"Are you all right...?"
The girl before her jolted in surprise from a spot between the bookshelves, knees drawn up to her chest and arms wrapped around her legs. Long dark hair framed a face flushed from crying as the girl looked up, blue-grey eyes misty with more tears to come. Affixed to the lapel of her uniform's jacket was the red starburst pin of the Support course.
"I-I'm…" The girl sniffled, averting her gaze back to the floor. "I-It's nothing. Just...mock exams, and all. I didn't do so well."
"Well… Things like that do happen." She took a seat to the girl's right, legs stretched out in front of her as she fiddled with her own starburst pin—purple, for Illusion. "With final exams for the semester coming up, I'm sure the instructors are just as on edge as the students. Guests from the different nations will be around, after all."
The girl groaned, dropping her head to her knees. "Don't remind me…"
"Sorry, sorry~! I thought it would be reassuring to know that everyone else is also in a mess right now."
"I doubt they're in as much of a mess as me, though..." the girl lamented, peeking her head up from her knees to look at her. With another sniffle, she asked, "Why are you here?"
"Books for class; what else?" she answered, tilting her head with a faint grin. That grin softened a moment later at the girl's watery blink. "Although… it seems I've found something more important than an essay. While I can't promise I'll be of much help, I suppose I can lend an ear if you're willing."
The girl's shoulders hunched further. "I-I wouldn't want to be a bother…"
"You're hardly being a bother." She lifted her own in a brief shrug. "And besides, I'd feel a little bad if I did nothing while someone's crying right in front of me."
For a moment, only the girl's quiet sniffles broke the silence between them. Her gaze had averted back down to the library's wooden floorboards. But, at the very least, her tears seemed to have stopped.
"I… This is something I have to deal with," the girl said at last, only the barest quiver in her voice. "You have your own studies—I can't ask that of you. I don't… I don't know what I'd do if I caused someone to fail again because they were trying to help me."
She sighed, shaking her head and rising to her feet with the same deftness from her performances. "Well… if that's how you feel, there isn't much I can do about that. Though I must say, thinking I would fail so easily—isn't that taking me a little too lightly?"
The flush on the girl's cheeks grew. Her gaze swept up to meet hers, wide and panicked. "N-N-No, I meant…! That is, I didn't mean—!"
"Just kidding~! I do appreciate your concern, though," she said, her lips curling into an amused smirk. Brushing any traces of dust off the trousers of her uniform, she continued, "That said, it never hurts to take a break, especially in times of stress. I'm sure you're aware of the academy's different clubs?"
The girl blinked owlishly. "Clubs?"
"Oh, dear. There is such a thing as taking things too seriously, you know? They may be preparing us for war in this academy, but our youth is still our youth." She gave another hapless shrug. "If you ask me, it's best to enjoy it while you still can."
They were borrowed words, but the sentiment was still genuine. Or at the very least, it was as genuine as she would allow herself.
"I-I still have so much to do…"
"And that's completely up to you. Just a suggestion, and nothing more." She tapped a finger to her chin as she walked over to the bookshelf to the girl's left. "But if you do find yourself with time, I hear the theatre club is performing a short play tonight."
A twitch of the girl's shoulders from the corner of her eye; quick as can be and barely there, yet she caught it all the same. It took skill to keep track of marks, after all—even the smallest of movements could go a long way when parting someone from their valuables. It was a careful, intricate, partnered dance of timing and finesse to steal in plain sight.
This girl, however, was no mark worth stealing from. She bore no emblem of a noble house, and her hands were too rough from hard work. As with many of the Pleiades Academy's students, she was likely a victim of the wars—another potential soldier seeking to do her part to end it one way or another. Or a healer wanting to save what she could.
There was also the possibility of personal recruitment by the headmistress herself, but that didn't seem likely. It took a monster to find other monsters, and this girl was more of a lost lamb than anything else.
A girl like that shouldn't be living this sort of life.
"Do you like plays?" she asked, breaking the short silence that had fallen between them. She plucked a book from the shelf, pushing aside the familiar discomfort that had begun to coil around her spine from her thoughts. "Even if you don't, I'm sure you'll find something to like about tonight's performance. At the very least, it's fine enough as a distraction."
"My…" She heard the girl swallow. "My grandmother loved them."
"And you? I did ask about you, after all."
She idly glanced over the book's cover as she waited, her thumb brushing over the gilded letters. History had always been one of her stronger points in her studies—an essay regarding the final, tumultuous years of the Ebisu reign wouldn't be difficult at all. If she recalled correctly, this book was one of the more reputable accounts due to the author's moderate views.
The perks of completing an education in neutral territory, Yachiyo mused as she tucked the book into the crook of her arm. It's too bad there aren't many primary accounts to pull from, especially from the princess herself.
Beside her, she heard the girl shift before finally replying in a quiet voice, "I don't...dislike them."
A layered answer; one that had her lips quirking into a faint grin. "'If it weren't for these wars', hm?"
The girl jolted in surprise. "How did you…?"
"It's not an uncommon sentiment among the students, you know. Even the faculty and staff harbor similar thoughts." She turned to face the girl, teal eyes meeting a surprised blue-grey. Offering a wink and holding a finger up to her lips, she continued, "But don't let the headmistress hear that, okay~?"
A light pink dusted over the girl's cheeks, slowly spreading to her ears. Her mouth parted a bit, lower lip quivering as her fingers twitched around her knees. It even seemed like the mini twin pigtails tied on each side of her head were twitching in time to her fingers. The sight was unexpectedly cute, causing her to almost miss the girl's next words.
"Um…! What is your name? I-If you don't mind me asking..."
"Tsuruhime Yachiyo," she answered, tilting her head slightly with a disarming smile. "And yours?"
Tsuyuzaki Mahiru. Come to think of it, she had heard that name in passing before. While there were many students known for their failures, there were few among them so perplexing.
She was a mage capable of above average support magic, yet she couldn't cast a single one on herself. Not for lack of trying, from the sound of it. If anything, she often tried too much. Taunts from her peers had slowly turned to pity; pity had eventually turned to encouragement. For a girl who continued to desperately try, and remain unrewarded for her efforts… Well, anyone with common decency would end up frustratingly wishing for her to succeed, if even by the barest amount.
Yachiyo sighed, reaching for the pendant—a fake devoid of any true value, merely fashioned as a prop by one of the conjurers—on the dresser. As she slipped it around her neck, fingers deftly working the clasp with practiced ease, her fellow cast members hurried around the dressing room like mice in search of food.
Fifteen more minutes until their show would begin. While its scale didn't compare to others they had done so far, a production was still a production. She appreciated how seriously each club member took even the smallest of plays. Having been raised by professional performers herself, Yachiyo knew their skills and dedication would give them no problems in finding theatrical careers in the future.
...If it weren't for these wars, of course. Each one of them bore magical skills or martial strength desirable to several of the warring nations. So long as that throne remained empty, there was no way they would be permitted a normal life.
If their lives were more normal, perhaps even Mahiru could get by.
But as it stood, Pleiades and the nations in power would have no need for a support mage who couldn't protect herself in the chaos of war. She would be a liability on the battlefield, her weaknesses outweighing her usefulness.
Yachiyo reached for the earrings next, carefully fixing them on with the dresser's mirror to guide her. Reflected on its smooth surface, she saw a little girl with dirtied cheeks and dull, matted hair. An unforgiving cold nipped at her nose, turning it red. Soot blackened her fingers from the matches held between them.
She briefly closed her eyes, clasping the earrings into place from muscle memory alone. When Yachiyo opened them again, that pitiful girl was gone, replaced by the theatre club's rendition of the lost princess.
It was strange to see her usual pink curls tucked beneath a wig of ginger hair, matching the royals of the Ebisu lineage. The ball gown was a little tight on her, but it was nowhere near the restrictiveness that the true princess must have experienced; Yachiyo had adjusted it herself so that it wouldn't be uncomfortable for her.
However, the comfort didn't take away from any aspect of the design. The naked eye would have mistaken the maroon and orange fabric of the dress to be made of the finest cotton, not something repurposed from a previous play. And due to the puffy dress, there was no need for her shoes to be overly decorated; if anything, the solid burgundy heels were perfect for her.
"Tsuruhime-san, are you ready?" a voice called out amidst the excited bustle of the room, nudging her from her thoughts. Glancing over her shoulder, she spotted a familiar head of wavy, strawberry-blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail. Slightly flushed cheeks stretched into a bright smile her way, brown eyes warm and crinkling at the corners as the girl carefully slipped through to reach her.
Yachiyo offered a smile of her own, albeit faint. "I see you're as eager as ever, Sakura-san. Are all of the props and set pieces in order?"
"Of course! Banbaen-senpai finished her final checks for the set a few minutes ago," Sakura said, holding out the golden scepter she had been clutching in her arms, among other props. A playful gleam danced in her eyes. "And I believe this is yours, Your Highness."
"I suppose this imitation will do," Yachiyo said, accepting the offered item with a mischievous smile and a haughty, regal laugh. Despite the heavy-looking bull ornamentation curling around the scepter's head, it felt as light as a feather. She gave it a brief wave to get used to its weight—or lack thereof—again, just as Sakura giggled.
"Oh! We have a bigger audience for this time of the year, according to the others."
"Well, things do seem more stressful this year. It's all the more reason for us to give it our all, hm?"
Sakura nodded enthusiastically, her eyes twinkling like the stars decorating their set pieces. "Would you like to see? They said that even Headmistress Fawsley is here!"
Now that was surprising. The headmistress rarely left the administrative building, only making appearances for ceremonies or when guests came to visit the academy. On the off chance that she was seen roaming about, her face was masked by a thick black veil long enough to cover her entire head and wrap around her shoulders. Crowned upon her head was a laurel wreath of roots so old that they had become wilted and grey, nearly matching the color of her long, floor-length dress.
Fawsley's appearance aside, her capabilities were so great that she could cast spells without a circle or a visible staff, at least for magic such as opening doors and teleportation. Not that Yachiyo considered the latter 'simple,' by any means. Her astronomical capabilities were a mystery that everyone wanted to solve.
...to most of the students, at least. Yachiyo knew better than to poke sleeping monsters.
Yachiyo followed Sakura out of the dressing room and down the hall, slipping through a door leading into the area backstage. All sources of bright light had been put out—torches and candles alike—leaving only a faintly glowing path in the gloom to show the way, courtesy of one of her peers in the magic course. Sakura bounded over to one side of the large, red curtains, where a handful of cast members and stagehands were vying for a chance to discreetly peek through the gap.
"Where is she? Does anyone see her?"
"Shh! What if the audience hears us?"
"Ow, you're stepping on my foot!"
"I can't believe all of you," Sakura chided, lowering her voice even as the audience made a stir of their own on the other side of the curtain. It was doubtful they would hear anything going on backstage. "Why didn't you form a line and take turns? Especially in the dark like this, it's no good to bunch up!"
Yachiyo chuckled, standing a few paces back to avoid any unexpected contact with her costume. "You can hardly blame them for being so excited, if the headmistress really is here."
"I'm excited too, but I can't see!" Sakura huffed, her pout barely discernible in the gloom. "If only I was as tall as my sister, or even just a few centimeters taller!"
"I wouldn't be surprised if you got a growth spurt within a year or two." Yachiyo stepped closer to Sakura, moving her hand from her forehead to the space above the girl's head. "At this rate, you'll probably be taller than me in no time."
Sakura's louder outburst caught the attention of the rowdy girls crowded around the curtains, cutting in before Yachiyo could reply. Upon noticing the two of them, they released simultaneous gasps in surprise.
"Oh, Tsuruhime-san is here!"
"Yanagi-san, why didn't you tell us you were bringing Tsuruhime-san over?"
"Tsuruhime-san, your eyesight is usually good, right?"
"Oh, yeah! She's always been able to estimate anyone's three sizes just from a single glance!"
Yachiyo giggled. "I've had a good amount of practice over the years, after all."
That, and I would make for a terrible thief if I couldn't get a good view of what I needed to steal, even from a distance. Not that any of these girls needed to know that little detail in her life.
"Do you think you can get a good look for us?" Sakura asked, eyes gleaming with anticipation. "If Headmistress Fawsley really is here…!"
"I suppose I can try to spot our elusive headmistress," Yachiyo said as they made way for her. Peering through the gap, she could see that the audience had settled into their seats. Students, staff, and faculty alike from both courses were in attendance and chatting among themselves. But with this limited view, she could only observe the first few rows.
Calling on her magic, Yachiyo allowed it to shroud her in an illusion—one of invisibility, to be precise. A spell like this would usually need a magic circle for it to be cast correctly, but such spells seemed to come easy for her. Even her instructor hadn't been able to detect her for the exam.
Now properly concealed, Yachiyo poked her head out a little more until she could see the audience in their entirety. Like locating a mark in a busy street or plaza, her gaze roved over the crowd in search of her target. Someone as important as a headmistress would normally be found in the best seat of the house, drawing the stares of everyone around her.
But her monstrous magical abilities aside, the woman known as 'Headmistress Fawsley' wasn't exactly normal.
Yachiyo grinned once her gaze met brilliant blue eyes, impossibly locking onto hers from the tenth seat in the third row. Not only had Yachiyo been partially shrouded by the shadows backstage, but her magic had rendered her invisible to everyone else.
And yet, there was no question that woman alone was staring right at her.
Framed by long, wavy blonde hair, those blue eyes narrowed slightly. A grin of her own tugged onto the woman's features as she calmly raised her index finger before her lips. In the distance between them, Yachiyo understood the silent request.
Her peers had made the mistake of searching for 'Headmistress Fawsley,' the veiled enigma overseeing the esteemed Pleiades Academy.
What they should have been searching for instead was—
"Um… Tsuruhime-san, are you still there?" Sakura asked from behind her, voice lowered into a stage whisper. "Do you see the headmistress?"
Before Yachiyo could step back and release her spell to answer, her gaze caught something else. Or rather, a lack of something. For in spite of all the people gathered tonight, a certain support mage was nowhere to be seen.
Hm… At the very least, I hope she's taking a break somewhere. Mentally shaking her head, Yachiyo finally slipped back fully behind the curtain. Dispelling her invisibility, she turned around to face those eagerly awaiting her report.
"I suppose you can say that I did." Her lips curled into a smirk as she mimicked the silent request she had been given. "But you'll have to try and spot her for yourselves. It's not fun if I just tell you, hm~?"
A chorus of exasperated "Tsuruhime-saaaan"'s answered her in return. They likely would have tried again in their search, if not for one of the other club members coming over to usher everyone along with the remaining work to be done. Sakura was the first to dart away, nearly dropping her props in her haste.
"I understand being excited, but we still have a show to put on…"
"The final checks are done, aren't they? A little excitement wouldn't hurt at this point, Marina-senpai." Yachiyo mused, giving the scepter a little wave in her direction.
"I guess that's true…" Marina sighed, crossing her arms with a nod. A knowing glint danced in her eyes in the gloom. "So? Was it 'Fawsley', then?"
A monster sought other monsters, or ones close to their level. Perhaps she should feel a little offended that the headmistress had thought of her as something so artless.
Yachiyo's lips twitched into a smirk. "Knightley."
"Ah, no wonder." Marina shrugged. "And none of those girls are in the advanced classes for the knight course. It was a loss from the start, huh?"
"I wouldn't say it was a complete loss. In knowing that she really is here, they'll have to look beyond their own perceptions to find the truth." Yachiyo said, her smirk growing. She pointed with her scepter to where Sakura was peeking through the curtain from the other side of the stage. The props she had been holding were gone, and her expression was one of serious concentration.
"As expected of someone from the Illusion course. You'd make a good senpai."
Yachiyo chuckled, using her scepter to wave off the praise. "I don't hold a candle to the senior students."
"So you say," Marina said, offering a slight smile. "But as our lead tonight, you have no choice! You'll just have to do your best."
"I always do my best, you know? With or without the headmistress in attendance."
"That's true. If anyone among us could stand up to that kind of pressure, it would be you." Marina gave a chuckle of her own, turning around to head further backstage. "Well, good luck out there, Yachiyo-san."
Her early thefts had relied on luck, yes. But as she had developed her skills over time, she had eventually arrived at the point where she could create her own luck. While leaving some things to chance was thrilling in its own right, even those instances were still within her expectations.
Of course, that had extended to the stage as well. She had tempered and refined her acting for this play like a brilliant blade, leaving no room for error. And as the curtain rose and their narrator began their story, Yachiyo felt that not even the headmistress' presence could shake her performance tonight.
Until a sudden burst of movement from the back of the hall caught her eye, halfway through their show.
With her face flushed, eyes wide, and chest heaving for breath, it was clear that Tsuyuzaki Mahiru had run all the way here. Her head turned this way and that, searching for something—was it for an empty seat or Yachiyo herself? She couldn't know for sure.
Not unless, of course, she created her own chances.
"I welcome you, esteemed guests, to the Kingdom of Hyades," Yachiyo said, delivering her line with perhaps more volume compared to their rehearsals. As she dipped into a curtsy, she noted in her peripheral that Mahiru's gaze had whipped around to fully fix in her direction. A faint smile briefly twitched onto Yachiyo's lips, unseen.
"I hope you enjoy your stay, and all of the sights we have to offer." She paused for a moment, then chose to add, "You all have traveled far and wide to our gracious home. Tonight, I hope you may leave your current troubles behind, no matter how pressing they may seem. For tonight, enjoy yourselves, and I will make sure all remains well."
Weeks passed before she saw Mahiru again. Or rather, heard, to be more accurate.
Piano notes drifted to her ears, soft and tender, on her way to a meeting with an advisor. She still had some time, and the song had tickled something at the back of her mind. Following the gentle melody, she found Mahiru seated before a grand piano in one of the recreational rooms. Other instruments lined the room for students to play as they pleased—something Yachiyo had done on more than one occasion in her free time.
Although Mahiru seemed to be engrossed in her song, Yachiyo partially hid herself behind the door for good measure. A faint smile pulled at Mahiru's lips, her blue-grey eyes fixed on the keys before her and gleaming with the light of someone clearly having fun. How different they were, from the worry Yachiyo had first seen in them.
And then she began to sing.
"I had always been looking at you…" Mahiru's fingers glided across the keys, graceful and sure. "It felt as if I had left my loneliness behind…"
It was an old song, composed from a time before their own by an unknown bard. Her parents had sung it to each other, long ago—back when they still had a roof over their heads and war hadn't found them yet. With their gazes so warm and their voices so light, Yachiyo had known even then the sort of song it was.
Mahiru's rendition lacked the palpable affections that her parents had shared between them all those years ago. Instead, a sense of longing laced her voice as she sang the duet on her own. The gentle song nearly tugged Yachiyo from her hiding place to join her, but Mahiru's serene smile kept her from intruding further.
So a worrywart like Mahiru-san is able to relax. Yachiyo's lips tugged up into a small smile as she leaned against the wall. Closing her eyes, she let the soothing melody wash over her own tension.
"Even the moon is smiling at me tonight…"
Upon hearing the next line, Yachiyo took another peek into the room. What she saw was… so bright.
For a girl who had struggled so much to be at ease, the smile Mahiru adorned was brilliant enough to rival the sun. Despite doing nothing more than simply play the piano and sing by herself, it felt as if Mahiru's silent tranquility was a soothing balm to Yachiyo's weary heart.
For a moment, Yachiyo heard a different pair of voices singing the next verse. Closing her eyes, she imagined warm embraces and soft head pats. Memories of a kinder life, of safety and warmth and a full stomach; not the uncertain danger that came with surviving the deadly frigidity of winter on her own as a helpless child.
By her side, Yachiyo opened and closed a fist. There were no matches for her to hold.
"Please look this way…"
"Oh, fly me to the star…" Yachiyo whispered to herself, allowing the song to wash away those memories.
This was the present. She may be alone, but she was alive and safe. The war and its effects loomed outside of Pleiades' walls, but for now she had no reason to worry—not like she had in the past.
There was warmth here. Like a moth drawn to a flame, Yachiyo remained hidden to listen to the rest of Mahiru's song. It was rare to bear witness to such a heartfelt performance, after all. Despite the talent amongst the theatre club's performers, none of them could come close to adapting a duet into a solo as well as Mahiru. And in an informal setting, no less. The intricacy in which Mahiru weaved the melody into a small performance for herself was on a different level from what Yachiyo was used to with her peers.
It reminded her of the first time she had met her guardian—the years she had come to understand that singing and dancing could bring joy to even the bleakest of lives. Yachiyo wondered if Chitose would have taken an interest in Mahiru if the troupe were still around.
The papers in her arms weighed minutely on her mind; her meeting could wait. Right now, Yachiyo didn't mind being the butterfly ensnared in this spider's web of notes. Closing her eyes, another smile quirked onto her lips at the thought.
It wouldn't be the worst end, I suppose.
Every now and then, she would hear Mahiru's piano playing drifting through the air, performing songs beyond the first and just as skilled. She overheard her continued efforts as well, how helpful and supportive she was to her own peers, and her continued failures.
Even the worst student at Pleiades could use a staff of their own. And yet, it was something Mahiru couldn't do either.
Her condition was like a mystery to be solved, whispered in the halls among students and instructors alike. Yachiyo herself had briefly searched through books in the library out of idle curiosity—medical notes, magical theory, and curses.
But even a mystery like this couldn't be solved if the girl in question dropped out of her own accord.
"...Captain Victoria of Siegfeld has expressed interest in recruiting you into the Edels."
Judy Knightley, true headmistress of Pleiades and advanced swordsmanship instructor, calmly slid the letter across her desk as she spoke. Despite the faint smirk on her face, her blue eyes remained as infuriatingly fathomless as ever.
"The choice to accept is, of course, up to you. Though you should be aware that an honor like this isn't offered to just anyone, let alone an illusionist in her second year."
Yachiyo maintained the pleasant smile on her face; if she gave in now, she would lose the battle. Taking the letter, she stated more than asked, "You told her of my other abilities."
"She ascertained your worth on her own at the Stozhary Festival. If she happened to pick up on something beyond your illusions there, well...that's not my fault, hm?" Judy leaned forward to rest her elbows on the desk, steepling her fingers. "Disguising the nature of your spells for another is an admirable feat, though fooling the eyes of that woman is still something beyond you."
Oh, so she's a monster just like you.
"Flattered though I am at being noticed by someone so important, I can't say I entirely understand why she would want me as an Edel. Wouldn't she prefer someone with… you know, more destructive power?" Yachiyo said as she unfolded the letter. Emblazoned at the very top of the page was the proud, white lion of Siegfeld. The message itself was short, written in neat, flowing script.
Across from her, Judy chuckled. "Don't underestimate how destructive dreams can be. Even a single dream is capable of ruining a kingdom and ending a dynasty."
Yachiyo paused, running through her next words to herself in her head. Ultimately, she decided to test her luck and asked, "Is this spoken from personal experience?"
Though the majority of her face remained a mask, Yachiyo detected a minute shift in the headmistress' deep blue eyes. Her pupils narrowed, coupled with a barely perceptible crease in her forehead.
For the first time, Yachiyo thought she could finally grasp at something about this woman.
"It depends." Leaning back in her seat, Judy rested her chin atop her knuckles with a goading grin. "Which aspect would you be referring to, Tsuruhime-san?"
Or maybe she was the one being lured in.
Yachiyo masked her annoyance with a shrug. "There's only a single dedicated section to dream magic within the Illusion course, since there aren't enough students with that affinity to direct resources into an actual one. I figured the headmistress of our illustrious academy would have at least some knowledge on this kind of magic."
Yachiyo couldn't sense any hostility from the headmistress in question, though it wasn't as if she could sense anything from Judy in the first place. Like always, it was hard to gauge the woman's thoughts. I'll just assume it's a good thing that I haven't been expelled or lost my standing yet.
Judy hummed thoughtfully. "While you're not wrong, my role as the headmistress is to oversee this academy in a way that allows students to successfully awaken their latent abilities. It is rather unfortunate that Pleiades no longer has the extensive resources dedicated to a specific course to foster dream affinity users. However, there is perhaps someone I can refer you to."
Judy's persistent smile now felt like she had spun around and flicked her on the head. And at that moment, Yachiyo realized it was a poor decision to even attempt to play mind games with the headmistress of Pleiades.
"If you wish to know more, perhaps Victoria may be of some assistance in that regard."
"—And there you have it."
Amidst the low bustle of the tavern, her visiting companion remained quiet for a moment longer, then closed her eyes and exhaled the breath she had been holding. "It's...certainly a big decision, yes. Did you give her an answer?"
"I told her I'd think about it," Yachiyo sighed, plucking another pastry from the plate between them. "I have five days to make my decision. And although she said the choice is mine, somehow I doubt a battle-crazy kingdom like Siegfeld would take no for an answer. They can't do anything in neutral territory, but once I step outside of it..."
Siegfeld was the second-largest force in the war. Sparing an Edel or two to confront her after graduation wouldn't be entirely out of the question.
"I'm sorry. I had hoped Pleiades would help develop your magic, but I didn't expect you to be involved in the war." Another sigh as green eyes opened to meet her own. "Or at the very least, not this soon."
Yachiyo's shoulders lifted in a brief shrug as she ate. "It isn't your fault, Chitose-san. A star is meant to shine brightly. If anything, I'd be upset with myself if I made little to no progress with my skills."
"I suppose that's true," Chitose conceded with a begrudging nod. "Under any other circumstances, I would be proud at how strong you've become to be recognized like this. I'm sure your parents would be too. But I can't say I'm not concerned about the idea of you dying on the battlefield."
"This would hardly be the first time I've brushed with death."
She hadn't forgotten the unforgiving cold and the weight of the matches in her hands, or the gnawing hunger that had led her to discover her gift for thievery. Rather, she couldn't forget them even if she tried.
And further back, she couldn't forget the chaos of smoke and fire that had taken her home.
"Melodrama aside, your parents trusted me to take care of you when I became your guardian," Chitose sighed again. "They wanted you to be happy and well. I sent you to school for the possibility of a better life, not to increase your chances of dying young."
Yachiyo finished off her pastry and leaned back in her chair. Lips tugging into a wry smile, she said, "If I play my cards right, I won't die. I suspect what they want me for is something that doesn't involve the frontline, anyway. Though I suppose I can't be sure if it would be any less dangerous."
Chitose groaned into her hands. "You're too smart for your own good, Yachiyo. Why couldn't you have used that pretty little head of yours to settle down with a steady income and a reliable roof over your head?"
"I mean, if you would rather I revisit that profession—"
"I did not mean robbing corrupt nobles in the dead of night who have no eye for anything except their vaults of gold. What is it that folks do these days? Building a stable future, or something along those lines? Maybe finding a significant other, since you find a partnership in that sense appealing." Chitose grabbed another pastry and took a rather aggressive bite. "I was hoping there was someone at that prestigious magic academy who might have caught your eye. But if you're entertaining the thought of going off to war, I guess that was also a failure."
Yachiyo raised an eyebrow. "I thought you wanted me to go to school to focus on my studies."
"I wanted you to experience a normal life. Learning and studying is one thing, but matters of the heart are important too!" Chitose flicked her wrist, crumbs from her half-eaten pastry falling onto the table. "For that matter, when was the last time you've even had a crush?"
"Last year," Yachiyo answered without missing a beat.
And then immediately ducked to the side to avoid Chitose's spitting crumbs. "So there is someone!"
"Does that even make a difference?" Chitose gasped, her eyes lighting up in that way whenever romance was involved. "Unless this mysterious someone met an untimely fate. Oh young love, to experience the star-crossed lovers treatme—"
"No one died, Chitose-san. This isn't like one of the plays we used to perform as a troupe." Yachiyo's forefinger traced the rim of her teacup. "She dropped out; that's all. I'll admit she was an interesting person and her songs caught my ear. But nothing came out of it."
"Oh. Well, that's rather unfortunate." Propping her elbow on the table, Chitose leaned her chin on her palm. "But her songs, you say? You've always had a good ear for music. Almost as good as those perceptive eyes of yours."
Yachiyo gasped in mock indignation. "That offends me. You don't think my ears are as fine-tuned as my perfect eyesight?"
"No, I'm saying your eyes are too perfect. No one should be able to tell everyone's three sizes just from a single glance. But maybe those eyes of yours are also what led you to that…" Chitose frowned, "person? Can I at least get a name?"
If Yachiyo's suspicions were right, she doubted anyone would know of Mahiru outside of the academy. She didn't have the martial aptitude that came with a knightly family, nor did she have the mannerisms of a noble. It was unlikely Chitose would know of her, so there should be no harm divulging that information.
Still, Chitose was well-connected around these parts, both from her traveling troupe days and her current job as a merchant. If she had any information she could share…
"Tsuyuzaki Mahiru," she supplied. "Ring any bells?"
Chitose hummed thoughtfully. "I can't say it does. Do you have any other information on her?"
Yachiyo ran what she knew through her head; it wasn't much. "Her affinity was apparently support magic, though she seemed to struggle with it. Aside from a grandmother who loves plays, I'm not aware of her family background or other private details."
"Oh my, and here I thought you would have put in some more effort on researching your crush."
Yachiyo shrugged. "It was just a passing feeling. Something fleeting, like the sun's rise and fall over our sky."
"Oh?" Chitose leaned forward with a smirk, her eyes twinkling. "But you do know that this is an unbreakable cycle for the sun. Even if the sun sets, it'll inevitably rise again to begin a new day. Who knows? Maybe you'll see her again in the future."
For her part, Yachiyo did her best to smother the heat creeping up her cheeks. Judging from Chitose's wink, she was failing spectacularly.
Yachiyo sighed. "Well, I suppose the chances of meeting again are higher as an Edel, if I'm required to travel around. An Edel's mission isn't necessarily confined to the kingdom of Siegfeld—the war has everyone looking to capture territories from others. I'm sure they've tried infiltrating an empire like Seisho, not that I'm aware of what the details surrounding those missions could be."
Chitose's teasing smile sobered into a thoughtful frown. "The Edels are Siegfeld's most elite forces. And fighting on the frontlines isn't the only act of warfare that exists. If you're really going to accept that kind of life…"
"It's not something I'd prefer. But…" Yachiyo grabbed the last pastry on the plate, trying to ignore how the letter in her pocket felt like it was burning through her jacket, "if the Edels are comprised of individuals comparable to the legendary Yukishiro Akira, I'd rather not have those kind of people breathing down my neck."
"Yukishiro Akira, huh? I've always wondered what it would be like if I could have met someone as renowned as Siegfeld's strongest general." Chitose signaled to one of the servers to ask for another cup of tea. "What would you do? If you could meet her?"
"Me?" Yachiyo took a bite out of the pastry to feign a moment of thought. She already knew her answer. "I suppose I'd ask her why she disappeared when the war could have ended in Siegfeld's favor, had she remained on the frontlines. But it's not like that matters anymore. We're the ones who have to deal with this war now."
"And you can do that as an Edel," Chitose stated—whether as a fact or in begrudging acceptance, Yachiyo couldn't fully discern.
So Yachiyo could only offer her a wry smile. "Better than chasing after ghosts, wouldn't you say?"
Apparently the most valuable pearls occurred spontaneously in the wild, but were extremely rare. At least, that was what Captain Victoria had remarked when she had crowned her with the rank of Perle after bringing a traitor to justice. It had been a grand ceremony, attended by most of their order and overseen by the royal family and their court.
But was what she had done truly worth it?
From the start, it had become clear what the Edels needed her to do for the sake of this war. As she had expected, they didn't send her to the frontlines where the battles raged most. Not exactly.
Using her dream magic at Victoria's command, Yachiyo had manifested the worst fears of each opposing soldier, paralyzing them in place as they begged for mercy. After that, it had been a painfully simple matter for Siegfeld's forces to slaughter them where they stood. With such little resistance, their gazes fixed in horror on the nightmares Yachiyo wielded, Siegfeld had emerged victorious in several territorial battles.
If you could call them victories. If you could call them battles. If you could call it something other than a wholly one-sided mass execution.
She had known this was what war entailed. It wasn't the first time she had seen corpses, or people dying before her eyes. But it had been the first time she was directly responsible for them. Even her time as a thief—after her parents died, during Chitose's troupe, before they disbanded—hadn't led to any direct deaths by her hand.
Or at the very least, none that she could witness firsthand. But when she stood directly on the battlefield—whether it be on ravaged terrain or in the shadows of populated cities made no difference to her—there had been nothing to hide from the fires of war. As an Edel, she had been expected to pave the way for Siegfeld to achieve victory. As a soldier, she had no right to look away and cover her ears even as the defeated crawled on the ground begging for reprieve.
There had been no room for mercy when Yachiyo herself could be stabbed in the back at any moment.
Perhaps the Edels under the command of Yukishiro Akira had no need for underhanded tactics such as what Yachiyo had to employ. But that was might and magic prowess that had not been blessed to the generations after Siegfeld's strongest general. Whatever their tactics were back then was something Yachiyo and the Edels didn't have the luxury of utilizing. To survive and advance, she had to keep doing what she excelled at. All she had to do was harden her heart.
"Don't underestimate how destructive dreams can be," Judy had said. "Even a single dream is capable of ruining a kingdom and ending a dynasty."
Yachiyo had thought something so exaggerated was only possible for someone on the level of Pleiades' headmistress or the captain of Siegfeld's Edels. How could she compare to monsters like them?
In hindsight, she should have been more suspicious of Judy's interest in her. Or, perhaps, this simply confirmed something she had known all along.
Monsters sought other monsters, even those who were still fledglings. A few years ago, Yachiyo wouldn't have considered herself anywhere close to that level. Even now, she was barely a graduate with only two decades of life under her belt. That was nothing compared to however long Judy and Victoria had been around. She was talented, but she wouldn't have considered herself as someone who should be feared.
But that was before she had stepped onto the stage known as war. Against the backdrop of ruined towns and crimson fields, it was a setting that cultivated the worst in everyone and everything. There was no room for idealism or congeniality—only the need to survive for a half-remembered cause that no longer mattered to them.
Yachiyo had lost her home and family to these sorts of battles. Now, standing on the other side, she was the one taking them away.
Her parents wouldn't have wanted this. She didn't want this.
Perhaps it had been a small blessing when the opposing forces eventually enacted countermeasures to her magic, warding off what mental attacks they could. Seisho was chief among them as the largest army in this war, favoring quantity over quality in their mages to combat against her. In response, Victoria had reassigned her to other missions while they looked into countermeasures of their own—missions that fell more in line with what Yachiyo had initially expected they needed her for.
From reconnaissance to infiltration, spying and all manner of subterfuge, Yachiyo had found these missions reminiscent of her time as a thief. They suited her more than the battlefield, though it had been no less dangerous. It had been a small victory for her consciousness; as repugnant as it could be, at least espionage didn't typically require taking lives by the masses.
The need to constantly travel and integrate herself into the surroundings of her next target had given her the chance to explore and learn in ways that she never had a chance to. She had met plenty of new people, though it was never her intention to make new, lasting relationships. And meeting old faces would just be detrimental to her mission.
She could never find the one face she wanted to see again anyway.
Disappointment and bitterness had gone hand in hand as the months went on, keeping her up at night. Not that Yachiyo had cared much for dreams lately.
Her dream magic was supposed to be a source of happiness and comfort, meant to put the audience at ease by coaxing forth their hopes. It wasn't meant for killing, nor was it meant for routing out dissent or spies within their ranks.
And yet, Siegfeld had given her medals for it. They had crowned her with the rank of Perle, as if her actions had been as pure and brilliant as the polished pearl it had taken inspiration from.
But real pearls weren't as heavy as the medals adorning her breast. Unlike the actual object, the rank of Perle weighed down on Yachiyo like the peine forte et dure, every accrued success pressing down on her with increasing force.
Anyone weaker would have relinquished their position within the first month, either dead or gone insane. But Yachiyo had stepped onto this stage of her own accord. She would see to it that she completed her role with nothing more than a few offhanded quips to her superiors.
In the end, she was doing more for the war than she had ever done. Her magic was taking lives, but her efforts profited her home country in the long run. As long as there was a purpose to this madness, it was enough for Yachiyo to return to Captain Victoria after every mission with her head held high.
This time was no different.
After a short chat with one of the older Frau Saphirs, Yachiyo entered the council room and stood at the opposite end of the table from where Captain Victoria sat sifting through papers. Yachiyo tucked the folder Kuon Reina had passed her behind her back and gave the captain a bow in greeting.
"I trust you'll take up the responsibility of investigating potential weaknesses in Rinmeiki's empire, then?"
Yachiyo blinked in surprise as she straightened up. "You heard?" Even with the stone walls separating them, it wasn't as if she and Reina had been standing right outside the door.
"These walls aren't as thick as they appear. At least, not for me." Victoria leaned back in her chair. "It shows that you're still green, Tsuruhime."
It took Yachiyo a moment to realize what Victoria had implied, in more ways than one. "Then you heard my conversation with Reina-senpai. Not only that, but Reina-senpai knew you would hear. Was this her way of dumping her work on me?"
"Her position as Frau Saphir isn't simply for show, after all. Her shrewdness could possibly rival the late Ootori Michiru's. And her reconnaissance abilities certainly come close to Yukishiro Akira's closest aide." Victoria fixed her gaze on the folder tucked behind Yachiyo's back. "I'd assume whatever intel she gathered on Rinmeiki's economy will serve us well. Though, Kuon Reina isn't the only capable Edels among our ranks. You'd do well to remember that, Tsuruhime."
Yachiyo chuckled wryly. "I'll keep that in mind. Will you be sending me off to Rinmeiki, then?"
"No." Victoria slid one of her papers across the desk. "You'll be in Siegfeld this time, though I expect you to keep your ears open for any wayward information on Rinmeiki while you're at it. The town is a point of trade for the kingdom, and just so happens to be close to the border there—short of entering the empire itself, you should be able to pick up a rumor or two."
The details written on the paper were short, as per usual for her briefings. A location, any relevant dates, and any people of interest. Her mark this time was a mage specializing in hypnotism and animal familiars. The crude sketch to the side was hardly clear, but at least she had a name she could ask after in town.
Yachiyo furrowed her brow as she read on. "This is… a request from the royal family? Why would they want to kill a mage like this?"
"She supposedly holds information the royal family would rather die with her. Even I don't know what that information is." Victoria crossed her arms over her chest, her ever-present frown deepening at the signature on the paper. "I would go myself, but I'm leading an inspection a couple of towns over. Kuon has her own missions, and you're the best we have left for subtle work."
Yachiyo's lips quirked into a wry smile. "Are you sure you should leave something this important in my hands? A request from the royal family is hardly fitting for a first year Edel."
"You're the youngest to ever reach Perle, your track record is in good standing, and you have Judy's approval. That's enough for me," Victoria readily answered, freeing one hand to pinch the bridge of her nose with a sigh. "Or rather, it has to be enough."
Yachiyo carefully folded the paper into quarters. As with all sensitive documents, she would have to burn it later after properly memorizing its details. "I'll perform to the best of my abilities, as always."
"So you say."
Her years of acting allowed her to betray nothing when Victoria leaned forward, elbows resting on the desk as she steepled her fingers. The captain's eyes were as fathomless as Judy's on that day in her office. But there was no hostility there—at least, none that Yachiyo could sense—rather, it felt almost like pity.
"Your dream magic and illusions can still do more. But, I suppose, it does take skill to forge shortcomings where there are none." A wry smile of her own tugged at Victoria's lips, barely there. "While I can't trust in your complete loyalty, I do trust in your sense of self-preservation. Along with any...mutual interests."
Monsters sought other monsters, after all. Despite their individual interests, there was no doubt that they all wanted this age-old conflict to end. So long as they could win the war and bring it to a close as soon as possible, the individual's concerns were of little importance.
Or at least, that's what I assume the captain is thinking. As long as I continue to produce results, she'll turn a blind eye to my own personal misgivings. Yachiyo fought down a wry smile. What an understanding, terrifying woman.
"Two years of service is the unspoken minimum, as conveyed to me by the royal family. Depending on your performance here, you might not need to wait that long." Victoria spread her hands, as if gesturing to all that laid between them. "Of course, how you conduct this performance is up to you. I recall Judy mentioning you're rather versatile with your roles."
So it all comes back to her. Not entirely surprising, just concerning in more ways than one. Although her curiosity toward Pleiades' headmistress never waned even after graduating, Yachiyo doubted that Victoria would be so forthcoming about that mysterious woman. And it's not like I can just ask her why the headmistress kept such a close eye on me for so long.
"I suppose I should be flattered that the headmistress spoke so highly of me," Yachiyo settled on as a response. "I'm a little worried that I won't live up to expectations."
Victoria grunted, and Yachiyo had to wonder if it was her way of scoffing. "This kind of modesty doesn't suit you, Tsuruhime. You wouldn't be alive right now if you couldn't reach our expectations, let alone standing before me with such a sharp tongue. Though if you're looking for open praise, you've come to the wrong place. Settle for world peace as your reward—if you can accumulate enough successes to reach that point, that is."
'Our' expectations, hm? Well, that's more than I thought I'd get from our esteemed captain in one conversation. It was still unclear what Victoria's history was with Judy Knightley, but Yachiyo figured she could look into that on her own at a later time. For now, she had to 'live up to her expectations' with the current matter at hand.
"Well, I suppose I should be on my way, then. It will take some time to reach Deion, after all," Yachiyo said, slipping her missive into the pocket of her black uniform.
Victoria gave a nod, waving her away with one hand while the other resumed sifting through the papers on her desk. "I'm assuming this doesn't need to be said, but don't let yourself be distracted by what the town has to offer. A newly established trade point attracts all sorts of characters, after all."
Yachiyo raised an eyebrow. "Including someone that the royal family wants removed?"
"A bustling town established on an idealistic hope for peace is the perfect place to hide. And there are plenty of people who can take advantage of that." Victoria's hands stilled, papers clasped between her calloused fingers. "You're young, but you're not stupid. I trust you know what to do."
An unexpected warmth swelled in Yachiyo's chest. The captain of the Edels wasn't known for giving praise, but it was even rarer for her to show concern. Even if it was a rather roundabout way of doing so.
With that in mind, Yachiyo answered with a curt nod and a final bow before taking her leave, making sure to keep Victoria's parting words in mind as she made her preparations.
Fort Deion had first been established decades ago, likely during Yukishiro Akira's time. But whether or not that legendary general had overseen its construction or manned its forces was another matter. Nowadays, the fort had fallen into disuse as the fighting moved to other, more critical fronts. Even so, it remained a part of the Kingdom of Siegfeld and an outpost that any Edel should still offer respect to.
Not that Yachiyo had done more than dip her head in acknowledgement as she passed. She knew of the past well enough—it didn't change their current situation in the present. There were more pressing matters in need of immediate attention; she could take time to investigate and sightsee on another day.
As she entered the town proper, Yachiyo's careful gaze swept over the crowds going about their day. Despite the fact that it was a point of trade, Deion was still only a newly-formed town in comparison to other settlements. Security and enforcement was lax, attention would be given more to the merchants and craftsmen compared to the common folk, and there were likely enough new faces passing through everyday for Yachiyo to blend in.
It wasn't as if she were wearing her Edel uniform, but she couldn't be too careful. Even in a town as distant as this, there still remained the possibility of someone recognizing her.
"...Eh? Yachiyo, is that you?"
Chitose stood nearby, half-eaten pastry in hand and paused mid-air for another bite. Tucked away in the crook of her other arm was a small cloth bundle that contained more baked goods, based on the sweet scent. Her green eyes had widened, matching Yachiyo's own surprise at their impromptu reunion.
While her guardian's sudden presence shouldn't affect her mission too much—theoretically, at any rate—it was still an unforeseen development. Not that she had any specific plans in place yet with such little information, but she certainly hadn't expected to run into someone so personal out here.
"Are you here for work, Chitose-san?" Yachiyo asked, quickly composing herself and managing a teasing smirk at her pastries. "Though I suppose it's fine to enjoy yourself, too."
"Hey! I'll have you know, I sold a lot this morning," Chitose defended, waving the pastry at her. The pout that had formed on her face quickly sobered into a more serious frown as she continued, "But you're here for a mission, aren't you? I can't see any other reason why you would visit a place like this."
Yachiyo's shoulders lifted into a brief shrug. "Who knows? Maybe I'm here for the local shrimp."
"Right, right…" Chitose nibbled away at the remains of her pastry, brow furrowing and eyes clouding with worry. "It isn't anything too dangerous, is it? Like an inspection, perhaps?"
Yachiyo's gaze passed over the crowds around them, keenly aware of every gait and glance and guise. Discussing her mission in an open street carried risks, especially if she didn't know who was acquainted with her target. "Maybe we can talk somewhere else, hm?"
"...Oh. So it's something like that."
Chitose suggested heading to the docks after that, with the two of them catching up along the way. She had come to Deion to establish new trade connections, and to sell her wares as usual. Yachiyo, for her part, divulged as much as she could regarding her life as an Edel.
Or rather, as much as she could bring herself to. There was no need to worry Chitose further with the weight on her shoulders.
"Hmm… I believe she works at the apothecary on the east side of town. But I could be wrong, since I haven't personally gone inside yet," Chitose mused later at the docks, after Yachiyo had informed her of her current mission.
Few ships were arriving at this time, and the closest fishermen around were on the other end of the rickety boardwalk, barking at each other over who had the largest catch. Chances were low that someone would eavesdrop, and her magic didn't reveal anyone trying to disguise their presence.
"So either she works there, or she's a patron who visits frequently. That's usually where you would find her, based on what I heard from the locals."
"The fact that even an outsider like you would know of her so quickly is a little concerning," Yachiyo sighed, taking a bite of the pastry Chitose had offered to her earlier.
Beside her, Chitose shifted restlessly on her feet. "Well, she's… I'm not sure how to describe it, but she's not exactly...normal."
Normal. Perhaps the only thing normal about her was her appearance. With simple clothing, light brown hair tied back into a low ponytail, features lax and disinterested, she hardly looked like someone wanted dead by the royal family. But her senses were uncannily sharp—no sooner had Yachiyo stepped inside the shop for further information gathering did she discern her true intentions. Victoria had been right to be wary.
Yachiyo just hadn't expected to be greeted with an explosion to her face that she barely managed to evade, leaping back outside and summoning a hasty magical shield to absorb most of the blast.
"Rosalie Addams, I presume?" Yachiyo asked after her spell had broken, endeavoring to remain calm even as Deion's citizens ran away and screamed in fear from the collapsing building around them.
She had expected her to flee after realizing what Yachiyo was here for. There was no doubt that Rosalie knew she was being targeted. Someone with that knowledge would have immediately retreated to buy time. But that was not what had happened.
For all of the scenarios Yachiyo had run through her head, she hadn't expected Rosalie to immediately react in the worst way possible, drawing attention to the both of them and carelessly involving innocents in the process. On the list of worst case scenarios, this was most certainly one of the possibilities Yachiyo had wished wouldn't occur.
The captain's information mentioned hypnotism and animal familiars, but that explosive blast was on par with our veteran fire mages, Yachiyo noted, hand open and ready to summon her staff in a heartbeat. Maybe her magic output is just that strong?
If that were the case, then perhaps even the countermeasures she had prepared wouldn't be enough.
"You… You're one of Judy's, aren't you? I can see her shadow behind you, in the way you control your magic." Stepping out from the collapsing building as well, Rosalie regarded Yachiyo with an almost bored expression. Even though her voice and features remained aloof, Rosalie began to sway almost unsteadily on her feet. "Does she think you can reach the stars? That they'll accept you? What's so important about that throne, anyway?"
Yet another tie to Judy Knightley. How many more secrets could the headmistress of Pleiades hold?
"I was her student, yes. What does she have to do with this?" Yachiyo replied, legs tensing and ready to move when needed. Those caught in the blast had already fled, but a small crowd had begun to form in her periphery. Unless she incapacitated Rosalie or led the inevitable fighting away from all of them, more innocents would be involved.
Rosalie chuckled, tilting her head to the other side as if in curiosity. "Follow the bull. Follow the throne. Follow the stars. Isn't it a miserable existence, to always follow while everyone else falls behind? I'd like to fall too, but I'm still scared, you see. I don't like pain."
"I don't think anyone in their right mind does."
"But I'm not in my right mind," Rosalie said, the warmth of her smile belying her words and the destruction around them. "I know that much; I can recognize that much. I'm not like Judy, after the bull ran away. I didn't care for any of the bulls they wanted to pick, and eventually there were no more bulls left. But I still had to follow, somehow."
There was a story somewhere in this madness. And if it wasn't for the threat of placing more of Deion's denizens in harm's way, Yachiyo would have liked to unravel more of it.
"I don't suppose you'll make this easy for me, hm?" she ventured to ask, slipping her other hand into her pocket. Her fingers wrapped around the monocle there—a tool she had crafted to better guard against mental attacks.
"'Easy'...?" Rosalie straightened up, her brown eyes briefly sharpening with a clarity not present before. "Weary though I am, I'm still a knight of the stars. Of course I won't go down that easily. Surely you would have known that from Judy?"
So her target was a knight more so than a mage. None of the details in her missive had mentioned that. And while magical knights were certainly a viable profession, their methods of attack weren't quite the same as mages.
"Judy Knightley kept her cards close to her, but I can work with what I've gathered from her." Yachiyo's fingers twitched in preparation. "Like cornering my opponent!"
Her hand darted out of her pocket, fixing the monocle over her eye. Her rosewood staff materialized in her other hand in that same breath, jabbing forward to send eight illusionary soldiers rushing for her target. Most of the apothecary had already crumbled, and the lingering fires had spread inside rather than outside, following the scattered herbs and other ingredients. Rosalie would have little room to flee or counterattack. While she was distracted, Yachiyo would be able to—
But instead of dodging the soldiers' attacks or engaging them in combat, Rosalie simply ignored them altogether.
Walking leisurely towards Yachiyo as their weapons uselessly slashed at her, she passed through their armored bodies as if she couldn't see them at all. Rosalie even stepped through the small fires as if they were little more than a nuisance, her boots and the hem of her trousers briefly setting aflame before being put out immediately from an unknown spell.
The light of madness had returned to her eyes.
...I see. So illusions won't work on someone whose world is so warped. Yachiyo gave a flick of her staff, dispelling her fake soldiers. There were still three knives hidden on her person, but there was no guarantee they would be effective against a former knight, no matter how mad. Assassination methods were out of the question now, and her hand-to-hand combat skills weren't suitable for an unstable opponent. I suppose elemental magic it is, then.
Yachiyo tapped the butt of her staff to the ground, calling upon the earth for assistance. Several small magic circles briefly flared around Rosalie as earthen pillars shot up from them to cage her in.
"Stone and earth don't suit you, although perhaps in another life they would," Rosalie giggled, placing a hand on one of the pillars. It crumbled immediately at her touch, with the others around her following suit. "Free as the wind, that's who you are. Adrift on dreams and realities of your own make. But you won't reach the stars that way."
Stepping aside with a smoothness unbefitting of her disinterested stance, Rosalie calmly evaded the final earth pillar meant to bludgeon her from behind. A casual touch from her hand disintegrated that one too.
So she's skilled enough to dispel manipulated elements by touch. I didn't think this would be easy, but it looks like I'll have to resort to more troublesome spells.
Yachiyo spun her staff at her side, converting her magic into a different kind of energy. As the energy built up in her staff, Yachiyo placed her free hand on her shoulder to support the strain on her moving arm.
"Oh?" Rosalie's grin widened. "Now this is sur—"
Catching her staff in her hand, Yachiyo pointed the end at Rosalie and released the energy built up within it. The lightning shot straight into her target, striking too quickly for any normal human to avoid.
Except Rosalie wasn't normal.
The lightning had not torn through her. Instead, it was now wrapped around her, engulfing her in a near-blinding light. Although her entire body was flooded in enough energy to fry the strongest man, Rosalie giggled as if she were only being tickled.
"This is definitely surprising! You didn't even make any clouds! You just went snap, crackle, and pop! It almost feels like an actual lightning strike!" The laughter died in an instant, her expression sobering into a bored deadpan. An arm raised in Yachiyo's direction, a lazy finger pointing straight at her. "You can have this back now."
She's—! Yachiyo's body moved on instinct, shifting her staff directly in front of herself.
Flicking her finger upward, all of the energy surrounding Rosalie was flung back to its original caster. Before it could directly hit her, Yachiyo managed, against all odds, to catch the lightning with her staff and fling it upward into the sky.
The heavens rumbled with the excess energy, lightning tendrils stretching across the entire area and beyond. Those from the next towns over would have been able to see such an abnormal elemental discharge as well.
Once the spell had been fully redirected, Yachiyo dropped her arm down at her side. Her muscles tingled from the exertion and excess electricity; squeezing her bicep could only alleviate it so much.
I didn't plan on signaling to the captain this way, but this works out. Yachiyo's gaze swept to her opponent, clicking her tongue when Rosalie only giggled back at her. Since nothing else is going so well...
"How excellent! There aren't many like you nowadays, you know?" Rosalie dropped her chin to her chest, then threw her head back with a heavy, dramatic sigh. "Ah... But you're still bound by so many rules and limitations, just like Judy was. You could be more free without them, you know?" Righting herself, Rosalie pointed at the rosewood staff. "Like that silly stick for instance. Such a relic of the past! Your hands could be holding more important things than that burdensome old twig!"
Yachiyo swallowed, managing a shaky smirk as she tried to calm her twitching arm. "Not only can you easily dispel elemental spells, but you can even take lightning and redirect it like it's nothing? All without a staff or circle? Now this isn't fair. I thought you specialized in hypnotism and familiars."
"Who told you that?" Rosalie wondered, flashing her a lazy smile. "But they're not entirely wrong, I suppose. I can demonstrate, if you'd like."
I'd rather not, to be honest.
Casting complicated magic without a staff or a magic circle was both admirable and terrifying. Although Yachiyo had expected something like this to a degree and had not entered this town underestimating her target entirely, it was clear that she was now trapped in a battle with too little information to work with. The safest option would be to retreat and find a different way to gather more information before trying to accomplish her mission again, but she doubted Rosalie would let her leave so easily. Especially with her ties to Judy, however thin.
And she latched on too quickly. Yachiyo glanced from the destroyed building nearby to the panicked bystanders scrambling about. With her current mental state, there's a chance she'll harm these people just to keep me in her sight.
It was faint and barely there, but she heard it all the same. And soon enough, spidery cracks spread across her monocle's glass too.
"What a nice toy you came prepared with," Rosalie said, tilting her head slightly. "But that's cheating, isn't it? I can't show you if you're guarding against mental attacks. Unless… Oh, I understand now! You wanted to see the real thing, right?"
'The real thing'? Yachiyo's blood ran cold.
"Hypnotism and possession are fickle, you know? It's always about the mind and penetrating your mental defenses; all that nonsense." Rosalie flicked her wrist, rolling her eyes with an exaggerated scoff. "Yes, your head is important, but a body is so much more than just the top. There are plenty of other aspects just ripe for the taking. If you know what to do, at least."
A sharp tingling spread from the tips of Yachiyo's fingers, shooting up her arm. At first it felt as if her limbs were going numb, but they were still able to move.
They were just not moving of her own accord.
What…? Her left hand shook in front of her, slowly rising to her face. Moving against her own volition, it cupped the eye covered by her monocle so that her palm rested over the cracked glass.
Fingers wrapped around the side of her face and dug into her temple. Yachiyo would have grimaced at the stinging pain if her facial muscles had been allowed to move more freely.
"Oh, you look so confused!" Rosalie giggled, her expression contorting into easy madness. "Didn't Judy teach you anything at her magic school? Granted, this isn't something I thought about until seeing so much of it spilled over the years. But I suppose I can give you a hint."
Nails pierced into her skin, scratching through the first layers and drawing blood. Warmth trickled down the side of Yachiyo's face. It felt… liberating.
Yachiyo took a single breath. Suddenly, realization settled in place.
"You're… manipulating blood," she managed to gasp. "That's how you control people."
Rosalie clapped, her lips pulling up into a wide grin. "My, you are sharp! Yes, yes. You can say the brain controls everything, but what else spans the entire body, including that clump of flesh? What else do humans have so much of, just unguarded and ready to be taken? That's right, blood! So, little countermeasures like your eyeglass…"
Yachiyo's bloody nails curled inward, grabbing the monocle on her eye. Removing the accessory from over her eye, her hand enclosed around it and tightened its hold while the glass cracked further.
"…won't be of any help to you against me~"
The monocle shattered within Yachiyo's hand. Glass pierced into her palm, crimson leaking from her open wounds. But as the blood flowed out from her hand, so did some of the unsettling numbness that had taken a hold of her.
Yachiyo twitched her fingers. She twitched her aching hand. For a moment, clarity and control returned, and Yachiyo wasted no time latching onto her one opening of freedom.
Pulling her arm back, Yachiyo snapped her bloody fingers to summon the pink and white coat bestowed to those with the rank of Perle. The makeshift cloak settled around her shoulders, blanketing Yachiyo in both familiarity and awareness.
While Yachiyo didn't prefer wearing the gaudy article of clothing for her more subtle missions, it was still a symbol of an Edel. Just as she had earned her rank, so had she earned the privileges and resources that came with the position.
The numbness subsided, and Yachiyo was finally able to move and breathe.
Rosalie's madness sobered into an irritated frown. "Cheating again? But that coat… I don't remember those things being effective against my magic."
Yachiyo wiped the blood from her eye before answering Rosalie with a weak grin, "I think you're giving the Edels too little credit. For a group that specializes in magical combat, of course they have countermeasures for a broad range of spells. You won't always know what tricks your opponent has up their sleeve, after all."
But it didn't seem as though Rosalie was listening to her. Much like in the beginning of their confrontation, she began to sway a little on her feet.
"Coats and magic and Edels. Countermeasures… Is that what it is?" Rosalie muttered to herself, only to pause. Slowly, her hands lowered to her sides as that same sharpness returned to her gaze. "Are you here to do what Akira failed to do, then? Under the orders of King Franz, are you dabbling in matters you shouldn't? Beneath the starry diamond, a fragment of Spring's soul..."
King Franz? But he's been dead for—
Whatever clarity Rosalie had regained for the moment quickly slipped back into madness. She smiled, spreading her arms out to her sides.
"You should be a little more careful with yourself. Cheating—" Her unsteady eyes snapped to the side, glancing at movement behind the buildings near the destroyed apothecary, "—and sticking your nose into places it doesn't belong? Now that just won't do."
At that last word, several distressed cries rose up nearby. Yachiyo chanced a glance to where Rosalie's gaze had been. Unfamiliar faces stumbled from their previous hiding places, expressions frozen in fear and contorted discomfort.
The guards? And some of the townspeople?! Yachiyo took a hesitant step back, gripping her staff tighter. "You're bringing unrelated bystanders into this? Aren't you the one who's cheating now?"
Rosalie shrugged. "If my magic won't work on you, it's only natural to turn to others who can't cheat. And since you've done so well to resist me so far, I do wonder how long you can continue to last."
Rosalie raised an arm and flicked her hand at Yachiyo's direction, motioning for those under her control to inch closer to their target. "So just this once, I'll help good ol' Judy out. I'm curious as well, you see. Whether you can reach the stars when so many continue to fail!"
The guards rushed at Yachiyo first, weapons drawn and terror in their eyes. A flick of her staff quickly summoned smaller earth pillars to stop them and cage them in place. While Rosalie herself was an abnormal magic user, non-mages like them would have trouble freeing themselves, even under her command. Using a sleep spell to knock them out would have usually been another option, but Rosalie's ability to control their blood carried far too much risk.
The townspeople came next, which Yachiyo dispatched in the same manner. She may have found ways of dealing with those under Rosalie's control, but that still didn't solve the heart of the problem. If she didn't take a more offensive approach soon, Rosalie might resort to using the whole town against her.
"How boring, how boring. It's like you're not even trying!" Rosalie sighed, only to perk up a moment later. A warm smile spread across her face as she clapped her hands again. "Oh, but there's a heart beating nearby with memories of you. You'll try for her, won't you?"
For a moment, Yachiyo thought she caught a glance of familiar green eyes behind one of the buildings. The same eyes that had comforted her for all these years since she was left alone as a child. The last person she could call family was here—someone she could not lose.
And now someone as dangerous as Rosalie Addams knew that as well.
This was not cheating; this was war. Although Yachiyo understood that, she refused to involve someone who should have never set foot on a battlefield in the first place.
Slamming the butt of her staff to the ground, Yachiyo called up various earth pillars to trap Rosalie in place. Like before, they were easily dispelled by a single touch. Even while swaying on her feet, Rosalie was practically swatting her spells away like they were flies.
"Earth again? Didn't I say—?" Rosalie flicked her arm outward, cutting across a gust of wind. Her lips widened in glee. "There we go."
She's guarding even against simultaneous spells… Yachiyo clicked her tongue, continuously circling her staff to manipulate the air around her target. Even though Rosalie couldn't see the attacks as clearly as an earth or lightning spell, she was still dancing around everything Yachiyo was throwing at her.
She needed more output. But her staff could only do so much so quickly. And her other hand was…
Yachiyo twitched her left hand. The bleeding had slowed, but it continued to pulse from the glass shards embedded in it. She wouldn't be able to hold her staff like this. But… she could at least move her arm around.
She flung her wrist upward, and a separate gust of wind joined the ones directed by her staff. Instead of evading like before, Rosalie brought up her own hand to dispel the air thrown at her.
The spells cast without her staff were even more predictable, and weaker without the support. But it was one extra thing for Rosalie to worry about. It caught her attention, and that was all that mattered.
Rosalie quirked an eyebrow in amusement. "Now that's more like it! You're getting closer and closer to the edge." Rosalie swung her arms to the side, simultaneously dispelling two air currents hurtling her way while snapping her fingers. "Can you feel it? Are the cosmos calling for you? Not that I know what that even means. Does anyone really?"
A sudden group of guards and civilians suddenly jumped toward Rosalie, forming a makeshift shield. Yachiyo barely managed to stop her spells from hitting them, gritting her teeth and clenching her fists even though her left hand throbbed in protest.
Again?! Yachiyo raised her hand to incapacitate them once more to reach her actual target.
Wide green eyes stared back at her, and Yachiyo's blood ran cold.
Numbness spread throughout her body. It was different from the control Rosalie had over her before. She simply could not feel anything—not the throbbing in her temple, nor the shards digging into her bloody hand.
Her guardian stared back at her, overwhelming fear visible even though she was immobile under Rosalie's control. Yachiyo wished she could reassure Chitose that things would be fine, but that wasn't what she needed to do right now. She needed to stop Rosalie before she did more damage—empty words would do little here.
Behind her human shield, Rosalie's giggles rose into a shrill cackle. "So this is the one! What wonderful despair, the rise of chaos! You won't hurt innocents; you won't hurt your loved ones." Rosalie raised a hand, and snapped her fingers. "But what will you do when they try to hurt themselves?"
Her guardian's name fell from her lips just as her staff dropped to the ground. Pointing her mangled hand at Rosalie, Yachiyo attacked her in the only way she knew that could actually affect her while also bypassing the people shielding her.
Rosalie's mouth dropped open, her eyes widening from something beyond her own madness.
"Oh. So when reality becomes too cumbersome, you resort to dreams?" Rosalie tilted her head at Yachiyo, throat choking on short, clipped laughter. "Dreams can be wonderful. But you know—?"
Screams. All Yachiyo could focus on next were screams. Rosalie's, the townspeople's, Chitose's, her own; they all mixed together in a cacophony of chaos.
"—My nightmares are quite ugly."
"Don't underestimate how destructive dreams can be."
This was different. Destruction was exactly what she wanted, as long as it meant stopping this woman drowning in madness.
Yachiyo just hadn't considered how twisted certain dreams could become.
"—severe property damage all across the east side of town, involvement of bystanders and civilians, eight left traumatized, thirty-six injured and twenty-six dead. Including—"
Yachiyo failed to stop her face from twitching.
Victoria sighed. "…Including Rosalie Addams. Regardless of the casualties, at the very least you successfully executed your mission. The royal family expressed their pleasure at this outcome."
Yachiyo simply nodded. She didn't really care what the royal family thought, but at least someone was happy.
Victoria placed down the notes from Deion's town leader, leveling an impassive stare her way. "I'm guessing you have something else to report?"
Yachiyo tightened her grip around a certain letter. For once, she wished the healers weren't so thorough in their magic. She would have gladly preferred an aching hand from broken glass shards over the heaviness in her chest.
Taking a calming breath, Yachiyo stepped toward the desk and slid the letter to her captain. Once Victoria had taken the piece of paper and began to read, she stepped back and waited.
Victoria's expression didn't change even after reaching the end. Carefully placing the paper down, she closed her eyes with a small huff. "I see."
The captain said nothing else after that. The ensuing silence stretched on for so long that Yachiyo couldn't help but break it with a confused, "Is that all?"
"Of course not. I have plenty to say about your decision. But I won't."
Victoria interlaced her fingers together, opening her eyes to regard Yachiyo with the same cold stare she always did. But there was a hint of warmth somewhere underneath; not exactly pity, but calling it compassion wouldn't have been right either.
"You have every right to question me as my superior, though," Yachiyo pointed out.
"How long do you think I've been in this war, Tsuruhime? I know how loss affects even the strongest of soldiers. I understand your reasons," Victoria pointed down at Yachiyo's notice of resignation, "even without your flowery excuses. As your superior, I could destroy this document as if it had never been written and force you to retain your position. But that's only if I wanted a less-than-optimal soldier who would become a liability sooner rather than later. I don't need an Edel who can't perform to my standards."
"Then… you're allowing me to resign? Just like that?"
"Were you expecting to fight your way out? We've ceased that custom for years. No, my word is enough to placate King Johann." Victoria dropped her hands to the desk, leaning back in her seat. "There's something else you need to do. As long as you're aware of what steps you'll take next, I have nothing else to say to you. As of now, you are no longer part of the Order of Edels, and thus, I am no longer your captain. That is all. Unless there was something else you wanted to say to me."
Yachiyo stood in silence, thinking over the appropriate decorum. There were plenty of questions she wanted to ask Victoria, especially after everything Rosalie had vaguely thrown at her. But Yachiyo hadn't had the capacity to think about those details. Not now. Whatever Rosalie Addams had known, and how it related to Judy Knightley, was none of her business at the moment.
Finally, she decided to ask, "Do the benefits truly outweigh the costs of this war?"
Victoria took a moment before answering, "That is what we've reasoned. Do you disagree?"
Yachiyo refrained from answering. But her silence was enough of an answer.
Victoria closed her eyes again and sighed. "We Edels fight for the Kingdom of Siegfeld and our own homes. So long as your efforts are for the good of the people, I won't criticize your methods. As you are no longer my subordinate, all I will say is this: find your own answer."
Victoria left the question there. With nothing else to say, Yachiyo bowed to the captain of the Edels one final time, and left the Order behind.
"Pecking my heart with your sharp, cold beak and flying away…"
Dream magic was different from the illusions she favored, drawing directly from the recipient's mind instead of her own. That had been but one mistake among several, in hindsight.
Perhaps it had been the desperation of the situation. Perhaps it had been the nature of Rosalie's broken mind. Perhaps Yachiyo had simply pushed past her limits. Perhaps it had been a combination of all three.
"—My nightmares are quite ugly," Rosalie had said.
But Rosalie's nightmare had been anything but ugly, at first. With Yachiyo's dream magic, stronger than anything she had cast before, a gleaming knight resplendent in her starry armor had physically manifested before them. The curving horns of a dead kingdom had been proudly emblazoned on her autumn cape, and the light brown hair pulled back into a low ponytail had been unmistakable.
Rosalie Addams' nightmare had been herself. Sane and loyal to an unnamed sovereign. A knight who had sworn to uphold her duties, regardless of the consequences.
Even when faced with her own nightmare, Rosalie had only smiled. "Follow the bull, follow the throne. Which is it, which is it? Between the two of us, who was late and who was just in time? Do you know what I know?"
"...So this is what I've been reduced to." Her dream self's voice had been clear and unwavering, almost melodic. "A fallen star; a pitiful shadow upon the Pleiades. Allow me to release you from your oath."
If the real Rosalie had been one who refused to accept her past, this Rosalie had been a dream unable to accept someone so bellicose, especially herself who had fallen so far. Both had sought to right a wrong, without regard to the current situation.
Even while holding herself back, one Rosalie had already been too much. Two was entirely beyond Yachiyo's control. There was little she—or anyone—could have done against two monsters so far above her.
Although Yachiyo had given her report to Victoria, in truth there had been little detail to give. It all could have been simply summarized as an instantaneous storm of destruction that ravaged everything in the vicinity. Buildings caved in; people fell in mangled heaps, caught in the flurry of blade and magic.
Chitose had been among the first to fall. Yachiyo would have followed suit, if not for the sudden weakness in her knees that had her stumbling forward in an attempt to catch her guardian. She had inadvertently ducked at the moment both Rosalies had begun to shift their fighting elsewhere, saving her from the worst of their blows.
Yachiyo had called her name, pressing her hands against her wounds and channeling all of the magic still within to heal the only family she had left.
But she wasn't a healer. Her support capabilities hadn't been enough for injuries of that scale. There was little she could have done as Chitose's life slipped through her hands, spilling onto the ground.
"Sorry, Yachiyo." Despite death looming over her, Chitose had offered her a final, warm smile. "Guess I'm… going ahead first, too."
In the middle of a burning town, Kakuyuki Chitose had breathed her last with nothing more than a small grin and a whisper of her name. Perhaps it had meant to be reassuring, but Yachiyo had felt no solace—only a heavy numbness as realization slowly sank in. She hadn't even registered when the fighting had finally stopped, or when Victoria had arrived to answer her earlier signal. Even when Victoria had informed her of Rosalie's death by her other self, Yachiyo couldn't tear her gaze away from Chitose's closed eyes. Not when they were never to open again.
She had made too many mistakes. Miscalculations and lack of additional contingencies were factors, as well as the sheer, overwhelming capabilities of her target. But that didn't change the fact that too many had paid for Yachiyo's shortsightedness.
And now, for the first time in years, Yachiyo was once more on her own.
Yachiyo sighed, placing another bouquet of flowers down onto the third, new grave. Once the offerings were set, she remained standing over her guardian's resting spot. It would be rude to show Chitose that she couldn't stand on her own after all that her guardian had done for her.
By the third day, Yachiyo had fallen to her knees, broken apologies repeatedly falling from her dry lips.
Chitose had once voiced her concerns about Yachiyo joining the Order of the Edels, fearing she would lose her life too soon. How ironic it was, then, for Yachiyo to be the one standing over another grave of her lost family members.
By the eighth day, her tears had dried and her apologies were spent. All that remained was a heavy heart, fractured with sorrow and regret.
"...What have I lost?"
Perhaps her natural affinity related to wind in some way, just as Rosalie had alluded to. But Yachiyo had always found solace in handling flames of any kind, be it small or large. If she thought about it more, the preference likely originated from her younger days relying on matches to sell and survive.
Arguably, fire should have been preferentially used in battle. But Yachiyo had always likened it to a comforting warmth, rather than a destructive force. It had saved her life against the frigid chill of winter and loneliness as a child, after all.
The flame in her hand burned bright and warm as she tossed it into the air, catching it just as she tossed another ball of fire from her other hand. At the same time, her body danced in tandem to the slow melody of the troupe's small orchestra. The fluid movements came easily to her after the many hours of practice over the past few months.
It was better to immerse herself in what she truly loved, rather than linger on a past that occasionally seized her brittle, healing heart. Chitose and her parents wouldn't have wanted her to stagnate and waste her youth grieving.
And for whatever reason, the stage did always have a calming effect on her.
Yachiyo threw each of the flames into the candelabras decorating the stage, smoothly transitioning into her next lines. The play progressed as it should, just as she had rehearsed with this new troupe for the past few months. And before she knew it, Yachiyo was once more standing onstage with her fellow actors and actresses, bowing before the audience's thundering applause after another successful performance.
Her life was not yet over. Chitose and her family had wanted her to live long and happily, and it wasn't Yachiyo's intention to die young anyway. Moving forward would be difficult, but performing had always been among her specialties.
As the saying went: the show must go on.
Performing, however, wasn't the aspect of her past that Yachiyo settled on as she healed over the months. Acting was certainly a passion of hers, but there was another calling that she found more fitting of her capabilities. One that took up most of her time; one that she preferred to immerse herself completely in, even if it meant leaving behind the troupe she had recently joined.
Before the Edels, before Pleiades, before Chitose's troupe, even before the skirmish that had taken the lives of her parents, Yachiyo had once donned another role. It wasn't a particularly impressive role at the time, all things considered. Her performances years ago had been unpolished as a child, desperate to help support her struggling family some other way.
In the past, she had been limited to small thefts that ultimately amounted to nothing more than minor pickpocketing or taking food when the stall vendors weren't looking. It was all she could do as a child with no formal training, after all. This persisted even after Chitose had adopted her and thieving became more of a pastime, though her guardian had never been particularly enthused about this specific interest. As much as she wanted to hone her skills further, there wasn't much Yachiyo could do as an average citizen living her life with an ordinary performance troupe.
At least, until Chitose's troupe had to disband.
But things were different now. Years of physical and magic training granted her capabilities and options that her younger self had lacked. Not that her education at Pleiades or her tenure as an Edel had originally meant to be used for fraudulent activities. But Yachiyo was—if nothing else—good at adapting things to suit her needs.
It just so happened that larceny was a hobby she had not only taken a particular interest in, but also something she excelled at.
Not that these nobles are making it difficult to deceive them, Yachiyo remarked to herself once she had slipped away from the party's host with a flimsy excuse to powder her face. She had also left a flirtatious wink for good measure, which was more than enough to turn the simple-minded lord into a lovesick puddle.
Now then… Time for the main event~
It had been fairly easy to put her name on the guestlist—courtesy of her theatrical connections—and mingle among the attendees earlier to further scope out the manor from the inside. It hadn't taken long after that to catch the host of the party off guard, coaxing the location of his valuables from his loose lips, drunk with wine. But the lord was still a man of decent standing, possessing the resources to guard his wealth even when he himself was riddled with weaknesses.
Guards were a given. Spells and wards covering every inch of the treasure vault were safety measures Yachiyo had accounted for as well. While the former could easily be circumvented with some basic illusions—just a harmless vision of vermin that had them scrambling away from the door—the magic protecting the room was slightly harder to break through.
However, it was only slightly more difficult. In this case, all Yachiyo had to do was trace a gloved finger across the heavy iron door to the doorknob, a small magic circle following her touch. Within seconds, she was able to get a sense of how the lord had set up his magic.
A bit sloppy. Not entirely amateurish, but not as refined as the higher-ranked mages in Siegfeld's army, Yachiyo noted as she bypassed each layer of his spells. It feels as though he had cast these protective wards himself—he did seem to have quite a bit of an ego, after all. I wouldn't be surprised if he had refused to hire a proper mage because of his pride.
The door swung open after the last spell had been broken, revealing a large room with elaborate paintings adorning its stone walls, interspersed with magical torches. Tucked in each corner, finely crafted tables displayed numerous glittering jewels and trinkets. Heavy bags of gold were scattered here and there, open and spilling coins or bars out onto the exotic rugs lining the floor.
So this is the extent of Lord Edward's treasury. On the surface, it seems his treasury is quite vast. But I wonder if his displays are as inflated as his own ego…
Flourishing a hand, a magic circle flared beneath her feet as pink wisps of magic wove around Yachiyo to form a new set of clothes. Her floor-length red ball gown shortened into a skirt down to her mid thighs, granting her the mobility she preferred. While her footwear remained unchanged, a pair of stockings trailed up her legs. Her bare shoulders were replaced by a maroon coat with twin trailing coattails, the coat held closed together with three gold clasps. A pair of black gloves weaved over her hands, followed by a white bow tied around her neck. To complete it all, a black and red top hat with gold trimmings sat atop her head, its brim large enough to veil her face should she tip it down.
Yachiyo gave a few experimental steps with her red high heels to get used to the mobility available to her now. Properly donning her role as a phantom thief, Yachiyo adjusted the golden monocle over her right eye to survey the treasures available.
Ah, I thought this would be the case. Only about half of the objects in this room are real.
Although the treasure vault certainly contained real gold and jewels befitting Lord Edward's status as a baron of Siegfeld, the true riches were mixed with some saturated in magic. It was normally invisible to the naked eye and unperceivable to most people, even experienced mages. But the accessory Yachiyo had crafted herself could pick up even the most minute of magic traces, and so every counterfeit was easily discernible under her keen gaze.
Still, the near-perfect copies were randomly intermingled with the real treasures. While Yachiyo didn't know what defensive measures were placed specifically on the counterfeits, it wasn't her intention to find out either.
Removing her hat and snapping her fingers, she summoned a few small gusts of wind to guide each real treasure in the room into the modified space within her headwear. Yachiyo carefully sidestepped the fakes strewn about, making her way to the center of the room as she continued to collect the true valuables. Despite the wealth the baron possessed, all of the real jewels and gold were easily stored in a space enlarged by magic.
For a first major heist in a long while, things were going scarily well. A small part of her felt sorry for the poor man, but it wasn't like his assets were being put to good use in the first place.
Might as well be used for better things than gambling. Especially when he lost more than he gained. Though, watching her target embarrass himself in the midst of other nobles with better luck and investment abilities had been an interesting sight at least.
"Hey! Who goes there?!" shouted a gruff voice from the entrance.
Whoops, guess time's up. Still grasping her top hat, Yachiyo greeted the guards with a courteous bow. "Oh, no one really. Just a local thief perusing some foolish lord's treasures on this fine night."
"Wha—" The guards brandished their swords at her. "How dare you steal from Lord Edward! Who do you think you are?!"
"My name? Don't you think it's rather rude to demand a lady to introduce herself before giving your own?" Yachiyo giggled, pulling out a card from her coat pocket. "I suppose decorum doesn't apply to those you consider criminals. But if you really want to know so badly…"
Yachiyo kicked a nearby block of gold absentmindedly. Upon contact, an identical piece of gold popped into existence, followed by another. And another, and another. It continued to multiply and touch the other counterfeits in the room, activating the counterspell cast on them as well.
Oh, so that's what the baron had as his defense. That would be rather troublesome if I got caught in it.
Yachiyo flashed the guards a final wink and dropped the card from her fingers. "...you can simply call me Lupin~"
The air shimmered as Yachiyo cast another illusion spell—one of invisibility. Although she herself hadn't moved from her spot yet, the guards could no longer perceive her with their eyes. To them, she had disappeared in the middle of the room that was slowly being filled by multiplying counterfeits of treasure.
A single card remained in her place. A simple white sheet, marked with a cursive L in magenta.
"Magic?! But she wasn't using a staff!"
As the guards scrambled about in a frenzy amidst the sea of infinitely duplicating counterfeits, Yachiyo silently stepped past them and headed for her previously-prepared exit—a side window down the hall, just large enough for her to slip out of. Before leaping from the windowsill, she heard the guards' last shouts as they tried to search for a now-invisible thief.
"Damn it, that doesn't matter now! Our priority is to find that thief and retrieve what was stolen! Find that thief! Find that phantom thief Lupin!"
"Did you hear about what happened to Lord Edward last night?"
"A true disaster! They say he was completely robbed! Supposedly some phantom thief had done it."
"Apparently they're calling her 'Arsene Lupin' around town. Completely bypassed all of his defenses, guards and magic and all. They say she could use some magic herself."
"A mage turned rogue? Not to mention using magic for larceny? A shame that's what magic has fallen to. What with this and the wa—"
"Now don't you say that."
Yachiyo tuned out the rest of the townspeople's gossip, taking another sip of her drink. "'Arsene' Lupin, hm? I didn't cause any significant property damage, though. Well, I'll admit it does have a nice ring to it. Not as fancy as something like the 'Napoleon of Crime' to the north, but Arsene works."
It's not like I can find whoever this Jay Moriarty is and claim the epithet for myself, Yachiyo thought. It wasn't as if she assumed she had earned a title as grand as 'Napoleon of Crime' either. One had to build up quite a reputation to be given an epithet on the level of a mythical figure like Napoleon.
Yachiyo was well aware that she didn't possess such resources or influence yet. This had only been her first formal act as the phantom thief Lupin, after all. There were plenty of chances in the future for her to show the world her talents.
Yachiyo placed a piece of paper on the table, followed by an inkwell and a quill. Not bad for my first heist in a while, but that wasn't nearly as challenging as I would have liked.
Her eyes scanned the various markings on the map. Finding a suitable target, she dipped her quill into the inkwell and circled the location of her next act.
"Now that 'Arsene Lupin' has made her debut, let's see what else she can do, hm?"
Most of her following heists were successes like the first, though not all were so easy. There were also plenty of setbacks and failures where she had to retreat with less than she would have liked.
But none were as disastrous as this time.
Yachiyo sighed as she tried to put distance between herself and the angry shouting behind her. Well, I suppose that's what I get for challenging a member of the local thieves guild. I knew he had significant influence even with the town guards, but aren't there too many at his beck and call?!
It was supposed to be a simple heist. Yachiyo had made sure to gather enough information, scoping out the main location where the guild's wealth was said to be stored, and taking into account who would be on guard that day, along with potential backup. She didn't think that backup of the backup would come so quickly as well. Fortunately for her, none of the guild members chasing her seemed to be mages.
A shard of ice flew past her, missing its mark to smash into a nearby barrel instead.
Using a nearby crate as leverage and a bit of magic as a boost, Yachiyo leapt up to the rooftops and continued her escape from above. Another blast of ice shot past her, sailing over her head from another poorly aimed shot.
An untrained magic user, perhaps? Either way… Yachiyo glanced behind her at the group in pursuit, removing her hat and reaching into its magically expanded space. I need to do something about this angry mob.
Other than the inexperienced mage shooting haphazardly at her, the others were only chasing her with swords or pitchforks and a number of lit torches. From a glance they painted a picture more akin to a group of witch hunters than a guild of thieves, though Yachiyo couldn't blame them. She had, after all, sabotaged their armory as a contingency before she had pocketed their treasure.
Still, being poked with a few swords and pitchforks isn't exactly how I want to end my night. Her fingers wrapped around the handle of her latest weapon, pulling it out from her hat. At least none of them are archers. So it would seem I have the advantage here~
With no convenient opportunity to notch a physical bolt, Yachiyo condensed a bit of wind into the flight groove of her crossbow and fired at a nearby stack of barrels. One of the barrels in the lowest row burst upon impact, breaking the neat pyramid they were in to roll onto the street.
Yachiyo grinned at her handiwork. A full-sized crossbow really would have been too much of a hassle to lug around. I'm glad I chose to modify one into something more mobile.
"Move!" one of her pursuers shouted as the barrels collapsed in front of their path. While the impromptu obstruction scattered most of them, a few simply leapt over the barrels and continued chasing after her.
Including the ice mage, whose aim remained as terrible as ever. Except his next shard struck the roof right where Yachiyo would have stepped to next if she hadn't pivoted away at the last moment, jumping off the roof to evade. Although the dodge came at the expense of her footing above her pursuers, she managed to land far enough away from the thieves to continue running should she choose to.
As the shouting grew closer again, Yachiyo raised her crossbow with another magically condensed bolt. I've come far enough. I suppose it's time to make a more decisive getaway.
But before she could prepare her spell, a different magic circle flared to life beneath her feet, illuminating her in its green glow. A gust of wind burst from beneath her, just strong enough to lift her off her feet and into the air.
Her muscles tensed to counter, but the momentary uneasiness was replaced by confusion when she found strong arms catching her fall. With one arm wrapped under her knees and the other cupping her shoulders, another burst of wind had them propelling into the air up to the rooftops.
"She's getting away!"
"The hell is this wind?!"
A good question, Yachiyo agreed, calmer than she should have been. But her savior—or kidnapper—continued putting distance between them and their pursuers without saying a word. Yachiyo would have protested the abrupt and unnecessary rescue, but it wasn't as if she was being manhandled in any way. In fact, the stranger's hold was surprisingly gentle for someone she had never met before.
Well, if this mysterious savior isn't going to break the silence first…
Yachiyo glanced up, her usual smirk curving onto her lips. "Isn't this moving a little fast for our first meeting? At least treat me to—"
Whatever else she had meant to say abruptly died in her throat.
In the moonlight, blue-grey eyes stared ahead towards some unknown objective. A pair of simple glasses perched on a button nose, framed by long, dark hair flowing along the wind. Her rescuer's clothes were equally as dark, including the small black hat adorned with a blue ribbon situated atop her head. A faint flush had dusted over her cheeks at Yachiyo's words, much like that day in the library.
Yachiyo swallowed. "You're—"
"Jay Moriarty. A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Arsene Lupin."
"—Mahiru-san? Why are you dressed like that?"
Before Yachiyo could fully register the introduction, the both of them came to an abrupt halt so quickly that the woman's boots skidded across the tiles on the roof. The wind cloaking them dispersed into the air, allowing Yachiyo to get a proper view of the indignant blush raging on Moriarty's—Mahiru's—cheeks.
"Wha— Who are you to judge what I wear?!" Her flustered gaze swept down to the arm looped under Yachiyo's stocking-clad legs. "All these jewels decorating your coat—of course you'd be slowed down! And this… this impractical skirt!"
Yachiyo quirked an eyebrow, the rest of her uneasiness dissipating in the face of someone familiar. "Impractical? I would argue it offers more mobility than trousers."
"There's hardly any protection!" When Yachiyo started to protest, Mahiru quickly cut in, "And no, those thin stockings don't count!"
Well, she had to give Mahiru that. "While you do have a point, that's what magic is for, you know?"
Mahiru groaned. "Do you lack any sense of shame?! And how are you not cold?!
"And yet your eyes convey a different opinion, Moriarty. As well as your current choice of grip." At the last word, Yachiyo brushed her index finger over the gloved hand on her knee. "Or would you rather we held hands for our escape~?"
It wasn't every day Yachiyo found herself being carried like a princess. But it wasn't an unpleasant feeling, especially with the identity of her 'prince' in black. Not to mention Mahiru's amusing reactions.
"I—!" A slew of incoherent sputtering followed before Mahiru found her voice again. "This is just how things ended up! Are you suggesting I shouldn't have intervened?"
If anything, I'm surprised Mahiru-san hasn't dropped me yet. Instead of voicing that thought or thinking further on the arms still holding her up, Yachiyo replied, "Well, I won't ignore help when it's given. You have my thanks, Moriarty."
Mahiru's lips drew into a frown, her cheeks slowly returning to their normal color. Regaining her composure, Mahiru carefully lowered Yachiyo onto the roof so she could stand on her own.
Yachiyo tried to ignore the twinge in her chest as Mahiru stepped back. It was strange seeing a ghost from her past—one that Yachiyo hadn't expected to meet again, especially in these circumstances. Although Mahiru's general appearance hadn't seemed to change much, her current attire and the posture she held herself with confirmed that this was indeed a crime lord that anyone should be wary of. Including Yachiyo.
While some things haven't changed, it seems you've become someone different from the timid student from Pleiades. Yachiyo fought down the urge to smile wryly at the irony. I wonder if you would share the same opinion if you knew who I was as well, Mahiru-san.
Standing a few paces away, Mahiru kept a steady gaze on Yachiyo as she adjusted her dark coat. "I don't believe we've met before, Lupin. And yet you address me as if we are somehow acquaintances."
Yachiyo's lips pulled up into a languid smirk. "Curious? Someone of your caliber should be able to deduce my identity with the pieces in your possession."
"That seems rather inefficient when you're right in front of me." Shoulders tensed; a shift in Mahiru's stance that was barely perceivable. But it was just to release an exasperated sigh. "Though, coercing the answer from you wouldn't be fair either. If you prefer to keep your identity a secret, then I'll just have to do my own research."
Yachiyo wasn't sure if she should sigh or laugh. Ah, so this part of Mahiru-san hasn't changed. Maybe she's become a little more capable, but that endearing politeness is still there. I wonder…
Her shoulders pulled up in a small shrug. "Well… if that's how you feel, there isn't much I can do about that. Though I must say…"
Removing her monocle from her right eye, and thus lifting the spell cloaking her identity, Yachiyo chuckled lightly as Mahiru's eyes widened in recognition.
"…thinking my secrets could be revealed so easily through other means—isn't that taking me a little too lightly?"
"Oh, don't feel too bad, Mahiru-san." Yachiyo turned the monocle over in her hand, smiling at the variety of emotions playing across her old schoolmate's face. "My monocle obscures my own identity, yes. But I had also designed it to see through all kinds of spells, including ones meant to mask someone's appearance. I'm guessing that isn't an aspect you included for your glasses?"
Mahiru shook her head. "That's… well, including something like that is beyond me. But that's not—!" Mahiru pinched the bridge of her nose with a small, frustrated groan. "Why are you here, Tsuruhime-san? As a phantom thief of all things?"
"Should I not be? After all, you're standing before me as Jay Moriarty, the infamous Napoleon of Crime, aren't you? I'd say a crime lord trumps over a mere thief."
"That's—!" Mahiru turned her gaze away with a frown. "I didn't exactly intend to pursue this life. But there's something I want to do—that I need to do."
"As a criminal."
Of all professions, Yachiyo wouldn't have expected the timid girl she had comforted in the library at Pleiades to pursue such a dangerous specialty. It was one thing for Yachiyo to dabble in the field of larceny—she had enough experience with small acts of thievery during her childhood, both to make ends meet and as a side hobby. But Tsuyuzaki Mahiru, or at least the woman Yachiyo thought she knew, was kind and caring to a fault. A crime lord of all roles seemed ill-suited for her.
Of course, that was what Yachiyo would have thought years ago. But standing before her now, Yachiyo had to admit that Mahiru had stepped into her new shoes rather well. If the rumors and news carried by the town criers were of any indication, at least.
Yachiyo offered Mahiru a wry smile. "It sounds like quite a bit has happened since we've last seen one another."
Blue-grey eyes swept back to her in silence. A range of emotions flashed through Mahiru's eyes at that moment—too quickly for Yachiyo to name.
"To you as well, Tsuruhime-san?" Mahiru whispered, almost quiet enough for the wind to carry her voice away.
Months later, the memories of her long year as an Edel and the loss of her last family member remained a sore wound to her heart. Although she had managed to stand back up on her own two feet and move forward, they were not memories she planned to speak of anytime soon.
Or at least, she hadn't planned to. Not fully.
Yachiyo sighed, shaking her head with a lazy smile. "It's too eventful for me to even summarize. And telling the whole story would take too long, what with the both of us still being pursued. I'm sure those thieves will soon catch up to us."
"You won't have to worry about that." Mahiru glanced behind her, adjusting her glasses. "My subordinates should be diverting their attention right about now. Tonight wasn't supposed to be anything more than an initial reconnaissance mission, but the results remained within my calculations."
"Oh? And did you include me in your plans against a rival guild?" Yachiyo wondered.
Mahiru pursed her lips, her tone taking on the formality befitting a leader of crime. "You were… certainly not in my initial plans. But I couldn't resist a chance to speak with the infamous Arsene Lupin about the possibility of a joint venture. In the future."
Excitement welled in Yachiyo's chest, just like all the other times she had planned for any grand heists. She herself had entertained the idea of reaching out to Jay Moriarty in the past, but had preferred to gather a bit more intel about the crime lord before forming any sort of alliance. If Moriarty herself was going to take the initiative to arrange a partnership, that only worked in Yachiyo's favor.
"Oh? And what would the terms of our collaboration be?"
"That would require further discussion. Perhaps somewhere more private, where we can discuss without fear of anyone overhearing? And… I'm curious about how things have been since we last saw each other." Mahiru's gaze darted to the side, the formality slipping into a familiar shyness. "While I can't promise I'll be of much help, I can lend an ear if you're willing. If… If you wanted to talk to an old acquaintance, of course!"
The familiar words—albeit somewhat different—ignited certain feelings that Yachiyo had thought she had long since forgotten about. But it seemed they had only been lying dormant, waiting for the chance to resurface.
"Even if the sun sets, it'll inevitably rise again to begin a new day. Who knows? Maybe you'll see her again in the future."
Yachiyo smiled to herself. She could almost see Chitose smirking at her with a teasing, "I told you so!" as she nibbled on the pastries she loved so much.
For the first time in months, the fleeting image of her late guardian no longer hurt to recall.
"Since you've invited me so kindly," Yachiyo chuckled, "I suppose it would be rude to refuse, hm?"
"I'll reach out to grasp that hand as if I were on a trapeze…
...Like a jack-in-the-box jumping out, return that love to me."