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Vagrant Grail Cadenza

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            —This is the story of someone dear to me.

            It took a great deal of time—but he grew.
            Sheltered by the two friends who loved him and shielded him, he was able to leave the house that had never been a home behind.

            It was difficult.
            He had no illusions about how difficult it was going to be, but all the same, he was prepared.
            …Above all else, he had to be strong.
            The desire that had been born in him for the sake of self-protection would not fade even now, and the fact that he had become resilient enough to survive homeless and penniless was no comfort.

            As he grew.
            …As his world expanded from its tiny circle of pain, he became more consciously aware of what the place that he lived in was like.

            The town was divided into two halves.
            The western side, where he had been born and lived even now, was a place of extreme poverty where those of poor fortune huddled together for protection against the whims of fate.
            The eastern side was a prosperous port city that handled the commerce of the entire empire, and was filled with the rich, the nobility, and upper middle-class merchants.
            The two halves were divided by a great river, and only connected by a single bridge.
            It was a town that could be said to embody the state of his country.

            …It was curious.
            They were citizens of the same town, people of the same country.
            And yet just because of birth or good fortune, some people lived luxurious lives and turned a blind eye to the suffering of others.
            …Worse, there were many nobles and merchants who preyed mercilessly on the poor, using ridiculous pretense to take what little money and food they had as if all they knew how to do was hurt others.

            All around him, people were being taken advantage of financially.
            Those who could no longer pay disappeared, only to turn up at the auction block to be sold as slaves, indentured servants, and whores.
            Just because of their birth—they had no future.
            Equally as terrifying to the poor were the occasional military drafts.
            There was no disobeying the Emperor, and the Emperor wanted to rebuild the country’s army, seeking to bring the empire under control through military force.

            Just thinking about it made him nauseous with helpless hate.

            Because—it was the same.
            Because…, in this world, in this empire—almost everyone he knew was suffering the way that he had.

            It wasn’t fair and it wasn’t just.
            …And he couldn’t stand to watch it.

            As to why—

            He would remember…, and every unkind word said to his fellow poor, every noble’s hand laid on those people, every invasive touch, every misfortune……, was every unjust thing his father had inflicted upon him.
            It made him crazy.
            …Yes.
            Just watching it was more than his mind could bear.

            It wasn’t just that he was young and foolish and idealistic.
            …Although that was definitely a part of it.
            He simply could not bear the suffering of other people, because he equated it with his suffering and because it revived that suffering inside his own heart and mind.

            And—even beyond that.
            Those people who already had next to nothing, who were in danger of plummeting into the depths of hell if they lost anything more—
            Those people still found it in themselves to share what little they had with him and with the girl who had saved him.

            There were people who would give them a small meal in exchange for working their meager fields.
            And there were people who gave them blankets and supplies so that they wouldn’t die of exposure when it got cold.
            And there were people who would let them into the chapel after midnight so that they would have a place to sleep.
            And there were people selling their wares on the street who would smile and hand them milk and dried meat and say that they didn’t need payment.

            …He probably cried about it at night.
            He probably cried himself sick with it.
            These people were the children he had known when he was small, and their kindness and acceptance was more than he could handle.

            He had to do something; it was as simple as that.
            It wasn’t that he simply wanted to.

            His desire for strength and his desire to protect himself.
            His rejection of all injustice.
            …It all compounded into a compulsive need to help these people, to protect this town, to stop the nobles and the merchants from preying on the powerless the way that his father had done to him.

            There was nothing else that he could do.
            His heart and his mind were both broken.
            It wasn’t strength of character in the least—he of all people knew that he was weaker and less worthy of admiration than anyone.

            It was just that it was so unfair that he couldn’t stand it.

            Once he and his friends were old enough.
            The three of them began to fight back.

            …At first it was just sneaking over into the other side of town in the depths of night and stealing back money and goods that the wicked nobles had taken.
            And then as they began to learn faces and names, they followed specific merchants, trying to catch them at hurting others so that they had justification for fighting them.

            The girl and the boy who followed him, who knew his heart and believed in the same ideal, named their tiny vigilante band “Blaze” after his passion and the color of his long red hair.
            Even if they were still too young and powerless to do much, the people of the slums who knew that there was someone who would fight for their sake supported them quietly.

            It went on like that.
            Eventually, they found a single man—a merchant who engaged in loan sharking to rob many poor people of everything they had—and followed him and followed him.
            It took half a year to actually catch him in the act, during which all they could do was steal things back for the victims.

            …Finally.
            He had just barely turned seventeen.

            They caught that merchant trying to kidnap a little girl, and attacked him with full force.
            They chased him all through the slums, determined to capture him and make him pay it all back, to force fate to give the poor mercy for once.
            …And in the end, they were able to separate him from his hired mercenaries and capture him at last.

            His body was no longer as small, but the emotions that rocked it were too much for him to hold.
            …Finally, he had a target for all his helpless rage.
            Finally—here was someone he could vent out the suffering of the poor upon.

            But.
            …It was his friends who stopped him.
            They would ransom the merchant for the value of everything he had taken, make him swear to reform his ways in writing, and only kill him if he violated his word.
            News of their first major victory would spread, and the other evildoers might think twice before preying on the weak.
            It would be their first step in actually protecting the poor.

            …There was a part of him that wondered.
            There was a part of him that ached over the question of whether anything in the world could really change by such slow and uncertain methods.
            ……But because there were no better ideas, he agreed.

            Even then.
            …It turned out that things wouldn’t go so easily, as the mercenaries who should have been paying the ransom price killed their former employer instead.
            They, too, were dependent on the money he had stolen, and were unwilling to let their work go unpaid.
            When he—and when his friends—raged out against the collapse of their only working plan and the unfairness of those selfish adults, they were met with scorn.
            Surrounded by enemies, they prepared themselves to fight to the last breath in the name of their ideals, and for a moment their death seemed certain.

            …But they were in luck.
            A traveling warrior who had been watching their battle burst in and sent the mercenaries scattering, running to regroup far away from their goal of the nobles’ quarter.
            She saved them from certain death with her skill, but when they made to chase after the retreating enemies and finish them for good, she held them back with cold words.

            “You can’t forgive this injustice. You can’t let it slide. Look, I get how you feel. Still, if you actually want to go through with that, you need to be powerful and wise. Even you can understand that, right? To put it bluntly, you and your soldiers are as good as novices. You’re alive right now because of sheer dumb luck.”

            The whole of him bowed underneath that stranger’s contempt.
            …He’d had doubts the whole time, and to have those doubts attacked so brutally burnt him out completely.
            Perhaps seeing that and taking pity, the woman who had saved them suggested a few strategies for cutting off their enemies that would work before she went on her way.
            Given a new foothold, they decided to follow her words and lay in wait.

            But even with surety in this fight, doubts continue to plague him.
            …She had been right.
            And there had to be a way.
            He tormented himself with questions and cursed his own weakness.
            There had to be a way to become strong enough that he could see this through—that he could save his people and himself.

            As she had said, the mercenaries arrived.
            And with the advantage of terrain and the foreknowledge that they would come, he and his friends were victorious.

            This wouldn’t solve anything.
            …But at least there were a few less people to prey on the poor.
            As he thought that, a voice called out to them.

            …It was a man from the affluent side of the town, a noble who the boy following him identified as an extreme liberal who was attempting to gather political power and promote reform.
            That man, the landgrave who owned the general area their town was built upon, called out to them and said that they should join forces.
            That he needed an army, and that they with the same goals as he ought to follow him.
            They would gain the power to protect the poor, and he would have forces to protect him should his political enemies aim for his life.

            …For him, there wasn’t much to think about.
            It was as that traveler had said; he was too weak to see his ideals through, and this was a sure way to gain power.
            According to his friend’s intelligence, this noble was probably not lying about what he wanted their help for.
            And so he agreed.

            …Even the traveler, who had been simply watching them from a distance to see what they would do, was surprised.
            But for him, there was no other choice to make.
            The suffering of the people wasn’t something he could stand by and ignore.
            If he bowed under his own suffering any further, he would surely break.
            So if there was a chance for him to change that, he had to take the risk and seize it.

            The landgrave who had hired them said that his only condition was that they not call themselves vigilantes anymore, as that would be too odd for a private army.
            He renamed them Gram Blaze, a title that meant “furious flames” in an old language.

            …The only thing that he could tell for sure was that they were at the starting line at last.
            Whatever future they were about to take off running for, it wouldn’t be easy to turn back.
            But that was all right.
            As long as there was the chance that he could actually change the world’s injustice for the better, what happened to him didn’t matter—

 

            “—”
            I wake.

            My body aches from my injuries over the past night, my head aches from the cold, and my chest aches from my having to see Gulcasa’s early memories firsthand.
            …It’s cold this morning as usual, but it’s not as bad as usual.
            Obviously, that’s because of my makeshift furnace, who is still asleep at my side—though I suppose the stove deserves some lesser degree of credit as well.
            I don’t know how much I want to move, as the whole of my back is throbbing somewhat dully, but given how close we are there’s a curious desire to touch his face that I don’t know if I can suppress.

            “…Really, there’s no helping you.”
            I keep my voice soft even as I say so, though.
            Gulcasa’s arm is still over my waist, and there is very little space between our bodies.
            He’s so warm I could honestly just cry.

            “—”
            I close my eyes again.
            That heaviness all over my body is still in place, and I know that it’s not going to dissipate now no matter what.
            …I need to get used to dealing with it, really.
            But even so.
            Just waiting a few more minutes until Gulcasa wakes up on his own shouldn’t be such a terrible thing.

            “—”
            The next thing that I’m aware of, there are blunt but gentle fingertips running through the ends of my hair.
            “—Ugh.”
            When I open my eyes, of course Gulcasa is lying on his side looking at me.
            I can’t read his expression, but the tenderness in his eyes is enough for me right now.

            “…Nessiah, you have to wake up.
            “There are things we have to take care of today.”

            Ugh, I know.
            Just give me a few more moments of weakness.
            I want to pretend that we’re all there is to the world for just a bit longer.

            “Nessiah.”
            The warm hand rests against my cheek.
            I want it to stay there, so I close my eyes again even knowing that it’s childish.
            “Nessiah, you really are still terrible at getting up, aren’t you.”
            …I’m not even dignifying that with a reply.
            It’s cold and my body is heavy and I can’t think very well, so why can’t you let me be for just a little bit longer—?
            But the way that I shiver and the faint ache-like malaise that hangs over me won’t deter him.
            Gulcasa’s hand runs down the length of my body, and then pulls up the thin blankets.
            There’s a warm touch at my forehead that’s a familiar texture quite different from his heavily callused hands.

            “You can go back to sleep for a little bit, but first you need to loosen the boundary field a little so that I can fish and make breakfast.
            “—And we do need to go out and shop for food today, even if that’s the only thing we do. I’m not taking no for an answer on that one.”

            …Ugh, he’s probably right.
            There’s a brief stabbing pain along my sternum as I roll over on the mattress and focus with my eyes closed to tone down the boundary field.
            As it is now, it won’t allow anyone to enter or leave, and I suppose it’s strong enough even to work on Heroic Spirits if Gulcasa has to ask me to tamper with it.

            …In any case, that’s done, so can I sleep now—?
            I think that, and then Gulcasa thanks me quietly and his warmth disappears.
            …His footfalls are audible as he heads for the door.

            …No.
            That’s not what I wanted to happen.
            I can’t think straight and my limbs are too disobedient for me to go chase him.
            My eyelids are unbearably heavy, and my body aches.
            No matter how many times I try to beat down the grogginess, I keep losing.

            …This definitely isn’t good, but—
            Well, I can’t quite sleep but I can’t really wake up either, so I just lie still in the lingering warmth and wait for a long timeless expanse.

            “—Nessiah.”
            The next thing I know, there’s Gulcasa’s voice.
            “You need to get up so that we can eat.”
            He’s insistent.
            And now that I can smell roasted fish, my stomach really hurts with how hungry I am.
            …That’s surprising even for me.

            But my body is uncooperative and sluggish, and so Gulcasa has to help me sit up in the end.
            Supported by him, with eyes that don’t want to stay open, I’m able to eat.
            Of all things, it’s the taste of fish that actually starts to wake me up, and once I’m through I can mostly sit up on my own.
            My limbs are still somewhat unresponsive, but I can drag myself around if I truly need to.

            “—”
            Gulcasa just looks at me worriedly.
            …I wish he wouldn’t.
            Yes, the bruises from last night still hurt a bit, but this really is nothing, and I should be able to wake up better as the day goes on.

            “…I just hope you’re not getting sick.”
            He sighs and says this at length, shaking his head.
            “You’ve always been a pretty heavy sleeper, but it’s unnatural to be this sluggish in the morning unless you’re sick, isn’t it?”
            “—I don’t know about that.
            “Well, I have been getting aches, but those are from last night anyway. So it’s nothing to worry about yet.”
            Even though I mean to reassure him, Gulcasa just looks at me sternly when I express my lack of concern.

            “…Nessiah, you really are an idiot.
            “Look, I’ve been trying to get this into your head for a long time, but you need to take care of yourself better than this.
            “Even if you’re not actually sick, in your condition it wouldn’t be strange if you did suddenly fall ill, don’t you get it?
            “Your body took a significant shock with the attack last night, and I don’t know if it’s because you’ve been half starving yourself or not, but you’ve been way more lethargic than is normal.
            “I’ll admit that there’s plenty that I don’t know about the situation, but even though I can protect you from other people’s ill intent, I can’t always protect you from yourself. And when you’re already like this, if you neglect yourself any further you could actually wind up in danger of dying.”
            Gulcasa stares at me earnestly as his voice gradually gets louder and louder.
            His gestures broaden as he gives voice to his frustration.
            …I feel as though his eyes could pierce right through me.
            Even though I think that it’s clearly needless…, the truth is still that he’s very worried for my sake.
            How like him.

            “Nessiah, we can’t go out patrolling tonight.
            “—You have to rest, and that’s final.”
            Gulcasa proclaims this to me with a distraught expression.

            “…It’s all right.
            “That’s fine with me, so we’ll rest tonight.
            “—And I’m sorry to worry you.”

            When I say that, my Servant relaxes somewhat.
            …Honestly, I’m really not that worried about the lethargy I’m feeling.
            Either it’s a side effect of being injured and having Gulcasa fight, thus using up large quantities of prana; or it’s something that’s only going to get more difficult to deal with as the war goes on.
            And either way, it’s something that I just have to deal with on my own.
            But if it will grant Gulcasa some peace of mind, I’m fine with taking a short break from doing battle.

            “—I guess what’s most important now is feeding you.”
            Gulcasa folds his arms and sighs, turning as always to practicalities.
            “Nessiah, do we even have things to cook with here?”

            “…Well, there are some old pots and pans that you can take a look at, but it all seems to be basic kitchen equipment that I would know how to use.
            “I’ll also have to scour them for rust and such before I can let you use them. If we cook using dirty utensils, it may not be a problem for you, but I’ll only feel worse.”
            I remind him of that, but Gulcasa just smiles at me.
            “—Maybe, but I’m still more worried about you being picky than the strength of your stomach, at any rate.”
            …All I can do is sigh.
            “As long as we’re thinking of practicalities—I don’t know that I have my old tolerance levels to the kinds of things that would make an ordinary person sick.
            “My environment before I came to this place was—well, for the most part I didn’t eat at all.”
            At least, nutrients were delivered to me in different ways.
            And strictly speaking I probably didn’t need food anyway.
            Because Gulcasa is looking at me with concern, I try to smile, but I have the feeling that the expression is coming out twisted and bitter on my face.
            “…That’s right. Before now, I was surviving on the roughest of bare essentials.
            “To be brutally honest, the weakened condition I’ve been kept in up until now is probably contributing somewhat to any irregularities in my body at this time.”

            “—”
            Gulcasa stares at the floorboards between us.
            He’s biting his lip.

            “It’s all right.
            “…Because I’m not there anymore.”

            But Gulcasa opens his mouth and hesitates just a breath before speaking.
            “……You don’t have to be that strong, Nessiah.”
            Just looking at his expression, it’s plain that he wants to ask, but he doesn’t.
            Gulcasa simply places his hands atop my own and shakes his head.
            …His touch is soft, and his palms are warm as always.

            “You don’t—have to be that strong.”

            …So, after some deliberation, a shopping list is drawn up.
            While I’m cleaning out the battered old cooking equipment, Gulcasa takes my writing materials and writes down a list of absolutely essential crockery and then a number of supplies.
            Vegetables, meat, and fruits.
            I suppose with fish in the river there’s no need to add them to the list.
            We can’t really buy anything that’s canned, and it might be cold enough to be able to store raw meat without worrying, but that’s a risk that maybe we shouldn’t take, so dried meats are also a possibility; either that or we’ll have to go out and keep buying things—
            Well, it’s all along those lines.
            Gulcasa paces and talks to himself in a quiet voice and writes out our checklist as if determining a battle plan.
            If the situation were a little different, I’d find it silly and endearing, but this really is all we can do with the materials we have at hand.

            Cooking will be a way for Gulcasa to relax, as well as a way for me to get food, so even if I wasn’t in need of better nutrition I’d probably be amenable to this turn of events.
            …I’m willing to admit that I’m not very good for my Servant’s stress levels, at least.

            It’s already about noon by the time that we’re ready to go.
            …I double-check the amount of money that we have left, and weave the illusions on the coins and bills.
            It’s awkward to do that with Gulcasa watching.
            Even if he’s given his consent for the time being due to our circumstances, I know that he doesn’t really approve.

            We step out into the biting cold.
            “—”
            It’s especially bad today.

            “Nessiah—”
            Gulcasa stretches out an arm and brings me close to his side.
            And it’s shameful, but I can do little more than cling to his warmth.
            We stand there for a moment, silent, with his long hair blowing about both our bodies.
            …But in the end I squeeze his hand and straighten myself up.
            I can’t just depend on him unilaterally when he needs my direction as well.
            No matter my condition, I can’t just fall apart.
            I’m the Master here, after all.

            “Let’s go.”
            Gulcasa nods to me in reply.
            And, staying close to each other so that the awful cold won’t prevent me from being able to move, we make our way across the long bridge and toward the market district.

            It truly is cold.
            Being above the water with only the thin walkway and guardrail to ward off the chill of the river, it’s freezing, so much so that I might faint without Gulcasa lending me his heat beside me.
            But I try not to allow my distaste for the temperature to show on my face.

            From there, it’s not at all far to get to the marketplace.
            “—”
            It’s still horribly cold, but the chill is bearable here, unlike over the water.
            “…Should we just find some store to duck into for a while so that we don’t have to stand out here?”
            Even as I nod to answer Gulcasa…, there’s something that’s distracting me.
            An odd sensation like a sort of tugging at the weight rested all along my body.
            …There’s no pain in my shoulder to indicate an enemy Master drawing near, but all the same, there is something in this place that doesn’t quite belong.
            …And with the Grail War formally begun, I’m not naïve enough to think it cannot be connected.

            “—Gulcasa.”
            When I look up at him, he’s also surveying the crowds of people with an intense expression.
            So I’m sure he’s noticed it as well.

            …We are surrounded by “civilians”.
            So magi with common sense most likely wouldn’t attack us.
            Still, there’s the possibility of our being followed, and we can’t count on our guest having common sense.

            I close my eyes.
            If I can shut out the assault of the world on my other senses, then I should be able to trace the direction of this “weight” as a guideline—

            “Ah…”
            There.

            When I glance over my shoulder to where the odd sense is coming from,
            “—”
            there’s a familiar woman standing there.

            At her height, it’s easy to see her through the crowds, now that I know where I should look.
            The same as with Gulcasa, she might be wearing modern clothing, but the length and color of her hair stand out amidst the throngs of native Japanese.
            …And for whatever reason, she seems to have a shopping bag looped over her arm.
            …Well.
            “…Gulcasa.”
            “—I see her.
            “Apparently we’re not the only ones who’ve come here to run errands today.”

            …Still.
            The bond of that Master and Servant was strained, and her Master certainly isn’t present.
            If they’re not shopping together for companionship, and there’s no way that the Servant would volunteer for such a duty, then one of my enemies really and truly is a fool.
            In a circumstance like this, I wouldn’t object to the phrase “divine punishment” being used to describe the fate that surely awaits a Master who makes their Servant do chores like a mindless animal familiar.

            “…Nessiah.”
            Gulcasa has relaxed a bit beside me.
            His eyes are still wary, but he no longer has a sense of hostility to the tension in his body.
            …He doesn’t say anything more.
            But I can tell that he’s waiting for my permission.
            And I have a reasonable guess as to what he wants.

            “—It’s more than fair, I suppose.
            “All right. Let’s follow up on the other night.”

            It’s not something so simple that I would want to call it pity.
            The emotions I’m feeling now are more like kinship.
            …And all the same.
            I try to hold on to my own healthy sense of distrust as we make our way through the crowd.

            “—Avenger.”

            “—Eh?”
            She turns towards us in a lazy, unconcerned motion.
            Her relaxation is that of one who could tell that another person of power was nearby, but still had no fear.
            Rather, her blank expression makes it appear more like she was spacing out and didn’t think that we would actually call out to her.
            “Oh, so it is you guys.”
            The look on Avenger’s face is neutral, if on the more open side.
            My instinct is to let my guard down immediately, but I still don’t want to do so.
            From our interaction with this Servant previously, she is straightforward if nothing else, but we can’t ignore the possibility that her Master may be watching just out of range of where our Command Spells would react.

            “—It’s probably odd, getting called out by us in a place like this.
            “But even so.
            “Are you all right?”

            At Gulcasa’s words, a complicated expression crosses Avenger’s face.
            The slight grimace of her lips is probably meant to be a smile, but it’s clearly fallen quite a bit short of the mark.

            “—You goddamn Good Samaritans.
            “Nosy people like you guys are just so charming I could vomit.”
            The tone of her voice is light as she complains.
            Well, I suppose I might have trouble accepting unasked-for help from some unrelated person or an enemy as well.

            “Oh. Well, do forgive us, in that case.
            “—You don’t have to believe me, but it was for our sake as much as yours, you know.
            “If I’d had to watch that for any longer I believe my head might have split open from the pain, you see.”

            “—Hmm.”
            Avenger looks down at me.
            Her grimace has gone away, and in its place she seems to be considering my words.
            …If she understands my meaning that we’re alike, then that’s good. Of course, if she can’t comprehend it then that’s all right as well.

            Gulcasa sighs at us as though he’s the one getting a migraine.
            “—You didn’t answer my question.
            “Are you all right? You seem to have recovered on the outside, but still, it’s hard to imagine a warrior as proud as you coming to a place like this voluntarily.”

            The disease of sighs is contagious, it seems, as Avenger breathes out while rolling her eyes skyward.
            “…Uh, I’d like to tell you it’s not as bad as you think, but I’m in no position to do that.
            “I’ll at least tell you that it’s probably not quite what you’re imagining. I just graciously agreed to do the shopping today because it was less of a pain than getting into a big argument.
            “…Damn it, I swear I’m going to kill that woman at my earliest opportunity.”

            “…”
            Gulcasa shifts his weight beside me.
            …I swear, the part of him that turns into an anxious mother cat as soon as he’s exposed to any form of inequity is exactly the same as it was when he was seventeen.
            Just as his appearance now is the same is it was when he was killed, I think a part of his heart must still be frozen at that age.

            “—I see.
            “Then, whenever the time comes that we settle things on the battlefield, I’ll make a greater effort at keeping her occupied.”

            “—Eh?”
            “—Hoh.”
            Gulcasa and Avenger both look down at me as if in surprise.
            “Really, don’t make the same expression in tandem like that, it’s so adorable that it’s disgusting.
            “What I’m saying is that Berserker values fair play, and the both of you value a good battle.
            “Add to that the fact that I cannot forgive that woman either, and it falls to me to keep her so busy fighting me that she won’t be able to interfere with the two of you.
            “Is that easier to understand?”

            A weird expression crosses Avenger’s face, as if she’s trying to suppress the desire to laugh.
            “—Damn it.
            “I really do like you two.”

            “Well, thank you for the appraisal, I suppose.”
            But before I can say anything else, the wind blows.
            Wit and resistance are sliced out of my body as cold air pulls at my clothes and slips through the seams to attack my bare skin.

            “—”
            Even though Gulcasa steps in the way of the wind and puts an arm around me, I can’t stop shivering.
            We’ve spent quite a while standing and talking, after all, even though there’s not much else we could have done in these circumstances.
            And I really and truly do hate this cold.

            “…Sorry.
            “We really do have to get back to shopping, if only for the sake of going inside a building for a short while.”
            Gulcasa is addressing Avenger, but all of his attention is on me.
            …Well.
            I can’t even protest, but I do have the sense that this is a bit unsightly of me.

            For her part, Avenger stands watching us with a blank expression and her hands on her hips.
            Her hair rustles lightly in the wind, and the plastic bag hung over her wrist shakes.

            “—Wait a minute.
            “I don’t like owing debts, and I was just handed this wallet and told to go spend money, so how about lunch? It’s Yellma’s treat, since she’s not fastidious enough to check how much I spent where.”
            Avenger’s eyes are shining from the opportunity to cause trouble for her Master.
            Gulcasa still seems somewhat worried about what might happen if she doesn’t get away with it, and I personally would still rather have something he makes…
            But I wouldn’t want to crush someone’s aspirations of subtle resistance against someone with power over them, and Gulcasa is still prioritizing me over all else.

 

            And so.
            A very short debate afterward, we are sitting in a booth in a restaurant, Gulcasa and I on one side and Avenger on the other.
            On the table between us is a wide plate of grilled chicken covered in teriyaki sauce and tiny sesame seeds, a large bowl of fried calamari, a plate of pot stickers with soy sauce and ginger for dipping, and rolled-up cucumber sushi. There’s also even a bowl of salted edamame.
            Avenger is drinking something called bubble tea through a thick straw and looking extremely pleased with herself.
            Gulcasa keeps watching with interest, as apparently he’s never seen such a thing as fruit juice with tapioca in it, although he ordered hot matcha for the both of us.
            …Honestly, I’m amazed that there’s even this immense amount of food, although I do suppose that a pair of Servants as big as Gulcasa and Avenger will be able to put it away easily.
            The tea, at least, is warm and high-quality.
            I don’t usually like green tea as I find it too bitter for me, but this matcha is a poisonous green and has a very soft texture to it, like liquid velvet.
            Apparently it costs about as much as every other entrée on the table.
            In this case, it’s justified by the quality, as even I like it despite hating green tea.
            I hold the mug in both hands to warm my fingers up, and sample different pieces of the food on the table.
            Being seated between Gulcasa and the wall is slowly restoring the warmth that I haven’t felt since this morning, when I woke up in my Servant’s arms.

            Gulcasa manages to get the attention of one of the waiters, and the two get into a conversation about the basics of this type of cooking.
            His eyes are sparkling like he’s inspired.
            Avenger continues to watch all of this in amusement.

            “—He’s really into this, isn’t he?
            “What, did he get acknowledged as a Heroic Spirit for enthusiasm over cooking?”
            “It’s nothing of the sort, but I’m sure he could have been if he wanted to.”
            It’s honest praise, of course, but Gulcasa just wrinkles his nose at us.

            “It’s just a hobby. Not to mention, it’s a pretty useful skill.
            “Especially when I’m trying to get a certain extremely picky someone to eat.”
            …I believe I’ll ignore that. Magnanimously.

            “…Speaking of which.
            “Nessiah, you should eat more. It’s no good sitting here if all this wonderful stuff Avenger bought as a favor to us goes to waste, is it?
            “—They said that edamame are especially healthy, and none of it should be too hot.”
            “…You do know that if I eat too fast, I’ll only get sick.”
            Well, it is fairly well-made for human food even if it’s not made by Gulcasa, so I can at least eat a little bit of everything.

            “You two are seriously so cute I could just barf.
            “I’d never imagined that the Berserker I fought was such a housewife.”
            “—You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
            Gulcasa stares at her as though perplexed.
            I can’t help but laugh.

            “—He’s a wonderful housewife. The fact that he’s like this saves me every day.”
            “And now you too. I can’t tell whether you’re praising me or insulting me.”
            But the half-smile on Gulcasa’s face convinces me that he understands.
            …I am grateful to him, to the point that words cannot even express my emotions anymore.
            And I am grateful that he is able to perceive that.

            “—Man, I’m jealous.”
            Avenger rests her chin on the heels of her hands and sulks at us with a smile.
            “I can’t believe that even Berserker wound up with a Master so chummy that you’re already like this when the war’s barely started.
            “—Go get married already, you damn idiots.”

            The words are all insults, but there is an extraordinary sort of kindness in the way she sits.
            Her gaze is as blue as the sky before the dawn.

            “…Avenger.”
            I don’t know what I want to say.
            I vaguely understand that this is something I can’t plan unless I want it to fail, and so I put my faith in my intuition and let the words come naturally.

            “The important thing is—not to give up.”
            My voice is small in the busy restaurant.
            I think that the wooden chopsticks used by patrons in the booths near us are louder, but both the crimson Servant next to me and the sky-colored Servant across the table are watching me raptly.
            “Being under a yoke you never wanted to bear is a feeling similar to claustrophobia.
            “It’s a cage closed around you, and no matter how you try to stifle the urge to panic, it just keeps rising up in you until you want to thrash about mindlessly for an escape.
            “…But it’s important to hold on to your mind and your self.
            “If your mind is free, then you’ll remain able to watch for openings, and if no openings come into view, then all you have to do is remember that no cage is so sturdy that it won’t rust eventually.
            “…As long as you don’t give up, then the chances will pile up until you can break free.
            “I wouldn’t be saying this if I didn’t believe that it is also possible for me.”

            It is entirely likely that this Servant will not be saved during this summoning.
            But even the termination of this summoning will give her peace.
            …And after that, whatever she searches for that led her to be called forth by the Holy Grail—it surely isn’t something that she can give up on.
            I know enough of the nature of people to be able to guess something that obvious.

            “…Nessiah.”
            Beside me, Gulcasa calls softly in a worried voice.

            I try to smile and narrow my eyes.
            “…You see, the thing about biding your time in an oppressor’s cage is that the longer you pretend to have submitted, the more quickly it’s forgotten that you still possess fangs with which to bite.”

            Avenger watches me expressionlessly.
            Gulcasa, beside me, is looking down at me almost listlessly. The sadness in his eyes gives him a sense of weakness.
            ……I have escaped the cage, but to continue my own metaphor, I haven’t yet been able to discard my collar.
            Well, the only reason I’m able to bluff so well is that I’m fighting with everything I have.
            Gulcasa is with me.
            I have someone to rely on, and so I have less to fear.

            “—You too.”
            “Eh?”
            Avenger’s words cut through my fugue, and I blink at her, feeling as though I’ve lost the thread of the conversation.

            “…I’m just saying, I like you guys.
            “My first impression of you was wrong. So I’ll just say that you can’t give up either.”
            A proclamation from one person who’s suffering under injustice to another.
            My feeling of kinship from before continues to grow much stronger.

            …Yes.
            There’s a passing resemblance to Gulcasa as well as far as her personality goes, but in terms of basic nature I would say that Avenger is a creature most similar to me.
            Her carelessness and her pride are tools used to hide her weaknesses.
            Unlike Gulcasa, who displays himself openly and honestly, she might be described as a bit fickle. She has the common sense to be aware that the dishonorable will not hesitate to use her weak points against her.

            “We’ll all…, do our best.”
            Gulcasa closes his eyes and smiles as if pained.
            “…Yes.
            “Avenger, do see if you can’t get rid of that Master of yours and find a more suitable magus.
            “I can’t believe that there’s no one who would serve as a better partner to you in a ground so spiritually advantageous as this.”

            Avenger laughs, and the moment passes.

            She and Gulcasa fight halfheartedly over the remaining food, divide it amongst themselves, and ask the waiter for a box for all the leftovers so that Gulcasa and I can take it home.
            …Well, this solves some of our problems as well, especially as I can enchant the air inside the box to keep the food warm.
            Sigh.
            If only I could do as much with a much larger space, like the air around me when I’m outside.

 

            We part ways, a little awkwardly.
            Even though Gulcasa seems to want to watch her go, he still tucks me close to his body and ducks us both into the first store on our list.
            Over the course of the next two hours, he acquires one bag filled with cooking implements and two bags filled with ingredients.
            There is meat, which I suppose will be used for tonight’s food, and then a number of vegetables and fruits that will keep fresh enough to eat safely even if we just keep them in the open air.
            Once Gulcasa is satisfied with our spoils, we begin the trek back across the bridge and to the old shack that waits for us.

            The edges of the sky are stained red as I duck inside and finally allow my legs to fold.
            “—”
            I don’t even bother trying to take my jacket off.
            It’s too cold for that. I’m going to freeze and break into pieces if I don’t do something to stay warm.

            “…Are you all right?
            “Here, let me get things started.”

            Gulcasa wraps the blankets from the bed around me, but unfortunately, he won’t just stay at my side.
            He gets the stove going, then starts to unload some of the food and begins preparing meat and vegetables.
            Judging by the large pot that he has taken out, dinner seems to be stew with beef.

            “You can lie down if you want, or you can eat some of the leftover edamame or the calamari.”
            “…I’m all right for now.”
            Even as I feel Gulcasa’s eyes on me, I just pull the blankets in around my body and close my own eyes.
            The light of the stove is red through my eyelids, and with Gulcasa working and the fire going, I can feel sensation beginning to return to my limbs.
            …I’m very tired.
            Either I really have gotten weak in the amount of time that I’ve spent in the cage, or today has simply worn me out a lot.
            But in the warmth, and with this weight that’s settled over my body, all I can really do is rest and conserve my strength.
            …That is the point of remaining here today.

            With the soothing rhythm of Gulcasa peeling potatoes nearby and the weighty cat’s cradle tangled up inside me, I allow myself to fall into a light doze.

(interlude 4-1)

            “Ugh—”

            And just like that, the battle is over.
            The body of the magus in white is slammed against the ground, and her dark hair fans out across the cobbled sidewalk.

            The form of her Servant, Assassin, is already gone from this world.
            Nothing more remains of her but dust in the breeze.

            “…”
            And.
            Across the road from the defeated magus stands the impassive Servant in white armor, running a pale hand through the long hair the color of gold.

            She didn’t have a chance.
            She knows this.
            Even amongst Servants, that woman that she and Assassin faced is a monster.
            A wall of perfect defense anomalous for a Caster, with absolute attack power.
            And to make things worse, she appeared alone, so there was no Master to aim for in order to end the fight quickly.

            This is no more than bad luck.
            The Master Soala’s Grail War has ended on her second day.

            …And there is no escape.
            She crawls on the ground gritting her teeth against the frustration.
            That thing outclasses a subpar magus like her completely.

            “—”
            The angel all in gold raises her Noble Phantasm.
            The crook of the staff points towards the defeated Master like the muzzle of a gun.

            “Magus, I will give you oblivion.”
            She speaks in a toneless voice.
            She speaks colorlessly without emotion or care and lights up her weapon as if this is a mere everyday task for her.

            There is a great stench of ozone as the area lights up briefly.
            A thin crack like thunder rolling.

            And it is finished.
            Caster strokes an elegant hand through her long hair, pushing it back over her shoulder in a languorous movement.
            The body of the archangel fades into the scenery, casting off a soft sparkle of light.

 

            …In that manner.
            The first Master leaves the stage in silence as a burnt corpse,
            and the most powerful defensive Servant begins to move—

(4-1 interlude out.)

            “Nessiah.”
            My body jolts slightly at the sudden sound of Gulcasa’s voice.
            For a moment, I have no idea where I am or what is happening.

            “—Nessiah?”
            I shake my head slowly in an effort to quell my dizziness.
            Something feels distinctly off, but I can’t put my finger on what.

            The shack has warmed up.
            I can tell by the darkness that the sun has set. The only illumination is the fire of the stove, and the flames that cradle Gulcasa’s pot.
            Gulcasa himself is kneeling next to it in his black clothes and long wine-colored tunic, with his hair trailing onto the ground as he looks at me with a concerned expression.

            “—I’m awake.
            “I just meant to rest, but I think I must have really gone to sleep for a bit.”

            Gulcasa continues to watch me for a moment, but then he sighs and his shoulders fall slightly.
            “Well, dinner is ready.
            “I made a lot, so you’d better eat a lot.”
            “I appreciate your efforts, but you know I’m not really built for banqueting.
            “Even so, I’ll do the best that I can, since you made it especially for me.
            “—Don’t hold back, there’s no point in saving food when you’re hungry too.”

            Gulcasa shakes his head at me.
            “You have such a bird’s stomach. As if it’s not bad enough already that you’re picky as hell and have a cat’s tongue.
            “—And, hey, don’t just go one-sidedly talking about how hungry I must be.”
            “Gulcasa, I know you. You’re always hungry.”
            When I say that, he scratches his head in an irritated manner and looks at the ground as if abashed.
            “…Well, I guess that’s true.
            “But you still need the food more than me. Come on, it’s beef stew and everything that went into it is good. Even if the materials are a little unfamiliar, I still think I was able to make it up to my own standards.
            “So come over here and have some. Don’t burn yourself, either.”

            So saying, my Servant ladles the thick stew into the new bowls we’ve purchased, and holds one in his lap while setting the other down for me to take.
            …I can’t remember whether he bought spices today, as I spent most of our shopping trip thinking about our encounter with Avenger and anyway I was rather drowsy at the time.
            But even if it’s only broth and vegetables and chunks of beef, the aroma of the stew is very relaxing, and I know that Gulcasa’s personal ability is enough to overcome any kinds of setbacks of ingredient quality or unfamiliar cooking tools.

            And so, I stand up.
            “—Eh?”
            Oddly.
            The world tilts at an unnatural angle, and I slide sideways when I’m halfway onto my feet, my legs crumpling beneath me.

            “Nessiah?!”

            …I don’t understand.
            I don’t understand the panicked look on Gulcasa’s face, but more importantly, I don’t really understand why I could not stand up.
            I’m not injured.
            The bruising from last night has recovered well enough to go on with.
            So why—?

            No matter how I try to push myself up, the muscles of my thighs and calves are not responding.
            They tense and writhe uselessly, but they will not support even my own meager weight.
            “Eh—?”
            Now that I think of it.
            My breathing is too harsh.
            The beating of my heart inside my chest is frantic and uneven, and there’s a sensation of something crawling underneath my skin.
            My oversensitive skin aches, and the glyphs that have been carved into my flesh burn and contract like living things.

            “Ah, eh?”
            My vision blurs.
            An unfamiliar sensation.
            I close my eyes tightly, overly aware of the action of blinking.
            Even when I open them, the objects before me slide in and out of focus.
            Something inside me hurts.
            Like something that doesn’t belong in my body is trying to find its place in the small hollows in my abdomen, in between the organs.
            There isn’t much space, so the heat and nausea and crawling sensation can’t be helped.

            I breathe deeply and try to calm myself.
            The foreign sensation that’s violating my body is something that I must simply bear until the time that I can figure out what’s causing it.
            Then I can determine whether it’s something to ignore or investigate further.
            But even my sense of left and right, of up and down are inverting.

            “Nessiah—!”
            Oh.
            My face is taken between rough, kind hands and tilted upwards.
            Gulcasa comes into focus immediately in front of me.
            He touches the side of my throat as if to determine my pulse, and then feels at the joint of my jaw and runs the back of his hand across my forehead.

            “—What the hell.
            “Nessiah, you’ve got a fever.”
            Gulcasa’s words pull me back into myself.
            The discomfort remains.
            But beyond that, I can at least concentrate and move.

            “—I’m all right.”
            “Bullshit.
            “You can’t even stand, don’t bluff to me right now.”

            I shake my head and carefully push his hands away.
            “It’s passing.
            “—I’ll be all right in a moment, so don’t panic. Listen to your Master.”

            Gulcasa narrows his eyes like an angry lion and snorts.
            “If you think I’m too dumb to have figured out that your word is inherently suspect when you’re talking about your own physical condition, you’ve really got something else coming.”
            I sigh.
            His hands have settled against my upper back and the side of my waist, supporting me.
            He’s overreacting, but I can at least understand why that is.
            And beyond that, it must have been a shock to see me stumble.

            “Gulcasa, you’ve already determined that we’re going to stay in tonight anyway.
            “This should either pass or become manageable if I eat and have a good rest.”
            I’m being reasonable, but I don’t think he’s convinced.
            …This is simultaneously the good thing and the bad thing about Gulcasa. He cares very much for others, but once he starts worrying it’s very difficult to make him stop.

            And no matter what this is, it’s not something that I can explain just yet.
            I knew from the beginning that my body wasn’t suited for this.
            After all, it’s not like this was my own choice.

            But if there’s anything guaranteed to make Gulcasa panic, that’s probably it, so I’ll keep quiet about it for just a little bit longer.
            …I’m sorry.
            I think that in the depths of my heart where he won’t be able to read it on my face, and promise absentmindedly to myself that I’ll explain things in full later.

            “—”
            Gulcasa continues to give me an uncertain-looking stare, but he sighs again.
            “Well, whether you’re being forthright or not, our options are limited.
            “…I’ll help you with the food, and then you’d seriously better lie down and take it easy.”

            …I try to move in a way that doesn’t betray my foggy consciousness.
            The rich taste of the stew manages to cut through the confusion and the pain somewhat.
            With Gulcasa’s hand at the small of my back, I make it through two and a half bowls.
            After that, I lose my ability to really move all that much.
            A deep fatigue settles over my body, both from the amount of food I’ve eaten and from trying to bear this inexplicable oddness in my limbs.

            “I’ll finish the rest, so don’t worry.”
            Gulcasa, who has not touched his own portion yet, speaks out of the blurry world.
            “Here. I’ll help you get settled down, so don’t push yourself.”
            …Even if I had wanted to, I’m beyond protesting.
            I give up trying to pick out objects and just close my eyes.

            In that instant.
            I lose my awareness and fall into the quiet oblivion of sleep—