| "Release Rudel already."
Izumi reached her left hand towards the sheath of the katana hung at her waist, preparing herself to draw it at a moment's notice. Pushing up the hilt with her thumb, she intimidated her enemy, Keith Elrond.
"My name is Keith Elrond. My partner Spinnith is a water dragon. Would you like to go flying with me next time, Rudel?"
He ignored Izumi.
"A getaway? I do want to try riding other dragons, but right now, I have Sakuya, so..."
The man of whose eyes the women didn't even seem to enter was of high stature and pleasant appearance. But his chest area was strangely laid bare.
As Izumi extended her right hand to the scabbard, Millia frantically stepped in to stop her.
"S-stupid! You're dealing with a dragoon. That's no normal man."
Right. Dragoons were humans chosen by the dragons. No one could imagine a normal knight winning out. In essence, a majority of the dragoons were proficient when looked at as single knights.
Rudel was shaking Keith's hand with a smile, and it seemed he hadn't the slightest understanding of his partner's ulterior motives. That only made Izumi needlessly more anxious. Her foe was definitely handsome, he didn't look all too strong. But Izumi parted her right hand that trembled as it gripped her hilt tight.
He looked weak, but he was a dragoon, of all things. If he was hiding his abilities, then Izumi would never be able to compete.
Mortified, Izumi managed to endure it.
"Elrond-dono, please step away from Rudel (Dammit, he's taking glances this way and laughing!)"
"Oh, what's this? I don't know who you might be, but you look quite angry."
"I named myself not a moment ago."
Releasing Rudel from his grasp, Keith overreacted, covering his face with his right hand and gazing up at the sky.
"Then I must apologize! I've little interest in a woman's name, see. I'm of the belief that as long as I remember my mother and grandmother, the rest is unnecessary, and I can never work up the mind to commit any to memory."
"... And you're the same as always."
Bennet sounded tired, but she had long since given up. After breathing out a sigh, she didn't make any further remarks.
(I really don't like this man.)
Izumi contained the emotions welling up as she glared at Keith. Noticing her gaze, Keith looked over her expression with a grin. He further rubbed Izumi's nerves the wrong way.
"What is it, Major?"
Her tail waving around, Bennet looked over the glaring Izumi and Keith as she pulled Rudel over. Her motions were practically that of a little sister badgering her brother. Millia had nervously separated from the glaring two, and in front of the entranceway, the three of them discussed the next day's plans.
"Starting tomorrow morning, we'll be carrying out your training. Let's see... let's start out with a one-on-one mock battle with me. And then we'll use our dragons to fight."
Looking at Rudel's delighted face, while she spoke with a stern expression, Bennet's tail was happily wagging.
"Fool, now is the last time you'll be able to rejoice. And I'll have you fight Keith as well."
"The lieutenant? Isn't he worn out, having only just returned?"
"Do you think a dragoon can shirk duty simply because they're worn out? It seems you've asked the captain what it is you're lacking, but you haven't fully comprehended it."
Seeing a depressed Rudel, Bennet thought.
(T-that was a failure! I-I have to cheer him up somehow.)
From Rudel, she had heard about how Oldarts had informed him of the things he was lacking in combat. But Rudel wasn't having a good time coming up with a resolution. Even if he was told to rely on his partner, he didn't understand exactly what he was supposed to do.
Even if he was told to expand his field of vision, he could only pack in experience.
In order to become a dragoon, talent was necessary, and in order to aim for number one among them, one would have to polish themselves more than anyone.
Bennet didn't think Rudel had no talent. More so, she praised him for believing in a talent he might not even have and polishing himself to such an extent. While she had become a dragoon because she had been granted the opportunity, he had bet his life to become a dragoon, and that was something she would never be able to do.
"Don't look so down. If you fight me and Keith, you might find your answer."
"That depends on you."
Bennet headed off towards Izumi's glaring match.
She was trying to get Rudel to notice that the answer wasn't something set in stone. If the individual didn't accept it, it held no meaning. Like that, both Bennet and Keith had polished their form as dragoons...
Human life was short. No matter how much talent one may have, mastering everything was impossible. Cattleya was treated as an exception to that rule, but that very Cattleya had committed a large blunder when it came to Rudel...
And even if one was selected by a dragon, the partner dragon's abilities weren't uniform. Even the gray dragons had variance in their individual abilities.
He would have no choice but to choose what he wanted to become.
(I'm sorry, my little subordinate. But this is a path you have to grasp on your own.)
Having him fight her, and Keith, a different type of dragoon, Bennet wanted to show Rudel examples of the forms a dragoon could take.
Early the next day, they made for a site far from the port town of Beretta.
In that separated space, protected by Keith's dragon, Izumi and Millia watched over Rudel and Bennet.
It was a rough land of nothing but rocks, but Sakuya had taken a liking to it, so there was a hole she had dug out nearby.
In that space without grass or tree, Rudel and Bennet faced one another.
"Is that wooden sword your only weapon?"
"Yes, it's the weapon I've used most."
"I see... I use two daggers, three boomerangs, and a whip."
As Bennet showed him her two wooden daggers and boomerangs, Rudel seemed perplexed over how she could use so many weapons. He was certain that polishing a single weapon one specialized in would hold the highest efficiency.
Sensing Rudel's thoughts, Bennet let out a sigh.
"I know what you're thinking, but this is my style. Come at me without restraint."
Tucking her daggers into her belt, she readied a boomerang in her hand. Putting the other two away in a pouch in her back, she lowered her hips and took a peculiar stance. The boomerang in her right hand against her shoulder, she directed the left side of her body towards Rudel.
Rudel took a stance with his wooden sword, adjusting his posture just a little. Sensing the movement of her eyes, and the minute movements of her body, Rudel's body reacted and started to motion as well.
Unable to endure it anymore, Rudel launched a charge on Bennet, approaching her with his high-speed movement. But swiftly leaping to the left, Bennet cut at Rudel with her boomerang. By the time Rudel had parried and corrected his stance, there was already another boomerang in Bennet's left hand.
(This is bad!)
While Rudel immediately moved from the spot to dodge, to the place he transferred, a boomerang flew. From the projectile that spun as it flew after him, he could sense a faint hint of mana.
Concentrating his attention on the two boomerangs that chased him as he ran, Rudel knocked one out of the air. The moment he returned his eyes to Bennet, controlling them remotely, he felt an impact on his back.
Collapsing right onto the back, he managed to endure, left in a state supporting his body with his left hand.
(She controls three at once? To think that was possible...!)
It was here Rudel regretted taking his eyes off her for even a moment. Demi humans of the beast tribe never boasted much magic. That put them at an overwhelming disadvantage, but as if to make up, they boasted extraordinary physical prowess not held by the other races.
As he held his wood sword horizontally, bringing it up over his head, Bennet fell towards him, equipped with both daggers, the force of all her body's weight behind her blow.
Unable to endure the impact, he diverted the force and escaped, but Bennet was able to follow his movements.
"That truly is an astounding way to get around. But if that's all you can do with it, then even I can keep up."
Skillfully handling her daggers, she changed from forehand to backhand, launching a series of attacks. If he used his full speed, he might have been able to escape, but as Bennet made sure he had no escape, Rudel was pressed into a hard fight.
(She's fast! At this speed, I can't put out my shield of light or light bolts.)
"What's wrong? Is that all it takes to be academy number one?"
But Rudel had a bit of confidence in his swordplay. As he hit aside one of Bennet's daggers, she threw the other one at him to take distance. Lowering down his sword, the deflected dagger made a dull sound as it rolled across the ground.
By the time he noticed it, Rudel's breath had grown rough.
That sensation of all his movements being sealed, it was practically what he felt when he was going up against the captain.
(This person's also strong, after all.)
As vexing as it was, Rudel couldn't withstand the smile spreading across his face. While he couldn't confirm that expression himself, according to Aleist, it was the face of a 'battle junkie'.
(Even so, I don't mind. I'm going to become stronger. If I fight this person, I'll be able to rise even higher.)
"... You're putting your all into every movement. Think about your own stamina a bit more before you make a move. Finally, you'd do best not to show that face to anyone else."
Bennet was a little amazed.
Taking out the whip at her waist, she hit it once against the ground. As a sound rang out that made it clear that would hurt if it hit, Rudel took a stance with his wood sword.
Looking at Bennet's whip, he recalled Eunius' magic sword. That one made movements like a whip, but here he was dealing with a real whip. As he mulled over how he should handle it, Bennet's whip came at him as if it were a living being.
"But at this level!"
His wood sword became a magic sword, letting off light. But the blade was easily entangled by the whip, destroyed just so easily as well.
"You should've put up the magic sword sooner. Well if you did, I'd have taken some countermeasures, but... do you want to continue?"
On Bennet's voice, Rudel stepped in to respond.
If the sword was no good, then magic. If magic was no good, then his bare hands...
That was Rudel's style.
"You've got spirit, but your movements are too straightforward."
Bennet tossed aside her whip, shifting her body just a little to avoid Rudel's fist. In that moment, a few strands of her hair were severed, carried off by the wind, and Bennet opened her eyes wide.
In the next instant, her knee had found its place in Rudel's solar plexus. On that knee hammered in with his own forward momentum, Rudel was instantly grasping for breath. Even so, he didn't fall to his knees, so Rudel was quite outside the norm himself.
"Even if I held back, it's usual to collapse there, but... this is the end."
With Bennet tripping him up, Rudel found himself collapsed face-up on the ground.
"For Rudel to be played with like that..."
Making an unbelieving expression, it seemed Millia didn't want to believe there was that great of a gap in ability. The usually adorable Bennet's abilities were certainly worthy of a dragoon.
While Izumi really didn't want to, she struck up a conversation with Keith to ask about Bennet.
"How is Major Bennet ability-wise? Is she high up in the dragoons, or..."
On Izumi's query, Keith looked over the collapsed Rudel as he answered. It was blatantly obvious he was begrudgingly answering, but Izumi held it in.
"Yeah, you'd find her faster, counting from the top. Of course, when it comes to comprehensive score, I'm higher than her."
"You're stronger than the Major?"
While Izumi thought it strange for the lieutenant to be stronger, the individual sounded certain, so she decided to believe. She didn't think he'd lie about something like that.
"Is that not what I just said? Do you have ears on that head? That woman over there was personally trained by the current captain and vice-captain... how envious. When they only ever took me on once."
Irritated, Izumi sent her eyes back towards Rudel to find Bennet nursing him. To be honest, she never thought there would be such a gap in abilities. At this point, Bennet looked much more Major-like than ever before.
"Next is the aerial battle."
The two of them called their dragons and began a battle in the sky.
But the match was over in no time.
"... He lost."
"That he did."
Confirming Sakuya falling towards the ground, the two thought over that previous battle. The only impression they got was that Sakuya had completely lost an upfront confrontation.
"Dammit! If the captain and vice-captain were closing in on me, just who am I supposed to choose!? That charmer in his prime, or the vice-captain and his villainous face... ah, I!... I'm!"
Watching Keith make a ruckus all on his own, Izumi's eyes had turned considerably cold.
"Izumi, what's wrong? You've been a bit scary since yesterday."
Seeing Millia, who didn't think anything, even looking at Keith, Izumi hardened her resolve. She had to do something about it herself.
As Rudel looked after Sakuya, Bennet descended to the ground. She didn't ask him anything about that previous fight.
"Get in some rest. Your dragon shouldn't have suffered any major damage."
'Well, I did hold back.'
"Sakuya. Are you alright, Sakuya!"
'My head hurts! A tail straight to the face!'
While Rudel frantically stroked Sakuya's head, to Bennet, for some reason it looked like he was depressed. Not over the loss, it felt like it was coming from something else entirely.
"How is that, Sakuya, does it feel good?"
'Not at all. It tickles.'
"... I-I see."
(... He looks kinda depressed, but how am I supposed to cheer him up?)
A troubled Bennet called out to Keith. There, he rushed over with speed he had never shown before.
On his light tone, Bennet's tail slumped powerlessly to the ground.
She wanted him to treat her just a bit more like a superior. Despite being from a noble household, he happily worked shirtless in the dirt, alongside the town residents, and he even went out drinking with the men. While Keith was always spreading smiles around, he didn't seem to hold particularly favorable emotions towards her.
The battalions they were affiliated with were different, so to be more precise, she was not his superior officer. But they were among the few dragoons who possessed water dragons, so they were often together on missions.
"After they get some rest, I'll leave it to you. First off, have a one-on-one with Rudel and-"
"I don't want to. I want him to see me at my most beautiful. Therefore, I'll start with the aerial battle."
Seeing Keith's glare that showed he definitely wouldn't yield, Bennet fell into a slump, consenting without letting it show on her face.
"... Got it. Do what you want. Rudel, next you'll be having an aerial battle with Keith."
On his knees, with both hands against the ground, Rudel stood and corrected his posture before giving an orderly reply. Bennet was deeply moved, her tail wagging left and right.