Continuing from the previous…
3 days later, the imperial envoys finally arrived.
Currently, Kouki, the dungeon clearing members, leaders of the kingdom, and a delegation of priests led by Ishtar were out in full force to receive the five envoys, who were standing in the middle of the red carpet opposite King Erihid
“It was good of you to come, sir envoys. Do well, therefore, to make certain of our heroes’ surpassing valour.”
“Your majesty, you have our thanks indeed for accepting this sudden request for an audience. That said…may we know the identity of the Hero?”
“Mm. We will introduce him first. Sir Kouki, would you step forward?”
The unveiling of Kouki and the others followed immediately after the formal salutations between the king and the messengers, with the King calling him to appear before them. Despite the fact that not even two months had passed, his look was utterly fearless, quite unlike when first summoned.
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While they were not here, if the palace maids, noble ladies and Kouki’s fans in the stay-behind group saw him now they would without a doubt start going red in the face and releasing heated sighs of fascination. Those who had made advances on Kouki already numbered in the double digits…but due to his extreme denseness, their approaches were just those of “warm and friendly people” to him. A naturally dense hero was walking the earth.
After this the heroes were introduced, starting from Kouki.
“Oh, so you are the heroes. Quite young, I must say. Pardon my rudeness, but did you truly break through the 65th floor? If memory serves, a monster known as the Behemoth appears there…”
While scrutinizing Kouki, the messenger also took in Ishtar’s open manner, and cast a suspicious gaze upon him. One of the envoy’s bodyguards also looked the Hero up and down in an appraising manner.
Being discomfited by their gazes, Kouki answered them.
“Well, may I speak? As to whether we defeated it…ah, would you like to look at a map of the 66th floor?”
Kouki proposed various proofs, but the envoy shook his head and allowed a smile to drift onto his face.
“No, thank you. There is a quicker method than that. Would you have a mock battle with one of my guards? That way, I would be able to see your strength immediately, Sir Hero.”
“Well, I don’t mind, but…”
Kouki looked back at the king, slightly puzzled. Having caught that look, the king himself turned to Ishtar for his approval. He nodded. With Ehit’s authority behind him, it would have been an easy matter to convince the empire to accept Kouki as humanity’s leader, but a real battle was the quickest way to make the meritocratic empire truly recognize him as such.
“Very well. Sir Kouki, show them your strength as you desire.”
“It’s decided then. Well, we will impose upon you to prepare a location.”
So it was in this abrupt manner that the mock battle between the hero and the envoy’s bodyguard was decided.
Kouki’s opponent could not be a more ordinary person. He was neither particularly tall nor short, bereft of any notable features, and had a face one could easily lose sight of in a crowd. At first blush, there was nothing “st
rong” about him at all.
He held his large edgeless sword downward casually - a stance that may as well not have been one at all.
Kouki was a little angered by this. He would give this person a taste of his spirit with the first blow, and make him devote himself seriously as well.
“Here I come!”
Kouki came in like the wind. His swift “High Speed Movement” narrowed the space between them at once as he swung his bamboo sword down with a powerful whipping sound. If this was an ordinary warrior, he would have had trouble even perceiving it. Of course, Kouki intended to stop just before hitting. But there was no point worrying about that. Rather, it was Kouki who was going to get a taste of ‘proof’ from the outcome.
The one blown away was Kouki. The bodyguard readied his sword after that swing, glaring at him. At the instant where he had stopped his simulated attack and relaxed, his opponent had casually knocked his sword upward, causing him to be pushed back.
“Haaa…Hey, hey, hero, is that all you’ve got? Everything? What happened to your motivation?”
Rude words that ill-befit an ordinary face came from the bodyguard as his expression showed first astonishment, and then gave way to rising disappointment.
Indeed, Kouki had made such a casual thrust from the front because he had judged the bodyguard based on his appearance, and he had clearly been repulsed in his present state. Having come to a realization about himself due to this experience with his opponent, he was once again angry - but this time the anger was self-directed.
“I’m sorry. Please take care of me once more.”
This time Kouki’s eyes were serious, even as he apologized for his poor manners. Seeing him like this, the bodyguard made a displeased face and said,
“There are no ‘next times’ on the battlefield.”
Nonetheless, he resumed his natural stance, indicating that he would continue.
Letting out a battle cry, Kouki charged.
Enhanced by “High Speed Movement”, the bamboo blade swung diagonally down, upwards, and then forwards in a thrust. The swiftness was such that wavering afterimages were left behind in Kouki’s wake.
But even against such a storm of sword-blows, the guard seemed to dodge using only the bare minimum of movements, looking for a chance to counterattack. Even when he lost track of Kouki’s movements and was attacked in his blind spot, he could still fend the hero off.
The guard’s movements caused Kouki to remember something - Knight Captain Meld. There were already considerable differences in their specs, but so far he had been unable to surpass him in a mock battle. The reason for this was an overwhelming difference in combat experience.
Most likely, the guard was the same, having stood on many battlefields before this one, and his combat experience could fill up the gap in their specs. In short, this person was on the same level as or even above Meld.
“Hmm. I guess at this level of physical ability an ordinary man wouldn’t be your match. Still, there’s something missing. You didn’t have any affinity for battle originally, right?”
“Huh? Um, yes, that’s true. I was a mere student at first.”
“And now you’re the ‘Apostle of God’, huh.”
Ishtar and his associates from the church snorted in displeasure at the guard.
“Hey, hero. Prepare yourself, I’ll be going at you from here on out. Don’t go easy on me, or you might get killed.”
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So declaring, he charged. This charge was a not high speed movement on Kouki’s level. Instead, it felt almost slow…and yet,
As the guard approached his blade seemed to leap upwards from below, causing Kouki to retreat in alarm. But like an attracted magnet, the blade maintained the distance between them, moving in like a whip as it struck.
The sword’s trajectory was irregular and the movements hard to perceive, and while the use of “Foresight” allowed him to momentarily put some distance between them, he was unable to fully break away. Even when he tried to used “High-Speed Movement” to break off in one go, his opponent would foresee it, and launch pre-emptive strikes such that he could not activate it. Gradually, impatience began to show on Kouki’s face.
“Pierce, Wind Strike.”
At the murmured aria a cluster of wind formed, and struck him squarely in the leg.
Caught in mid-step, Kouki’s leg swung outward and his balance was broken. In that instant, a fierce bloodlust pierced him. The guard’s cold gaze met his, and he swung his blade downward with an unbelievable pressure.
He’s going to kill me, Kouki suddenly realized.
Indeed, the guard could not help but think this way. If Kouki could not keep up with his attacks, his intent was to kill him rather than allow a boy who knew nothing of killing to become humanity’s leader. This would certainly invite censure from the likes of the church, but to put incompetent allies on the battlefield was much harder to stomach. As such, this might be the better choice, or so he felt.
But the swing would never happen.
The exact same scenario occurred as it did previously, but this time it was the guard getting blown away. Bounding away several times with both hands to negate the momentum, the guard looked at Kouki. His whole body was emitting a pure white aura, and he swung his sword to face his opponent while taking up a stance.
At the moment when the guard let fall his blade, Kouki’s survival instincts had kicked in and activated his “Limit Break”. This technique caused all his parameters to multiply three times - a ‘technique for a pinch’ unique to a protagonist.
However, his face was hardly composed. Desperately repressed fear from being so close to death was in his expression as he held his sword.
Seeing this, the guard’s fearless grin resurfaced.
“Hey, that’s a slightly better face. Compared to that wimpy one from before, that is.”
“Wimpy face? I’m frightened. Were you trying to kill me just now? Wasn’t this a mock battle?”
“So what? Did you think that in a real battle, we’d just go “okay, it’s over”? You’d end up dead like that. You’re supposed to stand above us humans and lead us - are you even aware of that?”
“I’m aware…of course I will save everyone!”
“What can a kid who’s afraid of getting hurt do? Someone who doesn’t even have bloodlust in his sword shouldn’t talk big. Well then, are you ready? I said it at the start…that you’ll die if you go easy on me!”
Once again, the guard advanced, an abnormal feeling of bloodlust coming off him, putting pressure on Kouki, who gathered strength in his legs, his face twisting painfully as he did so.
But he did not charge. A barrier of light had fallen between him and Kouki.
“This much will do. At this rate, it’ll stop being a mock battle and become a killing duel instead. You have overstepped yourself with this joke, Lord Gahard.”
“Tch, I’ve been found out. As shrewd as ever, old man.”
Ishtar, having erected that shimmering barrier, proceeded to pour a wet blanket on “Lord Gahard” the guard, who cursed inaudibly in response, sheathed his sword in his shoulder-mounted scabbard, and took off his right earring.
The air around the guard turned a misty white, and when it finally cleared again, there appeared a totally different person.
It was a man who looked to be in his forties. His silver hair was cropped short, and his blue eyes were reminiscent of a wild wolf. His figure was slender but highly muscled, his clothes wrapping tightly around them almost to the point of bursting.
On seeing him, a commotion broke out.
“Your Imperial Highness!”
Indeed, this man was Gahard D. Hoelscher, present Emperor of the Hoelscher Empire, in disguise. Seeing this, King Erihid furrowed his brows and asked:
“Just what were you intending, Emperor Gahard?”
“There, there, King Erihid. I apologize for not introducing myself. However, a little play-fighting was the quickest way for me to make sure. This is of great importance to our future battles. Please excuse my rudeness.”
Though Gahard excused himself this way, his expression was hardly apologetic. “Well, fine”, Erihid seemed to indicate with a sigh.
Kouki was totally stunned. Somehow, this emperor was kind of flighty, and his ‘surprises’ seemed to be treated as the norm too.
With that, the mock battle ended, and at the dinner that was arranged the empire gave their official words of recognition to the hero. For the time being, it seemed like the objectives of their visit had been met.
But that night, when a subordinate asked him about his real intentions in a room, the king gave a bothersome answer.
“Meh, he’s no use. Just a kid. A mouth that believes unswervingly in stuff like ideals and justice. His rash strength and charisma are a bad combination, and he’s the type who would get killed for his ideals. But we can’t neglect him since he’s the “Apostle of God”. All in all, he isn’t good.”
“So, you intended to kill him during that match?”
“What? No. I just thought I might fix his cowardly attitude with a beating. I wouldn’t have killed him even if the Pope hadn’t intervened.”
It seemed like the Emperor did not regard Kouki and the rest of the heroes to be worth his attention. This was not unreasonable. Up till a few months ago they had been mere students; in peaceful Japan no less. They did not have the readiness on the battlefield that a seasoned warrior would recognize.
“Well, the war with the demons may pick up the pace soon. We’ll see about it then. For now, let’s prioritize tactfully keeping ourselves from being involved with that kid…and to watch out for the Pope.”
“As you will.”
He had no intention to reveal his real estimation, however, and the very next day Kouki and the other heroes would see him off when he returned to his country; with his business finished, there was no reason to stay any longer. Indeed, he seemed a very flighty Emperor.
By the way, there was an incident in which the emperor came across Shizuku during her morning training, and being pleased with her he requested rather earnestly that she become his lover. Upon her polite refusal, he just gave his usual plucky laugh and a “well, I’m not in a hurry” as his reply, indicating that this matter wasn’t of great importance to him. At that moment, he caught side of Kouki and laughed through his nose at him. Kouki for his part got the feeling that they would never get along, and was momentarily displeased by this.
It also goes without saying that Shizuku’s sighs increased.
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