「Nell, how are you feeling?」
Nero is not simple-minded enough to believe this reply.
The room is clean and neatly arranged; it is an exemplar of what the room of a dedicated student should look like. Nell’s body is laid out across the simple, Spadan-made bed.
This is the female cadets’ dormitory of the Royal Spada Academy. In other words, this is where Nell resides while she is studying in Spada.
Males are normally prohibited from entering these dormitories, but there is an exception for those paying visits to the ill, so that is why Nero is here. Of course, there are restrictions on who can visit and for how long.
Indeed, Nero is visiting his sister who suddenly collapsed shortly before their return from Iskia Fortress.
「Don’t push yourself and take your time to rest.」
「Look, I bought you the『Sweet Smile』pudding that you like. I’ll leave it in the cooler, so eat it whenever you want.」
「... Thank you.」
Are his words really reaching his sister? Nero is doubtful and anxious.
What kind of despair could have turned Nell’s normally beautiful, clear-sky-blue eyes into this dark, stagnant, hollow color?
To make matters worse, it seems that she is suffering from sleep deprivation because she is having nightmares. There are distinct shadows below her eyes; she shows clear signs that she is mentally suffering.
Her face is pale, as if all of the blood has been drained from it, and her graceful black hair somehow seems to have lost its shine.
Even so, Nell’s beautiful face remains unchanged. However, this beauty is the kind that bestows anxiety to those who look upon it, as if it were a brittle, fleeting beauty that would shatter if touched. It is not her true beauty, the one that is pure, clean and sweet.
Nero averts his gaze, as if he can no longer stand looking at this pitiful sight. He sees a textbook on magic lying open on her desk; it is unusual for Nell to have left it like that. With one glance at the magic circle drawn on the page, he can tell that it is a page that describes the『Force Boost』spell.
Nell had probably been studying hard on her own even in the absence of her party members. Seeing a flaw in her usual hard-working appearance, Nero’s mood became even worse.
Why is his younger sister, who is normally brave and always does her best, in this state?
No, he already has an idea of who the culprit is.
「... Nell, what happened with that man, Kurono?」
「I-it has nothing to do with Kurono-kun!」
Nell, who was behaving like a seriously ill person up until now, suddenly raises her voice. Her response is very abnormal, as if her entire personality changed, but Nero was expecting a response like this.
However, he is unable to conceal the disturbance in his heart caused by witnessing this for the second time.
But even though Nero frowns and wears a facial expression that could clearly be described as displeasure or even heartbroken, Nell is not in a state to take notice of it right now.
「It is not Kurono-kun’s fault... I’m, I’m...」
The sight of Nell repeatedly whispering words that make no sense could be considered unusual. But this is actually an improvement.
Nell collapsed when the three other Wing Road members had returned to Iskia Fortress and they were preparing to return to Spada. To be more accurate, she had already collapsed by that time.
Nero suddenly realized that he hadn’t seen his younger sister so he went to look for her and discovered her lying on top of the broken fortress walls.
He could see that she had been vomiting, but fortunately he was able to tell that she had simply lost consciousness. The Knights’ Order of Spada had already reached the fortress, and she was able to be examined immediately by a Priest.
It seemed likely that Nell’s symptoms were caused by running out of mana from casting『Radiance Exile』, the battle that came after that as well as pushing herself to continue using healing magic on the students during the aftermath. In fact, the Priest from the Knights’ Order gave that diagnosis.
However, when Nell first opened her eyes, it became clear that Nell had collapsed not from running out of mana, but because of some emotional shock.
The first thing she did when she woke up was cry. She showed no restraint despite the eyes of the people around her, crying as loudly as if she had reverted to being the crybaby that she used to be as a child.
Even when her brother Nero and best friend Charlotte asked her for the reason, Nell kept her mouth shut stubbornly. Once they thought that her crying had stopped and she had finally calmed down, she became incredibly depressed and didn’t speak a word. And then she would burst into tears again at irregular intervals.
Exposing Nell to the public in this state would not be good for her, not as a princess or as a young woman. Having her participate in the return parade was out of the question. The official reason for Nell having her own special carriage during the journey from Iskia to Spada was,「She is weak from using too much mana so she is receiving special transport for her safety」, but the real reason was her emotional instability.
And now, Nell is resting in her own room in the women’s dormitories. Around the time Nell returned to her room, she had finally stopped crying and she seemed to have calmed down for the most part.
Until Nero spoke Kurono’s name.
「Kuh, u, uu... Kurono-kun...」
「Sorry, Nell. It’s fine, everything’s alright now, so just stay quiet and sleep.」
Seeing the large teardrops of his younger sister spilling over her heartbroken face, there is no need for Nero to pursue the topic any further.
Nero somehow manages to calm Nell down. As he watches her close her eyes quietly once more, he feels certain of one thing.
「... It’s your fault, is it? Kurono.」
That man is the main cause of his younger sister’s insanity.
Murderous intent rises endlessly from the depths of his heart. He normally shows no interest in anyone, good or bad. Has he ever felt this much hatred for someone before?
No, that is impossible. Only wild monsters would dare try to lay a hand on anything that Nero considers precious.
But as difficult as it is to believe, right now, there is a person who is guilty of doing something that has driven his younger sister, the First Princess of Avalon, mad.
Kurono. Just when did this man get close to, no, lay a hand on Nero’s adorable younger sister, the most precious person in the world?
This is the first time that Nell has added「-kun」to a man’s name. Even when talking to Kai, her party member, she uses「-san.」This fact alone is enough to indicate that she has opened her heart to Kurono in a way that no other man can compare to.
No other man, not even her older brother, Nero himself.
「No! Let go, let go of me! Kurono-kun is –」
When she came out onto the battlefield, even with the Greed-Gore before her, Nell could see nothing but Kurono. She took no notice of her brother Nero, shouting,「Let go!」as if he was nothing but a hindrance. She is likely still unaware that Nero was the one who stopped her, blocked the Greed-Gore’s breath and escaped while carrying her.
She was just like an amateur adventurer in her first battle with panic-induced tunnel-vision. Just what kind of joke would it be for a Rank 5 adventurer to be doing such an unsightly thing?
No, Nero would never speak ill of his sister. Even though her healing magic is her only redeeming feature, even though her sense of direction is useless and her cooking tastes horrible.
Therefore, he directs all of his hatred towards Kurono. He wishes for nothing more than to cut that man down right now with his trusty sword –
Nero requires more than a little time and determination to suppress these violent emotions.
Even if he ignores Nell’s problems, there are several things about that man that he is curious about.
The first thing that surprised him was the strength Kurono used to eventually defeat the Greed-Gore.
Kurono used the wound in the Greed-Gore’s neck created by Nero’s『Lone Flash』to deal the fatal blow, but Nero isn’t arrogant enough to say that he did all the work just from that fact. No matter how much he hates Kurono, as an adventurer – no, as a man – he has no choice but to acknowledge the prowess that Kurono possesses in battle.
Yes, that man possesses power enough to rival Nero’s own. If they were to have a one-on-one duel, it would be difficult for Nero to emerge victorious unharmed. He would have to be prepared to lose at least one arm.
The appearance of such a powerful adventurer is something that the people of Spada should be happy about.
But Nero has a bad feeling about this.
He did a little investigation on Kurono and his party,『Element Masters』, shortly after the incident in the dining hall. With the incredible speed at which they were climbing the Ranks, Nero had thought that it would not be strange if this was the party responsible for cutting off the Wrath-Pun’s right arm. But in reality, this party exceeded those expectations.
That is why he feels uneasy. Why has a man hiding that much power suddenly appeared in Spada?
If he wanted fame as an adventurer, it wouldn’t have been strange for him to have started working earlier. Even if he didn’t want to for some reason, there were surely quests that would have let him gain attention much more quickly.
There were plenty of options. Despite that, Kurono and his party enrolled in the academy’s adventurer course and lived a carefree student life.
Does he simply want to live a quiet, peaceful life without using his power or gaining attention? It wasn’t as if Nero couldn’t understand why he would want that. As he feels considerable dissatisfaction with the negative attention that he gets as a royal family member, such a lifestyle seems ideal to him.
However, he is sure that the man named Kurono who emits that ominous presence is not such a peaceful person.
The worst possible scenario runs through Nero’s mind.
「Setting up a foundation... is he?」
Kurono hasn’t come to the academy for fun. What if he came here to get closer to the Second Prince of Spada, Wilhart?
Even if he is the Delusional Prince that is not highly thought of by the people, a prince is still a prince. He is unmistakably the son of the sword-king Leonhart.
If Kurono’s aim is to have someone as influential as a royal family member in the palm of his hand, just what kind of ambition is he hiding?
That would make for a story of rebellion, like the legend of the Demon King and stories of heroes. However, Kurono’s actions have produced results that cannot be laughed off as absurd fiction or wild delusions.
Wilhart already possesses absolute trust in Kurono, calling him things like “sworn friend of my soul” and “Nightmare Berserker”.
And now, the First Princess of Avalon, Nell Julius Elroad – as the flames of hatred rise from the pit of his stomach a second time, Nero realizes something.
No, Nell isn’t the only one. The same applies to himself.
「Fiona is... I see... how it is...」
The beautiful woman he met in the great library, Fiona Soleil. Nero was indeed drawn to her beautiful face – no, her feigned distant behavior despite the fact that he was in front of her. Enough for him to want to stand up Safiel and accompany her instead. But what if that encounter was all a trap?
The first time he came into contact with her was that day that he saved her when two cadets were hitting on her in the plaza. If that was some kind of trap set up for him... It isn’t an implausible theory.
Because Fiona is – Kurono’s woman.
The scene that he saw before he found Nell collapsed on top of the fortress walls, where Kurono and Fiona were embracing each other in an emotional reunion, has already been burned into his red eyes.
He had pushed that scene into the corner of his memory up until now because he has been thinking of nothing but Nell, but looking back on it again, it is quite shocking.
Perhaps because he was born in the royal family, he had considerable confidence in his ability to see people’s true natures. He thought that Fiona was the type of person with no interest in members of the opposite sex – to the point that he suspected that she might be homosexual.
As he warns himself not to rely too much on his insight again, he feels admiration for Fiona’s acting ability. If he hadn’t clearly seen the relationship between her and Kurono himself, he would likely... have at least become friends with her. That is how much of a good impression he had of her.
Kurono has been enticing Spada’s Second Prince, Avalon’s First Prince and the First Princess. No, that isn’t all; if Nero had become close with Fiona, Kurono would have been able to interact with the other Wing Road members as well.
Lily, the third member of the Element Masters, is already mysteriously gaining popularity at the academy as the「Happy Fairy-san.」Even the cadets have been talking about her. In other words, the young noblemen who represent the future generation are willingly approaching her.
And that only further allows Kurono to extend his evil influence towards the academy students.
The school that children of noblemen and royalty attend is a place for them to create connections with others for the future. In that regard, Kurono is building incredible relationships with people in a way that regular noblemen could only dream of.
And on top of that, with this incident, finally – he will be awarded a decoration.
Kurono will likely receive not only the Adventurer Services Decoration, but also the Crown Medal. Lily and Fiona, who saved Iskia Village, will both receive the Adventurer Services Decoration as well and all of them will suddenly rise up onto Spada’s main stage.
This isn’t a situation where anyone would worry about trivial matters like the fact that they have broken Wing Road’s record for being the party to Rank-up the fastest or the fact that they have performed great deeds at Iskia.
On top of building strong connections within Spada, they would rise as the heroes who saved Iskia from a Rank 5 monster.
Everything is going too well, as if destiny is guiding the – no, this is what Kurono was aiming for. Everything has gone according to that man’s plan.
「Kurono... Just what are you planning...?」
The muscles of Nero’s back shudder. He wants to deny that all of this is possible, but with these circumstances, he cannot let his guard down.
He must pay utmost attention to that man’s movement.
If Kurono’s hidden ambitions are as evil as the appearance of his face – the one who will stop it, no, the only one who can stop it, is Nero.
「Nnh... Kurono... kun...」
Hearing the sweet sound of his sister’s voice as she talks in her sleep, Nero’s attention comes back to reality.
Nero clicks his tongue as he realizes that Kurono is playing with her heart, even in her dreams.
「... I guess it’s about time.」
He becomes aware of the setting sun shining through the large window, filling the room with orange light. It seems that Nell is sleeping peacefully, letting out small, quiet breaths.
「See you, Nell. I’ll visit you again after I go and talk to that guy tomorrow.」
What happened between Kurono and Nell? What transpired for that man to be in such a relationship with Nero’s sister that he would bring her to Iskia Fortress? The very first thing that Nero needs to do is interrogate Kurono and find out the truth and his real intentions.
Even if Nero has to kill Kurono with his own hands, he has to at least ask Kurono these things.
Perhaps the words that come out of that man’s mouth will be not convenient excuses, but the confession of a terrible truth. Preparing himself with the determination to hear this, Nero puts Nell’s room behind him.