Kimi to Boku no Saigo no Senjo, Aruiha Sekai ga Hajimaru Seisen - lightnovelgate.com
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"… I can’t get that fight out of my head." "With the Ice Witch of Calamity? The fight ended in a draw right?" "… I’ve been lost in thought about it." He didn’t know which between them had superiority in that battle. It was clear that in a simple contest of power, neither of them was able to bring the other down, and it appeared they had a similar tactical approach in creating an opening in their opponent’s defences. It had the same sensation of the psychological warfare one could witness atop a first class chess board. Even when Iska thought that he had the advantage, he was anxious that the opening in of itself was a trap created by his opponent. It was the first time that Iska had to deal with a star mage like that. However. Was that really the cause of his insomnia? "A-also─" "Also?" "… No. It’s nothing." Iska forcibly swallowed down the words he was about to speak. ‘The Ice Witch of Calamity is an extremely beautiful woman.’ … As one would expect, that couldn’t be the reason for his insomnia… Or it shouldn’t have been. … It would also have been embarrassing for Captain Mismis to look at him strangely if he said such a thing. "Iska-kun. That, just might be a little bit of an emotional trauma." "A trauma?" "Un. After experiencing a difficult battle, the pain from your wounds or something like the fear of the battle could end up wounding your heart. Even within the Imperial forces there are quite a few people who experience it. Since you fought that Ice Witch of Calamity, it wouldn’t be strange for you to become that way too…" It was possible that he wouldn’t win. It was his first encounter with a formidable enemy who made him think that. It may have been a battle which planted fear in his heart. Looking at it objectively, Mismis’ analysis was certainly valid. But was that really it? Was that really the reason? It frustrated Iska that he was unable to identify the source of the emotions buried in his heart. "Hmmm. But how can we resolve this I wonder? If the symptoms are bad then we could consult a doctor or something." The petite captain folded her arms with a troubled expression. "In my case, even when I have problems, if I have some barbecue and sleep soundly, I’ll get my spirits back huh~. Want to get barbecue?" "No, I don’t think it’s that kind of…" "Right~. I think it’ll get better naturally with time, but I also think it would still be good to have a change of pace… Aah, that’s right! Iska-kun, come here, come here!" Standing in the doorway, Mismis suddenly turned around and started trotting away. "I have something nice to give to Iska-kun. Follow me." Within Imperial Barrack 01, Iska was staring with a blank expression at a door with an adorable bunny sticker pasted on it. "This is your room right?" "Yup, yup. It’s my room, it’s a little messy but come on in." There were stuffed animals sprawled across the warm coloured carpet set down in the living room and the cup sitting atop the table also had a childish image of a puppy printed on it. "Your animal collection has grown again huh?" "Eheheeeh. What’cha think? Aren’t they cute?" "Yeah. Um…. But, how do I put it, that…" Suspended from the ceiling, displayed magnificently in the dead centre of the room, was the spectacle of hanging laundry, and Iska evasively averted his eyes. "It’s poison for the eyes." "Eh? What’s poison for─N-NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!?" The woman at a marriageable age had completely forgotten about her underwear drying out in her room, and in a panic, she attempted to seal Iska’s vision by raising her hands overhead. "Y-you’re wrong Iska-kun! That’s not it. This was just a little bit of curiosity! Even all my friends have been getting boyfriends, so I tried pushing myself a bit. Having underwear with a somewhat adult design to take on a challenge is part of a being a woman. Don’t misunderstand!" "I don’t get what you’re saying at all." "… Ehem. Anyways." Mismis quickly put away the underwear that had been left out to dry. "Let’s get back to what we were talking about before okay? I feel like it’s no good to just hole up in your room all day. I think you should boldly go out and have fun. So in that case, tadaaah!" Mismis grabbed a small ticket that was on the table and raised it high overhead. "Here, go watch this and pep up." "… An opera ticket? ‘The Female Knight Beatrix’s Blighted Love?’" "Yup. It’s a performance they put on in the Neutral City every year. I really like this opera so I’ve bought a book for ten tickets and watched it nine times. But I was just thinking that maybe it’s enough this year. So I’ll give it to Iska-kun." "Eh? But just when─" "Before the next mission should be fine. In that case isn’t it fine to just go tomorrow?" The female captain thrust out her chest full of pride and self confidence. "It’s a wonderful opera. I think it’ll be a good change of pace for you. This is an order from your captain." "… An order huh?" Staring at the ticket he received, Iska returned a single nod. White steam. Milky white hot water poured out of the mouth of a faucet modelled after a lion’s head into a bathtub to the point where it was overflowing, and floating atop the water’s surface were flowers and herbs of every colour. The large bathtub with steam coming out of it could be said to fit about twenty people inside. Beside it, a chilly cold bath had been prepared, and deeper within there was a sauna installed that was filled with piping hot steam. … *Drip*. Advancing along the wet tiles on the floor was a young woman wearing attendant’s clothing. "Alice-sama, so you were still soaking in?" The Nebulis Royal Palace. In response to the dignified voice that resounded through the bath, Alice opened her shut eyelids and lifted her face out of the water. "How about coming out now? It is well past the time to retire for the night." "… I’m not tired." "You had told me the same thing last night. Even though, normally, when you return from a battle you do not even have a meal and go straight to sleep." "But you know, I’m not tired at all~." While blowing out bubbles, she sank back underneath the surface of the water. It was about what happened at the Nelka forest. She departed together with Rin to destroy the Imperial weapon power reactor at her mother’s command. The mission itself was executed perfectly. There wasn’t a single blunder. … But even so, what was it? … Why was she unable to get that swordsman out of her mind? She was well aware that was one of the reasons she was unable to sleep. "Is it about that soldier who named himself Iska?" Standing at the edge of the bathtub barefoot, Rin was wearing her housekeeping outfit just as usual. "I’ve been wondering about that swordsman’s background even before we came back to the Imperial Household Agency you see." "… I wonder just who he is?" He was a young man just about her age. She could see from his appearance and conduct that he was brimming with youthfulness, but when it came time for combat he could only be described as ferocious. With his terrifying concentration and inhuman physical ability, he was able to close in on Alice while dealing with her attacks. When she fought against the Holy Apostles, she felt that they were formidable enemies. However, it was the first time that she felt a sense of dread that something could snap at her neck at any time. "I shall begin an investigation into that swordsman’s background. However, at best, it will still take a few days." "That’s more than enough. Thank you, Rin." While staring vacantly at the petals floating atop the water, she nodded─ "That sword." … There was no way. The swords only looked alike. … Her benefactor couldn’t possibly be part of the Empire of all things. "That’s it, it’s just a coincidence." "Eh?" "I-it’s nothing!" The muttering overflowing from her heart that she unconsciously let out was picked up by Rin, and Alice waved her hands in a panic. ‘Are you hurt? To think an Imperial weapon would go berserk this close to the Neutral City…’ ‘But it’s alright, I cut off the driving force of the mobility unit. This guy can’t move anymore.’ A memory coloured in sand. A shower of sparks, and a dense cloud of sand hanging overhead. A swordsman who saved her from an Imperial weapon that had gone out of control and attacked her. Because of the cloud of sand, both his figure and voice were hazy. But even so, she remembered the glimmer he held in each of his hands. Black and white steel. Those shining blades which were like antipodes of each other were just like the swords that young swordsman was wielding. "…" Within the bathtub, Alice pushed down on her chest with her hand. What was passed through her precocious ─ as Rin would enviously describe it ─ her womanly and well developed chest, was her heart, beating at a rate faster than she could believe. Thump, thump, thump. Rather than showing any signs of calming down, even now it only felt like it was getting stronger. "Aaaah geez! This is no good! I need a change of pace!" "Wait a minute Alice-sama, the water!? Goodness… Please do not stand up with such vigour. Look, even my clothes have gotten wet." "Yes! A change of pace! Rin, now that it’s settled, make preparations for tomorrow!" "… My clothes…" Urging on Rin who was puffing out her cheeks, Alice quickly proceeded to the dressing room. Along one of the walls was a mirror which she rushed over to as she stretched out her hand towards an accessory case. "Yes, this one will do." "Alice-sama, please do not walk around before drying your body. You’ll slip and fall." "I won’t fall. I’m not a child." "I’m saying it because you are running around like a child. Come on, if you do not dry yourself off you will catch a cold." Rin took a towel with both her hands and carefully dried out Alice’s dripping blonde hair. "Hey Rin, look at this, look." "’The Female Knight Beatrix’s Blighted Love’…? My goodness, did you make reservations for an opera while keeping it a secret from me again?" After drying off her hair, Rin moved down towards Alice’s neck and back. The attendant wiped off the drops of water that were falling down from the nape of her neck and down her back. Rin was born to a bloodline that had served as caretakers for the Nebulis royal family for generations. While being one year younger than Alice, she had the duty to take care of her. To Alice, she was the only good friend that she could freely joke around with. "It was quite hard to get these tickets you know? To guarantee I got paired seats I had to enter a draw for them four times." "… Understood. I shall accompany you." After wiping off Alice’s body, Rin let out a grandiose sigh. "But is this really alright? Even though you’ve just had your face seen by that swordsman?" The Imperial swordsman who named himself Iska. During the battle with him, her headdress had fallen off, and the face that she had been hiding was revealed. If the Empire knew her face, it was possible that they would dispatch assassins after her. For a time, Alice had also panicked at that possibility, but… "It’s fine. Thinking about it properly, there’s no problem in him having seen my face." In contrast to the Empire who treated star spirits as something wicked, the Nebulis Imperial Household Agency who embraced them had researched those spirits much more in depth. And one of those details, was the individual differences between star spirits. Though the star spirits dwelling within humans were wide and varied, Alice’s star spirit had a particularly strong sense of danger. When danger befell her, it would automatically take action to defend her. Since she had a star spirit that was capable of warding off an attack from a large scale Imperial weapon of destruction, there was no real need to fear one or two assassins. "I’m not scared of any Imperial assassins. I have my star spirit, and most of all Rin is with me too." "… What a convenient compliment." "It’s true. Besides, every time I went to the Neutral City, I wasn’t wearing my headdress right? Let’s just go out boldly in our usual outfits." Alice waved around the tickets in her hand as she spoke. "The curtains rise just before noon, so I want to leave the royal palace by sunrise." "In that case, I shall prepare the sand bird. Since we will be leaving first thing in the morning, please return to your room and retire for the night. I will hold on to the tickets." "Aah, wait a sec, Rin!?" "It is so that Alice-sama does not lose them. Moreover, please put on your underwear already. Are you trying to boast to me by showing off like that?" "I-I’m not boasting!?" After Rin stared enviously at Alice’s chest as it swayed around with vigour, Alice turned around in a panic. "Also, please inform the Queen of your plans. Just recently there was quite the uproar when you left without permission after all." "… What a pain." "Your reply." "… Okaaaaay." In response to her attendant’s strict tone, Alice let out a small sigh. 2 Two years ago─ His assigned platoon had been determined. On the day after that report, his master vanished from before his eyes. No, it was more correct to say his master boldly took his leave right in front of him. "It was just you and Jhin huh? The ones who couldn’t run away from me." Upon his departure, he left those cynical words behind. "But, well, I guess it’s better that you two are left." The Empire’s strongest swordsman, Crosswell Ness Livergate─also known as the ‘Man of Black Steel.’ After serving as the head of the Holy Apostles in the Imperial Capital, he scouted out boys and girls from all over the Empire and tempered them in hopes of finding a successor. No, it would be more correct to describe it as screening them. After only half a day of training, about half of them dropped out. By the time the day ended, ninety percent of them dropped out. Three days later, half of the remaining members dropped out. And as one, then three, then five years passed, the only ones left were Jhin and Iska. "Iska, you were the last of the candidates that I chose and brought along. Weren’t you?" "Yes." "Frankly, among all the candidates I chose, you were the most…" "Y-yes!" "Hopeless among them." "There’s a limit to being frank right!?" In front of the young man who was exhausting himself with all his strength, the man with black hair dressed all in black spoke as if it was completely natural. "I went out scouting guys based on how much hope I had in them. In that case, isn’t it natural that the guy I picked last was the one I was expecting the least from?" "… Well, that makes sense, but…" The young man puffed out his cheeks in dissatisfaction. He then looked down at his hands which had just received a pair of swords from his master. "But there’s a better way of putting it you know." "You were, the most like me. That’s why I expected the least from you." That was a fact that Iska had heard for the first time. His master was usually silent and emotionless, always casting a listless gaze over him. It was the first time he heard his master’s ‘true thoughts.’ "Don’t let go of those star swords." "Of course. It’s a precious memento from my master after all… Ow!" He was struck. Don’t just make it a memento on your own. Don’t just go off and kill your master. So he said, and then finally─ "Those swords, are the only hope of saving the world." "… Eh?" "The star swords will obey you. Just by touching them you can control them, and none other will be able to make use of them. So I leave them to you." The duty of putting an end to this war between man and witch that has been going on for a hundred years, falls upon you ─ the Successor of Black Steel. So said his master. The scorching earth was cracked dry by the incessant heat pouring down on it, it was a wasteland where only a couple weeds could be seen sprouting out here and there. If one were to walk on it barefoot, it was likely that one’s feet would be burned before even a second could pass. The Vuishada wastelands. A single buggy was racing down a path through that giant wasteland at an intense speed. "Iska-nii, wake up, wake up. We’re almost at Ayin." "Hm, already?" Jostled by Nene from the driver’s seat, Iska rubbed his eyelids in the passenger seat. He recalled up until the point that they left the Imperial capital before sunrise, but he didn’t remember anything after that. "It’s already close to noon. This guy’s been running for a good six hours. Iska-nii, seriously, no matter how much I talked to you, you were just sleeping like a rock." "Sorry…" "Uun, Nene also got to see Iska-nii’s sleeping face for the first time in a while anyways." Nene’s voice livened up cheerfully. "You said you were having trouble sleeping ever since coming back from the Nelka forest too." "Un… I saw, a dream of my master for the first time in a long while. A memory from when me and Jhin were worked to the bone. Rather, it was a nightmare." "A dream of Black-sensei?" Nene spoke as she gripped the wheel of the car. "How nostalgic~. You haven’t seen a dream of Black-sensei all this time right?" "It’s probably, because I haven’t used the star swords in so long. Even though he told me to treat them preciously, I had them confiscated by the Eight Grand Apostles. I’m relieved they gave them back to me." Iska looked down at the two swords leaning against his seat. The land that the buggy was racing across was affiliated with neither the Empire nor the Nebulis Imperial Household Agency. The wasteland was even designated by the entire world as a nature zone where only beasts ran wild. It was a land where there was even once a report of an enormous dragon being discovered long ago. The road itself was classified as safe, but by all rights it was not a place one should be dozing off in. "Aaaaah, what a failure~. Why did I have to sign up for part time work right when Iska-nii decided to go out?" Along with a remarkably dissatisfied sigh, Nene let go of the driving wheel. "Jhin is helping out at the gunsmith, and Captain Mismis is out shopping was it?" "That’s true, but~, even Nene wants to go play in the Neutral City together with Iska-nii you know?" The young woman with a ponytail set her head down on Iska’s lap. All while the car was barrelling down the road at a terrifying speed. Even so, the young woman who could no longer see in front of the vehicle was perfectly manipulating the vehicle by nudging the wheel with her leg. "Nene, it’s dangerous if you don’t look while you drive. Driving with your leg is a little…" "But it’s been so long since I’ve been together with Iska-nii." "Has it really been that long?" Iska casually looked over Nene in the driver’s seat once more. … But, she certainly became somewhat adult-like? … She had grown taller, and he felt that her expression was more womanly. It was a year of puberty. While Iska was imprisoned, that childish girl had grown taller, and her figure had become increasingly womanly. He wondered that if her hair that was held up in a ponytail was let down, whether she would look even more so. "Hup." Nene suddenly corrected her posture and her ponytail bounced in the air as she spoke in dissatisfaction. "Aaah… We’re already there. I should have just driven slower." ─The Neutral City Ayin. The city built upon an oasis in the middle of the wastelands came into sight as they proceeded towards the gate of the enormous walls which surrounded it. "Thanks Nene. I’ll be taking the regular bus to get back, so." "Yeah yeah. See you later Iska-nii!" "… Un. Ummm, where’s the theatre again?" After seeing off the buggy as it kicked up a cloud of dust, Iska turned towards the streets of the city. The Neutral City─due to the hundred years of conflict which split the Empire and the Nebulis Imperial Household agency, it was the generic name given to the city which did not participate in either camp. "The Neutral City huh, it’s been a super long time. Just how many years has it since I’ve been here?" Iska glanced at the main street where there the impressive theatres were lined up. Next to the majestic and noble concert hall made of wood was a gorgeous opera house made with a modern design. "But, just as usual, that’s quite the crowd." It was the land where culture and the arts were blooming. All the artists who hated the war between the Empire and the Nebulis Imperial Household Agency were accepted here. It was a land where painting, music, poetry and carving, among all other sorts of arts developed. The Neutral City Ayin was the capital of opera. Buskers on the street were singing songs as they pleased, and tourists filled the streets everywhere Iska looked as they attentively listening to those buskers. "─Wait, this is bad. It’s already time for the curtains to rise!?" Iska dashed down the main street while grasping his ticket. "It’s supposed to be the third building on the main street right? Crap, it’s already starting!" Iska headed towards the ticket window of an opera house with a modern design using white as its motif. "Can I still get in? Eh, just by a hair? Great, thanks!" He continued to run through the now quiet passage towards the performance hall. "… Excuse me. I need to get in." Carefully opening the door, Iska entered the hall. Because the performance was just about start, the interior was pitch black. Relying on the faint lighting from the emergency lights, he went off to find his assigned seat. "The front row on the upper floor huh. As one would expect of Captain Mismis, she even fusses over the seat at operas." Because of the darkness, he couldn’t see the faces of those around him, but he could tell that they were mostly ladies in rather affluent dresses and nobles travelling incognito from other territories who brought their families along. "Now then, please enjoy ‘The Female Knight Beatrix’s Blighted Love.’" The announcement rang throughout the hall. The curtains around the stage rose, and the opera began before the hundreds of spectators in attendance. ‘Farewell Beatrix, I can no longer live together with you.’ ‘… Yes. Farewell, Ahzel. I believe the next time we meet will not be in a church, but on the battlefield." It was the middle of the performance. The emotional performance by the actress playing the heroine of the story together with the musical accompaniment of the orchestra coloured the stage in sorrow and passion─ "… Aaah. I get it. I get why Captain Mismis loves this so much." Mixed in with the other spectators enthralled by the performance, Iska quietly muttered. Enchanted by the female knight’s dignity and way of life, they all felt the emotions coming from her blighted love. Currently, affected by Beatrix’s sorrowful circumstances, Iska could sense other spectators who were moved to tears holding back their breath. During that, for some reason, he could feel some sort of cold sensation just around himself. "Aah Beatrix! To fall in love with a knight from an enemy nation… No matter how much you love him, it is a love that could never be fulfilled. Is it alright to have such a sorrowful love!? It is far too much! Why does god bestow… Bestow such a cruel fate… Uuu!" Of all things, it seemed that the young woman sitting next to him was easily moved to tears. Overcome with emotion by the final stage of the story, she was crying aloud and seemed unable to wipe away her tears no matter how much she wiped her face with a handkerchief ─ and Iska was no longer able to focus on the stage. "That stupid Ahzel, why with a man like you!?" "Shh, your voice is too loud Alice-sama. Everyone else is watching quietly." "B-but…" "Good grief. What happened to the handkerchief? Even though yours had gotten drenched in tears and I handed you mine as well." "… That one, is also completely soaked through." "You’re crying that much!?" The young woman was wiping her eyes with the back of her hands. Iska couldn’t see her clearly because of the darkness, but judging from her voice he could tell that she was probably in her teens. Her companion in the the seat next to her also seemed to be the same in this regard. "Um, you can take this if you’d like." "Eh?" In a quiet voice, Iska pulled out his own handkerchief. … Handing a handkerchief to a lady that one didn’t even know the name of was a scene that nobles loved since long ago. … It wasn’t supposed to be all that peculiar. It was also the case that Iska was unable to stand by while someone was troubled right next to him, but he also had the pragmatic motive that he could not concentrate on the performance while she was sobbing like that. "I haven’t used it at all and it is perfectly clean. So, um, I just thought you would be quite troubled if left alone like that." "…" She must have had some reluctance to accept a handkerchief from someone she did not know, but even so, she seemed unable to stop her overflowing tears, and timidly stretched out her hand. "Thank you very much." (Hmm? Just where did I hear that voice before.) Iska felt like he found that voice to be familiar, but because her voice was distorted by her crying, he couldn’t accurately pin it down. It must have been his imagination. Processing that thought quickly, Iska decided to focus his attention on the closing moments of the performance. And so the curtains fell─ The applause from the audience filled the theatre while the lights had started to come back on.. "Uuu… *sniffle*, how pitiful, Beatrix!" "Alice-sama, look, it has already ended. Before the lights finish turning on, please at the very least finish wiping away your tears." "B-but…" The young woman stood up while wiping her face with the handkerchief. She then bowed down towards Iska who has still sitting in the seat next to her. "U-um… Sorry for soaking your handkerchief. I shall reimburse you for this. Rin, please make arrangements to present him with a gift made of the finest velvet." "Eh!? N-no, that’s quite alright! That handkerchief is just a cheap one, so it’s okay." "No, that will not do. It is something that was granted to me after I exposed such an embarrassing side of myself. It is not a problem of whether it was cheap or expensive." While gripping the handkerchief in both hands, she earnestly shook her head to the side. "Um, please allow me to once more express my thanks." Along with a sincere mutter, the young woman took one step forward─ And just at that time, the lights turned on completely. "Thank you for the…" Below the shining and brilliant chandelier, the young woman’s bright blonde hair and lovely features came into sight. The Ice Witch of Calamity Aliceliese. The one gripping the handkerchief in front of him, was the perpetrator of the fierce battle that Iska went through three days ago in the Nelka forest. "… Heh?" "Wh…. Wh-wh-wh-wh-why are you here!?" The skirt of the princess of the Nebulis Imperial Household Agency fluttered with a thud. She was not wearing the high class royal garments that she had on the battlefield, but was instead wearing a one piece dress that one could find sold in any clothing store in any city. She gave off the complete atmosphere of a young woman travelling incognito. "You were shadowing me I see. Very well, then let us settle the score right─Muguu!?" "Alice-sama, you must not! This is the Neutral City!" The one binding Alice’s arms behind her, was her attendant Rin. "In this city, all forms of conflict are strictly forbidden. That is the law of the Neutral City. Even if it is your ancestors’ enemy or an Imperial general, if you lay your hands on them…" ─One, any conflict in the Neutral City is strictly forbidden. ─Two, as a preamble to the previous statement, the one who laid their hands on the other party first is the violating party. ─Three, all cultures are accepted, and one is to enjoy oneself with the arts. These were the rules which applied to the Neutral City. "… I know that. If I did something here, all neutral territories would treat it as a violation of the rules and turn against us. If that happened it would be pretty serious." Rin let go of Alice’s hand as she then bit down on her lips. "However, to think that you were appreciating the opera right next to me. No wonder I couldn’t calm down." "No, you seemed to be so focused on the play that you were wailing." "~~~~~~~!? Th-this is just sweat from my eyes! Forget everything you saw today, you hear me!?" Alice took a step back while stomping her feet. "Alice-sama, if you raise your voice like that you’ll draw too much attention." "Aah geez!" Finally realizing that the surrounding audience was staring at her, the young blond haired woman who had tears in her eyes and was blushing became even more flushed than before. "I’ll withdraw here. I bid you farewell, Iska!" "… U-un. Take care." Alice gracefully bowed as she lifted her skirt with both hands in a graceful manner. "Alice-sama, what are you doing?" "Eh!? Ah… Y-you’re wrong, Rin! It was a force of habit!" After the young woman seemed to have given her farewell as she would at the royal palace on the spur of the moment, she blushed all the way to her ears as she ran out of the hall. Iska was then left alone where he was. "I’m the one who was shocked here…" Putting his hand to his chest which was beating like a hammer, Iska let out his breath all at once. 3 "… I thought my heart would stop." "That’s what I want to say. Just what would we have done if Alice-sama went on a rampage?" Leaving the hall behind, the two of them ran past the crowd and arrived outdoors. Coming out onto the main street, Alice finally felt a sense of relief. "We’re not being followed right?" "We are not. Until we exited the hall, that swordsman didn’t move a single step. However, we should probably make the assumption that he will." The Neutral City did not discriminate between the Empire and the Imperial Household Agency. Because citizens from either country could come in freely, the possibility of bumping into someone familiar existed. "… But even so, to think he was in the seat right beside me." "In the first place, that man has seen your face before. Any other soldier would not be able to recognize you. Encountering allies or enemies within the Neutral City is something that cannot really be avoided due to its nature." "Th-that’s right…! Let’s go grab something to eat and pull ourselves together." After closing her eyes and shaking off her idle thoughts, Alice began walking down the main street at a quick pace. "If I remember right there’s a renowned pasta shop around here. My preparations are perfect after all!" "Alice-sama really loves pasta huh." "I could have nothing but pasta for a whole month." "Whether or not you can, you mustn’t." "Don’t be so obstinate. Come on, this way." Grabbing Rin’s hand, she headed north down the street. Coming to the end of the street which looked out on the plaza, a signboard for a pasta shop came into sight. "My apologies. The lunchtime crowd has just arrived." Looking at the two girls who arrived, a waitress wearing an apron bowed down her head and apologized. "If you have a reservation or are willing to share a table, then I could guide you inside right away though…" "We don’t mind. Now then, Rin, let’s go in." The two of them lined up on one side of a table that could seat four. "Here, Alice-sama, some water." "Thank you, Rin. I just happened to be thirsty." Perhaps because she was crying so much at the opera house, even her throat was quite parched. She immediately brought the glass of water that Rin passed her to her lips. And as she did, the waitress guided over another customer to an open seat at their table. "Iska-sama, we have confirmed your reservation. Please come this way." "Buuu!?" And it came flying out. For the first time in her life, Alice let loose the water that was in her mouth with the strength of a water gun. "Uwah!?" In a panic, the young man backed up from the table. "What are you doing?" "That’s what I want to─*cough*… W-water, in my throat… Wh-what are you doing here!?" With a hand at her mouth, she scowled at the young swordsman from the Empire. "You bastard, not just once, but twice! Like I thought, you’ve been tailing Alice-sama!" As one would expect, this time she was unable to keep quiet. As Rin stood up from her seat, she put her hand on top of the dagger concealed beneath her skirt. … At that rate, she was going to violate the taboo of drawing a sword within the Neutral City. … No. The clause forbidding conflict stated that ‘the one to lay their hand on the other first is at fault.’ If the Imperial swordsman attacked first, Alice and Rin could counterattack squarely claiming it was self defence. "Ummm, are you still, misunderstanding something here?" "How can you be so shameless? There is no longer room for any doubt." Iska raised both his hands to show he had no intention to resist. And in response, Rin thrust out her finger at him. "After splitting up at the opera house, weren’t you going to go do your own thing? Then why did you come to this shop? If you have an excuse then let’s hear it!" "But you know, this is the closest restaurant to the opera house. It’s also quite famous. Besides, the one who made a reservation for this table was me, didn’t you two come without one?" "…" Rin was the one to freeze up at Iska’s indifferent reply. "… What do you think, Alice-sama?" "He has a point. But you cannot let your guard down, Rin. Stay vigilant." "No, you know I can hear you consulting each other right? Besides, as you can see, I’m unarmed. I left my swords with the guardhouse at the gate after all." While still raising his hands, Iska span on the spot. Nothing that resembled a weapon could be seen. It seemed he was insisting to show that he had no intention to fight. "… I get it. For now, I’ll believe you." Alice and Rin sat side by side, and the young man sat down across from them. "Alice-sama, is this really alright? Even if this is the Neutral City, sitting together for a meal with an Imperial soldier is a little…" "If we step aside here, won’t it look like we were intimidated?" The Ice Witch of Calamity ran away. If that kind of rumour spread, it would strengthen the morale of the Imperial troops, while also making it difficult for her to show her face to her subordinates within the Nebulis Imperial Household Agency. "I-in any case, let’s eat…" Alice went to pick up the menu on the table. And as she did, her fingers touched the tips of Iska’s fingers as he also went to pick up the menu. "Kyaa!? S-sorry!" "… Ah, n-no, I should also… Sorry." Iska drew back his hand immediately. "… P-please go ahead first." "… You should go ahead and decide first. I shall yield to you here. You reached out to it, did you not?" "… I, reached out to it thinking I would hand it over to you." "… I-I also intended to do so!" As a result of their negotiations, the menu was left open in the middle of the table, and it was settled that Alice and Iska would read it from the left and right from opposite sides of the table. … There was a flaw in that their faces were quite close though. (… Wait, just what am I thinking about? We’re only looking at a menu.) Alice instinctively averted her gaze as she thought that. It wasn’t like she didn’t have men among her relatives in the Nebulis Imperial Household Agency, but back at the royal palace she didn’t know one that was this close to her in age. She wasn’t used to it. "Ummm…" As he suddenly began talking to her, Alice instinctively put herself on guard. "D-do you need something?" "Have you decided on something?" I’ve decided to tear you apart limb from limb right here you bastard ─ he was an Imperial soldier where it wouldn’t have been all that strange for him to make such a declaration, but instead he questioned her with upturned eyes. "… I have. I’d like to make an order." "Okay. I’ll be right there!" A cheerful waitress came running over from further inside the shop. "What would you like?" ""I will have the salmon and zucchini fresh cream pasta. I’d like it boiled ‘ben cotta‘ and I’d like the portion size to be small. After the meal I would like black tea with a single sugar please."" Alice and Iska. The two of them said the exact same thing at the same time. Their words piled atop each other so smoothly it could be described as lovely. "… Eh?" "… Huh?" (Did I really say that?) Because they spoke together so fluently, even Alice herself doubted who was the one to talk. Sure enough, across the table, Iska also had a bewildered expression. "Dear customers, you certainly do get along well huh. Are you companions~?" ""You’re wrong!"" Once more, their responses were beautifully in sync. "Alice-sama, do calm yourself." "Don’t say it, Rin. I know, this is just for today. It’s really just a coincidence of a coincidence of a coincidence!" Alice took a deep breath in a way that the young man before her would not be able to tell she was doing so. (… It’s alright. I am calm… It seems his tastes when it comes to theatre and food is lined up with mine, but that is irrelevant.) Until the food arrived, they endured the awkward atmosphere in complete silence. "Anyways, the food is here. Let’s eat while it’s still hot." Alice stuck her fork into the plate of pasta before her and began winding it up ─ she then stopped, and suddenly raised her head. A slight curiosity suddenly passed through her mind. After piling on so many coincidences, there was one thing she wanted to confirm with the Imperial soldier before her. "Do you like pasta?" "… Me?" Perhaps because he never thought that she would talk to him, his reaction was slightly delayed. "There’s nobody but you here is there?" "I like it. Rather it may be my favourite. I like it like this with cream, but it’s also delicious when it is only seasoned with salt and pepper." "Oh my. You do understand. It’s quite simplistic but also quite tasty isn’t it?" Whenever she talked to Rin about it, the only reply she ever got was ‘Please eat everything without being picky about what is good or bad.’ When she talked to the retainers back at the royal castle, they would only curtly reply ‘Good for you,’ and cut her off. And so the reply from the young man from the Empire was a new sensation to Alice. It was fun. And so she naturally ended up getting excited while speaking to Iska. "But for me, when it is this hot outside, I also can’t pass up a nice cold vegetable pasta." "Aah, cold vegetable pasta is quite nice isn’t it? Whenever they sell some sweet tomatoes in the market I would definitely make some." "Yes! Cold vegetable pasta with tomatoes is delicious isn’t it? Me too! Me too! When it’s so hot outside, even if it was every day I could─" "Alice-sama, you’ve stopped eating." "… Ah." Admonished by Rin who was clearing her throat, Alice leaked out a quiet voice. The young man before her eyes was a soldier of the Empire. He had seen her face. He was also a combatant worth a thousand at the level of the Holy Apostles. She had completely forgotten that. "S-sorry. I interrupted your meal…" "I-I also must apologize…" The two of them bowed down apologetically. And the scene of a quiet meal once more returned. Or so Alice thought, as the attendant who had already finished eating began to mumble to herself in a quiet voice. "It’s common sense that pasta should be boiled ‘al dente.’ This is why amateurs are so…" ""It absolutely must be ‘ben cotta!’"" As Rin let out a sigh, Alice and Iska yelled out together perfectly in sync. 4 Within the black celestial sphere of the heavens, the stars in the skies shined like a box of jewels. With an uncountable number of constellations, a shooting star shot across the sky. It was a night sky from the royal palace that Alice would not doubt as the most beautiful in the world. However, she was not even looking at it. "Alice-sama, please keep what happened during the day strictly to yourself." "…" Alice listened to Rin while lying face down on her bed. "By all means, I should be reporting this to her Majesty the Queen. Even if it was not a battlefield, you happened to meet with an Imperial soldier after all." "You cannot fight in the Neutral City. Wasn’t Rin the one to say that?" "I never thought that after the opera house, we would end up sitting together with him for a meal." Within Alice’s private room in the Nebulis royal palace, the ‘Jewel Case Bell,’ Rin stood close to the wall as she spoke in an unusually emotionally stifled tone. "Fortunately, from today’s conversation it seems he will not speak of the secret of the Imperial Household Agency. If I was not confident in this fact, it is something that must be reported to her Majesty the Queen no matter what." "… I know." The other party was a pet dog of the vile Empire. They were the ones who persecuted her ancestors as witches and warlocks. Iska was one of them. However, just what was that unsatisfied sensation swelling up within her? "This." Next to her pillow was a completely plain handkerchief. He had said it was something that could be purchased anywhere you look. "I missed my chance to return it…" It was the handkerchief she borrowed at the opera house. Because it was something she used to wipe her tears away, she couldn’t return it as it was. On the other hand, she didn’t know what to do about it and ended up taking it back with her. "It’s a personal effect of an Imperial soldier. There should be no problem in throwing it away." "… But." "Like I’ve been saying, please forget everything that happened today. The swordsman known as Iska is an enemy. He is not just Alice-sama’s enemy, but the enemy of every single person who is Alice-sama’s brethren." Rin flipped up her skirt. And the moment Alice thought that, Rin had grasped the daggers she had for self defence in both hands. It only took an instant. Also concealed within were thin metal needles, steel thread and even small bombs. There was a great number of dark tools hidden within those housekeeper garments that Alice did not even know the names for. She was a genius who mastered all martial arts. That was the other face of the young woman known as Rin. "The old master of the training tower was quite disappointed. Since a pupil that he had trained to master the sword, spear, archery, torture and everything else he knew would be a mere attendant. Even though that little girl had the talent to become the greatest martial artist in the Imperial Household Agency." "It is the old master’s habit to become talkative while drunk. But even so, I cannot envision the scene of me winning in battle against the swordsman known as Iska. Be it with a sword or in martial arts, or even using my star spirit to its maximum effect." "Even you?" "Yes. Depending on the battle, I feel that even the old master would be in danger." With a clink, Rin returned the daggers to their sheathes. "Alice-sama should understand this best. You revealed the ‘Flower of Ice’ that you were keeping hidden from even the Holy Apostles to a mere soldier… That swordsman is a monster. At some time, when Alice-sama must challenge the Empire, the one who would pose to stand in your way as the largest obstacle, may very well be that swordsman." Rin’s expression as she said this was mixed with vexation. Despite being Alice’s escort, she now knew that there was an opponent within the Empire that she could not win against. She likely resented her own worthlessness. "And so, even if you have something on your mind from today, please forget it all. That swordsman is the greatest component of unease to the Imperial Household Agency." Rin’s advice was reasonable. Iska’s strength was something Alice herself witnessed as inhuman. Based on the fact that he was still in his teens, she couldn’t even imagine how terrifying an opponent he would become after accumulating even more experience and training. … However, from the atmosphere during day. … She could not sense a single hint of that bloodcurdling dread. Rin said it was only natural that he would suppress his fighting spirit within the Neutral City, but Alice had another point of view. At that time, he had absolutely no blood thirst at all. It wasn’t that he was suppressing or erasing his fighting spirit, he really had no intention of fighting in the least. … Moreover, her star spirit did not react even once. … Even though it would tell her when her subordinates showed just the slightest amount of discontent towards her. Her star spirit did not consider him an enemy at that time. And above all else, they watched an opera together, had a meal together, and for just an instant, she had let her guard down. The fact that she was conscious of this was likely the biggest problem. She couldn’t become completely heartless. And so she remembered her hesitation in throwing away the handkerchief that was given to her. "… But I do believe that Rin is also responsible." "Meaning?" "Because Rin said something like, ‘It’s common sense that pasta should be boiled ‘al dente,” that I ended up strangely hitting it off with Iska." "All I said was the truth. Pasta is at it’s best ‘al dente.’ I will not recognize any objections." "You dummy!" Throwing her pillow at the attendant who was standing far away, Alice wrapped herself under her blanket. Within Sector 3 of the Imperial Capital, on the first floor of Imperial Barrack 03. In his room, Iska was sprawled across the floor staring up at the ceiling light. "I can’t sleep." Even though his eyelids were heavy, even when he closed his eyes for several hours, his consciousness would not fade away. Was it nervousness? Or perhaps exaltation? … Both were wrong. … It was surely because he saw it. The figure of Alice who was feared by the entire empire as the Ice Witch of Calamity, was appreciating the exact same opera as someone from the Empire, had a meal with him, and rejoiced at everything she saw in the Neutral City. "Nothing but lies." What came out of his mouth, was a small mutter akin to a gentle breeze. "The Empire has nothing but rumours of the Ice Witch of Calamity being a cold-blooded monster. Yet she cried so much. As I thought, aren’t star mages just normal people?" That face that she showed him. Just how many people in the Empire who abhorred the star mages would be able to conclude that Alice was the Ice Witch of Calamity upon seeing her sob like that? That delicate and slender girl. He from the Empire, and Alice from the Nebulis Imperial Household Agency, not a single thing was different between them. They were just people… "… Aaaah geez, why can’t I fall asleep!?" "… Aaaah geez, why can’t I fall asleep!?" And at the same time, separated by a large distance within the Empire and the Nebulis Imperial Household Agency, the young man and woman were both complaining aloud.