#

The next day, Friday morning.

Today’s duel is scheduled for after classes, so I went straight to the school. Then like yesterday, a crowd gathered at the gate. Noticing this, I suddenly stopped.

Because these people are ones I am already familiar with. Several high-school girls in Ouka Academy uniforms and a distinguished style person surrounded by them—Saionji Sarasa.

“Heh heh. What a coincidence, Shinohara.”

After spotting me, she approaches with her arms folded. The students around start to get shocked again, but I’m almost used to this level of reaction, so I don’t care much anymore.

Looking at her ruby irises, I sigh and reply, “It’s not a ‘coincidence’, Saionji. This happened yesterday too, and you did it on purpose.”

“Ah, it’s not like that. Because Ouka Academy is right behind here, you’ll get to this academy after a little detour… Heh heh. Why are you so narcissistic?”

“Well, anything more to say? If not, I’ll move on my way.”

“Wait, stop! You should stay a little longer. Not that I have any business with you, but I don’t think you need to be in such a hurry.”

When I decide to leave the place, Saionji reflexively grabs my arm and stops me. Due to this unplanned action, we both lose our balance and suddenly bring our faces close to each other’s at a very short distance.

“…?!! Uhm… Uh…” Saionji blushes up to her ears.

However, Saionji and I are—from the world’s perspective—“perfect superhumans.” We must not show shyness, let alone embarrassment, otherwise we would lose our elite image in front of the public.

“…Tsk.”

So I try to get her sweet scent out of my consciousness while looking at her from a very short distance. Saionji seems to realize my intentions, and immediately wipes away her embarrassment and puts on a broad smile.

Then, we both keep a conversation at a very short distance and with annoyed tones.

“…Heh heh. The word’s out, Shinohara.  You’ll have another duel today, won’t you? (Too close, too close—stay back a little!)”

“Indeed. But why do you care? Is it because you’re afraid I’ll surpass your winning streak from last year? (No, no… No way, my arm is still holding your body. Do you want to hit the ground?!)”

“No, I don’t care about the streak at all. But I’m pretty interested in witnessing your miserable defeat, so I’ll watch today’s duel as well. Such an honor for you, right? (Ugh… I get it. But you better not touch me!)”

“An honor, you say? Ha, of course it is. I’m so happy to let the six-star Empress come to watch my game, I’m so happy I’ll have tears in my eyes! (…Don’t you think that demanding that of me in this situation is an impossible feat?)”

“…Bastard… It’s okay. I’ve got a camera with me today; I think it’ll be nice to capture your defeat. (Well, that’s true… But it’s your fault that I’m asleep on my feet, Shinohara. So take responsibility!)”

“Hey, that’s pretty cool. You’d be kind of like my personal photographer, right? If LNN requests photographers for coverage, I’ll tell them about you. (You said to take responsibility…but what exactly do you want me to do?)”

“Hmph.  Bark all you want now that you can. By next week, the media won’t even remember you anyway. (Hm… True. So why don’t you try to piss me off as much as you can to get me out of my sleep?)”

“Eh? That’ll be for you, rather. (Huh… What are you talking about…? Eh…)”

While discussing out loud to save face, Saionji and I are keeping another completely different conversation barely moving our lips. Our secret conversation has its own conflicts, though.

To piss her off as much as I can… What a thing to ask of me.

I glance at Saionji’s expression: she seems to be waiting for my words as she flashes a mischievous smile. Her cherry red lips are slightly curved at one end and she has her arms crossed in front, which inevitably emphasizes a certain part of her body… Hmm.

“…? What’s on your mind, Shinohara?”

Well, emphasize… maybe not?

No, not that she’s as flat as a plank, but it’s inevitable for them to look small when Himeji is the first one that comes to mind as a point of comparison. While it may be rude to assume that she has some complex about it, she said she wanted me to make her angry.

…That being the case:

“Well, I’m assured fame because I’m the seven-star… But if you want to be on the news, you’d better start drinking milk every day so you look better in pictures, you little tits.”

The moment I say that, Saionji’s whole body suddenly freezes… No, not exactly. Close observation reveals that her arms are constantly trembling. Because she is still mindful of the sight of others, she keeps her original smile, but her eyes are filled with hatred and the flames of anger burn in her.

“Fuu. Obviously, I’ve been drinking milk every day… Even so, it only grew this little…!”

“This… This… Miss Saionji?”

“…It’s all right… Yes, really, it’s all right. Thank you for your beautiful words, Shinohara. You know, you just made my day.”

“Oh, really? Is nice to hear so…”

“Yes, indeed!” She turns her head with a grunt and angrily pushes my arm away.

For a moment, I notice her glance toward a certain spot in the crowd, then she looks displeased—or maybe, worried—as she frowns, and walks away without further word.

She asked me to piss her off, so I tried piss her off, but it looks like she got really pissed off.

No, wait a minute, then what was I supposed to do…?!

I don’t know what happened just now… Who cares, I can’t be blamed for doing what I was told. I quickly shift my thoughts and look in the direction she looked in disgust.

…Is it because of that person?

What I notice in that spot is a student standing slightly away from the crowd. He wears over his uniform a jet-black cloak that makes him stand out from the other people. I don’t know the reason, but he stares at me with evaluative eyes.

Eventually he disappears into the crowd, but, perhaps because of his flamboyant aura or because of Saionji’s unusual attitude, he has clearly stuck in my memory.

“Does a boy in a black cloak ring a bell, you ask?”

Eimei Academy, second year class A. Break.

Surrounded by noise, I had inquired to Tatara next to me.

“Yeah, that’s right, the one wearing a black cloak. It’s just that I saw him a moment ago, and I thought it was a very unusual outfit.”

“Oh, I see! Yes, yes. The one who stands out like that is Kugasaki-kun.”

“Kugasaki…? He’s that guy in the black cloak? By the way, is he an acquaintance of yours?”

“No, no. I don’t know him, but Kugasaki-kun is too famous. Kugasaki-kun—Kugasaki Seiran-kun. He’s a third-year student at Otowa Institute in District Eight. He’s a celebrity on the island.”

“Huh…? So, why is he so famous?”

“That’s because-”

“Because he’s a five-star—moreover, he also owns a color star,” as if to steal Tatara’s thunder, Tsuji, who has approached without her noticing, interrupts with such words. Tatara puffs out her cheeks in anger, but Tsuji doesn’t care and continues speaking, “Kugasaki-senpai is well known on the island as the trump card of the Otowa Institute. He may be a bit inferior compared to Shinohara-kun, but being a five-star holder is something that makes you one in a thousand, so he is super-elite. Since he got the Blue Star about two months ago, people say he is ‘practically a six-star.’ Also, there are several other stories about him.”

“Yes, yes! For example, since he entered the Otowa Institute, he has never changed rank! Besides…! Besides, he’s also the leader of an unofficial security organization!”

“It’s called the ‘Holy Knights’, isn’t it? Kugasaki-senpai established the organization in his first year. It was a small organization at that time, but now it is a major organization with over three hundred members. It is probably the largest among unofficial organizations, isn’t it? That man’s leadership is extraordinary.”

“Kugasaki-kun looks like a lunatic, but he is unexpectedly very popular. Besides—! Besides—! True! Speaking of Kugasaki-kun, he has an interesting nickname: they call him ‘Phoenix.’

“…Phoenix?” I get puzzled by the mysterious word. After hearing me repeat innocently, Tsuji replies with a wry smile:

“That’s right, they call him Phoenix. As I said before, Kugasaki-senpai is someone elite, so he has always had a certain support and popularity… But there was an event that shot his name into the skies… It will be a surprise, huh: last year, the first person who challenged the newcomer Saionji Sarasa to a duel and lost was Kugasaki-senpai. After that, he seemed to fall in love with the Empress.”

“Huh…? He fell in love after losing?”

“Precisely because he lost. He seems to be completely fascinated with the first person who defeated him.”

“…”

“Better not to talk about the eccentricities of elite people… In short, he simply adores the Empress to an unusual degree that matches falling in love. After all, the Empress is, by far, number one. It is said that her school’s evaluation system falls short of her excellent performance.”

“You say it’s rumor, but there’s no doubt. The proof is that Kugasaki-kun is the only one who keeps challenging the Empress since last April. Everyone else knows that facing her is basically equal to giving up a star.”

“That’s true. I’m sure that, if he chose the right opponent, he would have no trouble reaching six stars. I couldn’t tell you if he’s persistent or an infatuated madman… but his nickname ‘Phoenix’ came from that. At first glance, this is just a fragment of a weird story. However, in fact, Kugasaki-senpai’s level has not dropped at all during this time. Every time he loses to the Empress and becomes a four-star, he immediately wins another duel and becomes a five-star… Ah ha ha. It must be hard for the Empress for someone like him to be obsessed with her…” Tsuji shrugs exaggeratedly and smiles wryly. I merely say, “What a disaster for her,” but, in fact, in my mind it’s something else I’m thinking:

Kugasaki Seiran is that strong…? What a problem.

The post he made earlier on STOC… His obsession… The Empress… This guy, Kugasaki, is fascinated by Saionji’s ‘power,’ and so he constantly challenges her. There’s nothing wrong with this behavior—after all, it’s commonplace on the island. But, considering the relationship between Saionji and me, I can’t ignore it. Because if she loses, we’ll be ruined together.

Besides, after losing the Red Star, there is no doubt that Saionji has weakened. Of course I have some responsibility in this matter… So what should I do? I remain silent and let my thoughts wander. Actually, it is not impossible to take advantage of my current position to do something about it. Of course, I’m afraid to act, but the uneasy expression Saionji showed this morning has been ever lingering in my mind.

Um… There’s no need to think any further. We’re accomplices, so I’ll have to act on her behalf as well.

I take the terminal out of my pocket and make some quick arrangements.

#

It was shortly after the lunch break that I received a call from Himeji.

I followed the instructions passed to me over the handset, and skillfully avoided the gazes of others to get to the roof (it should have been locked, but the electronic lock was hacked), from where I will discuss with Himeji the strategy for the duel.

🔊: “First, let’s review the information. The title of the duel accepted by the Master today is ‘Sturm und Drang.’”

“Ah… As I recall, it will be a 100-meter race, right?”

🔊: “Yes. Both runners start at the same time, the one who crosses the finish line first wins—that’s a very simple rule. However, there is something special: there’s no restriction on the method used to move to the end line.”

“There is no restriction… So, can you use vehicles or something like that…? No, that’s probably not the only detail.”

🔊: “Master is very perceptive. It is said that the opponent’s best time is in the range of one second.”

“…Huh?!  I-It’s impossible for it to be one second…”

🔊: “It’s understandable that you’re surprised. After all, Master has just arrived on the island. But you should know that in Academy Island duels there is a special element known as ‘skills.’”

“Ah… Of course I know that, but…”

Skills. This is a general term for ‘special applications’ used to get advantage in duels. Yesterday’s ‘50/50’ I won solely by hacking, so I didn’t set up any skills at all. Still…

“…You mean with skills you can even fight against an opponent who runs 100 meters in a second?”

🔊: “Yes. In short, that’s it,” after answering my question in the affirmative, Himeji takes a breath before continuing, “Skills can be divided into three main types: attack, defense, and support. Attack skills may form the backbone of your strategy or serve to interfere with the enemy’s strategy; a defense skill will serve to block the opponent’s interferences; finally, support skills directly interfere with the statistics and boost the attack skills. Dueling contenders may combine them according to their own preferences and determine the skill structure they really need in the game.”

“I see… Also, at most three skills can be used in each duel, right?”

🔊: “Yes. For example, today’s opponent always uses an ‘attack-attack-support’ skill composition to get more speed. Of course, there is no guarantee that the enemy will do the same this time, but they never seem to have altered that setup. So, I think we can trust that this is how they will operate.”

“Ah, have you analyzed it yet? So, shall we consider our skill configuration based on that premise?”

🔊: “Exactly, Master. You need to prioritize either hindering the opponent or improving your own speed… In short, it’s no exaggeration to say that the core of dueling is to select the most appropriate combination of skills according to the scenario. It is entirely possible that a single error in analysis will lead to defeat.”

“Yes,” I nod and answer in a serious voice.

…I mean, even if it’s a 100-meter race on the surface, predicting each other’s skills is the secret goal to win the duel. I must see through the opponent’s tactics and win with an outright victory.

Although I could think of various strategies… it is unnecessary to do so.

Himeji’s agency surely has already been preparing something to make me win in an absolute way. So, there’s no need for me to worry.

🔊: “Ahem,” Himeji clears her throat and continues with the topic, “So, regarding this duel…”

Academy Island District Four, General Athletics Stadium.

This vast venue, which is also used for interscholastic activities, is now swarming with an extraordinary madness unleashed by about two thousand spectators.

The venue itself seats five thousand people, so we can’t say the stadium is full, but it’s still too much for a simple duel. Judging by the uniforms seen in the audience, there seem to be a lot of people from other districts as well.

In the middle of such stadium, I stand face to face with another student. Also…

“Three, two, one…! Zero! Thus, the battle has begun!!”

“Oooooooooooooohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!” After the end of the count, the cheers do not wait to fill the sky. That was not a statement made by my opponent and certainly not mine.

When holding my breath I look towards the source of that voice… I find an energetic student standing holding a microphone in her hand and wearing a headphone set.

“Ladies and gentlemen, what you’ve been waiting so long for has arrived! So, we’ll quickly get into today’s main event, but before that, I would like to borrow some of your time! May I, please, nya?!”

“Yeeeeeeeeee!!!!”

“Thanks for answering me with so much spirit, nya! Now it’s time for me to introduce myself, nya! I’m Kazami Suzuran from second year, a member of Libra, a recognized organization on Academy Island, nya!”

“Oh!!!”

While introducing herself, the girl extends her hands to greet the entire audience.

That ‘Libra’ thing she just mentioned is the network operating the news application—LNN; the one Tatara recommended to me. It seems they report on various events happening on the island and publish information every day.

Basically, reporting news is their main business… But Libra has another job: the commentators business.

After all, large-scale duels often require referees and support staff to organize the content. Traditionally, the contenders themselves were in charge of finding assistance, but Libra realized this. In any case, if you have a unit that calls itself ‘support staff,’ you can effortlessly sneak into various events. They achieve effective coverage with no hindrance.

Also, these kinds of duels attract too much attention, so Libra members who have been recurring hosts seem to have gained a popularity comparable to that of idols.

“Thank you, nya! Nya, ha, ha. I’m so happy to be able to be with you, but it’s a little embarrassing to be standing here!”

The girl who is currently presenting so animatedly in front of me is the most popular of all the hosts.

Kazami Suzuran. Three-star level. She belongs to District Three, just like Saionji. Of course, the uniform she wears is from Ouka Academy… yet with so many modifications it’s not that easy to notice. Her skirt, shortened to the limit, shows off her thighs unhesitatingly. On her right arm she wears a ribbon that reads ‘Excellent Reporter’ secured with a pin.

Also, the ends of her shoulder-length brown hair curl slightly outward, which is probably the fault of the boyishly styled cap she wears. Miraculously enough, the combination of her terribly flirtatious tone and mannerisms with the energetic accessories produces a harmony.

After saying a few more words to the audience, she smiles and looks at us.

“I will now introduce the two contestants who will participate in today’s duel, nya!” Kazami speaks and walks directly in front of me, where my opponent is. Several people with video cameras also change the direction of their lenses to follow in her tracks.

…Right. In fact, considering the huge space, a whole photography team had to be mobilized. The audience can watch our duel on the big screens that are everywhere and there is also a real-time broadcast on the official Libra app, IslandTube.

Faced with this situation, I took off my right earpiece, just in case.

Not being able to get in touch with Himeji is a bit problematic… But then again, it would be worse if the cameras picked up the earpiece,” I nod slightly and prepare my mind.

At this point, Kazami has started to introduce my opponent.

“First, the applicant: Urasaka Haru-senpai, a third year student from District Eleven! Her grade is three stars, and her hobbies are bands and traveling. An excellent senior who loves punk rock!

“…Hello…” says the girl slowly. Is she overwhelmed by Kazami’s introduction?

As for her appearance… it’s somewhat ‘dark.’ Her short black hair is mixed with some reddish locks. This clothing is not a uniform, but a fashionable black outfit in the style of a rock band.

Kazami converses with her for a while, then claps her hands to attract the audience’s attention.

Then, Kazami turns around vigorously and runs towards me.

“Now, here’s the challenged! The fastest and strongest seven-star ever: Shinohara Hiroto-kun, nya! From the second year of Eimei Academy’s high school, a student who just arrived at Academy Island three days ago! In two consecutive days he has won two duels that caused a commotion all over Academy Island! Shall he emerge victorious today, nya! Then, Shinohara-kun, please show us your excitement, nya!”

“Excitement…? Ah.”

Kazami stretches the microphone towards me, stopping it at a very short distance. She excitedly waits for my response, though I just shake my head and reply in a low, solemn voice:

“There’s no need to do that sort of thing. I’ve already got the win, anyway.”

“Oh! What an excellent answer! What confidence! You could say that this is the pride that only the seven stars can have. ‘I’m the one’! As expected from Shinohara-kun, nya!” Kazami blushes due to excitement.

I look away with an indifferent look, but I’m really embarrassed…

“Now, let me introduce today’s special guest, nya!” Kazami says, waving her hand abruptly as she looks at me.

In response, one of the stadium entrances slowly opens, and a female student appears from there.

She clicks her tongue when she sees me, then walks up to the microphone and greets the audience:

“Hello, everyone. Thank you for the introduction. I am Saionji Sarasa. Just now, Shinohara-kun confidently said that he will win, but that’s not something he can foretell. Anyway, I think he’s just bragging, so I’ll watch this duel happily with everyone… Heh, heh. Please take care of me.”

“Ooohhhh?!” …She has really made the excitement of the spectators rise.

I got to admit that her standing posture is also impressive and full of charm, so it’s only natural that she has such a degree of popularity… Yet her eyes are still looking at me mockingly. It’s obvious that she’s treating me like an idiot and making fun of what I said a moment ago. What’s even more unbearable is that she’s struggling not to laugh.

This…! This woman…!

“Of course! Then, I, Kazami Suzuran, will be commentating the match along with my classmate, Ouka’s absolute trump card: Saionji Sarasa, nya!”

Kazami doesn’t notice the secret glances between Saionji and me. She simply walks towards my opponent, Urasaka-senpai.

“Then, Urasaka-senpai, without further ado, I would like to ask you the name of this duel!”

“Yes. This duel is called ‘Sturm und Drang’,” when my opponent utters these words, accompanied by a magnificent explosion sound, the name of the duel is displayed on the screens installed in the stadium.

After checking the screen quickly, Kazami continues happily asking.

“’Sturm und Drang,’ what an amazing name! What kind of game is this, nya?”

“Hmm… Well, it’s simply ‘running at full speed.’ In this stadium, Shinohara and I will run 100 meters. That’s it.”

“Simple and clear! A very concise answer, nya! But Urasaka-senpai, won’t you be at a physical disadvantage?”

“No, I’m not. After all, this is a 100-meter race in which anything goes,” after finishing speaking, senpai laughs softly. As if echoing her voice, both the terminal and the large screen display the text of the Sturm und Drang rules.

“The two players move 100 meters from the starting point to the finishing point.

“The start signal is given by the referee (this time, by the Libra member), and both players start at the same time. The player who reaches the finish line first is the winner.

“However, this is not a normal 100-meter race. Anything goes.”

…I look for a moment to confirm the rules and then nod slightly… Well, it’s exactly the same as what Himeji said. There is no surprise element.

But Kazami’s reaction is very different from mine—she clenches her right hand enthusiastically.

“A 100-meter race where you can use anything! Ah, what a thrill! Senpai, if it’s convenient, can you tell us the reason for choosing this content for the duel?”

“Well, let’s see… In short, with this kind of duel, at least I have a chance to win… Hey, Shinohara, you may already know this, but my fastest record in these duels is one second.”

“One second! …Unbelievable, nya! Yes, how will you respond to this provocation…!”

Senpai proudly declares her records. Simultaneously, Kazami extends the microphone towards my face, but I calmly respond:

“How am I supposed to respond… And what to?”

“…You mean you’ll be faster than me?”

“Who knows. Anyway, why do you ask that? Just guess.”

“Oh, really? Even though I look like this, I’m sure I’ll never lose in terms of speed.” Senpai looks apathetic, but the fighting spirit is really in her eyes.

Ah… Actually, that’s reasonable. It’s impossible for those who challenge a seven star not to have confidence in themselves.

But…

Unfortunately, in this duel, it won’t do her any good.

“Really? What a coincidence. Whether it’s speed or other things, I’m sure I won’t lose.”

I, as always, make a blunter statement. In the heart of the stadium, I smile fearlessly.

After our introduction, it would have been fine to start the duel at that time, but in the stadium, there is a preparation time. For the audience to hear our voice, senpai and I were given small microphones. Then the Libra members started to set up a commentary booth on the field.

Also, senpai changed her costume to a bangyaru style, showing that she was fully prepared. Moreover… I already regret what I said a moment ago.

“My hobbies are rock bands and traveling. That was already said in my introduction, but there’s one more thing to add… Not only do I like to travel in vehicles, but I also like to drive those vehicles by myself,” standing in front of me, senpai says cheerfully.

Next to her is a motorcycle. It is neither an electric motorcycle nor a small motorcycle. This huge machine is the size of three people lying one on top of the other. The plating is probably made by herself. The dark bodywork of the motorcycle is also fully customized.

“Oh, oh, oh, oh… It’s amazing, nya!!!” Although I remain silent, I completely agree with Kazami’s very excited cry…

“This baby is great, isn’t it?” seeing Kazami’s reactions, senpai says smugly.

“Actually, this is the first time I will use it. After all, this scenario is worthy of its power.”

“Really?! You haven’t used this bike until now?”

“Well, yes, I was born in April and I’m a third grader in high school this year. My eighteenth birthday was last week. It means that now, by law, I can drive bigger vehicles.”

“Nya? Ah, driver’s licenses are issued in less than a week?”

“Hmm… Ah, don’t worry about the details. Anyway, I got my driver’s license!” Senpai says anxiously and pulls out the license, pointing to the photo. The certificate does seem to be genuine, but I’m secretly convinced that the birth date written in the upper right corner is nineteen years ago… I see. Could it be that she repeated a year and didn’t use a motorcycle for the whole of last year to hide it? It makes sense that there are no records of her using it.

Surely it wasn’t her intention to use the element of surprise, but… Yeah, this is inconvenient. Is everything going to be okay?

Considering the overall framework of the strategy, I don’t think it will affect much if the opponent’s ‘feet’ change. Again, if I am asked if the machine in front of me is an exception, I must hesitate.

“Well… Anyway, if I’m riding on this baby, I can get there faster. So fast that neither Shinohara nor anyone else will be able to catch up with me. Today I will become the wind itself!”

After senpai says what she wished to say, she quickly gets on the motorcycle. She places her terminal in the slot between the two handlebars, splendidly puts on the helmet that was hanging on the side, and then leaves off the phrase, “I’m going for a test ride,” and starts riding the motorcycle in the stadium.

As if to gain time until senpai returns, Kazami raises the microphone again.

“So, the long-awaited duel is about to begin… Nya, ha, ha. By the way, what do you think of this duel, Sarasa-chan?”

“Hmm… Yes. First of all, after seeing that motorcycle, everyone will understand that senpai has a big advantage. If they simply compete for speed, it will definitely be advantageous for Urasaka-senpai. Then, what kind of skill will Shinohara use? This is very important, but…”

“‘But…’ nya?”

“…What is going to happen? I mean, if someone requests you for this duel, the easiest thing is to think of using skills to impede the opponent. This is the most natural idea and the easiest way to win. But…I have a bad feeling. Especially saying that ‘you can use anything,’ it makes me feel uncomfortable, as if they are telling me what to do. Okay, but I haven’t been through this kind of duel, maybe it’s just my imagination?”

“Heh, heh, heh. Nya I see… The plan is to leave a door open for the enemy? That’s really interesting, nya!” to Saionji’s calm analysis, Kazami responds in the same mood as always.

Regardless of whether it’s interesting or not, Saionji has a good point. Anything can be used, and what those words lead you to think is really in obstruction and interference against the opponent. If senpai is deliberately inviting me to do so, it is simply natural that she has somehow prepared a countermeasure.

While thinking about these things, I walk leisurely towards the starting point.

“Huh…? On foot?”

“Shi-Shinohara-kun, are you planning to run normally to win against the bike… nya?!”

Seeing that I’m not preparing any vehicle or anything like that, not only the two commentators, but the audience also asks that question… But I ignore these reactions and look at senpai, who is driving the motorcycle.

Then, silently, I search for some memories in my mind: according to the agency’s analysis, the skill senpai mainly uses is Speed Limit Release. The effect is exactly as the name suggests, the restriction is removed. You can accelerate indefinitely regardless of the speed limit set by motorcycles or other vehicles.

While this is an ‘unrecognized (illegal) skill’ that is considered a violation of traffic regulations, it performs flawlessly.

Although not exact, records indicate that she also uses a combination of Speedup and Safety Device. Speedup increases the speed, and Safety Device ensures the safety of the driver. This is the attack-attack-support composition Himeji mentioned.

If she uses those three skills this time, we can somehow win. After all, she doesn’t have a defensive skill. But…

Just as I’m immersed in my thoughts, senpai, who has finished her ride on the motorcycle, returns. She stops the motorcycle beside me, removes her helmet, and gives me an eloquent smile.

“You’ve been waiting a long time… You said something quite interesting just now, didn’t you? You said you had a bad feeling.”

“It wasn’t me but Saionji who said that. Anyway, I agree with her words.”

“Heh… Your reasoning is totally on the mark. Both of you are razor-sharp.” Senpai looks at me while riding on the motorcycle. Her smile deepens. “Anyway, you can’t change the skills anymore. I’ll tell you once and for all, Shinohara: I’ll use Nullify Interference to deal with you. It’s the defensive skill that can neutralize all interference from opponents in the duel. I’ve never used it so far and, to begin with, its rating and popularity are not high, so I thought no one could take precautions.”

“…”

“If you studied my data, you probably know that I’m a speed freak. Besides, since the rules state that ‘anything goes,’ you must have thought of a way to sabotage me, right? With such a plan, you surely came armed with skills aimed at stopping me… But they will be of no use to you.”

“Ooooooooooooooooooooooohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!” Part of the audience, surely anticipating my supremacy, cheered at Urasaka-senpai’s surprising words.

…Ah. It makes perfect sense. Since there are only three slots to register skills, it’s uncommon for someone to choose one just to neutralize another one of the opponent. That’s probably why Saionji didn’t mention that skill until now, but that very premise is why Nullify Interference can serve as the best answer.

“Shinohara…”

In this situation, Saionji’s expression is a bit gloomy as she sits in the commentary booth. Her ruby eyes look at me with concern… Well, I can understand why.

But… you just watch, Saionji.

I turn to senpai again, lifting the corners of my mouth, and sneer:

“I see. So, have you finished? If you’re done, let’s get started on this, senpai. I’m getting sleepy from waiting so long…”

“What…? Tsk,” senpai is speechless for a moment at my reaction, but finally clicks her tongue and carelessly puts her helmet back on. Kazami, who is nearby, sees this and takes the microphone again.

“So, it looks like you two are ready to duel. Let’s begin, nya… Are you ready?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah, go ahead.”

“All right, I got it, nya. So, ladies and gentlemen, we’ve been waiting for a long time! In today’s duel, Sturm und Drang, which player will be the first to reach the 100-meter mark?! It’ll be an instant game, so nobody blink!” Kazami speaks with even more enthusiasm than before, using exaggerated gestures and vocabulary to bring the audience’s excitement to a fever pitch. Immediately after…

“Three, two, one… Let’s go!!!”

Almost at the same time as the signal is sent, the terrifying sound of an engine blasts and senpai’s motorcycle rapidly starts up. It is probably the simultaneous effects of Speedup and Speed Limit Release. The black-colored body reaches the speed limit in an impossible time. It’s not an overstate, my body could have been blown away by the explosion if I had been nearby.

“Phew… Look at this difference!” That voice comes from the small microphone on the helmet. Senpai flies down the track, leaving me behind and advancing the hundred meters in the blink of an eye… For a moment, everyone is convinced of her victory.

“…Huh?”

I don’t know who made that sound. It could have been Kazami, Saionji or just a voice from the audience. But whoever it was, there is no doubt that most people have a similar impression.

After all, senpai’s motorcycle had stopped. The handlebars twisted to one side just in front of the finish line, her body flying due to inertia. It was going to be a fatal impact, but her jacket instantly blew up to form an airbag. Meanwhile, the material of the floor also underwent drastic changes—it instantly became a kind of cushion that absorbed the impact of senpai and the motorcycle.

“Hey, you guys.”

Watching everything happen as planned, I slowly open my mouth as I walk along the track. I speak not to senpai, who won’t even be able to respond, but to everyone present:

“Do you really think a seven-star can’t analyze the situation better than anyone else?”

“This… What does this mean, nya?” As expected, Kazami is the first to ask, “I nyan’t understand, not at all. Tell me, explain! I’m asking you to explain, nya!”

“I was going to explain, even if you didn’t ask, you know? As Saionji pointed out earlier, rules are the most important thing. ‘Anything goes,’ that’s why people tend to plan sabotage—however, one doesn’t have to accept the invitation. That’s enough to understand, isn’t it?”

“Enough…? What does that mean, nya, Shinohara-kun?”

“I don’t care if it’s just a ‘probability,’ a ‘possibility’ or just my imagination. Isn’t relying on that very superficial? You’ve never used it? So what? As long as it can happen, you have to destroy that risk. Sorry, but I’m a seven stars, and I have no plans to lose.”

As I walk towards the goal with an air of supremacy, I recall the conversation with Himeji from a few hours ago.

“Master. For today’s duel, you will use three Cancel Nullification.

“…What?

“It’s because Cancel Nullification is a support skill with the effect of temporarily disabling the opponent’s defensive skills.

“Ah, yes. I understand that… But what do you mean, three?

“Literally, put the same skill in all three slots. After all, today’s opponent, Urasaka-sama, has a three-star level. If she were to ever use a defense skill, its strength would be level three. In that case, Master’s level one skills would not be enough.

“No, but… wasn’t the key to a duel to read the opponent’s plan and think of the optimal countermeasure? Yet we’re now using something so unbalanced… No, never mind…

“I’m sure you’ve figured it out by now, Master. That’s right, as long as you have our agency, you don’t have to worry about the balance of skills. As long as it’s possible to interfere from the outside, everything can be manipulated with Kagaya-san’s hacking… In other words, the only thing that could make you lose is Nullify Interference. Therefore, there is no need to worry about any other possibility.”

Those are the words I received.

In short, we originally predicted the possibility of the use of Nullify Interference, and then we only took countermeasures against this point. It didn’t matter whether the probability of use was high or low, because, just by stopping that skill, the agency’s cheating would be obstacle-free.

So, the skills I set up are all Cancel Nullification lvl. 1.

By this point, my victory has been confirmed… But this is not enough. Just like last time, a flawless con and showing a performance that does not give rise to suspicion are essential for my lie to be true. Now that the stage has been set in the best way, the rest is up to me. Ah, it’s time for the (fake) truth.

I carefully calculate the angle at which the camera is pointed and smile slightly.

“So, the first skill I registered is Cancel Nullification lvl. 7. Because of this effect, the second skill, Stop by Force, would definitely activate successfully.”

“After analyzing all of this, you combined two skills to stop the bike…? I-it’s impressive and you say it like it’s most normal, nya. But Shinohara-kun, what’s your last skill, nya?”

“The third? You’ve seen it, haven’t you?”

“…Eh, nya?”

While conversing, I finally reach senpai’s side.

Yeah, that’s right… Maybe Saionji has already noticed. The method we adopted this time has only one chance of defeat. That is the possibility of senpai rushing to the finish line by herself even after stopping the motorcycle. In that case, it would have been impossible for me to catch up, so it was necessary to put an end to that possibility.

But, like I just said, the ‘answer’ to this question has already been shown to everyone.

“If you don’t understand, I’ll tell you: my third skill is Safety Device, the same skill as senpai. Unfortunately, if I hurt my opponent, I will regret it.”

“What?!”

…Well, of course, this was a false explanation. In fact, what happened was that we activated a set of airbags that we had installed in advance to stop senpai.

In the end, I calmly cross the finish line with a smile on my face, without ever actually running.

“Oh, you’re really amazing, nya, Shinohara-kun!”

Shortly after finishing the duel against the rocker senpai.

As the audience began to dissipate, I was caught by Kazami, who had her eyes shining and was shaking her hands up and down.

“It was so awesome, nya! We got a lot of good pictures and the number of viewers has increased. The results are so far above expectations that I think I’m going to have a nosebleed, nya! Shinohara-kun, I think I love you!”

“Thank you so much for your words. But, whatever, from the beginning, I had already won this duel.”

“So handsome… So wonderful… Those words will be the title of my article! ‘From the beginning, I had already won this duel’—with these words, the man of the fierce smile proves to be the only one deserving to be called a pinnacle. Rather than the image of the pure hero, his silhouette resembles that of a demon king who enjoys showering himself in blood,’ or something like that.

“…You must have written that article on the invisible hand…”

Now that I remember, Libra is the one who controls the LNN. Well, whatever.

Saionji, who is standing next to Kazami, deliberately puts on a grumpy face (even if she pretends it’s like that, I can still see that her mind is at peace now) and slowly crosses her arms.

“Heh… Congratulations on your three consecutive victories, Shinohara.”

“I’m not convinced about the sincerity of that congratulation, huh.”

“Because I’m not happy at all. I was hoping that you’d be run over by Urasaka-senpai’s motorcycle and the game would be over soon.”

“…”

“Come on, Shinohara, what about a little smile? Do I need to explain to you that it’s a joke?”

“That didn’t sound like a joke at all,” I manage to answer while my cheeks are twitching.

By the way, the rocker senpai has long since left the venue. This duel ended in her defeat, but she seemed pleased. I guess it was because she was able to show some of her baby power.

Since this is over, I think I should go back to my dorm…

“Ah ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!!!” …Just as I think about going back to my bedroom.

A loud laugh breaks the calm atmosphere of the stadium.

At the same time, a large cloud of white smoke suddenly appears in one section of the arena, and a figure jumps out of the auditorium as if to land in the cloud. It is a magnificent leap. As the white smoke slowly dissipates, the figure walks slowly toward me, tossing his cloak aside.

It’s a familiar-looking man. To be precise, I saw him this morning.

The man in the black cloak—Kugasaki Seiran. His body is slim and reasonably tall. You can tell that his face is handsome. His haircut looks strange, but it suits him well.

But compared to this, the most impressive thing is his attire. Deep black cloak with a stand-up collar, and bandage on the right wrist. Also, he wears some kind of crest on the back of his left hand, the same with which he adjusts his silver-framed glasses. He is the embodiment of the image of the traditional chuunibyou.

He walks straight towards me and finally stops.

“Ah… First time we’ve met, seven stars. My name is Kugasaki Seiran. I won’t ask you to remember my name, but eventually you will, even if you don’t want to. After all, this is the name of the man who will bring you to your knees,” he uses gestures and phrases typical of a dramatization.

Kugasaki, black cloak flying in the wind, throws a greeting full of hostility while wearing a smile on his face.

“Huh? Yeah, whatever you say. So, what do you want from me?”

“Good question! Actually, I have something to discuss with you.”

“Discuss?”

“Yes. It’s about a curious publication I saw on STOC a few hours ago. It said that you are more qualified than me to be the rival of the Goddess… It’s really interesting. It was so interesting that I wanted to shatter the terminal screen at the time.

“But I’m a quiet man, so I refrained. What I decided was to come here to see how you are doing in the duels. And oh such wonderful work—save the Goddess duels, it’s been a long time since any others provoked my admiration. But for that very reason, I want to duel with you. The power that made my Goddess fall… If it is genuine, let me try it myself!” Kugasaki’s eyes, hidden behind his glasses, look at Saionji for a moment. Then they turn to me with a sharp expression. Saionji does not respond to these enthusiastic words. I suspect she’s used to it. She just sighs in annoyance.

As for me, I continue to pretend to be indifferent.

What a surprise. I didn’t expect him to arrive so soon, is what I secretly think.

That’s right. Kugasaki’s sudden challenge was not unexpected. After all, before starting the duel against the rocker senpai, I was the one who repeatedly and anonymously provoked him on STOC. I didn’t expect him to act so quickly, but the ‘bait’ that lured Kugasaki to propose a duel to me was planted by no other than myself.

This is all to get rid of Kugasaki’s obsession with Saionji.

It’s a ruse only possible because I’m in the unique position of the seven star who defeated the Empress.

“Ha… So that’s it. In other words, you came to request a duel from me, right?”

“Yes. To be precise, just to prove that I’m better than you.”

“When you want to make a joke, first let your face know. Well, yeah, okay. I accept the duel, but I have one condition.”

“…?! Hey, Shinohara, what are you saying…?!”

“Condition?”

Saionji is surprised and is about to interrupt, but Kugasaki overtakes her and asks with a frown of confusion. In response, I answer unhesitatingly:

“Yes. Because if I accept your duel, I will receive no benefit. I do know that duel requests cannot be refused, but one is free to choose in which order one takes them, right? Plus, I have over fifty challengers on standby now, so I could leave you in queue forever.”

“That’s right… You know how to play your cards smart. So, what do you want?”

“Okay. Listening to what you just said, this is a game to decide who is more qualified to be the Empress’ opponent, right? So, my condition is simple: the loser can never challenge Saionji to a duel again. If you agree to this condition, I will accept your duel.”

“What the…?!”

Both Kugasaki and Saionji’s eyes widen in astonishment at my sudden excessive request. Among them, Saionji’s reaction is particularly notable, looking at me with her mouth half-open.

Then, of course, it is Kugasaki who reacts first.

“Are you…?! Are you making fun of me?! Goddess is a sacred and noble existence to me! I can’t agree to gamble on her…”

“Hey, fine with me. Find someone else to accept the duel. Although it’s weird for you to say that, don’t you think? If you really think you’re going to win, you shouldn’t call it a ‘gamble’… Never mind. If you’re running away, it must be because you’re not good for anything else.”

“…!” Under my repeated provocations, Kugasaki’s cheeks start twitching. Anger and anxiety dominate his expression… A few seconds later, he flinches, closes his eyes, and then points at me with his right hand in the air. Running away…? You’re talking about me…? Impossible. As a five-star and leader of the Holy Knights of the Phoenix, I will never run away from you. Let me say it again, Shinohara Hiroto, I will accept all conditions as long as you take my duel!” thus proclaims his accumulated spirit.

In response to these words that could only have been said from the protagonist of a manga, I reply:

“Ha…! Good one. Then let me show you the difference between us, scum.”

My smile deepens and the corners of my mouth curls up deliberately—a full-on smirk.

#

“I’m so soooorry…!”

“…”

It was six o’clock in the evening that same day.

After giving my ‘acceptance statement’ with my best posture, I left the sports stadium in my most gallant manner, heading home… As soon as I opened the door, I found Himeji in the foyer, and I prostrated myself by way of apology.

Of course she hadn’t demanded me to do so… But not prostrating wasn’t an option either. After all, my plan only went as far as ‘catching Kugasaki’, and there’s no way I could defeat him with just my one-star status. In short, I took the freedom to provoke Kugasaki into agreeing to the duel, and all this without consulting Himeji.

To top it off, the agreed day is the day after tomorrow—Sunday. It wouldn’t be strange for her to turn her back on me on something like this.

“…”

I don’t know what to say regarding Himeji, I can’t see the expression on her face since I’m on my knees, but she’s probably disappointed and angry. Anyway, seeing Himeji like this is something I already feel guilty about.

Then… suddenly I hear light footsteps. When I turn to look, I find Himeji much closer to me and looking fixedly at me.

“…I have a question to ask you, Master.”

“What? Oh, sure. Ask one, two or as many as you want.”

“Thank you. Well… You’ve been bowing your head for quite a while now. Why is the Master apologizing? I’d like to know the reason.”

“Reason? No. It’s obvious, don’t you think?”

“It’s not obvious. It’s something very, very important.” Himeji’s expression is becoming more serious than usual.

She’s not asking me the reason why I provoked Kugasaki, nor the reason why I included Saionji as a condition for accepting the duel, but she just wants to know the reason why I’m apologizing now. I am not sure why she is asking me that question, but I will answer her truthfully.

“I am apologizing for a simple reason. I’m doing it for the simple fact that I just finished a duel and now I’m going to cause you trouble again. Moreover, this time we are dealing with a rather annoying opponent and we don’t have time to prepare. I’m really sorry! Excuse me! Please help me!” In the middle of my words, I again start rubbing my head against the floor. I’m using the agency for my own benefit, but that doesn’t mean I have anything against Himeji or the others. I wouldn’t want to be in this situation at all.

But… even so, I was the one who decided to do this. I was the one who decided to keep Kugasaki away from Saionji to protect the same lie as always and I was also the one who started taking action to do so. This being the case, it’s not like I’m going to run away. I will do everything I can.

By everything I mean… Well, for example:

“Hey, I’ll cook dinner for you today!”

“It’s already prepared, Master. Today we’ll have Japanese food with a high level of femininity.”

“Thank you! Then, I’ll go for the…cleaning! I’ll take care of the cleaning!”

“It’s already done. I did it, too, so no matter where the Master is prostrate, you won’t get dirty.”

“Too perfect! Well, then… I know! You’re probably tired, so I’ll give you a massage!”

“Don’t worry, I’m used to it. I mean… first of all, a maid can’t have her master doing that. Your intention is what matters, Master.”

“Have I reached a dead end? If that’s it, I’ll have to lick your shoes… But, come to think of it, you have to take off your shoes to walk up.”

“Oh, that’s a very kinky thing for me to do, so please don’t, Master” Himeji blushes a little and turns away from me with a gesture of displeasure while rubbing his thighs… Well, to be honest, the image of a high school boy licking a maid’s pantyhose is too bad, so to speak. I think it’s more offensive than licking shoes.

Himeji, who had her hands pressed against her skirt, asks me with a disdainful look and her small lips in disgust:

“I’m sorry to say this… But you, Master, don’t know the term ‘pride,’ do you?”

“What? Oh… Ah, no, well… Pride doesn’t protect a lie, so… you’re right,” I answer mostly honest, still prostrate on my knees, though I slightly look up. Pride, of course, it’s not like I don’t have it, but there are more important things right now.

“Fuuu…” my ears suddenly catch a faint sigh from Himeji as I think. “For a moment, let’s put Master’s perversity aside. I feel… a little relieved.”

“Relieved? What do you mean, relieved…?”

“It’s because of the answer you gave me earlier when I asked you for a reason. In fact, if Master had given up on winning the next duel—that is, if he had apologized in the sense of ‘I feel like I’m going to lose, even though you’ve helped me so far,’ I’m sure my disappointment would not have been minor. I might have been angry, or I might have regretted not being able to help you.”

“…”

“…But, if it is for the reasons the Master mentioned, if the kneeling earlier was a very blatant and selfish way of saying ‘I will cause you trouble again, but I am counting on you,’ then, my answer has been predetermined from the beginning,” she says it with a calm tone and turns her light blue eyes towards me. Then she puts her right hand on her chest and bows in a gesture so refined that it takes my breath away. Then… “There is no need to apologize. I’m here to help my Master win.”

“Huh? Well, then…”

“Yes. Even if you don’t cook for me or lick my pantyhose, I’ll always be there for you… Just understand this, Master, this time’s duel will be much harder than the previous ones. No matter how much preparation you have, you won’t be able to say for sure that you have a chance to win.

“Even so… will you have faith in me?”

“Ah…”

Himeji tilts her head to the side with a shake of her silver hair, looks me in the eye, and asks me that question. However, it’s not just because of the words I just heard… My answer has been obvious from the beginning, there wouldn’t even have been the need to ask.

“…Oh, of course I will.”

#

The next morning, I arrived at the Gakuenmae Station gazebo to wait for a certain person.

Although this is a Saturday morning—an extravagant hour—there are many people coming to the district’s main station to depart for a weekend trip or just to pass the time.

Despite the number of people, they don’t notice me at all.

“To think that this disguise would work…”

Yes… Actually, I’m now disguised in an outfit recommended by Himeji. Although it didn’t require much change, my hairstyle became that of a savage and I’m wearing fashionable sunglasses. For clothes I wear a casual jacket that I brought with me when I moved from the main island, but, since on Academy Island I always walk around in uniform, it must have changed the impression I give off.

“I mean, for me, to go incognito is to wear a mask and glasses.”

That would be used to move around downtown Tokyo, in any case. On Academy Island, on the other hand, those accessories could end up making you stand out more. With that reasoning, my idea was completely rejected… Well, on second thought, maybe she was right.

Let’s look at the person in front of us, for example: the hoodie is pulled down as low as it can go. In addition, the zipper is zipped all the way up, almost covering their mouth. If people see such a suspicious person…

“Shinohara?” Just as I feel the suspicious person getting closer and closer to me, a whisper speaks in my ear.

This voice sounds so familiar… It’s Saionji. It seems that she too is dressed ‘incognito,’ with her trademark red hair and ruby eyes hidden beneath a gray hoodie. The hem of the hoodie extends down to below her shorts, inviting the thought that she might not actually be wearing any.

“Great. I knew you were Shinohara,” she lifts her hood a bit and shows me her real face, her mouth relaxing as she says this. “I was worried I’d make the mistake of approaching the wrong person.”

“Hmm… Why would you make a mistake? Didn’t I make the meeting place clear?”

“Yes, but your hairstyle is completely different. It’s hard to tell it’s you.”

“I disguise myself because it would be troublesome if I were seen… Besides, I should be the one to say it. Your appearance has changed much more than mine.”

“Hey, is that so? Heh, heh… So, tell me, did you expect a girl in a hoodie to look this cute?”

“No. …To be honest, you look like a suspicious infiltrator.”

“Mmm! Ah, forget it. If you keep saying things like that, you’ll never be popular with girls.”

As if dissatisfied with my answer, Saionji immediately turns her face away, does a 180 and quickly walks away… Isn’t this unreasonable? How will you look cute if neither your eyes nor your mouth can be seen? I admit that the features peeking out from under the hood look attractive, but that’s because your face was already cute from the start.

Anyway, now I walk a little behind Saionji’s back. Her long bare legs, more exposed than when she’s wearing a skirt, allure my eyes, but I barely manage to suppress my worldly desires, stepping forward to walk beside her.

“…Hey,” Saionji, walking beside me, suddenly calls out to me. “Tell me, Shinohara, what happened yesterday…? I mean, did you do that for me?”

“What are you talking about?”

“It seems that you wanted to tempt Kugasaki into requesting a duel. Besides, there’s the condition you asked for.”

“No… It’s not for you. I did provoke Kugasaki, true, but it’s only to protect my lies. It has nothing to do with you.”

“All right, say anything you like, I’ll accept that answer… Ah. But seriously, you only think about yourself,” Saionji implies with these harsh words that she doesn’t believe me. Her voice, invaded by a sigh, has a color more of nonconformity than anger. “Are you aware? Kugasaki is very strong. I suppose you think I’m in danger and want to help me, but if you lose, what good is it going to do? Really, you’re silly, Shinohara. A total fool. Yesterday you shocked me so much that I couldn’t say anything.”

“I-I’m sorry I said those things…”

“That’s right, you should think about it seriously… Ha ha ha. But…” With my head down to express my apology, I suddenly notice that the tone of her voice softens a little. I look up in bewilderment, thus I find that Saionji had started to look at me without me noticing. With her hands folded behind her back, she looks at me with a mischievous smile under her hood.

Then she says:

“Even though it was a shock, it still seems silly to me and then it left me speechless… I also felt a little, just a little, happy. So… I want to thank you,” saying this bluntly, Saionji reaches out her right hand and gently presses the tip of her finger on my chest. I feel a little warmth where she touches me. I don’t dare to look at her face because I worry that she might be feeling how hard my heart is beating.

“But… But you don’t need to thank me. I mentioned it a moment ago—it wasn’t because of you. It’s just that it’s like your problems are already my problems…”

“Hey. Don’t you think it’s terrible, that novel and confusing way of proposing?”

“Hey?! N-no, it’s your understanding that’s terrible, don’t you think?!”

“W-what? You’re telling me you don’t want to create that kind of relationship… w-with me?”

“…?!”

At her unexpected answer, I gasp for a moment. Looking at Saionji’s face, her cheeks are slightly flushed and the ruby eyes half hidden under the hood are looking intently at me…

“Let’s get back to the topic!!!”

…In the end, I can’t stand this uncomfortable atmosphere, so I have to shout to correct the direction of the conversation.

It’s a bit annoying because I seem to have ‘given up’… However, Saionji is now blowing air in her face with both hands, as if embarrassment is overtaking her. So, I guess we could call it a draw… No, who wins or loses doesn’t matter.

Let’s get back to the topic that brought us together.

Why did I come to meet Saionji early in the morning (and, on top of that, in disguise) the day before the duel with Kugasaki, being such an important day? Of course, it is to ask for her help in strategy.

Saionji and I have formed a very strong relationship of accomplices due to the lies we share.

That’s why I asked her to meet me today.

“But, Shinohara, you won’t be on your own in the duel, will you? I hear you have the help of a team that specializes in cheating.”

“It’s not a cheating team, it’s a support team. More formally, it’s an agency.”

“Isn’t it the same? Those people will be a problem. I don’t mean to belittle your colleagues, it’s just that my lies can’t be easily told,” says Saionji with concern… Her concern is reasonable though. It’s the agency that is writing the script for my duel, so, if Saionji were to cooperate with me, it would involve revealing her identity to all of them as well.

But I shake my head slightly.

“Actually, I haven’t heard the details, but the team leader entrusted me with something.”

“What?”

“Ah, I think it was… ‘Master, could you contact Saionji Sarasa-sama? If possible, bring her home tomorrow. I will say absolutely nothing to the other members.’”

“…Y-you. The fact that you forced the team leader to call you ‘master’ was a big shock to me, so I don’t remember what you said after that…”

“I’m not forcing her! It’s voluntary! She’s doing it voluntarily!”

To be honest, it’s embarrassing and I can’t get used to it… Well, I’d better leave that aside.

“In short, I didn’t take the initiative to mention you, but she asked, ‘why not ask for the Empress’ help?’ To get information about Kugasaki (a five-star), I need a six-star terminal or higher. And when dueling against Kugasaki, there is no doubt that you are the one with the most experience.”

“Well, of course I understand that reasoning… But why does that person know that I am in contact with you… Oh, could it be that you…?”

“No. I definitely didn’t tell her anything… But she just knows somehow. I said it before, I don’t know the details. Anyway, it should be clear if I take you there.”

“If you take me there, huh? All right. Take me, then,” Saionji sighs and says, gesturing as if there is no other choice. Then she stretches out her right index finger and points at me suddenly. “In that case, I’ll go to your house… But I’m sorry, I won’t take off my disguise or talk. If I feel the situation is dangerous, I’ll leave immediately as the ‘mystery girl.’”

“Well, okay.”

“Hm. Oh, and… don’t call me Akabane, please.”

“I’m clear on that. Miss Saionji Sarasa.”

I can’t help but smile uncomfortably at her repeated reminder, and shrug, making sure she sees me.

“Welcome back, Master. And welcome, miss,” after returning to the bedroom, Himeji comes out to greet.

A slender silver-haired, blue-eyed maid in the vast entrance hall. Faced with the perfect, picturesque scene, I almost want to snap a picture of the moment, but, in the end, I just tell her, “I’m back.”

Then I look at Saionji, who is standing next to me… This… What’s going on? Everything was supposed to be clear when I brought her with me, but at least I don’t know what’s going on. Himeji is keeping her usual calm expression, but Saionji is trembling under the hoodie… Huh? Wait, trembling?

“…Saionji? Hey, tell me what’s wrong… Oh?!”

“…!”

The moment I try to ask about her situation, peeking out a little from below to spy on her expression, Saionji takes my hand in an imposing manner. She pulls on it so hard that it makes me turn my back to Himeji, and then quickly brings her face close to mine and asks in a whisper:

“Why-why, why is that girl here! Hey, Shinohara, what the hell is going on!”

“Even if you ask me…” She’s too close, she smells delicious… After putting those thoughts aside, I answer, “Didn’t I just explain? She is the leader of the agency.”

“What…?”

Saionji’s eyes widen in surprise, speechless. I take this opportunity to turn around and look at Himeji. There she is still standing calmly, as if she knew from the beginning that there would be such a reaction.

“Could it be that… Himeji, do you know this girl’s true identity?”

“…I do. Because I served the Saionji family a long time ago. Among them, I worked as a servant for the real Sarasa-sama for the longest time, so I also know Rina-sama.”

“Huh? That means…”

“That’s right. I’m also one of the few people who know Rina-sama’s lie. In other words, this is why I asked the Master to bring the Empress. Given the circumstances, I believe that at least she won’t be hostile towards you.”

“…I see…’

The puzzle is finally put together.

The ‘lie’ of Saionji—she ‘supplanted’ the true heiress—is, of course, a very secret matter. Because of the nature of this affair, only the Saionji’s direct servants can know the truth. Since Himeji worked for the Saionji family, it is not surprising that she can predict the relationship between Saionji and me to some extent.

“…Um.”

As I ponder about this, Saionji seems to already be mentally ready, and nods her head. She glances around, removes her hood with both hands, her long hair fluttering in the wind as she approaches Himeji. Then she says a few appellative words:

“Hey… It’s been a long time, hasn’t it, Yuki?”

“Yes. Last time we met like this was almost a year ago.”

“A year… That’s right… How are you doing?”

“Physically, I’m fine… But sometimes I have periods of mental collapse.”

The dialogue between Himeji and Saionji implies a subtle sense of distance. I don’t know the situation, so I stand to the side, but I can guess roughly what they mean by ‘a year.’

Speaking of which, the real heiress was supposedly kidnapped a year ago… I was wondering how much of that I could believe, but it looks like it was all true?

If that assumption is correct, dialogue like this is understandable. The only thing that is difficult to understand is this ‘mysterious air,’ but it is precisely the kind of matter that outsiders cannot easily touch.

In any case, to eliminate this uncomfortable atmosphere, Himeji coughs lightly and adds:

“I am glad you have come to this modest house, Rina-sama. We should have given you a formal welcome, but time is limited now. Let’s quickly get down to business… Please come into this room.”

“Ah… Hm-hmm.”

Himeji speaks nonchalantly to which Saionji nods with a blank expression, starting to walk slowly afterwards.

As for me, I’m wondering what happened between these two people, so I follow a little behind them.

“The content of the duel proposed by the five-star color star holder Kugasaki Seiran-sama is as follows.”

There is a dim light in the projection room.

I sit next to Saionji, and Himeji, who is standing next to the big screen, speaks in a clear voice as usual.

“The name of the duel is ‘Phoenix 27-Style Match’… Although the name is a bit strange, it’s simply a game of ‘collecting cards and comparing numbers.’”

“Collect cards and… compare numbers?”

“Yes. First of all, Phoenix 27-Style Match is a two-stage duel. The first stage is the ‘collecting stage.’ In this stage, you will have to look for cards with numbers from 0 to 19 that will be scattered in District Four, thus forming hands of up to five cards.”

“In District Four… Hey, does that mean we’ll have to go all over that area looking for cards?”

“That’s right. In this duel, the map application is crucial. After the duel begins, the map will show the location of each card. When a player moves to the location of a card, they will have captured it.”

Following Himeji’s voice, a simple animated demonstration appears on the screen. The coordinates of the cards are displayed on the terminal and the player gets them when they arrive. Well, so far it’s very simple.

“So, what is the second stage?”

“The second stage of Phoenix 27-Style Match consists of using the cards collected in the previous stage to engage in a ‘direct confrontation’; that is, the ‘exhibition stage.’ Each player chooses one of the cards they have and displays it for comparison. The side with the highest card number wins. This process is repeated until both players run out of cards. Because the limit of cards per hand is five, it is necessary to win at least three times to take the win.”

I silently order my thoughts as I listen to Himeji’s explanation… First goes the ‘collection stage’ of the cards spread out in District Four. The ‘exhibition stage’ is where the numbers on the cards are used for a direct confrontation. So that’s it, going by the general rules, the game doesn’t seem complicated.

“By the way, if both parties arrive together at the location of a card, is it first come, first served?”

“You have understood correctly. The card will disappear from the map as soon as it is acquired by a player… So, the next thing to talk about is some details.

“As mentioned earlier, the card numbers range from 0 to 19—that is, there are twenty cards in total. But not all card numbers and locations will be revealed at the start of the duel. Initially, the information of five cards will be published randomly. Then, the information of a new card will be published every five minutes. Therefore, it takes more than an hour to collect all the information of all the cards.”

“Hmm… So, this may turn into a frantic competition,” before I can say anything, Saionji, who is standing with her arms crossed beside me, gives her impression… Well, it’s as she says. Only a few cards are displayed at the terminal, but they do it constantly. Also, the method of acquisition is ‘first come, first served,’ so of course there are many potentials for dispute.

As I think about this, Himeji speaks again:

“I’ve already explained the general rules, but I want to make one point before we start the strategy meeting: a five-star versus a one-star—there have been several records of uneven duels between those levels, but there is no record of a one-star ever winning. Not once.”

“Huh? Not even once? Academy Island has a history of more than twenty years…”

“No… The island levels are absolute. Because the concept of this system is to give powerful resources to talented people. So, for an inferior student to win a battle with four stars difference is a miracle that will rarely happen.”

“Yeah, I know, but still…”

“Forget it… Shirayuki is right,” shocked, I’m about to ask a question, but Saionji interrupts me speaking in a sigh. She looks at me with her ruby eyes and continues in a calm voice, “For example… Shinohara, do you remember Numerical Manipulation? The skill I used in the duel with you?”

“…? Of course I remember it. It’s the one that made my round time only a tenth, right?”

“Yes, yes. But that’s not a ‘shorten the time’ skill, but the ability to ‘adjust the numbers that appear in the duel,’ in a wider sense. So, of course, the numbers written on the card can also be changed. With Kugasaki’s level, I think the number could be increased to about thirty. You can also evenly distribute the numbers of all the cards with that skill, or you can concentrate on the powerful cards to create numbers higher than 20.”

“More than 20… If true, it might be difficult to win.”

After hearing Saionji’s supplementary explanation, even if I don’t want to, I can only accept it. Numerical Manipulation is universally applicable, so of course I can use it, but because there is a big difference in level, I can’t compete against his. I see, we’re still the same.

Himeji waits silently for us to finish talking, then nods her head slightly.

“So, basically, the lower students are at an overwhelming disadvantage. They would at least have the right to decide the content of the duel, but Master’s situation doesn’t even allow him to do that… To be honest, Master doesn’t even have a one percent chance of winning in this game,” Himeji seems to have difficulty saying that, but hiding the truth wouldn’t do any good.

Well… there is no doubt that what she said is true. My actual level is one star and Kugasaki is one of the most influential even among the five stars. For those who don’t know my level, this would be a legendary battle, but if they knew the truth, they would know that it is a defeat foretold. In the end, no matter how well thought out our plan is, it can be turned around with just one skill. A warm feeling burns in my mind…

“But it’s not like it’s a hundred percent impossible to win, right?”

“Yes. The probability is extremely small, but even so… I wouldn’t say it’s zero,” Himeji takes another deep breath as she says this.

“If this were an ordinary impossible battle, the best strategy would have been to prepare a speech as soon as the duel was confirmed, but Master is in a very special situation—he’s a fake seven-star. The apparent pinnacle. In other words, despite the true circumstances, Kugasaki-sama thinks the Master is superior. So, now he must be reasoning the same as us, ‘the opponent’s Numerical Manipulation level is higher, so there’s no point in competing with that skill.’”

“Oh, I see. In that case… does it mean that he’s planning something in the collection stage?”

“There is a high probability that this is the case… Rather, this duel will essentially be decided during the collection stage. Being a direct confrontation, the exhibition stage might seem to be the main one, but, assuming both players have Numeric Manipulation, the exhibition stage will be just a ‘bonus’ for both to reveal cards. Even in psychological warfare, victory is almost always determined by who has higher level skills… I don’t think Kugasaki-sama will be happy with that.”

“That’s true. From his point of view, not acting before the direct confrontation must be like handing over victory, which is impossible.”

“Indeed. So we will take advantage of that—we will sabotage the actions of Kugasaki-sama, who will undoubtedly attack, and delay his access to the cards. In the meantime, the Master must collect large numbers and build an ‘ideal hand’ that will allow you to win even if the opponent uses Numerical Manipulation… It’s the only way. It is impossible to hack a five-star’s terminal from the outside, so if Kugasaki-sama reaches the exhibition stage in perfect condition, you must assume that we are in checkmate,” Himeji confronts me with a stark truth in an indifferent tone.

Hearing this, I fall silent… but I knew it from the beginning—it is a duel with a ninety-nine percent chance of defeat if you face it normally. Understanding it very well, we are still aiming to defeat Kugasaki.

“Hmm. What’s next is to find out what kind of moves Kugasaki will use.”

Then Saionji, who has been immersed in thought, suddenly looks up and says:

“If you will be working on a ‘sabotage,’ I would like to check the details of the strategy.”

“Ah. That’s right; as a six-star, you can see the skills of a five-star like Kugasaki. That way would it be possible for us to delineate the skills he might use?”

“Yes, that’s how I often guess the skills, but… I must inform you that Kugasaki always uses the Emergency Call skill.”

“…Emergency Call?” I repeat like a parrot. Then Saionji puts her fingertips together and informs me:

“Emergency Call is the skill that symbolizes the strength of the five-star Kugasaki Seiran. It is a skill limited to students with four stars and above. As the name implies, you can command a helper during the duel.”

“A helper…? In essence, external support?”

“Yes. As you know, normally, it would be a violation for a third party to interfere or support during the duel, right? But the helper summoned with Emergency Call is considered a participant, not a third party. Therefore, they can freely intervene and even carry their own skill.”

“That’s how the skill works… I understand.”

It takes me a moment to understand. Kugasaki uses Emergency Call to summon a helper, and that helper will equip a skill, so the total number of active skills is not reduced. But definitely his ability to act will improve, and more importantly, he can indirectly use skills he does not possess. That makes his strategy much harder to read.

“In other words, he has camouflage.”

“You might say. Of course, not everyone is willing, since being a helper means going through a lot of trouble. But… you see, Kugasaki is a person with a popularity that is not normal,” Saionji says and sighs… He has a large unofficial organization with more than three hundred members, the Holy Knights of the Phoenix. Kugasaki is the founder and current leader of the group. Consequently, he has the same three hundred strategies available to him to approach the duel.

As I bite my lip at the tremendous inequality, Saionji gives a small laugh and continues:

“But I don’t think you have to be so pessimistic. It’s true that Emergency Call is a nuisance, but… in return, you can almost ignore the third skill.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yes. I’m sure someone must have told you… Kugasaki has the Blue Star. The special effect of the Blue Star is that it allows you to use an exclusive skill called †Black Wings†. So, I don’t know if it’s because it’s his favorite or because he can’t turn it off, but since he became the owner of a colored star, he’s never played without that skill.”

“…? But that doesn’t mean I can ignore it. Since it’s the effect of a colored star, doesn’t that mean it’s a very strong skill?”

“You tell me. Because you saw it: the white smoke and the sound effects he was making, exactly those are the effects of †Black Wings†.”

“…”

“I’m sure you feel like saying, ‘how can such a clown be so strong?’ but I assure you he is strong. You must be wary of his strength, because if you get overconfident, you will lose,” Saionji says with a complicated expression. Considering all the times she has faced him, these words gain credibility… Well, let’s get back to the topic.

“So, we’ve already got Kugasaki’s skill composition figured out. Numerical Manipulation, †Black Wings† and ‘something else’ that he gets with Emergency Call. As Yuki said before, the one who wants to win the duel will have to impose himself in the gathering stage; then, this ‘something else’ will be an attack skill for it. So far, I don’t think I’m wrong.”

“Ah… By the way, what would you do? If you were in Kugasaki’s position, what would your strategy be like?”

“Hmm, I’ve been thinking about it… I’d probably trick the GPS.”

“The GPS?”

“Yes. In the duel, you’ll get cards by taking the terminal to the coordinates shown, right? Then, I would use Geoposition Manipulation. This skill can rewrite the coordinates of a terminal at the user’s will—if you use it to change your coordinates to the location of the card, you can get the numbers you want without having to move.”

“Does that skill exist?!”

“But only students with five stars or more are allowed to set this skill. And you can only use it five times in a duel… But, since the limit of cards per hand is five, that’s enough. Kugasaki often chooses a fairly simple way to win, so your method this time should be the same… I also thought of using the Reconnaissance skill to get the locations of the cards from the beginning, but that’s not realistic. If it let you know both the number of each card and the coordinates, it could be useful, but with this skill you would only know the coordinates.”

“Do you think that’s a bad idea? I mean, just knowing where they are is very advantageous.”

“The field of this duel is very large. If you try to walk the entire Fourth District, it’ll take all day. It’s very inefficient to move blindly without knowing which cards have the best numbers. Since the numbers are up to 19, cards 0 through 9 are useless… So you will have to wait for the numbers to be revealed. It’s a good idea to be able to get to the best cards quickly when the opportunity arises.”

“…Oh, wow…” I can’t but exclaim in admiration as Saionji eloquently gives her opinion… It’s baffling how she is able to become so admirable when entering Empress mode, being someone so hateful in her base state.

In short, the attack skill that Kugasaki will use is Geoposition Manipulation or some such skill. And, as we have already filled all three skill slots, he will not be able to carry a defense skill. He won’t be able to prevent himself against interference, so it’s up to us to attack, even if it’s just a little bit.

“Now, Himeji. Among the attack skills I can set up, are there any that are useful for this duel?”

“…Let me think about it,” in response to my question, Himeji gives a short answer and lowers her head a little. Then she raises her head again, silver hair swaying, and says in a low voice, “According to this situation, Bug Manifesting should be the most suitable skill.”

“Bug Manifesting…? That is, the ability to ‘make Kugasaki’s terminal show bugs’? For example, to mess up the numbers on the cards and take him to unthinkable coordinates?”

“Your reasoning goes in the right direction, but don’t expect it to show such a great effect. After all, it will be set to one-star level. I’m afraid it will only rewrite the last digit of the card coordinates… But it will still be enough to mess up the opponent’s plan.”

“Hmm, I understand.”

I will use this skill to offset the coordinates of the cards displayed on Kugasaki’s terminal. If he uses a skill like Geoposition Manipulation, he will definitely waste his moves. Even if he doesn’t use this skill, I can gain some time. This choice is really not a bad one.”

As I nod my head, Himeji looks at me with her clear blue eyes and slowly speaks again:

“For the remaining skills… I think the classic ones will do. One of them should be Lucky, which modifies the probability. It is a support skill that will make it easier for cards with large numbers to appear near the Master. Its level one effect won’t be high, but it should at least be adequate for this situation.”

“Yes. So as the last one you will choose Numerical Manipulation, right? No matter how big the performance gap is with your current level, the fact that you can increase the number is enough… Still, unlike with Lucky, the performance of the skill will be clearly displayed. That could expose your true star level.”

“Ah… Well, I’ll somehow fool them.”

It’s true that it’s an element that might raise suspicions, but it’s still within the limit of what I can solve with my acting skills. Anyway, there are no other support skills that suit me in this situation.

“Then, let’s go over the plan so far,” after my statement of agreement with the plan, Himeji, in front of me, raises her index finger. First, Phoenix 27-Style Match collection stage, tomorrow, we, the agency, will give our best to support you, so please use Bug Manifesting to interfere with Kugasaki-sama’s movements and benefit from Lucky to collect large numbers. In light of the difference in Numerical Manipulation performance… well, to be honest, it would be preferable for all numbers to be above 15.”

“All, say… I understand what you mean, but, anyway, that’s…”

“Are you going to say ‘impossible’?”

“Huh? Isn’t it?”

“Who knows… I’ve already told you that we will support you with all our power. Literally, it means that we will support you with everything. For example, tonight the agency will ask Kagaya-san, who is in charge of electronics, to interfere with the map application. She will program the application to replace the original map with the fake map we will prepare. At first glance, there is no difference. In fact, there will only be a slight deviation in the coordinates. If you concentrate on just following the map, it will be impossible for you to get the cards… Although you cannot directly interfere with the terminal of a five-star, the map application is under the jurisdiction of Academy Island—it can be invaded by the authority of the Saionji family.”

“…”

“Thus, Kugasaki-sama will not be able to rely on Geoposition Manipulation, and will only be able to use his legs to find the cards. The coordinates are just slightly off, so he can still get the cards when he happens to walk past the actual location. However, the location where Phoenix 27-Style Match will be played is too big and Kugasaki-sama doesn’t have a driver’s license, so he will have to use public transportation… Tomorrow, the buses and streetcars that Kugasaki-sama gets to board will be stopped due to periodic inspections. I don’t know why, but all the vehicles he takes will be stopped. Strange, isn’t it?” Himeji’s expression hasn’t changed at all, but she declares a sabotage plan with sarcasm. The light blue eyes are 1.5 times brighter than usual and she is full of energy. Apparently, she enjoys the misfortune of others.

But the next moment… Himeji suddenly lowers her gaze to the ground.

“…I’m sorry, Master. Did I annoy you…?”

“Huh? What are you talking about?”

“…My preferences aside, I think cheating might not be to everyone’s liking… Maybe it’s a little late now, but I… I’ve never asked for your opinion…”

“Ah… Were you really talking about that?”

My lack of comment seems to have translated as ‘I don’t like to cheat.’ Actually, I didn’t say anything because I was admiring, but I’m sorry…

I fix my gaze on the blue eyes that look at me expectantly and reply:

“Himeji, I want to tell you one thing. I don’t know what other people think, but cheating and deceiving is something I need to do. As long as I can hold on to lies and achieve my goal, it doesn’t matter what I use. So, in this sense, I can’t be bothered with your strategies. I will always thank you for your help—even now, I think of you as my knight in shining armor. Well, then… this is how I feel.”

“Ah… I understand… I’m glad to hear that.” Himeji smiles as if she’s relieved.

Saionji, next to us, interrupts saying, “What’s with that compliment? You’re talking to a girl! Don’t tell her ‘I think of you as my knight in shining armor,’ be gentler!” But that’s how I feel about it frankly, just let it pass…

After clearing her throat, Himeji reopens the conversation:

“A… Anyway. In short, the former is the general strategy for tomorrow. Even if the whole plan goes well, I’m afraid the win rate won’t reach fifty percent… Still, the odds of winning do exist.”

“You’re right. Numerical Manipulation, Lucky, and Bug Manifesting… Yeah, I think that’s going to be a good combination. For Shinohara, right now, they’re probably the best skills he can take.”

“If you say that, I’ll feel a bit relieved… By the way, Himeji, can I ask you something?” Although I feel somewhat relieved with what Saionji said, I still have something to ask. “Bug Manifesting is a general purpose skill that publicly distributes the island, right? Can I ask the agency to create a skill with similar effect? If they do, maybe it can play a role in the exhibition stage.”

“…? Well, of course it’s possible… but does that make sense? As I said before, the main battlefield of Phoenix 27-Style Match is the collection stage.”

“Ah, I know that very well. But just in case, just in case, think of it as life insurance.”

“I understand. We’ll do as you say, Master,” Himeji nods obediently, but it is clear that she still has some doubts.

She closes her eyes for a moment, seeming to be thinking about what I said. Eventually she walks toward me as if she’s up to something. She stops in front of me sitting on the couch and leans down, tucking her hair around her ear with her right hand. This distance makes my heart race.

In front of my face, Himeji whispers:

“By the way, Master, you haven’t set up the general purpose skill yet, have you?”

“…! N-no. I just don’t know how to do it.”

“Then, open your terminal for a moment. Tap the icon in the bottom left corner of the home screen to enter the official Academy Island store,” while Himeji says this in a clear voice as always, she touches my terminal with her finger to show me the detailed operations. She continues to stand in front of me as she looks down at my palm, so our foreheads are about to touch; her locks are already tickling my shoulder. If I look up a little, I’ll see her vast bosom covered by the maid’s uniform… Of course, I can’t raise my head. I am a gentleman…

“Master? Are you listening to me?”

“No, no! I swear I wasn’t listening!”

“Then please listen carefully… I’ll explain it again from the beginning.” Himeji pouts a little and teaches me to install the general skill again. This time I get rid of my tensions and successfully execute the installation process.

“Okay, that’s perfect, Master. As for the adjustments you said for Bug Manifesting, we’ll get right on it, and we should be able to complete it in a few hours at the latest… This way, the meeting is over.” A soft smile shows on her calm expression for a moment, then she detaches herself from me. She proceeds to bow beautifully.

“I must report to Kagaya-san and the others the summary of what we agreed on today. It wouldn’t be good for them to hear Rina-sama’s voice, so I’ll leave the room for a moment.” With her terminal in her hand, she leaves the room at a fast pace.

As I watch Himeji leave, I stand up to stretch my body—but, for some reason, Saionji, with flushed cheeks, steps forward and grabs my arm.

“W-wait a minute, Shinohara! Just now… what does that mean?!”

“I’m sorry?! W-what do you mean what? What do you mean?”

“That just now! The way you interacted with Yuki… The atmosphere around you had traces of indecency! Is it possible for you to have that kind of relationship?!”

“What?! It can’t be such a thing! She was just teaching me!”

“B-but… you were too close. Wasn’t that girl not even supposed to get close to men? And now, Yuki herself was so close to you. That was practically a kiss!”

“Don’t make things up!!!” I aware that my face turned red, but I must answer clearly. “Maybe… she’s trying to get used to it because I’m her master, don’t you think? So, I’m not guilty of whatever you have imagined… Although it’s true that we are getting closer and closer compared to the first day.”

“Hey, hey, don’t call me a liar! I know it’s true! Seriously, Shinohara…”

“…You…why are you so upset?”

“I’M…NOT…UPSET!” Saionji shouts. Her voice fully exposes her bad mood.

By the way… I want to say that Saionji, now that she’s got me by the shirt and arms, is closer to me than Himeji was. It’s a pretty big couch, but she’s sat right next to me, so her body is almost overlapping to mine. The bare legs sticking out of the shorts are so erotic that I wouldn’t dare look down… Really, this girl should be a little more aware of her appearance (I pretend to be calm, but my heart has been fluttering for a while now).

Then…

“Hm… Hey, Shinohara,” Saionji suddenly changes her tone of voice. You seem to be taking this very seriously… Aren’t you angry at me?”

“Angry… at… you…? Why should I be?”

“I-it’s just that, if it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t have to duel with Kugasaki. Sure, almost everything is your fault, but I thought maybe I was a little, just a little, to blame. That’s why I asked,” after saying that Saionji’s bright ruby eyes look at me. Her eyes tremble a little uneasily, and, though not necessarily because of that, I shake my head slowly.

“I’m not angry. To begin with, you and I are accomplices—Kugasaki is our common enemy. I think it’s natural to dismiss this threat, don’t you?”

“Yes, but… This… how should I put it…” to my reply, Saionji speaks hesitantly. This expression is the same one she showed three days ago at our secret meeting. The expression she showed before she told me about the heiress. She hesitates for a while… And then, “I’m sorry, forget what I said.”

After tens of seconds of worry, Saionji chooses silence… Although I can’t deny that I’m a little curious of the words she swallowed this time, forcing her to tell me is not an option. “Alright,” I say this and drop the topic.

With a creak, Himeji opens the door and walks back into the room. It’s been a while since the conversation ended.

“I have reported the subject to the agency. The transportation means in the competition area and the method of contact during the duel will be discussed with Kagaya-san later. The general framework of the plan has been established. The information given to us by Rina-sama has been important, so she may now leave. Still…”

“…Still?”

“It’s half past five in the afternoon. It’s still early, but it’s a unique opportunity… If it’s convenient, would Rina-sama have dinner with us?”

In terms of cooking, Himeji’s talent is very reliable.

That not only refers to the quality of the dish, but also the time needed to complete it. However…

“Zzz…”

“…Is Rina-sama asleep?”

It’s been about thirty minutes since Himeji started cooking. Saionji, who came to the dining room with me, is lying on the table and letting out a slight snore.

“Ah. Maybe she’s tired from all that thinking… Are you done? Then I’ll wake her up.”

“No, it doesn’t matter. It’ll be a while before it’s fully cooked,” Himeji quietly shakes her head. Her eyes look at Saionji with a slightly complicated gaze.

So, though I still hesitate, I decide to try asking Himeji.

“Himeji, why are you staying away from her? You used to be friends, right? And even though you hadn’t seen each other in a year… Ah, I’m sorry. If you don’t want to answer, it’s not necessary.”

“…” to my question, Himeji remains silent for a while.

A few seconds later, she suddenly stands up and walks away from me, walking around the table towards Saionji.

On the way, she starts talking slowly.

“No, it’s not that I’m hiding from Rina… Rina is hiding from me.”

“…No honorifics?”

“That’s right. Rina and I are the same age and we used to meet every day. If we don’t include Sarasa, she’s probably my best friend.”

“Still, is she avoiding you?”

“Yes. For a year now… After Sarasa disappeared, Rina suddenly started to distance herself. When she talked to me, she no longer looked me in the eyes.”

There is no feeling of anger or sadness in Himeji’s voice. I don’t know whether she’s holding it in or it’s because she’s used to it—either way, I think this is kind of sad.

Himeji continues to walk slowly until finally approaching Saionji.

“…Probably… It’s just my intuition, but I think Rina is hiding something. She’s not just a substitute, she’s also hiding other things from me and the Saionji family. But Rina is very smart, so I still don’t know what it is… Not being able to help her depresses me…”

“That’s why I can’t smile when I’m with Rina,” Himeji says as she looks at Saionji with affectionate eyes. She reaches out her right hand and gently combs her long red hair. Then she lifts her head.

“What I’m about to tell you has nothing to do with the duel or the agency, it’s just my selfish wish.”

“…”

“Master… If you can… Only if you can, support Rina. I am not talking about supporting Saionji Sarasa, but Akabane Rina. I hope you can protect and support her. She has always been very aggressive and stubborn, but she is really just a weak girl,” says she with a wry smile.

Before I can respond to her request, Himeji turns around and walks towards the kitchen.