A/N: Okay. Thank you all very, very much for the reviews. This filling-in-the-gaps continuation is an effort to get myself in the mood to write a multichaptered Iota fic, because there needs to be one, and is inspired by blahblahblah, who thought that the relationship needed more fleshing out, and Blade Liger Knight, who reminded me that, because so tragically few people know of Iota, Rita is getting paired with Raven and Karol. (Karol? Really? I understand he likes dominant girls, but Rita would never settle for him.)
This takes place after the awarding, obviously, but before the private briefing. Enjoy.
All in all, Head Imperial Mage wasn't a horrible title – apart from the jokes Raven made about what she'd had to do to get it, the reason why they used the word Head, wink wink. Generally Estelle could be counted on not to heal him after a comment like that, but with one to five broken ribs, a fractured wrist, two broken legs, and warring collections of bruises and burns of every degree, primarily third, there really wasn't much of a choice if he wanted to be alive to continue making those kinds of jokes. Everyone except for Ioder avoided Rita for a week after that, and maybe, just maybe, she had overreacted a little. (In her defense, there were few monsters strong enough to test the spells she was converting from aer-to-mana formulae, so after testing out Ground Dasher it just seemed logical to test out Violent Pain and Crimson Flare, and get them all out of the way – besides, it wasn't just her honor Raven had been impugning. Ioder may be a bit of a wimp who apologized too damn much and had an annoying inability to call her by her given name without being corrected, constantly, but he would never do something like that.)
The job, however – that was horrible. Terrible. Worse than spending an afternoon alone with Raven and Karol. Worse than spending an afternoon alone with just Raven. Worse than spending an afternoon alone with just Raven, tied up with one of her own former-aer-conducting scarves, stuck there until she apologized. (Karol's idea, though Yuri and Judith implemented it. She burned through the scarf, even though it hurt like hell, and tested out a few more spells on them. To be fair, after that, she did apologize to Raven, when she found him cowering in a corner – "tactical retreat", her ass – and his eyes went wider than they had been the first time he'd caught sight of Judith. She smacked him again, and equilibrium was restored between them.)
It wasn't the research that was so bad, or the mana, or anything like that – it wasn't even Ioder, or the palace, which was pretty disgusting, the way everyone bowed or curtsied and muttered "Lady Mordio" when they saw her, and, even worse, when Rita had figured out how to create mana-powered listening devices and planted them throughout the castle to find out what everyone was going to get her for her birthday, just for the heck of it, only to discover that servants were posted to go run and warn other people away when she exited her rooms, so she could be avoided by the other nobles, and also that she had never told Estelle or Brave Vesperia about her birthday.
It was the people. Before, she had been a researcher, yes, but an independent researcher – if the other mages were being idiots and disagreed with her, she ignored them. Or cast Fireball. She worked alone and she liked it just fine that way. She didn't have to talk to anyone that didn't understand her work, either, excepting the Commandant, who was actually really good for bouncing ideas off of (of course, that was probably because he was knowledgeable about blastia, seeing as he had constructed one that functioned as a heart and actually implanted it successfully in a living person's chest).
Now, she hardly got any work done, because if it wasn't another useless mage who wanted to know about the Summon Spirits or the formulae she was using or whether she thought bronze or copper was a better mana conductor or if the blastia would ever work again, particularly the aquae blastia and the barriers, it was an ordinary citizen anxious for reassurance or unhappy with the rate of progress, who thought they knew they could do their job better than her and told her so.
To her face. She was Rita Mordio, and if they thought they could get away with that such a small portion of their brain was functioning that they shouldn't be allowed to reproduce and contaminate the gene pool.
After her first report, in their private conference, Ioder had very nicely asked her to please not kill or seriously injure his subjects, because he was supposed to be against that on principle, as Emperor, and if she did that, they wouldn't be able to do their jobs, which was bad for the economy. Rita had a very seriously moral and intellectual struggle over just how hurt constituted serious injury, and eventually decided that Champagne wouldn't hurt them, only soak them and startle them a bit. If they kept talking after that, Stalagmite was acceptable, to knock them off of the Idiot Pedestal, and if they were still too stupid to shut it, it was okay to resort to fireballs and aim for the face.
The one saving grace about all of the new and unpleasant human contact was that, to go to all of these places, hear their complaints, and fix their problems, she had to do a lot of traveling – which involved alone time and killing monsters, two things she greatly enjoyed. Occasionally Estelle came along to heal people, sometimes even without Yuri, if he was off on a Manly Voyage with Flynn, or Judith would get bored between jobs and she'd spear animals for Rita to barbecue, and even braid Rita's hair, which was getting longer than efficiency length, though Ioder had given her a clip that was surprisingly good at holding it back for no apparent reason, or Yuri would get restless in the palace and come with her to avoid challenging the nobles that still flirted with Estelle despite her happily engaged state to a duel, and even Karol or Raven were acceptable company, for a little while at least. With Karol and Judith busy building Brave Vesperia into a true guild and not a ragtag collection of heroes, using the gald and legitimacy the Emperor had given them, Raven advising Harry and making sure Altosk didn't slip from prominence into complete obscurity, after the death of the Don, and Yuri and Estelle, setting up their revolting little love nest and arguing over every single detail of what was sure to be a hellish week of balls, parties, and tournaments leading up to their wedding. (Yuri wanted to elope; Estelle insisted that, as a princess, it wouldn't be fair if she didn't have a state wedding. Yuri wanted a Lower Quarter ceremony, where the couple held hands, vowed to honor, love, and partner each other as long as they both lived, kissed, and snuck off while guests danced wildly; Estelle thought it would scandalize the populace and it would be better to have the Imperial Ceremony, which involved a reading of the lineage of the imperial line, from the very first emperor, and seven witnesses to swear for the character of both the bride and the groom. Frankly, Rita thought it was a load of crap, but enjoyed teasing Yuri about being worried he wouldn't be able to find enough witnesses.)
Repede, not that she was occasionally lonely enough to wonder about the dumb dog, actually traveled with her the most, possibly treating her as a substitute for Yuri, because Yuri-softened-by-Estelle-and-practically-nobility just wasn't Yuri anymore – when he was in the city, nobody really knew what he did, but Rita had seen him with both the children of the Lower Quarter and a comely female dog, so she figured that his biological clock had finally told him it was time to get to puppy-making. After all, he was the new ruler of the cats and dogs of Zaphias, and the master scent-marker as well.
So, traveling was … nice, whether it meant she got to be alone or spend time with her friends. Correction, travel had been nice, before Ioder had decided that he needed to supervise the first test of the new mana-powered barrier, which was the easiest to start with, because the tree was just swimming in mana, for some freakish reason, and had invited himself along on her trip, along with a company of guards to protect His High and Mighty Emperorness. Thusly, they were moving at a snail's pace, and the monsters were avoiding their noisy procession, which meant she couldn't take her anger out on anything.
Honestly, this wasn't worth it. There was no reason at all she needed to travel with the Emperor and his procession – of course, Ioder didn't see it that way, so she would pack up her stuff and hit the road at night. Even if they sentries caught her, they wouldn't dare to stop her.
Until then, though, Rita had to keep her temper. She watched the morons setting up tents and gathering firewood, wondering whether any of them were actually allowed to share a fire with Ioder, now that he was the Emperor, and if it would be considered rude if she built her own and ate alone – hey, where was Ioder, anyway? No, don't think that, whenever you do he pops up –
"Are you feeling well, Lady Mo – Rita?" She groaned. There he was, right on freaking cue. He should have been in a circus.
"I'm just fantastic. You know, I can't see why I don't travel with guardsmen of my own. Oh, wait – I can. Because they're absolute and utter morons with the brains of mushrooms, the speed of snails, and the collective ferocity of headless chickens. Do you really think that these buffoons would be able to stop a serious assassin like Zagi?"
Ioder smiled. "If an assassin comes in the night, I'm relying on you to stop him or her – it makes the Imperial Knights feel better when I take a guard, and it reassures the populace. I would prefer to travel with fewer guards, but an Emperor's life does not belong to him, it belongs to the people – I can't entrust it to my own meager sword skills, and, while you're more than enough protection for anything we may come across in the wilderness, the Knights would be considerably more worried about you killing me, or injuring me and leaving me to die, though the argument they used was one of impropriety. You're a Lady now, after all, and it would be wrong of me to allow any stain to be cast on your honor."
Rita actually laughed, that was so ridiculous. She laughed until she was short of breath, closing her eyes and trying desperately to stop, but every time she opened her eyes Ioder was still there, staring, with this look of complete and utter confusion on his face, and it just set her off again and she couldn't stop laughing.
It went on until tears welled up in her eyes and she forced rational self to take back control, because crying over this would be ridiculous – besides, it hadn't been that funny. Ioder, the sad little chivalrous, chauvinistic idiot, actually meant it. It was kind of sweet, actually – if she was an empty-headed noble girl who thought that breaking a nail was the worst thing that could happen in a day and not a genius mage who generally told people that referred to her as "Lady" they could shove the damn title up their well-bred asses.
"Rita? What's wrong? What's so humorous?" Ioder asked helplessly.
Rita drew in a deep breath and tried to keep in mind that she was addressing the Emperor, who really didn't know what was so wrong and what was so humorous, and tried to explain in a way that didn't consist entirely of insults. "Seriously, Ioder, I don't care about my title or my reputation – and if anybody wants to talk about me to my face or behind my back they know what'll happen to them. Anyone who thinks that you would be able to take advantage of me is touched in the head or suffering from sunstroke – if we did anything it would be my choice, and I wouldn't be ashamed of it." Of course, Ioder might be. "On the other hand, if you're worried about protecting your honor and virtue, I can assure there is no reason to be afraid whatsoever."
Ioder blushed. "Nothing of the sort crossed my mind, I assure you."
"Yeah, well, whatever." She looked away from him, towards the knight who was heading in their direction, nervously prepared to disrupt their alone time – good. She wasn't really in the mood for standing around in an awkward silence.
"Your Imperial Majesty, your fire is ready. Would you permit one of us to cook for you?" he asked.
Rita couldn't help it – she snorted. "You're Knights – glorified watchdogs, not chefs. I'll show you how to cook when you travel, Ioder, and you'll eat it whether you like it or not. Got it?"
"Is she bothering you, Your Imperial Majesty … ?" the Knight asked hesitantly.
"Not at all," Ioder said. He turned to look at Rita, and that same utterly unfathomable smile was back on his stupid face, his stupid eyes sparkling in the stupid firelight and for absolutely no other reason. "I would love that."
Rita considered not-leaving for half a second, when she got back to her tent after eating with Ioder in a conversation that was 25% about Halure and the barrier, 25% about Yuri, Estelle, and the rest, 35% actual conversation and only 15% pure awkwardness.
Then she shook off that ridiculous thought – Ioder would probably want to eat with his knights tomorrow, anyway – and packed up, leaving her tent – it was only a distraction – and gathering bedroll, books, food, the general essentials.
There was always the worry that Ioder would be stupid enough to assume that someone would be able to kidnap her or waste time searching for her, anyway, so she left a note.
I'm going ahead to make sure the barrier is functioning properly, so you don't waste time waiting when you get there. Have fun with your nursemaids, Your High and Mighty Emperorness.
In the end, she didn't sign it. There was no call for something mushy, like love, and there was no way he wouldn't know who it was from.
"The Emperor is coming! The Emperor is coming!" some random brat shouted, little legs pumping as he ran through the village.
"Do you think we're ready to try it out?" Desconta asked, resting his hand on the trunk and wiping sweat from his brow in a motion that managed to be distracting, somehow. Probably just the sun.
"I can't think of another safeguard to put in the formula, but I've been running on empty for the last three days," Fletcher groaned, leaning her head back and reaching up to massage her neck.
"It's ready," Rita muttered, wishing, for a moment, that she wasn't wearing sweat-stained work clothes and working on a sleep deficit – Ioder was sure to be angry. Well, whatever. The blastia work was more than even her pessimistic side expected, especially when she snapped and sent away all of the other mages, because the idiots weren't helping anyway, and if Ioder had been around, hovering and distracting her – distracting the workers, it would have taken even longer. "When the Emperor gets here, we'll test it, as long as he gives the okay. We'll be right here to do damage control if anything goes wrong."
"I have a good feeling about this," Desconta murmured, grinning wearily. "After all, it's been checked over by the brilliant Rita Mordio – how could anything go wrong? You figured out the first aer-to-mana conversion formula, after all." His face turned more intent. "I just wanted to say that it was an honor to work with you – enjoyable, too. Hopefully, if Halure has any more problems, or you just feel the inclination to stop by, we'll be able to collaborate again."
Fletcher rolled her eyes, and Rita shifted uncomfortably. "Yeah, I enjoyed working with you too. Both of you." Hopefully that would send the back-off message, and there wouldn't be a need to further deplete her magical stores as a deterrent. It was fun, too, being able to bounce ideas off of other competent mages, people who actually understood what she said, until he'd brought … that … into it. Rita Mordio was uncomfortable with hero worship and even more so with romantic interest. She was third. Raven would end up with Judith, eventually, Karol would win Nan over, and she would adopt one of Repede's puppies and someday retire to a remote hut like the one she used to have in Aspio, where she'd probably keep researching and creating until she died.
Mutt Junior had better not touch her books or notes with its teeth or claws or big muddy paws. Maybe she should have a plant instead.
"Announcing His Imperial Majesty, Ioder Sidos Heurassin!" Random Anonymous Knight Who Was Apparently a Herald as Well as a Lapdog shouted, and there was Ioder, eyes cold. Well, it wasn't like eyes had temperatures or whatever, but he definitely didn't look happy to see her.
"Lady Mordio," Ioder began quietly, when he was near enough, Fletcher and Desconta listening, faces worried, "when you are traveling with me, I expect you to remain traveling with me until we have reached our intended destination. An assassin could very easily forge a note or force you to write one. Additionally, I was hoping to speak with you more about the project during the course of my trip. The next time you feel the need to run off, I will assign you a bodyguard. If you escape your bodyguard, I will hire a member of Brave Vesperia for the task. Is that clear?"
"Crystal," Rita replied through clenched teeth, throat tight – for absolutely no other reason than that she was angry, of course – and hands twitching in the beginning of "Fireball". "I was needed to help finish work on the barrier. I'm sorry that I went ahead and spared you a week of waiting around here, being served by your idiot lapdogs. We're done and ready to demonstrate. If you'd like to dismiss me from my position, seeing as I'm serving you so unsatisfactorily, please do so – I didn't want the damn thing anyway. If you need help thinking of a replacement, both Fletcher and Desconta – my colleagues, who were instrumental in designing this formula – would do very well."
Ioder actually snarled, showing the first genuine anger Rita had seen him show since … well, ever. She wasn't sure he was actually capable of getting angry, before, in any thing other than a stiff, I-am-a-member-of-the-nobility-and-the-all-powerful-Emperor kind of way. "I created the position for you, Rita! To make sure you got the resources you needed to actually put your genius to good use! I understand that you're utterly independent and you don't need anyone, ever, for protection or anything else, but I need to know you're safe! I'm sorry if that offends you." He stopped, breathing heavily.
Rita was glaring because she was sure she was blushing. Ioder actually looked kind of … cute … when he was passionate.
He had actually been worried about her. The only person who had ever mentioned anything was Raven, and it was in the form of a joke ("If our little genius mage got eaten by monsters, who would I get to fix my heart?"
"…sorry for worrying you," Rita muttered, finally, because nobody else seemed to have anything to say. "The barrier is ready to be turned on. Do you want to see it demonstrated, or have it all explained first, Your High and Mighty Emperorness?"
His eyes softened. "I'd love to see a demonstration, Rita. "
"Great." She turned to the barrier and examined it, very carefully not thinking about how hot her cheeks felt. There was no way it could possibly mean anything. Ioder was an Emperor, and he was going to marry a nice, insipid, well-endowed noble girl, who was going to produce lots of little half-Children-of-the-Full-Moon for Estelle and Repede's puppies to play with.
She was the mage, after all. Maybe there was a spell to take care of this.
The guards left them at the entrance to the city at Ioder's request, and they walked the rest of the way in increasingly awkward silence. Estelle as waiting in the courtyard, and when they entered she flew at them, exclaiming, "Ioder! Rita! You're back! How was your trip? Did the barrier blastia work properly? You look tired, Rita. Have you been sleeping well lately?"
Rita blinked as Estelle reached them and threw her arms around her, buffeted by the massive output of Hurricane Estellise. "The trip was fine. It did. Not really." Not since the advent of certain disturbing dreams expressly designed to torment her. It was a good thing Ioder had made the Knights pack up her tent. The watchmen could keep their damn ears to themselves and mind their own business.
"You haven't been sleeping well?" Ioder asked, concerned.
"I'm sure it'll be fine once I'm in a bed again," Rita muttered, allowing Estelle to drag her off to sleep off her journey.
That night, the dreams were worse. Damn damn damn damn damn.
In the morning, she left for Capua Nor, to start converting the barrier there, as it was the most similar to Halure's. She left a message with Estelle, so she wouldn't have to see Ioder but he couldn't accuse her of leaving a note.
So what if he'd worry.
She had to get over this, and fast. If Ioder ever found out, she would have to kill them both to escape the embarrassment, and then Estelle would be the Empress, and Yuri would be the Emperor, and the two lovebirds would be so busy screwing each other that Repede would have to step in and run the Empire, which was an unreasonably cruel thing to do to him, especially considering he was pretty much her best friend.