It was the first time I’d seen such warm ice.
“By the way, Shig, there’s a few things I want to ask you…”
We’d removed the ice walls that were affixed to the ice house’s entrance and were protecting the injured villagers, and we were currently working on repairing the broken fences and cleaning up the mouse corpses. I’d been wracking my brains about how we were going to deal with the damage we’d sustained due to their assault when I decided to finally ask the lizardman youth.
“Why did you come to help?”
“Why?—Wait, you’re serious?”
Shig responded incredulously.
“I knew that the mice would eventually attack the village, they were just waiting until they were sure they could win. I’ve been preparing so that we could fight back… I mean, I even made sure you knew.”
“Remember when I had you look into my eyes?”
He was talking about back when he left the village. Sorry. I didn’t get what you were doing. I just looked back since you were looking at me. If I had to put his expression from then into words, even with his frustration, he didn’t seem disappointed or disgusted… to be honest, he looked trustworthy.
“So you pretended to split away from the village like that because you knew the mice were eavesdropping, huh… but you thought this many would attack?”
I could understand if it was just him, but he even came with the lizardman, the lykoscentaur, and the elves. If the mice hadn’t been so confident, they wouldn’t have gone so far.
“… They’re very similar to me. Small, weak… but unable to stand it.”
Gazing into the sky, Shig spoke in self-ridicule.
“They don’t think anything about their comrades… But that’s the same as lizardmen. The weak are the ones at fault. That’s why you just have to be strong. No one even thinks about trying to help or save their dying comrades. It was the same for me, too… yeah, was.”
It was then that he looked back to me.
“That changed when I met a certain softhearted idiot of a dragon!”
Saying that, he just smiled freely. It was the first time I’d ever seen Shig smile so innocently.
“I’d always known they were listening into our talks. That’s why I left; so I could return to my hometown. I even had a convenient method to get it done, too.”
He spread his wings at that. Wings… he had wings.
“Remember when we were talking about how we all had six limbs?”
Did we talk about that? Oh yeah, it was about me, Rin, Luka, and him.
In my previous world, all vertebrates were four-legged. Some, the humanoids, evolved into their forelimbs being arms, while others’ developed into wings, as the birds’ had. However, in this world, evolution diverged into those with four—humans and elves, for example—and those with six—dragons, lizardmen, and lykoscentaur to name a few.
The merfolk muddled that concept somewhat, but you could take their waist fins as what their legs turned into.
“Which is why I wondered. What if I could have wings like you, Mentor?”
Saying that, Shig unfurled his wings to display them.
“But how did you get even Beol to come?”
“Oh, that part was simple. I’m stronger. Therefore, he followed what I said. That’s just how the lizardmen sense of values work.”
Yuuki’s eyes opened wide in surprise. I knew that Shig was getting much stronger, but I never thought he’d gotten strong enough to take on and defeat Beol. His four arms were able to unleash an incredibly powerful and fast stream of blows. Amata would even probably have a tough time against him in an honest fight.
“It’s not like he lost. I mean, none of them use weapons, they don’t even throw stones. All I had to do was fly high enough that he couldn’t reach me while I attacked with fire.”
“You mean like a…?”
“They all kept saying that I was being a coward. That it wasn’t true strength even if I won that way. However, they all went quiet when I asked them what true strength was.”
It made sense. To them, the peak of strength was a red dragon. Shig’s combat strategy mimicked that of a red dragon on the hunt.
“After that, I kept tabs on what was happening by keeping in contact with Violet, as well as using the elves to track what the trends of the mice. I figured that Luka would be heading back to her home eventually as well, so I figured they would count her out for the village’s strength.”
“But what about Utai d—… dying?”
Did the merfolk lie about that to present a fake opportunity for the mice? When I looked to Rin after coming upon that thought, she shook her head slowly.
“Utai, mm… she—right after you flew off, it, it happened…”
Her brows knit tightly, Rin started shedding tears. She wasn’t a child that could act out such a cruel joke as that.
“She was doing everything to last… to see us…”
Even so, I hoped it was all a joke. It’s something I’ve felt countless times so far, this sense of loss. Like a cold feeling from something inside you disappearing.
“I think… I think she didn’t want you to see her last moments, big brother.”
“It’s just a feeling I get.”
Yuuki spoke with her hands clenched firmly together.
Like she was praying for something.
＊ ＊ ＊
“Big brother, do you… have a moment?”
It was evening by the time Yuuki came to my house.
Somehow, a part of me had expected her visit. Taking care to not wake Nina, who was doubtlessly exhausted and was sleeping like a log, I left my house and followed Yuuki.
We stopped in front plaza outside the ice house. The mouse carcasses that had piled up were burned in fear of disease, so there were few traces of the tragedy that had happened earlier that day.
Bathed in moonlight, Yuuki looked up to me.
“I’ve… I’ve been thinking about it a lot. What you told me that day, big brother.”
I knew exactly what she was talking about, it was impossible for me to forget.
[It would turn out the same, even with you. In less than a century, I would be alone again.]
I still hadn’t apologized to Yuuki for the words I spoke.
“I’m sorry, Yuuki, I…”
“No. I’m the one that should apologize.”
However, Yuuki lowered her head before I had a chance to.
“I hadn’t thought about how you felt, big brother. About what it would feel like to be left…”
I couldn’t find it in myself to blame Yuuki for that, though. Anyone, even I, would find thinking about something like that to be not something so simple.
“He who wears clothes of ice, who drops the autumn leaves, who melts to spring’s sunlight—the spirit of snow and ice, Jack Frost. Please, show yourself to me.”
Facing the ice house and reciting her incantation, flakes of white began to fall despite it still being early autumn. Gathering into a single mass, it slowly formed into the shape of a small snowman.
“It’s been a while… I suppose?”
“Hoh, hoh, hoh.”
Jack Frost hooted an owl-like sound from his crescent mouth when I greeted him.
“Jack Frost. Could you bring it?”
Hearing Yuuki, Jack Frost turned to study her before returning to face me. I could never tell what he was thinking behind those blank eyes of his.
However, possibly in consent, Jack Frost temporarily entered the ice house.
“A secret handed down through the Swordsaints… I suppose.”
Yuuki responded when I asked her. Was there something like that? No one told me though?
After waiting for a while, Jack Frost came back from inside the ice house holding a block of ice.
“Jack Frost, please.”
“—It’s been a long time, Mentor.”
Hearing that voice, her voice, I stiffened.
It was as soft as the morning sun, as gentle as spring wind.
Something I would never forget. Ai’s voice.
“Shh. Keep quiet, big brother.”
Yuuki put her finger to her lips and had be quiet down.
“By the time you hear this, I don’t think I’ll be by your side anymore.”
With what Ai said next, I understood everything.
It was a parting message. A trace of her voice frozen with magic.
“If you’re hearing this, I suppose it’ll have been at least ten years? Maybe a hundred? If not, I’ll be sad.”
It’s been four hundred and fifty-four, Ai.
Four hundred and fifty-four long years since you passed.
“… I lied. To be honest, no matter how long it’s been, I’ll be sad. Because I’ll have left you alone.”
Both her voice and her way of speaking was exactly how I remembered her.
“But I’m sure that even now, Mentor, you’ll still listen to my selfishness. Oh, well, if I’m totally off, please don’t listen to anything after this, okay? Please?”
I had no clue know what sort of selfishness Ai was talking about. I don’t think she ever said anything selfish to me. Still though, there’s no way I could ever not hear what she wanted to say.
“Maybe it’s Utai? Or perhaps Jergo’s grandchildren? Or maybe it’s something I don’t know about at all… or maybe…”
Just then, Ai hesitated and stopped talking.
“No, anyone’s fine. I’m sure whatever child is next to you loves you very much, Mentor… in the same way as me.”
Those words brought me to look to Yuuki. The girl had been staring at the ice Jack Frost was holding seriously, but suddenly smiled in embarrassment when she noticed my gaze.
“Please love her back, somehow. Forget about me… actually, if you really do forget, I might be a bit sad…?”
Dragons’ memories were good. Even though nearly five centuries had passed, I could clearly recall each and every one of Ai’s expressions. Despite there only being her voice, I could virtually see an illusion of her standing in front of me.
Unassuming, reserved, yet more gleeful than anyone.
“Please, Mentor, be happy. That’s all I wish for, all I want.”
Ai spoke, looking up to me.
I thought to myself. Her words shouldn’t be faked.
But still… is thinking of someone else while still keeping my love for Ai not betrayal? To Ai, and to Yuuki. Even if she wants me to, that’s just what my mind keeps coming back to…
“And if you can, please make whatever child standing by you happy as well, Mentor.”
But Ai… my wife, was able to anticipate my feelings.
“It’s incredibly painful when your feelings don’t reach the person you love. Besides—I… I’ve already been given more than enough happiness.”
With that, the ice melted and disappeared. Jack Frost vanished, his role to an end.
“—I wasn’t ready for that.”
Yuuki spoke as she continued wiping the tears flooding from her eyes.
“Big sis Ai was always, always thinking about what would happen to you after she was gone. But I hadn’t thought about it at all…”
She then turned and looked straight up at me.
“But I won’t lose. Because I love you, big brother. I’ll always be by your side. I’ll definitely do what big sis Ai couldn’t. Even if you can only see me like a sister or a daughter, that’s fine too.”
She looked at me, her gaze resolute.
“So… I’m… I’m going to love you… okay…?”
Her self-confidence immediately crumbling, she spoke as though clinging to a lifeboat.
“… I give up. You win.”
Raising my hands, I responded.
Once my heart decided on giving priority to her life over the villagers’, this was going to happen sooner or later.
“If you want me to tell you whether I’m attracted to you as a woman, then I still can’t answer that properly.”
You could say that this whole thing extends to Nina as well, but my feeling here weren’t fake. If I was a man capable of controlling his emotions so dexterously as that, I wouldn’t have been suffering so much the past four centuries.
“However, Yuuki. I think… I definitely love you… and want to be with you… and want to make you happy.”
At that moment, Yuuki jumped.
“Thank you! I love you!”
The way her voice rose as she rubbed her cheeks on me hadn’t changed at all since she was young.
“Your habit of clinging to people hasn’t changed, huh.”
While I was happy at this happening for the first time in a while, it made me smile wryly at her childishness.
“.. Ignoring when I was a kid, you’re the only one I do this for, you know?”
But Yuuki just tilted her head to the side and answered with her eyes upturned.
Her gaze and the soft pressure of her against me caused my heart to throb.
“Or did you think I did this to other people?”
“No, I didn’t, I mean…”
Come to think of it, I don’t think I’d ever seen Yuuki cling to anyone other than me. Imagining her do that was… well, it made me feel more unpleasant that I thought it would.
—At this rate, my capitulation might go even faster than expected.
Should I lament my weakness? Or maybe I should fear Yuuki’s charm?
I was a bit worried for my future.