Work Header

Vagrant Grail Cadenza

Chapter Text

            —This is the story of someone dear to me.

            Those days, that the young captain and the allies who had become his family ran through with all their hearts—
            Those days where the suffering of one was borne by all, everyone saved each other in turn, and as long as there was a goal to run towards there wasn’t anything difficult to think about—
            Night fell on them, slow and natural, with all the finality of the last curtain call.

            …Yes, it was night that the first signs began to arrive.
            Their forces had been set to stand guard outside a meeting the landgrave had set with mysterious guests, and not even knowing themselves what was being discussed, they were surprised to actually have to fight off attacks of various assassins throughout the night.
            Still hours from the dawn, the mysterious conference ended, and the landgrave took the young captain and his subordinates and explained the situation.
            The other people with whom the landgrave had spoken were all like-minded nobles and lower generals.
            …Now that the landgrave had gathered this much power and authority, they had all approached him and come to a decision.

            They would rebel.

            With such an emperor on the throne who would ignore the needs of his people and try to wrangle control over his land by fear and poorly executed military force, the day that the empire would fall was surely not far off.
            The emperor was the last of the imperial family, and had thus far failed to produce a successor.
            …His apparent sterility was only befitting of the slow and steady weakening of the ancient line, which had even lost the innate demon powers of the empire’s founders.
            Either the emperor would drive the country to destruction with his incompetent governing, or he would die heirless and the empire would tear itself apart.

            …In that case, it would be best to strike preemptively, remove the emperor, and install in his place a new leader with the skill to resurrect the country and the charisma to command the loyalty of the disillusioned people.
            And with the power and influence that the landgrave and the young captain had gathered, that was now possible.
            Various nobles and merchants would pledge their loyalty to the landgrave, and the common people would lend their strength to the young captain.
            With the two of them handling the political and military affairs respectively, they would raise a great army and move out to strike down the rotten government once and for all.

            The landgrave said that the young captain had been chosen by the conspirators as the best candidate for the general to lead the new rebel army.
            …It was a proclamation that left him speechless and bewildered.
            As he was unable to answer affirmatively or negatively to that proposition, the army simply retired for the night as the preliminary preparations for war began.

            …It was the night after that.
            The young captain went outside the private army’s barracks to mull over his choices, and to his surprise his childhood friend came to join him.
            Together, the two of them talked it over.
            …She told him that logically, this was the best and most effective decision, and that it was right to put the faith of the people on his shoulders, as he had become appropriately strong to bear such a thing.
            Even though they might be able to accomplish the same goal slowly and with more peaceful methods if they did not choose to rebel, they could not afford to wait.
            The people suffering at this very moment could not afford to wait.
            All the same, she felt the same vague uneasiness as he.
            They were both sensitive to the premonition that everything was about to change at a moment’s notice, and that perhaps they would lose something that could never be taken back.

            They were together.
            They had better resources than before, they had become strong, and most of all—the young captain had the friendship and trust of so many people now.
            As long as they were together, then surely there was nothing to fear—

            He noticed, vaguely, that there was something odd about the way she was behaving.
            As if she was debating whether or not to say something.
            It was so unlike her, the girl who would always react to things with her honest and blunt opinion even when it would be more prudent not to, that he couldn’t help but be puzzled.
            But when he tried to make her open up about it—

            A voice split the night.
            A voice ordered archers to fire, and only then did the two of them realize that a vast force was approaching their barracks, sneaking up on them while they were absorbed in their discussion.
            …It was the main force of the emperor’s army.
            Someone had leaked the plans to rebel, and the lead general who knew the young captain’s strength and skill had come directly to destroy the army and make rebellion impossible.

            The situation was chaotic.
            And to make things worse, the landgrave himself was nowhere to be seen, having departed earlier to discuss things with other conspirators and not having plans to come back until early in the morning.
            The young captain was able to rally his forces to beat off the first wave, but the enemy had come in great numbers and with great determination, whereas his own men were trapped in their own enclosure and were not ready for such a large-scale battle.
            At the very least, they must escape to more advantageous terrain.
            There was a hidden exit at the back of the barracks where they could escape across the river at their backs in longboats if they were not discovered, but there was every possibility that the enemy had already discovered that place and were waiting.
            …But faced with the two choices of risking an escape and staying here to fight against dangerous odds, it was clear which was the better option.

            Even though the young captain and his childhood friend the erstwhile tactician were against it—the prophet and his other childhood friend the head scout made their plan.
            As the least conspicuous soldier available to them and the one with the best ability to sense danger, she would go ahead and check the entrance alone while the army’s main forces kept the imperial soldiers busy.
            If it was safe, she would signal them, then go ahead and take a boat to the wastelands in the west, where she would wait at the place they had first agreed to form this army with the landgrave.

            …It was an intense situation.
            The young captain could barely keep the hurried strategy meeting from dissolving into an argument, as his friend the erstwhile tactician was adamantly against allowing their childhood friend to put herself into such a dangerous situation.
            Even though the possibility of harm coming to the girl who’d always been like a mother to him made him anxious, he knew very well that it was the best plan available.
            …The prophet put it bluntly, but the young captain agreed—the erstwhile tactician’s feelings for the girl he’d always admired were clouding his judgment.

            …She disappeared into the darkness, and until the signal came, he closed his eyes against his own impending tears of panic and threw himself into battle to keep himself from imagining the possibility of failure.

            When they received the word that it was all right, his body shook, but seeing his allies watching him for leadership, he directed the evacuation carefully.
            …After another hour’s worth of fighting, finally the prophet held his hand once tightly and disappeared in the direction of the hidden exit, leaving only the young captain and his childhood friend the erstwhile tactician guarding the entrance.
            If they simply disappeared like the rest of the army, surely the enemy would grasp the true nature of their plan.
            …It was his friend who suggested it.
            They would use their last moments in this place that had been their home to cause their foe to expect a last charge instead of a retreat.

            Even though it would be a bit painful to lose this place that had been his first shelter, the young captain knew that it was the smallest possible loss.
            Having a roof over his head was a luxury that he could do without for a while, and nice things could always be replaced.
            What was most important was the lives of the people who had come to mean so much to him, and even by sacrificing the shape of his “home” to protect them, his real place to belong would still be protected.

            So, unhesitatingly, he set the barracks ablaze.
            The last two men to leave the building, the two childhood friends, watched the flames reach up towards the heavens as they crossed the river.

            When they reached the appointed meeting place, the girl who should have been there waiting for them was missing.
            In the rocky wasteland, it was difficult to track where she might have disappeared to, and no one could believe that she might have simply wandered off on her own without reason.
            The army huddled together in a state of panic, having lost the shield at its back as well as its guidepost for what to do from here on out, and the young captain did his utmost to keep his people together while still directing the search for the missing girl.
            His childhood friend the erstwhile tactician cursed the heavens, cursed the scouts who came back without clues, and cursed even the young captain for the callousness of remaining calm.
            …Of course, in his heart the young captain was the most terrified of any of them.
            The thought that some harm might have befallen the only mother he had ever truly known still threatened to overwhelm him, so strong that he could easily have given in and curled up in hopelessness and confusion.
            But for the sake of everyone looking to him for direction, he had to stay alert and pretend to be strong.

            Eventually, one scout came back with news of an unidentified armed force to the northwest.
            With no other leads to go on, the young captain mobilized his troops for a cautious approach, and what lay in wait for them was an unexpected and unfortunate scene.
            …It was their employer, the landgrave, who should have been away during the time of the attack; with him was their head scout.
            The young captain was already breathing a sigh of relief that the two of them were safe when one of his allies pointed out that the landgrave had a knife at the girl’s throat.

            When they came out into the open demanding answers, the landgrave simply declared that all was exactly as it seemed.
            With the man’s coldness and his childhood friend’s subdued apologies for having been caught ringing in his head, the young captain was paralyzed, but at that time the prophet confronted the landgrave in his stead.
            …That the landgrave had leaked the plans to rebel and then abandoned his own army to imperial attack, and here was attempting to destroy them with the threat of harm to his hostage.
            And the landgrave confirmed everything but his guilt in the information leak, and demanded that they do battle here and now.

            It was a simple story of base human weakness.
            The landgrave was their employer, not their comrade, and above all else he was a politician, a courier of lies with a fastidious need for control.
            There had been friction between him and the young captain several times in the past over the topic of obedience, and so if the situation were looked at rationally perhaps it might not have been such a surprise.
            After all, the young captain had grown vastly more powerful, and he was looked to as the leader of the army rather than the landgrave who simply paid their salaries and handed out missions for them to fulfill.
            And now that the landgrave would be a participant in the political side of the rebellion whereas the young captain had been chosen to lead the entire army, the landgrave’s paranoia and need for control would only increase.
            …The landgrave was simply a far weaker and pettier person than his position demanded.

            But to the young captain, who had admired him so strongly and desired his respect so much—for the young captain, who had begun to frame the landgrave as a replacement father, that reality was simply too cruel.

            His childhood friends weren’t able to comfort him and subdue the chaos of his grief and helpless rage, for the girl who had been his mother had already been taken away from him, and the boy who had been his brother and first friend was wholly consumed with hatred for the person who was threatening his loved one.
            …And the traveler who he had always received advice from was busy helping to rally the troops for battle in his place.
            The ones who stayed at his side to support him in those moments of bearing up under the pain were the prophet and the knight, who simply had him acknowledge that there was no longer any choice but to do battle.

            The landgrave’s soldiers were powerful, but did not have the numbers nor the experience of the young captain’s troops, and the battle was vicious and one-sided.
            …And so the landgrave, knowing his inevitable loss, called a cease-fire by brandishing his hostage at the young captain.
            While the orphaned army laid down their weapons without any other choice, he demanded that the erstwhile tactician go to cut off the young captain’s head.
            By doing so, the landgrave told his former army, they would buy their survival and the release of his captive.

            …Oh, so that’s it.
            For just a moment, the young captain felt a great sense of detachment, realizing that he would die this way.
            His ideals were everything to him, and he was more than willing and ready to step into the mantle of the savior of the weak—but at the same time, he simply could not sacrifice this person to do so.

            But the next moment, her cry of mourning split the night sky.
            A strong, pure, and determined voice.

                        “—Gram Blaze can definitely change the world.
                        “…And I can’t take watching someone I love die for me—”

            She accepted the landgrave’s blade into her body, flew from the edge of the tall cliffs, and broke her body against the unforgiving ground below.

            …Time stopped for him then, stopped even as his allies called out their rage and their desire for revenge to the night, even as the landgrave himself prepared his remaining troops for the resumption of battle.
            In that moment, all the young captain understood was that the only person who had always been there to take care of him would never return to him, and that if he had died instead it would not have come to this.

            Grief, rage, and self-hatred all erupted from his body in the form of deep scarlet flame.
            The paltry amount of power that he had amassed was meaningless.
            If he had been stronger, he could have saved her—those kinds of thoughts were all he had to cling to.
            And the pain reached deep down into his heart, and answered him with the kind of strength that even gods and demons might fear, a roiling and oppressive fire that caused friend and foe to recoil from him in shock.
            …But the flame of his grief folded in on itself in the next heartbeat, leaving him exhausted physically and emotionally.

            The battle ended, cold and anticlimactic.
            …The young captain watched his foster father die, too burned out by grief to muster the ability to hate or blame the man for his pitiful end.
            …He watched his foster mother die, smiling deliriously at him until her breath ran out.
            The plain truth of the matter was simply that his own stupidity and weakness was the cause of all of this.
            The traveling warrior, the only member of their band who was still perfectly calm, demanded that he rally his forces and give them direction.
            It was impossible.
            He could not answer to words as cruel as those.

            In his place, the prophet spoke.
            The young captain listened in silence as the prophet dealt calmly and quietly with practical matters such as the army’s vulnerability and lack of shelter, and that the best and only way to remedy such things would be to borrow aid from the country and simply run forward with the revolution.
            And when the young captain asked how it was possible for them to aim for such a lofty goal when they could not even rescue one of their own, he received an extraordinary answer—that they would utilize the fearsome power that he himself had unleashed for just a moment.
            The prophet explained that the young captain almost certainly had inherited the blood of the great demonic dragon that gave the empire its name, giving him access to great destructive power that could be harnessed to overwhelm all obstacles in their way.
            But given that logic, his powers must be under some kind of seal, and so if he intended to find a way to make use of them, he must travel across country borders to the distant wasteland where that demon had fought against human heroes and died—the place where research was being done even now on that distant past.

            It wasn’t anything as bright or as pure as hope.
            But it galvanized the young captain, gave him a signpost to the only future he would be able to accept now.
            Deaf to the shock of his men, he grasped the prophet’s hands and forced himself to stand, calling out orders.
            The death of the girl who had raised him was not anything that could be taken back.
            But if that was the case—then at least he would become so powerful that he would never again be forced to relinquish the things important to him, powerful enough to crush all injustice forever, powerful enough to take the dream they had dreamt together and make it real.
            His body was still wavering, and his young face was still ravaged with tears.
            Saying that he had recovered would be a falsehood, as he had been given a scar that would never heal for his entire life.

            But still, he stood up.
            And his eyes that were yet dark with his grief were nevertheless eyes that gazed unwaveringly into the future—


(interlude 10-1)

            “—So that’s it.”

            In the early morning, still too early for the dawn, the witch stands atop the balcony.

            “I see now, so that’s it.”

            Alone, without even her Servant to observe her, the witch hides her smile behind the curved fingers of her gloved hand.

            …It had been an excellent decision to have magically animated familiars patrol the town for surveillance purposes.
            Even better, she had not even encountered any resistance on the way, as apparently all of the other magi were too amateurish, too naïve, or too arrogant to gather information from such means.
            The night skies and the corners of Fuyuki are all hers for the plundering.
            And because of that, she has been able to keep up with the progress of the war by directly tapping the source.

            It’s a technique that adapts the old methods of the magi by specifically mimicking the new technology of the era.
            For all that she doesn’t hold much with the views of the Magic Association, she has always thought that the new Lord El-Melloi has the right of things.
            If magi cannot adapt with the times, they will gradually become so dislocated from Gaia that they will become entirely alien from the world, and will then be destroyed before they can fulfill the desires that they can only pursue with magecraft.
            For a magus such as she who desires to know and manipulate the very laws of the world, it is only natural to adopt the middle road of magical revisionism.

            With familiars that imitate surveillance cameras and wire taps, she has kept track of the deaths of Assassin, Archer, and the two Riders.
            The war is nearly half over.
            …Of course, her participation in battle has been severely limited due to her inferior Servant.
            It was luck of the draw and could not be helped, as her choice of artifacts to use in her summoning were few, but the Servant she has summoned is an irregular class that does not have the innate bonuses of any of the other Servants, and can only rely on its natural abilities.
            And her Servant is clearly inferior in combat strength when compared to many of the other surviving opponents.
            To make matters worse, the Servant itself is contrary and frustrating to manipulate, even though it should only be a tool—and she has already wasted a Command Spell in a vain attempt to get it to behave.

            So, she has been limited to small skirmishes and surveillance.
            It’s boring, but all the same it has given her useful information.
            …The first was the nature of Caster’s Master.
            That Servant had always acted on its own without ever being accompanied by its Master, but in the aftermath of last night’s battle and the escape of Caster’s targets, she was able to glean the secret behind that thing’s movements.


            “To think the Grail War had something so convenient.
            “—As long as I’m able to obtain it, then there’s no need even to wait for the Grand Grail to open—”

            The witch sneers.
            The witch smiles in a narrow grin like a crescent moon, and turns her gaze towards the city of Shinto across the river—

(10-1 interlude out.)

            I wake to a distinct sense of warmth and comfort that’s so relaxing I’m tempted to simply turn over and go back to sleep entirely.
            When I stretch out, my body is loose and limber, and responds easily to my commands.
            …My ankle hurts a bit if it’s moved suddenly, but as long as I don’t stress it too badly that shouldn’t be a problem.
            I feel so refreshed that I am honestly a bit shocked.

            “—I can’t believe it.
            “His idiotic plan was actually a success.”

            …I know better than to expect that I’m cured.
            Beyond the fact that the Grail War is still going, it’s simply that under any other circumstance my prana levels would be dangerously low.
            Gulcasa has stayed materialized for almost the entire war, he has fought in several battles, and on top of all of that I gave him a large amount of prana last night.
            But with the excess energy that my body contains, that means that I am almost back to normal physically.

            …This won’t last forever.
            Well, unless measures are taken regularly, I’ll eventually become feverish and uncoordinated again over the space of two or three days.
            So the answer is apparently to enjoy myself while I can, and take the excuse to pursue sensuality with Gulcasa at my next opportunity.
            …It had been so long that I’d almost forgotten how nice those things could feel, and on top of that I really should pay him back for foolishly pushing himself and refusing to take similar treatment.
            I did fall asleep before I could do anything reciprocal, but even so.

            This is a pronounced change from last morning, where moving about was difficult due to my body’s numbness and my own foggy head.
            It hurts a bit trying to figure out how to maneuver on this foot, but my head is perfectly clear, and that makes doing things like navigating the halls and staircase considerably easier.

            “—Oh, you’re awake.
            “Are you feeling better?”

            When I make it down to the general downstairs area, I am greeted by Roswell peeking around the wall at me with a smile.

            “—Quite a bit, yes.
            “Although I do believe I’ll need to ask you to do the honors on what remains of this injury, as it’s a bit of a strain deciding how best to walk on this foot as it is.”

            Roswell leaves the kitchen and comes into the hall, walking up to me to touch my forehead with the back of his hand.
            Perhaps because he’s so brisk about the motion, it doesn’t feel invasive, but rather like a doctor carrying out an examination.

            “…It seems like your fever has come down quite a bit.
            “You should still rest today, but please do find a place to settle down here. I should have food ready in a while, and I’ll finish healing your sprain as soon as that’s done.”
            And, continuing in his softspoken and clinical manner, Roswell escorts me into the living room with a smile.
            “Besides, there’s someone here who’s been worried about you.”

            When we reach the room, Gulcasa sits up from where he was apparently spacing out on the couch.
            He looks at me with wide eyes, and—
            He stands as if by instinct, like he can’t sit still just looking at me.
            …He comes over to me in hurried steps, so much so that I’m a little worried he’ll trip over something since he’s obviously not watching.
            But he arrives in the entrance to the hallway safely, and reaches out to touch my shoulders.

            “Good morning.”
            Gulcasa just stares at me, flabbergasted.
            …Hey now, you’re the one who came up with the plan, so don’t even start acting like you had no confidence in it now.

            “This isn’t the kind of time for stuff like saying good morning, jeez.
            “—Are you feeling all right? How’s your fever doing, and what about your body?”
            …Gulcasa questions me in a panic.
            “Hmm, well, what does it look like to you?
            “If I were in a state like yesterday, I wouldn’t have made it down the stairs safely, and I certainly wouldn’t be able to speak to you like this.”
            Gulcasa listens to me, and then turns to Roswell.
            …Look, just because there are a few things that I can’t talk to you about concerning my health doesn’t mean that you have to second-guess me to this degree.
            I’m in a good mood, so I’ll forgive you, but we’re definitely talking about this if it happens again—

            “As you can tell, he’s certainly lucid.
            “I’m going to get back to cooking, so the two of you should go ahead and rest.”

            And Roswell hands me over to Gulcasa, walking off like his job is done.
            “Sigh. If I’d known that this was going to happen, I’d have fought harder to be able to get the kitchen this morning.
            “It’s not that he’s a bad cook by any means, but really, I’d rather be the one directing the celebration here.”
            He complains in a low tone.
            From the kitchen, Roswell does not seem to hear.
            All the same, I think I see Yggdra glaring in our direction as if she’s just picked up on Gulcasa’s insinuation of Roswell having a lower skill level than him.

            “I thought the schedule was put in place so that you wouldn’t have to fight?”
            “—That’s true, but—”
            Gulcasa shakes his head and sighs.
            “I guess that it isn’t really that important.
            “Whatever, I have you here with me, and that’s all I need.
            “……And, Nessiah.”
            “Well—last night was kind of a big gamble, so—are you willing to forgive me for being reckless about your health?”
            Gulcasa asks that while turning a little bit red and looking at me nervously.

            The question is so unexpected that I wind up staring at him in dumbfounded shock for a moment, but—
            “…You’re a fool.
            “If you think that’s something that I would get angry at you for, or something that you need to ask my forgiveness for, then you really are stupid.
            “…Even without your desire to make me feel better even for a short time, that’s something that I’ve wanted to do with you again.
            “So, don’t apologize to me or look at me like that, or you’re going to ruin my good mood.”

            Gulcasa breathes out.
            Still red-faced, he favors me with a gentle, relieved smile.
            “—I’m just really glad it worked.”

            I can see what you’re trying to do with that expression, and I can’t let you know that it’s working.
            Even though I can already feel my face heating up and understand that that’s a lost cause, I at least have to pay you back—

            “Of course it did.
            “It’s something that you put your whole heart into, like usual.
            Gulcasa looks at me blankly.
            So, I arrange my expression into a sweet smile.
            “—I certainly will feel better tonight if you at least let me attack you in return.”

            Gulcasa goes as brilliantly red as the madder skies of the town at sunset.
            And even though he tucks his chin to his chest in embarrassment, he still smiles bashfully and bites his lower lip.
            “—Heh, okay.”

            And, just like that, we retreat to the living room.
            Roswell is making a large breakfast with fruit and things, from what I can tell from my space on the sofa next to Gulcasa.
            I allow myself to doze quietly at Gulcasa’s side as Roswell and Yggdra quietly discuss things like ingredients and specific instructions for cooking.
            …At one point, I think I actually hear Roswell quietly veto the inclusion of strawberries into the main dish, although he says that he will put them on a plate with sugar for her.
            This must be Roswell’s particular brand of diplomacy.
            He has a plain personality, but he’s also certainly gentle and good at smoothing things over.
            Most likely, he grew up surrounded by pushy people.
            He has his pride as a magus and as a healer, though, which I can see peeping out at times when he’s in charge of things.
            …A childlike personality like that is easy to manipulate, and also means that he is likely trustworthy for now.
            And, if nothing else, it’s a definite asset when dealing with two people as hard-headed as my Gulcasa and his Yggdra.
            …It would definitely make Gulcasa upset were I to mention this straight-on, but there are many ways in which he and she are similar. Sheer stubbornness is one of those ways.
            At least in Gulcasa’s case, I wouldn’t say that he’s utterly inflexible, but rather that it’s a matter of his short temper and their long-standing fight.
            Ordinarily Gulcasa cools down from grudges and the like very quickly, but in a case like his feud with Yggdra he’s got so much to hold against her and her personality is too similar to his, so as long as he senses aggression or believes that it’s there he won’t back down.
            In her case it’s either the same or it’s straight-out inflexibility. It’s certainly true that my own position might be considered a bias, but I’ll hold fast to the fact that the one who was originally in the wrong was her anyway.

            At any rate.
            I am able to sit at Gulcasa’s side for now, and that’s enough for me.
            I close my eyes and rest against him.
            …Perhaps because of last night, it’s easier to casually bring our bodies together, and not just in the sense that I’m certainly more mobile and more limber.
            It’s that a sense of warmth and connection still remains.
            Gulcasa appears to feel the same way, as he shifts his body so that we’re facing each other.
            His chest is warm when I lean into it, and the light circle of his arms around me is so relaxing that I can’t help but fear that I’m dreaming.
            The autumn bonfire smell of his hair is stronger today than usual.
            …He’s probably been doing something stupid like using his powers to dry it, because he’s an idiot with no sense of self-preservation.
            Although, honestly—even though there are definitely problems with the way that he behaves on a daily basis, the same traits of his that frustrate me are what make him so endearing.
            …In the end, I don’t believe it’s a bad thing to be self-sacrificing as long as you have someone to hold you back. It’s simply frustrating for the one who has to hold you back, because combating a person’s basic nature is what I’m sure they mean by “trying to herd cats”.

            If more people only had the same capacity to love and forgive as Gulcasa, then surely this world and every other would have been ravaged by far less war.
            …It’s a bit sad.
            That he came to answer my call is proof that he was venerated enough to become a higher existence in the minds of humans.
            But while venerating him, they have still failed to learn what they should have from his life and his death.

            Gulcasa holds me, and my body that’s so heavy with knots of unprocessed prana feels light.
            His warm, rough, kind hands soothe the irritation of the marks engraved and hidden under my skin.
            As long as we’re together, I can believe that there’s still a chance to free myself from the fate imposed upon me.
            …As long as he doesn’t let go of me.

            “—Everything’s ready.”
            In the end, the air is broken in a quiet way by Roswell’s announcement.
            Gulcasa helps me to the table, and we eat in silence.
            …Finally, we’re able to conclude a meal without Gulcasa and Yggdra getting into a petty argument.
            The food itself is at least palatable, though I’m not actually able to finish everything.

            “And, as a treat because Nessiah’s doing better—”
            Roswell smiles and puts an extra plate on the table.
            What covers it is, I believe, an arrangement of traditional sweets from this country.

            Even without looking, I can sense the way that Gulcasa sits up beside me.
            His eyes glisten with piqued interest as he regards the Japanese sweets.

            “—These are made with red bean paste, right?”
            Even Yggdra is looking at them curiously.
            …It’s a difficult battle not to laugh at their similar reactions, but luckily Roswell sits down on my other side and gestures for me to lift my injured foot, providing me with a distraction.

            “From what I hear, that’s the case.”
            Roswell answers her while resting my ankle in his lap, running his fingertips over the bones and prodding gently.
            The swelling has almost disappeared, and there’s not much pain even when he presses down firmly, so I suppose his work from yesterday has already mostly taken care of the injury.
            “The kinds of food that you used to enjoy, and the things that I grew up with, are more along the lines of European sweets; Japanese ones are quite different.”
            Gulcasa picks up one of the small buns to sample it.

            “—Hm, it’s certainly sweet if nothing else.”
            Yggdra remarks upon biting into her own.

            “I never learned to make sweets with red bean paste, but we did have this kind of food back when I was a kid.
            “—I was never a huge fan, but friends of mine liked them, so it’s nostalgic.”
            Gulcasa says so with powdered sugar on his fingers.

            Yggdra looks at him.
            There’s a kind of wonder on her face, and this may be the first time she’s stared at him without any open hostility involved.
            …Gulcasa’s words hold a great tenderness and an even greater melancholy, hidden behind a thin façade of matter-of-factness.
            He can’t help but be like this.

            So on impulse, I reach out to touch his wrist, drawing it in towards me.
            While Gulcasa watches me with wide eyes, I bring his hand up to my lips and press a kiss into his palm.
            The skin is heavy with calluses, but it’s different from any other hand that’s ever held a weapon.
            …There’s a tactile kindness in every fiber of his being.

            His face has gone red.
            …It’s cute, so I lick his fingertip lightly before releasing him.
            The flavor of the powdered sugar is almost overpoweringly sweet against the taste of Gulcasa’s skin.
            He jumps slightly at the sensation, but doesn’t attempt to pull away.
            …All he does is tuck his chin in slightly as his blush spreads to the tips of his ears.

            Even so—he smiles.
            “What’s this about all of a sudden?”
            And he responds in a coy tone while reaching out to touch my face.

            “…Hmm, if you press me for a reason I’ll just be troubled for how to answer.
            “I felt like doing it, so I did it. That should be enough.”

            Gulcasa laughs.
            It’s a gentle sound.
            “There’s really no helping you.”

            He turns.
            He turns to face me so that I don’t have to contort my body so much, and leans in to cover my mouth with his.
            The kiss tastes like old-fashioned sweet mochi.

            When Gulcasa pulls back from me, Yggdra is still staring at us.
            The princess wears a conflicted-looking expression as she watches us warily.

            “If you’ve got something to say, then say it.”
            Gulcasa raises his eyebrows and remarks this in a flat tone, as if insinuating with all his might that he’ll answer if and when she picks a fight.

            She points to the plate.
            “If you’ve decided that now is the time for cuddling, that’s lovely for you, but that means I can have all of these, correct?”

            Gulcasa wrinkles his nose and makes a disparaging noise.
            “—Yeah, dream on.”

            …And so unusually, mealtime is completed in peace without any intervention from me or from Roswell.
            While the two of them bicker over the food with a bit less venom than usual, Roswell finishes healing my ankle, cautioning me not to run for another twenty-four hours so as not to bruise the muscles.
            I just sit against Gulcasa’s warmth and enjoy the comfortable feel of the quiet house at noon.

            After that.
            Roswell announces that he and the princess will be leaving for a shopping trip.

            “—I’ll give you a list of things to go buy since it’s my turn to cook again later, but I’m going to stay here—”

            Gulcasa said that to them.
            …And he did write up a list and make sure that Roswell had it and knew where to buy everything.
            But immediately afterward, he returned to my side.

            The silence is quite pleasant.
            There’s no one in the house but us, so we sit on the sofa without bothering to restrain ourselves from holding each other.
            I position myself lightly on Gulcasa’s lap, sitting sideways so that I can hold him with both arms.
            The sweet scent of woodsmoke that hangs about his hair is heavy and alluring.
            His arms that support me lightly are intensely warm, and his body that’s pressed up against mine is hotter than usual.
            It’s not that he’s aroused, at least not yet; I would be able to tell that given where I’m sitting, after all. It’s more that there’s just a receptive atmosphere in the house that’s as good as ours for this afternoon.

            Gulcasa closes his eyes and breathes out, holding me with a tranquil expression.
            …Even though there have been a number of relaxed moments between us since his summoning, it always feels as though we have to steal them, or that there’s a time limit on what we are able to have for ourselves.
            Right now, Gulcasa seems more relaxed than usual.
            …Roswell seems under the impression that the two of us can just be sheltered here without any further interaction with the war, and perhaps that impression is catching from what I can glean in my Servant’s countenance.
            But I know better.
            We can take a few days to rest, but we’ll need to be active again soon.
            Just holding on until the war ends by itself isn’t an option for me.
            That’s not just my pride saying so, as sooner or later the strongest enemy will bring the fight to us—probably last, given that man’s hubris.
            Thinking about it makes my body want to tremble with hatred and fear, but because Gulcasa is holding me I suppress it.
            His warmth is a comfort, but I also don’t want to worry him with such things at a time like this when all there is to the world is the two of us.

            I lean up and place a hand to his cheek.
            I draw his face down toward me and kiss him.

            Gulcasa tastes me thoroughly and without restraint.
            I can feel my consciousness getting a bit hazy at the sensation.
            My muscles loosen, and my body relaxes.
            …I can feel my temperature rising slowly.
            Perhaps I’m getting re-accustomed to being touched and held tenderly, but I feel neither embarrassment nor any desire to stifle the quiet sounds and moans that rise up out of my throat at the pleasant sensation of the kiss.
            Due to our closeness, I can sense Gulcasa’s muscles vibrating slightly.
            …He’s probably on the verge of getting excited and trying to tone his own reactions down.

            When he pulls away, his eyes are unfocused.
            …His lips are flushed slightly from the long kiss, and his breathing is disordered.
            I can tell that I’m breathing a bit more deeply than usual, and my own lips are pounding with blood and even feel slightly swollen.
            I want to pull him right back down again.
            It feels pleasant, and beyond that the closer together we are, the safer I feel.
            There’s a craving inside me for that kind of feeling, a sensation I haven’t experienced for hundreds of years.

            Gulcasa says my name in a dazed-sounding tone.
            I lift my hands up and stroke my fingertips over the contours of his face.
            …Everything about his countenance is very dear to me.
            The hard lines of his cheekbones and the bridge of his nose, the skin of his cheeks that turns red under my touch, the swept-back points to his ears that are sensitive enough to make him tremble weakly when I brush against them teasingly.
            His lips are soft.
            I hook the fingers of my right hand behind the nape of his neck and pull him back down, confirming it against my own.
            They’re soft.
            Gulcasa shudders and makes something like a pitched whine against my mouth.
            …His body is hot and smells of fire.
            His chest rises and falls like a bellows, and he has all the heat of a forge, of a great conflagration.
            He fidgets underneath me, but that’s not enough to hide the aroused state he’s in.

            This time when I release him, he’s breathing shallowly.
            Gulcasa’s body shudders and protests our separation.
            His pupils are wide and his eyes are only about half-open.
            He leans down to kiss the base of my throat.
            He lingers there, lightly moving the tip of his tongue against my skin and nipping very softly.
            How should I put this—he’s troublingly skilled at judging my physical sensitivity.
            Like now, embracing me tightly or roughly and actually kissing my skin actively or biting it would be a bit painful because I’m not aroused enough for that to feel good yet.
            There’s a certain point past which anything Gulcasa might do to me would feel good enough to white out my mind, but it would take quite a bit more involved attention for me to reach it. Generally we would already need to be in the midst of making love for me to feel that way, and if he were to be just a bit too rough now it wouldn’t just hurt—it would be frightening, and most likely my instincts would take over and I’d push him away automatically.
            That in turn would ruin the mood so completely that we wouldn’t be able to continue, and likely the whole rest of the day would be awkward.
            In the worst case scenario, it would be as bad as if I were to carelessly pull Gulcasa’s hair, and I might panic.

            My body’s natural sensitivity—my senses that are much finer than a normal human’s work against me here, and with the things that I’ve been unfortunate enough to experience in my life, it makes intimacy a bit of a touch-and-go situation.
            …At least, that’s how it would ordinarily be.
            But for whatever reason, it’s different with Gulcasa.
            …It seems he’s always been able to tell by instinct that he and I are similar in that respect, and so he has always been very tender in moments like this.
            I can’t imagine the kind of fine control over his considerable strength it must take, but despite his own arousal he’s never misjudged himself, so it may even be instinctive by now.

            Gulcasa kisses along the line of my throat all the way up to the base of my jaw, applying his teeth just lightly enough to leave marks.
            My breathing is ragged, and I hold on to him tightly.
            …If this is a game between us, then he’s more than matched me for provoking him before.
            The sensation of my blood thumping throughout my body irritates my own arousal, and there’s a desire for release building up within me, if faintly.

            “—There’s oil in the kitchen, Nessiah—”
            And that’s close, so there isn’t even any need to really wait and ruin the moment, seems to be what Gulcasa is suggesting with that heated murmur.
            But he’s going to have to try much harder than that.

            “We’ll make a mess of the nice furniture.
            “—I think you can be patient enough for tonight, when there’ll be no need to change locations awkwardly, don’t you?”

            Even so, I put my hands on Gulcasa’s shoulders and shift my body.
            Rather than sitting sideways on his lap with my feet off to one side, I lift my body up and swing one leg over so that I am straddling his waist.
            Our bodies press together intensely.
            …He’s hot against me, and I can feel Gulcasa’s breath and his heartbeat quicken as he realizes my own aroused state.
            I put strength into my hips and thighs to keep my body from rocking against his, and lean in to kiss him again.

            We exchange numerous heated kisses and embraces here.
            His temperature and my own have soared, and surely the room itself is far warmer than it was before.
            …I can be honest with myself.
            I want to take him right here, in this moment.
            But it’s also true that it would be impractical and messy, causing cleanup to be even more of a hassle than it normally would be.
            …And besides.
            Playing around like this is in itself not a bad thing to do.

            We continue to hold each other, draw out our intimacy so that the mild arousal we experience isn’t pushed over into the realm of urgency, and stop to simply breathe whenever it feels like things might go too far.
            The promise of tonight is enough to keep our teasing each other from evolving into anything else.
            When it finally gets to be too much, I simply remove myself from Gulcasa’s lap to give us both the chance to get up, stretch out, and cool off.
            I wander around to take the chance to relieve my body of its tension without losing face, during which time Gulcasa probably does much the same.
            …And, when I return to the living room, he’s coming down the stairs and nods to me that he’s already commandeered supplies for later.

            Our allies still aren’t back yet, so we relocate to the kitchen in order to make tea.
            We orbit each other, keep in contact, and cuddle with each other without either shame or restraint.
            The sun passes through the afternoon sky, slow and gentle, a quiet moment returned to us out of a distant past.


            “—They certainly are late.”
            Gulcasa sighs.
            “If they stay out for much longer, the sun will set.”
            …I certainly think so as well.
            It’s nearly six o’clock, and if the sun had already set I would expect that Roswell had been attacked.
            …I would know if they or if any other Servant had been defeated, of course, but I can’t sense an intense magical battle from this far away.

            Gulcasa and I sit at the table.
            It should still be calm, but there’s a rising uneasiness in the air.

            There’s a creeping discomfort in my shoulder along the Command Spell.

            I look at Gulcasa.
            He’s gazing towards the door with a kind of wariness.
            …I can’t tell whether or not this is Roswell coming back.
            Ally or enemy, the reaction of the Command Spell should be the same.
            And Servants are unfortunately all just lumps of prana to me, and I cannot tell the difference between their presence very well at a distance.
            Out of all of them, only Gulcasa is special.

            “What are we going to do?”
            If it’s Roswell, he’ll come in without any assistance.
            If it’s an enemy, they will either leave or break the boundary field of the mansion in order to enter, and this is no place to fight.

            “…We should go out to meet them.
            “Gulcasa, go ahead.
            “—I’ll stay behind you. This is far enough away from other houses and shielded, so if there’s a battle it should happen in the yard rather than in closed quarters like this.”

            He nods once.
            And we both stand up, tense.

            …With Gulcasa as wary as I am, I can’t imagine that this is anything but an uninvited guest.
            So, he heads to the front door and I shadow his movements.
            Of course, Gulcasa reaches the window before me.
            He glares from outside the visible range of someone outside looking in, and then turns to me and shakes his head.

            “—I don’t see anyone.
            “It’s probably the enemy.”
            …Well, if someone has come here looking for a battle with Roswell, we can certainly give them a surprise.
            “The Master is with them, so it’s probably not Caster there.”
            And so, by process of elimination, that leaves either Lancer or Avenger as the opponent before us.
            …I’d expect Lancer to be the bigger threat here, with the pair of magi supporting him and his power level.
            Avenger is not a weak Servant by any means, but her Master will hold her back.
            Therefore, we should prepare for this to be an assault from Lancer and if it’s Avenger instead we’ve gotten lucky.
            …Of course it’s not going to be pleasant to face down a Servant we can empathize with, but we promised her a fair battle.

            “—Damn, we should have thought ahead for some method to contact Roswell in case something like this happened.”
            I complain quietly at my own lack of foresight.

            “It can’t be helped.
            “If we’d had more time to talk about strategy I’m sure it would have come up, but with the condition you’ve been in it’s not like we could have held strategy meetings and such every day to get everyone in sync.
            “—Besides, the plan had been for us to stay here in hiding for as long as we could, so I doubt that anyone was really counting the two of us as members of the fighting force.”

            I breathe out.
            Everything always goes to pieces in the end if I’m not directing the chessboard by myself.
            I know this all too well, so I should have made more of a conscious effort to keep control of things.
            But now is not the time for regrets.
            “…Even in the worst case scenario, Roswell should be coming back soon.
            “And in that case, we can just team up and expel the intruders together.
            “Until then, though, don’t worry about holding back as I have more than enough prana to spare for anything you might use up. The only thing I’d ask you to keep in reserve is that Noble Phantasm, since it would leave you defenseless if there were to be another battle.”

            Gulcasa nods.
            “—I can finish this with Prominence.
            “Now then, we’ll have to go.”

            The door opens in the next moment, and Gulcasa explodes out into the front yard like a flame shot from the mouth of a cannon.

            Within the barrier that closes this space off from the eyes of civilians, a knight in black catches the blow on her sword like a dance.
            Sparks scatter throughout the air like leaves in autumn as the scythe and the sword dance in a waltz, and Gulcasa in his armor twists and fights in order to keep the enemy from coming any further.
            Avenger’s expression is blank and focused.
            Showing none of the excitement or the viciousness of our previous battle, she attacks Gulcasa in quick slashes without wasted movement as if not having any fun at all.
            I can hear Gulcasa exhale as he drags his blade through the air towards her body.

            Is it because we’ve gotten to know each other better, or is there some other reason?
            …With Avenger’s personality, I can’t simply mark down her change in demeanor to reluctance to do battle, as it was in combat that she seemed the most lively before.
            But more importantly.
            It may be all right to put her on the back burners and leave her to Gulcasa if I can deal with her Master.

            The witch stands at the gates.
            She does not spare a glance for the battle of our Servants and looks straight at me.
            Something about her stare—makes me feel uneasy.

            As Gulcasa continues to strike for Avenger, driving her back bit by bit, I descend the front steps to the house with purpose.

            I raise my hand and prepare my own body to cast lightning.
            …Try not to run, huh.
            Unfortunately, it appears that you’ll have to be looking after me again tonight, Roswell—


            At the moment that I spring off the bottom step.
            Three things happen in such rapid succession that I cannot react in time.

            Call it karma for disobeying my doctor’s orders, but at the second step where my injured foot should be striking against the ground to propel me forward—
            My weak ankle wobbles and bends, and I almost fall.
            My voice escapes, and the rings of power that had been fastened about the joints of each of my fingers come unwoven, causing the bolts of energy prepared in my hand to go wild and destroy the fence.

            In the exact same moment, Gulcasa senses danger to me and falters slightly—in conjunction with Avenger lunging forward to attack.
            The ground tears under Gulcasa’s armored feet, and he makes furrows in the grass as Avenger’s blow drives him back past me to crash into the wall.
            Even though he pulls his body back upright in the next moment and runs forward again, Avenger has run forward to close the gap.
            This means that when the two of them clash like cogs getting caught backwards, the great sound of metal from between them comes from significantly behind me.

            …And third.
            …Yellma, Avenger’s Master, runs lightly into the yard—two strong paces, long enough to close the distance between us.

            Before I can maintain my balance.
            Hands like spiders seize my wrists, and my body is wrenched around so that my back is pressed against the woman’s chest.
            “—Kh—a, u—”

            My ankle buckles underneath me, the strained tendon protesting.
            My entire leg is shaking and cannot bear my weight.
            …She shifts my wrists into the grip of the same hand, and before I can drop all of my weight and fall to the earth to make my body harder for her to manipulate, her hand winds around my throat.
            Her fingers strangle me like spiders, and my vision warps.
            …Her long nails appear to have been reinforced with metal, and nick tenderly into the skin of my neck like razors.

            All I can do is gasp for air, but my throat is pricked numerous times.
            I can’t help my body’s instinctive reaction to the pain I’m already in and my ankle’s demand for oxygen so that it might repair itself, and my panting like a seizure increases.
            …The adrenaline that’s dulling out the pain of my unresponsive ankle does nothing to help the sharp cuts along my throat, and they sting mindlessly.

            I can hear Gulcasa’s scream like the roar of a beast.

            “—Careful, now.”
            Avenger’s Master laughs.
            “If you get too excited, you’ll be forfeiting your Master’s life, you know—?
            “Even if it’s just a corpse, I can still make do quite easily.”

            I feel cold.
            —I feel cold at the implication of her words.

            This was a deliberate attack not to separate me from Gulcasa so that we would be easy to kill, but to get us apart so that she could capture me.
            …I’m an enemy Master.
            If that is the only thing that is known about my role in this war, then such actions as these are absurd.
            …Which means.
            The only logical explanation is that she knows the truth, and is not interested in “me”, but the “contents” of my body.

            “Of course, neither of us wants that.
            “—Certainly you’ll vanish from the world if you don’t have a Master, and I’d rather keep the vessel alive than worry about making emergency transplants.”
            She speaks merrily while strangling me.
            …It hurts, and I need air, or else the pain will get even worse.

            “Avenger, we’re leaving since we have what we need.
            “—If he comes after us like a fool, then kill him.”

            Obeying the orders of her Master, Avenger backs away from Gulcasa.
            My vision is fading.
            …But I can still tell from her hazy silhouette that she is postured to attack at any time.

            But Gulcasa is heedless of such things.
            His eyes are a beacon fastened directly onto me, and I am sure that he can see nothing else.
            Oblivious to the danger that he’s in, he bends as if preparing to lunge at me.
            …I know.
            I don’t even need to be a true prophet to know, I can see the certain future burned into my eyelids even if I close them.
            He will run forward and the arc of Avenger’s sword will cut into his neck.

            “—Don’t come—stay where you are!”


            I put all my remaining breath into the scream.

            My shoulder—the marks of absolute obedience burn, as though the brand of our contract is being seared into my flesh anew.
            A sharp crack rings through the air, assaulting my ears.
            I hear Gulcasa choke, and the protests of his armor as he is held in place by the Command Spell.

            There is no answering song of a sword’s edge slicing the air.
            …So even if I can’t see it, I know that Avenger will not attack as long as Gulcasa doesn’t rush at her.


            …But that’s it.
            My vision’s already gone.
            The strength in my limbs is following it rapidly, and I don’t have the breath to speak.
            …The problem about my power is that without my voice or at least a hand free, it’s useless.
            My consciousness is growing faint.
            But—she won’t kill me.
            Even if she kills me, that’s not so bad.

            As long as he’s alive, I still—

            My breath cuts out and I fall.


(interlude 10-2)

            “Damn it—”

            There’s a great crack of wood.

            It’s Roswell Branthèse’s instinct to flinch, but he summons up all the fortitude he has and remains still.

            It’s been about half an hour since the time that he and his Servant returned home from shopping to find the yard in disarray, Nessiah gone, and Berserker screaming until he vomited blood with the effort to break free of the Command Spell that kept him there.
            …The boundary field has been replaced and strengthened, and Roswell took the time to heal all of Berserker’s self-inflicted wounds.
            Compared to the time that that Servant was attacking himself mindlessly from rage and self-blame, the way he is raging about the house attacking the walls and the furniture makes him seem calm.

            It’s not as though he can’t understand.
            …The thing that Berserker was determined to protect above all else was taken away from him, and Nessiah forced him to stay here rather than allowing him to attempt a rescue.
            Of course, he understands those feelings even though he fully acknowledges that Nessiah’s actions were probably correct.

            Berserker punches the walls so hard that the plaster cracks.
            His knuckles are in pieces, his hands ruined with bruises and blood.
            It will take a great deal of energy to take care of.
            …But because it is preferable to the way that that Servant had thrown himself into the walls, run his head and shoulders into them as if trying to kill himself—
            Because his eyes are no longer empty, and the air around his body no longer sizzles as though the world is going to erupt into a great conflagration—
            Roswell can remain calm watching the display that Berserker is making, and not panic over the mess.

            “Damn it, damn it—”

            Berserker does not stop.
            He is a Servant, and so even though an ordinary person would no longer be able to continue their rampage after a short while, he has been raging for half an hour.
            His body has lost a great amount of energy, and his punches towards the walls are weak, signaling that he will simply collapse in exhaustion soon.
            …It’s not that he’s in danger of running out of prana, but that his body is after all still bound by some of the restraints a human’s is.
            The nerves and flesh and bones that make up Berserker’s body can only sustain so much uncontrolled wrath without the reinforcement of his Master.

            Nessiah isn’t here.
            Berserker’s body isn’t warped into invincibility by Mad Enhancement.
            Right now—

            …Right now he’s physically and emotionally at his limit.

            Even so, there’s nothing that Roswell can do.
            …He is only human, and a human cannot stop a rampaging Servant, so he must wait for Berserker to calm down before doing anything.


            “Damn it—”

            Berserker’s body starts to sag, swaying drunkenly as he collapses.
            He breathes heavily.
            His eyes are wild and see nothing but his own failures.
            …And, at that moment—

            Yggdra crouches down beside the kneeling form of her sworn enemy,
            and she firmly wraps her arms around his body.

            She doesn’t say anything.
            She closes her eyes with an intense and inscrutable expression.
            …All that Roswell knows is that the emotion she’s feeling now is neither pity nor sadness.
            She holds fast to Berserker’s still-straining body, and closes her eyes.

            …Berserker screams.
            Roswell would never be able to make a sound like that.
            He’s been raised to be proper for too many years, and has been brought up to restrain his emotions and maintain his dignity.
            …Berserker doesn’t care about anything like that, and roars.
            Like a dragon with its heart pierced, he bares his fangs and screams so loudly that even if Roswell clapped both hands fast to his ears he wouldn’t be able to escape the noise.
            The Servant’s handsome face is a mess of blood and tears.
            Strings of saliva and bile from the number of times he vomited still defile his crushed armor.
            His talons bite into Yggdra’s back.
            He’s clinging to her mindlessly.

            His crying voice is a scream.
            Even once his voice dies because his vocal cords are too worn to produce sound and he collapses to breathe raggedly, the noise echoes on and on.

            At last.
            With Berserker sagged and simply staring blankly into the floor, supported only by Yggdra holding him up, Roswell kneels down in the dust and casts a healing on Berserker’s torn and broken hands.

            “—I’m going to clean up.”
            He announces so quietly.
            It would be unholy to dispel the traces of that proud voice by speaking over them.

            “…Help him.”
            “Of course.”
            She just nods, and doesn’t release her grip.

            Berserker’s gaze is dim.
            It’s probably this man’s way to simply give in to such emotions rather than bottle them up, as he appears to have worn himself out quite thoroughly by now.
            “…I’m going to clean things up a bit, and then—
            “I don’t have the same level of skill, but we’re going to make a plan.
            “We’re going to get Nessiah back, without fail.”

            Berserker looks up.
            His eyes are like coals in his ravaged face.
            —But still, he responds to Roswell’s words readily.

            Maybe it’s because his voice is already broken.
            But all he does is nod.
            With grim and deadened eyes, covered in blood and tears, disheveled from rampaging around in frenzied desperation—
            The crimson demon nods royally, with all the weight and gravity befitting of an emperor.

(10-2 interlude out.)