| Putting in a midday break, Rudel leapt onto Sakuya's back and rose into the air.
The wide, blue sky spread out, noon had just gone by, and the light of the sun was strong. But as he looked at his foe, something like the measly sun flew out of his head.
"We're taking on a water dragon again."
'I won't lose this time.'
As Sakuya thrust her fist towards her opponent a few times, the dragon laughed. For some reason, he called out towards Rudel.
'So that kid's the aunty of the lake's favorite. I've got some hopes for you, but be careful not to get hurt. My partner's quite a troublesome one, after all."
"Hahaha! How terrible, Spinnith."
'... And you should be especially careful.'
"I don't understand the reason, but I'll be careful."
Rudel didn't understand what Spinnith was trying to say. But thinking it would be rude to ask here, for now, he concentrated on the match. On a match with his superior, his heart was dancing. This was a world he didn't know, and there were plenty of strong people rolling around.
That only made Rudel irresistibly delighted. Delighted that there was still a higher level he could reach for.
"Then let's have some fun with it."
'You're going to aim for the rear after all.'
"He's coming, Sakuya!"
'I'll teach you a lesson for calling Mystith aunty!'
'No, I mean seriously, she's my aunt. She's my mother's sister.'
"Is that true?"
While Rudel learned an unexpected truth in the sky, with that as the signal, Keith began moving.
"Let's leave the talks at that. From here on, you need only be intoxicated by my beautiful dance!"
Looking up at the sky, the three girls and a dragon were enraptured by the movements of Keith's water dragon.
"No matter how many times I see it, he flies beautifully."
The water dragon's glassy scales caught the light and glimmered in the air. That form was one thing, but unlike Bennet's performance before, he had a sense of sharpness.
He wasn't leaving it to brute force, it was as if he was reading his opponent's every move. Reading Sakuya's movements, and easily slipping around Rudel's shields of light. While he could surely destroy them, he purposely avoided them as he slipped around to the back each time.
"Is the Lieutenant's dragon strong?"
As Millia called out to Bennet, she answered without moving her face. She wanted to watch those movements, to steal as much of that technique as she could.
"No, there's barely any difference. More so, I'm sure my partner Heleene is stronger."
'I won't lost to the young ones, and I'm mama's girl.'
As Heleene stuck out her chest, "That's right," Bennet answered. The movements of the water dragon that left behind afterimages in the air were making sport of Sakuya.
Was Keith's magic preparing doubles of water, or was it the dragon? Perhaps it wasn't either.
(Talent truly is a scary thing.)
It wasn't as if Bennet didn't have talent. But the gap was evident.
"Major, is Rudel actually weak? I can't believe it. I've never seen Rudel played with to such an extent."
On Izumi's worried voice, Bennet knew it was a misunderstanding. She worried over how she was supposed to convey it, and worried over whether she could get the point across well.
(Yeah~, teaching people really is difficult...)
So there, Bennet tried to compare her and Keith.
"Rudel is strong. To be blunt, he's stronger than me. His fighting style is still young, but if he trains, he'll surpass me in no time."
"He can even win against you?"
"Yeah. But you see, defeating Elrond in an aerial battle will be difficult. That dragon called Sakuya is unsuited to the air. And just like me, Elrond's dragon is a water dragon. Among the four variants, it's the one with the best balance."
While wild dragons were all usually stronger than gray dragons, the answer to which of the four was strongest had yet to come out. The dragoons would all argue by emotion, and the strongest could never be determined. Of course, one's own dragon was always the strongest.
Everyone thought so. And Bennet was the same.
If she fought Keith Elrond in an aerial battle, she would lose, but she was certain her partner was stronger than Spinnith, and she thought it wouldn't lose out to any of the other species.
That was because water dragons had very few weaknesses.
As they could operate in the water, they were thought to be dragons specialized fot the water. But that wasn't so.
They were simply also good in the water, that was water dragons. Slower than a wind dragon, but they could take second place in speed. Less firepower than a red dragon, but even so, second place. Less physical strength than a gaia dragon, but even there, they were second.
Therefore, even if they didn't have anything special, they excelled in balance. And from Heleene, she had heard there was a dragon who specialized in every single field.
"But he lost so easily."
Bennet answered Izumi's question as if it were only natural. But inside, she couldn't help but be anxious over whether she was properly getting the message across.
"The reason it looked like he lost so easily was because I made it look so. Don't let your opponent do what they want. Don't let them bring it to their preferred way of fighting. It's a way of fighting you can only do if you have information."
As Izumi and Millia didn't seem to get it at all, Bennet breathed out a sigh and looked at their faces. In truth, she wanted to see Keith's fighting techniques, but it was clear that teaching her two juniors was more important.
"Don't misunderstand. We dragoons are the country's elite brigade. It's downright strange for Rudel- who just graduated the academy- to be able to fight us. Graduated within the top ten of the academy. Had barely anyone who could stand against them. This is a unit filled with people like that."
"E-even so, the difference in skill is way too intense."
"Let's see. If you'll let me have my say, there's barely any difference between Rudel and me. No, if it just comes down to power, swordplay and magic, that guy clearly has the upper hand. In that sense, I'm weaker."
Seeing the two still couldn't understand, Bennet was starting to panic. Just being stronger means victory, explaining it wasn't so simple was quite difficult.
"What that guy lacks is experience... something more technical."
Out of breath, Rudel sent a sidelong glance to Keith and Spinnith encroaching from behind as he produced his shields. While their numbers climbed to a few dozen, as if slipping straight through, his foe kept chase with barely the slightest movements.
The most detestable thing was how he always maintained a set distance as he followed behind.
"You should never show your dragon's rear. Otherwise, it's an easy target."
'When you say it, it takes on a whole new meaning.'
"Hahaha! Now try putting up some more resistance!"
"Kuh! (I never thought he could be so strong. What makes us so different!)"
On top of the fact his attacks showed no sign of hitting, his opponent didn't even try to make use of the terrain. It was as if he was taunting Rudel.
Before an overwhelming gap in abilities, Rudel felt a different sense of crisis from when he faces the captain.
While Rudel was delighted if his abilities even put him at the bottom, when Sakuya was involved, that changed things. His heart was starting to panic, would he be unable to protect Sakuya? He was treasuring her too much.
'Quit following us from behind!'
Sakuya turned all the way around, but in that instant, Spinnith had transferred behind her. Before Sakuya could turn, he had already started moving.
(We're being read?)
Played around with in the air, Rudel and Sakuya were unable to raise a hand to Keith and Spinnith.
With Heleene, Sakuya had the slight hope that something would happen if only her attacks would connect, but now she began holding fear towards their opponents.
'Don't get close to meeee!'
'Now that's just a mean thing to say.'
Against an opponent with leisure, Rudel and Sakuya were being manipulated in their own desperation.
"They're starting to panic. Their movements are growing worse, so they're only falling further into Elrond's traps."
"Is that some sort of magic?"
Millia directed her eyes at the fight in the sky as she asked the question. Bennet saw that even an amateur's eyes could see that gap in strength as she continued on the previous explanation.
"You could call it individual difference if you want. When you call it talent, don't you think it always comes off as mean?"
"... You mean to say Rudel has no talent?"
On Izumi's thoughtful face, Bennet shook her head.
"Like hell someone who became a dragoon could go at it without any talent. What I'm trying to say is that individual differences definitely exist. It's the same with the races. Us beast type demi-humans have especially high physical abilities. But we have low magic. That elf has below-average physical abilities, but her mana is clearly higher than a human's right?"
When Millia conceded that her race was indeed like that, Bennet continued on with the conversation.
"You have a sister in the dragoons, right? Major Lilim."
When talks turned to her sister, Millia's expression became serious. Izumi also listened in with deep intrigue.
"If you asked whether or not Lilim has talent, a majority of people would say yes. And if you ask about Cattleya, everyone will chime in to say she's a genius. I don't think that's mistaken. Especially Cattleya, her abilities have been growing amazingly lately."
Bennet recalled how the unmotivated Cattleya had shown some considerable mettle as a dragoon. It was a good thing that she had grown earnest these past few years, as her abilities had grown alongside it.
From the start, even if she wasn't the slightest bit motivated, if you taught her, she'd be able to do it. What a human would spend a few years to learn, in a month, or even a day she'd acquire it. That could be called nothing short of genius.
"Um... how is that related to Rudel?"
"Yeah, let's see. Meaning, what I'm trying to say is that he's the same, and from the eyes of those around him, he's got talent. It's only natural. It would be strange for someone without talent to be among the elites. If you don't have talent, then even before it comes to that, no dragon would recognize you."
"But Rudel's circumstances are a bit differ-"
"Right. But if you ask me, that's something you can only say in hindsight. Before someone strong, everyone will always look back and say they have talent. (Ah, no! This talk is proceeding in a strange directionnnn! What I'm trying to say is that it isn't talent, it's form!)"
While she was sure she had failed, Bennet still tried to convey it to the two.
"What I'm trying to say is that Rudel is plenty a monster himself. Just by putting in a bit of experience, that guy will run straight passed me in no time. To be blunt, just be teaching him the knack and a few techniques, he'll already be on another level. That's the sort of strength he needs."
Bennet forcefully dragged the conversation back on topic and said was she was trying to say.
"Talent has no meaning if it isn't polished. And the time we have to polish it is limited."
"You mean you don't have the time to train?"
Bennet felt like bursting into laughter at Izumi's question, but she endured it and recovered.
"No, I'm saying we don't have the time to aim to be the best. Life is short, after all. So I, and Elrond, and Lilim and Cattleya... we dragoons all have to search for our own form."
Just as Bennet had polished her own strength, Keith had polished his aerial prowess. If you asked which was better, it depended on time and situation. It wasn't as if there weren't missions where she'd be acting alone, so you couldn't say Bennet's decision was wrong.
Many dragoons would choose the same route as Keith. That was simply how powerful a dragon was. To control them as best as possible, a large number of training hours were required. As a result, one would need to make a choice.
... About their path, and the path they would take as a dragoon.
"The dragoons are the knights who, by possessing a dragon, have expanded their options. But in exchange, there are things they have no choice but to throw away. In this match, I hoped Rudel might see what he wanted to become. It isn't something to be told by another, I want him to choose his own form."
The three and one dragon looked up into the sky to see a number of water orbs exploding, and Sakuya plummeting. Once the match ended, the area was flooded out.
(Everyone looks up to the competent knights strong even up in the sky, but that's impossible. Cattleya-chan wasted a few years, so I don't know if she'll be able to do both.)
Seeing a soaked Rudel and Sakuya collide with the ground, Bennet held a bit of hope. Without talent Cattleya held, or the magical prowess or time gifted to Lilim. Such was Rudel, but...
Unable to stand up to her feeble self, and unable to stand up to Elrond, but...
(If he does manage to do it, I guess you can't call it talent anymore.)
... He somehow looked like he could surmount it all.
While the party wanted to return already, Rudel's match with Keith still remained.
But Keith didn't seem up to it.
"It's already late, so can't we return? The sun's already going down"
"What are you talking about? We still have plenty of time left. And it'll be over in an instant, so time is irrelevant."
(So that's how big the gap is between me and the Lieutenant... but I have no choice but to accept it.)
Rudel hit both hands against his face to psyche himself up, and a worried Izumi and Millia called over to him. Perhaps they couldn't stand to see a beaten Rudel any longer.
"Now let's do this, Lieutenant!"
When Rudel wrung out his voice, Izumi and Millia reluctantly took distance. And before Bennet could say anything, Keith stood before Rudel. In his hand, he gripped a wooden sword.
"Hmm, when you've said that much, I can't quite keep silent myself."
Keith's partner dragon looked worried for some reason. Bennet also took distance with a tired face. But for some reason, everyone was closer than they had been in the match with Bennet.
'Don't go too crazy.'
(Is there really that much of a gap? He definitely is famous...)
While looking into the dragoons, information on Keith had entered Rudel's ears a number of times. He was feared by his own squad members, so he was surely strong.
Taking a stance with his wood sword, he concentrated and gazed at Keith.
"Now! Come at me however you like!"
"Here I come!"
Rudel had taken Keith out in the first blow. Izumi and the others could only watch as Rudel held him up in his arms and cried out.
"See, it ended in no time, didn't it?"
"... Um, Major Bennet. Is Lieutenant Elrond, um..."
Izumi seemed troubled with her words, but Bennet said it plainly.
"Yeah, he's ridiculously weak. When it comes to one-on-one fights, he's the absolute lowest rank among the dragoons."
There, Millia stepped into their conversation. Perhaps she couldn't believe the sight before her eyes as she drew closer to Bennet.
"But just a moment ago, he said his comprehensive rank was higher than yours."
Bennet crossed her arms and tilted her head. It was Izumi's little secret that those gestures healed her soul.
"Yeah, sure enough, in the comprehensive ranking, I think he was higher. I mean, in aerial battles, he's in the top five, so I'm sure his rank is higher than me. About one or two spots higher."
Seeing the collapsed Keith, Izumi's gaze turned cold.
Completely specialized towards piloting a dragon, Keith definitely carried a higher ranking than Bennet. But compared to Bennet who could pull off both land and air combat, Izumi couldn't help but hold Keith's placing in doubt.
(I hate myself for ever fearing him.)
From that day forth, Izumi swore to protect Rudel from Keith through the use of physical means.
"Izumi, you've been acting strange lately."
"Y-yes, she's definitely scary."
Seeing Millia and Bennet fearful of her, Izumi mulled over just how she was to convey Keith's level of danger.
A few days later, Rudel stopped by Bennet.
It was already late into the night, but he had eaten through all his takeout. He dropped by at a time where he thought Izumi and Millia would already be asleep.
"Is it good?"
Chowing down on the leftovers of dinner, Rudel cut into the main reason he came over. While it was true he had run out of takeout, if he felt like it, he could dive into the sea and take another fish out.
There was a reason he came to Bennet without doing that.
"Major, I want to become stronger."
At Rudel's words, Bennet folded her arms in her pajamas and sad in her chair. Today, she was wearing bear-print sleeping garments. She even had a hat.
"You're already plenty strong. And there's little I'll be able to teach you. The knack for battle, and the techniques are something you need to pick up in real combat."
"I don't mind! If that's what will make me stronger, I'll learn any technique."
Bennet took Rude's empty bowl, poured in the leftover soup from the saucepan, and handed it over to Rudel.
"I don't mind teaching you. But are you sure? Rather than my techniques, if you simply train yourself, you'll be able to become strong."
There, Rudel downed another bowl of soup before answering.
"I don't mind. I'll just be training more. I'll learn the techniques and train myself as well."
Bennet rubbed the corners of her eyes, a tired look on her face. But after letting out a sigh, she looked just a little down and laughed.
Seeing that expression, Rudel was surprised that his strict leader had smiled.
"What a greedy noble. Well, that's just about right for you noble lot... you better prepare yourself for tomorrow. And Elrond!"
Casually appearing, Keith opened the door and entered Bennet's kitchen. While Rudel was also surprised, Bennet who called for him was holding her head.
Perhaps she never thought he would be there, or she hated how it was exactly what she expected. Rudel was unable to tell.
"I never thought you would actually come, but... well, whatever. From tomorrow onwards, you're accompanying Rudel's training. You have no right to de-"
"I'll be harsh starting tomorrow. Why don't you go to sleep early, Rudel?"
While Bennet was in the middle of talking, Keith still followed her orders, so while Bennet seemed a little unsatisfied, she nodded.
Once Rudel learned the two of them would be training him, he brightened up and stood. And he lowered his head.
"I'll be in your care!"
"Leave it to me."
"Yeah, in that case, lead the way to the bed..."
The moment Keith made a pass, the door to the kitchen was violently opened. Wearing her sleep-wear pajama, Izumi appeared with her katana in hand. Three sets of eyes gathered; Bennet was a little surprised, while Keith took a step back at her expression.
Her neck a little tilted, Izumi who appeared expressionlessly, alongside the darkness of the room, it was exceedingly terrifying.
But Rudel alone was...
"Listen to this, Izumi! From tomorrow onwards My commanding officers will be helping me train. With this, I can become stronger again."
As Rudel delightedly reported, Izumi smiled. Unlike her prior expressionlessness, and the slight hair stuck fast to her skin, right now, she joined Rudel in his celebration.
"Good for you, Rudel. And could you wait a minute? I need to have a talk with that illegal trespasser."
Her smile reverted to an expressionless state, and while Rudel and Bennet frantically stopped Izumi as she pulled her blade from her sheath, Keith made an irritated face as he retreated.