Once the others had left, I broke the silence.
“So, I’m guessing that we won’t be getting any help from the other nations?”
Katalina’s normally calm face scrunched up from that. She sighed before giving me a blunt answer.
“Claude, asking someone to join us in war is no small favor. Even if they owe us some measure of gratitude, that is more of a personal gesture. They are in no position to simply ask their nation to dive into a war that does not involve them.”
“Plus, they gain nothing by helping. Neither are they the subject of Purnesia’s aggressions. This is, after all, a war stemming from a messy history between Sistina and Purnesia. A grudge in which they have no place butting in,” Cornelius added.
“Yes, we are on our own. And if we do not solve our own problems, then what are we as a kingdom?”
Katalina’s last point made a lot of sense. As annoying as it was, only Sistina’s people had the ability to clean up after their own mistakes in the past. We had no right to draw others into the conflict.
“However, both Koujiro and Kaguya wish to speak with you about other matters… Please give them a call soon,” Katalina said, a slight look of concern appearing on her face.
Likely, it was about the condition of Ludmila. I relayed to Katalina about her deep phobia of guns. Not to mention that I felt a hint of darkness brewing from her. We were hoping that they had some idea on how to deal with it, as the necklaces Saki and I wore seemed to help. However, magic tools couldn’t ease emotional trauma.
“Sure, I’ll get on that right away. It would be best to leave Ludmila with you here in the capital where she is far from the sounds that could trigger her once again. With the barrier and Pietro standing guard, that is the safest option.”
If anything, I wanted to see if some guidance could lessen her fear. Though I didn’t particularly want her out fighting again, there was no doubt that Katalina would have to help out, with Ludmila following along as her protector.
“I’ll be in the lab for the time being. If we want to outsmart Purnesia, then even better inventions are necessary. That is where I can help you all the most.” Katalina walked by, brushing me on the shoulder lightly with her hand. Her eyes seemed almost happy that I wasn’t going to be involved in the fighting yet.
Cornelius rose from her chair and followed after her. As she passed me, her eyes narrowed, and she pointed with her chin to a slightly brooding Eryn.
“Don’t leave before talking to her,” was all she said before exiting.
I stood there stunned for a moment, wondering what could be wrong. The sound of a chair heavily scraping across the floor interrupted me. Eryn got up and trudged for the exit. Recalling Cornelius’s warning, I reached out and gripped her shoulder.
“What’s the matter?”
“Nothing,” Eryn flatly said. Obviously, that was not simply nothing.
“Don’t lie to me. I can tell when you hide your feelings and turn tsundere.”
Her cheek twitched, and she grabbed my hand attached to her shoulder. A sting from her strong grip shot through my palm before she lightened up.
“Are you… are you not going to fight by my side anymore?”
“Eh?! I mean… uh, of course, I will, but- but I think it would be best to use my cooking abilities to protect everyone!”
I was caught off guard by her sudden question, but it seemed the most logical to grant everyone buffs. With my snacks on the field, everyone would benefit from strong boosts at the most critical moments. It would certainly cause a larger impact than a lone Electi tearing through enemies with amateur fighting skills. I could down virtually any opponent with a critical, but that was a drop in the bucket for any battle unless it was someone important.
“Besides, didn’t we agree that Saki would be a better guard for you at this time? That girl would tear the ground asunder and bury them alive for your sake.”
“That’s not-“ Eryn shouted but cut off her sentence. A flash of anger crossed her cheeks, eyes questioning my cowardice. But then, she turned away, realizing that was just how I was at times.
I watched her fidget, unsure of what else to say. It took a few moments for her to turn back.
“I-It’s just… as if you were avoiding me….” If Eryn’s statement hadn’t confused me so much, I would’ve given her a hug in that rare moment of timidness that was uncharacteristic of her normal self.
“Avoiding you? Why?”
“Because! Cornelius told me how you reacted after… I, uh… burned… through the army.”
The sight of half-charred corpses was unearthed from my memories. Immediately, I felt a chill run down my spine, which hardly went unnoticed.
“See! Just the thought of it unnerves you! And being that I was the one that did that… I got worried. Worried that you were using that cooking as an excuse to make distance from me…”
“That’s not true!” I immediately responded, but she pointed a finger straight into my face.
“Is it not? When was the last time we did anything together, without ‘duties’ and ‘excuses’ getting between us? I know that we each have our respected duties, but we are Master and Servant after all. But time and time again, you run off and do your own thing.”
I reached out to grab her hand, wrapping my fingers first around her pointer finger and then cupping her hand in my palm. A noticeable tremble knocked against my grasp.
“I just want… I just wanted you to be there. Even if you’re only hanging around in the back, knowing that you’re somewhere close by makes the battlefield less lonely. Knowing that I have something to protect drives me more than any gimmick that I could take with me to battle!”
Eryn looked up, slightly misty-eyed. Suddenly, I wanted to smack myself for the thoughts I had not long ago. I realized that Eryn’s fighting slightly scared me, so I had likely come off as cold and cautious of her.
‘But just what the hell am I scared about? She’s doing it for your sake, you big dumbass!’
At that moment, I pulled her body towards me. A splash of tears dribbled onto my face as my lips pressed against hers. I felt a quiver of resistance before it melted away, letting me dive deeper. More tears rolled down her cheeks and smeared against mine as our heads moved to and fro. Slowly, her arms snaked around my back as she forced her lips against mine – harder, fiercer, like she had waited for ages.
When the intensity had finally subsided, I realized that I needed to gasp for air. Also, there was an immediate urge to sit down before I could tip over. Instead, I ended up leaning into Eryn, my head resting against the side of her head to ease the vertigo. A tiny voice whispered into my ear.
“You won’t keep me waiting, will you? Too many things keep happening. I was afraid that we would never get anywhere… that you would leave me behind.”
“I’ll try to hurry. As soon as I get the other chefs up and running, I head to you with my knives drawn.”
Eryn pulled back from me and smiled. “Okay. I’ll hold out until then.” As she stepped away, she fingered the hilt of Radiant Light, her mother’s sword. With a swift spin on the balls of her feet, a few graceful steps led her out the door.
Not feeling any rush to move, I slowly left the room as well. The taste of her lips lingered on the tip of my tongue. However, I nearly had a heart attack when I saw Katalina standing just outside.
“Gah! K-Katalina, what are you-“
“Spying on you,” she replied nonchalantly, pointing to the small portal next to her that she used as a viewing port into the room.
My heart thundered in my chest as I fought for some excuse. But, Katalina simply reached over and placed a finger on my lips.
“Yes, I saw everything. And no, I’m not mad. This was not outside of my expectations.”
“B-But, but I-“
“Oh, be quiet while your queen is speaking!”
Katalina grabbed both sides of my face and planted her lips onto mine. Unlike the fierce kiss I had before, hers was a gentle peck that tickled the entrance to my mouth. Seeing that I was frozen, she sighed and placed her head on my collarbone.
“You’re probably thinking that I’m being foolish. And logic dictates that to be the case as well. But reason doesn’t solve everything. I want to be with you. As does Miss Faulkner. So I won’t back down. I know that your heart is in the right place, so I trust you.” Katalina looked up at me with a smile. “Do your best for the both of us, okay?”
With that, she stepped back and casually walked toward her lab. I was left there speechless. The only thing left for me to do was to turn around and smack my head against the wall a few times.
Of course, my head banging was considered an attack, so it did nothing to the wall. Neither did my head feel anything more than a stiff recoil.
I could feel another voice within me dance around with celebratory fans, but I had too many worries on my mind to do something about it. I honestly wasn’t sure whether to celebrate with it or kick its ass.
Rather, I robotically moved to an empty room before pulling out the long-range communicator in my possession. Hitting a few buttons on it, a pulse of blue emitted before I sat in a chair and waited.
“Yo, it’s Koujiro!”
“Heyo, Koujiro. Did you get the message about the charms?”
“Ah, yes. Your Queenie asked before, but we can spare a couple more of them. But just to let you know, don’t let the miasma get too wild. Because there’s a limit to how much can be siphoned out.”
Apparently, the charms worked using a small resonance stone that connected the user to the holy shrine located in the Isles of Macali. The stone could only draw out and transfer a certain amount of miasma to be cleansed, so it couldn’t resist a full-blown demonic transformation.
“Too much miasma, and I’ll have to come hunt you down with my EXCALIBURRRRR!”
“Excalibur, my ass. I know you have a holy sword, but wasn’t it just called plain, old ‘Holy Sword’?”
“Don’t burst my bubble, will ya? If that’s all, I have bottle duty with the midgets now. I’ll pass the charms off to the next ship heading out.”
I bid him goodbye and cut off the communication, chuckling at how he could go from ‘chuuni’ to a responsible father so quickly. Waiting a moment for the stone to shut off, I pressed another set of buttons which pinged someone else.
“Lady Kaguya, I believe you heard from Katalina about Ludmila’s situation?”
“Yes, Chancellor Claude. I may have a solution, but unfortunately, I cannot be there to administer it.”
“One of your Oracle abilities, I take it?”
“That is correct. Just like how I was able to dive into your mind, the same can be done for Ludmila. Searching and understanding the source of her darkness may provide a clue on controlling it. However, I simply cannot leave Sanshiro, especially with Sistina in its current state.”
I recalled how we traveled through memory lane, where I had discovered my alternate past. Frankly, that was the easiest way to find the source of her phobia.
“That’s understandable. But what can be done then?”
“Having her come here would be best, but I have a feeling that she won’t respond positively unless you accompany her. You are her lifeline, if you haven’t noticed.”
“Her lifeline? Why would that matter?”
“Her subconscious is unlikely to let those untrustworthy to pry into it. For that reason, not having you there would simply be a struggle to delve into her. But you hardly have the time to spare, so the other alternative is to train someone else in the ritual.”
I pondered for a moment about that.
“Wait, I trusted you enough for such things? Or am I just that easy?” I heard a light chuckle in response.
“Hmm, certainly, it seemed like you let your guard down when I laid your head in my lap. The gentle touch of a mature lady is a useful technique at times.”
I choked on my breath at that statement. Apparently, she simply needed to touch me to look into my mind. Certainly, she made me feel close enough to her at that moment that I couldn’t put up any barriers. But then…
“Wait, that obviously won’t work on Ludmila, so what then? Do you mean that someone close to her has to go through the training?”
It didn’t seem like the skills of an Oracle were that easily passed on. Unless she had someone in mind already. “Wait, do you mean…”
“Why, the young Miss Chrysanthemum, of course. From what I hear, she already possesses an affinity for the Gods through song. That should make things easy. A little practice and some lyrical memorization should do the trick. Though I make it sound simple, connecting to divinity through song is no doubt a difficult venture. To have such talent already is a blessing. Besides, it would be best for the two young ones to return while your kingdom is in turmoil.”
I agreed with her statement. Though Chrys would be quite helpful with her own mana-infused cooking, she and Yi Long were residents of Sanshiro, so they really shouldn’t get involved.
She planned to help out with training the chefs, but it was settled that the two would head back right after. Especially since her special stat didn’t correspond to fighting, Chrys was an Electi that could be exploited if the enemy knew about her. And there was no reason to leave her in potential harm’s path.
After finishing up the arrangements, I bid goodbye to Kaguya as well. Silence filled the room for a few minutes as I sorted through my thoughts.
War tactics, relationships, trauma – various things swirled in my head as I tried my best to manage them somehow. I drew my knife and stared at my own reflection on its shiny blade.
I was Claude, the Electi of Critical, and the Chancellor of Sistina; there were plenty of people that depended on me, but there were only so many things I could do.
For now, making stat-enhancing food was the first priority.