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Vagrant Grail Cadenza

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            —This is the story of someone dear to me.

            The end of that era came as subtly as it came suddenly.
            It was a mission given to him by his employer like and unlike any other.

            …It turned out that despite all the progress that the private army had made, their employer was still unsatisfied.
            Like any politician, the landgrave wanted all the variables neatly in his grasp, organized so that nothing would be problematic when the time came to launch his silent takeover.
            And although the army was working to put out fires and eat up pieces of land for him to govern on a small-scale basis, that wasn’t good enough.
            …Especially with the out-of-control rebel army swelling large on the horizon.
            If there was any hope for maintaining and protecting order in the empire, they had to become able to cope with larger battles and take less damage doing so.

            And so, it was decided that a better strategist was needed.
            Conveniently enough, the landgrave had been eyeing a particular target for a while.
            …There was a certain man.
            Long years ago, he had traversed the empire and prophesied certain events.
            At the time the people had dismissed him as a sham, but after the prophet had left, everything he had said came true.

            Prophecy was a kind of magic that was commonly held to be “impossible”.
            The future was not a thing that was set in stone by any means.
            …So, the landgrave posited that perhaps the prophet did not accomplish the act of prophesy by magical means, but rather by a combination of instinct and foresight and detailed knowledge of human psychology.
            Surely, if someone with those kinds of skills were persuaded to join them, his ability to read the battlefield would be of great use.

            The young captain agreed.
            It was certainly true that they suffered in battles sometimes based on the tactical skill of the boy who thought up their plans, the boy who was his childhood friend.
            And beyond that, like his employer he also believed that it was about time for them to start reaching for greater heights in their campaigns to restore peace.
            Just saving a handful of people within his sight wasn’t enough, and never would be.
            Just looking at the handful of people reminded him of the hundreds of other faceless civilians who still suffered, and those who could have been saved if only he and his men had arrived earlier.

            —I want to save everyone.

            A beautiful, childish ideal.
            He knew that it wasn’t possible, but even so, he wanted to come as close as he could to really being able to fulfill it.

            And so he gathered his men and set off for the forest.
            According to the landgrave’s information, the prophet was living as a hermit in the center of the forest, where he wouldn’t be harassed by the kinds of ignorant laymen who had laughed him off as a fraud and chased him away.
            …That was a kind of injustice, too.
            He pictured it.
            The person who had offered visions of a future, asking for nothing in return, only to be scorned and attacked from all sides.
            Surely such an experience must have been painful.
            …In the worst case scenario, he might be leading his men to someone every ounce as bitter and untrusting as the knight they had once been told to recruit as a trainer.

            But the young captain was the only one who thought that way.
            The rest of his army—the rest of his friends—simply got excited and talked to each other about the prospect of adding someone else to their number.
            And his childhood friend, the boy who had been their tactician, sulked at the thought of being replaced, already nursing a grudge against the man he’d never met.

            Well, there was a chance that it was either.
            They hadn’t met the man yet, so no one could say.
            He could be the real thing, and resentful about his poor treatment, just as the young captain thought to himself.
            He could be a fake who had simply guessed right, and not really useful to their cause, just as his childhood friend proclaimed.
            Or he could be somewhere in between, a wise but lonely hermit with some skills that might be applied to their future direction.

            Deeper and deeper into the forest they ventured.
            When finally they made their way to the prophet’s manse, it was approaching sundown.
            The woods were deep and the heavy scent of foliage was all around, and the mansion they arrived at in the end was extremely old.
            It was like a place where time had stopped, a mysterious cold place with a palpable air of anticipation.

            And finally, they found him.

            The young captain had never been sure what he had expected to find.
            He’d vaguely imagined an old man based on the fairy tale-like explanation he had been given of the prophet’s history, but the person who appeared out of the trees was a youth who was perhaps a year or two older than himself.
            Incongruously.
            There was no way his actual age could match his appearance if he was the same person, because he had been active when the young captain had been a very small child.
            But from the way that he spoke, there was no mistaking that the youth was the prophet in question.

            He had an overly polite and mild way of speaking, but he had an air of assuredness that could even be called overconfidence.
            And even from a distance, the young captain could see that he smiled like he had a secret that he wouldn’t tell.
            A vast magical aura and a delicate body hidden in voluminous robes and heavy chains.
            …The prophet listened to their request that he join them, and stipulated that they must first prove themselves worthy of wielding his powers.
            He summoned ranks and ranks worth of undead soldiers, displaying his skills in high necromancy as well as prophecy.

            Some of the young captain’s allies were perplexed, and his childhood friend the erstwhile tactician was disgruntled…
            But the captain himself couldn’t help being intrigued.
            The man before him was a puzzle.
            And his instincts were telling him that if they could just convince this person to join their cause, then surely they would obtain much greater power than before.
            Their capabilities would change in an instant.
            His dream of eradicating injustice would come closer to his reach.

            And so, he volunteered his army to undertake the trial.

            The battle was long and hard.
            As far as matters of strategy went, this certainly proved that the prophet had great skill in manipulating armies, for each squadron of undead soldiers was directed with the precision of pawns on a chessboard.
            So he was convinced.
            It had been worth his time to come this far.

            …When finally he rode his charger through a gap his people had opened in the prophet’s defense and closed in to finish things—
            When finally he came into close quarters with the prophet for the first time, he noticed belatedly that his heart had begun to pound ferociously in his chest.
            He didn’t understand it then.
            Not his feelings of anticipation, not his racing heartbeat, and certainly not the way that when he returned to his senses after disarming the prophet and pinning him against the nearest wall, he became overly aware of their proximity and began to blush.
            …It was a strange sort of disease, a sudden onset of awkwardness that overtook him upon coming close to the prophet for the first time.
            He found his gaze captivated by the man’s deft gestures and secretive smile, his false gentleness and the wicked intelligence beneath it.

            …And so, at the end of the long battle.
            Having passed the test, and with emotions blooming wildly in his heart that he couldn’t put a name to, the young captain took the prophet’s hands in his.
            —They would go together from this day onward.

            There were voices of dissent, of course, but the young captain ignored them.
            …The fact was that even knowing the prophet was contrary, the captain still liked him.
            An instant and irrational affinity.
            And—a sense of kinship that he couldn’t hope to explain in words.

            “I want to be near you.”

            Words so simple that he didn’t know how to convey them yet.
            Quietly.
            Destiny was set irrevocably in motion, so softly that no one realized it.

            This is his—this is “our” memory.

 

            “—…”
            And I wake.
            …I don’t know where I am.
            The blurry white ceiling that meets my gaze when I open my eyes is not one that I have ever seen before.
            …But it doesn’t matter.
            There is a profound sense of sorrow, of other feelings that I can’t even hope to describe, resting heavy in my chest.
            So much so that tears build up in my eyes and spill over, blurring the world before me until I can’t make sense of it.
            …The tears don’t stop.
            My body is so warm and so heavy that I can’t even raise a hand to wipe them away, and they won’t stop.

            …Gulcasa.
            I want to see you.
            I have so many things—that I need to say to you.
            But there’s nothing that I can do other than lie perfectly still, and continue soundlessly to cry.

 

            There is an end to everything eventually, and so even my tears dry up without my having to do anything about it.
            And slowly, my awareness of my surroundings increases.

            …I’m inside a house, lying on a bed that’s incredibly soft compared to the place that I’ve been sleeping up until now.
            There’s a sense of security and the walls are solid.
            Furthermore, it’s warm. So much so that the past week or so seems like a joke in comparison.
            I should get up and try to check on my surroundings a bit more, but not only do I feel nice where I’m lying, there’s an extreme heaviness in my entire body.
            My left shoulder stings periodically, but other than that there is no pain.
            It’s just that even turning my head to the side takes a lot of energy.

            “Ngh.”
            Even when I try my hardest, I can only get up on my elbows before my body collapses awkwardly and I land back against the mattress.
            …This is an annoyance.
            At least there’s no pain, but I’d like to be able to support my own weight and get around.

            “…Nessiah?”
            Oh.
            That’s Gulcasa’s voice.
            When I make an effort and turn to see where the voice is coming from, I see Gulcasa standing in the doorframe.

            …And from what I can see of the area around him, this bedroom is actually decorated fairly lavishly, almost as if we’re inside some kind of mansion done up in a baroque style.
            “…???”
            This is only getting stranger and stranger.
            …What’s going on here?

            “—Are you actually awake?”
            I attempt to nod, but that doesn’t really work.
            So I try my voice instead.
            “…Yes.”
            A croak comes out, and I become aware that I’m rather thirsty.

            Gulcasa lets out a great sigh and smiles at me as if relieved of an immense burden.
            “—How do you feel?
            “Does anything hurt? Are you still tired?”

            “I’m all right, but—I’m having a little bit of trouble moving.
            “I suppose I’m a bit thirsty, as well. I’m really not in pain, but—I’m not sure what’s going on here… where are we?
            “Last night—it was last night, wasn’t it? We were fighting Lancer, but I think I started to hallucinate and then I collapsed, and… what happened after that?”

            Gulcasa sighs again.
            He looks much more at ease, but his expression has sobered a little.
            “…I took a risk.
            “You needed actual care, and no matter what, we couldn’t depend on anyone who doesn’t have a connection to this Holy Grail War.”

            “So—”
            “…Yeah.
            “I thought of the woman we met too, but even though she seemed to have some sort of magical energy, she wasn’t a Master.
            “So I thought we couldn’t drag her into this after she was so kind, and I relied on my instincts and took you here instead.”
            “…Gulcasa.
            “You haven’t answered my question. Where is here?”
            I can work out for myself that we are probably in the residence of some other Master from the way that he has phrased things so far, but that’s all.

            Gulcasa fidgets.
            “…Don’t get mad, okay?
            “I already hate myself enough to die for having to make this choice, and if you get angry I won’t know what to do anymore.
            “—Just, making sure of your safety came first for me, and so I couldn’t make any other decision.”
            He looks at the ground and murmurs, clutching at his sleeve.

            “…I won’t get angry.
            “Even if your decision doesn’t seem to make any sense from my point of view, I promise that I will hear you out and consider your reasoning before I get angry at you one-sidedly.
            “So—please explain things in a way that’s less confusing.”

            “…Well.
            “I guess the first thing to say is that we’re with another Master, at their home in Shinto.
            “…I knew it would be bad to just take you back to the shack in the condition you were in, and I decided that these people were our best bet, so I searched for traces of them and figured out where this place was.
            “I think the best way to explain everything else is just to show you, and this way I can get you food too, so I’ll carry you downstairs.”

            Still looking extremely sheepish, Gulcasa walks up to my bedside and lifts me with gentle hands.
            My head comes to rest on his shoulder.
            His body is warm as usual, but along with his own vaguely smoky scent, I can smell that his clothes have been freshly laundered.
            …The mystery just keeps getting deeper.

            Gulcasa carries me outside of the room with a steady gait, careful not to step too roughly and jostle me from my seat in his arms.
            It’s a little bit annoying that my limbs just dangle aimlessly and that I can’t really move them too well.
            All I can do is look at the slightly gaudy decorations of the mystery house as he carries me down the stairs.

            We travel through a foyer and then into a kitchen, and then Gulcasa sets me down on a plush sofa, sitting on my other side as if to support me and keep me upright.

            “—Oh, so I see he’s awake.”
            And.
            I can hear a familiar voice from the direction of the kitchen.
            When I fight hard so that I can turn and look, there’s a young man who I vaguely recognize leaning on the kitchen counter.
            …His Command Seal is clearly stamped upon the back of his hand, and his brown hair is tied loosely at the nape of his neck.
            There is no hostility in his posture or in his blue eyes, and he looks at me neutrally as if I am no more than a temporary guest in his household.

            …No, all the hostility is coming from his Servant, the blond girl who peers around another doorway in distrust.
            The object of her glare is not me, but Gulcasa.

            …Hmm.

            “—Gulcasa.
            “I did promise that I wouldn’t get angry at you, but I would certainly like to hear your reasoning. What led you to decide on Saber and her Master’s residence as the best place to take me?”
            …Oh.
            He freezes up guiltily beside me and doesn’t say a word.
            Once I have turned to him, he just looks at his hands unhappily.

            “…Yes, you certainly shouldn’t get angry at your Servant.
            “The first miracle was that he even found this place, since there was no way he could have had knowledge as to where Saber and I live.
            “And the second miracle was that he was able to carry you here before it was too late. Your condition was very bad, and you might have died if you hadn’t had a skilled magus help to suppress your convulsions.
            “…I wouldn’t call this third one a miracle, but from there on you were still lucky. I have enough skill with healing magic that I was able to regulate your body somewhat.”

            …I do realize all of that.
            Still, I wait for Gulcasa’s answer. Calmly, and without getting angry.
            I promised him.
            So I will hear him out.

            “…Well.
            “From my perspective it was a matter of logic.
            “Those two girls we fought had a bad affinity with you, and you said that the magi we were fighting last night were allied to your enemy.
            “Avenger is our friend, but we’d never be able to ask her Master for help.
            “Two Masters left the battlefield already, and the one remaining that we haven’t seen or heard of is your enemy, right?
            “So her Master was the only person remaining.
            “…And from the time we fought… it looked like the two of them got along.
            “I just thought that if they got along, then Saber’s Master probably cared enough about fair play that he would be able to put aside the fact that we’re enemies and save you.”

            “…I’m shocked.
            “Well, I probably shouldn’t be, but this has just reminded me again that you’re entirely too trusting for your own good.
            “Luckily for both of us, things worked out well this time, but I would be able to rest much more easily if one day you would realize that other people aren’t always as kind as you are.”
            “I’d rather believe.
            “…Well, having your expectations betrayed hurts, but it’s still better to be betrayed than it is to betray others.”
            “That’s reckless self-endangerment. I can’t even yell at you to only do that kind of thing when you’re the only person who’ll suffer the repercussions, because even if you’re the only one harmed by your own recklessness the people around you will also suffer.
            “—I can understand and accept your logic, but I still have to remind you that this was horribly reckless and that next time you should think twice before you risk it.
            “…Speaking as someone who can still vividly remember being killed by that woman, I have to say that you have as little common sense as ever.”
            Gulcasa sighs.
            “I can still remember being killed by her pretty vividly too.
            “—But I didn’t know what to do other than trust my gut instinct. It’s worked out this time, so forgive me already.”

            “…It’s not a matter of forgiving you or not forgiving you.
            “My gratitude for your quick thinking and bravery has been canceled out by my constant dismay at the problems with your personality.”
            “Nessiah, that hurts when you put it that way.”
            “Then I’ll rephrase myself.
            “—Your judgment was right this time, and of course I’m grateful that you saved me. But at the same time, thinking about how badly this could have gone wrong is making me feel sick, so if there’s ever a situation like this again then please don’t endanger yourself like this.
            “If you die, then there’s no meaning in any of this.”

            “…That goes for you too, you know.”
            Gulcasa says so quietly, but I pretend I don’t hear it.

            “Well, now that you’re done yelling at your Servant, I suppose it’s time to turn to more practical matters.
            “How are you feeling? I’d like to follow up on my treatment from last night.”
            Saber’s Master gets up from the table and comes to kneel on the floor beside me.
            He takes my hands and lightly touches at the inside of my wrists as if to feel for my pulse.

            “Well, obviously I’m feeling better, being as I’m conscious now and not hallucinating.
            “I don’t feel feverish, and the malaise that’s been bothering me for a little while is gone as well. If there are any symptoms and such to be measured, I suppose the only things of note are that my body feels rather heavy and because of that big movements are rather difficult and tiring.
            “—It’s frustrating to admit it, but I don’t have much faith right now in my ability to walk for long distances while properly supporting my own weight.”
            “I see.”
            Saber’s Master sets my hands back in my lap.
            “There’s not much that I can do other than continue to examine your body periodically and administer medicine and basic spells.
            “…I’d like to have a more detailed look at you sometime later tonight or tomorrow, when you’re awake and able to answer questions. It feels to me as though the prana in your body is somewhat odd, but right now I can’t get a more detailed read.”

            He stands up and smiles apologetically.
            “…You said ‘tomorrow’.”
            I can’t help but get caught on that detail.

            Saber’s Master, to his credit, doesn’t try to evade the topic at all.
            “—Yes.
            “It would be incredibly unwise to send you back out into this weather; it’s raining hard and very cold. Your Berserker mentioned that the two of you had very poor shelter, and that’s only going to aggravate your condition, so you’ll need to stay indoors in order to recover.”

            Honestly, how troublesome.
            I can’t deny it, though.

            “Now then.
            “Since we’re all gathered, we may as well have something to eat. Yg—Saber, please come in so that we can talk about dinner.”
            The blond girl who’s been glowering at us from around the corner walks into the kitchen and takes a seat at the table, still giving us a freezing stare.

            “—By the way.
            “You don’t have to call your Servant by her class name if it would feel more natural for you to use her given name. After all, we already know the identity of each other’s Servant.”
            “O-Oh.”
            Saber’s Master laughs a bit sheepishly.
            “You’re right about that. And—I’m sorry, Yggdra.”

            So.
            As it transpires, it’s already nighttime and it’s time to prepare dinner.
            Saber’s Master—whose name has turned out to be Roswell Branthèse, which gives me the satisfaction of knowing my guess of “descendant” turned out to be correct—originally offered to cook, but.
            Predictably—

            “—Well, we’re intruding on your space anyway and there’s no way for me to repay you but this, so please let me cook instead.”
            Gulcasa volunteered himself with serious, sparkling eyes.
            Both Roswell and Yggdra stared at him, the latter quite unflatteringly.
            “I can’t possibly ask you to go to that much trouble; besides, it wouldn’t be fair to ask you to cook when you don’t even know what I have in the pantry and refrigerator.”
            “It’s okay, I’m offering because I really want to.
            “And, um, even if I do say so myself, I have complete confidence in my ability to make a dish that will make you acknowledge your decision is correct, no matter what kinds of food I’m working with.”
            …And this left Roswell at a loss and Yggdra even more suspicious, so it fell to me to step in.
            “You may as well let him. I’ll tell you right now, he’s not exaggerating when he speaks of his abilities like that.
            “—If anything, he’s being modest.
            “Besides, I believe he wants to play with your kitchen equipment.”
            With Roswell even more nonplussed and Yggdra staring at us blankly, Gulcasa turned to me and fidgeted.
            “If you put it like that it makes me sound as if I’m not serious at all.”
            “But it would be untruthful to leave that part of your motivation out.
            “I don’t know that much about cooking, of course, but I can at least tell that our gracious hosts’ kitchen is a much nicer one than the one in the shack.”
            “—Roswell, you can’t let him.
            “This will throw off our schedule, I was going to use those new cookbooks to prove my aptitude to you tomorrow morning.
            “And besides, I can’t see this man managing to produce anything that’s not awfully roughly made, so you can’t.”
            “Oho.”
            Gulcasa, forgetting his embarrassment completely at her words, turned back around then with his arms folded and a look of superior disdain on his face.
            “So the little princess is getting off her duff and actually putting her back into something for the first time, huh? Congratulations are in order, it seems.
            “—But there’s no way that I’m going to force Nessiah to subsist on any failed attempts you might come up with. When someone’s health is on the line, amateurs need to step the hell down and let people who know what they’re doing take over.”
            At his words, Yggdra puffed up even more in rage, but Gulcasa just got up from the sofa and headed into the kitchen on his own.

            “Everyone listen, then. From this night forward until I say otherwise, this space has been claimed in the name of the New Bronquian Empire, and anyone that wants to contest it will have to prove their culinary skills so that I’m satisfied—”

            —And ever since then, His Majesty has been happily playing with the vast stove and oven and indoor grill top.
            He’s apparently emptied a significant amount of Roswell’s stores in order to put together a great feast.
            Meanwhile, Yggdra fumes at him from the table, clearly outraged at the nerve of him.
            …And the actual owner of the kitchen is sighing with his head in his hands.

            I have not got any comments to make on this, really, so I just keep quiet and watch.
            …Gulcasa seems happy, and whatever he’s making smells good. That’s really all that’s important to me here.

            “—Here.
            “No one should have any complaints about this, so everyone eat until you’re full.
            “There’s more than enough for seconds and even thirds if anyone wants more.”

            Grandly.
            Gulcasa lays out dish after dish on the Western-style tall table.

            “—”
            “—”
            Roswell and Yggdra stare at the dinner that’s been prepared for them as if they don’t understand what they’re even looking at, and Gulcasa helps me to the table.
            I show him that I can still manipulate utensils well enough, and then he takes the seat next to me as I start eating the grilled and lightly seasoned chicken in small bites.
            …I am actually surprisingly hungry, although that’s probably to be expected given how long I was asleep.

            “—This really is good.”
            When Roswell says so wonderingly after sampling the dish of steamed pumpkin, Gulcasa just smiles.
            Not with an air of superiority, but out of pleasure at having been complimented.

            The princess at the end of the table is biting her lip while stabbing her utensils into her salad bowl, sulking like a little child.

            And.
            Suddenly, after taking a big bite, she goes extremely pale.
            She makes a choking noise, grabs a napkin, and coughs into it while holding it over her mouth to spit out what she almost ate.

            “—Yggdra?”
            Roswell pauses in eating to look at her with alarm.

            “—!!”
            The princess slams the napkin and her utensils down onto the table and launches herself out of her seat.
            Her entire body quivers with rage.
            There are tears at the corners of her eyes, and her puffed-up cheeks are red.

            “M, mu—”
            “…Muh?”
            Her Master looks at her quizzically.
            “Mushrooms!!”
            She slams the table again and spits the word like it’s a curse.
            “Mushrooms! There are mushrooms in this salad!
            “I can’t believe you! How could you do such a thing?! That’s disgusting!”

            Gulcasa sets his own utensils down, all the happiness gone from his face.
            “—What’s your problem?
            “Mushrooms are one of the healthiest things there is to eat. They’re good for your physical strength, and they go in plenty of different dishes and compliment all of them. They even have variable texture based on what they’re in.
            “They’re good for you, so eat them.”

            “Never!!
            “How dare you even suggest that to me! Mushrooms are vile, poisonous and slimy, they suck the taste out of everything and even the thought that I had something so vulgar in my mouth is making me want to vomit!”
            “—Sit back down in that chair and eat.
            “It’s food that someone else made, so you need to accept it with gratitude.”
            “I swear on my sword that I will kill you if you ever repeat such an insult to me again!!”

            Gulcasa stands up.
            He says nothing, but he is bristling with suppressed violence.
            The two Servants’ intent to kill clashes and rebounds throughout the room.

            And.
            As hard as I try to suppress the laughter, it just bubbles out regardless of my own intentions.

            “—Eh?”
            “Ah.”
            Gulcasa and Yggdra both look at me in bewilderment.
            As if they don’t even know where they are or what they’re doing.
            The expressions they wear are so similar that it’s even funnier.

            “…There really are some things that never change.”

            Immediately.
            At my words, the both of them sit down almost ashamedly as if finally realizing where and when they are.

            …The rest of dinner passes in peace, with the two sheepish Servants saying little.
            Yggdra still refuses to touch the salad, and Gulcasa still seems displeased about it, but the both of them refrain from shouting at each other again.
            …I probably shouldn’t be this amused or this proud.

            “Well, likes and dislikes aren’t things that anyone can help.”
            Roswell smiles peaceably and says so with finality.
            “Yggdra, we were treated to dinner and all, so we should take care of the dishes.”
            …The princess sighs and complies without whining out loud, and Gulcasa takes the opportunity to carry me back to the sofa.
            Somehow, we actually managed to eat all of that food, and Roswell at least seems suitably impressed by Gulcasa’s abilities.

 

            “—Now, there is one thing that I’d like to propose.”
            It is after dinner and clean-up, and the four of us—two Masters and two Servants—sit in the living room.
            Roswell steeples his fingers together and looks at me seriously.
            “Go ahead.”
            “I’ll cut straight to the point, although I’m sure Yggdra won’t be pleased with this.
            “—I’d like to propose an alliance between us.”

            “Hoh, that’s quite bold.
            “The princess sitting next to you certainly seems displeased, but please elaborate. Why suggest such a thing with us, especially since our Servants were enemies in life?”
            …Roswell smiles and shakes his head slightly.
            “Well, a part of it is that I do necessarily know about Berserker’s abilities due to my knowledge of Yggdra’s history. The two of them together would certainly be a formidable force, as they are among the strongest Servants summoned in this war.
            “But there are other strategic factors as well. I know that you have good battle sense and great power, and unlike me you’re capable of at least some form of close-range fighting. In exchange, I can heal, even if my skills are still rather unpolished in that area. That will surely be of use to you.
            “I do have to admit that our Servants’ enmity might make working together difficult until they can learn to cooperate, but there’s the saying ‘better the devil you know than the one you don’t’, after all. That problem will be out in the open for us to deal with.
            “…On a less strategic side, I must admit that now that I’ve treated you I don’t think I have it in me to just leave you alone or chase you out of this household for as long as there are still problems with your body.
            “We can offer you food and shelter, so what do you think?”

            “—Well, that’s not something I can decide entirely by myself.”
            I look to Gulcasa as he sits beside me with a serious expression and folded arms.

            But.
            “Nessiah, I think we should do it.”
            “—Oh? That’s unexpected.”

            He sighs and runs a hand through his hair, causing the red to catch the light and flare into bright tones of ruby and flame.
            “Ordinarily, yes, I’d have a lot to say about possibly having to cooperate with the princess here, but I think I’ve said this to you before.
            “My priorities right now are different from before. This isn’t a war where I have to worry about defending a country, avenging my loved ones, or protecting my own honor. The only thing I care about right now is your well-being and making sure you survive through this war.
            “No, I’m not happy having to pair up with the woman who raped my land, slaughtered my people, and killed me. But if by doing that I can guarantee your safety, then I will deal with it even if it’s unpleasant.”
            “…How mature of you.”
            He gives me a look as though he thinks I’m just making fun, then shrugs.
            “The matter of Saber aside, I think we can at least trust Branthèse.
            “It’s a curious tendency amongst really devoted healers to have a lot of respect for life and well-being, particularly of their patients. Even the occasional really twisted doctor would still try to defend a life that wanted to be born, be it a human child or a monster stained against its will with all the evils of the world.
            “So, someone who was as gentle treating you as this guy probably wouldn’t go back on his word and attack you unless you were in a position to fight back.”

            “That’s quite the appraisal.”
            Across the room from us, Roswell has an expression like he doesn’t know whether to be bashful or perplexed.
            …Well, if I hadn’t seen it demonstrated myself when this person was checking on my condition, I’d dismiss Gulcasa’s words as his being far too trusting, but in this case I believe that he’s right.

            “…All right, then I have one question to ask.
            “Roswell Branthèse. We’ve deemed you trustworthy, but the only concern that then remains is to ask you if you think you can restrain your Servant from killing us again.
            “It was unpleasant the first time, and it will certainly be unpleasant if she tries to do that again, particularly because we will have to break our alliance and attack you directly to stop her from killing us.”
            “That’s a bit dishonorable, but yeah, I agree with my Master here. We’ll lend you our power and wisdom if you can keep the murder princess there under control.”

            “How rude.”
            The murder princess herself sulks.
            “—I can obey my Master’s directions to not attack you, even if I don’t like or trust either of you. So just don’t threaten Roswell.”
            And, hearing this from his Servant, the Master of Saber smiles.
            “I don’t think you have to worry.
            “Even in the worst case scenario, I still have Command Spells to hold over her head.”

            I can’t help but smile a little at the disgruntled expression that she makes.
            “—Then I accept your terms.
            “We’ll gladly impose on your hospitality for the rest of the war.”

            Roswell smiles.
            “All right, then, I suppose we’ll leave you two to things like deciding which rooms to sleep in.
            “Once that’s finished, we’ll revise the cooking schedule to include the two of you.”
            “We’ll share a room, so there’s no need to worry about that.
            “Also, I’ll do everyone here a favor and give my share of the cooking slots to Gulcasa; I know enough to give up straight away when I have neither the aptitude nor the inclination for something.”

            …Like that.
            Finally, about a week into the Holy Grail War, Gulcasa and I are able to attain real residence.

            “—Then, about the war itself—”
            After the trivialities have been dealt with, the atmosphere becomes extremely serious upon those words being spoken.

            Because we are the ones being sheltered, I first tell Roswell and Yggdra everything I know.
            …That there are nine Servants, and that I have identified all the remaining participants but three.
            About the two Riders.
            That I am certain that three Servants have already been defeated, one of the Riders and two Servants out of Assassin, Archer, and Caster.

            Hearing this, Roswell narrows his eyes and rests his chin on his interlaced fingers.
            “—Nine Servants.”
            He speaks in a voice that doesn’t know whether to be frustrated or awed.
            “We’d figured by now that something about this Grail War was odd beyond how quickly it began, but to think that nine Servants were able to be summoned.”
            “…From what I’m aware it should have been eight, but the Riders’ Masters have sister Magic Crests and were able to exploit the same loophole as the Edelfelt family once did.
            “I know a little about those two girls, so I expect the Master who left the battle to still participate to support her sister. Their thaumaturgy is based around a particular oddity that leaves them able to do battle but unfit for study, after all.
            “—And those two Masters, as well as the Master of Lancer, are the pawns of the war supervisor, who is almost certainly a Master himself.
            “I don’t know if you’ve come into contact with the man at all, but no matter what, contact with him must be avoided at all costs.
            “He is a powerful magus and a deadly opponent, and is extremely treacherous. Even if for whatever reason we are eliminated, I would suggest lending our power to any possible friendly magi and keeping him from obtaining the Holy Grail.”

            “—About the two Masters who were eliminated.”
            Roswell speaks up.
            “We encountered her, so from the news report following the discovery of the corpse I’m certain: The first Master who was defeated was Assassin’s Master.
            “She was killed with powerful thaumaturgy that burned her body badly, but from the limited amount of description the news gave about the sex and age of the victim I am sure it was her.
            “…Also, the magus with a defeated Servant whom you rescued was probably Archer’s Master.
            “As to why we know that, it’s because we had arranged a meeting that night in order to negotiate terms for an alliance, but she never appeared.
            “—So, we should thank you for getting her out of harm’s way.”

            “That leaves the only unaccounted-for Servant as Caster.”
            Gulcasa rests back and sighs.
            “And if Nessiah is right, that puts Caster as our personal enemy’s Servant. If this guy’s as powerful as Nessiah makes it out to be, then there’s no doubt that Caster is a strong Servant as well.”

            “From a standpoint of deducing the killer of the three defeated Servants.
            “—You weren’t involved with any of the defeats, and neither were we.
            “The image that I had imposed last night is fading a bit, but I know that the Servant was female—in addition to which, I think it would be unusual for such self-righteous magi as Lancer’s team to kill an enemy so brutally that they couldn’t be identified, as with Assassin’s killer.
            “The Riders wouldn’t turn on one another, which also rules them out.
            “And from our dealings with Avenger and Yellma, I’d say that at least Assassin couldn’t have been defeated by them, because Yellma’s sorcery alignment wasn’t wind.
            “You said that her body was burned, so she had to have been killed with electricity or fire.
            “—So that leaves Caster, who is still unidentified and whom neither of us have met.
            “Given my knowledge of her Master, she has probably been dispatched on her own, because it would destroy his cover and standing if he were to be encountered by any of his pawn Masters.
            “—They’re just there to pad the numbers out and to act as insurance for him should he run into trouble anyway, so it wouldn’t be troublesome if one or two of their Servants was defeated early.”

            “—”
            “—”
            Both Roswell and Yggdra stare at me with wide eyes.

            “That’s an impressive train of logic, and definitely sounds plausible.”
            Beside me, Gulcasa nods; from the corner of my eye I can see that he has a proud expression.
            “Nessiah has always had a reputation as being brilliant at reading people, and it’s well-deserved precisely because of this.
            “Whenever he gets serious, his margin of error is very low, and in times like these he’s never led me wrongly.”

            …Gulcasa.
            If you praise me so effusively, I’m going to have to vomit out of guilt.
            …I won’t admit it in front of Roswell and Yggdra, but—his words hurt like stabbing rusty blades into already-open wounds.
            Those are things that can’t be taken back.
            But no matter how well I understand it, my desire to take them back is something that cannot be erased.

            “—I wouldn’t pin all our strategies on my evaluation, because there is a considerable chance that I’m wrong.
            “My enmity towards Caster’s Master could be blowing my estimation of them out of proportion, so that needs to be taken into account as well.
            “It’s just that we should probably move from now on based on the presumption that Caster may be on the move, that she may not be with her Master when she is, and that hence we must stay away from the general area of the supervisor’s church at all times and at all costs.
            “As a strategist, that is the best advice that I can give you.”

            “That’s more than we had to go on before, so I’ll gladly take those cautions.”
            Roswell nods seriously.
            “Since you still need sleep and I’ll have to monitor you then, we’re not going to patrol tonight and neither are you, but we’ll have to check the news to see if any other deaths turn up as well.
            “We can discuss our future course of action tomorrow.”

            …And that is how our first joint tactics meeting is concluded.
            Gulcasa and Roswell decide on their own that it’s time for me to sleep, and Yggdra continues to watch us through pensive eyes.
            The day comes to a close as Gulcasa carries me back up to the same room I spent last night and the lion’s share of this day sleeping in.

            When I’m laid down on the bed.
            …I remember again that there was something that I had to say.

            “—Gulcasa.”
            I catch the end of his sleeve as he stands up, and even though I can’t get a very good grip on him due to my drowsiness, he stops and looks at me.
            “I know that just me saying so is too little and far too late.
            “But—I’m sorry, for everything.”

            “—”
            With blank eyes.
            Gulcasa tilts his head at me as if he doesn’t understand what I’m talking about.

            “Nessiah, you idiot.
            “You’re sick, and that’s not really something that anybody ever asks for.
            “Like I said earlier and like you got mad at me about, coming here and joining up with Roswell and Saber was my choice. I decided it on my own, so you bear no responsibility in any of this.”
            “—That isn’t what I mean.”

            He tilts his head further and narrows his eyes as if trying to decipher small print without wearing glasses.
            “Then explain it to me, because I don’t really get it.”

            “…Gulcasa, you don’t have to play dumb.
            “Every night since I first summoned you, I’ve seen your memories in my dreams.
            “That means that you should also be seeing mine.”
            Minutely.
            I can see his eyebrows raise, but then the next moment he kneels down at my bedside so that we are closer to eye level.

            “—It’s certainly true that I’ve been seeing some of your memories, and because of that I think I can understand you a little better than I did before.
            “But, Nessiah.
            “Nowhere in any of those memories have I been given any reason to want you to apologize to me, you know?”
            …He smiles.
            Easily and kindly.

            “—”
            His expression blurs and swims against my vision.
            …It’s because I’ve started to tear up.
            It isn’t something that I can help.

            “Shh.
            “Go to sleep; you really need to rest.”
            “—”
            While I am still unable to speak, Gulcasa leans in and kisses my forehead.
            Perhaps because of the things he’s just said, the hot press of his lips against my skin causes my heart to thud hard against my ribs.

            …I know that my face is probably red, and because I don’t think I can meet Gulcasa’s gaze without starting to cry, I just close my eyes.
            “…I don’t deserve you.”
            I never have, and most likely I never will.
            …The fact that despite knowing this I still refuse to let go of him speaks volumes for both my selfishness and my unworthiness, but I won’t let even that stop me.
            Because—Gulcasa is the only chance I have now.

            “…Nessiah.
            “It’s not a matter of deserving or not deserving, you know?”
            When I risk a glance at him, he’s standing there with his hands folded over his chest as if in prayer.
            “The initial reason I became attracted to you may have been because of love at first sight, but it was my own choice to try to get closer to you and act on those feelings.
            “I chose you of my own free will. And you chose to answer me in kind.
            “—So deserving and worthiness and things like that don’t have anything to do with what’s between us. I care about you and you care about me, and that’s enough.”
            “—”
            “Stop worrying about dumb things and go to sleep.”

            And so saying, he touches my face lightly and then leaves my bedside.
            The lights go off in the next moment.

            Even my turbulent emotions can’t win against the heaviness and exhaustion of my body.
            And so I close my eyes, and the day ends quietly—