The festivities of the New Year had drawn to a close, taking with it all of the cheer of the holiday season. What remained was the chill in the air, fields left to fallow and dreams of warmer days on the horizon. It was at this time of the return to routine that Reigen received a letter.
As he looked over the missive during breakfast, Serizawa draped himself across Reigen’s back. “What does it say?” the Mage asked, both out of genuine curiosity and as an excuse to continue crushing his slighter lover with his frame. Serizawa took great pleasure in using his strength to tease Reigen.
“It’s from my friend, the Earl of Mitsuura,” Reigen said, his tone strange and unreadable. “He says he found it.”
“Found what?” Serizawa asked. Reigen only spoke a few times before about his friend and Serizawa knew little about the man or what he could be seeking.
Reigen turned his gaze to share a look with Serizawa. “The Mutus Liber,” he said, as if the name held meaning to Serizawa. “It’s a recipe for the Philosopher’s Stone.” The smirk on Reigen’s lips was mischievous. “Kenji wants me to help him make it.”
Serizawa was shocked at the proposition. “I thought that was a myth.” He had been privy to miraculous things but that seemed beyond impossible. A Stone that was said to not only transmute one element into another but also, somehow, cure all known ills to Man? A mad king turning himself into a dragon was one thing, this was another.
“Oh yeah,” Reigen agreed. “It’s probably total garbage, but an invitation to a fabulous castle during the slow season and a chance to mock one of my closest friends?” His grin was infectious. “Who could pass that up?”
Serizawa was appalled at Reigen. “That’s not very nice.”
The Apothecary blew him off. “It’s Kenji,” he said, “he can take it.” The affection in his voice softened the harshness of his words.
“How long will you be gone?” Serizawa was not looking forward to spending the rest of winter alone but if it was what Reigen wished—
Reigen laughed at his paramour’s expression. “You act like you aren’t invited.” He kissed Serizawa’s temple in reassurance. Abandonment was the last thing on his mind.
The Mage stepped back, finally giving Reigen a little breathing room. “Are you certain it would be alright?” He did not wish to intrude.
“Kenji said I could bring anyone I wished and he has plenty of space, trust me.” Reigen rolled up the scroll, he was back to business. “Considering how long we might be away, we should bring the Apprentices,” he said. “Not only can we continue their training but they can meet Kenji’s Adepts as well.”
“Adepts?” Serizawa had not heard the term before.
“They’re like junior Alchemists,” Reigen explained. “Kenji has his own students; I think they’ll be around the kids’ age. It would be good for them.”
Serizawa did think that exposure to other disciplines would benefit the children. He just hoped it wouldn’t be an excuse for them to ignore their studies. “Where is this castle?”
“Northeast,” Reigen said. “It may take a few weeks to get there if the weather is bad.” It was obvious that was the one part of this scheme that Reigen did not look forward to.
“We should discuss this with their parents.” The adventure might be a long one and Serizawa was concerned about how the Apprentices’ families might take such a separation. He also knew that he had to express this out loud. Reigen had spent so long being Shigeo’s sole caretaker that he occasionally fell back into the role and failed to consult with the boy’s parents.
“Of course,” Reigen said. “But I don’t think any would refuse their children such a chance.”
As usual, Reigen was proven right. The Kuratas were thrilled at their daughter wintering in a real castle. They were simple folk and Tome’s Apprenticeship was giving her far more opportunities than they could dream. They had been proud of her as a tailor’s Apprentice but her studying under the Apothecary made them ecstatic.
The Kageyamas, however, were more reserved in their enthusiasm. Although going to the Academy would greatly benefit Shigeo, they were reluctant to separate their sons. Ritsu had work to do for his own Master and he would have to stay behind in Seasoning. Ritsu claimed he was alright with the situation but Serizawa had his doubts. His educational path was so very different from the others that it seemed inevitable that a gap would form between the two boys. Serizawa did not know how to ease that pain, he was an only child himself.
Teru, on the other hand, was very excited about the prospect of travel. The first words out of his mouth were questions about climate which, once answered, made him dash away to prepare his wardrobe for the trek. He also insisted on helping Shigeo with his packing once ready. “There is no room for rags in court,” Teru had insisted.
Tsuchiya agreed to let Reigen and Serizawa take sole responsibility for Shou for the duration of their time at the Academy. She confided that she could use the opportunity to search for Shou’s mother herself since she did not have to care for the son for a few months. Perhaps by the time they came back, she hoped, the former Queen could be reunited with the Prince.
Once permission was secured, the preparations for the journey could begin. Reigen knew that it would be at least a few days before they could set off. The wagon had to be packed, supplies secured, the shop closed up, etc. Traveling in good weather was far easier than in the fierce storms of winter. He knew this from experience, as did Mob.
Reigen sent a message to Kenji with a bird so that the Earl would be ready for them. No sense in surprising the man. Reigen could not wait for Kenji to meet his new paramour. He imagined they would get along famously.
She was still unattached, but for how long? Tsubomi was a great beauty, she would not be a spinster. Someone would win her affection and possibly soon. If he did not do something, Mob could lose his only chance.
Mob needed advice. He thought to ask his fellow Apprentice Teru, but he always seemed pained whenever Mob brought up Tsubomi. If anyone else discussed her he reacted very differently. It was not that Teru disliked Tsubomi, in fact, he seemed to find her rather charming. He just didn’t like Mob talking about her for some reason. Mob decided to spare his friend the discomfort.
He could ask Reigen or Master Serizawa but he didn’t wish to burden them with this when they were already planning the journey to the Academy. The logistics of traveling with four youths would be taxing.
The boy sighed, his problems and his breath fragile and cold in the afternoon’s crisp air. His wandering feet took him to the bridge where he saw Musashi resting after a hard run. Maybe the muscle bound youth would lend his ear. Musashi was a good friend.
The older boy looked up, raising his hand in greeting as he spotted Mob. “Hello, friend Shigeo!” Off Mob’s distraught expression he frowned. “What troubles you?” he asked.
Mob wasn’t certain how to phrase it. “What do you know about Tsubomi?” He hoped it was a neutral enough question.
“Tsubomi?” Musashi’s face lit up. “She is a little spitfire, that one,” he said. “I’ve known her since we were very small.”
As Musashi spoke about Tsubomi, Mob came to a realization: he knew nothing about her. He thought she was pretty and remembered her lack of fear at his burgeoning powers but he knew nothing else. He knew nothing of her dreams, her passions. He hadn’t known about her love of cooking and her desire to run her own restaurant. That she loved laying in fields of flowers in the hot sun, not for their scent but for the wildlife the blooms would attract. That she snorted when she laughed and would drag Musashi into her kitchen to try whatever new concoction she had imagined. That all the silks and jewels in the world meant nothing to her but a rare spice would set her heart racing.
Mob knew none of the things that Musashi did. The older boy’s knowledge had come from talking to her, listening to her, being her genuine friend. She had tended his wounds from their days in bondage and he had comforted her when the Claw Mages tormented her. Who was Mob, a distant admirer, too cowardly to hold a simple conversation?
It was in that moment Mob came to understand: he did not deserve to burden Tsubomi with his confession. He was unworthy, not because of his actions, but because of his inaction. Mob did not love her at all, he loved an idea of her.
Tsubomi was a young woman, not a vague concept of one. Mob would keep his false feelings to himself. With time, he could smother them, let himself be a true friend to this remarkable girl. Let her be with someone who truly knew her and allow himself to do the same.
“Thank you, Musashi,” Mob said, feeling lighter. “Tsubomi sounds amazing.” He got an idea. “Maybe you should talk to her.”
“About what?” Musashi asked, his gaze blank.
“How great you think she is.” Mob found that as the words came out he meant them. The older boy clearly held Tsubomi in high esteem, perhaps he would be a good match for her.
Musashi flushed bright red, the muscular teen thoroughly embarrassed. “I don’t think she’d—“
“Maybe she would,” Mob argued. Honestly, seeing Tsubomi on Musashi’s arm would not be the worst thing in the world. Mob admired Musashi, he was as tender as he was strong. He was kind to everyone and loyal to a fault. Any girl would be happy to have him and Tsubomi was not just any girl.
“I’ll think about it,” Musashi muttered.
Mob was pleased; now he could move on. The Apprentice had his own adventure to prepare for in a far-off land. He would let Musashi take on this one himself.