If You Were Here

Translation (choice) comments:
ME28 content:
  • Kirito uses a polite tone when speaking to Quinella/Administrator, hence I tried making his speech sound more formal, though that isn't always clear.
  • Chuldelkin has a habit of elongating the end of his sentences (a small vowel kana added after the final word in the sentence). To account for this, I added some extra vowels to the last word in the sentence when he elongates his words. He also uses weird spellings for certain words, but I accounted for that with more vowel elongation, so if you see elongated vowels in the middle of a his sentence, rather than the end, it's accounting for this mannerism specifically. Also, Chuldekin refers to himself with feminine pronounces, but I couldn't think of a nice way for accounting for that.
  • The Elevating Operator speaks in an exceedingly polite tone. Tried to make her speech sound more formal to account for this.
  • I went with Tap's translation of Scheta/Sheyta's name, because I feel that it represents the pronunciation more accurately.

ME29 content:
  • One of the new characters from ME29 was named コルシェ, which is awfully similar to Porsche (ポルシェ), so I decided to run with "Corsche" as the translation.
  • There is also a fruit named カーシャ (read as "kāsha") introduced in the ME29 content batch. The first syllable sounded like "car", so I went with "carsha" (I totally didn't pick this spelling to complement the Porsche reference...).
  • The "Corsche" character I mentioned before speaks in humble (kenjougo) tone, so I tried making her sound excessively formal and polite. On that note, I translated the honorifics to better fit the exaggeratedly polite style; the "Honoured" in "Honoured Apprentice Knight" is just "-sama".
  • The chef speaks in old-man style, so I tried to make his language sound more colloquial with various non-standard spelling variants and colloquial abbreviations.
  • The "H'llo" instance accounts for the fact that Kirito shortened "こんにちは" to "こんちは" (not sure if this is intentional, or Kawahara just made an oopsie here).

If You Were Here original content:
  • Kirito refers to the chef as おっちゃん (occhan), a slangy version of oji-chan, which is used to refer to middle-aged men, or actual uncles, depending on the context. Since no one goes around calling people uncles in the West, I tried to approximate it by coming up with a slangy word that would refer to middle-aged males by playing with the word "papa"... and to my surprise, "pappy" turns to be an actually valid dialectal word in the US... who knew?
  • The original phrasing for "terrace stairs" was "approach stairs" (アプローチ階段), which refers to things like http://famitei.org/sekou_img/img_s/000/035/00003523_01.jpg . Couldn't find an English term for that, so I figured "terrace stairs" would be a good enough approximation that would give people sort of an idea what's being referred to with this term.
  • The stablemaster introduced in this story is named ハイナグ (hainagu, pronounced "high-nahg") in Japanese. When I tried googling it, had many hits for a yak and cattle hybrid called "dzo" in English. Apparently, the Mongolian name for it is хайнаг (khainag), which would be transcribed as ハイナグ into Japanese. So, I decided to just go with that as the spelling for the name of this character, though I doubt that Kawahara was actually trying to reference these hybrids with the name.
  • Cardinal speaks with archaic grammatical structures and is supposed to sound like an old sage in a young girl's body. It's somewhat similar to the speech of the chef, but less colloquial. So, to account for this, I tried to use archaic and Shakespearean words in her speech, and switched around the word order for it to sound odd. I'm not exactly an expert in archaic English, so please don't expect an accurate depiction of Shakespearean English in my amateurish attempts. I used the following sources for some archaic words: https://learn.lexiconic.net/shakewords.htm; https://www.lexico.com/en/explore/archaic-words.
  • I decided to omit/localise honorifics used with titles (e.g., Supreme Priest-san and Supreme Priest-sama), unless the titles were used to call out to the person themselves, because it doesn't sound awfully good when the person is not part of the conversation themselves.
  • Aside from instances where actual system commands are recited, Sacred Arts elements are almost always referred to with Japanese expressions (kanji), rather than English words. Since the Japanese kanji terms aren't as sophisticated as the English variants, I translated the element names literally when they are mentioned in actual Japanese. For example, the "cryogenic" element is called the "freezing element" (凍素) outside of commands.

Markup explanation:
  • Itallics mark text that was written in katakana English (I only highlighted the cases where the author uses both English and actual Japanese equivalents for the same thing, or when I needed to emphasise that an English word is used there).
  • Full-width text indicates non-Japanese text that was written in the Latin/English alphabet, rather than katakana. Basically, what you see is exactly how it's written in the raw.
  • Courier font indicates that the original word was written in kana for emphasis (when such a word usually isn't written in kana)
  • Single quotation marks (') are quotes that weren't in the original text but were added for the convenience of English speakers to mark implied quotations. I used it mostly to separate Kirito's internal monologue from his narration, as well as mark sound effects and so on. Actual dialogue lines or quotations (with 「」 punctuation marks) within a narration line are indicated with the usual double (") quotation marks.
  • Comic sans indicates emphasis added by myself when I needed to stress something to get the meaning across properly.
  • In some instances, the author decided to use both English and Japanese equivalents for the exact same word one after the other; in such cases, I marked the English variant in itallics, while the Japanese variant will be emphasised with furigana like this: #Translation into English#(Japanese word) (e.g. #long hair#(chouhatsu) - "long hair" here is a translation of the Japanese word, while "chouhatsu" is a romanisation of the Japanese word in the original text to emphasise that this specific word is in Japanese).

For the convenience of those who have read ME28 +/-ME29, I have left invisible em dashes at the end of the content from each of the MEs. I have also made the following links to help you skip to these bookmarks easily:

Credits

Raws: Takazuki, Celest
Translation: Gsimenas
Editing: Gsimenas


Volume 10-11



Table of Contents:


1


"Wha…… Raios and Humbert were bitten by a crab and are now critically ill?"

When I responded with my question, Eugeo nodded with a serious look.

"Yeah, they're currently hospitalised at the North Centoria Imperial Hospital, as far as I've heard."

"Hospitalised……"

This raised so many questions that I didn't even know where to start. For starters, to calm down, I gulped down the cofil tea that Eugeo had just made for me.

"Youch!"

"Oh geez, how many times are you going to do that."

Gulping down some cold water that Eugeo poured me from a jug with a stunned expression, I cooled down my throat. Outside the window, a bird that I didn't even know the name of seemed to be mocking me with its cry.

Over a year had already passed since Eugeo and I became pupils at the North Centoria Imperial Swordcraft Academy.

Our Primary Trainee days, devoted entirely to practicing sword arts, studying Sacred Arts, as well as our routine duties as valets, passed by in a flash; afterwards, Eugeo and I were selected as one of but twelve Elite Disciples and gained valets of our own: I got Ronye, while Eugeo got Tiese; just when I thought we had to work harder and harder to prepare for the Four Empire Unification Tournament next spring, we encountered a slight issue. Two high-ranked nobles, named Raios Antinous and Humbert Zizek, who had been meddling with us one way or another since our Primary Trainee days had been stepping up on the frequency and extent of their harassment lately.

Just when I was beginning to think, 'At this rate, either Eugeo or I might eventually lose it and shed some blood within the scope of the academy's regulations!', I heard the aforementioned shocking news.

After another sip of cofil tea, carefully this time, I voiced the greatest question I had.

"Ehm, for starters, what do you mean they were bitten by a crab……?"

Once I did, Eugeo blinked in surprise, before tilting his head.

"Kirito, do you know what a crab is?"

"……You mean, those eight-legged things with pincers for hands……"

Once I formed V signs with my hands to imitate the snipping action, Eugeo smiled, seemingly relieved.

"Yeah, those are the ones. I just had a thought that there might not have been any crabs in your hometown, Kirito."

"We did have some…… but the crabs I know of don't go around biting people, y'know……?"

"The Norlangarth crabs are basically all like that. They live in clean rivers and lakes and they're delicious when you eat them boiled, but…… one species of them is pretty dangerous."

"Dangerous……?"

"Yeah, it's called the Great Fanged Crab. It's around this big……"

Eugeo spread his hands apart, indicating a size that was about equivalent to an adult shiba(1) dog.

"It has a thorny shell, jagged pincers, and large fangs in its mouth. It lurks within still, dirty water, attacking and eating rabbits and foxes that approach the water. Though, while it is rare for them to do so, they do sometimes attack people too…… If you get bitten by those fangs, a poison will run through your body, which could lead to your death if not treated in time."

"A Great Fanged Crab……"

For some reason, I could hear a "Wut ya heck!"(2) shout echoing in my mind, but I ignored it and asked my following question.

"……Though, there aren't any dangerous crabs like that within the Swordcraft Academy, right?"

"Of course not. I hear Raios and Humbert went over to Ladino family's domain for a visit during the rest day the previous day, where they approached the waterside. But since Ladino's family just throws away all the trash that builds up through cooking and cleaning into their lake, instead of burning it in a kiln to turn it into sacred power, a Great Fanged Crab apparently began lurking where the water began stagnating."

"……Why would those guys even approach that lake? They're not the kind of guys to enjoy playing in the water, are they?"

"Seems like they were planning to throw out their trash."

"……I see."

Littering along the highway outside the wall, let alone inside Centoria itself, was prohibited by the Imperial Fundamental Law; however, this did not apply to the personal domains of nobles. So, Raios and Humbert decided to throw away their trash into the lake, as they figured it was dirty anyway, and ended up being bitten by one heck of a crab as karmic retribution. That's getting one's just desserts—— though a rather extreme form of it.

"Are those guys alright?"

When I asked that question as a formality, Eugeo gave a nod.

"They just barely made it in time with the counter-poison rite, so they did narrowly make it out with their lives. Though, their legs bitten by the crab were paralysed and it will apparently take around a year till they are able to stand."

"Oh, that so."

'So, everything's fine', drawing this cold-hearted conclusion, I drank up the cofil tea in my cup.

Honestly, now was not the time to be concerned with their well being. Seeing as they won't be able to return to the school for an entire year, the first-seat Raios and second-seat Humbert are practically guaranteed to repeat the school year; meanwhile, Eugeo being fifth-ranked and me being sixth-ranked myself, we will need surpass two more people if we are to become the academy's representative swordsmen.

"……Well, it is an unfortunate turn of events for those guys, but this means we'll now be able to focus on our sword practice…… Let's put in some effort to move up at least by one rank during the summer examination first."

When I mentioned that, Eugeo finally gave a relieved smile.

"You're right. In that case, let's head out to the training grounds right away. I'd like to work on improving my jump for 《Sonic Leap》."

"Eeeh~……Let's do that after dinner."

Before I could finish that, my nape was grabbed from behind.

"Oh no you don't, you've got your Sacred Arts studies waiting for you after your meal! Come on, stand up, stand up!"

"Yeah yeah."

Standing up with an 'alley-oop' and getting a push at my back from my partner, I left the trainee dormitory room.



Ten months later.

Eugeo and I graduated from the academy as first- and second-ranked students respectively, won the Norlangarth Swordsmanship Tournament as representatives of the academy, and then pulled off a draw in the finals of the grandest tournament in the Human Empire - the Four Empire Unification Tournament, thus earning the right to enter the Central Cathedral.


2


"Kirito and Eugeo…… is it. Hmm, so these kiddos are this year's winners?"

As a beautiful-to-an-extreme-degree silver-haired and silver-eyed woman stared down at us with a listless expression, I felt an unprecedented amount—— to be precise, about as much as I had felt in Asuna's flat in Selmburg, the main town of the Sixty-First Floor of the nostalgic Floating Castle Aincrad, when she told me, "Kirito-kun, hurry up and take your clothes off too"— of tension, as I gave the following response to the woman's question.

"Yes, that is correct."

"Why are there two of you, exactly?"

When asked that question, I glimpsed beside me, but it seemed that Eugeo had even lost his ability to speak due to the excessive tension. That's not all that surprising——after all, we were dealing with the Supreme Priest of the Axiom Church, the ruler of the entirety of the Human Empire that surpassed even the emperors of the four empires in authority. Her name was 《Administrator》——a name that was familiar to me yet one I had never heard of in this world; however, I lacked the composure to be concerned about that now.

Kneeling on the marble floor of the 《Grand Corridor of Spiritual Light》 on the fiftieth floor of the Central Cathedral, I once again opened my mouth.

"That would be because our battle in the finals resulted in a draw."

"A draw~? Chudelkin, did that thing even have a time limit, again?"

Administrator's gaze fell upon a small man, wearing a clown-like outfit and headgear, dyed in garish blue and red. Based on the fact that the man had named himself as 《Chief Elder Chudelkin》 to us a while ago, he seemed to be a substantially distinguished personage even within the Axiom Church, but you would definitely not get that impression from the way he looked.

"Hahah…… As I recall, the finals should have had no time limit whatsoever……"

When the short-but-plump-as-a-balloon-clown answered in a shrill voice, Administrator gave a slight nod.

"So it is…… You guys, you're both from the North Centoria Swordcraft Academy, as I understand? You wouldn't happen to have orchestrated that draw, now, would you~?"

That very moment, Eugeo beside me tensed up even more, sweat forming on his forehead. This reaction wasn't surprising either; Administrator's suspicion was, after all, a one hundred percent unembellished truth.

The reason why Eugeo and I had set off from Rulid Village, overcoming trials and tribulations to become Integrity Knights, was to find a girl named Alice Zuberg, Eugeo's childhood friend who had been apprehended by an Integrity Knight nine years ago, and for all three of us to return to Rulid. In order to accomplish such a goal, so grand that we couldn't possibly achieve without both of us assisting each other, we could not allow either of us dropping out of the Four Empire Unification Tournament.

Hence, Eugeo and I had held practice after practice in secret before the tournament to work out a sword fight sequence so intense that no one would catch on, and so prolonged that everyone in the audience, including the nobles and the imperial families, would be satisfied with it; that is, we staged the entire fight. For the climax, we acted out a charge at each other with a Sword Skill, blowing away each other's sword and causing both of us to collapse, unable to stand back up; the umpires, apparently having no doubts about the outcome whatsoever, declared a draw and mutual victory——and that's how we ended up here.

But of course, we could not allow her to acknowledge that our fight was staged.

"Why heavens no, Supreme Priest-sama. I……I mean, my humble self(3) and Eugeo fought with all we had; however, we were unable to determine which of us was superior to the other. If this outcome is displeasing, we would be honoured to hold a continuation of the finals right here and now."

When I refuted her claim in an unaccustomedly polite manner, the Supreme Priest gave a minuscule smile.

"Oh my, that does sound interesting…….. Though, I can't have the survivor turning useless on me if one of you ends up killing the other…… So, for this year, I shall acknowledge both of you."

'Whe~~~~w', as I heaved a sigh of relief in my mind, the Supreme Priest approached us, seemingly sliding several centimetres on the floor.

"Now then, I shall appoint you as swordsmen apprentices. Let's see, w-h-i-c-h s-h-o-u-l-d I c-h-o-o-s-e…… Eugeo, you'll be number thirty-two; Kirito will be number thirty-three. From now on, you shall call yourselves Eugeo Synthesis Thirty-two and Kirito Synthesis Thirty-three."

"……Understood."

As Eugeo finally spoke up, I followed suit with a "We are honoured!" in a raised voice. I thought that I may have overdone it, but Administrator just slightly extended her smile, before nodding.

"Do your best…… So that those names one day come true."

Leaving us with those enigmatic words, the Supreme Priest turned around and departed towards the grand doors deeper in the hall. Chief Elder Chudelkin approached us, acting as arrogantly as possible.

"Hohihi……I put number twelve in charge of your tuuutelage. That one has just awakened, so this is a perfect opportunity for some warm up."

"U…… Understood."

As I stared blankly, unable to understand what he meant by the words 'just awakened', an enormous grin found its way on his enormous mouth for some reason.

"No need to fret about the minor deeetails. Your rooms are on the twenty-eighth floor, so take your tiiime resting there for today…… Starting tomorrow, you'll have a fuuuun practice waiting for you, after aaall, hoho hohho……"

After letting out a high-and-mighty laugh, Chudelkin also turned around. However, after spinning around once without stopping, he once again looked down upon us.

"Ah, I forgot to mention, but if you happen to encounter any knights other than the one in charge of your tutelage within the tower, you are not to start a conversation with them without permiiission. All the knights are veeeery busy people, understaaand?"

With that proclamation, the Chief Elder once again turned around and hopped away. Once the doors in the distance opened and then closed, we were the only ones left in the hall.

Our audience somehow ended without a hitch, thus I heaved a drawn-out sigh audibly this time. Having stood on one knee this entire time, I now relaxed my legs, sitting down cross-legged atop the marble.

"I'm so so beat…… So that's the Supreme Priest, huh, sure is as intimidating as you could expect from one……"

Following my remark, Eugeo also hugged his knees and repositioned himself, before a wry smile appeared on his face.

"Sure is, huh, considering that you remained so composed even in front of Norlangarth's emperor, I didn't think that there was anyone other than Azurica-sensei who could make you flinch, Kirito."

"I-it's not like I flinched or anything. Actually, weren't you yourself incapable of even speaking back there?"

"That's because I figured I'd leave everything up to you from the very start, Kirito."

"Why you!"

After ruffling Eugeo's hair with my right hand, I turned my gaze overhead.

On the absurdly high ceiling, there was a beautiful piece of art, probably based on the creation of the world myth; this once again made me aware of the fact that this was the inside of the Central Cathedral——a white tower that was visible everywhere in the central capital but could never be approached. Eugeo and I were still wearing our Elite Disciple uniforms, thus we felt incredibly out of place. Though, I'd have to refuse an outfit like the one the clown was wearing.

Placing my hands on my knees, 'Alley-oop', I stood up, before giving my right hand to my partner.

"So then, how's about we go over to that twenty-eighth floor or something for now, Eugeo Synthesis Thirty-two-kun."

Grabbing my hand, my partner responded with a displeased expression.

"I'm not going to use that naming. Feels like I'd eventually bite my tongue, after all."

"《Synthesis》 sure is damn hard to pronounce. Though I have no idea what it means."

As we held such a conversation, I began walking towards the door opposite to the one that the Supreme Priest and the Chief Elder had gone through—— and instantly stopped.

"……? What's up, Kirito?"

"Wait…… could this be our chance…… I mean, a perfect opportunity? Starting tomorrow, Number Twelve-san whatsit will become our teacher, right; today might be our only chance to freely move about within the tower by ourselves."

"Eeeeh…………"

That very moment, Eugeo took on his 《expression exclusively used for when I propose something dicey》 as he was about to make some sort of retort, but then he just closed his mouth. After maintaining silence for several seconds with a pensive look on his face, he gave a very slight nod.

"……The monk who led us to the fiftieth floor here told us something. That up to the forty-ninth floor of the Central Cathedral is where the lower-ranked monks and nuns, as well as servants and apprentices live, while the high-ranked priests, Sacred Arts users, as well as the Integrity Knights live above the fifty-first floor. I have no idea what Alice is currently up to……but if she's become a Sacred Arts user, running into her within the tower as apprentices is……"

"Unlikely, huh. Nevertheless, it's not like we can just go about asking everyone we meet if they know where we can find Alice……"

Once I responded as such, Eugeo suddenly grimaced.

"…………Truth be told……"

Head greatly drooping and fists squeezed tight——

"Truth be told, I had intended to say it to the Supreme Priest. 'Please allow me to meet Alice' ……'The Axiom Church was in the wrong when it apprehended a mere eleven year-old girl as a criminal nine years ago.' But I couldn't bring myself to say any of it. The moment I caught sight of the Supreme Priest's silver eyes……my body froze up like a chunk of ice……"

Eugeo suddenly raised his right hand, pressing it against his right eye. As my partner's head drooped down even further, I strongly embraced his shoulders.

"Don't blame yourself, Eugeo. I myself had to give it my all merely to answer what was asked of me. Besides…… if you had said something that defied the Axiom Church back there, our rights as apprentices would've likely been revoked and we'd have been thrown into jail."

"…………You… have a point."

Pressed against my shoulder, his head gave a nod and Eugeo took a step back. A smile still burdened by pain yet having regained some of its usual firmness found its way on his face.

"……Some day, when I become a true Integrity Knight rather than just an apprentice, I will be sure to tell the Supreme Priest what must be said at that time."

"Yeah, sure. Though I would like to find Alice before then."

Having responded with a grin, I sent my gaze towards the door that the Supreme Priest and Chief Elder had used to leave the room.

"You know what, let's pay a little visit over there. Seeing as we've only just arrived at the Cathedral today, the 'we got lost' excuse might just well work for us."

"……I'm kinda getting the feeling that we're eventually going to end up in that jail after all."

Despite answering as such, Eugeo stood beside me and we began walking towards the northern, rather than southern, door.


3


When the enormous door was opened, with great effort taken to make as little noise as possible, we found a grand passage extending straight ahead beyond it. As far as I could see, no people to be found.

As we timidly pressed on, we soon reached a dead end. Though instead of a staircase leading to the upper floors, we found something strange. A tube made of transparent glass that could very well be three metres-wide.

'Whuzzat', as I gazed attentively at it, a strange sound came from the upper part of the tube. 'Pssh', came a sound that seemed like air gushing out…… no, that's exactly what it was. A huge disk, with shiny green air gushing out out from its bottom, slowly came down.

Eventually, the disk stopped atop the floor before us. The bottom part of the glass tube opened like a door and a person riding on the disk—— a girl wearing a simple one-piece dress with an apron gave a bow.

"Pardon me for the wait. Which floor would you like to travel to?"

——'Ain' it an elevator!' came to my mind, but I didn't let it slip my mouth. Eugeo seemed to have been taken aback just as well, but eventually he timidly called out to the girl.

"Ehm…… So you could take us to the upper floors?"

"Indeed, my sir."

"……We are apprentice knights that have just come to the Central Cathedral today; is it okay for apprentices like ourselves to ride it?"

"The order given to me is solely to operate this elevating disk, my sir."

"I see. In that case, we'd gladly take up your offer for a ride; to the topmost floor, please."

When I jumped on the disk with these words, Eugeo followed suit with an expression of having resigned to his fate. The aperture of the glass tube closed shut and the girl placed her hands on the glass tube sticking out from the centre of the disk.

"In that case, I shall take you to the eightieth floor, the 《Cloudtop Garden》. System call, generate aerial element."

The air elements generated by the rite numbered ten. The upper limit of what could be generated at a given time. When the girl made three of them burst, air fired out of the hole at the bottom of the disk, causing it to begin its ascent.

Its speed was a bit slow, but during that time the girl told us some astounding things. That this year would be her one hundred and eighth year working on this job. That she had already forgotten her own name. That her favourite food was a bun filled to the brim with sweet, boiled beans, as well as well-cooled milk——

Eventually, the disk slowly came to a stop and the glass tube door once again opened up. Once we gave our thanks and got off the disk, the girl gave a bow and descended without a sound.

Exchanging a glance with Eugeo, I muttered.

"……She did say a hundred and eight years, right?"

"……She did, yes. Though, I can't bring to see her as older than us……"

"Meaning, Sacred Arts were used on her Life to……"

I couldn't bring myself to put the rest to words. Deep down, I had considered the possibility of needing to resort to violence within the Cathedral in order to take back Alice, but if Supreme Priest Administrator possessed the kind of power…… that even allowed her to halt the natural decline of Life, we might get turned into pill bugs or something just for thinking of opposing the Church.

——Regardless, we can't just stop now though.

Once I told myself that, I once again looked around our surroundings.

As before, no people in sight. A passage like the one on the fiftieth floor extended to the south, another door standing at its end, of course. I had specified the topmost floor, but this didn't appear to be the actual highest floor of the Cathedral.

"She called it the《Cloudtop Garden》, but it sure looks nothing like a garden…… For now, how's about going beyond it."

"……Yeah."

When Eugeo gave a nod, I stood shoulder-to-shoulder beside him as we walked through the passage. Stopping in front of the door, I tried knocking on it just in case, but it barely made any sound, perhaps because the door was just too huge. Naturally, we didn't get any response either.

After making eye contact with my partner, I placed my hand on the left door while Eugeo placed his hand on the right. Once we put some force on it, the door began moving unexpectedly smoothly.

Golden rays of sunlight flooded us from inside, bombarding our eyes.

After several blinks, we peered inside. That very moment a "Wooow……" escaped our mouths. This was indeed a garden. The room, as wide as the fiftieth floor, was brimming with greenery; multi-coloured flowers bloomed in profusion and small butterflies fluttered about. The centre was taken up by a small hill whose summit I couldn't see.

"……No one here either, it seems."

When I muttered this, Eugeo also tilted his head.

"True…… The Central Cathedral is surprisingly sparsely populated, I guess……"

"Well, the fact that you're number thirty-two and I'm number thirty-three adds up to only slightly over thirty Integrity Knights in total, after all. Though I have no idea how many priests and Sacred Arts users are around here……"

After giving matching hmms as we lost ourselves in thought, we looked up at the same time. We can't just stop now after coming this far. 'It's all Chief Elder Chudelkin's fault for not appointing a guide on our return trip from the fiftieth floor!', shifting the blame onto someone else, I stepped into the Cloudtop Garden.

Walking along a stone-paved path, crossing a clear streamlet, we headed towards the central hill. We climbed the gentle slope with caution. The peak covered in short grass was——empty. Not even a single tree grew here.

Exchanging glances with Eugeo, we descended the slope. There was a large door on the opposite wall; upon leaving the room through it, we were met with a set of large stairs this time. It seems we'd need to climb up with our own feet, rather than use an elevator, this time.

Resolving myself to go as far as we could now that it's come to this, I began climbing up the stairs. Once we reached the eighty-first floor, I peered into the passageway, but there was no one there either. Same went for the eighty-second and eighty-third floors.

In the end, we climbed all the way up the grand stairs to the ninetieth floor. We were told by the monk that served as our guide that the Central Cathedral had a hundred floors in total, as far as I recalled, thus we were practically near the very top floor by now.

Rather than a passageway, we found yet another grand door blocking our path on the ninetieth floor. If this were an RPG, this sure would be right about the time we encountered a locked door, huh, let's just be good boys and head back if it's locked…… as such weak-minded thoughts came to my mind, I put my hand on the door.

However, it wasn't locked. 'Gogo'……giving off a loud noise, the door moved, white smoke creeping out from inside this time.

'Something's on fire!?', I thought for a moment, but it didn't smell like something was burning. Apparently, this wasn't smoke, but rather water vapour——or steam, it seemed. 'If that's the case, then what for', as such a thought came to my mind, I carefully walked in.

So spacious. Just like the fiftieth and eightieth floors, the entire floor was taken up by a single room, it seemed. The walls on the left and right were all just huge windows, thus there was ample afternoon light pouring in and being reflected off the shiny, amorphous floor. That floor…… wasn't a floor. It was water. To be precise, hot water. This was a bath.

A stone-paved path ran down the centre of the spacious room, huge pool-like bathtubs on either side. Hot water streamed down with great force from the mouths of several statues, producing a load of steam. Because of that, I couldn't see far inside.

"……And here I thought that the bath in the Elite Disciple dormitory was big……"

Eugeo's whisper prompted my agreement.

"This sure is incredible…….You think anyone would mind if we made use of it ourselves?"

"What are you talking about, now's not the time for that."

"I mean, when are we ever gonna have a chance to come here again……"

Exchanging whispers, we slowly walked along the pathway. A cluster of steam lingered in the air before disappearing, and appeared again after disappearing.

Suddenly——



"Is that you, Fanatio-dono and…… Scheta-dono?"



Hearing a voice from the front, we suddenly put ourselves on guard.

'Splash'. Someone apparently got out of the bathtub and came up to the pathway. Because of the steam, I could only make out the person's silhouette, but——oh shit. After all, the voice clearly belonged to a young woman.

Shouting 'we're so————rry!' as we ran away… was an urge that I considered seriously. However, Eugeo beside me wouldn't budge. He stood there stock still and dumbfounded, as if his spirit had already left his body.

A figure was approaching us from within(4) the steam. Little by little, the colour and contours of her body became clear. As the last steam dissolved into the air——

There stood a woman with long, dripping-wet, golden hair, and a beauty on the level of the Supreme Priest. A white towel was hanging down in front of her body, but in this world, it was as good as nonexistent. Her lapis lazuli-blue eyes were wide open, first tinged with surprise, then it gradually morphed to anger.

Pressing down on her towel with her right hand, the woman suddenly extended her left hand to the side. Following that, a strange thing took place. From a basket at the edge of the pathway, a golden longsword gently rose up, flew through the air, and found its way to the woman's left hand.

Pointing the long sword, still in its scabbard, straight at us, the golden-haired woman shouted.

"Do you ruffians know that I am the third-ranked Integrity Knight, Alice Synthesis Thirty!"

————————————————————————————————————


——Alice!

The moment I heard that name, the around ten different apology phrasing variants I had come up with on the spur of the moment were all blown away from my head.

Alice. That was the name of Eugeo's childhood friend, who had been taken away from Rulid Village by an Integrity Knight nine years ago.

While it's not like people can't have identical first names even in Underworld, the actual incidence of that would probably be considerably lower than in the real world. I don't know how many people are living in the Central Cathedral, but wouldn't the possibility of a second person with the same name living here be rather low?

Though, the woman, who was hiding her bare body with a white bath towel while thrusting her golden sword towards us, had mentioned something that I couldn't ignore when she gave us her name. The third-ranked Integrity Knight—— that's definitely what she said. Meaning, not only is she one of the Integrity Knights, who are the strongest swordsmen as well as arts users in the Human Empire, she's also in the top three among them…… wait, that's not the issue here. As I recall, Eugeo's childhood friend Alice Zuberg was supposed to have broken the《trespassing into the Dark Territory》 taboo and thus taken away to the central capital as a criminal. And they made Alice into an Integrity Knight, one of the guardians of the law, after all that? So there had been such a hidden route to becoming an Integrity Knight, aside from winning the Four Empire Unification Tournament? While I did expect a scenario where she was forgiven for her crime and became a Sacred Arts user, I didn't even consider the possibility of her becoming an Integrity Knight.

Although the mystery only keeps intensifying, Eugeo should at least be able to confirm whether or not the female knight before us is Alice. Even if it's their first meeting in nine years, he should be able to tell if she looks like her.

Arriving at this conclusion in those two seconds of deliberation, I whispered to my partner beside me.

"Hey, Eugeo."

However, no reaction from him. When I glanced at him for a moment, I noticed that his eyes beneath the flaxen curls were both stuck in a wide open state. Witnessing a woman clad in but a single bath towel…… was likely not the cause here.

"I said, hey, Eu……"

"It seems you have no reasonable justification for this, I see."

My attempt to call out to Eugeo was interrupted by 《Alice's》 firm voice. Holding down her towel with her left hand, she brandished the sword in her right hand. Although it still had its sheath on, I was certain that it'd take away eighty… make that ninety percent of my Life if she were to strike me with it using all of her strength.

"……H…… hold it hold it, we do, we do have a justification!"

Seeing as it didn't seem Eugeo would be rebooting anytime soon, I took a step forward and fervently employed my mouth. The female knight's sapphire-like eyes faintly squinted.

"Go ahead and try then."

"Um, well you see…… this guy and I were appointed as Integrity Knight apprentices just thirty or so minutes ago and while we were exploring…… I mean, looking around the Cathedral, we happened to come into this room. I swear to Goddess Stacia that we had not a single milise of an intention of peeping on milady knight's bathing!"(5)

To be precise, we didn't come up to the ninetieth floor for sightseeing; rather, we were looking for Alice, but I couldn't just tell that to——……

Wait, hold on. Even if the reason why Eugeo froze up like that was because we ended up finding Alice this easily, how come Alice herself doesn't recognise Eugeo? As kids, the two played together every day and, even when Eugeo was given the calling of 《Gigas Cedar Cutter》, Alice would bring him a boxed lunch every single day, as far as I've heard. Even if their appearance changed considerably over nine years, you'd think she'd at least have some sort of reaction to him.

If it's come to this, guess we have no choice but to give her our names…… just as I had that idea, Alice had the perfect timing to ask us to identify ourselves.

"Knight apprentices…… you say? You two, what're your names and numbers?"

"Y-yes, ma'am! I am Kirito Synthesis Thirty-three and this guy…… is Eugeo Synthesis Thirty-two!"

I uttered my partner's name with as clear a pronunciation as I possibly could.

However, the knight‘s expression showed no reaction to it.


4


"Hah…… to think that the bath switches from a men's bath to a women's bath and vice versa every two hours… even though it's so huge that you could just build a wall down the middle to separate it into two…… and only the senior knights can use it in the first place, what discrimination……"

Grumbling with complaints, I dropped down onto the sofa with a thud. The cloth-covered sofa unsurprisingly seemed to be high-quality, as the cushions easily took in my weight with their high elasticity.

The room prepared for me and Eugeo on the twenty-eighth floor of the Central Cathedral was, coincidentally or not, structured just like our rooms at the Elite Disciple dormitory at the Swordcraft Academy. When we went through the door marked with a 【2808】 plate, we found ourselves in a shared living room that was about twenty jou(6) in size, with doors on the left and right walls, each leading to a personal bedroom about twelve jou in size. The entire room was greatly bigger and had more luxurious furniture than our room at the academy dormitory, but it seems it won't take long to get used to it.

Yet my partner didn't bother looking around the room and instead continued standing bolt upright in the middle of the living room. He seemed like a sleepwalker even when we were climbing down to this room from the ninetieth floor; seems like he still hasn't recovered from the shock.

Can't say I blame him. After all, he suddenly encountered the woman that he's been worried sick about and hoping to see again for the past nine years straight; what's more, she turns out to be an Integrity Knight, as beautiful as a goddess and in the middle of bathing——and to top it all off, seeing Eugeo and hearing his name didn't help her recognise him as her old friend.

"…………"

I stood up after a brief sigh, walked around to my partner's back and placed my hands on his shoulders. Then I pushed him to the sofa, turned his body ninety degrees and sat him down. As I noticed a simple kitchen beside the left wall while looking around the room, I used my unpolished tea-brewing skills to pour in some strongish cofil tea, which I then brought over to the low table in front of the sofa.

After blowing on the cup as it gave off steam to cool it down a bit, I placed it in front of Eugeo, who then reached out to it with his left hand and picked up the handle seemingly under semi-autopilot mode. He then brought the cup to his mouth and sipped on it a bit, before muttering, "How bitter……" At that point, he seemingly regained his consciousness, as he looked at me after blinking a few times.

Not wanting to waste this opportunity, I peered into my partner's eyes, before asking him a question.

"Eugeo. That Integrity Knight we met…… was your Alice, right?"

It took about a full seven seconds before I got an answer from him.

"……No doubt about it…… There's no way I'd mix her up with anyone. That knight is Alice. That golden hair that reminds you of a wheat field in autumn, and those eyes, more blue than even Lake Ruhr…… just a glimpse from those eyes caused my head to go so numb that I was unable to think about anything……"

"Perhaps you would have been better off getting a good 'ol smack from that sword of hers."

When I cracked a joke, a sulky expression finally replaced his unreadable expression.

"Kirito, you'd be keeping me company in that case, you hear me. Though, Alice isn't one to do anything like that…… is what I'd like to say……"

"That knight doesn't seem to have recognised you as Eugeo, after all, huh……"

When I nervously mentioned that, Eugeo bit down on his lip a bit, before nodding. At that point, I placed my left hand on his head before it could droop down, and began ruffling his curls.

"Have you ever noticeably changed your appearance or something since you were a child? Like, changing your hairstyle or something like that……"

As I got started on that idea, I suddenly realised something. Does hair grow naturally for Underworlders like it does for people in the real world? ——Wait, I haven't cut my hair even a single time throughout those three years since I awoke in this world; the same probably applies to Eugeo. On that note, I've never even cut my nails, nor have I seen any nail clippers here.

While it is only natural for hair and nails not to grow in a virtual world, it makes me wonder what happens when they get cut or burnt in some unforeseen accident. There is no avatar customisation option on the Stacia Window, after all.

My question received a curveball(7) of an answer from Eugeo.

"No, I've never used any carsha fruit on me, after all."

"A carsha…… fruit."

As I muttered the term back like a parrot, Eugeo gave me a puzzled look.

"Kirito, you did have carsha fruit in your hometown, right? Bottles of concentrated juice were being sold at general stores in the Central Capital, after all……"

Guessing what the effects of the carsha fruit thingie were from his words, I answered.

"O-oh yeah, we did…… I think. You apply some juice you get from a fruit on your head and your hair grows, right?"

'If I got that horribly wrong, I'm just going to pretend I was joking and laugh it off', I thought for a moment, but, luckily, Eugeo nodded.

"Yeah. It's a valuable plant, so if the people at Rulid Village were to find any at a forest, they'd normally sell it to a pedlar; barely anyone would actually use it on themselves."

"So you're saying Raios's long…… I mean, #long hair#(chouhatsu) was the result of using carsha juice on himself……"

"If you wanted to grow your hair that long, even an entire bottle of concentrated juice wouldn't be enough for the job, I believe."

"Hahaa…… so that's why long hair is so common among men of the nobility."

"It seems some of them are born with hair that tends to grow long, though. My hair and yours, Kirito, would be considered pretty long."

After he pulled on my forelocks, as if getting back at me, Eugeo's gaze returned to the front.

"……Anyway, my hairstyle hasn't changed since childhood. As for my face…… I can't really tell without an outside opinion, but it shouldn't have changed so drastically that I no longer have any likeness to my child self……"

As Eugeo seemed to be about ready to sink back into his gloom, I pulled him out of it with my deliberately loud voice.

"Then there's no room for doubt! Alice has lost her memories of her life at Rulid."

"……Her memories……!?"

Seeing my partner's face jolt up at that, I gave him a deep nod.

"That's the only explanation I can think of. What's more, the one responsible for that, most likely, isn't the God of Darkness Vector, but rather the Axiom Church."

"The Church……"

Muttering this as his face went pale, Eugeo looked up to the tapestry adorning the wall with the Axiom Church's crest; at that point, I strongly grabbed him by the shoulders.

"Get it together, Eugeo, if it were God Vector's handiwork, there'd be nothing we could do, but it stands to reason that there should be a way to undo something that a human has done, right? We're going to get Alice's memories back."

"Bu…… but, how do you plan on doing that……"

"Our only option is to put in our best effort to investigate the matter. Don't worry, we're already Integrity Knights, even if only apprentices. We should have considerable authority even inside the Cathedral…… We no longer have any need to be scared of any teachers or dorm managers as we did in our academy days."

"You were the only one scared of them, though, Kirito."

With that rebuttal, Eugeo finally showed a faint smile as my hands gripping his shoulders were met by his hands.

"You're right…… We've managed to claim victories in the Swordcraft Academy Graduation Examination, Norlangarth Swordsmanship Tournament, and even the Four Empire Unification Tournament. If we break down here, all the effort we've put in so far will have been for naught."

After uttering these confidence-radiating words, he lowered his hands. Then he reclined on the soft sofa and closed his eyes.

"……Besides, Alice is safe…… and doing well. I have to be glad…… most of all……"

Even when his whispers turned to calm sleeping breaths, I did not try to wake my partner up. It was still only just past three in the afternoon, but a lot has happened today ever since morning and there's no need to comply with academy regulations anymore. Even if today isn't a rest day, he's free to sleep if he wants to…… probably.

After three minutes of waiting, Eugeo's breathing stabilised and I slowly stood up. Deciding to assign the left side bedroom to my partner just like at the Elite Disciple dorm, I opened the door to it. Then I returned to the sofa, gently picked up Eugeo's body, and laid him down on the large bed in his bedroom. I then took off his shoes and placed them on the floor, before covering his body with a thin blanket and then taking a breather.

I didn't tell Eugeo, but the one responsible for sealing Alice's memories was most likely the Supreme Priest of the Axiom Church, Administrator. If she is capable of halting the natural decline of Life with her arts, meaning that she has obtained de facto perpetual youth and longevity, it would come as no surprise that she is also capable of manipulating memories as well.

If my conjecture is correct, reclaiming Alice's memories will, unfortunately, not be that easy of an ordeal. It doesn't sound likely that the silver-haired and silver-eyed ruler with astounding beauty and giving off such an intimidating presence would be so eager to listen to a request from mere inexperienced apprentice knights. For the time being, we'll have to obediently put in our best efforts with that practice or whatever while we gather information in the meantime. Why did the Supreme Priest seal Alice's memories—— what on earth happened to her when she was brought to the tower as a criminal?

"Just a little more to go, let's keep at it."

Muttering to Eugeo's innocently sleeping face, I took a step back. Scheming to one day get my hands on that concentrated carsha fruit juice and apply it to my partner's hair while he's sleeping to cause him to have long hair, I silently left the room.



Once I had finished organising the baggage in my own bedroom and had changed into a shirt and trousers of simple design yet high-grade texture that had been left for me in the wardrobe, I returned to the living room.

Taking care not to cause any loud noises, I cleaned up the cup and pot, before thinking, 'What to do now…' As it seemed that the practice with that Number Twelve-san whatsit that Chief Elder Chudelkin had mentioned would only begin tomorrow, I guess I'm free to consider the remainder of today to be my leisure time, but when I recall that unexpected encounter with Knight Alice, I feel the temptation to idly wander about the tower.

At the Swordcraft Academy, there were heaps of 'you can't do this' and 'this is bad' regulations, resulting in me leading a very suffocating student's life, but now that I'm left alone to my devices in an environment without such regulations, I ended up at a loss at what to do. Though of course, even the Cathedral probably has a variety of rules around——such as the fact that the Grand Bath switches from a men‘s bath to a women‘s bath and vice versa every two hours ——but at the very least, no one left a list of regulations in this room.

However, thinking from a different perspective, this means I could make use of the 'It's not my fault that nobody told me about it!' excuse to get out of trouble. Even Alice, who ended up giving us a bath scene, simply let us off with a "I guess nothing can be done if you weren't aware of that" in the end. Though, she did seem really reluctant to do so.

I bet we'll be informed about heaps of regulations either orally or in written form tomorrow, so today will be the final day I can use my blissful ignorance to go around the place freely. For starters, my hunger meter has been been going up quite a bit for awhile now, yet aside from a variety of tea leaves, there's not a single cookie left for us in the simple kitchen, so that leaves me with no choice but to wander around in search of food in order to prevent the decrease of my Life.

Upon reaching that conclusion, I took the notepad——as paper in this world is a valuable commodity, this too is quite a luxurious item——that had been left for us on the low table and wrote down:『I'm going out to look for food for a bit; be back by the fifth hour bell.』, onto it; after some hesitation, I decided to leave the room without my beloved sword.


5


Just like when I had first come here, the twenty-eighth floor hallway was completely deserted.

As I recall, the Cathedral's floors twenty-one through forty-nine were supposed to be the dedicated living area for the monks, nuns, servants, and apprentice knights, so why is there such a lack of signs of people living here. I've started feeling the urge to open up all the doors I kept seeing on the left and right side of the hallway, starting from doors number 2807 and 2806, but this would definitely be considered a breach of rules—— or even more fundamentally, a breach of basic manners.

At this rate, I guess my only choice is to return to the grand stairs and climb down till I catch the scent of food…… with that thought in mind, I was walking along the hallway with a red carpet laid on the floor, when...

From around the corner ahead of me, I heard something that sounded like scraping. If this were a dungeon, I would be preparing for a fight against monsters, but #monsters#(kaibutsu) wouldn't be walking around the Cathedral hallways and, in the first place, I didn't bring my weapon along. Yet I still erased my footsteps as I approached the corner and promptly checked on what lay ahead with my back against the wall.

Naturally, it wasn't a monster.

A young woman with a gray skirt and ivory apron was sweeping the hallway with a long broom. Each time she swept her broom with a skillful motion, fine dust particles fluttered from the carpet and dissolved into the air, before disappearing.

The 《spontaneous filth》 in this world was mostly just a visual effect of sorts, so a sweep from a broom or a duster was enough to get rid of it, thus there was no need to collect all of it in a dustpan; nonetheless, it probably still takes quite a bit of work to clean up such huge hallways. An 'I'd hate to get in her way' thought passed through my mind, but I couldn't just pass by her ignoring her existence whatsoever, so I made up my mind and went around the corner, before calling out to her from the back.

"……H-H'llo~"

At that, her hands stopped sweeping the broom, after which her slender body turned around.

Once the woman turned around, I saw that she indeed appeared to be in her late teens, her bright brown hair tied into two and dangling in front of her. Given the hairband with white frills on her head and her puffy-sleeved apron-dress, the term 《maid-san》 passed through my mind, though I had to assume that my Sacred Tongue would probably not be understood.

The woman examined my entire body with a look of wonder, before giving a slight tilt of her head. Her eyes of a darker brown than her hair blinked once, before I heard her weakly-intoned voice.

"Who would you be?"

"Ah……s-sorry. I'm Kirito…… an Integrity Knight apprentice who arrived here just today."

At that, the woman blinked once more, before giving a deep bow.

"Please forgive my impudence. I would be Corsche, the cleaner. I have heard that new Honoured Knights would be gracing us with their presence at room 2808…… though, if I am not mistaken, I was told that there would be two of you."

Hearing Corsche's tone that sounded awfully familiar for some reason, I tilted my head in my mind as I answered.

"Yeah…… there's another one named Eugeo, he's currently sleeping in his room. Also…… ehm, there are some things I'd like to ask you……"

"If it is something within my capability to answer, please go right ahead."

Hearing her answer with that serious look of hers, I quickly sorted through the various questions whirling in my mind, before posing my first question.

"Ehm…… for starters, why's this place so deserted? As I've heard, this group of floors should be inhabited by monks and nuns……"

"There would be two reasons for that, my sir. The first is that the rooms for the monks and nuns are located above floor thirty-one, hence you would normally be unable to chance upon them on this floor. The other reason would be that, at this time of day, the monks and nuns would be found studying Sacred Arts at the training grounds and studies below the twentieth floor."

"……Studies……"

'Don't tell me they're gonna force us to study there too…', I muttered with that thought in mind. Putting that worry aside, I voiced a new question that was prompted by her answer.

"In that case, who does live on the twenty-eighth floor here?"

"The twenty-eighth and twenty-ninth floors would be where Honoured Knight Apprentices have their residences, my sir."

"Eeh…… There are other apprentice knights aside from us……?"

Come to think of it, the Four Empire Unification Tournament is held annually, so it wouldn't be surprising for there to be ten or twenty apprentices other than us here. So that means that we will have to compete with them in order to become knights proper, and the majority of them are bound to be high-class nobles; wouldn't that mean that the only thing waiting for us is a repeat of our days at the Swordcraft Academy…… just as I was being dejected by such a thought…

"Yes, currently, there are two other Honoured Apprentice Knights residing on the twenty-ninth floor."

"……T-two of them? Just a mere two of them?"

Just as I felt as if the wind was taken out of my sails, Corsche gave a nod.

"Yes. Hence, the only people living on the twenty-eighth floor here would be Kirito-sama and Eugeo-sama."

"…………"

——In that case, give us our own separate rooms! Also, why weren't we given room 2801 then!

…Was what I felt the urge to shout out, but Corsche wasn't the one who decided room assignments, of course. Anyway, at least I learnt why there didn't seem to be anyone on this floor. It's just that all rooms other than the one Eugeo and I were given are unused.

In that case, where did the winners of the annual Four Empire Unification Tournament go off to? They finished their studies in a single year and moved on to become knights proper…… is what I'd like to think, but then the numbers don't add up. The Unification Tournament has been held for over a hundred years now, yet Eugeo is number thirty-two, while I am number thirty-three.

As I was seized with a bad foreboding about things, Corsche gave another blink.

"Would that be all with your questions?"

"Oh…… I feel bad that I'm interrupting your cleaning, sorry, just one more…… actually, make that two. Ehm, it's not like I think we're better than the monks by any means, but why are the apprentice knight rooms located on the twenty-eighth and twenty-ninth floors, while monk rooms are found above the thirty-first……?

"That is because the Dragon Landing Field is located on the thirtieth floor and the Honoured Apprentice Knights have their dragon mounting practices there."

"…………Dragons……"

Oh that's right, the Axiom Church's Integrity Knights double as dragon knights. During my Swordcraft Academy days, I've seen huge dragons flying far above in the skies of Centoria numerous times. I've always thought of them as beings of a different world, like the stars shining in the night sky, but becoming a knight proper would also mean getting to ride on those dragons.

In that case, I'll have to get them to let me take the entrance exam for the Cait Sith dragoon squad back in ALO…… with that thought in mind, I opened my mouth once more.

"This will be my final question…… my stomach is so empty that I might die, you see; is there a place where I can get some food?"



'Being apprentice knights, you are free to visit the Grand Dining Room on the tenth floor to have a meal whenever you wish.'

When Corsche informed me of this, I'm sure that it was only my imagination that I felt her giving me a faint look of shock.

While quickly descending the grand stairs, I finally recalled where I've heard Corsche's polite——or put another way, inhuman tone. The Elevating Operator girl that took Eugeo and me from the fiftieth floor to the eightieth just a mere hour ago. The girl who had even ended up forgetting her own name had a speaking style very similar to Corsche's.

So does that mean that Corsche also had her natural decline of Life frozen? And that like the Elevating Operator, she has spent tens of years continuously sweeping the hallways of the Cathedral with a broom……?

Once again made aware of my deep awe and slight opposition towards the Axiom Church and Supreme Priest Administrator, I continued descending the stairs. In the morning, it hadn't seemed like a big deal when we were guided up the grand stairs all the way to the fiftieth floor, perhaps because of the tension I had felt at the time, but now a measly eighteen floors felt like a horribly long distance. Just when my thoughts that the Cathedral's lower half should have an elevator too were about to burst out of my ears, I finally arrived to the tenth floor.

There were two huge doors further down the wide stair landing; while there was no information plate for it, I could definitely feel a faint but nice aroma coming from beyond them. Having approached them with unsteady steps, I placed my hands on one of the doors, and pushed it.

Beyond the open door——.

"……Wow……"

I found a room so vast that I couldn't keep myself from expressing my impression. Inside this banquet hall that was close to the level of the 《Grand Corridor of Spiritual Light》 on the fiftieth floor and the Grand Bath on the ninetieth floor in size, there were multiple rows of dreadfully long tables and chairs with a backrest. There was a similar hall in a fantasy movie set in a wizard school that Suguha loved, but this was probably even bigger than that.

On the long table covered by a white cloth, there were numerous candlesticks, silverware, and water jugs among other things, but no sign of any food. 'Then where is this nice aroma coming from', as I looked around the hall with that thought in mind, I noticed that there was a counter in front of the inner wall and heard bustling activity and energetic voices coming from beyond it. It seems that the hall was the Grand Dining Room, while the Grand Kitchen was beyond the counter——it appears.

Drawn in by the aromatic fragrance of roasted meat, I passed between the long tables with unsteady steps and approached the counter. Inside the bright kitchen, more than ten cooks in white clothes were chopping something with kitchen knives, or stirring huge pots, or gazing into ovens.

I don't know how many monks and nuns this place has, but it seems like they will all be coming to the Grand Dining Room at the same time for a meal and the kitchen staff was currently in the midst of preparing a large quantity of food for them. I hesitated interrupting them when I thought of that, but my stomach was just about to reach my back and I don't even know if I'm supposed to have my meal alongside the monks as an apprentice knight.

'Chudelkin, you bastard, you should have told us about stuff like that!', I thought, but the Chief Elder wasn't here. As my empty stomach continued to grumble, I took a further ten steps forward and leaned over the polished wooden counter as I called out.

"U…… um, excuse me……"

However, nobody would look at me… or more like nobody could hear me over the clamour in the kitchen. I had no choice but to try again.

"EXCUSE ME! CAN I HAVE A MOMENT!"

"Haaah!?"

The impactful groan came from a sturdy-looking cook who was slicing a huge mass of meat on the front kitchen table. When he turned around, the face I saw easily fell in the top three among the 《scary old dudes》 that I've encountered in Underworld. By the way, the other two were Sadore, the metalworker who had fashioned me a sword out of the Gigas Cedar branch I had brought to him, and the officer of Zakkaria's garrison, who had written a recommendation letter that I needed in order to take part in the Swordcraft Academy's entrance exam, for me.

The cook who, just like the other two men, I was all but certain could make all the kids he passed by cry if he were to go for a walk on North Centoria's main street, stroked his white beard that looked like an upside-down broccoli with his left hand as he glared sharply at me.

"Whatcha want, young'un."

"Eh…… ehm…… I was wondering if I could get something to eat……"

"HAAAAAH!?"

Came another imposing groan. The meat chopper in his left hand that was so huge that you could basically classify it as a weapon at this rate gleamed sharply at me.

"Ye know that dinner starts at six, doncha!? If the priests find out that one of ye monks sneaked out of your studies for a snack, ya'll be tossed in'ta the dungeon!"

"U-uh no, I am not a monk, you see…… I am… a knight……"

"HAAAHH!? A KNIGHT!?"

When the aged cook stuck his head out, the cylindrical, about fifty centimetre-long hat atop his head tilted to the side. After pushing it back into place with his left hand, he let out an even deeper voice.

"If yer a knight, doncha have yer exclusive dining room on the ninety-fourth floor! If ye ask Hana there, she'll fix ye up with as much of that fancy noble cuisine as ye can eat!"

It was unclear who this Hana was, but I no longer had the energy to climb all the way to the ninety-fourth floor from the tenth floor, and in the first place, it appears that the floors above the fiftieth were basically all restricted to apprentice knights.

"Um no, I don't really want any fancy food….. besides, as an apprentice knight, I probably can't enter the exclusive dining room for knights proper……"

"Oh, so yer an apprentice, eh! Why din'cha say so first!"

Having shouted that out, the cook approached the counter and stared fixedly at my face.

"So that means ya lad are the next apprentice knight after Alice-jouchan and Eldrie, eh."
————————————————————————————————————
I've never heard the name 'Eldrie', yet I nodded still.

"Y-yes, kind of…… I am Kirito Synthesis Thirty-three, while my partner is Eugeo Synthesis Thirty-two."

Once I somehow managed to name ourselves without biting my tongue, the cook snorted, before saying the following.

"We're still gettin' things ready, so I can only getcha somethin' simple."

"T-that would be more than enough!"

"Then hold on a sec."

As he pointed to the edge of the counter with his meat chopper, I promptly made my way over to it.

Having once again returned three minutes later, the cook placed two white cloth-wrapped packages in front of me. I had no idea whatsoever on what was inside of them, but an awfully pleasant scent hung in the air.

"For now, fill up your tummies with this. If ye wanna get some grub for dinner too, just come on over after the six o'clock bell rings."

"Umm……"

The cloth-wrapped packages seemed to be about ten by twenty-five centimetres in size and about five centimetres thick. As long as it didn't turn out that the entire package was only filled with stuff like hajikewatamame (a foodstuff equivalent to popcorn from the real world), it would likely be quite filling.

"Oh no, I believe this will suffice for today."

"That so. Breakfast is between seven and nine o'clock; if yer late, don't expect ta find anythin' left! Also, yer free to do this at breakfast time, but be pretty darn sure ye bring the wrapping cloth back at some point!"

"Y-yes, sir!

Once I nodded, the cook left me with the words, "Well, g'luck out there", before returning to his work. Upon expressing my gratitude in the direction that his large back had disappeared to, I picked up a package with each hand and left the Grand Dining Room behind.



Just as I once again laboured up the stairway and finally reached room 2808 on the twenty-eighth floor, the five o'clock bell rang out.

'Touched home base in the nick of time!'(8), muttering this in my mind, I opened the door; when I went around the thick, blacksilver oak partition, I just managed to catch Eugeo drowsily reading the note I had left for him on the table.

Once he raised his face to look at me, a smile found its way on his face as he said the following.

"I see you've successfully got your hands on some food."

"Of course. The capability to find foodstuffs no matter the situation is my greatest skill, I'll have you know."

"Haha, I'm just about ready to acknowledge that."

Having answered thus, Eugeo gave a big yawn; at that very moment, his stomach gave off a lively growl. Once I pushed my red-faced partner on the shoulder to sit down while I placed the two packages onto the table, I brought over a jug from the kitchen and poured some water into our glasses.

Having drunk half of the cold water in one gulp, Eugeo let out a sigh, before turning his gaze to me, sitting next to him.

"Were you the one who carried me to the bedroom, Kirito?"

"Who else do you think could have done that."

"I was beginning to worry that I started walking in my sleep……"

"I kinda want a glimpse of that, to be honest. Well, let's dig in."

After giving Eugeo one of the cloth-wrapped packages, I opened up my own. Unfolding merely a single one of the white cloth's sides resulted in an alluring aroma directly assailing my nose, prompting me to open the other three sides in a hurry.

Packed inside was a panini-like sandwich, consisting of lightly-fried, rectangular bread slices with tons of ingredients stuffed between them. Seeing loads of various vegetables and roast beef jutting out from the clearly-browned bread, I ended up subconsciously exchanging a glance with Eugeo.

"……Kirito, where did you get your hands on this?"

"There's a Grand Dining Room on the tenth floor and a pappy who seemed like the head chef there made these for us in three minutes……"

"In three minutes……!?"

Now fully awake, Eugeo carefully picked up his sandwich. Once I did the same, we made eye contact for an instant, before we sank our teeth into the sandwiches at the same time.

The bread was fragrant on the outside yet tender on the inside; the vegetables felt as fresh as just-harvested produce; the meat well-cooked yet quite juicy. There is no culture of eating rare meat in Underworld; nevertheless, the timing for the roast beef's cooking was quite polished.

Moreover, the sauce on the ingredients was simply irresistible. It tasted like the dressing for Ceaser's salad with loads of cheese stuffed into it; the taste was just perfect for the vegetables and meat. After devouring nearly half of our twenty-five centimetre-long sandwiches in a trance, Eugeo and I placed the remainder on the cloths and gulped down some water, before letting out sighs of satisfaction.

"……Kirito, at this very moment, the fact that we've come to the Central Cathedral is actually starting to sink in for me."

At Eugeo's comment, I gave a deep nod.

"I couldn't agree more…… If this is only a snack made in three minutes, I wonder how big of a feast a proper dinner is…… Wait, hold on. I was told there was also an exclusive dining room for Integrity Knights on the ninety-whatsit floor of the tower. I wonder what kind of grub they serve there……"

"Whoa, Kirito, don't tell me you're planning on sneaking in there again."

As a worried look appeared on Eugeo's face, I gave him a broad grin.

"Oh well, I'll set that aside for whenever we become official knights."

However, according to what I learnt later on, the meals offered to the monks at the Great Dining Room consisted of, if I had to put my finger on it, a very bland menu; it'd be far fetched to call it anything close to a feast. Meaning, the head chef went out of his way making those deluxe sandwiches for a mere apprentice like me.

Furthermore, Eugeo and I would only be able to actually eat some of that 《fancy noble cuisine》 at the dining room exclusive for top-ranked knights on the ninety-fourth floor of the Cathedral after an entire year at best. However, completely ignorant of these facts, we finished eating the remainder of our sandwiches while savouring the taste, whereupon we reclined on the sofa, greatly satisfied.

"Hmm, my stomach is stuffed full…… I really don't think I could possibly eat anything more before dinner."

As Eugeo muttered beside me, I also stroked the area around my ventriculus(9).

"That's what I figured would happen, so I told pappy that we won't be needing dinner today. Tomorrow's breakfast is between seven and nine o'clock, I heard."

"That so…… Though, it's still a bit early for bed. What'cha wanna do for the rest of the day?"

Asked by my partner, I gazed at the southern window.

Beyond the window with fine, slanted bars, I could see the sky dyed in gold. It'd probably take over an hour for Solus to fully go down.

"Let's seeee now…… for what it's worth, wanna do today's practice quota?"

"Yeah, I was just about to suggest the same thing."

Upon nodding happily for some reason, Eugeo stood up with great vigour. He then courteously folded the two wrapping cloths and carried them away along with the glasses to the kitchen. Once I also got up, I went over to the two swords hanging on the wall fixtures.

Grabbing Eugeo's Blue Rose Sword with my left hand, as well as my own black one with my right, I took them off the fixtures and, 'I've really gotta give my sword a name already……', with that thought in mind, I walked over to my partner as he washed the wrapping cloths.



Once the two of us descended the grand stairs to the first floor and stepped outside through the magnificently gigantic front—— door's neighbouring small side entrance, Eugeo and I simultaneously took a deep breath.

In front of us spanned a perfectly-maintained front yard. A pure white pavement that was likely around twenty metres-wide, canals to its sides reflecting the sunset, a soft-looking lawn—— Although the Cathedral's interior was also vast, we nevertheless could feel our shoulders lightening up the moment we inhaled some of the outside air, probably because we had still continued feeling tension somewhere in our minds till now.

The Central Cathedral's perfectly-square plot was surrounded by a chalk-white wall that reached fifty metres in height. This wall was integrated into the 《Everlasting Wall》 that divided the vast Human Empire into four regions; even a guy like me hadn't considered climbing over it during my Swordcraft days.

Dead center on the four walls were gates that led to the four imperial capitals. Eugeo and I had come through the northern gate this morning, but because the only entrance to the Cathedral itself was on the southern side, we had had to go in a semicircle via the passages along the outer wall to reach it. In that instance, our guide monk had chosen the eastern path, hence we had been able to gander our eyes around the right half of the plot quite a bit; however, the left half——the western side was still an entirely uncharted area for us. Peering into my partner's face as he seemed to be looking for a place where we could swing our swords, I gave a broad grin.

"Say, Eugeo Synthesis Thirty-two-kun."

That very moment, a flash of caution appeared in his green eyes.

"What is it, Kirito?"

"How about we go out exploring for a short bit before practice?"

That very moment, a deliberately emphasised sigh.

"……Hey now, have you already forgotten the big trouble we got ourselves into the last time we did that right after our audience with the Supreme Priest?"

"Though, if we had been good boys and went down the stairs back then, we wouldn't have found out what the upper half of the Cathedral was like, nor would we have learnt how Alice was doing. We basically still know nothing about the Axiom Church; it wouldn't be a waste of time to go looking around here and there."

"…………"

The moment he heard Alice's name, Eugeo's expression became tense.

The reason why we passed through the Cathedral's gate wasn't to become upstanding Integrity Knights, but rather to go back to Rulid together with Eugeo's childhood friend Alice. To achieve that, we had to get Alice's memories back no matter what.

Probably having come to the same conclusion without any need for me to point it out specifically, Eugeo gave a short sigh and nodded.

"Okay, okay; we still have some time till Solus comes down, and it's not like anyone told us we can't have a look around the yard, after all."

"Attaboy."

Giving a light pat on my partner's shoulder, I aimed for the plot's western side.

"So for starters, let's try going over there."

"Uh-huh."

'Once you agree to something, you never complain about the details; I like that part about you, Eugeo-kun……', muttering this deep in my chest, I began descending the wide terrace stairs diagonally.



On the western side of the Cathedral, there was a pleasant surprise that far exceeded my expectations waiting for us.

There was a building that looked like a large storehouse deep within a row of tall trees; inside, a group of probably the biggest creatures in the Human Empire——dragons, which were used as rides by Integrity Knights, were resting their wings.

After staring at the entrance to the storehouse-turned-dragon-stable for a full three seconds or so with wide-open eyes, Eugeo and I tried to sneak inside. But, at the last moment, a man in the prime of his life, who got behind us without our notice, stopped us.

The man, wearing strangely-textured overalls and holding a mop in his right hand, introduced himself as Khainag the stablemaster; since there were pregnant she-dragons inside right now, he told us that even us knight apprentices would not be allowed inside. If that was the case, I had no intention of complaining about it. Since we were also told that he wouldn't mind us sightseeing from the entrance, we spent an extra five minutes or so gazing at the dragons, before leaving the stable behind.

'When we one day graduate from being apprentices to being knights proper, I wonder if we'll also get dragons of our own……', as we discussed such things with some excitement, we walked along the stable further to the north. The path among the mossy old trees was, however, obstructed by a bronze fence.

The fence did have a door, but there was a latch on it. Though I couldn't see anything similar to a padlock to actually lock that latch.

"……Seems like that door can be opened up from this side, huh."

When I mentioned that, Eugeo responded with a resigned look.

"I believe it would be pointless to try to stop you; I'll just let you be the one to open it and get scolded for it later, Kirito."

"Sure, leave it to me, my dear friend."

Striking my chest with my right hand, I stepped up to the door. The large latch sure looked tough; it would probably hardly be possible even for us to destroy it by ramming the door from the other side. I peeked inside through the gaps in the fence, but a hedge got in the way, so I couldn't really see anything.

Making up my mind, I grabbed the latch and applied upward force to it. It creaked a bit at first, but then it came off the receiver, turning two hundred and seventy degrees, before dangling down.

After waiting three seconds or so, I grasped the handle below the receiver. When I pulled it, 'Creeeak', the door opened with an ear-grating sound. Since all the doors inside the Cathedral moved smoothly, this door most likely hasn't been used for a long time. Nevertheless, now that it was open, the rest was in the bag.

Beckoning Eugeo, who was still giving me an unenthusiastic look from his position a few steps away, I passed through the door.

That very moment, a faintly sweet smell tickled my nostrils.

This side of the bronze fence had passages partitioned by a tall hedge; the source of the smell seemed to be the countless buds dotting the hedge. A few of the buds had taken on a pale red colour, but I couldn't tell what kind of flower they were based on my knowledge.

As I stared fixedly at the sharp-ended buds——

"Kirito…… these are all roses."

Eugeo said in a hoarse voice beside me. 'Oh I see, so these are roses', I nodded, before blurting out, "WHUUT."

In this world, the anemone, marigold, dahlia, and cattleya flowers, which had stored really high-purity resources, were called 《The Four Great Sacred Flowers》; however, roses were ranked even above them as 《The Divine Flower》; even nobility wasn't allowed to cultivate them. If you were to find one of the horribly rare wild roses in the hills and fields, you could sell it for a ridiculous sum of money, as I've heard; in that case, just how many tens of thousands…… make that hundreds of millions of shears, would the entirety of this hedge be worth……

As I performed my wild calculations, Eugeo lightly pulled on the hem of my coat.

"We really should be going back, Kirito; if you were to carelessly break even a single bud, I believe you wouldn't get off with a mere scolding."

"Ah, yeah…… well, you do have a point……"

Even a guy like me would want to avoid being sent to the disciplinary chamber——though it was unclear whether such a thing was present at the Central Cathedral——on my first day. Thinking that I should stop our exploration here, I was just about to head back to the door when it happened.

One of my forelocks was suddenly pulled to the right…… or so it felt. I reflexively looked to the right, yet I couldn't see anyone on the path between the hedges. As Eugeo had been on my left behind me, it would be impossible for him to have been the one responsible for it unless he had used some kind of psychokinesis, like the time Integrity Knight Alice pulled her sword to her hands.

"……?"

With my head tilted, I was about to start walking back to the door again, but…

My hair was pulled again, prompting me to inadvertently yell out, "What gives!" Feeling Eugeo's questioning gaze, I looked around our surroundings. But as expected, there wasn't a single creature, let alone a person, in sight. Don't tell me some apparition is playing tricks on me……? Is some living ghost, like the one we had encountered in a deserted inn on our way to the capital,(10) trying to prank me?

Such guesses of mine were overturned in an utterly unexpected way.

Something small jumped off my head and landed on the brick-paved passage. I strained my eyes, but since it was only about five or so millimetres in size, not to mention that the lighting was quite dim right now, I could only tell that it was probably some kind of blackish bug.

The tiny bug that seemed to be responsible for my hair being pulled started hopping left and right atop the bricks, before jumping away further down the passage, as if telling us to follow(11) it. I can't say I didn't get a bad feeling about this, but neither was I mature enough to just ignore it like that. If this were to have happened in SAO, it would undoubtedly be the starting point for a quest.

"We're goin' after it!"

Once I hurled a restrained shout at my partner, I set about running after the tiny bug down the passage to the west. In response, the tiny bug started hopping further down the passage, strictly maintaining a distance of one metre between us. At the end of the passage, it took a turn right, then a left at a crossroad, and we continued weaving our way through the labyrinth-like….. actually, make that genuinely labyrinthine, passageways among the hedges for the next three minutes.

Noticing that our path led to a dead end, I increased my running speed. While it may be a dead end, the walls were actually rose hedges, thus a tiny five millimetre or so bug would have no trouble going through the gaps. If I lost sight of it here, I would probably never find it again, nor did I feel like we could find our way back to our starting point.

"Hey…… hold……"

As I blurted this out, an unforeseen phenomenon took place beyond my fervently outstretched right hand.

A white, glowing plate-like object gradually rose up from the ground just before the hedge that was blocking the path. The light disappeared right away, revealing that the object was no mere plate, but rather a door.

As I hit the brakes with my feet, Eugeo collided with my back, letting out something like "Mugyu." Just as I was about to fall frontwards, Eugeo pulled me back up.

Three metres ahead of the spot where we had come to a stop, the door's knob turned in a semicircle on its own. 'Clink', a faint sound rang out as the door began opening towards us. Beyond, utter darkness lurked.

The tiny bug jumped through the door that had opened by ninety degrees, disappearing from sight. I exchanged glances with my partner for starters, but neither of us seemed to be able to say anything. When I looked at the door again, thinking what we should do now…



"Oi, would thee step hither already!"



Came a voice from the darkness beyond the door. While it seemed like it belonged to a young girl, the voice also sounded like it belonged to an old sage, causing my body to flinch. I ended up taking a step back with Eugeo, but my gamer spirit hadn't died down so much that I could possibly pretend I didn't see anything here.

We were guided here by a small bug, then a door appeared, and then we were told to get inside. If I were one capable of choosing not to go inside, I wouldn't have played SAO in the first place.

"……Let's try going inside."

At my whisper,

"I knew you'd say that."

Answered my partner.


6


Two hours later.

Having returned to our room on the twenty-eighth floor of the Central Cathedral, Eugeo and I returned our swords to their place at the wall in silence, made preparations for our tea in silence, and sat down on the sofa in silence.

In the end, we hadn't been able to carry out our sword practice, though we only remembered that we had even had such plans when we were climbing up the grand stairs. The person we had encountered in the giant library room beyond the mysterious door, as well as what we learnt from them, were just that shocking.

The person who invited Eugeo and I was a girl that looked to be about ten years old based on her appearance. Introducing herself as 《Cardinal》, the girl explained that she was another Supreme Priest, who opposed Supreme Priest Administrator, and gave us a long… awfully long account of what had happened.

The information overload from her account was so great that I still haven't managed to get all the things straight, but if I were to forcibly put things together, it'd go like this.

Administrator had once been a girl who went by the name Quinella and she had been a prodigious master of Sacred Arts. Revered as the child of the gods by the people, Quinella had personally established the Axiom Church and had become the de facto ruler of the Human Empire. The Integrity Knights who were assigned to protect the Church had had their memories sealed by Administrator and had been led to believe that they had been summoned from the Celestial World. Protected by Integrity Knights that were each a match for a thousand, the Church's rule had been as firm as a rock; however, the 《Great Eastern Gate》 that separated the Human Empire from the Dark Territory would collapse in the not-so-distant future, leading to an assault by the military of darkness that numbered in the tens of thousands. Not even Administrator or the Integrity Knight Order would be able to repel such an attack. However, Cardinal had some sort of means to resolve the issue, and if Eugeo and I were to assist her in disposing of Administrator in order to execute her plan, she would return Alice's memories——

"……'Assist her' might sound all well and good on paper……"

Having uttered my first words in the past tens of minutes, I subconsciously surveyed my surroundings, before continuing in a subdued volume.

"But that basically just means we'd have to fight against the Supreme Priest, doesn't it? To be honest, I wouldn't be surprised if she could turn us into toads by just pointing a sword at us……"(12)

Eugeo gave a faint wry smile at my words, but his expression immediately tensed up.

"Though, if that Cardinal-san person's words proved to be true, we wouldn't be able to take back Alice's memories on our own. Even if we were to become knights proper, getting our hands on the 《memory fragment》 taken from Alice, and performing a ritual that could reverse the Si…… 《Synthesis Ritual》 would be……"

"Yeah, it would probably be out of our league……"

Nodding, I dropped a cube of sugar into the black tea that Eugeo had prepared. Seeing as the specialty black tea from the southern empire was very bitter despite its magnificent fruity aroma, I'd very much like to add a second cube, but since sugar was quite the luxury in Underworld, I unconsciously ended up being stingy.

Having stirred it well with a teaspoon, I drank a sip of it. Its muscat-like aroma and faint sweetness permeated my weary head.

As Eugeo had mentioned, if restoring Alice's memories were our top priority, we had no choice but to collaborate with Cardinal. However, while Cardinal didn't go into details, I could guess what her 《method》 to deal with the invasion from the Dark Territory was, even if only vaguely.

The young Sage with light brown curls jutting out from her gigantic, square cap never once called it "a way to save the Human Empire"; rather, she simply called it "a way to resolve the issue." The girl whose name was identical to the name of the system that had ruled over SAO was most likely considering the idea of formatting Underworld itself, wasn't she? Erasing all the Fluctlights, both the tens of thousands of people of the Human Empire and the likely same number of residents of the world of darkness…… indeed, such a method would prevent the shedding of even a single drop of blood, but that would, however, also mean that even the soul of Eugeo, the person blowing on his black tea beside me, would disappear.

Returning the cup in my right hand to the saucer, I glanced at the two swords hanging by the wall, before saying the following.

"Eugeo, what did you feel from Supreme Priest Administrator?"

At my abrupt question, my partner's green eyes blinked.

"Hmm, what did I feel….. an incredible impact that you'd naturally expect from the person in the highest position in the Human Empire….."

"Did you think of her as a bad guy? As an utter villain, tens of times more rotten than Raios or Humbert?"

When I asked this following question after lowering my voice to the bare minimum——

"…………While I did think she was scary…… I didn't really think that she was a bad person."

Eugeo answered thus, despite some hesitation. After closing his mouth for a moment as if chewing on his words, he immediately continued.

"Though Cardinal-san said that the Esteemed Supreme Priest possesses only a desire for control, I didn't feel like that were true. After all, she did tell us 『Do your best』. 'Course, I can't excuse the fact that she stole the memories of Alice and the other Integrity Knights…… but I feel that this, too, wasn't done because she was evil or anything."

Eugeo's words practically perfectly represented what I had felt myself. That's right——I felt something akin to an unshakeable will as great as Cardinal's from Administrator.

In which case.

"……Then, those two have something they must do before their battle."

"Something they must do……? What would that be?"

"Talking it out, of course. Both Cardinal and Administrator have a common goal of protecting the Human Empire. They've just chosen different methods to achieve it…… in that case, wouldn't it not be impossible to find common ground if they were to take time to talk things out to the end?"

Once I said that, Eugeo stared fixedly at my face, before a strangely-nuanced smile found its way on his face.

"……The heck's up with that expression of yours?"

"Oh nothing…… hearing you, Kirito, the guy who's solved basically all of his problems so far with his sword, saying things like that…… it just reminded me that people are capable of growth."

"Hey hey, you do know that I've chosen methods that didn't involve swords to solve problems on multiple occasions before."

"Such as?"

"…………"

Unable to give an immediate answer, I chose to distract my partner by giving his sides a good 'ol rub. Continuing my persistent attack on my partner as he tried to wriggle his way out of it, I used half of my brainpower to think.

Bringing Administrator and Cardinal to a discussion table. Much easier said than actually done. According to Cardinal's explanations, the two of them had been vigilantly eyeing for an opportunity to obliterate the other for hundreds of years by now, thus merely calling them out to the same place would only lead to the beginning of a battle of extermination, with high-class offensive arts flying left and right. My words alone would most likely not be enough to stop that. We needed some kind of extra factor in the mix.

Once I had finally released Eugeo, I drank up my black tea that had been getting cold and then poured in seconds from the pot. Holding back from using any more sugar, I sipped some of the tea.

At a time like this, what would Asuna do, I wonder.

Would she try to sway them with nothing but logic? While her old vice commander of the Knights of the Blood self would have probably taken this option, I feel that the current Asuna would opt for a different course of action. Something that would resonate more deeply with the other person's heart than pure words…… yes, such as……

After looking around the tea utensils——the tea pot, tea cups, spoons, and sugar jar lined up on the table, I suddenly stood up. Completely exhausted from my tickling attack, Eugeo looked up at me with a questioning look.

"……What's up, Kirito?"

"We're going to the Grand Dining Room!"

"You're already hungry despite eating that jumbo sandwich?"

"That's not what I……"

Just when I began denying that notion, I noticed that my hunger parameter had actually risen up by now. Since I had to kick my brain into full gear in an attempt to understand Cardinal's account, the system had probably sped up the digestion of that sandwich.

"……What about you?"

"Me too, actually……"

Giving a grin to Eugeo as he pressed down on the area of his ventriculus, I said the following.

"A'ight then, let's get some more food while we're at it."

"At what, exactly?"

"That's still a secret."

As Eugeo gave a displeased look, I offered him my hand and helped him up, before quickly cleaning up the tea utensils. Just as we went out to the hallway, the eight o'clock bell rang out. I had failed to ask how long the dining room stays open, so we'd best hurry up.

——Come to think of it, how is the etymology for the word 《sandwich》 explained in this world?

As such thoughts ran through my mind, I quickly descended the grand stairs.


7


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."

"I-I see."

'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…

"This way."

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.

"……Alice……"

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.

"Impossible."

"Wha?"

"Even the knight commander would probably be unable to use their Incarnation to move such a tender object without crushing it."

"S……"

'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."

"Oh, no……"

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."

"Wait, really!?"

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.

"Um!"

"……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?"


8


By the time we went all the way from the ninety-fifth floor to the twenty-eighth and reached our room, Eugeo and I had become so worn out that we could basically collapse to the floor at any moment.

Supporting each other, we somehow managed to get to the sofa and let our bodies sink into the soft cushions. Having returned to her black spider form, Charlotte should be lurking somewhere on my clothes again, but I didn't have the energy to care about that right now.

Our initial goal: getting Administrator and Cardinal to continue their dialogue, appeared to have been achieved somehow, though in return I had to pay the price of being forced to make a new cake every week from now on. Instructor Scheta shortening our practice as a result of that…… was definitely not going to happen, so starting tomorrow…… make that tonight, I'll have to pull out all the stops on my research and development in the kitchen. For the time being, I planned to make a cheesecake for next week, though I wonder what else goes into it aside from cheese. 'At this rate, I should have helped out Suguha and my mom with making confections', the thought popped in my mind, but it was too late to cry over spilt milk.

——Wait, for now, I should just be glad about what results the Cake Plan has achieved.

The moment I had that thought, as if my tension had finally dissipated, my stomach grumbled. Eugeo beside me chuckled.

"It's a shame that we never got to eat the cake we spent so much time making, huh."

"You're the one who just up and gave our portions away…… And here I was planning to eat mine."

After making my complaints, I immediately followed up.

"Though, well, if it weren't for your display of quick-wittedness back then, I don't think we would have been able to persuade the Esteemed Supreme Priest. Thanks for that."

Raising my right hand, I ruffled his flaxen hair, before forcing myself to stand.

"Our hard-working Eugeo-kun deserves a reward."

"Eeeh……?"

"Listen, just keep sitting there and wait."

I went over to the kitchen and opened up a compartment on the wall. Taking out the small box that I had slipped in among the tea leaves and sugar jar, I returned to the sofa.

The box I then gently placed on the low table was a miniature version of the wooden box I had carried over to the ninety-fifth floor. The box, made out of the exact same materials and with the exact same structure, caught Eugeo's undivided attention.

"Kirito…… what is this?"

"Try opening it."

"O-okay……"

Bending forward, Eugeo grasped the wooden box by its sides with his hands, and slowly lifted it up. White, cold air flowed out from the gaps. This box was made from palm trees native solely to the volcanic region of the southern empire, and since it had highest-grade insulation capabilities, the ice I had put inside of it hadn't melted throughout the half a day we'd been away.

Having stopped for a moment, Eugeo once again put his hands to work. What appeared from beneath the lid he removed was a small shortcake twelve centimetres or so in diameter. Handpicked, large strawberries lined its outer circumference, while a 【Happy Birthday EUGEO!】 sign was written in its center with strawberry jam.

The English words circulating in this world were basically only used for Sacred Arts rituals, thus Eugeo couldn't read it. My partner looked at me with a questioning look.

"Kirito…… what does this say?"

"Happy Birthday, Eugeo. It means #happy birthday#(otanjoubi omedetou)."

"Huh…………"

Staring in round-eyed wonder, Eugeo looked down at the cake once more, then again at me.

"Oh…… I-I get it, today's the Tenth Day of the Fourth Month……"

"Oh come on, did you really forget your own birthday?"

"We did have a really rough day today, after all…… Though, you remembered it for me, huh, Kirito……"

"Well, 'course. I did give ya a honey pie from the Leaping Deer Pavillion on last year's Tenth Day of the Fourth Month, too, didn't I?"

"Wha? That was a birthday present?"

The wry smile that found its way on my partner's face, suddenly, crumpled.

Large tears welled up in his green eyes. Suddenly turning his face away, as if trying to keep me from seeing them, he whispered in a trembling voice.

"……Thanks, Kirito, you made me so happy……I haven't been this happy with a present since that time you made me a wooden sword from silveroak when we were kids……"

"I've had quite some trouble with that sword too, but it was easier since Alice made the scabbard for it. If we had Alice's assistance with this cake too, it would have been far easi……"

Just as I began that thought, my mouth closed up.

Once Eugeo raised his face, we stared at each other in silence for a few moments. Several seconds later, we both raised our voices at the same moment.

""WHAA""

(The End)


Volume 10-11


Notes

1. ^ A shiba dog (柴犬), or a Japanese Brushwood Dog, is a dog breed native to Japan. Adult male dogs of the breed are usually about 35 to 43 cm long.
2. ^ This shout is in Kansai dialect. Kirito's probably recalling Kibaou from SAO.
3. ^ Kirito began speaking with his default pronoun: "ore" (俺), a very masculine and assertive first person pronoun that doesn't mesh well with polite speech, but then he corrected himself to "jibun" (自分), a pronoun used when speaking to one's superior, as it sounds more respectful.
4. ^ Kawahara seemingly made a typo here. He wrote 億 (hundred million) instead of 奥 (inside, within), both of which are pronounced as "oku".
5. ^ Milise is the Underworld equivalent of a millimetre. "Not a single millimetre of" is a common colloquial Japanese phrase for "never" or "not the slightest bit". Also, for those wondering, "milady" was "-dono" in the original text, but I decided to localise it for a more polite tone.
6. ^ A jou (畳) is a traditional Japanese unit used for measuring the size of a room. It is equal to 1.653 square metres (the size of a Nagoya tatami mat).
7. ^ The original text used the phrase "予想外のボール" (an unexpected ball). This was a vague reference to baseball, but not any official pitch name.
8. ^ Another baseball reference. The original phase was 滑り込みセーフ (suberikomi safe), which refers to sliding into (suberikomu) base with the baseball just in time to still be considered 'safe'.
9. ^ Latin for "stomach". Unfortunately, the word "stomach" in English can either mean "abdomen" or specifically refer to the digestive organ that comes before the intestines. The previous instances of "stomach" used the word お腹 (o-naka), which corresponds to the English word "stomach" in the sense that it refers to the abdomen in general, but with the implication of talking about the place where food is stored. However, in this case, Kirito used the word 胃 (i), which refers specifically to the organ… and English doesn't have a word like that, so I resorted to Latin for a more scientific word.
10. ^ Reference to Distant Journey.
11. ^ Kawahara apparently uses unconventional spelling variants for certain words. In this case, he wrote the word ついてこい (follow me) as 着いてこい (arrive + come), when the standard spelling is 付いてこい (along + come). There's a reason why that word is usually written in hiragana-only, rather than with kanji, as even Japanese people have problems with deciding how it should be written. This isn't the only word that he spells unusually, but I didn't bother making separate notes for each word.
12. ^ Not sure if it's intended or not, but both "turn" and "toad" are pronounced as "kaeru" in Japanese, so this might be a pun. Also, it would be more accurate to translate "kaeru" as just frog, but toads sounded more on topic.
13. ^ Kirito was about to say "anpan", a Japanese word for bread rolls filled with red bean paste, but likely realised that he wouldn't be understood if he didn't explain his terminology.
14. ^ A birthday seat (お誕生日席, otanjoubi-seki) is a colloquial expression for a seat at the head of the table. Unsurprisingly, it's known as such because that's where the birthday boy/girl of the party gets to sit. I left this expression in because Kirito uses another word for "seat of honour" in the very same sentence...

14 comments:

  1. So, if Raios and the other dude didn't exist, Eugeo wouldn't have died?

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    Replies
    1. Pretty much. Same applies to a majority of other characters.

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  2. I love this so much! Thanks for translating it.

    Do you know when the next part will be out?

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    Replies
    1. The story has already reached a sort of conclusion. Unless Kawahara gets pressured into continuing it, it's unlikely that there will be any continuation.

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  3. Wish Kawahara do a continuation, but until then, thank you very much for translating this!

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  4. Well... The Administrator wasnt entirely evil and the same goes for Chudelkin. They were a bit detestable and all but they had good points. Chudelkin was loyal and fought to the death. Administrator simply loved the human world and did her best to protect it... So, yeah. These really made us hate those two idiots more. If they didnt exist, a lot of people would still be alive. It would be a boring development but I prefer this path. Will there be more?

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    Replies
    1. Technically, Kawahara has stated that he would like to write a continuation one day (https://twitter.com/kunori/status/1166615467735363590), but considering how busy he is all the time... I'm not sure if he'll actually find the time for it. The story has reached a reasonable conclusion to be considered completed, so there's no pressing need to continue it.

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  5. Gsimenas, I'm incredibly grateful for your hard work translating this for us. Many thanks.

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  6. Thanks for the hard work! This story has a bit of a hole, wouldn't you say? Kirito didn't get damaged from the power surge in the real world. No matter what happened in Underworld, Gabriel was still coming and they cut the power resulting in Kirito's fluctlight damage. Kirito wouldn't be self loathing and so he wouldn't have lost his sense of self, but there had to have been some sort of effect.

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  7. Dude, what the hell. I totally prefer this over the other path. I mean, the only one who actually had to suffer were only those two jerks?? Can't even compare, man. And even then their fate is actually better bcs they won't have to die??

    Damn. Thank you so much for your hard work translating it, I enjoyed reading it so much!

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  8. So Quinella wasn't evil after all, huh... I most definitely prefer this route!

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  9. Eugeo has green eyes?
    Though he had blue ones and Kawahara-san stated, if it's green it's due to light reflection.

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    Replies
    1. You got it backwards. Eugeo always has GREEN eyes and instances with blue eyes are just because of "light reflection" (read: abec getting colours wrong).

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  10. It took me awhile to read it. I thought I would feel bad about what actually happened in the story if I read this. But somehow it actually makes me feel better. Beautiful characters. thank you for the translation!

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