—Before the doors of the Imperial Palace of the Aster Kingdom, Camelia. Here, surrounded by soldiers standing in formation, musicians, and higher-ranked knights, Reiji, Mizuki, and Titania rode a dazzling chariot.
Outside the palace gates, the residents of the royal capital of Mehter had gathered to send them off.
As part of their first step toward the eventual goal of defeating the Maou, the King had organized this public parade for Reiji and the others. Suimei, feeling slightly regretful, said, “Finally, this day has come.”
And indeed, as Suimei had said, the day of their journey had finally come. As the parade drew to a close, the Maou suppression force – Reiji and the others, accompanied by a vast number of knights – would thus finally begin their journey. A feeling of sadness at their parting was inevitable.
Reiji, on the other hand, wore a look of clear excitement on his face. Whether this was because he looked forward to the road ahead, or had simply chosen to wear such an expression to hide the anxiety he felt was unclear. Just as Suimei had settled his feelings and prepared to speak, Reiji, optimism still shining bright, spoke up first.
“Well, we’re taking off.”
“You sure say that lightly.”
Suimei’s sincere sorrow was replaced with irritation. Responding, Reiji’s expression sobered greatly.
“It’s not like that. I’ve put a lot of thought into this, you know? My answer at that time was definitely the right one.”
“No, it was definitely wrong. No matter how I look at it, I can only say that it’s wrong.”
Staring off into the distance, the feelings gripping his heart wouldn’t let go. Titania, same as always, her hands clutched before her chest, stepped in.
She was the princess of the Aster Kingdom. Her feelings towards Suimei’s words were, of course, quite complicated. On the one hand, her certainty of the necessity of the Maou suppression force had never wavered, though she, like her father, felt a terrible sense of guilt that would not be extinguished.
As if to dispel the worry in her eyes, Reiji patted her lightly on the shoulder and, approaching Suimei, spoke, his words full of resolve.
“No, that’s not how it is, Suimei. Setting aside whether or not I go, the Maou’s forces will never stop their attacks on human lands. Seeing as we have no way to go home, then it’s not like there’s anywhere for us to run either. In other words, the day will inevitably come when we will have to fight the Maou. Although nothing’s for certain, but when it comes to confronting the enemy, the sooner, the better. That is, of course, providing that this is all with the goal of taking down the Maou.”
Speaking at length, Reiji bared his feelings on the matter. Sure enough, he had put a great deal of thought into something as ridiculous as wanting to participate in the war. As he’d considered things, the realization that war with the Maou would be inevitable at some point. He’d come to the understanding that their actions now were their best chance of a counteroffensive.
Being that as it may, Suimei was unrelenting, and continued to press the point.
“Reiji, do you really think that just by not backing down, there will eventually be a day when you can overthrow the Maou?”
“I don’t have the ability to make that sort of judgment. To be honest, I think that if worst comes to worst, there’s about an 80% chance that we’ll die.”
These were not words blinded by optimism, but rather words grounded in reality.
“Seriously, you’re always like this, never losing hope until all is lost.”
“Is that not okay?”
“I can’t say I hate that part of you, but just this once, I really don’t think you’re making the right choice. The Maou’s army is nothing like those thugs and hooligans from back home, you know?”
Suimei was referring to their life from before. Reiji, and his strong sense of justice that came from God knows where, would frequently find himself engaged in brawls with thugs.
Thankfully, due to his skills and natural disposition, he’d never really had a problem before. The difficulty was that the Maou and the ruffians from back home were opponents of a completely different level. The likelihood that things would be resolved as smoothly as they always had before was incredibly low.
That notwithstanding, Reiji, his voice filled with confidence, spoke again.
“Even so, I still think this is the better way.”
“…I’m seriously talking to myself here, aren’t I?”
Looking at the maddened expression on his friend’s face, Reiji laughed happily. An open conversation between two friends who knew each other so well was definitely something to be enjoyed, a happy thing.
His friend having honestly bared his full thoughts on the matter, Suimei responded in kind.
“…I understand. It’s not that you’re rushing to your death, but that you’re fighting to protect your life here. Forgive me, I said too much. That said, please don’t force yourself.”
A moment’s thought made it all clear. Although, at first glance, his actions might have appeared inspired more by brawn than by brains, but in retrospect, that was not the case at all. No, this was born of a desire to protect their lives here, as well as more than a hint of the stubbornness that could always be found in his actions. That said, Suimei couldn’t help but acknowledge the truth in his words.
At his friend’s serious reply, Reiji, a somewhat serious look on his face, replied.
“Don’t worry about it. Just after this, we’ll head straight for the Maou—”
“Are you kidding me…”
“Hahahaha. Yes, yes, I am. No, first things first. I need to become stronger.”
Seeing his friend left speechless by his abrupt insertion of a joke amid their serious back-and-forth, Reiji broke into laughter. Seriously, making that kind of joke during a serious discussion? Just what was this guy thinking?
No, he understood. Reiji’s heart was likely filled with unease. Filled with anxiety, he’d tried to lighten the mood, and so he’d made a harmless joke to try and dispel the negative emotions gripping him.
Indeed, he couldn’t blame him for his hastiness. He couldn’t be mad about it. It was, after all, born of the need to relieve the pressure being exerted by all parties on the one who bore the title of Hero.
Thus, Suimei leaned in, and whispering into Reiji’s ear with a sober tone, he said, “…The moment you feel that things are looking bad, I want you to run, and take Mizuki with you. Find somewhere to go, and hide. Even if you are the Hero, this is real life, not fiction. There’s no guarantee that you’ll actually be able to beat the Maou.”
“…I understand, but I fully intend to fight to my very limits.”
“You really are a stubborn bastard, aren’t you?”
At Reiji’s utter unwillingness to compromise, Suimei was again left speechless. Reiji spoke once more, but this time, to ask a question.
“So what are your plans after this, Suimei?”
“Me? Well, pretty much this. I’m going to head out.”
This was his first time hearing this. Definitely the first time. Not once had Suimei ever explained his plans to Reiji and the others.
Mizuki, speaking for the three others, questioned him next, her voice tinged with both surprise and concern.
“Suimei-kun, what do you plan to do by leaving the palace?”
“Eh, nothing special. I just want to experience life outside for a bit,” he replied indifferently, hiding his true intentions.
At these words, Reiji’s face wrinkled in worry.
“Look for work. You know, things like that.”
“Suimei-sama, if you stay in the palace, then my father will provide for your needs. There’s no need to force yourself to live outside,” Titania interrupted.
“Oh, I’m sure, but still, I’m leaving.”
“May I ask why? Although the capital is safe enough, but as a person from another world, you lack both knowledge of this world or the protection bestowed upon the hero. Outside of the palace, there’s no guarantee of your safety. I don’t see the benefits of leaving?”
It was just as she said. Given that they knew nothing of his true abilities or his actual goal, her words were quite logical.
“No… Well, it’s probably a bit rude of me to say this, but… Living in the palace makes me feel pretty awful.”
Titania showed a sorrowful look. She seemed to understand; she’d probably heard all the bad things that had been said about him, and thus sank into silence.
Immediately following, Reiji spoke, not bothering to hide his displeasure.
“Why don’t I try and talk to them for you?”
And what was that supposed to mean? He couldn’t possibly plan on talking with the palace people one by one, hoping to change their opinions about Suimei, could he? That was completely insane.
“It’s okay, I’m fine like this. At this point, what purpose would that serve? It’d only make things worse.”
“…Even if you say that…”
“It’s fine. Anyway, I need to think over my plans for the rest of the day.”
At this point, Mizuki suddenly cut in.
“What do you mean ‘plans for the rest of the day’? What about money?”
“I plan to sell the stuff I brought with me that are useless here, like textbooks and the like.”
“Can you even sell those things? Everything’s in Japanese.”
He’d long since prepared an answer to her surprised question. He, of course, was confident in his ability to sell his things.
He turned to Titania, looking to confirm something.
“I should be able to sell them, right?”
“You should be able to, yes. I imagine the prices would be rather high due either to merchants mistaking them for grimoires or nobles aiming to help…”
Titania had likely seen their textbooks before, and knew what they were. As a person of this world, her opinion was likely to be on point.
It was a fact that their books were written entirely in Japanese. However, it was precisely because they were in an unreadable language that they had acquired something of a mysterious nature to the people of this world. Furthermore, because their covers were rather fancifully done, it was quite likely that people would easily mistake their value.
“I plan to raise prices quite a bit; I want to sell them for quite a sum. That should take care of my living expenses.”
“…Honestly, Suimei-kun. Isn’t that what we call a scam?”
“It’s not like I’m lying or anything. Who cares anyway?”
His words notwithstanding, Suimei himself felt that he was being rather underhanded here. On the other hand, his actions were relatively harmless. Those who purchased his books for resale would likely make a good profit, and those who bought the books would be excited over their good fortune. Finally, even if he’d said he’d try to inflate prices, it wasn’t like he intended to charge some extravagant sum for them either.
“Are you really going to be okay?”
“Yeah, I should be just fine.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I’m sure. At the very least, I already know what I’m going to do for the rest of the day anyway.”
Mizuki looked torn. It didn’t look like she’d quite accepted things. If he’d accepted training in magic and combat as they’d had, or, at the very least, had received some instruction regarding the things of this world, she likely wouldn’t have felt this way. Unfortunately, he’d only absorbed some very basic knowledge offhand. Her concern was natural.
That being the case, he could only try and hand wave his way through an explanation.
Thinking for a moment, he decided to question the worried Mizuki in turn.
“On that note, rather than worrying about me, Mizuki, shouldn’t you be worrying about yourself?”
“I-I’m okay! I’ve even already learned how to use magic, after all.”
Indeed, she and Reiji had both been taught some magic. From Titania’s perspective, Mizuki had attained a level that put her on equal footing with Reiji; there was no reason for her to be worried. Suimei, however, had been not been speaking about that.
“That’s what I mean. Magic. You’ve already learned magic now, but I want to remind you not to repeat what happened before. Right, Reiji?”
Looking to the friend who understood what he meant for confirmation, Reiji could only laugh.
“S-S-S-Suimei-kun! You promised to never talk about that again!”
Mizuki, on the other hand, was flustered and blushed a deep red. As far as Mizuki was concerned, this was a memory better left unremembered. What he’d been referring to had been something that had happened in the past, when they’d first met, where she’d been, to some degree, someone they couldn’t leave alone.
Titania, who was clueless about their shared history, tilted her head in puzzlement.
” ‘What happened before?’ ”
“Suimei-kun! That’s not something you’re allowed to ever talk about! Absolutely not! I’m not joking!”
Mizuki’s frantic expression wasn’t something she’d shown in their entire time here. Lending a hand to his panicked friend, Reiji turned to the confused Titania and offered an answer to her question.
“Mizuki’s been through some stuff, Tia.”
“Don’t be! This is a huge secret that will forever stay between the three of us! It’s a secret garden! A dangerous secret that can never be revealed to anyone ever!”
“If you’re going to go that far, that only makes me even more interested…”
Titania revealed a hurt look at having been excluded. Suimei decided it was time to turn the topic away from Mizuki, he turned to their female companion who’d brought this all up in the first place.
“You know, Princess, you’re also taking part in the Maou suppression force. Is that okay?”
“Ara, don’t take me too lightly, Suimei-sama. I, too, have studied magic, and will definitely be of great help to Reiji-sama,” Titania replied, sticking her chest out proudly.
He wasn’t sure at what level her magic was, but that wasn’t really what he’d been asking anyway.
“Princess, you’re definitely versed in magic to be sure, but what I meant was if it was okay for a person of your standing?”
“There’s no need to worry about that. There’s still my father and his ministers. Even if I leave Aster, it poses no problem whatsoever.”
“No, that’s not what I meant either— ”
As someone who possessed the delicate beauty of a butterfly or a flower, she was the princess beloved by all. Why would someone like that need to take part in such a dangerous venture? Moreover, she’d even received the king’s support in doing so.
There wasn’t a father alive who didn’t love their child. Even if his daughter herself had been willing, how could he allow her to expose herself to such dangerous circumstances? Even if it was probably a bit crude to say as much, but such a princess had much more to offer her kingdom than just this.
Knowing all that, and allowing her to come along… what had been the reasoning behind such a thing?
“Suimei-sama, this is the duty I bear.”
Was it really alright for her to just thrust herself into the heart of danger? As he’d prepared to ask her as much, she’d cut him off with those words, delivered in a solemn tone.
“Duty… is it?”
“…Yes. No matter how powerful Reiji-sama might be, we cannot push all of the responsibility onto his shoulders. On the contrary, there must be at least one from the Aster Kingdom who bears an equal burden. The one chosen for this was none other than myself. I’ve resolved myself.”
Perhaps that was indeed the case. No, Titania’s resolve wasn’t at such a weak level that it could be called into doubt. Her powerful words had been heartfelt and unimpeachable. Titania had taken upon herself the mantle of responsibility and it was for that reason that she was here now.
Seeing her determination, he was struck by a feeling of sorrow. He could only imagine the bitterness the people of the Aster Kingdom must have felt. Thus, rather than strengthening her argument, her words had instead somehow weakened it.
“…Seeing as that’s the case, I must apologize my for rude words earlier. I leave Reiji and Mizuki in your care.”
“Please, leave them to me. I will ensure that everyone returns home safely and soundly.”
As she spoke, she nodded firmly. Although just for a moment, because the promise had come from the princess before him, just for a moment, he felt that it was certain to happen.
Suddenly, this princess with an iron will spoke to Suimei.
“I still have something I wish to say, Suimei-sama.”
“I already count Reiji-sama and Mizuki-sama among my dear friends. For that reason, I would ask that you, who are their friend, not be so formal with me. Would that be alright?”
The princess had voiced this wish of her own accord. This was not something that someone of her position should ever have requested of someone of his.
“Is that really okay?”
Responding to his question, she had repeated her plea once more. Suimei calmed himself and gave his consent.
“…I understand. Let’s do that then. Princess—”
“—It’s ‘Titania’, Suimei,” Titania countered, a faint smile on her face.
Such a smile could only be described as “divine.” Were someone unfamiliar with the opposite sex faced with such a smile, they’d be done for. In some indescribable way, her smile reminded him of Reiji.
He couldn’t allow himself to be charmed, though. Instead, he returned her smile.
“Right. It’s a pleasure, Titania.”
“With this, the four of us are all friends.”
From this day forward, they’d be inseparable companions. As Reiji and Mizuki watched on, in their eyes, Titania’s joy seemed that of someone who had just made their first friend.
Abruptly, Suimei called out to Reiji.
“Uh, never mind.”
Seeing Reiji’s expression, without a hint of negativity, Suimei shut his mouth.
Originally, he’d planned on asking, “If there was a way to go back home, would you want to?” Something like, “If you’re willing to wait, then I’ll definitely make it happen.”
But he’d stopped himself. Even if he’d said that, Reiji would not turn back from the path he’d chosen. All he’d achieve would be to further confuse the situation. Suimei would not allow himself to be an obstacle along his friend’s path without reason. That’s why it was better off left unsaid. He’d keep this all to himself until things progressed further.
“Good luck out there.”
“Yeah, you too. Thanks, Suimei.”
Reiji smiled as Suimei nodded his head. Trials lay ahead; he could only face them head-on with a light smile, and worry on his face, and courage in his heart.
…Finally the preparations for their journey finished. Titania turned to Reiji.
“It’s time for us to go, Reiji-sama.”
“Got it. Mizuki, stay close, alright?”
At Reiji’s extended hand, Mizuki nodded in embarrassment. Reiji’s intentions were clearly purely aimed at making sure someone close to him did not encounter unnecessary danger, but Mizuki and Titania saw more in it than that. As Mizuki took Reiji’s arm with both embarrassment and joy, Titania watched with an envious gaze.
“R-Reiji-sama! Me too!”
Reiji yelped in surprise as Titania grabbed his other arm.
A look of understanding appeared on his face as he took Titania’s arm in his – though he clearly had not the least understanding of what was going on.
“Sure. Don’t leave my side, Titania.”
At Reiji’s words, Titania smiled brightly and answered happily.
…A beautiful girl clinging to each arm, the hero majestically strode onto the chariot.
Were anyone to glance around, they’d notice the envious and hate-filled stares of all the surrounding men, knights and soldiers alike. Before long, Suimei joined them.
“…You know what? Forget it. You’re better off staying stuck here forever.”
Jealousy. Pure, unadulterated jealousy. It was stupid, but he couldn’t help but feel that way. The feeling wracking him likely had the surrounding soldiers in its grip as well.
Truthfully, though, his words were unnecessary. He knew that Reiji had no intentions of spending the rest of his life in this world living a rose-colored life. As Suimei mused to himself, a question from Reiji interrupted his thoughts.
“Did you say something, Suimei?”
“N-no, definitely not.”
“…? If you say so,” Reiji replied, puzzled.
As far as he was concerned, figuring out the feelings of the others in this situation – either the women or the men – wasn’t something he’d ever be able to do.
With that, the chariot took the three, one with a look of incomprehension, with two at his side with joyous expressions, away from Suimei.
…At long last, the sound of the city gates opening filled the air. Music played, and applause and cheers heralded the departure of Reiji and the others.
As the gates closed, Suimei stood alone, as if he’d been left behind. Well, to be honest, that was precisely what had happened, but it was something he’d chosen for himself. The sorrow and loneliness filling him were the consequence of that choice.
“They left, huh…” he muttered as he stared blankly.
Wanting to return home, needing to go home, turning his back on danger… had that choice been wrong? As he watched his friends vanish, heading straight into danger, that thought crossed his mind.
—After this, he’d be walking down his own path, different from the one they had taken. Weakness could not be allowed. Such thoughts were out of line for one belonging to the Magician’s Society.
That said, he still couldn’t see a decision to walk down the path leading to the Maou as a good one.
The proposition had clearly yet to be completed; it’d be all in vain if he never went home. There were assignments he had to fulfill, people he had to save. Given the responsibilities he already had to bear, turning his back on the needs of this world wasn’t too much to ask. However, that reasoning seemed but hollow excuses in the face of those who had just departed.
As he deliberated, he gazed upward.
Images of the people important to him seemed to appear in the azure sky.
The one who had raised him and taught him magic, his father who had stumbled along the path of magic.
The head of the Magician’s Society, always shoving impossible problems his way.
Caught in Ludwig’s curse, an azure shadow of a young girl.
The stubborn vanguard of the Knights of the Rose Cross.
The footsteps he’d left behind at the nearby dojo with his childhood friend.
His choice had been purely a selfish one; this he understood very well. And yet, faced with the figures that appeared in his mind he knew that this was already the only choice left to him.