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Monday afternoon, one day after finishing the duel with Kugasaki.

I have been absent from school and am in the hospital… Actually, no, I’m lying on bed in my room.

I was taken to the hospital after Kazami announced that the duel was over, but the diagnosis was that it was only minor injuries. There are many lacerations, so it looks painful, but there are no fractures or internal bleeding.

No need to be hospitalized, but a few days of rest are necessary at least. So today I have been lying down since morning.

 “…Master, your black tea is ready,” just now, Himeji gently knocks on the door and enters.

As usual, dressed in a maid’s uniform, she slowly approaches me. She places the cup of tea on the small table set up next to the bed, then holds the tray against her chest and asks this with a shake of her hair:

“It’s too hot, shall I blow on it to cool it down?”

“Huh?! No, don’t worry. I can do it myself.”

“But the medic said to avoid activity as much as possible.”

“If my condition were so bad that I couldn’t even blow, I could ask for your help.” As I speak, I sit up and receive the cup that Himeji brought for me.

…By the way, she’s been acting like this since yesterday. At first, she said something like ‘you don’t seem to be delicate, so I hope you won’t nag too much’ while glaring at me with sharp eyes, but then she’s been staying by my side the whole time. She even tried to sneak in when I was going to take a bath, and I had to call Kagaya-san for help.

Well, this is all my fault, so I don’t have the right to complain…

“…It’s good,” as soon as I taste the slightly sweet black tea, I let her know my opinion.

Himeji smiles slightly after hearing it, then changes the subject, saying:

“That reminds me, just now, Kugasaki-sama sent you a gift to cheer you up. I thought it was some kind of joke toy, but it seems to be an ordinary fruit basket. I’ll give them to you later.”

“Kugasaki? Hey, that guy can be considerate too.”

“Considerate, you say… Uh, Master, would you like to read the letter that accompanied Kugasaki-sama’s gift? Actually, it’s a super masterpiece with over one hundred and fifty pages.”

“…A-ah. Uh…”

“By the way, this one is the simplified version that summarizes the main ideas from my perspective. It’s only five sentences.”

“Hurray for Himeji!”

The concentration and perseverance to write an article that could be submitted to the Light Novel Rookie Award in one night is superb; still, if I read it, I think my brain is going to melt. From the bottom of my heart, I send compliments to my outstanding maiden and proceed to read the letter (simplified version) sent by Kugasaki.

“From the results of that match, I can only admit that you are a figure that coincides with a seven stars. But don’t ask who is more powerful between you and Goddess. There is no point of comparison. Goddess is the highest peak—the one and only absolute being. But at least… if you like, you can consider yourself my favorite rival.”

“…”

“…Well, it may sound like a speech with an air of superiority, but it’s probably Kugasaki-sama’s idea of compliment. He’s just like Rina, the self-centered type.”

“Ah… No, that’s fine, but… I’m afraid he’s going to become obsessed with me now.”

The next time he asks me to duel, I’ll have to win by a wider margin than I did now. I don’t plan to lose so easily, but it’s still problematic. If possible, I’d rather not add to the agency’s burden with a rematch duel.

I shake my head loosely as I have these thoughts, and suddenly…

“…Hm?”

All of a sudden, the terminal on the side table vibrates a little. I look at the screen and notice that there’s a notification from the messaging app.

“Hey… What’s this?”

When I pick it up to confirm the content, I must have mistakenly tapped somewhere else, because the screen changed interface. My profile appears: Shinohara Hiroto. Nothing happens, but there is something strange about it: in the place where before there was only the Red Star of Saionji, there is now another star.

By looking at the color, there is no doubt that it is the Blue Star held by Kugasaki.

I had been told that, because I had cheated the system to be a seven stars, no matter who I defeated, I wouldn’t get any more stars… But for some reason, this happened.

“…”

I squint my eyes slightly… Forget it, let’s drop the subject for now. Anyway, Principal must know something about this, so I’ll ask her at the appropriate time.

When I decide to continue in peace and open the message, I find the following:

“Shinohara, are you home now? I’m hanging around, and I was wondering if it was a good idea to check in on you… But don’t think I’m here to visit you!”

“It’s been a whole day since I’ve seen you, Shinohara, how’s your body?”

A few minutes later, Saionji enters my room. She has the same costume as before, a hoodie.

That kind of attire is good for going outside, but it’s just me and Himeji in this house. After hearing that, she immediately takes off her hood, leaving her long red hair exposed. Then she hesitates for a while but ends up taking off her entire hoodie.

Underneath she’s wearing the Ouka Academy uniform I’m used to seeing, but it’s refreshing the sight of her in my room, so for some reason, as she responds I avert my gaze.

“What, didn’t the message I sent you talked about it? I told you there was nothing to worry about.”

“Yes, I read it. But, because it’s you, who knows if it’s true? So I have to come and check it out with my own eyes… Well, it’s great to see you so energetic.”

As she speaks, she walks over by the left side of the bed and sits next to where I’m still lying down. When Himeji sees this, she leaves the room as if she just remembered something.

“I’m going to pour a cup of tea for Rina too.”

Then… Saionji, turning around on the bed, suddenly brings her face close to mine.

“Now that I remember, Shinohara, I have something to tell you.”

“You have something to tell me? What is it?”

“The first thing is that you have talent… You have hidden your strength very well. In yesterday’s duel, at least in the final moments, you showed you can win with no cheating. I know the others will never realize it, but that was a great victory for a one star… Way too much.”

“What do you mean, too much? I don’t know if you’re congratulating me or you’re upset.”

“It’s difficult. If I had been in your shoes, I don’t think I could have won that duel. So, I really believe you’re pretty good… But I also think it’ll go to your head if you get too many compliments.”

“Aren’t you being too honest?” I smile unintentionally.

Saionji pouts, but doesn’t seem to be angry.

“So what next? You said it was the first thing, so there must be something else you wanted to say.”

“Huh? Ah, the other thing is about what happened yesterday. You suddenly felt motivated after I told you my story, didn’t you?”

“…? Well, you’re right.” I can’t read her intentions right away, so I nod bluntly.

Saionji beams a somewhat roguish smile, leaning in my direction.

“Hey, what does that mean, what did you say? You said you would do anything to help me. Did it steal your heart to see me trying so hard for the sake of my best friend? Was your heart fluttering out of your chest? Hey, hey, did you feel something like that, Shinohara?”

“…You’re so annoying!”

Saionji crosses the line and starts asking questions like that, forcing me to express my straightforward thoughts to her… What bothers me the most is that generally speaking, she’s right. This chick is an expert at raising a ruckus. However…

You don’t miss a beat, do you…?

Why does she want to pursue this topic further? In all likelihood, she just wants to make fun of me, but if it were deliberate, it would be impressive.

Yes… To be honest, I have a reason to sympathize with Saionji’s lie. Of course, it’s also because she’s a cute girl, but it’s not just that. It’s because she said ‘kidnapping’ that time… It has something to do with that. I came to this island to look for a girl of whom I nothing but a vague recollection.

To tell the truth, it was something that stirred deep down in my emotions.

But… well, there’s no need to discuss it with her. It has nothing to do with her.

It’s not that I don’t want to talk about it with Saionji specifically, it’s something I don’t want to talk about with anyone. I came chasing after my first love, my childhood friend—what kind of face would I say that with?

“What about you?”

“What about what?”

“I mean, even if it’s to grant your friend’s wish, it’s not normal to consider kidnapping. Well? You’re going to explain yourself again by saying you’re a genius?”

“Ah, hmm. Heh heh. That’s a secret. Because it’s the story of my first love!”

“…Uh… Ah… Ah… Could you hand me that eraser on the desk?”

“…? Sure, here it is… You didn’t care! W-Why didn’t you ask further?! You changed the subject so naturally that I handed you the eraser without even thinking of it!”

“Sorry, did you say something about…your first love? You want to talk about that…? Hey, when you use an eraser, isn’t it more efficient to rub with the edges?”

“We’re not talking about that! Focus! You must have some questions! We’re talking about my first love, who was a thousand times more handsome than you!”

“How badly do you want to talk about him? See, even if he was five million times better than me, don’t ask me to be interested in someone I don’t even know.”

“Oh, Shinohara, are you jealous? Uh-huh, you don’t like me talking about other men!”

“Why so confident? Guess what, lemme tell you something. My first love was my childhood friend… and she was a billion times prettier than you. So don’t get carried away.”

“What?” The moment she hears me, Saionji’s ruby eyes widen and glare at me.

…Well, I know I exaggerated a bit with the description, but I’m sure she was a beautiful girl. Though my memories of her appearance are blurry, I’m only left with that impression. However, it should be enough to compete with Saionji, a girl of transcendental beauty (although in personality things are different).

…No, I shouldn’t talk about it anymore.

Okay… In view of the lies that bind me and Saionji together, it seems that we will have to continue cooperating in the future, but to be honest, I’m restless… because I think we are polar opposites.

I secretly let out a sigh as I think about this… Although our bond right now is limited to ‘accomplices,’ things have intensified to this point. Probably that favorable attitude she showed during the duel against Kugasaki was just an out-of-the-ordinary event.

“Come on… It’s humiliating that you’re making fun of me,” unaware of my thoughts, Saionji mutters with a grim face while shaking her head.

When I turn to look at her, she raises her eyes as well. We gaze at each other closely for a moment, then by sheer chance, we turn our faces away at the same time.

By this time, Himeji comes back into the room. After opening the door, she suddenly stands still, looking at us silently.

Then, a hint of displeasure showing on her lips, she utters a few words:

“This… You know, you two look so close right now.”

“What?!”

Even though I’ve started communicating wordlessly with Himeji, I really can’t understand how she came to that conclusion.

“Dazzling! Shinohara Hiroto takes his fourth consecutive victory!

“Around noon yesterday, the most anticipated battle kept more than twenty thousand spectators glued to their seats. Kugasaki Seiran ‘Phoenix’ vs. Shinohara Hiroto the ‘New Strongest’: it was a battle between five- and seven-star titans.

“[…] Surely there will be no need to tell the outcome. Riding the momentum of defeating the Empress, Shinohara Hiroto has beaten a powerful enemy again. It was a dramatic setback to which no one in the audience could be indifferent, despite the already unusual incidents during the duel.

“This way, Shinohara Hiroto amassed four duel wins within a week of the start of the semester. His spectacular pace is unprecedented in Academy Island’s over twenty years history.

“The devilish skill and eccentric attitude have begun to gain a following. We shall now proceed to analyze his fighting style in detail…”

“…Yes, it seems that quite a fuss has been rendered.”

Eimei Private Academy, principal’s office. In this room where normal students are not allowed to enter, Ichinose Natsume is reading the latest LNN report and quietly explaining her thoughts.

“…” the one who answers—no, the one who ignores her and turns away is the maid who has just entered the office. Normally she doesn’t show much emotion, but right now her bad mood is evident.

So, she deliberately does not respond, but proceeds with a polite greeting.

“It’s been a long time. Sorry to keep you waiting, Bitch Master.”

“Hey, do you think attaching ‘Master’ is going to make it more polite?”

“No. It’s just that I got a little jealous seeing the close relationship between my best friend and my Master, so I didn’t have time to think about how to address you.”

“I see. I called you at the wrong time. I apologize, then… Anyway, now have a seat.”

“…Excuse me.”

Invited by the owner of the office, the girl in the maid’s uniform, Himeji Shirayuki, carefully sits down on the sofa. The sofa in the headmistress’ office is softly padded, but it is so luxurious and expensive that it come to be uncomfortable for Shirayuki.

“Um… So why did you call me today? I thought we were done with post-duel operations.”

“Yes, you’re right. I just want to share information with you,” Ichinose says in a relaxed tone and places a cup of tea she pulls out of nowhere in front of Himeji.

Shirayuki glances at it with her clear blue eyes, taking a sip as an act of politeness… This tremendously delicious taste makes her feel the terrible injustice of the world. She would have to ask her later to teach her how to brew it.

Smiling as if seeing through Shirayuki’s heart, Ichinose sits down on the opposite sofa, crossing her legs in a not-so-subtle way. Then she continues:

“Hey, Shirayuki, I have a question for you. Your master, Shinohara Hiroto, has played four duels so far, so what do you think his current level is? Not the fake level, but the real one.”

“Huh? This… It’s impossible to add stars as long as he’s a fake seven stars, so he has one star? Don’t even think about telling me he’s a four-star because he won four times.”

“Ku ku. No, not that. Shinohara Hiroto’s legit level is currently two stars.”

“…How?” Shirayuki tilts her head to the side.

…How is that possible? As long as he reigned at the top of the Academy Island system with cheating, it shouldn’t be possible for him to get more stars.

“Actually, this is the first time I’ve seen something like this… There’s a rule for colored stars, you know? If the loser of a duel has a colored star, that star will be removed without fail.”

“Yes.”

“But in this case, it creates a contradiction. Shinohara cannot get any more stars in the system—yet Kugasaki’s Blue Star must be transferred to Shinohara.

“Originally, there is an exception to this rule: if you win against a special star owner and cannot increase your number of stars, one of your normal stars will be replaced by the corresponding colored star. The number of stars does not increase, but the regular star is instead upgraded to a special star.”

“I see. No, but in this case…”

“Yes. You are right, Shirayuki. In Shinohara’s case, you can’t even do that. After all, he only has one star, and this one is colored. There are no stars to upgrade. However, there’s no applicable process in this case, and he simply increased his number of stars by one… Ku ku. It is an exception among exceptions. In short, Shinohara is now a two stars and a double special stars bearer with Blue and Red.

“…Ah…” Shirayuki listens to Ichinose’s somewhat enthusiastic story and expresses an unexcited response.

“Ku ku. What’s wrong? Aren’t you excited? I am.”

“…Owning two colored stars is something really rare. Still, it’s only two stars. He still needs our agency’s help. So, I don’t quite understand what you mean by these words.”

“Really? Then, I’ll give you some more clues: a second colored star, bypassing the normal star count. What would happen if he fought against other special star holders?”

“…? Let’s see… Applying what you just said, he would become a three star holder with three colors.”

“Exactly. So, if he does the same thing another four times or even five times?”

“After gathering seven colored stars, would he add one more…? No, but no such thing…”

When it finally becomes clear what Ichinose was trying to say with a wild smile as always, Shirayuki shudders slightly, trying to find a way to deny it… But no matter how much she thinks about it, she can’t find continuation for her words. The idea of collecting the more than a dozen colored stars that were found on the island is beyond insane, but if it’s just a matter of theorizing, it’s possible that he could add more than seven stars. This would result in an eight stars, an unprecedented existence.

Noticing that Shirayuki has understood, Ichinose’s expression becomes belligerent.

“I think that’s the ‘requirement.’ You see, one of the rumors circulating on this island is that an exceptional student in the Star Hunting System will earn the right to become heir to the Saionji family. The headmaster who has cultivated such a student will become the next president. None of the geniuses (seven stars) have become heirs so far, so it’s still in fantasy land… But what if by ‘exceptional’ they mean a level higher than seven stars, what do you think?”

“You’re not saying that Master can do that, are you? Because… No, it’s impossible.”

“I wouldn’t dare. But even if he cheated, he has a record of four victories in four battles. Two of them were against the Empress and Kugasaki Seiran, moreover. I can only call him phenomenal. Ku ku… Tell me, Shirayuki, you think this is accidental?”

Shirayuki finally falls silent when asked by Ichinose.

Still, she ponders silently… It’s true that the agency has cheated to save him from defeat, but so far, they haven’t done anything outside the realm of a seven stars’ skills. In other words, he has only used powers that he would in fact have had on hand if he were a real seven stars.

Furthermore, the ‘genius’ he displayed in the second half of the 27-Style Match of the Phoenix completely surpassed Shirayuki’s imagination. His adaptive thinking and ability to appropriate cheating as a tool. If that was his true potential, then the assumption from a moment ago was no longer theory but a reality.

“…Did you foresee this situation from the beginning? Since you persuaded the Master to come to Academy Island?”

“Ku ku. Who knows? At least it’s true that I wanted him for Eimei even if he falsified his scores on admission. His transfer grade was disastrous, but it is not his grades that I want from Shinohara. His true value is something else.”

“His true value… So you’re—”

“Yes, I’m using him. For the sake of my ambition… But please don’t misunderstand. I’m not using him for anything bad, and Shinohara already knows that.”

“…He knows?”

“Yes. Our thing is give and take. He came to this island for his own purpose. Even if he has to fake his position, he wants to stay here. And for my purposes, I don’t intend to let go of this anomalous existence… Look, the interests of both parties are in line.”

“…” After hearing these words, Shirayuki swallows saliva softly.

Then she thinks ‘ah, maybe I’m still underestimating his talent.’ Because just a few days ago, she couldn’t imagine that there was a human being capable of taking advantage of this bitch.

“But that said, things will definitely get a bit difficult now.” Ichinose carefully observes Shirayuki’s uneasiness and continues in a pretentious tone, “After all, if the eight-star requirement is correct, Shinohara will make enemies every time he adds one more star. Some people seem to have started acting out, and it’s only matter of time before the consequences show up on the surface. This way, he could end up falling by the wayside and failing in the purpose he had for coming to the island. He may be exterminated.

“It’s a terribly complicated situation… So, what will you do?”

Leaving the question, Ichinose looks at Shirayuki with challenging eyes. She curves her lips in an amused expression. Her attitude says that she sees everything. Shirayuki can’t help but feel intimidated… but this is not a problem. Because, as said before, the answer is already decided.

…Shirayuki takes a deep breath.

Looking straight into Ichinose’s eyes, Shirayuki says with no hesitation:

“In that case, you don’t need to worry. I will always be by Master’s side.”