Starting the next day, Eugeo and I began our genuine practice regiment.
The instructor in charge of our tutelage——the 《number twelve》-san that Chief Elder Chudelkin had mentioned——was a female knight named Scheta Synthesis Twelve; her imposing aura and quiet demeanour were quite similar to that of dorm manager Azurica from the Swordcraft Academy in some aspects, though her strictness was a level… make that two, or maybe even three levels higher.
After all, the moment we met her face-to-face for the first time at the training grounds on the fifty-first floor, Knight Scheta declared the following while touching a steel pillar on the floor. 『I’ll have you guys become capable of slicing this pillar in one year’s time. If you fail to achieve that, your tutelage will be put to an end』……meaning, she’d abandon us.
The pillar with countless scratches was seven centimetres or so wide; slicing it with a sword seemed very much impossible by any stretch of the imagination. When I expressed my honest opinion on the matter, Scheta pulled out a terribly delicate sword——an item whose blade width didn’t seem to even amount to a single centimetre, while its thickness – a single millimetre——from the left side of her waist, before casually swinging it with a noise through the air. At that moment, the tip of the steel pillar was sliced off as if it were butter or something, the five millimetre-thick disk-shaped chunk rolling to my feet afterwards; thus, ‘S’rry!’, I had no choice but to apologise.
Perhaps I ought to say that we were lucky, as Eugeo and I had experience facing the harder-than-steel Gigas Cedar. The training ground pillar seemed to have quite the high object class, but if the worst were to come to pass, I’d just forcefully chop it down with the highest-ranked Sword Skill from the One Handed Sword category, 《Nova Ascension》; keeping my conviction hidden away in my chest, I braced myself for a daily regimen of practices along with Eugeo.
Scheta-sensei’s tutelage would begin from nine in the morning, followed by a lunch break from twelve to one o’clock, then we’d have another fifteen minute break at three o’clock, and the practice would finally end at five in the evening. By then, I’d return to our room utterly exhausted and go down to have dinner among the monks after washing away my sweat; I would like to spend the remainder of my time before retiring to bed idling about afterwards, but instead I would pay a visit to the kitchen after the meal and devote myself to my personal research and development with a bit of help from the head chef. At ten o’clock late in the evening, I’d finally return to my own room and sleep like a log till morning.
Such a routine went on for a week.
At that point, I finally achieved what I believed should be satisfactory results and decided that the time for carrying out my plan had come.
“Hohih!? You wish to have an audience with Her Holy Eminence, the Supreme Priest, you saaay!?”
When we finally managed to get hold of Chief Elder Chudelkin by making use of our lunch break to stake out the elevator hall, he jolted up upon hearing my demand.
“Wh-what kind of nonsense are you saaaying! How can mere, lowly apprentice knights hope to take up even a minute, or rather even a second, no, make that even half of a half of a half of a half of a second of Her Holy Eminence’s precious tiiime!”
Since I had predicted such a response, I shut up the Chief Elder by thrusting my index finger at his mouth as he continued with his shrill screams, before saying the following.
“Listen here, you tell her this……I mean, please. Tell the Esteemed Supreme Priest that she will have a chance to meet with someone whom she’d deem to be the one and only enemy who can oppose her on equal footing.”
“A-an enemy on equal footing, you saaay!? Her Holy Eminence, the ruler of the entirety of the Human Empire does not have anyone like…..”
Chudelkin began saying, before suddenly shutting his mouth tight. After looking at me and then Eugeo alternately multiple times, he muttered, “Don’t tell me you guys met……”. Jumping away backwards at that very moment, he thrust fingers from both of his hands at us, as he shouted.
“W-wait right there!”
Having rolled away like a rubber ball and disappeared atop the elevating disk, Chudelkin returned twelve minutes later and declared the following to us.
“Her Holy Eminence will see you tomorrow at noon at the 《Morning Star Lookout》 on the ninety-fifth floooor. However, you’d best tread carefully, you hear? If your words were to turn out to be downright lies, you two will both be turned to jewels, you heaaar?”
Those words should have reached the small black spider——Cardinal’s familiar Charlotte, who was constantly lurking around me. And since Cardinal shared Charlotte’s sight and hearing, the words would have reached her as well at the same time.
Though, whether or not Cardinal would get on board with my plan wasn’t certain yet. If she doesn’t appear on the ninety-fifth floor, all my effort this week would go to waste…… actually, that’d be the least of our troubles, seeing as Eugeo and I would be turned into jewels in that case.
It came as no surprise that I couldn’t finish my evening grub that day, nor that I had quite the hard time falling asleep in my bed. Nevertheless, I apparently dozed off at some point while rolling around in the bed, as Solus’s white light had begun shining through the gaps in the curtain before I knew it.
This day——the Tenth Day of the Fourth Month, 381 Year of the Human Empire Calendar was a rest day and so we had a holiday from our training.
Eugeo and I spent our time till noon voluntarily studying Sacred Arts, leaving our room when it was eleven thirty. While I’ve grown completely used to going up and down the stairs, I had to watch my step as I was carrying a large package with me today. I had discussed how to carry the custom-made, wooden box that measured fifty centimetres in both length and width, as well as thirty centimetres in height, with both the head chef and Eugeo, but in the end, we reached the conclusion that it would be safest to carry it in both hands.
Eugeo wasn’t empty-handed either. In his hands was a basket with ten plates and a variety of cutlery, clattering as he walked. We both continued climbing the stairs in silence and got on the elevating disk on the fiftieth floor.
I didn’t notice at first, but there was another door at the end of the cloister that circled along the walls of the 《Grand Corridor of Spiritual Light》, beyond which was a set of stairs leading to the upper floors. Feeling guilty about troubling Elevating Operator-san just to go up a single floor, we had been using the stairs whenever we needed to reach the training grounds on the fifty-first floor, but since our destination for the day was the ninety-fifth floor, we’d end up late if we avoided using the elevating disk.
The expressionless-as-always Elevating Operator had utterly no reaction to seeing me carrying a huge box in my hands. As the girl continued raising the disk to the eightieth floor, I couldn’t hold back from starting up a conversation with her.
“Um…… as I recall, you like buns packed with sweet, boiled beans, right?
“That is correct.”
“Where can you get those? I’ve never seen them being offered at the dining room……”
“Seeing as it is a specialty of the eastern empire, it appears that the Cathedral’s kitchen, specialising mostly in northern empire cuisine, rarely if ever prepares any of them. Personally, I received some from the knight commander at some point in the past.”
“The knight commander……?”
I subconsciously exchanged glances with Eugeo. Now that I think about it, there’s nothing strange whatsoever about the Integrity Knights having a leader and subleader of their own, though I’ve never even heard their name, let alone met them in person. I’ll probably have the chance to meet them someday——assuming I don’t get turned into a jewel today——with that thought in mind, I followed up with another question.
“Do you have a liking for sweet things in general? Or anpa(13)…… bean-filled buns only?”
“I like them in general, though I find sticky stuff hard to handle, even if they are sweet.”
‘Even with her Life frozen in place, she’s still just an ordinary girl on the inside, huh……’, as I was having such thoughts, Eugeo voiced a peculiar question.
“When does your lunch break begin?”
“I am granted breaks from eleven forty five till twelve thirty.”
“So it’s about time for it, huh. In that case, wanna come with us?”
“Where would that be?”
“A place called the Morning Star Lookout on the ninety-fifth floor. I’m sure you’ll get to eat something you’ve never eaten before if you go there.”
‘Hey hey, the ninety-fifth floor may turn into a battlefield ya know……’, I panicked for a moment, but then I realised that if that were to come to pass, the entirety of the Axiom Church would likely be destroyed in the process. Eugeo and I have been labouring for an entire week specifically to avoid such an outcome.
After tilting her head a bit, the Elevating Operator gave a nod.
“This is my first time receiving such a generous invitation; however, accompanying you for lunch does not breach any rules either.”
Once we arrived on the eightieth floor, the Elevating Operator fixed the disk to the bridge and followed after us. We crossed the deserted Cloudtop Garden and once again climbed up the stairs. When we arrived at the Grand Bath on the ninetieth floor, ‘Only five floors away from our destination……’, as such a thought crossed my mind, I noticed an unexpected problem.
Presently, it was women’s bathing time at the Grand Bath; Eugeo and I couldn’t enter. Actually, if we really wanted to, we could go inside, but if, like last time, Alice or some other female knight…… such as Instructor Scheta were currently taking a bath, we wouldn’t even need to wait till we incurred the Supreme Priest’s displeasure to be chopped up to bits. ‘Actually, who’s the wise guy who planned out the floor in a way that you couldn’t go to the adjacent floors without passing through the bathroom, for starters’, as I griped in my mind…
Having uttered this, the Elevating Operator stepped towards the right-sided one of the two passages extending to the sides of the giant door. Having no other choice, we went after her, but this path should have led to a dead end——
This preconception of mine was easily overturned at the end of the path. On the right-hand-side wall, a small door of the same material as the walls was installed. When the Elevating Operator pushed open the door-knob-lacking door, we found a set of confined stairs inside. It appeared that there were heaps of secret passages that we didn’t know about inside the Central Cathedral.
As we climbed up the stairs behind the Elevating Operator, I whispered to Eugeo.
“If you hadn’t invited that girl, we’d have been in quite the dilemma at the bathroom, huh.”
“Not like I invited her for such a reason though…… but she sure did help us out. The Esteemed Supreme Priest probably wouldn’t have tolerated us being late even by a single second, I believe.”
“……Let’s get a move on.”
Even at our current pace, we should be able to arrive five minutes before twelve o’clock; nevertheless, I still increased my stair-climbing speed a bit.
Upon reaching the ninety-first floor, we walked along the passage by the windows and met up at the grand stairs on the northern side. We didn’t suffer anymore trouble from that point on and reached the ninety-fifth floor.
The 《Morning Star Lookout》 that I visited for the first time was, as its name implied, a clear viewing platform-like place with pillars for walls in all four directions. We couldn’t see the stars since it was still noon, but it was possible to get a boundless view of the vast Human Empire. If you were to stand at the edge and strain your eyes, you’d probably be able to even see the End Mountains seven hundred and fifty kilometres away from here, but since there was an utter lack of anything resembling handrailing here, I had no desire to get close to it.
Holding the wooden box in my hands, I circled the floor.
Multicoloured flowers were in full bloom on the large flower beds stationed at various places, while clear water flowed smoothly through the canals. A large table was set on the southern side, two Integrity Knights standing beside it.
The first was Instructor Scheta, clad in gray armour.
The other one was clad in golden armour, while her golden hair fluttered in the gentle breeze.
Although she probably hadn’t actually heard Eugeo’s hoarse voice, Integrity Knight Alice raised her right hand and beckoned us with the bare minimum of movement. Making up my mind, I approached the table. Atop the polished tabletop, tea cups for eight had been lined up.
Despite Eugeo and I standing in front of her, Alice remained silent. With her eyes still closed, Scheta didn’t make the slightest movement either. With no other choice, we continued waiting for what would happen next while still standing.
According to my body clock, it was one minute before noon when it happened.
From the spiral staircase at the centre of the floor, a woman clad in a light purple dress descended. The Supreme Priest Administrator…… she looked exactly the same as during our audience one week ago, but this time, a delicate sword hung down from her left hip, where nothing had been present during our last meeting. I wonder, had she used heaps of concentrated carsha fruit juice on her platinum-silver hair to make it so long that the tips were touching the floor, or was it her natural length.
The moment the slender legs of the ruler of the Human Empire touched the floor, Alice and Scheta moved their right fist to their chest plates, while placing their left hands on the handles of their swords. A knight’s salute that meant, ‘I offer you my life and sword.’ Eugeo and I were technically knights too, so we should probably do the same, but we hadn’t brought our swords here, while our hands were currently full with a wooden box and a basket. Meanwhile, the Elevating Operator just gave a slight bow, rather than a knight’s salute, so we followed suit.
Now that I think about it, Eugeo had only told her “you’ll get to eat something you’ve never eaten”; he didn’t tell her anything about the Supreme Priest being present here. Yet the fact that her complexion showed not a single change despite that was just proof that we had no chance of reaching her level of guts.
As I watched over her with my heart pounding, the Supreme Priest walked over to the other side of the table with an air of composure, not even sparing us a glance, and then sat down on the so-called ‘birthday seat’(14) that was treated as the seat of honour. Without a moment’s delay, Alice began to move, pouring some tea from the teapot to the cup in front of the Supreme Priest.
Thirty seconds remained till noon. Will Cardinal really show up? If she were not to come, Eugeo and I would be turned into jewels…… or perhaps even to pill bugs, depending on the circumstances. In such a case, I would likely not be logged out from this world.
When the shudder-filled countdown reached fifteen seconds, that’s when it happened.
The Supreme Priest turned her silver eyes to the northern side of the floor, so I also gazed there. Right afterwards, a small figure came flying in from the lower part of the tower, landing gently on the aperture. A long staff and a large, square cap; it was undoubtedly the Sage Cardinal that I had encountered in the isolated library room. She flew over along the outer wall to this floor, located close to three hundred metres away from the ground…… I guess?
Raising the small glasses on her nose back into position, Cardinal walked over straight to the table. Stopping beside the ‘birthday seat’ set up opposite to Administrator‘s, she lightly stabbed her staff into the floor. At that moment, the staff remained in its perpendicular position without anything to support it, while Cardinal pulled up her seat with both hands and sat down.
At practically that same moment, the noon bell rang out. Once the solemn instrumental ensemble disappeared after a long trail of sound, Knight Alice passed in front of me with the pot and poured some tea to Cardinal’s cup as well, before returning to her original position.
The first to open her mouth was Administrator.
“Long time no see, Lyceris-chan. I’m glad to see you again.”
Hearing that, Cardinal calmly responded.
“Calleth me not by that name, Quinella. I now m’self Cardinal calleth.”
The two gazes collided at the centre of the table, giving off small sparks…… or so it felt to me.
After all, there was a sword by the Supreme Priest’s left hip, while a staff stood just to the right of the Sage. I don’t really think a battle would break out so easily, but as the one who set up this discussion, I’d have to cut in if it did happen. Sweat slowly built up on my hands, still carrying the wooden box.
However, Administrator did not erase her smile despite being called by her former name and instead gave a fleeting glance at the aperture of the floor.
“You know, I have clay puppets that attack anything and everything that approaches them lined up along the outer wall of the Cathedral…… I wonder, how did you manage to avoid fighting them?”
“Art not those measly puppets of thee mere copies of the minions that the dark arts masters employeth? Those chaps perceiveth foes only those which they dost see. Thou bilk them can with use of an invisibility art”
“Invisibility, huh. So those hundreds of years you spent holed up in that cellar didn’t go to waste, I see.”
“‘Tis a given. A mere ten or twenty of the arts that compiled hast I to defeat thee would not suffice.”
The moment Cardinal gave a broad grin, I felt cold sweat running through my back. Eugeo’s breathing beside me was also rapidly becoming more shallow, thus I would like to tell him to relax, but this atmosphere didn’t really allow me to bring out my voice. Even Knights Alice and Scheta standing slightly away from the table had grown tense; the only one calm at this point was the Elevating Operator.
“I am slightly surprised that you’re capable of such impudent talk in such a situation, Lyceris…… I mean, Cardinal.”
“While I thought hath that thou thyself would hast all thy Integrity Knights lined up before thee. Sufficeth a mere two will?
“Oh my, would you like to give it a try then? I’m up for it anytime, you know?”
Invisible sparks burst out once more. What an explosive situation…… if either of them were to reach for their weapons with their hands, the final showdown would probably begin that very moment.
The Sage Cardinal had, at the end of our interaction a week ago, entrusted Eugeo and I with a certain object. Daggers as sharp as a needle and so small that they could fit in the palm of your hand. A person stabbed with one would become unable to defend against or resist Cardinal’s Sacred Arts. If I were to successfully stab the Supreme Priest with my dagger while Eugeo stabbed Alice with his, the Supreme Priest would likely die, while Alice would regain her memories. ——However.
Just before the electrified atmosphere could reach its critical point, I mustered all the courage I had in me and took a step forward.
“Um! I have a proposal of my own for you, if you wouldn’t mind!”
As I shouted in a shrill voice, Administrator sent a dubious gaze my way.
“What can a mere kiddo who just became an apprentice knight propose here? For starters, actually, I’ve been curious for a while now, what is with that jumbo box of yours?”
Instead of responding with words, I took another two steps forward, placing the plain-wooden box at the centre of the long table.
‘Whew’, I exhaled a breath, before sucking one in and halting my breathing. I placed my hands on the sides of the box and removed the top part of it that served as the cover.
That very moment, white steam spilled out from inside, flowing onto the table. To be precise, it wasn’t steam, but rather cold air emitted by the ice stuffed inside. Of course, ice wasn’t the only thing inside. The bottom plate that remained on the table was covered by a silver lid a size smaller than the box itself.
When I grabbed the ring attached to the top of the lid and raised it up, pure white light was what spilled out this time—— or so it looked.
What appeared was a twenty four centimetre-wide and eight centimetre tall cylinder. The reason for the whiteness of its surface was due to the generous amounts of fresh cream spread on it. Large strawberries from the western empire were placed on top, as if it were a finishing touch. This was a product that would be featured in the showcase of generally any Western confectionery store in the real world, but in this world——
“……What be that may?”
Cardinal was the one who tilted her head this time. After a cough, I answered.
“This would be a strawberry shortcake.”
However, the shade of doubt would not disappear from the Supreme Priest’s and the Sage’s faces.
“Isn’t it too white for a cake? Short is a Sacred Tongue word for short(mijikai), is it not? How is this short(mijikai)?
“In this case, short appears to hold the meaning of 《crispy》.”
I displayed the knowledge I had once received from Asuna on the Second Floor of Aincrad in the distant past, but the Supreme Priest didn’t seem to be much if at all impressed by it.
“It doesn’t really look all that crispy though…… So? What do you intend to do with it?”
“A moment, please.”
At this point, Eugeo stepped forward and opened his basket. When he was taking out the knives from inside of it, I suddenly realised something.
To make my presentation perfect, I would like to to cut the cake with utmost beauty. If I were to use the knife I borrowed from the kitchen, we would surely end up with sloppy cuts, but if the job were handled by our dear instructor who could cleanly cut through even a steel pillar——
“Umm, Instructor Scheta.”
When I called out to her, the gray knight blinked in silence.
“Could I hope to have your help dividing this cake into eight equal slices?”
“Anyone can cut a thing like that.”
At her blunt reply, I continued to persist in convincing her somehow.
“O…… oh no, you see, this item is greatly tender, hence cutting it cleanly is quite the ordeal. Unless one was as great a master as you, instructor, it would be quite……”
That very moment, rather than Scheta, Alice beside her reacted with a twitch of her expression. Perhaps I had hurt her pride, but she showed no further reaction. On the other hand, Scheta remained expressionless, but still stepped forward in silence and first gave a bow to the Supreme Priest, before taking out her Divine Object, the 《Black Lily Sword》.
After looking at the entire cake and calculating her timing for a moment, ‘Pi pi pi piu’, whizzed four sword swipes. I could see no sign of the cake having been cut, aside from a single strawberry splitting by a millimetre or so. That skill of hers made it difficult to distribute the cake to the plates…… wait, maybe I could just leave that to her as well.
Having divided the labour with Eugeo, we lined up eight plates beside the cake.
“Instructor, I would hate to be a bother, but could you use the 《Incarnation Arm》 to distribute these……”
I brought up a skill that we had only just learnt about during practice, but while returning her sword to her scabbard, Scheta said the following.
“Even the knight commander would probably be unable to use their Incarnation to move such a tender object without crushing it.”
‘Srsly’, I was about to blurt out, but before I could do so, Administrator listlessly said the following.
“Fine, I’ll do it.”
“Oh…… s-sorry for the bother.”
When the Supreme Priest gave a light swing of her right hand, the cake split into eight pieces, lightly flew through the sky, and landed on the plates. Not a single one was crushed, heck I couldn’t even see a single dent on them.
“Thank you very much!”
Once I said my thanks, I worked with Eugeo to place a plate with cake, and a small fork in front of each of the eight seats. When I returned to my original position, the Supreme Priest called out to us.
“How about you two sit down as well? The same goes to Alice-chan, Scheta-chan, and Elevating Operator-chan.”
As Alice was about to decline the offer, Scheta slapped her on the back. Alice appeared to be higher-ranked among the knights, but Scheta must have far more seniority in her position based on her number; perhaps because of this, Alice just meekly nodded and began walking. Going around to the other side of the table, Alice sat to the Supreme Priest’s left, and Scheta sat down beside her. I also sat down with Eugeo and the Elevating Operator one after the other, while the seat between Cardinal and Scheta remained empty.
“Thou bringeth not thine eccentric jester with thee today hast?”
When asked this question by Cardinal, Adminstrator answered with a shrug of her shoulders.
“I thought that Chuldelkin would be all noisy with his ‘hohi hohi’ sounds if he were here, so I left him behind. Why don’t you let a familiar of yours or something sit on that seat?”
“Thou be sure? Then take thee up on that I shall…… Charlotte, come forth.”
When Cardinal moved a finger of her left hand, the aforementioned black spider sprung up from my clothes around the area of my nape, landing on the table. It began quickly running towards the empty seat, though spiders couldn’t sit in a chair, nor could they eat cake.
Such misgivings of mine were resolved in an unexpected way. Once the black spider crossed the edge of the table and jumped down onto the chair, ‘pon’, came a sound as purple smoke surged up, from which appeared a woman in the prime of her womanhood. After staring dumbfoundedly at the woman with rather short black hair and clad in a yukata-like jet-black dress, I timidly enquired.
“Um…… Charlotte… san? It that your true form?”
At that, the woman gave a sweet smile, answering in a mellowly low voice.
“Oh no, this is a temporary form of mine. Though, it does allow me to talk and eat.”
“Go…… good for you.”
At any rate, all eight chairs were now filled. Once all people had tea poured into their cups from the pot passed around by Alice, all eyes focused on Administrator. Before meals at the Great Dining Room, everyone would offer a prayer to the three goddesses of creation and the Supreme Priest, but when the woman herself was here, it wasn’t clear what we were supposed to do.
‘Should we pray only to the goddesses……’, I thought, but the Supreme Priest just casually picked up her fork, before saying the following.
“Well then, I’ll partake of this.”
Cardinal on the opposite side of the table also said, “Then partake shall I as well”, and so the two of them cut the tip portion of the shortcake at the same moment. After staring fixedly at the yellow sponge, white fresh cream, and red strawberries for awhile, they stuffed their cheeks with them. That very moment——
I could feel those exclamation marks rising up over their heads.
That’s right, while there is a confection labeled as cake even in Underworld, it is actually closer to what is called a pound cake in the real world with its hardness and bulkiness; spongy shortcakes simply do not exist here. Moreover, the cream in this world was basically just a mix of eggs, butter and sugar, known as buttercream; even fresh cream extracted from milk wasn’t a thing here. It was strange that people could make butter yet couldn’t make fresh cream, though I guess it’s just a virtual world thing.
In silence, Cardinal and Administrator had a second, then third mouthful, before finally raising their faces.
“Kirito…… what be this may?”
“Did you make this, Thirty-three?”
Bombarded with questions from both sides, I answered them in turn.
“This would be a shortcake. I made this with Eugeo…… though we did receive quite a bit of assistance from the head chef.”
Actually, getting it to look like this was a fairly big ordeal. It took two days to bake the spongy sponge cake and four days to make whipped cream out of fresh cream extracted from cow milk; I have no idea how many times I was about to just give up during that time. At first, I thought that we only needed to leave the cow milk alone and the cream would come to the surface itself, yet no change took place after an entire day of waiting; in the end, we somehow managed to get cream out of it via a 《stir the thing slowly while slowly stuffing a freezing element into it, then filter it once it’s turned into a soft sherbet》 strategy.
Carrying out such a task to the end when I wasn’t used to it was only possible thanks to Eugeo keeping me company late into the night every day without a single complaint, and Asuna’s smile that I always had in my mind. Be that as it may, whether or not the Cake Plan would bear fruit would depend on how well the presentation goes from here.
Administrator and Cardinal once again put their forks to work without bombarding me with any more questions. Using this opportunity, Alice and Scheta, plus the Elevating Operator and Charlotte also carried some cake to their mouths.
Compared to the Supreme Priest and co, the four girls’ reactions were easy to read. Alice let out an “Mn……”, Charlotte gave a sigh with an “Oh my……”, the Elevating Operator muttered, “Delicious”, and even the brazen-faced Instructor Scheta raised her shoulders.
When the women finished up their shortcakes at practically the same moment, they placed their forks on the table.
The first to utter any words was, unsurprisingly, Administrator.
“……For a confection made by kiddos who aren’t even chefs, it wasn’t half bad.”
Without a moment’s delay, Cardinal cut in.
“Considering thine words, thou certainly depress’d looked when thou ran out of cake, wast thou not?”
“Oh shut it, shrimpie, you’re one to talk when you plucked out all the large strawberries…… Such details are trivial; the big question is how the proposal or whatever that Thirty-three mentioned is related to this shortcake.”
——It’s finally time for the big moment.
Once I straightened my back as much as possible atop the chair, I faced the Supreme Priest sitting diagonally ahead of me to the left, before saying the following.
“What I am trying to say is that even the ruler of this world that is the Esteemed Supreme Priest cannot possibly know everything.”
At my remark that would have branded me as a sinner for insulting the ruler if such a crime existed here, Alice and Scheta’s faces became stiff. Even the Supreme Priest did away with her listless expression, squinting her eyes a slight bit.
“……And what of it?”
“Basically……I am trying to say that if even I, a person who was a mere student just a short while ago, can create confections that the two of you had no knowledge of, what’s to say there aren’t heaps of things that the Supreme Priest knows yet Cardinal does not, and vice versa? If you were able to resolve your issues via discussion, would such an option not be far more worthwhile to you than solving your issues by killing each other?”
For one with practically zero proficiency in my negotiation skill, it took my best effort to say this much. Administrator toned down her perilous aura a slight bit; however, she did not nod.
“I see. I don’t know what shrimpy here has told you, but the logic behind what you’re saying is quite sound. But it’s impossible.”
As she easily declared thus, her silver eyes faced the opposite side of the table.
“The shrimpy here…… Cardinal holds a system access authority exactly identical to mine. I cannot allow such a thing to exist. Even more so if all she thinks about is killing me, you see.”
“I seeketh not to rid the world of thee for as trifling a reason as thou bearing authority egal to mine. But rather because thou bringeth the fordoing of the Human Empire shall.”
Cardinal responded in a quiet, yet bearing a firm will, voice. Administrator‘s brow once again bared a faint tinge of anger.
“I shall destroy the Human Empire, you say? Me, the one who has reinforced the 《Great Eastern Gate》 in an effort to buy even the slightest bit of time before its destruction while you were holed up in a cellar?”
“While stall for time thou may, forfend the inevitable thou shan’t. The Great Gate fordone be one day shall and hence a host of tens’a thousands in swarm from the Dark Territory descendeth shall. Dost thou truly forfend demise with thyself and a mere handful of Integrity Knights hopeth?”
“I would like you to refrain from looking down on my adorable little Integrity Knights, now…… or so I’d like to say, but it will indeed lead to a somewhat intense battle.”
Once the Supreme Priest gave a slight shrug of her shoulders, Alice was about to say something. However, Scheta moved her right hand to keep her in check. Administrator‘s words continued.
“Though, you know, shorty. Just as the kiddo there said, there are things that you don’t know. If I had executed the 《Mechanical Sword Soldier Project》, not only would it have been possible to prevent the invasion from the Dark Territory, it would have also been possible to assault their own lands.”
“Mechanical sword soldiers……? Though ’tis bound naught but a scurvy plan be, wherefore hast not thou carried it out?”
At that question, Administrator did not even try to give an immediate answer. After glancing at me and Eugeo for some reason, she gave a sigh.
“Haah….. oh fine, I’ll tell you. You shorty weren’t the only one observing those kiddos there.”
Eugeo beside me gave a slight gulp. I, too, could only blink repeatedly, unable to grasp the implications of her words.
“I couldn’t have my apprentice knights growing impudent, so I intended to refrain from mentioning this, but Kirito and Eugeo triggered my sensory arts last summer for a certain reason. Ever since that time, I’ve been monitoring these two. I’ve also long since known about the Four Empire Unification Tournament’s final match the other day, including how you two conspired to bring it to a draw.”
‘Geeh’, I grunted in my mind, but I couldn’t make a run for it at this point. Keeping my head down, I waited for her following words.
“……You guys, mere plebeians with no family name to speak of, are normally supposed to have such a low authority level that you couldn’t possibly be capable of getting into the Swordcraft Academy, let alone becoming knight apprentices. Yet you continued dispatching nobles who had undergone special training one after another, eventually passing through the gates of the Cathedral. Even if units individually only had mediocre stats, perhaps an irregular growth could occur through interaction between units or something, in which case it would have been a waste to just treat you all like one and the same and use you all up like tools with the Mechanical Sword Soldier Project…… since I started having thoughts like that, I decided to halt the project and instead continue repairing the Great Gate until the very last moment. Hoping that you guys would one day show me something extraordinary……”
The Supreme Priest’s speech, laden with Sacred Tongue, I mean, English words, didn’t seem to make sense to Alice and Scheta. Unable to immediately grasp the meaning of her words myself either, I put my utmost effort into thinking them over.
Last summer… the very first thing to come to mind were the midterm examination matches at the Swordcraft Academy. Due to Raios’s and Humbert’s absence at the academy after being bitten by a crab, Eugeo and I no longer had to deal with their harassment and were thus able to focus all of our energy on our matches, during which we had our first duel against each other since we enrolled into the academy. It was a magnificent match. Even considering all my matches since my SAO days, very few of the duels I experienced were on that high a level.
So something from that match caught Administrator‘s attention? And because of that, she suspended her Mechanical Sword Soldier Project whatsit…… is that how it went?
“……I am utterly incompatible with thee. Yet, on the point of commending to these two young’uns our hopes, I dost agree with thee. I’ll have thee know, I watcheth over these two hast from the moment they left their Rulid Village.”
I blurted out subconsciously, prompting Eugeo to pull on my right sleeve. Without even sparing me a glance, the Supreme Priest faced Cardinal and snorted.
“Finding them faster doesn’t mean you get any extra privileges out of it. The two of them have already become members of the Integrity Knight Order, after all.”
“Though, ’tis not like they oweth thee blind obedience?”
Yet again Administrator and Cardinal returned to their staredown. It was absurd for the negotiations to fall apart over me and Eugeo, even if the two got their priorities wrong, yet I merely opened and closed my mouth repeatedly, unable to intervene in their electrified glareoff.
Just then, Eugeo abruptly half-rose to his feet, before saying the following.
“Um, would you two ladies like to help yourself to my and Kirito’s portion of the cake!”
Just then, the swirling aura suddenly drew back. The Supreme Priest blinked, before saying the following.
“Oh my, are you sure about that?”
“Yes, we’ve tasted more than enough of it during our experiments, after all.”
“If you put it that way, don’t complain that you didn’t get to eat any.”
With a motion of Administrator‘s index finger, the plate in front of me suddenly glided through the air. Cardinal also undauntedly pulled up Eugeo’s plate with her Incarnation.
As I stared at the two savouring the cake one mouthful after another, an idea suddenly popped into my mind.
Can I do it? No, I have no choice but to do it.
Not letting go of the great opportunity while the Supreme Priest and co were drinking their tea, I uttered.
“……What is it?”
“Ehm, I believe today’s discussion between you two ladies was quite productive. And so, I would like to share a proposal with you…… every time you hold a discussion like this, we shall ensure that a new cake is made for the occasion.”
“……Hoh? So this shortcake whatsit isn’t the only cake thee can make?”
Turning my gaze to Cardinal, I nodded.
“Yes! There’s also cheesecakes, chocolate cakes, jelly rolls, chiffon cake, apple tarts, Mont Blanc, mille-feuille, among others……”
My bluff kinda went out of hand. We’ve had so much trouble reproducing a shortcake, so I couldn’t even guess how you can make even harder stuff like Mont Blanc and mille-feuille.
Yet, each time I mentioned the name of a cake after squeezing out everything I could from my meagre knowledge, not only Administrator‘s, but even Alice’s and Scheta’s expressions underwent subtle changes.
Before long, having cleanly finished her second shortcake, the Supreme Priest said the following with a serious look on her face.
“Are you telling the truth? If it turns out that you are lying, I’ll turn you both into plates, y’know?”
——What happened to that “I’m hoping you guys will one day show me something extraordinary” stuff!
Refraining from actually saying that, of course, I gave a nod.
“Y-yes! Knights do not go back on their word!”
“Hmmh…… In that case, I’ll continue these discussions with shrimpie for you while you guys make us new cakes. Though I don’t actually believe that anything will be resolved by this. How about it, Cardinal?”
“……Well, so be it. How soundeth holding a discussion at the same time and same place weekly on rest days doth?
“Fine with me. Though, while our discussions continue, I shall have you assist with repairing the Great Eastern Gate as well.”
“Naught, I ween, alternatives to be found. Agree I shall then.”
When the two arts practitioners exchanged nods, Eugeo and I heaved a sigh of relief, but right at that moment…
Despite having maintained silence this entire time, Charlotte posed a question to her master.
“Cardinal-sama, may I also participate in these discussions?”