Following a good night’s sleep—which was a lot shorter than Izumi would have liked after the previous day’s intensive study—the woman from Earth was called for yet another strategy meeting. By now, those had almost become part of the daily routine. It was a bit bizarre how natural it all felt to her now, as she made her way through the Keep.
In the library’s spacious hall, the three chief conspirators plotting against the Imperial Throne gathered once again, to plan their next move in this deadly Chess game. The long desk in the middle of the hall had been cleared of unneeded obstacles and distractions, leaving only the documents relevant for the coming day’s agenda.
Izumi gave those documents a superficial glance, but they appeared too disconnected on the surface to give her a clue to her companions’ intentions. All she could do was quietly wait for it to be explained to her.
“This could be big,” the young man who shared Izumi’s fate as an interstellar traveler, Benjamin Watts, opened the meeting with a report. “The chubby old fellow whose portrait you see over there on the table is called Marquess Magnoise De la Cartá. And he would be one of the wealthiest, most influential men at the capital outside of the Imperial Court. Hailing from the Barony of Ludgwert to the east, a resident of the Empire for the past thirty years, he owns the press, owns baths, hotels, shops, armories, a private army of two hundred mercenaries, and is also the Archbishop of the Cathedral of Divine Worship.”
“Another busy guy, I see,” Izumi remarked.
In Tratovia, there was no organization like the catholic church on Earth, no one true God above all, no common doctrine, no concept of salvation through faith, and so there should have been no archbishops either. But that was the way the equivalent rank was translated by Izumi’s unconscious mind. All it told her was that the man in question liked to pose as a figure of spiritual influence, on top of his many enterprises for earthly profit. Reputation as a person above the common mortals probably suited De la Cartá’s purposes. It seemed that none of the locals saw any ethical or religious conflict in the matter. Or, even if they did, they were in no position to voice it.
“Today, De la Cartá will be celebrating his sixtieth birthday,” Benjamin continued. “A big, pleasantly round number. To commemorate it, a massive celebration is planned to be held at the grand Tenessia Cathedral later tonight. Six hundred noble guests have been invited, all la cremé de la cremé—it’s going to be one heck of a feast. And, the best for the last, according to the intel from our associates in the Circle, his majesty, the Emperor, will be gracing the event with his presence. Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
There was no way Izumi didn’t see as much.
“This is our chance to skip straight to the last boss, eh?”
“Precisely,” the man nodded. “An uncouth brute like Waramoti would only spoil the festive mood, so we have a good reason to assume he’s not on the guest list. Two of the other heroes are dead, and neither is there enough room for a hoard of knights within the Cathedral. Add in six hundred human shields instead—in other words, his majesty will be practically unguarded, blind, and deaf, and stupid while he’s there. Risky or not, we’d be equally stupid to miss this chance.”
The Court Wizard picked up on the main point,
“We will have you infiltrate the Cathedral and assassinate the Emperor. Make use of your new abilities and the distraction provided by the guests to land the killing blow. With that, we will have achieved our objective, without having to take more risks fighting the remaining heroes of the Guild.”
Izumi nodded. Such was her preference as well.
She looked over the papers before her again and, with the given context, they made a great deal more sense to her. There was the blueprint of the complex Cathedral building, the entry points circled. The Marquess’s profile. The guest list. The spies of the Circle had done a thorough job, as always. There was even a list of the wines to be served. What a fearsome organization. But as effective as the plan looked, as close to reach as the conclusion hovered, Izumi couldn’t bring herself to get hyped up on the inside.
“It can never be this easy, can it...?” she muttered, pursing her lips.
It all looked too good to feel real. Too convenient.
Something was inexplicably off about it all.
Why would the Emperor attend a simple birthday party at a time like this?
“Well, no plan is ever perfect,” Benjamin shrugged, “but it’s worth a try, no? The news about us trying to off his majesty is starting to spread. On the one hand, this adds stress on us: we must act quickly now, before they come cracking on us for real. On the other hand, it also applies pressure on his majesty. It’s at uncertain times like this that he must appear a strong leader in the eyes of the public and hide his weaknesses. After all, in Tratovia, strength is everything. He’ll lose face, if he keeps hiding behind his walls all day long. Which means, he’ll be pushed to take unreasonable risks to show off his courage, to prove he’s unaffected by the gossip, or the threat on his life. And the one time he sticks his neck too far out will be it for him.”
He emphasized his statement with a quick snap of his fingers.
“Well, I do agree with the theory,” Izumi commented, “but this is usually the part of the movie, where the protagonist is betrayed by her allies and walks into a trap, so I’d rather rethink it twice over.”
“What are you talking about, hahaha?” Benjamin replied with a forced laugh. “Why would we betray our only tool—I mean savior?”
“The word ‘friend’ never crossed your mind, did it?”
“If you help me hook up with the princess, I’ll be your best friend for life. I swear.”
“I’m fine with keeping this as a business relationship.”
"What are you, the angry mother hen?”
The elven magician between the two had remained unusually quiet for all this time, staring off into the distance, a thoughtful look on her dignified features.
“What’s up, Lia?” Izumi leaned closer and asked her. “What do you think we should do?”
Remaining quiet for a brief moment longer, the cirelo finally met her eyes.
“I understand your concerns,” she said with an air of indifference. “The possibility that the Circle has been fed false information cannot be entirely dismissed. The enemy could be baiting us—but what of it? To us, this is do or die. Whether simple or difficult, whether impossible or unlikely, we have a job. Where the Emperor goes, we must follow. Even should you walk into a trap in his pursuit, all it means is that you will have to destroy the trap and the trappers along with it. Be they openly malicious or good-intending, anyone who stands in your way is to be crushed underfoot. Do you understand? I have taught you the means, do not say I wasted my time.”
Benjamin wondered if the sorceress hadn’t gone too far. At times like this, wouldn’t one need encouragement instead of a whipping?
Yet, at Carmelia’s harsh words, a wide smile unexpectedly spread across Izumi’s face.
“Hm! You sure know how to get a girl fired up!” she exclaimed. “Yes, that’s right! It’s fine if I just kill everybody, isn’t it? An assassin and an enemy of the state, aren’t I already bottom of the barrel material in this land? What do I have left to worry about? It shouldn’t matter if I let loose for real!”
“If it comes down to that,” Carmelia replied with a faint smile. “So long as you get results, I care not how you do it.”
“Just to be sure,” Benjamin quietly spoke, “we’re still the good guys, aren’t we?”
“Well, seriously speaking, I’d like to avoid any extra hassle, if possible. I have my age to mind, after all.” Izumi calmed down. “So, how were you planning on getting me in there? Let me guess, you’ll edit me onto the guest list, I dress up, and walk in straight through the front?”
“What? We couldn’t possibly be that stupid!” Benjamin rejected her idea outright. “How many parties do you think these people organize each year? It may be a big city, but the circles of the elite are small. Even if we had powerful contacts who could forge you an invitation card—which we do not—De la Cartá’s servants know anyone who’s anyone. No way you’re cheating your way in like that.”
“Well, worked just fine last time...” Izumi pouted.
“Besides, no offense, but you don’t exactly look like a noblewoman. They’re not the type to tan much. Or lift swords on a daily basis. Or cut their hair with rusty scythes, or whatever you’ve done to yours...”
“Well, fooled everyone laaaaast time...”
“How long would it take to teach you local etiquette, anyway? I can’t even picture you bobbing a curtsy, lifting your skirt hems elegantly, all lady-like, saying, ‘how do you do, your lordship?’ No, somehow, the mere thought makes me shudder...”
The man actually shuddered, looking abhorred.
“Yeah, you can shut up now.” Izumi was starting to get upset.
“As you have seen,” Carmelia took the chance to interrupt and explained, “there is an extensive network of ancient tunnels and catacombs coursing beneath the city. I have studied some of the maps they have here in the archives, and located a few such channels that lead directly under the Cathedral. Our agents have already investigated them, and confirmed that some of those underground tunnels are connected to the lower basement floors, allowing entry undetected.”
“So I’m going to sneak in...through the sewers?” Izumi’s excitement levels continued to drop. “What if somebody poops on me? They’re going to discover me by the smell.”
“As far older, the tunnels serve no function in the city’s sewer system,” Carmelia patiently answered Izumi’s half-joking question. “And, in regards to your prior proposal, a part of the plan does expect you to pose as a guest. While we cannot create a credible fake identity or an invitation card for you on the spot, leaving a suitable disguise near the planned entry point should be within our power. No one should expect intruders to appear out of nowhere. Once inside and properly disguised, you should be able to blend in easily enough and search for the target unhindered.”
“Let me guess, I can’t bring the sword?”
“It should go without saying. This plan relies on discretion, after all. You cannot be found with any weapons on you, in case the Marquess’s guards carry out random checks in the crowd. But you have the secula sonatea I will craft for you. In your hands, the runes of the arc should be deadly enough, with only a mortal as your opponent.”
“Enter the Cathedral from below, acquire the disguise, and make your way into the main hall. Blend into the crowd, and whatever you do, avoid raising needless suspicion. Quietly bide your time. When the Emperor arrives, locate him, and make note of his guards. Approach undetected...and slay him where he stands.”
“Strike in the open, is that it?” Izumi asked. “The Levantine approach? I do like cool, high-profile maneuvers, but how am I to get away then? Or will getting caught be part of the plan?”
“Ideally,” the sorceress continued, “you should plan the kill in a way that gives you the time to distance yourself from the target. Make use of the crowds and the ensuing commotion, and return the way you entered. In the event that you are discovered, it should be possible to use the guests and the Cathedral architecture for cover, to evade and dispatch your pursuers, where necessary. Heavy weaponry and bows will not be allowed inside. The security will not be able to easily engage you, giving you ample opportunity to make your escape. Simply memorize the entry point and leave by the same tunnel that takes you in. Block the path to ensure you are not followed. Once you have reached outside, signal me as before, and I will open a gate to extract you. It does not need to be more complicated than that.”
“I think it’s plenty complicated already, but maybe I can handle it.”
“Don’t forget,” the elven woman stressed, “the Emperor is your top priority. Your only priority. Under no circumstances can you let him escape with his life. Even if it means turning the celebration into a bloodbath, you must take him down. We may not get another opportunity like this. Should you fail and be captured, every knight at the capital will be out for us, and it will be our turn to be the hunted. We cannot hide here forever. The longer this plot takes of us to execute, the sooner it will be exposed. One way or the other, his majesty must die. The future of our world depends on it.”
“I get it, all right,” Izumi nodded. “I’m not much of a revolutionary, and I don’t know about saving the world either, but I promised I’d do it, so that’s that.”
“So long as you understand.”
“Will you really be all right?” Benjamin asked, not quite as convinced. “I mean, you’ve pulled off some fabulous stunts before, but this is...maybe not something you can mindlessly punch your way out of. I’m sure we could have other, safer options, such as ambushing the Emperor en route to the Cathedral, or when he leaves? Or poisoning his wine, or, well, anything that doesn’t involve somehow deceiving the eyes of hundreds of people.”
“We don’t know which route he will take there, do we?” Izumi pondered, looking at the district map. “I’m sure they’ve taken the chance of an ambush into account. And this city is like a maze. There are multiple gates out of the palace, and a bunch of bridges across the river too. Even if I have speed hack now, I can’t be everywhere at once.”
“And I don’t know about poison either. If I’m going to have to kill the guy, I’d rather do it upfront. Not like it’d be that much more fun, but I feel I have to face him in person. I kind of owe him that much. It would leave a poor aftertaste otherwise.”
“...Eh, right?” Benjamin failed to understand her meaning.
“There are also more pressing reasons to favor the location,” Carmelia spoke. “As he travels, the Emperor will be guarded by an elite platoon of the Imperial Guard, which is to remain on standby outside the Cathedral through the night. Additionally, while Heaven’s Hand is removed from the picture, there is one more hero we must still be wary of.”
The Court Wizard took one of the documents on the table and placed it over the rest.
On it was the portrait of a gallant young man. One Izumi could recognize.
“Bramms of the Grand Shield. One of the most upstanding warriors of the Guild, perhaps the one most worthy of being revered as a ‘hero’. It is highly likely that this man will be in charge of his majesty’s safety at the party. Which means, he will be somewhere nearby at all times. I would like to avoid an open confrontation with him to the last, which means that an ambush along the way is out of the question.”
“I knew there was going to be trouble,” Izumi sighed.
“However,” Carmelia continued, “Bramms is also an inexperienced man from the country, unaccustomed to large masses of people, colorful festivities, and such like. Therefore, it is in the party, where your chances of fooling his keen senses will be greatest. Snatch the target from under his nose and leave the man in the dust as you escape.”
“I’ll try,” Izumi nodded. “Geez, the difficulty rating for this mission is definitely S. I’d like to grind a little more before even trying...but that’s not an option, is it?”
“The party will begin at sundown, today,” Benjamin informed her. “I suggest you try and relax until then. Make sure you’re in the best possible shape you can be. State, I mean, not talking about your—”
“Everybody understood, Einstein.”
“Er, I’ll be keeping my ears open in the meanwhile, in case any new intel comes in. God be with you, Izumi.”
Having done his part, the young man left the library.
“I could do without His company, though,” Izumi said. “Since I’m not a Christian.”
With only the two of them left behind, Carmelia now turned to Izumi,
“Come with me, if you are free, and I shall bestow the arc on you.”
Nervously swallowing, feeling like a child on Christmas eve, Izumi obediently nodded and followed after the magician.
Bells rang. Their heavenly clangor carried far over Selenoreion, rebounding from the palace walls. Those bells belonged to one of the temples, no doubt, either calling devoted locals to service, or to announce a wedding, or perhaps a funeral instead. None of those occasions could be carried out rightly without paying appropriate homage to the Divines.
As the patron spirits of the Empire, the Three were in the position to prohibit the worship of all other Lords, if they so wished, yet they had not. The citizens were and had always been at liberty to choose which aesa of myth they would turn to with their mortal concerns. Whether their prayers were heard or responded to was, of course, a separate matter. In spite of their free-spirited doctrine, the Three suffered no other Divines of note to settle in their territory. Nevertheless, this overall carefree, indulgent freedom of belief gave Bhastifal its characteristic air of leisure and diversity.
In princess Yuliana’s opinion, that normally solemn mood seemed to bear a sobering hint of foreboding today.
On the street outside the Imperial Palace, Yuliana was greeted by the sight of a luxurious carriage, and a line of fifty knights in brightly shining armors. The carriage, crafted of the light Heoven wood from northern Felorn and held together by ornate, hand-forged white titanium frames, had two noble pairs of horses of pearl-pale fur to move it.
The knights, indistinguishable from one another whilst clad in all that metal, stood in attention on the sidewalk. A gap to the carriage divided them, with twenty-five on the left of it, an identical count on the right, their crimson capes fluttering in the brisk afternoon wind.
There were two other figures present as well.
Shortly before the gate, dressed in a dark green doublet, a black jerkin, as well as a lighter-colored stole over his shoulders, was his majesty, the Emperor. Naturally, trousers as well he wore, straight black, and light shoes made of shining leather. A large, silver-made medallion sporting the Imperial emblem hung in a chain around his neck, as a proof of his rank, together with the regal ring on his left middle finger.
“Your highness,” the man greeted Yuliana with a nod.
Instead of returning the greeting, Yuliana turned her gaze towards the second eye-catching character.
A distance behind the Emperor, near the carriage by the road, stood a man of intimidating stature. Nearly a head and a half taller than the knights about him, that person was hardly dressed for an aristocratic celebration. His toned arms were bare up to the bulky shoulders, and only a slim, dark breastplate covered his torso, closely imitating male musculature in likeness. He had spartan leather shorts, which left his knees bare, and for footwear he only sported rudimentary sandals. All in all, he rather resembled someone bound for beach games than anything remotely noble.
This only meant that the man was someone who could afford to forego the etiquette, being above all law and jurisdiction—with a rank even above a princess in this odd land. One of Tratovia’s famous heroes, that man had purchased his freedom from social scrutiny through exceptional, heroic feats of war. His achievements had lifted him from obscurity to immortality, as a name to be passed from generation to another, even after his earthly journey should end.
That name was Bramms.
Bramms of Oblong, he was once called, after his hometown.
Today, most people knew him better by his title, “Grand Shield”, after his iconic armament.
On one of his adventures, the man had happened upon an enormous shield, crafted by an ancient race, of a sparse mineral more durable than steel. No other man could surely even dream of lifting such a heavy object, yet Bramms went on to employ it both to defend lives as well as to crush them, in the service of the Imperial Throne.
Still, it was difficult to take him for a hardened warrior, despite his muscular form and fame.
For the look on Bramms’s face was pure and guileless.
Before lust for power, control, revenge, pleasure, or bloodthirst, the man had been driven through life mostly by sheer competitive passion.
Before a soldier, it was probably better to label him an athlete.
For this man even war, the taking of lives, was a sport. Not something to be done for the fun and pleasure of it, or for any mundane objective, but simply a challenge, an almost holy trial to undertake, to surpass one’s own corporeal self and the limits of humanity.
Each excruciating storm of steel that Bramms had been through had helped sculpt his mind and form towards perfection—towards a self-defined ideal of divinity.
“I was under the impression that the festivities were to begin later,” Yuliana turned back to the Emperor and said. The skies were bright, the sun still high up. It would be quite some time before dusk.
“And you would be correct,” the Emperor answered her. “However, I was hoping we could take some time to ourselves before then. It’s such a beautiful day, it would be a shame to spend it all holed up indoors, waiting. Don’t you think?”
“What do you have in mind?” Yuliana eyed the man with suspicion.
“Driving around,” he shrugged, “enjoying the city, perhaps having a bit of lunch somewhere along the way. You can call it a date, if you like.”
“I don’t get your meaning...It seems a man in your position is more free than I imagined.”
“For you, I will make the time,” the Emperor said and gestured towards the carriage. “Shall we?”
Yuliana looked ahead, at the carriage. And the brawny man next to it. The stern gaze of his light blue eyes was fixed at her.
“Somehow, I don’t think I can bring myself to relax in company so famous,” she said.
“You have nothing to fear from Bramms, your highness,” the Emperor told her. “He’s here as our shield and nothing more. Rather, it is with a ceiling so reliable that one can easily relax even in the fiercest of storms. What say you, Bramms? A few words of assurance to her highness.”
The tall hero glumly looked away.
“I would rather not,” he replied. “The gaze of this noble maiden makes me restless. I fear it could become an impediment to my duty, were I to give her unnecessary attention.”
“See what I mean?” the Emperor turned back to Yuliana. “You wouldn’t believe a man of his caliber was a stranger to women, but very little else beside battle goes through his mind.”
“Somehow, I feel I’m being mocked,” the princess replied with a scowl. “No matter. There is no way out of this invitation for me, yes? Then let us get on with it.”
“When there is no way out of the path of destiny, you face it with resolve...” The Emperor nodded. “Your radiance grows by the day, it seems.”
“You will find that it takes more than parties, dates, and flattery to change my mind, your majesty. At least in that regard, I am my father’s daughter.”
They went on to board the carriage, the Emperor and Yuliana inside, while Bramms climbed up to the perch beside the driver. Turning half a circle to face the road, the knights struck a salute, and the ride left off with a snap of the driver’s whip.
Confused, Yuliana observed that the platoon of knights were left behind before the palace, making no effort to follow them. Not that they could, without horses. Did the ruler of the Empire really intend to travel the city with only one mercenary for protection? No matter how able the bodyguard, it seemed too reckless.
The Emperor appeared to see what the princess was thinking.
“It wouldn’t be much of a date with that many chaperons, would it? Rest assured, if it ever comes down to it, I shall defend you with my life.”
“You needn’t give up your life, if only you leave our defense to me,” Yuliana responded. “Take no offense, your majesty, but I can see that your hands aren’t those of a swordsman.”
“That is very perceptive of you,” he made no effort to deny it. “Yes, I am not all that fond of swords. Though in my life, I have seen weapons capable of so much worse.”
“Weapons your soldiers use to deliver death outside your borders, perhaps?”
“...I see we Imperials are fiercely hated. Perhaps for a reason. But I do hope to change this.”
“And how will you do so, if I may ask?”
“By any means necessary.”
“You have made this clear, yes.”
“Such cold words,” the Emperor breathed a sigh with a bit helpless smile. “Are you forgetting how you nearly had me killed on the night of your arrival? Did I ever let that get in the way of our relationship? I believe I have shown a great deal of open-mindedness and understanding in our dealings since, even if my measures were sometimes a tad extreme. Those measures should pale in comparison to being beheaded without a cause or a trial.”
“I...” Being reminded again of what happened days back, Yuliana looked away in shame. “It was not my intention...for that to happen.”
“Yet, your companion tried to kill me all the same, while you stood and watched. The person you named as your friend. What a peculiar acquaintance, for a pacifist such as yourself. Provided you are indeed every bit as peaceful as you profess to be.”
Yuliana failed to respond.
Where was Izumi now, anyway? What was she doing? Hopefully, whatever it was, she was far away from Bhastifal. But in addition to this anxious worry for the woman’s safety, the princess also felt remorseful over her friend's thoughtless actions and their consequences.
Why did it have to turn this way? Had she been able to restrain herself, had I been able to stop her, we could be sitting here together now. Yes, were she by my side, I wouldn’t be having such a hard time...
“That woman...” The Emperor’s suddenly spoke in a lowered tone, shaking Yuliana from her reflections. “She claimed to have been summoned from another world? Was this true?”
The man’s face was forcibly neutral, like a mask.
“Would you believe me if I said yes?” Yuliana asked in return. It was indeed an absurd story, and she wouldn’t have believed it herself, were she not there to see it happen.
“I would,” the Emperor said. “If you say so.”
“What difference does it make?” Yuliana asked. “From this world or another, she will still lose her life for defying the Emperor, the same as anyone else.”
“Could be. Humans are humans, after all. In this world and the next.”
“Or perhaps, it may well be that you’ll lose your life in her hands instead? Unless you leave her in peace.”
The Emperor didn’t comment. His face looked even stiffer.
“A human summoned from another world,” he spoke after a lengthy pause. “Will become the doom of Ortho.”
“So the prophecy of Geltsemanhe foretells,” Yuliana replied.
“Unless the Trophaeum is reached in time, and the ritual enacted, the world falls into irreparable decay and ruin. Yet, if it is a champion from another world, who conquers the Tower, there is a chance that we will enter the Age of Chaos, where unfathomable destruction awaits us. No matter what we do, terrible perils lie ahead.”
“It won't come to be, if we save ourselves,” the princess told him. “If we restore the world without depending on outside help, as we have for thirty-three cycles before. If you help me do it.”
“Do not kid yourself, your highness,” the man retorted with sternness. “You do not have such a power. Neither of us does. Not even the might of the Empire will be enough, alone.”
“Then the way we go about it is wrong.”
“The path we choose must be one that holds the greatest chances of success. Sending one princess to the land of monsters is not it.”
“It is no less difficult to conquer the world with the power of fleets and armies, in the time we have left.”
“It can be done. Will be. With each new land to join us, the power in our disposal is greatly appended. Whether we should grow our might through words or war, you are here to show us. Which is the best, the most efficient path?”
“You may compel a young and inexperience girl, your majesty. You may have bribed even Luctretz and Ledarnia on your side. But before the King of Alderia, before the Crulean citadels of steel, before my father’s throne, you will find yourself a young and inexperienced boy yourself, whose words will convince no one. You will not conquer those lands by force. Not anywhere near all of them. And even if you somehow could, all that would be lost in the land of daemons, where entire civilizations more capable than yours or mine fell to ruin centuries ago. Have you never considered that your plan here could be the one that is only a dream? A nightmare?”
Without saying anything, the Emperor closed his eyes, deep wrinkles dividing his forehead. He glanced outside the window and—suddenly bounced up to his feet, striking the roof with his fist.
“DRIVER, STOP THE CART!” he hollered.
Had he gone mad? Startled, Yuliana looked at the sovereign, in whose eyes a sudden, intense gleam had appeared. Before the ride had even fully stilled, he already opened the door and leaped out to the street.
Confused, Yuliana peeked her head out of the doorway, to see what had gotten to him.
“There it is!” the man exclaimed back at her, excited, pointing ahead. “Restaurant Halio! Right where I remembered it was! How long I’ve waited to visit it again! Hurry, your highness! The food here will change your world!”
The princess blinked her eyes, no less confused.
In a shady room deep within the Imperial Palace, illuminated only by clusters of little candles by the walls, the summoned woman from Earth faced yet another tense situation. She, who had braved through a great many life-risking, life-changing predicaments since her arrival in this extraordinary world, now found her courage rapidly faltering.
“I—I don’t think I can do it, after all,” she confessed.
“Be quiet and lie down,” the only other person in the room, Court Wizard Carmelia, curtly ordered the woman, showing little empathy or understanding.
Despite the command, Izumi failed to move. She looked at the room around her, though there was not much to look at. Rather than anything specific in it, the atmosphere was what sent her head spinning. The warm red color filter the candle flames painted in her vision, the spicy, calming scent of incense, it all seemed deeply intimate and foreign to her. Arousing.
“Thinking about arcane rituals, I expected something a little...different,” Izumi said, her cheeks burning. “I don’t know what exactly, but certainly nothing like this! I know I already said yes, but that was before I knew the specifics! I-it’s a woman’s right to call it off whenever she feels like it, even without any real reason! I don’t mean to be difficult on purpose, or look like a whimsical person, I just think I need a little more time to calmly think this through and prepare myself...if possible.”
“A possibility it is not,” the sorceress replied, fiddling with something in the back of the room. “What are you doing, still with your clothes on? I told you to undress. Be quick now, for time is of the essence. It has been a long time since I last did this, so it could take a while.”
Reluctantly, Izumi started to take off her shirt.
“Y-you’ve done it before?” she asked. “J-just how long does it take, typically? It’s a bit embarrassing to admit, but I don’t have a wealth of experience with this sort of thing...”
“Some hours, perhaps. Even longer, if you keep stalling.”
“Hours? My. Oh my. You sure have a lot of stamina, to be able to keep going for so long. I-is it many times now? That you’ve done this…?”
“For how long do you think I’ve lived?” Carmelia proudly answered. “There is no magician alive more experienced at this nor more qualified than I. I’ve served kings and heroes of renown, who all entrusted their lives to me and no other, and paid whatever I asked, knowing my work comes without error. You should be honored to have the privilege of feeling my hands, as a mere mortal. Among your kind, you are certainly special.”
Izumi’s fluster only deepened.
“D-did you have to phrase it like that? As if it wasn’t awkward enough! No matter how experienced you are, remember that it’s a first for me! In my chest still beats an innocent, delicate heart! If something goes wrong, I could be traumatized for life!”
“Nothing goes wrong. I told you, I make no mistakes. But the longer you tarry, the more I am starting to feel like reconfiguring your entire form, starting with the tongue. Enough babbling, hurry up and remove your clothes. Yes, all of them. Nothing must interfere with the flow of energy.”
“D-does it hurt a lot?” Izumi asked, starting to take off her breeches. “I’ve heard it can be pretty painful...the first time, at least.”
“Perhaps. You’ll get used to it soon enough. Are you truly saying you would be bothered by such meager discomfort, after all that you’ve been through?”
“I can’t help it! I’m allergic to needles!”
“Get onto the table.”
In front of Izumi was a narrow, rectangular table long enough for a person to lie down on, with a thick, colorful carpet pulled over it. Having reluctantly undressed, red up to her ears out of embarrassment, Izumi covered her chest with her right arm, and awkwardly climbed onto the table, to lay down on her stomach on it.
“Do not move,” Carmelia said.
The sorceress snapped her fingers and the black dress that veiled her slender figure subsequently melted into nothing. A semi-transparent, oddly modern-looking bodysuit was left to cover her form to a barely sufficient degree, but her long arms and shapely legs were entirely bare. Even that fairly conservative amount of skin exposure was too much for Izumi, who tightly squeezed her eyes shut.
Without further ado, the elven magician went on to take a pen-like instrument with a sharp needle attached on one end, and nimbly lifted herself onto the table, to stand on her knees over Izumi’s back. Had the woman been able to see that highly erotic positioning from an outside point of view, she probably would have fainted on the spot.
The occasion was not quite as sensual as one might imagine, however.
Although, in a way, it was also far more so.
“I will now engrave the runes onto you,” Carmelia announced. “Such is the true form of secula sonatea, the arc of alignment. This way, the chosen words can be attuned for maximum compatibility, cast instantaneously, and they can never be removed from you, for as long as you live.”
“My old man would beat the snot out of me if he ever saw me taking a tattoo...” Izumi bemoaned. “I’ve become such a rotten girl! Boo-hoo.”
“Keep still. I will begin.”
The needle pricked the skin on Izumi’s upper back.
It hurt, of course, but the pain was different from what Izumi had expected. A mysterious, ticklish heat spread from the touch, permeating the skin, seeping deep through the muscles. It wasn’t any ordinary tattoo she was taking. The runes were not only drawn on her skin, her very soul was being marked by Carmelia’s magic. Once the arc was completed, not even a skin transplant would be able to remove the characters. They would follow Izumi to the grave.
“Humans are soft and malleable in both body and spirit. This is proving even easier than I imagined it would,” Carmelia commented, cleaning the instrument after completing the first rune. “Well? Do you now regret pledging your allegiance to me?”
“There’s no other choice, is there?” Izumi replied with a sigh. “Killing the Emperor aside, there’s no way I can keep living in this world, unless I get stronger. So I suppose I should be grateful instead. No, honestly, I owe you a lot. Probably too much.”
“You feel indebted to me?” the sorceress asked, as if surprised. “Did it ever occur to you that beyond the common good of freeing us of a tyrant, I could have ulterior motives? Are you not afraid that I might make you my puppet, to only move by my will, until you break and can be discarded without care?”
“Do you have any then?”
“Ulterior motives, you mean?”
“No, a will to call your own.”
The sorceress fell quiet.
“Somehow,” Izumi continued, “I get this feeling that you’re never thinking about what you want for yourself. Not one bit. No matter how annoying, or painful, or bothersome something is, you’ll still do it without thinking, if it’s for the good of your people. Just for the ideal. And that’s probably the way you’ve been living for who knows how many centuries, right? You can even kill without any hard feelings, because you’ve been killing your own will and feelings for much longer.”
“...What makes you say that?”
“Just a thought. I mean, it might be presumptuous to say, but you kind of remind me of...me. Of how I used to be. Or tried to be, more like.”
“Used to be?”
“See, I grew up trying hard to live the way my family expected me to. All I wanted was to make those I loved smile, and so I made sure to do only what kept them happy. If only I did so, then I could be happy myself—I thought that childish way of thinking would get me through life without pain. But it was difficult. There were no monsters or apocalyptic happenings, but even without some, people sure can be difficult to please. No matter how well I did, they’d keep finding flaws and telling me to do better the next time. And whenever I failed, it was as if everything I succeeded at just stopped existing. It only got harder, as I grew older. Before I realized, I got too scared to try anything I really wanted, because I feared it would make somebody mad. And the more people praised me for going along with their wants, the harder it got to even think about not doing it. I didn’t want to disappoint anyone, so I quietly obeyed whatever they said, while killing my own will each day.”
“That is rather different from the way I perceive you,” the sorceress remarked.
“No kidding?” Izumi sighed. “Well, that was when I was young. I’m not living like that anymore, of course. A lot happened and I...kind of messed up. I was sixteen or something back then. Can’t remember too well anymore, I try not to think about it. Anyway, I did something that upset a lot of people. It might seem like something small to you now, but in just one moment, I lost all the trust I’d built in my life until that point. No one would ever hold any expectations for me again. It didn’t matter what I did or how I succeeded, everyone would just wait for the next time I’d ruin things. Before I realized, my family had stopped seeing me as their child. I’d become just as a nuisance to them. A strain. A source of pain. A big waste of time and money.”
“Ah, it sure sucked at the time. But in time I came to realize something. If no one expects anything from you, then there’s no reason to try to please them either. For the first time in my life, I was left completely free to pursue my own dreams. I could do whatever I wanted, and nobody cared enough to stop me. Well, that doesn’t mean blindly pursuing your dreams is always a good idea, and my dream happened to be pretty stupid. I ended up screwing up my life for good. I could never hope to become like the others again, even if I wanted to. If I hadn’t been summoned to this world, it really would’ve been the end of the line for me. What a miracle, don’t you think?”
“So in coming here, you saw a chance to redeem yourself?” the sorceress asked.
“Something better than that,” Izumi replied. “This is my real beginning. It’s only in the time I’ve been here that I’ve truly ‘lived’—that’s how I feel.”
Reflecting on her words for a moment, Carmelia ultimately returned to work.
“...I cannot understand a person like you.”
“Ow! Take it easy with the pointy thing!”
“Then, it was because you killed your sense of self in the other world, that you feel nothing of killing now?” the sorceress asked.
“Well, not quite,” Izumi answered. “In the beginning, I didn’t even think this world was real, so I saw no problem in killing to get by. That’s the way this place works, or so I thought. Living by the sword was my dream, after all. But...once I got started on that path, it got pretty hard to turn away from it. For every action, there’s a reaction, right? So I kept on killing, even after accepting this world as real, because I saw no other way forward. I can’t say I regret it, because I’m still here thanks to the choices I’ve made. But...”
“I do feel kind of guilty for not feeling more guilty.”
“Whatever do you mean by that?”
“I’m not a total monster, all right. I can still love people. And I want to be loved back too, even if I’m bad at showing it. Since coming to this world, I’ve met a number of people who managed to steal my heart at first sight. But no matter what I do, it seems they keep on drifting away from me. I couldn’t be the person they needed me to be. My problems became their problems, though I wanted to save them from theirs. As I thought, building a harem is kind of hard, even in another world...”
“And one of those people is the Langorian princess?” Carmelia deduced.
“Well, yeah,” Izumi nodded. “‘Is there anything I can do for her…?’ That’s all I’ve been thinking ever since I first got here. Protecting a princess is the hero’s raison d’etre, right? But, I’m not really helping her at all, am I? On the contrary. I can’t exactly say people are difficult to please in this case either, can I? While the people of my old world always kept asking me to do this and that, and to do it better, all Yule ever asked of me was that I don't hurt myself or anybody else. But that was the one thing I couldn't do. Ah, rather than me, that girl might need someone more like the other people from my world by her side...”
“Someone unreasonably demanding and unforgiving?” the sorceress asked.
“I was going for something like law-abiding,” the woman clarified.
“And? What is it that her highness dreams about?”
“I wonder. Does she even know herself?”
“When we first met, she said she wanted to reincarnate as a guy and do her life over. Since her parents wanted a boy. But that’s no good. That’s not a dream! It’s too sad to be called one. It doesn’t matter what your parents want, don’t make the same mistake I did! Unless you do it for yourself, for your own reasons, then there’s no meaning, is there?”
Carmelia’s hand stopped.
“...As I thought, this is distracting.”
The restaurant called Halio wasn’t a place for kings by any means. It was probably better described as a little bistro and that was being lenient. A cramped little place with barely a dozen seats, it had no other customers whatsoever at this point of the day. The floor was scraped and dirty. Dust and cobwebs gathered on the old, yellow-red glass lanterns hanging from the ceiling.
Ignoring the absence of top-class customer service, announcements, and fanfares, the Emperor took seat at a tiny table by the window. The Imperial counselors should have been horrified by this sudden whim of his, but none were presently there to advise against it. The driver of the carriage remained where he sat, without an opinion or the right to voice it. The hero Bramms as well merely took position by the front door, facing the street like a bouncer, to see to it that his majesty’s lunch hour wasn’t needlessly disturbed. And Yuliana, not knowing what else to do, took the chair opposite of the sovereign, at his urgent beckoning.
“The house special for two, please!” the Emperor called out to a short, bald, withered old man behind the counter, who simply nodded without a word and disappeared into the kitchen in the next room.
Then they waited, listening to the sound of cast iron pans and utensils.
“What a beautiful day indeed,” his majesty said, gazing out of the window.
Yuliana kept quiet.
The distance between them was a great deal shorter than at breakfast times, but it didn’t help her understand his thoughts any better. Never would she have imagined that a man of his rank would do such a thing, all out of the blue. How carefree and relaxed was his countenance too, it was like he had become a different person entirely. Was this part of some bizarre strategy to win her trust? Or had he been sincere in claiming he wanted to spend the day free of all politics and state affairs? No, that couldn’t possibly be right. No one in his position could be so reckless as to forget what was at stake, even for one day.
The world could end in less than a year...Every single hour mattered.
“Ah, there it comes!”
As Yuliana was still absorbed in these dark thoughts, their meal was brought to the table. Two large plates were placed between them, bearing dishes the likes of which the princess had never seen before. She knew crude army food, as well as the most high-class courses prepared by masters of man-made cuisine, domestic and foreign, but the food she now faced made her forget all else.
There was something like a large, flat bread, circular and folded in two, with a variety of vegetables, both fresh and briefly cooked, slices of grilled meat, and thick sauce stuffed inside. So generous was the filling that it partly poured out. The spicy, rich scent made Yuliana's stomach recall how empty it was, at once releasing a weak howl.
With boyish excitement on his face, the Emperor seized his fork and knife without delay.
“Oh, don’t wait for my permission,” he said and dug in.
His manners were far removed from the etiquette of the royal tables, as he sawed off one large piece at a time, and hungrily stuffed them into his mouth, chewing with a look as if he hadn't seen real food for weeks.
With far more reservation, Yuliana followed suit.
“Hm…?” Taking a bite, she began to understand his majesty's enthusiasm.
She tasted thin-sliced Contagio cabbage, fresh Param salad, ripe cherry tomatoes, and fried onion—perfectly sauteed, strongly flavored cuts of Honlan beef, with a most delicious sauce blending an unknown, bold, yet irresistible mixture of spices. Everything was brought together by the crisp-baked bread, warm and fluffy inside, tasty enough to eat by itself.
For a time, they were too immersed in dining to pay attention to anything else.
It was only after clearing the whole plate that Yuliana set aside her utensils, wiped her mouth with a napkin, and raised her face.
“Anything else?” the grim chef barked as he came to pick up the dishes. By this point, even the princess had forgiven his poor manners.
“Just water, please,” she ordered.
“An ale for me, master,” the Emperor requested.
Nodding, the chef disappeared into the kitchen once more.
“Well?” his majesty asked the princess. “Was the food to your liking?”
“It certainly was a novel experience,” Yuliana modestly answered. “How did you ever come across such a place, anyway?”
“It wasn’t always quail eggs and white wine for me. Before my...ascension, I was used to considerably more rustic flavors.”
“Somehow, that’s very difficult to picture.”
“There is a lot about me that you don’t know yet,” he told her. “A lot I don’t know about yourself. And it is to mend this that we’re here today. Perhaps shared experiences like this will help us discover something that neither of us would be able to see alone.”
“Well, that is the first of your proposals I am not entirely opposed to,” Yuliana said.
“It’s a start then.”
The two spent some time in silence, savoring the after meal drinks delivered, as well as the rare, stress-free moment in their otherwise heavy lives. Then, halfway through his ale, the Emperor suddenly spoke up again in a contemplative tone,
“Survival of the fittest, the law of nature...Do you think life everywhere adheres to this cruel principle? That only the strong and ruthless may prevail? That the part of the kind and delicate is only to suffer and perish? If so, then why were we people ever given conscience? Why do we have the freedom to hope otherwise, to imagine we could rebel against a rule so dominant and ever present, and aspire in vain for better?”
Yuliana thought for a moment.
“I suppose the answer boils down to one’s definition of strength,” she said. “Where one person sees cruelty and ruthlessness as the most efficient course of action, another might see harmony among the like-minded as such. It is said that strength isolates, while kindness and empathy brings people together. The leader of a country so used to warfare should know that many together are more powerful than any one alone.”
“Perhaps. Yet it is hardly compassion alone that assembles and drives armies. It is either fear or lies. Fear of what happens, should the enemy win. Lies which convince one that his cause is superior to that of the others, that the others are less human than he is, even whilst assured that all life is meant to be equal.”
“Is there something you’re trying to say with this, or are you simply taken by the message of nihilism in general?”
“I suppose you could say that I have expectations.”
“Expectations?” Yuliana repeated. “For who.”
“Yourself, naturally,” he nodded. “Yes, it wouldn’t be wrong to say I am depending on you, your highness. To come up with an answer that I am powerless to find on my own. To convince us all that your sense of justice is superior to my own. Because it is certainly more beautiful than anything I have in my mind.”
“So you’re testing me again? Is that it?”
The Emperor turned his ale glass in his grip.
“We are all being tested, each day. But that isn’t what I wanted to say. Let’s see. Since we have some time now, allow me to tell you a little story, to illustrate my dilemma.”
Unsure of where all this was going, Yuliana remained quiet and listened with caution. But the Emperor, with an almost exaggeratedly carefree air, didn’t mind her suspicious look, and spoke,
“I once heard this tale of a man from a land far, far away. That land was supposedly the very image of hope and peace. A place without knights or kings, without evil creatures or Divines, where everyone from peasant to noble was deemed equal. Everyone shared the equal chance to rise to prosperity through honest effort, independent of their origins. Those people lived in a magical time when it seemed their possibilities were limitless, and that nothing could stop their growth. Indeed, they believed they could one day soon reach even the stars themselves. And this man I’m talking about was no different. Each day, he gave his all to be part of the success story, working to bring food and security to his family, his wife and daughter, all the while adding to the wealth of his people as a whole. And, who knows, to maybe one day show his loved ones a future brighter than they could imagine.”
“It sounds like a good country to live in,” Yuliana commented.
“The best. Ah, everyone thought the same, I’m sure,” the Emperor nodded. “However, this golden age did not last forever. One day, all too soon, the people of that land awoke to see their dream of liberty mercilessly crushed. Can you imagine how or why?”
“I suppose they fell victim to forces that coveted their prosperity?” the princess suggested after brief thought. “They enjoyed such peace that it lulled them under a false sense of security, and they forgot to prepare against outside enemies. This man you describe no doubt ended up losing his family to the terrors of war, which he had grown powerless to resist. And furthermore, I reckon the message you’re going for is about how harmony makes one weak against adversity? Am I correct?”
“No, no, not at all. You would be sorely mistaken there,” the man shook his head.
Yuliana twisted her face, puzzled.
“They weren’t weak by any means and no enemy dared dream of attacking this country,” the Emperor told her. “No tragic disaster claimed the man’s family either. And yet, he nevertheless lost everything, as did countless others like him. Ah, perhaps this is a matter too difficult for one born into prosperity to grasp.”
“Then keep me in suspense no longer. I admit I can’t see the answer.”
“The reason was so simple, yet beyond anyone’s ability to foresee at the time. The people lost their wealth—simply because they lost their faith in it.”
“That’s correct. ‘We are doing so well right now, this cannot continue forever’—deep in their heart, everyone in that country felt the same. They each started to take measures to prepare for the inevitable crash, and in doing so, inadvertently caused it to happen. The land’s currency lost value overnight. People hurried to trade away their investments and property, to minimize their losses, which devalued the fortune they’d amassed all the same. Such are the laws of supply and demand. The value of countless products plummeted, as no one could afford them, leading now unprofitable enterprises to fire their needless employees. Not that the workers had any purpose doing their jobs either, as their salaries had lost all worth. Farms were shut down due to no one buying their products, leading to a mass shortage of food. Simply put, a dreadful chain reaction brought down everything that had made the land once great. Besides their work and property, many lost their hope for the future altogether and ended up taking their own lives.”
“That’s...terrible,” Yuliana whispered.
“The man of our tale couldn’t escape, of course. After losing his job, he lost his home, which he had taken a great debt to buy, and even giving up everything else he owned could not begin to pay it back. His family left him as well. Another man came around and offered his wife a more stable future; she didn’t think twice to take it, for the sake of their children. Powerless, the man watched everyone he loved drift away. There was no evil enemy to fight. Not monstrosity to swear undying vengeance against. Only cold, harsh numbers, illustrating the man’s own stupidity, the folly of his dreams.”
“What happened to him then?”
“He died, homeless and starved.” The Emperor shrugged. “He was a pawn to a fate he could never rise above. What could have saved such a man? His empathy and kindness could not. Should he have been more ruthless and calculating then? Had he killed his emotions, severed his bonds with his family before they could do the same to him, he might still be alive. Had he possessed the greed and ambition of his rivals, had he climbed to a position of leadership at his company, perhaps he could have somehow weathered the collapse? In a situation where man finds himself alone, where everyone shares his plight, who else can he count on but himself to pull through? You were correct in your assessment after all, on his part; peace and success had rendered him soft, unarmed to oppose his competitors.”
The Emperor fell silent, setting down his now empty glass.
Yuliana didn’t immediately answer him, but looked away. There was no way she could leave the tale at that. She couldn’t accept such a bleak conclusion.
“No,” she finally shook her head. “That may be true, in a sense, but there’s no way anyone with a human heart could blame that man for not resorting to evil. His hopes and dreams were exploited, but that doesn’t mean they were mistaken. The fault lies with those who took advantage of him, and those who turned a blind eye to his struggle. It’s because his land didn’t have knights to defend basic rights that it fell to ruin. It’s because they lacked a wise king to foresee and prevent this crisis, and judge those who benefited of it. That land didn’t go through a golden age, after all; they were only unaware of the evil they had built their wealth upon, until it was already too late. It is to prevent such tragedies that we must choose wisely. Not rule over people—but together with them. Choose with reason, but also with kindness. Kindness, like that of the man. Yes. I believe that man would have made a far better king than any of those calculating pragmatists, who made it through the crash at the cost of the livelihood of others.”
The Emperor said nothing. He had the strangest look on his face, which he hurried to hide by looking out of the window again. Knowing he couldn’t escape Yuliana’s perceptive gaze so easily, he absentmindedly got up from his seat, dug out a few gold coins from his pocket and left them on the table.
“We should be going,” he mumbled and headed out.
Her confusion hardly lessened, Yuliana rose as well and followed after the man, back to the sunlit street outside the restaurant.
Really, what’s the matter with him today?