“Here, this is our house!” Lilly says, tugging on my hand to drive me forward and gesturing toward the large building in front of us.
I don’t know much about architecture – I’ve spent most of my life without encountering the slightest man-built structure, so the concept of a ‘house’ for me consists mostly of what I remember of my own – but even to me, this one looks quite good.
“So?” Lilly asks me with a bright smile. “What do you think?”
It’s not like I’m an expert at holding down a fixed position, though. It happened a few times in the course of my life, when I was surrounded by too many demons, without any path of escape, and I had to make a stand and kill them as they came, but since my objective was always to find the stairway leading to the next floor, I usually stayed on the move as much as possible.
Right now, my judgment is only based on such things as the thickness of the walls and the faint qi fluctuation coming from within them, on the number of armed men patrolling the grounds, on the fact that the house is built on the summit of a hill and overlooks the vast, clear, open garden around it.
Lilly titters and shakes her head. “No, silly. I mean, does it look pretty?”
I suppose it does, at that. There are quite a lot of colorful flowers and luxuriant trees, and there aren’t any corpses lying around. Lilly’s house is in the middle of a city, which is a definite minus, but since the garden around it is so large, it almost doesn’t feel that way. The noise is far enough away that it isn’t too much of a bother, and the smell of humans isn’t quite so thick.
Even then, there are still quite a lot of people living in this house alone – which, I suppose, explains why it’s so big. I can feel life signs from almost a hundred different people.
And some of those people are quite strong.
None of them are on my level, or even on Finram’s level, but they’re still quite a lot more powerful than an average human or majin. I don’t know which rank they are, exactly, since I have no idea how to calculate this stuff, but some of them should be comparable to Shen Lei, at least in raw power.
Once our group reaches the main gate of the house, an old man in black clothes and wearing small, framed lenses in front of his eyes, for some reason, opens it for us and bows at the waist.
“Your Grace. Madame. Welcome back.”
Two girls behind him also bow and repeat his welcome, before trotting toward our carriage and hastening to unload the baggage stored on its roof. Rin, Ran, and Meliand also stay behind to coordinate with them, but Ophelia doesn’t.
I also notice that these two new girls are also wearing similar uniforms to mine – Ophelia gave me another to replace the one I lost in the battle, after I rejoined with Lilly’s group. I suppose being a maid is a popular occupation among humans.
…I was right to agree with Lilly’s suggestion to wear these clothes; I’ll definitely catch less attention with them on than with the cloak.
Something strange, however, is that I’ve yet to see a male human wearing this uniform. I’m not sure why. Could it be that the Springfield family only employs female maids, for some obscure reason? Or could it be that I simply mistook their genders? After reading those books on human anatomy, I was fairly certain I could make the distinction, but I might be wrong; it can be difficult to tell the difference when everyone is hiding their bodies under thick clothing all the time.
I should ask Lilly about this, later…
“Liam,” Solaire says to the old man as he leads the way inside the house. “I suppose we’ve worried you.”
Liam nods and follows a step behind Solaire. “Indeed, your Grace. When the news of Fushia City’s destruction reached us, we were all at quite a loss. Thankfully, you seem to have avoided this disaster.”
“Not quite ‘avoided’. More like ‘escaped’. We were right in the middle of it, and we barely got out in time. We managed to help a few citizens we encountered on the way, but not many had so much luck.”
“I’m sure you did everything you could, your Grace.”
When the group reaches the middle of the entry hall, a gaggle of young women approach and help the others take off their ‘coats’ – that’s what Lilly told me those things are called. They all sneak a few glances in my direction, some filled with curiosity, others with disgust or wonder or even a bit of fear. Since none of them seem threatening, however, I ignore them all.
I look around at the cavernous hall. Thick pillars hold up the tall ceiling and form a wide lane leading to a staircase which splits left and right to the house’s second floor. There are also other doors on either side of the entry hall, beyond the lines of pillars, and once everyone has lightened themselves of a few layers of clothing, Solaire leads the group once more through one of these doors – except for Ophelia, who heads upstairs after a few whispered words with Liam.
We enter a wide room, with a long table on one side, a few vases full of flowers atop it, and a spattering of chairs and things surrounding a large fireplace on the other, a fire already crackling inside and driving away the gloom of the evening.
Liam stays standing to the side of Solaire’s chosen seat, but everyone else sits down.
“Your Grace,” Liam says then, directing his gaze toward me. “May I ask who this young lady is? I see she is wearing a servant’s uniform. Could she be a new hire?”
Every eye in the room turns to me, and Solaire hesitates for a moment before answering. “Ah, no. This is our guest, Lady Akasha. We met on the train out of Aldenfell where she helped us weather an assassination attempt by some of General Foss’s men.” The revelation of the attack on the Springfields apparently drives Liam’s questions about me out of his head, and Solaire continues to narrate the following events to him. “Finram bade us leave as soon as we felt the waves of qi coming from the city. And just in time, too. In just a few minutes, the mine had collapsed into itself and the city had turned into a lake of lava. We stayed nearby for a few days, to set up a refugee camp and give a semblance of order to it all, but eventually, Tonarr isn’t our territory, so we left it to others better able to take care of the precious few survivors, and headed back to Rigonn with all haste.”
There is a short silence as Liam gets over the shock of the story while everyone else recollects the events of that time.
Eventually, Liam lets out a low sigh. “Phew. Just what could have happened to cause such a disaster?” he asks. “Did a group of powerhouses fight it out in the city? But for what reason?”
“That is still unclear,” Finram answers before Solaire can open his mouth. “King Epsil of Tonarr and even the God-Emperor himself sent representatives to investigate, but no conclusion had been reached yet when we decided to leave.”
As Finram’s words trail off, his eyes drift toward me. He holds my gaze for a few seconds before looking away.
“What about Earl Odhran, your Grace? Was he safe?”
Solaire’s face darkens at Liam’s question. “Right up until we left, the earl never appeared.” Solaire shakes his head and sighs. “I fear he died in the chaos.”
<Guilty. Here. Arrest her.>
Sanae’s voice breaks in the conversation, but since no one turns their heads toward me or otherwise reacts, it’s clear that I’m the only one who heard her.
It seems Liam doesn’t quite know what to say in response to Solaire’s words, and after another short silence, he quickly changes the subject. “Your Grace, since you were on the road for all this time, you might have missed quite a lot of momentous news. Would you like to hear them?”
“Oh?” Solaire raises his head and hints at Liam to continue.
“The most important of all, I think, is that the God-Emperor has abdicated the throne in favor of his son. The coronation ceremony will take place on the eve of the next inter-species competition, in five months.”
Not only Solaire, but even Rieshia and Finram rear back in their seats and all start speaking over each other.
“Liam, are you sure?”
“Isn’t that boy just 17 years old?”
Only Lilly and I show no reaction to the news. I because I neither understand nor care about any of this stuff, and Lilly because she seems about to nod off to sleep, even though her fingers keep playing with the fur of my tail. Her eyes are already half-closed, and her body is leaning against mine for support.
Liam waits for the clamor to cease before replying. “The news is not in doubt, your Grace, Madame, Lord Finram. We have received a formal invitation to come and witness the coronation.”
“This is madness,” Solaire mumbles, rubbing his chin. “Handing over the throne at this moment… A war against the majin is about to start. A quarter of Lamos has been blasted into smithereens. Fushia City has been utterly destroyed. The devils are getting more and more active. So why does the God-Emperor think that now is the right time to give his position to his adolescent son? Does he have more important things to do than leading humanity?”
“You can add to your list that Foss somehow feels secure enough to stage an attack on the railroad to assassinate you,” Finram adds. “And his assassin is even equipped with an artifact.” Reaching into his pocket, he brings out a ring, held between two fingers and turns it this way and that in front of his eyes to examine it and show it to everyone else.
I’m sure this is something that first train robber called Fulmist was wearing. I can still smell his scent on it.
And that’s supposed to be an artifact?
[…What are its effects?]
I transmit my question to everyone in the room – except Lilly, who looks like she’s asleep already. Liam stiffens for a moment at the unexpected voice ringing out inside his head, but he quickly regains his calm. I feel his gaze study me intently for a few moments before it turns back toward the ring in Finram’s hand.
“A limited form of shapeshifting,” Finram answers. “You can’t use it to turn yourself into a completely different creature or anything like that, but it would be enough to avoid being recognized. Although…” Finram glances at my face. “I’m afraid it wouldn’t be much help to you, if that’s what you’re wondering. Even if you change the color of your hair or of your skin, this ring wouldn’t be able to hide your ears or your tail or your horn. It’s not that powerful.”
I wasn’t wondering this, actually.
I wouldn’t want to change my features.
What if I meet Nerys, but she can’t recognize me?
That would be terrible.
“I’ve run a few tests, and the strength of this ring lies in the fact that it only gives off a qi fluctuation upon changing someone’s appearance,” Finram continues. “Once that is done, it’s perfectly silent. Not even the slightest trace of qi can be felt from it. I imagine it’s quite precious. Its loss should pain our dear General,” he concludes wistfully, twirling the ring around his fingers.
“Brother, I’m not sure it would be wise to keep this artifact,” Solaire says, looking thoughtfully at the ring glinting in the wavering light of the fireplace. “There is no way we could use it as proof to accuse Foss, but they might use it to accuse you of stealing it upon your departure from the army or some such. I admit it’s valuable, but we at least need to keep it in a safe and hidden place.”
“I know. I don’t intend to walk around with it on my finger. Here, Liam. Catch.” Finram tosses the ring. “Try to discover what you can on how it was made, who made it, and where. Anything you can find, really. There might not be much, but even scraps might turn out to be useful, and knowing is always better than not.”
“Understood, Lord Finram,” Liam replies, slipping the ring into his own pocket.
Solaire leans back into his seat and lets out a deep sigh, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “Coronation ceremony… At the inter-species competition…” He frowns and a look of distaste appears on his face. “Is that thing even going to take place, with the war heating up again?”
“It will,” Finram replies with a decisive nod. “Even more so because of the war, in fact. It’s only that the competition will be more bloody and lethal than…”
“Finram, Solaire,” Rieshia abruptly interrupts him. She hints toward me and Lilly with a flick of her head. “Is this really the time and place for this discussion?”
Finram hesitates for a moment before chuckling. Next to him, Solaire nods a few times with a smile on his face.
“You’re right, you’re right,” Solaire says, lightly smacking his own forehead. “What am I thinking? We’ve barely just arrived from such a long trip and I already…” He claps his hands. “Liam, please prepare a room for Lady Akasha. Um, Akasha, would you like a meal to be delivered to you?”
I don’t know why Solaire even asks this question. It should already have become clear to him over the past few days when we traveled together that I have no need to eat human food, but he keeps asking me, each and every time.
Perhaps it’s a human custom.
Liam takes a step toward me. “Then, miss, please follow me.”
Well, I’d like to, but…
I glance at Lilly, whose head now rests on my shoulder, her peaceful breath tickling my neck. I try to nudge her awake, but that doesn’t seem to have much effect. Fortunately, it’s not the first time this brat tries to sleep while using me as a pillow – during the trip from Fushia City, she claimed the carriage wasn’t comfortable enough and thus demanded to sleep with her head on my lap and my tail in her hands – so I have some experience on how to deal with this situation.
At this point, the easiest way to get out of this…
I reach out with my left hand and pinch her nose, shutting off her breath.
It only takes five seconds for her eyes to fly open, her arms flailing around as if she’s drowning.
“Pwaaaah! Wha–?! What’s going on?!”
I ignore her and stand up from my seat, turning toward Liam.
“…Yes, of course. Please.”
Despite the rather subtle look on his face, Liam sketches a small bow in my direction, then heads toward the door we came in from.
But when she sees me leave her side, Lilly springs up after me. With remarkable speed and technique, she pounces on me and wraps her arms around my neck, hugging me from behind, resting her chin on the top of my skull.
For a moment, it almost looks like she’s moving to strangle me, and I feel my hands twitch. I have to make a conscious effort to prevent them from reaching back and tearing this fool’s head from her neck.
I can only sigh inwardly at this girl’s talent for triggering my reflexes and risking her life so pointlessly. How on earth she could have survived in this world until now with this sort of reckless behavior is a true mystery.
[…It isn’t funny.]
<Kuku. It is.>
Sanae sends a series of images into my mind to accompany her words. I recognize each of those images as instances where I almost killed Lilly in similar circumstances as what happened just now, during the trip from Fushia City.
43 of them.
[…It really isn’t funny.]
“Akasha, where are you going? Why are you leaving?” Lilly asks, completely oblivious to my reaction.
“Oh! You can come to mine! We can share it! That would be good!”
I’m not sure about ‘good’.
‘Lethal’, more like.
I glance to the side, toward Finram, and as expected, I find him on the edge of his seat, ready to protect his niece from the monster, his eyes on me, his gaze sharp.
That guy definitely noticed.
[…Do something,] I say, only to him.
A small, bitter smile appears on his lips for an instant before he schools his expression and clears his throat. “Ahem. Lilly, don’t bother your friend too much.” He pauses for a short moment, probably trying to come up with a plausible excuse. “You know your room is kept very warm, but Akasha doesn’t do so well with heat, right? She’d be quite uncomfortable, if you were to share a room with her.”
“Then we can just stop heating the room!”
“You’d be the one to catch a cold, in that case. Don’t be difficult, now. Akasha is in the mansion, in any case. You don’t need to attach yourself to her all the time.”
“Your uncle is right, Lilly,” Rieshia says. “Come here. It’s late, so you need to get to bed soon, as well.”
When Rieshia takes her daughter away from me, I take the opportunity to slip away, silently urging Liam to get moving before Lilly finds another reason to cling onto me.
“Please, if you have any need, ring this bell here, and someone will come after a short while to respond to your request to the best of their ability.”
“Well, then. Good night, miss.”
With my acknowledgment, Liam bows deeply once more and closes the door, leaving me alone.
As I hear the sound of his footsteps gradually fade away, I take a few wandering steps around the room. It’s fairly large. And it looks comfortable.
That’s not my room.
My room has an armchair in front of its window, and overflowing bookcases along the walls. And it has my smell and Nerys’s smell in it.
This place smells… unfamiliar.
I let out a small sigh and head toward the only other door in the room. This one is camouflaged to look as if it were part of the wall around it, but it can still be easily spotted, despite that. Like Liam described to me before he left, there is a bath in the room on the other side, along with a few other devices I don’t recognize.
…Do humans like taking baths so much that they’ll put some in their own bedrooms?
No. Sif did force me to take one with her, back in Jodene Fortress, so it’s clearly not limited to humans alone.
Actually, now that I think about it, I don’t remember but maybe I also used to take baths this often, in the past? Maybe everyone does that? It could be some sort of common sense, on Caldera.
Eventually, once I’ve found Nerys and killed all the people I want to kill, I’ll have to go back to leading a normal life.
Except I have no idea how to do that.
What if I find Nerys but she thinks I’ve become an idiot? Some kind of ignorant fool who knows nothing about how this world works? Would she be disappointed?
As I thought, I should try to get used to all this as soon as possible. I was already frustrated by my lack of basic knowledge, so I really need to make an effort and learn how to be a normal person again.
kon, kon, kon
Is someone knocking on the door to my room?
Are they trying to stick something onto it?
Finram’s smell. And he seems to be alone. I can’t hear any footsteps. He’s really just standing in front of my door.
What does he want?
kon, kon, kon
The knocking resounds again, louder this time, as if Finram is deliberately trying to make himself heard.
What on earth is this brat doing?
Does he want to enter my room?
It’s not like the door is locked. Doesn’t he have hands he can use? Well, maybe he’s carrying something and can’t turn the handle. Still, he could use his magic or something instead of disturbing me like this.
Children these days are really rude.
I’ll be sure not to follow his example.
<Do it. Go.>
[…How about you go?]
That’d be a nice surprise. I’d really like to see Finram’s face if Sanae were to open the door and jump in his face.
KON, KON, KON
Cursing inwardly, I stand up and leave the bath, water splashing around me. I walk back into the bedroom proper and head for the wooden door leading to the corridor outside.
When I brusquely open the door, Finram is indeed standing there, but his hands are empty – one of them is even about to knock on the door again – and when I check the door, just in case, it turns out that he really wasn’t pinning a paper to it or anything of the sort.
When I turn my eyes back to him, he’s standing there as if frozen, staring at me. His eyes slowly trail down, from my face to my body.
I look back down too, and…
Water is dripping off me and forming small puddles at my feet. This might even damage the soft, fur-like thing covering the floor, if left unattended. Mold might grow.
I freeze all the water around me, then make it stick over my skin in a very thin, invisible layer of ice. Since it’s natural water I froze, instead of ice I directly created with my magic, I can’t just make it disappear so easily, so I’ll just put it back into the bath afterward.
There. Problem solved.
I look back up at Finram. He’s still standing there like a brain-damaged moron, but I don’t have the patience to wait for him to wake up, so I ignore Sanae’s laughter ringing inside my mind and ask the question I want to ask.
[…Why were you knocking on the door?]
“W–What? Um, wait. Perhaps you should wear something, first.”
[…You don’t wear clothes in a bath.]
Even I know that.
Looks like I’m not the only one who doesn’t know much about the world. Finram could stand to learn a thing or two, as well.
[…Why were you knocking on the door?] I ask again.
“Oh, huh, to call for you,” Finram answers, his gaze avoiding my own and wandering over my shoulder to look at the room behind me.
Call for me?
“I have something I need to ask you. About Fushia City.”
“Can we go in, first? I don’t think it would be good if anyone overheard this conversation.”
Then why did he even call me to the door in the first place, if we’re going to go back inside? Couldn’t he have just entered himself and ask his question?
This is really confusing.
But fine. Whatever.
I turn around and gesture for him to follow. After a small hesitation, I hear him step into the room and close the door after himself. Since I figure I might as well finish my bath while we talk, I head back into the bathroom and slip into the water, the small chunks of ice on its surface bobbing up and down at the waves I create.
But Finram isn’t following anymore.
For some reason, he’s stopped at the door and isn’t looking at me, instead preferring to stare to the side, at an empty corner of the bathroom.
…This guy is behaving quite strangely tonight.
[…What are you doing?]
“No, um…” Finram hesitates, an almost painful look on his face. “I don’t think it would be proper for a man to enter a woman’s bathroom. Especially when she’s taking a bath.”
<Ask him why.>
Somehow, the mirth in Sanae’s voice gives me the feeling that following her advice would only make things more complicated, so I ignore her and ask something else instead.
[…What was your question?]
“What? Oh, right.” Perhaps being brought back to the subject of his visit calms him down, because Finram’s face becomes grave and he turns to look at me with serious eyes, his awkwardness from earlier abruptly gone without a trace. “My question is simple. Why was Fushia City destroyed? What happened there? I’m fairly certain you know the truth.”
[…Two gods attacked me. We fought.]
“As I thought… So that pillar of light was an attack from one of them? Or did it come from you?”
[…No. I injured one of them. He lost control of his artifact.]
That should have been what happened.
At least, that huge man didn’t have enough qi inside himself to produce such a powerful and lasting spell as that pillar of light. So the energy had to come from outside. An artifact running out of control is the most plausible explanation.
“What about the other god?”
“So you won,” Finram says in a hushed voice, “even though two gods fought against you at once.”
I’m not quite sure what to say to that.
I’m not quite sure what Finram means by ‘winning’.
I suppose I won, in that I survived.
But Orsino too survived.
I suppose both sides won, in that case.
But then again, while I killed one of them, the other is still alive. Not all threats were eliminated. In this, I lost.
And I won because I killed the people I actually wanted to kill in Fushia City, and because it revealed to me that I’m not as much in control of myself as I would have believed – which is always better than it being revealed with Nerys in front of me.
I lost because the last remnants of my old home turned into a lake of molten rock during the battle.
I won because I managed to save one small petal of the last tree from that mountain. Not much, but better than nothing.
I lost because…
“Were they human gods?” Finram asks, bringing me out of my musings.
“Do you know why they attacked you? Could you tell me? I realize it might not be my place to ask this, but since we’re giving you shelter for now, I’d like to know precisely what we’re getting ourselves into.”
[…I don’t know.]
I have a few guesses, of course, but I’m not sure.
Finram is silent for a long time before continuing. “My brother sees you as a link to the apostles and devils, through whom he could start a dialogue and inspire goodwill. Are you that?”
[…I’ve never seen a devil. All the apostles I’ve seen, I’ve killed.]
[…You only killed more because you have more limbs and eyes than I do.]
This stupid spider should stop boasting, already.
“I see,” Finram says. “I don’t know what grudge you have against the apostles – and I’m sure I don’t need to know – but… Actually, I just realized I didn’t come here to ask a question. What I really want to say is this. If you were to bring danger to Lilly, in any way, I swear on my name that I will do everything in my power to kill you.”
A self-deprecating smile appears on Finram’s face. “I know that this might not mean much to someone who can fight two gods at the same time and emerge victorious. But I just wanted to make this point clear between us. Thank you for your time. Good night.”
And without another word, Finram turns around and leaves.
I hear the door of my bedroom open and close, then his footsteps slowly go down the corridor outside, while I just sit in the bath and play with the drifting chunks of ice, pushing them this way and that over the water’s surface.
When I submerge my mouth and exhale to make bubbles and funny noises, Sanae’s voice resounds in my mind.
I didn’t expect Finram to say that.
He should know perfectly well that he stands no chance against me.
I should, shouldn’t I…?