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    Perhaps because Fang had provided him with an ample supply of essence the other day, Rinda felt unusually light on his feet lately. Grasping the hilt of his practice sword and placing his hand on the blade, Rinda stretched his arms and bent forward with a soft “Mm,” stretching the muscles in his lower back.

    “Hey, you’re looking pretty chipper.”

    From behind, he felt a heavy weight slump against his back. Even without turning around, Rinda knew who the voice belonged to and greeted over his shoulder, “Good morning, Kenneth.”

    “Mornin’. You in top form?”

    “Yes, sir.”

    Today was the day of the Holy Knights’ joint training session. “Joint” didn’t mean every squad would be participating. They couldn’t neglect their regular duties, after all. The knights gathered in the training grounds today made up about a third of the entire Holy Knights. There were several different types of training grounds. Outdoor training fields that made use of natural terrain for more practical training, indoor training halls specialized for close combat, and so on. Today’s mock battles would be held in the main training ground, the one most frequently used, with a stone-paved stage in the center. And today, a rather special mock battle was set to take place.

    “Alrighty. I ain’t tellin’ ya to win at all costs, but don’t you dare lose, got it?”

    Whether he meant one or the other was anyone’s guess, but Kenneth punctuated his contradictory statement by playfully punching Rinda in the stomach. Though casual, there was quite a bit of force behind it.

    “I-I’ll do my best.”

    Today’s mock battle was a competition among the new recruits of each squad. While the original intent seemed to be “fostering camaraderie between squads by having the newbies face off,” every squad was glaring fiercely as they patted their new recruits on the shoulder or back. Watching this, Rinda let out a sigh. “Hah…” In the end, it was a clash of pride between squads, using the new recruits as proxies. About ten squads had gathered here today. The competition wasn’t a tournament, so after about three or four mock battles against different opponents, it would be over. There were a few rules in place, such as only practice swords allowed and no magic permitted.

    “Oh, rookie. Your brothers’ squads are here too.” “Huh? Oh.”

    Following Kenneth’s gaze into the distance, Rinda spotted Cain and Philly in the spectator seats surrounding the stage. Both were surrounded by members of their respective squads. Philly was earnestly cheering on someone who appeared to be a new recruit, repeatedly shouting, “You got this! I said you got this, so you got this!” Cain, on the other hand, seemed uninterested and was yawning.

    (Ah, Mr. Howard.)

    The captain of Philly’s squad was Howard. Fang had also been a member of Howard’s squad before, so he was a holy knight with various ties to the Azrael family. Moreover, after hearing about the Azrael family’s circumstances from Fang (that they had no parents and a whole bunch of siblings), Howard and his entire squad had sent them all sorts of gifts.

    So Rinda was extremely grateful to Howard and the members of his squad. Gazing over at them, Howard seemed to notice him and raised his hand. As always, he had a gentle, kind smile.

    (Despite his kind demeanor, he completely changes when demon beasts appear.)

    The year before last, when this town was attacked by demon beasts, Rinda had seen Howard confront them right next to him. The sight of him charging forward, his pure white uniform fluttering, was one of the things that made Rinda regain his determination to become a holy knight once more. The squad members around Howard also noticed Rinda and waved to him. Perhaps because they had met before Rinda joined the Holy Knights, they treated his casually, more like a relative’s child than a junior member. After glancing around at everyone’s behavior, Philly finally noticed Rinda. He was opening and closing his mouth. It seemed he was trying to convey something to him.

    (Don’t… you… dare… lose!)

    “Hah.”

    Rinda couldn’t help but laugh at the message his competitive little brother sent. No matter how old he got, he was still a cheeky, adorable brother.

    “I won’t… lose… either!”

    Rinda also opened and closed his mouth to convey his own intentions. Finally, he snorted, “Hmph,” and Philly stuck his tongue out at him. Then a senior holy knight bopped him on the head. Somehow, it seemed Philly was treated like a little brother in his squad too.

    (Well, I’m just glad they dote on him.)

    Watching this with a mix of exasperation and amusement, Rinda suddenly lifted his head.

    “Come to think of it, Kenneth, you knew what my brothers look like.” “Hm? ‘Course I do, the Azrael family. I’ve heard rumors about Captain Fang, Philly, Cain. You can’t help but hear about ’em if you’re in the Holy Knights.” “Oh, I see…”

    Surprised they were that well-known, Rinda’s eyes widened slightly.

    “You got more siblings?”

    “Yes. Five more younger brothers.”

    “Huh.”

    While having nine siblings usually surprised people, Kenneth’s reaction was surprisingly muted. If anything, he seemed to accept it as a matter of course, as if to say, “Is that all?”

    “You don’t seem very surprised. People are usually quite shocked when I say nine.”

    “Huh? That’s nothin’ to be surprised about. I’ve got twelve brothers.”

    “Oh, wow… Wait, what? Twelve?!”

    Gaping at Kenneth in shock, Rinda’s superior had his hands clasped behind his head, looking unfazed.

    “Yep. Y’see, my family… Ah, well, we just have a lotta kids. And I’m the oldest.”

    Judging by the way he trailed off, it might have had something to do with his half-demon blood. Rinda pondered what to say in response for a bit before settling on just nodding. “I-I see.”

    “That’s surprising.”

    “What is?”

    “I thought Kenneth, you didn’t really like… I mean, you weren’t too fond of looking after younger ones.”

    Rinda tried to say “weren’t good with” but forcefully swallowed those words, thinking they might be too rude. It was hard to imagine Kenneth, who usually disciplined Rinda while laughing, “Ke ke ke,” doting on his younger brothers.

    “I ain’t lookin’ after ’em, just supportin’ ’em financially.”

    “Huh?”

    Rinda looked at Kenneth in surprise, but he wasn’t looking at him. Nor was he looking at the other squad members or surveying the training grounds. His gaze was fixed somewhere far away.

    “The rest of ’em live far away. I’m just here to earn money.”

    “I-I see.”

    Referring to his job as a holy knight as “earning money” was very much like Kenneth. But it probably wouldn’t look good if others overheard. Rinda couldn’t help but glance around. The other members of Tag’s squad, including Tag himself, were chatting amiably over in the spectator seats, and none of the other squads would bother approaching the odd jobs squad. So there was no one around, and he didn’t need to worry.

    (Still, Kenneth is…)

    He seemed to have a lot going on, but was it really okay to pry? After much deliberation, Rinda decided to keep his mouth shut. Kenneth was a half-demon. Rinda was also a half-demon, but he had grown up surrounded by a human family, living as a “human.” But Rinda knew nothing about how Kenneth had been born or raised. He might have lived peacefully like Rinda, or he might have faced unimaginable tragedies or hardships beyond his comprehension.

    (It’s not something I can just casually ask about.)

    Rinda watched Kenneth as he absentmindedly gazed up at the sky. He didn’t seem to be pondering anything in particular, but perhaps he had his own worries and problems to deal with or bear.

    “Ahh, I’m starvin’. Rookie, hurry up and win so we can get this over with.”

    “…”

    He really didn’t seem to have any dark shadows looming over him, no matter how Rinda looked at it. Shoulders slumping at Kenneth’s comment, utterly oblivious to the tense atmosphere around them, Rinda replied, “I’ll do what I can.”

    “Huh?”

    Suddenly, Kenneth furrowed his brow. Following his gaze as he glared sternly to the right, Rinda spotted some familiar knights.

    “Isn’t that…”

    They were the holy knights who had harassed Rinda the other day when he was bringing documents to the general affairs department. Apparently, new recruits from their squad were also participating in today’s rookie competition. They seemed to have noticed Rinda and the others staring, and were whispering secretively amongst themselves, smiling unpleasantly. They were clearly looking down on Rinda and the others.

    “Sounds like they’re sayin’ somethin’ real irritatin’.”

    “Huh, you can hear them?”

    Despite the considerable distance, it seemed Kenneth could hear the men’s conversation. He was grinning fiercely. “Hehe.”

    “I got good ears, y’see. …’The odd jobs squad rookie, eh? Looks weak. Hey, why don’t we break an arm or two? It’s not like they get many missions anyway, so it won’t matter if they’re missing an arm,’ they’re sayin’.”

    “What?”

    Thinking they couldn’t possibly, Rinda glanced at the men and saw them patting their own arms while facing their rookie.

    “…That has to be a joke, right?”

    “Who knows~ I can’t tell if those guys are serious or not.”

    Kenneth said this disinterestedly, then continued, “But…”

    “Talkin’ about breakin’ my rookie’s arm pisses me off.”

    “Kenneth…”

    “It’d just mean more work for me, wouldn’t it?”

    “…Is that the issue here?!”

    Rinda raised his voice without thinking, and Kenneth laughed. “Hah.”

    “Rookie. Sure, you look weak, and you are actually weaker than me, and scrawnier than the other holy knights.”

    “Are you trying to comfort me? Or put me down?” Glaring at Kenneth for his words that could hardly be called comforting or anything else, Rinda crossed his arms. But Kenneth just shrugged, seemingly unbothered by Rinda’s intimidation.

    “But you still ain’t gonna lose to some random rookie out there.”

    At those unexpected words, Rinda blinked rapidly. Then, he clenched his fist tightly.

    “…Yes, sir!”

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