Around ten minutes had passed.
Returning home, accompanied by Elmira and Shizuma, I saw that Mion and Jyuri were understandably bewildered.
"E, Elmira McCartney?"
"That baby is the one from the pictures Ichirou had..."
Unable to grasp the situation, the two stood still at the entrance. Kiki's next words further stupefied them.
"Mion, Jyuri. From today, the three princesses will become the four princesses."
"You're awfully persistent, Mutt. Besides, Shizuma is a boy."
Elmira immediately objected and once again glared at Kiki with hostility. It's been like that the entire time we were walking home.
...I had everyone move to the living room so that I could explain the situation.
While Mion was preparing tea for everyone, Elmira spoke.
"Kobayashi Ichirou. You've been living with the 'Three Princesses of Hell'?"
As we were walking to my home, I told her that the three princesses were living there. I had a hard time persuading her to take refuge at such a location.
"I, it hasn't been that way for long. Since they're all Taotie's subordinates, they're obligated to look after him...please don't tell anyone about this yet. I'll reveal it when the time is right."
"I don't really understand, but I'll leave that aside for now. I'll be under the care of this household from today."
Hearing that, Mion and Jyuri said "What?!" and fell over onto the floor.
I decided to tell the dumbfounded girls about the sequence of events that led up to this, starting from the very beginning. I already had permission from Elmira to do so.
──I told them the whole story about what happened when Reida came to the human world.
──I told them about the vampire named Akatori Hideo.
──Then, I told them about how Qiongqi's faction was aiming for the couple's child, Shizuma.
There was a brief period of silence after I told the whole story.
Mion and Jyuri folded their arms and frowned. Elmira didn't drop her guard and kept the baby close to her. Kiki was nervous, glancing over at Shizuma from time to time.
While I'm at it, Taotie had already withdrawn into me and went to sleep. It seems that he wanted to continue his dreaming.
"It's surprising to think that an apostle and vampire would have a child..."
The vampire girl immediately gave the heron girl a warning upon hearing that.
"Let me tell you right now, raising Shizuma is my duty. I will not lend him to apostles like you."
"You can't. I'm going to take care of Shizuma."
"I am Shizuma's mother!"
"I am Shizuma's older sister!"
The two had a heated debate over parental authority, just like usual.
Meanwhile, Shizuma squirmed around. Immediately following, he wiggled his limbs and let out a loud cry.
"D, did you wake up? Please, go back to sleep."
Though Elmira tried her best to soothe him, Shizuma's crying grew louder. Next to her, Kiki was watching and also seemed uneasy.
"Shizuma, don't cry. What happened...?"
Mion stood up and spoke bluntly to the worried vampire girl. She then turned around.
"I don't have baby formula, but condensed milk dissolved in warm water can work as a substitute for now. Wait one moment."
...Before long, the heron apostle returning from the kitchen holding a cup of milk and a spoon on top of a tray. As she handed it over to Elmira, she lectured her on how to feed him. The results were extraordinary, Shizuma gulped down the spoons he was given.
As expected of the one with the mother attribute. She's quite reliable in cases like these.
"Once he's done drinking, pat his back to make him burp."
"L, like this?"
Elmira quickly followed Mion's orders like she was an attendee at a seminar.
After a small burp, Shizuma was quiet, as if his cries earlier had never happened. Not only that, but he amazingly looked at us and made some sort of smile.
In face of such a pure baby's smile, Mion and Jyuri flinched. This is probably the first time the three princesses have seen a live infant.
"H, he's cuter than I thought..."
"Didn't he smile at me just now?"
"Wrong. He was smiling at me."
The three princesses had soon fallen for Shizuma. I understand their feelings, but there's one thing I'd like to say. Shizuma was looking at me when he was smiling. Definitely. No doubt about it.
Aware of the apostles' heated gazes, Elmira held Shizuma closer to her as if saying "I won't hand him over to you".
There's a bit of a problem. Isn't Shizuma wincing like if he's in pain?
"Elmira, you can't hold him so tightly. You'll make him cry again."
"Oh, sorry Shizuma. Did I──"
Elmira relaxed the strength in her arm, presenting a chance.
Jyuri took that chance to make her blond hair grow and immediately wrap around Shizuma.
She then snatched Shizuma away from Elmira's hands. The baby quickly went into the arms of the king cobra apostle, leaving the vampire confused.
"W, what are you doing?! Give back Shizuma!"
Jyuri spoke unabashed while the baby gently embraced her plump I-cup.
"Elmira, stop being so tense. I believe that this child's crying didn't just come from being hungry, but also because he could sense your nervousness."
"See, look at this child. He looks much happier than when you were holding him."
Shizuma was indeed smiling again.
Elmira groaned with a sullen face, not wanting to give up. Seeming to enjoy her reaction, Jyuri made a dubious smile towards Shizuma.
"Haha, what a good child. I'll raise him into an intellectual, cool boy of my liking."
It seems that Jyuri likes intellectual, cool guys. That must be why she rejected Higaia.
Seeing Shizuma smile in a good mood, Kiki puffed up with pride as if she had triumphed in something.
"I told you so. Shizuma trusts apostles."
"That's not the case!"
"Be a good sport and admit defeat. Jyuri, let me hold him too."
However, Shizuma's expression dimmed as soon as Kiki carried him. In a panic, she tried to give him back to Jyuri, but gave him to Mion by mistake.
Upon which, Shizuma smiled once more. He even seemed to be smiling brighter than before.
"D, does he like me that much? Hmm, I see...w, well, it's not like I care though."
Contrary to what she said, Mion was grinning. Her motherhood had been tickled to its fullest.
Kiki fell down and placed her hands on the floor. Elmira did the same as well.
...Should I try holding him? If I'm his (temporary) papa, then he'll surely smile brighter than he did with Mion. Definitely. No doubt about it.
(Will I lose to Mion? Time to show the dignity of a father!)
I felt a fire in my heart erupt.
Suddenly, Mion had a serious expression and whispered to Jyuri.
"Hey, Jyuri. Now that I'm carrying him, I think I'm beginning to understand something..."
"Yes. I can see why Qiongqi wants him. Shizuma indeed has the ability to become a great apostle. He could even become a general who could rival us..."
Is that so?
So, Shizuma has the potential to become a tough fighter like the three princesses or the top eight? I still can't believe that...such a cute child could become one.
Naturally, Qiongqi probably hasn't given up on Shizuma yet. Hunshou Higaia said it himself. "We will take Reida's child," were the exact words he used.
(I'm afraid that the enemies will find out about this house. Even so, this is still the safest place to be.)
With Elmira, the three princesses, Taotie, and me...Qiongqi's forces shouldn't be able to interfere so easily if at least two of us stay with Shizuma.
While thinking about such things, Mion turned towards Elmira.
"Elmira McCartney. I have no objections to sheltering you and Shizuma. That is Ichirou's wish, after all. However..."
"Let me ask one thing. How long do you plan on letting this go on? Let me say that since Shizuma is an apostle──he will be grown up in three years."
"G, grown up? You mean he'll be an adult?"
"I don't know about being an adult. He could be an old man or a child. You can't think of apostle babies in the same way you do with humans. You've noticed that Shizuma's been...growing rather quickly, right?"
...Come to think of it, I heard about this before. The "Apostles of Hell" appear as men and women of all ages, but their appearances take shape three years after birth and don't change anymore afterwards.
(Will he be independent that fast? Oh right, that's why Reida mentioned 'three years'...)
Reida told Elmira something just before she died.
──Please protect this child...even for just three years──
It seems she meant that Shizuma would be grown up after three years. When that happens, Shizuma will be able to protect himself.
"Let me warn you, Elmira McCartney. You should consult your comrades about this matter."
Elmira blinked her eyes and said "Huh?" in response to Mion's unexpected words.
"Realistically, it's not possible for you to focus solely on raising a child. Don't you have comrades to rely on for times like this? Can't you band together to fight Qiongqi?"
She seemed to speak coldly, but it was just Mion's way of showing concern.
At this rate, Elmira cannot fulfill her mission as the "Vermilion Bird". In fact, she would need to retire. That's not Mion's intent. She's saying this for the sake of a worthy rival.
"If you're gone, Hinomori Ryuuga and the rest may lose. Are you okay with that?"
An opponent character was lecturing a main character. Furthermore, it seemed more effective than when I tried getting through to her.
"As long as Shizuma is kept here, we will protect him. However, it's an entirely different matter if you expect us to look after Hinomori──"
"No! I will raise Shizuma! I will raise him as Shijuma, the great general!" (TLN: Typical apostle naming sense used for "Shijuma" here. The kanji making up the name roughly translates to "Long-Living Death Demon")
When Kiki suddenly threw a tantrum, Jyuri scolded her.
"Don't say something so selfish. Reida is your subordinate, not Shizuma, right?"
"Reida's a very loyal subordinate! She went to the human world without permission, but she still would've taken care of me! I'm returning the favor!"
The bobbed hair girl stomped her feet in a fit of rage. However, Mion shook her head.
"Say those things after you're able to enter a bath by yourself."
"I, I can enter a bath by myself!"
"That's a lie. You can't even stay in there while I'm counting to one hundred."
"You take too long! You take up three seconds to count to one!"
"At any rate, we will only shelter Shizuma in this house. Anything other than that is not our──huh?!"
Thereupon, Mion let out cry.
When I looked at her, Shizuma was groping the heron apostle's chest with all of his might. Perhaps he was looking for milk.
"Ah, wait, ngh...stop it, Shizuma."
Seeing Mion turning red and squirming, Jyuri slammed the table with anger.
"Mion! You've taken such a good role again...that's supposed to be my job! Let him touch me! And let me touch him!"
"W, what are you saying, Jyuri?!"
"Shizuma! If you need milk, come to me! Mine's strawberry flavored, probably!"
"W, what are you saying, Kiki?!"
Elmira was taken aback by the uproar the "Three Princesses of Hell" caused. I didn't want her to see this side of the leading opponents.
...Some time had then passed.
I managed to convince Elmira that for the time being, she should at least tell Ryuuga and the others that she's okay.
"Elmira. You shouldn't force Ryuuga and the others to pointlessly search for you anymore. Your duty as a 'Blood-kin of Eternal Darkness' isn't just to protect Shizuma. Your important mission is to protect this world."
Though I managed to somewhat convince her, the vampire girl was a bit disgruntled.
The bobbed haired girl, who was denied the chance to be an older sister, was also disgruntled.