"Uhm, I beg your pardon," Iris was holding up one of the starter packs that was still in its wrapper. "But what are these?"
Kazuma gasped. "They're HeroMon playing cards! You've heard of HeroMon, right? I mean it's the most popular game there is for boys ages eight to thirteen, and the market for adults is growing at an accelerated pace. I mean I've had to buy five new printing presses just to keep up with demand. And the international market's growing too."
Iris stood there blinking. "I'm very sorry, but I don't understand."
Claire strolled up with a smug expression. "Of course, you don't, Iris-sama. It's merchant talk. Like others of his sort all he cares about is money and profit margins. Naturally, such vulgar concerns are beneath you."
"Hey, white suit I'm not a merchant. I happen to be CEO and sole owner of Satou Industries LLC. I also happen to be a very high-level Adventurer and leader of my party."
"Don't call me white suit! To you my name is Sinfonia-sama! You rude, disrespectful-"
Darkness coughed into her hand and sauntered up beside Kazuma before putting a hand on his arm. "Claire-san, you were the one being rude first."
"That's true," Iris said. "He's a guest here and onee-chan's beloved. Why are you being so mean to him?"
Claire's cheeks blushed and she quickly bowed in Iris's direction. "I am very, sorry."
"Oi, white suit, shouldn't I be the one you're apologizing to?" Kazuma asked.
She turned to glare at Kazuma and gripped the hilt of her sword. "You! Call me that once more!"
Kazuma opened his mouth but before he could speak Darkness stepped between them. "If you choose to fight Kazuma, you will have to fight me as well."
"I don't seek a quarrel with you, Dustiness-san. But I won't swallow anymore insults, especially not from someone who is just a merchant and an adventurer."
"Why is his being an adventurer an issue?' Iris asked. "Onee-chan is one too."
"I don't refer to adventurer as a profession but to Adventurer as a class. It's the lowest one available, fit only for bottom feeders who can't do anything better."
"Hey, it just so happens I had the option to change classes when I hit level twenty-five to either warrior or thief. I actually thought about switching over to thief."
"Then why would you still be an Adventurer?"
"Well, it just so happens I like being able to do a little bit of everything. Being a jack of all trades has some serious advantages."
"Hah! More likely you're just too weak to be anything else!"
"Claire," Darkness frowned. "You really are being exceptionally disrespectful to Kazuma. Both as an adventurer and in the field of business he is someone deserving of respect. You've been condescending to him from the moment you met."
"That's because someone of his lowly station needs to know his proper place."
"Listen, white suit, I know right where my place is because I've earned it. I wasn't born into a comfy life where I had everything handed to me. Everything I have I've worked for and earned and I'm not about to apologize for it. If you've got a problem with that, tough."
The two glared at each other as Darkness remained standing in between.
"It doesn't matter what you've earned or where you now stand. You are no great hero, you're not even a nobleman. You don't deserve to be with Dustiness-san."
Kazuma grinned. "Knowing Darkness as well as I do, I can honestly say no one does."
Darkness gasped and a little shudder ran through her. "C… Claire-san, you don't know him. K… Kazuma is an amazing man and v… very d… dear to me! I won't stand to have him be insulted."
Claire sneered at Kazuma. "Isn't it the man who's supposed to defend the woman?"
"Well, I happen to believe in gender equality. Besides, she likes being the one who takes blows for others. Isn't that right," he leaned forward a bit so her could whisper in her ear. "La-la-ti-na?"
She once again gasped and shuddered.
Claire looked revolted.
Iris however sighed dreamily and held her hands to her mouth. "How romantic!" Her eyes were sparkling. "The highborn noblewoman who is in love with the poor scoundrel who was raised in the streets!"
"Hey! I'm not poor! I own a mansion! I also wasn't raised in the streets!"
"Are you a scoundrel?" Iris asked.
"No," Kazuma said.
"Yes," Darkness said.
"Hey! What are you saying?"
Darkness looked at him in surprise. "There's no point in hiding it."
"Oi! What kind of guy do you think I am?!"
Darkness glanced at a very interested Claire. "Kazuma, I'd really rather not say right now."
Lain approached them chuckling. "I can see why you like him; he certainly is different."
"That's not a good thing," Claire said.
"Anyway," Lain continued. "I think we've gotten a bit off track. I believe the original question was why did you give Princess Iris such an odd gift?"
"What are you talking about?" Kazuma asked. "She's twelve and I was told she likes fighting. What could be better than HeroMon cards?"
"Weapons!" Claire waved an arm at the stack of different arms that covered most of the table.
Kazuma shrugged. "Well excuse me for thinking a twelve-year-old might like to play a really fun game." He turned to speak to Iris. "You do play games, right? I mean they don't have you practicing with swords every minute of the day, do they?"
Iris blinked and looked a tad mystified. "Well, no, I also study etiquette, basic magic, and academics."
"Huh? Don't you get to have any fun at all? That is just straight up child abuse."
"Do sparring matches count? I do also play chess on occasion."
"Chess? Why would you ever want to play chess?"
All four girls were frowning at him.
"Chess is a game that teaches strategic thinking and how to plan ahead," Iris said.
"It is a game of kings," Claire said.
"It is war miniature," Lain said.
"It is a game every noble child is taught, and I enjoy it myself," Darkness said.
Seeing he was up against a united front Kazuma put his hands up.
"Okay, okay, I'm sure it's great. I'm just saying HeroMon is way better. How many playing pieces are there and how many different sorts?"
"There are sixteen pieces to a side," Iris said. "Eight pawns, two knights, two rooks, two bishops, one queen, and one king."
"Pffft, that's nothing! A standard game is with a fifty-card deck and no duplicates are allowed. As of now there are one hundred and thirty-two individual cards, with more on the way. There are heroes, monsters, trap cards, and boosts and no two cards have the exact same stats. No way a simple board game even begins to compare."
"Card games are for the uncultured," Claire said. "Everyone knows that. No person of any real significance would ever stoop to playing them. Never mind a card game made for children."
"I play HeroMon all the time," Darkness said.
"You do, onee-chan?"
Darkness nodded. "I, Kazuma, and my other teammate Megumin, play whenever we make camp. We'll also occasionally play at the guild hall in between quests. I was actually the first person in this country Kazuma taught the game too. It's quite fun and challenging once you get used to it."
"Want to learn how to play?' Kazuma asked.
Iris hesitated, but Claire jumped right in.
"Of course not, her royal highness has no interest in something so vulgar and beneath her dignity!"
Iris looked a bit disappointed, but did not argue.
"Oaky then," Kazuma said. "How about Lalatina here and I play and the rest of you can watch. No harm in that, right?"
Claire was about to object but Lain thwarted her.
"Actually, all this talk has made me quite curious. If her majesty has no objection, I'd love to watch them play."
"I don't mind."
"Well alright then," Kazuma walked over to the table and sat down. He took one of the starter packs and tore off the wrapping. The cards dropped into his hands, and he began to shuffle them with swift and practiced ease. "Come on, we'll both just use a starter deck. No boosters, no wilds, no house rules, we'll just play a standard game and explain the rules as we go."
"Very well," Darkness sat across from him, and tore open another starter deck and began shuffling. Her movements weren't quite as smooth and fluid as Kazuma's, but it was obvious she'd done it many times before.
When they were done shuffling, they each allowed their opponent to cut. That done, they drew six cards and placed them down face up. They then drew six more cards which they kept in hand.
"Shall we flip a coin to see who gets first move?" Darkness asked.
"Nah, you can have it."
"That's unusually gracious of you."
"Well, I don't want to be a complete scoundrel, La-la-ti-na."
Her cheeks darkened and she tapped one of her cards. "Very well, my 'yellow turban brigand' attacks your 'foolish merchant' for thirty points."
Kazuma nodded. "That takes out Wiz." He picked up a card displaying a buxom brunette in a purple outfit that looked suspiciously like a certain magic shop owner. He then placed the card face down off to the side in what would become a discard pile. Kazuma looked over the cards in his hand. He slapped a troll down in the spot Wiz had just vacated and drew the top card from his deck. "My 'basilisk' uses its special attack petrify on your 'archwizard.'"
Darkness turned her archwizard sideways, indicating it could no longer be played but could also not be removed and replaced by another card.
As the two of them played they explained the rules and just how the game worked. Both Iris and Lain stood behind Darkness, peering over her shoulder. Claire kept her distance with a permanent scowl plastered on her face.
Kazuma tapped a card displaying a silver haired girl with an adorable smile and a scar. "My 'stylish thief' uses her special attack backstab to inflict eighty points of damage on your 'ogre.'"
"That defeats my 'ogre' and exhausts all five hundred of my hit points, it's my loss." She turned over all the cards that were still in play, admitting defeat.
Iris patted her shoulder and there was a smattering of applause from the small crowd that had gathered around the table. One game had turned into five, and as they continued to play more and more of the guests had wandered over to watch. Kazuma and Darkness had continued explaining the rules throughout. Iris had grown more and more interested while at the same time Claire had grown increasingly frustrated. As soon as the fifth game ended, she stomped over to the princess's side.
"Iris-sama, isn't this enough? It's far too much in fact."
"Oh, but I was having fun, it's such an interesting game."
"Yes, I suppose it is," Claire screwed on a brittle smile. "But shouldn't you be entertaining guests and greeting people rather than wasting time with this?"
"What's wrong with a girl doing whatever she wants at her own birthday party?" Kazuma asked.
Claire gave him a withering glare. "I wouldn't expect someone like you to understand. But her highness has duties when she attends social events, even the ones that are in her honor. She has wasted more than enough time with this low brow entertainment."
"I suppose you are right," Iris sighed. "It was fun but-"
At that moment bells within the castle and throughout the capital began tolling.
"The demon army is attacking!" One of the guards shouted.
In a flash Claire had her sword in hand. "Everyone! We must fight to defend the city and the princess!"
The guards and knights raised their swords as well and cheered.
Darkness jumped to her feet. "As I am here, I will fight as well!" She grabbed a random sword from the gift table.
"I will too!" A man with a heavy paunch grabbed a battle axe.
"Me too!" A woman in high heels and red cocktail dress grabbed a spear and shield.
"So will I!"
"House Dunston will lead the way!"
All the party guests started to stampede towards the table to grab weapons and looked more enthusiastic to go fight the Demon King's army than to have cake and stand around talking. Kazuma was taken aback as he hadn't actually brought his sword or daggers or any other weapons with him. And while he was certainly used to fighting monsters, he wasn't particularly eager to suddenly join in an unexpected battle.
"Uhm, should I…"
"Stay here," Claire barked at him with a satisfied grin. "This will be a serious fight. You'd only get in the way." She looked over the armed mob that had formed. "Noble warriors! Follow me!"
With an excited roar most all the party members including Darkness and Lain were running out of the castle. But not Princess Iris.
"You're not going too?"
Iris sighed. "Father and older brother are already on the front lines and despite all my training I'm still too young."
"I see," Kazuma gathered his cards together and began forming them back into a deck. "Well, then want to play a game with me princess? I think you've got the rules down by now."
Iris glanced down at the cards that Darkness had left behind. "I really shouldn't… Claire would be very-"
"I don't see white suit anywhere," sitting in his chair Kazuma made a show of looking about. Except for the two of them, the entire ballroom was now deserted. "And I won't tell if you won't."
Iris stood there eyeing the cards. "I don't know."
Kazuma was shuffling and making cards fly from one hand to the other. "Come on, it'll be fun."
"Well… onee-chan plays so I guess it can't be too bad."
"That's the spirit!"
Iris sat down and began gathering up the cards Darkness had played.
"Say," Kazuma said with a wide smile as he activated his Negotiation skill. "How about we do something that will make this even more fun?"
"What do you have in mind?"
"Well, having something at stake always makes the game more interesting. What would you say to a little wager? Just to make it a tiny bit more exciting."
Iris frowned. "Claire and Lain both say gambling is immoral."
"Oh, I totally agree," Kazuma's fingers were a blur, and his cards were dancing. "And I would never suggest anything like that. But I didn't mean gambling for eris. I was thinking about a friendly little wager. Nothing important… just favors."
Kazuma nodded, smile wide enough to swallow a cat. "And since you're a brand-new player I'll even give myself a penalty to make things fairer." He held up three fingers. "I have to win three straight games, if you beat me even once, it's your victory. Plus," he pointed to the bonus packs that were still lying on the table unopened. "I'll let you add one bonus pack to your deck. So, you'll have fifty-six cards to my fifty. Can't be any fairer than that can I?"
Iris paused and thought it over. "Uhm, what sort of favors would we be betting?"
"Let's see," he pretended to think it over. "Oh! How about this? You've heard about me and Lalatina spending three whole months in the Enchanted Wood together, right? How would you like me to tell you everything that happened?"
And Kazuma knew he had her. "Yep."
"And if you win?"
He told her what he wanted.
"That's all? Ah, it doesn't seem like a very fair trade."
"What? I'm not trying to profit from you or anything. This is just about having fun."
Iris gave a giddy laugh and nodded. "All right Kazuma-san! It's a deal!"
With that they began to play.