The air was oppressive, just to say the least.
It was like some kind of unseen and pervasive demon was clouding the air with a morbid sorrow that stood in stark contrast to the jubilation of the ignorant.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
The only noise echoing in the room was Elaine incessantly tapping her index finger against crossed forearms, her posture hunched, lips pursed. There was no cheer in her eyes, nor accusation, just emptiness. No one knew what she was thinking, but at the very least, she wasn't alone.
Apart from her, were Chouri, the members of Night Raid, and Selka whom were trusted to keep current sensitive information under wraps. In this regard, Sheele was regrettably excluded due to her low contact with Shirou. It didn't matter to Elaine if other members of Night Raid could vouch for Sheele, she was just too wary to care.
Not a single smile could be seen anywhere within the group.
There was a small rectangular table set up at the room's center. Chouri and Elaine sat on one far end, while Najenda sat alone on the other. The adjacent sides were occupied by Bulat and Lubbock, while the rest were either too restless to sit, or were just too on edge and didn't want to be beside others.
This was the case for Selka, Akame, and Mine.
Selka stood on the far side of the room, head tilted up at the roof, and gaze staring up into space, unmindful that her ponytail had come undone during the prior battle. Her demeanor was subdued, her frustration evident as she refused to meet anyone's eyes. She feared that she'd likely snarl and snap at them.
Mine was a tad different, meticulously working on her Teigu's maintenance. However, it was brush work at most. A façade that concealed her tightened lips and clenched jaw, at the sudden turn of developments. She may not have had much interaction with Shirou, but what he represented, and what she saw in the light he wielded had moved her as much as it did everyone. She pictured a utopia. A better society, a better place where it was okay not to lie, and to simply live happy. To think that it was gone after revealing a glimpse of hope, it was maddening. She gnashed her teeth, and turned her back to the oppressiveness in the room, waiting to get this over with.
As for Akame, she was on the opposite side of Selka nearest to the room's entrance. The only reason she was here, and not out searching for clues about Esdeath's camp, was Najenda's insistence that she wasn't in fit condition for it.
Leone was the only one presently missing, and the reason for Elaine's impatient tapping while waiting for her to return.
Soon enough, the click of a door's knob turning got everyone to glance in the direction of the room's entrance.
Leone stepped inside, closed the door behind her, and leaned her back by the door, her hands wringing by her side to mask her fidgeting. Her jaw was set, lips pressed together before she took in a shuddering breath.
"Well?" Najenda called out, breaking the silence.
"Delegates that defected from the Revolutionary and Empire Army are eagerly requesting to meet with Shirou," Leone reported in monotone. An air of solemnity took away from her general cheer, leaving behind only wariness and a contrite sense of loss. "I sent them away, but I don't know how much longer we can keep them in the dark."
"With their level of enthusiasm, we can delay it for at least a month or two by stating that the new Emperor returned to Calla to bolster his base of foundations and gather supplies," Chouri reasoned, head bowed in thought, complexion haggard from stress.
"That's not a solution though," Mine shook her head and glared, eyes squinting accusingly from where she sat on top of a few supply crates.
"Solutions never come easy."
"But they're preventable," Mine's tone grew sharper.
"Not this one," Chouri maintained his calm, irking Mine more than she let on.
Pumpkin was roughly placed down by Mine's side, the clang of metal echoing in the solemn air. "Maybe if we stuck to plan! Maybe if some former minster didn't goad the new Emperor into being a naïve optimist in a country full of conniving bastards, we wouldn't be in this-"
"Mine," Najenda cut in, her eyes squeezing shut, nose crinkling while taking in a deep calming breath.
"Consideration," Najenda hinted, subtly gesturing towards a rather despondent Akame, knees pulled up to her chest, and hands clasped over her head at another isolated part of the room.
If they were choosing people to blame, then Mine knew her words were hypocritical when it wasn't Chouri who allowed Shirou's capture. However, no one dared broach this topic, Mine included, albeit, Mine's outburst was more from frayed nerves than her own rationale.
Rather than blame Akame, Mine would rather nitpick certain faults with Chouri. However, even if the words weren't directed at Akame, it didn't mean they couldn't evoke a reaction from her.
Najenda could take the criticism at her failure to keep Shirou guarded, but Mine's words were uncalled for in this situation.
A lump formed in Akame's throat before she shifted her position, and drew further in on herself.
A flicker of guilt crossed Mine's eyes, before she rubbed her nose and bowed her head away. "Sorry," she mumbled at Chouri, biting on her bottom lip in frustration.
"No offence taken, young lady. We're all rather high-strung, and wary of what may come next," Chouri replied evenly, maintaining an open mind as the senior-most person in attendance.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
The sound of Elaine's finger tapping over her forearm continued, a far off look in her eyes. It was as if she hadn't even noticed Leone's return, and the realization was rather depressing in its own right.
"Young lady," Chouri nudged Elaine on the shoulder, her eyes blinking owlishly before she froze and stared at him with wide eyes.
"…My apologies," she whispered, bottom lip jutted out. She pushed up her glasses, and acted busy, her small back straightening. "Ah, Leone's back. Let's continue, shall we?"
Elaine wasn't fooling anyone, but no one chose to call her out on it.
Lubbock grimaced, pushing his back against the chair he was seated on, and scratching at his head in annoyance. He noticed Najenda signalling towards him, and immediately understood enough to know what was being asked of him.
"That's right. Leone sent away those nosy guests, and Chouri said something about stalling. Sorry, I wasn't paying that much attention," Lubbock reiterated, coughing into his hand in reminder.
Elaine quickly caught up to speed. "I see." She raised her chin up and adjusted her glasses again. "Please do remain more attentive Mr. Lubbock."
"Right," Lubbock drawled flatly. There was irony here, but he held back the edge to snort, as he could feel Najenda kicking his leg from under the table. "I'll work on it."
"The fact that Shirou's status hasn't been reported by the Empire troops is quite odd," Chouri mused, a hand brushing over his beard. "From what I know of general Esdeath, she isn't the merciful sort. If she were following Honest 's modus operandi, why would she capture Shirou rather than kill him?"
"Ransom?" Leone proposed.
"Impossible. Large as our forces have become, our financial powers don't rival that of the Empire's treasury in the least. I'm not sure of Calla's situation, but I reckon that even secret organizations out in the woods are unlikely to posses any substantial stores of wealth."
"The Child Emperor is the best candidate. Why bother with a new one?"
"Well, didn't the current emperor say he wanted to abdicate?" Bulat raised a hand and interjected.
"Honest isn't a fool. He'd never let that procedure carry out." Chouri denied again before halting the rest from providing their interpretations and insights. Instead, he glanced to Najenda. "Any thoughts for your former war colleague's actions?"
Najenda hummed, feeling the weight of everyone's stares converging onto her. Forcing a wry smile, she shook her head ruefully. "If you think I actually have a good grasp of that woman's character, then you're wrong. One moment you're both comrades-in-arms, joking with each other and sharing a relatively stable relation, and then in the next, she's gouging your eye out and lopping an arm off without hesitation. She's a complicated woman with her own circumstances, but she's a monster you never want to be in direct sight of."
"No no, that's not what I meant. I mean, did she say or do anything differently from what you recall in your army days?" Chouri clarified.
Najenda cupped her chin, but quickly understood the oddities Esdeath presented in their first encounter in years, and perked up.
"So, there is something," Chouri ascertained from Najenda's reaction.
"I wouldn't call it that," Najenda scowled while waving her hand off dismissively, but Chouri was insistent.
"What Esdeath said and how she acted could prove vital to finding any clues, especially motive."
Najenda's features scrunched up into an odd cringe.
"Please hurry with it."
"A general's voice shouldn't be that low," Chouri admonished.
"Darling, dammit. She called Shirou her darling!" Najenda snapped sheepishly in a fluster, throwing her hands into the air.
Off to the side, Akame's features chilled at the reminder, hands gripping the hilt of her sword. The rest were left speechless.
"See? What's the point in trying to understand what's going through that woman's mind?" Najenda pinched the bridge of her nose. "She's crazy."
"Or she could be in love?" Lubbock joked, trying to ease the tension. "Think about it. What if instead of worrying about his death, we should be worrying about his chastity and any new sudden heirs to the thr-"
The grating of metal rubbing against its sheath sounded from more than a single corner of the room, a sense of danger cutting Lubbock's words off. He swallowed, and meekly shrank into his seat. "Hehe, or I could just be joking. Yeah, I'm just kidding."
"Perhaps you misheard," Chouri offered an out. "High stress and fatigue certainly lead to moments of obscure recollection."
Najenda frowned, knowing her own mental discipline, but she didn't argue. Lubbock's point was just too ridiculous to be true in the first place. There had to be some other reason that they weren't seeing here.
"In any case, it doesn't change that Shirou is in the hands of the most dangerous general of the Empire. What we need now, is a plan rather than wild speculation," Elaine spoke up.
Chouri agreed, but felt the need to at least try to address the issue that everyone was avoiding, including himself.
"In the case that the worst comes to pass-"
"He's not dead." Akame spoke up from across the room, haggard features glinting with fury at the insinuation.
Chouri shut his mouth, lips suddenly dry. "I-"
"I don't want to hear it."
"Uhm, Akame, maybe we should..." Lubbock trailed off just as he began.
"Don't. Test. Me," Akame swallowed, craning her watery gaze towards Lubbock, and daring him to continue walking her thoughts down that miserable path.
"Alright enough! If there are no other plans or points of discussion, then you're free to leave," Najenda adjourned the meeting before things could get out of hand. She gestured towards Chouri and the rest, indicating that they'd talk of this matter in private later.
Chouri nodded calmly, and dropped the issue, but Akame was less composed.
The very moment Najenda said she no longer had to be there, Akame was quick to act and leave. However, she wasn't the only one.
Akame glanced up to stare at devastated eyes. She and Selka had moved simultaneously and bumped each other at the door.
A terse silence stretched between them; the air thick with tension.
Selka met Akame's gaze, pursed her lips, and then swiftly walked out without saying a single word, her features shadowed, shoulders downcast.
Akame froze, rooted in place and biting down on her teeth so hard she could taste the coppery tang of blood. Her hands balled into fists, her nails digging into her palms, ants practically eating at her flesh.
"Akame," Najenda called out, only to shut her mouth when Akame simply left a second later without turning her back to glance at anyone. "Dammit, I told her not to blame herself."
"…Fucking shit," Leone swore at the mess of this all, a hand pressing over her forehead in frustration.
"I doubt those two will be following orders very well," Lubbock pointed out with an 'I hate to say it,' expression, frowning all the same with his feet kicked up over the table with the 'official' meeting concluded.
"As much as emotions can motivate and liven, they can also get the best of us," Chouri sighed, brows knitting together in weary consternation. "Let's give those two some time on their own until they settle down."
"You don't think they won't do anything impulsive, right?"
"No." The room fell quiet, but in the end, it was Elaine who shook her head and gently wiped away at the moisture over her eyes. She wasn't showing it, but having known Shirou for the longest time, of course, she was the one with the most unstable emotional state. "Even with Akame's track record, it's unlikely that they'd be impulsive. They might have if they at least knew where to strike, but without a target, they'll be like headless chickens."
From the tone of Elaine's voice, it was unclear if she was describing Akame and Selka's situation, or that of her own. Regardless, with quivering lips and trembling fingers, she hid her hands away from sight by stuffing them into baggy pockets.
It was only later when everyone slowly filed out and left that she fell on her knees and sobbed.
Esdeath. It was Esdeath of all people who captured Shirou.
Having dabbled in intelligence gathering and espionage skill, she knew full well of Esdeath's mortality rate.
Few could ever survive her clutches.
For the first time in a long time, she felt utterly helpless.
The first thing Shirou noticed upon waking up to find himself in a rather comfortable bed with fluffed feather-stuffed pillows, was that this wasn't the cabin he'd asked Najenda to let him recover in. To begin with, it was too big, and not made of wood at all.
Rolling his eyes, he inspected the moderate furnishing and modest décor around him. Apart from the bed he was lying on, animal-skin rugs padded the floors, and low side-tables with quaint nightstands illuminated the area. Near the center of the room was a fire pit with a small fire flickering to provide a modicum of warmth.
He was in a tent, this much was clear, as sunlight pooled in from the overhead smoke ventilation above, but he couldn't quite link how he'd gotten here.
Grunting, he felt his body groaning in protest. The growing allure of just shutting his eyes and resting some more was quite tempting to say the least, but his intuition was warning that something was very off with his situation.
In any case, he was sore, yet no longer to the point of debilitation. Gingerly, he sat himself up by propping his elbows beneath him at his sides and pushing his hands under him for leverage. Yawning, he stretched before rubbing the sleep out of his eyes with the sides of his fingers.
First, he had to get a grasp of where exactly he was.
From where he was resting, he could hear the sounds of marching footsteps, raucous laughter, and the din of thumping supply crates.
Did Najenda take him back to camp?
It was a logical conclusion, and something he could understand if not for how well he knew Najenda's character. She wouldn't just disregard his opinion without reason.
The image he'd created as a stalwart leader was too hard-fought to be jeopardized for the sake of comfort.
Was it Akame or the others then? Did they intercept Najenda and insist he be taken to camp, or was it just that the members of Calla had already noticed him, leaving no point in keeping up charades?
Regardless of whatever conjecture he could come up with, none of them would prove helpful when a random woman he'd never met before opened the tent flaps, and strolled in.
The person was rather tall for a woman, just half-a-head shorter than him, and he was over six feet. She was slender and buxom, possessing long light-blue hair and eyes that sparkled under the dark grey glow over her head. Her skin was the colour of beautiful porcelain, a tattoo of a tri-pronged wheel adorned over her considerable cleavage.
On her person, she wore a collared white general's garb with long sleeves buttoned on the upper arms and beret cap. A blue scarf was wrapped over her neck, and high-heeled boots adorned her legs to her thighs.
Her sudden entry left Shirou dumbfounded at the unexpectedness of it all while still seated on the bed.
"Shirou was your name, was it?" The woman asked, cheeks turning scarlet, abashed. "That battle just now, it was superb," she complimented.
By battle, Shirou could only assume that it was the one that he'd just participated in. Was it possible that he was really in camp, and this was just someone recently recruited by Elaine? A defector from the Empire or Revolutionary army on the fence on where their loyalties lied? It could explain why the light over her head was gray, someone whose character was between black and white.
"Uh, I'm flattered," he ventured, trying to be polite yet humble. "It wasn't much, and you are?"
"My name is Esdeath." A confident, and breathtaking smile flashed over the woman face. Her lips slightly parted a second later; a twitch formed over her brow when she noticed him not give a single reaction to the name despite it sounding awefully familiar. "General of the Empire's forces," she finished sheepishly.
Shirou blinked, rubbing at his ears and wondering if he'd just misheard.
Then it all came to him about where he'd heard the name 'Esdeath,' from.
It was the name of the person even Najenda had warned him was the most dangerous adversary of the Empire.
He was doing his best to stifle the rising panic inside him. However, the impending realization that he was out of Danger Beast bones, and was potentially alone deep within enemy lines had him sweating inwardly. He couldn't even understand why he hadn't been killed yet. It would have been easy in his prior state of unconsciousness.
Outwardly, he didn't give anything away, but was too caught up in thought to notice when Esdeath stepped closer to him until they were practically face to face.
A delicate face, innocent in its inexperience in romance, ended up less than a few centimeters in front of him. Bashful eyes looked upon him through long lashes, the ardent red of her cheeks giving her a shy demeanor despite her reputation.
"From now on," she whispered as a clicking noise echoed by his ear. "You'll belong to me, my darling."
Glancing down at the chocker placed over his neck, Shirou was suddenly snapped out of his stupor.
"Hold on, wait a moment, I'm not following this logic!" He tugged on the leather strap around his neck in startled confusion. "W-What's with the collar?"
"Because I want you to stand out," she pressed her hands to her cheeks in embarrassment while pulling away.
"As a pet?" He blurted out indignantly.
"Hmm," Esdeath suddenly frowned in deep thought. A pet wasn't what she was going for at all; it was just that her common sense was somewhat skewed. "You have a point. I'll remove it."
With that said, Esdeath removed the collar as quickly as she'd placed it on, nodding perfunctory to herself at a job well done.
"What is going on here?" Shirou rubbed at his neck and asked for the sake of clarity, nose crinkling.
"I don't follow."
"You and me." Esdeath pointed at him, and then at herself, blushing all the while. "We'll be starting a family."
Shirou had heard about women that could be direct, but this was as direct as direct could ever get. There was no room for misunderstanding or feigning ignorance here. At the same time though, it wasn't lost on him that this development may have its own benefits that had merit to consider.
Shirou knew full well what love was, but at the same time he'd never really come to devote himself to it in his prior life. In this regard, his ideals were what he strictly followed above all else, and once again, his thoughts stirred towards a common consensus. Would this decision save more lives than forgoing it? He fact that the light above Esdeath's head wasn't black meant that there was room to be worked with.
The situation would be akin to something like a political marriage?
From the reports he'd read, Esdeath was the primary commander and general in charge of the Empire's vast army. Should she end up defecting to his side, then a conflict involving the loss of many lives could be averted at the cost of a relationship that may or may not be genuine.
He resisted the impulse to just outright agree on behalf of the people he'd end up saving, and instead decided to do an evaluation before anything else.
"You're being serious?" He asked, only to swallow his words a second later when Esdeath closed the distance and captured his lips with her own.
"If I didn't like you then we wouldn't be doing this," she smiled sultrily, wiping away the trail of saliva from her lips. "Does that answer that?"
Well, Shirou supposed it did.
The taste of sweet berries lingered over his mouth, as he processed everything. He shook his head to get rid of his stupor at how forward Esdeath was being a moment later. Yet, in any case, she really was being serious.
If she could be this blunt, then he would be as well.
"I do not like the current state of the Empire."
"It's only natural. Many people feel the same way, but so what?"
"I'm going to change it."
Esdeath narrowed her eyes, but he met her gaze with unwavering resolve. In the end, Esdeath muttered something about 'that face too, is nice,' before she composed her features.
"Honestly, what are you thinking saying that to a general of the Empire?"
"That it is in my right."
Neither he or Esdeath were fools. Shirou wasn't just some rebel or upstart, but a genuine blood member of the royal family much stronger and capable than the current child emperor. Should Shirou end up ascending to the throne, Esdeath really would be under his employ.
"You…you actually have a point, don't you?" She mumbled more to herself than to him. "Well, I'm not sure what to do in this situation either, but as long as we know what we want, I'm sure we can work things out. I like fighting, leading, and war. If you can use me to that end when you take over the child emperor, then I'd be more than pleased. We can fulfil the First Emperor's expansion into Wakoku and into the barbarian lands up north on a path of conquest."
The way Esdeath spoke gave off a type of charisma that made it sound as if her words were a surety. She was practically beaming.
"I was thinking more on the concept of developing infrastructure first."
"Ah, I would suggest roads. Those would be best to move supplies back and forth from each battlefront while providing a path for merchants to fuel the war economy."
"I meant farms for-"
"Food supply, another good point."
"-Improving the livelihood of the poor and helpless." Shirou continued. "The roads would be for connecting to impoverished villages and towns."
Esdeath blanched all at once as his words registered in her mind. "I do not understand."
"I thought it was a rather explanatory explanation."
"No. I do not understand what you mean," she stressed, her eyes squinting shut. "The law of this world is survival of the fittest. The people who die, the poor, are just too weak, so what's the point of understanding their hardship? If they don't like their place, then why not change it? Many may be impoverished, but they are still able to become stronger, right? Therefore, the strong should be respected along with the hardships they went through. Meanwhile, those that choose to remain weak or can't better themselves do not deserve empathy from the strong."
"Survival of the fittest?" Shirou frowned.
Esdeath nodded. "It's only natural for the weak to perish or follow the strong."
"Sorry, but I don't agree." Shirou shook his head, jaw set in consternation. "There are things that the weak can accomplish that the strong can't on their own."
Esdeath flicked him on the forehead, admonishing him. "Don't confuse the situation. You're not convincing me. I'm not going to be changed by you! I'm the one who's going to be changing you! Nothing else matters, darling."
"The weak are people too, and should be able to have the opportunity to decide what direction they take their lives," Shirou argued.
"The weak do not have the right to decide," Esdeath was stubborn.
"Then in your own words, if you were weak, you too would be dictated by the strong?"
"Naturally, but I'm strong, and only the strong can understand the strong. Ah, are you getting it already? As expected of my darling."
He shut his mouth, and kept his inner thoughts to himself. Instead, he asked her a question. "What makes you so fixated on this?"
Esdeath shrugged noncommittedly. "It's the philosophy of my clan; the only thing my father stressed to me as a child before the entire clan got massacred by northern tribes. As luck would have it, I was out hunting when it happened. They were weak, so they died. Left on my own, I chose to grow up to be strong. It's just that simple."
What a pitiful woman.
Shirou fell silent for a moment. Despite how many lives could be saved by letting himself agree to a sudden relationship with Esdeath, the prospect of giving her influence as a political Empress with her mentality, was dangerous. For this reason, he could only have one answer.
"I don't think are relationship would work out."
"You don't need to worry about that."
"All you need to do is stay here with me."
Esdeath wrapped her arms around him, and a sudden mist she exuded immediately dropped the temperature to below freezing around his wrists and ankles.
Shackles of ice formed, keeping him bound to the corners of the bed posts which froze over and fused with the ground.
"I'll be back by the evening. Please stay put until then."
Stunned by the contrast of her shy maiden expression, and the absurdity of her actions, he could only watch stiffly as she left the tent. Only a single thought was left to him at this moment in time.
He had to get out of here.
Knowing how disadvantaged he was at the moment; he knew that he had to devise some means to send some sort of signal for aid.
Looking back at the shackles over his limbs, he grimaced.
This was going to take some brainstorming.
It was only later when a certain person walked in to provide him with his meals that he felt like a chance arrived.
A former commander of the Empire's army: Liver.
More important than anything else was the colour of the fading light still glowing over his head.
Despite what Liver had done, and what he'd become, deep inside, his character had never changed, and Caliburn had judged it so.
A soft white glow shone dimly.
Man this rain never stops. There's another storm for the coming weekend apparently. Fingers crossed no black outs, please.
Thanks for reading!
Next update: Birth of a Legend V2
P a treon. com (slash) Parcasious
The Lonely Peak
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