| In the academy, preparations were underway for- what would be to Rudel and the other fifth years- their final individuals' tournament.
This time's tournament would be the last festival for what those in the academy had started to call the golden generation. The royal family and the nobles wouldn't miss this last great competition, with tensions rising far above the norm.
It goes without saying the royal family's participation was something Fina laid the groundwork for. But once the royal family showed interest, the nobles began volunteering one after the next.
The academy was a ruckus from top to bottom and it was decided the tournament would take on a different form from the usual. Competitors would still be selected in the same way from their achievements up to the appointed date, but they had decreased the numbers. They planned to hold only the finals, but from the voices of nobles and other hopeful competitors, the top eight students were chosen to take part.
Of course, with balance in mind, Rudel, Eunius, and Aleist would be in different groups during the preliminaries. It was concluded so, for if the three of them collided in the preliminaries, the spectators would likely find the finals to be quite unsatisfactory.
The reconstruction of the arena had it reinforced, taking into account the possible matchup between the white and black knights. Luecke had personally volunteered to take on the task. He said he would secure the safety of the arena's spectators.
He planned to use the individuals' tournament to unveil the knight brigade the Halbades House had been preparing for a few years. While he had considered concealing them, the Halbades House was never said to excel in military might, and he intended to show the other nobles their power.
By his work, the top eight competitors could take on their matches at full strength. But those involved with the school held their heads as they imagined Rudel mustering all his might again.
In a meeting room where those personnel gathered, a meeting on the tournament was running on. Preparations were underway, but they couldn't help but be anxious. The reason being all their problem children starting with white knight Rudel. They could never be optimistic about those students who would always run contrary to their expectations.
"Finally, the time has finally come."
On the heavy words the headmaster spat out, everyone gathered silently nodded. Ever since the golden generation enrolled, there were numerous problems that plagued the academy, all leading up to their graduation year.
Two dangerous monster appearances during wilderness training, one of which was an incident that enraptured princess Fina. It was an incident that made the academy considerably fearful.
In the class battles, a number of matches unthinkable at the level of the fundamental curriculum. These would often produce abnormal situations where all the legitimate heirs of the Three Lords were hospitalized at once.
If Rudel participated, he would be hospitalized without fail. In the infirmary, there were some rumors of a perfect attendance award being prepared for him.
The problem involving the commoner Fritz, and the First Princess Aileen's interference... Rudel's free pass into the girls' dormitory, toleration of Aleist's implied illicit sexual relations, Eunius' customary breaking of curfew, the ever-updating record of destroyed facilities in Luecke's magic research... there would be no end if everything was brought up, but to the teachers and staff who had surmounted countless incidents, their sensations had been numbed.
They who supported Rudel and the others from the shadows, they were now putting the finishing touches on what could be called their last festival.
"Reinforcement of the arena is going steadily. No problem in the security of the royal family and high-ranking nobles... but I'm sure you all already understand. That is never enough!"
Everyone nodded. No matter how wary they were of Rudel and co, they could never be wary enough.
"Fina-sama also gave an order to remain cautious of Aileen-sama's movements. This year, Fritz-kun is going to be competing in the matches, and there are some grudges to be had. She wants us to be wary of the competitors as well. Well, I doubt they'll do anything too stupid."
"Leave it to us, headmaster. In this tournament, we've prepared a separate waiting room for each individual competitor. Thanks to Fina-sama, we've prepared an ample number of guards."
"As I recall, they were a unit established to fill in the hole created by the royal guard, correct? Are the 'defenders' up to par? We can't allow failure at the end of the end."
"That isn't a problem. They are seasoned fighters gathered from the farthest reaches of the kingdom."
"... But why are there so many demi-humans? No, I'm not trying to say I hate demi-humans or anything, it's just a strange inclination in their selection, or rather..."
"The royal guard's in the same boat. That side feels like a gathering of ideologists, after all."
As the conversation derailed, the headmaster held up a hand. Everyone grew quiet and eyes began gathering on his face.
"Everyone, this is our last festival. Exercise adequate caution."
The festival they spoke of, it was a word that referred to any school event that involved the problem children. While it was a word laced with cynicism, it was strangely accurate.
The festival's preparations were steadily on their way.
The fact the teaching staff was busy at work meant Fina was carrying out her preparations as well. In order to oppose Aileen, Fina had formed the defenders that would come under her control. They were formed as a miscellaneous job squadron readied to fill in the hole left by the royal guard's formation.
The royal guard whose reason for existence was still in question were Aileen's pieces to play. With Fritz as its future captain, it was an organization of knights who endorsed Aileen. They held high conceit, and from their position that placed them as higher existences than the other knights, they were terribly particular about their work. They were a problem even in the royal palace, and Fina made use of that.
She proposed they gather those of lower status and put them to odd jobs. The maintenance costs of the royal guard were enormous, but maintaining knights originally of lower status could be passed cheaply. Fina's father Albach had shown disapproval of its formation, his opinions aligning with that of the ministers who didn't want anyone forming any more organizations.
With their work taken away, the high knights were also opposed. They were desperate not to let the value of their own existence fall any further.
But by taking a stance that they would take on the work that no other knight brigades wanted to do, their formation was approved. They investigated into the work looked down on by each and bit on.
On top of monster control around the capital, they would respond to calls for reinforcements on the border. While they called themselves defenders, in the name of odd jobs, they stole away the authority of other knight brigades bit by bit, increasing in numbers from the sheer breadth of their work. They were already on the level of a knight brigade. The only reason they could grow to such a size in the short period from their formation came in the demi-human units wasting away in the outer reaches that Fina had recalled.
For Rudel's sake, the captain seat was left empty, but there were plenty of knights abundant in experience to take on deputy roles. Demi-humans were always low in status, so there were those who hated their noble superiors. Fina had sold favors as she gathered them up.
Before the knights whose eyes sparkled at their final chance, Fina expressionlessly expressed her delight.
(Veteran fluffies are the bessssssttt!!)
But unfortunately, Rudel had no interest in the royal guard or defenders. That alone was Fina's largest oversight.
"... I'm getting a chill for some reason."
"What's this all of a sudden, Rudel?"
In the cafeteria of the academy busily preparing for the individuals' tournament, Rudel and Izumi were sitting at a table together. They finished lunch and were putting their mouths to their drinks as they measured the right time to leave. They were so laid back the other students were unable to cause them any trouble.
While the two of them were letting out a calming air, Rudel suddenly began looking around. Finding it strange, Izumi tried asking what had happened, but Rudel's answer was an ambiguous out.
"No, I suddenly got the feeling someone was aiming at me. Well, the tournament's ahead of us, so I'm sure everyone' just high strung. There are quite a few busily moving about.
Luecke was securing the arena's safety, while Eunius had no other thought than his final adjustments.
"More importantly, you're really participating in the tournament, Izumi? I'm not sure what to think of that."
"Are you worried? I'm happy, but you don't need to hold back. In most cases, women don't take part in the tournament. But this one's a bit of a different case."
Every year, the individuals' tournament would have many male participants. Besides those confident in their skills, women generally wouldn't take part. But when it came to making use of mana, there was a tendency for women to be more skilled than men. With the greater ability to reinforce their bodies with magic, rather than the power difference between genders, it came more to the difference in ability among individuals.
The reason there were so many female knights lay in a woman's advantage in using magic. Lilim was an elf, and thus on a different spectrum, but Cattleya was a good example.
The royal family would be watching this time's individuals' tournament. Izumi had still yet to learn of her tentative high knight offer, so this individuals' tournament was her chance. She would be able to sell herself.
"To be honest, it will be difficult for me to fight you."
Rudel made a displeased face, but he did know Izumi's ability. Her peculiar swordsmanship was on a level Eunius recognized. It was simply Rudel's selfishness in not wanting to take Izumi on in a serious match.
"If you let your guard down, then apart from me, there are plenty who'll pull the carpet out from under your feet. And I passed through the harsh nomination process too, you know. It would be fine if you recognized me a bit."
Like a child with a thing for mischief, Izumi enjoyed teasing Rudel. She already knew Rudel recognized her ability, and it was intended as a bit of a joke.
But jokes often didn't get through to Rudel. While he had been calm as of late, the one with their guard down was Izumi.
"I don't want to hurt you. If any of the other competitors injures you..."
As Rudel's face clouded, the gazes gathered from the students who had been listening in. Rudel and Izumi were famous in the academy. In crowded places, they stood out.
"N-no, Rudel, I'm joking."
"I don't want your pretty body to be wounded."
The man in question put the words to mouth with an innocent sentiment, but the pubescent student body went and interpreted it on your own. 'Your body is mine', the rumor was reinterpreted as hit spread like the nonsense of a telephone game. As embellishments and fins were tacked on to their conversation, it eventually turned into the following.
'I want to enter the individuals' tournament, Rudel.'
'... It makes me sick to my stomach to think any man apart from me will be touching your body.'
'It's just a match, it'll be fine.'
'Then I'll kill whoever goes up against you. If they injure you, I'll slaughter their household.'
Why did it come to this? The delusions of the students that could only bring those words to mind continued to spread, eventually reaching the ears of the staff, and by it, the first matchup of the tournament was forcefully changed to be Rudel against Izumi.
"Sophina, there aren't many high knights applying."
Fina expressionlessly processed paperwork with respectable speed. Her form, unlike usual, actually looked diligent. The papers she dealt with pertained to the defenders she had established, and she was doing a proper job.
The reason she was filling those forms in her room was that the one in charge of the defenders was substantially Fina.
"... There's the matter with the royal guard, but the high knights are facing a shortage of hands. It will be quite bad if we lose any more members."
While Sophina was by her side, helping out with her work, she was making an unpleasant face. Because she was Fina's guard, and by no means her secretary. Similarly helping out with work, Mii could only fulfill odd jobs like preparing tea.
Even so, rather than Sophina who could actually help out, Fina's evaluation of Mii was higher. From how hard she tried to teach Mii the work, Sophina noticed Fina was slowly grooming her into her secretary, and wouldn't let her run away.
"We really do have too many organizations. While few in numbers, the feuding between knights has increased. It really is a bother."
"Yes... no matter how you look at it, aren't you being too wary? Maintaining a knight brigade simply to oppose Aileen-sama is going too far."
"You're right. There sure are a lot... then we'll be having the high knights disappear."
Sophina's hands stop, and Fina cautioned her to keep working. But that wasn't the problem for Sophina.
"W-what are you talking about, princess?"
"Hmm? We have too many organizations, so we'll chip some away. The high knights are short on hands, and on top of their jobs being stolen away by the royal guard, their strength falls short of the defenders."
"W-we do not!"
"We'll need some organizational reform."
As Fina calmly carried on with her work, Sophina felt something off. When Fina never stuck hands into anything that didn't interest her, she suddenly spoke up about organizational reform.
To her lord and master who she knew was scheming as could be, Sophina sent a doubtful look. By the way, normally, Sophina's master was originally supposed to be the king Albach. The high knights swore loyalty to the king.
Sophina had accepted within that she was rolling on the palm of Fina's hand.
"Your real goal... is Izumi, isn't it."
"... That black hairrr, it's master's fault for saying he'll slaughter the house of whoever touches black hair. If it's to crush her, I'll even crush the high knight system. While I'm at it, I'll be able to take the high knights who've lost their place into the defenders all too easily."
"So we're just a 'while I'm at it'!? What do you think our loyalty is supposed to be..."
"Hah, listen well, Sophina. In any case, organizational reform will be needed. On top of Courtois' standing knight force, we have the dragoons, high knights, royal guard, defenders... if our neighbor wasn't the Gaia Empire, our military would be severely curtailed. The maintenance cost of a dragon is nothing to laugh at. You can rear dozens of horses at the price of one."
Sophina couldn't accept the words of the princess who had flooded the market with organizations to begin with.
"The fragmentation of factions within the organizations was going on from the start. To this point, that wasn't particularly a problem, but now it won't stand. By the way, I actually have a proper reason."
Fina finished up her paperwork before pulling a document from her drawer. It detailed the events surrounding what seemed to be a mystery case on the border.
Terrible as she was at dealing with ghost stories, Sophina divided her attention between the document and her work.
The document suggested the Gaia Empire might be behind the mystery. This was outside Sophina's jurisdiction, so had never even heard of it before.
"Is this... true?"
"It's certain there's been movement. Father's trying to take measures, but he said something was strange. It's as if some force is getting in his way, and he can't take any countermeasures... up to now, there have been a number of small skirmishes. But it does seem they're serious this time."
Fina had a few pieces of evidence that the empire had moved on hand. On top of the movements of people near the border, the flow of goods... they were even strengthening their military. It was the largest movement they had shown in the last few decades.
But what about Courtois on the other side? Even if Albach moved to counteract, for some reason, he wasn't getting anywhere. The high knights were weakening, and the royal guard's increasing authority was creating friction between them and the normal knights.
"Then, then why did you establish the defenders? If you pull troops from the border, we won't be able to do anything when the time comes! Let alone that, I can only think you two princesses are the ones getting in the way..."
"This is why muscle heads are... even if it's the same border, it's not like I pulled any forces off the border with the Empire. And did you really think I'd do anything as foolish as to pull out knights in command of the troops? I've already sent those very defenders to the empire's border to augment their forces."
"G-good work... huh? I didn't hear anything about that!"
"I didn't tell you."
Fina expressionlessly gave a cute gesture, but she was simply covering for the fact her father Albach couldn't move. Sadly, there was a limit to Fina's authority.
In regards to the high knights as well, she wanted to resolve their lack of commanders on site. She foresaw a situation where the skilled high knights could no longer only be used for defense.
Gathering goods on the border, she stationed soldiers and defenders. But she was overwhelmingly short on numbers. As she was pushing it a bit, she didn't want to involve Sophina.
If someone only heard that much, Fina was proficient. But her motives were simply impure.
Soothing Sophina before she could start a lecture, little by little, Fina explained.
"I cannot accept it, but I understand you are working hard for the sake of this country. So you've finally realized your position as a princess?"
"Of course, that's just a front. When the empire invades, my sister will go on a rampage, unable to read the mood, so I'll restrain her and increase my own value as I grow closer to my dreams of fluffadise... while I'm at it, I originally planned to crush the high knights to get back at black hair. See, when the royal guard and my defenders are fighting in the palace if the high knights aren't under my control, there's no telling how they'll move. (It's obvious, isn't it? Even if I'm rotten, I'm a princess of Courtois. So can't you show some understanding about the high knight matter?)"
Fina accidentally flipped her true feelings and front, Sophina held her head, filling up with the urge to cry out. Right, looking at the results, Fina's actions were correct when it came to defending Courtois. There were surely better ways to go about it, but with Fina's objectives, she couldn't take any other means.
In a situation where the empire was about to invade, Sophina was among the few individuals who had noticed the two large bombs within Courtois.
Mii did listen in to their conversation, but she didn't quite get it so she didn't open her mouth. But from Mii's eyes, it looked as if Sophina was worrying over the discharge of the high knights.
The reason Albach couldn't move was tied in with the setting. For the sake of the final event to come, the world had begun to move. To make sure Aileen didn't stand out, the ministers turned to oppose Alback, and a large divide was made in Courtois.
So the main character could perform on a desolate battlefield. The enemy was vast... his allies were powerless, and the protagonist came out as a hero.
The Gaia Empire was taking this situation as a chance. Askewell distinguished himself in the military, gradually getting his preparations together.
And once more, Fina was fighting against fate.
"You want armor? Aleist, you don't have any blacksmiths under your house?"
As Rudel was eating lunch with Izumi, Aleist hurriedly rushed in as if fleeing from something. While he had failed to read the mood, Aleist did have a reason.
He wasn't thick enough to spend lunch every day in that grating, hellish environment. Starting with the slight sharpening of eyes, the checks, restraints, and threats slipped into casual conversation... Aleist could no longer taste his food.
Thinking up an arbitrary reason, Aleist had evacuated to Rudel.
Even Aleist's harem couldn't do anything reckless before Rudel.
And the arbitrary reason that came from his mouth was armor. His knight uniform would be prepared for him wherever he was assigned, but the problem was the armor. As the next head of the Hardie House, there were talks about how he needed an armor to represent his own house as well.
"Yeah, mine's an upstart house, and we don't have too many craftsmen under us. There's no problem when it comes to weapons, but I'll have to make a request elsewhere when it comes to armor."
Unlike usual, being able to eat without constraint left Aleist careless. Even when the perpetrator behind his harsh training under the tiger tribe men was undoubtedly Rudel.
Sitting beside them, Izumi watched Rudel think as she sipped her tea.
(It's Rudel we're talking about, so I'm sure he'll cause a problem... but it's just introducing a smithy, so maybe nothing will happen? No, but that's where the Rudel kicks in.)
Izumi's worries perfectly hit on the mark. Rudel had currently left his entire set of equipment to some craftsmen from the east. With maintenance in mind, the craftsmen had shown some interest when the sword and armor they forged had grown, and a new shield had been added on.
Rudel remembered their bloodshot eyes when those craftsmen saw his changed armor.
"I do know some skilled craftsmen."
"They're a bit strange, but they've got some nice, determined eyes. I left my entire equipment set to them so you can trust in their skill."
At that moment, Izumi's guard was down. When Rudel said he knew a good craftsman, she never even thought they were a troupe from the east. She was sure they were blacksmiths under the Arses House's wing.
If she knew they were an eastern troupe, perhaps she could have cautioned Aleist. That they had peculiar tastes...
"Then is it alright if I make a request?"
"No problem. It'll actually serve as advertising, so I'm sure they'll rejoice. I had them go above and beyond for me, after all."
Rudel had asked them to abandon appearance and make an armor completely specialized to sturdiness, and he remembered how it turned out sturdy enough to surprise him. It really was an armor that had abandoned appearance. It hadn't the slightest hint of an ornament.
But now, because of the boar, it was made into an armor worthy of the white dragoon.
"Then I think I'll take you up on that. How much will it cost?"
"I can't really specify. If you just want an ornament, you might get it cheap, but in your case, you might use it outside of ceremonies... it this case, I think you should get something nice. Even if the country provides them, it's better to have more usable armaments."
"Got it. My parents said it was fine if I pushed it a bit, so I think I'll go and see."
Aleist delightedly finished his lunch, but when the craftsmen Rudel introduced delivered a pitch black armor to his doorsteps a few months later, he crumbled at the knees.