club, the club president doesn’t like this sort of story that much. And besides, it looks like it’ll bad if I don’t ask for the Prez’s opinion.”
When he said so, at the time when he extended his hand to his pocket as he was going take out the portable terminal to contact Claudia.
“──Good grief, using the technique to look into distance for voyeurism, huh. When I thought that you’ve grown up a little, I see that you haven’t changed at all, Kageshiro.”
Suddenly, a hoa.r.s.e, low voice resounded from behind.
As Eishiro promptly turned around and jumped down to the ground, he reflexively set up a dagger type lux with a backhand grip ── but, multiple figures of people, who appeared as if oozing from the shadows of trees, soundlessly surrounded Eishiro. Full black attires covered their bodies entirely other than their eyes and, let alone their ages, even their s.e.xes could not be distinguished.
However, Eishiro was familiar with these people ── and above all the hoa.r.s.e voice of earlier only too well.
“……If it isn’t Father. I didn’t think you’ll possibly come here…… seems like you’re looking healthy.”
Even while having sweet on his forehead, Eishiro returned a sarcastic smile to the shadow up in a tree.
He had the same attire as the figures of people surrounding Eishiro, but unlike the others, his head was not covered. He was of a medium build, his deeply wrinkled face was that of a man approaching old age and his hair combed down and his thick eyebrows were already pure white.
“*sigh*, don’t speak of compliment you don’t really mean.”
When the elderly ── Yabuki Bujinsai, Eishiro’s father, said with an amazed face, he sat cross-legged on a branch and leaked an unnatural sigh.
“But, I’ve heard it you know? That you’re wandering around here and there as usual. How deplorable.”
“Well, I wonder what you’re talking about.”
Eishiro set up his lux and frivolously answered while shrewdly wandering his gaze in the surroundings.
“Don’t play dumb. Despite being enlisted in the Shadow Star, you choose your jobs and moreover you seem to have connections with people of another place.”
“No no, that’s just a false accusation, Father. Well, I have many acquaintances here and there though. And all of them are for work. There’s nothing better than being well known in this world, right?”
“So a greenhorn like you now talks impudently about work, huh. Really, how pathetic. Even though it’s precisely because we by no means serve two masters that we were able to maintain our bloodline so far.”
(……It’s precisely because I don’t like it that I left the Village, you know?)
While revealing a flattering smile to Bujinsai looking down on him while resting his chin on his hand, Eishiro cursed as such inwardly.
Eishiro’s Clan, which was anciently called YabukiShu or Night running ninja army (End range ninja army), was a so-called Shin.o.bi’s blood clan. They received the influence of the Ulm mana dite handed down in the Village from long before the occurred and preserved their lineage which produced humans with ability surpa.s.sing that of ordinary people. In j.a.pan, among the groups which formed such unique blood clans, only the Yabuki and Umenokouji remained at present.
“Now, now, you didn’t expressly come until here to lecture me, right? Is it a request to the extent that Father himself has to take action?”
While sounding out the surroundings’ presence, Eishiro gradually retreated.
The shadows of people surrounding Eishiro were probably the elites of the “First Shadows (Kinoe)” placed at the top even in the clan. They were five. Furthermore, he also understood that there was the presence of a little less than ten people nearby.
“I’m about to go asking about it now.”
A request to the Clan’s head was always directly carried out orally. That was the custom.
“Does this mean that this grand unit formation is the designation of the other party?”
“Well, you could say that.”
At this point of time, the Clan exclusively undertook requests from the Integrated Enterprise Foundation Galaxy ── more exactly, its upper echelon and was currently called with the stylish name of “Yabuki Clan (Knight Emmitt)”. It was so to speak in a position similar to the Shadow Star, but the Shadow Star, which was limited to activities only in Asterisk, was composed mostly of students. The Yabuki Clan was entrusted with Galaxy’s overall work behind the scenes and it could be said that position wise, it was roughly upwardly compatible with the Shadow Star (of course, there also existed tasks that only the Shadow Star, which used the students’ position, could do).
Though, this kind of organization that the Integrated Enterprise Foundation employed was not only the Yabuki Clan. There also existed Special Forces under the direct control of the military authorities that Galaxy was proud of; and such organizations should been secretly continuing fierce secret feud against the organizations of the other Integrated Enterprise Foundations even now.
But, there was mistaking that Galaxy upper echelon valued the Yabuki Clan quite highly.
“Once we accept a work, we won’t let at all personal feelings get in our way. That’s why, before beginning our work, we came here like this to ascertain your side.”
With only that, Eishiro realized the contents of the work that Bujinsai would receive.
“I see, I see; so Galaxy has finally begun working seriously in order to dispose of the Prez, huh.”
“Well, we haven’t yet heard about the request’s contents.”
Although Bujinsai said so as he feigned ignorance, there was probably no mistaking it since he expressly moved the Yabuki Clan at this time.
“──But, it is a.s.suming that was the case.”
Then, a light suddenly ran in Bujinsai’s eyes and a ferocious overpowering feeling similar to bloodl.u.s.t attacked Eishiro. To the chill as if his heart was pierced by a gleaming sword, Eishiro instinctively took distance from Bujinsai, forcibly breaking the encirclement of the Kinoe(s).
But, as if having antic.i.p.ated it, the Kinoe(s) extended their arms, trying to hold down Eishiro.
Eishiro broke the posture of one of them by twining his right leg around him while dodging, and then went around behind him by jumping and twisted his neck. Moreover, at the same time as he jumped away from that Kinoe, he drove in a sharp kick to the back of the neck of another Kinoe who came from the right side.
However, the other Kinoe(s) did not mind it at all even when their comrades have been knocked down. When he was about to slash at another Kinoe with the dagger in his hand, Eishiro was pinned down as he was slammed onto the ground.
“Hou. So, you defeat three Kinoe(s) alone, huh. It looks like your Taijutsu has improved quite a bit.”
While stroking his chin, Bujinsai said so as he was impressed.
Then, the three Kinoe(s), who were lying down on the ground, got up as nothing happened and silently stood at Eishiro’s side.
It was not like they did not suffer any damage. They just did not mind it. With the ability of the Kinoe(s) that Eishiro knew of and moreover all the more if there were five, though it might take time, they would be able to subdue him with as many safer methods as they liked.
But, the Yabuki Clan would not do it. This was because they gave top priority in quickly and certainly achieving their purpose no matter what the situation.
And Eishiro hated such thinking of his clan from the bottom of his heart.
“Listen well, stupid son. I know that you’re quite fond of Seidoukan’s president. But, don’t do unnecessary things. This is a warning as a father.”
“……Well, thanks for that.”
As he was pressed down on the ground with a power which might break his arm, Eishiro moved only his face and glared up at Bujinsai.
When he ran his gaze at the trees in the surroundings, he was able to confirm that talismans with complex symbols drawn on them were stuck on the trees. It was a barrier to ward off people.
(Looks like I can’t expect for water break either, huh…… How careful of them.)
Eishiro relaxed his body as he gave up. Further resistance was futile.
“I may look like this, but I highly value your talent as such. It’ll be a bit regrettable to lose you in such a place. Do you understand me?”
“As such, huh.”
Bujinsai said that, but Eishiro knew all too well that if he were to do something which got in the way of this mission, Bujinsai would cut off his neck without hesitation.
“So, your answer?”
Seeing the light running in Bujinsai’s eyes once again, Eishiro breathed out deeply.
“I’m certainly quite fond of the Prez. But, I value my life even more after all.”
“That’s a good mental att.i.tude.”
At that moment, the power pinning down Eishiro suddenly disappeared.
When Eishiro stood up and tapped his clothes so as to dust them off, the figures of the Kinoe(s) and Bujinsai were nowhere to be seen.
The evening sun has already almost set and a forlorn dusk was covering the grove of trees.
As Eishiro clicked his tongue as to spit out his irritation within that very dim light, he took out his portable terminal after having hesitated for a while.
“However, I’ll keep at least my sense of duty/honor, Father.”
When Eishiro muttered so to himself, he set his portable terminal to voice communication and called Claudia’s number.
Ayato, who returned from the bath while wiping his wet hair, sat down on the bed and unintentionally sighed.
What was inside his head was ── Saya’s confession.
Ayato liked Saya as well and he also knew that Saya harbored good will towards him. But, he thought that it was only something extending to a family-like relationship and not something beyond that.
“……No, I might have wanted to think only like that.”
He muttered so while lying on the bed face up.
Eishiro was not in the room ── because now there was no cla.s.s during the period of the , it might be said that it was as usual ── so it was just the right time for Ayato to put his thoughts together.
They spend time always together almost every day when they were children; and even after they reunited like this, Saya has not changed at all.
Ayato was glad about it.
Frankly speaking, if he was asked a reply at that place, Ayato would have been at loss for an answer.
Currently, Ayato had a wish which he must have by all means granted.
That is, to have his big sister ── Haruka, who continue sleeping in sickroom in a hospital, wake up.
That was what occupied the most important part of Ayato’s heart/mind, and if Saya’s feelings were serious, then all the more reason that he could not give her a reply in his actual state.
Rather, precisely because Saya also knew about it, she said that he could give a reply anytime.
“Well, I guess I can only take her upon her words for now……”
After putting everything in order, he should face her and properly give a reply.
For that reason, he must first think about winning their next match now.
As Ayato fired himself up by slapping his cheeks, he received a call from his portable terminal that he threw out on the bed.
“Huh? Who might it be at this time……?”
It was a period of time you could say that it was already midnight.
When he opened a s.p.a.ce window, projected there was Claudia.
『Good evening, Ayato. Sorry to call you at this late hour, but may I have a little of your time?』
“Yes, I don’t mind it, but…… is it an urgent matter?”
Tomorrow in the morning, a strategy meeting with all the members of Team Enfield gathered was scheduled. Unless it was a very urgent business, there should be no problem if she were to report it at that time.
『Yes, it’s a very pressing matter.』
Claudia had an unusually serious expression without her usual smile.
“……I got it. So, what is it?”
『Yes, in fact ── is it true that Ayato was confessed to by Sasamiya-san?』
To these words which came flying from a direction he did not expect, Ayato unintentionally blew out.
“W-Wait a minute! How do you know that……?!”
『Well, I am the student council president after all.』
“That can’t be considered a reason, right!?”
No matter how well-informed Claudia was, as expected she was too quick-eared.
『Leaving aside such minor details, I am extremely concerned about what kind of reply you gave.』
“……I don’t think I’ve the obligation to answer you though.”
He declined so as it was a private matter after all.
『Yes, I think that you are quite right. But…… we are currently in the middle of that is a team battle, right? If a problem were to occur in our teamwork, it would be a cause for concern after all.』
After he was told so, it was difficult to rebut.
『As the team’s representative, I should tentatively ask.』
“……That’s just an expedient, right?”
Though Ayato lightly glared at Claudia, it was no use hiding it now as she actually knew so far.
“I haven’t replied yet. Saya told me that I can reply anytime. So ── I think that it’ll be after all of this is over.”
『Is that, so……』
Then, unexpectedly Claudia only nodded calmly and said nothing further.
『……Sasamiya-san, is really amazing, eh.』
Instead, she uttered so as if speaking to herself.
Suddenly, Ayato felt a sense of incongruity at such Claudia.
He could not put it into clear words, but it was a sense of incongruity as if recalling uneasiness.
『I understand, Ayato. Thank you for having answered honestly.』
However, before he could voice it out, Claudia said so with her usual smile and finished the talk.
『Well then ── see you tomorrow.』
“Ah, yes. See you then.”
The s.p.a.ce window black out and silence returned in the room.
“……Well, I guess I should just ask about it tomorrow.”
Although the strange uneasiness continued to bother him, there was no use thinking further about it now.
As he casually turned his gaze to the outside of the window, the sky, which was so fairly fine until the evening, was covered with clouds and neither the stars nor the moon could be seen at all.
“Which reminds me, it was forecasted that it would rain tomorrow……”
While hoping that it would not be very strong, Ayato calmly closed the curtain.
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