The Much-Talked-About Esteemed Sub-leader
Translation of Sword Art Online ME 17, The Much-Talked-About Esteemed Sub-leader.
23rd September 2024
“Clearing group players popularity poll…?”
I replied half-heartedly with the same words and the katana wielder with a red bandana confirmed with a stern look.
“That’s right. There are apparently ballot boxes set at the teleport gate plazas for a bunch of towns from today onwards.”
“And so, I hear a newspaper today comes attached with a ballot paper.”
“The results will be announced next week, in that newspaper, on 30th September.
Staring hard into my face as I repeated those interjections, the katana wielder turned the fork in his right hand towards me.
“Hey, Kiritard, you may think it’s someone else’s problem, but that’s not how it’ll go. You’re one of the nominees too!”
At that, I finally refocused the seventy percent or so of my attention from the cheesecake plate to our conversation thus far, and blinked thrice before putting on an utterly grim look.
“…Huh? N-Nominees… you mean, don’t tell me, people can vote for me too?”
“That goes without saying, «The Black Swordsman»-san.”
The grinning katana wielder—Klein, the leader of the guild, «Fuurinkazan», and someone who had been around me since right after the death game began—quickly went through his menu window and materialized folded pieces of paper. I reluctantly picked it up after he plunked it onto the table.
The document’s name, «Aincrad
Currently, in September 2024, there were three media outlets in Aincrad in the form of newspapers.
The first was «Weekly Argo», the strategy guide paper published by the distinguished information dealer, Argo the «Rat».
The second was «
And the third was the youngest «Aincrad Shuuhou», boasting the most content as a general-interest newspaper.
Though each and every one of them was published weekly, there was a number of players reading all three since «Weekly» released on Wednesdays, «Stories» on Fridays, and «Shuuhou» on Mondays. Regularly-provisioned textual media were precious in Aincrad with its lack of entertainment.
However, of course, the players publishing each newspaper were not doing it out of volunteerism. Printing a large quantity of newspapers required either commissioning a NPC printing shop or preparing a personal printing machine (in which case, there would be the cost of paper and ink), and money was needed to pay the royalties for those who write their articles as well. And considering profit margins too, their prices had to be set to a reasonable level; at the current moment, «Weekly» was 200 cor, «Stories» was 300 cor, and «Shuuhou» was 500 cor.
It wasn’t much to those on the front lines, normally earning over several thousand or even ten thousand each day, but it was quite an expense for those players in the middle zone, and those waiting in Starting City would find it difficult to even purchase either regularly. That was why the phenomenon of lending out or reselling developed: out of necessity.
In Aincrad, almost every item aside from equipment would not be dirtied or break regardless of how much it was touched unless someone consciously attempted to break it. Newspapers and magazines would be rather worn-out in the real world when passed through five or six people, but it would be practically new here even if a hundred people read and passed it on.
The number of readers who did not buy them directly was estimated to be five to ten times the newspapers’ sales, and that was apparently a source of worry for the publishers. That said, Argo, making her main income as an information dealer without any need for profit through the newspaper, laughed with an “I’m glad the clearing information can spread even without effort from mE, nyahahaha”.
At any rate, «Aincrad Shuuhou» which had the most pages and highest price among the three papers, leading to the highest risk when it came to finance, was definitely up to something by planning this popularity poll that would drive their costs even higher—I opened up the newspaper handed over from Klein with that suspicion.
I then saw that the center spread was used for it, with summaries on dozens of the clearing group’s players listed. That included not just their names, but even photos, likely via photography crystals.
I moaned while reluctantly searching for my name. The temptation to throw the entire newspaper overhand surged over me for an instant upon finding “Kirito” easily enough under K in the alphabetically-sorted listing, along with an alias of “The Black Swordsman” which I certainly had never referred to myself as.
But fortunately, that impulse abated at the photo above my name: a blurred back view of me, cropped from a distant shot of the clearing meeting of some floor. Shifting my focus, I nearly slipped off my chair when I saw “Klein (Leader of Fuurinkazen)” two places away and a photo of him showing a brilliant smile straight at the camera with a thumbs-up.
“……Hey, Klein, this photo……”
“Oh? Ooh, det wan!”
The katana wielder nonchalantly replied after gulping down a large mille-feuille.
“Some girl who said she’s a reporter from «Shuuhou» came the other day and mentioned I’d been nominated for the popularity poll, so I let her take one.”
Even if you are the leader of a clearing group guild, how about putting up more of a guard…? I stuffed a piece of cheesecake into my mouth, stifling those words, and kept it shut.
The PK guild, «Laughing Coffin», which ran rampant in Aincrad’s darkness and brought about many tragedies and much chaos was vanquished after a large-scale subjugation operation last month. Though it bothered me how PoH, the leader, was still at large, I doubted any PK would be after any of the clearing group’s players now.
Laying down my fork, I brought the glass of iced coffee to my lips and looked towards the eastern skies.
The three hours of tea and information exchanging Klein and I shared took place at an open cafe on the outskirts of the seventy-second floor’s main town, «Ozmalt». As it was the front-most line as of now, 23rd September, the vaguely visible labyrinth tower in the distance had yet to be explored. It would be a few more days at least before the clearing group reached the tower and discovered its boss room.
The clearing group’s pace had clearly fallen in recent days, so just what would the sub-leader of that one top guild think upon hearing of this project making use of them…? I lowered my head, turning my eyes towards the paper atop the table once more.
That particular esteemed sub-leader was noted on the top-right of the still-open double-page spread with the lengthy caption of “Asuna (The Flash) (Sub-leader of Knights of the Blood)”. Her photo appeared to have been taken from a distance without her knowing, like mine, but her beautiful features lost no luster despite the moderate amount of noise.
I looked up and spoke to Klein, grimacing from his spicy ginger ale.
“Hey, isn’t this popularity poll rigged from the beginning?”
The katana wielder flicked his fringe held up by his bandana and put on an abrupt impassive (or so he must think) smile.
“Well, unlike that shot of your back view from some hidden camera, Kiritard, they came right out and asked for mine. Looks like it’s about time for me to think up of some cool alias for myself too, huh? Hmm… If you’re the black swordsman, then I’ll be the Red Master Swordsman… no, Grandmaster Swordsman…”
“Yeah, sure, name yourself whatever you like.”
Putting aside Klein, playing the fool with all he had, with a smile, I pointed at the top-right corner of the list of nominees.
“Unfortunately for you, The Red Grandmaster Swordsman, first place’s definitely going to this person here.”
The katana wielder grinned at that and prodded at my leg with his foot under the table.
“Oh, my, how rare hearing you putting her up on a pedestal.”
I almost fell off my chair yet again at that and quickly refuted.
“E-Everyone would say the same! That was nothing but an objective conjecture!”
“C’mon now, don’t worry, it’s okay being honest with yourself every now and then, young one.”
Nodding away with those ludicrous words, Klein downed what was left of his ginger ale and stood up with a flourish.
“‘Ight then, guess I’ll try keeping it up even at night to get into the top 3, then. Just stand back and watch while I hit this floor’s labyrinth before you!”
“Yeah, sure, don’t overdo it, though. The black nepents appearing beyond Agarla Village can grab you from afar, so watch out.”
“What, you’ve already gotten that far…?”
Expressing his gratitude by lifting his right hand into a rough salute even as he muttered away, the katana wielder then staggered out of the store.
I let out a breath and began reading the Aincrad Shuuhou Klein left behind from the first page.
The first headline addressed the progress of the seventy-second floor’s conquest. It reported on the clearing group reaching Agarla Village at the floor’s center and the dense forest beyond it taking up their time.
I flipped through the pages; the second and third pages were filled with information on happenings and quests on the middle floors, the fourth and fifth were for the aforementioned list of nominees for the popularity poll, the sixth had columns, the seventh had estimates for item prices, and the eighth page at the end had a ballot paper at the bottom to be cut out, though that was likely limited to this time.
It put quite a bit of work into its layout, living up to its claim as a general-interest paper, but there were still issues. In particular, sparse mistakes scattered around the clearing-related articles on the first three pages. Or the names of important NPCs or locations needed on the quest walkthrough articles, or the discrepancies in the reports on incidents and events. It occurred even on the front page article: «DDA» was made to be the guild who first reached Agarla Village despite Knights of the Blood actually arriving several hours earlier.
It was their level of fact gathering, inferior to the «Weekly Argo», that caused those mistakes. Something unavoidable when they simply put mere rumors spreading within safe haven straight into articles. Their intent of providing a general-interest newspaper to Aincrad, lacking leisure activities, was applaudable, though it appeared they were still in lack of that actual capability.
I focused my eyes near the masthead, wondering who were the players producing it, and found no more than the words, “Published by: Aincrad Shuuhou Editorial Staff”. Though the answer would be revealed in an instant if I asked Argo, my desire to know hardly justified the price.
“…Well, even if it’s by a little, I’ll just hope they improve at collecting data…”
“Like I said, this newspaper needs to…… w-whaaa?!”
I jumped for real this time, thirty centimeters up despite maintaining my seated posture, at the face belonging to the person who abruptly interjected from the back-right and fell towards my left. A hand quickly shot out, however, and grabbed my right shoulder, bringing me back.
“What’s with you, screaming right after seeing someone else’s face?”
This frowning player was precisely that esteemed sub-leader of the guild, Knights of the Blood, whom I had predicted would win the popularity poll. The radiance given off by her bodice based in white and red, the mithril breastplate atop it, and the silver rapier hanging off her waist blinded me for a moment before I replied to Asuna, «The Flash».
“Nah… nah, I was just thinking this newspaper had too many mistakes as always…”
Asuna glanced at the Shuuhou in my hand and put on a sour look, but simply quietly sat down on the chair Klein vacated.
Ordering a banana tart and nuts milk tea from the NPC waiter who immediately approached, she swept her long chestnut hair back with both hands and let out a short breath. I gazed upon that visage for several moments before beginning my interrogation.
“…Why did you know I was here?”
“It’s easy enough to predict what someone as simple as you would do, Kirito-kun.”
Showing a defiant smile, «The Flash» pointed with her right index finger.
“While the hunting areas are crowded, you would return to town for maintenance, resupplying, and tea. The stores near the teleport gate are crowded, so you would avoid them and choose one on the outskirts, especially one with good desserts. When it comes to Ozmalt, where else would you be but here?”
“…How much of a sweet tooth do you think I have…?”
“But you would go for some tasty cake as a snack at three, wouldn’t you?”
It was as she said; or rather, I could hardly object when that served as my motivation for my «daytime». I smothered my words and sank into silence as Asuna giggled with a lightened expression.
“…You were the same back then.”
I immediately knew when «back then» referred to.
Back then, when we formed a duo soon after the first floor boss conquest. After finishing our exploration for the afternoon and returning to town, we would have tea with sweets without fail. Bread with cream; shortcakes; berry tarts; cake rolls… I could still recall the hues, shapes, and even taste of the many desserts I ate with Asuna then.
But those days came to an end when Asuna joined the new guild, Knights of the Blood, as I recommended.
More than a year passed since. Before I knew it, my level of 10 or 20 back then was now 90, and my main weapons were replaced, one after another. The front lines approached the three-quarter point, the seventy-fifth floor, and our objective of clearing the game would come within sight as we crossed that.
We had certainly come a long way… I chewed over that thought as I questioned my former partner.
“…So, what is it?”
Bringing the cup of tea that had arrived in no time to her lips, Asuna pointed to the tabletop with her left hand. To where the folded copy of Aincrad Shuuhou was, left behind by Klein.
“Something’s up with the newspaper?”
“You saw it, didn’t you? That… popularity poll for the clearing group players.”
I shifted my focus from the newspaper to Asuna’s face and grinned.
“What’s there to worry about, the great sub-leader of the KoB’s sure to win the top spot if we’re considering this roster…”
“That’s not what I’m worrying over!”
Asuna let out a sigh she had been holding onto with a complicated look after that muffled bellow.
“…It’s the opposite, the exact opposite that I’m worrying over.”
“Erm… keep in mind that this all relies on me not wanting to be first place. …You’ve heard of my guild recruiting with renewed vigor lately, haven’t you?”
“Um… well, yes.”
Stumped at the sudden change in topic, I shook my head.
Knights of the Blood, to which Asuna belonged, was the guild that made up most of the clearing group’s might and was led by the toughest and strongest tank in Aincrad: Heathcliff, «The Holy Knight». Even if they lost by far in terms of numbers to the largest guild, those divine dragons, they were entrusted with commanding the battles against the floor bosses, serving as an example of the phrase, few but mighty.
Still, not even they were entirely spared from causalities in SAO, a death game without respawning. Especially these days, with the oddly refined AI the normal monsters had; it seemed practically as though more fatalities appeared in the field than during the boss battles where everyone prepared with utmost caution. That, too, was a reason why KoB, which had strictly evaluated all applicants until now, started scouting for players with potential. I personally had Heathcliff, the leader, drop a casual hint that I join, but the desire to do so still eluded me.
“Come to think of it, another person joined lately, right? Erm, the name’s, if I recall, Nautilus… isn’t it? Wasn’t half bad too.”
I let out the name of that rookie I saw at an effective hunting spot near the front-most lines, and Asuna frowned as she assumed the air of a sub-leader.
“Hmm… that is true, and it went smoothly enough even when hunting for experience points in groups. But those movements turned sluggish during the field boss battle… it doesn’t look like the floor boss raids are getting a new member for a while.”
Being capable of fighting common monsters yet shirking from the bosses is a phenomenon suffered by most players who catch up to the top groups from the median zone. After all, they had had few opportunities for boss fights. Floor bosses would never respawn after the clearing group defeated them and there was no reason to fight field bosses that respawn with the teleport gate to upper floors available. One could conquer the fear of bosses, with their gigantic frames and ruthless attacks that coerce the impression of «death», only through the accumulation of such experiences.
“Well, that’s the one thing others can’t help with, after all…”
Sipping my iced coffee, I pulled the topic back.
“So, what does the KoB’s new recruit have to do with anything?”
“Aah, erm… that’s, well…”
Starting off awkwardly once more, Asuna began her speech, interspersed with sighs.
“…The guild has someone called Daizen in charge of accounting and someone called Havok in charge of resources, you see.”
“They handle their jobs well and we feel safe with KoB’s finances with them in charge, but how do I phrase this, their spirit as merchants is a little too strong…”
“Upon finding out about that popularity poll, that pair spoke out about utilizing it to boost the guild’s reputation.”
“To be exact…… they……”
Getting stuck again there, the sub-leader of KoB showed a truly complex look expressing anger, embarrassment, and dejection as she got to the core of the matter in a soft tone.
“……They started talking about how in order to get me first place, they would collaborate with the Aincrad Shuuhou to publish a photo book of me as advertising if I won.”
Repeating absentmindedly, I stared hard at my former partner blushing slightly and looking downwards, from her head to her torso.
For Aincrad, a fantasy world so to speak, the technology for publishing was technically beyond its era. The property window for the printing press (of course, a wooden installation operated manually rather than powered by electricity) had features at the level of DTP software, and not only could text be directly input, pictures taken by photo crystals could be pasted in as well.
In other words, by taking a bunch of Asuna’s photos with crystals and laying them out neatly, it would be feasible to publish what would be recognized as an idol photo book. And there was no difficulty in imagining the multitude of players wanting such an item. They would rake in the votes if they announced, “We’ll publish a book if she gets 1st!” and well, that could lead to an increase in applicants to KoB.
“So that’s it… KoB comes up with some interesting ideas, huh…?”
I expressed how impressed I was and Asuna breathed in long and deep before converting that pent-up energy into an earsplitting shout.
“This… is no laughing matter!!”
After several instances of panting hard, she glared sharply towards me.
“I am in charge of KoB’s battle strategies, not its advertising strategies. …I can’t say I’ve had many chances to see women photo books in the real world, but it’s like that, isn’t it…? They aren’t in the same outfit each time, are they?”
“Well, sure they aren’t. Aside from battle gear, there could be some normal, cute, personal clothes…”
“Or maybe school uniforms…”
“And maybe, there are always swimsuits…”
Deciding it would be pitiful bullying the esteemed sub-leader, stumbling over her words from overwhelming shock, any further, I offered the countermeasure that had immediately come to mind.
“Still, well, if you’re that against it, why not just refuse it straight out, or maybe even run away while you’re at it?”
Switching her expression over to a serious look as though caught with her guard down from the astonishment mere seconds before, Asuna blinked time and time again. Her unaffected look gave off a surprisingly childish atmosphere, and I turned a similarly genuine smile towards my former partner as I continued my words.
“Asuna, you’ve always been supporting SAO’s conquest from the front as KoB’s sub-leader. Everyone recognizes how hard you worked and no one would criticize you for saying what you want every now and then. If Daizen and the rest make things difficult for you when you say that you won’t do it and refuse, you just have to threaten them by saying you’ll leave the guild.”
Asuna must have had some inherent sense of responsibility that made her unable to refuse when told it was for the guild. However, the players from the clearing group were here to clear this death game, not to expand the influence of their guilds. It was a pity, losing the opportunity to see a photo book of Asuna—no, it was preferable to having some unspecified number of players being able to see it. Not that I could voice that out.
Asuna frowned as she appeared to consider my suggestion, but eventually looked at me with a refreshed expression, rare in recent days, before her lips formed a teasing smile.
“I’ll be making use of that suggestion. …But you better assume responsibility if I end up leaving the guild for real, Kirito-kun.”
“Eh? …H-How would I?”
“Naturally, by forming a duo with me again.”
Replying without hesitation, Asuna stood and placed her right hand on my shoulder without waiting for my response.
“Thanks, it helped having you hear me out. Mind if I intrude on you again when I need to vent?”
“Of… of course, feel free whenever.”
I somehow got that reply out, and the KoB sub-leader flashed another smile before exiting the shop with a hop in her step.
Letting out a breath, I gave myself to the chair’s backrest. My vision caught sight of the Aincrad Shuuhou still on the table.
Not even the higher-ups of KoB would force through publishing it when her leaving the guild was on the table, but still, it was doubtful Asuna could avoid snatching the top place on this popularity poll. If one were to ask who they liked with a glance through the nominees—not even I would have any difficulty deciding.
I turned the newspaper about and tapped the ballot paper printed at the bottom of the last page, choosing to cut it out from the appearing window. I muttered an apology, “Klein, sorry”, to my friend while writing down my former partner’s name on the automatically-cut ballot with a feather pen I had on hand.
It would be time to head out for the night after submitting this at the teleport gate at Ozmalt. I hoped to pass through the tough wetlands tonight to reach the final village.
Casually raising my spirit as I stood up, I started walking at a quick pace as the golden sunlight fell at my back.
The clearing group players popularity poll underwent a development no one expected: not me, not Klein, not even those who organized it, the Aincrad Shuuhou’s publishers.
The humongous clearing guild, previously known «Aincrad Liberation Squad» and now renamed to «Aincrad Liberation Force», thought up of an idea similar to Daizen’s from KoB.
Monopolizing many newspapers with ballot papers through the reach and numbers of their organization, the ALF sent in a mountain of ballots for that one nominee who got in for being a clearing player of the technically largest guild and took first place from Asuna by a narrow margin. Staring at that result on the following week’s Shuuhou with Klein, the photo of a nostalgic spiky-headed individual grandly placed on the front page sent us both into momentary shock before we shouted out in sync.
“——Ya gotta be kiddin’!!”
- Translation – Tap
- Editing – ZeHaffen