Author's note: Apparently, Reinhard never told Felt a damn thing about her possible ancestry, so I thought it would be fun to write a story where she pieces things together herself and takes action.
While this story will eventually line up with the events of the main series, I've decided to take my own route getting there. Hope you find the result interesting.
A Queen from Zero
White walls and chandelier lights.
Those were the first things Felt saw when she woke up.
"Huh… where am I…?"
She tried to move, only to discover that her body was being weighed down by something thick and soft. It wasn't an unpleasant feeling at all. When Felt cast her eyes down to her body, she saw that she was covered in an enormous, creamy white blanket, the sort that could only exist in some rich snob's house.
"I'm glad you're finally awake," said a voice to her left.
"Huh…?" Felt said groggily as she turned her head towards the source of the voice.
The first thing she saw was red. Vivid red hair, the colour of blood.
Has someone been hurt? was Felt's first thought. Suddenly, her heart began to pound unbearably. Had something happened to Old Man Rom? Oh no. Oh no…
"How are you feeling?" said the voice, interrupting her panicked thoughts. "You suffered some injuries…"
The owner of the voice was sitting on a chair beside the bed, peering down at her with rather piercing blue eyes. His tone, however, was gentle.
Felt got the vague impression that she recognised him…
Mr. Redhead must have noticed the confusion on Felt's face, because he said, "My apologies, I have not introduced myself properly yet. My name is Reinhard. I am a member of the Royal Guard."
It was then that Felt finally started to remember what had happened the night before.
The insignia. The weird boy who came to the shop. The scary lady in black. The brutal battle in the darkness.
And finally, this man in white, who had appeared out of nowhere to save the day.
Relief began to flood into her chest.
"So you're Reinhard?" Felt sat up in the bed and peered at the guy closely.
She hadn't been able to get a proper look at him earlier because it had been all dark in the shop, but there was no mistaking the white uniform he was wearing. He was definitely a member of the Royal Guard.
"You saved me, huh…"
"I was just passing by," said Reinhard with an easy-going smile. For all his status, he seemed like a friendly enough guy.
Despite her lingering grogginess, Felt couldn't help but grin back at him.
"Still, you helped me out in a pinch, so I guess I owe you a big one. Thanks a bunch, Reinhard!"
Little did Felt know that her goodwill would not last very long.
Things were all right at first, mostly because the food was really, really good. Not only were there servants at her every beck and call, the dining table was stacked with plates of mouth-watering dishes Felt had never tasted before. Always one to make the best of whatever life served her, Felt kept cramming plateful after plateful into her mouth. She'd never had a meal this good in her life, ever. A part of her wondered if she'd ever have a meal this good again. Rich people had it impossibly good.
As Felt gobbled down her sixth helping, she noticed Reinhard watching her across the table with a smile. He ate very properly, with a knife and fork and all that. Felt didn't bother with any of that stuff. It took too long to get the food into her mouth.
"What are you lookin' at?" she asked Reinhard once she had finished swallowing.
"The more I look at you," said Reinhard as he dabbed his mouth with a napkin, "the more I am certain that you are the one. It must have been fate that led me to encounter you."
"You're a weird guy," said Felt. "Didn't know you were into that palm-reading stuff."
"I know that it is deeply impolite of me to ask this, but it is very important. Do you have any memories of your parents? Of a life outside the slums?"
All of a sudden, Reinhard was looking at her very seriously. Felt blinked. Nobody had ever looked at her like that before. Her heart started pounding a little faster.
Right. This guy didn't bring me here for no reason …
"You think I stole something from you? I already returned that insignia." Felt met his gaze straight on. "If I stole something from you, I'd remember it."
Felt never stole something without reason. She might be a thief, but she had her honour. She could tell just by looking at this Reinhard guy that he knew a little something about honour as well.
He met her gaze unswervingly, and before long his lips turned up into a smile.
"Rest assured. I am not accusing you of anything. If you are who I think you are, then it is my sworn duty to protect you with my life."
"You really are a weird guy," muttered Felt.
She didn't sense any danger or hostility from Reinhard. In fact, as weird and as out of the blue as his declaration was, she got the impression that he was being genuine when he said that he would protect her.
But even so…
Felt had lost her appetite.
"Well, thanks for the free lunch and everything," she said as she pushed her plate away. "If you're not here to arrest me, then I can go home now, right? I need to catch up with Old Man Rom."
Something in Reinhard's eyes flickered.
"I'm afraid I cannot let you do that," he said slowly.
Just as Felt suspected. Even a thief like her knew that there was no such thing as a free lunch. There was no way this guy would simply let her go free, not after he had gone to such lengths to bring her to this place.
And then, for the first time since Reinhard had introduced himself to her, the cold chill of fear touched her heart. For some reason that she could not figure out, this knight—her saviour—was keeping her prisoner.
Felt soon began to take stock of where she was.
Reinhard had taken her to a manor atop a hill overlooking the capital. It was situated inside the inside the district for the nobility. Felt had seen this manor before, although naturally she had never been inside it. If she broke out of this place, then it would be as easy as pie for her to get back to the slums.
The problem was that the manor itself was like a labyrinth. It was filled with long, wide corridors that led to absolutely nowhere. The walls were lined with paintings of stern-looking men and elegant ladies, although they were of no use to Felt at all. Since she couldn't tell any of the people in the portraits apart, she couldn't distinguish between one corridor and another. The only thing that stood out was the opulence that exuded from every nook and cranny.
Felt did not get the opportunity to find her bearings during her first day at the manor. After the meal, Reinhard insisted that she stay in bed to recover from her injuries. Felt did try to climb down the balcony as soon as he was out of earshot, but, well, that didn't end too great. As soon as she put her foot against the brick wall, her leg twinged in pain and she almost fell twenty metres onto a stone-paved footpath. She only survived because, well…
"I see you have some rather dangerous hobbies, Lady Felt."
Although Felt's feet were touching nothing but air, her arm was being held by a firm and comforting hand.
"How the heck did you get here?" Felt demanded.
"I was just passing by," said Reinhard with a smile.
Like heck he was! He must have been standing outside her door like a groupie.
Felt scowled, but only said, "Pull me up already!"
"Of course, my lady."
He pulled her back onto the balcony smoothly. When both of Felt's feet hit solid ground, she stumbled and almost fell to her knees. Reinhard kept her steady.
"Do you need a hand?" he asked in what he probably thought was a cheerful and helpful tone. "Shall I take you to bed?"
Felt's face instantly turned red.
"W-what?! No! I can take myself! And you stay out of my bed!"
"Hm? I don't quite understand what you are saying. Do you have a fever now too? Oh dear, you really must get some rest."
"Aaaaargh! Shut up! Are you always like this?!"
In the end, Felt did get into the bed, though, which was probably for the best when all was said and done. The fight against the scary lady had taken more out of her than she had expected. But still, Felt could not say that she enjoyed being stuck in bed with nothing to do but twiddle her thumbs.
Perhaps because he had noticed her restlessness, Reinhard offered to take her around the manor when she felt better. Felt only accepted because she thought that knowing the layout of the place would help her plot her escape better. A part of her had to wonder why he would let her walk around the manor, though. If he was intent upon keeping her prisoner, wouldn't he try to prevent her from moving freely? She couldn't understand that guy.
Maybe was trying to guilt trip her into staying by being so nice to her? The thought crossed her mind. This was the second time he had saved her life now. There was no way she could repay a debt like that, not even if she stuck with him forever. The thought depressed her deeply. She hated the idea of owing somebody; it ate away at the corner of her mind relentlessly.
She shook her head against the bed's velvety pillow and tried to think of something else. Her mind went to Old Man Rom. She hadn't seen him at all since that night. Was he even still kicking? He had been hurt pretty badly in that fight… Please… He had to be okay…
"Damn it…" she heard herself mutter aloud as she gazed up at the unfamiliar ceiling. It really was nothing like the old ramshackle shack she normally slept in.
Felt remembered how as a kid she would lie on her back and count the stars, wondering if the day would ever come when she could sleep with a warm and thick blanket like this. She had scavenged her entire life in the hope that a day like this would eventually come. She had always assumed that if it ever happened, she would be the one providing for Old Man Rom into his retirement. Wasn't that obvious, after all…?
"How are you feeling, Lady Felt?" Reinhard asked her in the morning.
His face was the first thing she saw when she woke up. He was sitting on a chair beside her bed. She wondered if he had been attending her bedside all night. Creep.
"I'm good," said Felt, flexing her arms to demonstrate. "Never been better!"
She had decided that she wouldn't show this guy how much he rattled her. It would only make her the loser.
"That's good to hear," said Reinhard with a gentle smile.
"So we're going for a walk around the manor today, huh? After so much time cooped up in bed, I wanna stretch my legs!"
"Of course," said Reinhard, benevolently.
Felt suddenly had a bad feeling about all of this.
"But first, there is something necessary to be done," Reinhard went on, confirming Felt's suspicions.
"What are you talking about?" she demanded.
"I am talking about your clothes," said Reinhard. "A lady needs proper clothes to wear."
Felt stared at Reinhard.
Reinhard stared at Felt.
"What are you talking about?" Felt demanded for the second time.
"I have arranged to have you fitted in a dress," said Reinhard, as if nothing could be more obvious.
Smile, Felt. If she got pissed off at him, she would lose.
"Oh, really? And when did I give you my permission to do that, Mr. Knight?"
"My apologies. I thought it was something that had to be done sooner or later. Or is it your plan to keep wearing the same clothes...?"
As soon as Reinhard uttered those words, Felt's face burned. Damn it to hell… He had a point. Felt was suddenly self-conscious about her torn and tattered clothes. Next to Reinhard, who was all dressed up in a dashing white outfit that didn't appear to have a speck of dust on it, Felt was utterly dirty.
"I can change my clothes," Felt insisted, puffing out her cheeks. "That means you have to get lost."
"Of course," said Reinhard with a bow. "I have arranged for a female aide to assist you. I hope you find her satisfactory."
As he spoke, the bedroom door opened and a woman dressed in a maid outfit walked in. She was a middle-aged lady whose greying hair was tied into a tight bun. Despite her age, she stood tall and straight. As she walked inside, she pushed up a pair of horn-rimmed glasses in a no-nonsense manner.
"My name is Phyllis. I will be attending to you, Lady Felt."
For some reason, she gave Felt a withering glare as she spoke. Felt wondered if she had done something to the lady to get her underwear in a twist. Well, whatever.
"Now then, I will leave you to your business." Reinhard bowed once again before making his way out the door. He seemed to pay no heed whatsoever to the maid's glowering face or to Felt's equally unimpressed demeanour.
The sound of the door creaking shut filled the room, punctuating the awkward silence that had suddenly fallen.
Once Reinhard had gone, Felt snuck a peek at the maid once again. Phyllis was wearing an expression that could curdle milk. Their eyes met.
"Look at you!" Phyllis said irritably. "Your posture is a disgrace, and the less said about your hair and clothes the better. I don't know how Master Reinhard expects to make you presentable in time. He really did just pluck you off the street, didn't he?"
She said all of this in one breath.
"Er, uh, what?" said Felt.
"Come this way," sniffed Phyllis as she grabbed Felt's arm.
"Oi, geroff me!"
"Have you no manners at all, you impetuous child?!"
"Hey, you just grabbed me without reason. Aren't you the rude one?"
"Quiet. Don't talk back to your elders!"
Felt had suspected it before, but she was absolutely certain of it now. "Have you got something against me? I haven't done anything to you, so what's the big idea?"
"Oh, nothing," said the maid in the kind of tone that suggested that this was a complete lie. "I merely fear the future of this kingdom."
Although Felt waited for her to elaborate, Phyllis didn't say anything more than that.
There was a stilted pause.
"In any case," Phyllis said finally, "it is time to do the measurements. Strip."
"Hey, you can't just boss me ar—"
"You ought to be grateful that you're here. If Master Reinhard hadn't saved you, you would still be out on the streets, rolling around in your own filth. Is that how you really want to live?"
Phyllis's words cut into Felt like a dagger.
Felt opened her mouth, about to retort, and then closed it, dropping her eyes.
Wasn't she the one who had declared that she wasn't like any of those other losers in the slums? That she would become something better one day? She hated those bozos who lay around in the streets without taking any control of their own lives. They were all so defeated, so utterly resigned to their fate. Felt had sworn to herself that she would never be like them.
And now… finally…
"Live strong, huh?" she muttered to herself, so quietly that Phyllis didn't even hear it.
"Well?" said the maid imperiously.
Felt shook her head. It wasn't as if someone like her could understand where those words came from anyway.
Slowly, as if her limbs were weighed down by bricks, she began to take off her clothes.
She shivered as her bare flesh touched the air. All the hairs on her skin stood on end. Felt had never been naked in front of a stranger before, so perhaps that was why she felt sick in the stomach. Vaguely, she wondered if a prostitute ever felt like this when she stripped down to nothing. Felt had done everything she could to avoid having to make that choice. She fought, she stole…
Oblivious to Felt's thoughts, Phyllis said nothing and simply began tying a string around Felt's chest. The movement of her hands was brisk and no-nonsense, as if she had done this a million times before. As if tying a string around Felt's naked chest was a completely mundane thing to do.
Maybe it was mundane.
But even so, Felt's skin began to crawl.
"This won't take long," Phyllis said blandly as Felt squirmed where she stood. "Stay still."
"Don't touch me!"
Felt blinked as soon as the words issued from her mouth. Her voice came out more vehemently than she had intended.
Meanwhile, Phyllis flinched and dropped the string in surprise. As she picked up the string from the floor, she scowled heavily. "I said stay still!"
When Phyllis put her hand on Felt's arm again, Felt's body snapped into action on its own accord, launching a kick that connected squarely with the maid's midriff. The impact left Phyllis reeling. She stumbled back a few steps before stopping and looking back up at Felt, all the while breathing heavily.
If her expression before had been sour, it was downright acidic now.
The maid took a step closer, the string dangling from her tight grasp. In her mind's eye, Felt could see herself being tied down by the string, unable to move an inch from where she stood. She imagined the string closing around her neck, until she was no longer able to breathe.
Felt jumped back, instinctively covering her chest with her arms.
"Stay away! Don't come any closer!" Her voice sounded hoarse and desperate to her own ears. "Stop!"
The door suddenly swung open.
"Lady Felt! Are you all ri—" An awkward pause. "M-my deepest apologies." Reinhard scrunched his eyes shut.
Huh? What's up with him? Felt thought vaguely. Her body was still trembling violently, and for a moment she found it hard to think, or even to breathe.
And then, perhaps five seconds too late, she realised that she was still naked from waist up.
She chucked a vase in Reinhard's general direction. Even though his eyes were still shut, Reinhard caught the vase with one hand and neatly placed it on the nearby shelf.
"This vase is very valuable. Please don't try to break it," he insisted calmly.
Felt chucked another vase at him.
Reinhard caught that one with perfect precision too. How was he capable of doing this with his eyes closed? His battle senses were impeccable.
Come to think of it, if he was that much of a superhuman, he could probably see her naked body with his eyes closed too…
"Aaaaaaaargh!" Felt held her head in her hands and moaned.
Needless to say, Felt was not in a terribly good mood after that.
"I am deeply and utterly ashamed of myself," said Reinhard once Felt was dressed in a loose-fitting gown and Phyllis was out of the room. "No apology can express my remorse."
In the end, Felt's chest never got measured. Once it became clear to Reinhard that Felt did not want anyone—not even another woman—to measure her, he became pensive. It was obvious that he did not know how to broach the subject.
Felt watched him as he continued apologising to her profusely over and over again. Although her heartbeat had slowed down, her body was still on edge, as if ready to spring into flight at any moment. Every nerve in her body was on high alert.
But for some reason, her anger had already faded.
Maybe it was because Felt had never really been the type to hold a grudge for long. Whenever she got mad, she would throw a few punches around, and that would be that. She didn't think about it too hard. Even she had trouble grasping why she had reacted so violently to Phyllis measuring her. It was like her body had gone on autopilot. The more time passed, the less she understood it.
One particular thought, however, was clear to her.
"Why won't you let me go home, Reinhard?" She cut through Reinhard's stream of apologies, gazing at the knight intently.
Reinhard looked up at her from where he was kneeling at her feet. A strained look had come over his face.
It was the first time since she had met him that his perfect, knightly demeanour had so much as even flickered.
"I'm sorry," said Reinhard for the umpteenth time, "but that is one thing… that I cannot do…"
His eyes scrunched shut and his eyebrows creased into a frown.
Felt couldn't tell whether he wanted to let her go or not. She considered herself pretty good at reading people, especially potential customers, but this time she just had no clue.
"Is something tying you down, Reinhard?" Felt couldn't keep the curiosity out of her own voice.
"It is my duty…" Reinhard did not finish the sentence. He just continued to frown uncomfortably.
"Whatever," said Felt with a shrug. "Screw your duty. Just do your own damn thing and let me do mine."
As he listened to those words, Reinhard's frown eased. Then a wry smile came over his face.
"That is not possible, Lady Felt," he said, chuckling.
"Huh? Why not?"
"For one thing, I want to serve you. That is my choice. And for another…" His face clouded over once more. "If I let you go, something more terrible will happen."
"What are you talking about? Sometimes you don't make any sense, Reinhard."
"I apologise." Reinhard lowered his head once again. "I promise that all will be clear in due time."
Silence fell between them. Once again, they had reached an impasse.
And yet something—Felt was unsure what—had changed. Maybe it was something in the air.
"Tell you what," Felt spoke up at length. "This morning, I owed you two big favours. But since you pissed me off a lot today, I only owe you one big favour now. So you don't have to keep apologising to me."
Reinhard looked up at her and blinked in surprise.
"A favour?" he repeated, puzzled.
"You saved my life, remember?" Felt put her hands on her hips and grinned. "I don't forget what I owe people."
"It is my life's duty to serve you to the utmost of my ability. My lady, you owe me no debts."
"I do," Felt answered him firmly. "I do owe you something. One day I'll repay you in full."
They met each other's eyes straight on. Neither she nor Reinhard were the type to look away once they had set their eyes on something.
"But I won't be tied down by you. Not by you, not by anyone. Do you hear me, Reinhard?"
Reinhard blinked a few more times. It was almost cute to see him so momentarily baffled. But soon enough, his mouth settled into his characteristic smile—polite yet undeniably cheerful.
"I hear you loud and clear, Lady Felt."
And thus, Felt continued to plot her escape from Reinhard's clutches.
The balcony, predictably enough, was a no-go. Ever since the time she almost fell off the balcony, guards stood around the path outside. It would be impossible for her to climb down the wall unnoticed, even with her prodigious skill for sneaking around.
Fortunately for Felt, there were times when Reinhard left her alone during the day, probably because he had his Royal Guard duties to attend to. Unfortunately for her, however, she was contently being attended by servants, to the extent that she was never allowed a moment of peace. She was never allowed outside her room without a servant to guide her. They tried to make out that they were being helpful, but she could sense that all the servants were watching her every move carefully. It really pissed her off.
Her access within the manor itself was also heavily restricted. The servants wouldn't let her go inside half the rooms. And the ones they did let her go into were just full of junk anyway. Some rooms only contained rows of mahogany bookshelves, crammed to the brim with thick tomes that looked impossible to extract, while others were dedicated to storing fancy-looking swords and suits of armour. All these rooms were kept impeccably clean, and the equipment was polished with such care that it sparkled in the light. But even then, Felt couldn't help but get the impression that the items weren't there for anyone to actually use.
It only took a few days for her to start feeling stifled by the manor. She never did find any escape routes, no matter how thoroughly she combed what she was allowed to see of the manor. But that wasn't the only reason why the manor felt oppressive. Whenever she walked down the hallways, she thought the people in the portraits followed her with their cold and unfriendly eyes. It was as if those absent nobles were looking down upon her with patrician disdain.
At the same time, Felt couldn't help but let her eyes linger on the paintings as she wandered past. She knew none of the faces or names, but it was like a part of her knew these people from somewhere. Somehow. Perhaps it was because of the way they were drawn, not as caricatures, but like real people who must have lived and breathed the way she did now. This was a house that was made for the dead rather than for the living.
"Who are these people?" she asked the servant following her, a young demi-human girl who seemed to have a habit of tripping over herself constantly.
"These are all members of the Astrea family, past and present," responded the servant with a note of pride in her voice. "If you look, you can see Sir Reinhard in that one."
Felt looked at where the servant was pointing.
The red hair caught her notice first, predictably. It showed a portrait of a solemn-faced boy, probably around seven or eight or so, sitting on a chair and holding up a short sword that still seemed much too big for him. Even at that young age, he was wielding a blade.
"Isn't Sir Reinhard so cool?" Felt heard the servant gush behind her. "He worked so hard since the time he was young, and plus he's the Sword Saint. That's amazing, isn't it?"
"I guess so," said Felt.
She tried to sound nonchalant, but in truth, she was impressed. Not that she would ever say so to him. She could hardly remember what she had been doing at that age. She had always lived on the streets, but that also meant she had always been outside running with the other kids. She couldn't begin to imagine what it would have been like to sit around all day modelling for a portrait. Nor could she imagine what it was like to play with swords instead of sticks at that age. Reinhard had his whole life worked out for him when he was little. No wonder he seemed so sure of himself all the time.
She felt sorry for him, in a way.
At length, she turned her gaze away and let it drift over some of the other portraits. They had to be members of Reinhard's family, although of course she recognised none of them by face or name. It occurred to her that she wasn't just fighting to escape Reinhard—every single one of these people was an enemy of hers. Even the little boy with a sword too big for him to wield.
"Shall we get going now?" asked the servant behind her, a little hesitantly.
"Not yet," said Felt through gritted teeth.
There had to be a clue in here somewhere. If she came to understand Reinhard, then perhaps she would learn why he had abducted her. What was this duty rubbish he kept talking about? What exactly was his duty, anyway?
But unfortunately she couldn't find any recent paintings of Reinhard. The one of him as a boy had to be the most recent. As Felt walked further down the hallway, the paintings started looking distinctly worn around the edges, as if they might have existed for hundreds of years before Felt had stumbled across them.
"Damn," she muttered to herself.
It seemed that there were no clues here after all. Not that Felt should have expected anything useful to begin with, she reminded herself. What use was a painting anyway, other than to sell it? No matter how fancy and expensive everything in this manor was, she knew that she couldn't sell anything if she couldn't escape from this place to begin with.
As that thought occurred to her, she realised that she had reached the end of the hallway. It was a complete dead end. Even so, Felt decided that she would not give up her search. Not ever.
What exactly she was searching for she had no inkling of herself. But somehow she knew that it was desperately important.
It was at that moment her eyes fell on what was perhaps the oldest-looking painting in the entire manor, tucked away in a tiny corner at the very end of the hallway.
A girl. Blonde hair. Crimson red eyes.
Felt came to a complete stop as soon as her eyes fell upon it. She stood frozen to the spot, unable to take her eyes away.
There was no way that she could possibly understand what she saw, and yet from the moment she laid eyes upon it she was somehow conscious that her very existence was being swallowed by something far larger than herself. It was as if she were being pulled through a looking glass and into another world altogether.
All this time, was this what Reinhard had been searching for?
"Who… who is that?"
end part one of three