Chapter 1, Part 1
It was a landscape that could be described as “hellish.”
Not a single blade of grass could be seen around the area. The ground was only made up of rocks and sand, and was rough and uneven. Taking a step backwards didn’t change anything—the ground just stretched on as far as the eye could see. Wherever you looked, the scenery was partly obscured by white smoke rising upwards from various places, and there was a thick, strange odor wafting through the air. In other words, both eyes and ears were thrown into disarray here.
It was a stagnant, pale place—a place that felt far removed from life itself.
Also, contrasting with the cold, empty scenery…the strange smell and overwhelming heat permeating the air threatened anyone who dared tread on its ground. This place carried its own poison.
And yet—in the middle of all that.
Tohru Acura was relaxed.
His muscles were loosened, and he was letting his whole body go slack.
A peculiar sight indeed.
Tohru was a young man—however, he was in that stage of youth where he could also pass for a boy, depending on how you looked at it. His black hair and black eyes weren’t particularly uncommon and his looks were only a little above average, so he didn’t really have any features that stood out…but he bore a curious air of mature languidity that belied his youth.
Adulthood is not determined by the passage of time, but by the amount of experiences accumulated.
The same applied to worldliness. Owing to the somewhat special (at least by society’s standards) circumstances in which Tohru was raised, it was only natural that he would appear older than he actually was.
“Whew, this feels great…”
Resting his back up against a large rock, Tohru looked upwards.
Standing, sitting, and even sleeping were all forms of training.
He’d had that mindset ever since he he’d been able to comprehend the world around him To put it unreservedly, even if only partly unconsciously, he was training his body around the clock at all hours of the day. Every time his arms went up or down, every time his legs took a step, every time he breathed or his heart beat, every body movement, whether he was aware of it or not, that was the “training” was carved into the depths of his consciousness.
A fish doesn’t practice swimming. A bird doesn’t practice flying.
It was the same as that.
As a result, he was still able to maintain a degree of skill even though he’d been lazing around for quite a while.
However…even though his body was unconsciously tempered to such a degree, he needed to consciously make sure he took care of it this time. Since he had let himself go, he built up plenty of fatigue after training day in and out.
Because of that, it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility for him to collapse from all the stress his body had accumulated.
Certain animals and experts at a certain skill level were able to rest half their body while training the other half; in other words, “rest while training,” yet for twenty-year-old Tohru, such a seasoned skill was beyond him.
He sat there, submerged up to his shoulders in hot water as he let out a long sigh.
He could feel the knots of stress and fatigue that had accumulated all throughout his body, as well as the tension clinging to his muscles, veins, and nerves—all gradually melting away and dispersing. As he gently closed his eyes, he it was like he could feel his blood circulating throughout the entirety of his warm body.
He was currently in a hot spring.
You couldn’t hardly see anything from the billowing white smoke—but several rocky mountains were lined up next to him, making for quite the unique scene. They were volcanoes that had at one point blown their top, and the rocks covering the surface were molten black from the eruption.
The rising white smoke and strange smell was due to the burning sulfur and water underground.
The ground around Tohru was originally nothing but a mass of pebbles and sediment—but since there was a river nearby he figured it wouldn’t hurt to dig around. When they did, hot water came gushing out. Figuring this was a stroke of luck, they’d decided to rest here in this impromptu hot spring.
“The last one must’ve been what, five years ago?” Tohru mused as he looked up at the sky through the white smoke.
Actually, the Acura village they had lived in had similar terrain, so of course they had had a hot spring as well. He had often rested there after his various training sessions.
But the Acura village was now destroyed, and it had been a long while since he’d been able to enjoy a hot spring bath. Tohru’s group had been living day-to-day unable to even eat a square meal, so they simply hadn’t had the luxury. They mostly did their daily bathing in rivers and lakes instead.
And so, it’d been about five years since he’d been able to take a good dip in a hot spring.
Of course, he was submerged in hot water, so he didn’t have any clothes on.
But that wasn’t to say he was defenseless. He may have been in a state of rest, but his body was ready to snap back into action at any time.
Narrowing his eyes, Tohru raised one hand out of the hot water.
They had fitted the hot spring with suitably large rocks and stones, lining them up on the edge so that the part they dug out wouldn’t collapse. Tohru had laid his clothes, folded, on a particularly enormous rock among them.
He felt around the rock with his fingers until he came upon what he was looking for.
A throwing dagger.
They were designed to be projectile weapons…but the handle also allowed you to use it as a melee weapon. The blade was poor compared to a sword proper, but in a pinch you could block a slash, or even execute one yourself. Tohru hadn’t brought his favored dual shortswords with him here. They were a bit unwieldy, and he didn’t want the blades to chip due to the humidity.
Raising himself from the rock he’d been leaning on and turning around to face beyond the thick smoke, he muttered, “Akari?” then “Nah, it can’t be.”
Since just a bit ago, he had felt a presence coming towards him.
Right now his sister-by-obligation should be busy processing the sulfur she’d gathered.
She was a student of the mortar and pestle, so to speak—she was able to mix various drugs. She could create incendiary powder, poison and even restoratives here, since sulfur was a key ingredient in all three. In Tohru and Akari’s trade, they would all prove useful. It was better to have it and not need it than the alternative, at least.
As if on cue, the figure of a lone girl appeared, leisurely making her way through the steam.
She had a delicate build.
She seemed fragile enough to break with a strong embrace. Thin arms and legs, and almost no meat on her bones. She wasn’t emaciated or in bad health, but the slight swells on her chest suggested that she still had room to develop. It would likely be several more years before she exuded any sort of sex appeal.
Her eyes were somewhat slanted like those of a cat’s, yet without the severity—more like a playful kitten’s in fact.
Her facial features were so perfectly arranged that the girl was almost like a work of art, to the point where adding or removing anything could possibly compromise the aesthetic balance of her appearance. As a matter of fact, it was incredibly difficult to imagine her any younger or older than she was now. She possessed a beauty that already felt complete, as if she had always looked the way she did and would continue to look that way for the rest of her life.
Her silver hair and eyes like violet crystals only served to deepen the impression. She normally wore a black-and-white outfit that was reminiscent of funeral garb, but now her unclothed, exceedingly pure maiden’s body was brilliantly reflected in Tohru’s eyes.
Normally referred to as “Chaika Trabant,” she was Tohru’s client—more specifically she was the master employing Tohru as a saboteur. However, Chaika was much younger than Tohru and wasn’t one to mind details, so their relationship had become much more candid than the typical master/servant arrangement.
However frank their relationship was, though, it wasn’t to the point where they could casually show off their naked bodies to each other at the drop of a hat.
“W…What do you think you’re doing, you idiot!?” Tohru unconsciously raised his voice.
He spun around in the water, showing his back to the girl approaching him.
He had seen her in her underwear before, and it was true she hadn’t seemed to care then, but this was the first time he had viewed her entire nakedness.
He heard the sound of water—no, it must have been the sound of water splashing up—behind him.
She had probably entered the water, same as Tohru.
This was one of those times where his heightened senses were a nuisance. He could feel the girl’s presence as she got closer and closer, until finally she was right next to him: a close enough distance to where they could reach out and touch each other. If he turned around without thinking now, he wouldn’t be able to avoid the sight before him.
“What’s the big idea!?”
“…What?” she said in a strange voice.
There was no obscenity in her voice—she spoke like a child just learning her words for the first time.
“Uh, no, I mean…”
But there, Tohru fell silent.
Chaika had been the princess of the large northern country that used to be the Gaz Empire.
Therefore, her sense of values as a purebred noble were different from those of a mere commoner. Those with power who constantly lived with the threat of assassination had guards beside them at all times during baths, while running errands, and even during intercourse with a partner or lover. Tohru knew this because he had heard it from fellow saboteurs who had been entrusted with that guard duty.
There wasn’t a human alive who’d be embarrassed to show their naked body to a dog.
If Chaika didn’t have any romantic feelings for Tohru in the first place, it was possible that she just didn’t get embarrassed.
But even so, that doesn’t mean it’s ok for me to look!
Tohru was a young man, after all, and principles and position aside, there was no way he wouldn’t react to a similarly young girl’s naked body.
“Tohru…”But as if completely unconcerned with Tohru’s internal struggle, she actually threw more fuel on the fire instead, touching his back with her finger.
No, actually there was more—
He felt a breath on his neck.
Normally Chaika only came up to Tohru’s shoulders, but Tohru was now on his knees while in the water, making Chaika the taller one. If he carelessly turned around now, he would unavoidably get quite the view of her neck and chest area.
The quiet voice was ridiculously close.
He could tell from her voice that she had bent down.
Almost as if she was about to kiss Tohru’s neck—
Tohru let a groan escape his lips.
And in the next instant—
It was the sound of a throwing dagger that Tohru had thrust behind him.
Chaika had—quite literally—stopped the throwing dagger by the skin of her teeth.
There was a strange silence between them.
Neither Tohru or Chaika budged an inch.
Finally, Chaika, still holding the tip of Tohru’s weapon in her teeth, scowled.
“The heck was that?”
“That’s really what I should be asking you,” Tohru said as he glared at her. “What’s your game—Frederica?”
“It was a surprise attack, duh,” Chaika—or rather, the thing assuming the form of Chaika—replied immediately.
She was able to speak clearly even while biting down on the throwing dagger. Even the way she produced sound must have been different from humans.
“What the hell is that form you’re assuming?”
“Whaddaya mean ‘what?’ A naked body, isn’t it obvious?”
“I mean, why is it naked?”
“‘Cause we’re bathing? I mean, you’re naked too, aren’t you Tohru?”
She had a tone seemed to imply, is your head on straight, boy?
“Well, yeah, that’s true, but…!” Tohru said desperately. “What I want to know is why you encroached upon my bathtime assuming a naked body!”
“And I already told you, it was a surprise attack!” she said, and then at last the being called Frederica let go of the tip of the blade of the throwing dagger and stepped back, putting some distance between them.
When she spoke, sometimes her gleaming sharp teeth—or rather, small fangs—could be visible. It was very likely that if he hadn’t used the dagger to stop her, those fangs would have bitten right through his neck.
“It was ‘cause I figured that you wouldn’t have any weapons on you while you were bathing. Tohru, doesn’t taking weapons into the bath sorta betray common sense?”
“Being lectured about common sense by you of all people, now that’s what really doesn’t make sense!!” Tohru yelled.
Getting lectured on human common sense by anyone else might have been humiliating. But this girl had no room to talk.
Because in the first place, Frederica wasn’t even human.
She was a type of Feyra called a “dragoon.” By utilizing their transformation magic which allowed them to change the shape of their body at will, during battles they could turn their skin into armor or make themselves larger to truly throw down the gauntlet. That was the limit of knowledge of a dragoon’s abilities for many, but in truth dragoons could also make themselves smaller if they felt like it.
They could even, for instance, take on the form of a little human girl.
“What a bummer. I thought I was gonna get to chew right through your windpipe, too,” Frederica said with no tension whatsoever. Her attitude was as flippant as one whose prank had been ruined.
Due to previous events, this dragoon was tagging along with Tohru in an attempt to take his life.
She hadn’t hesitated in declaring that she wanted to kill him; however, this was not out of hate or some end goal. She simply “didn’t have anything else better to do,” apparently.
And so, there were times where she was by their side, and times where she disappeared in an instant—her actions were as whimsical as a cat’s. Since she wasn’t a human, it was probably wrong to view her actions through a human lens in the first place—but anyway, Tohru was finding the Feyra-girl to be quite a handful.
“But, Tohru?” Frederica asked him, still assuming Chaika’s face and body. “When did you notice?”
“…From the beginning,” Tohru said. “I only confirmed it at the last second, though.”
“Aww, and here I thought I’d gotten Chaika’s face and body down perfectly.”
“…True, you were a dead ringer.”
Put side by side, they’d be practically indistinguishable.
But there was one tiny detail that was clearly different—he almost hadn’t noticed it because his back had been turned. And she hadn’t spoken much then, so it wasn’t her voice.
“Then what was it? My presence?”
Tohru scratched his cheek.
“Huh? My chest?”
“Chaika’s chest is much smaller.”
”Huh, really? I thought I compared ‘em pretty well.”
“Her chest is padded. When she’s wearing clothes like normal you can’t tell.”
“So that means you’ve seen Chaika naked before, huh? Shoulda known.”
“I’ve only seen her in her underwear, okay!? And what the hell do you mean, ‘shoulda known?’”
He knew seriously arguing with a creature like her was pointless, but he replied anyway… perhaps that meant that despite himself, he was already acknowledging her as a human girl.
“Akari told me that when it comes to laying hands on little girls, you’re the most skilled on the entire continent of Verbist.”
“Don’t just swallow misinformation like that blindly!”
Tohru’s grief came through in his scream, but Frederica just glossed over it.
“So if I’d made my chest just a bit smaller, I woulda fooled Tohru…” she mumbled, sizing up her chest with her palms. Then, the two slight swells on her chest began to recede further before Tohru’s eyes—
“Wait, not good!” Tohru shouted, and quickly turned around again.
He was face-to-face with Chaika.
Those blinking violet eyes stared back at Tohru.
For a second,Tohru was confused.
He should have turned away from Frederica as Chaika, so why was he now staring at Chaika like this? The perfectly-arranged facial features and immaculate long silver hair were none other than hers. Yet, the shallow chest beneath her collarbone was definitely much closer to the real—
Turning back around unconsciously to avert his eyes, he of course saw Frederica still in the form of Chaika. With no safe place to rest his eyes on, he decided to look up at the sky instead.
“What’s the matter, Tohru? Got a nosebleed?”
Despite being in the bathing area, this new Chaika had brought her black coffin that was about as tall as herself with her. Apparently if it wasn’t where she could see it at all times, she flew into a panic. That made it clear that she was the real Chaika.
Chaika looked quite surprised.
She was probably shocked at there being someone else with the same face as her.
Not to mention the fact that that someone was within hugging distance of Tohru…yes, this situation invited all sorts of misunderstandings.
“Uh, look Chaika, this is…”
Tohru tried to fabricate some sort of excuse, but he couldn’t get out any good words.
Chaika, on the other hand, took a staggering step backwards and, with a trembling finger, pointed towards the other Chaika tilting her head next to Tohru.
“That’s what you’re surprised about!?”
Tohru reflexively turned to look at Chaika as he gave a retort, but quickly looked away again immediately after.
Why don’t these girls have a single shred of decency? Tohru thought. Maybe it was better to say they seemed overly unconcerned given the circumstances. Perhaps he was the dumb one for being so hung up over it? Well, he did understand that a princess and a Feyra in disguise sort of breached the realms of common sense anyway, so the normal concept of “embarrassment” didn’t really apply here.
“Chest enlargement. Secrets, must teach.”
Chaika entered the water with a splash and approached Frederica.
“With magic, this is a piece of cake, y’see.”
“That’s way too tall an order for her!”
Those that could be affected by dragoon magic were limited only to the dragoon and those it recognized as “part” of themselves. Not to mention transformation magic could only be used by dragoons anyway. There was no equivalent among the magic humans could use—that was what he’d heard from Chaika earlier.
“You can only use Frederica’s magic if you form a pact with her.”
By biting into someone, Frederica could heal them by forming a “temporary” pact, but a temporary pact wasn’t strong enough to maintain a transformation.
“Really now? All right, that’ll be one arm, please.”
“Don’t say that as casually as if you were ordering an item off a menu!” he said, but Tohru did recall that a dragoon cavalier pact was indeed formed by exchanging an arm, leg, or other equivalent part of the body.
“Joking, joking,” said Frederica. “I see, so Tohru’s one of those you can’t joke with…”
“Your jokes are completely incomprehensible!” Tohru yelled, feeling almost like he wanted to cry inside.