| In the port town of Beretta, Eunius and Aleist were undertaking Keith's tutelage alongside Rudel.
The expedition had displayed quite some interest in a lesson from a dragoon like Keith.
Inspectors Izumi and Millia also sat, under the blue sky, receiving the salty sea breeze as they watched Keith drag a blackboard over. Bennet sat next to Rudel with the intent to learn what she could.
While Izumi didn't mind it, Millia was taking some fleeting glances. From Izumi's point of view, she wanted her to be more wary of Keith, but she was troubled over how she couldn't bring herself to say it. For the innocent Millia and Bennet who didn't possess the knowledge, Izumi had some resistance to explaining everything from scratch.
Aleist's subordinates were listening in from behind Izumi. While they looked to be a graceful gathering at a glance, the lecturer Keith seemed quite displeased.
"Why are there so many women? You're in the way."
"Lieutenant, please tell us what today's lecture's about!"
"Good question, Rudel. Today I'll have you do some classroom learning on the relation between dragoon and dragon. I could teach you through practicals, but it would be better if you started those out with the knowledge, after all."
When Rudel raised his hand to ask a question, Keith instantly made a smile. He was as unfazed as ever. Gripping her beloved katana's sheath in her left hand so she could draw it at any moment, Izumi didn't let her guard down for an instant.
"First off, we're going with current and past relations. In the past, dragoons largely focused on fighting to protect a dragon's back. That really hasn't changed, but fundamentally speaking, against a monster capable of piercing a dragon's scales, a human is powerless!"
As Keith suddenly rejected a dragoon's reason to be, Rudel directed some serious eyes. His face flushing, Keith continued on his explanation.
"Then if all you have to do is find yourself some means of mid and long-range attack, you just have to draw out the dragon's own power. That's how I see it."
On the blackboard, Keith drew an x over the picture of a knight firing magic from a dragon's back. While Keith was definitely weak, he had still cleared the basic physical criteria to be a knight.
"Protecting a dragon's back is something of the past. In the current era, they're shifting towards controlling their dragons, but... that really is meaningless, you know. I mean all they're doing is removing the 'protect the back' part of their duty, those slackers."
"But mid-range attacks are..."
"I'm telling you it's meaningless, shrimp."
Bennet's objection was cut down by Keith. There, Rudel to her side tried comforting her.
"It's alright, Major! I also think mid-range attacks are important."
Millia and Keith watched over that exchange with irritation. Izumi thought the way Bennet happily wagged her tail was cute. After clearing his throat, Keith went into an explanation as to why it was unnecessary. It was surely because of the emphasis Rudel placed on mid-range attack methods. If it was Bennet's opinion, he had already discarded it.
"If all your own attacks can do is serve as a diversion, then you're better off concentrating on giving orders to your dragon. That's the honest-to-goodness truth. But I thought I'd take that one step further. You better put the words, 'draw out a dragon's power,' into your head."
"Draw out its power?"
When Izumi let out her voice, that's right, Keith muttered with a click of his tongue. Rudel and Bennet sunk into thought.
"What do you mean by draw out its power?"
Bennet asked. If her orders took precedence, the dragon would move, it had always been like that and she didn't understand the meaning of the words themselves. It was a question quite fit for Bennet, who had gained a means of mid-range attack to protect her dragon's back.
"All you've ever done is order it around. What I'm trying to say is pulling out its abilities. Let's see... I don't mean to tack on a little extra strength. What's important is control. You have to operate a dragon's power. I have this one technique called Rainbow Mirage, and that's a prime example of this theory in motion!"
While he proudly unveiled the name of his technique, no one around seemed to understand what it was. As Rudel looked around troubled, Izumi extended a helping hand.
"Rudel, um... he's talking about that body double technique. Probably."
"You mean those body doubles, Lieutenant!?"
Against Rudel's sparkling eyes, Keith faltered. As Izumi smiled at her small revenge for all his usual conduct, with a mortified face, Keith changed his technique name from Rainbow Mirage to body double.
Those clones of water he produced, Rudel had seen them as well. He just didn't know the attack name, and Izumi had somehow noticed and connected the dots. Being understood, put him in quite an unpleasant mood.
"A dragon's latent abilities are high. In order for us dragoons to control them, more than the telepathic bond we share, we need to understand one another. But... in your case, your dragon's a subspecies, so it'll be difficult."
On Bennet's question, Keith informed her there were absolutely no documents available. You can't draw out what isn't there. It all starts from looking into past records to see what sort of thing their dragons have done, and what they're capable of. That was Keith's way of going about it.
But Rudel's dragon Sakuya was a gaia subspecies. What's more, even if its appearance had some common points, it was easier to say it was a separate species entirely.
"In this case, the problem is that the dragon itself hasn't noticed its own attributes. She's still young. No, she's way too young."
Seeing Keith seriously mull, Eunius was surprised. He whispered over to Aleist who was sitting beside him.
"He's surprisingly decent. I thought he'd be a bit more of a lost cause."
"Hah? Of course Keith-san is decent."
"... Just where does that trust of yours come from. You've got to tell me sometime."
Izumi endorsed Eunius' opinion as she worried for Aleist's chastity. But to Izumi, Rudel was higher on her order of precedence. Meaning even if Aleist was assaulted in some way by Keith, she was going to let it be.
She wasn't abandoning him. If Izumi raised a hand, she understood the situation would clearly take a turn for the worse. While Aleist's chastity was important, by protecting him, there was no guarantee his harem members wouldn't misunderstand something.
As things stood, Millia had yet to become wary of Keith. From Izumi's point of view, she was wary of the harmless Bennet, and what a wasted effort that was.
"If you give the average dragoon a value of one, while dragons all have individual difference, the power difference puts them well over a hundred. It's generally impossible for a human to win out over a dragon, after all."
After writing that humans can't beat dragons on the board, he sent a glance around as if to ask, 'then what are they supposed to do?'
"Adding your own power onto theirs is slight and insignificant. If all you're doing is protecting its back, then you should strengthen the dragon. That's why I decided to draw out my dragon's strength. The body doubles is a part of that. You make the shape of a dragon with water, and imitate the surface."
"Is that really possible? Mana-capacity-wise, you wouldn't be able to use that much magic too many times."
Rudel tilted his head. There, Keith spoke with a smile.
"Hahaha, I can't create those doubles on my own. Who do you think I am? I don't have that sort of mana, and I don't have the control. That's why I put my own dragon to it. I understand his exact characteristics, transmit a clear image, and support him in the finer points. With that alone, a dragon's strength rapidly increases. You don't need some mid or long-range magic. More so, as long as you can do something like this, you're doing good as a dragoon."
While the eyes watching Keith grew surprisingly favorable, Bennet put a damper on his parade.
"Hey... doesn't that mean you're casting off everything apart from aerial combat?"
"And what of it? Something so savage as fighting on the dirt isn't suited to me. Just have that gorilla Cattleya do it or something."
Did something happen with Cattleya? Izumi thought, as Keith's lesson came to an end. As Aleist headed off to help him clean up, Eunius approached Rudel.
"What is it? I was planning on helping the Lieutenant."
"It's been a while, let's have a match. You've been going all over the place, and it's boring me to death. Aren't you curious to see how strong you've become?"
While Rudel made a bit of a fed-up face, Izumi understood. That wasn't him fed up over Eunius challenging him to a match.
"You better not regret it."
"Good grief. You guys are always the same."
A ghastliness befell upon Rudel's smile that could be called battle mania. Seeing that expression, Eunius also changed to a ferocious grin.
Bennet looked over the two with tired eyes, but she looked just a little happy.
"I can't stand it anymore!"
Looking at Rudel and Bennet, Millia finally exploded.
"I'm telling you, the major is definitely dangerous!"
"C-calm down. The major isn't dangerous at all. More so, that idiot over there is-"
"They're both guys, right? What are you talking about, Izumi!"
It did seem Millia was mindful of the female knight of the wolf tribe close to Rudel. While they did get along, Eunius saw it as the relationship between superior and subordinate. He knew his close friend Rudel, and Bennet's actions didn't have anything to do with man or woman.
And yet, Millia was wary of Bennet. Still such accusations, Bennet still stood with resolution, but her tail and dog ears were in a terrible station.
"Why is that woman so angry?"
"Are you talking about Millia? She hasn't seen eye to eye with Izumi lately. It's been like that ever since we came here... Izumi's been aggressive towards Lieutenant Keith, and Millia's been wary of Major Bennet. I don't know the reason either."
"Ah, I see. Right, right. That's the sort of guy you are."
Recalling how Rudel wasn't wary of Keith, Eunius was convinced his friend's chastity had been protected by Izumi. He suddenly wondered whether Aleist would be alright, but he had a number of key harem member with him, so he'd probably be fine, or so Eunius changed his train of thought.
As Rudel didn't understand, he mulled over whether to inform Rudel that Keith was dangerous precisely because they were members of the same sex. In truth, even if the two of them had their innocence stolen, he thought it might become a funny story.
While he was worried, it was interesting no matter which way the ball rolled. Keith was so entranced with Aleist and Rudel that he calculated there was no danger of himself becoming a casualty.
(This isn't the atmosphere to have a duel.)
The fact he wasn't able to fight Rudel displeased Eunius. It did seem Millia and Izumi had stolen the flow away.
The arguments of women would gradually intensify. At first, they would argue over whether Keith or Bennet was more dangerous, gradually shifting to things of the past. Eunius thought women who never forgot their grudges were scary.
"You called me a bug back at the academy, didn't you!"
"T-that just came to my mind during the match and... t-that has nothing to do with what's happening right now!"
Two of Aleist's harem stepped in to soothe them, but the problem was they didn't have the slightest effect. Within that never-ending argument, Bennet pulled at Rudel's sleeve.
"D-did I do something problematic?"
While she acted out a firm bearing, her voice was shaking. Her eyes were swimming around. To such a commanding officer, Rudel spoke gently.
"That's not true at all! You're the ideal superior, Major! I can say with pride that I'm glad to have become your subordinate."
As she averted her face, Bennet's tail swung happily from left to right. Her form brought to mind the image of a dog rejoicing after receiving praise from its master.
But thinking it was strange the voices had died down, Eunius looked at Millia and Izumi only to feel intense regret.
"Just look at that! Just look at how much that woman's tail is wagging! She's definitely gunning for Rudel!"
"I'm telling you, that's not the sort of thing we're dealing with! Can't you get a grip already?"
Seeing the exchange between Rudel and Bennet, the two heated up even further. The members of Aleist's harem around had already given up on persuading them.
(These guys are useless!)
I won't be able to fight Rudel today, Eunis instinct promptly informed him.
"... They're more vindictive than I thought."
"That does seem to be the case."
Fina's room at the academy was already in a state more like an office equipped with a bed. Having entered her final year, Fina only had a few months left until graduation.
While Sophina thought a school life that ended with fluffing and work was mistaken, she didn't say it aloud. If she didn't have the needlessly competent Fina, she never would have made it this far to begin with.
On top of the nobles and authorities connected to Aileen, the augmented war potential of the royal guard...
Everything had come together.
"When we have to prepare on two fronts, the border and the palace, they only have to pay mind to the palace, so they sure have it easy."
"Worse comes to worst, can't we keep it to the palace? In that scenario, we can concentrate our own forces."
"... That's no good."
While Fina didn't know how both sides were connected, she did suspect how each side reacted and moved in accordance.
While they would likely move the moment her side showed an opening, the enemy country was showing movements as if they knew precisely when that time would come. It was a dangerous situation, Sophina thought over the worst possible scenario and wanted to concentrate their forces at the palace.
Rather than trying to win both fronts, she wanted to stop Aileen's reckless that was definitely going to break out.
But Fina's opinion differed.
"In the case that the empire has gained the means to stand against the kingdom, there is no meaning if we suppress the palace alone. If they manage to snatch up a large amount of land, then they will gain just as much power on the rematch. The top brass of the kingdom will need some time to recover from its chaos, and in that time, the empire should be able to get its war potential together. If we don't suppress both fronts, we won't survive."
The empire's hatred of the kingdom, from the people of the kingdom's point of view, it was nothing but false charges. You live on abundant soil, so fork it over, is what they were saying. That was the country's recognition of the empire.
Sophina knew the lands of the empire were impoverished. What's more, she knew just how important it was to them to invade Courtois and steal its soil.
"When territories are stolen, there will be some nobles who turn coat. And if I let my sister get away, there will definitely be nobles to raise a rebellion. We have to win both sides no matter what."
As she accepted a few documents from Fina, Sophina made a grim face. The nobles they recognized to be allied with Aileen. In a situation where they couldn't lose to the Gaia Empire or Aileen, the country of Courtois... Fina's powers were being cornered.
No, it wasn't a corner they were being driven into. Fina had started this match well-aware of her disadvantage.
Within a present state that only grew harsher the more time transpired. Fina was trying to create a build up a stage she could overcome. Sophina was also moving and lending her power for that sake.
"... If nothing else, it's our fortune a princess was allowed into the academy. Before the enemy moves, we've been able to build our own personal forces like this. If we were in the palace, we'd never be able to move to this extent."
Sophina's opinion wasn't mistaken. In the palace, they would never have been able to establish so many connections. At the same time, they were able to move away from Aileen's eyes. It could truly be called fortune.
"I know, right!? It's because I'm loved! I'm a maiden loved by the fluffadise above! You can call me the fluffmaiden if you wish... no, that doesn't sound right. I get the feeling maiden's veering in the wrong direction. This body of mine ain't gonna stay pure for long."
Seeing Fina's tension suddenly rise, Sophina noticed it was about time for her concentration to run out. As she had Mii prepare tea, Fina leapt out of her seat and headed off towards the white cat tribe lass.
"If only she didn't have this side, she'd be perfect..."
Sophina breathed out a sigh as she gazed over Fina expressionlessly fluffing up Mii.
"The results of the experimental subject?"
Mies Licorise wore a lab coat.
In the laboratory, her subordinates were busily making records of the cages containing the black monsters. The final adjustments on the strengthened monsters were being in that lab of the Gaia empire.
Ogres and orcs, wyverns and a wide array of different monsters, you could say their control experiments were proceeding smoothly.
"No problems to report. It has already received a high evaluation taking on monsters within imperial territory."
Taking the documents from her subordinate, Mies read the report of the newly formed unit. When operating monsters, if taking command was possible, they needed an exclusive unit to do so. For that sake, they were conducted experiment after experiment, combatting monsters on imperial soil.
Seeing the papers that reported absolutely no problem, her subordinate seemed self-confident. But Mies was beginning to fear it a bit.
"If we keep on succeeding like this, it does feel somewhat eerie. More importantly, it seems some of the monsters they took on fled in the direction of Courtois, but how is that handling?"
"Nothing to worry about. It's a common occurrence. Some common monsters were just driven out of the mountains."
As her subordinate showed no particular concern, Mies warned him not to let his guard down. To her, this research held a vital meaning.
"We've been pushing ourselves too hard this past year. The higher-ups told us not to make too big of a ruckus before the invasion, so be careful henceforth."
As her subordinate man left the area, Mies headed for the space in front of the largest cage. Their prototype of a large monster called a gora sat quietly, still with its ferocious expression on its face. On top of the fangs that stuck out of its mouth, when it became an enhanced variant, its skin and fur dyed a shade of black, making for a truly ominous sight.
For some reason, a white tattoo spread across its body, and large bat like wings spread out form its back. The gora's eyes narrowed as it looked at Mies, it almost seemed to be laughing.
"... You monster."
A cold sweat running along her back, Mies left with due haste.