"That was a wonderful battle!" Darkness declared as she and the others entered the royal castle. A lot of her dress had been torn off, revealing her thighs and midriff, but there was not so much as a scratch on her skin.
Claire nodded as she wiped blood from her blade. "It was, and it was actually small scale for once. The big attacks can last all night, this was barely an hour. Plus, we only suffered five deaths, and only one of those was permanent."
Darkness nodded. "It's a shame about Rollo, though."
"Yes, dissolved by acid is a terrible way to go, but it happens. All things considered it was a fine battle."
Behind them many of the other party guests were enthusiastically recounting their parts in the fighting. Just about everyone was in fine spirits and pleased with how much monster blood they'd shed.
One of these, a handsome blond man carrying a bastard sword approached Darkness.
"Dustiness-san, may I say you were truly an inspiration out there. The way you stood your ground against that hill giant was nothing less than heroic!"
She smiled at him. "Ah, thank you, but as a crusader it is my sworn duty to put myself in danger in order to protect others."
"Yes, but even so you went far beyond what anyone could ever ask for. The way you defied that monster as it beat you, and even mocked it daring it to strike you even harder! It was only because you held its attention that Claire-dono was able to get behind it and score a killing blow."
"It's true," Claire said with admiration. "You took such a vicious beating I was afraid we were going to have to resurrect you. And you bore it all without so much as a word of complaint. I only wish I had your courage and endurance."
Darkness' cheeks went red. "I… It was n… nothing, I would be more than happy to do it again! Anytime!"
The young man sighed. "You truly are amazing, Dustiness-san." His eyes involuntarily dropped to her thighs before leaping back to her face. His cheeks were deeply reddened. "Not only as a warrior but as a woman as well."
"Thank you for your kind words…. ah, uhm…"
"I am Barnes Alexi Walter. My father is Lord Alderp of Axel, you must have met him."
"Heh, yes I have," her reply was less than enthusiastic. "Your father has quite a reputation."
Walter nodded. "Yes, he is a great man."
Darkness smiled and said nothing.
"Uhm, if that gentleman Kazuma really has won your heart he is fortunate indeed. I believe any man that could earn the affection of a woman like you is truly blessed."
"That is very nice of you to say."
Walter waited for a bit, perhaps hoping she would continue, then fell back to talk to some of his fellow noblemen.
"You know," Claire said. "There was talk that Lord Alderp was trying to arrange a betrothal between the two of you. Rumor even had it that your father was in favor of it."
"Yes, I'd heard that too. Luckily, my father wants my happiness and would never force me into a union with someone not suited to me."
Claire's jaw dropped. "Not suited? He's a knight and slew two trolls single handed during the fighting. He is handsome, wealthy, comes from an exalted background, and everyone says he is a good man with high morals. Why would you think he's unsuitable?"
Darkness turned to her with a grimace. "How could I ever settle for a competent and dull man who I know will always do the right and proper thing and would never ever take the easy way out? The sort of man who would never be underhanded and take advantage of people just because he can?"
"Isn't that a good thing?"
"Of course not! I would be bored to tears if I were forced to be with someone like that! I want the kind of man who'll shamelessly take advantage of me! One who'll mock me and call me an idiot to my face and think nothing of humiliating me in public! One who won't have an ounce of male pride and be happy to stand behind me as I fight his battles for him! I want the sort of uncaring pervert who'll bully me into wearing cat ears and a tail and force me to crawl around on all fours and go meow meow as he makes me lap up milk from a bowl!" She hugged herself and gasped.
When Darkness stopped panting, she noticed the look of horror on the other girl's face.
"Oh, did I say something weird?"
As they returned to the ballroom there was the sound of a little girl's laughter. They spotted Iris and Kazuma sitting at the table together eating cake and sipping tea.
"What is that miserable pervert doing with the princess?" Claire growled.
"What are you upset about, Claire-san?" Darkness asked. "He was obviously keeping Princess Iris company while we were on the battlefield. Why would you be upset about that?"
"Dustiness-san, please don't take this the wrong way, but if he is the sort of man you are attracted to then he absolutely should not be anywhere near her highness!"
"Then maybe you shouldn't have told him to stay behind while all the rest of us went out to fight," Lain pointed out.
Claire turned red faced. "I didn't think about that, but even so I can only shudder at the thought of the sort of twisted and immoral things he must have been talking about."
"Claire-san, please calm yourself," Darkness said with an easy smile. "While Kazuma is many things, he is not the sort who would do anything questionable with a twelve-year-old girl. Even if she is a princess."
"He had better not be," Claire hurried over to the table with Darkness and Lain on her heel.
As they approached there was more laughter from Iris.
"No way! You're making that up, onii-chan! There's no way that happened!"
Kazuma grinned and held up a hand. "I swear to Eris it's true."
"Iris-sama," Claire hurried to stand at her side and stare down Kazuma. "What are you doing?"
"Oh, Claire, onii-chan has been telling me stories about his adventures with onee-chan and a crazy Demon Clan girl named Megumin."
"Onii-chan?" Clair's lips twisted. "Iris-sama, it's not proper for you to call anyone but your older brother that."
"What's the problem, white suit?" Kazuma sipped his tea. "Iris-chan asked if she could call me that and I told her it was fine."
"Iris-chan?!" Claire's sword came out of its sheath.
Iris stood up and crossed her arms. "I asked Kazuma-san to call me that. Claire, are you trying to tell me I can't let a friend call me that?"
"Er, well, of… of course you can," she hurriedly resheathed her blade. "But, your highness, you've only just met this man. You barely know him! To allow a merchant such familiarity is beneath the royal dignity."
Kazuma snorted. "See? I told you she'd have problem with it."
Claire glared at him.
"It's true, Kazuma said you wouldn't like it," Iris said. "I thought you would be more understanding. He's onee-chan's precious person, and she knows him well. If she trusts him, I don't see why I shouldn't as well."
"She has a point," Lain said with a smirk.
"Iris-sama, while I hate to say this," she sent a worried glance in Darkness' direction. "I'm not sure I trust Dustiness-san's judgement. Especially when it comes to men."
"Wow, that's harsh," Kazuma winced. "You're really not giving me any chance at all are you? I mean has it occurred to you that even if I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth or don't have perfect manners, that I might be a really good guy?"
"No," Claire said flatly. "Dustiness-san herself considers you a scoundrel. And everything I've seen tonight only confirms that opinion."
"Claire-san," Darkness stepped forward. "You are being unfair. While I am the first to admit Kazuma has some questionable ethics, there is no one I trust more. I have put my life in his hands many times and would not hesitate to do so again."
"Thanks, Lalatina, I appreciate it," he lifted his teacup in salute.
Her cheeks blushed. "I… In a… any case what were you laughing about?"
"Oh! Onii-chan was telling me about some of his adventures!" Iris sounded excited. "Onee-chan, is it true that you were chained up naked in a dungeon once with a couple doppelgangers?"
Darkness gasped. "K… Ka… Kazuma! W… Why would you t… tell Iris about that?!"
He smiled at her and got a forkful of cake. "Iris-chan wanted to hear stories about you, La-la-ti-na. Was I not supposed to tell her that one?"
"N… No! Of course not!"
"So, it really happened?!" Iris squealed.
Darkness waved the question off. "L… Let's not t… talk about that specific adventure."
"Fine," Kazuma said with an accepting nod. "Say, Iris-chan, would you like to hear the story of how Lalatina got her magical sword?"
"N… No! N… Not that one either!"
Claire let out an exasperated sigh. "Iris-sama, all your guests save one," she glowered at the sole exception. "Have just returned from the battlefield. Perhaps it would be best to bring the night's activities to an end."
"Oh," she looked disappointed. "I suppose that's true. I had so much fun tonight thanks to onii-chan. I'm a little sorry to see it stop."
"I had a lot of fun too," Kazuma said. "If this is the end of the evening though isn't there something you need to do first though?"
"And why would the kingdom's princess need to do anything?" Claire asked.
"Oh, it's no big deal," Kazuma said. "She's just paying off a bet."
"A bet?!" Darkness, Claire, and Lain all exclaimed together. All three women looked irate.
"Kazuma!" Darkness shouted. "You weren't gambling with Princess Iris, were you? I know what a ruthless savage you are, but I thought you had some morals!"
Kazuma placed a hand to his heart. "Lalatina, you wound me!"
"I'll wound you if you exposed the princess to such immoral behavior," Claire was gripping her sword hilt so tight her knuckles were white.
"Hey, I don't know what sort of guy you take me for, but I would never gamble with a child. All I did was play HeroMon with her to pass the time and have a little fun."
"That's all you did?" Claire demanded. "Then where is this talk of a bet coming from?"
"Oh, we weren't gambling," Iris explained. "Kazuma and I were betting favors to make the game more fun, that's all."
"Yeah," Kazuma nodded. "We were just having fun. It wasn't like we were betting money or anything serious you know. It was totally harmless."
"And what exactly were the stakes in this 'harmless' wager?" Claire asked.
"Well," Iris said. "If I won, onii-chan was going to tell me everything that happened between him and onee-chan while they were in the Enchanted Wood."
"W… What?! E… Everything?!"
Kazuma chuckled. "Relax, Lalatina. I won so that story's still untold. For now."
"W… What do you m… mean for now?!"
Kazuma just smiled.
"And what, exactly, did you offer in exchange?" An exasperated Claire asked.
"Oh, nothing important," Iris said. "I just had to tell people something and give onii-chan permission to let the public know about it."
"Speaking of which…"
Iris nodded. "Everyone! Could I have your attention? Could I have your attention please? I have an announcement."
"Iris-sama, what are you about to say?"
All the guests gathered around the table and the princess. Once they were assembled Iris spoke.
"I would just like everyone to know that I played HeroMon with Kazuma Satou and I love the game! I am giving the game my personal endorsement and sponsorship! In other words, I am acting as his patron. I am also giving him permission to use my name and likeness to advertise it in any way he sees fit."
As soon as Iris finished speaking the crowd began muttering to one another. Meanwhile Iris looked over to Kazuma.
"Is this really all you want? Usually, royal patronage involves financial support."
"Oh, no, no, no I'd never ask you for money. Just letting everyone know you like my game is plenty," Kazuma then stood up and cleared his throat. "Oh, by the way, all those of you who happen to live here in the capital. If you are interested in purchasing HeroMon cards and other products they're available exclusively at Ollie's Herbal Emporium on Cudgel Street in the South District. Ollie's Herbal Emporium, for all your herbal and HeroMon needs."
Seeing how excitedly people were talking Kazuma started rubbing his hands together. Darkness walked up to him frowning.
"I know that look," she said in his ear. "This is going to make you a lot of eris somehow, isn't it?"
"What? Just because a member of the royal family is a sponsor now and I can use her name and likeness to advertise for free? How would that make me any money?"
"I honestly don't know, but somehow I expect it will."
Kazuma smiled and held finger and thumb just barely apart. "Maybe just a bit."
"Uh huh," Darkness sighed. "You truly are a beast sometimes."
"Well, you're the one dating me," he slid his arm around her hips and whispered. "La-la-ti-na."
She shuddered a bit and he chuckled as the two of them left. Iris, Claire, Lain, and Walter Barnes watched them go with great interest.