“Well, it’s a river; it’s totally normal for there to be a waterfall…”
I muttered as my entire body was dripping with water, and Alice responded weakly from next to me.
“I wish you’d realized that five minutes earlier”
‘Well, even if I had realized earlier, there were only cliffs on both sides of the river, so we’d still have ended up with only two choices: take the dive or go back upstream…”
“If we looked carefully, there might’ve been a place where we could’ve climbed up”
Kuro let out a “ga-oo” in agreement with Alice’s point before shaking his whole body violently, sending an enormous amount of water droplets flying. Most of them hit me, but I was so drenched that it couldn’t get me any more soaking wet than I already was.
“…In any case, I’m glad it didn’t end catastrophically. No one drowned, and even though the boat capsized, it didn’t break.”
“That waterfall was a thirty mel drop, so both of those are miracles. You can thank Stacia for that.”
Though I replied in agreement, it was actually somewhat challenging to do. Because, to me, Underworld’s creation goddess Stacia and Asuna were one and the same. Alice seemed capable of naturally making a distinction between Goddess Stacia, whom she had believed in for a long time, and Super Account 01 Stacia, but when I closed my eyes, all I could picture was Asuna’s face.
For now, I thanked the Asuna version of Goddess Stacia in my heart and checked on our situation.
Alice, Kuro, and I had fallen with the boat into the waterfall basin and, hanging onto the upturned boat, had been swept a few hundred meters downstream where we somehow managed to climb ashore. It was possible that the riverbanks would once again turn into sandy beaches further downstream from the waterfall, but it was also not impossible that these cliffs would continue all the way to the mouth of the river. That was if there was an ocean near this land.
We did stumble upon good fortune within the misfortune, though, since the place where we crawled ashore was not very far from where we would have originally gotten off the boat. The Stith Ruins were about five kilometers southwest from our current position—that should be the case. The field illuminated by the moonlight was an undulating grassland reminiscent of the environment that surrounded the Town of Beginnings on Aincrad’s first floor. It probably wouldn’t take us more than fifteen minutes to sprint through the treeless grassland, putting our estimated time of arrival at around 8:45 PM. The arranged time was 9:00 PM, but had anything happened, our ETA would probably have turned into 9:30 PM. With that in mind, we had the dugout canoe to thank for shortening our travel time considerably.
Alice and I flipped the boat back upright with difficulty and anchored it to the riverbank behind us. It couldn’t be put into storage, so we could only keep it floating there. If possible, I wanted to use it again for the return trip, but there was no way in hell I’d be able to take the boat up that waterfall.
Perhaps thinking the same thing, Alice glanced back at me and said.
“…If it comes down to it, it seems like we’ll have no choice but to disassemble it back into raw materials again.”
“Yeah… But it doesn’t look like we’ll be able to reclaim the Zerue Teak from the hull.”
“Because it’s already been hollowed out. … I’ll cut it again; that’s why I already made marks.”
Despite what she said, in her heart, Alice probably didn’t really want to destroy it either. Unlike the Tilnel, it didn’t have a name, but it still felt like the boat was more than merely an item.
“I’ll try to think of any better options. For now, let’s get going.”
As our equipment seemed to have mostly dried out while we were talking, Alice nodded.
The rabbit and snail monsters that appeared in the grassland were clearly weaker than those in the Great Forest. Most of them could easily be defeated with a single basic Sword Skill, but it wasn’t very rewarding in terms of experience, and the item drops were far from impressive.
Even so, the experience points accumulated bit by bit, and as we ran, everyone leveled up; I got to Level 17, Alice got to Level 16, and Kuro got to Level 6. Since my stock of ability points had reached 6, I decided to spend 1 point and opened the ability acquisition window.
Currently, in the «Strength» tree, I had «Strength» level 8 and «Bone Breaking» level 1. Leveling up to «Bone Breaking» level 2 required 2 points, so I decided on the strategy of upgrading my «Strength» to level 10 first. As I pressed the Acquire button, I turned my attention to Alice, who was running beside me.
“Speaking of which, what abilities did you pick?”
“«Strength» level 1, «Bone Breaking» level 1, «Dogfight» level 1, «Iron Breaking» level 2”
“Oh… «Iron Breaking»?”
So there was such an ability. As I furrowed my eyebrows, I realized.
“Eh…… is that from the fourth tier? Since it’s level 2, that means you spent 8 points on it?!”
Taking a glance at me in my astonishment, Alice replied flatly.
“I like its effect.”
“S-so, what does it do?”
“It «increases damage to the enemy’s defenses and armor when attacking». Because an Integrity Knight’s sword crushes in a single blow, whether shield or armor.”
I nodded as I recalled when I crossed the Integrity Knight, Alice Synthesis Thirty, and her sword in the «Cloudtop Garden» on the 80th floor of the Central Cathedral. I had thought that if I distracted her with my consecutive-hit sword skills, I would have a chance at winning. However, I couldn’t bear the tremendous weight behind Alice’s blow from her Divine Instrument, the Fragrant Olive Sword, and was forced into a corner in the blink of an eye.
As a gamer, it’s inefficient to force yourself to obtain higher tier abilities at a low level… I was tempted to say that, but I was probably being too nosy. Even if Unital Ring wasn’t just a game anymore, it was still a game. It was best to listen to your heart when developing your character.
“Well then, it’s on you when a heavily armed enemy comes along”
“In that case, if a slime or worm type comes along, I’ll leave it to you. I don’t want to deal with anything slimy or wriggly for now”
I nodded, wondering how many Great Four-Eyed Turbellarian Worms she had hunted, then pressed the Acquire button for «Strength».
Although we didn’t encounter any tricky monsters after that, we were still forced to take several detours for unforeseen reasons. As we approached our destination, an increasing number of players were holding a torch in their hand and working on leveling up. If we ran too close to them, under the current circumstances, they would likely mistake us as PKers.
Putting out our torch, we continued southwest while being careful not to run into any other players. The moment we crossed a small hill, our destination suddenly appeared in front of us.
A vast, fortress-like city towered like a small mountain on the flat grassy plain. The gently curving walls of the city overlapped each other, forming a cone that looked like an upside-down spinning top. Illuminated by the moonlight, the city seemed to be about one kilometer in diameter and two hundred meters tall. In terms of size, it was even larger than the Town of Beginnings.
However, upon closer inspection, the city walls had collapsed in many places, and there was hardly any light at all. The center of the city was barely glowing with orange light, giving me the impression that it was more like a dungeon than a city.
“… That’s the Stith Ruins?”
I stopped at the top of the hill and muttered to myself as Alice lifted the edge of her hood with her fingertips.
“That wall doesn’t seem like it naturally collapsed as much as it looks like it was damaged in a great war.”
“Now that you mention it, that’s probably true… there’s a big hole in the middle. But the wall looks about two meters thick. Wouldn’t it be impossible to do that without using a cannon?”
“Then was one used? Or an equally powerful Sacred Art… no, magic”
Indeed, since there were flintlock muskets in this world, it wouldn’t be surprising if a smoothbore muzzleloader of a similar caliber also existed. Did some army line up their cannons in the grasslands and bombard this city sometime in the distant past? Or was it, as Alice said, destruction by magic…?
“So… where is the meeting site?”
“Oh, that’s right”
Remembering the original purpose behind us coming all this way, I shifted my gaze to the right.
“Let’s see… at nine o’clock, five hundred meters due north of the ruins under a large willow tree”
“Then isn’t there only five more minutes”
“We can still contact each other in real life if we’re going to be late, but I think we should be able to meet up on time. Kuro, are you hungry?”
I wasn’t sure how much he understood, but the well-behaved, sitting black panther gave a soft “ga-oo” and got up.
I had thought that it might be difficult to find the tree because of the darkness, but just as I ran roughly south-southwest down from the hill, I spotted a fitting silhouette. The long, drooping leaves fluttering in the night breeze were undoubtedly those of a willow tree. It looked quite obviously like the kind of place where a ghost—no, astral-type monster—might appear, but since it was the landmark for our rendezvous, we approached it straight on.
“Oi, Argo, are you there”
Calling out with a low volume, I approached the knotty, old tree; right at that time.
“Kirito!” Alice cried out,
“Grr!” Kuro growled,
“Byoooooh!” A strange voice echoed. Reflexively gripping the hilt of my sword, I looked around. At the base of the giant willow was what looked like a half-rotten tombstone, which seemed to be vaguely glowing… Just as I thought that, a dim white shadow gushed out of the ground. A tattered, torn, old-fashioned dress, hair long enough to cover her face, and arms like withered branches stretched straight out in front. All of which were transparent.
“…So there really is a ghost!!”
I shouted and drew my sword. Alice also had her bastard sword at the ready, and Kuro entered a leaping stance.
The ghost screamed again, radiating a cold bluish-white glow from both eyes behind its bamboo-mat-like bangs as it stared fixedly at me. I was only being targeted, but a red spindle-shaped cursor appeared above the ghost’s head. Below the HP bar, its name was displayed as [Vengeful Wraith].
An English name, huh. I muttered in the back of my mind. Of all the monsters I’d encountered so far, the only one whose name wasn’t in Japanese was the fire-breathing toad we’d fought against in the wall dungeon on the Giyol Flatlands, Goliathrana. If there was such a rule where English names were reserved for boss-class monsters, then we’d have to be extra careful while facing this Vengeful Wraith.
【T/N: “Goliath” comes from the giant in the story of David and Goliath, while “rana” comes from the former scientific name of an East Asian dark-spotted frog, the rana nigromaculata.】
It was the Wraith who ended the tension-filled standoff.
As soon as she shouted, she moved to the left as if sliding through the air and suddenly lunged at me. She swung her right hand, with its long claws, down toward my neck.
While reflexively raising my sword, I also jumped backward with all my strength as a failsafe because I wasn’t sure whether guarding would work. This premonition came true as the Wraith’s right hand hit my sword and slowed down for just a moment before it slipped through, generating a smoke-like effect.
I desperately bent my upper body backward in midair. A sharp claw slashed about three centimeters away from my throat, leaving five bluish-white trails in the air.
As soon as I landed, I launched a thrust counterattack. Even though the tip of the «High-Grade Iron Longsword» didn’t miss its target and caught the side of the Wraith, this time again, it only blew up a puff of smoke. Her HP bar was reduced by barely a few points.
“Alice, physical attacks are pretty much useless against this thing!”
As I shouted and retreated again, “Aren’t all ghosts basically like that!” I received such a reply. There shouldn’t have been any ghosts in Underworld—although I did encounter something like a living spirit once—so she probably learned that from ALO. I didn’t think there were any in the real world, either.
There were two main ways of dealing with astral-types when physical attacks were ineffective. You could use fire-type or light-type attack magic, or you could enchant your weapon with auxiliary magic. However, neither was possible at the moment. I was confident that my beloved Holy Sword Excalibur could send them to heaven with a single strike even in its bare form, but I’d left it far away in our house and, not to mention, I couldn’t even lift it with my current stats.
【T/N: Kirito believes a single strike from Excalibur would literally “turn them into Buddha” or “make them enter Nirvana.” 】
As if to mock my desperate thinking, the Wraith contorted her mouth wide open.
As soon as I saw this, a possibility suddenly occurred to me.
What happened to Argo the Rat, whom I was supposed to meet up with at this willow tree? There was no sign of her around. No matter how agile Argo was, there was nothing she could do if she was attacked by this troublesome wraith at Level 1 right after converting. I wonder if Agro died here before we arrived, forever exiled from the Unital Ring world……?
The Wraith didn’t overlook the moment my body stiffened as I imagined this worst-case scenario.
She suddenly dove into the ground up to her waist and lunged at me. I couldn’t react in time to this unexpected move, so even though I managed to cross my sword and left arm in a defensive stance, her claw attack from below slipped through my iron blade and arm guard and pierced deep into my forearm.
A numbing shock and intense cold sensation accompanied that impact. More than 10% of my HP bar was shaved off, and the ice crystal debuff icon lit up. It was the same continuous chill damage that I experienced when I was hit by an ice storm on the Giyol Flatlands.
As I staggered, Alice pulled my poisoned shoulders back with all her strength from behind and stepped forward to switch with me,
With a sharp shout, the bastard sword she was gripping with both hands shot out.
Her skillful horizontal slash that carried the weight of her entire body was reminiscent of her time as an Integrity Knight. Her blade, which was over five centimeters longer than my one-handed sword, beautifully caught the Wraith’s torso, but it still only scattered white smoke, and the enemy’s HP wasn’t really reduced.
Following that, Kuro pounced on the Wraith. He bit deeply into her shoulder with his huge fangs. Although bodily attacks were more effective than attacking with an iron sword, as this time, about three percent was scraped off her HP bar, the Wraith wasn’t going to stay silent and let itself get beaten up either.
With a roar of anger, she thrust both claws into Kuro’s back.
Kuro cried out and jumped away, scattering crimson damage effects. His HP was reduced by more than 10%, and he was also hit with the ice crystal debuff.
I endured the coldness that seemed to penetrate throughout my bones and moved over, using my left hand to hug Kuro’s back as he crouched. I didn’t consider myself to have a tamer’s temperament, and Kuro was a pet that I had just tamed yesterday; however, the fear I felt at the thought of losing him here made my legs shake.
There was no way we’d win like this. Should we retreat for now? But was it even possible to run away from a ghost that could move so quickly in the air?
Speaking of which, was it really okay to have such a powerful monster less than 500 meters from the starting point? If vanguard players of Levels 17 and 16 plus a combat-capable pet were already having trouble with it like this, it’d probably be impossible for newly-arrived players to escape. What was the purpose of setting this ghost here……
As I was thinking in fragments, unable to decide whether to continue the battle or retreat.
“Kii-bou, that thing, fire is effective against it!”
Suddenly, I heard such a voice from behind me, and at the same time, a glowing object flew toward me. It was a ring of fire─no, a spinning torch. As it scattered sparks, I barely caught it with my left hand and shouted.
“Alice, five seconds, please!”
“I’ll cover you for ten seconds!”
As I heard this reliable reply, I placed the sword on the ground and opened my menu at full speed. I materialized the last bottle of linseed oil from my storage, popped the stopper off with my thumb, and poured all of the contents onto the sword. After coating the front and back of the blade with oil, I threw the bottle away and stood up.
Just then, Alice swung at the Wraith with her Bastard Sword. As usual, the enemy’s HP didn’t really decrease at all, but the Wraith, which had always been able to slip through until now, experienced some knockback. Upon closer inspection, Alice had held her sword upright to strike using the flat side of the blade.
So that’s it, I thought. Impressed, I once again instructed her.
I swapped with the knight, who immediately jumped backward, and brought the torch in my left hand closer to the sword in my right.
Bo! With that sound, the oil ignited and enveloped the sword blade in a bright red flame. This was the easiest way of giving a sword the fire attribute, but its effect duration was much shorter than magic enchantment, and if you swung the sword wildly, the flame could go out.
The Vengeful Wraith, illuminated by the torch in my left hand and the sword in my right, held her hands up and backed away. I couldn’t let this opportunity pass me by. Don’t disappear! I shouted in my mind and raised my improvised flaming sword in an overhead position. The red of the flames and the yellow-green of the effect light blended together.
I let out a short breath and jumped. The Sword Skill «Sonic Leap» was activated, and I rushed forward, cutting through the darkness.
The Wraith thrust out her right hand. A circle with intricate patterns appeared, and each of her five fingers fired glowing blue-white needles. It was a magic attack… but if I tried to clumsily defend myself here, the Sword Skill would stop. Trusting in the defense capabilities of the armor Lizbeth had forged, I ignored the needles and rushed in.
As I felt the impact of three needles hitting various parts of my body, I swung my sword down. The flaming sword, accelerated by the momentum of Sonic Leap, cut from the Wraith’s left shoulder to her right abdomen, slicing the ghost’s body in half.
The upper half of the backward-leaning Wraith’s body let out a deafening scream. Its HP bar decreased as if the ghost’s indomitability until now was just an illusion; half of it disappeared in an instant, then 40%… 30%… until it stopped at 2.5%.
White smoke extended like mucus from the upper and lower halves where the Wraith had been sliced to join them back together. I wanted to pursue it with a follow-up attack… but my sword’s flames were on the verge of being extinguished, and I was frozen rigid in the Sword Skill’s Post-Motion.
At that moment, someone snatched the torch from my left hand and plunged it into the gap in the Wraith, which was about to finish merging back together. Immediately after that, its upper and lower body were completely reattached. But, the torch’s flames, captured within its torso, were not extinguished; instead, they swirled around and around inside the Wraith, gaining momentum.
The Wraith, which had bent back as far as it could, let out a high-pitched scream and turned into red flames. Flames erupted from both of its eyes as well, and its HP bar started decreasing again, this time to zero.
The white astral substance and red flames swelled up in a marble pattern, causing an explosion that shook the ground. This flashy annihilation effect didn’t seem to be that of a small fry monster. So why was there a boss in this place! That question instantly vanished from my mind. A small light-blue light remained where the Wraith had exploded. It immediately began to rise lightly, approaching the willow branches and leaves.
I shouted and scrambled up the thick, knotted tree trunk on all fours. When I reached the point where it branched into two halves, I jumped as hard as I could in an almost-fully-reclined position. My fingertips, stretching as far as they could, barely touched the light-blue dot. Watching the light expand and pop like a soap bubble, I did two backward somersaults and landed on the ground.
I heaved a sigh of relief before turning to the player who stabbed the torch into the Vengeful Wraith.
Simple, sand-colored leather armor, and a small dagger on her left hip. Short, straw-colored curly hair, and round golden-brown eyes.
However, I had no choice but to interrupt the greeting. A ring of blue light—a level-up effect— repeatedly wrapped around the petite avatar from her feet. Three times, four times, there was more. The fifth, the sixth… the seventh time, the ring of light finally stopped appearing.
“Wow, so I got to Level 8 without even trying. I’m so done—”
【T/N: Argo uses ごっつぁんゴール (gottsuan gōru, soccer slang popularized by Nobuhiro Takeda that refers to his opportunistic goal-scoring) to describe her levelling up.】
“It’s nothing to be upset about; it was a nice play that was worth it… wait, no”
I glanced backward, making sure Alice and Kuro were safe, and continued.
“Argo, you… why’d you designate this dangerous place as the meeting spot? I thought you’d been killed by that Wraith.”
“I thought it might’ve been a trap to kill us”
Alice said that as she approached, causing Argo to laugh loudly and bitterly.
“Ah, I can’t blame you for thinking that”
She took a step forward and looked up at Alice, who was about half a head taller than her.
At this point, I finally realized that Argo’s avatar was somewhat younger-looking than her real-world self. Rather than feeling discomfort, I felt a strong sense of nostalgia. That was because her avatar was exactly the same as the Argo from the SAO era.
However, yesterday, Argo definitely—.
“Hey, didn’t you say you didn’t transfer your character data from SAO to ALO?”
“Ahh, I did say that. I used a character I created from scratch to meet Chrysheight. I could’ve come here with that account… but I thought, since I wanted to have another adventure with Kii-bou and Aa-chan, this way should be better.”
“So, in other words, you converted your SAO character to ALO for the first time today before logging in with it…? What did you choose for your fairy race?”
When I asked her while taking a closer look at her head and skin, Argo frowned with an expression that seemed to say, “I didn’t see anything like that,” and replied.
“I didn’t see anything about choosing my race. I was immediately sent to this world when I tried logging in to ALO, and I’ve been dressed like this since I opened my eyes.”
“Huh… that means Argo is still a human, no, a member of the Aincrad tribe… Anyway, the company running ALO has probably been thrown into complete disarray from this situation. There’s no way they could manage the data migration so quickly.”
“About that, I just put my SAO ID and pass in the application form on Ymir’s site, and when I pressed submit, I received a new ID in an instant. It definitely wasn’t a human’s processing speed.”
“Huh… it used to be done manually, but it must’ve been automated without me realizing…”
I tilted my head and shrugged since it wasn’t that big of a deal.
“Wait, you never answered my first question.”
“Ah, the reason why I chose this as the meeting place.”
Argo glanced up at the giant willow tree and frowned.
“Being the person I am, I was lazy. Someone from a UniRing strategy team uploaded a map of this area to their wiki page, and this willow tree was in it. It also had a caption that read, ‘It’s safe because there aren’t any monsters around.’”
“Haa!? How exactly is it safe… If a low-level player approached this area, they’d die in one hit.”
Alice nodded gravely at my words, and even Kuro barked with a “ga-oo.”
When Argo saw Kuro sitting next to Alice, she commented, “That’s a cool black panther. Whose pet is it?”
“He’s mine. Wait, you’re a rat, but you aren’t good with dogs, and you’re okay with cats?”
“Make sure to remember this. I’ll tell you what, dogs can catch rats too. There’s even a breed of dog called the rat terrier that specializes in catching rats.”
“Hehh… wait, no, let’s talk about the Wraith from earlier. Was the information that you saw on the strategy wiki wrong?”
“It doesn’t seem like it. Look at this.”
Argo opened the ring menu and navigated to the Quests window. Three quests were already registered there. Their titles were [Rabbit Amulet: Recommended Level 1], [Sewer Drop: Recommended Level 3], and [Ancient Vengeful Ghost: Recommended Level 20]…
“Ah, could it have been!? That Wraith just now was a quest boss!?”
“That’s what it seems like. The quest doesn’t appear unless the conditions are met”
“But neither Kirito nor I have undertaken such quests”
I nodded in agreement with Alice’s point. I opened my own Quests window as well, just to be sure, but of course, it was empty.
When the two of us looked at Argo, the informant adopted an even more apologetic expression and said.
“Maybe, it was a coincidence”
“I came here once, about ten minutes before 9 o’clock, when I was supposed to meet you. Then the grave at the base of the willow started to glow dimly…”
Argo pointed to the small tombstone that was covered in moss and illuminated by the moonlight. Although I didn’t feel anything unusual about it now, I definitely remembered seeing a faint light when we arrived.
“…Even though it was only glowing and no monsters had appeared, I had a bad feeling about it. I couldn’t just stay here even if I’d have to contact Kii-bou to change the meeting place, so I decided to go back to the ruins for the time being. But then, I heard a noise behind me that sounded dangerous, so I turned back.”
“Aha… Argo, who received the Quest, activated the tomb, and we met the conditions for the Wraith to appear. What in the world were the conditions?”
“Materializing and holding a silver item, I think”
I closed the window and checked the few possessions I had in my pockets and pouches. However.
“…Nope, I don’t have anything like that”
When I melted down and recast the beloved sword Black Welt that I inherited from ALO, I was able to create several «High-Quality Silver Ingots», but all of them had been left with Lizbeth. Even if I had them, they wouldn’t have materialized for no reason.
“Ah… maybe it’s me”
As if noticing something, Alice searched through the cloth pouch at her waist.
What emerged was a jingling, small leather pouch. After pulling it open and peering into it, Alice picked out a small disc. The shiny silver disc fell into my palm.
“A silver coin…”
It was old and dull in shine, but it wasn’t aluminum or nickel. It had approximately the same diameter and thickness as a 100 yen coin. The number 100 was engraved on one side, while two trees were engraved in relief on the other side. When tapped, a property window popped up, identifying it as a [100 El Silver Coin Hard Currency Weight 0.1].
“…100 El… Speaking of which, this is the first time I’ve seen a coin in this world…”
In retrospect, almost all of the monsters we’d defeated so far had been animal-types, and though they dropped materials such as fangs and fur, they wouldn’t drop any cash. I looked up and asked Alice while handing the coin back to her.
“Where did you get this?”
“Sinon left it with me before I left Kirito Town. If there was an NPC shop in the Stith Ruins selling musket bullets and gunpowder, she asked me to buy as much as possible using this money”
“Ah, I see…”
Our swords could be sharpened to restore their durability, but there was nothing we could do for Sinon’s musket once we ran out of bullets and gunpowder. I heard that the Ornith who gave her the gun also taught her how to make ammunition and explosives, but he also said that one of the materials could seemingly only be found in the backcountry on the Giyol Flatlands. Since Sinon’s gun was a valuable offensive asset, I thought I’d help with getting it before the amount of her remaining ammo became an issue, but if they could be bought from a store, that’d make matters a lot simpler—however.
“Umm, it didn’t seem like they were selling bullets or gunpowder”
Argo said with a shrug.
“Those ruins, most of it is completely abandoned, and monsters appear out of them; only the area in the center functions as a town, and there are a few NPC shops too. But, they only sell simple tools, food, and elementary equipment”
“Eh… what kind of food is there?”
My question came out of the fear that I would have to recover my SP soon, but Argo shook her head in amazement.
“ヤレヤレ (yareyare, an interjection similar to *sigh*), it seems you’re the same as ever, being so gluttonous even in the virtual world,” she said.
Alice giggled when she heard that.
“That reminds me of when you pulled those steam buns out of your pocket. ……Anyway, Kirito, isn’t it time for you to introduce me to her?”
“Eh? ……Ah, ahh, are you guys meeting for the first time?”
I cleared my throat and pondered for a moment about how to explain both parties’ titles.