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i. charisma: a form of voodoo 

Just about everyone in the Imperial Army could tell that they were in for exasperation when Gulcasa caved in to the vulnerability of that soft murmured “please do whatever you like with me” and welcomed Nessiah back into their ranks. It was inevitable; Nessiah just has trouble trouble trouble written all over him from his carelessly cut hair to his sandaled feet. It’s as though danger signs have subtly been sewn into the lining of his ragged clothing, an are you sure you can handle me? that everyone but Gulcasa read loud and clear.

As for Gulcasa—well, the Emperor is the Emperor, and the Emperor has a soft spot for the downtrodden, even if they happen to be problem children. So everyone mostly shuts up and doesn’t complain and crosses their fingers in silent prayer that Gulcasa will be able to keep Nessiah in line.

There are moments, though, when they can’t help but voice their concerns—

Nessiah has habits, worrisome ones. In the middle of a strategy meeting, or while he should be eating or going over supplies or dealing with any number of everyday tasks, his movements will slowly become sluggish as his speech gets more and more slurred until finally his head bows and his body slackens and he collapses against whatever support he’s got. (Which is more often than not Gulcasa himself.) And there he lies breathing softly and perhaps stirring here or there until someone shakes him awake.

Gulcasa doesn’t like it when they try, and time and time again while Nessiah is sprawled against his side or over his lap, he looks at anyone coming near him reproachfully and hushes them with a finger to his lips and a significant nod in his new adoptee’s direction.

“Just don’t let Luciana see you like that,” Aegina always remarks at times like this, before shaking her head and telling herself that it can wait.

And then there’s what passes for Nessiah’s sense of humor.

“Stop that,” Russell will snap after half an hour’s worth of the soft but somehow intensely grating sound. “There’s nothing to laugh about here that I can see.”

“My apologies,” Nessiah will reply quickly, holding up a hand; but he will only mute the giggling, not silence it. It seems as though he can’t help himself, despite the fact that their own forces are the ones that are boxed in here.

And everyone, commanders to soldiers to message runners, just winds up exchanging uncomfortable glances as Nessiah tries but fails to hold his laughter in, because whose side is this guy really on, exactly?

As if all this wasn’t bad enough in and of itself, then there are the days that come after Nessiah’s spent a few hours too many on the battlefield.

The sound of hurried steps precedes Emilia as she charges into the strategy meeting yelling “We’ve got trouble”, and everyone makes for their weapons in a brief fumble for a moment before she shakes her head, pigtails whipping the air, and points towards the tents where the captives are being held.

Soft curses form a running whisper like wind over sand as those weapons are set down; rising above the steady murmuring is the clatter of Gulcasa’s chair as he shoves it back, toppling it, and makes for those tents at a sprint.

The captured soldiers are all tied in a line, the rope and chain staked down outside the tents for convenience. The plan was that Gulcasa would be interrogating them individually later, giving them the chance to join the Imperial ranks or ask for death, if they didn’t find that alternative palatable. It’s not as though he forbids other commanders and such from doing the same—depending on who does, sometimes it’s a weight off his shoulders; as the Emperor, there are already so many duties he has to see to that he would collapse under it all unless someone took up the slack for him every now and again.

But it’s Nessiah who’s there, and the air around him is crackling with magic and there’s a tense smile on his face. He’s laughing—not that usual obnoxious giggle, actually laughing, and that’s enough to raise anyone’s hackles. The captives are cringing away from him, as far away as they can get tied-up as they are, many wearing expressions that suggest they’re a few minutes away from pissing themselves with sheer terror.

(And it would be amusing—hardened men cowering before a single frail, tiny spellcaster—if it weren’t for the raw power Nessiah exudes and the way that everyone knows he can and might rip those soldiers apart by inches, until his skin and his robes are painted with blood spatters like a pox.)

It won’t happen today, though—it won’t happen today because as Nessiah’s laughter crescendos to a strained blood-freezing pitch and he raises one hand, Gulcasa arrives—because Gulcasa is there to put both arms around Nessiah and hold him tightly, restraining him.

The laughter cuts off, replaced by a soft and panicked sound as Nessiah struggles—and then Gulcasa’s murmured “hush, it’s alright, it’s me” as he laces their fingers together, still not letting go.

And all that tension, all that madness drains out of Nessiah in the space of a few seconds and he sags numbly against Gulcasa, a marionette with cut strings.

“You know you shouldn’t be out here after you’ve gotten all worked up.” For a reprimand as severe as this should be, Gulcasa’s voice is a little too gentle, a little too understanding.

“…nn.”

“Come on, take a deep breath. The fighting’s done for today, remember? Relax. I’m here.”

“…okay.”

And Nessiah’s voice is so weak—so utterly obedient—that all everyone can do is stare and stare in amazement.

“How does he do that?” Russell says beneath his breath like an oath.

“Force of personality,” Aegina replies, offhand. “Also, a great deal of practice.”

 

ii. liebes-attacke

“At this point in time,” Emelone says, projecting her voice firmly so that she sounds more like one of her lieutenants than herself, “the entirety of the eastern world is under Embellian supervision. Nothing on this side of the world poses any threat to our peace anymore.

“Still—still, there’s a vast world out there, one that’s still at war, and that war could spill past our borders at any given time. We have no choice but to venture out and neutralize the conflict ourselves.

“For a peaceful world!”

The Queen raises her trident, and beside her, Ishiene also lifts hers.

“For a peaceful world,” she echoes, her shout much sharper than Emelone herself could ever manage, “and for the glory of the people of the water!”

There is a great roar of assent from the soldiers, but a few dissenting voices rise from the crowd—

“For treasure!”

“For my paycheck, and in the name of shoe sales everywhere!”

“For the sake of the great Pamela’s lovely little test subjeeeects~!”

Ishiene turns to the Queen with dryly arched eyebrows; Emelone shrugs and spreads her hands as if to say well, what do you expect me to do about it?

 

iii. but why are the worthless multitudes taking you away? 

Yggdra pushed her hair out of her face and leaned forward, poring over the map. “Next we’ll be attacking the Arc of Triumph. I believe that the Imperial Court Magister is going to be overseeing that area…”

“Another old granny, huh?” Pamela asked brightly, and she and Nietzsche both giggled as Rosary whirled on the younger witch with doubled fists.

Roswell, however, remained silent.

Even though it was a bit of a nice change for him not to chime in with the girls when Rosary got made fun of, Yggdra had to worry a little bit about the long-suffering look of resignation on his face.

“What’s wrong?” she asked softly.

Roswell first tried to smile, and then sighed.

“I’ve met the Court Magister before,” was all he said, and sighed again.

Yggdra frowned and tilted her head a little. “If you’re uncomfortable fighting an old friend, you don’t have to move out with us—our point of entry will always need guarding, after all…”

“Old friend.” Rosary was leering back at them now; Pamela and Nietzsche had stopped paying attention to the discussions of strategy and were now laughing with each other over something or other. “What Roswell means to say is, that Magister lady is a cougar and he’s worried about losing his honor if he gets captured.”

Yggdra turned back to Roswell. He was silent—maybe not wanting to dignify it with a response—but the way he massaged his temples told her that Rosary probably wasn’t that far off the mark.

 

iv. the swagger of a champion 

It was over.

Technically, it had been over for nearly a week now, but it was still something of a shock to them to see the entire continent unified under the banner of the Imperial dragon.

Cruz sighed and leaned back against the ramparts. Down in the courtyard, Emperor Gulcasa was undergoing a formal coronation of sorts, receiving the acknowledgment of every other sovereign or major leader of the continent. He had to admit that the young man was the focus of everyone’s eyes, resplendent in red and gold armor, carrying a kind of majesty that Cruz had only before seen in the late King Ordene.

Even though he could sort of respect the way that things had turned out—it was a revolution if nothing else; not the one that he would have preferred winning out, but Gulcasa was a revolutionary nevertheless—it just felt kind of strange.

“Still, I guess the way everybody just kind of dogpiled on top of each other was pretty stupid if we wanted to stop him,” he muttered to himself.

“You’re right. Well, for better or for worse, the war here is over,” Mistel remarked from beside him, and Cruz flushed sheepishly to realize that he’d been overheard.

“I just wish I really understood more what this guy was after,” Cruz said with a sigh, speaking in a normal tone now that he was already talking to her. “Even though he made us part of the Imperial Army, everybody already knew what we were fighting for and… well, fought for it without talking about it.”

Mistel nodded and tucked a few stray strands of hair behind her ear, looking out over the courtyard. The two of them were stationed as lookouts on the ramparts, along with a few other soldiers, but there really wasn’t any point now that the entire continent was under Gulcasa’s control. Most of them were watching the ceremony instead.

“Everyone had such drive to see the world under their—well, I suppose I should say our control. And everyone’s hearts seemed as if they were as one.” Mistel shook her head. “I know that all those knights from Lombardia brought out the scriptures that oracle had written before she died and were saying that Emperor Gulcasa was a demon and his drive for conquest was a product of his cursed blood, but it never felt like that to me.”

Cruz pursed his lips and crossed his arms, thinking about it for a while and then nodding. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. I mean, that guy’s one scary bastard when he’s fighting, but he never seemed like a demon or anything whenever we were off the battlefield. For somebody who used to be our enemy, he’s a pretty okay guy.”

He thought about it for a while, then turned towards one of the few guards who was still attending to her duty. “Hey Elena, what do you think? You’ve been with the Imperials all your life, so you’d know more about it than us, wouldn’t you?”

Elena jumped a little at being addressed, then turned to peek over her shoulder with a troubled-looking smile.

“His Majesty and the others have been working for this for the past three years,” she explained softly. “So I think it probably has to do with the revolution. His Majesty did lose a lot of things important to him back then.” Elena then sighed and turned back to look out over the crenels. “I… probably wouldn’t be the most knowledgeable about it, though; I was very young then, and I stayed with Commander Luciana and the other wounded for the most part. All I know is that… His Majesty is a very kind person, and that despite what other people have said… he hasn’t changed since that time, not in any way that matters. No matter where his powers themselves come from, I think it’s horrible the way that people call His Majesty an evil demon.”

Cruz raised his eyebrows, then smiled. Even Elena was pretty patriotic, when you came down to it. Maybe he was just having trouble overcoming the fact that Gulcasa had been Fantasinia’s enemy. His own people seemed to like him well enough.

Laughter drew Cruz’s attention to his left, where Mizer the ex-bounty hunter was leaning on the wall beside him. “Yeah, they kept Elena out of the way pretty good back then, so she wouldn’t know the whole story. But I ran with this crowd three years ago—that was when me and my boys went straight and decided to be respectable bounty hunters, after all.”

“You, respectable?” Cruz couldn’t help but tease; Mizer waved the words away with a smile that was unusually proud.

“The whole story’s too long to tell now—he’s gonna start talking soon, and we should listen to him, but…” Mizer nodded to the courtyard, where Gulcasa was indeed climbing the steps to the platform in the center of the garden, where he could address the entire crowd. “He made a promise to a girl…”

If that wasn’t begging for more explanation, nothing ever had, but Cruz found himself with no chance to inquire about it, because the Emperor had begun to speak.

“With this, we’ve come one step closer to our dream, but only one step.”

Gulcasa looked straight ahead; his voice boomed arrestingly throughout the courtyard. Cruz wondered whether it was simple acoustics or just his commanding presence.

“With the continental world under our banner, we are ready to burn the insanity out of this land—to make it so that no one need suffer any longer, to build a land where the poor can make a living without constantly worrying about where their next meal will come from, a land where children can enjoy their youth without fear. It will take time and effort, but once that time and effort have been spent, we will be ready to move on to the next stage.

“As those who were here for my coronation as Emperor will remember me saying three years ago… what I desire is not simply a country. Nor is it a continent. I will not rest until the world has been freed!”

Cruz found himself staring, unable to look away. Some part of him was marveling at the words—is this guy for real?—but even more than that, Gulcasa’s words had struck a chord deep down inside him. This kind of ambition was what most people would call insane, but…

“Someone told me long ago that where we stand is only one tiny slice of the entire world. If her words were true, then we have a lot of hard work ahead of us. But as long as I can draw upon your strength, I believe that none of that work will be in vain.

“Once this land has healed—then let us go forth. To prove that the fire of our ideals will never burn out, and that true peace for the world is more than just a fool’s dream…!”

Somehow… Cruz got the funny feeling that if it was Gulcasa, then maybe something that sounded this crazy was really possible after all.

 

v. red for the devil, black to inspire fear 

Milanor tugged at his collar, slumping against the spindly trunk of the palm tree. It’d be better if he could take most of his heavier clothes off, but there was no place to put them right now and wouldn’t be until they got a new cart in the next town; besides, he had no energy left over to fiddle with the ties anyhow.

“I’m dyin’. Gimme the canteen, wouldja?”

Cruz gave him a dirty look from where he was fanning himself with a fallen palm leaf. “Get up and get it yourself. You already drank everything in the last one.”

“…Then wouldja at least splash some of that over here?” Milanor asked plaintively, turning to glance at Ishiene where she was sitting in the waist-deep spring. She turned up her nose at him with a “hmph”.

“You can’t really all be on the verge of collapse just from this heat?” There was a bell-like giggle, and Amareus came into view, twisting her body with her hands behind her back. She looked like she was half-prancing, like the baby deer Milanor had glimpsed once on his way to pay Kylier a visit. “It’s not even midday yet. Surely such a bunch of proud warriors wouldn’t succumb to something so mundane.”

Cruz groaned. “We’re not from around here. Give us a break.”

Amareus giggled again. “Well, you should at least pick up some looser clothes in town. It’s no wonder you’re all soaked in sweat, covered in all those tight furs and armor.”

It was a little uncomfortable, the way that woman tended to make everything sound sexual. Milanor made a noncommittal noise and closed his eyes.

“Hey.”

…It looked like he wasn’t even going to get this much luxury. Milanor groaned and opened his eyes, looking out over the sand sourly until he spied his commander. Gulcasa was standing out under the sun in full armor, helmet tucked under one arm.

“If you lot are just going to lie around there, you’re gonna get left behind.”

So saying, Gulcasa turned on his heel and headed back towards the supply train on the main road.

Milanor and the others just stared.

“Was he…” Ishiene began falteringly.

“Nope,” Cruz replied, sounding equally dumbstruck. “Not sweating. Not a single drop.”

“In this heat?” Milanor shook his head, shrugged, and cursed in begrudging amazement. Gulcasa’s armor covered his body from head to toe, and it was heavy plate—meaning he had to wear full-sleeved clothes underneath it. In addition to that thick cape, and the fact that Gulcasa’s hair was almost down to his knees.

“Just what is that man?” Amareus asked at some length.

No one answered her.

 

vi. tales of manly perseverance.
or the lack thereof.

“Milanor, it’s not that I mean to complain,” Kylier said with exaggerated patience in her voice and her hands on her hips, her eyes half-closed as she glared like a cat.

Oh, yes you do, Milanor thought grimly, but he knew better by now than to say anything.

“But are you sure we’re going to be okay with new recruits like them?”

She pointed in the direction of the tavern’s bar, where the three older men were sitting.

“The kids today, they just ain’t got any respect for their elders,” Dort was saying sternly with his arms folded. “Back in my day, if some upstart kid and his pack of bandits ran around tellin’ folks they ought to take orders from ‘im on what they should do, he’d have got stamped out right away.”

Ortega took a hearty swig of ale and nodded sagely. “Yeah, and back in the old days we either fought for our turf and got our standin’ up from nothin’, or we got appointed by our bosses. Nobody ever popped up outta nowhere just coastin’ on his popularity, and if anybody tried, well.” He snorted.

Inzaghi bobbed his head so enthusiastically that his rattail bounced. “Yeah, the way things are sure does suck.”

“You shaddap,” Dort and Ortega snapped in unison, and Inzaghi fell silent, deflated.

“Ah, give ‘em a break, Kylier,” Milanor said quietly; he might as well try to reason with her. “These guys’ve been around for a while and they don’ like havin’ lost to people our age. They’ll calm down if we give ‘em enough of a chance to vent.”

“Yeah, well, you’ve been saying that for the last two weeks, and there’s still no end in sight,” Kylier snapped. “What’ve you got to say about that?”

“…ugh.”

“Wherever we’re headed next, you’d better pick up some new underlings that don’t suck and are actually willing to follow orders,” she said primly, “or Al and I’ll round up the boys and give this army some new direction.”

Milanor hung his head. Maybe it was getting bad if Kylier was willing to threaten mutiny over it.

“I’ll… see what I can do.”

“Good, you’d better.”

 

vii. “i’m not sure my parents will approve! and they run a bar!”

Roswell closed the apothecary door, nodded to himself, and turned to face the rest of his comrades. The girl’s shop had been small and cluttered enough that he’d had to tell the rest of them to wait outside.

“So did we get what we came for?” Durant asked solemnly.

“Yes, of course. The time we spent tracking down the ingredients was well worth it.” Roswell reached inside the bag and held out a fistful of small black pills. “With these, we should be able to avoid constantly reaching our limit in the middle of the battlefield.”

Eudy pouted and shoved her glasses up on her nose. “Well, they’d better be worth it. I had to waste all that time searching when I could have been going back and doing research…”

“You can go back to that after we settle things with Milanor.” Roswell bit back the remarks about how a proper magician shouldn’t have anything to do with cannons anyway; the last thing they needed was a large argument now, when they needed to go into battle.

Eudy replied with a long-suffering sigh. “Well, I can’t say no to your pretty face, but someday I may just learn… so enjoy it while it lasts.”

Nietzsche leaned forward curiously, her nose only a few inches from Roswell’s palm. “What are these thingies? They look like candy!” And she reached as if to pick one up.

Before Roswell could shout a warning, Zilva caught the young Undine’s hand, holding her back. “…You can’t. These are for adults.”

“They’re not candy?”

“No. They’re medicine.”

“But Nietzsche thought medicine was supposed to be for everybody?”

Roswell cleared his throat. “These are drugs to make adults stronger. It isn’t safe for anyone under the age of eighteen to eat them; it can do strange things to the growing body.”

Nietzsche blinked at him. “…Nietzsche can’t have them?”

“No. They don’t taste very good, either.”

As she tilted her head to the side, wearing a puzzled expression, Roswell looked up to find both Durant and Eudy giving him strange looks.

“…what is it? If you have something to say, then I’d prefer to clear the air now.”

Eudy just shrugged and coughed, but Durant continued to stare.

“…Roswell, you’re rather familiar with this medicine…”

“I’ve tried it before, obviously. I don’t know everything I do because of books,” Roswell replied mildly. That worried, disapproving look on the knight’s face was beginning to get annoying. “And it’s quite safe as long as it’s taken in small doses—which I have not confirmed personally; I follow pharmaceutical warnings.”

The look persisted. Roswell resisted the urge to start rubbing his temples in frustration, and simply put the medicine away.

“We’re soldiers fighting a war; we need to be able to take steps to help ourselves win. So this is hardly the time to worry about what other people will think of you, as long as we use the tools at hand wisely.”

Zilva nodded, then added quietly, “It’s far too late for anyone to be acting the honor student here. And we cannot stop back in Fantasinia long enough for the Princess to give you permission.”

…Durant colored, but there were no more retorts or disapproving looks out of him, so Roswell decided to let himself feel satisfied.

 

viii. but first, i’d like to find out who did it. 

“We’ve come this far, and we still don’t understand why the humans are fighting like this…” Emelone sighed and shook her head, her long hair swaying.

“Isn’t it just for the usual stuff?” Rosary asked suddenly from beside her. When Emelone just looked at her, Rosary shrugged. “You know—fame, fortune, magic power.”

“How would you get magic power from a war like this?” Russell asked blankly, and Rosary stuck her tongue out at him.

“Of course you’d get better! We improve our techniques by actually testing them out on people, after all, and more importantly, you can make a name for yourself fighting like this.” Rosary clenched her fists and stared into the distance, her eyes sparkling.

“I dunno about fame and magic, but I kinda just want food on the table, y’know,” Mizer volunteered cheerfully, holding up a finger.

“You mean you want more money to buy shoes, right?” Russell asked, shaking his head.

“That too.” And the bounty hunter folded his arms and nodded sagely.

Emelone just stared at them, then turned to Russell and Durant.

“…What about your countries? Why did Fantasinia and Bronquia decide to enter such a foolish war as this one?”

Durant straightened up proudly. “We of the Kingdom have always only fought for justice and for the sake of our loved ones. We shall only ever move forward for such pride!”

Somehow it felt to Emelone as if there was a contradiction in his words, but since she couldn’t put a finger on it, she decided she might as well politely not say anything.

As for Russell, he just shrugged.

“Beats me what Gulcasa was ever thinking. I’m from Fantasinia to start with, remember? I don’t know, it always just seemed like Bronquia was conquering everything just because it can.”

Emelone sighed.

“Humans really are filled with all kinds of incomprehensible desires…”

 

ix. i have all these thoughts, and i’m pretty sure they all contradict each other. 

It was futile—the ropes were too tight—but Yggdra still struggled against them as she glowered up at her captors. At this point, it wasn’t about getting free—it was about her dignity.

Neither Milanor nor Kylier was struggling, but tied to either side of her, they were also glaring. For someone in their position, there was little else that they could do.

Gulcasa, the Emperor of Bronquia, was standing a short distance away, leaning against the wall with his hands on his hips. Yggdra had secretly dreaded that she might one day be held prisoner by that man—which was why a situation like this was all the more humiliating.

The man who had captured her and her forces folded his arms behind his back as his smile widened, and leaned over slightly to smirk at them more directly. Yggdra resisted the urge to hiss.

All she knew about this magician was that he called himself Nessiah, he’d appeared out of nowhere in the middle of the war, and his bizarre army of corpse-like soldiers had been devastating everything in his way. In comparison to the rest of the countries, who had jockeyed back and forth for land for the past several months, he’d conquered an alarming amount of land in the space of just a few weeks.

…Also, this man was a complete lunatic.

“Well?” Nessiah smiled down at her cheerfully. If not for his decidedly sinister appearance and the soft giggle she could just see him choking back, he would have been the picture of innocence. “Now that you’ve had some time to cool your heels and settle down, are you willing to listen to me yet? I’d like my Gran Centurio back, if it’s all the same to you.”

“And like I told you before, that’s preposterous, and I’ll never hand over the Holy Sword! It belongs to the Kingdom of Fantasinia, and has since my country was founded! I don’t mind allowing you whatever other material goods you attacked us for, but I’ll never part with it!”

Nessiah straightened up, uncrossing his arms to fist his hands at his sides. His expression was now arranged in a sullen frown that looked more like a pout than anything else. If he was attempting to be threatening, it wasn’t working.

“You idiot girl, didn’t you hear me when I told you that while that sword might have been entrusted to the Artwaltz line for safekeeping, it never belonged to you and yours in the first place? It’s mine, and I need it, and you need to desist with this resistance immediately!”

Yggdra scowled back at him and raised her chin defiantly. “Even if you could use our sword—which I highly doubt—you’d only be using it to harm our world even further. I’ll never let that happen, and you’ll never take our Holy Sword!”

Nessiah drew a very slow and very angry breath, apparently about to let loose with a full-on lecture or perhaps dispense with words and attack, but he was interrupted before he could get anywhere.

“…Nessiah, shut up and let me handle this. You’re not going to convince anyone without actually explaining things a little.”

Yggdra turned suspiciously. Gulcasa had straightened up and was now walking towards them, his expression still impassive. Nessiah turned to the Emperor, raising both fists to his chest in a gesture that made Yggdra think of a priest about to start praying—or perhaps a player about to launch into a dramatic soliloquy.

“I did explain—they’re just not listening! Gulcasa, I—”

“You’re too frustrated right now, and you didn’t explain things at the start, which is when it would have counted. I’m not blaming you or anything—even I can tell you’re not used to this.”

Nessiah shook his fists briefly, a tense gesture that was more arm movement than anything else and set off a terrible clattering from those chains he wore. Yggdra winced at the noise. “Gulcasa—”

The Emperor just sighed, shook his head, and put an arm around Nessiah’s shoulders, covering his mouth to cut him off.

“I told you to shut up and let me handle this. Have some damn faith in your second-in-command for once.” And while Nessiah made as if to struggle, Gulcasa turned back down towards Yggdra with that same impassive expression. It was utterly absurd, and all she could do was stare.

“—Right. I bet you idiots have jumped to the same conclusions as the rest of the goddamn continent and decided because of the way this guy looks and the fact you didn’t even know he existed until he started fighting, he must be some kind of demon or one of those crazy sorcerers from fairy tales bent on world destruction.”

Yggdra didn’t answer. Milanor and Kylier were silent, too, and she would be willing to bet it was for the same reason: When put that way, it did sound a little on the silly side.

“Unbelievable.” Gulcasa shook his head again, and actually rolled his eyes. “For Brongaa’s sake, I was hoping that at least someone would have the sense to actually stop and think here, but it looks like you have as little intellect as you have power.”

“Says the guy who’s stuck as this psycho’s toady,” Milanor grumbled. Gulcasa raised his eyebrows.

“I wouldn’t expect some upstart small fry whose name and background aren’t even worth committing to memory to understand this, but up here we’ve got this thing called honor. Nessiah brought my empire to its knees without spilling a single drop of Bronquian blood, and that kind of strength deserves my respect. I wasn’t exactly happy about it, but when Nessiah asked me to come with him, my people’s beliefs demanded that I honor his request.”

“You sure seem chummy now.”

“And you don’t know how to take a hint and keep that gaping portal to the realm of idiocy in the middle of your face the hell shut.” Yggdra shuddered—the intensity in Gulcasa’s eyes scared even her; it was easy to understand the whispers that he was something terrifyingly more than human. “I wasn’t happy about it because nobody bothered to let me know how a comrade I saw killed in combat could be walking around perfectly healthy, let alone why he was suddenly attacking us. Needless to say, I’ve learned a few things about the situation since then.

“Princess. Why are you fighting this war?”

The sudden question took Yggdra off-guard, and she blinked a few times before answering. “To… stabilize this world, of course. No good can come of a war like this, so it needs to be settled as quickly as possible, doesn’t it? And after that, we can find some better way to solve disputes than killing each other.”

Gulcasa just looked at her. “Would it surprise you to hear that Nessiah’s goals aren’t that different from yours?”

“Well…” Yes, very much.

“You couldn’t make that ‘just look at him, there’s no way’ any louder if you screamed it,” Gulcasa quipped dryly. Yggdra didn’t answer. “We’re also fighting to end the war as quickly as possible, and unite all the countries. It’s no good if this world is divided when the time comes.

“…Nessiah’s real enemy isn’t any of us. He would be attacking that real enemy right now, but without a base of solid support as big as the entire continent, his chances don’t look good. So before anything else, this world has to be stable. He’s telling the truth about that ridiculous sword, too—it belongs to him. You see these?” Gulcasa indicated the chains draped over Nessiah’s body. “The sword’s for cutting them off. And we need its power for who we’re going up against. You say you’re fighting for justice? Well, so are we. The people in charge of our true battlefield have committed what I can only call atrocities against Nessiah, and he’s been waiting his entire life to get the chance to do something about it.”

“So you’re fighting for revenge.” Kylier’s remark was flat and said pretty plainly what she thought about that.

“That, too. Revenge, justice, freedom, it’s all one and the same here. Of course, this is the really goddamn short version of the story, seeing as the full details would make it pretty hard for you lot to wrap your heads around it, but…”

“He told you this and you just took him at his word?” Kylier demanded, sounding incredulous. Yggdra grimaced slightly; all she could do was agree.

“Actually, Nessiah didn’t tell me a word of this,” Gulcasa explained. “His soldiers did. As you may have noticed, this one may be perfectly happy being mysterious, helpful, or downright infuriating if that’s what he thinks the situation calls for, but he tends to seize up when he needs to persuade people to help him, and winds up doing a crap job of it.”

Yggdra turned as far as her bonds would allow her, glancing first at Milanor and then at Kylier. The latter shook her head; the former shrugged.

“…And nobody would believe him anyway because, well, just look at him…?” Kylier added hesitantly.

Gulcasa raised his free arm and hand in a shrug and smiled wryly. “Well, first of all, I got over the way he looks and acts long ago and learned to listen to him then—besides, didn’t your mama ever teach you not to judge a book by its cover? Second of all, if somebody tells you a crazy story completely seriously, you’ve actually got about a fifty-fifty chance that they’re telling the truth.”

There was a jangle, and Nessiah finally wrenched Gulcasa’s arm away, first gasping and then turning to look up at him sourly. “Was that really necessary?”

“Yep.”

And then a short silence as Nessiah kept staring at Gulcasa, then turned back around to Yggdra almost timidly.

“…So… will you give me my sword back now?”

You’ll have to try harder than that. “Absolutely not.”

Nessiah turned back up towards Gulcasa with a helpless expression, as if to say See, so now what?

Gulcasa smirked.

Yggdra felt herself start to sweat. She had no idea where this was going, but she had the feeling she wasn’t going to like it at all.

“As all of you have overlooked this very simple fact, I think now’s the time to point it out. So, Princess, tell me—is that oversized sword on your person at the moment?”

…Yggdra could feel a sinking feeling starting in her stomach as she realized that obviously it wasn’t. She’d been tied up already when she’d come to, and the Holy Sword was nowhere in sight.

“…Oh.” Nessiah raised one hand to his lips with a soft, wondering gasp.

She’d probably dropped it on the battlefield. At the very least, as long as she didn’t tell them where it was, then—

“…Gulcasa? You were a little late getting to the tent when we reviewed our next route of attack…”

The Emperor gave a long-suffering sigh. “Yeah, because that idiot sword is goddamn heavy. By the time we realized we’d better pick the thing up and bring it along, you already had your hands full; I was the only one who could lift that damn thing, let alone carry it back to camp. And my arms still hurt.”

“…oh,” Nessiah said again, his voice even smaller and almost awed-sounding.

“That doesn’t sound too much like ‘thank you’.”

As Yggdra sat blankly, numbed by the knowledge of just how very deeply she and her friends were in trouble, she was rendered completely unable to comprehend the situation by the sight of Nessiah going red in the face, ducking his chin shyly, and murmuring something that sounded like very brokenly stuttered thanks.

“We are so screwed,” Milanor breathed next to her.

Gulcasa clapped Nessiah’s shoulder, then turned back to Yggdra with that same awful smirk. A warm droplet of sweat made its way from her temple down her cheek.

“As I see it, Princess, you’ve got two choices here—either go home, stay quiet, and contemplate what you’ve seen here today, or follow through on that oath that you wouldn’t be separated from that sword and come with us.” His eyelids lowered slightly, and the smirk developed into a leering grin. “So which will it be? It’s no skin off our backs if you’re ready to give up, and if you’re willing to come with us, it’ll be a real eye-opener for all of you. We get extra hands, and you get to learn the truth about this world. Not a bad deal, wouldn’t you say?”

…He had her, and he knew it, and the way Nessiah was smiling said that he knew it, too. Yggdra swallowed the burst of temper—getting angry would only satisfy them—and lifted her chin, staring up at them furiously.

“……Fine. Show me this so-called truth, and what you’re calling justice. If it’s that important, then as heir to the throne of Fantasinia, I deserve to know. And so do my friends.”

“And you two?”

Yggdra turned to look; Milanor scowled. “You know we already promised to follow Yggdra. We go where she does.”

“Excellent. Nessiah?”

Finally removing his arm from Nessiah’s shoulders, Gulcasa stepped back; Nessiah nodded to him and then gestured through the air. The pressure of the ropes around Yggdra’s ribs loosened, and she found she could move her arms again. He’d cut her loose. Shakily, Yggdra pushed herself to her feet and stepped carefully over the ropes.

“Welcome to my army, then, Princess—young lady—lord of thieves. I’ll be looking after you from now on; I certainly hope you’ll return the favor.”

And then he giggled. Yggdra felt slightly ill. She had no other choice if she wanted to salvage her pride, but it already felt like this had been a bad idea.

After that, they all marched out to the tent where those bizarre pale soldiers with their glowing red eyes were guarding the spoils—well, Nessiah all but ran there, Gulcasa followed him with a smile, and Yggdra and the others trailed after them out of something like bile fascination. The sun was starting to go down, and the world was bathed in red light; Nessiah was standing at the tent flap, where the Holy Sword was lying on the ground.

Something in Yggdra’s gut twisted as he bent down, and she glared at him, waiting to see him struggle with the weight and realize it was hopeless. That feeling quickly changed to dumb shock as Nessiah lifted the sword as easily as she herself always did, cradling it in the same two-armed hold she used habitually. He was still smiling, but that smile seemed somehow softer than before; Nessiah looked happy enough that he might cry.

Yggdra shook her head in wonder. “That’s unbelievable…”

A hand slapped her upper back, making her jump and yelp; she whirled again to see that Gulcasa was standing there laughing.

“You haven’t seen anything yet.”

 

x. it’s about creeds and deeds
but words, chivalry seldom needs

“I’ll say one thing about being in this army,” Rosary announced abruptly one morning as she and Yggdra were overseeing the men’s review of supplies, “there sure is a lot of beefcake to ogle.”

Yggdra looked over at her, confused. “I… beg your pardon?”

“You know, beefcake.” Rosary grinned and pointed down at where Milanor, Durant, and Roswell were standing, looking over the supply list. “Men running around showing off their strength, training shirtless, and giving their all for us delicate ladies.”

“I… think Durant’s the only one who really… and that’s because he believes in the code of chivalry,” Yggdra told her a little doubtfully. If she picked over semantics, maybe Rosary would let her other statement die.

“They’re still showing off for us, and still getting all sweaty doing it,” Rosary replied. No such luck, apparently. “Nothing quite like some strapping young men strutting around to get your juices flowing.” And her grin grew into a leer, and she elbowed Yggdra in the side conspiratorially. “So? They’re all easy enough on the eyes, but have you got any faaaaaaaavorites?”

“I’m not sure I know what you’re getting at, really…,” Yggdra mumbled, attempting to deflect, but apparently Rosary was having none of that.

“Oh, come on. I know you’re not that boring. If it were me? Well, obedient underlings are always good to have, but something about bratty boys just makes you wanna teach ‘em to behave, doesn’t it?”

“Rosary,” Yggdra said with an anxious smile—couldn’t she make the witch see sense? “they’re my friends, and we have other things to worry about now.”

“They’re your underlings,” Rosary repeated, wagging her finger. “Un-der-lings. They’re there for you to take advantage of!”

“…”

“Lady Rosary!”

Both of them looked up. Durant and the others were staring at them.

“Lady Rosary, I don’t know what you were talking about, but please refrain from harassing the Princess, if you would.”

Milanor nodded, putting his gloved hands on his hips. “Seriously, you’re talkin’ to your commander. Stop forgettin’ why you’re here with us, willya?”

Roswell smiled and shook his head, shrugging at the both of them. “Why, Rosary. I would think that even you would be able to show respect to someone who was able to overpower you completely.”

If they expected that to deflate Rosary, they were wrong—the witch just turned to Yggdra with a look of triumph and a snigger. Yggdra just moaned and rested her face in both hands.