Panting, her small body bounced like a bouncing ball. The target was small, and her coiled body flew through the air like a ball drawing a large parabola, heading straight toward them with the intent to kill. Like an arrow shot from a bow, she went for their vital spots without hesitation…
“...Unfortunately for you, however, I can see right through it.”
The spinning ball’s attack was meant to be a surprise attack at the enemy’s rear. But what was meant to be a strike against the back of the blue-haired boy’s head disappeared like a puff of smoke, as he had cleanly nullified it. Realizing that she had failed, she immediately twisted her body in midair. She looked around, searching for her target that had disappeared before she touched the ground…but even her fastest was too slow.
“Oh? Don’t you know? It’s what you say in Shatranj to declare victory over your opponent,” said the boy provokingly with a frivolous air about him, rolling his droopy eyes as he spoke.
He was around eleven or twelve and was dressed in clothing known as a kimono, which was made by sewing cloth into an unusual shape. His face showed no tension or seriousness—in fact, she had never once seen him tighten his expression, not even slightly.
And so, even during a practice match with their lives on the line, the boy didn’t even bat an eyelid while pointing the blade at her throat.
“That’s enough,” someone said. “Keep going, and gone shall her head be.”
…I’m no match. Anger bubbled up at the realization, but before it could be unleashed, a voice came from her side. It belonged to a tall, thin man dressed in white from head to toe. A man with a penetrating gaze, at odds with the casual tone of his voice—he couldn’t keep up with their battle but could still follow each and every one of their moves with his eyes.
Listening to the man, who was probably weaker than him, the boy frankly said, “Alright,” and drew back his weapon—a katana—renouncing his right to decide her fate. No, he didn’t renounce it at all.
“That’s right, lil’ doggie. If I wanted to, I could kill you anytime, but that applies to everyone, really. I’m more of a simple, straightforward actor, you see.”
“...I have no idea what you’re trying to say.”
“In other words, a lead actor loved by everybody mustn’t be an impossible-to-understand monster. Being loved requires amiability and generosity.”
She frowned, and the boy who had unsheathed his sword looked down at her and placed a finger on his cheek. How that gesture related to amiability and magnanimity was unclear. But amiability was a word she had heard many times before.
From her precious, precious princess, whom she couldn’t be beside…
“Cecilus, that’s enough. It’s not very gentlemanly to harass a lady.”
“Eh! I’m not harassing her. She didn’t look like she understood, so I explained it to her! See how gracious I am?”
“Unfortunately, I have never seen your graciousness. And I worry for your future since it might never come to pass.”
“Your words might be distinctive and original, Chisha, but they’re hard to understand!”
The boy and the man, Cecilus and Chisha, continued with their argument. It was a peculiar argument, where you couldn’t tell whether they were friends or not.
In any case, Arakiya wasn’t in a position to point that out nor join them. Paying little heed to their conversation, she slowly moved to leave the area…
“Woah, careful. Do you not have any strength left, lil’ doggie?” Seeing her body lose its strength and almost collapse, Cecilus moved quickly to support her. That action, as well as his words, brought forth further humiliation for her, and she felt her lips trembling. Upon seeing that, he tilted his head without any trace of malice on his face. “I’m helping you, and this is how you repay me? Pretty cruel, don’t you think, Anya?”
“...Arakiya!” she reflexively responded, quickly regretting it. But it was too late; it was clear from the smirk on her opponent’s face that she had fallen into his trap.
“Go to hell.” The girl… Arakiya… swung the twig in her hand in an attempt to knock the smirk off Cecilus’s face. But her attack was also easily deflected by his lightning-fast sword draw.
Rolling around on the grass of the parade grounds, Arakiya listened to the pulsing of the earth. As she became one with nature, she could feel her body being part of the massive power of the world. When she did this, spirits, a mystical existence, stopped thinking of her as an enemy and accepted her as a part of nature. And they would allow her to catch them with her slim fingers and swallow them with her small mouth.
“Agu.” The lesser spirit that gently crossed paths with Arakiya was silently swallowed by her, and its earth power became hers. Lesser spirits might not be very sentient, but eating them was still consuming life. She let the power of the lesser spirit permeate throughout her body. And as she was healing her injuries…
“Man, that Spirit Eating is really something, Feels weird no matter how many times I see it.”
As the sound of the Japanese sandals and the clapping became louder, Arakiya, still lying down, turned her head and made a sour face. It was someone she didn’t want to see. At the very least, it was the face she hated most in the Empire.
“Cecilus, I hate you.”
“You are so upfront about it! But the reason you don’t like me is because you couldn’t beat me, right? How is that my fault?”
“Huh!? Even more hate?!”
He was like a demon—a being that didn’t understand the human mind.
Even amongst Arakiya’s tribe, there were tales of Demons. According to them, they were beings that smiled and pretended to be your friend as they trampled over your feelings.
In that case, Cecilus, the being in front of her, was definitely one of them.
“That’s a terrible thing to be called. Though as an intimidating title it’s not bad, it’s not good enough for a lead actor that’s loved by everyone. On the other hand, "Blue Lightning" is a very cool name, don't you think?”
“The flash of lightning. The emperor’s soldiers spread that after seeing my prowess in battle. Wait, could that have been a reward from the Emperor?!” Cecilus’s eyes sparkled as he babbled about something that could be either true or false.
Arakiya had no patience to listen to someone she despised. She had none, but she still felt a pang in her heart when he mentioned the emperor.
She had no interest in Cecilus’s loyalty or the feelings he had for his master. But hearing him talk about them so casually brought forth strong feelings of envy.
“Oh, such a gloomy face. Stay like that and the reaper will catch you.”
“I…don’t understand. That has…nothing to do with my face.”
“Of course it does. Sad faces bring unlucky circumstances. You and I, Anya, are just foot soldiers, so unlucky means a cruel death for us.”
“I’m not…not afraid of…”
“Really? Even if you aren’t able to reach your goal because of that?” Cecilus’s eyes narrowed as he struck Arakiya where it hurt her most.
She wasn’t afraid of dying. It was considered a great honor to die on the battlefield for those who were born warriors. However, if you asked her to accept the fate of dying without achieving her goal, without fulfilling her wish, then…
“That would be impossible. There we go.” Saying that, Cecilus casually sat down next to Arakiya.
Such a thing would be considered improper, but Arakiya couldn’t say anything since she was prostrating on the ground as well. And so the two of them stayed side-by-side in an empty parade ground without even looking at each other.
It was uncomfortable. Arakiya didn’t even know why Cecilus was there in the first place.
To begin with, Arakiya wasn’t good at inferring things. The only reason it never caused a problem before was because the smart princess by her side understood her unspoken thoughts and feelings.
Even if Arakiya couldn’t understand the words, she could believe in her princess.
And in this empire without her, there was no such trust or bond to be found.
Perhaps that’s why I always feel irritated and lonely all the time.
“By the way, Arakiya, are spirits tasty? You keep eating them.”
…No. I’m starting to think that the reason why I’m irritated is because of this idiot boy.
He had casually asked that question as if he had completely forgotten their previous conversation. If he doesn’t have anything else to do, then I really wish he wouldn’t bother me.
“Ah! You’re trying to get rid of me by remaining quiet, aren’t you? Unfortunately for you, I won’t allow that. I used to believe nobody could keep up with my talking speed, but the Emperor told me that wasn’t the case. Everyone was ignoring me!”
“Now that I understand that, my attitude has completely changed. Now, if I want an answer, I’ll keep talking until I get one. I mean, they might shrug me off, saying they'll tell me next time, and then in the blink of an eye their heads could be rolling down the floor.”
It was a twisted conversation, but Cecilus did have a point. Human life was a fleeting and fragile thing, and it would be no surprise if it were lost in the blink of an eye. Both Arakiya and Cecilus had the power to do that, after all.
“So, if they don’t talk, you kill them?”
“That sounds threatening. But if I kill them, then I can’t get my answer, so that would be the same as cutting them down in anger. I won’t do it, sounds too petty.”
“I see… Then I won’t answer.”
Even after Arakiya had left the princess’s command and joined the Emperor, she kept getting beaten up by him whenever they met, and she hadn’t been able to beat him even once. Even if it was for something so trivial, she wanted to feel at least some superiority.
“Eh! Don’t be so heartless! Ah, let’s do it this way then. I’ll fight and beat you one hundred—no, one thousand times, Anya. Then can you tell me?”
“...Are you…picking a fight?”
“What? A fight? No! Just practice. I don’t like picking on weak people, it’s not my thing… Wait, huh!?”
Cecilus was smiling unconcernedly when a kick infused with the power of the earth came flying towards his head. But Cecilus quickly ducked under the kick and jumped away in an instant.
“You run away like lightning…”
“Ah! Wait a sec, I can’t overlook that! You call this running away?! Running might be necessary for victory sometimes, but this isn’t it!”
Arakiya crouched on all fours and glared, and Cecilus stood at a distance with his hand on his katana. The energy between them formed a maelstrom and raised the soil of the parade ground up into the air.
Despite both of them looking like children, there was nothing childish about the fighting energy the two were releasing. Without betraying that impression, there was nothing cute to be found in their clash.
Using the power of the spirit she had consumed, Arakiya stepped forward, her foot looking as if it had sunk into the ground. To easily counter that, Cecilus drew his blade as he flashed his white teeth.
Both of them had been forged on the battlefield; both of them could only live on the battlefield. Their weapons clashed like their very souls were screaming out, and the two warriors howled voicelessly.
As her best strike got deflected, Arakiya ground her teeth as she stared at the lightning.
“Really? Even if you aren’t able to reach your goal because of that?”
He was a truly vexing boy. Flighty and irresponsible, he believed that the world was for him to take, control, and play with. And yet, despite all that, he was able to see right through her.
To not achieve her goal. That was the most terrifying thing to Arakiya.
The most important thing to Arakiya—what she would give her life for—was just a single person. And for this reason, she betrayed her. She betrayed her trust, and was unable to stay by her side because of that. But she willingly gave it up, so that her princess could live.
“A-Aaah!!” Screaming, the lone warrior Arakiya twisted her thin body and threw all her anger against the master swordsman and his deadly blade, in hopes she wouldn’t perish as a lone warrior.
She’d made her promise. That one day, one day, once she fulfilled her value…
She would be reunited with the one she had been separated from.
From a distance, an old man with long white eyebrows cleared his throat as he watched the scene in the parade grounds. Though his laughter sounded like the breathing of a sick man on his deathbed, he was far from it, and in that small spindly body lay plenty of vitality. Chisha closed one eye at the sight of the elderly man, over ninety years old, but still in high spirits. I wonder how this man sees the two at the parade ground.
“Oh-ho, what monsters! You seeing what I’m seeing, Chis?”
“It’s Chisha, Olbart. Indeed, I can see them with my own two eyes. Either of them could become Ten or One or Two. Truly an embodiment of the Empire’s ideals.”
“Ku-ka-ka-ka! Truly, truly. Monsters keep appearing amongst the youngin’s. It makes me laugh now that I am Three at last. I can’t see myself going up any further.”
Standing next to the guffawing old man, Olbart Dunkelkenn, who he had heard voice his own assumption, Chisha watched Cecilus and Arakiya’s practice battle, which looked more like a battle to the death.
Cecilus didn’t know restraint. But as long as Arakiya didn’t die, the promise she had made with Chisha’s master might be fulfilled. However…
“I was relieved that the Imperial Selection Ceremony was finally over, but now there are signs of uprising in various parts of the Empire. There’s no time to rest and I want to lament that this was not what I was promised.”
“Well, this is the Vollachia Empire. You’re too naive, Chis.”
Chisha’s eyes clouded over at the numerous issues before him, in complete contrast to the old man, who was laughing and slapping his back. His life motto was to complete only the work given to him and live a quiet life. So why is that plan falling apart before my very eyes like this? he thought. “To be captivated by someone is such a troublesome thing.”
The girl howled desperately at Cecilus while being danced around. And with a strange feeling of sympathy towards her tumultuous life, Chisha turned his white face towards the sky and sighed a deep, deep sigh.