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My Lady Fair Was She

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Her Berserker joined this mortal plane in black smoke and ash, dragging Illyasviel down--an unbearable weight upon her circuits, upon her prana, so heavy that Illyasviel thought she would be drowned in the earth. But she was not, and she held steady: and her Berserker stood in the snow with her--his?--arms crossed over her great sword.

The snow was searing the skin off Illyasviel's feet. She grinned, anyway, triumphant and lightheaded; she grinned, and reached her arms up for Berserker to kill her or sweep her away.

In fact, she picked her up. She shifted Excalibur aside to make room for Illyasviel in her arms and scooped her up--the plates of her armor burned cold, like the ground--and Illyasviel let her head drop forward onto Berserker's shoulder in exhaustion. Success was exhausting, not because she hadn't anticipated it, but because death had driven her forward: it was death or success, Grandfather had made it perfectly clear, and Illyasviel had run forward. She could feel the tightness of her control over Berserker strung taut, like a wire--but it held strong.

Berserker shifted. Her eyes were reddened--not blood, but bloodshot. She strained to say something.

It was not in her class's nature to speak. Illyasviel leaned in to listen.

"Irisviel," Berserker rasped.

Illyasviel drew herself up in Berserker's arms, head high: "Illyasviel," she corrected her, and was faintly surprised at how thin her voice was. She had been out here for a while. "I am your Master. Irisviel was my mother."

It was strange to say it aloud, when things like Illyasviel no more had mothers than they had fathers--but Illyasviel had had Irisviel, and she remembered sitting in her arms. She was conscious of the fault in her blood, the half-humanity of the frail man who'd fathered her; but stronger than that, she remembered Mother. It had been so long since anyone had spoken her name. So long, that she was not immediately frightened or unnerved--she just said again, gently, "My name is Illyasviel."

"Irisviel," said Berserker again.

"I am not Irisviel," said Illyasviel with dreamy weakness; "I am your Master. Take me home."

She was conscious of wolves, at some point. Her Berserker moved with a canine grace, and Excalibur tore them apart--Illyasviel was barely conscious of the impact, only of the warmth of the blood. They moved through the woods and Illyasviel wondered if Berserker knew the way, or if she'd told her and forgotten: it was so easy to forget, in this kind of winter. She curled her fingers in the torn fabric of Berserker's clothing.

Grandfather was waiting for them. If he was pleased, he didn't show it; but Illyasviel always knew him to show his displeasure, and smiled broadly at him. He did not cover Illyasviel immediately--he said, "You have summoned a Berserker."

"I have, Grandfather," said Illyasviel, and thought that Berserker should set her down: and in the next moment, she did, with iron gentleness.

"This is King Arthur Pendragon," Grandfather said, and Illyasviel thought Berserker coiled like a snake at the mention of her name; "She is our family's Servant. Now she is more powerful than she was before."

Illyasviel was unsteady on her feet. She leaned, and found Berserker standing there straight, thickly armored. "She is my Servant," she said, half to herself.

"She is our family's," said Grandfather with a note of warning--but he was holding a blanket, passed to him by one of the women, and he welcomed Illyasviel into his arms with it. She hesitated--to walk through the snow, perhaps. Or to leave Berserker's side. To leave Berserker's side was to fear her own impermanence: she felt now that Berserker's heaviness was her only anchor, the only thing that attached her magic to this world now. But she obeyed, and shivered, and let him stroke her hair. It happened so seldom. Across from her, Arturia Pendragon stared at her through those wide broken eyes; Illyasviel looked away, and dismissed her to the ether with a thought.

They traveled by aeroplane. Before then, Illyasviel dressed Berserker like a doll, like a gentleman doll--but no amount of mana could pass her off in public, so it was merely an exercise in Illyasviel's restlessness, in getting to sort through fashion catalogs. Fashion was Illyasviel's connection to the outside world, remotely: she rejoiced in the chance to practice it, upon herself and upon Arturia. Eventually she gave up on Arturia--one ruined suit too many--and focused on sorting through her own gowns, choosing jumpers and pinafores in preparation for her travels.

Grandfather indulged her, sort of. Berserker tolerated the attention, and stood by and watched her try on clothing. "What do you think?" said Illyasviel of a blue dress with buttons.

Berserker said nothing. She was not incapable of speech, Illyasviel surmised, no matter what was said of the Berserker class; but it came at great cost, and Illyasviel found herself having to tighten the leash when her Servant mustered the will to speak.

"I think it looks well on me," Illyasviel went on, as if they were having a conversation; "But I prefer white. It brings out my eyes."

Two nursemaids came and went, bearing tea for the young Master. They were afraid. Illyasviel hadn't known they were capable of being afraid. But it came out in the trembling of their hands, every time they came to deliver something when Illyasviel's Berserker was in attendance.

She was always in attendance, Illyasviel thought. How foolish of them not to understand.

Illyasviel thanked them anyway, and childishly savored their fear: it was like being feared herself, really, except that it wasn't at all. She was a mage in her own right worthy of fear--but here in Einzbern Castle she had been object, not subject, and that had colored the nurses' treatment of her beyond doubt, something she had understood since she was very small. Now she had an object of her own--and she supposed that was what changed everything, beyond Berserker's power. Though she had the strongest Servant. She was constantly aware of it shackling her.

"You are the strongest. Why did you not prevail," said Illyasviel to the mirror, "in the last War?"

Berserker opened her mouth, and a low growl came out. The growl resolved itself into words, which was perhaps more unnerving than the sound itself.

"I did prevail," she said. But pressed, she would say nothing further.

She dematerialized for the flight; Illyasviel experienced motion sickness, to her own humiliation, and wished she had her Servant to lean upon once again. Further and further she was flung away from Einzbern Castle, from Grandfather--she half expected herself to drop, her strings cut. But she did not. She was taxied to her hotel, and there she brought Arturia back into being; "Ah, this is lovely," she announced--and, whimsically, "You can sleep on the sofa if you like."

She received no reply, and Illyasviel supposed Berserkers had no need to sleep. In the morning Illyasviel navigated the strangeness of the toilet and the room service menu: and Berserker pressed her armored hands to the broad pane of the window.

"We lived in a house," she said after a while.

Illyasviel bit down on the strain and considered what Berserker had said. "I am Illyasviel," she reminded her, not for the first time on the trip.

"We lived in a house," Berserker repeated. "Your mother and I."

It was the oddest thing: the closest thing to coherency, to a theory of mind that Arturia Pendragon had shown. Illyasviel found she did not like it. She had not liked being taken for her mother, but she did not like this any better. She shifted on the bed and said, "Did you."

"Y-Yes." Berserker spoke fluent German, another one of the Grail's illusions: Illyasviel wondered if she could get her to help her practice her Japanese. She doubted it. "We lived in a house."

Illyasviel lapsed into silence, but she came up to Berserker and stood next to her. Her Servant was not big, but she was bigger than Illyasviel, and the armor she wore made her larger still; Illyasviel wondered if it was a function of her class that had magnified her. Emiya Kiritsugu's records had always described her as small. He sounded disappointed in his writing. "Shatter that mirror, Berserker," said Illyasviel on impulse.

It went into a thousand pieces before Illyasviel saw Berserker move--in fact, she never did, which she supposed was a function of Berserker's weapon. When the deed was done, Illyasviel said, "Clean it up."

She was not prepared for the dreams. Looking back, she was surprised at how seldom she had dreamed in her life--in fact, she was not sure she had dreamed at all. It was a peculiar thing, both the loss and her ignorance of it. Perhaps it was not something that came to homunculi. But it had never occurred to her. She had once read of colorblind people who knew nothing of their colorblindness, scent-blind people who truly believed they could smell; maybe she had been similar. Illyasviel was always unnerved by anything about herself that she did not perceive.

She dreamed of her Berserker a Saber, sharp and shining. This came as no surprise, though it was strange to remember her eyes wide and clear. She dreamed of her mother. She dreamed of her father, which was unpleasant, and she could feel the uncomfortable shape of Berserker's dreams around it; but more than anything, she dreamed of her mother. Irisviel was taller than Illyasviel had remembered: but then again, all adults had been tall. And she smiled less often in Arturia Pendragon's company. With Illyasviel, she had always been smiling.

She dreamed of her Berserker a king.

Illyasviel woke vexed. She did not like the idea of Berserker sharing her dreams; she did not like the idea of anyone dreaming of her own past, when she'd been so long deprived of the privilege. But then again, perhaps Berserker did not sleep. She paced the hotel room while her Servant stood, again, at the window; "You were the King of Britannia," she said wonderingly, crossing her arms. "You were the hope of your nation."

"Master," Berserker ground out.

She nearly leapt. It was the first time Berserker had uttered that word; far from reassuring, it frightened her--as did the unchanging look in Berserker's mad eyes. But she forged on, reckless: "And look at you now."

Arturia reached out for a strand of Illyasviel's hair; Illyasviel let her take it. Her Berserker would not harm her. She contained every drop of Berserker's rage as the earth contained the sea.

"Your father," said Berserker, "taught your mother how to drive."

It was the strangest non sequitur. Illyasviel blinked: "What of it?"

"Your father," said Berserker again--she was fond of repeating herself, when she did form words, perhaps because the same ones were easier than putting them together anew--"taught your mother how to drive--I drove her. Your mother."

Her hand was still in Illyasviel's hair; contrary to her earlier feeling, she was afraid to move. She stood absolutely still.

Berserker breathed out: "Irisviel."

Illyasviel exhaled frustration and fear; "I am Illyasviel," she said. "I am not my mother. My mother was not your Master. I am your Master," she said, surging on, "and I will be the victor of the Holy Grail War. Do you understand me?"

Perhaps she did. Perhaps she did not. Or maybe she held both halves of that knowledge at the same time within herself; Illyasviel was beginning to realize she did not understand the architecture of Arturia Pendragon's shattered mind. Berserker moved her hand and Illyasviel flinched--but it was to drop it, to let go of Illyasviel's white hair. She turned away, to the window again. The War was in its first stages; soon she and Berserker would have more to look upon.

They faced the Tohsaka schoolgirl and her red Servant on the pavement of Fuyuki City. Tohsaka tossed her head, arrogant; they were all arrogant, these Tohsakas and these Matous, as Grandfather had schooled Illyasviel in years past. They were arrogant--because they thought they could equal the Einzberns. But Einzbern blood ran pure, Illyasviel reminded herself, and Tohsaka and Matou blood diluted. House Einzbern endured. House Tohsaka fossilized.

Nevertheless, Tohsaka's Archer was strong. He was a tall, broad white-haired man, no hero that Illyasviel could recognize--though her education had been comprehensive. She felt a mite betrayed by Grandfather just then, in a way that she hadn't months ago in the woods. She was supposed to know the Servants. Berserker did not seem to care; Berserker met every Servant and aligned them with her memory, and if they did not match, she was unaffected. Or rather, she was as affected as she always was--Illyasviel came to understand that Berserker lived in a state of constant affect, and there was nothing doing about it.

Tohsaka and her Servant were nothing and no one to Arturia Pendragon. Illyasviel knew. She shared her dreams.

"Kill the girl," she said to Berserker.

Berserker obeyed. Or rather, she tried: Archer got in the way, of course, swift and blazingly determined. Illyasviel admired him, after a fashion. But there was no determination that equaled madness--blade after blade of his clattered against Berserker's unseen Excalibur, and he tired. He tired, and Berserker closed in for the kill.

After that, it was between Tohsaka and Illyasviel and Berserker: and Tohsaka was strong, too, strong enough to hold out for under a minute. Illyasviel supposed that a different Master might have respected that. Instead she said, "Kill her," again.

The end was quick. Berserker took off the Tohsaka girl's head: her favored method of execution, when execution was needful. Illyasviel wondered if it was a king's compulsion--passing a sentence, rather than doing a murder. Perhaps her delusions favored the dignity of it.

Blood spattered the street, where Archer's blood had vanished not sixty seconds before. Illyasviel looked upon it with chilly triumph. Then she realized the triumph was missing, and she had only the chill. She did not know why. It was unlike her.

Then she realized that Irisviel would have wept, to see the girl dead. For a flash--well, not just for a flash, she recognized--she resented Irisviel; she resented the Master-that-never-was that was her mother, soft and dead. She looked back at her Berserker, at Arturia Pendragon, to see if she could spy judgment in her eyes: but all she could see was staring. Berserker always stared. At Illyasviel--or at something she remembered.

Switzerland was colder than Fuyuki. Still, Illyasviel shivered. She drew her fur coat about herself as they walked the streets. They were looking for the golden Servant they had seen before: Berserker recognized him, Illyasviel could tell, but he had not been consequential enough to feature in her dreams, so Illyasviel had no better idea of him than ever. He was powerful, but they were all powerful. They were all powerful, and Berserker was Berserker.

"We will win," she pronounced to the stars. "We'll win." It sounded strange out loud because, to her chagrin, she realized it was the first time she'd believed it. "Berserker? What will you wish for?"

Berserker was silent. She frequently was, in response to most of Illyasviel's questions, and Illyasviel imagined that she would say nothing this time: or, more irritatingly, her mother's name.

But she said, "Run. Run with me."

Illyasviel started. She glanced at Berserker next to her; she said, wonderingly, "Is that your wish...?"

"No." Whatever Berserker was trying to force out, it was not coming easy: the syllables were grunts, more base and bestial than the usual things she said. She was coming apart trying to say it. "I--have prevailed. It's not. It isn't."

Illyasviel turned and stopped in front of Berserker, to make her halt as well. They waited.

Berserker stuttered; she gasped; she rasped, "Go with me, Illyasviel."

Smiling, Illyasviel reached up to touch Berserker's face, imagining she would find it cold, like the plates of her armor. It burned fever-hot. Her smile disappeared.

"We're going to win," she said. "And after that we can go anywhere we like."

Berserker looked down at her, and Illyasviel was afraid again: of the intensity of her marred eyes, of the way she looked at her. Not for the first time, it occurred to her that it wasn't that Arturia Pendragon wouldn't harm her--it wasn't that, not exactly. It was cold, and she wanted to step back and away. It had been cold in the Swiss forest as well. She had not stepped away then.

Illyasviel passed her hand up, up through Berserker's tangled half-colorless hair. "We are going to prevail," she said with certainty.

"We," said Berserker in half a cough, "are going to prevail." She did not sound like she meant the same by it. In time, though, Illyasviel's circuits ached, and Berserker turned her head: a Servant was close. They faced battle, one behind the other, Illyasviel's hands clasped together in a homunculus's prayer.