They were irregular people, found one-in-a-thousand, who could each materialize his or her soul as a weapon called a Device.
In ages past, they were called magicians and witches. The strongest among them could shape the flow of time using abilities that science didn't explain, and even the weakest were extraordinary. Though they were human, they possessed a supernatural power that surpassed human limits, a power unattainable by the common man through training or technology.
Nowadays, national militaries and even local police forces required Blazers. Yet great power brought responsibility befitting its status. One expression of such responsibility was the mage-knight system, the arrangement where Blazers must graduate from an internationally approved vocational school to receive license and social status as mage-knights―in other words, approval to use their abilities.
Hagun Academy was one of seven mage-knight academies in Japan, a school said to span more than ten times the area of Tokyo Dome1. Here, young Blazers spent day after day diligently polishing their skills as student knights.
And in Hagun Academy, Ikki Kurogane―accused of molestation and caught red-handed by dormitory guards―was brought to the board chairman's office. There, a beautiful woman in a suit was sitting on a sofa and smoking a cigarette. Kurono Shinguuji, the new chairman of Hagun, had finished hearing Ikki's explanation on the chain of events, and she replied in a tired voice.
"I see, so you were trying to atone for the accident of seeing her half-naked by stripping yourself. Are you a moron?"
"I thought it was an equitable, gentlemanly idea."
"You were definitely some sort of gentleman."
"No, I wasn't trying to be a lewd gentleman. …Well, now that I think about it, I guess I did suddenly go on a rampage."
"Hah. In other words, after seeing her charmingly naked body, you lost control and took off your clothes without thinking?"
"…It might be how things happened, but could you please not phrase it like that? Aren't you making me sound like a really dangerous guy?"
"Even if you say so, Kurogane, try to imagine that scene after putting yourself in her shoes. In a dormitory with hardly any people because of spring break, you're suddenly interrupted by an unknown boy while changing clothes, and then he throws his clothes off too. How might you see him?"
"Like a really dangerous guy…."
After reexamining things from the girl's perspective like Kurono suggested, Ikki shivered.
"…Haa. I certainly did something unforgivable on Stella-san's first day of studying abroad. I really hope she won't start hating Japan because of this."
"What, you know about Vermillion?"
"I was too startled to recognize the face when I ran into her, but I remembered just a while ago."
Her name was Stella Vermillion, and she was a princess of the Vermillion Empire, a small European nation. It was big news in the media that she was studying abroad in Japan. 『A prodigy said to appear only once in a decade! Stella Vermillion-sama (15), the second imperial princess of the Vermillion Empire, enrolls at Hagun Academy after getting record marks!』 Ikki still recalled that article vividly.
"A real princess, and on top of that she enrolled as a student. She's amazing, isn't she?"
"She became number one by a wide margin too, far exceeding the average score for all the categories, and her aura capacity, a Blazer's most important trait, is about thirty times that of a regular incoming student. A monstrous A-Rank Blazer…. Compared to a certain F-Rank who's repeating a year because his attribute scores were too low, there sure is a difference. Don't you agree, 'Worst One'?"
"Leave me alone."
He protested Kurono's sarcasm with a frown, but didn't deny it. He couldn't deny it. After all, Ikki Kurogane only had one tenth the average aura capacity.
"But it's become a real hassle. I invited the girl to Japan despite all the formalities involved in enrolling her here, and something like this happened on her first day. If the matter's not handled well, it could turn into an international incident. So even though you're not at fault, I'll still have you take responsibility. It might feel unreasonable, but take it like a man."
"…I wonder why 'be a man' gets used only in this sort of situation."
Ikki sighed, and at that moment―
The door of the chairman's room opened, and the person being discussed, Stella Vermillion, entered.
Unlike before, she was properly dressed in a tasteful dark vest and skirt. The school uniform for Hagun Academy suited her quite well because it brought out the red of her fire-like hair. But what drew Ikki's eyes was her chest. That huge area, adorned by a ribbon, emitted a strong presence that instantly reminded Ikki of her half-naked figure… but his breath stopped after seeing the girl's expression. She had probably been crying. The skin under her eyes swelled with resentment.
That was why an apology came from his mouth. Men shouldn't make women cry. Even if it wasn't his fault, the terror she felt in that moment had been real.
"What happened was an unfortunate accident and I wasn't trying to peep on you. But I saw what I saw, so that's why I'll take responsibility as a man. Bake me or grill me, you can do whatever you like."
"…How resolute. Is this what they call the spirit of a samurai?"
"More like the spirit of a poor speaker."
Ikki showed a rueful smile to Stella, who seemed to understand his remorse. She also softened her expression and returned a thin smile.
"Haha…. Honestly, meeting a molester right after arriving in Japan made me start to think that this was the lowest kind of place. I might've turned this into a diplomatic uproar, but I've calmed down a bit thanks to you. Because you've shown me such strong spirit, it wouldn't do for me not to respond equanimously as a member of an imperial family."
The hostility from when she first entered the room disappeared. After seeing that favorable expression, Ikki also lightened his demeanor. He had thought an imperial princess would be moody and hard to please, but now she seemed like someone who'd accept a proper conversation.
"Ikki, in deference to your gallantry―I'll forgive this matter if you perform harakiri."
…But in reality, it was only true in his head.
"No, please wait a minute! Isn't harakiri too harsh a punishment even for a major crime!?"
"Well, wouldn't capital punishment be expected after assaulting a princess? Seriously, you should be tied to a log and stoned to death by all the nation's citizens. It's quite a privilege that I'm letting you off this way instead."
"Stoning is better suited to making steak tartare than to punishment, isn't it?"
"Just letting you die with honor is a great indulgence, a bloody sacrifice on my part."
"I'm the one who ends up bleeding!"
"Hahaha. Kurogane, you give such clever responses."
"No, please stop laughing. As an educator you should keep the school from hosting an execution!"
"Kurogane, we can purchase peace between Japan and the Vermillion Empire just by offering you up. Don't you think it's a very good deal?"
"How can a deal be good if it costs human life!?"
From Ikki's perspective, someone was getting ripped off here.
"H-Hey, Stella-san, can't you think of another way to settle this?"
"What are you so dissatisfied about? Isn't harakiri considered honorable for Japanese men?"
"No, I was born in Heisei2! And I don't have any connections with samurai! And I crossed over to the hip-hop side long ago, yo!"
"Ha, that persona sounds really fake."
"If you don't feel like stopping this then please stay quiet!"
Ikki cried out at Kurono's interruption, but Stella's expression darkened again at Ikki's resistance.
"What's with you!? Didn't you just say that I could do whatever I wanted, whether it was to bake you or grill you!? If you're a man then stick to your word!"
"N-No, that was just a quirky Japanese expression. I didn't know you were really planning on baking and grilling me!"
"Kurogane, you're full of excuses and evasions, aren't you? Remind me, what was it you said about taking responsibility as a man?"
Noisy chairman! His life was more important!
"…I-In any case, just because I saw you in your underwear, you can't make me pay with my life!"
"J-Just, you said!? I... I can't believe it! I can't believe it, you pervert! Is that what you said after despoiling the body of an unmarried princess!? Even my father has never seen it!"
Flames of anger ignited in Stella's eyes at Ikki's careless words. No… it wasn't just her eyes burning. The air around Stella was starting to release scorching heat and light.
Come to think of it, the newspaper wrote something about her ability―
"Unforgivable! I'll personally turn a perverted, molesting, insolent commoner like you to cinders! Serve me, Lævateinn3!"
An aurora shined forth to create a zone of heat in the chairman's room, and a long sword clad in flames appeared in Stella's hand. It was a Device made from a Blazer's soul.
Passed down through legends with various forms and shapes, a Device was a magic staff. By using that tool as a medium, a Blazer could use her abilities, her Noble Arts.
And the Crimson Princess's ability produced incandescent flames that burn any target to nothing―!
"Prepare yourself, you degenerate! I'll erase you from this world without leaving a speck behind!"
"A-Are you serious!?"
"Excuses are useless―!"
The sword of flame swung downwards. Facing that, Ikki also took a defensive stance.
"Come forth, Intetsu4!"
It was a Japanese long sword made of raven-black steel. The F-Rank Knight, Ikki Kurogane, used his Device Intetsu to block Stella's downward swing.
"A flimsy defense!"
"Of course it's hot! My Lævateinn, clad in the flames of my Noble Art Dragon Breath5, goes up to three thousand degrees centigrade! Even if you block, I can burn my enemies with the might of the dragon empress alone!"
"What a ridiculous ability…!"
Feeling vexed from being so close, Ikki used all his strength to put some distance between them. But―
"Ha, hahaha…. stupid boy. There's no way I'd let you escape in a small room like this. I'll disintegrate you soon enough, and with that I'll erase the villain who ruined my purity before marriage!"
"Wait, wait! Please calm down a little! You call it 'ruined', but I haven't actually done anything that scandalous, right!?"
"Liar! Even though you were ravishing my bare body with i-i-indecent eyes!"
"Certainly, I was staring, but that was… that was, erm… that wasn't because I was thinking lecherous things! It's just, how do I say this―I was mesmerized because you were so beautiful!"
In an instant, Stella's boiling-mad face blushed far redder. Ikki thought that he had needlessly angered her more, and he started to sweat, but―
"W-W-What are you s-saying, idiot! C-Calling an unmarried maiden b-beautiful. Th-This is exactly why commoners with no delicacy are so…!"
Lævateinn suddenly lost its raging flames and dimmed to small flickering sparks. The girl who was filled with so much enmity just a moment ago now started to fidget, looking uncomfortable but also a little happy. When he examined her face, her brow that had been standing up now hung down powerlessly, and her eyes were moist from bewilderment. She seemed to be embarrassed.
That's surprising. I thought someone as beautiful as Stella-san would be used to praise.
Anyhow, Stella's fervor collapsing was a good opportunity. Taking the initiative, he tried to calm Stella down.
"Setting that aside, this happened in the first place because you mistook your room and started changing clothes in mine, so please spare me from committing harakiri."
But at Ikki's argument, Stella's face went grim once more.
"What kind of irrational justification is that!? You were the one who entered my room of your own accord! I opened that room with the key I received properly from Madam Chairman, so it couldn't have been my mistake!"
Wait a minute. Now that he thought about it, Ikki had definitely locked his room before he went out. Even if Stella made a mistake, there was no way she could enter, but she had been inside. Why?
Stella uttered the reason just now. Kurono had given her a key.
"What's the meaning of this, Chairman?"
When both of them looked at her in unison, Kurono started laughing as if she couldn't hold it anymore―
"Heh, no, sorry about that. This turned into something so interesting that I felt a little impish. Well, you don't have to ask, because it's exactly how it sounds. Hagun Academy's dormitories place two people per room. Kurogane should already know that. In other words, neither one of you mistook your rooms. Simply put… you two are roommates."
―and she said something incredible.
"…What do you mean, Madam Chairman? M-Me, roommates with this pervert!?"
"That's exactly what I mean, Stella Vermillion. Is there a problem?"
"A huge one!"
"I agree. Hagun Academy's dorms certainly do put two people in each room, but I've never heard of a boy and a girl sharing."
"That's been true up through last year, before I became chair of the board of directors. Kurogane, didn't I already tell you about my policy?"
"…To enforce a doctrine of pure merit, based completely on actual combat performance… wasn't it?"
"Right. Unlike the other six knight academies, Hagun produced no notable assets in the past year. We're on a losing streak even in the Seven Stars Sword-Art Festival, which the seven schools sponsor each year to select the strongest student knight. I was called by the board to reorganize this place, and that room assignment is the first step. It's not about how many people or what their genders are. I'm putting fellow knights with similar strengths together in the same room. After all, when equal fighters draw near one another, competition naturally sparks between them. This room assignment is a scheme to invoke that competition intentionally."
Kurono haughtily revealed her plans as if to say, "Isn't it great?" Ikki had an issue with that explanation, though.
"Then isn't what you're doing even weirder? Among the incoming students, isn't Stella-san number one by a large margin? Why would she be in the same room as me, the worst student who's even repeating a year?"
"Re-Repeating? You, you're repeating the same grade level?"
"It's embarrassing, but my overall rank is F."
"F…. Me and an F-Rank, calling us knights of similar strength! Wh-What do you mean by this!?"
"Haha, well… how do I say this. You guys are a special case. Frankly speaking, there's nobody as excellent as Vermillion, and nobody as deficient as Kurogane. In other words, you're both leftover students with no suitable partner, so I could only pair the two of you. Do you understand now?"
"Who could understand that!?"
*Bam!* Stella struck the chairman's office table with one palm and continued to protest.
"I-In the first place, it's absurd for boys and girls like us to share a room when we're the same age! What will you do if some mistake happened!?"
"Oh, Vermillion thinks that when boys and girls of the same age live together, a mistake will happen? I'd love to hear about it~"
"Th-That's… erm… uuu…."
Sympathizing with Stella who was already teary-eyed from shame, Ikki also protested to Kurono.
"Why are you playing like a drunken old man?"
Kurono just smiled as if she was joking, but didn't change her mind.
"At any rate, this decision has already been made. There are also boy-girl pairs besides you two, but you don't have to consider that to make your choice. Vermillion, I won't give you special treatment just because you're a princess. If you don't like this arrangement, all you have to do is drop out of school, you know?"
Drop out of school. Stella was visibly startled by that phrase. She had deliberately crossed continents and come to Japan for studying abroad, and while Ikki didn't know her goals or intentions for doing so, she definitely shouldn't be willing to drop out.
In the end, even Stella couldn't help but fold.
Ikki looked at Stella's defeated face.
"Are you okay with it?"
"I-I don't really have a choice if that's the school policy, do I?"
Stella replied in a discouraged tone, then raised three fingers.
"But for us to live together, I'll have you follow three conditions!"
Ikki was also unsure about this new school system, so he had no obligation to heed her demands… but since he was a boy and one year her senior, he thought he'd cooperate at least this much.
"If they're not anything ridiculous like top academic marks, high income, or growing taller, then I can make the effort."
"I don't want those sorts of things. Even you can fulfill my conditions quite easily."
She had three.
"Don't speak to me, don't open your eyes, and don't breathe."
"If he did that, Kurogane would probably die, right?"
But Stella ignored Kurono's comment.
"If you can follow these three rules then I'm fine with you living in front of the room!"
"And in the end I'm still chased out!?"
"What, you can't do it?"
"I can't follow such messed up conditions! Won't you let me breathe at least!?"
"No way! You'll probably try to sniff me using that as an excuse, you pervert!"
"I'll breathe with my mouth! That way I can't smell you―"
"No good! You'll probably try to taste the air I exhale with your tongue, you pervert!"
"I'm not gonna do that! I don't have a princess's creativity!"
"Then drop out of school! If you do, I can live in the room alone!"
"That's so one-sided!"
Kurono, who had just been spectating, arrived at a solution.
"What a pain. At this rate, the argument won't end no matter how much you argue. Then let's do this. You two have a mock battle, and the winner gets to decide the rules. As knights who clear their destined path with their own blade, you should have no objections, right?"
In other words, the two would fight a straightforward mock battle, and whoever won would have his or her way―a very simple solution. It was common practice for knights to settle disputes among themselves.
"Yeah, that seems fair, right? Then let's do that, Stella-san."
Ikki quickly approved, and Stella also consented, but―
―but Stella turned her eyes toward him, and her voice flipped in tone.
"Eh? You still don't like it?"
"N-No, it's not about like or dislike…. Y-You… do you understand what you're saying?"
"…Did I say something strange?"
"An F-Rank! A 'Failed Knight' who can't even pass grade levels in school! There's no way you can win against an A-Rank knight like me, right!?"
Ikki understood what Stella was trying to say. Indeed, if a failure like him―who couldn't even satisfy the school's advancement criteria―were to say "Let's settle it with a mock battle" to an authentic, promising, once-in-a-decade prodigy, such a challenge would step far past mere recklessness.
But… Ikki smiled.
"But you know, it won't be clear if we don't fight it out."
Stella wasn't willing to concede, and Ikki couldn't drop out either. He also had his reasons for becoming a mage-knight. Since that was the case, this obstacle probably couldn't be resolved no matter how much they discussed it, which left no choice but to try something else.
That was why Ikki told Stella that they should fight. At those words… Stella snapped.
"Nmounyaa~! I can't hold it back anymore~! This commoner! Not only did he commit the crime of peeking and exposing himself to a princess like me, but this Failed Knight said he could win against me too! I… I haven't been disgraced like this even once in my life! What kind of wretched country is this!?"
Stella faced Ikki with murderous eyes and made her declaration.
"Okay, I get it. I understand. I'll have a fight with you. But after making such a fool out of me, you won't get away with just betting the right to make rules for living together! Whoever loses will submit to the winner for life, becoming a slave that obeys his master's demands like a dog no matter how humiliating they are! How's that!?"
"E-Eeeehh? Th-That's, isn't that going a bit far…."
"Losing your nerve is useless at this point. If you want to curse something, curse your thoughtlessness that made me so serious. This is no longer a mock battle, but a duel!"
"Sounds pretty heavy. Since you're doing it, use training arena three. I'll submit the authorization."
"C-Chairman! Please don't wrap this up for your own convenience!"
But Ikki's protest arrived too late, and Stella gave a "Prepare yourself! Hmph!" before stalking out of the room, leaving him behind. She was probably heading towards the third arena already.
"…Haa. It turned into something dreadful, didn't it? This kind of thing is really troublesome, Chairman…."
"Ha ha ha. You really don't want to become a slave?"
"Of course not. Win or lose, I don't want to do either one."
"Win or lose, you say…. You just saw that girl's power, didn't you? A red scorching flame is waiting when you approach, a threat to her opponents just by being there. Not many people in the world have abilities so focused on violence, and none of her public reviews are fabrications either. But even after seeing that, you still intend to win? …What an interesting man."
"She's someone I'll fight eventually. You should know that best, since you were the one who said, 'If you become champion in the Seven Stars Sword-Art Festival, I'll let you graduate even with bad attribute scores.' Stella-san will definitely appear in the Festival. It's just a question of facing her sooner or later."
"Then there's no need to hesitate, right? If you win and set the terms you want, you can toss out the talk about being a slave. Settle everything that way."
Slapping Ikki's shoulder with a *pah!*, Kurono also exited the office. Ikki, who was left in the room, let out another of who knows how many sighs that day.
Well, certainly… all I have to do is win.
Of course, he knew it would be hard. His opponent was strong among the most strong, formidable among the most formidable. Ikki understood that, despite witnessing her strength for only a moment. Stella's talent was overwhelming. Her power acted in concert with her emotions, an overwhelming aura that leaked out even without her noticing, and Ikki's magic was nonexistent in comparison, like an ant facing an elephant. There was no need to guess what the outcome would be; even putting them on the same scale would be outrageous. And yet….
No matter how hopeless the situation may be, a fight I can neither lose nor avoid will surely come.
He had resolved himself long ago. On the day he saw that man's smile, he had decided he would walk this path.
"So I have to do this, right?"
Muttering that, Ikki also left the board chairman's office. To head to the stage of his duel, to shape his own destiny with the blade of his soul.
Mage-knights bolstered their country's battle strength, and they naturally sought combat skill. Such skill was needed not just for warfare, but also to oppose terrorist groups and criminal syndicates that abused Blazer powers. For mage-knight training, a number of dome-shaped arenas dotted the Hagun Academy campus. The interior of each dome included a space for combat with a roughly hundred-meter diameter, with audience seats built on a bowl shape around that space.
In the third training arena, Ikki Kurogane and Stella Vermillion stood twenty meters apart with Kurono Shinguuji waiting between them as referee. Above them, twenty or so second- and third-year students who had been training, and many visitors who had heard about a mock battle being suddenly declared in the middle of spring break, fixed their gazes on the field. They were all staring at the supernova who had entered the academy with great fanfare, Stella Vermillion.
「So that girl's the Vermillion's 'Crimson Princess'?」
「A really beautiful girl, huh?」
「Such pretty hair…. It's so wonderful, as if it's actually burning….」
「But who's her opponent?」
「…Wait, isn't that Kurogane, the guy repeating the first year?」
「A repeater? Why's she fighting someone like that? Isn't Stella-san supposed to be an A-Rank prodigy?」
「Dunno… hey, aren't there any second-years who shared classes with him? I wanna know what kind of knight he was.」
「I was in the same class, but because that guy didn't even meet the minimum requirements for combat practice, I haven't really seen him in action before.」
「Forget about advancing years… not rated high enough to even practice? Isn't that just too lame?」
「What the heck, that's boring. Won't the princess kill him instantly?」
Stella laughed sourly as gossip floated down from the audience.
"The more I hear, the more useless you sound. Shouldn't you just stop trying to become a mage-knight and live as a regular citizen?"
"Well, maybe I should, but I won't be sure if I don't fight for it."
"Don't you get it? You'll become my slave if you lose, you know."
"Of course I get it, but that's if I lose. It's fine if I win."
"…Even now, you still intend to beat me?"
"That's why I made the effort to come here."
Ikki returned a troubled but warm smile to Stella's stinging words, but he didn't step back from his starting position. He was already prepared to do this. That, for some reason, greatly irritated Stella.
Effort… was it?
「If I work hard then I can beat talent.」
Stella hated ordinary people who thought like that. Whenever they lose to someone like her, they say,
「I worked hard but still couldn't beat talent.」
As if they were the only ones who put in effort.
As if… I win only by my talent.
It made her angry. Stella hadn't been this strong right from the start. No, she was quite the opposite back then. During her childhood, she didn't have the aptitude needed to even aspire to knighthood. She couldn't control her overwhelming power, and sometimes she even burned her own body. Her father and mother, and everyone around her, thought that she'd never become a knight.
But even so… Stella didn't give up. She knew she had potential. A strong Blazer was crucial for a small state like Vermillion, and just like Samurai Ryouma who led this modest land of the Far East to victory in the Second World War, a strong enough mage-knight empowered his country to negotiate with larger nations as an equal. If she could learn to handle that power, it would become a vital asset for protecting the people of her kingdom, so Stella didn't give up. She continued training no matter how much everyone around her objected. And after three long years, she mastered the Dragon Breath. She was critically injured several times in the process, but even so, she became who she was now by great effort.
That's why I can't stand being dismissed with cheap words like talent or prodigy!
"Now then, we'll start the mock battle. Both sides, materialize your Device in illusionary form."
"Come forth, Intetsu."
"Serve me, Lævateinn."
Stella summoned Lævateinn, the sword shaped from her soul, into a form that deals no physical damage to humans but cleaves away physical stamina and strength directly. And she vowed to the boy in front of her―she'd crush him.
Talent can't be defeated. A prodigy is special.
To erase such self-deception, she'd crush him utterly.
"Alright. Well then, LET'S GET STARTED!"
And so, the fight between a prodigy knight and a failed knight began.
The match started, and Stella instantly dashed toward Ikki, swinging down her sword now covered in red flames. The swing might've looked crude to unlearned observers, but it was a precise and powerful strike.
Yet a wide swing was just a wide swing. Ikki saw through her movement and raised Intetsu to receive it―but he immediately aborted that action and took a sudden step back. An instant later, Lævateinn struck the arena floor violently and the entire space shook like an earthquake.
"Wise choice. If you received that blow, it wouldn't have ended with just a few scratches."
"What an outrageous attack. So you weren't being serious in the chairman's office?"
"That's right. If I became serious in such a place, the entire school building would be destroyed."
Grinning broadly, Stella immediately took pursuit, and Ikki drew another step back to widen the distance. If he tried to stop such a swing head on, his arm would be crushed. Stella's weapon was a long sword, a heavy weapon, and it was common sense when facing heavy weapons that he'd have an advantage in retreating speed.
But common sense couldn't apply to a monstrous opponent like Stella.
"Slow. Too slow!"
*Whoosh!* The wind roared, and Stella immediately caught up to him.
"Did you think you could beat me when it comes to speed? Too bad, but magic isn't limited to offense alone. I can increase my mobility several times over by concentrating magic at the bottom of my feet and releasing it in a burst. And my aura capacity is thirty times greater than a normal Blazer, so it won't become spent keeping up with the likes of you. In other words, you can't beat me in either power or speed!"
If Ikki were to compare her with something, then "ultra-high mobility heavy tank with infinite fuel" would be appropriate. Ikki laughed bitterly at that kind of unfair ability, whose owner was now charging right at him.
So this is an A-Rank, huh?
Even the past generations of Sword-Art Festival winners, the Seven Stars Sword Kings, were mostly B- or C-Ranks. They were the ideal Ikki aimed for, but an A-Rank couldn't be limited to a student knight's ideals. The A-Rank knights up through the modern day have all, without exception, been great heroes who carved their names onto history.
An outstanding talent that appeared only once a decade―the public view was wholly accurate. Towards Ikki, who had just been made aware of that fact, the Crimson Princess brandished her blazing sword and swung it in an inescapable strike that could cleave the ground itself.
Now that he couldn't dodge her strikes anymore, Ikki also responded with his weapon. The swordfight had begun, and clear sounds of clashing metal resounded like music in the ears of the arena's spectators.
Their cheers rose as they watched the figure creating Lævateinn's burning arcs.
This was a knight who polished her sword techniques. Few mage-knights excelled in martial arts or swordsmanship, because they could become far stronger by training Blazer abilities instead of physical skills. That belief was held by both educators and society, so knight evaluations didn't include such skills, and while only mediocre mage-knights shared such thinking, mediocre knights were the majority.
The minority, the truly strong knights, would master physical skills alongside Blazer abilities, because they had an unflagging will to improve. They would absorb every tactic that could empower them, develop their strength, and reach for ever higher summits.
Stella Vermillion stood among that minority. She, who won the sword tournament of the Vermillion Empire, used her Imperial Arts6 as if she was dancing, but with enough force to press Ikki. It took Ikki, still trying to open a gap between them, all he had just to defend against those strikes. He kept retreating backwards again and again.
「Of course it'll turn out like this. The repeater, he's being completely overpowered.」
「Yeah, it feels like all he's doing is running away.」
「Just a matter of time now, huh?」
At this unsurprising outcome, a cold mood fell over the spectators. But―
What… is this?
Stella Vermillion felt something painfully off about this situation. Her sword dealt strikes that could produce earthquakes, could crush an enemy in one hit without fail. Overpowering an opponent without crushing him should be impossible, because her attacks couldn't be blocked so casually. But what was happening in this duel? Stella should be one-sidedly battering her opponent, but she was the one sweating.
Turn out like this? Running away? Just a matter of time? Those impressions were dead wrong. Stella herself had realized that.
I'm being… set up!
Stella brought her Lævateinn down on the enemy before her. Ikki received that strike with his Intetsu―but without stopping there, he rode the force of the strike and swiftly leaped backward, widening the distance between them once again.
From afar it certainly seemed like Stella's strikes were pushing Ikki back, but the reality was different. Against his tactics, her strikes were being completely negated. Using a soft defense that slowly drained away power―that might sound easy, but doing it was quite difficult. If the strength in blocking was even a little bit too high then his arm would be pulverized, and if it was even a tiny bit too low then he'd be cut down. The calculations of power, angle, timing―missing even one of these factors meant immediate failure, yet Stella's opponent handled all that without so much as breaking a sweat. At this realization, Stella felt an indescribable anxiety. It was an alarm bell, her sixth sense warning that the enemy before her was very dangerous!
"Are you only good at running away!?"
As if trying to dispel that feeling, Stella kept on slashing at Ikki.
But he didn't reply. The troubled but warm smile he sported just a while ago had disappeared. Now he wore an expression so serious it could be terrifying, and he was calmly watching every movement Stella made.
What irritating eyes!
As if her clothes, skin, and muscles were being read fiber by fiber, her every little act was being studied. And from that gaze, she realized that Ikki was trying to understand the Imperial Arts from her movements.
"My sword style isn't so simple that you can see through it easily!"
"…No, I already got it."
In an instant, the flow of the battle turned. Only five minutes had passed since the start of the match when Ikki Kurogane began to attack for the first time.
It might've seemed like a suicidal action at first glance. In a head-on clash between swordsmen, what could he do with just honed technique against an opponent with that much offensive force? He could only fall before such scorching firepower. It should've been inevitable, but―
But Stella was the one who retreated. Ikki was pushing Stella back with his weapon. How? The method lay with the sun-like orbit Intetsu was tracing. It was, in fact, Stella's Imperial Arts.
"Impossible…! How can you be using it?"
As she asked, something flashed through Stella's mind.
"You don't mean, you copied my style during these exchanges!?"
"Something like that. I've been despised ever since I was a child, so no one ever taught me, and all I could do was watch others and steal their styles. That's why I'm quite good at these kinds of tactics. I can grasp most sword techniques with only a minute of trading blows."
Swordsmanship describes its own knowledge, style describes its own history, and breathing describes its own principle. If one followed the branches and leaves of a sword style and arrived down at the root, then it wouldn't be hard to grasp that style's techniques and combinations, or its approach in facing different situations. This was what Ikki was saying.
"And if I can understand the style that far, I can also create techniques that outperform my opponent's."
What was the ultimate way to surpass an opponent's sword style? Simply correct all the flaws of that style to create a more perfect one, and the new would be plainly superior to the old. The new style would account for all the old style's faults, and even compensate for its weaknesses. It would eclipse its precursor in every offensive and defensive situation.
"Creating that sword style in the middle of battle is my technique, Blade Steal7. Because Stella-san's techniques were so well-engrained, it took me two minutes to steal it and thirty seconds to surpass it. But now I have a solid grasp, so I'll also be attacking from here on."
「H-Hey. Doesn't the princess look like she's being pushed back!?」
Stella was falling behind visibly. The audience started stirring up at the unexpected development, but the one most surprised was Stella herself, and not only because she had lost in sword skill. She was surprised because her prized style had been copied, and moreover, Ikki had refined the style enough to surpass it. Just by looking at her sword swings, he could grasp the wisdom of a technique, read its history, and find its secrets. That devilish insight, it could even be called a reflective magic mirror. And on top of everything, he had done all this without using a bit of magic.
For this boy, receiving fierce attacks from Stella Vermillion and surpassing her Imperial Arts were nothing more than feats of general swordsmanship. How much training must he have had to gain such expertise?
She could no longer deny it. Comparing just their sword skills, this boy was several levels above her. If the duel was restricted to weapons alone, it wouldn't even be a fair fight.
Stella understood that. It was one of her strengths that she admitted that. But it was also a strength of the A-Rank knight Stella Vermillion, the Crimson Princess, that she continued to strive against a stronger opponent.
If her sword style was seen through, then she could exploit that fact. Stella took the stance to swing Lævateinn downwards. Ikki swung Intetsu upwards in response. She had sent her downward arc to crush his guard, and Ikki had already grasped the speed and power of the strike when she took the initial stance, so his response was inevitable. But that itself was Stella's trap!
Stella abandoned the swing and jumped backwards with a grin. If Ikki had seen through her style, then he should surely be caught off guard, because Stella, who had only attacked thus far, was retreating for the first time.
Ikki had taken the initiative after seeing through her style, and he immediately fell for the feint. His slashing attack missed by a wide margin. Aiming for that moment, Stella struck with her Lævateinn at Ikki's exposed flank. It was a sudden variation of tactics for Stella, who had only been attacking straightforwardly until now.
Intetsu's black blade, which was slashing empty space, could not respond to this change in timing. Lævateinn's blade smoothly scythed toward Ikki's unguarded torso.
It had to work, but―
"Your sword is half-asleep, you know."
―Lævateinn's blade never reached Ikki's side. It had been blocked.
He had changed her rhythm, stopped her approach, and even entered her blind spot. Intetsu's blade was supposed to be too far off to possibly react to her cut, but her cut was still blocked!
How!? The answer to that question was―his hilt. Ikki had blocked Stella's feint-enabled strike with Intetsu's hilt, using the slight gap between his hands as they clasped the grip.
Just what kind of motion perception does this guy have!?
"Aiming for victory carelessly after feeling pressured? Slashing while retreating isn't your style. Even someone like me can stop such a weak attack. That move was your downfall."
Saying that, Ikki pushed Lævateinn away, creating a large opening in her guard.
And with Intetsu's blade, he slashed down at Stella's defenseless form.
「Is it over!?」
「It's a perfect hit. That should end it.」
「No way, the A-Rank Stella-san was beaten like this….」
「Wasn't she just unprepared? Otherwise, this is impossible….」
「…No, wait! Look at that!」
The confused spectators turned their gazes to Stella's right shoulder. Intetsu's blade had indeed landed there, but it was completely stopped. Ikki's full-powered strike couldn't damage Stella at all.
"…So in the end, it turns out like this."
Setting aside his exasperation, Ikki once again took a large step back to escape the scorching heat, increasing the gap between them. His opponent was using magic as a shield, and an attack without equally strong magic couldn't harm a shielded Blazer. Ikki's magic was too limited, too weak. However excellent his techniques might be, lacking a Blazer's most important trait meant he couldn't even pierce the magic power Stella was releasing subconsciously.
Aura capacity―the total spiritual energy that a Blazer could spend in using his abilities. That attribute couldn't be increased with effort. It was locked at birth, bound by the weight of destiny… a human being's predetermined value.
Great people were given greatness to make great achievements. From the moment they were born, everyone had a place in an unquestionable hierarchy. In other words, the talent Stella had carried since birth became a firm wall and stopped Ikki's sword.
"It leaves a bad taste, winning like this…."
"As I thought, Stella-san understood it right away. My Intetsu can't injure you at all."
"Naturally. And because I understood, I challenged you to this duel not just in magic, but also in swordsmanship, to show that my strength comes from more than talent. But it didn't go how I wanted… I'll admit it. This battle, I'll only win because of that talent."
Ikki was strong. The words about effort he had uttered weighed more than those of her past opponents. With the talent of a normal Blazer, or even a bit less, he would've beaten Stella in this match. It was vexing, but Ikki didn't even have that. If he gave "I lost to her talent" as an excuse for his defeat, she wouldn't deny it. He had a right to say such things.
He was… that strong. That was why―
"I'll finish this with sincere respect."
Suddenly, Stella took a large leap backwards. She retreated to the ring-shaped arena's border line, at the wall that separated the arena from the audience seats.
With sincere respect. Ikki felt uneasy about Stella backing so far away after saying those words―but that unease was immediately quashed by a heavier sensation.
"Pierce the blue sky, blaze of purgatory."
The moment Stella pointed her Lævateinn up at the air, the flames covering the sword burned with more fury and heat―and soon the sword lost its form, taking the shape of a pillar of light that melted the arena's domed roof.
「W-What is thiiiiis!!!」
「This is too insane! Is she still human!?」
The blade that easily extended a hundred meters upward was shining with the sun's own brilliance, an unopposable scarlet conflagration. For this A-Rank knight, the Crimson Princess, it was her strongest Noble Art. Stella no longer intended to fight with a sword. She would no longer be overconfident. Ikki was a swordsman who far surpassed her, and because she admitted that, she chose to end this battle by destroying the arena with her unfair talent.
"It's over. Accept your loss. That should be easier on you too."
Just before unleashing her attack, she spoke those words with a dragon's dispassion. Stella had believed that anyone strong enough to overwhelm her like this would triumph elsewhere no matter the difficulties, but she hadn't accounted for this boy whose lack of talent forced him onto the path of a Failed Knight. That was why Stella would defeat Ikki for his sake as well, using the absolute power of her talent!
The descending blade of light knew only ruination, burning the entire arena.
「Run for it! We'll get swallowed up―!」
"Hey hey…. Is this really a move for a one-on-one fight?"
As the arena crumbled down, the spectating students started to flee in a screaming mob, and Kurono watched it all with a bitter expression.
But standing before this approaching devastation, Ikki Kurogane smiled.
"My little sister used to often say, 'Brother can become anything other than a mage-knight, so he should aim for that.' Certainly she might be right, since I don't have the talent."
If Ikki Kurogane wanted to be a mage-knight, he'd have to at least win in the Seven Stars Sword-Art Festival, but trying for that victory was as reckless as climbing a waterfall in a bamboo boat. Ikki probably knew that better than anyone.
"But I can't step back now, because becoming a knight is my dream. If I gave up, I couldn't forgive myself for breaking the promise that binds us."
"So I wondered, how can the weakest beat the strongest? How can I exceed my own weak self? Here and now, I'll show you my answer."
Ikki pointed the tip of Intetsu at Stella and said,
"Here, with my greatest weakness, I'll defeat your greatest strength―!"
At that moment, Ikki's whole body and Intetsu's full length started to shine.
Luminous blue that flickered ever so slightly like flame―was it an elemental power similar to hers? Stella thought so for a moment but soon abandoned the idea. No, it was the light of magic power itself growing to the point of visibility.
His power… is increasing…!?
Impossible. Magic power could neither rise nor fall from its owner's level at birth. Then what was happening? Stella couldn't understand it. She had never heard of an ability that raises magic power. But she did understand one thing: the current Intetsu glowing with blue light had the power to strike her down.
―But so what!? No matter what kind of power he possessed, all things of heaven and earth burn to ashes before the sun!
Slash him! I can take victory just doing that!
The distance between them was more than sixty meters. It didn't matter what her opponent tried, because her blade of light would reach him first.
But this boy―he said he'd break through that reasoning!
In the instant that the blade of light fell upon Ikki, he vanished. No, he just jumped fast enough while evading the light that he seemed to disappear.
Stella was dumbfounded after missing her target.
What was that, just now!?
Despite her surprise, she immediately attacked Ikki with a second swing. Katharterio Salamandra created a sword of heat that had no physical body, and it could reach a target more than a hundred meters away. It wasn't something a flesh-and-blood human could simply evade.
But Ikki did.
The second strike, and then the third. Here and there on the battlefield, Ikki kept moving like a windstorm between her flashing strokes, completely dodging each attack. His movements were impossible to follow. Forget her sword, even her eyes couldn't keep up with Ikki's speed. Eventually, Stella could no longer catch even a rough visual of his position.
"Kuh, what's with that strength!? How can you move like that all of a sudden!?"
"Because that's my ability. Just like how Stella-san can control flames, I also have an ability as a Blazer."
Ikki's ability was… doubling his physical attributes.
It was called the worst among all the abilities a Blazer could have, because even without the boosting of physical attributes, a Blazer could gain far more force or mobility by applying magic. Indeed, Stella had used such magic during this match, and her attributes had multiplied five or six times, not merely doubled. In other words, Ikki's ability was a downgraded version of what every Blazer could do just by using magic.
One could say that it was very appropriate for an F-Rank.
"That's a lie! Those movements, that's far more than just doubled! And besides, I've never heard of magic power also rising alongside physical strength!"
While swinging her sword of light, Stella made this protest. A release of magic power that could be seen by the naked eye, and then movements that couldn't? Such things weren't caused just by doubling physical attributes. Even if she was only talking about physical power, Ikki's had surely jumped more than ten-fold.
Ikki, still moving around like a windstorm while dodging Stella's sword, gave a small and boastful laugh at what she was pointing out.
"That's true, but I'm not using my ability the normal way. Instead, I'm using it at full power."
"Huh!? There's no way you would improve like this just because of enthusiasm!"
"No… I wasn't talking about enthusiasm, but the literal meaning."
"I've been thinking about this for a long time. Let's say you were to sprint a hundred meters after saying that you'll do it at full power. Even if you did as you intended, you'll still have spare energy afterward. I thought that was strange. If you really ran while using all of your strength, shouldn't it be weird to even stay conscious afterwards?"
How could that happen? The answer was because humans are alive, and living creatures instinctively want to preserve their lives, their instincts give top priority to survival. No matter how much a person pledges to use his full strength, his subconscious would never allow it. Even if he expends all energy, some amount would still remain so that his body continues to function. This limitation was hardwired into living biology.
Because of that limitation, humans didn't normally use even half of their stamina, strength, or magic power. It was an absolute rule.
But what if someone could break that absolute rule? What if someone, using willpower alone, could remove the limiter that keeps him from exerting his full strength?
"You… you don't mean―!"
"Yes. My magic power hasn't increased. I'm just tapping into power I couldn't before, after willfully exceeding my limitations."
Ikki lacked talent more than anyone else, and he understood that fact better than anyone else. He couldn't close the gap between himself and a prodigy just by working hard, because prodigies also worked hard, and it was insulting to say that they won only by talent. Insufficient effort could widen the gap, but investing effort couldn't shrink it so easily. A difference in talent was that vital a factor, normally.
If he wanted to close the gap anyway, he couldn't be normal any longer. He had no choice but to become a Shura9. Ikki didn't avert his eyes from that truth. Focusing on this realization, he had discovered a way. To surpass talent, he could no longer leave any strength unused.
One minute was enough. It was fine to ignore what happened afterward, but for one minute he'd become strong enough to beat anyone.
That was the answer Ikki Kurogane found, so that his greatest weakness can defeat another's greatest strength. Intentionally using all of his vigor and stamina after breaking through his limits, it was a Noble Art that brought out all of his meager power for little more than one minute and multiplies that power several dozen times.
Suddenly Ikki, who was moving around the arena with movements that could no longer even be tracked by human eyes, used his astounding speed to appear at Stella's blind side, and ended everything.
With a *slash*.
At a speed that could be neither dodged nor blocked, without even a chance to scream, Stella took a direct hit from Intetsu.
She felt the ground under her feet dissolving, and then Stella's thoughts fell into darkness. It was a special kind of unconsciousness imposed by an illusionary fatal wound. Just like its name suggested, Ittou Shura felled the Crimson Princess with just one cut, and Stella fainted powerlessly.
"That's enough! Winner, Ikki Kurogane!"
Even though Kurono called Ikki's victory, and the stunning result stood before their very eyes, the students in the arena still didn't quite comprehend what had happened. All they could do was stare at the figure of the Failed Knight silently standing there.
Emerging through a bright haze, Stella gradually woke up, and what filled her vision as she opened her eyes was a somewhat low ceiling and―Kurono sitting beside Stella's bed while smoking a cigarette.
"Are you awake, Vermillion?"
"Madam Chairman… where am I?"
"Your room. You collapsed from the fatigue of getting hit by a Device in illusionary form. It's not something we should use an iPS capsule or call a doctor for, so I had you rest here."
Saying that, Kurono released a puff of smoke from lipstick-coated lips.
…Doesn't the student dormitory prohibit smoking?
But Stella wasn't really in the mood to say so out loud.
"So that means… it wasn't all a dream?"
With that realization, her feelings turned gloomy. It seemed her hope wouldn't come true. She'd been beaten, and beaten so completely she could make no excuse for her loss.
"…Haa. I thought I had forgotten it long ago. Losing… certainly does feel like this."
"Well, you shouldn't let it bother you that much. Handicaps aside, Kurogane is a guy who even won a straight fight against me. He's not someone you could defeat as you are now."
"Winning against 'World Clock', the former top third in the world… what the heck is that?"
There was a limit to being a monster.
…No, she couldn't say that. Defeating her inside a single minute was the apex of willpower, something normally unthinkable. What kind of dreadful resolve and determination would someone need to try it? That way of fighting was indeed like a shura. It could be called inhuman.
Come to think of it, what happened to that fellow after he used himself up?
"Madam Chairman. That guy, is he alright?"
Kurono lightly nodded at her question.
"He's fine. He was much more seriously injured than you, but it's not so bad that his life was in danger."
After saying so, she looked at the upper level of the bunk bed.
Stella crawled out of the lower bed and looked up to see a pale-faced Ikki lying above in an exercise shirt. His vitality seemed so low that if Stella hadn't heard faint breathing, she'd surely mistake him for a corpse.
"Well, he had enough spare energy to return to his room and change his clothes. If he couldn't leave that much in reserve, the aftermath of his technique would be far too harsh. Kurogane exercised some foresight, at least."
"I don't think that really counts as spare energy."
Ittou Shura was a Noble Art that brought out one's full power while ignoring survival instincts. The user wouldn't even be able to breathe after just one minute of use, so Ikki couldn't use it to fight for long. If he didn't win within that minute, breakdown was unavoidable―a harshly self-destructive tactic. But in mastering such a fickle technique, this boy showed he could conquer even himself.
"Madam Chairman, who exactly is this guy?"
"What do you mean?"
"Please don't play dumb! It's definitely not normal to move so fast my eyes can't even keep up! Could he be one of them? One of those Japanese ninjas!?"
"No, you're totally off…."
"In any case, it's strange for someone like him to be an F-Rank and repeat a year! Please explain to me exactly what's going on!"
"Even if you say that, him being an F-Rank is actually a valid judgment, because the ranking system evaluates Blazer abilities. Mundane skills like swordsmanship, physical fitness, and martial arts aren't included in that evaluation, since such things would probably be ineffective against Noble Arts."
Indeed, mundane skills were nothing compared to overwhelming supernatural power. For example, suppose there existed a master swordsman who could even cut through steel. How would he fight against Stella's flaming sword? His mastery was useless; he could only burn to ashes. Mundane skills were only useful to Blazers when fighting those with equal magic ability.
"That's the general public's way of thinking these days. To put it simply, no system exists to evaluate Kurogane appropriately. And Kurogane, who only excels in physical skills… well, he could only be called the worst. It's rare for someone to have circumstances this bad. If you're a prodigy who appears only once a decade, then he's a dunce that appears only once a decade too. Nothing can really be done about that. You should also understand after facing him directly, since his full-powered strike couldn't harm you even while you were defenseless."
"…Well, there's that… but you haven't explained why he was made to repeat."
"I'm royalty. I know how much countries value strong Blazers, and an academy responsible for training mage-knights should think the same. Not having good evaluations shouldn't be enough reason to make him repeat a year."
Because insurgent organizations had recently started to appear, countries were always promoting the development of strong knights. No reason was enough to undercut that priority.
To Stella's argument, Kurono gave a bitter smile and sighed as though in agreement.
"Haha… well well. You really struck where it hurts."
"As I thought, there's some other reason, isn't there?"
"Yeah, his marks not being sufficient is just the school administration's pretense."
"Indeed. Vermillion, doesn't the name Kurogane ring a bell?"
"There's no way I would know something so plebeian―"
She shouldn't know. That's what she wanted to say, but one person with that surname appeared in her mind.
"Wait, no way… Samurai Ryouma?"
"Exactly. The hero who guided Japan to victory in the Second World War, Samurai Ryouma. His real name is Ryouma Kurogane, and he's Ikki Kurogane's great-grandfather. Even without him, the Kurogane clan is a distinguished family dating from the Meiji era that has produced superior Blazers for generations, and holds strong clout in mage-knight society. That clan put direct pressure on Hagun Academy and said, 'Don't let Ikki Kurogane, the reprobate who fled the Kurogane house, graduate.'"
"Why did they do something like that?"
"To uphold their distinguished family's prestige. If an outlier like an F-Rank was born from their lineage, it would tarnish their name. They probably thought something like that, since knights today emphasize rank more than anything else. The previous academy chairman complied, and started a ridiculous rule about minimum requirements to take combat lessons. In that way, he excluded Kurogane, and repeating the year is the result of that unfairness."
The moment Stella heard that harsh story, she felt an unimaginable resentment deep within her chest.
"Was that something a parent or a teacher should do!?"
"It's regrettable, but there are adults like that in the world. Of course, I have no intention of condoning their actions. After taking up this post, I thoroughly purged those who had a hand in such garbage… but it won't return the year that Kurogane lost. Still, that boy didn't despair. Despite being targeted by his family, treated unfairly, deprived of opportunities, and even derided as trash, he didn't stop believing in his own value. Not seeing prodigies as insurmountable, not running away from his inadequacies. After struggling through all the injustice, he reached the pinnacle where he stands now. By having faith in himself and his values, he wagered all his worth and finally achieved that 'invincible one minute', which can even defeat the Crimson Princess who's called a once-in-a-decade prodigy. Honestly, he's quite special."
Believing in oneself and in one's value, no matter how hopeless the situation. Stella knew very well how hard that was, understood so well it hurt. But fortunately, she had talent. She believed that if she mastered the flames dwelling inside her, her power would help her country greatly. That was why she could push herself onward.
What about Ikki? He really had nothing at all. His had scant magic power, and his Noble Art, a Blazer's trump card, was only the doubling of physical strength. That was painful enough, but the adults around Ikki did all they could to block his way as well. How did he still keep faith and believe in himself?
"Just… just what is pushing him to go that far…!?"
"Who knows? It's not something you'd understand without asking Kurogane himself. I just have a few expectations. Whether he'll really take the summit of the Seven Stars, stuff like that."
Kurono pressed her cigarette into her portable ashtray and once again asked Stella.
"Vermillion. When you came to my office this morning to greet me, do you remember how you replied to my question, 'Why did you come here to study abroad?'"
"Yes. Because if I stayed in that country… I would eventually forget how to aim higher."
That was Stella's reason for leaving Vermillion: the people of her land, of their own accord, were trapping her in the cage of "prodigy". That she could do anything, and wouldn't lose to anyone. If Stella stayed among them, she might've started to believe them. She'd become arrogant, and her heart would rot. Her arrogance would build without foundation, and her will to improve would be chipped away. It had frightened her more than anything, so much that she couldn't let herself remain there any longer. She had to become a much stronger knight to protect her beloved Vermillion Empire.
That was Stella's reason for coming to Japan: to seek out people stronger than herself. To fight strong knights, defeat them, and become the Seven Stars Sword King.
"In that case, Stella Vermillion, try chasing after Kurogane for a year. I'm sure it won't be a waste of time."
At Kurono's forceful air, Stella couldn't give a definite answer.
"I still… don't get it. I still don't know anything about him beyond your words…."
"Well that's true too, I guess."
It wasn't clear whether Stella's response had satisfied Kurono, but Kurono walked towards the exit after giving a nod.
Turning the knob, she opened the door.
"Then you should learn who he is on your own. Like I said, Ittou Shura is a grand technique that can only be used once a day, not holding back the slightest bit of magic, strength, or willpower. And it's an ability that, like a charging horse, can't be stopped partway. He shouldn't wake up for a while… well, hopefully he's not actually dead, just looks like it. He'll get up sooner or later, and if you still don't want to live with him after testing my words, tell me. I'll prepare a special single-person VIP room for you."
After saying that, Kurono left.
Stella, now somewhat abandoned, looked up at the upper bunk bed and studied the boy who defeated her.
I'm… certainly not weak.
She wasn't brash enough to think she was the strongest in the world, but she'd never lose to a person of mediocre ability. Ikki was strong, and she was curious about the source of that strength. She wanted to know how he could continue to believe in himself without all that mistreatment overcoming him.
As she spoke that name, a mysterious sweetness made her heart lightly throb. For Stella, this was the first time she wanted to know someone else so much. She couldn't restrain the desire to learn more about the sleeping boy, and the delay from his recovery was unbearable. That was why, after being overwhelmed by the curiosity bubbling inside of her, she climbed the bunk bed's ladder.
Ikki was still sleeping. He might've changed sides while asleep, but now he was lying on his stomach, and she could no longer see his face. She could hear light breathing that matched the gentle movements of his well-built back, so he must have improved quite a bit since a while ago, because the feeling that he might never wake again was no longer there. Stella felt a little relieved at that.
She called out his name, but as if defying her, he didn't rouse from his deep slumber. It couldn't be helped. He was sleeping soundly, so it would be rude to wake him up by force. Since her anxiety hadn't subsided yet, Stella decided she should take a stroll outside and come back later.
Yes, as Stella was thinking that―she accidentally peeked into the gap between the shirt and the nape of Ikki's neck. He had a wide back, and the sight had a profound impact that she couldn't imagine from his sheepish smile.
No, his body wasn't that muscular. If anything, it could be considered thin, but the steely strength there made his back seem far more substantial than it actually was.
…Ju-Just a little, it's okay, right? He's facing the other way too.
After conferring with some invisible person in her heart, Stella extended her hands towards Ikki's back, and she slowly started to touch.
When Stella touched him with the palms of her hands, the sensation of Ikki's blood flowing started to enter her. It was strong, and hot enough to burn, but his body felt quite different from steel, as if she was feeling the heat of his vitality.
So this is a boy's… back.
It was her first time touching a boy, and Stella felt like she was dreaming.
Ikki suddenly turned over, and now he was facing up. Because of that, Stella's right hand got rolled in and pinned under his sleeping body.
If Ikki woke up now, Stella couldn't give any excuse. His body was unexpectedly heavy, so she couldn't pull her hand out and escape. She could yank it, but that might disturb him, and falling off the ladder because she pulled too hard would also be disastrous.
…What choice do I have?
Stella held her breath and climbed further up the ladder. Standing on her knees while taking care not to touch him, she used her left hand to raise Ikki's side slowly… slowly… very slowly.
Th-That was close!
Stella felt cold sweat forming on her back. She somehow managed to lift up that side with her free hand and… one way or another succeeded in pulling out her trapped one. Success! But… even so, Stella kept on looking at the sleeping Ikki below her.
"This guy didn't wake up at all."
Well, since he was exhausted, she could understand why he was sleeping so deeply. Seeing Ikki still not stirring, Stella gulped. Now that he had flipped over, she was looking at his slightly exposed abdomen.
A boy's belly….
Even though she might've seen a few before, she had never touched one. What kind of feeling would that bring?
"W-What in the world are you thinking, Stella!? That's no good! For me who's still unmarried, and a princess no less, to take interest in the body of a boy who isn't even my lo-lo-lover or anything… that's disgraceful!"
Wait, it wasn't that bad, was it? Not like she was really holding perverted thoughts or anything. Ikki Kurogane, the first opponent who managed to defeat her―she wanted to learn more about a knight she'd have to face in the future, out of pure curiosity.
That was all. Maybe. More or less.
"I-In any case he saw me naked first, so this makes us even, right…?"
It was sophistry, but Stella seemed to have justified herself that way. Led by her curiosity towards the first knight she lost to, she once again extended her hands towards Ikki's abdomen and put one through the crevice of his shirt. She slowly reached as low as his solar plexus and …gently pulled his shirt up.
"…This is… a boy's… body…."
When Ikki suddenly stripped that time they met, she didn't really see because of her confusion, but now that she had crawled so close, she could tell his body was unusually toned. The slight shadows of muscles across his body looked completely different from her own as a woman. Of course, feeling them should be different too.
Stella's brain started to boil at that intense urge to touch. Her head felt feverishly dizzy, and her breathing became heavy and irregular. She could no longer stop herself.
With a trembling hand, she reached towards Ikki's abdomen, and as she touched him, an electric sensation spread through her from the texture of Ikki's skin and muscles. It was strong while having a subtle flexibility, a sensation she had never felt before, but she easily understood the enormous energy it held.
It was not the body of a knight who was stumbling lost in the dark, but one who was striving toward his goals. Stella had always told herself to be a knight before being a woman. She knew how hard it was to hone the body this far, and how hard to maintain such honing.
She couldn't doubt Kurono any longer. Ikki certainly never gave up in despair. His body, as thoroughly hardened as his will, proved so.
But because Kurono hadn't been exaggerating, Stella's desire to learn more about Ikki grew even stronger. The more she knew, the more she wanted to know. This desire started to overheat, enough to suffocate her. She was becoming entranced, lost in a fever without cause or reason, yet it was pleasant, which surprised her even further.
"Haa… What am I doing, I wonder…."
While tracing his abdomen with delicate fingers, she asked that question to some invisible person in her heart, sounding like she was struggling against delirium. But then―
"Err, that's something I want to ask too. Stella-san, what are you doing?"
To Stella who was straddling his waist and touching his skin here and there, Ikki echoed the question back with a face that showed he had no idea what was going on.
Stella instantly released a dreadful scream and recoiled from Ikki.
"Wait! If you jump that hard you'll―"
Ikki's warning was fruitless. After rising so sharply, Stella's head crashed into the ceiling with earth-shattering force and she fell from the upper bunk bed, with a yelp, down to the floor.
"S-Stella-saaaaaan!? Are you okay!? Your head just looked like it―!"
"I-I-I-I-I'm fine! I just fell down and poured some tomato juice on my head, that's all!"
"That's not fine one bit! Because that's tomato juice that came from inside you! Just sit still for now! I'll prepare first aid so just sit still!"