“Sorry for the wait, Julis. Hope you didn’t have to wait long.”
“Not at all; I just arrived myself. I was hoping to praise you for getting here early, though… Hey, what’s with that face? That stupid look on your face is making you look even more stupid than normal, you know?”
It was a bright, sunny Sunday.
Arriving at the appointed location, the school’s outer gates, Ayato was stunned by Julis’ appearance.
She wore a stylish, dark-red miniskirt and thigh-high stockings. She held a parasol lightly in one hand. She looked drastically different from how she normally appeared, and radiated a youthful, feminine appeal.
Julis was a beautiful young girl, but her usual gallant words and actions detracted from that feeling. Now dressed in normal clothing, it was impossible not to notice her stunning good looks.
“…Is there something on my face?”
“U-Uh, sorry! Er, no…it’s just that you seem so different from normal.”
“Yeah, your look really suits you.”
“Wha–– I-idiot! Don’t say such embarrassing things!” Julis looked around frantically as her face flushed a deep scarlet.
“Th-This is just something sent from home. I just thought I should dress in something suitable for the occasion. I-It’s not like I chose this especially for you or anything…”
Although the flush of her face could be perceived as anger, this interpretation contradicted the complicated expression on her face and her coy manner. Pulling herself together, she returned her gaze to Ayato, and spoke in a tone filled with interest.
“I’m not quite sure how to say this, but…you really don’t have any clothes, do you?”
“Oh, that. Yeah, to be honest, I’ve never really been one to follow fashion. These clothes are pretty old.”
Ayato wore a T-shirt and a three-quarter sleeve jacket as well as a pair of well-worn jeans.
“I didn’t say they looked bad on you…wait a sec.”
Julis leaned in, extended a hand, and patted down his hair.
“Uwah! What’s wrong?”
“Your hair was sticking up. Honestly, you’re just like a child. Pay more attention to how you look, ok?”
As she spoke, Julis smiled innocently.
Ayato, on the other hand, felt his heart skip a beat.
“Alright, let’s go!”
Unaware of Ayato’s inner turmoil, Julis fairly skipped along in glee.
Asterisk’s urban district was separated into two parts, an outer residential district and a central district.
The outer district utilized a monorail line which connected Asterisk’s harbor, residential district, and each of the six schools.
In comparison, the central district’s main form of transportation was a subway system. This decision was made in order to ensure that students’ battles would not interfere with public transportation, even in the worst case.
The central district was further subdivided into the business district and the administrative district. In the center were located several amphitheaters.
Julis and Ayato were currently in the central district, and more specifically, the central stadium for the Festa.
“This is the self-proclaimed largest and most important arena in Asterisk. The greatest battles of the Festa are all fought here.”
Julis stood in front of the gigantic oval-shaped building as she explained.
It boasted a maximum seating capacity of one hundred thousand people. When the Festa is held, all contestants will gather here.
“Although its outward appearance is meant to mimic the Roman Colosseum, they are two very different structures. There are three other large amphitheaters, and seven mid-sized ones. When it comes to the small ones, who knows how many there are?”
“According to regulations, battles occurring in the city center must be held within one of these arenas. In practice, however, that’s not always the case.”
“…People actually fight in the middle of the city?”
“Isn’t that really dangerous?”
Take, for example, Julis’ wild attacks during their duel earlier. If it had taken place in the city instead, it’d have turned their surroundings to scorched earth.
“Those who live here have already prepared themselves for such occurrences. Spectators are the same. Only those who have given express written agreement to these conditions are allowed into the city. That said, if a store suffers any collateral damage, they’ll be compensated for their losses.”
“That sounds really harsh. Then again, all that aside, I guess it’s pretty hard not to be drawn in by this place.”
“To be able to set up a store here in Asterisk, founded and managed directly by the Integrated Enterprise Foundation, is an unparalleled form of advertising. Moreover, this central district is the heart of all activity during the Festa.”
“To be frank; I don’t think I’d like to live here.”
“I agree.” Julis smiled wryly.
“So what would you like to see next? Would you like to keep looking around here?”
“No, that’s plenty, thank you.”
“Alright then, why don’t we swing by the hospital as we make our way towards the administrative district. The healers in Asterisk are Strega and Dante with healing abilities; they’re also responsible for things during the Festa. To keep things fair, though, they don’t intervene unless things are really serious. If it’s only something on the level of a fracture, you’re stuck with normal medical practices.”
The number of Strega and Dante with healing abilities was very small.
In order to ensure that each of the six schools would have equivalent opportunities to receive treatment, there was an agreement that all Strega and Dante with these abilities would serve in this central hospital under the direct supervision of Asterisk itself.
With the exception of difficult-to-treat cases, threats to life, or injuries with potentially permanent effects, students were required to undergo treatment at the hands of these special healers.
“After that…why don’t we pass by the redevelopment district. The slums are located in that area, so it’s not the safest of locations. Getting lost there can be dangerous.”
The slums existed for several reasons, among which included those who had been denied admittance into the city and members of the Starpulse Generation who were currently fleeing the authorities; a true thieves den.
While it was true that it was hardly the safest of locations, it was equally true that such places were to be found anywhere large concourses of people gathered together.
“That reminds me. Saya once mentioned that she’d gone shopping only to find herself in a rather shady area. It was a large, rundown building with lots of sketchy shops within.”
“…That’s definitely the redevelopment area then. On that note, wouldn’t you normally just shop at a normal store? Why would you go there to buy something?”
“Saya is hopelessly bad with directions.”
At those words, Julis’ face twisted into a malicious expression.
“He~h, speaking of which, how is it that you’re always showing up in the strangest places? Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.”
That was certainly the case.
Truth be told, when Saya and Ayato played together when they were young, they would frequently get lost.
“Anyway, next up is…”
“Hey, Julis. I did ask you to show me around, but how about we do lunch first?”
As Ayato watched Julis ponder a map, he offered an alternative.
The timing was just about right.
His stomach seconded his proposal.
“Mm…well, I guess it is about that time…”
Julis seemed slightly uncomfortable, however.
“Oh, no…I don’t have any problems with lunch, it’s just that the restaurants around here are, well…”
“If the ones around here are a problem, why don’t we just head over to the business district and choose one there? Is it a problem with money?”
He’d heard that when it came to the restaurants in the area, they could be rather expensive. That said, given the nature of this place, he wasn’t exactly expecting to find a convenience store.
“No, it’s not that- What to say?…I’m sorry!”
Julis suddenly bowed her head and apologized.
“It’s not that I’ve never eaten around here before, but…if you’re going to ask where we should eat, then I don’t know where we should go.”
“I promised I’d show you around; such a failure is humiliating…b-but I’ll look one up online right now!”
Flustered, Julis frantically pulled out her phone and opened a window.
It seems she was browsing a review site.
As Ayato looked on though, his jaw just about hit the floor.
Every restaurant she was looking at was super high-class. When compared to the prices you’d find wandering around the district, the differences were like night and day.
Moreover, they all required prior reservation.
“…Um, yeah, to be honest, those are all a little…”
“I-I know that their prices aren’t normal! But these are the only places I know… If I have a choice at all in the matter, going somewhere I’ve never been before is a little scary…”
Looking closely, these were all world-famous restaurants.
Furthermore, they were all three Michelin star restaurants!
“Haha, alright, I get it. It’s fine; let’s just walk around, and we’ll choose whatever place looks good, ok?”
“I-is that really alright?”
“If you’re fine with it, then that’s all that matters.”
“My opinion’s not the important one here. A… are you really not mad?”
“Why would I be mad?”
Ayato was confused by Julis’ disheartened question.
“Because…this is clearly all my fault.”
She seemed quite serious.
Seriously, was there any need to worry about such trivial matters?
“I’ve wanted to ask this before, but don’t you ever tire of taking things so seriously, Julis?”
“…Even if you say that, this is just how I am,” Julis sulked.
“You’re burdened by so many things. It makes me worry whether you’ll be crushed under the weight of all that responsibility.”
“It’s definitely not easy, but that’s just my way of life. If you ask me, you’re the one we need to worry about. So casual, and unburdened by responsibility. Are you sure you wouldn’t like to take things more seriously as well? It’d do much to plant your feet on the ground.”
Though her words were casually spoken, they pierced Ayato to the core.
“Hah…Well, let’s just make our way over to the business district, OK?”
Ayato changed the topic.
Nor did Julis opt to continue that line of questioning. Instead, the two walked along the busy road toward their destination.
“Wow, that’s a lot of people.”
“Yeah, it’s a day off, after all.”
The clean, neatly-paved asphalt streets were littered with students. Although they were of course dressed in casual clothing, they all had their school badges pinned to their chests. Even if it was a day off, they still felt the obligation to do so.
The business district had specified times during which vehicles were denied entry, and so the streets were filled with pedestrians.
Shops filled both sides of the streets, and restaurants were to be found aplenty. From the signs and advertisements he could see, it seemed their prices were fairly normal.
“Alright then. Let’s choose one around here.”
Ayato turned to Julis…who had gone missing.
Gazing around, he saw a head of rose-colored hair standing a ways off.
“What’s up? You gave me a heart attack.”
Julis stood in a daze, only coming to when she heard Ayato’s voice from behind her.
“Are we eating here?”
I would think most princesses wouldn’t select a hamburger joint to eat at, right?
Julis was staring at a local branch of a large hamburger chain. Though it was, in a sense, as world-famous as the restaurants she’d been looking at earlier, in every other sense, they were worlds apart.
“It’s not like I care, but…is this place really alright?”
At first, he assumed it was due to the curiosity of a princess, encountering a hamburger place for the first time, but the smoothness with which she ordered a set meal revealed the incorrectness of that assumption.
Ayato ordered a burger, fries, and a medium coffee for himself. The two of them selected a seat by the window to eat together.
“I know this is my second time asking, but… Julis, you’re really a princess, right?”
“…Why do you ask?”
Her actions in making her selection and ordering had been undeniably practiced. In any case, the way in which she nibbled at the hamburger she held with both hands was certifiably adorable.
“I would think most princesses wouldn’t select a hamburger joint to eat at, right?”
“That’s just a stereotype. The evidence is right in front of you. It’s pretty common, really.”
“So that’s how it is…”
Ayato munched on his fries, and leaned against the back of his chair.
The same flavor as when he was young. Indeed, the same flavor the world over. It filled him with nostalgia.
“––A friend told me about this place.”
Breaking the silence, Julis spoke regretfully.
“I do have friends; it’s just that they’re all back home.”
Ayato suddenly recalled.
“Oh! That letter from before, that was from your friend, wasn’t it?”
Ayato’s words caused Julis to choke, and, pale-faced, she patted her chest frantically.
“*cough* *cough* ahem! H, how did you know?”
“You really are an honest person.”
Julis blushed fiercely.
One moment completely white, the next completely red; her complexion sure was busy.
“A-anyway. I found this place on that review site. What did you think?”
“What do I think? Someone sure has free time if they can upload a review of a place like this.”
“Why’s that? Wasn’t the food pretty good?”
Julis appeared thoroughly perplexed.
…She seemed less and less like a princess by the moment.
“Anyway, I was wondering. Would you mind if we changed the topic to something a little more serious?”
“Hmm, what’s that?”
Finishing her hamburger, Julis seemed quite relaxed and content as she returned Ayato’s gaze.
“It’s regarding the attack on you earlier.”
Ayato recounted in full what Claudia had shared with him earlier. Seeing as she hadn’t forbid him from disclosure, he didn’t think there was any harm in sharing what he knew with the person in question.
Not that he made any mention of his promise to protect Julis, given the cold reception she’d given previously.
“I see; somebody’s working for another school.”
Julis mildly sipped her soda, seemingly unsurprised.
“I must be their final target, seeing as how they were willing to expose themselves this time around.”
“Seeing how things stand, it’d be best if you kept someone by your side when you go out or duel somebody.”
“I refuse. Why should I change the way I live my life just because of some petty crook?”
“…To be sure.”
Such a reply was well within expectation.
“The only one allowed to decide where I go and what I do is me.”
“-As fearless as ever, I see.”
Suddenly, from behind Julis, a large shadow appeared.
“…Lester, huh? Eavesdropping is quite the nasty habit, don’t you know?” Julis responded.
Ayato looked up in surprise. To even meet in a place like this on their day off; it seems they were fated to run into one another.
“It’s not like I wanted to hear it. I just overheard as I was passing by.”
Unsurprisingly, trailing behind Lester were his two lackeys.
“I heard that you were recently ambushed by a mysterious attacker. My guess is someone holds a grudge against you.”
“I’ve never done anything to warrant that.”
Julis reply was calm, but Lester still looked stunned.
“It’s that very attitude that rubs people the wrong way.”
“Whatever. If that’s all it takes to set people off, then I will happily be their opponent.”
“Heh, what boundless confidence. Well then, seeing as that’s the case, then why don’t we fight right now?”
“How many times do I need to say this before it finally sticks? I haven’t the least desire to duel you again.”
“Screw that! Hurry up and agree to fight me!”
Lester struck the table with force.
As the loud crash permeated the room, it fell silent.
“L-Lester-san! Fighting without permission isn’t going to turn out well!”
“T-that’s right, Lester! If you make a disturbance here, you’ll draw out the Stjarnagarmr!”
Cyrus and Landy desperately tried to hold him back, but their cries fell on deaf ears.
“Intimidating others like this isn’t good, you know?”
“Shut your goddamn mouth.”
Lester never even glanced in Ayato’s direction.
“That’s not such a good idea. Don’t you know? Julis was attacked twice in the last couple days.”
“If you start something here, you’ll likely be seen as collaborating with the attacker.”
That sentence pushed Lester into a furor.
“Don’t screw with me! How dare you compare
with that cowardly pissant!?”
Lester held Ayato up by his collar as he roared.
“Fine. It really seems you’re the one who needs to be taught a lesson first.”
“I have no desire to duel you either.”
“I have no reason to.”
Casting Ayato aside, Lester clenched his fist and punched the table.
This time, the poor table split in two.
“First you try to compare me with that yellow-bellied weakling, and then you have the nerve to try and back out of this? Don’t you have any balls?”
“It’s as you say.”
Ayato answered, uncaring.
“Lester! C-calm down! We know how strong you are! You always destroy your opponents honorably, without tricks! There’s no need to listen to the words of this gutless wimp!”
Lester held his fist aloft, ready to come crashing down, as Landy held him back with all his strength.
“Th-that’s exactly right! Everyone knows! Everyone knows you aren’t the kind of person who’d ambush someone during a duel!”
Cyrus aided as best he could.
Lester seemed unable to restrain his rage for a moment, as he glared at Ayato with a look that could kill. Finally, however, he turned and exited the building with a swagger.
“You really can’t be underestimated.”
As Ayato wiped the cold sweat from his brow, Julis laughed delightedly.
“…It’s nothing, forget about it.”
Julis gave a wry smile and stood. She picked up a napkin and wiped Ayato’s mouth.
“You missed some ketchup. Really, what a strange person.”
By the time they started to head back, it was already dusk.
“Thanks for today Julis. I had fun.”
“O-oh, is that so… Er, um, how should I put this? I was just returning a favor. There’s no need to thank me.”
As the sun set, the two of them slowly walked over to the subway station.
Approaching their destination, they noticed a commotion in that vicinity.
“Hmm? Something going on?”
Nearby, a group of students were fighting. From their direction came the sound of much swearing and insults. There looked to be more than ten people involved.
There was a crowd of onlookers watching the situation, but the vast majority of people simply walked on as if the matter was none of their concern.
“Le Wolfe students. I should have known; they’re always doing moronic stuff like this.”
Le Wolfe Black Institute, allegedly the most warlike of the six schools. Their school customs prioritized victory over all else, their official policies likewise.
For this reason, many of Le Wolfe’s students were rather boorish individuals. Of those who grew up in the worst parts of the slums, the majority ended up at Le Wolfe.
“It looks like a gang dispute…Oh, wow, they’ve started to go at it.”
The leader of one group rushed at the others; both sides held weapons aloft.
The individual members of the two groups split off and began individual battles.
“…This is bad. We’re surrounded.”
As Ayato was about to answer, he was suddenly charged from behind by a dagger Lux-wielding thug.
“That was close.”
Sidestepping dexterously, Ayato dodged the attack. It was abundantly clear that his target had indeed been Ayato.
Furthermore, at some point, the gang fight had ceased to be.
Instead, Ayato and Julis now found themselves surrounded by those very same Le Wolfe students.
“Those Le Wolfe blockheads often use this style of sneak attack to ambush others. For example, the way they were using that ‘fight’ as an opportunity to surround their true target, using the excuse that they were ‘pulled into the commotion’. This is my first time experiencing it firsthand, though.”
Julis spoke while calmly dodging her attackers.
It seemed their ‘fight’ was just for show.
The members of what had originally been two groups had now consolidated into a single large group. From within their ranks, piercing glares targeting Julis and Ayato could be felt.
“…How is it that trouble always finds us?”
“Because these bastards are always doing things like this, so even on the off-chance that they’re caught by the Stjarnagarmr, they’ll be able to explain things away.”
They would, of course, still be punished, but that punishment would be rather light.
“Does this mean that the people who attacked Julis were from Le Wolfe?”
“Hmph. No, they’re just thugs-for-hire. As long as you have money, they’ll do anything. That of course includes all of this.”
As a Lux arrow flew past her, Julis bared a fearless smile.
“It looks like they’re all just trash.”
“So? What should we do about this?”
Though he already knew what her answer would be, he felt it best to ask nonetheless.
“Isn’t that obvious? This is self-defense. Let’s give them what they want.”
“Please try not to go overboard.”
It looked like this fight was for the purpose of forcing Julis to expose openings.
That guy was definitely hidden here, waiting for his opportunity.
“Don’t worry. For guys of this level, there’s no need to let my guard down just to take care of them.”
Julis’ surroundings burst into flame.
“…At least aim for medium-rare, and not well-done, pretty please?”
He hoped their attackers got the message.
Honestly speaking, these Le Wolfe students weren’t anything special.
The moment they saw flames appear, they retreated into the subway station in disorder.
As they retreated, they heard cries of “That’s the Gruene Rose!” and “I-I never heard anything about this!”. It seems they hadn’t been informed of their target’s identity.
“Hmph. That wasn’t even enough for a warm-up.”
Julis brushed her hair to the side, utterly ignoring the pile of bodies that littered the floor, and turned her gaze to Ayato.
“-And what the heck was that?”
“W-what do you mean?”
“That utterly repugnant performance during the fight! You couldn’t even deal with opponents of that level?!”
Julis’ wrath was deserved.
Unlike Julis who had easily dealt with her attackers, it was all Ayato could do to avoid injury.
Though individually they were weak, their numbers had been enough to keep him tied up.
“Even if you say that, that’s the limit of my ability.”
Julis was stunned speechless for a moment, before finally sighing.
“I guess I’d raised my hopes too high.”
The disappointment in her voice was evident.
Ayato forced a smile.
“Forget it. Let’s interrogate these guys while we have the chance.”
Julis looked over the fallen students before lifting a student with a pompadour to his feet. This was the one who’d been the leader of the group.
“Hey, just how long are you planning to sleep? You’d better get up unless you want to see what fire does to your hair.”
Her threat worked. The student opened his eyes.
“Make this simple. Who hired you?”
“I-I don’t know! I just received the commission; I don’t know anything else. I don’t even know why!”
“The guy who hired you; what did he look like?”
“He was dressed all in black, very large, very tall. I didn’t see a weapon, though!”
“And his voice?”
“V-voice? I-I don’t remember.”
“What did he say?”
“He didn’t speak a word. He’d written his request on a piece of paper which he handed to me along with the money.”
“On a piece of paper…? What did it say?”
“It said this was the initial payment. The rest of the payment would hang on the outcome.”
As Julis pondered his words, the student suddenly shouted.
“T-that’s him! That’s the guy!”
As Ayato and Julis turned to look, the shadow raced away.
Though they’d only caught the briefest glimpse, it was undoubtedly their black-clothed attacker.
Julis started to chase after him.
“Julis, let’s corner him!”
Julis glanced backward in response, but never stopped moving her feet.
She seemed to have lost her head. Normally, Julis wouldn’t engage in such actions which skirted the boundaries between bravery and stupidity.
In other words, she’d finally showed the opening her attacker had thus long been waiting for.
As she entered a narrow alley, she realized too late her attacker was lying in wait, his axe at the ready.
Though Julis dodged his attack, further in still was yet another attacker, waiting in ambush.
He held in his hands an assault rifle Lux.
Facing that torrent of Lux small arms fire, Julis tucked into a roll that carried her past.
Julis and Ayato caught the black-clothed attacker between them––
His peripheral vision caught sight of another shadow, hidden atop a nearby roof.
(There’s three of them…!)
Moreover, his target wasn’t Julis.
––It was Ayato.
The arrow of light flew toward Ayato.
A perfectly-timed sneak attack.
Ayato, caught in mid-air, was unable to dodge, and could only use his Lux’s activation body as a shield to ward off the strike.
The arrow glanced off his Lux, skimmed off his clothes, and missed. It had been a narrow miss, and his Lux was now useless.
It seemed this group of attackers was consciously seeking every opening. Their personalities were rather contemptible indeed.
“Hey, you alright?!”
“More or less, although my clothes are down for the count.”
As Julis rushed over, a tense expression on her face, Ayato gave a bitter laugh as he looked around. The attackers were nowhere to be seen.
Honestly, their speed at beating a retreat was unparalleled.
Moreover, they weren’t alone. The Le Wolfe students had similarly vanished.
“…The Stjarnagarmr should be here soon. We should go.”
“We were just defending ourselves, so we need not worry on that point. That said, explaining is just too much of a hassle. Anyway, our hard-fought clues seem to have vanished without a trace, we can’t just waste time here.”
As Julis spoke, her eyes burned with fury.
“They dared to do this much, and yet we couldn’t do a thing. There’s no way I’m just going to forget this.”
“…Madam Target, would you be so kind as to not do anything stupid?”
That seemed to signify her assent.
Hmm. I’d better report back to Claudia.
“By the way, do you still have some time?”
“Hmm? Yeah, I do.”
Nightfall was coming soon. Julis gave Ayato a quick look of appraisal.
“Alright then, please follow me to my room for a bit.”
There was no way he could just openly walk into the girls dorm.
“Pardon me…*sigh* I hate that I’m so used to this by now.”
Ayato again jumped up to Julis’ window and entered.
Not only was this not his first offense, it was clearly his third.
Was it really possible that the legendary security guards of the girls dorms were yet unaware?
“Ah, you’re here. Please wait just a moment.”
Julis, who’d returned to her room first, was busy scrounging for something. Ayato knelt in the window-frame, looking in. It was, as expected, rather spacious.
This room was like Claudia’s, a Page One special.
The decor of the rooms, however, was decidedly different.
The first thing you noticed upon visiting Julis’ room was the greenery.
The inside was filled with flower pots, almost like an arboretum. Their placement was carefully designed so as not to hinder movement. Several of the flowers were in full bloom, and the sight of them calmed one’s mood.
“…Able to just calmly look around like this, things sure are different from last time.”
What floated to the top of his mind then was the memory of that pale flesh, that underwear-clad visage-
“Alright! I found it!”
“Uwah! I-I’m sorry!”
“…Why are you apologizing?” Julis asked, puzzled.
“Uhhhh…Nothing! More importantly, what did you call me here for?”
It wasn’t like he was trying to hide anything; this was an honest question.
Although it wasn’t yet curfew, the sun had already set. Just like during the time with Claudia, finding himself in a young girl’s room at night was bad for his mental health.
“Great, let’s get started. Please take your shirt off.”
Ayato unconsciously pulled back a step, nearly falling out the window in the process.
“What’s the problem? Hurry up…”
Julis suddenly stopped mid-sentence as she realized just how she’d phrased things, before blushing furiously.
“Y-you idiot! G-g-get your mind out of the gutter! I was trying to say I’d help you fix your shirt!”
“Fix my shirt…?”
Ayato finally realized.
The attack from the incident earlier had ruined his clothes.
“Fix my shirt, huh. You know how to sew, Julis?”
“It’s not like I’m an expert or anything, but I can at least do that much,” Julis answered, frowning.
“It happened because of me. I don’t want to owe you anything else.”
“Well, if you put it that way. Alright then.”
Ayato obediently stripped off his T-shirt.
Julis pulled out a needle, and in a rather haphazard manner, started to sew.
Her technique was undeniably poor, but she’d clearly had some prior experience.
“Let me guess. Your friend taught you that?”
Julis never looked up; she simply nodded in the affirmative as she continued to work.
“I can tell.”
Ayato watched for a moment longer, and deciding that Julis had things under control, started to look around.
A room entirely different from Claudia’s, though just as large. It had been cleaned with great care.
Near her bed was placed an ornate desk. In the corner of the desktop sat a vase, filled with roses. By its side was something rarely seen in their time – photographs.
Leaning in for a closer look, Ayato saw what looked to be sisters, girls aged several years apart. From their appearance, it seemed they had lived quite well.
There was, however, one figure who stood out from the rest. She was attired in clothes as plain as the rest, but her bearing was evident even from that still photograph.
Adorning her face was a genuine, brilliant smile, just like the others; her hair, a beautiful rose.
“So Julis, the friends you mentioned… I’m guessing these are them?”
“Hmm…? H-hey you! Don’t just look at other people’s things without asking!”
Julis stormed over, snatching the photo from out of Ayato’s hands.
“The one in the center; it’s you, isn’t it?”
Julis glared daggers at Ayato before finally sighing and returning the photo to its place atop the desk.
“––That’s right. Those are my friends.”
Having answered, Julis returned to her seat and resumed her needlework.
“Despite how I look now, I was quite the tomboy when I was young.”
“How you look now…”
When she was young…? Rather, it should still be the case…
“You have something to add?”
“…Never mind. Don’t let me interrupt you.”
“…When I was young, I’d often run away from the palace. The reason, more or less, was that I was just bored. Even if I’m of royal blood, we’re just a branch family anyway. When they restored the monarchic system, it seems they found that all direct descendants had since passed on, and thus it fell upon us.”
Julis’ hands never stopped their work as she continued her story.
“One day, however, I ran somewhere particularly far and got lost. As I wandered the roads, I found myself in the slums. Although Lieseltania isn’t a dangerous place, but for a well-off young girl to find herself in such a place…well, you can imagine.”
“How were your powers back then?”
“Ha. About the level of a cigarette lighter, if that. Absolutely useless. Well, actually, given that I hadn’t any combat experience back then, even if my abilities were as they are now, they’d still have been of no value. Anyway, long story short, some rather unsavory types found me, and chased me into alley. All I could do was cry in helplessness. In that circumstance, when all seemed lost, those girls saved me. Can you imagine how I felt at that moment? To me, they were both savior and hero.”
Julis voice was filled with emotion.
They weren’t just her feelings back then, but had remained so even until now.
“It wasn’t until we’d returned to the palace that I learned they were from an orphanage in the slums. Every time I’d leave the palace, I’d head straight there. At first, they were, of course, distant; however, I persisted and we became fast friends.”
As she continued to speak, Julis’ voice took on an increasingly nostalgic tone.
“Did they know you were a princess?”
“No, I didn’t tell them. The Sister knew, though.”
“And your family?”
“Of course people talked, but by that time, my parents had already passed, and so I didn’t care what they said.”
“Hmm? Oh, you didn’t know? The current king of Lieseltania is my elder brother, the previous being my father. Admittedly, my memories of them are rather fuzzy by this point.”
“So that’s how it is…”
Ayato had lost his mother as well, and thus he well understood how hard it was to know what to say in such a situation.
“Investigating afterwards, I was shocked to find that that orphanage had been founded via a fund that my mother had left behind. I felt it was surely the workings of fate.”
Julis’ hands suddenly ceased their movement.
“The money she left for the orphanage has long since been exhausted. Every year, new orphans arrive, and so each new year is harder than the last. And so I came here. This time, it’s my turn to help them, my turn to protect them. What they need most, after all, is money.”
“Let me make something clear. No one asked me to do this. I’m doing this of my own free will, for my own sake. The dream I’m fulfilling is my own.”
Julis spoke with great feeling, her determination staunch and resolute.
No wonder no one had asked it of her; she was that kind of girl.
The question Ayato wanted answered the most was not that, however.
“That wasn’t quite what I was asking. Is there really no other way?”
“I mean, there’s no other way for you to obtain the money you need? Aren’t you a princess?”
Julis shrugged, and answered.
“The money belonging to the country isn’t for me to spend. Our living expenses are dispensed from a fund with a predetermined use. Our country has long been but a mere puppet of the Integrated Enterprise Foundation; there’s not a chance in hell they’d approve the ‘wasteful’ expenditure of money that would net them nothing in return. That was why the fund my mother left behind was cut in the first place. Our people are decidedly indifferent on the matter.”
The Integrated Enterprise Foundation had but one focus, economic activity.
To this end, they’d even gone so far as to warp humanity’s sense of morality and ethics.
They’d spared no expense in slowly but surely altering public opinion, and slowly but surely brainwashing the world.
––That was the founding principle of this city itself.
“They lavish money on my person, but I personally have no money to use as I will. I have to earn it myself. Fortunately, I was born a Strega. Furthermore, my title as a princess helped me find admittance at this school. This ornament of a title definitely has its uses.”
Julis mocked herself with a scornful, bitter laugh.
“The existence of this city is repulsive. Students fight, and the world watches. Desire lurks at every corner, and it has grown fat by devouring the dreams of others. And yet it is for that very reason that this is the place where all wishes stand within reach. Here I will make my stand, and here I will realize my dream – that is why I fight.”
As she finished speaking, Julis laid out the shirt in front of her.
It was a little ––no, very poorly–– done, but it met the minimal standards for repair.
“Good. Now bring this along home with you.”
“…Mm. Thank you, Julis.”
“This way, we’re even.”
This wasn’t somewhere it was safe to linger any longer anyway.
At that moment, Ayato noticed another object, folded away in the corner of the desktop. A handkerchief.
That handkerchief had brought the two together. Ayato now understood just where that handkerchief had come from.
Julis followed his gaze, and smiled as she gently took the handkerchief into her hands.
“This is something my friends at the orphanage gave me on my birthday. It’s a joint work by everyone there. This ugly part was done by my best friend.”
The other party was, without a doubt, a most important person to Julis.
Smiling bashfully, “this is my treasure,” she said, returning it to its place.
That sad smile filled Ayato’s heart with pain.
An important existence, one that must be protected–– a life calling.
“I’ll see you tomorrow then.”
Putting on his shirt, Ayato waved farewell, and jumped through the window.
(…A reason for fighting, was it?)
Ayato muttered to himself deep within his heart.