The tip of the wooden sword split the air as it was swung, and the boy grit his teeth.
Sweat beaded on his forehead, and his fingertips felt slightly numb. His body was heavy with fatigue, and while breathing heavily with his shoulders bobbing up and down, he stuck the wooden sword into the ground and looked up to the sky.
The panting, flaxen-haired boy was the owner of a slender-framed body with pale skin.
Yellow eyes, and hair that reached his back. His slender figure and soft features were so delicately groomed that other people were often mistaken about his gender.
Despite being in his early teens, one could already glimpse how fair the boy would become in the future. Perhaps he was even terribly ashamed of his appearance, that would have so much envy directed towards it.
The figure of a man that he promised to become, and himself as he was now – how great a mismatch there was between them.
Right after he was assaulted by self-loathing, the boy took his wooden sword again as though trying to wipe away the unpleasant thoughts. He tried to force himself to return to swinging it, but the strength of his grip hadn’t yet fully returned.
The wooden sword slid away from his fingers, and spun through the air with the force of the swing. As it headed through the air spinning end over end, and he stood and watched its course while deriding himself…
“You’re here again, are you? Your effort is commendable, Felix.”
Having come down to the back yard, she spoke in a familiar voice while catching the spinning sword.
After being momentarily taken with amazement at her unerring movement, the boy – Felix – hurriedly knelt where he was. Then, raising his head, he spoke with a trembling voice to the one approaching him.
“Cr…Crusch-sama! My humble apologies for this terrible rudeness. For my carelessness to have…”
“It’s no great matter. Don’t shrink so. As well, you were here first, and I came in afterwards. For me to have come within reach of your sword without having first spoken to you was a failing on my part.”
The generous response was delivered in the still-high voice of a young girl.
That was because the one standing in front of the kneeling Felix was a girl who was the same age as he was.
Duchess Crusch Karsten – a girl with beautiful, long, green hair that was nearly black, a gallant gaze and a countenance filled with aspiration. She was also both Felix’s master, and his benefactor.
Crusch’s narrowed line of sight was directed down towards the top of Felix’s head. Atop his flaxen hair was his terribly unmistakable characteristic – he had animal ears.
This, indeed, was the very cause of the situation that Crusch had saved Felix from, and the greatest turning point that had led to him serving the one he would follow till the end.
Ears that he had once thought of as loathsome were now, in front of his lady, something he was faintly proud of. From the way that he couldn’t quite control the swaying of his long tail, prouder than he himself could realize.
Though Crusch was consciously keeping her expression firm, at the sight of Felix’s flushed cheeks and swaying tail, her stern expression suddenly softened into a kind one.
“Felix, I, too, feel like exercising a little. Do you mind if I continue to borrow your sword?”
“Y..yes, of course! Would it be alright if I watched by your side… no, from off to the side?”
“There’s no need to choose such a humble position. If you’d like to watch, watch from wherever you like. I don’t think that I’m such an intolerant master that I would be bothered by my retainer watching me.”
As Felix’s face brightened in delight, Crusch finally broke into an unmistakable smile. Then, as Felix made way for her, she stood perfectly straight.
The course of the wooden sword strike unleashed by her beautiful standing figure was entirely the same Felix’s earlier swing. Despite that, it’s speed, sharpness, weight, brilliance and skill were clearly different. It was such a vivid slash that one might think the air itself hadn’t realized that it had been cut through.
Obviously, this was an illusion largely caused by Felix looking at it in the best possible light, but it was a fact that there was a vast difference between her sword skills and his. An isolating chasm dividing their sword talents that there was no way to bridge.
“……Your expression changes so easily, Felix. Just when I thought you looked pleased a moment ago, now you look quite crestfallen.”
Having finished the first movement of the exercise, Crusch glanced to the side at Felix as he watched her, and spoke her thoughts to him that way. On hearing his master’s words, Felix lowered his eyes, ashamed of himself.
“It will soon be half a year since you came to our household, won’t it. …… Is that it? That’s right.”
Looking at Felix as he held his tongue, Crusch seemed to have properly read what was going on in his heart.
Felix was very aware, and ashamed, that he hadn’t made any progress at all, in the days since he’d been welcomed as Crusch’s retainer.
Every day, without fail, he’d swing his wooden sword, exerting himself to become worthy to be Crusch’s knight.
However, his body couldn’t keep up with his will to become stronger. Due to his long confinement at his original home, his body had passed through the most important growth phase without knowing any development.
He had long since realized that the increasing stress on his body was as meaningless as piling sand on a sandcastle that was being destroyed by the wind.
“Once more, you are looking downwards.”
“Once they become aware that the road to knighthood has been cut off, anyone would feel glum.”
“Yes, that’s true. That was thoughtless of me. Even I would be unsettled if I was unable to trust in my own sword skill. I should have been more careful of that.”
Crusch’s words of consideration dug painfully into Felix’s heart.
The guilt of receiving an apology from the master he respected. Further, that his heart wasn’t calmed in the least by her words. He felt that he was a terribly wretched being, and wished that he could disappear.
Despite having been saved, he was unable to return anything of value to the one who saved him. With that, it would only be natural for even his oath to be thought of as words of convenience, quickly forgotten once the moment was past.
Not wanting to be thought of that way, he’d continued to throw himself into the sword despite knowing it wouldn’t lead to anything.
Raising his head at the call, he suddenly realized that Crusch had moved to the side of the courtyard. A small flower garden was there, and under a gardener’s care, flowers of many colors blossomed .
Crusch crouched down in front of one of them, and casually grasped it by the stem – a flower that produced a beautiful bloom, but also guarded it with sharp thorns.
As Crusch winced at the slight pain, Felix ran to her side and took her hand. If one looked closely, a bead of blood had formed at the tip of a white finger, and was running down her finger toward the palm of her hand.
Hastily focusing his awareness, Felix awoke the mana within himself. Placing that faint sensation on his own fingertip, faint blue-white light flowed out to envelop Crusch’s injury.
In only a few seconds the wound had closed, and there wasn’t a trace of it left after the blood was wiped away. Once he had verified that, Felix let out a sigh of relief.
“Felix. Even after this, will you still continue to cloud your eyes with the belief that you have no value?”
“Crusch-sama……you don’t mean…?”
Opening and closing the hand that the injury had disappeared from, Crusch nodded to the bewildered Felix.
“Someone who protects others with the strength of a sword – who decided this is what it means to be a knight? Power is not what a knight holds dear. What a knight values is will. He cherishes the will to protect others. If a knight’s power can be used to protect the injured, then there is nothing strange about a knight’s power being used to heal the injured.”
“Crusch-sama… is that… what you want me to be?”
“I’m simply speaking of what I think is the way a knight should be. To speak plainly, I don’t even think it’s necessary for you, my retainer, to be a knight at all. If, despite that, you still feel concerned about knighthood…… You can simply be a knight that does not rely on the sword. As well,”
As Felix stood speechless, Crusch closed her eyes and continued.
“When I was on the verge of death, it was none other than you who saved me, Felix. Back then, even if the Master Swordsman had been there, I could not have been saved. At that time, the only one who could save me there was you. Well then, in my view, you have more than earned the right to call yourself a knight.”
One couldn’t help but note that her opinion was excessively favorable towards Felix.
It’s true that Felix had saved Crusch when she was at the brink of death, but it was also he who had placed her in that state in the first place. Crusch’s words were putting a good face on a deed whose good was balanced out by it’s bad.
“If you can’t help but be fascinated by the sword, I will not stop you. There’s nothing so inelegant as dampening the enthusiasm of a young boy, after all.”
No matter what path Felix chose, Crusch would surely approve of it.
It was that overwhelming trust from his master that melted Felix’s stubborn heart. No matter how long he spent at it, he would never begin to approach Crusch’s skill with the sword.
It was enough for him to at last accept the need to give up, that he’d long since been aware of.
“I won’t give up on becoming a knight. But, I’m sure I’ll turn out a bit different from the usual sort of knight. Will you forgive me for taking you at your word?”
“If it casts no shadow on your soul, then I’m happy with it.”
With those brief, Crusch-style words of encouragement, Felix was at last able to give a relaxed smile.
Seeing Felix’s smile, Crusch smiled faintly as well.
“You really do have a nice smile. Perhaps it would injure your pride to say it, but you have a smile that gently eases the hearts of those around you.”
“I love your smile, Crusch-sama. It makes me feel from the bottom of my heart that I want to follow you.”
“My father often calls it ‘A face that’s not cute at all’, though.”
She tried to pass the words off as a joke, but a flicker of pain was visible in her amber eyes. Noticing that, Felix was, for a moment, at a loss for words. But only for a moment.
“Is there something about the duke’s words that bothers you, Crusch-sama?”
“……Did it show so clearly on my face that you could tell right away?”
“No. I think I was only able to tell because I’m always looking at you.”
“Honest as always.”
Speaking with a smile in her tone of voice, Crusch let out a small sigh.
“If I was going to be born without any girlish charm, it would have been better to be born a boy. No doubt my father thinks of me that way.”
“That can’t be…!”
“No, it’s fine. It doesn’t wound my heart. I think it’s exactly right as well. Surely you are not unaware of how the gossips speak of me?”
Duke Carsten’s daughter was a sword-crazed wild woman, was their opinion of her that he had heard. Those who knew nothing of her disposition touched on the topic however they pleased, without knowing the truth.
“It’s mysterious. While on one hand I am rebuked for being a woman who wields a sword, on the other I am strictly told to master things as a man would, in order to succeed the duke. The people around me; do they want me to be a man or a woman?”
There was nothing resembling sarcasm in Crusch’s voice. What she held was purely that doubt, exactly as she’d spoken it.
And no matter what the people around her might say, Crusch herself had already decided on an answer.
“I was speaking grandly to you about how a knight should be, but there is only one path that I am able to choose to be. Succeeding the duke, and becoming the next duke. That path has no use for sword skill or being a woman.”
“……Then eventually, you will have to lay down the sword?”
“It’s unlikely that I would be given the chance to bloom. I do have one faint wish. Even though I may not be able to reach the level of a great fencer or Master Swordsman, or that Sword Demon, I would at least like to reach my own limits… would be that wish.”
As Crusch described her lofty ideal with an ephemeral smile, Felix’s breath caught in his throat.
A feeling of remorse rose up and filled him. Crusch Karsten wasn’t the sort of person who should have to give up on anything. All the more wrong for her to have to take actions that would push aside her dearest wish.
“Even… even if you succeed the duke, there must be a way for you to continue to wield the sword.”
“If it’s you, Crusch-sama, I’m sure it’s possible for you to find a way to move forward while keeping everything in balance. Taking over for the duke, and taking your sword skill to it’s ultimate limit; there’s no need to give up anything.”
As Crusch stood wide-eyed, Felix pled desperately.
He didn’t want to see what she looked like when she was giving up on something. Crusch had everything that he had wanted so much he could taste it. There was no way he could endure watching her throw it away.
“If you are lacking in something, then I’ll make up for it. I know I’m weak, and I there’s only so much I can do. But still! I will!”
“I’m very glad you would say that. However, even though you speak of helping… Perhaps you could be a butler to the duke, but I’m not sure how you could be involved with the other two…”
Crusch’s eyes must never become clouded. She was someone who should always be looking upward and forward as she walked.
He was the only one who needed to stand still in the darkness, waiting for a tomorrow that never came.
“Well then, I’ll take over being a girl for you, Crusch-sama!”
“As you’ve seen, I can’t help with the sword. But, if it’s being like a girl, I can help!”
As Crusch stared at him in amazement, Felix grasped the significance of what he’d just said without thinking.
Thinking that there’s no turning back now, Felix looked straight at Crusch as he ran with it.
“……Do you understand what you’re saying?”
“I do! …..No, I don’t really know what I’ll need to do, but I understand! I’ll be a girl for Crusch-sama!”
Breathlessly, Felix cried out without giving Crusch a chance to raise an objection.
“I… I’ll take care of being a girl, so I’ll give my boyhood to you! Please; I know it might not be much, but please accept it!”
“You…… ah, haha.”
Seeing Felix wide-eyed with excitement, Crusch was suddenly unable to keep her face stern, and she began to laugh.
Felix was momentarily worried about his master’s reaction, but Crusch immediately shook her head.
“It certainly wouldn’t do to not accept something offered by my retainer. As a result……”
While saying that, Crusch undid the ribbon holding her hair, and gently pulled it free.
Escaping the constraints of the white ribbon, her beautiful green hair spread rapidly in the breeze. Unconcerned with that, Crusch took the undone ribbon and placed it in Felix’s flaxen hair as he stood stiffly.
Like a large flower in bloom, the ribbon adorned the boy named Felix.
“Mhmm. It looks good on you… or perhaps that’s not a compliment?”
“…It is. Crusch-sama’s concern is better than any sort of recognition.”
With a deliriously happy look on his face, Felix honestly revealed his true feelings.
It was a strange feeling. The hands that were too weak to hold a sword, the legs that couldn’t support him the way he wanted, the delicate frame that quickly ran out of energy; until just a moment ago, he’d thought of them as a loathsome curse.
Now that, thanks to them, he was able to respond to his master’s small request, he could think of them as a better gift than any other.
“If it becomes unpleasant for you, return it to me at any time. I will return what you gave me as well, without fail.”
“That will never happen. So please, let me always serve at your side.”
Felix responded without hesitation to Crusch’s considerate words.
Seeing Crusch smiling and looking satisfied as she turned away, Felix felt for a brief moment that he had been able to do something helpful for the sake of this precious girl.
Then, while looking at her beautiful hair fluttering in the wind, he said
“With that, please allow me to give you a replacement ribbon.”
while touching the ribbon decorating his own hair.