Chapter Twenty-Three

Albrecht gazed at the letter in front of him and blinked slowly, very, very slowly. He read the passage again. He read the passage one more time. He actually stood up silently from his desk and began to walk back and forth through his office, as Ragnarok's throat began to growl, the feelings bubbling into the man's chest pushing their way through their bond.

The Emperor of Germania clenched the letter tightly with his right fist, before slamming it down on his wooden desk hard enough to make splinters shoot out. There was fire in his eyes.

"An assassination attempt," he said briskly. "I knew they'd start with them eventually, but I thought they'd aim at me. To have the galls to attack the Gandalfr," he snapped his eyes shut for a brief moment, and opened the letter once more. "An ice mage attacks them, and then a Gallian water mage joins their retinue? Is my brother taking me for stupid?" he mused, his hands crumpling the paper before throwing it into the fire.

As the fires burned the letter to a crisp of charcoal and ashes, he turned towards the dragon, his familiar, and then gave a firm nod. "Yes, Ragnarok, it would seem the King of Gallia is playing one of his games. Well, a pity for him that I am not one for playing such a game. He sends his daughter as a hostage and a token of good will, truly, what a terrifying beast," another letter soon joined the first, in burning at the fire.

A hand passed through Albrecht' hair, his expression pained at his reflection in the nearby mirror. "It's been just a few months, and I am losing my hair already. Is that why Kings and Emperors wear crowns? To hide their balding?"

He chuckled the next moment.

"Well, it matters not," he sat down at his desk, taking parchment and ink. "I'll answer to the King of Gallia as he expects me to. 'In the hope of fostering relations between an old and a new reign, I write to you,' indeed."

Meanwhile, in the City of Cauchon, a week earlier.

Hiraga Saito was facing a dilemma, and said dilemma took the form of a battle waged not with spears or swords, but with words that he really had no idea how to stop. Stopping a sword required using a shield, and stopping a person required using a sword –most of the times- but stopping what appeared to be two Water Mages from discussing who was the best healer seemed impossible.

Mostly, Percival had perceived a slight where there had been none, and had confronted him about it with teary eyes, while Anton had merely slapped him in the back of the head for daring to think the Holy Gandalfr's preferences went on the 'cute, female and petite built'.

It had resulted in a few moments of sheer shock on Saito's side –because he hadn't thought about that at all.

Derflinger had simply told him to 'keep his friends close, and his enemies closer', and so he had asked Percival to move and sleep together with Anton while Tabitha and her 'sister' took his room.

He hadn't taken the news well.

"If my skills have been unsatisfactory-"

"It's not that," Saito said for the thousandth time, "Just…Percival, it's fine. Nobody's replacing you. I thought I would do a nice thing for someone who healed me after dealing with the assassin," he looked pleadingly at Anton, although Anton's aid in the matter was merely a 'Whatever he says is law, boy, now shut up and stop whining'.

It took most of the hour to settle the argument, and once it was, Saito would have wanted for nothing more than to place his body beneath the sheets and fall asleep under the covers, only to wake up the next morning.

Unfortunately, such a thing couldn't work due to the very pressing need for the ruler of the castle to plead forgiveness.

And since it meant they couldn't ask the six years old after his poor figure of before, it meant Saito had to have 'enough grace' to talk directly with Count Marchette.

The sick and ailing Count Marchette had been suffering for years, whatever sickness that claimed his limbs and soul untreatable by the mages sent to him. He rested in a bed of satins, and while the smell of lemons hung in the air thickly, it could not hide the stench of rot that hid beneath the flowery motif of his bed curtains.

The window was open, and as fresh air miraculously graced Saito's face every now and then, he schooled his features in those of the Gandalfr, and stepped closer to the satin curtains.

"Holy Gandalfr," the voice that came through the curtains was thick and raucous, old and wizened and yet clutching on still to a lingering instant of life. It was the voice of a fighter, similar to that of Vespucci if Saito had to liken it to someone, and yet different all the same, as if terribly tired by a terrifying ordeal.

It was a voice that tugged at Saito's heartstrings, because it seemed to carry with it the honor-bound duty of the samurai of old. "I beg…for your forgiveness," the voice spoke. "I, Jean-François Theodore…Marchette, I beg your forgiveness. This must be the price for my failure. I-I apologize. Had I known the chosen people of the Founder were the Germanian, I-I would not have stopped them countless times, meeting them in battle again…and again…I beg your mercy, Holy Gandalfr. I beg you to understand and have pity of an old dying man."

"I understand," Saito said. "And there are no excuses to be made, Count. We…we follow our own path, and the Gods' reasons are their own."

There was a heavy breath, a shuddering from the body beneath the covers, and then a quiet gasp for air. "Holy Gandalfr, I-I am an old man. I have no longer a need for material wealth, and now that I have made peace with the Gods, the Founders and you, I can finally rest. I only ask for a blessing, so that my soul may quickly ascend to the side of the Founder, please, my holy lord, I ask for nothing more."

Saito knelt past the curtains, the stench of rot overpowering his nose as he brought his elbows to rest on the bedside, his hands clenched together in prayer.

"Then…" Saito whispered, "Pray with me."

He knew just the most basic of prayers the faithful followers of the Founder's religion knew, and he hadn't studied any of the most complex ones, nor did he know what was right or wrong to say in such an occasion, but again, there were only two people in the room in that moment.

The second one wasn't going to bother with etiquette or the wrongness in the prayer anyway, so if it could help him find peace, who was he to say no? It wasn't that different from praying to a shrine-god for good luck.

"May you find peace," Saito said in the end, as the old man closed his eyes with a satisfied smile at the end of the prayer. Saito stood and walked out, but not before having left the incense box with one of the sticks burning on his bed desk, the gift he was supposed to give to the Count.

He closed the door behind him, and as a servant bowed and primly guided him away, a few others stepped inside the room to take care of their master.

The castle was a veritable maze of corridors and hallways, the majority of which was coupled with slippery stairs and nearly flawlessly hidden doors that led elsewhere. It was a place where one could easily get lost if he hadn't a guide, and even as he did have one, he still ended up taking something like half an hour to go from one floor to the other, due mostly to the sheer amount of turns one had to take.

"The castle was built to withstand the incursions of the Germanian people in the old times," the servant said upon being queried by Saito, "It was common belief they would get lost and starve to death due to their simplicity of thought," the man bristled. "No disrespect meant, Holy Gandalfr."

"Did it work?" Saito asked.

"The Germanians simply burned the castle without stepping into it," the servant added with an uneasy expression. "Thus, this castle has been built and rebuilt for countless times. The stones of the nearby quarry were a heaven-sent in rebuilding it."

"Yet you never abandoned the design?" Saito asked as they descended another flight of stairs.

"The hope of the Lords of the castle was that one day, greed would defeat the Germanians' annoyance, and they would step inside."

Saito tapped his chin thoughtfully, but said nothing else. He finally reached for the familiar hallway where his rooms were, and after dismissing the servant, stepped inside to suddenly have his nose assaulted by an overpowering smell of roast.

There was a table in his rooms, a table with a couple of seats and mouthwatering food placed on it. Tabitha was holding on to Sylphid's 'human' form, the dragon somewhat childishly trying to nibble something with her bare hands only to be 'glared at reproachfully' by Anton.

Percival's expression was of polite indifference.

"So," Anton said as calmly as he could, "Holy Gandalfr…might you explain?"

"Well," Saito scratched the back of his head after removing his helmet. "It's complicated." He tried to smile nervously, only to receive a glare from Anton.

"Complicated would be the Holy Gandalfr having a problem," he replied. "Complicated does not account for the Holy Gandalfr having two mistresses," he added, "Especially not with the marriage that his Highness, the Emperor of Germania Albrecht the Fourth, the Black Dragon, has already planned for Him. I hope this is not the case, oh Holy Lord?"

The sarcasm was a bit thick, but Saito merely winced at the tone, and did not call the man out on it. He knew it looked bad if seen in that light, but it honestly wasn't that bad, although telling the truth would be worse still.

"It's not that!" Saito hastily said, shaking his head and his hand at the same time to dismiss even the thought of it. "Seriously, Anton, it's as I said. They were simply there at the right time, and I owe them a debt of gratitude."

"Very well," Anton said with a nod. "I hope the Emperor will feel the same way."

Saito smiled nervously. "Why is that?"

"Because if I know his Highness very well, and I do believe I know him much, having participated in many a campaign by his side, then he will without a doubt come rushing here as soon as he receives the letter you have sent him. Such being the case, I hope you will be able to properly convince your brother of such a thing, because differently from myself, you will have to speak with him openly."

Saito scratched the side of his cheek. "Well, but, he's in Germania now, isn't he? He wouldn't-"

"The Emperor has marched and scouted for his men more than once. Ragnarok is not a beast of parade, Holy Gandalfr. He can easily reach us by the end of the week, even less if he ties himself to his saddle and allows his familiar to sleep while flying."

Saito's nervousness broke through the rooftop. "But-But he's the Emperor now, right?"

"He hasn't yet got the mannerisms down, I'm afraid," Anton said primly. "He might still act based on his habits, and in such a case, then, I'm afraid he'd be coming right over."

Saito swallowed thickly. "I should probably prepare myself?"

"Indeed. Especially because, since you are his brother, everything you do is an extension of the Empire of Germania, and thus your every action means the way our people, your countrymen, will be treated through you. Please, uphold as much as possible our values and our honor, Holy Gandalfr," Anton spoke with a hand near his chest, "It is our pride and joy that you have chosen to bless our country and our Emperor, but please, hold yourself to a higher standard."

Saito sighed. "But it's the truth –they healed me and so I'm in their debt."

"Very well," Anton nodded. "I assume that will remain true even throughout the night, so I will stay vigilant outside the door."

Saito spluttered, but the man was not moved. "The assassin's body was not found, hence it is dangerous for you to sleep unattended."

"I have Feather," Saito said, "Where is she by the-"

The recently repaired window had been left open, and from outside a bullet of fire and feathers came in with a crowing sound of victory. Bathed in flames, Feather landed on Saito's back, her arms circling around his neck.

"Dad! Are you done talking with the sick man?"

Saito moved a hand up, and then brought it down gently to ruffle Feather's feathered head, making the young girl giggle at the touch. "Yes. Have you been a good girl?"

"Uh! I've met a new friend too!" Feather said happily. "She's been lonely for so long, but wants to meet you, dad!"

"Ah? A new friend?"

"Outside the city! Very, very far-I heard her because I have good ears, uh-uh," she proudly brought her head up high, as if wishing to be praised more for her achievement, "She was kind of sad."

"Partner," Derflinger spoke suddenly, earning Tabitha and Sylphid's curiosity, but mostly Anton and Percival's shock. "It's important."

Saito's eyes narrowed. "How much?"

"A lot. It should be the spirit of water inhabiting Ragdorian lake, and if it's her and she's sad, then it means she lost it again."

"Lost it…again?" Saito hazarded.

"Bad news, horrible news actually," Derflinger said crisply, "That's why it's best you don't waste any more time and get there on the double, partner. If the ring's missing, then it might be worse than bad –it might be horrible, or even a hell of a lot worse than horrible."

"Why? What does the ring do?" Saito asked.

"It brings the dead back to life," Derflinger said, "Without fault, without mercy, and without a single instant of cost or fatigue on the wearer. It is a mockery of life, but it is life all the same. It is an unholy instrument, the product of a necromancer that managed to twist and break and shatter the lives of countless water spirits and force them into the ring. That ring-it's potentially the most dangerous piece of Water Magic that has ever existed. It can control minds, force the wearer to obey the whims of whoever holds it, and it can do so on a scale of thousands of thousands."

Saito's eyes widened. "If it's that dangerous, why wasn't it kept in a safer place!?"

"Do you remember the Fire Spirit you faced off, partner? Do you think a Water Spirit is any less in might or power? The only way someone could have stolen that ring would have been through treachery or through a mean requiring the Void to be used."

Saito looked at the feast on the table, of which he had barely touched what was on his plate. He took a small breath. "I'll need a lift."

Tabitha nodded.

"I'll prepare the horses," Anton said, but it was too late, for Saito had already rushed for the window, Tabitha and Sylphid right behind him. "Wait! Where are-"

As they jumped, and Sylphid transformed, Anton's right hand went to his face. "Of course," he grumbled.

Percival's eyes widened. "Wasn't the assassin using a dragon to-"

"Well," Anton sighed. "I never saw it clearly. Did you?"

"N-No?" Percival retorted.

"Good, then pass me the roast. No need to waste food while the Gandalfr goes to fight off the spirits or whatnot."

Percival looked aghast. "B-But what if he d-doesn't return?"

"Then, my dear Percival," Anton replied. "We run as fast as we can away from the Emperor, because I can guarantee you that would be enough to make him so angry, even hell itself would have a cooler flame."

Percival watched Anton take a bite of the entire roast, and then grabbed a whole piglet, and bit down on it. Never had a 'last meal' tasted so sweet, and yet so salty, due to the tears of frustration coming down from his cheeks.

Still, even as the two that should have been the Holy Gandalfr's bodyguards ate and drank, the Holy Gandalfr himself was not having a better time.

"I-Is this how you ride a dragon!?" he yelled in shock, clutching on for dear life as Tabitha seemed to be perfectly at ease atop of Sylphid.

"Yes," Tabitha replied. "Hold tight."

"I am holding tight!" Saito exclaimed, "But the scales are slippery!"

"Kyu~ They're all clean!" Sylphid said, her face offended at the 'affront'.

"Daddy's flying!" Feather chirped, "Daddy's flying so fast!"

Hiraga Saito didn't like it. He didn't like it one bit, but at the same time, if Derflinger told him it was bad news, then he had no choice but to go and see for himself.

And back in his home, he had seen enough horror movies about the dead rising to know just how bad they were.

Hopefully, they wouldn't infect people through biting them?

Author's notes:

Henceforth, my chapters will be shorter. Hopefully, I'll get back on track. Probably, I'm going to upload a few of the stories I wrote over the forums to the ff net community over the summer since I've got some free time around.

It's going to be interesting, that's for sure.