Chapter 108: Because of You
After the opening ceremony ended, the last evening party finally began.
「Oh~, so this is the Black Knight?」
「Are you enjoying yourself, Lord Haruto?」
「I would love to introduce my daughter to Lord Haruto.」
As soon as Rio descended from the stage, he was greeted by an onslaught of people.
They all wanted to build a good relationship with the newly-appointed honorary knight who was hailed as a hero.
He didn’t know what they really thought about him, but everyone greeted him amicably.
Some went as far as making marriage offers.
The nobles who were trying to get intimate with him by calling him such things as “Lord Haruto” or “Black Knight” slowly shaved away at Rio’s spirit. Being called Black Knight was especially grating.
By having the “honorary” title attached to his name, Rio instantly became recognized as a noble even though he didn’t serve a country.
As a result, nobles left and right made their move on him without any regard to their own.
At this rate I won’t even get a chance to breathe.
Behind the insincere smile, Rio was growing more frustrated that he had no room to move freely.
He let his eyes wander between greetings, searching for someone in the crowd.
Rio remembered that morning when he requested permission for Miharu and the kids to enter the castle, Francois wanted them to attend.
However, it was only after the party started that they would participate.
Rio felt like it was a good idea to talk when they got some time.
Fortunately, thanks to Satsuki and Takahisa, they weren’t too nervous.
Actually I’d really like to go join them, but…
He turned his attention back to the woman at his side, as well as the many nobles blocking off any escape route.
The woman beside him tonight was not Liselotte.
By order of King Francois Galwark, he assigned his beloved daughter Charlotte Galwark to be his partner.
Charlotte was one of the royalties Rio protected the night before.
As one would expect, ignoring the orders of the king is impossible, so Rio hurriedly attended the party with her.
And Charlotte, who had been keeping a friendly smile throughout all of this, called Rio while pulling his arm.
Though it may have also had something to do with her being younger than him, it seemed like she was just a pampered child from the start. She was like this with her older brother, Michael, and that trait of hers was no more subdued now towards Rio.
「Yes? What is it?」
「Are you not parched after speaking so much?」
Maybe because she noticed that Rio kept talking without pause, Charlotte brought it up when he finally caught his breath.
「How impolite of me. Let’s get a drink from the waiters.」
「Fufu, allow me.」
Charlotte was probably thirsty, too.
Rio absentmindedly took a step with that in mind, but Charlotte was already ahead of him.
「Here you go.」
She came back with a cute stride that reminded him of a small animal, handing him a silver glass filled with fruit liquor.
「Thank you very much.」
「Let’s make a toast, Haruto-sama.」
The two smiled as they made eye contact, and lightly raised their glasses.
And with that, they shared a drink.
「Fufu. It’s delicious, but somehow the alcohol seems quite strong.」
Charlotte made a comment with an impish smile on her face, elegantly placing her hand on her cheek.
「There’s no need to force yourself. Please let me know if you feel as though something is wrong.」
「Thank you very much, but I should be fine with this much.」
As they idled through their conversation, Rio noticed a group of six approaching them. A woman with black hair tinged brown greeted them when they were within earshot.
The one who called first was Satsuki.
Following behind her were Liliana, Takahisa, Masato, Aki and Miharu, all in formal dress.
Takahisa grinned awkwardly when his eyes met Rio’s, while Liliana nodded along with her usual kind smile.
On the other hand, Masato, Aki and Miharu were all slightly embarrassed wearing fanciful clothes they weren’t used to.
「Everyone… You all look great.」
Rio briefly lost his breath, but managed to respond with a smile.
The cause of that was one girl in the group, Ayase Miharu.
He was able to see her clearly from afar, but he unwittingly found himself fascinated up close.
She wore a pale pink dress that gave off the air of a fairy, and her long black hair was braided to the right of her neck, lending her an overall neat and tidy atmosphere.
Rio had seen and met more undisputedly beautiful noble girls than he could count in the last three days, but Miharu’s gleaming brilliance made all the others look dull by comparison.
He stiffened up a little at the sight, and Charlotte was the first to pick up on it, watching him from the side.
But she didn’t mention it, quickly turning to Miharu and the others.
「It’s a pleasure to meet all of you. I am the second princess of the Galwark Kingdom, Charlotte Galwark.」
Charlotte pinched the hem of her dress and bowed to the others as she introduced herself. When she raised her head, she looked to Miharu with a smile on her face.
「Yes, my name is Miharu Ayase. The pleasure’s all mine.」
It was a little rough, but Miharu answered politely, using her given name first to follow this world’s customs.
「Char-chan, I think you already know about Takahisa-kun and Liliana-sama, but these three are my friends. Miharu-chan’s introduced herself, but the little girl is Aki-chan, and this boy is Masato-kun. They’re Takahisa-kun’s siblings.」
Satsuki took over for Aki and Masato, who fell behind Miharu.
「It’s nice to meet you.」
Charlotte greeted the younger siblings with the same smile as always.
「N-Nice to meet you.」
Aki and Masato bowed nervously when they responded.
Maybe it was her sophisticated demeanor befitting her royal status, or simply because they were caught up in her cute appearance.
「I think Aki-chan is about the same age as Char-chan. Masato-kun is a year younger. And Miharu-chan’s a year under me, about Haruto-kun’s age.」
After Satsuki’s short overview, Charlotte looked to the three of them.
「Miharu-sama, Aki-sama and Masato-sama, correct? I’ll certainly remember that. Please take care of me in the future.」
「Yes, of course.」
Aki and Masato replied together to Charlotte’s innocent smile. And while rest of the group watched their exchange, as if suddenly remembering something, Satsuki spoke up.
「All that aside, it seems the “Black Knight”-sama is quite popular right now. You’ve had a crowd around you ever since the party started.」
A mischievous expression was painted all over Satsuki’s face, like she was laughing at a good joke. Rio’s face cramped when he saw it.
「… It’s not like I’m that popular. They were probably drawn in by Princess Charlotte’s beauty.」
But he managed to recover, answering her with his best business smile.
Amazed by Rio’s ability to follow through, Satsuki’s round eyes narrowed.
「Well, aren’t you the smooth talker.」
Hearing his praise, Charlotte didn’t hide her delight.
「Haruto-anchan got such a cool title like Black Knight! I’m so jealous!」
And Masato cheerfully butt in with sparkles in his eyes.
「A-ah… Thank you.」
Masato’s young innocence only drove the knife deeper.
And Satsuki, who could no longer completely suppress the urge to laugh, began chuckling under her breath.
「It’s truly a wonderful title, Haruto-sama.」
Charlotte was quick to join in Masato’s momentum, as well.
The high schoolers from Japan aside, Charlotte was a pure girl from this world. She didn’t feel even the tiniest disturbance in saying such an embarrassing name.
It was a completely genuine compliment, just like Masato’s.
Maybe it wouldn’t have bothered him as much if Satsuki wasn’t grinning like an idiot while watching him sit there obediently taking their praise.
「… Thank you very much.」
Rio expressed his gratitude, doing the best he could to hide his shame.
Charlotte’s father is the one who bestowed the alias of the Black Knight on him.
He couldn’t and didn’t want to say the horrible things he was thinking about that alias in front of her.
「Anyway, Haruto-kun, aren’t you getting really close with Char-chan?」
Picking just the right moment, Satsuki changed the topic, and Charlotte smiled from ear to ear hearing it.
「That’s true. Haruto-sama is a kind and marvelous man. It feels like I’m getting a new older brother.」
She leaned coquettishly into Rio’s arm as she spoke.
The difference in their status ceased to matter to the crowd. They all stared in amazement, focusing intently on the conversation between Charlotte and Satsuki.
「… Heh, doesn’t that make you happy, Haruto-kun? You get such a cute little sister.」
Satsuki took several seconds to reply, a slightly colder tone in her voice.
She was smiling just like usual. Perhaps it was his imagination, but Rio could feel a sort of pressure bearing down on him.
「That’s just a joke. I’m still a far cry from Michael-sama.」
Rio courageously shook his head in denial despite the chills running down his spine.
「Fufu, Haruto-sama has a different kind of charm compared to Onii-sama.」
Charlotte happily fueled the fire, clinging closer to Rio’s arm with every second.
Satsuki squinted her eyes, and even Miharu right next to her had her full attention on the pair.
What’s with this atmosphere?
Rio didn’t understand exactly why, but the strange air gathering around him was palpable.
What he did understand was that if Charlotte kept sticking to him the way she was, things were only going to get worse for him.
Nevertheless, seeing that she was the king’s daughter, he couldn’t just shake her off by force.
「Fu~, Haruto-kun’s charm, is it? I wonder what you’re referring to.」
「That’s right. He gives off this reliable air that makes me feel at ease just staying by his side.」
「I see… I suppose I can understand that.」
Satsuki reluctantly agreed with Charlotte’s remark, Miharu quietly nodding herself.
The others from Japan, however, were a little perplexed.
Satsuki was acting her age—showing a wealth of emotion befitting a teenage girl. This was rare.
She was practically faultless in the eyes of her fellow students, Takahisa included.
Branded an honor student by those around her, she easily took the position of student council president, and gave off a hard-to-approach image in the process.
Naturally she’d respond if someone spoke to her, but, maybe because she wasn’t very open about herself or drew a line separating her from others, Satsuki established herself as a calm and composed person without much emotion.
That Satsuki lived up to the expectations of her surroundings, and showed little of herself even to those close to her, but the Satsuki right now seemed like a completely different person, her feelings clear as day on her face.
「You think so, too?」
Charlotte brought her face so close to Rio’s arm it looked like she was about to rub her cheeks on it.
The intensity of Satsuki’s glare jumped another level, and in spite of her unconcerned look Miharu’s gaze was firmly locked on Charlotte’s attachment to Rio.
Alarm bells went off in Rio’s head, screaming at him to get away as fast as possible, but Charlotte stuck to him like glue to keep him in place.
Things were going from bad to worse.
Fearing the growing danger behind his cool facade, Rio desperately searched for anything that could be used as an excuse to free himself from the situation.
Then he discovered the empty glass clutched tightly in Charlotte’s hand.
「Charlotte-sama, may I borrow your glass?」
「Yes. Whatever for?」
Though slightly puzzled, Charlotte obeyed his request.
「It may be empty, but what’s left would stain your lovely dress if it were to spill. I’ll go return it.」
Rio immediately took the opportunity to casually gain some distance between himself and Charlotte.
「Oh my, as expected of a gentleman. How tactful of you, Haruto-kun.」
Just when it seemed he got away, Satsuki spoke again with some admiration. Incomprehensibly to Rio, the crushing atmosphere from before vanished in an instant.
And as if disappointed, Charlotte flashed a hint of boredom on her face when no one was looking.
「Not at all. It would be a problem if anything happened, that’s all.」
Slipping away with a wry smile, Rio left to a nearby table to return the glasses he and Charlotte drank from. When he did, he heaved a sigh of relief at being released from that incredible pressure.
Alright, I guess I’ll go back now.
Rio returned to the others with all the enthusiasm of a soldier marching into a warzone.
「Are you enjoying the party, Miharu-san?」
He greeted Miharu first when he made it close.
A bystander to the conversation, Miharu was trembling when she turned to Rio, his face looking like he was silently asking what was wrong.
Miharu smiled, slightly embarrassed.
「Um, somehow, but I’m a little nervous.」
She answered him while twirling the tip of her braid, and they snuck off a little ways to separate from the group.
Takahisa watched them carefully, but he didn’t call out to her.
「I’m glad. I was concerned that you’d be forcing yourself to participate, but it seems my worries were unfounded.」
「Yes. Liliana-sama says this will be beneficial in the long run, since we can express our gratitude to the king if we attended tonight.」
Looking pensive about it, Rio nodded, convinced.
「It looks like Masato-kun and Aki-chan are enjoying themselves, too.」
Saying so, Rio was looking at the two in question. They were chatting with the people around them, smiling and laughing all the while.
「They were excited when they heard we’d be attending. Although, they were a bit anxious right before we came in.」
Miharu chuckled as she spoke.
「That’s very like them, huh?」
After a while, Rio noticed that he was enjoying his conversation with Miharu, and an offhanded thought slipped from his tongue.
「It feels like it’s been a while since we’ve been able to chat like this, just the two of us.」
In fact, even though they were living under the same roof they didn’t get many chances to be alone.
The last time was maybe when they made their last meal before heading to the capital.
「That’s right… To be honest, I got kind of nervous when you spoke to me, Haruto-san.」
There was a bashful look on Miharu’s face when she answered.
「Is that so?」
「We haven’t met for a while, so something about Haruto-san here in the castle feels different than usual. You’re more refined and sophisticated… and although you’re right next to me, you feel so out of reach.」
Seeing the Rio holding conversations with royalty and nobility without a hint of anxiety, it was as if she wasn’t looking at the Rio she was used to, but another person entirely.
「I’m really not that sort of existence.」
Rio shook his head in denial, seemingly troubled by her impression of him.
It could have just been her brain playing tricks on her, but she noticed something faint in his amber eyes.
She didn’t understand it.
「Yes. The Haruto-san speaking this way is the one I’m familiar with.」
Miharu slowly nodded, carefully looking into Rio’s eyes.
It could be called a matter of course that Rio was looking back, standing so close.
For a few seconds, the two stared at each other in silence.
And the next moment, Miharu averted her gaze, looking down with a blush in her cheeks.
When she turned her eyes up again, twirling the tip of her braid around her finger, Rio was still right there watching her.
Then he called to her in a lowered tone.
「Y-Yes? What’s the matter?」
Miharu stumbled over her words when she answered.
The sincerity in Rio’s voice was piercing right through her.
She could hear her heart beating faster.
What… What’s wrong with me…?
What kind of feeling this was—
She couldn’t understand it.
But she was sure, just looking at Rio made her more and more nervous.
「Will you come with me out onto the balcony? I need to speak with you alone.」
Rio made his proposal with a troubled expression, but a resolute voice.
The timing was off from what he had hoped for, but he thought this would be the best chance he’d get to be alone with Miharu.
I should just stop making excuses to run from her.
Sneaking away definitely wasn’t good.
But he was short on time. He didn’t know whether he’d get this kind of opportunity again if he didn’t take it now.
He had no intention of letting a chance to confess his feelings go by, and if this one slipped past him he’d start looking for the next.
「Is that alright? This is important.」
「Ah… I have something I wish to tell Haruto-san, too.」
Miharu nodded to confirm.
「It’s decided then.… Masato.」
Rio got Masato’s attention from behind.
「Hm? What’s up, Haruto-anchan?」
Masato turned around and approached the two.
「I’m going to leave for a little while with Miharu-san. Since it’ll be a bit before we come back, will you please tell anyone who notices our disappearance not to worry about us? It’ll be awkward if someone suddenly interrupts our conversation.」
Fortunately, Rio’s presence had drifted away from everyone’s consciousness as they engaged in their lively chatter.
They could easily slip out now, when no one paid them any mind.
And on the off-chance that someone thought to go after them, he didn’t tell Masato about where they were going.
「Yeah. Leave it to me.」
Masato replied immediately.
「Thank you. Well then, shall we go?」
Thus, Rio and Miharu left in secret.
However, two girls followed them from a distance, determined not to let them off so easily.
One was watching on with a pleased smile, though the other kept to an expression that hid her thoughts.
Rio and Miharu arrived at a balcony that was left open for guests to take a break, and soldiers were arranged at the entrance to stand guard.
But it seemed no one had any inclinations to come near this place, since the evening parties were for the purpose of making connections.
The commotion throughout the hall sounded so lonely, and even the extravagance of the event itself felt so far away.
The refreshing night air blowing over the balcony cooled them down from the heat of the party.
They walked to the back, standing side by side by the balustrade.
It was a quiet place, good for calming down and clearing the mind.
「Uwaa~, the sky is so beautiful. It feels like my soul could just fly away…」
Miharu muttered in astonishment, a sea of stars filling the night sky.
「It’s as if the stars would all come falling down if you reached out to touch them.」
Rio voiced his own impression as he looked up into the night.
「Fufu, that’s very poetic.」
Though briefly perplexed by his words, Miharu smiled gently when she turned to Rio.
Then their eyes met. Rio was looking back.
And under the moonlight, seeing each other’s faces so clearly embarrassed her.
「That dress suits you well, Miharu-san. You’re very beautiful.」
Rio’s honest thoughts, simple as they were, resounded deep in Miharu’s heart.
Miharu’s face flushed.
Her heart started pounding.
Who was he saying it for? Were those words truly for her? What was he after, saying such a thing?
Her head was spinning.
Nobody was here except for Rio and herself.
That alone was enough that there was no doubt he meant those words for her, but—
The fact he said 「Miharu-san」 was—
「T-Thank you very much…?」
She lowered her eyes, voice shaking as she gave her gratitude.
Her face was as red as a tomato.
Rio smiled and gingerly touched her hand.
She answered timidly as she looked back up to meet him.
When she did, Rio’s face was right in front of her.
He took a step toward her.
It was only one step—
But the gap it closed between them felt so much wider.
Rio’s gaze was fixed on Miharu’s eyes and saw right through to her core.
A silence lingered for a short while, then Miharu’s brain registered the sight of Rio’s lips moving.
The words that came from his mouth—
「Miharu-san, I love you.」
It was a confession.
「I love you so much.」
He repeated it, and she began quivering in shock.
Her mind went blank.
Her heart was threatening to burst from her chest.
Miharu felt a sudden warmth.
Rio’s hand was large, yet barely stiff, and from it his warmth had enveloped her entire body as if a fire had been kindled deep inside.
His breath brushed against her skin.
She was overwhelmed, but couldn’t bring herself to turn away.
Miharu could see herself shaking, reflected in Rio’s eyes.
But he broke through her anxiety.
「I love you, Ayase Miharu-san.」
Rio repeated his simple confession once more.
He didn’t leave the slightest opening for a misunderstanding.
With just a few words, Rio made to ensure his feelings reached her.
Miharu was at a loss for words.
She experienced several confessions before, but this was perhaps the first time one had ever shaken her so greatly.
It happened once before.
That time she made a promise with Amakawa Haruto, when she was seven years old.
「I want to always stay by your side, Miharu-san.」
Rio took her hands in his, and showed no signs of letting go.
Miharu wasn’t very good with boys, especially not touching them.
She was a beautiful girl from a young age, but was teased ever since she’d separated from Haruto.
The reason was simple enough.
Haruto, who played the role of breakwater for her, had to transfer schools.
The boys liked Miharu.
They were children, though. They took the typical route of being mean to the girl they liked.
It didn’t grow into anything particularly vicious, but due to her own personality Miharu quietly endured every day.
She made it through her days dreaming about the promise and memories she made with Haruto.
After entering middle school, boys started taking different paths to getting near her, but that wouldn’t easily erase the fear and isolation Miharu felt.
So she kept a comfortably large distance from the opposite sex.
Although she didn’t move away so blatantly whenever a boy tried to approach her, she tried to get away as casually as possible.
She even pushed Takahisa when he suddenly embraced her before. Maybe it was that she had an aversion to any boy besides Haruto.
So why was she unable to pull herself away from Rio’s grasp?
She didn’t feel any apprehension at his touch. Rather, Miharu was bewildered at how willingly she was letting him stay so close.
「Whether I’m dreaming, awake or reborn, I love you. I will always love you.」
One by one, Rio spoke his words slowly and firmly.
「But what I want to tell Miharu-san—. This is something I need you to hear.」
Miharu’s chest tightened at his resolve, and she found herself squeezing his hand in return.
Rio’s face was close enough that if either of them moved just a little more their lips would touch.
A smile painted itself on Rio’s face.
It was a gentle smile, but it was a shy smile filled with both fear and relief. And yet, for some reason Miharu felt a deep sense of nostalgia from it.
They simply stared at each other in silence for a few moments.
「Maybe you’ve already forgotten, but that day, nine years ago for you——」
「Miharu-oneechan? Are you here?」
The voice of a young girl echoed over the balcony.
It was Aki’s voice, and she sounded a little impatient.
She was leading a nervous Takahisa by the hand as they made it out to find them.
Aki called Miharu’s name and was soon dumbfounded.
She found the two mere inches away from each other, and Miharu holding tight to Rio’s hands.
They looked just like lovers.
Hesitating to say anything about their display, she turned around as if recalling the person she pulled along.
Behind her stood Takahisa, the expression on his face making it obvious that he was enduring a whirlwind of emotions inside.
「Ah, um… This is…」
Miharu released her grip and retreated once she realized that she was the one holding onto Rio. Her body had moved on its own in the exchange.
When the atmosphere shattered and she returned to her senses, she was too embarrassed to form a coherent sentence.
「What’s the matter? You seem to be in a hurry.」
But composed as ever, Rio spoke up with his normal, calm voice.
「Um, we were looking for you since Masato said you went off somewhere…」
Aki replied awkwardly.
「I did say we’d be back right away. Did Masato forget to say that?」
Rio smiled wryly, guessing it couldn’t be helped.
「Ah, no, he mentioned it, but…」
「It’s just with everything that happened yesterday and all. My concern got the better of me.」
Takahisa added his own explanation with a smile to support Aki, but his voice was slightly shaking.
「T-That’s right. We were worried.」
Though surprised at Takahisa’s unexpected reaction, Aki nodded along.
「I’m sorry. I brought her out for a while. I wanted to have a discussion with Miharu-san.」
Aki peered at Rio through his straightforward apology.
「Yeah. A little about what’ll happen after this. It’s something I needed to say to Miharu-san no matter what.
Actually, there are things I have to tell everyone else as well, but this is something I couldn’t say to just anyone.」
Rio answered with a bitter smile.
Aki knew better than to push any further, so she stopped there.
「Miharu-san. There’s something I want you to have. This might be shameless of me to ask, but will you hear the rest of what I have to say later?」
Rio asked in a hushed tone so only Miharu would hear. She was perplexed for a second, but voiced her acceptance in kind.
「Haruto-sama, do you know how worried I was?」
Soon, from behind Aki and Takahisa came Charlotte at a brisk pace, calling out to her partner with her bottomlessly bright voice and taking his hand the moment she reached his side.
「My deepest apologies. I wanted to have a little discussion with Miharu-san. We were supposed to be back shortly, but…」
「It’s okay. To make up for it, please come dance with me.」
Charlotte expressed her innocent wish with a delightful smile.
Rio’s eyes met Miharu’s when he looked away, and she smiled to him as well, albeit more unsettled.
「… As you wish.」
He resisted his urge to heave a sigh, and Rio resigned himself to his fate. As soon as he did, Charlotte promptly led him back to the event hall, wrapped around his arm.
Nearly unable to get away for even a moment, the third evening party came to a peaceful close.