“—Is something bothering you?”
That was the question posed to Lyle as he was grading the test. He paused for a moment, pondering over what Ilsa had asked. Before long, the red-inked quill resumed its motions.
“…What makes you think there is?”
“Because Mr. Lyle, your face looks kind of fierce.”
Lyle placed his hand on his face. He tried to affirm the ferocity of his expression, but he realised he had been had when he saw Ilsa grinning, looking like she had successfully pulled off a prank.
“Really, what’s bothering you?”
“Let me finish grading this first. Did you forget we have tea after this?”
Lyle returned to grading, an impish expression. His pen moved over the calculation problems, conferring ticks on them, but when it came to the proving ones, it was a cross instead.
“You did pretty well overall. However, you still need to improve on the proving problems.”
It’s not like there’s much she could do about it, thought Lyle.
Ilsa was raised there, in the mansion, without ever leaving it once. Day after day she saw the same faces, repeating the same routine. She simply did not have that sort of reasoning nurtured in her.
On an unrelated note, she had stopped wearing her eye-patch around Lyle as he had already found out about the truth.
“…It would not do if you do not revise more, but I guess I’m not one to talk, making my students worry about me. Shall I even it out by giving you a review of the test over tea?”
Replied Ilsa, overjoyed. Though she did say she would pay attention during the review, he had his qualms as to whether that would actually happen.
The tea sets were laid out, and Cecilia, who had been on guard outside, now stood near Ilsa. They wrapped up the review quickly, and Ilsa leaned forward.
“Mr. Lyle, why do you look so down?”
“…Is it really that obvious?”
“It’s because you’re a really honest person, so much so that you wear your feelings openly.”
“…More like immature and naive.”
Said Cecilia under her breath, overhearing the conversation from behind Ilsa. Though, Lyle was rather good at lip-reading, so there was not much point in doing that.
“You’re probably right… Well, it’s just something I recalled out of the blue.”
“Hmm… an old friend of mine got an invitation to a party.”
Said Lyle, the image of his copper-haired childhood friend flickering across his mind.
“I suspect that there are underlying motives behind it.”
“Is that old friend of yours your sweetheart, Mr. Lyle?”
“No way! She IS important to me, though.”
“…I get the feeling he said the exact same thing before.”
Cecilia mumbled under her breath, and looked past Ilsa’s golden hair with a cold stare.
“Is she beautiful?”
“What makes you say that?”
“You’re feeling jealous because there will be many guys staring at her during the party, right?”
It was an amazing display of deductive powers far beyond what people expected from a ten-year-old girl. Or was it purely because of the fact that she had been born a female?
“…But really, I don’t have the right to feel jealous over her. She’s beyond my league, I know that, and I’m angry at myself for feeling like this.”
“What makes you think you don’t have the right?”
Asked Ilsa, out of a child’s curiosity. When she still had her eye-patch on she had been cautious and acted with restraint, but now she was completely without reserve.
“…I’m weak. I know she has feelings for me. But I pretend not to, and I’d always brush them aside. You think a guy like me has the right?”
“…You’re the saddest excuse for a man I’ve ever seen. The enemy of womenkind, I say,” murmured Cecilia.
“—But you must have a reason for having to do that, right?”
“Why do you think so?”
Inquired Lyle, as he started to enjoy his conversation with the young lady more and more.
“Mr. Lyle, you’re a deep thinker. On top of that, you’re also a kind person. I don’t believe someone like you would leave a lady hanging without good reason.”
Looking at her, Lyle believed that her wisdom came not from her intellect, but was rather a result of her personality.
“…It’s a hard decision to make. Right now, I still don’t know how I should live my life. It would be most insincere of me if I were to accept those feelings, as half-baked as I am now. Before thinking of others, I have to first think about myself. It’d be putting the cart before the horse, and I’d end up a laughingstock.”
“…But unexpectedly sincere,” murmured Cecilia.
“But,” Ilsa replied, tilting her head, and continued, “Mr. Lyle, thinking of others and thinking about yourself aren’t mutually exclusive, right?”
“Well, a person who can’t even settle his or her own matters is neither honest nor sincere should they accept another person.”
“That is what I do not understand. Aren’t people supposed to support each other?”
Lyle found himself at a genuine loss for words hearing that.
“Alone, I am capable of nothing. I live, because of Cecilia, Sebastian, and everybody else here. People are unable to live by themselves. Thinking of others is something intuitive, isn’t it?”
Lyle looked upon the girl, beautiful like an artist’s masterpiece, radiant as a gemstone, in blank amazement. Without thinking, he hit himself on the forehead and looked to the ceiling for divine inspiration.
“…I might not be cut out to be a teacher just yet. Looks like I’m the one getting taught here, huh?”
“That’s an exaggeration. Mr. Lyle, weren’t you the one who said that teachers and their students were equals?”
Said Ilsa, with a grin. However, her expression turned somewhat lonely almost immediately.
“…I would like to meet that childhood friend of yours.”
Lyle felt sympathetic, seeing Ilsa in that manner.
If he could, he would have arranged a meeting. And he’d bring Lunaria too. Ilsa should have the opportunity to meet more people, he felt.
“…That reminds me. I heard your birthday was this month. Is that right, Ilsa?”
“Yes. I turn eleven in one more week.”
“Ah, I see. Do invite me on your birthday, okay?”
“Yeah. If it’s not too much trouble for you.”
“Of course not! Please do!”
Ilsa’s countenance was aglow with happiness. Having guests over on her birthday—even something so normal was probably one of the greatest joys she could have in her life.
She was overcome with excitement. At that moment, as though to calm her down, a knock could be heard from the door.
The old butler Sebastian stepped into the room.
“I apologise for the interruption. —Lady Ilsa, your father is on his way here.”
Ilsa stood up sharply, her face scrunched over with unease.
Led by the old butler, Cecilia and Lyle headed for the living room on the first floor. Lyle wanted to give his greetings and that only, but it seemed like Ilsa’s father had wanted to meet Lyle as well, and hence he decided to stay for a chat.
The living room was about four to five times as elaborately decorated as Lyle’s laboratory. A person, whom Lyle had never seen before since his first visit to the Weissburg residence, was seated there. He was a well-built man, garbed in the clothing of aristocrats and a mask over his visage.
“—’tis most discourteous of me, but do pardon me for the mask.”
The man stood up, tapping the mask that covered the upper half of his face and smiled.
“I’m sure you must be wondering why… It’s because I hold a position that I cannot reveal. I wish for your understanding in this matter. Well, now that that’s out of the way, let me introduce myself. I am Ilsa’s father. As for my name—just call me ‘Hard’.”
Ilsa’s father—Hard, extended his hand. It was big and sturdy; with it he grasped Lyle’s hand firmly and forcefully, and from it Lyle surmised that Hard was a man of the military.
“First, let me express my thanks for being Ilsa’s home tutor. Has she been a poor student to teach?”
“No… it’s been my greatest pleasure to teach a girl as bright as her.”
Said Lyle, truly meaning it, and Hard smiled in joy. Then, he looked to his daughter.
“And Ilsa, it’s been some time. Have you been doing well?”
The happiness she exuded earlier had been completely concealed. Throwing Lyle a glance every now and then, she fidgeted about, restless.
“…Father, about Mr. Lyle…”
“I know what you want to say. But, would you let us have a talk alone, first?”
“Yes, Father,” replied Ilsa in a quiet, almost non-existent voice, and she nodded.
“Take a seat.”
Once Ilsa had left the room, with Cecilia nudging her on, Hard motioned for Lyle to sit down on the sofa opposite him.
“—I know of you. They call you the Disciple of the Last Hexe at Vergenheim Academy, am I correct?”
“Yes, well… it’s a rather embarrassing nickname.”
“You don’t seem surprised. There may have been a little bit of ridicule included, but I doubt that it’d detract from your true abilities.”
Hard reached out and took a document that laid by his side into his hands, and flipped through it. He nodded in approval and admiration.
“Impressive. Science would be a given, but even your language and history grades are close to perfect. You’d be at the top of your cohort even if you were ranked beside the history scholarship students, and I doubt anyone would disagree with that assessment.”
It was likely that the document contained Lyle’s results from the scholarship application examination he took a year back. It was information from an organisation that belonged to the royal family; information an outsider would not be able to obtain with ease.
“A very significant accomplishment… but still, a question comes to mind. The scores are almost perfect, but all are slightly short of it. Do you feel that you could have obtained a perfect score on all of them?”
Asked Hard, although his words felt like that were more of an affirmation than an inquiry. Taking a sip from his tea, Lyle then sighed and confessed.
“…My master once told me, ‘If you don’t hold back in moderation, your cunning will be suspect and it’d be more trouble than it’s worth’.”
“A result of holding back, eh? I don’t doubt that at all.”
Hard tossed aside the document, and snorted.
“Looks like the results are a good example of something from which nothing of use can be garnered, aren’t they? In truth, you have another side to you hidden away.”
The introductory greetings seemed to be over. Past Hard’s mask, his eyes narrowed visibly.
“Lyle Waldstein—It looks like you ARE a genuine witch’s disciple.”
“…..Yes, I am.”
“And so I would have deemed it a cock and bull story, if not for Ilsa… Never would I have thought that the Last Hexe, the one who ended the age of superstition, would be a genuine witch. There were many rumours of Erllua Azoth as a result of her secretiveness, but it looks like the one of her being a real witch was true. If her disciple is a magus capable of lighting amber aglow, then it would be inevitable for her to be a witch.”
“…What are you going to do, then? About me, an out-dated magus?”
“An Inquisition is the last thing I’d start, if that’s what you’re implying. Why do you think I hid my daughter here? To protect her from those who would do so, of course.”
The ends of his lips curled up in a sardonic smile, his feelings subtly altering the tone of his voice.
“…’Heterochromia is a sign of the devil’, so the superstitions used to go. I used to think that it was no more than fib the magus hunters and the Church used to spout , until Ilsa truly turned out to be a cursed child. ’twas a two-pronged attack on my heart, no doubt.”
“Both ‘cursed child’ and ‘sign of the devil’ are unwarranted misconceptions.”
Lyle firmly stated his objection against that specific part.
“Atavism is a product of the body’s constitution. The Phantasms—their natural born trait of being able to manipulate magecraft was discovered as a form of atavism.”
“Magecraft, you say? Not a word you’d normally expect to be thrown out in an era with trams, sea-crossing vessels and flying airships… Which is why I have a request to ask of you, who succeed the age of old.”
Said Hard, and he bowed his head low.
“—Lyle Waldstein. Please save my daughter Ilsa. So that she may walk in a world blessed and bathed by the sun’s rays, and free from ostracism and fear.”
Having Hard, with his bear-like physique, bow his head was a comic sight. However, Lyle straightened his posture, feeling the seriousness from the man.
“Stopping Ilsa’s—your daughter’s Poltergeist phenomena would be trying, under present circumstances.”
Said Lyle, a difficult expression on his face. He then continued,
“The Phantasms possess two powers that humans do not. The first is the ability to store magical energy in their body—’Magical Preservation’. The other ability they are born with is ‘Magical Transcription’—the ability to control magical energy via ‘magic’.”
“Magic? What’s the difference between ‘magic’ and ‘magecraft’?”
“It’s a long story… First, there exists a type of energy known as magical energy. Would it be ok if I used this as the premise for the explanation?”
“Yes, that’s fine. After seeing what happened with my daughter, there’s little I could do to doubt it.”
“Thank you… Continuing, the true form of magical energy was a topic of discussion amongst magi. My master used to say that it was ‘undifferentiated energy’—the only thing evident about it was that it had the characteristic of being able to bend the natural laws of the world. Said laws that are bent, we call ‘magic’, purely for convenience’s sake. Magecraft consists of the techniques that construct and control ‘magic’.”
“I see. In that case, are wizards and magi the one and the same?”
“I can’t say that they are completely equal, but under certain conditions, yes, they would be the same.”
“If so… if you train Ilsa to be a magus, she could learn how to control her magical energy, couldn’t she?”
“That could work, given that she possesses the gift to become one… but I have my doubts. Let me ask you this, Lord Hard—do you think your will could stop your heart?”
Hard pursed his lips in contemplation at the question.
“Magical energy is constantly accumulated within Ilsa. It is fundamentally impossible for her to be controlling said energy twenty-four hours a day with her willpower alone. That’s the reason atavism is said to be a part of the body’s constitution.”
“I see… The heart acting separate from the will, as separate systems… Which means that Ilsa’s constitution was originally thusly controlled, correct?”
“That is the main difference between humans and Phantasms. In order for the Phantasms to maintain their magic as a vital part of their lives, they control their magical energy through their subconscious. Atavism is a result of the accumulation of magical energy in the body but without the use of magic—hence, there is a possibility that she might not be able to control it.”
“…Ah, I get it.”
Hard let out a deep sigh. He probably felt that it was shameful of him to raise Ilsa behind confinement. A normal sentiment a parent would have, in the same situation, that is, to want to let their child tread a path lit by the glorious sun.
“…Be that as it may, I will verify her aptitude for being a magus. There is no better method than learning the technique to control her own magical energy. I’ll think of more solutions to curb the Poltergeist phenomenon, as well.”
“Will you truly do it?”
“Well, I’m her teacher, after all.”
“Hmm?” Hard replied questioningly, unable to fully comprehend.
“It’s a teacher’s job to help his students with their problems.”
“You’ll go out of your way for a reason like that?”
“I must confess the wages are rather generous.”
“I don’t believe you have an interest in money. If that were true, then all you’d have to do would be to put your intelligence to use in that regard. You wouldn’t have to do something this tiresome.”
Hard eyed Lyle sternly.
“You would not have felt the need to be so concerned about my daughter’s safety.
Lyle Waldstein, what is it you desire?
No matter what sort of life you wish to lead, you could probably make it work. You have a brilliant mind and a wealth of knowledge, but yet you lie low—Even a philistine like myself can’t help but feel that you have a ‘plan’ in stall. What is it that you’re thinking? What sort of life do you desire?”
Sitting up straight, Lyle faced Hard’s stern gaze head-on.
“—I want to be someone who can treat others with kindness… That’s all.”
For a brief moment of time, Hard held his gaze, but gradually relaxed as he took in those words. Finally, he sighed, and looked aside.
“…Not much can be said if that was a simple lie. But if you meant every word, then all I can say is that you have an extraordinary dream.”
Hard evaluated Lyle’s answer. He seemed gentle, yet also somewhat weary.
“Many times have I been told the same by my mother. ’tis both simpler and clearer than the neighbourly love the Church preaches, a teaching that should seem so obvious to us humans. But somehow, it is also forgotten by everyone. Day by day people shove others aside, stepping on top of others. Though, that’s also a given.”
“So I see… you are a prideful human. Yet as a result, you are kinder than anybody else—You’d be able to connect with Ilsa.”
Hard snapped his fingers. Sebastian, who had stood by the door of the living room, left and returned with Ilsa.
The father nodded assuringly at his daughter, who had been looking over anxiously.
“Do not worry, Ilsa. I’m not asking him to quit. On the contrary, Ilsestein has never seen a person as great as he.”
Hearing that, Ilsa’s anxiety was swept clean from her expression, and in its place came a smile, radiant and becoming of a girl as charming as Ilsa.
“Does that mean…”
“Yeah. Don’t make your teacher angry, all right?”
Ilsa ran forward, in skips and leaps, and threw herself around Hard’s neck, hugging him tightly. Seeing his daughter in such bliss, Hard kindly stroked her hair, with his burly hand.
“…And so, is this the part where I’m given a warning?”
Asked Lyle, finally exhaling while loosening his collar. Hard made a wry smile.
“I beg your forgiveness for that, but I suppose so. You are a tutor who knows of Ilsa’s secret, have been given a scare, gotten angry for her, and sometimes have been made to go through tests. For you, I have but a slight warning—just a slight one.”
Nonetheless, coming from a man as huge and bear-like as this one was, no warning would seem to be slight and lacking in oppression. Lyle had thought so from their handshake earlier, that Hard was a seasoned warrior. If someone like him had said, “You know full well the consequences should you slip your tongue,” anyone would feel like their lives would be at peril.
However, the gesture of him soothing the tiny Ilsa could be seen as nothing but that of a father’s.
“I’d like you to look after my daughter Ilsa, from now and on.”
“Of course. Exactly my intentions.”
Once again, Hard bowed his head. Cecilia, who was in the room, had the biggest look of shock as her face turned blue and her eyes widened.
“Father! Mr. Lyle said that he’d be coming next week to my birthday!”
“Is that so? Isn’t that great!”
“Yeah! What about you, Father?”
“…Unfortunately, my schedule is fully packed. It doesn’t look like I’ll be able to make it.”
“I-Is that so…”
Her shoulders drooping, Ilsa was the very image of depressed. Hard looked over at Lyle in a panic.
“R-Right, that reminds me, Lyle. You had an old friend, right? Would you bring her to Ilsa’s birthday celebration? How about it?”
“Maria, you mean?”
“Yeah. I don’t mind if you bring other friends too.”
“Lord Be—Lord Hard. Would that truly be wise?”
Inquired Cecilia, in warning. The girl dressed in military uniform wore a serious and darkened look. “It’s fine,” replied Hard.
“Miss Maria was the one who introduced him to me, but more than anything else, she’s someone who this young man can trust. There’s nothing to fear.”
Cecilia was cut off in her vehement protests as Hard indicated Ilsa with his eyes.
She could not hold back the joy she felt, her eyes sparkling like jewels. There were none within the mansion who could bear to take that away from Ilsa.
“It’s the first time I’ll have so many people over for my birthday! Thank you so much, Father!”
It was plain that Hard was smiling broadly at his daughter, mask notwithstanding.
“How long can you stay today, Father?”
“Hmm… For about two more hours.”
“In that case, shall we have dinner together?”
“It would be my pleasure.”
“I’m so happy! Ah, would you care to join us, Mr. Lyle?”
“Uh, I think I’ll—”
“No need to be so reserved.”
Holding his daughter in his arms, Hard rose from the sofa.
“By all means, join us for dinner.”
Lyle ended up complying, sensing the underlying message of “Do you intend on refusing my daughter’s request?”
Having gotten her father’s full approval, Ilsa launched question after question at Lyle over dinner. As a result, Lyle, who had complete confidence in his memory, could not for his life remember the taste of anything from the most sumptuous meal he had ever savoured in his whole life.
Lastly, on that day, Lyle received the proof of their trust. The curtains on the carriage home were not drawn.