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(Re:63) Arc 3: "Everybody’s looking for something"

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“Aaaaand with that, I think that’s my right arm about played out for today!” Subaru announced, stretching and turning her arm, partially to emphasize, mostly because it actually started to hurt, the injuries from a month ago still not having healed perfectly. It seemed there was a limit even to magic. Either that, or Beatrice, who was apparently the most talented healer at the mansion from what Subaru gathered, couldn’t be bothered to fix her to top condition.

Some of the children gathered about groaning a bit, disappointed that the show was already over, but their parents and some of the other villagers that gathered around for Subaru’s little impromptu concert gave her a few polite claps. She was certainly no rockstar, but when she’d come down here to play for the villagers some mornings, there would always be a small crowd gathering to listen to her. Naturally, this couldn’t happen every day, as Ram did take Subaru’s request for extra chores so many days ago seriously, but every now and again, she’d give Subaru a free morning, which Subaru endeavoured to spend visiting the village. A big part of that was of course to play music, but a just as large part was the silver-haired girl standing nearby with a white and purple cloak shrouding her face.

“Now now, I’ll be back in a few days.” Subaru shushed. “Besides, you’ve all got your own instruments now, don’t you?” she grinned.

Subaru was of course referring to the disks made of wood, cloth and metal that the kids soon raised up. On one of her earlier visits, she managed to convince Petra’s mother who had extensive sewing supplies, Altan, the village smith and the local carpenter that Rem got to replace her lyulyre’s shattered body to make a couple of one of the simplest, most child friendly ‘instruments’ Subaru knew of. So child friendly in fact Subaru was straining things a bit even calling them an instrument.

Grabbing hold of her lyulyre for just one more moment, Subaru played out a quick little melody.

Now listen to me play- play- play… ” she sang, then pointed to the kids who in unison began shaking their disks, doing their best to pronounce ‘ My Green Tambourine ’, while shaking theirs in hand. “That’s the spirit!” she said proudly as the jingle-jangle of the many little disks filled the air.

Some of the parents gave Subaru a slightly disapproving look, as apparently some of the younger kids took a little bit too much of a liking to their tambourines and would rattle them constantly. She just pulled her neck in a bit and returned a smile.

After saying her goodbyes to the villagers and complimenting the kids on the pretty sounds they could jingle, Subaru reunited with her shrouded companion and headed down the road leading out of the village and towards the nearby mansion where they made their residence.

“You seem to have made quite the impression on the villagers.” giggled the silver haired girl as they left even the sounds of the village behind themselves.

“Well, you only get so many musicians that sing in other languages that apparently people don’t even know exist so many times in a little village like this.” huffed Subaru jokingly. “I’m sure they'll forget about me the next time one of those shows up.”

“Oh? You think more people from your home are going to come this way?” the girl asked in a surprised tone, glancing out from under the cowl.

“Huh? No I mean—” Subaru said, shaking her head, pausing to ponder how valid of an assumption that would be for someone else for a moment. “Nah, nah, nah. I meant that as a joke.”

“I see.” the girl noted, and a bit of quiet fell on them.

Subaru took a long look at the cowled girl walking beside her. Emilia never came to the village without that cowl. Apparently, it was some sort of magic item that concealed one’s identity. Naturally, Subaru knew who was under the cowl, but she could walk into the village and for one arcane reason or another, no one would realize that it was the half-elf candidate that walked amongst them, though it wouldn’t render her invisible. Everyone could see she was there, they’d just be clueless as to who she was.

It was one of Subaru’s goals to get Emilia to shake this horrible habit. Having died and relived the first five days of her time at the mansion, Subaru experienced the villagers say things they never had, so she understood why the silver-haired half-elf’s concerns were not unfounded. Indeed, the villagers harbored fear and distrust towards her, thinking she’s either associated with, or would draw in the so called ‘witch cult’, that Subaru heard a great deal about but never met. Well, probably never met.

In her ‘first day’ which was more like three days in this world after being spirited away from back home on Earth, Natsuki Subaru encountered a talk, dark, sadistic woman called Elsa Granhiert, who’d recruited a street urchin called Felt to steal an important item from Emilia. Subaru never got the full picture, but she had suspected that this Granhiert might have wanted to lure Emilia into the poor part of town where there were no guards, so she may kill her as she had in at least one previous loop had done to Felt, her adoptive giant grandfather Rom, and Subaru herself.

That assumption was a bit big, as she never got a full villainous monologue from the woman to explain her motivations like in the stories, but given that only days later the village near the mansion where Emilia lived would be attacked by mabeasts— It was suspicious. From what Subaru was told, the mabeast situation was handled, but she had learned some people command mabeasts, and mabeasts were created by a being called Satella, commonly referred to as ‘The Witch of Envy’, who is connected to the Witch Cult itself somehow, and who, apparently, had an appearance that vaguely resemble Emilia, due to both of them being half-elves and having silver hair.

If these dots did connect, if the mabeasts and Granhiert were both somehow connected to the Witch Cult behind the scenes, then given how close the village came to losing their children— She couldn’t whole heartedly hate anyone for being worried about Emilia’s presence. Maybe if Subaru didn’t have that power which she once called ‘Return by Death’, the power that allowed her to go Back in Time , maybe she’d be a little afraid too. Though, actually, not. She’d be dead in the capital, and she would never have gotten to know her.

While she couldn’t whole heartedly hate the villagers for their distrust towards Emilia, she couldn’t accept it either. The girl saved her life in the capital. She showed Subaru nothing but kindness and consideration unconditionally. She took her here to thank her for helping retrieve the stolen item, even though Subaru’s initial motivation was to just use the silver sorceress as a shield against Granhiert so she could instead focus on saving Felt. Emilia was, simply put, one of if not the most wonderful, pure hearted people Subaru has ever met. No, more than that, the most wonderful, pure hearted person she even heard of. Even after ignorantly Subaru insulted her as harshly as it was possible in this world back in the capital, Emilia forgave her, and looked at her as one would a friend.

Subaru had long since promised herself that one way or another, she was going to make sure that the girl who so deserved the love of those around her wouldn’t waste away locked in her room studying in the hope of people accepting her in some unseen tomorrow.

“One of these days, you should come into the village without your cowl.” Subaru suggested, looking at the girl besides her.

“Huh?” Emilia looked up with a little yelp in her surprised voice. “Subaru. You know I cannot do that.”

“Yeah, yeah, because you think they don’t like you.” Subaru said, waving a hand. “Look Emilia-chan, I’m not going to lie and tell you they aren’t scared, but they have no reason to be! The sooner you show them that, the sooner you can laugh together!” she added with scolding, furrowed brows.

“Subaru, I do not expect you to understand, given that you never knew about the Witch, but it is simply for the best.” Emilia pouted, turning her head away.

“There’s nothing good about you hiding away from people!” Subaru exclaimed. “There’s also nothing good about you rolling over and letting the world stomp all over you!”

“I’m— I’m not doing that!” Emilia protested, looking back. “I’m a candidate!”

“I know.” Subaru sighed. “But how are you planning on winning and ruling over people when you can’t even go to a little village like that without hiding?”

Emilia didn’t answer aside from a sad little voice escaping her lips as she raised her hands up and grabbed the top of her cowl, pulling it down.

“I am doing this for them.” Emilia said quietly. “If they saw me, they would only be scared, and they could not enjoy—” she trailed off and never finished the end.

‘Good job, Subaru.’ Subaru thought to herself. She never really got too confrontational about Emilia’s shyness. There was a long time when Subaru herself wanted nothing more than to disappear too. It was clear from experience that being pushy wasn’t going to fix that.

“Look, I’m sorry.” Subaru sighed. “I don’t mean to force you, but I don’t want you to be so alone. It’s not—” Subaru bit off the words. “It’s not a good way to be.”

Emilia didn’t answer right away, just fiddled with her cowl for a solid minute before finally letting go of it and speaking up.

“I know you are just trying to be kind, Subaru, but please do not say these things again.” she said. “I wish I could make friends as easily as you, but I cannot. Not until I have changed people’s mind about who I am.”

Subaru sighed at the self contradictory statement, as well as the woefully ill informed notion that Subaru of all people was good at making friends. Doubtless, if she knew how many times Subaru had to relive the same few days to get here, or how useless she was under this happy-go-lucky facade, how she wasted away back home, Emilia wouldn’t have such an unfittingly high expectation of her. Still, Subaru couldn’t bear to correct her. As selfish as it was, she couldn’t stand the idea that Emilia, or really, anyone would know the real Natsuki Subaru. The Natsuki Subaru that broke her parents’ hearts day after the day. The Natsuki Subaru who couldn’t take a single step forward without someone’s help. The Natsuki Subaru who didn’t even have the strength to live if she couldn’t convince herself that there are better days ahead if she tries. The Natsuki Subaru that allowed people to be hurt, even die before, just because she couldn’t properly use the only truly exceptional ability she had.

“Emilia-chan.” Subaru spoke quietly, looking ahead. “Would it be okay if I invited one of the kids to the mansion one of these days?”

“I do not understand the question.” Emilia answered after a bit of a pause, honesty and confusion in her voice.

“You remember the orange haired girl with the red ribbon?”

“Oh, uh.” pondered Emilia. “You called her Petra-chan before, right?”

“You remembered her name!” Subaru exclaimed with a smile. “Yeah! I’ve— Petra’s a really, really good girl. I thought, maybe, if you don’t want to deal with the whole village, maybe you could start small. I’m sure you two would get along.”

“Subaru…” started Emilia poutingly. “I just asked you not to bring that up again.”

“I know, but I promise you’d like her!” Subaru answered, looking at the girl desperately. “I won’t bug you about the village again, I just want you to give her a chance! I want you to see that there are good people out there, if you just give them a chance.”

Emilia went quiet again, frowning under her cowl, but then eventually, suddenly beginning to giggle.

“Subaru really is pretty stupid.” Emilia said, taking off her cowl and smiling at Subaru, who could do nothing but let out a long questioning ‘Huh?’ before the girl continued. “Of course I know that already.” Emilia added with a smile.

 

                                           

 

“Something seems off with the entrance.” Subaru noted, squinting up at the elevated terrace before the main gate of the mansion as Ram let her and Emilia back in through the gate.

“Barusu’s abilities of observance are truly astonishing. One day she may even be able to tell apart spoons and forks.” Ram noted.

Not your A-game .” Subaru huffed with a sly smile.

“The polite and courtly Ram certainly hopes what Subaru just said wasn’t anything naughty.”

“Forget about it.” Subaru said, waving it off. “What’s going on? What’s the big brown thing?”

“I think that’s a dragon carriage.” Emilia noted, making Subaru’s brows perk up at the odd term.

“Indeed it is so, Emilia-sama.” Ram nodded, beginning to head that way. “It came from House Karsten.”

“Ah, then that must mean—” Emilia began, then shot a look at Subaru and stopped.

“What?” Subaru asked, furrowing her brows. “Am I supposed to know this Karsten place?”

“Barusu…” Ram sighed, shaking her head.

“Do not worry about it, Subaru. It has to do with the royal selection.” Emilia explained with an awkward look.

“Oh, so it’s like some sort of royal troubadour? Come toot one of those comically long horns and read some ridiculously formal decree by the regent, or whatever you have right now?”

“Regency council.” Ram corrected with a cold mumble.

“Well, not exactly.” Emilia answered Subaru, covering her mouth, clearly flustered about something.

“Emilia-sama is trying to convey that this is important and private business that concerns no one but her, Felt-sama and Roswaal-sama.” Ram noted authoritatively. “Only they, the envoy, and my sister will be present, to attend to them.”

“It hurts that you think I can’t behave.” Subaru sighed dramatically.

“Is Barusu perhaps not trying to figure out a way to weasel herself into the meeting?” Ram asked giving Subaru a knowing glare out of the corner of her eye.

“Of course not!” Subaru declared, holding her head up proudly before turning to Emilia. “However, on a completely unrelated note, this ‘envoy’ sounds important and noble and all that stuff, so I’m sure they’re used to the finest accommodations, correct?”

“I suppose that is correct, Subaru.” Emilia answered, an index finger on her lower lip.

“Emilia-sama…” Ram said, likely already anticipating the trap Subaru would attempt to spring.

“Weeeeell, holding a meeting with someone as posh and of such high standing without gentle musical accompaniment when it’s available—” Subaru trailed, strumming a few strings on her lyulyre.

“Subaru, no.” Emilia pouted. “This is a very important meeting.”

“Is Emilia-chan certain—?”

“Yes.” Emilia interrupted.

“What if I had the villagers make you a tambourine if you let me come?”

“Subaru!”

“Fine, fine!” Subaru sighed finally, before continuing in a somewhat more serious tone. “You’ll be alright with them?” she asked.

“Why wouldn’t—?” Emilia began, but then looked away as if listening to something, then with a look of realization grabbed the cloak on her back. “No, you shouldn’t worry about that Subaru.” she said with a small smile. “I don’t know them that well, but we met before.”

“Alright, but if they say anything rude, let me know.” Subaru nodded. “I promise that I’ll limit the political incident to national.”

“You worry me when you say things like that.” Emilia frowned.

 

Reaching the incline of the terrace overlooking the gardens, where before the main entrance the ‘dragon carriage’ was parked, Subaru’s heart raced with excitement when she recognized, at least sort of, the massive bipedal form standing in front of it, bridled attached to the front of the carriage.

“That’s what they call a land dragon, right?” Subaru thought aloud, walking towards the giant beast.

The black scaly being standing in front of the carriage did call to mind drakes from western fantasy stories, perhaps best resembling non-feathered images of velociraptors, the main divergence from them being beaklike face, incredible height, towering above Subaru enough that she’d need to reach up to get a hold of its back, let alone the head rising further above, the odd feet which seemed slender and agile enough to grab onto things, and the pair of intelligent, yellow, cat-like eyes that followed the three women coming up the incline towards it.

Subaru had some chance to learn about these things browsing books while trying to learn hamoji, though all she really picked up in a few glances was their name, and that apparently they’re strong and reliable enough to make horses seem irrelevant by comparison.

“Ah, I get it!” Subaru exclaimed. “Dragon, carriage. Dragon carriage.” she nodded in understanding.

“Subaru?” Emilia asked in surprise. “Didn’t— Is dragon carriage another archaic term?”

“Barusu is just being foolish as always, Emilia-sama.” Ram noted. “Dragon carriage is a correct term.”

“Right, right.” Subaru nodded as they reached the top of the incline and came within steps of the creature, which continued to calmly observe them. Or rather, Subaru. “I have a feeling it’s looking at me. Is my face weird even to animals?” she asked dejectedly. People have noted that she had an odd appearance in the past, and the kids in the village have mentioned this as well a few times.

“I think it likes Subaru.” Emilia giggled.

“Perhaps the land dragon believes Barusu to be its sick young. Could it be that Barusu found her family?” Ram teased.

Before Subaru could retort, the land dragon turned its head towards Ram and clicked its mouth at her. It didn’t look like an attack or even a threat, it was more like the land dragon was expressing offense taken with annoyance.

“I beg her pardon.” a dignified, masculine voice called out, before a tall, finely dressed gentleman with white hair and a well trimmed beard stepped forward and next to the creature from the carriage. “As a diana breed land dragon, she is liable to take offense at jokes at her expense.” he explained, before bowing courtly, one hand held before his torso. “I apologize for blocking your ladyship’s path.”

Every part of the man said only two words: ‘gentleman’ and ‘servant’. His modest yet clearly high quality black suit even finer than the one Subaru wore, his stance, voice and just the way he carried himself, they all oozed the silent pride of the quintessential butler.

“Don’t be silly.” Emilia said with a pout. “You can see full well that there is plenty of room to walk.”

“As you say, Emilia-sama.” the man said before raising himself up. “I do not wish to take up any undue time, so let me just say it is a pleasure to find the residents of the mansion in good health.”

Ram bowed slightly to the older gentleman before holding out a hand and turning to Emilia. “If Emilia-sama would.”

“Of course.” Emilia nodded, but then paused and turned back to Subaru. “Subaru, as I said, this meeting is private so—”

“I got it, I got it.” Subaru sighed, holding up her arms. “You take care of the big important business, Emilia-chan.”

Emilia smiled at her and headed to the main entrance with Ram. Subaru considered sneakily heading after them and listening at the door, but there was no way Ram wouldn’t catch her doing that, so she gave up on it at the concept stage, and just remained with them, standing next to the land dragon, watching them disappear through the door. Then, she felt something fiddling with her hair.

“Hey, hey, what do you think you’re doing?” she asked, a bit startled, turning to the giant land dragon who was poking at her tied up hair with its nose. Beak? Whichever was appropriate.

The land dragon retracted her nose and looked into Subaru’s eyes, before making a little noise with her mouth like she was saying something, though of course Subaru had no clue what it was.

“I’m really not a baby land dragon.” Subaru probed mockingly, to which the land dragon narrowed its eyes and gently bonked the top of Subaru’s head with its beak.

The man stepped closer, and pulled on the land dragon’s bridle a bit, firmly, but clearly not strong enough to hurt the creature.

“I hope she hadn’t hurt the young landy.” the man said, looking at Subaru, before giving a stern look to the land dragon by his side.

“No, no.” Subaru answered with a smile, rubbing her hair where the land dragon ruffled it up. “I think she was just playing.” she added, understandingly. It was almost like the land dragon understood what she said, though that seemed unlikely. It’s more probable that it picked up on something simpler, like the mocking tone from Ram and her both. Or maybe they used a word it didn’t like the sound of?

“I’m glad to hear that the young lady is so understanding.” the man responded, putting his free hand on his chest, and bowing his head. “I do believe the young Emilia-sama was correct. Like most of her kind, she rarely shows affection to people, especially strangers, however she seems to have taken a liking here.”

“That’s actually really neat to hear!” Subaru said, feeling that excitement bubble back up. “Would it be okay if I pet her?” she asked, gesturing with her hand.

The man didn’t answer, just looked at the land dragon who stared at Subaru for a moment then lowered its head enough that she could reach and touch her beak. Not wanting to miss the opportunity, Subaru did just that, and pet her down the front of her head, feeling the tough scales.

“I never thought I’d get to do something like this.” Subaru mumbled absentmindedly.

“If I may ask, how so?” came from the old gentleman.

“Oh, right.” Subaru noted, realizing that land dragons were likely known everywhere. “They weren’t used where I come from, and I didn't think I’d even travel away from there.” Subaru said, stretching the truth as thin as she could. “Although honestly, this is kind of amazing.”

Regardless of the fact that everyone she knew at the mansion except Felt and Rom could use magic, that there were magic powered time crystals in every other room and that only a month ago she had to fight magical curse giving wolves with unicorn horns and glowing eyes— In spite of all that, there was something about the simple life here at the mansion that lulled her into a comfort where she almost forgot just how fantastical and magical this new world was. Without all the bizarre ‘demi-humans’ in the capital, the sight of other land dragons pulling carriages up and down the city streets and so on, it started to feel like she was home, every strange and magical thing just being a minor quirk of the mansion around her.

However, with such a giant, majestic creature before her, letting her touch its scales with patience, she felt once more like she did on her very first day, like she just dropped into a storybook.

“She seems so smart.” Subaru commented, continuing to caress the land dragon’s head.

“Indeed, she is an exceptional creature.” the man nodded with a content smile, as the land dragon pulled its head back and looked in Subaru’s eyes, before lifting its head and patting her head again, to which the man narrowed his eyes a bit and sternly called: “Hey now.”

“I don't mind.” Subaru laughed, reaching up and petting the land dragon’s beak as it rubbed her head.

“Perhaps Subaru-san has a talent for dealing with animals.” the man suggested.

“Ah, I wouldn’t say that.” Subaru smiled. “Last time—” she bit off the next sentence with realization. “Did you call me ‘Subaru-san’?”

“Hm? Oh, of course, my apologies.” the man bowed his head once more. “Wilhelm Trias, at the young lady’s service. She wouldn’t remember, but we have made brief acquaintances while she was unconscious due to her injury in the capital.”

“Really?” Subaru said pondering. She didn’t recall anyone telling her about the old man. “How so?”

“I do not wish to take any credit for the young lady’s recovery, if that’s what Subaru-san had thought.” Wilhelm declared. “I was simply the one driving the carriage when she was transported to this mansion, after Ferris-sama took care of her injury.” he explained, then raising a hand to his chin and looking up at the land dragon ponderously. “If memory serves, I believe it might have been her that drew that carriage as well. Perhaps she remembered the young lady and was happy to see her well.”

Subaru looked up at the land dragon who looked back down on her with her intelligent eyes, making another of those strange little dragon noises.

“Well, it’s nice to see you too.” Subaru said, smiling at the land dragon, before realizing herself and turning back to the old man and bowing slightly. “And of course, I’m grateful for the help!” she added, as was probably proper.

“The young lady embarrasses this old man.” Wilhelm said with a kind smile. “I had done nothing but my duty.”

“Still, thank you.” Subaru said, smiling back after straightening herself out.

There was a time when she wished to curse the name of every person that contributed to her presence at the mansion, however those were dark days, and they were gone now. As things stood, she was happy being able to be here, and if even a small part, this man contributed to that happiness.

“Wait, actually.” Subaru said, snapping her fingers. “If you drew that carriage too, then you must know that knight, Reinhard, right?”

Inexplicably, the old man stiffened, and his smile soured.

“I do not serve that man, no, if that is what the young lady is asking.” Wilhelm said in a measured, polite tone. The only thing that betrayed his displeasure was how quickly his smile disappeared a moment ago. “Given the history, perhaps I may note that I’m here on behalf of Ferris-sama.”

“Oh, I just thought they must be close, since both of them signed a letter left for me.” Subaru explained.

“That man and Ferris-sama are both members of the Royal Guard.” Wilhelm answered simply.

“Ah, I see.” Subaru nodded.

She wanted to ask about the Royal Guard, since she felt it probably is something a bit more specific than just the army, as if someone told her that two people knew each other because they both happened to be in the JSDF, that would have seemed like a big coincidence without further details. Still, looking at Wilhelm’s piercing gaze, she opted against it.

“If I may be so bold, is the young lady well?” Wilhelm spoke, changing the subject.

“About as well as I could be, I guess?” Subaru answered with uncertainty.

“Excuse my forwardness, it is simply that I do not recall having seen those scars on the young lady’s hands before.” Wilhelm noted.

“Oh, these.” Subaru held up her right hand. Indeed, the bite scars there, especially the one she made by pulling the pup off her hand were pretty noticeable if one looked directly at it. “You’re pretty attentive, Wilhelm-san.” she complimented.

“It is but experienced eyes.” the old man nodded with a slight smile. “I’ve also noted that the young lady is rather careful with her right arm’s movements, though I wasn’t certain if that is due to injury or because of the instrument on her back.”

“Wow.” Subaru nodded, patting her right shoulder which got dislocated during the scuffle with the mabeasts. “I take it back, you’re something beyond attentive.” she said with a smile. “I bet I could take Wilhelm-san into any shop, and you could tell me exactly what is fake and what is genuine. Can you see my HP bar ?”

“I’m afraid I am not informed on that term.” Wilhelm answered.

“Nevermind.” Subaru waved. “But yeah, I got into a bit of trouble a few days after getting here.”

“If the young lady doesn’t mind, that seems like a modest way of putting it.” Wilhelm noted.

“Nah.” Subaru blushed. “I mostly just stumbled into it. Everyone else—” she stopped suddenly. “Actually, do you know what happened? The way you called it modest—?”

“Forgive me, I had only inferred from the young lady’s body language and the way that young maid spoke of her when we first arrived.” Wilhelm nodded with a smile. “When Ferris-sama asked of Subaru-san’s health, the young maid was quite jubilant.”

“Ever thought about getting a hat, a pipe and starting a detective agency?” Subaru teased, to which the old man just smiled in place of a response. “Actually, could you help me ‘infer’ something?”

“It depends on the question.” Wilhelm answered noncommittally.

“Weeeell, you know what they say about the good servants overhearing everything…”

“I’m quite certain I do not know what ‘they’ in fact appear to say.” Wilhelm answered, closing one eye and examining Subaru carefully with the other.

“Aw, come on, couldn’t you tell me what’s so special about this meeting?”

Wilhelm continued looking Subaru up and down before closing the second eye as well and sighing.

“I’m afraid it is not my place to reveal such things, were I even to know them.” Wilhelm declared with finality.

“Why? I already know it has something to do with the royal selection, and that apparently this Ferris-sama is involved!”

“Then it should be a simple matter to find comfort in that knowledge.” Wilhelm declared, before raising a hand, the other behind his back. “The young maid had also revealed that Subaru-san had taken on duties at this manor, so as her senior, perhaps she’ll accept a small piece of advice, that is certain to save her great trouble in the future if followed.”

“Uh, sure. What is it?” Subaru asked.

“When the person they serve is one they honour and hold in high regard, avoid questioning the way in which they choose to conduct themselves and their business.” he answered. “Emilia-sama seemed quite adamant that they wished to keep the meeting private. If the young lady hopes to become a good servant, the first step would be to accept her desires.”

“Alright, I get it.” Subaru sighed, unconvinced. “I was really hoping you might have more fun about this than Emilia-chan.”

The old man furrowed his brows slightly and looked at Subaru.

“Also, I’d be remiss not to note the casual way in which the young lady refers to Emilia-sama.” he noted, not exactly sternly, however there was definitely some disapproval in there.

“You mean ‘-chan’? She doesn’t seem to mind.”

“Perhaps, however, Subaru-san should be careful developing such friendly relations with her.” as Wilhelm spoke these words, Subaru’s brows twitched.

“And why is that?” Subaru spoke coldly, the villagers’ never spoken words echoing in her ear, calling Emilia a dangerous monster.

“Emilia-sama is a candidate. It’s unlikely that such an attachment could survive her path to the throne, especially should she become queen.”

“Oh.” Subaru noted, the dark clouds thinning in her mind. “I thought—”

Subaru closed her eyes and looked down. She needed to stop assuming the worst of people.

“I know what you mean.” Subaru spoke, looking up with a smile. “And I appreciate the concern, but I hope she’ll always keep her favourite court bard by her side, as well as Felt-chama.” she added.

Really, even though Felt planned to resign from her candidacy, Subaru hoped she’d stay at the mansion. In her heart she still wanted to be by Felt’s side, always, however, to give up on her friends at the mansion, and her unspoken promise to help Emilia make friends— At the very least, she couldn’t leave here until she made sure she won’t be leaving Emilia alone. In truth, it was part of why she got so pushy about Emilia making friends with the villagers, and why she wanted to make sure to introduce Emilia to Petra.

Subaru had no idea what she would do once or if Felt decided to leave.

“But to be honest, I don’t think I can be her friend forever either.” Subaru said, quieter. “I’d like to be, but I wish I could make her open up to others, just in case, even if she gets a little mad because I keep telling her that.”

Wilhelm continued to examine her for a short while before responding. “Why would the young lady go to such lengths for someone of such different standing they have known for such a short time?” he asked.

Subaru looked down and fiddled with her hands. “She’s so incredibly kind and gentle.” she said. “Even if I end up being only trouble, I want to make sure she can be happy, and not just if she pursues some stupid title she doesn’t seem to even want for the sake of having it. Is that strange to want for someone wonderful?”

The old man’s eyes widened for a moment, then he looked down with a strange, small smile, somehow more genuine than any he had until now, before returning his gaze to Subaru, his features once again measured and simple.

“Indeed.” he said. “Perhaps I was mistaken in thinking I needed to lecture the young lady, though I hope she takes my advice regardless.”

“Old man Wiiiil!” a confident androgynous voice called out from the manor’s main entrance.

Turning there, Subaru saw Rem holding a briefcase in one hand and walking beside a short, brown haired man in a fancy black suit with bright vertical stripes turning down, and a long necktie, bizarrely looking like he somehow stepped out of an american gangster movie. Well, almost. Subaru was rather certain that no american gangster movie had a star with large fluffy cat ears on their head, or a sleek tail  dancing behind them.

“Making friends on duty?!” the man said sternly, walking forward than laughing up. There was a strange accent to his voice.

“Ferris-sama, I was merely making conversation with a young lady of similar standing.” Wilhelm answered, turning wholly to his superior, and putting a hand before his chest.

“Felix! Felix!” the man said annoyedly, shaking his head. “And what a lovely young thing it is you decided to chat with.” he noted as he and Rem got to the dragon carriage, turning to Subaru. “You probably don’t recognize me, but it’s enychanting to make your re-acquaintance.” Felix said, stepping to Subaru and performing a courtly bow, holding out a hand expectantly. “May I properly greet Subaru-nyan’s left hand?”

At ‘Subaru-nyan’ she could finally piece together that the catman was slurring most of her m and n sounds to differing degrees into slight meows.

More important than that, Subaru’s face was burning. It wasn’t often that a handsome man would bow down before her and ask for her hand in this strange, courtly manner. Was she supposed to say yes? Was she supposed to say no, since she’s technically a commoner and he’s some sort of knight, so probably a noble? And there was just something about the confident way he carried himself in, like he owned the manor that drove something up Subaru’s back.

Lost in the uncertainty of expectations, finally Subaru muttered ‘Sure.’ and held out her left hand, which Felix took in hand, lifted up slightly with a careful look, examining it, then shot a mischievous smile up at Subaru before bowing deeper and kissing the back of the hand.

Subaru suspected this was what giving her hand meant, but it still made her face turn hotter. When Felix then didn’t stop, but suddenly began kissing her entire arm, making his way up to her shoulder along the arm of her suit jacket, Subaru could hear her own heartbeat.

“W-what was that?!” Subaru muttered, pulling her arm free and stepping back before the catman could reach her neck. She held her hand to her chest guardingly and turned sideways. In a moment, she felt Rem step to her and grab her arms, standing so she’s partially between Subaru and Felix.

“Think nyothing of it!” Felix winked. “I just did a quick examination, to see if the mana flow remained unobstructed since I put the arm back.” he added, holding his hands up by his shoulders. “There was a little imbalance, but nothing too bad.”

“Ye-yeah, well—” Subaru stuttered looking for the words. “There will be an imbalance if— if you do that again!” she said, sounding more embarrassed than threatening.

“Haha!” Felix laughed. “Very energetic, I like you.” he said, with a sort of half wink oozing the sort of testosterone filled confidence that no man gave her before, on account of Subaru having been taller than most boys she knew. As a matter of fact, she was probably taller than this guy too, though only by a centimeter or two.

“Is Subaru-kun alright?” Rem asked concerned, looking up at Subaru whose face was still burning.

“Y-yeah! Of course!” Subaru said, realizing she was probably looking very uncool getting flustered by something like this, straightening herself out. “Just caught me a bit off guard.”

“Are you ready to go old man?” Felix asked, turning to Wilhelm who sat through that engagement with quiet patience and close eyes.

“Naturally, Ferris-sama.”

“Felix!” the man huffed. “Well, it’s been lovely seeing you.” he added, turning to Subaru. “However, with my businyess done, we have to hurry back to Crusch-sama. Wil?”

“This way, Ferris-sama.” Wilhelm bowed, opening the door of the carriage and gesturing politely with one hand.

“Subaru-kun.” Rem spoke, looking up at Subaru, dusting off her suit. “Rem wished to say goodbye properly, however she has to go as to not delay Ferris-sama.”

“Wait, what?” Subaru asked, snapping out of her stupor. “What are you talking about Rem?”

“For the sake of transporting Rom-san, Roswaal-sama will require a bigger carriage than the ones she has access to, and it’s unlikely Rem could acquire one on short notice in Costuul, so Crusch-sama, Ferris-sama’s patroness will lend one for us. Rem will return with it in a few days after arranging loding in the capital for Felt-sama and Emilia-sama.”

“Wait, you’re going with that jerk?!” Subaru asked, grabbing the shoulders of the short maid before her to which Rem blushed.

“Rem is happy that Subaru-kun is concerned, but there is no need.” Rem said quietly with a smile, looking down. “This is simply what must be.”

“But—” Subaru bit down on the words then sighed. It’s not like anyone would dare do something to one the foremost wizard’s beloved servants, right? “Hey!” she called, walking to the carriage with Rem, and looking up at Felix through the window of the highly elevated seating area. “Remember that if you even think about touching Rem, she can punch you straight through the floor of this rickety thing!”

The carriage was in fact extremely expensive and fancy looking, but Subaru wasn’t in the mood to pay proper respects right now.

Felix smiled down through the window then laughed, while Subaru felt Rem’s hand grasp her arm.

“I hope to see Subaru-kun well and very soon!” Rem said with a smile, holding the briefcase in her hands close to her chest as she stepped to the carriage's entrance.

“You’ll be safe, right?” Subaru asked.

“Of course.” Rem nodded.

“Alright.” Subaru sighed, giving a quick glare to the touchy knight, before returning her eyes to Rem. “I’ll try and make sure we don’t burn down the mansion while you’re away, but with Ram and my cooking, I can’t promise anything.”

Rem’s smile grew bigger and she just bowed her head before climbing up the short steps into the carriage.

Wilhelm giving a court farewell climbed up to his seat at the front of the carriage and grabbed the reins of the land dragon and had her slowly draw the carriage down the incline.

While Subaru looked after the carriage making its way slowly down from the terrace, she crossed her fingers that the standards of nobility in this world aren't the kind of weirdos and pests that the guy exemplified, for Rem’s sake if nothing else.

“What is Barusu standing around for?” she heard suddenly, breaking her line of thoughts. “Had she forgotten she isn’t off lunch duty today? Get to the kitchen.” Ram ordered, walking past Subaru with the large gate key in her hand.

“Right. Right.” Subaru nodded. “I’ll get right on that.”

With a heavy sigh, still not sure what to feel about the encounter a moment ago, Subaru turned around and headed inside.

Chapter Text

The blue haired oni sat a little tense in the carriage. Being a luxurious carriage, it could hardly be called cramped, but of course, like any carriage, it still kept its passengers intimately close, regardless of the fact that the only other person inside the carriage sat in the opposite corner, their elbow in the window, chin on their hand. Naturally, it wasn’t Rem’s place to judge Roswaal-sama’s associates, and for that reason she tried to silence her harshest thoughts towards the pampered cat opposite her, though just a little. Her sense of duty as a maid began and ended with her sister. If there wasn’t the slightest chance that it may cause trouble to her beloved Nee-sama down the line, she’d give a stern talking to to the self absorbed person who treated her Subaru so rudely.

The aged gentleman at the front guiding the land dragon spoke down into the passenger compartment pulled aside the small window separating the interior of the carriage with the exterior where he was seated.

“If I may, has Ferris-sama seen to all matters as envoy?” the gentleman asked.

“What do you think of me old man Wil?” groaned Ferris, turning to the little window. “Do you seriously believe I’d mess up a single detail when tasked by Crusch-sama?” Ferris sighed, then perked their head up and looked at Rem with a sly smile. “By the by, don’t think poorly of the mysterious way in which the old myan speaks, darling. He isn’t like that because he’s trying to conceal something, he’s just stuck up like that.”

Rem clutched her briefcase close to her chest. “Wilhelm-sama behaves like an exceptional gentleman, Rem wouldn’t think lowly of him even if he had such motives.” she stated, allowing herself a slight emphasis.

“Ooh, I should be the one with claws!” Ferris laughed, stretching their arms above their head. “Say, what’s with that briefcase?” the cat added finally when done stretching, pointing at Rem.

“Rem was tasked with making arrangements for loding for Roswaal-sama’s estate. The required payments and such reside in this briefcase.” Rem stated articulately, as one reciting a practiced speech would, devoid of any sense of intimacy towards the rude knight.

“Seems like a big briefcase to serve as a purse.” Ferris noted with a grin, leaning forward, reaching out with an index finger slowly towards the case, making Rem fold her arms around it and pull it even closer.

“Ferris-sama, perhaps it would be best not to intrude on our guest’s privacy?” Wilhelm’s voice echoed down from the cabby's seat.

“I’m just making conversation with the young thing!” Felt protested, but leant back in their chair and crossed both legs and arms. “It’s nyot like there’s a lot to do until we get back to the capital.”

There was indeed more in the briefcase than just payment for the lodgings to be paid in advance. Rem had also taken some extra currency, though that too would have more appropriately fit in a purse. The purpose of the briefcase she retrieved from the attic was rather to hold something that in spite of her better judgement, she considered far more important than anything of Roswaal-sama’s concern. She wasn’t entirely certain its purpose would be fulfilled either in taking it with herself, however, she had to try and see.

“You know, if you can’t stand talking to people, at least you could let them talk to each other.” Ferris sighed, looking nowhere in particular.

“If I were to assume that the comment was aimed at myself, I must say Ferris-sama, there is a grave misunderstanding.” Wilhelm noted.

“Hooh? When’s the last time—” Ferris began annoyedly, before stopping and a grin appearing on their face. “Actually, you did seem pretty chatty with Subaru-nyan.”

“The young lady and I had a brief conversation, yes.” Wilhelm stated measuredly.

“And since when does the Sword Devil enjoy conversing with random servants?” Felt asked, looking to the small window, though Wilhelm wasn’t visible through it.

“It simply felt appropriate to give courtesy to a fine young lady that risked her life for the sake of another without any bindings of duty.” Wilhelm said simply.

Rem turned her eyes down at the precious briefcase in her arms and sighed with content.

“Subaru-kun is truly wonderful.” she heard herself speak aloud without realizing.

“Oh?” Ferris voiced with interest, turning to Rem. “Have they already made such an impact in these few weeks?”

Rem looked at the cat distrustfully. It was truly none of their business, though perhaps, if there is a hint of righteousness in them, they could see how wrong it was to behave towards Subaru like that, if they knew who she was.

“Subaru-kun’s incredibly kind, and has an uncommon concern for everyone around her.” Rem declared. “She isn’t to be treated lightly. She had even saved Rem!”

The cat’s eyes narrowed and they leant forward a bit once more, squinting at Rem examining before their eyes went wide.

“You’re serious! Saved you?!” Ferris exclaimed with a strange smirk, turning to the window. “Did I miss something old man Wil? Is she actually incredibly strong?”

Wilhelm didn’t answer right away, Rem had no doubt that being a gentleman, he was measuring his words given the present company.

“I wouldn’t say as such.” Wilhelm stated. “She appears in prowess to be an entirely ordinary person, no different than any one may walk past in the streets of the capital.” the gentleman spoke. “Although—”

Rem could see Ferris’ ears flutter at that last word, as Wilhelm stopped.

“Come on nyow old man! Although what?” Ferris asked, their tail flapping left and right behind them excitedly.

“There was a curious quality in her eyes.” the gentleman said, as the cat’s voice resonated with curiosity. “I’ve seen a great many people, some who had never experienced death, some who came close to it, it can be seen in their eyes.” Wilhelm explained. “In her eyes however, I didn’t see someone who brushed against death, having pulled back from the edge.” His voice grew slightly tenser. “Her eyes were as though she had gone beyond that edge and came back, and not just once. I’ve never seen such a person.”

Rem hugged her briefcase and hung her head, an ever present ache she had acquired some time ago cutting at her heart with renewed energy at the words.

“That doesn’t make any sense.” Ferris sighed, slumping back in their seat. “You know, this is why it’s hard for people to talk to you, old man. Even when you say something, only a bunch of nonsense comes out.”

A short silence fell on the carriage, broken only by the sound of the land dragon clawing its feet against the ground and the wheels bumping against the small imperfection of the road.

‘Just get back to the village safely.’ echoed Subaru’s words in the maid’s mind and heart alike, filled with infinite kindness. She wished more than anything to have been able to see Subaru’s eyes at that moment, though of course, the girl wouldn’t let her. What could Rem have seen then?

“If it isn’t all nonsense though,” Ferris spoke up. “Then I can’t imagine that girl will have an easy life, or a long one.” they said, without much compassion, glaring up to the small window. “Catching the attention of the Sword Devil Wilhelm van Astrea, is perhaps as bad as catching that of the Witch.”

Chapter Text

“Nooooow that the meal is over, I’d liiike to discuss preparations for our depaaarture.” Roswaal announced at the end of lunch, after wiping her lips.

She looked around expectantly, as if waiting for people to speak up. Ram, Subaru and even Felt stood in attendance as servants, while Emilia and Roswaal dined, Beatrice playing with Puck as usual, barely paying attention if at all. Rom had decided some time ago that fancy dining rooms like this weren’t for him, so generally he’d just enjoy the air outside and then eat with Felt afterward, though today he stood awkwardly at the end of the table opposite Roswaal. Stood, as he insisted he didn’t want to break the delicate dining chairs, even though he was assured they are sturdier than that, and even after the local carpenter in Irlam was commissioned to make a chair just for him.

“I do not require much.” Emilia stated, finally breaking the silence. “I’ll assemble what is necessary this afternoon.”

“Wooonderful.” Roswaal nodded, turning her head to Ram. “I trust yooouuur preparations will be handled well?”

“Naturally, Roswaal-sama.” Ram answered dutifully.

“I belieeeeeve we already discussed what needs to be done with Felt earlier.” Roswaal noted, glancing at the young girl who just huffed for some reason, before Roswaal turned her eyes to the end of the table and Rom’s figure. “Is there perhaps soooooomething that Rom-san requiiiiieres?”

The giant’s features stiffened at being addressed like this. He was generally comfortable at the mansion, especially when talking to Ram who he treated almost as if they were old friends. In actuality as Subaru learned, Rom and Ram only knew each other in passing, however Ram was at one point the most trusted disciple or successor, or something like that to a friend of Rom’s called Setanta. This was apparently enough to earn the giant’s respect, and explained at least partially his unwillingness to get in a fight with the twins, even for Felt’s sake. That being said, he rarely interacted with Roswaal, even though Roswaal had opened herself up more to the residents of the mansion after the mabeast incident. Subaru never pushed the topic, but between the villagers’ initial opinion of Rom, and his mention of ‘the war’ which seemed to be between his people and Lugnica from what Subaru could piece together, it wasn’t hard to imagine why Rom would be uncomfortable conversing with one of the foremost nobles of Lugnica.

“I don’t need anything.” the giant said simply after a bit of hesitation.

The lady of the manor hummed and nodded before continuing.

“With the library’s guuuaaardian confined to the manor for her duties, I suppose that means everyone knows what to dooooo~.” Roswaal stated, clapping her hands.

Subaru blinked, and she felt an elongated ‘uuuuuh’ escape her lips, to which she felt Roswaal and Emilia’s gaze turn to her.

“So, I’m going, right?” Subaru asked finally, furrowing her brows. “I can’t help but notice I got skipped.”

Roswaal responded only with a melodic, high-pitched hum of curiosity before looking at Emilia with a crooked smile.

“What is it?” Subaru asked, more concerned. “You don’t mean to tell me that everyone’s going except me, right? I want to go back to the royal selection too!”

“Subaru, it’s not that—” Emilia began softly then went quiet and put on a more serious expression. “This trip to the capital is a very important, formal affair. I want you to understand that.”

Subaru furrowed her brows. “Okay, so probably a bunch of greasy relics in fine clothes are going to attend. It’s just a bunch of wind bags coming together to listen to Felt’s announcement, right?”

Emilia sighed. “Roswaal might not mind you speaking of the nobility of the kingdom like that, but it’s highly inappropriate, Subaru. If you talked like that…” Emilia trailed off without finishing that thought.

Feeling the muscles strain in her face, Subaru’s mood plummeted further down from the uncomfortable encounter an hour ago, and having to say goodbye to Rem for the next few days.

“Are you— Are you embarrassed of me?” Subaru asked without much consideration, a cold breath escaping her lips afterwards.

“Don’t be like that, Subaru.” Emilia pouted. “I don’t understand why you’d even want to visit the royal selection.”

Subaru’s mouth twitched a bit. The girl didn’t deny being embarrassed.

“Why wouldn’t I want to?” Subaru asked tensely. “Why should I want to just sit here, waiting for days while everything is going on halfway across the country?!” Her voice grew tenser. “You can’t really want to go to that  whole stuck up affair by yourself!”

“What I want or don’t want plays very little role in this, Subaru.” Emilia retorted with a stern expression, once more putting on that serious voice she reserved for special occasions that carried an otherwise uncharacteristically commanding tone. “As a candidate, I must be present, but I cannot just bring along anyone I feel like.”

Felt groaned near Subaru. “Will you just stop whatever this is?” she huffed, looking away from both of the others.

“No, I want to come with you!” Subaru exclaimed.

She didn’t want to say it out loud, but a big part of why she absolutely didn’t want to miss out on whatever was going to happen in the capital, was that she didn’t want to let Felt drift out of her life. When Felt renounced her candidacy, Subaru had no idea what would happen next, but she doubted the girl would return to the mansion to be a permanent resident. Sure, Subaru didn’t want to leave the mansion either, but not even have a chance to decide between going with Felt, or to try and convince her to stay with everyone—

“Not you.” Felt sighed annoyedly. “Her.” she added, pointing to Emilia. “Cut the act and get to the point.”

“Act?” Subaru repeated, raising her brows in surprise and looking at Emilia who pouted flustered but didn’t answer.

“What Feeeeelt-sama is hinting at, is that Subaruuu-chan has arrangements in the capital as well.” Roswaal announced with a grin speaking of a slightly sadistic delight she took in the back and forth.

“But not the royal selection!” Emilia declared. “Subaru’s— Her engagement is purely… medical.” she said, saying the last part more quietly.

“Huh?” Subaru looked around confused.

Felt sighed. “Emilia begged that weirdo that came here to see to your recovery because some weird nonsense about mana and gates and whatever.” she explained with annoyance.

Subaru stared at Felt for a moment, then at Emilia who still looked flustered and annoyed, while Roswaal sitting nearby just smiled sharply as she would.

“But I’m fine.” Subaru said.

“No, you’re not, Subaru.” Emilia pouted. “This is why I didn’t want to explain it.”

“No, really, I’m—” Subaru tried to protest, but Emilia cut her off.

“You always act like this! You nearly ruptured your gate fighting those dogs! It’s now been over a month and you still haven’t recovered, and yet you act like everything is fine!” Emilia said sternly, with the look of an angry child, not hiding too well the concern it’s trying to. “If the flow of mana in your body isn’t rejuvenated, it could have very serious consequences!”

Subaru stood like a statue, staring at Emilia, unsure what to feel. Sure, she was a bit quicker to tire since the incident, and the right arm she dislocated especially tended to give her trouble, however that really wasn’t all that bad. With the things Subaru lived through, it didn’t seem like a little fatigue is anything to get so worked up about.

“Sure, I’m a little tired sometimes, but that’s fine, right?” Subaru began, slowly, her mind working through the conversation backwards. “You didn’t need to beg that jerk on my behalf, I can—”

Suddenly, Emilia stood up, pushing her chair back, something everyone, even Beatrice perked up.

“No. That is exactly what I needed to do!” Emilia declared. “You’re constantly trying so hard to solve other people’s problems, that you’re not even paying attention to your own!” she added, the childish look of anger turning more serious. “You won’t make anyone happy by hurting yourself!”

With that final declaration, Emilia gave a quick bow to Roswaal and silently marched out of the dining room, an equally wordless Puck floating after her to the audible annoyance of Beatrice who shot Subaru a dark glare for causing her playmate to float off.

“Myyy~ how lively this mansion becaaaaame.” Roswaal sang with a light giggle in her voice.

Subaru felt a piercing pain in her side, Felt punching her in a soft spot casually though painfully regardless.

“Your stupidity is contagious.” Felt said, not looking up at the girl.

“Ow.” Subaru said in quiet protest, holding her side.

“If that was enough to hurt you, that probably means you do need some help.” Felt huffed, looking further away.

“I suppoooose that ends lunch.” Roswaal spoke up once more, turning towards Subaru and Felt in her seat. “That leaves only one matter to deeeeaaal with today. Perhaps Subaruuuuu-chan could be of aid?” she suggested, looking at Felt who gave a long sigh once more, slouching forward.

“Damn it.” Felt said, to Subaru’s confusion.

 

                                           

 

“Reeem had truly outdone herself.” Roswaal declared as she, Felt, Rom and Subaru entered into the walk-in wardrobe of the mansion’s servant quarters.

On a table usually used for ironing clothes, there was an arrangement of about a dozen outfits finely folded up on a table usually reserved for organization, as well as a couple of dresses hung near it. Subaru recognized some of them from passing as clothes left unused since before she even arrived at the mansion.

All of them appeared to have been tailored down to Felt’s size by Rem, sometime before her departure this morning.

“I’m not doing this.” Felt declared after having taken a single look at the arrangement of clothes.

Roswaal just hummed standing behind the young candidate, while Subaru walked to the clothes to examine them.

The event in the capital that was coming up involved all four of the previously known candidates assembling together for the announcement of Felt’s candidacy, so that the royal selection can officially begin. Even though she knew about the royal selection for as long as she’s been here, Subaru didn’t know much about it, beyond that it involves picking the kingdom’s next monarch. This particular meeting supposedly involved the Royal Guard and a selection of nobles, including the council currently ruling the nation, so it was a pretty fancy affair. Rem had refit these according to Felt’s measurements so the girl would have something more appropriate to wear than her butler costume.

“Rem probably worked a lot with this.” Subaru noted quietly, feeling the fine fabric of one of the dresses hanging near the table.

The blue haired maid always worked so fast and so quietly, resolving problems before anyone even knew there was going to be one. She even fixed up two dresses for Subaru a while back for a fun day off they shared, one which was the same as the one she tailored to Subaru in one of the earliest loops, and another more elegant, black one which’s skirt split down the middle. It didn’t sit well with Subaru to let the girl’s diligence go to waste. She herself had already made quite a lot of effort go to waste in her life.

Closing her eyes, wrinkling her brows and pinching her nose, Subaru decided to shake off the negative funk she had allowed herself to fall under in the past hour or so. Even if Rem was away, even if she made Emilia upset, and even if apparently the only way to make Emilia happy involves putting up with that grabby dude at least until she can file this world’s equivalent of sexual harassment charges, right now, she needed to be positive.

“Come now!” Subaru exclaimed, grabbing the nearest hung dress and holding it out to Felt. “Don’t you want to see what you’d look like wearing this, just a little bit?” she asked, putting on a big smile.

“No way.” Felt said, reiterating and crossing her arms. “I’m already putting up with this stupid uniform, I’m not dressing in that!”

Felt was indeed of course still wearing her dark butler uniform with the brown vest, matching perfectly with Subaru’s own, though of course Subaru was considerably taller. No matter the loop, Felt refused to wear the maid uniforms, she seemed to have a distinct hatred for anything feminine, which while Subaru could relate to easily, never having been one for skirts, did seem like a crying shame. The pretty aqua blue dress Subaru was holding while certainly a bit much would have gone well with the girl’s vibrant, blonde hair.

“How about this other one?” Subaru suggested, hanging it back up, and grabbing a bright red dress. “This one would match your eyes.”

Shooting Subaru a glare, Felt didn’t need to say anything, though that didn’t stop her. “Look at that stupid thing! It would leave my entire shoulder open!”

Subaru held up the dress, and indeed it was of a style that would end at around the armpit. She wasn’t sure what the issue with that would be though.

“And?” Subaru asked honestly.

“One of the main reasons I got so good at stealing, was so I wouldn’t need to sell my body!” the girl exclaimed, coming in with a complete curveball, catching Subaru completely off guard. “So no, I’m not wearing something some courtesan would!”

“Hmmmm, I belieeeeeve that belonged to my dear mooother’s~.” Roswaal commented with a sharp smile. There was no malice in her voice or expression, but ever since she saw the lady of the manor casually wipe away a clearing worth of mabeasts before allegedly going on an extermination spree through the forest with the same carefree style of expression, Subaru was a bit wary of her.

“And I for one, think Rozchi’s mom had wonderful taste! Lovely shade of red!” Subaru exclaimed with a big grin, nodding theatrically at the dress in her hands. “Little help, Rom?”

The giant didn’t really participate thus far, just stood nearby, examining the clothes on the table, looking, and probably feeling rather out of place here between the three women.

“For once, I’d actually like to see Felt wear one of these dresses.” the giant noted absentmindedly, holding his chin between a thumb and an index finger as his eyes ran up and down the table of clothes.

What?! ” Felt exclaimed with indignation. “What is wrong with you old man?! First they postpone the meeting a few weeks because of some stupid witch cultists sightings, and now they want me to dress up like some spoiled princess and you’re fine with it?”

The old man’s mouth hung open for a moment and he seemed to come to his senses from somewhere far away in his head.

“Oh, I was just…” a strange smile crept on his face. “I was just imagining—”

The giant’s eyes wandered to Roswaal whose smile grew wider and gave out a long melodic “Hooooooooh~?”

Rom’s expression soured for a moment but then he smiled down on Felt and continued: “Well, it would be nice to see you wear something a bit more fitting for a girl your age.”

“Get your head out of the gutter old man! What kind of girls my age wear this crap? Good for nothing half-wits whose only direction in life is to eat sweets and marry a knight.” Felt huffed.

“Still, just the once maybe?” the old man said with a big stupid grin on his face, reaching out and grabbing a yellow dress hung nearby. “This matches your hair almost perfectly!”

“You’ve really gone senile!” Felt protested, backing away from the smiling giant.

“I’m more a fan of the blue one.” Subaru noted, trying to stay a part of the conversation.

“No. I’ll just go in this uniform. It’s not like I’m going to keep whatever I wear there!” Felt declared, grabbing her suit jacket and continuing to back away.

“IIIIII should note that the agreeeeement I made with Reinhard-kun does not requuiiiire me to dress the young Felt-sama.” Roswaal began, holding her hands apart theatrically.

“Well then you don’t need to worry do you?! Just leave me be!” Felt said conclusively.

“Howeeeeever, Felt-sama should keep in miiind that if we don’t present her with approoooopriate items of clothing, then without a doubt Reeeeeiiinhard-kun is going to see to dressing her himseeeelf upon taking charge of her.” Roswaal continued, turning her head down at the girl with her smile growing crueler.

“He can try!”

“I woooouuuld be quite surprised if the young lady could escaaaape the Sword Saint’s grasp. Hadn’t worked soooo well last time, had it?” Roswaal asked with a grin.

Felt didn’t respond, just stopped backing away and clicked her tongue discontentedly.

“Actually,” Subaru spoke up, stepping closer to the table with the outfits. “It seems Rem actually fixed up some less princess-like clothes too.” she said, grabbing a light purple jacket placed on top of fine, folded white pants.

This outfit did not seem altogether too different from what Roswaal was wearing in fact. While the white pants broke with Roswaal’s all-purple getup, the jacket looked almost identical in design to the one Roswaal wore with the one distinct difference being that it didn’t open up like a corset to make away for an overly generous bust, but rather closed up nicely, going up all the way to the neck. Based on the slightest hints of the stitching, this was Rem’s doing, as there were the faintest hints of the jacket originally having a different, less modest cut.

“Eeeeexcellent taste. That is in faaaaaact something my grandmother used to weeeeaaar.” Roswaal stated. “She was a rather accoooooomplished woman.” she added, turning her gaze to the giant besides them with whom they exchanged an uncomfortable glare.

“What do you think?” Subaru asked, holding up the jacket towards Felt.

The girl looked at the jacket unamused over her crossed arms and just sighed. Before she could say anything, Rom spoke up.

“Actually, uh, wouldn’t it be strange if a candidate not sponsored by the Mathers household would arrive wearing the clothes of Roswaal J. Mathers?” Rom said with an odd level of discomfort.

“K.” Subaru corrected.

“J. was my grandmother’s initial.” Roswaal declared without the usual clowish accent, not taking her eyes off the giant. In a moment, she’d continue on as usual. “Howeeeever, it is true that it might send the wrooooong message.” she sighed with a carefree shrug. “IIIII’m certain Reinhard-kun would find the yeeeeellow dress delightful. It’s something of a faaaamily colour.”

Felt furrowed her brows and stared down. At her feet.

The girl didn’t change a lot over the past weeks, she still had next to no respect for the household or nobility at large, but Subaru hoped she wasn’t mistaken in sensing that Felt had warmed a little bit up to the people around her. Even after realizing there’s no point in sucking up to the twins in an effort to stage an escape, she never went back to trying to make them miserable, like when she tore up the first batch of dresses during her first morning at the mansion. Subaru was confident she wouldn’t do such a thing again. While Felt never opened back up to Subaru with the same kind of enthusiasm as she recalled from her first loop, and her Number One Groupie as such still remained out of reach, since the mabeast incident, Felt seemed to think less lowly of her. Subaru didn’t think this had anything to do with approving heroism, if Subaru throwing herself at magic dogs can even be called that, it seemed more like she got rid of the notion that Subaru’s obsessed with her, and her only.

With the kind of life she led in the capital, Felt didn’t have much of a chance to live with an open heart. If people showed interest in her, it was usually because they wanted something, and it generally wasn’t anything good. People looking for revenge because she stole from them, creeps with agendas not worth the breath to describe them, others like Granhiert looking to exploit her talents and toss her aside once she outlived her usefulness. It really was Rom’s position and good nature alone that kept her at all afloat in the seedy underbelly of the kingdom where she was doomed to live out her life.

As much as it hurt seeing her close herself off like that, Subaru couldn’t blame her. That’s why it made her so happy, every time Felt opened up a little or went along with some stupid fun for fun’s sake, and she could see a glimps of the girl that smiled at her music honestly.

“Hey, Felt!” Subaru spoke up, putting on a somewhat forced grin. “I’ll make you a deal!”

She put the jacket back down on the white pants and held her arms wide, gesturing at the entire walk-in wardrobe with a little turn as the girl looked up at her.

“For every one of these outfits you’re willing to try on, I’ll put on two outfits out of anything here that you can pick, no matter how stupid.”

Felt looked into Subaru’s eyes with a disapproving frown, though her expression softer than it was before.

“I really don’t want to—” Felt began, but Subaru suddenly took a large step towards her that brought them on eye level with each other, striking an extravagant pose to point at her.

“And, as a bonus!” she added, twisting her arm dramatically to point at Rom. “The old man will have to wear a skirt to see you in the outfit!”

While the giant raised his head, about to protest, Felt huffed a rare little half laugh and lowered her arms.

“Fine. Deal.” the girl said.

“Yes!” Subaru exclaimed, pumping her fist and jumping up in place to straighten herself out, as she began unbuttoning her jacket, Roswaal allowing herself a jubilant laugh resonating in Subaru’s heart at the sight of Felt’s smile. “Although, just to be clear.” Subaru continued, pulling off her jacket. “I’m not dressing in front of the old man, and if you pick lingerie, he’s staying out.”

Chapter Text

“Rem is very happy to see the manor is still in one piece.” the blue maid announced with a glowing smile.

The maid stood before a giant carriage pulled by an almost equally massive reptilian creature which Subaru was aware was a land dragon, however it looked completely different to the sleek and elegant black beauty that drew the carriage on which Rem departed days ago. If it wasn’t for all the ridiculously varied subspecies of dogs she knew of back on Earth, then she’d have been calling the taxonomists out on their clear incompetence in equating the two.

“Whoa, how do you even feed something like that?!” Subaru exclaimed.

She was overcome once again by that strange New World giddiness she felt when seeing the previous land dragon, taking in the fantastical beauty majesty of the beast before her. Sure, it wasn’t as pretty as the black one, but tied to the front of the carriage made it look like it used to be an area boss in a D&D campaign that the party Ranger rolled five successive Nat20s to domesticate to the DM’s great displeasure. Every pore of the thing — if indeed reptiles had those, she wasn’t sure — oozed the distilled essence of epic fantasy and high adventure.

“Is Subaru-kun really more happy to see this creature than Rem?” the oni pouted as Subaru headed straight for the land dragon’s head to try her luck giving it a pat.

“Don’t be silly Rem!” Subaru huffed with a smile to the girl, though not stopping until she was besides the big creature. “But look at this thing with its shiny blue scales! How could I resist?”

The land dragon wasn’t exactly taller than the black one, but comparing it with her mental image of that one, was like comparing two olympic champions, one a world-class bodybuilding weightlifter, the other a swimmer. While the packleader of the mabeasts was nothing to sneeze at when it transformed, this thing could probably have snapped it in two if it got a good grapple in.

Beholding the enthusiastic black haired girl reaching for its scales with suspicious eyes, the land dragon allowed a few pats with patience before snapping its beak, turning towards Subaru and blowing air at her with such volume that she was forced back, falling on her butt from the unexpected push. Luckily she managed to handle the landing without damaging the lyulyre strapped to her back upside down.

“Subaru-kun shouldn’t play around with strange animals like that.” Rem scolded, stepping to her and helping her back on her feet, then brushing the dust off her fine uniform clothes.

“Yeah, yeah.” Subaru sighed, adjusting her collar while Rem fiddled with the back of her clothes. “I guess I don’t have a thing for taming ani— Yowch!” Subaru’s words were interrupted when the sensation of her clothes being brushed off was closed off by a sharp smack on her bottom. “What was that for?!” she asked in indignation, rubbing the burning spot.

“If Subaru-kun will behave like an excited child, then she must be taught as one would an excited child.” Rem said simply with an innocent, elated smile.

“Subaru’s trying to cause trouble again?” called a pouting voice from the mansion's main entrance. There stood Emilia, her arms crossed.

“Why would you assume I did something wrong?!” Subaru protested with a frown, turning to the girl standing in the doorway.

“Rem isn’t one to punish Subaru unless she did something naughty.” Emilia said simply with a sigh. “It’s good to see you again.” she added, smiling at Rem.

“Rem is grateful for Emilia-sama’s words.” Rem said with a smile back, bowing her head to the candidate. “She hopes the carriage will be to Emilia-sama’s liking.

“It’s wonderful.” Emilia said.

Feeling a bit cut out of the conversation, Subaru let go of her aching behind and pointed to the oddly designed carriage.

“I get that we needed something spacious for the old man, but isn’t it going to be pretty windy?” she asked.

While certainly very fancy looking with a wide spacious body,  balancing on not four but six wheels, the two in the middle further apart than the other four, it didn’t give off the usual look of a carriage. First off, it didn’t have solid full walls, rather it had decorated pillars which were connected by low walls that when sitting would only really come up to one’s elbow The pillars were holding up a finely decorated octagonal roof, matching the lower half of the carriage etched with dragon symbols carved of wood and painted gold. Between the pillars and above the half walls, there were no windows, though on the inside of the roof, she could see what looked like rolled up curtains that could presumably be pulled down to cover the holes.

All in all, the carriage much more resembled a small gazebo on wheels, than it did a carriage. It was probably designed with sight-seeing in mind.

“Why would it be windy?” Emilia asked, seemingly clueless of the simple logistics of how being inside an open cage and the cage going at speed equals wind in one’s face.

“Come on Emilia-chan.” Subaru sighed. She had by now picked up on how sometimes Emilia could be a bit airheaded on certain things, but this was a bit much.

“Did Subaru-kun never ride in a dragon carriage before?” Rem suggested.

“No. Why?” Subaru answered. There was something in the oni maid’s voice and Emilia’s looks that made Subaru feel like she was missing something obvious.

“Carriages drawn by land dragons are protected from the wind by magic.” Rem explained in a brief fashion. “Rem is surprised Subaru-kun didn’t know that.”

“Huh? Really? That seems—” Subaru began, looking at the giant lizard, but was interrupted while trying to picture how that would work.

“Where’s the clown? Aren’t we leaving?!” Felt’s voice called out from the entrance near Emilia.

Dressed in her usual butler outfit, Felt marched straight out and to the carriage, looking around with annoyance, presumably looking for Roswaal who ordered everyone at lunch to get ready for departure. Subaru hadn’t seen the lady of the manor since Ram came to inform Subaru that Rem returned and that they’ll be leaving soon.

Turning to the entrance where Felt just marched out from, Emilia spoke up. “Thank you for your help.” she said sweetly, as a large figure appeared.

“Wouldn’t have felt right letting everyone else bother with these.” Rom the giant noted, stepping through the main gate, four large packs of luggage under his arms, two on each side.

He had insisted on helping carry everyone’s luggage as a small gesture for the hospitality shown to him and Felt, since they likely won’t cross paths again. Rem quickly organized with the giant, stepping up into the carriage by opening up the low wall-like door then took the packages one by one, and placed them in a compartment inside the roof.

Looking around, there were only four people Subaru couldn’t see. Ram was presumably helping Roswaal with the final preparations, while Puck was most certainly in his crystal. As for Beatrice—

‘Beako isn’t coming to say goodbye, is she?’ Subaru thought bitterly.

Over the past days while they waited for Rem’s return, Subaru abandoned her previous habit of spending some of her free time practicing the lyulyre and writing down song lyrics and sheet music from memory as best she could, and instead put all her time into trying to have fun with everyone at the mansion. Well, except Roswaal.

She still wasn’t certain if she could leave the mansion for good if Felt decided not to return after resigning her candidacy, but since there was a chance she won’t be coming back, Subaru wanted to make sure that the last memories she’ll share with those here will be happy ones. That most of all included Beatrice since she knew that no matter what, the spirit won’t be joining them in the capital, being restrained to the mansion due to her duties.

Most of this meant hanging out in the library and pestering the spirit about what her favourite books are and acting as Subaru presumed one would if they were in a book club, chatting with the girl-like creature about legends and other things she read about while learning hamoji. However, yesterday afternoon Beatrice turned more bitter than usual, somehow figuring Subaru’s agenda and calling her out on it fully, accusing her of planning to abandon her duties and only using her time with Betty to feel better about it.

They haven’t spoken since then, after the girl blew Subaru out the door.

“So sooooooorry for the delaaaaay~.” Roswaal called melodically as she stepped through the front gate, Ram following close behind her with an uncharacteristically happy smile on her face. “As I woooon’t return for some time, had to saaaaaay proper farewell.”

“About time.” Felt huffed. “Can we get going already?” she added, climbing up into the carriage.

“Oooouuur departure won’t hasten the election meeeeting, Felt-sama.” Roswaal responded with a small, mock laugh. “It seeeems everyone is here, and I see Reeeem and Rom-san have seeen to the luggage as well.” she noted, glancing around the assembled people. “Then, I believe it is tiiiime to depart.”

“I hope everyone has a safe and pleasant journey.” Ram said more polite than usual, bowing to the gathering.

“Thank you. I hope Beatrice won’t give you too much trouble.” Emilia responded with a smile before heading for the carriage herself.

“So you really won’t be coming, huh?” Subaru asked, not hiding her disappointment. It’s not that she had some especially great love for the sassy oni, but they were still one of the few precious friends she made since arriving in this world. The fact that she never got to say proper farewell to her painted this departure as a rather bitter farewell, should she not return.

“Unlike Barusu, the dutiful Ram can’t just abandon her responsibilities and enjoy a wellness vacation in the most crucial time of her mistress’ estates. Indeed, any good servant would sooner die of shame than abandon her post to enjoy expert pampering when they have work to do.”

“I don’t know about ‘enjoying’ it.” Subaru sighed, thinking back on the catty creep she met who’ll be responsible for her ‘wellness’ in the capital. “But yeah, I’ll miss you too Ram.” she added with a force, coy smile.

The pink haired oni just huffed, and averted her face.

Just then, out of the corner of her eye, Subaru spotted a flash of pink and yellow in an upstairs window. With the sun shining on the glass, she couldn’t make out anything, but she had a sneaking suspicion as to what it was, so with a little warmth growing in her heart, she held a thumbs up out towards that part of the manor with a grin. Something flickered behind the sun’s sheen, and Subaru lowered her hand, her grin retracting into a simpler smile. That’d have to do.

‘I’ll definitely miss this place.’ Subaru thought with a sigh, turning back to the carriage.

“Hold on.” she exclaimed looking up at the carriage where by now everyone took their seat, including Rom who's back blocked out the entire back half of the wooden gazebo. “Where am I going to sit?”

“Oh, that’s right.” Emilia noted, her hand before her mouth, sitting between Roswaal and Felt across from Rom. “Maybe if we squeeze together a bit?” she suggested, although the carriage, still being a carriage, in spite of its larger than usual frame, didn’t really boast enough room to comfortably fit four people on one side.

Without a word, Rem closed the door of the carriage then looked up at Subaru with a slightly dirty smile, as a predator does at a cornered animal.

“Perhaps Subaru-kun could ride in the driver’s box with Rem.” she suggested with a mischievous look.

Subaru caught Roswaal looking down on Rem with a disapproving frown for a few moments before returning to her usual sharp smile and holding out her hands in a shrug.

“It caaaaan’t be helped.” Roswaal sighed.

“Come along Subaru-kun.” Rem commanded, walking up to Subaru and grabbing her hand, leading her to the front of the carriage. “Subaru-kun can look at the land dragon’s ‘shiny blue scales’ better from up here!” she added, practically pushing Subaru up into the driver’s box.

“Fine, fine, just let me pull my lyulyre forward!” Subaru protested with a laugh, tickled by the urging hands on her way up the short ladder.

Taking a seat on the left side of the driver’s box, she positioned the lyulyre comfortably in her lap while Rem made her way around the land dragon and got up on the other side, snuggling in next to Subaru and grabbing the reins.

“You’re right, the scales are especially shiny from this angle.” Subaru said with a grin, patting the maid’s matching hair with a smile.

“Barusu should endeavour not to distract my sister while she drives.” Ram noted sternly, walking by the carriage with the front gate’s key.

“Nee-sama doesn’t need to worry.” Rem beamed, giving a gentle tug to the reins, to which the land dragon slowly began to pull the carriage along Ram, down the incline and towards the front gate.

At the front gate, the carriage stopped briefly, Ram giving her final farewell to the carriage’s passengers and also back, after which Rem flicked the reins and the land dragon began moving, pulling Subaru and the rest of the carriage away from the wonderful, woefully oversized manor, in Subaru’s case, possibly for the last time.

 

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It soon became clear that Rem and Emilia weren’t kidding about the magical protection of carriages drawn by land dragons. Once they left behind the winding roads in the thick of the woods, the land dragon sped up considerably, to the point where while Subaru didn’t have much experience to compare the two, she wouldn’t be have been surprised if it was drawing the carriage at speed comparable to an automobile on the highway from back home, a feat impressive both for the creature and the carriage’s construction.

Not only was Subaru spared the discomfort of a bumpy road by the flexible undercarriage assembly balancing the entire carriage on top of the wheels well enough that it was only slightly less comfortable than riding in a car, but the wind proved no issue at all. It didn’t even amount to a light breeze. It almost felt like she was on one of those special sound stages used for old movies in car scenes, where their carriage was actually sitting still, while it was the world around them that was being pulled away around them.

“How does the dragon do it?” Subaru asked, interrupting her strumming on the lyulyre, bewildered by the incredible speed in which the scenery whizzed past them, and the total lack of wind in her face. “How come we’re not being blown away by the wind?”

“Subaru-kun is so cute when she’s confused.” Rem said quietly, not offering much help.

“All land dragons are born with a divine protection against wind.” Emilia noted.

“Ah, so it’s sort of like a racial trait, like how dwarves can sense through stone and gnomes can talk to animals.” Subaru nodded ponderously.

“There’s an entire group of people who have Soul Language?” Emilia asked in surprise. “I thought near no one could—”

“Soul—?” Subaru interrupted. “No, sorry, I was thinking of something else.” Subaru corrected herself, looking back and down into the open carriage with an awkward smile.

Back home, she was teased for being a westaboo and taking perhaps a little too much interest in western culture, which initially only extended to her love of their music, until most of her social ties started to crumble away and she expanded her interests to keep herself entertained. She disliked this aspect of herself for the longest time, though it was now a blessing in disguise, because no matter what she would talk about from back home, in this new world she’d come off as a weirdo regardless. At least she was used to it.

‘Hm, apparently there’s racial traits in this world.’ Subaru thought, keeping her mouth closed. ‘Is that why onis get those horns, or is that just biology? Actually, if there are racial traits, even if they are magic, wouldn’t they be technically part of this world’s equivalent of biology? Aren’t magic researchers technically scientists here? Would that make Roswaal some sort of Einstein, or is she more like an ace pilot that can do amazing things with a machine they probably could never have designed themselves?’

“Is something the matter, Subaru-kun?” Rem asked with concern, as Subaru sat there with closed eyes and furrowed brows, hunching forward, a fist against her chin.

“No, nothing.” Subaru said, looking up and shaking her head then on a whim beginning to reach her hand up. Surely the magic wind barrier had to have a limit, if she could just—

Subaru-kun!” Rem exclaimed, grabbing Subaru’s arm and pulling it down. “That is very dangerous!”

“Wha—?” Subaru asked, dazed by the sudden scolding.

“If Subaru-kun reaches outside the range of the divine protection, she’d be blown away by the wind!” Rem said sternly.

“Wait, seriously?!” Subaru exclaimed, pulling back her hand and instinctively sinking lower in her seat. “That’s scary! Shouldn’t there be warning signs, a railing or something?!”

“It’s generally assumed even children know this.” Emilia said from the carriage behind Subaru. “I must admit, I’m surprised Subaru didn’t know that.”

“Okay, okay, okay, new rule!” Subaru said, turning back down. “From now on, just assume I’m a complete idiot and start telling me these things!”

She heard Roswaal laugh up, Felt also snickering, while Emilia just gave out a concerned humm.

“Thanks for the worry for my safety, everyone! Jeez…” Subaru sighed, stretching herself out a bit now that the initial shock wore off, and reaching into her pocket to pull out the small pouch Ram gave her after lunch, containing Subaru’s salary thus far.

“What is Subaru-kun doing?” Rem asked, looking at Subaru fiddle with the pouch and pick out a copper coin which according to all conventions, should have been the least valuable sort.

“Well, what you said sounded pretty scary, since it doesn’t feel like we’re even moving right now.” Subaru said. “So if I want to be able to compartmentalise the fear of flying off, I kind of need a gauge for how far is safe, and, you know, what would happen.” she explained, putting the copper on her thumb and tossing it up.

Flipping through the air on its way up, the coin flew about a meter above Subaru’s head before it suddenly—

Whoa!” Subaru couldn’t hold her reaction as the copper piece suddenly jumped to what felt like mach five and darted off behind them like a speeding bullet. She turned around as best she could to look back and see where it landed.

“I didn’t reeeeeaaalize I was paying Subaru-chan to play with her saaaaalary.” Roswaal noted below with a stern smile looking up.

“Sorry, Rozchi.” Subaru noted awkwardly.

“Subaru.” Emilia spoke up, turning around to look at her, looking mildly upset. “Please do not misunderstand, I like this side of you, but this kind of behaviour is why I would like to ask that you don’t try and stick your nose into the royal selection’s business. Most nobles wouldn’t take kindly to these kinds of antics.”

“Come oooon, Emilia-chan! I didn’t even say anything about the royal selection!” Subaru groaned, sitting back in her seat, turning her back at the sour half-elf. “Some kid is probably going to find that copper one day, and it will be a lucky talisman for generations or something, why do you have to get upset over it?”

“Because as much as that’s a nice thought, Subaru, this trip to the capital is extremely serious. I don’t want you to act so casual about it. Even just calling Roswaal by that nickname could reflect poorly on both me and Felt!” Emilia said sternly.

The half-elf rarely ever got this serious, and usually when she did, it was to do with the royal selection. Subaru couldn’t wrap her head around it. It didn’t feel like Emilia really cared about the whole thing. Sure, she said some nice meaningless things about how it’s a big important responsibility, and how whoever is elected will guide the nation of Lugnica into the future, and so on and so forth. Yet not once did Subaru remember Emilia say anything that made her feel like the girl actually wanted to be Queen and rule over people. She talked about it as if it was her responsibility, and her responsibility alone, like if becoming Queen was this minor little step towards achieving something, which Subaru suspected was getting accepted by people. The thought that Emilia would be so obsessed with getting the approval of others, that she’d take on the responsibilities of running a nation just for that turned Subaru’s stomach. Emilia shouldn’t have to take such ridiculous routes. People should be able to see how wonderful she is on their own.

“You can count me out of that.” Felt spoke up. “I don’t care how Subaru acts, or how it will ‘reflect on me’, I’m don’t care about this royal and noble nonsense.” she added.

“Thanks.” Subaru said.

“I’m not saying that for you, idiot.” Felt huffed. “Like you have anything to do with why I don’t want to be the top airbag.”

A bit of quiet fell on the carriage, the air filled only with the noise of the undercarriage adjusting to slight bumps in the road, the footwork of the land dragon and the quiet whistling of the air outside the barrier.

“Felt?” Emilia spoke up, breaking the silence. “I know I cannot tell you to not give up your candidacy, and I know even if I did, that would only hurt my chances, but are you certain you want to quit? This is an opportunity almost no one ever gets.”

“I’m sure. Last thing I want is to spend the rest of my life surrounded by stupid spoiled nobles.” Felt declared with finality.

“I see.” Emilia acknowledged quietly, before continuing after a short pause: “I was thinking, maybe even if you quit, you could come back to the mansion with us.” she said, making Subaru go stiff in surprise. She was planning on suggesting this after the election event. “Also old man Rom, of course.”

“Why would I want that?” Felt asked with what surely meant to sound like contempt, though something was missing.

“I know you don’t like ‘noble stuff’, but…” Emilia trailed off for a moment, sounding flustered. “If I am honest, I came to enjoy the time we spent, when I was teaching you to read, and everything else.” There was a brief pause with no response after which Emilia began speaking once more at much higher speed. “I—I know that is not a good reason to change whatever plans you might have had, and I actually never asked Roswaal either, so I understand if it’s not even an option, I just do not think a smart girl like you should have to go back to that kind of life, since it sound like you didn’t like that either, and I thought maybe it would be better if—” Emilia stopped suddenly. “I am sorry, I’m being stupid.”

Once again the sound of the creaking carriage dominated the tense air. Subaru turned her head back a bit, to see what everyone’s expression was, but Rem gave her a quick look that simply said ‘don’t’.

“Good grief.” Felt said finally in a rather rude fashion, though her voice had a slight tremble in it. “I might think about it, though I doubt the old man would like that.”

“I wouldn’t.” Rom said with an awkward pause. “I wouldn’t trust most nobles as far as Subaru could throw them.”

“Oh, now I’m part of the conversation?!” Subaru exclaimed, turning back, ignoring Rem’s previous look.

But,” the old man continued with a huff. “I can’t do more than discourage it. It’s not my place to decide things for you.” he said. “And as much as I don’t like them, the people in that village are probably better than the people in the capital, and it’s not like I can keep you safe much longer after the loot house got destroyed by those maniacs.”

“I—I’m terribly sorry about that.” Emilia exclaimed suddenly. “Even if it was stolen, I didn’t intend to destroy your property!”

“I was more referring to the young man that I’m told collapsed the roof.” Rom stated, waving off the comment, making the whole carriage sway with the movement of his hands, so he quickly stopped.

Subaru missed out on the end of the fight in the capital, so she wasn’t sure of the circumstances of how the roof got destroyed. She vaguely recalled it crashing in just before Reinhard appeared, but she was mostly out of her mind due to blood loss at the time, so whether it was a spell or something else that caused it, she couldn’t say.

“IIIIII for one believe my other beloved seeeervant would be delighted with the continued heeeelp.” Roswaal said melodiously. “Perhaaaaps, as unorthodox as it is, I could find something for eveeeeeen Rom-san to do.”

“I’m not so sure that’s a good idea.” Rom said.

“If you’re concerned about the war, it has been many, many years.” Roswaal stated plainly, without her usual clownish accents before switching back to normal. “Whiiiiile you must excuse some prejudice, surely you underestaaaaaaand that as shorter lived beeeeeings we don’t harbour gruuuuudges as long.” she added with an empty laugh.

“That’s wonderful!” Emilia said excitedly, turning to Felt. “So, would you then—”

“I said I might think about it!” Felt groaned. “The more you say it, the less likely it becomes. And it’s not like it was likely to begin with.”

“Oh. Alright, I’m sorry.” Emilia said, slightly upset but letting it go with a sigh. “Just please promise me that you keep practicing your writing, I’m sure you could find honest work with a little effort.” she said softly, before turning around and looking up at Subaru. “And you shouldn’t complain about Felix to their face. I understand they might have acted strangely, but they saved your life, so it was probably just a misunderstanding.”

“Why is it that any time I come up down there, it’s to badmouth me or my ability to throw nobles long distances?” Subaru sighed. “Besides, I’m telling you, I’m getting better on my own! I haven’t had that whistling noise in my ears for a few days now!”

“Whistling noise?” Emilia asked in surprise, while Roswaal smirked. “Do you mean—?”

“If Subaru-kun heard strange things, then that’s just a sign that she was worse off than previously thought!” Rem interrupted. “She should do as Emilia-sama asked and bear with the healing process.” she declared, grabbing Subaru’s shoulder with one hand, and forcibly turning her around so Subaru was looking forward again. “Now, it will still be a few hours until we get back to the capital. Wouldn’t Subaru-kun like to play some more music to pass the time?”

“I guess I’m out numbered.” Subaru sighed.

While she was upset at the prospect of having to spend more time with Felix, who hardly left a positive first impression, if Felt might indeed return to the manor, then Subaru had no excuse not following her orders.

With a discontent huff, she grabbed hold of the instrument still strapped to her chest and searched her mind for a song. The sight of the open road whizzing past them would only bring to mind country songs, of which she didn’t actually know that much, but if she would have to pick—

On the road again! Just can’t wait to get on the road again… ” she sang, strumming the lyulyre along as the sun slowly drifted off to the west behind them.

 

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“Is that who I think it is?!” Subaru asked, squinting out ahead.

Having entered the capital a short while ago, with the sky only just beginning to dim with the coming of the evening, they recently went past a sort of military checkpoint on the edge of the noble district. Rom previous mentioned during the preceding weeks that when he first awoke, he woke up in a guard garrison that he promptly escaped from, which might have explained why he hid his face behind his large hand when the carriage crossed, until Roswaal announced to the captain of the garrison that the giant is her personal guest.

Now, as their carriage approached one of the mansions inside the city limits, Subaru saw two familiar figures standing before it, one was a far more welcome sight than the other. One of them was dressed in fine white clothes with black shirts underneath, some sort of uniform, their bright red hair standing out from far away. The other wore a familiar black, striped suit, fluttering cat ears sticking out atop their short hair which color they matched.

“Those are Reinhard-sama and Ferris-sama.” Rem said simply, guiding the land dragon to get to the gate and stop next to it in short order, Subaru ending up on the opposite side from the manor. Well, ‘resort’ was more appropriate, it being a rented venue where Roswaal’s party may stay for a short while.

“As a member of the Royal Guard, I would like to personally welcome Felt-sama, Emilia-sama and Roswaal-sama to the capital.” called Reinhard, long unheard, elegant voice, and looking there, Subaru saw the knight fall to one knee a few steps ahead of the carriage’s door on his side.

“Oh yeah, so happy to see me, are you?” Felt exclaimed, jumping up from her seat, then vaulting over the door, landing infront of Reinhard.

“Of course, Felt-sama, I awaited with great excitement the day that I could—” Reinhard momentarily paused to catch Felt’s foot aiming a full forced kick at his head, his body not moving a muscle outside of the hand he used to do this. “—see your fair vision, once more.” he finished, his fine, content, happy voice and smile not wavering at all in the face of this dangerously rude greeting.

“Don’t know if you can tell over that mountain of knightly pride, but I can’t say I feel the same.” Felt declared, pulling her leg free and standing tall before the knight. “I hope you’re not a big enough idiot that you think acting all fancy is going to make me forgive you for abducting me.”

“I wouldn’t dream of dictating Felt-sama’s heart, she may feel towards me however she pleases.” Reinhard responded with an unwavering effort.

Nyaa ~” Felix sighed, standing a few steps behind Reinhard. “Sometimes I almyost feel like you take it too far.”

“I simply hope that Felt-sama understands that all I did, I did according to my duties as I see them.” Reinhard continued, ignoring Felix’s comment, his head still bowed deep before the young candidate.

“Yeah, yeah, whatever. Why are you here? I thought the meeting isn’t today.” Felt sighed.

“Felt-sama is correct, I simply wished to ensure your safe arrival and good health.” Reinhard answered, finally rising from his knee.

About this time, Roswaal and Emilia finally made it down from the carriage, with Rom stepping down on the other side. Rem also got down from the box seat and made her way into the carriage, removing the luggage from under the roof and handing it down to Rom.

“I am also glad of course, to see Emilia-sama and Roswaal-sama in good health.” Reinhard added, looking at the other two women before him each, while Subaru finally got down from her seat, managing to trip slightly but catching herself before she would have fallen down.

“It haaaaaas been a delight entertaining the young Felt-samaaaaa~.” Roswaal sang on the other side of the carriage as Subaru walked around the land dragon, giving it a bit of a wide berth. “I feel I should meeeeention that inspite of my best efforts Felt-sama is considering reeeeesignation from her candidacy.” Roswaal noted, to which Reinhard’s smile weakened by the slightest margin. “I believe thaaaaat would conclude the contract betweeeeen us?” she asked with a casual smile.

“That is correct, Roswaal-sama.” Reinhard nodded. “As of now, I consider our contract honoured.”

“I am haaaaaappy to hear that.” Roswaal stated with a big smile.

“You know, for being the nyan who’s meant to welcome and take the guests to Crusch-sama’s estate, I feel rather sidelined here.” Felix sighed. “It is a pleasure to see evernyan, of course.” the cat said, far more casually than her counterpart.

“I am happy to see both of you once again.” Emilia said in a polite, elegant way, rather than in any sort of intimate one.

“You honour us with your words, Emilia-sama.” Reinhard said, turning his head at the large figure of Rom. “I am also glad to see that the man who has so graciously protected Felt-sama in the past has been found and returned, I wished to thank him personally.”

“Don’t need any of that.” Rom said grumpily, holding the luggage under his arms.

“Regardless, much thanks is deserved.” Reinhard nodded, before finally, his eyes moved to Subaru who stopped a few steps away, awkwardly trying to do her best and not annoy Emilia by pushing herself into this meeting. “I also was looking forward to making proper acquaintance with the woman who has quite literally risked life and limb for Felt-sama’s sake.” he said, before unexpectedly stepping to Subaru and descending on one knee.

“I—, wha—?” Subaru was completely caught off guard.

His head down, Reinhard continued. “I am informed that Natsuki Subaru-san has since our last meeting also played a great role in protecting my ward’s residence as well as ensuring Rom-san’s safety.” Reinhard explained. “For this, and her previous bravery, I find myself many times in your debt.” he said, looking up with a gentle smile, holding out a hand to Subaru.

Recalling the incident with Felix, Subaru didn’t know if she should trust one of these knightly offers, but looking into the red haired young man’s eyes, she couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of innocence and gentleness looking back at her. There was something about him that said that he could do no wrong.

Not wanting to make a scene and embarrass Emilia, Subaru closed her eyes and with burning cheeks held out her hand, which she felt Reinhard take. Expecting a kiss, instead, she felt his other gloved hand gently lower itself on top of it.

“I do not know how or when, but I will endeavour to repay Natsuki Subaru-san’s actions.” Reinhard stated with a serious tone.

“Y-You don’t need to address me so formally.” Subaru stuttered, still not used to being treated like a lady. “Subaru is fine.”

‘This was so much easier when I thought he was a special NPC here to recruit me.’ Subaru thought to herself. ‘I almost wish I had Granhiert around to take my mind off this stupid scene.’

“One more thing, if I may be so bold.” Reinhard continued, standing up then letting go of Subaru’s hand.

Opening her eyes, Subaru saw Reinhard reach behind himself under his jacket, and pull out a flat item about as long as her forearm, wrapped in a fine silk-like material.

“After the incident, I came into possession of this item. As I’ve little need of it, I thought perhaps it would be most fit in the hands of the person who performed the most valiantly during its capture.”

Everyone there, even including Felix and especially Subaru gave out small sounds of confusion at this statement. It seemed whatever this was, Reinhard hadn’t mentioned it to anyone.

“I, uh, thank you?” Subaru mumbled, taking the wrapped cloths in hand, and beginning to unfold them in curiosity.

She felt a rod on one end, and a long slender body coming off it. As the cloth fell to the side, she saw that it was a dark, slightly curved scabbard, with a dark steel hilt sticking out one end. Her mind racing, trying to figure out what this has to do with her, she grabbed the hilt and pulled—

The purple tinted, curved blade that slid partially free of its hilt sent a jolt down Subaru’s spine. It wouldn’t have been easy to forget the sight of the blade that ended her life twice.

“Is that the knife that nyearly—?” Felix spoke up but cut themselves off.

“This blade was captured from Elsa Granhiert before her escape.” Reinhard stated simply, while Subaru continued to stand frozen, horrible images from pasts both erased and not flashing before her eyes. “I trust that it will—” Reinhard paused, finally noticing Subaru’s odd behaviour. “Is something wrong?”

“You really are something else.” Felix sighed.

“Subaru-kun?”

Hearing Rem’s familiar voice calling her finally snapped Subaru out of it, and she looked up. Where her whole body felt hot moments before, now the blood running in her was ice cold, holding the murderous blade in hand.

“Have I done something wrong?” Reinhard asked, looking at Subaru with a concerned look.

“N… No.” Subaru finally said, looking back at the knight with a strange clarity. “I’m sorry, it’s just strange holding this. It’s a thoughtful gift. I think.” she said, uncertainly.

“Well, I’m glad then, Subaru.” Reinhard said with a smile, seemingly having put the entire uncomfortable incident behind himself.

Subaru felt a pair of slender hands on her arm, and sure enough Rem was there, looking up at her with concern. She had a way of always being there when needed, no matter the circumstances.

“If Rem may be forgiven, there is another matter she had hoped to see today.” Rem said, looking away from Subaru, and to Roswaal and the others. “May she be excused, along with Subaru-kun?”

“Wait, me?” Subaru asked in surprise. She didn’t know she had anything to do today aside from helping to move in.

“Of cooooouurse~.” Roswaal said melodiously.

“Did I forget something?” Subaru asked.

“Thank you, Roswaal-sama.” Rem said, bowing her head towards Roswaal. “Please excuse me for stealing Subaru-kun away.” she said with a slightly cold expression towards Reinhard.

“Not at all.” Reinhard said simply, looking somewhat puzzled.

“No, seriously, what is going on?” Subaru protested, but Rem was already pulling on her arm.

“Just follow Rem.” Rem instructed, pulling on an incredibly confused Subaru, leading her away from the manor while unlike with the sword, no one seemed to display the slightest hint of surprise.

‘What the hell is happening?’ Subaru thought as she was hurried off, back towards the garrison checkpoint.

Chapter Text

“Rem, seriously, why were you so pushy? Where are we going?” Subaru asked as they reached well out of earshot of the rest of the people behind them. “Shouldn’t we be helping unpack everything?”

“Subaru-kun is worrying too much, Rem has asked for permission in advance, and everyone except Rom-san is heading to Crusch-sama’s estate with Felix.

“Asked in advance?” Subaru repeated with furrowed brows as she was practically pulled by her hand towards the not too distant military checkpoint on the edge of the noble district. “When?! I’ve been with you since almost as soon as you came back to the manor! Ram was still heading off to inform Roswaal when she told me!”

“Rem asked in advance.”

“When?! Before you even left?!”

“Yes.” Rem said simply.

“Just how out of the loop am I here? I mean don’t get me wrong Rem, I really appreciate not having to socialize with that catty creep, but why was no one surprised by you dragging me off?” Subaru continued to protest. This situation was getting under her skin. She was sort of used to being out of the loop in a general sense, in that she was clueless about tons of things in this world, but this was different. This felt like everyone specifically kept some big secret from her.

“Rem has said it once, and she’s going to say it again!” the blue-haired maid declared, stopping for only a moment to look Subaru in the eyes. “Subaru-kun is worrying too much! It’s enough that she knows that there is something that will pleasantly surprise her!”

“Okay, now you just lost me.” Subaru declared.

It’s been a month— Well, actually a bit over a month. She hadn’t kept a very close track of the date, mostly on account of still not having fully figured out the date system in this world to begin with. It definitely wasn’t her birthday, everyone found her name weird, so it couldn’t have been something strange and exotic like her name day, it couldn’t be an anniversary since it hasn’t been that long, so why is Rem trying to give her a surprise?

“Since you don’t seem like you’re going to tell me what it is, could you at least answer me who’s going to drive the carriage to Crusch-sama’s estate if both of us are here, Rom’s too big for the driver’s box and everyone else is either a knight, a noble or a candidate back there?”

Suddenly, the maid’s body stiffened in a dramatic realization. She had the kind of expression Subaru expected old man Tolkien might have had if well into his eighties someone asked him for the first time in his life why the eagles didn’t take the ring to Mordor. Well, actually not like that, there were sensible answers to give there. Rem instead looked more like she just realized that in her haste she had completely shirked her duties.

“Perhaps Rem should go back to—” the maid began hesitantly, to which Subaru grabbed her wrist and tugged on her, continuing their walk towards the garrison.

“Nope, we’re just going to roll with it. Make it look like we did it on purpose. I want to see what surprise you have planned.” Subaru announced, pulling the hapless maid behind. “Everyone will have a pleasant walk, and then someone will come pick the carriage up.”

Somewhere, someone, far, far away laughed up, covering their mouth with their unusually wide hands.

 

                                           

 

“Hey, actually, hold up here for a moment.” Subaru said as she and the maid, still flustered by her previous oversight, went through the market. “This building looks familiar.” she said ponderously staring up at a familiar looking building as they headed through the market near to the noble district. “I’ve seen this somewhere before.” she continued.

“Hey, you can admire the scenery somewhere else, I’ve got a business to run here!” an upset man’s voice called from in front of Subaru. She lowered her head and spotted a man partially concealed behind a large rack of ringas, sitting under a cloth ceiling suspended between his fruit stand and the familiar building behind him.

“Hold on!” Subaru exclaimed in sudden recognition. “This is— You’re the guy!”

“The guy?” the man said, uncrossing his legs and standing up. “What are you yapping about, kid? I’ve got a name you know, it’s right there on the sign!” he continued, pointing at a wooden sign hung above the fruits, before pointing down at the rack. “And those are the prices, so you better read both and put them to use, or get out of the way of actual business.”

Even though it was definitely getting towards the evening, and most market stalls had closed up, the fruit merchant whose sign read ‘Kadomon’ still had only a little under half his stock sitting out in the open. Well, actually, probably less than that, assuming he brought extra crates, though still, the fact that he was here probably meant he didn’t sell as much recently as he’d hoped.

“Man, you really must need customers, huh? And I thought you were just a mean dude who got lost on his way to the beach.” Subaru laughed.

“What did you say?” the man asked leaning forward, his muscles bulging threateningly out from under his small vest.

“Is picking on random merchants really what Subaru-kun wanted to do?” Rem asked, pulling on Subaru’s arm, her voice an equal mix of confusion and disappointment.

“No, no, hang on, both of you.” Subaru said, laughing up. “Take a better look, old man! I’m dressed differently, but we met, don’t you remember?”

“Is this supposed to be some joke about me getting few enough customers that I’d remember—?!” Kadomon began, raising his voice, but then he paused. “Wait, actually.” he continued with a lowered voice, straightening out from his forward lean. “Weren’t you with—”

“A silver-haired girl, yes!” Subaru exclaimed.

“So then, you’re the kid who threw up on my merchandise!” Kadomon exclaimed, not angrily, just in a sudden burst of realization.

“Thaaaat’s not the part I was hoping you’d remember.” Subaru sighed.

“Rem isn’t sure she understands. Does Subaru know this man?” the oni asked, looking up at Subaru.

“Oh yeah! Well, sort of. He’s a super nice dude whose store I might have felt sick, and on whose fine ringas I might have lost my lunch over, but who instead of running me off gave me a glass of water. I even forgot most everything I owned at his store afterwards, but he didn’t take anything until I came back for it.” Subaru exclaimed with a smile.

For an otherwise scary looking guy, that really couldn’t be bothered with non-paying customers, Kadomon Risch left a very strong and positive impression on Subaru, and not just because his face was the first thing she saw both times she came back from the dead while in the capital.

“Ah! Rem had no idea!” the maid exclaimed and turned to the man. “Rem is very grateful for Kadomon-san taking good care of Subaru-kun.”

“Well, the kid also helped out my daughter who got herself lost, so it’s natural.” Kadomon said with a prideful look, as if trying to denounce the praise he was getting. Though of course Subaru knew that had nothing to do with his kindness, since that happened after everything else. “Anyway, glad to see whatever trouble you and that other girl were in got resolved, but—” he paused remembering something. “Wait, didn’t you run off after that kid Felt that day? You wouldn’t know what happened to her would you? She along with Rom just up and disappeared.”

Subaru furrowed her brows. It’s been pretty long, from her perspective, it was definitely over two months ago that the trouble with the loot house and Granhiert all happened, but she didn’t remember Kadomon knowing Rom and Felt beyond sume rumours. She must have misremembered.

“Actually yeah!” she said with a smile. “They moved out into the country for a bit, as it turns out—”

She felt a sudden, sharp pinch in her arm on Rem’s side.

“They lost their home in a confrontation between one of Roswaal-sama’s wards and a would-be assassin.” Rem interrupted. “Being a gracious lady, our patron, Roswaal-sama offered to house them temporarily, even giving them a job and some funds to get back on their feet.”

‘Why is— Oh right, Felt’s candidacy is supposed to be a secret.’ Subaru thought. ‘It’s not like that will stay like that for long, you didn’t need to pinch that hard!’ Subaru protested internally without a word.

“I see, so that’s what went on.” Kadomon nodded. “Well, I guess if everything’s fine then that’s good enough news for me.” he sighed, putting his hands on his hips. “Now, are you actually going to buy something, or should I get back to telling you off for wasting my time?”

“As a matter of fact, Rem, we could carry a bag or two, couldn’t we?” Subaru asked with a smile, already reaching for her purse in her pocket.

“Well, Subaru-kun might want to keep a hand free, but—” Rem answered with a smile.

“In that case!” Subaru exclaimed, theatrically spinning a hand in the air, index finger extended. “I shally buy two ringas for each member of our company, my good merchant!”

“So, four then?” the man said, raising a brow.

“No, actually.” Subaru said, pausing for a moment. “Well, there’s the two of us, Emilia-chan, Felt, Rom, Roswaal and I guess I should include Puck, or he’ll get upset I didn’t count him. Rom can get his ringas.”

“The old man’s here with you?” Kadomon asked in surprise.

“Yes, he’s staying with Roswaal-sama for now.” Rem answered before Subaru could even think about slipping up.

“But yes, that’s six of us in total, and twelve ringas!” Subaru exclaimed, putting down two silver coins on a flat surface on the stand. She was overpaid by eight coppers, since she earlier Rem mentioned that the sign on the front of the market showed daily exchange values, and each silver was ten coppers, each ringa costing only one copper.

“There’s enough here for twenty, kid.” Kadomon noted.

“Take the extra for the hospitality earlier.” Subaru said confidently. “Might not think so, but you’re partly to thank for me landing a great job, so it’s only right.” Honestly, with all her needs taken care of at the mansion and making what she was ensured by the twins was a handsome wage, she didn’t know what to do with all her money.

The man sighed and packed a paper bag with ringas before fiddling under his stand a bit and reaching out both hands, one in a fist, the other with the paper bag. Rem took the bag while the man shook the fist at Subaru, eight coppers falling into Subaru’s hand when she reached for it.

“I ask for a fair price, kid. If you want to thank me, just come back and buy some more ringas some other day.”

“Well, I guess we’ll have to stick to that then. Long term investor,  I see.” Subaru sighed, putting the coppers in her purse. “See you later, Kad-san!”

After Rem and Kadomon both said their farewells too, Subaru and the maid continued on their way to the mystery locale that Rem insisted Subaru go to.

“Kadomon-san seemed to have miscounted.” Rem announced after they turned a corner, staring down into her bag. “Rem is quite confident there’s an extra ringa in here. We should return it.”

Looking back and into the bag, Subaru smiled and answered: “Actually, I get the feeling he put it there on purpose. He’s just a super nice guy like that.” she stated. “But we can bring it up next time we come if you like.”

“If that’s how Subaru-kun feels.” Rem conceded warmly.

‘I’ll have to make sure to buy with him every time I’m in the capital.’ Subaru noted with an optimistic outlook on the future, before she frowned slightly. ‘Even if apparently he doesn’t know that thirteen is a pretty bad omen to give someone.’

 

                                           

 

“We’re getting very close, it’s just down the street, right there!” Rem declared with an excited voice pointing down the street towards one of the finely decorated buildings ahead of the two of them.

They were only a couple of minutes away from the noble district, on the edge of the market, with artisan shops growing more sparse, the signs on the buildings that Subaru managed to read suggesting that the decorated avenue they were walking down is home mostly to inns and other services. There was a fancy looking barbershop on the last corner they passed.

The building Rem pointed at had a large, fancy sign out front that didn’t have any of the usual helpful pictures that would suggest the nature of the building. No swords or scales or needles painted on it to suggest what it was, though it didn’t exactly need them, as the currently small, circular tables outside with chairs gave it a distinct bar look.

“You do know I don’t drink alcohol, right?” Subaru looked to Rem with uncertainty. “Had a pretty bad experience, so I’d rather avoid it.”

Rem just smiled and shook her head. “Subaru will understand when we’re there.”

“You’re making me nervous. You aren’t usually like this.” Subaru said with a mock laugh. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d think I upset someone. We aren’t going to walk in there to find some fat guy in a suit eating something exotic, talking with a haughty accent who wants to monologue at me about how I came into his city and didn’t pay him the proper respects on the day of his daughter’s wedding, right?”

The maid besides her furrowed her brows in confusion to which Subaru just sighed and waved the whole thing off.

Stopping in front of the bar, Subaru looked up at the sign and made an attempt to read it. It had two lines of text, one decorated with big fancy lettering, and a simpler one simply painted in smaller letters under the other.

“The… Man of the…” Subaru mumbled as she tried to read the larger letters, presumably the name of the bar. Rem stood patiently watching Subaru try to parse the text. “What sword? I don’t recognize that hamoji.”

“Singing.” Rem said. “The large letters read ‘The Man of the Singing Sword’.”

“Weird name for a bar.” Subaru shrugged, moving her attention down at the smaller text, which mercifully was written in romoji. “And under it, that’s what?”

“Rem believes it is a motto of sorts.” the maid replied.

“Hm… ‘ Anata ga sore o tsukureba, kanojo wa kurudeshou ’?” Subaru read. “Really? ‘If you build it, she will come’? I don’t get—”

Normally, she’d have written off a weird bar name and motto as a curiosity, but ever since Rem pulled her away from everyone, Subaru’s brain’s been going into overdrive, trying to look for clues as to what the point of this unexpected detour was in the middle of their arrival. She felt as though she was supposed to piece something together, but she couldn’t put her finger on what— Until she heard it.

There was a melody coming from inside the bar. She didn’t recognize it, far from it. The melody was completely alien to her, most certainly some local composition she never heard before, however, the sounds making up the melody, the notes, their resonance… She’d recognize the instrument any time.

“There’s no way.” Subaru exclaimed, her feet carrying her on their own to the closest window so she could look inside. “You can’t—”

Right there, across the sparsely filled room in the back right corner there was a slightly elevated podium across from the bar, with a large wooden box with a chair before it. In the chair a finely dressed woman sat, her hands halfway up the large wooden box, pressing rhythmically down on a line of white and black bars.

“That’s— That’s a piano! ” Subaru shouted, unable to contain her excitement. “So you do have them!”

“It’s the first Rem had ever seen or heard.” the maid said with a blushing smile. “Rem wasn’t certain it was the same instrument as the one Subaru mentioned, but Rem is glad to see her excited. May we go in?”

“Y—!” Subaru began, then biting down on her teeth. “Uh, if there’s an age limit, I’m twenty three.”

Back on Earth, before her father got her her first guitar, Subaru wanted to become a pianist. It was in fact the instrument she practiced with most in her school’s music club, until she stopped going. While guitars held an exceptional place in her heart, her first love so to speak was always tickling the ivories.

“Subaru shouldn’t worry, Rem is expected.” the maid smiled, shaking her head and stepping to the front door of the bar, opening it for Subaru, who of course, didn’t waste any time and slid in, hit by a flowery aroma mixed with alcohol in the air.

“Welcome!” a merry looking man behind the bar called as she stepped inside, none of the patrons paying any mind.

There were only about eight people in the bar at this time aside from the barkeep, the piano player and Subaru. Two of them sat in a corner talking and drinking, while the other six included a finely dressed orange haired woman at a table playing cards with a smug expression surrounded by the other five, rather annoyed looking patrons. Though Subaru didn’t care much for them.

Seemingly recognizing Rem as she entered behind Subaru, the man behind the bar pushed the bottle and glass he had before himself to the side. Subaru wasn’t sure why they even had it there, since none of the patrons were at the bar right now.

“I was wondering when the young miss would show up!” the barkeep exclaimed with a smile, reaching down under the bar and putting a familiar looking briefcase on the bar. “Almost got worried I won’t be able to return this.”

Rem hurried past Subaru, giving her a blushing glance before stopping at the bar, bowing as deep as the bag of ringas in her arm allowed her before grabbing the briefcase. “Rem is very grateful for Mundi-san’s help.”

“Bah, it was a joy!” the barkeep, ‘Mundi’ said with a wave, sounding slightly sloshed. “Brought back good memories.”

Subaru was slowly heading to the podium with the piano, but was stopped when Rem called to her.

“Subaru-kun, wouldn’t you like to meet Mundi-san? He’s the owner of this establishment.”

“I—” in her heart, Subaru just wanted to go to the piano and pester the current player until they let her have a go at it. However, surely the owner would know where Subaru can get her hand on another piano! “Sure! I’d love to!”

“Mundi Sheliak!” the tipsy man announced with a grin, his arms held wide for the announcement. “At the young lady’s service!”

He looked about halfway through his thirties with laugh lines unusually deep for his age and sported short, chestnut hair with a simple flat mustache covering most of his upper lip. He wore a rather mundane looking getup, or rather, mundane in terms of resembling what seemed like the common fashion on the streets outside. Were it not for the piano across from him in his bar, Subaru would find him utterly unremarkable at a glance.

“Natsuki Subaru.” Subaru said. “It’s happy hour I see!” she added jokingly.

“Hm?” the man asked with a sobered expression.

“Nevermind, weird expression from home.” Subaru dodged before getting right to the point, unable to contain herself. “Can I ask where one can get a piano like that one?” she asked, pointing back around herself.

“Ah, the young lady mentioned her friend would be interested.” Mundi nodded, before leaning a bit to the side to get a direct view at the piano. “Dearly beloved!” he called.

“One moment darling.” the woman answered without stopping her playing of the pleasant unknown music.

“You must excuse my wife, she doesn’t like stopping in the middle of a melody.” Mundi said, reaching out for the glass he pushed aside earlier and taking a sip of the light brownish liquid that Subaru would have guessed to be similar to bourbon. “I must say, I was very surprised when Rem-san here recognized the name of our dear instrument.” he noted, glancing at Rem while leaning onto his bar.

“Is it that strange?” Subaru asked with raised brows.

“Well, considering I’ve only met one other person all my life who knew what a piano was, yeah.” Mundi laughed. “I put their name on the front of my bar, they were such a rare treat!”

The piano music behind them stopped, and before Subaru had a chance to make sense of the odd thing the man told her, the piano player slid up next to her at the bar and leaned over the bar, giving her husband a kiss on the cheek.

“I thought I told you not to drink while we’re still open.” she scolded mildly.

The man smiled brightly from the kiss on his cheek. “We’re probably going to run out with the royal selection coming up, let me enjoy a bit before then.” he said, reaching out with his index finger and tickling his wife’s nose.

Subaru couldn’t help but feel like an intruder. In spite of both being in their thirties, Mundi and the pretty blonde pianist looked at eachother and acted as lovey-dovey as a pair of newlyweds not even twentyfive. It was the kind of scene she’d swerve clean around even years ago if she saw it in the park or somewhere else, not that it was even at all common to see this kind of display of affection in public back home.

“Oh yes, excuse me.” Mundi spoke up, pulling his hand back and looking at Subaru before gesturing at the pianist. “This is my delightful wife, Harmony.”

“You’re the young lady Rem-san mentioned, aren’t you? That’s a lyulyre, isn’t it?” the woman asked with a kind smile.

“Uh, yeah. Natsuki Subaru.” Subaru nodded. Something felt off about the whole thing. She met nice people before, but they were a bit maybe too nice, like if they knew her. “Rem? What did you tell them about me?”

“Rem hasn’t said much, only spoke of Subaru-kun’s love of music, and the instruments she described.” Rem said, continuing to blush heavily. She stood by the bar until now, patiently letting Subaru lead things.

Subaru furrowed her brows. “It feels like it must have been more than that.”

The woman, Harmony put a hand to her mouth and let out a single embarrassed laugh. “Oh, of course!” she said, turning to her husband with a smile. “We’ve been acting awfully familiar, haven’t we?”

“Mmm, might be so.” Mundi nodded, turning back to Subaru. “Sorry if we made things uncomfortable, but it feels almost like you’re a relative to an old family friend, though admittedly, you don’t look much alike.” he said, stopping to scratch his head. “Right, right, probably shouldn’t have drank, not thinking entirely straight.”

“Told you.”

“Yeah yeah.” Mundi sighed before looking up at Subaru. “Would you happen to have a lot of very tall gentlemen back home?”

Subaru furrowed her brows further. This question didn’t make any sense.

“Not where I’m from, no.” Subaru answered uncertainty, feeling even more lost than she did up until now. “Where is this going?”

“Mundi was hoping you might know an old ‘friend’ of his.” Harmony answered. “The man we named the bar for.”

“He’s the one who gave me the schematics for that wonderful instrument.” Mundi added, nodding to the now vacant piano across the room. “It’s been about twenty years, but hearing you know about the thing—” Mundi pinched the bridge of his nose, then pushed the half finished glass of alcohol to the side. “You probably have no idea who I’m talking about.”

“Tall guy, knows about pianos.” Subaru nodded. “Not exactly a lot to go on. Maybe if he was going around with a cane with a skull, or had an iconic scar running down his face.”

“No, that won’t be him.” Mundi said, shaking his head. Subaru didn’t feel like pointing out that she was joking.

“Although, I am curious now. Who was this guy?” Subaru asked.

From what she picked up so far, there weren’t a lot of countries in this new world, but all of them had a distinct culture. Maybe wherever this guy is from would have some other instruments from Earth. Might have been a stretch, but since they had stuff like forks, spoons, cakes and even muffins in this world, maybe other stuff from Earth existed here too, just not in this particular part of the world.

“Hm, I guess that calls for me to tell the story. Don’t you think so, dear?” Mundi asked his wife.

“You just want to tell it don’t you?” scowled Harmony.

“Well then!” Mundi exclaimed before Subaru could retract her curiosity. “It’s a short tale. It was about twenty years ago! I had just decided to run away from home, and I was beset by a band of bandits who saw my fine clothes, and sought to take me hostage to sell me back to my father!”

“Fine clothes?” Subaru squinted, looking at his mundane self.

“Got rid of the binds of high fashion when I left my father.” Mundi waved. “Anyway, there I was, tied up in a bandit encampment, when I heard the clashing of steel outside my tent!”

“Mundi.” Harmony spoke scoldingly. “I’m sure the young lady doesn’t want to hear the whole thing.”

“Rem doesn’t wish to interrupt, but she recalls it being a pack of wolves, not bandits.” the maid spoke up.

“You see what happens when you let yourself get fanciful, darling?” Harmony frowned at her husband.

“Okay, fine, fine, no story!” Mundi sighed, looking at Subaru. “It’s been a long time ago, and admittedly I fill in a lot of the blanks I don’t remember too well, but I was dehydrated, starving and then this ridiculously tall man who is easily a head or two taller than you showed up and fed me.” he said. “Which doesn’t make for as good of a story as fighting off fifty bandits or a pack of wolves, but whatever.”

“So, you were saved by some guy. I don’t get it.” Subaru said. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“Getting to that!” Mundi huffed, smiling. “So there I am, just saved by this mysterious stranger. Never gave me his name, just told me some call him ‘The Man of the Singing Sword’. Never heard of him, before or after. Naturally, I ask him what reward he wants. I wasn’t exaggerating the clothes. My father’s an influential guildsman in Kararagi, if he’s still alive, artisan carpenter by trade.” he explained. “The stranger’s only request for me? ‘Would you happen to know where I can find a piano?’”

Subaru squinted. “Wait, what?”

“My reaction more or less exactly!” Mundi nodded enthusiastically. “Never even heard of pianos before! I told him this, to which he described what they looked like, so I told him that perhaps I could have my father make him one. Didn’t really want to go back home, but the guy saved my life so it really seemed like the fair thing to offer. He just laughed and said he didn’t plan to stick around long enough to have one built.”

“But you do have one now.” Subaru said, glancing back unsurely at the piano very clearly standing there in the bar.

“He helped me get to and over the Tigracy river and so into Lugnica, no idea why. We talked some along the way, and when he finally left me on the edge of the first town, he gave me a stack of papers that he probably drew up on the way. The schematics for that piano over there. Of course, I thought he changed his mind and wanted me to build it for him, but he just laughed it off and said it’s a gift, before speaking the strangest sentence I ever heard! The motto of our fine establishment, in fact.”

Subaru raised her head. “If you build it, she will come?”

“Exactly!” Mundi exclaimed with a big smile, tension running up Subaru’s spine. Was this— “That being, my beautiful wife!” Mundi added, reaching over the bar and pinching Harmony’s cheek.

“Oh hush.” the woman spoke, brushing her husband’s hand away with a blush. “When we first met, you said you didn’t even remember if they said it was a who or a what that ‘will come’!” she scolded, then looked at Subaru. “He can’t help it, he puts a romantic twist into every story he tells. The man probably was talking about a fortune or something along those lines.”

“That may be entirely true—” Mundi began, straightening himself out, with head held high. “However, I detest the implication that I didn’t mean what I said! We met because once I did build the damn thing you heard my incompetent racket trying to play it from the street and knocked on the door to ask what animal was dying inside!” he continued. “If that is not prophetic, then nothing is!”

Just then, Subaru heard a chair skid back on the floor behind herself and some yell out angrily around where the people playing cards were. “This is just not possible!”

Hey! ” Mundi called out sternly. “I said no gambling unless you can keep it civil!”

“But—!” The younger man standing gestured at the finely dressed, orange haired woman at the table who just smiled in amusement, then he clenched his fist and shoved the chair back to the table, marching to the front door and slamming it behind himself.

“Some people.” Mundi sighed. “Anyway, that’s the story of the—” His eyes wandered for a bit around the room. “Why was I talking about that again?”

“To explain why we were so familiar with the girl.” Harmony said helpfully.

“Oh right, right, but she said she probably doesn’t know him. Hmmm.” Mundi nodded. “Could you tell me where you heard about pianos? Maybe if I could send word there, I’d love a chance to thank that man for all he did.”

Subaru thought for a moment. Frankly nothing that the man said helped her figure out who this guy was. Since this guy was apparently two heads taller than Subaru from what Mundi remembered, Subaru’s best guess would have been that they were a giant, but Subaru never asked Rom where they hail from, though she vaguely recalled Rom also not knowing about pianos. Then again, would a giant know about everything in their culture? That would be a weird assumption to make right?

“I doubt this person was from where I heard about them.” Subaru said, shaking her head. “My hometown’s very secluded, and we don’t have many people that tall.”

“Subaru-kun is also lost, she said she couldn’t place her home on a map.” Rem interjected.

“Ah, that’s too bad.” Mundi sighed. “I guess it’s back to assuming he’s from beyond the waterfall.” he added in a joking tone.

“Huh?” Subaru asked. “I never heard that expression.”

“Beyond the waterfall?” Mundi asked. “Oh right, I guess over here it’s not as common a thought. My home country of Kararagi was founded by someone who was said to have been born far beyond the great waterfall.”

“What is the great waterfall?” Subaru could feel she was asking something stupid. “Wait, is that something off the eastern border of Lugnica?” she asked, recalling seeing something like a waterfall drawn on the edge of a map of Lugnica she saw in Beatrice’s library.

All three people with her at the bar gave her curious looks.

“Subaru-kun, the great waterfall is the edge of the world, where all the water from the seas and rivers pours down.” Rem said.

“The— edge of the world?” Subaru squinted. “You mean like, an actual edge?”

“Your home really must be very secluded if you didn’t know that, dear.” Harmony noted curiously. “Though you shouldn’t put too much stock into people from beyond there. It’s mostly just stories.”

“No, no, Hoshin was definitely from beyond the great waterfall!” Mundi protested.

“Sure they were, and then they turned into a second sun and fell on Banan.” Harmony said teasingly.

“Please don’t twist expressions to make the truth seem less likely, honey.” Mundi sighed.

His wife just hummed melodiously with a nod, poking his nose with a finger.

Looking at the pair exchange playfully stern looks and their intimate banter made Subaru’s heart ache a bit. She saw her own parents behave like this occasionally, though very rarely in company. Subaru tried not to dwell on home since she got here. It was not a box of worms she was ready to open, and the last time opened up about them, she felt like crying. If it wasn’t with Rem, explaining to her about that stupid song about the two onis, she probably would have cried. Her pride simply held her back, if barely, from looking miserable before the girl who she was just done convincing not to be miserable herself.

Feeling a slender hand on her sleeve, Subaru realized she had a sorry expression on her face, and shook her head, forcing on a smile.

“Sorry that I couldn’t help with that guy!” she spoke up. “But it’s pretty impressive you could build something you have never seen before.” she added, trying to distract herself from her darker thoughts.

“Actually, it’s not that impressive in context.” Mundi said, with a humble smile. “You wouldn’t praise a water dragon for swimming well.”

“Okay, now that’s got to be boasting.” Subaru smirked. “If you were such a great artisan, why would you be running a bar?”

“Subaru-kun!” Rem spoke up. “That is quite rude!”

“Bah, think nothing of it Rem-san.” Mundi said, laughing it off. “Never took much pride in carpentry beyond a hobby. That’s most of the reason I ran away in the first palace.”

“Oh, your father wanted to force you to pick up the family trade?” Subaru asked.

“Sort of.” Mundi shrugged with an uncomfortable smirk. “I always was more of a people person, hence the bar, but the bigger issue was the so-called ‘divine protection’ I was born with. Not that I should bad mouth it, since it let me build that piano.”

“Huh? Like the racial ability land dragons have?” Subaru asked.

“Mostly. Do you mean to tell me you don’t know about blessings either?” he asked, raising his eyebrows.

“Only a little.” Subaru admitted.

“That must be one secluded village.” Harmony noted with an amused huff.

“No kidding!” Mundi smiled. “I feel I should probably warn you then that it’s a touchy subject with most people. I probably wouldn’t be talking about as freely as I do, if I didn’t have a cushy commission with the master of the guilds here in the capital for mine that lets me run this bar even at a loss.”

“What does it do? It doesn’t create an air bubble when you pull carriages, I’m assuming.” Subaru asked.

“Ah, that’s the kind of question you need to be careful with.” Mundi cautioned but then just shrugged. “It’s official name is the Divine Protection, or Blessing of Tinkering. The long and short of it is that you can put any mundane object before me, even a building if you like, and I can tell you exactly how to build another one. This extends to sufficiently detailed depictions of objects.”

“Hold on, wait, wait, wait.” Subaru interjected. “So then, you’re like the ultimate craftsman, aren’t you? You can build anything?”

“Ha, no, that would have been even more trouble back home!” he laughed. “No, it’s more like… Best way I can describe it is that it’s like I could write down the instructions on what steps need to be taken to do something in decent detail. I can tell you what materials you need, what order certain components need to be assembled, the general beat by beat of how to build something, but I can no more build something from scratch because of this than anyone else who might buy an extensive schematic from a guild could recreate it without experience. There’s more to being a craftsman than knowing the right steps to take, just as there is more to being a good cook than knowing the ingredients and having a cookbook to reference. And that’s completely ignoring the whole hassle of having an established supply chain, agreements with merchants who can take your goods to the best markets and so on that all go into being a successful craftsman.”

“I’m not sure I get it, but okay.” Subaru nodded, trying to imagine it, though it was a bit difficult. “But why would that be trouble?”

“Well, it’s kind of troublesome here too.” Mundi noted.

“Some of the guildsmen are pretty suspicious of Mundi, always assuming he might be making schematics behind their backs.” Harmony added.

“A lot of money guilds make comes from educating young apprentices, teaching them the hang of things, as well as keeping the proper way to do some things close to their chest.” Mundi explained. “Someone who can just bypass half of that just by looking at he finished product is a torn in everybody’s side, though since my only ambition is to run this bad with my wife they decided to put up with it, and pay me a cozy little commission to be ‘on call’, in case they need help with something. Even tried to have me figure out the magicraft stuff used in Costuul, though again, the operative term in my blessings is ‘mundane objects’, it doesn’t work on metias. Still, over all they’re happy just letting me serve everyone in the guilds drinks at cost with musical accompaniment, if it means I steer clear of their business.”

“People in Karagiri didn’t feel the same?” Subaru asked.

Kararagi .” Harmony corrected with careful annunciation.

“When half the country is run by merchants and guilds, my party trick becomes more than just a torn in everyone’s side.” Mundi smirked. “When he found out, my father was, let’s just say, a little too enthusiastic. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.”

Subaru wasn’t sure what she was supposed to be imagining, but given the man’s expression and the way his wife caressed his head over the bar with a compassionate look, it was clear it wasn’t a happy family situation. It was likely best to leave it be.

“One thing I don’t get,” Subaru began, hoping to change the subject. “Is that if no one heard of a piano before, then—” Here, she turned to Harmony besides her. “—how come you know how to play?” With a sudden thought she smirked at the woman. “Let me guess, you have a blessing for playing any instrument?”

“Ha, wouldn’t that be something?” Harmony smiled.

“It’s good to see you recognize my lovely wife’s incredible talent,” Mundi smiled. “But you’re wrong, she taught herself through years of experimentation and effort!”

“That’s kind of amazing on its own!” Subaru said, smiling warmly, recalling when she used to play around with the piano at school.

The music teacher they had didn’t actually know the piano too well, so Subaru had to experiment on her own as well, which is part of why she ended up sticking to her guitar which she could practice at home in front of a screen with instructional videos. She could imagine the amount of effort that would have to go into learning it all by herself.

“Terribly sorry to interrupt.” Rem spoke up. Subaru had almost forgotten that the maid was there with them, the girl just continuing to happily observe Subaru chatting with the couple, interjecting only occasionally. Now, she wore an apologetic smile. “Subaru-kun and Rem will have to soon return to our mistress, so Rem was hoping perhaps what was arranged—?” she said, not finishing the sentence, just looking to Mundi expectantly.

“Oh! Oh! ” Mundi exclaimed, smacking his own forehead. “How stupid of me! Right, right, of course. Got distracted! Give me a minute and I’ll be right back!” she said, stepping to the side, and opening up a little door on the side of the bar, stepping out from behind it. “I have it just upstairs, sorry again.” he laughed, closing the door, giving his wife a kiss on the cheek and hurrying out a door opposite from the main entrance, followed by the sound of wood creaking higher and higher as he presumably scaled some stairs.

“Rem?” Subaru asked, turning to her. “Did Rozchi ask for something?”

“N-not exactly.” Rem answered, her previous heavy blush returning in force, the oni averting her eyes with a wide smile on her face.

“Mundi doesn’t usually accept orders, due to guild policies, but sometimes there are exceptions.” Harmony said in a teasing tone, taking her husband’s glass and drinking some of the bourbon-like liquid.

Subaru squinted, trying to think. Both women besides her were giving her odd, borderline playful looks, like she was the only one who hasn’t caught on to an obvious joke.

“He had to ask special permission, and get a little help from a specialist, but given how unique of a request it was, he couldn’t say no.” Harmony teased further, swirling the glass and its contents before herself, then biting down on her lips gently, holding down her smile.

Furrowing her brows further Subaru thought. It couldn’t have been anything too big, since the guy said he’ll be right back down with it.

“Wait, wait. You left that briefcase with him, the one you took from the mansion, so it must have been a speciality request, right?” Subaru asked.

“It— It might have to do with that.” Rem said, very flustered.

Rem also came to the capital to fetch a bigger carriage so they could take Rom back. Hold on, Rom’s a giant, and that singing sword guy sounded like a giant too!

“Is it something for old man Rom?” Subaru asked.

The woman beside her who was just about to take another sip from her husband’s glass snorted into the drink in laughter, quickly covering her face and apologizing.

“Is Harmony-san alright?” Rem asked concerned.

“It’s fine, it’s fine!” the lady giggled, glancing at Subaru but turning her attention back to Rem. “She really is precious.”

Before Subaru could ask what they meant by that, Mundi’s voice echoed out the nearby door, with the sound of creaking wood descending on the other side of the wall next to it.

“Here it comes!” the man’s voice called excitedly.

“If Rem is honest, she was a bit upset that Reinhard-sama gave Subaru-kun that knife before we came here.” Rem noted out of nowhere, as the door opened and with a big excited smile, Mundi stepped through it sideways, holding something behind himself.

“I’m very happy to deliver the first of its kind I ever saw,—” Mundi announced proudly, drawing the item he held in one hand forward, holding it up towards Subaru by its neck, causing the girl’s heart to stop. “—finest wood I could find, six strings to specifications, courtesy of the guilds, all charges paid, possibly Lugnica’s very first guitar!”

Chapter Text

Plump, bottom heavy, hourglass figure. A long, slender neck, inviting to the touch. A perfect waist, begging for embrace.

The very image of perfection.

“Miss? Are you alright?” a masculine voice called.

“Subaru-kun?” called a lovely gentle voice, as accompanying slender fingers pulled on her arm as they used to.

“Is— Is that?” Subaru muttered, taking in the impossible sight of an actual, genuine guitar being held out towards her in the barkeep’s hand, just then fetched from upstairs.

“It’s a guitar, honey.” the warm voice of Harmony, the barkeep’s wife told her. “Your cute little friend commissioned it for you.”

Taking a stumbling step towards Mundi, Subaru’s eyes scanned over the beautifully polished wooden body of the instrument before her. She couldn’t believe there was a real, actual guitar before her. Well she could, but it didn’t make full sense to her yet.

“Can I hold it?” Subaru mumbled, looking up at Mundi.

“Can you—?” the man repeated then laughed. “It’s yours! Like I said, all charges paid, I’ve even got two sets of replacement strings in my pocket! The guy I asked to make the strings said you might want to experiment with different ones ‘to get the right sound’ or something.”

With that, he pushed the guitar out sideways and handed it to Subaru, who took it in her arms and held it like an oversized baby.

The scale, the shape, it was nearly identical to the one she had back home.

“How did you—?” Subaru asked, trailing off.

“With a lot of elbow grease.” Mundi boasted with a grin. “Although since I get only one or two commissions each year, and this whole affair felt-like lightning striking a second time, it was a joy!”

Subaru turned around, ignoring the barkeep and looked at Rem.

“How did you do this?” she repeated, to which she heard the man give out a slightly disappointed ‘aaaaah’.

“Well.” Rem hung her head, still blushing, then put the bag of ringas and the briefcase on the bar, opening up the latter and revealing the stack of papers inside it. “Rem might have taken Subaru-kun’s notes without asking, she’s a little sorry.” she said with a partially hidden smile.

Subaru recognized the papers, they were a collection of sketches and notes on guitars she assembled over time, ever since—

“The… The very first day.” Subaru muttered. “You asked me about my notes, and then you suggested I should write down the specifications of what a guitar is like.” she recalled.

“In honesty, Rem wasn’t really sure about anything back then, but— Since then she saw how important music is to Subaru-kun so— Subaru-kun?!” Rem exclaimed in concern as Subaru felt tears grow in her eyes. “Did Rem do something wrong? She is so sorry to have gone through Subaru-kun’s notes without asking, she just—”

“You keep giving me so much.” Subaru spoke, in an uncontrollably whining voice. “I—”

‘I feel like I don’t even give back anything.’ is what she wanted to say, but she cut herself off.

With the high of the victory over the mabeasts long gone, Subaru had sunk into a certain comfort. Sure she did her chores, but if she was even slightly honest with herself, she hardly made a dent in the mansion’s workload, especially after her stamina went down considerably due to her injuries. Rem continued to carry things, as apparently she always did, taking out extra time from her day to help make every stupid idea Subaru had work, from her parachinta and muffin recipes being salvaged and pefected by the blue-haired maid, through the fact that even when dealing with the mabeasts, it was mostly just Subaru getting herself nearly killed, forcing Rem to risk her life for her sake. Certainly, that’s now how the maid would tell it, but that was the truth of the matter as Subaru’s heart knew.

She was all too happy to accept the maid’s praise for doing the bare minimum, and using it to fuel her joy for the rest of the day, but in the end, the only moment in which Subaru felt the slightest hint of having given something back, was when at the end of all that horror she held the maid, and let her cry. Even that was mostly passive. Who could look at that and say Subaru did anything at all there? And yet, Rem would go on to do more and more for her, now even delivering into her hands something she was certain she would need to plan around for months and raise money for a long time to make possible. Subaru didn’t deserve any of it. The oni had somewhere along the way turned into a second Emilia, someone that just keeps giving and giving to Subaru, while all she can do is smile along and pretend like it’s not just another one way relationship.

“Subaru-kun…” Rem spoke, frowning.

Subaru didn’t know if the girl somehow knew what she was thinking. Rem shouldn’t know it. The absolute least Subaru could do was swallow her uselessness and concentrate on gratitude.

“Sorry, it’s just— so much.” Subaru declared with a deep breath, forcing on a smile. She was genuinely happy for it, of course. How could she not be? But— “How can I ever even thank you all this?”

The maid before her smiled and shook her head.

“It brought Rem happiness just to see how excited Subaru-kun was.”

Subaru’s grip tightened on the neck of the guitar, her mind wandering far from the bar for a moment, giving out a vain prayer that she’ll be able to convince Felt to stick around. She always leaned more towards going with Felt on a practical level, if she and the old man parted from the mansion. Not practical in that it would be an easy life, but in that even if her relationship wasn’t as great with the young girl as she had hoped, Felt who had only Rom to look after her might actually have some use for Subaru some day. Maybe Subaru could give them something, like she hoped she did so long ago.

But to abandon everyone after they invested so much into her?

She sniffed hard and held up the guitar theatrically by its neck, dismissing the swirling thoughts from her mind, to concentrate on something new, something better.

“A real guitar needs a real awesome name!” Subaru exclaimed.

“A name?” Rem asked.

“Yes!” Subaru nodded, dramatically averting her head and striking a pose covering her eyes, partially to look cool, mostly to rub the stray tears out of her face. “It’s a tradition that truly great guitars carry great names!” she continued nodding to herself.

“Well, do you have an idea what you want to call it, honey?” asked Harmony in an amused tone.

“Is this like naming swords?” Mundi pondered. “Do you name it after the sound it makes or something?”

Subaru let out a mock laugh, raising her head. In these brief moments, she had already thought of the perfect name.

“There is only one name this could carry!” she announced, looking up at the guitar, flexing her lips for a moment before announcing: “R.E.M.!”

Rem and the couple didn’t say anything right away, she just noticed Harmony cover her mouth and giggle slightly.

“That— That is a very kind of Subaru-kun.” Rem stuttered out.

“A fine name, a fine name.” nodded Mundi, sounding very amused by the proclamation. “Though I have to ask, why did you say it like that? Why not just ‘Rem’?”

“R.E.M. an abbreviation, of course!” Subaru stated, with a knowing squint.

“An abbreviation of what?” Harmony asked.

Subaru froze up for a moment. She never actually thought that far ahead. It sort of just flashed through her mind that it would be a neat name, since Rem gave it to her, then there’s the band, and also it might have given the wrong impression if she just named it Rem, since, well, that’s usually reserved for a different kind of relationship, so now— Ah, of course!

Remu no Engimono ha Mahou! ” she announced.

“Rem’s lucky charm is magical?” repeated Mundi with a little laugh.

“Pretty great name, huh?” Subaru asked, puffing out her chest proudly, for being able to think of something on such short notice.

“Well, do you want to give it a try?” Harmony suggested. “I’m curious  what it sounds like.”

“Huh? You didn’t try it?” Subaru asked.

“Well, I might have accidentally twinged a cord or two while moving it.” Mundi admitted. “But I mostly just twisted the knobs until the strings felt more or less tight. My dear wife wouldn’t touch it.” he added, looking to Harmony. “You said the owner should get the first song, right?”

“Rem doesn’t want to interrupt,” Rem said, interrupting. “However it’s been some time since we left the manor. Subaru-kun and Rem should already be on the way back.”

“Come on, Rem! I’ve got to try at least one song before we go!” Subaru said excitedly. “I’ll even let you pick what I should play! Huh?”

Still blushing and smiling uncontrollably, the maid’s attempt to put on a stern, pouting expression ended up a half-hearted effort.

“We really need to go… But if Subaru-kun is so adamant, then… Maybe that one she mentioned was too popular. Rem had been curious what it would sound like, since she told the children about it in the village.”

“Too popular?” Subaru repeated curiously. “Oh right, you asked for that once before.” she nodded.

Rem was of course referring to Stairway to Heaven , though Subaru only taught Rem a couple of stray words here and there over the past month, usually single lines of lyrics, so the girl couldn’t properly pronounce most song titles yet, or understand what they mean.

“Well, it won’t be exactly the same without a flute to go with it, but I’ll try and hum that part.” Subaru nodded, to which Rem smiled, clutching at the front of her skirt.

Testing the strings briefly, Subaru found them more than up to snuff. With a little adjustment, she was holding in her hands the perfect instrument.

“Oh, also, this will be a bit in the way.” she said, putting REM on the bar then taking her lyulyre off her back, so she can sit on one of the stools in front of the bar properly. “I feel a bit bad honestly. Kenichi got me through a lot.” she said, giving the lyulyre a loving look.

“Kenichi?” Rem repeated. “Was that the name of the lyulyre?”

“Hah, yeah. Never really said it out loud.” Subaru blushed. “Feels strange replacing it.”

“That’s—?” Rem began, but then she just smiled contently. “Rem could make sure that Kenichi-san finds a good home, if Subaru-kun wants.” she added mysteriously.

“Sure.” Subaru answered, her mind mostly caught up in the guitar as she picked it back up and sat down to play.

Following a deep breath with a long exhale, Subaru placed her hands againt the strings.

“Here goes nothing.”

 

                                           

 

That’s it! ” someone screamed, making Subaru stop in the middle of an old Chuck Berry number.

It’s been some time now since she got her guitar, and she was still in the bar. She shouldn’t have been, Rem told her they needed to go, but Subaru begged and pleaded, saying she also wants to try out a few more songs and maybe play the piano if the owners let her. Really, she was acting like a bit of a brat, she knew that, but the sensation of a real guitar in her hands, the familiar sound of its chords, the relief of being able to properly play for the first time in nearly three months by her perspective? It was too much to hold back.

Rem pouted and gave in after the first song, and said she’ll head back alone with the ringas, briefcase and lyulyre, and that once she had seen to the most pressing of her duties, she’ll come back for Subaru, instructing her to either stay here, or ask a guard to lead her to the noble district, from where she should find her way back to the manor easily.

Were it not for the continued smile of the maid that in the interest of being more commanding she tried and failed to hide, Subaru would have felt plenty rotten. Rotten enough to change her mind and go back to the manor even, possibly. However, still unaware of exactly how long she’ll stay in the capital, or how much of that time she’ll be able to spend in the company of perhaps the only piano in the entire country, she wanted to put her time to ‘proper use’, which entailed showing the bar’s owners a few songs from back home that pianos go well with.

I don’t know how you’re cheating, but there is no way you aren’t! ” the same man screamed.

Hey! ” Mundi yelled angrily. “What did I say about keeping it down?!”

“You haven’t seen what she’s been doing!” the man shouted back gesturing to the smug looking orange haired woman in the fancy red dress sitting at the table near them who laughed up with a ringing voice lacking any shame, regret or pity for the man she has evidently won too much from.

“I don’t care!” Mundi snapped back. “I told you right at the start that this is no gambling den. If you can’t keep it friendly, then I’m going to have to ask you to leave!”

“See if I ever come back!” the man shouted angrily, kicking his chair over and marching on out through the front.

Mundi sighed and walked over to the shrunk crowd of gamblers in the corner of the room and picked up the chair, while Subaru felt his wife’s hand gently pat her shoulder.

“Sorry about the unpleasantness, we usually don’t get guests like this.” Harmony said.

Setting the chair back in its place, Mundi put his hands on its backrest and then leant over it to the table.

“Lady and gentlemen. I’m grateful for the patronage, but this is the second time someone from this table made a scene, so—”

“Oh hush now!” the orange haired woman spoke up with mild annoyance, waving an expensive looking hand fan in the air at Mundi. “Barkeeps should keep the bar.”

“I’ll have you know miss, this is my establishment.” Mundi said sternly, twisting his palms on the round, pommel-like tips on either side of the backrest.

“And for whatever reason, you seem to look as though you think that’s impressive. Can’t imagine why.” the woman said coyly, hiding her cruel smile behind her fan.

Subaru felt Mundi’s wife’s hand stiffen a bit on her shoulder, but the owner just took a deep breath and continued calmly.

“Miss, I understand you are still waiting for your companion?” he asked.

“I don’t see how that is the business of some tavern keeper.” the woman scoffed.

“I do not wish to throw a young lady out on the street at this hour, so I will try to be patient, so please, just stop agitating my other patrons.” Mundi responded then took his weight off the chair and headed back.

Subaru’s hand twitched.

This belligerent woman was clearly disrespecting Mundi in his own bar, a bar that from what he said was his life’s pride and joy. And he was just going to let her? Why, because he’s trying to be a gentleman and not be rude? Towards a stuck up weirdo like that.

Standing up from her stool, Subaru strapped her guitar to her back and found herself walking to the table.

“Hey, what are you—?” Mundi asked as he saw Subaru approach.

“Don’t worry about it, I’ll just have a quick word.” Subaru interrupted.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Mundi said, gently grabbing Subaru’s arm as he reached him, but she just pulled her arm free of him and continued, her eyes narrowed on the woman who’d so brazenly insult the man who built her a guitar.

Stepping to the table, she pulled the previously kicked chair out, turned it sideways so its back rest wouldn’t be in the way and sat down, to which the three very frustrated looking men and the orange haired lady each turned to her.

“What do you want?” one of the men asked.

“I want to ask her to apologize.” Subaru said coldly, turning her head to the woman.

“And what, pray tell, do you think I have to apologize for?” the woman asked, an amused smirk hanging out slightly from behind her fan.

“Drop the innocent act, you know full well that it isn’t right to—” Subaru began before being promptly cut off.

“You do not amuse me, minstrel. Return to making the inventor of that thing on your back ashamed of his work, I’ve got better things to do.” she said fanning air at Subaru. “Or better yet, leave and stay quiet.”

Subaru’s right arm raised up, and then fist and elbow slammed down on the table in perfect unison. No one was going to mock her playing on the day when she finally got a guitar again.

“I want you to leave.” Subaru declared coldly.

Letting her fan down, the orange haired woman finally showed herself fully, including her sharp, cruel smile under her pitiless eyes.

“If you want something so badly, why don’t we play for it?” she asked, playfully.

“Don’t listen to her.” one of the men said. “We’re pretty sure she’s cheating somehow.”

“Yeah, I’d have left already if not for the fact that my wife will kill me regardless, and I want to know how she does it.” the most dejected of the frustrated bunch nodded.

“You peons have a lot of nerve accusing me of cheating.” the woman scoffed. “It is only natural I would win.”

“What, you’re sooooo good at whatever this card game you were playing is?” Subaru asked annoyedly, gesturing at the deck of cards currently being shuffled by one of the men. “You think you can’t be beat.”

“Not quite, I have never played this crass game before.” the woman boasted. “However, seeing that this world exists for my sake, it is only natural that I’d win.”

Subaru dragged her fist back towards herself over the table. Something about this person was just getting deeply under her skin, and it wasn’t just her mocking behaviour, her clear lie to cover up her cheating, or even the way she wore that lewd frilly red and black dress that let her absurd cleavage hang out for everyone to see without the slightest shame. No, what really ticked her off was that it sounded as if they genuinely believed what they said, that this world existed for someone like her .

“Deal.” Subaru said, putting her other arm on the table. “However, I pick the game, something I know you can’t cheat at.”

“Subaru-san, this isn’t—” Subaru heard Mundi call behind her, but the woman in red interrupted him with another wave of her fan.

“Quiet, barkeep.” she said sharply, before turning her eyes to Subaru. “Name the bet.” she added, with a challenging smile.

“Hey, we’re still playing here!” one of the men spoke up.

“If I win,” Subaru interjected. “you leave, and pay back everything you won so far.”

Hearing this the man shut up and shrugged.

“That’s a rather steep bet for some miscreant like you to match.” the woman noted, fanning herself.

“Well, I was thinking that since it’s so very absolutely sure you will win, you wouldn’t care about equal bets.” Subaru hissed, trying to match the woman’s coy smile.

“Hah!” the woman laughed. “Well, I was getting a bit bored, and who cares about these peanuts, so certainly. But I want something special in exchange, hmmmm.” she said measuring Subaru up. “I think I’ll take that strange instrument of yours!” she said.

The blood ran cold in Subaru’s veins, and without a second thought she just hissed out:

No.

She was willing to put the entire contents of the purse in her pocket on the line, but not the guitar. There were a lot of lines Natsuki Subaru was willing to cross right now, but this was no line, it was an impenetrable wall. It was her guitar, and she was going to keep it.

“Getting cold feet already?” the woman scoffed with an air of superiority “Well I’m sorry to say, I’m not interested in whatever meager fortune you think you can offer in its place, so—”

“I’ve got something else that’s rather unique.” Subaru said, reaching behind herself, and under her jacket where partially slid into her pants was the sheath and blade she had received from Reinhard not long ago. Pulling the sheath out, she placed it on the table. “What about a blade bestowed on me by the one they call the Sword Saint?”

The eyes of the men at the table widened at the claim, while the woman’s just narrowed over her fan, looking down at the item.

Subaru had no great attachment to this blade. She would have preferred to keep it, because she felt it would be rude to lose it, but she was rather confident she could win the game she had planned out, as probably no one in this world ever played it before but her anyway.

“That twisted man gave you that?” the woman asked, keeping her face covered for a few more moments before lowering it, showing a measured smile. “Very well, I shall relieve you of it in whatever game you pick.”

“Excellent.” Subaru said, an evil grin creeping up her cheeks, breaking eye contact with the woman only for a moment to wave at the man holding and shuffling the deck so she can have it. “Have you ever played Blackjack ?” she asked, spreading out the cards before herself to double check what kind of deck they had. She got her hands on a pack of cards back at the mansion once, and it seemed like this was the same kind.

“I can’t say I have, then again, I don’t play peasant games often.” the woman said.

“Very simple game of chance and strategy, where you try to get as close to and including twenty one ‘points’ as you can by accumulating cards, but if you get more than twenty one, you lose” she started explaining.

The deck they used wasn’t exactly like the usual poker decks on Earth, but it was close enough. The cards’ faces where white with Blue, Yellow, Green or Red numbers going from one to twelve, with eleven and twelve having little images. On the elevens, three of the colours had images of swords, while yellow had dark smoke surrounded by six multi-colour dots, while the number twelve cards were all different, a dragon on the blue ones, some bear-like creature on the yellow ones, a setting or rising sun image on the green ones and finally a blue palace on the red ones that reminded her of the Disney logo.

“Getting points is simple.” Subaru continued. “Start of the game, I deal two cards to each of us, then we take turns and say if we want to stay or get another card. If you say you stay, you can’t ask for another card again. Can you follow.”

“Seems simple enough.” the woman asked. “So the numbers in the corner are the points, or?”

“Close.” Subaru said, grabbing a twelve, an eleven and a one. “Face cards like elevens and twelves count as ten, while ones can count as both one and eleven, depending on what would be better for the one who holds them.” Of course, there should have been thirteen cards of each colour to be a perfect 1:1 of Blackjack rules, but it was close enough.

“Take turns, try to get twenty one, don’t want more. Children’s game.” the woman huffed with a smile. “Anything else?”

“You’re pretty confident for someone who never played before.” Subaru hissed.

“No matter what happens, it will work out in my benefit, so why would I be anything but?” her opponent laughed. “Honestly, even if instead of best three out of five, we played five games until I lost once, I’d still relieve you of that blade without fail.”

“Is that a fact?!” Subaru laughed. There was no way the woman wasn’t overplaying her own hype at this point. “Care to change the rules then? We play five games, and the first time you lost, you lost. You only win if I lose all five games. What do you say?”

“Certainly, now start dealing those cards already before I get bored!” the woman commanded, flicking with her fan at Subaru.

Huffing in determination, Subaru gathered up the cards and quickly shuffled them up, then pulling her sleeves up, began dealing, face up.

“Eight and seven for me, nine and eleven for you.” Subaru stated, reading the cards. “That puts me at fifteen, you’re at nineteen, since eleven is—”

“I’ve got it. I stay.” the woman said simply, hiding her face with her fan.

‘Not the best opening.’ Subaru sighed, then dealt herself an extra card.

“I believe that nine puts you over the limit.” the woman said with a coy smile, lowering her fan to taunt Subaru as she just dealt herself a ten.

Subaru gave a pained, smirking smile back to the woman.

“Don’t get too excited, I need to lose four more times.” she huffed, reshuffling the deck and dealing once more.

“That’s twelve for you and ten for me, is it not?” the woman asked, glancing over her fan.

“Yes, and I hit.” Subaru said, putting down another card. “Seven! I’m up to nineteen!” she added with a little fist pump. Only three or four could save the woman now! That’s a mere one in six chance!

Seeming to follow the situation the three men sounded off in excitement one after the other, with the nearest one patting Subaru’s shoulder. “That’s a near sure win, right?” he asked.

“Clearly, I need another card.” the woman sighed. “Give me one.”

Drawing the next card Subaru looked at it then sighed. “Red eleven.” she hissed, putting it on the table. “You’ve got twenty.”

The woman put on a strange smirk as she looked at the red card with the image of a red and black greatsword.

“So I have to hit and— Six. I’m over again.” Subaru sighed.

“Don’t act so surprised.” the woman smiled. “I’ve told you the inevitable.”

“Three more games!” Subaru said loudly, grabbing the cards and shuffling again. “You aren’t messing with the cards, so it can’t be that.”

“It seems I truly am dealing with a simpleton.” the woman sighed. “There’s only so many times I should have to say that there is no cheating afoot.”

“Yeah, sure.” Subaru huffed, turning to the three men. “How many hands did she lose in whatever you were playing?”

“Not one. She folded two times with really strong cards, when it turned out someone else had an even stronger hand.” the man sitting closest to Subaru said. “It’s freaky.”

Subaru furrowed her brows. Something was definitely up. She wasn’t reading people’s minds, can’t do that with blackjack. Was she casting some spell, changing what cards are coming? Was that why she—

“If you’re not cheating, you won’t mind me asking you to put that fan down!” Subaru said. From what she knew, magic spells generally included incantations, so if she couldn’t hide her mouth, that should help.

“This chatting bores me.” the woman said, placing the fan on the table and crossing her arms. “Deal the cards already.”

Subaru hissed and dealt out the next hand. The woman got a mere seventeen, Subaru twelve. It was the woman’s turn to go first, so she stayed.

“That was a bad call.” Subaru huffed, dealing herself another card— “ Ten?!

“Three for three so far, keep the cards coming.” the woman said with a little laugh.

“You keep saying you don’t cheat, but putting all your stat points into luck and then going gambling is a form of cheating as far as any real gamer is concerned!” Subaru mumbled as she reshuffled the deck.

It was mostly a joke. She couldn’t imagine what the woman was doing. Even if she was ridiculously lucky, surely she couldn’t be this certain! She must have been doing something to mess with the order of cards or something!

“Twenty and twenty.” the man furthest from Subaru read as the cards got dealt.

“Hey, that’s at least good for you, miss.” said the one near Subaru. “Rules were, she only wins if you lose every game, so a draw would mean you keep your sword, right?”

“Do you stay?” the woman asked, looking at Subaru.

“Do I keep the sword if we draw?” Subaru asked back.

“If we would, certainly.”

“Then I stay.” Subaru nodded.

“And I want another card.” the woman said with a confident face.

“Hah, what?” Subaru asked with a little laugh. “You do realize you can keep your winnings too if you don’t lose, right?”

“I said, give me another card, or are you as incompetent a card dealer as you are a minstrel?”

Why— ” Subaru fumed, gritting her teeth. “Fine, if you want to lose so bad, here’s— A… One?”

Subaru clutched the card in her hand. It was indeed a one. With forty-four cards left in the deck, only four of them being ones, she had a one in eleven chance of not losing, and she got the exact card that lets her win?!

“I believe there’s only one game left now. I do hope you aren’t too attached to that sharp little thing.” the woman hummed.

“There’s no way.” Subaru muttered. “No way.”

“I’ve no interest in your regrets, girl.” the woman said, though it didn’t seem like she was at all older than Subaru.

Subaru found herself gripping the edge of the table with both hands, a deep fury boiling in her at the callous woman. What was it? Was it really just luck? Probably not. Subaru doubted that this world had a luck mechanic, but if it did, and this was it, the woman was here, taking poor, honest people for all they had. Meanwhile, Subaru had to suffer through all those things at the mansion and the loot house both. Didn’t she deserve this kind of luck?! What has this conceited, unpleasant woman done to deserve things coming to her this easily?

“The cards, if you please .” the woman commanded with a careless wave of her hand.

Fine. ” Subaru said coldly, dealing out two cards each once more. “You’ve got seventeen, I’ve got sixteen. Your turn.”

“I stay.” the woman said with an infuriating yawn.

“Very well. I will get another card.” Subaru hissed, gripping the deck in her hand.

If she lost this hand too, the blade Reinhard gave her would be gone. Since it was Granhiert’s blade, and if she tried, no doubt Subaru could probably still recall what it was like to be cut open by it, it wasn’t as if Subaru would have missed the blade itself. However, between it being an awkward thing to explain if she ever met the knight again, and the idea that this infuriating woman would get it, she absolutely didn’t want to accept the idea that she’d—

With tension filling her whole body, including her hand and fingers, Subaru accidentally grabbed two cards instead of just one as she first began to pull them from the top of the deck. The lower one was a four, with which she could win, but the top one, the actual one she should pull was, of course, a white sword, the blue eleven, or rather, a ten, which would put her over.

‘Would’ being the operative word. She wasn’t conceding, but she also wasn’t confident in sleight of hand, so—

“I’ve drawn a face card, and now I pull another.” Subaru declared as nonchalantly as she could muster.

“Hold on, that should put you over the limit, shouldn’t it?” the woman interrupted.

Subaru blinked theatrically. “What? But you can’t go over on a face card! If you draw a face card and it would put you over, it counts as 0.” she lied without fluttering an eyelash. She was taking this woman down, if it was the last thing she did.

“You said nothing about such a rule before!” the woman said, narrowing her eyes.

“I haven’t?” Subaru asked, unable to hold back a dark smile. “I’m sorry ,” she continued with a mock apology. “I was a little bit frustrated with how much you kept urging things on, I must have forgotten . But it’s the way Blackjack has always been played!”

The woman eyed Subaru up, but then just sighed and waved a hand.

“Fine, draw your last pathetic card.” she said.

“As you wish!” Subaru grinned, pulling the next card. If the woman was cheating with the cards then— “Four!” she cheered, though she was a bit disappointed it didn’t magically change in her hand. “That puts me at twenty, but you stayed at seventeen, whiiiiich means I win!

The three men who looked on in silent tension though seemingly not expecting much so far suddenly all cheered up, one even jumping up from his seat.

“Fantastic!” the one sitting near Subaru exclaimed, giving her a heavy pat on the back.

Glowing in her dishonourable victory, Subaru grinned across the table at the woman.

“I believe you owe these men their winnings.” Subaru grinned, biting down on her tongue a bit.

“Very well, you peons may take your peanuts.” she said, with a dismissive gesture towards the pile of coins before her, and soon enough one of the men drew all the coins over to their side of the table and they began counting out how many each of them lost.

Stretching her arms, feeling next to no shame in her trickery, Subaru moved her shoulders to inaudible victory music, staring down the woman who just shook her head unamused at the men with a sigh.

“Wait, actually.” Subaru spoke up, looking at the table. “Where’s your money?” she asked, noticing that the men left nothing to the woman.

“I didn’t bet any.” the woman shrugged. “They were playing for a chance to touch my breasts.” she said casually.

Glaring at the three men jubilantly counting out their recovered fortune, Subaru suddenly felt less confident about her decision to make winning back their money one of the conditions.

“Maybe your wives should murder you.” she mumbled.

Chapter Text

“Well, those peons have grown thoroughly unamusing.” the woman in red sighed, looking at the three men dividing up their money, while she picked her fan back up and began waving it at herself.

For all the boasting, the insufferable woman proved entirely defeatable. Certainly, Subaru had to cheat in the end, but that was neither here nor there. What was important was that she managed to beat her, and as per their agreement, the woman now had to leave, not to disrespect the establishment further!

“On the other hand,” the woman spoke, turning her eyes briefly to Subaru. “Watching you squirm was enjoyable.” she said, standing up.

“You’re handling this pretty well, for someone who was so sure they cannot lose.” Subaru retorted, leaning back a bit.

“Oh, but I haven’t lost.” the woman stated simply, fluttering her fan. “I came here for amusement, and I was amused. The kind of scraps those fools fight over, and sad, sorry little blades like that are hardly of value to me.” she added smuggly, before heading towards the door, not even bothering with a farewell of any kind.

“Subaru-san.” a somewhat stern voice called, and Subaru suddenly felt a hand on her shoulder. “I appreciate the thought, but I asked you not to interfere.” Mundi added, to which Subaru looked up with furrowed brows.

“This is exactly what you wanted, isn’t it?” Subaru asked, looking up with indignation. “She was being rude, so now, she’s leaving, and everyone’s happy!” Subaru declared. “I even got back your other customers’ money, so—”

“That’s not the issue.” Mundi said, shaking his head. “I didn’t want to get you or anyone else involved.” he continued sternly. “This is my bar, so what goes on in here, is my responsibility. What if you had lost that blade?”

“I didn’t! Besides, I’m not that attached to it anyway.” Subaru huffed.

She just solved a problem for him. Would a ‘thank you’ be that hard?

Mundi sighed, and patted Subaru’s shoulder. “I guess I’m not going to convince you, so…” he let go of her shoulder and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Thanks for the help, but don’t do it again.”

What a way he had to show gratitude. Subaru could only sigh at the barkeep’s behaviour, but she knew she should just let it go. Maybe he was worried there would be more trouble. Though it’s not like Subaru would let things escalate too much, she just wanted to help.

A smug voice echoed in through a nearby window, the woman in red had addressed some people outside in what sounded like a very flippant manner, though Subaru couldn’t make out the exact words through walls. The annoyed outburst of multiple voices confirmed it was something rude however.

“See?” Subaru noted, gesturing towards the wall. “Not two steps outside, she’s already annoying someone new.”

Mundi shook his head and headed back to his bar without a word.

“Why don’t we take a walk in there and you can say that again?!” echoed through the wall a masculine voice, somewhat familiar. It wasn’t the voice of one of the two men who walked out previously, so where did she know it from? It definitely wasn’t a pleasant voice or memory.

Glancing the way of the nearest window, Subaru saw the strange woman looking at someone just out of view, covering her mouth with her fan, a smug, characteristic smile visible from Subaru’s vantage point to the side. She seemed to give a little shrug and turn around, heading out of view, followed by—

Subaru saw an all too familiar, creepy looking guy with light blue hair, a larger bruiser type following in a moment, as well as a bowl cut passing by the bottom of the window.

‘Luck stat my ass.’ Subaru thought. That idiot had just gone and insulted what looked like the same three thugs that nearly killed Subaru, and she wasn’t even looking like she’s trying to run.

This wasn’t Subaru’s problem of course. She wasn’t the person picking on everyone they could see acting all smug and superior for no good reason probably because a rich daddy bought her some fancy dresses and she had a good streak going. Subaru wasn’t the one who probably piled on mountains of bad karma from cheating or bad luck or whatever let the woman get close to winning. This wasn’t her problem whatsoever.

So what if she was going to get mugged? She needs to learn sometime that the world doesn’t revolve around her! Maybe this experience will be—

Swallowing, Subaru could feel the distant sensation of the cheap knife against her neck, stuck in a corner. Even if it didn’t go beyond that, could she really wish that on anyone?

‘Hey, Idiots!’ Felt echoed in Subaru’s head from long, long ago. ’Just wanted to tell you that it’s a really bad idea to be doing this so close to the market. All it’d take from her is a scream, and jail’s the best you have to look forward to!’

Subaru clenched her fists, then grabbed the sword on the table and slid it back into the back of her pants. It may not have been her fault that the woman was a complete idiot, but if not for her, they wouldn’t have run into those jackasses just now. And besides, if Felt would stop to help her, then what kind of a person would Subaru be not to do the same.

Quickly standing up, Subaru smacked the shoulder of the closest gambler.

“One of you, go fetch a guard, I think she just did something really stupid!” she commanded.

“Huh?” the one she smacked looked up.

“What do you care—?” another spoke up.

“I got your money back, just do this, will you?!” Subaru hissed, stepping around them and heading for the door, looking back just a moment. “Sorry for leaving so quickly, Mun-san, Ha-chan! I’ll be right back!”

Without waiting for their reply, or listening to the concerned call behind her, Subaru swung the door open and rushed out, turning to where she saw the stupid idiot head with the thugs.

 

                                           

 

“So, care to repeat that little comment now ?!” a voice called two corners down the first alleyway from the Man of the Singing Sword bar as Subaru ran in looking for the moronic woman.

“I wonder if perhaps your inability to understand plain speech played a part in you ending up in such a pathetic state.” laughed the smug woman’s voice without a hint of fear, even now completely ignorant of her situation.

With what Subaru heard about her waiting for her companion, she could only imagine that it must have meant whatever knight or other her daddy hired to shield them from the realities of this world.

“You have a big mouth!” one of the men angrily retorted.

“You won’t be this confident when we send you home without all those fancy jewels and that expensive looking dress!” another one offered in encore.

“Don’t get your hopes up, ruffians. Dredges of low standing like you shouldn’t expect much fortune.” the woman’s voice called commandingly, as Subaru’s feet finally reached the final corner and she came to the sight of the three men forming a half circle around the woman in black.

She was standing with a wall near behind her, the alley rather narrow, allowing the three to essentially close her in without yet having stepped too close.

Would it kill you idiots to get an honest job?! ” Subaru shouted, charging down the short path to the four in the alley.

In the confusion caused by her sudden appearance, Subaru had just enough time to reach them, push past the Moe Howard looking little bastard on her side of the alley and grab the woman in red, pulling her out of the half circle.

“Hey, hey, hey!” the blue haired one called angrily, reaching a hand behind his back.

“Unhand me!” the woman shouted, pulling her arm free in one strong move once she was pulled behind Subaru.

“You really need to learn how to say ‘thank you’, lady!” Subaru hissed, glancing back at her over her shoulder, pushing her arms slightly to either side like a small human shield between the thugs and the ungrateful woman.

“What do you think you’re doing, you dumb broad? Want to get stabbed?!” the leader spoke once again.

Subaru gritted her teeth. What did she think she was doing? This was such a stupid thing to do. She shouldn’t have gotten involved at all, but at least it let her appreciate a bit more what Felt did for her once.

“D-do you not recognize, the damsel you have beset yourselves upon?!” Subaru muttered out the first thing she could think of.

“Damsel?” the shorty repeated with a smirk.

“Do you presume to think who I am?” came the question from behind Subaru with a voice mixing amusement and calculated curiosity.

“Why, of course I would !” Subaru said, gritting her teeth some more, waiting for the woman to get a clue and just shut up already. “Your ladyship’s escort will be here in a moment!” she added, mock calling over her shoulder before narrowing her eyes at the thugs. “Her entourage includes fifty knights and seven mages! So if you don’t want things to get ugly, you best clear off right now!” she hissed at the trio.

“Wait, hold up.” the bruiser said, squinting his eyes. “Yo, Chin, Kan. I swear, I know this chick. Doesn’t she look familiar?”

“Shit, I think you’re right, Ton.” Chin, the blue haired one, responded after a moment, with a surprised, cruel smile. “You’re the idiot that was trying to pass her friend off as Satella reborn, aren’t you?!”

“Who— Oh! Oh wow, you’ve got to be kidding me!” the shorty Kan added, laughing up. “You’re still trying to pull the same stupid scams?!”

“Did your half-elf friend walk out on you for being an ass?” Chin laughed.

“You didn’t tell this one what your scam’s gonna be either? Man you’re terrible at this.” Ton the bruiser noted with a grin.

“Seriously?!” Subaru hissed. “How many people do you guys mug that you managed to remember?”

“As if you could forget something that pathetic!” Chin retorted. “Ah man, you’re a thing and a half. I almost want to let you go just for being hilarious.” he said, rubbing his eye for a moment before getting more serious. “Too bad you decided to show up with some pretty expensive looking costumes this time. You both are going to step right out of them.” he finished, pulling out one of the sharp knives he kept behind himself.

The woman behind Subaru spoke up with a bit of a disinterested tone: “If I gather correctly, you were attempting to put on some sort of act for these peasants?” she spoke, plainly aiming the comment at Subaru.

“No, really? You think so?!” Subaru responded, shooting a cold look back at the woman. “How very observant of you! Maybe next time you could observe that three thugs are more than one little princess in a pretty dress!”

The only response she got to her retort was the woman in red raising a crooked eyebrow over her fan.

“I’m sorry, has it even occurred to you that perhaps you should run ?!” Subaru fumed at her.

“Why should I? I doubt there’s anything more interesting happening elsewhere in these drab streets.” the woman said as if it was the most natural response in a deadly situation like this.

“You’re both freaking mental, ain’t ya?” Kan, the shorty called out. “Don’t you see the knife?”

“The Diglett ’s making a good point, can’t you ?!” Subaru hissed.

“What did she call me?!” Kan shouted.

Subaru’s shaky attachment to the situation was draining away by the second, making her care less and less about trying to help this insufferable harlot with each passing moment. However, now that they saw her, they probably would chase after her even if she tried to leave, since it’s not like they’d have to try too hard to keep the idiot in reach apparently.

“Alright, fine! You want trouble?!” Subaru shouted. “ Guards! Guards! ” she cried out as loud as she could.

“You’re pretty dumb if you think that will work this deep in an alley and this time of day with the market all but closed.” Chin mocked, licking his teeth at the end for emphasis, reaching for the second knife. “You best just start dropping everything you have.”

“What’s even the point of having guards if you idiots can carry that attitude?!” Subaru fumed.

“Ah, I believe I’m beginning to understand.” the woman behind her spoke. “Were you hoping to stage some sort of rescue?”

Subaru felt something snap within her. Her body relaxed, her arms loosened, and she straightened herself out, turning around with a cold stare.

“You cannot be this clueless.” she said, looking at the orange haired woman. “What the hell did you think this would be?! Do you even understand that they are mugging you?!”

“Don’t make me laugh.” the woman scoffed. “That is quite impossible for them to do.” she noted, no doubt referencing her lofty delusions of the world being incapable of dealing her a bad hand. “Besides, as far as your performance as some sort of rescuer, I’m quite certain travelling street performers could put on a more convincing act that whatever this has been thus far.”

“I’m done with this stupid act!” Chin’s voice called out, and Subaru heard the man walking towards her.

Stop. ” Subaru commanded, stepping back and away from the thug and holding out her arms towards him.

Her rationality had drifted away somewhere along the way. Perhaps it’s that her experiences thus far have dulled her fight or flight response to the point where the fact that the man was holding two knives just didn’t give her the same overwhelming sense of fear overriding everything else that they once would have some time ago. She knew their danger, but in the haze of her anger, frustration and the sheer absurdity of having to deal with this woman’s delusions and the same bloody trio of thugs once more flipped something in her.

“You haven’t got the first idea what I’ve been through since we last met.” she hissed, pulling up her sleeves, the countless white claw and bite scars on her forearm revealing themselves in the alley’s dim lights. “I am done with you. Both of you!” she declared, glancing over her shoulder for a moment.

“You’re really daft!” Chin hissed at her. “You want to fight me with your bare hands?! I’ll gut you with these knives in a second!” he taunted, though not stepping closer.

“Yeah, you tell ‘em, Chin!” Kan said, a slight sense of insecurity that Subaru’s subconscious had picked up on a while ago swimming to the surface of her mind as she beheld the trio of thugs that by all means could and should have beat the hell out of the two women by now.

Uncertain, but caught up in the flow of things, a manic little smile crept onto Subaru’s cheeks, as she reached behind herself and under her jacket.

“Knife? Those things?” Subaru asked, narrowing her eyes dramatically, shifting her body sideways a bit, hoping for the best effect. “Those aren’t knives.” she huffed smugly, utterly consumed by her own act, pulling on the thin rod of metal sticking out of the sheath in the back of her pants, then shifting her arm forward. “ This is a knife.” she declared with the closest approximation of an Australian accent she could muster, letting the large, dark, purple blade gleam in the alley’s light.

The guy with the knives suddenly took a step back at the sight of the black thing.

“Fuck me, since when did you—” Chin asked, holding his knives infront of himself defensively.

“Oy, oy!” Ton called. “Chin, what are you doing?! You need to—”

Her instincts paying off, Subaru’s manic expression grew, and she allowed herself the slightest step forward, holding out the blade ahead of herself.

“Not so big now, are we?!” she shouted with a twisted grin.

“Chin, the hell are you doing?! Just stab her! She was a push over!” Kan called to her buddy, though Kan himself was slowly backing away too

“Shut the fuck up!” Chin shouted. “I’ve got this, I just, you know how I never actually—”

“She’s just talking big, yeah, yeah, she was a coward last time, right? It’s just the act!” Ton added, almost not making an attempt to approach Subaru.

Laughing out of the ecstasy of just deserts and reversed roles, Subaru clumsily swung the blade in the trio’s general direction, though of course all of them were well out of her reach.

“You know, there comes a time in the life of every thug, when he needs to decide, ‘Do I want this trouble?’” Subaru said coyly, wagging the blade in the air in front of her then on a sudden whim narrowed her eyes and squared her jaw a bit.. “Maybe you’re asking yourself, ‘Does she know how to use that blade? Or does she not?’ These are the times you really have to wonder.” she said, pointing the knife out at the knife wielder. “You have to ask yourself: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well. Do ya? Punks?! ” she added, driving it home.

“Fuck this. I’m not getting caught but some crazy bastard!” Chin said, backing away and heading down the alley.

“Hey, hey!” the two others called after him, giving Subaru one more glance before heading after their pack leader.

Falling silent at the sight of the thugs she thought nearly killed her so long ago, now running away in fear of her, Subaru just stared at their shrinking silhouettes until they disappeared around a corner. She actually had no idea what the hell she should have even done with the knife, but they bought her bluff hook, line and sinker.

At first giggling, Subaru’s gut reaction to the unearned, unexpected, utterly ridiculous victory quickly grew into an uncontrollable cackle of relief, a cackle, in which soon she’d recognize a second voice, which was not her own.

“This is a knife?” the woman in red repeated mockingly.

“I don’t need your criticism.” Subaru huffed, the woman’s continued aloof attitude cooling her off rather quickly.

“Well, if nothing else, I will say you might have a meager future as a court jester.” the woman said, fanning herself.

“You really are crazy, aren’t you?” Subaru said, turning to the woman fully, her temper cooling off, the laughter now completely gone from her voice. “You do realize you could have been robbed? You could have been cut, maybe even killed by those guys if things turned out any different.”

“As if.” the woman huffed with a smirk, lowering her fan. “They never stood a chance.”

“I don’t care how much you think this world exists for you, me winning our bet earlier should have clued you in well and good that’s not how things go!” Subaru said with great annoyance.

“Should it?” the woman asked, raising her eyebrow. “If anything, it just goes to confirm things. I had no need for those coins, and had I won that silly little weapon, I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy this little performance, now could I?” she said with certainty. “No matter what, my choices and actions always lead to the best possible result.”

Subaru stared at the woman for whom the term “overconfident” wasn’t even close to cutting it.

“You’re unbelievable.” Subaru sighed. She wanted to continue, order her to come back to the main road and wait for her guardian or whatever it was she was waiting for but then—

There she is! ” an angry voice called, and on the other end of the alley, a familiar looking man from the bar appeared, soon behind him, a crowd of at least a dozen.

“Goddamn monkey paw.” Subaru muttered.

Chapter Text

“Don’t even think about running!” the stocky man in about his thirties leading the small mob shouted angrily in the direction of Subaru and the orange haired woman beside her.

One upside from the trio of idiots a moment ago, was that no one in the crowd currently had any weapons drawn threatening to charge the two of them down. The downside was that even at a glance, Subaru saw at least three of the men behind the leader had sword sheaths on their belt, and unlike the alleyrat talking big game with his knives, they probably could use them. Subaru can only have the luck to run into so many poser cowards in one day.

The woman beside her didn’t move from her spot, simply shifted her weight into a somehow even more relaxed and casual posture, fanning herself. Her eyes showed no sign of concern as she looked at the approaching men.

“Hey, no one wants trouble!” Subaru exclaimed nervously, holding up her hands along with the curved blade she still had out.

“You were at the bar too!” the stocky man shouted down the alley, only a few seconds away from Subaru. “You’re that guard she mentioned!”

“What?! No!” Subaru exclaimed back. “I’ve got nothing to do with her!” Why would she ever want to work for this moron?

“Then what, you came to mug her?” the stocky man asked with a raised brow, stopping along with his men a dozen steps away from Subaru, having well and completely blocked the path heading back the way she came.

“No, I—” Subaru began, then realizing the short blade in her hand and quickly moved it behind herself, making two of the armed men twitch for a moment before she quickly slid it back in the seath. “No, no, no! I was just scaring off some muggers, I didn’t mean to—”

“So you are her guard!” the stocky man yelled angrily.

“No I’m not!” Subaru hissed. “As if—”

“As if I’d hire help like this.” the woman in red interrupted, scoffing at the mere thought that Subaru could ever be in her employ.

Gritting her teeth, Subaru summoned what mental fortitude she had to not antagonize the angry people ahead of them by ignoring them so she could tell off the woman beside her, and instead continued looking at the stocky man. He was definitely one of the two people who charged out of the bar early.

“Look, just talk to your friends at the bar, I won back everything she earned, they should have your money!” Subaru said.

“Ain’t gonna work girlie, everyone from the table was gone when we checked there a moment ago.”

“Then just go to their house, I’m sure they—” Subaru pleaded.

“How the hell am I to know where they live?!” the man hissed.

“Wait, so—”

Subaru recalled the happy attitude with which the three men were splitting up the money she won for them. It hadn’t even occurred to her that they would also split up money that didn’t belong to them.

“Did you know they were strangers?!” Subaru asked, upset, turning to the woman.

“What would I care what they were?” she sighed.

“Didn’t you think it would be prudent to mention when I won back their money, that the two who left are probably not with the other three?!” Subaru retorted.

“What concern would that be of mine?” the woman asked, shooting a glare at Subaru over her fan.

Raising her left hand between herself and the woman, Subaru’s fingers were painfully tense and curled into a claw. Breathing heavily, she gestured to the mob.

That! ” she declared. “That concern!”

“Some more hoodlums? Hah!” Clearly, having Subaru take care of her mugger problem a moment ago didn’t help sober her up.

“Hoodlums?!” the stocky man repeated. “Do you have any idea who my father is?!”

The woman simply laughed at this remark, while Subaru couldn’t help but remark that the man seemed quite a bit old to be invoking their father in any situation. Then again, he also looked too old to be gambling money for the chance to grab some strange woman’s chest, so—

“Look, I’m sure this lady can just pay you back, let’s all calm down, and—” Subaru tried to ease the tension.

“Pay me back?” the man fumed.

“Pay him back?” the woman laughed.

“Nah, we’re past that, ladies.” the man said coldly, letting loose a sharp whistle, to which some of the men drew their swords, causing the blood to freeze in Subaru.

“W-wait, hold on now.” she muttered uncertainty, taking a step back. “A bit of banter is nothing to get violent over, right?”

“No broad cheats me and gets away with it!” the man declared, his swordsmen taking slow, measured steps towards the two women, the idiot in red still not reacting at all to any of this.

“What about the one with the knife, boss?” one of the swordsmen asked, keeping his eyes trained on Subaru, which might have been flattering if Subaru ever heard the intention of coming off as a threat, which she didn’t, definitely not since she saw a dozen people come down the alley at her.

“The mouthy one looks important, so we don’t need any witnesses.” the ‘boss’ answered.

“Right, that means I walk away, and haven’t seen nothing, haven’t heard nothing, right?” Subaru mumbled out, her legs stiff.

“No.” the stocky man said simply without a shred of pity in his voice.

Subaru wasn’t sure what she did what she did next. Well, she was sure about part of it. It was a pretty straightforward thing, turning around and running down the other way where the thug trio escaped a minute ago. The people ahead of her clearly weren’t going to let this go with a wag of their finger, and it didn’t seem like she could just toss her purse at them as a bribe either. So yes, that part of what she did made sense.

What she wasn’t sure abou was why she reached out and grabbed the woman’s hand next to her, yanking her along down the alleyway.

 

                                           

 

Subaru was relieved to learn that monstrously quick and strong people like Granhiert, the oni twins, and from reputation, Reinhard were really few and far between, as the men chasing them had trouble closing the gap as Subaru and the woman in red rushed off. She could only maintain her grasp on the woman’s arm for a few moments in the beginning until naturally she protested and ripped herself free, since then dashing well ahead of Subaru, putting the nightly runs of hers to shame.

Honestly, it occurred to Subaru multiple times as they raced through the jagged little streets and alleys, trying to get themselves back on a main road where perhaps there would be some guards, that it would make sense to just take a different fork. Would have been so simple. Their main target was the woman in red anyway, so she could just slip out— But then, would she really leave this woman to die just because she’s insufferable? Even if they fell behind a bit, the swordsmen were probably in good shape, and would out match the delusional damsel in endurance. If she didn’t have to carry that blade and her beloved new guitar on her back, Subaru could probably outrun her herself. At least that’s what she thought.

Besides, what would she tell Rem later when they met up? Wouldn’t the people back at the rented manor be disappointed in Subaru for leaving someone to die? No, worse, they probably wouldn’t just nod in compassion.

‘It’s not like you could have done anything.’ they would think, surely. And they’d be right. But that just upset her more.

Some of the buildings looked a little bit familiar to her. She did spend about a day and a half wandering in these narrow streets, trying to get to the loot house one day, find Felt the other, though that was over two months ago from her perspective, so it didn’t help a lot. Her sense of direction also wasn’t the best when it came to these jagged streets. She’d have needed some sort of a landmark or something like when she navigated the forest around the manor using the silhouette of the distant mountains as a waypoint—

“Wait!” Subaru exclaimed, spotting something familiar that flared her memories long ago as she screened the roofs, trying to determine which way’s east by the way the evening sun cast its shadows. “That tower!” Subaru exclaimed.

Even as far back as her first day, she remembered Felt mentioning the bell tower in the market district, the one she loved to climb up into and look at the city. In recent days after the girl had opened up slightly to Subaru, she had tried to strike conversations, ask her where she’d like to go to in the capital, and sure enough, the tower was mentioned again, along with Felt’s favourite route to it, which involved climbing up the side of a smithy on the main market street and heading east on the roofs. Which means, if the tower is there, and the sun is hitting it like that—

“I know the way!” Subaru exclaimed.

“About time.” the woman huffed. Not in exhaustion, just mild displeasure- Though bizarrely, there was a hint of amusement in her voice, as if she considered this experience of running for her life ‘fun’.

If she wasn’t worried about running out of breath, Subaru would have retorted to her flippant attitude, instead, she just sped up as best she could and pointed down the next fork as to which was the main street should be.

Glancing over her shoulder, she no longer saw the men chasing them, but she could regardless hear the echo of distant steps, which meant they could probably hear theirs too. Maybe if she knew the streets better, she could have come up with a simpler, less exhausting solution, like heading down a safe alley, into some restaurant or something like once before, someplace where their pursuers wouldn’t dare go through with their threats, but for now this was the best she could hope for.

One, two, three turns later, in the distance she heard a familiar noise. The sound of carriages rolling over the cobblestone roads just on the other side of a line of houses ahead of them. In fact, glancing up, she even spotted a small tower ontop of one of the buildings that she also saw on the way to the noble district. They were actually quite close to the garrison! If they just head right, they should probably come out right next to the guards’ barracks, and they’ll be home—

“Left!” the woman in red suddenly announced, a few steps ahead of Subaru.

“What?! No! We need to go right!” Subaru retorted, the woman ignoring her plea.

Not willing to let them get distracted this close to home by the airheaded aristocrat, Subaru jumped forward and grabbed the woman’s hand.

“If we go that way—” Subaru began, only to feel the woman twist her arm and pull it back in a fashion that caused Subaru to completely lose her balance, tripping on her own feet and sliding face first over the cobblestone until she managed to stop herself with her hands, which both collected heavy bruises on the stonework. She barely managed to fall right, the slightest mistake, and she could have landed on the precious guitar on her back.

“I have said repeatedly not to touch me! Even the dumbest animal would have learned by now!” the woman said. She didn’t sound angry. She looked at Subaru stumbling around, trying to clamber to her feet like one would at a misbehaving animal.

“What— What makes you think this is the time to argue over this?!” Subaru exclaimed, gesturing wildly down on the right path. “The noble district is that way, there should be a military garrison just down that path if we reach the edge of the buildings.”

“I, on the other hand, want to go left.” the woman said simply.

“You—?!” Subaru pushed her aching fingers against her temple. “Is there any reason?!”

“I have decided I do not wish to go right.” the woman said. “It’s quite simple, I do not understand how even someone of such low standing could have trouble grasping the concept.”

Subaru was on the edge of seeing red, the echo of the feet behind them growing louder. She could just go. She could just leave the woman to die. If she didn’t bring it up, surely no one would ask any questions… But no, that wouldn’t make it right. Emilia flashed through her mind, scolding her for her impulsiveness. She had to try harder.

“Look, I’m agitated.” Subaru said, huffing with urgency. “Maybe I don’t see something here, but you gotta give me a good reason for why we shouldn’t go where I’m pretty sure it’s safe!”

“I have given it. The reason is that I’ve decided against it. There’s no point in giving it any deep thought, as no matter how I choose, it will lead to the best outcome—” Suddenly, the woman’s eyes opened a bit more, like she just had a realization.

With an annoyed huff, she lowered her fan and looked around before continuing, not even looking at Subaru, almost as if she was talking to herself.

“As a matter of fact, I think I’m done. Why should I keep running just because of a couple of pathetic ruffians?”

“Because they have swords ?!” Subaru exclaimed, unable to believe she had to even point this out.

The woman before her showed absolutely no sign of being able to defend herself. She carried no weapon. It had briefly occured to Subaru previously that perhaps she has some magical talent that she could use to defend herself, but even that didn’t make sense. Not once had this infuriating woman given even the slightest hint that she was getting ready to defend herself with magic or otherwise.

“Swords?” the woman asked, a look of amusement returning to her face, giving Subaru a sly smile. “I think you mean knives.” she said, laughing up as if she had just said something hilarious. “Or oh, hm, how was it?” she pondered, tapping her fan gently against her chin, staring off at the sky, having grown completely obvious to the heavy footsteps just around the last corner they passed.

“We need to—” Subaru began, frantically looking down the path they came, however she was interrupted by a sudden cry.

“Careful!” an elegant voice called from above.

There, a white cape, or rather coat fluttered in the air, the same colour and design as the one Subaru saw Reinhard wear earlier today. It was worn by a man with violet, shoulder length hair who dropped down from the roof above, grabbing hold of a steel gutter pipe running down the length of the building on the side of the road. Maintaining a light grip on it, his fine dress shoes skidding against the wall of the building, he let go of the pipe at just the right moment to land squarely on his feet with the grace of a cat.

The man, who had a finely decorated sheath with an equally decorated sword hilt sticking out of it on his hip, concealed only partially by his coat, quickly glanced over his shoulder to where the sound of footsteps were coming from, before returning his eyes to Subaru for the briefest moment, before resting them on the woman in red.

“Forgive my crass entrance, I was informed that a lady of your fair description had encountered trouble.” the man said, bowing forward, a hand on his chest. “I hadn’t realized it fully, until I spotted your ladyship. If it is the aforementioned trouble that I detect headed this way, I wish to offer my blade.”

“Great! Those guys actually did something!” Subaru sighed in relief, recalling the three men she asked to go fetch the guards. This guy was clearly a knight based on his mannerisms and uniform. The man glanced at her briefly after this comment, perhaps acknowledging that she was the one who raised the alarm.

“Hmph. How subservient.” the woman huffed, showing no measure of respect. “I have no need of you, but neither do I have any interest in this situation any further, so you may do as you like.” she said, waving her fan at him dismissively.

At this moment, the first members of the slightly broken up mob finally reached the end of the alleyway, and with swords raised began running towards the three, though quickly coming to a halt, likely from seeing the man.

“Uh, when’s the rest of you coming?” Subaru asked, backing away a little bit further, glancing up at the roof, hoping at least a couple more knights would leap down after the handsome purple haired swordsman.

“I do not think anyone else is coming.” the tall knight responded in a calm voice, turning fully towards the assembling men at the end of the alley.

“Hold on—” Subaru spoke up. It might have been a knight, but just out of the men who already caught up with them, now she could see at least six wielding swords. “You don’t mean to fight them all by yourself, do you?” she asked. “I have a blade, but I can’t—”

“I appreciate the offer, and the concern.” the man said with a smile, turning his head and staring Subaru down with his sharp, yellow eyes. “However, the young lady should rest at ease. The situation is handled, and I never fight alone.” he said in a voice filled with confidence and chivalry.

From the sound of things, the entire mob had by now assembled at the other end of the alleyway, seemingly having even picked up a few extra people along the way, the stocky man pushing through, shouting at his men as to why they are not pursuing, struck silent when reaching the front he saw the knight standing defiantly between his people and the two women, sword still sheathed.

“Wh-why are you not attacking?!” the stocky man called out nervously. “The bitch is right there! It’s just one knight!”

The tall, purple-haired man tilted his head ever so slightly forward and spoke:

“A man should avoid such crude language, more so in the company of ladies, especially aimed at them,” he said coldly.

Here, he took a few steps forward, adjusting his coat and his hair. Subaru wasn’t sure if this was the time for that, but there were times even she knew to shut up, and this was one of them.

“My name is Julius Juukulius.” the man announced with a measured, stern voice, slowly turning his head from left to right, likely scanning the men assembled before him, though of course, Subaru couldn’t see his eyes from behind. “I am a Spirit Knight of the Royal Guard, in service for Anastasia Hoshin, candidate to the throne.” As he continued, he held out his left hand, and one by one, six colourful dots of light appeared above it, of the same colour as the dots Subaru saw on the number eleven yellow cards. Black, white, yellow, green, blue and red. “I have committed your faces to memory.” he said, his tone growing yet more stern. “Attempting assault with murderous intent on the innocent, let alone within our nation’s fair capital, let alone on your chosen target is threefold an offence worthy of execution.”

When he started talking, with his confidence, Subaru was filled with relief, thinking he might just scare everyone off, but this last comment pinched all her nerves at once. ‘What the hell is he saying?! If you tell them you’re going to track them down and execute them no matter what, then they’ll definitely rush you!’ she thought, though the pressure the man exerted, able to strike silent the entire mob with the sheer force of his charisma wasn’t lost on her, and she too was rendered unable to interject.

“That being said, honour dictates I grant you the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps some of you were misguided, tricked or coerced into your folly.” Julius continued. “As I am bound to protect the woman you have chosen to beset yourself upon, and it appears no grievous harm had yet been done, I grant that you have three options.” he said, stepping closer to the mob. “First, you may retreat. If you turn yourself in with the guard, then justice may be lenient. If you do not, I will make certain that your likeness will be passed onto the guards, and you’ll be brought to justice by force.”

Already, Subaru heard footsteps in the back shuffle away, the stocky man nervously looking behind himself, looking as though he wanted to call after the traitors, but remaining silent in the face of the overwhelming present.

“Second,” Julius continued. “Surrender to me here and now, reveal the agitators, whoever they may be, and I will give personal recommendation for lenient punishment.” he continued, though it didn’t seem like there were any takers, just a few more feet shuffling off in the back. “Finally, you may attempt to pursue violence, in which case my companions and I will be your opponent. Given that I must accompany her ladyship to safety, we won’t have the liberty to take prisoners.”

Here, the floating dots of light flew up from his hand, taking their place arched over his head from shoulder to shoulder. Julius shifted his posture slightly, turning his body sideways the slightest bit, his right hand poised to reach for and draw his blade at the slightest provocation.

This seemed to have done it. The back half of the mob broke off and dispersed into the alley, with the few swordsmen closest to the three of them hesitating for just a short while, before giving up as well, harsh words being tossed at them by the stocky man, though he didn’t hesitate to leave either.

Julius’ posture softened, and he gave out a long sigh, sounding disappointed. The lights above his shoulder faded away.

“That’s it?” the woman in red asked in a displeased tone. “After all that grandeur, you’d allow them to leave with their lives, utterly unscathed?”

The knight turned around and bowed deeply.

“Forgive me, given their number, it would have been troublesome to fight or arrest them proper in this environment, without causing damage to the property of the capital’s citizenry or eschewing my duty to see your ladyship to safety.” Julius said humbly.

“And for that, you’d let scum like that run free without punishment?” the woman huffed. “This kingdom really is in a pathetic state if your kind passes for the highest order.”

“Rest assured, my lady, that I will personally see that justice reaches those miscreants.” Julius stated, his head still bowed.

“If whatever justice this sorry city can muster is as pathetically limp as your display a moment ago, then I hardly see the point with bothering.” the woman huffed, covering her mouth once more with her fan.

“Hey, hey!” Subaru spoke up. She was still slightly stunned by the events a moment ago, and frankly the way that the knight and the noblewoman spoke to each other made her feel rather isolated from the conversation, but there was a limit. “I might think it’s dangerous to let those people run free too, but this guy literally just jumped down from a roof to help save your sorry ass!”

The knight’s body seemed to stiffen, and he straightened himself up, to Subaru, making the few centimeters that he had over her really felt.

“Excuse me, but I do not believe I understand the young lady’s standing here.” he spoke with a slightly stern voice. “May I ask your name and position?”

Taken a little aback by the sudden, formal address and the way he slightly squinted his yellow eyes at her, Subaru needed to collect her thoughts for a moment.

“R-right, uh…” shaking herself a bit, trying to loosen the awkwardness settling on her, Subaru put on a confident smile and did her best to return the knight’s state right back into his eyes, puffing out her chest, and holding a thumb to herself. “Natsuki Subaru, servant of the household of Roswaal L Mathers and aspiring bard, or minstrel, I haven’t quite made up my mind on which. I also asked the guys at the bar to send for a guard!” she declared.

“I see.” Julius nodded, closing his eyes, his face strangely growing sterner. “In that case, I would wish to request Natsuki-san to refrain from addressing her ladyship with such an attitude.”

Subaru furrowed her brows. “Okay, I get that she’s ‘a noble of the realm’, but—”

“I’m afraid there is no ‘but’ in this matter, Natsuki-san. As a—” the knight opened his eyes and paused, then continued in a surprised tone. “If I may ask, what is a servant of the Mathers Estate doing with— Did you call her ‘a noble of the realm’?”

The woman was eyeing their exchange carefully over her fan.

“Come on, you speak all fanciful, I was just trying to spice it up a little. She’s a noble, sure, pretty clear from the dress and attitude, but that doesn’t excuse bad mouthing everyone, does it?”

“On the contrary, there is no bad mouthing at play here. If the objective qualities of people as I call them out cause them offense, then that is clearly a fault of their own failings, and indeed should endeavour to learn from my words, or at the very least, go shrink away in a ditch somewhere so they do not obscene my sight.” the woman stated with confidence.

“See what I mean?” Subar sighed, looking at Julius.

“It is not my place to speak judgement on her ladyship.” Julius said, shaking his head, looking back at Subaru sternly once more. “You should understand that as a—”

“Knight.” the woman said commandingly, to which Julius right away stopped what he was saying and turned to her.

“Yes my—?” Julius’ words were interrupted a second time, this time by a sharp, loud slap against his cheek, delivered by the woman in red in the blink of an eye.

“If I feel the need for someone to give introductions in my place, I will say so.” she said coldly, casually shaking off her hand.

Julius stood there stiffly in the aftershock of the blow against his cheek for a moment, then something seemed to shift in his eye, and he gave a little nod.

“I see, my lady. I apologize for my outburst.” he said, straightening himself out, and adjusting his now shuffled hair before turning to Subaru. “I also understand perhaps a bit more of the situation, though I would still warn against such crass attitudes in any company.”

“I’ll take that as a ‘you were right’.” Subaru grinned.

Chapter Text

“That is quite enough, I shall handle this without your unwelcome intrusion from here.” the magnificent and beautiful woman in her brilliant crimson and black dress declared, snapping her fan shut and pointing it at the meddling, purple-haired knight who had so insisted to escort her back to safety.

“Wait, so you’re just going to head right back into that bar and wait?” sighed the prideful little servant girl who couldn’t remember her place. “Maybe I really ought to just head back to the manor then.”

“And what concern is it to either of us what you do?” the woman asked, her orange hair swaying in the air as she briefly granted the girl another morsel of her invaluable attention. “The amusement you could grant had run its course, so scurry off to wherever your servant types reside already.”

“Sheesh, okay.” the girl responded.

Their antics and gall may have kept the woman’s interest for a time, however since the knight’s arrival, this evening had turned from a pleasant romp filled with fresh distractions into a droll slog. These lugnican knights could suck the fun right out of any affair. If it wasn’t only natural that she had the finest things, she may have even felt a slimmer of gratitude for being accompanied by one far less boring than they. If, being the key term. All who had the fortune to be associated with her should in truth be the ones who fall down in gratitude for being so graced by her presence.

“I am not certain that it would be safe to—” the knight began, holding out a gesturing hand as he talked, no doubt trying to elongate his time in her presence.

Turning the closed fan in her hand, she flicked her wrist sharply, delivering a blow against the out turned hand. The knight made no sound, however she was confident that strike had more than made her point clear as he gently clutched the struck hand in the other, a faint glow appearing along with one of his little glowing toys.

“I’ve already caught a glance of my attendant inside through the window.” the woman declared with great impatience. “Your excuse had exhausted itself, so begone now and stop boring me!”

The knight performed another one of the bows they so loved to showcase constantly, however it was hardly worth her attention at this point, so seeing that he won’t bother her further, the woman simply turned from the two and headed for the door of the bar she had been forced to abandon in such a crude yet novel way a short while ago.

As she parted, behind her, the knight offered the girl an escort back to the noble quarters, though really, it was well beyond the woman’s interest.

Flicking the handle open with her fan, she pushed the door open, the chime above intruding her senses once more as she stepped inside the pathetic little hovel that for the hopeless peasantry likely would have looked as a charming and elegant venue. A few lowly characters dressed the same as the common peddlers of the nearby market gave her a glance as she entered. Utterly below her status, she had no recollection or care if they were here previously, and instead headed across the bar without a word to the greeting upstart barkeep, her eyes instead set on the opposing far corner of the room with that strange cabinet-like instrument at which a woman had previous produced yet unheard melodies. There, probably the same woman was clicking the white bars on the front, once more producing some manner of music, a tall, shabbily dressed figure hovering over her, their one and only arm resting atop the cabinet.

“So this is what you do in place of looking for your mistress, is it?” the woman called.

The shabby figure raised their head concealed under a dark, metal helmet decorated with red plumes, standing alone atop their otherwise light attire. The woman next to them stopped playing the instrument and looked up at them, giving a greeting, which went promptly ignored.

Sunny -sama!” echoed out from under the helmet, as the figure turned towards her, taking their arm off the top of the instrument. ‘Sunny’ was an odd nickname, which she was assured meant as brilliant as the sun itself, a rare nickname she allowed for herself. “You would know I was certain you’d return here.”

“Oh, so you’d dress your sloth as an act of waiting out of loyalty then?” ‘Sunny’ asked, flipping her fan open and closed a couple of times as she closed the distance. “I see. Well, quite dutiful of you then.”

The shabbily dressed figure raised their muscular right arm, the only one they had, and scratched their helm in mock uncertainty. This raised the short, torn yellow cloak they wore over their shoulder, further revealing the crude, unsightly wrappings under their vest binding their normally decent chest. The thick sword sheath on their waist made no attempt at being concealed.

“I was told you wandered off, have you had any fun?” the shabby woman asked.

“For a time, then naturally one of those knights had to intrude their presence upon my enjoyment.” ‘Sunny’ stated, fanning herself. “There was a perfectly fine crowd of miscreants to dispatch of, but they’ve gone and let them run so they may ‘escort me to safety’. Now what kind of a man would think that way, Debra?”

“Aaaah, you collected a few toys, but he didn’t have the courtesy to break them for you.” Debra sighed, shaking her head, the helmet rattling as she did, the little metal brick she carried around her neck that she enjoyed blowing into falling out from under her cape and wagging in the air from its string. “I take it you’re not in a good mood then?” she asked, pushing the small, noisy box back in its place.

“I haven’t quite decided.” ‘Sunny’ said, fanning herself, narrowing her eyes, and looking down at the musician sitting in front of the cabinet next to them, before looking back up at Debra. “I can’t imagine what interested you so in this crude locale.”

“No?” Debra spoke with surprise in her voice. “I was sure you’d be interested in what I was told is a one of a kind attraction. I do not believe there’s another of this instrument in the world.” she added, patting the box’s top.

“Not that we are aware of, no.” the woman sitting before it noted.

‘Sunny’ narrowed her eyes at the woman with a frown. She could bear it when the lower classes acted above their station in her presence, so long as they offered some entertainment, however this woman had simply forced herself into her conversation, uninvited!

“Uh, Sunny-sama, this woman was just explaining about the instrument!” Debra spoke up, leaning slightly between ‘Sunny’ and the musician. “But since you’re here, perhaps it’s time we return home?”

Sighing and flicking her fan closed, ‘Sunny’ shot a look around the establishment. “Very well, I doubt there’s much entertainment left to be had here.” With that, she turned and began walking towards the exit.

“Thanks for the talk.” she heard Debra say behind, followed by a few quick, seemingly random notes of the instrument. “ Heart and soul… ” she muttered with the tune incomprehensibly before simply adding: “Fancy box.”

By the time ‘Sunny’ reached the door, Debra caught up with her, and pulled the door open. Once outside the brief ponder on which way to head was accompanied by a sigh.

“Between the mice hearted knights, unpunished criminals and clueless underlings, this entire kingdom seems more pathetic and unappealing by the day.”

“That almost sounds like you’re losing interest.” Debra noted, following behind her mistress closely. “But part of me feels you’re probably just looking forward to cleaning it up.”

“Don’t put it so base!” ‘Sunny’ huffed. “If anything, you’d have been the one cleaning, had you returned quicker.”

“Sorry, Sunny-sama. If I knew there’s going to be trouble, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

“You’re very lucky I managed to entertain myself.” ‘Sunny’ said, shooting a narrow look to her companion.

“Haaaaaa.” exhaled Debra awkwardly before noting. “If any of that runaway trouble circles back, I’d be happy to break a few limbs. Surely that’d put you in a better mood.”

“Don’t accuse me of such things!” ‘Sunny’ hissed, then put on a sharp smile. “Though, if only.” she wondered. “At the very least, if I heard correctly, we might run into the loudest of the lot soon.”

“Oh? Did someone do something truly idiotic, like swear eternal vengence against Sunny-sama?”

“Ha! Now that would have been entertaining.” she laughed for a moment. “No, it’s simply that they prattled about working for that clownish harlot, though it surprised me even someone of such poor taste would allow someone like that to be in their employ.”

“Someone like what?” Debra probed.

“Bah, it’s hardly worth the effort recalling the details.” ‘Sunny’ waved. “They had the gall to challenge me to some card game called Braklakk , even refusing my chosen prize, a strange instrument on their back. What was it? Gii-tar? ” she pondered. “At the very least, this kingdom seems to have its selection of musical oddities.”

“Hm, yes. A guitar too, huh?” Debra noted ponderously.

“Don’t get distracted now!” ‘Sunny’ scolded sharply. “I still want to find some entertainment this evening. If you’re good, I might let you beat that girl for me later.”

“Sunny-sama is too kind.” Debra nodded, with the sound of a genuine, cruel smile echoing from under her helm.

Chapter Text

“I’m kind of surprised those guys turned out to be a bunch of cowards too.” Subaru sighed, replaying the chase and its conclusion from earlier in her head.

She was currently on her way back towards the noble district, accompanied by Julius, the purple haired knight. Initially, she'd hoped to simply return to the bar and spend some quality time with the piano there until Rem would eventually come for her. However, between the stuck up damsel heading inside as well and the knight directly offering to lead her home, she ended up opting for the return home. Not that she had any interest in being walked home by a handsome young man. Quite the contrary in fact. When she accepted, her only thoughts were that it would be rude to say no, and that she doesn’t need to meet the poor bastard that apparently the woman spotted inside whose only job is to put up with ‘their insurfferableness’. It was only after they reached one of the bigger roads that she had come to the realization that she had in no uncertain terms accepted a man her age to walk her home.

“Ah, right, I know.” Subaru said, trying again to strike up a conversation that can distract her from the horrifying implications, which she was certain there would be some of, even if she couldn’t think of any on account of doing her best not to. “You said you were a ‘Spirit Knight’ right? Those dots were some sort of spirit, weren’t they?” she probed, recalling the similar flying lights she had seen Emilia commune with back at the manor as well as in the slums here once. “Spirit users are pretty scary, huh?”

“‘Scary’ is not exactly the word I would best like to be associated with.” sighed the knight who in spite of his offer to escort Subaru home had paid little attention to her since they departed from the bar, leaving the damsel behind. “Still, I do believe that’s likely how they had perceived me.”

“Yeah, I guessed so.” Subaru nodded glancing up at him, crossing one arm and resting the other’s elbow on it so she could perch her chin on its hand. “So, I guess being a knight, you must be a lot like Reinhard, right?”

Having been barely on the edge of consciousness during the battle between Elsa Granhiert and Reinhard, Subaru had collected that Reinhard was something of an amazing swordsman, however given how long it took him to fend off Granhiert and that in the end all even he managed to do was make her run off in a draw, it was pretty clear that in spite of his reputation as a “knight amongst knights”, there must have been at least a couple of people who could match up to him like Granhiert did, or Emilia who also seemed to hold her own against Granhiert, if only for a time. Maybe since this guy was a knight, and also a spirit user like Emilia, he was one of them?

Instead of an immediate response, the knight turned his eyes to Subaru after her question, piercing her with his gaze under stern eyebrows, examining her features.

“Did I say something wrong?” Subaru muttered, an uncontrollable blush spreading on her face.

Julius’ expression softened, flashing through a mild look of surprise for a moment before turning to a slight, court smile, his face once again facing the road ahead of them.

“No, it simply— For a moment, I believed you were making some sort of a joke at my expense.” A hint of bitterness mixed with his otherwise measured features. “I’m grateful for the compliment, but it would be prideful to a folly to not admit that I’m far from Reinhard-san’s ability. Although my companions, as you’ve recognized, are quite wonderful.” he added.

“You mean the coloured lights.” Subaru noted.

Julius’ face took on a slight frown. “I’m not certain that’s an appropriate address. They are quasi spirits.”

“Quasi spirits?” Subaru asked, trying to make sense of the term. “So they’re something like a spirit but actually just an imitation, or…?”

Without turning his head, Julius looked at Subaru out of the corner of his eye with an increasingly stern look before sighing.

“Simply put, they are the intermediate state of a newborn lesser spirit, and a fully matured spirit.” he explained, turning his eyes back forward, sounding displeased.

“Ah, I see.” Subaru nodded, trying to figure out why he’s been so standoffish about— “Wait, right, I’m such an idiot.” she huffed, shaking her head. “Beatrice would probably be pretty mad at me calling her a lesser spirit too. Sorry if I said something to upset them.” she added awkwardly, putting her palms together and bowing slightly towards the knight walking beside her.

The knight turned his head to her with eyebrows raised in surprise. “I did not expect that reaction.” he noted.

“Huh? That I’d realize I offended them? It was pretty clear you were upset at something I said. I’m not that blind.”

“Allow me to correct myself.” Julius stated, looking once again ahead, away from Subaru. “It wasn’t the realization, rather, I found it odd that you would apologize to the spirits themselves.”

“What’s odd about that?” Subaru asked, furrowing her brows. “Who should I apologize to if I said something that would be offensive to them? You? You’re just contracted to them, right, so that’d be kind of weird, wouldn’t it?”

Julius closed his eyes and huffed with a smile, slowly shaking his head.

“I appreciate the candor, if nothing else. You are quite right, it’s only appropriate to apologize to the offended party.” he said, finally looking down at Subaru. “I understand you are a rather… Open person, are you not? Considering your behaviour towards—” he cut himself off before continuing. “The young lady from earlier.” he finished.

“If you mean me telling her off, yeah. I don’t care if she’s nobility or whatever, you should have seen the way she was behaving!” Subaru huffed. “Someone really needs to give her a talking down before she gets herself or someone else killed because something seems fun.”

Once more Julius’ smile faded, a stern expression returning to his face.

“I feel the need to remind Natsuki-san that it is most uncourt to talk in such a manner about someone of her ladyship’s standing. Especially as a servant in Maquessa Mathers’ employ, I would hope you’d understand this.” he lectured.

Subaru glared up at him. Her tension from earlier had mostly faded, finding distraction in the chat, as much of a weird rollercoaster as his reactions seemed to be. The knight couldn’t seem to decide between a nice young man, and some stuck up lordlet with a jeweled sword up their ass. It’s not that he was wrong, Subaru knew that she was definitely breaking etiquette not dropping to the floor and worshipping the ground that the upper classes walked on, but even in this world, there had to be a limit to what’s acceptable. Going around acting like a brat, riling people up and offering up one’s body in bets is definitely not ladylike behaviour either, so why should she treat someone who engages in it as a lady?

“Fine, I understand, and I’m sorry.” Subaru said in pretend capitulation. “I try to keep to ‘proper’ behaviour, especially since Emilia-chan asked me, but it’s not like that lady from earlier acted anything like a lady. Can’t we just call it an honest mistake?”

Julius sighed. “I must reiterate my surprise that Natsuki-san is in Mathers-sama’s employ.”

Subaru cheek puffed out on one side from the cut of the implications. It was bad enough having to hear this kind of thing from Emilia. She didn’t need some stranger telling her she’s bad at being a lower class bootlicker too.

“You know, you’re way too humble for a knight.” Subaru said, looking ahead with furrowed brows. “She slapped you right across the face, and quite strongly at that for no more than what sounded like trying to pay proper respect.”

“I had misread the situation and did something to displease her ladyship. She was well within her rights to serve out such a mild punishment.” Julius stated in a calm, matter-of-factual tone.

“A mild punishment?” Subaru repeated, glaring up at the knight. “Slapping you across the face like that? In front of the company? After you just saved her life?” she listed, turning her eyes back to the road. “If that’s what following proper manners gets you, then I don’t see the point.”

Julius furrowed his brows, his frown growing considerably. For a moment it seemed like he wanted to give some manner of retort, but finally just closed his eyes for a moment and swallowed whatever it was that had reached the tip of his tongue.

“If Natsuki-san would excuse me, I’d like a moment to talk with that guard.” Julius said simply, gesturing with an open palm towards a man in armor standing ahead of them.

They had now reached the checkpoint leading into the noble district, and Julius moved to the entrance where the designated guard was standing. Based both on the fact that the armour looked more functional than elegant, and that there was no sign of the same elegant uniform or finely decorated weapon hilt and sheath on the guard’s side, Subaru suspected that he was likely also of the ‘lower classes’. This made sense. While nobles would probably want their children to become squires and knights for the obvious prestige that the title seemed to carry, it’s less likely that they’d want them to just stand around out in the open all day or wander through the crowds that the noble woman from earlier would evidently consider filled with ‘peons’. No, the grunt work of actually standing guard and doing the heavy lifting in protecting the population — even if Subaru had not once had the good fortune to actually be on the receiving end of said protection from them — would naturally fall to the perfectly ordinary. Knights likely were reserved to much grander things like standing around inside the castle instead, where servants would fetch them pleasant drinks on command or something.

At least that was Subaru’s initial stance, and while it didn’t change as she looked and listened to Julius converse with the guard, she did feel a little bad thinking that way. As much as the guy came off as the stereotypical paladin that can’t stand even a whiff of free spirit, he talked with the guard clearly far below his station as one would an equal. Greeting them with a bow, the sound of a smile in his voice— Well, maybe he was still characteristic of the same stereotypical paladin, but not just in the bad ways that suck all the fun out of everything.

After explaining to the guard that he had resolved the situation with the noble woman that the garrison was alerted of earlier, he asked the guard to fetch the man responsible for producing wanted posters, as he’ll return shortly to give a number of sketches. Evidently, his words of committing those men’s faces were not only a bluff, but he meant it entirely seriously. If this wasn’t coming from the same guy who apparently thought getting slapped for no reason was something that he should not only just take but even defend, Subaru might even have felt some respect towards his behaviour. As is, it more just helped counterbalance that quality of his that she felt perfectly embodied the concept of ‘ Lawful Stupid ’.

“Please excuse me, I had to take care of that.” Julius said, returning to Subaru’s side after saying farewell to the guard and even thanking them for their ‘continued good work’.

“No problem.” Subaru said as they crossed the checkpoint and headed into the noble district, the rented manor not far now. Glancing at the knight returning to his stern, displeased look in her company bugged her. Was this what Emilia warned her about? It’s not like Subaru thought she was wrong, but— “Agh, also, I should say.” she sighed. “Sorry for the way I phrased things earlier. You seem like a stand up guy, shouldn’t have double guessed your behaviour. It’s probably the right way to be.”

Julius sighed, reaching up and rubbing his eyes with one hand.

“You shouldn’t be concerned about my feelings on the matter,” he said. “It is not me you insult with this attitude, but the nation itself.”

“Well, next time I have a chat with the nation I’ll be sure to apologize properly then.” Subaru huffed.

Simply shaking his head, Julius did not meet those words with any further verbal response.

As they continued their walk, without the distraction of the talk to hold Subaru’s insecurities back, her mind had returned to the fundamental discomfort of being walked home by a young man. Compared to before, given the tense atmosphere between them, the situation had lost a great deal of resemblance to the most embarrassing social cue it had resembled. Naturally, the knight wouldn’t have suggested this if the same implications were to actually apply in this world, but still.

She wasn’t certain if the current tension was an upgrade over the previous awkwardness though.

In a few short minutes, they had reached the vicinity of the manor, where just as Subaru wished to point out the familiar fencing and the building beyond as their destination, she realized that there was a second group of people already at the gate. Namely a catty individual in a familiar black suit, the unwelcome vision of Felix, as well as Rem and someone in a white cloak. Huh. She could only wonder—

‘Ah, of course, Emilia!’ Subaru realized as the three began to turn towards Subaru and the knight.

“Julius!” called Felix with a little gesture, one hand on their hips, the other piercing up, then performing a sharp tilt at the wrist, two fingers extended.

“Felix.” the knight responded, nodding his head as they approached, before breaking off from Subaru’s side and walking towards Emilia. “Emilia-sama, it makes me glad to see you in good health.” he spoke, bowing deeply and extending a hand towards the cowled half-elf.

“Julius.” Emilia responded, offering her hand with a smile. “It’s good to see you again as well.”

Julius gently kissed the hand offered to him, then let it go and straightened himself out.

“I am honoured that Emilia-sama would remember me. I trust the journey here wasn’t taxing?” he spoke with all the politeness one could hope for, lacking any of the bile Subaru saw some others reserve for Emilia.

“Not at all, thank you.” Emilia nodded, talking to the knight as one would an old, pleasant acquaintance.

Since Emilia still wore the magical concealing cloak given to her by Roswaal, there were a few things immediately clear. Firstly, she trusted the knight enough to let him see her. Subaru wasn’t certain whether it was possible to see through the cloak forcefully, but given her reaction, she clearly didn’t mind. Secondly, she was just as uncomfortable revealing herself here in the noble district, as she was in Irlam village. Evidently, it wasn’t just a matter of superstitious countryfolk being prejudiced against her, and yet, the knight offered her every courtesy, as he presumably would any other.

Regardless of her hangups about his weird, servile etiquette and his uninvited judgement of her own behaviour, seeing once more a knight treat Emilia the way she deserved made Subaru smile.

Once the two exchanged a few more pleasant words with one another, Emilia’s attention shifted to Subaru, then with a frown she looked back at Julius.

“I do not wish to dismiss you, but may I ask how you came to come here with Subaru?” she asked.

Blinking at being sidelined, Subaru stepped forward. “Uh, I could tell you that, you know.”

“I realize, but I would like to hear it from Julius.” Emilia said.

For some reason, Rem who stood next to her looked at Subaru with an awkward frown, fidgeting slightly as if she did something wrong.

“Of course, Emilia-sama.” Julius nodded. “I encountered the young Natsuki-san in an alley, where— In the company of a lady, she was beset by a mob of violent men.”

Emilia gasped, covering her mouth with her hand. “Subaru!” she called, clearly upset. “You have only been here a few hours, and already you’re getting yourself into trouble?! When Rem told me she wants to go out and find you, because you started moving around—! I knew something had to have happened!” she pouted, though her eyebrows furrowed in a very serious expression. “I am so sorry for her—” she tried to continue.

“If I may be so bold, Emilia-sama.” Julius interrupted. “While I suspect I understand your concern, given Natsuki-san’s unique attitude, I should note she appeared at no fault in the matter. In fact, I arrived on the scene due to her sending people to alert the guards about the situation, the angry men’s objective being the lady I mentioned.”

Taken slightly aback by the knight coming unexpectedly to her defense Subaru hesitated a moment before joining in, giving a second barrage at Emilia while the half-elf processed the new information.

“Yeah! That’s right!” Subaru encored angrily. “All I did was try and help her after I saw her wander into an alley with a bunch of muggers! Why do you have to—?!”

Natuski-san. ” Julius spoke up, this time interrupting her instead. “I do not enjoy intruding on Emilia-sama’s household affairs as such, however I would like to advise you that speaking to one’s mistress in such a manner is quite unacceptable as well. The circumstances around the incident seemed in need of clarification, which I have given. I ask that you do not twist this into approval of your behaviour.”

The knight, Emilia and Subaru each fell into silence, with Julius straightening himself out after his retort, Emilia hunching slightly, looking down and Subaru’s face burning with a mix of shame and anger, neither of which she could exactly point the direction of.

“Hah!” came Felix’s ringing laugh, tearing through the quiet moment. “Subaru-nyan really knows how to get into trouble, doesn’t she?” The cat didn’t appear the least bit held back by the pressure of the conversation.

“I apologize for having bothered you with this, Julius.” Emilia spoke finally, looking up at the knight with a clearly forced look of confidence. “Thank you very much for coming to Subaru’s help and seeing her back here safely.”

“Think nothing of it, Emilia-sama, it was my pleasure to serve.” Julius answered with a slightly tense smile. “If you forgive me, I’ve still got a duty to round up the aforementioned mob.”

“Of course.” Emilia nodded. “I pray you can do so safely.”

Julius bowed deeply, then nodded to Felix before turning around walking off back the way he and Subaru came earlier with hurried steps.

“Well, I suppose that we also talked everything over.” Felix noted with a smile. “Emilia-sama.” the cat bowed.

“Take care, Felix.” Emilia nodded.

“Will do, nya!” Felix laughed, glancing at Subaru briefly before heading off. “I’ll tell you in two days for our first session.” Felix added with a playful wink.

As the cat also left, leaving Emilia, Subaru and Rem to stand at the front gate of the small manor, none of them would say a word for a while.

Eventually, Rem spoke up. “If Emilia-sama would, I’m sure Roswaal-sama wishes to talk over tomorrow’s schedule.”

“Yes, of course. Thank you Rem.” Emilia said, turning towards her.

“Emilia-chan, I—” Subaru began. She wanted to say something, but she actually had no idea what that would be, so this is as far as she got.

“I do not wish to talk about it right now, Subaru.” Emilia said with a cool, frosty tone, looking at her. “Please help Rem with whatever you would, we will talk some other time.” she sighed, looking about ready to turn away and walk back to the manor, when she looked back at Subaru with a still stern but slightly inquisitive look. “Is that the guitar on your back?”

Holding down a smoldering anger inside her over Emilia once again seeming to focus only on the worst aspects of what Subaru had done, she took a deep breath. She had hoped she would get to introduce Rem’s gift to her under better circumstances. However, between Emilia’s behaviour, and the fact that having guessed it suggested that Emilia had been aware of the surprise possibly longer than Subaru was, it all kind of defeated the purpose of a big happy introduction.

“Yes, it’s R.E.M.” Subaru said with a sigh. “It’s indeed a guitar.”

“I see.” Emilia nodded, somewhat softening her features and looking at Rem. “It’s a wonderful thing you did.” she said to the maid finally, then headed off towards the manor with hurried, stiff steps, leaving Subaru behind.

 

                                           

 

“Perhaps if Rem knew that the instrument would distract Subaru-kun from her studies, she wouldn’t have commissioned it.” the maid pouted.

The sun had gone down by now, and as usual in the evenings since Felt graduated from learning imoji and romoji, Subaru was in a room with her practicing hamoji under Rem’s tutelage, using study materials that the maid prepared for them. Subaru had finished some of it, however the frustration from Emilia’s dismissal of Subaru’s efforts was getting to her, and she was told she couldn’t even continue her tradition of going on nightly runs here, because it would harm apparences to have someone ‘behave eccentrically’ like that in the noble district.

So far, the only part of their visit to the capital that wasn’t miserable was happening across the gruff but kind fruit seller and receiving her guitar. As such, she decided to relax from the tiring hamoji practice and strum out a few proper guitar songs that finally were sounding correct, since upgrading from her lyulyre.

“You know, you can scold me all you like Rem, but I don’t hear you doing your practice either.” Subaru huffed with one eye closed, staring down the oni.

“Uh, I—” the maid blushed. “I’m not sure if I should right now, I’m helping Felt-sama.”

“Wait, what practice?” Felt asked, looking up from her scribblings. “Since when are you studying anything?”

“I’m teaching her a secret language.” Subaru answered in Rem’s place with a playful wink. “I’d tell you more, but then I’d have to kill you.” she added, sticking her tongue out.

“You’d what?” Felt asked, appalled.

Subaru! ” Rem exclaimed in shock.

“Okay, alright, that joke doesn’t translate here, note taken.” Subaru said quickly, holding up her hands in surrender. “I guess you don’t have a lot of secret agent literature over here.”

“No we do not.” Rem huffed with an upset look.

“And I don’t read.” Felt added bitterly. “But I also can’t picture you teaching anyone anything.” she added.

“Ow. Alright, I see where we are then.” Subaru responded.

Felt wasn’t very wrong, of course. Subaru wasn’t one to teach anything. She had no idea where she should even start with teaching Rem English, but she did offer it, and Rem did pick up the offer, so now she had to do her best. Subaru couldn’t remember exactly how she started learning english. To be more precise, she remembered how she started studying english, but that was in school, involving a lot of specialized materials that she no longer had any access to from books through cassettes which somehow were still a thing back then, and even videos. Still, that wasn’t really the start. By the time she started studying in school, she had already picked up a bit of english, mainly from the music she listened to. Most notably, a lot of old, American jazz and swing songs that her parents brought her because she loved anything that had piano music in it, and even before school she made it a mission to memorize the lyrics of songs she didn’t even understand just so she could sing along, or better pretend that she’s performing for her parents. Rather embarrassing in retrospect.

In any case, she had plans of eventually taking Rem’s study materials and reverse engineering them into something that might teach latin characters, as well as maybe ask her to assemble something more in depth including grammar and so on, so Subaru herself would have a reference to create an English guide. She’d have a lot of time for that though, so she decided to put it off until she helps make Rem get a feel for ‘the sound’ of English, since one of the few prides of her life back home was that she could speak almost perfectly without the usual accent shared by her classmates. She attributed this to starting with songs, since having to keep a tempo, a melody and rhymes in mind surely had to have had something to do with her eliminating the usual pitfalls of pronunciation.

“I’ll tell you what Rem, if you can perfectly recite to me a full verse of ‘ Let’s Do It ’ by the maestro Cole Porter, I’ll do a full page of your exercises.” Subaru teased.

“Surely Subaru-kun shouldn’t have to be bought into doing her mandatory studies.” Rem pouted.

“Aw, don’t give me that look!” Subaru protested in mock agony. “You know that I can’t disobey a direct order from Rem-rin! Ah!” she said playfully, before turning to Felt with a gasp. “Quickly, before I am overcome by a sense of duty, say you won’t study either until she sings! Felt-chama is too important for Rem-rin to order around!”

“You’re such an idiot.” Felt sighed, putting down her pen. “But I am kind of curious now.”

“Subaru summons Princess Felt onto the battlefield!” Subaru teased. “How will Rem-rin respond to this attack?!”

The maid sitting at the end of the desk near Felt so she could watch the young girl following proper stroke orders continued to pout and gave out a long annoyed humm, staring Subaru down with a dark look for a while before exhaling sharply with a sigh.

“Very well, but if Rem sings a verse, then Subaru-kun must complete the rest of tonight’s materials without complaint.” she said, holding her head high, achieving little in hiding her blush.

“You drive a hard bargain, Rem.” Subaru nodded with a grin. “Alright, just tonight I will take that special offer. Tomorrow it won’t be so cheap!”

“Subaru-kun is already planning on abusing Rem’s slightest concession? Perhaps Rem shouldn’t sing after all, and find another way to motivate Subaru-kun instead.” Rem said, half playfully, but with a sharp look in her eye that was uncomfortably reminiscent of a look the oni gave her one of the times she approached Subaru with murderous intent.

“I kid, I kid.” Subaru replied. “I’ll do my practice, just want to hear how you’re doing with yours, okay?”

The maid hummed with closed eyes and a stern look, but then smiled softly and stood up.

“It’s the one that begins with ‘ birsu du itu ’?” Rem asked.

“Close. ‘Birds do it. ’ ‘ It ’ has no ‘ u ’ at the end.” Subaru corrected.

“What kind of song is it?” Felt asked, turning in her chair to face Rem.

“Eh, it’s kind of embarrassing.” Subaru said. “It’s about falling in love. I picked it because it’s one of the first songs I ever learned, and because the lyrics contain a lot of repetition, so it should be easy to master.” Subaru explained. “Many of the author’s songs are like that, about love and repetitive I mean, though it’s neat once you understand what the lyrics are. Plus, basically all of his songs sound great with piano accompaniment.” she added.

Indeed, these songs were one of the few that she actually knew how to play on a piano. More or less. She also picked up a few Hoagy Carmichael songs and some stuff here and there that she enjoyed the sound of. In spite of her love of the piano, she never gravitated towards the big opera stuff as much as the songs with a pleasant, easy tune. Really, that’s what music was all about for her. ‘ It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. ’ and all that. Well, a swing and playing with others. Never getting to do that was one of her regrets, but maybe someday she’ll get to perform with someone else. Who knows? She could even take up the offer of that girl Roswaal invited a few weeks ago to the manor and teach her some Beatles songs. Sure she’s a bit weird, but it couldn’t hurt.

“Alright. Rem will now try.” the maid announced awkwardly. “Though she’s not sure if this will really help learn.”

Straightening her uniform, the blue haired maid began to sing. Her abashed mispronunciation of almost all the words may have butchered the legacy of a reserved American gentleman from the first half of the twentieth century, but as hard as she clearly tried, Subaru couldn’t think of the performance as any less than wonderful.

Chapter Text

“It’s only one day, Subaru. Can’t you promise me this much?” echoed through the door of Subaru’s room.

The blue haired oni was standing outside, listening to the conversation with only the slightest measure of shame. As a servant, she could rationalize her eavesdropping on Emilia and Subaru’s conversation as her duty to be up to date on Roswaal’s estate’s situation. As herself, Rem wanted to know everything was happening with the girl who saved her.

“Do you seriously trust me so little that you want me to be under house arrest all day, so I don’t cause trouble?!” Subaru retorted to Emilia’s words, sounding quite angry.

“Subaru. In the course of a short afternoon you managed to get yourself involved in some sort of mugging situation yesterday after just arriving here.” Emilia pouted.

“Yeah, to help someone! Am I supposed to be ashamed of that?!”

Rem hung her head, fidgeting slightly with her feet in front of the closed door out of shame. She more than understood Emilia’s concern. Subaru did have a way of always finding herself in trouble, though never for the wrong reasons. In truth, Subaru shouldn’t have been the one scolded and punished for yesterday’s events, but Rem. She dragged the girl off into the city, she was the one who allowed herself to be talked into letting Subaru be by herself, and she was the one who could smell even at a distance Subaru wandering through the streets and didn’t leave her duties right away to seek her out, thinking everything must be fine, since that thing didn’t happen. That awful burst of miasma that inexplicably accompanied the girl in the most dire of circumstances.

“This isn’t a matter of shame, Subaru.” Emilia spoke across the closed door. “I just do not want you to do those things you always do. Not today. Please promise me you’ll be good and stay at the manor. I’m sure Rem could use the help keeping everything in order.”

Twitching at the sound of her name, the plate in Rem’s hand wobbled slightly. Luckily, it didn’t knock against the door.

“Fine!” Subaru hissed. “Just admit you’re ashamed of me!”

“Subaru…” Emilia said quietly. “It really isn’t that.”

“Then what is it?!”

“Just please promise me.” pleaded Emilia. “Give me a reason to trust you’ll be good.”

Hearing a sigh from across the door, Subaru finally responded:

“Okay. You win. I will try my best and stay out of trouble.”

“Are you sure?” Emilia asked.

“I said yes.” Subaru huffed. “I wouldn’t do anything if I didn’t think it’s what you need.”

After a bit of quiet, Emilia answered: “Alright, Subaru. I trust you.”

Taking a deep breath, Rem felt that the two’s conversation on the other side of the door wasn’t going to go much further, or anywhere too pleasant at this rate. A few minutes ago, when she was preparing the morning snack she balanced on the plate she held, Roswaal approached her and told her that no matter what, Rem should not obstruct Subaru today. As she shared Emilia’s concern for Subaru, now that the girl had promised to stay behind, perhaps it was finally time to enter.

“Subaru-kun, I’ve brought some snacks!” she announced with a knock, opening the door. “Oh, Emilia-sama!” she added, trying her best to pretend she didn’t hear their conversation and didn’t know the half-elf was there.

“Oh, hey Rem!” Subaru greeted her with a look of embarrassment. “Me and Emilia were just talking.”

“Please forgive Rem, she didn’t realize she was intruding.” Rem said, bowing, while keeping the late in her hand balanced, filled with fancily sliced ringas.

“You haven’t done anything wrong, Rem.” Emilia pouted, but then smiled, looking at the snacks. “Those look lovely! Such a wonderful idea!”

“Wow, seriously.” Subaru encored, stepping closer as Rem straightened herself, and reached onto the plate, lifting up the only ringa that Rem hadn’t sliced into pieces. “How the heck did you even manage this?” Subaru asked, turning the mostly intact ringa in her hand. “Aside from the colour being a little off, it’s just like Ram!”

Since the residents of their temporary manor weren’t as eager to eat the abundance of ringas that Subaru saw fit to procure for everyone, Rem had decided to get a little creative with them, and carved slices into little boats, using the centers to make much that she put in a little cup. Then she put the slices around an almost full ringa that she peeled partially to resemble her sister’s lovely pink haircut. If she would have had more time, she’d have tried to do something with the peel to make its vibrant red turn lighter. Still, seeing Subaru’s reaction, she had no regrets.

“I’m really conflicted now.” Subaru huffed. “On the one hand, eating it would be destroying a work of art. On the other, it’d fulfill all sorts of revenge fantasies for all the times Ram got on my case for no good reason.”

“Subaru-kun has a terrible imagination.” Rem sighed with furrowed brows, recalling yesterday’s ‘joke’ at Felt’s expense.

“You know, a little under two months ago, I am certain Rem would have been a lot more cross with you over such an awful joke.” Emilia said quietly.

“Cross?” Subaru repeated with a half-smile. “You and your terminology.”

“I mean it!” Emilia pouted. “I fear you’re an awful influence on her.”

Subaru grinned and put the Ram shaped ringa back on the plate, taking one of the little ringa boats instead.

“I try.” she said simply to Emilia, before biting off one half.

Emilia hummed disapprovingly at the carefree comment, shaking her head then politely asked for a slice and took one for herself as well.

“In any case.” Emilia said, before eating the slice. “I shall now depart with Roswaal for the palace. I was told Reinhard will arrive briefly to escort Felt.” Here she turned to Subaru. “Be sure you thank him properly this time, Subaru. I know he and Rem didn’t let you get much of a word in last time, but he did save both our lives and your arm.”

Subaru blushed heavily at the suggestion and just waved a hand wildly in the air before herself.

“Y-yeah, of course I was going to say thanks, geez, you don’t need to remind me of everything.” she huffed exasperatedly.

“Good.” Emilia nodded confidently. “Have a safe day, both of you.”

With that as her final word, the half-elf hurried out of Subaru’s room and towards the entrance hall where Roswaal had been waiting for a short while.

 

                                           

 

“I look ridiculous.” Felt groaned.

“You look handsome!” Subaru countered with a grin. “Hm, actually I think most girls would take offense to that, but it suits you, doesn’t it?”

Before Subaru stood the young blonde girl, dressed fully in the outfit that they had picked out back at the mansion. Just to be safe, of course they also brought some of the other clothes as well, but ultimately Felt stuck with the fine, cream coloured suit that had mostly evaded their attention at the start, having been buried under some of the other dresses Rem had so diligently produced for them to pick from. True,  Felt did have a slightly uncomfortable resemblance to a young and shaved Colonel Sanders, but given that they weren’t going to a sporting event, that didn’t qualify as a bad omen.

“Ugh.” Felt groaned. “Just let’s get this over with.”

It was only minutes since Rem announced Reinhard’s arrival, the maid still down on the first floor, entertaining their guest until Subaru could fetch Felt. Rom had ventured out of the manor not long after Emilia and Roswaal departed for the palace, saying he didn’t feel right in this part of town, so he was going to go check on an old friend. As such, once Felt departed, it would only be Rem and Subaru in the manor. Any other day, she’d be happy with that. She’d probably use the opportunity to try and help Rem learn how better pronounce the few song verses she had learned thus far, maybe get started on figuring out how to explain grammar — which honestly she had no formal idea how to even get into — but today was kind of different.

As much as she promised to Emilia that she would try to stay out of trouble, while she did mean it, might have bent the wording a bit from what Emilia wanted to hear. Subaru wanted to be at the palace when the meeting went down. If possible, she wanted to be there for the meeting, though that was probably impossible. Part of her wanted to experience the glamour of Lugnican nobility first hand just for the fun of it, though a just as big part was more concerned about something very different, and rationally speaking, very silly.

Ever since the penultimate loop she experienced, the one where she was ready to give up completely, believing herself to have been trapped in a no-win scenario until— Until Rem’s sacrifice, she had mostly stopped thinking about her new world in the initial terms she imagined for herself. The idea that she was summoned to this world something as cliche and cynical as becoming a hero, or an unwitting villainess like the dubious ‘heroes’ of some pulp fiction— and visual novels, it seemed distant and slightly absurd now. Slightly, since even if the world had consistently refused to grant her the comfort of easy to grasp, video gamey mechanics to exploit, she was still summoned to this world. Until somewhere between two and three months ago depending on whether she counted the days that were erased when she went Back in Time , she lived in a completely different world. On Earth. If she hadn’t retained so much from home like her music, her knowledge of japanese characters and pop culture and even silly little mostly useless things like how to make certain desserts, she might have even come to believe that that was all somehow just a dream. That she always lived here, she had just come under some sort of magical spell that scrambled her brain. But no, there were way too many consistent things from home for it to have all been fake.

And, if she really was summoned here, if she didn’t just die and get reborn as a baby with some miscalculation of the gods or something allowing her to remember her previous life, but rather she just wholesale appeared here, complete with clothes, a phone and grocery store goodies back Earth? Then there had to be a reason.

The girl in the cream coloured suit beside her whom she was guiding down the stairs, saved her life once. Well, probably. In retrospect that trio of idiots might have actually just wanted to scare her, considering how easily they ran away at the mere sight of her pulling out a knife of her own. That’s the reaction she had when first encountering a knife too, and even now she didn’t think she could actually kill a person. Even those dogs felt horrible after the fact.

Could her purpose have been to protect Felt? Maybe. Both times when she experienced loops using Back in Time , a power she had no control over, it ultimately resolved in her solving a problem for Felt. She played a small part in reuniting her with Rom in safety and protected her from the mabeasts in the forest which would likely have attacked the manor next. She also, if nothing more, got the people who could save Felt to the loot house where she would otherwise have been killed for that insignia. Subaru wanted to feel proud about these, but ultimately she didn’t do any of the important stuff. Any idiot could roll the die and eventually get the result they wanted. After all the suffering Subaru allowed to take place right under her nose, the mere fact that she alone seemed to possess this ability, felt like a sick joke. The fact that trying to talk of it drowned her in the witch’s scent gave her a good idea of just whose sick joke it was.

And so, that was the other main reason she didn’t want to miss this meeting at the palace. At the very least, she wanted to be just outside the door. She needed to be there. Sick joke or not, Felt, a street urchin turned heir to the throne as well as Emilia who was widely hated for no more than her looks, both heading into a room filled with jealous nobles? Even if rationally she could tell herself that doom flags don’t actually exist in this world, it still felt like the biggest, most ominous doom flag of all. If something were to go horribly wrong again, it would do so today, and in the palace.

She had to be there. She had to make sure that both Felt and Emilia were safe. Because regardless of what the purpose was of her being summoned here, whether it was to protect someone specific, or to just stumble from catastrophe to catastrophe, or even if she had already fulfilled everything she needed to in the past two crises— She wanted to be useful to them. She wanted to be there when they needed her. She wanted to stop feeling like all her accomplishments are incidental and meaningless. And if something were to happen, perhaps she could get that.

Subaru neglected to consider the terrible implications of all but wishing something went wrong, just so she could have an accomplishment.

 

“Felt-sama!” Reinhard called with great reverence as Subaru and Felt reached the entrance hall of the small manor, dropping to his knees. “I am glad and humbled once more to be in your presence.”

“Could you cut that out already?! It’s getting on my nerves.” Felt huffed, walking to the knight but not too close.

“Felt-sama, please be kind to Reinhard-sama, he is only trying to be of service.” Rem solded mildly, holding another plate filled with similar ringas as the one she surprised Subaru and Emilia with earlier. In fact, probably the same Ram shaped ringa was still there in the center surrounded by new little ringa boats.

“And wolves just want to eat, yeah.” Felt scoffed.

Standing up, the knight looked down at the girl with a slightly strained smile. He didn’t seem so much frustrated as sad.

“I understand that Felt-sama is upset with me. If there’s anything I can do to—”

“Stop talking like that for one. It’s not like I’m going to be any variation of -sama for long anyway.” the girl sighed. “And I can’t believe I have to go with you .”

“Was there someone else Felt-sama had hoped would accompany her?” the knight asked, puzzled.

“Literally anyone. Literally anyone would have been better than the guy who knocked me out, let the old man wonder where I was, made him cross half the country and then showed up with a smile when we came to the capital like you didn’t do anything wrong!” Felt fumed.

“Forgive me, Felt-sama.” Rem interjected. “However, I’m informed Reinhard-sama had fully intended to retrieve Rom-san as well. He was quite busy with seeing to Subaru-kun’s recovery and negotiating with Roswaal-sama when Rom-san broke out of the military garrison where he was being treated and disappeared.”

“Yeah, and why wouldn’t he have?!” Felt retorted.

Seeing an opportunity, Subaru quickly slid into the conversation.

“So, what you’re saying, Felt-chama, is that you’d like it if you were accompanied by someone so you don’t have to go alone with the big scary knight?” she probed.

“As if I’d be scared of him.” Felt huffed.

“I meant more than perhaps you’d like someone to come with you.” Subaru corrected, dispensing with the flowery language.

“Subaru-kun.” Rem called in a displeased tone. “Emilia-sama asked very specifically that Subaru-kun remains at the manor until her return.”

“True,” Subaru nodded with a bit of a bitter expression. “However, Emilia-chan is a candidate, and so is Felt-chama at the moment, which means that their orders are of equal value, and if Felt wants me to come, well...” she trailed off suggestively.

“That’s a very peculiar code of conduct you seem to follow, Subaru.” Reinhard noted with an amused smile.

“Thanks! I wrote it myself!” Subaru returned with a grin.

“Subaru-kun.” Rem repeated with a stern expression, which Subaru returned with an equally stern glare.

“You’d like it if I came too, right, Felt?” Subaru asked, placing her hands on the young candidate’s shoulders without breaking eye-contact with the oni maid.

“Not when you’re being creepy like now.” Felt stated, pushing Subaru’s hands off her shoulders, but then sighing. “Still, more than I want to go with him.”

“Subaru-kun!” Rem exclaimed, her brows furrowed further, though looking a bit conflicted. “Emilia-sama asked you personally to stay out of trouble.”

“What kind of trouble am I going to get into just walking to the palace? It’s not like there’s muggers in the noble district! You saw the checkpoint!” Subaru countered.

“Rem doesn’t believe that that was Emilia-sama’s primary concern.” the maid said, shaking her head lightly.

“For what it is worth, I would gladly work to assure Subaru’s safety on the way to the palace, as well as Felt-sama’s.” Reinhard interjected, looking at Rem, with a hand on his heart.

“See?” Subaru added, gesturing at the knight. “Nothing will happen!”

The maid sighed and hung her head slightly.

“Very well, it seems there’s no discouraging Subaru-kun.” she said in capitulation.

Yes !” Subaru exclaimed, knowing they wouldn’t understand the word but not caring as she pumped her fist in the air. “Since I’m already in uniform, I believe that means everything good to—” Subaru stopped and quickly stepped closer to Rem, rubbing the upset oni’s head with one hand, while lifting the plate of ringas out of the other. “There, now we’re good to go! I’ll bring these snacks with, okay?”

Rem blushing through her stern look simply huffed: “It is not as if Rem can stop Subaru-kun once she made up her mind.”

“No, you can’t.” Subaru agreed, giving the oni’s head one last good rub for luck. “Are you ready, Felt?”

“That doesn’t seem to matter today.” the girl mumbled, then turned and headed for the main gate.

As Subaru hurried after her, Reinhard stayed behind a moment, bowing to the maid courtly.

“Thank you once again for the pleasant company, Rem-san. I promise to protect Subaru.” he said with a smile, then at the oni’s nod, turned and headed after his wards with long steps.

 

                                           

 

“You do know I won’t be needing your stupid ‘escort’ on the way back, right? So don’t get any big ideas.” Felt scoffed once they'd been seated in the carriage that awaited Reinhard, Felt and as of now, Subaru, ready to take them to the heart of the noble district: The palace.

“I do hope that Felt-sama reconsiders her decision in regards to abandoning her candidacy.” Reinhard said, with another of those strained smiles of his.

Sitting across from the knight with Felt, Subaru once more was hit by the sudden, uncomfortable realization that she was in a rather intimate setting with a handsome young man, an impossibly handsome young man, much as yesterday. Clearly Felt didn’t mind, nor did Reinhard seem to, but one of them was a literal street urchin, and the other a knight who was likely well comfortable in the factual knowledge that he’s outside of Subaru’s league by countless generations. At the same time, coming from the enlightened, at least mostly unitary world of modern day Japan where while social divides may have existed but not quite on the level of this barely post-medieval world, Subaru couldn’t see it as just a random carriage ride. Mere acquaintances of opposite sexes just straight up did not go for carriage rides back home together. That sort of thing was reserved for ridiculously fancy occasions, or for families to do on vacation, however with—

Suddenly she realized that given how much shorter and, well, let’s just say less-developed Felt was than Subaru, the girl accompanied by Subaru and Reinhard could create a very specific, very troublesome visual image. This idea had to be purged for Subaru’s mind as soon as possible, so with a little gasp as she realized she left her guitar home and cannot use playing music as an excuse to distract herself, she decided to speak up.

“So! Reinhard! You seem agitated!” Subaru blurted out the first thing that came to her mind.

“Agitated?” Reinhard asked with a surprised look.

“Yeah! You know, uh, I don’t know, like you’re thinking about something.” Subaru forced out, the words coming to her in a slippery, hard to grasp fashion.

“She means you’re a weirdo too, I think.” Felt noted.

“I see.” Reinhard nodded, closing his eyes for a moment, letting the gentle sound of the undercarriage rattling on the cobblestone be the only noise for a short time before answering. “In truth, I was recalling with some regret the fact that I could not house Felt-sama at my family’s estate.”

“Yeah, well, keep regretting it then, because it’s not changing.” Felt said with narrow eyes.

“I also would have hoped that I could make a better impression on Felt-sama.” Reinhard sighed, looking defeated. “Although, once more, I am ready to accept Felt-sama’s feelings, whatever they may be.”

Seeing the way the knight looked, it was hard not to feel bad for him. Sure, essentially abducting Felt was a bit much, but with Granhiert setting Felt up as she did, Reinhard almost definitely made the right call. Surely with her candidacy to the throne, the girl’s troubles would have only increased.

“Hey, Felt.” Subaru spoke, poking Felt with her elbow, then handing the girl one of the ringa boats from the plate. “I get why you’re mad, I would have liked to be consulted before being moved to the manor too, but I’m pretty sure he really just wanted to help.”

“Rem ‘just wanted to help’ when she almost got you killed too. How do you feel about that?” Felt struck back.

Narrowing her eyes a bit, Subaru sighed. “That was entirely my fault. Honestly I’m surprised you even care.”

“I don’t.” Felt huffed. “But see, you not caring is what makes you a weirdo. A normal person couldn’t just accept that.” she added, stuffing the ringa in her mouth.

“Forgive me, but may I ask what this is about?” Reinhard asked, leaning slightly forwards. “What had Rem-san done?”

Subaru felt her body tense up at the knight’s question. The last thing she wanted was to get Rem into any kind of trouble, and if there was one surefire way to do that, it would be talking about attempted murder to one of the highest representatives of the law that she knew of.

“Uh, okay, so—” Subaru muttered, avoiding the knight’s sky blue eyes. “You heard about the mabeast attack. In the middle of it, I acted really stupidly, and from the limited evidence Rem had access to, she thought I was the cause of the issue, so—” she cut herself off.

“She made an attempt to attack you?” Reinhard asked in surprise, his eyes going wide, though his voice remained measured and elegant as usual.

“Tried to kill her would be more accurate.” Felt noted after swallowing her bite.

“It really sounds a lot worse than it is!” Subaru exclaimed. “The very next thing she did after she realized her mistake was risk her life to save mine, so there’s no reason to raise charges or anything, it’s all in the past!” she added speaking as quickly as she could, the tension getting to her.

Reinhard leant back in his seat and placed a hand on his chin, looking and nothing thoughtfully for a moment.

“Admittedly, this sounds like a serious lapse in judgement, however given the circumstances, that it happened in Roswaal-sama’s jurisdiction and the fact that the only hurt party wishes not to press the issue—” the knight paused then huffed with a small laugh.

“What is it?” Subaru asked, confused by Reinhard’s sudden amusement.

“Forgive me, I do not wish to make light of what must have been a difficult moment, it’s simply that this is the second time in as many months that I’ve had to make the same uncommon judgement I just did, both due to present company.” Reinhard explained. “Emilia-sama also insisted on not pressing any charges on Felt-sama for the events surrounding the insignia.”

Sighing with relief, Subaru bowed her head. She wanted to put her hands together in thanks, but she was still holding the plate in her lap that otherwise might have slid off.

“Thank you so much! If I got Rem in trouble over that, I don’t know what I would have done!” she said.

“I must note that it’s rather surprising to learn that after such a horrid misunderstanding Subaru and Rem-san appear as close as they do.” Reinhard stated ponderously. “I don’t even know how to begin to apologize for having placed you in such danger.” he added.

“It’s not an appearance.” Subaru said, shaking her head with a smile. “She’s honestly one of my best friends. Everything she did, she did to protect the same things I was trying to, I could never blame her for that.” she explained.

Recalling the time when she was finally reunited with Rem in safety after all those awful things, Subaru felt an uncommon warmth inside— Only for it to be cut by a sudden twitch of her body as the memory of holding the crying maid was replaced by Rem laying dead in her arms.

‘Please don’t let anyone attack at this meeting.’ she prayed.

“Hey, hey, the ringas!” Felt spoke up suddenly, leaning in front of Subaru and grabbing the plate that her grip loosened on and which was about to slide down her knee.

“Sorry! Sorry!” Subaru exclaimed, grabbing the plate with a sudden force, making one of the ringa slices catapult off the edge, only for Reinhad to quickly and elegantly catch it in the air and put it back on the plate without a word.

“What is wrong with you?” Felt asked with narrowed eyes.

“Sorry, I got lost in thoughts for a moment.” Subaru said, turning to her with a forced smile, before looking back at Reinhard and continuing. “But yeah, you shouldn’t feel bad about it. Sending me there, that is.” she said. “I’d lie if I said that there wasn’t a time when I wished I wasn’t sent there, but that was a short, ugrly time that is now gone.” she said, staring down at the ringas in her lap, more to convince herself than to convince the knight. “As things are, the time I got to spend there is the happiest I have been in a very long time.” she added, looking up at the knight with a no longer forced smile. “So, for that, and because Emilia-chan made sure to drill it into me: Thank you. Thanks for saving me and sending me there.”

Reinhard looked back at Subaru after these words, his mouth ever so slightly open, like someone who wants to say something, but not quite certain what. A look quite familiar to the black haired girl. Finally, he closed his eyes and nodded with a smile.

“I am humbled by such fine words of thanks, and Subaru’s ability to forgive digressions so readily,” he said. “I shall live hoping that I may one day earn their like again.”

“Geh.” Felt said, making her disgust known besides them, though Subaru didn’t understand why. “Anyway, knight-boy, I have your promise you’ll leave me alone once I resign from the candidacy?”

“Your wish is my command, Felt-sama, however until such a time, I am bound to ensure your protection.” the knight said humbly.

“Out of curiosity, if they didn’t let Felt-sama resign, what would happen?” Subaru asked, remembering a minor concern that flashed through her mind once.

“I do not believe that the council is at liberty to dismiss Felt-sama’s resignation.” Reinhard stated, with a shake of his head. “However, in the case that Felt-sama remained a candidate, for a time she’d return to Roswaal-sama’s estate, as per our contract of custodianship, until such a time that House Astrea can be prepared to receive Felt-sama and more importantly she was willing to come.” he explained, sounding strangely bitter when mentioning the custodianship.

“So, even if she remained a candidate, she wouldn’t have to leave us?” Subaru asked.

“What do you mean ‘even’? Who said I’m staying after I resigned?!” Felt protested. “I said I will think about it! I also thought about what it would be like to live in a giant village with the old man, that doesn’t mean it’s happening!”

“I really wish you wouldn’t say things like that, Felt-chama.” Subaru hummed in discomfort, handing another ringa slice to the girl to make her shut up peacefully. She had hopes that she wouldn’t have to decide between staying with Roswaal’s estate and going with Felt.

“To answer Subaru’s question,” Reinhard interjected with a slight bitterness. “No. My only wish is to ensure Felt-sama’s safety. While I’d much prefer to do this personally, given the contract, I shall do so from a distance if that is what Felt-sama wishes.”

Subaru raised an eyebrow. She knew that there was some sort of contract between Roswaal and Reinhard that meant Roswaal had to protect Felt, however she was never certain of the exact details. Reinhard’s expression and voice when talking about it piqued her curiosity.

“What exactly is in this contract?” Subaru asked.

Reinhard looked uncertain for a moment, but then answered. “Some details I’m afraid are highly confidential, however I can tell you that Roswaal-sama approached me and offered to house Felt-sama when she came asking about the woman who helped Emilia-sama with her insignia. That woman being you, of course.” Reinhard clarified with a slight nod to Subaru. “In exchange for certain conditions, Roswaal-sama was allowed to take charge of Felt-sama’s protection and education. One such condition is that should grievous harm befall Felt-sama, Roswaal-sama would pay with her life.”

“Whoa, hold on!” Subaru spoke out in protest. “If something happened to Felt, you’d just execute Rozchi?!” she asked in shock.

“In a manner of speaking, though not what you seem to be imagining.” Reinhard answered, shaking his head. “It is a magical contract, not a simple formality. The sentence would be carried out immediately and automatically in such an event.”

“Okay, alright.” Subaru nodded, not hiding her shock and horror too well, leaning into the nearest corner of the carriage. “So she’s pretty invested in Felt’s safety, is what I’m picking up here.”

“One would assume so, yes.” Reinhard nodded with a weak, slightly amused smile as he looked at Subaru’s reaction. “I’m afraid that, and the fact that due to both the contract’s details and my previous duties I am unable to attend to Felt-sama’s safety around the clock, are all I can disclose.”

Felt furrowed her brows. “So what, if I climbed out of this carriage and threw myself under the wheels, the clown would just keel over somewhere?” she asked.

Reinhard and Subaru turned to her asking her not to joke about such a thing in unison. Subaru sensed neither of them were particularly concerned about Roswaal’s side of that hypothetical.

“Let’s change the subject, alright?” Subaru suggested, picking up the Ram shaped ringa still perched in the middle of the plate, holding it up so it was in line with Reinhard’s head in her vision. “Like, I think we should ask Rem to make one of these based on Reinhard when we get back.” she said, closing one eye. “The colour fits your hair much better than it does Ram.”

The knight covered his mouth with a very slight laugh.

“Well, I always knew I was a sparkling personality.” Subaru boasted with a grin, putting the ringa back on the plate. “You know, as knights go, you’re not as miserable to talk with than that Julius guy.” she added.

“Oh? You’ve met Julius?” Reinhard asked.

“Briefly and painfully.” Subaru sighed. “He scared off a couple of criminals that were about to rob this insufferable woman I was with.”

“It’s good to hear he’s attending to his duties fully then.” Reinhard nodded. “Still, Subaru appears to be quite the magnet for both trouble and other things.” he added with a smile. “With healing from Crusch-sama’s personal knight, having met Anastasia Hoshin’s own knight and of course having lived with both Emilia-sama and Felt-sama, you’ve somehow acquainted yourself with the entourage of all but one of the five candidates before the royal selection even had a chance to begin by my count.” Reinhard noted.

“Huh. Now that you mention it…” Subaru of course had heard before that Crusch Karsten, who she never met before, was Felix’ mistress and another of the candidates involved in the royal selection. “I almost did a Royal Flush .” she huffed amused with herself.

With some more idle chatter, the carriage continued on its way to the palace, Subaru drawing closer and closer to the last place her half-elf friend wished her to be.

Chapter Text

Subaru had seen the royal palace from afar before. On her very first day, she got a few glances up at some of it over the roof of the houses populating the market district in which she wandered about aimlessly for a while, though the best look ironically she got at it from afar instead, when after having carried Felt back to the loot house she went to fetch her a pillow. The extravagant architecture, towers domes and arches that decorated it undoubtedly looked even more impressive now that she was here in person, however even through the glamour of the highest of high society being put on full display in both the many carriages gathered nearby, the soldiers, actual red velvet carpet running down stairs and so on— The sight was off.

Perhaps if she walked a different path, she could feel absolutely nothing but amazement at the sheer majesty of the polished, possibly marble stairs leading up to the grand gates decorated with all sorts of engravings. Perhaps she could fully indulge in the childlike wonder even now sparking in a corner of her heart at the sight of the wondrous sights. Perhaps she could rush off to find someone that can tell her just how on earth they managed to make the entrance of what should be a cold, stone building be filled with such pleasant flowery scents without filling every corner with planters and rose bushes.

And yet, the best view against which she could match the new sights being one she collected in the slums, with Felt by her side whose hateful glares at everything around her reminded Subaru of the small wooden hovel that the girl had called home before being taken to the manor, barely big enough to hold a rotting old couch— It was hard to get excited.

This palace might have been built as a monument to its nation’s wealth and power, or perhaps to honour the so called ‘divine dragon’ that apparently it was dedicated to; but the only thing it could be a monument to in Subaru’s eyes at this moment, was to the callous nature of this land that cast Felt and other people like her aside, while cruelly painting good people like Rom and Emilia as vile for what she could see as no more than circumstantial nonsense.

“Are you alright? Felt?” Subaru asked, looking down at the girl in the cream coloured suit besides her. “You can hold my hand if you want to.” she added with a smile.

“Don’t kid me.” Felt replied coldly, shooting a glare up at Subaru. Even after all this time and after regaining a little bit of the girl’s trust, Subaru felt no closer to making them live like a normal girl, as she should. “Well then, where are we going? This stupid, giant building looks like a small city.”

“As it happens, I’ll have to make a slight arrangement, Felt-sama.” Reinhard stated. “I've got people waiting for us from my family’s estate that will briefly attend to you, while I enter into the throne room and announce your arrival.” he explained.

“Where will I go?” Subaru asked.

“That is a good question.” Reinhard nodded, placing a hand against his chin. “Subaru would be most welcome to stay with the people from the estate for the course of the event. They’ll be stationed not too far from the throne room, so you’d be informed almost as soon as the proceedings are over.”

“Right.” Subaru sighed.

In all honesty, she really wanted to get into the throne room. It’s where everything was going to happen, the best place where she might be of use, but she had no excuse to go in, and couldn’t even think of one. Well, there was one idea. Had she brought her guitar, and wasn’t with Reinhard and Felt who knew precisely who she was, she might have tried bluffing her way in as a bard sent to take note on the important events so that they may be commemorated in song. Yes, it would have been an awful attempt, she was quite aware of it, but on the other hand, that’s about 90% of what bards did period in every single story in worlds of both high and low fantasy she knew about so given that this world had a magic system and a whole bunch of other staples, then even if it’s not one to one a game world, they might have had a bards’ guild or something she could claim to be from that does that sort of thing.

With no instrument, and two well informed witnesses, she could hardly try that, or anything really.

Morosely lost in thought, contemplating her inability to go where she truly wished to be, Subaru tuned herself out of the conversation between Reinhard and Felt in which the knight tried to explain to her about the intricacies of proper procedure when it comes to welcoming her to the throne room. The plate of ringas she still balanced in one hand offered only a little reprieve as she snacked on one of the little boats, still not wanting to ruin Rem’s statue of her sister.

Subaru’s attention only snapped back when she heard a familiar voice call out, though not that of Reinhard or Felt. Not even Emilia or Roswaal.

“I’ll go in whenever I so please, you understand?!” a woman’s voice echoed through the grand hall where Subaru found herself, Reinhard leading her and Felt towards one corner of the hall where finely dressed individuals were already bowing towards them.

The woman’s voice did not come from the same crowd. On the contrary, she was on the other side of the hall, wearing a large red and black dress that so far as her upper body was concerned, did not leave much to the imagination.

‘She can’t be serious.’ Subaru thought, recognizing the woman from yesterday. ‘She’s trying to force herself into the meeting?!’

“Sorry, I’ve got something I gotta take care of real quick.” Subaru declared with furrowed brows, ignoring Reinhard’s confused question and just saying. “I’ll be back in a moment, deal with Felt’s introductions or whatever.”

Marching across the great hall which on one side joined with a spacious corridor leading to the front gate, and on the other to a slightly narrower one ending in a giant, even more expensive looking gate with a golden, triangular emblem atop it, Subaru could hear her own heavy footsteps echo back to her.

Getting close to the woman in red, before Subaru could begin to give her a piece of her mind for having the gall to somehow show less concern for common sense than Subaru herself, she saw a woman in very bizarre and shabby clothes step in between them, who was until recently standing a few steps behind the woman in red.

“Hold on there missy, where’s the race?” came slightly garbled from under the large black helmet decorated with red plumes, which absolutely did not fit anything else in their attire, from the bandages binding their chest, through the green vest worn over it, to the yellow torn shoulder cape that was worn in turn over that. It absolutely did not match the sandals and socks or baggy, roughly knee-low pants that she was wearing either.

“I don’t know who you are, but I came here to talk to her .” Subaru gestured with a huff behind the weirdly dressed woman who had no business being inside the palace.

“Yeah I got that.” sighed the stranger, holding out a hand in the international symbol of ‘stop’. “I’m asking why—”

“Debra, are you meddling again?” the woman in red called sharply.

“Wouldn’t dream of it, Sunny-sama.” ‘Debra’ answered in a voice that carried both a smile and awkwardness mixed in. “It’s just you’ve got a really enthusiastic visitor.” Here, she stepped out of the way and turned to let ‘Sunny-sama’ get a good look at Subaru.

“I see.” Sunny noted, scanning over Subaru with narrow eyes, a slight, cruel smile curving in the corner of her mouth for a moment before she switched to a frown and turned to the armored soldier beside her that she was yelling at a moment ago. “Be gone from my sight!”

The guard frowned but bowed and left towards the corridor leading presumably to the throne room.

“I’ve got the funny feeling this is that girl from yesterday.” Debra noted, fiddling with the front flap of her helmet, though not lifting it, perhaps just trying to get a better look at Subaru through its narrow holes.

“Indeed, she is. And yet, I do not see anyone of a clownish persuasion anywhere near.” Sunny noted, glancing around with the same little cruel smile spreading on her face. “What would a little servant girl be doing here at an auspicious moment like his without their mistress, hmmm?”

“Well, I’m—” Subaru began, but the woman cut her off right away.

“Ha! See, Debra? She actually thinks she’s of interest!” Sunny laughed up.

“I see that, yeah.” the shabby dressed woman nodded, scratching the back of their head with their right arm. Only now had Subaru realized that there didn’t seem to be an arm under their left shoulder. “Though since you asked them, it does make it look like you’re interested.”

Sunny, who was standing on Debra’s left, narrowed her eyes at the comment and with a flick of her wrist she closed her fan and with the same motion jabbed it into the stumpy shoulder next to her.

“Ah-ah-ah-ah!” yelped Debra, more with annoyance than pain. “Got it.”

“So, what is it then? Why did you imagine yourself worthy to approach me so brazenly?” Sunny asked, locking her eyes on Subaru. “Has your mistress sent word, or are you just even more lacking in sense than thus far evident?” Not leaving room for Subaru to answer she continued. “As a matter of fact, where is that bizarre instrument you carried? I see you’re carrying some sort of platter? Are you in truth just an errand girl? On that note, whatever is that red stuff?” she added, finally pausing, while gesturing at the carved ringas Subaru was still holding.

“Uh, ringas?” Subaru replied, caught off guard by the barrage of questions, almost forgetting why she even walked here.

“Don’t be coy with me, girl!” Sunny huffed. “I can tell by the sight and smell that those are ringas, I’m talking about that red material you decorated them with! Looks firm and glossy, some sort of glaze?”

The ghost of an exasperated sigh escaped from under Debra’s heavy helm, though the woman didn’t say anything.

“Wait, are you talking about the peel?” Subaru asked, utterly lost now as she turned the plate around in her hands trying to find anything red looking that wasn't obvious.

“Peel?” Sunny asked, narrowing her eyes further.

“Uh, Sunny-sama, I feel I should note that those are just ringas without their peels removed. Well, sort of. Someone peeled some of them.” Debra explained with an anxious though compassionate voice.

“I see.” Sunny noted ponderously.

“Wait, hold on, hold on, hold on.” Subaru said, holding up her free hand. “You’re telling me you didn’t know ringas have peels? But you just said you recognized their looks and smell!”

“It should be easy to grasp that unlike whatever incompetent prepared these, my servants actually remove all inedible parts of fruits they prepare for me.”

“Incompe—?!” Subaru cut her fuming off, though enraged at the idea that this pampered little princess who apparently never even saw a ringa that wasn’t peeled for her by someone would dare bad mouth Rem like that. “They are perfectly edible, I’ll have you know!” Subaru declared, grabbing one of the slices with its peel still attached, and stuffing it in her own mouth.

“She seems a bit over eager, Sunny-sama, but yeah, keeping the peel or not is a matter of taste.” Debra noted as Subaru quickly chewed the ringa slice.

Sunny hummed inquisitively, then without a word, she grabbed one of the slices from the plate and bit into it, not even asking if she could.

“Ah, so that’s how it is.” Sunny nodded, chewing. “Interesting.”

“Say, that one’s carved like someone, isn’t it?” Debra noted, pointing at the Ram shaped ringa in the middle.

“Yeah, it’s meant to look like one of the maids back home, though the hair colour is pretty off—” Subaru began, but was quickly cut off.

“Ignore Debra’s probing. You haven’t answered my other questions yet.” Sunny interrupted.

“Your other—?” Subaru blinked, narrowing her eyebrows. “Hey, actually, you haven’t told me yet why you’re even—”

Subaru stopped.

The woman’s presence here didn’t make any sense. Even if she was a noble shouldn’t allow her inside from what Subaru was told. Only very specific people were invited to this event from what she was told this morning, generally limited to the Royal Guard and a selection of nobles, whom Subaru had a chance to see a couple of hurry through the hall earlier, and all of whom seemed to be wearing identical dress clothes. Sure, the woman before here came off as a completely airheaded idiot that walks face first into ridiculous situations because she ‘feels like it’, but even then, trying to get inside without any ground to stand on would be beyond idiotic, and the guard from earlier didn’t sound so much like they were trying to escort her out so—

“You’re here for the selection?” Subaru asked, a very uncomfortable realization slowly taking hold in her mind.

“What else would one come here for today?” huffed Sunny.

“But you’re not—” Subaru continued, then remembering that one of the candidates she knows is an orphan from the slums, and another is hated by most of the known world. “You wouldn’t happen to be one of the candidates, would you?”

Sunny laughed up loudly, as her only response, her ringing voice filling the hall for a couple of seconds before she finally stopped, and lowered her head, beginning to fan herself once more.

“Uh, Sunny-sama, you mentioned about the knight who tried to introduce you, would this be a bad time, or?”

“Go ahead.” Sunny said, snapping her fan closed, showing her sharp smile to Subaru but closing her eyes expectantly.

“Right, well.” Debra began, clearing her throat under her helm, but raising a fist up regardless of how unneeded it was. “You’re talking to Priscilla Barielle-sama. Yeah, she’s a candidate, though I’m not sure how much that would mean to you in particular right now.”

Priscilla opened her eyes with a frown, looking up at her companion. “I expected something a little more theatrical.”

“Ah, well if you can wait a minute, I can run and grab a few troubadours. I’m sure they have a couple at the read what with the big event and all.” Debra joked, almost sounding serious.

“No, the moment is gone.” Priscilla huffed. “And so has most of the interest I had left in this servant girl. In the end her realization came as rather underwhelming.” she sighed.

Subaru just stood there, watching the candidate and her companion chatter back and forth nearly as though she wasn’t even there. Her mind was abuzz with thoughts. Primarily, thoughts on the royal selection. This was a candidate? This was what Emilia was working so hard to compete against? That she locked herself away from the world to defeat day after day studying? More importantly, this was a standard for potential highest future authority in the kingdom? And the silver-haired girl told Subaru that she’s too much trouble?!

No. There was a limit. If this person that picks fights with random sleazebags in bars and slaps knights across the face because apparently she wanted to keep some little game going about seeing where Subaru will figure out who she is— If this person can be a candidate and a welcome guest at the royal selection, then frankly there was no reason Subaru shouldn’t be allowed in there too!

“I think you might have broken her, Sunny-sama.” Debra noted.

“Uh, sorry.” Subaru spoke, dazed still by her mind trying to piece together all the nonsense surrounding the woman in black with the idea of someone that Emilia of all people would need to compete with. “I’ve got to go, I’ll see you inside.”

“Inside?” Priscilla repeated, raising an eyebrow with a sly smile underneath. “And how exactly do you intend to do that?”

“I’ll find a way.” Subaru said, rubbing her forehead and beginning to turn around.

“Hah. That’ll be something to see.

“Sorry Sunny-sama, just a moment.” Debra noted, taking another step towards Subaru and grabbing her shoulder. “ Hey little sister, who is it you're with? ” she asked with a melody in her voice.

For an instant, the question obviously aimed at her sounded like complete gibberish, but then Subaru’s mind switched and she found it easy to answer.

That red haired guy and the blonde girl. ” Subaru answered with a glance back, then as she felt the muscular hand let go of her shoulder, she hurried off back towards Reinhard and Felt.

After a few steps, something seemed off. Like there was something very obvious she just missed, but with everything else from wanting to get inside the throne room, through the worries of something going wrong today all the way to her prayer that Felt won’t abandon everyone else, she ended gliding over the impossible words with which she both was asked and with which she answered.

Chapter Text

“So what, you don’t want to let her in because it might annoy some nobles?” Felt asked, staring up intently at Reinhard before her.

Subaru returned only moments ago from across the hall, her mind still swirling with thoughts, but the foremost being using Felt and Reinhard for an excuse to get inside the throne room. If the idiot savant of getting mugged that this ‘Priscilla Barielle’ was would be allowed in there, Subaru should be too. That is why she had turned to Reinhard right away, asking if it was possible for him to take her inside the throne room.

“It’s not quite that. I just do not wish to impose trouble on or inside Roswaal-sama’s estate.” Reinhard answered.

“Because of how people would react.” Felt huffed.

“Mostly.” Reinhard admitted.

“Then you don’t want it because it might annoy the nobles.” Felt declared with great annoyance. “But since when should we care about what nobles think?”

Reinhard answered his ward’s question with a pained smile. “Felt-sama, I simply—”

“No, I don’t want to hear it.” Felt said, turning her head away and crossing her arms. “If you think it might annoy some, then let it. If you really are my knight, then I order you to take Subaru inside as a guest!”

Subaru watched as Reinhard closed his eyes for a moment. No doubt, this request was crossing a great number of deeply rooted matters of fundamental etiquette and discipline etched in his very heart given how fitting his reputation, he truly carried himself as a knight amongst knights; but ultimately, the demands of his mistress won out over everything.

“Very well, Felt-sama.” Reinhard said with a smile after the briefest consideration, then turning to Subaru who for once did not blush out of embarrassment, but a slight hint of shame for having forced this situation on the knight. “If you would, I believe everything here is arranged, please follow me to the throne room.” he said, the smile not leaving his face, though it being difficult to tell if it was genuine or forced.

Reinhard extended a hand towards Subaru who, not knowing what else to do, took it, to which Reinhard briefly bowed his head towards the small group of servants now surrounding Felt — one of which held Subaru’s ringa plate — and began to walk towards the corridor to the throne room, gently leading Subaru along by the hand.

Felt gave farewell in the form of a smug look and satisfied huff, no doubt the only thing on her mind being sticking it to the nobility while she had the chance.

“Forgive me if I appeared displeased at the proposal.” Reinhard stated while looking forwards, once they turned onto the corridor. “Truth is, having overheard the conversation with Rem-san earlier, I simply wished to avoid any negative encounter.”

“Oh.” is all Subaru could force out, her social awareness stuck just on the edge of adolescence casting out the cavalcade of her other thoughts as she was being led by a gentle, gloved hand down a magnificent palace corridor complete with soldiers standing guard all the way down and a red carpet. This was not a moment in which much sense could factor into her line of thinking.

“My, how vulgar.” Priscilla’s ringing voice called out from behind. “So this is how a young, lowborn girl gets her way, hm?”

Reinhard stopped and hummed in confusion, turning around. “Forgive me, Priscilla-sama, please, after you.” he said with a serene smile, placing his free hand on his heart.

With a light laugh, Priscilla passed them giving a theatrical glance at Subaru and the hand held by Reinhard as she did, followed by her shabby companion who Subaru still couldn’t believe planned on going in there dressed as she was.

A guard standing before the gate bowed deeply at her approach and after a brief exchange with her and the shabby woman, opened the way for them, Reinhard leading Subaru after them at a comfortable distance, but stopping at the gate as the guard stepped closer.

“Reinhard-sama, may I ask who this is?” the guard spoke.

“Of course, Olwen-san.” Reinhard nodded, to which the guard looked back at him with visible surprise, perhaps not expecting the knight to address him by name. “While I am regrettably not at liberty to disclose the full details, I was requested to accompany this young lady as she is a personal guest of one of the more notable attendants of today’s gatherings. She is, naturally, unarmed. I pray this explanation is sufficient.”

Giving Subaru a brief onceover, the guard gave brief consideration before stepping out of their way.

“Very well, if the Sword Saint believes it appropriate, I hardly wish to delay things further.” he said.

“I am deeply grateful.” Reinhard nodded with a smile, leading Subaru further inside.

Stepping through the grand gate of what must indeed have been the throne room given the large, elegantly decorated seat at the opposing end set between a pair of elongated, currently vacant tables that most resembled for Subaru based on their position and elegance seats of a parliament.

The room itself took the form of a long hall, with an elevated podium housing the throne and the aforementioned elongated tables. Down the middle, a luxurious carpet led the way to the podium, with rows of people on either side. To the left stood people in white uniforms identical to the one worn by Reinhard, while to the right the people wore the darker uniforms which Subaru had seen hurry through the previous hall with great urgency on their way here. It didn’t take much to guess that on one hand stood the knights, and on the other the rest of the nobility invited to the proceedings.

Far ahead, just before the throne stood three women, Priscilla, the woman in red marching towards them, talking to her companion while waving her fan flamboyantly. From the right, there was a short woman dressed in fluffy looking white furs with flowing, equally fluffy looking purple hair hanging from her head. Besides her stood a tall imposing woman roughly Subaru’s height, possibly shorter. This one was dressed in a formal looking suit, possibly a military uniform judging by the decorations obvious even from behind her. She had straight, dark green hair flowing down behind her like a short and narrow cape to complete her attire. Then, dressed in familiar white, there was—

“Subaru?”

The name wasn’t spoken loudly, and yet either due to the impeccable acoustics of the room’s construction, or simply due to the tragic tone of worry in the way it was said, it reached Subaru with the clarity as if Emilia, standing there besides the other women across the room had whispered it in her ear.

Subaru and Priscilla up ahead stopped at the same time, Reinhard following suit in Subaru’s halt, not drawing her further than she was comfortable with.

“Subaru!” Emilia called once more softly, not raising her voice in the hall, abandoning her position and hurrying back down the carpet towards the door, going around Priscilla who covered her face with a fan followed the girl with her eyes.

Reinhard hung his head slightly, giving a short sigh and taking a step back, still holding Subaru’s hand but not wishing to stand between her and Emilia.

“Subaru! What— Why are you here? Didn’t— Didn’t you say—?” As Emilia reached them and spoke these words, her voice was even lower than before, her lips trembling, that serious, stern look from before that she adopted shortly before heading into the capital was gone from her eyes. Looking at Reinhard helplessly, she continued. “Reinhard! What has happened? Why have you brought Subaru here?”

Frowning slightly, Reinhard matched the girl’s eyes and told the most flattering version of the truth possible. “Felt-sama was displeased at the thought of I alone accompanying her here, and so Subaru volunteered to be her companion. After arrival, Felt-sama asked me to bring Subaru inside as my personal guest, to which I obliged.” he explained formally.

“But—” Emilia’s sad eyes darted between Reinhard and Subaru. “Subaru, you promised you wouldn’t leave the mansion until I returned.” she said, pleadingly. “You promised, didn’t you? Have you forgotten?”

Subaru stood there stiff, staring back at the desperate looking girl, still wearing the concealing cape, though her cowl had been removed, her identity presumably perfectly visible to everyone in the throne room, looking more vulnerable than ever before.

“I—” Subaru began. “I promised I’d stay out of trouble…” Subaru echoed the twisted version of the promise she made.

Emilia’s eyelashes fluttered, a misery reflected underneath them in the brilliant violet disks. Subaru couldn’t feel any cleverness anymore in her tricking the girl with carefully selected non-committal words.

Before Emilia could speak up once more, the tall image of a clownishly dressed woman appeared from the right hand side of the throne room.

“Myyyy~ I do hope my servant hasn’t been causing a bother for Reinhard-kun.” Roswaal sang, stepping to them. “I believe I understand the ciiiiircumstances, however I suspect it wasn’t entirely Feeelt-sama’s suggestion to have Subaru-chan be here, was it?”

Subaru felt the slightest increase of pressure in Reinhard’s hand as he turned his eyes at the woman slightly taller even than the knight himself. Reinhard’s eyes narrowed with an uncomfortable expression, but before he could answer, Roswaal cut him off.

“Saaaadly, I do not think we have the time to discuss just how inapprooopriate this all is.” she noted, gesturing towards the podium where a twin line of nobles emerged through doors in either corner of the throne room and moved towards the elongated tables. “The council appears to have arriiived.” she noted before briefly locking eyes with Subaru, giving Reinhard a final address with her usual sharp smile. “Take care with my seeeervant now.”

“We will talk about this later, Subaru.” Emilia said quickly, her expression steeled once more. “Please try and stay quiet.”

There were a number of things Subaru wanted to say. She wanted to defend her being there to Emilia, complain about the obscenely self absorbed candidate she had the displeasure of getting to help out of a bad spot yesterday and maybe even tell her off a bit for having wanted Subaru to sit around at home doing nothing, but as both the half-elf’s miserable eyes burned in her core still and she was still paralysed from the handsome knight beside her holding onto her in the most auspicious locale imaginable, she found herself incapable of retorting. Or, really, doing much of anything aside from obeying as Reinhard instructed her to follow to the line of knights on the side.

“Ah, Reinhard.” a familiar voice greeted the knight as the two of them approached the front right corner of the mass of knights, the spot closest to the well dressed women now lining up before the throne.

“Julius.” Reinhard responded. “It’s good to see you.”

“I feel the same, although I’m a bit puzzled by your apparent lateness and present company, I must admit.” Julius stated, brushing his hair aside as Reinhard took his place right behind Julius, guiding Subaru to take a spot behind himself.

“I had something important to arrange, and Subaru’s company came as an unexpected, but welcome consequence.” Reinhard replied simply with a smile.

“I will concede to your judgement on that then.” Julius stated, doing little to hide the obvious hints in his voice suggesting that he was less than happy about Subaru’s presence here.

“Welcome consequence, nyah?” echoed playfully another familiar voice, a cat eared man leaning out from behind a taller knight. Felix was wearing the same uniform as every other knight this time, doing away with their usual dark suit in favour of the white jacket and pants over a black shirt that was common with everyone else here.

“Indeed, Subaru had been a great help.” Reinhard answered simply with the usual smile to which the cat just laughed.

Subaru felt a hand on her shoulder and a slightly echoey voice called to her.

“Mind if I squeeze in here real quick, sis?” The voice clearly belonged to Debra who in short order slid in behind Subaru on the edge of the line of knights. “Better to have us ‘ugly ducklings’ in one spot right? Hey, loosen up, you’re looking pretty stiff there!” she added, giving Subaru a light pat on the shoulder, shaking a bit of Subaru’s nerves off.

“You’re some kind of knight too?” Subaru asked, getting out of her stupor, glancing back, but the woman behind her just placed her single, muscular arm over Subaru’s shoulder pointing forward with a finger.

“No, but don’t worry about that now, the show's starting.” she said casually.

A large man in fine armor walked out in front of the podium from ahead of the line of knights and cleared his throat gazing towards the audience as he did so, before turning around and bowing to the councilors sitting at the two tables serving as their dias.

“Seeing that both the distinguished members of the council, and the candidates have assembled; as the captain of the Royal Guard, I, Marcus, would like to begin the proceedings, if I may.”

An ancient looking old man who far better resembled the look of a stereotypical archmage than Roswaal, with long beard possibly brushing against the flood under his seat held out a hand, likely the head of the council, if there was such a thing.

“Very well, proceed.” he stated.

The captain of the knights, straightening up with due ceremony turned to the crowd and in short order, the ceremony began.

 

                                           

 

“As you well know, half a year ago, the royal family had perished here due to the effects of a terrible disease, in spite of all the efforts of the finest healers and knights alike.” Marcus began. Subaru sensed Reinhard’s shoulders stiffening slightly at the words. “Such circumstances, leaving any realm without a rightful ruler would be a cause of great crisis in any realm, but perhaps it would affect none more greatly than the Dragon Kingdom of Lugnica, whom we are so connected to the dragon’s Covenant.”

Subaru had picked up a little bit about the Divine Dragon and the covenant they forged with Lugnica while she was looking into local songs she may want to learn how to perform. Naturally, the dragons and its great deeds were the subject of numerous songs, though most of the ones she had access to due to her remaining partial illiteracy were children’s songs, many of which she suspected were more fanciful and mythological than historical.

“The Covenant which was formed by High Royal Highness Farsale Lugnica, the final Lion King and the Divine Dragon, Volcanica. In turn, since that very day, the dragon has watched over our realm with vigilance, coming to our aid in great times of crisis and ensuring the security and prosperity of our lands.” Marcus continued, while the councilors watched on, the head councilor nodding approvingly at the fine words. “With the regrettable demise of the royal line however, the Covenant had been damaged, and so the realm is in need of locating a true Dragon Priestess who may forge it anew per a special ceremony. Only special individuals are fit for such a task which had so far been carried out by the royal family, and locating them was as such our primary duty for the past half a year as members of the Royal Guard.”

Subaru furrowed her brows and whispered: “Okay, so this isn’t actually a royal election, just looking for a priestess?”

“In a certain term, yes.” Reinhard answered quietly. “However, the covenant can only be formed between the leader of the kingdom and the dragon.”

“Right. So you need to get someone with the blood of the dragon who can light the dragon fires and then close shut the marble jaws of oblivion .” Subaru huffed under her breath. Suddenly things swerved back towards the realm of pop-culture video games, just not the ones she was expecting.

“I’m afraid I don’t understand that expression.” Reinhard noted quietly while Debra behind Subaru scoffed lightly under her helm. “However, possession of dragon’s blood is not a founding requirement, and would have made the task of locating the candidates considerably more difficult if it were.”

“Our method of confirmation,” Marcus continued, lifting up a small triangular object in his hand that looked familiar to Subaru. “Were the Dragon Jewels, which uniquely identify and confirm the eligibility of Dragon Priestesses.” Here, he turned towards the four women standing by themselves ahead of everyone but him and the council. “If you would, please present your jewels.”

At his word, Emilia and the other three candidates raised identical insignias, except that the gems in the center of each of their gems began to bathe the throne room in multi-coloured right as they glowed brilliantly.

“As is plain to see, these four young ladies each have qualified, and fit the requirements set forth by the commandments of the Dragon Tablet—”

Suddenly, one of the women, the one in fine white furs with a large purse hanging by her side and a glowing blue jewel leant forward and cleared her throat.

“If you would, is this going anywhere?” she interrupted.

“Ah—” the captain of the guard was seemingly at a loss for words, looking rather uncomfortable in the situation. Undoubtedly interrupting his speech was incredibly rude, especially considering the low murmurs growing on the right hand side of the room, but since even Roswaal addressed Emilia and Felt as ‘-sama’, it was likely well above Marcus’ station to talk back to a candidate.

“I don’t mean to be a bother, but I’m quite certain everyone here is very familiar with all this, so I’d prefer we skipped past all these formalities and got to the point. I’m sure some of the gentlemen here with heavier purses understand that some people have things to do and places to be.”

There was something off about her voice, her accent that took Subaru a moment to identify.

“Hold up, I recognize that accent!” Subaru exclaimed, though trying to keep her voice low.

“Yeah, it stands out a lot, doesn’t it?” Debra noted, putting a hand once more on Subaru’s shoulder, perhaps as a sign that Subaru should keep it down. “Apparently they speak in that dialect in western Kararagi since that’s the way Hoshin spoke.” she explained quietly.

“You’re from Kararagi?” Subaru whispered.

“Wouldn’t that be nice?” Debra huffed amusedly. “Nah, I just picked up a bit of trivia about oddballs from beyond the great waterfall.” she said, patting Subaru’s shoulder.

While Debra clarified this for Subaru, things proceeded slightly amidst Marcus and the candidates, the purple haired woman seeking agreement with the other candidates to move things along.

“Normally, I would agree, as I too would rather concentrate on other duties and preparations,” the green haired woman in the military uniform-ish getup stated. “However, considering the purpose of this meeting, I must concede that Marcus’ words are far from irrelevant.”

“The purpose of this meeting?” the purple haired woman echoed with a puzzled expression.

“Ah, so then the head of the Karsten household had already deduced the purpose of this gathering then?” the head councillor asked, leaning slightly forward.

With the green haired woman identified as the head of the Karsten household, Subaru realized she must have been Crusch Karsten, the woman who was a patron to Roswaal’s visit to the capital, and who would see to Subaru’s medical treatment. That would make the purple haired girl beside her that ‘Anastasia Hoshin’ that Subaru heard of.

“I wouldn’t like to take credit for any deduction on my part in this matter.” Crusch sighed. “I’ve simply come to the information in great part by chance, and my dear knight’s involvement.”

“You’re too kind, Crush-samya!” Felix spoke up happily at their mention.

“I do not wish to hold things further, please proceed, Marcus.” Crusch closed.

Before continuing, Marcus turned his gaze to Anastasia who interrupted previously, but now just sighed and shrugged.

“Very well. So as I was saying, these four ladies hold in their hands proof of their eligibility to become the Dragon Priestess who shall be named Queen of Lugnica so they may reforge the Covenant with the Divine Dragon Volcanica. This eligibility and process we have conducted and shall continue to conduct according to the prophecy engraved upon the Dragon Tablet handed down to us by the Divine Dragon themselves.”

Subaru’s ears perked up at the word ‘prophecy’.

“As is known the Dragon Tablet had predicted and guided our country through many crises, the Great Famine, attack of the Black Dragon Valgren and even the plague of the Black Serpent which had beset our realm recently. Through its guidance, we managed to brave these terrible disasters and come out as close to unscathed as could be hoped.”

As Marcus went on to list some more minor disasters and the ways in which apparently this Divine Dragon would occasionally make a personal appearance to scare off enemy armies or even fertilize fields with its own blood, Subaru could guess where this was going, though it left a bitter taste in her mouth.

“He’s getting to the Dragon Tablet mentioning something about what to do when the royal family dies out, doesn’t it?”

“That is correct.” Reinhard nodded.

It didn’t take a genius to figure that out, knowing they not only gathered all four candidates but were about to announce the fifth and final one at this event. Still—

“Doesn’t it bother you that apparently this Volcanica knew that the royal family was going to die out whenever they handed that Dragon Tablet down and made arrangements in advance?” Subaru asked quietly.

Reinhard didn’t answer right away, so Subaru continued.

“I mean, honestly, if I this Lion King they mentioned and formed a covenant with a dragon who then proceeded to drop a stone of prophecies at my feet which included specific instructions on what to do when my entire line dies out— That would be a pretty big doom flag, wouldn’t it?”

“I’m afraid I can’t say what the royal family’s opinion was on such things.” Reinhard stated simply. “And as for the Divine Dragon’s motivations— Well, only the dragon knows.”

‘Only the dragon knows.’ was a phrase Subaru would head occasionally when she asked questions that there were no good answers to. Apparently this Volcanica had developed something of an absent father complex with the kingdom under its guard.

“Finally,” Marcus said, reaching the end of his examples. “The Dragon Tablet is not silent in regards to what is required in this crisis either. Upon it is written that after the royal family dies out, ‘There will be five able to lead a new nation and of these one shall be chosen by the priestess to form a new covenant with the dragon.’” he quoted with great ceremony.

Even after all this time, Subaru still couldn’t wrap her head around how the Royal Guard managed to locate all the candidates throughout their nation in such a short amount of time, especially considering apparently the entire Royal Guard could fit inside one half of the throne room, but this was not the time to dwell on it. Excitement was bubbling inside her, knowing any moment now they will likely announce the obvious.

“With that, I believe I have summarized the events that lay the foundation of the gravity of today’s event.” Marcus stated. “I thank you for your patience, Anastasia-sama.”

“Nevermind that.” the young woman sighed. “Just please get to the real point Crusch was talking about, I can practically feel the coins rolling out of my coffers from all this wasted time.”

Marcus nodded at the words then turned around and looked to the councillors expectantly.

“Yes, yes.” the head counselor said, brushing his beard. “I suppose all that had to be stated had been. The history books will forgive the slightest of missing details I believe.” he nodded.

The low murmur echoing quietly in the throne room from others whispering across it quickly dissipated at the invocation of history books, and people held their tongue in anticipation.

The head counselor then turned to the captain of the Royal Guard. “You may proceed, Marcus.”

The captain bowed his head then turned towards the knights and called out: “Reinhard van Astrea!”

Without a moment’s hesitation, the tall knight in front of Subaru stepped out from behind Julius and marched over to his superior then snapping his stance to attention.

“Report!” Marcus ordered simply.

“Right away!” Reinhard nodded, turning around to give everyone in the room a look before completing his rotation and resting his eyes on the councillors. “Esteemed members of the council! I am pleased to announce that the Royal Guard’s mission to locate the five candidates has been completed with success with the recent location of the fifth candidate!”

Once more murmuring broke out in the throne room. Subaru had expected it wouldn’t be much of a secret considering two of the other candidates knew of Felt, though they kind of stumbled into it, one because Felt stole her insignia, and another because they helped heal Subaru afterwards. Apparently people were better at keeping secrets than she thought.

Reinhard turned his back once more on the council and announced in great voice towards the throne room’s gate:

“Bring her in!”

Moments later the heavy doors swung open, revealing behind them the small, slightly fuming figure of Felt accompanied by two young girls who were part of Reinhard’s entourage from earlier.

The young urchin, paying little heed to grace or etiquette, took a nervous but mostly angry look around the room, then without a word began to stomp down the red carpet right towards Reinhard and the rest of the candidates.

Chapter Text

“I give you, the fifth Dragon Priestess candidate, the one I serve as Queen: Felt-sama!” Reinhard announced as the girl in her cream coloured suit continued stomping down the hall.

Right away, Subaru could pick up on a low murmur spread through the throne room. The left hand side where she was along with the knights of the Royal Guard mostly gave off sounds of surprise with variations on approval. It seemed that even amongst the ranks of the Royal Guard, it wasn’t disclosed to everyone that Felt had been located until now, and most of them were simply glad that their quest to locate the candidates had come to a close. On the other hand, the sounds she could hear from the other side of the throne room were less favourable, with different shades of ‘bratty’ echoing across the room looking dismissively at Felt who paid no regard to any form of etiquette on her way to the front. The two young girls behind her were struggling to keep up with her while also trying to move as young noble maidens should, in a clear bit of distress.

The other candidates turned as well to look at their newest competitor with a mix of expressions. None of them seemed to give particularly esteemed looks to their angry junior storming towards them, but their expressions showed that at the very least they were relieved that finally things would be moving forward. The only one amongst them appearing to have any greater feelings was, as one could expect, Emilia who smiled at Felt’s approach with a look of concern.

“Reinard!” Felt exclaimed once she reached the knight, who right away dropped to one knee before her awaiting her words. “They told me I’d need to wait before I can say my peace. How long will that be?!” she demanded, one hand on her hip, the other flung to her shoulder poking behind herself with a gesturing thumb. Presumably she meant the adults in Reinhard’s entourage who remained outside, not the two girls who didn’t look older than twelve.

“There will come a time later when in turn everyone will have a chance to say their peace, Felt-sama.” Reinhard stated before reaching into a pocket and taking out another one of the insignias. “For now, if you would, please hold this so you may be confirmed before those gathered.”

Felt sighed with deep annoyance, shooting a look around the room.

“Fine, give me the stupid thing.” she said, grabbing the gem in her fist then holding it up, a brilliant white light beaming from the heart of the gem in its center. “If all of you saw it, you can stop freaking staring already!” she huffed after making sure to turn around so everyone could see that the gem indeed glows in her hands, as apparently it only would with candidates.

“As all gathered here can bear witness, the Dragon Jewel has confirmed her as a Priestess!” Reinhard announced as Felt slid the stone in a pocket and crossed her arms impatiently.

“Yeah, yeah. Get on with the stupid show!” Felt huffed, crossing her arms.

Evidently, the light of the jewel was enough to confirm things as the murmurs on the right hand side of the throne room increased, voices chattering further about the newest candidate, some sighing in concession that ‘it must be so then’ while others growing more displeased with every word.

Finally, a rickety old man with a thick beard stepped forth from the ranks of the nobles and spoke up.

“Excuse me, Miklotov-sama and other members of the council, but may I speak a few words?” he asked.

“As you wish, Rickert-san.” the long bearded head of the council said with a simple gesture of his hand.

“I’m grateful.” Rickert nodded, taking a few steps further towards the podium, though not towards the candidates, presumably just so his voice is better served by the acoustics of the room. “First of all, I am quite certain I speak on all of us gathered here, that we are quite impressed with the diligence and haste with which the Royal Guard had managed to gather the prophesied five candidates, in accordance with the Dragon Tablet.” he said, giving a nod towards Marcus.

“We are humbled by the praise.” the captain of the royal guard nodded back.

“That being said.” emphasised Rickert. “While I’m certain that the knights have of course followed the commandment of the Dragon Tablet to heart, I feel I speak for a great number of us when I say that some of the candidates you have brought before us are rather controversial.” he added, weaving words with careful measure.

In spite of his theatrics trying to conceal the insult under flowery language, it struck clear home what he was talking about, and Subaru felt her nails dig slightly into her palms. Oddly, her reaction wasn’t alone, as the knights around her proceeded to tense up as well as the suggestion.

“Would Rickert-san care to elaborate?” Marcus spoke, somewhat colder than before, feeling as if he embodied the tension that had grasped his subordinates at the official’s words.

“Why, well yes indeed none can question that the five individuals collected here are eligible to be priestesses, those jewels have confirmed this, perhaps as great a concern should have been given to ensuring that only candidates that wouldn’t cut at our nation’s dignity are chosen! As crucial as pursuing the reestablishment of our covenant with the dragon is, can we really afford to allow candidates whose mere presence would be seen as a clear mockery of the throne they compete for?” Rickert continued with narrowed eyes.

Behind him, the crowd of nobles and other officials murmured, some calling out with words of approval.

“Even with the dragon’s blessing, this nation cannot hope to stand and maintain its esteemed station in the world, if it is abandoned by its people who believe we are making a mockery of them in the choice of their liege!” Rickert added.

“Are you then suggesting that the candidates whom the royal guard and other knights of the realm toiled and bled to locate, would be unfit for the throne?” Marcus asked once more, even colder, Subaru hearing each knight take a sharp breath seemingly at once.

“That’s—” The old man hesitated before answering. “That’s not exactly how I would put it, but for the dignity of the realm, yes.”

The tensions around Subaru flared in the ranks of the knights, from the way each knight’s head was turned with stern looks to their counterparts on the opposite half of the room made this quite clear. Subaru noticed Crusch Karsten, standing with the other candidates, furrowed the rub of her brows as well, remaining in stoic, silent displeasure, though on whose behalf, Subaru couldn’t say.

Subaru could see Priscilla flutter her fan slightly, as if considering lowering it so she may say something, but before that could happen, an echoey voice behind Subaru laughed up.

“Ah, I don’t know much about this knight and noble stuff, but that sounded like an insult didn’t it?” Debra spoke up behind Subaru loudly, completely going against the atmosphere of the room. “Hey, you guys at the front should know, what do you think of it?” Debra spoke gesturing ahead of both herself and Subaru, where Julius stood, Felix next to him.

“Cany’t say I care too much.” Felix spoke up first. “Let the old timer say what he wants, I’m dedicated to one above all.”

“I don’t feel quite the same, in that I do find Rickert-san’s words ill founded.” huffed Julius, adjusting his hair slightly. “However, as I too have dedicated my blade to the service of one above all already, my heart shall remain moved by her interests alone.”

“Hah, yeah, that’s knights for you.” Debra said, the ricketing of her helm echoing through the throne room. Subaru couldn’t help but feel a somewhat bitter tone in that preceding statement. “Of course, I get it. I don’t care much for anything except for Sunny-sama either.” she added with a carefree wave towards her mistress.

The exchange of the knights and— whatever the woman behind her was, brought something to the forefront of Subaru’s mind.

Anastasia Hoshin, the purple haired girl in white had the service of Julius. Crusch Karsten was served by Felix. Priscilla had a somewhat eccentric sort-of-knight following her as well as Debra. And of course, Reinhard had just a short while ago announced that he had sworn himself to Felt’s service, though that was kind of obvious already from all that had put up with it up until now.

That left Emilia. Looking around, there were countless knights about. Reinhard was separated from Felt for a while, and she encountered both Julius and Felix without their mistresses, so could it be one of these knights were in service to Emilia? But who?

“The fact of the matter is that being a priestess is simply not enough.” Rickert continued, perhaps emboldened by the break in tensions introduced by Debra. “A true candidate must be ready in all aspects to assume the throne, and merely observing the behaviour of some of these candidates betrays the fact that they simply are not aware of the gravity of what they are presented with!”

The old man’s inflaming words continued to find encore in the crowd on his side while the knights remained silent, which wasn’t aided by Felt turning to them and performing a hand gesture Subaru could easily guess was highly uncourtly at them.

“That will be enough!” Miklotov, the head of the council, called, raising his voice which filled the throne room. “Considering the young lady’s behaviour, I believe I understand Rickert-san’s concerns. Perhaps it would be best if we heard the life circumstances of the young candidate to better paint her history.” The council hummed in agreement, after which Miklotov turned to knight with the blazing red hair standing beside Felt. “Reinhard-san, could you elucidate the young lady’s history and how the royal guard came to locate her?”

In response to the address, Reinhard bent once more to one knee, this time towards the council and placed a hand on his heart.

“But of course,” he said elegantly. “Until nearing two months ago, Felt-sama had lived in the lower quarter of the capital, which some refer to as ‘the slums’. A troublesome situation arose in which I had to intervene, during which I came to encounter the young Felt-sama, and she came into incidental contact with a Dragon Jewel, which allowed me to confirm her eligibility, and have since arranged for safe lodging for her courtesy of other parties.” he added.

A slum rat?! ” Rickert exclaimed. “Reinhard-san— Do you seek to make a mockery of this realm and its throne?! You’d have us place some illiterate cutpurse, without the slightest measure of—”

Subaru’s fists clenched once more in rage, listening to the unfounded, idiotic and blind words fo the old man as he went off at the knight before him, Reinhard not batting an eye, maintaining his composure and courtly expression in perfect submission to the council that the blathering old man was evidently not even a member of. She wanted to step out of the crowd and tell him off for daring to speak like that of Felt!

“Stop that!” the clear voice of a young woman exclaimed, filling the room. It wasn’t Subaru’s voice.

Apart from the other candidates now, having stepped towards Felt, there stood Emilia, holding a hand out defensively between Felt and the old man, from her posture looking just as surprised as was everyone else, including Felt.

“That is— That is no way to talk to anyone, let alone a candidate!” Emilia continued, though the confident clarity of a moment ago was gone from her voice, replaced by nervousness. Subaru could see her extended arm tremble. “You’re judging her too harshly, and without reason! She might not be the most polite girl, but— She’s clever and hard working! So please, do not speak of her in such a horrible way!”

A short silence fell on the throne room, seemingly everyone dumbstruck by Emilia’s sudden outburst, once again, including Emilia, who fidgeted slightly in place. Even from behind, it was clear she was glancing around for help.

You can say this? On what grounds?” Rickert asked, finally breaking the ensuing silence, while Reinhard stood up, taking a position next to Emilia though not saying a word.

“Aaaaaa~” Roswaal chirped up. “It seems Reinhard-kun wasn’t quite thooorough enough, perhaps for my benefit.” she stated merrily. “Since her discovery, I took it upon myyyyyself to attend to Felt-sama’s safety on Reinhard-kun’s demand. Emiiiiilia-sama had volunteered as Felt-sama’s educator in this time.” she explained.

“So.” Rickert fumed, turning to the clownish wizard. “Has your madness grown contagious then? Was it not enough for you to sponsor that thing , now you’ve had to get involved in this matter too, Mathers?! Do you even care for the future of this realm, or do you just seek to increase your vile collection of absurdities?!”

Voices in the crowd encored with

“Did he just—?!” Subaru exclaimed, ready to step in and maybe even shatter the jaw of the rickety old bag of bones for daring to call Emilia a ‘thing’, but once more, she was interrupted.

Who do you think you are, you useless old fartbag?! ” fumed Felt. “Where do you get off calling people ‘things’?!”

“Excuse me?!” Rickert demanded.

“I muuuuust concur with the young lady.” Roswaal hissed through her smile.

Subaru saw Emilia turn to Felt and bend her knees a bit so they’re closer to eye level. “Thank you, but please, you don’t need to—” she began in a somewhat composed voice.

“This is rich! Have you trained for this?! Turning the throne room into a theatre of cheap mockeries? The slumrat and the witchblood—”

Rickert-san. ” Reinhard interrupted, his voice calm and gentle and yet carrying enough force that it was the only sound to be heard in the room. “I mean no offense, but I do believe you have lost your composure.”

“I—” Rickert, whose eyes were practically bulging with rage, seemed like he’d go off once more, but perhaps some minor semblance of sense catching up with him, he lowered his arms into a stiff stance and stayed silent.

“Seriously? He just shuts up and that’s it?!” Felt exclaimed angrily, but Emilia placed a hand on her shoulder.

“Please, do not worry about it, it’s over.” Emilia said, her voice still trembling, but clearly trying her best to put the words of the old bastard behind her.

Felt gave a deathly glare to the old man then pulled her shoulder from Emilia’s grasp. “Fine, but don’t think I got mad for you. I just can’t stand stupid old bastards that think they’re better than everyone.”

“Miklotov-san?” spoke one the bald councillor sitting nearest to the head of council. Miklotov himself sat where he had until now, leaning somewhat to the side, his face covered by one hand.

“Yes, yes.” Miklotov nodded, lowering his hand. “I must indeed say that was well out of line. However, more notably, everyone having had some time to observe the young candidate, I need to ask Reinhard-san: Is she—?” the tired old man asked, turning to Reinhard, but leaving the nature of the question unfinished.

“There is no way by which to confirm it anymore.” Reinhard answered without hesitation, turning to the council. “However, I cannot bring myself to call this a simple matter of coincidence.”

Between the barely contained seething rage flaring deep inside Subaru towards the unforgivable old man’s conduct and her general lack of knowledge on the realm’s affairs, she was left clueless about the nature of the question and the answer. However, she didn’t seem to be the only one.

“Excuse me, but may I ask what the question is?” spoke Rickert, wagging on his filthy tongue.

Miklotov sighed. “I must truly wonder about your state of mind and loyalty to this realm if even after all this time with her there before you, you haven’t realized, Rickert-san.” he said, shaking his head. “Can you not recognize what she appears to be?”

“What could you—” the old man choked on his words as something seemed to click in his head. “Wait— No, that can’t be.” he muttered. “How old is this girl?”

“Her exact age is unknown.” Reinhard answered in a measured tone. “However, based on your reaction, I imagine you well remember the incident fourteen years ago, in which the king’s niece had been abducted by intruders who regrettably managed to escape with the infant.” Reinhard continued. “Her apparent age could easily match.”

Subaru blinked. This was the first she actually heard of this. Glancing at the most familiar of faces visible to her, she could conclude that at the very least, Roswaal seemed to not have been at all caught off guard by this, even though the rest of the room hushed in a moment of gasping realization. Was Felt really— All this time—?

“I believe that incident which also led to the dissolution and refounding of the Royal Guard included involvement from the Astrea family as well, am I not correct?” Miklotov asked from his dia.

“Indeed, and as such I have unique information, from which…” Reinhard answered, trailing off, once more letting the audience fill the blank with their imagination, to which the head of the council simply nodded.

“That’s— That’s absurd!” Rickert exclaimed. “You wish for us to believe that this, this girl you dragged in here was stolen by kidnappers from the royal family, then just left to rot in the slums with no greater designs, only for you to stumble upon her after her family’s demise whilst?!”

“Rickert-san, I believe you’ve already cast enough doubt upon the young lady with this unbecoming behaviour.” Miklotov scolded, far too mildly. “Do not endeavour to shame the Astrea house with such accusations.”

Reinhard lowered himself on one knee and placed the sword at his hips on the ground towards the council.

“Even if unneeded, I swear upon my sword that no part of Felt-sama had been disguised. I believe she is without fail worthy of the throne, regardless of blood. Such is fate.”

“Stop with that stu—” Felt began, but before she could get started with a ramble, Emilia placed a hand gently on her shoulder once more, whispering a few words that never reached Subaru, to which with an angry expression Felt just huffed and crossed her arms, electing to stay quiet.

An uneasy air rested on the room, low murmurs echoing here and there, seemingly no one quite certain how to proceed from the revelation presented to them.

“Excuse me, but if that so-called knight isn’t going to dispatch the noisy old man with that sword in a moment, then I do not see what the point is in all this boring discussion.” Priscilla announced, breaking the tensions. “Mind you, if that is what you’re aiming for, by all means go on just be quick about it.”

“Sorry Sunny-sama, I don’t think this is that kind of show.” Debra shouted in, seemingly the only other person in the room totally unfazed by the chaos of the past few minutes.

Priscilla huffed, closing her eyes and her fan at the same time, shaking her head.

“Then I order that we proceed with this stagnant meeting right away.” the woman in red commanded, as if she was already queen.

Chapter Text

“Very well, with all that unpleasantness hopefully behind us, it is time to progress today’s agenda.” Miklotov began. “Now that for the first time all five candidates have gathered, it would be best to hear some words of- and from the candidates themselves, so that all those gathered can gain a greater understanding of the prospective future monarchs.” Miklotov announced once in part thanks to Priscilla’s outburst, tensions calmed down and the candidates were asked to line up.

Given Reinhard’s declaration of his full support of Felt, ultimately the council decided to at the very least postpone the question of Felt’s candidacy. Subaru wasn’t sure how this would play when Felt inevitably would renounce her candidacy at whatever point she was designated to do so, she was beginning to suspect that Reinhard was hoping, infact banking on the idea that Felt will somehow reconsider, which didn’t seem at all likely.

“This introduction is especially crucial, as the exact details of the selection are not written upon the Dragon Tablet, and as such to determine the appropriate method to select from our candidates, it would be best that we have a deeper understanding of their designs and merits.” Miklotov explained, continuing his thought.

The other councilors simply nodded in agreement, presumably having discussed most of this at length beforehand.

“As the council has no objections, I shall elect to begin with Crusch Karsten-sama! Ferris Argyle-san, if you would?”

“How many times do I have to say that I prefer ‘Felix’?” sighed the cat, shaking their head while stepping out of the front row and heading towards the podium.

As Reinhard had just moments ago taken back his spot in front of Subaru, she felt this would be a decent time to figure out what was up with the cat constantly having issues with their name. Were they from some other country too, with people constantly mispronouncing it? Then why would they say they ‘prefer’ it? Perhaps figuring this out would even distract her a bit from 

“Hey, why do some people call him Ferris and others Felix?” Subaru asked, leaning forward.

“Him?” Reinhard repeated absentmindedly, pausing for a moment to think. “I believe you are mistaken, Subaru. Felix is a woman.”

“Ah.” Subaru nodded, though it took a moment more for the truth of the words to actually reach her. “Wait what? Then what the hell was that—?!” she continued then suddenly biting down on her lips as she noticed the knights ahead of her and a few faces across the room in her peripheral vision as well as turning towards them.

“Is there a problem?” Marcus asked.

Reinhard answered in Subaru’s place with a smile. “Forgive me, I have startled the young lady with a revelation.” he said simply, before looking towards Felix. “It appears she was confused about you, Felix-san.”

“Nyah?” Felix ‘asked’ turning back with a coy smile. “I wonder what that could possibly have been.” she added, her ears fluttering playfully and turning towards Subaru. “Could it be somenyan was confused by a simple choice of attire?”

Feeling put on the spot, Subaru wasn’t sure if she should just keep quiet or not. On the one hand, she was more than a little conscious of Emilia who looked at her with worried eyes, even if it bugged her endlessly that she’d think so little of her to look at her like that. On the other hand, she was addressed directly.

“Let’s not pretend like you weren’t putting on an act too! It’s not just the clothes!” Subaru said, trying to sound defiant but not quite getting there. Everything about how Felix talked from first addressing Subaru as a ‘lovely young thing’ through the way in which she carried herself all the way to kissing Subaru all the way up her arm, possibly aiming for more screamed testosterone fueled macho who’s too full of himself for his own good. Subaru wasn’t willing to accept some slay twist on everything that paints her as the bad person for judging a book by its cover!

Felix sighed theatrically, shrugging her shoulders and holding up her hands. “I wouldn’t have expected such judgement from a fellow sharp dresser.” she said, then laughed up, naturally in reference to the butler uniform Subaru was still sporting from this myorning.

“Felix, please stop teasing Subaru-san.” Crusch called with a dignified voice. She didn’t sound dismissive or displeased with Felix, it sounded more like she simply wished to get on with the proceedings and stop wasting people’s time.

“Yes mya’am!” Felix said with a gleeful note in her voice, turning back towards her mistress and standing at attention next to her, facing the council, before placing a hand on her chest and bowing slightly. “To get right to it, Crusch-sama as the current head of house Karsten should require little introduction to those present, however it is myay pleasure to deliver one regardless!” she began, straightening up. “As the past dukes and duchesses of her family have ruled with loyalty and distinction for myany generations past, so too is Crusch-sama heading the fiefs under her control with dignity and wisdom to match! Of this, I’m certain most everyone here could attest!”

Indeed as Felix ended her short introduction, voices of approval hummed up from the officials to the right, from the ranks of the knights and even the council. It was rather clear that the green haired woman had a great deal of support in this room and likely beyond it. Indeed, while Subaru hadn’t heard much from her, she seemed to carry herself with a dignity similar to that of the knights themselves, a clear favourite compared to Felt and Emilia whom were treated with disdain, and likely well above the big mouthed Priscilla and likely the purple haired girl too who tried to speed along the whole event with seemingly little respect for traditions. So far, it didn’t look like this royal selection business would be a difficult choice for anyone.

“Thank you, Felix.” Crusch said, nodding to her subordinate with a warm smile, before turning around and facing the audience directly. “As I am to speak my mind, and as I believe it is important to clarify a number of things, I shall now do so.” she began, her expression growing stern. “While I appreciate the words of approval I believe to have heard approach me from those in this room, I wish to dash away any possible misconceptions that some may hold towards what my vision for the future of this country is!” she declared, her stance stiffening as she put her hands behind herself and spread her legs slightly, almost as if she was a drill instructor. “Should I become queen, I do not wish any in this room to expect things to simply return to the way things were before this crisis of succession.”

Voices of uncertainty filled the room in the short silent break she left for people to digest her words.

“Is Crusch-sama perhaps humbly suggesting she couldn’t live up to the legacy of the Lugnica dynasty?” a voice from amongst the gathered officials called somewhat meekishly.

“On the contrary.” Crusch answered clearly, turning her head towards the source of the voice. “I have absolutely no desire to let things go on in this nation as they have gone on for far too long! If I am chosen as the next queen of this nation, I shall seek to abolish the covenant with the dragon!”

The voices of uncertainty flared up at the clearly inflammatory declaration, faces of disbelief and even horror appearing across the room. Felix who had since turned towards the audience with her mistress simply smiled confidently.

“Crusch-sama!” a voice broke through the rising cavalcade of chattering in the room, coming from one of the council members. “To speak so lightly— And so ill of the covenant and the dragon—! I pray this is some kind of misunderstanding!”

“It is no mistake, councillor.” Crusch declared, turning back towards the council. “I will not deny that the dragon and the covenant had been an unparalleled blessing upon this nation. I have little doubt that if it were not for the Divine Dragon’s benevolent guidance and protection of this nation, then the Dragon Kingdom of Lugnica would have suffered far more greatly under a number of crises that Marcus-san was kind enough to list earlier.”

“Then what is the meaning of these words?! How could your ladyship acknowledge the importance of the covenant and yet seek to abolish it?!” another councillor retorted.

“The answer lies precisely as the tale was.” Crusch stated, hanging her head briefly, before raising it once more and continuing in a more forceful tone. “Famines undone by the dragon’s blood blessing our fields. Enemies driven back from our borders by the dragon’s might lent to us! Crisis handled via the wisdom the dragon granted us!” she suddenly turned back to the audience and raised her arms expectantly. “Does this sound like a mighty nation to you?! Does it sound like that the legacy we carry belongs to proud forefathers that have bled and toiled for our present success, or to a grand benefactor that has sat watch over our lands, allowing us to grow content and docile?!”

A brief quiet rested on the room after these words, though quickly broken by the renewed chattering of disbelief and even mounting anger, which Crusch once more broke through with her voice.

“I understand that this may not be how it seems. The many blessings of the covenant had made us grow used to the way things are, but I ask that you look no further than this very room and the events and words that have transpired here today as proof of the issue!” she declared, her voice growing angrier, her fair features contorted as she got ready to read out the sins of the realm as she saw them. “This very meeting is a desperate plea of weakness, begging to reclaim the comfort of the dragon’s guidance! Almost all the most powerful people of the nation are gathered here today, and instead of debating how to move our nation forwards together, we agitate over just how exactly we should follow the vague words with which the dragon left us!” she thundered, rendering the rest of the room silent. “While I shall not pretend that there isn’t controversy to some of my fellow candidates, even criticism aimed at them has been limited to mere optics! Concern as to how we will appear to our citizens and those of other nations! Are these important concerns? Of course they are! However, should such trivialities come before ability and potential?!”

Crush paused for a moment, and cast her eyes across the dumbstruck room. Even if the audience at large seemed in great part appalled by these words, Subaru couldn’t help but feel a buzz in her heart that she never felt before. The only thing of any true importance that stood out to her was her dismissal of the insults raised against Felt and Emilia. If nothing else, this was enough to endear her to the boldly speaking candidate.

“I believe myself to be fit to reshape this nation into one that we can be truly proud of.” Crusch continued. “If I am to become queen, I swear to do so with all power available to me! Yet I cannot, and will not accept the idea of being chosen for something as obscene as being the simplest route for us as a nation to throw ourselves on our back once more in submission to a higher power and carry on as if all was well and right with that! It is time that we accept as any truly great nation must, that it is not our nation, unless it is us that shape its destiny! Certainly the dragon’s aid has saved us from a great deal of pain, possibly even destruction; but if our nation is truly incapable of standing by its own power, then just as any other in such a sorry state: It should crumble!”

“Crusch-sama!” cried out yet another voice from the council. “Are you suggesting that the Dragon Kingdom of Lugnica should fall?!”

“No.” Crusch stated simply, turning around. “I am saying that the kingdom should rise out of the dragon’s shadow! I am saying that I believe we should and can gather the strength ourselves to deal with any crisis that in the past would have been averted by the dragon, and further—” Here, she paused and took a deep breath. “I swear that if I become queen, I shall reshape this nation into one that can forget about the Divine Dragon! One which wields a strength and wisdom that matches the Dragon’s, but which are its own! To reforge this realm, its ministers and its people itself into the very image of the Dragon!”

Silence filled the room as she paused once more, before Crusch spoke one last time, in a lower voice.

“The path to such a reshaping of this nation will be a hard one, this I will not deny. No one can say what future crises or calamities may lie ahead of us, possibly greater than any we have faced before, but if we are to face them, I wish for us to face them in a way that doesn’t bring shame to my soul.” she said. “I believe this is a fated opportunity to answer these concerns I have long held.”

Subaru felt strange listening to these words. She wasn’t a warrior or one for politics in general, but oddly, she felt that this kind of rousing, if controversial speech was the kind of thing she had expected she’d get to listen to briefly after she appeared in this world. Had her heart not been long set on simply trying to ensure the happiness of the few people of the manor that had given her a chance to actually live, she might have been moved enough just now to consider this woman as the one she should champion, as so many heroes summoned to another word would. There was something captivating about her willingness to tear down the pride of the nation whose very leaders surrounded her, that was beyond impressive. The voices across the room which remained unconvinced even though they lost their previous hostility, seemed not to share Subaru’s outsider enthusiasm.

“I believe we understand Crusch-sama’s feelings after all this.” Miklotov spoke, breaking the quiet murmurs. “Ferris-san, is there anything you wish to add?”

It seemed obvious that now that the candidate had spoken their peace, it was time for her knight to speak on her behalf.

“I am afraid, there is nothing to add.” Felix spoke, the confident smile not once disappearing from her face during her mistress’ speech. “As was to be expected, Crusch-sama had spoken perfectly to the very heart of the issue she wishes to address, and did so in the most brilliant way possible. All I have to say is that I have total confidence that not only will she become queen, but one of the finest in this nation’s history!” the cat boasted, closing with a bow towards the council before looking to her mistress. “Crusch-sama, you were as majestic as always.” she added, taking her mistress’s hand and planting a single kiss on it.

“Thank you, Felix.” Crusch smiled, pulling her hand back. Even from where she was standing, Subaru could plainly see the deep affection for her knight in the candidate’s eyes.

Miklotov raised a hand to gather people’s attention and the murmurs died down.

“Thank you to Crusch-sama and Ferris Argyle-san for these illuminating words.” he began, stroking his beard. “Now that we have heard from one of the candidates, it is only right we proceed and grant the opportunity to speak to another, if everyone is quite done digesting her ladyship’s message…” he noted, turning his face across the room.

Indeed, while to Subaru the candidate’s words sounded like that of a truly impassioned woman who wanted to raise everyone around them to a perhaps impossible ideal, if anything, her initial popularity likely suffered as the once unconditional sounding cheers of approval had considerably died down if not completely disappeared.

Glancing to the other candidates, wondering who’d be next, Subaru also felt a slight bolt in her clutch in her heart as her eyes rested on Emilia. She never really understood why the half-elf wanted to win so badly. Or rather, she never accepted her reasoning to be sound. Subaru remembered that Emilia wanted to prove herself by becoming queen, or at least, that seemed the main objective, the girl rarely and only vaguely talking about her future ambitions. Even now, it seemed like a terrible idea to have Emilia take on something like a royal election for just so much as proving herself to people she honestly shouldn’t care about the opinions of.

Still, even if Subaru didn’t understand or agree with her reasons, this all clearly meant the world to Emilia. Subaru couldn’t help but feel some measure of shame at having gotten so invested in another candidate’s words, even if that candidate was one who offered both of them patronage so far in providing the carriage, and Subaru’s past and future healing. Hopeless or not, regardless of how dismissive she had been of Subaru over the past few days, Emilia needed all the support she could possibly get. Was it right for Subaru to give her anything, but her full support, especially

“Yes, now then.” Marcus cleared his throat, rendering the last of the whisperers in the room silent. “Let us continue with Priscilla Barielle-san!” he declared.

 

※ ※ ※ ※ ※ ※ ※ ※ ※ ※ ※ ※ ※ ※ ※ ※ ※ ※ ※ ※ ※ ※ ※

 

“Well it’s about time! Super Priscilla Time!” exclaimed the woman in red with a laugh as Subaru felt Debra slide out from behind her and hop over to her mistress with a few quick steps.

“Perfect delivery, Sunny-sama!” Debra praised her, holding a proud thumbs up in the sky. “Just watch out, because with the age of some of these folks, you might actually knock them dead!”

“Hah! We can't have that until they understand why they should just bow down and become mine already, can we?” Priscilla scoffed with a sharp smile, stepping closer to the podium.

Quite contrary to Crusch’s initial welcome, the woman in red received only hums of disapproval and jeers from the audience as she made her appearance. Subaru believed to have heard someone call her ‘The Bloody Bride’, though she didn’t know for what reason. Regardless, she was glad to see that at least not the entire country lost its reason, and they were willing to recognize a clear fool of a candidate for what she was.

“Come now if some of you incapables are so averse to a better life under my magnificent self that you’d voice it so pathetically, at least step forth so that my servant can grant you the death that would much better fit you.”

“My arm would probably tire at this rate, Sunny-sama.” sighed Debra, turning around with a lean to measure up the number of jeering faces.

“You’re too lazy now to serve me?” Priscilla asked sharply.

“Ah, of course not, I’m just not sure how the knights over there would feel about it. You might need to find another champion before I get a chance to finish.” Debra noted in a joking but strained tone, while casually turning back around and pointing a finger at the line of knights.

Priscilla simply sighed and fanned herself.

“I hate to interrupt the words of mistress and knight—” Miklotov spoke, only to be quickly interrupted by Debra who swiftly flung her hand high into the air giving a wave like a kid wanting to signal that they have an answer in class.

“I’m not really a knight, sorry!”

“Mm, yes, well.” Miklotov gathered himself. “I understand her ladyship is married to Lyp Barielle-san?”

Was married.” Priscilla corrected. “The old codger gave up the ghost about half a year ago after going senile.”

“I see. As someone who had been acquainted with Lyp-san for some time, I regret to hear such news, you have my condolences, Prsicilla-sama.”

“Condolences for what? I can’t imagine anyone missing the old pervert. The only worthwhile thing he had ever accomplished was leaving his estates to me, which of course he didn’t live to see, naturally.” the woman spoke without a shred of pity or sympathy for the man that she had married.

The shabby dressed not-knight beside her rubbed the back of her neck under her helmet while laughing uncomfortably at her mistress’ words.

“I don’t understand these meek sounds of disapproval I’m hearing from the riffraff in the audience.” Priscilla sighed. “I doubt many of you even knew the man, much less remembered him, or fondly at that. Even if he never touched me, what was his along with House Barielle is now mine, so quite literally everything of value he ever had you can now find with me.”

While the disapproving huffs continued, no one spoke out directly against the woman’s voice. Whether this was because they had no real issue on account of not having too fond memories of Lyp themselves, or simply because they were concerned about the bizarre muscle she brought along not outright refusing her previous suggestion of killing anyone who’d disrespect her— Subaru couldn’t say.

“With that matter settled, perhaps it would be best to ask the— Priscilla-sama’s companion, if she has something to say on her ladyship’s behalf before her ladyship makes her case? I must admit I’m curious about their strange appearance and circumstances.”

“Strange appearance?” Debra repeated absent mindedly. “Ah, you mean where Old Lefty went?” she asked, pointing at the stump of her left shoulder with her right arm.

“I was rather referring to the strange clothes and the… helm.”

“Ah yeah, figures.” the warrior nodded with a little laugh, seeming completely carefree in the tense setting surrounding her. “Most people find the helmet weird but hey, it’s a sturdy cool looking piece, so I decided to keep it, even if it wasn’t easy sneaking it out of Vollachia.” she noted, clanking her fist against the helm as she did.

“You hail from the Vollachian Empire?” Marcus, the captain of the royal guard, spoke up with a bit of tension.

“Sort of.” Debra answered awkwardly. “If you mean whether I’m from Vollachia, I cut basically all ties there, so I’ve got nothing to do with them now. I kept the helm and its plumes more because they look cool than anything, plus my face isn’t much to look at since a few unfortunate fights too many, so it’s practical too. Hope you don’t mind a lady maintaining enough vanity to not go around looking like— Well, this.”

Subaru couldn’t get a good look from where she stood, but she could see the woman grab the bottom of her helm and begin pulling it up towards Marcus, with a couple of the councilors in that direction audibly retching at whatever horrid scars got revealed, to which Debra plopped her helmet back down and continued.

“So yeah, I thought it’s best to keep it on.”

“Permit me to ask something a little untoward,” Marcus spoke, looking concerned but unmoved by the sight that upset the councillors. “However, if you hail from Vollachia with such scars, were you perhaps a Sword Slave?”

Debra laughed up uncomfortably. “Haaah, I guess the old Empire isn’t as good at keeping its darker secrets as it likes to think. That’s about the size of it. Veteran of about a decade, though I don’t know if it would surprise you if I said battle wasn’t my first muse, just kind of what I got stuck with after I misplaced Old Lefty.” she continued, almost cheerfully, fiddling with something near the neck of her cape for a moment. “Well, that’s putting it in the wrong order, but you get the point.”

Subaru wasn’t sure what she could have been referring to, but no doubt there were a great number of doors that the loss of an arm could have closed for the warrior woman. Though thanks to Felix’s expertise, Subaru’s arm never gave her trouble, in this moment she was acutely aware of how grateful she should be to everyone involved in saving her from its loss. She never could have played the lyulyre or that wonderful new guitar if she had lost an arm.

“And how exactly did she come into Priscilla-sama’s employ?” Miklotov asked.

“Oh? It was due to a simple strength competition I held.” Priscilla noted. “I’ve placed the possibility to become my champion as the prize and Debra came to compete for it.”

“What can I say, it looked like a good steady job, working for someone that won’t make things boring.” Debra nodded.

Priscilla nodded also with a proud smile.

“Quite impressive winning such a contest with only one arm.” Miklotov noted.

“Ha, not such luck. Only broke the top five and barely. You should have seen the others, some of the men there resembled those blue land dragons more than anyone in this room.” she joked. “I only got the job because of Sunny-sama’s better judgement.”

“Indeed, right away I could tell that I found something better than some muscle-brained fool who’d be unfit for any task more complex than parking my dragon carriage.” Priscilla explained. “Not only was she a physical wonder, but one who could boast an escape from the Empire and an origin from beyond the Great Waterfall!”

Subaru furrowed her brows. She recalled that Hoshin, not the purple haired girl, but probably an ancestor or something was also from beyond the great waterfall, though she still didn’t understand exactly what that meant. If the whole world was surrounded by waterfalls, then would that mean that there was another, bigger world far below at the bottom of the waterfall that Hoshin and supposedly this warrior somehow climbed up from? Or was it just a void down there, and instead there were other places just floating around surrounded by their own waterfalls far away like continents? Actually, wasn’t there some weird stuff Debra s—

“It is providence that guided me to the finest choice then, and which ensures that my path to becoming queen shall be a glorious one!” Priscilla boasted, completely tossing Subaru’s thoughts off.

One of the councillors leant forward. “So then your case is that you are somehow chosen by destiny to lead this nation?”

“Nonsense. This nation is chosen by destiny to serve me.” Priscilla corrected. “It’s a fact that nothing in this world happens unless it is to benefit me, not to mention that this laughable formality of a selection is quite obvious as well. I alone am worthy to rule here. Not some duchess who doesn’t seem to have an acceptable dress to her name, not some base trader, not some brat, regardless of her pedigree and most certainly not—” she listed, gesturing at the various candidates in turn with her fan, stopping as she pointed to Emilia, but not even finishing the line of thought just laughing up, testing Subaru’s vaning patience with both her and Emilia’s treatment in one. “Simply put, this selection is already decided, so all you’ve to do is bow down and serve.” she finished.

The absurd declaration proved even better than a council member raising their voice at silencing the crowd. People stood in complete disbelief of the impossibly self absorbed declaration.

“Sunny-sama, maybe you could share why it is?” Debra suggested, not awkwardly, more just with the tone of someone compassionately looking to throw a bone to everyone else in the throne room.

“There is not much to add. Siding with me means being on the winning side, this this and all things. Anything my subjects want, I’ll allow, the only condition being that they serve me and no one else.”

Priscilla raised her head definitely and began to fan herself, as if to declare that she was well and truly done.

“Aha.” Debra nodded. “Sunny-sama has her own way to say it, but she’s absolutely right.” she declared, siding fully and proudly with madness here. “Any of you keeping track of the finances might likely have noticed that the Barielle lands which stagnated for some time have recently experienced a major upturn. If you look a bit more into it, you’d notice that this was just as Sunny-sama came in control of those estates.”

One of the councillors spoke up. “This is indeed correct.” he said ponderously. “So then am I to understand that behind these preceding words is the mind of a woman who has designs to share her skills of stewardship with the realm?”

“Stewardship?” protested Priscilla, furrowing her brows, turning to the councillor. “I will not have you talk so crass! If that woman before had any merit, it was pointing out the pathetic state of this realm which creeps into every pore of its sorry existence. Your issues are far greater than what any base steward could handle. But of course, once I am queen, all this will turn around!”

“I gotta say, Sunny-sama is right.” Debra nodded. “I mean I ain’t got the brains to figure out what ails she’s referring to, and it’s not like you should expect her to become one of those hard working queens that go checking on their lands all their lives. It’s simply that she’s never wrong. Every guess and every choice she makes is always correct.” she explained matter-of-factly. “If anything, living as her vassal just means you benefit from her good choices. Nothing bad ever happens to Sunny-sama, so nothing bad will happen to the nation either.”

As the council clarified that there truly was nothing else that either the mistress and her servant had to add, Subaru just stood in wild amazement at them. She was absolutely certain that whatever poor sod had to work under the woman in red would have to be absolutely miserable. How could they not? She was insufferable and a public menace to boot. And yet, Debra went along with Priscilla’s madness as naturally as if she was just one of the voices in the girl’s head.

When Debra returned to her spot behind Subaru, Marcus once again cleared his throat, getting read to call for the introduction of the next candidate.

“Julius Juukulius-san!”

 

                                           

 

Upon leaving the ranks of the knights, Julius headed right for the woman in purple and white and greeted her with a bow, before repeating the same motion towards the council.

“Members of the council, it is my honour and joy to present, Anastasia Hoshin-sama, of the Hoshin Trading Company.” Julius said with great ceremony.

“Yes, hello!” the young woman next to him said, giving a slight wave to the council before turning towards the audience and giving everyone a warm smile, that Kasai accent that Subaru noticed before carrying on. “As I sort of voiced before, I would wish to avoid wasting time, and I don’t have anything as intense to say as the others, nor any big gimmick so, I guess I’ll just try and keep things simple, alright?” she said, continuing to regard everyone in the room with the simple, inviting expression one would expect from a host as a casual gathering. As she finished speaking, she gave a quick glance at the knight beside her.

“I, Julius Juukulius, would simply ask as Anastasia-sama's knight, that you all be gentle with her.” the knight stated courtly, facing the crowd with a solemn expression.

“As I believe at least some have noticed on my accent, I am not a native to this nation either.” Anastasia began with her admission. “I was born in the lowest class in Kararagi’s League of Free Cities.” pausing briefly and only smiling at the surprised voices, no doubt wondering how she came to wear the fine, pure white furs she was wearing if that were true, she soon continued. “Yes, the lowest classes, however over time I rose considerably from there and now own a mansion in the city as well as quite a few other properties here and there. That’s sort of how I ended up involved with Lugnica.” she explained, once more glancing at her knight.

“Anastasia-sama is the chairwoman of the Hoshin Trading Company, which those here informed of international business would likely recognize by its old name as well, the Ryuushika Industrial Company. It was thanks to Anastasia-sama’s genius when it comes to business that the old company was reconstituted into the present day company, which soon experienced vast prosperity and began expansion, even compared to its previous esteemed position as one of the foremost companies in Kararagi previous to Anastasia-sama’s involvement.” Julius explained with a great measure of pride in his mistress. “It was during talks of their expansion into Lugnica that I had come to be acquainted with her.”

Anastasia simply nodded with an approving smile at the assessment. Subaru wasn’t certain if they practiced this before coming here, but it definitely felt like it. The knight and his mistress seemed to be in perfect sync.

Miklotov brushed his long beard as he leant slightly forward.

“Rising up from humble beginning to one of great wealth and influence? Given the young lady’s name, am I to understand this tenacity and talent runs in the family, Hoshin-sama?”

Anastasia turned around and bowed her head at the councillor. “I regret somewhat, but the name is one I had taken for myself. There is no blood relation I know of to Hoshin of the Wilderness, though it was in their honour that I picked the name, both for myself and my company. They’ve been a great inspiration to me for a long time.”

“Indeed?” Miklotov pondered. “Hoshin of the Wilderness is recognized even in Lugnica as a great man, who achieved no small wealth of great things there in the west in founding Kararagi.” he nodded approvingly. “It is an encouraging sign of both ambition and spirit to take the name of such a man and follow through on their legacy in such a way. I must applaud how far Anastasia-sama has come.”

“I am grateful for these words.” Anastasia bowed her head once more. “And yet I must say a part of my success is the success of Kararagi itself. Not everywhere would a gal like me with near nothing to her name once find the opportunity to rise as far and fast as I have. Luckily, it turns out I have a talent for coin and in practicing this talent I can also practice something I enjoy!” she declared.

Julius spoke up. “There is no overstating Anastasia-sama’s genius in all matters of commerce and leadership. In these, she more than lives up to her choice of name and rivals its sake himself!” he boasted. “Given my own shortcomings in this field, her brilliance truly is an object of envy.”

“To have the finest of knights speak of her in such terms, I must concede that she indeed must be exceptional.” Miklotov noted, to which Subaru raised an eyebrow.

Considering Reinhard, the ‘knight amongst knights’ was standing right infront of her, it seemed strange to call Julius that, though given the violet haired knight’s behaviour yesterday, he probably would have taken it as a grave insult if Subaru tried inquiring about it in the middle of his presentation. Regardless of the stick up the knight’s ass, at the very least he was gentle and kind to Emilia, which evidently is more than can be said of a lot of people here, so Subaru swallowed her curiosity for now.

“There is one matter which I’m sure is on a number of minds here.” Miklotov continued. “Seeing as Anastasia-sama is not from Lugnica, and has only recently begun her efforts to expand her business here, what exactly does she seek in aiming for the title of queen?”

So far most of the throne room remained content in silence, either captivated with the candidate and knight’s presentation, or simply not finding anything objectionable. Still, the reminder that she is in fact from another nation brought out the attention of many of the men across the room. This made sense, since even if Subaru was clueless about the intricacies of politics, it did seem like a rather drastic step to allow someone, especially a highly influential someone in another country to simply take the throne. Aside from notions of national pride that Rickert’s sort might bring up, there were likely all sorts of legal issues, and it might become a nightmare trying to either keep the two nations separate, or unite them in a way that won’t cause issues within or with the other nations around.

“Well, I guess I see why that would be of concern.” Anastasia nodded. “Though I must say, I’m not here for anything as grand as reforming the entire nation from top to bottom as Crusch-sama seems to, nor do I wish anyone to think I am a queen sent by destiny to turn all troubles around like Priscilla-sama. I have no claim to such lofty goals.”

“Then, would it be that Anastasia-sama has no desire for the throne? Or perhaps she doubts that the Dragon Jewel selected her for a good purpose?” Miklotov asked, for the first time furrowing his brows since Anastasia’s turn began.

“I wouldn’t say that.” Anastasia said, a light laugh escaping her lips. “After all, I do have my desires behind being here, it’s simply that they’re less of the high ideals sort and more a matter of… Greed.” she declared happily.

“Greed?” Miklotov repeated in surprise and mild disbelief, while the crowd began to murmur louder.

“Yep! Greed!” Anastasia nodded. “I’m just a really, really greedy gal. It’s part of how I got this far! From the first coins I made working as a maid at a small company, through the little suggestions I gave helping it turn bigger and bigger profits, I always just wanted more! More coin, more esteem, more everything!” she listed with childlike enthusiasm. “So, of course, I got involved in more and more deals, bigger and bigger until everything started piling up and I ended up the head of my company! The only problem was that it just held me down in the end.”

“I’m not quite certain I will follow.” Miklotov admitted with a tug on his beard.

“Ah, well it’s the problem with greed, don’t you know? It doesn’t really stop on its own. When I got my hand on the company, it just made me want to make the company bigger and bigger and so I did, but then when is it big enough? Where was the fulfillment I was looking for? And that’s when it hit me: I want a country! They don’t come any bigger than that!”

“Then you are saying that you want this country… Or the sake of owning it alone?” Miklotov asked, furrowing his brows further. “You must see that’s not the most inviting declaration for those for whom this nation is a home, rather than just something to possess. What would become of Lugnica, once it is nothing but one amongst many of Anastasia-sama’s possessions? I shudder to imagine the young lady would use her lands then as she would any trade good.”

“Ah, but then I didn’t make it clear enough!” Anastasia returned. “It’s like I said. I’m greedy! That means I don’t like giving things up, and once something is mine, it is mine forever! That goes for all the people working for my company, I wouldn’t trade them away for anything, and if Lugnica would come to be mine as well, I’d keep it safe as well!” she declared with a carefree voice. “So why not just accept that and become mine?”

“Hm, I believe I understand.” Miklotov nodded, before turning his gaze to Julius. “As Anastasia-sama’s knight, does Julius-san have anything to add?”

Julius bowed once more to the council then began to speak. “It is as Anastasia-sama stated. While some may take issue with the word ‘greed’ which she used to describe her desire, its use speaks to the passion with which she holds her feelings. She holds all her duties and possessions in the highest regard, and employs the brilliance of which I already spoke to ensure their growth and prosperity. In bringing wealth to the Hoshin Trading Company she had enriched countless lives, and did so with expertise and insight rarely seen! I believe these divine gifts of hers are sent to use in these times of great financial troubles where after famines and border skirmishes the nation’s coffers are strained.”

“Julius-san!” a councilor spoke up. “Such matters of national interest should not be discussed in such a public setting!”

“On the contrary, if I may.” Julius spoke. “I doubt anyone here would remain ignorant of the situation in which our nation’s finances find themselves as of late. Further, I believe I speak for Anastasia-sama as well when I say that in spite of their inflammatory nature, Crusch-sama’s words carried a great measure of truth. As a nation we have allowed our finances to stagnate for decades. While the Juukulius estate and I suspect the estates of a number of those of us gathered here do not stand to lose much over the looming financial crisis of the coming generation, it would be remiss of me as a knight to not speak and act against that which may one day bring distress to the throne I serve.”

Many of the councillors looked at the knight with abject rage. Subaru couldn’t help but recall bitterly how the same knight that has just aired the dirty laundry of the people functionally running the nation right in their face had the gall to bring up her attitude problem.

Julius turned to his mistress and continued. “In spite of these looming troubles, the Hoshin Trading Company has arrived in Lugnica from having brought great prosperity to Kararagi beforehand. This, in such a time of trouble. I simply cannot ignore that the arrival of a financial genius of Anastasia-sama’s level, with the eligibility and desire to salvage our nation’s crisis is anything but the will of fate.” Performing a theatrical turn, Julius faced the audience. “If fate chooses the next queen of this nation, then I believe without question that it has chosen Anastasia Hoshin-sama. Of this I have no doubt. As a knight of this realm who had sworn not to serve this kingdom and its royal family to his last, I declare that Anastasia-sama is worthy of the throne!”

Finishing his speech with a flourishing wave of his coat, Julius bowed his head. More than the previous times, the audience across the throne room sat in a dazzled half-silence from the knight’s impressive if slightly out of line speech, with some giving out murmurs of approval at his performance.

“As I understand you are done then?” Marcus asked simply.

“Indeed.” Julius nodded, turning once more to his mistress. “And if I may say so, your words as always were wonderful, Anastasia-sama. I truly believe this place, more than any other, is where your light will shine the brightest!”

“Oh hush.” Anastasia said with a wave of her hand. “You spoke wonderfully too, but maybe a bit too much! I’m embarrassed!” she added with a blush.

“Very well then.” Marcus declared, to which Julius quickly bowed to his mistress one final time before returning to his position with the rest of the knights in front of Reinhard. “Then the next candidate should be— Emilia-sama!”

Subaru leaned out of the line of knights, trying to locate where Emilia’s knight would emerge from, but instead the only feet that began to move, were those of Roswaal, chain jingling by her ankle.

Chapter Text

“Hm, so then her sole patron remains the court wizard?” one of the councillors called, shifting in their seat with little interest as Roswaal took her place next to Emilia.

“I feeeeel just as out of place after all these fine knights and warriors as I must look, I admit.” Roswaal said in a carefree tone, addressing the council.

Indeed, no knight stepped forward revealing themselves to have elected to be Emilia’s knight. Not one of the people in the endless rows of the Royal Guards around Subaru left their place to offer their support, leaving Emilia with only the eccentric magician to speak on her behalf.

“Then, perhaps Marquessa Mathers would care to begin with introductions?” Miklotov offered.

“Naaaturally.” Roswaal nodded, stepping slightly forward and gesturing at Emilia as one would while getting ready to introduce a product at a marketing event. The silver-haired half-elf simply stood there stiffly, braving the eyes of the council who looked down at her from their dias with expressions ranging between disinterest and disgust, only Miklotov himself showing a sense of neutral interest “Aaaas all with eyes to see and ears to hear can tell, Emilia-sama possesses countless fair qualities, from heeeer pale skin so pure one feels they can almost see through her, her flooowing silver hair catching any light cast upon her with magnificence through her brilliant amethyst-like eyes and a voice so elegant and clear it is as a whisper echoing in one’s ear after awakening from a wonderful dreeeaaam.” Roswaal listed absurdly. “These qualities and more of cooouuurse are those unique to elven kind.”

Voices spoke up across the room showing distaste for Roswaal’s bizarre introduction of the candidate. Subaru shared the sentiment but not the reasoning. Where it upset her that Emilia would be presented in the fashion identical to how some lecherous medieval lord would be to introduce an offered bride, the whispers she could hear had no concern for Emilia being reduced to the parts of herself that Subaru knew the girl cared for the least.

“Are you perhaps trying to conceal that these qualities are only half of her heritage?” asked the bald councilor sitting near Miklotov, leaning forward with a very stern expression.

“Not at aaaaall, Bordeaux-sama!” Roswaal responded, his voice not losing a touch of its carefree attitude. “It is imply that I wished to clear the waters and point out what is quite cleeeaaaarly on everyone’s mind.”

“Then if it’s so clear to you what this thing’s presence entails in these sacred halls, then where do you get off trying to paint those cursed qualities as ‘fair’, Mathers?!” Bordeaux called back.

“Bordeaux-san, there is no cause for such harsh words.” Miklotov tried to soothe, to little effect.

“How long do you intend to entertain this obscenity?!” Bordeaux retorted at his fellow councillor before turning back towards Emilia and Roswaal. “The fact remains that this obscene aberration— This silver-haired half-devil bearing the very image of the Witch herself is paraded here in the very throne room of our realm! The mere thought to allow a creature that so evokes the image of the filth that was defeated by three of our nations proudest in the Sage, the Sword Saint and the Divine Dragon itself to walk these halls is shameful! To pretend at it as if it was a legitimate candidate is bordering on treason!”

Subaru’s body shook at the horrific words leveled against Emilia. To speak in such a way of the kindest, most forgiving girl Subaru met, the one who sought to comfort her, the one who forgave her for the deepest insult— This was the highest image of hubris and evil!

Her leg moving on its own, Subaru began to step out of the line of knights, but before she could open her mouth and denounce the councillor, she felt an arm against her shoulder.

“I understand your feelings.” Reinhard spoke calmly and quietly, looking back at Subaru out of the corner of his eyes with a serious, compassionate expression. “However, Emilia-sama hasn’t come here expecting anything different. Trust in Emilia-sama, let her brilliance shine through her own words and actions.”

Subaru opened her mouth, wanting to protest. The knight couldn’t understand! How could he?! How could anyone?! Even now, Emilia must have been on the verge of tears, concealed by her back, the only thing Subaru could see from here, as she stood— Tall.

While the rage didn’t dissipate in Subaru’s heart at the cruelty of the councillor’s words, and it continued to be fanned by the agreeing hums and whispers across the room repeating ‘half-devil’ and ‘witchblood’, she couldn’t ignore that Emilia didn’t look as she’d expect. In this moment, she didn’t hunch, she didn’t flinch. Subaru knew the words must have been incredibly painful to her, even just minutes before when she stood up for Felt, Subaru could see how deep such words cut at her, but now, standing there, with it being her turn to speak, the half-elf did not bow before her pain, instead held her head high and took it.

For good or ill, this was a moment for which Emilia had no doubt reserved all her strength. Her moment. With all her strength, Subaru stepped back in line, still trembling.

“Bordeaux-sama, it is most unkind to refer to someone as a half-devil.” Roswaal noted sharply through her narrow smile, but before the councillor could respond, Emilia stepped past her patron and interjected.

“Thank you, but it is not needed.” Emilia said, nodding to Roswaal. “I would like to personally introduce myself to esteemed members of the council. My name is Emilia. Just Emilia.” she declared in a calm yet stern tone. “I bear no family name, and no relations to the witch, who I understand why you hate so much, though I am a half-elf.”

“Forgive my fellow councillor’s outburst.” Miklotov nodded. “I trust the high sorceress wouldn’t sponsor someone who seeks ill for our realm.” he noted with a glance towards Roswaal, earning a number of displeased notes from both the crowd and the other members of the council. “I cannot deny the fear that grips every heart to some degree in this room that is invoked by your appearance, so surely there must be a reason why Marquessa Mathers saw fit to sponsor you and bring you here regardless.”

Someone in the crowd shouted out ‘She’s a madwoman!’ which earned agreeing jeers and even a few laughs, but these were quickly silenced by no more than Roswaal turning her head towards them. While it wasn’t especially evident at the mansion, remembering the ease with which Roswaal had incinerated a pack of mabeasts before apparently exterminating most every one of them in the surrounding forests— Subaru started to understand just how terrifying she must have been in the eyes of some of the locals.

“If indeed you bear no connection to the Witch,” Miklotov continued. “Then it would help if we better understood from whence you came.”

Emilia nodded and continued in her defiant tone, so unlike anything Subaru had seen from her before except perhaps back during the loot house incident. “I have spent a long, long time in the Elior Forest, in its eternal winter. The people of a nearby village there have called me—” She paused for just a moment before continuing in greater voice. “The Freezing Witch of the Frozen Forest.”

A shudder ran through the entire room as Emilia spoke the word ‘Witch’. Subaru couldn’t believe her ears either. She knew that at one point there were more than just one witch, so clearly not all of them were ‘The Witch’, but to say this of herself?!

“She admits to being a witch as well?!” Bordeaux thundered. “Can you still entertain this Miklotov?!”

The long bearded head of the council looked somewhat shocked as well from the declaration and took a moment before leaning forward and speaking once more. “For what reason would you refer to yourself as such in this place?” he asked, looking at Emilia.

“For a great part of the reason I wish for the throne.” Emilia declared. “Because I know that when I stand here, as both as a half-elf and as a witch, I am surrounded by great prejudice, but I want to create a world where in spite of this, I—” Emilia’s words stumbled here for the first moment, the words catching on her tongue, her shoulders slouching. The half-elf quickly glanced first to one side at Roswaal, then the other towards Felt before looking back to the council and straightening herself. “A world where in spite of such prejudice, all people including myself are given a fair chance. A world of honesty and equality where such circumstances will not deny people their opportunities and dignity. I refuse to be- or let others be robbed of such things due to circumstances they had no choice of control over!”

The seething rage still not gone from Subaru, was now joined by a choking sensation. Even as much of the room reeled from Emilia’s declaration, Subaru’s heart was tearing. She knew these were Emilia’s honest words, everything she wanted. Everything she deserved. But it was very clear that the half-elf was as if Martin Luther King Jr. had swapped places with Martin Luther and tried to preach about equal treatment in the streets of early colonial Europe.

“For this and more, I stand here now before you with the conviction to do all I have to to be selected, accompanied by only my patron Roswaal, and Puck, the Great Spirit of Fire!” Emilia added, holding out her hand from which a white cool mist sprung forth, carrying a chilling air across the throne room in an instant, before the small, gray, furry body of Puck appeared hovering above her palm, sitting upright atop nothing, his little cat paws crossed.

At the mere sight of Puck’s appearance, many audience members jolted back in fear, including the members of the council. Words such as ‘Great spirit?!’ ‘The beast of the end!’ and more echoing through the room before Miklotov finally gathered himself and spoke up, hushing most of the voices.

“The Apocalypse Beast of Eternal Frost? Contracted to—”

“I have been called that, yes.” Puck spoke in a dark tone, his voice shifting deeper than usual, the chill in the air growing as he did. “Lia calls me Puck, though I do not care one bit what you lot call me. Only know that I have been listening, and I am not pleased to have heard the filthy things you have levied against my beloved daughter!” he thundered, many people once more jolting back. Subaru even heard the cling of metal as likely a number of knights have placed their hands on the hilt of their swords. “There is but one reason, and one reason only for which I have not yet frozen this entire castle solid, into a collection of icy statues.” he said, the chill in the air subsiding slightly. “And that is that Lia pleaded with me not to.”

The only person Subaru could see dare move in this chaos, was Roswaal herself, who circled around Emilia’s back, walking to Felt where the two young girls who accompanied Felt in were shaking with fear,though possibly also cold. The clown simply placed a hand on each of their heads and watched on without comment as Puck continued.

“If there is one thing you etch into your hearts this day, let it be that, mortals!” Puck continued, holding his paws up dramatically. “That the only thing that allowed you to continue your pitiful lives was the benevolence of my beloved daughter!” he declared with a theatrical flourish.

The throne room remained suspended in stunned silence for a short while, not a soul moving, not even Puck who stopped himself in a grand gesture looking to the ceiling with both front paws extended high. So things remained until finally— Miklotov’s laughter broke the silence, surprising everyone.

“Ah! Ah, I see, a splendid display!” Miklotov laughed, patting his beard against his chest.

“Have you gone mad?” Bordeaux demanded looking at the old man.

“Nah, nah.” Puck said, shifting back to his usual tone as the chilling air across the room quickly dissipated. “I just kind of messed up the delivery at the end there.” he added, rubbing the back of his head with a paw, then turning to Roswaal. “Told you I couldn’t pull it off with a straight face!”

“What?! What is the meaning of this then?” Bordeaux asked, mirroring the confusion of most of the throne room including the council except Miklotov.

“Siiiimply that as unorthodox as it was, this was Emilia-sama’s true introduction.” Roswaal said simply, stepping once more to the half-elf’s side, leaving the young twins behind. “It didn’t take the foooormat of a usual introduction, but perhaps it better served her in these ciiircumstances.” she explained with a smile and her hands held wide in a shrug.

“Then, what was this? An act?” Bordeaux asked angrily. “Do you truly wish to make a mockery of this palace and all it stands for?!”

“Isn’t that clear, Bordeaux-san?” Miklotov asked, turning to his colleague. “It was a display. A display of the candidate’s power and character.”

“Make no mistake.” Puck interjected. “While I may have played things up a little, if it wasn’t for the fact that Lia doesn’t want to see anyone here hurt, I would freeze the lot of you.” he declared seriously, but without the chilling air or dark deep tone of before. “That is who she is, even after everything you’ve released at her.”

Emilia lowered her hand, Puck somehow floating down along with it, even though he was sitting on a pillow of air above. Once her had was at the height of her stomach, she reached down with her other hand and pet Puck, scratching his ear to the shock of all gathered there and especially the members of the council, people whispering in disbelief that a great spirit would allow itself to be handled that way by anyone.

“I— I believe I understand.” Bordeaux spoke. “To wield such power, and yet make no demand—”

Emilia’s head raised at these words, and she spoke with stern words. “Please do not misunderstand, I do have one demand, and I would do anything to receive it.” Her tone was serious and unshaken as she spoke these words, and once more everyone in the throne room froze in fear. “It’s a very simple demand.”

“May I ask what it is?” Miklotov voiced.

Emilia turned her head towards the elderly councillor. “There is nothing more important to me than fairness. So my one and only demand is that I be treated as you would treat anyone else who was selected by the Dragon Jewels. I do not know if my efforts will be enough to earn the throne, but I wish the matter to be decided by my efforts and my efforts alone. I wish to be judged based on them, and not as a half-elf, not as a witch, but as me.” she said. “In exchange, I will show the same courtesy and not use my own power or that of Puck to do anything obscene you might fear, like usurping the throne for myself.”

“I see.” Bordeaux spoke, hanging his head and taking a deep breath, the other councillors turning to him. “I must say, after hearing these words, I’m conflicted over my previous remarks. Now that I can see the restraint you— That Emilia-sama has displayed, at the very least, I wish to apologize for my rash words before. They were unbecoming.”

Looking ahead at Emilia, Subaru could see the girl’s tense posture which she held onto almost without break for minutes now loosen at these words, not slouching forward, but relieved. By all rights, Subaru should have felt the same relief. In her mind she knew that. And yet— How? How could the girl go through all of this, and be relieved at such empty words?! Even Subaru hadn’t ever really done anything to truly amend her insult from so long ago. If this councilor that had done so much worse and knowingly at that could get the same forgiveness for a simple apology, then what was it worth?! Was she even now still just the same as this councillor to Emilia? Just someone she shows love to for no better reason than that she does so for everyone, even that bastard looking down at her from his dia? No. That couldn’t be it!

“That being said.” Bordeaux continued. “I’m afraid this demand will be difficult to follow.” he added, and Subaru felt something fragile inside her that has long been under tension, snap. “It is not a simple matter to put away the Witch in one’s heart, and while I recognize Emilia-sama’s temperance, I will not pretend as if accepting her as a viable candidate to the throne of this nation is something that will come easy to myself, let alone the people of Lugnica.”

Feeling her breaths grow heavy beyond control and her arms twitch, Subaru’s patience held in check most only by the twin expectations placed on her by Emilia and the knight before her was draining away rapidly.

“Aaaaaah, but I do not see why we should get bogged down by such an issue at this mooooment.” Roswaal sang, stepping ahead of Emilia. “Since the method of selection is left vaaaague in the Dragon Tablet, and the five caaaandidates are already gathered, surely we don’t need to accept such things right awaaaay.” she suggested.

“Are you suggesting then that we let her compete as a candidate, even if there is no chance of her selection?” Bordeaux asked with furrowed brows.

Emilia looked between the council and Roswaal with concern obvious even through her back.

“As I said, the Taaaaablet specified nothing beyond that there should be fiiiive candidates!” Roswaal sang.

Her good sense running dry as a desert, ignoring Reinhard’s cautoning glace ahead of her, Subaru stomped out of the line.

You’ve got to be kidding me!” her enraged shout filled the entire throne room.

 

                                           

 

“Subaru?” Emilia called weakly after turning around and seeing Subaru standing out, one leg on the red carpet leading down the middle of the throne room. Her built up, forced confidence crumbling away at the sight of the girl hatefully looking at the councilors up ahead.

“Excuse me?” Bordeaux spoke. “Do you know who that young woman is, Roswaal-san?”

“Eeeeeh~ She’s a servant of my estate.” Roswaal declared awkwardly, though her smile didn’t disappear. “She had spoken quuiiite out of line.”

“Don’t give me that!” Subaru fumed, her legs locked up. Even with rage coursing through her very veins, she felt the piercing gaze of the people around her tie her down in place. “You call yourself Emilia’s sponsor and yet you would spit on everything she’s been through like that?! Reduce her to a mere substitute to fill out the numbers?! ” she thundered.

Reinhard suddenly stepped forward, partially between Subaru and the council.

“Please forgive me.” Reinhard spoke, bowing deep towards the council. “The young lady is my personal guest. Her passion may have gotten the better of her, but she has risked her life for the sake of both Felt-sama and Emilia-sama multiple times thus far. I hope you can see to excuse her outburst.”

Subaru gritted her teeth in disgust. The idea that her speaking the only honest words in this damned palace should be ‘forgiven’ by the wretched bastards up on their dias was laughable.

“I see, a warrior in Roswaal-sama’s employ then, like Debra-san?” Miklotov offered.

“Hey, uh, leave me out of this.” Debra protested with a little laugh, holding her single arm up in surrender.

“Oh, uhm, not exactly. She’s—” Emilia began but quickly trailed off, unable to find the words, regressing to the meek girl she always was, clawing desperately for a way out. The same meek girl who took the brunt of Subaru’s grave insult on that first day. The same meek girl that healed her in spite of it. The same meek girl that lived in such fear of herself that she dared not so much as venture into the nearest village without concealing her identity. The same meek girl that locked herself in her room studying, practicing so that these animals gathered in this room would maybe give her the time of day. The same meek girl who convinced herself that throwing her life away for the longest shot of a dream there was just so perhaps that will let her lead a life where she is accepted was the correct way to live.

The same meek girl who alone lacked a champion amongst all these candidates.

Yes. I am. ” Subaru declared with conviction, the chains in her legs breaking as she headed towards the podium.

“S-Subaru! What are you—?” Emilia pleaded in confusion, Puck having already disappeared from her hands, already abandoning his ‘beloved daughter’ in this moment of clear need.

“Don’t worry about it Emilia. I’ll handle this.” Subaru said, reaching the girl and walking past her.

“Oh myyyyy~.” Roswaal said melodiously, partially covering her mouth which curved deeper and deeper into a sharp grin.

Ignoring Roswaal, Subaru stopped a few steps ahead of Emilia, and trying her best to contain her seething rage, bowed down on one knee, following as best Reinhard’s numerous examples before, placing a hand on her heart. There was no part of this motion that she meant. There was not a sliver of respect she could muster inside of her towards this cursed kingdom at this moment, but it had to be done.

For the longest time, she didn’t know what she'd do if Felt left. Even now, she didn’t want to let the girl go, but Subaru had to trust that Felt wouldn't abandon the better life Roswaal provided her. She had to trust that that would happen, because after seeing Emilia give it her all, and be rejected, after seeing her face betrayal from her own patron, Subaru’s choice was made for her. The only way she could have abandoned the manor to go with Felt, was if she knew she made sure Emilia won’t spend the rest of her life locked away. Subaru had now seen how far the girl could go on her own power. Someone had to carry her further.

“Esteemed members of the council.” Subaru began with almost a hiss. She had to keep appearances for Emilia’s sake. She had to try. “I apologize for my harsh words.” she forced out. “And as to introduce myself, my name is Natsuki Subaru. I am a servant at the Roswaal Estate, a hobbyist minstrel, and Emilia-sama’s knight.”

As she finished these words, she raised back on her feet, already sensing that not only the council were giving her cold stares, countless denouncing eyes piercing her back. However, after what she had seen of this world, she didn’t give a damn.

“And so I ask.” Subaru said, straightening herself out and looking angrily head on at Bordeaux. “That if you have any problems with her, you take them up with me!” she added, poking at her own chest with a thumb.

“A knight then?” Miklotov asked, stroking his beard with furrowed brows, examining Subaru. “Could Rosaal-san clarify her identity?”

“Subaruuu-chan’s rather ignorant of the ways of the woooorld.” Roswaal noted with a strained expression. “Though I never expeeeected even she’d do something like this.” she added, before looking to Subaru and giving the same kind of gesture she gave before describing Emilia to the council. “Sheee likely believes her heart to be in the right plaaace, but of course to be a knight, there is need for more than just a shaaaaky sense of loyalty.”

“Indeed, it is so.” a clear voice cut in, the voice of Julius who had now left the front row of the knight’s assembly and walked towards Subaru before stopping a few steps away and facing the council with a bow. “I am terribly sorry to interrupt, but there’s a few words I would like to exchange with Natsuki Subaru-san, if I may.” he spoke elegantly. “To clarify her position.”

“I see no reason to deny the request of the finest knight.” Miklotov nodded.

Subaru felt her body grow stiff once more. Initially, she wasn’t thinking too straightly about everything. All she knew is she wanted to stand between Emilia and the damnable councilors that had the gall to turn away the most earnest words they likely heard in their entire lives. Now, with the stuck-up knight from yesterday joining the scene, she had realized she had completely lost track of what it was she was even trying to accomplish.

“Thank you, Miklotov Sama.” Julius said before straightening up and facing Subaru with an expression far more serious than Subaru had seen before, making her subconsciously flinch back a little. “Natsuki-san. Do you understand what a knight is?” he asked simply.

“What?” Subaru blurted out, finding the question ridiculous.

“Let me rephrase the question. Do you understand what the duties and purpose of a knight are?” Julius repeated. “What is it that separates a knight from the common man?”

Beginning to understand what the young man before her was likely getting at, Subaru angrily bit on her cheek.

“It means to make yourself someone else’s shield and sword.” Subaru said in the most cliche answer possible, though the most fitting one too so far as she could muster.

“That is perhaps part of it,” Julius began. “But do you understand what doing so truly entails?”

“Since you so clearly have a wealth of information you want to share, why don’t you just get to what you really want to say?” Subaru hissed back at him.

“Subaru!” Emilia called out, to which Julius briefly looked at her.

“Please think nothing of this Emilia-sama, I will be done in a moment.” he said, before returning his eyes to Subaru. “Allow me to elucidate you to the fact that you have just declared yourself a ‘knight’ before the collected whole of the Kingdom of Lugnica’s Royal Guards.” he declared towards Subaru in a serious tone.

As he finished his declaration, as if with one body, each knight across the room stood at attention drawing their swords and saluting by holding their blade before them.

“Nice little parade move. Have been practicing, I see.” Subaru jeered.

“Naturally.” Julius answered with complete seriousness, utterly unscathed by Subaru’s comment. “As knights, we embody the dignity and very soul of this kingdom each day and with each action we take. We train our minds, bodies and spirits constantly to live up to this ideal. That includes the proper behaviour in all places and circumstances, including ceremonies such as this. Are you prepared to dedicate yourself in such a manner?”

Subaru had no interest in the knight’s theatrics. From afar they may have looked impressive and magical, she may have even come to feel respect to some knights, including Julius who would show Emilia courtesy and kindness and engage with the common guards on equal terms. However, the only thing that a knight meant to her, the only thing she meant or cared about, was showing that she wouldn’t let Emilia face her challenges alone.

“I am going to stay with Emilia.” Subaru said, a tension twitching in the back of her neck. She shouldn’t have to explain this to this man. “I will help her achieve her dream.”

“Do you have the resolve and strength to do this?” Julius asked sharply.

“I—” Subaru’s eyes twitched. This man really was looking at her like she was nothing, wasn’t he? “I don’t know if I have either of those, but I don’t care either. I will still be her champion! I— I will help her!”

Julius hung his head slightly in dismay and shook it before looking up.

“Do you truly not see how impossibly arrogant such a declaration is?” he asked looking up. “What do you hope to gain from pursuing ideals so far beyond your capacity? Each person is born with limitations. Should you not acknowledge this for yourself and step down when you can see that a task is beyond that of which you are capable?”

“I am not interested in being some dolled up toy soldier!” burst out of Subaru.

Julius’ eyes widened for a moment at first with surprise, then with anger before he swiftly collected himself.

“To speak of knights in such a fashion, is the truest depth of ignorance and hubris!” he declared, his calm tone growing colder. “Each man and woman here, each member of the royal guard has dedicated their very lives to liege, country and the pursuit of the highest ideals. Further, to even be recommended into the ranks of the royal guard, one has to be of proper birth! As not all are born equal, only those who possess the capacity to achieve these highest of ideals can even be considered, and amongst them those for whom their forebearers have proven their loyalty to the nation! In whose very veins runs the blood that has laid the foundation for this nation’s dignity and strength itself!” he listed sternly through narrowed eyes. “This is the effort and legacy you aim to insult before our ranks?!”

Hearing the whispers from behind herself amongst the rank of the nobles and officials, the very men that smeared Emilia and Felt both before— Those animals, judging her , thinking she ’s the one who's pretending she’s more than she is here. Subaru had had enough.

“You are not knights.” she hissed.

Julius’ eyes shooting wide once more, he looked right into hers. “What did you say?!”

“You heard me!” Subaru hissed. “I do not accept you as knights. You have failed at the most basic of levels.” Subaru fumed.

“You think to tell us what a knight is?!” Julius asked, for the first time raising her voice before drumming his sword’s scabbard against the floor, a motion and sound soon followed in unison by the army of knights behind him.

Someone thinking with even a sliver of rationality would have stopped here, but Subaru was beyond such reason now.

“If you are so dignified, so just, so wonderful and so is your realm, then answer me this, knight .” Subaru hissed, pointing to Felt. “Why was she living in a wooden box until two months ago?!”

Julius’s eyes widened even more, but perhaps caught off guard, he was unable to answer right away, Subaru continuing.

“You boasted just before that your family’s estate will weather the financial ruin that’s looming on the horizon, won’t it? Why of course it will! Because not everyone is born equal, right ?! You were born to wield finely jeweled swords and practice swings on some giant fenced estate somewhere until you get them just right, while countless people in the very city you seem to be so proud of were born to drink filthy water and live in hovels!”

“It is not—” Julius began, but Subaru wasn’t going to let the knight get a single word in. She was well and truly gone in this moment.

“You think your life of practicing little acts to show off to daddy so he can tell you how proud he is the height of nobility?!” Subaru shouted.

Felt who had mostly ignored everything until now, impatiently waiting for her chance to resign her candidacy interjected with a simple “Yeah!” of approval.

“That is the idea of loyalty and nobility to you?! What of the people starving in those slums, the parents that march into the market district to do back breaking menial labour day after day to take care of their kids? Are they not equal to your little theatrics?!” Subaru was thinking less of the slums in this moment than of her own father, but that wasn’t stopping her.

“Yeah!” Felt encored once more, continuing this as Subaru got more into it.

“They should have had a better birth, right?! A more lofty legacy to carry them! If someone’s born a giant or a half-elf, that’s on them too, right?!” Subaru continued, her eye suddenly twitching as she spoke the last words, recalling the gentle attitude with which the knight behaved to Emilia. “Oh, but really, perhaps you don’t believe that, do you?” she continued madly. “Perhaps, somewhere you know this is all bullshit, since you regarded Emilia so well, didn’t you?! So what was it?! Did you actually think highly of her?! Did you just want to keep up the polite apparences?!”

Julius, looking at Subaru with a mixture of disgust and disbelief, seemed like he wanted to denounce these accusations, but Subaru still wouldn’t let up.

“If you truly think highly of her, then where were you ?! Where were you when everyone in this room bad-mouthed her?! Where were you when she stepped forward all by herself with no knight by her side?! Do you not have enough knights? Because I can only see five candidates and quite a few more daddy’s boys lined up across this stupid room!” Subaru yelled. “Not one of you stepped forth to offer your sword! Not one of you spoke up when it was she who was being insulted, but the moment I so much as try to stand where if you were true to your ideals you should have? Then you speak up! Then you register the insult!” she listed madly. “Why is that? Because you don’t truly support her? Because you cannot understand the sheer magnitude of the bravery it had to take for her to even step foot in this room?!”

Subaru’s entire body trembling, she could barely register the slightest softening in the knight’s features.

“Or is it because of why you accepted that slap in the alley? Because you can’t break with your disgusting etiquette. Because you’re afraid to stand up for her?!” Subaru asked, finally losing steam, in spite of Felt’s continued encore. “If so, you’re not just not a knight. You’re a coward.” she finished with a hiss.

Subaru’s vision slowly bobbing up and down over her heavy, uncontrollable breaths, she stared intently at the knight, nothing existing in this moment just his hateful perfectly groomed face and all the mounted rage she had accumulated. For a short moment, it seemed that silence rested on the throne room. As Subaru’s senses calmed, she began to realize that what she had done and said was far, far away from the wisest thing she could have. She had just completely gone off at likely one of the most important people in the realm— And yet she didn’t care.

Julius’s expression went through a few short stages of bottomless dismay and disgust before his eyes briefly darted to the side, his expression turning to one of pity as he closed his eyes and shook his head.

“I cannot fathom the grotesque circumstances that could birth such behaviour.” Julius said finally. “While perhaps I managed to grasp some semblance of what it was that drove you to these words— I think even you should accept that no knight would ever make the one they profess to serve feel that way.” he finished, keeping his eyes closed in solemn pity.

Subaru turned her head and—

Through the buzzing veil in her ears, finally she heard the softest sobbing that had been echoing behind her for a short while, Emilia’s face red, tears running down it behind her hands.

“Emi—” Subaru began, but she couldn’t finish the word, the syllables catching in her throat.

Seemingly startled by her name being called, Emilia took a deep breath and wiped her face quickly, before stepping forward and bowing deeper than Subaur ever saw her bow before towards the council.

“I am so terribly sorry.” she said quickly, and grabbed Subaru’s arm, pulling her along  as she began marching down the middle of the throne room over the red carpet.

Subaru wanted to protest, but she couldn’t form a single word, looking around, finding only faces of disgust and pity staring back at her except for three. Felt looked after her with a strange look of enthusiasm, Roswaal’s sharp grin poked out from behind her gloved hand covering it, and unlike the rest of he knights, Reinhard’s face reflected only sadness.

“Emilia-sama, you have nothing to apologize for.” Miklotov called after them, his face and voice reflecting his pity equally. “Even with it put on such a display, seeing the passion you have awoken in this girl goes to show further that Emilia-sama is not the kind of half-elf that so many fear. You have a loyal subject.”

Emilia stopped in her tracks at these words and turned back to answer with clarity.

“Subaru is—” she began, pausing for only a moment. “She is no subject of mine.”

Chapter Text

The knight with the blazing red hair stood and watched with quiet concern as the front gate of the throne room closed on a miserable looking, black haired young woman, a magnificent silver haired girl hurrying back, on the verge or reemerging tears.

Reinhard couldn’t conceive of many situations that could render Julius silent as Subaru’s outburst moments ago had, though he couldn’t blame his fellow knight. What was there really to do in such a situation? As passionately as Subaru jumped into her ramble, trying to interject would have just inflamed tensions further, leaving room for no solution but a forceful, possibly violent one. Ideally, the confrontation shouldn’t have happened, but the knight amongst knights would know how much the girl’s words had cut into his fellow knights.

Her attitude was crass and ugly, and the sins she levied against Julius and the rest of their compatriots overstated if not entirely aimed in the wrong direction. Yet, it’s not as if there was no truth to her feelings. Each candidate thus far has put forward commendable, or at least desirable propositions.

The covenant and such issues were not for Reinhard to judge, however he could not deny feeling a deep admiration for Crusch-sama’s spirit. Would it not be a threat to the kingdom he had sworn to serve, he could wholeheartedly support the Duchess’ desire to elevate the spirit of the nation and reforge it into one that moves forward with a power and enthusiasm all its own. No doubt such a rebirth, if conducted with due diligence could alleviate a number of the ailments of the realm.

Anastasia Hoshin-sama’s words might not have been as noble as Crusch-sama’s, however, it was clear what Julius saw in her, and there was nothing to question in his convictions. Even if born of- or characterized as greed, the truth of Anastasia-sama’s feelings could perhaps better be worded as a deep combination of conscientiousness and loyalty. If one could accept and not question her claims that she would never abandon her nation — something Julius’ loyalty had well assured is true — then indeed, her expertise in matters of commerce and statesmanship could offer a far more practical, easy to implement and concrete path forward to the country than Crusch-sama’s dreams of general restructuring.

Emilia-sama of course let her brilliant heart shine as Reinhard was certain she would. It ached his heart that even now the majority of those gathered here looked to her with skepticism, but her words were fine, her hopes the purest, as he had come to expect. He had little doubt that this pure spirit and gentle nature was what drove Subaru to her outburst. Where a knight would have of course have waited with patience and acted only according to their mistress’ desires, Subaru had lashed out. A regrettable act but one clearly done in hopes of defending something wonderful.

Even Priscilla-sama’s strange words and attitude held merit. At the end of the day, the purpose of the monarch — while traditionally realized through just and noble leadership — was to bring prosperity, security and good counsel to their subjects. Someone who indeed had a gift that would grant them the ability to do these things even without the traits and methods normally characterizing kings and queens, would ultimately be a worthy ruler.

And yet, except perhaps for Emilia-sama who was drenched in undue controversy, none of them could hold a candle to Felt-sama. Even if the young lady didn’t believe it themselves, Reinhard knew that she had to be what this realm needed. Not for the blood he suspected flowed in her veins. Not for anything as simple as being eligible, but for everything at once. It was fate that delivered him to her in that moment of crisis. Fate that caused Emilia-sama to steal away into the city against her guidance that day, fate that trained Felt all her sad life the skills needed to steal Emilia-sama’s insignia from the exceptionally attentive girl, fate that delivered him through Subaru’s help to that loot house and which allowed that poor passionate girl to risk everything and save Felt-sama before Reinhard himself could arrive. It had to be with purpose. He had to have been meant to serve her, and he was going to do so without fail.

He only wished that Felt-sama would understand her own potential. Not only was she a clever young woman that survived in the most difficult of circumstances, bettering herself in whatever ways available to her, given her talents in otherwise unscrupulous activities, but from what he had gathered from Emilia-sama briefly yesterday and this morning, she was learning with exceptional speed in spite of having little motivation to do so. There was no doubt in Reinhard’s mind that as terrible and unjust as Felt-sama’s past was, if anyone amongst the candidates had a true, visceral understanding of both the realm’s people and its problems, then it was Felt-sama. If anyone could bring meaningful change, if anyone could reform and truly lead this nation’s people and not just its nobility, it would be her.

This is why he had hoped that fate would grant one final boon for her destiny. And indeed, for a blessed third time, once more through Natsuki Subaru, it had.

“So what, now that it’s my turn you want me to give a big speech too?” Felt-sama huffed, standing beside Reinhard after they were summoned for Felt-sama’s introduction. “Honestly, when I came here I was going to renounce my candidacy as soon as you let me actually speak.” she announced flippantly at the council, showing no respect whatsoever.

“What?!” Bordeaux-sama exclaimed in shock. “Reinhard-san! Did you know about this?! Do you realize this might well mean we only have four—?!”

“Shut it old man!” Felt-sama interrupted furiously. “Who said I was done talking?!”

“Why, I—”

“Shut. It.” Felt-sama repeated, stomping forward and onto the podium before turning her back to the council, her hands on her hips, ready to address the entire room. A warm feeling rose in Reinhard’s chest at the sight of the defiant young lady taking the first confident step forward on her path. “Listen up!” she began, scanning across the room without a flinch. “I know none of you want me to be a candidate, except maybe that red haired buffoon, and the only decent person left in this room, though you jackasses wouldn’t recognize that in her if I shoved her statue up your taint!”

The room fell into silent shock as the inflamed young lady shouted these words without shape or hesitation.

“Her aside, not a damn word the girl you lot watched sent out said was wrong, you’re all just stuck in your stupid bubbles can’t see it! That is why I hate you!” she hissed. “I hate the nobles!” she shouted, pointing at the gathered officials. “I hate the knights!” she added, the finger swaying to the opposite side of the room. “And I absolutely hate this kingdom!” she finished, turning back to the council and leading her accusatory finger across them. “I hate all of you. Every single one of you that makes this stupid country what it is or sits by letting it stay that way. And so— I am not resigning!” she declared triumphantly, followed by a mock laugh. “I am keeping my candidacy, and I will become queen! I will do this because I know it will piss you old bastards off, and so that I can take this entire system you built and tear it to the ground!”

“This is too far!” someone called from the crowd.

“She’s insane! She’d destroy the kingdom?!”

Ha! ” Felt-sama mocked. “Listen to your own blathering! I’ll knock all you idiots down, then I’ll knock down the walls of this castle you’ve built, and let a little fresh air in!”

At the harsh declaration, the room burst into shouts and complaints, descending into chaos the room had likely never seen in its history. In spite of this, Miklotov-sama continued to simply stroke his beard and nod. When the councillor turned to Reinhard, already anticipating his address, Reinhard smiled and descended on one knee, hanging his head submissively before the council.

“Reinhard-san, is there anything you wish to add to Felt-sama’s declarations?”

“Only that sadly I feel that Felt-sama’s dreams still remain in the realm of fantasy.” Reinhard answered dutifully.

“Some supporter you are.” Felt-sama hissed, crossing her arms. Reinhard simply took it in stride.

“Regardless, I am certain that one day Felt-sama’s words will reach everyone, and it is my duty and privilege to serve to the fullest of my ability until that day.”

“Even if you are amongst those she wishes to destroy?” Miklotov-sama probed.

“Destruction is as much part of nature as the rejuvenation that follows it.” Reinhard said simply with an optimistic conviction. “So long as she allows, nothing would make me happier than to stand by Felt-sama until the very end.”

“You’re really, truly, absolutely daft, aren’t you?” Felt-sama asked with a sigh, looking down at Reinhard. She tapped her feet against the floor a few times before sighing again, looking towards the throne room’s main gate. “It will give you only trouble, might lose you everything, but you still want to help me, huh?”

Looking up, Reinhard looked into Felt-sama's eyes. “I am, and will remain your knight and your knight only as long as able.” he declared.

The young lady let out a disapproving hiss through the corner of her mouth through her teeth.

“It really is disgusting how alike you are.” Felt-sama huffed. “But fine. I guess I’m stuck with your stuck-up, self-assured nonsense now, so I’ll figure some use for you.”

As unflattering her way of doing it was, it didn’t matter as a great wealth of gladness swelled in Reinhard, hearing Felt-sama accept him as her subject. It was this, and this alone that beamed in his heart as the council briefly talked amongst themselves and approved of each candidate with a little controversy. As Reinhard took his place beside Felt-sama beside the candidates. As the other knights and Debra-san took their place to listen to the council’s declaration. As the council declared that the final selection will take place in three years, one month before the ceremony to renew the covenant. All through that, this single joy beamed in his heart— And, well, perhaps a serving of the deepest gratitude as well.

“In the end, this all went exactly how you wanted, didn’t it?” sighed Felt-sama while the audience voiced their approval of the council’s words with a few dissenting voices here and there.

“I would lie if I said I hadn’t hoped for a similar outcome.” Reinhard nodded with a measured but honest smile. “I trusted that Fate would guide Felt-sama to this decision.”

“So what then? You’re a servant of Fate?” Felt asked, raising her brows at the knight.

“I am a servant of you alone, Felt-sama.” Reinhard said, hanging his head in content. “For fate, I am simply grateful for its guidance.”

With this simple declaration, the knight allowed himself a long breath of something akin to relief. This has truly become one of the most shining days of his life, as much as it no doubt was a dark mark on that of another.

 

                                           

 

“Aaaaah, wait, so Felt isn’t resigning?” Subaru asked, to which Reinhard simply nodded.

He had just finished explaining to the girl the events that had transpired in the throne room after her departure in the company of Felix.

‘Since I’ll have to heal the poor thing, I should probably go check on her too.’ the knightess said earlier. ‘Though honestly it’s mostly that I think it’d be fun to see what happens.’ she added with a wink that Reinhard still struggled to place any meaning into.

“I don’t know if that’s good.” sighed the girl nervously, continuing to tap out some unknown rhythm on the palace floor with her heel, accompanied by a second rhythm she drummed with her fingers on the bench he found her slumped in. “I mean, then she might leave, plus, I don’t know how Emilia would—” Subaru bit off the end of her sentence.

“Bah, you’re stressing too myuch.” waved Felix. “Well, actually, that’s not true. I mean after what you pulled, ha!” she added with a laugh. “Getting the girl to stay a candidate should be the least of your worries!”

Reinhard furrowed his brows on hearing the knightess’ words. Of course, Felix was right. At the very least, Subaru had surely managed to make an enemy of a number of important people in the kingdom via her outburst, but even with the knightess’ carefree attitude, it seemed a bit cruel to extract humor for it.

“Subaru.” Reinhard spoke, lowering to one knee, so he had a chance to look into the girl’s eyes, which were firmly planted on the floor, darting from side to side nervously, as if she was looking for something down there. “I cannot condone the way in which you voiced your feelings, but I understand that you spoke for the sake of those you cared for.” he said. “Julius may be right in what he said as well, however there is no shame in the love one feels for another.”

Subaru briefly looked up, their eyes meeting, after which she quickly planted her eyes back down, rubbing her forehead with one hand in a fashion that turned said hand into a curtain between the two of them.

“Hah, yeah, not exactly the problem.” she mumbled nervously.

“If you’re worried about any negative backlash against your outburst, while I cannot undo the past, I would gladly speak on your behalf.” Reinhard offered. “The fact remains that you’ve risked your life multiple times for the benefit of two candidates. If the people in the throne room properly understood that, I’m certain they would think less bitterly of your actions.” he explained. “I owe you at least this much after all you’ve done for Felt-sama.”

Subaru’s drumming on the bench grew harder for a moment then she just closed the hand in a fist and punched the bench, quickly giving out a pained yelp.

“You knyow, you don’t need to go out of your way to give me more work, nya?” Felix said with a light chuckle, stepping closer to the foolhardy, black haired girl and touching her hand briefly.

“Wha—?” Subaru spoke in surprise. “It’s like my whole arm’s lighter. Was that a healing spell or some sort of buff?” the girl asked, looking up, to which Reinhard finally raised back on his feet, seeing as he no longer needed to kneel so they can carry a proper conversation.

“Just healing.” Felix declared simply with a flick of her wrist. “Your body really is in awful shape, nyah.”

“Healing magic is way too powerful if a touch can do that.” Subaru noted, turning her shoulder.

“The world would undoubtedly be a happier place if all practitioners of water mana could work such wonders.” Reinhard nodded with a smile. “However, what you’re experiencing is Felix’ unparalleled talent with her craft. I am in no way exaggerating when I say that she is the single most brilliant user of water mana and by extension healing magic upon this continent at the very least. Possibly the world.” he praised.

“Stooop, stooop.” Felix cooed in a playful tone. “You should knyow that flattery won’t get you anywhere with me.” she said, poking her tongue out for a moment.

Reinhard wasn’t sure exactly what Felix was getting at, so he simply let the comment go by and turned to Subaru once more.

“As I said, I would be glad to speak on your behalf. If you wish, I’ll do so right away.”

The girl before her looked up at him, with a look of slight optimism briefly flashing through her unique, hazel eyes, but her expression soured quickly once more and she averted her gaze.

“No, I don’t want to be trouble for you too.” she sighed, grabbing her shoulders and slouching forward. “I don’t really care what those people care, I just wish I didn’t make things worse for Emilia. I wish I didn’t always just mess things up.” Pulling on her shoulders tightly, she rocked herself back and forth for a moment in her seat before letting out a low, angry yell of jumbled syllables.

Fuck that bastard! ” she said, incomprehensibly, letting go of her shoulders then sighing and looking up. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.”

“That was speech?” Felix asked, raising her brows.

“Yeah it’s—” Subaru began but then cut herself off. “Yeah, you know, nevermind. It’s not important. I just— I just can’t stand that he’s right.”

“Not only a knight’s life is worthy, Subaru.” Reinhard said, trying to help.

“No, I really don’t care about being a knight.” Subaru said, shaking her head. “I mean, sort of? Maybe? I would like to be someone like a knight to someone. I wish I could help people, but that’s the thing he’s right about. I can’t. I just mess up over, and over and over again. That’s all I do. Even when I get things right, it’s usually after a lot of—” suddenly the girl froze up and began to stare down before herself, raising two arms and breathing heavily, muttering only one word. “Rem.”

“Subaru?” Reinhard called with concern. This was the second time today he saw the girl freeze up like this, seemingly miles away, the first being in the carriage ride to the palace, when she was speaking about her troubled history with the blue haired maid.

Blinking, the Subaru finally seemed to regain herself and she looked up.

“What were we talking about?” she asked.

“You might be more work than I thought.” Felix sighed. “You were saying something about how useless you are.” she added flippantly with a sly smile.

“Oh… Right.” Subaru nodded. “It’s just— Even when things go right, it’s not because of me. It’s almost like I might as well not be there. Well, not exactly, but all I ever do is just get hurt and let others get hurt until someone else solves the problems, don’t I?” the girl mumbled, hanging her head. “It’s not fair.”

From where Reinhard is standing, from where he had been standing for practically his entire life, it was difficult to understand the girl’s words. There were few moments in his life to which he could go back with the same sense of shame that she seemed to feel, one far too great and recent towering above all else. One that she of all people might have inadvertently gifted him the only possible path to redemption from.

He felt that it wasn’t right for her to be this way. To suffer in such a way.

“You shouldn’t think so little of yourself.” Reinhard spoke, Felix’s ears fluttering next to him, Subaru looking up with a miserable expression. “For one, none of the things Julius claimed you lack except family blood, is something that one cannot gain. Your capacity is not something I or Julius can decide for you. Only a person may find their limits for themselves.” Reinhard stated. “And while what you described as a ‘knight’ may not be what this kingdom recognizes as a knight, it is still a person of virtue.” he added, closing his eyes and breathing deeply. “As Julius said, each person has their capacities. Each person is fit to so much, however if there is one thing I cannot agree with him on, it is that people shouldn’t push against these limits. It’s all too easy for the strong to be strong and the wise to be wise. And perhaps that is how things should be. Yet if that was all there was to life, then Felt-sama may very well have died at the loot house to that assassin’s blade. If that was all there is to it, you wouldn’t have thrown yourself in its path for her sake, even though it was foolhardy. You also wouldn’t have worked to deal with the threat at the mansion as I’ve heard, even if that too was admittedly imperfect in its handling. Without your efforts, I understand many children’s lives may have been lost.” he explained. “I say with honesty, that while I wouldn’t wish for people to push themselves too far, there is perhaps far more virtue in doing what is right when it is difficult, than when it is simple.” he finished, voicing as best he could, his genuine awe at the type of feat that he may never have the chance to perform.

The ensuing quiet was cut short by Felix covering her face with a hand while her tail whizzed through the air behind her. Subaru’s face meanwhile inexplicably turned red and she was hanging her head to the side, unwilling to match Reinhard’s eyes.

“You’re such a terrible man.” Felix huffed, wiping her brow back and forth with her hand, standing stiffly.

“T-thanks.” Subaru mumbled. “Though— Though I still wish I wasn’t so—”

“Lamenting your weakness, are you?” the familiar voice of Julius called from behind them, to no surprise of Reinhard, nor of course Felix who might have realized his approach even before Reinhard did at the start of his speech.

“Oh not you again!” Subaru fumed. “Don’t you have some damsel to not stand up for on account of it going against your precious etiquette?!”

Reinhard sensed the faint sound of Julius’s gloves contracting ever so slightly at the jab.

“Anastasia-sama is in a private meeting with the other candidates, discussing the finer points of the selection, which leaves me free for a time. Same as both other knights here.” Julius answered coldly.

“Julius.” Reinhard greeted the knight with a neutral, calm voice. Naturally, Julius had every right to be here, and to have harsh feelings towards Subaru, but even then, forcing a confrontation so soon felt inadvisable. “Are you certain you wish to impress yourself upon the young lady right now?”

“I’m not here for any personal matter, Reinhard.” the knight answered. “I’m sure both of you should understand for what purpose I’ve come.” he said, his eyes moving between Reinhard and Felix.

Reinhard’s shoulders stiffened, as they very rarely did.

“I must ask you once more, are you certain of this?” Reinhard repeated, hearing Subaru call out in confusion behind him.

“This is well beyond something I can decide upon personally.” Julius answered, correct, of course. Reinhard wasn’t certain why he even asked.

“Seriously, what is he blathering about?” Subaru asked, while Felix made a humm that mixed amusement with discomfort.

“In that case, Julius.” Reinhard began, standing at attention and facing Julius with the fullest of dignity. “I must explain that earlier today I swore to a friend of hers, that I would ensure Subaru’s safety. I truly wish for this to be avoided, but if it cannot be, then I will serve as your foe.”

Reinhard saw the slightest glint of concern flash through Julius’ eyes. A fact that granted him absolutely no measure of pride, even in someone he absolutely considered to be his better in matters of knighthood.

“Can you tell me what you’re both posturing for?!” Subaru demanded, to which Julius hung his head with a displeased expression.

“I see you still haven’t grasped how detrimental your inability to control your emotions is, to the image of those that choose to keep you company.” Julius stated, with a shake of his head.

“And I see you still haven’t worked that halberd out of your ass.” Subaru retorted crassly, making Reinhard furrowed his brows in discomfort. For one reason or another, he did not truly care if Subaru’s words or actions would reflect on him poorly, but still, he found displeasure in hearing the girl still so sun into the venom of the two’s last exchange.

Julius, taking a measured breath, looked at Subaru. “The insult that you have paid not only me, but the entirety of the Royal Guard is not one that can be allowed to pass without recourse. I have come to issue a challenge to a duel, so this stain on the guard’s honour may be settled.” the knight stated clearly. “Though of course, it seems your weakness shall rob us of even that today.” Julius said, looking at Reinhard through narrowed eyes.

Even with the girl behind him, Reinhard could sense her body shake on the bench, and a long ragged breath given.

“Thanks for the assist Reinhard, but I’m going to cash in your promise to Rem right now.” Subaru said, mixing some of her strange incomprehensible words in the middle. “And by that, I mean I release you of your duty, or whatever the proper way to go about it is.”

“Subaru, that promise was made to Rem-san.” Reinhard answered with a voice of concern.

“And what did I tell you?” Subaru asked. “Rem is my best friend. Let her take it up with me, you don’t need to protect me anymore.”

A surprised expression passed through Julius’ face briefly, and he nodded.

“I see at least some dignity isn’t lost on you.” he said.

“I don’t need the praise of a two faced snake.” Subaru countered with a deep, dark rage behind her eyes. “No amount of fancy knightly acting is going to change that you let them speak to Emilia like that.”

“Subaru.” Reinhard interjected. “I still can’t allow you to—”

“I get it.” Subaru huffed, closing her eyes then looking into Reinhard’s defiantly. “You keep saying how you want to repay me, so you know what, whatever favours you think you owe me, I’m using them now. Cancel the stupid promise.” she said then turning her eyes quickly evoking the purest of hatreds at Julius. “If he wants to show the lowest depths of his character so badly, I’m confident I’ve been through worse.”

Experiencing the rarest moments of uncertainty, Reinhard felt something within him torn two ways. By rights, he shouldn’t abandon the promise he made to Rem-san. It wouldn’t be right. What’s more, if at all possible, this conflict should be avoided altogether. At the same time, could he truly stand in the way of such conviction? Possibly the same conviction that led the girl before him to risk more than he ever could to save Felt-sama?

Pulled between two impossible choices, the knight of knights finally hung his head gently and stepped out of the way.

Chapter Text

“I regret that I cannot abide by your desires, Reinhard.” Julius stated coldly.

Subaru was standing in the middle of a small arena that served as some sort of performance or practice ground for the knights of the kingdom, part of a larger complex situated right beside the palace itself. A great number of knights had gathered in the elevated seating areas. All in all, the situation felt as though Subaru was the subject of a blood, gladiatorial game.

“Surely you must see how pointless this is.” Reinhard spoke tiredly. He alone stood in the arena’s center with Julius and Subaru, still trying to discourage the fight, Felix who tagged along standing near the entrance to the arena’s center by the edge of the surrounding walls, many, many steps away.

“Pointless?” Julius repeated, shaking his head. “This woman had displayed nothing but contempt for the order of this kingdom. From the very moment I first encountered her, she showed that she holds no respect whatsoever to those whose responsibility it is to shoulder the challenges of the realm. She behaved with the dignity of a common thug and spoke with complete disregard to courtesy to people infinitely above her station, including her own benefactor.”

Subaru gritted her teeth at the accusations.

“Yeah, well at least I’m consistent! ” she interjected. “At least I don’t act like a champion of justice and say sweet things to someone, and then stand by while they are berated and degraded in front of a crowd of idiots! I don’t leave them to—”

“See, Reinhard?” Julius continued, disregarding Subaru’s words. “Even now she continues. Even now she levies further insults in proud ignorance of everything above her.”

“That may be so, and yet, I cannot agree that this is a solution.” Reinhard repeated. “What is there to achieve in such a display? It is not like you to do this.”

“Then simply step back and do not involve yourself with this further.” Julius said. “In perhaps the only glint of honour she had shown today, she had accepted this challenge. With Felix here and Natsuki-san’s consent, your promise to return her safely will not be tarnished. There is no need for you to interfere any longer.”

Reinhard let out a long exasperated sigh and looked at Subaru.

“Are you certain this is what you desire?” he asked.

“Just go.” Subaru said simply.

She knew Reinhard was trying to help. She knew that this was an absolutely stupid situation to be in, and that it would have been smarter to let the two knights hold a mock duel, but there were a number of reasons she couldn’t accept that.

First, she had already used and hurt too many people that showed her kindness. She tried using Emilia as a human shield against Granhiert, she uttered the taboo words in the forest to draw Rem to herself which in the end resulted in the maid nearly getting herself killed on Subaru’s behalf again, in an erased loop she made Beatrice watch Ram kill her. This knight, the only one she could recognize as a knight, didn't need to get involved with Subaru.

Second, she wanted to face Julius herself. She knew she probably couldn’t beat him, but since she heard that Granhiert and Reinhard’s battle ended in a draw, and that Reinhard is far, far beyond the capacities of normal knights, then surely, even with his magic spirits, this bastard can’t be that extraordinary. Will she lose? Yeah, very likely. But she can try and give him a run for his money. Besides, even if the knight won, all it would do is just further prove what a disgusting scumbag he is. Challenging someone without any training to a ‘duel’ after just getting done talking about his impeccable pedigree. Just thinking about it causes awful memories flash through Subaru’s mind of the same kind of two-faced reprobates trying to decide for others what they can and cannot be. Even if recalling those memories made her legs feel even weaker, remembering him standing there unflinching as Emilia was being badmouthed for nothing sustained the fire holding her up.

Finally and most shamefully, the third reason she didn’t want Reinhard to fight for her was that some deeply seeded and ingrained part of her psyche screamed that it would be terrible, awful and absolutely irrevocable if she allowed some handsome knight to go and do something as impossibly, infuriatingly chivalrous as fight for her honour. No, no, no, no. That wasn’t going to happen. No. This far and no further. That couldn’t be allowed.

The knight with the blazing red hair placed a finger against his temple in thought and sighed before nodding.

“Very well. I will stand by, just in case some accident were to happen, but I trust you will restrain yourself, Julius.” Reinhard said, bowing slightly before heading back towards Felix.

“You don’t have to hold back too much though!” Felix shouted into the middle of the arena. “I should be able to fix her up good as nya, so long as she doesn’t die, so have fun!” she added with a cruel little giggle. Subaru couldn’t believe that the cat was going to be their referee.

“Very well then.” Julius stated, holdin out the wooden stick roughly the length of a longsword that he picked up earlier. An identical one rested in Subaru’s hands. “I imagine you haven’t been in a duel before.” he said, placing one hand behind his back, holding the wooden sword out before himself, turning sideways. Subaru couldn’t tell if the hand behind the back was proper etiquette, or just the knight’s way of saying ‘I can beat you with one arm behind my back.’ In the end, she didn’t care.

“No, I can’t say I’ve ever had the displeasure of fighting someone whose idea of honour is to bully someone they are so absolutely certain they can beat.” she hissed.

“You continue to make the mistake of thinking I take personal pleasure in following the most fundamental rules of chivalry.” Julius sighed. “I may gain satisfaction by the end of this encounter, however in no part will it be based in whatever condition you’ll be left.”

“Oh yeah, sure.” Subaru taunted back, taking on a wide stance she hoped would let her dodge easier once things began. They were a few good paces apart right now.

“Before we begin, let me simply state, that were conditions any different, your conduct would have been rewarded by a swift death. It is your association with Emilia-sama and Felt-sama that spares you that fate. And so, for that reason, if your vile behaviour cannot be purged from this kingdom, then it falls to me to correct it.” he said seriously. “I distinctly hope that you reflect on the debt you owe your betters in your continued existence and cease bringing shame to those around you.” As finely chosen as the ‘knight’s words were, he continued to speak with infinite superiority, not even entertaining the idea that Subaru could stand a chance.

Could you shut your stupid mouth already?! ” Subaru hissed. “I’m starting to think the reason you didn’t fight those guys in the alley is because your only weapon is condescending people to death!”

Julius’ facial features stifferend at the comment. “Very well. As stated, this combat shall continue until either of us becomes incapable of continuing the fight, one of us having found satisfaction, accepts the other’s yield, or an end is signaled by Felix per her judgement. This will be a physical contest, meaning I shall refrain from using magical or spirit arts.” he said, brushing his hair back with his free hand before returning it behind his back. “Are you ready?”

“You’re the only one delaying here!” Subaru said, spitting on the ground.

To this declaration, Julius simply nodded with a sour expression.

Taking it as a signal that the fight had started, Subaru lunged forward. She knew next to nothing of sword fighting, only really a collection of key terms that didn’t hold any greater depth in her mind than the general concept’s description in abilities for video game characters and special actions that could be taken in tabletop RPGs. Feints she knew existed, as did blocking, countering, and ripostes. These offered her very little help aside from the assumption that her foe probably practiced these and more way, way too much to get as cocky as he was. Which meant that if she wanted to win, she had to fight in a way different than most warriors. She had to catch him off guard. And her first attack had started even before the match. As good as it felt, she wanted to piss him off. She wanted to make this silver spoon suckling son of a bitch drop his guard.

If he really intended not to use his left hand, then all the better. That just meant half his body was open. All she had to do was get on that side!

Trying to do what she was certain actual combatants would do, she tried visualizing her attacks as her feet approached the knight, still standing there in his stance. If he doesn’t move, all she has to do is pretend she’s going to attack him so he tries to block, slip past him, and then wham, get him with a backswing! Yes! That would work!

Holding her wooden sword with both hands, she held it down and to the right. Her right arm was not the strongest since the encounter with the mabeasts, but since Felix gave her her magic touch minutes ago, it felt much better. Beginning an uppercut like swing towards Julius’ head, she moved right. The knight bent his sword down, likely already meaning to block it! Starting the swing, Subaru pulled it way higher than the knight’s head, so she could carry the force of the swing on, turn around while slipping by the knight and carry that energy into a second swing at his weaker side—

“Urk—!”

As Subaru’s sword swung up, and she concentrated on her feet so she could turn around, she felt a strong push against her abdomen. The sword she thought was moving to block her swing instead changed direction on a moment’s notice and with a single motion of Julius’ arm stabbed her directly under the center of her ribcage.

Feeling the air forcibly expelled from her lungs by the deep strike, and overcome by intense pain, Subaru lost her balance and fell, rolling on the ground a short distance before she managed to stop.

“What a childish attempt.” Julius stated pitilessly.

Looking there, Subaru could see the trail of dust in the ground she left, while it looked like Julius hadn’t even moved his feet in the exchange.

Coughing into the dirt under her, Subaru felt the dust go to her lungs and irritate her eye, while the ‘knight’ simply stood there observing her, only moving to face her once more as she forcefully stumbled on all fours, trying to get up.

“I hadn’t expected much and yet somehow you continue to disappoint.” Julius sighed.

Gripping at the ground, Subaru gritted her teeth and tried to block out the pulsing pain. It wasn’t such a harsh blow that would immobilize her. Maybe it wasn’t even meant to be. This man thought he was playing with her!

Launching herself with her feet, Subaru got back on her legs, sword in her right hand, left gripping a handful of dirt she just picked up. Without care for consideration this time, she just flung her left arm, tossing the dirt at Julius’s face, who simply with a frown raised his own left hand before her eyes as he closed them.

Not trying for a swing this time, Subaru decided to introduce a little contact sportsmanship from back home, dropping herself and sliding with feet forward at the knight, trying to channel all the dirty soccer players she caught on TV. Somehow sensing what she was doing even without his sight however, Julius simply raised the leg she was going for, turned his body around as she slid under him and planted his foot firmly in another spot before swinging his sword down.

The merciless strike caught Subaru squarely in her chest with enough force that regardless of cushioning she felt it against her ribs and lungs.

Air exploding out her mouth again in a forced heave, she couldn’t help but crumble up into a fetal position, instincts taking over and making her shield herself, the pain far greater than a moment ago.

“Despicable.” she heard as a whisper from far away in the voice of the man towering over her, accompanied by a chorus of cheers.

 

                                           

 

Subaru panted in exhaustion an agonizing pain, the mere act of staying on her feet a heavy labour. The ‘fight’ had been going on for minutes now, and the gap between her own ability and the ‘knight’s had been long since established. Julius continued to act defensively for a time, countering Subaru’s attempts to get a hit in. It was only after following a couple more tries Subaru realized she had no idea how to land a hit on him and began to hesitate that the knight switched to the offensive, expertly delivering hit after hit, mostly at her shoulders, torso and upper legs.

He had also struck Subaru’s head and face four times, however given how strong he clearly could pummel her, he was obviously holding back there, though not so much to spare her the overwhelming, pulsing pain that her swelling cheeks and forehead granted. What’s more, when Subaru felt as though she might actually collapse, Julius held back, letting her recover. For all his talk of ‘not taking pleasure’ out of this, he sure was doing everything in his power to draw things out.

“Have you begun to understand the depths of your weakness?” the knight asked, not even slightly winded, looking sternly at the hunched girl before him.

She spat some blood on the ground. There was no way to tell with all the pain coursing through her right now if she lost any teeth, but she thought she only cut her cheek on the earlier. A person thinking rationally would have attempted to yield by now. The thought in fact had also crossed her mind, but Subaru refused to yield.

‘You were nearly torn apart by mabeasts!’ she told herself. ‘You were cut in half by a sadistic bitch! You had your heart crushed and your senses unraveled! You will not concede to some pampered weasel!’ she commanded. She suffered through worse. She did. To buckle now would have been unforgivable.

The memory of her heart being clutched by that shadow hand blaring in her mind like a distant nightmare returning to haunt her, she considered briefly what would happen if she tried declaring her ability to go Back in Time to the knight. She’d experience that excruciating pain again, but surely, Rem would notice it. The maid might just come to her rescue, and then he’d be sorry!

Naturally, Subaru wasn’t actually going to do that, even if it was an amusing image to ponder. The very last thing she wanted was to let anyone she cared about see her like this, blood and vomit on her suit from her torso receiving a couple too many measured blows. Even without that, she wouldn’t want to get Rem involved in this. Huh, was that the peel of one of the ringa slices on her sleeve?

“Have you lost even the ability to speak?” Julius spoke once more dismissively.

“What would I have to say to you?” Subaru hissed between heavy breaths, the knight standing a few paces from her, letting her catch her breath. Even breathing was a labour, talking took almost all her remaining energy, but she couldn’t not answer. She couldn’t concede. Not to this man.

“I do despise having to repeat myself.” the knight huffed.

“Oh, you mean your stupid boast about how strong you are?” Subaru asked. “Good on you, pal.” she huffed, overcome by coughs.

“Is that how you live? You denounce everything you cannot possess?” Julius asked.

“Nah, I just don’t see the point of having all the things you do, when in the end, it brought you here.” Subaru retorted.

“Brought me here?” Julius asked in his always calm tone, though his brows furrowed. “Have you lost your senses? Can you not even distinguish which of us suffers in this situation?”

Subaru’s lips curved into a painful, cruel smile.

“I could ask you the same thing.” she said, slowly beginning to undo her torn suit jacket’s remaining buttons. “All that bravado, all that high breeding, all that pampered pride of yours and oh so precious years of training…” she listed, achingly pulling her jacket off her right shoulder once the buttons were done.

Julius didn’t interrupt her, just continued to stare with a disgusted look.

“Think about it. Where did it get you?” Subaru asked in the words she had so long wanted to repeat to an entirely different group. “You were so devastated by one person telling you that they don’t care about your nonsense, so pathetically shocked by me not respecting your fake act, that you had to beat me.” she said with a pained chuckle, removing the right side of her jacket entirely, and beginning to wrap it around her left forearm.

“I see.” Julius sighed. “You’ve lived such a miserable existence that you take pride in having no dignity to defend.” he nodded. “Indeed, a swift death would have been showing you far more mercy.”

Julius. ” came Reinhard’s voice from the entrance of the arena, still standing there on guard. “Must this really continue? It’s clear she cannot put up a meaningful resistance.” he spoke in a voice reflecting equal measures of displeasure and compassion.

Reinhard wasn’t wrong. Subaru knew this, Julius knew this, and so did the audience. Felix also must have known this, and yet she refused to call an end to the fight for some reason, even though outside of Subaru and Julius, it was her purview alone to do so. The audience of knights that initially cheered as Julius put his skills on display knocking Subaru down and punishing her futile attempts at striking him have for a time now fallen mostly silent. Many had stood up and left, others remained perhaps mostly out of obligation, their eyes averted from the center of the arena.

Indeed, there was no spectacle to be found here. Doing so much as removing her jacket to fashion it into a makeshift shield was difficult for Subaru. Her arms slogged and ached with every motion, her back trembled as the jacket was pulled off the right arm, and just twisting the fabric around her forearm felt like trying to hoist an oversized barrel of water out of a well. Julius didn’t stop her from doing it, because it, like anything else she could perform physically, was of no threat to him.

Subaru had no strength to showcase, no skill. The only thing she had, the only thing she believed allowed her to get this far with her cursed ability, was her tenacity.

Julius looked to the red haired knight at the entrance and gave a long sigh before turning to Subaru.

“It is clear that one way or another, this will be done in a strike or two.” he began. “It’s also clear to me that you are utterly incapable of learning even the most fundamental humility. As such, I offer you that if you yield now, I shall consider the matter satisfied.”

A shake ran through Subaru’s body, and she clutched the wooden sword with all her meager strength. Of course the outcome was clear. Of course she was going to lose. But to ask her to say it?!

“Save your pity!” she spat angrily. “I’ve faced down mabeasts with more honour than you!” she cried, straightening herself out as best she could, trying to put on a confident look. She genuinely meant the words too. Having helped kill the pack leader in the forest, or rather, taking pleasure in having killed it haunted her. It needed to die, it was dangerous, but still. That animal had the dignity to command its minions back and face her and Rom alone. It wasn’t toying with her. It wasn’t mocking her. Not like this. That thing, for whatever reason pride or overconfidence, gave them a fighting chance. Something this ‘knight’ had never considered.

“Is that how you came into this state?” Julius asked. “I saw the scars on your hands. I can tell that while the difference is in no means great, you are far from healthy.” he added, shaking his head. “Clearly this challenge is not the first you’ve charged into without a shred of consideration or forethought. If not for the sake of basic human dignity, had you not considered changing your ways for those that for reasons beyond me care for you?” he asked.

“Don’t you dare.” is all Subaru managed to force out.

“How many people had to carry the burden of your foolish actions until now?” Julius continued. “If you truly profess to be a knight by that definition you’ve given, can’t you see that living like this, you’re no one’s shield or sword, but only their burden?” he asked, still calm as a quiet stream.

‘You should just give up.’ is what these words were really saying. ‘You have no value to anyone. You’ll never have value to anyone.’ is all she heard.

“Take that back.” Subaru forced out in what she wished was a demanding tone.

Julius didn’t answer at first, just took a deep breath.

“Take. That. Back.” Subaru repeated, angry, furious, trying to voice that but instead only pleading.

“It is not in my power to unmake the truth.” Julius said.

Trembling in her spot, Subaru’s mind ignored her command as well, recalling past terrors. Ram and the giant covered in blood and bruises, running through the forest with her. All to retrieve Rem, lost there because of Subaru’s stupidity. Because she was weak.

‘It is good that the girl finally understands what a burden she is, I suppose.’ echoed from long, long ago inside of her.

No. ’ Subaru declared to herself. ‘No! Even Reinhard said that there’s more to—’

‘Reinhard wasn’t there. He never saw how weak you really are.’

‘He just pities you, after all, who wouldn’t?’

‘Stop trying to twist the words of others. All they ever saw was your best possible outcomes.’

‘No one ever saw what you really are.’

The sensation of the wooden sword hilt in her right hand was quickly replaced by a softer, warm texture. A weak, desperate pulse beating against her fingers, a second, heaving pressure pressing against her palm the loosening, then pressing once more, and loosening. The worst sensation she ever knew.

There! Now it’s better! So this is what it’s like to choke someone completely helpless. ’ screamed Subaru’s voice in ecstasy from the darkest depths of her memory.

Slouching forward, Subaru grabbed her head between her hands and began to scream. Anything to deafen out that thing . That vile, evil person wearing her face and stealing her voice. Concentrating on anything else, even the pulsing echo in her ear, she had to block it.

Four short beats, four short beats, four short beats, blam. Four short beats, four short beats, four short beats, blam .

“— baru! ” someone echoed.

Looking up, in the seating area of the audience, two familiar faces, painful to recognize, stood, leaning over the edge. One a short young girl with blonde hair in a cream coloured dress, and beside her, a gentle, silver haired one, both looking at her in shock. Across from them, on the other side of the same seating area, a woman in red sat, fanning herself, watching in delight.

How long have they been there? How long had Subaru? Julius still stood her, though his wooden sword lowered, his expression of disgust and pity tainted by a touch of concern as well, turning away, and shouting to the audience, words impossible to decipher exchanged between him and the candidates.

Right now, everyone was distracted with Julius and the candidates. Every eye trained on either of them, having lost total interest in the pathetic Subaru, so far beyond the ability to act. No, actually, that wasn’t true. She saw a single pair of sky blue eyes look at her, though she was certain even they couldn’t actually see her. No part of her, no person of any value was in this arena.

Though Julius and the candidates shouted at each other loud enough to hear, Subaru couldn’t understand any of it. She didn’t want to understand any of it. There they were, the girl whose adoration she had wanted to win back since her first day here, and the one she promised she would defend. Looking down at her from so far away. Seeing her in this state. Her vomit stains in the dirt nearby, some on her clothes, along with blood, sweat and snot in tow. Barely able to hold a wooden stick. Just managing to stand on her feet and no more. Utterly beaten by the same bastard that calls himself a knight and lets people suffer all the same. Who put her in this state. The one who couldn’t even allow so much as for Subaru to reassure Emilia in their moment of weakness in her own words.

She wanted more than just to stand against his attacks.

She wanted more than just to beat him.

She wanted to murder him.

SHAMAK! ” she screamed out as best as loud as she could, clutching the wooden sword hilt in her hand. The wracking pain in her lungs and throat from the force of her cry soon numbed as the world around her disappeared.

There was no sound, no sight, no up, no down. Even she didn’t exist, though she recalled this sensation of not existing. She also recalled that she must move, swing, lunge, break.

Crashing out of the fog of black, carried by the very last vestiges of her strength, Subaru swung down as hard as she could, aiming at the ‘knight’s head, but before she knew it, her swing stopped, and her hands slipped off the sword, her body falling forward before the mixed sensation of a wooden rod and a set of fingers pushed against the very top of her ribcage, just under her neck with little force, just enough to keep her standing.

Taking in her environment, Subaru realized that the sword she swung with murderous intent was being held by its dull blade above her by Julius’s left hand. His right rested against her at the top of her torso, helping her weak legs to stay on foot. He looked at her and simply sighed.

“Such parlor tricks won’t save you, let alone any you profess to want to protect.” Julius said simply.

Glancing to the sides, Subaru saw everyone frozen in silence. The candidates in the audience, the woman in red laughing loudly, Felt and Emilia’s eyes trained on her, as was Felix and Reinhard’s, standing still so far, far away at the exit she should have begged for long ago.

“You are inexcusably weak.” Julius said, pushing Subaru away from himself, sending her stumbling. “You have no right to stand by their side.”

Disarmed and dejected, Subaru struggled to stay on her feet, as she continued stumbling back for a few steps.

Some more words echoed down from Emilia, and she could see Felt leap down from the seating area in spite of its height, and began to run towards Subaru and Julius.

The knight, seeing this, quickly dropped both swords he held to the ground and turned towards the candidate. Had Subaru any strength left, this would have been a good opportunity to strike, but no. She felt herself begin to fall, as with a gust of wind following her every step, Felt darted across the arena, towards the knight that in stunned silence could do nothing but place a hand on his heart and begin to bow as—

In the blink of an eye, Felt sped further, closing the last three steps in an instant, her leg swinging firm and true straight up at the knight, still maintaining a wide, combative, unfortunate stance.

Her consciousness already fading, Subaru wasn’t sure if what she saw was real or not, but she let out a single, long relieved ‘Haaaaaa’ as the ‘knight’ received the first and only strike since entering the arena.

With a sudden flash of white and black, the sound of a fluttering coat, and the sensation of two arms gently catching her fall, Natsuki Subaru lost her consciousness.

Chapter Text

Opening her eyes to an unfamiliar ceiling now for the third time, an instinctive shudder ran through Subaru’s body.

It took a few moments before her conscious mind caught up and she recalled the previous two such occurrences, both of which spelled only trouble on the horizon. While her memories tried to break through to her, Subaru took in the fine, decorated sight of the ceiling, gilded in a fashion similar to the guest rooms back at Roswaal’s manor. How did she—?

Flinching once more at the sudden realization, Subaru groaned and raised a hand at her face. To her surprised realization a moment later, she felt no pain from this. Her swollen cheeks, her weak arms— Nothing ached. She definitely hadn’t gone Back in Time since she didn’t remember this bed, and yet, she was as fine as if it was all nothing but a nightmare.

Closing her eyes, she let out a miserable sign and lowered her arm, wanting to just give up and let time drag on until her most recent memories and their shame and ache fade away, though someone had different plans.

“Don’t go back to sleep, jackass!” a young voice commanded, making Subaru’s eyes jump open. “Good, now are you getting up or— Hey!” The last exclamation sounded like it wasn’t aimed at Subaru anymore.

Raising her head, the first thing Subaru saw was, heartbreakingly, fine silver locks resting over the slightly slouched figure of a beautiful young woman, clutching a dirty black jacket in one hand, and patting the bright blonde locks of a younger girl sitting next to her who quickly grabbed her hand and pushed it off her head.

“Just tell me to shut up or something, damn it!” Felt protested, crossing her arms once Emilia removed her hand from her head.

Emilia silently looked at Felt for a moment with a weak, sorrowful expression, gently biting on her lips, her jaw slowly moving from side to side. This could only go on for so long however, before the half-elf swallowed and with a short breath turned her sad amethyst eyes to Subaru, piercing right through the black haired girl.

“Subaru.” Emilia spoke softly, stopping there, maybe not knowing how to continue, maybe knowing that in that single address she had already well delivered the full weight of her accusations.

This was the first time that Subaru saw Emilia eye to eye since the girl led her out of the throne room and asked her to stay put. The first time since she parted with those reddened eyes fresh from tears. The first time since she embarrassed her before the entirety of the audience in the throne room. She wished it was the first time they saw each other since then at all, but she recalled Emilia leaning over the low wall of the seating area back at the arena.

Subaru hung her mouth slightly open, propped up on her elbows. No words would come.

Felt looking between the two of them huffed impatiently, got off her chair then clenching her right hand into a fist smacked down on the blanket, right into Subaru’s kneecap underneath.

Ow! ” Subaru yelped in pain. “What was that for?!”

“I’ve already sat here way too long, and we can’t get going until you two talk, so talk!” Felt commanded, marching off to the end of the bed.

“Did you need to punch me for that?!” Subaru protested.

“I had to do something, and you clearly are a sucker for pain.” the girl huffed.

Sitting up to rub her aching knee through the blanket, Subaru’s eyes crossed with Emilia again and after grabbing her knee, she slouched forward.

“Hey.” Subaru mumbled. “Did I interrupt the meeting again?” she asked, trying to approach the obvious as distantly as possible.

“Briefly.” Emilia said quietly. “However, we went back while Felix healed you, and it concluded without further incident. It wasn’t anything too complicated. Roswaal spoke for me mostly.”

Having missed it completely for the sake of doubling down on her idiotic behaviour, Subaru couldn’t say for sure why it was, but Emilia didn’t seem happy about her last remark. Had her outburst in the throne room left Emilia in a state where she couldn’t speak for herself? Or did Roswaal simply want to handle things simpler on her end?

Either way, once again, Subaru failed her. Instead of being there and supporting her, she just caused more trouble for Emilia. Was that scumbag right? Was she—? No! What was she even thinking? It was his fault that things got this out of hand in the first place! So she said something a little controversial, so what?!

Nothing changed. Just the expression on Emilia’s face clearly meant that she was still miserable. She still needed help, and who other than Subaru could give her that? Roswaal barely did anything to defend Emilia! There was no one available but Subaru to fill the role of Emilia’s protector, and she wasn’t going to let some violet haired idiot convince her otherwise!

Smacking her palm over her eyes and rubbing down her face, Subaru tried to force all her negative thoughts to the back of her mind. Nothing good ever came from negativity. She wished it didn’t take someone dying in her place to learn that lesson, but it was clearly what she needed to see. Push forward! Don’t ever stop! If she lost sight of this single commandment she placed against herself, she’d truly be lost.

“Alright. Well, I’m glad everything turned out fine then!” Subaru declared, forcing on a positive face and voice. “Sorry I held you two back, but there’s no need to stick around here anymore so let’s get back to the manor, I’m sure Rem’s wondering where we are!”

Pushing the blanket off herself, Subaru realized that the bed she was sleeping in was against one of the corners, meaning the only side she could get down on was blocked by Emilia, who didn’t flinch from her seat.

“Come on, Emilia-chan, Felt said she wanted to go, so—”

“We need to talk.” Emilia said, piercing into Subaru’s soul with her eyes, still not moving.

These simple words froze Subaru’s movements as surely as any icy spell she could have cast.

“What is there to talk about?” Subaru muttered out with a disingenuous smile. “I mean I know I messed up, okay? I get that. I’m so— Actually, I know you don’t like me apologizing, so let me just say thanks for waiting for me instead!” Subaru said quickly.

As fragile her air of positivity was, it was her only shield to wield against the sad eyes.

Emilia looked down and fumbled with the dirty jacket some more, Subaru noticing dried blood and vomit still on it.

“Subaru, please, just let me… Let me understand.” Emilia said, not looking up.

“Understand what?” Subaru returned. “If you mean when I said I’m your knight, that was kind of a spur of the moment thing, but I meant it! I want to help, and that’s best done on the way home, I’m sure there’s a lot of stuff we need to—” she gabbled, however her words were cut short by the half-elf looking back up at her with the same sad eyes, tinted with a hint of anger so alien to the girl. The kind of anger she hadn’t seen her wear since that horrible, horrible misunderstanding near two months ago in the alleyway.

“Subaru.” she said commandingly. “Please do not try to distract me. I want—” Her voice trembled. “I need to understand why you—”

Subaru felt her chest sink as a painful sigh forced itself on her, seeing Emilia’s eyes flutter.

“Alright.” she said, slouching forward on the bed, her only shield shattered.

“Why did you… Why did you fight Julius?” Emilia asked. “I told you to stay put, but you still ended up in that horrible place.” she muttered out uncertainly.

“I—” Subaru began. The reasons were far too shameful to voice, so she tried to dodge the question. “I was staying put, but then he came to me and challenged me to the duel.” Subaru said.

“I heard.” Emilia nodded. “But when I asked Reinhard while he was bringing you here, he told me that he was going to fight in your place, and you refused him.” Emilia said. “Didn’t you think that would have been better? You didn’t need to get hurt, and you could have done as I asked.”

Subaru clutched her blanket.

“I— I couldn’t let him do that for me.” Subaru said.

“Why?” Emilia pleaded.

“Because— Because I didn’t want him to be hurt on my behalf, or make someone fight for my sake.” Subaru replied, talking around her vindictive desires.

“But if that’s all you wanted—” Emilia began, looking away briefly before locking eyes with renewed conviction. “I’m told you didn’t even try to apologise to Julius. If anything, Felix said you just insulted him further! If all you wanted was to avoid the duel, you could have just told him you were wrong!” she said sternly.

A clutching pain dug into Subaru’s shoulders and her arms stiffened up.

“You’re taking his side?” Subaru asked coldly.

“Yeah.” Felt encored, speaking up for the first time. “Subaru might be an idiot, but screw that guy. Highborn bootlickers like him need to be knocked down a few dozen pegs.”

“Felt, please, I need to speak to Subaru.” Emilia pleaded.

“Fine!” Felt huffed. “Just don’t go polishing the scumbag’s sword.” she added, knocking impatiently on the wooden end of the bed.

“It’s not that—” Emilia began but then cut herself off and sighed, looking back at Subaru. “You have said some truly awful things about him and about knights.” she said, growing sterner. “Even if that’s how you feel— Even then, it’s wrong to have said those things.”

“Wow. You really are standing up for him, aren’t you?” Subaru muttered with a mild mixture of anger and disbelief. “They stood by while everyone said those awful things and—”

“They did what they should !” Emilia declared, tossing the jacket at Subaru’s face in a truly baffling display of childish yet true violence. “They did the same thing I asked you to do, Subaru! What you promised you would do!”

Silenced by the sudden outburst of the girl, Subaru simply sat there, holding the jacket that fell in her lap.

“Did you really forget?!” Emilia asked, exasperated. “Did you not understand? I asked you so many times, told you so many ways! Please, if there is a good reason— Just tell me! I don’t want to— I—” Emilia choked on her words, putting a hand to her temple and looking away. “I want to trust you. Just— Just please give me a reason to.”

“The—” Subaru began weakly, her mind racing to try and keep up with Emilia’s emotions. “The nobles, and that councillor, they said—”

“I don’t care about what they said!” Emilia burst out. “They are them! I want to know why you wouldn’t listen!”

At the end of the bed, Felt stopped knocking on the bed and adopted a stance of uncharacteristic quiet, looking at Emilia.

“They— I—” Subaru mumbled, words fleeing from her on every turn. How was she supposed to explain that she wanted to protect Emilia from them, without referencing them? “I wanted to… I wanted to help you.”

“Is that it?” Emilia asked, sniffling slightly, looking back at Subaru. “Is that really all it was?”

“Yes!” Subaru exclaimed, hoping she managed to find the right path. “I wanted to help you! I didn’t want to let anyone hurt you so I—”

Stop lying! ” Emilia shouted angrily. Truly angrily. “ You haven’t done anything for me!

Stunned by these words, Subaru could only respond with meaningless mumbles, as Emilia stood up, pushing her chair back in the motion.

“For days, I told you exactly what I wanted, what I needed!” Emilia continued, a frown shaking behind her stern expression. “I didn’t ask you to do anything hard! I didn’t ask you to do anything exceptional! I just asked you to stay out of trouble and be good!” she paused, her arms held tightly by her side, fists clenched. “When you got in trouble with Barielle-san, I thought it must have been an honest mistake. Julius said you were just trying to help, so I forgave you! Then you made Reinhard take you not only to the palace but into the throne room, when you promised you would stay home!” she accused.

Subaru wanted to protest. She wanted to point out that the only thing she technically promised was to not do anything that would be bad for Emilia, but with the way the girl was speaking, even that promise was hardly held.

“I tried and tried and tried!” Emilia mumbled. “I tried to think of some reason you would do this! And all you can say is you wanted to help me? Why would you break your word then?! If you wanted to help me, all you had to do was do as I asked!” she declared, her body shaking, raising a hand to her mouth.

“But if I—” Subaru began, but didn’t know how to continue. ‘If I didn’t go, and something went wrong, how could I go Back in Time before it’s too late?’ is what she wanted to ask, though of course those weren’t words she could ever speak. The gruesome nature of her plans involving her own death once more lost on her, drifting only on the very edge of her mind.

“If you really wanted to help me so much, at least tell me why!” Emilia spoke. “Why would you want to help me so bad, that you forget everything I asked you? Why would you say those foolish things in the throne room? Why would you fight Julius?” she asked.

‘Foolish things?’ echoed in Subaru. Would Emilia really denounce her words like that? Side with the very people who either directly punished her for no more than existing, or just sat by and let it happen?!

“Please tell me, because I—” Emilia choked. “I don’t think I can believe you anymore.” she said, chilling Subaru’s blood. “For whatever reason, you did all this for yourself.”

Subaru’s hands let go of her blanket. The stiffness disappeared from her shoulders and arms. The only thing she felt was a long, burning gust of wind flowing up her throat and brushing against her lips.

“You are wrong.” Subaru hissed with a calm tone masking the seething heat welling in her. “You are wrong .” she repeated, her tone darker, looking into the half-elf’s eyes. “I could have walked away, so many times.” she continued. “You have no idea, do you?! I could have left you to deal with that sadistic killer. I could have just grabbed Felt under my arm and ran, leaving you to fend for yourself, couldn’t I?”

“Yeah, no you couldn’t.” Felt interjected.

Shut it! ” Subaru yelled back, the heat in her chest spreading to her scalp as she returned her eyes to Emilia who looked back at her in shock. “At the manor. I could have just left. I could have just walked away, and let you handle all of that too! Do you have any idea how much suffering that would have spared me?!” she added, her voice growing to a yell. “ Every single scar on my body! Every single one of them is there because I tried to help! And— And—!”

‘Yet if that was all there was to life, then Felt-sama may very well have died at the loot house to that assassin’s blade.’ Reinhard’s voice echoed in her. ‘I say with honesty, that — there is perhaps far more virtue in doing what is right when it is difficult, than when it is simple.’

What did Emilia ultimately do in all this time? She wandered the city aimlessly looking for Felt, then probably slept soundly or chatted with spirits in a casual fashion while the mabeasts preying on the village children! She probably shouldn’t be blamed for it, but in the end, it was Subaru that actually worked to resolve those situations, didn’t she? Even if she ended up being mostly useless, at least she tried! At least she suffered for a better outcome!

“You want to know why I want to help you?” Subaru muttered out, locking eyes deeply with the half-elf, though in that moment seeing not the amethyst jewels, but only a hateful reflection of meekish hazel.

Before here stood Emilia, shocked, on the verge of tears, covering her mouth. She wasn’t beaten to unconsciousness. She wasn’t torn apart by dogs. She didn’t die of a curse over, and over and over again. She didn’t hold a dying girl in her arms. She didn’t feel her spine severed while trying to shield a precious young girl from an assassin’s blade. What right did she have to cry?! A useless, miserable little nobody, locked away in her room, practicing, and practicing and picturing better tomorrows that could never come. Leeching off her parents’ hospitality. Content to shut the world out. Content not to face those that wronged her. Content to waste away forever while trying to improve skills she’ll never put to good use for the sake of strangers who don’t matter, instead of just holding tight to what she already had and accepting the support she’s offered!

“Because you need it.” Subaru hissed. “Because you are so, so, so unbelievably weak .”

The words flew from Subaru’s mouth like an arrow, and, as if struck, the girl before her stumbled back a step, clutching at her chest.

“You are so weak.” Subaru repeated, gritting her teeth, the muscles of her jaw reverberating in her ear in a chaotic symphony matching her rapidly building rage. “Every time someone lashes out against you, you just let them. The villagers look at you with fear and hate, and you just let them! You’re given a position that has the so-called ‘High Sorceress’ address you as her superior, and yet when a bunch of stuck up nobles bad mouth you— You. Just. Let them! ” she said. “I got beaten into the dirt today, and was accused of having no dignity, but that’s you . You can’t do so much as go into a village of peasants without hiding your identity, and you play at becoming queen ?! I know why you want it. I know you want to be accepted, even though you reek of the witch harder than even me! So you know what? Fine. You want to be accepted, but you can’t stand up for yourself? Then I will do it for you. If you’re too much of a coward to stand up for what is right, then I will stand up for it for you! You like simple orders? Then just shut up and let me handle things like I already have! ” she finished, fuming.

Breathing heavy, uncontrollable breaths, Subaru continued to sit, turned to Emilia, watching as the girl looked down, one hand still clutching her chest, the other still covering her mouth, both trembling.

“I shouldn’t have kicked that guy.” Felt said coldly at the end of the bed. “If anything, he should have beaten you more.”

The words reached Subaru like a cold shower. What did Felt— What did Subaru say—? No, really, what did she just—?!

“I see.” Emilia spoke quietly, swallowing afterwards. “You’re right, Natsuki Subaru.” she nodded weakly, lowering her hands. “You have suffered a lot helping me find my insignia, and protecting the manor. I really am in your debt.”

These words that should have brought nothing but relief coming from the girl, now felt as if they were flaying her.

“I’ll— arrange for some way to repay you. Rem will take care of the details when your treatment with Felix is over.” Emilia continued, hanging her head and turning away.

“W-wait…” Subaru said weakly, as Emilia slowly walked to the end of the bed. “What are you saying?”

“Felt and I need to prepare for the journey back to Roswaal’s manor. Since Rem asked to stay with you until you recover, Wilhelm already offered to drive us. Felix will be by later to take you to Crusch’s manor.”

As Emilia spoke these words, she put one hand behind Felt’s shoulder, guiding the girl towards the room’s exit.

“Emilia!” Subaru called, quickly getting out of the bed. “Why are you talking like this?!”

As Emilia opened the door for Felt, the younger candidate shot the kind of look at Subaru as one would at a particularly annoying insect, before giving her the same gesture she gave to the nobles in the throne room and leaving the room.

“For what it’s worth…” Emilia began, weakly. “I enjoyed the time we spent together.” saying this, it looked like she was going to leave on only that note, but Emilia’s hand against the door clenched and she stopped, hanging her head deep and sniffling.

“No, seriously, I’m so sorry, I didn’t—” Subaru began, walking towards the door, her hands down by her side, giving a pleading gesture, but she was stopped in her tracks by Emilia taking a deep breath and holding up her free hand at Subaru.

“No.” Emilia said, tears running down her cheek. “You have done more than enough.” she declared looking at Subaru, before turning her head out the door again. “You know… When I was in the throne room. Even after you broke your promise and came anyway… When everyone said those horrible things, I didn’t mind so much, because I was thinking about how after we’re finally done, I can go home, and I could talk to someone for whom I’m just an ordinary girl again. To someone for whom the witch doesn’t exist.” she muttered, wiping her face with the sleeve of her dress. “But I guess I was wrong.”

Standing like a statue, Subaru saw the silver haired girl disappear out the doorway and likely out her life along with it, right behind the short young blonde haired girl who once was her Number One Groupie .

Finally stepping back and slumping down into Emilia’s still warm chair, she picked up the jacket she kicked to the floor. The last thing Emilia gave, or will give her, as abrupt as it was.

A sorry, torn, stained thing, the dark, black jacket was like a mocking reflection of her own soul, an embroidered patch depicting a hawk on the nape of the neck came mostly undone, as was Subaru’s only, precious ties to this world.

Cut by her own, miserable, disgusting actions.

Chapter Text

“Are you certain there is nothing you wish to raise in your defense?” asked the dark green haired captain of the royal guard over the top of the papers he held.

“There is nothing of value to add that isn’t written there.” Julius said with a solemn expression, shaking his head.

Marcus raised his empty hand to his temple and sighed as his only reply.

The captain of the royal guard was not in an enviable position. Julius could appreciate this completely. Standing here in Marcus’ office across from the seated captain, Julius maintained his perfect calm which had been so tested recently.

“So, in summary, you’ve approached a woman associated with two of the candidates and the High Sorceress’ estate, challenged her to a duel, and beat her senseless. Ferris is tending to her as we speak I gather?” Marcus asked.

“To the best of my knowledge, she is.” Julius nodded. “However, given her talents I imagine she is likely finished by now.”

“And Reinhard’s involvement?”

Julius’ posture stiffened somewhat at the invocation of his fellow knight’s name.

“Once we left Felix with Natsuki Subaru-san, Reinhard informed me he had arrangements to discuss with Roswaal-sama in regards to Felt-sama.” Julius answered. “In regards to the duel, it is as the report states. He discouraged it, and offered to stand in Natsuki Subaru-san’s place, acting full in accordance with his duties.”

Marcus nodded with a frown, putting down the papers. “Had he told you what he thought of this incident?”

“He did not approve.” Julius stated simply, hesitating for a moment before regretfully continuing. “I do not believe the purpose in my actions had reached him.”

“I must hope that’s for the best.” Marcus sighed, rubbing his eyes. “You of course realize this is not a matter that can be simply brushed under the rug?” he asked sternly, looking Julius in the eyes.

“I am fully prepared to accept banishment from the royal guard for my actions, captain.” Julius stated.

“Imagine a good number of the knights who spoke out on your behalf would frown at such an outcome.” Marcus said, shaking his head. “Was it truly necessary to go this far to avenge your knight honour?” the captain asked, though judging by the expression in his eyes, a very different question was on his mind.

“I accept that my actions have far exceeded just conduct in that regard.” Julius nodded. “Please, do not concern yourself further with this ugly matter for my sake, captain.”

Marcus sighed once more, leaning back in his chair, a long unbroken silence falling on the room that seemed to go on forever, Julius not once flinching from his position before the captain’s desk.

“Knock knock.” announced Felix’s voice from the other side of the door, entering right away without waiting for approval, quickly closing the door behind herself then standing at attention with a carefree smile. “So, have you two dealt with that foolish boy’s mess yet?”

Julius’ brows shot up, and his head turned to the knightess. He really wasn’t surprised at her thoughts as she would elect to voice them.

“Nyah?” Felix asked, tilting her head with one of her usual coy smiles, looking back at Julius. “You think the captain wouldn’t pick up on it? Give him some credit, ‘big bro’!” she laughed.

“How is the girl?” Marcus asked, electing not to comment on the Felix’ words.

“Tip top shape!” Felix announced. “She had a few cracked ribs, which she held up against surprisingly well, I myust say.” she noted. “Though being a cavalier gentleman, I notice Julius went especially easy on her face. Maybe you just thought there was more cushion for her ribs hmmmm?” she teased. “Fixed a chipped tooth, got rid of the swelling, boosted mana circulation a little bit. I’m sure I’m probably boring you with the little details, nyah?”

“Did you leave anything?” Marcus asked.

“Only her pre-existing conditions.” Felix shrugged. “Not a single new scar on her.” she added before looking at Julius. “Did you maybe want her to have something to remember you by?”

Julius just closed his eyes and returned his attention to the captain.

“Seeing as she had recovered, I do not see further reason to prolong this.” Julius stated, awaiting his punishment.

“Before that.” Felix interrupted. “Has he been here yet?”

“Given his lack of involvement—” Julius began, but Felix cut him off again.

“Lack of involvement?” she repeated. “So he really wasn’t? Hah. He’s truly hopeless, isn’t he?” she said with a smile, shaking her head. “But why do you insist on this little game? When even that sad young girl caught onto you, surely you don’t think anyone in this room would be in the dark?”

Felix’s ears flapped perkily atop her head and she glanced between the captain and Julius knowingly.

“Aw, well, since neither of you are saying anything, I’m guessing he’ll get off free for this one. I can only imagine the trouble if one of the more bullheaded ones waited until his protection expired, or worse, he decided to extend it.” she said with a mock shudder.

The knights had in fact not taken kindly to Subaru’s words at the selection. As much as they were mostly aimed at Julius, she had mocked their very institution, reducing the blood and sweat of generations, the legacy upon which many of the knights’ entire life was founded to a vain display of self-entitlement, ignoring or simply not understanding the discipline, effort and sacrifice that knighthood is based. She denounced the proudest achievement of their lives, the culmination of a life’s efforts as an object of shame, placing the most hated sins of this world at their feet.

“I’d rather not imagine the discontent it would bring to the ranks.” Marcus nodded. “And if one of the others accosted her after she was returned home safe, I don’t know what would have been worse, would they have fought and she likely died by accident, or he chose to intercept their duel.”

“It’s quite lucky that in Julius-kun we had both the one person he would listen to, and the one she’d want to fight. The festering macho pride in the garrison would have been a bit too much even for me if you didn’t knock her around a little.”

“Lucky.” Marcus repeated with a tone of sorrow, putting a hand on a paper that was now facing down on his desk.

Before the royal meeting, Julius met with the captain for a short briefing, during which he saw the short order written on the other side of the paper. Knowing the captain, he wouldn’t have left a confidential paper unturned on his desk when entertaining a guest. Not unless there was something of great import that had to be communicated.

The paper in question was an order to the captain, that when the royal candidates are granted the right to speak, the youngest, most recently discovered candidate should be left for last. It wasn’t until hearing the young Felt-sama’s words after Natsuki Subaru’s departure that Julius began to suspect what the true nature of the orders bearing a hawk seal may have been.

“Considering the circumstances,” Marcus noted, looking in Julius’s eyes, his hand still firmly on the paper. “The punishment will be that for five days you are suspended and barred from entering the garrison and royal palace. Your sword will stay with me until such time as you can return to your duties. Understood?”

Julius stood at attention, and placed a hand on his heart briefly, before detaching his sword’s sheath from his belt and gently placed it on the captain’s desk with all due elegance.

Captain Marcus stood up and with a small bow, picked up the sword.

“I regret that all this fell to you.” he noted, as he moved the sword to a better place near his seat, propped against the desk. “Felix, please escort him out of the building, then return to your duties. Dismissed.”

 

                                           

 

Walking through the garrison’s halls, Julius collected his thoughts. He believed his actions to have been as proper as possible under the circumstances, yet, even as Felix walked by him, casually humming some unknown tune, he couldn’t help but reflect on his actions today as ultimately a failure.

The High Sorceress’ order to Marcus, her contract with Reinhard for Felt-sama’s protection, this bizarre new servant and her outburst. These were concerns for the captain of the guard to handle, and yet, with it so closely intertwined with Anastasia-sama's interests and the royal guard itself, it was not something Julius could sit by and ignore. And yet, after all this, he was certain of almost nothing more than since he first heard Felt-sama reflect on Subaru’s outburst as her reason to stay in the race.

“Oh, I should ask.” Felix spoke up suddenly, stopping her humming. “Do you want mye to fetch something from your quarters after she leaves?”

“Nothing, thank you Felix.” Julius said, shaking his head. “I’m grateful that you saw to her.”

“Nyaah?” Felix asked. “Don’t you go stupid on me too.”

Julius furrowed his brow, a for once genuine sense of disgust shivering down his spine.

“Don’t suggest anything so crass.” he said.

Felix hummed, crossing her arms behind her head. “So you really think he’s…?” she probed.

“I have my doubts, he isn’t that kind of man.” Julius answered, then hanging his head slightly, pondering. What he said wasn’t false, though his doubts were more hopes than where he believed the truth to most likely lie.

“Well, not for someone so worthless anyway.” Felix sighed in a pitiless voice.

“I wouldn’t go so far.” Julius spoke, taking exception to the statement.

“Nyah?” Felix perked up, hurrying the next couple of steps to get ahead of Julius and leaning in front of him slightly. “I feel like I’ve been here before. Are you going to go old man Wil on me?”

Julius shook his head. “Don’t expect anything as profoundly confusing as what he said about the ‘edge of death’, if that is what you’re referring to.” he stated, recalling what Felix told him when shortly after seeing the captain’s orders, he inquired Felix about her experience at Roswaal’s estate. “It’s simply that even if she refuses to pay others their due courtesy, that doesn’t excuse us to act the same in turn.”

“That’s pretty rich from the guy who beat her into the dirt while reminding her of her place.” Felix huffed with a mocking smile.

True enough, Julius had given Subaru a beating that hopefully, she won’t soon forget. For her sake, and for the sake of all around her. It was perhaps good fortune alone that spared her life until their first meeting. Knowing the Baroness Priscillia Bariele from reputation, she was as likely to cut the girl in half for her insolence as partake in that bizarre game of ‘who’s who?’ in which he encountered the two of them. Chasing into situations far beyond her capacities, breaking all rules possible and picking fights wherever she went, her existence was clearly one headed for doom.

“I do not believe Emilia-sama would put so much worth into someone as she clearly put in Natsuki Subaru-san, if they were worthless.” Julius said simply. “However, that doesn’t change that her apparent attitude invited nothing, but trouble. She had to be shown that the world won’t be forgiving of her behaviour forever.”

“Even then, you went further than I thought you would.” Felix noted.

“Not by previous intent.” Julius said, shaking his head. He allowed yields in the contest in spite of that being far from the norm in such serious matters for a reason. “I had not expected her to persist as long as she did.”

“You could have just knocked her out, you know.” Felix said.

“Would have been pointless.” Julius said, but then paused. “Or, so I thought. A quick blow, and then awakening in your care, it would hardly have driven home the reality of her situation and the forces she is toying with. I must admit however, that I didn’t expect that reaction.”

“Nyah?” Felix pondered, holding a finger to her lips. “Oh, you mean ‘ Take that back! ’? Hah, classic.”

Julius furrowed his brows once more.

“I thought—” Julius began with a sigh. “I had believed she persisted out of vanity and foolishness. It was as if she was convinced failure doesn’t exist.” he said, recalling his thoughts. “In the end, I was wrong. I don’t know when or how, but she clearly experienced profound failure far before I ever encountered her.”

“She did almost lose an arm, and then die to a pack of mabeasts.” Felix noted, but Julius simply shook his head.

That scream as she held her head spoke of a pain far greater than the cut of any blade, claw or tooth. Was it perhaps whatever the Sword Devil saw in her?

“I won’t pretend I understand.” Julius admitted. All he believed was that whatever dark twisted path the girl was walking, it wasn’t anything he could alter and would inevitably court disaster, even if after all, perhaps her heart truly was in the right place.

She wasn’t a willing actor in Roswaal’s twisted plans, whatever they were. Of this much he became certain when she volunteered her consent to put aside Reinhard’s protection. It was still all far too convenient. Was she just another hapless pawn used by the clownish high sorceress to ensure that she had two candidates in hand? For what end?

“Well, I guess it hardly matters nyah.” Felix shrugged as they neared the garrison’s entrance. “Though, I wanted to ask, what do you think it is with him and the girl?”

“As I said, I have my doubts. I do not wish to engage in idle gossip.” Julius said.

If he was to be honest, as it seems both the captain and the knightess had realized, the foremost thought in Julius’ mind was the knight of knights. It wasn’t the proper order of priorities, another of his endless shortcomings, yet he couldn’t banish some concerns from his mind. Reinhard shouldn’t have been so easily manipulated into such a grand promise. He shouldn’t have accepted the breach of conduct and brought the girl into the royal selection either, even at the request of Felt-sama.

“I mean, why might he be that way.” Felix clarified.

Julius paused his steps. Indeed, he never actually stopped to consider where the source of his suspicions may be rooted. What at all charming could possibly be found in such a crass girl that treats her life like a joke and tries to act chummy with everyone regardless of—

“Juli?” Felix called with a surprised tone, as Julius raised his gloved hand before his eyes. “Did you just figure out something?”

“Only another shortcoming I should have addressed long ago.” Julius sighed, ashamed more than ever of the tinge of fear he could never banish from his heart in regards to the kingdom’s greatest weapon. “Excuse me for holding you.” he added, lowering his hand and continuing out of the building.

“You’re really pulling an old man Wil on me, aren’t you?” Felix asked, crossing her arms as Julius passed before her out into the daylight.

‘Heavens help the kingdom.’ is all Julius could offer up in prayer.

Chapter Text

The sun hung high above the western districts of the capital, as the blazing red haired knight made his way through the paths of the lower quarters, hardly even recognizable as streets. His original destination had been the site of the house where Rom-san had operated his questionable business, and where Reinhard himself had the fated fortune to encounter the young woman to whom he’d dedicate himself above all others. However, what he sought wasn’t there, leaving him to wander for a short time in search of his quarry.

Taking in the sad sights of the lower quarter made him recall harsh words spoken by another a day prior. He of course knew even then, that behind the tone that many would describe insolent, there was truth. Seeing it first hand once more, brought him no revelation. Yet there were wrongs that were not his place to right. His place was only to grant his powers to the kingdom and its rightful rulers to use as they saw fit. This much he had to be content with.

Echoing through the air came a few strange erratic sounds. They were like plucks at the strings of a lyulyre, something he had a chance to hear many times before, though somewhat different, somewhat deeper. Turning towards the source of the distant sounds, occasionally building into a short melody, perhaps caught by fancy more than determination, he walked to seek it out.

There, in the distance as he passed by the crooked, likely abandoned houses dotting this indeed lowest quarters of the city, eventually his eyes crossed a field of blessed, familiar yellow. A large patch of flowers bearing a near perfect match to the colour of Felt-sama’s hair, besides which rested a set of truly ancient looking ruins, where sat a young woman on a partially collapsed section of the wall, a lyulyre-like but larger instrument freshly rested against it beside her.

With the same, unique black, white and orange clothes, scruffy yet delightful black locks and familiar, pleasing voice befitting a minstrel coming through even the sound of heartbreaking sobs, it was obvious who it was, even with her back to the knight and her face buried in her hands.

“Subaru.” Reinhard spoke softly, reaching under his white jacket into an inner pocket after having silently moved a few steps behind her.

In a startled shake, the girl perked up, nearly slipping off the bricks constituting her seat, but catching herself before he’d have had to intervene.

“Whu— huh—?!” she mumbled in confusion, quickly turning back, standing up halfway before her eyes wandered to the white cloth Reinhard extended to her. “That’s— You’re—?”

Subaru stared at the handkerchief with an infectious confusion, her face quickly blushing to match her eyes. As much as some regarded him as a person who can handle any situation, Reinhard knew that there were a great number of things in which he lacked. Knowing how to properly act in such a moment, doubtlessly born of his own failings the day prior, was one of them. If anyone, it would be of course Julius who’d much better fit these expectations, truly being the ‘Finest Knight’ in many regards, though his actions as well yesterday left Reinhard with pause.

“Thanks…” Subaru muttered out, finally accepting the cloth and sitting back down, once more turning her back to Reinhard.

Letting the girl dry her tears, Reinhard stood there behind her, allowing himself a sorrowful expression for a time, before adopting the necessary smile looking out to the field before them.

“Do you like flowers?” he asked simply, as Subaru’s sniffling subsided, hoping to lighten her mood with a pleasant distraction.

The girl’s body tensed up, not at the utterance of the question, but a few moments after, then she turned her head up to the knight with an expression mixing confusion and disbelief. After a few moments of examining his face, her drooping face adopted a small smile and she turned back to the flowers, chuckling lightly, the handkerchief against her mouth.

“Yes.” she said, hanging her head a bit. “I like flowers.”

“Have I said something amusing?” Reinhard asked in surprise.

“No.” Subaru shook her head. “It just reminded me of when we first— Ah nevermind, let’s call it deja vu .”

Deja vu? ” Reinhard repeated.

“Right. It’s one of the words where I come from to describe when you uh, feel like you’re doing something for the second time, even though you probably never did it before.” she explained. “It probably doesn’t mean anything to you, don’t worry about it.”

“Actually, I think I understand what you mean.” Reinhard said ponderously, to which strangely the girl tensed up again. “Though I’ve wandered the capital a great deal, so there are few places that wouldn’t invoke a sense of familiarity.” he added, to which her shoulders slouched down once more.

“Yeah. I guess.” she trailed, sounding a bit disappointed. After pausing for a moment, she took a deep breath and turned back towards Reinhard. “So uh, on the prowl for some criminals, or...?” she asked, her still red eyes meeting with him for a moment, but quickly averting themselves down to his uniform.

“Ah, of course.” Reinhard nodded, switching to a more solemn expression. “As it happens, I was actually searching for you. Rem-san at Crusch-sama’s estate said you wished to visit the place where that incident happened.”

Subaru’s mouth came very slightly agape in a flash of fear, but then she hung her head.

“It’s because of what I said, isn’t it? Some noble spoke up, so I’m not welcome in the capital anymore either, or something like that?”

Furrowing his brows, Reinhard crouched down so they are closer to eye level.

“That had already been settled, even if not in the best possible fashion. You have my deepest apologies for my inability to resolve it all peacefully.”

Subaru’s expression grew sour, and she turned her head back to the field once more.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I specifically told you it wasn’t your problem.” she mumbled.

“That may be so, however, it was still my responsibility to bridge the gap between you and Julius, and I’ve failed in doing so.” Reinhard sighed.

“Your responsibility?” Subaru repeated, shaking her head. “You take this knight business way too seriously. You don’t need to solve every problem yourself.”

Hanging his head with a small smile, Reinhard took a deep breath, enjoying the sweet scents present in this serene locale.

“That is very kind of you to say, Subaru.” he said standing up. “Though I should note that this particular responsibility has little to do with knighthood.”

“Then why would it be your responsibility?” Subaru sighed. “Wait, let me guess, you’re also the bailiff of this city or something?” she added, staring out to the flowers.

“No.” Reinhard said, taking the liberty to step closer to the wall, beside the girl, his tone growing sorrowful once more. “It’s simply that as both your friend, I should have found a way to make you better understand each other. Perhaps then that ugliness on the parade grounds could have been avoided.”

Subaru didn’ answer right away, seemingly frozen in thought, and when she did, she did so in a rather unexpected way, as was common with her.

“Both our friend?” she repeated with uncertainty. “So—?” she cut herself off, looking down at her feet.

“Did I say something wrong?” Reinhard asked earnestly.

“No, I mean—” she mumbled, then hunching forward and scruffing up her hair with one hand. “Did you mean we’re friends?” she asked.

“Of course.” Reinhard answered simply, puzzled by the question. “Am I mistaken?”

Subaru’s head darted up and she looked him in the eye suddenly, before once more averting her gaze.

“No! It’s not that—” Obviously lost for words she hunched back down and twiddled her thumbs. “You’ve clearly done a lot for me, and I’m really thankful, but I don’t know if you’d really want—” Choking up slightly, she hunched further down. “You’d want to be friends with— I’m not…”

Burying her face back in her hands, Subaru’s body trembled with pain even Reinhard could tell wasn’t rooted in the many scars she had by now collected.

While Reinhard wasn’t the kind of person to partake in such simple and direct displays of misery himself, the claim that no part of him retained an understanding of what the girl seemed to be experiencing, would have been a bold-faced lie.

“May I sit?” Reinhard asked, gesturing at another seat high portion of the collapsed wall a few steps away from Subaru’s perch.

“You have more right to be here than me.” Subaru mumbled.

Simply sighing at the woeful declaration, Reinhard stepped over the wall and sat down, carefully setting his blade by his side in a fashion akin to the strange instrument propped to the wall besides the girl.

“Do you have—” he began, reconsidering the best word for a moment. “Regrets?”

Subaru didn’t answer, just moved her hands to the back of her head and lowered her elbows before her face. Reinhard of course had learned some of what had transpired even after the duel, but seeing its effects on the girl was something else.

“Part of why I have come here is to give my apologies for allowing the situation to escalate the way it had.” Reinhard noted, looking out onto the field. “So, while I am grateful, that being the good person that you are, you wish not to place responsibility with me; I—”

“I’m not a good person.” Subaru spoke, interrupting Reinhard’s words.

The knight paused, for once, caught off guard.

“Why would you say so?” Reinhard asked.

Subaru lowered her arms to her shoulders and shuddered, lifting her feet up against the section of the wall she was sitting on.

“You don’t know what I’m like.” she said. “No one had seen what—” she stopped and hung her head into her crossing arms.

Reinhard closed his eyes and thought for a moment. Of the duel yesterday, Felt-sama and of course all that he saw and heard of the girl thus far.

“It may be that Subaru has done many disreputable things of which I am not aware.” Reinhard nodded solemnly. “This in part is why I cannot offer anything as simple as ‘I understand how you feel’. And yet, I cannot accept your assertion that Natsuki Subaru is not a good person.” he declared. “I have spoken of my reasons for this yesterday, and they haven’t changed.”

“Because I happened to be in the right place at the right time?” Subaru asked, her voice trembling once more. “What would you think, if I said everything good I did was just dumb luck?”

“Luck does not make one shield another with their body. Luck does not, as I’m told, make one venture into a forest infested by mabeasts to save a friend.” Reinhard answered.

There was a quality that Reinhard struggled to put into words. A quality he wasn’t certain he had seen before in these exact terms before. Fearless would be a terrible way of putting it. Having seen Subaru speak in the throne room, accept Julius’ challenge and then face him, it was clear that the girl had more than her share of fear. However, somehow, more than anyone else, she tended to be at peace. She also wasn’t carefree, not truly. Her current state was proof enough of that. ‘Brave’ would also perhaps have been an overstatement. In almost all things, Natsuki Subaru was an ordinary person. No doubt by some people’s count, even less. Yet, momentary lapses aside, she clearly fought tooth and nail for what she believed was right, with a primal desperation. And when not in conflict, there was a sense of peace in her that felt unique.

He couldn’t say why, but the memory of her holding a carved ringa up and comparing it to his hair flashed through his mind.

“You think too much of me.” Subaru muttered, almost to herself. “I’m an awful friend… You hadn’t heard things I said. What I did… I couldn’t even do what she asked.”

“Are you referring to Emilia-sama?” Reinhard asked, to which Subaru gave him a miserable look. “Forgive me, I was told just a little of what transpired after the duel.” Reinhard said, bowing his head. “I will not ask you to recall it, however there’s two things in regards to that, I feel I should speak on.” he declared, turning more towards the young woman. “First of all, as I spoke briefly with Rem-san earlier today, I had a chance to reflect on what you’ve said in the carriage of your troubled history.”

Subaru flinched at Reinhard recalling the uneasy topic.

“Keeping to Subaru’s wishes, of course I haven’t raised any issues on it, however it does serve as an example. Was Rem-san and Subaru’s relationship far worse once than that with Emilia-sama now? In spite of that, it was impossible to not sense the great wealth of affection Rem-san now holds for Subaru.” Reinhard explained.

“In a few days, it won’t matter.” Subaru sighed, her body trembling once more. “Once I’m healed, she’ll have to return to the mansion, but I can’t.”

“Perhaps not right away.” Reinhard nodded with a frown. “However, having been witness to Emilia-sama’s wonderful spirit, I am certain that she is not one to hold onto dark feelings. If she’s given time, and if you seek her out to apologise in earnest, I have no doubt all this can be resolved.”

Subaru digested his words for a time, finally lowering her legs from the side of the wall to the ground, her posture loosening.

“I don’t know where I’d begin.” she muttered.

“I have faith that the right words will reveal themselves.” Reinhard said, encouragingly, to which more tension seemed to lift from her. “As a matter of fact, I would extend the same sentiment to Julius.”

Subaru whose tension and worries seemed to ease so far now turned her head and looked at Reinhard with an icy stare.

“No.” she declared, maintaining her eyes on the knight longer than before so far, but once more invariably turning back to the field. “Not that— Not him.”

Reinhard sighed. “I admit, Julius’ actions have given me pause as well, however he is a knight first and foremost, before everything else.” he stated. “It may be hard to hear, but I am certain he acted as he felt most appropriate. If only the two of you grant each other—”

“Not. Him.” Subaru hissed.

“I see.” Reinhard nodded with a frown. “Perhaps I was wrong to try and force it with the pain still so fresh in memory.”

The girl didn’t answer at first, so a short silence fell on their conversation.

“Thanks for coming out here into the slums.” Subaru spoke eventually. “You’re probably really busy, and this is hardly the place for a knight.”

“I would like to avoid balancing my duties and my friends as opposing forces, and I’m not certain there is a limitation on what can be considered a place for a knight.” Reinhard answered with a smile. “If anything, as Felt-sama’s former home, I think of this place with deep fondness.”

“Even with the dirty water and poor people?” Subaru asked bitterly.

Recalling Subaru’s words before, Reinhard nodded. “I won’t deny that this place is a poor reflection of what the kingdom could and perhaps should be, however, that is why I hope that Felt-sama will become queen. More than anyone, I believe she will work to improve things for all citizens.”

Pausing for a while before answering, Subaru turned halfway towards Reinhard before speaking. “So, I’m not apologizing to that guy, but— Well, I meant pretty much all the things I said about knights, so I can’t, even if I wanted to.” she said, trailing off on a random thought, scratching her cheek. “I guess what I’m trying to say is, I didn’t mean it about every knight, so…” she trailed off looking incredibly uncomfortable. “Sorry.”

Reinhard thought for a brief moment. “I am not certain that qualifies as an apology, considering whom the hurt parties were, but regardless, I appreciate the sentiment.” Since Subaru simply fidgeted in response, Reinhard continued. “Also, as I’ve stated, there were two things I wished to note about the aftermath of the duel.” he said, slightly tener, not wishing to agitate the girl. It did not please him in the least to see her in that state earlier. “Felt-sama had given me a request.”

“Huh?” Subaru asked, perking up with a tense, confused voice. “Felt did?”

“Yes.” Reinhard nodded with a frown. “I would rather not recount her exact wording but—”

‘You know that imbecil is just going to get herself killed in a week if left alone, right?’ echoed in Reinhard.

“—she had asked that since Subaru’s primary craft is housekeeping—”

‘How long do you think someone can last outside a fancy place like the noble district if all they can do is whack around feathers on a stick for hours and pamper rich assholes? And let’s not even pretend she’ll become a bard when she doesn’t know a single popular song or how to read those music book things.’

“—it would be for the best if I secured employment for you.” Reinhard finished, Subaru’s eyes going wide. “If you so wish, I’m certain there would be work at my father’s estate.”

For some unknown reason, the girl’s face began to blush heavily and she turned away, puzzling the knight once more with her tendency of giving the strangest reactions to the simplest things.

“Would that be of interest?” Reinhard probed.

“Ah, uh, maybe?” Subaru stuttered out. “I mean I’m kind of between jobs now so, ha, yeah, I’d need to, uh, think about it?” she continued quickly, turning her head completely away.

“Very well.” Reinhard nodded. “With that settled, I believe I’ve seen to both issues I’ve come to settle.”

In truth, all he came to do was simply apologise for his inability to resolve yesterday’s conflict amicably, and to clarify if Subaru would indeed be interested in work at House Astrea as per Felt-sama’s insistence.

‘Don’t even pretend you wouldn’t like that.’ the young candidate said, though her tone seemed oddly cheeky for someone pointing out Reinhard’s admitted admiration for the girl that repeatedly risked life and limb well beyond the call of duty.

The rest of the conversation he didn’t plan on, he simply found himself unable to not engage Subaru until her dark mood that disturbed something in him subsided.

So, with everything settled— It was odd that he found himself reconsidering his schedule for the day.

“I—” Reinhard began with a certainty quite alien to his daily conduct. “I’m wondering if perhaps it would be better not to leave you here, Subaru. As I understand, this is your fourth day in the capital total, and you’ve somehow found yourself in as many fights as well. And the lower quarters are far from the safest part of the capital.” he said, standing up.

“Oh.” Subaru muttered, still blushing that strange blush. “I mean, uh, I’ve got the—” she began, tapping at her back then putting on a squirming expression. “I think I forgot the sword home.” she muttered.

“In that case, should I accompany you back to the Karsten estate? I’ve only some light tasks to conduct before I depart in the evening.”

“Depart?” Subaru repeated.

“Ah, yes, I hadn’t mentioned.” Reinhard noted. “While Felt-sama had returned to the Roswaal estate yesterday evening, with Felt-sama now well and truly in the Royal Selection ‘til the end, there are a lot of arrangements I’ll have to attend to at my family estate, as we’ll need to give her our fullest support. To that end, I’ll be departing to the southeast this evening.”

“Ah, wait, so then that job offers’ gone if I don’t take it now?” Subaru asked.

“Not at all. My family owns a small manor in the noble quarters.” Reinhard stated. “Should be easy to locate, especially with Felix’s help. I’ll leave a word with the staff there to give you transportation if you so need it.”

Subaru looked away, rubbing her cheek nervously. “Wow, you really thought this out didn’t you?”

“Naturally. It was Felt-sama’s request after all.” Reinhard nodded.

“Right, right.” Subaru nodded, looking a little bitter for a moment before furrowing her brows and shaking her head. “Yeah, actually, after five— I mean three different mugging attempts, I am feeling a bit naked without— Uh, not naked. Defense—” Subaru grabbed her head in one hand over her eyes, pinching her face between her thumb and middle finger before finishing in a monotone tone. “I don’t feel as strongly about wandering by myself without that knife.”

“Then it will be my pleasure to escort Subaru home.” Reinhard said with a truly content smile, affixing the sheath of his sword back onto his belt, before taking a few steps towards the flowers and picking up a handful, organizing them into a pleasant looking bunch.

“Uh, what are you doing there?” Subaru asked awkwardly while standing up as well, picking up the strange instrument she hadn’t touched since the start of their conversation.

“These flowers remind me of Felt-sama’s beautiful hair.” Reinhard noted. “I thought perhaps I could take a few and place them in a vase back home.” he explained, straightening himself up and turning to the girl who seemed once more strangely flustered.

“Ah, right, okay. I just thought you might have—” Flinching, Subaru derailed her own words. “Nevermind. Why did I even—?” she added in a mutter, looking away, that inexplicable blush returning once more.

“Is something wrong?” Reinhard asked, hoping to help.

“Nah, nah. Actually, I was just thinking the same thing. About the flowers. And Felt’s hair.” she said, nodding wildly, not looking at Reinhard at all.

Furrowing his brows, Reinhard struggled to decipher this strange behaviour, until the obvious hit him.

“Of course, you’d like to take some home as well.” he nodded with a knowing smile. “Well, no point in getting two pairs of hands dirty, so you may have these.” he added, holding the small bouquet of beautiful yellow flowers to the blushing girl.

“Wait, wait, wait, I think you misunderstood! That’s way too much for me!” she protested, staring down at the flowers, boxed between Reinhard and the low wall.

Utterly lost now for a moment, Reinhard continued to tussle with the girl’s odd line of thoughts before once more nodding.

“I see. You must have meant only one, to wear as decoration.” he stated, coming to the only possible conclusion, and taking one particularly vibrant flower out from the bunch and holding it to Subaru who once more fidgeted with a flustered look.

“I— I appreciate the gesture, but there’s not even anywhere on these clothes to put it!” she said. Indeed, the strange foreign clothes she was wearing didn’t have any obvious places to put a flower, like button holes near the lapel or the sort.

“Hm, that is an issue.” Reinhard nodded, giving the problem due consideration before realizing the clear solution. “This should work.” he said simply, turning the flower in his hand so its stalk pointed at Subaru, tearing down most of said stalk with his fingers, and then pushing the flower forward and up, while the girl flinched and closed her eyes.

At times, in fact, almost all times, it seemed next to impossible to decipher what was really going on in the poor, gentle girl’s head, but Reinhard decided not to worry about that for a moment on an unusual whim. Instead, he took a step back and examined his good work.

“There. I think you look marvelous.” Reinhard complimented.

The dark haired girl with a spot of bright yellow just above her left ear gave a long, uncomfortable ‘aaaaaaah’ that remained a mystery to Reinhard but did nothing to spoil the deeply pleasing sight.

Chapter Text

Reaching the Karsten manor, Reinhard and Subaru found two women waiting at the gate. Felix, and Rem-san, they had been expecting Subaru’s return for her treatment to begin. Apparently Wilhelm had returned from Roswaal’s estate with some of Subaru’s belongings, including something Subaru called a metia. She did not appear happy, hearing that Emilia-sama elected to send her items away from the manor, and quickly headed inside in the blue haired maid’s company.

Reinhard reflected on the briefest of exchanges they shared on the way to the noble district, in which he asked if Subaru actually intended to become Emilia-sama’s knight. The girl didn’t seem in the mood to talk about it, quickly dismissing the topic after the non-committal answer of ‘I don’t know’.

“Did you enjoy your little walk?” Felix asked with a sly expression, interrupting Reinhard’s thoughts as the manor’s distant front door closed behind Subaru and Rem-san.

“It’s always pleasant to venture through the capital.” Reinhard answered with an honest smile.

“That’s—” Felix frowned, clicking her tongue then sighing with a glance at the flowers in Reinhard’s hands. “You know what, I’ll just ask it: What do you think of that girl?” she asked, furrowing her brows.

“Natsuki Subaru?” Reinhard asked, surprised by the knightess’ curiosity. “Ah.” he nodded. Clearly she was wondering since they’ll need to be together for a few days for Subaru’s treatment. “I do not think you should worry about her acting with hostility.” he began. “While indeed her words at the royal selection were quite harsh, she told me that she doesn’t share the same sentiments towards every knight. I also believe she had, if nothing else, come to regret voicing her feelings in such harsh terms.”

“That’s also not—” Felix huffed, shaking her head, before her ears perked. “Hold on, she told you she doesn’t hate every knight?”

“Yes, she said so.” Reinhard nodded.

“She came out and said this to you personally?” she continued.

“Yes?” It was Reinhard’s turn to furrow his brows. This line of questions didn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Felix rubbed her forehead.

“I’m honyestly starting to wonder if I’m going mad, listening to you.” Felix muttered before looking up. “You really don’t get that there’s…” She didn’t finish her thoughts, instead holding up her hands and waved them at each other while giving a suggestive glare to Reinhard, her head tilted forward and to the side a bit.

“I’m afraid I am not familiar with this gesture.” Reinhard stated, mimicking the hand sign.

Felix’s tail violently smacked from right to left behind her two or three times, her ears flipped back, looking annoyed.

“Think for a minute. Is there really nothing you feel is weird with you two?” she demanded.

Reinhard lowered his hands and looked at Felix with concern. It was clear that she was trying to communicate something, and while perhaps a bit flippant for her station, he never knew Felix to lack insight. So what was she—?

“Now that you mention it…” Reinhard began, a thought coming to the forefront of his mind. “Subaru did seem to act a little strange on occasion, ever since she returned to the capital.”

“Since then, huh?” Felix nodded, with a still annoyed expression, her brows furrowing further. “Ever since you got down on one knee before her and proceeded to hand her the knife that nearly killed her maybe?”

Reinhard raised a hand to his chin in thought.

“Yes, she did seem particularly flustered about that.” he pondered. “Do you think it was perhaps an inappropriate gift? She seemed upset earlier when she realized she forgot it at home.”

“Let me saaay, that it was probably not what she was expecting .” Felix emphasised, looking to Reinhard with expectation.

“Considering she was unconscious when the blade was retrieved, I don’t see how she could have been expecting it.” Reinhard noted, trying earnestly to get to the bottom of this conundrum. “Although, come to think of it, perhaps she could have. I recall Emilia-sama removed the blade from the doorframe where it pinned Subaru so she may heal her, tossing it aside. That’s when the assassin retrieved it, until I took it from her once more. So when Subaru had begun to lose consciousness, it was not with the assassin.”

Turning his gaze back to Felix from the manor where his eyes wandered in search of the girl. The knightess covered her face in one palm of her hands, shaking her head, before removing the hand and putting on a strange grin.

“Alright, you know what? I’ll let you in on a little secret. Just don’t tell anyone I told you, because it would be quite embarrassing for you.” Felix began, the sly grin sticking to her face.

“Embarrassing?” Reinhard repeated.

“Indeed! A knight and your age! Not to knyow these things! Shameful!” Felix chuckled a bit, shaking her head, then straightening herself out. “Now, I’m sure even you know all the popular children’s stories where valiant knights go save damsels in distress, right?”

“Naturally.” Reinhard nodded. He never put much stock in those stories since they were largely just fanciful little tales meant to entertain, hardly anything to reflect on deeply. Though given Felix’s words, perhaps he was wrong?

“Aaaaand, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that you’ve saved Subaru-nyan, right?” Felix probed, tilting her head forward.

“I believe more of the credit in that regard is on Emilia-sama’s talents.” Reinhard noted.

But you were the only knight on the scene, helping save her!” Felix declared, her previous look of annoyance flashing through her face. “Which myeans, that as a knight, you saved her. Correct?”

“I suppose that is true, technically.” Reinhard nodded.

“Good!” Felix exclaimed. “Nyow that we’re on the right page…” she trailed off, stopping. She briefly looked away, covering her mouth with her hand with a look of uncertainty, before shaking her head and looking back with the same grin but also flushed cheeks. “So, you know what happens at the end of all those stories?”

Reinhard furrowed his brows. “I recall most of them involve some feast held in the knight’s honour, though I hardly—”

“Oh you impossible—” Felix huffed, waving her hands in the air. “ The knight kisses the damsel!

Reinhard raised his brows in surprise.

“I do not understand where you are going with this, Felix.” Reinhard admitted.

“Of course you don’t.” Felix said, shaking her head, taking a deep breath, her blush and grin growing stronger both. “You see, that’s actually a part of knightly tradition!”

“It is?” Reinhard asked, genuinely astonished at the claim. He had never considered or had been told of any such thing. “I find this hard to believe.”

“Ah well, you see, it’s as they say.” Felix said. “A gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell.” she quoted an old idiom. “All the knights follow it of course, they just don’t talk about it! Yes! If a knight saves a woman’s life, then proper courtesy dictates—” she choked up on a chuckle as she was talking, then stepped closer to Reinhard. “It dictates—” she choked once more, shaking her head. “Sorry, it’s uh, how silly it is that I have to be the one to teach you! Nyahah, that’s why.” she laughed.

Something about the knightess’ behaviour was off. Reinhard couldn’t help but feel that there was something going on here that he wasn’t understanding, but this wouldn’t be the first time that a friend had to explain to him certain customs that he never picked up on due to dedicating so much of his time to his duties since childhood.

“Anyway, courtesy dictates that the knight looks the damsel in the eyes.” Felix continued, looking Reinhard in the eyes. “Then he places a hand on her cheek like so.” Here, she raised her right hand and caressed Reinhard’s cheek and jaw. “And then, he leans in and mwah!” she declared, leaning forward, but finishing with a kiss in the air, stepping back as she did so, before breaking into another set of chuckles.

“This seems rather unusual. Are you quite certain? Have you ever done this?” Reinhard asked.

“Oh, no not me.” Felix said, continuing to chuckle, hunched forward, one hand on her gut, another waving in the air. “This is for male knights and female damsels only. You’re supposed to do it for the women you saved, you lunk! What did you think she was expecting when you reunited?!”

“Ah.” Reinhard said, his eyes lighting up. “So what she had expected when we reunited was a kiss?”

“Well, it sure wasn’t the knife that cut off her arm!” Felix laughed.

Reinhard placed a hand on his chin once more, reconsidering Subaru’s behaviour. It was true that she acted strange around him sometimes, though there didn’t seem to be much of a pattern to it. However, she did definitely seem slightly upset when Reinhard gave her the blade, which does suggest either that she didn’t like it, or that she was expecting something different. Since she had meant to carry it with herself today, presumably it isn’t that she disapproved of the gift, so as unlikely as it seemed, Felix’s assertion seemed to have followed logic. Which means that in his ignorance, he had managed to shirk his duties once more. It would even make sense that her strange, flustered behaviour is rooted in knowing that Reinhard was failing in his duties, however not knowing whether it is appropriate for her to correct him. The selection outburst aside, it didn’t seem like she would try and tell others how to go about their own business.

Glancing towards the manor, he considered whether it would be appropriate to amend his mistake right now, however given that they had just given farewell, it would likely not have been appropriate until their next meeting. Looking back to the laughing knightess so amused by Reinhard’s evident ignorance on proper etiquette, an old memory of a certain conflict they both participated in flashed through his mind.

“Felix.” Reinhard spoke.

Trying to hold back her laughter, the knightess straightened out and looked up at him. “Yes?” she asked, with a small tear in her eye.

Instead of speaking, Reinhard moved the flowers from his right hand to the left, then raised his right hand and placed it against the knightess’ cheek as she showed and began to lean in.

Nyah?! ” Felix yelled, jumping back before their lips would touch. “What are you doing?!” she demanded with a shocked expression, her tail standing tall, its fur fuzzed from top to bottom.

“Don’t you recall when—” Reinhard began, but was quickly cut off.

“No, nyo, no!” Felix protested, her face beet read by now. “I’m a knight too, that doesn’t count!” she said quickly. “Wait, you myight actually— Uh—” Felix averted her eyes and covered her face with a hand, her tail curling around her waist. “Uh, knights and people of higher standing dony’t count. So uh, don’t try that ony Emilia or Felt either, okay?” she said, lowering her hand, but clearly upset and confused. “Also nyot strangers.” she added, giving her temple a quick rub. “Myaybe I should just—”

“I believe I understand.” Reinhard noted, with a solemn look.

“You do?” Felix asked, looking very concerned.

“I think so.” Reinhard nodded, raising a hand in an explanatory gesture. “It’s only for friends of similar standing, that aren’t knights. Correct?”

Felix stared at him with an indecipherable expression between shock and concern before covering her eyes with a hand and sighing with finality:

“Yeah, that works. You should be fine sticking to that.” she said. “You know what? Just forget I said anything. It uh, it also doesn’t work after the first reunion, so I really don’t want to hear about you going around kissing women across the capital.” she added. “It— It’s mainly to comfort them when they’re still in distress, so just… Nevermind.”

“I understand.” Reinhard nodded, taking notes deep within on the lesson his compatriot had taught him. “My apologies for the misunderstanding.”

As Felix answered him with a single, uncomfortable humm, Reinhard gazed at the manor one last time, making certain he remembers to properly apologise for this oversight the next time he meets Natsuki Subaru.

Chapter Text

“There, there. You won’t tell anyone about this, will you girl?” Subaru cooed with a half-hearted grin.

It being the second day of her time spent at the spacious Karsten manor in the noble district, Subaru had snuck off by herself to explore a little. She was well and truly a guest in this manor, and unlike Roswaal, the mistress of this house did not offer her a chance to ask for employment. There would have been little point anyway, as she was only welcome for the duration of her treatment, which stretched into a vague time frame somewhere into the future. As such, she was mostly left to do as she pleased, which yesterday meant wandering into the capital to revisit that field of flowers. That is, until she was beset by Reinhard, leading to a conversation she desperately wanted to distract herself from.

Today, as both her treatment and her study session with Rem would not come until the evening, her first thought was practicing on her guitar, though that didn’t help too much yesterday. Plus, last evening while she was getting treated by Felix, that whistling she had in her ear for over a month back at the manor came back, so even when Felix brushed it off with a laugh as nothing to worry about, she didn’t feel that playing her guitar would help things.

Instead, while Rem insisted on preparing today’s study materials, Subaru went to check out the manor itself, wishing to avoid another chance encounter in the capital with perhaps a certain less welcoming knight. This is what led her ultimately to the manor’s stables, where she managed to find that magnificent black land dragon that she encountered a few days before their departure to the capital.

“Gluttonous little thing you are, aren’t you?” Subaru teased as she held up a burlap sack filled with some sort of mixed feed that she found in a side area of the stables that she decided to treat the land dragon with. ‘Little thing’ of course wasn’t even close to the truth. The magnificent creature was likely five times her weight at least, and was taller than her, in spite of having more in length than height.

The clearly intelligent animal paused at the sound of the accusation, though keeping her beak in the sack, turning her eyes at Subaru and giving a disapproving little growl that didn’t feel threatening.

“Sorry, you’re right.” Subaru nodded with a pained smile. “I always say such mean things to everyone who's nice to me. Please forgive me.”

The land dragon huffed into the sack and then continued munching.

Subaru had never really been one to follow the trends expected of her. The mere fact that she loved rock and metal music was a bit out of the ordinary, something that would eventually give her more trouble than it’s worth, proved this. More than that, she never liked most things people would associate with ‘girlyness’. Even just wearing her school uniform had grown annoying to her at a point. The only skirts she ever felt actually comfortable with, were part of the dresses that Rem fixed up for her, and that too was mostly because she understood that the maid went out of her way to make something for her.

However, if there was just one thing that ever captivated her that some would attribute to that most inconsequential part of her being, it was that she liked horses. Well, maybe that wasn’t exactly right. She liked domesticated animals in general, hence her initial blind trust of the puppy found by the children, and why she kept forgiving it for its bites. However, horses were slightly different. There was just something about the fact that there happened to be an animal just the right size, configuration and disposition to serve as a mount for humans. They weren’t just cute little creatures like cats. They weren’t simply loyal companions like dogs. The fact that everything about them down to their bodies’ size and shape made them perfectly compatible with humans made it feel like humanity and horses were somehow fated to be eternal companions. And that isn’t even mentioning the fact that according to some blogs she casually read back home on her computer claimed that horses were single handedly responsible for the rise of several influential civilizations. Though that came after the start of her fascination.

Strong, bold and hardworking, horses seemed like everything admirable. Yet somehow, land dragons, if this blacky beauty was anything to go by, seemed like all of that and more!

‘When am I going to get a little brother or sister?’ Subaru once asked her parents when she was around four.

‘Aw honey.’ her mother cooed. ‘I don’t know if that’s really something that will happen, not for a time at least.’ she said sweetly.

‘Even if not that, maybe we could…’ her father winked.

‘Natsuki Kenichi!’ her mother huffed angrily, straightening up and gesturing at their daughter.

‘I kid, I kid!’ he’d laugh.

‘Then maybe we could get a horse instead?’ Subaru’d ask.

‘Ha!’ her father answered. ‘Maybe someday.’ he said, rubbing her head.

Subaru didn’t know why she remembered that moment so well. She heard about people recalling weird single snippets from their childhood, though apparently a lot of these were just different memories jumbled together.

Right now, all the sudden re-emergence of this memory brought her, was a reminder that the Roswaal mansion isn’t the first home she might have lost for good. More or less two months in this new world, and she was no closer to understanding how she got here, or if she’ll ever be able to go home. Or if yes, if it will even be something she has an option in, or if she’ll just be spirited away again suddenly. Would that be for the best? Even if a voice of pride inside her kept saying that both the loot house and mabeast incident could have turned out much worse, if she hadn’t interfered, the fact of the matter was that in both situations her efforts amounted to little more than ringing an alarm bell. Worse, since she apparently reeked of the witch, there was no way to guarantee that the whole mabeast situation wasn’t her fault, since they are drawn to the witch’s stench. As things stood, perhaps it would be better if she just disappeared from this world like she had her last. Cut off from Emilia and Felt, even her one gruesome ability wouldn’t be of much use in helping them. Besides, as official candidates, they now probably had the full support of the kingdom’s forces.to protect them. What use was she?

A light cawing sound accompanied by a gentle jab against her scalp snapped Subaru back to her senses. The land dragon abandoned what remained in the burlap sack and was rubbing Subaru’s head with its beak.

“Hey, hey, hey!” she called with a tired chuckle. “I appreciate it, but you’re going to get fed all over my hair!” she protested, patting the creature’s beak lightly, with one hand until it retracted its head. “You’re going to blow my cover! They’ll know I snuck in here if they find that stuff on me!”

“I’m afraid the stable’s scent would be plenty enough for that, Subaru-san.” a proud, venerable voice called from one of the large stables’ entrances.

Subaru gasped and jolted up at the familiar voice, dropping the remaining bag of feed to the ground.

“W-Wilhelm-san!” Subaru said, quickly standing at attention, turning to the old man, who stood in the entrance in his fine suit, hands behind his back, one eye closed, the other piercing Subaru through her core.

The gentleman seemed to regard Subaru top to bottom for a moment, before closing the open eyes and taking on a small smile.

“I see. Subaru-san has been fraternizing with an old acquaintance.” he said.

“Ahaaaa, yeah, sort of.” Subaru sighed tensely, not entirely relieved yet. She knew she probably wasn’t allowed in here. There was no ‘staff only’ sign out front or anything, but it was probably common sense that guests wouldn’t wander into the stables. “Just happened across and uh, thought I’d check how the animals are doing?” Subaru asked instead of saying despite her efforts.

“Normally, guests are encouraged not to enter the stables.” Wilhelm said, narrowly opening his eyes, seemingly reading Subaru’s mind. “However, that is mostly for the safety of guests, and it seems this Diana is anything but hostile towards Subaru-san.” he said, evoking once more the land dragon’s category name, that as best Subaru could understand was like ‘Mustang’ refers to a type of horse.

Subaru’s shoulders relaxed a bit. “I probably said this before, but she really is a very kind and smart creature.” Subaru noted, smiling at the land dragon, poking its head out of its enclosure to look at Wilhelm.

“Indeed. And rather well fed too, I see.” Wilhelm noted, turning his head to the animal.

“Reeaaaally sorry about that, I just—” Subaru started quickly, her shoulders shifting back at attention.

“Please do not be concerned.” Wilhelm smiled before shooting a glare at the creature. “She’s the one who should have known not to break her diet. Her lunch and dinner are going to reflect it.”

The land dragon seemed to respond directly to these words with a sad cooing noise, convincing Subaru more and more that she actually understands human speech, though it still could have just been her picking up on gestures and his tone of voice. Naturally, Subaru could have tested it rather easily, or just asked Wilhelm, but doing either right now would have been a bit much. She had made enough of a fool out of herself for a lifetime in the past few days.

“Sorry.” Subaru said to the land dragon, giving her beak a quick caress. “I should probably get out of the stables, shouldn’t I?” she added, looking at Wilhelm who simply bowed his head and stood aside from the entrance. “Yeah.” she sighed.

Stepping through the stable’s door, she heard it close behind her, and soon the venerable gentleman  appeared, walking beside her, not having made a sound even on the coarse ground outside.

“I do not wish to intrude on Subaru-san’s privacy, so please do feel no concern over not answering, however I must ask: Is everything well?” the butler probed, walking with a straight back, next to the slightly slouched girl.

“Yeah, why wouldn’t it be?” lied Subaru.

“I may be mistaken, though it appears to me that Subaru-san is in some measure of distress.” Wilhelm said, without looking at Subaru.

“Right, forgot you’re like a disguised Sherlock Holmes .” Subaru sighed.

Sherlock Holmes? ” dictated back the old man, matching Subaru’s pronunciation perfectly.

“He’s uh…” Subaru started, then rubbed her forehead. “He’s an investigator. Sort of like a law enforcer whose job is to figure out mysteries. Famously good one where I come from.”

“I shall take that as a generous compliment then.” Wilhelm nodded with a content smile. “It does confirm however that Subaru-san is in distress. As Subaru-san is a guest in my mistress’ home, it would be my deepest pleasure to offer whatever I can to aid in this.” he said, pausing briefly. “Though, of course I understand that it is not always possible.”

Subaru breathed deeply. She must truly have been a pathetic person for so many to comfort her. Emilia, Rem, even Ram at a time, old man Rom too, Reinhard, even a beast of burden. And now, the butler. The number of people she’s indebted to with their one way relationships truly would make for a killer murder mystery novel at this rate.

“No, thanks.” Subaru muttered, pulling in her shoulders. “I know I’ve already gotten far more than I’m worth anyway.”

Wilhelm didn’t deny these words, simply asked: “What makes Subaru-san say that?”

“Missed the news?” Subaru asked. “I’m awful… Not only did I start a scene, embarrassing someone who has been nothing but nice to me, but then—” she bit down on the words. “I said she was weak. I told her I thought she was pathetic, and that she can’t do anything on her own.”

Hanging her head, Subaru hated the fact that she now repeated the same accusations. She hated almost as much the idea of even talking about this. If she could, she wanted to just veer off and abandon this conversation, yet  same as yesterday with the knight, she couldn’t bring herself to actually do that, fearing that she’ll just upset yet another person with her ceaseless rude behaviour.

“I take it, this was Emilia-sama.” Wilhelm noted.

Instead of an answer, Subaru simply raised her hands and covered her head.

“If I may be so bold to ask,” the old man continued. “Are these Subaru-san’s honest feelings?”

Pulling her head down and slouching forward, Subaru stopped in her tracks. She could see by the old man’s shadow that he did the same a few steps ahead of her, turning back. This was the worst, cruelest question that anyone could have asked of her now.

“I don’t know.” Subaru muttered out. “They were then, but…”

Subaru couldn’t do something as easy as write her words off as just a bad turn of phrase, or the result of nothing but anger. Honestly, she did resent Emilia’s attitude somewhat since long ago. She understood why Emilia was the way she was. Of course she did. It wouldn’t take a lot of brains to understand why someone who is cursed for no reason would shy away from people. But still. To just take it? To let it be? Accept that people will just hate her, and it is her responsibility to prove them wrong?

That kind of behaviour, that defeatist attitude towards her status carried a far too disgusting and familiar scent.

And yet, she did what Subaru never could, and so much more. Where Subaru turned her back on countless opportunities secured for her by her parents where she abandoned things as simple and open as talent shows out of fear of rejection, Emilia marched into the throne room of a kingdom whose very identity is evidently drenched in the defeat and hatred of the being she’s unfairly equated with. She walked in there, and she held her head high, as long as she could. She spoke clearly. She made her case. And she did this not before a neutral  to apathetic audience, but before countless people she knew hated her very existence.

What right did Subaru have to call her weak?

“I don’t know if she’s weak.” Subaru forced out. “But she’s so much stronger than me.”

“I see.” Wilhelm nodded, his tone betraying no hint of approval or disapproval. “Does that bother Subaru-san?”

‘Are you tired of being weak?’ is what she suspected these words truly meant.

“Yes.” she muttered, lowering her trembling hands and straightening herself out. “I don’t— I wanted to help her.” she said. “I wanted to be by her side and make sure she doesn’t—”

‘—feel alone.’ were the words she couldn’t speak.

“But even if she took me back, all I could do was die and hope things turn out fine.” she added.

“Subaru-san must forgive this old man’s failing memory, however I believed that Subaru-san was Emilia-sama’s favourite bard. Not her warrior or knight.” the old man noted.

“Hah. Yeah.” Subaru sighed painfully. “But— Someone needs to be. Don’t they?” Subaru asked, turning to the old man. “I was there, in that throne room. So many knights. So, so many of them lined up, and not one of them stepped out to offer their sword to her.” she recalled with an ache in her heart. “That cannot be right. If no one else will, if no one else stands by her, because no one believes in her… Then who am I if I don’t do it, after everything she did for me?”

Emilia saved Subaru’s life in the loot house, she helped offer her a home at Roswaal’s manor. In horrible loops, she alone was always there to comfort Subaru, even when Subaru had given up on everything.

“I am not at liberty to speak on most of this matter, both as an outsider, and as someone with very limited understanding of the finer details.” Wilhelm spoke solemnly. “However, if nothing more, I wish to voice that I understand and commend the sentiment . What does she intend to do?” he asked.

“If she’ll let me, I want to set things right with her.” Subaru answered. “At the very least, I don’t want her to think of herself as weak because of me.” As the butler didn’t answer, she continued. “Though if I’m honest, a big part of it is also that I don’t know any other life than the one at that manor. I— I don’t want to leave.”

“Doesn’t Subaru-san consider that rather avaricious?”

“I’m a pretty terrible person, so greed isn’t above me.” Subaru shrugged with a weak smile. “But really, I do want to be better and stronger.”

‘If even she doesn’t need me, no one will.’ her mind followed, though she didn’t voice these words.

“Allow me to once more commend the thoughts.” Wilhelm said, with a sense of bitterness in his tone. “I would only caution that the young lady does not try to force herself. From what I’ve seen before, Subaru-san seemed content being a bard. As noble as it is to dedicate oneself to another, at the cost of losing oneself, it becomes a tragedy.”

“Huh.” Subaru said, looking at the old man. “I guess you’ve got some Solomon in there too.”

“That is good, I trust?” Wilhelm asked.

“Famous ruler, so I’d think so.” Subaru answered with a smile, feeling just a little lighter after the butler’s words.

Honestly she had no idea how well King Solomon would apply to the butler’s words, since while she had him in the ‘people who are considered wise’ folder in her head, the only thing she could dig out was a time when he threatened to cut a baby in half, so she just remained grateful that the old man didn’t ask for details.

“Still.” Subaru noted with a sigh. “I’ve been in… Four or five mugging situations, depending on how you count it, plus, I had to fight a bunch of mabeasts. Twice over two days. Oh, and of course Granhiert, and that bastard knight.” Subaru listed with a sigh. “The only two times out of all of these where I didn’t need someone to save, was one where I managed to run away, and another where the muggers ran away because I had a knife I don’t even know how to use.”

Shaking her head, Subaru considered the honest chances that even if everything goes perfect, what the chances are that she’ll never again get in a fight. They didn’t look too good considering her statistics so far.

“Isn’t it pretty embarrassing that I can’t even defend myself?” she asked, furrowing her brows. “I’m pretty sure everyone I know is an amazing fighter, at least by comparison. Heck, I half expect you to turn out to be some sort of secret warrior servant like Rem and Ram at this point!” she exclaimed only half jokingly. Given the man’s outstanding physique, she absolutely expected him to be at least competent. Same with the way too muscly surfer guy selling appas. No way he isn’t part of some secret underground fight club.

“Ha.” Wilhelm let out a single but genuine gasp of a laugh. “Perhaps I am indeed.” he nodded with a smile before furrowing his brows. “On a more serious note, while I won’t say anything to the effect of it being pointless to learn, as self betterment is a great part of life, I wouldn’t consider it shameful for a young woman to be lacking in that department. While Crusch-sama and some others I hold in the highest regard for their ability, it is only right that not everyone leads that kind of a life. Indeed, the life of a warrior would be empty, if they had no one to protect.” he said solemnly, his eyes wandering off for a moment, before returning to Subaru. “That being said, if Subaru-san is truly concerned about her safety, I believe I could offer some advice.”

“Secret warrior servant?” Subaru probed with a sly smile.

“I was considered a somewhat skilled swordsman in my time.” the old man answered with a humble smile.

Subaru didn’t expect that the old man would do anything as outlandish as give her some magic potion that unlocks her inner potential and turns her into a competent warrior in a few days, or anything to that regard, but between not expecting the next mugging she’s in to be resolved by ‘I have a fancier knife’, and desperately needing something to do, taking the gentle old man on his offer was far, far away from the worst option possible.

“Sure.” Subaru nodded earnestly.

 

Spending the next few brief hours in simple practice against the old man who clearly knew more about combat than he let on, Subaru never once getting a hit on him, though he also landing only the lightest taps on her body like some sort of fencing instructor; there were two thoughts that wouldn’t leave her mind.

First, how will she possibly return to the manor without completely and utterly forsaking her already crumbled and fragile pride?

Second, an infuriated bubbling in the back of her head, as the old man’s clear effort to hold back reminded her of her struggle in the arena.

Chapter Text

“Oooooow.” Subaru groaned, as what she had come to understand as water mana flowed through her body, relieving countless bruises.

Laying in the grass in the Karsten manor’s garden, her head in the lap of the gentle, blue haired maid, Subaru laid, half regretting her preceding challenge.

This morning, much as yesterday, she asked Wilhelm to help her practice a bit of self defence with wooden practice swords. The butler had once more seemed to go very easy on her. Well, not embarrassingly so, he remained untouchable, and when not giving instructions, he was almost constantly tapping Subaru’s arms, legs and even head with his blade. It was quite clear that even with him holding back to just the lightest moves, he was a great, great distance from Subaru.

During the practice, Subaru’s mind wandered, and she replayed all her previous struggles in fights, and ended up demanding something rather foolish. She insisted, against the butler’s own reservations, that he stop holding back. After the duel with Julius, playing with sticks like this felt disingenuous, like the old man was only entertaining her out of pity.

While that assumption wasn’t resolved as either correct or not, when Wilhelm finally conceded to her demand with a sigh, it was soon followed by a lightning-fast barrage of strikes. She could tell that nothing inside her was broken or even cracked, but it was rather clear even before she got back up for three more helpings that when the old man got even a little serious, she stood absolutely no chance whatsoever. Luckily, Rem was near and came to fix Subaru up before Felix became necessary. The knightess apparently was in the city attending to the sick and injured, since as a highly gifted healer who even held some sort of special title called ‘Blue’, she was high sought for her service.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m the only person who isn’t fudging dice .” Subaru sighed.

“What’s that?” Rem asked with a quiet smile, brushing Subaru’s hair aside with one hand, while the other remained on Subaru’s shoulder, channeling mana. Obviously, they haven’t gotten with the oni’s english lessons to a point where Rem could understand niche concepts like fudged dice, which Subaru picked up on an imageboard about tabletop RPGs. Even if Rem knew the meaning of more than a handful of words, Subaru hardly had a way to even begin explaining about those things.

“Cheating, basically.” Subaru answered, her eyes locked onto a nearby tree. Rem simply hummed and placed her other hand on Subaru’s shoulder as well, continuing her treatment.

Part of her enjoyed getting pampered by the maid the same as always, but with her future so uncertain, even that felt wrong. Back at Roswaal’s manor, when all the troubles ended, Subaru made a promise to Rem along the lines of remaining there for her. She didn’t put too much thought into it at the time. She was so high on her victory, it felt sort of obvious that she’ll stick with the people in the manor. She hadn’t even considered too deeply that at the time there was still a chance that both Felt and Subaru would depart after the royal selection meeting.

Normally, she wouldn’t even have been that conscious of this promise, but after Emilia dressed her down, Subaru found herself retracing a couple of promises she made in her time in this new world.

Where Emilia seemed deeply hurt by the fact that Subaru did things that broke her promise, Rem didn’t seem to hold any harsh feelings to Subaru, even though being much more attentive than Subaru, she surely realised that Subaru will be, whether she likes it or not, abandoning her. Most likely, unlike Emilia, Rem never expected Subaru to keep that promise. The black haired girl’s utter incompetence was one giant open secret. Unlike the silver-haired girl, Rem wouldn’t be fooled into thinking Subaru has enough forethought or dignity to make only promises she can keep and then keep them.

“Can’t keep promises, can’t keep a job down, utterly laid out by an old man.” Subaru listed with a sigh. “You must think I’m pretty pathetic, Rem.”

“Very.” Rem nodded, though in her voice and out of the corner of her eye, Subaru could tell the maid smiled as serenely as ever.

“Ow.” Subaru huffed with a pained smile of her own. “A ‘yes’ or affirming, silent nod would have done.”

Her smile fading into a more honest frown, Subaru narrowed, then closed her eyes, accepting the likely well deserved judgement.

“Though honestly, Rem doesn’t think she would have done much better against Wilhelm-san herself.” Rem cooed humbly.

“Nah, there’s no way he would have stood a chance against you.” Subaru said with a little smile. “Rem is too strong.”

“Rem’s not sure if she should take that as a good or a bad thing.” the maid sighed.

“Good. I’m honestly kind of jealous.” Subaru answered honestly. “You really are way too amazing.”

“That is true.” Rem agreed happily. “Though of course, Nee-sama is even more amazing. She could beat Wilhelm-san.”

“Ehhhh.” Subaru sighed, recalling how worn out Ram got fighting a couple of mabeasts. The pink-haired maid definitely packed much more punch than Subaru in a fight with her magic, but if the old man definitely felt like something else. “Why are you even so impressed with him?”

“Oh, Subaru didn’t know?” Rem asked surprised. “Wilhelm-san is the one known as the Sword Devil.”

The title didn’t mean much to Subaru, and since the old man went off to see to his other duties for the day, it’s not like she could ask him either.

“So then, there’s someone called the Sword Saint, and someone called the Sword Devil too?” Subaru asked ponderously with a raised brow. She recalled the sudden shift in tone the old man showed when Subaru brought up Reinhard. “Are they like prodigies of opposite schools of sword fighting or something?”

“That’s not really it.” Rem said, shaking her head. “Although Wilhelm-san did famously defeat the previous Sword Saint.”

“Ah. See? Cheating.” Subaru huffed into Rem’s lap. “Doesn’t this kingdom have a law against false advertising? Having some world class swordsman masquerade as a mild mannered house servant is so disingenuous.”

“Rem doesn’t see the issue, Subaru.” the maid said. “Is it that different from Nee-sama?”

True enough, Subaru had a vague understanding that Ram was going to be the next head of the tribe Rem and Ram are from until some tragedy involving the witch cult. It’s part of why old man Rom refused to fight with them whatsoever in any loop once identifying them, having been friendly with the previous head.

“It’s not exactly the same.” Subaru sighed. “Ram-chi has you there to let everyone know how great she is.”

“This is also true.” Rem nodded contentedly.

A bit of silence fell on their idle conversation. Subaru could feel that most of her bruises and aches had disappeared under the maid’s gentle, attentive care. She didn’t work quite as fast as Felix, but her care was infinitely more welcome.

“Hey, Rem.” Subaru spoke, opening her eyes, and turning her head upright, though not finding the strength to look the maid in the eye. “Do you think if— When I apologise to Emilia, she’ll let me stay at the manor?” she asked.

“That is more a decision for Roswaal-sama…” Rem corrected, her words trailing off for a moment, and her expression looking slightly more tense than usual briefly. “However, Rem thinks so, yes.” she answered finally, her smile returning. “Rem certainly hopes so.”

Even now, the maid continued to give pathetic Subaru her support. She really was so much more than Subaru deserved.

 

                                           

 

“What’s the matter kid? You looked more chipper last time we met.” the surfer looking fruit merchant asked as Subaru and Rem dropped by his store.

It was the early afternoon. After having shaken off the beating Subaru begged out of Wilhelm, she decided she wanted to go check on The Man of the Singing Sword, and maybe get a chance to play that piano. Kadomon Risch’s fruit stand was right on the way, so it seemed only right to drop by again.

“Just got some stuff on my mind.” Subaru said with a wave of her hand, trying to dismiss the storekeeper’s concern.

“If you say so.” the storekeeper shrugged. “So, what can I get you today? I see you’re dressed weird again. I trust that doesn’t mean you’re back to being broke?” he asked, pointing out Subaru’s choice of putting on her old track suit that she hadn’t really used except for her evening exercises for a long time now. Since she was more or less fired from her job as a servant, it didn’t feel right putting on her uniform and the only clothes she had that weren’t the tracksuit or a uniform were dresses Rem made for her, which she didn’t feel comfortable wearing away from the Roswaal manor.

“Nope, I’ve still got plenty, and an appetite to boot!” Subaru grinned, patting the purse in her pocket containing her first and only paycheck.

“The ringas last time were of very fine quality.” Rem complimented the storekeeper.

“Now that’s nice to hear.” Kadomon grinned, putting his chin between a thumb and an index finger, the thumb brushing against the tip of a long scar on his face that while his gruff exterior didn’t fit so much the fact that so far as could be seen, he was a humble storekeeper. “Glad I could please such a beautiful young woman.” he added.

“Down, heel!” Subaru protested with furrowed brows. “I thought you were a married man!”

“That’s exactly why I can call it as I see it.” Kadomon huffed with a bitter frown. “Why shouldn’t a man who is under no threat of being misunderstood give compliments where they’re due?”

“Because that’s exactly the kind of attitude that leads to misunderstandings.” Subaru said, shaking her head.

“Rem is thankful for Risch-san’s kind words.” Rem said with a humble little bow, then stepping closer to Subaru, her shoulder brushing against Subaru’s arm.

“Well anyway, what can—” he cut himself off and suddenly tensed up, beginning to tape his short jacket then moving to his pants before reaching into a pocket. “Damn, I almost forgot. You were one of the kids who found Plum, weren’t you?” he asked, pulling out a little object with a metallic sheen that was made in the shape of a flower. There was something vaguely familiar about it.

“Yeah.” Subaru nodded, partly with confusion, partly with a sense of guilt since of course the other person was Emilia.

“Good. When I told her and my wife that you showed up again, Plum got pretty upset.” he said with a smirk.

“Wha—? Why?” Subaru asked in surprise. What could she have done wrong?

“See, she said one of you used a bit of magic to heal her knee.” Kadomon explained. “She got it in her head that healers ought to be paid for their work, but you both ran off before she could give that girl who was with you her ‘payment’.” he said, holding up the brooch and waving it in his hand. “She wouldn’t leave me be until I promised I would get it to them.” he sighed.

“That’s pretty mature for a young girl like that.” Subaru said, though her mind was slowly swirling with gloomy thoughts about Emilia.

“Thanks, no doubt my wife’s effort.” Kadomon said with a bitter grin. “She said that since I get paid for my work, and healers work too, it’s only right.”

“Sweet kid.” Subaru nodded.

She didn’t remember the girl particularly well. She remembered they had green hair like their father, only lighter, and that she wore a dress, possibly pink, but it’s been such a long time now. It was a wonder that the girl even remembered her and Emilia at all, let alone held onto her perceived responsibility.

“So, before I forget, could I ask you to get it to that girl?” Kadomon asked, holding the brooch towards Subaru, though all she could do was stare at it.

Would she really be the best person to bring it to Emilia? After all the awful things she said to her, it would probably spoil the whole point of the gift.

“Hey, stay with me kid!” Kadomon spoke up, then turned to Rem. “Does she need something when she gets like this?”

“Subaru-kun has simply had some bad experiences recently.” Rem said.

“Right, sorry.” Subaru spoke, reaching out and taking the brooch before stuffing it in a pocket. “I was planning on talking to her when I get a chance, so I’ll get it to her.” Subaru said. “If… If that doesn’t work out, you’ll do it for me, won’t you Rem?”

“Rem thinks Subaru-kun should do it herself.” Rem answered, looking up at her with slightly furrowed brows, probably not liking that Subaru’d pass even something this simple onto her. Clearly there was an invisible limit to just how much sloth even she was willing to put up with from Subaru.

“Okay, I’ll do it then.” Subaru sighed with a weak smile. “But you better be there.”

“Rem would be glad to be where Subaru-kun needs Rem, any time.” Rem beamed, quickly casting off her disapproval.

Raising a tired arm up, Subaru gave the kind maid a little rub on her head, enjoying the texture of her pretty blue hair under her hand. Subaru’s heart was heavy with thoughts of the future. If she isn’t extremely lucky, if Emilia isn’t willing to forgive her, this might be one of the last chances she’ll get to enjoy this pretty hair under her fingers.

“Ahem.” Kadomon cleared his throat. “You know if you’re going to chat at my stand instead of buying, the least you could do is not cut me out of the conversation.” he said bitterly.

“Oh yeah.” Subaru said, shaking her head. “I was going to buy some extra ringas to take to the Sheliaks. But, I don’t know, not really in the mood to go there anymore.”

“So you’re wasting my time again?” Kadomon grouched.

“No, no!” Subaru corrected quickly. “I guess we’ll just go straight home with the ringas, alright, Rem?”

“That is fine.” Rem nodded.

“Alright, then give me… However many fit in two of those big bags! Rem and I will carry one each.” Subaru declared, pointing to a stack of paper bags the shopkeep had ready nearby.

“That could be around twenty ringas, kid.” Kadomon said, raising an eyebrow. “Are you sure?”

“Absolutely!” Subaru grinned.

She burned almost every bridge she had in this world, and she still had next to no concept of money in this world, but the least she could do was help out the guy who at least tried to help her out when she knew no one. Plus, anything she paid him would go to the sweet little girl who thought of Emilia, and that was well worth it.

“Alright, it’s your coin.” Kadomon huffed, grabbing a paper bag and beginning to fill it up.

“Actually, while you’re at it, I was wondering where everyone gets those.” Subaru spoke up, an old thought that flashed through her mind once coming to the forefront.

“Where do I get what?” Kadomon asked.

“The paper bags.” Subaru clarified.

The technological level of this new world was a bit weird. There were a lot of things like the armor worn by guards, the general sword-and-sorcery tone maintained by combat capable people, lack of guns and so on that really painted this world as a medieval era civilization’s home. But then, there was running water in at least noble manors, and certain things that definitely seemed like mass manufactured goods like the disposable paper bags as well as some other minor things she picked up on like bulletin boards placed here and there in the city with paper notices that definitely made it seem like at the very least paper production was industrialised suggesting a more victorian level of technology.

Kadomon’s eyebrows raised.

“If you need more bags, I can give you a few for a copper.” Kadomon answered.

“No, I mean—” Subaru rubbed her forehead and got to thinking on how best to explain her question. “I mean, who makes them? I doubt anyone makes them by hand.”

“Ah, that.” Kadomon said, rubbing his chin. “Right, you mentioned something about being from somewhere far away. I’m pretty sure these are made with one of those magicraft machines from Costuul.” he answered.

“Magicraft?” Subaru repeated.

“Don’t look at me, kid.” he said, holding up two hands. “It’s not my business. I just know about them. Apparently mana powered automatic craftsmen or something like that.”

“Huh, so you do have industry.” Subaru nodded to herself.

Maybe she jumped into this world at the very beginning of its industrial era based on the fact that apparently these things were specifically from Costuul. Come to think of it, Mundi, the owner of The Man of the Singing Sword bar mentioned something about these too.

“These things are pretty rare, huh?” Subaru asked.

“Not the person to ask.” Kadomon shrugged, continuing to pack ringas in the bag. “I heard that some people wanted really badly to figure out how they work. Other than that, the only thing worth saying is that apparently they’re pretty complicated. It was currently the High Sorceress’ father who came up with them.”

“Wait, seriously? Roschi’s dad?” Subaru asked in surprise.

“Ros—? Marquessa Mathers’ father.” Kadomon corrected.

“Huh, did you know that Rem?” Subaru asked.

“Costuul is one the great cities of Lugnica, and it’s in Roswaal-sama’s domain, so naturally.” Rem answered.

Kadomon shrugged at their exchange, grabbing the second bag.

“From what I heard, he was something of a child prodigy. It’s a pretty impressive family. Well, for the most part.” Kadomon noted.

Subaru glanced down at Rem, thinking she might take issue with the comment at the end, but she didn’t seem to mind.

Curiosity overtaking her, she decided to probe. “What makes you say only the most part?”

“Well, you’ll forgive me if I say I don’t mix a lot with nobles.” Kadomon noted. “But each family tends to have a reputation. The Astreas of course are the sword and shield of the realm, descendants of the first Sword Saint. Then there’s the Karstens with that impressive woman at their helm right now on track to be queen. They’ve always stood by the King’s side for generations. Then the Mathers family… They’re eccentric to say the least. At least that’s their reputation.” he explained, as he continued to fill the second bag. “Great men and women mind you! Can’t imagine it was simple inventing those magicraft dohickeys, but the current High Sorceress might have leaned a little too much into the crazy side of her bloodline with what she’s pulling now.”

“Why? What did Roswaal do?” Subaru asked, confused.

“Didn’t you read the announcement on all the billboards about the royal selection?” Kadomon asked, furrowing his brows. “That woman decided to sponsor a silver-haired half-devil to be queen!”

Subaru’s limbs tensed up.

“What did you just call her?” Subaru hissed.

“Who, the candidate?” Kadomon asked, looking up from the bag. “Why are you giving me that look?”

“Take it back!” Subaru commanded with a raised tone, to which she felt Rem’s hand on her arm.

“Subaru-kun.” Rem called, calmingly. Subaru wanted very badly to comply with Rem’s feelings. Half the reason she was in this miserable place was that she lost her temper over the same issue. Still, she couldn’t just leave it be!

“Wait, kid, are you getting mad on the half-devil’s behalf?” Kadomon asked in disbelief.

“Am I?” Subaru said on the border of a shout. “I guess I have something in common with your daughter.” she added, pulling the brooch from her pocket. “Who do you think this is for?!”

“What?” Kadomon asked, narrowing his eyes, looking like he’s trying to think very hard. “Hold on. That was the same girl? Right here, without a single guard or anything?!” he asked, shocked.

No shit, Sherlock! ” she exclaimed in English, knowing no one will understand it anyway, but needing a way to let down her anger. “Where do you get off calling the girl who healed your daughter, that ?!” she demanded.

“Hey, kid calm down.” Kadomon said, holding out his hands. “Fine, I’m sorry, but you don’t want to make a scene about that, especially not now.”

“Why wouldn’t I?” Subaru hissed.

“Do you seriously not realise how on edge people are about the announcement?” Kadomon asked. “You don’t want someone to lose their patience with you.”

“Is that a threat?!”

“It’s an honest warning.” Kadomon said, his facial features tense, but his voice calm. “Again, sorry for offending your friend, but this is a dangerous thing to get vocal about.”

“Subaru-kun, Rem's afraid Risch-san might be right.” Rem said, pulling on Subaru’s jacket’s sleeve.

“You’re sorry?!” Subaru asked, ignoring Rem. “You called Roswaal crazy for even giving her a chance! Do you think she’s not worthy of the throne just because she’s a half-elf?”

Kadomon put his hands on his hips and hung his head with a sigh.

“Whether she’s worthy is besides the point.” he said. “If anything, if she’s one of the few decent half-elves, that just makes it worse.”

“What are you talking about?” Subaru asked, confused by the statement but still angry.

“No matter how you or anyone else feels about it, there’s no way she’ll ever be selected.” Kadomon declared flatly. “Even if Karsten-sama hadn’t proven herself an excellent leader of a loyal family, and that Hoshin woman known for her talents weren’t in the race, a half-elf would never be chosen to rule Lugnica.” he said simply. “Parading her around like this is just cruel.”

The words, while hardly favourable of Emilia calmed the anger in Subaru somewhat. If she was honest, she held similar feelings. If Emilia stood an honest chance at being chosen to be queen, Subaru probably wouldn’t get as mad on her behalf. Yet instead the half-elf really did need all the help she could get. And even that would likely not be enough to achieve her dreams.

“Fine.” Subaru huffed, stuffing the brooch back in her pocket while pulling her coin purse out of another.

“Kid, listen—” Kadomon began, but Subaru turned her head down at the pavement, gritting her teeth.

She probably wasn’t entirely in the right. She flipped out at the Irlam villagers before, then at everyone in the throne room. Neither of these felt like they did much to help.

Digging around in her purse, three silver coins got caught in her fingers. She knew that was a considerable markup, and frankly, even with her otherwise warm feelings for the fruit vendor, she didn’t want to overpay him. At the same time, any extra she gave would still go to Plum. His idiocy aside, at least his daughter was a decent person. The bags also might have had more than twenty ringas in them, and she didn’t want to spend another minute here calculating costs.

“Here.” Subaru said with finality, reaching out the hand with three silvers, and slamming it on the small counter at the top of the fruit stand before grabbing one bag and handing it to Rem before grabbing one herself and grabbing Rem’s wrist. “Good day.” she declared and left the stand with hurried steps, maid in hand.

As Kadomon called after her saying it was ‘too much’, Subaru didn’t care one bit. She just wanted to be gone from there as soon as possible, and know how on earth she’ll deliver the brooch poking her through her pocket to Emilia.

Chapter Text

“Natuski Subaru-san.” a voice called as Subaru was returning to her room from a bath.

The voice sounded familiar, though when she looked at the dark green haired woman on the stairs, it took a moment for her to equate the feminine figure in the fine, dark nightgown with that of the mistress of this manor, who while hardly concealed her beauty behind her military uniform, shared almost nothing visually with the young woman standing on the stairs. Where Subaru had seen her once earlier today fight with Wilhelm in practice like they were a pair of demons, their movements impossible to follow, now she looked almost like a humble otome game protagonist. Albeit given her attire, clearly not one aimed only at women.

“Crusch-san?” Subaru asked a bit dazed, both from the candidate’s looks, her own tiredness, and the general sense of wooziness that filled her for the rest of the day after each of Felix’s healing sessions. The sessions themselves felt less like the gentle, soothing experience Rem had provided her with in the past, and more like Subaru was an endless series of dirty tubes that someone was pouring cleaning fluid through. Though then again, Felix’s treatment was apparently for her ‘gate’, nothing as simple as a few bruises.

“I see you are retiring for the night.” Crush noted, giving Subaru a once over, her hair still a little wet from the bath, Subaru having just got off the same stairs on the second floor where her room was. “Could I take some of your time?”

“Uhm, sure.” Subaru nodded, lowering the tower she was still rubbing her head with to her shoulders. “What can I do for you?”

It was now that she noticed that the platter the woman was balancing on her hand held a couple slices of Rem’s ringa boats on it, in addition to a bottle of what was probably some sort of liquor, a pitcher filled with water and ice, two wine glasses and tongs.

“Nothing much.” Crusch answered. “It’s simply that with Felix having had to make a quick call, I found myself without anyone to converse with this evening. I also realized that in spite of having welcomed you to my home in practice, I’ve neglected to see to us having as much as a single conversation.” she explained.

“I— I mean I’d love to, but I’m not sure I’m much of a conversation partner.” Subaru said, rubbing her neck. “I barely know about anything worth knowing about.”

“That won’t be a problem.” Crusch said, shaking her head, putting on a simple smile. “I assure you, I have no intention of wringing any information out of you, simply to pass the time.”

Subaru wasn’t sure why the woman said that in such a reassuring fashion, since there was no reason to presume she would do that in the first place, but didn’t think much of it.

“I guess then, yeah, I can do that.” Subaru shrugged.

Shortly, the two of them ascended the stairwell to a terrace atop the manor, which given that the noble district was situated atop a tall hill along with the palace, gave a clear view of most of the capital. Subaru couldn’t help but think that this was the kind of view that the daimyos of old would have had, if the couple of old forts she saw on school trips were anything to go by. Well, that but with different architecture. Definitely not a view most commoners would ever get to see.

“Do you drink?” Crusch asked, uncorking the bottle of alcohol once she set the platter down on a table with two chairs set beside it.

“No, thanks.” Subaru said, with a slight shiver running through her as she recalled what Felt had done so long ago. “I had a very bad experience with alcohol.” she said. “By accident. I don’t really— I’m only seventeen.” she added awkwardly, trying to dodge sounding like a delinquent alcoholic.

“I see.” Crusch nodded, pouring liquor only in one of the glasses. “If you like, you may have water.” she added, sitting down, gesturing at the pitcher of water holding cubes of ice.

Not wanting to be rude, Subaru poured herself some water, careful not to spill all the ice into her glass, then as she sat down, Crusch grabbed the tongs and placed a pair of ice cubes in her liquor. Afterwards, Crusch raised the glass towards Subaru as if some sort of toast and Subaru responded by awkwardly clinking her own glass to hers. She had seen this tradition existed in this world too back at Roswaal’s manor, but she still felt a little strange exchanging drinks with a woman who exuded her noble standing so much more than Roswaal ever did.

“You said you were seventeen?” Crusch asked casually, after taking a small sip from her glass. “Rather, you said that in response to drinking. Do seventeen year olds not drink where you’re from?”

“Ah, not really.” Subaru answered. “Well, I guess it depends on—” Remembering that her official story was about being from a small town somewhere, she couldn’t really bring up drinking laws in different countries. “Different families have different values I guess.”

Crusch’s eyes narrowed at her words, and she gently placed her glass on the table.

“Strange, I can’t imagine why you’d excuse such airs of uncertainty and misdirection at such a simple question.” she said, examining Subaru closely.

“I what?” Subaru blurted out.

Crusch frowned for a moment, seemingly considering something before answering. “I don’t wish to spoil this evening with unimportant talk. You simply said that where you’re from, people do not drink at such an age?”

“Not really.” Subaru said, shaking her head, weirded out by Crusch’s reaction. Did she somehow pick up on Subaru’s lie from just a moment’s hesitation?

“When do people start drinking then?” Crusch asked, crossing her fingers while laying back in her chair.

“Well, I personally wouldn’t have been allowed to drink until I was twenty.” Subaru answered.

“Seems like a strict place to grow up.” Crusch nodded, reaching for her glass.

Subaru matched the candidate’s motions and took a sip of her own water, even more nervous about their conversation now that the woman across her had apparent powers to see right through her.

“I should consider myself lucky, I suppose.” Crusch noted, after enjoying another sip. “Considering I’m only going to be turning twenty in a short while.”

While her words weren’t particularly shocking, coupled with everything else, it was just enough to make Subaru choke on her water and spit it right back into the glass.

“Just twenty?” she asked amongst coughs.

“Hm? Do I look much older?” Crusch asked, her eyes opening wide in surprise. Subaru felt as if she actually made the woman concerned.

“No! No!” Subaru said. “Honestly, I just thought you carried yourself really well.” she answered. It wasn’t that Crusch Karsten didn’t look the part of an attractive young woman just turning twenty, it was more— “It’s that I didn’t expect you to be so young, with the way everyone talks about you.”

Subaru hadn’t heard a lot of the woman across the table, but she knew she was functionally leading her whole house, the people in the throne room seemed very impressed with her until she started saying bad things about the covenant, and even Kadomon voiced his appreciation for her, though he didn’t seem the type to get involved in politics much.

“Ah, I see you mean that.” Crusch said with a brief look of relief before smiling a very slightly bitter smile. “I would like to thank you for the compliment, but I hardly believe I can take full credit for the words you may have heard.”

“Hm?” Subaru hummed. “I didn’t actually hear that much, it just seemed like everyone has a lot of respect for you.”

Crusch nodded, her smile slowly being overtaken with more bitterness.

“In that case, I’d ask you to take any rumors you may hear in future with a measure of doubt.” Crusch said. “While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that there are benevolent lies circulating about my accomplishments, I’ve found to great displeasure that a handful of actions I had taken were blown out of proportion. Some stories circulate with simply false details that embellish my actions far above the simple fact that I carried out my duties to expectation.”

Having said that, Crusch reached for one of the ringa slices on the platter and took a bite, gazing out at the city with a difficult to read look of displeasure on her face.

“You sound pretty humble for a candidate.” Subaru noted.

“Hm?” Crusch asked, her mouth still full of ringa.

“I just mean—” Subaru paused and pondered. “Well, I think if anything, someone who is competing to be queen would use any piece of publicity they can to make themselves look better. Meanwhile, you’re sitting here, going out of your way to undersell your own accomplishments.”

“That.” Crusch nodded, turning back her full attention to Subaru. “That would perhaps be the practical way of going about it, however it is simply not something I have any desire to indulge in.” she said. “To be queen, or I suppose I could say any leader, one’s abilities should be of the highest order. I do not believe I am overestimating my abilities, when I say I am fit for the role. Still, it is by proving these abilities, and proving them alone, that I hope to be selected. Not for anything above or below them.”

Subaru didn’t know what to say after such a display. Honestly, the woman before her appeared more knightly than all but one knight Subaru met.

“Don’t you agree?” Crusch asked, raising her glass. “Even if flattering, the words of the masses and the renown they give are not inherent to me. So, they can and will not define how I will perform, or what virtues or lack thereof I can uphold going forward. It’s what I’ll accomplish before the eyes of the nation going forward that should define me, rather than whatever tales have been spun on what I have already done.”

“Do you hate it when people speak highly of you?” Subaru asked, furrowing her brows.

“That is incorrect.” Crusch said, before taking another sip of her drink. “I believe the respect of others is a worthy thing to fight to earn, only on the condition that it is indeed earned. Respect should be given once one had seen another’s worth for themselves. That is simply all I wish, that it is by my true actions that I be judged.”

The woman kept leaving the knights further and further behind with her noble words.

“I guess you… Probably don’t think very highly of bards then, huh?” Subaru chuckled uncomfortably, raising her glass to her mouth. She realized that half the point of the craft she ascribed herself to in medieval settings would be to drum up the heroics of people.

“Some to irk me, I must admit.” Crusch nodded, but then gave a simple smile to Subaru. “Though you shouldn’t be worried on such a matter, unless you intend to weave dishonest songs. I endeavour not to ascribe value to people based on circumstance either.

“Thanks for that.” Subaru responded with a smile of her own after having a sip. “I uh, don’t know if I should say this, but good luck with the royal selection. You sound like you’d make a pretty good ruler.”

Crusch’s eyes opened wide once more, though she didn’t seem as shocked as before.

“You’ll forgive me that as honest as it seems, I find it strange coming from an opponent.” Crusch said. “Or have you already given up on your support for that girl?” she asked, her features tensing a bit.

“It’s not that.” Subaru said, shaking her head. “I definitely still want to support Emilia. I cannot accept her standing alone like she was.” she said honestly. “Even if she won’t take me back, I’d hope she gets all the support she can get, even though I know she probably has little chance.”

“Do not speak so lowly of the one you claim to support.” Crusch said sternly.

“I’m not.” Subaru returned, a strange calm resting in her. “I said some awful things to her, but really, the only shortcoming to speak of isn’t with her, it’s with the kingdom.”

Crusch slowly leaned back in her chair, examining Subaru, giving her a sort of ‘go on’ expression.

“I mean— She’s been working so hard.” Subaru recalled. “Every single day, she studies all sorts of things. Since she’s clearly not a noble, I must assume everything she knows about the kingdom, she learned through sheer effort. Even just walking into that throne room—” Subaru bit down on her words, ashamed of her own weakness in a similar field. “Even I was probably more welcome there, and yet she walked in and spoke so clearly and elegantly.” Subaru continued, staring at her glass. “If that doesn’t mean she has what it takes and more, I don’t know what does. It’s the people who judge her because of stupid superstitions that there’s a problem with.”

Before responding, Crusch left Subaru to her thoughts for a moment, before leaning forward and placing her glass on the table, the cubes of ice clinking together inside.

“First of all, raise your head, Natsuki Subaru.” she commanded. Subaru complied, if only out of surprise. “If you’ve seen the strength and value in how she carried herself, then you’d do well to follow that example. No doubt her path will be a difficult one, but neither her nor your feelings will ever reach people, if you cannot see them. When one speaks their heart’s truth, they must never give it the disrespect and disservice of treating it like a casual remark. Hold your head high, and demand those words to be heard, as she had.”

As she spoke, it was clear in every word and every part of her stern face that she believed this as a core tenet to follow.

“Secondly, while I do not wish to act as if I didn’t have reservations towards her, especially after what you’ve said, I have sympathies for your mistress.” Crusch said with confidence, not breaking her eyes off Subaru’s for a moment. Though her expression softened afterwards. “Between her obvious handicap and my desire to permanently terminate the Covenant, one must wonder just why the dragon’s jewels and the tablet selected five candidates including us.” she said, her tone getting lighter as she spoke. “Though it’s hard to imagine, such a thing must be the will of the Dragon, or some other divine entity. Don’t you agree?”

“Ah, I really don't know about that sort of thing.” Subaru sighed with a smile. The candidate admitted to having her own issues, but her words were so much more than what Subaru had come to expect already that she didn’t mind. “I’ve never been a worshiper type. If there are higher powers, I have no idea what they want.”

Although something had spirited her here to this world from her home, and her ability to go Back in Time had to come from somewhere, she really had no real clue what the point of either was. She had working theories involving protecting the people closest to her, but that’s all they were, theories with no way to confirm them.

“I see.” Crusch nodded without approval or disapproval showing on her face.

“Actually, can I ask something that might sound pretty stupid?” Subaru spoke up, remembering a question she never got a full answer to.

“I don’t see why not, although I might not refrain from indulging the question if it’s something I can’t or shouldn’t answer.” Crusch said, grabbing a slice of ringa.

“I was wondering, how much trouble did the dragon tablet cause?” Subaru began, to which Crusch looked in surprise. “I mean, the thing prophesied that the royal family is going to die since, what, somewhere around four hundred years ago, when the dragon gave it to you? That’s around when he did that right?”

“I understand.” Crusch nodded with a slightly bitter smile. “I’m afraid Subaru-san is under a bit of misunderstanding. The dragon tablet did not reveal all its wisdom from the moment of it being granted to the royal family. Its revelations developed over time.”

“Oh.” Subaru said. “Reinhard didn’t exactly deny it when I asked him so… Yeah, I guess that makes more sense.” Subaru nodded, though Crusch on the other hand perked up a bit at the knight’s mention.

“Reinhard-san?” she repeated then paused for a moment. “If I may, I’d also like to ask something of a strange question.”

“Go ahead?” Subaru asked, clueless about the sudden progression.

“I’ve noticed two days ago, you’ve returned to the manor with Reinhard-san, with a rather beautiful flower—”

Ah that! ” Subaru exclaimed, interrupting the lady of the manor. “Uh, sorry, I think that’s a misunderstanding!” she jabbered. “He picked those, because the colour reminded him of Felt’s hair, and I thought the same, so I got one too, that’s all!” Subaru explained as fast as she could.

Crusch’s eyes narrowed once, followed by an amused look. “I see.” she nodded finally with a sigh. “Yes, I didn’t expect any different, though it’s fine to reaffirm it.”

“Huh?” Subaru blinked.

“Think nothing of it. I’d like to avoid saying anything untoward, curiosity simply got the better of me.” Crusch said, taking yet another sip of her rapidly emptying wine glass. “It was obvious, considering he’s under the same conditions as myself, but I couldn’t help but wonder.”

“Same condition?” Subaru repeated.

“Ah.” Crusch nodded a little bitterly. “I am a Karsten, as he is an Astrea.” she began simply. “While people not in the aristocracy tend to romanticise people of our position, to some degree with good cause, in certain terms he and I are both far less free than the common man and woman.” she said.

“How so?” Subaru asked.

“In the terms that released such powerful airs of frustration and embarrassment from you a moment ago.” smiled Crusch.

“Wha—” As the realization hit her, Subaru’s face began to blush heavily. “No, I didn’t think of anything like that! It’s just it sounded like you were going to say it, so I didn’t want to give the wrong impression!”

Crusch looked at Subaru without speaking for a few moments, then circled her index finger around the top of her wine glass simply saying: “Interesting.” with a difficult to read, neutral expression.

“But then…” Subaru spoke, as she reclaimed a bit of her composure. “You’re saying nothing like that could happen anyway, right?”

“I’m afraid not.” Crusch nodded. “There are certain things that have been decided for both of us at birth.” she said in a slightly tragic tone.

Subaru felt something strange hearing all this, something she couldn’t quite put her finger on. In retrospect, it made sense now how casual the knight had been around her. Maybe it was like when Kadomon hit on Rem, then said he ‘can’t be misunderstood’ since he’s already married. From Reinhard’s point of view, Subaru never was anything other than just someone who happened to be involved in a few incidents and for whom he had friendly feelings, since she couldn’t be anything more. He genuinely thought that really all she was thinking about was getting a few flowers, because nothing else even crossed his mind. In a way, that was really sweet. However, that was the last thing she should have been thinking about.

“So, then he’s been betrothed since he was a baby?” Subaru asked. He was a super good guy, so the thought that he was going to have to marry someone that was picked out for him when he might not even have been potty trained like in some places and time periods, seems awful somehow.

“Why would you—?” Crusch asked, but then simply shook her head. “I understand. Not quite. Nobles aren’t betrothed from birth, but there are some strict expectations, is what I wished to communicate.” she explained. “I for one am currently quite preoccupied with a number of suitors having approached me due to the royal selection.” she added.

“Really?” Subaru asked.

“It is to be expected.” Crusch shrugged. “Many of them, or in some cases, their fathers wish to marry into what they hope or believe to become the royal family in three years. Quite understandable, but not exactly the spurring romantic tale that one grows up hearing told again and again, I must admit.”

“I think I can imagine.” Subaru noted. Never having actually dated anyone, it was a bit weird listening to the possible future queen lament about having too many people pine after her. Though at least part of why Subaru never dated, even before things got… Part of it was that she never felt that anyone who took an interest in her took an interest for the right reasons. That much she could understand. “But if you’re almost twenty, then someone like you must have someone they’re close to, right?”

Crusch was swirling her drink in her hand when Subaru asked this, but stopped as the question was raised, her eyes wandering to the drink thoughtfully.

“Crusch-sama!” Felix’s words rang out from the stairs. “What are you doing spending Felix and Crusch-sama’s precious time with that myalcontent?!” she fumed, seeming genuinely upset as she stormed over to the table. “How much have you drunk?”

“You’re such a worrywart Felix.” Crusch said with a smile and a wave of her hand.

“Worrywart?” Felix repeated with a concerned tone.

“I’ve simply decided that since you were busy, I’d spend a little time with Natsuki Subaru-san, since we never got a chance to talk.” Crusch stated.

“Crusch-sama, you’re really breaking my heart!” Felix complained, stomping her feet like an upset child, ruffling up her fine black suit in the process. “You can’t possibly think that the time Felix and Crusch-sama spend together can be replaced with this, this… Fourth rate minstrel!”

“Hey!” Subaru spoke up. “I don’t think rates even go that low!”

“That is enough teasing, Felix.” Crusch said, straightening herself out in her seat, looking at Subaru. “Thank you for the conversation. I’m afraid, even if there was someone like that, the conditions of the selection make it impossible for candidates to marry until the selection is concluded, so it is far from an urgent or simple matter.” she explained.

“Alright, I get that.” Subaru nodded, choosing not to bring up how the woman had completely dodged her question.

“Well, good night, Natsuki Subaru.” Crusch said, bowing her head, before raising a hand. “Although, one thing I would like to say, before you retire.” she added, as Subaru was about to stand up.

“I hope that you hold to what I instructed of you earlier.” she began. “More than that, I would say that if you truly feel the way you spoke of your mistress, then you set aside terms for such feelings and desires that you seem to have no respect for. If your words on knighthood as ill chosen as they were, were honest, then reconsider how you wish to be of service to her. Search yourself for whatever it is that you can give her. Find something only you can do, and offer that.”

“Something only I can do?” Subaru repeated, a shiver running down her body as she did so.

“Yes, something only you can provide. Then, I’m certain you can become a formidable asset to her.” Crusch nodded. “After what I heard, I do not wish to see you as an insignificant fool.”

“Crusch-sama?” Felix asked, sounding confused by the exchange.

“Yeah, I—” Subaru spoke with uncertainty, distant horrors replaying in her mind, but also every moment in which Emilia showed her limitless kindness, and the look of abject pain that Subaru alone had pulled from her heart. “For her, I think I can do that.” she said, with the first words of real conviction in some time.

Chapter Text

There was a lot on Subaru’s mind.

Yesterday evening after her conversation with Crusch Karsten the mistress of the manor in which’s gardens she was now fruitlessly trying to land blows on her butler, Wilhelm, she stayed up for a long time. The cause wasn’t the muffled distant sound of strangers coming and going downstairs, but her own thoughts.

She had been instructed to find something, the one thing that she alone could provide as support for Emilia. It wasn’t hard to think of it. There was really only one thing noteworthy about Subaru, only one thing that could potentially be of any value, and morbidly enough, it wasn’t even hers. Probably not, anyway. Her ability of unknown source or purpose which she had rechristened as Back in Time to reflect a more optimistic view of its potential, was a fearsome thing. How it worked, why it worked, where it came from or what its exact limitations were, she had no idea of.

Previously, she had assumed it was a sort of checkpoint and extra lives sort of situation, though the more time went on, the more accustomed she grew to the world around her, slotting into what was a very pleasant though ultimately unexceptional life as a servant, the more ridiculous it felt to equate it with a game mechanic. This, even if the world around her was in a lot of aspects very strange.

While she was very much receiving checkpoints and extra lives, there was no telling about either. She didn’t know how many chances she’ll get, when or where she’ll have to start over, or anything of the sort. There was no restart screen, and she couldn’t even ask anyone for help in figuring it out, as just trying to talk about it invoked a terrible effect, where the world around her froze, and a ghostly hand clutched at her heart and very soul, bringing her pain that she wasn’t certain was even physically possible any other way.

Still, this and this alone was what she could offer to anyone. Her music might have been a fun distraction, and she may have grown to take a bit of pride in other work she did in Roswaal’s manor and Irlam, but those things weren’t enough. Couldn’t be enough. Not after the things she had done. Not after nearly getting Emilia killed for selfish reasons. Not after victoriously choking a girl that stayed by her side night after night to ease the terrors that haunted her dreams. She had to do more. She had to be more. There was no life she could imagine living in satisfaction, where she hadn’t repaid them. And yet she was so weak. Her only use, her only chance being to face challenges in a way no one else could.

If she can do no more than just stand by their side, that would be enough. Even if each use of her gruesome power came with fresh terrors that haunted her even now, two months since the last, even then, so long as she was with everyone, she had a chance. Had anything gone wrong, while she may not be of much use, she might just be able to roll the dice until their next threat disappears.

And if there is no threat, she can at least try and help Emilia open up, as she had tried. Maybe she tried too hard, so she’d need to dial back, but she— She had to. No one else needed Subaru. Not really. Everyone else was so strong, and had such a clear grip on their lives. Emilia was the only one to need help. Subaru wanted to be that help. She needed to be that help, whatever it meant.

“Far. Too. Distracted!” Wilhelm enunciated while blocking a couple of limp blows, breaking Subaru’s thoughts before smacking the sword out of Subaru’s hands with a quick twirl of his own and stabbing at Subaru’s chest, sending her flying backwards.

Her mind returning only at the last moment, Subaru wasn’t able to stop herself from falling down as her feet reconnected with the grass under her, skidding briefly into a stumble. However, she just managed to tuck herself in as she was falling on her back to salvage her knock back into a backward roll so she could finally stop on all fours. Well, shortly three, as she clutched at the aching spot in the center of her ribcage with a hand, panting heavily.

“If Subaru-san remains this distracted, perhaps it would be best if we stopped for now.” Wilhelm said simply, lowering his sword, though not exiting the fencing stance he had adopted until now.

“Nah, nah, I can— I can go on.” Subaru huffed, clambering on her feet a little dazed.

The old man seemed surprised and briefly displeased when earlier today Subaru approached him and asked to continue the ‘elevated training’ that Wilhelm displayed when he knocked her down repeatedly, each time with what felt like a thousand blows.

“If Subaru-san insists.” Wilhelm sighed, though not moving, probably intending to give Subaru a chance to catch her breath. “If I may be so bold, what is the true reason Subaru-san wants to study swordsmanship?”

“Huh?”

“Allow me to clarify my words.” Wilhelm said, pausing briefly. “Two days ago, when we first began these practices, Subaru-san said she was interested in self defence. I find that hard to compare to her desire to take this elevated, harsher sort of training.”

“Well, I—” Subaru began, but knew she was caught. “I did mean that then but… I need to get better.”

“Need to?” the old man repeated, closing one eye as he tended to do whenever he was examining Subaru’s face and body language.

“For Emilia’s sake, and everyone else’s.” Subaru said. “I don’t want to just be dead weight.”

Wilhelm frowned at these words. “And Subaru-san is certain that she wishes to better herself in this way?” he asked.

“There aren't exactly a lot of ways for me to do it.” Subaru sighed. “It’s pretty clear that my magic isn’t going to solve a lot of problems, and I was told by an authority on magic powerful enough to make the most powerful people in the kingdom cover in fear, that I should just give up on it.” she said, recalling Puck’s discouraging words, as well as the casual ease with which Julius dispelled Shamak when she cast it in the arena. “That leaves me with a martial or skill heavy build to go for, and so far all my skill points were dumped into Perform (String Instruments) and Profession (Servant) .” she lamented, though not expecting the butler to understand the english terms. “Also, it’s not like Roswaal’s crew are a bunch of dungeoneers or adventurers, so skills are mostly useless anyway.”

Wilhelm furrowed his brows.

“I know, I know, I’m talking nonsense, just gotta get my thoughts together.” Subaru said, waving his looks off, while doing a few quick stretches. “Point is, if I don’t get good with something, I’m useless to her. And I don’t want her to take me back just out of pity.”

Wilhelm took a deep breath, pondering on Subaru’s words.

“Subaru-san. From what I’m hearing, it seems that this line of thought had returned to the issue two days ago.” he said. “So allow me to ask: Does Subaru-san intend to become Emilia-sama’s knight?”

“I—” Subaru didn’t know how to answer.

The word ‘knight’ called forth nothing but anger inside her now. A bunch of stuck up aristocrats is what they all— Almost all were. Of course, that was besides the fact that the only time she even considered such ambitions before, was right after getting spirited to this world and contemplating just what her purpose here could be. She had her doubts now about having much of a purpose at all, but that didn’t mean she didn’t need one.

“I might not have a very high opinion of them,” Subaru began. “But Emilia needs one.”

Wilhelm caressed his beard for a moment, putting the tip of his wooden sword against the ground.

“There is perhaps something of value I can clarify for Subaru-san.” the old man spoke. “Far be it from me to understate the abilities of Ferris-sama, however, given Subaru-san’s apparent beliefs, I can perhaps voice what she’d be first to admit as well: She is far from the most skilled sword wielder.” he said.

“What?” Subaru asked with furrowed brows of confusion.

“Subaru-san seems under the impression that exceptional combat prowess is what defines a knight and worthy subject.” Wilhelm stated. “However, while claiming her not to be a fierce opponent would be a horrible misjudgement, it is not Ferris-sama’s fitness for combat alone that makes her a valued member of Crusch-sama’s retinue.”

“It’s her healing and magic then?” Subaru asked. “Like I said, the great spirit of endless winter or whatever they called him told me to give up on magic.” she said, shaking her head.

Wilhelm sighed. “Her exceptional talent with water mana is indeed part of Ferris-sama’s undeniable value, however it is not quite what I was hoping to shine a light on.”

“Then what is it?”

“I’m afraid discussing this further would be rather tasteless towards both my superiors and Subaru-san.” Wilhelm said solemnly.

Subaru felt annoyed. It felt like she was being kept out of a pretty important loop on purpose.

“At least will you tell me if you think I have any talent with swordplay if you won’t tell me what I am supposed to be improving at instead?” she asked while walking over to her dropped sword.

“I must say, given my experience, Subaru-san appears to have no talent with the blade. There is nothing exceptional in the carrying or application of the blade, and if anything, it feels as though the Subaru-san has no proper sense for the length of her weapon.” Wilhelm listed. “In summary, Subaru-san’s talent appears to end at the commoner’s.” he declared, making Subaru’s heart sink for a moment. “The same as mine.” he added, perking up Subaru’s ears.

“Hold on now. Is it some weird holiday today about sending mixed messages or something?” Subaru asked, more than conscious of the existence of such back on Earth, having been born on All Fools’ day. “I’ve got no talent, but I’m on the level of the guy who beat a Sword Saint?”

“Subaru-san knows of that?” Wilhelm asked, sounding surprised.

“Rem mentioned it after the beatdown yesterday.” Subaru shrugged. “But then where am I standing? Was being like you a joke, or do I actually have a chance?” she asked, leaning on her sword in an annoyed tone, not expecting much of a straight answer.

“It is certainly possible for Subaru-san to reach the level I possess, if she is truly serious about it.” Wilhelm stated. “There is no great innate talent to speak of on my part. To replicate the same effect, Subaru-san would simply need to dedicate half her natural life to the effort.”

“Hah, okay, there we go.” Subaru sighed. While this judgement wasn’t quite as harsh as Puck simply telling her to give up, though the old man might have meant it in a similar sense from the strange sense of bitterness that rested on him.

Subaru had trouble reading Wilhelm’s motivation in his words and actions. Even with their little time together, she felt confident saying that Wilhelm was not the kind of person to lead people on pointlessly. If he truly believed that playing along with Subaru was meaningless, he probably would have come out and said it. At the same, he seemed to have a distaste for Subaru’s desire to study the blade. She didn’t think it was anything as crass as thinking that she’s ‘just a girl’, since he appeared to hold no such prejudice towards Felix, and was even Crusch’s instructor. Maybe it was just that she really wasn’t good enough. Or perhaps he didn’t believe she had the drive to follow through.

‘Well, do I?’

She had somehow braved the mabeast threat at the mansion. There was not a lot of virtue to that effort, since all she was doing was trying to fix her own mistakes, poorly at that. What was it that carried her to the end? Wanting to beat that stupid dog? Getting to be a hero?

‘Rem also thought it would be a shame to leave injured hands that made children smile.’

‘It must have been hard. Wasn’t it?’

‘No, actually it sounded great! I have no idea what it means, but it sounded nice.’

‘Please. Please let Betty heal her.’

...The answer was obvious. She wanted to stay by their side. Being the greedy, self-centered idiot she was, she didn’t want to give up on staying with them. Even if she didn’t deserve them. Even if she knew that any warm feelings they felt towards her could only really come out of pity for the fool that rams herself against things she doesn’t understand, who’s weak, who cries— Even then, she had to try. Together, they were the only life Subaru knew worth having.

“Alright then.” Subaru sighed, raising up her wooden sword. “I guess I’m already pretty good with the guitar, I might as well put the rest of my points in sword.”

“Is that then what Subaru-san desires?” Wilhelm asked in a tone serious enough to shake the flimsy conviction Subaru assembled for herself to its core. Though not enough to make her back down.

“If it is for them, then yes.” Subaru said, walking back into the grassless area where they officially practiced, and from whence she was pushed out of without fail every time the old man decided to take things seriously. “Before we continue, you said I was distracted.” she noted. “You were right I guess, but is there some special meditation technique or something I should do? A sword trance or something?”

“A ‘sword trance’?” Wilhelm repeated, then closed his eyes to think. “Perhaps I misspoke. While I know certainly some that ascribe to achieving a clear mind in battle, I’ve never been one of them. The distraction I referred to was rather that Subaru-san didn’t seem to concentrate on the fight. That is all that is necessary.”

“That seems like clearing one’s mind.” Subaru retorted.

“Far from it.” the old man said, shaking his head. “If the thoughts clouding one’s mind are indeed ones of lesser worth, ones that do nothing but distract from the fight, then they should be cast out without fail. That much is true. In battle, there is no place for them. However, if the thoughts are those that give the fight their meaning, then hold onto them. Make them the power behind every swing. Do not let go of them for a moment. So long as there is breath in one’s lungs, so long as a single finger can so much as twitch, it isn’t over. Get up and strike back. So long as you live, keep going! Fight. Fight! Fight!” he boomed with a confidence that felt almost as if it jumped forth from his very soul, saturating the air around them. “That is what it means to do battle.”

Only now did she truly understand what a perfect pair Wilhelm and his mistress made. As the dark green haired candidate managed to move Subaru who never cared for politics, with her passion for the future of her country; so too had what appeared on the outside an old man drove into her a rejuvenating dose of excitement. She may never have planned to be a warrior, even now, she had no particular desire to be one, and yet, just hearing him speak these words filled her heart with the kind of giddiness she once felt watching rockstars play their hearts out.

“You’re really something else.” Subaru said. “I think I get why they call you a Sword Devil now.” He had that quality that Subaru before vainly tried to attribute to herself. There was a true demon inside him. “You’re the kind of man they’d write hit songs about back home!”

“I appreciate the attempt at a complement, however I truly do not deserve or need such honours.” Wilhelm said, shaking his head. “Shall we continue then?”

“Actually, just before that, with the way you spoke.” Subaru began. “It sounded like you had some pretty powerful motivation you were talking about.” As much as the old warrior’s words emboldened her, she realized that she was likely far from someone of such high ideals and moral fiber, that she could naturally hold feelings as strong and pure as what drove Wilhelm into the realm of minor legends. “What was it that motivated you? That you channeled into your fighting?”

A strange mix of contentedness and sadness flashed through the old warrior’s face at hearing the question.

“My wife.” he said in simple, crystal clear terms. “Ever and always.”

“—”

It was unknown what it was, but something in those words pierced through Subaru as sure as any sword. She should have found them embarrassing. She probably would have found them embarrassing some time ago. Now however, with the look in his eyes and having seen how far the truth of those words carried him— It was simultaneously a set of words she felt anyone should dream of hearing said of themselves, and ones that showed just how pitiful her simple desire to regain her unearned friendships was.

“Subaru-san?”

She heard Wilhelm call to her, but her eyes were cast down, not really seeing anything. As reasons to get strong go, ‘love’ was as cliche and basic as they come, and yet now hearing it, even that seemed so distant. Subaru who bought the adoration of children with chiming toys. Subaru who let everyone at the manor think she was some sort of hero, when she not only allowed the disaster to pass five times, but even then only ‘won’ through the suffering of children, Rem, Ram and Rom. Subaru who was all too content to keep Felt in a place she hated to be, so it gave her a chance to selfishly try and reclaim a distant memory of a half-baked relationship. Subaru who kept getting and getting and getting so much from everyone, and never giving back. Subaru who broke Emilia’s heart. Subaru who got flustered at the slightest courtesy given to her by any knight, even when it should have been clear that not one of them could or would do so for any other reason than simple politeness.

The idea that she could have any claim to love was laughable.

“Subaru-kun!” a voice echoed out, much too high and fragile to be the voice of the old man. In fact, Subaru knew who it was, a heartbreaking sense of worry echoing in it.

“Ah—” Subaru spoke up, her senses returning to her. She felt the wooden sword in her hands, tightly gripped, her fingers hurt from the pressure with which they held it in a vice-like grip. “I’m fine, Rem. You shouldn’t worry.” she spoke, turning around. “I was just—”

“Subaru-kun!” Rem called again.

The maid had reached a small terrace overlooking the training area, looking down at Subaru with eyes reflecting a partially concealed yet still true look of terror that Subaru had never seen in her before.

“Something— Something terrible might have happened.” Rem announced.

Chapter Text

The mood in the manor’s lounge felt rather uneven.

On one side of the small table on a fine couch sat Crusch in her usual military uniform with a look of measured concern. Behind her stood Wilhelm with an impossible to penetrate, neutral expression. Besides Crusch sat Felix in her black suit, legs crossed, one arm extended over the back of the couch seeming mostly unconcerned by the topic at hand.

Subaru herself was sitting across from them on another couch, her breaths somewhat heavy with uncertainty and tension. With her hand gently clutching at Subaru’s sweat soaked and dirty track pants, by Subaru sat, still in her same old french-ish maid uniform: Rem. The blue-haired oni’s expression betrayed a kind of tamed though still present fear that felt almost alien to the otherwise always collected maid.

“Are there any details you can tell us about this situation?” Crusch asked, leaning forward, her eyes locked onto Rem. “How have you even come to the information that the Mathers estate is in danger?”

Rem, who now glanced at Subaru hadn’t really explained anything about this before. She said something vague to Subaru about how Ram was in trouble, but when Subaru asked the same thing, Rem didn’t seem to want to answer.

“It’s— Difficult to say anything concrete.” Rem spoke up, looking back at the candidate. “The warning came through synesthesia, a bond shared between Nee-sama and Rem.” she explained.

“Synesthesia?” Subaru repeated. The word seemed familiar, but she didn’t know what it meant.

“Truly?” Crusch asked. “I have heard of some twins or close family members sharing a special bond that lets them exchange thoughts or feelings. Are you saying you managed to do just that from here all the way to the Mathers domain?”

Rem moved around in her seat uncomfortably.

“Normally, glimpses of one’s feelings can be exchanged over shorter distances. Rem could pick up on Nee-sama’s feelings sometimes when together with her. However, Nee-sama usually guarded her mind against imposing her feelings on this connection.” she began. “If Nee-sama wanted, she could have sent a warning by will, but…” Rem paused for a moment, and Subaru felt the grip on her pants tighten somewhat. “But it feels as if Nee-sama only sent the warning by accident.”

“What exactly was this warning?” Crusch asked.

“She was— Greatly disturbed.” Rem answered. “Perhaps the strength of her feelings was part of why it reached Rem even here. Whatever it was that disturbed Nee-sama so strongly, seems to have made her slip on her concentration too. Rem doesn’t believe she intended for these feelings to reach Rem.”

“In other words, you have no idea what the nature of these feelings even were?” Crusch asked.

“It could even be that someone broke her favourite plate set.” Felix sighed, still disinterested.

Feeling Rem’s grip tighten with those words, Subaru spoke up: “Hey! Don’t joke about it!”

“Nee-sama wouldn’t get this upset over anything trivial.” Rem said, shaking her head. “Although I can’t be certain that whatever it is she was worked up by is at the manor itself. With her clairvoyance, she might might have noticed something simply approaching the manor.”

‘Clairvoyance?’ Subaru thought.

Before Subaru could voice her questions, Crusch seemed to tense up, and she quickly turned to the knightess by her side.

“Felix, what direction was—?” she began, but cut herself off. She didn’t seem to cut herself off because she regretted her words, she simply assumed that her knightess would understand her half-finished sentence.

“It couldn’t possibly be that.” Felix answered, putting emphasis on ‘that’.

“I see.” Crusch nodded, measuring something inside.

Subaru heard a deep, laboured breath from the short maid beside her.

“Could you quit it with the mysticism?” Subaru spoke up, a little upset. “Rem is clearly in distress. Don’t play this game of half spoken thoughts or whatever this is.” she complained. “What do you think it is?”

“Where did you get the idea that we owe you an explanation?” Felix retorted with a dismissive sigh. “Do not confuse being a guest with being a member of Crusch-sama’s household.”

“Does it matter if I’m a part of the stupid household when people home could be in trouble?!” Subaru said, slightly raising her voice.

Rem’s unease definitely infected Subaru too, though she wanted to think that she was keeping things more rational than Rem. Understandably, for the maid to directly feel distress from her sister would be doubly distracting. First for apparently directly feeling some deep shocking emotions, and secondly, because they came from her beloved sister, of whom Rem continued to talk of only in the highest possible terms. She imagined Ram really did have to have experienced something shocking to break her ever present poker face, even if on an emotional level, it had to be something big. At the same time, from the way Rem phrased things, Ram could have sent things differently if she wanted to give a warning, but she didn’t. That likely meant that Ram considered the situation out of control, which with Roswaal there, why wouldn’t it be? Still, it’s not like Roswaal’s mere presence scared off the mabeasts last time from attacking the village, so that wasn’t exactly the most reassuring thing either.

“We need all the information we can get!” Subaru declared, only keeping her frustrations at bay due to the sensation of Rem’s hand still clutching her pants. She had already upset Emilia in a moment of weakness. Subaru had no intention of repeating the same for Rem.

“And what care do we have for that?” Felix asked, leering at Subaru.

“Felix, that is quite enough.” Crusch said sternly before turning back to Subaru and Rem. “Please ignore our exchange a moment ago, Felix is right, it can’t have anything to do with this.” she said. “That being said, I have received reports that recently there have been lockdowns in Marquessa Mathers’ domain. It seems that considerable trouble has reared its head there.”

“What?!” Subaru spoke up in shock. “What kind of trouble?! When?!” she demanded.

Crusch shook her head with a displeased frown. “I cannot answer that for certain. However, the nature of the trouble one could hazard a guess for, now that the Marquessa’s support for a half-elf has been announced to the public itself.”

“What.” Subaru muttered, clenching her fists. “You’re saying… People are causing trouble, because of her?”

“It is the most obvious conclusion.” Crusch nodded with a compassionate frown. “The young Rem mentioned that her sister didn’t seem to want to send a warning?”

“No, it doesn’t seem that Nee-sama had any intention to send the warning.” Rem said.

“Then, there’s really only two conclusions I can think of.” Crusch announced, straightening herself out in her seat. “First, the denizens of the Mathers domain have put on a display of their disapproval that in some way showed as truly disturbing to her. I would not try to pointlessly list possible vulgar displays of such feelings, I’m certain the two of you can imagine what a lot of angry people can get up to voice their displeasure.” she said, then her expression became even more serious. “Secondly, there is the possibility that the estate came under some form of direct threat, however not one for which your intervention is needed or desired.”

‘Not needed?’ Subaru repeated in herself.

She herself was mostly useless if the manor was under threat. At least, the only really useful thing about her was not something anyone would know about so it made sense Ram wouldn’t send out a call to Rem saying “Hey, bring Barusu back real quick, we need her.” However, Rem was amazing. She took on half a forest of mabeasts by herself. What threat could there really be that she isn’t useful against? It clearly had to be a sizable threat if it ticked off Ram so much. Unless it wasn’t a threat.

Reaching down by her side, and grabbing hold of Rem’s hand clutching at her pants, Subaru gave the surprised Rem a forced smile before turning back to Crusch.

“It has to be the first. Ram wouldn’t leave us hanging out here if there was really big trouble.” Subaru said.

Rem looked to Subaru with concern then bit down on her lips and hung her head.

“Right, Rem?” Subaru asked, seeking agreement, but Rem just continued to hang her head.

“I’m afraid that stance might be a bit too optimistic, Subaru-san.” Crusch spoke.

“Well then—!” Subaru spoke up. “What can we do? Can’t you send out some scouts or something?”

“You’re certainly very presumptuous of Crusch-sama and your position, are you nyot?” Felix huffed, her ears fluttering.

“Felix.” Crusch hushed gently, before looking at Subaru with a serious face. “I must clarify something that might have come as a misunderstanding, in which case I apologize for unintentionally misleading Subaru-san.”

“Huh?”

“Contrary to the pleasant way in which I have endeavoured to treat Rem-san and Subaru-san as guests at my manor, I am simply abiding by a contract signed with Emilia-sama.” she stated. “Beyond this, I have no official relations or obligations to her or the Mathers estate beyond the direct rivalry between myself and both Emilia-sama and Felt-sama at that estate. In other words, it would not be inaccurate to say they are my enemies.”

“Ene—” Subaru blinked. “What are you talking about?”

“You’re really slow on the uptake, aren’t you, Subaru-nyan?” Felix sighed.

“Do not misunderstand these words for any personal hatred.” Crusch clarified. “It’s a simple matter of fact that with the start of the royal selection, I must be incredibly careful with any dealings going forward when it comes to my opponents. Even if the forces under my command didn’t already have duties to attend to, it would be rather suspect if I had sent off a scouting party over some young woman’s ‘feelings’.” she stated.

There was really no enmity visible in Crusch’s eyes. Her words were calculated and based on rationale. She may have called Emilia her enemy, but by all means, it was technically true, and it wasn’t exactly something she chose. Well, maybe sort of, but who would give up on the chance to become queen just so they don’t have to compete with near strangers out of the goodness of their heart? Besides, it might really just be some peasants causing trouble, right?

Even then… Emilia was under attack. Either by bigots bad mouthing her, or something worse. Subaru’s place was back at the manor. She had a brooch to give her anyway. Yes. And if there is trouble, it would give her a chance to try and set it right. She could be by Emilia’s side, and show her how she can be useful. Subaru could prove that she’s worth keeping around.

Clenching her fists, Subaru looked up at Crusch.

“I’d like to request a dragon carriage.” she announced.

“Subaru-kun—!” Rem spoke up in surprise and concern, while Felix huffed with amusement and disapproval. One of Wilhelm’s eyes opened slightly more, but he offered no other comment still.

“Natsuki Subaru-san.” Crusch spoke. “You do not seem to understand, but were you to leave this manor, any and all obligations I have towards you would cease.” she declared with a piercing gaze. “Such an action would one sidedly terminate my obligation of hospitality, and would bring the treatment that Emilia-sama had already paid for to an early end.”

“Do I look like I care?” Subaru huffed. “Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the hospitality, but if people are giving Emilia trouble because she happens to be a half-elf, then my place is there to help her!”

“Subaru-nyan. Why do you think Crusch-sama would—?” Felix began but was cut off by her mistress.

“Subaru-san, I must warn you again, that Emilia-sama has given considerable payment to see to your treatment at your manor. Leaving here would not only be tossing aside her support, but given your support for her, would make you my enemy.” she declared with seriousness.

The word ‘enemy’ came up again. What was with that? Crusch basically gave her a pep talk yesterday. Wilhelm behind her gave her swordfighting instructions and the cat as insufferable as she was was healing Subaru. They must have been talking about formality. They wouldn’t really—

“I—” Subaru began, but words came to her difficult. “If Emilia is in trouble, I need to go to her. She can get mad at me for wasting her payment all she wants later, but I can’t leave her there alone. Not if bigots are attacking her. Especially not if it’s something worse.”

She felt Rem’s eyes on her, then the maid’s hand let go of Subaru’s pants.

“Subaru-kun, you really shouldn’t do this.” she said with a quiet concern, shaking her head. “Maybe Rem shouldn’t have—”

“No. You did the right thing Rem!” Subaru answered, grabbing her hand. “They might really need m— Us. They might really need us at the mansion. Remember the mabeast incident? If something like that happens again, and we’re not there…” She wished she could just come out and say why she needed to be so close to the trouble, why she was so sure she could do something if she just had a chance to get close to the source of the problem, even if it was a big one. “Something might happen that I cannot undo. So we must go back. They need us.”

Something shone and shook behind the oni’s eyes, and Rem grabbed onto the arm of Subaru’s jacket with both hands, though she didn’t protest. She seemed more afraid than Subaru thought so far. This might really have been something serious, which just made things all the clearer.

“Yeah.” Subaru said simply, looking at Crusch. “We’re going.”

“Well good luck finding—” Felix scoffed.

“There’s only two dragon carriages I can spare, neither of which are especially well suited for long range transport.” Crusch interrupted.

No one seemed more surprised by this than the knightess sitting next to her.

“Crusch-sama?!” Felix protested. “Why would you—?!”

“Subaru-san has made her decision, and it would seem Rem-san has as well.” Crusch said simply, crossing her arms. “When one collects their resolve and makes a choice, I believe that must be respected. I won’t be forcing them to stay at the manor.”

“Yes, but— Why give them—?” Felix continued, lost for words herself.

“There is no great plan or thought behind it.” Crusch said. “I simply do not wish to dishonour that resolve by tossing them out into the capital at such a time when locating the transport to reach their destination would be so difficult. That much dignity is perhaps owed in place of the half-done treatment.”

Subaru felt a great deal of relief hearing these words.

“Thank you so much!” she said, her previous warm feelings towards the candidate redoubling. An armed escort and a dozen strong knights would have been the best, but since she still hoped it really was only an angry mob or two, it would probably just have slowed them down anyway. “I’ll return it as soon as possible! Might pay one of the locals to take it back in a day or two!”

“A day or two?” Crusch repeated. “I’m afraid that would be impossible.”

“What?” Subaru asked. “But we got here in like, half a day.”

“I see, you haven’t heard. The Lifaus highway is covered by mist. It will have to be entirely avoided.” Crusch explained.

Subaru blinked, not understanding. Sure, mist was bad for travel, but—

“So we’ll drive a little slower. So what?” Subaru asked.

“You truly are clueless, aren’t you?” Felix huffed. “The myist is a sign of the White Whale. Heading into it would be complete suicide.”

“But then—” Subaru spoke, only to feel Rem’s pull on her arm again, then the maid stood up.

“Crusch-sama.” Rem spoke, bowing deeply. “Rem would like to thank you as well for your great generosity towards herself and Subaru-kun.” she said before turning to Subaru. “Subaru-kun, please let Rem worry about the path. It is as Crusch-sama says, if the mist descended there, then we’ll have to go around, but Rem will take care of it.”

The maid didn’t look at ease in the least, but upon turning to Subaru, she seemed to put on a small little smile which was enough to calm Subaru and reassure her that this is the correct way to go.

No matter what, she needed to be by Emilia’s side now, when she could best prove her use.

“Alright, in that case, thanks again.” Subaru said with a nod at the other three in the room, standing up herself. “Please make it quick though, we need to be there as soon as possible!”

 

                                           

 

Packages rattling gently in their compartment mixed with the sound of the undercarriage as the very small dragon carriage sped on its way out of the capital. Subaru was sitting inside this time, rather than in the driver’s box with Rem. The maid was perched out there all the same, however they had no time for a chat. Rem had to give her full concentration to the road.

It didn’t feel like that the red land dragon they were granted was quite as fast as the big blue beast who brought Subaru and everyone else to the capital. When they departed, Wilhelm seemed regretful that he couldn't provide them with a faster creature, as all others had other assignments. Perhaps he was a bit too much of a gentleman.

While she knew for certain that her place was back at the manor, certain that one way or another, she could show she’s useful there, Subaru kept repeating to herself a simple mantra:

‘If there was huge trouble, Ram wouldn’t have kept Rem out of it.’

Certainly, Subaru saw Ram’s protective side clear enough on a number of occasions, but— No. It had to be fine. Rem was just overreacting a bit. It had to have been something manageable. Ram likely got upset on Emilia’s behalf because of—

‘Would Ram actually get upset on Emilia’s behalf?’ Subaru asked herself and hunched forward, holding her head.

Ever since her treatment with Felix began, she’d felt tired but in ways different from before. It wasn’t her body lagging behind, but something else. Perhaps her mana was trained by the treatment? Day by day it got a little worse. Maybe it needed to get worse before it could get better, yeah.

She remembered that the first time Felix began her treatment, and they rubbed their entire upper body up against Subaru’s back for the first time, Subaru warned them ‘If you start humping, I swear to whatever you swear to here, that I will spay you.’ That sense of resistance had long drained out of her during her treatment in just the few days she received it, this being only Subaru’s fourth day at the manor, though of course she wasn’t there anymore.

Surely it was working though. Last night, the same as before, during her treatment that whistling in her ear came back, so it was doing something. Hopefully Beatrice will be able to fix whatever it was later, or Subaru’s strength will just return with some rest. Yes, some rest.

Ah, why was she thinking about that now? She had to think of the road ahead. According to Rem, the fastest route from the capital to the manor not using the highway would normally take two and a half days with a mid-range dragon carriage like the one they got, however she insisted that she had ideas on how to cut down on that time, involving stopping at another settlement called Hanumas on the way which should have a large enough market that if they stop there for a night then they could should be able to buy or rent another, faster carriage. Rem apparently stayed behind with a considerable pouch of her own coins when the rest of the manor’s residents returned, so it was not out of the question to do this, and according to her, that would have shaved down on their time considerably.

There was nothing Subaru could add to any of that. She didn’t know anything about dragon carriages, or the roads of the kingdom. So terribly useless. But maybe not for long. She had the brooch in her pocket, the brooch of an innocent little girl that was so, so thankful to Emilia for her help that she held onto a gift for two months to give to her. No matter how terrible people were to her, that should cheer the girl up.

Unless it’s something worse.

Her mind wandering with difficulty through the uncertainties of the situations, her body hunched forward as her guitar rocked back and forth on the seat opposite her, Subaru spent her time searching for purpose.

Chapter Text

Subaru was awoken from her uncertain thoughts chasing their own tail by the carriage beginning to slow down noticeably.

Looking out through the window, Subaru could see lights from a decent sized settlement nearby, though the carriage was some way away from it, pulling into what appeared to be a three story high inn on the edge of the settlement, likely frequented by travellers and traders.

“Hey, Rem!” Subaru called, standing up and leaning to the little window to the driver’s box she left open before. “What’s going on?”

“There is no reason to worry, Subaru.” Rem responded. “Rem is stopping so we can rest for the night.”

“Already?” Subaru asked, as the carriage was parking next to a couple of others. “I thought that Hanumas place would be further away. Isn’t it around the halfway point?”

“Subaru is very attentive when she wants to be.” Rem said with the sound of a weak smile, and after the carriage came to a complete stop, Subaru heard her hop down from her seat, before the door on one side of the carriage opened and Rem extended a hand up at Subaru. “Please allow Rem to help.”

“Wait, are you sure this is a good idea? From what you said, it might be an emergency!” Subaru protested.

The more she thought about it, the less likely it seemed that Ram was only upset because of some idiots causing trouble near the estate. She wouldn’t get that upset over something like that. So it was likely really something big.

“Please Subaru, Rem already thought it through. If we keep pushing now, we might reach Hanumas, but we’d arrive around midnight, and that would make it very difficult to find a carriage to buy or rent, so we’d need to wait there regardless, with lodging also being difficult to come by. It is better if we rest here now.” she explained.

Though the maid was forcing on a smile, Subaru could tell that she was very concerned underneath. Rem also wasn’t one to make bad choices. Only times she did, involved Subaru, and that was naturally her fault, not the oni’s. Like when she failed to properly explain herself two months ago.

“Alright, sorry for keeping you.” Subaru sighed, taking the maid’s hand and climbing out of the carriage. Continuing when she was standing on solid ground: “Also, you don’t need to put on a brave face. I know you’re worried, and you’ve every right to be. It’s fine.”

Rem hung her head a bit at these words, her smile turning to a frown, but she just gave a little clenching grab to Subaru’s shoulder and turned back to the carriage, reaching in to grab the guitar.

“Ah, we will only stay for the night right, it can stay in the carriage.” Subaru said, shaking her head.

Rem paused for a moment, but then raised on her toes to grab the guitar by its neck anyway and pulled it out of the carriage.

“Wouldn’t Subaru like to sleep with Rem?” Rem asked with a smile.

“Huh?” Subaru asked, blinking at the sudden weird suggestion.

With the amount of time she spent with everyone at the manor, she wouldn’t have really felt uncomfortable about such a thing, even though she didn’t had a single sleepover since… She actually didn’t know when. At the same time, even the twins slept in different rooms, so it sounded like a bit of a weird suggestion.

“I don’t mind, but I can pay for an extra room if you—” Subaru began, reaching for her pocket with her coin purse.

Rem just smiled more and held up the guitar, shaking it a little bit in her hand.

“Oh, with REM.” Subaru chuckled with the moment of realization. “I probably won’t play it, since others wouldn’t like that, but sure, I’ll feel a lot safer.” she replied, playing along. She took the guitar with one hand, while giving Rem’s head hair a good rub with the other. “You always think ahead, don’t you?”

“This is true.” Rem said, a bit of sadness mixing in with her smiling voice.

Entering into the inn, Rem took charge of everything, going directly to the innkeeper and explaining that they wish to lodge for only the night. Double checking with Subaru again, with a bit of a blush, Rem asked for a single room with two beds. The maid seemed maybe even more unaccustomed to sleepovers than Subaru. Though Subaru herself was very used to the maid’s presence now. Between the oni staying by her bedside night after night in those terrible days that never were, and how she was the one to wake up Subaru every morning since the incident, it felt only natural for Subaru that she’d be there.

After getting a key, Rem led Subaru upstairs to the room, before instructing her to make herself at home in their room, while she goes back downstairs and properly arranges the carriage and land dragon.

As was to be expected, Rem was handling everything effortlessly and at maximum efficiency, while Subaru found herself simply standing by, as the maid took care of things.

Once Rem disappeared downstairs, Subaru sat down on one of the beds with her guitar. Or rather, with R.E.M. Some of the people downstairs who were dining gave her odd looks, either because of her clothes or her instrument or both. Come to think of it, maybe because of her hair. She had noted some time ago that fully black hair seemed a rarity in this world, and people even called her face and eyes ‘scary’, which she didn’t know how to feel about.

She wondered if Rem would come back up with their luggage, but it seemed pointless, since all they’d really need was nightgowns, but changing would just eat into their time. Subaru was fine enough sleeping as she was in her tracksuit, even if it was probably beginning to smell a little after the exercises with Wilhelm and everything else.

Twisting the guitar around in her hands a few times, she contemplating practicing a bit, but no doubt not everyone was eating still, there were likely people trying to sleep already and the last thing they needed was getting thrown out of the inn for being a nuisance, so Subaru sat the guitar down next to the bed.

Subaru already ate a packed lunch on the way that Rem passed her down from the driver’s box through the small window. Naturally, delicious as always. She didn’t quite understand where a certain long trunk Rem loaded into the back of the carriage came from, because she didn’t remember it from before, however like with everything else, Rem handled that too.

“Aaagh, don’t think about that!” Subaru commanded herself, covering her mouth as she realized she was speaking to herself. Wasn’t the first time. It used to be even a bit of a habit, but she tried to keep it to a minimum recently. Sometimes she’d monologue to herself as a joke when someone was obviously present, but involuntarily like this, it was just yet another bad quality of hers.

Still, they were on their way. Surely, if anything truly horrible was to happen, Ram would send a warning. A proper warning, so hopefully, they still had time. And when they’ll get to the manor, Subaru will be of use. She didn’t know how, she didn’t know when or why, but Emilia had to see that Subaru won’t give up on her. They had to. If they didn’t, if Subaru couldn’t return—

“Subaru?” called Rem through the already slightly opened door of the room, with a gentle knock.

“Still here.” Subaru answered, lowering her hands from her face, which somehow wandered there during her thinking.

Rem walked in with a small frown on her face and stood next to Subaru’s bed. By her side was a box of luggage, which Subaru recognized as her clothes and other items she packed while Rem arranged everything else back at Crusch’s manor.

“Are— Is Subaru well? We will need to leave early tomorrow.” she said, looking more miserable than sad by the end of the sentence.

“I’m fine, you don’t need to worry.” Subaru stated, forcing on a smile. Really, she should have been the one asking the maid. Even if Subaru loved almost everyone at the manor, it was Rem who had a sister there. “You really don’t need to worry about me. I’m sorry I’m weighing you down if anything.”

Rem’s eyes fluttered at these words and after a moment’s hesitation she spoke up quickly:

“Rem would never think of Subaru as a weight!” she said. “Subaru’s presence  makes Rem happy, if anything!” she declared.

Subaru smiled at that bitterly. Hearing the maid speak to her so kindly felt good of course, even if Subaru knew it was at best an over-exaggeration, and at worst an outright lie for her benefit. She had no doubt that some part of Rem regretted staying with Subaru the moment she got that psychic notification, or whatever it was. Because the maid stayed in the capital for her, she was away from home when whatever was going on began, and now she has to be afraid for her only family, all because Subaru was too pathetic to leave alone.

She couldn’t blame Rem for feeling like that, of course.

Taking her guitar out of the way, she patted on the bed beside herself, to which Rem sat down. Raising a hand once more onto Rem’s head as she knew the maid liked, Subaru kept smiling as comfortingly as she could.

“I don’t really get it, but it really must have been hard getting that jolt or, you know. You don’t need to worry about me too until we get there.” she said, rubbing the oni’s head.

Rem hung her head. It’s not that she needed to say anything. As daft as Subaru knew she was about a lot of things, worrying about a looming danger she knew nothing about except that it exists was one of the few things she could relate to perfectly.

“Look, Rem.” Subaru spoke softly. “I know it feels scary, but with Ram and Roswaal as well as Puck, Emilia and Betty there, no matter what that jolt was, there’s no way things are lost yet. Nee-sama is too amazing to go down that easily, isn’t she?” Rem’s head raised a little bit, but her hanging hair still blocked both her eyes. “I promise, when we get there, we’ll find a way to fix whatever happened. It will be just like in the forest. I’ll figure something out.” she said encouragingly.

This was mostly a lie, and Subaru knew it. Her only weapon worth a damn was Back in Time , and it would only be useful if she got killed. For all she knew, it could have sent her back to two months ago before even the mabeast attack. If that happened— Well, it wouldn’t be something she’d want to happen, but after her mistakes, she could have thought of worse things than having to fight the mabeasts again and then getting a chance at another two happy months at the manor. Though that was of course only if she even went Back in Time at all, instead of just dying.

She had to hope that her one source of value hadn’t run dry yet.

Upon hearing Subaru’s words, Rem’s body trembled momentarily as she turned her eyes up at Subaru’s. The worry on her face was mixed with a look of childlike innocence briefly, before a big, sweet, bewitched smile spread upon it.

“Rem believes Subaru.” Rem said, reaching up and grabbing Subaru’s hand. “Yes, of course.” she nodded with sigh, hanging her head again and closing her eyes.

Subaru had to turn away from the girl. Rem was so ready to buy Subaru’s lie that it brought her nothing but shame having said it in the first place.

Feeling Rem’s hands let go of her arm and gently grab her shoulders, Subaru felt her entire upper body turned away from the maid, before the hands slid down her arms and wrapped her into an embrace around her stomach.

“Uh, Rem?” Subaru asked awkwardly. “What are you—?”

“Rem is giving Subaru a hug.” the oni said simply.

It’s not like they haven’t embraced each other before, but it wasn’t exactly a common occurrence.

“What’s the occasion?” Subaru asked with a blush of uncertainty.

“That Rem feels like it.” the oni replied, her smile audible, as her cheek rubbed against Subaru’s shoulder.

At the same time, Subaru started feeling… Something. Something moving around in her body. Something pleasant and relaxing.

“This feels…” Subaru began. “It’s not exactly like it, but it’s sort of like what Felix did, isn’t it?”

“Rem isn’t very good at this sort of healing yet, but she asked Felix-sama for a few pointers.” Rem said.

“Haaah, that seems quick.” Subaru noted awkwardly, finding it hard to combine the infinitely unwelcome thought of Felix rubbing up against her back with the warmth that the maid’s kindness brought into her heart every time she saw even a glimmer of it. “You know,” she continued, trying to distract herself. “If you said you wanted to learn, you could have just come and kept me company during the sessions.”

Rem hummed sadly, as mana circulated inside Subaru.

“Subaru said she’d feel awkward.” Rem recalled.

“Well, yeah, but education moved forward the nation, or something like that.” Subaru said, trying to think of an old motto on the tip of her tongue. “Plus, your version feels way, way, way better.”

“Of course.” Rem said with a light sense of pride in her tone. “It’s likely because of how different Rem and Felix-sama’s relationship is with Subaru… As for not getting to study in person, it doesn't matter. Rem had other very fulfilling tasks in the meantime, so she didn’t mind.”

“Oh, like?” Subaru asked, feeling a little groggy from the treatment.

“Rem would rather not talk about that right now. Maybe later when everything’s over, Rem and Subaru can talk about all the things that happened in the capital.” she suggested, though the direction she went felt a little strange.

“That’s… That’s fine.” Subaru said, her eyes feeling heavy. “Hey, I’m… I’m feeling a bit… tired. Are you sure—?”

“Don’t worry Subaru, Rem knows what she’s doing. Just relax.” the maid cooed. “Rem just wants to make sure Subaru can get a good sleep tonight.”

“Right… Like… Like a spell to go into—” Subaru chuckled to herself groggily. “ REM sleep .”

“Rem what?” Rem asked curiously, her cheeks still against Subaru’s shoulder, not recognizing the english word.

“I’ll… Teach you later.” Subaru responded.

Rem gave a long melodic humm of perhaps approval. It sounded familiar, but Subaru couldn’t place it. She was already half asleep.

“Yes. Subaru will teach Rem.” the oni said with a little sniffle. “Like she did so much.”

Her mind clouded, and her body filled with a warm, pleasant sensation, Natsuki Subaru drifted into unconsciousness in the gentle arms of a member of the fiercest race.

Chapter Text

Birds chirped happily outside the large window near Subaru’s bed as her consciousness slowly faded in.

Groggily blinking her eyes open, she gave a long, pleasant yawn. This was definitely the best sleep she had since they got to the capital. The ghost of something soft and slightly moist tickled her cheek, though she didn’t remember what she was recalling or from when. This was probably the first time since her beat down in the arena that Rem wasn’t the one to—

“Wait, wait, wait!” she exclaimed out loud as she finally remembered the past half-a-day’s events.

Jumping up in bed, she confirmed that the room she was in was not her bedroom from Crusch’s manor, nor any other she woke up in before. No, this was the room at the inn they stopped at last night. For anyone else, this would have been a given, but—

Getting up quickly and stepping to the window, she saw that the sun was high up in the sky over the tall, distant mountain that she was more or less certain was the capital itself.

“Rem! Rem!” Subaru shouted, turning to the bed on the other side of the room with its puffed up blanket pulled over the pillow. “We overslept! We need to go, don't we?!” she called, stepping to the blanket, but— it didn’t look right. Rem wasn’t this thin. “Rem?”

Pulling the blanket up at first slowly, then with one giant motion, Subaru’s eyes went wide, and her breathing grew heavy. It took a few moments for her brain to process what was happening.

“What the hell is going on?!” she yelled as she saw in place of the maid, REM, her new guitar under the blanket.

Tucked under the strings on the guitar’s neck, was a folded piece of paper.

Her mind blaring, Subaru turned around. The trunk carrying her luggage was still in the corner of the room, near the entrance, the only piece of luggage in the room. There was no sign of anything of Rem’s in the room. Jumping back to the window, Subaru examined the outside of the inn once more, seeing an area below with land dragons tied up and carriages parked. It might not have been the only area for the inn for housing land dragons and carriages, but it definitely didn’t have the carriage or land dragon they arrived with.

“Rem! Rem! Rem!” Subaru muttered through gritted teeth. “You didn’t, you absolutely didn’t!”

Grabbing her head, Subaru tried recalling last evening’s events, if there was anything Rem said, but all she could recall was—

“Is this why you put me to sleep?!” she exclaimed angrily. “You— Even you—?”

Stepping back to the bed housing the wrong Rem, Subaru slid the folded paper out from under the strings and with a slight shake of her hand, she opened it up. The characters written there were all in imoji, the one set she could by now read close to fluently.

 

“Subaru.

By the time Subaru reads this, Rem will be far away, and yo u will certainly be very angry with her.

You are right to be angry with Rem, no forgiveness is expected.

However, please understand that Rem had to do this. It is far too dangerous for you to return to the manor as you are now.

Rem must think of your well being, as well as the manor.

Rem has left Re.E.Mu. with you, so you don’t feel so lonely until she returns, though Rem will understand if you want to rename it.

Please stay at the inn for the next few days, Rem will return as soon as possible. Rem left money with the innkeeper, so Subaru can stay here comfortably for the next couple of days, and eat and drink anything she wants.

Even if you’re angry or concerned, please don’t try to leave, just stay at the inn and be safe. Please.

—With nothing but love, your (if you’ll allow it) Rem”

 

What?

‘What?’

“What?”

Subaru reread the letter two more times, clutching the paper in her fingers.

“That—? That’s it? You—? You just don’t trust—? You don’t think I can—?” Subaru mumbled.

Crumbling the paper in one hand, she wanted to toss the cursed paper aside, but an image flashed through her mind. The sight of Rem sitting by her bedside when she first awoke after the mabeast ordeal.

She should have known Rem would do something like this. It’s her fault she let Rem go off on her own.

Flattening out the paper, Subaru folded itself back up instead and slid it into a pocket, quickly checking the room over one more time to see if there was anything in the room that was theirs aside from the trunk of luggage and the guitar. As there was no other such thing, and Subaru went to bed fully clothed, she quickly grabbed her guitar and went to the door, picking up the trunk as soon as opening it.

Wasting no time, Subaru stormed towards the stairs and headed right down to the large entrance room of the inn, which doubled as a bar and restaurant, other travellers set up both there as well as two adjacent halls eating, drinking and talking, mostly traders by the looks, though she was basing that assumption on only about a week worth of time in the capital observing the common people.

“Good morning, miss!” a portly gentleman behind a bar table called out, waving to her with a clay mug in his other hand which from the colour, and the fact that he was on the job looked more like tea than any sort of alcohol.

“You!” Subaru replied, almost like a retort, taking the last few steps down the stairs with such haste she almost slipped. “Where is Rem?! The girl I was with!”

“Hey, hold on now, hold on miss!” the innkeeper said, putting down his mug and holding both hands towards Subaru with a slow, calming motion.

I will not— ” Subaru began, but as she was stomping to the bar, she felt a dozen pairs of eyes on her. With her face burning she continued quiet, putting her trunk on the bar and resting her guitar on the floor against it. “I will not hold on! When did she leave?!”

“Look, I’m sorry miss, I get that—”

“I don’t have time for your sympathies or excuses! Where is Rem?!” Subaru hissed.

“The young lady you’ve come with left almost as soon as she was done explaining your situation!” the innkeeper responded. Subaru could tell they were annoyed, though the innkeeper tried to put up an accommodating front.

“Almost?” Subarur repeated in a light frenzy. “What do you mean almost? Did she do or say anything?!”

“I shouldn’t really—”

“Do you want me to make a scene? I know she left money with you, but I am about ready to find out just where her bill bottomed out!” Subaru said, raising up her guitar like a club.

“Alright, alright, sheesh woman, calm yourself!” the innkeeper answered, having finally lost his patience. “Aside from giving me a pouch of gold saying I should take payment for whatever you order so long as you stay here, all she did was talk with traders for a few minutes until she found some going to Flanders.”

“Flanders?!” Subaru repeated. She vaguely recalled Rem or Beatrice teaching her that it was one of the regional capitals of Lugnica like Costuul, but she never really heard much about it. “Why Flanders, where is that?”

“Where—?” the innkeeper repeated, sounding in a bit of disbelief, but then just shook his head. “It’s far to the south east, about as far as Costuul if not farther. I don’t think she would—”

“Which of those glasses on the wall are your least favourite?” Subaru asked, holding up her guitar again.

“By the Dragon, if I—” the innkeeper huffed, giving a little dismissive wave to a couple of patrons who looked at them with a mix of concern and annoyance. “Fine. There was some mention of a job offer or something and she paid them to drop by House Astrea about it so they’d send someone here to get you, if she couldn’t return first.”

“What?!” Subaru exclaimed angrily. “If she couldn’t— And you let her go?!

“Look, lady. She showed me a seal of the High Sorceress’ house. I ain’t asking questions beyond that.”

“You—” Subaru felt a pulsing pain in her head. Not the kind she sometimes got during Felix’ treatment.

Quickly opening up the trunk on top of the bar, she rummaged through her clothes briefly before pulling out a white shirt.

“There, same stupid bird on my shirt!” she exclaimed. “Now tell me, when are these people she sent for getting here?!”

The innkeeper rubbed his eyes before answering.

“Normally it might be possible in a day or two given good weather, but with part of the Lifaus highway in the mist and them probably stopping by Flanders’ markets before delivering the message, I’d guess they’ll be here between four to six days depending on whether they stop by the capital on the way or head right to Cramlin. I really don’t want to make the time until then unpleasant.”

“You don’t have to worry about that.” Subaru hissed, looking back around at the patrons who were giving her strange looks.

If Flanders was close, and she could expect those people from Reinhard in under a day, she might have reconsidered and had them help her, since surely they would have high quality land dragons, but as things were, she needed to find someone going to the mathers domain as soon as possible.

Clutching at her pockets, she realized for the first time that her own coin purse was missing, probably given to the innkeeper for safe keeping.

“Alright.” Subaru said, turning back to the innkeeper. “First of all, I’m checking out. I’m leaving, so don’t worry about that.” she declared. “Second of all, you won’t be needing whatever extra funds she left you with, so I want that back.” she added with frenzied eyes. “Third, I need you to help me find someone heading for the Mathers domain, or someone doing transports, or whatever options there are but quick!”

“The young woman said I shouldn’t give the coin to—”

“I have the exact same seal she convinced you with, and a blunt instrument I am not going to shy away from using.” Subaru fumed, lifting up her guitar for the third time and placing it heavily on the bar. “Your choice.”

“Sage help me.” the innkeeper sighed. “Fine, I’ll go ask around. But if someone asks about this, I’ll tell them I was threatened!” he added with a huff.

“That’s fine. You were.” Subaru nodded, breathing heavily and raising a hand to her pulsing temple.

While the innkeeper bent down and fiddled with a lockbox behind the bar, Subaru’s thoughts turned inwards.

Rem… Rem really just left here. And she wasn’t even certain she’ll—

Did she get a second signal she didn’t talk about? Was she lying about the first one too? Was it a call for help? Did she lie so Subaru wouldn’t go? Is that how weak and pathetic she was to Rem?

‘Subaru-kun can’t win!’ Rem’s voice echoed in her. ‘She isn’t—’

Strong.

Of course.

The blue haired oni might have shown appreciation for Subaru’s efforts. She might have come to accept Subaru as a well meaning person, but how could she ever see something who’d get beat into the dirt by Julius? Someone who barely survived the events of the forest with the help of Ram and Rom before Roswaal’s ultimate rescue?

Rem might have supported Subaru. She might have indulged Subaru in all of her petty little pathetic struggles. But Subaru was, and would remain just a helpless child to her.

The muscles in her face convulsing uncontrollably into painful expressions, Subaru barely noticed as the innkeeper placed a large pouch and a smaller pouch down on the bar next to her.

“Here, I just took one night’s payment for the room, don’t want to hear about it again.” the innkeeper said, stepping out from behind the bar. “I’ll go see about finding you a transport, stay there.”

Dark thoughts swirling in Subaru’s head, she sat down at the bar and did as she was told.

 

                                           

 

“Well, I’ve found someone.” the innkeeper said with a sigh, making Subaru’s attention snap back from the depths of self deprecation. He had a woozy looking, thin figure next to him with short ashen hair. “Most folks aren’t headed that way, plus there was that scene, but this young man said he’d go most anywhere, so…”

“Thaths right.” slurred the androgynous looking boy with a high voice. “I’m— Ah. I’m on the road to nowhere!” he said with a little chuckle leading into a hiccup.

“The road to nowhere?” Subaru repeated.

She wasn’t exactly in a position to be picky. ‘ I might take that ride. ’ she thought with a sigh.

“Right, well, I’ll let the two of you figure out the rest. I have an inn to run.” the older, portly man said, giving the obviously drunk young man a bit of a push before turning back where they came and shouting: “I’ll get right on those eggs!” before departing through another door.

Finding his balance after the push he received, the young man stumbled to the bar and with some effort slumped down next to Subaru.

“Ott— Otto Suwen.” he said, the thick stench of alcohol invading Subaru’s senses as he spoke. “I hear you’re… Looking for a transport.”

“My name’s Natsuki Subaru.” she answered. “Can you drive like this?” Subaru asked, looking at him distrustfully.

“Bah, it's no problem.” the young man said, rubbing his face a bit. “I’ll be fine in a bit, plus Frufoo is very smart. She could get us anywhere if I only asked her.” he said then paused with an empty look on his face, blinking twice before quickly raising a hand to his mouth, his index finger extended in a shushing gesture. “That’s a secret, don’t tell anyone.”

“What is?” Subaru asked.

“Ah!” Otto giggled. “That’s good.” he nodded until he was overcome by another hiccup.

Subaru didn’t like her chances with this clown, but it’s not like the innkeeper didn’t want her gone as much as she wanted to be gone, so if he asked around and this is the best he could find, this was probably the best she could get unless she wanted to wait around for someone else.

“Look, what would it take for you to get me to the Mathers domain as fast as possible? Specifically to a manor just past a village called Irlam?” Subaru asked.

“W-wait, Mathers domain?” he asked, seeming to sober up a bit. “Oh right, the guy was mentioning it. Bwuuuh… I heard there’s trouble that way.”

“No, no, no!” Subaru lied. “Well, maybe a little, but not for us, people are just upset over something stupid.”

“Hm.” Otto hummed, rubbing his eyes, and visibly trying to concentrate. “Can— Can you explain exactly what you need?”

Subaru sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose, trying to think of the best way to communicate the most important details of what’s going on without scaring him off.

“Okay, so long story short, a friend of mine is in a little trouble. Her sister and I headed off to see her, but since I got into an argument with someone else there, said sister, Rem decided to leave me here so I don’t get into more trouble. But that doesn’t matter, because I know that she’ll need my help, so I really, really need to catch up with Rem as fast as I can!”

Otto leaned back on the barstool in thought to the point that he needed Subaru to reach out and grab his back before he barrelled off it backwards.

“Ah, thanks.” he said, grabbing onto the edge of the bar for safety. “That seems like a pretty rough situation, and I really need the money…” he said, mulling things over. “But I don’t think anyone would buy my merchandise out in the middle of nowhere like that.”

“Merchandise?” Subaru repeated.

“Ah it’s…” Otto rubbed his eyes, trying to concentrate. “I got into a bind too, nearly got—” he paused, pulling a painful grimace. “Nevermind. Was supposed to sell a bunch of oil past the northern border, but the borders got closed before I got there because of the royal selection.” he sighed. “Was trying to find some people who helped me out, maybe sell the oil in the capital, but it turns out the only thing anyone’s buying right now is armor and weapons. If I don’t head to a proper market where I can sell the stuff in the back of my carriage—”

“I’ll buy it.” Subaru interrupted, pulling the larger bag of coins forward. She knew it was Rem’s, but the maid left it here expecting she might not even make it back. Subaru’s humiliation was worth at least whatever was in there. “You can take as much of this as you want. All of it if you like, but I need to get to that manor as soon as possible!”

Otto looked to the large bag pushed his way groggily with his eyebrows furrowed.

“How many coppers—” he began, but was struck silent as he opened up the mouth of the bag, his eyes going wide. “That’s— Why are you carrying around—”

“You’re clearly impressed.” Subaru hurried. “If it’s enough, you can take it just let’s get on our way!”

“No, this is way too much!” Otto said, closing up the bag, seeming a little sobered up by the sight. “There’s no way to negotiate if you just—”

“Look at it this way:” Subaru ordered. “We both were in big trouble. We both have exactly what the other needs to solve it. Let’s call that a happy coincidence and not waste any more time, alright?!”

“I don’t even know from a look if this would be enough for the oi—”

“Then just keep the oil too!” Subaru huffed. “I’m not a merchant, I couldn’t do anything with it either. Please, I really, really need to get to that manor as fast as humanly possible! If you won’t do it for what’s in the bag just tell me that. I have no assets other than this or experience to haggle with, so just give me your answer!”

Otto rubbed his face one more time, trying to mull things over, then gave a long look at Subaru.

“This feels like a lot of trouble.” he said.

“I promise, I won’t cause you any trouble on purpose!” Subaru said in a half-lie.

She didn’t know exactly what was waiting for them at the manor, but at the same time, it’s not like if it was something ridiculous like an angry dragon rambling about how electing a half-elf isn't at all what his tablet was supposed to mean, that she’d have made the trader stick around.

“On purpose?” Otto repeated, shaking his head with a frown, then looking at the pouch of gold. “I can’t believe I’m accepting this.”

“Accepting?” It was Subaru’s turn to repeat his words. “Then—” A great weight in her chest was dropped that instant, and she reached out, grabbing Otto’s right arm. “Fantastic! I’ve got all my things right here, we can get going right away, thanks so much!”

As she shook the trader’s arm, Subaru thought of the road ahead. If Rem really headed on all night, there was a chance they might just catch up with her if they go as fast as they could. She might be mad, but it didn’t matter. Subaru will get to the manor, and somehow, she will deal with whatever spooked Rem so bad, no matter what it takes! Both Rem and Emilia will have to see then! They will!

“Hey, hey, it’s fine!” Otto shooed at Subaru, trying to pull his arm free. “What’s with that crazy grin anyway?” he asked with furrowed brows once he managed to get free.

“What grin?”

Chapter Text

A new wagon jittering under her, Subaru was well and truly off towards the manor.

While the wagon she and the trader turned taxi driver were sitting on wasn’t nearly as luxuriously built as the carriages Subaru had the pleasure of experiencing thus far, it didn’t seem to matter. Frufoo, the large, heavy land dragon dragging them behind herself pulled so dutifully that she seemed at least as fast with the heavy wagon and its load of oil in lightly jiggling and sloshing vases.

Otto Suwen, the trader with the ashen hair seemed to have sobered up decently ever since Subaru struck the deal with him, or at the very least, he wasn’t swaying as much now that he was seated in the driver’s box at the front of the wagon along with Subaru. Though really, there wasn’t a lot of room to sway around.

“Sorry about the tight seat, I never thought about doing passenger service until now.” Otto sighed anxiously, tightly holding the land dragon’s reins in his hand. “If you like, you could climb into the back.”

Looking back inside the wagon under the canvas roof, there was enough room in there for Subaru to sit, though hardly in a comfortable fashion, so long as the heavy vases would keep jiggling all around. Aside from in there, the only real place she could sit was the top of the planks that formed a low wall between the driver’s box and the inside of the wagon, which would be even more uncomfortable.

“No, I think this is fine.” Subaru said, pulling herself slightly tighter on her edge of the driver’s box. “So long as you get us there with as few stops as possible, this is perfect.”

“Haaah, perfect.” he repeated.

Well, probably ‘he’. There was something fragile looking about the trader. Subaru didn’t care to demean his manhood, but with her experience with Felix and Crusch, she wouldn’t have been surprised if the adrogynous looking and sounding boy next to her was just another woman, too shy to speak up about it.

In any case, he certainly didn’t evoke the same kind of aura as the knights in the capital, nor did he seem threatening. If anything, he seemed embarrassed since his grogginess began to wear off and started concentrating on the road ahead. Given his earlier words and behaviour, he might even have felt a bit guilty accepting all the money Subaru offered to him. He absolutely took the offer, of that there should have been no misunderstanding, but he did appear genuinely shocked. Still, it was no matter. The only thing Subaru cared about was getting to the manor. Avoiding the loss off time over pointless haggling was worth every coin and all the scolding Rem could possibly bestow on her.

Looking out in the distance towards misty plains in the distance, then back at the rough road ahead winding through hills between the capital of the mathers domain, Subaru turned to Otto.

“I know this route is slightly more direct, but couldn’t we save time by going around those upcoming hills down in the plains where it’s mostly flatlands?” she asked, pointing out.

“Hah, of course not!” Otto responded. “I mean, maybe, if we got lucky, but that mist is the sign of the White Whale! It would be suicide to head in there.”

Subaru sighed. “This would be so much faster if we just took the highway.”

“I know, but the White Whale is not something to tempt!” Otto said, shaking his head then quickly readjusting the little green feathered cap on his head that almost slipped off. “It might be a lovely road, but no comfort is worth getting killed pointlessly.”

“Couldn’t some mage or something get rid of the mist?” Subaru huffed. At one point at the manor, Roswaal made it rain snow in a limited area for fun. Surely freak weather shouldn’t have been this much of a problem for the kingdom.

“I don’t think even blowing away the mist would get rid of the whale, though I’m not sure how it works.” Otto answered. “I doubt it would be that simple, or the last sword saint wouldn’t have died while trying to slay it.”

“Huh?” Subaru spoke up. “Reinhard, no, you said the last sword saint died trying to slay it? The mist?” she asked.

“No. The White Whale.” Otto said, turning to Subaru with a look of disbelief. “Wait, do you not know what the White Whale is?”

Subaru would have liked to deny it, or make a guess, but truth was she had no idea at this point. White Whale seemed like an apt description for a thick fog that has freezing or other negative qualities, but she had no idea how one would ‘slay’ that.

“Apparently not.” Subaru admitted. “I’m from pretty far away.”

“Definitely sounds like it!” Otto nodded, then scratched his forehead under the hat. “Uh, it’s one of the Great Mabeasts created by the witch. Have you heard of the Great Rabbit maybe?”

Subaru recalled the mention of a great rabbit in one of the children’s storybooks she read.

“I guess?”

“It’s sort of like that, except an absolutely massive, fat, fishlike beast that is accompanied by mist wherever and whenever its makes an appearance.” Otto explained.

“Wait, if it’s a fish, then why bother avoiding the highway? Just avoid bridges and bodies of water in general and you should be fine, right?”

Otto looked at Subaru with furrowed brows and a look of concern.

“You said you didn’t know about it, but it’s still strange.” he said with a little sigh. “The White Whale is said to be able to fly.”

It was Subaru’s turn to furrow her brows. Certainly, fairytales back home were filled with various flying creatures in pretty much every culture, but it was still bizarre to hear someone say one such thing actually existed. Was it filled with helium or something? Or maybe it flew via magic nonsense like pixie dust ?

“This White Whale of yours wouldn’t happen to be accompanied by a flying ship captained by a madman seeking revenge or something, would it?” Subaru probed.

“Flying ship?” Otto repeated in surprise. “No, I— I doubt that.” he said, noncommittally. “Although a lot of people died when last the kingdom tried to bring it down, not just the sword saint. Between that, and it swallowing up entire settlements, I’m sure there are countless people who’d love to take revenge, if it was at all possible.”

“Huh.” Subaru answered simply, looking out at the mist for a while in thought. “Only a few days ago, I came to the capital through the highway there somewhere.” she noted. “It’s strange to think that now everyone is steering clear of it.”

“Well, maybe not everyone.” Otto said with an awkward shrug. “Some absolutely crazy bastards do occasionally make a rush through it, but usually all that’s left is their carts, smashed to pieces and sometimes a mangled body or two.” he said with a sigh. “I actually met a guy who was going to do that yesterday.” he added, his head perking up, followed by him digging around in his coat a little bit. “Actually, I think I got something…” he said, digging out a little metal figurine from a pocket in the shape of a landragon, similar to the big burly blue beauty pulling their wagon. “I’m actually not sure which of them gave it to me. Was meeting with a couple of people. One of them insisted that it should be safe so long as he camps under Flugel’s Tree, since the Whale wouldn’t mess with the Sage’s property.” he recalled. “The others headed towards the capital with me to steer clear of the highway, but I don’t think it was any of them that gave this to me, so it must have been him.”

“Old friend?” Subaru asked.

“Nah, first time meeting.” Otto said.

“Then, why did they give you that?”

“It’s—” Otto’s face went blank for a moment. “I probably traded them for it. Had a couple of drinks by the fire.” he pondered.

“You really need to cut down on the booze.” Subaru sighed disapprovingly.”

“Hey, hey, it’s not like I do it that much!” Otto protested, shoving the figurine back in a pocket. “It’s just… I really needed it this time, okay?” he said, flustered, his breath still stinking a bit of the booze, though of course it’s probably only been about two hours since they departed.

A bit of uncomfortable quiet fell on the two of them as the wagon continued to charge ahead, heading into the first wide valley on what likely was going to be a somewhat winding and difficult road through the difficult terrain the highway explicitly went around. Subaru glanced back into the wagon, where along with her trunk her guitar rested against the wall. She considered playing something, but there was absolutely no room to do that, unless she wanted to carefully climb back into the wagon, or make Otto stop so she can do it safely. Neither of which was especially worth it just to play a song.

The trader of course made note on the instrument when she first came to the wagon, probably having eyed it since the bar. He admitted to not being a musician himself, though of course he never saw an instrument exactly like it.

“Subaru-san?” Otto spoke up.

“Yeah?” Subaru answered in surprise, looking back at Otto from the wagon’s contents.

“We’re heading to a manor in Marquessa Mathers’ domain.” he said. “You’re also paying me considerably well just to get there as soon as possible, and I can’t imagine these strange clothes or that unique instrument of yours came cheap either.”

Subarrow furrowed her brows, the blade Reinhard gave her still poking against her back where she kept it with its scabbard, under her tracksuit.

“I’m already paying you most everything I have on me, so if you’re thinking of extorting more—” she began.

“Whaaat?!” Otto jolted up in his seat. “No, no, no, no!” he said, shaking his head with a panicked look. “I would never do anything that horrible, I mean I might be in trouble, but my father was a merchant, not a bandit!”

“Okay, okay!” Subaru caled, holding out her hands towards Otto as best she could without actually pushing back the trader balancing next to her. His overreaction was a bit annoying, but seeing he was clearly not equipped to try anything stupid gave her relief.

“Sorry, what I was trying to get to was…” Otto’s face was burning. “What is your relationship with the Marquessa exactly? Your friend’s at the manor, so?”

“Ah, I never explained that, did I?” Subaru sighed. “I uh, sort of work there.”

“Sort of?”

“Well, I worked there for the Marquessa for the past two months.” Subaru explained. “Then came the argument I mentioned and—”

Subaru was caught up in her relief over Otto not trying anything stupid to get more out of her, that she forgot why she omitted those details.

“So… You’re not actually welcome there?” Otto asked cautiously.

“Could we drop this?” Subaru deflected. “You’re getting paid either way, so just get me there, alright? How long is it going to be anyway?”

Otto seemed to mull things over with a frown.

“Frufoo is a very diligent girl, and her kind of land dragon are renowned for their stamina, so, given the price and me having stocked up with enough food and drink for a few more days, I think we could keep going more or less nonstop.” Otto explained. “We should reach the manor’s vicinity by sometime tomorrow morning.”

“That’s actually pretty good.” Subaru nodded. This was actually shaving roughly a day off of previous estimates she got. “Do you think we might catch up with Rem on the way? She was driving a small carriage with a red land dragon.”

“I can’t say.” Otto shrugged. “Too many places to head off and rest, we might miss her. Though with half a day on us, if she really drove that poor creature into the ground, she would likely have enough of a headstart on us to beat us there.”

Subaru sighed and rubbed her eyes.

‘Seriously, what were you thinking, Rem?’ she thought while giving a little groan. ‘At least you could have told it to my face if you thought so little of me.’

“Subaru-san?” Otto spoke up again.

“Yeah?”

“Sorry to bother you about this again, but I recalled what I heard about the troubles in the Mathers domain.” he said. “It’s about the Marquessa supporting a half-elf girl, isn’t it?” he asked, sheepishly.

Subaru leaned back onto the uncomfortable backrest of the seat.

“And what, if it is you’ll ask for a bonus because I’m associated with one?” she sighed tiredly. She shouldn’t have let it slide that she works for Roswaal.

“So it is true?” Otto asked, seeming a bit... Glad?

“Yes, why?” Subaru asked, raising her brows.

“Nothing, it’s just…” Otto was facing ahead up the road, doing the bare minimum leading the land dragon around curves and signaling it to slow down as the road got slightly steeper. A strange, simple smile appeared on his face. “I’m kind of happy hearing that.” he said.

Subaru could do little, but stare dumbfounded at the trader next to her, turning her entire upper body towards the trader and leaning back a bit and out of the driver’s box.

She had come across a lot of different people reacting to Emilia differently. Roswaal and the twins seemed to have kept their distance until recently, while most people in the kingdom were various degrees of hostile. Even Felt and Rom distrusted her completely at first. Only people who treated her politely were the ones who had a sort of connection to her, unlike the knights who technically faced her as a future monarch and Crusch to whom she was a rival first and half-elf second. Easily the best result Subaru ever got out of people who weren’t connected to Emilia whatsoever were Kadomon and much more so Petra, the former of which at least seemed to understand that the selection’s circumstances were just as harsh if not harsher on Emilia than everyone else, and the latter of whom as afraid as she was, truly seemed to understand how hard Emilia must have it.

And then came this drunkard and declared they’re happy Emilia’s a candidate.

Otto glancing at Subaru turned flustered, sensing her disbelief and quickly glanced between her and the land dragon ahead.

“Wait, was that weird to say?” Otto jabbered. “I— I thought since you worked with the Marquessa, you— It’s just she’s an odd sort of uh, person to sponsor so—” he cut himself off in visible distress.

“Why are you so glad Emilia’s a candidate?” Subaru asked uncertainly.

“Emilia?” Otto repeated. “Ah, Emilia-sama! Is that her name?” he asked with a bit of excitement mixed with meekish effort to not show it.

“Yeah.”

“It’s a lovely name.” Otto nodded awkwardly, scanning Subaru for a reaction before sighing and looking ahead. “Ah it might sound weird, but when I heard, I was thinking that, well, being a half-elf, she couldn’t have had an easy time of it. Well, easy time of anything.” he mumbled. “I don’t know much about her of course, so maybe I got the wrong impression, but just the fact that she went into the capital in spite of everything, to stand as a royal candidate, it’s… Honestly amazing.” he continued, that little smile absent-mindedly crawling back onto his face. “Maybe it’s just a simple matter to her, but being able to just stand up for herself like that, I can’t imagine it would be easy for most people. It— I mean I’m really comparing something very pathetic here, but I had some trouble with people thinking bad things of me too at some point, and I don’t think I could have done quite what she did.” he admitted with a little chuckling huff.

Subaru didn’t know if it was the booze still in his system, or just him being absent-minded by default, but Otto seemed to have completely lost himself in his speech.

“I don’t really know how this royal selection thing is going to go, but… Maybe if she tries really hard… At least she might, I don’t know, get people to think… Ah sorry, I don’t know where I was going with all that.” he sighed, pulling in his shoulder submissively, and hunching forward. His eyes still trained ahead. “I realize this might sound bad about a half-elf, but—”

Otto was interrupted when Subaru put her back against the driver’s box’s backrest and reached out and arm, patting Otto on the back who jolted a bit.

“W-what was that for?” Otto asked.

Subaru didn’t answer, just a big stupid grin spreading on her back, beginning to laugh.

“Subaru-san?” Otto called.

“Sorry.” Subaru huffed amidst chuckles. “It wasn’t wasn’t bad at all.” she said, turning her head to the heavily blushing and flustered looking driver around whose shoulder her arm now rested, her mind for once not registering in the slightest any kind of awkward implications. “Those were the kind of words I waited months to hear.” she said with a smile. “I now just wish Rozchi gave a bigger salary.”

Otto Suwen, son of a merchant averted his eyes back ahead with frustration, as the briefly lighthearted girl beside him kept holding onto his shoulder with a wide smile.

Chapter Text

The trader definitely meant to keep himself to his word, and he wasn’t kidding about the land dragon’s stamina either.

In the end, the wagon didn’t stop at all until sundown, only slowing down a bit during lunch and dinner, where Subaru climbed back into the wagon to fetch food and water for the both of them, ultimately staying there for the night. At the time she had reservations about sleeping on the wagon with a stranger, but ultimately, she didn’t feel that she should distrust him to the point where they needed to stop over in a village and waste time.

Waking up to the light of day, her trust was reaffirmed, with no sign of so much as Otto Suwen having stopped anywhere during the whole course of the night. At least his drooping eyes and disheveled look when he first glanced back at her getting out from under a thick burlap blanket, definitely made it clear he wasn’t slacking.

“Subaru-san!” he greeted with a daze. “We’re getting very close! We should be in Irlam in an hour or so!” he declared, holding up a folded map.

“Good.” she answered simply, rubbing her eyes awake.

Subaru did a quick check of her things, her guitar and the blade which’s sheath left an imprint on her slightly aching back were both there. Honestly, she didn’t care enough about the contents of her trunk to bother with more than taking out her backpack and by extension the old phone from home which she kept turned off since the incident. For one, she didn’t really have any use for its functions, and for another, she decided to keep the battery charged as long as she can find a proper musician who has time that could help her figure out what instruments from the music she had on it have sound-alikes in this world. She already missed her chance with the minstrel Roswaal had visit with them a while back.

The jovial spirit Subaru had for a short time yesterday on hearing Otto’s thoughts on Emilia had mostly vanished by later that day, and by now, she was feeling mostly tense. Not having caught up with Rem was disappointing. If she had a choice, she would have wanted to come home with Rem by her side, but the oni took that choice from Subaru.

Grabbing some rations and water, Subaru got down to breakfast, exchanging just a few words with the exhausted trader.

“What? Nooo, I’m fine.” Otto said, waving off Subaru’s concern about his overperformance. “This is far from the first all nighter I pulled!” he added.

“Alright.” Subaru nodded. “Though, thanks for pushing through. It’s a great help.”

Otto seemed to flinch a bit at those words. “When— when being hired, one should always work to perform to the last detail of the request!” he declared dutifully, straightening himself out. “Subaru-san said ‘as fast as humanly possible’ so…” his words trailed off.

Leaving the sleepy but vigilant trader to himself, Subaru quickly got through her breakfast in the back of the wagon.

‘Emilia will be mad.’ she thought to herself. There was no doubt about that much.

Subaru still didn’t know how to justify coming back when they’ll meet again, though the brooch in her pocket was a good ice breaker to get started.

‘What could have gotten Ram and Rem so worked up?’ Subaru wondered.

The pack leader of the mabeasts last time was pretty fearsome compared to the others. Subaru recalled it being said that Roswaal eradicated the wolgram in the forest in the aftermath of the incident, though that could have drawn in a rival pack or something. She really wasn’t sure how mabeasts worked in social terms. Perhaps there came a second pack but it had more big burly ones like the leader? There was also the mention of the Witch Cult though Beatrice reassured Subaru once long ago perhaps in a lost loop that the Witch Cult couldn’t pose a threat to Beatrice and Roswaal combined.

Ever since the incident with the mabeasts, she had a small anxious feeling in the back of her head telling her that it is only a matter of time until things may go wrong again, though it was nothing compared to the anxiety of knowing for a fact that something was going wrong, without knowing what it is. Her only source of calmness was knowing that one way or another she’ll see Emilia and Felt again, as well as Ram, Beatrice and even old man Rom. Rem too of course, though she had less time to miss her.

“Whah?!”

Without warning Subaru heard a kidding noise and saw the wagon very quickly slow down. Either due to the wagon’s good construction, Otto’s skill at the reins or just the land dragon’s inertia cancelling blessing, the oil vases ended up jiggling only slightly in the process.

“What the hell was that?” Subaru called, standing up and grabbing onto the edge of the wagon between her and Otto’s seat.

“S-Subaru-san…” Otto muttered. “I—I’m afraid I can’t fulfill your request.” he said, staring stiffly with a trembling body, his eyes locked up ahead on the empty road winding through the familiar woods.

“What are you talking about?” Subaru asked. “You just got done talking about how—”

“I realize what I said, but it doesn’t change that I cannot carry on this request further, Subaru-san.” Otto interrupted. “In fact, I must recommend we both turn around.” he said, his face still turned forward on the road.

Subaru noticed that the land dragon as well seemed to be turning her head side to side, keeping itself low and close to the ground, seeming spooked.

“I can’t ‘turn around’!” Subaru protested. “Roswaal’s manor is right up ahead in less than an hour’s ride as you said!”

“Subaru-san.” Otto repeated, turning around and looking up at the girl towering over him, standing in the wagon. “I really don’t think it’s a good idea to continue from here.”

The blood ran cold in Subaru’s veins, looking at the terror on the trader’s face.

“What makes you say that?” she asked.

The trader’s eyes twitched and he averted his eyes in thought for a moment before answering. “Frufoo can sense danger ahead. Land dragons have exceedingly good instincts.” he said before uncomfortably adding: “Also, I realized I haven’t heard any birds or other animals. It’s like everything in the forest is laying low in fear.” he explained.

“So?!” Subaru asked angrily. “We’ve got a land dragon! What could—?!”

I cannot go on, Natsuki-san! ” Otto interrupted, pulling his neck in, his hands clutching the reins.

Looking at the shaking young man before her, Subaru saw a familiar fear reflected in his voice and actions.

Clicking her tongue, Subaru took a deep breath.

“Fine. I’m getting off here, I can walk from here just fine.” Subaru declared, picking up her guitar and the backpack from her open trunk. “You can keep the trunk and its contents, I don’t need anything else from there.”

“W—? No! Subaru-san, this could be very, very dangerous!” Otto warned.

Subaru sighed with stiff shoulders, forcing on a smile. “Thanks for the warning, but I need to get to the manor all the same. This part of the forest is under Rozchi’s protection, I’ll be fine.”

“That’s—” Otto’s face grimaced. “I haven’t finished the job you hired me for, so I’ll give you back half the—”

“It will only slow me down. Have you tried how heavy that pouch is?” Subaru huffed confidently, partially because she wanted to be quick about it, but also recalling the trader’s words yesterday. “Just make sure you come back around here sometime. I’ll put in a good word with the Marquessa.”

“Wha—? Why?” Otto asked in disbelief. “I haven’t even—”

“Well, you might have broken your promise, but you got me this far when I needed it.” Subaru said simply, climbing over the edge of the wagon with her guitar and backpack. Then adding as she was on solid ground: “It’s for the best that you turn around, but for me it’s not a problem. Thanks a lot, I’ve got to run.”

“Subaru-san!” Otto called after her after Subaru nodded at the trader and headed off down the road in a quick jog. As Subaru didn’t answer he yelled after her as she was leaving earshot: “Good luck!” His voice was fearful and conflicted.

Hearing the wagon creak behind her, Subaru shook her head.

‘Why could I think of nothing but Granhiert dragging me into that shed when I looked at him?’

 

                                           

 

As Subaru ran down the road towards the village, she could really tell how much Felix’ efforts paid off. While she had endeavoured to keep up with her daily running routine, before the capital, she would get tired of running much, much faster. Or, perhaps it wasn’t Felix, but Rem’s doing from a day and a half ago? It didn’t matter. She wasn’t in top shape yet, but it was close enough.

Gazing around off the road as she went, she realized Otto had a point. The usual noises of the forest were gone. No birds, no buzz from insects either. Everything but the dirt kicked up by her feet seemed to be completely sile—

Fuck! ” she blurted out in english.

Without any sound, a man covered in black robes with red highlights appeared before her, seemingly instant, a tall pointed hood over his head covering even his face.

Backing away a few steps and instinctively reaching for the blade concealed behind her back under her jacket, but her movement froze when she realized that in the course of a few moments at least a dozen more nearly identical figures popped out of nowhere, not making a sound.

Her breathing growing heavy, she stood here frozen but for her eyes, scanning the circle around her.

She could practically hear her own heartbeat, which only drew attention to the fact that in spite of their numbers, the dark crowd around her, staring at her— They didn’t make a sound. Their robes didn’t shuffle, they didn’t move, perhaps they didn’t even breathe.

Were these even people? It wasn’t like they were behaving like human beings, and they appeared out of nowhere. They definitely weren’t attacking her. Could they have been some sort of spell conjured up by Roswaal? An army of shadows to protect the manor?

As Subaru’s brain was alight with questions and possibilities, suddenly the silence was broken by the light shuffle of their clothes.

“I—!” Subaru began, ready to beg for mercy, but instead of charging at her, the figures who each in perfect sync leant toward her simply held their position.

They weren’t charging.

They were bowing .

Subaru couldn’t conceive of the meaning of this behaviour, but neither did she have much time to ponder it. While she was caught in a daze from their behaviour, as sudden as they started, the figures ended their bow and one by one they slid out of her vision in the blink of an eye down the road opposite where she was going.

“Wha—… What the hell is going on?” she muttered.

Who were they? Why did they bow? Where were they—

A sharp pain cut into the center of Subaru’s chest and she bit down on her lips.

‘The mansion. Gotta get to the mansion.’ she told herself.

That was all that mattered. Everything else was  unimportant. Everything else— Everything else—

Chapter Text

There was a crisp scent in the air. It reminded her of the time she spent in Irlam, the village so close to Roswaal’s manor. The smell of burning wood mixed with something else. Somewhere far ahead, everyone was cooking breakfast. Yes. That was it. Ahead of her, she’ll reach that little village and everyone will be lazing about and chatting outside their homes. Surely.

Few of the younger kids will run up to her and ask her to play, but Subaru will have to tell them she hasn’t got the time with an awkward smile, giving a little rub to their head before hurrying on. Of course it would be great to play for them, but it was the manor that was important. That’s where everyone is, where she can find out what’s happening, where she can fix things.

Fix?

No, no. Everything was fine. Those haunting figures that bowed to her were just—

Choking on something caught in her mouth, Subaru retched, though her feet didn’t stop. Just some smoke. Just some smoke.

Why was she here alone?

Because Rem left her.

No, that wasn’t it. Rem came alone too. Why were they two the only ones to come?

Why didn’t Crusch come? Wilhelm? The army?

Why didn’t Subaru ask them?

Didn’t she?

They knew something was wrong, damn it! They were the ones who told her, so why— Why didn’t they—?!

Everyone behind her failed them! The council, the knights, Crusch, everyone! A drunk trader put more effort into helping than a supposed candidate! Even now, he—

Her heart beating in her chest for reasons she couldn’t put to words, she ran on. She wanted to stop and look back. Were they following her, or did they—?

No, no, no.

 

                                           

 

The smell of smoke having grown as thick as it could, Subaru’s steps slowed.

A sound blaring in the back of her mind, she scanned the empty streets of Irlam. There was no one around. Wandering between the small houses, the usual chattering echoing out of the houses was gone, and not a face greeted her.

The smoke itself was now mostly gone, only its scent burned into the air and the houses around, mixing with other strange smells oozing from the mud. The path she took here was dry, so the slipperiness of the ground she had only confirmed with her feet must have meant a freak shower hit the village in the night.

Drawing deep, nauseating breaths, Subaru lagged on her progress towards the manor, stepping to a nearby house, pushing in its ajar door, but there was really no one inside. Beyond the door was some broken rubble of furniture and something spilt—

Leaving the house behind, she hurried towards the village square. As she ran, she held her head high, shouting and shouting for someone to answer her. Someone. Anyone! An explanation, an answer, a word, a sound to let her know what was happening!

Pushing into two more houses, she found them vacant all the same.

Her exhaustion was catching up with her, as she stumbled into the village square gazing up at the thin white foggy pillar constituting the last, smoldering bit of active smoke. She wiped some vile liquid from the edge of her mouth which chokingly bubbled up from inside.

Subaru’s face and eyes slowly drifted down the pillar of smoke onto the tall, amorphous mound of darkened remains below it until her wandering gaze set onto pieces of colourful, torn and singled clothes strewn about around the mound from which gaunt, empty holes peered into every direction.

She felt something wet in her clenched fist as she began stepping back and away from the pile, trying to bury her recognition of jewels she once saw worn in the hair of women, as well as the still tightly clutched hilt of a broken sword in the midst of charred fleshy branches sticking forth from it.

Snap! Ching-a-ling!

Falling on her ass Subaru’s eyes shakily focused in on the small object that made her lose her balance, a now snapped, large wooden ring with a torn cloth covering one side of it, and jingling metal disks embedded in its edge.

Horridly mispronounced words of a language from another world echoed in her mind as she struggled to hold back a mounting scream gathering in her chest.

If she looked up, back at the mound, would she find its owner?

‘No. No. No. No. No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No!

As everything in her being fought to reject and deny what surrounded her, Subaru clawed at the filthy, hard soil under her, baked to clay by the inferno that raged some time ago.

Not wanting to, unable to gaze at the source of the smoke any longer, she rolled on her stomach to try and get up, her eyes affixed anywhere else, to any truth other than this, to anything that wasn’t that .

Raising her head up as she clambered to her feet, she gazed for the first time back to the south east from whence she advanced into the village.

Far, far over the trees, a thick white mist was slowly approaching.

 

                                           

 

‘Run. Run. Run.’ Subaru repeated this simple command in her mind over and over again. ‘Get to the manor. Find them. Fix this.’ occasionally slipped in.

Somewhere along the way she dropped her backpack which due to her guitar covering her back, she never put on. It didn’t matter, she couldn’t go back for it, not now. Who cared anyway?

Her legs aching, screaming at her for the over-extension, Subaru pushed on and on. She couldn’t stop, she couldn’t slow down! She had to—

Ahead of her, she spotted it.

In the middle of the road, there was a tilted over, broken carriage. Besides it, a large scary red body, with a smaller, also scaly red head.

‘Rem’ she wanted to call, but no sound would leave her aching, raspy throat.

Rushing to the cart, she stopped to a standstill a few steps away. She wasn’t there. The maid wasn’t at the wreckage, she might have—

“Dad?” she muttered, staring at the large, broken trunk she couldn’t explain before, in which a familiar lyulyre rested with a snapped neck.

The oni it seems never got the chance to find the instrument she dubbed ‘Kenichi’ ‘a good home’.

Around the wreckage, there was a large number of corpses dressed in black and red robes, pierced, smashed, cut in half, their heads crushed, some in multiple pieces.

But if she wasn’t here, then maybe… Maybe…

 

                                           

 

Time was slipping away.

What once flowed surely from one moment to the next, the unbroken continuum that was the natural order of things had ceased. Subaru’s mind jumped back and forth along events, the path she walked, the steps she took disappearing from her mind leaving only an uninterrupted sequence of terrors in her psyche.

She clawed for something warm in her core. Some happy memory, a gentle sensation, anything to help her, but no such thing existed. Moments of Rem’s gentle treatment, Emilia’s kind words, Ram’s constant pestering, Beatrice’s delightful complaining, it all washed away at the sight.

Between the twisted metal of the once proud front gates of the Roswaal manor, there lay Rem on her back, in a pool of her own blood.

Dead.

“Re—” Subaru began, but couldn’t finish the word.

Time slipped again.

She was kneeling in the dirt mud of the maid’s blood, holding her head like once so long ago. She walked to her, she raised her up, but these moments were now gone. A building chatter inside her blurring together moments of reality while erasing the rest.

Unlike before, the maid hadn’t died the slow, weak death of someone drained of her energy. It was no mabeast that had done this. In her hand holding Rem’s head, Subaru felt the maddening, intolerable sensation of a slit on the back of the girl’s head. She felt sick, but she couldn’t retch, nor let her go.

“Rem—” Subaru called, but the girl didn’t answer.

Surrounded by yet more bodies beyond count, one arm burnt by fire, her entire body covered in cuts, bruises, a mix of blood from herself and others splashed across her clothes, her beautiful, soft blue hair hard with dried blood.

She fought without fail.

Did she get here during the attack? After?

It had to be after. She recalled seeing deep tracks in the bloody mud of the village, so it was after the streets were already—

But if it was too late for her to do anything then—

Why did they do this? Why did they kill Rem? They left Subaru to herself, so why her ? Rem who worked so hard. Rem who always puts everyone before herself. Rem who seemed to have spent so much of her life miserable, but finally began to smile honestly?

Why not Subaru? Why couldn’t they take her instead?

Clutching the stiff girl close to her chest, Subaru’s mind was a whirlwind.

Why Rem? Why not Subaru? Why couldn’t they come together? Why didn’t anyone help? Who were the attackers? Why didn’t Roswaal stop them? When did this happen? Why did this happen? Where was Felt? Where was Emilia? What could Subaru do? If she died, would she even get a chance to fix this? How far would she go back? Is there even anything that can stop this?

Time slipped.

With a slouch, bile on her shirt, Subaru was climbing up the incline towards the main entrance of the manor. A heavy burden, her instrument was no longer with her. She couldn’t bring it. It burned her back just having it there, its strap was choking her, so it was where it belonged. The two Rems resting together.

The path to the incline was, just as the incline itself strewn with bodies dressed in black. Some cut with blood splattered far behind them, others impaled through thick invisible spears left rotting on the grass.

The sights of the siege’s aftermath were not long so merciful as to show only the evil dead.

At the top of the incline lay a couple of bodies of a few villagers. The names ‘Altan’, ‘Oringo’ and ‘Tara’ echoed somewhere in the back of Subaru’s mind, each of them, even the woman laying dead with cuts, clutching swords or spears, whatever they had.

Their vacant, accusing eyes stared off into nothing.

‘Where were you?’

‘Why didn’t you fight?’

‘How come you’re the only one to survive?’

Beyond them and two other villagers whose name escaped her, just before the entrance itself was the large, toppled over body of Rom the giant, a dozen blades embedded in his back, his limbs mangled, and his ripped-off jaw laying a couple of feet to the side.

The thought that some of the villagers made it to the manor offered Subaru no comfort in the silent estate.

Stepping around the giant’s body, Subaru held the frame of the blown open front doors and convulsed. Not just at the sight of three more villagers impaled on the walls of the entrance hall amidst dozens of black robed bodies, but the thought of the old man lying dead behind her.

She wanted Felt to return to the manor so bad. She wished for nothing but that. Of course the giant would follow her. And ultimately, if Felt didn’t accept her candidacy, she might not have come back.

If it was really her outburst that gave Felt that final push, then Rom, the gentle old man that saved her from the mabeast pack leader, who nearly died to Granhiert trying to help protect everyone, who offered her her first lyulyre—

“Not my fault.” she muttered, slumping against the door frame. “This isn’t— This isn’t what I asked for.” she spoke to herself. “I didn’t want this… It’s not my fault…”

Seeing a pool of blood dried on the edge of one of the side corridors, Subaru collected what little she had passing for strength and stumbled further inside. Down that way would normally be the servants’ quarters, but now there was only death.

Time seemed to jitter about briefly, the world rocking side to side with it as Subaru reached the entrance of the corridor.

Closest to the entrance laid the body of Ram, her heart pierced through, collapsed in the middle.

The one who taught her. The one who listened. The one who was more important than anyone to Rem, and who tried to keep them both away, laying on her stomach in a twisted pose, her pink locks curtaining her eyes.

The wall, ceiling and floor of the corridor on Subaru’s side was, as she just now noticed, covered in a thousand, thousand cuts of the shape and size she had seen the oni summon with the wand laying on the floor by her hand.

Behind her, what she gave everything to protect: The butchered bodies of Four children.

Mild, Dain and Cain, mercilessly slaughtered, chests pierced by throwing knives and behind them— Behind them—

Impaled through the chest by some great force, laid the body of the wonderful, orange haired girl with the red ribbon. And her eyes— In their place only streams of blood.

“Petra.” Subaru mumbled, falling to her knees at the sight of the blood soaked corridor.

The boys had kitchen knives next to them which didn’t seem to have seen much use. No doubt they tried their best to help defend, but it was all pointless. Everyone, everyone was dead.

Subaru’s world spinning around her, she searched for a morsel of hope that wouldn’t come. Yesterday, she laughed. She laughed with that trader because of a few kind empty words. Was anyone at the manor still alive then? Just how long have things been like this?

Rem, Ram, Rom, the villagers. All dead. All dead.

Wasn’t there someone? Anyone who lived? Roswaal could fly, could she have taken some of them? Where was Beatrice? Felt? Emilia?

‘If I didn’t— If I just came back—’

Subaru’s body was completely slumped forward as she sat on her knees, her pants getting tainted by the dried blood they were scraping off the floor and the blood dripping from Subaru’s aching, pierced palms which were caressing thick locks of black hair.

‘You said you’d always be around.’ an accusing ghost said into her ears.

‘Were we only here to applaud your stupid music?’

‘Did you ever care?’

‘Even the kids tried harder than Barusu.’

She didn’t know how or when, but the blade she had stashed under her jacket found its way into her hands.

Subaru was staring at it, lost in thoughts, its sheath cast aside next to her, the blade laid out on her palms, both oozing a thin stream of blood each from the holes made by her now broken nails.

Why was it—

Jolting from a moment of realization, she dropped the blade, tossing it forward and scurried backwards, shuffling on her ass.

No, no, she can’t! Not that! Never that!

Clutching at her heart beating painfully inside, sweat dripping from her brow, Subaru curled up on her back, turning to a side, pulling her legs in.

‘Why not? It’s all you’re good for.’

A long, ragged, hoarse scream echoed through the corridors, as Subaru clawed at her own face.

“I don’t want to—! I’m sorry! I can’t!” she uttered out as she found the breath. “I didn’t do this! You all sent me away! Even if I could, I shouldn’t have to fix this!” she yelled.

With her gruesome ability in mind, and the unfathomable depth of the two months since her last checkpoint, she couldn’t bear to handle the idea of doing everything all over again. She couldn’t do it. How could she live another two months like this, when she’d know this is coming?!

I can’t! I can’t! I can’t! ” she cried. There was no guarantee she’d even get another chance. “I— Away. I want— To go—”

With blood now beginning to drain from small cuts on her forehead too, Subaru suddenly felt something.

A chilling air touched the back of her sweat soaked neck. A familiar chill she felt many times before, first in the alley in the capital, so very, very long ago.

“Puck.” she muttered.

It felt like the chill the spirit would sometimes produce when greatly agitated. But if Puck was here, then that would mean—

“Emilia.”

The brooch still somewhere in her pocket was piercing her side as sure as any blade.

With a grotesque, pained frown, Subaru wept into her hands, not caring that she was only smearing blood on her face. She wanted to lie there and not move. She wanted to just disappear forever like everyone else around.

But if there was the slightest chance that Puck or Emilia were still alive, that anyone lived, she had to— She had to get up.

Climbing to her feet, Subaru closed her eyes, unable to bear witness to the gruesome sights any longer. Instead, she turned around in place, and felt the chilling wind against the wetness of her own blood on her face to tell from whence the breeze came.

Stumbling over bodies she believed to be the robed men, she slowly shuffled towards the source, and bumped into the stairway. Feeling out the handrails with her hand, she slowly climbed up the stairs one step at a time, the chilling air growing subtly stronger as she went.

She continued like this until through much clumsy movement later, she reached the floor on which she recalled Roswaal’s office was.

While her own blood muddled things, the scent of early rot wasn’t as thick here as below. Navigating to the source of the cold as best she could, she reached what felt like a closed door, the cold air seeping through the gap between it and its frame.

Taking some time to work up her nerve, Subaru tried opening her eyes, which were already glued shut by her drying blood, though with a bit of rubbing and scratching, she freed her strained eyes, indeed, finding herself at the door of Roswaal’s office.

Was she wrong? Was it Roswaal that sent the chill through magic?

Weakly turning the handle, Subaru pushed the door in, fully expecting to find the mistress of the manor lynched in the middle of her office, but instead, on the other side of the door, everything was—

Exactly as always.

All but for one small detail, made all the more obvious by the flow of the cold air.

One of the large bookshelves on the side of the room was pushed to the side, only to reveal not the wall, but some sort of passage, and to it, a faint dripping trail of blood coming from the door in which Subaru was standing. A secret escape route?

“Emilia.” Subaru muttered emptily, stumbling inside, and towards the passage. “Emilia.”

Her mind was far too full and too busy to come to anything approaching a rational thought or conclusion. All she knew, all she felt was that cold that for once wasn’t coming from inside.

Walking through the passage, she felt the breeze come from below. By the sound of it gently echoing between thick walls, far below.

There was no light in the passage, no lamp or torch to speak of, but as she weakly stumbled and braced herself against the strange, dark, flat surface of the passage wall itself lit up with some sort of magic.

She couldn’t and wouldn’t make heads or tails of it. All that mattered was progressing further. If anyone survived, they would be down there. That was, after all, the purpose of it, no?

Slowly making her way down the stairs, Subaru’s mind was filled with naught but the terrors she had witnessed. The dead bodies of everyone, the deaths she failed to prevent. The deaths she might have even caused.

If there was anyone, anything still alive—

Reaching the bottom of the stairs, she felt she was far below the manor now. There was a long tight corridor stretching off into the distance, and she didn’t feel she even had the strength anymore to climb the stairs back up. The only path that she could take, was the one ahead.

Lumbering forwards, her body was barely cooperating. A part of her was still lying in the entrance hall, waiting for something, anything to end this living nightmare.

Minutes passed as she went on like this, softly whispering names. Names of those gone, names of those that might still be there, names of those that did nothing.

If Emilia was there at the end of this corridor, Roswaal was likely too. And if Roswaal was there, then Felt might live as well. If they do, then—

Up ahead, the corridor opened up slightly. Very slightly. There was a door at one end of a small rectangular room across from the corridor, and before it dotting the room, were a few oddly placed and shaped pillars.

The pillars’ positioning didn’t make a lick of sense, but Subaru didn’t care. Her body was drained and tired, outmatched only by her mind. She just yearned for one face, any face to look back at her. A single pair of eyes that weren’t empty.

Pushing past the pillars in the dim light, Subaru stopped before the door, taking chilly breaths, a white mist rising from her mouth and cutting her eyes.

Foggily she stared at the handle, glimmering with a strange light, then looked up at the door itself, raising her right hand into a fist.

For a moment, it was difficult to close her fist, the blood in her palm having hardened, but she shakily forced it, then leant forward, bringing her fist down against the door.

Once.

Twice.

Crack.

A sharp pain ran up Subaru’s arm, piercing her senses, making her look down to her hand instinctively.

Half of it was missing.

In a jagged pattern, like a broken rock, the part of her hand between her wrist and her ring and pinky fingers was separated, and looking down, on the floor there were pieces of whitish pink flesh strewn about.

“Agh—!”

Her body wanted to scream, and she didn’t hold it back either, though the panic in her mind was no longer genuine.

Trying to step back, she quickly lost her balance, followed by another crack and  this time, it was her left foot from which piercing pain flew to her brain.

Landing on her back, seeing the pillars’ odd shapes defined against the dimly lit ceiling from a new perspective, she understood that they weren’t pillars at all. No, neither did they reach the ceiling, nor were they shaped to carry weight. Instead, they were the same pointed robed figures she had seen before, come to die in this frosty trap.

This was her fate now too. A fate against which every physical instinct would try and fight, a fate her limbs would struggle to escape, were they able.

However, in this dark hall of the frozen end, the vain attempts to move herself came only from that physical impulse.

As soon as Subaru had seen that it was too late, that her limbs would not obey her commands, and that all feeling in her lower body had vanished, she rested the back of her head down against the floor and took a deep breath.

What was she even struggling for?

Feeling rapidly fading from all her extremities, her long breath a moment ago delivering freezing air to her very core, she wasn’t sure why she was even conscious.

Everything was gone. She might as well be too. She deserved no better. She allowed all this to happen.

‘If I had acted differently, I could have prevented it. And I didn’t.’ echoed in her mind.

It was for the best that the choice was out of her hand. She never could be trusted with one.

‘If I can, if there is a chance, I’ll save you. All of you.’ once thought the world’s most disgusting liar.

As even her eyes began to freeze into glass balls matching the icicles forming from them, Subaru’s last few conscious thoughts wandered far away.

If this was the end for her and everyone, who would even care?

“You are far too late.” a voice spoke, filling the room.

‘Ah. Him.

With the answer to the last pathetic question to a pathetic life as the final farewell, Natsuki Subaru shattered into tiny crystals and ceased to be.

Chapter Text

Before all else, there was something soft and fuzzy.

The world snapping open before here, Subaru’s senses were overwhelmed with the impossible. In place of the blind darkness of the freezing tunnel gazed at through glass-like eyes, a bright early afternoon sun shone down on her, reflecting off of walls, roofs and windows. In place of the dead silence whence there existed nothing but the faint crackling sound of her skin solidifying into ice, there now was the hustle and bustle of a gossip filled city market. In place of the indescribable sensation of her nasal cavity contorting in response to he chilling air as her face itself froze over, there was a cavalcade of incredible scents leading an offense upon her mixing the scent of fine perfumes with fresh velvets, fruits, meat and more.

The leg that had snapped off now held her up firmly over the lightly curved cobblestone road she could feel under her feet. Her heart she was certain had stopped was now pumping burning hot blood through her veins. Her lungs, completely frozen, were now drawing a deep breath of the market’s air. And the fingers and half a hand she had lost and saw shattered, now brushed themselves against a warm, soft and fuzzy surface.

Subaru’s jittering eyes wandered down from her hand, and below it was a head of blue.

“Subaru-kun?” a concerned voice called out to her from just below the blue hair, but found Subaru miles away.

Where was she? No, when was she?

Taking her hand from atop the blue hair, Subaru stumbled backwards and grabbed her head.

‘Market.’ she thought in her head, focusing on it. ‘When was I?’

“Kid?” an also concerned but more masculine voice called.

Glancing in its direction, Subaru saw a merchant’s stand stacked with big, red, juicy fruits and a scary looking man with big muscles, green hair and nothing but a short vest on him.

“Which—? When—?” Subaru mumbled.

The girl in front of her, this was definitely after the very start. Was it the first day of their return? Later? She had stopped by here twice, but which? How much time—? What difference—?

“Subaru-kun!” the girl’s voice exclaimed, as Subaru felt herself begin tilting backwards, her legs giving way.

A pair of hands grabbed her waist, helping Subaru stay upright, but not before seeing the sun high, high up in the sky.

“Not… Evening…” Subaru muttered in a daze.

Images were flashing through her mind rapidly as she was trying to find her place, every inch of her body still carrying the numbing sting of freezing off.

Reaching a hand down, she reached into a pocket, feeling a small piece of metal inside. That confirmed it, she was— She was—

“No, no, no…” Subaru mumbled, grabbing and shaking her head. “Not now, not after—”

The royal selection, her embarrassment, that damn beating, all of it still happened. More importantly, she was so, so far from the Manor, with no time to spare.

“What were we—?”

She needed to— Needed to do something. Move, warn someone! Where was she at this time? What did she need to do? She was—

She was buying ringas, wasn’t she? How many?

“Sorry, I’ll—” she mumbled, and reached her trembling hand into her pocket to pull out her coin pouch.

“Subaru-kun, what are you doing?”

“Hey miss, does she need something, she doesn’t look good.”

Pulling her coin pouch open, Subaru stared at the copper, silver and golden coins shifting jingling inside, trying.

‘How many did I buy?’ she thought. ‘If I don’t handle this right now—’

Trying to grab a few coins from the pouch, she just ended up pushing the pouch out of her own hand, coins falling to the pavement and rolling every which way.

“I’ll— I’ll—” Subaru muttered with heavy, laboured breaths, trying to kneel down.

‘You can’t even pay for fruit. How could you stop what’s coming.’

As her knee touched the ground, images flashing through her mind. The pink haired girl lying dead before the corpses of the children. Trail of blood flowing from the eyes below those orange locks. Their parents butchered before the gate. The old man’s pincushion carcass. The maid in a pool of her own blood. The charred bodies piled up in the village square. The taste of their smoke and fumes in her mouth—

Subaru-kun!

The world going dark around her, all Subaru could feel was her stomach convulsing and something still infinitely better than the ghost of that memory filling her mouth and nose as she involuntarily screamed into her evacuating stomach.

What could she do? What could she do? What could she do? What could she do?

‘Nothing.’

Familiar sounding voices and others as well around her were talking nonsense. Was there even a point in trying to make sense of them? She could just stop. Right here. Right now. End this charade and just—

‘Give up.’

Yes. She could do that.

Subaru had died so many times now. It really wasn’t fair that she’d have to keep going. Most people only had to put up with that stuff once. She could just stop struggling. Let go of her arms and legs and—

She felt something slender against her face. A gentle caress brushing past her brows and her ear ending at her cheek before softly brushing down along her jawline.

“It’s alright, Subaru.” came through the fog of voices like a whisper. The blue haired girl before her spoke it.

The world regaining some semblance of resolution around Subaru, she realized that just under her face were a pair of uncovered knees resting on the rough, dirty pavement atop man hard and undoubtedly uncomfortable coins. Just above the knees, a small apron was suspended by one arm as a makeshift bowl, holding the previous contents of her stomach to the best of its ability.

Subaru felt the sender touch against her jaw pull at her, her head tilting up and up, until the arm holding the apron joined a shoulder which the pair held the arm and hand caressing her cheek. Above the pair of shoulders sat a head, curtained by short, shiny blue locks, untainted by ichor.

“It’s alright.” the voice said again, its kind, accepting message reflected in a gentle smile and a pair of brilliant blue eyes looking back at her.

Not vacant. Not empty. Not void of that indescribable, essential something.

“Can Subaru stand? — will help if Subaru needs it.”

Something foul was dripping from Subaru’s lips, but it didn’t seem to upset the girl before her at all.

She sensed in her peripherals the big, strong guy move to them and push a woven basket under the apron before holding open a paper bag which quickly caught its contents as the girl let go of it.

The important warm feel  disappeared from Subaru’s cheek as the blue haired girl looked up at the man, mouthed a few words then  undid her apron behind her and let it slide into the basket.

“Subaru-kun.” she spoke again, standing up and brushing a few coins off which stuck to her knee. “Can you stand?” she asked again.

‘I don’t know.’ formed the unvoiced words.

The girl’s reassuring smile soured into a pained frown and she crouched down. Subaru felt the girl’s arms reach under hers. Not knowing what else to do, she wrapped her arms around the girl too, feeling a new, distant warmth as the girl tightened her embrace and began to pull Subaru to her feet.

The girl accepted her even now. Even as she made a shame of both of them in a crowd. Even when she surely upset the fruit vendor. Even after she had made a complete fool out of herself.

Maybe this is enough, to just hold onto her. Does anything else matter? Just hold on. Hold on.

Wrapping her arms around the girl as tightly as she could, Subaru rested her head on the girl's shoulder, practically hanging on her, her legs only halfway extended.

A crooked smile began to sneak its way up Subaru’s cheeks.

Just hold on. Just hold on. All she can do.

Taking her right hand, she dug her fingers into the girl’s soft hair.

Just hold on. Just hold—

The smile froze on Subaru’s face, as her heart gave one wretched, powerful beat.

In her finger tips, she could feel its absence. Gone was the blood, gone was its dry hardening, but also gone was that vile evil slit in the back of the girl’s head that would— that had robbed her of her life.

Gripping the girl even tighter with newfound strength, Subaru squeezed her hard, tears and snot beginning to flow from her eyes and nose in a most disgusting display she had no power to stop.

“Rem!” she cried.

There was a short silence where she heard a weak gasp from the girl, before they reaffirmed their own embrace around Subaru’s back.

“That’s right. It’s Subaru’s Rem.” the blue haired girl spoke.

“We— We—” Subaru tried, but words were still far too difficult to find.

If she just let go now, Rem would just do what she did before. She’d leave Subaru behind and die all over again.

“Yes?” Rem asked, encouraging her softly.

“We need to… Need to go.” Subaru forced out, still hanging from Rem’s shoulders, unable to find the strength to stand on her own legs.

Rem hummed in acknowledgement, and as she continued her cries, Subaru felt the oni nod her head, while her hand shifted up a bit on Subaru’s back.

“That would be for the best.” Rem said quietly.

In spite of these words, the maid held onto her pathetic junior tightly until the black haired girl’s tears at long last stopped flowing.

Chapter Text

‘We need to go.’ echoed in the mind of the young, blue-haired maid.

These were the words repeated in a mutter multiple times by the wonderful black haired girl, engulfed in the darkest of stenches. The Witch’s miasma which haunted the trembling girl pulling Rem by the hand since their first meeting was thicker now than before. Matching the darkness of the scent that few could sense, Subaru’s temperament was equally clouded as she drew Rem back towards the Karsten manor in the city with hurried steps.

Ever since that day, Rem had been ever more mindful of Subaru. For the longest time, Rem couldn’t imagine that someone drenched in what felt like fermented evil could ever be a good person, or someone worth so much as a second glance. Because of this, she once looked at Natsuki Subaru with disgust and distrust. As yet another evil which’s presence she had to endure at the whim of the mistress her sister had offered her heart to.

She was so terribly wrong.

Foolhardy bravery, a gentle, caring heart, and an unwavering will when it mattered. These were all things she had seen in the girl that the Witch’s curse or whatever hung above her had reduced to a crying mess from one moment to the next minutes ago, before a fruit stand.

Rem had long struggled to understand the nature of the girl’s connection to the Witch. In their first days together, the stench intensified like this multiple times. First, after Natsuki Subaru’s encounter with Beatrice, the guardian spirit of the Forbidden Library at Roswaal’s manor, in Rem’s very presence too, just as Subaru awoke. After that, it hadn’t happened for a few days, until the struggle against the wolgrams in the forest, where it blew forth from her again and again. Twice she could witness with her very eyes Subaru wracked with pain amidst such a burst of miasma. Having seen Natsuki Subaru sacrifice herself so readily, push her limits and more— Rem’s hatred of the miasma only grew. To bring such pain onto someone like that—?

Truly the greatest of evils.

 

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“Back already?” the old gentleman serving as Crusch Karsten’s valet and butler asked as he welcomed Subaru and Rem back to the manor. He was standing just before the entrance of the manor building itself. The actual gate of the estate was wide open when they got there, carts and wagons with covers moving in and out of the estate grounds occasionally.

“We need to talk with Crusch!” Subaru burst out, her mind screaming muddled thoughts. “Right away!”

Subaru was holding Rem’s wrist as tightly as she could, panting heavily from the exhaustion of having ran as fast as she could through half the spacious noble district and a bit of the market district too to find her way back to the also obscenely oversized manor. All she knew, all she could work out in her jumbled mind reflecting on her previous experiences, was that by the third morning from now, it will be too late. That is when she arrived at the manor, and everyone—

Subaru’s empty stomach convulsed again involuntarily, and she let out a highly uncourtly belch as a result.

“Terribly sorry, Wilhelm-san!” Rem spoke, bowing to the butler. “Subaru-kun has been like this for a short time. Perhaps Felix-sama should—”

No! ” Subaru yelled, tugging on Rem’s arm. “We need to talk with Crusch right away, it’s a matter of life or death!”

Stepping towards the door, Subaru felt the old man’s calm but firm hand on her shoulder.

“Subaru-san, I’m afraid it is impossible to see Crusch-sama for a time yet. She is currently engaged in important talks with Russel Fellow-san.”

Subaru tried pulling her shoulder out from under the old man’s hand but it didn’t work. He was holding her tight, though not tight enough to hurt her.

“I don’t care if she’s having a party with the entire elder council!” she fumed. “If I don’t talk with her right away, everyone at the Roswaal manor might die!”

Wilhelm’s features stiffened, but Subaru matched his piercing gaze. Meanwhile, behind her, Rem gave a small gasp. 

“Subaru-kun?” Rem asked with a trembling voice. She hadn’t yet explained anything to the maid. She wanted to avoid it as long as possible, but with the travel time to Roswaal’s manor taking up most of the time until when she already knew it was too late, there was not a minute to lose!

Having scanned Subaru’s features, Wilhelm’s face stiffened further, then he bowed his head down with closed eyes in thought for a moment in concentration.

“What exactly does Subaru-san hope to gain from a meeting with Crusch-sama?” Wilhelm asked, looking back up at Subaru.

“Transport, soldiers, mages, whatever she has!” Subaru answered amidst breaths heavy with physical and mental exhaustion both.

“To what end?” Wilhelm asked.

“What—?!” Subaru grabbed her pulsing forehead. “To save the manor! It will be attacked!” she declared as serious as she had ever been, lowering her hand and looking Wilhelm in the eyes.

“I see.” the old man nodded with a bitter frown, before straightening his entire posture. “I’m afraid that is not a request that Crusch-sama is likely to answer.”

“What?” Subaru blurted out.

“Subaru-kun?” Rem spoke quietly behind her. “What is happening?”

Subaru’s body felt like it was encased in tar as she struggled to turn back to the maid whose sight still chilled her, of whom all she could bear so far was the reassuring weak pulse in the warm wrist entangled between Subaru’s fingers. She couldn’t answer Rem, not fully.

“I— I can’t—” Subaru muttered painfully. “It’s like the mabeasts, Rem. We don’t have time to discuss it.” she said desperately. “If I don’t get back there as soon as possible and with all the help we can get—” Subaru flinched at her words and bit down her sentence.

Rem’s eyes widened at these words, then she hung her head, a sad, pathetic glimmer shining in them. It took a few seconds for her to digest Subaru’s words, but finally she sighed and looked back up, turning to Wilhelm.

“Wilhelm-san, perhaps it would be best to let Crusch-sama decide for herself.” Rem began then bowed deeply. “Rem understands this is an awful request, but Subaru-kun and Rem beg Wilhelm-san to explain the situation to Crusch-sama.”

The butler looked at the two young women before him briefly, evaluating Rem’s words, while the maid kept to her bow, perfect in all but the hand she still kept extended so Subaru could hold onto her. Finally, Wilhelm sighed.

“Very well. I will impress on Crusch-sama the urgency of the situation, however I cannot guarantee that she’ll grant support or a hearing.” he stated, bowing his head.

Clutching her jacket at the zipper, Subaru gave a breath she had hoped to be one of relief. Though in place of relief, all she felt was a deeper tension.

Why would the butler make the claim that Crusch wouldn’t want to help? Sure, in the previous loop she was hesitant, but then Rem’s feelings could have been anything, even just a couple of peasants making trouble. Well, not so this time. Subaru knew what was coming, and Crusch would have to listen.

She’d have to.

 

                                           

 

“Stop that, Subaru-kun.” Rem whispered sternly, grabbing the black haired girl’s arm. Subaru’s face was pressed against the door of Crusch Karsten’s lounge through which moments ago Wilhelm disappeared, asking them to wait.

Ever since first sensing Subaru be enveloped in the witch’s stench more earlier, Rem’s heart was beating faster. This only grew worse with her declaration that the manor is in danger. How could she know it? Was the miasma related? Or perhaps, was Rem simply too distracted recently, and there were clues all along, and Subaru simply put things together far before Rem could?

Maybe she should have seen it coming even then. It wasn’t exactly a secret that the forest in which Roswaal’s manor was located was infested with mabeasts. It would only be natural that they might react to the presence of someone like Subaru whose scent draws them near. While it hardly answered all the questions, and it was strange how Subaru seemed intent on not explaining her reasoning, Rem had to make peace with the thought that Subaru likely researched the local mabeasts to prepare herself in case they pursue her. With such a cursed scent, she likely had to live like this for long. With the threat of mabeasts foremost in Subaru’s mind, perhaps the sudden appearance of a pup with a mark where a mabeast’s horn ought to be really was far more obvious than Rem considered.

Rem frowned as she pulled Subaru away from the door. In spite of all her high thoughts on her, she couldn’t help but feel that this explanation was shaky. Though if there was any truth to it at all, then—

“Let go!” Subaru commanded angrily, pulling her hand free. “I heard her say she won’t be taking us until hours from now!”

Subaru stood between Rem and the door with a jittery look, her eyes scanning the room, though Rem didn’t feel like Subaru was actually looking for anything physical. Digging a hand into her hair, Subaru slouched forward, her whole body trembling.

“Subaru, even if there is something wrong at the manor, Rem is certain that with Roswaal-sama and Beatrice-sama’s help—”

It isn’t enough! ” Subaru burst out, looking up at her suddenly with a disheveled look. “They need my help, don’t you understand?! They can’t do it alone, and you can’t either, so I need to—”

Subaru suddenly bit into her lips and grabbed her head again, while Rem simply stood looking at her with concern, at a loss for the correct path to take.

“No, no, I’m sorry!” the girl muttered, pulling at her black hair. “Don’t leave me, I didn’t mean to say anything bad, I just—”

“Subaru…” Rem spoke softly, reaching out a reassuring hand. “Rem will—”

The handle of the door on the other side of Subaru began to move, to which the black haired girl jolted up and turned to it, waiting only a moment for a gap to appear before—

Subaru! ” Rem exclaimed, forgetting her proper address in company once more.

Against Rem’s attempt to grab her at the last moment, Subaru pushed herself against the door and inside the lounge. Naturally, it didn’t take long for the aged gentleman on the other side to grab her shoulders, restraining the girl without effort, though that didn’t discourage her fully.

Let me go! People will die! I need to talk! ” Subaru screamed, even as Wilhelm was pushing her back out through the door.

“Well, she does appear quite serious.” a familiar, masculine voice noted inside in a neutral tone.

“I’m terribly sorry about this interruption.” Crusch’s voice echoed from inside. She was just in view through the door from where Rem was standing. “Wilhelm, please escort—”

“Forgive me,” the masculine voice interrupted. “However, it seems that the young lady is in quite the desperate hurry. I would not mind a short delay, to hear her out, if it’s not a bother to Crusch-sama.”

“I see.” Crusch answered, and Rem saw her nod at someone on the couch across from hers. “Wilhelm, let Natsuki-san inside.”

“As you wish.” Wilhelm stated in a measured tone, as was to be expected, though Rem could tell that under his stoic, professional exterior, he must have been quite ashamed to have allowed this disturbance to transpire.

As soon as Wilhelm released Subaru, she rushed further inside the room, stopping behind a large armchair and manically grabbing its backrest for support, her head hanging down and her teeth gritted. Rem had no choice, but to follow her, stepping into the room.

Having the chance to take a look around, Rem could see a man, Russel Fellow, with blonde, well groomed hair and a peculiar beard sitting on a couch across from Crusch Karsten. He didn’t seem angry, nor particularly annoyed, instead, he was observing the excited young woman who barged in on his meeting nearly unannounced with measured curiosity. Then, his eyes wandered to Rem, seeming to recognize her from past dealings when Rem was arranging lodging for Roswaal’s estate in the capital.

“I see that the instrument issue has been resolved.” Russel Fellow noted simply, Subaru’s ‘guitar’ sticking out over her shoulders.

“Yes. Rem is very grateful for the recommendation, Russel-sama.” Rem said, bowing politely. “Please excuse Rem and Subaru-kun’s intrusion.” she said, then repeated the bow to the lady of the manor. “Crusch-sama as well.”

“Let’s get this over with then.” Crusch Karsten sighed, looking at Subaru. “I understand you’re concerned about some sort of an attack against Roswaal-san’s manor?”

“Yes!” Subaru exclaimed agitatedly. “We need to send soldiers there to protect it immediately!”

Crusch examined Subaru for a moment.

“You seem rather certain that this will happen. What do you base these assumptions on?” Crusch asked. “Had Roswaal-san sent a request for aid perhaps?”

“No, she didn’t.” Subaru said, shaking her head. “Does it matter where I got the information from right now? There is no time to lose!”

“It very much does.” Crusch responded sternly. “Would you have me mobilize forces not even knowing what I’m mobilizing them for?”

Rem saw Subaru’s fingers dig into the plus backrest of the armchair.

“If you don’t want the lives of everyone at that manor on your conscience: Yes!

Crusch shook her head with a frown. “What a childish response.” she stated.

Subaru visibly gritted her teeth, and the feet of the armchair skid slightly on the floor as she pushed down on it.

“Please excuse us, Crusch-sama.” Rem bowed once more, as she saw that Subaru was about to say or do something very regrettable. “Rem is not certain how Subaru-kun came to her conclusion either, however Subaru-kun is not the kind of person to joke about such things. Rem is confident that there is a good reason for what she’s saying.”

“And what do you base that assumption on?” Crusch asked, turning to her.

“Indeed, seems a curious stance.” Russel noted mildly, remaining neutral.

Rem tried to collect her thoughts, glancing in Subaru’s direction before answering. Subaru was rubbing her forehead looking lost, like she was desperately trying to recall something.

“Subaru-kun appears to have a good instinct for such things.” Rem said, trying to be as truthful as possible. “Rem must admit that she isn’t clear on a lot of it, but Crusch-sama is already aware of the recent incident where Subaru-kun was injured.” she noted with a deep tinge of shame and regret. “Before anyone else, Subaru-kun had realized the coming danger and took appropriate measures to prepare. That time she also had a similar outburst as now, for which Rem must once again apologize, however she turned out to be right.” Rem recalled. “Rem hadn’t listened to Subaru-kun at first, but that only caused further trouble.” she added, hanging her head, clutching one hand in the other before herself. “Rem is certain she must have pieced together something from details Rem has failed to notice.”

Crusch evaluated Rem for a moment with a frown before turning back to Subaru.

“As commendable as the trust the two of you seem to share is, if she’s right, there must be something you can tell us. If not, then—”

Emilia is a half-elf, alright?! ” Subaru burst out. “What do I need to say for you to follow along?! The whole kingdom has now been informed of how Roswaal has a half-elf in his manor, so the worst kind of people are going to go there and attack them!” she continued, fuming angrily, the armchair shaking in her hands. “That’s obvious! The only way you wouldn’t notice, is if you’re being blind on purpose!”

Something very uncharacteristic happened. A mild look of anger broke through Crusch Karsten’s exterior.

“Is that then your claim, Natsuki-san?” Crusch asked, coldly. “This is what led you to your conclusion?”

Subaru hesitated for a moment before forcefully exclaiming: “Yes!”

Crusch took a deep breath then turned to the blonde man sitting across her.

“I am terribly sorry about this delay, Russel-san.” she said, before turning back to Subaru. “As for your request, I don’t need to hear any more of it. Please go to your quarters and wait for Felix’s return so she may continue your treatment.”

What?! ” Subaru yelled. “Don’t you get it?! Felt, Emilia, Roswaal, they might die if you don’t—”

“I very much understand that you believe this to be the case, Natsuki-san.” Crusch interjected coldly. “That being said, there is a limit to my patience, and interrupting an important meeting, only to lie so brazenly to me, goes well beyond that limit!” she added with a raised voice.

I’m not lying! ” Subaru shouted, slamming her hands against the armchair. “They are in danger!”

“That may be so, yet you refuse to be forthcoming with the source of your beliefs.” Crusch said with a dark, stern expression. “I do not have time to entertain such behaviour. The sole reason I do not have Wilhelm escort you out of this manor, is because the contract for your treatment, so if you do not wish to bring further dishono—”

As Crusch spoke, Rem could see Subaru hunch over the armchair, her whole body trembling, until she couldn’t take it anymore and burst out.

You would let them be butchered?! ” Subaru screamed.

Silence fell on the room in the wake of these words, broken only by the fabric of the armchair’s backrest stretching under Subaru’s grip. As to be expected of a woman of her stature, Crusch didn’t visibly show sights of getting more upset over these hastily spoken words, likely instead just searching for the most appropriate response. Russel Fellow also maintained an apathetic disposition towards Subaru’s behaviour, simply observing the situation with a hand on his chin, paying special interest to Subaru, who soon began panting.

“Yes.” came finally the simple answer from Crusch’s lips without a shred of emotion behind it.

“You…” Subaru muttered, scratching her head. “No, you— How could you say that?!”

“Russel-san?” Crusch asked, turning to the guest.

“Oh please, do go on, I haven’t my next appointment for a while.” he stated simply.

“Very well.” Crusch nodded, then turned back to Subaru. “Let me ask you this, Natsuki Subaru: What reason would I have to aid the Roswaal estate?”

“What?” Subaru blurted out.

Rem shuffled in place uncomfortably. It didn’t bring her joy to see this.

“I’ve asked a simple enough question, I believe.” Crusch noted. “What reason would I have to come to the aid of Roswaal-san?”

Subaru stared back at the duchess completely dumbfounded. It seemed as if she genuinely hadn’t thought this far ahead. Knowing Subaru, that very well might have been the case.

“Why would you need a reason to save people?!” Subaru blurted out. “You’re friends with them, you worked—”

“Allow me to correct a clear misunderstanding, Natsuki Subaru.” Crusch interrupted, shaking her head. “Perhaps granting you the courtesies befit of a guest at my manor had given you a different idea, however no part of my hospitality is founded upon any sort of fond feelings I have towards you, or the people who contracted Felix and myself to see to your recovery.” she said matter of factually. “Quite the contrary, with Roswaal apparently sponsoring not one, but two of my rivals in the royal selection, our relationship could be described as ‘enemies’.”

“Ene—” Subaru repeated in a mumble, trailing off and staring down into nothing.

“I will ask once again, now that this has been cleared up.” Crusch continued. “What possible reason do you have for why I should intervene?”

“What— reas—?” Subaru muttered in a daze. “You’re— You’re supposed to become queen, aren’t you?” Subaru asked. “You’d abandon your future subjects, just like that?”

“For one, I am not yet queen.” Crusch said. “For another, it’s not ‘just like that’. There are greater, far more tangible matters to see to than whatever this display of yours is about.” she noted. “And even if this phantom threat of yours is real, can you state when this attack will occur, or should I just move the forces available to me into a permanent occupation of the Marquessa’s lands?”

“In the next few days!” Subaru answered, to which Crusch furrowed her brows.

“And how would you know such a thing?”

“I—”

“You’re asking me to put the lives of men who have sworn themselves to me and my house in danger, men for whose fate I bear responsibility for. Yet you refuse to even clarify the reasons, or offer anything in return.” Crusch sighed.

“Isn’t saving them enough?!” Subaru asked, her previous anger slowly, but surely replaced by desperation.

“How so?” Crusch asked. “There is but one thing I could gain from intervening, and if my intervention is necessary, I will receive it even without risking my men.”

“Wha—?”

As Subaru cut herself off, Russel Fellow interjected: “She appears rather lost.” he said with a disappointed expression. “If I may be so bold, Crusch-sama is of course referring to the fact that showing that without her help, Roswaal’s estate would have fallen would cast considerable doubt on the abilities of Roswaal and the young lady she sponsored.” he explained, before pausing. “As you’ve mentioned Felt-sama, I imagine such a thing would reflect very poorly on House Astrea as well, essentially removing what credibility the two candidates possess. While this would be beneficial to Crusch-sama’s goal of becoming queen, there is hardly anything to gain if the alternative is that they are removed in a different fashion.” he added with a slightly compassionate frown. “Not that I advocate for that, or either side here, mind you. I just felt it best to demonstrate the issue.”

Crusch simply straightened herself and sat in silent acknowledgement of the man’s words.

“That’s— That’s all they are to you?” Subaru asked, shaking. “Just some pieces on a board?!” she added fumingly, looking up at Crusch.

“As distasteful as it may be from a moral position, it is far from incorrect.” Crusch said simply.

Subaru took a few laboured breaths, then pushed herself off of the arm chair’s backrest, and with a convulsing face pointed a finger at Crusch.

“You liar .” Subaru hissed, a fearful jolt going through Rem’s heart as she listened to enraged the accusation. “You’d claim to admire Emilia’s strength, and then let her die !”

Crusch’s eyes narrowed sharply. “Why would you assume I admire her, Natsuki Subaru-san?” she asked colder than ever.

You said so! ” Subaru yelled, though moments later, her expression suddenly softened, and she raised a hand before her mouth.

“This is the first time we’ve ever exchanged words, Natsuki Subaru.” Crusch said, her eyes scanning at the girl. “And I believe it's likely the last.” she added with finality. “Wilhelm, please escort the young woman out of the room, she is free to return to her quarters and wait for treatment.”

“Right away, Crusch-sama.” Wilhelm bowed before stepping to Subaru.

Subaru breathed heavily, her eyes shifting between Wilhelm and the duchess.

“Fine, I don’t need a guide, I’m going.” Subaru declared, her fiery tone from before turning cold. “But forget about the treatment. Unlike some people, I’m not going to sit around while innocent lives are at stake!”

“Natsuki-san,” Wilhelm spoke, measuredly. “Perhaps it would be best not to—”

“I don’t care!” Subaru retorted. “I’m leaving, with or without your stupid help!”

“Natsuki Subaru.” Crusch spoke up one last time. “You should understand that leaving this estate behind and cancelling your treatment would—”

“Void your contract, yeah. I. Don’t. Care. ” Subaru responded, turning to the door, and giving a careless wave with her hand.

Rem’s heart beating yet faster, she stood before the girl marching for the door.

“Subaru-kun, please reconsider! Emilia-sama had—”

“I know she did a lot for me, Rem.” Subaru interrupted. “But that’s why I can’t just sit here and pretend that everything is fine! I can’t let that—”

The girl’s anger filled confidence disappeared in an instant, her eyes wandering off of Rem’s and staring into nothingness while her entire body seemed to stiffen up in an instant.

“Subaru-kun!” Rem exclaimed with concern, holding a hand to Subaru’s cheek.

The black haired girl’s mind slowly returning from whatever dark place it wandered, she slowly lifted a hand up and grabbed Rem’s.

“Rem, we need to go. Now.” Subaru declared, pushing something heavy down inside, and heading for the door, pulling Rem’s hand behind herself. Without looking back at the others in the room, Subaru simply gave the farewell: “Have fun with your meeting, and good luck running this kingdom into the ground.”

As Subaru stepped out of the lounge, Rem pulled her hand out of the girl’s grasp, looking at her with a deep pain aching in her chest, before turning back and bowing deeply at the lady of the manor, giving a sincere apology for their rude behaviour and interrupting a meeting.

While she paid close attention to using the most appropriate words, in truth her mind was focused on Subaru, and Subaru alone. Whatever dark omens have revealed themselves to her, there was no question in Rem’s mind that Subaru wouldn’t go this far unless she fully believed herself to be right. She could only hope that Subaru finds it in herself to be honest, and not try to shoulder everything by herself. If this threat is real, Subaru’d have to confide in Rem and let her help.

She’d have to.

Chapter Text

Memories of a future that must never come haunted Subaru’s every step.

Little bizarre questions echoed in her, questions she could never find the answer to, lost in a world that never was. Amidst her whirlwind of memories twisted and abused by the gruesome circumstances, new details swam to the top of her conscious while others sunk, Subaru rendered unable to tell what even happened and what not anymore. Where was Roswaal? Where were Emilia, Felt and Beatrice? Why were some villagers at the manor, and others not? What was that trail of blood leading into the passage? Was it leading into it, or out? What froze her? One of Roswaal’s traps? Why did they kill the villagers? Why was Rem killed and left lying face up, when others were burned, especially if she arrived after the massacre? Why wasn’t Subaru killed by the people in robes? Were they Witch Cultists? Why were Rem’s eyes closed? Her face clean? Why attack the manor if it costs them so many people? Did one of the other candidates orchestrate this? Why did Rem abandon her?

“Subaru.” Rem spoke softly, trying to get Subaru’s attention, though it was a commodity hard to come by right now.

The maid was walking alongside Subaru, who was holding the oni’s hand tightly. She had to. No matter what, they had to go to the manor together. Neither of them would stand a chance against those people alone, but maybe if they went together, if they spared Subaru— No, they’re going to make it before that.

Rem and Subaru were carrying one box of luggage each in their free hands, Rem carrying a considerably larger trunk. Wilhelm gifted the large trunk to Rem as a farewell gift, as she ‘needed the room’, though after Subaru’s behaviour there was no offer of a free ride.

“You didn’t need to bother bringing the lyulyre.” Subaru huffed, thinking of the obvious contents of the large trunk, given her findings last loop.

The maid gasped in surprise.

“Rem didn’t think Subaru would have realized.” the girl mentioned.

“Why else would you need a bigger trunk to take back only the stuff we already had coming here?” Subaru sighed.

“True. As for why Rem brought it: She hadn't forgotten her promise to Subaru to find Kenichi a good home.” Rem noted with a little smile which quickly turned to a sad frown after which following a little silence she asked, while clutching Subaru’s hand harder: “Subaru is truly certain that something terrible is going to happen at the manor?”

“Yes, I am.” Subaru said, her voice trembling slightly. “I am certain, and I cannot explain to you why. That’s the best I can tell you, so—” Subaru stopped, followed by Rem who turned back to her hesitantly. “Rem, I swear that I’ll do anything I can to stop it, but I need to know if you trust me.” Subaru said seriously, scenes of waking up without Rem and finding her corpse at the manor gates playing in her head, making it difficult to so much as maintain eye contact.

Rem hesitated before he answer. “Of course Rem trusts Subaru.” she said finally, sounding hurt and a little shocked at the implication. “Subaru wouldn’t lie about something so horrible!”

Subaru sighed and shook her head, then gripped the girl’s hand more. “But do you trust me enough not to try and go off on your own?”

The oni’s eyes widened at these words, then she quickly looked away. It was clear even to Subaru that she managed to touch on something that the maid was already contemplating.

Biting on the inside of her cheeks, Subaru tugged on Rem’s hand until the maid looked back at her..

”Rem, please, swear to me you won’t do that.” Subaru begged in a pathetic tone. “I don’t know what I’d do if I was left alone again.”

She didn’t mean to let ‘again’ slip, but it was hard enough maintaining the fragile composure she’s been coasting on ever since throwing up in front of Kadomon’s store for the second time.

Rem looked to Subaru with a searching look in which Subaru felt something that seemed almost like disappointment. Though, of course, why wouldn’t the amazing maid be disappointed in having to keep to Subaru’s pace. Finally however she answered.

“Subaru is much too amazing to need Rem, when she wants to be.” the oni began, then sighed. “Still, Rem promises to not do anything like that. If Subaru has a plan, Rem will help her see it through.”

After what happened the last time, Subaru couldn’t accept those words in full confidence, but just hearing them calmed her a little bit.

“Alright.” Subaru nodded, forcing on a confident smile and gripping Rem’s hand tightly. “Then here we go.”

Rem didn’t seem entirely convinced, but hearing Subaru’s declaration made a soft, lovely smile spread on her face, which made Subaru feel like the cavalry had already arrived. Though they were only halfway to his villa.

 

                                           

 

“Wait, so he’s already gone?!” Subaru blurted out, agitated.

“I’m afraid so, dearie.” an old woman said, standing by an elderly man who Subaru assumed to be her husband.

From what they told them, the couple was associated with House Astrea, and essentially kept their villa near the palace occupied when no more prominent members of the house were present in the capital. Custodians essentially, from what Subaru gathered.

“When did he leave?!” Subaru asked desperately. “Maybe we could catch up with him?”

Subaru had led Rem here hoping to find her second best chance. In a kingdom as clearly apathetic to the fate of both Emilia and Felt as this, her only tangible hope in the capital was to get Reinhard’s help. Being the ‘knight amongst knights’ that he was, he might have had a chance to convince the Royal Guard to take action.

“I’m afraid that would be difficult, miss.” the old man noted compassionately. “He left in the evening two days ago. Knowing him, he was at the main family estate soon after.” he added with a slight chuckle before turning serious. “With the mist to the southeast, it might take some time to get there.” he noted.

“Right, damn it, that was two days ago.” Subaru said, clicking her tongue in frustration.

Going Back in Time had completely thrown off certain things. She had learned in previous trials to disregard things she thought already happened, but of course, there was a limit to what was undone. She simply couldn’t recall exactly what happened how long ago

“Of course, if time is not an issue, we’d be happy to send a messenger.” the old lady offered.

“Yes, yes.” the man nodded along. “In fact, he asked us to provide Natsuki-san with transportation if she requires it, so while currently we have no carriage available, we could see about arranging for one.” he noted.

Subaru rubbed her forehead grimmly. She was just done promising Rem she had a plan, and already things were going sideways.

“How long would it take to get to House Astrea?” Subaru asked.

Instead of the elders, it was Rem who answered.

“Rem knows a little about the roads of the kingdom, so normally, it would take about half a day with a fast land dragon, however with the mist, Subaru-kun and Rem would either have to wait for it to pass, or take another, longer and more difficult route. At the very least, Rem expects three days of travel, unless someone braves the mist.”

“How does one go for half a day to three days anyway?!” Subaru blurted out what frustrated her since the previous loop. “I mean maybe from half a day to a full day, but come on!”

“Subaru-kun, one must take into consideration lodging, letting the land dragon rest, feeding it and the dangers on the road. Lesser roads are simply not safe to travel at night due to bandits and mabeasts, as they are not as well patrolled as the highways.” Rem explained. “Add to that the poorer quality of the roads themselves and that they aren’t as direct either, the various factors add up quite quickly.”

Subaru groaned, though she couldn’t exactly fault Rem’s logic.

“Fine.” she sighed. “It’s not like Reinhard could be much help anyway. If I remember right, Flanders is almost the opposite way from the Roswaal domain.” Here, she suddenly paused, something digging itself out from her recent future memories. “Wait, just how big is the white whale’s mist anyway? I thought it was on the Lifaus highway, on the way to the Roswaal domain.”

“Is it?” the old man asked, surprised. “Already?”

“What do you mean ‘already’?” Subaru asked.

“From what we heard, the mist was spotted somewhere between Flanders and the capital.” the old lady explained. “Certainly, there was word of it heading west, but from what we heard, it wasn’t going to get west of the capital until sometime tomorrow.”

“Perhaps I mixed up the dates?” the old man offered with a concerned look.

“No, no, no!” Subaru exclaimed, a bit of excitement bubbling in her. “No, you’re right, I mixed things up!” she nodded quickly. “So what you’re saying, is that until sometime tomorrow, the highway leading to the Roswaal domain is going to be safe?”

“I’m not quite certain anymore.” the old man noted. “If what I heard is right, and I didn’t miss a day somewhere, then more or less.”

Jackpot! ” Subaru shouted, pumping a fist and not caring one bit about the fact that not even Rem would understand the word.

“Excuse me miss?” the old man asked, confused.

“Allow Rem to apologize on Subaru-kun’s behalf.” Rem noted with a small bow accompanied by a relieved looking smile. “Subaru-kun is prone to say strange things when she’s excited. Rem believes Subaru-kun has come to a solution to our problem, whatever it is.”

“You can say that again!” Subaru laughed.

“Rem believes Subaru-kun has come to a solution to our problem, whatever it is.” Rem said dutifully.

“I didn’t mean—” Subaru began, but was quickly tipped off by Rem tilting her head slightly to the side with a smile. “Okay, got it.” she smiled.

“Please forgive me if this is intruding, however, may I ask what is this ‘problem’ the young lady mentioned?” the old woman asked. “You’ve not yet said why you wished to meet with the Sword Saint today.”

“Oh, right, sorry, that was stupid of me!” Subaru sighed, smacking her forehead lightly. “You definitely will want to send a messenger to the Astrea estate when it’s safe. They can’t do anything right now with that damned whale in the way, but Reinhard should be told that Roswaal’s manor is going to be attacked by what I think is the Witch Cult.”

“The Witch Cult?!” the old lady repeated, covering her mouth. “By the Dragon, but isn’t young Felt-sama also there?”

“That’s why he needs to be told.” Subaru nodded with a grim expression. “I was hoping he could get the Royal Guard to intervene, but—”

“Sadly, that’s not a simple thing to make happen.” the old man interjected. “However, as soon as we arrange for a messenger, I will petition for a council meeting so they may mobilize the knights.”

“Wait, that can be done?” Subaru asked, excitement building in her again. “How long would that take?”

“Given present circumstances, likely two or three days.” the old man answered with a sense of urgency in his voice.

“Damn it!” Subaru hissed at herself.

As great as it was that the option to mobilize the knights wasn’t out of the question, if they waited so much as two days, it would likely be impossible for the knights to then also make it to Roswaal's manor on time. She didn’t fully understand it yet, but it seemed that the whale was coming from the east. She also remembered seeing the mist tower over the forest when she made it to Roswaal’s manor, which suggested that for whatever reason, the whale was essentially traveling exactly along the fastest path from the capital to Roswaal’s manor. Since everyone seemed terrified of this thing, the chances that she could convince the knights to try and go straight through its mist seemed low.

“Alright, nevermind!” Subaru exclaimed, tapping her forehead with her nails. “You can do that, just in case, but I need to get to the manor as soon as possible!” turning to Rem she continued. “If we can get a dragon carriage and leave right now, we could beat the whale to the highway and get back to the manor fast, right? Then we’d just need to make sure that Roswaal and Beako and everyone are fully prepared, right?” she asked with a shaky voice.

Having seen what had happened at the manor, the idea that they could just ‘prepare the manor’ seemed very far-fetched, but with no other reinforcements at her disposal, it also seemed to be the only option available. Since Subaru never saw what happened to Roswaal and the two candidates, there was a slight hope, that perhaps the manor was caught off guard, and Roswaal simply escaped with them through that frost trapped path. With a proper warning, perhaps they could put on a better fight, or if all else fails, just evacuate everyone through whatever that route was. For what it’s worth, it didn’t look like the cultists of whatever they were were able to get past the trap.

“I’m afraid that’s also going to be quite difficult.” the old man said. “There are few dragon carriages available to hire these past couple of days in the capital.”

“Huh? Why?” Subaru asked. “Actually, why don’t you have your own carriage?”

The old lady and the man exchanged a look before the woman answered.

“The carriages available to the villa have been lent for a worthy cause, however I’m afraid we can’t say more due to the circumstances.” she answered. “It wasn’t expected that Natsuki Subaru-san would come inquiring about transport so soon, so while I’m certain the Sword Saint would approve of warning Marquessa Mathers, we simply don’t have any carriages to lend.”

“Actually, come to think of it, we could give them something else.” the man noted, turning to his presumably wife.

“Oh?” she asked. “Ah! Of course, I should have thought of that too. Although could they—?”

“I’m not sure.” the man answered before turning back to Rem and Subaru. “While our acarriages have been lent out, the same can’t be said for all our land dragons. Can the two of you ride?”

“Uh, hah, like on top of one?” Subaru asked.

She was vaguely aware of the fact that people rode on top of land dragons. She had seen it done a couple of times, though most land dragons she saw were tied in front of carriages. Riding a land dragon was definitely not something she ever attempted.

“We are very grateful for the offer, and welcome the help.” Rem declared, taking a step forward and bowing deeply to the old couple, before turning to Subaru with a smile. “There is more Rem can teach Subaru than housework and characters.”

“We are glad to hear that!” the old man nodded to Rem’s words with a smile. “I’ll see the messenger and the council personally right away.”

“And I’ll help you choose a land dragon.” the woman added. “The ones still here are not the fastest dears, but they are hard working, loyal animals.”

Subaru let out a long ‘haaaa’ somewhere between anxiety and relief. She was happy to hear that finally they had a shot, though honestly she wasn’t looking forward to finding out what it’s like to directly ride on top of a mass of muscle and meat that could crush her just by falling over.

Chapter Text

“Is— this— meant— to— be— so— shaky?” Subaru stuttered out, hanging as tightly as she could onto Rem’s waist, who sat before her atop the red land dragon speeding up to what appeared to be its maximum velocity.

“Do not worry, Subaru.” Rem responded, her vice also a bit shaky. “Rem disciplined the land dragon, they won’t throw Subaru, if Subaru only hangs on.” she declared, turning her head back a bit with a smile. “She can hold as tight as she wants though.”

Navigating through the busy streets of the capital with the land dragon took more time than Subaru’d hoped. With the time they wasted heading back to the Karsten manor, which amounted to little more than fetching their luggage, and finding a proper saddle for the red land dragon under them that said luggage could be secured to below their feet, Subaru and Rem had already lost some time.

Obviously, the biggest issue with their current situation was time. Subaru tried to focus on the positive as best she could. They had transportation. They were taking the fastest route back. Rem promised to not leave her behind this time. She could feel Rem’s warmth against her arms and chest as she held the girl close, her blood flowing, her body gently expanding with each measured breath, full of life.

On the other hand, she didn’t know the time limit. If she had to guess, what she saw couldn’t have been more than half a day old, since— It was still smoldering. That would mean, that if she considered the early afternoon she woke up on the first day of this new loop, then the manor would probably be attacked during the third day. That is, assuming that the villagers weren’t gathered up and burned long after the fact.

Sadly, because they had no carriage, even if this was the same blue breed of land dragon that according to Otto could keep going for days without stopping, Subaru couldn’t exactly trust herself not to fall off its back if she tried to ride it through sleep. This was an issue, as admittedly, this was far from the finest animal at the Astrea villa, its betters having been lent out for whatever that ‘righteous cause’ was that the old couple didn’t want to get into.

While Rem assured Subaru that most properly trained land dragons are easy and comfortable to ride, it was quite evident that this old boy was only ever used to pull wagons around, as even with external wind and inertial forces being cancelled out, the way it bobbed its body up and down without the restraint of harnesses shook Subaru something fierce.

“What’s our schedule like, Rem?” Subaru asked, her voice shaking in rhythm with the beast under them.

“If Subaru doesn’t mind not stopping until dinner and rest, we should be able to reach the town of Mill Gray by sundown.” Rem answered. “However, since it is not known how fast the whale’s mist will spread to the west, Rem would recommend riding on until at least Flugel’s tree, which we may be able to reach before midnight.”

Subaru nodded and hummed in acknowledgement over Rem’s shoulder. She remembered Flugel’s tree, that ridiculously massive piece of megaflora being roughly halfway on their initial trip from Roswaal’s manor to the capital.

“Then, we should be able to reach the manor sometime early tomorrow?” Subaru asked.

“Early afternoon.” Rem corrected.

Subaru hummed once again. It still wasn’t ideal, but then again, ideal would have been if they weren’t in this cursed situation at all. It was likely the best they could get.

“I’ll figure this out Rem.” Subaru said, holding the maid ever tighter, to which she just gave a gentle sigh. “We’ll save everyone, whatever it takes.”

 

                                           

 

The sun had just recently gone down far ahead, and the blue-haired maid felt the pair of arms around her waist grow weaker and weaker with the pass of every hour.

As she had predicted, they reached and passed by the settlement of Mill Gray not long ago, with a mountain tall dark shadow against the nightly stars showing at a great distance the place where long, long ago Flugel, the sage planted a tree which would become a grand landmark of the kingdom. If the girl behind her could only hang on for a bit more, they’ll be able to rest under its branches, and under the moon above, which likely will be full by the time Rem can finally reunite with her sister and see the truth of whatever had spooked Subaru.

Thankfully, Subaru seemed to have calmed down somewhat since that evil burst of miasma just after noon. She didn’t seem to be in as much of a panic as before, though Rem could sense a deep anxiety haunting the girl’s every step, and unlike ever before, Subaru held onto her every chance she got. Whether it was holding Rem’s hand as they walked from one villa to the next, or holding Rem as tightly as she could now as she rode behind her on their borrowed land dragon—

It was wrong, and she knew it, yet this aspect of Subaru’s anxiety filled Rem with a deep, somewhat guilty sense of joy. Feeling that it was her that Subaru needed to— No, this was very selfish of her. If they had more time, if a hint of Subaru’s fears hadn’t invaded Rem’s heart as well, she’d have tried to put a stop to it. Of course she would have. Certainly. Subaru was better than to hang onto someone so desperately… But if she had to hang on for just a little while, just until they resolved whatever it was that struck at her heart? Then Rem couldn’t have been more blessed, than to be the one that Subaru clung to.

The maid’s unconscious smile quickly turned to a tense frown as up ahead  she finally noticed stars flicker slightly just above the horizon. This wasn’t an alien sight. At the manor, she could see such things happen during festivals, when the smoke of bonfires lit in the nearby village of Irlam blocked the stars partially. However, there was no light up ahead, which would mean that the travellers were hiding their presence!

“Subaru.” Rem spoke, feeling Subaru jolt a little behind her, likely half asleep already.

“Y-yeah?” she heard Subaru respond, as Rem began to urge the animal under them to slow down.

“There are some people camped up ahead.” Rem stated simply. “It would perhaps be for the best to turn around and—”

“What?” Subaru asked. “Wait, do they stink of the witch?!” she then quickly corrected a tone of terror entering her voice.

Rem paused for a moment to gather her senses. Subaru, who was so drenched in the witch’s scene hanging onto her so tightly made it difficult to confirm but—

“No. Rem can’t sense that they’d carry the stench.”

Subaru let out a long relieved sight, her arms loosening around Rem a bit.

“That’s fine then.” Subaru said finally. “It’s probably just merchants or something.”

“It’s possible, but they seem to be hiding their encamp—” she began, but just as she was about to explain her reasoning to Subaru, she spotted a source of light, a torch appear in the distance, illuminating first the large figure of a fox-like demihuman dressed in a white robe, then as they walked a few steps towards Subaru and Rem, wall of leather suspended between what looked like two tall wooden stakes. On the leather, there was a red marking painted, one which Rem had recognized.

The person with the torch held it high and waved it slowly side to side as if in a greeting.

“That’s them, isn’t it?” Subaru asked, letting go of Rem’s abdomen with one hand to point forwards. “I think they’re saying high.”

“It seems so.” Rem conceded with a sigh. “Does Subaru wish to meet them, or should we ride on?”

“We should—” Subaru began, but then hesitated before answering for a moment. “Agh. I want to say ride on, but I don’t know how long I can stay on this thing.” she finally admitted. “They might have some information for us anyway.”

“As Subaru wishes.” Rem nodded, and with a few quick tugs of the reins instructed their land dragon to head on towards the figure with the torch.

Getting closer and closer, it seemed that even Subaru noticed the large red marking on the leather wall.

“Hey, what is that symbol? It looks familiar.” Subaru noted.

“It’s possible that Subaru had seen it at the palace.” Rem noted. “These people appear to be associated with Anastasia Hoshin-sama.”

“Huh?” Subaru asked surprised, hooking an arm around Rem’s shoulder and rubbing her own forehead. “Yeah, it might be that. Didn’t pay too much attention to her, except—” Subaru froze up a bit, and it didn’t take much effort for Rem to figure out what, or rather who might be on the girl’s mind.

When finally they got near enough to the man with the torch to speak, it was possible to make out the image of multiple tents set up beside the highway, with thick leather walls erected around and between them. A rather basic form of fortification during the night, primarily designed to block out the light of campfires from spreading outside and warning of possible foes. In the air, she could smell the scent of something other than wood burning, her best guess being a certain material used to blacken smoke, which would couple with such a fortification well, minimizing the light the smoke itself would reflect.

“Hey there!” the beastman ahead of them greeted, lowering his torch. His voice was deep, his accent and dialect a mix of a thick Kararagi influence and the characteristic pronunciation of his kind. “You two seem lightly packed for this road at this hour. Ran into some trouble that way?” he asked simply.

He seemed experienced. There was a heavy blade hanging on his belt, but while his posture wasn’t slacking, he didn’t give off any hostility of his own.

“Greetings.” Rem said, nodding her head. “There was no ‘trouble’, we were simply in a great hurry to our destination.”

“Ah.” he nodded. “Plan to ride through the night?”

“The intention was to camp under Flugel’s tree.” Rem answered simply. “However, Subaru-kun had asked that we stop by this camp. Would that be of inconvenience?”

“Going to have to check with the captain on that, but usually he doesn’t mind strangers.” the night guard answered, scratching under his chin, and looking out into the distance behind Subaru and Rem. “I’ll go check with him real quick, you two can stretch your legs if you like.”

With that, the night guard turned and disappeared behind the leather wall, towards some lively chatter amids the tents.

“Subaru is certain that she wants to stay here?” Rem asked, placing a hand on Subaru’s which was still clutching her stomach.

The girl behind her seemed to have been shaken out of deep thoughts by the question.

“Oh, uh— Yeah, but can you tell me who these guys are?” Subaru asked.

Rem nodded, and gently removed Subaru’s hand from her stomach before turning to the side and hopping off of the land dragon.

“They are a group of mercenaries from Kararagi.” Rem answered. “Rem recalls they are owned by the Hoshin Trading company.”

“There doesn’t seem to be many of them.” Subaru noted, carefully lifting her own leg over the land dragon, trying not to fall off.

Indeed, judging by the number of tents and apparent size of the encampment, there were probably only about two dozen people camped here, plus their mounts and wagons.

“You don’t think they’re like, I don’t know, a secret army plotting to besiege the capital and take it by force, do you?” Subaru asked.

“Subaru has a very active imagination.” Rem sighed with a little smile, helping Subaru down from the land dragon. It took a few moments for Subaru to be able to stand on her own power, standing rather crooked after hours of uninterrupted riding. “It is very doubtful that Anastasia-sama would wish to do something so brash. Rem has heard she invested a lot into international trade, and had been trying to build up a good reputation for her company in Lugnica even before the beginning of the royal selection. Rem doubts she would toss all of that aside for the sake of making an attempt at the throne with a mercenary band against Lugnica.”

“Well, okay, but I wouldn’t know.” Subaru huffed with a mild tone of annoyance. “But wait, hold on, you said mercenaries, right?”

“Rem has heard of them being hired by groups outside their trading company.” Rem answered, straightening Subaru out.

For some reason, an excited grin began to appear on Subaru’s face, as the girl began to nod  energetically.

“Alright, this is actually going pretty—” Subaru began, her features contorting a little before she finished. “Well.”

With a quick sigh, Subaru stepped closer and grabbed Rem’s hand once again, just as the demihuman returned with a much taller wolfin who wore only a large, baggy pair of black pants with red sash, a pair of black arm guards and a shoulder guard over his right shoulder with the same insignia as on the leather wall.

The first thing the tall wolfin did was take a deep breath of the air, before looking down at the two comparatively tiny women before himself, the corners of his mouth perking up, revealing a pair of long sharp rows of fangs.

“Ricardo Welkin. Beautiful night for a ride, eh?” the wolfin greeted with a wolf-like grin.

Chapter Text

“That is a fine animal you’ve got there, ha!” the giant muscle and fur covered man declared.

Subaru had seen animal-like demi-humans before, of course, but generally they seemed to keep to themselves in the capital which was the only place for her to really get exposed to them. Well, of course she knew other demi-humans, like Emilia and Rom, as well as Rem and Ram, if onis counted. She wasn’t entirely sure of the dynamics. At one point she tried asking old man Rom back at the manor, but he just scratched his head, shot a look at the then nearby Roswaal and dodge the question.

“He doesn’t seem spooked!” the wolf-like ‘Ricardo Welkin’ continued, is booming voice conveying a thick influence of the Kansai dialect, much thicker than the foxish soldier beside him wearing white robes. “Seems experienced and well trained. You’re coming from the capital, ain’t ya?”

“That is correct, Welkin-sama.” Rem answered with a small bow, slightly tugging Subaru forward, as she was still gently holding onto her hand.

“Ah, ah!” the wolf-man answered with a loud chuckle. He placed a hand on the back of his head, brushing briefly against his large, pompadour-like— hair? Fur? Whatever it was, it looked like he was trying to signify a mild sense of embarrassment, though it didn’t shine through in his voice and expression whatsoever, only the hand gesture. “No need for such formality.” he noted. “Ricardo’s fine.”

“Very well, Ricardo-sama.” Rem answered.

Ricardo gave another little chuckle interspersed with a sigh.

“She’s like that, it grows on you.” Subaru noted understandingly with a nod to the wolf.

The wolf man gave an understanding nod then slowly began to walk towards them, or rather, to their side, to the red land dragon.

“So, I hear the two of you would like to rest here for the night? Going west, are you?” he asked as he reached the animal, reaching up with a hand and giving the old and patient land dragon a friendly pat on the side of its head.

“Yes, that’s right.” Subaru nodded, stepping a bit back.

While it was likely just their similar heights and aversion to proper upper attire over their impressive build, but this captain reminded Subaru of old man Rom. Only a much more open version of the giant. He certainly had that special ‘I mean you no harm, but I could snap you like a twig if I did.’ atmosphere to him that old man Rom carried.

“Uh, how long have you all been camping here?” Subaru asked, pointing to the erected leather wall.

“Since sundown.” Ricardo answered, giving one more good look to the land dragon before turning back to the two women. “Ah, you find our little fortification odd, don’t you?” he grinned as his eyes followed Subaru’s arm.

“Kinda? What is it for?” Subaru asked.

“So our enemies can’t see our campfires.” the wolf man said proudly. A bit of Subaru’s previous concerns returned about these possibly being rogue soldiers here to attack the kingdom.

“We’re… Not that, are we?” Subaru asked, unconsciously gripping Rem’s hand tighter.

“Ha! This isn’t the kind of conversation we’d be having then.” Ricardo said, patting the hilt of a large sword on his belt, before tapping one of his fangs thoughtfully with a finger. “Though that could change I guess if you stole this from the Astreas.” he added, looking down at Subaru sharply before turning his gaze to Rem. He was still smiling, though he was clearly evaluating them. “Don’t mean to pry, but you don’t look like messengers, and it really is one heck of a night for a dragonback ride.”

“Hold on, you know this dragon?” Subaru asked, her mouth hanging open a bit unconsciously.

“No, but I’ve got eyes, and the saddle has their crest, didn’t you notice?” he added, furrowing his brows a bit and slightly adjusting his shoulders.

“Forgive the misunderstanding.” Rem cut in, bowing once more, before turning the sleeve above the hand Subaru was holding inside out, revealing Roswaal’s family insignia sewn into the fabric. “The land dragon was lent to us so we may reach Marquessa Roswaal L Mathers’ residence as fast as possible.” Here, she gestured to Subaru. “Subaru-kun and Rem were the only ones able to leave right away.”

“Oh!” Subaru chirped up in sudden realization. “Yeah, yeah no, we’re with Roswaal! I’ve, uh, I’ve got clothes with that in my trunk too—” she began, however before she could walk to the land dragon and start fiddling with her luggage, Rem gently grabbed her arm and rolled up the sleeve, where just a bit inside, there was an identical insignia sewn in.

Subaru stared at it for a minute. Rem always took care of her running clothes for her, so she didn’t see it turned inside out for a while. Still, the fact she never noticed it was there spoke of just how finely the insignia was sewn in there.

“How long has that been there?” Subaru asked.

“Roswaal sama asked Rem to add it soon after the incident.” Rem answered.

Ricardo Welkin who was still towering over both of them gave out a single short laugh that was almost more like a huff and grinned once more.

“Alright, seemed a bit off, but I doubt the two of you could steal from two different major houses and yet would be travelling this lightly.” he declared with a nod, showing approval of his own line of thought. “Or in any case, what kind of thieves would wear the taken goods?” he added with another laughing huff. “So then, feel free to shack up for the night, I’m guessing we better not ask what the Sword Saint and the High Sorceress are doing sending two young women under the white whale’s nose, so I’ll have the lads lay off the questions!” he declared, clapping his hands together and grabbing the land dragon’s reins before turning to his foxish underling. “Give this old boy a treat!” he ordered, holding out the reins.

Rem bowed one more time in her most formal way.

“We are grateful for the hospitality.” she spoke simply to which Ricardo just laughed and headed back around the leather wall as soon as the soldier stepped closer and grabbed the reins.

Subaru felt a little lost, as if things were going a little too smoothly.

“Rem? Is this fine?” she asked, turning to the maid. “We aren’t going to—” she began, but then cut herself off, just nodding her head towards the soldier patting their land dragon’s neck.

“Do not worry, Subaru-kun.” Rem said, seeming a bit distasted with their company, but not anxious. “There is nothing to fear from these people.” she added with an encouraging look, though there was a strange emphasis on the word ‘fear’ that Subaru couldn’t quite place.

 

                                           

 

Rem sat in a fresh, previously unknown mixture of discomfort and deep contentment as she walked into the encampment, Subaru holding tightly onto her hand.

After the land dragon had been led away by the soldier, Ricardo Welkin led Rem and Subaru to a large campfire in the heart of the relatively small encampment. Examining the situation, it appeared that much of the soldiers here were already asleep, the Captain keeping some of the knight watch company.

When they got there, and both Rem and Subaru gave their introductions, right away two of the men asked who Rem and Subaru were, to which Ricardo simply said that he’s come with Hoshin and the Sage with a wink, which everyone nodded to.

“Right, won’t ask nothing.” one of them sighed, shuffling over to make some room near the fire.

“Hoshin and the Sage?” Subaru repeated.

“Old and long company story.” Ricardo answered with a wave of his large hand. “It’s now code for ‘you don’t need to worry about it’.”

“What’s the story?” Subaru probed.

“Why, it’s about Hoshin and the Sage.” Ricardo answered, tilting his head with a suggestive grin, his men chuckling for a short while before Subaru understood.

“Okay, fine.” the girl sighed, beginning to sit down apart from the men, though she waited for Rem to join her before completely resting down.

The ground was rough, though that was to be expected. Since they didn’t have time to pack much in terms of camping gear themselves, Rem had fully expected to have to sleep on similar ground.

“Do you mind if I ask about that weird instrument?” Ricardo asked once.

“Oh, my guitar?” Subaru asked, her eyes lighting up with a bit of excitement.

Rem noticed that Subaru hadn’t really gotten into the musical mood since the royal selection. Now however, perhaps because of the fresh company, or the excitement of heading home, he troubles seemed to disappear briefly.

“This is R.E.M.!” Subaru declared proudly, reaching over her shoulder with her free hand and pulling the guitar around from her back infront of her. “Rem here got it for me, it’s— A special instrument from my hometown. Bit like a lyulyre but deeper.” she explained, tapping energetically on the wooden body.

“You’re some kind of musician then?” one of the soldiers asked.

“Aaaah, hobby, mostly.” Subaru answered, her tone turning a little dark. This answer didn’t sit entirely well with Rem.

“Subaru-kun is an excellent performer.” Rem interjected. “Rem is certain that she’s going to be a great minstrel one day!”

Throughout the past two months, Subaru would many times talk of her grand plans to become a minstrel once she mastered the written word. It was only after that day when against her better judgement Rem conceded to Roswaal’s instructions and allowed Subaru to infiltrate the meeting in the royal palace, that Subaru’s priorities changed, that she stopped speaking of how she’ll become a bard for Roswaal’s court, and instead started obsessing over how she could help the half-elf—

Although no, it wasn’t right to think of Emilia-sama like that. Subaru had taught her at least that much, even if it was a bitter lesson Rem had yet to master.

“Want to play something for us?” one of the soldiers asked, shifting on the ground into a more comfortable position.

“Wouldn’t that kind of ruin all the effort you went into to set up those light hiding walls?” Subaru asked.

“Bah, I had them do that only for practice tonight.” Ricardo said. “Ain’t no bandit is going to try something tonight, since the mist will probably reach here by tomorrow afternoon, they’re not exactly known for their bravery.” he said, before lifting a fist in front of his nose as some humans would, though it did little to hide his wolf-like grin. “Although I heard stories of some dumb enough to think they can loot under the cover of the mist.”

“Oh, oh!” one of the soldiers spoke up as the others chuckled along with their captain. “The lesson they left was the booty of a lifetime? Eh?” he offered to the annoyed sighs of the other soldiers, one of whom sitting next to him even punched his shoulder.

“That’s awful.” one of the soldiers sighed.

“Just keep working at it kid.” Ricardo said, the grin not leaving his face. “You’ll get there.”

Examining the few faces gathered around the campfire, Rem could confirm the reputation of this warband for hire. All faces present belonged to demi-humans.

“So then, want to play something?” Ricardo asked, turning to Subaru. “The Iron Fang’s gonna keep you safe no matter what, so if you’d rather just turn in, that’s fine too.”

Subaru took a bit of a breath, turning to Rem. She didn’t know how to feel about the girl getting so chummy with what were essentially enemies. Given their reputation and what she saw for herself, Rem had no doubt that they will leave the two of them alone. There would be nothing to gain in doing anything else. However, even then, Subaru had gone from cluelessly immersing herself in the pampering at the Karsten estate, to now possibly wanting to befriend a bunch of sellswords whose blades belong to yet another of the rivals of the girl Subaru claims to wish to champion.

With a sigh, Rem gave Subaru an encouraging nod.

Stairway to Heaven it is!” Subaru nodded.

“What now?” one of the soldiers asked.

“It is a piece of music from Subaru-kun’s home, played on an instrument like this, and accompanied by one called a ‘ flute ’.” Rem explained before Subaru could, putting on a proud little smile as Subaru turned to her in surprise.

“You’re a really big fan of that one aren’t you?” Subaru asked, squeezing Rem’s hand.

“Possibly.” Rem teased, while grasping something solid and important through the folds of her skirt.

“Well, alright then!” Subaru said with a smile, placing her free hand on the guitar, but then, as she loosened her grasp on Rem’s hand, she froze up.

There was no great show of it, but by the slight change in his expression and the movement of his eyes, Rem could tell that the captain of the Iron Fang noticed something was wrong too. Though he could have even less of a clue why Subaru was now like this.

Reaching out with her now no longer held hand, Rem rubbed Subaru’s shoulder, to which the girl seemed to regain her composure.

“Ah, hah, sorry, kind of zoned out there for a moment!” Subaru said with a clearly forced laugh, placing her other hand on the guitar too, as she got ready to play.

As Subaru began to play, Rem kept her hand on the back of Subaru’s shoulder.

This too, was wrong. This too, was something Rem shouldn’t have accepted. However, until they could return home. Until that girl could release the darkness on Subaru’s heart, Rem had to tolerate it. So that Subaru’s soul could shine as Rem knew so well it could, such small weaknesses would have to be accepted. After all, if there was one truth Rem was certain off, was that this weakness couldn’t be Subaru’s own. Not the weakness of the girl who braved the forest and fought those monsters for everyone’s sake.

Whatever, or whoever planted this intangible fear in Subaru’s heart; they were the truest expression of evil. The one for whom Rem’s deepest, darkest hatred was reserved.

“Ah, man! How did I even do that?” Subaru sighed, stopping her music after her tune seemed to shift away from what Rem had committed to memory.

“That sounded fine to me, what happened?” Ricardo asked with a smile, though Rem could see his eyes analyzing the girl before him.

“I somehow went and started playing Hotel California in the middle of the song.” Subaru sighed. “That’s another song that goes great with a guitar, but completely different. I guess I’m more tired than I thought.”

“Don’t think anyone here would have noticed if you just kept going.” Ricardo said with a grin, holding his large arms wide. “Need a drink or something?”

“That’s nice, but no.” Subaru answered, pushing her guitar back onto her back, before taking Rem’s hand again.

Ricardo nodded a couple of times, putting his hand against his chin before rendering judgement.

“Neat little song, or songs.” he said. “Not quite ‘Twilight in Banan’, but that might just be a bit of my old nostalgia playing favourites.”

“Twilight?” Subaru repeated, rubbing her forehead. “Didn’t they call uh, that Hoshin guy Banan’s sunset?”

“Banan’s Setting Sun.” Ricardo corrected. “I guess you folks out here east don’t get as much of Kararagi history do you?”

“I’d love to agree,” Subaru nodded with an embarrassed chuckle. “But I’m pretty sure Rem here could probably recite his entire life from memory if she wanted. I’m just from a really secluded town.”

“Ah, well nothing wrong with that.” Ricardo answered with an encouraging grin. “Ana-b— Anastasia-sama didn’t have the most amazing start of it either.” he said with a fond, distant look in his eyes. “Make sure you learn ‘Twilight in Banan’. Once Anastasia-sama drums up trade with Kararagi, you’ll be sure to make good coin with passing traders! It’s a favourite back home, and goes well with the lyulyre!”

“Hah, thanks.” Subaru sighed, once more clutching Rem’s hand. “I guess maybe it’s best if we—”

Suddenly, Subaru froze up again, though not like before. No, there was a realization in her eyes before she shook her head.

“Wait, no I got distracted!” she declared with a voice of excitement. “You guys, the Iron Fang or whatever, you’re mercenaries, right?” she asked.

Ricardo’s eyebrows went up, though not as much as Rem’s. In retrospect, she should have considered the possibility before, though she wasn’t certain how wise it would be to make these considerations here.

“That we are.” Ricardo nodded. “You sound almost like you could use some. Why?”

Subaru’s hand gripped Rem’s even tighter now, as she took a deep breath.

“I’m fairly certain that we’re going to run into Witch Cultists in a day or two.” Subaru said finally.

The atmosphere around the fire chilled palpably as she spoke these words.

“Why would you think that?” Ricardo asked. His eyes weren’t accusatory, like many’s would be upon hearing words like that. Instead, he looked at Subaru keenly, his eyes flashing briefly down to where Rem and Subaru’s hands were connected.

Subaru grimaced uncomfortably at the question, and like before, avoided it.

“It’s why we’re going to the manor. It will be attacked within the next two days.” Subaru declared.

‘Next two days?’ Rem repeated inside.

She knew Subaru treated this matter with great urgency, but she had no clue that the urgency would be to such a degree. And with the finality she spoke— There was no exaggeration there. It was a conviction as deep as when Subaru warned her about protecting the village long ago.

“That’s quite the claim to be throwing around.” Ricardo noted thoughtfully, his smile, if not disappearing, certainly vanning for the first time. “How can you be certain?”

Rem could feel Subaru fiddle with her hand with agitation.

“Subaru-kun has excellent instincts, and a tendency to pick up details others would miss.” Rem declared. “She had saved many lives recently by identifying a mabeast threat before anyone else!”

“Thanks, but I don’t think they’ll care about that.” Subaru sighed, holding on tight then turning to Ricardo. “Look, I know that there was witch cultist activity in the kingdom recently, that’s why they delayed the royal selection by almost a month.” Subaru said. “And now, everyone in Roswaal’s domain is in an uproar, because she sponsored Emilia, a silver haired half-elf girl. I know that the witch cult has a thing for them. Now that everyone knows she’s with Roswaal, they are sure to make a move!”

The wolfin man examined Subaru for a while again, before turning his gaze to Rem. There was nothing Rem could add to this, nothing that wouldn’t bring Subaru’s information or motives into question, so she simply sat there in support.

“And where did you get this ‘in two days’ part?” he asked.

“I—” Subaru froze once more, now similar to the way she did back in the capital, though without the explosion of miasma. “I might have got that wrong.” she said, but Rem could feel in the way Subaru formed those words that she didn’t mean them. For whatever reason, she was certain something was coming, but couldn’t explain it. “I can’t prove it, I can’t even reason it well, but I feel it will happen. Call it instinct, call it stupidity.” Subaru sighed painfully, then bowed her head deep. “The only truth is, that we need help. I’m ready to pay you everything I have, if you can help us save them.”

As Subaru spoke, Rem could feel a tremble in her hand, reassuring her even further of the depth of Subaru’s conviction.

“Truth is, Subaru-kun likely couldn’t afford Ricardo-sama’s services.” Rem said in a solemn tone. Subaru shook visibly at these words. “However, both here, and at the manor, Rem has a decade’s worth of coin saved up. If it is to protect Nee-sama, and everyone in the vicinity of Roswaal-sama’s manor, Rem would be more than happy to offer it for the Iron Fang’s services.” she declared. “Rem is certain that it would be considerably more than the going rate for a couple of days of service.”

“Rem—!” Subaru began, but Rem quickly interrupted her with a smile.

“It is no matter. If it’s for helping Subaru-kun, it’s like giving away coppers.”

“Uh, captain? We’re supposed to be in the capital tomorrow, ain’t we?” one of the soldiers interjected, as Ricardo leant back, pondering the situation.

“That we are.” he nodded. “Would hate to keep the little lady waiting too, though—”

Here, he fell silent in thought.

“Though?” Subaru repeated, her attention sparking up visibly. “You mean you might?!”

“Hold on now, miss!” Ricardo spoke, raising a hand. “I’m simply thinking things over.” he noted, rubbing his nose with the raised hand. “Might as well admit, we had recently come down from the Gusteko border to the north, scouting after a band of witch cultists that we only managed to kill a couple of. Completely lost track around Hanumas.”

“Wait, wait, wait!” Subaru spoke, quickly turning to Rem. “We went past Hanumas when we were coming to the capital, right? There’s also a path from there through the mountains that— we didn’t take, right?”

“That is correct.” Rem nodded, turning to Ricardo. “Hanumas is rather close to the forest where the manor in which Roswaal-sama resides with Emilia-sama is located.”

While she had already accepted in her heart that Subaru would have to have a point, evidence beginning to mount had sparked a greater depth of anxiety in her heart.

“So, then they could be those bastard, huh?” Ricardo nodded, seeming sour.

“Then there’s no problem!” Subaru exclaimed gladly. “Where else would they have gone?!”

“Ain’t the seat of the High Sorceress in Costuul?” one of the soldiers asked.

“Due to Emilia-sama’s circumstances, Roswaal-sama elected to move to a different manor.” Rem interjected to silence the distraction.

“Aaaah, that’s no good still.” Ricardo sighed, his long tail which so far stood tall at attention flapping once in the dirt with annoyance. “Anastasia-sama and my vice-captains are expecting us in the capital tomorrow.” he said. “I also don’t know if she’d be too thrilled if we went and helped out her competition.”

“No, no!” Subaru exclaimed. “I mean, yeah, Emilia and Felt are her competitors, but—”

“Felt?” Ricardo repeated. “Isn’t that that other candidate— The astrea land dragon!” he nodded in sudden realization. “I knew there was something off about that! She’s there too?”

Subaru gritted her teeth. It was clear she didn’t want to complicate things further.

Before answering, the black haired girl paused, then let go of Rem’s hand and lifted herself slightly off the ground and got on her knees, backing away from the fire.

“They might be Anastasia-sama’s enemies. I admit that.” Subaru said in as formal a tone as she could probably muster. “I don’t know how she would feel if you helped us. But please, I— We might not be able to fix this without some help.”

Rem felt her a piercing pain in her chest, as she watched Subaru bow her head down in a clumsy bow. The looming threat the girl prophesied had never felt more real, than now, watching Subaru do something Rem would never normally expect of the girl to do.

“All I can say is that I’ll still pay you whatever I can, and that it would probably look good, if people heard Anastasia-sama’s people helped stop a witch cult attack on two other candidates. Maybe I’m wrong, but please, we really, really need the help.”

Here, Subaru tried lowering herself to the point that her forehead would have touched the ground, but the guitar’s strap against her chest didn’t quite let her bend low enough.

“Please.” Subaru said one more time.

Everyone looked at the prostrated girl in silence broken only by the cracking of the wood by the fire.

It was only when the captain of the Iron Fang spoke up, that the ominous spell that Subaru’s behaviour placed upon Rem had broken, and she realized that she should have bowed down instead of letting Subaru alone lower herself in such a way.

“Argh.” Ricardo grunted, rubbing his snout. “Well, all I’ve got here is a scouting company, with the Iron Fang proper back at the capital.” he sighed. “The little lady’s also definitely going to be cross if I don’t ask her about this beforehand, and with that blasted whale, there’s no way to make a two way trip in two days.”

Rem could see and hear dirt blowing away under Subaru as still hunched forward as best as she could, her heavy breaths blew against the soil.

“But.” Ricardo sighed finally, shaking his head. “The pay sounds good, there’s no immediate job coming up, and ‘helping out when you see someone in need’ ought to be The Kararagi Way.”

Subaru’s posture on the ground stiffened as the wolfin’s booming voice finished what he had to say, then slowly, she raised up.

“So— Then—” Subaru began shakily. “You’ll do it?” she asked finally. “You’ll come help defend the manor?”

“Iiiiii will say—” Ricardo began with a long uncomfortable note though curving a little smile in the corner of his mouth. “We’ll come scout out that forest and see what happens next.” he said in a coy tone. “Maybe we saw the mist early and decided to go the slower way around.”

As the captain of the Iron Fang finished, Rem saw something she hadn’t seen in some time. Subaru began to laugh with a deep relief, like someone’s found days after they fell into a well. Regardless of the circumstances, that laugh alone would be well worth whatever price she’ll have to pay.

Though when Subaru halfway into her mad, relieved cackle jumped to her feet and threw herself at the giant demi-human in a warm embrace— That Rem could have done without.

Chapter Text

Subaru felt no shortage of embarrassment as she rode clinging to Rem’s back.

If letting her relief get the better of her last night, leading her to give a giant hug to the probably far more gruff than he appears wolfman wasn’t enough, she awoke this morning, her arms wrapped around Rem who was trying and failed to free herself of Subaru’s tight embrace without waking her up.

Then, naturally, when she finally saw the mounts of the mercenaries in the morning who were hitched up on the opposite side of the camp from where they came in, she had to make a stupid comment. Well, who wouldn’t be curious if giant wolves are related to wolf people! If it’s fine for Khajiit, then surely wolf people might do it too? Agh!

Thankfully, Ricardo was a good sport about it and laughed it off cracking a joke at Subaru’s expense to which calmed down the otherwise agitated soldiers. Even now, hours later, after lunch, as they were on the edge of the great forest housing Roswaal’s manor and Irlam, the soldiers were giving her dirty glances. Or, at least the ones still there.

Just as they approached the edge of the forest, Ricardo had given orders to the soldiers to spread out and look for signs of Witch Cult activity while Ricardo himself along with a skeleton crew took the wagons housing the camping rations and equipment along with Rem and Subaru on their land dragons rode slowly down the road.

Distant mountains showed through the treeline at familiar angles. Subaru realized they were approaching the place where she separated from Otto the last time.

“Are you sure it was a good idea to spread everyone out?” Subaru asked, turning to the perpetually shirtless Ricardo riding alongside her and Rem. “Who knows how many witch cultists are out there?”

“Ha! No need to worry, little miss!” Ricardo boasted. “Witch cultists might be tough bastards, but my men had experience with them! Besides, I doubt we’d run into any this soon.” he added with a confident chuckle, waving his hand dismissively.

“I really don’t think that’s a good assumption to make.” Subaru sighed.

There was no room to repeat yesterday’s slip up when she almost claimed she knew the future. People thinking her insane would have been bad enough, but if these soldiers gave up after she managed to bring them so close to the finish line it would be a nightmare.

Ricardo gave Subaru and Rem an examining look. Subaru couldn’t tell what expression Rem was giving at this time, she had been quiet and alert ever since they reached the vicinity of the forest. No doubt she was trying to detect any hint of the witch’s scene coming from somewhere else. Rem had yet to mention this ability to Ricardo, however it definitely was a useful tool in their arsenal— If only it didn’t involve getting Rem close to the danger. The last thing Subaru needed was a repeat of the last time.

“I take it there’s some bad experience there. Hard to shake it off.” Ricardo noted, the grin never disappearing from his face, though his voice became softer. Rem turned to him, breaking her concentration for the first time in a while. “Hey. You two are in good hands here. If anything comes up, I can call the lads back with a single howl. They never miss my serenades, eh?” he winked.

Subaru could only sigh lightly and nod at the wolf’s words as they continued to ride at a reserved pace, trees passing by them. If she tried to, as much as she didn’t want to, she could still recall moments from that horrible day. She didn’t think they reached the part of the road yet where she abandoned Otto, though there was no telling how deep they’d need to venture before encountering the witch cultists.

The timing was the biggest mystery she had yet to figure out, and the sole reason for which she tortured herself with her memories. There should have been something more concrete she could have figured out about the attack. Her first arrival was two days from now. Based on the blood and the— The fire. Based on them, the attack should have happened tomorrow. However, what didn’t add up about that, and what seemed to be missing this time around—

Augh! ” Rem screamed out suddenly, hunching forward, nearly pulling Subaru up and off the saddle.

“Rem?!” Subaru called out in a panic, as the maid in front of her clutched her chest and began to breathe heavily.

“What’s wrong?” Ricardo snapped to attention, reaching out and grabbing the reins of the land dragon, pulling both his ‘liger’, the large wolf he was riding, and the dragon under Subaru and Rem to a halt.

Rem couldn’t answer right away, seemingly wracked by great pain.

“It’s Ram, isn’t it?” Subaru let slip in her panic. “Rem, hold on!”

“Rem is—” Rem panted with heavy breaths, straightening up. “Rem is fine. It’s—”

The maid took a few more big breaths, turning her head back and looking at Subaru with a mixture of pain, shock and disbelief.

“It was Nee-sama. How—?”

“The two of you always seemed to know what the other was thinking, I put two and two together!” Subaru lied openly.

Talking about things that will happen in the future was apparently fine, even if it made her look crazy. However, explaining the hows of future knowledge would only tease the cloud of shadows that had struck her with a cursed grasp many times before when she attempted to talk about Back in Time before under any name, or even mention the shadows themselves. The truth was quite literally too painful to reveal.

“Can you two explain what that was?” Ricardo interjected, still holding the reins of the land dragon that itself seemed to have been spooked by its rider’s outburst.

“Nee-sama and Rem share a connection.” Rem began with difficulty. “Just now, Rem felt Nee-sama experience a massive shock. Or perhaps a warning? Rem is not certain.”

“Captain, that sounds like synesthesia!” one of the few soldiers declared, riding his liger closer.

“And I don’t think I’ve seen a performer that can sweat on command.” Ricardo noted, furrowing his large brows.

Indeed, tiny droplets of sweat were forming and running down Rem’s face from the sudden shock. Subaru never saw it happen last time, so it could have been this bad initially then too, or perhaps it go worse due to being closer to the mansion. In either case—

“Alright, this doesn’t look like a simple scouting job now.” Ricardo declared, jumping off his liger and walking in front of Rem and Subaru’s land dragon. “If you don’t want my magnificent voice to be the last thing you ever hear, I recommend you all plug your ears!”

Here, Ricardo reached up with both hands, covering their land dragon’s head. Glancing around, Subaru saw all the soldiers cover their ears. Even the ligers hung their hands down and placed their paws on their ears in unison, so Subaru saw little choice.

As soon as he saw Rem and Subaru cover their ears, Ricardo turned his head straight up and with one great breath unleashed a howl that without exaggeration shook the air around them. Even with her hands over her ears, Subaru could hear it viscerally against her eardrums, the branches of trees around them blowing back from an invisible pressure, and some of the closest trees even tearing massive parts of their crowns off, leaves raining down once Ricardo’s short display was over.

A painfully loud ringing filling the world, Subaru found herself dazed. If she didn’t have Rem to hang onto, she had no doubt she’d have fallen off the land dragon almost right away.

‘What the hell was that?!’ she mouthed, though her own words didn’t reach her ears.

Ricardo seemed to have given an answer, but that couldn’t break through the ringing either.

Looking around at the soldiers drilling their ears while exchanging silent words with their captain, Subaru spent at least half a minute in a mounting panic, not sure if she might have gone deaf for life, before both her hearing, and the grim realization that ‘for life’ might not be what it used to be for her sat in.

“—to formation, and keep an eye out!” Ricardo finished an order that finally broke through to Subaru after a painful pop in her ear that she recognized from road trips up mountains where her ears would pop from the pressure, only worse.

“Won’t this call the cultists here?!” Subaru protested, now that she could hear her own voice.

“If they’re close enough for this to tip them off, they already knew we were here, trust me.” Ricardo answered. “Might as well greet them at that point!”

“Please stay still.” Rem cautioned over her shoulder. “Subaru-kun might not have heard, but Ricardo-sama is waiting for the scouts to come back with anything to report before we move ahead.

“But—” Subaru began, cutting herself off.

No. She didn’t know a lot about gruesome stuff like bodies decaying, blood drying, or bonfires made of— Any of that stuff, however, this would be much too early. Whatever it was that Ram got panicked over wasn’t the attack itself. Rem mentioned something about Ram having ‘clairvoyance’, and back during the mabeast incident, the pink haired oni certainly seemed to have a good grasp on a couple of things. Perhaps Ram had sensed the coming of the Witch Cultists? Subaru was mostly certain Ram couldn’t smell them, but perhaps there was some other ability she had that could warn of their arrival?

A few short minutes after Ricardo’s howl, as the ringing in Subaru’s ear finally began to fade completely, the first scouts returned through the road up ahead, stating nothing more than a strange absence of wildlife, which is sometimes characteristic of the presence of witch cultists. It didn’t take long until the rest of the scouts arrived, one of the last carrying a bloody knife— One identical to the ones Subaru saw scattered along with the robed bodies last time.

“I dug this out of a wolgram to the northwest, captain!” the soldier reported, holding the blade out to Ricardo.

The captain took the blade, examined it with distaste then handed it back.

“Well, it looks like we’ve got a missing butterknife boys, it would be mighty rude not to return it, wouldn’t it?!” Ricardo yelled out to the approving cheers of his underlings. “Alright, I need someone to take a few days’ rations and head to the capital as fast as you can. Got any volunteers?”

Four of the soldiers raised their hands right away.

“Alright, you.” he said, pointing to one on a larger, stronger looking liger. “Take some rations, and head through the hills past Hanumas. No way the highway’s safe anymore, so—”

“Captain!” one of the other soldiers who had his hand raised interrupted. “I think we should try the highway anyway! I volunteer to go that route, I might get back faster that way!”

“Don’t be an idiot, this is not a time to test the whale and the cult at the same time!” Ricardo cautioned.

“There’s no telling how many of them there are, captain, or how long they’ll stay here!” the soldier insisted. “It’s better to send two anyway!”

Ricardo gave out a groan, rubbing his snout.

“Very well, but if I find a split hair on that poor liger when you get back, you’ll be buying drinks for the company off your pay for a month, got that?!” Ricardo thundered.

“Understood, captain!” the soldier said, performing a strange hand motion Subaru assumed to be a Kararagi salute.

Ricardo gave off a sharp huff, watching as the two soldiers hurried to the wagon with travel rations and began to fill up a sack each with what they’d need for themselves and by the amount presumably their liger too.

As they finished, Ricardo repeated the same gesture to the soldiers who quickly rode off the way the group just came from.

“Well then.” Ricardo announced finally, as the soldiers disappeared around a bend on the road. “Men, we’ve got an infestation to deal with!”